JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Darkest Hour | First They Killed my Father | The Pirates of Somalia (Directors: Joe Wright, Angelina Jolie, Bryan Buckley) - January 8, 2018

Darkest Hour | First They Killed my Father | The Pirates of Somalia

4.5 4.5

Reviewed for the 2018 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Three inventive looks into world events

Darkest Hour
Joe Wright
125 mins, 2017
Five stars

Oldman’s finest hour

How curious that so many of history’s greatest figures readily partook of vice: excessive drinking, constant smoking, out-of-control gambling, sex addiction. Seemingly, their successes (and, to be fair, failures as well: no one scores 100%) were happily fuelled by all manner of self-indulgence. Living life extra-large has made the world quite a different place (artistically, socially, politically) than if everyone did only what was “good for you.”

And so when circumstances conspired to elevate Winston Churchill from cabinet member to prime minister—due in large part to his predecessor’s (Neville Chamberlain) inability to see that Hitler was not to be trusted and would ruthlessly cut down any person or country in his way to megalomania bliss—many eyebrows were raised at the prospect of a cigar smoking (anytime, anywhere) alcoholic becoming the United Kingdom’s last defence as the Nazis set their sights on the island nation.

As great an actor as Gary Oldman has proven to be (cross-reference below), his performance as the embattled PM is a miracle of timing, execution, body language and sheer grit. From his first entrance, artfully accompanied by a reedy bassoon—characterization meeting orchestration in Dario Marianelli’s piano-rich original score) it is hard not to believe that this isn’t a biopic, but a you-are-there documentary. Surely Oscar will agree?

Director Joe Wright has done a superb job giving Oldman carte blanche and reigning in the remainder of his cast in order to achieve the effect of what Churchill was: a giant amongst all others—whether you agreed with him or not.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is long on quoting the savvy leader’s own words and artfully short on the subplots of typist Elizabeth Layton (Lily James serving as a very believable staffer cum confidante) and the late-inning trip in the underground where real Londoners (as opposed to the ruling class) were given their voice.

And special mention must go to Ben Mendelssohn’s marvellously nuanced performance as King George VI: the “now I’m with you” scene with Oldman is another wonderfully understated dramatic knockout. Ronald Pickup’s Chamberlain is ripe with regret and dignity while Stephen Dillane’s Viscount Halifax smoulders with envy and quiet rage—especially in his looks that speak volumes.

Of course it didn’t really happen like this, but for a couple of hours, viewers will most certainly get a flavour of the high stakes in play and the unlikely hero whose first scotch was at breakfast time. JWR

First They Killed My Father
Angelina Jolie
136 mins, 2017
Four and one halfstars.

Suffer the little children: again

As is so often the case in nation-warring-nation—along with faction-warring-faction, there are really no winners even when “peace” is declared. In the mid-’70s, Cambodia was a prime example of senseless murder, mayhem and destruction fuelled by U.S. bombs falling from the sky on the neutral country even as Pot Pol’s Khymer Rouge seized the opportunity and began a far worse reign of terror, forcing its ideologies and methodologies onto their fellow Cambodians as the world largely watched on. Getting nowhere fast in the Vietnam War, the U.S. abandoned Cambodia (even shutting its embassy) only to cue the Vietnamese that it was their turn to attack their neighbours.

This film (based on the book of the same title) is author-screenwriter Loung Ung’s personal recollection of those horrific events as seen by herself—just five years old as the story opens in Phnom Penh—and her family,  many of whom would not survive the hostilities. Director Jolie (who also assisted with the screenplay) has done a masterful job of capturing the essence of the brutality, forced servitude (child soldiers ready to kill all enemies) and permanent loss of innocence (of all ages)—especially for those who survived.

Using the Khymer language and primarily Cambodian actors to tell the tale, gives the film an eerie feeling of actual documentary, particularly as the dialogue overflows with the emotions that must have been felt, tasted and decried by the actual people involved. Even if there were no subtitles, viewers would readily understand what was being said—due to the outstanding cast whose participation might well have instilled some with nightmares for many years to come.

Leading the actors and the action, Sareum Srey Moch belies her young years, delivering a range of tone, texture and body language that many colleagues much older can only hope to attain. Her father (Phoeung Kompheak, a model of stoicism and resolve) sees no other choice but to abandon their comfortable home or be blown to bits by the leaders of the free world. Desperate to give her children a chance at survival (and knowing full well that her days were numbered) the matriarch (a gritty, impassioned performance from Sveng Socheata) instructs her brood to split up and adopt different names, hoping that the luck of the odds will ensure the survival of at least a few of them.

As the body count rises (climaxed when the inexperienced “baby” recruits—fleeing the approaching enemy—inadvertently blow themselves up on the too-well-concealed land mines, sending them to early graves with a huge dose of irony), the realization that this is not a fictional account can’t fail to sicken any thinking person watching the senseless slaughter.

The film’s only failing (but completely understandable given all that came before) is the ending, which comes across as far too hopeful knowing that, even today, child soldiers around the globe are killing and perishing: that’s an ongoing tragedy that no one film can ever put to rest. JWR

The Pirates of Somalia
Bryan Buckley
116 mins, 2017
Four stars

Learning the craft while doing it

Those expecting a rough-and-tumble, swashbuckling ride on the high seas where huge ships are hijacked for ransom, will head for the exits soon after the opening reel. For the rest, Bryan Buckley’s (director/screenwriter) treatment of Canadian Jay Bahadur’s book of the same name will be treated to a biopic whose implausible plotlines could not have been made up by writers of fiction.

Playing the wannabe writer, Evan Peters does a commendable job bringing the journalist-without-training-or-experience role to engaging life. Taking his unexpected mentor’s (Al Pacino playing Seymour Tolbin has the perfect tone for the small but pivotal role) advice to heart, Bahadur opts to abandon his plan for Harvard and travel to Somalia to get the inside scoop on the ruthless pirates, thus bringing himself to world attention. Surely fame and fortune will follow? And how difficult could that task be?

Melanie Griffith is artfully cast as Maria Bahadur, while Maria Vos makes for a stoically convincing CBC personality playing Avril Benoit.

Bahadur’s key ally in the African nation is translator Abdi (Somalian Barkhad Abdi brings immediate truth to the role, deftly setting the table for the jibe to the Somali-light Black Hawk Down production from 2001). The love interest comes in the alluring form Katlyn, wife of one of the most powerful buccaneers in the country. Coral Peña brings just the right mix of savvy and sizzle to the part.

As incongruous as the narrative seems, it all comes together in a way that largely proves Tolbin’s thesis, but the acid test remains: Is Bahadur a one-trick pony, or is this writer’s well truly deep. JWR

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