In Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright and writer Anthony McCarten are both firmly in their wheelhouse. Both men are big on these kinds of historical period pieces, so they certainly know what they are doing here. While it is tempting to consider Darkest Hour a companion piece to Cristopher Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier this year on account of the similar subject matter, it is crucial to recognize that Darkest Hour approaches this story from a more singular perspective, focusing on a kind of character study of the great Winston Churchill instead of a more all-encompassing view of heroism. Fortunately, Gary Oldman turns in one of the greatest transformative performances of his career. Thus, though Darkest Hour is a fine film Gary Oldman is easily its centerpiece.
The opening sequence of The Dark Horse depicts Genesis Potini wandering through the rain muttering to himself, intercut with his older brother teaching him the game of chess when they were both children. He stops in a store with a few chessboards set up, and continues his frantic word salad as the shop owners look on nervously. Then, Genesis starts moving the pieces with a preternatural celerity, waxing poetic chess theory, comparing the relative qualities of the Sicilian defense and the Scotch game. The preamble continues until Genesis is discovered by his handler and whisked back to the mental hospital. The title flashes across the screen, and we understand the fundamental themes of The Dark Horse immediately: dealing with mental health, the importance of family and community, and the transformative power of the game of Chess.
There’s a wayward flavor to obsession, a feeling of being swept off one’s feet by some new passion. In James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, the expedition that began as Percy Fawcett’s chance to restore glory to his family name morphs into a lifelong zeal for exploration an discovery. Based on the book of the same name by David Grann, Gray’s film follows the life of British soldier Fawcett and his exploits throughout the Amazon rainforest. The film boasts expert performances, cinematography that conveys the paradoxical claustrophobia of the untamed jungle, and a plot that leaves the spectator insatiable, always hoping for additional revelations and understanding. Though the themes waver a bit and employ the noble savage stereotype to its full effect, The Lost City of Z beautifully surveys the spirit of adventure and obsession that consumes each and every one of us – in one way or another.
Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is more than a harrowing dramatization of the events of September 11th, 2001. It’s also a profound treatise on the significance of information, and how ignorance leads to irrationality, uncertainty, and fear. This piece will look at three aspects of the film and how each is intimately tied to the availability of information: the plot, the characters, and the themes. The plot is revealed slowly, as a sense of dramatic irony permeates the spectator’s interpretation of the events. Characterization is established by reactions to the inexplicable, and then corresponding responses as more information becomes known. Even the ultimate thematic statements hinge in the treatment information in United 93. Greengrass concludes that information is power – especially in the hands of individuals.
There are specific and powerful images throughout Hidden Figures, but none exemplify the central theme of Theodore Melfi’s film more than two shots of a piece of chalk held by the main character. This pregnant extension of Katherine Goble’s (Taraji P. Henson) brilliant mind is both an invitation for her to prove herself as a black woman in a world of white men, but an implicit challenge by those same men that she could never be their equal. Though they are not connected dramatically, her struggles and successes are thematically connected with the successes of her peers, so that each separate woman’s respective strides become reverberations of the others, until the resulting din screams a single poignant truth: the quality and content of a person’s mind is not determined by race, gender, or anything else so superficial.
In Loving, Writer-director Jeff Nichols expertly relays the real-life story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who were prosecuted under Virginia’s interracial marriage laws which and led to the watershed case in the Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia in 1967. In a story fraught with such racial tensions and the potential for ugly subject matter, the major triumph of Nichols’s film is in how it remains reserved and above any kind of melodrama. There is a patient, quiet quality to this story, and Nichols and his actors positively revel in it. From the tone and themes of the film, to the pacing and muted performances, Loving takes its cue from the seriousness and maturity of its eponymous main characters. The result is a grown-up historical drama revealing the more subtle horrors of institutional racism and the power that love and freedom have to combat it.
Disney’s Queen of Katwe appears to follow the standard formula of sports movie: take an underdog (bonus points for a disadvantaged upbringing) and chart their rise to the top ranks until they overcome some snooty favorite. Mira Nair’s film distinguishes itself through peerless acting, a vibrant but patient setting, and consistent application of its chosen sport as thematic metaphor. The film focuses on a young, poor female chess prodigy from Uganda named Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). Throughout the story, chess is used as a mechanism for improvement and a way to escape her situation. Ultimately, Queen of Katwe champions the intellect of individuals, and shows us a world where young girls and boys can apply that intellect to improve their lives.
Trumbo, from veteran comedy director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents and Austin Powers series), is based on the true story of the blacklisted screenwriter during an era of anti-Communism. In an academy-award nominated performance, Bryan Cranston portrays the eponymous writer throughout the late 1940s and 1950s during a time when the “Red Scare” permeated Hollywood. Though the film feels overlong due to some meandering subplots, and a few of the characters distract from the overall story, this is a solid historical drama. Cranston is undoubtedly the major attraction, but the overall themes of the story remain poignant to this day.
The underdog is an established trope in the sports film, but it is rare that the underdog is celebrated for merely his effort. Most of these kinds of stories focus on an under-appreciated team or person punching way above their weight class and de-throning the champion in a show of heart and determination. But, there are iconic examples of this kind of story where the victory is not the focus of the protagonist. Instead, the thematic elements are born from the characters showing the courage to compete against titanic odds. Examples of this kind of film range from the original Rocky and Bad News Bears, to true-life versions like Cool Runnings. Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle is most similar in both plot and theme to the Jamaican bobsled film from 1993, but flirts with approaching the subject with a too-heavy hand in critical moments. Continue reading ““Eddie the Eagle” Succeeds in Theme, But Hits Too-Familiar Story Points”