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Darkest Hour

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At the dawn of World War II the British Parliament is a shambles as Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), his policy of appeasement towards Hitler a failure, is ousted from the office of Prime Minister. Into his place steps Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a cantankerous and controversial figure viewed as a weak wartime leader thanks to the failure of the Dardanelles Campaign he masterminded in World War One. With the British Expeditionary Force facing annihilation on the European mainland (see: Dunkirk) and Chamberlain and his political allies advocating for peace negotiations, the dogged Churchill must rally his friends, placate or pulverize his opponents, and become the unifying leader wartime Britain needs.

The only reason we wouldn’t call this a career-best turn from Oldman is that he’s given so many fine performances over the years that measuring the gradient at the far edge is a dicey proposition. Let’s call it top five, then, and easily his best since 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Not the physical match that Brian Cox was when he played Churchill earlier this year in Jonathan Teplitzky’s eponymously titled film, Oldman burrows into a fiction suit of fake fat, wrinkles, pouches, prosthetics and more, and yet still manages to deliver up a performance that is at once human, iconic, and yet bereft of caricature. It’s remarkable work.

As is the film he’s embedded in. The third in 2017’s oddly timed Blitz Triptych (along with the aforementioned Dunkirk and Churchill), Darkest Hour might be the best yet. It’s clearly a leap ahead of the latter, which was essentially a mediocre film wrapped around a great actor, and while it lacks the sheer technical brio of Dunkirk, it’s a more complete dramatic experience; it breathes, it ponders, it ramps up slowly and preferences drama over thrills (as great as Dunkirk is, one feels that, to paraphrase Daffy Duck, you can only do it once).

It is, unsurprisingly, an incredibly handsome film, taking place in a deeply textured, antique world of burnished dark wood, polished brass, and indirect light, crossing between the leather-furnished drawing rooms where cunning strategies are designed and the vaulting architecture of the seats of government where the fruits of those plans are made public. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film in its construction; indeed, the few times when director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pan) breaks with the usual subdued camera aesthetic – once when tracking a bomb down from a plane ala Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, another pulling up from Churchill in rooftop reverie until we see London arrayed around him – rather shatter the immersion, they’re so jarring.

Darkest Hour doesn’t need that kind of flamboyance. This is a film predicated on dialogue and performance, and in those areas it delivers completely. Casting everyone’s favourite multi-decade overnight success, Ben Mendelsohn, as George VI, turns out to be a masterstroke, with the Australian actor imbuing the much-performed King with a mix of privilege, strength and vulnerability that sets this George well apart from previous portrayals. Meanwhile, Kristin Scott Thomas, while perhaps not given as much to do as Miranda Richardson in Churchill, excels as Clementine, Winston’s wife, staunchest supporter and, when needed, most cutting critic.

Of course, what we’re really here for is to hear Oldman, unarguably one of the great actors of his age, sink his teeth into a famous speech or two, and in this Darkest Hour he absolutely delivers. It’s one thing to give us insight into Churchill’s private, more vulnerable moments, but such a bombastic and theatrical figure really lives on the screen when the actor playing him is given full license to be bombastic and theatrical – the actor playing the character who is playing the part of the great orator, in effect. In doing so Darkest Hour manages to reconcile the man and the myth, and while it occasionally succumbs to hagiographic tendencies, it remains a stirring yet thoughtful portrait.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Darkest Hour 

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Baby Driver

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

Baby Driver might just be the coolest movie of 2017; a music-powered, fast-moving, hip-swiveling rock and roll action movie that gleams and shines and drives with more sheer style, grace, and aplomb than anything that’s come along in, well, it seems like forever.

The plot is basic, to be fair. Ansel Elgort’s eponymous getaway driver is in debt to Doc (Kevin Spacey, luxuriating in the script’s snappy patter), a ruthless criminal mastermind, and is forced to act as a wheelman for a revolving-door crew of armed robbers. All Baby really wants to do is take care of his deaf foster father (CJ Jones) and romance diner waitress Debora (Lily James), but the old “one last job” bit puts him on a collision course with Doc and a dangerous crew consisting of greaser party animal Buddy (Jon Hamm), his devilish girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzales), and psycho-for-hire Bats (Jamie Foxx). Cue shoot-outs, car chases (so, so many car chases), and the grooviest soundtrack of the year.

Still, it’s not what you play but how you play it, and Baby Driver is essentially one long shredding guitar solo of a film. The conceit is that Baby has tinnitus from the car accident that killed his parents as a kid, and he keeps a constant musical soundtrack pumping through his earphones to keep the buzz at bay. He’s so music-focused he keeps a range of full iPods at hand for different moods, and times his car chases to the tunes – right out the gate we get a stunning race ‘n’ chase set to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bell Bottoms”, and it’s absolutely a statement of intent: you are not gonna watch this movie so much as dance to it, and love every minute of it.

It’s a musical, really, even if nobody sings all that much; director Edgar Wright and his editors,  Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss, chop Bill Pope’s ’70s-noir photography to the soundtrack, tying every beat to a motion and an emotion. Even the production design gets in on the act – clock the graffiti in the street when Baby bops along to “Harlem Shuffle” on an errand for coffee. There’s thematic work being done here, too; Baby’s constant soundtrack serves to insulate him from the ugly and violent criminal world he’s being forced to inhabit, and his arc chiefly concerns him taking responsibility for his actions and the crimes he enables.

We don’t dwell on that too much though – we’re too busy having fun, and if there’s a complaint to be made about Baby Driver, it’s that there’s actually not too much going in under the hood – but is that such a crime when the candy apple red finish shines so brightly? Keep an eye on the love story instead, and the star-making turns by Elgort and James. Elgort in particular is a genius bit of casting – Wright understands that what makes Baby appealing isn’t his toughness or his skill behind the wheel, but, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, his vulnerability, and it’s the complete lack of macho posturing that makes our hero such a breath of fresh air in the action movie landscape.

Compare the obnoxious, confrontational style of Foxx’s gangsta, or even Jon Hamm’s “last of the old school outlaws” wild card; perhaps the most interesting subtext here is Baby Driver‘s tiredness of traditional models of masculinity, and the most transgressive thing it does is posit the idea that it’s much cooler to be a nice guy than a loose cannon killer. Baby is, we’re told repeatedly, a good kid with a good heart, and even (most) of the people who wind up trying to kill him hold him in esteem and affection.

That’s there if you want it, but if you just want to groove on the gorgeous aesthetic, that’s cool too. Baby Driver marks a turning point for Edgar Wright as a filmmaker; having developed his skills making brilliant visually striking comedies for years, from Spaced through to The World’s End, this flick feels like the opening riff of the next phase of his career – Track One, Side Two, if you will. It’s an absolute blast that will leave you grinning as you leave the cinema, and humming the soundtrack for days afterwards.