How to Watch: “X-Men: Apocalypse”


Step 1: Get ready for more of the same. Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is the third installment in the series revolving around the younger versions of our favorite X-Men characters, and while it isn’t as stellar as the first two – First Class and Days of Future Past – Apocalypse still manages to thrill you with its mutant action and impeccable characterizations.

Step 2: Tell the story. Apoc takes place about 10 years after Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are successfully running Xavier’s School for the Gifted, which takes in young mutants who want to learn how to control their abilities AND get an education. Here we meet the young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose telekinetic powers are so strong it concerns Charles, and Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who has just found out his eyes are now powerful laser beams. Not exactly the ideal thing for a teenage boy.

Meanwhile, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is still saving mutants from being exploited and rescues a young Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and brings him to the school. Raven also has found out that Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is in trouble again, and she wants to go help him with Charles’ assistance. But, of course, they are all sidetracked when an ancient mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) rises in Cairo after being trapped for centuries, ready to destroy all the weak humans and take over the world. And Apocalypse doesn’t work alone. He needs his “Four Horseman” by his side, so he recruits four powerful mutants to assist him, and in 1983, those four include a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) – and Magneto, naturally.

Step 3: Love us some Mystique. The cool thing about Mystique is that her future has been altered. When we first meet her in the original X-Men movies, she is a villain, working with Magneto to take down those humans oppressing the mutants. Then in X-Men: First Class, a new Raven emerges, one with a lonely past but defiant in staying true to who she is. We see her leaning towards Magneto’s side, knowing how that turns out, but in Days of Future Past, the timeline is skewed by Wolverine and their success in saving mutants in the distant future. So now, in Apocalypse, Mystique is a hero to both the human and mutant community. It’s not something she necessarily wants – and she is still fighting for mutant rights – but she is no longer angry at humans. She becomes the Captain America of the X-Men, leading the team and telling them to embrace their abilities so they can defeat the evil. Lawrence has continually given this character enormous depth and meaning, and by making her the mutant champion, instead of an enemy, she shines.

Step 4: Hear Charles and Magneto debate the same thing. Charles has taken the time between their last encounter to build his school and teach the young mutants, and while McAvoy continues to play it brilliantly, giving small glimpses of the Patrick Stewart older man he’ll become, he has less impact in Apocalypse than he did the previous installments. The actor is actually kind of wasted in this, and manages to mostly sit around, dictating, reacting – and having the same argument with Erik over using their abilities for good to help humans, rather than harm them. Yawn. It doesn’t do McAvoy justice, especially since he’s given so much life to the role. We do see, however, how he becomes bald (and it’s not just a hair preference).

On the flip side, Magneto is a wanted man in Apocalypse for his evil deeds in Days of Future Past, but he has tried desperately to shed that persona and live a normal life. Without giving anything away, a set of circumstances turns Erik back into his vengeful Magneto once again, now just ripe for the picking by Apocalypse. While this also just seems repetitive, Fassbender continues to be the most fascinating player in this “new generation,” showing just how tortured Erik really is from all the horrors of his past. That’s why we can never completely hate Magneto for his actions (and we feel similarly for Ian McKellan’s older version) because we’ll always ultimately felt empathy for him – even when he’s tearing up the world.

Step 5: Follow Quicksilver and Wolverine. Evan Peters simply wins as Quicksilver. Period. There’s no way Age of Ultron‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson had a chance to outdo Peters’ interpretation of the Marvel character, especially after his debut in Days of Future Past, so it’s probably best they killed Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver off. In Apocalypse, Peters once again shines as Quicksilver, doing his schtick (and saving a bunch of mutant kids from a bomb blast), stealing every scene he is in. And now that he knows he is Magneto’s son, this should be interesting in upcoming X-Men movies. And it’s no secret Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine makes an appearance in Apocalypse (because it’s in the trailers), but the way he does it is so completely awesome, you’ll definitely cheer when he shows up. Hint: It does have something to do with Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman) – remember, he’s the government guy who turned Wolverine’s claws into iron.

Step 6: Yawn at the villains. Isaac has the unenviable task of bringing the first mutant ever to life, but like McAvoy, he’s wasted, weighted down by all that brooding mutant elitism – and that prosthetic makeup. Apocalypse just isn’t compelling and there’s nothing new Isaac brings to the table. Same goes with two of his Four Horseman (excluding Storm and Magneto). While Munn looks kickass as Psylocke, she really only has one fight scene to speak off, while Hardy has no chance to give Angel any sort of depth, although he, too, looks fierce. This is a big missed opportunity to elevate standard comic-book bad guys.

