Thursday, December 14, 2017

Darkest Hour (and the rest of 2017's "Dunkirk Trilogy")

When I saw that Warner Brothers was re-releasing Dunkirk in Imax a couple weeks ago, both to give the theaters who were seeing Justice League admissions dropping off fast an alternative and to promote the upcoming home-video release, I began readying my jokes about doing a Dunkirkathon, but kept my powder dry just in case they didn't line up. AMC Boston Common cut its screenings back to matinees to make room for The Disaster Artist, but it wound up still doable, especially if you didn't mind a lengthy or very short wait between theatrical features. Hopefully, I didn't annoy too many people by suggesting people follow that theatrical double feature with a Their Finest chaser at home.

I'm no hypocrite.

I talk about the accents in Darkest Hour a fair amount, and I'm kind of intrigued at how the one given not just to Churchill but other upper-class characters (Chamberlain, Halifax, the King) seems to have barely survived to the present; the only time you hear it is from people playing Churchill, because the audio of his speeches has become so indelible. I'm kind of fascinated by it. Is it an affectation by English gentry trying to sound like their German-accented royals (it also reminds a present-day person of W.C. Fields, and now I wonder if he was trying to sound like British aristocracy only to have his voice outlast theirs)? Did it vanish as the monarchs, especially Elizabeth II, became more culturally English, and the aristocracy began aping that? Is it something like The Godfather, where real-life gangsters started talking more like Mario Puzo characters than vice versa, where both the infamous "transatlantic" accent and something more familiar being used in movies helped stomp it out?

I've got no idea. But it's a nifty choice to actually have all the posh folks talk in a way that is bizarrely different than the common folks even if Wright is kind of making that up.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #2 (re-release, digital Imax)

The second time through, I am pretty sure that the only thing that keeps Dunkirk from being an actual masterpiece is that its various young soldiers just trying to stay alive are completely and utterly interchangeable in behavior, speech, and appearance. I don't think they ever get names, and though it's impressive that writer/director Christopher Nolan doesn't really underline how the pieces fit together, it's frustrating that the connections between the three parallel stories seems so generic. As much as there's something to be said for a certain amount of anonymity in everybody doing their bit, it's not the strongest storytelling tool.

That said, the film is still a fantastic example of showing and not telling, not needing characters to explain themselves but letting us get to know them by what they do and how they do it. The action is immaculately staged, and I really hope Hans Zimmer's constant, unnerving score gets a bunch of award nominations this year. I will probably never listen to it on its own, but it's unlikely any background music will be more tightly integrated and essential this year. I kind of love Kenneth Branagh in his small part - he's got about five scenes, but they are note-perfect illustrations of what good leadership looks like - informed, decisive, and also kind.

It's unfortunate that the New England Aquarium no longer runs Hollywood movies on film-based IMAX, because while what played at Boston Common looked pretty good and sounded great - especially up front, the rumble was something one could feel in the best way - the picture nearly as beautiful as the 70mm print that the Somerville Theatre ran this summer, where the clarity of some images, most memorably when the plane coasts in at the end, was almost overwhelming. I half-suspect that it will look better than the Imax screening on the UltraHD disc when that comes out next week, even if that won't be in the same category as the film releases.

Original posting on Letterboxd (Hey, follow me on Letterboxd!)

Darkest Hour

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Of the (at least) three films to come out this year to use the evacuation of Dunkirk as a central point, Darkest Hour is in many ways the most conventional and award-friendly, a biography of a famed historical figure which gives a great actor the chance to transform himself. The posters say "Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill", and on that count, the film does not disappoint. That is, in absolute terms, not a negative - Joe Wright and his team have made a very good movie about a very interesting guy, and there is something more than hagiography going on here, but it certainly plays to a lot of expectations.

The "darkest hour" in question is May of 1940 - the Nazis have effectively conquered central and western Europe, with Belgium and France soon to fall, and Britain arguably next, as nearly the entire army was deployed to France and seems more likely to be conquered or killed than brought back to defend the island. The opposition party has called upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to resign, and while both the Tory leadership and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) would prefer Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as his successor - he, like Chamberlain, favors a negotiated peace - it's a coalition government and only Churchill (Oldman) will be acceptable to both major parties. So he is installed in a perilous situation - not only does he seem to underestimate just how hopeless the war is, but his own party has arguably set him up to fail.

Darkest Hour has to center on Churchill as a practical matter - he's a larger-than-life figure who would simply swallow the film if it didn't, and his actions are easily of most consequence. But often, it's the situation around him that's the most fascinating, as the elements in his own party that stepped aside immediately move to sabotage him. Though it's important not to read too much about the present day into movies about events that took place over seventy-five years ago, part of the reason this one might resonate is how history seems to be repeating; both American and British audiences may already be thinking about leaders seemingly more concerned with party politics than the actual urgent needs of their people right now. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten occasionally motion toward other aspects of the man - the specter of Gallipoli is given a more nuanced treatment than it was in Churchill a few months ago, and there are occasional acknowledgements by Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) - but they seem rather obligatory.

Full review on EFC.

Their Finest

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 December 2017 in Jay's Living Room (revisit, Blu-ray)

I posted immediately after watching this that it may be the best film in 2017's coincidental "Dunkirk Trilogy", and I readily admit that it's an unusual assertion to make: Dunkirk is the most formally ambitious, Darkest Hour more closely resembles what we expect a prestige film to look like. This - well, this is something that might have been filed under "comedy" when a movie could only have one tag in a video store, and it's easy to say that, if it succeeds by hitting its targets, that might be because it chooses easy ones.

I don't think that's quite fair, though - this is, in retrospect, a film that makes things look easy, in many cases by being kind of obvious early on so that it can be nuanced in how it steps away from it later. Consider, for instance, a scene early on where a cabinet minister played by Jeremy Irons is walking aroud the room, talking about the good this movie can do, and touches Gemma Arterton's Catrin as he mentions "the female audience". She flinches, and whether a viewer reads it as surprise or just another example of guys not respecting women's boundaries and bodies probably says something about his worldview. It wasn't until a second viewing that I connected that scene with one toward the end, where Bill Nighy's Ambrose visits a grieving Catrin to console her, and though he's being kind of pompous (as is his wont) though the characters have grown somewhat close, he doesn't presume to touch her. It's a small bit of respect that is probably one out of hundreds of things that I as a man am less likely to notice but likely resonates strongly with women.

Not that I'm giving it presumed extra credit for that - I love this movie pretty wholeheartedly. But I'll bet many people get even more out of it than I do.

Original EFC review from April

No comments: