Darkest Hour (2017)
The set-up: After his controversial election to the post of British Prime Minister, the surly and indomitable Winston Churchill (Oscar winner Gary Oldman) must decide how to deal with the impending threat of Nazi invasion. Does he try to negotiate peace or take on the German fascists before they swallow all of Europe? Is England prepared to go to war?
The breakdown: Oldman delivers a powerhouse performance as the beleaguered Churchill, who faces scrutiny from his foes and his own party in his quest to stop the Nazi threat. Unconvinced that a peaceable accord will stem the Nazi tide, he must also make the case for military defense of the empire. In the way that the UK was an island apart from Europe, Churchill was his own island, and the numerous intimate moments portrayed in the film hammer home the enormous pressure he faced. Director Joe Wright finds the right balance between a few effects laden battle moments and numerous dramatic showdowns, often emphasizing the emotional claustrophobia inherent in the story. While Oldman’s Churchill does not come off as an ogre, he definitely stormed through a lot of meetings in order to fight for what he believed in.
I, Tonya (2017)
The set-up: The life and controversial career of figure skater Tonya Harding (Oscar nominee Margot Robbie) is profiled through multiple points of view: Tonya, her mother, her ex-husband, her former coach, her former bodyguard, and a Hard Copy producer. Based on real-life interviews that often contradict each other, the film pieces together her saga from her troubled lower class roots through her rise to stardom, and the competition with Nancy Kerrigan that lead to the physical assault on the latter prior to the 1994 Olympics. It was an event that disgraced Harding, who was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition.
The breakdown: Directed by Craig Gillespie and played as a black comedy, I, Tonya elicits sympathy for Harding and her difficult upbringing — little money, an abusive mother, class issues — while also showing how the poor life choices of herself and those closest to her lead her down a bad path. It also shines on a harsh light on the conservative world of ice skating and its judges, who had a hard time reconciling that, despite her obvious talents, Harding did not fit the mold of a wholesome American girl. Robbie capably channels the skating star, and the dazzling visual effects, which are discussed in a short but sweet featurette, show how they made it look like the actor skated herself.
Women In Love (1969)
The set-up: Two single sisters (Oscar winner Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden) become involved with an idealistic free thinker (Alan Bates) and a hard-driving industrialist (Oliver Reed), and they all explore the limits of fidelity and weigh monogamy against polygamy in their upper class world. Behind the scenes, the two men share an unrequited homoerotic bond (taboo back in 1920) that further complicates the couples’ friendship.
The breakdown: Based on the D.H. Lawrence novel, Ken Russell’s film eschews the high camp that surfaced in many of his works, but he does inject wry wit into this libidinous tale of aristocratic adventurers who have a lot of time to ponder their erotic entanglements. The humor helps offset what might otherwise have been insufferable protagonists. Beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond and well acted, Women In Love is a film that explores societal and sexual politics and helped shine a spotlight on Lawrence, whose sexually liberal and scandalous works gained a new foothold in the more permissive Western culture of the late 1960s. According to liner notes author Linda Ruth Williams, the nude male wrestling scene was the first overt representation of male genitalia in a mainstream film. It’s no surprise that this appeared in a Ken Russell movie; he was always pushing boundaries.
The set-up: A newly pregnant, mentally unstable woman (Susannah York), fearful that her husband (Rene Auberjonois) is having an affair, begins experiencing weird hallucinations and delusions, including the presence of her dead ex-lover and her doppelganger. On vacation in Ireland, she becomes reconnected with an old flame (Hugh Millais), now a single father who still lusts for her despite her resistance. As her mind unravels, her potential for violence becomes heightened and foreshadows tragedy.
The breakdown: Written and directed by Robert Altman (after MASH and before Nashville), Images is an unsettling and occasionally nightmarish look at a seemingly schizophrenic woman whose frequent breaks with reality are tearing her apart. While we never learn what trauma leads her into this fractured state, York’s compelling portrayal of her condition and Altman’s discombobulating narrative keep the tension high right until the shocking finale. This is an underappreciated part of Altman’s canon and is certainly worth checking out.
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (1964/2009)
The set-up: Masterful French director Henri-Georges Clouzot made such classic films as The Wages Of Fear, Eyes Without A Face, and the original Diabolique before taking on Inferno, his trippy tale of a married hotel owner (Serge Reggiani) who suspects his beautiful wife (Romy Schneider) of having an affair. He becomes obsessive and jealous and begins stalking her, with delusional nightmares playing out in his head which may or may not be true. But the bloated production was never completed, and this documentary reconstructs that tumultuous process, intertwining recovered footage, modern actor recreations of key scenes, and crew member recollections.
The breakdown: Serge Bromberg and Auxandra Medrea take us deep inside the troubled production of a film that, had it been completed, might have been a phantasmagorical masterpiece of paranoia and romantic revulsion. Clouzot intended to play black and white scenes (reality) against color (delusions), the latter being done with such surreal, pioneering cinematographic concepts that audiences of the day would have been left reeling. Sadly, Clouzot’s irascible and exacting persona, plus the slowed down shooting schedule of a movie that needed to be kept under a stricter time clock, alienated many of his cast and crew and lead to health problems for two key players. But at least we can see what he had intended and can scrutinize some of the wild imagery. The bonus features add up to be as long as the film itself and provide further insight into the doomed production of Inferno.
The Vault (2017)
When a group of agitated bank robbers come up short in loot, the assistant branch manager (James Franco), fearful they will harm their hostages out of rage, clues them into a hidden vault downstairs that allegedly holds $6 million. But once that crypt-like chamber is opened, ghoulish beings that are the specters of a past robbery turned serial massacre, emerge to seek vengeance. In theory, this unusual genre hybrid has a lot of potential, but the overacting and lack of steady tension keeps this fear flick from really finding its footing. This is where I have to call out Netflix on their glut of horror movies. I’d rather have fewer but better options than the incredible number of choices that exist now. The Vault has a few interesting moments and a flashy finale, but it’s the kind of selection you should make when you’ve exhausted many others.