Chuck Koplinski: Oldman's star shines bright in 'Darkest Hour'

Chuck Koplinski: Oldman's star shines bright in 'Darkest Hour'

One of the mistakes that can occur when looking at the past is that we tend to see things more positively than they actually were. The inclination to buy into the notion of "the good old days" speaks to the power and deceptive nature of nostalgia.

I think there's a certain degree of this at play in any history-based film, and it exists in director Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour," an account of Winston Churchill's first five weeks as England's Prime Minister and his efforts to unite the country so they could combat Hitler's advancing forces.

While the film employs certain elements of license where telling the story is concerned, one thing Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten cast in an appropriate light that will have viewers longing for this bygone time is the political process on display. Replete with strong, honorable leadership, bipartisanship and compromise for the greater good, this example of responsible government, which has seemingly become a thing of the past in the United States, will likely strike viewers as something to be wished for.

Gary Oldman stands at the center of the film as Churchill, a portrayal that is humanistic and accessible, as all involved are willing to show the man, warts and all. While he put on a brave face for his country at a time when the citizens of England needed faith in their government, behind closed doors, he was wracked with self-doubt, struggling with debt and fearful of neglecting his children and loving wife Clementine (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who keeps him on track.

While dealing with this, Churchill is faced with uniting a country against the looming threat that was Nazi Germany and convincing them that Hitler was not to be trusted and that any nonaggression pact they might sign with him would be ignored. The nation did not want to take an aggressive stance, and it would require some subtle arm-twisting on Churchill's part to convince key figures — King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) — to stand up.

As constructed, the film plays out like something of a thriller, what with dire reports coming in of Hitler's continued march across Europe and the British government's inability to act. The stubbornness of the pacifists Churchill has to contend with seems unshakable, and tension mounts as they continue to resist the obvious. While we know the outcome, seeing the behind-the-scene machinations of how the prime minister was able to unite the country and those who led it proves fascinating.

One of the great things about Oldman's performance is that he subtly shows the strain of these trials, especially during moments of silent contemplation. The prosthetic makeup and design by artist Kazuhiro Tsuji is astonishing, and while the actor is physically consumed by it, he's never completely lost, able to convey the myriad emotions required. While Oldman does adjust his voice and physicality, much of this performance lies in his eyes, used to an astonishing variety of effects. That he rises to the challenge of delivering some of the best-written and inspiring political speeches of all time comes as no surprise.

What emerges from "Darkest Hour" is a vital reminder of the resilience needed in times of great peril, as well as the cooperation required to extinguish great threats. Churchill — who Oldman does proud in the film — possessed this quality as well as the willingness to extend an arm across the aisle to get things done. The good old days indeed ...

'Darkest Hour' (★★★½ out of four)

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Ben Mendelshon, Ronald Pickup, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Pip Torrens, Samuel West and Hannah Steele.

Directed by Joe Wright; produced by Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce and Eric Fellner; screenplay by Anthony McCarten.

A Focus Features release. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 (thematic material). At the Art Theater.

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'Downsizing' a bit sloppy but on point (★★★ out of four)

I have a feeling that many viewers will find the premise in Alexander Payne's "Downsizing" rather appealing.

As written by the director and screenwriter Jim Taylor, it posits a future in which people can voluntarily undergo an irreversible procedure through which they will be shrunk to approximately 6 inches and then live in a micro-community of their choosing.

Extreme? Yes. Perks? Turns out there are many. Not only will you feel good about yourself for helping the environment — this procedure is introduced as a way to conserve resources and combat pollution — but the rate of exchange where your money is concerned is phenomenal. $150,000 translates to more than $12 million once downsized. Where you might be barely making it in the real world, you can live like a king in the microscopic one. Could there possibly be a downside?

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) doesn't think so, eager to make the change once he realizes he'll never get ahead working his dead-end job. Besides, he wants to give his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) the life he thinks she deserves. They decide to take the plunge, but at the last minute, she bails, and Paul wakes up in his micro-hospital room, where he takes a very awkward phone call from his wife, telling him he's on his own.

Needless to say, this is a lot for our hero to deal with, and for quite some time, he's just not the same. His freewheeling neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an opportunist who has made a mini-fortune, tries to get him out of his funk but to no avail, though upon meeting his cleaning woman, Ngoc Lee Tran (Hong Chau), a former Vietnamese dissident, Paul's eyes become open to his purpose in this strange small world.

Payne takes quite a few chances here narratively, as the humor at play is subtle and at times dark, while the social commentary, though on point, could have been developed further. The film starts to lose its shape during the third act once Paul sets out on a journey of self-discovery, and it could have used with a trim of about 20 minutes.

And yet, there's a degree of charm and earnestness to the film that makes it a worthwhile experience. Paul's journey towards self-actualization seems genuine, as it's one that comes in fits and starts; there's no bolt-from-the-blue moment that miraculously opens his eyes, but it's his cumulative experiences after he's shrunk that leads to his transformation.

This, as well as Damon's quiet, modest approach, allows us to relate to Paul in a way that's quite rare in the movies. There are times when we sympathize with him, others when we are infuriated with his short-sightedness and, finally, relief when he realizes his purpose. There's a humanistic arc to this character that's a delight to witness as Damon gives us an everyman for the 21st century.

In only her second film, Chau is a revelation. Initially fiery and bitter, Ngoc also undergoes a radical change that the actress infuses with warmth and sincerity. That we smile as we see her life turn around is due in large part to the actress' sincerity.

It should come as no surprise that a change in environment is not the solution to Paul's woes, and while everyone else in his micro-community seems happy, I'm sure there are some still suffering from that inexplicable ennui we all grapple with.

No, change comes from within, a point "Downsizing" drives home in an effective, albeit sometimes sloppy, way.

Veteran cast saves 'Jumanji' redux (★★★ out of four)

Reboot, remake, homage, rip-off: Call them what you will, films that recycle old ideas have been with us since the early days of cinema. If it's successful once on the silver screen, studio execs are liable to keep going back to that particular well until it runs dry.

We're in the period now of what I like to call "nostalgia reboots," properties long thought dead ("Men in Black III," "Independence Day: Resurgence," etc.) yet resuscitated in order to fill the respective studio's coffers and take advantage of new special-effects techniques that will supposedly make them better.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is a perfect example of this sort of film, and it's one of the better entries, as it manages to incorporate elements from the original (the 1995 Robin Williams film) while updating the premise to incorporate modern concerns and appeal to today's audience. While the board game from the original makes an obligatory appearance early on, contests in the video arena drive this story.

A mini "Breakfast Club" kicks things off as four disparate high school students find themselves in detention with little to do. Awkward smart guy Spencer (Alex Wolff) and football lunk Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), former best friends, are assigned to take the staples off a mountain of magazines, so they can be recycled, with clueless rebel Martha (Morgan Turner) and the ever vacuous Bethany (Madison Iseman).

Boredom soon gets the best of them, and they manage to find an old video console that has been donated to the school. Once it's hooked to an old TV, a video version of that old chestnut Jumanji pops up, and each is required to select an avatar before play can begin. However, once that's done, they find themselves literally sucked into the game where they are required to complete a mission before using up the three lives they've been assigned.

The movie takes its time setting up its rules, and truth be told, it sags during this initial section, as well as during its third act. The most inspired element is that the teens assume the identities of their avatars once they enter the video arena. Dwayne Johnson is a suddenly muscle-bound Spencer, Kevin Hart is the ironically diminutive Fridge, Karen Gillan is the butt-kicking Martha, and Jack Black is the suddenly middle-aged fat guy Bethany.

Johnson, Gillan and Black do a marvelous job of emulating their young counterparts, taking care to replicate the cadence of their speech, the way they move and the impulsivity they would exhibit due to the massive changes they undergo. Seeing Johnson deal with teen insecurity or Gillan express wonder at her newfound fighting abilities are inspired moments, as is Black's looks of horror when teen dream Bethany realizes she looks like her father.

These moments and many more from the trio throughout the film provide the necessary jolts that keep this exercise moving. As for Hart, he makes little effort to project the sort of frustration Fridge must experience once he finds himself trapped in a much smaller body. The actor approaches this role as he does all others, giving us once more the loud, angry man his persona is based on.

It comes as no surprise that the teens gain a great deal of confidence during their adventure that has a profound effect on them once they return home. It's pretty standard stuff as far as its theme and message is concerned, yet "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" proves to be an entertaining enough diversion to adequately fill a couple of hours during the holiday season.

Passable 'Ferdinand' a sweet, timely fable (★★★ out of four)

Used as a metaphor in "The Blind Side" and originally seen as a piece of political propaganda, Munro Leaf's "The Story of Ferdinand" has been a staple of children's libraries since the 1940s, selling on average 6,000 copies a week since its publication in 1936.

The titular bovine would much rather spend his time smelling flowers than engaging any matador in the bullring, his gentle side trumping expectations of his fierce appearance. Seen as a call for pacifism during the tumult in Spain that would eventually result in that country's civil war, 30,000 copies of the book were handed out in Germany at the end of World War II to promote peace.

No such heady concerns are at play in Carlos Saldanha's new animated adaptation of the tale. (Disney made an eight-minute version in 1938 that won the Oscar for best short subject).

While Ferdinand is still the same old flower-loving bull, there's a menagerie of other critters added to the story who all have their own special quirks, each of them looking for a place where they can just be who they want to be. The themes of acceptance and inclusion are the driving forces behind this version, and the message is delivered in as pleasant a way as you can imagine.

Voiced with a sense of charm you wouldn't expect from professional wrestler John Cena, Ferdinand is a resident of Casa del Toros where bulls are trained to be fierce combatants in the ring. While his peers are getting their angry on, our hero is more concerned with nurturing a hidden flower. However, when he learns that his father — picked for a bullfighting tournament in Madrid — won't be returning to the farm, he decides to take a powder and escapes to a nearby farm where he's raised by Nina (Lily Day), a girl who just lets him be who he wants to be.

Of course, one's destiny is hard to escape, and Ferdinand eventually has to return to Casa del Toros and ultimately enter the bullring. Before this happens, the middle patch of the film runs a bit too long, with some obvious narrative planning employed to get the scant original material up to feature-film running time. It's not without its charm, but a sense of "Let's get on with it," does set in.

Some great comic relief is provided by "SNL" veteran Kate McKinnon as Lupe, a manic goat that doesn't quite understand her role as a "calming goat," as well as a trio of hedgehogs — Uno, Dos and Cuatro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias, respectively) ­— who have too much time on their hands. (A note of warning — don’t ask what happened to Tres). Equally fun are the visual gags Saldanha employs, especially those involving Ferdinand's impressive bulk in awkward situations.

It has not been a banner year for animation, as nothing from the major studios has proven to be groundbreaking or even visually arresting. (All true accolades belong to the striking "Loving Vincent.")

"Ferdinand" isn’t going to turn the tide as far as 2017 is concerned, but it's a passable-enough diversion that will appeal to young viewers and provide the sugar that will help the medicine that is its message go down rather easy.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on ­Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

 

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