Step 7: Praise Jean Grey. Along with Magneto and Wolverine, Jean Grey has always been one of the most compelling figures in the X-Men universe – the one mutant who truly has enough power to either rule them all or wipe them out. Famke Janssen will always have the credit of being the first Jean and for making an indelible impression, but Sophie Turner may have outdone her as the younger version. The Game of Thrones star proves she’s a real badass and has probably the most spectacular scene in the whole film when she takes on Apocalypse. It shows shades of the Dark Phoenix, but one wonders if her future, in which she does become evil, will now be changed by the altered timeline.

As for the other newbies, Sheridan does a nice job as the young Scott, trying to control those laser beam eyes while also falling for the older Jean, while Shipp gives us a whole new take on Storm. Did you know Ororo Munroe was Egyptian? I sure didn’t, but if Halle Berry ever has a chance to play Storm again, Shipp gives her lots to work with. The standout, though, is Smit-McPhee as the sweet-natured and religious Kurt, with his wide-eyed innocence and willingness to do teenager things. Again, his future has been skewed (remember in X2, he is under Magneto’s control), and now he is part of the X-Men team.

Step 8: How Bryan Singer handles it. The director absolutely understands this X-Men universe backwards and forwards, and does a wonderful job in keeping things familiar and relevant to all the characters. But where he fails in Apocalypse is in trying to give us something new and different. The film feels like a retread, with little propelling the story forward. Perhaps that’s the intent, a way to herald in the new generation of X-Men that we were first introduced to in the 2000 X-Men, but it feels lazy, in its execution and bloated action sequences. But he seamlessly blends all those great characters together, which allows X-Men fans to to look past the shortcomings and have fun with Apocalypse nonetheless.

How to Watch: “The Nice Guys”

Nice Guys

Step 1: Have fun. From the mind of writer/director Shane Black, The Nice Guys is just pure wackiness all the way through – a straight-up crime mystery filled with hilarious antics and plenty of violence. A perfect addition to the summer movie roster.

Step 2: Set it in Los Angeles in 1977. The premise revolves around Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a former cop who now works independently as the guy you hire to rough someone up. When he takes a job from Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who wants him to stop some guys following her, Jackson meets (and beats up) Holland March (Ryan Gosling). March is a down-on-his-luck private detective dealing with some personal issues like the loss of his wife and trying to take care of his precocious 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). But a turn of events forces Holland and Jackson to work together to try to find a now-missing Amelia and solve the mystery involving Amelia’s porn flick and why everyone associated with it are being killed.

Step 3: Find the new onscreen duo. Evident from all the trailers and promotional appearances (like the hilarious videos of the actors seeking couples therapy), Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe together are what sell this movie. Their chemistry is palpable onscreen, and the two simply click in this Shane Black-created milieu. Although he did do a few early on his native Australia, Crowe is definitely not who you think of when you think comedy. And to be fair, he’s not the balls-out comedic performer in The Nice Guys, either, but he is a perfect straight man, an always underrated component of a great comedic onscreen duo. It’s the reactions that count, and Crowe nails it. So yes, it’s Gosling who shines as the funny guy, which isn’t all that surprising since he’s done films like Crazy, Stupid, Love. and The Big Short. What is surprising, however, is how well Gosling handles the physical comedy in Nice Guys. He gets beat up, shot at and pratfalls like the best of them. Seriously, if they play their cards right, Crowe and Gosling could be another great Abbott and Costello.

Step 4: Oh, and hire a really savvy teenager. As the smart-as-a-whip Holly, Rice very nearly steals the show from her two co-stars. She shows an uncanny comedic sense while also making it seem entirely plausible that Holly would be just as good at being a private eye. Also, Holly finds herself in some situations no normal 13-year-old would be in but is, naturally, the level-headed one who tries to set her falling-apart-at-the-seams father on the right path. The “wise kid raising the parent” isn’t a new concept, but Rice does a nice job keeping it fresh. Look out for this young Australian actress – she’s going places.

