Midway Review

Midway is this mishmash of old school war drama and new special effects and (some) new sensibilities. It ends up being more than a little charming, even if it isn’t particularly good. Of course, I am generally a fan of movies about propeller planes and melodrama. So Midway was pretty solidly up my alley.

Midway opens with a brief scene in Japan, before the war starts as intelligence officer Edwin Layton has a talk with Yamamoto about the potential for war. The movie then jumps forward to Pearl Harbor, and follows the Pacific front through the titular battle. It largely follows a few characters. Layton and Admiral Nimitz at Pearl Harbor, who have to decipher intelligence to find out where the Japanese are headed. It also focuses on the pilots of the carrier USS Enterprise as they fight in the Pacific. It all culminates in one of the most decisive battles of WWII.

The characters, all based on actual soldiers, are broadly drawn. The actors are talented and do what they can—though Ed Skrein and Luke Evan occasionally struggle with the American accents—but the action is spread around too much to really get more than a broad feel for any of them. Skrein is the star as pilot Dick Best. He is a talented pilot, but his superiors are hesitant to put him in charge of a flight. Layton is played by Patrick Wilson, who is always great and generally underappreciated. It also occasionally checks in with the Japanese as they plan a surprise attack on Midway, and in a surprising movie it shows them as people, not just as enemies.

The flying scenes are exhilarating. I enjoy, at a certain level, any movie about flying small aircraft. This movie does an excellent job with it. It feels like a roller coaster as the pilots turn into a dive bombing run. And it has a lot of dogfighting.

One scene that stands out, I guess in a bad way, is the brief snippets showing Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo. Aaron Eckhart plays Doolittle as he conducts his daring raid by taking off from carriers in the pacific, flying over Japan and landing in China. His bits of the movie are small and the raid is at least tangentially related to the Battle of Midway, in the way that all of the war in the Pacific was related. It really feels like this little detour is in the movie for how it ends. Doolittle crash lands in China, and with the help of Chinese civilians manages to evade Japanese patrols and escape. While a movie about Doolittle’s Raid would be interesting, it appears to be in this movie so it can be sold in China.

Midway is just a generally enjoyable war movie. Good actors giving decent performances, some exhilarating action. It is historically accurate enough to pass without anything really standing out as just being wrong. I don’t expect to see it on any top 10s at the end of the year, but I liked watching it.

***

The Current War Review

You can see a great movie hidden somewhere in The Current War, but it remains unilluminated in this release. This isn’t a bad movie, but it is a muddled mix of strong performances and unclear themes.

To start with, Michael Shannon is amazing. In this movie and also in every other movie I’ve seen him in. The rest of the cast is good as well; Cumberbatch holds up his end against Shannon pretty well, but his is the showier, yet somehow less memorable part. Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Nicholas Hoult, Mathew Macfayden all appear and are fine.

Where the movie seems to be muddled is in its very thesis. It contrasts Edison and Westinghouse, but the movie never really gives the viewer any reason to see Edison as anything other than a villain. The movie doesn’t treat him like a villain; it seems to think of him as a hero, but the movie never shows him do anything that isn’t at least a little bit contemptible. When he is forced out of his own company near the end, the movie frames it as tragic, but it seems pretty deserved. Westinghouse, using a conglomeration of patents and other people’s technology, builds an effective alternating current electric grid. His goal is to sell it to Edison and make them both a bunch of money while making electric power accessible to the masses. Edison won’t even meet with him. He refuses to consider anything but his own direct current system, claiming that ac is dangerous despite having no proof. When Westinghouse feels forced to go it alone, Edison pretty much immediately plays dirty. Westinghouse kind of does the same, but his dirty play is just to expose the truth about Edison.

The movie tries to soften Edison by showing him with his family; mostly of him ignoring them to do his work. It also has him harping on his refusal to build something designed to kill a man, which supposedly drives his refusal to work with high voltage ac. But he also goes against that building an electric chair in an effort to smear Westinghouse. Basically, the movie only shows Edison at his worst, but then expects the viewer to feel something when Holland’s character, who has been Edison’s right hand throughout the movie, says he is glad he worked for Edison over Westinghouse. I just can’t figure out why. The movie would have been better with a greater focus on Westinghouse. It is slanted towards Edison, but it doesn’t give enough of Westinghouse’s reaction.

