Midnight Special

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols


With the blockbusters of today being almost entirely made up of sequels, prequels, adaptations and reboots characterised by massive scale, abundant special effects and action-driven stories, it’s interesting how closely our modern independent movies resemble the blockbusters of 20-30 years ago. When watching Midnight Special for instance the influence of Steven Spielberg was unmistakable. If Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. were to be released today, films that feature original character-driven stories, few (if any) movie stars, and strong but restrained use of special effects, it’d be difficult to imagine them being advertised as blockbusters. The advances in technology over the past few decades means that independent filmmakers like Jeff Nichols now have the means to make these kinds of films. Not only is Midnight Special impressive visually but it is also a smart, intimate story about faith and parenthood.

The film starts off ambiguously with a man called Roy (Michael Shannon) hiding in a hotel room with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). We learn that the boy possesses otherworldly powers and was recently liberated by his father from a religious cult who is now wanted by the government. Roy reveals that he must take his son to a certain place by a specific date despite not knowing why or what will happen. All he knows is that it is a mission of paramount importance. Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) the leader of the FBI investigation into this case learns of the boy’s powers and seeks to learn more of the mystery behind their quest. Along the way Roy enlists Sarah (Kristen Dunst), Alton’s mother, for her help with this endeavour. With only days before this unknown event is supposed to take place, Roy will stop at nothing to protect his son and to help him fulfil his calling whatever it may be.

I was unsure of what to make of this film after seeing it mainly because it is such an ambiguous movie. Although the mystery surrounding Alton’s abilities and quest serves as the dramatic crux of the movie, very few answers are provided. This isn’t necessarily a weakness because sometimes the mystery is the point. The real question is whether the mystery has stimulated you or just left you confused. After seeing how the film ended I was initially left dissatisfied by the lack of an explanation. Even though I saw what happened I still didn’t know what the actual purpose of Alton’s mission was or what was actually accomplished. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was missing the point. After all one of the vital themes depicted in the movie is faith, an idea that is defined by the unknowable. By asking what Alton’s mission was I might as well be asking what was in the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. That’s not what the film is about. This is a film about how people react to that which they don’t understand, the bond between a parent and their child, and the search for meaning and purpose. Such themes are ambiguous and mysterious in nature and whatever answers there are to be found must be discovered by the viewers themselves. That is how faith works.

It is clear that Nichols is putting a lot of faith in his audience as very little is spelled out for them. For example in the opening minutes of the movie it isn’t actually stated that Roy is Alton’s father. It doesn’t need to be because Nichols trusts that we can figure it out ourselves based on their body language. That’s the sign of a good visual storyteller. The imagery in this film is so clear and effective that Nichols is able to escape making use of exposition that might have otherwise stolen away from the mystery. Little is explained and yet so much is felt. It also helps that the performances, particularly Shannon’s, are strong enough that the qualities of the characters are readily apparent through their gestures and expressions. One needs only to see how Roy holds and looks at his son to know that he is going to do everything in his power to keep Alton safe.

The ambiguity and elusiveness of Midnight Special will definitely put some people off; there is no way around that. It is a film that needs to be analysed and questioned in order to be appreciated. It is certainly a strange film as it delves deeply into the supernatural and the unknown. Those who watch Midnight Special looking for straight answers are not going to find them because it isn’t that kind of film. It is a contemplative exploration of mysterious themes that is supposed to raise unanswerable questions. The beauty is in the mystery itself. I can certainly say that this film has stimulated me on an intellectual level, but I did also feel a little underwhelmed on an emotional level. Although I remember the characters and did follow them all the way through, I never felt like I really got to know them or was able to form an attachment with them in the way that I did with Spielberg’s films. Still Midnight Special is an engaging, thoughtful film that stirs the imagination and stimulates the mind.

★★★★

Hardcore Henry

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth

Director: Ilya Naishuller

Writer: Ilya Naishuller


This is a film that certainly lives up to its title; hardcore is definitely the word to describe the content of Hardcore Henry. In its attempt to be a movie that looks and feels like a video game Hardcore Henry does not hold back on any count. Naishuller knew exactly what kind of approach he wanted to take with this film and he went for it at a full sprint, guns blazing, and screaming at the top of his lungs. Whatever faults this film might have, and there are a few, I nevertheless want to commend it for the utter commitment given to its format and style. While video game movies are hardly new, none of them have ever gone as far as Hardcore Henry to try and capture the uniquely immersive visual experience of playing a video game. A common criticism used so often in reviews of video game movies that it has practically become a cliché is that they feel more like watching somebody play a video game rather than playing it yourself. Though hardly a perfect movie, I believe that Hardcore Henry has come closer than any other film to capturing that sensation.

The film is viewed entirely in the first-person through the eyes of Henry, who wakes up in a lab on an airship. He is greeted by a scientist called Estelle (Haley Bennett) who reveals that she is his wife and that she has revived and rebuilt him after an accident that has left him amnesiac and mute. Some mercenaries, led by the telekinetic Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), invade the airship and so Henry must make his escape using his new cybernetic body and enhanced abilities. He lands in Moscow where he is separated from his wife before falling into the company of Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). Jimmy is a mysterious figure who seems to understand what is going on and who keeps appearing and reappearing throughout the events of the movie even after meeting a number of gruesome deaths. Through the insanity that ensues Henry must survive the mercenaries being sent after him and solve the mystery of who he is and why he is being targeted.

This film sets out to capture the quality of a first-person shooter which is why it adopts a story that is more action-based than character-driven. The action is intense, relentless and creative but it can also be tiresome and gratuitous. After about 20-30 minutes when you start getting used to the gimmick of the first-person perspective you gradually start to remember that you are in fact watching a movie and not playing a video game. The distinction is important because the issue of immersion is perhaps the greatest challenge facing this film. If the viewer is not actively involved or personally invested in the action, then the gimmick is eventually going to wear off. Since direct participation is impossible, the best the movie can do is provide the viewer with a character they can follow and with whom they can identify. This is where the film falls short. It is common for the protagonists of FPS games to be largely silent and nondescript because it makes it easier for the player to use them as vessels for their own personalities. Since we have no control over Henry however we have no choice but to view him as his own character. The lack of a personality therefore proves to be a great hindrance as it leaves little for the viewer to hold on to.

There is one character in this film who brings much life to the table and that is Jimmy. In what Sharlto Copley has described as his most physically demanding performance to date, Jimmy is a strange man who keeps appearing throughout Henry’s ordeal despite dying time and time again. Each time he reappears he comes with a new look and personality. Over the course of the film we see him as a dutiful army soldier, a cocaine-addicted womaniser, a hippie biker, a song and dance man and many more. It is a truly insane idea for a character which is exactly what you need for an insane movie such as this. However I must say that I wasn’t particularly convinced by the movie’s villain or by Henry’s wife. I found the former to be pretty weak and the latter to be pretty dull. For me it was Jimmy alone who saved this movie from being 90 minutes of mindless violence.

With that said those who watch Hardcore Henry looking for some mindless violence will not be disappointed. Every time Henry comes into a conflict with the human cannon fodder sent by Akan to take him down, the level of action is turned up to eleven. There is blood and explosions aplenty, an immeasurable body count and a variety of weapons and settings used for a good number of imaginative fight scenes. I however was kind of done with the action scenes about halfway through the movie. Without a character or a coherent story to follow I eventually found the action to be almost monotonous in its persistence and endlessness. Nevertheless there are many viewers for whom the story and characters will be entirely irrelevant and they are the ones who will enjoy the movie the most. Overall I’d say that I did enjoy the movie and was certainly impressed by its format but I also think that once was enough. In terms of content there just isn’t enough that warrants a second viewing.

★★★

Dheepan

Cast: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers

Director: Jacques Audiard

Writers: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré


Dheepan generated some controversy last year when it was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes over such contenders as Carol, Son of Saul and The Assassin. Since it hadn’t been regarded by many critics as a potential winner for the prestigious prize, I was curious to see what it was that won over the jury chaired by the Coen brothers. One factor that springs to mind is the writer and director Jacques Audiard whose work has been positively received by the Cannes Film Festival in the past, particularly A Prophet which won the Jury Prize. There is also the cultural relevance of its subject to consider as it depicts the story of refugees fleeing a country ravaged by civil war. Perhaps the reason why Dheepan was initially overlooked as a potential winner is because its greatness is not as immediately apparent as in some of the other nominated films. Whatever the reason, the film’s victory at Cannes had an undeniable effect on my expectations when I went to see it and it is very possible that I might have missed it otherwise. For that reason I am glad that it won.

The film follows Sivadhasan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), a Tamil Tiger soldier in a devastated Sri Lanka, who is desperate to flee the country and seek asylum in France. To do so he must assume the identity of Dheepan, a dead refugee, and requires a wife and daughter as part of his cover. These roles are assumed by Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and 9-year-old Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) neither of whom have any connection with him or each other. Together they settle in a housing project in Le Pré-Saint-Gervais where ‘Dheepan’ finds a job as a caretaker. Yalini meanwhile finds work caring for the elderly father of a local drug dealer and Illayaal is sent to school. In his attempt to build a new life for himself in a foreign country with two complete strangers, Dheepan finds that the scars and trauma of the life he lived in Sri Lanka is not something that he can easily leave behind or escape.

Dheepan is certainly an understated film as it takes its time with displaying the daunting struggle of its three characters. Even when they have settled in a place miles away from the ruin and destruction of their homeland, they still live in a constant state of fear and panic. All three are haunted by the civil war they are trying to escape but must now face a trauma of a different kind; that of being sent to a foreign place with a people they do not know speaking a language they do not understand. There they must live a lie for fear of being found and sent back. Not only is the prospect of being discovered an ever-present threat but their housing project is also the centre of operations for a drug crew engaged in a conflict with a rival gang. Essentially Dheepan and his ‘family’ have escaped one conflict zone only to find themselves in another. Through this whole experience they suffer from disorientation, isolation and alienation as they struggle to cope with the everyday as well as with each other.

All three of the film’s central actors deliver astonishing performances as their remarkably complex characters. Antonythasan, himself a former member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was doubtless able to draw upon his own experiences in bringing this character to life. We are never given any substantial information on Dheepan’s background, but it is clear from his performance that he is scarred by his memories. Through his expressions one can find guilt for crimes committed, grief for losses felt and pain for wounds suffered. Yalini meanwhile longs for escape and makes it clear that she is only looking out for herself. She feels no obligation to either Dheepan or Illayaal, viewing them merely as cohabitants, and will only talk to them on topics of necessity. Such a harsh environment would be an ordeal for any child to go through, but Illayaal proves surprisingly resilient. As a French speaker she finds it easier to settle in than either of her parents do and, despite some moments of difficulty for her, she does manage to achieve a sense of normalcy.

The majority of the film is simply about the family dealing with the struggles of living a normal life under astoundingly abnormal circumstances. They must learn to live with each other, they must adapt to an alien culture, they must face the dangers that plague them in their new home and they must struggle with the trauma of their past lives. The third act is when these conflicting tensions all finally explode as the plot takes a course that many will find jarring and that some will even dismiss as unwarranted. The development reminded me of the climax in Audilard’s Rust and Bone where the father and son’s time together takes a sudden, ominous turn as the son without warning falls through the ice into the lake. What follows is a stunning sequence which makes particularly marvellous use of sound. Whether the ending is one that the film has earned is up to the viewer to decide. I myself found Dheepan to be a slow burner that grew more compelling and absorbing over time and that was ultimately very satisfying to watch. Its victory at Cannes was well deserved.

★★★★★

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Sam Claflin, Rob Brydon, Jessica Chastain

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Craig Mazin


Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. This is the tale of a princess who possesses magical powers that allow her to manipulate ice and snow. An accident involving these powers leads her to isolate herself from the world and from her sister in a self-imposed exile. She flees far away into the mountains where she creates her own kingdom with a palace made of ice an- No, really. This all happens in the first five minutes of the movie. I could probably spend all day highlighting the similarities with Frozen and even longer outlining the reasons why it is a far superior film to Winter’s War. The former has lovable characters, enjoyable comedy, a terrific soundtrack and a moving story about love and the bond between two sisters whereas the latter does not. It’s Frozen without any of the things that made it good. Those have all been replaced by a myriad of subplots and a dreary tone that serve to create a messy movie almost completely void of feeling and enjoyment.

Before the events of Snow White and the Huntsman, Ravenna (Charlize Theron) was the sister of Freya (Emily Blunt), a princess with ice powers who kills her love upon being betrayed by him. She flees into exile and creates her own kingdom with an army of huntsmen. Her two best warriors are Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) who share a secret romance in violation of Freya’s laws. Freya learns of their affection and sees to it that it ends in tragedy. Seven years later (after the events of Snow White), King William (Sam Claflin) tracks down the Huntsman and informs him that Ravenna’s magic mirror has been stolen. Believing the mirror poses a threat to Queen Snow White (not Kristen Stewart) he requests Eric to find the mirror and recover it. Eric sets out on this quest with the two dwarves Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) and ends up on a path that brings him in direct conflict with his past.

This sorta-prequel, sorta-sequel that nobody really asked for and that does not even include the protagonist from the first movie is a mess. It features a dynamic relationship between two royal sisters both of whom are villains, a forbidden love between the two huntsmen, the threat of a war against Snow White’s kingdom (without Snow White), the dwarves who are each given their own romantic subplots and the various divergences that take place as Eric and his party attempt to find the magic mirror. Jumping between these stories might have been more tolerable had I been able to find one of them engaging, but I didn’t. I would have loved to have seen a film about two villainous sisters facing each other, especially with these two actresses playing them, but what this film did was just so dull and unenjoyable. Neither Blunt nor Theron were diabolical enough to be fun or menacing enough to be threatening. Whatever my issues with Maleficent, at least Jolie was clearly having fun with the character. The problem with this film is that it takes itself too seriously for any fun to be had without being either strong or compelling enough to be taken seriously.

Snow White and the Huntsman did receive two Oscar nominations for costume design and visual effects, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they were the high points of the prequel/sequel. The film does feel like it takes place in a world of creatures and enchantment and manages to look pretty convincing for the most part. The action scenes however are wholly uninspired and utterly lacking in investment or tension. As a costume designer Colleen Atwood has excelled in this genre time and time again and this film is no exception. It is through her work that Blunt and Theron are both able to look the part, even if they don’t act it. The performances are pretty humdrum with the only real surprise being Sheridan Smith as a feisty, foul-mouthed dwarf. Chastain’s attempt at a Scottish accent is good for a few laughs but otherwise there isn’t much to enjoy.

I wasn’t a fan of Snow White and the Huntsman but at least that film kept its focus where it was needed and offered something that was a little different from what had come before. Winter’s War has no focus to speak of and has nothing new or original to offer. It is dull, clichéd, predictable, derivative, drab and lifeless. Although the visuals and costumes remain impressive, you won’t really get anything out of them that you cannot get from watching the first film. It’s just a prequel/sequel that had no reason to exist and no idea of what to do with itself, so it just decided to draw ideas from Disney’s most profitable product and hire a few bankable stars to sell it. I don’t know if the decision to leave Kristen Stewart out was the studio’s or her own but, either way, she’s better off. To anyone interested in seeing this film, my advice is to give it a miss and just rewatch Frozen instead.

