“Midnight Special” (PG-13) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Writer/director Jeff Nichols partially channels “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with uneven results in “Midnight Special, an indie sci-fi thriller that keeps you at arm’s length for most of the film, only to deliver an underwhelming payoff. Michael Shannon stars as Roy, the desperate father of an 8-year-old boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who has otherworldly abilities. Escaping a religious cult that believes the boy is their savior, the two, along with Roy’s best friend, Lucas, find themselves also on the run from the NSA, which perceives the boy as a weapon because he can bring down objects out of the sky. Roy has different plans, to bring his son to a specific location for reasons unexplained.
Although “Midnight Special” is slow to and uneventful at times, it’s almost a relief that it’s also not overwhelmed by special effects, especially given the genre it has originated from. Even though the cast – which also includes Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst and Sam Shepard – is stellar all around, the film seems empty when all is said and done. Ultimately, “Midnight Special” is not special, but merely above average.
“I Saw the Light” (R) 3 stars (out of four)
Loki actor Tom Hiddleston puts aside his usual brand of mischief to take on a risky performance of an American music icon with “I Saw the Light,” a biopic about Hank Williams’ rise and untimely death at the age of 29 in 1953. The film largely centers on Williams’ struggle with alcoholism and his relationship with his first wife, Audrey (an excellent Elizabeth Olsen) and how their tumultuous marriage effectively inspired the country and western star’s classic songs.
Hiddleston, who also sings such Williams classics as “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” is spectacular in the film, yet somehow we come away from “I Saw the Light” with little insight into what tortured Williams’ soul to begin with. There’s no question he was a creative genius, but the film doesn’t fully explain why.
Though he’s phenomenal playing Loki in the Marvel movie universe, acclaimed actor Tom Hiddleston isn’t about to rest on his laurels and settle into playing only the God of Mischief the rest of his career.
In fact, he’s continuing to take risks acting in different genres by doing everything from comedy to drama and horror; and with his new film, “I Saw the Light,” he’s strumming (and singing) a new tune, quite literally, as country and western music icon Hank Williams.
“When the script for the movie came across my desk, it seemed like the most foreign territory,” Hiddleston said this week in a phone conversation from Los Angeles. “Hank Williams’ life is so dissimilar than mine. I was born in London in 1981 and he was born in Mount Olive, Alabama, in 1923. He is so much a part of America in so many respects, and I’m British, and yet, there was a human soul in the screenplay that I could relate to because he was a performer, generosity of spirit and a joy in his performances. He garnered so much from the genuine connection he had with the audience and I can relate to that.”
On top of that, Hiddleston said he was fascinated with the musician’s “spiritual struggle,” and how the emotional pain e
xpressed through his work often stemmed from the troubled relationship Hank had with his wife, Audrey (another Marvel film star, Elizabeth Olsen, the Scarlet Witch in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and upcoming “Captain America: Civil War”).
“He was obviously wrestling with some pretty formidable personal demons,” Hiddleston said. “To me, the ultimate appeal that’s so much a part of acting is to satisfy my amateur interest in psychology. (Director) Marc Abraham’s great pitch to me was that he was making a connection to the great power of Hank’s great songs with Audrey, and the turbulent and passionate nature of his marriage gave Hank the inspiration to write great songs like ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ and ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ I thought that was a beautiful suggestion that the personal circumstances of this great artist generated such extraordinary music.”
In a separate interview, Olsen said while Audrey wasn’t as well-known as Hank, it didn’t make bringing the character to life any easier. After all, Audrey had to be believable character that audiences could relate to, because portraying the love and strife the couple shared was pivotal to the story.
“We wanted the fights to feel angry and important, and there were so many arguments,” Olsen said. “But, we also tried so hard to make sure that their love was very clear. When we had the opportunity to show the love that they had with each other, we needed to embrace that. You can’t care about someone falling out if you don’t believe in why they are together.”
Now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tennessee, and expanding to more theaters this week, “I Saw the Light” begins the night Hank and Audrey Williams was married, and follows the couple through their doomed marriage as Hank rises to the top of the music world – a rise and eventual fall that’s beset by Hank’s alcohol abuse and a painful, chronic back condition.
Suffering with Hank throughout his long bout with alcoholism was Audrey, and it was very difficult to contemplate how she dealt with the pain, Olsen said.
“At a certain point, obviously people who are dealing with their own demons, you can’t ever understand what that is and to be in their shoes,” Olsen said. “But to love someone deeply experiencing that and being on the other end of it, I think is a very painful place to live in.”
Sadly, Audrey met the same fate as Hank did, Olsen noted.
“She died of alcoholism as well, when she was in her 40s and there was a lot of pain, I’m assuming, on her part from being connected to his demons, and that conflict of living and loving that man,” Olsen said.
The film only follows Hank to his premature death in 1953 at age 29, revealing, that, while his career was on the downslide near the end of his life, he still wrote and performed classic pieces of Americana, such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
“He was so authentic from top to bottom and beginning to end,” Hiddleston observed. “So the heartbreaking tragedy of Hank is, the more he suffered, the better his music was. There may be a part of him that was aware of that. Famously, in trying to appease Audrey, when they moved to Shreveport, he spent 1948 largely sober. He was on time, he was well-mannered, he was professional.
“The suggestion is, he didn’t write any good songs in 1948, and somehow the well dried up,” Hiddleston added. “I don’t subscribe to the belief that the more screwed-up your personal life is, the better your work. I think it’s possible to create great work from a healthy place, but Hank, as the facts say, he wrote some of his best songs when he was in the middle of enormous personal suffering.”
