Darkest Hour – Joe Wright

Darkest Hour starring Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ben Mendelsohn.
Photo Credit: Jack English/Focus Features

It’s a movie that was made for the Oscars; you have a brilliant performance of a historical figure, impressive makeup and costume to go with the times, the inclusion of a powerful wartime speech, and artistic camera work. Darkest Hour is not the best movie to come out in 2017, not by a long shot, but no one can argue it’s a quality film and quite enjoyable. You get a glimpse into Winston Churchill’s battle to gain the trust of the Cabinet when he takes over as British Prime Minister for Neville Chamberlain in the early days of World War II.

It actually fits in really well with another film that was featured in the same Best Picture category at the Oscars – Dunkirk. They take place at the same time and it would benefit moviegoers to watch them both for historical purposes. It’s a time in history that not everyone is familiar with and it’s very interesting to see things happen from the soldiers’ perspectives as well as the political perspective. The two films couldn’t be more different but they stay true to their perspectives: the soldier’s point of view is action-based while a politician’s point of view is all about words.

Most people can agree that Gary Oldman deserved an Oscar a long time ago. He finally took one home at the 90th Academy Awards in early March for his portrayal of Churchill. It wasn’t even a question that he would win. He disappears into the character and brings a lot of spunk to a man most people have only read about in history classes. But of course his performance wouldn’t have been as effective without the makeup team, so the three of them also brought home Oscar for their efforts in Darkest Hour. The supporting cast of Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, and Ben Mendelsohn is good, but be under no false illusion that Darkest Hour is anything but the ‘Gary Oldman Show’. It’s a mere snapshot in time after all, when Churchill was facing his biggest decisions as Prime Minister, so most other characters are just filler.

In addition to Best Actor in a Leading Role (won), Best Picture, and Best Makeup and Hairstyling (won), Darkest Hour was also nominated for Best Cinematography. It’s one of those things that is actually hard to ignore in this film. If it’s something you don’t usually notice, you likely will notice it here.

Darkest Hour takes place at a time in history where things could have gone very differently for Britain, and the rest of the world. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat thriller but you definitely feel the sense of urgency. Knowing the outcome, the movie is done in such a way that makes you want to slap some sense into the opposition. During Churchill’s speeches you may even find yourself thinking, “Damn straight! You tell ‘em Winston!”. It’s as close to a universally enjoyable movie as you can get without being animated and released by Pixar. At just over 2 hours it’s a fairly standard run-time for a film of this nature. There is also no content in it that would be any cause for concern while watching with family, young or old. It’ll make you giggle, make you cheer (internally), and you might even learn a few things! If you’re a historian, as long as you forgive the filmmakers for taking dramatic license to tell the story, you won’t regret watching Churchill navigate through Britain’s “darkest hour”.

Watch the official trailer here:

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Lady Bird – Greta Gerwig

Lady Bird starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.
Photo credit: Merie Wallace and A24

Creating a film that so many people can identify with is not an easy task. The sheer amount of people who have responded to the film and title character in such a positive way leads one to believe that Greta Gerwig has succeeded with Lady Bird. Many people, young and old, who have seen Lady Bird have responded by saying, “That character is/was me!” or, “That is exactly how I felt about my parents/school/hometown/friends growing up!” and that is a true sign of success for a writer/director – aside from the movie being nominated for five Oscars. This is Gerwig’s directorial debut.

Lady Bird could take place in any decade and in any town but it happens to be Sacramento in 2002. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is in her senior year at a pretty normal Catholic high school and trying to figure out what she wants to do for college. On one hand it’s a fairly standard coming-of-age story where nothing exciting or out of the ordinary happens, but on the other hand it is completely unique. Lady Bird – an odd name, but soon it’s the last thing on your mind – has a strained relationship with her hard-working mother (Laurie Metcalf) and is yearning for independence and adventure. She is trying to fit in but at the same time is trying to break free. What you get is a very funny and very touching story of a seventeen-year-old navigating through one of the most important times of her life.

Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) has been one to watch since she broke out in 2007 with Atonement. Her role in Lady Bird has earned her a third acting nomination in ten years, which is very well deserved, especially for a twenty-three year old. The interactions between Lady Bird and her parents are timeless, and that is probably thanks to the brilliant Oscar-nominated script. It’s so good and so real that you probably won’t even notice it, which is the sign of an amazing screenplay. Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) is also nominated for her supporting role as an overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated mother of two. Special mention goes to Beanie Feldstein who plays the extremely likeable best friend.

Since Lady Bird doesn’t follow the traditional flow if a film with an introduction, climax, and conclusion, it feels more like you are just observing a girl’s senior year unfold and not watching a movie at all. You feel like you just popped in to observe a piece of Lady Bird’s life; you know a lot happened before you got there and you feel that the characters are still living their lives after the credits roll. What’s a shame is that in the absence of action or a plot twist, a few people will mistake Lady Bird for boring and mundane. What they won’t get is that that is the whole point – high school is generally unexciting, but at the time, losing a best friend, falling in love, figuring out your future, and trying new things is the be-all-end-all of your life!

Lady Bird was shown at many international film festivals and received a wider release later in 2017. It was a difficult film for many people to see in theatres, which is a shame. But following the 90th Academy Awards in March, it will surely be in high demand. Lady Bird has been nominated for five Oscars at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards:
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Original Screenplay

Watch the official trailer here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNi_HC839Wo

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) loves to make movies and it’s obvious that actors and members of the production teams love to make movies with him. Those who have worked on The Shape of Water have called it “magical” and “beautiful” and during del Toro’s Best Director award speech at the Golden Globes, he moved his two leading ladies to tears. The love and the respect people seem to have for del Toro certainly translated to the screen and their performances in The Shape of Water. This film was so well received, it has been nominated for thirteen Oscars (just one shy of the record), including the big ones (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay) and a number of the technical ones (Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Film Editing).

Sally Hawkins (Maudie, Blue Jasmine) turns in a performance of a lifetime as Elisa, a mute cleaner at a highly classified government facility who meets and eventually falls in love with an amphibian creature being held captive at the facility. She doesn’t say a word, but through her facial expressions, use of sign language, and that sly smile, you know exactly what she’s feeling. Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, The Help) is equally impressive as Zelda, Elisa’s cleaning colleague. She’s funny, doesn’t stop talking, and never really requires a response from Elisa in order to know how she feels about something. It must be difficult to play a part when your lines are like one big rant but it never really shows. The rest of the supporting cast couldn’t be any better – Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Michael Shannon is an over-the-top villain named Strickland who you despise in every single scene. He never lets up and it’s perfection.

The film is set in the 1960’s when everyone was afraid of Russians spies. When a creature from the Amazon is brought into a secret research facility its apparent that the views on how to treat it are opposing. One man wants to learn from it, the other man wants to torture and destroy it before enemies can get their hands on it. In the middle is Elisa, who somehow finds companionship with the strange, misunderstood creature. It’s a weird story that brings together elements from familiar movies like Splash, King Kong, Beauty and the Beast, and Creature from the Black Lagoon – and some may say the narrative has been done before, so why bother? If this type of thing troubles you, if you were angry that Avatar got so much hype even though it was basically Pocahontas, stay at home because this type of fantasy film probably isn’t for you. It’s what a director does with a familiar story – either visually or with beloved characters – that can make all the difference. What James Cameron did to revitalize the popular story with a huge budget, del Toro does with and a small budget and pure passion.

This movie is too different to be universally likeable. The magical/unbelievable element will throw off some moviegoers– but if you go into it prepared and with an open mind, it’s really hard not to love every minute of it. Guillermo del Toro has said that on a few occasions, his fairy tales have saved his life – The Shape of Water being one of them – and that is evident in how personal the film feels. It explores the loneliness in being different, the dream of being loved and understood, and the harsh cruel realities of the world all at once. The score (Oscar-nominated Alexandre Desplat), the almost-excessive romanticism, and overly adorable characters will either make you smile with delight for two hours or have you rolling your eyes, wishing for it to be over. Like everything, it’s a matter of perspective and what you’re in the mood for.

The Shape of Water has grossed over $95M worldwide; with less than a $20M budget that is quite the success. The Shape of Water has been nominated for thirteen Oscars at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards:
Best Achievement in Directing
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Costume Design
Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Best Achievement in Film Editing
Best Achievement in Production Design

Watch the official trailer from FOX Searchlight here:

Blade Runner 2049 – Denis Villeneuve

Blade Runner 2049 starring Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford, and Robin Wright.
Photo Credit: Stephen Vaughan/Warner Bros Pictures

When the executive producer of a movie openly admits the movie is too long, and that executive producer is also a director notorious for making movies with 150 min runtimes, you have to believe him when he says it. Blade Runner 2049 is many things: visually stunning, intriguing, artistic, and, as Ridley Scott so delicately put it, “f***ing way too long“. Even if it takes more than one sitting, even if you need a couple bathroom breaks in the 2hrs and 44mins; if you’re a fan of quality sci-fi drama (think Arrival), Blade Runner 2049 is a must-see.

Just like the original Blade Runner (directed by Ridley Scott 35 years ago), it’s not for everyone. If you have no patience for slow films and for scenes that are easily 2 minutes longer than they have to be, avoid this sequel like the plague. If you are the DC/Marvel type who needs humour and constant action, avoid this movie like the plague. If you are the other type of movie watcher, sit back and get completely sucked into a new (or not so new) world.

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Prisoners, Sicario) took a 35-year-old movie and made it fresh and relevant. A very serious Ryan Gosling plays “K”, a young “blade runner” for the L.A. Police Department. Blade runners are tasked with hunting down and retiring old Replicant models, a type of bioengineered android that looks identical to a human. Apparently older Replicants rose up against humans at some point, but that’s not really important. The important thing to know is that Replicants look and act like humans; older models are not wanted and are hunted and killed; and there is a giant, powerful corporation that is experimenting with new models and new features that make it even more difficult to tell the difference. During a routine stop, K stumbles on something strange that requires further investigation. His boss (Robin Wright) tasks him with getting to the bottom of the strange events surrounding the death of an old model, all while trying to stay ahead of the CEO of the corporation (Jared Leto), who wants answers for a very different reason. The story is fairly complex, and although it doesn’t require one to see the original, it probably helps one understand the world a little better.

Lucky for fans of the original film, K’s investigation leads him to former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). It’s been 30 years and he’s a little older, but there’s still a lot of fight (and heartache) left in his character, not to mention Mr. Ford himself (see video ‘Ryan Gosling Nearly Knocked Out by Harrison Ford‘).

The main features of the movie are the cinematography, production design, and the music/sound – all things that Blade Runner 2049 has been nominated for. The dusty, dirty, futuristic dystopia is breathtaking in almost every scene. If camera work and set design are not things you typically notice in a film, you will surely notice them in this one. They make the ugly future strangely beautiful. The score is eerily similar to Arrival, so much so that it is hard to believe that Jóhann Jóhannsson had no part in it; in fact, he was replaced by Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Inception) and Benjamin Wallfisch (IT) shortly into filming. For a film with fairly limited dialogue, the music is quite noticeable and gives the sweeping landscapes more “oomph”.

To sum up, although Blade Runner 2049 is an acquired taste just like the original, it will surely satisfy those who enjoy a science fiction drama with spectacular visuals. Denis Villeneuve brings his typical darker style to the film as well as his talent for perfect endings.

Blade Runner 2049 brought in just under $260M worldwide and has been nominated for five Oscars at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards, including:
Best Achievement in Cinematography
Best Achievement in Visual Effects
Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Best Achievement in Production Design

Watch the official Warner Bros. trailer here: