A Light in the Darkness

Winston Spencer Churchill was a pivotal character in 20th Century Western history. He’s been the subject of many volumes of biography along with movies and TV series, and rightly so since he was involved in much of what happened in the first half of the past century. Throughout that time, though, he was also a controversial personality who often made mistakes, failed at endeavors, and was seen as a self-promoter. He flipped party affiliation twice, and by 1929 he was pushed out of the party leadership. Churchill spent a decade in what has come to be known as “The Wilderness Years.” In retrospect, those years out of power were vital. He wasn’t tainted by the appeasement policies towards Hitler pursued by England during the 1930s, and many military officers and civil servants fed him information on how woefully unprepared for war the British were at that point. His sharp questions in the House of Commons helped force the government to start those preparations. After war broke out in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to give Churchill a place in the cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty, a position Churchill held in WWI. But Winston had to wait until May 10th of 1940 to take over as Prime Minister, within hours of the Blitzkrieg of Western Europe by the Germans beginning. Joe Wright’s portrait of Winston’s first weeks as PM, from his ascension to Prime Minister to his “We Shall Fight” speech following Dunkirk, shows it truly was the Darkest Hour of the war.

Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) had wanted Lord Halifax (Stephan Dillane) to replace him after he was forced to resign, but Halifax refuses. Instead Chamberlain recommends to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) that Churchill be asked to form a government. Neither is happy about it. Chamberlain doesn’t trust Churchill, and George hasn’t forgiven Churchill’s support of his brother, Edward VIII, during the Wallis Simpson affair. But as a constitutional monarch, he has little choice but to summon Churchill.

At the time Churchill (Gary Oldman) is at Chartwell, his home outside of London. A new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is brought in to help Churchill, but his harsh and demanding demeanor make her ready to walk out that day. Winston’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), takes him to task over his boorish behavior. Layton is in the driveway, ready to leave, when a motorcycle messenger arrives from Buckingham Palace. Instead she turns around and delivers the note summoning Churchill to an audience with George – and she remains with Churchill as he takes on the responsibility of Prime Minister.

The film is anchored by a tour de force performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. Oldman looks nothing like Winston, and had to go through a couple of hours in make-up where prosthetics were applied. However, the actor submerges himself in the role, capturing his voice and mannerisms perfectly. After his recent win at the Golden Globes, Oldman is easily the front runner for best actor honors throughout this award season.

Oldman is ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially by James, Scott Thomas, and Mendelsohn. James’ character functions to give the audience an entry into Churchill’s world and the Cabinet War Rooms, and James manages to do that while still presenting a realistic characterization. (Layton, whose married name was Nel, was a real person who served as one of Churchill’s secretaries; she was the last surviving one, passing away at age 90 in 2007.) Scott Thomas embodies the refined steel of Clementine, the one person who could exercise some control over Winston. Special kudos to Mendelsohn’s version of George VI, since he goes for a more subtle performance than Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning take. The speech impediment is there if you listen, but what comes through is George’s decency and sense of duty, especially in a scene late in the movie between Mendelsohn and Oldman.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten focuses the story so that even if you’re unaware of the history of that chapter in Churchill’s life, you can still understand what’s happening. While they’re completely different in tone, Darkest Hour adds context to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Wright overall does a good job bringing the script to life, though he leans a bit too much on bomb-site visuals that are more showy than illuminative. But that’s a small quibble.

In the end Darkest Hour hangs on Oldman’s portrayal, and he delivers a truly riveting performance that rings true down to the smallest gesture. He definitely deserves Oscar gold for this role.

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Signs of the Time

Whenever award-winning playwright Martin McDonagh switches from the stage to the screen as writer and director, he usually mixes crime drama with comedy. His first feature, In Bruges, has two hitmen laying low in the titular Belgium city after a hit in London goes very wrong. It drifts into the absurdist realm by mixing in dwarfs and a movie getting made. His next film, Seven Psychopaths, revolved around a screenwriter who gets mixed up in the Los Angeles underworld when a friend of his kidnaps a gangster’s shih tzu. With his new film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri he still mixes comedy with drama, but it comes from a deeper level – human grief.

With seven months having passed since of her daughter’s brutal rape and murder, Mildred (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on the highway to Ebbing, Missouri, and puts up her own version of the old Burma Shave ads, challenging the town’s chief of police (Woody Harrelson) on why no suspect has been found. The billboards become a sort of Rorschach test for the townspeople, and especially for the police. Chief Willoughby understands the grief fueling Mildred, though his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) is less generous, knowing what her husband’s gone through in the past few months. Worse, though, is the reaction of Deputy Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who’s had complaints against him for excessive force. For Dixon, the billboards are a personal slap in the face.

For Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the billboards reopen the wound of the loss of his sister. Some in town, like Mildred’s coworker Denise (Amanda Warren) and car dealer James (Peter Dinklage), are sympathetic to Mildred. Others, though take offense, so the town becomes a minefield for Mildred. However, she’s equally explosive, if not more so.

The movie is a meditation on grief and guilt, though the cockeyed characters mine humor within a horrible situation. McDormand’s performance as Mildred is as harsh as her haircut, which looks like it was done with a weed whacker. She wears coveralls throughout the movie like a suit of armor. Her patience is at an end, and anyone who shows a smidgen of self-righteousness, be it a priest or a dentist or a teenager at school, will pay a price.

She’s matched by a golden performance by Harrelson who provides an emotional heart for the movie. He has come a thousand miles from his early sitcom work on “Cheers” to become one of the finest and most reliable supporting actors currently in films. As impressive, though in a much different tone, is Rockwell’s standout performance. He dives into his deeply flawed and in many ways distasteful character without holding anything back.

On the downside, McDonagh leaves some characters underwritten – Dinklage is pretty much wasted in his role – while others, including John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, drift into stereotypes. But the center of the story is strong enough to survive these weaknesses and still be memorable.

This is a story of characters stumbling their way towards a form of redemption. There aren’t easy answers or conventional resolutions. In the end life is messy and harsh, but at the same time it’s as precious as it is fleeting. That’s the human drama, and McDonagh manages to portray it in a humane way.

It Doesn’t Go The Way You Think – Thank God!

The purpose of the second act in the three-act format is to drive the action to its highest point of conflict and action, leading to the resolution in the third act. The greater the conflict, the greater the potential for resolution. We’ve already seen this in Star Wars, as the second movie in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, was almost universally viewed as the best film in the series. On the other hand, the second feature in the second trilogy, Attack of the Clones, was better than the first (only one sequence with Jar Jar Binks) but it didn’t reach the highest level of action. That happened in Revenge of the Sith, and it almost made the first two movies superfluous. The Machete version for viewing the first two trilogies has you watch them in the order of 4,5,2,3,and 6, with The Phantom Menace happily forgotten. These days you could do an augmented Machete, putting Rogue One at the beginning.

The Force Awakens was pretty much exactly what Star Wars fans hoped for, and in ways it mirrored the construction of Hope. JJ Abrams knew what he needed to do to restart the triple-trilogy originally imagined by George Lucas.  But to match the greatness of the first trilogy, the second movie had to change the playing field. It couldn’t simply be a retread of Empire.

Thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson took a lightsaber to all expectations. He’s taken chances with unusual movies before, such as his first feature, Brick, which set a film-noir detective story in a modern high school, and with 2012’s twisted time travel flick Looper, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt must battle a decades-older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis) to save the world. Standard story telling is not what you get with Johnson.

One interesting aspect of Johnson’s script is it puts the main action within a 24 hour cycle, similar to classic tragedies. Of course, when you can jump to light speed, it means the story isn’t bound to one location. The rebels under General Organa (Carrie Fisher) are evacuating their base from The Force Awakens when the First Order Fleet under General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) appears in the sky. The last transport, carrying Lieutenant Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter, who has a larger role this time), manages to escape before the base is destroyed. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mounts an attack on a Dreadnaught-class Star Destroyer – basically a smaller version of the Death Star – though it starts with one of the funniest sequences ever in the franchise. The attack succeeds but at a huge cost. The rebel fleet thinks they’ve escaped by jumping to hyperspace, but the First Order follows them.

Separately, the story of Rey picks up exactly where The Force Awakens ends, with her handing the lightsaber to Luke. It does not go as expected, and where she thinks Luke will come and restore hope to the rebellion, he quickly dissuades her. Eventually we learn the source of Luke’s disillusionment, and why he’s decided it’s time for the Order of the Jedi to end.

I won’t go any further into the plot here, except to say it’s inventive and keeps on twisting from what you expect in order to run off in different directions. I plan to do a spoiler-included Part II to this review to discuss elements of the plot, since there is a lot to discuss. The Last Jedi is the most political and the most spiritual entry in the series. Part of the reason the audience score for The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes is 40 points lower than the critic score (51% to 91%) is because of alt-right trolls who object to the messages and have been purposefully flaming the movie.

Several new characters deserve special mention. Of course, the expected one was Andy Serkis in the motion-capture role as Leader Snoke. His appearance sets up one of the best lightsaber fights ever in the series. Laura Dern plays purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo of the Rebel forces. She projects an air of possible duplicity that energizes her scenes. There’s also Benicio del Toro as a hacker who may hold the key to the survival of the rebels. But of the new faces, the best is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a minor member of the resistance who ends up playing a major role for Finn (John Boyega).

With its inventive plot, fast pace, and powerful ending, The Last Jedi has to be seen at least on a par with The Empire Strikes Back. For me, I put it ahead of Empire. I just hope the 9th entry in the series will live up to the lead-in it’s been given.

A Lively Train Trip

The first mystery I remember watching when I was in my early teens was an Agatha Christie adaptation – 1965’s Ten Little Indians, with Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton. The plot, always one of Christie’s strengths, fascinated me. Later I saw the much better 1945 adaptation with Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Houston, and I read the original novel. (Thankfully no movie ever used its original English title.) Then in 1974 another classic Christie tale, Murder on the Orient Express, was released. Directed by Sidney Lumet and with a cast that truly fit the claim of “all-star,” it spawned a series of Christie adaptations, though none of them matched the beauty of the first. After the memorable original, I was a little hesitant about seeing the new version of Murder on the Orient Express.

True, it had Kenneth Branagh both as star and director. He’s done excellent work recently behind the camera with Thor and Cinderella (we’ll forget about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, since almost everyone else has), and early in his career he was responsible for a personal favorite of mine in the mystery genre, Dead Again. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent actors both new (Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad) and well-established (Derek Jacobi, Judy Dench, Willem Dafoe). Given that cast, I knew I would see the film, regardless of the trepidation I felt about it.

Thankfully the worry quickly dissipated as the movie began. Where the 1974 version started with an introduction to the motivating crime, here we have a wonderful introduction to Branagh’s Poirot. It’s not easy to take on that character after David Suchet’s sterling version on PBS, and wisely Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green go in a different direction, emphasizing the obsessive-compulsive aspect of the character. Green has had a stellar year, having written both Logan and Blade Runner 2049, along with producing and doing most of the adaptation of “American Gods” on Starz.

The one aspect of the 1974 movie that I didn’t like was its sedate, cerebral pace. While that works fine in a novel, movies are a visual medium. Directors call out “Action!” not “Time to talk!” The pacing of the new version is strong from the opening sequence. Branagh’s more of a visual stylist than Lumet was, capturing scenes from striking angles that increase the tension. True, he does change the terrain where the story’s set from flat fields to mountain passes, but it works to increase the feeling of being cut off by the elements.

There isn’t a weak performance, though there are standouts. Daisy Ridley gives a thoughtful turn as governess Mary Debenham, the first trainmate that Poirot meets. Dafoe has a fairly showy role as Austrian professor Hardman. But it was particularly good to see a much more controlled and effective Johnny Depp. And after lesser roles for most of this century, Michelle Pfeiffer glows with fire as American socialite Mrs. Hubbard. Pfeiffer also sings the song over the end credits, in a voice as clear and evocative as when she did The Fabulous Baker Boys 28 years ago. (Branagh wrote the lyrics.)

If you’ve never seen the 1974 version, do see this one, if for no other reason than to be introduced to Agatha Christie in her prime. If you have seen the earlier one, it’s still worth watching Branagh’s version to witness how two very different directors can each take a story and put their own stamp on the project, each good in their own way.

Needs More Stirring

For years, the two main comic book publishers were like feuding brothers – you could tell they were related but with two distinct personalities. DC was the older, more mature, and rather staid brother, while Marvel was the younger, wilder, and more inventive one. DC was the first to find success on the large screen, with Superman in the 1970s and Batman in the late ‘80s. It wasn’t until the late 1990s/early 2000s that Marvel characters moved into the theaters with Blade, Men in Black, X-Men and Spider-Man. DC did have the most critically successful series with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but then Marvel launched the first part of its massive Universe slate of films beginning with Iron Man in 2008. Disney’s acquirement of Marvel in 2009 helped push the superhero film market into a billion-dollar industry.

While DC has a production agreement with Warner Brothers, it recently hasn’t come close to the success of the Marvel movies, with the exception of Wonder Woman. Neither has it matched the output of Marvel, with four movies for DC to a score for Marvel. (It’s held its own on the small screen, with “Gotham” on Fox and “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Super-Girl,” and “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” on the CW – you could almost call it DCW.) Marvel has brought interesting and idiosyncratic directors to projects – Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, John Favreau, James Gunn, Anthony & Joe Russo, and Taika Waititi, among others. With the exception of Patty Jenkins who crushed it with Wonder Woman, DC has gone with Zach Snyder.

Justice League could be seen as DC playing catch-up with the Marvel’s Avengers movies, the first two of which grossed over a billion dollars each. But rather than building the platform for its success with individual movies about the characters then bringing them together, DC has switched the order – group film first, with individual movies to follow. It doesn’t work as well. You’re not as invested in the characters, and they haven’t been as sharply drawn.

The Avengers were blessed to have cool bad guys since, just like James Bond, superhero films are only as good as their villains. For Justice League, the big bad is little more than that – big and bad. Steppenwolf is a personality-deficient character that’s only a little better than the evil cloud in The Green Lantern a few years ago – and that’s not saying much. He’s served by a horde of man-sized insects that are more annoying than frightening. It makes you want to grab a can of Raid.

The 120 minute running time doesn’t allow the new characters of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to go beyond the broadest brushstrokes. Ezra Miller suffers in comparison to Grant Gustin’s TV version, now in its 3rd season. He’s relegated to the role of the immature kid thrust into battle. It can be a powerful subplot when done well – think of Jeremy Davies’ Cpl. Upham in Saving Private Ryan, or, in the superhero world, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron – but Miller doesn’t get the chance to fully claim Flash’s superhero status. Hopefully that will be rectified in his solo movie Flashpoint, but that’s three years in the future.

Ben Affleck’s performance as Batman isn’t horrible – think of Val Kilmer’s turn as the character after Michael Keaton moved on rather than George Clooney’s ill-fated outing – and it plays off of Bruce Wayne feeling his age. It comes across better than in Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice. The resurrection of Superman is about the worst kept plot secret in history, especially with Amy Adams and Diane Lane participating in the film.

Snyder had to drop out of the film after principle photography was complete after the death of his daughter. Instead, Joss Whedon took over to finish the film, including extensive reshots amounting to about 20% of the film that pushed the budget into the $300 million range. Some scenes definitely have Whedon’s wry wit on display, where Snyder style is more straightforward, but it’s not enough to lift the film to a good level of excitement.

