While change has occurred in almost every facet of our lives this year, Hollywood still looks at Christmas Day as a big day for big releases. And while we won't be able to take them in on the big screen – though Universal Pictures is hoping some will flock to see their western News of the World on any screens that might be open – this year they will be available in the comfort of your own home. We'll miss the movie theater, but there's something to be said about taking in George Clooney's latest in your PJs.
Subdued tone makes
for cloudy Sky
If you're expecting high adventure from George Clooney's The Midnight Sky, you're likely to be disappointed. Though an end-of-the-world scenario is its basis and an outer-space tragedy akin to the disaster that occurred in Gravity takes place, the film is far more contemplative in nature, a character study about a haunted man striving for redemption while facing his own mortality. Grandly produced and replete with timely themes, this adaptation of Lili Brooks-Dalton's novel Good Morning Midnight is a film that features a veteran cast delivering solid performances, the highest of production values and a premise with many potentially dramatic moments. And yet, far too often, it just sits there. For a race-against-the-clock movie, there's a curious lack of urgency. Its languid pace, coupled with a bloated screenplay, ultimately makes for a frustrating experience.
Eerily quiet, the film's opening introduces us to Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle. It's 2049 and a catastrophe has occurred that will eventually wipe out all human life on Earth. In flashback, we witness the station being evacuated by all except Dr. Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) who's suffering from a terminal illness. Having no home to return to, he's decided to spend the rest of his days alone...that is until he finds Iris (Caoilinn Springall), a seven-year-old girl who's been left behind. And while this knocks the good doctor back on his heels, discovering there's a spaceship headed back to Earth after a three-year journey, unaware that it's now uninhabitable, puts him in a panic. Unable to warn them via the antenna at his disposal, Lofthouse and his young charge set off on a treacherous journey to another outpost with a more powerful signal.
Clooney cuts back and forth between the pair dealing with brutal weather, vicious predators and unexpected setbacks and the five-person crew of the Aether, who are concerned that none of their transmissions to Earth are being returned. Gordon (David Oyelowo), who commands the ship, is having a child with the science officer Sully (Felicity Jones), while Maya (Tiffany Boone), Sanchez (Demian Bichir) and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) are all experts in their respective fields.
The film is never less than visually captivating, the special effects of the highest quality, while the Icelandic locations prove both beautiful and threatening. And while Clooney must be commended for adhering to a contemplative tone throughout, the entire movie suffers for it. Though the focus is on the theme of redemption, a degree of tension or excitement should be present as well, what with the dire circumstances that take place. Three crew members are pelted with debris while repairing the ship, while Lofthouse and Iris have to contend with raging storms, a wolf pack and a melting ice floe. Yet, most of these moments are rendered in a flat, pedestrian manner, a sense of excitement missing. Equally troubling is that the majority of these scenes are unnecessary, many of them failing to advance the plot or offer any insights into the characters.
Sky has the best of intentions and couldn't be more timely in regards to its scenario and message of hope. Yet, in the end, this is a dour exercise, one that flirts with tedium throughout, instead of providing inspiration. And while the film's final revelation is a genuine stunner, its impact is dulled. Midnight Sky longs to move us, but Clooney never truly earns the tears he wants us to shed.
The Midnight Sky is streaming on Netflix.
Hanks nearly saves
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is an empty man. A Civil War veteran without a family, he wanders the Western Plains, reading stories from the many newspapers he has in tow, bringing them to audiences hungry for diversion. He ekes out a living on the meager donations he collects, just enough to get him to the next town. He has no true direction, every day much like the last. So, when his path crosses that of a young white girl who's been kidnapped by natives, he's unsure how to proceed. His confusion mounts when he's charged with returning her to her family, a journey through violent, treacherous territory that will test them both while leading them to their true purpose.
There's a timely, vital message in Paul Greengrass' News of the World, an adaptation of the novel by Paulette Jiles. A western in appearance, it speaks to the power of not simply a well-told tale but the truth behind it. At its core, it examines the consequences of disinformation and the value of facts, even if they may be a tad unpopular. Ironically, for a film that deals with the power of a clear narrative, it comes off as a bit murky at times, with incidents and characters not fully explained or fleshed out. This prevents it from having the narrative through-line it needs to keep the viewer engaged. That the pacing moves in fits and starts shows that key elements are missing,
As Kidd, Tom Hanks' austere persona holds him in good stead. With stars of his stature, we have the convenience of shorthand, knowing with a glance what the character is all about, thanks to the actor's familiar bearing. Much like Chuck Noland from Cast Away, Kidd is adrift, Hanks employing his trademark faraway, sad-eyed gaze to convey the veteran's loneliness. But there's an anger here as well, which comes to the fore when bandits pursue him and his charge, young Johanna Leonberger (Helena Zengel), a daughter of German immigrants, adrift between a culture she's nearly forgotten and one she's been torn away from. Having abandoned her native tongue, communication between the odd travelers is limited, yet they learn how to "speak" to one another when forced to deal with the outlaws and zealots that cross their path.
Curiously constructed, News keeps the viewer at arm's length throughout, never revealing enough about Kidd to make him a charismatic character, while the various troubles he and Johanna encounter begin and end abruptly. The biggest misstep occurs midway through, when the pair encounter a large group of renegades who've raped the land, ridding it of all minority groups while slaughtering hundreds of buffalo for just their hides. The intent of their leader, Farley (Thomas Francis Murphy), is never really explained and Kidd and Johanna's encounter with them begins and ends so suddenly, the whole episode comes off as a fever dream. Its disjointed nature mirrors the entire film, a ragged construct that never lets the viewer completely in.
Be that as it may, the movie ends on a high note and speaks to what News might have been. Kidd, with assistance from Johanna, delivers a stirring reading of a variety of stories from around the country to an appreciative crowd. They are transported by whimsical tales, shocked by violent stories and contemplative over social issues. And despite the listeners' various backgrounds, they take in Kidd's wares together, unified by his telling, though they may perceive them in different ways. It is a triumphant moment that speaks to all we have lost in this age of disinformation. Had News concentrated more on scenes such as this, it too would be a story worth remembering.
This film is available through video-on-demand services.
Mulligan impressive in Promising Young Woman
Sometimes the sheer force of a single performance can elevate a film, taking what would be a run-of-the-mill project and turning it into something truly special. Such is the case with Carey Mulligan and Promising Young Woman, a social diatribe disguised as a pitch-black comedy, a film that takes no prisoners as it examines sexual abuse and its far-reaching consequences. Its basis has been used in more than its fair share of exploitation flicks, the movie resembling a female-driven Death Wish with a wicked sense of humor. But it winds up being more than that, thanks to the sharp-edged writing from director Emerald Fennell and a fierce performance from Mulligan, who grounds her character's sense of guilt and vengeance in sincerity and remorse.
Cassandra Thomas (Mulligan) was once a woman of great promise. However, she dropped out of medical school soon after her best friend, also a pre-med student, was brutally raped by multiple men at the college they attended, and ultimately committed suicide. Living at home and languishing in a dead-end job at a local coffee shop, Cassie is seemingly adrift...that is until nightfall, when she goes out to bars, pretends to be drunk and allows herself to be picked up by a "Good Samaritan." He invariably reveals his true colors when he tries to take advantage of her. Our heroine, who soon reveals herself to be stone sober, turns the tables on her assailant. We see her putting hashmarks in a well-worn notebook replete with them each morning after, a signifier of her campaign of revenge against men like those who had assaulted her friend.
It seems like a dead-end path with no good end, until she reunites with Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old classmate who belatedly acts on his attraction to her. They go out a few times. Cassandra finds she can stomach him and even toys with the notion that while 99.9% of men are scumbags, Ryan may be a keeper. Could love and a healthy relationship be in her future? Of course, that would be too easy and run counter to Fennell's intentions. There are no happy endings to be had here. This is a world of victims and abusers and very little in between.
