By William Wolf

DARKEST HOUR  Send This Review to a Friend

In a film that is both historically informative and deeply personal, Gary Oldman gives a remarkable performance as British leader Winston Churchill in the throes of a political and military crisis.

“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, is set at the time when British soldiers are trapped at Dunkirk and the pressure is on for them to surrender. Churchill is faced with those who want to work out a peace agreement with the Nazis with go-between negotiations arranged via Mussolini’s Italy. It would in effect mean Britain’s surrender to end the war.

Pressure is applied on Churchill by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, played obstinately by Stephen Dillane. His chief ally is Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), with a history of not wanting to fight. While Churchill is convinced that Britain should not give in, he is deeply troubled by assuming responsibility for the possibility of mass death of troops at Dunkirk.

We, of course, know how the Britain rallied with a navy of small boats going to Dunkirk and ferrying troops to safety. The film dramatizes how this comes about through Churchill’s patriotic appeal to his countrymen.

There is high drama as the issue of fight or surrender is hammered out behind closed doors, and there is an episode in which Britain’s King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) visits Churchill to give his support for whatever Churchill as Prime Minister decides. Other cast members include Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, the leader’s wife.

The film gets a bit hokey, whether or not the episode is based on fact, when Churchill takes a rare ride in the underground and is recognized by passengers. He chooses a few to ask their opinion-- fight or surrender--and that sets off an emotional agreement among passenger after passenger that Britain should stand firm against Hitler. The rallying experience encourages Churchill to make the decision he wants to make.

“Darkest Hour” vividly recalls that critical time by not focusing on the battlefield as war pictures usually do but by taking us behind the scenes into the crucial decision that must be made. It reminds us again what a powerful force Churchill was by inspiring Britain to rise to the occasion and fight despite the odds. It also provides the opportunity for Oldman, dressed and made up to look very much like Churchill, to give an award caliber performance. A Focus Features release. Posted November 22, 2017.

BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY  Send This Review to a Friend

You can take the title “Bombshell” three ways, one as a description of the glamorous movie star of bygone days, two as the revelation of her other life as a scientist and three as a bombshell of a film that is among the best of the year and being released November 24. Director Alexandra Dean has given us an extraordinary, illuminating and entertaining film that sheds a broader light on Hedy Lamarr, who in addition to her screen stardom came up with a revolutionary scientific discovery that is still important and widely used in the world of communications.

It is a fascinating story and director Dean, with a background as a journalist and documentary producer, has done an enormous job of research into the various facets of Lamarr’s life. There are striking clips galore, enlightening interviews and what’s exceptionally special is the use of discovered recorded comments by Lamarr that results in the feeling of her narrating the film, thanks to the way the director has incorporated them. In 2016 Dean and producer Adam Haggiag disovered the tapes that were in the possession of Fleming Meeks, who said he had been waiting for 25 years for someone to contact him about the tapes in his possession.

Lamarr, a Jewish émigré from Austria, first became known for her nude scenes in the Czech film “EKstase,” here known as “Ecstasy.” It caused a sensation. I remember wangling my way into the theater when I not old enough to see it when it later played in my small hometown.

The notoriety led to Lamarr’s career in Hollywood and her reputation as one of the most glamorous of stars. One only need look at her beauty and talent in clips that are part of “Bombshell.” But there is the other aspect of her life apart from the acting side of her career and her personal life reflected in the recordings.

Lamarr had a scientific bent that could have given her a whole different career. Her ability was proven during World War II when she developed a covert communications system, patented it and gave her patent to the Navy in her desire to help win the war. Instead of being recognized for it, she was taken for granted and pointed in the direction of using her fame to sell war bonds.

She lost the potential for earning millions when the patent expired, although her invention of multi-level communication became widely used, and is an integral part of contemporary communications, such as in WIFI, GPS and other technologies.

The film includes reports on the recognition she received from scientific organizations, and tells all of this in a compelling way. One is given both a a feeling of respect for Lamarr and a sadness that she was deprived of the huge profits she really had coming to her.

Beyond all of this, thanks to all of the research and the intelligent, witty way in which the material is used, the film provides a sweeping, often touching portrait of Lamarr’s life. Ultimately she became reclusive and one is confronted with her age-ravaged face in contrast to the beauty that she once was.

The film is rich in discussion by notables and surviving family members. Mel Brooks and the late Robert Osborne, who were friends of Hedy, give their views. ( Brooks named a character Hedley Lamarr in his film “Blazing Saddles.”) So do director Peter Bagdanovich and actress Diane Kruger. You’ll be amazed had how much is packed into “Bombshell.”

