DARKEST HOUR*** Shines no new light


ACCORDING TO THIS telling, Winston Churchill not only stood down the massed ranks of aristocrats and his own Tory party (ready to make a deal with Hitler at the drop of a hat), but he found his resolve thanks to a chance (and entirely fabricated) encounter with ‘ordinary’ people… who were prepared to fight to the last person. Darkest Hour condenses the drama of the war to a few critical weeks of crisis when Britain was facing a massacre at Dunkirk, had failed to secure the involvement of the Americans and the real threat of a German invasion was imminent.

It’s a superb piece of storytelling complemented by an outstanding piece of acting, all gloriously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis). It leaves you cheering at the end and would be typical nationalistic jingoism if it weren’t essentially so very true.

The Churchill we’re introduced to is an insufferable alcoholic. He’s abusive, short tempered, eccentric and beholden to no party ideology and to no one, other than his stoic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). But he also has a clear sightedness and an understanding of the arc of history that, perhaps justified his boorish self-belief…his refusal to yield to anyone.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement) and his writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) seem to suggest that his (internal) enemies could see no further than Churchill the curmudgeonly, eccentric drunk. It was the other side of Churchill that won the war: Churchill the inspiring self-confident leader; the one who found the resolve and the conviction to rise to the occasion and face down the onrushing panzer divisions of the Third Reich.

Churchill not only found the resolve he needed, but the language of persuasion. As one of his thwarted opponents mutters after the “fight them on the beaches” speech, “Churchill has found his words and has sent them in to battle”. Wright threads the theme of language and persuasion throughout the narrative. Churchill’s eloquence and his way with words are, it is suggested, central to his thought process. He wrestles and tugs at language, with his stenographer, Elizabeth (Lily James), gamely following along, until he arrives at both verbal and intellectual precision.

The brilliance of Gary Oldman’s portrayal is that he exaggerates Churchill’s flat delivery just enough to make it dramatically compelling, even as he flits between his character’s two faces illustrating how the one energized the other. For it was in his drunk abrasiveness that Churchill seemed to underscore the resolve to win over his doubters and fill his people with the courage they would need to outlast the blitz.

The problem I had with the movie though is that it all felt a bit smug.

This was plucky Blighty ready to fight them on the beaches and in the fields; led by, let’s face it: God. In one farcical scene on the ‘tube’ where the ORDINARY PERSON is seen in direct contrast with Churchill’s feckless War Cabinet (the one resolved to die fighting against Nazism; the other ready to surrender), there’s even a Shakespeare-quoting Black man. (In real life, such an occurrence would probably have given Churchill, who had zero contact with the ordinary person let alone those of a darker hue, a heart attack).

Churchill and the war he led was modern Britain’s equivalent to Henry V. Anthony McCarten is a marvellous writer; but in a story deserving the complexity of Shakespeare, Darkest Hour offers us Churchill for Dummies instead.

Sadly, this, like Dunkirk, continues to be part of an eco-system of pop culture that feeds Britain’s inflated sense of identity: as the courageous self-subsistent island kingdom, who conquered the world (Who needs Europe?). This glorious version of self may have the ring of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” but it’s a sad fantasy that continues to nourish the country’s false sense of its post Brexit go-it-alone muscle.

And yet on the other hand, what Darkest Hour so startlingly reminds us of, is just how far the country has declined in this our present darkest hour: from Churchill’s (and Shakespeare’s) well wrought and eloquent exhortations to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood” to Theresa May’s version of national motivation: “Brexit means Brexit”

 

DARKEST HOUR: Dir: Joe Wright. With: Gary Oldman, Lily James (Baby Driver), Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One). Writer: Anthony McCarten. Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel (Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood (Beauty and the Beast. Our Kind of Traitor)

 

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THE POST*** Solid


THIS IS A massively entertaining, minor movie.

Spielberg has spoken at length of his need to tell this story – of the deeply important role of the free press, of truth, of moral conviction – at a time when the leader of the (so-called) free world is only too eager to create a world of “alternative facts” and even more eager to demean the Fourth Estate as a place of fake news; as “enemies of the people”

“The Post” centers on the events around the leak of The Pentagon Papers by insider Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys from “The Americans”). The Papers, penned by then Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) revealed the White House’s long-held, and long-hidden knowledge of the futility of the US involvement in Vietnam. For years, the Papers showed, the White House (Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy) had been systematically and cynically lying to the nation, even as it sent its sons to muddy graves.

The contents of the Papers – so damaging to the credibility of the President – were initially published by The New York Times. It was a major coup for them. But after the government banned (essentially censoring) further publications, the baton was passed to The Washington Post under the leadership of its gung-ho editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and its initially hesitant, brow beaten owner, Kay Graham (Meryl Streep).

Spielberg’s narrative follows the evolution of Graham (who inherited the newspaper after the death of her husband) from society hostess, retreating to the parlor with “the girls” while the men clustered to discuss “important matters” (A role her contemptuous male peers permitted her) to self-confident, empowered and fearless leader. As you’d expect, Streep looses herself in this layered and nuanced role. She’s never anything but entirely believable either as the timorous woman who’s supposed to shut up and know her place, engulfed in board meetings by a swarm of sober suited men, indifferent to her views or presence; or as the woman who finally finds her voice and her moral conscience and decides to risk her stature against Nixon and his gang of thugs.

Graham’s battle to defend and publish the truth at all cost was no mere ethical decision. Her decision risked personal incarceration or corporate bankruptcy. This is a story about the (literal, financial) cost of truth. If it was found guilty of contempt of court, the value of the Post brand would have been severely tarnished and a planned Wall Street offering would probably have been a disaster. The dilemma that she faced was the choice between facing the financial cost of publishing v facing the moral cost of not doing so…between her responsibility to her shareholders v her responsibility to the nation.

Spielberg is a marvelous storyteller: with an economy of style (there’s not a wasted word or scene in the movie) and a lyricism of movement (his camera swoops and tracks his characters like an omniscient god), he lays out the critical milestones and leaves it up to volumes of emotions at Streep’s command to entangle us in the ethical drama of the crisis unfolding.

But Streep’s well-written multi-leveled character is not matched by Hanks’ one-note Jimmy Stewart impersonation. As you’d expect, Hanks is watchably solid. He’s a character seemingly untroubled by doubt; almost blind to the shattered lives and the downside of potential failure. Indeed, he’s so Tom Hanks, the perennial good guy, that there’s never a moment of genuine, heart-thumping, palpable tension. So that the real, dark threat of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s malignant evil remains an abstract aural ghost somewhere dimly in the background.

And yet, there’s much in the film that’s delicious to behold. There are clusters of finely balanced scenes that seem to tell the story in visual nuggets: scenes that morph from panelled rooms with crowded, black suited, po-faced men to ones of airy flowery salons with well heeled chiffon-embraced society women to the sunny outdoors where throngs of excited cheering young women herald a new day; all with Graham at the swirling centre. And there is the tactile feel of the press: the oily, inky hands of typesetter letters, columns of newly printed newspapers swirling up and up as if to a heaven beyond, and the thick frames of sculptural lead locked into place…as if the truth then demanded that heavy anchor of lead in deliberate contrast to the ephemeral truths of our digital words

It’s nice for Spielberg to have left off editing his newest sci fi blockbuster “Ready Player One” now in the works, to remind us of the need for the Fourth Estate to be on the side of the governed not the governors, as it so gloriously was in the past. But he’s preaching to the converted. “The Post” is Spielberg’s long editorial cry designed to stroke our liberal egos in the bubble of our Trump/Koch/Fox News/Daily Telegraph threatened world where truth is an enemy of the state.

But art must do more than safely play to its gallery of believers. If journalism speaks truth to power, art must also challenge us and reframe our perspectives and threaten the status quo and destabilize our smug beliefs. It must expose the mechanisms of what drives behavior and the irrational forces that influence our decisions. “The Post” is too tame, too well mannered to live up to these demands. Its high-mindedness will cause no sleeplessness in this long night of democracy’s slow demise.

I went expecting delight and surprise. I found much to delight in. But of surprise…that was thin on the ground.

 

THE POST. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Writers: Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (Spotlight). With: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys. Production Designer: Rick Carter (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “the BFG”). Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski (“The BFG’, “The Bridge of Spies” etc)

 

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI***** Outstanding


THIS VERY FUNNY, very black comedy has some of the sharpest, smartest writing of the year. Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directs also wrote In Bruges as well the outstanding play, The Pillowman. Writing of this caliber must be a joy for actors to work with: they don’t have to invent characters around the script, they simply have to give it life. And the three key actors giving it life – Frances McDormand as the determined, embittered, devil may care Mildred, Woody Harrelson as Willoughby, the stoic sheriff, resigned to his own insignificance in solving a horrific crime, and Sam Rockwell as Dixon, the racist, momma’s boy deputy, as thick as a brick – are all at the top of their game.

The act that sets off a train of events (not to mention the title of the movie) is Mildred’s rental of (said) three billboards outside Ebbing. The billboards shout her frustration with the sheriff’s incompetent pursuit of the rapist/murderer who killed her daughter. All her sorrow and anger is vented on these billboards. It is this catharsis of blame…this need to point a finger, to assign guilt that clouds the brain and makes the search for truth impossible.

The characters in the story are all casters of the first stone. People who are far from blameless blame everyone else for deeds done or perceived to have been done. Just as Mildred blames the sheriff for the failure to hunt down her daughter’s killer, Dixon blames every black person around for being black as well as the billboard owner for simply renting the billboards. Willoughby’s wife, Anne (Abby Cornish) blames Mildred for unjustifiably hounding her husband and on and on. But, as the movie shows, the blame game has a nasty way of taking on a life of its own. Passions are set loose from their moorings of reason; people are burned, thrown out of buildings, one drops dead. This is an out of control beast, controlled only, perhaps, by the revelations only the truth can offer and by the cleansing of forgiveness and empathy.

What with Get Out, the (overlooked) Death of Stalin and The Party, these last few months have seen the return of great black comedy to the screen. And as with all great black comedy from Joe Orton on, the characters and the twists in the plot are racheted up to the wildest extremes. The genius in McDormand and Rockwell’s indelibly iconic characters is that they remain fully fleshed and convincingly believable. In lesser hands, it would have been so easy to slip into caricature.

And the genius in McDonagh’s writing and directing is that the comedic excesses (told at a breath taking pace) are always in service to his deeply insightful (and so very apposite) idea about the need for the clarity of understanding in the obscuring fog of passions and blame.

After the much ballyhooed and entirely undeserving success of La La Land last year, here, at last is a movie thoroughly deserving of its much-garlanded praise.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. Dir. and written by Martin McDonagh. With: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage. Director of Photography: Ben Davis (Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy)

 

MOLLY’S GAME*** Enjoyable


THIS HUGELY ENTERTAINING, if flawed piece of moviemaking, is celebrated scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (“Steve Jobs”, “Moneyball”, “the Social Network”) generally well-received (but poorly attended) entry into directing. It’s his glittering adaptation of the biography of a high stakes, celebrity poker host, Molly Bloom (“the poker princess”).

The story begins, as it ends, with Molly’s relationship with her demanding father (a very credible Kevin Costner) but focuses mainly on her life as a hostess to Hollywood and then New York high-rollers. As expected, Sorkin’s highly literate screenplay – a mixture of Ms. Bloom’s sardonic narration of her life and the rat-a-tat sparring between her and her lawyer (Idris Elba) – dazzles. It’s only outshone by a sizzling Jessica Chastain, as the eponymous heroine. Chastain is the perfect embodiment of Sorkin’s on-going exploration of the seductiveness of power, sex appeal and corruption. Her patrician hauteur (and the haute of her figure worshipping wardrobe) sprinkles a pixie dust of classiness and out-of-reach glamour to what is really a seedy battleground of alpha males intent on dominance.


To her, it’s all about the money. To them, it’s all about the power.

To Sorkin, it’s all about his exploration of the truths that lie beneath the surface appeal (of her attractiveness and their wealth). The Feds, who target her as a route to dismantling a Russian crime syndicate, see her as a corrupt felon and probably a whore. Her lawyer sees her as a figure of incredible integrity. Her (ex) boss (Jeremy Strong) sees her as sexy chick who’s getting above her station. Her father sees her as a potential winner (She was an Olympic skier hopeful) who needs to be ruthlessly driven.

Wherein, asks the story, lies the truth?

At one core level, the truth lies in her hard drive. It contains all the names, and all the dirt, of her famous players: their adulterous emails, their nefarious deals, their hidden fault lines. But it’s only one level of truth; a truth she’s prepared to hide and defend with all her integrity (or, as she sees it, “her good name”). For on the one hand, it is this, your good name, Sorkin suggests, that really only matters… more than the glitz and the glamour and even the risk of imprisonment. On the other, he seems to be suggesting, that perhaps there are some truths that have such potential to hurt, they must forever stay hidden.

The problem with the movie (and this is where Sorkin’s a better writer than he is a director) is that the thoughtfulness of the idea that drives the story never really throbs with the blood of real people. Chastain’s Molly Bloom remains a cypher. In his adaptation of (the real Molly Bloom’s) narrative, written to present an exculpatory image of herself, Sorkin has given us the narrative; but not the person.

More than this, there’s far too much voice over narrative (deliciously written though it is) to push along the plot. Sorkin seems to have discarded the first truth (or cliché) of good fiction: show, don’t tell (Perhaps in a story of poker faces, that’s his “tell”)

He’s written a good story. For the cinema, it needed a different talent to tell it.

 

MOLLY’s GAME. Written/directed: Aaron Sorkin. With: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera. Cinematographer: Charlotte Christensen (“Fences”, “The Girl on the Train”). Production Designer: David Wasco (“La La Land”, “Inglorious Basterds”). Costume Designer: Susan Lyall (“Money Monster”)