Friday, 19 January 2018

Film Review: Gary Oldman triumphs in Darkest Hour, but the film around him struggles

The third of three films centred around the Dunkirk evacuation to come out over the past year, Darkest Hour is also unfortunately the weakest. While Dunkirk turned its heart stopping adrenaline into an instantly classic feat of filmmaking, and Their Finest finished as one of the warmest and most emotional films of the year, Joe Wright's Darkest Hour instead opts for something more clinical, more watered down. There's no doubting the technical craft on display here, but Wright's film just doesn't leap off the screen.

Which would be fine, if it didn't appear to think that it did. Darkest Hour tackles Operation Dynamo from the British shores, as newfound Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) navigates the tricky political climate to bring home hundreds of thousands of soldiers. There are other smaller subplots running alongside the Dunkirk evacuation, notably one involving King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and another focused on Churchill's secretary Elizabeth (a delightful Lily James), but Wright wisely doesn't let them overstay their welcome. They serve as short, punchy distractions whenever the film needs to shift itself into something different for a while.

Darkest Hour is gorgeously shot - its camera gliding symmetrically through the House of Commons, its ominously dark red glow during Churchill's first Radio speech - but that's to be expected from a film of this grandeur. It's no Blade Runner 2049, but a cinematography Oscar nod is still likely to come this way. The performances are uniformly great too, even if they're trumped entirely by Oldman's much talked about role here. He plays Churchill with an aggression and an almost hurricane-like force, but he lets the quieter moments count the most. I'd argue the film's two best scenes - Churchill on the phone to Franklin Roosevelt, and an entirely fictionalised sequence of Churchill riding a tube on the London Underground and asking fellow passengers about the war - are both moments that demonstrate Oldman's quiet vulnerability over his brute force. It's a tough role to sell, but he succeeds.

Unfortunately Darkest Hour relies too much on Oldman's performance, and seems to forget to craft its own soul or identity alongside him. There's very little heart or emotion to the film - something Their Finest overflowed with, and something Dunkirk dug up tremendously powerfully in its final moments - and the events we're watching feel almost too stripped bare. Churchill repeatedly hammers in the point about saving lives, but very rarely do we feel as if actual human lives are at stake. There's something frustratingly clinical about Wright's film, a refusal to get into the nitty-gritty of the subject and a reliance on pre-existing speeches to see us through to the film's ending. Darkest Hour climaxes with Churchill's most famous series of words, but despite Oldman giving it all he's got, you probably won't feel much.

I'm not saying we need repeated cutaways to the violence of the Second World War, but Anthony McMarten's script shies too far away from real consequence - it's worryingly easy to forget there's actually a war on. People are talking about it, sure, but their words never hit home. By the time we're watching the film's third or fourth lengthy speech, it's difficult to not feel underwhelmed by how little Darkest Hour has actually accomplished. Its best moments are either merely the work of a great actor utilising a speech written nearly eighty years ago, or purely fictional - two things you don't really want from a film of this kind. Wright can't seem to decide whether he wants to depict a powerful historical moment or take something we know and shine his own light on it, and so his film winds up lost, confused and disappointingly purified.

In A Sentence

Despite effective cinematography and a typically strong performance from Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour's middling script and lack of identity within the genre result in a historical film as simplified as it is frustratingly hollow.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is as refreshingly bold as its title is long

Imagine driving into a town, passing three signs on your way. The first reads "Raped while dying," the second one proclaims "And still no arrests?" before finally landing on "How come, Chief Willoughby?". Would you carry on driving into that town, or would you flick your SatNav onto the next best route and back away from what you'd seen? In an ideal world these billboards wouldn't have to exist - and, as far as I'm aware, they don't exist - but Martin McDonagh's new film doesn't take place in an ideal world. 

Saying that there's a darkness to the core of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may be the understatement of the century. McDonagh's film is the very definition of black comedy, sourcing its humour in places you certainly wouldn't find in a Pixar film to say the least. It concerns itself with racism, prejudice and the criminal justice system, but rather than just take stabs at these easy targets it offers something more thoughtful and, in one particular area, fantastically daring.

Frances McDormand is Mildred Hayes, the mother of a seventeen year old murder victim and the woman who put up the three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. She's angry at the world, and justifiably so, but McDonagh's script immediately dovetails away from a One Woman Against The World narrative. We find sympathy with the cancer-ridden Chief Willoughby (a very good Woody Harrelson), the detective who didn't so much as mess up the Hayes case but run out of options due to a total lack of evidence. We find sympathy with Mildred's son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), a visibly depressed teenager who just wants a normal, easy life. Three Billboards could definitely still work without the expanded character roster, but it's a richer film for doing so.

Perhaps most notably, McDonagh lets us find sympathy in Officer Dixon, played with a career best performance by Sam Rockwell. Dixon is introduced to us as the definitive US cop stereotype - he's lazy, homophobic and openly racist, arresting a non-coincidently black supporting character for minor marijuana charges solely to prove a point. Yet, Three Billboards dares to give him an arc, allows him to grow and change. It's a bold move, and one that certainly hasn't sat well with many, but it's a rare glimpse of optimism inside McDonagh's otherwise very morbid film. Even the darkest, evilest souls can begin to change their ways - but is it enough for complete redemption? The film leaves that up to us to decide.

Three Billboards' ensemble cast is very much its biggest asset - supporting turns from Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Abbie Cornish and Caleb Landry Jones work to flesh out the film's town citizens - but the film's real triumph remains McDormand. In unquestionably her best work since Fargo back in 1995, McDormand draws everything she needs from us with her performance - we're able to sympathise with her in one scene, laugh at her razor-tongued insults the next, but completely question her moral grounding and attitude just moments later. The film's script asks a lot of McDormand but she doesn't bat an eyelid at such a task, she's loud and aggressive but also tender and warm should she need to be. It's a performance to shatter the Richter scale.

