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-





REVIEW: The Riot Club

3 01 2016

The Riot Club“I am sick to [expletive] death of poor people,” exclaims Sam Claflin’s Alistair Ryle as he tops off a liquor-powered rant during a madcap evening of debauchery. It’s perhaps the most obvious moment in Lone Scherfig’s”The Riot Club” where pointed satire and heightened drama become so blurred that they are practically indistinguishable. But the film is chock full of such instances where the unbelievable and the believable intersect, making its vanguard of posh college-aged British males both entertaining and odious.

The sharpness of its social commentary is no doubt related to the story’s origins on the stage; Laura Wade adapts her own play for the screen. At times, the roots show as easily half the film transpires in one protracted scene at a single location. While this might count as a liability for many movies, it actually comes out as a net positive for “The Riot Club.” Once this long dinner gets set up, the focus can remain solely on the words and how they express simmering tensions as well as larger themes.

The film proves plenty interesting leading up to this climactic reckoning, too. “The Riot Club” begins as a tale of two aristocratic young men, in many ways foils for each other. Claflin’s Alistair enters Oxford as entitled as they come, though without the protection of his older brother on campus, he begins somewhat sheepishly. Max Irons’ Miles Richards, however, seems to draw out the smugness in Alistair with his laissez-faire attitude towards the nobility he can expect to claim with his social status.

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REVIEW: One Day

20 08 2011

Romance movies aren’t always my thing, being a guy and a Woody Allen fan. “One Day,” however, is a pleasant surprise.  It takes a novel concept – from an acclaimed, best-selling novel – and makes a will-they-or-won’t-they friends or lovers story fun and engaging.  While it’s a step down for director Lone Scherfig, whose film debut “An Education” was nothing short of masterful, it’s not a terribly precipitous decline.

In addition, it’s the kind of movie that played perfectly well in the early weekend afternoon matinee setting in which I saw it.  “One Day” is like a very long stroll with two very interesting and complex characters.  Anne Hathway’s Emma is a strong-willed, slightly prudish peace activist totally lacking in self-confidence.  Jim Sturgess’ Dexter is a laid-back, entitled mess of a man who never seems to be lacking in excuses to doff his clothing.  After a few bottles on the evening of their graduation, they spend a night together and begin a friendship that continues throughout the years.

The movie is then driven by their change over the next twenty years as we see them on July 15 from 1988 all the way to the present.  This nifty device prevents the movie (and I guess, prevented the novel as well) from slipping into predictable melodrama as their metamorphosing and evolving is what keeps us interested.  One year, Dexter is a drug-addicted hack television host and Emma is in a happy relationship; soon after, he’s cleaned up and in love while she’s found herself in a dead end.

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REVIEW: An Education

25 11 2009

In the age of the booming blockbuster, independent cinema is in dire need of a movie that can appeal to a blooming generation of teenage moviegoers if sophisticated cinema is to survive.  I couldn’t be more pleased to report that “An Education” is that movie.  Although it is the type of movie that typically plays best with adults, it has the power to resonate among younger viewers unlike any movie of its kind.  Director Lone Scherfig’s clear understanding of the mind of teenagers radiates from as early as the opening credits, where sine graphs and frog diagrams devolve into hearts.  Thankfully, her vision is complemented by phenomenal performances and a sensational script that easily makes for one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.

Jenny, the film’s heroine played with a stunning mastery by Carey Mulligan, is a character with struggles that people at crossroads in life can still appreciate many decades after the movie is set.  Sadly, she faces the same problem of creating a “college identity” separate from her regular identity that still plagues teenagers today.  Her parents (Alfred Molina and Carey Seymour) make sure that she has all the interests and hobbies necessary for her to fit the Oxford bill, obliging her to partake in activities that she loathes.  Through the process, Jenny begins to feel somewhat uneasy about going to spend four years doing something “hard and boring” with her nose in a book at a university only to end up in a “hard and boring” career for the rest of her life.  She reasons, however, to go against the grain would mean throwing away years of her life dedicated to looking impressive on an application, but still the desire remains for something beyond the education that a textbook can provide.

Almost as if an answer to an unspoken prayer, a chance encounter with the charming, older David (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jenny a taste of a captivating world where the formalities of her schooling rank substantially below the proclivities for enjoyment.  Gradually, David’s outlook rubs off on Jenny, and she becomes willing to throw out what she has worked so many years for to enter the materialistic world that he inhabits.  For all those who think Jenny’s judgement is being impaired by an infatuation for love, what is she doing other than indulging a yearning that all students have had?  Her curious exploration into a very adult world ultimately leads her to a course she had never expected to be enrolled in – a crash course in adulthood.

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Oscar Moment: “An Education”

14 10 2009

This edition of “Oscar Moment” concerns “An Education,” a coming of age story in 1960s Britain.  The movie has been generating massive buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, particularly around leading actress and breakout star Carey Mulligan.  She plays 16-year-old Jenny, dead set on going to study at Oxford.  However, things change when she meets the magnetic David (Peter Sarsgaard).  He is much older than she and offers her a glimpse of a world that she has never imagined.  After being introduced to a new lifestyle, her old ideals and values begin to fly out the window.  But their relationship is unable to transcend societal norms, and they come crashing down on unsuspecting Jenny.  Will she be completely broken?  Will the old Jenny return, or will a new and independent woman be born from the ashes.

I knew that the story involved coming-of-age since I first heard of it back in January, but I had no idea that it involved someone my age.  This is so thrilling to hear because no one makes good, independent, thought-provoking movies about people my age!

Some Oscar prognosticators I read have boiled the Best Actress race at the Oscars down to Carey Mulligan vs. Meryl Streep for “Julie & Julia.”  Others have gone as far as to say that she already has the statue in the bag.  Although I do like an exciting and unpredictable race, I love when a performance so magnificent comes along that allows people to call the race in January.  My humble prediction is that if other female performances fizzle and it does boil down to Carey and Meryl, the Oscars will choose the former just because Meryl already has two.  Not to mention recent trends show a tendency to honor up and coming actresses, such as in 2007 with the stunning victory of Marion Cotillard.

But the buzz isn’t around Mulligan solely.  Alfred Molina, who plays Jenny’s father, has been acknowledged as a strong candidate for Best Supporting Actor.  Some say that if the film hits big with the Academy, goodwill could result in nominations for some other cast members, like Rosamund Pike in Best Supporting Actress and Peter Sarsgaard in Best Actor.  The latter seems improbable just due to how stacked the Best Actor category appears this year.  The film’s director, Lone Scherfig, could find herself nominated due to the nature of the year and its spotlight on female directors.  Nick Hornby, author of the source material for “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch,” penned the script based on Lynn Hornby’s memoirs; his chances seem somewhat more auspicious.  And the film itself, provided it registers as a blip on the public’s radar, seems likely to land itself in the Best Picture category.

It pains me to know that I have to wait until October 30th for “An Education” to hit a theater in Houston.  But until then, I will be enjoying selections from the soundtrack, which is stellar.  If you wonder what the catchy tune from the trailer is called, it is “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” by Beth Rowley.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Supporting Actor (Alfred Molina), Best Adapted Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Director (Lone Scherfig), Best Actor (Peter Sarsgaard), Best Supporting Actress (Rosamund Pike/Emma Thompson/Cara Seymour)