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+


Phantom Thread

(USA / UK 2017)

“When I was a boy, I started to hide things in the lining of the garments. Things only I knew were there. Secrets.”

— Reynolds Woodcock

“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open. With only me to help. And then I want you strong again.”

— Alma Elson

London dress designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) wouldn’t be at the center of 1950s British haute couture without the women in his life — and all he has around him are women. He clothes royalty (Lujza Richter), models, and many a grande dame, some of them (Harriet Sansom Harris) crazy, in exquisite opulence he creates in his exclusive House of Woodcock. His stony sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs the business end of things. Part of that involves maintaining every detail of his affairs, keeping his life exactly like his clothing: meticulously crafted and custom tailored, just how he likes it.

Reynolds is a genius, but he’s also an insufferable control freak. A diva. A dick. This explains why he’s an “incurable” bachelor.

Women have come and gone, but not one has inspired Reynolds quite like Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a rather willful young waitress he meets in a café. He asks her out to dinner, then brings her back to his studio and fits her in a dress. It’s kind of weird and domineering, but it doesn’t repel her.

Alma moves in. Soon, she becomes lover and muse to Reynolds, forced to contend with his bizarre and condescending idiosyncrasies. Cyril takes note. Alma’s presence throws him off, sometimes provoking him to retreat into silence while other times sending him into a fit of rage. Serendipity leads Alma to the anecdote for his noxiousness.

Phantom Thread takes some work to digest — an unintended pun, but apt nonetheless. Writer/director/cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay is subtle, which I assume is the reason his pace is so painstakingly measured. The result is a sublime slowburning masterpiece that leaves you pondering long after you’ve taken it all in. I’d like to see it again.

Reynolds struggles against the power that women hold over him, and Day-Lewis adroitly handles the nuance that this role requires. He’s particularly magnificent in a scene involving a hallucination: Reynolds talks to his deceased mother (Emma Clandon), and his dialogue sums up his existence. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role, which showcases his formidable talent. Day-Lewis announced his retirement before Phantom Thread came out (http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/daniel-day-lewis-retiring-1202477843/). Whether he actually does remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a high note in a long, storied, and impressive career.

I would be remiss not to mention Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, which is foreboding, minimalist, and eloquent. It’s a perfect fit for the psychological drama that unfolds here.

As a small aside, we had the pleasure of catching Phantom Thread on 70mm. This is how it should be seen. We even got a special program — and I love stuff like that!







With Sue Clark, Joan Brown, Harriet Leitch, Dinah Nicholson, Julie Duck, Maryanne Frost, Elli Banks, Amy Cunningham, Amber Brabant, Geneva Corlett, Juliet Glaves, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis, Nicholas Mander, Philip Franks, Phyllis MacMahon, Silas Carson, Richard Graham, Martin Dew, Ian Harrod, Jane Perry, Leopoldine Hugo

Production: Annapurna Pictures, Focus Features, Ghoulardi Film Company, Perfect World Pictures

Distribution: Focus Features (USA), United International Pictures (UIP) (International), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (International), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), CinemArt (Czech Republic), Bitters End (Japan), Parco Co. Ltd. (Japan)

130 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+


Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

(USA 2016)

One of the best things to come from Saturday Night Live has to be its Digital Shorts segment. With titles like “Laser Cats!,” “Please Don’t Cut My Testicles,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and of course “Dick in a Box” and its follow up, “Motherlover,” the angle was decidedly crass and juvenile—high school boy stuff loaded with potty, sex, and to a lesser degree drug humor with the occasional reference to geek fodder, usually some work of the science fiction or fantasy genre. Written and produced by The Lonely Island—comedy trio Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg—the genius lied in the creators’ astute balance of pop cultural literacy, musical aptitude, and complete absurdism. Generally performed as music videos for rap and pop songs so spot on they sounded real, Digital Shorts attracted the likes of Steve Martin, Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga, Betty White, and of course Justin Timberlake.

In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lonely Island expands its formula into a feature length film, playing former members of Style Boyz, a boy band whose biggest hit was “The Donkey Roll” (https://youtu.be/-mRVK8-XfEU). After a rift over credit, the Boyz break up and go their separate ways. Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone) fail to duplicate their success, but narcissistic and dubiously talented frontman Conner Friel (Samberg) has a huge blockbuster with his solo album Thriller, Also. The film, done as a mockumentary very much in the style of This Is Spinal Tap!, picks up just as Conner’s followup, Connquest, is about to “drop” (i.e, be released). A huge media blitz including a tour is in the works. When Connquest fails to live up to its predecessor, all signs point to a Style Boyz reunion—but can that happen?

Popstar makes it abundantly clear why The Lonely Island’s brand of humor works as shorts: it simply can’t sustain a movie. With Popstar, they nail the excess, the ego, and the emptiness of the entertainment biz. Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager and Sarah Silverman as his publicist are awesome, simultaneously informing, persuading, and babysitting Conner while constantly stroking his ego. The songs sound real. Conner’s show, complete with backup dancers and a deejay, looks authentic. Some of the scenes are pretty damned funny, including one where Conner is forced to autograph a fan’s, um, junk (props for getting it through the window of the limo). It’s amusing to see real popstars like Questlove, Usher, 50 Cent, and Ringo Starr (not to mention bitch on wheels Simon Cowell) gush in fake interviews over something so obviously lame as Style Boyz and Conner. It’s fun to see P!nk, Adam Levine, and Michael Bolton perform with Conner—and “Equal Rights” (with P!nk) is a hilarious, cheerful spoof of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love.” Seal and Mariah Carey make gracious cameos that show they can take a joke. This is all good. The problem is, Popstar is essentially a string of dumb gags. Unlike This Is Spinal Tap!, it gets tiresome, fast. I lost interest after a little while; the characters and the jokes are too thin to carry Popstar all the way. Even Timberlake, whose appearances with The Lonely Island have always been funny, is an uncharacteristic yawn as Conner’s chef. Meh.

Curiously, the best song for this film was deleted: https://youtu.be/t3jKtjgRZQY. Seeing it as a short probably is best, anyway.

Also starring Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Imogen Poots, Chris Redd, Edgar Blackmon, James Buckley, Ashley Moore, Bill Hader, Will Forte, Will Arnett, Carrie Underwood, Nas, Akon, Big Boy, D.J. Khaled, Danger Mouse, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dog, Weird Al Yankovic

Produced by Perfect World Pictures, Apatow Company, and The Lonely Island

Distributed by Universal Pictures

87 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+