Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With 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 Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+


Tokyo Vampire Hotel

(Japan 2017)

This theatrical cut of director Sion Sono’s Amazon Prime miniseries Tokyo Vampire Hotel [東京ヴァンパイアホテル] (http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/tokyo-vampire-hotel-sion-sono-amazon-1201808369/) is a fast-paced stylish and colorful bloodbath, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.

Manami (Tomite Ami) is a nice girl who shares a tiny apartment with her boyfriend (Saito Takumi) in Tokyo. Just after she arrives for dinner with her friends on the evening of her 22nd birthday, a crazy gun-toting assassin (Shoko Nakagawa) in a fuzzy pink mink shows up and takes out everyone in the restaurant — except Manami, whom she came to kidnap.

Manami flees, only to be picked up by another kidnapper, the mysterious K (Kaho). K in not so may words explains that Manami is a pawn in a war between two vampire clans, the Draculas and the Corvins, who have been enemies for centuries. Unbeknownst to Manami, she’s the target of a worldwide vampire hunt. K takes her to the glamorous Tokyo Vampire Hotel, which is run by a creepy geisha empress (Adachi Yumi) who needs blood.

The end of civilization is coming, but the empress has a plan: use the hotel to trap a healthy supply of humans to serve as food. Things don’t pan out as planned when the humans figure out what’s happening and the Draculas show up to crash the party.

This photo sums up what you’re getting into here:

Tokyo still.jpg

Tokyo Vampire Hotel is quirky, sexy, lavish, and fun. Sono serves up an imaginative feast of dazzling eye candy and nonstop action. His use of Christian symbols adds a nice touch. The sets are fantastic, and the action moves from the streets of Tokyo at night to inside the hotel to Bran Castle in Transylvania, and back. The editing works to make nine episodes flow seamlessly into a feature length film. However, the story wears thin after a little while, and it can’t sustain the interest I started out with. The gore gets old, too. The length, nearly two and a half hours, is a problem. It demonstrates why Tokyo Vampire Hotel is probably better in smaller doses.

With Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Yokoyama Ayumu, Kagurazaka Megumi, Shibukawa Kiyohiko, Takatsuki Sara, Tsutsui Mariko, Sakurai Yuki

Production: Amazon, Django Film, Nikkatsu Pictures

Distribution: Nikkatsu International Sales

142 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival


(USA / UK / France / Netherlands 2017)

I have mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Dunkirk, a World War II military drama that has very little to do with battle. Told from three perspectives — land (“the mole”), sea, and air — the story here centers on an evacuation, that of British and allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, a fishing village in northern France at the Belgian border, over a ten-day period in late Spring 1940 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation).

I have to admit ignorance here: I knew nothing about the Dunkirk evacuation going into this film. Nolan doesn’t spend any time on background or what led to this point; instead, he just picks up with British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) fleeing German fire outside the beach. I wish I had known ahead of time because I would have done some research. I thought a better job could have been done telling the story.

The structure, jumping between the three perspectives, takes a little work to follow. What exactly is going on is unclear and confusing, and it creates a nice sense of claustrophobia and panic in many scenes — especially that boat scene. This is good. However, keeping track of the characters is a tough task not made any easier by giving all the soldiers the exact same black hair dye. I found it hard to relate to or care much about any of them because I was kept at arm’s length. I couldn’t get invested. While definitely not the same story, Dunkirk is a kind of a big budget Son of Saul — just not as good.

As a spectacle, though, Dunkirk is magnificent. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shot it on 70 millimeter film, and he packs this picture with gorgeous wide shots of the beach, the sea, and throngs of desperate soldiers. He beautifully captures the hopelessness of the situation with a drab palette of only a few army colors: greens, greys, blues, and cold whites that convey a chill I could see and feel. The sound is over the top loud. If nothing else, Dunkirk is total sensory overload. It’s worth seeing for that alone.

Side note: I’m not sure which is the bigger surprise here — that 1D’s Harry Styles actually isn’t terrible, or that Tom Hardy is hidden under aviator goggles for the entire film. The latter is a bummer. He’s so hot!

With Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine

Production: Syncopy, Warner Brothers, Dombey Street Productions, Kaap Holland Film, Canal+, Ciné+, RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia)

106 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Music Box) C+


Wonder Woman

(USA 2017)

Director Patty Jenkins aims to do for Wonder Woman what Christopher Nolan—and I suppose to a lesser degree Tim Burton—did for Batman: take an iconic comic book superhero that got campy over the years and return it to its darker roots, producing something dramatic, perhaps weightier, and far more artful. Jenkins doesn’t entirely pull it off with Wonder Woman, but she’s on the right track. I see a sequel or two in the near future, so she’s got time to get there.

To Jenkins’s credit, Wonder Woman is not what I expected. Aside from a nod or two—and that goddamned tiara—all the cut-rate kitsch of the ’70s TV series is gone. This Wonder Woman means business even if she’s still, shall we say, absurd.

Jenkins goes back to the beginning: young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by war-ready buff goddesses. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s mother, shields her from the strident ways of her subjects. It all has to do with an old score Ares (David Thewlis) seeks to settle—yes, that Ares, the son of Zeus and the god of war. General Antiope (Robin Wright), Hippolyta’s sister and Diana’s aunt/mentor, isn’t having it: she recognizes Diana’s potential and trains her on the sly. Diana blossoms into a beautiful woman (Gal Gadot) with serious supernatural power.

Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a drowning American pilot whose plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, unwittingly exposing the island to an invasion by German forces. Persuaded by the awesome power of Diana’s Lasso of Hestia, Steve confesses that he’s a spy in the “war to end all wars”—World War I. Spider-sensing Ares is behind it, Diana embarks with Steve on a mission filled with romance, adventure, and espionage in an effort to track down the god and stop the madness.

Wonder Woman starts out all Xena: Warrior Princess, silly and weird in a geeky softcore straight guy “lesbian porn” way that no doubt would appeal to the likes of Wayne and Garth. Thankfully, it moves in another direction once Pine shows up about 40 minutes in. I found myself enjoying Wonder Woman more as the story got to Europe—that storyline is more believable even if it too is silly. The battle scenes are decent with some Hollywood excess and humor thrown in. I love how the theme of gender equality is the star of every scene—neither subtle nor heavy-handed, it’s simply a given.

For all its perks, Wonder Woman is ultimately a typical blockbuster that emphasizes form over substance. If nothing else, it surprises, which is always a plus. Frankly, though, I could’ve kept going completely oblivious to the fact that Wonder Woman is more than Lynda Carter. She was more a lot more fun.

With Danny Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Doutzen Kroes

Production: DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment LLC, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece)

141 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C


The Godfather

(USA 1972)

“Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first? What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”

—Don Vito Corleone


“My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power. Like a president or a senator.”

—Michael Corleone


“And may their first child be a masculine child.”

—Luca Brasi


“Hey Mikey, why don’cha tell that nice girl you love her? ‘I love you with all a-my heart. If I don’t a-see you again a-soon, I’m a-gonna die!'”

“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

—Peter Clemenza

Pretty much perfect, The Godfather was almost a different movie. Based on Mario Puzo’s insanely popular best selling 1969 novel, studio executives conceived a pulp gangster drama for its film adaptation. Good thing they wanted a “real” Italian-American to direct so it would be so authentic that moviegoers would “smell the spaghetti” (https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2009/03/godfather200903). Several unsuccessful attempts were made to attract a director, including Warren Beatty. Paramount “settled for” unknown Francis Ford Coppola, who took it somewhere else.

The Godfather is universally held in high esteem as one of the greatest films of all time—as it should be. It’s a a movie showered in superlatives—like the bullets that shower, well, most of the characters. It’s impeccable. We caught an anniversary screening.

Coppola’s morality play is a masterpiece, more complex than it seems at first and full of contrast and contradiction. A solemn and ominous mob drama that centers on Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his family business, The Godfather boasts one riveting career-defining performance after another—Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, and Abe Vigoda, to name a few. The characters are great, and the dialogue—perfect! Not a single second is wasted here, not even that long ass wedding scene.

