Movie Review ~ Sylvie’s Love

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Sylvie has a summer romance with a musician who takes a summer job at her father’s record store in Harlem. When they reconnect years later, they discover their feelings for each other have not faded.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lance Riddick, Jemima Kirke, Erica Gimpel, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tone Bell, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Regé-Jean Page, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria

Director: Eugene Ashe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With all of the delays due to the pandemic, Disney and Amazon Studios couldn’t have predicted that both would be releasing films about jazz musicians examining their lives at critical junctures around the same date in December but here we are, several days out and both Soul and Sylvie’s Love loom large ahead of us.  The two films are unique at their core and speak for different audiences, but the way they overlap is interesting to note, in particular the way that it deals with the role of influential men in the lives of the young.  This Christmas, it will be nice to see multiple options of representation for inclusive storytelling available to distinct target demographics.

One also can’t even begin to talk about Sylvie’s Love, a romantic drama from writer/director Eugene Ash that’s been in various stage of development as far back as 2014 and not mention the old-fashioned melodramas so popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when the film takes place.  Emulating the feel of a Douglas Sirk escapade that’s more big-city than Anytown, USA, Sylvie’s Love wears its many factions of homage clearly and proudly, which succeed in making it a more entertaining feature and also prevents it from being accused of not understanding that it is neck-deep in soap-opera scenarios.  Unfortunately, it bites off more than it is capably comfortable chewing on and experiences serious drag in the final 1/3, a disappointing shift in what up until that point had been a nice balance between the sudsy and the serious.

After a brief glimpse of the early ‘60s, we go back to the late 1950s where Sylvie Johnson (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is working at her father’s record store while her fiancé is overseas.  Since her mother (Erica Gimpel) runs a popular local charm school and it wouldn’t be ladylike for Sylvie to, gasp, work, Sylvie and her father (the excellent Lane Reddick, Angel Has Fallen) have to pretend she’s just watching the store and have placed a Help Wanted sign in the window, though it’s really just for show. Then musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, Hello, My Name Is Doris) walks in to apply for the job, mostly to talk more with Sylvie and also because he needs a little more income seeing that his band isn’t booking big gigs at the moment.  The job is his and, hopefully soon her heart will be too.

As expected, the two eventually fall in love despite her mother’s protestations on Robert’s profession and financial situation.  Their summer together is filled with new experiences and special moments, often conveyed by Sylvie with twinkle eyed wonder to her more experienced best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King, The Upside) as they lay out listening to records and taking in some sun.  When Robert books a job that takes him overseas, he expects Sylvie to go with him…a decision that changes their lives together for the future.  When the film jumps back to the 60s to find Sylvie an assistant producer to a brassy TV cook (Wendi McClendon-Covey, What Men Want) and Robert a successful musician, we witness them navigate their relationship and how it has evolved, for better or for worse.

With both stars serving in some form of producer role on the film, you can tell they have a vested interest in how the characters are represented.  That may be why there’s more to Sylvie’s Love than just, well, Sylvie’s love.  Back in the day these romances always had some motivating side stories but there’s more time spent on these diversions in this instance, so much that they begin to come off as distractions from the people we do want to see more of…Thompson and Asomugha.  While it’s filled with familiar faces in supporting roles that range from the large to the tiny, none are interesting enough to pull you in their direction…well, maybe except for McLendon-Covey who Thompson’s character sees a spark in that’s being hidden by the senior producers of her show.  Casting Longoria as a fiery Latinx singer and then having her actually sing and dance was smart but, again, unnecessary since she is barely seen or established up until her late in the game production number.

The film does thrive when it’s just Thompson and Asomugha sharing the spotlight together.  Thompson tends to bring out the best in whatever costar she’s working with, human or CGI and here she’s matched with one that doesn’t need too much prodding to deliver.  A former NFL cornerback for nearly a decade, Asomugha cuts a convincing figure as a jazz musician and is a fine actor on top of it all.  Though he’s sadly part of several of the film’s less successful attempts at arch melodrama, he comes out unscathed from these sequences thanks to his honest approach to the character and to Thompson.  There’s a vulnerability to Asomugha, and in Thompson to a lesser extent, that is appealing and becomes an effective tool in keeping the audience with him along the way.  I liked that the script gave Thompson more autonomy that we usually see in films set in this era and it’s that unpredictability that keeps the movie from running too far out of gas, though it does feel like it has several endings as it makes its way to the final finish line.

Set to a gorgeous score from Fabrice Lecomte, the overall production design of Sylvie’s Love sublime and while Ashe hasn’t directed that many films, he clearly has an eye for what stands out and an ear for setting the mood. While Ashe is able to lean away from Sirk’s penchant for going overboard with strife as the film nears the conclusion, enough roadblocks are put in the way of our main couple to keep the resolution hard to figure out until the finale.  Even though an early glimpse may hint at the future, it isn’t quite the wrap-up audiences might think while watching.  It’s a completely worthy watch for those who miss an old-fashioned love story, well-told and performed, that isn’t trivialized or heavily weighted down with a coat of syrup.

Movie Review ~ The Midnight Sky

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lone scientist in the Arctic races to contact a crew of astronauts returning home to a mysterious global catastrophe.