Step 5: Be thankful L.A. doesn’t look like that anymore. The Nice Guys locale is a key player in the film, showing that gritty, smog-filled side of Los Angeles in the 1970s. From the dilapidated Hollywood Sign, to the crowded freeways, to the growing porn industry, director Shane Black really paints a nice thin, dirty feel to the whole thing, which completely complements the action. But there is also some beauty to the film, a clear love letter to L.A. and the promise of how gorgeous the City of Angels will become – once all the smog is cleared out.

Step 6: Get Shane Black. The once wunderkid, whose sale of his first script, Lethal Weapon, is one of those legendary Hollywood stories. The classic 1987 buddy-cop script was one of the first to benefit from a “bidding-war” situation between studios, creating a heyday for screenwriters in the ’80s and ’90s. While it’s much different now with how movie scripts are sold, Black has proven he was not a one-hit wonder, especially with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005. The Nice Guys follows along the same lines, mixing genres and creating something that feels familiar but is still unique.

There are some plot holes in the film, mostly revolving around Kim Basinger’s role as Amelia’s mother (who definitely needed more screen time) and her job as the “head of the justice department,” investigating the auto industry and the smog emission problem that plagued Los Angeles in the ’70s, but you’re willing to overlook it because the characterizations and the dialogue are all so spot-on. This crime comedy milieu is really Black’s forte, and let’s hope he keeps making them.

How to Watch: “Captain America: Civil War”

Captain America

Step 1: Buckle in. The ultimate battle of superhero titans is about to take off in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and hold onto your seats, folks, because this is one helluva ride – and the best Marvel movie to date.

Step 2: Set up. The basic premise revolves the Avengers’ methods of staving off potential global catastrophes. Lead by Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), the small band of superheroes and fighters see the threat and go in to take it out. Problem is, when they do that, collateral damage – both with property and with innocent lives – is inevitable, and governments around the world are not sitting well with it. They want some checks and balances on the Avengers. Usually on the side of the government, Cap sees this as a big problem because any delay in their emergency response could prove to be highly detrimental and a larger loss of life. Instead, it’s Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), who sides with the bureaucrats. He says he understands their POV, but there’s an underlying guilt Tony feels because let’s face it, the last catastrophe at the hands of Ultron was Stark’s fault since, you know, he created Ultron. Tony doesn’t trust himself anymore and thinks he might need some higher authority telling him no.

Step 3: Pick a side. Thus creates the conflict, which is only heightened when Steve’s BFF Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) shows up again. Bucky is trying very hard to shed his Winter Soldier/assassin reputation by staying in hiding but unfortunately is still under some form of Manchurian Candidate-type mind control, and at some point, Winter Soldier is re-engaged. Steve knows his friend is still in there and isn’t doing these things on his own accord, but the rest of the world doesn’t. Cap wants to get Bucky help to finally “fix” his brain, but in protecting Bucky, Steve and those who follow him – Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – become wanted fugitives themselves. They now have to fight against their friends who are following Tony, such as Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Lt. James Rhodes aka War Machine (Don Cheadle). Little do they know, they are all being manipulated by another, more sinister force, who, of course, should be stopped by the Avengers. But can they do that before the friendship between Cap and Iron Man are irreparably damaged?

Step 4: Kudos to the writers. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely craft an excellent story, one that isn’t too convoluted (sorry, Batman v Superman, they did it right) but also one that allows a bevy of characters to share time onscreen in a seamless way. This is a story we can actually relate to, if you’ve ever had a big blowup with your siblings. Markus and McFeely turn the Avengers into a dysfunctional family of sorts, so when they do argue – and by “argue,” I mean use their superpowers to slam each other through walls — it actually comes more out of love and respect. Tony and Steve don’t want to be in this conflict, but they are also both stubborn and are doing what they think is best. Plus, you really can understand both sides of the conflict, even if you find yourself rooting for a team (Team Cap does have the advantage, come on). Then, just when you think relations seem to be improving, a turn of events really sets Tony off, making the ultimate falling out between Cap and Iron Man even more heartbreaking to watch.

Step 5: Enter the new Avengers. The writers also have to introduce new characters into the Civil War mix to feed the Marvel machine, but do it in a way that makes sense to the overall picture. The biggest newbie storyline goes to T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), a prince from a fictitious African nation who seeks revenge against Bucky for seemingly killing his father. This is what sets up the film’s tentpole battle sequence at the airport between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. Both teams know they need reinforcements, so Falcon brings in Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who has always been anti-establishment, to join Team Cap, while Tony recruits teenager Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) for Team Iron Man. The airport battle is nothing sort of spectacular, with its power, fabulous action, great humor and shades of grey coloring in what is supposed to be a black or white situation.

