Hunter Killer

So, a couple of weeks ago we had a MOTM episode on “The Hunt for Red October”. Most of the participants would put it at or near the top of the list of submarine movies. I can’t say that “Hunter Killer” is going to displace “Red October” but I can say it belongs on the list of entertaining sub movies. The plot here is a little too full of melodramatic twists to be very realistic, but it keeps you engaged and there is a nice amount of tension as you go along. If you don’t mind a few shots of models standing in for real submarines, rather than more extensive CGI, you will also like the look of the movie. It feels like a 1960s film, shot in the 1980s, with some contemporary actors standing in for folks like Charlton Heston or Rock Hudson.

The political scenario has the U.S. and Russia at odds over international policies, but there is no particular tipping point that the conflict rests on. A Russian sub, as it is leaving it’s base, is attacked and the U.S. sub following it is also attacked. We don’t know what is going on but it looks to the major powers as if one side has opened war on the other side. The Russian President conveniently arrives at the Navel base as the U.S. has inserted a SEAL reconnaissance team to investigate and report from the ground. A second American Submarine is sent into the area as back up and potentially as point in a navel battle. The captain of the American boat is Joe Glass, an officer who came from the ranks rather than the Academy, and he is played by Gerard Butler.

If this was a conventional action movie, Butler would be killing people right and left. He has made a career for himself as a tough guy hero in several recent films including “Olympus Has Fallen”. In this film, he is oddly cast because he is not required to break anyone’s neck, punch them in the face, or deliver six shots to the chest at close range. In fact, Captain Joe is reluctant to ever pull the trigger on his torpedoes and missiles. He regularly seems hesitant to take the sort of cowboy action that his casting would suggest is coming. Butler seems to be in the role because he can come off as a commanding presence who can stare down an opponent or reluctant subordinate. For this story he mostly works, although I would have liked him to go all Liam Neeson on someone at some point.

The late Michael Nyqvist plays the Russian Submarine Captain and when he and Butler are on the bridge together, this movie does come across as a poor man’s version of Red October. They have to manage to trust each other through a major crisis and hope to avert a World War. Since there is only a limited amount of sub action in the film, a big chunk of time is taken up by the covert mission on the surface. In another twist requiring Russians and Americans to trust one another, the SEAL team is asked to rescue the Russian President from an attempted coup. In another example of a Brit stealing American roles, Toby Stephens leads the seal team, much as he did in “13 Hours”.  Both he and Butler are convincing as American military officers. Less convincing are rapper turned actor Common, who looks to young to be a Rear Admiral, and current Academy Award Winner Gary Oldman, who shouts too much to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

The stuff that works includes a series of shootouts around the Russian navel base, and the submarine moments when Nyqvist and Butler have to stare down metaphorically, the Russian fleet and the narrow passages leading into the bay where the Navel base is. I was a little disappointed that bad guy Igor JiJkine, who I remembered from “Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls”, doesn’t get a memorable death. You usually want that in a film like this. We just have to assume he gets his along with all the other coup conspirators. I won’t say the movie is great but I will say I had a great time. If you measure by popcorn consumption, I finished a whole bucket by myself before the movie was two thirds done. That my friends is an entertaining flick.

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

So just a few random thoughts on the Best Picture Selections this year. Last week we watched two films with Lucas Hedges back to back. He was in “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards”. Timothée Chalamet was in “Lady Bird” and today’s “Call Me By Your Name”.  Nick Searcy was in “Three Billboards” and “The Shape of Water”. Today we had Bradley Whitford in back to back “The Post” and “Get Out”. Finally Michael Stuhlbarg was in “The Shape of Water, “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Post”. These actors have got to have great agents to get into the top pictures of the year not just once, but two and three times.

“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” were the two films I needed to catch up on, and while I admired them both, I don’t see either of them as a likely winner in the big category. “Phantom Thread” lacks anybody likable in the cast of characters, and “The Post” is so traditional that it won this award two years ago when it was called “Spotlight”.

Speaking of actors who appeared back to back in some of the films on the program, we had a historical event do exactly the same thing. “Dunkirk” was followed by “Darkest Hour” and it was almost as if Joe Wright’s film was just another segment of the Christopher Nolan film. It’s Title Card would read Parliament: Two Weeks.

I feel confident in my choice of “Dunkirk” as the best film of last year but I am not at all confident that the Academy will go along with me. 

