Month: January, 2020

Midway

mwVerdict: An overblown and corny theme-park ride.

If you liked Pearl Harbour, then you’ll love Midway… but that’s not saying much. Pearl Harbour was a posturing leaky barrel of testosterone that overflowed with commercial bluster and was most likely an insult to those who suffered from the real-life event.  Midway is more of the same, an unintentional sequel of sorts that focusses on events post Pearl Harbour that led up to the battle of Midway.

Dick Best (don’t ask), the obligatory wise-cracking gum-chewing hero (played by Ed Skrein), leads us into battle. He’s the best Dick around. Yep, a real Top Gum (he doesn’t ever stop chewing), a chiselled jawed Wriggly’s advert who spouts machismos like “Let me put a 500-pound bomb right down their goddam smokestack”. Behind him all the way is, of course, his dutiful wife (Mandy Moore), Woody Harrelson’s silver wigged Admiral Nimitz and a supporting slew of military archetypes who head off to save the Pacific and the Free World. 

It’s writer Wes Tooke’s first crack at a feature film. It shows. His screenplay would make a Baz Luhrmann film feel wooden, with a robotic script that brims with needless exposition.  There is so much “tell and also show” going on, that Tooke has seemingly dropped his own 500-pound word bomb down the goddam smokestack of this film. Fool of a Tooke!

To be fair, this heaving special effects-laden extravaganza is everything you’d expect from a director such as Roland Emmerich. He’s the one responsible for patriotically gouging our brains out with Independence Day and White House Down among other “God Bless America” middle-of-the-road block-busters. Midway is all that and more, and you’d be fairly naive if you went in expecting anything else.  In fact, Emmerich’s bombastic eye-candy may indeed be the perfect foil for Tooke’s mechanical script—it’s almost admirable how the duo have achieved peak-brain-dead-commercial-crap. It’s a “himbo” of a film; handsome to look at but not much above deck.  Unfortunately, Midway treats it audience similarly.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Just Mercy

jmVerdict: A conventional but engaging true story of judicial injustice.

True stories are never the easiest ones to tell. Beholden to a number of restrictions, among them that pesky thing called “the truth”, Just Mercy’s writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) appears to have cautiously tiptoed through this minefield with a very straight-laced retelling of the racially charged Johnny D McMillian case.

Set in Alabama’s deep south, Just Mercy tells the tale of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a lawyer fresh from Harvard, who makes the unenviable decision to represent death-row prisoners. Stevenson has been (and continues to be) a strong advocate for American legal reform and social justice and his defence of McMillian (Jamie Foxx), which this film focuses on, is a damning statement on the American judiciary system.

The death penalty sentence dished out to McMillian built entirely on the back of a false testimony from Ralph Myers, (a convicted white felon seeking a reduced sentence—played by a wonderfully jittery Tim Blake Nelson) despite there being multiple black accounts to the contrary, lends this film a solid platform to make some pointed statements on race and justice. It’s a compelling story, made even more remarkable by Stevenson who has since exposed the staggering statistic that one in nine prisoners on death-row have since been exonerated.

However, as well-intended as this retelling is, it’s a film that might’ve been better served with a narrower focus. Just Mercy’s impact is unfortunately diluted by peripheral characters who seem to distract rather than solicit emotional buy-in to the Stevenson/McMillian relationship (Brie Larsen’s token white office-worker among them). Furthermore, Cretton appears to shy away from using artistic licence to sell the story, which is a shame because Just Mercy operates best in the fleeting moments where artistic embellishments surface.

But despite missed opportunities, what rises out of the carcass of conventionality are some impressive performances, in particular, Jordan whose measured take on a man with a heart pained by racial injustice elevates this film above the typical prestige drama template. While Just Mercy is conventional it certainly holds your attention.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Bombshell

bs1Verdict: Packs plenty of gun powder but doesn’t quite go off with a bang.

Director Jay Roach has gingerly tiptoed through the thorny but serious topic of sexual harassment in his latest film, the provocatively titled Bombshell. It’s a bold move for a director better known for the comedic contrivances of Austin Powers, but his latest certainly isn’t for laughs and plays out more like a politically explosive revenge film.

News anchor Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) kicks off a lawsuit against her boss (Fox Network bigwig Roger Ailes, played by a very slimy John Lithgow) for unfair demotion. The revelation that Ailes sexually harassed her is met with a ground-swell of cautious support, among them news anchor Megyn Kelly (Theron) and Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), that fast becomes a triple barrelled powder-keg of feminine rage planted deep within the bowels of Fox Network’s male-dominated ivory tower.

You’ll forgive Bombshell for the diversity drought—the Fox building, where this tale is predominantly set, is presented as a hotbed of white, conservative ambition. Cleverly, the sexual harassment case plays out to the backdrop of the Trump’s election campaign in which the film screams “see who you’ve let run the free world?!”. It’s fairly obvious where Bombshell’s political sentiments lie.

Unfortunately, Bombshell’s fever-pitched witch hunt does pay undue attention towards its more mechanical “cloak-and-dagger” plot points and timidly shies away from fully fleshing out its female characters. One notable scene in which a disconsolate Kayla (Robbie) weeps down the phone to her friend searching for reassurance, unfortunately, loses vital impact—well-acted, yes, but we just don’t know enough about her to care. As it stands we are held strangely at arm’s length which hints to screenwriter Charles Randolph’s (The Big Short) penchant for punchy political satire rather than deeply personal stories. Perhaps also a product of men telling women’s stories, but far be it from me to make that call.

Despite these grumbles Bombshell still offers engaging viewing thanks in part to Roach’s kinetic film-making but mostly due to the solid acting from the triumvirate of female A-listers who seem to get the most from Randolph’s pallid characterisations. It’s a well-intended film that enthusiastically nods towards the #metoo movement but never fully arrives at the point where feminine ambition intersects with moral fortitude.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.