The Midnight Sky / Netflix
Director and star George Clooney rocks a withered and whiskered look in his latest, The Midnight Sky, but the charismatic actor embodies the aged and cold (literally and figuratively) Augustine Lofthouse surprisingly well, even without the white beard and sunken eyes. The main character at the center of this sci-fi drama, he’s a terminally ill scientist who must warn a crew of astronauts not to return to earth after a global catastrophe that we never quite understand. He is alone by choice, immersed in his life’s work to the point of denying himself the joy of love and family.
We learn of his personal history via flashbacks that show an ill-fated romance in his past which will come into play later via a not-so- shocking twist. The actor who plays Dr. Lofthouse as a young man really looks and sounds like Clooney here, but in this case, the lack of warmth seen in both portrayals doesn’t really draw the viewer in. So when the elder doctor discovers a young mute girl named Iris who stowed away during his arctic station’s evacuation, it’s a much needed lightening of the mood.
The man-child interaction and segments where we get to know the crew in space are mildly engaging, especially scenes with a pregnant female astronaut (Felicity Jones) and her partner (David Oyelowo), who try to learn what happened on Earth as they head back and recall the beauty of their otherworldly journey. With sharp futuristic set design and camera work by Martin Ruhe, the movie -based on a book by Lily Brooks- is atmospheric, beautifully shot and well-acted, but it’s slow moving narrative and limited character development make for bleak and somewhat empty viewing experience that probably wont sit well with those looking for feel-good holiday fare. (Lina Lecaro)
Minari / VOD
In his moving second feature, Minari, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung dives into the specific and the personal to unearth universal nuggets of truth about family, work and the American dream. At the beginning, we meet a family on their rural farm in Arkansas: father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Yeri Han), and children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). Soon, a fifth person joins them–Grandma (Yuh-Jung Youn), who is visiting from North Korea. Time goes by, a few seasons pass, grass grows, plums are harvested. And, slowly, we get to know the family and their story.
The story is mostly seen through the eyes of David, something of a stand-in for Chung himself, as he based the screenplay on his experience growing up on a farm in Lincoln, Arkansas, in the 1980’s. This point of view lends Minari a feeling of childlike wonder, which is organically conveyed through the storytelling, cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s lush imagery and composer Emile Mosseri’s lilting score. Even though this is a story of the American dream, its struggles and sacrifices, it’s the grace notes that stick with you. The farm is Jacob’s chance to be his own boss. He’s tired of working factories. But it’s more than just a place of work. It’s a place to live, to play, to make memories that will last for decades, like the time David peed in Grandma’s cup and told her it was Mountain Dew (something Chung did to his own Grandma).
Minari in its quiet way, shows us a boy learning to love his Grandma; a town where everyone smiles; a garden that grows and withers and regrows; and, most of all, a family changed with the years but as constant as the seasons. It’s a funny, heartfelt and bittersweet film that will ring true to anyone who knows the joys and agonies of a large, complicated household, regardless of culture, ethnicity or nationality. (Asher Luberto)
Soul / Disney
Following in the tradition of many Disney/Pixar movies, Soul features what seems to be the mandatory “other world” shot. Like the heroes of Up, Coco and Wall-E before him, Joe (Jamie Foxx) is filmed floating off into a new realm, allowing director Pete Docter to capture a stunning moment.
But what separates Soul from other Pixar films is the extraordinary circumstances Joe finds himself in–and what he does to get out of them. Even the “other world” is different from the ones you’ve seen before. Joe, a New York jazz teacher, enters the realm after he falls into a ditch and drifts up to heaven, or The Great Beyond. Not ready to die, he jumps off the escalator and lands instead in The Great Before, a brightly colored training camp for babies-to-be. You won’t guess what happens next.
Like the best jazz players, from Miles Davis to Kris Davis, Docter uses a traditional framework to branch off into new and exciting directions, without losing sight of the main theme. The movie is full of surprises, from a wayward soul trapped in a cat (Tina Fey) to a laugh-out-loud joke about the New York Knicks (no wonder they suck!), but it also tells a tremendously moving story about the meaning of life, and how that meaning affects Joe. He’s the heart and soul of Soul, no matter what world he’s in. (Asher Luberto)
Black Bear / VOD
There is indeed a bear afoot in the lacerating relationship drama, Black Bear, and he’s surely the only character in sight that isn’t filled with loathing. In consecutive narratives that take place in the same upstate New York home, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine presents alternate versions of a woman we first meet sitting on a dock in a red bathing suit. Allison (played in both stories by Audrey Plaza) is a filmmaker who arrives to rent a summer room from Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott), whose young marriage, the long night ahead will demonstrate, is one jealous glance away from total disintegration.
Events take a dark turn but rather than linger for the aftermath, writer-director Lawrence Michael Levin cuts away to a brand new tale. This time, Allison is an emotionally fragile movie star being directed by her husband (Gabe) who may or may not be sleeping with Allison’s co-star (Blair), an uncertainty that’s literally driving Allison mad. A tour de force for Plaza, Black Bear, particularly its depiction of life on a cramped indie film set, is riveting even if, in the end, one suspects the bear of having a richer inner life than the humans careening about the house. (Chuck Wilson)
Nomadland / VOD
Chloe Zhao makes films about life on the edge. The filmmaker–who earned an Oscar nomination for 2017’s The Rider, featuring a breakout performance from Brady Jandreau– is very selective in her work. But she has built an astonishing oeuvre, a trio of films featuring characters living on the outskirts, searching for a place just beyond the horizon, a place they can call home.
