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.

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I’M NOT HERE (2019)

March 7, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many are haunted by the past – unable to move beyond either having been dealt a bad hand or having created one through their own actions. The film opens on a gaunt Steve (JK Simmons), alone in his apartment, and seemingly barely functioning. He is contemplating suicide with a shiny gun he keeps on a coffee table in a home as unkempt as himself. His only breaks are to frantically search the house for another bottle of vodka, or to listen to a phone message that kicks off yet another painful memory.

The film features three timelines for Steve: the despondent, suicidal elder; the twenties and thirties version (Sebastian Stan); and the 1960’s childhood Stevie (Iain Armitage, “Young Sheldon”). Those young years for Stevie recall his always-annoyed mom (Mandy Moore) and his fun-loving dad (Max Greenfield), while the young adult years show us his romance and marriage with Karen (Maika Monroe). It’s not long before we recognize the common thread that binds the timelines: alcoholism. First his dad’s, then his own.

Our memories tend to return in moments and flashes of events. This becomes more evident and the memories less reliable when years of alcohol abuse are in play. The flashes include the courtroom and judge of his parents’ divorce, his dad drinking, his own courting of Karen and the booze that accompanied it, the dissolution of his own marriage, and an unspeakable tragedy that ruined his life without taking it … something he is looking to remedy with that gun.

JK Simmons is remarkable here. His Steve is mired in loneliness, depression, guilt, and regrets – each amplified through booze. Simmons’ performance offers up not a single line of dialogue. He never leaves the apartment. He never has human interaction. Yet despite all of this, he never leaves our thoughts as he pinballs through his memories. Mr. Stan and Ms. Monroe provide the most telling scene outside of Simmons’ segments. Notice the difference in demeanor as he tells her he heard the shot when his dad killed himself vs how she states her mother died from cancer. This is the contrast of moving on no matter what life serves up, or being burdened with that weight forever.

The film was directed by Mr. Simmons’ wife Michelle Schumacher, and she co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Cummings (son of Emmy winning actor Robert Cummings). Mr. Cummings also appears as the judge in the divorce hearing. The film was originally shown in 2017, but is only now getting released. For fans of JK Simmons, it’s a must see.

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47 METERS DOWN (2017)

June 26, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Beach movies have long been a ‘Rite of Summer’. Going back to the 1960’s there was light-hearted frolicking in Where the Boys Are, Beach Blanket Bingo, and some Elvis flicks from the era. Of course everything changed in 1975 when Steven Spielberg scared us out of the water with his instant classic Jaws. Since then, beach movies tend to be about horrific creatures or sandy adventures gone wrong: Open Water, Deep Blue Sea, and last year’s summer hit The Shallows. The soon to number five Sharknado movies are in a separate class – more parody than horror.

The year’s salt water adventure follows two sisters who regrettably agree to a shark cage adventure while vacationing in Mexico. The sisters are played by two actresses whose most recent work has been on TV: Mandy Moore (“This is Us”) and Claire Holt (“The Vampire Diaries”, “The Originals”). Lisa (Ms. Moore) has been recently dumped by her boyfriend for being downright boring, while Kate (Ms. Holt) is her daredevil fear-nothing younger sister who persuades her to take a chance.

For reasons that only make sense in a cinematic world, the two sisters not only board Captain Taylor’s (Matthew Modine) rickety boat, but they also plop right into the rusty shark cage lowered by scrap metal that Taylor calls the winch. By nature of the film’s title, we know what happens next. The ladies’ 5 meter drop turns into a harrowing 47 meter plummet to the ocean floor. Their choice comes down to – run out of air trapped at the bottom of the sea, or risk the bends and sharks while swimming to the surface. Since the bends doesn’t make for exciting filmmaking, the sisters opt to stay put just out of radio range in hopes for a miraculous rescue.

Realizing they have limited air to breathe, the sisters start chatting about their sibling rivalry and petty jealousies. It’s at about this time (or maybe even sooner) that we begin rooting for the sharks. Director Johannes Roberts’ filmography features such titles as Hellbreeder, Roadkill and Turn Your Bloody Phone Off, so our expectations never rise about B-movie level. He does manage to tap into our primal fears with some terrific shark effects, and a panicky feeling associated with murky water and a lost sense of direction in the deep dark depths of the ocean. However, since the twist ending is so drilled into our consciousness throughout the film, the biggest mystery here is how big was the airline fee paid by the sisters for a last minute flight change when Lisa got dumped?

watch the trailer: