Movie Review ~ The Midnight Sky

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The Facts
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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.

Movie Review ~ On the Basis of Sex


The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor

Director: Mimi Leder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It seems that the ‘80s and ‘90s were the great heyday of the inspirational biopic.  These films all followed a similar formula, charting the genesis of a famous figure from history through key points in their lives.  Rarely did they tell us things that couldn’t be found by picking up a book written on the subject but there was a certain gauzy quaintness to them that felt comforting.  Actors taking on these famous names often were showered with awards (it’s largely where the term Oscar-bait came from) but when the blueprint became passé, filmmakers had to find new angles in their storytelling. Aside from a few brief flashes (Get on Up, for example) the old-school biopic machine has been shut-down.

I’d love to be able to report that On the Basis of Sex, found an interesting way to bring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story to the big screen but it’s stuck conforming to the mold of a straightforward retelling of specific moments in the history of a pioneering woman in the legal system.  Though it wisely narrows its focus to a dozen or so years in her early career, it still misses the mark in letting us see deeper into how the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg laid the early groundwork for a career that would see her elected to the Supreme Court and become an unlikely cultural icon.

Entering Harvard Law School in 1956 along with eight other women, Ruth (Felcity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) recognizes she has an uphill battle from the beginning when the Dean of students (Sam Waterston, Miss Sloane) asks her at a formal dinner why she feels she deserved a spot at the respected school that could have been taken by a man.  It’s the first of many misogynistic situations she’ll encounter throughout the ensuing decades as she attempts to join a law firm but barely can get in the door simply because she’s a woman.  Supported by her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) in every endeavor, Ruth accepts a position as a professor of law at Rutgers and it’s there in 1970 when she comes across a case that will change the course of her career.

Working with the ACLU to combat a sex discrimination case against a man in Denver, CO, Ruth sees this as an opportunity to address the larger issue of numerous laws that are set-up to discriminate against women.  If she can prove that the man was discriminated against, it would help to put into record a new precedent that could be used to rewrite other laws that do not support the equality of women.  Though dogged at every step by the defense attorneys (Stephen Root, Life of the Party and Jack Reynor, Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even at times by her own friend within the ACLU (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee), Ruth soldiers on with the knowledge that the goal of impartiality between the sexes is worthy of the struggle.  Kathy Bates (The Boss) cameos in two scenes as famed lawyer Dorothy Kenyon – I would have liked to see her one more time.

I’m sure it was a benefit to the validity of the facts of the film knowing that On the Basis of Sex was written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman (and that she approved of the finished product will likely make future family gatherings tension-free) but one wonders what someone with less close ties to Ginsburg could have done with the material.  Ruth certainly isn’t shown without flaws but there’s an emotional guardedness to the movie that was unexpected.  I never quite warmed to any of the characters, even when they were supposedly giving inspirational speeches that were meant to elicit cheers.  The most impactful moment of the movie is it’s final shot (which I won’t spoil) but there needed to be more of these moments sprinkled along the way.

Originally set to star Natalie Portman as RBG, when the project took too long to get off the ground she departed and Oscar-nominee Jones joined the cast.  I liked her portrayal of RBG for the most part though the performance ultimately suffers from that aforementioned walled-off emotion the script doesn’t seem to want to grant any of the characters.  Her accent is a bit half-baked and she doesn’t quite look like RBG but it’s close enough to do the trick.  After playing the supportive wife in The Theory of Everything, it was nice to see the roles flipped and for her to have someone in her corner while she charted her own course.  Hammer is always a tad on the milquetoast side but this is the rare time when that passive quietness works in his favor.

