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 Descendants

Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause

A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 August

Hawaii becomes 50th US state, 1959

Today marks the day when, in 1959, Hawaii became a part of the United States. It came about as a result of revolution which unseated the local Republican party, which had been in power in an almost unbroken run since the country had become a constitutional monarchy in 1887 (though that didn’t last long – it was shortly after annexed by the US in 1898 and became a Territory).

The Republicans had close ties to a number of companies known as the Big Five, originally sugar plantation owners and processors, whose oligarchic power allowed them to set high prices and make huge profits from the islanders.

The Big Five had imported labour to work the plantations, most of whom were denied citizenship and lived in camps. Their children, however, could become citizens, and became increasingly vocal as, at the same time, unionisation of the plantation workers started to lead to strikes in favour of higher wages and lower prices, political freedom and full rights.

In the 1954 elections this groundswell, and a Democrat party which had organised itself effectively, finally won a majority at the elections. The Democrats immediately set about changing the tax system, introduced a health insurance scheme, environmental protection and workers’ rights. President Eisenhower responded by appointing a Republican governor to veto many of the reforms, so the Democrats went all out for statehood. Which, after a 93% vote in favour on the islands, and against concerns that to admit Hawaii was to admit communists and the possibility of a dark-skinned senator, was granted in 1959.



The Descendants (2011, dir: Alexander Payne)

The Descendants is an unusual sort of comedy. A brain dead wife, a cuckolded husband – it’s not really a comedy at all. It’s built around George Clooney, reassuring us in voiceover as Matt King that he’s a good rich guy, rather than a bad rich guy – “you give your children enough to do something but not enough to do nothing” – having already laid out the mess of his life (adding estranged kids to the comatose, unfaithful wife). Clooney/King we’ve met, having been told that the estranged wife has had a boat accident and is now in hospital in a persistent vegetative state. His job is to pull the kids out of boarding school, bring them home, to say goodbye to their mother, and then…?

The film is part written and entirely directed by Alexander Payne and like his Sideways it’s a road comedy. Again like Sideways it’s gentle, but this time it’s ever so gentle; there’s no Thomas Haden Church to firecracker away. Instead there’s Clooney doing his dependable velvet thing, lots of lovely shots of picture-postcard Hawaii as Matt drives the kids from one encounter to the next, a soundtrack of either finger-picked guitar or a baritone singing Hawaiian songs.

They’re an odd contrast, this sun-kissed wave-lapping scenery and a brain-dead wife/mother plus familial bickering by Matt’s two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) who resent Matt’s valiant lone parent act. The throughline is a quietly stated double Maguffin – should the wife’s life support be switched off, in accordance with her wishes? And should the King family sell a valuable piece of real estate on the island? Selling will make a whole heap of cash, but it will end a tradition – this was the plot that first bound the family’s and Hawaii’s destiny together.

On the way to Matt’s do-or-die moment Payne entertains us with characters. He’s good at this. The daughters, Shailene Woodley full of teenage sarcasm, Nick Krause as he dudeish Sid, the spaced out boyfriend of Alex (Woodley) who isn’t as dumb as he’s making out. Matthew Lillard turns up, the lizard grin of yore bulked out with middle age, as the guy who’s been seeing Matt’s wife, possibly, Matt learns, while he was still trying to make a go of the marriage. Robert Forster is the wife’s father, angry and confused. Beau Bridges a member of the wider King family pressuring Matt to sell, reminding us how good Bridges is at affable malevolence.

In the end it’s a journey, around a beautiful territory, in the company of some interesting people, who meet other interesting people on the way. It’s almost possible to just take it all in as a travelogue with a bit more family business than you usually get. Remove the sotto voce Maguffin – the land deal, the insensate woman – and that is pretty much what it is. But with it in, and Clooney’s calm, almost hypnotic voice, Payne makes it a drama about the slow, almost tectonic emergence of a new land mass – Matt’s humanity, dignity, nobility.



Why Watch?

  • Another smart Alexander Payne comedy
  • George Clooney’s anchoring performance
  • The emergence of Shailene Woodley
  • The cinematography of Phedon Papamichael



The Descendants – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014


The American

Thekla Reuten and George Clooney in The American

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 May

 

George Clooney born, 1961

On this day in 1961, George Timothy Clooney was born in Lexington, Kentucky. Raised a Catholic in a showbiz family (father a news anchor, aunt singer Rosemary Clooney, mother a beauty queen), George was a bright student. He was also adept at sport and at one point wanted to become a professional baseball player. Instead he studied broadcast journalism, taking small roles as an extra on TV to make a bit of money on the side, turning up in shows such as Centennial and The Golden Girls before getting a semi-regular gig on the sitcom Roseanne. In 1994 he got his break playing Dr Doug Ross in the TV series ER. By the time he left the show in 1999 he was world famous. Clooney’s film career has been eclectic – gonzo grindhouse (From Dusk till Dawn), romcom (One Fine Day), comicbook adaptations (Batman & Robin), satire (Three Kings), musical (O Brother Where Art Thou?), caper (Ocean’s 11). He went into movie production with Steven Soderbergh, founding the Section Eight company, who have Insomnia, Far From Heaven and A Scanner Darkly on their credits, as well as a string of Soderbergh/Clooney films. After that he formed Smokehouse Pictures with Grant Heslov. Smokehouse films include The American, Argo and August: Osage County.

