REVIEW: “Darkest Hour” (2017)


Lest anyone be confused (and I highly doubt they will be) this is not a review of the atrocious doomsday alien invasion thriller from 2011. Instead this is director Joe Wright’s biographical wartime drama based on Winston Churchill’s early days as England’s Prime Minister. Quite a difference, right?

In early May of 1940 Hitler’s army has made major advances and now stands at the Belgian border preparing to push through in their efforts to conquer what remains of Europe. On May 9th a frustrated British Parliament demands the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain due to his weakness in the face of the rising Nazi threat.


Behind the scenes Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and his followers are still pulling the political strings. With the backing of King George (played by a perfectly tempered Ben Mendelsohn), Chamberlain seeks to put in someone who will continue to push his agenda. But it becomes clear there is only one man the divided parties will accept – Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

By now there should be no one doubting Gary Oldman’s tremendous range. He’s played a drugged-out dirty cop, a Russian terrorist, and a corrupt U.S. congressman. He’s played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula and now Winston Churchill. Thanks to the miracle of makeup and prosthetics as well as Oldman’s innate attention to detail, you instantly buy into this particular portrait of Churchill. The barely recognizable but thoroughly captivating Oldman delivers an Oscar-ripe performance that draws from his varied skill set.

The script is from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten whose previous work was the acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything”. Here he pours everything into his lead character. He gives Oldman plenty of opportunities to sink his teeth into the role without resorting to gimmicky “Awards-worthy” big moments. Also McCarten is smart enough not to overextend his story. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive biopic and the film’s tighter focus works.


A good chunk of the movie highlights the political wrangling Churchill faced by his opposition who desperately wanted peace talks with Hitler. It begins to feel a bit drawn out but most of it is pretty fascinating. And I really enjoyed the personal moments we get especially between Churchill and his wife Clementine (wonderfully played by Kristin Scott Thomas). There is also the relationship between Churchill and Elizabeth Nel (Lily James), a young typist who eventually became his personal secretary. Their scenes are nicely done and offer a window into a different side of Churchill.

“Darkest Hour” maneuvers through Churchill’s appointment to Prime Minister, the political tensions that undoubtedly wore him down, the looming Nazi threat, and Operation Dynamo which saw the evacuation of over 300,000 troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. But the movie never loses sight of the personal side of this larger than life character. At the same time Joe Wright offers up compelling and timely lessons on conviction, persuasion, and the power of bipartisanship – all things our current governments could learn from.



REVIEW: “Slow West” (2015)


“Once upon a time, 1870 to be exact, a 16-year old kid travelled from the cold shoulder of Scotland to the baking heart of America to find his love. His name was Jay. Her name was Rose”. This quick bit of narration opens and sets up the fairly simple story of “Slow West”. But while the story sounds pretty basic and familiar, it does several surprising things within its barely 80 minute running time.

“Slow West” is a Western with a European twist from first time writer and director John Maclean. Maclean plays with several of the genre’s well known staples, but he also brings several fresh ingredients to his film. Perhaps these contrasts are best realized in the two main characters. Jay (convincingly played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is driven by emotion, his love for Rose guiding his compass. He’s a bit of a dreamer, seeing the American West through a naive but unique and spirited lens. He is also out of element and ill equipped for the dangers in the new world. At one point he is referred to as “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves”.


Silas (Michael Fassbender) represents our familiar view of the Wild West. He’s a rough and tough bounty hunter who knows how to survive. But he has seen his sensibilities numbed and over time he has grown a bit calloused to the violence and dangers of his world. On a couple of occasions Jay simply refers to Silas as “a brute”. These two come together in a fitting way – with Silas saving Jay from a killer posing as a soldier. Jay then hires Silas for protection until he can find Rose.

The heart of the film is centered around this rather odd relationship. For Jay, Silas brings a reality check and an understanding that the West isn’t a pretty place. But at the same time Jay never loses his hope, optimism and spirit. For Silas, Jay reminds him of what it’s like to feel, to care, and to have emotion. Jay ‘s childlike exuberance clashes with Silas’ tough-as-leather exterior and begins to soften his hardened perspectives. Having this intriguing focus on the relationship gives a unique meaning to the different things they encounter along the way.


