Monday, December 28, 2020

Merry-ish Christmas from Kendall Square: News of the World, Promising Young Woman, and The Midnight Sky

I've kind of known that going to the movies on Christmas is a thing, beyond it just being a good week where a lot of people are off work, but never really did it. I've got a fair-sized extended family a couple hours away, and even though there are enough people with inlaws among them and snowbirds, it's rare that I'm not up there for at least the day, if not crashing in someone's spare room, and even when I get home in time for a movie, I'm pretty run-down and pretty much ready to be done.

Obviously, not getting on a train for a couple of hours this year even if I was cool with hanging around a dozen people who all have other people they've got. I'd figured on maybe seeing something on Christmas, and then using the week of vacation time I couldn't roll over hitting the occasional matinee - and then the City of Cambridge throws a monkey wrench in that plan by saying theaters have to close down starting the 26th for three weeks, with the theater saying they would open their new slate on Christmas and then close down the next day. So, to see some things on the big screen at the Kendall, you're looking at that date. Maybe the Boston places pick them up if they open after three weeks, maybe they've got other things to open. Though probably not.

(All the usual caveats of going to the movies right now apply - there haven't been many if any cases linked to theaters, Massachusetts isn't allowing concessions, the Kendall is being very careful about enforcing masking, I'm walking at least one way to avoid excess time on the subway, and I don't have anyone at home to bring it to. Change any of that, or even have more people realize that it's pretty safe, and maybe I'm not doing this nearly so much.)

It rained on the walk there, and there were a few people there for both the afternoon shows, but it kind of thinned out afterward. I hung around outside the theater for a bit then to suck down a candy bar and a soda that I'd brought from home, then it was just me, I think, for The Midnight Sky, since it's already on Netflix. It was quiet enough for people to notice that I was doing a triple.

Not a great day at the movies, all told - I probably should have found a slot for The Dissident once I saw what the situation was, since it seems to be the one least likely to be brought back at other theaters when they open.

So, around 9pm, I left, not knowing when I'd be back. Hopefully we'll be moving out of all this before some theaters have been closed a full year.

News of the World

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

There's ideas floating around News of the World that don't really have much opportunity to come together and amount to much more than some pretty scenery. Paul Greengrass and company want to talk about how stories can shape the world for people, or dig into how westerns are, as a genre, about people who know civilization in a place where it's weak, but they're unfocused, playing these themes up or ignoring that as is convenient. They've got a main story about returning a long-lost child to her relatives, but it doesn't really give the film a lot of structure or play into the themes directly.

It does have Tom Hanks, though, and he makes for as nice and solid an anchor as one could hope for. It's good use of Hanks as a movie star, letting the audience fill in the gaps in the character with what Tom Hanks would do without completely becoming stock. The shots of the West are beautiful, though, with cinematographer handling everything well even as Greengrass does a sort of Western sampler: There are a couple of gunfights, wagons stretching to the horizon, encounters with Natives with appropriately heavy undertones, and muddy townsfolk watching the outsiders with curiosity - and there's no part where they fare badly. It's wonderful to look at.

It's just not a lot more. It feels a lot like the folks involved wanted to make a western, or even to have made a western, just not any specific one, and it has to be a story that goes down relatively easy. News of the World is a fair example of that, but for something with a potentially unique hook, a talented star and director, and a potential ability to examine itself, it seems like it could have been far more.

Promising Young Woman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run, DCP)

Writer/director Emerald Fennell worked on Killing Eve, though not during its recent mess of a third season, her film has the same vibe of that show at its roughest: Kind of glib, more interested in having fun playing dress-up and playing around with broad characters than most anything else, but still fun even when it's not as clever as it thinks.

The good news is that Carey Mulligan sure seems to know what to do with every bit of the script, relishing the moments when her Cassandra flips from falling being out if it to fully aware, adding an appropriate snap to every line that could use it, finding the spots where we're supposed to buy into Cassie being potentially more or less stable and making them work and hinting at the deep hurt underneath her being seemingly capable and decisive. The movie doesn't work without her being less than terrific, and even if one doesn't believe in everything that Cassandra does, it's not hard to believe in who she is.

It's kind of a shame that the material she and those around her have to work with is generally kind of a mess, loving to imply that Cassandra is up to something really deranged or sinister but cutting away before a scene can climax. It's admittedly important by the end that she is primarily only putting herself in danger, but Fennell never does anything that works as the sort of convincing misdirection that is actually laying a foundation in retrospect*, instead giving the audience a bunch of episodes that fizzle individually but getting to the next one fast enough for one to miss it. It leads to a finale built in a way that requires her to be both absurdly reckless and downright diabolical. It's a movie that is built to feel satisfying even if you don't really believe a word of it, and it's just the right sort of polished to be fun in a way, but I don't know that it will hold up.

* At least, not to a man in his mid-forties who was never really adjacent to these sorts of situations even when younger; maybe a 30-ish woman will say that it's the sort of flying close to the sun you have to do to have any fun.

The Midnight Sky

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 December 2020 in Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run, DCP)

The folks doing visual effects on The Midnight Sky are amazingly good at putting things I love looking at on-screen - like, right up there next to The Expanse even without the same rigorous attention to scientific detail. There were plenty of moments during this film when I just beamed, even after it had gone on a while.

The trouble is, there really doesn't seem to be any limit to how far movie-makers will go to turn the exciting challenges of exploring the universe into mincemeat to tell a story of estranged parents; there's this sort of writing disease that holds that the key to making respectable science fiction is to emphasize the importance of a familiar human relationship, and it can not only suggest that the people involved not only can't imagine things beyond their own experiences, it causes them to trivialize the stakes of the story if they don't make the themes that compelling. More or less all of humanity has died by the time that The Midnight Sky really hits its groove, and it never does anything to earn that scale, to say that what is animating Augustine's stubborn will to continue to do his job to the very end is that operatic (director George Clooney's capable but unremarkable old-man shuffle as the dying physicist doesn't exactly help), and the whole thing is building up to a finale that doesn't pack nearly the surprise it's supposed to.

Meanwhile, between Jupiter and Earth, all sorts of ridiculous but meaningless things are happening to keep a pretty decent cast busy, with the whole thing starting from an impossibly inhabitable moon of Jupiter (apparently we've just missed this one in 400 years of Westerners observing the planet and discovering almost 80 with some less than a kilometer wide) and becoming more conventionally absurd after that. They don't mean anything, and just underline that ultimately apparently nothing other than one family matters.

(It also contains a sequence whose inanity is almost sublime, one which is roughly the equivalent of me and my co-workers deciding to bust out a song from 1940 during a life-or-death operation and only the youngest Gen-Z-er not getting the appeal, which I admittedly kind of love because I am a New Englander and the Red Sox have made "Sweet Caroline" part of my DNA.)

I don't hate The Midnight Sky the way I really should; Clooney has banked a lot of goodwill and it looks good enough that I am glad that I used one of three precious slots on the last day I could see movies on the big screen for a while to see it that way. Honestly, I kind of wonder what this is actually like as a Netflix movie - is the reduction in spectacle made up for by how many people are doing something else? It's not a good movie, and it is in fact a lot of the things I hate about people who don't love science fiction hijacking the genre, but the people involved do enough of what they're good at to make up for a large chunk of where they are way off base.

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