Still, the movie absolutely sparkles at times. When Westinghouse and Edison finally meet at the Chicago World’s Fair, it is a great scene. They have a conversation about achieving greatness, with the defeated Edison already anticipating his next great success. Westinghouse is magnanimous in victory. Nicholas Hoult’s brief appearances as Nikola Tesla are solid as well. He doesn’t have enough time to do a whole lot; he mostly establishes himself as a brilliant inventor who is bad at business.

This is a great looking movie with some excellent performances, but the whole thing feels like less than the sum of its parts. It is far from a disaster, but it is clearly not as good as it could have been.

***

Addams Family

I feel like I shouldn’t like this version of The Addams Family. Sure the character designs for this adhere pretty closely to the look from the original single panel comics, but the movie does all the things that tend to sink bad modern animated movies. Gratuitous pop culture references, obnoxious needle drops, star-studded voice casts that aren’t really voice actors, cardboard stories. Somehow, though, I found myself very entertained by it anyway. That might just be my natural affection for the Addams family. This movie turns their satire of old money weirdness into a tale about immigrants, but it keeps the charm of this group of delightful weirdos. It isn’t the best movie you are likely to see this year, but it is a more than passable way to spend 90 minutes.

The plot is barely worth recounting. The Addamses, the consummate weirdos that they are, are driven out of their home country, due to racism that feels sadly timely. They settle in a New Jersey swamp and begin to raise a family. Some fifteen or so years later, someone builds a housing development in the swamp and suddenly the Addams have neighbors. This is happening when the extended family is coming into town for Pugsley’s Mazurka ceremony, where he becomes an Addams man. Wednesday wants to learn more of the outside world and go to the local middle school. The ‘normal’ people clash with the Addams. Everyone learns some sort of lesson.

There are plenty of good bits with the people reacting to the strangeness of the Addams. Whether it is Wednesday and Pugsley being caged schooled, or the constant murder attempts, or anything with Fester, they are fun. The Addams Family works because they combine the outwardly spooky traits of the Addams with their treating everything like normal. They are a happy family that just so happens to be filled with psychopaths. The movie goes overboard with the ‘normal’ people though. Does the town need to be named Assimilation? DO they need to sing a song about how great it is to be just like everyone else? There is a movie where that stuff would work, but this movie is either pushing it too far or not pushing it far enough. Go full brainwashed weirdness with that stuff, or dump entirely. Doing just a little bit of it muddles exactly whether these are normal people or cult members. Actually, the Addams family would likely love to be living next to a cult. There are good individual sequences and a good message in this movie but it only barely overcomes the junk that would sink a movie with lesser characters at the heart. (See The Angry Birds movie.)

One way this movie was never going to satisfy me is that it wasn’t going to replace the 90’s movies as my favorite versions of these characters. I won’t claim to be overly familiar with the comics, but I did watch quite a bit of the TV show on stuff like Nick at Night (a quick google search suggests that Nick at Night never aired the Addams Family; so while I watched it somewhere in the early 90’s, it wasn’t there). The movies, especially the sequel Addams Family Values, are what I really loved. This movie was never going to be that. But I am judging what it is, not what it is not. This movie stays true to the characters and the family, has some good jokes and is rarely actively obnoxious, but just as rarely actually truly outstanding. It is worth seeing.

***

Yesterday Review

Yesterday mostly wastes an interesting premise telling a largely enjoyable little love story. Sure, it is just as much Boomer nostalgia bait as Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, but Yesterday tries something slightly interesting. Yesterday plays with an alternate reality concept and a little with the nature of fame. It ends up being just slightly more on the side of a success than a failure.

The high concept premise is that after a worldwide blackout, everyone except struggling musician Jack Malick forgets about the Beatles. Armed with his memory of Beatles songs, he begins to sell their work as his own. There are a lot of fertile story telling ground to go from here, about separating the art from the artist, about the specific circumstances around the Beatles success, about the effect art can have on the world. Yesterday is not interested in any of that. Any other blackout difference are only there for jokes.

Instead, Yesterday focuses on the stillborn romance between Himesh Patel as Jack and Lily James’s Ellie. She has operated as his manager and roadie for him for years, but once he starts to be a success with the Beatles music, their paths diverge and he has to choose between being a rock star and her. He keeps choosing stardom, until the end. There is a lot to criticize about this development, but I found that the love story largely works. It is clear from the beginning that both of the characters love each other, but both are afraid to jeopardize the friendship they have for the romance they might have. It is not a new story. But I find that it works in the context of movie, if only because Lily James is adorable.

A lot of the movie’s humor lands, especially Kate McKinnon as Jack’s new manager/Svengali. She doesn’t have any illusions about being there for anything other than the money, outright telling Jack that she doesn’t care about him, he is a product to her. Also, his incredibly incompetent and drugged out roadie Rocky is a lot of fun as he bumbles though just about everything.

The way the movie deals with the music is also fraught. It just takes that someone showing up with about two thirds of the Beatles’ hits would immediately translate into musical stardom as assumed. It does not acknowledge the passage of time between when The Beatles were popular and now. People would love the music in this alternate reality because they love it now.

There are also some just plain strange turns. Like a late movie encounter with a couple of other people who remember The Beatles and a visit with a man who gives some insight.

I am being somewhat harsh on what is, for the most part, an enjoyable little trifle. Yesterday is an excuse to watch a little romance while hearing a lot of Beatles covers. It succeeds on those very limited terms. Any other implications or insights are completely beyond the scope of the movie, making it feel more disappointing that it is.

***

Alita Battle Angel

Alita: Battle Angel is possibly the most successful attempt an American studio has made to turn a classic anime or manga into a live action movie. There have been disasters (Dragon Ball Evolution) and unfortunate misses (Ghost in the Shell, Death Note), along with one arguable classic (Speed Racer). Alita does a lot of things right, without ever managing to really elevate itself out of the morass of other effects heavy would be blockbusters. There is little I can point to that the movie does wrong, but there also isn’t anything that Alita: Battle Angel does that is truly memorable. That leaves us with a competent, often enjoyable movie that I expect to hard pressed to remember I watched in six months.

While the special effects are good, there is one effect that is an initial hurdle for anyone watching this movie. The title character, and only the title character, has big anime eyes. Some people appear to not be bothered by this; maybe the same will be true for you. I found it distracting. Additionally, with all of is close ups of Alita’s face, the movie will not let you forget your distraction. Otherwise, the effects are good. Honestly, the effect of the eyes isn’t badly done, just poorly considered.

If you can clear that hurdle, you are in for a romp not unlike the overstuffed delight Aquaman. Alita is based on a episodic manga, and it shows, as the movie ping pongs from one outlandish idea to the next. The central pillars of the movie are Alita coming to terms with her identity and her relationships with Dr. Ido and her love interest Hugo. It starts with Dr. Ido finding the almost purely robotic Alita in a scrap heap and giving her a new body, She has no memories of her past. Dr. Ido takes a fatherly interest in Alita. Alita also meets Hugo, a cool neighborhood boy who teaches her about Motorball and life in the depressing confines of Iron City. Soon, Dr. Ido’s life moonlighting as a “Hunter-Warrior” comes out, as does Alita’s combat skills. While fighting, she gets glimpses of her past, and tries to join Ido in an attempt to learn more about herself. Her relationship with Hugo grows, but he is hiding a secret.

That quick synopsis leaves out about a dozen smaller threads woven through this movie. While Alita: Battle Angel meanders all over the place, it never takes the focus off Alita. How much a person enjoys the movie likely comes down to how charmed they are by this dystopia. A lot of time is spent on the goofy future sport Motorball, wherein cyborgs play rollerblade basketball to the death. Whether it is a highlight or a waste of time like comes down to personal preference.

Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really work for me. However, I was reminded while watching it of Mortal Engines and Aquaman from late last year. Those movies hit me in the sweet spot; I loved them. Any complaints I can make against Alita are likely shared by those movies. It just comes down to how a movie hit the viewer, whether it engages their imagination. Alita: Battle Angel didn’t really do anything for me, but I can’t fault the people who got a big kick out of it.

***

Uncle Drew

Uncle Drew is a movie that maybe shouldn’t exist. It mostly stars professional athletes and is based on a series of soda commercials. It makes it more than a little surprising that it is as entertaining as it is. Uncle Drew isn’t the best comedy to come out this year, but it is solid and largely entertaining.

Uncle Drew stars Lil Rey Howery as Dax, the manager of a streetball team gearing up for the Rucker Classic basketball tournament. Just before it is set to start, Dax’s rival Mookie (Nick Kroll) steals his team and his girlfriend (Tiffany Haddish). The dejected Dax then encounters elderly streetball legend Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) and manages to convince him to play for him. One of Drew’s requirements for playing is that he gets to pick the rest of the team, which sets the two of them off on a roadtrip to put his old team back together.

That team includes power forward Preacher (Chris Webber), who is now a minister married to Betty Lou (Lisa Leslie) who does not want Preacher to play. They also pick up Lights (Reggie Miller), a legally blind outside shooting expert and Boots (Nate Robinson), the hyperactive point guard who is now confined to a wheelchair. Along with Boots comes his granddaughter Maya, who becomes Dax’s love interest. Lastly, they pick up Big Fella (Shaquille O’Neal), their center and now martial arts instructor.

It all mostly exists for former, and current, professional athletes to put on old age makeup and make a bunch of old people jokes. The other part mostly involves simplistic life lessons, like echoing Tag’s moral that “you don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing,” and noting that you miss all of the shots you don’t take. It is fine, not profound but doesn’t need to be and is not supposed to be. The last ingredient to formula is seeing these old players school a bunch of youngsters. Other than an early scene of Uncle Drew clowning a young guy near the start, the movie does its best to withhold this part until the end, but it is mostly worth the pay off.

There is just enough the make the characters in this movie actually characters to string things along between the basketball and jokes. There is Dax’s arrested development, with him being trapped in a moment when he got his shot blocked, by Mookie, as a kid and with his feeling alone since he grew up an orphan. There is also the conflict between Big Fella and Uncle Drew that broke up the team all those years ago. It isn’t anything surprising and its resolution is pat, but it is enough of a conflict to be a conflict.

As far as basketball goes, Uncle Drew largely delivers. That is the advantage of casting professional basketball players. The tournament plays out almost exactly how you’d expect it to, but there is enough here to be enjoyable. I don’t know why this movie exists, but I am not upset I used my moviepass to go see it.

***

Tag Review

Tag is a movie with a lot of people I want to see in good movies in a movie just competent enough to get by. Tag isn’t bad and actually tries to do some things that are at least partially interesting or original, but it can’t quite manage to break higher than forgettable summer comedy.

Tag, as the title implies, is about the game of tag, or at least a game of Tag. A group of friends, played by Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Jeremy Renner and Ed Helms, have been playing the same game of tag since they were children. Every year during the month of May they go to great lengths to sneak up on and tag each other. The movie starts with Ed Helms getting a job at Jon Hamm’s company just to ambush him with a tag. This leads to a journalist, played by Annabelle Wallis, deciding to write a story about this group.

Mostly the cast plays into their expected comic personas. Jake Johnson plays a stoner, Hannibal Buress is wry and kind of above it all, Jon Hamm is all arrogant self-assurance. Ed Helms is the kind of dweeby everyman. Jeremy Renner’s character, though, is some sort of tag savant, having never in the course of their game been tagged. When the other four find out that he has not invited them to his wedding, they team up to tag him before he gets married and quits the game forever.

While the movie expressly doesn’t let the women play the game, it also doesn’t do that thing where they are all nags. Ilsa Fisher plays Helms’ wife and gets so into things that keeping her out of the game seems to have been done for everyone’s safety, including her own. And Wallis’s reporter is mostly kind of an amused outsider, observing with interest even as lines are broken, though luckily they don’t quite get to torture. Finally, Leslie Bibb at first appears to be the wet blanket, but she merely wants to keep the game out of the wedding and is actually a master at helping her husband to be avoid a tag.

As these things go, initially only outrageous attempts to tag their friends, from the secret job to hiding in the closet of a therapist, soon spiral out of control, with breaking and entering and kidnapping and absurd lies about medical problems eventually being the methods employed to get a tag. That being said, the outrageous antics never really add up to comedy gold. Its attempts at a heartfelt look at friendship hit closer to the mark, though its central message of “you don’t quit playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing,” is not quite as profound as they seem to want it to be.

All told, Tag is a moderately entertaining movie, especially if you happen to be a fan of one or more of the actors involved.

***

Ready Player One

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Ready Player One, is visually amazing and narratively empty. It mostly works on its own terms, even if it barely holds up to even the barest scrutiny. Mostly, it is an excuse for over the top action scenes and references to video games, comics and other movies.

The movie stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, a young man who is trying to win a contest to gain control of the OASIS, a virtual reality game that everyone plays. Its creator, James Halliday, left it to whoever could solve his riddles when he died. He is opposed by the IOI corporation and their CEO Noah Sorrento. What starts as a game quickly escalates to become deadly, while Wade gets closer to fellow player Art3mis. The contest consists of finding 3 keys hidden in various locations, with puzzles based on Halliday’s favorite bits of pop culture and his own personal history.

The plot is mostly a vehicle to deliver references, which are all over the place. Some are just recognizable characters in the background. Look, is Harley Quinn! Over there is Chun Li! They don’t add much to the movie, but they don’t detract anything either. Then there are the more in depth ones, like the second challenge taking place within a virtual version of the movie The Shining or the last challenge having to do mostly with the Atari game Adventure. Only The Shining one really engages with its subject, the others are all mostly just surface. Adventure is a fitting final challenge, but how they get there is pretty clumsy.

Clumsy is how I’d describe the movie overall. The more prominent references get problematic. Like the Iron Giant. I loved seeing that in the movie, but not when it was used in some fighting. The Iron Giant is a movie about how that robot refuses to be a weapon, it gives me no joy to seem him being a weapon. Some of the other surprise characters work a lot better, but just as often the references are as clumsily inserted as Iron Giant. It doesn’t make Ready Player One unentertaining, Spielberg still knows his business even when he is working with lesser material. It is clear, though, that he is working with lesser material here.

Ready Player One almost feels like everyone made a hellish dystopia without realizing it until the last minute. It is a movie about a terrible future, where everyone would rather play a virtual reality game instead of working to fix society’s problems. The movie is about who gets to control that game, mostly by playing the game. No one seems to care that world is shit. It could work, it’s not like Blade Runner is about how terrible that world is, it mostly a noir mystery. But Ready Player One doesn’t even seem to acknowledge the state of the world, it is an unimportant detail. That is kind of my biggest problem with the movie; it is almost always focusing on the wrong things. It is a movie about the power of imagination that almost seems to have none.

***

Overboard Review

The original Overboard succeeded despite its dodgy premise on the charm of its stars, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. That appeal would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate. Still, this new Overboard made an excellent attempt. Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez aren’t quite Russell and Hawn, but I don’t know how this movie could have done better. Overboard is a mildly enjoyable diversion; never offensive, but is also never quite funny enough.

This Overboard switches the genders of the put upon worker and rich jerk who stiffed them. Derbez’s Leonardo is a rich playboy who refuses to pay Faris’s Kate, a single mom working multiple jobs while in nursing school. When he falls off his yacht and ends up with amnesia, Kate pretends he is her husband so she can force him to work off his debt. Lessons are learned before Leonardo inevitably remembers who he is and there is a reckoning.

I am somewhat familiar with Anna Faris’s work, but it is easy to forget how great of a comic actress she is. Her timing is always perfect and her face is perfectly expressive. She gets a lot of lesser material over just on her delivery. She is great. I was not familiar with Derbez, though I intend to watch last year’s How to be a Latin Lover, which is on Hulu, after watching this. He is likewise very good, though he spends a lot of movie being vaguely confused at what is going on around him, and he has really good chemistry with Faris.

My problem with Overboard is that is just isn’t all that funny. It isn’t that it is full of bad jokes, it is just that it repeats a lot of jokes and a lot of them were only marginally funny to begin with. The other problem is that it kind of skips over Leonardo building a relationship with Kate and her kids. There are a few, mostly effective scenes, but there is more showing the start of growth and then finished growth without showing the actual growth. Like with him teaching Kate’s youngest daughter how to ride her bike. There is a scene where he realizes she can’t ride a bike and then a scene where she is riding a bike and says he taught her, but the movie never shows him teaching her. It does things like that a little too often.