The film fits neatly into the current movement for the empowerment of women. Here is a solid case for more widespread recognition of what Lamarr accomplished beyond her acting talent and beauty. In addition to being enjoyable, “Bombshell” conveys a message about what women can achieve.

After you have seen this documentary, the next time you use your iphone you may think of Lamarr. If a fictional film were made along these lines, one might challenge its credibility. But this Lamarr story actually happened. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed November 20, 2017.

A FANTASTIC WOMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

A performance that can break your heart is given by Daniela Vega, a transgender actress who plays a transgender singer and waitress, Marina, in a principled example of casting in this film from Chile written and directed by Sebastián Lelio. The plot is an intricate one that displays Marina in a strong light in view of all that happens to her in this revealing story.

Marina is in a relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older divorced man, and in the early scenes, it is clear that they are warm and loving to one another. There is no reason to question that they have gotten over the complications of Marina being trans. But suddenly all is disrupted when Orlando has a stroke and the panicked Marina rushes him to the hospital, where he dies.

For Marina, she not only has to deal with his loss but with all that occurs afterward. As a trans woman, she is looked upon with disdain at the hospital. As Orlando was battered from the fall he took down a staircase, there is an investigation. A woman police officer, although not unsympathetic, humiliates her through the examination she must endure to see if she has any signs that would indicate a physical battle may have taken place. The scene with inspection by a doctor with the investigator in the room is shocking.

Marina attempts to keep her composure throughout, while at the same time wanting to protect her rights and dignity. Further complications arise when Orlando’s ex-wife orders her to stay away from the funeral, which Orlando’s son also does, as well as demanding that she swiftly evacuate the apartment she and her lover shared. At one point she is severely beaten in retaliation for showing up at the service.

Marina is faced with the challenge of finding a way to express her grief and participate somehow in the ceremony involving cremation. All the while, Vega gives a highly sensitive, nuanced performance. She is attractive not only in her appearance, but as a person who is dealing with the change that she is in the process of going through and finding a secure place in a world that frowns upon transsexuals. There is a sympathetic relationship depicted with her music teacher, and her singing talent is something that we see helpful in a scene in which she gives a concert after all she has gone through.

Vega’s performance is one of the year’s movie highlights, and the film itself is also an important and satisfying import relating to increased contemporary concern with its subject, as well as Chile’s official foreign language film entry in the Oscars race. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed November 17, 2017.

MUDBOUND  Send This Review to a Friend

Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, “Mudbound” is a major film attempting to shed light on race relations and societal juxtapositions against a background of struggles on the land in the Mississippi Delta. Set after World War II, the film reflects an effort by director Dee Rees, who wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams, to tell a sweeping story in intimate terms.

At the core are two families, one white, the other African-American, each with a tough existence, but as one might expect, the black family suffering most as a result of the discrimination prevalent at the time in a South with the KKK still marauding.

An excellent cast contributes toward making the various characters lifelike, and the filmmakers have opted for individual narrations to both further the story and increase our understanding of the characters and what they face.

Henry McAllan, played by Jason Clarke, with his wife Laura portrayed stoically by Carey Mulligan, has bought land and a rickety house into which they move. Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) is more aware of Laura’s needs and longings than her husband is. One discerns a possible romantic inclination in him as well. The grandfather in the family, played by Jonathan Banks) is thoroughly reprehensible for his bigotry.

Working the land that McAllan has bought is the Jackson family. Interestingly, popular vocal star Mary J. Blige is cast in the demanding role of Florence Jackson, married to Hap (Rob Morgan), and she makes the most of her dramatic opportunity,

An important part of the plot involves the friendship that develops between Jamie and the Jacksons’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who bond despite race divisions and the frowning upon white-black relationships. In the military and fighting abroad, Ronsel has experienced relative freedom for the first time and a relationship with a white German woman that will later produce a dangerous situation back home.

The plot becomes extremely intricate, with deeply emotional events occurring, and sometimes the story seems over-extended. However, the humanity that pervades “Mudbound” at times has a powerful impact. The film is also visually potent with excellent cinematography by Rachel Morrison. A Netflix release. Reviewed November 17, 2017.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS  Send This Review to a Friend

There has to be a good reason for embarking on a new version of the Agatha Christie mystery other than Kenneth Branagh wanting to play master detective Hercule Poirot and also direct. Sidney Lumet directed a stylish, star-packed version on 1974, and that stands eloquently as a colorful, entertaining accomplishment.

There is always the challenge of wanting to take another crack at adapting a Christie mystery. But the new version just released doesn’t hold a candle to the Lumet work as I recall it all these years later. Branagh is not in the late Lumet’s directorial league. He fares well enough as Poirot, although the assembly of current star talent pales in comparison to those Lumet recruited.

Numbered among the current crop in addition to Branagh are: Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Tom Bateman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe and Josh Gad.

Call me old-fashioned, but take a look at some included in the Lumet roster: Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Rachel Roberts. There is no way today’s cast can beat that mass of star power.

Apart from the comparison, the new version, while impressively photographed to capture the snowy terrain when the renowned Orient Express, circa 1934, is stalled after an avalanche, has a sort of blah feeling. The mystery needs to sparkle with pointed characterizations and sharp dialogue, which the film fails to deliver. Also, one may not care about the crime that occurs on the train being solved. In short, the current version doesn’t make a case for the need of a remake.

A personal note: I once rode the Orient Express from Belgrade to Paris, and while the dining experience was enjoyable, the train was but a shadow of what it was reputed to be in its heyday. The new film does create the luxurious atmosphere once associated with the train’s elegance. Lumet captured all of that, and so does Branagh. A 20th Century Fox release. Reviewed November 10, 2017.

LAST FLAG FLYING  Send This Review to a Friend

Three strong lead performances and good supporting performances make Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” both spiritedly entertaining and emotionally gripping. Chosen as the opening night attraction for the 55th annual New York Film Festival, the story of three Vietnam War buddies uniting in 2003 and going on a sacred personal mission is constantly involving, as slickly directed by Linklater, who co-wrote the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, from whose novel the film was adapted.

Steve Carell is deeply affecting with his underplaying as Larry (nicknamed Doc), who, we learn gradually, previously lost his wife to illness and has just lost his Marine son in the Iraq war. The film begins by his going into a bar in Norfolk. Virginia, owned by Sal, played by Bryan Cranston, who doesn’t recognize him at first, as they haven’t seen each other since their chummy Vietnam days, when Sal was a Marine and Larry was a clerk in the Navy.

As we get to know Sal bit by bit, we see him as a cynical wise-guy, over-the-top character and a heavy drinker. He is a skeptic, a vet with a wicked sense of humor and one who revels in being hostile to whatever conventional dogma he encounters, and he has come to view the Vietnam War as a useless one. The superb, enticingly colorful performance by Cranston enlivens and dominates the film—it is that good.

Once the guys connect, Larry takes Sal to an undisclosed destination, which turns out to be a church, and Sal is surprised, as he shuns religion and mocks the idea of there being a God. The situation turns out to be hilarious, as the reverend enthusiastically and dogmatically preaching the gospel to an approving congregation, is none other than the African-American Richard Mueller, portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. He has found religion since hell-raising days when as a Marine he was nicknamed Mueller the Mauler. He also drank heavily but has since managed to get off the booze and be happily married. Sal can hardly believe his eyes at the pulpit performance.

Although the situation in which the three soon embark upon is deadly serious--the burial of Larry’s son whose body is being shipped home—the interplay of personalities, their conversations and traveling adventures frequently erupt in comedy. The son is to be honored by burial in the Arlington National Cemetery, but, to the consternation of the military colonel in charge at the Dover base where bodies are shipped, the grieving father decides he wants to have his son interred in his home town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and elects to transport the coffin containing the body by a U-Haul truck that Sal hires.

In an emotional scene, contrary to the officer’s advice that Larry not view the body because his son’s face was shot off, Larry insists and when the coffin is opened he is devastated and breaks down in tears.

Then off the men go, with the reverend wanting to opt out, but unable to bring himself to abandon poor Larry. In a way, the film turns into a road movie, with obstacles conquered and a train stop in New York, where Sal insists the two join him in getting cell phones, just burgeoning into habit at the time, and there is much amusement in the escapade.

Stemming from the Vietnam background is a feeling of guilt on the part of the three. A Marine who was fatally wounded died in much pain because all the morphine had been used by the threesome in drug binging and because of which Larry, who became the fall guy, spent a stretch in the brig.

Sal is especially angry at the duplicity on the part of the military, which falsely portrayed Larry’s dead son as having died a hero, while in reality, when he was buying Cokes for his pals, someone sneaked up from behind and put a gun blast into his head. The truth is learned via the son’s mate, who has been ordered to accompany the body. The surviving pal is played superbly by J. Quinton Johnson.