Step 6: Let them shine. All the actors get a chance to bring more depth to their characters. In the past Avengers movies, Downey seems to overpower the situation with his stellar performance as Tony Stark, but in Civil War, he really isn’t the main focus but rather complements the whole ensemble. And, yes, the title does have Captain America in it, so it is, in essence, Evans’ movie, but everyone has their moment: Downey and Cheadle deepen their friendship; Evans and Emily VanCamp as special agent Sharon Carter share a bond (and maybe a romance?); Johansson and Renner have a nice moment in the airport scene (“We’re still friends, right?” “Depends on how hard you hit me.”); Olsen and Bettany get to play with a possible romance blossoming between Scarlet Witch and Vision (if that’s even possible); Mackie and Stan have fun playing Cap’s BFF rivals; Paul Rudd is freaking hilarious from the moment he appears and is totally us when he geeks out over being with the Avengers (“Hey, I know you,” he says to Scarlet Witch. “You’re great!”); and Boseman is simply kick-ass as Black Panther (and gets us excited about his stand-alone movie). The true stand-out, however – and the one most will talk about – is Holland as Spider-Man. I think they’ve finally nailed that character (and by “they” we mean Marvel… sorry, Sony).

Step 7: Call to action! Finally, there has to be a big shout-out to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. Armed with the excellent script, the brothers are able to implement an action-packed, funny and emotional comic-book movie that, up to this point, is the best of them all. The action sequences are crisp and well-defined, and the Russos thankfully avoid falling into the trap of making them too long or too busy. The brothers did that a little bit with Captain America: Winter Solider, so it looks like they’ve studied and improved their techniques. They also make sure there are enough light moments as there are dark ones, which seems to come naturally from the players’ camaraderie; that’s also a good sign the cast had attentive directors. Let’s just say, we are super excited the screenwriting/directing teams will be handling the last of the Avengers movie, the Infinity Wars Part 1 and 2.

Step 8: Go see Captain America: Civil War, like, right now.

How to Watch: ‘Barbershop: The Next Cut’


Step 1: Keep it fresh. For a third installment in a series, Barbershop: The Next Cut feels just as original and relevant as if this were the first one.

Step 2: Meet the players. Some of the familiar faces have returned like shop owner Calvin (Ice Cube) and his mainstay barbers Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), Terri (Eve) and food truck owner J.D. (Anthony Anderson), who returns after skipping the second Barbershop. There are also many new characters, including barbers Rashad (Common), who is married to Terri, Jerrod (New Girl‘s Lamorne Morris), One-Stop (J.B. Smoove) and Raja (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Plus, Calvin has expanded the barbershop and is now in business with beauty shop owner Angie (Regina Hall), with her hair stylists Bree (Margot Bingham) and Draya (Nicki Minaj).

Step 3: Keep it real. While the same fun Barbershop comedy and shenanigans are still in abundance, this Barbershop also focuses on the very real topic of gang violence on the streets of Southside Chicago, and how the barbershop is one of the last places that is considered a neutral zone, where people can just come in and be themselves. In an effort to take back their community, Calvin, Angie et. al. call for a cease fire for 48 hours, in which anyone can come in for a free cut. The Next Cut also takes a look at family, as Calvin deals with his 14-year-old son (Michael Rainey Jr.) and the peer pressures he faces to join a gang.

Step 4: Recognize the talent. Star Ice Cube, director Malcolm D. Lee and writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver impress on many levels with this third installment. They not only keep in the same vein as the other Barbershop movies, but they allow the film to step up and present a positive message, a story about a community coming together to try and stop the violence on the streets. They don’t pretend they can solve the problem, but Cube’s considerable influence should get people to listen. Cube and the Barbershop gang also have just fun with it. This is a movie after all, and one that follows two films that were successful for outrageous comedy, so Next Cut follows suit, especially with comedians J.B. Smoove, Cedric the Entertainer and Deon Cole. There’s also great back and forth between the men and women that’s all relatable. And props to Nicki Minaj – the singer’s got some comedy chops.

