Their Finest

I had a Friday Afternoon free, my daughter was home and suggested we see a film. I checked Flixter to see what was new and available. “The Circle” had lousy ratings, but that does not always discourage me. “How to be a Latin Lover”, no, that’s not going to happen. Then I saw this, a movie that I’d never heard of but which featured a World War Two Setting, the making of a film, and it had Bill Nighy in it. Why the hell was I not already at the theater? Twenty minutes later we were, and boy am I glad I happened across this.

This film went from not even being a blip on my radar to being my favorite film of the year so far. It has many old fashioned elements so it may not seem like a film modern audiences will flock to, but they should . The old fashioned story telling, character development and plot are just the ticket for people who want a movie that does not feature super heroes( at least until next week), car chases, and hipper than thou irony which is unearned. This film has a romance, a war to win, a movie to make, and enough heartbreak to last for the summer. People who love movies will appreciate the title of the book it is based on and it will make the current title make more sense. [“Their Finest Hour…and a half”].

In the months after Great Britain was forced to retreat from the continent, and stood alone against the monstrosity of the Third Reich, it’s morale was battered. The blitz was taking place and Londoners were forced into shelters if they were lucky, and dug out of the ruble if they were not. A young woman, who did a cartoon for a local paper, gets tapped to assist with the script of War Time propaganda films. As the head writer terms it, “the slop” you know, women’s dialogue. The film makers are struggling to find the right tone for the informational films that are shown between the regular features. A Hungarian producer, anxious to make a great film to aid the war effort comes across a story that might be just the thing to lift up a beleaguered population.

Gemma Arterton, Miss Strawberry Fields herself, plays Catrin Cole, a woman struggling to stay with her artist husband in London during the bombings, so happy to have some work to pay the rent. While it is a little quick to go from punching up lines in a PSA to co-writing a script for a major production, it is a lot more believable than the old line of going out as an understudy but coming back as a star. The film gives us glimpses of how she might re-write dialogue to be more appealing to a female audience, and sometimes change the tone of what is going on. Sam Claflin plays her sexist boss, the main writer of the film. Their story line is full of ups and downs that seem natural in the wartime circumstances and the date at which the story is set. Sexual politics and gender warfare have existed a long time before the sixties and here is a case where it breaks out at just the right time.

Cast as an aging matinee idol of a series of disposable detective thriller, Bill Nighy is an actor who reluctantly is cast in a part that is perfect for him. The way in which it all comes about is also a part of the background of the film. With a name like Ambrose Hilliard, you almost don’t need the character to have an actor to go with the part, but Nighy fills the movie with some great moments of pathos as well as humor. My daughter thought we were going to see a comedy, and we did, it’s just that it’s a human comedy, and that includes the sad with the happy. The funny bits are all great, but Nighy really shines in two dramatic sequence. In one, he joins the film crew and cast in singing old homilies that bring the group together like music must have done during war time. Later he has a few minutes of philosophy to share that helps propel the movie to the ending that it really does deserve.

The randomness of destruction and the capriciousness of the heart are subjects of the movie as well. I  know the Brits must have wondered what their American cousins were doing on the sidelines during this period. They soldiered on as best they could, with tragedy a moment away or a step around the corner. When the film making process is shown on screen, we get some nice behind the scenes laughs, but when the completed film is revealed in bits, I dare anyone to be able to keep a dry eye. If this film had really been made, we might have joined the war effort before Pearl Harbor. Sure it was propaganda, but it probably would have worked like gangbusters.

This movie had no ads, promos, billboards or other marketing to sell it, at least here in the states. That is an absolute shame. With the Christopher Nolan film “Dunkirk” ready to screen this summer, this is a perfect appetizer. The story of the rescue of British soldiers is a key ingredient in this picture. We are spared the impact that the war had on individual soldiers but we get a good dose of what it did to folks on the home-front with this movie. Oh, and just in case you are not sold on the film yet, Jeremy Irons pops in for about three minutes of perfection, and makes you remember how great he is in almost everything he does.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

If ever a movie would have been fine without a sequel, this continuing story of the elderly residents of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India would probably qualify. In the first story, all the loose ends seemed wrapped up, the key characters who were moving on did so and the ones who were staying appeared to have things under control. Of course when you make nearly a $140 million at the box office on a $10 million dollar investment, it is hard to walk away from the table. You have to figure that you are playing with the house’s money so why not take a shot?

Fortunately, instead of being a straight money grab like the two sequels to “Taken” have been, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” has a few pieces of pleasure to dispense. There is nothing here that is essential to a story, but if you enjoyed the company of the cast in the first movie, there are some nice moments to get reacquainted and to have a mild laugh or two. If you never see this film, you are not depriving yourself, but if you do, you are certainly not hurting either yourself or the memory of the earlier movie.

This time out the culture clash is keep to a minimum, and in fact, the main characters are emerged in their new home and culture very nicely. The outside influence this time is the involvement of a major American Company that has been asked to invest in a franchise of the original establishment and expanded capacity. A brief  visit to America by young Sonny the Hotel Manager played by Dev Patel with Maggie Smith’s Miss Donnelly as adviser, brings the promise of an investigation of the facility by the potential partners. Lickity split, two new arrivals appear at the hotel and Sonny begins to lose control and allows jealousy and fear to blind him to his behaviors. His upcoming wedding becomes the playground for several episodes of embarrassing humor and for a little bit of drama.

We see less of the gritty part of India in this chapter and instead focus more on the festive. I had the pleasure once of attending an Indian wedding here in Southern California, or I should say one part of an Indian wedding because it seems that there are several rituals to go through. The different events each allow an escalation in the tension (what little there is) but mostly provide a beautiful backdrop for music, dancing and costumes of the sub-continent. The mild romantic endeavors of the aging sweethearts are side shows to the nuptials of the young couple. There is some silly business about an accidental contract put out on one of the women, a slow realization that wealth is less important than compatibility, and a final push toward the edge of commitment for couples that do not have that much time left to commit. None of it means anything, it is like it’s predecessor, a frothy confection for the over 50 set who don’t want to see an action film or a science fiction film this month.

Richard Gere shows up and while his hair has always been prematurely white or grey, he looks this time like he is actually moving into the golden years, still handsome but a little more weathered. Bill Nighy continues to play the same hesitant, nearly stammering older character that has been so delightful in earlier films, although it does seem he commits to the role a bit. Judy Dench dashes through the film with as much screen time as any other character but with less importance to her role than many of the other characters. Maggie Smith manages to be funny this time without the racial jibes that made her character irascible in the last film.   If the India of this film, were the India of the real world, I might be tempted to retire there myself. I have learned however that a movie and reality are rarely partners and instead I will enjoy the view from my seat and move on to another exotic location in the next film I see.