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+

http://focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

1945

(Hungary 2016)

Ferenc Török’s excellent 1945, which he says took over a decade to finish, doesn’t end up where it looks like it’s going. The story takes place on a hot summer Saturday in August 1945 during a transitional time in Hungary — after the Nazis surrendered but before the Soviets left.

Two men in black, one old (Iván Angelus) and the other young (Marcell Nagy), arrive at the train station of a small rural village. They have two large trunks in tote, which they are bringing into town. They walk in silence behind the wagon as the hired driver (Miklós B. Székely) and his son (György Somhegyi) lead the way.

The stationmaster (István Znamenák) alerts the town clerk, István Szentes (Péter Rudolf), who’s in the midst of preparations for his son’s (Bence Tasnádi) wedding. The two visitors are Orthodox Jews who survived the Holocaust. The villagers are thrown into a state of paranoia, fearing the purpose of this unwanted intrusion.

Based on Gábor T. Szántó’s short story “Homecoming,” Török effectively sets up the narrative using the construct of a Western: an ominous sky, strangers in black, and nervous lawmen and townsfolk all ready for a conflict to erupt.

The conflict in 1945, however, started long before this day: it started when the apparently all Catholic residents betrayed their only Jewish neighbor, the owner of the local drug store. István’s wife, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), turned him in to the Nazis. István took over his store and moved his family into his house. Everyone, from the police to the village priest (Béla Gados), looked the other way.

Török shows the conflicted villagers struggling to rectify their personal gain with the dishonorable way they achieved it. Török’s pacing is perfect, unfolding slowly with an ever-increasing sense of unease and doom. It doesn’t hurt that the ensemble case is tops. Elemér Ragályi’s gorgeous black and white cinematography emulates the look of films from the 1930s and 1940s:

1945 Still1.jpg

1945 Still5.jpg

1945 Still2.jpg

1945 Still6.jpg

1945 is one of the more memorable films I caught at this year’s festival.

With Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Ági Szirtes, József Szarvas, Sándor Terhes, Tünde Szalontay, Mari Nagy, János Derzsi, Tibor Mertz, Bálint Adorjáni, Vivianne Bánovits, Rita Kerkay, Zsolt Dér, Gergö Mikola, Máté Novkov

Production: Katapult Films

Distribution: Menemsha Films

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ferenc Török

91 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.menemshafilms.com/1945

Dunkirk

(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+

http://www.dunkirkmovie.com

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

http://wonderwomanfilm.com

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

Anchors Aweigh

(USA 1945)

“What a time we had tonight, mmm!” In his 1945 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called Anchors Aweigh a “Gay Musical Film” (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F0DE3DC103BEE3BBC4851DFB166838E659EDE). Well, duh!

I doubt Crowther meant “gay” in the current sense of the word, but he certainly wasn’t wrong either way: between all the singing, dancing, handsome sailors in tight pants, and a very young and wide-eyed Frank Sinatra acting out a creepy attachment to Gene Kelly, the only thing that could make Anchors Aweigh any gayer would be an appearance by Judy Garland. Or a raunchy sex scene with all those sailors and the admiral who, in one number (“We Hate to Leave”), said he would beat them with a whip. I half expected and kinda wanted it to happen, but of course it didn’t. Oh well.

As a reward for their bravery, Navy seamen Joe Brady (Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Sinatra) are given a four-day leave in Hollywood. Joe plans to hook up with his dame, Lola. After stalking him on the streets of Los Angeles, sweet and naive ex choir boy Clarence asks the apparently more experienced Joe to teach him how to meet girls.

Enter Donald (Dean Stockwell, whom most of us know as a middle-aged man from his many ’80s and ’90s movies), a little tyke who’s running away from home to join the navy. Our boys take him home, where Donald lives with his Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), a nice girl trying to get into the movie industry—if only she could catch a break. Clarence immediately falls head over heels and enlists Joe’s assistance in wooing her, which provides the story here.

Even though (and probably because) the characters, plot, and dialogue are totally corny, Anchors Aweigh is truly a frothy blast—it’s exactly the kind of film that comes to mind when I think of classic Hollywood. A vivacious affair, director George Sidney keeps everything about it big: the sets, the songs, the dance numbers. I was particularly taken by one sequence involving Kelly and various animated figures—it culminates in an awesome song-and-dance with none other than Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry cartoons. Flawless!

The whole spectacle is tied up in an amazing Technicolor bow; Charles Boyle and Robert Planck’s color palette is gorgeous, and seeing it on a nitrate print literally left me breathless. From a sensory perspective, Anchors Aweigh was hands down my favorite film at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show.

As a side note, I must confess that one thing threw me for a loop: Kelly and Sinatra (and Grayson, for that matter) are young and beautiful here—not the old timers I’m accustomed to seeing having grown up when I did. They’re actually hot, even by today’s standards. Kelly upstages Sinatra throughout the entire film, which I found bizarre and quite amusing.

With José Iturbi, Pamela Britton, Grady Sutton, Rags Ragland, Billy Gilbert, William Forrest

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

143 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) A-

Nitrate Picture Show

Hacksaw Ridge

(USA/Australia 2016)

“Thou shalt not kill.”

—The Ten Commandments

 

“I don’t know how I’m gonna live with myself if I don’t stay true to what I believe.”

—Desmond Doss

Like him or not, Mel Gibson has what it takes to direct a massive Hollywood picture. Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial job in a decade, demonstrates that much—just in case earlier films like Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto didn’t.

Hacksaw Ridge depicts the remarkable and true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the Lynchburg, Virginia, Seventh-day Adventist who served as a medic in the U.S. Army during World War II. His story is unique: he enlisted, but as a conscientous objector for religious reasons. Refusing to kill or carry a gun, he rescued 75 or so wounded soldiers from the field during the Battle of Okinawa (http://www.collegedale-americanlegion.org/Pages/DesmondTDoss.aspx). President Harry S. Truman awarded Doss the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1945, the first time such a high accolade was bestowed upon someone who never even discharged a weapon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desmond_Doss).

From a technical standpoint, Hacksaw Ridge is pretty awesome. The story is a good one. The battle scenes are clearly the centerpiece: they’re loud and extremely graphic. The prosthetics are spot on realistic. Cinematographer Simon Duggan starts out with warm, almost sepia tones in the early civilian scenes, but as the setting moves onto the battlefield he ditches color in favor of a washed out black, green, and white palette. Shaky closeups, slow motion shots, blurry pans, and quick cuts create a sense of confusion as gunfire and explosions and human carnage take over the screen. Hacksaw Ridge is no Son of Saul (https://moviebloke.com/2016/02/11/son-of-saul-saul-fia/), but it still overwhelms the senses albeit in a distanced, staged blockbuster way.

Otherwise, Hacksaw Ridge didn’t impress me all that much. At its core, it’s a standard-issue war movie complete with a sugary subplot about the girl, Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), waiting for Doss to hurry up and get back home so they can get married, and lots of humorous if mawkish male bonding through nicknames, insults, physical attacks, and simply having each other’s back. There’s a military court scene, trite “war is hell, boys” lines, soldiers who freak out once they get on the battlefield, likable characters who perish, and of course the superhuman heroic deeds of Doss.

Most character background is given hurried and superficial treatment: Doss’s alcoholic veteran father (Hugo Weaving) and his bad experience in World War I, Doss and Dorothy’s quick courtship, even the failed attempts of Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Cpt. Glover (Sam Worthington) to persuade Doss to leave the Army. Too bad, because a little more insight could have made the film stronger. A particularly glaring example is brother Hal (Nathaniel Buzolic), who simply vanishes once he shows up at the dinner table in uniform. What happens to him? Did I miss it?

I’m conflcited on the message here, but I guess that’s okay because frankly Hacksaw Ridge is a conflicted film. Gibson maintains that it’s an anti-war statement (http://www.christianpost.com/news/mel-gibson-hacksaw-ridge-is-an-anti-war-movie-170318/). Fine, but that’s hard to believe considering the disproportionate amount of time and resources given to overblown battle scenes. I’m not sure the film honors Doss or his pacifist convictions. Moreover, what sure seems like a blatant parallel to the so-called religious liberty movement is, in my view, misguided and hollow, especially when Doss’s faith is treated more or less as incidental. Hacksaw Ridge sustained my interest, but I would have appreciated a little more depth.

With Luke Bracey, Darcy Bryce, Rachel Griffiths, Firass Dirani, Michael Sheasby, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole

Production: Pandemonium Films, Permut Productions, Vendian Entertainment, Kylin Pictures

Distribution: Summit Entertainment (USA)

139 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C+

http://www.hacksawridge.movie

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.”

(http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-lawrence-of-arabia-1962).

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

’71

(UK 2015)

’71 is French television director Yann Demange’s finely crafted drama of a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) sent to Belfast to keep the peace amongst the rioting Catholics one day in 1971. After getting separated from his troop during a melee exacerbated by a child running off with a gun, he spends the next 12 hours or so fending off a band of IRA militants intent on killing him. The action is shot up close and in the dark, and the pace is perfectly nerve-wracking. More than just a “war movie,” ’71 is a thriller jammed with suspense and psychological drama that examines human nature and the instinct to survive.

(AMC River East) B+

http://71themovie.com/#/trailer

The Imitation Game

(USA 2014)

“Sometimes it is the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”

—Christopher Morcom

Painfully awkward math nerd and social reject Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited by the Royal Navy to crack the Nazi’s “Enigma” code. Hated by his teammates, a dark secret lurks behind his arrogance. Yes, sometimes it is the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine; but even genius does not always save a person in the end.

Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges and told in flashback sequences, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game is a strong story loaded with great characters, nice buildup, and intense moments. It helps to know Turing’s real-life fate, but ignorance of it should not impede enjoying this film. If nothing else, Kiera Knightley and Matthew Goode are total eye candy, whatever your sexual preference.

With Allen Leech, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, James Northcote, Tom Goodman-Hill, Steven Waddington, Ilan Goodman, Jack Tarlton, Jack Bannon, Tuppence Middleton, Alex Lawther

114 minutes
Rated PG-13

(AMC River East) A

http://theimitationgamemovie.com