Step 5: The best thing about this third Barbershop is that you don’t have to see the first two to appreciate the humor, the characters and the great positive message it sends out.

How to Podcast: “Hardcore Henry” Is Definitely Hardcore

hardcore henry

It was only a matter of time before they made an entire movie with a Go-Pro type camera — and boy, what a wild ride Hardcore Henry is. Told from the first-person perspective, we meet Henry, a possible former special ops guy who wakes up to discover most of his body has been reconstructed with hi-tech machinery, including his heart being run on battery. Henry also doesn’t remember anything at all. When he opens his eyes, he sees a beautiful woman, a scientist (Haley Bennett), who tells him about his condition — and also that she’s his wife.

Then it all goes to hell in fairly quick fashion. The bad guys break into the facility, take Henry’s “wife,” but Henry escapes and then spends the rest of the movie killing as many men as he possibly can, all with the help of Jimmy (Sharlto Copely), a chameleon of sorts with seemingly endless resources.

Hardcore Henry runs you ragged as one of the most visceral and violent movies to come along in awhile, but it’s just entertaining as hell. I discuss in the movie review podcast below… check it out!

How to Watch: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”


By now, you’ve probably read that the critics, for the most part, did not like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice very much. It’s “bloated,” “muddled,” “nothing super,” “dawn of disappointment” etc., which does, in some degree, describe the film. Let’s just say, as much as both Batman AND Superman have issues, so does their titular first movie together. However, there are actually some qualifying good moments in the film, and fans of these two superhero titans should know that they’ll be experiencing a cinematic feat in bringing them together on the big screen. So rather than just rant and blather on, I’m simply going to take a look at the movie’s pros and cons in simplistic chunks.

Step 1: Batman

Pro: Ben Affleck is really quite good as the Dark Knight, I have to admit. He’s even better as Bruce Wayne, though, and thankfully Bruce has more screen time than Batman in BvS. Affleck plays Wayne a little older, maybe a little wiser, with the graying at the temples and the weary “I’m too old for this shit” attitude at times. It would have been nice to see a little more lightheartedness, maybe a wink here or there, something Affleck is very good at doing. But alas, Bruce is just too pissed off to smile. Oh, and the Batmobile rocked!

Con: That being said, it’s hard to understand why he is SO angry at Superman. BvS starts off with a very familiar scene in which he sees his parents (The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Cohan and her soon-to-be TWD co-star Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gunned down in the streets, so we get how haunted Bruce is and why he became the winged Bat vigilante. But hating super sweet do-gooder Superman? Why? Sure, Superman’s omnipotent powers destroy buildings, harm innocents and could be used for evil, instead of good, and Batman feels like he is the only one who could keep Superman in check. But the animosity isn’t explored beyond that – besides maybe these out-of-nowhere futuristic “nightmares” Bruce has that lead him down a darker path. It’s all poorly explained and basically undercuts the whole point of the film. The biggest flaw, however, is what happens to make Batman finally see Superman as a friend, not a foe. You’ll probably yell at the screen, “Really?!” It’s sloppy and lazy writing, as if they were in a hurry to wrap it up.

Step 2: Superman

Pro: Henry Cavill certainly looks the part, always has, but still has the unenviable task of trying to instill some personality into the superhero. Superman can be quite boring, but Cavill manages to humanize him, much like his predecessor Christopher Reeve did. And Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) are sweet together, even though they’ve got these giant black clouds hanging over their relationship, including the fact Superman is being blamed for things out of his control. Now, on the flip side, his feelings for Batman are better understood because Superman/Clark Kent mistrusts the Caped Crusader as someone who takes the law into their own hands. That makes sense.

Con: Superman still doesn’t have much oomph. He’s just bland. Period. And no matter what amount of touches Cavill attempts, it doesn’t really work. I’m just curious to see if they give him more levity in the films to come now that we’ve gotten all the expository stuff out of the way.

Step 3: Lex Luthor

Pro: This is definitely a different kind of Lex Luthor than we’ve seen before, and it is quite refreshing. Jesse Eisenberg portrays the master villain as an arrogant, spoiled rich brat with daddy issues but with a very brilliant mind. He knows how to orchestrate what he wants and some of his nefarious actions will make you gasp (at least it did me).

Con: Problem is, Lex goes from somewhat sane to completely insane in nano seconds, and this is where Eisenberg takes the character a little too over the top, with the rapid-fire dialogue and the nervous little laugh. He becomes a caricature of himself.

