Darkest Hour (2017) starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, & Kristin Scott-Thomas

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe and the threat of invasion is imminent, and with an unprepared public, a skeptical King, and his own party plotting against him, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation, and attempt to change the course of world history.Synopsis from Focus Features

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
–Excerpt from two of Churchill’s speech (before the Battle of Britain)

I saw this historical drama on SAT; it is part of Regal’s Oscar movie showcase (FEB 23-MAR 4). Darkest Hour (directed by Joe Wright) is very well-made w/ (I assume) great attention to period details. I esp. enjoyed the music (composed by Dario Marinelli). Gary Oldman is completely transformed; his Churchill is both intimidating, yet (somewhat) relatable in the quiet moments. It’s not just about the cigars, whiskey (champagne for lunch- FYI), and a quick temper. Churchill has doubts, many ideas (some that are unpalatable to his own party), a sense of humor, and- most of all- thinks that victory over the Nazis is possible. We know Oldman is capable of delving deep into each role; however, this takes him to another level!

Kristin Scott-Thomas (who has been working in France for many years) plays Clemmie, Churchill’s supportive (yet NOT a pushover) wife. It was nice to see her on the big screen after a long time. Another woman in this tale is a young typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James from Downton Abbey), who works closely w/ Churchill, though quite upset by their first meeting. Was this character based on a real woman? Or did the screenwriter create an (accessible) character to draw the viewer into the world of WWII-era British politics? I suspect it was a bit of both. Miss Layton is able to adjust to the (eccentric, sometimes insensitive) ways of her employer, who becomes Prime Minister (May 1940) at the start of the film. James does a fine job, able to keep a stiff-upper lip (as was expected in that world), yet also expressing strong (yet controlled) emotion in few key scenes.

Churchill keeps his “enemies” in his cabinet, including former PM Neville Chamberlain (considered a coward by many) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane from Game of Thrones). Halifax, who turned down the PM job before Churchill was chosen, wants to negotiate some sort of peace w/ the Germans (if possible). Of course, Churchill can’t stomach that idea; he has trouble even saying the name “Hitler” when required. The PM’s speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult days of 1940–1941.

I was very impressed by Ben Mendelsohn (who plays King George V); he hails from Australia and has been receiving critical acclaim after breaking into Hollywood in middle-age. Check him out in S1 of Bloodline (Netflix) or in Rogue One (a prequel to Star Wars), if you haven’t already. Not only does Mendelsohn get the unlikely king’s (subtle) stutter right, his mannerisms and expressions seem pitch-perfect for a man deeply concerned about his nation (yet unable to express his feelings). At first, he is “a bit scared” of Churchill (FYI: He supported Edward’s marriage to Wallis Simpson), though the men become allies in time. Any man whose name frightens Hitler is worth his support, King George explains to Churchill.

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The Post (2017) starring Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep

WARNING: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

When American military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg, realizes to his disgust the depths of the US government’s deceptions about the futility of the Vietnam War, he takes action by copying top-secret documents that would become the Pentagon Papers. Later, Washington Post owner, Kay Graham, is still adjusting to taking over her late husband’s business when editor Ben Bradlee discovers the New York Times has scooped them with an explosive expose on those papers. Determined to compete, Post reporters find Ellsberg himself and a complete copy of those papers. However, the Post’s plans to publish their findings are put in jeopardy with a Federal restraining order that could get them all indicted for Contempt. Now, Kay Graham must decide whether to back down for the safety of her paper or publish and fight for the Freedom of the Press. In doing so, Graham and her staff join a fight that would have America’s democratic ideals in the balance. -IMDB summary

This tightly edited/well-acted historical drama (directed by Spielberg) is a MUST-SEE for our (politically troubled) times! Spielberg wanted to have his film released as quickly as possible given the parallels between its theme and the burgeoning political “fake news” climate in the U.S. According to Streep, the physical shoot started in May 2017 and finished at the end of July and Spielberg had it cut two weeks later. The film went from script to final cut in a modest 9 mos.

Tom Hanks (WaPo editor Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (newspaper owner Katharine Graham) are the main draws here, BUT there are also chances for (younger/less famous) actors to shine. You will some fine moments featuring Matthew Rhys (Daniel Ellsberg), Alison Brie (star of GLOW), Jessie Plemons (most recently on Black Mirror), and Sarah Paulson (who plays the supportive wife of Bradlee). As I heard on NPR, this movie doesn’t get into the fact that Bradlee actually had 3 marriages which were far from ideal.  

At times, Graham is unsure of what steps to take w/ regards to the future of her paper (which was losing money). She is a woman in a man’s world, who didn’t have to work until she suddenly became a widow in middle-age. Her trusted ally is her long-time attorney, Fritz Beebe (actor/writer Tracy Letts); he is a male ally (though they wouldn’t have used this term in the late ’60s). Beebe helps Graham stands up to Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford), who thinks she’s NOT the right person to head the paper.

Can journos be friends w/ politicians? Hmmm, it’s NOT such a good idea, as BOTH Bradlee and Graham come to realize. Bradlee knows that he was TOO close to the Kennedys (personally), so got the kinds of access that other newsmen wouldn’t have. Graham’s long-time friendship w/ former Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) is tested, BUT she doesn’t let him intimidate her into being silent. Ben Bagdikian (Bod Odenkirk) provides some of the humor in the movie; he is a dogged senior reporter who tracks down Ellsberg.

