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 ~ Thor: The Dark World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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Movie Review ~ 47 Ronin

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Tadanobu Asano, Rinko Kikuchi

Director: Carl Rinsch

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There’s nothing film critics will get behind quite like a big-budget bomb and it appears that 47 Ronin just made the grade in the final days of 2013, effectively wiping out memories of The Lone Ranger, the other expensive movie that tanked earlier this summer.  Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on though…it’s not anywhere near as bad as some fuddy duddy national critics would have you believe it is (neither, for that matter, was The Lone Ranger) but it’s also not the grand spectacle Universal Studios thought they were getting.

Arriving amid rumors of a troubled production phase, 47 Ronin could probably be called the Cutthroat Island of samurai films.  That is to say that like the infamous 1995 pirate epic that bankrupted its studio, it’s possessing huge production values thanks to a whopping budget but probably was never destined to be a movie that made all that cash back.  It does have one thing that Cutthroat Island didn’t have though; a plot drawn from Japanese folklore that provides more than enough excuse to go big or go home and 47 Ronin goes big.

Now it should be said that this is far from a perfect film.  Because it’s set up like a folktale, the filmmakers push the limits of reasonability to bring to life the story of the masterless samurai (called ronin) that seek to reclaim their land by avenging the death of their master.  Adding in lizard faced demons, ghosts of the undead, sinewy dragons, shape-shifting witches, and several beasts that can’t be classified,  screenwriters Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious 6), Hossein Amini (Snow White & the Huntsman), and Walter Hamada (a producer on The Conjuring) can’t be faulted for stuffing their take on the tale to the brim.

Where the film goes astray is the very fact that it’s a Hollywood film to begin with.  Though the legend has been put on screen seven times before, this is the first time that a major Hollywood studio has made a go of putting their stamp on the Japanese myth.  That’s like if a Russian production company made a film version of Johnny Appleseed…there’s something lost in translation that the film can’t recover from.

It always felt strange to me that a largely all Japanese cast was speaking English, probably so star Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) wouldn’t stick out further in his role as a foundling of mysterious origin taken in and raised with the samurai but never truly being part of them.  No disrespect meant to these Japanese actors but had the film been subtitled, it may have allowed these actors to dig deeper in their roles and not come off (as they often did) as simply reciting their lines phonetically.

Though I couldn’t stand her in July’s Pacific Rim, Rinko Kikuchi fares much better here as she slinks through the film as a villainous witch that changes appearance at will.  As an advisor to a rival kingdom’s leader she has a Lady Macbeth quality that’s lip smacking good without ever resorting to camp.  There’s also fine work from Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine) as the head samurai teamed up with Reeves and the lovely Ko Shibasaki as the requisite lovely princess in distress.

Even with a veteran editor (Stuart Baird) on board, it was probably not the best idea for Universal to place this property in the hands of a first time director.  With the emphasis on sumptuous costumes and large scale set-pieces, it’s actually hard to see where Carl Rinsch fit in as the director in the first place.  I think the movie could be trimmed by a good ten minutes but there are enough distractions for the eyes to keep you from checking your watch too much.  You can skip seeing the movie in 3D as it’s probably the least effective use of the medium in 2013.

This is one you’ll have to see and make-up your mind for yourself.  Maybe it’s because I read such scathing reviews for 47 Ronin before I saw it that the bar was set so low that it was destined to exceed those expectations…or maybe it’s just because the movie isn’t that bad to begin with and we’re just dealing with critics at the end of their 2013 good will toward men.  It’s not a film I’ll likely revisit but I wouldn’t chuck it in the trash heap if a copy found its way into my collection.

The Silver Bullet ~ 47 Ronin

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Synopsis: A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: There’s something about the preview for 47 Ronin that makes me think of those salad days in the late 80’s/early 90’s when you couldn’t throw a samurai sword in a video store and not hit a martial arts film starring any number of thick necked action heroes.  Keanu Reeves (Parenthood) has his share of detractors but as blank as he may appear to be, I can tell the guy has an appreciation for filmmaking and seems to enjoy selecting unexpected roles.  This isn’t the first time the Japanese folktale that anchors the film has been put on screen but it is the first time that Hollywood has taken a stab at it.  It looks kinda schlocky, pretty fun, and something that will require a big tub of popcorn to really enjoy. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Thor: The Dark World

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Synopsis: Thor battles an ancient race of Dark Elves led by the vengeful Malekith who threatens to plunge the universe back into darkness after the events of The Avengers.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts:   I was a bit underwhelmed by 2011’s Thor but recognized the value it had in the Marvel Universe, seeing that it played a larger part in getting the franchise closer to the release of The Avengers in 2012.  With Iron Man 3 releasing in May, the next Avenger to see a sequel is the God of Thunder and this time he’s back with a film that looks more like the film we’d expect from this comic/character.  Star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods, Snow White and the Huntsman) has this coming out two months after a strong performance in Ron Howard’s Formula 1 racing film Rush so count on him ending 2013 with some extra sawbucks in the bank.  The rest of the gang is back but with a new director at the helm I’m thinking this one will open up a new dimension that previous director Kenneth Branagh wasn’t able to deliver on.