That said, I mostly enjoyed Overboard. It is pleasant and manages to not to sink under the nature of its central conceit. It makes Leonardo enough of a jerk that his punishment feels earned and makes Kate desperate enough that she doesn’t appear to be completely sociopathic for engaging in the deception. It almost works. Which is how I feel about the whole movie; it almost works.

***

Pacific Rim Uprising

I loved the original Pacific Rim. It was kind of thin in places, but it was so earnest that it sold it. After seeing dreck like the Transformers movies, just having a movie about giant robots that wasn’t a big pile of shit was welcome. The sequel, which doesn’t have the advantages of timing or of being directed by Guillermo Del Toro, couldn’t have hoped to live up to it. Pacific Rim Uprising, though, manages to forge its own path, while keeping that earnestness that helped make the first one so enjoyable. It expands the mythology and creates some interesting, or at least potentially interesting, new characters and lays out a path forward for this potential franchise.

Pacific Rim Uprising is the Saturday morning cartoon version of the original. That is mostly a bad thing, but not completely. Uprising lacks the first movie’s weight and its stakes. The fight scenes are fine. They are not especially inventive, but they are coherent and enjoyable. There isn’t quite the heft that the first movie had, this is a little more cartoony. It works, though. Giant robots are an inherently goofy concept, the first movie played them as straight as possible, this movie frees things a few steps more from the bounds of reality. These robots do a lot more running and jumping that the old ones did. There is also less weight to the story. The first movie had this palpable weight to it, that the end of humanity was near. This takes place in the aftermath; humanity has won. So that oppressive weight is gone. There was also the feeling that any character could die at any time. Mostly because lots of characters died, frequently abruptly. Here, with the bulk of the cast being literal children, that seems, and proves, much less likely. There are still loses, but things are a lot less final than in the previous film.

John Boyega stars a Jake Pentecost, the son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who has left the Jaeger program and works as a smuggler and thief, salvaging old Jaeger parts and selling them on the black market, as well as things like cereal and hot sauce. Through circumstance he is teamed with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a young girl who has built her own mini-Jaeger out of scraps, and forced to rejoin the program. There he is reteamed with his old partner, Nate (Scott Eastwood)to train newcomers and Amara is put in with the rest of trainees. Boyega does good work making Jake an interesting character; his feelings of inadequacy in trying to live up to his father work especially well in a movie that is going to have a hard time living up to its predecessor. The precocious Amara starts well, but her arc kind of gets lost in the middle before coming back near the end. Nate is a guy; he only really has one note of being by the books, with little or nothing about who he is coming through. None of the other trainees do much to distinguish themselves. The other notable new face is Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), the head of the corporation who is seeking to displace the Jaeger program with drones. She is interesting, if underutilized.

Returning characters are few and not treated especially well, though in one case it makes perfect sense. Outside of flashbacks and static images, returning characters are limited to scientists Newt Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb and former Jaeger pilot Mako Mori. The scientists are roughly as important in this movie as they were in the first. Gottlieb still works with the Jaeger program, while Geiszler has gone to work with a private firm. Gottlieb has several chances to shine as the sole scientist for the good guys, it is fine continuation of his character. Meanwhile, Geiszler has gone a little off the deep end, as he was wont to do in the first movie without Gottlieb’s restraining influence, working with the Shao Corporation. His developments, while not really positive, make perfect sense for the character. Then there is Mako, who was the heart and soul of the original movie. Bringing her back seemed like a good sign, but the movie treats her abominably. She has no role, she is only motivation for her adoptive brother Jake.

The story wisely avoids just repeating the first movie. While eventually Kaiju do come back, it doesn’t just start with a new breach. It builds to their return. In many ways, it has the bad guys using the heroes tactics from the first movie against them.

Pacific Rim Uprising is not as good as the original, but neither is it a complete failure. It stumbles occasionally and really misses the hand of Del Toro, but for the most part provides a solid outing of giant robots punching monsters.

***