The observations about human nature are astute, and the spin on assimilation and the American Dream is clever. The dramatic arc involving the descent of younger son Michael (Pacino) into a moral apocalypse is something you can’t shift your eyes away from. Black as its promotional poster, The Godfather leaves so much to chew on. This is what cinema is all about.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Godfather “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Rudy Bond, Al Martino , Morgana King, Lenny Montana, John Martino, Salvatore Corsitto, Richard Bright, Alex Rocco, Tony Giorgio, Vito Scotti, Tere Livrano, Victor Rendina, Jeannie Linero, Julie Gregg, Ardell Sheridan, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti, Corrado Gaipa, Franco Citti, Saro Urzì, Sofia Coppola

Production: Paramount Pictures, Alfran Productions

Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA), Cinema International Corporation (CIC) (International)

175 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) A+

Fathom Events

Alexander Nevsky [Aleksandr Nevskij]

(Soviet Union/Russia 1938)

Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev’s Alexander Nevsky [Алекса́ндр Не́вский] is an oddball film. An historical drama with major propagandist and nationalistic overtones, it depicts Prince Alexander a.k.a. Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkasov) in his battle against the Teutonics as they try to invade the medieval city of Novgorod. Spoiler alert: Nevsky defeats them.

Alexander Nevsky tried my patience; of all the films at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show, it’s the only one I can say bored me. The plot is dull and the execution of the narrative is boring. The acting is stiff and the dialogue, even translated with subtitles, is…severe? I got through it without hating it thanks to a tiny amount of lightheartedness spinkled throughout that makes the whole thing bearable.

One subplot in particular kept me engaged and amused: it involves Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Oleksich (Andrei Abrikosov), two warriors competing for the affection of the same woman, Olga Danilovna, a Maid of Novgorod (Valentina Ivashova, and that’s her character’s name). The two men relentlessly try to outdo each other in courage and skill on the battlefield, as she’s the big prize waiting for the winner. It doesn’t turn out how I expected.

That said, Alexander Nevsky is definitely a worthwhile experience for its visuals. It has a cool neoclassical atomic age sensibility, mixing elements of mythology with a kind of futuristic sci-fi minimalism. The battlefield scenes are beautifully shot, evoking a sense of vast otherworldly shock and awe. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography shimmers, and he contrasts light and dark really nicely here. The nitrate print we saw was sharp. I see why this was included in the festival:

Nevsky Cliff.jpg

Nevsky warriors.jpg

nevsky battlefield.jpg

With Dmitriy Orlov, Vasili Novikov, Nikolai Arsky, Varvara Massalitinova , Amelfa Timoferevna, Valentina Ivashova, Aleksandra Danilova, Vladimir Yershov, Sergei Blinnikov, Ivan Lagutin, Lev Fenin, Naum Rogozhin

Production: Mosfilm

Distribution: Artkino Pictures, Progressive Film Institute (UK), Amkino Corporation (USA), Panthéon Distribution (France)

108 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) D+

Nitrate Picture Show

Lawrence of Arabia

(UK 1962)

Roger Ebert’s comments sum up my experience:

“I’ve noticed that when people remember Lawrence of Arabia, they don’t talk about the details of the plot. They get a certain look in their eye, as if they are remembering the whole experience, and have never quite been able to put it into words.”


Lawrence of Arabia is an epic if ever there ever was one: a biopic of a bygone era’s famous and handsome man—author T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole)—on a wartime adventure to accomplish an important but impossible task in a rugged, foreign land. His first meeting with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) does not go well, creating a certain tension that appears to stand in the way. The drama! Lawrence even has an English accent. Uniquely, though, this is a rather low-key epic: most of the set is a vast, sprawling desert, and it’s the little events that produce big results.

Director David Lean infused a major gay subtext. O’Toole is strikingly beautiful; in fact, Noel Coward observed that if O’Toole had been any prettier, the film would have to be called Florence of Arabia (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-25393557). O’Toole plays Lawrence with a distinct diva component. There’s a hint of something more than an employment arrangement between Lawrence and some servants and an Arab soldier or two. There’s also a weird scene where Lawrence is captured by muscled Turks and brought shirtless before an older, smarmy Bey (José Ferrer) with obvious designs on him; when Lawrence spurns his advances, the Bey has him beaten with whips. Lawrence doesn’t seem too bothered by the beating. The palace looks like a tawdry bathhouse.

What will probably stay with me above all else is F.A. Young’s cinematography, which is arresting and haunting. I definitely want a camel now that I’ve seen this.

In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed Lawrence of Arabia “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

(Music Box) A

Music Box Theatre 70mm Festival