2 stars

REVIEW: Midway (2019)

The story of the soldiers and aviators who helped turn the tide of the Second World War during the iconic Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The first 20 minutes or so of Midway are honestly thrilling as the film opens with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, that sense of urgency and pace doesn’t continue for the rest of this almost two and a half hour-long film.

There are a lot of military characters and names to keep track of. The main pilot is cocky Dick Best (Ed Skrein) whose cavalier attitude towards death puts his superiors including Rear Admiral Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) on edge, but naturally when things are at their breaking point he’s just the kind of guy they need.

It’s a pleasant surprise that the film spends time with the Japanese characters, the admirals and soldiers who planned and carried out the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Midway, and tries to elevate them from just being the Bad Guys. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) is the main character we follow on that side of the battlefield as he tries to bring glory to Japan without taking undue risks. In fact, the Japanese are almost three-dimensional characters, especially compared to their American counterparts that are largely comprised of clichés and strong accents.

The most interesting character is reserved intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who had warned the Japanese were planning something big before the attack on Pearl Harbour, but his superiors failed listened to him. Now with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) taking command, he is charged with predicting the Japanese’s next move. Their working relationship, as Nimitz slowly puts his faith into Layton and his team of codebreakers, some of whom are a little eccentric, is perhaps the most compelling element in this sprawling account of military underdogs.

The last third is full of aerial battles that are a sight to behold – seeing the pilots dive headfirst towards aircraft carriers in order to drop a bomb on target are nail-biting moments – but the spectacle becomes overwhelming and the various characters, the majority of which you know little about to care about them, are hard to follow in the carnage.

Midway does it’s best to offer a respectful account of events that took place and the men, both Japanese and America, who took part and risked their lives. The action is big and bold but that doesn’t allow any room for nuance. 2/5.

REVIEW: Hot Pursuit (2015)

Uptight and by-the-book cop Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) tries to protect Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), the wife of a drug boss, from crooked cops and murderous gunmen as they race across Texas so Riva can testify.

Hot Pursuit is a crime-comedy film which isn’t that funny. Witherspoon plays the uptight and desperate to prove herself cop well, but her character is very one note for the majority of the film, and that one note can become grating after a while. Vergara’s Riva is loud and brash, and watching her and Cooper clash can sometimes be fun, however her shtick does get repetitive rather quickly.

There are the usual tropes of the witness trying to get away, the arguments and then the unlikely duo working together to survive. It’s when Cooper and Riva do reluctantly work together that the film starts to be fun, but there’s too many times where one turns on the other, so they end up at cross-purposes again and it feels like the story and the characters have taken three steps back again.

One thing Hot Pursuit has got going for it is it does get to the main plot and the action pretty quickly but it also has some very cringey and almost wince-inducing moments too as jokes fail to land and everyone just looks very awkward.

Unfortunately, the funniest part of Hot Pursuit is the gag reel that plays during the credits. That gets you laughing out loud, and a few proper belly laughs too, whereas the rest of the film is lucky to get a few chuckles at best.

Hot Pursuit is full of clichés and not very funny, though the sparks of what could be great chemistry between Witherspoon and Vergara manages to make the film a bit more bearable. 2/5.

REVIEW: Bright (2017)

In an alternate present-day where magical creatures live among us, two L.A. cops, human Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and orc Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) become embroiled in a prophesied turf battle as they try to protect elf Tikka (Lucy Fry) and her magic wand.

As a concept, Bright is interesting but unfortunately that doesn’t make the finished product interesting. Though it doesn’t go into detail, it’s clear that magical creatures have been a part of the world for centuries and humans, orcs, elves, fairies and presumably any other magical creature we don’t see in the film, have been coexisting that long. That means then that really the present-day world in the film should be at least a bit different to what we know in our world so references to things like Shrek just felt out of place.

Bright uses the differences between magical and human races to talk about racism, segregation and racial profiling but it’s very heavy handed which makes it both cringey and kind of insulting to the real-life situations it’s mirroring.

The conflict between Ward and Jakoby as they both don’t really trust or like one another which is typical to the buddy cop genre but unfortunately Smith and Edgerton don’t really have any chemistry. Normally when this kind of odd couple is clashing it’s entertaining but not here as Ward and Jakoby’s arguments seem to go on forever and the humour that’s supposed to be found in those scenes is nowhere to be found.

Once Ward and Jakoby discover Tikka, the plot of Bright basically becomes them going from A to B, trying to stay alive and keep Tikka safe as a variety of different people try to catch them and get the wand in Tikka’s possession. There’s orc gangs, human gangs, evil elves, corrupt cops and this world’s magical version of the FBI, on their trail. The plot could’ve been a bit tighter if one of those aspects was removed because at times it seemed like there was far too much going on, and the numerous shootouts didn’t leave a lot of time to flesh out the characters – especially Tikka who was mostly silently a lot of the time.

The action sequences in Bright are good, as is the make up on the various magical creatures, but unfortunately the characters aren’t interesting enough to make this film consistently entertaining. 2/5.

REVIEW: Guarding Tess (1994)

Secret Agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) is the agent in charge of the protection detail for Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), the widow of the former President of the United States and a woman who seems to enjoy making Doug’s life difficult with outlandish demands.

Guarding Tess has a typical plot – two very different characters who clash, learn to get along and understand one another – and it’s a functional yet dull plot as the two leads are never given much of a backstory or layers to their personalities. So many on the male characters speak in a monotone, even in stressful situations, which makes what’s supposed to be exciting on screen, not engaging at all.

Guarding Tess seems to be tonally all over the place too. It’s supposed to be a comedy, and there are a few funny moments, but then there’s these big dramatic moments in the last act that don’t hold any real weight due to the farcical nature of the previous hour of the film.

Cage and MacLaine have chemistry but it’s the kind of chemistry where you’re not sure if they’re going to tear chunks out of one another or kiss which naturally makes things a little uncomfortable and weird at times. It’s just as the relationship between Tess and Chesnic, and the rest of her Secret Service detail gets slightly interesting that the film swerves into something completely different and that relationship is never fully developed.

Guarding Tess ends up being a very bland “comedy” drama. The characters are, for the most part, pleasant but there’s so little drama or tension that they are just going about their daily lives and very little of interest happens. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Finland: The Howling Miller by Arto Passilinna

When Gunnar Huttunen turns up in a small village to restore a dilapidated mill, its inhabitants are instinctively wary. He’s big. He’s a bit odd. And he’s a stranger. Everyone loves his brilliant animal impressions but these feelings soon sour when he starts to howl wildly at night. And once the mean-spirited, small-minded locals realise Gunnar won’t conform, they conclude he must be mad and hound him from his home. With the help of the love of his life, and the local drunk, he’ll try and find some semblance on peace.

The Howling Miller feels a bit whimsical like a fairy tale or a fable a lot of the time, especially towards the end when you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. It definitely has that feel of Eastern European folklore, though obviously Finland wouldn’t necessarily be classified as a country in Eastern Europe. It’s the setting of the forests and rivers and the dark, cold nights, and having a solitary hero with weird quirks, and townspeople who are fine to put up with his eccentricities until they aren’t.

Gunnar is perhaps a simple character as he doesn’t really get social cues or see the boundaries people have. Or he is just an arsehole who just does what he wants. He’s not horrible or unnecessarily cruel, but he lashes out when people turn against him. This then brings about a seemingly endless cycle of Gunnar and the townsfolk getting on until one irritates the other, and then the other reacts negatively. Though Gunnar isn’t the only one at fault. The people of the town, while imitated by the look of him to begin with, enjoy his animal impressions to begin with and even do their own but when he joins in, they feel he is mocking them and don’t like it.

