Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Darkest Hour (dir by Joe Wright)


The 2017 best picture nominee, Darkest Hour, opens with Europe at war.

While the United States remains officially neutral, the Nazi war machine marches across Europe.  After years of appeasement, the United Kingdom has finally declared war on Germany but the feeling in Parliament is that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is not strong enough to take on Hitler.  When the Opposition demands that Chamberlain resign, Chamberlain does so with the hope that he’ll be replaced by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane).  Like Chamberlain, Halifax continues to hold out hope for some sort of negotiated peace with the Germans.  However, Halifax declines, saying that it’s not yet his time.  Instead, Chamberlain’s successor is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), the only Conservative that the Opposition is willing to accept as Prime Minister.

(This is a bit of invention on the part of the filmmakers.  In reality, the Opposition did demand Chamberlain’s resignation but they did not stipulate that he could only be replaced by Churchill.)

No one is particularly enthusiastic about the idea of Winston Churchill becoming prime minister.  Chamberlain and Halifax both view him as being a war monger who is so determined to prove himself as a military strategist that he’ll sacrifice thousands of British lives just for his own glory.  The King (Ben Mendelsohn) worries that Churchill is an unreliable radical and he still resents Churchill for defending the marriage of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.  Churchill is regularly described as being a buffoon and an eccentric.  He’s quick-tempered and obsessive about things that many people would consider to be of no importance.  When we first see Churchill, he’s making his new assistant (played by Lily James) cry because he’s discovered that she single-spaced a memo as opposed to double-spacing it.  The only people who seem to like Winston are the member of his family and even his loyal wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is frequently frustrated with him.

Churchill’s enemies are not impressed by his first actions as prime minister.  They listen in disgust as he lies about the prospects of victory in France.  They are shocked by his refusal to even consider a negotiated peace.  They are horrified by his ruthless pragmatism as he willing sacrifice a thousand British soldiers in order to save several thousand more at Dunkirk.  An aristocrat who has been rejected by his peers, Churchill is betrayed by those serving in his government but beloved by the people who ride the Underground and who are being asked to potentially sacrifice everything to defeat Hitler’s war machine.

As directed by Joe Wright, Darkest Hour plays out like a dream, with 1940s Britain recreated in hues of black and gray.  The film’s visual palette is so dark that, at times, Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill appears to literally emerge out of the shadows, an almost mythical figure who symbolizes a society in transition.  In many ways, Churchill is an old-fashioned Edwardian who nostalgically remembers the glory days of the British Empire.  At the same time, Churchill is enough of a realist to see that the world is changing and, regardless of who wins the war, that it will never be the same.  Churchill is enough of an aristocrat to be unaware of what a backwards V-sign means but also enough of a commoner to laugh uproariously upon learning its meaning.

Churchill spends a good deal of the film bellowing and, at times, it’s easy to see why many initially dismissed him as being a buffoon.  Indeed, in Darkest Hour, Churchill frequently is a buffoon.  But he’s also a pragmatic leader who truly loves his country and its people.  Oldman has a lot of scenes where he’s loud but he also has other scenes in which he reveals Churchill to be a thoughtful man who loves his country and who is determined to win a war that many believe to be unwinnable.  When he’s reduced to calling the United States and has to pathetically beg President Roosevelt to honor a treaty, you feel for Churchill and you share his frustration as he tries to get the flaky FDR to understand the reality of what’s happening in Europe.  When Churchill explains why he’s willing to sacrifice a thousand in order to save 41,000 more, Oldman delivers his lines with a steely certainty.  As played by Oldman, Churchill knows what has to be done, even if no one else has any faith in him.

It’s a good film, even if it ultimately feels more like a showcase for one actor than a cohesive narrative.  The rest of the cast does a good job, especially Ronald Pickup as the haunted and dying Neville Chamberlain.  But ultimately, Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman’s show.  That’s appropriate.  Much as how Churchill dominated British politics, Gary Oldman has dominated British acting.  Not surprisingly, Gary Oldman won his first Oscar for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.  The film was also nominated for best picture but it lost to Shape of Water.

