David Oyelowo

The Midnight Sky

26/12/20

Netflix

What a strange, mournful film The Midnight Sky is! It’s hardly the feel-good picture to end 2020 on a note of hope and yet, for all that, George Clooney’s futuristic saga exerts a slow-burning grip, as it gradually unfolds a story that takes place in two major locations, millions of miles apart.

It’s the year 2045 and the Earth is comprehensively doomed. There’s been some kind of global catastrophe – the intimation is there’s been a sudden rise in radiation levels – which means that the planet’s inhabitants are counting down their final days. Scientists based in a research station in the Arctic circle, one of the last places to be affected, are making a last desperate bid to escape, but Augustine Lofthouse (Clooney) figures there’s no point in going with them. He has a serious illness and has to depend on nightly dialysis in order to eke out his final days – see, I told you it was gloomy!

Lofthouse decides to spend what time he has trying to contact the space craft AEther, which is returning from a mission to K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons, where they’ve been investigating its potential as an alternative place to live. Lofthouse feels particularly bad about the crew’s situation, since he’s the man who discovered K-23 and is indirectly responsible for sending them out there in the first place. But they are still out of range of his communication signals and he’s rapidly slipping away.

Then Lofthouse discovers that he’s not alone. A little girl is hiding out on the base. Iris (an adorable debut by Caolinn Springall) doesn’t seem to have the power of speech, but she gives Lofthouse another reason to stay alive as long as he can.

Meanwhile, on the AEther, Captain Adewole (David Oyelowo) and his pregnant partner, Sully (Felicity Jones), are heading home through a previously uncharted section of space, an area where sudden meteor storms are a regular occurrence. And of course, there’s the added irony of the situation. They and the other members of their crew have no idea that they are all returning to a dying planet…

If my synopsis makes this feel like a somewhat disparate story, let me assure you that the cuts back and forth are nicely judged and expertly handled – Clooney directed this and he’s done so with considerable skill. A series of short sequences featuring Ethan Peck as a younger Lofthouse seem at first to add very little to the story, but they do make perfect sense when we get to its poignant conclusion. Before that, there’s plenty to keep me on the edge of my seat – on earth, there’s a heart-stopping encounter with melting ice and, in the midst of a blizzard, an attack by wolves. Up in the eye-popping splendour of the solar system we witness the most terrifying cinematic space walk since Gravity. And then, in the film’s final stretch, there’s a last act reveal that I really don’t see coming and which has me reaching for a hanky.

The Midnight Sky won’t be to everyone’s taste. I’ve already seen some dark mutterings about it on social media, complaints that it isn’t the straightforward action/adventure that people were expecting. Well, fair enough, it certainly isn’t that but, to my mind, it’s much more. It’s a dire warning about what humankind is doing to the world it currently inhabits, a plea for us to start investigating alternative worlds. It’s also a meditation on our inbuilt compulsion to survive at all odds.

And, miserable creature that I am, I find it genuinely uplifting.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Cloverfield Paradox

08/01/18

J J Abram’s Cloverfield franchise has always wielded an element of surprise as part of its arsenal. The first film, a compelling ‘found-footage’ creature feature, directed by Matt Reeves, was sneak-released to cinemas in 2008, and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a low budget masterpiece.  Its 2016 successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense, claustrophobic thriller that initially appeared to have nothing whatever in common with its predecessor; until, that is, you reached the film’s final third and everything went completely (and satisfyingly) berserk.

And now, here’s The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah and somehow released direct to Netflix with hardly anyone (including the cast!) aware that this was going to happen. As a means of grabbing attention, it works a treat – but there have already been many voices on social media branding the new release as a complete dud – and news that a fourth instalment, with a Second World War setting, is already in the can have led many to believe that Abrams has, quite literally, lost the plot.

The opening of Paradox certainly grabs the attention, playing like a lost episode of Black Mirror. It’s the year 2028, the earth’s energy supplies are rapidly dwindling and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) is poised to leave her partner, Kiel (David Oyelowo) to go on a mission into outer space. She and the rest of her crew intend to use ‘The Shepard’ – a particle accelerator – to provide the earth with an artificial power supply – but they are warned from the very beginning that in so doing, they risk inadvertently opening portals that will allow alternative realities into existence. Well, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

