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:


IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Humiliation and disgust register when we acknowledge that James Baldwin’s 1974 book is as relevant today as it was when published. Though the book hardly lends itself to a big screen presentation, writer-director Barry Jenkins (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for last year’s Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT) brings his cinematic artistry and deft touch to a story that is a touching love story wrapped in a tale of social injustice.

Filmmaker Jenkins has succeeded in delivering the rare film that is filled with both tender, warm, smile-inducing moments and moments of absolute frustration that fill us with outrage. It’s a beautiful film with a sweet story of love between two soul mates, and it’s also a story of race, class, and Harlem in the 70’s. The film begins with a Baldwin quote informing us that “Beale Street” is born from black roots – it’s not geographical, but rather cultural. He’s certainly not referring to today’s tourist destination in Memphis.

Tish (terrific newcomer Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James, played Jesse Owens in RACE) have been best friends since early childhood. They are now ages 19 and 22 respectively, and that friendship has blossomed into romantic attraction. Their fairy tale love story is shattered when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) falsely accuses Fonny of rape, and Fonny goes to prison. And if that’s not enough, we witness the scene where Tish and her family invite Fonny’s family over to announce she is carrying his baby. Fonny’s judgmental and religious zealot of a mother reacts with indignation and is beyond cruel to Tish. It’s one of the most emotionally explosive scenes of any movie all year. Regina King gives a powerhouse performance as Tish’s mom, and she goes toe-to-toe with Fonny’s mom played by Aunjunae Ellis (Yula Mae from THE HELP). Fonny’s dad (Michael Beach, AQUAMAN) and Tish’s dad (Colman Domingo, SELMA) are stunned by the situation, and wisely take their discussions to the corner bar.

That incredible scene of families clashing is offset by the tenderness and soulfulness of the scenes showing Fonny and Tish together … whether on the neighborhood streets, in their apartment, or talking with a glass barrier between them. As the timeline gets bounced around, we see Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Byron Tyree Henry) in one exceptional scene, and we also see the bond between Fonny and his café manager friend played by Diego Luna. The depth of these scenes is difficult to relay, and the film acts as both a character study and social commentary relevant to today’s issues. There is so much precision and attention to detail in the story-telling and acting. The color palettes transition depending on the mood of the scene, as does the music – the strings used by composer Nicholas Britell are very much a part of the Tish-Fonny love story, and the brassy jazz music cover the rest.

We get to know Fonny as an artist and charming young man smitten with Tish, who is a gentle and angelic soul. We see his changes while in prison, and we see how others react to her (based on their race, gender and age) as she works the perfume counter at a department story. Baldwin’s writing is spot on as Tish (in her role as narrator) says “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

Director Jenkins has delivered a special movie that is brilliantly constructed. It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. Cinematographer James Laxton expertly captures the tone changes, and having the actors periodically look directly into the camera (at the viewer) proves quite powerful. This is romanticism vs. reality, and speaks to the power and beauty of love … and the strength to carry through even in an unjust situation brought on by a fractured society. It’s a beautiful film.

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DEADPOOL (2016)

February 12, 2016

deadpool Greetings again from the darkness. Superhero movies have been dominating the box office for the better part of two decades, and most tend to lean towards moody and intense … though Iron-Man and The Avengers have certainly enjoyed adding searing one-liners to the mix. As for ratings, superheroes have steadfastly claimed PG-13 as the perfect blend of massive action, massive muscles and massive audiences. So it’s a little surprising to find a movie about a relatively unknown superhero, that’s the first feature from director Tim Miller (previously a visual effects guru), crashing through the R-rated barrier in no-holds-barred fashion. It’s startling and refreshing to see a new take on what had become just a bit too familiar.

This is a movie for which you will want to actually read the opening credits and stay for the post credit scene (a 2-parter). Additionally, you will want to make sure you keep not only little kids away (remember the hard R-rating), but also any grown-ups who are offended by harsh language (on the Tarantino scale), ultra-violence (on the Kill Bill scale) or any combination of sex, sex talk or sex jokes (all at an entirely new level). To label this movie as crass or profane is like calling Chewbacca somewhat fuzzy. And while it pushes the raunch-o-meter, it’s also blazingly funny at times (especially for a cancer movie).

The previously mentioned opening credits refer to the writers as “the real heroes here”, and while the plot is pretty textbook superhero stuff, it’s the barrage of one-liners and sight gags at which those writers so excel. They even make sure those unfamiliar with the Wade Wilson backstory understand that he is a former special forces operative turned mercenary for the average Joe’s and Jane’s. In no time, it’s drilled into our heads that he is also a wiseacre, wisenheimer, wise-ass, wisecracker and any other adjective that means funny but not wise.