The main problem Gunnar and a lot of the characters have is they are terrible at communicating. Gunnar is very blunt but has his own ideas of what people are thinking, while a lot of the characters never say what they really mean. It’s frustrating and is what leads to a lot of the conflict. The romance between Gunnar and Sanelma feels very rushed and while it’s easy to see why Gunnar likes the her, (she’s kind, pretty and thoughtful) you never really see why she loves him when his actions often inadvertently hurt her.

The Howling Miller is an odd story. Most of the characters are unlikable and it seems like it’s trying to be a cautionary tale, but it isn’t clear what lesson it is trying to teach. The events in the story feel very repetitive as Gunnar scares/shuns the townspeople again and again though in slightly different ways, making it a story that’s a bit of a chore to get through as no one seems to learn from their actions. 2/5.

REVIEW: Fast & Furious (2009)

When reinstated FBI Agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) crosses paths with fugitive Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) in Los Angeles, they reluctantly put aside past differences to take down a common enemy, a drug lord known only as Braga.

Fast & Furious sees the main four characters from the first film; Dom, Brian, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) return and work together. It is great to see these characters again and the cast still has great chemistry, however the story lets them down. The script is dull, the action sequences are, for the most part, uninspired, and there’s more brooding than fun.

In hindsight, Fast & Furious lays the character groundwork for future and better films in the franchise. But that doesn’t make Fast & Furious an enjoyable film to watch. There’s the odd good moment, like when Mia says to Brian; “Maybe you’re not the good guy pretending to be the bad guy. Maybe you’re the bad guy pretending to be the good guy.” But these few interesting character moments are hard to come by.

Fast & Furious is a lot more serious than its predecessors and losing that sense of fun makes the film, and the story, a lot more generic. There’s less straight out car races in Fast & Furious but more action sequences like shootouts and foot chases, though unfortunately the only exciting sequence is the one the film opens with. The opening and first act of the movie are the most interesting as it sets up these characters we already know and it’s exciting to see where they are going. Regrettably, once you know that, the plot is very predictable, and the film loses almost all momentum.

While it’s good to have Brian and Dom back together, there’s not enough thrills nor a compelling story to make Fast & Furious stand out in either the franchise, or as an action film. To be honest, the biggest problem of Fast & Furious is that two of the main action sequences, including the finale, are set in a poorly lit tunnel where choppy editing makes things hard to follow. There’s nothing thrilling about it. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Iraq: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Translated by Jonathan Wright

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi, a scavenger, collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His aim is for the government to recognise the parts as people and give them the proper burial they deserve. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city. Haidi soon realises he has created a monster, a monster that cannot be killed and one that needs human flesh to survive.

At the beginning of Frankenstein in Baghdad there is a rather helpful list of characters that give you a short description of what each character’s job/relationship is. There are a lot of characters in this book, and you follow the perspectives of some but not all of them, and most of the characters lives intertwine with one another at at least one point in the story.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is described as “darkly funny” but I didn’t find it amusing at all, not even in a black humour kind of way. Potentially that’s because it’s a translated novel and humour isn’t always something that can be translated and work for people outside of its place of origin. It is a creepy novel at times, though not as horrifying as the quotes on the cover make out. The descriptions of the creature and what it does to people is unsettling and disgusting. However, the actual story of the creature, Hadi and the many characters they both interact with, was slow-paced and in the end dull. There’s so many characters and their side plots often have little or nothing to do with the creature, which makes the story meandering and hard to follow if you put down the book for a day or two.

The setting is the best thing about Frankenstein in Baghdad. Having it take place in Baghdad with the presence of American troops always being felt made it a setting where anything could happen. There were explosions, suicide bombers, and hints at corruption in the security forces. Everything in Baghdad is so uncertain that there’s always a sense of uneasiness and having the creature on the prowl just adds to that. At the same time though, the people of the city are so used to the noise of gunfire and explosions being a constant threat, that they go about their day as normal. It makes the situation feel somewhat surreal. From the outside, this constant state of danger is not normal nor OK, but here it shows how it unfortunately is normal for a lot of people.

Frankenstein in Baghdad has an interesting premise, but it unfortunately isn’t an interesting or compelling story. 2/5.