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

Amélie [Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain]

(France/Germany 2001)

“I like to look for things no one else catches.”

—Amélie Poulain

The Associate Board of Chicago International Film Festival presented a special screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, a sumptuous, romantic fantasy of a film that looks as good as it feels. I’ve seen it many times. It’s unrealistic, maybe even a bit silly; yet, it always leaves me smiling. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see it again.

Young Amélie Poulain (Flora Guiet) has a lonely childhood: her odd parents are overreactive, overprotective, and emotionally distant, preferring to rearrange the contents of their toolbox and purse than pay much attention to her. It’s so bad that her heart races when her father, Raphaël (Rufus), a physican, touches her during her annual checkup—a narrator (André Dussollier) explains that all she wants is a hug.

Her father misdiagnoses Amélie with a heart condition. As a result, she’s kept inside from the world and homeschooled by her mother, Amandine (Lorella Cravotta), a rather hysterical woman with a nervous tic in her eye. Amélie retreats into her imagination to deal with it all. Her home environment is so stifling, it makes her pet goldfish, Blubber, jump out of its bowl in multiple suicide attempts. A separate suicide at Notre-Dame, this one successful, changes Amélie’s life, leaving her father to raise her alone without any siblings, which her mother apparently wanted for her. C’est la vie.

Fast forward to 1997: grown up Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is a stylish but shy waitress at a café in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris—artsy Montmartre. While home alone (as usual) in her flat one evening—August 31, 1997—a TV news report of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s fatal car accident jolts Amélie, causing a chain reaction that leads her directly to a rusty box of a boy’s trinkets from the 1950s hidden in her bathroom wall. She discerns the identity of the family who lived in her flat back then and devises an elaborate scheme to reunite the boy, now an older man (Maurice Bénichot), with his “treasures” while staying completely anonymous and out of view. It works, bringing happiness to him and in the process to Amélie.

Thrilled with her accomplishment, she decides that her life’s work will be making others happy—in her own amusingly roundabout, always off to the side way. Amélie, you see, prefers to be invisible. She describes what she sees to a blind man (Jean Darie), kidnaps her father’s garden gnome to inspire him to travel, mails a bunch of fake love letters to her landlord (Yolande Moreau) whose husband abandoned her decades ago, and fixes up a hypochondriac coworker (Isabelle Nanty) with a volatile café patron (Dominique Pinon) who just got dumped.

Amélie’s covert approach goes swimmingly for others, but not so much for her own happiness—something she discovers once she encounters Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome and quirky stranger who works at a porn shop and collects discarded photos from a photo booth at Gare de l’Est. Amélie can’t bring herself to show herself to Nino, let alone speak to him through a door. Can her neighbor, “the Glass Man” (Serge Merlin), talk some sense into her?

Everything about Amélie dazzles. Just like earlier films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Amélie is a treat, showcasing Jeunet’s distinct buoyantly surreal visual and narrative style. He’s more sophisticated here, though. He throws in offbeat narrative sidebars that tell about his characters. With wide shots, unexpected angles, a pallet of vividly dark colors, and a mix of elements from different decades, he concocts an idealized version of Paris that highlights all that makes it romantic and dreamy. It works well with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, which has a cool sepiatone air to it. My favorite shot is the one of Amélie literally dissolving into a puddle of water.

Tatou is wonderfully mischievous, emulating both Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Tinkerbell. You can’t help but fall for her as she turns the mundane into magnifique. Kassovitz, who comes off as a weirdo at first, capably metamorphoses Nino into a go-getter who turns out to be a great match for Amélie. Plus, he’s easy on the eyes.

122 minutes
Rated R

(Public Chicago) A

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.miramax.com/movie/amelie/