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This Week's Film Reviews (Christmas Day)

19 Dec 2020

FILM REVIEWS:

MIDNIGHT SKY (USA 2020) ***

directed by George Clooney

 MIDNIGHT SKY is the new George Clooney starring and directed sci-fi futuristic dystopian film based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted to the screen by Mark L Smith.   It is an odd mix of suspense, drama, action and pathos with some subtle humour thrown in.

The film takes a full 30 minutes or so from the start to establish the film’s setting, atmosphere and tone.  It pays off as the audience is finally rooted into space-adventure mode when the story starts to unfold.

It is the February of 2049 at the Space Laboratory in the Arctic Circle.  It is clearly winter with icy winds and storms always brewing.  Apparently there is some global disaster on earth, unexplained and the last evacuees leave the planet - except for our protagonist, Augustine (George Clooney) who has terminal cancer and wants to spend his last days on the planet earth.  Humans are re-settling on various other planets including a new one called A-23, where a spaceship run by Sully (Felicity Jones) carrying astronauts is returning from.  Augustine races to stop Sully and her fellow astronauts from returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.  At the same time, a young girl, Iris (Caoilinn Springall) has been left behind from those evacuated.  Augustine has to look after her.

The subtle humour comes largely from Augustine’s dialogue.  When Augustine first discovers the girl Iris, she does not speak.  “What is your name?” Augustine asks her.  When he gets no answer, he reports that he has found an unidentified child.  He also jokes that he is a terminally ill patient who has outlived many but putting his name in a medical journal is pointless as there will be no one to read it.  The action segment where Augustine rushes to safety as the ice under him is cracking is edge-of-your-seat nail-biting.  The chemistry between him and the child also works smoothly.  The musical break with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” makes a welcome spot.

George Clooney is so handsome that he can afford to look absolutely revolting as the terminal ill cancer protagonist in MIDNIGHT SKY.   There is one gross scene where his saliva drips on to his unkempt beard.

The film has set design pays a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s spaceship in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  It is clear that the set designers do not want to copy exactly what looked fantastic in 2001 but similarities show - like the gravity absent ladder steps to different cabins of the ship.

I like George Clooney not only for the fact that he has won 2 Oscars, one for acting SYRIANA (2006) and the other for producing ARGO (2012) but that he is a humanitarian fighting for human rights all over the world including LGBT Rights and being on the “Not On Our Watch” project. 

Clooney’s film is meticulously made, but the slow climax and the odd mix of suspense, drama, action and pathos gives the ilm its lack of punch.

Trailer: 

 

NEWS OF THE WORLD (USA 2020) ****

Directed by Paul Greengrass

NEWS OF THE WORLD is a period western based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Paulette Jiles.  The film reunites director Paul Greengrass with actor Tom Hank.  They worked together in the 2013 pirate film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.

The film is so called because that is the main job of ex-Federates Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Oscar Winner Tom Hanks).  Jefferson now travels from town to town getting paid for reading the news of the world to the townsfolk.   

While travelling from town to town he encounters a hung black man.  This is 1870 near Wichita, North Texas where the Texans do to want any coloured people.  That black man was delivering a child (Helena Zengel), according to the papers found on the girl, taken by the Kiowa people years ago, to her aunt and uncle, despite the girl's wish to remain with her captors. 

The story goes that the army does not want to deal with the girl.  So Jefferson takes it upon himself to travel hundreds of miles and face grave dangers as they search for a place that either can call home.  “Why are you doing this, Captain?”  is the question posed to him by a friend.  Jefferson does not answer.  It is clear that director Greengrass wants the audience to figure the answer out on their own.   The question is imposed again later in the film when a woman friend asks him: “Are you getting paid?  Or are you doing this out of the goodness of your own heart?”

Director Greengrass reminds the audience soon of the danger of the wild country.  Jefferson and the girl encounter 3 bad men in a town who want to buy the girl for $100.  When Jefferson turns them down, the 3 men pursue them when they leave town  The shoot out among the rocks outside the town brings Greengrass back into JASON BOURNE action territory.  It is a nail-biting 20 minutes of suspense/action.  The second shoot-out has a surprise, as well.

