Tag Archives: C+

MIDWAY

Producer: Roland Emmerich and Harald Kloser
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer: Wes Tooke
Stars:  Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Geoffrey Blake, Jun Kunimura, Brandon Sklenar, Etsushi Toyokawa, Keean Johnson and Brennan Brown
Studio: Lionsgate

C+

An old-fashioned World War II movie fitted out with all the combat action modern CGI can muster, Roland Emmerich’s “Midway” certainly outshines Jack Smight’s 1976 turgid patchwork epic on the game-changing 1942 naval battle in sheer energy and visual pizzazz, though it lacks the earlier film’s star wattage in casting.

Written by Wes Tooke, the picture is basically a primer—quite a historically accurate one, for the most part—about the beginning of American involvement in the war, not overlooking the leadership provided by the likes of Admirals Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) and Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), but concentrating on the heroics of other actual figures like pilots Jimmy Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), who led the punitive strike on Tokyo, and Dick Best (Ed Skrein) and Wade McClusky (Luke Evans), who were among those active in the assault on Japanese aircraft carriers at Midway, as well as others like aviation machinist Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas) and aviation radioman James Murray (Keean Johnson).

Special emphasis, however, is put on the intelligence officers who were instrumental in preparing the trap that the Japanese navy fell into at Midway: Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who had warned of a potential attack before Pearl Harbor and advised Nimitz on what might follow, and codebreaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), who led the team that surveyed and decrypted the enemy messages that allowed Layton to forewarn the admiral about probable Japanese strategy.

These uniformly heroic naval types are surrounded by a vast array of other servicemen—this is a man’s movie. An occasional female is to be seen, of course, most notably Mandy Moore as Best’s wife Anne, a spunky type who always stands by her husband and keeps the home fires burning while he’s away, though he’s always overlooked for promotion because he doesn’t follow the rules. It’s definitely a minor role, however, though not quite as small as Rachael Perrell Fosket’s turn as Mrs. Layton.

To provide some sense of balance, the Japanese perspective is also included to some extent, beginning with a pre-war banquet conversation between Layton and Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), who serves as a voice of reason in contrast to his country’s more militaristic leaders, and continuing through the battle at Midway itself, in which the levelheaded, and ultimately heroic Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) serves as a counterpoint to the hidebound, inflexible commander Nagumo (Jun Kunimura).

Nor is China forgotten (one of the production partners is Shanghai-based, after all): a major subplot spends time showing how Doolittle was saved from capture by beleaguered nationalists, who risked their own lives by protecting him from the Japanese.

And just to show that Tooke and Emmerlich are aware of their cinematic heritage, they find room for a couple of scenes featuring iconic director John Ford (Geoffrey Blake) at work on his documentaries about the war in the Pacific, putting himself in harm’s way to get a good shot of Japanese planes en route to Midway.

Those who obsess over the technical details of the vintage planes and ships shown here will probably point out minor errors in their reconstruction, but overall one of the strongest elements of “Midway” is its devotion to period detail. Production and costume designers Kirk M. Petrucelli and Mario Davignon have done an expert job.

So too have the members of the effects team; though despite the best efforts of editor Adam Wolfe the actual battle sequences may not be as clear as they might be from a purely tactical perspective, they’re viscerally exciting in video-game terms.

The dramatic elements of the film, on the other hand, are at best pedestrian. The characterizations, even of the major figures, are sketchy, and the dialogue perfunctory, with lots of macho declamation (the scenes of Jonas’ Gaido are especially broad in that respect, though the last-act misgivings of Johnson’s Murray about flying on another death-defying mission provides a glimpse of the fear factor that must have been omnipresent). In these dialogue-driven sections of the picture, the widescreen images of Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography are lustrous but fairly prosaic.

A similar description can be offered of the acting, which often falls into the category of posing rather than performing. Skrein and Jonas are particular offenders in that respect, relying more on posturing and broad accents than delving into character (Moore, in her way, suffers from the same inclination to excess, as does Quaid). But even those who opt for restraint—Wilson, Evans, Eckhart, Toyokawa, Asano and (surprisingly) Harrelson—can’t bring much depth to their work.

So what we’re left with is a throwback to the wartime spectacles of the seventies, done up with all the visual pizzazz CGI can provide but keeping the human element at a regrettably rudimentary level. One can admire Emmerich’s fidelity to fact and his refusal to indulge in 1940s-style jingoism, and his film certainly celebrates what’s nowadays called the greatest generation in a fashion appropriate to Veterans’ Day (for which it’s being released). While a decent example of gung-ho popular history (and superior to Michael Bay’s “Pear Harbor”), however, its shallow characterizations keep it from becoming nuanced human drama.

JOKER

Producer: Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Todd Phillips
Director: Todd Phillips
Writer: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Betts, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Brian Tyree Henry, Shea Whigham, Marc Maron, Dante Pereira-Olson, Sharon Washington,Douglas Hodge, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill and Josh Pais
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C+

Todd Phillips’ origin story of Batman’s most persistent nemesis is expertly crafted and features a stunning lead performance, but it’s also a morally problematic exercise in cinematic nihilism. You won’t be easily able to forget Joaquin Phoenix’s mesmerizing turn as “Joker,” every bit as impressive as Heath Ledger’s, which won that actor a posthumous Oscar—Phoenix could well be honored with a nomination, even if the award eludes him. However, you will likely find the film itself just as hard to forget, though you might want to despite its technical sophistication.

The narrative fashioned by Phillips and Scott Silver is actually quite simple. In a dystopian Gotham that looks alarmingly like early 1980s New York City beset by a damaged economy that resembles the U.S.A’s in 2008, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a mentally challenged young man with a propensity to break out in uncontrollable fits of laughter; he works for a service that furnishes clowns for parties and other events. Otherwise he’s devoted to caring for his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who once worked for the family of the city’s top citizen Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and remains devoted to the man.

The activity on which mother and son most enjoy spending time together is watching a late-night talk show hosted by an iconic but nasty host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of appearing on the show, being called from the audience down to the stage and praised by Franklin while the audience applauds; he also thinks about doing stand-up at a comedy club. Meanwhile, though, the city’s budget cutbacks end his sessions with a social worker (Sharon Washington) despite the dark thoughts she finds in his journal, and close off his supply of the medication he needs to stay in at least some degree of self-control.

But despite an apparent relationship he develops with an attractive single mom (Zazie Beetz) down the hall, Arthur’s problems only escalate as he runs into trouble at work. When a gang of young toughs harass him as, in his clown getup, he advertises a store’s going-out-of-business sale on the sidewalk, stealing his sign and beating him with it, he’s harangued by his boss, who threatens to take the cost of the sign out of his pay. Gruff co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleshler) gives him a gun so he can defend himself in the future. When he accidentally drops it on the floor during a performance at a children’s hospital ward, it gets him fired; but it also comes in handy when he’s accosted by three young Wall Street types on the otherwise deserted subway and he uses it to kill them all, “Death Wish” style. It’s his first turn to violence, but hardly the last.

From that point Arthur becomes increasingly unhinged—as does the society around him. Reports of the killer subway clown offing a trio of over-privileged moneymen spawn a movement against what would nowadays be called the one-percenters who take advantage of everyone else. Donning clown masks, protestors take to the streets, and violence follows in their wake. Wayne, who has decided to run for mayor of Gotham, speaks out against their movement, a symbol of the hated establishment.

Arthur, however, is moved by personal rather than political motives. While he will revel in the chaos and anarchy his act has unleashed—appreciatively watching as the protestors waylay the two cops (Bill Camp and Sean Whigham) who are trying to question him about the subway killings—he is more interested in dealing with those who have, in his view, wronged him. They include his own mother, whose treatment of him as a child he eventually uncovers, and some of his old co-workers. And he also has a matter to settle with Wayne, whose son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) he briefly encounters, along with the boy’s protective butler (Douglas Hodge).

And then there is Franklin, who ridicules Arthur’s humiliating attempt at stand-up by showing clips from it on his program. Seeking to profit further from the guy’s misery, Franklin invites Arthur to appear on his show—which he does, in full Joker guise. It turns out to be the beginning of his storied career as a ringmaster of mayhem.

Phoenix is rarely off-screen for the entire running-time of “Joker,” looking emaciated and grotesque, and it’s hard to tear your eyes from him, even when the character is engaged in the most gruesome business. It’s a magnetic turn, even though you might wish the polarity were reversed—showy and insistent to be sure, but undeniably creepily effective. The unsettling thing is that it’s good enough to elicit more than a little sympathy for the character—who is, after all, bullied and brutalized into becoming the champion of chaos that the Joker ultimately is. Encouraging us to cheer him on is perilously close to approving of, if not advocating, what he does. It makes for a troubling sensation.

The other major players—Conroy and De Niro—provide able support, with the latter obviously relishing the chance to turn the tables on his role in “The King of Comedy,” a film which (along with “Taxi Driver”) Phillips is obviously paying homage to. Beetz is an attractive and likable presence as Arthur’s supposed romantic interest—while also capturing the character’s understandable fear when required, while among the other cast members, Leigh Gill will strike a chord with the audience as the office manager whose recoiling over one of Arthur’s most brutal acts perfectly mirrors our own reaction.

On the technical level, “Joker” is outstanding in every way. Using a blend of locations and sets, Mark Friedberg’s production design creates an extravagant atmosphere of urban life gone to seed and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography accentuates the effect, while Mark Bridges’ costume design—especially in Joker’s last-act outfit—and the work of the makeup artists are similarly superb. Jeff Groth’s editing gives Phoenix ample opportunity to make his mark in scenes, for instance, of ghoulishly sinewy dance while bringing in the film at a relatively trim two hours, and Hildur Gudnadóttir’s score avoids conventional bombast; the pop music intrusions are spot on, too.

But despite the extraordinary degree of skill on display throughout “Joker,” the movie is dismaying, not just for its explicit displays of carnage—parents, this is not a comic-book movie for kids!—but its detached attitude toward a misfit’s descent into madness and violence, a reality all too common in today’s society. One can admire its cinematic virtuosity while wondering whether, like “Natural Born Killers” and “V for Vendetta” before it, it’s not really an irresponsible piece of work on a broader level.