The Post (Spielberg; 2017)

The story I’ve heard is that Stephen Spielberg had always wanted to make a film based on The Pentagon Papers.  As one of the most important events in 20th Century American History, it’s been a story Speilberg felt deserved a big screen treatment.  On election night 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, though, due to Trump’s constant attack on the American press and by extension the First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights it went from a story he wanted to make to a story that needed to be told so the American public could be alerted to the purpose of the American press and the dangers of an Executive Branch which portrays it as an enemy.

The film he came up with in that year is The Post.  It’s a straightforward telling of the story behind The Pentagon Papers and particularly The Washington Post’s role in their publishing.  The Washington Post was a third-rate newspaper in the early 1970s, and the paper’s owner had committed suicide not long before the film’s events leaving his wife, and the daughter of the paper’s founder, in charge.  That woman was Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and while The Washington Post had nowhere near the prestige of a New York Times or a Boston Globe at the time, it was still unusual for a woman to hold a position that lofty for any length of time.   Spielberg starts the story with someone working at the Department of Defense making the decision to get top secret documents showing that the US government has been lying to the public for decades about the Vietnam War to the New York Times for publication.  When the New York Times publishes just the first few pages of the Pentagon Papers, the White House orders them to cease publishing anything more on the leaked documents or face legal consequences.   Soon afterward, editor in chief of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) finds himself in possession of more of The Pentagon Papers and he and Kay have to make the choice whether to publish and risk going to prison for doing so.

mv5bmjmznzcznjy4m15bml5banbnxkftztgwnzy5nza1ndm-_v1_sy1000_cr0014301000_al_

The Post is far from the most impressive film of the year, the most impressive element of its creation is the fact that it took just barely more than a year to create from germination of the idea to its being projected on screens, but it is a film very obviously made by seasoned professionals.  The cast are all excellent, but the most stand out performance is definitely Meryl Streeps’.  She gives us a Kay Graham who is very much a woman right out of her time and place.  She acts as a woman who loves running a newspaper, who realizes the power she has, but also realizes that she cannot alienate the powerful men in her life.  She’s not afraid to make difficult decisions, but it almost seems as if she’s seeking the permission and blessing of those around her whenever she does, and I like that authenticity to the time period in her portrayal.  As to the rest, Bruce Greenwood gives an excellent Robert McNamara impersonation, Bob Odenkirk continues to show that he’s more than just a good comedian, and if anyone is slightly miscast here it would have to be Tom Hanks, who is just too much of his normal nice guy persona to really sell the fact that he’s the template of the modern hard-nosed editor stereotype who is Ben Bradlee.

Aside from the acting, the rest of the production is what we’ve come to rely on from Stephen Spielberg, but will certainly never be considered one of the most impressive in his catalog.  The art direction and cinematography are both by the book but still appealing.  The script is straightforward, but still with snappy dialogue, excellent focus, and great pacing.  The most prominent element of the screenplay, though, is its razor-sharp focus.  There are no subplots in The Post to speak of, other than relationships which have a direct connection to how The Pentagon Papers’ story plays out, and even the dialogue is almost entirely focused on the unfolding story save for a handful of jokes here and there to keep things from getting too intense.

mv5bnta1ndmwodkxov5bml5banbnxkftztgwoty5nza1ndm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

So, The Post is a well-made film, but wouldn’t be truly notable outside Streep’s performance if it weren’t for the film’s purpose.  Spielberg had seen the parallels between Nixon’s attacks on the press and Trump’s attacks during his campaign.  We now know those attacks have continued proving Spielberg’s (and a large chunk of the world’s population) forboding correct so Spielberg used this story to show the ability and purpose of the press to speak truth to power.   Even if Trump hadn’t shown himself to be so adversarial to a free press as he was when campaigning, it’s still an important lesson for the American public.  Since he has, it’s not only an important lesson but one with parallels to one of the darkest times in American political history.

It’s easy to compare The Post to the Best Picture winner for 2015 Spotlight.  Both are films about the power of the press which rely on a taut script and powerful performances for their impact, the major difference being The Post is about abuse of political power while Spotlight centers on abuse of power by the church.  The Post is not quite the film Spotlight was – it doesn’t have the same level of intricacy in plot and character – but that doesn’t mean that its tight focus doesn’t have merit or purpose.

mv5bmtg5nzg3njuznv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnty5nza1ndm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

Final verdict:  The Post is a film that relies heavily on the talent and experience of its cast and crew.  The fact that a film of this caliber could be put together so quickly is a true testament to those involved, particularly Meryl Streep who gives us a performance worthy of award mention in a year filled with incredible performances by strong woman leads.   Also worthy of mention is the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer due to its incredible ability to teach while it entertains.  The Post is not the most entertaining, most nuanced, nor the most artistic film of the year, but it is the most important.

I, Tonya (Gillespe; 2017)

The purpose of a biopic, next to entertainment, is to show the audience how the writer and director of the film view a particular person and their story or place in history.  Normally, the view is positive, though some of the best biopics focus on some of history’s more nefarious individuals, and often the film’s creators try to be as objective and realistic as possible, but when Steven Rogers was interviewing the main figures involved in Tonya Harding’s career and found that none of them were telling the same story, he found his hook that would make the Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya unique.  These interviews would actually be staged inside the film (with the actors playing the characters acting out the interview, not the actual interview subjects) and as the story plays out Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) would break the fourth wall and let the audience know exactly what they think of the particular interpretation of the scene they are currently partaking in as if they were still in mid-interview.  Every character, while they were a part of the story, has their own version of it.  In I, Tonya truth is subjective.

i-tonya-red-band-trailer-2017-margot-robbie-tonya-harding-biopic-youtube-2-600x246

That subjectivity is the focal point of the writing in I, Tonya, and makes for an exceptional take on the biopic.  While fourth wall breaking and self-awareness in film is hardly new, in fact, it’s becoming something of an overused trope, the fact that the story of I, Tonya is not only true but also one most of the people seeing the film witnessed via television news at the time of the events brings a new life to the tropes which keep them from being overly cutesy.  It also means that the film ends up taking on a tone which is as much comedy as drama and this is important to the themes of the film, as well.  As Harding herself says at one point in the film first she was loved by everyone, then hated, then she became a punchline.  I, Tonya uses the world’s perception of her masterfully by alternately playing to those perceptions then subverting them, using the punchline perception of her and her companions to get us to laugh, then using the love and hate perceptions to peel back the curtain and show us just what it is we’re laughing at.  It’s a masterfully written film which uses subjective truths to allow for a story which is comic and tragic, inspirational and incriminating, beautiful and repugnant all at the same time without ever feeling inconsistent nor without ever breaking stride.

We generally tend to equate a great performance with embodying and understanding a character, and this is definitely an element of performance which has to be covered in order to be great, but the very best performances go beyond character and show that the actor understands the themes, tone, and message of the entire film.  That being the case, I, Tonya gives us a trio of truly remarkable performances.  Margot Robbie is the anchor embodying a Tonya Harding who is charming and sympathetic, but who we can also see is constantly making excuses for the fact that she allows others to control her life and probably isn’t even conscious of the fact that she does this.  Sebastian Stan is a great Jeff Gillooly who truly loves Tonya but is unable to recognize his own immaturity which causes him to lash out whenever it seems he may be in danger of losing her or whenever he comes close to recognizing his own failings.  Allison Janney may be best of all as the mother who both loves and resents her own child, who wants the best for Tonya but also despises her for the sacrifices Tonya is forcing her to make.  All three of the primary cast members give us not only fully realized people, but people that embody the themes of subjective truth in the way they are only able to see the half of their own reality which makes them out to be a good person and not the half of themselves which the world would consider ugly or a weakness.

i-tonya-margot-robbie-sebastian-stan

With one of the greatest scripts of the year and three of the finest performances, it’s almost like I, Tonya’s director of cinematography Nicolas Karakatsanis and film editor Tatiana S. Riegel decided they wouldn’t be outdone and on top of everything else gave us one of the most visually beautiful and intricate films of the year, as well.  From the sweeping shots of Tonya on the ice rink to the more intimate conversations shot from the perfect distance and angles with perfectly timed cuts to the long seemingly unbroken pans which must have involved some trickery in order to work.  While there were a few visuals which had me immediately gasping from the incredible talent on display, most of the film’s visual genius crept up on me later as I thought over certain performances and the film’s overall message and realized just how much the camera work added to both of those elements.