The story now leaps forward to the mission itself, where Ava and her companions are trying to initiate the ‘Shepard.’ At first, they appear to have been successful – but then some very strange things start to happen… for a start, they can’t seem to find any trace of the earth. Then, they find a woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) trapped behind the walls of the spacecraft. She claims to be a trusted member of the crew, but they have never set eyes on her before. Meanwhile, engineer Volkov (Aksel Hennie) starts having some very nasty digestive problems and as for Mundy (Chris O’ Dowd)… what exactly has happened to his left arm? Meanwhile, back on earth, Kiel is having some pretty intense problems of his own…

And that’s pretty much it. The film cuts back and forth between its two locations throughout. It’s nicely shot and for the most part, it galumphs along engagingly enough, even though it soon becomes apparent that this is not so much a Cloverfield film as something else that has been slyly retrofitted to slot into that cinematic universe. Indeed, apart from a couple of subtle visual references, you’ll have to wait until the film’s closing moments to make any real connection with those illustrious predecessors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an age where film fans are more polarised than ever before, some viewers have excoriated Paradox, blasting levels of vitriol in its general direction that seem somewhat excessive. It really isn’t that bad – just a bit mediocre and nowhere near as good as its progenitors. And of course, the convenient thing about Netflix is, if you don’t like what you’re watching, you can always reach for the ‘off’ switch.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

A United Kingdom

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25/11/16

Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom tells the true story of Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), and the extraordinary international response to his marriage to Ruth Williams, a white, middle-class Londoner. Ruth’s father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) isn’t happy and vows to disown her; Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi (Vusi Kenene), believes it renders his nephew unfit to rule. But their combined disapproval is nothing compared to the horror of colonial might, and the crushing forces of British and South African politics. It’s a disturbing account of late imperialism, laying bare some awful truths about our not so distant past.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are perfectly cast as the central couple, committed as much to their ideals as to each other. They are at once proud and humble, resolved and open-minded. The film’s focus on Khama’s emotional reactions personalises colonialism in a way I have never seen before, illuminating the brazen greed, hypocrisy and gross sense of entitlement of those seizing rule of lands that are not their own. Jack Davenport, as the brutal, arrogant Alistair Canning, embodies this with ease.

The post-war era is beautifully evoked, with both London and Botswana rendered real and immediate; the cinematography is very good indeed. If there’s a problem, it is perhaps in the feelgood cosiness that somehow permeates this film, despite its immersion in some very ugly deeds. Nevertheless, this is a mightily important tale, and definitely one worth going to see.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Selma

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08/02/15

Selma chronicles the turbulent three month period in 1965, when Dr Martin Luther King led the protest to try and obtain equal voting rights for black people in the Southern states of America. Even though that right had already been officially granted, the powers that be had conspired to ensure that it was one that would never be claimed, so King set out to lead a series of ‘peaceful’ marches from the town of Selma, Alabama to the capital city, Montgomery. What happened next is a matter of history. The racist police and redneck citizenry enacted violent and bloody opposition to the event, beating and in some cases murdering the marchers with apparent impunity.

Make no mistake, this is an important film. It examines one of the most shameful periods in civil rights history and largely gets its message across. But it’s also a curiously muted affair, a consequence perhaps of its 12A certificate, something which demands that the more distressing scenes are somewhat airbrushed. Curiously too, the film makers were denied the use of any of King’s legendary speeches, mainly because the intellectual property rights are tightly controlled by his children and they wouldn’t allow the use of them here (oddly though, they had no problem licensing the “I have a dream’ speech to a French telephone company for an ‘undisclosed sum.’ Go figure.) This meant that screenwriter Paul Webb had the unenviable task of writing some original speeches for one of the greatest orators in history.

Much wrath has been incurred over recent weeks by David Oyelowo’s supposed snub by the Oscar and BAFTA panels. Many have suggested that his performance was overlooked simply because of his race. The truth is that he does offer a solid, understated portrayal of MLK, one that is full of dignity and one that captures the man’s distinctive voice patterns with remarkable alacrity, but at the same time, it doesn’t really have the stature (or the histrionics) expected of an Oscar contender. There are other solid performances on offer here too. Tom Wilkinson shines as Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth perfectly nails the unpleasant, racist demeanour of Governor George Wallace. And yet the events are related at a funereal pace and there are too many scenes of King sitting in darkened rooms, brooding over his next move.

A good film then, though perhaps not a great one – but at the same time, a film that absolutely demands to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I was warned to expect to shed tears for this and though a notorious ‘weeper’ that didn’t actually happen. But a palpable sense of shame did remain with me, the shame that in my own lifetime, events like this were ever allowed to happen. It also helped me to appreciate the immense courage of all those people who put their lives on the line in the name of civil rights.

4 stars

Philip Caveney