Movie Review ~ Midway (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis:  US soldiers and pilots change the course of World War II during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 when US and Imperial Japanese naval forces fought for four days.

Stars: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore, Darren Criss, Woody Harrelson, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Dennis Quaid,  Tadanobu Asano, Alexander Ludwig

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 138 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: With the rise of the franchise action film, I’d forgotten what going to a Roland Emmerich movie was like.  The one-time master of the big event film made an impressive debut with Universal Solider in 1992 before going bigger with Stargate in 1994 and fully graduating to epic size with Independence Day in 1994.  In the years that followed, Emmerich struggled with maintaining the scale of his films and had trouble balancing the rising budgets with finding a strong narrative.  By 2013 he was directing White House Down which was similar in plot to Olympus Has Fallen and then he proceeded to go back for seconds on the critically reviled Independence Day: Resurgence.

It was a bit of a surprise for me, then, to see Emmerich’s name attached to Midway because I hadn’t thought the director would want to go for a historical film that would require him to stay within the lines a bit more than he was used to.  Turns out this was exactly the project he needed because aside from a handful of iffy performances and a walloping heap of bad dialogue, Midway emerges as the best effort from the director in years.  Yes, it has your standard roster of rousing speeches and that one impassioned pep talk that comes right before a character is unceremoniously killed off, but it also makes good use of its visual effects budget which helps to snare you into each high-flying fight scene that gets bigger with each battle.  I went in expecting a loud and obnoxious war movie along the lines of the loud and obnoxious Pearl Harbor from 2001, but I wasn’t anticipating coming out the other side having been fully engaged for the majority of Midway’s healthy running length.

Following the military action that took place between the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and the Battle of Midway in June of 1942, first time feature screenwriter Wes Tooke mixes historical figures with composites of the men that participated in these battles on the ground and in the air.  From a history lesson perspective, Tooke’s script is fast moving and filled with the kind of military jargon war junkies will find enticing, yet it isn’t such a deep dive that others will be lost.  Most of the time it’s clear where we are and what’s happening, though when the movie goes into it’s hyper-kinetic final hour it does help to keep mental notes of what is transpiring.  Not being a huge history stickler, I can’t tell you how well-researched Tooke’s script is or if it’s aligns perfectly with the timeline of events but certain accomplishments that seems too coincidental to be true seem to be backed up by historical fact as evidenced in post-credit character wrap-ups.

Where Tooke’s screenplay is lacking is when the characters have to, you know, talk about normal everyday stuff.  It’s here that his newbie-ness shows and it didn’t surprise me to learn he got started writing for a serialized podcast – much of the dialogue is expository that, while directed toward someone on screen, could just as easily be spoken directly into the camera for all the weight it’s given in relation to the combat-zone speak.  Characters that come off as phony baloney talking about their lives outside of the service suddenly take on a tone of authority when discussing the plans for their next air strike.  With only one actress in the main cast, it isn’t surprising the female characters are barely there and what we do see of them are as supportive wives that just want their husbands to come home safely or are standing by ready to cook a late night sandwich.  It’s a bit embarrassing that Tooke couldn’t have given any female something to do in the film other than play a sturdy rock to their more verbose spouse.

It also could be that Emmerich hasn’t cast the strongest actors either, with British Ed Skrein (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) struggling to maintain his East Coast drawl as hotshot pilot Dick Best.  Try as he might, Skrein never can quite convincingly get through one of his anthemic speeches to his fellow brothers in arms, to say nothing of the complete lack of chemistry he has with his wife, played by an equally vacant Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down).  Yet when Skrein is flying his dive bomber and pushing the limits to victory, he totally had me cheering him on.  In similar boats, or planes, are Luke Evans (Ma), Nick Jonas (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), Darren Criss (Girl Most Likely), Aaron Eckhart (Sully), Luke Kleintank (The Goldfinch), and Keean Johnson (Alita: Battle Angel).  While I’d argue that few of these chiseled actors looks like they would have passed basic training (especially Criss…as a fighter pilot? I think not.) as a unit there is something that gels as the movie progresses.