Step 4: Wonder Woman

Pro: Quite simply, Gal Gadot’s brief appearances as Wonder Woman are the film’s highlights, especially in BvS‘s final climactic battle. When she throws up wrists to ward off a blast, or uses her lasso and sword, you definitely cheer out loud. Let’s hope they keep that fierceness alive in Wonder Woman’s stand alone movie.

Con: The Wonder Woman moments are too brief. As for the other women in the cast, most are terribly underutilized. Adams continues to be one of the better Lois Lanes, but her plucky journalist stills turns into a damsel in distress, and Diane Lane as Clark’s mom adds absolutely nothing. Holly Hunter’s fiery Southern senator is displayed in one solid moment, basically taking down Lex down a peg, but that’s about it. Gadot had to represent.

Step 5: Director Zack Snyder

Pro: As a visionary, Snyder is ambitious and gives BvS a grand scope. The film looks pretty amazing, especially in some of the quieter moments when either Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent/Superman are being contemplative. The action sequences are fairly standard as far as those big, metal-crushing, bone-crunching scenes can be, but you have to appreciate those kinds of sequences when they are not all in your face and confusing. Snyder delivers on that end.

Con: Snyder has a tough time telling the story through his lens. He doesn’t know when and where to cut, and this leaves the film feeling convoluted and overdrawn. It’s almost like when Zack sees it, and all the out-of-place scenes he has throw in, it totally makes sense to him– but to him only. The rest of us are scratching our heads.

Step 6: Conclude. So, yes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t in any way a perfect comic book movie, but it has enough going for it that will make fans happy. Plus, it does give a glimpse of how the upcoming Justice League is shaping up, and it’s kind of exciting. Judging from the major critical backlash Snyder is receiving over BvS, however, it may end up he doesn’t direct Justice League — and that’s probably a good thing.

How to Watch: “Midnight Special”

Midnight Special1

Step 1: Revel in it. Midnight Special shrouds its sci-fi story in marvelous mystery but tackles the narrative’s complexities with heart and soul.

Step 2: Appreciate writer/director Jeff Nichols. He is truly one of the more fascinating and innovative filmmakers working today because he comes up with such original ideas revolving around big concepts but manages to pare them down to essential and unifying themes of love, family, faith. Mud is Nichols’ stellar film about two boys coming of age while helping a drifter (Matthew McConaughey) reunite with his long-lost love. The excellent Take Shelter focuses on faith, as a man (Michael Shannon) convinced the end of the world is coming, nearly loses his family over his obsession to build a shelter to keep them safe. Now, we have the thoroughly engaging and entertainiing Midnight Special, in which Nichols explores the theme of a parent’s unconditional love for their child, even if that child has special powers and is probably meant for something greater than a normal life in this world.

Step 3: Tell the story. Midnight Special focuses on young Alton (St. Vincent‘s Jaeden Lieberher), who, when we first meet him, is on the run with his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Even though the media is broadcasting that Alton has been abducted, he is in loving hands. You find out Alton and Roy once lived on the Ranch, a commune where an extreme religious sect believes Alton is their Savior and that the Second Coming is happening on specific date quickly approaching. Roy takes Alton because he knows he has to reach a specific place on that date, in order to somehow save his son’s life. Roy doesn’t quite understand what his son’s powers mean, but he will do anything to make sure his son is safe. You see, they can only travel by night because sunlight sends Alton into fits. And when Alton uses his special powers to show people glimpses of something otherworldly (we aren’t sure what), it also weakens him. In fact, Alton is dying and helping him achieve his goal has become paramount.

Step 4: Stay on the run. Needless to say, Roy, Lucas and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) — who had previously left the Ranch and they pick up along the way – know they have to reach the place before its too late. But they continue to run into obstacles, including the Ranch flunkies who try to get Alton back, and also the FBI, who have tracked Alton and believe his powers may be a dangerous nuclear weapon. The race against the clock is harrowing, but what happens at their destination is what makes Midnight Special all the more special.

Step 5: Admire the actors. Shannon, who is now becoming one of Nichols’ go-to actors, brings a certain fierce determination to the father character, trying desperately to save his son’s life, even if he doesn’t completely understand why this is happening to his child. At one point, Alton tells Roy he doesn’t have to worry about him anymore, but Roy says, “That’s what all parents do.” Shannon is quite excellent, as is Dunst, who plays the mother figure so very convincingly. The underrated Edgerton also adds nicely to the mix as Roy’s old childhood friend and now state trooper who immediately helps Roy and Alton once Alton shows him the light in his eyes. Adam Driver, who you can’t take your eyes off every time he is onscreen, stands out as well as an NSA analyst who discovers what Alton’s true purpose might be through codes and signals, but is also eventually drawn into Alton’s universe. Then, we have the young Lieberher, who embodies the whole of Midnight Special with his soulful looks and understated acting. I think the kid’s got the chops to make it past adolescent and blossom into a fine actor, ala Jodie Foster.

Step 6: Again give kudos to Nichols, the true star behind Midnight Special. He carries this narrative without making it a sci-fi spectacle but rather he lets it ride on its heart, focusing on the family and what it means to be a parent. Nichols is quickly becoming a filmmaker on par with indie darlings Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne but who thinks big like Steven Spielberg. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

How to Watch: “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Cloverfield Lane

Step 1: Can you keep a secret? 10 Cloverfield Lane seemingly came out of nowhere, thanks to clever shielding from producer J.J. Abrams, but what Abrams and company did under the cloak of secrecy is produce one of the best psychological thrillers to come along in awhile. It’s a real helluva ride.

Step 2: Don’t call it a sequel. Abrams has referred to 10 Cloverfield Lane as a “blood relative” because it is a completely new story that has ties to Cloverfield but is definitely not a sequel. You might remember that the 2008 surprise hit is a found-footage film about a group of New York friends trying to find safety after an giant alien being attacks the city. 10 Cloverfield Lane revolves around Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman who gets into a really bad car accident and wakes up to find herself on a mattress on the floor of what looks like a basement, an IV in her arm and her leg chained to a pipe. Not a good sign, she fears, but in walks Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that he saved her life and that they are now safe in a bunker he has built near his farmhouse. He also tells her that the air outside has been contaminated by a widespread chemical attack, and she can’t leave – at least for another two years or so. And make no mistake, this is Howard’s show, and he rules with an iron hand.

Step 3: Smell something rotten. There is one more person with them, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a young man who helped Howard build the shelter. When the shit goes down outside, he begs Howard to take him in. The feisty Michelle is not at all convinced and really wants to get out of there, but after a particularly harrowing moment, she is finally forced to believe that something is definitely wrong outside, so, she tries to settle in. Now, we kinda already know things are indeed fubar – maybe for totally different reasons – but Michelle doesn’t know the exact reason why she’s stuck with two strangers as her world ends. What she does know is that Howard may not be playing with a full deck, and while she has been getting along with him, she soon believes he may actually be dangerous. Then, the film becomes an escape mission, and you’re just clenching your teeth as she tries to do just that.

Step 4: Watch the character study. Winstead, an underrated actress who has done great work in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Live Free or Die Hard, easily makes the spunky, intelligent Michelle her own, and you believe 100 percent in her abilities to escape her predicament. Goodman as well just scares the hell out you, turning in one of his best performances in a long time. Because this excellent veteran actor usually plays such goodhearted characters, you forget how menacing he can also be (anyone remember Barton Fink?). Gallagher Jr, probably best known as Jim in the HBO series Newsroom, nicely rounds out the trio of performances as the simple-minded Emmett, who has enough sense to follow Michelle’s lead, rather than stay loyal to Howard.

Step 5: Create the environment. Director Dan Trachtenberg makes his feature film debut with 10 Cloverfield Lane, and it’s clear he listened to producer/mentor Abrams’ advice (you just know Abrams helped him with this). Let’s start with that car crash scene, which is woefully intense. When watching a movie and a car is hit out of nowhere, it makes you jump and your heart starts beating a mile a minute; this one does all that and more. Trachtenberg immediately sets the tone with that scene, and you quickly realize you’re not going to be very comfortable in your seat. Also bolstered by a well-crafted screenplay (one of the writers is Whiplash‘s Damien Chazelle), Cloverfield Lane‘s pacing is impeccable. The movie hums, jumps, flips, slams and provides just about all the thrills you want in a psychological thriller. With all that being said, we then get to the last one-fourth of the movie. Whoa. Let’s just say, Michelle’s survival instincts go into hyper drive.