Dunkirk   Christopher Nolan’s film was the most visually impressive, forward moving, and meaningful film of the lot. Listening to the score and watching how he masterfully integrated three separate time lines into a single narrative with clever overlaps and great timing, I know that this was the best directing job this year. Nothing against Guillermo Del Toro, but this complex story, logistical nightmare and historical memorial is simple better constructed than the odd fish love story. This is a film that tells a real historical story that will last long after the fashion of the fairy tale set in a mythological era in U.S. history, is a charming oddity. 

Some people complain that the characters here are not well developed, that is true. This however is not a character piece but a prism on the events that were taking place during a military disaster that became a turning point in a manner that was most unexpected. 

Darkest Hour  This film was even stronger the second time I saw it. The first viewing I was overpowered by Gary Oldman’s performance. He will surely be the winner in the acting category. I admired the film before but I have come to really respect it on this second encounter. Joe Wright manages to make a tale of political intrigue into a fascinating study of a character and the country who’s character he came to represent for the duration of the war. The one clumsy moment is a scene set in an underground train car. The only reason it is clumsy is that it feels so distinct from everything else, like a deliberate movie moment. That shows that the rest of the movie does exist as something more than the typical fare.  But even that scene works emotionally because it bespeaks of a real sense of what the British people felt at the time. 

Call Me By Your Name  I am being a little facetious when I say this film is a pain in the neck. That’s because in the first half I went to sleep and got a crick that is staining my muscles still. My least favorite of the nominees, this film is slow moving, meandering and confounding. I felt like I was listening to a play frequently, with dialogue written eloquently but sounding artificial. A couple of podcasters that I listen to love this film and especially the sequence with Michael Stuhlbarg as the father of Elio, consoling his son on the “special” friendship he had with Oliver. It ends on s deliberately false note when the Dad tells his son that he doesn’t think that Mom knows about the nature of their friendship. The mom had just picked up a near weeping Elio at the train station and she dropped hints for the previous hour that she knew how special Elio thought Oliver was. When Mr. Perlman says he never had a relationship with anyone like Elio had with Oliver, we can believe him because he so obtusely ignores how insightful his wife is. This will probably win the Screenplay Award, and it shouldn’t, if it takes the big prize I might yell loud enough to ruin my voice for a month.  

The Post  So this was the one new film we saw on day two. This has the phrase “Oscar Bait” pasted all over it. It features Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, a ton of high end supporting players and it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The subject matter concerns the fight of the press against preemptive shut down of news publication. It is a first amendment issue that was understandably important, yet at the same time it ignores some pretty egregious behavior. We can always applaud someone after the fact when their actions seem just and there was no blow-back,  but there were issues regarding the acquisition of the Pentagon Papers that probably still need to be discussed.  Spielberg and co-screenwriters Josh Singer and Liz Hannah, manage to make a bureaucratic legal process look and sound like a courtroom drama with some mystery tied in.  Singer in particular is working on familiar ground since he won an Academy Award two years ago for a very similarly structured newspaper story “Spotlight”.

This is supposed to be a resistance film, about the Media vs. the President in a time when everyone wants to be standing up to the current administration. The parallels are not really there to give this much resonance. This is a two hour commercial for the Washington Post and the heavy handed feminist slant in some of the visuals makes it feel too much like a lecture at times. That said, it is well made and the John Williams score is excellent as usual. Because “Bridge of Spies” and “Spotlight” are just a couple of years old however, this feels like it is old territory and not quite as distinctive as it needs to be. 

Get Out  This one is the outlier. You rarely get a horror film nominated for Best Picture, but if you do, it is usually more of a big budget film. This Jordan Peele written and directed film seemed to come in under the radar, it made a huge splash, and it is getting some end of the year accolades. The intersectionality of this film is in keeping with all the film buffs who are much more woke than I am. I just enjoyed the twist and the characters in the film. Rod from TSA is a saving grace that adds more straightforward humor to the mix. Instead of a haunted house we get a upscale suburban plantation. The need for subtlety on the race subject is probably eliminated by the DNA of the movie. Being an outsider in an nearly all white environment makes Chris, our lead character played by nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, mildly uncomfortable but also keenly aware of how different the culture he is visiting is. 