NEWS OF THE WORLD looks like and plays as an American western.  The atmosphere and tone are effectively created, from the muddy or dusty main street of the town to the wooden buildings and shops always with horses going by.  There is hardly 15 minutes in the film when a horse is not in the view.

One can see the reason Mr.Hanks jumped on this project.  He plays a respectable character, a kind man of principles, respective of Indians, hard-working and coloured people.  This is a story that needs to be told about a man who reads the news for a living.  The film shows too, that there are other good men (besides Jefferson), like John (newcomer Fred Hechinger), a young man they meet around the wild and bad country they travel through.

Near the film’s start, Jefferson reads of the meningitis disease going on in the nearby town Houston that’d taken 97 souls.  This fact mirrors the importance of current pandemic Covid-19 news that the world needs to keep current on in order to stop its spread.

NEWS OF THE WORLD is scheduled to be theatrically released in the United States on December 25, 2020 by Universal Pictures and on Netflix in other international territories.

Trailer:

 

PIECES OF A WOMAN (USA/Hungary/Canada 2020) ***
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó 

The PIECES OF A WOMAN on display in Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s first American film are examined in the segments of her life in intervals of around 3 weeks from the loss of her baby during childbirth.  The woman is Martha (Brit actress Vanessa Kirby),a tightly wound executive married to Shawn (Shia LaBeouf) a construction worker with a volatile past, as observed in the film’s opening scene at his work site.  They have found love across a class divide and are eagerly expecting their first baby.   The next scene is the long and excruciating long take of the complications with a midwife (Molly Parker) that interrupt their planned home birth, causing the baby’s death, bringing the film to the quarter mark of its running time.  The rest of the film sees the couple spiralling into tragedy.   But the main point of view is Martha’s as director Mundruczó navigates her loss to the end of her suffering.  The film mainly showcases the acting performances of the apt cast.  Everyone is almost perfect here, though the subject matter proves a difficult watch throughout.

Trailer:

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (USA 2020) ***
Directed by Emerald Fennell

The film’s excellent tagline reads: The best revenge is when they don’t see it coming.  Similarly, the film on women’s revenge has a surprise ending that no one would likely see it coming.  Reviewers of this film are asked not to reveal the film’s ending as it would alter an audience’s experience.  So true!

The protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is the PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN of the films title.  She is in Medical School getting top grades but an event derails her future.  Her friend Nina is gang raped while at a party.  Nina is now no more.  And so is Cassie’s life.  Cassie drops out of school and spends the rest of her life exacting a revenge on the male species.

The introductory sequence shows Cassie at work.  Cassie pretends to be totally inebriated at  bar in front of a group of men.  One, in this case Jerry (Adam Brody), with good intentions takes her back.  Jeff takes her to his own place where his sexual desires get the better of him.  While undressing her, Cassie stops him: “What are you doing?” she asks as he realizes that the woman he has brought home is totally sober.

Cassie has no friends and she keeps doing the same routine night after night.  Her parents are worried.  But when she meets and begins to have feelings for Ryan (Bo Burnham), she begins  to question her revenge motives.

But Cassie ultimately wants to seek the ultimate revenge for Nina and for herself as her life had been derailed.  Cassie intends to find out the ones who raped Nina and bring the culprits to justice.  Of course, this brings her to up her plans several notches, which leads to quite a bit of danger.

The film benefits from a superlative performance from Carey Mulligan.  Other heavyweights (Adam Brody, Christopher-Mintz Plasse of SUPERBAD and Connie Britton among others) lend in welcome cameos.  Actor Clancy Brown who normally plays weird personalities takes a down a tone here playing Cassie’s supportive father,

Fennell’s film contains one horrid flaw.  The film’s soundtrack is insistent on telling the audience how to feel or that something ominous is about to happen.  There is even a song with the lyrics that go: “Oh-oh!  If it happened to you, what would you do?”  A bit more subtlety allowing the audience also to feel without influence would be more welcome.  On the plus side, director Fennell has made an important current film that complements the #MeTooMovement.  She also achieves the feat to get the males of the audience to side with Cassie.  The actors who portray the guilty males in the film are mostly very good-looking illustrating the fact that these guys can probably get any girl they want but are just being sexist pigs.