Like any well-done revenge tale, the story proves engaging, as it speaks to us on a primal level, appealing to our sense of right and wrong. The vengeful hero is a worthy cathartic figure whose only intention is to balance the scales. Run-of-the-mill entries are satisfied with providing simple vicarious thrills and little else. However, Promising is one of the few that digs deeper, revealing exactly what is driving Cassie, not simply looking at the violence she commits but the pain she's incapable of relieving. Mulligan, one of the great actresses of her generation, wears a wide variety of masks here and is convincing in each. Whether a "drunken" temptress, a sharp-edged coquette, avenging angel or wounded child, her sincerity validates every facet of Cassie's personality, in the end creating a flawed woman we can easily relate to. While we may be put off by some of her actions, in the end we long to comfort her, as futile as that would be. Mulligan delivers a complex portrait of madness that can't help but affect the viewer.
Fennell's one misstep is in the way she portrays men. Every one of them is reprehensible in one way or another. This broad-stroke approach runs counter to the complex examination of her heroine, a narrative flaw that's hard to excuse. Still, Mulligan is a sight to behold, and while Promising might not be one of the year's best films, her performance certainly is.
Promising Young Woman is available through Video-on-Demand services.
Soul a testament to the beauty of life
Joe Gardner has always had modest ambitions. Passionate about music, his primary goal has been to play in a band, not so much for fame and fortune, but just to do what he loves. As long as he could make enough to survive, he'd be happy. But like so many of us, he's made compromises and concessions, at times justified pushing his dreams to the side for more practical reasons, always intending to focus on it again when the time was right. However, time has passed, opportunities have become rare and, before you know it, his passion has faded and threatens to become something that gnaws and festers. Joe has settled in as a music teacher at a public school. However an opportunity pops up from out of the blue, to play at a renowned New York City club with a respected quartet. Too bad Joe dies before he can give his dream one final shot.
That's the set-up for Pete Docter and Kemp Powers' Soul, a beautiful meditation on life and all that makes it worth living. It's a simple enough theme, yet what with the scattered lives we lead and the vagaries of 2020 weighing on most of our shoulders, the special kind of inspiration Pixar Films supplies when firing on all cylinders is much needed. While this simple tale threatens to jump the tracks with a silly subplot, it soon rights itself and proves to be one of the studio's best and most moving productions.
After a former student calls Joe (voice by Jamie Foxx) telling him he's set up an audition for him with the great jazz artist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), he's over the moon, even more so when he lands the job to play piano in her quartet. Unfortunately, his zeal to rush home to tell his mother causes him to make a misstep into an open manhole cover. Before you know it, he's riding a massive escalator to heaven. Sensing it's not his time, Joe hightails it out of there and finds himself in The Great Before, a serene locale populated by new souls, who are not fully formed. Desperate to return to Earth, a bargain is struck and our hero is assigned Soul 22 (Tina Fey), a belligerent sprite who has yet to find her spark, the thing that will develop into her passion in life. It's Joe's job to help her find it. He has his work cut out for him.
The wealth of imagination in the script by Mike Jones, Docter and Powers is overwhelming, one clever concept tripping on the heels of the next, uproarious jokes flying left and right, genuine sentiment underpinning it all. Much like Docter's Inside/Out, the film does a masterful job of personifying emotions and behaviors in striking visual and behavioral terms, the most memorable being the Lost Souls who are doomed to wander in limbo. Hulking black, shapeless figures, they aimlessly drudge through a grim landscape, their single eye searching for purpose, which is constantly elusive.
It's a haunting image that serves as a stark counterpoint for the sights that put everything in perspective for Joe. Rivaling the heartbreaking opening of Docter's Up, he witnesses a series of seemingly mundane events from his life as well as a litany of everyday treasures, all of which he's taken for granted. In realizing the beauty in all these things, Joe rediscovers his spark. Our world and so much of what it contains makes life worth living. It's a simple notion, but Soul drives home this message with subtle grace, making it one of the most moving films of the year.
Soul is streaming on Disney Plus.
Chuck Koplinski has had the great pleasure of reviewing movies for Illinois Times since 1998. A member of the Critics Choice Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association, he'll go to his grave contending the Will Ferrell Sherlock Holmes parody Holmes and Watson is a criminally overlooked comedy classic.