MIDWAY (2019)

November 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Japan’s World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn’t like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.

Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism … many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it’s no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides – it’s just displayed differently.

The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein’s performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we’ve come to expect for war movies.

Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It’s also a reminder that the “big” story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people … people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.

watch the trailer:


BLEED FOR THIS (2016)

November 17, 2016

bleed-for-this Greetings again from the darkness. You may be excused if you believe there have been enough boxing movies recently. Just last year, we saw Creed and Southpaw – both critically acclaimed and featured significant screen time inside the ropes. Writer/director Ben Younger returns with his first movie since 2005 (Prime) and teams up with screenwriter Angelo Pizzo to present the “based on a true story” of Rhode Island’s own Vinny Pazienza.

Mr. Pizzo is known for his work on inspirational sports films like Hoosiers, Rudy, The Game of Their Lives, and My All-American; so the fascinating and true story of Paz is right in his wheelhouse. See, The Pazmanian Devil (his nickname) was a terrific fighter, and is even more famous for his medically-defying comeback after a horrific car accident. The doctors doubted he would ever walk again, and offered Vinny no hope at all of ever fighting again.

Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now) plays Vinny Pazienza and obviously trained very hard to get in tip top shape. His boxing skills are well suited to the training sequences but must be creatively edited for the scenes in the ring. This is especially obvious when clips of the real Paz are inserted. Beyond that, Teller softens the overblown machismo of Pazienza and the boxing world. He captures the single-minded commitment of Pazienza, while making him a bit more likeable than the real man came off in interviews.

Aaron Eckhart is excellent as Pazienza’s (and Mike Tyson’s former) trainer, Kevin Rooney. It’s puzzling how Eckhart’s name ever came up for the role of a balding, pudgy, alcoholic who believes he’s been put out to pasture … but Eckhart and Teller together produce some wonderful scenes. Other support work comes from Ciaran Hinds and an underutilized Katey Sagal as Vinny’s dad and mom, and Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber as boxing promoters Lou and Dan Duva.

The comeback was as improbable as it was inspirational, and the decision to go with the Halo (metal brace that screws into the skull) over the neck fusion surgery could easily be categorized as foolish rather than courageous. But much of the story revolves around the internal make-up and competitive drive that made Vinny the man and the boxer that we see.

The film has more in common with The Fighter than either of the movies mentioned in the first paragraph, but it’s even more character study than boxing movie. This proud, driven, egotistical local from Providence held world titles at three different weight classes, refusing to be limited by the opinions of others. Rather than end with a classically Hollywood shot of victorious Paz celebrating in the ring, the film ends with an odd interview centered on his debate against the phrase “it’s not that easy”. It’s a stance that makes us question whether he ever learned the lessons of gamble vs risk. Mostly though, we marvel and agree that he’s a guy who deserves to be on a box of Wheaties.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SULLY (2016)

September 8, 2016

sully Greetings again from the darkness. Society has a tendency to go to extremes – hero worship for those who probably don’t deserve it and character assassination for those who have the gall to be less than perfect. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger has experienced both. On January 15, 2009, Sully made the decision to land the crippled aircraft of US Airways flight 1549 right into a river … an event immediately labeled “Miracle on the Hudson”.

Surprisingly, this is the first film collaboration for Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood. Both have cinematic experience with true life stories and real people: Hanks most recently in Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies; and Clint with American Sniper and J. Edgar. This one is the perfect fit as Hanks takes on a good man who takes pride in doing his job, and Clint brings to life a story that showcases the best of human nature.

Tom Komanicki adapted the screenplay from the book “Highest Duty”, co-written by Sully and Jeffrey Zaslow. Much of the attention is given to the doubts and uncertainty Sully experienced during the NTSB review. The scrutiny of his work by the committee (played here by the ultra-serious Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) left his career and reputation dangling, inspiring nightmares that are much worse than yours and mine.

Certainly we are in awe of what Sully pulled off that morning, but as movie goers, we are anxious to see the plane crash/splash/landing. Clint comes through in breath-taking fashion. While it lacks the hysterics and drama of the upside-down plane in Flight, this re-creation is so realistic that we nearly obey the flight attendants repeated instructions of “Heads down. Stay down”. Even the cockpit chatter, passenger evacuation, and first responder’s (many of whom are real life folks, not actors) activities are played in matter-of-fact manner … more people just doing their job. We shiver knowing the icy Hudson River water is 36 degrees, and we feel Sully’s anxiety as he desperately tries to get a final count … a count that he prays will hit 155.

Aaron Eckhart plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles and has a couple of memorable scenes, and Laura Linney embraces the thankless role of telephone wife of Sully during the aftermath and hearings. We get a glimpse of Sully’s background with flashbacks to his flight lessons at a Denison Texas private airfield, as well as a portion of his military service. Hanks is the perfect choice for a role that would have suited James Stewart just fine were it the 1940’s.

The conflict here comes from the NTSB inquiry. Backed by computer simulators that show the plane could have coasted back to LaGuardia, we get the distinct feeling that the committee’s goal is finding human error – naming a scapegoat (other than Canadian geese) for their “lost” plane. It’s Sully who reminds us that the committee is simply doing their job … just as he was, Skiles was, the Flight Attendants were, and the first responders were.

This is technically expert filmmaking. We know the ending, but are glued to the screen. Frequent Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern handles the cinematography, and like the acting and story-telling, the camera work avoids any excess or over-dramatization. The film provides one of the best examples ever of the duality of hero worship and intense scrutiny, and how a person can be a hero by simply doing their job. The closing credits show clips of the flight’s reunion and every survivor would agree that the best among us allowed a continuation of life … something that could have gone to the other extreme.

watch the trailer:

 


MY ALL AMERICAN (2015)

November 13, 2015

my all american Greetings again from the darkness. I’m a University of Texas alumnus and have vivid childhood memories of Freddie Steinmark the player, followed by Freddie Steinmark the tragedy, and finally Freddie Steinmark the inspiration. His legacy remains an active part of the Longhorns football program today via the stadium scoreboard dedication and the locker room tribute that is part of every game day in Austin. This is the directorial debut of Angelo Pizzo, who is known for writing two other inspirational sports movies: Hoosiers and Rudy.

It’s difficult not to cringe when the film opens in 2010 with a reporter interviewing legendary and elderly former coach Darrell Royal, who is dementia-stricken and forgetful … until he starts speaking of Freddie. The cringe-inducing part isn’t Coach Royal’s dementia (of which we fans were all aware), but rather the amateurish make-up applied to Aaron Eckhart in an attempt to age him into the 85 year old icon. Fortunately this segment is brief, and we are soon enough picking up a high school aged Freddie as he practices and works out ferociously with his dad in hopes of fulfilling his dream of playing football at Notre Dame.

Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) plays Freddie, and captures the intensity, ambition and goodness of the young man who would galvanize the Longhorns program and end up making quite an impression on those Notre Dame coaches, but for much more than his play on the field. Burned into my memory (and that of anyone who witnessed it) is the shot of Freddie on crutches at the 1970 Cotton Bowl.

Director Pizzo offers some breath-taking aerial shots of Austin and Memorial Stadium (digitally altered to reflect the late 1960’s), and some impressive sequences of football practices and games. Football fans will have fun spotting former players making appearances including Case McCoy (as Razorback Bill Montgomery), Hays McEachern, Danny Lester, and Luke Poehlmann. You will also note Juston Street plays his father James (mimicking the game face), and Jordan Shipley plays my all-time favorite Longhorn receiver, Cotton Speyrer. Nostalgia flows as the game announcers call some of the greatest college players of the era: Ted Koy, Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen, Steve Owens, and Chuck Dicus.

“The Game of the Century” is the centerpiece game of the movie, and we actually get a clip of President Richard Nixon arriving to the Texas-Arkansas game of 1969. It turned out to be Freddie’s final football game, but more aptly, a continuation of his influence. However, this is just as much the story of Freddie the individual as it is Freddie the football player. His determination, zest for life and incredible courage are the message here … not tackles and interceptions. Even his relationship with his high school and college sweetheart Linda (Sarah Bolger) seems the stuff of which dreams are made.

In addition to this film, there have been three books written about Steinmark: in 1971 Freddie worked with Blackie Sherrod on an autobiography called “I Play to Win”; in 2011, Jim Dent wrote “Courage Beyond the Game”; and just this year, the University of Texas published a new biography entitled “Freddie Steinmark: Faith, Family, Football” by Bower Yousse (a former friend and teammate). It should also be noted that Steinmark’s battle against cancer inspired Congress to pass the National Cancer Act of 1971, beginning the war on cancer and spurring a jump in cancer research that continues to this day.

It’s a football movie, but also a tearjerker. It’s a profile of an over-achiever, but also the story of a young man who inspired a team, a university and a nation. Every time you think the story is a bit corny, or that Freddie is too good to be true, just remind yourself that despite the cynicism permeating society today, Freddie Steinmark was flesh and blood, with a heart and soul and mentality that refused to surrender.

a picture of Freddie Steinmark:

freddie

 


OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN (2013)

March 25, 2013

olympus Greetings again from the darkness. Gerard Butler doesn’t always make wise decisions when picking his projects. In the right role, men admire him for being cool and tough, while women are enchanted with his charm. The role of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is just about perfect for Butler. He not only gets to be an action hero, but he also has a solid relationship (with Radha Mitchell) and is a role model for the President’s young son. Butler is so nearly perfect here, he should be cast in the next Old Spice commercial.

The movie starts out with the backstory on how Agent Mike Banning (Butler) fell out of grace with the President and was reassigned to a desk job at Treasury. Pushing paper is like Siberia for a man of Banning’s make-up. A terrorist invasion on the White House tosses Banning right smack in the middle of a violent and explosive act designed to leave the entire United States decimated. Circumstances being what they are, Banning is the only hope.

olympus2 Movies like this must have a quality bad guy. We get icy Rick Yune as Yang, a North Korean criminal mastermind. You might think this is extremely timely given the real world in North Korea, but Yune is certainly no Governmental official. The attack is very well planned and leaves Yune locked in the White House security bunker with the President, Vice President and Secretary of Defense (a spunky Melissa Leo). At the Pentagon, this leaves the Secretary of State (Morgan Freeman) and a bombastic General (Robert Forster) jockeying for control. Angela Bassett is there to referee. As movie goers we are accustomed to seeing Morgan Freeman as God, as the President, and as the brains behind Batman.  Secretary of State seems a step backwards career-wise, so it’s a relief when he assumes Presidential control.  While this group of officials sits around looking anxious and worried, Agent Banning is a one man wrecking crew against the terrorists.

olympus3 The images of the White House being attacked will prove quite disturbing to any US citizen and the sequence comes off as something that could possibly occur. Let’s hope director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) performed sufficient research to know this attack couldn’t actually happen. Still, Aaron Eckhart is a believable President … in the Harrison Ford (Air Force One) mode, tough as nails but also intelligent.

There are of course similarities to Clint Eastwood’s 1993 film In The Line of Fire, and many are comparing it to the 1988 classic Die Hard. For me, the difference in Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning and Bruce Willis’ John McClane is that Butler is the right guy in a bad place, while McClane was a good guy in the wrong place. The action sequences in Olympus Has olympus4Fallen are even bigger than Die Hard, and it’s certainly clear there is much more at stake.

The cast also includes Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd. Without giving anything away, I’ll admit this is my favorite Ashley Judd role of all time. It will be interesting to see how this one compares to Roland Emmerich’s White House Down, which comes out in June. The story lines are almost identical with WHD starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. Olympus Has Fallen is a very satisfactory action movie, with many traditional elements, and Butler has re-established himself as a real movie star. It’s doubtful Emmerich’s version will stand up against this one.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are an Action movie fan OR you want to see Gerard Butler in the perfect Gerard Butler role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the White House get attacked is something you prefer not to see even if it’s only a movie

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwx1f0kyNwI

 


THE RUM DIARY

November 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I suppose we are to give Hunter S Thompson the benefit of the doubt. Some of his writings are historically invaluable and models of brilliant writing. I doubt many would include The Rum Diary in that category. Director Bruce Robinson (Jennifer Eight, Withnail and I) does the best he can with enormous help from Thompson’s friend and biggest cheerleader, Johnny Depp.

The film plays as an autobiography supposing Thompson’s character Paul Kemp (Depp) would have been employed in 1960 at the San Juan Puerto Rico STAR, a newspaper run by English speaking Americans trying to report in Spanish speaking land. The editor is Lotterman (Richard Jenkins) who just wants simple human interest stories that the tourists will enjoy. When Kemp arrives, Lotterman asks him what kind of drinker he is. Kemp replies “the high end of social“. A greater understatement may never have been uttered. Kemp, and of course, the real life Thompson, ingested liquor at a pace and volume greater than a marathoner takes in water.

 Kemp finds a drinking buddy in Sala (Michael Rispoli) who is the paper’s photographer. He is drawn into a shady land development plot by Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), an American looking to capitalize financially by raping the undeveloped beach front land. He needs the help of Kemp to “sell” the project to investors, tourists and locals. Not surprisingly, Kemp’s vision is a bit cloudy and he screws this up while also turning the head of Sanderson’s lady, Chenault (Amber Heard).  All the while, a shady, oddball figure played by Giovanni Ribisi is ALWAYS around.  Ribisi’s character is the guy who, if in prison, other inmates would come to for “supplies”.  Somehow, though, this character is free to roam about San Juan.

 Depp does a standout job as Thompson again (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) with his speech pattern and ever present sunglasses. The feel of the 1960’s is on display with fashion and autos, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I suppose the message from Thompson here is that he did what he always envisioned himself doing … he went hard after the establishment bad guys and brought them down hard. However, this story rings a bit hollow and there are just too many missing pieces and too many holes.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you never miss anything with Johnny Depp or written by Hunter S Thompson … there is really no other reason.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a real introduction to the Gonzo Journalism that Hunter S Thompson was best at

watch the trailer:


BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

March 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The downside to being an eternal movie optimist is that the falls can be very hard. I had hopes going in that this could be a sci-fi, alien-invasion, doomsday, special effects flick that would deliver a few thrills and chills. Not. So. Much.

The two best things I can say about the film are: 1. Aaron Eckhart has a great face for a grizzled Marine. 2. The film is loud. Loud and Noisy. If those don’t sound like resounding endorsements, it’s because I really, really, really disliked this movie.

Aaron Eckhart gives it all he has as the 20 year Marine who has put in for retirement. He also has a somewhat gray mark on his record from his last assignment, where (rumor has it) he was responsible for the death of men in his command. That really ends the depth of the film. Eckhart gets dragged back into active duty when a meteor shower turns out to be an alien invasion.

 This ludicrous alien invasion is evidently for the earth’s water. Somehow these aliens have run out of water on their planet, wherever that may be. They are smart enough for intergalactic travel and drone activity to minimize their own damage during the attack, but they can’t figure out how to successfully take over Santa Monica from a hand full of Marines.  By the way, Los Angeles traffic looks the same after an alien invasion – no cars are moving.

I found myself laughing on more than one occasion and I am quite sure that director Jonathan Liebsesman and writer Christopher Bertolini had no visions of this being comical. It has the look of a blend of Independence Day, Cloverfield and War of the Worlds. It isn’t in their league … and I really didn’t care much at all for two of those.

Bridget Moynahan, Michael Pena and a couple of kids are tossed in to soften the military slant and try to bring some human touches, but none of it works. Neither does Michelle Rodriguez as … SURPRISE … a tough as nails soldier who displays heroic instincts. Seen that before? The aliens look like malnourished Transformers. The camera work is god-awful. The special effects range from acceptable to laughable. The dialogue is limited to cool things like “look out”, “heads-up”, “in here”, “that’s an order” …  Actually, the movie could become perfect fodder for “Mystery Science Theater”!

But mostly what this one is successful at is NOISE. Lots of noise. Lots of loud noise. So believe me when I scream … STAY AWAY!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: your life is so perfectly calm and boring that you crave a cacophony of chaos.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer to avoid motion-sickness and headaches generated by sloppy filmmaking