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0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A melting pot of all things Tarantino, 13 June 2016

Quentin Tarantino's films continue to look more and more like the films that inspired him. His last film, "Django Unchained," brought the spaghetti western to the deep south. "The Hateful Eight" is a straight up western, albeit set in Wyoming during a blizzard — with the legendary Ennio Morricone behind the score.

"The Hateful Eight" is a melting pot of all things Tarantino. The tactics that have long drawn praise are in full array, as are those that have long drawn some criticism. So in that respect, Tarantino's biggest fans will leave this very long film with smiles on their faces. Everyone else — it's not so simple.

As someone who has both loved and been turned off by Tarantino, I was skeptical yet open-minded about his eighth feature film. Turns out the Western genre really does suit his pulpy style better than the backdrops of some of his other perhaps more experimental films. Somehow the Western frontier is one of few settings where Tarantino's rules can be argued to make any sense.

The first couple acts of "Hateful Eight" take place in a stage coach as John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prized bounty, alleged murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), travel toward the town of Red Rock (where the bounty is to be paid, and Daisy hung) with a blizzard nipping at their heels. On the way they pick up a couple stranded strangers: fellow bounty hunter and former Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), son of an infamous southern marauder who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Despite having good reason not to trust either of them, Ruth lets them tag along to Minnie's Haberdashery, where they'll wait out the storm — and the distrust only escalates.

At the haberdashery are Bob (Demian Bichir), professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), old Confederate General Sandy Smithers and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Soon enough it becomes clear that one or more of these men is in not who they say they are and are likely fixing to foil Ruth's plan.

There's a strong thriller/mystery element to "Hateful Eight" that we haven't gotten from Tarantino in a long time. There are a couple unexpected, non-linear plot devices that add a greater layer of satisfaction to the way everything plays out beyond Tarantino's typical promise and delivery of carnage. The truth of what really happened and what everyone is really after hangs over the film from start to finish in a quite masterful way.

Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities between "Hateful Eight" and Tarantino's first feature, "Reservoir Dogs." There's a large but tight ensemble cast (including Roth and Madsen), false identities, a confined setting and sadistic violence. "Eight" is just flashier, though much of that can be attributed to budget and the fact that Tarantino can do whatever he wants given his success since 1992.

But in terms of being brutal and uncomfortable, that's where the comparisons end. Taking place post-Civil War, "Hateful Eight" features abundant racial vulgarities and assault against women (Ruth keeps Daisy in line by regularly smashing her face in). Between "Django" and "Eight," Tarantino has easily surpassed any other filmmakers' use of the n- word in two films (or the use of that word in any two other films ever made, probably). He continues to become more and more provocative and debatably without any clear artistic justification except to rattle the viewer.

Let's steer clear of that argument for now, however, and focus on how "Hateful Eight" does seem to offer some other cogent thoughts. Whereas Tarantino mostly includes violence for the sake of violence in his films, his script offers some more deeper thoughts on justice than usual. Encapsulated quite well in a little speech given by Roth's Oswaldo about the difference between the law's justice and frontier justice, Tarantino points our attention to the different ways bad people get what they deserve, which puts a bit of a thematic framework around the film's proceedings and — dare I say it — provokes some thought.

That's more than you'd expect from a film that from the onset clearly endeavors to kill off almost its entire cast over the course of three hours. Maybe the Morricone score dupes us into thinking what's on screen is more powerful and meaningful than it really is, or maybe Tarantino has struck up a little more genius than we thought a pulp Western could deliver.

~Steven C

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Zootopia (2016)
Disney stays hot with entertaining, very socially relevant "Zootopia", 11 June 2016

For a studio that in modern times has taken a lot of flak for past racist cartoon depictions, Disney has come a long way with "Zootopia." It's as though someone at the Mouse House must have off-handedly said how great would it be if they could make a kids' movie about racism and classism and one if not all seven writers with story credits on "Zootopia" raised their hands and said "challenge accepted."

Indeed, the CGI-era non-Pixar team at Disney has done just that, hitting its stride big time after "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frozen." (This critic has regrettably yet to see "Big Hero 6.") "Zootopia" has all the best trappings of an entertaining animated family film with ample wit and heart.

