Midway (2019)

mid1Its the damnedest thing- after Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and so many other cautionary, war-is-hell movies (which I would describe as sophisticated, grown-up war movies), I would have thought that a revisionary, brutal and sobering film about the war in the Pacific and in particular the battle at Midway would have been timely. Pick two characters, maybe a pilot for the air battles, and a naval gunner or engineer to depict the sea battles between the carriers/destroyers, and show the film from their perspective, focus purely on them. What they can see, what they can hear, what they feel. Forgo all the military planning, all the top-brass material, just show what it was like for the grunts following the orders and trying to do their job and somehow survive. I suppose what I’m suggesting is something akin to Dunkirk, but more focused and minus all that three-timelines nonsense.

And drop all the CGI hysterics, you’re going to need it obviously, but show it sparingly and effectively- narrow it down, less of the wide-angle video-game stuff and more of the brutal, vicarious you-are-there-and-its-bloody-scary stuff.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m writing all this down, because Roland Emmerich’s Midway is not that movie. Its practically a pseudo-sequel to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour from 2001, as if that film was critically lauded and wildly successful and everyone demanded a follow-up.  It has the same silly virtual camera moves and video-game CGI and clunky dialogue, and like Pearl Harbour, rather feels out of its time and awkwardly ill-judged. Sure, its a noble and well-intentioned effort but it just feels… wrong. Midway had the opportunity to be the anti-Pearl Harbour and blew it, pretty much giving us more of the same, as if that were A Good Thing.

Besides which, its clear that the more CGI you have in your film, the more the quality level falls and it becomes more just, well, an animated movie. Some of the visual effects/CGI in Midway is very, very good (some shots are breathtaking) but some of it is quite poor. It just seems inevitable, and some of the CGI in this is surprisingly woeful (some panoramic shots, for instance one during burials in particular, look like pre-vis work rather than completed shots). The CGI can be wonderful and enable shots/sequences impossible before but should be used sparingly to ensure impact and moreover help with the quality levels.  Naturally you lean less on the CGI and maybe you have more time for character study and acting performances and good writing… and maybe that’s why they lean on the CGI so much, because good writing appears to be unfashionable in film these days.

Anyway, suffice to say that Midway was everything I expected, its not a complete disaster and no doubt was well-intentioned, but a great cast is pretty much wasted,  some pretty banal dialogue at times doing them few favours, and, er,  leave it at that.

MIdway (2019) is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

 

 

The Monuments Men (2014)

Still from Monuments Men2016.24: The Monuments Men (HD Streaming)

In this post-Saving Private Ryan film landscape, it is actually rather odd that The Monuments Men is so surprisingly lightweight. Evidently this is deliberate, but it leaves it feeling like two different movies. On the one hand, it is visually stunning, using quite extraordinary effects work to place the protagonists in the middle of post-D Day wartime Europe. It looks like an epic war movie, and so much another Saving Private Ryan/Band of Brothers, a gritty war movie like, say, the same year’s Fury, and yet the twist is that it’s actually nothing of the sort. Director Clooney is trying to weave a more intimate, family friendly, life-affirming tale about the true story of Frank Stokes (Clooney) who gathers a group of art experts and scholars on a mission to save Europe’s greatest works of art from being destroyed in the chaos of the Allied invasion and German retreat.

The cast is pretty impressive – no, strike that; Clooney has assembled a frankly fantastic cast that includes Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville. Clooney is no doubt hoping that casting such heavyweights will allow their screen personas to inform the scantily-sketched characters spread thinly across the films short but busy running time. It doesn’t really work- seeing such great actors with lightweight roles seems a bit of a waste, but I guess it engenders rapid audience empathy. Its just a pity the characters aren’t more rounded or convincing.

It does seem that the film spreads itself too thin trying to tell too much of a story, that it needed editing down. In its defence, it’s clear that the film is trying to be faithful and respectful to the true story and mindful of not shortchanging anyone. It’s a similar situation to Everest. Sometimes you try to be fair to everyone and it turns out detrimental to the film as a whole and ultimately fails the original objective.

Which is not to suggest that The Monuments Men is a bad film. It’s a noble one, certainly, and tells an interesting and entertaining story, but as its characters split up and travel all over war-torn Europe hunting down the artworks stolen by the Reich, the film spreads itself too thin. The individual storylines become vignettes and I guess they are intended to inform the whole, but instead I felt that the scattered approach instead weakens it. We don’t really feel everything we are intended to feel. The film may have been better served by focusing wholly on one pair of ‘heroes’ but I suppose the counter-argument would be that wouldn’t be the ‘whole’ story. Clooney walks a tightrope here and falters- to further the analogy, while he doesn’t really fall off he loses his balance a few times, the film losing the grace it should have.

Yet some sequences are mightily impressive. There’s a particularly poignant Christmas scene, when a recorded Christmas message from back home involving  a warm Christmas song is played over a snow-swept Allied camp’s tannoy against visuals of wounded soldiers in a medical tent and one young man dying. It’s intimate and effective, a reminder of the contrast of the setting and the time of year and what our heroes are fighting for, and what they have at stake. It’s a well-written and directed scene, possibly the best of the film.

Elsewhere Clooney displays some skill at managing the great scale of things. He seems quite accomplished at knitting in the big effects shots and has a keen eye for composition. Its some feat to star in a film at the same time as directing it but he manages it well; its just a shame that the script, spread so thin telling so much, can’t afford more scenes as effective as the Christmas sequence, or characters a little more rounded and driven.

But what the hell, it’s a film with Bob Balaban in it (and he’s great, by the way). In my book, that makes it a film more than worth seeing, period.

Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon BernthalThe shadow of both Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s Band of Brothers looms large over David Ayer’s Fury. That’s no fault of the film itself, its just the way things are- its as inevitable as watching Guardians of the Galaxy and comparing it to Star Wars, or Interstellar and comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In what is perhaps a concious effort to step from out of that Private Ryan shadow, Fury pushes the envelope with its graphic onscreen portrayal of war. People burn horribly, heads explode, severed body parts litter the screen… this war isn’t pretty. And yet the one shot that lingers in my mind is one of a vast armada of bombers in the sky, weaving a spider-web of contrails across the clouds as the air trembles with the sound of their engines- its a beautiful, arresting image, quite at odds with the horrors the film portrays down on the ground.

This raised a thought whilst watching Fury; is it acceptable to portray the horrors of war in the guise of entertainment? Is it an artistic or even moral right to show the brutality of it, exploding heads, burning flesh, the blood and body parts, in a movie designed to entertain? Is there something wrong with viewers gaining enjoyment and satisfaction from watching such bloody horrors unfold? Is it even possible for any film to really encapsulate what war is? Fury may not flinch from showing battles in graphic detail but I dare say it pulls its punches- there is a limit to what censors will allow I’m sure, but as the years pass the boundaries keep moving, and I wonder where it may end. Even the heroes (as we used to understand the term in war movies) aren’t what they used to be-  the Allied soldiers seem as bitter and twisted and destroyed as the Germans they are fighting, even though its the last days of the war and the Allies are clearly on the winning side with victory near. They are all broken men. Broken by their experiences of the war.

kelly1This isn’t a consideration for earlier war movies- I found myself thinking of Kelly’s Heroes, another film featuring tanks, and one of those movies I can watch over again and again- its a war movie from back in the days that Hollywood war movies were really Boys Own Adventure films (albeit in Kelly’s Heroes case focused through a prism of late ‘sixties/early ‘seventies cynicism). Back when soldiers would get shot and fall down dead with the minimum of fuss or gore or sign of pain. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule (All Quiet on the Western Front for one), but prior to Apocalypse Now, war movies were in no way focused on the reality and madness of war. Just thinking of war movies starring John Wayne makes me cringe- only the other day whilst flicking channels I stumbled on a movie, I don’t know what it was, but it had Charles Bronson in army get-up playing soldiers with a bunch of other actors like Henry Fonda and it looked, frankly ridiculous, like grown men playing at being soldiers, almost in bad taste. But war films are what they were, prior to Apocalypse Now, Platoon and of course Saving Private Ryan. The playing field has changed now, and Fury is clearly a product of its time.

Fury is a very interesting and arresting film. Visually it is quite brutal, although it sometimes seems a little too keen to shock the viewer. It does seem brave for having such a largely unsympathetic group of characters; it is very difficult to empathise with the nominal good guys at times and that’s contrary to how films work with protagonists in peril (you really should root for the ‘good guy’ otherwise why care what happens? Perhaps it is simply showing how war and its horrors breaks men and strips them of their humanity. Its evidently a concious decision of the film-makers, because the performances themselves are all of a very high standard- they just in no way try to engender audience sympathy. Interestingly, I don’t recall any of the characters really talking about their old, pre-war lives, as if the war is all there is, all there has ever been (perhaps they don’t really believe its ever going to end).
fury3The battle scenes are well-shot and staged, albeit quite harrowing, and the film does look beautiful, which is odd considering what horrific things are depicted. Steven Price’s score is unusual and effective, and although its a bit disconcerting to hear music that sounds so like his earlier Gravity score in a period movie, on the whole it works well.

So Fury being a war movie with tanks, being compared to Kelly’s Heroes as another war movie with tanks, is hardly any fit comparison at all, but all the same, its interesting to note how much has changed with war movies. Watching the two films back to back (something I really must do someday) would be a sobering thing indeed, to see just how much things have changed in the decades between them. I guess the world has changed, and how we perceive war, as much as Hollywood’s depiction of it. Which influenced which, I wonder? Did our knowledge of war force Hollywood to change, or was it the change in Hollywood war films that influenced our view of what war is?