Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

A social drama and comedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a sharp story about grief, lashing out, and unintended consequences.

Seven months after the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter, the deeply bitter Mildred (Frances McDormand) buys advertising space on three billboards on a quiet rural road, calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for the lack of any arrests. Married to Anne (Abbie Cornish) and a father of two young daughters Willoughby is well-respected by the small community. He is also suffering from terminal cancer.

The billboards cause a backlash, and Mildred's son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) are among many upset by her actions. Only a few friends, including the dwarf James (Peter Dinklage), stand by her. Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is one of Willoughby's officers. Still living with his mom, he is quick to lose his temper and harbours barely concealed racist tendencies. The billboards drive him to the edge, and tensions escalate. But with Mildred refusing to back down, events spiral in unexpected directions.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards provides biting commentary on life's volatility, and delights in feinting to one side before jumping to a previously unforeseen path. Just as soon as the narrative appears to settle down to a routine story of awakening and redemption, the stunningly sharp curves emerge, and the story shoots off into a succession of often jaw-dropping twists.

A dark rollercoaster tone forces humour and tragedy to brilliantly and uncomfortably rub shoulders, McDonagh tightly coupling life's absurdities with the inevitabilities of appalling human failings. Everything that can be expected to unfold does not, and everything that does happen is unexpected. And yet entrenched societal forces dig in, unmoved and not interested in yielding to any amount of grief, anger or levity.

The film plays with themes of justice deserved and demanded, hypocrisy in the face of responsibility, and the fragile layer of community civility cracking under a tenacious scratch. Ebbing is an economically depressed community aware of its faults but more than willing to overlook them for the pretense of harmony. Mildred's three billboards upset the apple cart, for a while not much will be the same, but in Ebbing nothing will fundamentally change.

The rural backwater setting ensures that there are no distinguished bright lights amongst the characters. While Mildred is the protagonist supposedly deserving of sympathy, McDonagh drops early hints that she is very much part of her blue collar community, her anger concealing but not eliminating her penchant for trouble. Mildred's billboard stunt is not an out-of-character action, but rather in keeping with a woman quite happy to punch back hard against whatever displeases her, including a mouthy daughter. The revelations about Mildred's true self arrive as painful and unsettling shocks, and provide the film with enormous power.

Mildred along with Chief Willoughby and officer Dixon create a trio of memorable and richly drawn characters as the interplay between the angry mother, the sick police chief and the racist cop creates the film's labyrinthine foundation. McDonagh succeeds in demonstrating the fallacies of first impressions and teases out the capacity for transformative change.

Frances McDormand evokes the ghost of her greatest role in Fargo and delivers an immense performance fuelled by acidic acrimony. Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell have rarely been better, and share screen time with help from an elegantly shocking inter-character baton handoff.

The supporting characters add plenty of colour and context. Mildred's son Robbie offers an alternative window onto his mother's life, while ex-husband Charlie and his 19 year old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving) offer both menace and some of the best comic moments. The ad agency salesperson Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the dwarf James, a local priest, and a potpourri of police officers with various personalities bring the community to vibrant life.

Thorny, disquieting, challenging and unforgettable, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a dazzling achievement.

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Movie review: The Post (2017)

A journalistic drama, The Post is a familiar but still relevant story of press freedom. 

It's 1971 and the Vietnam War is grinding on. A disgruntled government contractor secretly makes copies of the Pentagon Papers, secretive voluminous reports about the war commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) in the mid 1960s. The Papers reveal a very different version of the truth than the official government narrative. Soon the New York Times is running front page stories much to the disgust of President Nixon, who issues a court order to stop the Times publishing any further revelations.

Over at the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) chases the story, while the Post's owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is occupied with floating the paper on the stock exchange. Graham is also encountering near blatant sexism as Washington DC's elites dismiss her as an accidental owner of the paper with no real skill or talent to contribute. With help from senior reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) Bradlee finally gets his hands on the Pentagon Papers, but Graham will have to decide whether to risk the Post's future by agreeing to publish, a decision made all the more difficult by her friendship with McNamara.

Directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, The Post was rushed into production as an antidote project to the attacks on the press emanating from the Trump White House. With Streep and Hanks representing the upper echelons of Hollywood royalty lending their considerable talents, this is a reasonably engaging but firmly conventional story about the mainstream media staring down government pressure and court orders to reveal the truth about an ongoing war. The film is earnest in its intentions but also blatantly preachy.

Slick and professional as it is in recreating a 1970s newsroom milieu and a society were men still determined every action, there is no escaping that The Post adds little to the press-versus-authority sub-genre. The terrain is already well-covered by the likes of All The President's Men, State Of PlaySpotlight and The Fifth Estate. Editors egging on their reporters who then work the phones, pound the sidewalk, track down their sources, and clack away at typewriters as the deadline approaches for the presses to run, all under pressure of dark and evil authoritarian forces, is overly familiar cinematic material.

With the ending well known, the drama emanates from the day-to-day tactics and small sequential battles Bradlee and Graham had to personally and professionally wage and overcome. And Kay Graham's story is the one that resonates. With Meryl Streep in stellar form, the quiet struggle for a woman of considerable but theoretical influence to find her voice emerges as The Post's highlight. Spielberg expertly stages a succession of painful moments where Kay is marginalized, ignored and subjected to condescending behaviour by elderly white men in dark suits unaccustomed to a woman carrying and exerting decision-making authority. When it's finally her time to step forward and shape history, the societal seismic shock is profound.

Despite a lack of originality in style and content, The Post still delivers an important story in a proficient package.

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Sunday, 14 January 2018

Movie Review: Designing Woman (1957)

A classy romantic comedy bordering on farce, Designing Woman delivers both romantic imbroglios and big laughs.

During a trip to California, sports journalist Mike Hagen (Gregory Peck) meets, falls in love, and quickly gets married to fellow New Yorker Marilla Brown (Lauren Bacall). They arrive back in New York City and realize that they really don't know each other. Mike attempts to hide a past relationship with actress Lori Shannon (Dolores Gray), and is also stunned to find out that Marilla is independent, wealthy and runs a fashion design business.

Things get worse when they meet each other's friends. Mike's poker buddies include dense former boxer Maxi Stultz (Mickey Shaughnessy), while Marilla's social circle consists of sophisticated members of the arts community, including former boyfriend Zachary Wilde (Tom Helmore). Life becomes even more complicated when Mike's editor Ned Hammerstein (Sam Levene) warns him that mobster Martin J. Daylor (Edward Platt) has unleashed his henchmen to silence Mike's expose of boxing corruption.

Written by George Wells and directed by Vincente Minnelli, Designing Woman manages the difficult feat of being smart and preposterous at the same time. This is a romance with an abundance of madcap comedy, Minnelli surrounding his lovers with enough insanity to keep the energy level at extreme while maintaining narrative control. The film's lush aesthetic adds to the intensity, with bright colours, attentive set design, and lavish costumes providing a vivid and always animated backdrop.

Peck and Bacall play to their straight strengths. He is the confident square-jawed investigative sportswriter who always expects to get the girl, and she is the urban independent sophisticate with plenty of fire under the cool exterior. When they are alone together, they click, but otherwise they have little in common other than a willingness to take risks. She joins him at a boxing bout dressed for a night out at the theatre. He accompanies her to a women's fashion show. None of it goes well.

With the central characters in good hands, Minnelli is free to surround them with plenty of absurdity. Lori and Zachary provide a double dose of suddenly jilted ex-lovers. Marilla's friends include a hyperactive acrobatic stage performer who cannot help but unleash his gymnast moves. Mike's ex-boxer buddy Maxi is a malfunctioning wrecking machine with hard fists and a harder head. And Lori's large pet poodle has a distinctive personality and an insatiable appetite for chewing on shoes. As the story progresses the supporting cast grows in stature and the film shines with kookiness.