That’s actually a good way to describe I, Tonya overall.  It’s a film that creeps up on you with its genius.  Leaving the theater, I knew I had seen a really good movie, but I wondered at how authentic it was.  Was Tonya really such a tragic figure or is that just the filmmakers manipulating their audience to make their story more digestible?  Could the people involved in one the most famous crimes of all time really have been that stupid and/or ignorant or was it played up for comic effect?  As I thought more and more about what I had seen I realized that most of the usual questions one asks about a true story were questions that missed the mark.  This wasn’t meant to be half education half entertainment as most biopics are, but instead is an honest to goodness art film which also manages to be hilarious and crowd-pleasing in a way very few art films are.  It never intends to be authentic, it never intends to tell us the truth.  What it intends is to show us how each of us makes the truth a personal thing and that objectivity is an ideal which can never truly be achieved even if it’s something we should strive for.  But, it sugarcoats this rather depressing message in a true crime story about the world’s worst criminals so that we can take this message in in its entirety without even noticing that’s what’s happening.

hbz-tonya-index-1509550044

Final verdict:  I, Tonya is a movie that after a few days contemplation I have decided is not just really good, but is, in fact, a borderline masterpiece and one of the very best films of 2017.  Every single element of the film, except perhaps its too on the nose score (I liked it, but I know it will annoy more than a few), is near perfect.  It’s a film that uses many different forms of dishonesty in an attempt to not just expose the truth but to actually teach us what it means for something to be true.  This is one I not only recommend, this is one I ask you to rush right out and see so you can see the gorgeous visuals in larger than life proportions while simultaneously laughing and pondering things you thought you knew were true.

 

 

Molly’s Game (Sorkin; 2017)

The only screenwriters in Hollywood who have household names that I can think of are also either actors or directors, as well, save one – Aaron Sorkin.  Even if you’re not familiar with what he’s written you’ve almost certainly heard his name, but what he is known for is political drama with some of the snappiest, wittiest dialogue around.  He’s probably most famous for The West Wing, A Few Good Men, and The Social Network, but even if you haven’t seen one of these you have still likely seen something he’s written and were struck by his too smart and too thoughtful to be true characters spouting off funny and poignant one-liners at a mile a minute.  Now, Sorkin brings us Molly’s Game, but this time he wasn’t content to just write the screenplay.  For the very first time, he got behind the camera and sat in the director’s chair himself.

Molly’s Game the movie is based on “Molly’s Game” the book, the autobiography of Molly Bloom.  Molly Bloom was an Olympic level downhill skier who had to drop out of the sport and through the series of events covered in the book and film became a power player by running a regular poker game for some of the world’s biggest power (and poker) players.  It’s a fascinating story about a woman so strong-willed and intelligent that she can be within spitting distance of achieving her dream, lose it all, then climb right back to the top again with nothing, not even a dream nor a real plan, but just whatever happens to fall in front of her.  Plus, she keeps her integrity and sticks to an ethical code on top of it all.

mv5bmtu2njy4njm2of5bml5banbnxkftztgwndcymziymzi-_v1_sy1000_cr0014981000_al_

Sorkin went with Jessica Chastain as the titular Molly Bloom.  I think I am in a minority when I say this, but I have never thought Chastain is a good actress.  She’s incredibly stiff in her delivery of dialogue and her stone face doesn’t help at all which essentially makes her a more voluptuous Kristen Stewart.  What Chastain is good at aside from choosing scripts (she may not be a fantastic actress, but the film’s she is in are for the most part wonderful), however, is speaking quickly with good enunciation and intensity.  Since Molly’s Game is written by Aaron Sorkin it takes someone who can do exactly that, and after having now seen this film I believe that Jessica Chastain could be the greatest mouthpiece to ever have delivered Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue – it plays perfectly to her strengths and vice versa.  Even her voice-over narration which is used throughout the entire film and which I usually perceive as a crutch which hurts a film is used excellently allowing us to enter the mind of the main character without having to break her tough facade or pause the rapid fire pacing of the film and its dialogue.

As for the other actors and their dialogue, none are quite so perfectly matched as Chastain, but all give excellent performances.  Michael Cera as “Player X” (who is actually Toby Maguire if rumors are to be believed, but no celebrities are named in the film) is the best at delivering Sorkin’s machine gun style dialogue after Chastain, surprisingly, and showed a talent at portraying a smugly confident scumbag I didn’t realize he had, though I probably should have.  Idris Elba and Kevin Costner are also both fantastic, but neither seem to be delivering Sorkin’s dialogue in the manner we’re used to, which makes me think they must have adapted Sorkin’s words to fit their own personal style and this is not a problem, this is a testament to just how talented these two are and how well they understand their craft.

mv5boty0zmy5ywytn2rjmi00otyylwjjmtgtyja4yjvjowvjodazxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzg2odi2otu-_v1_sx1777_cr001777727_al_

As for Sorkin, is he as talented a director as he is a writer?  Of course not, but he does show wisdom in his direction by sticking to what he knows, i.e. dialogue and story, and by not doing much to show off where visuals, editing, and other more subtle directorial duties and decisions are concerned.  The art direction is well done, Sorkin has a definite eye for city skyline shots, and he does allow himself some stylistic panache in the film’s opening, but overall what we have is a very straightforward directorial style which doesn’t really set itself apart from any number of newly out of film school directors.  He lets his writing be the element that does that.

The thematic elements of Molly’s Game are incredibly timely.  The main takeaway from the film is its depiction of a woman who understands the power games men play and manages to sidestep all of that by playing her own game and never allowing herself to become a part of theirs, not purposely, at least.  Without spoiling anything, it’s the moment Molly gets drawn into the games the men play and not just hosting them in her own that her world begins to implode.  (Since the entire film is interspersed with her meetings with her criminal defense lawyer, it’s not a spoiler to mention that implosion.)  While sexual harassment is barely even touched on in the film, it’s because they show how well Molly understood sexual politics and power and absolutely would not let those elements tarnish her game and that anyone not willing to leave that shit at the door would not be welcome back.  It’s a wonderfully practical feminist message that doesn’t depend on idealism and inspiration to get across but shows a real-world example of just how a woman can establish her own power under her own rules without men trying to undermine her nor really even notice they aren’t in control of the game.

mv5bowi4n2ywzdatnzrmmc00zdyzlwiyzgetmwnhyju5nddlntvkxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzq2nzcxotk-_v1_sy1000_cr0015001000_al_

Final verdict:  In a year of feminist films, Molly’s Game manages to make its mark by giving the most practical and realistic portrayal of feminism of any of them and has Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and storytelling to make that portrayal fast-paced and gripping.  All the performances are wonderful, even Jessica Chastain who is surprising in just how proficient she is at the delivering the quickly paced witticisms of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, and Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut shows why he’s a true professional by not trying to bite off more than he might be able to chew.  Molly’s Game is a phenomenal story with some of the best writing of the year, and is one I absolutely recommend.  It’s not necessary to see it in theaters, but if you do decide to pay full price for it you will not be disappointed in the slightest.  Molly’s Game is worth it.

 

 

 

Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino; 2017)

It’s Italy in 1983.  Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a highly regarded American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture who summers with his wife Anella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at their home in Northern Italy.  It’s a tradition that every summer the family invites one of Professor Perlman’s grad students to spend the summer with them, and this year the student of choice is Oliver (Armie Hammer).  The film opens with Oliver’s arrival and the story is of the events that take place over this particular summer focusing on the relationship between Elio and Oliver.

mv5bngyxmdjindmtmzzmzi00zgjiltlizjmtnda0zjqzoti5yzi4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymzi3njy2odc-_v1_sx1777_cr001777999_al_

Call Me By Your Name is an unusual film in that there is no conflict in the film outside of some short-lived inner turmoil.  Rather than conflict, Call Me By Your Name uses some nostalgia and some wish fulfillment to keep the audience’s attention.  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a mirror image of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.  Instead of an urban Florida setting in which a young black man comes to terms with his sexuality while also struggling with his life of poverty and absentee parents, Call Me By Your Name gives us an idyllic rural European setting in which a rich white young man with an incredibly intelligent and supportive family has to come to terms with his.  Where in Moonlight we were transported to a rather dark world and experienced tragedy after tragedy in Chiron’s life until he finally found a way to escape through hardening himself and becoming a man he didn’t really want to be, Call Me By Your Name shows Elio in a world in which his biggest trouble is disappointing the girl who has fallen in love with him and wondering about the appropriateness of his feelings toward Oliver.

The scenery of the Northern Italy village is shot beautifully.  Every single scene takes place either in a setting of small ancient buildings of spectacular architecture or a natural setting so empty of the trappings of society you could believe that no person had been in that locale for years.  The director of cinematography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes his time with his camerawork using the slow pacing of the film’s story to allow himself time to revel in the beauty of his surroundings just as the characters in the film do.

mv5bnzqxndawmta2ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnze0odczmzi-_v1_sx1777_cr001777960_al_

The writing in Call Me By Your Name is borderline pretentious, and I have no doubt there are those who will say it crosses that line, with characters who are capable of gleefully discussing off the cuff the etymology of the word apricot, the reasoning behind decisions made by ancient Greek sculptors, and how a particular song would sound had it been composed by Bach vs Liszt.  But, past just demonstrating how intelligent the characters in the film are, there is nothing about the dialogue in the film that is meant to be showy nor judgemental.  Once we establish that these people are highly intelligent and sensitive, we really don’t get any more intellectual displays as once the intelligence of our characters is established the screenplay leaves those elements behind for the most part and focuses on the relationships between these people.   These relationships are genuine if also idealized and it’s this factor that keeps me from calling this film pretentious and just an honest look at a very intelligent, very well to do group of people.

This honest portrayal obviously could not happen without strong performances, and Call Me By Your Name does give us those.  I wouldn’t call any of the performances on display spectacular, but they are earnest and well thought out.  I have to wonder that Armie Hammer isn’t a larger star than he is, as I have yet to see a performance from him that isn’t at least charismatic, and he is most certainly easy on the eyes where the camera is concerned, and the performance here is good enough that it could lead to the bigger and better things down the road he seems destined for.  The rest of the cast is also captivating and in particular, the intensely vulnerable performances given by the younger cast members Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel as Elio’s best friend and maybe more Marzia make me hope we will see more from them in the future, as well.

mv5bmtg1mdmynti5nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwodq5ntixndm-_v1_sx1500_cr001500999_al_

Final verdictCall Me By Your Name is one of the sweetest coming of age films I’ve seen.  Its total lack of nearly any conflict works in this case due to its embrace of nostalgia, authenticity, and a true love for its characters and their experiences.  Call Me By Your Name is not a film for everyone, as I believe it will be immensely boring for those not interested in romance nor coming of age films, but for those who don’t need tension in their drama every time Call Me By Your Name will plaster a huge smile on your face while simultaneously putting a lump in your throat with its entirely genuine, familiar, and yet still very personal tale of young love, friendship, and family.

 

All the Money in the World (Scott; 2017)

Even if you have no idea what this film is about, or don’t even recognize its name, you have probably heard about the controversy surrounding it, so I’ll start by addressing that.  All the Money in the World is based on the true story behind the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s, the richest man in the world and that time ever, grandson John Paul Getty III.  Kevin Spacey played the role of the eldest Getty, the film was all but finished and very near release when the news of Kevin Spacey’s scandalous past surfaced.  So, director Ridley Scott reshot every film Spacey was initially in with Christopher Plummer recast in the role and re-edited the entire film in nine days in the reports I’d heard.  It’s an incredible achievement and had the story not been so widely known there would be no way of knowing from watching the film that major changes had ever been made to what was thought to be the final cut.  It was probably a smart decision from a business standpoint, and an ethical one as well, but it can’t have been an easy one to make nor an easy task to pull off, and even after seeing how well it was done I couldn’t help but wonder throughout the entire film what the film would have looked like with Spacey in the role.

all-the-money-in-the-world-michelle-williams

All the Money in the World lets us know how J. Paul Getty amassed his oil fortune early on in the film while using the same time to establish the Getty family dynamics.  The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III happens very quickly after the necessary exposition and from that point on the film focuses almost entirely on four characters in three storylines.  One storyline is that of the kidnapped Getty’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and the elder Getty’s chief security officer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) working together to find where young Getty has been taken and why.  Secondarily, we have the story of what Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and what happens to him under the care of his kidnappers.  Finally, we have the story of John Paul Getty himself and his attempts to remain in denial of the entire situation and his refusal to pay any kind of ransom.

We will most likely never know how close to the truth the events captured in All the Money in the World are, but we do know that the broad strokes of the story, at least, are almost entirely accurate.  The kidnapping did occur, the divorced single mother and the agent did work together to find the son, Getty did refuse to pay the ransom, and kidnappers did use certain means which are now infamous to let the Getty’s know they were serious.  Past that, a lot of it is conjecture on the part of the film’s writer David Scarpa.  To its credit, though, it seems like conjecture which is very interested in remaining factual as it never takes an easy route where dramatic effect is concerned and seems very intent on keeping the story grounded in reality.  The most over the top elements of the story we know actually did occur, and the relationships between characters which is the part which had to have been filled in the most seem natural and honest.

all-the-money-in-the-world-review-trailer-youtube-1-600x256

Michelle Williams gives a fantastic performance here making me wonder why in the hell Hollywood doesn’t use her more often in larger roles.  Perhaps it’s her choice and she prefers to work in smaller budget films that let her really sink her teeth into a meaty role, and if that’s the case she gets all the respect in the world from me.  If it’s not, start giving this woman more love and attention, Hollywood, she is never anything less than amazing.  The other actors can’t match the same level Williams gives us, but they are still all solid.  Wahlberg sells us his agent character and the transformation he has to go through, and while Christopher Plummer doesn’t come anywhere close to giving us a performance we know he’s capable of, he does give us one strong enough to allow us to forget the circumstances under which he’s playing the role.

If I were to call out one major problem with All the Money in the World it would be the movie’s pacing.  There are far too many scenes which seem to be glamour shots meant to show off all the time and money spent on the grandiose sets in the piece, and while I know I have praised films for not being afraid to do this exact same thing in the past, there is an art form in the cinematography and the editing of a film to make these long lingering scenes work, and it isn’t captured well here.  Rather than establishing tone and pace, the camerawork in All the Money in the World seems to be a choice made by Scott more because he personally loved the way a certain set looked instead of making that choice because it would help the dramatic flow of the story.  That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have some gorgeous settings and cinematography, it absolutely does and should be commended for both, but the choice of how to incorporate those visuals do as much to hurt as help the story making the viewer wish the director would pick up the pace.

b9330683418z-1_20171220104753_000_gb3kkq5io-2-0

Final verdict:  All the Money in the World is yet another true story for 2017, though its focus on a story rather than a character means it isn’t yet another biopic, and it absolutely deserves to be recommended in a year overflowing with good movies based on true stories (and which still isn’t done, as I have yet to see and review Molly’s Game, I, Tonya, nor The Post).  While I firmly believe that this film will be remembered more for the circumstances surrounding it than for the content of the film itself, that doesn’t mean it’s not a film worth watching.  It manages to toe the line between gripping drama and a commitment to the facts quite well most of the time, and Michelle Williams is always worth watching in anything she does.

Darkest Hour (Wright; 2017)

Darkest Hour is the 13th film to be made about Winston Churchill and the second in 2017 alone, and that doesn’t count Dunkirk, a film in which he doesn’t appear but which does cover the same events.  With a topic garnering so much attention, to the point of saturation it could be argued, you had best make sure that something about your film stands out.  In a year with so many biopics and with two other films covering the same territory, Darkest Hour does give itself a bit of distinction, but not nearly enough.

Darkest Hour covers the period of time in Great Britain just prior to Neville Chamberlain being forced out of the office of Prime Minister of England due to a lack of faith in his ability to wage war against Hitler and ends with the rescue of the British troops from the shores of Dunkirk.  Unlike the earlier Dunkirk which showed the event from the point of view of the soldiers stranded and being picked off on the French beaches, Darkest Hour focuses more on the political intrigue surrounding Churchill’s earliest days in office.

winston-churchill-header_1050_591_81_s_c1-1024x576

I’m going to come right out and say it straight away, Darkest Hour is prototypical biopic fare.  You’ve seen this movie before, perhaps even about Winston Churchill, in which we have a great actor give a great performance about a renowned historical figure making it appear as if they can do no wrong and anyone who opposes them in any way may as well be a supervillain in a comic book film and along the way we have some good to great cinematography.  That sums up Darkest Hour in a nutshell: rote, by the numbers but very competent biopic filmmaking.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is excellent.  You do see past the veneer of Winston every once in a while and catch Gary peeking through, but overall his portrayal of the man who charted England’s course through World War II is captivating.  Churchill’s lauded dry and often self-deprecating wit shines through, and on top of that Oldman shows us how Churchill learned to transform himself from a cranky recluse to a someone who truly loved people in order to better perform his duties.  It’s the depth the performance needed to make sure Oldman was truly embodying a character and not just mimicking another famous person.  One scene late in the film which takes place on a commuter train is particularly captivating and during those ten minutes or so you forget completely you are watching one person play another, or even that you are watching a film, but become entirely engrossed in watching a man evolve into a someone better than he was before.

1505172665960_237959_cops_8

The cinematography is also excellent for the most part.  For a film so focused on locales we are used to seeing grandly shot such as Buckingham Palace and the British Parliament Building, director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gave us a much more claustrophobic, dingy style than we are used to in the grand towers of London to convey the sense of fear and uncertainty so prevalent at the time.  It’s a smart choice and makes for some truly spectacular shots.  The one problem I do have with the cinematography is that every now and then Delbonnel does show off and give us a truly artistic visual which is momentarily awe-inspiring but breaks the mood and flow of the film due to it being so out of place.  Without giving away spoilers, I’ll say that most any shot in the film which starts or finishes from an aerial viewpoint is an example of what I mean.

But, in a year which seems to be redefining how the biopic is made whether it be American Made‘s resemblance to an action film, Stronger‘s nearly complete lack of dramatization, or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s combination of tone, themes, and subject matter, Darkest Hour‘s greatest sin is that it is a very stereotypical biopic.  Winston Churchill is the focus of every scene and is shown to have barely any weakness or character flaw and even on those rare occasions only to allow us to sympathize with him.  His enemies are practically cartoon villains and exist only for us to cheer when Churchill overcomes their plots.  The film shows us that the people who opposed Churchill did so because they feared what war would do to Great Britain and wanted to engage Hitler in peace talks.  With the gift of 75 years of hindsight we can see that Churchill was in the right, but to portray those seeking peace as fools and villains is not only a disservice to diplomats and pacifists everywhere but also makes for a far less interesting story.

wc

Final verdict:  Darkest Hour is a film worth seeing due to great cinematography and performances, but don’t expect much in the way of enlightenment from it.  We loved films like Ray, Walk the Line, and A Beautiful Mind, but the art form of the biopic has evolved since then, and Darkest Hour is a biopic of the less evolved kind.  If you’re a fan of World War II or biographies in general and are just looking for some light entertainment, then Darkest Hour is an excellent choice.  If you want something truly thoughtful, truly emotional, and truly insightful, though, there have been quite a few better choices to head out and see from just this year alone.

 

The Shape of Water (Del Toro; 2017)

Guillermo Del Toro’s style is easily and immediately recognizable but is also uniquely his and hard to definitively describe.  His stories are urban period faerie tales, but the period is never too far in the past.  His visuals are somehow disturbing and whimsical at the same time, which makes sense since his favorite subject matter is to follow an innocent character undergoing terrifying situations.  How great of a filmmaker he is is still very much up to debate, but even his harshest critics will admit that what he does behind a camera is impossible to imitate.  Del Toro’s imagination is distinctly and uniquely his.

In his latest film The Shape of Water, we are given the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to clean at a secret United States government facility.  It takes place during the height of the Cold War, so security at the facility is tight and paranoia is rampant.  The story begins when Elisa and her closest work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) witness a large container being brought into the facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Inside the container is a dangerous aquatic creature the likes of which no one outside the South American tribe which worshipped it as a god has ever seen before.  Elisa and Zelda are charged with cleaning the room the creature is housed in, and over time Elisa finds herself drawn to it and feels the need to spend as much time in the creature’s company as she can.

mv5bmjnkyzbloditodk4os00otc2ltg2mjmtmda4ndmynduyzgflxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntk1mzcwnti-_v1_sx1777_cr001777999_al_

In interviews, Del Toro has said that one of the major themes in The Shape of Water is that the only characters in the film who have no trouble communicating with each other are the two who are incapable of speech.  If I hadn’t heard him say it I’m not sure I would have gotten that exact interpretation of the film, but I did see something very similar and that is that the two who are looked down on by others as lesser find in each other the drive and strength to overcome those very people who think so little of them.  It’s a common theme in a romantic faerie tale but in Del Toro’s hands it ascends beyond its common roots, really allowing us to experience the unusual nature of the central relationship while still being able to truly empathize with their plight unlike the majority of films which give us a very standard situation and merely use a character quirk here and there or an exaggerated adventure in order to make people and events seem unusual.

