Movie Review ~ Darkest Hour

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  2017 has sure been a kind year for Winston Churchill.  The late prime minister of the UK has popped up on the small screen courtesy of John Lithgow’s award-winning supporting turn in Netflix’s The Crown, he’s mentioned favorably in Dunkirk and Their Finest, and now comes Darkest Hour where the spotlight is firmly on him.  Though in death (as in life) he has as many critics as he does fans, this is a man that clearly deserves a place in the annals of history.  Thanks to an incredible leading performance, strong direction, and a solid script, Darkest Hour is an entertaining pop-up book that’s much more than just a lesson from the past.

As the shadow of another World War looms over Europe, the British parliament is in upheaval and calling for the resignation of it’s current prime minister Neville Chamberlain (a sneering Ronald Pickup, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).  Hoping to suggest a replacement that will have enough of a rough go that his political party can sweep in to save the day, Chamberlain suggests to the King that Winston Churchill take his place.  Unliked since leading the failed Gallipoli Campaign during WWI, Churchill had been a strong voice against the Nazis back when no one was giving them or their leader much credence.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises) is leery about appointing a man he doesn’t trust but acquiesces.  Over the next several weeks Churchill steps into the role during a firestorm of opposition from every angle, eventually steering the government to reject any notions of proposed surrender to German forces.  In doing so, he gained the trust of the people as they banded together and rallied behind their sovereign nation at her most vulnerable time.

All this plot is easily accessible in your tattered history book from sixth grade but while the details haven’t changed, it’s in the telling that creates powerful filmmaking.  Director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina) has, as usual, crafted an intricate period film that’s striking in its detail and rousing in all the right places.  Working with Anthony McCarten’s (The Theory of Everything) sharp script, Wright keeps the film refreshingly nimble, making even stuffy parliament scenes crackle with energy.  Keeping his camera moving (with assistance from Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), he stages wonderful scenes of overlapping dialogue that are not only informative but interesting to watch.

While most men in Churchill’s life gave him trouble (including a scheming Viscount Halifax played by Stephen Dillane, Zero Dark Thirty), according to Darkest Hour it’s two women that kept him in line during this difficult period.  His personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, Cinderella) starts off on the wrong foot with her demanding, persnickety boss but eventually develops into a confidant/cheerleader that he counted on.  Same goes for his steadfast wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) who isn’t afraid to point out to her husband when he’s out of line.  Scott Thomas and James are both excellent in their roles and have ample time to shine, though I often longed for more scenes with Churchill and his wife and less with Layton as the marital relationship felt that it had more of an edge.

All Wright has assembled would make for a strong film about Churchill but if he didn’t have someone to play the man himself it would have all been for naught.  Lucky for him (and us) that he hired Gary Oldman because that’s what sends Darkest Hour skyrocketing.  Oldman (RoboCop) gives the performance of his career (and what a career to begin with!) as Churchill, managing to work under superb prosthetics that transformed him into the historical figure but not letting the make-up do all the heavy lifting.  His acting radiates from within, never coming off as showboating or faux but as a real-life rendering of a man challenged to lead in a time of imminent darkness.  It’s just spectacular work and if he doesn’t win an Oscar for his efforts, well then, I just don’t know what to make of this crazy world anymore.

Special mention must be made to Kazuhiro Tsuji (Looper, The Place Beyond the Pines) for his stunning make-up work for Oldman.  It’s mighty difficult to age and fatten up the actor as he did but the seamless work should net Tsuji his first Oscar after two previous nominations.  Same goes for Jacqueline Durran’s (Beauty and the Beast) luxe costumes that manages to make even Churchill’s suits look chic.

I went into Darkest Hour not being totally in the mood for a history lesson and was surprised at how captivated I was for two hours.  Even for a story where we already know how things turn out, I was often on the edge of my seat and truly entranced by Wright’s vision and Oldman’s performance.  It’s not just a film made up of speechifying and hot air, it’s a thrilling examination of the forward momentum of a country that was cheered onward by a determined man.