There is a lot of anger in Fennell’s film.  And with a revenge theme, one wonders the reason this angry film has a Christmas Day opening.  Despite its flaws, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is entertaining and is definitely worth a look.

Trailer:

SOUL (USA 2020) ***** Top 10
Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

 

SOUL follows the life (and death) of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a middle school music teacher, with a long dream passion of performing jazz music onstage.  When he finally gets the chance after impressing Dorothy Williams in her quartet, Joe falls into a manhole.  Gardner's soul is separated from his body and begins to proceed to the Great Beyond, but Gardner manages to escape to the Great Before, a world where souls develop personalities, quirks, and traits before being sent off to Earth.  Gardner refuses to die!  There, Gardner must work with souls in training at the Great Before, such as 22 (Tina Fey), a soul with a dim view on the concept of life, in order to return to Earth before his body dies.

 

Both directors are musicians bringing their love for music to the screen.  Docter plays the double bass.  Powers, a songwriter, himself plays the alto-saxophone.

 

Besides the film’s heavenly scenes are the ones set back on Earth.  One of the best of these scenes is a pivotal one set in the black barbershop.  The co-director Kemp Powers visited one such black barbershop in his neighbourhood to observe the goings-on in order to get some inspiration and to make the film’s story more human.  (You can watch the episode showing part of the film’s final product entitled INSIDE PIXAR, Season 1, Episode 1 on Disney+).  The banter among the customers and barbers is marvellous, with Afro hair captured with all its textural complexity.  The conversation is lively and about life and all the wonder that comes with it.  This segment could have been eliminated without affecting the storyline, but it is segments like these that make movie magic.

 

The script occasionally pokes fun at social issues.  One segment hints at Trump’s ineffective Presidency and another at the useless function of a hedge manager in the world of finance.

 

There are tons of messages embedded in this movie.  Apart from the obvious one of having to follow one’s dream in life are many others like being able to make an effect in other lives; the importance of family; sacrifice for others; finding the spark; power of music et al. 

 

The story unfolds at quite breakneck speed, especially at the start with all the goings-on in the After-life and the Before-life and the souls and mentors and more.   Children would have a tough time following in what essentially is an adult fantasy animation.

 

Disney ends up doing it again with this Christmas opening.  “If I were to die today, my life would have amounted to nothing!”  Gardner cries at the film’s crucial scene.  SOUL is about soul music and about the soul in human beings.   Director and writers Docter and Powers prove their passion in filmmaking just as Joe demonstrates his passion in jazz.   The jazz soundtrack is also amazing!  An amazing inspirational and fresh story about the wonder of life showing that even death cannot stop from stopping dreams from coming true.  Just a bit of a warning that SOUL gets a bit sappy during its last 20 minutes.

 

SOUL opens appropriately on Christmas Day available on Disney+ without having to pay extra fees unlike MULAN.

 

Trailer:

THE SWERVE (USA 2020) ***1/2

Directed by Dean Kapsalis

I missed this film THE SWERVE when it first came out on Amazon Prime Video as I was not on their press list.  But during the Awards season, publicists have reached out with their Award winning films especially those showcasing exceptional work performed in the various departments.  So, it is my pleasure to review, though late, this excellent psychological thriller, THE SWERVE, which can be streamed currently on Amazon Prime Video.

THE SWERVE follows the spiral downfall of a wife/mother, Holly (Azura Skye).  It begins with what appears to be a dream in which Holly had swerved into a car of partying teens causing their deaths.  Her life is falling apart.  Her husband, Rob (Bryce Pinkham) is flirting with her sister, Claudia (Ashley Bell) and other ladies at work.  Holly’s sones are rude and unhelpful, though this is divinely due to poor upbringing on her part.  Though one wishes to sympathize with Holly, part of her downfall is due to herself not taking control.  The thing about her character is that audiences can relate to this dilemma - an overworked woman too busy to solve her own problems.

