The Midnight Sky


Viewed – 12 January 2021 Netflix

It would be easy to get cynical of another ‘Netflix original’ movie after three made it into my least favourite movies of 2020. However as the streaming service continues to attract major Hollywood talent, sooner or later a gem would surface. This George Clooney vehicle, which he also directs has him as Augustine, a lone scientist in a research facility in Antartica following a global catastrophe that has wiped out much of mankind. However after receiving a message from a space station travelling back to earth, Augustine races against time to warn the crew of the dangers of a planet they once called home.

This very heart-felt drama has a stand out turn from Clooney, an actor I’ve often enjoyed. His character, who is terminally ill, is complex and believable as a man who has put so much into his career, he’s forgotten how to live. The supporting cast of astronauts, lead by Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) are also well rounded and convincing. The space bits bare more than a resemblance to Sandra Bullock hit Gravity, whilst the on earth segments feel more like a man-verses-nature survival story … and these two sides make for a compelling whole. Both settings can feel claustrophobic with imminent danger, that although the pace was slow at times I never stopped being fully invested.

For such a concept, a lack of grandeur can be forgiven considering this is more a character piece, although a little light shed on the virus or incident that’s gone down would have been welcome. I was also left wanting a little more detail regarding certain choices Augustine makes in his back story. However, with a genuine gut-punch of an emotional ending, I still came away from this impressed.

Verdict: Recommended

The New Mutants


Viewed – 05 January 2021 online-rental

2020 was the first year in a while that we had no real big comic book movies, apart from Wonder Woman 1984 at the end and this decidedly low key release. Set in the same universe as the X-Men movies, this focuses on a group of troubled teens in a hospital who are coming to terms with their mutations as a female doctor studies them … including a Native American girl who arrives following an incident that wiped out her reservation.

Think ‘Girl, Interrupted’ meets ‘Heroes’ and you’ll get the vibe this one’s going for. A recognisable cast includes Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams as a girl with the ability to turn into a wolf, and The Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy as a bitchy Russian who can summon abilities from other dimensions. The banter and varying powers between the characters held my interest and there’s some good action, even if this is less a full-on comic book actioner and more a character piece.

However, hints at a shady organisation responsible for the hospital are unexplored, and the whole thing feels like part one of a bigger story. Plenty of potential here despite the fact that teen mutants is nothing new and has been explored in prior X-Men movies. Sadly a luke-warm critical and commercial reaction probably means this story won’t get continued. Worth a watch though.

Verdict: Good

Possessor


Viewed – 05 December 2020 online rental

I’ve been a long time fan of director David Cronenberg, and came to this unusual thriller blind, unaware at first that it’s directed by his son Brandon. However shortly into this I began to get those unsettling Cronenberg vibes, with its emphasis on the psychological effects of technology, not unlike Videodrome. This has a woman, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) who works for a secret organisation who by using a device can transport herself into another person’s body in order to carry out an assassination.

Shot with a visual aesthetic that’s both beautiful and creepy, I was initially gripped by this concept and intrigued how it would play out. We learn early on that Tasya is in a relationship and has a young son, but is away on ‘business’ a lot so finds it hard to relate to them naturally, almost playing a part whenever she’s with them. Therefore she dives into her role as an assassin, mentored by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s agency figure.

However the is let down by a lack of meaning to Tasya’s increasingly brutal kills, seeming to lose control whenever she has to complete her mission. The violence here is drawn out, incredibly graphic and I’ll say … unnecessary. The themes the movie explores of identity, sanity, technology etc are interesting but they get overwhelmed by the gore. This leads to an ending that just didn’t make sense. Director Brandon Cronenberg has many of his father’s sensibilities but little of his depth going by this example. Disappointing.

Verdict: Poor

Onward


Viewed – 03 October 2020. Disney+

Its difficult reviewing animated movies, because the quality is often so high, it’s tempting to just rate them all the same. So I tend to be a bit harder on them that some other movies. This unusual story presents an enchanted, fairy tale world that turns its back on magic, favouring technology to develop very much like the regular world. So people have jobs, there’s police, shops, fast food restaurants etc. On his 16th birthday, young elf Ian is given a present from his Dad who died of an illness before he was born, and it turns out to be a wizards staff. After reciting a spell that’s meant to bring the dad back for one day only … the spell goes wrong and only half of the dad’s body comes back – literally from the waist down. However his big brother Barley says there’s a way of completing the spell and so a quest unfolds to resurrect their dad before the sun goes down.

Like Monsters Inc and Inside Out before it, this presents a world full of character and personality. Again it’s a feast for the eyes and full of memorable side characters, pop culture gags and references – but it’s the unique idea that’s the winner; a caper comedy that’s weirdly a lot like 80s comedy Weekend at Bernies. Some moments, especially the freeway chase with the biker sprites certainly had me laughing out-loud. Yet underneath the visuals and gags lies a great deal of heart – something Pixar have always been masters of.

Tom Holland as Ian is perfect, but is overshadowed by Chris Pratt’s Barley who turns a potentially irritating loud mouth of a character into someone I really cared about. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also good as the two brother’s Mom. The ending also turns the story on its head to deliver an emotion-heavy and wonderfully bittersweet conclusion. So there you have it – damn, another Pixar gem that shouldn’t be missed! Sigh.

Verdict: Essential

Mulan


Viewed – 08 September 2020 Disney+

I never got around to watching the animated original, yet it had always intrigued me … but unlike some other live action Disney remakes of late, I thought this would suit such a take better. Telling the tale of a young woman in ancient China who chooses to join the Emperors army disguised as a man, after an invading army declare war.

This is a gorgeous movie, awash with vibrant colours, beautiful costumes and stunning scenery and locations. Yes, there’s an overdose of CGI and occasionally the use of green screen for backgrounds is a bit obvious, but overall this was a treat for the eyes. Martial arts star Donnie Yen appears as a general who trains up the Emperors army, and an unrecognisable Jet Li appears as the Emperor himself. Jason Scott Lee’s vengeful leader of the invading army is good but he’s overshadowed by Gong Li’s brilliantly ruthless witch, who is definitely one of the movie’s stand out characters. Yet Liu Yifei as Mulan herself is very good, tough yet vulnerable and can handle the various elaborate fight sequences and carries the movie well. Yet the star here is the direction and visuals, Action scenes are plentiful and the camera work is often unique and stylish.

The story is nothing that special though and gets rather predictable. Some of the gravity-defying fantasy aspects can get a bit silly too. Also I found myself having to suspend belief when Mulan was disguised as a man, but still looked feminine to me. However, despite these things, I was still highly entertained from start to finish. One to check out.

Verdict: Recommended