The Midnight Sky (2020)

midnightskyclooneyGeorge Clooney stars in and directs this $100 million film for Netflix, which also features Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo and Kyle Chandler. Clooney has described the film as Gravity meets The Revenant, and while that does sound rather enticing, The Midnight Sky utterly fails to reach the heights of either of those two films, and any comparison does this film no favours at all. Clooney acts in this film as if he can carry it by the sheer force of will in his performance alone (he’s really pretty good) but of course he can’t, which is a shame. The curious thing is that he’s not only acting like he’s in some other (better) movie, but he’s also directing it too. I often thought when watching the film, did George really read the script?

The Midnight Sky is a soft-focus Apocalypse, its an End of the World thats pleasantly cosy, without all the death or the misery or even any explanation of what the nature of The End of All Things was. It all happens off-screen, referred to in a piece of opening text as ‘Three weeks after the Event’ which has left George Clooney all alone in an Arctic Research Facility. Even when he is asked by astronauts travelling back to Earth  regards what happened, he replies “I’m afraid we didn’t do a very good job of looking after the place while you were away” which is just so vague its doubly infuriating that the astronauts don’t press him on it. As if bad house-keeping is sufficient excuse for destroying the planet. Was it Nuclear War, or plague, or some environnmental disaster?

Clooney has decided upon a ‘Show Don’t Tell’ approach to this film, intending ‘The Event’ to be something vague and mysterious, and this approach runs throughout the film in all kinds of ways, such as his character’s illness that requires frequent transfusions and medication- unfortunately the source material isn’t strong enough to support that approach. Its a brave decision on Cooney’s part undermined by the material he has to work with. The film is actually based upon a novel, Good Morning, Midnight written by Lily Brooks-Dalton and adapted here by Mark L Smith: I have no idea how many of the films issues were down to the book or Smith’s screenplay.

I think the film would have been far better served had it been supported by narration, something along the lines of “It was three weeks after The Event, after everyone had left: they are probably all dead now. Up here we always felt isolated, like we were the last people alive in all the world. I guess that might be true now. The radios are dead, the silence total, there’s no-one out there. I’m all alone.” Perhaps thats too on-the-nose, but I only wrote that example just, on the fly, but it sort of sets things up better than the film does, and I think narration would have better served the plot than flash-backs that are so awkward, they only give away the films ‘twists’ too early.  Those twists themselves, by the way,  stretch credibility beyond breaking point, but by the time they get revealed there’s little doubt the audience is beyond caring.

The Midnight Sky is ultimately undermined by its lack of internal logic and cohesive thought: a pregnant astronaut is allowed to do a deep-space EVA, when her foetus would be at the mercy of cosmic radiation. We are expected to believe that when ‘The Event’ occured, no-one at NASA had sufficient duty of care to send a message to a deep-space mission returning to Earth to warn the crew of the disaster. We are expected to believe that a moon is discovered orbiting Jupiter that is fit for human colonization (take a look in books for how much space radiation is blasting around the Jovian system). We are expected to believe that not just five astronauts can fly a space mission to and from the Jovian system, but that two alone can do it just as fine too. That they might have sufficient supplies to return to that moon and survive on it.

Its really very disappointing – because maybe not all of those problems could have been addressed with a good script rewrite, but some of them could and moreover should have, and surely there’s little excuse for so many issues (and more I haven’t raised) to have slipped through the screenplay stage prior to photography. This is one of those films that on paper seems such a candidate for success, featuring a good cast and high production values (visual effects from ILM, no less) and yet has such a problematic, fundamentally broken script that it all feels a waste of time, effort and talent. I’m probably hopelessly naïve about how they make movies, but I cannot understand how anyone thought the script worked in any way at all, or how anyone could decide it was ready to go into production. Maybe they thought they could fix it in the edit, but no edit no matter how inspired or brilliant could fix such a broken script as this has.

1917

1917Not since The Revenant, which I first saw almost exactly four years ago to this very week (January seems a really good time to go to the cinema, must be Awards Season, go figure),  have I seen such an overpowering, visceral film. You don’t so much watch 1917 as experience it. Using a sort of single-take, you-are-there technique (essentially, the film is shot and structured to suggest the whole thing is one incredibly complex single take, which of course it can’t be). It reminded me a lot of both The Revenant and Gravity, and also sequences in Children of Men; its a technique that can be very intense, with a sense of docu-drama. My only caveat is that its an approach that can threaten to undermine a film, a danger that the technique overpowers the narrative and the film suffers for it.

There is an almost unconscious tendency -one just can’t help it- of trying to second-guess or work out where the hidden cuts are, and while many seem obvious (seconds of darkness transitioning between interiors, say), and others are likely hidden visual effects/split screen trickery that you’ll never see, while you don’t really care, you just can’t help looking for them. Its almost an instinctive thing, maybe most of the public don’t notice or care, maybe its an habitual moviegoer thing, but I just couldn’t help it. So to some extent I found myself almost wishing it had been made traditionally like a normal movie, because I couldn’t help but be pulled out of the narrative by wondering at the sleight of hand being used .

While it can therefore be distracting, it does however endow the film with a powerfully tactile feel of being in the moment, and Sam Mendes uses this extremely well as he pulls the viewer further into his vision of 20th Century Hell- because that’s what World War One and the Trenches really was, absolutely Hell on Earth, and 1917 is certainly one of the most convincing cinematic recreations of that horror that I have seen. Thanks to the great Roger Deakins, of course, one is left with the observation that its rather disconcerting that Hell looks so beautiful to look at it- the beauty in all the horror is really quite disturbing.

