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!

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


It's a Bollywood world and we're just living in it.

It’s a Bollywood world and we’re just living in it.

(2015) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, Tina Desai, Richard Gere, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Grieg, Fiona Mollison, David Strathairn, Shazad Latif, Avijit Dutt, Denzil Smith, Ashok Pathak, Poppy Miller, Neeraj Kadela, Vikram Singh, Rajesh Tailoring, Penelope Wilton, Claire Price, Christy Meyer. Directed by John Madden

In many ways, we’ve lost sight of the respect that is due to the elderly population. Sure, I can get aggravated with them when they chat loudly in movie theaters, or drive slowly on city streets. I don’t, however, agree with the current mindset of sticking them in sterile nursing homes where they wait to die. There should be some dignity in the process.

In Jaipur, the residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel have settled into a routine of life. Muriel (Smith) has become co-manager of the establishment, while Evelyn (Dench) has become a fabric buyer for a company which now wants to hire her full-time even though she’s in her late 70s. This puts a crimp in the already awkward relationship with Douglas (Nighy) who is running sightseeing tours but because he is having memory issues is relying on a young local boy to read facts and figures over a radio that broadcasts to a receiver in his ear. He’d very much like to take his relationship with Evelyn further but the two are talking at cross-purposes and Evelyn, a widow, isn’t quite ready to resume romance. And of course, Douglas is still technically married even though his wife Jean (Wilton) has left him and returned to England.

The other residents are also dealing with their own issues. Madge (Imrie) is trying to decide between two wealthy suitors and yet is spending much time with her driver Babul (Tailang) and his niece, trying to make up her mind. Norman (Pickup) who is working at the Viceroy Club, believes he’s inadvertently hired a hitman to take out his girlfriend Carol (Hardcastle).

Sonny (Patel), the owner and co-manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has a lot on his plate. He is preparing for his upcoming wedding to his sweetheart Sunaina (Desai). He also realizes that his hotel is a victim of its own success; there are no rooms at the inn. The only thing he can do is expand and in order to do that, he needs money. A lot of it…and soon. He reaches out to an American hotel chain magnate (Strathairn) who tells Sonny that he’s intrigued by Sonny’s vision and will send an inspector to evaluate his existing property and whose recommendation would be crucial in making his decision.

He has his eye on a property nearby but into the picture steps Kushal (Latif), Sunaina’s ex-boyfriend and a wealthy and handsome young man who seems destined to be better at everything than Sonny.  Sonny becomes uncontrollably and unjustifiably jealous, feeling that Kushal is there to steal everything Sonny has away from him. In the meantime, a new resident named Guy (Gere) from the States is there to write a novel – although Sonny believes him to be the hotel inspector – and falls for Sonny’s mom (Dubey) as a matter of course.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel took me a bit by surprise in that I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. The sequel doesn’t get the advantage of surprise that the first one got, but it still nevertheless connected with me. While in some ways being easily digestible and unsurprising like a bowl of cream of wheat, it does carry with it a flavor of India so that that bowl of cream of wheat has tandoori spices to be sure.

Of course, when you have a cast like this one, it’s really hard to go wrong. Smith and Dench are two of the greatest actresses alive today and both know how to deliver an acerbic line with the best of them. Nighy is likewise delightful, stealing the movie in many ways with his somewhat droll yet hip demeanor.

The script by Ol Parker, who also wrote the first one, doesn’t give short shrift to the backing characters either. Imrie in particular has some truly poignant moments to work with and while Pickup’s Norman is a bit of a one-dimensional bumbling lothario unused to the whole monogamy thing, even he has some depth as you can tell by that sentence alone. There is also a Bollywood-like dance sequence, something that the first film didn’t provide, which is utterly charming.

While a bit pedestrian, the lovely scenery of Jaipur and Mumbai where the film primarily takes place help keep the movie from ever getting boring visually and the performance of the aforementioned cast keep it from getting boring in any other way. While not quite as good as the first, the second visit to Sonny’s home for the elderly and beautiful is an enjoyable feast that reinforces a previously unknown desire to visit the sub-continent one day. If this movie teaches you anything, is that nothing is impossible nor unattainable no matter how old you are.

REASONS TO GO: Dench, Smith and Nighy are wonderful. Delightful Bollywood elements. Nice visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit bland and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evelyn claims that Muriel is 19 days older than she is, but in reality Judi Dench is 19 days older than Maggie Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfinished Song
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Dev Patel toasts his participation in an early favorite for the best movie of 2012.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Tena Desae, Lillette Dubey, Sid Makkar, Seema Azmi, Diana Hardcastle, Lucy Robinson, Paul Bhattacharjee. Directed by John Madden

 

Everybody ages. Not everybody gets to grow old and it’s for damn sure that not everybody grows as they age period.

A group of seven British retirees find themselves on a bus for the airport taking them to India. They’re not on a holiday or a tour – they are moving to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a budget-priced retirement facility which claims in their advertisements that they have all the amenities needed so that they might spend their golden years in comfort and luxury.

Their interest is that the Hotel is inexpensive enough that they can all afford to live, as they all (with a couple of exceptions) have some sort of financial difficulty. Evelyn Greenslade (Dench) discovered when her husband passed away that he was deeply in debt and she was forced to sell her home in order to pay them off. Douglas (Nighy) and Jean (Wilton) Ainslie lost their life savings when their daughter’s internet company which they had invested in failed. Muriel Donnelly (Smith), a retired domestic, is going to India for a hip replacement surgery which is the only place where she can afford one. Madge Hardcastle (Imrie) is out to find herself a rich husband who can support her needs. Norman Cousins (Pickup), a ladies’ man, wants one last one-night-stand to tide him over. Finally Graham Dashwood (Wilkinson) who is a retired high court judge, grew up in India and seeks to find a lost love.

The hotel that they arrive at is far from what the advertisements claimed; it is ramshackle, without working phones and is old, decrepit and in need of much repair. Sonny (Patel), the manager, is highly enthusiastic and likable but lacks business know-how. He is desperately trying to get a local businessman to invest in the hotel in order to get it solvent; his mother (Dubey) wants him to come back to Delhi so that she can arrange a proper marriage for him. Sonny however only has eyes for Sunaina (Desae), a call center employee.

The new residents all react in different ways to their environments. Evelyn takes a job at the call center as a consultant to help the employees, including Sunaina whom she forms a friendship with, how to speak to elderly British sorts. She needs the work in order to afford to live at the hotel.

Graham disappears most of the day, rarely talking about where he’s been and what he’s done. He recommends places for the others to explore, which Douglas takes him up on. Jean prefers to stay in her room and read, complaining about everything and everyone. Muriel, whose racially insensitive views made some uncomfortable, begins to come around after her successful surgery and befriends a maid of the Untouchable class. When she gives her some advice on how to better sweep the pavement, the maid is very grateful, despite Muriel’s discomfort.

In fact, all of the residents are being profoundly touched by their surroundings and by each other. Some will find exactly what they’re looking for; others will be disappointed and others will be surprised. All will be confronted by their own mortality and their own shortcomings – and all will be changed by their experiences, and by India.

Madden, best known for directing Shakespeare in Love, assembled a tremendous cast and wisely lets each of them get their moment to shine. The movie is not so much about aging but about living – about never being too old to change and grow. It’s kind of a cross between Bollywood (without the songs and dance), Ealing Studios comedies, and On Golden Pond. While the movie certainly is aimed at an older audience, there is plenty in it for non-seniors to enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that the script (by Ol Parker) is well-written and full of some wonderful lines not to mention a great deal of wisdom.

Each character gets at least a few scenes to shine in; most remarkable are Dench, Wilkinson, Nighy, Smith and Wilton. Imrie and Pickup also fare well in their moments. Dench does a voiceover (which is the vocalization of the blog she’s writing) that is actually non-intrusive and well-written rather than a lot of Hollywood voice-overs which tend to be the writers showing off how well they can turn a phrase. Wilkinson and Nighy are two of the most consistent actors in Hollywood; Nighy often gets parts that are kind of far-out, but here his character is a decent man, worn down from years of living with a shrew. Wilkinson’s characters tend to run the gamut from amoral executives to care-worn fathers but here he is a lonely man, haunted by his past and the repercussions of his decision not to protest an obvious injustice. The inner decency of Graham shows through at every moment; he’s a judge that I would want hearing my case, a man who wins the respect of pretty much all of his compatriots.

This is a movie that you can fall in love with. It allows Indian culture to shine through without over-romanticizing it; you get the sense of the drawbacks of Indian culture as well (the congestion, the poor infrastructure and yes, the smell). However it counterbalances that nicely with the overall accepting nature of the Indian people, the beauty of the temples, palaces and countryside and yes, the people themselves – Patel and Desae make a magnificent couple.

I went in expecting to like this movie but not to love it but I wound up appreciating every moment of it. None of this rings false and to my way of thinking, you get to view the world through the eyes of people who have largely been discarded and marginalized by the world at large. Some of them do indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity but for the most part they find their niche in the world and inhabit it, much like anybody of any age. I know younger people might find the subject matter of seniors trying to fit into the world uninteresting to them but for those who don’t reject the subjects of India and the elderly out of hand, this is a movie you’ll find tremendously rewarding.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances. An unsentimental but affectionate look at India. Great one-liners.

REASONS TO STAY: Younger people might find the pace boring and the subject uninteresting.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered here and there, and some of the content is a bit sexual in nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel that Jean is reading is Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, who also wrote These Foolish Things on which this movie is based.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are pretty much positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

INDIA LOVERS: The area around Jaipur is shown with equal parts crumbling, decaying poverty and ancient beauty. The countryside is equally inviting and for those who haven’t considered visiting India, this acts as a pretty compelling reason to go.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Wild Grass