Midnight Special, about a boy with a special power, pays homage to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Midnight Special is a satisfying film compared with the forgettable Criminal and unfunny The Boss

Writer-director Jeff Nichols has a thing for people split between our world and another only they can see.

In Take Shelter (2011), a father sees the end times coming and no one else does. Mud (2012) has a fugitive seeking a near-mystic connection with the woman he loves.

In Midnight Special (PG, 111 minutes, 4/5 stars) a boy, Alton (played with an otherwordly gravity by Jaeden Lieberher), is at the centre of a struggle between the FBI and his parents (played by Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst). He is also the target of a cult to which his father Roy used to belong, one that views the boy as God's messenger.

Nichols is paying homage to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), but this work, in its deliberate, character-driven pacing and graceful acknowledgement of invisible worlds parallel to our own, stands in a category by itself.

Midnight is Nichols' first major studio work and, with a major-studio special-effects budget at his disposal, he makes explicit ideas that he couldn't afford to illustrate in the past.

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special (above).

So the audience sees on the screen the full expression of Alton's visions, when previously, you had to believe the descriptions furnished by the titular fugitive Mud or Curtis in Take Shelter.

There's a hint of cheesiness when light shoots out of Alton's eyes and the effect is overused. But there's an ambiguity to the proceedings that builds the suspense.

Who is Alton and what exactly is he? The fuzzy magic that surrounds the boy and his power is one layer of a sandwich which includes family drama and some light car-chase action.

It all ends on a conclusive, "hard" sci-fi note, a move that will probably annoy some. Would it have been better if it closed more poetically, in the style of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)? Perhaps. The finale ties up loose ends neatly, but it feels satisfying and well-earned.

Is Kevin Costner doing a Liam Neeson? Neeson has the ridiculous-premise market sewn up with his Taken and other Euro-pudding movies in which the number of lines spoken is matched by the number of people killed.

Veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner in Criminal (above).

Costner looks to be doing the same in Criminal (NC16, 113 minutes, 2/5 stars). Other roles are filled out by veteran tough guys Gary Oldman and Tommy Lee Jones who, with Costner, fight over who can appear more world-weary and taciturn.

Costner is Jericho Stewart, just one of several flamboyantly named characters in this switched- identity thriller.

Stewart's brain is fixed by the CIA so that it contains the memories of slain agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds, in a cameo-sized role). Dr Franks (Jones) is his minder, helping him retrace the steps leading to the man who killed Pope and stop a nuclear threat posed by a millionaire anarchist.

The phrase "millionaire anarchist" should be a clue as to what the story is about - mainly, a sloppy and forgettable mix of equal parts contrivance and loophole.

Melissa McCarthy (above) in The Boss. PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, WARNER BROS, UIP

Can someone please send Melissa McCarthy a script that is better than The Boss (M18, 99 minutes, 1.5/5 stars)? After a solid turn in Spy (2015), the comedienne returns to the world of loosely scripted, genital-and-swearing-obsessed form of joke-making that made Tammy (2014) and Identity Thief (2013) feel so much like watching a child repeating words picked up at the playground so he can shock his parents.

Director Ben Falcone (McCarthy's husband, who not coincidentally directed Tammy) does little to rein in McCarthy's attempts to potty-mouth her way into being funny in this, a story of a businesswoman Michelle (McCarthy) trying to claw her way back into the ranks of the rich after a stint in prison for insider trading. Peter Dinklage flies way over the top as her former lover and business rival Renault.

Jeff Nichols is paying homage to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), but his Midnight Special, in its deliberate, character- driven pacing and graceful acknowledgement of invisible worlds parallel to our own, stands in a category by itself.

Falcone and McCarthy believe that as long as a situation is inappropriate, it's funny.

More often than not, as you watch the characters mug desperately in a bit about an implied homosexual act, it makes you feel sorry for everyone involved in the project.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Sci-fi tale in a world of its own'. Print Edition | Subscribe