REVIEW: Their Finest

14 04 2017

“Authenticity informed by optimism” – that was the motto of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information when it comes to creating films, according to Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest.” Around the time that “keep calm and carry on” came into common parlance through Tube posters, the government was also hard at work shaping the national consciousness through the medium of cinema. In 1940, filmmakers came together to convey the seriousness of the war effort while also inspiring confidence and patriotism.

“Their Finest” specifically follows the course of one picture shoot about the sacrifices made at Dunkirk (luckily Scherfig got this out before Christopher Nolan’s epic). Welsh screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) approaches the evacuation with a creative, novel approach to a story whose validity and heroism do not immediately signal the traditional Hollywood ending. Her job gets even harder when the government hijacks the film to subtly goad the United States into helping the war effort – primarily through the addition of American actor Carl Lundbeck, a  blonde bombshell of machismo played with spunk by Jake Lacy. Before WikiLeaks, this was how covert influence worked. (I like this way a lot more.)

Gabby Chiape’s screenplay balances more than just a straightforward tale of film production in wartime. “Their Finest” also includes a significant feminist slant concerning women’s contribution to the war effort and their mounting preemptive fears about men relegating them back to the home as soon as combat ceases. That tension plays out in the dimly lit government buildings where Catrin toils over a typewriter with the charming curmudgeon Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as well as at home with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled veteran whose “brutal and dispiriting” paintings don’t exactly jive with the national mood. This central tenet of the film bobs back and forth between serving as subject and subtext, and after nearly two hours, Chiape and Scherfig never quite figure out where it belongs. Between that and an enjoyable B-plot featuring Billy Nighy’s washed-up character actor Ambrose Hilliard, “Their Finest” simply fights on one too many fronts to come out on top. B-





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 11, 2016)

11 02 2016

I’ve made watching writer/director Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually” into somewhat of a December pastime, returning each year to remind myself that love is all around us, we are all perfect to someone and many more lessons. I should probably do the same with his latest film “About Time,” a love story that with less breadth but far more depth.

I don’t quite know or understand how the film got so overlooked when Universal released it in November 2013. (I was in London at the time, where the film was released earlier to a more solid commercial reception.) But this is Curtis at his most profound, offering not just a solid romantic yarn but a legitimately valuable guide on how to maximize happiness through life. Maybe in making it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I can will myself into heeding his advice more.

The film begins with a somewhat trite, if not completely hackneyed, premise: time travel. That tired plot device feels fresh when appropriated here by Curtis, who is far more interested in humanity than any of the mechanics. The men of the Lake family possess, somehow, the ability to travel back in time to places they have already been. Bill Nighy’s patriarch passes this information along to son Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) on his 21st birthday and allows him to decide how best to deploy the gift.

Tim, who at the time has relatively few graces with the opposite sex, chooses to focus on love. Ultimately, it leads him to pin down the perfect woman for him, Rachel McAdams’ Mary. While his courtship of her is sweet and entertaining, the traditional romantic arc only forms a portion of “About Time.” Curtis goes far beyond the traditional stopping point of the first kiss, the wedding or the birth of a child, examining the manifold pains and pleasures of everyday adult life. “Happily ever after” rarely feels as earned or sincere as it does here.

The film confronts some of the core tenets of how we find contentment and satisfaction in life by offering a look at how someone with boundless time might approach them. By walking in Tim’s shoes for two hours, we get the chance to view time travel not as a means of correcting the past or preventing a future. Rather, we can see how this fanciful premise might allow us to enrich and enjoy the present.





REVIEW: Pride

2 02 2015

Perhaps the most tragic dissonance in film occurs when ideology and filmmaking prowess fail to match.  Say what you will about the frightening Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” but the picture is undeniably well-made.  More recently, “The Homesman” and “Big Eyes” offered appealing feminist viewpoints, yet both were rather tediously assembled.