Yet within the film is a scene that shows what it could have been. Nihilistic bank robbers take hostages and plan to blow up the building, but Wonder Woman streaks in to the rescue. It’s tight and thrilling. As with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the best parts of Justice League revolve around Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. While I’m so-so on the upcoming origin films, I am looking forward to Gadot’s next turn as Wonder Woman. And therein lies the problem with Justice League.

My lovely wife has (rightly) pointed out that when I make tuna salad, I sometimes don’t stir it enough to fully blend the tuna, Miracle Whip, and relish. With Justice League, the characters haven’t been blended, and because of it, the movie isn’t stirring. And this movie definitely needs more stirring.

Thin Alphabet Soup

The trip to the silver screen can be a challenge, with many pitfalls. After a film is written, there’s no guarantee it will be produced. The website Blacklist publishes a yearly listing of the best-liked scripts that didn’t have production deals. In 2014, that list had several screenplays that were successfully produced within the next three years. These included:

  1. Manchester-by-the-Sea, for which Casey Affleck won last year’s Best Actor Oscar
  2. 2016’s Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney
  3. Gifted (2017) with Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer
  4. Michael Keaton’s biopic of Ray Kroc, The Founder
  5. A screenplay titled “In The Deep” which became the thriller The Shallows starring Blake Lively
  6. “Mena” which became the better-titled American Made with Tom Cruise.

It also had two 2017 duds: My Friend Dahmer (who doesn’t want to watch a serial killer’s struggle in high school? Apparently almost everyone), and The Wall, the Doug Lyman-directed sniper drama that made less than 2 million at the box office.

Somewhere in between the good and the bad is LBJ, a biopic of Lyndon Baines Johnson. The screenplay was picked up by Rob Reiner, who made one of my favorite political movies, The American President, though that screenplay was by the thoughtful and erudite Aaron Sorkin. Reiner handles the period piece details of the story beautifully, with assistance from Cinematographer Barry Markowitz (Sling Blade, The Apostle) and Production Designer Christopher R DeMuri.

Reiner and casting director Jane Jenkins assembled a first-rate cast, starting with Woody Harrelson in the title role. Harrelson went through two hours of makeup daily to look like LBJ, and he has a definite power in the role. Jennifer Jason Leigh does well as Lady Bird, as do Jeffery Donovan as JFK, his second time portraying a Kennedy. Donovan had been Robert Kennedy in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, making him the second actor to have portrayed both brothers (the first was Martin Sheen). Other actors include Bill Pullman, Richard Jenkins, and C. Thomas Howell. An outstanding performance is given by Michael Stahl-David as Robert Kennedy who’s in a Civil War battle with pro-segregationist LBJ.

Strangely enough, given its place on the 2014 Blacklist, the weakness of the movie is its script. Johnson was a massive personality and a polarizing character. Biographer Robert Cato has worked on the life of LBJ for over 40 years, and his original plan for a four-volume has expanded to five volumes, with the last one only about half-done at this point. Johnson was in the middle of the most tumultuous times of 20th Century America, and he was a master politician. But LBJ concentrates on only about 10 years of his life.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The outstanding Patton took place over the last four years of the general’s life, though of course that was in the middle of WWII. George C. Scott’s performance, though, gave you the feel for the man far beyond those years. On the other hand, you have MacArthur in 1977, starring Gregory Peck, which covered his service in WWII through the general’s dismissal during the Korean War. That movie comes across more as a pageant, showing him in action but not truly illuminating his character.

Once again with LBJ, it falls in the middle, not revealing the character like Patton, but doing it better than MacArthur. The script ping pongs through time at first, telling the story of Johnson’s legislative battles relative to JFK and his selection as Kennedy’s running mate while contrasting it with the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Following Kennedy’s assassination, the movie focuses on Johnson trying to cement both Kennedy’s and his own legacy by passing Civil Rights legislation.

