REVIEW: “Darkest Hour” (2017)

DARKESTPOSTER

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.

DARKEST1

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.

DARKEST2

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.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Child 44”

CHILD POSTER

“There are no murders in Paradise”. This is a phrase repeated several times in the period thriller “Child 44”. The line is a reference to the former Soviet practice of denying the existence of murders and serial killings within their Communist model. In the film we see the propaganda machine clash with a series of brutal child murders in Moscow and surrounding areas. The film is produced by Ridley Scott who was originally in line to direct. Instead the directing duties were handed to Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa.

“Child 44” is adapted from British writer Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 novel which was based on the serial killings of Andrei Chikatilo. The film begins by establishing the system and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Tom Hardy plays Leo Demidov, a decorated agent from the Ministry of State Security. His main job is enforcing the rigid laws and capturing anyone the government deems to be traitors. And we see their methods of law enforcement as manipulative, suppressive, and sometimes violent.

CH44_D16-3459.CR2

Then there is Leo’s relationship with his disillusioned wife Raisa (Noomi Rapace). When out with friends they look like the perfect couple, but she clearly shows a disconnect at home stirring up a number of suspicions within Leo. But in the background of the political and personal storylines, a growing number of murdered young boys’ bodies are turning up. The government wants to cover it up. Families are suffering. And eventually Leo finds himself caught in the middle.

I went into “Child 44” expected a murder mystery thriller. It is definitely that, but Richard Price’s screenplay ventures off into a number of different directions. The marital tensions between Leo and Raisa evolves into a deeper sidestory. A layered political drama builds throughout the film. Then there is the hunt for the serial killer. These and a few smaller subplots are interwoven within the fabric of the film resulting in the vision sometimes feeling clouded.

But the film leads us through this haze and unfolds each story angle, bringing them together in a deliberate, slow-burning method that clearly didn’t work for many. I love the tense political drama and its ominous, ever-present threat which bleeds into ever other facet of the film. There is a tension boiling behind every conversation large or small. There is a proactive paranoia within the bureaucracy which leads to some of the film’s more disturbing moments. And the oppressive nature of the politics hangs over the people like a shroud. It is very well done.

CHILD3

The same could be said of the strained and uncomfortable marriage between Leo and Raisa. The edge to their story angle gets sharper as the movie progresses and the film does a fine job of giving them moments to flesh out their relationship. A number of outliers and influences play into their angle taking it into some very interesting directions.

That leads to the central storyline – the murder mystery and the hunt for a savage serial killer. At least it appeared to be the central storyline based on the film’s promotion. Actually this story angle gets less screen time than the others which was disappointing. The urgency grows with each grim and unnerving discovery yet it languishes in the shadow of the other stories. It is intensely intriguing yet strangely handled. I mean even with a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it doesn’t feel like the film gives the murder mystery enough time or attention.

Plenty of criticisms were hurled towards some of the performances and particular casting choices. Gripes about the heavy accents and the decision to use predominately non-Russian actors. Honestly I think the film pulls it off nicely. A strong supporting cast features Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Joel Kinnaman, and a host of others.

Child2

But it is Tom Hardy’s fiercely committed performance that carries the picture. His blanched complexion and weary eyes gel well with his consistently serious and solemn demeanor. In fact I think he may smile once in the entire film and even then the sincerity is in question. Hardy harnesses all of his character’s inner conflicts and various states of mind and presents them all with a robust confidence. Its a great performance.

“Child 44” is considered a bomb. It bombed with critics. It bombed at the box office. But I just can’t go along with the majority of criticisms. Yes, the film is a slow-moving experience. Yes, the film often lacks a clear and specific focus. But never once was I bored by the pacing or lost due to its narrative structure. Clearly the screenplay and direction could have tightened things up a bit, but there is still so much the movie does right. It ends up being a unique and compelling procedural that I found satisfying even in its messiness. I’m happy to go against the grain with this one.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

DAWN POSTER

While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

DAWN1

Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

XXX DAWN-PLANET-APES-MOV-JY-3806-.JPG A ENT

Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Robocop” (2014)

ROBO POSTER

I can’t tell you how many times I watched the original “RoboCop” during my teen years. The 1987 sci-fi action flick was such a wild ride. It had a really cool mixture of wacky humor, slick satire, a great villain, and some insane (and frequently graphic) action sequences. Then I heard that MGM was bringing RoboCop back. Yes, yet another remake of a popular 1980’s movie. Then I see where this new RoboCop film was getting the dreaded February release date. All things pointed to this being a crappy movie.

But what a surprise it was to find this to be a cool and competent action movie. Let me say it again,”RoboCop” is surprisingly good and I am as shocked as anyone. This is essentially a reboot that takes many of the elements from the original film and adds a modern touch. It shuffles up the narrative a bit and it gets a fresh coat of CGI paint. But the core of the film is the same. It falls short of the first film in several areas, but it makes its own satisfying statement in others. Again, I was really surprised.

ROBO1

This “RoboCop” quickly lays out its politically charged landscape. The United States government has handed over its military reins to a multinational corporation known as OmniCorp. These guys have mastered advanced robot technology which allows for mechanical soldiers to replace humans. Their sales pitch points to how many lives have been saved in American military interests around the world. OmniCorp’s next big moneymaking venture is selling their products to local law enforcement. But a group of strong-willed senators and a very concerned public opinion stands in the way. This hodgepodge of political wrangling and big corporate greed is clearly intended as some sort of social satire. Well the message didn’t resonate with me, but it did set up an interesting landscape for the main story.

Speaking of the main story, this time around Swedish born actor Joel Kinnaman plays Detroit police detective Alex Murphy. He and his partner have been working undercover to bring down a local crime boss. But as he gets closer to blowing the top off the case, the bad guys get nervous and try to take Murphy out. A car bomb goes off leaving Murphy with severe burns, amputations, and no hope for survival. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) approaches Murphy’s wife Clara (played by the lovely Abbie Cornish) and offers to save her husband’s life by placing him in a permanent robotic suit. Of course Sellars real intent is to put a face on his robot program in hopes of swaying public opinion.

ROBO2

One thing I was looking forward to was the return of Michael Keaton to a larger big screen role. I’ve always loved him dating back to his early madcap comedy style. While he is written to be your standard corporate baddie, Keaton brings a certain slimy panache to the role. It was great to see him back. There was also the casting of Gary Oldman as a scientist who struggles with the moral complexity of the RoboCop project. It’s a great role for Oldman and as you would expect he is fabulous. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson who plays a loud and opinionated cable news talk show host. We only see him via his broadcast and he is funny in spurts. But by his fourth appearance I was tired of him.

The funny thing about this film is that it flirts with a number of satirical themes and the story teases going in several different directions. But it pulls back on a number of occasions choosing to play it safe. There are several interesting turns that really hooked me and I wanted them to go further than they actually do. Still, there was enough in and around the central story to keep me involved. Some of the plot directions are really effective and very well conceived.

ROBO3

But many people will go to “RoboCop” looking for some good, old-fashioned action. They will definitely get it here. Director José Padilha definitely knows how to shoot action. There are some butt-kicking standout sequences, none better than a wicked shootout in a pitch black gang hideout. It’s stylish, kinetic, and a ton of fun. The technology is cool, the RoboCop suit looks great, and there are several other visual flares that I loved. For example one scene shows what is left of Murphy once he is stripped of his armor. It’s a wild and disturbing special effect that also fuels one of the movie’s bigger emotional moments.

So many of these modern remakes have turned out terrible (I’m looking at you “Red Dawn” and “Total Recall”). The good news is “RoboCop” certainly isn’t terrible. It isn’t as provocative is it wants to be. It isn’t as clever as it tries to be. It isn’t as witty as it needs to be. But it is more fun than I ever expected it to be. There is some great action, some really good performances, and enough depth to the story to make it a worthwhile science fiction romp. Don’t expect a deep cerebral experience. After all this is RoboCop. But I can honestly say, that it had a lot more to offer than I was ever expecting.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

THE THROWDOWN : Zombies vs. Vampires

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week “Annie Hall” (56%) took out “Midnight in Paris” (44%) in the Woody Allen deathmatch*

In keeping with the Halloween season, today’s Throwdown focuses on two stalwarts of the horror genre. Whether you’re a fan of horror pictures or not, undoubtedly you have seen movies featuring zombies and movies featuring vampires. Both have roots in classic horror films, both have been spoofed, both had been parts of huge franchises. But this is all about the battle. Today we’re putting the living dead in the ring with the blood suckers to determine which are the better horror movie terrors. A great case could be made for both, but ultimately it’s you that will decide. Vote now!

ZOMBIES VS. VAMPIRES

There have been variations of zombies in the movies for years. But they really made their way into the limelight in 1968 in George Romero’s horror movie classic “Night of the Living Dead”. Since then, zombies have found their way in hundreds of films. But they’ve also been spotlighted in comic books, video games, and television shows. But their real position prominence came from the big screen and you can almost expect a new zombie movie of some kind every year. There have been loads of sequels to Romero’s classic film. But we’ve seen different approaches to zombies from a variety of films such as “28 Days Later”, “Resident Evil”, and “The Evil Dead” just to name a few. But there have also been zombie spoof films that are tons of fun, movies like “Zombieland”, “Dead Alive”, and “Shaun of the Dead”. So there are no shortage of zombies in the movies and personally I’m happy to hear it.

You can trace vampires in the movies all the way back to the silent movie era. I mean who can forget the classic “Nosferatu”? And Bela Lugosi’s Dracula was a driving force during the Universal movie monsters craze in the 1930’s. While vampires did hit a lull in popularity, they are certainly back with a vengeance and you can see them in a huge variety of films. To prove the point just look at the variety of people who have played big roles in movies as vampires – Gary Oldman, Keifer Sutherland, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Lee, Leslie Nielsen, Tom Cruise, Wesley Snipes, and even Pee Wee Herman! But even more than zombies, vampires have leaked over into several other genres including comedies and even teen romance flicks (unfortunately). Movie lovers have a fascination with vampires and it’s easy to see why. And with the current creature of the night craze, don’t expect any shortage of vampire movies in the near future.

So what say you? Are you partial to the walking dead or the blood suckers? You decide who comes out on top as the better movie monster. Is it the zombies or the vampires? VOTE NOW!

“LAWLESS” – 4 STARS

Just seeing the list of great names attached to “Lawless” easily made it one of my most anticipated films of 2012. I’m a huge fan of Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, and Gary Oldman. The thoughts of them in a Prohibition-era action flick had me giddy with excitement. But I also had one serious concern about the movie and that was Shia LaBeouf in the lead role. I’ve never been impressed with his acting and I couldn’t help but wonder if he could hold his own in the company of such great talent. While LaBeouf was certainly better than I expected, he was swallowed up by some really strong performances around him. But thankfully that wasn’t enough to keep “Lawless” from being a highly entertaining piece of American pulp.

Australian John Hillcoat, also known for “The Road” and “The Proposition”, directs the film with fellow Aussie Nick Cave handling the screenplay. Their story is set in the hills of Franklin County, Virginia and follows the Bondurant boys – three brothers who make their living bootlegging moonshine during the Prohibition years. Forrest (Hardy) is the tough, hard-nosed leader of the bunch. Howard (Jason Clarke) works alongside Forrest. Then there’s Jack (LaBeouf) who at one time is described as “the runt of the litter”. The brothers get by alright with their own system of running moonshine, at least until a vicious Special Agent Rakes (Pearce) is sent in to clean up the hills. Rakes immediately clashes with Forrest and before long the hills erupt into violence.

Of the brothers’ stories, its Forrest’s that’s considerably more entertaining even though Jack’s takes up more of the movie. Forrest is a tough-as-nails brute but he also knows how to handle their business. Hardy chews up every scene he’s in with his grunts and mutterings as well as his intimidating stares and low-key dialogue. He’s also not afraid to use brutality with his brass knuckles or razors. But even he is tamed a bit by Maggie (Chastain), a former dancer who moves to the community to escape the troubles of the big city. Boy did she pick the wrong place. I enjoyed the romance that developed between the two. Chastain gives a great performance and she matches Hardy scene for scene and line for line.

The same can’t be said for LaBeouf and his Jack character. As I alluded to, LaBeouf is better than I expected and, to be fair, he’s at times quite good. But he just can’t hold his own especially when alongside Hardy. He is helped by the story which doesn’t build his toughness beyond the bounds of believability. It fact it’s his weakness and desire to prove himself to his brothers that turns out to be the most compelling part of his character. He’s attracted to a local minister’s daughter (Mia Wasikowska) and the two eventually fall for each other. But overall their romance feels inconsequential and adds little to the story. On the other hand, I did enjoy his scenes with his friend Cricket (wonderfully played by Dane DeHaan of “Chronicle” from earlier this year). And he also encounters a powerful mobster named Floyd Banner played by Gary Oldman. Oldman is really good even though he’s given almost nothing to do.

But the biggest delight is Guy Pearce. He’s sensational as the creepy and psychotic special agent who abuses his power and who will stop at nothing to take out those who cross him. Pearce’s high hairline with its accentuated part down the middle, shaved eye brows, and prim and proper wardrobe gives him a distinct eccentric look. But it’s also Pearce’s mannerisms, unhinged chuckles, and the way he carries himself the gives the character a sinister presence. He has some of the film’s best scenes, none better than the tension-filled first meeting between Rakes and Forrest. Pearce is simply fantastic and this is an Oscar worthy supporting performance.

Another huge plus for “Lawless” is the incredible production design. The movie features such a realistic and atmospheric recreation of the hilly, poverty-stricken, 1930’s moonshine territory. Every scene is soaked with period details and the lush, vibrant locations make everything feel authentic. Hillcoat’s unfiltered Franklin County is rusty, dirty, and dangerous. From the opening credits I found myself completely drawn in by the period look. The wardrobes, the automobiles, the rundown shacks – everything contributes to the pitch-perfect aesthetic.

“Lawless” is a tough, bloody, and violent action picture that’s very honest in what it’s trying to be. The story is simple and nothing will catch you by surprise. But it’s also compelling and the characters are easy to invest in. The movie does hit a little lull in the middle and we actually get a skip ahead montage to set up the simply ok ending. But the film still packs plenty of pop and there are some tremendous performances that will stick with you, particularly from Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce who may have given us the best villain in the movies this year. “Lawless” is both poetic and visceral and even though it just misses being a real classic, it’s still a true Southern Gothic treat.