Thursday, 15 March 2018

Darkest Hour

Lowdown: The story of Britain’s decision to have a go at fighting WW2, on its own, as told through the personal story of Churchill’s early days as PM.
Darkest Hour, if you recall the person who coined that phrase, is the story of Winston Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister of the UK during early 1940. As you may know, WW2 officially started on 1 September 1939 with Germany’s military invasion of Poland (though, it has to be said, fighting was already going on in earnest in China for a while by then). War in Europe was declared, but not fought; the Allies did not come to Poland’s help, and especially in France the soldiers did not know what to do with themselves. In the UK, the subject of our movie, people were still calling to try and appease Hitler despite repeated failures.
Which is where Churchill fits into the picture, appointed as Prime Minister after his predecessor (Neville Chamberlain) was stained for his Munich Agreement’s false notion of containing Hitler. By then, German soldiers were pouring over Belgium and into France, and crisis was at hand. The entire British army, in France, was about to be driven into the sea (thus lost); what should the British government do?
Enter Churchill (Gary Oldman) and this movie about him and the decisions he had made at that early stage. Decisions that determined on the course of WW2, and, for the UK, eventual victory at the price of the loss of the British Empire.
If there is one theme to take out of Darkest Hour is that is is, indeed, very dark, as the movie name suggest. Not so much in contents as it is in absence of light, enclosed rooms, and dark walls. England sure was a depressing place, if you take this movie’s word.
The main struggle in our movie is not with the UK contending against the menace of the all conquering Nazis as it is with the UK facing its own demons: the people who wished to negotiate and appease the Nazis. We should be able to relate to them: they were not, necessarily, Nazi sympathisers; they were people who remembered all too well the cost of The Great War. According to Darkest Hour, they almost won the day. But Churchill saved it, with a little help from his friends, king, and country.
Darkest Hour takes some liberties with historical truths (for example, it has Churchill mingling with the commoners, including a black person, on an underground train as a key pivotal scene in which Churchill makes his mind up to fight). Which is where my biggest problem with the movie lies, its portrayal of Churchill as an almost perfect person barring his drinking habits. Well, he wasn’t; sure, he did many great things in the war against Nazism, but he was also responsible for many atrocities and initiatives in the field (check out this fine example, revealed only recently). These receive only an afterthought in our movie. In doing so, Darkest Hour steps into the realm of propaganda.
Acting wise, there is no denying Gary Oldman does an excellent job, yet there is no denying I found it hard to attach myself to the character he portrayed underneath all that makeup. I won’t argue whether he deserves his Academy Award for this role or not (I can offer numerous other movies where he fully deserves all accolades); I just don’t think, the way the Academy seems to, that being covered in extra layers of makeup is a precondition for acquiring the award.
As films go, Darkest Hour is a fine drama. I, however, have a big problem with the way rough edges have been rounded in order to generate a favourable image for the person that we, with the privilege of hindsight, know to be the winner of that particular fight.
I will therefore go with a rating of 3 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

In This Corner of the World

Lowdown: Life in WW2 Japan, told through the eyes of an ordinary Japanese girl.
It is befitting to tell a Japanese story the Japanese way, and In This Corner of the World represents such a go. It is a touching tale of simple people growing up and living in Japan as it gets through World War 2, in which we get a taste for the culture of the time through things like how people got married, what they wore, and what they ate. As “expected”, the tale is delivered to us in anime form - the Japanese way.
We follow the life of a simpleton, naive, yet good hearted girl growing up in Hiroshima. Like all of us, she has things she likes to do (drawing); like most of us, she can’t spend too much of her time doing the things she likes to do. What she does go through is a forced marriage and, in general, a life of much labour and toil, which she takes head on and fully accepts.
Then there is the war. We don’t usually see what war is like on the losing side; "they" don't get to write the history books. Hence In This Corner of the World’s main contribution: it is not “just” another film. As one can expect, we see that war does tend to harm the innocent people on both sides.
I will add, tough, that to this Western viewer it was hard to contrast the pictures of ordinary Japanese suffering through the war with the atrocities committed by the Japanese before and during the war, whether in places like China or Korea or in POW camps. Not that the film avoids them: there are very obvious references to brothels serving the soldiers. It's just that it is hard to see how those nice people the film portrays before us were able to commit those aforementioned atrocities.
Overall: A nice tale that is made much more interesting through the events under its scope. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Red Turtle