Eddie the Eagle

Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Iris Berben, Christopher Walken

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Writers: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton


We Brits love a good underdog story. We all love to root for the everyman that we can see ourselves in as they overcome adversities and obstacles on the road to victory. Britain in particular has an enthusiasm for the David vs. Goliath types of stories that can be traced back to her small island mentality and ‘the Dunkirk spirit’. It is a romantic sensibility that has often been featured in British sports films from Chariots of Fire to Bend It Like Beckham. It’s why Eddie Edwards was so popular with the crowd when he competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Edwards was an amateur skier who, without sponsorship or promotion, was able to earn his place amongst the champions of the world at the single greatest sporting event on the planet. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect concept for a British underdog film.

Growing up in a working-class household, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) has dreamed of competing in the Olympics since he was 10-years-old. His mother Janette (Jo Hartley) wants her son to dream and to have great ambitions while his father Terry (Keith Allen) wants to bring Eddie back down to Earth. Even after becoming a proficient skier, Eddie is refused so much as a chance to try for the Olympics due to his unsophisticated manner and lack of a ‘proper’ upbringing. Determined not to give up on his dream, Eddie finds that he can improve his chances of qualifying for the Olympics if he competes in a sport without any current British competitors, opting for the ski jump. He sets off for the training facility in Germany where he is mocked and ridiculed by those who are more practised and seasoned than him. There he falls into the company of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former American ski jump champion, who agrees to train him in the sport.

Although the story in this film is largely fictionalised (Jackman’s character isn’t real, Eddie was a more accomplished sportsman than the film suggests, etc.) the film very much captures the underdog spirit that Eddie Edwards inspired. Eddie is portrayed as an awkward and clumsy person who lacks class and style but makes up for it in heart and determination. He adamantly refuses to be daunted by the challenges he faces or to be disheartened by the ridicule of others to the point that he will suffer great pain and indignity in order to realise his ambition. He isn’t after fame or fortune or even prestige. All he wants is a chance to prove himself and to participate in an event that celebrates achievement, hard work and fortitude. When he finally makes it to Calgary he doesn’t care about winning or breaking records, he is just so grateful to even be there that he displays a fervent enthusiasm that proves to be contagious to the world watching him. In many ways Eddie Edwards is the greatest fulfilment of the Olympic motto which holds that the most important thing is “not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle”.

As admirable as the story is though, I’m afraid there isn’t much to set it apart from the line-up of sports films that have come before. The underdog’s journey is very much by the numbers and the underdog himself isn’t exactly the most compelling of protagonists despite Egerton’s efforts. The portrayal of the British Olympic officials as a pompous and sneering bunch who villainously set out to prevent Eddie from succeeding also seemed rather generic to me (although if you do have to cast someone in that part, you certainly can’t do much better than Captain Darling). Jackman however provides the film with many highlights as a cynical, drunken trainer who sees in Eddie a passion and a respect for the sport and the Olympics that he had never possessed himself as a young champion. There is also much style in the film’s visuals as well as a variety of enjoyable montages depicting Eddie’s training.

In spite of the standard, even formulaic, approach that the film applies towards its story I was still very rooting for Eddie in his journey. As implausibly childish as his character could be, his zeal and perseverance were still soundly felt. As transparently fabricated as some elements could be, the film was still able to capture the spirit of the underdog story that Eddie Edwards lived in an affective way. It isn’t a film that takes risks and that never surprises, but it also isn’t a film that feels tired or that falls flat. It is sentimental, it is clichéd and it is schmaltzy, but those who aren’t put off by those qualities could very well find it to be affectionate, charming and even inspirational. Eddie the Eagle is not going to break any boundaries the way that Eddie Edwards did, but for the right viewer it will prove to be an enjoyable feel-good British underdog movie.

★★★