COVID might have thwarted Hollywood in rolling out its big year-end Christmas/awards season titles the usual way. But nonetheless, Jesus’ b-day brings several big guns to a screen near you—even though that will likely mean your home screen.
Among newly arriving releases we did not or could not preview were the superheroic Wonder Woman 1985; new Disney ‘toon Soul; Netflix kidflick We Can Be Heroes, Robert Rodriguez’s sequel to the 2005 Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl; actress Regina King’s big-screen directorial debut feature One Night in Miami, which imagines a meetup between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke; and The Dissident, Icarus director Bryan Fogel’s look at the career of assassinated Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which closely follows on the heels of another acclaimed documentary on that subject, Kingdom of Silence.
We did, however, get an advance gander at the following four features, all getting released on Xmas Day. A couple of them (News of the World, Promising Young Woman) are only playing actual theaters for the time being, so you might want to check listings for Greater Bay Area drive-ins:
The Midnight Sky
Many a celluloid gift around Yuletide has been a big sci-fi extravaganza, at least since Close Encounters arrived two weeks before the holiday 43 years ago. It figures that in 2020 this present would take the form of an end-of-the-world scenario. Netflix’s new Midnight Sky looked good from a distance: It’s based on a well-regarded novel (Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton), and is directed by George Clooney, whose six prior features in that role have all been interesting, though only the first two (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck) were really good. Unfortunately, this is another well-intentioned near-miss.
Well, maybe not so near. Clooney himself plays a scientist at an Arctic observatory three weeks after an unspecified “event” that has apparently doomed humanity. (We never find out whether this was a matter of war, environmental catastrophe, or what.) Everyone else has evacuated, but Augustine stays behind alone, having a terminal illness and no loved ones to reunite with. Meanwhile, a multinational astronaut crew (including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo and Demian Bichir) is on a vessel hoping to explore a distant planet that might support human life. They’re baffled by the sudden lack of communication with Earth; Augustine may be the last person in a position to let them know they shouldn’t, can’t return home.
Impressively produced, Midnight Sky is OK until Clooney’s character discovers he’s not alone—a mute child (Caollinn Springall) has apparently been left behind by evacuees. This begins pushing the movie into cutesy, contrived territory, and there are no prizes for guessing the girl might be something other than she seems. The film becomes alternately mournful and mawkish, when not a rather familiar kind of action movie. Finally, it is just kinda dull. Clooney is aiming for something profound here about human connectivity and humanity’s future. But the plot and sentiments are pedestrian, his direction not inspired enough to elevate them.
News of the World
Offering similarly uninspired inspirational fodder from a contrastingly retro, strictly-terrestrial vantage is this adaptation of a book by Paulette Jiles, a good historical novelist frequently drawn to the Civil War and its aftermath. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) survived serving in that conflict, and now tours frontier communities reading the news to people whose isolation (and likely frequent illiteracy) makes that a valuable service. In 1870 Texas he stumbles upon a towheaded girl (Helena Zengel) who was evidently kidnapped as a tot and raised in a Kiowa tribe, which has apparently now abandoned her. Kidd tries leaving her with the nearest authorities, but that doesn’t work out, so he agrees to take her 400 miles to where her only surviving relatives hopefully live.
This mix of The Searchers and True Grit, with a little Paper Moon thrown in, is directed by Paul Greengrass in a much more “classical” mode than the jittery hand-held style that has dominated his last two decades, both in docudramas (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips) and thrillers (notably three Bourne sequels). News looks like a western should—all handsome southwestern scenery and sunsets—and moves at a leisurely pace appropriate to the era depicted. But it is entirely beholden to delivering Tom Hanks at his least interesting, i.e. as a gushing pipeline for Basic Decency. When given a couple particularly on-the-nose, platitude-spouting speeches, it begins to feel like this role is his compensation for not getting Lincoln.
Captain Kidd (geddit?) & child brave pursuit by bad men, then an entire townful of ‘em, then a dust storm; but there is always the dull certainty that his all-American nobility will triumph over all adversity. Even Forrest Gump was less of a stick. News has the western genre’s familiar pleasures of landscape and white-hat/black-hat morality, but it takes itself way too seriously to offer so little else.
