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Darkest Hour

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With the clacking of a typewriter, Darkest Hour echoes Atonement, Joe Wright’s earlier (and more impressive) foray into World War II drama. The bravura moment of that film was an extraordinary long take of the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, the focus of Christopher Nolan’s award botherer. Darkest Hour presents the time of Dunkirk from another perspective – that of Parliament in May 1940 as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes the office of British Prime Minister while Europe collapses before the Third Reich. Winston faces multiple challenges as he tries to wrangle survival for the troops and also protect his own position. Oldman is superb, unrecognisable in remarkable makeup yet never appearing to be a man in makeup. From his voice that wanders from quavering to strident (more varied than Brian Cox’s equally powerful turn), Oldman brilliantly portrays a career politician who understands the game of Westminster and only plays it his way. As a character study the film is effective and compelling, and Wright uses some thrilling cinematic effects such as long takes that travel around the House of Commons and overhead shots that range from Winston working furiously in bed as well as beleaguered British soldiers in Calais. At other times, however, the drama feels overdetermined, such as the machinations of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as well as a sequence on the London Underground when Winston performs a mini-referendum on relations with Germany. This speaking to the people raises the interesting question of how to view the film through the lens of Brexit. There may be a temptation to adopt Darkest Hour for nationalistic propaganda, its depiction of a time when Britain stood against Europe calling for Britain to stand against the EU in these uncertain times. Equally, one can see Darkest Hour as a call for unity across borders in a time of division and mistrust, a point emphasised by Winston’s rallying of MPs even as the War Cabinet plots against him. For all its flaws, Darkest Hour still offers much food for debate, be that Parliamentary or otherwise.

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Baby Driver

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Baby Driver begins with one of the most arresting openings seen this year. We motor through a car chase over the dulcet tones of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with ‘Bellbottoms’, as the eponymous motorist Baby (Ansel Elgort) evades police with remarkable skills that demonstrate why he is the best driver around. Writer-director Edgar Wright then ups the ante with one of his trademark long takes, as Baby essentially dances his way through the streets of Atlanta to the tune of Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’. It is an opening of assured choreography and bravura musical choices, that clearly lays out Baby Driver‘s conceit of a heist film shot and edited like a musical. Overall, this conceit works, but the film never quite accelerates to the level achieved during its opening. The performances are very fine, especially Jamie Foxx as genuinely menacing psychopath Bats, while the romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) is sweet and charming. Wright makes smart use of the Atlanta locations and delivers several rubber-burning car chases as well as some surprisingly nasty gun fights. These sequences fit with the straightfacedness of the film, which may be a surprise for those expecting a comedic tone like Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy as well as Scott Pilgrim VS the World. The lack of comedy is not a problem as the film works as a straight heist thriller with a distinct and imaginative soundtrack. However, in its final act the film meanders off the highway with some ill-judged sentiment that has been previously absent. Sentiment is fine but needs to be there since ignition – here it feels like an incongruous diversion from the brutality of the gangster milieu. In addition, the finale of the film is overdone with more than one too many ‘It’s not over yet!’ moments. Thankfully the film’s denouement avoids mawkish sentimentality, ensuring that this ride gets back on the road rather than becoming a wreck. Baby Driver may not be a perfect journey, but it still offers ample swerves and spins.

Cinderella

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A well-known story poses the challenge of how to tell it in a way that is fresh and engaging. The further challenge of a fairy tale is how to make it relevant. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz complete these challenges admirably with Cinderella, an unapologetically traditional and gloriously romantic reinvention of the classic tale that pays homage to Disney’s animated feature while also creating an identity all of its own. The essential elements of the story are present: the cruel stepmother and stepsisters, the fairy godmother and pumpkin coach, the ball and the glass slippers, as are the more specifically Disney elements including Cinderella’s (Lily James) animal friends and the famous “Bibbity-bobbity-boo”, brought to charming life by the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter). Branagh handles these elements brilliantly, especially the magical transformation scene and the glorious ball sequence. Where this live action version really shines though, is in its expansion of the story. Cinderella’s stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) are not ugly but vain, stupid and spiteful, while her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is beautifully nuanced – not simply cruel but bitter and more than a little desperate. Similarly, Prince Kit (Richard Madden) and his royal contemporaries are far more than the ciphers one might expect, concerned with tensions between tradition and progressiveness as well as their own political agendas. The Prince and Cinderella share far more than simply seeing each other at the ball, drawing closer as they discover they have a surprising amount in common. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) emerges as more of a villain than the Stepmother, who is almost as much a victim as Cinderella. Nor is Cinderella passive and simpering, guided as she is by the principles of courage and kindness. Even at her lowest ebb, she offers forgiveness and generosity at every turn and, similarly, the film’s sweeping joy is its own form of magic, enrapturing the viewer with gorgeous production design, ravishing costumes, a splendid score and fluid editing and cinematography. Only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be bewitched by Cinderella, a reminder of the romance and hope that fairy tales and movies alike can inspire.