Movie Review: Midway (2019)

I enjoyed this week’s top movie at the box office, Midway. Fortunately, in this case (because I think advance knowledge enhances, rather than diminishes, the cinematic experience), I didn’t know much about this movie in advance. 

When I saw that Midway is directed by Roland Emmerich, a German-born moviemaker whose Godzilla (1998), Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow are among the most bombastic movies I’ve seen, I felt a cringe, though because I’d forgotten his forgettable films, I didn’t credit the cause. When I realized who he is, and learned that he also directed the unnecessarily bloody martyr-themed The Patriot, I cringed again. And, frankly, Midway begins as a loud, mammoth-scale behemoth that vibrates and shudders the audience in their seats.

Except for a few significant problems, Midway gets better fast and becomes an absorbing, old-fashioned American war movie. With one crucial omission, each plot point in the structure is properly planned, earned and executed, starting with the Japanese sneak attack on America (Japan initiated the use of force against America at Pearl Harbor, slaughtering thousands of Americans).

An innocent young American atheist or secularist sailor questioning a church service in progress on the deck of the USS Arizona swiftly finds himself fighting for life with his superior while “the Japs” (as the enemy were called in World War 2, a fact which is not treated with apology) bomb and gun down Americans everywhere in Honolulu. It’s a massacre. 

This is the predicate for President Roosevelt’s stirring speech to rally the young nation to war, which some believe there’s evidence he knew about in advance. Then, comes a good exposition, which is extremely rare in Hollywood, with a string of leading male characters as top Naval brass, pilots and sailors, wives and Japanese sailors.

The timeline moves steadily and not too fast. This means that, for the first time in a major Hollywood movie in decades, the men who fought the war, who, appropriately for the picture’s Veterans Day weekend release, are both based on real sailors, pilots and officers and portrayed largely without historical revisionism, come off as real, developed, admirable characters. Midway in this sense puts the audience on the edge of their seats. Everyone in the theater, including those I suspect are real American vets, pilots, soldiers and sailors and their children and wives, was very invested in the characters and story.

The battle of Midway cannot be overestimated in turning the war in the Pacific toward the Americans and Midway depicts this hard-fought, deadly, epic battle with top production values. It doesn’t look fake like the Marvel movies. It looks more realistic. Whether Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards…) is ruminating about enemy movements at sea, musicians are pressed into service as codebreakers listening to Zenith radios or the only intelligence officer (Patrick Wilson, Angels in America) to forewarn about the Japs’ attack is nearly wrecked with tension and anxiety about the accuracy of his projections, Midway always keeps the action rooted in the drama of men’s lives at stake.

Screenwriter Wes Tooke gets certain details, such as America’s minisule and poorly prepared and equipped navy right. By the time the battle gets underway, with toe-tingling dive bombing and dogfighting and impossible aeronautic climbs defying the Navy pilots’ biological needs, every character, from Bruno the aircraft carrier crewman (Nick Jonas) to an arrogant American named Best (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) and Mrs. Best (Mandy Moore, This Is Us), is fully enlisted in the dramatic action. Look for Dennis Quaid (A Dog’s Purpose) as an aircraft carrier commander who makes a pivotal judgment, Darren Criss (The Assassination of Gianni Versace) as a pilot and Etsushi Toyokawa as Yamamoto (who said after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor that Imperial Japan had “awakened a sleeping giant”). Others include Luke Evans as a naval leader and others you may recognize as tailgunners, war widows and coders. Aaron Eckhart (Sully) appears as Jimmy Doolittle, who dared to bomb Tokyo when America desperately needed him to bomb Japan and ran out of fuel with his crewmen, crashed in enemy territory and tried to escape the bastards. Midway is an American epic that accounts for almost every important aspect of the Pacific theater.