Yet while most animated films featuring talking animals simply for marketing purposes, the writing team (again, too many names to name here) offers an explanation of sorts. Much like 2012's "Wreck-It Ralph" built an entire film around video game characters existing beyond the screen, "Zooptopia" — which borrows all four writers from "Ralph," including its director (Rich Moore) —crafts a world in which animals have evolved beyond survival instincts (and humans don't exist) and try to live together in harmony. By turning species characteristics into stereotypes and creating a predator-prey distinction, Disney lays the groundwork for an incredibly socially relevant movie.

"Zootopia" follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who has aspired for her entire life to become a police officer in the mammal metropolis of Zootopia despite everyone telling her she's supposed to be a carrot farmer. But the story isn't so cliché that it results in some "anyone can be anything" tale. It goes well beyond, testing Judy's idealism and can-do spirit after she meets sly fox Nick (Jason Bateman) and starts to investigate a missing mammals case.

The references to race and class are not subtle, and they go beyond serving as accompanying themes to movie. While kids will certainly not pick up on all of them, the filmmakers' intent is clearly to draw on examples of racism and prejudice from our world and introduce them in ways that kids can grapple with. There are elements of mystery and themes of friendship and believing in yourself, but "Zootopia" stands out for making this concerted effort to highlight divisions and differences and how they do not define us.

The seriousness of this subject matter does not subvert the kid-friendly tone of the film, however. There's definitely a certain maturity to it (and even some scary moments), but the creative team has put together a colorful, vibrant world with various amusing characters and silly moments.

Yet it's heart that really elevates "Zootopia." The big issues and themes allow it to go into somewhat uncharted animated territory, but also the characters of Judy and Nick are thoughtfully constructed. Judy is perhaps the perfect heroine and her journey is so incredibly sincere; Nick has the potential to be a bit more of an archetype, but he has many complex shades that help convey this notion that no character can be put in a box. The story really goes out of its way to make that point too.

"Zootopia" isn't George Orwell's "Animal Farm," but it might be the most socially conscious and intelligent offering in the 20 years of this CGI era. The fact that kids and adults should enjoy it equally only makes it the more impressive. While Pixar has the clout, look at the last five years and Disney Animation's body of work is more impressive (and without any sequels). We should look forward to both with equal eagerness.

~Steven C

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1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Amusing and poignant satire about human companionship, 22 May 2016

So many great stories end with the message that life is meant to be shared with someone else. This statement, in all likelihood, is one a majority of people in the world would agree with. The latest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, however, will make you seriously consider if not refute this universally held belief.

As he did with his Oscar-nominated foreign film "Dogtooth," Lanthimos builds a concept- driven story in "The Lobster" that explores the possibilities of how humans would react to well-intentioned extremism. And like "Dogtooth," "The Lobster" puts its viewer in the most uncomfortable of situations through Lanthimos' patented blunt/deadpan sexual situations and violence.

"The Lobster" imagines a dystopian Europe in which romantic companionship is both required and strictly enforced. We experience the process of finding a partner through the eyes of David (Colin Farrell), a man whose wife has just left him, which means he must go back to The Hotel, where with the help and guidance of management, guests must find a partner and fall in love in 45 days or be turned into animals and sent into the woods.

This bizarre and intriguing premise is sure to capture the attention of just about any imaginative movie fan, but only so many will be able to handle Lanthimos' bold, often unsettling and especially provocative style, which induces squirms as much as intellectual stimulation.

The world and satirical analogy that Lanthimos has constructed with writing partner Efthymis Filippou is elaborate, which becomes extremely apparent when you learn that there are "loners" out in the woods, those who fled The Hotel, are trying to live on their own and diametrically oppose the values of civilization to the same strict degree. Hotel guests and encouraged to hunt these people down, and they earn extra time at The Hotel in exchange for captures.

Bolstered by an excellent cast that includes Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux and Olivia Colman, "The Lobster" examines Western society's romantic standards and structures through these exaggerations in hopes of uncovering some greater truths about love and the lengths people will go to to find it (and in some cases, fake it).

Lanthimos is not shy about shocking the audience, but "The Lobster" demonstrates some growth in this arena; he dials back some of the explicit imagery (particularly the nudity) as if recognizing that suggested sexual situations can be just as if not more powerful than depicted ones. He has no shortage of opportunities in the film to show nudity or sex and opts for none, letting the audience's imagination do the work and elicit its own potent reaction. Violence, on the other hand, the film is not shy about, though Lanthimos opts for disturbing and awkward rather than gory and gratuitous.

