REVIEW: “Midway” (2019)

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I hate to say this but one thing that always keeps my expectations in check is seeing Roland Emmerich’s name attached to a project. For me he is the epitome of a hit-or-miss filmmaker. When he misses the results can be pretty dreadful (see 1998’s “Godzilla”, “White House Down”, and “Independence Day: Resurgence”). But he’s also the guy who gave us the rip-roaring original “Independence Day” and I still have plenty of love for “The Patriot”.

But what of his latest, the historical war picture “Midway”? Within minutes of watching I couldn’t help but pick up on the old-school movie vibes that informs us on the kind of film Emmerich is going for. It’s a movie that celebrates the valor, grit and patriotism of those who fought and sacrificed for their country. It may be a by-the-books tribute, but I still have room for entertaining old-fashioned war pictures even if others (unfortunately) dismiss them as out-of-date.

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The film attempts to cover a lot of ground starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor then onto the eventual Battle of Midway. Along the way we meet fighter pilots, admirals, specialists, and codebreakers who with others planned and carried out what is still considered one of the most pivotal naval battles in United States military history. There are plenty of action sequences, almost all of it being air and sea combat. But there are just as many (if not more) scenes of tense military strategizing.

“Midway” follows numerous characters but the main is a hotshot pilot and squadron commander Dick Best (Ed Skrein). He loses a close friend at Pearl Harbor which makes him eager to take the fight to Japan despite having a concerned wife (Mandy Moore) and toddler daughter at home. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, the unlucky soul put in charge of the Pacific fleet and tasked with putting together the US response. And the always reliable Patrick Wilson plays Edwin Layton, the chief intelligence officer who tried to warn Washington about the Pearl Harbor attack.

Several other familiar faces pop in and out of the story including Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart and Nick Jonas. With such a list of reliable talent naturally the performances are solid throughout. Yet there is so much bouncing back-and-forth between war rooms and aerial engagements we rarely get the character depth that would have made this film really stand out. As a strict military procedural it works well, but it’s the human element that sometimes falls through the cracks.

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Again, Emmerich gives as much attention to the buildup as he does the warfare. It makes sense considering the actual Battle of Midway was just as much about the tactics and maneuvering as the fighting. “Midway” strikes a good balance and keeps a steady pacing right through to the inevitable combat-heavy finale. Speaking of the combat, the action scenes are surprisingly thrilling despite a heavy dependence on CGI. A little repetitive but still exciting.

Yes, “Midway” gives us the occasional line of dialogue that seems pulled from the John Wayne era, but it’s still a fitting and fun way to remember those who fought and sacrificed in a signature battle in American military history. And sure, the film’s unabashed patriotism is out of fashion today and certain to face cries of jingoism. But I’m glad movies like this occasionally come down the pipeline and “Midway” is a nice surprise from “Emmerich”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

Denzel Day #11 : “Man on Fire”

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Director Tony Scott’s 2004 revenge-soaked thriller “Man on Fire” has a weird allure despite being jarringly formulaic and drowning its audience in a deluge of visual excesses. There is hardly anything about it that feels original and the story evolves into something utterly implausible. Yet there is something about it that has always kept me steadily entertained.

Denzel Washington plays John Creasy , an ex-Marine Special Forces officer turned boozing assassin-for-hire. He has bounced around Central America doing shady contracts and wrestling with sins from his past. An old friend who runs a Mexican security outfit (Christopher Walken) encourages Creasy to take a bodyguard job in the wake of a series of politically-motivated kidnappings. It should be easy work and easy money. Yeah right.

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Creasy is hired by Samuel Ramos (Mark Anthony), a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives lavishly in Mexico City with his beautiful American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) and their precocious young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy is strictly business: keep an eye on Pita, drive her to school, bring her back home. At night he tries to drown his demons with more alcohol while even contemplating suicide.

But he didn’t expect for the tender and persistent Pita to soften him up. The two form a sweet bond. You know, a ‘child and her bodyguard’ kind of bond. Pita gets a more present father figure. Creasy begins to remember what it’s like to enjoy living. But sadly this isn’t that kind of movie which means that bad things have to happen. Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is severely wounded trying to save her. As he recovers, her abductors make their ransom demands – $10 million.

Ramos agrees to pay but things go terribly wrong during the drop off. Creasy recoups and sets out to enact his own brand of vengeance and justice. With the help of Pita the old Creasy had been suppressed. With her gone he resurfaces with guns, rocket launchers, and a simmering bloodlust towards anyone who participated in or benefited from Pita’s kidnapping. And you quickly understand why he would be battling with demons.

