Battle stations: ‘Midway’ offers an old-school war movie with state-of-the-art visual effects.
MIDWAY ***1/2 (132 minutes) M
Those pining for the tangy, bitter-sweet taste of an old-style Hollywood war movie will get their fill, and then some, with Midway, a sprawling old-school crash-bang spectacle that noisily captures the scale, strategies, heroism and blunders of one of the most important battles of World War II.
Working on a typically epic canvas, director Roland Emmerich – who presided over such popcorn-pushing crowd-pleasers as Godzilla, Independence Day, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 – breathlessly crams in the daisy chain of keynote events and critical battles that take us from the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to the grand titular battle that deprived the Japanese of the aerial and naval supremacy they thought they had wrenched from the Americans.
Playing intelligence officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, Patrick Wilson puts in a stern, sturdy central performance as the character who has to deliver all the key exposition before the initial Japanese attack.
You know this guy. He’s that bookish character you see in movies who issues warnings in the face of official assurances that there’s nothing to worry about. In this case his concern is that the Japanese, who are at peace with America, want to catch the United States with its pants down.
Wilson leads a strong, square-jawed cast that includes Aaron Eckhart, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Quaid, Jake T Weber, Mark Rolston (remember Drake from Aliens?) and a gaggle of punchy young actors playing commanders and pilots eager to take the fight to their new enemy.
In terms of big-screen boomfests, Midway is tough to top. The film’s many battle scenes are orchestrated in strict accordance with the “bang, crash, rat-a-tat-tat” dictates demanded of high-end action cinema, complete with the added thrills of in-your-face moments as stricken fighters spin out of control and explode with the impact of a quality 3D shot.
The degree of research that has clearly gone into creating these impressive sequences make them all the more compelling, especially for war buffs.
Archival battle footage has been studied and used as reference points by the film’s army of FX artists, the obvious brief being to make the mayhem look as vivid as possible.
Footage of fighters returning from battle and attempting to land on unstable aircraft carriers, for instance, has been faithfully replicated with jaw-dropping photo-realism.
We also get yet another re-staging of the Pearl Harbor attack, and it’s a stunning first-reel grabber. It out-paces in ferocity and scale what we saw in 2001 with Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, though Midway can’t quite match the analogue veracity of 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, the film that has become the cinematic standard for the battle.
It needs to be stated, nonetheless, that this Midway more than makes up for the scrappy, star-studded 1976 Midway that, even to high school kids eager to experience the deep-bass rumbling of “Sensurround”, unspooled like a poorly slapped together compilation of archival battle footage that often didn’t match what was going on in the film.
To its credit, Midway isn’t merely composed of exciting battles and American naval personnel discussing strategy. It also features Japanese naval personnel discussing strategy. It’s truly commendable, this striving to give coverage to both sides of the conflict, though Midway never loses sight of who was wronged, who had the true heroes and who ultimately won.
And while the Japanese are humanized to an appreciable extent, one powerful and brutal scene in Midway – based on actual incidents – is at pains to remind audiences how the Japanese had their own set of rules when it came to dealing with prisoners.
Just as the events portrayed in Midway signalled a turning point in the war, Midway itself might also be part of a turning point in American cinema.
Though Midway proved a hit when it was released in the US late last year (it took $US123m worldwide), it is telling that Emmerich could not get a studio to back him, despite his $3billion+ track record. So he raised the dosh himself, with generous help from China, making Midway among the biggest independent films ever.
It is the latest recent film to demonstrate the strong box-office appeal of movies that give a reverential bow to “old school” Hollywood, such as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari and Little Women.
It could well be a sign of change, one that wouldn’t be all that surprising given the blockbuster mono-culture that has defined the past decade.
THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON ***1/2 (97 minutes) M
As far as quality road movies go it’s hard to think of any recent film that is as touching or as surprising as The Peanut Butter Falcon, a modest, small-scale gem of a film that has sprung forth from America’s independent sector.