The impact of these choices tremendously benefits "The Lobster." Although there's no denying the brusque, uncomfortable nature of the film, these tactics aren't as big of a distraction as they were in "Dogtooth." As a result, what we do see doesn't rattle us beyond any possible comprehension of themes and ideas, but provokes them. And there's plenty of breathing room to let it all sink in.

"The Lobster" provides incredibly fresh perspective on and sharp insight into love and relationships, something that will undoubtedly resonate with those viewers intrigued enough by the premise and not repelled by its explicit situations. Its ambiguous ending will annoy some and multiply the adoration of others, but regardless, it succeeds at pushing the viewer to really consider all of its many facets and ideas. As long as Lanthimos can continue to strike the balance between challenging ideas and images and thoughtful ones, he'll continue to make great films for a long time.

~Steven C

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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
The Coens are still sharp and smart, but 'Hail, Caesar!' isn't quite engaging enough, 17 May 2016

In tackling Hollywood's Golden Age, the Coen Brothers have made their glitziest film to date in "Hail, Caesar!," but a couple musical numbers featuring Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are just the commercial selling points of what is actually another off- beat yet deeply philosophical film from the duo.

As such, it's easy to see why "Hail, Caesar!" could be viewed as misleading when it turns out not to be the uproarious comedy suggested by the premise of a Hollywood studio fixer whose big movie star is kidnapped by a group called "The Future." The first clue of this marketing misdirection is the film's stark opening shot on a sculpture of Christ on the crucifix, followed by our discovery that the big Capitol Pictures epic feature film at the center of this movie is actual called "Hail, Casear!" with the subtitle "A Tale of the Christ."

The religious imagery makes for an interesting contrast with the film's plot. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man who makes Capitol Pictures' problems go away. A last-minute star is needed for a high society Broadway adaptation? He ropes in Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and makes it work. Johansson's DeeAnna Moran is pregnant out of wedlock? He has a plan to make the child legitimate. "Hail, Caesar!" star Baird Whitlock's (George Clooney) disappearance, however, calls for more desperate measures.

This story plays out as more of a "week in the life" portrait of Mannix with some diversions into these other films, like a hilarious scene in which Doyle, a southern boy lacking sophistication, works with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) on his lines, or a musical number with sailors with not so subtle homo-erotic undertones. Yet this gives the story (and consequently the viewer) problems staying focused. The narrative thread just isn't as tight or compelling as in other Coen films. Even the ending comes as a surprise, in terms of timing, because we never get a sense of the story's arc.

The thematic threads, however, are as sharp and intriguing as ever. In addition the lens of faith being applied to the film from the get- go, the Coens bring in a Communist element in the form of Whitlock's captors, who criticize the old Hollywood studio hierarchy, which of course has a lot of modern-day relevance in both the movie industry and in greater society. The Coens suggest that big movie studios are a microcosm of other hierarchies (including religious ones) and highlight the complex relationship between the large entity that makes everything possible, and the talents of the individuals that it comprises.

That makes "Hail, Caesar!" another great Coen film to use in teaching a film class, but doesn't make it among their best films, at least not when you consider all the trappings (i.e. big-name stars and musical numbers) that would lead you to believe it should be among their most entertaining works.

~Steven C

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2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Lots of smaller, thoughtful moments and a focused plot make "Civil War" the hero-heavy blockbuster "Avengers 2" should've been, 8 May 2016

Welcome to Phase III of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the solo superhero films get an "Avengers"-sized cast and even Spider-Man can swing out of the clutches of Sony Pictures and into a Marvel Studios movie. In other words, you'd need a lot of action figures to recreate "Captain America: Civil War," but you'd also need to do more than just smack them into each other; Marvel's latest is ambitious, but it makes sense and succeeds in ways beyond pure spectacle.

The same couldn't be said of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," a film that "Civil War" kind of pardons by virtue of coming out just a year later and being better. Although both films demonstrate what made 2012's "The Avengers" a success — an understanding of the importance of humor and character-driven moments in between giant action sequences — "Civil War" has a more intriguing premise and more cohesive plot, even if you need to have seen both "Avengers" films and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" to truly get behind it.

"Civil War" has the potential to be a beautiful disaster. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) are at the core of this disagreement over whether the Avengers should be held accountable to the United Nations after all the destruction their "avenging" has caused, but Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and even newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) all take sides for various reasons. That's a dozen superheroes to manage in one film … but who's counting?

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a pretty incredible job considering all the super- stallions in their stable. They devote the time needed to make it clear where each character is coming from, albeit some better than others. Credit also to writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have been with the "Captain America" films since the beginning, each of them completely different than the other but all very good.

The key is that "Civil War" never loses sight of what drives these characters, even when that motivation is spotty. If we're going to believe these heroes will fight each other, the reason better be very good, and the reason it's good is actually kind of surprising.

After years of superhero films in which the aftermath of the destruction caused by these big building-demolishing grand finales has been overlooked, "Civil War" gets personal and looks at the loss of innocent life caused by this devastation. It adds a powerful human touch to this massive-scale story. Yes, the heroes duke it out at a German airport way longer than they should, quipping back and forth way longer than they should, but there's a lot of one-on-one scenes that don't involve throwing punches that balance it all out.

And that's not to take away from the action. Although some of the sequences toward the beginning feel a bit blurry (and that's in standard definition, not 3D), the Russos make every moment of action count and really think about the characters involved in each action shot. The creativity, staging and thrill factor are extremely strong as they were in "Winter Soldier," plus the violence is grittier and more palpable for a PG-13. It's clear that the future "Avenger" films, which they will direct, are in capable hands.

While the novelty of seeing several superheroes in one film has worn off a bit, even this time with them fighting each other, characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man make a difference in giving some of that novelty back. Marvel has done well introducing characters in smaller films before bringing them together, but here we see the value in doing the opposite. The fresh dynamic between Downey Jr. and Holland, for example, turns out to be a highlight of the film and will get even the most exhausted Spider-Man fans excited to see what Sony and Marvel Studios do with this younger Peter Parker next. And Black Panther gets a surprisingly effective story arch in this movie that bodes well for his upcoming solo adventure.

Reining in the chaos is the crowning achievement of "Civil War," and the secret proves to be finding the small moments to put in check the gigantic stature of the film. It also helps that these smaller moments all connect to the core moral conflict of the film; we aren't following disparate story lines. Everything serves or can be tied back to the core concept of how autonomous superheroes should be allowed to be, which really ties into why these heroes do what they do, a hugely important question that gives so much credence to this movie and, in a way, the entire Marvel Studios mission.

Dozens of films and almost a decade in, it's incredible to watch Marvel continually deliver. If they use the blueprint of "Civil War" as a model for building this third phase of movies, there's no reason they won't continue to make film after satisfying film.

~Steven C

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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Messier, for sure, but still plenty of "Avengers" fun, 8 May 2016

The task of bringing together Earth's mightiest heroes took Joss Whedon into uncharted territory with 2012's "The Avengers," and, despite the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on his shoulders, the results were staggeringly entertaining. The task of making a sequel to that ground-breaking, monumental event film, however, and being expected to deliver on par or better results, is an entirely different beast.

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" was definitely built on the bullet point takeaways of "The Avengers," which are: Make time and space for wit, banter and humor for the sake of humor to prevent the film from taking itself too seriously; give each character a story arch and independent moments; choreography clever action sequences with well-timed glory shots. These components are in full force in "Ultron" and make enjoying the blockbuster as easy as shoving a lollipop in your mouth.

Yet "Ultron" is infinitely more complex than its predecessor. The number of heroes featured barely fits into a single action figure play case, meaning more subplots and back story, in addition to creating an arch of the creation and life of Ultron itself. With a plot that takes the Avengers from the eastern European country of "Sokovia" to New York to the African nation of "Wakanda" to Seoul, South Korea to Sokovia again, much of "Age of Ultron" is a non-stop blur.

The film opens with the Avengers leading an assault on a secret HYDRA facility where they have located the staff that Loki used to lead the Chitauri invasion in "The Avengers." When they secure it and bring it back to New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) discover that its power source contains a blueprint for artificial intelligence, which would allow Stark to proceed with his Ultron project, an initiative to create peace-keeping robots that could defend the world in place of the Avengers should another alien invasion occur. When Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes conscious, however, he interprets his peace-keeping instructions as an imperative to wipe out humankind.

Added to the mix are the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) – also known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – who decide to serve Ultron, with the latter using her powers to give each of the Avengers dangerous visions that could tear them apart.