 

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.

Shattered Politics #76: Good Night, and Good Luck (dir by George Clooney)


Goodnight_posterOne of my favorite episodes of South Park is called Smug Alert!  As you may remember, this is the episode where the citizens of South Park all buy hybrid cars and end up getting so self-satisfied that a dangerous cloud of smug forms over the town.  At the same time, another smug storm is racing across the United States.  This smug storm was created by the speech that George Clooney gave when he won the Oscar for Syriana.  When those two clouds of smug meet, it’s the perfect storm.  It also ends up destroying San Francisco.

The same year that Clooney was named Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, he was also nominated for directing the 2005 best picture nominee, Good Night, and Good Luck.  In his speech, Clooney specifically said that he felt he was winning supporting actor to make up for not winning director and proceeded to give the speech that he would have given if he had won director.

And looking back, I think that we do have to admit that it was a very smug speech.

Fortunately, Good Night, and Good Luck has aged better than Clooney’s speech.

I do have to admit that, when I recently rewatched Good Night and Good Luck, I was a little concerned.  I always manage to forget that the film starts on a really bad note.  The year is 1958 and news anchorman Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) is receiving an award.  As Murrow stands behind the podium, he proceeds to give a long and self-righteous speech about how television should be used not to entertain but to educate as well.  And, quite frankly, he comes across like such a pompous blowhard that I was dreading the idea of having to spend the next 90 or so minutes with him.

But then, fortunately, the film entered into flashback mode and, until the final few minutes of the film, we didn’t have to listen to anymore of Murrow’s speech.  The majority of Good Night and Good Luck takes place in 1953.  U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (who appears in archival footage throughout the film) has declared that he has the names of communists who hold important positions in both the government and the media.  Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney) defy the corporate overlords of CBS and bravely investigate and challenge McCarthy’s claims.  McCarthy and his henchmen respond by trying to smear both Murrow and one of his reporters (Robert Downey, Jr.) as a communists.  As always seems to happen in films about McCarthyism, another supporting character reacts to the change of communism by committing suicide.  And, in this particular vision of the fight against Joseph McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow and the media save America.

Of course, if you actually make the effort to learn history, you’ll discover that it wasn’t just Edward R. Murrow who stood up to McCarthy.  In fact, you’ll discover that Murrow stood up to McCarthy after several other prominent people — on both sides of the political divide — had already done so.  If anything, the real-life Murrow seems to have more in common with pompous scold seen at the beginning and end of the film, as opposed to the one that we see standing up to McCarthy.

One can very legitimately debate whether or not Murrow deserves all of the credit that he’s given in this film.  Still, the film does make a larger and very important point.  We, as Americans, have to always be on guard against witch hunts and against demagogues and the forces of fear and paranoia that are always trying to shape our politics.  And, whether or not Murrow was a hero or just a bystander, one cannot deny that the larger message of Goodnight, and Good Luck remains as relevant today as when the film was originally released.

Judging from some of his other films — The Monuments Men and the Ides of March — I don’t particularly feel that George Clooney is that good of a director.  But he does do a good job with Good Night and Good Luck.  (In fact, he does such a good job that you can’t help but feel that it’s the exception to the rule as far as Clooney the director is concerned.)  Filmed in wonderful black-and-white and full of good performances, Good Night, and Good Luck remains surprisingly watchable.

