Catholic News Service Movie Reviews



Phantom Thread

By Joseph McAleer

NEW YORK (CNS) — The spotlight shines brightly on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (Focus), a historical drama about political leadership and backroom intrigue during a pivotal moment of the Second World War.

Churchill (1874-1965) was 65 years old and, it was thought, in the twilight of his political career when he was tapped to lead a wartime coalition government in May 1940. The war was going badly for the Allies, and Nazi Germany was marching into Belgium and France, threatening an invasion of Britain.

It was truly the country’s darkest hour, and director Joe Wright (“Atonement”), working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, offers a thrilling take on Churchill’s first three weeks in power.

The film is in some respects a companion piece to the 2017 film “Dunkirk,” taking place at the same time. While “Dunkirk” neglected politics in favour of personal stories, “Darkest Hour” goes behind the scenes, revealing how Churchill rallied a skeptical cabinet to fight the enemy rather than sue for peace, and arranged the miraculous evacuation of nearly 350,000 soldiers stranded on the French beach.

Beneath some remarkable facial prosthetics and layers of padding, Gary Oldman disappears into the role of Churchill, capturing the gait, cadence and charisma of the man. This is a warts-and-all portrayal of a decidedly quirky individual who loved his cigars and booze, was often rude and sarcastic, but who in private had moments of self-doubt.

At his side was his stalwart wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), proud that her husband was finally getting his chance to lead, however late in life.

“When youth departs, may wisdom prove enough,” Churchill says, as he accepts the offer of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) to form a government. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Churchill succeeds the feckless Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), whose policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany has left Britain woefully unprepared for war. But Chamberlain enjoys the king’s favour, as does the politically ambitious Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane). The trio schemes to disgrace Churchill and put Halifax in power.

As Europe is overrun, Churchill is pressured to sue for peace. The idea of bowing to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis is anathema to his lifelong belief in justice and liberty.

“You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” he roars at Halifax.

“Darkest Hour” proceeds at a breakneck pace as Churchill gradually convinces his colleagues to fight and rallies the nation. Although some liberties are taken with the facts (including a marvelous moment when Churchill interacts with ordinary people on the subway, which never happened), the film offers an important history lesson for young and old about a time when statesmanship mattered most.

Churchill’s greatest asset was his voice, which he used to great effect on the radio and in Parliament to inspire the nation. As he composed his stirring speeches, Churchill was aided by his secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and his most faithful ally, the secretary of state for war — and future prime minister — Anthony Eden (Samuel West).

“We shall never surrender!” Churchill tells his parliamentary colleagues, forcing Halifax to admit, “He just mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The film contains brief scenes of wartime violence and some mature themes. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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I, Tonya
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — At no point in “I, Tonya” (Neon) is it clear whether the filmmakers are sympathetic to the plight of disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or just want to make fun of both her and the peculiar, fleeting nature of fame.

That’s what makes this story so fascinating. No moral uplift is intended. This is the suffering that doesn’t create sainthood, but only lingering bitterness, and it’s presented as somehow very American.

Oregon-born Tonya, we see, has a million-dollar talent expressed through a 10-cent personality. She frequently quarrels with her coaches and skating judges, never accepting responsibility for anything. Repeatedly, the character addresses the camera to remind the audience, “This wasn’t my fault.”

Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers present a coarsening, numbing fusillade of domestic abuse and cursing. Occasionally this is broken up by ice skating routines which conform to the formula of a sports drama, and eventually the inept execution of a crime — the assault on Tonya’s rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) just before the 1994 Winter Olympics.

The rest of the time, Tonya is exploited, either by her chain-smoking, many-times-married mother LaVona (Allison Janney), feckless husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) or sleazy tabloid-TV producer Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale).

To this day, many see Harding as a hero because she entered competitive figure skating, in which the most marketable female athletes are made to appear as inaccessible, perpetually smiling fantasy ballerinas, from a hard-knocks blue-collar background.

She never adapted to this, either in her life or skating performances in homemade costumes. She remained the same chain-smoking, trash-mouthed hellion she came to think of as her destiny. As a high school dropout, she was only ever one fourth-place finish away from reprising her mother’s existence as a diner waitress.

