Movie Review ~ Military Wives


The Facts
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Synopsis: With their partners away serving in Afghanistan, a group of women on the home front form a choir and quickly find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.

Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Greg Wise, Emma Lowndes, Gaby French

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of the last movies I was scheduled to see before this pandemic hit was Military Wives and I have to say, I was disappointed to be missing it.  Yes, I know that the #StayHome and #StaySafe orders were for the best and I am in full support of social distancing in order to kick COVID-19 to the curb (what will people think reading this in a few years?) but I was seriously in the mood for something that looked as joyously heartwarming as Military Wives looked to be.  Though you could literally see the plot points developing while the trailer was unspooling it was no matter, sometimes it is OK to know the route before leaving the station.

The chance to get to see this early did present itself, though, so I found myself watching a screener of this during a particularly glum week and I have to say, it really did the trick in brightening a mood.  Even though it deals with some emotional subjects and is, at times, a heart-tugging tearjerker, this is the kind of film made to turn on during a dark period.  It’s bright, it’s light, and it while it is disappointingly not as deep or as sensitively profound as I thought it would be there’s so much good will being poured into it that it’s hard not to give over to its charms at one point or another.

At the Flitcroft Military Base, families are preparing to say goodbye to their loves ones that are shipping out on active duty for a tour in Afghanistan.  In order to stay busy, the spouses/partners of the soldiers serving try to stay busy with events organized by the partner of the second in command.  Previously, this was tightly-wound Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) but with her husband (Greg Wise, Last Christmas) now the highest level officer at the base, that role now falls to Lisa (Sharon Horgan, Game Night) who is more loose with her definition of organized activity.  When Lisa’s experience with choral work is brought up, the ladies decide to start a choir leading to a power struggle between Lisa and Kate.  With little initial energy behind the choral club from the members and the leaders, it takes a shocking wake-up call to remind the group of their strength and how important their role as caregivers are.

I’ll say off the bat that those expecting a raucous comedy about a dysfunctional choir that starts off bad and turns into an overnight sensation after a series of hysterical antics should likely go back and dust off their copy of Sister Act (actually, do that anyway) because that’s not exactly the movie we have here.  Screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard have taken a true-life story and fictionalized it, letting the Flitcroft Military Choir be the amalgam for a number of choirs that came together during the Afghanistan deployment back in 2008 and their focus is not entirely on laughs but on humor…if that makes sense.  Most of the comedy is derived from the ladies reluctance to participate in the chorus, only to be swayed when they begin to gel as one as they find their voices as a group.  Scenes that you think are headed for a comic punchline either veer in a different direction or don’t go anywhere at all, at times it feels like Flynn and Tunnard are afraid to stray too far into comedic shenanigans, even though the movie might have derived some needed energy from these flights of fancy.

This being a film about loved ones engaged in war you may be able to guess at least one of the poignant moments – and you know it’s coming but just not when or to whom.  Thankfully, the screenwriters spare us the suspense and don’t make that the event that the final act hinges on but rather what pushes it forward.  The real heavy emotional lifting is done by Scott Thomas playing the wife grieving the loss of her son killed in battle left behind by a husband also unable to cope with his sorrow.  Had the movie shifted the focus to be more on Scott Thomas and used her involvement with choir as a way toward her finding healing, I have a feeling it would have been more successful.  As it is, there’s just not enough story or character development to go around the numerous (appealing) supporting cast that doesn’t get much in the way of fleshed out story arcs.  Even the talented Horgan can’t drum up much interest and though she’s meant to be a co-lead she’s often overshadowed by Scott Thomas solely because her character isn’t as well-defined.

Director Peter Cattaneo found unexpected triumph (and an Oscar nomination) over twenty years for the quirky delight that was The Full Monty and as much as the marketing materials want you to believe this is another slam dunk like that was, it isn’t.  That’s not to say Military Wives is without its own share of rich moments of humanity…it’s just that there aren’t quite as many opportunities as there could have been.  It follows a standard formula that gets the job done but is workmanlike in its delivery.  Though it culminates with a moving performance at the Royal Albert Hall and features a typically fantastic performance from School Thomas, Military Wives winds up just under pitch.

Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

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.