Just avoid any George Clooney Oscar speeches while watching it.  San Francisco has never recovered.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters : “Godzilla”


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Here’s the thing when it comes to any and all Westernized takes on Japan’s most famous movie monster — Hollywood’s just never going to “get it” because, frankly, it can’t. Oh, sure, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla is head and shoulders above Roland Emmerich’s 1998 abomination of a film, but the simple fact is that the Big Green Guy and all of his scaly, serpentine brethren that came to us courtesy of the venerable Toho studios were, at their core, celluloid manifestations of a deep-seated atomic angst that only a country that had been on the receiving end of, as Sting put it, “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” could ever really give birth to. And while Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa character does, in fact, explicitly mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki in this flick, it’s pure window dressing — Edwards and screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham didn’t actually live through a time when they had to actively wonder what sort of nuclear fission-induced mutations were lurking beneath the waves just a few miles offshore, so they just can’t communicate that sort of unease with the same authenticity that the original Godzilla did.

And to those who would argue that a young Japanese filmmaker wouldn’t be able to imbue a project such as this with any more immediacy than Edwards does because they wouldn’t have lived though those horrific final days of WWII either, I’ve got one word for you : Fukushima.

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There’s also something about CGI in these flicks that always has, and always will, suck, no matter how “good” it is : you know, in the back of your mind, that it’s just not there. To be sure, Edwards and his visual effects crew do a bang-up job of realizing their monster once they do, finally, reveal him, but no matter how “unrealistic” watching the original Godzilla smash cardboard miniatures of buildings may be by today’s standards, it still feels more “real” than the essentially flawless computer graphics of 2014 can ever hope to. But maybe that’s just me —-

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Still, don’t get the wrong idea : I’m not so much “down on” the new Godzilla as I am completely indifferent to it. To be sure, Edwards’ heart seem to be in the right place here, and he’s very likely doing the best job that he can do — it’s just that his best is nowhere near good enough. A slow-burn plot doesn’t help matters much, either, and while I’m all for a prolonged buildup that leads to a big payoff, frankly the “character arcs” of all the principal players are so dull and uninvolving that when Compu-Zilla finally does make the scene, it feels more like a relief from soap opera-style tedium than anything else. Thankfully, there’s some effectively-realized mass destruction to bump up the “wow” factor a bit, and Godzilla doesn’t turn out to a solo act (that’s all I’ll say about that), but it’s still definitely a case of “too little, too late” as far as excitement here goes and a smorgasbord of good performances (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, and the aforementioned Ken Watanabe) and bad (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves having equally gone, more or less, to waste when the proverbial train finally leaves the station.

Plot recaps probably make as much sense here as they do for a Hulk comic book — sure, the set-up matters on some level, but it’s all about “Hulk smash!” at the end of the day, isn’t it? Suffice to say that the main reason the various intermingling sub-plots here really don’t work is because the film goes from small-scale to so-big-it’s-off-the-scale at the drop of hat, with no transition period in between for either the characters or the audience. It’s all just a bit jarring — but maybe that’s not such a bad thing when I think about it because, truth be told, I was getting a little sleepy.

The “who are the real monsters?” theme that Edwards toys with is frankly a little bit old, too, and honestly represents something of a cop-out ( and here’s where my “Westerners will never get this right” thesis comes into play, by the way) :  sure, humans are bad news, we’re destroying everything, etc. I know that. But some of us are worse than others, and any side willing to drop a nuclear bomb and murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people in order to “win” a war is due for some special criticism, in my view . The makers of the original Godzilla understood that fact, even if they couldn’t say so explicitly, while in the franchise’s 2014 iteration we just all suck. No one, specifically, is to blame, and hey, it’s too late for recriminations anyway when you’ve got an overgrown reptile tearing up the town. Or something like that.

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Still, the film’s third act is enough to make even a hardened cynic like me gasp in awe on numerous occasions, and the “childlike wonder factor,” for lack of a batter term, really does kick into high gear here as events steamroll toward their conclusion. It’s worth the price of admission for the awesome (even if it is computer-generated) spectacle the final 45-or-so-minutes deliver. Sure, I wish we’d gotten nothing but a bad ride on a  bumpy road from start to finish, but I guess I’m still willing to take what I can get. Felling like you’re 12 years old all over again for even a little while is better than never feeling like it at all.

And yet — in addition to being this film’s greatest (perhaps even only) saving grace, perhaps that last act is also its greatest weakness, because it exposes the essential, unavoidable truth at the heart of Edwards’ Godzilla : it’s good enough to make you remember why you love monster movies in the first place, but nowhere near good enough to actually be one of those monster movies  that you love.

Godzilla – Attack at Pacific Promo Scene


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It is just a week to go before the premiere of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla and the marketing has begun to go into overdrive.

In addition to trailers and the latest tv spots, Warner Bros. has begun to release clips and behind-the-scenes to help announce the latest arrival of the King of Monsters.

We have here a brief clip that shows the Big Guy taking on the U.S. Navy as it tries to defend Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay it straddles. This marks two straight years that the Golden Gate Bridge has been threatened and/or destroyed by these damn kaiju.

Trailer: Godzilla (Asia Edition)


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Gareth Edwards’ upcoming Godzilla film has been gaining some major hype and buzz since last year’s Comic-Con and with each new teaser and trailer that the studio releases. Yet, outside of more and more looks at the King of Monsters himself we really haven’t seen anything to tell us that there will be other kaiju in this film.

Well, this latest trailer released for the Asian market finally answers the question of whether Godzilla will be wreaking destruction on human cities by himself or doing so while fighting other kaiju. From this latest trailer we see several glimpses of other giant monsters with a flying one being the most obvious. Some think this could be a new iteration of Godzilla rival and sometimes ally Rodan, but I’m hoping that it’s something new and that Rodan and other famous kaiju from past Godzilla films get introduced in later films (if there’s to be any).

Godzilla is set for a May 16, 2014 release date.

Trailer: Godzilla (Extended)


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We are just a little over a month away from the release of the Gareth Edwards reboot of the classic kaiju film Godzilla.

As studios are now seeming to get into the habit to help build up the hype for their big tentpole summer releases we have a new extended trailer from Warner Bros. to remind everyone that the Big Guy is seriously in need of a Snickers bar.

While it’s still speculation and this extended trailer doesn’t really show any clues or evidence I still believe that this latest iteration of Godzilla will have him fighting another monster and/or monsters.

Godzilla is set for a May 16, 2014 release date.

Trailer: Godzilla (Official Main)


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Last summer, we saw the return of the giant monster genre on Western screens with Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. This summer we see the return of the King of the Monsters back on the big screen where he belongs.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla looks to bring back the King to lay massive destruction on humanity. The trailers haven’t shown whether Godzilla will be the villain of the film or back to fight other monsters. Either as protector or destroyer he will cause much collateral damage on the cities of mankind.

This latest trailer seems to intimate that Edwards’ film will actually be a sequel to the original 1954 film of the same name.

Godzilla will have a May 16. 2014 release date.

Trailer: Godzilla (Teaser)


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This past summer saw the return of kaiju to the film vernacular with the release of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. The very same studios which released this film, Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures return next summer with a similar film, but this time with the return of the granddaddy of all kaiju: Godzilla.

Godzilla is a reboot of the kaiju franchise with Gareth Edwards trying to make up for the travesty that was Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla of over a decade ago. This time around it looks like (at least from the teaser) that Edwards is going the serious route with this reboot. It helps that he has quite the cast to play around with. This Godzilla will star Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ken Watanabe.

We also get a brief glimpse of Godzilla itself right near the end followed by the iconic monster scream that’s as recognizable as the tweets and twoots of R2-D2.

Godzilla will return to the big-screen on May 16, 2014.

Film Review: Lincoln (dir. by Steven Spielberg)


I am a history nerd.

If you’ve read my previous reviews here on the Shattered Lens, that’s not necessarily a major revelation.  Still, before I talk about Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the sure-to-be Oscar nominated Lincoln, you should know where I’m coming from as a reviewer.  Cinema may be my number one love but history, and especially political history, runs a close second.  To me, there is nothing more fascinating than learning how those in the past both viewed and dealt with the issues that we still face in the present.  Whereas some people take pride in being able to name every player that’s ever played for the Dallas Cowboys, I take pride in the fact that I can not only name every President and Vice President in order but I can also tell you exactly who they had to defeat in order to serve in those offices.

I love history and therefore, it was hard for me not to feel as if Lincoln was a film that was made specifically for me.  Covering the final four months of the life of the 16th president, this film tells the story of Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment and to bring an end to the U.S. Civil War.  The film also documents Lincoln’s troubled marriage to the unstable Mary and his son’s decision to enlist in the Union Army.  Even though Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t include any vampires*, there’s still a lot going on in Lincoln and it is to their credit that the film remains compelling despite the fact that everyone already knows how the story is going to end.

Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of critical acclaim for his performance in the title role and, for once, I actually have to agree with the critics.  Abraham Lincoln is one of the most iconic figures in American history.  He is such an icon that, at times, it’s hard to believe that this larger-than-life figure, with his stove-pipe hat and his homely face, was an actual human being who lived and breathed and died like any other human being.  It’s easier to think of him in the same way that Jesus Christ used to be represented in films like Ben-Hur, as an inspiring character who is always standing just a little bit off-camera.  The brilliance of Day-Lewis’s performance is that he makes us believe that this legendary figure could actually exist with all the rest of history’s mortals.  For lack of a better term, Day-Lewis humanizes Lincoln.  His performance contains all the bits of the Lincoln legend: the fatalistic melancholy, the steely resolve, the quick humor, and occasional flashes of self-doubt.  The genius of the performance is the way that it takes all the legendary pieces and arranges them to create a portrait of a very believable man.

Though the film is dominated by Day-Lewis’s lead performance, the film’s supporting cast does a good job at bringing to life the people around Lincoln.  Whenever one film can manage to find roles for Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Jackie Earle Haley, you’ve got good reason to be optimistic about what you’re about to see.  Probably the film’s showiest supporting role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.  Admittedly, Tommy Lee Jones gives a standard Tommy Lee Jones performance here but, especially when paired with Day-Lewis’s more internal acting style, the end result is still fun to watch.  Also giving a good performance is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife.  Historians have rarely been kind (or fair) to Mary Lincoln but Field makes her into a difficult but sympathetic figure.  Finally, even though the role of Lincoln’s son is not a challenging one, I’m always happy whenever Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up onscreen.

Ultimately, however, Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film.  Spielberg is a very good director but he’s also a very safe one.  The same can be said of Lincoln as a film.  The film’s cinematography, art design, and costume design are all brilliantly done and award-worthy but it’s still hard not to occasionally wish that Spielberg would have enough faith in his audience that he wouldn’t feel the need to have John Williams provide constant musical cues to let us know what we are supposed to be feeling about what we’re experiencing.  If you’re looking for hints of moral ambiguity, an unflinching examination of the rivers of blood that flowed on the Civil War battlefield, or for an in-depth portrait of Lincoln’s personal demons (and most historians agree that he had a few), you might want to look elsewhere.  This is not Martin Scorsese’s Lincoln.  This is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  This is a film that is meant to be inspiring (as opposed to thought-provoking) and, for the most part, it succeeds.

I have to admit that I went into Lincoln expecting to be disappointed.  Ever since the film first went into production in 2011, websites like Awards Daily have been hyping this film to death.  Before many of them had even seen the completed film, online critics were announcing that both the film and Daniel Day-Lewis were the clear front-runners for the Oscars in 2013.  As anyone who has read my previous reviews on this site knows, nothing turns me off more than the bandwagon mentality of the critical establishment.  Often times, when a film is embraced as vehemently and as early as Lincoln has been, I feel almost honor-bound to be a hundred times more critical of it than I would be of a film like Step Up Revolution.

However, Lincoln is a rarity.  It’s a film that, for the most part, actually lives up to all the hype.

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*I imagine that little joke will cause a lot of confusion to anyone who, ten years in the future, happens to stumble across this review.  To you, future reader who has forgotten all about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I can only apologize.