The highlights are many. Mike, Lori and a plate of ravioli at an Italian restaurant is a cinematic masterpiece. The convergence of Marilla's artistic friends and Mike's poker buddies on the same night at the same apartment sets up an epic social catastrophe. And Mike's attempt to navigate around town with a fragile gift from his editor Ned is a fine examples of on-the-margins comedy.

Designing Woman is funny and fearless, an elegant romance overflowing with wacky vitality.

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Movie Review: She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)

A salute to rank-and-file cavalrymen, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon lovingly portrays the machinations of cavalry tactics but forgets to include an engaging plot.

It's 1876, and after Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn the small and remote Fort Starke cavalry post near the Arizona-Utah border is on high alert. Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is less than a week away from retirement, and his long time friend, the hard drinking and somewhat dim Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) is also close to leaving the military. Brittles and Quincannon are assigned a final mission to scope out the movement of emboldened Indian tribes in the area.

The mission is made much more complicated when the commanding officer Major Allshard (George O'Brien) also demands that his wife and niece Abby (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) be escorted to a safer location. Brittles' men include Lieutenant Cohill (John Agar) and Lieutenant Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.), who are vying for Olivia's attention, as well as the more focused Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson). Navigating the tough terrain and avoiding confrontations with the marauding Indians will prove to be difficult.

Directed by John Ford and featuring stunning Monument Valley locations, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is stunning to look at but also tedious to watch. Despite a concise running length of just over 100 minutes, the film is primarily occupied with portraying the soldiers' life on the frontier. Once the tenor of barking orders, trumpet calls and horses marching in formation this way and then that way is established, precious little else engages the mind. Ford's predilection for dim humour drawn from men of Irish descent drinking their way to foolishness does not help.

A couple of plot points are attempted on the long treks across the desert. In the first the soldiers need to navigate around invigorated Indian tribes, and the screenplay steers well clear of discussing any of the politics. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon is old-fashioned in portraying the Indians as a violent threat to be either avoided or confronted head-on, no explanation necessary.

The second and even weaker sub-plot involves a poorly defined romantic triangle featuring Olivia, Cohill, and Pennell. This is romance as imagined by a ten year old, with an impossibly beautiful woman whose presence on the frontier is barely explained causing young men to compete for her attention, and they proceed to behave with all the subtlety of young bucks locking horns.

What remains amidst the impressive and colourful scenery is a notable John Wayne performance. The actor was 42 but playing an older man nearing retirement, and Wayne carries the burden of a lifetime invested on the dusty edge of civilization on his broad shoulders. Wayne as Brittles is just a bit more resigned and circumspect compared to his more common screen presence, and the sense of commitment to duty tinged with fatigue permeates the film.

Beautiful but flawed, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon feasts the eye and starves the mind.

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Saturday, 13 January 2018

Movie Review: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

A classy science fiction film tackling disarmament themes, The Day The Earth Stood Still is a compact thriller with a timeless message.

A spaceship lands in Washington DC. On board are two aliens: the human-like Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and the giant robot Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu is shot on arrival by panicked army soldiers, but anyway tries to communicate an important message with squabbling world leaders. Gort has advanced ray weapons capable of zapping and disintegrating any threat.

Klaatu slips away from the hospital and assumes the identity of John Carpenter to mingle with humans. He books into a small hotel and befriends war widow Helen (Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Billy Gray). Klaatu makes contact with Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), who helps organize a scientist summit to hear Klaatu's message. But with a massive manhunt closing in on him and Helen's boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe) starting to get suspicious, Klaatu may run out of time.

Smoothly directed by Robert Wise with a script by Edmund H. North, The Day The Earth Stood Still was an early attempt to inject mature and thought-provoking themes and substantive budgets and talent into the sci-fi genre. In this story the humans are the war mongering dummies and the aliens are the technologically and cerebrally more advanced sage advisors with a warning for Earth. On a cold war footing and treating the newcomers with the blunt tools of soldiers, machine guns and tanks, human behaviour is immediately revealed to be infantile.

The film looks seamless, the alien technology impressive and the mission focused. The imagery is often striking, and in portraying the spaceship, Gort and the display of alien abilities, Wise crafts enduring cinematic milestones.

But the story establishes its singular objective early, Klaatu out to gather world leaders to deliver a warning message of great consequence. It takes all of the 91 minutes of running time and plenty of distractions that would not stand up to logical scrutiny to arrive at the opportunity for the big speech. And the climax proves to be a truncated affair, predictable but also bewildering in its brevity. The sense that money, time or ideas ran out lingers in the air.

There are some either deliberate or coincidental religious undertones to be found, Klaatu's adopted initials of JC and fortuitous Carpenter name providing clues, and late in the film he undergoes a more obvious rejuvenation thanks to help from the all-powerful Gort. The symbolism, whether intentional or not, is confined to the background.

Michael Rennie reached a career highlight in his disciplined central performance as Klaatu. He succeeds in portraying the alien as a quick study but still a new arrival to the planet, using an easy but sharp demeanour to fulfil his mission. Patricia Neal is the most prominent and sympathetic of the humans. Hugh Marlowe as her boyfriend represents more human faults in the form of self-serving greed, while Sam Jaffe is suitably Einsteinesque as Professor Barnhardt.

The Day The Earth Stood Still raises an astute mirror in front of the human condition, revealing a worrisome image.

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Movie review: Operation Pacific (1951)

A World War Two submarine action film with a touch of romance, Operation Pacific ticks all the boxes but does not shine in any of them.

In World War Two, the American submarine Thunderfish is tasked with tracking down and sinking Japanese enemy vessels in the Pacific Ocean. Captain "Pop" Perry (Ward Bond) and his Executive Officer "Duke" Gifford (John Wayne) are friends and smoothly command the sub. After rescuing civilians from a Japanese held island, Thunderfish returns to Pearl Harbor where Duke hopes to win back the love of his ex-wife Lieutenant Navy Nurse Mary Stuart (Patricia Neal). However, she is now in a romantic relationship with Pop's younger brother Lieutenant Bob Perry (Philip Carey).

Back at sea Thunderfish tangles with more enemy ships, but is hampered by faulty torpedoes. Pop and Duke have to lead their men into a difficult encounter with a heavily armed Japanese freighter, and the outcome further complicates the tense relationship between Duke and Bob. But the Thunderfish's biggest challenge still lies ahead.

Written and directed by George Waggner, Operation Pacific is inspired by true incidents that occurred in the Pacific theatre during World War Two. The film is committed to an investment in a close-to-realistic portrayal of submarine warfare operations, and the scenes at sea carry the requisite edge as men in confined surroundings dispatch death in the form of torpedoes and in return anticipate the juddering thuds of depth charges. The subplot about malfunctioning torpedoes introduces an unusual but welcome dose of engineering pragmatism in a war movie.

But in terms of characters and narrative engagement, the film sails in firmly bland territory. The Duke character is fully subsumed by John Wayne to the extent of sharing the actors' nickname. And Wayne treats the submarine as his horse as he rides tall in command, fearless in every decision and never harboring any doubt that he will win the war and win the girl.

The absence of depth exposes the film to the silliness of a romantic triangle where Mary Stuart clearly shares no affection with Bob and whether consciously or not is using him to win back Duke. Wayne and Patricia Neal do click as an on-screen couple (despite apparent off-screen apathy), but Duke's damn-the-torpedoes approach strips the film of subtlety both at sea and on land.

Waggner does alternate between action and romance at regular intervals and avoids lingering for too long in any one place. The film clocks in at under two hours, and Waggner finds a good ending in a large scale naval battle with plenty of opportunities for heroism and sacrifice. The love and war stories finally merge on the high seas, Wayne presented an efficient opportunity to dominate both arenas. And wet or dry, it's pointless to expect anything other than a comprehensive Duke triumph.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: Molly's Game (2017)

A biography set in the glitzy world of private high stakes poker games, Molly's Game is a remarkable story of a woman navigating her way through money-fuelled terrain where celebrities and less savory characters intermingle.

Two years after hosting her last poker game and soon after publishing a book about her unlikely experiences, Molly Brown (Jessica Chastain) is arrested by the FBI for operating illegal gambling tables. She seeks the services of lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), and as she tangles with the legal system her story unfolds in flashback. Born in Colorado and driven hard by her psychologist father Larry (Kevin Costner), Molly was striving for the US Olympic skiing team when a severe crash ended her hopes.

She moved to Los Angeles and through her new employer Dean (Jeremy Strong), a real estate developer, she gets involved in hosting poker games for Hollywood's elites, including a famous actor referred to only as Player X (Michael Cera). Molly learns all she can and gradually establishes a name for herself, keeping the games clean and legal. Eventually she breaks away from Dean and creates her own brand. But a squabble with Player X ends badly, forcing Molly to relocate to New York and start over, this time with higher stakes both at the table and in her private life.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Molly's Game is a fast-paced trip fuelled on ambition. The film is immersed in the decadent and ultimately barely consequential milieu of wealthy people trading fortunes at the poker table. But Sorkin latches onto the theme of a desire to achieve fuelled by broken dreams, and weaves an intriguing narrative around a woman carving her place in a secretive male-dominated world.

Despite the preponderance of players, lawyers, agents and mobsters, Molly Bloom is the one well-rounded character worth caring about in the film. Sorkin draws out plenty of background from her childhood, particularly a difficult relationship with her father who is also a coach, booster and expert on mind games. And within her family Molly struggled to meet expectations, developing a sense of bratty insecurity among high achieving siblings. Molly's accident on the ski hill frames the film, and becomes the catalyst for a woman determined to climb to the top step of whatever podium is available.

At 140 minutes, the film is a good 30 minutes longer than it needed to be for a relatively small story. In his big screen directorial debut Sorkin allows plenty of flab to creep in. Scenes routinely go on longer than they need to, some details about individual poker hands intrude on the narrative, and the editing is lazy. But the dialogue is often crisp, and Molly finds a worthwhile sparring partner in lawyer Charlie Jaffey. His role grows as the film progresses, the lawyer finally figuring out what makes his client tick and placing it into context.

Jessica Chastain dominates the film and brings Molly to life with plenty of energy and occasional hints of vulnerability and loneliness. Idris Elba and Kevin Costner provide steady support. The men around the table, including Player X (allegedly modeled on Tobey Maguire) remain relatively featureless examples of men succumbing to base masculine competitive instincts and wasting away money, talent, time or all three.

And where men with too much money and power are addicted to foolish pursuits, a smart woman can find her place to shine.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Movie Review: All The Money In The World (2017)

A kidnapping drama inspired by real events, All The Money In The World is a cerebral thriller set in the surreal world of the very rich.

Rome, 1973. Teenager Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer), an heir to one of the world's largest fortunes, is kidnapped by a gang of thugs, including Cinquanta (Romain Duris). The abductors hold Paul at a countryside farmhouse and demand a $17 million ransom. Paul's father (Andrew Buchan) is a good for nothing drug addict, and his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) is broke and has no access to any of the family's money. Paul's grandfather is John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the richest man on earth, but he has no interest in paying for his grandson's release.

With an international media circus erupting around the kidnapping case and Gail determined to rescue her son, Getty dispatches fixer and ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to resolve the crisis. Chase and Gail form an uneasy working relationship, while Cinquanta and the captive Paul develop a mutual empathy. Soon a break in the case allows the Italian police to make their move, only for young Paul's ordeal to get much more complicated.

Written by David Scarpa and directed by Ridley Scott, All The Money In The World is a smart and character-rich crime thriller. More remarkable for being based on a true story, All The Money In The World combines the story of a physical kidnapping with the drama of multiple emotional confinements, and emerges with a layered and complex narrative. Bouncing between San Francisco, the Italian countryside, Getty's English estate and with brief sojourns to Middle East locations, Scott maintains an energetic pace and a firm grip on a story involving just a few people but carrying global implications.

All The Money In The World ventures into the warped psyche of John Paul Getty, a man obsessed with wealth creation but also mentally trapped by the title of the world's richest man - ever. John Paul views everything through the singular prism of negotiated dealmaking for the purpose of asset collection, and his essential need to emerge as the winner in every transaction. Parting with $17 million to rescue one grandson while placing all his other grandchildren at potential risk of copycat kidnappings simply does not begin to compute. John Paul is not only not interested in the deal, he is not interested in spending any mental effort on what is clearly a losing transaction.

The grandfather's intransigence leaves the mother in dire straits, and Gail Harris becomes the sole advocate and agitator to save her son's life. Caught between brutal and faceless kidnappers on one side and Getty's aloofness on the other, Gail fights a lonely battle against seemingly impossible odds. Neither rich nor greedy, Gail is the most normal person in the story and Scott places her in the middle of the film, forced to make increasingly desperate appeals for Getty's intervention as she negotiates for her son's life but possessing nothing of value to bargain with, other than her wits.

Scott further enriches All The Money In The World by spending time with young Paul in captivity, and sketching in the character of Cinquanta. The two men are essentially occupants of the same prison, and Scarpa's script gives the kidnappers a human face if not too much definition. Fletcher Chase as John Paul's go-to fixer becomes Gail's one ally. His role is the film's most uneven thread, as Scott never settles on a convincing tone for the bond between mother and troubleshooter.

Christopher Plummer was a late casting replacement brought into the film as John Paul Getty, and he delivers a dark and brooding performance as a man already transformed into a haunting presence while still alive. Michelle Williams is forceful, conveying a mother trading emotional anguish for pragmatism to deal with a crisis that no one else cares about.

All The Money In The World is a fascinating examination of confinement in all its forms, permanent and temporary, imposed and self-inflicted, behind bars and within walls adorned with masterpieces.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Movie Review: The Subject Was Roses (1968)

A family melodrama comprehensively trapped in its stage origins, The Subject Was Roses is overwrought and uneven but never dull.

After serving in World War Two for three years, Timmy Cleary (Martin Sheen) comes back to his parents' Bronx apartment. His father John (Jack Albertson), a businessman, is proud of his returning son, whom he now perceives as a man. Timmy's mother Nettie (Patricia Neal) has more trouble reconnecting with Timmy, and appears to resent the suddenly closer bond between father and son.

It is soon evident to Timmy that the relationship between his parents, always strained as he was growing up, is now under severe duress. Difficult conversations and arguments between the three family members erupt, with the topics of heated debate including drinking, philandering, religion, real estate, long-ago sacrifices, family commitments and broken dreams.

An adaptation of the 1964 Frank D. Gilroy play with Gilroy himself penning the screenplay, The Subject Was Roses is an overclocked three character study. The directorial debut of Ulu Grosbard (who also directed the Broadway production) is filled with the fire and fury of a middle class marriage well past its best-by date and floundering on the rocks of unmet expectations.

The movie is not far from a filmed play. Albertson and Sheen reprise their stage roles, while Patricia Neal was brought in for big-screen name recognition, and this was her triumphant return after a near-fatal stroke. Grosbard attempts to introduce a couple of awkward sojours outside the cramped apartment, with Nettie's day out proving to be particularly awkward and pointless to the tune of a grating song.

In retrospect, the film suffers from two fundamental weaknesses that are only partially the fault of the original material. By 1968 the Vietnam War was dominating the cultural landscape, and here was a story about a soldier returning from World War Two and walking into the turmoil of...his parents bickering. With the United States in the throes of seminal societal and cultural upheaval, the film becomes a quaint look back at a much more innocent time, despite all the loud arguments.

And to compound matters, Timmy as the returning veteran is the most stable character in the movie. It's as if he was away at a prolonged summer camp, and whatever it was he did in the war, The Subject Was Roses is not interested. More than 20 years prior films like The Best Years Of Our Lives blew the lid off the trauma of the returning soldier, and for Gilroy to not even tangentially approach the topic contributes to an uneven narrative.

What remains is a kitchen table social drama where every scene reveals another rub point between John and Nettie, a couple whose mutual love and affection were very much lost over the years, a middle-class and less sophisticated version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. Nettie is obsessed with looking after her mother and a handicapped sibling (never seen), John never psychologically recovered from a major economic setback, and together they are at their best when engaged in winding each other up, with Timmy firmly stuck in the crossfire.

The script features some sharp dialogue exchanges, Timmy the beneficiary of the best lines, and all three performances are in tune with the overheated emotions, although Neal is by far the most enigmatic.

A typical familial train wreck designed to induce rubber necking, The Subject Was Roses neither disappoints nor enthralls.

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Movie Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

A biographical character study, Darkest Hour captures a leader rising to the challenge. Primarily a celebration of Gary Oldman's acting in the role of Winston Churchill, the film otherwise traverses overly familiar historical territory.

It's May 1940, and with the Nazis sweeping across Europe, the British Parliament loses confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). His conservative party reluctantly replaces him with the abrasive Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a decision that underwhelms King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Churchill's new secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) bears the brunt of his acerbic attitude.

Despite the encouragement of his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill is aware that he has achieved his life's ambition at the worst possible time: France is capitulating, Belgium and Holland cannot withstand the Nazi assault, and the British army is falling back to Dunkirk, their backs to the water with the Navy seemingly helpless to mount a rescue. With members of his cabinet  arguing for a negotiated but humiliating peace, Churchill has to define a position for his fractured government and chart his nation's course through history.

Directed by Joe Wright, Darkest Hour zooms in on Churchill's first month in office. The film delves into the psyche of a man thrust into the most difficult leadership position in the free world at age 66, as western civilization crumbles under the boot of fascism and the United States stubbornly holds on to a policy of non-involvement. Churchill only became Prime Minister due to his well-known and uncompromising hatred of Hitler, and yet here he was in a position of power and being advised to sue for peace.

Wright centres the film on this deeply personal dilemma, with Churchill isolated from his own party and disconnected from the people, forced to make a literally existential decision days into his mandate. The film uses its artistic license to dramatize some pivotal moments, and Wright makes good use of a (more than likely) imagined turning point on the London subway system.

Darkest Hour touches on the actual events of the raging war with a light brush. A couple of artistically rendered scenes convey a taste of events in France, as Churchill comes to grips with an army in full retreat and the enormous responsibility of issuing orders that cost human lives. But most of the film takes place in London, in Churchill's home and in his war bunker, with Wright limiting his scope to the political, personal and national calculus going on in his head.

The film is therefore primarily composed of Churchill's often verbose conversations with his wife, his political rivals, and the King. Patience is required as the machinery of government under Churchill kicks into gear and he comes to terms with his available options. Wright tries to flesh out the drama with some pointed contributions from wife Clementine, the still-influential Chamberlain, other politicos including Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), secretary Layton (representing the common people) and the King, but they remain fleeting characters who barely progress beyond the most basic definitions.

An intensely personal drama demands an immersed central performance, and Gary Oldman delivers in the role of his career. Under layers of makeup, Oldman disappears into the Prime Minister and dominates the screen, humanizing the man behind the myth as burly and boorish but conflicted, not yet having hit his stride but clearly possessing an enormous if stubborn heart.

With the destination of the film never in doubt and the secondary characters not much better than window dressing, Oldman is the one reason Darkest Hour works.

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