 

She’s Gotta Have It (2017)

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the Netflix comedy series. 

[1] The soundtrack to this series is amazing! Spike really did his thing with the song selection. Second, the shots and cinematography were great. Spike and his crew really make Brooklyn come alive in this series. 

[2] Nola is getting a steep discount from her godmother to stay in the gentrified neighborhood she grew up in, and she still doesn’t manage to get the rent on time. They constantly talk about her hustle, yet she really isn’t ever truly desperate or truly hustling.

Gentrification is a legitimate issue, and I see the commentary Spike was going for, but it fell quite short. 

[3] The characters remain mostly undeveloped and the story, while it has its high points, is largely pointless and unresolved. 

[4] The infamous American director and producer always stood strong by telling the stories of minorities in all his films. Nola Darling doesn’t like labels and she doesn’t like to be owned…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Do you remember the black and white 1986 film of the same title directed by 29 y.o. unknown Spike Lee? I saw it about 10 yrs ago, and wasn’t that impressed; lead actress (Tracy Camilla Johns) looked rather uncomfortable in front of the camera. Lee (who also played Mars Blackmon- to save money on actors) was memorable; he had the catchy phrase: “Please baby, baby, baby, please!” Lee refers to Mars as “the original sneakerhead” (someone who collects, trades, or admires sneakers as a hobby). Critics complained that the film was too much from a man’s POV (which Lee admitted; he was inspired by male friends who dated several women at the same time).

As a more mature man, as well as a husband and father, Lee re-imagined the story of Brooklyn artist Nola Darling (the gorgeous DeWanda Wise, recently seen on Shots Fired and Underground). Lee is aided by a cadre of strong, successful African-American women: his wife Tonya (a producer), his sister Joie (who plays Nola’s supportive mom), Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, as well as other female writers and directors. Wow, this is an impressive group! And I MUST note how well Joie Lee is aging, too. 

The three men in Nola’s life (NOT to be referred to as “boyfriends!”) are played by some fine (and fine looking- LOL) up-and-coming actors, most notably Anthony Ramos (Mars), who was in the original cast of Broadway’s Hamilton. Ramos (who is of Puerto Rican heritage) brings an innocence, sense of fun, and lightheartedness to his part of the story.  Though he still lives w/ his older sis in the projects, Mars has a job fixing bikes at a hipster coffee/bike place. I was also impressed by Lyriq Bent (who plays the slightly older/wealthy/married father- Jamie Overstreet); this actor hails from Canada and is very believable in the heavier/emotional scenes. Without Jamie’s (financial) support, Nola wouldn’t be able to support herself as well as she does. We also get a sense that Jamie is the one that will fall for Nola in the end; he’s in a (now loveless) marriage, but a good role model for his preteen son.  Rounding out the main male leads is Cleo Anthony (biracial, French-speaking, model/photographer Greer Childs). This seems like the man that gets Nola’s lifestyle the best; he is focused more on his career and playing the field, not finding a serious relationship (unlike Mars and Jamie). But wait, there aren’t ONLY men involved w/ Nola!

Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) plays a slightly older woman, who is also an entrepreneur (running a nursery) and single mom (by choice). Nola (who is in her late 20s) looks up to Opal, feels close to her emotionally, and is very attracted to her as a person. As their relationship goes on, we see how Opal has her life together; Nola is a BIT of a mess in many regards. They make a great couple, though ONLY for a short time. The other women in Nola’s life are her close friends: artists’ rep/yuppie Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham), cocktail waitress/single mom Shemekka Epps (Chyna Lane). and the redheaded/Afrocentric white woman Rachel (Elise Hudson).

Nola decides to go to therapy w/ Dr. Jamison (Tony winner Heather Headley); this is someone who can be objective re: Nola’s (complicated) life. Not ONLY does Nola juggle lovers, she has several jobs (incl. a dog-walker and part-time art teacher at a junior high school). I esp. liked the scenes w/ the school kids and their no-nonsense/loving principal, Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza); I used to sub in NYC area. She has to hustle (though some viewers felt NOT too much) b/c she doesn’t want to end up like her high school friend/war vet, Papo (Elvis Nolasco). This man also grew up in Fort Greene, had a LOT of potential, and fought in the Middle East for Uncle Sam. Papo was never the same after he came back; he still creates art, BUT out of trash (which annoys Nola’s gentrifying/new white neighbors). The long-time residents of the block call him “The Mayor” of the neighborhood (this is a call-back to the iconic Ossie Davis’ role in Do The Right Thing).  Nola’s understanding landlady/godmother is played by Pauletta Washington (wife of Denzel); I can’t believe that it took me a few mins to figure that out! 

There are MANY things to admire, such as the color (the hairstyles, costumes, and accessories are really cool), diversity (of black individuals and their experiences), and the tacking of MANY timely issues (hmmm, maybe too much?) Yet, there are also disjointed things, such as the use of hashtags for ep titles (after all, Nola is NOT much of a social media user or internet dater, unlike MANY millennials). This is NOT a show for everyone, BUT I’d recommend it for Spike Lee fans.