If there’s one bit of non-action sequences work the best in spite of the thin dialogue, it’s the scenes between Admiral Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, Venom) and Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton (Patrick Wilson, Annabelle Comes Home).  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was assigned to take over command of the post and turned to Layton to use his expertise to help predict where the Japanese would attack next.  Layton then sought assistance from a codebreaker who had intercepted Japanese communications, helping them plan for the Battle of Midway.  While there are some hokey bits here and there, by and large these are the moments that land the best and it’s thanks to Harrelson and Wilson’s assured screen presence.  Coincidentally, these are also the passages of the film that are easy to get a bit turned around in — so best to stay alert when Wilson is laying out the game plan.

Where the movie really earns its stripes are the well-staged and skillfully rendered battle scenes featuring air strikes between the US and Japanese forces.  While I normally go a bit cross-eyed with excessive amount of green screen and CGI usage, it didn’t bother me as much in Midway as it wound up enhancing the experience, having the effect of putting the audience right into the middle of the action with alarming intensity.  Far from feeling like an overblown cartoon like previous Emmerich efforts, the visuals are nearly all expertly designed and beautifully executed, culminating in a deluxe finale that actually had me biting my nails.  Sure, it may be a bit chintzy at times but it’s the best kind of gobble-down-your-popcorn kind of fare.  Perhaps the editing could be tightened up a tiny smidge to assist in our tracking of the pilots and to avoid a few repetitive bits but there’s not a lot of the action that I’d want to see trimmed down.

Feeling like it was made with a great sense of honor and respect, I appreciated the gestures Tooke’s script made to Japanese customs as well.  Though dealing us a terrible blow and also being responsible for the deaths of thousands of Chinese that assisted American forces, the Japanese had a sense of nobility in their strategy as well.  It would have been easy (especially in the time we currently live in) to make this an All-American Apple Pie movie but taking a brief moment to acknowledge the losses on both sides doesn’t make any excuses, it simply recognizes the fallen.  If anything, Emmerich could have spent a little more time with the Japanese in the first half of the movie and I imagine he did but felt he could sacrifice those scenes when the movie was running long in his original cut.

Releasing just in time for Veterans Day, I’ll be interested to see how Midway plays with audiences during this quieter time before the busy Thanksgiving holiday draws near.  Though the Battle of Midway has been filmed before (check out 1976’s Midway starring Charlton Heston and Peter Fonda for a less visual effects heavy telling) and there’s more to the story than can be told in 138 minutes (again, there’s absolutely no stories involving women which was disappointing) I appreciated that Emmerich was restrained enough to save his big guns for when he needed it most and let the quieter moments play out.  Even if the quieter moments were clumsy, at least they were there.  For that, I give the movie a lot of credit for exceeding my expectations and providing more entertainment than I could have predicted at the outset.  Very much worth seeing on the big screen.

Movie Review ~ Sully

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Chelsey Sullengerger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of the airplane flights 155 crew and passengers.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Holt McCallany, Jamey Sheridan, Katie Couric

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: While I love to travel and have been fortunate enough to visit destinations near and far there’s one nagging thing that always hampers my trip…flying. I wouldn’t say I hate it, I just strongly dislike it and would prefer to road-trip my way across the U.S. and cruise my way over to European destinations. The irony is that I have a particular fondness for movies where airplanes are the central focus. So while I get a sheen of panicked sweat when the plane door closes and I’m locked in for the long haul, I get a nice little rush when I fire up a flick where the stewardess has to fly the plane or Wesley Snipes kicks terrorist butt.

I let you in on this little secret of mine because after seeing Sully, my biggest take-away is that I’d like to have a captain/crew just like the one from U.S. Airways Flight 155 on all my flights moving forward. Showing how captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, first officer Jeff Skiles, and the flight crew kept calm in the face of clear and present danger is one of the many things that director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, American Sniper) and company gets right…even if the overall film winds up being more economy than first class.

Adapted by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki from “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, Eastwood’s film is a straightforward by-the-numbers affair and that’s likely where it lost a little spark for me. Sure, it would have been easy to overdramatize things and that wouldn’t have been right either…but instead of a smooth ascent Eastwood reaches his cruising altitude and goes on auto-pilot. (I think that’s the end of my flight-related metaphors/puns…maybe)

In a trim 95 minutes, Komarnicki and Eastwood take us through the events of that day in January 2009 when shortly after take-off Flight 155 hit a patch of birds that caused both of its engines to fail, leaving the plane gliding without power. Drawing on forty years of service, Sully (Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks) navigates the plane to a miraculous water landing on the Hudson River, saving everyone on board. Over the course of the film this incident is replayed several times to heart-pounding effect and largely without a booming score to tell you how to feel.