Filming of the movie was done two years ago, and it was screened at 2016 Toronto Film Festival. However, 2016 also saw Bryan Cranston in the role of LBJ for the better received HBO film All The Way, which covered much the same territory. Cranston was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance. So LBJ sat on the shelf for the over a year before it was released, likely to give it separation from All The Way.

LBJ, though, zooms through the story since the film runs only a bit over 90 minutes. Overall, it gives the feel that the story’s a Reader’s Digest condensation. LBJ had a thick stew life, but the movie LBJ is more like thin soup that doesn’t satisfy.

Stormy Weather

Dean Devlin made his name trying to destroy the world. In partnership with Roland Emmerich, they made the huge hit Independence Day (after doing Universal Soldier and Stargate earlier in the 1990s). Their next collaborations – the painfully bad 1998 version of Godzilla and the ham-fisted Revolutionary War melodrama The Patriot – led each to go their own way. Devlin focused on TV, producing shows for TNT such as “Leverage” and “The Librarian” (both the 3 TV movies and the pluralized series), while Emmerich continued to destroy the world with mixed results, writing and directing both the decent cataclysmic weather movie The Day After Tomorrow and the deplorable 2012. They got back together again last year for the major misfire, Independence Day: Resurgence. Another sequel  was announced but after Resurgence crashed and burned at the box office that’s highly unlikely. Now Devlin has written and produced his own weather movie, Geostorm. While it’s not quite as bad I feared, it’s nowhere near as good as I hoped.

An opening title card informs you that, after a series of huge natural catastrophes in 2018, the world decided to come together and spend a ridiculous amount of money to construct a planetary satellite system run from a massive space station with an international crew and serviced by a huge new fleet of space shuttles, all focused on the control of the weather. Well, maybe not those exact words, but it’s implied. Right from the start you know this is a fantasy.

The system was designed by Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), a genius with the intelligence of Steve Jobs mixed with Thomas Edison, packed into a body with the physical prowess of…well, of Gerard Butler. One thing he has no ability to do is deal with Congress, and he winds up kicked off of the project and replaced by his brother, Max (Jim Sturgess). Three years later, a man on the space station sabotages one of the satellites, only to be eliminated by being stuck in a small compartment while its environmental seals are blown open. The sabotaged satellite turns the population of an Afghan village into mom-and-popsicles.

Max is now romantically involved with Sarah (Abbie Cornish), a Secret Service agent assigned to the Presidential Protection detail. The Afghan event is viewed as a malfunction, and the President (Andy Garcia) along with the Secretary of State (Ed Harris) want Max to find the best person to correct the problem – as if that’s going to be anyone except Jake. Max tracks down his brother to a trailer parked near the Florida spaceport where Jake spends his time retrofitting classic cars with electric engines. Max also arrives during Jake’s visitation time with his daughter, Hannah (Talitha Bateman), who’s a precocious but beautiful science nerd like her dad. Hannah could have been a treacly mess of a stereotype, but Bateman manages to pull it off without making you check your insulin level. Max prevails on Jake to return to space to fix the system, not knowing they’ll both be caught up in a conspiracy.

Geostorm is a mix of 1960s Sci-fi and political conspiracy films along with 1970s disaster flicks, done with 21st Century digital effects. Think Fantastic Voyage mixed with 7 Days in May with Earthquake stirred in for good measure. But it doesn’t do any of those genres well. The digital effects feel like they were recycled from footage that was rejected by The Day After Tomorrow, especially the super-freeze sequences. The science fiction doesn’t have any sense of wonder, and the disasters are so farfetched they’re not compelling. It comes closest to being a decent paranoid thriller, but Geostorm messes that up by ruining any element of surprise at who’s behind the conspiracy.

If you happen to be a pre-teen boy, you may think Geostorm is great, but it would be one of those pictures you’d watch on late-night TV 20 years later and wonder what you were thinking that you ever considered this mess to be good. Save yourself the embarrassment.