A man washes into a small island, Robinson Crusoe style. He tries to escape, building rafts after raft, but repeatedly fails. And then he meets a red turtle...
The Red Turtle is a short (an hour twenty), slow, animation movie. The animation is on the artistic side (it often reminded me of Tintin comics), and is definitely a far cry from the majority of computer animated flicks that rule today’s world of animation. I'd use the word minimalism to describe it, though that is probably not the right word given the animation is often rich. Most notably, though, the entire movie features exactly 0 spoken words; you certainly won’t require subtitles for this Red Turtle.
You would notice I covered the movie plot in three sentences. That’s because what starts as a coherent "man stuck on island" Tom Hanks/Wilson like affair quickly deteriorates (in my opinion) into hallucinations and fantasy. Sure, there is no particular reason to see that as deterioration, but the end result is something one can read in too many ways for me to feel comfortable with.
If pressed, I would argue The Red Turtle is an allegory on the human circle of life, with some obvious environmental and nature themes that tell us we are part of the natural world. By its very reductive nature (few characters, no words) the film is able to carry its symbolic message quite afar.
3 out of 5 crabs for this movie that is quite rich in crab characters, actually.
Recommended to appreciators of fine animation, who would probably rate it much higher than I do. Definitely not recommended to those seeking exciting entertainment, though.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Your Name

Japanese anime could not come in any more “classic” form than Your Name, a fatalistic tale that’s telling us we can still make our own fate. It does so by pointing us at two characters, a girl from a small rural Japanese town and a similarly aged teenager from Tokyo. For an unexplained reason, the two occasionally wake up in the morning in the other’s body.
At first they come to grips with things like having boobs, but eventually they figure out what’s going on and leave one another messages on their respective phones. Give it an hour or so, and you will also learn of the reason why this substitution is taking place...
Not a bad tale, but neither is Your Name a good one; there are just too many colliding ideas. As I said, typical Japanese.
3 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Women's Balcony

Lowdown: The tale of a small community, defined by its religiosity, as its paradigms are challenged by the even more religious.
The Women's Balcony (originally ישמח חתני, literally "joy to my husband") is a recent Israeli movie about a smallish, close, community of religious Jews living in modern day Jerusalem. They are not rich, but it's their community that gets them along.
Disaster strikes when, during a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the women's balcony (the area of the synagogue dedicated to women, who are otherwise not allowed to mix with men in orthodox run synagogues) collapses. Among the victims are rabbi's wife, the Torah scroll, and the synagogue itself that is barred shut. Problem is, the community is nothing without its synagogue! As luck would have it, a fellow rabbi passing by helps our synagogue-less refugees and takes them under his wing. However, all is not what it first seems; that new rabbi is quite pedantic and won't allow for the same practical compromises our community members took for granted, causing a rift in the community and pitting husbands against wives.
There are numerous problems with The Women's Balcony. For a start, it is not as entertaining as it was meant to be. That is to say, as comedies go, it is not so funny a comedy. However, the film is quite illuminating through its perspectives on the lives of religious Jews in Israel. To the best of my personal knowledge and familiarity, the movie is a pretty accurate portrayal of the culture of religious Jews in Israel. This includes practices that seem ludicrous to me, such as deploying non Jews to switch the light on during a Sabbath, which to the eyes of the people in the movie seems a perfectly rational act. Or, more relevant to the #MeToo age, the way basic discrimination between the sexes is taken for granted by both sides. The film reeks of these defunct values. I will put it this way, most of pluses earned by watching The Women's Balcony come from that anthropological factor.
I recall numerous other movies depicting this reality or culture, to one level of authenticity or another. This one seems, to these eyes, to be the first such movie I see that isn’t meant primarily for the secular viewer. The Women's Balcony is clearly designed for audiences not too dissimilar to those portrayed in the movie, that is to say - traditional to religious Jewish Israelis (but not fully orthodox Jews, who will not watch film anyway). Which, in my opinion, points at the processes going through Israeli society over the years: increased religiosity, that is heavily bundled with increased nationalism and a general drift of Israeli mainstream politics to the right.
Overall: 3 out of 5 crabs, not for the movie and its qualities as a piece of art but rather for the unique glimpse it provides into this world that exists somewhere in the real world.