Archive for December, 2017

Darkest Hour

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on December 11, 2017 by Mark Hobin

darkest_hour_ver3STARS3I always watch historical dramas with a skeptical eye. Especially in dramatizing events in which few individuals were present. I like to ask, “Did this really happen?” “What is the filmmaker’s point of view?” “Where am I being led?” In that vein, there’s a moment in Darkest Hour when I realized I was watching a work of pure fiction. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) purposefully takes the London subway, known as the Underground, in order to commune with the people. The good multitude are positively beaming with humanity.  On his trip to Westminster, he has a magnificently fanciful discussion in which he summons an informal poll of the commuters and concludes what he must do.  With forceful determination, they tell him to “Fight On!” in no uncertain terms. “Never surrender!” they all say. Churchill begins to recite the poem, “Horatius” by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  A spirited black passenger completes the quotation flawlessly. Winston extends a hand to the young man, with tears streaming down his cheeks. He gathers all of their counsel and acts accordingly. It’s a completely fabricated piece of hokum, but darn it all, this bit of hogwash sure feels cinematic.  This is the very definition of artistic license. I fully expect to see the clip on Oscar night.

In Darkest Hour, Director Joe Wright (Atonement) has wisely limited his focus to a single month in the early days of WWII. This includes the decisions leading up to the evacuation of soldiers stranded at the coastal town of Dunkirk. This would make a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s movie that came out earlier in the year. That story didn’t feature Churchill or even the Nazis for that matter.  In contrast, this production is completely fashioned around the Prime Minister. A title card informs us that Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway.  It’s now May 1940 and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is being ousted as Prime Minister, leaving Winston Churchill to step up, He must now defend Britain against the onslaught of Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Europe. Churchill is presented as a rabble-rousing firebrand that united the Nation. His speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance where they apparently stood alone in active opposition to a madman.

His refusal to negotiate for peace is not without struggle, however. There’s the aforementioned Neville Chamberlain and also Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, (Stephane Dillane), neither of which are given sympathetic portrayals. Chamberlain seems incapacitated. Halifax is contentious. Even King George VI distrusts him initially. The King may be quiet but he’s composed. Side note: Is this the same man whose exaggerated stutter was emphasized in The King’s Speech? A far more measured portrait of the man is given here. Anyway, decision weighs upon Churchill’s mind, “Should Britain enter the war and risk the lives of thousands or submit to the peace terms dictated by Adolf Hitler, a psychopath drunk with power?” This is the film’s driving focus.  “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” Churchill hollers defiantly. He screams a lot here in declarations that wouldn’t be out of place in an NFL locker room.

Darkest Hour lionizes Churchill as the great orator that stood up to a lunatic in a dark period of England’s history. That is the predictable angle. Churchill is one of the most revered figures of the 20th century. This is a prestigious British biopic perfectly constructed as a vehicle for Gary Oldman to win an Oscar. He is more than up to the task. Oldman is compellingly watchable, buried under pounds of prosthetics so the lean actor can embody the corpulent frame of the actual man. It’s a fascinating presentation of World War II in which everything takes place in the Parliamentary halls of discussion.  Winston incessantly drinks booze, smokes cigars and occasionally sets aside time to confer with his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth (Lily James).

Winston Churchill’s powerful fortitude is highlighted to glorious effect. Darkest Hour is a glowing display of a man that assumes the role of a saint even when he lies to the British populace about how well the war effort is going. He misrepresents the facts in a radio address to bolster the morale of the British people.  FDR doesn’t come off as well. He is fleetingly referenced in a disheartening phone call where Winston asks for help and FDR can barely offer any assistance at all. The production is a glowing characterization that incorporates things that Winston did and didn’t say. It’s pretty easy for a 2017 audience to now concede that the courage to resist the Nazis was the right thing to do. It also helps that the Allies won the war, but back in 1940, it wasn’t so clear Hitler would lose. This is, as expected, a one-sided exhibition of historical fiction – a flattering representation of the leader of the Conservative Party whose strength of resolve led a country to victory.  The antagonism Churchill faced is depicted as sorely misguided folks at who we can only shake our heads. Hindsight is 20/20.

