Joe Wright's films have varied in quality from the polished, entertaining adaptations of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice to the sluggish Anna Karenina. But all have a distinct, sometimes risk-taking visual flair employed by Wright and his usual top-class team. Darkest Hour, a back room drama of Winston Churchill's (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister, leading the charge for a revived effort in World War II, is traditional, rather uninteresting fare.
It arrives so closely to the more inventive Dunkirk which arrived so closely to "The Crown" which arrived so closely to The King's Speech, that it felt like a jumbled combination of well-trodden territory. The script is a pastiche of Churchill speeches and conversations and some tart zingers. You would pass out if there was a drinking game every time someone utters the word "sir." The photography by Bruno Delbonnel utilizes a dull, bleary-eyed palate that has the color scheme of oatmeal. The days literally clank by in big font, to remind you this is England's darkest hour. And typewriter keys click and clack with leaden plunks to remind you this is a movie about the power of speech-writing. Wright has this designed his piece with little mystery and as a crowd-pleaser--ending on a sugar-high note with a recreation of the "never surrender" call-to-action. Even in these splintered times, it's hard to resist. There are a lot of masterly tech touches too, such as the composition of some of Delbonnel's shots and the sound design--I particularly loved the phone call with FDR.
Much will be made of Oldman's performance, perhaps for eternity. It's the actorly, ferocious, grandstanding turn that's not in vogue these days, but will likely nab him praise and an Academy Award. But just contrast last year's winner Casey Affleck's taciturn plumber frozen in grief to Oldman's cigar chompy, bumbling, shouty and emphatic Churchill. It shows a true dichotomy in cinematic acting styles. But the roles are also vastly different. One is completely flummoxed by communication and the other is one of the great orators of history. For me, if there's a big performance sucking up all the air in the room, there is hopefully at least a sense of tension (this is oddly a movie with absolutely no tension despite all the speechifying) or something happening with the supporting players. Unfortunately Churchill's stenographer (played by Lily James) is wan and lifeless (her character's story is far more arresting in "The Crown"). As an actor, Kristin Scott Thomas breathes some light and life into the movie whenever she briefly appears but her supportive wife role as written is throwaway and cliche. It's hard to dislike a movie though that the director has obviously put much care and thought into. Also Oldman, a hard-working actor's actor, looks like he's having fun chewing the pallid scenery. **1/2
Watching Sebastián Lelio's (Gloria) empathetic Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, I was jolted back to the "1961" segment ofIf These Walls Could Talk 2. In that heart-breaker, directed by Jane Anderson, an elderly woman named Edith, played by Vanessa Redgrave, mourns the sickness and eventual loss of her longtime lover Abby (Marian Seldes). After the death, Abby's kin shows up with disdain towards Edith, cruelly cutting her out of Abby's funeral. The plot is somewhat similar in A Fantastic Woman, though instead of the somewhat expected American ignorance and prejudice of the early 1960s, Lelio's film is present-day set within a seemingly progressive urban milieu.
Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is a singer and waitress. She is in a relationship with an older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who runs a printing company. We see a brief flicker of their companionship and intimacy with one another. One moving moment is set under strobe lights to the Alan Parsons Project ballad "Time." The lyrics of the song prove prophetic (and also in line with the the symbolism of the dreamy falls which open the picture)--after a night of love-making, Orlando is suddenly stricken with an aneurysm in his sleep. The film traces Marina in the aftermath of his death. She is faced with suspicion and, as a trans woman, extreme prejudice from Orlando's family and friends. Marina greets these odds--both physical and emotional violence--with reservation and a stoic strength that's almost unbearable to witness.
There is a paradoxical staidness and a sensuality to Lelio's film. It's fairly quiet and straightforward, with bursts of flash (one cool scene is Vidal's pom-pom fleeced club dance fantasy) and emotion. While the picture has plenty of strengths, including pretty photography (by Benjamín Echazarreta), great music choices like Matthew Herbert's ruffly, flute-tinged score, Aretha Franklin, and the aforementioned Alan Parsons Project, there was something overall that seemed missing--a feeling of incompleteness. Because this is truly a protagonist's tale, including ways in which she is shunned, humiliated, and taken advantage of, her own sleuthing into the mystery Orlando, the film owes much of its richness to Vega's stirring performance. I was reminded in a way of the cool control of Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. Interestingly, in that film, Fiorentino plays someone who is actively a trickster; here, Vega plays a trickster in the judgement of others (she literally appears before distorted mirrors), decisively giving up on trying to defend herself in their eyes. To her, it seems, they aren't worth it. Vega delivers a memorable turn, that much like the movie itself, is unfussy and eloquent. ***
Seemingly there has been a slew of films lately with a broiling emphasis on shock and violence packaged in a polished, artistic sheen. Yorgos Lanthimos' (The Lobster) The Killing of a Sacred Deer, along with Darren Aronfsky'sMother!, are those rare occasions where the boundary-pushing vision of a filmmaker is put on display for cushy seated multiplexes. It's hard not to compare these two pictures as they both share a confounding plot with a nightmarish sensibility. They are also slickly made and seductive; the tastelessness of some of the horror elements are in the forefront but they are also juxtaposed with "tasteful," graceful film-making. In that respect, these pictures owe much to Polanski and Kubrick. Deer, in particular, is a riff of sorts on Kubrick's The Shining. We even have the shaggy-haired young son of the piece, Bobby played by Sunny Suljic, bearing a resemblance to Danny Lloyd.
