Friday, February 23, 2018

"The Darkest Hour," "Call Me By Your Name" and The Week in Reviews

[I review 2018 Best Picture Oscar nominees "Darkest Hour," and "Call Me By Your Name" as well as one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film - "On Body and Soul."  The Book of the Week is "I Hear She's a Real Bitch."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with "Mr. Hulot's Holiday."]




Darkest Hour


As the Nazis close in on British troops at Dunkirk during WW II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill must decide whether to negotiate a peace settlement with Hitler or fight on with the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops hanging in the balance.

"The darkest hour is just before dawn." 

There is no record of Winston Churchill having said that, but he faced his darkest hour right before the Nazis were closing in on over 300,000 British troops who had been driven back to the beaches of Dunkirk and faced certain death with little time to decide what to do.  Churchill had two choices. One, negotiate a peace deal with Hitler which would certainly result in humiliation and sanctions against the British people, or fight on, even though defeat looked imminent.

Well, the British were (and are) a tough lot and Winston Churchill was no exception.  Though he was urged by cabinet members to take a peace deal, Churchill was a fighter.  The film follows Churchill as he struggles with what to do and argues his case to Parliament.

Winston Churchill was an unlikely Prime Minister.  He had a scotch and wine for breakfast and champagne for lunch and dinner and probably several other drinks in between.  He was old, overweight, bombastic and uncouth and smoked cigars constantly.  But he was also eloquent, brave and heroic.  However, Churchill was not a popular choice for Prime Minister.  When his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, was renounced, Churchill only won the post by default. 

This film highlights a bit of British history that we Americans know little about, but it also highlights why Churchill rose to become a folk hero among the British people and later the world. After asking the Americans to help, Roosevelt declined due to our then very isolationist philosophy, and with his own Cabinet against him, Churchill was very much alone. How does he save the British army from mass slaughter? How does he save Britain from Nazi rule?  Dunkirk looms in the background but in this film we never see any of what is going on over there.  This is all about Churchill and it's all about Gary Oldman playing Churchill. 

Oldman has had a wide ranging career as an actor.  He has played Sid Vicious ("Sid and Nancy" - 1986), an out of control playwright ("Prick Up Your Ears" - 1987), Lee Harvey Oswald  ("JFK" - 1991), a vampire ("Bram Stoker's Dracula" - 1992) and Sirius Brown in the "Harry Potter" series, but this portrayal of Churchill is a true tour de force and caps off a legendary acting career, and there was not a smidgeon of Gary Oldman to be found in this characterization.  He truly embodied Churchill. The rest of the ensemble cast, which included Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill's wife, Clementine; Lily James as Churchill's secretary (an unnecessary character, in my opinion); Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI; and others are all excellent, but this is Oldman's picture all of the way and this is the role that will win him a Best Actor Academy Award.

Though I must say that the make-up also had a starring role in this film.  The prosthetics were amazing, and though I tried, I could not detect where Gary Oldman left and Winston Churchill began.

This was a riveting drama directed by Joe Wright with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten and it's no easy feat making a dialogue heavy film riveting.  The score by Dario Marianelli was also spot on, tense when it needed to be, dramatic when it needed to be but also silent when it needed to be.

In counterpoint to this film, the film "Dunkirk," which opened earlier this year, tells the other side of the story, what was happening on the beach while Churchill and his cabinet tried to decide how to save all of those troops.  The two together would give you the whole picture and would make an awesome movie binge day.

It is a strange coincidence that two movies so closely aligned in story would be released in the same year but despite the fact that they are both about Dunkirk, each tells the story from a different perspective but each is equally compelling about this incredible bit of English history.

Rosy the Reviewer says...And the Oscar for Best Actor goes to Gary Oldman!





Call Me By Your Name



While staying in Northern Italy with his family in the summer of 1983, 17-year-old Elio bonds with his father's research assistant, Oliver, a much older American, over his emerging sexuality and their mutual Jewish roots.

There was a time when Merchant-Ivory films dominated the market for period pieces and sensitive dramas.  Ishmael Merchant often produced (though he was also a director) and James Ivory directed and they were not only filmmaking partners but partners in real life as well until Merchant passed away in 2005.  Along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they won six Academy Awards.  Ivory alone has had four Oscar nominations for his work.

Here Ivory has written the screenplay for this Best Picture nominee (his screenplay is also nominated) based on the novel by Andre Aciman, the story of a young man summering in Northern Italy with his academic American father (Michael Stuhlbarg, who I loved in "The Shape of Water" and who plays a small but pivotal role here) and Italian mother (Amira Casar), who is a translator and has inherited this beautiful house in Italy. 

But seventeen-year-old, Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is bored. It's summer and there's not much to do.  He rides his bicycle into the village, swims in a nearby river with his friends and hangs out with girls, catching a kiss and maybe more when the opportunity presents itself.  He's a typical teenager trying to find himself.

But when Oliver, an attractive and carefree American (Armie Hammer), arrives to stay with the family and work as a research assistant with Elio's father, Elio has to deal with his burgeoning feelings toward Oliver and eventually the two embark on an affair.

I have to say that the acting was excellent (Chalamet and Hammer are both handsome and exciting actors), the cinematography was wonderful and the setting was gorgeous (who doesn't love looking at the beautiful Italian countryside and dreaming about a summer swimming in the river and eating juicy peaches right off of the tree?), but I just could not understand why this film was nominated for Best Picture. And speaking of peaches, there is a scene  involving a peach that made me cringe as I figured out what Elio was going to do with it.  

But why do I question this as a Best Picture nominee? 

Yes, the film was dreamy and arty and evoked a lovely summer love affair, but it was also very slow moving, and I just wasn't sure what the point was.  Yes, it was a coming of age story where a young man was exploring his burgeoning sexuality and yes, it was the 80's where Americans were still very closeted when it came to being gay and yes, it was a lush love story, but the film directed by Luca Guadagnin didn't really develop into anything. Both men bonded over being Jewish, but again, the Jewish experience was only hinted at. Like a summer romance, it happened and then it was over and didn't leave me with much.

Rosy the Reviewer says...this film evoked a sense of time and place, which was enjoyable, but the film as a whole was disappointing.




Streaming on Netflix





On Body and Soul


Endre and Maria both work in an abattoir (that's a nice word for a slaughterhouse) and discover that they are having the same dreams.

This Hungarian film, nominated for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, begins with a buck and a doe checking each other out in a lovely snowy landscape, but lest we get too comfy, the next shot is of cows awaiting slaughter.  This film will not sit well with vegans.

Meet Endre (Geza Morcsanyi).  He is the chief financial officer of the slaughterhouse and likes to stay in his office.  He's not very social.  Then meet Maria (Alexandra Borbely), who has just been hired to be the quality control inspector.  She, likewise, is not social.  In fact, she is so antisocial that she goes about her job and rarely speaks, but when she does she is abrupt and cold.  She is also socially awkward and doesn't like to be touched. She also has total recall.  When asked by a psychologist when she had her first period, she was able to give her the exact date.  She is also able to remember everything that is said e.g. ask her what the third sentence was in a recent conversation and she can recite it verbatim. Maria is definitely somewhere on the spectrum.

And both Endre and Maria are lonely souls. So it's inevitable that Endre and Maria will meet and the device used to bring them together has a humor to it.  It's the most original "meet cute" I have come across. 

Some mating powder has gone missing and all of the workers at the slaughterhouse are called in to be interviewed by a police psychologist.  She asks them all a series of strange questions, one of which is what their last dream was about (not sure how that is relevant to mating powder getting stolen but what do I know?  I've never worked in a slaughterhouse) and when the psychologist realizes that Endre and Maria are having the same dream - they both dream about that buck and doe, she at first thinks they are pulling a prank and confronts them both together.  In so doing, Endre and Maria realize they are having the same dream which basically breaks the ice between them.  Voila!  Meet cute!

Their awkward attempts at getting to know each other are interspersed with scenes of the buck and the doe with each scene, or dream, showing the relationship between the buck and the doe progressing, and just as the buck and doe are thrown together and seem to like each other, so too are Endre and Maria.  But like the buck and doe who fear hunters, so are Endre and Maria fearful about socialization and taking the risk to love.  However, I would say socialization is hardly as scary as someone trying to shoot you in the wild or slaughter you in a slaughterhouse!

Eventually the two bond over their mutual dreams and want to be in love like the buck and the doe.  Our souls are our true best selves but our bodies often betray us. It's not easy to be our true selves and live out our dreams especially in what can be a brutal real life.  Just ask those cows in the slaughterhouse. 

Written and directed by Lldiko Enyedi, the film bobs back and forth between the tranquil landscape inhabited by the buck and doe and the gruesome reality of animals getting butchered. I get it. If we thought animals had souls, would we still eat them?  However, there was just too much detail about what happens in a slaughterhouse for my liking.  I mean long, lingering shots with the blood dripping down like rain on a roof.

Despite the humor (of the dark variety) and the fine acting by Morcsany and Borbely, the characters were just so stunted and strange that it was difficult to relate to them. This was not one of my favorite foreign films, so probably not voting for this one in my Oscar pool this year. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...if a love story about two socially awkward lost souls with a slaughterhouse as a backdrop interests you, you might like this but I found it disturbing.  I think I will stop eating meat.
(In Hungarian with English subtitles)




***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***




154 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?




Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953)


M. Hulot goes to a beach hotel for a vacation and causes his usual clueless havoc.

I didn't like "Playtime," which also featured the M. Hulot character, and I didn't really like this one either, though it was a bit more fun than "Playtime," because I at least got the story.  "Playtime" was more about the set design and color than there being any kind of actual plot. If you can call it a plot, at least this one had more of one.

The film begins on a humorous note with M. Hulot (Jacques Tati) at the train station.  An announcement is broadcast over the loud speakers but the announcement is absolutely unintelligible and people run back and forth to various platforms as the announcement changes and everyone tries to figure out what is being said.  

That was very funny and I could relate, because we actually had that happen to us waiting for the train from Bologna to Venice.  The announcement came on, it was garbled but it was also in Italian and everyone waiting for the same train as we were took off running to another platform.  However, even if we could have understood what the person was saying over all of the static on the loud speaker, we didn't understand Italian, so we didn't know where to run to and missed our train.  Relating to something personally certainly helps humor, so I found that opening scene very funny.  Alas, it all went downhill from there for me because I am not a big fan of slapstick and M. Hulot is all about that.

M. Hulot is a quiet fellow who means well but for some reason wreaks havoc all around him.  But like Chaplin's Little Tramp, Hulot is also all about poking fun at pomposity and the peccadillos of us humans.  Writer, director and star Tati finds humor in the mundane and M. Hulot's humor come from a series of "bits," as in M. Hulot putting on a hat, taking off a hat, then putting it back on again. The humor is in the visuals, one little humorous bit after another as Mr. Hulot enjoys his vacation at the beach.  There is not a lot of conversation or dialogue, but when sound is used, Tati has fun with it like a screen door making a sound like a guitar every time someone passes through.

I give props to films that use visuals rather than dialogue to advance the story because that is what film is all about, and since M. Hulot rarely speaks, this film is all about visuals.  In fact, there was no dialogue whatsoever for the first 11+ minutes of this film and I still knew exactly what was going on.

As I said, there is also not much of a plot. The film is all about disparate French characters on vacation at the seaside and Tati is making fun of what people do and how they act while on holiday.

You see, watching M. Hulot's antics are not really about the plot.  It's about his good-natured self inexplicably messing things up for other people. It's a series of gags that are comments on human nature.  M. Hulot is someone who can't do anything right. He keeps having mishaps - his car breaks down, he sets off fireworks by accident and basically wreaks havoc on everyone around him but is oblivious to the chaos and always lands on his feet. I know M. Hulot is supposed to be a sort of innocent but I actually find him kind of creepy, lurking around, observing people and never saying anything.  If you are familiar with Mr. Bean, it's like that. To me they are two beans in a pod, I mean peas.

As I said, M. Hulot rarely speaks and dialogue is at a minimum. A device used in both this film and "Playtime," and I imagine all of the Hulot films, is that when there is dialogue it is usually not attributed to any one character.  You don't see mouths moving and words coming out.  Rather the dialogue, what there is of it, is more ambient noise off screen and sometimes it's just unintelligible mumbo jumbo.  It's like a silent film but it uses un-attributable dialogue thrown in over the action just to remind us that it's NOT a silent film.  When you hear a voice, the camera does not seek the person speaking, almost as if the dialogue was added after the film was made, much like a soundtrack.

Another device at work is that most of the film is shot in long shots.  There are no close-ups as if we are also on the beach observing everything.

Why it's a Must See: "This enduring classic of French cinema revealed Jacques Tati, in only his second feature as a director, to be one of the medium's most inventive and original stylists."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Tati was nominated for an Academy Award for this screenplay in 1956.

This is not a criticism of French culture, but after watching this film I can't help but feel that the French seem to have a strange sense of humor.  How else do you explain their obsession with Jerry Lewis?  But then critic David Ehrenstein lauds this film as "one of the most original -- and hilarious comedies ever made." So go figure.

Rosy the Reviewer says...there is some charm to this film but it's just not my kind of humor.
(In French with English subtitles)




***Book of the Week***





I Hear She's a Real Bitch by Jen Agg (2017)


Jen Agg is a Toronto restauranteur and owner of The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, Agrikol and Grey Gardens and she shares her views on opening and running a restaurant, fine dining and being a woman in the sexist restaurant industry.

