Midnight Sky

George Clooney and Caolinn Springall in Arctic gear

The Midnight Sky continues George Clooney’s fascination for sci-fi, a rocky relationship that’s only really yielded one proper old fashioned hit – Gravity. Both Solaris and Tomorrowland seemed to fall into the dark hole between reviewer favourite and audience hit.

Unbowed, Clooney plugs on, directing here, and trying something rather bold as he attempts to weld the thoughtful meditative mood of Solaris to the gut-churning action dynamics of Gravity, a bold and some might say doomed endeavour. The postmodern futurism of Tomorrowland is nowhere to be seen.

The action takes place out in space and here on Earth – out there is a ship returning from scoping out a new planet to colonise, down here the planet has somehow tipped over into apocalypse and radioactivity is destroying all human life. There’s probably only one man left down here – Augustine Lofthouse, a mortally ill scientist who survives because he’s up in the Arctic, a haven from radiation, but for how long?

Up there, the ship is having comms trouble and so the crew have no real idea what’s been going on back home since they’ve been away. One of the film’s twin arcs plots Lofthouse’s journey – accompanied by a mute mystery child (Caoilinn Springall, all expressive eyes) who has missed the mass evacuation from the observatory where he’s been stationed – to a listening post even further north, where he hopes to gain contact with the returning space ship. The other arc tracks the crew returning to Earth, space jeopardy met en route via space walks, depressurising space suits, space debris etc.

In both there’s a sotto voce examination of the biological versus the elective family. Lofthouse has somehow picked up a “daughter”; in space the crew functions like a family, while comms expert Sully (Felicity Jones) is actually pregnant by Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo). Surely there’s a regulation about that.

Clooney bought the rights to Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight, and has got in screenwriter Mark L Smith to do the adaptation, presumably with a remit to inject a bit of the sort of wilderness jeopardy (wolves, blizzards, cracking ice) found in The Revenant, which Smith also brought to the screen.

In interviews Clooney has spoken of being aware that he’s trying to pull off a bit of a monster trick here. A jeopardy-in-space movie and a jeopardy-in-the-Arctic movie have nothing inherently in common, except both places are cold, and on top of that Clooney as a director is pitting himself against Alejandro Iñarritu (director of The Revenant) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity). Call it a Mexican stand-off, if you like.

Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo in space suits
Up above it’s like this

And so, having set himself up for comparison with two top-notch, Oscar-winning directors, Clooney cannot be accused of lacking balls. He does a lot better out in space, in Gravity mode, than he does down below, in Revenant mode, and that’s largely because geography is easier to do in space. Action heroics require a dynamic understanding by the viewer of where everyone is situated at any given moment. Much easier in crystal clear, sharply lit outer space than in a total Arctic whiteout.

How the two realms eventually connect is a cheat, and is unsatisfying, but it does reveal Lofthouse as a man who threw away a possible family life in order to focus on his career. Which is novel. It’s usually women who have the career/family choice to make. Sully’s pregnancy reinforces the feeling that “something is being said” about the choices available to men and women.

What a cast. All underused. Oyelowo and Jones, could be anybody. Also on board are Mitchell (Kyle Chandler) and the most underused of all, Demián Bichir as Sanchez, the “ordinary guy” guys that every space adventure since Alien has felt it obligatory to include.

Alexandre Desplat’s wall-to-wall score attempts to weld together the disparate stories and the underused characters as if it were a fitted carpet tying together rooms with different functions, while director Clooney, in spite of all his obvious visual references to Gravity, tonally seems to be leaning much more towards Solaris’s downbeat mood.

A lot of people didn’t like this movie. I did. For all its weirdnesses it manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. And on top of that it’s brave, since it knows it’s on a hiding to nothing and has a go anyway. Hooray for that.

Good Morning, Midnight. Buy the original novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Paperboy

Nicole Kidman's Charlotte Bless is very pleased to see John Cusack's Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy




You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.

Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.

What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.

Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.

We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.

Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.

This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.

Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack

Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.

Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Paperboy – at Amazon