Deer is a hollow picture that looks incredible (supple lighting work and photography--the cinematographer is Thimios Bakatakis), centering upon a hollow family. We are introduced to them in their beautiful, sprawling home in a dinner scene that highlights their wan, somewhat lifeless personalities and peculiar precision with their speech and manner. Steve is a cardiovascular surgeon (bushy-bearded Colin Farrell) at the head of this opus, whose previous carelessness is coming back to roost. Because the film--seemingly rooted in Biblical and mythological lore--takes its sweet, dread-infused time to get to the mysterious perils that befall the family, it's a difficult piece to surmise without giving much away.
Despite the movie's repetition and pace--a heavy touch that doesn't really create potential comedy or suit the already lugubrious material, the film has some strong assets. Especially accordionist Janne Rättyä's cutting score cues (in the vein of Mica Levi). The flat line deliveries which worked so effectively as humor in the more funny and intriguing The Lobster is more safe and banal here. The main players help galvanize the movie as well. Farrell does his usual sturdy work and as his steely wife, Nicole Kidman, whose done some of her best work ever lately, commands a sort of strength and palpable, visual energy. The camera adores her in close-up, simultaneously aglow and bitterly icy. She's solid at portraying her characters' drifty convictions. It's fun to see Alicia Silverstone too in a small bit. But really the erratic heart pumping the film (the human heart anoints the opening--I had to look away) is Barry Keoghan as Steve's mysterious younger friend, who figures as a squirmy, hovering presence. It's an acrobatic, unmissable turn that piques curiosity about the story that may have been completely lacking without him. **1/2
Sean Baker's Starlet and especially 2015's Tangerinewere funny, vibrant films with an exciting, engaging visual style. He returns this year with the sun-drenched and exquisitely shot (by cinematographer Alexis Zabe) The Florida Project--a summer in the life of 6-year old Moonee (a magnificently natural Brooklynn Prince). Moonee lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a motel complex of marginalized people on the edge of Disney World. Halley is scraping by and Moonee--rebellious and smart-mouthed, is already becoming keenly aware of American class divisions and the limitations of lower-class adulthood (she can always tell when adults are "about to cry"). The motel is run by affable and quietly stern Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who seems to bear the weight of moral dilemmas he has faced over the years when making decisions for and against his tenants. Moonee creates her own universe, her own Disney World of sorts for her and her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto)--an ordinary field of cows and a large twisting tree trunk becomes a safari adventure. Bobby too creates his own universe as well, as we see the ins-and-outs of maintaining the Magic Castle, sometimes banal like fixing a washing machine, sometimes agonizing like deciding the fate of whether or not a family will have a roof over their heads.
Even though the film looks slick and beautifully controlled, Baker seems to have just let the camera roll before his cast of prankster-driven children (not too far off from "The Little Rascals"). There is no stagy feel to Prince and her gang: they are authentic and quite funny. Movies about children can often be a mixed bag, but Baker shows a deft talent, akin to the work of François Truffaut in Small Change. The children here, in their free summer time, are explorers of areas that adults aren't as compelled by; we move through a shuttered housing development on the outskirts of the motel; we watch Moonee's daily trip to the back of a restaurant to collect free food from Halley's friend and waitress neighbor Ashley (Mela Murder). These little moments build up pressure to the point of bursting. And by the time we arrive to the heartbreaking coda, Prince and Cotto are there to deliver a wrenching moment of release.
Like the title itself, a nod to the original description of Disney World in its early stages of construction, the movie is paradoxical. The cast features seasoned vets like Dafoe and those plucked from the locale and from social media (the tale of Vinaite being recruited from Instagram has been mentioned often). Like Tangerine, there's something about the mix of acting styles makes the film feel effective and alive. There's a pulsing sadness underneath the rainbowy pastels and the lazy summer sheen. The movie begins ironically, with a brisk title sequence set to the Kool & the Gang chestnut "Celebration." A song from a time that seems far away from the lives of Moonee and even Moonee's mother. It's also a song which became an early 1980s American anthem after fifty-two hostages freed from Iran. Reaganomics still informs America's imbalances of wealth, perhaps even more harshly today, and is a prescient aspect of this film. As the tourists around them are in leisure vacation-mode, the inhabitants of this Magic Castle are just trying to survive. ***1/2