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:


FOCUS (2015)

March 7, 2015

focus Greetings again from the darkness. Movies about “the con” have had many different looks over the years: the suave coolness of Oceans 11, David Mamet’s twisted perspective in House of Games, the tongue-in-cheek teamwork of Redford and Newman in The Sting, the demented mother-son approach in The Grifters, and of course, the slapstick style of Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. All of these committed to one style and made it work. The latest from the writing/directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy Stupid Love) can’t seem to decide if they want the audience in on the joke, or if they rather the audience be the butt of the joke.

Will Smith plays Nicky, a third generation con man who is also a very conservative entrepreneur. He runs his cons as a business and prides himself on never taking unnecessary risks, ensuring the odds are in his favor. His professional curiosity lands him in an awkward situation with Jess, played by Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), who clumsily mistakes Nicky for an easy mark. Instead, he agrees to mentor her during Super Bowl week in New Orleans. This sequence is the best and most entertaining part of the film.

The second half of the film complicates things with the do they or don’t they love story between Nicky and Jess, as well as a few other messy personal relationships. The fun here lies with the con, not the love story, and that’s where the focus should stay. In fact, the most interesting characters aren’t Nicky and Jess, but rather a riotous Adrian Martinez (as Nicky’s computer whiz assistant), Rodrigo Santoro (as a racing team owner trying to cheat the competition), Gerald McRaney (a hoot as Santoro’s crusty old henchman), Robert Taylor (TV’s “Longmire”) as one of Santoro’s competitors, and BD Wong as Nicky’s betting adversary in the film’s most ludicrous sequence (and that’s saying a lot). Ms. Robbie has true star potential, but the script hangs her out a few times. She will be seen as Jane in next year’s Tarzan movie, so add that to your must-see list.

A very smart person I know observed that Will Smith has been conning us for years, and maybe by taking this role, at least he is finally admitting it. It is a bit tiresome to see Mr. Smith consistently play the smartest guy in the room, the most charming guy in the room, and the sneakiest guy in the room. It seems maybe he is one of the few that still sees him as such. The best actors elevate their co-stars and the script, while it seems he believes his star power is all that’s required.

watch the trailer: