Tag: lily james

Darkest Hour


Darkest Hour (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Joe Wright’s biographical drama “The Darkest Hour,” focusing on Winston Churchill’s appointment to become the British Prime Minister as Adolf Hitler takes over Western Europe during World War II, is filled with strong performances, particularly by Gary Oldman as the iconic leader and Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife and source of endless support, but the material does not find a way to make the drama as thoroughly engaging as it should be. This is a common problem with many biographical films because we already know what is going to happen. One way to boost intrigue is to provide details not considered to be common knowledge. While I learned a few bits of information, the rest is a waiting game before the famous “Fight on the Beaches” speech.

Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, one looks at the images and is immediately convinced at the authenticity of each furniture, clothing, spectacles, extravagant paintings and artifacts because the lighting hits these objects in such a way that they almost glow age. Particularly stunning are two scenes in which Churchill addresses the Parliament, one a failure and the other a rousing success. It is amazing how one room, with the help of Delbonnel’s eye, is able to communicate two different moods. I wondered how it might have been like in the actual room back then and I wished to look closer at the books neatly stacked in the heart of the room where the main source of light is focused.

Oldman is thoroughly convincing as the renowned British leader. Despite the pounds of makeup and fat suit, he is able to communicate the necessary emotions and thought processes that come with being in charge of a nation mired in war. However, I do have to say, even though it happened only occasionally, there are moments when I was taken out of the performance. Take a look at Oldman’s eyes. They do not look like an old person’s; they lack a feeling of weariness and wisdom of someone over eighty. And when you focus on those eyes and then look at the face that houses them, the cosmetics become apparent, distracting. I wish the filmmakers had found a way to make the eyes look more aged, perhaps with the use of CGI, because the performance itself is wonderful.

There is one questionable character and casting choice. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary. As the picture goes on, one cannot help but wonder what purpose this character serves other than the obvious that is her occupation since she neither does nor says anything particularly interesting. It is possible that Layton is supposed to be our conduit to the story, but a conduit must function as more than a mousy observer. James’ one expression drags down an otherwise strong collective.

“Darkest Hour,” written by Anthony McCarten, is at its best when Churchill is with his war cabinet. Disagreements abound when it comes to the subject of Britain’s survival. The irony is that the cabinet members are almost at war with one another. Even more ironic is the fact that Churchill filled his team with political rivals. There are threats of shame, taking the wrong side in history, resignation. Stephen Dillane is great as Viscount Halifax, convinced that peace negotiations with Hitler is the better choice than fighting the Nazi scourge.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

Not strong enough to be a full-fledged action film nor a period drama that so happens to have comedic elements, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” based on a parody novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, only entertains when gimmick is still fresh. As it goes on, however, one grows tired of the formula. There is a lack of substance in the characters, their unique situation lacks lasting intrigue, and the supposed war between the humans and the undead is not at all convincing.

The material excels in pointing out and making fun of societal niceties in an era drenched in very deceptive social graces. The jabs land fast and hard and so there is a freshness and breeziness among the exchanges. Particularly enjoyable, as it should be, are banters between our heroine Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley). We already know they must begin to like one another romantically sooner or later, but there are moments that pack real sting. One can make a convincing case the the dialogue is more exciting and has more grit than the action sequences.

Would-be exciting battle scenes between highly trained zombie killers and brain-eaters are rarely, if ever, effective. Notice how such scenes are shot and presented. The editing is quite choppy as to create a mere semblance of urgency, the framing is either from the waist up or numerous closeups are mistakenly employed. Facial expressions end up being the focus as opposed to impressive acrobatics. When there is a full body shot, the performers’ head and feet tend to reach the top and bottom of the screen. As a result, usually we only see images near them. Thus, the scale of the battle is lost and so we are not convinced they are really caught up in any life or death mayhem.

Although the period pieces are lovely to look at, from the dresses women wear and coats men sport to the makeup applied as to highlight specific faces’ strongest features, the look of the zombies is completely wrong. CGI is used far too often to the point where every time an undead’s face is shown, it is almost comical. There is nothing scary about them. It might have been far more convincing if a digital approach were thrown out the window altogether and instead took on a more tactile approach like using actual paint, masks, or makeup.

Personality is eventually drained out of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” directed and based on the screenplay by Burr Steers, which is an elementary mistake because its inspiration, Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice,” gets more interesting as it progresses. In the book, when secrets are revealed, they command gravity. Not here. It feels as though revelations must occur in order to progress the plot. Although the film captures our interest, it fails to do anything special or worthwhile to keep our affections. It does not have the vision or the ambition to go beyond the artificial idea of zombies plaguing the Regency era.

Cinderella


Cinderella (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

To have courage and to be kind: traits that young Ella promised to embody during her mother’s final moments. Years after giving her word, Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and she, as expected, moves into the house eventually, along with her two despicable daughters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). To give one’s word is one thing but to keep it is another beast entirely. Ella (Lily James), a dreamer who speaks to and befriends animals that live in her home, must endure her awful stepmother and stepsisters while father is away.

Based on the screenplay by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” is a loyal retelling of an animated film classic but it is one that can be enjoyed even by those who are very familiar with the story. The reason is because the material takes its time with the details, whether it be in terms of costume designs and how they complement each other or the finer details of its characters, even though they still remain archetypes, as to avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. I was surprised that there were moments when I felt humanity emanating from the cruel stepmother.

The casting proves to be a key ingredient. Blanchett, a consummate performer, manages to do a lot with few lines that might have been dismissed or downplayed in less experienced hands. Even though her character appears to have a black heart when we solely look at the stepmother’s actions, notice that Blanchett imbues pain or sadness in those eyes. The director has enough sense to allow the camera to linger a little bit during those small but rich moments. I admired that Blanchett did not play the character as a complete ice queen. It would have been easier, certainly, but less interesting.

James is Blanchett’s equal. She commands a different kind of beauty—soft, delicate, approachable. This role, too, could have been boring if played like a wooden plank. In this Cinderella, I sensed an intelligence and fire without relying on quirks. She knows she is being mistreated but that awareness is communicated not through yelling, complaining, or glares. Instead, it is told through the eyes, the pity she feels toward the women who have it all and yet have nothing. At least nothing of substance or value.

I believed the story’s universe because a significant effort put into how certain things should look without relying on CGI overload. For instance, the costumes are appropriately bright, kid-friendly, and have a lot of eye-catching patterns. Instead of the clothes looking like they are simply hanging onto the actors, the materials are allowed to move and breathe. We notice their textures, we wonder what they are made from, if certain bits are computerized and to what extent. Observe the scene when Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) are dancing. It commands so much energy not only because James and Madden appear to be having fun or that the camera seems to be dancing with them, but it is also because the blue dress is alive instead of a bright but static thing.

There is one casting choice that can be considered a miscalculation. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother. Although the pivotal scene involving the transformation of a pumpkin, mice, and lizards is executed well, Carter, in my opinion, looks and acts too quirky to be a non-distracting fairy godmother. I think that in order to get around this, a lot of makeup was applied on her face. It made the actress look like she had botox or had undergone surgery that went awry. Looking at the character’s face closely made me feel very uncomfortable.

“Cinderella” is a lot of fun even though it does not break any new ground. There is chemistry between Cinderella and the prince, played wonderfully by James and Madden, and so we root for them to be together… despite the fact that we know they will. In Disney movies that involve some kind of romance, most of the time I find them to be syrupy and repetitive. Here, I actually wanted to see the lead characters to talk more, to touch each other more. There were times when I felt like I was watching just another story, not a Cinderella story—which is a compliment because it is a sign that the material has gone beyond what is expected.