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Oscars 2017 Best Picture Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is the story of Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman) and his struggle to convince the people of the UK that fighting Hitler is the right thing to do.

Usually around the latter part of the year, historical dramas are common for release. Darkest Hour is one, focusing on Winston Churchill and World War II. The question is does it fare well as a film? And does it have relevance to the present?

The film is set in May 1940. World War II had just begun eight months ago with the fall of Poland. France is next. The film hits hard in the UK as they fear war is looming. It hits so hard, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is pressured by the opposing Labour Party to resign for not doing enough. Neville needs to find a successor, but his first choice, Lord Halifax, declines. He goes for his second choice: Winston Churchill.

Now Winston Churchill was seen as a bad choice as the successor to Chamberlain. He has a bad record with his roles in the Admiralty, the Gallipolli Campaign During The First World War, his views on India, and his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis. Even his own personal manner is of question as he is oafish and has a reputation for infidelity and a quick temper. He’s even temperamental to his new secretary when she mishears him, but his wife Clementine gets him to come to his senses.

King George VI encourages Churchill to form a coalition government along with Halifax and Chamberlain. Churchill’s first response to Hitler’s invasion of France is fast and immediate: no surrender to Hitler and fight if we have to. He made it clear on May 13 1940 in his ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ speech.

The speech is not well-received by the Parliament. They think he’s delusional. The Nazi army is too powerful. It even gets flack from King George VI. The French Prime Minister thinks he’s delusional for not admitting the Allies lost in the Battle Of France. People in his party offer Churchill to accept Hitler’s offer to negotiate for a peaceful end to the War, but Churchill declines. He does not trust Hitler.

The situation gets frustrating to the point both Halifax and Chamberlain are looking to use the Italian Ambassador as a route to negotiate peace with Hitler. Both plan to resign from the Government if Churchill doesn’t comply, hoping to cause a ‘vote of non-confidence’ to allow Halifax to become Prime Minister. Meanwhile Churchill is trying to seek support from the US with President Franklin Roosevelt, but he declines as the US signed an international agreement preventing military action in Europe years ago.

However war is pressing. The UK find themselves in battles in Dunkirk and Calais. Churchill, against the wishes of the War Brigade, orders a 30th Infantry Brigade in Calais to organize a suicide attack to distract the Nazis allowing the soldiers in Dunkirk to evacuate.

The defeat at Calais causes the War Cabinet to want to negotiate with Germany. However as Churchill is about to make his way to Parliament, he receives support from his wife, support from King George VI fearing exile if Germany wins, and support from a group of citizens in the London Underground he takes to parliament. Even members of the Outer Cabinet and other members of Parliament give him their support. News comes that the evacuation in Dunkirk ‘Operation Dynamo’ is successful. At parliament in front of cabinet members and members of the War Cabinet, Churchill delivers his speech of ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ to the support and applause of all, even Halifax and Chamberlain.

Lately there have been a lot of biographical films that don’t thoroughly focus on the person’s life, but instead focuses on the one moment that defined them as a person. We saw in Lincoln how getting the Emancipation Proclamation made constitutional and the political fight to get it done is what defined Abraham Lincoln the most. We saw in Capote that it was the making of In Cold Blood that would become Truman Capote’s biggest legacy of a writer, and would eventually lead to his downfall. Here we see the period of one month how Churchill couldn’t just simply say that Hitler needed to be fought, but had to convince the people and especially the parliament that fighting him is the right thing.

Such a situation in our world history is not uncommon. If you remember Lincoln, you will remember that Abraham Lincoln had to do political campaigning in order to get the Emancipation Proclamation made constitutional. The Proclamation itself was up for vote in the House. Just a reminder that even the most righteous political laws still have to go through the same political processes. Even for powerful speeches, it’s about saying it at the right time and the results to follow. We may remember how back in 1987, Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This is something JFK could have told Nikita Khruschev to do, or Nixon telling Brezhnev to do, or even Reagan himself telling Brezhnev or Andropov to do, but it would not result. The Soviet leaders were just that stubborn and dead-set on their rigid ways and dismiss what the POTUSes said at hot air. But Reagan said that just during a time when it appeared the Cold War appeared to be thawing and Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader to appear cooperative with the US, but not without its friction. That sentence is memorable because the Wall did come down in a matter of two years.

Here in Darkest Hour, we see another example of how words that are true in conviction and the right thing to say still faced political opposition. When Churchill was placed as Prime Minister, he didn’t waste time in speaking his opposition to Hitler and that the UK should not surrender. However those in the office all thought his words were deluded. They knew of the Nazi army and the invasions it’s caused already in less than a year. Hitler and the Nazi army were just that menacing. They also saw the efforts, or lack thereof, from the previous Prime Minister fail. On top of that, France had just fallen to the Nazis. They were simply afraid.

It was easy for people to think of Churchill’s words as deluded. He already had a reputation in the British parliament of being quite the buffoon. In fact the opening scene of the film shows his buffoonish nature. Churchill knew in his heart that the UK had to fight the Nazis, but he had to convince the British parliament. And he had to do it fast. Over time, more tyranny from the Nazis occurred and the UK was feeling the heat. Churchill was denied support from US president Franklin Roosevelt because of an agreement signed the year before. That negotiation for peace from the Germans would seem like something one would cave into and it was easy to see why the British politicians thought it right, even though we all know it to be wrong.

The last fifteen minutes of the film just as Churchill is about to deliver the ‘fight on the beaches’ is a very powerful scene as it shows how Churchill is able to win support in his stance from his wife, the King of England and even people on the subway as he makes his way to parliament. I don’t know if that really happened to Churchill in real life, but that subway scene is a powerful scene. Sometimes I think that scene is telling me that all too often, the common person has a better sense of what’s right than the people in power.

For the most part, the film is as much of a biographical drama as it is an historic drama. The film is very much about the speeches of Churchill and the start of the mission of British forces to fight Nazi Germany. The film not only focuses on Churchill’s quest to fight in the war, but his quest to convince the people in political power to believe him. It focuses on Churchill as a man of great conviction, but also a man of noticeable flaws. That had a lot to do with why people first thought he was a madman or deluded. It reminds you that a head of state can sometimes be reduced to a pawn in their political building. The film does remind people of the common saying that: ‘What’s right isn’t always what’s popular and what’s popular isn’t always what’s right.” Churchill knew in his heart he was right, but he had to fight to make it believed by all. It was necessary as the Battle of Dunkirk would soon happen

It’s interesting how Darkest Hour is release in the same year Dunkirk is. I find it very appropriate because it was actually just right after the Battle Of Dunkirk and the subsequent evacuation that Churchill delivered his speech of “We shall fight on the beaches.” The fight on the beaches of Dunkirk and the evacuation and rescue mission was the first significant sign of what the UK needed to do to win against the Nazis. Churchill was there to pay all respect to those heroes, the survivors and fatalities, who were a part of it.

Director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten deliver a very good historical story. However there are times when it does feel like it’s completely restricted to being about Winston Churchill. I understand what the story is all about, but they could have explored some additional angles to go with it. Without a doubt, the film is owned by Gary Oldman. He does an excellent job of delivering a performance of Winston Churchill. His depiction of Churchill first appears cartoonish at the beginning, but the depth and dimension develops over the film and he really comes out shining.

Although the film is dominated by the portrayal of Winston Churchill, there are supporting performances from Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton that are able to steal the moment. Also capturing the moment are Ben Mendelsohn as King George who slowly supports Churchill and Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain who supports Churchill despite his own political downfall. The film also does an excellent job in the technical aspects such as the Production Design to reconstruct parliament, costuming from Jacqueline Durran and the makeup and hairstylists to fit the era, the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel and the musical score from Dario Marianelli which capture the intensity and triumphs of the moments.

Darkest Hour is more than just an historical drama or biographical drama. It’s an excellent film about standing by your convictions without crossing the line of being preachy.

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Movie Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one1

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso: the heroine of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.

Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.

Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.

The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.

Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.

They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.

The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.

Film Review: Slow West

Slow West is of a bounty hunter, played by Michael Fassbender (right), helping a Scottish émigré, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (left), reunite with the woman he loves.

Slow West is of a bounty hunter, played by Michael Fassbender (right), helping a Scottish émigré, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (left), reunite with the woman he loves.

Slow West is not your typical western. It also comes off as a love story that’s more than meets the eye.

Jay Cavendish is a sixteen year-old Scottish boy in the frontiers of America. He recently arrived over there in pursuit of Rose Ross, his love from back home who also fled to America along with her father. The frontiers are deadly but Jay is determined to find her. Jay finds himself prey by strangers who were first trying to kill a Native American but is stopped by a bounty hunter named Silas Selleck.

Jay tells Silas his story of his pursuit and even pays him for protection. Silas cooperates at first but when he sees the wanted poster for Rose and her father, he decides to use it for his own pursuit for the bounty of $2,000 and use Jay to get it. During the time, Silas tells Jay about the importance of keeping his guard and why killing is necessary out there. It then becomes evident when a Swedish couple try to rob a store Jay and Silas are shopping at. The man and the owner are shot while Jay is up against the woman. He shoots her, his first murder. That wasn’t all. The couple had their children with them to which Jay and Silas give them food and clothes before leaving them behind.

