Monday, 29 January 2018

Darkest Hour

This film has only been out for a couple of weeks in the UK and it has already won 16 international awards and has a further 27 nominations pending including the BAFTAS and the Oscars. Gary  Oldman's performance as British Prime Minister Winston S Churchill during the dark days of May 1940 has been widely praised and on several occasions been described as 'career defining'. There are other strong acting performances too, notably from Kristin Scott Thomas (Clemmie),  Lily James (Miss Layton), Ben Mendelsohn (King George VI) and Ronald Pickup (Neville Chamberlain).

Apart from Winston Churchill what is this film about? It's about many things:

  • Political process.
  • The demands of office - whether appointed or inherited.
  • Families and marriage.
  • Courage, sacrifice and having to choose the least worst option.
  • The way in which war creates the need for different rules.
  • Britishness.

It is certain that Churchill possessed many character traits which rendered him difficult to live with - even for his family! History also records he made several decisions which were costly in terms of human life earlier in his political life, the saddest example being the Gallipoli landings of WWI.  Could anyone else have galvanised the support he inspired and led Britain to victory with her allies five long years later? In terms of pure political opportunism and the ability to read the mood of the nation, few can even draw near. Can politics ever be pure or by necessity are manoeuvring, manipulation and the strongest hold on one's principles, however unpopular they may be, all prerequisites for political success? I'm afraid Neville Chamberlain does not come out this film well, being portrayed as weak, indecisive and even at the last unable to make a stand.

No sooner had the film started than it was over! Never have I known two hours and five minutes pass so absorbingly. For a huge amount of film Oldman's prosthetically enhanced face fills the screen - usually through a veil of cigar smoke. The likeness is stunning but Oldman's strongest acting tool, his hallmark eyes, always betrayed the transformation for me. The voice, mannerisms and pout are the very best examples of a character study available. Oldman's performance is hugely compelling and worthy of the accolades showered on him by critics and public alike.

Despite Churchill's best attempts to alienate himself from everyone through his behaviour, smoking and drinking, there are a surprising number of tender moments in this film. Scott Thomas'  performance is nuanced and sympathetic, Churchill's relationship with his longsuffering typist Miss Layton shows mutual respect and understanding. Even King George VI comes around to a more sympathetic relationship. Whilst Churchill's self-declared desire to be Prime Minister began whilst he was in the nursery, the Churchill we see here is driven by the demands of office and public service, and not by selfish gain. He is prepared to hold out against the tyranny of fascism and if need be, to go down all guns blazing in a final show of defiance rather than to be subjected to Nazi rule. This film highlights the moral dilemmas facing leaders in times of war and conflict, and how no choice looks like a good option. Several times throughout the film we see Churchill wrestling with his inner emotions.

No doubt historians will debate some of the accuracy of the finer points of the script and the meetings that took place, but there is no doubting that in the nation's darkest days "Commeth the hour, commeth the man". I watched Dunkirk only two weeks ago - these two films would make a great double bill and I wonder that if they had been released early in 2016 whether or not the Brexit vote might have been more decisive! Is this film worth seeing - YES! Is Oldman's characterisation all it's reported to be - YES! I'll give it 9/10. Please go and see it.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Bicycle Thieves (Thief)

This 1948 neorealist Italian film is widely regarded as being amongst the best movies ever made. Seventy years on it would be easy to be critical of many aspects of the film's production and presentation but it still manages to hold its own. The copy I have was dubbed but also had subtitles available - which were different to the dubbing so made it too confusing! The monochrome palette sets a nice contrast to the colourful characters of the film and the grandeur of Rome.

This film has one of the cleanest and continually parabolic narrative arcs I've ever seen. It is a morality story, a fable, a modern-day parable set in in the hopeless deprivation of post-was Rome. As the broken country and people of Italy begin to rebuild themselves in the aftermath of WWII we focus on a group of men clamouring for the handout of a couple of new jobs a day. Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is chosen for a job posting cinema posters around the city - but he needs a bicycle that he no longer has as it has been pawned. The pull of a job overpowers the small matter of needing to get his bike out of the pawn shop. Money is tight and he needs to feed his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). This film runs high on machismo, testosterone and the bruised pride of a man who is unable to provide for his family in the midst of a bruised capital of a bruised nation.

In repeated close-ups, viewers are invited to feel the angst etched on the face of Ricci as his hopeless quest continues as he and his son travel all over the huge city in search of their quarry. Some see the film as a Marxist fable and an underground meeting of a communist group does at one stage feature. However, the film shies away from a simple compare and contrast of the lot of the poor with the nouveau-riches in the emerging post-war economy. This film is about people and in particular Ricci - it is both character and narrative driven.

The story features a wide range of Roman life - a spiritual fortune teller, women drawing water at a well, a church feeding the poor, a brothel, an amateur acting troupe, football, Sunday markets and neighbourhood groups pulling together to defend the guilty! It is a wonderful social study.

For me, the film invited a deeper reflection. Was it actually an anti-war film? The consequences of the aftermath were dehumanising in the extreme. Is this how we want people to live or is this simply the fruit of national collective aggression ending in defeat? Might the fascist driven outcome have been any different from a communist driven one? To my eyes, post war Rome looked a lot tidier and with many more new housing developments than comparable pictures of London, Birmingham or Southampton so soon after the end of the war. How did they manage that? Or was it simply a judicious choice of locations? Why was Ricci so hard on himself and how was he able to be so inept once given the chance he so craved? What kind of relationship did he and Maria have? What happened to Bruno - how did he grow up and develop? Why did the American release change the title to Bicycle Thief in the singular? The whole point of the film is the plural dimension of the title!

This is certainly a very good film and one to watch whatever your interest in observing human behaviour or engaging in film studies. Whether for me it would be in my top ten - I think not. Nevertheless I am glad I saw it and am happy to award it 8/10. Do watch it if you've never seen it. It will repay your investment of time.

Thursday, 25 January 2018


Written, Produced and Directed by Christopher Nolan this is a big film in every way - a film whose creation had a number of significant risks attached. To make a film about one of Britain's pivotal moments in recent history always runs the risk of not getting it right and so blighting something held as sacred in the nation's collective psyche. To shoot in IMAX means it is shot for the big screen and so to watch on any other format will potentially never deliver the optimal experience. For such a big film to have minimal dialogue and an almost docudrama feel was a creative risk. To employ thousands of extras and involve historic boats that were actually there 75 years ago were huge risks. To make a film with a budget in excess $100M was a huge financial risk. To use such a distinguished ensemble cast that features  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy could also have been an artistic risk. Yet it all works - and works rather well!

The disappointing thing for me was that I watched it on a seat back 7 inch screen. However, I was engrossed for the entire 106 minutes and whilst everyone knows (or should know) the final outcome, how this film chose to tell the story was clever and very creative. Woven together are two strands of thread each of which has three elements. The first is to see the drama unfold on land, sea and in the air which emphasises the unique contribution made by each of the three branches of the military - and in the case of the Royal Navy, civilian too! The second is the the portrayal of three subplots each of which focused on one hour, one day and one week. These were edited in and out of the story as the final Dunkirk tapestry was woven by master weaver Nolan.

The action is persistent but there are lulls - never long enough to wish for more action as the action we see is the kind of thing most people would rather not have to watch - particularly as it depicts acts of sacrifice and heroism to secure our/my freedom. For a film about British identity, indestructible optimism and resourcefulness, and escape from a beleaguered Europe to be released in the midst of the Battle of Brexit is as ironic as it is intriguing as it is amusing.

As mentioned before, there is minimal dialogue. The action, sound of war, huge vistas and over prominent Hans Zimmer score all fill the auditory and visual senses to overload. The film offers a sensorily stimulating engagement. War is messy and at times undiscriminating. It often leaves no real winners. The absence of women in the film is more a reflection of the reality of how it was on the battlefield I suspect, rather than an attempt to make a different statement.

This is an excellent film in nearly every way. At the time of writing this reflection is has grossed globally more than five times it's budget - so another risk averted. With the awards season in full swing it is worthy of its eight nominations in the Golden Globes, three in the BAFTAS and eight in the Oscars and with it riding high in review ratings on IMDb (8.1) and Rotten Tomatoes (92%) I will agree and award it 9/10! Do watch it if you can. Good film making, accurate portrayal of the horrors of war and good acting.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Atomic Blonde

If you like seeing stiletto heels puncturing a jugular and lots of violence within the twisted plot of a double-crossing cold war spy movie - then this is for you! The impact of Charlize Theron's raw and violent beauty in the titular role as MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton is what carries the film. Fast paced, with plenty of action and fight scenes to rival MI, Bourne or Bond, this film reinvents good old fashioned cold war spying operations in Berlin as the wall is coming down in 1989.

You need to concentrate to follow the convoluted script as it weaves a trail of lies and deceit which leaves the viewer unsure about who to trust and who is actually the bad guy. Russians, Brits and Americans all interplay to try and secure a list of spies which, if it fell into the 'wrong' hands, would compromise many agents. The trouble is working whose hands are right and whose are wrong!

The high impact visual appearance of Theron is the sensory focus of this film - with a wardrobe to match. To portray such a sexualised character who uses her beauty to seduce the spy world at a time when Hollywood is debating the use of sexual power in Tinsel Town seemed an ironic confluence to me.

Broughton's ability to contrive an escape from the tightest of situations against seemingly impossible odds prevails time-and-time again. The story is based on a graphical novel and the action sequences and unlikely narrative manage to convey that feel very well. Whether or not this level of out-and-out violence adds or detracts from the film will be debated by many viewers I suspect.

There are very good performances from a strong cast including Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and  James McAvoy with some stunning locations in Berlin of old, London and Paris. I watched this because the plane I was on had an oddly limited choice of films, I don't think I would have gone to the cinema to watch it or bought the disc. It passed a couple of hours but on reflection I felt it had appealed more to my base instincts and so perhaps I too am guilty of collusion. I'll give it 6/10.