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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Independence Day: Resurgence

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Synopsis: Decades after original ID4 alien attack, Earth is threatened with a new extra-terrestrial threat, but will the planet’s installed space defenses be enough?

Release Date:  June 24, 2016

Thoughts: I don’t know about you, but I haven’t exactly spent the last 19 summers wishing for a sequel to 1996 megatron-huge blockbuster Independence Day.  If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve seen the movie all the way through since it was first released in theaters, officialy launching star Will Smith onto Hollywood’s A-List.  Smith’s not back for the sequel but a lot of familiar faces are, like Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park), Bill Pullman (American Ultra), and Vivica A. Fox.  Director Roland Emmerich (White House Down) has had his fair share of misses in the past two decades but if this energized first look at Independence Day: Resurgence is any indication; he could be walking toward another hit.

The Silver Bullet ~ Stonewall

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Synopsis: A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.

Release Date:  September 25, 2015

Thoughts: Though we still live in a world plagued by racism, homophobia, sexism, and a lot of other unfortunate “isms”, it’s worth noting that we’ve come a long way over the last half century and these key moments in the civil rights movement for all walks of life are getting the silver screen treatment in full force the last few years.  2014 had its Selma and 2015 audiences will get see Meryl Streep in Suffragette and Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall.  Fitting for the director of Independence Day, Emmerich (White House Down, who I wasn’t aware was gay himself until a few years ago) takes on a dramatized version of the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, placing a fictional story in the midst of the very real conflict.  I’ll admit to being under-educated on this period in history and while I won’t rely on the film to tell me all I need to know, I hope it’s a good jumping off point to continue the discussion on equality.

Movie Review ~ White House Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hollywood’s quirky concept of rival studios producing dueling pictures with the same subject matter has been around for quite some time. There’s the battle of the lava flick with 1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak, dueling doomsday comet movies with 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, and most recently two different takes on a fairy princess legend with 2012’s Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman.

One would think that being the first to the theater would signify a clear winner but it’s almost always the case that the second film edges out the competition.  That general rule is true again in 2013 which has provided your local cinema with two movies centered around the hostile takeover of 1600 Penn Avenue…better known as The White House.

March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a gratuitously violent and shabbily made film, feeling like it was shot in the same two hallways and offices with the furniture simply re-organized to suggest a new location.  It also boasted a forgettable villain and supporting performances that ranged from serviceable to hysterically awful (I’m looking at you Melissa Leo).  It felt like an extended version of the television series 24 without any of the surprise that that show seemed to have in spades.

So I was modestly hopeful that White House Down would be a better film…but as more television spots were released and a final too-long trailer was plopped before every summer movie thus far, I started wondering if I’d even make an effort to see the film at all.  It didn’t help that there’s something about the subject matter that doesn’t sit quite right with me – maybe it’s because I find The White House to be a true symbol of the United States of America and I’ve not taken any pleasure in seeing it destroyed in films over the years.

Well, I wound up seeing White House Down opening weekend and my first thought was that the movie was better than it had any right to be.    What you have here is a true blue crowd pleaser that wisely avoids the missteps of Olympus Has Fallen by keeping things moving at such a rapid pace that you barely have time to catch your breath or let your brain do any dissecting of the fairly ludicrous material.

Though I like a well thought out action flick as much as the next person, there’s something satisfying in just letting a movie like this wash over you without having to worry too much about dots being connected or lessons being learned.  This is a hard muscled thrill ride of a film and it’s thanks to the unusually focused efforts of director Roland Emmerich  (2012, Independence Day, Universal Soldier) and star Channing Tatum (Side Effects, The Vow, Magic Mike, Haywire, 21 Jump Street) that the movie comes off as pleasing as it does.

With a script from James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) that is really just a re-working of the original Die Hard, White House Down takes a good 40 minutes of its 131 minute length to set-up the characters and plot points that will be used throughout the film.  Foreshadowing is a lost art and while most movies have such obvious moments that will be referenced later in the film, there are a few sequences near the end of White House Down that you don’t even realize were set-up in a halfway decent way an hour or more earlier.  I respect films that can divert you like that without going for a cheap ploy and White House Down, while derivative, never feels overtly sly in its approach.

The synopsis above is pretty perfect in setting up the goings-on of the film and I’m going to refrain from saying any more, lest I give away some of the turns the movie takes on its journey.  There’s no super secret twist awaiting audiences but I did find it admirable Vanderbilt and Emmerich didn’t take the trail most traveled in the midst of all the gunfire and explosions.

A movie of this ilk could easily have recessed into R-rated territory and it’s notable that the PG-13 rating leaves the movie relatively bloodless but doesn’t totally cut itself off at the knees either.  People do die but it’s not nearly as excruciating to watch as the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen or even Air Force One, Harrison Ford’s 1997 president in peril film.

Try as I might, I can’t continue to deny that Channing Tatum isn’t coming into his own as a perfectly fine actor and proven action star.  Though the script lightly sketches his war veteran turned security detail muscle man, Tatum convincingly makes the character flesh and bone and not just because he’s put in charge of saving the president (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) but his estranged 11 year old daughter (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful).

Foxx is someone I can either take or leave but his President James Sawyer is a nice role for the Oscar winning actor.  There’s not a lot of room for Foxx to do anything but what’s asked of him and his Obama-lite take on the president is nothing to roll your eyes at.  This is a president that doesn’t suddenly learn how to use a gun and take on all forms of bad ass-ery…he evolves as the situation changes around him.  There’s some nice chemistry between Foxx and Tatum, something that helps the film along on more than one occasion.

Another actor that I sometimes have mixed feelings about is the lone female star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Won’t Back Down), and she wound up being one of the main reasons I liked the film so much.  As a confident Secret Service agent that isn’t butch-ed up or written as a doormat, Gyllenhaal is commanding and a solid presence in the war room that becomes the nerve center in helping Tatum and Foxx make it out of the attack alive.

Also turning in fine work as a villainous mercenary is Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Lawless), Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher), and James Woods as the head of Secret Service detail assigned to protect the president.    Everyone else is merely filler comprised of character actors that probably bring their own military uniforms to the set with them.

Even with several well staged action sequences that take Tatum and Foxx on a tour of the White House grounds, the movie does start to feel the weight of its mission about 90 minutes in.  It’s yet another case of people making it out of danger but turning around and going back in to save someone the audience knows they shouldn’t.  The perfunctory ending is rushed…almost as if the last day of shooting arrived and the final ten pages were crammed into one.

For my money, the battle of the Presidential Palace has been won by White House Down thanks to some skilled work by players operating with a hefty budget and A-List talent.  It’s easy to see why the film could be written off quickly by audiences that didn’t care for Olympus Has Fallen but I’d suggest you give this one a go if you’re in the mood for something that goes down relatively easy with a nicely chiseled punch.

The Silver Bullet ~ White House Down

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Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Release Date:  June 28, 2013

Thoughts: Hot on the heels of February’s Olympus Has Fallen is White House Down, another action-thriller involving the hostile take-over of the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  June’s White House Down is directed by Roland Emmerich who started off with the campy and enjoyable Universal Solider/Stargate one-two punch and has gradually gone the Michael Bay route of heading up pictures that were full of sound of fury and signifying nothing.  The presence of in-demand star Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, Side Effects, The Vow) can’t hurt the chances of this taking down the competition at the box office in its first weekend – but let’s see if the film has any substance to go along with the explosions.