Unfortunately, there are exceptions. While this may be Roland Emmerich’s best movie since Stargate (1994) and he does capture the sense of shock that the Japanese experienced at the depth and magnitude of American resilience and resolve, the director and writer fail to mention or refer to Douglas MacArthur, which strikes me as a key oversight. Worse, they evade the central, driving tenet of Japan’s dominant religion, Shintoism: self-sacrifice. A single scene of a kamikaze diving into an American ship is matched by an American pilot doing the same to a Japanese ship and a scene actually suggests that the Japanese war command discouraged sacrifice.

The opposite is true. The whole country, culture and deeply held belief system of Japan, down to every man, woman and child, was the total moral duty to sacrifice for the sake of one’s race, religion and state; with the emperor and empire being both state and religion. Also, the movie’s apparently been made with assistance from some shell branch of Communist China, so scenes in Japanese-occupied China emphasize Chinese suffering to the detriment of the Doolittle raid subplot.

Midway does, however, depict Japan’s barbarism which is absolutely crucial to any movie about World War 2’s Pacific theater. Also, the conflict between Japanese duty versus American desire to live is made clear. Though I would not have dedicated a war-themed movie to those who fought and died from both countries, some, especially Americans who fought, might see this as a magnanimous gesture.

In any case, Midway earns its excitement and does mostly right by the brave Americans who broke the code, planned, out-thought, outfought and crushed the enemy against all reasonable expectations and those who loved them. The best performances belong to Skrein as Best, Wilson, black-haired Moore struggling to remain as brave and composed as her husband, Quaid, Criss and, Nick Jonas in an important role showing that he’s a natural actor.

Everyone on cast and crew does good work on Midway, however. It’s a thrilling, intense two hours about the victory that stopped Japan from bombing California and invading the United States — the empire had devised plans to march to Chicago — buying America time to crush the enemy without equivocation and win the war. Which, thanks to the Americans of Midway, we did.

Movie Review: The Current War

The Current War, The Director’s Cut, a strange 2017 movie, finally debuted this fall. It had been languishing in the aftermath of the Me, Too movement that annihilated the movie studio that made The Current War.

The newly released movie, produced by an uncredited Harvey Weinstein (The King’s Speech) and Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) among many others, features Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) as George Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla and Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) as Thomas Edison. This should be an amazing movie.

But it isn’t and, after everything but the kitchen sink was hurled at this movie regardless of merit and through no fault of its own, one can only hazard a guess as to why it is not as good as it might have been.

The Current War is not amazing. It’s barely interesting, though it is interesting — how could it not be, given its subject? — and it gets better as it goes along. 

Beginning with the sound of winter’s wind as a blindingly white snowstorm engulfs one man in black, depicting a world in white and black in desperate need of color and light, The Current War comes up with a fast and dizzying array of scenes that zip and do not linger. But it becomes clear without proper exposition that Edison in 1880 has arrived “to give light” with a patent application. 

Details are hard to make out. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, working with playwright Michael Mitnick’s screenplay, opted for a hurried first half for reasons that remain unclear. The Current War, which essentially depicts electricity competition within a 13-year span when America had the closest the world’s ever known to having a purely capitalist economy — that is, with some statism but without near-total government control of economics, such as anti-trust law, an income tax, Social Security, Medicare, ObamaCare and control of utilities as monopolies — morphs from man to man contest over electrical currents into a more benign account of both mens’ characters. Like The Founder, The Current War can’t decide where it stands on the morality of a capitalist, let alone capitalism.

Ultimately, it sort of apologizes for their supposed excesses and ruthlessness in the subsidiary character Hoult portrays, Nikola Tesla, whose academic presentation to a small gathering at Columbia College on May 20, 1891 marks a turning point. Immigrant Tesla as the eccentric futurist fits Texas native Gomez-Rejon’s and Pittsburgher Mitnick’s theme that capitalists can do good and bad alike, so the notion which emerges is that capitalism represents both the potential for promoting life and hastening death; it could make peace or it could start war.

This undeveloped theme has certain possibilities, largely unrealized here. By the time the film’s climax comes to Chicago for each capitalist’s presentation to the cronies that control the Columbian Exposition of 1893, both men have compromised themselves to a certain degree, though, arguably, Westinghouse comes off as more principled. The best line of this historically based movie, which plays with the lights and probably the facts a bit too much, is when a question is put to Tesla after he proposes a new idea: “Are you serious?” Tesla deadpans: “Almost always.” 