Ryan Reynolds stars as Wade Wilson/Deadpool and leaves no doubt that he has finally found the role that fits him as well as his red suit. If you are convulsing as you flashback to Mr. Reynolds as Green Lantern (2011), take solace in the fact that this movie fires a couple of deadly shots at that oh-so-disappointing effort. His girlfriend Vanessa is played by Morena Baccarin (“Homeland”), and his best buddy/bartender is played by TJ Miller (“Silicon Valley”). Since Reynolds had a brief appearance as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), there are numerous nods to that franchise, including two key roles here for Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). The target of Deadpool’s revenge comes in the form of Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) as Ajax and Gina Carano as Angel Dust … accompanied by her theme song “Angel of the Morning” (unfortunately it’s the Juice Newton version, and not the more powerful Merrillee Rush and the Turnabouts version). Lastly, it’s pure joy to see Leslie Uggams cast in a spunky supporting role, and Stan Lee appears in what might be his most unique cameo yet.

As for music, the range is Neil Sedaka to DMX – yep, you’re unlikely to find a more diverse soundtrack. Your kid may have a Captain America figurine on their bookshelf, but the R-rating for this one is solidified in the first 10 minutes, and is relentlessly reinforced until the movie ends – this means don’t bring your kids! We can only imagine how much fun those old enough to watch are going to have, and brace yourself for an onslaught of Deadpool comebacks over the next few weeks … only hopefully not in church, at the office, in front of grandma, etc …

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE TRANSPORTER REFUELED (2015)

September 3, 2015

transporter Greetings again from the darkness. Hollywood loves the sequel, spin-off, and re-boot because the required level of creativity drops significantly when the characters, ideas and audience already exist. This “safe” approach to filmmaking doesn’t work so well when the franchise heavily depends on a particular actor. You might be able to find a new Superman (that cape absorbs much of the burden), but it’s much riskier to replace Jason Statham in the role that led to his breakout in 2002.

Game of Thrones” fans (and no one else) will recognize Ed Skrein. He left that hit series to take on this starring role as the skilled driver Frank Martin, who never changes a deal and always delivers the goods (and beats the crap out of people, and destroys fleets of police cars). Late in this film, we do notice that Mr. Skrein must have quietly lifted some GOT props, as one of the more preposterous fight scenes features Viking-type weaponry aboard a multi-million dollar yacht. For most films, that would easily rank as the clear jump the shark moment, but director Camille Delamarre seems to have no regulator on his appetite for outlandish stunts and scenes.

Mr. Skrein is very clearly one fit young man. However, his slipping into Statham’s driver’s seat leaves a void in charm and street cred. We never buy into his ability to go up against nasty Russian mobsters, though he does strikes the necessary fashion poses in scenes with the four rebellious prostitutes … led by Anna (Loan Chabanol). Unfortunately, Ms. Chabanol’s character looks like a knock-off of Gina Gershon and is performed at the level of Ms. Gershon’s Showgirls co-star Elizabeth Berkley (insert groan and dread here).

The highlights of the film are Ray Stevenson, who plays Frank’s dad; the French Riviera locale; and the over-the-top action and stunt sequences – many with (I choose to believe) purposefully humorous touches. Mr. Stevenson furnishes the only personal charm and wit, while also being easily the most interesting character – one we wish we knew more about. The France backdrop is not utilized to its fullest, but there are enough beautiful shots that prevent us from ever feeling ‘soundstage syndrome’. As for the action sequences, two of the most fun include a jet bridge and jet ski … unrelated, but both elicit audience reactions. If the airport scene isn’t quite far-fetched enough for you, perhaps this sequence will impress you: girl gets shot, nearly bleeds to death, is saved by spider-webs, joins in threesome.

There is an ongoing attempt to tie this to “The Three Musketeers” story, but the gag mostly falls flat, as does most of the story. And by “story”, it’s defined here as: car chases, big booms, fight scenes, fancy clothes, sex scenes, car crashes (the effects of car chases), wigs as disguises, dance club girl-on-girl kisses, gun shots, fancy yacht and private jet. One thing that stands out … all of the female characters are prostitutes, albeit victims of sex-trafficking by the Russians. It’s their plan for revenge that drives the story – moreso than the actual driver (of the title). Luc Besson was behind the first three Transporter movies, and he co-wrote and produced this latest. He clearly loves the character, as he has already announced plans for the 5th and 6th entries into the franchise.  One may assume that I’ll park elsewhere.

watch the trailer: