Despite a topsy-turvy year where anything could happen the movies keep nudging forth occasionally offering the requisite gems. Sometimes entire plots seem to be moving in synchronicity with each other.
by Michael Bergeron
As different as two movies could be, “The Midnight Sky” set in the year 2049 and “News of the World” set in the year 1870, adhere to a similar storyline. An old man finds a deserted young girl and together they set off on a perilous journey.
The Midnight Sky
At the beginning of “The Midnight Sky” director/star George Clooney chooses to stay at a remote Arctic observatory while everyone else evacuates. The Earth faces an extinction event however the snowbound location is one of the few areas in a safe zone.
Clooney plays Augustine Lofthouse, a bearded scientist who would be insecure in any other existence. Here Lofthouse has a mission. The station’s powerful transmitter is one of the few left capable of communicating with a deep space mission returning from Jupiter.
Lofthouse finds a sprightly little girl (Caoilinn Springall in her debut role as Iris) who’s been left behind. His gruff manner with kids slowly starts to melt even as the winter freeze intensifies.
Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Demián Bichir and Kyle Chandler play the interplanetary crew in a narrative that bounces back and forth between the vastness of space and the confined world of Lofthouse and Iris. Despite making initial contact the radio at an even more remote observatory offers better communications potential so the duo sets off across the tundra, which adds elements of predatory animals and breaking ice to the space drama.
Clooney directs the whole affair with a serious calm befitting intellectual sci-fiers like “2001” and “Solaris” as opposed to the action packed bedlam of “Stars Wars” et al. There’s also the personal dynamic of the adult that takes an underling under his wing. In subtle ways Clooney shows both of these characters learning from each other.
While the film may be too serious for the action crowd there’s a professional if stone cold touch that Clooney brings to the proceedings. In a turnabout late in the third act Clooney totally changes the meaning of the film with a single shot.
The Midnight Sky opens in theaters this weekend, and premieres on Netflix on December 23.
News of the World
Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass make a great match.
Hanks is the modern day everyman seemingly ready to reinvent himself by becoming a Western star not unlike Jimmy Stewart did in the 1950s. Hanks with nearly one hundred actor credits has never been in an oater.
Greengrass specializes in movies about quiet men confronted with violence, whether it’s Jason Bourne or Captain Phillips. In “News of the World” Greengrass doesn’t have to have his protagonist defy the laws of physics with amazing physical prowess. Hanks (playing Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd) faces off against mere nomadic cowboys and dust storms like any normal cowpoke.
Kidd, hailing from San Antonio, travels around Texas reading newspapers to a willing audience that ponies up ten-cents per seat. In some ways Kidd isn’t far removed from the Liam Neeson character in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Every so often we’re reminded of the aftermath of the Civil War that occurred less than a decade before.
Kidd’s life gets turned upside down when he finds an abandoned girl (Helena Zengel who for some reason reminds the audience of a pixie version of 1960s sensation Susan Oliver) alone in the woods. Raised by Indians the young lass doesn’t speak English.
When Kidd show up at an Army Post to turn her in he’s told the Indian Scout is on a mission and he must wait three months. At this point it’s easy to view Kidd’s mission as a metaphor for calling Comcast (Universal Picture’s parent) customer service.
There’s a poetic quiet in Kidd’s literate soul that demands he delivers his new ward to her former family. Greengrass finds ways to put realistic and dangerous obstacles in that path without sacrificing the verisimilitude of the era.
There’s also a nod to conventions established by other Western directors. In particular Greengrass introduces shotgun shells stuffed with dimes just like Kris Kristofferson used in Peckinpah’s 1973 “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.”
“News of the World” opens in theaters on December 25.