Step 6: Strong arm it. Make sure to bring someone with you who doesn’t mind if you unexpectedly grab their arm. 10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely that kind of movie and an absolute must-see.

How to Interview: Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer on “Knight of Cups”

Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups is one of those surreal, existential journeys that only director Terrence Malick can bring to life on the big screen. The film’s narrative mostly meanders, but it’s so filled with stunning imagery, you definitely get wrapped up. Malick is a love it or hate it kind of filmmaker, but there’s no questions this guy feels things, and maybe projects himself a little into Christian Bale’s role as a successful screenwriter who ponders on his past loves. Knight of Cups is also most definitely a love letter to the City of Angels, even while showing the grimier side.

Check out my interviews with stars Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer that I did for We Got This Covered… they were quite lovely and talk about how they interpret the film and what is was like working with Malick on set.

How to Watch: “Altered Minds”


Step 1: Get ready for a trippy ride. The indie drama Altered Minds examines what happens when siblings, who have gathered to spend some time with their dying father, uncover some deep-seated family secrets. It moves almost too slowly through the family dynamics but culminates with a heart-wrenching punch in the gut.

Step 2: Bring a blanket. Altered Minds‘ setting places us in the depths of winter — gray, dreary and very cold – which sets a specific tone for the film. As the Shellner family reunites in their drafty family home, we meet the patriarch, Dr. Nathaniel Shellner (Judd Hirsch), a famed psychiatrist, his wife (Caroline Lagerfelt) and their adult children, including his natural-born son, Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor), and his two adopted children, Harry (C.S. Lee) and Julie (Jaime Ray Newman). We find out Nathaniel once worked for the CIA to help try to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from PTSD, and when he traveled to certain war-torn areas, he found his adoptive children, who had witnessed the horrific deaths of their parents at young ages.

Step 3: Think deep thoughts. The only one missing is adopted son Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), twin brother to Julie, because he’s currently roaming the neighborhood with a shovel trying to find where his dad buried an urn containing Tommy’s dead dog. Yes, Tommy has major OCD issues, and when he finally does show up to the family home, he is more than a little distraught. Eventually, Tommy jump starts the action when he accuses his father of doing psychological experiments on him when he was little, which basically triggers the other siblings to begin remembering things on their own. Then, Altered Minds becomes a did-he-or-didn’t-he? scenario, in which layers are peeled back on what Nathaniel’s real job was back in the day and truths are exposed. It’s a mind trip, to say the least.

Step 4: Get Judd Hirsch. Clearly, indie filmmaker Michael Z. Wechsler scored a big coup getting Hirsch for the film because the veteran actor adds gravitas to the proceedings and handles the chores with aplomb. As the dying Nathaniel (his cough sounds just awful in this), Hirsch must deliver long monologues about his past, along with trying to show how much he cares for his children. There are shades of the psychologist he played in Ordinary People; Hirsch just has those right soothing tones, except in Altered Minds, they are interrupted by that horrid cough.

Step 5: Try to find the character. Altered Minds keeps the narrative compelling as you try to figure out if Nathaniel is a monster or not, but there are moments when the film loses some of its cohesiveness, mostly with the Tommy character. He’s a little all over the place, and O’Nan tends to overdo it with the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. First, he’s manic, asking his father over and over where the urn is. Then he seems to believe Nathaniel that it’s all in his head, but then goes right back to crazy town.  As his siblings, Newman and Taylor aptly react to Tommy’s meltdown, with Newman’s Julie trying to calm her brother down, and Taylor’s Leonard exasperation at his younger brother’s antics. Lee (who is recognizable as Dexter‘s Vince Masuka) also does a nice job with Harry, an orchestra violinist suffering from stage fright. When he starts to put things together, Lee’s descent into depression is effective.

Step 6: Feel it. Wechsler seems to have a handle on the slow-burn technique. Altered Minds looks crisp and well-crafted. There’s a dream-like quality to the film, leaving you to wonder whether some scenes are real or is just being imagined, which, at times, is distracting. At one point, for example, Tommy cuts open his head in the bathroom to look for microchips, comes out with divots in his head, but the rest of the family doesn’t even register it. Although you might be impatient for things to get going, once they do, you’re clenching your teeth. Definitely bundle up if you’re watching Altered Minds on VOD and stay for the psychologically trippy ending.

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