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 This is not a propaganda film, it is an historical document of the events and it tries to steer clear of making one side or the other more virtuous, it simply tries to tell us what happened.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.

Zombieland Double Tap

The original Zombieland was a joy 10 years ago. It came out a year before I started keeping this blog so I never included it in any rankings or evaluations, but it certainly would have been on a list of my favorite films from 2009. I was pleased with the idea of a sequel, but the notionthat it would take ten years to get here never crossed my mind. As it is, the timing seems just right. The way the story develops, there is some character justification for actions, ten years into the zombie apocalypse.

I said I would keep today’s entires short, and that’s easy to do with this film. It has the same sensibility Director Ruben Fleiser had a big success with last year’s “Venon”, a film I never felt a strong need to see. This on the other hand is right up my alley and if you liked the first Zombieland, than D”DoubleTap” is for you. It has the off kilter humor, the action pacing of the first film, and some reasonable reasons for existing. There are a few new wrinkles and Woody Harrelson gets to vent against the kind of person he probably is in real life.

If you are an Elvis fan, there are things which you will enjoy. There is some non-partisan political humor, and best of all, there is a surprise sequence at the end which people who get out of their seats and race out the door will miss, and they will hate themselves for that. This movie completely fulfilled my hopes and expectations. It should be on repeat play at the house in the not too distant future.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.

Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.

This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.

Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara WeavingAbbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities. 

 

Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013,  “The Way, Way Back“.  That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all. 

 

 

The Edge of Seventeen


WARNING!!! The above trailer is a Red Band, it contains extreme language.

This film is far more accomplished and thoughtful than it has any right to be. You might expect a large serving of teenage angst, served with a side of sexual exploitation and finished off with a dessert of sweet homilies. While it does have some common ancestry with the John Hughes films of the 1980s, “The Edge of Seventeen” has a far more realistic view of life as an adolescent than teen comedies usually manage. It also has a strange relationship that is central to the tone of the movie but not to the plot. The history teacher as confidant is a twisted but honest relationship with an adult that every seventeen year old ought to have. Maybe not with their teacher but with some adult figure in their life.

Hailee Steinfeld is Nadine, a bright, cynical and nice looking junior at her High School. She is however socially awkward and compensates with a bitterness that is only tempered by her life long friendship with Krista, played by another Hayley, Hayley Lu Richardson. When that friendship is threatened, Nadine finds herself at wits end, acting out in ways that she sometimes regrets but also speaking without the restraint that another voice usually provides her. Even in adulthood, a friend can be an influence on our behavior in both positive and negative ways. When the loss of a friendship occurs in the depths of adolescent angst, the consequences are likely to be earth shattering, at least for the kids involved.

 

Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig seems to get the mindset that is a seventeen year old girls. The world is against her one moment, and then incredibly great the next. Nadine is often a figure of sympathy but just as often, she is unpleasant and spiteful. That is the reason that her sparring matches with Woody Harrelson’s Mr. Bruner are so inspired. Harrelson is a High School teacher that is not really inspirational like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”, or sympathetic like Nick Nolte in “Teachers” (notice how dated my references are? Yeah, I’m old) , instead he is just an average man who has enough life experience to recognize a drama queen and separate it from a future tragedy. Instead of taking her suicide threat seriously and turning her emotional tantrum into an even bigger deal, he counters her with the same biting, sardonic attitude that she exudes. She may not recognize it, but he is a kindred soul who has managed to live life with some satisfaction, in spite of the bitter attitude he owns and can see reflected in Nadine. He has the advantage of having grown up. Not everyone reaches that degree of maturity, and it is Craig’s writing that lets us see that Nadine’s future does not have to be horrible, all she has to do is look at the guy in front of her.

 

Because Nadine’s story does have a bitter piece of tragedy in it, we are able to understand her anger a little more. That does not excuse the way in which she treats her Mother and Brother. These two characters are also imperfect, but they manage to grow a little in the course of the film. Kyra Sedgwick is Nadine’s Mother Mona. She is prickly and self centered and a little desperate. In other words, she is Nadine in thirty years. Blake Jenner is Darian, her perfect older brother. I saw Jenner earlier this year in “Everybody Wants Some!” . His character is not a antagonist, but Nadine wants to make him one. His big emotional scene near the end of the film felt really honest without goingover the top. Another great find in the movie is Hayden Szeto ( what is with all the first names starting with Hay in this movie). He plays a classmate of Nadines, who actually wants a relationship, but for whom Nadine is too blinded by her attitude to take seriously. He was terrific as a quiet kid with a lot more depth to him than anyone would notice, a common character in these kinds of movies but one that is probably as real as any other.

The film does have it’s share of laughs but it is closer in tone to “Pretty in Pink” than “Sixteen Candles”.  The bittersweet nature of growing up gets mixed with some outrageous moments of dialogue or action. There is a bonus animated sequence in the movie that also provokes both laughter and a sharp jab of honest teen age self righteousness. My daughter has a friend who saw this film and thought she was going in to see a teen comedy, and instead she said she saw a movie about a teenager. That’s a very fair assessment of the film. It is ultimately more serious than comedic, but those moments of humor are what help make the characterizations here acceptable. It is a bit strange that one relationship in the film can be managed with a simple text of two letters, but it is a credit to the director, that those two letters are so satisfying. That sort of thing happens a lot in the movie and it is what makes this film special.