If Judge Christopher Kulik had made this film, he would have re-titled it Christmas in Texas Sucks.
One night. Five Stangers. Faith comes in unexpected places.
I recall vividly when I worked back at a Regal Cinemas in Fall of 2001. There were a number of patrons who came on and almost harassed the staff as to when a film called Megiddo was coming out. Nobody had ever heard of it, and many of the patrons said that the film was, to them, the "most anticipated film of the year." In actuality, it was a low-budget sequel to a 1999 film called The Omega Code which featured Michael York itching for world demoniation. What I discovered later is that was financed by the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and that it was an extreme Christian Right gospel disguised as a thriller about Armageddon. Needless to say, both films were extreme crap…and no, I'm not an atheist, just a film critic. Those films were made by profiteers (not filmmakers) and they should have went direct-to-video, plain and simple.
The reason why I bring those films up is that because I had a slight suspicion about Midnight Clear, a 2006 film based on a short story by Jerry B. Jenkins, who is also the author of the Left Behind series, which more or less have the same purpose as the Omega Code films. Jenkins' books have been made into direct-to-video films (where they belong), and all they seem to want to do is to warn those will listen that the end of the world will be coming near. Don't get me wrong, dear readers, I don't have a problem with people expressing their beliefs and theories because people will believe want they want to believe and that is all there is to it. However, what I genuinely hate is when they try to make you join their little circle and start spreading the word of impending doom. It makes me think of the character of Exidor from Mork & Mindy.
With all that being said, Midnight Clear wasn't the Christian-obsessed morality play that I thought it would be. It basically focuses on five individuals who have reached low points in their lives on Christmas Eve, and how little acts of kindness or grace can help them out. The film opens up on an alcoholic named Lefty (Stephen Baldwin, The Usual Suspects) who is late for work again, after having overslept in his car. His boss informs him that he is fired, and now he may be faced with the possibilty of not being able to see his kids since he is homeless and jobless now. There is another person who is also contemplating suicide: the aging Eva (K Callan, Lois & Clark), who lives alone and whose family is scattered all around the country. Apparantly, nobody is coming to see her, though she is telling everyone that she is planning a big meal with her entire family.
Also showcased is a young mother named Mary (Mary Thornton) who is learning how to cope with the reality that her husband is brain-damaged for life after being an auto accident almost a year ago. After visiting him at the hospital, Mary and her son run into car in trouble and stop at a run-down gas station called Mr. K's Quck Stop, run by Kirk (Kirk B.R. Woller, Minority Report), to get help. Her husband's best friend, who was in the car with him when it crashed but emerged uninjured, was Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis, the director's brother-in-law), who is now going through the yearly routine of rounding up the patrons of the local church to attend a service that evening. During the course of the night, all of these character's paths will cross in some way, words will be exchanged, personal revelations will come out and all of them will, naturally, change their outlooks on the future.
Jenkins' 1992 short story was first adapted into a short in 2005 by his son Dallas, and it mostly paid attention to characters of Lefty and Eva. However, after the short won several awards, Dallas decided to make it a full feature film and extend the characterizations of Kirk, Mary and Mitch, which were all only briefly mentioned in the story. The result is a film in the same vein as Magnolia and Crash, but on a much smaller scale…and budget. Surprsingly, however, the film comes off not as preachy, but rather as illuminating. Director Jenkins makes it clear in the featurette "Behind the Clear" that he wasn't making a Christian diatribe but rather a simple story of coincidence and reflection. Sure, there is the story thread involving Mitch, though it's given a thread that is equal in length and purpose as the others. Midnight Clear may be a minor effort, though it's certainly watchable.
The primary reason to see the film is for Stephen Baldwin's powerful performance (that is no joke, by the way) as Lefty, a name that is questioned in the film as he is actually right-handed. Those who remember his moronic imbeciles from Bio-Dome or Fled will find something special here. I've always considered Stephen as one of the better actors of the Baldwin family, and his performances in Threesome and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle are proof that he can not only but act, but also do well. Stephen's role as Lefty rides a fine line between comedic and tragic, and he is completely believable. Sure, I'm not saying he got shafted for a Best Actor nod (Daniel Day Lewis has seemed to kick everyone's ass in that spot anyway), though he has truly come a long way in his 20-year career. Most of the other performances range from effective to disposable, with Callan and Woller as standouts.
There are a number of great character actors in supporting roles, such as Richard Reihle (Office Space), Victoria Jackson (Saturday Night Live), Wayne Grace (Dances With Wolves), and Richard Fancy (Hollywoodland. Thorton and Jarvis try hard, but ultimately can't seem to rise above their one-dimensional characters, though I don't think that was necessarily the fault of screenwriter Wes Halula, as he was forced to invent their personalities and histories. As a matter of fact, I thought that Halula did a fine job for his first script, as he did provide little touches througout which not only add but enhance the scenes. Still, he does tend to wrap things up a bit too neatly at the end of the film with contrivance, and there is a sequence showing the ultimate despair of the characters which feels like a sequence of Magnolia before a rewrite. I have a feeling that this story worked better as a short film, though I haven't seen it yet.
Midnight Clear played at a number of film festivals in the past year before being picked up for distribution by Lionsgate. Considering the fact that this is a low-budget film, the 1.78 anamorphic print is exceptionally clean, with colors being appropriately saturated to fit the mood and tone of the various scenes. Being a dialogue-driven film, the 2.0 Stereo track is more than satisfactory, and there are english and spanish subtitles provided. Special features are thin, however, with the "Behind the Clear" featurette showing some behind the scenes during the filming in Texas, and several cast members saying a few words about the experience. The one noteworthy addition is an audio commentary by director Dallas Jenkins, his father Jerry, and screenwriter Wes Halula, who all provide fascinating details about the journey from short story to short film to feature. Dallas admits on the track that not all of the elements fell in to place, though he still pleased with the result.
Once again, those who are expecting a drama with an emphasis on Christian beliefs will be relieved. The film pretty much accomplishes its mission to be a dark but uplifting narrative set during the holidays. The court finds the film not guilty. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Jerry B. Jenkins, Dallas Jenkins, and Wes Halula
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