Matthew Warchus’ film “Pride” details the unlikely coalition between British miners and LGBT activists to protest the destructive policies of the Thatcher administration.  These are good people fighting for what they think is right, so the natural reaction would be wanting to support them.  But, overall, the film fails to capture the swelling spirit of a fellow progressively minded film like Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.”

It is not a particularly enlightening look at the nature of successful activism.  It lack insight into discrimination and homophobia on both the institutional and the individual level.  It does not provide any strong emotional pull towards a character (though the story of closeted Joe embracing his identity has some touching moments).  Although, I will say, seeing Imelda Staunton (best known as Dolores Umbridge from “Harry Potter”) breaking it down at a gay club was quite a sight.

I simply watched “Pride.”  I did not feel it.  C2stars





REVIEW: Pirate Radio

21 01 2013

Musical theatre thrives on the creative sparks of others.  Not to diminish the many accomplishments of that art form, but in recent years, just about everything has been an adaptation.  (Except “The Book of Mormon” – you go Trey Parker and Matt Stone!)  Many have been taken from books, but recently, the trend has become to adapt films onto the stage.

One of the greatest advances has been the invention of the “jukebox musical,” where a story forms around immediately recognizable music, whether a fictional tale like “Mamma Mia!” or a biographical one such as “Jersey Boys.”  (It also gave us “Rock of Ages,” but we can pretend it didn’t.)

Before you ask, no, “Pirate Radio” is not an adaptation of a Broadway or a West End musical.  There’s plenty of music, but the record player does all the singing.  However, I felt that while watching Richard Curtis’ film, it was practically BEGGING to be staged as piece of musical theatre.  The music is phenomenal, and there’s so much capability for it to define a generation – because it does.

The story of the film isn’t all that interesting: banned from playing rock and roll on normal British airwaves, a group of rebels broadcast it in international waters.  The gang is full of eclectic types, ranging from characters played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy to then unknown Chris O’Dowd (the cop from “Bridesmaids“).  There’s little character or story development, and when the boat finds itself in peril, I could have cared less what happened to whom.  Not to mention that it feels interminable even at 20 minutes shorter runtime from its British release under the name “The Boat That Rocked.”

But with some slight tweaking of the story – a little bit less of the people on the boat, a little bit more of the people on land, the same amount of the government censors led by an uptight Kenneth Branagh – “Pirate Radio” could actually play quite well on stage given the caliber of music.  Think about it … and I’d like to request royalties if it happens because of this review.  C2stars





REVIEW: Arthur Christmas

24 12 2012

Arthur ChristmasSometimes, animated movies are so busy trying to be clever that they forget to be charming or – dare I say it – cute.  If they lack the effortless ease of Pixar and the occasional DreamWorks release, they seem to often think that the charm flows directly from the creativity.

Arthur Christmas” is all the evidence I need to believe that the hypothesis above isn’t true.  It puts a digital, industrial spin on the age-old Christmas story of Santa Claus delivering presents to children all over the world.  Moreover, it manages to make its version of the yearly phenomena both funny and plausible.

The opening scene, showing the delivery from the perspective of the elves frantically working in mission control to ensure a successful Christmas, was absolutely fantastic.  It’s ingenuity at its finest, and I was braced for a delightful ride full of holiday spirit.

But then the film shifted towards the family dynamics of the Claus family, led by the lazy patriarchal Santa Claus voiced by Jim Broadbent.  His son Steve (the voice of House – I mean, Hugh Laurie) is gunning hard for him to retire so he can fulfill his birthright.  Meanwhile, there’s Arthur (voice of James McAvoy) running around with an unfettered optimism and idealism, something his family shrugs off and attempts to marginalize.

“Arthur Christmas” depicts the wee hours of Christmas morning when the family fails.  Well, really, Santa fails first as one gift does not get delivered, and Arthur takes it upon himself to ensure it gets received.  Along with an overeager wrapping elf and his grandfather, a former Santa Claus (voiced by Billy Mack – I mean, Bill Nighy) that shares Arthur’s enthusiasm, their adventure is most definitely exciting.  But with weak characterization and an overemphasis on craftiness, “Arthur Christmas” is hardly a cup of Christmas cheer for all to enjoy.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

24 06 2012

As the all-star team of British thespians entering their twilight years disembark from their plane in India at the beginning of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” the particularly closed-minded Jean (Penelope Wilton) claims to know a little something about the native culture from reading Rudyard Kipling.  Of course, she is referring to “The Jungle Book” and other works that famed British author Kipling wrote about his country of birth.

However, if there was one thing I learned from all three of my high school history classes, it was that Kipling appears in textbooks for something else he wrote.  It’s a little ditty called “The White Man’s Burden,” and the first verse goes like this:

Take up the White Man’s burden-
Send forth the best ye breed-
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need…

Kipling’s poem was written to encourage the United States to join Britain in its endeavor to colonize the uncivilized East at a time when it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire” because their holdings were so vast and widespread.  While I doubt this poem crossed the minds of director John Madden or the rest of the cast, I found it beautifully ironic. “The White Man’s Burden” would explain the troublesome undercurrent of neo-colonialism that runs throughout the movie, just as it can persuade them into thinking their adventurous escapade to India is just and noble.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 26, 2010)

26 11 2010

It’s Black Friday!  While my shopping today was limited to Amazon.com, there’s something more to celebrate … IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME!  (Officially, at least!)

What better way to celebrate than by watching a Christmas movie?  May I propose “Love Actually,” my pick for this week’s “F.I.L.M.”  It gets you in the holiday spirit like no other with its abundant tales of all sorts of different loves in the Christmas season.  This isn’t a traditional Christmas movie in the tradition of “Elf” or “The Santa Clause,” but the holiday plays such an integral role in the storyline that it’s hard to call it anything else.  It reminds you of the joys of the Christmas season so well that it’s become a sort of traditional holiday kick-off for my family.

Platonic love, impossible love, irresponsible love, mourning love, familial love, interlingual love, desperate love – you name it, this movie offers it.  Some might call it overambitious or cluttered, but I think Richard Curtis’ script is an enormously satisfying blend of love that makes flawless connections between its characters.  He packs the movie full of humor and heart, tied with a bow of such irresistible charm that you’ll wish every gift under the Christmas tree could provide such joy.

All your favorite Brits (and Laura Linney) are feeling the bliss and pain of love in overdrive with all the madness surrounding the holidays catches them.  The perpetually single Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) is undeniably attracted to one of the women working for him (Martine McCutcheon), which makes for a difficult situation.  The clumsy writer Jamie (Colin Firth) finds himself falling for his Portuguese housekeeper while working France, despite the fact that neither can speak the same language.

Sarah (Linney) is madly in love with her co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) but can never work up the courage to say anything.  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is mourning the death of his long-suffering wife while trying to help his young stepson get noticed by his crush.  Karen (Emma Thompson) is trying to put on a happy face for her family while her husband (Alan Rickman) isn’t being entirely honest about his affairs.

And playing behind it all, there’s washed-up and rehabbed rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) trying to reclaim his former glory by shamelessly converting an old song into Christmas jam, “Christmas Is All Around.”  He’s a hilariously self-depracating mess, making ill-advised remarks like, “Kids, don’t buy drugs; become a celebrity and they’ll give them to you for FREE!”  Nighy delivers one of those divine, once-in-a-decade comedic performances, and he absolutely steals the movie.

I didn’t even touch on about half of the storylines in the story, not to mention the subplots.  There’s just so much there for everyone in “Love Actually” that it’s practically irresistible.  While you might not click with one storyline, there are a dozen others that you are bound to love!  Like the poster says, it’s the “ultimate romantic comedy,” and you’ll be amazed at how entertaining and fun Richard Curtis and his army of British actors can make the dying genre.