Review: Darkest Hour

Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn
Released: January 11, 2018
Grade: B+

Darkest Hour
Presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders have to make many difficult decisions as part of the job.  Their views on economic, social, environment and political issues will often shape society for many decades to come.  That said, perhaps the hardest decision for any leader to make is war.  Darkest Hour is a historical drama that spans only a few weeks in the year 1940 and looks at what went on behind closed doors before Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) declared war against Germany.

Churchill wasn’t held in high regard within his own party.  In fact, you could argue that he became Prime Minister by default following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Pickup) who had fallen out of favour with the public during the early days of World War II.  Lord Halifax (Dillane), serving as Foreign Secretary, had been tipped as Chamberlain’s successor but he wasn’t interested either.  Churchill ultimately took the mantle but given his country was at the brink of war, he describes it to his wife (Thomas) as “revenge” as opposed to a “gift”.  It’s as if his enemies within the party were setting him up to fail.

This film is timely given the release of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk back in July.  That movie featured no politics whatsoever and was about a group of heroic soldiers and civilians who rescued more than 300,000 British troops from the French coast and returned them safely back to Britain.  Darkest Hour is set during the same time frame but from an entirely different perspective.  Aside from a handful of quick battle scenes (which are actually quite clunky), we see how Churchill sneakily organised the Dunkirk evacuation to take place from his underground bunker in London.  These two movies would make a cool double feature.

It’s the politics of the film which are most interesting.  Churchill believed the only way forward was to go to war with Germany.  British soldiers had already been killed fighting in France and he sensed that Hitler would never agree to a meaningful truce with Great Britain.  There’s a great line in the movie where he shouts “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

Other members of Churchill’s personally selected War Cabinet had a different view.  Having been through the horrors of another great war two decades earlier, they felt that the public didn’t have the appetite to see another generation of young men killed in battle.  Their suggestion was that peace talks should be orchestrated with Germany through an intermediary in Italy.  If Churchill didn’t agree, they would resign and destabilise the government.

Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is favoured to win the Academy Award for best actor and he ticks many boxes with his stellar performance.  He’s unrecognisable thanks to the work of the gifted make-up artists who spent four hours every day in getting him ready.  Churchill was a confident man with a sly sense of humour but through Oldman’s performance, you also sense his doubts and weaknesses.  The best scenes in the film are those where he converses with King George VI (Mendelsohn) in the days and weeks after taking power.

The female characters in the film aren’t given as much to work with.  Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient) pops in and out of the story as Churchill’s wife but has little to offer except moral support.  Lilly James (Cinderella) plays Churchill’s personal secretary but spends most of her time sitting at a desk typing letters.  There’s a slight twist to her character which is obvious from the midway point and so doesn’t have the strong impact it should when fully revealed later.

There’s no argument that this is a polished production from director Joe Wright (Atonement).  There’s a bold film score from Oscar-winning Italian composer Dario Marianelli (Atonement) and the set decorators and costumers deserve praise in recreating key locations such as the inside of Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons.

Above all though, Wright wanted to get break some of the longstanding myths surrounding Winston Churchill and show him as a “deeply flawed, profoundly complicated” man who, despite those misgivings, played a huge part in saving the world.  I like Wright’s quote that “our flaws and our virtues are kind of the same thing.”  It’s a message that resonates strongly throughout the film.


Review: All the Money in the World

Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Scarpa
Starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton
Released: January 4, 2018
Grade: B

All the Money in the World
A lot of films endure production issues but the story behind All the Money in the World rivals anything I’ve heard before.  The movie was shot in the middle of the year with director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) working hard to have it ready for a December release date and a crack at awards season.  A trailer was distributed in September that provided a first glimpse of the storyline and the performances of its three big stars – Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg and Kevin Spacey.

In late October, Spacey was accused of making sexual advances against a 14-year-old boy back in the 1980s.  That was followed by a slew of other serious allegations that left his reputation in taters (deservedly so).  It left Ridley Scott in a difficult situation.  If he released the film as is, it would be engulfed with negative publicity and audiences would avoid it like the plague.  On the flip side, it was hard to justify scrapping the film given it was already being promoted and $30 million had been spent in production costs.