Another thing that sets this film apart is its covertly quirky tone. There is something slightly off (and I mean that in a really good way). And even more surprising, there are moments when the film is really funny showing off a daffy, Wes Anderson-esque sense of humor. It can be found in the subtle, dry wit or in some of the absurd situations which oddly feel at home in the film. Maclean weaves these lighter threads in with serious and sometimes violent ones much like we have seen in films from the Coen brothers.

“Slow West” was an absolute treat. A compelling story set within familiar Western boundaries but strikingly original in the paths it takes. The choice to film in New Zealand provides a gorgeous landscape while Fassbender and Smit-McPhee ground the story with solid performances. Even the always fun Ben Mendelsohn pops up later on. Innocence versus reality. Which wins in the end? A true spirit versus a cold callousness. Which is most important to have? “Slow West” plays with these questions and answers them in its own fun, compelling, and thoroughly entertaining way.


TEST star

REVIEW: “The Place Beyond the Pines”

PLACE Poster

The title may make it sound like a high-minded ethereal exercise, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is actually an ambitious movie that is one part cautionary tale and one part complex family drama. The film reunites its star Ryan Gosling with director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance who previously worked together on “Blue Valentine”. This is certainly a different kind of movie with many more layers and a much broader vision. That doesn’t always equal a better movie but in this case Cianfrance definitely takes a step up and his new film almost reaches the lofty heights it aims for.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” can basically be broken down into three parts. First we meet a motorcycle stunt performer named Luke Glanton (Gosling). He’s a tattooed, chain-smoking loner who goes town to town with a traveling carnival. During an annual stop in upstate New York Luke learns he has fathered a child with a local waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes). He decides to quit the carnival and stick around hoping to take care of son, but with no money or job that becomes difficult. He strikes up a friendship with Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) a local mechanic with an affection for robbing banks. A few bad choices later and Luke finds himself in a pretty tough spot.


Luke’s story connects to that of a young local police officer named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The second part of the film focuses on Avery after he is injured in the line of duty. He struggles with the actions that led to his injury and the “hero” tag that he has been given. As he recovers he fights to stay connected to his wife and young son. He also faces a battle between his moral conscious and some shady goings-on by his friends on the police force.

The third part of the film jumps ahead 15 years but to tell anything else about it would be doing a disservice to the viewer. Suffice it to say this is a film about two men, two families, two fathers, and two sons whose lives are veritably intertwined. The three segments each have their own unique tone and feel to them yet the connection between all three is always there. This was a bold approach to storytelling and I certainly can appreciate Cianfrance’s ambition. But the risk would only work if all three segments were equally good and unfortunately that’s not the case.

My favorite of the three “chapters” (for lack of a better word) was the first one which focused on Gosling’s character. This was a good surprise for me because unlike many people I’m not sold on him as an actor. We get a lot of his normal routine here – brooding, emotionless stares, and a lot of mumbling. But it actually fits a lot better with this character and Gosling does throw in a few variations that we rarely get from him. The story is compelling and features a gritty realism. I loved Mendelsohn here and Mendes is very good as well.


I also liked the second act which focused on Bradley Cooper’s character. It’s drastically different but deeply connected to what we’ve already seen. The contrasts in the lives of these two men are jarring yet there are similarities which I will let you sort out for yourselves. It’s during this chapter that the film does begin to slow down a bit but it still maintains a strong dramatic pull. But the final act tries to be a little too clever and the contrivances that are employed are all too obvious. There are parts of the final third that do work but as a whole the story becomes less interesting and it’s here that I began to feel the trudge of the movie’s 140 minute running time.

So what do I make of “The Place Beyond the Pines”? Ultimately it was a better movie than I anticipated but not one that fully meets its own high expectations. The camerawork is fantastic and the performances are solid across the board. Also, I never begrudge a filmmaker from making bold choices, but I don’t feel Cianfrance quite knew when to pull back the reins. In the end the film felt a little too cocky and indulgent for its own good. While that brought the movie down a bit it certainly didn’t undo the good qualities that we see particularly in the first two acts.