In the flashback to before Jay and Rose came to America, we learn Jay was a boy of noble birth in Scotland and had a huge love for common girl Rose but deep down Rose thought of him more to be like a ‘little brother.’ One day an intense argument between Rose’s father and Jay’s uncle, the Lord Cavendish, led to the uncle being killed. That’s what led Rose and her father to flee to America with the bounty on their heads.

In a conversation, Jay finds Silas a brute because he doesn’t appear to care about love and seems to only care about ‘surviving.’ Jay leaves one night with his horse and goods but meets up with a writer named Werner who appears to befriend him only to rob him overnight. Silas is able to find Jay and the two return only to be confronted by the gang Silas used to belong to and its leader Payne who plans to beat Silas to catching Rose and her father. Payne even steals their weapons overnight. Unbeknown to Jay and Silas is that Payne and the gang have the orphaned children of the Swedish couple from the robbery.

SPOILER WARNING: The ending will be revealed in the below paragraph.

The two continue on unarmed until they enter a forest. They find themselves prey among a Native American tribe but are saved by the luck of them falling off horses. In the meantime, Payne and the gang pursue Rose and her father who are living in a desolate farm house protected. However the father is shot to death and Silas wants to pursue Payne and his gang alone tying Jay to a tree for his protection. Jay is able to free himself but finds himself in the battle where he is shot by Rose who doesn’t recognize him at first. After a gritty gun battle Silas kills Payne’s gang while a dying Jay is able to kill Payne while comforted by Rose. Silas is shocked to find Jay dead but later on becomes Rose’s love and adopts the orphaned Swedish children.

When you see the whole film, you could easily see it`s not your typical western. Yes, there is gunshooting going on. However the film focuses on motives of the shooting. It focuses on the people and why they`re committing these murders. It can be either for personal greed or vengeance or simply to help themselves and their loved ones survive. Another interesting thing the film focuses on is the wide variety of characters involved in this Wild West scenario. There were your typical villains but there were others like the immigrant couple robbing a store to feed themselves and their starving children. This was a reminder that even the first immigrants the US in the 1800`s had to fight to survive in the New World.

Mind you the shooting in the film isn’t meant to stir up the excitement you’d normally acquire while watching a Western. Instead it focuses on the gun battle’s intensity and gets the audience feel the heat of the friction instead of being dazzled away by the gunslinging. In each case, you’re left with an aftermath that’s ugly. Seeing the bodies on the ground is more disheartening to the viewer instead of satisfaction that the job is done. I guess that’s why the film is called Slow West, because the ruthlessness and friction of the Wild West here is slowed down and the intensity is felt instead of just seen.

The film also focuses on the theme of love during a time and place where it appears people have no heart of soul. Jay is so determined to get back to his love Rose even though her and her father have a bounty on them. It took Jay to convince a bounty hunter who was only interested in using Jay as bait for Rose and her father about what love is. Over time they see the fight to survive and the lack of scruples in the people that surround them during their trip. However it`s Jay that convinced Silas of the power of love even if Jay appeared to be too naïve and deluded for his own good. It`s a common theme in a lot of films that show love in what appears to be a moral wasteland. I’ve seen it before in City Of God where love and hope exist in one of the most brutal favelas of Brazil. Here in Slow West we see love in the lawlessness of the Wild West. Even if Jay`s heart `beat in the wrong places,` he changed the older bounty hunter Silas and his heart. You know it when he says at the end: “There’s more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life.”

This is actually the first feature-length film directed and written British director John Maclean. He does a very impressive job by packing a lot of intensity into an 85-minute story. For those who don’t know, John is actually a former guitarist for the Beat Band and The Aliens before turning to film directing. Michael Fassbender does a great job of character acting in his supporting role and Kodi Smit-McPhee is also excellent as the young Jay in capturing both his acquiring of the necessary ruthless grit over time while still keeping his passion and innocence. Impressive supporting performances come from Ben Mendelsohn as Payne and Caren Pistorius as Rose. Even minor performances like the Swedish couple committing the robbery and the Congolese singers add to the story.

The film has already won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in the Dramatic category and has above 90% on Rotten Tomatoes but the film has not been successful in winning a crowd. Not even $250,000. It`s not fair to say Sundance winners are declining at the box office, even though such films have shown a lack of buzz compared to 20 years ago or even 15 years ago. However this film was overshadowed by the Sundance hit comedy Me And Earl And The Dying Girl which ad no star power at all. It`s always hard to predict what will win with the crowds. Right now there’s no data on how much online viewing of the film has happened.

Slow West doesn’t have the fast-pace action one would expect from a Western. Instead its slowness and intensity are its best qualities which allows the audient to feel the grit of the situation and the feelings of its main characters. Qualities that make the story.