The fight scenes and action sequences are in such abundance in "Ultron" that it's impossible to remember them all, and the ones that are most distinct, such as Iron Man chasing down and taming a rampant Hulk using his Hulkbuster armor, are ancillary to the narrative of finding what Ultron is up to and stopping it. In other words – it's all for show. The creativity of the fight choreography also gets lost in the whirlwind of action. Captain America (Chris Evans) probably does 12 different awesome things with his shield, but they happen so fast you'll be hard pressed to recall any one of them in detail. Really clever sequences are only as fun as the build-up and payoff and those pieces are given no time to breathe.

Whedon does allow for pauses in the chaos, such as the swanky Avengers Tower party featuring the film's best scene, when each Avenger tries his hand at lifting Thor's hammer, or a quiet retreat to an unexpected safe house in the countryside, but it's simply a trade- off: instead of busy action sequences, we get character relationship dynamics and back story.

"Ultron" is inundating, to be frank, but for the everything-but-the-sink mentality, it's carried by its sense of humor and a cast whose members have each proved themselves time and again to be magnetic both on their own and as part of this team. Some of the novelty has worn off, but seeing all these characters together remains a treat that even the most convoluted of stories cannot entirely dismantle. Marvel Studios truly proves with "Ultron" the credibility that it has built with fans, to the point that even when it gets a little ambitious and mettles a bit more (you can easily see Whedon at odds with them in this final cut), its reputation remains intact and the fans placated.

As "Phase III" begins, adding even more characters to Marvel's cinematic universe (and even sliding Spider-Man into the mix) en route to the two-part "Avengers: Infinity War" slated for 2018 and 2019, it will be interesting to see if Marvel Studios barrels along into more unwieldy but delicious chaos, or reins it in a touch. Either way, should be fun.

~Steven C

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Goosebumps (2015)
A messy but surprisingly clever '90s throwback, 28 April 2016

Like most '90s fads, I never imagined R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series would mean anything or be relevant to any generation but mine. So it took me by total surprise to learn Sony/Columbia Pictures was bringing these children's horror books to the big screen for the first time – in 2015.

All the more surprising, the film's concept plays to fans of the series that are very familiar with the books, even though it is clearly trying to reach a young audience. Rather than adapting a "Goosebumps" story or two for the big screen or developing a new Stine story just for the film, story creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood") make Stine a main character (played by Jack Black) and craft a "Goosebumps"-esque premise in which all of Stine's monsters come to life.

So there's a healthy amount of self-awareness involved, which screenwriter Darren Lemke and director Rob Letterman bring to their execution of the story that makes it work as light, '90s-style throwback entertainment (complete with a retro Danny Elfman-written score, to boot) despite the absolute silliness and messiness of their movie.

Like so many of Stine's "Goosebumps" stories begin, Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (Amy Ryan) move to a small town in Delaware. Zach is nervous about fitting in and still getting over the loss of his dad when he meets the girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush). Zach is concerned about Hannah and her secretive, controlling father, who turns out to be Stine. Fearing something is wrong, Zach and his new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) break into the Stine house and accidentally open a manuscript, unleashing a Stine monster into the real world.

Premise alone should suggest "Goosebumps" is a total '90s family adventure film fed through a modern filter. The script never goes on for too long without some kind of clue-in to how ridiculous the whole things is, yet at the same time works hard to provide the thrills and chills of a "Goosebumps" book.

The performances are also key to creating this effect. Black's quirky portrayal of Stine is just the right amount of exaggerated and weird that he contributes to the film's tone rather than steals from it. The main role belongs to the classic teen protagonist in Zach, but Black bridges the gap from the cliché teenage elements of the story to its goofy, inventive side. The writing also helps, taking the archetypal big-mouthed oddball best friend in Champ and giving him humorous moments that take a surprising direction. The film still plays in familiar territory, but these touches keep it fresh and engaging enough.

The movie really makes an effort to embrace the goofy side of "Goosebumps" and Stine's imagination. Although zombies and a werewolf make prominent appearances, iconic book series character Slappy the ventriloquist dummy, the abominable snowman of Pasadena, a giant praying mantis and killer garden gnomes also figure into the plot, giving viewers something a little unusual that speaks to the books' originality. For longtime series fans (or people who were huge fans when they were in grade school), that's especially important.