Another throwback is this romance set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which is a whole lot like big-screen soap operas being made at that time—those frequently Ross Hunter-produced vehicles for Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Sandra Dee, and such that offered very middle-class notions of melodramatic torment and material opulence. When Todd Haynes paid homage to such films in Far From Heaven and Carol, he used their conventions while commenting on them, adding layers of irony and awareness. Writer-director Eugene Ashe superficially transforms the old-school elements by deploying them with almost entirely African-American characters.
Yet apart from that, and some very elemental integration of racial politics, this is a straight recycling of the original films’ worst aspects: Their clumsy plots based on contrived misunderstandings and stiff-necked nobility, the glacial clotheshorse star turns, and sense of hokum without enlivening trashy verve. Sylvie’s Love isn’t only like a movie from 1962—it’s like a movie that already seemed dated in 1962.
Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) is the daughter of a Harlem record store owner who hires jazz saxophonist Robert (former Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha) to help out around the shop. They promptly fall in love, but for unconvincing reasons she lets him leave for a Parisian club gig without telling him she’s pregnant, then marries her uptight mother’s “respectable” choice for a suitor. Some years later they’re reunited when Sylvie is working on a TV show and he’s a successful veteran musician. But of course more unpersuasive hurdles arise to keep them apart, until natch, they don’t anymore because it’s time for fadeout.
Sylvie’s Love (which is now available on Amazon Prime Video) does have plush period accoutrements, and a certain retro appeal, but strangely it doesn’t seem to be having much fun with its own corniness. The leading figures have no dimensionality, aren’t played with much charisma, and have so little mutual chemistry we can hardly buy their love—let alone the turgid mechanizations of needless self-sacrifice that get in its way. The film has a wish-fulfillment aspect, levying today’s gender and racial values on the late Jim Crow era. But is so dully literal-minded even the fantasy doesn’t lift off. It’s yet another movie here that comes nicely packaged, but without much substance inside.
Promising Young Woman
OK, the news isn’t all bad: There’s one film in this quartet well worth a look. But it is not for the faint of heart, and indeed (having been delayed by COVID from earlier dates) may be one of the all-time least appropriate Christmas releases ever. Actress (she’s Camilla Parker-Bowles on The Crown) and writer (Killing Eve) Emerald Fennell’s feature directorial debut will likely piss off those misled by advertising into expecting some straightforward grisly horror-ish thriller—and also those who expect a subversive feminist revenge tale. It is the latter, but Fennell plays her cards with such ingenious unpredictability that even viewers willing to go along for most of a challenging ride may feel stung at the end. But hey, I’m not going to spoil anything for brave souls.
Casey Mulligan plays Cassie, whose titular status as a med school prodigy ended when she abruptly dropped out. Now she works at a coffee shop, lives with her baffled parents, has no evident ambitions or direction in life. But she does have a hobby of sorts: Getting very drunk (or appearing to be so), getting picked up by men who pretend to be “helping” but in fact want to take advantage of a “drunk girl,” and then teaching them a lesson they will not forget.
Just what she does (or doesn’t do) to those men, as well as why Cassie is doing this at all, are things that only gradually emerge in the very nuanced screenplay. Needless to say, she has a bigger score to settle, and it’s got a backstory explanation. But whenever you think you’ve sussed just what Promising Young Woman is “up to,” it discomfitingly proves you wrong.
This is not a perfect movie, by any means, and I can fully grok how some might just plain hate it—and for a variety of reasons. But Fennell couples her diabolically clever story with direction that you might consider a mismatch if she weren’t responsible for both. The tone is often discombobulating, black comedy jostling against surrealism against I-dunno-what, with WTF (yet often bracing) aesthetic choices popping up all the time. (You may suffer full-on brain melt upon hearing how she deploys a track from “The King and I.”)
I saw Promising Young Woman at Sundance nearly a year ago, finding it both exhilarating and problematic then—and it’s stayed on my mind ever since, as much or more than any other movie of 2020, with a second look (at least) preordained. You may not thank me for it, but this very wicked yet ultimately also very moral expression of MeToo Movement solidarity will definitely leave an impression on your first viewing, if you can take it. It’s currently playing theaters only, the nearest this weekend being San Jose’s Capitol Drive-In.