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+



(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


Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre]

(France / Italy 1961)

When young widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) bursts into a confessional and tells the priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” it’s pretty clear that director Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t going easy on us. For awhile, it’s not clear where he’s going at all with Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre], a moody work that percolates with repressed sexuality while it dives into religion, philosophy, and politics.

The story, based on Béatrix Beck’s novel and set in a tiny town somewhere in the French Alps during the Italian occupation right before the Nazis took over, centers on Barny as her relationship with Fr. Morin develops and intensifies. She reveals that she’s a communist militant, possibly a lesbian, and Jewish by injection (i.e., her dead husband was a Jew). She tries to provoke him with her jabs at the Catholic Church, but Fr. Morin’s responses are measured and considered. She’s seduced.

It looks like something sexual is going to happen between them: he’s young and handsome, and she’s been without a man for so long that she’s lusting after a female coworker (Nicole Mirel). Once the two are alone behind the closed door of Fr. Morin’s office in a church tower, it happens: they engage in…discourse, discussing the tenets of Catholicism.

Léon Morin, Priest is low on action and heavy on dialogue, and as a result it often feels lethargic. All of the “important” discussions — the ones that advance the plot, anyway — occur in one room, which does nothing to accelerate the pace. The discussions involve dry topics like theology and philosophy and religious dogma.

However, Melville keeps it interesting with what’s going on in the background: he’s brutally frank about the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism, the lackadaisical Italian soldiers, and the callous efficiency of the Nazis. Riva and Belmondo smoulder, though the former’s performance is far more compelling. Amid the hasty baptisms of children and the desperate hiding of neighbors is the curiously amusing subplot about Fr. Morin having all the women of the village spellbound. It’s a light touch in an otherwise heavy film.

With Irène Tunc, Gisèle Grimm, Marco Behar, Monique Bertho, Marc Heyraud, Nina Grégoire, Monique Hennessy, Edith Loria, Micheline Schererre, Renée Liques, Simone Vannier, Lucienne Marchand

Production: Georges de Beauregard, Concordia Compagnia Cinematografica, Carlo Ponti

Distribution: Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France, Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Cineriz (Italy), Eurooppalainen Filmi (Finland), Rialto Pictures (USA)

130 minutes (restored version)
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Son of Saul [Saul Fia]

(Hungary 2015)

Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) is a Jewish-Hungarian prisoner at Auschwitz. A worker with the Sonderkommando, he is part of a special group of prisoners charged with the grim job of disinfecting gas chambers after exterminations and burning the bodies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonderkommando). While moving corpses after a particular gassing, he finds a young boy (Gergö Farkas) struggling to breathe. Saul notifies a guard and watches a doctor kill the boy. The event sets off something in Saul, prompting his mission to find a rabbi at the camp and give the boy a proper burial in the midst of a brewing prison uprising.

The plot is touching, and some of the story developments are even gripping; but the plot is secondary. Son of Saul is not about the story; it’s about the feeling of being a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Director and cowriter Laszlo Nemes is successful—to say the least—and the result is fucking intense: noise and confusion dominate. What exactly is happening at the moment and what’s real are seldom clear. The mood is tense and things are volatile. The camera work, choppy and blurry and focused almost entirely on Saul, creates a claustrophobic, suffocating effect. At some points, body parts of the dead—a foot, a breast, a crotch—come in and out of focus in the background like unsettling scenery.

Son of Saul is a mindfuck, and parts of it teeter on being unwatchable. It throws out a lot to process; I left the theater frazzled. I never want to see it again, but I don’t need to: it’s going to stay with me. Nemes does an excellent job; it’s so powerful that it’s hard to believe this is his directorial debut.

(Music Box) A-


A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did

(UK 2015)

The trailer for A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did looks promising, asking “What if you grew up as the child of a mass murderer?” British-Jewish lawyer Philippe Sands answers the question by spending some time with two men, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, both sons of Nazi governors. Frank– whose father was convicted at Nuremberg and executed– doesn’t mince words when he condemns his father. Von Wächter on the other hand, is in complete denial that his father committed any wrong, in large part because he held a mainly administrative post and fled to Italy to die before he could be caputured. Naturally, von Wächter’s position does not sit well with Sands, whose relatives apparently were executed under the authority of Gov. von Wächter.

Subject matter and archival footage aside, I found A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did lacking. The focus on the conflicting views of von Wächter and Sands is initially interesting but ultimately overshadows any intellectual point: the former’s philistine refusal to face the facts and obvious inability to defend his position are both frustrating enough, but the latter’s supercilious browbeating makes a bad situation worse. With so much to work with, it’s a pity that what could have been an insightful commentary or debate degenerates into a pointless quarrel.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D+