Scott came up with a gutsy, ingenious solution that, in a warped way, created a wave of positive publicity that would not have been generated otherwise.  He ditched Spacey and brought in 88-year-old Oscar winner Christopher Plummer (Beginners) as a replacement.  The actors returned for free and over a 9 day period, every scene that had featured Spacey was reshot within Plummer.  Editor Claire Simpson (Platoon) inserted the new footage each night and the updated version of the movie was ready to be released on time.  Six weeks after the first public allegations were made against Spacey… Christopher Plummer found himself nominated for a Golden Globe award for best actor in a supporting role!  That is truly nuts.

I was initially cynical of Plummer’s nomination but having now seen All the Money in the World, I can acknowledge that he’s actually very good.  He plays John Paul Getty, an American businessman who founded the Getty Oil company and for a period of time in the 1960s was the richest individual in the world.  Some believe that “money makes you happy” but Getty’s reputation would put paid to that idea.  He was a miserably frugal man who had no intention of sharing his wealth with anyone (including the tax man).  What he thrived on was the “power” that his vast fortune provided.

The film isn’t intended to be a biography of Getty.  Rather, it centres on the event in his life of which he became infamous.  In July 1973, his 16-year-old grandson, Paul, was kidnapped whilst walking the streets of Rome.  A $17 million ransom was demanded but Getty refused to pay a cent.  He could easily afford it but he didn’t want to pay out of principle.  The case became headline news across the globe which the public forming their own views on Getty and his family.

There are two other key players in this ensemble.  The first is Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) who plays Paul’s worried mother.  She married into the Getty family and is infuriated by the actions of husband and father-in-law in not paying the ransom.  The second is Mark Wahlberg (The Departed) who features as a former CIA operative brought in by John Paul Getty to help locate his kidnapped grandson.

The production values are strong but screenwriter David Scarpa doesn’t make the most of the 132 minute running time.  We are reminded again and again that Getty was a frugal monster and the mother was a nice person.  Mark Wahlberg’s character doesn’t have much of a backstory or a purpose.  French actor Romain Duris (The Spanish Apartment) offers the most intrigue as one of the conflicted kidnappers but he’s given very little screen time.

All the Money in the World can be enjoyed as a “truth is stranger than fiction” tale but it won’t leave you on the edge of your seat.


Review: Call Me by Your Name

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: James Ivory
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Released: December 26, 2017
Grade: A+

Call Me by Your Name
Ten years ago, acclaimed Italian director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) was approached by long-time friend Peter Spears and asked for advice.  Spears had recently acquired the cinematic rights to the novel Call Me by Your Name but was struggling to work out where the film should be set.  Events clearly take place in Italy but author André Aciman provides no further information about the location of the towns and landmarks referred to throughout.

Guadagnino read the book, loved it immensely and realised it was set in Bordighera – a town in north-western Italy which lies along the Mediterranean coast and is a short drive from the French border.  He wrote a report back to Spears and moved on to his next directorial project – the gorgeous drama I Am Love.  It earned a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film and was of my “top 10” releases of 2010.

Unfortunately for Spears and his producing partners, Call Me by Your Name sat in “development hell” for several years.  They couldn’t settle on a workable script and find a director with the right vision.  It wasn’t until 2014 that Guadagnino came back on board to help Oscar nominated writer James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howards End) with the screenplay and he was ultimately convinced to take on director duties as well.  By shooting the film in his home city of Crema, an added perk for Guadagnino is that he could sleep in his own bed each night.

Now that we can enjoy the finished product, Call Me by Your Name is a stunningly beautiful drama set in 1983 and centred on Elio (Chalamet) – an introverted 17-year-old trying to make the most of the summer holidays in a quiet, relaxing, sleepy Italian town.  He reads books, listens to music and swims in the river but there’s not much else on offer.  When asked “what does one do around here?”, Elio’s response is simple – “wait for the summer to end.”

That answer changes with the arrival of Oliver (Hammer) – an extroverted 24-year-old American student who has been invited by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg), a renowned archaeological professor, to stay at the house for six weeks to assist with his studies.  Oliver has a natural, endearing charm that lights up a room.  He can walk into a bar or café and make friends with anyone.

It’s clear that Elio has both a physical and intellectual attraction to Oliver.  He’s an incredibly smart, well-read kid but he confesses to knowing very little about “the things that matter”.  To break it down as simply as possible, he yearns to experience love and intimacy but his shy nature has always held him back.  Oliver detects that vibe in Elio but is unsure how to handle the situation.  Is it appropriate to seduce the son of his college professor when staying at his house?

Luca Guadagnino’s direction is faultless.  He makes the most of the idyllic Italian setting and draws incredible performances from his two protagonists.  As we have seen from previous works like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, Guadagnino perfectly captures both the exterior and inner beauty of his characters.  You know what they’re thinking by looking into their eyes or observing their body language.  Dialogue is used sparingly.  Guadagnino has also created a film that is sensual and erotic but whilst never feeling exploitative.

Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird) gives the performance of a lifetime and is destined for a long career in Hollywood (as well as his first Oscar nomination).  He’s so relaxed and natural throughout.  His powerful final scene is impossible to forget.  Armie Hammer (The Social Network) impresses with his supporting role but it is Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) who almost outshines them both as Elio’s astute, laidback father.  He delivers a monologue in the later stages that will be quoted for many years to come.

If there’s been a better film released during 2017, I haven’t seen it.


Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish
Released: January 1, 2018
Grade: A-

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
It’s a great, intriguing title for a movie and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is quick to set the scene.  Seven months ago, the daughter of Mildred Hayes (McDormand) was abducted, raped and killed in a small American town.  In the time that has since passed, the local police, headed by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Harrelson), have found no tangible evidence and identified no possible suspects.

A frustrated Mildred then walks into the town’s advertising business and rents three old billboards.  They haven’t been used since 1986 and are on a quiet road that almost no one travels down.  The billboards read – “Raped while dying”, “Sill no arrests?” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

They definitely make an impression.  It’s not long before local media picks up the story of the billboards and attention is drawn to the inaction of the police officers.  Mildred accused them of being more interested in torturing black folks than solving crimes.  With a tough disposition and an extraordinarily foul mouth, she is dealing with her grief in a rather unorthodox manner.

Those that have seen the last two films of British writer-director Martin McDonagh will know that he has a warped, dark sense of humour.  In Bruges was the story of two hitman who bicker while stuck in the famous Belgian city.  Seven Psychopaths was about a struggling writer drawn into a world of crime after his best friend started kidnapping dogs.  They’re both terrific black comedies that give the Coen Brothers a run for their money.

I cite those films to provide a reference for what to expect in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  This is McDonagh’s darkest effort yet.  You won't know whether to laugh openly or curl up with horror.  He wants to make us feel uneasy by putting his protagonists through a number of moral quandaries.  There are several twists and your opinion of the characters will change throughout.

You could be confused in thinking this is a Quentin Tarantino flick given the verbal and physical abuse dished out by the cast members.  There’s a great scene where Mildred berates a priest who pays an unexpected visit.  That said, it’s hard to pick a highlight given there are so many examples to choose from.  It seems every character gets a chance to hurl a vicious insult at another.

The film is at its best when it’s trying to be funny.  It’s not as good when it’s trying to be serious.  I think McDonagh has something to say… but I’m not quite sure exactly what that is.  I’ve been stewing on it for a few weeks and it’s still hard to reconcile the actions of certain characters.  This is best illustrated by Sam Rockwell who plays a reckless, racist police officer.

Winner of the prestigious Audience Award at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may take multiple viewings to fully dissect and appreciate.


Review: Paddington 2

Directed by: Paul King
Written by: Paul King, Simon Farnaby
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw
Released: December 21, 2017
Grade: A-

Paddington 2
Paddington Bear is the fun-loving creature from deepest, darkest Peru who was created by English author Michael Bond in the 1950s.  He wears a duffle coat, walks around with an old suitcase, and has a penchant for marmalade.  He’s cute, he’s polite and he’s charming.  He’s one of the nicest characters you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature.

It will therefore come as a surprise to learn that Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) spends half of this new movie in a maximum security prison surrounded by some of Britain’s worst criminals.  It may sound farcical on paper but this film takes a few interesting turns and is better for it.  It’s easily one of the best family releases of 2017.

The first movie ended with Paddington being taken in by the loving Brown family in Windsor Gardens, London.  As this instalment begins, we learn that Mr Brown (Bonneville) has a few work dramas, Mrs Brown (Hawkins) is preparing to swim the English channel, Judy is about to start a school newspaper, and Jonathan is looking for other interests outside his love for steam trains.

As for Paddington, he’s looking to buy a present for his aunt from Peru who is about to celebrate her 100th birthday.  In an antique shop, he comes across a beautiful pop-up book that features landmarks of London which he thinks will be the perfect gift.  It’s not cheap and so he gets his first job – a window cleaner for commercial and residential buildings in the neighbourhood.

Paddington doesn’t realise it but there’s a sinister individual looking to also get his hands on the pop-up book.  Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) is a washed up actor who now makes a meagre living by starring in dog food commercials.  Realising the book has great value, he steals it from the antique shop and frames Paddington for the crime – hence why our beloved bear has been sentenced to 10 years in the slammer.

Paddington 2 is a delightful comedy that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.  The storyline is easy to follow and it’s filled with plenty of jokes for both kids and adults to enjoy.  Hugh Grant is a wonderfully cool villain who uses an array of humorous costumes to evade capture (plus there’s a part where he eats dog food).  Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It) is the film’s other grinchy character – a cranky man who doesn’t like bears living in the community.  His inclusion allows writer-director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) to push the important themes of inclusion, diversity and acceptance.

As bizarre as it sounds, the film’s best moments take place within the walls of the prison.  Paddington finds a way to leave his own mark on the facility and becomes friends with people he may never expect.  First and foremost is the frustrated chef (played by Brendan Gleeson) who won’t be publishing a cookbook any time soon.

Most sequels feel inferior to the original but this is a rare case where that isn’t true.


Review: Coco

Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Written by: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich, Lee Unkrich, Jason Katz
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Edward James Olmos
Released: December 26, 2017
Grade: A

There is a belief by the people of Mexico that you die three times.  The first is when your heart stops beating.  The second is when you can no longer be seen – the point where you’re buried or cremated.  The third, and perhaps this is the saddest, is when there is no one left alive who can remember you or your story.

It’s for this reason that one of the biggest holidays of the year in Mexico is Día de Muertos, better known in English as the Day of the Dead.  It is held each year between October 31 and November 2 and is a celebration of friends and family members who have passed away.  Many set up altars in their homes with are adorned with photos of the deceased as well as food, flowers and candles which serve as an offering.

Coco is centred on this Mexican tradition and writer-director Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) admitted to being nervous given he is not of Mexican or Latino descent.  It’s why he engaged a wide range of consultants to make sure it is culturally accurate and epitomises everything that the iconic holiday stands for.

The protagonist is Miguel (Gonzalez) – a 12-year-old loves music and yearns to be a great guitar player.  Unfortunately, his family have a much narrower view of the world.  All forms of music are banned in the household because of silly grudge that’s been passed down from generation to generation.  Rather than follow his dreams, it’s strongly expected that Miguel will follow his parents’ footsteps and become a shoemaker.  It’s the last thing he wants.

Miguel runs away from home and in the process, is magically transported into the Land of the Dead.  It may sound morbid but it’s a sophisticated, fun place where the deceased (who take the form of skeletons) live similar lives as they did previously.  There’s a catch though.  Once the last person who remembers you passes away in the Land of the Living, you disappear from the Land of the Dead and are never seen again.

Miguel’s brief foray into the afterlife puts him on a journey to locate and meet Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt), a very famous musician who he believes is his great-great grandfather.  He is guided by Héctor (Bernal), a not-so-well known skeleton who knows that he’s almost been forgotten on Earth and that his days are numbered.  In return for his help, Miguel agrees to place a photo of Héctor on an altar when he returns back home to ensure his memory remains.

As we’ve seen with films such as Inside Out, Up, WALL-E and Toy Story, the brilliant writers at Pixar Animation Studios keep coming up with fresh, wonderful original stories.  They don’t follow the mould of other animated features and they don’t flog the same themes again and again.  This is a beautifully touching tale that has a lot of say about celebrating the past and why me must remember those who have come before us.  It’s a creative family film with a strong emotional core.

Unkrich and his animation team also deserve praise for the way they have brought the Land of the Dead to “life”.  This is the first time we’ve seen walking, talking skeletons in a Pixar film and they look really cool (as opposed to creepy).  They make such a distinctive sound as they move around their bones bump up against each other.  The backgrounds are bright, colourful and there’s a great film score from Michael Giacchino (Up) that tugs on the heartstrings when the time is right.

I was struggling to pick my favourite animated feature of 2017 but with Coco sneaking into Australian cinemas just before the end of the year, the choice has become simple.