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I like the idea of a man struggling with a torturous past that resurfaces, forcing him to confront it. The conflict between ‘old self’ and ‘new self’ amid such a strong thirst for revenge is intriguing stuff. Unfortunately the movie wants to have to have its cake and eat it too. Early on the movie gives several scenes to Creasy’s boiling inner tumult. But once the stylish big screen killing begins any sense of personal struggle goes out the window. I would have loved to have seen a more psychological dig into his troubled psyche.

As it is “Man on Fire” stays on a pretty conventional path. It features a ton of Denzel and a sweet child/bodyguard dynamic (both strengths). The action (often shot like a fever dream) lands somewhere in the middle. At times it’s thrilling, other times it’s overbearing. Worst of all it ends up smothering out the interesting character work we’re teased with early on. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but at almost two-and-a-half hours the film really needs more meat on its bones.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

Denzel Day #10 : “The Mighty Quinn” (1989)

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In 1989 you could say Denzel Washington was on the cusp of super stardom. His film “The Mighty Quinn” came right on the heels of “Cry Freedom” and his first Academy Award nomination and right before “Glory” and his first Oscar win. Everything was clicking for Washington and his career was set to take off.

“The Mighty Quinn” is one of Washington’s movies that kinda gets lost in the shuffle. Perhaps that’s due to it being book-ended by two attention-getting Oscar-nominated pictures. Or maybe it’s because the film really doesn’t stand out at all. That may sound like a sharp criticism, but it really isn’t. “The Mighty Quinn” is simply a light and laid-back crime caper that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but that has fun doing what it’s doing.

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The film is based on Arthur H. Z. Carr’s 1971 crime novel “Finding Maubee” and its title is inspired by a Bob Dylan penned folk-song. It’s directed by a relatively unknown Carl Schenkel but written by Hampton Fancher who is best known for co-writing Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and its eventual sequel “Blade Runner 2049”. Needless to say this is a MUCH different movie.

Washington plays Xavier Quinn, the chief of police on a Caribbean island with a strong Jamaican resemblance. The people respect Chief Quinn and he’s in good standing with the local governor (Norman Beaton). The only bump in the road is at home with his frustrated wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Randolph) who is tired of his job and the lack of time he spends with her and their son.

Things take a turn when a wealthy American businessman is brutally murdered at a fancy island resort. The stuffy and smug owner Thomas Elgin (James Fox) works to sweep the the crime under the rug and the local government is quick to oblige. They immediately pin the murder on a local free-spirited con-artist and Quinn’s childhood friend Maubee (Robert Townsend). Quinn doesn’t buy it and sets out to uncover the truth amid loads of corruption of cover-ups.

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The film has much of what you want out of a crime thriller but there is also a subtle playfulness to it. You see it in the vibrant locations, in the interesting array of locals, in the steady wave of island music, and most of all in Washington’s performance. He brings a fun and interesting flavor to his character, balancing serious intensity with well-tempered humor. Sure his accent sometimes wanders off, but he’s still a great fit.

Once again, when looking at Denzel Washington’s filmography it’s understandable how “The Mighty Quinn” may have fallen between the cracks. It’s not the kind of movie that would draw a lot of attention especially when placed next to other films from the actor’s impressive body of work. It’s also unfortunate because this is a fun movie that sets the table for some of the roles Washington would later become famous for.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

Denzel Day #7 : “Malcolm X” (1992)

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Over a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

It may not seem like it today, but getting “Malcolm X” made was no easy task for filmmaker Spike Lee. Bringing this highly controversial figure’s life to the big screen brought heat from all sides. Lee was criticized by defenders of Malcolm X who feared how he would be portrayed. Many in the white community disapproved siting Malcolm X’s comments and positions deemed by many to be racist and anti-Semitic.

Interestingly Lee even ran into trouble with Warner Bros. who failed to give him the full funding needed to finish the film he wanted to make. With outside help and a lot of determination, Lee finally was able to get his movie across the finish line complete with a 3 hour 20 minute running time.

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Lee (who also served as co-writer and co-producer) based much of his film on Alex Haley’s 1965 book “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. He already had the right man in place to play the titular lead character even before he signed on to direct – Denzel Washington. Petty concerns over Washington’s height and darker complexion were quickly tossed aside once people saw his performance. This was the second of four collaborations between Spike Lee and Denzel Washington and their sharp chemistry together was immediately evident.

Out of the gate “Malcolm X” comes across as very much a standard biopic. But to Lee’s credit he’s not just feeding us information by simply making stops across the timeline. He wants to put us in Malcolm’s shoes. He wants to represent to us the circumstances and influences that shaped the man who eventually turned from a small-time thief and hustler into a powerful civil rights firebrand.

He was born Malcolm Little but during “the war years” he was known as Red. After running afoul of a low-level Harlem gangster, Red flees to Boston where he and his hipster pal Shorty (played by Lee) prowl the nightlife in bright zoot suits and with white women on their arms. Soon they begin running numbers and committing petty burglaries which lead to his arrest and a 10-year prison sentence.

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These scenes are broken up by powerful although sometimes klunky flashbacks which present key moments from Malcolm’s upbringing. They include the murder of his father (framed as a suicide but widely believed to be by the KKK), his separation from his siblings by the state, and his mother’s resulting mental illness. He grew up in foster homes where he was a bright kid and a good student even being voted class president. Yet in one scene a white teacher tells him his aspirations of being a lawyer were unrealistic. Instead he should do something more “fitting for a negro“, something like carpentry. These life experiences give form to the man Malcolm would soon become.

Prison proves to be a turning point for Malcolm (and the film). He falls under the spell of a persuasive fellow inmate who introduces him to the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. On one hand it leads him to reevaluate his life, putting aside his past vices. On the other hand he is seduced by the teachings of NOI leader Elijah Mohammad (Al Freeman, Jr) who advocated the complete separation between whites and blacks. He put a needed spotlight on injustices both past and present. But he also taught that all whites are “devils” and that unity among races was not the answer.

The remainder of the movie focuses on Malcolm’s rise through the NOI ranks and into the national spotlight as his powerful speech and ability to control a crowd draws attention from all sides. Lee takes us through the incendiary comments and public controversies; Malcolm’s eventual riff with the jealous NOI leadership; the transformation of his sweeping indictments and personal prejudices to a more thoughtful and inclusive point of view. And of course his assassination on the night of February 21, 1965.

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This would all make for an interesting historical essay but what makes it work as a piece of cinema is the humanity Lee and Washington brings to the character. We see it most through the deep-digging personal scenes between Malcolm and his wife Betty. She’s played by a superb Angela Bassett who brings an emotional resonance to every scene she’s in. Washington is as convincing in the intimate moments as he is when brandishing Malcolm X’s unbridled, fiery tongue on a street corner or behind a pulpit. It’s a brilliantly multi-layered performance that opened a lot of eyes.

Spike Lee’s epic-sized biopic covers a lot of ground. The first half is a bit long even though none of its scenes feel wasted. It’s the second half where things really pick up and the complexities of Malcom X take shape. Lee paints a fascinating portrait of a man hardened by racial injustice, drawn to a divisive ideology, and then opened to a new way of seeing things. In Lee’s portrayal the Malcolm who once said “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee” is not the same man we see later.  And while he was still clear-eyed regarding the vile and often violent nature of racism, he sought more unified ways of confronting it. In the end that’s what makes the film all the more tragic.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Ma” (2019)

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2019 has featured several talented actors/actresses unexpectedly taking on roles of creepy, unhinged maniacs. First was Isabelle Huppert in “Greta” followed shortly after by Dennis Quaid in “The Intruder”. The latest is Octavia Spencer in “Ma” and let’s just say she takes crazy to a whole new place.

Spencer is such a good actress and she can elevate almost any material she is given. And the fact that she almost rescues “Ma” from its missteps is a true testament to her talent. Her character Sue Ann gains the nickname Ma from local teens after she buys them booze and then later opens up her basement to be their secret party hot-spot. No parents, no police, and no protection from Ma as she slowly comes unglued.

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But before we get to Ma we are introduced to Maggie (Diana Silvers) who is prepping for her first day at a new school. She quickly hits it off with a group of friends who perfectly embody Hollywood’s shallow and overused perception of teens. They’re dense, obnoxious boozehounds that check all the boxes – the muscular meathead, the beautiful but rude blonde, the nice (but objectively dumb) guy, and so on. The prospect of spending a big chunk of the film’s 100 minutes with them isn’t that appealing.

As the movie progresses Ma gains the trust of even more local teens. Her parties get wilder and we the audience grow more suspicious. Probably because Ma’s behavior steadily gets weirder and weirder, so much so that even our group of dim-witted teenagers begin noticing. And along the way some pretty effective flashbacks are tossed in to give reason to Ma’s madness.

Writer Scotty Landes puts a lot on the shoulders of backstory and much of your reaction to “Ma” could be shaped by how much you care about the reveals. Outside of that, most of the fun is found in Spencer’s performance which ranges from menacing to darkly funny. Several other familiar faces pop up including Juliette Lewis as Maggie’s single-parent mom, Luke Evans as a concerned parent, and Allison Janney in a small but very Allison Janney-like role.

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The teen characters don’t fare quite as well and a lot of their back-and-forths are pretty uninspired. I mean there is only so much you can pull from what can best be described as run-of-the-mill teen stock characters. There is simply not enough about them that is original or even remotely interesting.

“Ma” is a Blumhouse film that follows the company’s very successful blueprint – make a horror movie with a minuscule budget and then secure a wide release so that almost any box office total is profitable. “Ma” will turn a profit (mainly due its tiny $5 million budget) but it hasn’t pulled in the audience’s quite like other Blumhouse pictures. I’m not surprised. I actually went into “Ma” expecting more than what I left with. Spencer carries the film on her back but even she can’t keep the film from being viewed as a missed opportunity.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Midsommar”

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Ari Aster earned a lot of well-deserved attention with his 2018 feature film debut “Hereditary”. It was a dark and unsettling bit of psychological horror that he wrote and directed. The film was greeted with high praise from critics, a little more mixed reactions from audiences, yet most were anxious to see what he would do next.

Well now we know. Aster’s follow-up film “Midsommar” sees him staying within the psychological horror sphere. But here he adds a ton more weirdness and clearly aims to push the envelope by being more shocking and disturbing than with his previous film (and that’s saying something). Unfortunately these ambitions push things too far and “Midsommar” becomes a classic case of creative overkill.

The movie gets off to an incredibly strong start. Much like “Hereditary”, this film is built upon the fractured psyche of its lead character. An extremely well done prologue lays the foundation for us. Florence Pugh plays Dani, a young woman broadsided by a horrific family tragedy. Devastated and emotionally frail, she looks to her not-so-comforting boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. But his hollow sympathy can’t hide that he would rather be spending time with his three equally self-absorbed buddies (played by William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren, and Will Poulter).

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These early scenes are fabulous mainly due to Pugh’s powerful performance. Her projections of grief, anxiety, and vulnerability are both natural and thoroughly convincing. And through these scenes Aster gives us a vivid understanding of Dani’s relationship with Christian. The dialogue subtly yet shrewdly captures a form of psychological abuse we rarely see on screen.

All of that sets the audience up for the acid-trip remainder of the film. Christian and his pals plan a trip to Sweden, to a remote country commune where one of the friends was raised. They reluctantly allow Dani to tag along. Once there they will get to witness a special 9-day festival which takes place every 90 years.

It doesn’t take long to notice something is a little off. At first things appear innocent enough as the white frocked commune members go about their peculiar daily rituals. But what looked like a group of harmless flower children turns out to be a macabre pagan cult with deeply sinister motivations and a special need for “outsiders” at their festival.

Aster begins this leg of his journey with a great grasp on mystery and setting. Early on the slow drips of information and ever so subtle reveals work well to keep us in a constant state of suspicion and wonder. Aster completely sells us on the perpetually sun-soaked delirium, the off-kilter tone, and the increasingly eerie atmosphere. It’s truly phenomenal filmmaking right up to the point where Aster loses himself to an obsession to be bizarre and make us squirm in our seats.

The final third of the film whole-heartedly commits to progressively getting weirder by the moment. And while always visually impressive, the main characters (most notably Dani) get lost among the madness. During this time you could argue that the commune becomes the centerpiece yet we still learn practically nothing about them. Instead Aster seems more focused on scarring us with imagery than challenging us with thought-provoking themes.

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This is probably best seen in an absurdly graphic sex ritual that desperately screams out for attention. Reynor told Indiewire “I wanted as much as we could go for” and there lies the problem. You can see and recognize them really going for it – seeing how far they can push the limits. It badly wants to be shocking and unsettling. I found it to be excessive, off-putting and void of any discernible meaning whatsoever. For me it was a frustrating sign that Aster had completely lost his focus.

Sadly a few other things bring “Midsommar” down. With the exception of Christian, the other supporting characters are barely more than thinly conceived filler. And even Reynor’s performance lacks energy or charisma. That leaves Pugh, a fantastic actress giving a fantastic performance but who is buried in a final act that’s more interested in visual nuttiness.

There are several questions you could ask that would show cracks in the story’s foundation. But still, movies like this usually beg to be dissected and discussed. “Midsommar” is a bit maddening in its reluctance to provide that kind of food for thought. Is it a movie about grief, emasculation, mental health, spiritual awakening? The movie seems to inadvertently ask “Who cares? Just watch another unnerving scene where the creepy Swedish cult does something else bizarre.” Pugh and the film’s incredible first half deserves better.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars