Darkest Hour (2017)

Director: Joe Wright Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane

Winston Churchill has just become Prime Minister following a vote of no confidence in the former PM, Neville Chamberlain, following Chamberlain’s unconvincing leadership at the start of the Second World War. However, there’s not much confidence in Churchill either and a series of events at the start of his premiership forces him to make some controversial decisions.

I love British political history, especially the 20th century, and so this sort of film is right up my street- however I appreciate it’s not for everyone. It certainly helps if you’re familiar with the events, and it’s hard to work out who many of the characters are unless you can work out out from what you know already. It’s very much a thinking film, and not packed with action- although given the circumstances it’s all pretty high tension anyway. It’s long but a lot happens so doesn’t feel too slow.

That said, even it’s not the usual sort of film you’d be in to, it’s worth a watch for Gary Oldman’s performance. I’ve always found Gary Oldman’s roles pretty weird, but he was really good in this to the point that you can’t tell it’s him as he has perfectly encompassed Churchill’s speech and mannerisms (although the prosthetics do help). I really liked King George (Ben Mendelsohn) in this too- I thought it was a compelling part of the plot, a sub-plot almost, to see not only Churchill’s standard WW2 activities that we know quite well but also some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of what was really going on at the time.

This film is Oscar-nominated so worth investigating just for that (so you can confidently discuss it at dinner parties), but also I did learn quite a lot despite already having a good background knowledge of the events, so I reckon it would be interesting if you’re in the mood for a more serious, slow-paced film. I didn’t come out thinking “wow”, but I liked it and will probably watch it again at some point.

4 stars

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Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Director: Barry Levinson Cast: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby, Tung Thanh Tran, Robert Wuhl, Chintara Sukapatana

Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer is shipped into Vietnam to take over a slot on the Armed Forces Radio. He quickly starts to make his mark, however, while popular with the regular troops, it doesn’t go down well with his superiors.

Although I love Vietnam War classics like Apocalypse Now, generally speaking it’s a genre that is pretty hard-going (understandably). Good Morning, Vietnam however makes for much lighter viewing while still making its point. From the outset, I was laughing out loud: the first scene in which Robin Williams’ character appears on the radio is brilliant, and it’s joke after joke with barely pausing for breath. Robin Williams is ideal for the role, as he perfectly fits the character of weird and totally in his own world without caring what other people think. A lot of it is also pretty politically incorrect, which is certainly refreshing in this day and age. The 60s pop soundtrack is also great, and I like the way it forms part of the story as it’s used as a contrast against the boring approved radio station music.

The film is really funny and I laughed a lot, but it also has its serious parts. The plot surrounding the radio station is that the news is massively filtered and censored so that the troops don’t hear about anything bad going on- particularly with relation to the likelihood of the war dragging on, which in hindsight we know it most definitely did- and Cronauer struggles with not being allowed to tell the truth. There’s a very sad scene where he’s driving about the town and they meet a bunch of soldiers about to head out to where the war is properly taking place, and while Cronauer is entertaining them there’s a look on his face that he knows they’re probably not coming back.

The one downside, and it’s not a major downside, is the plot with Cronauer and his Vietnamese friends. I just found it unconvincing, and the climax of the storyline revolves around this (without wanting to give away any spoilers) but it’s not particularly hard-hitting simply because I was unconvinced by it. Reading that back it doesn’t make much sense, but probably will if you watch it! Overall though I did enjoy the way it portrayed the tragedy and ridiculousness of the war and a lot of parts were very moving.

This is a great film and is light enough but while still having a strong message. It’s probably not suitable for kids (a fair amount of strong language and violence) but as far as war movies go it’s not bad at all, so I think a lot of people would enjoy it.

4 stars

Risky Business (1983)

Director: Paul Brickman Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Bronson Pinchot, Curtis Armstrong, Joe Pantoliano

When his parents leave him home alone, high school student Joel takes his friend’s advice and decides to make the most of it. However, he gets into some trouble with a call girl and things start to spiral out of control.

So going in I thought this movie was a comedy- and to be fair, most things I’ve read say that it is. Over-confident teenager is left with the house to himself and gets into some silly japes with his friends, while managing to get everything back in order just in time for his parents get back. While that generally is the list of the film, it didn’t quite pan out how I’d imagined. The film starts off innocently enough- teenage boy doesn’t know how to make a microwave dinner, ho ho ho- but then all of a sudden he decides to invite a prostitute round like it’s no big deal- what?! Where did that come from?? Is that regular behaviour for high school students in America or something?! So yeah, that happens and then he gets “involved” with her and they end up running a brothel from his house.

The whole thing just felt totally unrealistic and, well, stupid. It escalates and gets kind of dark pretty suddenly and is just plain weird. I feel like it would have made more sense if it was more clearly defined as a comedy, but it’s really not and the fact that it’s so serious is a little disturbing. What certainly doesn’t help is the weird soundtrack, composed by Tangerine Dream- the ambience is more Bladerunner than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While it’s an 80s movie, it doesn’t really seem to fit with all those other Golden Age classics. Basically, it would sit better with me if it was just funnier.

Did I like this film? I mean, I sat through it and didn’t hate it, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again. In terms of the actual quality of the film-making, there’s not really much to complain about but the vibe feels off. There are some messages in there such as obsession with making money and moving from high school into the real world, but it’s not an enjoyable watch at times. It’s the movie that launched Tom Cruise but I prefer him in other stuff.

Risky Business isn’t family viewing and I wouldn’t want to watch it with my parents. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to recommend it to anyone I know, but if you’re intrigued I would say give it a go and see what you make of it.

2.5 stars

Gremlins (1984)

Director: Joe Dante Cast: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain

As a gift from his father for Christmas, Billy receives a “mogwai” called Gizmo as a new pet. He’s given three rules for looking after him: don’t let him out in sunlight, don’t let him near water and don’t give him any food after midnight. Of course, with Billy being a stupid boy he breaks the rules almost immediately, and chaos ensues.

Now, you may have noticed I’ve put this down as one of my Christmas Crackers. While I am 100% certain, no doubt in my mind, that Die Hard is a Christmas film, Gremlins falls into that same category of debate but is a little trickier. My usual two factors for deciding are 1) The setting of Christmas is vital to the plot; and 2) It contains Christmassy themes such as family, redemption and coming together. While I would say that Gremlins fulfils the first criteria (Billy receives Gizmo as a Christmas present, so Christmas provides key context to the plot) it doesn’t really contain any of the key Christmas themes. So it’s still up for debate but as it’s the Christmas season I’m feeling generous.

The film itself is a good caper, but it’s not really hugely gripping from beginning to end. The first half is good, with the mystery of the mogwai and finding out more about them, but once the mogwai have become “gremlins” the film is basically just scenes of the chaos they cause with a bunch of random characters coming in and out chasing after them. The final climax is over quickly and there’s not much suspense. So it starts well, but after a while I got a bit bored and I think it could have done with reaching the end quicker.

I’ve mentioned that the film doesn’t contain the classic Christmas themes of reconciliation or redemption. Billy is completely useless and he doesn’t seem to learn anything at all by the end. He’s terrible at looking after Gizmo- he forgets the rules straight away, and when Gizmo has water splashed over him and he starts writhing in agony, Billy just ignores him. He doesn’t manage to kill any of the gremlins by himself either- his mum kills loads and then he only manages it with the help of his love interest. Then at the end, he thinks he’s responsible enough to keep looking after Gizmo?! No lessons learnt or character improvement whatsoever. Billy, you’re just the worst.

What I did like was the mogwai/gremlins themselves. There’s something sinister about the puppets they use which is really effective (as they actually are pretty sinister- they actually kill a few people…), and I’m glad that this film came out before CGI as I don’t think CGI creatures would have had quite the same creepy effect. Overall I would say it’s a family film but certainly for small children it could be pretty scary.

From the 1980s Golden Age of cinema, this isn’t one of the best but is worth a watch. Gizmo is very cute (and marketable…) and it’s an interesting concept before the mayhem gets a bit over-the-top. I’m slightly leaning towards the side of not a Christmas film, but perhaps worth watching earlier on in the season before going full-on Christmas.

3 stars