Stars: George Clooney, Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, Caoilinn Springall

Director: George Clooney

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Ardent fans may disagree, but George Clooney has reached a point in the career of a successful actor that I always look forward to.  This is the time after an actor has paid their due (he appeared in later seasons of TV’s Facts of Life and the schlocky sequel Return of the Killer Tomatoes), had great commercial successes (a star-making turn in ER for NBC and a string of blockbuster hit movies), and won critical accolades (an Oscar for acting in 2006’s Syriana and one for producing 2013’s Argo, not to mention multiple other nominations).  He married after years of professed bachelorhood and is a father when he believed he was too immature to be one.  With all that under his belt…what’s next?  The answer? Sort of anything he wants to do.

Along with contemporaries like Jodie Foster and, to a smaller extent, friends Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, Clooney has earned the privilege (right?) to be ultra-picky with the work he does, often going long stretches without a film in the can or in production.  Leaning toward more producing than acting or directing, Clooney the actor seems to have taken a backseat to the other roles he seems to prioritize more right now.  So, like those other A-list stars mentioned above, when he does peek his head out for a film role (and directs it as well), it’s something to perk up for because there was obviously something about this certain project that was motivating enough to step back in front of the camera.

That film is The Midnight Sky, premiering the week of Christmas on Netflix, and it’s really a two-for-one kind of deal.  Both are Clooney movies through and through, for better or for worse…it all depends on which one you’re in the mood to see.  One is more of a movie Clooney is known to act in, with a sleek sophistication that builds in suspense the deeper it flies in the face of uncertainty.  The other reminded me of a feature Clooney had helmed in the past, one more focused on human drama on a smaller, more intimate level. Both pieces have their merit and varied degrees of satisfying realization throughout, but it’s delivered in a package so depressingly bleak that even an unexpectedly emotionally vibrant finale can’t clear the clouds away.

The year is 2049 (where are all the Blade Runners, I ask you?) and astronomer Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney, The Monuments Men) is alone at a research station in the Arctic Circle.  Evacuated after an unspecified global event three weeks earlier, it appears the Artic Circle is the last stand for humanity according to the radar showing whatever it was that happened inching closer to the pole Lofthouse is nearby.  Terminally ill and without family, Lofthouse chose to remain in the facility where he spends his time doing a lot of nothing save for monitoring the ongoing devastation and self-administering his daily dialysis.  Flashbacks to a younger Augustine (Ethan Peck) show an inspired young man that feels he found the answer to life on another planet, K-23, and we come to understand the study of that planet through a satellite circling a distant solar system became his one true passion in life above all other things, including a woman he loved (Sophie Rundle) but let slip away.

As he monitors the missions in space, he sees there is one crew still bound for Earth and they’re returning from a mission that involved exploration of a satellite near Jupiter that Lofthouse created.  Returning to Earth and whatever has taken place would be bad news and so Lofthouse begins attempting to make contact with the spacecraft Aether and it’s five-member crew.  Led by Adewole (David Oyelowo, A Most Violent Year) and communications office Sullivan (Felicity Jones, On the Basis of Sex), the crew is unaware of the catastrophe on their home planet, having been unable to contact mission control during the end-stage of their return voyage.  With his facility satellite not strong enough to relay a dependable signal, Lofthouse will have to trek in perilous conditions to a nearby facility if he is to get a message to Aether before its too late for them to turn back.

Based on a 2016 novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted by Mark L. Harris (Overlord), I won’t venture too far further into the plot of The Midnight Sky because there are some elements that are best left to be discovered as you travel on the journey.  Though it’s not a spoiler, per se, there is a small girl (the non-verbal but expressive Caoilinn Springall) Clooney finds has been left behind in the main research facility that becomes his companion on his frozen mission through ice and snow.  She serves as a silent sounding board for his thoughts and an outstretched hand of comfort when he finds he needs it most. Oscar-nominee Demián Bichir (A Better Life), Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now), and an excellent Tiffany Boone (Beautiful Creatures) make up the crew of the Aether, becoming important pieces in what eventually is seen to be a mystery of sorts that’s been staring us in the face from the start.

What also becomes obvious is that as grand as the movie is in certain key moments and for as well-made as the picture is, it operates too much as distinct independent features that it never quite feels like the two stories are tied together.  Long sequences with one storyline make you totally forget the other one is happening, and how the ramifications that what is happening in Plot #1 have a direct impact to Plot #2.  An important development in Plot #2 more than 2/3 of the way through is almost nullified by a bit of information from Plot #1.  These types of overlaps abound, and it pulls the movie apart rather than binding it to be stronger as a whole.  I either wanted to see more of the two features interacting with each other (because when they do, it’s all systems go for high-stakes suspense or emotional resonance) or one feature that plays solo.

Following in the footsteps of recent bleak outlook films like Songbird and Greenland, The Midnight Sky doesn’t seem that interested in finding a happy ending to appease us and that’s completely the prerogative of the filmmakers.  I continue to be curious to see how audiences embrace these types of movies during our current situation…do we really want to imagine a future even more depressingly futile than now?  Maybe it’s because my eyelids started to get just a tad heavy near the end but the finale from Clooney and Lester pulled the rug out from under me a bit too fast.  It achieved the desired impact, I think (I hope), and while the actual ending skirted the line of being too abrupt, there was a short section right before the credits played where Clooney achieved something fairly beautiful where all the elements of a film (visuals, Alexandre Desplat’s unsurprisingly hefty but surprisingly haunting score, performances) joined in harmony.   Like the stars up in the blackness, there are several of these shining moments in The Midnight Sky…I wish there were more.