12-08-17

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama with tags on December 6, 2017 by Mark Hobin

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouri_ver3STARS3In the opening minutes, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is driving by three dilapidated unused billboards on a seemingly deserted rural road. A beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish melody “The Last Rose of Summer” sung by opera singer Renée Fleming swells in the background. Mildred is seen contemplating the signs themselves. We soon learn that she’s a divorced mother grieving the recent loss of her teenaged daughter that was raped and murdered 7 months prior. She’s understandably angry and wants justice. Sounds good. I’m on her side. Let’s find the culprit. She rents the ad space for all three billboards and emblazes each with the words “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?” separated on each one.

Chief Willoughby is the Sheriff of Ebbing Missouri played by Woody Harrelson. He’s a beloved figure in the town who, as the director begins to stack the deck, happens to be suffering from a fatal illness. The townspeople, by and large, aren’t on her side. This is a bit perplexing at first. I mean her daughter was murdered for goodness’ sake.  Apparently, they’re concerned that the huge outdoor signs are insensitive given the sheriff’s condition. Although she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are harassed, Mildred stands firm becoming even more cantankerous and destructive. She ends up doing a lot of really heinous things that make the townsfolk (and us the audience) hate her. She assaults a dentist, kicks school-aged children in the groin, and commits a little felony called arson. We even see Mildred scream at her now deceased daughter “I hope you get raped” in a flashback sequence.  Granted it’s clearly an exchange she regrets. Nevertheless, would your mother ever utter such a thing?

I assume Mildred is the hero. Sheriff Willoughby is sympathetic to her plight too but he is shown to be ineffective at best and compassionate to racists at worst. Less sensitive is one of his men Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). We’re told he actually tortured a man in custody because of the color of his skin. Yes tortured. We never actually see the abuse in question though. In some ways, this is an even more pernicious filmmaking decision because it indirectly absolves shameful behavior because we do not actually see it.  We’re assured it happened though. “Allegedly” Officer Willoughby jokes. Is that funny? Officer Dixon is a seething irredeemable pile of racism. Or is he? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that creates likable individuals that we end up hating while simultaneously creating loathsome people that we’re asked to snuggle up to.  It’s a moral quandary to be sure. I’m not comfortable with embracing a violent bigot. Are you?

Who am I expected to root for? That is the question in this story. Frances McDormand plays a mother whose daughter has been raped and murdered. We obviously feel sympathy for her but at one point she inadvertently almost kills an innocent man. Well “innocent” of the crime in question but guilty of being a despicable human being. Are we supposed to cheer or jeer? I still don’t know. What I do realize is that no one in this picture is appealing and giving reprehensible people a redemption arc is patently offensive. I’m conspicuously in the minority. Three Billboards has gotten universal acclaim. I mean it’s well acted by the entire cast. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson imbue their characters with as much humanity as the script will allow. Although why a southern redneck sheriff is now married to a stunningly gorgeous woman with an Australian accent (Abbie Cornish) is a conundrum that goes unanswered.

Despite the moral dilemmas, Three Billboards is strangely entertaining. I was intellectually fascinated by the utter unpredictably of it all. The capricious turn of events in the plot’s final third is completely incomprehensible. This may be playwright Martin McDonagh’s best cinematic effort to date, but it’s still a lesser version of what the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino do so well.  Martin McDonagh’s point of view is too muddled for me to truly embrace. Is this hilarious comedy or is it a weighty drama? Conspicuously dire circumstances are presented as lighthearted farce. To wit: Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) is a wife-beater dating a girl that is of barely legal age (Samara Weaving). Poor Penelope delivers lines that show the audience she’s clearly an airhead. Does that mean her life is any less important? She’s introduced as an object of ridicule but I wanted to save the poor girl from being another battered statistic. Get out of that relationship quick. You’re in danger! I guess those kinds of ethical qualms are a hindrance to enjoying this narrative’s “comedy.”  Sorry. I wasn’t laughing.

11-28-17

Lady Bird

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on December 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

lady_bird_ver2STARS4.5I admire Saoirse Ronan. She impressed me in Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But then she did Brooklyn and I fully realized what a talent she truly was. It earned her a second Oscar nomination. Brie Larson won for Room that year. I loved that film and she was deserving of the award. Nevertheless, with all due respect to Brie, I was rooting for Saoirse. I say this right from the start so you may know that I am biased. I admit that. I was already predisposed to love this picture even before it came out. Then the critics’ voices were heard. Lady Bird actually set a record for the best-reviewed movie on Rotten Tomatoes — that is, the film with the most consecutive “fresh” notices at 185 so far. Now that I’ve seen it, you can throw my critical praise on top of the heap.

Given the title, I had originally thought Lady Bird was a biopic about the First Lady of the United States from 1963–1969. It has nothing to do with Lady Bird Johnson but it IS a period piece of sorts. It takes place in 2002. This is an episodic saga about one Christine McPherson, a senior student at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. “Lady Bird” is her given name, she maintains, in the sense that “it’s given to me, by me.” As you may have surmised, Christine is a bit quirky. She and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join their theater arts program. There she meets Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) and they start dating. Their romance is detailed, as well as her subsequent relationship with another boy (Timothée Chalamet) she meets while working at a coffee shop. This inspires her to form a new friendship with popular girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush) at the expense of the closeness with her best friend Julie. Through all this,  Lady Bird has a strained connection with her mom (Laurie Metcalf ) and slightly stronger solidarity with her dad (Tracy Letts).  Lady Bird dreams of going to an East Coast college, preferably in New York. Her mom feels UC Davis is much more affordable.  Both parents have fully realized personalities, but there’s a depth to Laurie Metcalf’s performance that perfectly incorporates both the love and despair that only the mom of a teenager could express.

Saoirse Ronan is an absolute delight in the title role. It is a flawless performance that utterly embodies the lovable angst of a teenager. She is all earnest excitement. Eager to assert her point of view but unsure of the most effective way in which to do it. This ostensibly autobiographical drama is the directional debut from actress Greta Gerwig. I say “ostensibly” because while all the events may not be entirely factual, Greta did grow up in Sacramento in the early 2000s.  She gets the emotion.  It’s not hard to picture the actress in the lead, at least when she was a younger girl.  Gerwig has written before. Most notably she co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America with longtime boyfriend Noah Baumbach (since 2011).  He helmed both. Now Gerwig is writing and directing on her own here and the lack of a collaborator really suits her.  Lady Bird is a most self-assured debut. Warm, witty, full of insight and humor.

Lady Bird is a cinematic devotion to her mother and a valentine to Sacramento. I came away with a greater appreciation for both of these things. No, it’s not all roses and caviar. It gently pokes fun at various targets with an amiable ribbing. This is a comedy after all and it’s really funny. There are a lot of detailed observations about what it’s like to attend Catholic high school. I should know. I am the proud product of a Catholic education myself. Gerwig gets the atmosphere just right. It’s hard to predict these things, but I suspect many of the witty one-liners will transcend the ages far beyond 2017. It’s clear that Greta means to embrace her adolescence and warmly detail the trials and tribulations within. You’ve seen the chronicle of a youth entering adulthood before. However, Lady Bird elevates the medium. Gerwig has taken the well-worn narrative of the coming of age tale and made it all her own. No one could have managed a tale quite like this. It is unique, fresh, vibrant and fully alive. I fully expect that when the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday, January 23, Lady Bird is going to get a slew of them. Here’s hoping Saoirse Ronan doesn’t go home empty-handed this time.

11-30-17