While Hiddleston perfectly embodies Hank in looks in “I Saw the Light,” perhaps more amazing is how he flawlessly sings the country music legend’s songs throughout the film. Hiddleston is humble in any praise he receives for his vocal performances, suggesting that we won’t see him on tour, guitar in hand, anytime soon.
“I’m not going to give up the day job just yet,” Hiddleston said, laughing.
Michael Fassbender gives one of the year’s best performances in the title role in “Steve Jobs,” a fascinating look into the complex mind of the Apple Computers genius. Foregoing the traditional biopic format, director Danny Boyle successfully opts to tell Jobs’ story in three thrilling acts, each taking place before product launches of the Macintosh Computer in 1984, the NeXT black box in 1988 and the iMac in 1998.
Unlike the previous Apple co-founder biopic — the 2013 Aston Kutcher bomb “Jobs” — “Steve Jobs” pulls no punches when illustrating the Jobs’ scornful behavior. Some of the most notable scenes chronicle his ugly child support battle with his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the public lambasting of co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, in a familiar feeling portrayal), and Macintosh co-designer Andy Hertzfeld (an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg); as well as an examination of his volatile relationship with Apple CEO John Sculley (the always great Jeff Daniels).
If it’s to
be believed (Apple and Jobs’ widow have raised objections over the film), Jobs was hated by most everybody he worked with (the exception being his loyal marketing guru Joanna Hoffman, expertly played by Kate Winslet). The interesting thing is, Boyle, through Aaron Sorkin’s searing script, tries to examine just why Jobs was the way he was — mostly because he was a socially inept genius who simply thought about things on an entirely different plane.
There’s a telling line early in the film where Jobs tells Sculley something to the effect of, “I like you John — you’re the only one who sees the world the same way I do”; to which Sculley responds, “No one sees the world the way you do, Steve.” In a way, it tells us that Jobs’ prickish behavior wasn’t necessarily born out of hatred, but rather his frustration that people simply don’t understand him. There’s no question Steve Jobs was one of a kind, and so is this movie.
“Crimson Peak” (R) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Gifted filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro sadly falls short of delivering on his film’s promise with “Crimson Peak,” a beautifully constructed and admirably acted Gothic horror thriller that is hobbled by its predictable story-line.
Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) stars as Edith Cushing, an aspiring American Gothic romance novelist in the late 1800s who is swept off her feet by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a charismatic British aristocrat. After marrying Thomas, Edith moves to her husband’s native England along with his suspicious sister, Lucille (a creepy Jessica Chastain) — only to discover their family’s mansion houses gruesome secrets, and there is no way to escape.
There’s no question Del Toro has an incredible handle in filmmaking, as he artfully brings back to life the types of settings and atmosphere that gave the Hammer horror films of the 1960s and ’70s a special brand of eeriness (plus, Edith Cushing’s surname is an obvious ode to late, great Hammer star Peter Cushing). While at its heart “Crimson Peak” is a haunted housed thriller (Del Toro’s ghosts are as creatively fashioned as anything you’ve seen in his previous thrillers), the script feels as vacant as the sprawling Sharpe mansion. True, the scenes with the specters of Edith’s, Thomas’ and Lucille’s haunted pasts are thrilling, but ultimately, the motivation of the siblings and their lurid back story come as no big surprise when they’re finally revealed.
Ultimately, “Crimson Peak” isn’t a bad movie; just a disappointing one that fails to meet its potential given the level of talent involved.
“Bridge of Spies” (PG-13) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
“Bridge of Spies” has almost everything you would hope for out of a Steven Spielberg film: It transports you back to an important set of events in U.S. history, while being beautifully photographed and having a cast of colorful, convincing characters, including an Oscar-worthy performance by Mark Rylance. The theater veteran’s performance is so strong in fact, that it can’t help but highlight the film’s glaring weakness, involving someone in the cast that you’d least expect.
Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an idealistic New York City attorney tasked by the government to represent Rudolf Abel (Rylance) after he is detained in the city and accused of being a spy at the height of the Cold War. Asked to go through the formalities for a quick and speedy resolution — effectively, to put on a show so that no accusations could be levied saying that Abel didn’t have fair representation — Donovan instead represents the alleged spy in earnest. It’s a move that ultimately saves Abel’s life, and makes him a valuable asset for trade when an American pilot is shot down during a spy mission over East Germany.
Spielberg effectively presents “Bridge of Spies” in two acts: first, as it concerns the trial, and second, the exchange of spies with the Soviets in East Germany. For those looking for an intense spy thriller, you’ll only get it in the second act, and the thrills are limited at best. Action-wise, “Bridge of Spies” only has one scene of note, when the American pilot’s plane is shot-down in the enemy’s air space.
While “Bridge of Spies” has several strengths, the biggest problem with the film, honestly, is its leading man, as Hanks’ umpteenth turn as the good guy is starting to wear dangerously thin. There’s no doubt that Hanks can act, it just at this point feels like he playing the same type of role over and over again. It would have been interesting to see him take on Rylance’s role, which is played with brilliant ambiguity. Instead, we get another film where it feels like Hanks is just reading lines. In the wake of “Bridge of Spies,” somebody needs to infiltrate Hanks’ management and urge that the Oscar-winning actor start taking more risks. His career will be all the better for it.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers