Darkest Hour


When you’re Winston Churchill, you can ride on the tube smoking your tube of tobacco.

(2017) True Life Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlings, David Strathairn (voice), David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir. Directed by Joe Wright

 

Perhaps more than any figure of his time Winston Churchill remains in the eyes of Britain as an enduring hero, a steadfast bulldog who led England when she alone faced down the might of Hitler’s war machine in the year before the United States joined the fight.

In 1940, the war is going disastrously for Great Britain. Neville Chamberlain (Pickup), the Prime Minister who infamously declared “Peace in Our Time” after negotiations with Adolph Hitler essentially handed Poland to the Nazis, is about to be forced out of his position. Who will replace him? Lord Halifax (Dillane) suggests Winston Churchill (Oldman), a former First Lord of the Admiralty who’s Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War had been so mishandled that he left the position in disgrace.

However, he was politically astute and was one of the few candidates that the opposition would accept. Halifax suspected the notoriously blunt Churchill would fumble this position as well at which time Dillane and his faction that urged surrender to the Nazis could come in and negotiate a peace tht Britain could live with. As mind-blowing as that sounds, it actually happened.

Churchill has other ideas. Although aging and infirm as the result of lifelong smoking and drinking, he was still a firebrand who was one of the great orators of the 20th century although that was a part of his skill set that Chamberlain and Halifax didn’t reckon on. Churchill was prescient enough to realize that the Americans would eventually enter the war although that didn’t look likely at the time as conversations with President Roosevelt (Strathairn) brought Churchill to the brink of despair. With his army trapped at Dunkirk, his navy neutralized by the U-Boats of the Nazis and his RAF completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe, Churchill knew he was days away from having most of his fighting force annihilated, leaving the road open for Hitler to invade.

He was also sensible enough to know that there could be no negotiations for peace. “When will you learn,” he roars at Halifax and his allies, “That you can’t negotiate with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” His relationship with King George VI (Mendelsohn), who detested him, was dysfunctional and only the steadfast support of his wife Clemmie (Thomas) – who also isn’t afraid to scold him from time to time – and his personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (James) was all he had to see him through. Nonetheless, his true strength came from someone unexpected – the British people themselves. This would lead to one of the defining moments in the War – and in British history as a whole.

This is very much Churchill’s story and as such it’s very much Oldman’s show and to his credit he responds with maybe the defining performance of an already lustrous career. He has been the odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar since the first reviews came out in September following the movie’s debut at Toronto, and although there have been some great performances since the same sentiment prevails on the eve of the Oscar telecast this weekend. Whereas most of the previous performances of Churchill have either run perilously close to parody or focused on an aspect of the man, this is really the first onscreen performance that has captured Churchill as a complete, complex man. Blustery almost to the point of bullying (his first encounter with Layton reduces her to tears) but also possessed of an almost romantic soul, Oldman’s Churchill possesses an enormous ego but also a unique appreciation for the people of Britain that no other Prime Minister has possessed before or since. If anyone other than Oldman’s name is called on Sunday I should be very surprised.

Thomas does a game job being the yin to Churchill’s yang but she’s a lone tree against a hurricane. Nobody can stand against a performance like this and Thomas wisely doesn’t try. James also provides moments of genuine calm and compassion.

Maybe the most moving scene is one that didn’t actually happen in real life – Churchill taking a Tube from Downing Street to speak at Parliament rather than riding in his limousine. He takes the time to talk to the working people riding along with him and to his surprise they not only support him but urge him to fight for their survival, giving him all the motivation he needs. However, it should be said that while there’s no record of Churchill ever riding the subway, he was known to leave Downing Street to talk to the British people around London to find out what they were thinking and feeling. It is during this scene however that we realize that even though the movie is about Winston Churchill, it is also about the British people maybe even more so.

The movie is a bit long and takes a long time to get to the climactic speech that is the emotional payoff for the film but Oldman’s performance is just so engrossing that one doesn’t mind so much that we get to watch more of it. I will say that there are some CGI bombers and war scenes that aren’t very convincing; it might have been better to use newsreel footage rather than construct a nice but ineffective shot of a British soldier looking up to the sky through a hole in the roof of a house in Dunkirk and the camera rising to follow his gaze to Nazi bombers but because of the mediocre CGI the scene loses all of its power.

The movie is a strong one but one wonders how it would have been without Oldman in the cast; not quite so compelling I believe. Still, performances like this should be savored and encouraged. Oldman has given us a performance that comes in a very long while; you would be remiss if you are a film buff and miss this. Chances are you’ve already seen it but for those who haven’t, what on Earth are you waiting for?

REASONS TO GO: Oldman is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for good reason. This is a movie that makes as effective a use of pauses as any I’ve ever seen. The complex relationship between King and Prime Minister is highlighted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is way too long. The CGI is poor and actually unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Hurt was originally cast to portray Neville Chamberlain but had become ill in the final stages of the cancer that claimed his life – which ironically Chamberlain was also stricken with during the period portrayed here. Hurt never made any readings or filmed any scenes but the movie is still dedicated to him.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Churchill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Oh Lucy!

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I Melt With You


Never drink alone, Jeremy  Piven.

Never drink alone, Jeremy Piven.

(2011) Drama (Magnolia) Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven, Christian McKay, Carla Gugino, Sasha Grey, Zander Eckhouse, Abhi Sinha, Arielle Kebbel, Tom Bower, Joe Reegan, August Emerson, Rebecca Creskoff, Melora Hardin, Anthony Newfield, Tom Donald, Emma Friedman, David Lowe, Natalia Nogulich. Directed by Mark Pellington

Regret is a powerful drug, more addictive than cocaine and more destructive than heroin. As we reach middle age it becomes a drug we are less and less able to resist.

Four friends from college have reached that plateau. They meet every year for a weekend to party like rock stars and remember the good old days. All of them seem successful on the surface  but are living lives of quiet desperation. Ron (Piven) is a Wall Street hotshot who is under SEC investigation and will doubtlessly be arrested when he returns home. Jonathan (Lowe) is a physician whose practice consists mostly of prescribing drugs to Beverly Hills housewives who don’t need them and whose daughter identifies more with her mom’s new husband than with her dad.

Then there’s Richard (Jane), a published author who did get his book published but has been unable to write anything since and is teaching high school English to make ends meet. Finally there’s Tim (McKay), openly bisexual whose relationship with a couple turned tragic when the other two people in the relationship died in a car accident.

All of these men are at crisis points in their lives and are turning to self-medication, self-loathing and self-examination to try and figure out what went wrong, or better still to numb the pain. They also turn to sex, bringing home a waitress and her friends. During the debauchery, one of the four friends abruptly commits suicide, leaving as a note a suicide pact the four of them made in college to the effect of if they were disappointed by life when they reached middle age, they would agree to kill themselves and thus avoid further disappointments in old age.

After burying their friend, the survivors decide to hide the evidence of his deed just in case the police assigned them responsibility for his action after reading his note. However, his act and the justification for it is weighing heavily on each of their minds.

This is one of those movies that is made with the best of intentions but doesn’t quite make the grade. Pellington and writer Glenn Porter intended this to be a journey into the male psyche, but as a male I can tell you this wasn’t a journey into MY psyche. These guys mistake taking lots of drugs, drinking lots of alcohol and having lots of sex as a trip down memory lane reclaiming their lost youth. While I’ve known guys like that, I’ve never seen anyone with this degree of denial.

Part of the problem is that the dialogue is so bloody pretentious. Real people don’t speak like this. I can have deep conversations with my buddies about the meaning of life and manhood and all that without sounding like Diablo Cody on Quaaludes. The pacing is leaden and the dramatic tension is nil. By the time all the excrement goes down you’re not much caring what happens to who.

I will say that the actors give this thing the old college try. Piven in particular is meritorious, doing some of his best work with his sad, trapped animal eyes. He has a tendency to play characters who are just this side of being a jerk, but who are nonetheless compelling for all that.

The soundtrack, mainly made up of 80s college rock standards, rocks the house. Adam Sandler would get a chubby listening to it. Seriously, if you like the ’80s you’re going to find one or two songs that you’re going to go “Oh yeah, I really need to download that to my iPhone.”

I really wish this had been written a bit better. Pellington spoke in the press notes of wanting to provoke a polarization and I suppose that there is some value in that, in the initiating a conversation sense. After seeing this though, I really didn’t want to talk about any of it; I just wanted to forget it and move on.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive soundtrack. The four main leads are solid.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cringe-worthy, pretentious dialogue. Ponderous pacing and lacks any sort of reason for the audience to get involved.

FAMILY VALUES: The drug use here is pretty pervasive as is the foul language. There is also some sexual content and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot chronologically in order for the actors to see and feel the consequences of their character’s actions.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are close to six hours of extra features and not a one of ’em rises up beyond the usual, although a couple of guerilla promotional pieces from Piven and Jane nearly do.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,361 on an unknown production budget; probably didn’t make back the catering costs, let alone the production costs..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bachelor Party

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Back to the Future II