Midway (2019)

This was a movie that I really wish I’d gotten to for the Veteran’s Day Holiday. It is a no frills salute to the Navy forces that sustained the fight in the Pacific in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It hews closely to the timeline of events and the key players in the Battle of Midway which happened just six months after the surprise attack and largely changed the fortunes of war for the American side. A combination of hard work, rage and intuitive luck resulted in a complete reversal of the naval status of the two nations in a very short time.

Director Roland Emmerich is known for the disaster films he has made. Whatever his dramatic limitations are, he knows how to blow things up and show destruction on a massive scale. With this subject he has found an effective outlet for his skillset. There is a reenactment of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and subsequent Japanese attacks on China and in the Corral Sea. All of this is a lead up to the title battle which takes up the last part of the film.

There is a narrative that focuses on the life of Navy flyer Dick Best, a real hero from the period. The fact that ther is a personal story however does not make this like the other war films you have seen over the years. We get just enough of his homelife and personal doubts to see that he is a human being in this large scale picture of the war. Similarly, there is a slight story about the intelligence officer who had warned about potential dangers at Pearl Harbor before the attack, and his subsequent work with code breakers to try and determine where the next big event would be. Actor Ed Skrein plays Best as a no nonsense family man who also is fearless enough to intimidate those he is in command of. Patrick Wilson plays the quiet intelligence guy who’s guilt over the Pearl Harbor mess forces him to challenge establishment thinking about the war.

There are not quite as many personal touches for the Japanese commanders but they are presented in honest ways, suggesting their commitment and honor in what is a truly tragic us of resources. This is not a propaganda film, it is an historical document of the events and it tries to steer clear of making one side or the other more virtuous, it simply tries to tell us what happened. As a history lesson it is pretty effective. It is not hard for us to follow events and see how the strategy for Midway was evolved by both sides. Of course the thing that makes it cinematic is the CGI spectacle that we see as the conflict plays out. It is clear that this is a CGI heavy film, the work is competent but it is at times noticeable. The scale of destruction that happens probably could not be presented any other way these days in a budget that is manageable. Unlike “Saving Private Ryan”, “Midway presents the destruction without all the visceral horror that modern effects and make up are capable of. There are a few scenes where fire injuries are shown but there are no closeups on the wounded and the dead which are meant to turn our stomachs. This is a film that largely could have been made in the 1950s for it’s sensibilities.

Woody Harrelson, Aaron Eckhart, and Dennis Quaid play major historical figures, but most of their work is really background, with only a little bit of drama involved. Once again, we are presented with a reason to be eternally grateful to the “Greatest Generation”.  As far as I’m concerned that is justification enough to see the movie. The history lesson is also solid and it makes this a film that could be appropriately shown as part of a school curriculum. The drama is soft pedaled but the hard fought war and the losses that it entailed are worth a visit.

The Commuter

Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I’m willing to give him credit for “A Monster Calls” where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That’s too long and I don’t like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson’s character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don’t really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson’s character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn’t think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It’s not important, it’s just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson’s wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn’t require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I’m just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year.

The Conjuring 2

The original movie is now three years old and it remains one of my favorites in the horror genre. The spin-off story of “Annabelle” was not nearly as effective but it was not from the same director and it lacked the elements that “The Conjuring” had, mainly the Warrens , Ed and Lorraine, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. These two very sympathetic characters help make sense of the ghost story and allow the possession material to fit with the other scares in the last section of the first film. They are even more centrally involved in this new story and the result is a movie that is satisfying but not nearly as engaging as the predecessor.

These films both play the “Based on a True Story” game, and since the leads are supposed to represent actual historical figures, I guess it makes sense that they have to deal with some of the controversies they were involved with. Their involvement with the Amityville Horror case may be the crucial point at which you either accept or reject the legitimacy of their investigations. In this film, the opening makes reference to their involvement and there is a nicely creepy trance scene that recounts the horrors that precipitated the story that became so famous. When the Amityville case was later characterized as a hoax, it would seem to put a dent in the Warren’s credibility. That twist actually becomes an important plot point in this film, since the possibility of a hoax would keep the church out of the situation.

Very much as in the first film, we get a nicely paced introduction to a family that is struggling to make it through a divorce and tough economic times, this time in England. A mom and her four kids live in a dilapidated row house in Northern London, and strange things begin to happen. From the beginning of this story however, the possession angle is clear and there are lots of indicators that this is where the danger lies. The two young girls in the film, struggle to stay grounded but events really seem to push the idea that something supernatural is happening here. Unlike the earlier case, this event is being played out in public and there are a number of other “experts” involved in investigating and maybe helping the family. The Warrens are there as consultants but it does not take long for them to fully embrace the events and become part of the story themselves.

Horror films succeed on creativity, timing and a good sense of what creeps us out. This movie works those ideas well about 80% of the time. There are dark visions with horrific images that you know are going to give you a jump scare, but only if they are handled well. I think Director James Wan does a good job making the fright scenes he and his co-screenwriters put on paper. He is not always as successful with the drama outside of the scare scenes. Ed and Lorraine are good characters but sometimes they come off as a little too perfect. I did like the sequence where Ed helps the family calm down for a night with a little music, that was the most real moment that the two paranormal investigators have in the movie. The mumbo jumbo about having the name of the demon they seek to exorcise, comes out of nowhere as does the key to discovering the truth behind the events at the public housing house in Enfield Borough. The final sequence has a good taut climax without going over board on the effects.

By sticking to the principles of a good haunting story, and not getting carried away with CGI effects, the film sustains a sense of dread as well as personal empathy for the family involved. We are not put at too great a distance by the scope of the horror and we can understand the family’s desire to protect the kids as they are being attacked. The kids friends disappear from the film, and given the nature of the possession story, that makes sense. I did think that the loyalty of the family’s neighbors across the street was surprising, but maybe they could imagine that if something were not done to draw a line, they could easily have been in the same spot. I can’t see this making a year end “best of” list as the original did three years ago, but it is a worthy follow up and except for what seems like a slightly rushed resolution, a well made story.