Director Mimi Leder has put forth a well-executed period film that is technically sound and hums along nicely for two hours.  The audience I saw this with broke out into huge applause at the end and I saw some wiping away tears as we left so clearly it’s landed emotionally the way everyone had intended.  If I’m being honest, it lost me in some of the legal jargon at times, especially in the third act and I wish more time was spent on Ruth’s life between graduating Harvard and taking up her landmark case.  However, it’s clear there was only so much story to tell and Stiepleman was attentive to what he felt were the important details.  Those looking for a bigger picture view of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (myself included) will likely want to check out the documentary RBG that was also released this year.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: Rebels set out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star.

Release Date: December 16, 2016

Thoughts: Not that it’s a very high bar, but this second trailer for December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is better than most films we’ve seen so far this summer.  Maybe even more than 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, this spin-off prequel sends waves of nostalgia over the viewer. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) seems to have created a movie made now that feels like it was lensed in the ‘70s and has cast it with a striking group of fresh faces creeping their way up into the A-List.  I’m even more excited to see how this ties into the saga of films that it takes place before and it’s a given that the film will be a swell Christmas gift in just a few short months.   Watch the first teaser here.

Movie Review ~ The Theory of Everything

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney

Director: James Marsh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  At the center of The Theory of Everything is a Hallmark Hall of Fame film just dying to get out.  It seems to have all the ingredients of those celebrated television movies that pile on the need for Kleenex with each successive commercial break.  You have the story of resilience against all odds, the power of love against all odds, and the will to effect positive change…against all odds.  Each of these pieces is covered at some point or another in Anthony McCarten’s workmanlike script and while less cynical audiences will easily gobble up this bit of fluff, I found it hard to let myself get sucked into that blackhole of saccharine.

So why the relatively high rating, you may ask?  Well, it’s because what The Theory of Everything has (in addition to a parade of scenes that feel as if they should end with the populace onscreen starting a slow-clap that ends in a rousing furor of applause) is not one but two award-worthy performances that easily make the film worth recommending.

As physicist Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) takes us from the wallflower schoolboy with a knack for solving impossible mathematical equations all the way through to the man that battles a degenerative nerve disease that leaves him unable to walk or talk.  It’s a tricky performance that Redmayne carefully navigates, giving us a look at not only the effect the disease has on Hawking’s body but on his spirit.  Twisted limbs and a skewed stance was likely murder on Redmayne’s body but the effect is totally believable on screen.

Though she has no physical ailments to portray, as Jane Hawking young Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) has possibly an even more difficult character to bring to life.  I think it’s easy for audiences to see a disability on screen and be cued into what’s happening under the surface but Jane’s resolve to stand by her man is colored with sacrifice but never resentment.  Take an early scene where Jane makes it clear that she expects the boy she loves to not give up in the face of his diagnosis and play, of all things, croquet.  In one powerhouse shot we see her see him as he struggles but soldiers on and her face tells us she knows what the years to come will bring…and the precise moment when she goes all-in for her love.  It’s maybe one of the best scenes in any movie from 2014.

Even with these two wonderful performances the film never strikes a deep chord, though it does manage to pack in quite a lot concerning the lives of the couple in less than two hours.  Depending on how you look at it, the film has either a happy or a sad ending and being the glass half full kinda guy I am I chose to see the moments that book-end the biopic as a mature, honest, realization of the Hawkings.  I just wish as a whole the film was as complete as the performances from Redmayne and Jones.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Theory of Everything

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Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: A film about the life of Stephen Hawking and his wife could, in the wrong hands, be the stuff of gauzy melodrama, the kind of film you’d see during the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations on a rainy fall night (note: I do love the Hallmark Hall of Fame). Viewing the trailer for The Theory of Everything it appears that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have taken Jane Hawking’s book and brought it to the screen with gentle care for its emotional core. Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) is generating serious Oscar buzz for his performance as the brilliant astrophysicist diagnosed with an ALS-like motor neuron disease. Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is his wife Jane who accompanies him on his journey to a new understanding of life and how far love can take you. Though it must be noted Hawking and Jane divorced in 1995 (the same year he remarried…) I can see audiences being swept away by the overarching themes of love being the greatest victory.