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Gary Oldman As Winston Churchill = Oscar

Now playing at a art house theater near me:

DARKEST HOUR (Dir. Joe Wright, 2017)

In the case of acclaimed performances in which a famous actor plays a famous historical figure – say, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, or Ben Kinglsey as Gandhi, Meryl Streep as anybody, etc. – it’s become a cliché to say things like that they “disappeared into the role,” or “at times I forgot who it was and thought I was watching the real person.”

But with Gary Oldman’s tour de force portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s second World War II-themed film, DARKEST HOUR (the first was ATTONEMENT), he really does completely disappear into the role, and I really did forget at times that it was him and thought I was watching Churchill.

Set in 1940 at the height of WWII, when Britain was on the verge of being invaded by Nazis, the film depicts Churchill’s intense first month as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Churchill’s personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (played by Lily James best known for Downton Abbey and BABY DRIVER), as she begins to work for him shortly into the film.

Churchill assumes his role by meeting with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, not stammering as much as Colin Firth did in the same part in THE KING’S SPEECH), assembling his War Cabinet which includes his predecessor Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), and making a big speech to Parliament in which he famously declared that they should “wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

Churchill’s refusal to talk peace with Hitler angers Halifax and Chamberlain, who want him replaced. Churchill remains adamant that they stand their ground against negotiations, and we get a different angle on the same story that Christopher Nolan’s brilliant DUNKIRK told earlier this year (Wright also memorably touched on the Dunkirk situation in a pretty stunning five-minute tracking shot in ATONEMENT).

The look of the film, shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is so grey and grim that one wonders if they considered making it in black and white. So many scenes are set in pitch darkness in cramped rooms with what spare lighting there is glowing in an Oliver Stone-ish fashion.

The tropes of period piece historical drama are unavoidable at times but Oldman’s Churchill is such a delicious characterization that I was very forgiving of some unnecessary stylish touches – like the two shots taken from above that zoom backwards into CGI-imagery depicting the dark of fire world below.

I’ll be shocked, shocked I tells ya, if Oldman doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, and then the award itself as he’s so delightfully dead on here. For this guy, who’s one of the best actors working today, to have pulled off such beyond convincing interpretations of such diverse personalities as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven and now this is well worth awarding as it for sure is the most striking acting I’ve seen this year.

The supporting cast glows (literally) surrounding Oldman as Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs. Winston Churchill, Clementine, makes the most of her worrying-wife-back-home archetype with some warm moments, Mendelsohn’s King George VI has a weary yet hopeful air about him, and James helps bring some light to the dark sets especially in an aside where she tells her boss that he’s doing the V for Victory sign the wrong way.

Anthony McCarten contributes a much sharper screenplay than his previous Oscar winner for that category, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, and the score, by Dario Marianelli whose worked with Wright on nearly every film he’s made, is nicely understated.


But again, it’s Oldman who makes this an essential film to see this season. His performance may be a lot to take for some moviegoers as he dominates nearly every talky as hell moment, ranting as times in his trembling accent always with a glass of brandy or scotch in his hand and a long cigar sticking out of his mouth, but for me the experience is as sublime as the way the words that the real person put together rang out.

Sure, with WWII and the tried and true Greatest Generation spirit that panders to the elder voters, it’s a prime piece of Oscar-bait, but, for a considerable amount of its running time, DARKEST HOUR mightily transcends that.

More later…

THE LAST JEDI Continues STAR WARS’s Winning Streak

Opening in your star system tonight:

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

(Dir. Rian Johnson, 2017)


Warning: There may be Spoilers!

At the end of the previous Episode of STAR WARS, Stormtrooper turned Resistance (the new version of the Rebel Alliance) fighter Finn (John Boyega) was left injured and unconscious after helping to destroy the First Order’s (the new Empire) Starkiller Base (another Death Star), General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the rest of the good guys were mourning the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford); while newly recruited Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) had traveled to the planet Ahch-To to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) so that he can help bring down the bad guys.


The last shot of FORCE AWAKENS has an emotional Rey handing an old grizzled Luke his old iconic lightsaber.


So now, after two years we get Luke’s reaction to Rey’s gesture, and it doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the rest of THE LAST JEDI, the solid seventh entry in the series that satisfyingly follows through with the threads of the former film, while providing a steady stream of call backs to the original trilogy (Episodes IV-VI) that should please both the casual and hardcore fans.

The most obvious prediction about the content of THE LAST JEDI is that it’ll mirror Episode V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as much as THE FORCE AWAKENS mirrored the first STAR WARS movie (still not calling it A NEW HOPE, dammit!).

Well, yeah, there are definite parallels – Luke channeling Yoda in training Rey to the ways of the force, Yoda himself appearing (welcome back, Frank Oz!), the reveal of a character’s lineage, and those much loved AT-AT walkers – but it has enough clever story beats and tongue-in-cheek humor needed to make those elements feel fresh.

The plot deals with the First Order achieving more power in their fight against the Resistance via being able to track their movement through hyperspace. General Leia gets harmed in an attack, and while she’s incapacitated, Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo takes control to the chagrin of Poe Dameron (a cocky, returning Oscar Isaac) who’s called a “flyboy” twice by Amilyn.


Finn finds a friend in fellow Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who catches him trying to run away like he was planning to in Episode VII. Together they travel to a planet that has a Monte Carlo-style gambling resort to find a code breaker, but end up with the somewhat shady Benicio del Toro as an unnamed character with an odd speech impediment.

As for the rest – you know the drill: space battles, lightsaber duels, and the powerful pull of the dark side of the force fill the screen as John Williams’ triumphant score bursts out of the sound system.

THE LAST JEDI has more depth, darkness, and drama than THE FORCE AWAKENS. It’s a blast, even in its talky downtime, and it makes great use of its game cast.

Hamill gets his beefiest role since RETURN OF THE JEDI, and it’s his best performance (yes, I’ve seen CORVETTE SUMMER). Ridley and Boyega make more of an impression that their first efforts, while Driver steals the show every time he appears.

However, there are a few issues. There is no backstory to the Emperor figure that is Snoke, and the reveal of who Rey’s parents are feels like an afterthought. Also, C3PO’s red arm in the previous movie is never explained (I hear there’s a comic that tells what happened there but I doubt I’ll ever read that).

Director and writer Johnson (BRICK, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, LOOPER) molds his style successfully into the series, and doesn’t need as many wipe transitions to move the pace along, something that J.J. Abrams overdid.

As for it being Fisher’s swan song (I think, but maybe they’ve got some footage of her that will be used in the next one), it’s touching to see her Leia in a more substantial role than in Episode VII. They take a big chance with her image in a surreal scene that I won’t spoil – I’ll just say that it works.

Glad to see that STAR WARS continues to be back on track again as the stench of George Lucas’s awful prequels has long since faded, and the good will of the galaxy far, far away has been regained.

I’ve seen that many critics are calling it the best since EMPIRE, and I don’t disagree. Maybe the nostalgia that the member berries have triggered has blinded my judgement, but I’m happy that the franchise that dominated my childhood is yet again going good guns (or blasters).

More later…

LADY BIRD: Greta Gerwig’s Directorial Debut With A Difference

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LADY BIRD (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Not so long ago, Greta Gerwig was the indie film “it” girl. She acted in films made by the Duplass brothers (BAGHEAD), Woody Allen (TO ROME WITH LOVE), and her long-time boyfriend Noah Baumbach (GREENBERG, FRANCES HA, MISTRESS AMERICA). She even brushed up against the mainstream with her appearance in the awful ARTHUR remake with Russell Brand.

But now Gerwig tries her luck behind the camera for her directorial debut, LADY BIRD, which she also scripted.

No, it’s not about the wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson who had that nickname, it’s about a 17-year old Sacramento high school senior with dyed red hair played by Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT, HANNA, BROOKLYN), whose parents gave her the name Christine, but she goes by “Lady Bird” and insists that everyone calls her that.

Lady Bird’s tense relationship with her mother, superbly played by Laurie Metcalf ( I don’t need to list her credits, do I?) is the crux of this movie which is set in 2002, when Gerwig was around the same age as its protagonist. That makes one assume that it’s autobiographical, but Gerwig claims that while she was born and raised in Sacramento, and went to an all-girls Catholic school there, the film is only loosely based on her life as many of the situations depicted didn’t happen to her.

We are introduced to Lady Bird and her mom, Marion, as they are returning home from touring a prospective in-state college, and we get a taste of what their emotionally strained life together is like.

While driving home, Marion lectures about where she and her husband Larry (a laid-back Tracy Letts) can afford to send Lady Bird, while our titular character says she wants to go where culture is like New York which makes Marion label her a snob. When her mother goes on a tirade about how her daughter “should just go to city college, then to jail, and then back to city college,” Lady Bird reacts by opening the door of the car and jumping out.

With a cast on her right arm on which she wrote “F*** You Mom,” Lady Bird signs up for drama club auditions at her High School, Immaculate Heart, with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and gets cast in a musical production. During rehearsals, Lady Birdstarts crushing on one of her fellow cast members, Danny played by Lucas Hedges (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and the currently playing THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI).

The couple date, but the courtship is cut short when Lady Bird catches Danny kissing another guy in a restroom stall. So then our heroine has eyes for Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a snooty, oh-so-deep musician who likes to say “that’s hella tight.”

Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle, but is saddened to find out that it wasn’t his first time. Moving on, after getting some rejections to schools she’s applied to, Lady Bird gets on a wait list for a university in New York, but keeps it secret from her mother.

On the sidelines of Lady Bird’s love life, is Jordan Rodrigues as her adopted brother, Miguel; Marielle Scott as his live-in girlfriend, Shelly Yuhan; Odeya Rush as the popular, pretty Jenna, who Lady Bird befriends to her BFF Julie’s chagrin; and Lois Smith, who has a few nice, warm moments as Sister Sarah Joan, the principal of our leading lady’s high school.

Because of its down to earth depiction of a hip artistically inclined young woman, who describes herself as being from the “wrong side of the tracks” going through the motions like going to a drunken party at someone’s rich parents’ house, and the politics of who goes with who to the prom, the film recalls the 1986 John Hughes teen classic PRETTY IN PINK and from what I’ve heard that’s on purpose (According to a Vanity Fair interview with Ronan, Gerwig pointed her towards that film, and Hughes’ SIXTEEN CANDLES before shooting).

LADY BIRD is a coming of age drama that doesn’t break any new ground but its low key tale of a young woman entering a new phase in her life is unpretentiously told by Gerwig, who appealingly doesn’t have her characters making snarky one-liners – consider her the anti-Diablo Cody, and this the antithesis of JUNO. Our  writer/director also brings out great naturalistic performances by Ronan and Metcalf that are both deserving of Oscar nominations.


Its a directorial debut with a difference, the difference being that it has a lot more artistic depth that I expected from Gerwig, whose onscreen presence as an actress can be a bit goofy, quirky, and often way flakey. 

Gerwig makes good choices when it comes to the film’s soundtrack as well, from Jon Brion’s subtle score to the Sondheim show-tunes that Ronan and Ledges sing, to the perfect-for-period snippets of Alanis Morrisette and Justin Timberlake. She even somehow makes the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” actually resonate and effectively evoke heartbreak in two different scenes. No small feat that.


More later…

LAST FLAG FLYING Gets Just About Every Last Detail Right.

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LAST FLAG FLYING (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2017)
Richard Linklater’s latest is and isn’t a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 cult classic THE LAST DETAIL. The three lead characters names have changed but they’re basically the same archetypes as the three military cohorts in the original, with Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon mirroring Jack Nicholson’s Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky, Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepherd stepping in for Randy Quaid’s Laurence M. “Larry” Meadows, and Laurence Fishburne’s Richard Mueller taking on Otis Young’s Richard “Mule” Mulhall.


In THE LAST DETAIL, Navy lifers Buddusky and Mulhall escort court-marshaled Meadows to prison in Maine for petty theft, and take drunken detours along the way. In LAST FLAG FLYING, our trio are vets who re-unite to accompany Carrell’s Doc to the funeral of his son who was killed in Vietnam.

The film begins with Doc showing up at Sal’s dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia, after decades of non-communication, and after a night of drinking, Doc takes Sal to see their old pal, Richard, who became a Christian priest.

The film takes place in 2003, so there are running gags involving the internet and cellphones being new things, and footage of Saddam Hussein on TVs in the background.

Like its predecessor, it’s largely a road trip movie with a lot of buddy comradery, but in this story that happens after they reach their first destination – Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where they learn that Doc’s son didn’t die the heroic death that the army’s official statement reported. They then take his son’s body to bury in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, first by rented truck, then by train after a brush with homeland security with a lot of lively conversation fueling every scene.


THE LAST DETAIL was famous for having large amounts of profanity – it contained more uses of the f-bomb than any previous film when it was released in the early 70s – but it’s no big thing these days for a film to be filled with such dirty dialogue so it’s barely noticeable when it’s used here. Maybe that’s from my being desensitized by many viewings of Scorsese movies or frequent listens of Richard Pryor albums, I dunno.

Alongside the strong performances of the main protagonists, is an excellent supporting cast made up of Yul Vazquez as Lt Col. Willits, who tries to stop Doc, Sal, and Mueller from transporting the body themselves; J. Quinton Johnson stars as Marine Charlie Washington who breaks the news to the guys about how Doc’s son died, and especially Cicely Tyson as the grieving mother of one of their fellow Marines, who died in Vietnam.

Despite its sometimes weary depiction of distrust of the Government during the George W. Bush era, there’s a lot of warmth in LAST FLAG FLYING. Linklater handles the pathos superbly, and gets us to care about these very verbal vets. Its dialogue, co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the 1970 book, “The Last Detail and its 2005 sequel that’s the basis for this film) is rich and real feeling.

Cranston stands out as the grizzled, cynical Sal – it’s one of his most fleshed out characters since Breaking Bad – Carrell’s sad sack succeeds in getting our sympathy, and Fishburne conveys dignified grace, that is except for the funny bits where his Reverend Mueller loses patience with Sal and regresses into his old profane self.

Linklater’s loving update deserves Oscar action, but more so it deserves big audiences who no doubt will appreciate its affable yet profound sensibility. LAST FLAG FLYING gets just about every last detail right.

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THE DISASTER ARTIST: A Good Movie About The Making Of A Bad One

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THE DISASTER ARTIST (Dir. James Franco, 2017)


A few weeks ago I attended a screening of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 opus THE ROOM. I’d seen it before on DVD, but felt like I should get the big screen with an audience experience I’d heard about and it did not disappoint. If you’re unfamiliar, THE ROOM is infamous for being a really bad movie. It’s a San Francisco-set romantic drama that is horribly acted (mostly by Wiseau as the tortured lead), atrociously written (again, by Wiseau), and awfully directed (yep, by Wiseau).

But it has built up a cult following – largely egged on by Wiseau who claims that he meant it to be a so-bad-that’s-it’s-good movie all along – with film-goers interacting with the film ROCKY HORROR-style. Folks attending are encouraged to do things like yell “focus!” when the film gets blurry, toss footballs around during the many scenes where the characters do the same, and throw plastic spoons at the screen whenever a framed picture of a spoon appears (which is often).

The screening was one of many across the country to get people primed for James Franco’s adaptation of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book “The Disaster Artist” which tells the story of how THE ROOM was made. Franco plays Wiseau, his brother, Dave, portrays Sestero, and Franco’s long time collaborator Seth Rogen takes on the role of the exasperated script supervisor Sandy Schklair.

Franco’s Wiseau, who has a hard to pin down European accent but claims he’s from New Orleans, dreams of being an actor, but can’t land a part so he bangs out a screenplay and finances his own project, drawing upon millions of dollars that nobody knows how he got – Rogen is surprised when his check clears and is told that it’s a bottomless account.

Franco and his crew dutifully recreate the sets of THE ROOM, and we get an ED WOOD-ish look at Wiseau’s acting and directing style – or lack of – and it’s a hilarious series of haphazard scenes though maybe not as hilarious as its incompetently shot subject.

Johnny Depp was originally slated to star, but I’m glad Franco got the role as he seems to have been born to capture the ridiculous passion of Wiseau. It’s possibly Francos greatest role, and maybe best work as a director though I haven’t seen many of the over a dozen films he’s made.


