Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Midway

“Jojo Rabbit,” “21 Bridges,” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The title of the movie may be “Midway,” and it may be about the pivotal battle between the naval and air forces of the United States and the Empire of Japan from June 4 to June 7, 1942, that turned the tide in favor of the U.S., but that’s not all it’s about. The movie begins in 1937 with the uneasy peace between the United States and Japan, with a warning from famed Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) to U.S. Navy Intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) to not put Japan in an economic corner.

Layton lays out the dangers to his superiors in Washington and in the Navy, and four short years later Pearl Harbor is, as President Franklin Roosevelt so eloquently put it, “suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” This attack sequence in “Midway” is our first look at the fantastic special effects. There are impressive shots of fleets, and from what I know of how events went down that fateful Sunday morning in 1941, the movie was going for as much historical accuracy as possible, particularly in regard to the horrible fate of the U.S.S. Arizona battleship. The sequence, much like the movie, is remarkably well paced, yet takes the time to shoot its action in a clear and concise manner, giving the sequence of events a clear through line and the characters in the scenes a clear relationship to the setting. Or to put it more simply: no shaky cam nonsense. That was a trend that I could not wait to see go away, and I am glad it has pretty much died out. Director Roland Emmerich’s camera is focused on clarity, even when there is chaos happening on screen.

“Midway” is an old-fashioned military procedural that respectfully shows the strategy and the politics on both sides of the conflict. It calls to mind movies like 1970’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” that looks at the bombing of Pearl Harbor from both the Japanese and American sides, and 1976’s “Midway,” which does the same, but is more focused on that specific battle. This 2019 “Midway” takes a look at the events between Pearl Harbor and Midway, including the Marshall Islands and Coral Sea battles, as well as Doolittle’s (Aaron Eckhart) bombing raid on Tokyo. The movie also throws in kamikaze pilots and the infamous propagandist Tokyo Rose. It looks at mostly all aspects of the war in the Pacific except for the internment of Japanese-American citizens on the west coast. This could be because it didn’t fit into the plot, but it could also be because the 1976 “Midway” movie tackled this subject in a half-baked way, the drama of which was left unresolved by that movie’s end. This 2019 “Midway” very wisely does not make the same mistake. That subject needs a movie of its own to be done any justice.

The majority of the high flying action in “Midway” is by Dick Best, played by Ed Skrein in a role that proves he has the star wattage and magnetism required to carry a movie. Best is a hotshot pilot with some fancy aerial maneuvers and a wife (Mandy Moore) who is completely in his corner. At one point she asks Best’s superior officer Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) why her husband doesn’t have a squadron of his own. It isn’t long before she gets her wish and Best gets to prove that he is a strong leader as well as a great pilot.

I think it’s a sign of healing when two nations that were at war can look at each other with level-headed objectivity and understand the trials, tribulations, and desires of the other side. The United States and Japan saw this in the 1970s with the aforementioned “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and that decade’s “Midway,” but as far as I know there has been no movie made about the Chinese-Japanese conflict that is seen from both sides. The Japanese invasion of China came years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and was brutal, bloody, and devastating. The horrific 1938 event known as the Rape of Nanking (or Nanking Massacre) is appropriately named. “Midway” makes it a point that Chinese people (civilians—not military installations) were targets for Japanese bombers and some 250,000 were killed in retaliation of aiding Doolittle after his raid on Tokyo. There is a lot of harsh history between the Chinese and the Japanese, and forgiveness does not come quickly or easily when aggressors are that vicious. However, the fact that this movie, which does seek to understand the Japanese, was co-produced by a Chinese movie company and received distribution in China, is a step in the right direction. It also serves as a reminder of the ability of well-made art to affect hearts and minds. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Jojo Rabbit

Stereotypes aren’t always funny—but they can be. If the stereotype is meant to demean or be hurtful, then no. But when a stereotype can be used to illustrate ridiculousness and is done in the spirit of frivolity and humor, I can give it a pass. This is a subtlety and nuance that we had in the past (case in point: “Blazing Saddles,” a movie from 1974 that could not be made today), but seem to have lost. “Jojo Rabbit” is a step in the right direction to bring it back.

The stereotypes in “Jojo Rabbit” are two-fold. First and foremost, there is the stereotype of the Nazi. They are of course bitter, violent thugs with cartoonish German accents who care nothing for the safety and well-being of anyone, not even children. The Nazis hate the Jews, naturally, and that is where the second stereotyping comes in. The Nazis draw the Jews like demons with horns. Plus they’re scared of Jew mind control abilities.

After a grenade-related injury at a Nazi Youth training camp leaves young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) with nowhere to be, he discovers that his mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the wall of his deceased sister’s room. After some apprehensive introductions, Jojo sees it as an opportunity to do research on Jews and write a book on them. He asks ridiculous questions and she provides him with equally ridiculous answers, with the underlying subtext being that Jews are people too—just like Nazis are.

“Jojo Rabbit” is not all crazy stereotypes and lighthearted zaniness though. This movie reminded me very much of the 1970s television show “Soap,” where for at least one scene the comedy melts away and things get heavy and real. Being a movie, “Jojo Rabbit” has several of those types of scenes scattered throughout, one of which is a payoff to a running gag involving shoelaces, and is one of the most shocking and heartbreaking moments ever put on screen. Buy it.

21 Bridges

“21 Bridges” is two-thirds of a really great action crime drama. For that portion of its one hour and forty minute run time, the dialogue is sharply written, the line deliveries are well-acted, the violence is intense, quick, and brutal, and the movie has the backbone to deal with the real life consequences of violence. Detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman) has a reputation as man who kills cop killers, and after eight NYPD officers are gunned down in a robbery turned deadly, it is up to him and new partner Frankie Burns (Sienna Miller) to track down those responsible and bring them to justice—with the word “justice” being open for loose interpretation.

I like Andre a lot as a no nonsense cop with the skills to get the job done. I root for him on his search for the psychotic Ray (Taylor Kitsch) and the more even-keeled Michael (Stephan James), the two men behind the robbery of several kilos of cocaine. I appreciate “21 Bridges” for treating its villains as actual characters and not one-note boogeymen who are just out there and need to be found. I also like the ticking clock aspect of the movie. The mayor agrees to close all twenty-one bridges (hence the name), river traffic, and tunnels in and out of the city so that the criminals can’t escape—but Davis and Burns only have mere hours to make it happen. They need to rely on all of their training and skills to meet the deadline, or the killers might run free.

It’s great stuff, it truly is—for two out of three acts. The last act is a letdown. A meandering mess with a contrived set of circumstances that torpedoes all of the tight direction that came before it. It’s like the movie had an idea of what it wanted to do, but no idea how to do it. The result is a convoluted disappointment and it’s a shame, because what comes in the first two-thirds of this movie is so freakin’ good. “21 Bridges” is the movie equivalent of a race runner who starts off strong but hobbles over the finish line. Much like that runner should have trained harder, this movie’s third act should have been written better. However, being one to not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, I’ll say Rent it, with the caveat to prepare for 20 or so minutes of mass suckage after being completely and thoroughly enthralled and entertained.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) may be in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” but the movie isn’t about him. I could say it’s about “Esquire” magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), which is truer but not quite accurate. It’s worse: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is about Lloyd’s psyche.

My drama teacher in college taught me that having characters constantly psychoanalyze each other is death knell. I remember this advice when I see a movie like “Beautiful Day” because it proves him to be absolutely correct. What’s worse, the movie is a tease. Lloyd is assigned to write an article on Mr. Rogers. We in the audience think the movie will provide some insight into the man underneath the cardigan. Instead, Mr. Rogers turns the tables on Lloyd and starts asking him questions that lead to mealy-mouthed psychobabble revelations about Lloyd’s relationship with his father (Chris Cooper). His father isn’t the only one to receive the brunt of Lloyd’s hostility either. His wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), truly undeserving of such treatment, gets it too. The movie is essentially Lloyd’s journey into how to be less of a total freaking jerk.

I’m all for redemption stories and character arcs. I like stories about misanthropes too. However, to do a story about a misanthrope, the character needs to be one through and through. The difference between Lloyd and say, Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good As it Gets” or Hugh Laurie’s character on the television show “House” is that their misanthropy applies to everyone. It’s the other characters around them who have to win them over and earn the right to be liked, or at least held in less contempt than everyone else. This isn’t Lloyd. He’s not really a misanthrope. He treats Mr. Rogers with respect and even keeps his cool when Rogers’ friend and producer Bill Isler (Enrico Colantoni) makes some snarky remarks. This is not the behavior of someone who hates everyone by default.

The problem with Lloyd is that instead of coming across a well fleshed out human being, he comes across as a one-note irascible curmudgeon with no charm. He is unreasonable and unpleasant to be around. As a result, it’s hard to root for him or care about his problems. By the time the movie ends and his character arc is fully realized, I felt two things: 1) a sense of apathy toward Lloyd and 2) a sense of disappointment in the movie that it didn’t give me what I really wanted to see: The story of Mr. Fred Rogers. Skip it.

More New Releases: “Disturbing the Peace,” about a small-town marshal who hasn't carried a gun since he left the Texas Rangers after a tragic shooting and must pick up his gun again to do battle with a gang of outlaw bikers that has invaded the town to pull off a brazen and violent heist, starring Guy Pearce, Barbie Blank, Devon Sawa, Kelly Greyson.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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