Indeed, at times the film really does have the sense of being a horror movie more than it does a war movie. There is a nightmarish quality to some of its imagery that is quite harrowing. The basic plot – its a quest, a journey from one place to another as Homeric as it is Apocalypse Now or say, the original Jacobs Ladder– is frankly pretty routine. Its not the destination, its the getting there, and what it does to the protagonists and us over those two hours.

Possibly one of the best films I shall see this year, I found this incredibly powerful and when I walked out, I really had a sense that I had seen a movie, you know, that I felt different walking out that I had walking in.  That’s what movies should be all about, really.

 

The 2016 Top Three

We’ll keep it simple this year, with my favourite films of 2016, starting with…

arr11. Arrival – Yes its an unusually intelligent science fiction film with adult themes, terrific acting and direction, wonderful cinematography and a novel and disturbing score. But its my number one film from this year simply because it was such a gut-wrenching emotional experience for me. The film will not connect with everyone the same way, but I’m certain anybody who has loved and lost and experienced the pain of that, will find something oddly cathartic about the central question behind this film. If you knew ahead how things will turn out,  how much pain and tragedy your life and the choices you make will bring, would you still go through with it, still make those same choices? Its a profound and soulful question with a profound and soulful answer for many. And all this from a science fiction film depicting alien contact, the same central plot so abused by Independance Day and Transformers and so many other silly spectacles .Arrival is a special film, and for me a special cinematic experience. Film Of The Year, no question.

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2. The Revenant– Back when I saw this at the start of the year in early January, I figured this was it, I’ve just seen the Film Of The Year already. For several months,it clearly was, as it was on a different level to everything else I saw. The Revenant looks utterly gorgeous, has a haunting score, some great performances… I came out of the cinema feeling rather shell-shocked. It’s an example of what Doug Trumbull used to call Pure Cinema, a visual and aural feast, and incredibly powerful on the big screen. It isn’t quite so amazing on the small screen but its still certainly the second-best film I’ve seen this year. Most years it indeed would have been Film Of The Year, it just got ambushed by Arrival from out of nowhere.

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3. Rogue One– It has occurred to me that Rogue One may be a case of diminished expectations following The Force Awakens resulting in my enjoying this film far more than I might ordinarily have, but it remains a great Star Wars film (my third favourite in fact).  Its not perfect but you have to applaud the audacity of putting a cgi Peter Cushing onscreen with a bigger role than he actually had in Episode 4, and the sheer ambition of making such a love-letter to the 1977 film in the guise of a Disney blockbuster. The fan-service may have been a little overcooked but to me it all feels more natural and less calculated than The Force Awakens (the latter film doesn’t ever ‘earn’ the death of Han Solo, it simply dumps it onscreen to apparently fulfill contractual obligations to get Harrison Ford back). I’d much rather a Star Wars take chances like Rogue One does (and The Empire Strikes Back decades before it) than strike such a safe path as The Force Awakens (and Return Of The Jedi and all) did. I rather think the standalone ‘Anthology’ films might prove more rewarding than the main saga entries if only because they have more freedom to take those chances. In anycase, it’s my third favourite film of 2016, not what I would have expected after The Force Awakens rather disappointed me.

And there you have it, my favorite three films of 2016.

The Revenant (2015)

rev22016.7: The Revenant (Cinema)

Extraordinary. An Arthouse epic that displays nature as both breathtakingly beautiful and horribly terrifying. Impossibly spectacular landscapes juxtaposed with butchered bodies, heart-stopping moments of natural beauty juxtaposed with moments of brutal ugliness. Moments of kindness and moments of banal hatred. Its one hell of an experience. One for the ages.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki  has lensed some pretty amazing-looking films (Gravity, The Tree of Life, Children of Men)  but this may be his masterpiece; the only tragedy of him walking away with the Oscar next month is that it previously seemed a dead-cert for the also truly deserving work by Roger Deakins on Sicario. Deakins must feel like he’s just been mugged again- will he ever get that long-overdue Oscar?  And while Leonardo DiCaprio is also surely the safest bet for his own Oscar, I’d actually suggest that Tom Hardy damn near steals the film from him in one of his typically understated performances; a Supporting Actor nod maybe?

Away from all the Awards  talk that dominates the headlines at this time of year, The Revenant remains a remarkable film and contender already for Film of the Year. As usual with my reviews of ‘new’ films, I won’t progress into spoiler territory and will leave an in-depth summation of this film for its blu-ray release, but goodness me, what a film. I can well imagine this film being in my all-time top ten, its that good. I’m sure the film will have its critics, it won’t be for everyone, and it’s two and a half-hour running time will be too much by far for some, but this film was so up my street it could have been three hours long, I’d have loved it.

It almost feels like a film made for me You know how it feels when a film just clicks?  If a film that feels like The Grey mixed with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford mixed with The Thin Red Line rocks your boat then be assured, you’ll adore this film, simply adore it. Its Pure Cinema, a film for the senses, and one that surely needs to be seen on the largest screen you can. Don’t wait for that blu-ray unless you really have to.

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One more thing; the haunting soundtrack (by Ryûichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto) is so odd it actually sounds like Vangelis’ Beaubourg at one point, and even his Blade Runner at another, and sometimes Wendy Carlos’ The Shining too. Thats just crazy. And yet it works brilliantly, even though it damn near killed the speakers at the multiplex here. I’ve got to get that soundtrack…

Anyway, excuse all this gushing, but I just got in from seeing a pretty great film. Its a lovely rare buzz these days.