 

 

 

The American (2010, dir: Anton Corbijn)

Photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn’s follow-up to Control, his film about British band Joy Division, wasn’t that well received. Perhaps it’s too stylish for some people. Too muted. It’s a “one last job” spy thriller in the glossy Euro tradition of the 1970s, all procedure, terse conversations, deadpan features, pregnant pauses, with The Day of the Jackal an obvious reference, a notion that’s reinforced the first time we see George Clooney’s Jack rapidly assembling a high velocity rifle from unlikely parts. Clooney is not only the star of the film but almost its entire point. As The American, a hitman of dubious honour possibly a little past his peak, Clooney’s gum-chewing, impassive features have to be searched for evidence of what’s going on below the surface. Is he a total cool professional? Have the years taken their toll? Is he about to snap and give it all up? It seems like an odd thing to say, but it’s Clooney’s lack of expression that drives up the tension in the film – Corbijn knows that, as seasoned viewers of films like this, we’ll make assumptions about the psychological state of the main protagonist. And he forces us to focus hard on Clooney’s face, yet witholds final evidence to prove or disprove those assumptions, as does Clooney. And then we actually get a plot point. It seems that someone close to this cool pro is a stool pigeon. Someone has sold him out. Who is it? Is the hitman about to get hit? That’s all there is to The American, until the final scenes set in a small Italian village, which feature a female assassin in a cat suit. Of course they do. This is a beautifully conceived and made film, it’s hitman arthouse, with stylistic homages to films of yore – the sex scene with lots of nudity is a clear throwback, but then so is Clooney’s early meeting with a mystery woman, a newspaper beneath her arm to indicate she’s his contact. Somewhere in the mix is a bit of Antonioni – the bleak existential despair, the beautiful empty vistas – such as we got in The Passenger. Then it was Jack Nicholson as an American drowning in empty European exotica; here it’s Clooney. Playing a character called Jack. Coincidence? Probably not

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great existential hitman thriller
  • Martin Ruhe’s shallow-focus cinematography
  • Craggy Johan Leysen as the American’s control
  • A beautifully stylish movie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The American – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Gravity

Sandra Bullock in a space suit, Gravity

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 April

 

Sputnik 2 falls from orbit, 1958

On this day in 1958, the second satellite to be launched into Earth orbit, Sputnik 2, fell back to earth. It had been launched on 3 November 1957 and was carrying Laika, a samoyed terrier cross chosen for her good nature – the first animal launched into space. Sputnik 2 carried enough food, water and air to keep Laika alive for ten days, but because of a malfunction, the temperature inside Sputnik 2 got too high (104ºF/40ºC) and Laika died after a few hours into the mission, from heat and stress. If she had not died one version of events suggests she would have been euthanised before Sputnik began its re-entry into the atmosphere. Another is that she would simply have fried along with the capsule. Images of Laika in orbit are undoubtedly faked, or taken from later missions, since Sputnik 2 had no camera on board.

 

 

 

Gravity (2013, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

About a third of the way into Gravity – a film about an astronaut struggling for survival after a space walk goes awry – Sandra Bullock, our plucky spacewoman, picks up a fire extinguisher and gives it a parp to put out a fire. She is instantly blasted backwards. Newton’s third law of motion – any action has an equal and opposite reaction – has been demonstrated. Earlier we have seen thrilling, brilliant demonstrations of the first law (an object keeps moving unless something stops it), and his second (it’s harder to stop a heavy moving object than a light one). And we’ll go on seeing Newton’s laws demonstrated again and again, right up to the very last shot of the film (no spoilers), when the film’s title comes up in big letters – GRAVITY – to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
If that sounds boring – a film about physics – then you’re probably a dullard and you certainly haven’t seen Gravity, which must be the best sci-fi film of all time, or in the reckoning at least. The opening sequence – Bullock out in space nervous, George Clooney reassuring her with his Gorgeous George voice – is a piece of conceptual, special-effects genius, put together with total skill so that everything from the camera to the script to the intelligent, largely orchestra-free soundtrack combines first to lock us firmly into the time, the place and the situation, and then to keep us there, with the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot, because this is also a very plot driven film too, with almost every “crucial next move” being a life and death one, apart from the couple of breathers that director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón gives us. Basically, Gravity is like that bit in a film where someone is hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, extended to feature length.
As a piece of kinetic cinema Gravity is close to perfect in every way. The production design catches that inky black/blinding white space look that no one since Stanley Kubrick seems to have been too bothered with. Then there’s Bullock, in Tom Hanks mode as the everyperson thrust into extraordinary peril. And Mr Clooney, whose “coffeetime George” shtick seems to be a furball to some people’s enjoyment, is also bang on the money – he’s meant to be a highly experienced and slightly smug senior officer (not uncoincidentally male) and what Cuarón does with the expectations that this sort of persona generates is another masterstroke.
Talking of expectations, Cuarón again manages these brilliantly in the odd scene where Bullock goes into “hokey existential” mode – the “I wish I’d been a better person” stuff which so often features in films like this. Again, just as you’re setting the viewing controls to autopilot while this naffness plays itself out, Cuarón pulls the rug out from under the feet. And you can have that mixed metaphor for free.
OK, OK, so nothing can be that perfect. Objections? Let’s just say that you might be thinking, by about the third time that Bullock has avoided being blasted off into oblivion, that she’s been extraordinarily lucky. You might also start wondering just why there are so many American films about blameless individuals removed from any social and political context, embattled, fighting the entire hostile universe (Robert Redford is currently doing something similar on a boat in All Is Lost). You might balk at some of the Kubrick references – Bullock being shot as some sort of “star child”, a bright ring of light around her, almost translucent skin, innocent, only the thumb-sucking missing. None of it bothered me because none of it slowed down the film, which has decided that what the film is “about” must take second place to what it is, a riveting adventure told at breakneck speed whose intention is to put your heart in your mouth and keep it there. Job done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative breathtaking cinematography
  • Steven Price’s score – thrilling yet different
  • The winner of seven Oscars – the right seven too
  • The nods to SFX guru Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gravity – at Amazon