Building Tonya’s self-esteem is never LaVona’s priority. She doesn’t know how to do anything other than inflict her anger, but she stubbornly spends her limited funds to get Tonya the aggressive coaching she needs to make it to national and international competitions.

Tonya had a singular athletic talent. She remains one of only three American women to execute a triple axel — a forward-facing jump with three rotations — in international competition, and she became the very first American woman to do so in 1991. The move is so difficult, and therefore so rare, that the film resorts to slow-motion special effects to show it. But it never explains how she came to learn it.

Competition eventually brings Tonya up against Nancy, considered the more stylish and therefore more nationally presentable of the two, and who bests Tonya for the U.S. Olympic Team in 1992 when a badly installed blade sends Tonya crashing to the ice during her final routine.

The decision to hold the Winter Olympics again in 1994 to start a new four-year cycle gives Tonya her dramatic second chance. Gillooly, by this time, has employed a particularly stupid and delusional bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who comes up the scheme to injure Kerrigan’s leg, thereby giving Tonya the opportunity she “deserves.” Justice arrives with well-calibrated speed after that.

Nothing in this film is pleasant, nor does a viewer get the sense of learning anything not previously known. The question of how much Tonya knew about the crime, and when she knew it, is presented as ambiguously as it was to law enforcement and Olympics officials in 1994.

Sometimes, stories don’t have morals. Tonya’s competition smile under the lights is merely a thin mask of makeup to cover anguish. Yet, her heart never breaks.
She’s an exemplar of stoicism. It’s just that she never seems to become any smarter.

The film contains pervasive scenes of domestic abuse, a non-explicit scene of sexual activity, pervasive rough language and frequent profanities. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — The first thing to know about “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero” (Vertical Entertainment) is that its intent is not to proselytize.

It is, instead, an animated adventure story about seventh-century Arabian hero Bilal ibn Rabah, who eventually became a companion of the prophet Muhammad and is considered the first muezzin — the prayer caller at a mosque.

The connection to Muhammad is not made explicit, and someone without a grounding in the basics of the Muslim faith and history of the Arabian Peninsula is likely to have difficulty understanding certain plot points or their significance. In keeping with the proscriptions of Islam, Muhammad is not shown.

The story of Bilal’s release from slavery, in which he had been constrained since childhood, and his opposition to a corrupt, money-driven multitheism and support for individual freedom is not critical of other faiths. It is, however, a very dark and violent story with episodes of torture.

This necessitates a restrictive classification, not because such elements are intrinsic to any faith, but simply because they’re all over this film.

Large portions of the Old Testament’s violent, gory accounts would have the same problem in a screen adaptation. How much brow-furrowing and sword-fighting are required to get a point across? This story pushes the limits of that.

Co-directors Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal, both of whom co-wrote the script with Alexander Kronemer, Michael Wolfe and Yassin Kamel, lay out the familiar contours of Bilal (voice, as an adult, of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and his sister Ghufaira (voice, as an adult, of Cynthia Kaye McWilliams) being abducted into slavery in Ethiopia as their mother is murdered.

They grow up in Mecca, a village at that time, and where the local religion is corrupt. Umayya ibin Khalif (voice of Ian McShane) and his son Safwan (voice of Mick Wingert) mistreat Bilal and Ghufaira at every opportunity. The Black Stone of the Kaaba, considered a centrepiece of Islam, is shown as being manned by an angry gold-masked priest who snarls, “Prove your faith with wealth and gifts!”

A friend reminds Balil, “They are only as strong as the fear they put into us. We must never give in.”

A new monotheistic faith, begun by Muhammad, is in its earliest expression, and this inspires Bilal to seek his freedom and despise corrupt practices of giving money to many gods out of nothing more than fear of oppression and poverty. Sometimes he dreams of being a warrior and riding a white stallion through a sandstorm.

Bilal’s freedom is eventually purchased after an episode of torture in which he’s crushed by a boulder while tied to the ground. Once free, he trains with sword and shield.

Finally, Bilal finds his life’s message: “We are all born equals. We breathe the same air, we bleed the same blood, and die and be buried within the same ground. I believe I am as free a man as you are.”

This leads to a military conflict, although the film makes it clear that this marks only the beginning, and not the end, of a continuing fight.

The film contains several intense scenes of torture and combat violence. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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