Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Clooney, Mulligan, 'Soul' look like Christmas stars; Hanks not as brightly

Four brief reviews for holiday-week movies featuring some major names on board: 

Clooney, Springall take a breather.
Netflix has "The Midnight Sky"  shining and streaming today, with George Clooney directing, producing and starring as the last man alive in an Artic Circle observatory. His well-named Augustine is a curmudgeonly brainiac sticking around to warn a spaceship crew against returning to Earth "three weeks after the event," circa 2049. 

Enter a quiet little girl he calls Iris (the cute Caolinn Springall), who apparently missed the last ship to possible survival. Together they fight all the severe elements to reach a weather station where transmission to astronauts, already wondering why they haven't heard from mission control for 20 days, actually might improve.

Certainly the story gets more compelling as it goes and, once we meet the marvelous crew, which includes a pregnant pilot (busy English actress Felicity Jones, who always seems to have a big movie out about this time), and her commander/husband (ever-steady David Oyelowo), some of us might even begin to connect the dots to the fascinating final reel. As you'll likely discover, it looks and feels as well-crafted -- and directed -- as any Hollywood film this year. 

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: some bloody images and brief strong language; 1:58; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Mulligan's Cassie -- more twisted than cute?
On a whole different sphere, and certainly offering nothing that could remind anyone of Christmas, there's the thrilling "Promising Young Woman," its own kind of eye-opener from start to finish.

For some reason, the brilliant Cassandra (Carey Mulligan, another splendid Brit) has dropped out of medical school and has begun picking up sleazy men for one-night stands. Or has she? It won't take long to find out that answer, and an assortment of recognizable players (Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton and Alfred Molina among them) ultimately do in connection to a psycho/sexual revenge scheme that's best served the way writer/director Emerald Fennell dishes it up. 

Fennel, a "Killing Eve" producer/scripter who plays Camilla Parker Bowles on "The Crown," gives herself a memorable commercial cameo, too, in her off-center, though meaningful spectacle. All men need to see it; all women probably will cheer.

Rated "R" by MPAA: strong violence, including sexual assault, language, some sexual material and drug use; 1:53; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Fey and Foxx voice this soulful duo.
Believe it or not, some of the best moments in the animated "Soul" turn relatively dark, as well. In fact, the unexpectedly pivotal visit to a ghostly place called the "Great Before" surely will mean that parents will have lots of explaining to do after their children start watching Friday on Disney+.

It all comes early, too, as jazz-obsessed music teacher Joe Gardner (smartly voiced by Jamie Foxx) suddenly, uh, gets sidetracked right after earning the gig of his dreams as the piano man in a trio headed by Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) and with a former student (Questlove). 

Anyway, while in the entertaining "Before" -- which is, by the way, infinitely more desirable than the "Great Beyond" -- reigning confusion results in Joe being mistaken for an old soul assigned as the latest mentor for a troublesome spirit named "22." (I mean, as delivered by the high-pitched Tina Fey, she's so bratty that even Mother Teresa hates her, but kids most likely will love her.)

Regardless, a terrific Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score (which includes some Dylan and the superb Jon Batiste really the one pounding the ivories) always plays perfectly behind Pixar's ever-clever pop culture oddities. In this abstract assortment, everyone from Archimedes to New York's infamous Pizza Rat earns a mention and, somehow, it remains exhilarating. Go figure.

Rated "PG" by MPAA: thematic elements and some language; 1:42; $ $ $ $ out of $5

Hanks takes Zengel for a very long ride home.
Finally, nice guy Tom Hanks can't win 'em all, and so sad to report that his latest, "News of the World" is an occasionally dull, eternally predictable road trip from wobbly start to not-so-heart-tugging finish.

Based on a novel and directed by the usually more reliable Paul Greengrass (three "Bourne" movies and the Hanks-starrer "Captain Phillips"), the whole slow shebang deals with a former Confederate officer named Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks) coming across a legitimate wild child (the darn good, 12-year-old Helena Zengel) and trying to find a place for her to call home.

Now Capt. Kidd figures that the child -- raised by the Kiowa who kidnapped her and killed her parents -- might want to be with her German aunt and uncle and so decides to bring her to them. That means about 400 miles away and through some significant government red tape, a couple more attempted kidnappings, and a few peeks into Kidd's strange profession. The latter is where the film's title comes in. The man actually reads newspapers to small-town folks who pay him 10 cents each to hear what's going on elsewhere.

Well, at least it sounds more interesting than listening to someone reading the phone book. "News of the World," like "Promising Young Woman," opens in theaters Friday.

Rated "PG-13" by MPAA: violence, disturbing images, thematic material and some language; 1:58; $ $ out of $5