THE DISASTER ARTIST is among the funniest films this year, but it’s not been a great year for comedies or much else I hate to say. I’m not sure if folks who haven’t seen THE ROOM will totally get it, but they might as it accurately depicts what went down – Wiseau himself says that it gets 99.9% of it right of the and features a bunch of dead on recreated scenes at the end (plus stick around for an after credits stinger). It is oddly amusing, and kind of crazy, that Franco made a good movie about
 a bad one, but he really pulled it off.


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One Of Woody’s Worst Films May Be His Best Looking

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WONDER WHEEL (Dir. Woody Allen, 2017)

The most striking thing about Woody Allen’s latest film, his third project for Amazon, is how lushly lit it is. Leading actresses Kate Winslet and Juno Temple’s red and blonde hair appears to always be glowing in golden light, whether in day or night scenes; and the gorgeousness of the color schemes employed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is palpable in every scene.

It’s too bad that it’s all in the service of the tired themes and clichéd characters that make up WONDER WHEEL, yet another nostalgic period piece from the Woodman – one that recalls the aura of his previous works CAFÉ SOCIETY (which Storaro also shot) PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, RADIO DAYS, and that fantasy flashback in ANNIE HALL where Allen’s Alvy Singer reminiscences about being brought up underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

In very Allen-esque opening narration, Justin Timberlake sets the scene: “Coney Island, 1950s. The boardwalk.” The camera pans over a crowded beach until it hits Timberlake, as Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard who identifies himself as an aspiring playwright, breaking the fourth wall to tell us he’s got a story to tell, “in which I am a character so be warned as a poet I use symbols and as a budding dramatist, I relish melodrama and larger than life characters.”

Mickey introduces Carolina (Juno Temple), who has unexpectedly come back into the lives of her carousel operator father Humpty (Jim Belushi), and her stepmother Ginny (Winslet), because she is seeking refuge from the mob due to being marked by her never seen gangster husband.

Humpty and Ginny live in a shabby apartment, which used to house a freak show, with big open windows that has a great wide ranging view of the park including of the towering ferris wheel of the title. This is all back-drop to a well worn narrative involving a love triangle between Mickey, Ginny and Carolina.

Ginny dreams of running off with Mickey, but then Mickey falls for Carolina, despite the threat of a mafia hit job, which is made clear in a bit that has Sopranos regulars Tony Sirico (in his sixth film for Allen) and Steve Schirripa come to question Humpty about his daughter’s whereabouts.

There’s also a subplot about Ginny’s pyromaniac son that doesn’t really go anyhere, but it does provide shots of fire that go along with the rest of the movie’s orange bathed in blue glow.

Perhaps in the same vein that Andrew Dice Clay gained cred for his role in Allen’s BLUE JASMINE, Belushi puts in a great supporting performance as an angry, broken down working class slob who trying to stay on the wagon. I wouldn’t say it’s quite worth a Oscar nomination, but it nicely continues the ‘hey, Jim Belushi isn’t bad!’ vibe from his appearance on the Twin Peaks revival early this year.

Winslet’s acerbic Ginny is the dominant character here as the film seems to focus on her neurosis over her stepdaughter’s impending involvement with Mickey, and her frazzled attempts to thwart their romance. Winslet puts her all into her acting and anchors the film until it and she goes off the rails.

Timberlake’s Mickey wasn’t lying when he said he uses symbols as he even says “The heart has its own hieroglyphics” when trying to chose between Ginny and Carolina. He also speaks of “the tragic human condition” while giving Ginny a book of Eugene O’Neil’s plays for her birthday – an example of Allen’s screenplay laying it on a bit thick.

All this is transparent decoration around another one of his ‘women be crazy’ plotlines. The repetitive and overly drawn out dialogue doesn’t help either.

WONDER WHEEL’s melodramatic (Mickey wasn’t fooling there either) mix of hefty philosophizing with an all too typical tale of ill-fated infatuation makes for one of Allen’s least satisfying films of his later career.


But while it’s far from his best work, it may be his best looking movie. With hope, the Woodman, in his next film, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK in which he’s again working with cinematographer Storaro, will come up with a story that’s as good as the visuals.


More later…