Having finally escaped from the loving but restrictive confines of his North Carolina nursing home, Down Syndrome patient and wrestling fanatic Zak (Zack Gottsagen) hooks up with Tyler (Shia LeBeouf), a freshly fired fisherman on the run from two dastardly gents, Duncan (brilliant character actor John Hawkes, unrecognizable, as usual) and Ratboy (rapper Yelawolf).
Also in pursuit is Eleanor (Dakota Johnson from 50 Shades), Zak’s carer whose career is headed for an early close if she doesn’t find and return him to where he is supposed to be.
Zak’s aim is to visit his favourite wrestler, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), at his secluded training facility. Tyler promises to take him there, provided his pursuers don’t catch up with him first and exact violent revenge for all the property damage he inflicted on their business before disappearing into the state’s backwaters with a backpack and a rifle.
A cherished old wrestling videotape is Zak’s only guide, yet he is determined to fulfill his dream of becoming a wrestler after being trained by his hero.
The rough-edged charm of this redneck reworking of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn radiates from the beautiful, warm performance by Gottsagen, who conceived the film with writer/directors Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz.
In one of his best performances yet, LeBeouf infuses Tyler with a desperate drive to get to Florida and away from Duncan. His reaction to meeting Zak is initially free of compassion, seeing him chiefly as a beast of burden and the key to a possible reward. Following Twain’s template, his proximity to Zak gradually sees him grow a heart.
Stripped of glam, Johnson polishes off the triad nicely as the academically qualified carer who has no respect from her boss, a hard case who would prefer somebody from the school of hard knocks over her.
Eleanor certainly goes through her own process of toughening up as she tracks Zak down only to then discover what his fate will be once she returns him. It’s a dramatic turn through which the film deftly registers a red flag about how readily the disabled are institutionalized for everybody’s benefit but theirs.
The unforced, uplifting vibe of the film makes it easy to understand its status as a sleeper hit. Made for a modest $6m the film was swept up by a word-of-mouth wave and, buoyed by critical acclaim, ended up taking about $20m in the US, making it 2019’s biggest independent film and the latest example of a little film that could.
SEBERG ***1/2 (103 minutes) M
Regardless of whether it was intentional, this finely directed, unsettling account of how the private life of American actress Jean Seberg was covertly invaded by a rogue division of the FBI in the 1960s draws some disturbing parallels with online life today.
Having established herself in France with her role in the Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave ground-breaker Breathless, Seberg (Kristen Stewart in a suitably tight-wound performance) heads to Los Angeles to give Hollywood a run.
As a counter culture icon her reluctant appearance in formulaic studio mulch is more than countered by her well-publicized willingness to align herself with worthwhile causes and to use her celebrity to draw attention to their grievances.
Thus it is that she becomes involved with the Black Panther movement and one of its key advocates, the fiery, forthright and very attractive Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Though Seberg is married to Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), who remains in France with their son, she’s sexually unconstrained and has no issue consummating their relationship promptly after meeting him.
Listening intently to all this from a van across the road are FBI agents Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn). With the enthusiastic blessing of their boss Edgar J Hoover, it’s their mission to get dirt on Seberg so they can ruin her reputation on account of her being a subversive.
As far as these guys are concerned they’re just serving their country and trying to weed out troublemakers likely to upset the middle class lives they each enjoy with their “Bureau wives” (one of whom is played quite strikingly by Margaret Qualley, last seen as the hippie chick in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
The only difference between them is that while Carl loves what they’re uncovering, Jack’s conscience begins to disturb him. Unsettled by the malicious zeal with which Seberg is being bugged, watched, photographed and followed he begins pushing back.
It’s not so much the violations of privacy that appall him, but that the grounds for her persecution and the rationale behind the damaging attacks on her reputation aren’t based on her posing any real danger, but because the FBI just doesn’t like her.
Jack wants to act, but how? He is faced with the dilemma of how to offer protection to somebody he is supposed to be protecting America against. He also has his oath to worry about along with his family – and his inquisitive wife who has her own views on the FBI’s moral code.
As well as looking every inch the part, Stewart does a solid job charting the slow, painful descent of a popular actress who is hounded to deeper and deeper levels of desperation and paranoia.
Australian-born director Benedict Andrews (Una) also draws pungent portraitures from his supporting players. Vaughn is a study of impervious righteousness while O’Connell nails the plight of a dedicated, talented agent whose assignment grinds against his personal ethics.
It’s in the portrayal of the FBI’s callous behaviour, its lack of compassion and disregard for the damage it inflicts on Seberg and the local black community she tries to support that the film works as an allegory of today’s social media climate.
With personal privacy a debased concept and the cowardly army of online warriors eager to dispense hatred and bile so long as they are protected by anonymity it’s easy to see how malice can flourish in a world with no consequences.
Seberg was at the mercy of such an apparatus and ultimately fell victim to its unchecked power. Hence, as well as being a solid drama the film also serves as a cautionary tale, even though caution is as rare a practice online as discretion.
A HIDDEN LIFE *** (174 minutes) PG
Oh, what a joy it is to declare that one of the joys of the latest art film from Terrence Malick is that it features something many of his previous films have sorely lacked; namely, coherence. Yes, the film actually has a story that people from this planet can follow without getting a splitting headache.
There is even some joy in A Hidden Life though, as you’d expect from a Terrence Malick film, that doesn’t last very long.
Based on a true story, this visually vibrant film takes place in the scenic beauty of an Austrian village on the eve of World War 2.
Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl, who you’ll remember as the party-pooping Gestapo officer from Inglourious Basterds), his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their three daughters are living a fairly idyllic life with their fellow villagers as they tend crops, cut hay, fetch water and so on.
Then the guys with swastikas on their sleeves show up asking for donations and allegiance to Hitler. With no offense intended Franz would rather pass on the whole Hitler thing, but with the war now officially on he has to reluctantly go away and train as a soldier.
Luckily, the French quickly fold before the might of the German forces and Franz returns to his beautiful wife and lovely daughters and happy life with the stunning vista of the mountains thinking that that’s it.
Unfortunately for Franz that’s not it and he has to go away again and not only train to fight but pledge support to this Hitler guy, of whom he is not a fan. He is pressured to vow his allegiance but Franz steadfastly refuses.
This not only means prison for him, but hard times for his hard-working wife, who is now regarded by fellow villagers as a traitor. They spit on her, throw things at her, even steal from her crops. It’s a bummer deal not even the awesome view of a majestic volcanic plug can make up for.
Thankfully, Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps things in English and lays in lots of voice-over to make sure you’re following what is, essentially, a pretty straightforward narrative. At times it almost feels like the guy is over-compensating for those standing criticisms that his films have been too obscure, abstract and difficult to follow.
Which is perfectly true. His 1973 film Badlands stands as a classic, and 1998’s The Thin Red Line was a vivid war movie that held its own against Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
In 2005 Malick made the meandering The New World, which looked pretty, starred Colin Farrell and had the semblance of a decent story.
But then came Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015) and Song to Song (2017), works that seemed designed to invite criticism of Malick as indulgent and pretentious. One could be forgiven for thinking that Malick enjoys the epithet.
Malick’s distinctive style permeates A Hidden Life. Most of it was shot with a wide-angle lens, the editing within scenes is deliberately choppy and he likes getting his actors to toggle between naturalism and heightened emotion.
It’s jarring at times, but at least you know where you are in the story. Things do get very repetitive and you could argue that one more editing pass could comfortably shave off about an hour and still leave Malick with a solid two-hour film that covers all the dramatic terrain he traverses in this three-hour opus.
So it’s an indulgent film, for sure. Yet, to be honest, even at three hours the film is perfectly engaging. Unlike too many of his recent films the film is never boring, even given its excesses.
Devout fans of Malick will happily sit through anything he makes and – yet again – declare his genius to the world. God bless’em, but surely the more meaningful achievement for Malick is that he has made a film that is watchable and even captivating for non-fans. And all without him having made a single compromise. Well done.
Indeed, A Hidden Life is actually good enough to make those who have squirmed through his lesser works look forward to his next opus.