Movie Review ~ The Space Between Us

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The first human born on Mars travels to Earth for the first time, experiencing the wonders of the planet through fresh eyes. He embarks on an adventure with a street smart girl to discover how he came to be.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Asa Butterfield, Carla Gugino, Britt Robertson, BD Wong, Janet Montgomery

Director: Peter Chelsom

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s going to be an easy litmus test as to how well you’ll enjoy The Space Between Us. If you can make it through the first five minutes without groaning and/or rolling your eyes than maybe, just maybe, this sci-fi adventure/teen romance will be worth your time. For everyone else, do yourself a solid and have a back-up movie prepared because as the film begins to lose all control of logic, tension, and interest the groans will just get louder and the eye rolls more strenuous.

In the vision of 2018 suggested by the movie, colonization of Mars is a reality and the first settlers are ready to blast off. Dubbed East Texas, the endeavor is the brainchild of Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and serves as a chance to not only explore life on another planet but a chance for Shepherd to live out a childhood fantasy. Unable to physically make the journey due to an illness never fully defined, Shepherd voyeuristically watches the crew blast off and tracks their movements while big wigs from NASA (including an authoritative, if bored looking, B.D. Wong, Jurassic Park) keep an eye on the progress.

Early into the trip, mission leader Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) discovers she’s pregnant but they’ve gone too far to turn back and she winds up having the baby shortly after arriving on the red planet, dying in childbirth. While the identity of the father isn’t immediately known, plenty of talking heads dub Sarah’s ‘behavior’ as inappropriate…making me wonder if the movie takes place in 2018 or 1968.

Flash forward 16 years and the baby has grown into angsty teen Gardner (Asa Butterfield, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Aside from a ramshackle robot (a stock character right down to his Brit accent and uppity demeanor), Gardner’s only real friend is Kendra (Carla Gugino, San Andreas) an astronaut that seems to have other responsibilities but is shown only as a well-educated babysitter. In between shifts in the colony greenhouse (leading me a first to be confused if Gardner was his name or his profession), Gardner chats up a lonely foster child (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride) who doesn’t know her internet pen pal is literally from another planet.

Finding a clip from his mother’s personal items of a man that could be his father and driven in no small part by his developing libido, with Kendra’s help Gardner is eventually brought down to Earth. However, whatever freedom he thought he would have isn’t in the cards and he becomes a science experiment kept in quarantine. In short order, Gardner stages a daring escape and tracks down Tulsa who isn’t so happy her pal ditched her for 7 months while returning home through the stars. A cross-country chase ensues with Gardner and Tulsa hilariously pursued by Kendra and Nathaniel with all the conviction of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Along the way, secrets are revealed, love blooms, and every scene is written and performed like the cliffhanger final moments of a season finale.

On the performance spectrum, the range is anywhere from passively engaged to Gary Oldman. As a teen finding his Earth legs, Butterfield gets the gangly piece down…but unfortunately, Allan Loeb’s (Collateral Beauty) script sets him up first to be an introverted orphan in search of answers before switching it up to make him a romanticized dweeb that loses key brain cells in his new environment. On Mars, he’s marveling at the deeper context of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire but on Earth he recoils in horror when he spots a horse trotting down the street. Gugino is typically dependable for a dose of grounded reality but paired with Oldman’s awkwardly earnest portrayal of a smarty-pants wunderkind, there’s no balance for either to find good footing. Also, Oldman can never decide if he’s from London or the Midwest. One moment his accent strains on the consonants and the next he’s practically demanding tea time. Robertson’s fairly one-note as a tough on the outside soft on the inside tomboy. It’s hinted she may have a talent for music but after plunking out a song on a keyboard at Sam’s Club, it’s never mentioned again.

Director Peter Chelsom doesn’t do much with the material either, moving actors and set pieces through a variety of hackneyed action sequences with little fanfare. He also isn’t able to inspire many sparks between Butterfield and Robertson, as both seem uncomfortably ill matched and kept together for the sake of the plot. Taking place in 2034, Chelsom’s spin on future living is delivered with little bells or whistles. Aside from some upgrades to personal computers and communication devices, teens still dress like hobos and no one is traveling around in flying cars.

Worth keeping your distance from, The Space Between Us was originally set for release in August and then pushed back again to December. Ostensibly, it was moved to the less busy pre-Valentine’s Day weekend with the hopes to attract some of the date night business for those unable to go for Fifty Shades Darker. Too light to stay Earthbound and too lackluster to be fueled by a mission to Mars, this misfire has no atmosphere to speak of.

The Silver Bullet ~ Child 44

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Synopsis: A disgraced member of the military police investigates a series of nasty child murders during the Stalin-era Soviet Union.

Release Date:  April 17, 2015

Thoughts: Originally published in 2008, the novel this Cold War thriller is based off of is the first in a trilogy involving Soviet agent Leo Demidov, played here by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road).  With Hollywood’s love of a good franchise starter, how well Child 44 performs may be the key to future adaptations…but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s stay in the here and now because I love a good murder mystery.  Bolstered by Hardy’s rising star presence in addition to Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down and Hardy’s co-star in The Drop), Gary Oldman (Lawless), Charles Dance (The Imitation Game), Jason Clarke (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and Joel Kinnaman (2014’s RoboCop), Child 44 may represent a nice throwback to the classier end of the serial killer chiller that’s all but dissolved from the filmmaking landscape.

Movie Review ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier.

Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Enrique Murciano, Kirk Acevedo, Judy Greer, Karin Konoval

Director: Matt Reeves

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Okay, so we’re halfway through the summer movie season and, like every May-early August that has come before it, I think we’ve had our shares of high highs (Godzilla, Edge of Tomorrow, The Fault in Our Stars) and lowly lows (Jersey Boys, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Blended).  Some have incorrectly scoffed that Transformers: Age of Extinction will bring about the end of humanity but I say those critics just forgot to change out of their fuddy duddy pants.  Then there’s Tammy, the worst of the worst…the bubonic plague of the summer.

Don’t retreat to your lake cabins yet or focus solely on training for a fall marathon because July is just getting started and if Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is any indication, summer is about to heat up.  The sequel to 20th Century Fox’s 2011 surprise hit franchise reboot manages to be a hell of a good ride, emerging as a film that knows what it wants to achieve and uses it’s talent, budget, and running length wisely.

Three years ago I didn’t get much of a rise out of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Though the motion capture technology produced some impressively lifelike rendering of apes, it was bogged down by saggy leads (James Franco and Freida Pinto) and focused too much time on the human side of things.  It’s when the apes took center stage that the movie found its shape…but by that time the movie was nearly over.  Luckily, director Matt Reeves (Let the Right One In, Cloverfield) came onto the project wanting to make it an apes-first film so the sequel jettisons what didn’t work previously and gives us more time with the simian nation.

I’ll admit that the first 20 nearly wordless minutes of the picture had me squirming in my seat.  See, I’ve been trained so far in 2014 for my summer action flicks to come out swinging so it was jarring (but welcome) for a film of this magnitude to make the bold choice of starting off quiet, letting the audience get used to a world ravaged by disease where apes are the dominant species.  The beginning of the sequel re-introduces us to several hairy friends we got to know back in 2011, finding them communicating mostly in sign language (over half the film is subtitled) until they learn to literally raise their voices.

Caesar (performed by a flawless Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) is king of the colony of apes that escaped to the California forests 10 years ago.  In their getaway a deadly virus was unwittingly released, ravaging the majority of humanity that wasn’t genetically immune.  After a decade of toil, human and ape meet up once again when a small band of survivors led by Jason Clarke (Lawless, The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (RoboCopThe Dark Knight Rises) & Keri Russell (Austenland) venture into the forest in hopes of using technology inside an abandoned dam to help power their dying city.

Meanwhile, Caesar battles rebellion within his own tribe as those less trusting plot to launch a deadly strike at the humans before they can destroy the apes.  With his scarred body and milky eye, vengeful rebellion leader Koba looks straight out of a nature run amok horror movie, which makes sense because he’s the scariest villain I’ve seen in quite some time.  Like Caesar, Koba is no ordinary ape and his subversive rampage is more Shakespearean in nature than paint-by-numbers evil-doer.

What I enjoyed most about the film wasn’t the nearly seamless blending of visual effects and live action but in the way it found room for good storytelling as well.  If we’re being honest, the plot isn’t much more than the oft-told mutinous parable of dissention within but it’s in the way that screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Mark Bomback (The Wolverine) weave parallel themes of family, trust, and honor throughout the film that makes it more than your standard action sequel.

The motion capture technology has come a long way in the past three years, allowing Serkis and a full range of gifted performers free range to flesh out their primate characters.  While Serkis’ Caesar and Toby Kebbell’s Koba sometimes look a tad too animated, there are moments when the visuals are truly astounding and you start to wonder how Reeves directed two wild animals to perform with such vigor.  Best of show goes (once again) to orangutan Maurice who is not only amazingly played by Karin Konoval but rendered with 100% believability by the gigantic visual effects team.

If I’ve left out talking about the humans, it’s only because reviews sometimes have to leave out secondary characters which Clarke, Oldman, Russell, et. al certainly are.  Not knocking their talent or value to the overall effect of the picture but Reeves and his screenwriters have purposefully kept all humans on the sidelines and I’m positive that’s why the film works as well as it does.

Packed with action sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seat (check out the bravura and dizzying 360 degree shot on top of an armored tank and a high wire battle late in the film) and with an assured eye on the prize attitude from all involved, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another step in the right direction for this happily burgeoning franchise.  I’m interested to see what’s next…as long as the future chapters keep those damn dirty humans at bay.

Movie Review ~ RoboCop (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Stars: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Director: José Padilha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Even uglier than the recent trend of Hollywood eating its own by remaking many a film barely 30 years old is the nasty critical backlash lobbed at these remakes.  While some of this ire is warranted (I’m looking at you 2012’s Total Recall) there seems to be efforts that become collateral damage,  wrongly tossing commendable efforts like José Padilha’s update to RoboCop into the junkbin.

Listen, Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 RoboCop is a not-minor classic but one that I wasn’t overly attached to, so treating it like a precious property isn’t going to allow anyone to really enjoy the 2014 remake.  The thing that made the ’87 sci-fi action film so razor sharp was its cynicism toward violence and the media, a concept reaching its peak in the final years of the advent of the “me” generation.  The digs taken at the alarming change in what was considered entertainment came at the right time and right place. 

That same approach wouldn’t have worked for this update;  after all we live in a time when stardom can be achieved for doing nothing so Padilha and screenwriter Joshua Zetumer wisely jettison that impossible to match angle for something admittedly less special and memorable…but one that provides the kind of entertainment that is engaging, if altogether fleeting.

The structure of this RoboCop is largely the same: in the not-too-distant future robotic technology has become more advanced and popular opinion is that it’s still too early to embrace the benefits of a robot protected society.  The head of tech giant OmniCorp (Michael Keaton, Gung Ho!, a welcome presence) decides that the public needs to be shown the light and wonders what would happen if there was a beating heart in one of his robot warriors.

That’s where Detroit cop Alex Murphy comes in.  As played by Joel Kinnaman (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), he has that same blandness that worked for previous star Peter Weller…though Kinnaman has significantly more “face” time in this film allowing us to see the man inside the machine.  Injured in the line of duty while investigating an arms dealer and police corruption, he’s saved by OminiCorp technology and becomes their RoboCop.

I’m not sure if adding more heart to the film is what audiences expected or wanted but if the cynicism was lost in the reboot there had to be something to fill the gaps.  This means Murphy’s wife (a non-presence in the first film) has more to do…even if Abbie Cornish winds up delivering most of her lines like she’s shivering in sub zero temperatures.  Where the previous film introduced the refurbished Murphy as an emotionless drone that gradually remembers his humanity, the new Murphy wakes up with the memories of his past, only to see them next to erased by corporate bottom-lining that ordered a machine without scruples.

Rounding out the quite well acted ensemble of performers are a kindly Dr. Frankenstein-like character played with dimension by Gary Oldman (Lawless) and a blowhard political reporter etched out by Samuel L. Jackson (Django Unchained) on a CGI-graphic heavy set that looks remarkably like the one Jackson shoots his credit card commercials on.  Hints at the dark comedy of the original film come through Jackson’s character and he’s given enough free rein to be over the top while eschewing winking knowingness.

Had the film cannibalized the original loyal fans would have gone crazy (and rightly so)…and I find it a bit unfair critics have knocked the film for not going that direction…maybe it was a lose-lose situation for all involved with updating this story.  For me, I was able to keep the tonally different film from ’87 at enough of a distance and take this revamp for ’14 for what it is – handsomely rendered entertainment that’s serviceable at its worst and involving at its best.

The Silver Bullet ~ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Synopsis: A growing nation of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar is threatened by a band of human survivors of the devastating virus unleashed a decade earlier. They reach a fragile peace, but it proves short-lived, as both sides are brought to the brink of a war that will determine who will emerge as Earth’s dominant species.

Release Date:  July 11, 2014

Thoughts: I find that my fear of primates grows with each new “crazy ape” film I subject myself to.  Officially gone are the days when I cried at the end of King Kong Lives and wished that Project X had turned out differently.  Though I think 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was notable mostly for the amazing motion-capture work from Andy Serkis as smart ape Caesar, there was enough decent material remaining to warrant a sequel now three years later.  James Franco and the awful Frida Pinto are thankfully gone, replaced by new leads Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby, Lawless) and Keri Russell (Austenland) with some added support from Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Rises).  This first teaser may not make you pound your chest in ecstasy but it’s a nice whetting of your whistle for more ape antics coming in July.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It’s funny but there are certain trailers that just stick with you over the years…maybe it’s because it was your first glimpse of a film you were looking forward to or maybe it’s all about where/when you saw it. In the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was both.

I have a confession to make.  Long before Edward and Bella came around and before Buffy staked her claim in Sunnydale, I was a huge vampire fan…Dracula to be exact (or as the four year old Joe used to say “Drak-lee-la”).  So when 12 year old Joe heard there was another Dracula movie coming out in a big way you know he was excited.

I remember seeing the first teaser for this before a Sunday matinee screening of A League of Their Own at Centennial Lakes 8 and though I liked Penny Marshall’s baseball comedy all I was thinking about throughout was how much longer I’d have to wait until the tale of Count Dracula was arriving.

A well-produced teaser, this actually wound up being removed from theaters because it was deemed “too intense”.  Watching the first images from Francis Ford Coppola’s film that wound up being art-directed to the hilt, you’ll probably be scratching your head as to what’s so intense about it but we live in different times now.

Catch-up!  Check out my look at the teasers for MiseryAlien!

The Silver Bullet ~ RoboCop (2014)

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Synopsis: In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

Release Date:  February 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m not usually one to get behind remakes of films that were just fine to begin with.  My biggest problem is the more often than not these remakes/reboots do very little to make any strong case that the film needed to be revisited in the first place (case in point…2012’s Total Recall).  Still, I must admit that I was intrigued by the prospect of a re-envisioning 1987’s RoboCop.  Though by no means a classic, it’s still a genre favorite of mine thanks to its clever take on the future of law enforcement and its copious amounts of violence (that originally earned it an X rating before director Paul Verhoeven went back and made some trims).  While the just released trailer is interesting enough to not make me roll my eyes totally out of my head, it’s distressing to hear that the filmmakers are aiming for a PG-13 rating…something that just doesn’t work for this character or the series which was all about a next generation weapon being used to combat decaying violence.  Delayed for release several times doesn’t bode well but February is a long way away…I’m open to seeing where this one goes.