Darkest Hour Review TIFF 2017

The Plot

As Western Europe teeters on the brink of collapse at the start of World War 2 popular political outsider Winston Churchill becomes the new British prime minister. During Britain’s darkest days Churchill must not only find a way to win over a reluctant political establishment but more importantly avoid total military destruction and inevitable Nazi invasion.

The Good

Gary Oldman reconfirms his long held status as one of the most versatile and compelling character actors with a performance that outshines even his elaborate physical transformation. Thanks to some flawless makeup and prosthetics wizardry Oldman is physically unrecognisable, literally becoming the iconic British leader. However what’s most impressive is how even underneath copious layers of makeup and bodysuits Oldman is able to deliver a subtle portrayal that goes well beyond Churchill’s jowl shaking oratorical skills.

Around Oldman director Joe Wright has assembled a fine cast of character actors who breathe further life into the tense political landscape of Britain on the brink in 1940. Ben Mendelsohn deserves special note for his portrayal of King George VI, a daunting prospect in the wake of Colin Firths Oscar winning version.

Director Joe Wright manages to create a sense of momentum and carefully crafts the full weight of historic significance resting on Churchill and Britain’s shoulders during these most perilous moment sin world history. Much like recent crowd pleasers Dunkirk and Their Finest, Darkest Hour is innately imbued with a swell of pride that lingers still today from the immeasurable bravery and idealism demonstrated by a small island nation that stood utterly alone against evil.

The Bad

Anyone with even a most basic grasp of 20th century history already knows the ultimate outcome of the Second World War and Churchill’s personal destiny as one of the most iconic leaders in modern history. In particular Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster reminder of the miraculous Dunkirk evacuation is also still overly fresh in people’s minds. The inevitability of Churchill’s success and Britain’s military survival essentially robs the film of much of the dramatic suspense it seeks to create.

Winston Churchill is one of the most visual and vocally distinctive figures of the 20th century, consequentially he has been immortalised in film and television by countless actors already including most recent efforts by Brian Cox and The Crown’s John Lithgow. Unfortunately this leave Oldman with little room left for fresh discovery. At this point the highest compliment possible for the capable Oldman is that he manages to avoid slipping into flamboyant caricature.

In truth Churchill has been so frequently idolised and scrutinised by books, television and film that it is now simply impossible for this film to create any genuine sense of discovery or fresh insight. Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is restrained and nuanced but always identifiably familiar. More critical or exaggerated versions of Churchill that have appeared on screen at least had the excitement of controversy or cartoonish fun to offer.

The Ugly Truth

Gary Oldman’s physically transformative performance and a splash of patriotic pride manages to make some overly familiar historic material feel once more compelling if not exactly original or surprising.

Atomic Blonde Review

The Plot

As the 1980s and Cold War draws to a bitter close a British agent is dispatched to the murky underworld of Berlin to recover priceless information and track down the identity of a mysterious double agent.

The Good

From its opening scene to its closing moments Atomic Blonde is relentlessly propelled by a catchy soundtrack of deliciously 80s electro beats. This distinctive score combines very well with the grim urban wasteland of cold war torn Berlin and a fun parade of stark 80s fashion to give the film a truly distinctive style. It’s a colourful and chaotic canvas for director David Leitch to work with.

Charlize Theron is perfectly cast as the beautifully deadly British agent ruthlessly fighting her way through Berlin in pursuit of her mission and some more mysterious personal goals. Beneath of bob of bleach blonde hair and wrapped in a monochrome wardrobe, Theron is the epitome of cool. The film does a fine job of crafting an indestructible aura around Theorn and making her a highly credible and memorable action heroine.

A strong supporting cast packed with familiar British stars like Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and a notably feral James McAvoy lend authenticity to the brutal and banal world of international espionage. The film also frequently injects flashes of dark humour into its regular barrage of blood soaked action. The film wisely eschews melodrama in favour of unashamed mayhem and copious guilty pleasures.

The Bad

Atomic Blonde tries to balance an ambitious combination of brutal action, spy thrills and black comedy. The results are mostly satisfactory but by turns can feel both a little predictable and gratuitous. The John Le Carre-esque spy plot isn’t quite as clever as it attempts to be, while likewise the consistently blood drenched action is well executed but ultimately becomes slightly repetitive.

The film often panders to the mostly male audience it clearly anticipates attracting by flaunting Charlize Theron’s naked charms and even some surprisingly Sapphic sex scenes. While the film’s target market will no doubt welcome some sexy distractions it may be a little less popular among those hoping to turn Theron’s indestructible super-agent into any kind of de facto feminist icon.

Ultimately while the film fuses various elements of films like Taken, John Wick and even Grosse Point Blank it seems unlikely to match their enduring popularity. It will be interesting to see how well the film ultimately survives repeat viewing once it has been robbed of any initial intrigue. The soundtrack and set pieces are fun but the film does lack the sort of memorable dialogue and iconic scenes that seems most necessary for achieving true cult classic status.

The Ugly Truth

Atomic Blonde flirts obviously with cult classic status thanks to a memorably kitsch style and killer soundtrack. Theron is a perfect fit for her femme fatal heroine and her considerable presence may be enough alone to satisfy some fans. Those seeking a more subtle spy thriller should probably look elsewhere though as Leitch’s 80s throwback is more shameless guilty pleasure than anything else.

Review by Russell Nelson

Dunkirk Review

The Plot

The iconic military evacuation of British forces from France during World War 2 is brought to life following the experiences of soldiers awaiting rescue on land, boats rushing across the sea to save them and fighter pilots trying desperately to protect them all from the air in the skies above.

The Good

Christopher Nolan is one of the most critically accomplished and popular filmmakers of his generation, with Dunkirk he manages to deliver a film which is respectfully realistic but yet still generally uplifting and thrilling. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to create but the film does a generally excellent job at balancing harrowing tragedy and sombre reflection on the horrors of war with more optimistic themes of survival and courage. It’s testament to Nolan’s skill as a storyteller that he is able to turn such potentially grim historical subject matter into something that feels intimate and gripping.

Nolan relies on a familiar line up of charismatic stars such as Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance. He also once again takes full advantage of Hans Zimmer’s genius, with the acclaimed composer providing yet another excellent soundtrack that pulse through the film with the captivating urgency of a ticking clock. Zimmer’s score helps tie together the three strands of the storytelling and keeps audiences suitably adrenalized.

Nolan also bravely hands leading roles to a host of young stars, including a very prominent acting debut for One Direction star Harry Styles. Styles and his fellow fresh faced co-stars do a fine job of collectively breathing fear and desperation into efforts to escape the doomed beaches of Dunkirk. With minimal dialogue and commendable physical performances they make the nightmare of war a horrific reality for audiences. Though Styles may predictably grab headlines and plaudits, in truth there’s little to distinguish him from a generally fine ensemble of young actors.

In truth the film’s most memorable star turn comes from Tom Hardy. Given the role of heroic spitfire pilot, in truth Hardy only has to stare stoically out his cockpit and occasionally pull on his joystick to make him a crowd pleasing highlight. It’s a gift for any actor but at least Hardy is a deserving recipient.

The Bad

Dunkirk is as well-crafted as it possibly could be, but it still can’t escape the fact that it is a war film about a particularly dark, tragic and familiar portion of military history. While individual human stories may hold audiences interest, overall there’s no surprises and the scale of loss of life and human suffering makes it difficult to ever truly ‘enjoy’ proceedings.

Certainly compared to Nolan’s other popular work there’s little chance audiences will leave the cinema feeling an urgent need to race back for another viewing. Real life horrors of human conflict are clearly far less escapist fun the gravity defying dreams and comic book superheroes.

While the film’s approach of exploring the evacuation efforts form the land, sea and air serves as a neat way at exploring the full scope of events, sometimes the transition back and forth between each strand can be a little jarring. Repeating events from different perspectives can briefly confuse audiences already feeling a little overwhelmed by the epic fog of war on screen. It’s never a major problem but not quite as flawless in its execution as it could be.

The Ugly Truth

Christopher Nolan delivers a War film that is both admirably faithful and thrilling. An accomplished director, excellent soundtrack and stoic ensemble cast all combine to keep Dunkirk afloat and to grip audience’s attention from start to finish.

Review by Russell Nelson

Spider-Man Homecoming Review

The Plot

Peter Parker adapts to life back at home in New York after his recent brush with the Avengers. Under Tony Stark’s mentorship he explores his new suit and amazing powers whilst struggling with typical teenage dramas. When a deadly new enemy appears Peter has to learn quickly what it really takes to be a superhero.

The Good

Comic fans will welcome the return of one of the most enduringly popular heroes in a fun and colourful adventure that sit closer to the original spirit of the comics than perhaps the darker Andrew Garfield version. In particular joining the combined Marvel universe is a big and exciting step for the franchise. Which yield the immediate benefit of allowing Robert Downey Jr to lend his swaggering ego/charm to the film. Building upon the playful chemistry established between the billionaire Avenger and wide eyed teenager in Civil War.

The ‘new’ Spider-Man suit is perhaps the closest yet to the iconic comic book design. This will be welcomed especially by more devoted comic book fans for whom such details matter almost above all else. Faithfulness such as this may also soften the blow of some of the new film’s more significant changes. Such as turning elderly Aunt May into a more youthfully attractive Marisa Tomei.