That most of the film's humour comes through her is even more impressive. Three Billboards' dark comedic style isn't exactly innovative, but it does its job well. It sources its humour in current topics, lending the film a freshness to help liven up its bleak cinematography and attitude. Willoughby makes a crack about how if you took all the racist cops out of the Police force you'd be left with three officers and, as he so delicately puts it, they'd all hate the fags. It's one of the film's funniest moments due to Harrelson's self-deprecating line delivery, but the rather loud subtext it comes with hits even harder. To top it all off, it's just one of many similar jokes running through McDonagh's screenplay.

Three Billboards is less a film made with love than one made with anger, but it finds fleeting moments of sincerity to help juxtapose the nasty with the nice: a violent dialogue between Mildred and Willoughby takes a drastic tonal shift when he coughs blood onto her, and the film makes a welcome but surprise choice when Mildred confronts her former husband and his new beau in a restaurant. This isn't an evil film, and it certainly isn't tough to have a blast with, but it's one that requires the right kind of attitude to digest into something that sits right in afterthought. McDonagh's script is a bold one, and his cast clearly believe in every word of it, but it's McDormand you'll come away remembering. Well, that and the brilliantly open-ended conclusion that gives us the perfect amount to work with in forming our own happy ending - should we want such a thing, of course.

In A Sentence

Violently written but delicately crafted, Martin McDonagh's daring Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a funny, thoughtful film with an earth-shattering performance courtesy of Frances McDormand.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Film Review: Aaron Sorkin directs Molly's Game, turns a winning hand into a forgettable one

Aaron Sorkin has, for me, given us some of the best film screenplays in recent memory. His fast paced script for David Fincher's The Social Network was electrifying, his structural work on Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs bordered on ingenious. As a man armed with just a pen, Sorkin has turned even the most simplistic stories into something truly notable. When weaponised with a camera and a cast and a whole film's production, though, the results are a disappointing step down.

Molly's Game is Sorkin's directorial debut, telling the very much true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) - a professional skier who, some years after a career-ending injury, began running high-stakes poker games with A-list players. Having initially started off as a personal assistant for the man who formerly ran the games, Molly soon ditches him after their relationship turns bitter and steals away most of his players for herself. A couple of years down the line, though, and Molly is facing federal charges, recruiting big-time lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help her win the case.

Sorkin opts for a non-linear approach to his storytelling here, and it throws his film off balance almost immediately. We begin with Molly at her last ever skiing race, where she was ultimately injured, with Chastain's voice narrating over the top discussing the worst things that can happen to professional athletes. There's just something off about the scene, Sorkin's narration dialogue feeling entirely out of place in conjuncture with what we're seeing and even more misplaced in retrospect. When the film begins moving Sorkin's efforts start to improve, but he's consistently hampered by his repeated cutaways back to the present in Jaffey's office, where very little dramatic tension or character definition is ever dug up.

Momentum is gained and lost almost endlessly, but the film never settles into a groove long enough for either narrative thread to fully soar. Remember that jaw dropping sequence around the middle of Steve Jobs, the montage to end all montages? You'll find none of that electrifying dialogue or pacing here, as Molly's Game loses steam every time it shows signs of gaining it. That the film eventually lands on a prolonged dialogue piece between Molly and her father feels particularly misjudged, as whatever character work Sorkin has given Molly across the film is overbearingly forced onto us out of her father's mouth - it halts the film dead, and sounds bad doing it. Sorkin, usually a wizard with words, has never presented such sloppy dialogue before.

There's also the case of Sorkin's direction frequently coming across as amateur or not fully realised. He usually trusts us with his complex, lightning-paced dialogue, but here he loses the ball - zingy poker scenes are narrated suitably by Chastain, but Sorkin chooses to bring the cards on screen in little animations that rarely match the film's tone. A brief violent interlude in the film's middle act is particularly messy, Sorkin's camera randomly flitting in and out of jittery slow motion and fading to and from black at bizarre intervals. There's a real sense of a man armed with a good script who isn't sure how to bring that story to life, and it's tough not to feel like this could be a real winner had Sorkin passed the directorial reins to someone more experienced.

Fortunately Sorkin has Jessica Chastain taking on the titular character, and boy was this actress born for this role. Chastain brings a levity to Molly Bloom, but also thundering confidence and smirk-inducing sharpness. It's a role filled with the kind of dramatic flair that Chastain has nigh-on perfected, but also the rare one to also allow her to have a little fun - there was very little humour or flirting in Zero Dark Thirty or Miss Sloane. I'm not sure I could quite call this Chastain's best work yet - not with the just mentioned Kathryn Bigelow film in her back catalogue - but it's the latest in an impressively long line of winning turns. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Elba, an actor of serious dramatic presence who seems to forget to bring any to his lawyered up role here - he does a lot of shouting, but rarely does it turn into actual tension or emotion.

Molly's Game is entertaining enough to pass the time, and its energetic editing and snazzy flourishes will likely please the masses, but a lot of the load bearing work here is unstable. Sorkin's script doesn't put in the required character work, his direction ranges between overly stylised and just plain poor, and the film's structure proves more frustrating that enlightening. There's a good film buried in here somewhere, maybe even a great one, but Chastain, good as though she may be, can't quite bring it to fruition singlehandedly. Molly's Game could've been a Royal Flush from a professional, but instead it's more like a first-time player presenting a hand that isn't quite as well formed as they think it is.

In A Sentence

Despite a typically great lead performance from Jessica Chastain, Molly's Game can't seem to cover up its underdeveloped script, messy structure and haphazard direction.