The Current War might’ve been grand. Shannon and Cumberbatch are in fine form as always. Hoult is very good as Tesla. There are glimpses of a vision. But it moves too fast, shows too little and emits the quality of one of those non-fiction programs on a cable channel that dramatizes historical reenactments. Diehard fans of Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla and members of the cast and crew may find something here to appreciate and enjoy. But there’s not enough of a driving sense of purpose to power The Current War.

 

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: Flawed, Engrossing and Prophetic

In the year of America’s Bicentennial, director Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, a slow-boiling film noir about what he regards as America’s depravity. This is an involving movie, like almost all of Mr. Scorsese’s pictures. It’s engrossing for various reasons. He’s a master moviemaker and his highly prophetic Taxi Driver is about something gone terribly wrong that became deeply serious, prevalent and epidemic; the nervous breakdown certain types of men have in our fouled up, confused, post-Vietnam War, post-Kantian, mid-20th century America. If it seems like the world’s going mad — and who can seriously doubt that it does — Taxi Driver dramatizes this pathology in painstaking detail.

Of course, this doesn’t make Taxi Driver pleasant to watch. In fact, it’s repulsive, it’s flawed — like many of Mr. Scorsese’s films, it’s over the top in its derangement, even campy — and it is as confused as almost every other part of the modern age. But it’s not vacuous like a Marvel movie. It’s got goods to show and tell. There are lives — real lives, not flashes of wisecracking artificial figures popping up and down like Easter eggs in a hunt — at stake.

The climax doesn’t let you down as much as it lets you build up your own fantasy for its title character, played by skinny Robert De Niro. This way, the jarring nature of what happens to the cab driver and the assorted subjects of his psychotic fixations plays into whatever you had in mind. In this sense, Taxi Driver is a puzzle.

The 1976 picture’s a richly textured, vibrantly bloody movie — not a grainy, muted and quietly triumphant movie, like 1976’s Best Picture winner, Rocky. Though both films depict dark-haired loners out of luck in life with an opportunity to remake himself with a whole new goal and the woman of his dreams by his side, Taxi Driver is the flashier, fancier, prettier picture in its depiction of man as mass murderer. In forecasting the bleak future we’re living in — surrounded by silent, creeping sociopaths going postal in mass shootings every other week (or every other day) — Taxi Driver endures because its prettiness makes it seem like an exercise; a thoughtfully arranged death picture show for everyone to enjoy. Are you not entertained? By contrast, Rocky is the picture that really challenges the audience to think about what victory means.

Taxi Driver opens in silence with red on black titles. Within seconds, an assaultive score blasts as exhaust fumes appear, A taxi creeps forward with menace. Bernard Herrmann’s disturbing score — this is his last movie before he died on Christmas Eve after scoring it while staying at LA’s Sheraton Universal — accentuates a close-up of the driver’s eyes sneering at everyone in his vision.

Applying for a job, this disaffected young white male without a formal education — a malcontent claiming to be an ex-Marine (the audience never sees evidence that his assertion is true) — is immediately unsympathetic. Walking the wide, filthy New York City sidewalk while drinking alcohol, his narration begins as the camera cuts to him writing in a journal with a can of Coke and a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder nearby.

Welcome to the dark, depraved, bombastic world of Travis Bickle. See, even his name is contrived, thanks to Paul Schrader’s film noir screenplay. With that miserable blood porn movie Texas Chainsaw Massacre playing at the local theater and an electronic pink sign reading “Fascination” in plain if obvious view, newly hired cabbie Bickle’s narrative soon denounces gays and prostitutes and he warns the audience that he hopes “that someday rain will come and wipe all the dirt off the streets…”

So, you instantly know that this is what the movie will render. Then, just as plainly, Bickle provides an admission which pronounces Taxi Driver’s nihilistic theme — he shrugs after more of the anxious score that everything and nothing “don’t make no difference to me”.
Driving through broken water infrastructure, which cleanses the taxi cab as he returns it to base, this is the movie’s essential theme.

Bickle pops pills, whines about having “to clean the cum off the backseat”, goes to an X-rated theater to watch a pornography movie and can’t sleep. But, soon, he sights Cybill Shepherd, as vapid and nihilistic as Bickle is, really, as the movie’s ending reveals, as his fantasy in virginal white. Cue Albert Brooks as the prototypically sexless, emasculated male who will also come to define the American male in the future. That this bland, flat-toned pair, who drone on and on about nothing in particular, work on a major presidential campaign is Taxi Driver’s dig at idealism. They’re there to show that the smartest, the prettiest, the most desirable in America’s top city know that nothing really matters.

This idea applies to every character in the movie, from those already mentioned to the fellow cabbies and other lowlifes that cross Bickle’s path, the cashier at the adult movie theater and the 12-year-old hooker played by Jodie Foster. Even a Secret Service agent protecting the presidential candidate — and, of course, the candidate himself — act like they’re barely interested in what they’re doing for a living. Nobody cares, Taxi Driver shrugs as it slouches and slugs around on wet pavement with leering, lingering voyeurism.

Yet the deliberations deliver compelling drama, too, in small episodes with mixed signals, with traffic lights literally turning red as Bickle struggles with his virgin/whore dichotomy when he goes from stalking Shepherd’s woman in white to Foster’s girl in hot pants in the red light district. It all gets chronicled in his journal, as in this year’s scathing Joker, from late spring to mid-summer.

In the meantime, the cabbie’s dubbed “a prophet and a pusher” and his taxi gets pelted with eggs by thugs in a bad part of town. Slowly, insidiously, director Martin Scorsese, who also plays a heinously murderous, racist husband in the cab’s backseat that plants the seed that puts Bickle over the edge, laces the plot with clues.

While assembling an arsenal that predicts the Columbine, Las Vegas and other American massacres, Bickle goes through the motions of reaching out for help in resolving his confused, delusional Puritanical/seedy dilemma. The resultant plot points bear this out and represent Taxi Driver’s deepest flaw: it depicts a fantasy more than it dramatizes any part of reality.

It’s not that any one part of the nightmare fantasy couldn’t happen in reality. It’s more that each part of the whole mosaic — the puzzle as a whole when the storyteller reveals the big picture — doesn’t fit. In order to achieve the effect that the monster in the closet roams the streets unchecked, pretty much with this sick, American society’s sanction and abandon, Taxi Driver has to render Bickle both deranged enough to give himself a Mohawk and disciplined enough to remain composed, restrained and outwardly decent.

Too many plot inconsistencies, notably his three hairdos, get in the way. To believe the movie’s end point plausible one would have to think everyone in New York City, from cops and cabbies to Secret Service agents, campaign managers and 12-year-old hookers, is daft. A dance between Harvey Keitel’s pedophile pimp and Foster’s sex trafficked child adds nothing and detracts from plot momentum. Similarly, a song by Jackson Browne exists to add character depth but merely adds drudgery and drags the plot. A lingering, melodramatic overhead shot of the aftermath — and long shots of bloody walls, stairs and guns with a slow drumbeat — amid corpses drops Taxi Driver back in the blood red where it begins.

You watch because Mr. Scorsese, whatever his dark, depraved and nihilistic sensibility and melodramatic inclinations, seals his films with intelligence, insight and neatly smoothed and folded corners.

Look at the scene outside Manhattan’s Belmore cafeteria, for instance, before Peter Boyle’s taxi driver drives off after having dispensed pablum as advice, stupidly insisting that Bickle is “going to be OK” without regard to Bickle’s call for help, as ominous music sounds. The relationship between the two men has been Bickle’s only bridge to reality. Boyle’s character to a certain degree balances the sleaze and decency factors, which on some level Bickle notices, observes and cultivates. That at the precise moment he calls upon this leader of the cab drivers for help and is totally abandoned is as deflating as it is unsurprising.

This is careful seeding on the director’s part. He doesn’t let the audience believe in the good of Boyle’s taxi driver. He doesn’t give you reason to believe. But he lets the cast of characters play with a sense of bonding and mentorship that seasons the cabby diner scenes with a sense of possibility.

It’s the same with Foster’s Steensman character. She behaves with Bickle like she’s both a girl, eating peanut butter and jelly, and like she’s a junkie, lush and whore. There’s never any doubt that she’s gone bad. But, just when you’re thinking maybe she’s capable at 12 of being good, she starts rambling about going to a commune in Vermont. And then you know how warped and gone she really is. This is what makes the seduction scene with Keitel superfluous and unnecessary, taking you out of the movie.

The Steensman-Bickle relationship forms the real basis for Taxi Driver’s theme that evil lurks everywhere and there’s nothing you can do about it — nothing really matters — values “don’t make no difference” to anyone — because the impetus for everything that might be of value to Bickle is also a delusion. Not only does the taxi driver forever loom to strike you down; the prostitute taunts you into letting your guard down in advance of the downing.

With death and sex intermingled decades before Steven Spielberg depicted an Israeli avenger as a kind of lone wolf monster in Munich, Taxi Driver echoes this warped ideal. Like The Man Who Laughs, the Victor Hugo novel which launched movie versions and the Batman comic book villain, the Joker, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in a chilling performance show that wanting to love and be loved as you are will destroy your soul.

But not your body and this is Taxi Driver’s grim and grisly fairy tale prophecy that came true after its 1976 release. “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence,” Thomas Wolfe wrote in the literature which spawned this refined motion picture.

That you are totally doomed to be lonely is the essence of what Taxi Driver, down to its generic title, exists to express.

Movie Review: Harriet

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (Black Nativity, Eve’s Bayou) with screenwriting and story credit to Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans), Harriet is the first major depiction of Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman. This is a labor of love from Lemmons, so audiences should expect music, religion and thoughtful, striking filmmaking.

Stormy skies set the tone, which comes over Bucktown, Maryland in 1849. The pre-Civil War drama gets moving into the gospel, rhythm and blues of slave life with an introduction to the title character, portrayed by Cynthia Erivo, who’s perfect as the runaway slave who became an American heroine. Soon thereafter comes an appearance by Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall, as a preacher. He’s outstanding (as usual) if underused. 

Harriet is not flawless. There’s a wealth of material to assimilate here. Lemmons does an amazing job of pulling it together. My thought is that she probably needs to get more practice and make more movies.

But her Harriet is a triumph. This is because she weaves various known facts about Tubman, including her mysticism, faith in God and illiteracy, certain liberties and three major arcs of neatly integrated pieces of somber, poetic music that hold, fold and seal like flaps of envelopes the painful lessons of the American South’s enslavement of humans. Harriet is prayerfully, deeply musical in this sense. It’s moving and haunting. This is as it must be.

That, how and why the heroine — and Harriet Tubman’s portrayed as a heroine, not some sort of mindless anime-like automaton programmed to wisecrack like one of those female comics characters — chooses to become herself is the picture’s theme. Accordingly, her relationship with her slavemaster’s son, Gideon, portrayed by Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) as aimless and godless, takes interesting turns.

After the first of many premonitions forecasts her breaking free, the slave woman runs away. She encounters the first of many honorable men and women — white and black — who seek to help her escape to reclaim her freedom. One of them takes the terrified young fugitive in his hands and instructs her: “Fear is your enemy”. As the movie’s tagline indicates, she soon faces and names her fundamental choice to be free or die.

Pennsylvania’s sun-kissed landscape, where she soon discovers the Anti-Slavery Society in the city which was America’s first capital, Philadelphia, shows this driven, hardened former slave the first glimpses of her remarkable future. Yet another stranger in the street takes kindly to her and, before rendering another act of charity, offers advice that, here in the North, she ought to “walk like you’ve a right to …” Despite post-traumatic flashbacks, she does, finding a black man working a printing press and her own, new way in the free part of the country.

One of the film’s most intelligent aspects (besides an insistent depiction of human goodness) is the portrayal of the vast, serious band of political activists known as abolitionists. They were a heroic, though religious, band of men and women who were steadfast in their dedication to abolish slavery. Without them, Harriet Tubman’s heroism, which according to this movie included her liberating over 800 slaves, most in the military battle she led against the Confederacy during the Civil War, would not have been possible.

One of them is a lovely, dignified woman named Marie (Janelle Monae; Moonlight, Hidden Figures) who coaches, teaches and aids Harriet Tubman including in the virtue of the Constitution’s Second Amendment. This is but one of many moving parts in this jaw-dropping story of the individual’s defiance against the state.

Another is the notion of slaves as a status symbol. This fuels and is fueled by the mythology born out of Harriet Tubman’s courageous and brave incursions down South to rescue slaves. Because she makes the dangerous infiltrations in costume, even dressing as a man, she somehow becomes known as Moses. There’s more, as the woman known as Moses faces the abrupt and deadly aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Act, the fact that not every slave wants to do what it takes to be free and a young black man known as Walter (Henry Hunter Hall, stealing every scene) who catches runaway slaves.

Harriet’s fidelity to history is best left to be examined by historians but, based on what I do know about this liberator, one of my earliest heroes in life, the movie dramatizes the essence of her life. A scene in which one who’s seeking to pass as white in drag is questionable at best and Gideon borders on a supervillain though Alwyn’s excellent acting helps.

Harriet is an inspiring dramatization when we need it most of one individual who wanted to be free — an illiterate woman who, as depicted here, correctly captured the smallness of the enemy by rightly denouncing the Confederacy as a wicked, lost cause — and rose to moral righteousness in pursuit of her own happiness.

Harriet Tubman, like Patrick Henry, demanded the right to choose “liberty or death”. Harriet, in wrenching detail and powerful drama, shows that she who chooses to wade in the water toward the properly promised land lives in liberty and her own glory here on earth.

 

Fall Roundup

This fall, I’m focused on writing new fiction as often as possible while working with my existing customers. I am also researching topics in sports, history and the arts for new magazine assignments, so stay tuned. I recently interviewed literature scholar Shoshana Milgram about Victor Hugo for an article which is coming soon. Also, stand by for a link to an article about Pittsburgh and Ayn Rand in this winter’s edition of Pittsburgh Quarterly.

Meanwhile, I’ve added a couple of movie-themed article links to the site archives. My review of John Ford’s 1960 motion picture about a Negro soldier accused of raping a white woman, Sergeant Rutledge, which is truly heroic unlike the heavily hyped Black Panther, can be read here. This week, the World Series ended, so I’ve included my 70th anniversary review of The Stratton Story, starring June Allyson and James Stewart. This inspiring, romantic movie is a simple and heroic baseball tale; read my review here.

My recent viewing of Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix moved me to finally see Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). While I notice certain similarities, it’s the differences with that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Rocky, that really caught my attention. My analysis found both a flaw and much to appreciate. Look for a new review soon. Meanwhile, read my newest classic movie breakdown of another Academy Award-winning Best Picture, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which I recently watched in Hollywood’s historic Cinerama Dome, on The New Romanticist here and Aurora’s classic movie site, Once Upon a Screen, here. My theme about this exceptional movie is that its value lies in its depiction of one man’s intransigent pursuit of a heroic life.

New movies I’m planning to see and may review include the new Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Black Nativity) picture about one of my earliest heroes, Harriet Tubman, Harriet, featuring her husband Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope) and son as well as Janelle Monae (Moonlight, Hidden Figures). I’m also planning to see the new movie about Fred Rogers starring Tom Hanks, probably while I’m on assignment in Pittsburgh among fellow Pittsburghers who knew Mr. Rogers best. Time permitting, I also want to see The Current War, Judy and Motherless Brooklyn. Later this year, I plan to preview my writing for the new year, including my adult educational media and writing courses and other new writings. Wishing you a happy Halloween until then.