Michael Keaton continues his amazing career resurgence playing The Vulture. Keaton’s flare for wild eyed intensity and gravel voiced gravitas is a perfect fit for the role, making him genuinely dramatic and menacing by equal turn. It’s a huge asset for the film which offers audiences originality in action sequences and storytelling.

Overall the comedic tone and well-polished effects work makes this latest Spider-Man imagining an easy watch for faithful fans and younger audiences learning to love the character for the first time.

The Bad

Spider-Man Homecoming marks the third reboot for the web slinging hero in barely ten years. While Toby Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s versions both had their flaws they are still very familiar and much beloved by many fans. While Marvel clearly relishes having a guiding hand in the franchise at last, in truth the five previous Spider-Man films have narrowed the available territory for the new series. As a result most of Spider-Man’s familiar villains couldn’t be reused so quickly. While the film and Michael Keaton does a great job at turning one of the comic’s least plausible character The Vulture into something believably menacing, it’s hard to ignore noticing the absence of more familiar threats.

Likewise faced with the awkward reality of having to rehash Spider-Man’s origin story yet again the film simply chooses to avoid that obligation entirely. There’s no flashback scene explaining the origin of Peter’s amazing abilities and no lectures from Uncle Ben about great power and responsibility.

No doubt many audiences may be relieved to bypass this apparently redundant storytelling and merely to proceed on the basis that by now everyone knows who Spider-Man is and how he became the web crawling hero. Unfortunately though it means that this ‘new’ Spider-Man has no clear identity. Basic questions about his origin remain entirely unanswered, which feels even stranger after an entire standalone film than it did after his rushed introduction in Captain America Civil War.

Tom Holland is the most legitimately adolescent actor yet to be given the chance to play Peter Parker. While the young brit does a good job at mastering the American accent and Spidey’s glib wit, he treads a fine line. At times he threatens to be even more breathless and smug than Andrew Garfield was. The problem with making Peter Parker an actual tween is that you’re left with an occasionally immature superhero who’s still finding his feet.

The Ugly truth

Spider-Man Homecoming benefits from the sensible guiding hand of Marvel studios, allowing Sony to finally deliver a big screen version which integrates into the existing Marvel cinematic universe. Though the film gets much right and succeeds in distancing itself from the five previous films some of those changes will yet again be divisive for fans and leave them wondering why Spidey needed to be rebooted again so soon.

The House Review

The Plot

When their college bound daughter misses out on a much needed scholarship a mild mannered suburban couple resorts to opening an underground casino to raise the cash they need to pay her tuition fees. But the surprising success of the venture soon finds them spiralling out of control and coming into conflict with the local authorities and genuine crime lords.

The Good

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler are both vastly popular comic stars in their own right and they make for a well-balanced combination as the hapless couple slowly morphing from sensible suburbanites to power mad gangster impersonators. The script plays steadily into Ferrell’s flare for both shouting hysterics and deluded self-confidence. Likewise Amy Poehler clearly relishes flipping between sensible housewife mode and a pot addicted pyromaniac crime lord.

Existing fans of both stars will find quite a bit to enjoy in a film that offers a fairly steady stream of increasingly silly shenanigans that combine’s low brow one liners with occasional bouts of madcap action.

Jason Mantzoukas best known for countless scene stealing supporting roles works well as the film’s third wheel, playing the gambling addict friend who enthusiastically steers the duo from one disaster to the next. He spars well with both Ferell and Poehler keeping things from becoming too monotonous as a mere two hander.

Though at times the film flirts with becoming a more cliché mafia parody thankfully it never quite slides too far down that painfully overdone route. The film seems self-aware enough to at least ensure it doesn’t solely rely on lazy ‘Casino’ and ‘Goodfellas’ references.

The Bad

The House is fairly predictable as it treads comfortably familiar ground for its well known leads. Faint hearted audiences may find some of the films more surprisingly blood soaked set pieces makes for uncomfortable viewing. Likewise those that are usually left unamused by Ferrell’s trademark hysterics won’t find anything to change their mind in this performance. It lacks the quotable genius of Ferrell’s more memorable work and the film largely blends instantly into his increasingly generic back catalogue. Honestly the film’s characters and antics would perhaps have felt more at home in a straight to DVD offering or a prolonged SNL skit.

It’s worth noting as is so often the case, the official trailer largely squanders most of the films funniest moments, so if you are likely to head to cinemas avoid watching this first if you can.

The Ugly Truth

The House is an easy watch and a mostly satisfying guilty pleasure. Ferrell and Poehler keep admittedly generic material watchable due to a combined charisma and earnest enthusiasm.

Review by Russell Nelson