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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pan

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Synopsis: The story of an orphan who is spirited away to the magical Neverland. There, he finds both fun and dangers, and ultimately discovers his destiny — to become the hero who will be forever known as Peter Pan.

Release Date:  October 9, 2015

Thoughts: It’s probably a good thing that Peter Pan never ages because how else would Hollywood continue to find new ways to tell the same story?  Over the past few years Peter Pan has turned up on television (in an ill-advised live broadcast), been on Broadway (TWICE! Once in the thrilling Peter and the Starcatcher and more recently in the testy musical Finding Neverland), and now director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) is readying his origin story for how Peter became Pan, how Hook became a captain, and how Tiger Lily came to lead her people.  Peter Pan has always been a favorite character of mine and Wright usually hits all the, er, right notes when it comes to production values.  With a cast that includes Hugh Jackman (Prisoners) as resident baddie Blackbeard, Rooney Mara (Carol) as Tiger Lily, and Garret Hedlund (Unbroken) as Hook this looks like a fun fall fantasy adventure, ably adding some early chapters to a famous literary character.

Movie Review ~ Anna Karenina (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel.  The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  ‘Tis the season for grand costume dramas adapted from classic literature and the holiday is off to a good start with this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian drama of alienation, deception, and doomed love.  Though Anna Karenina has been seen on screens both big and small since film was invented, this 2012 version is ablaze with passion framed within a highly theatrical landscape that is both inviting and cold.  Think Moulin Rouge! meets Merchant Ivory. 

Now don’t roll your eyes…Moulin Rouge!  has its rabid fans as well as those that wrote off Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical as MTV hyper cut filmmaking but it reintroduced some needed theatricality into film that had been lost for some time.  I consider Anna Karenina a sister film to Moulin Rouge!…meaning that if Moulin is the excitable sibling that can’t sit still, Anna is the lovelorn romantic that dreams of something bigger and better.

Re-teaming for the third time after collaborating on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Wright and star Knightley have brought in playwright Tom Stoppard to lend his distinct voice to the telling of this sad tale.  Stoppard has cleared away some of the muck in Tolstoy’s hefty (but well respected) tome and let previously underplayed storylines come to the forefront with ease.  Though the story is clearly centered on Anna and her affairs of the heart, under Stoppard’s pen we are treated to some beautiful moments from our secondary characters.

Wright has consistently given Knightley her best work (and led her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice) and Anna Karenina is no exception.  I’ve found Knightley to be a hit or miss type of actress – her screeching performance in 2011’s A Dangerous Method almost broke the camel’s back and her work in the little-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn’t do her any favors .   Thankfully, she’s ended 2012 with a searing take on the Russian wife swept away into a sea of deceit spurred on by an unfaltering love.  Though she knows it will lead to no good, she can’t pry her heart out of the trouble it’s getting into.

As the two men in her life, Law and Taylor-Johnson are interesting choices to stoke the fires of her heart.  Law, with a balding pate and stuffy demeanor shows us his struggle more than he actually lets us see behind his cold exterior as Anna’s husband that tries to save her from ruin.  Taylor-Johnson is the young buck who catches her eye and falls just as hard for her without remorse of consequences.  It can be frustrating to see some of the choices our characters make…but our actors make these choices appear unavoidable.

Secondary love stories are usually introduced for comic effect in classic literature but Stoppard has given a nice sheen to Gleeson’s courting of Vikander’s pretty princess.  Though she only has eyes for Taylor-Johnson’s character, a shift in her heart happens on screen that is a wonder to behold – and it’s not just because Taylor-Johnson goes after Knightley instead.  Gleeson and Vikander share one of the best scenes of the year…a wordless exchange where they literally spell out their feelings for each other.

On its own, this Anna Karenina had all the elements to make a perfectly respectable motion picture but Wright takes it several steps further by setting the film in a theatrical environment that adds a magical touch.  Largely set in and around the stage of an ornate theater, Wright lets the camera push through the scenery into a Narnia-like world that exists behind the curtain.  Scenes are shifted in front of your eyes to new locations with striking detail.  Production designer Sarah Greenwood should keep Oscar night free because her lavish sets and ornate design will earn her a nomination without question. 

Even highly theatricalized, the film doesn’t seem gimmicky.  It would have been so easy to take this too far and make the film much too strident in its artifice but it always seems to work like it should.  Sometimes it feels like the concept has been forgotten but soon Wright sweeps you back into the backstage drama that plays out.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates a hypnotic pulse that the film hums along to…a dance sequence is played out with breathless beauty that captivates you fully. 

It’s a film that has been on my mind as the days go by but be aware that, like Shakespeare, there is a period of adjustment you must get through with Anna Karenina. When the film began I wasn’t sure this was going to be something I would enjoy as much as I dd.  The first fifteen minutes or so just spills over the audience and it’s up to you to hunker down and get up to speed.  For those that do, you’ll find a clever and visually stunning film experience that is good fodder for a wintery day at the movies.