None of this could have worked at all if not for Del Toro’s talent with visual arts and the incredible performances of The Shape of Water‘s cast.  Art director Nigel Churcher and his crew give us a world at once familiar and fantastic.  It uses sewers, industry, and urban sprawl in a way a typical faerie tale would use dungeons, castles, and forests.  They are places of both beauty and danger but here the dragon is a sociopathic boss, the princess an isolated mute, the prince a South American fishman, and the father a homosexual artist who needs to hide his nature from the world.  The special effects in The Shape of Water are used to fantastic effect.   The fishman really comes to life through the incredible motion capture of Doug Jones and the aquatic scenes are things of tranquil, slightly surreal beauty.  Finally, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is among the best we’ve seen this year and Sidney Wolinski’s film editing literally had me dropping my jaw in amazement on quite a few occasions.  Most impressive of all is that never once does Del Toro use his visuals to impress or to brag, but only to tell the story in the best way possible.  He doesn’t seek to wow us with his technical skill.  He seeks to let his story wow us with its depth of emotion and realizes that the visuals are one of the best ways of conveying that, but it is the story not the special effects and camera work that should be the focus.

mv5byjg0nzayzdktztdknc00nwrlltk2zjytnjcyzjazntfhymfhxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntk1mzcwnti-_v1_

You can’t have depth of emotion without people, and the actors’ performances in the film rival the visuals in quality meaning they are also some of the very best of the year.   Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon are the veterans of the award circuits here, and they give as excellent a performance as we have come to expect from them which still means that they give the weakest performances in the ensemble.  Yes, everyone else is that amazing.  Richard Jenkins is absolutely phenomenal as the gay artist who lives down the hall from Elisa and acts as a sort of combination best friend and father figure.  The way is homosexual is only an element of his personality, but the element that makes him a pariah, and not the focal point of his character is written and performed with exactly the nuance more roles like this should be.  Not once does the film call attention to his sexuality, if it weren’t for one scene it would be more wondered at than confirmed, but while the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that his sexuality is anywhere near the entirety of his character it does recognize that if it weren’t for his sexuality his life would be very different.

Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler.  To say too much about his character and what makes his performance so spectacular would be to delve too deeply into spoiler territory.  He is one of the few characters who shows an honest affection for the creature and adds a fascinating dimension to the Cold War element of the story.  He’s one of those actors who has been around a while, and you will recognize his face, but never remains memorable.  I don’t know if The Shape of Water will change that for most audiences as his role is a non-flashy supporting one, but he certainly made me sit up and take notice.

mv5bytkynmfiztctzjnkni00m2zhlthimwytowm4zgm3mdkzmzgyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndg2mjuxnjm-_v1_sx1777_cr001777959_al_

Then there are Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the cross-species lovers.  Both are entirely mute and able to communicate only with action and some sign language and both give a performance that despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap show just how fake and manufactured most Hollywood romances are.  Without speech, we have to understand what draws these two together, what makes them perfect for each other, and what it is that makes them love each other so much they would sacrifice their lives for and entrust their lives to each other.  They not only pull it off, they make it so seamless and look so effortless that by the film’s end it doesn’t even seem unusual.

Final verdict:  The Shape of Water does for “Beauty and the Beast” what many were hoping the live-action Disney version would do earlier this year, though this version of the story is far too adult and candid for most children.  The Shape of Water may not be quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was, but it is definitely one of the best films in Guillermo Del Toro’s repertoire.  From script to visuals to acting there is not a single element in the film which isn’t masterfully done and the performances, in particular, are some for the ages.  The Shape of Water isn’t one for those who don’t like Del Toro’s style as this movie is his through and through, but for everyone else this is a brilliant, moving, and unique love story which will be remembered as a great film for a very long time.