"Goosebumps" features a bare-bones plot with standard execution and a surplus of implausible moments, but the spirit behind the film is spot on. It appeals to nostalgic impulses (whether for "Goosebumps" or '90s movies) and with just the right amount of talent behind and in front of the camera is just clever enough to make the time spent worthwhile.

~Steven C

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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Nichols continues his streak with this emotionally intelligent family drama dressed as a sci-fi thriller, 13 April 2016

There are few under-the-radar writer/directors as hot as Jeff Nichols. The "Mud" and "Take Shelter" filmmaker is an extraordinary visual storyteller, and his streak continues in "Midnight Special," a family drama dressed as a sci-fi thriller.

Like those previous films, "Midnight Special" takes place in the American South. The film opens and we see Roy (Michael Shannon, Nichols' muse) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run in Texas with a young boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who we learn is Roy's biological son. Alton is gifted, and his "powers" were the basis of a religious cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), Alton's adopted father. Although they are desperate to track down the boy, they aren't alone — the federal government is looking for Alton because his powers have revealed top secret government information.

Any summary of "Midnight Special" — including that one — is tough to put together. The story is shot out of a cannon and the audience has to piece together much of the context as it moves along, and wait patiently for Nichols to drop precious nuggets of clarity. Of course, only in the end do we have any semblance of a picture of the truth, and even then the image is far from crystal clear.

For those familiar with Nichols' work, "Midnight Special" is most like "Take Shelter" with its intentionally vague and quietly suspenseful demeanor, punctuated by short but big dramatic moments. The plot relies heavily on audience curiosity as to what's going on with Alton and just how big in scope the whole thing could get. If you're new to Nichols, be patient and prepare for a payoff that's as intellectual as it is emotional. In fact, in "Midnight Special" the scales tip in favor of the intellectual.

Like the plot, the performances are generally understated with a few moments that showcase the actors. Shannon can blow the roof off a scene, but Roy might the least chewy of any part he's played. Here he's a passionate father ready and willing to cross all moral lines for his son, but he never comes unhinged. Kirsten Dunst, who sneaks into the film well into the runtime as Alton's mother, has a similar part. These are the kinds of quality performances you're less likely to see honored come award season, but once you've seen the film and recognize its qualities, it becomes clear just how pivotal the acting is to its success. Honorable mention to Adam Driver as an NSA agent who undergoes his own transformation in the film.

To what will likely be the chagrin of at least a chunk of people who see "Midnight Special," the sci-fi components are not among the best parts of the film. They don't hurt it by any means, but their purpose is to heighten the stakes of what really matters to Nichols — the family drama and the themes and ideas around belief. So in and of themselves, the effects work and supernatural pieces are just okay, it's how they serve the story that matters. In this way, comparisons of the film to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" are most valid.

"Midnight Special" could definitely be a little more gripping. It would also be a stronger film if it resonated with the audience throughout its duration rather than sort of dawn on you following the credits and a period of reflection. But that's how Nichols works. He brings such a high level of emotional intelligence to his projects, but he makes you work. You have to trust your instincts and impressions of the film to find the meaning it offers. Luckily, he always makes that experience worth it.

~Steven C

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The sequel isn't off key, but it's not exactly an original melody, 12 April 2016

The surest way to ruin a great, original comedy is to give it a sequel. Fortunately, in all the ways that "Pitch Perfect 2" is pointless, it's equally harmless. The movie knows it's a studio cash-grab, and the effort behind it shows, but the care-free attitude from the onset also appropriately lowers expectations.

Writer Kay Cannon returns with producer/star Elizabeth Banks going behind the camera, and clearly neither have a problem with sticking to the 2012 film's formula and giving fans their fix of the Barden Bellas and all-vocal mash-ups. The movie opens as the first did, with another national moment-of-shame for the heroes, one that disqualifies them from national competition (phew, otherwise the plot would've been even more of the same) and gives them one shot at redemption: win at an international competition (and beat the immaculate group Das Sound Machine from Germany in the process) or end up being disbanded.

Surrounding this conventional plot are a couple handfuls of scenes that exist solely as a vehicle for the a cappella soundtrack, such as a freshman orientation concert from the Treblemakers, a "scouting mission" to a car show to see Das Sound Machine perform and a private a ca-battle between five groups (one being the Green Bay Packers).

Then there are the character subplots that float in and out. Anna Kendrick's Beca has the only one of substance: she starts an internship at a recording studio and is challenged by a stereotypically tough studio boss (Keegan-Michael Key) to find her identity as a music producer. It unfolds in predictable fashion, however, and doesn't get the time and attention that Beca got in the first film. Instead, Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy graduates into a co- leading role of sorts, and we get a flat love story between her and Bumper (Adam DeVine). New girl Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) also gets lots of screen time as a "passing of the torch" of sorts, and her character is so awkward it's impossible to tell if we're supposed to care about her or laugh at her.

Cannon's script is more hit-and-miss this time around, likely because of the number of recycled jokes and the fact that some of the character quirks have gotten stale. Because the plot doesn't really create many moments for situational humor, most of the laughs in "Pitch Perfect 2" have to come from the dialogue and performances. The humor remains awkward and brazen, but like with most comedy sequels, the lack of novelty is noticeable.

The music of "Pitch Perfect 2" plays a much bigger role, in the sense that songs get more screen time because the story doesn't demand as much attention. Although you could just listen to the soundtrack instead of watching the whole movie for them, the killer arrangements up the entertainment factor significantly. For example, we're supposed to hate Das Sound Machine, but even replacing all the "theys" with "zay" when they sing can't change the fact that their performances of "Uprising" by Muse and a mashup of Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" and "All I Do is Win" by DJ Khaled are just flat-out cool (by music nerd standards).

An effort to make "Pitch Perfect 2" into something of substance (on par with the original) would've been appreciated, but it also would've run the risk of taking itself too seriously. Instead, we get an entire movie that could've been set to the song "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." It's a silly romp with familiar characters and a writer, director and producers who essentially do a victory lap granted them by the surprise success of their once original idea.

Steven C

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A thrilling keeps-you-guessing genre cocktail, 11 April 2016

The J.J. Abrams Bad Robot "Mystery Box" formula has yielded lots of intriguing and successful films and television shows, perhaps none of them as cultish as 2008's "Cloverfield," which alongside "Paranormal Activity" put the found footage genre permanently on the map with this elusive, almost anti-Hollywood alien invasion story.

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is totally different. Although it shares DNA with its 8-year-old predecessor, "10 Cloverfield Lane" is shot in the vein of a classic suspense thriller, one even Alfred Hitchcock would admire. There are no gimmicks, just great performances, direction and a dynamite concept.

Genre film actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead (genre in that her filmography is anything but traditional) stars as Michelle, whom we first see fleeing her city apartment and driving off into the country. She gets in a horrible car wreck and wakes up in an underground shelter with a man named Howard (John Goodman) claiming to have saved her life not only from the accident, but also from a massive attack that has left the outside world completely toxic. From there, the film becomes a suspenseful guessing game about the truth. Is Howard an insane man who abducted her, or is he telling the truth?

Director Dan Trachtenberg, who got noticed in a big way when he made an Internet short film in 2011 based on the video game "Portal," shows excellent filmmaking instincts in a story and movie that refuses to (and can't be) pigeon-holed. Novice writers Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken have conceived and written something rather brilliant (with screenplay help from Oscar-nominee Damien Chazelle) with this idea of "is the real evil inside or outside the bunker?" Yet it's Trachtenberg's skill and performances by Winstead and Goodman that make each minute entertaining and exciting.

Much of "10 Cloverfield Lane" could work as a stage play, that's how tight and focused the drama and story are (except for the parts when it's not, which I can't discuss without spoilers). That's also why pros like Goodman are essential. The psychological mystery has to be as compelling as the larger-scale mystery lurking in the back of the audience's mind for the film to work, and it does. Trachtenberg could just as easily go make a crime drama for his next project as he could a sci-fi horror flick.

Both the narrative and the stunningly cryptic performance of Goodman keep the audience squarely in film's palm. Our minds are yanked in and out of certainty as we madly attempt to guess at the truth, with information coming in the form expertly creepy and often jarring scenes. Oh, and there's plenty of humor too if all that isn't confusing enough. "10 Cloverfield Lane" precisely proves to be the epitome of the mystery box, and watching it open is a total delight, even through its seemingly box-busted ending.

Not to overuse the analogy, but anyone expecting "10 Cloverfield Lane" to fit into any kind of box will be disappointed; those who can appreciate the melange of tones and styles that it so exceptionally encompasses will find themselves entertained in a way only so many films can.

~Steven C

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