In The Rider, life on the edge is plain, simple and tough. In her new film, Nomadland, life is even tougher, but there’s something calming about this tribe of nomads. They’re senior citizens, mostly, old enough to read AARP and young enough to travel from town to town, taking odd jobs at Amazon or Home Depot to pay for gas and groceries. These are people who want to see more of the country, read, write, travel, walk through a canyon and kayak across a lake at the crack of dawn.
The screenplay by Zhao is based on Jessica Bruder’s “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” and like The Rider, it’s a neo-realist masterpiece. Achingly spare yet emotionally profound, Zhao casts the film with real people from the non-fiction book, giving it the feel of a documentary. The film charts Fern’s (Frances McDormand) life as a nomad, living out of a van, working at RV parks and potato factories, moving to different camp sites with the pack.
Although dangerous and difficult, life on the edge in Nomadland seems good, even sweet, simple, rich with hard-fought beauty. Life is so much more rewarding when you’re the one behind the wheel, or the saddle, and Fern is the queen of all she surveys, of the streams and mountains she sees on her long drives, of the sunsets she stops to stare at, of the shy, herd of bison next to her van. Her house is wherever the road takes her–like Brady Jandreau before her, it’s the horizon where she feels most at home. (Asher Luberto)
Promising Young Woman / VOD
The opening scene of Promising Young Woman is a mysterious thrill. English actress Carey Mulligan is Cassie, the woman at the bar who can barely sit up straight. She looks like a mess and doesn’t seem to care, barely doing the minimum to disguise her drunkenness. Some guy offers her a ride home, of course, because a girl with long legs, rosy cheeks, and too much to drink is “just asking for it.” So he takes her to his apartment, as rapey guys are known to do, and throws her on the bed like a rag-doll. Only, she isn’t drunk. She’s stone-cold sober. And, unfortunately for Brett Kavanaugh Jr., a stone-cold badass.
In her pearls, blonde bangs and golden nails, Cassie looks like the picture-perfect “good girl.” She is, however, on a mission to teach guys that sexual assault isn’t cool, even if it means bashing their brains in, which happens more often than you’d think in the brilliant, breakneck Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell’s stylish debut, Woman is colorful, campy, and gleefully brutal, a perfect reflection of Cassie herself. Mulligan, as usual, tears into the role with a gusto that is equally understated and unhinged. With her sweet smile, wacky wardrobe and love for all things candy (lollipops, Twizzlers, cup cakes,), Cassie is one lovable avenger. But this isn’t one of those movies where we breeze past #MeToo themes and end on a predictable “You go girl!” finale. No, this is more subversive. Like its opening scene, it’s scary, then funny, then downright shocking. (Asher Luberto)
Greenland / VOD
While audiences in 2021 can hopefully watch the new disaster movie Greenland with equanimity, we who live in 2020 are not so fortunate. Oh, no. As meteors of unprecedented size and scope, not to mention one massive earthquake, turn the world into a smoldering ruin, causing millions to lose their lives and their loved ones, we have to ask ourselves, do I really need to see this? Is this something I should be watching in a pandemic? The answer is…hell no.
On one hand, even though it conjures a flurry of fire balls and shock waves, Greenland has the ability to make the horrors it depicts all too plausible. Screenwriter Chris Sparling scales the action to human size, refreshingly, and follows the Garrtiy family on an impossible journey as they travel from Atlanta to a nuclear bunker in Greenland (having Gerard Butler in the family certainly helps).
On the other hand, as directed by Ric Roman Waugh and produced by STX Films, Greenland is woefully bleak. It’s not the end-of-the-world premise that takes you out of it. Not really. It’s the core conflict of this tale, a dark and tragic exploration of human desperation when some are deemed worthy of saving and others are not. At a time when hospitals are turning away COVID-19 patients, it doesn’t exactly qualify as “escapist entertainment.” (Asher Luberto)
The Prom / Netflix
Musical formats on film are usually too gauche for modern sensibilities but ever since La-La Land, and maybe Rocketman, people keep trying to make them work. While the Tony-nominated Broadway musical, The Prom has an important message about sexuality and inclusion that will resonate with today’s audiences, its overly self-aware, self-skewering entertainment industry satire doesn’t translate the same way in movie form. Enter Ryan Murphy, the king of un-subtlety, whose take on this material is so… him, it could’ve been released without credits and most of us would know he was involved anyway. Here, he directs, and he does get some giddy performances out of the cast, though really, how hard can that be when you’ve got Meryl Streep as your leading lady and the ubiquitous Nicole Kidman (sort of reprising her Moulin Rouge guise) as co-star? James Corden, Keegan Michael Ket and Andrew Rannelis (best known via HBO’s Girls and Murphy’s play adaptation of The Boys in the Band) round out the famous cast. While Corden’s casting has been criticized (he plays a gay man here but he’s straight, yes, really), the guys almost outshine the gals here.
Newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is pretty great though, playing sweet and earnest gay high school student Emma, who is banned from attending her prom becuase she wants to take her girlfriend and her smalltown can’t hang with that. Led by Kerry Washington playing the worst, most stereotypical conservative “Karen” type mom ever, Emma is shunned and the prom is canceled until Streep and co. decide to resuscitate their careers and garner some good press by getting involved. What follows is lots of glitz, quips, singing and dancing and soapbox song moments. It’s over the top and in your face and 100% judgemental of small-minded, hypocritical bigots who use religion to justify their hatred against people who are different. (Lina Lecaro)