It’s the investigation after the landing as the NTSB/ insurance companies search for someone to blame that disappoints, waffling between holding Sully and Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, London Has Fallen) accountable and vindicating them as the heroes they certainly were/are. Hearings with the NTSB, headed by Mike O’Malley (Concussion), Jamey Sheridan (Spotlight), and Anna Gunn feel like acting exercises to see which of the three can glare, grimace, and judge all at the same time. For the record, O’Malley wins but only because Gunn never bothers to raise her voice (or her pulse) past a stage whisper.

Komarnicki puts in some awkward encounters Sully has with a public that wants to thank him but doesn’t know quite how to put that into words. So we have uncomfortable scenes where he’s kissed on the cheek by a make-up artist, hugged by a hotel manager, and lauded at a pub by local NYC bar huggers. Katie Couric pops up as herself recreating her exclusive sit down with Sully and the flight crew appearance on Letterman is shown with less than seamless integration between archive footage of the host and the Hollywood actors.

On the acting side of things, Hanks scores with his understated delivery and inherent dignity. Admittedly, it isn’t a big stretch for Hanks but in his own Hanks-ian way, he gives a powerful performance that’s more than a little reminiscent of 2013’s Captain Phillips. Hanks has an easy rapport with Eckhart…even when Eckhart’s Swedish Chef moustache threatens to take over the scene. Perhaps stymied by her scenes being entirely comprised of phone conversations, Laura Linney (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) is particularly bad as Sully’s wife. Holding down the homefront while Sully deals with the NTSB, Linney’s character could be excised all together and nothing would be lost. In fact, Komarnicki’s barely-there rough sketches of Linney and a handful of other minor players/passengers is so poor you begin to fault the acting when it’s actually the writing that’s a failure.

Though some of the performances and directorial choices kept the film grounded (yeesh…why is Eastwood still composing those dirge-like scores, ahem, themes for his movies?), it’s Hanks that will make you want to check your luggage and hop on board. The recreations of the events of that day gave me that thrill I was looking forward to, I just wish everything else was as tight as those sections.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sully

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Synopsis: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of his 155 passengers.

Release Date: September 9, 2016

Thoughts: Though he doesn’t wear a cape, Tom Hanks is the unquestionable superhero of moving movies. The amazing story that came to be known as The Miracle on the Hudson made its captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a media darling and Sullenberger’s recounting of his courage under fire made for good reading.  Judging from this first look at Sully, there’s more to the story than most of the public would ever know as it shows the rippling backlash after Sully’s moment in the spotlight. While I feel it looks awfully similar to the 2012 fictionalized Flight and that J.K. Simmons would have been a more ideal Sully, Hanks (Cloud Atlas) and director Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) make this one something that might fly high this fall.

Movie Review ~ London Has Fallen

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The Facts
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Synopsis: In London for the Prime Minister’s funeral, Mike Banning discovers a plot to assassinate all the attending world leaders.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Charlotte Riley, Waleed F. Zuaiter

Director: Babak Najafi

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Those looking to fill up on their xenophobia quotient for the year should look no further than London Has Fallen, an ugly, tacky sequel to 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen which prided itself on being merely tacky.

It’s been three years since Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, How To Train Your Dragon 2) single handedly saved the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart, Erin Brockovich) and an assortment of White House staffers (Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Sean O’Bryan) from a troop of North Korean militants that descended upon 1600 Penn Ave. Now older (and looking it), wiser, and about to be a dad, Banning is considering hanging up his gun and nesting with his wife (an underused Radha Mitchell) and new arrival.

Before he can send his resignation e-mail, though, Britain’s Prime Minister unexpectedly dies and his funeral calls many heads of state to the forefront to pay their respects in London. Before you can say bangers and mash, Banning and the President find themselves under siege again…this time by a Middle Eastern arms dealer out for revenge in a most public fashion. So begins a chase film where an unending bevy of bad guys pursue POTUS and his security man through the deserted streets of London.

There’s a serious lack of taste to the film. I guess I just get really skeeved out when the central topic of an American-made movie is a terrorist plot to capture and execute (by beheading) the leader of our country live on the Internet. Does it hit to close too home when we see/hear about these brutal murders broadcast for wartime propaganda? Sure does and it doesn’t mean I take any pleasure in seeing a movie about it. It’s also pretty sickening in terms of the Islamic panic created by the screenwriters and director who don’t waste any opportunity to have Butler graphically murder a terrorist while delivering a “America, F**K yeah!” quip. Hearing audience members applaud and cheer this on definitely made my stomach turn.

I’ve yet to quite figure out what makes Butler such a draw for audiences and studios. Though in demand much less these days, he’s still managing to get work despite his acting chops that are on par with the Segals and VanDammes of similar films. He looks terrible here, appearing as if he hasn’t slept in the years since the last film opened. Eckhart also is quickly taking a nosedive on the reliability department. Though saddled with some severely awful dialogue, a smarter actor would have found a way to make his performance interesting, if not at least consistent. Poor Bassett (Chi-Raq) is treated rather terribly by the writers and Leo (Prisoners), so astoundingly bad in the original, is featured in over a dozen scenes but has but two lines. She looks positively in pain to be appearing here…obviously contractually obligated to do so. I’ll love Morgan Freeman (Lucy) forever but to say he’s phoning it in here would be insinuating he even bothered to dial in. Actually, Freeman and Leo appear mostly in one boardroom set…it’s clear they filmed their scenes in one or two days. The only bright spots in the darkness (literally, most of the film is hard to see thanks to poor lighting designed to hide the cardboard sets) are Mitchell and Charlotte Riley (In the Heart of the Sea) as a MI-6 agent. Sadly, neither lady gets much to do.

Special mention must be made to the bargain basement level special effects that unfortunately feature heavily into the picture. Explosions look like they were lifted directly off of a Nintendo DS and the only time that Butler and Freeman are on screen together it’s clear that neither actor was in the same room. Poor green screen backdrops are the icing on the cake and make me wonder if the entire film wasn’t shot in a warehouse in Glendale.

Olympus Has Fallen was a hunk of cheese left on the kitchen countertop for a few hours but its sequel is positively rancid. Reveling in ugly American nastiness, cheaply made, and badly acted it’s a film likely to be positively received only at a Donald Trump rally.

Movie Review ~ Olympus Has Fallen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s been said that timing is everything and if that’s true then the producing team behind Olympus Has Fallen should have listened to that wise old saying when it came time to release their film concerning a hostile takeover of the White House.  Released back in March at the height of tensions between North Korea and the US, the film did respectable business but was nowhere near the type of pre-summer hit that everyone involved must have hoped for.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that the final product would have ever really caught on regardless of when it was released because it’s a largely goofy affair that scores highly on the tension scale but exhausts itself and the audience with melodramatic acting and far too many extraneous plot happenings.  Opening in the shadow of July’s similarly themed White House Down, Olympus never really rises from the ashes of a been-there, done-that vibe that would have seemed more at home in a season of 24.  Oh wait…24 DID do nearly the exact same plot in its second to last season.

Poor Gerard Butler just can’t catch a break when it comes to films.  Though critics may make you think otherwise, he’s never been a true box office draw and a parade of stinkers in the last two years hasn’t helped his clout in Hollywood.  Olympus Has Fallen is probably his best film of the bunch, mostly because it allows Butler’s more macho/muscular streak to emerge rather than bear the weight of the romantic comedy nightmares he’s been stuck in recently.

Here Butler is a former guard to the President, a role he loses after an iffy opening sequence set on an icy bridge involving the First Family.  It’s never adequately explained how/why he gets bumped down a few notches on the Secret Service totem pole but it helps set up his redemption later in the film.  Now he’s a paper pusher with a nice view of his former office from his standard D.C. digs.

When a terrorist attack leaves the White House in shambles and the President and his staff held hostage in an underground bunker, it’s up to Butler to perform a one-man rescue mission by any means necessary.  The bulk of the first half of the film is taken up by the seemingly endless infiltration on 1600 Penn Ave by Korean militants that want the US to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  To do so would surely mean the fall of South Korea but with the fate of our nation’s leaders at hands what choice do we have.

These kinds of films where US governments are held hostage by a foreign entity always make me squirm because the movies always go the same.  It’s clearly stated that we do not negotiate with terrorists but when you flash a loved one in danger everyone always buckles.  The body count in this one is high which adds some extra suspense in who truly will survive by the time the credits roll.

Working in what must have been left over set pieces from The West Wing, director Antoine Fuqua moves the action around with ease even though most of it takes place in shadowy darkness.  It becomes hard to tell who is who…but when it’s just one man against the bad guys…you just need to focus on Butler and his bone-crushing methods of extracting information about the head villain in charge.

The big bad wolf is Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as one of the least intimidating villains in recent memory.  Though he doesn’t hesitate to put a bullet into more than a few people, Yune’s calm delivery seems more sleepy that sociopathic.  On the opposite side of the hero coin, Aaron Eckhart’s (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) President Asher is underused and not called on to do much but play on his All-American looks to cut a believable presence as the Commander in Chief.

Filling out the cast are several overly earnest performances that never seem to gel with each other.  Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) is the Speaker of the House that’s thrust in charge when both the President and Vice President become indisposed.  Freeman’s played the President before (in 1998’s Deep Impact) and he’s largely recreating that role here.  Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd pop up in pivotal roles and poor Radha Mitchell is the victim of overstuffing the turkey as Butler’s wife.  This whole storyline between Butler and Mitchell has nothing to do with the plot and bogs the film down.

Two respected actresses are also on hand and both are fairly disappointing.  Angela Bassett (This Means War) has little to do but give off of looks of both horrified terror and ballsy determination as the Secret Service Director.  With each passing role Bassett seems more determined to simply toe the line and not step out of her comfort zone.  Even worse is Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) in an atrocious wig offering line deliverers that seem to be coming via satellite based on the way she pauses before each one.  Leo growls and howls through most of the film…culminating in her unintentionally hilarious recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in pained agony.  For my money, the actresses should have swapped roles…I’m slightly convinced they mistakenly were given the wrong roles and no one noticed until it was too late.

Even with its silly plot contrivances and less than stellar special effects the film does truck along with reckless abandon that entertains more often than not.  You absolutely have to check your brain at the door and be prepared for some slightly tacky moments near the end when people start cracking jokes while standing in the middle of a sea of dead bodies.    A rental at best, Olympus Has Fallen may eventually get the job done but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s really worth it at the end of the day.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Erin Brockovich

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger

Director: Steven Soderbergh  

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though Roberts had been nominated twice before for an Oscar (for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman), it was her loose performance as the title character in this David vs. Goliath true life tale that finally brought her an Academy Award…and it remains some of her best work.  While Roberts gets much of the credit, you can’t forget the strong support she received from  Albert Finney (Skyfall, The Bourne Legacy) as her boss, Susannah Grant’s snappy script and Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Magic Mike) sitting in the director’s seat. 

Brockovich was an unemployed single mom when she fast talked her way into a job at a small law firm headed by Ed Masry.  Though she didn’t look the part and definitely didn’t talk the part, Brockovich became a valued asset to the firm as she became a champion for the case of a town affected by the deadly dumping of toxic chemicals. 

Roberts is on fire here…you can tell it’s a role she believed in and a director she had faith in…and it all comes together to be a very satisfying picture.  Some have argued that it was Roberts popularity in (and money-making for) Hollywood that helped her win but this is exactly the kind of role that the Academy is known to eat up.  And who doesn’t love a good old fashioned tale of the little guy/gal triumphing over evil?

The Silver Bullet ~ Erased (aka The Expatriate)

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Synopsis: An ex-CIA agent and his estranged daughter are forced on the run when his employers mark them both for termination as part of a wide-reaching international conspiracy.

Release Date:  TBD 2013

Thoughts: I’ve long thought that Aaron Eckhart has been underused in Hollywood.  It’s not that he hasn’t had a consistent career over the last decade but it’s been difficult for him to find the right role to fashion a career around. I don’t think Erased is the role to do that but it might be on the right track.  Though the long-delayed actioner feels like a script passed on by bigger A-List actors (or something that was written  in the early 90’s with Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, or Harrison Ford in mind), Eckhart will be the main reason I check this out when it’s released.  Co-starring Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace and April’s Oblivion), Erased looks like your standard man on the run feature but never underestimate the power of what seems like a simple story…those are the ones that can surprise you.