While most people will consider the “Sunken Place” to be the most horrifying image in the film, to me it is the silent auction with bingo cards. We still don’t know what is going on, but the suggestion is truly awful. Seeing it for a second time, I could pay more attention to some of the interesting choices that were made. Grandma and  Grandpa are certainly clever twists, although it seems strange that for the duration of Chris being a guest, the force required to hold those characters would be counter-intuitive to the actual plan. The creepy factor also takes Chris a little too long to respond to. His buddy is right, and he should be listening to him sooner. There is an outside chance this could take the award, the voting system gives weight to the number of ballots a film appears on, and this would be a popular ad to the list but not necessarily high on the list. Should it when I expect to see some “Get Out” Memes that mine the fertile teen speak use of the terminology. 

As an aside, let me rant about the misquotes being used to decorate the entry way to the theater. Both “Cool Hand Luke” and “Jaws” are misquoted in the floor below. 

Darkest Hour

Viscount Halifax: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

 

With all due deference to screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has crafted a solid narrative around the early days of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, much of the success of this film must go to another writer. That author is the central character of this film and perhaps the most important historical figure of the last century. The high points of this film all center around addresses that he made to Parliament,  the Nation, or to an inner circle of confidants and political rivals. As a Speech instructor, it is understandable then how I can be moved and consequently passionate about this movie.

There is something in the air this last year because this period of time has been the subject of several films over the last twelve months. “Dunkirk“, “Their Finest“, and “Churchill” have all been released in 2017. While I have not seen the later, the other two are strongly related to the events depicted in this film. One of my colleague on-line, a British citizen, schooled me in the attitudes toward patriotism in Great Britain. He suggests that it is acceptable to be proud of the history and heritage but not to draw attention to it as we Americans are wont to do. I can appreciate the cultural norm of humility, but being an American I do not feel bound by it. Great Britain stood up to one of the greatest evils in the history of the world, and for a time stood alone. The wherewithal to do so was inspired substantially by their wartime leader, a man that every free person should be willing to acknowledge. Churchill was far from perfect, he had a history of failures and his views on some subjects would be viewed very dimly by most people today. He was however, the right man at the right time and place.

Speaking of the right man, actor Gary Oldman, who has been a favorite of mine since the days of “Sid and Nancy”, rightly deserves the talk he is getting about winning an Academy Award. This is a intricate portrayal of a complex character, who was fiercely convinced of his correctness but was also cognizant of the circumstances he found himself in. Certainly the make-up artists that transformed his visage into Churchill will deserve a share of the credit, but the lion’s share goes to Oldman. He is able to summon doubt and conviction almost simultaneously in some scenes.If you have ever listened to Churchill’s wartime speeches, you will hear the grumbling and muttering and dry delivery. Oldman manages to duplicate the manner of those speeches but imbue them with enough theatricality to make them compelling to watch in a feature film. He stays true to Churchill’s demeanor but adds a spark of charisma to the settings.

 

Director Joe Wright has made very good films in the past (Atonement/Pride and Prejudice), but he has also stumbled at times (The Soloist/Pan). He makes several choices here that I think work well for the focus of the film. Although the subject is war, the depiction of the war is cinematically visualized without dwelling on the combat. A series of overhead shots, usually accompanied by an airplane swipe across the screen, gives us a bird’s eye view of the events that are taking place on the ground without turning the movie into a combat film.   In a similar fashion, Churchill is shown at times as an isolated figure in a sea of hostility by lighting and again the use of an overhead shot.

 

The contributions of the screen writer probably include the frequently uncomfortable conversations that Churchill had with the King. Certainly, the inspiring ride on the underground is an imagined event that helps the Character know the mind of the British people more forcefully. My memories of my British Public Address graduate seminar, helped give me a little context to the Parliamentary process, but I think anyone would be able to fathom what is going on and what it all means by simply following the cues that McCarten has laid out for us. It may be an old school concept to give us a running slide of calendar days but it works well in building some urgency, even though there is little action in the story. The film makers have managed to put together a very watchable narrative that is not driven by great events but rather by great oratorical moments. I may sometimes be blinded by my own sense of righteousness concerning the events of World War II. I like history and I admire the figures who made a difference in the world, regardless of revisionist social norms. Let’s hope that enough young people get exposed to this story before they start reading about this in school. I don’t think movies should be our main source of knowledge about history, but like Spielberg’s “Lincoln“, “Darkest Hour” manages to make an historical figure the giant that he truly deserves to be.