Because he feels guilty about the morphine situation, Sal takes the lead in a visit in Boston to the victim’s mother with the idea of confessing the joint responsibility. The now-elderly mother is moving played by Cicely Tyson, who has also been lied to with a story that her son died saving the lives of other men. Her thrill at thinking the three visitors are those he saved derails the intent to confess. That scene is among the film’s highly emotional ones, thanks especially to Tyson’s typical performing brilliance.

The tone all along has been rejection of both the Vietnam and Iraq actions, although that view doesn’t detract from the men's pride of having served their country. In that sense, the film wants it both ways, as we see in the ultimate deeply emotional burial scene that honors the flag and the uniform, and as it turns out from a letter to Larry from his son, something the young Marine wanted. I have qualms about the film’s split personality at that point. However, it is clear that it stems from depicting the camaraderie of vets who served as required yet find themselves unappreciated and at sea in the ensuing political aftermath and needing a sense of recognition and bonding, which we see them find in this ultimately very satisfying motion picture. An Amazon Studio release. Posted November 3, 2017.

1945  Send This Review to a Friend

A powerful new film from Hungary joins the list of distinguished films that explore the aftermath of the Holocaust. “1945” has been directed by Ferenc Töröc, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gábor T. Szántó, author of the short story “The Homecoming” on which the film is based. In some ways “1945” is in the vein of an American western. Two men arrive in a town and their presence sets off a chain of tense events producing a crisis.

In this case the men are an Orthodox Jew and his grown son. They arrive at the train station of a Hungarian village and the word gets out leading to fears among the population. Why? When Jews from the town were sent off to the death camps, local individuals seized their property and there are fears that the mysterious newcomers are survivors who have arrived to claim what rightfully belongs to them.

To the director’s credit, a haunting atmosphere pervades, as the two Jews are seen walking slowly along a road toward their presumed goal. In town there are preparations for a wedding. The groom is the son of the villainous town clerk who wants to protect his acquired property. The bride is really in love with another but is getting married for presumed security. All is at the point of being disrupted.

What occurs is thoroughly engrossing as we watch the village consumed with fears of retribution. What we ultimately find is extremely moving. The mission of the newcomers involves going to a cemetery with the large box that they are carrying. Perhaps a body to be buried? Something else? I don’t want to spoil the film by revealing what happens.

But rest assured that “1945” is a deeply moving take on loss and symbolic of the persecution of the Jews and the guilt that should be stirred among the callous who greedily profited by the Holocaust. The black and white cinematography sets an impressive period tone, the pace of the 90-minute film moves steadily toward the climax. Excellent cast members play the various roles, which adds to the authenticity.

The arc of the film is letter perfect, from the arrival of the two Jews to their ultimate departure after the mission has been accomplished—train station to train station, again reminiscent of a western. This is a unique film that clearly is among the year’s best and not to be missed. It is 2017 but “1945” can make one feel as if living in that year and in this terrified Hungarian town that has much for which to atone. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed October 30, 2017.

THE DIVINE ORDER  Send This Review to a Friend

I heartily recommend that you see “The Divine Order,” one of the best films of 2017, which opens on October 27. Writer-director Petra Volpe has created a superb film that is a new milestone in the cinema’s treatment of the need for the further empowerment of women. It is not pedantic, but a wonderfully entertaining, well-acted film that has humor as well as drama.

When do you think women in Switzerland got the right to vote? Amazingly, it was not until 1971! Volpe sets the scene at the outset by a montage of militant actions in the 1960s and 70s political upheavals, then takes us to a sleepy little Swiss town where none of this has been happening.

The key figure in the story that unfolds is Nora Ruckstuhl, exquisitely acted by Marie Leunenberger, who is leading a typical life as a housewife, looking after her two sons and her husband, who rules the roost under Swiss law that says a husband must give permission for a wife to work. But there have been stirrings in Nora, who would like to achieve something in her own life other than looking after her family, and in addition, her nasty father-in-law who lives with them.

The arc of change begins when she is approached by women campaigning for the right to vote. Nora, her sense of self awakened, begins to get involved. It is a tribute to Leuenberger's performance that we see so much of the step-by-step transformation in Nora’s facial expressions as she begins to confront the problems unleashed by her actions.

Volpe builds her story carefully, detailing what happens with Nora’s astonished husband Hans (played excellently by Max Simonischek), and with other husbands in the village, women who are cowed, and the few who are liberated. There is the counter-campaign against voting rights for women, an issue to be decided by men, and the personal conflicts that arise.

Nora and others find a meeting home in a defunct restaurant taken over by Graziella, a warm and stylish divorced woman from Italy, played sympathetically by Marta Zoffoli, who reopens the place as a pizzeria. An entertaining sequence involves Graziella taking Nora to get a more attractive hairdo and some more with-it clothing, part of her growing transformation.

One of the best scenes involves women gathered to hear a women’s empowerment lecturer talk about getting to know one’s vagina and enjoy sex. An array of vagina sketches illustrates information about matching one’s own to a choice among the amusingly named varieties.

There is further pleasure in seeing how Nora’s husband and sons must start to handle housework as Nora and women of the town go on strike. The film achieves complexity in also dramatizing how men are adversely affected in the established way of life.

Volpe daringly provides an intimate ending of the kind that one is unlikely to find in a less adventurous film. It is a perfect finale to the story she has meticulously constructed and nurtured. “The Divine Order” of the title is shattered by action for change, and the point is made that liberation for women can help men to a happier life as well.

The film is replete with good performances, whether as friend or foe, including one by Sibylle Brunner as Vroni, an older woman whose contribution is pivotal. Ella Rumpf brings rebellious spirit to Hanna, Nora’s non-conformist niece, who is sent to reform school and prison with the complicity of her parents, an event that appalls Nora.

The cinematography by Judith Kaufmann is also notable in that we get a solid visual portrait of the Swiss town chosen as the location and the surroundings of Switzerland’s natural beauty. On all counts “The Divine Order” is a very special film that is entertaining, politically important and emotionally gratifying. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed October 23, 2017.

HELLO AGAIN  Send This Review to a Friend

Audra McDonald has been such a stately presence as an actress of range and depth that it comes as a pleasant shock to see her in fairly explicit (but soft-core) sex scenes in the new film “Hello Again.” She sizzles, although one might wonder what especially attracted her to take part in this oddball musical. Perhaps it was the opportunity to let herself go in a totally different environment. Whatever the case, I won’t argue with the opportunity to see her turn on the heat.

“Hello Again,” directed by Tom Gustafson from a screenplay by Cory Krueckberg, is an adaptation of John LaChiusa’s stage musical by the same title. It won’t take long for you to recognize that it all stems from Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” which has through the years inspired many riffs. The idea is that affairs keep extending as a partner in one relationsnhip moves on to the next etc.

There are various permutations in “Hello Again,” including a scene on the Titanic in which a steward who knows the ship is in danger of sinking withholds the information from a male passenger with whom he wants to have sex.

The best part about the film is its cast, with Martha Plimpton a definite highlight along with McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson and others of note. The sex in the film gets close to being explicit without crossing the line. But the musical aspects of the film play second fiddle to the dramatizations and the spinning of the plot and relationships, sometimes seeming forced in the effort to adhere to the theme.

But I sure enjoyed watching McDonald, and Plimpton as well, with Plimpton assuming a pivotal role in the movie’s structure. A Screenvision Media release. Reviewed November 8, 2017.

LBJ  Send This Review to a Friend

Woody Harrelson gives a convincing, in-depth performance as the late President Lyndon B. Johnson in “LBJ,” the absorbing take on the Vice President fated to assume the presidency upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Directed by Rob Reiner from Joey Hartstone’s screenplay, “LBJ “ intriguingly touches various political and personal bases as Johnson’s administration unfolds.

But the key to the film is Harrelson’s portrait. Makeup helps a lot to make him look acceptably like LBJ, and he has the posture, accent and walking style to add to the effect. However, what comes across most importantly is Harrelson’s ability to project Johnson’s feelings, emotions and determination to pass the civil rights legislation that proved anathema to entrenched Southern opponents.

Harrelson also conveys the shock and sense of the enormous burden placed upon him just after the assassination. He must move swiftly to take office in the face of the mourning Kennedy family, with Robert Kennedy understandably pressing for a delay. One can relate closely to LBJ as a person throughout the film in the way he is shown relating to others.

The screenplay covers much, including Johnson’s conducting business while in the john and other earthy mannerisms. Once you accept the portrayal, you are able to put in focus the trajectory of Johnson’s llife and administration.

Ultimately, the tragedy of Johnson’s course of pursuing the war in Vietnam has led to obliteration of his accomplishments measured against this one gigantic error so costly in lives and money and the very nature of our nation. What we get in his depiction of Johnson by Harrelson’s superb acting is a solid sense of who he was. An Electric Entertainment release. Reviewed November 3, 2017.

  

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