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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Driven to Succeed

2015 should have been a great year for Edgar Wright. He’d first made his name in British TV, including “Spaced,” a series starring Simon Pegg that was a wildly inventive comedy. Switching to film, he created the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy with Pegg and Nick Frost: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End. Then he got the chance to write and direct Marvel’s Ant-Man, a dream project for Wright that he’d pushed to do for a decade. It would have been a major breakthrough into Hollywood, but “creative differences” led to Marvel replacing him at the start of filming. (He did get story and screenplay credits, but he’s said he’ll never watch the film.) Some people could be broken by the experience. Instead Wright has come back with his best picture ever, and my favorite film of the summer that doesn’t star Gal Gadot. Baby Driver takes the classic crime drama and gives it a nitro-injection that puts it into a new class.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver par excelance. Atlanta crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) puts together different crews for different capers, but he always uses Baby to drive, almost as a good luck charm. The opening sequence underlines his prowess with a hi-octane race through the streets of Atlanta after a bank robbery executed by Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Griff (Jon Bernthal).

A car accident when he was a child killed his beloved mother and abusive father, and left him with tinnitus that he plays music to cover. Baby lives with his adoptive father, Joseph (C.J. Jones), a wheel-chair bound deaf-mute who doesn’t approve of Baby’s work with Doc. Then Baby meets Debora (Lily James), a waitress in a coffee shop, and falls hard for her. He has one more job to do to settle a debt with Doc, and then he dreams of getting away with Debora. But getting out isn’t that easy.

As usual, Wright both directed and wrote the original script, and it retains his trademark comedy flair. A robber is told to get Michael Myers/Halloween masks and instead gets Mike Myers Halloween masks. Later, Baby takes Doc’s 8-year-old nephew along while casing a robbery target, and the kid proves better at the job than Baby. He also has a tracking shot during the opening credits that would have made Orson Welles envious (something he’d also done at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead). But in Baby Driver they’re pace points to give the audience a chance to breathe. When Baby’s behind the wheel, that chance is gone. Wright went old school with the action sequences, eschewing green screen and actually choreographing the chases with stunt drivers. You can practically smell the burnt rubber.

While shot mostly in the brilliant sunlight of Atlanta, Baby Driver has the DNA of film noir. Wright creates serious tension with Spacey’s and Hamm’s characters, as well as a lethal Jamie Foxx who comes in midway through the film. It gives a sharper contrast to Baby, who is bothered if anyone is harmed in the course of the capers.

Elgort made a name for himself with YA movies (The Divergent series, The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns) but here he graduates to an adult, action role and handles it beautifully. Lily James was luminous in Cinderella. In this film she oozes southern charm, even though the south that she’s from is Southern England. Hamm, Spacey, and Foxx have a field day with their roles, especially Hamm, though a wonderful discovery is Eiza Gonzalez. Her Darling is a bonny Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde, and she matches the others in lethal intensity.

Wright has crafted an awesome soundtrack for the movie, blending T. Rex, Queen, and Beck with Martha and the Vandellas, Golden Earing, and Barry White. It underpins the movie, and at times even adds commentary to the action. The credits feature Simon and Garfunkel with their eponymously titled “Baby Driver” off of the “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” album.

A phrase often tossed about in the face of adversity is “Don’t get mad, get even.” After the experience on Ant-Man, Wright didn’t just get even, he excelled. If you like action, but wish it could be handled in an inventive, fresh way, with deep and interesting characters, this is the movie for you.

Happily Ever After

Last year Disney had two box office hits – Maleficent and Into the Woods – that took the fairy tales that have been the studio’s specialty for decades and turned the stories on their ear. Now they’ve gone in the opposite direction and released a faithful live-action version of the studio’s animated classic, Cinderella.

The story qualifies as a “tale as old as time,” as the song in Beauty and the Beast puts it. The European folk story existed long before it was committed to paper, and the classic version, Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon,” was written in 1697. The Grimm boys created their own version in the 1800s, but the classic feature of the story, the glass slipper, is only in Perrault’s take on the tale. On the surface, it seems an anachronistic story for today, with the paternalistic element of Cinderella being saved from servitude by the prince. One of the best film versions, Drew Barrymore’s Ever After, threw that out and had Barrymore’s Danielle save herself before the prince arrives. But when you go back to Perrault’s tale, the two-part moral at the end makes it appropriate for almost any age. The first moral is that beauty is a treasure, but graciousness is priceless – something to remember in this Internet age! Perrault’s second moral, though, gives the story a darker edge. “Without doubt it is a great advantage to have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, and similar talents come only from heaven, and it is good to have them. However, even these may fail to bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.”

Screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Antz) has followed the 1950 animated version closely, but has also expanded the story in strategic places, especially with the influence of the mother (Hayley Atwell, looking completely different from her Agent Carter role in the Marvel universe) and father (Ben Chaplin). It underlines the difference of the world once the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) takes over, as well as gives Ella (Lily James) strong motivation to remain kind and courageous in the face of it.

It would be easy to overdo the evil stepmother, especially in light of the shallowness of her daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holiday Grainger). The two girls are like the animated characters come alive, but Blanchett rises to a higher level. Her embodiment is as smooth as a snake and completely devoid of cartoonish attributes. She too easily could be someone you’ve met, if you were ever so unfortunate.

Just as fine a job is done by Lily James, who is best known as Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” It’s not easy to play a pure and courageous character without coming across as saccharin, but she manages it. She’s ably assisted by Richard Madden as the Prince. Another addition by Weitz has the Prince and Cinderella meeting before the ball. In fact, the meeting is the motivation for the Prince to open the ball to all the women of the kingdom, in the hopes of meeting Cinderella again. Madden’s prince is charming, but with so much more depth that the love story makes sense. (One does have to wonder, though, why Madden would take a role that includes a wedding scene after his experience as Robb Stark on “Game of Thrones.”).

The supporting cast is first-rate, with Derek Jacobi as the King, Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother.

But it is director Kenneth Branagh who deserves a great deal of praise for whipping up this confection and making it both tasty and pleasing to the eye. He brings to the film the feel of a Shakespearean play, like “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending. The camerawork is gorgeous, while the pacing of the story is just right. There’s also a bit of the operatic element that made Thor such a success.

Also deserving of praise is the costume design by 3-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who has worked on Martin Scorsese’s films since Gangs of New York and also did Young Victoria and Shakespeare in Love. She uses a brighter color palate that fits beautifully with the fairy tale essence of the story and also provides a counterpoint to Cinderella’s blue ball gown. The CGI team works magic throughout the film, particularly with taking the mice of the animated feature and turning them into a realistic version. Even though they don’t burst out singing “Cinderelly, Cinderelly,” they’re charming and they do save the day. The team gets to go wild with the Fairy Godmother’s preparations for the ball, as well as the stroke of twelve midnight, and both sequences are pure delights.

By going closer to the Perrault story from almost 320 years ago, Branagh and crew have created a fresh and refreshing version. That is a true accomplishment.