I credit Anthony Bourdain with my interest in restaurants, food and fine dining.  His first book, "Kitchen Confidential" was a real eye opener and his TV shows since then have spurred me to experiment with my palate. So his recommendation that "Whatever Jen Agg says is worth listening to" was enough to lead me to this book and he was right. This book is a wonderful how-to for anyone opening a bar or restaurant, but it's also an inside look at the restaurant industry, the "bro" culture" within it and a really entertaining and candid memoir. 

Agg knew at an early age that she needed to be her own boss and after paying her dues as a bartender and server, she was able to open her own restaurant.  The restaurant business is one of the most difficult to succeed in and she had her failures but now owns several of the most popular and successful restaurants in Toronto and Montreal.

Here she humorously and candidly shares her story of growing up in Toronto, her sexual experimentation and meeting her husband but this book is all about her views on how to open a restaurant and how it should be run. She also blows the lid off of the "bro" culture, the sexism that exists in the restaurant world and how difficult it is for a woman to break through all of that, even as the owner of the restaurant.

Speaking of how a restaurant should be run, Agg has very strong opinions about restaurant service.

Here are a few of her "Commandments" of Restaurant Service - what she expects from her servers - and once you are aware of these, it will change your dining experience for good or ill:

  • No lifting glasses to pour water.
  • No saying "no problem."  Why would anything be a problem?  Just say 'you're welcome' or 'absolutely' or anything but 'no problem.'
  • No saying 'you guys still workin' on that?' This should be so obvious but I still hear servers say it.  Food isn't work.
  • Always be positive about bar stools.  Like, don't say in an apologetic way, 'sorry, no tables, but I can put you at the bar,' like it's somehow worse.  It isn't. Make it sound like a win. 'Lucky you, I have these lovely bar stools available.'
  • No octopus hands.  Do not grab and carry glasses from the top.  Keep fingers as far away from the rim as possible.  I don't know where yours have been, but I know where mine have been.
And servers shouldn't remove plates until everyone is finished at the table and for you diners: don't stack the plates.  There is a system that the servers follow for clearing your table!

From that you can get a clear idea of Agg's tone and her opinions on how things should be done.  And I agree with her.  After reading those, I dare you to not notice the next time a server breaks one of those "rules."

I also learned what "dropping your food" meant - no, it's not when the server has an accident, it means how the food is delivered to your table.  And salt.  Yes, salt usually makes everything come alive and taste better but she thinks it's overused.  Did you know that some restaurants even salt your dessert?

Agg also has opinions on everything from restaurant critics (a necessary evil) to gin (she hates it) to chefs who yell at their staff (cough, Gordon Ramsay) and for those of you who see yourself opening a restaurant or bar one day, she offers tips on the importance of lighting, great restrooms (she calls them washrooms - remember she's Canadian), bar seats and everything else from walk-in refrigerators to how to handle the clash between the kitchen (back of the house) and the front of the house. 

This is a fun read because Agg has a sense of humor about herself and an interesting story to tell, but it's also an important inside look into the restaurant industry and the sexist "bro" culture that exists and the difficulties that women face in that industry. When a woman has opinions and is running things in that kind of culture, there is a lot of hostility aimed at women and the "B" word gets thrown around. Agg is a feminist but instead of whining about that state of affairs, she re-appropriated the "B" word and formed a one-night conference called Kitchen Bitches where women shared their stories of abuse working in restaurants in hopes to raise awareness.

Anyway, one of the reasons I liked Agg's book so much was the fact that I too have some opinions of my own about restaurants and dining out.  Naturally I wrote about them in a blog post called "My Restaurant Pet Peeves, or How Not To Get the Worst Table in a Restaurant."

When I first moved to Seattle 15 years ago, I was amazed at what a foodie town Seattle was.  Restaurant reviews abounded so I started making an alphabetical list of all of the restaurants I wanted to try (I know, an alphabetical list - but hey, remember?  I'm a librarian) and then slowly made my way down the list. I made it up through "F" and realized many new restaurants with names starting with A-E had opened since I started my "project," so I changed my tactics to listing restaurants by neighborhood and I am still working my way through them all.  If you are ever in Seattle and need a recommendation for a great restaurant, I'm your gal!  

Rosy the Reviewer says... After you read this book, you will never look at restaurants or restaurant service the same way again!  And that's a good thing.  Thanks for the recommendation, Tony!






Thanks for reading!

See you next Friday 

For a 

"Special 2018 Best Picture 
Oscar Recap"



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Check your local library for DVDs and books mentioned.
Next time you are wondering whether or not to watch a particular film, check out my reviews on IMDB (The International Movie Database). 

Go to IMDB.com, find the movie you are interested in.  Scroll down below the synopsis and the listings for the director, writer and main stars to where it says "Reviews" and click on "Critics" - If I have reviewed that film, you will find Rosy the Reviewer alphabetically on the list.










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