Holly suffers from insomnia.  To make matters worse, she is bitten by a mouse.  The bite appears to be the catalyst of her losing control of her emotions.  The symptoms of rabies include insomnia and brain dysfunction which could result in her drooling, as her sons point out at one point in the film.  However, rabies from rodents are supposed to be quite rare.  The mouse also affects the story when Holly uses rat poison to get rid of the rodent.

Writer/director Kapsalis keeps a good pace with his psychological thriller.  Though there are no action scenes, he manages to maintain the suspense, keeping his audience glued to the screen the majority of the time.

The script contains a few loose ends.  It never resolves the deaths of the teenagers in the car accident and never proceeds further with that story.  The other issue is Holly’s poisoned apple pie.  Why would she leave it out on the table where others could easily take a bite?   The sub-plot about the mouse bite makes the plot more interesting, as French director Francois Ozon did with his mouse bite in his 1998 black comedy SITCOM.

What is also to be noted is Azura Skye’s breakout performance.  Skye has already been praised for her performance by critics all over.  And with reason - this is her film.   She makes her character believable and likeable despite Holly’s faults.

Despite the morbid theme, THE SWERVE is an excellent watch even at Christmas time.

Trailer:

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (USA 2020) **

Directed by Patty Jenkins

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (stylized WW84) runs 2 hours and 20 minutes.  It begins with two 10-minute back-to-back action sequences that arguably, have little to do with the main story, which means Warner Bros. could have shortened their movie to 2 hours and saved a ton of money.  Reportedly, the film needs to gross $500 million worldwide to break even.  WB is prepared for the film to lose money at the box office due to Covid-19.  But they included the 20 minutes, thus showcasing some spectacular action that turns out can hardly be matched later in the film.   Still, the studios’ decision to go straight to streaming instead with theatrical release goes against the logic of the exercise.  Pay a lot of action that is set seen on the big screen and then prevent that from happening.

The opening two action scenes are exciting and set the tone for the Marvel action packed blockbuster.  The first is set in the Ancient times when Wonder Woman as a child enters against adults in a women gladiator Amazon-style obstacle/race course.  The young girl almost wins (she took a shortcut) but is here taught the importance of truth.  What is odd about this almost perfectly executed sequence is the obvious fact that the girl has her helmet strap on too tight and is pressing against, definitely uncomfortably, on the cheeks of her face.  One would wonder the reason that did not get corrected for a multi-million dollar production film.  The second takes place in a huge shopping mall in the future of 1984, where the grown Diane (Gal Gadon) comes to the rescue of shoppers from 4 crooks.

The film then settles with the main story.  Diana is employed as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. where a sort of wishing stone (called the dreamstone) is discovered.  A new and awkward employee, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is befriended by Diana.  This is where the plot gets predictable, with cliched incidents and the film gets cheesy.  This introduction of the story’s first asshole, Mr. Oil (aka Mr. Maxwell Lord)(Pedro Pascal of THE MANDALORIAN) charms the new employee.  One can predict trouble is afoot and indeed it happens.  Mr. Lord turns out to be the villain of the piece together with Cheetah, a transformed Barbara after she wishes on the dreamstone.  One can tell this was going to happen the first time Barbara sits alone and speaks loud to the stone.

The dreamstone allows the wisher any one wish but the catch is that the person will lose his or her most valuable possession.   WW wishes for her late lover Trevor (Chris Pine) back.  Trevor returns but WW begins losing her powers.  She needs her powers to battle Mr. Lord and Cheetah in order to save the world.

WW 1984 attempts to be as politically correct as it can be.  The 2 protagonists are female and it is a female based story, as evident in the opening arena scene where all the competitors and spectators are women.   The distress segment in the park has a harassment by a man who gets his comeuppance.  The nice bum in the park who thanks Barbara for kindness is coloured.  The dream stone of evil has the shape of a phallic symbol.

In its effort to be politically correct and have a message of inspiration for the world, the otherwise action-paced film unfortunately opts for a really sappy ending that spoils the action super-hero tone.  But watch for Lynda Carter’s special cameo set in London’s Covent Gardens.

WONDER WOMAN 1984 is available in theatres in Canada where they are allowed to open on Christmas Day or on streaming via Premium Video-on-Demand. 

Trailer:

 

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