Monday, March 5, 2018


For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s we grew up with the iconic personas of the past, historical figures that transformed history we were reading about WWII into reality as we knew it. While many of those figures had passed away a few remained. One of those was Winston Churchill. We’d read or listened to recordings of his speeches. Movies have been made about his life but few have the impact or provide as in depth a depiction of the man as DARKEST HOUR.

The film opens with Parliament in turmoil. The year is 1940 and the predictions Churchill made about Hitler and Nazi Germany have come to fruition. Belgium and France have both been invaded. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) hope for peace has been crushed and his removal from office demanded. But who to put in his place? The position is offered to Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) but he turns it down. To placate both sides of Parliament they choose Churchill (Gary Oldman).

Our first glimpse of Churchill comes as he awakened at home to interview a new girl as his personal secretary. Elizabeth Layton (Lilly James) is nervous and warned about numerous personal idiosyncrasies that Churchill has. It doesn’t take long before those pour forth as he chastises, yells and insults her causing her to run from the room. Before leaving she is handed a telegraph to deliver to him, the word that he has been offered the post of Prime Minister.

Churchill forms his cabinet and in an effort to please both parties selects both Chamberlain and Halifax to be a part of it. He then moves forward with his own view of what to do with the current invasion of all European states by Hitler: fight on to the bitter end. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Chamberlain, Halifax and their party who instead push the idea of peace.

As the movie progresses we’re presented with three stories running concurrently. The first is the political maneuverings among party lines. While Halifax may have turned down the opportunity to become PM it doesn’t mean he isn’t ambitious. By allowing Churchill to take the position he has room to move and perhaps form a contingency to remove Churchill from office and take his place, sowing seeds of discontent among his peers behind the scenes.

The second is the imminent battles being fought in France. Churchill continues to believe in the strength of the combined forces of the British and French armies. As those begin to crumble and the soldiers retreat he must then make the decision to find a way to rescue them or to capitulate to Hitler. The last location the troops can make is the seaside town of Dunkirk.

The third story here revolves around Churchill’s personal life. Scenes with his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), his family and those friends closest to him, few though there may be. His brash and bullying attitude has earned him no long list of allies. Even King George VI (Ben Mendelson) is wary of his being in this position. How Churchill can overcome his overbearing ways and save the country makes for one tremendously dramatic story.

The movie does a tremendous job of bringing both the man and history to life. Instead of boring newsreel footage that we’ve seen again and again we’re made privy to what went on in the back rooms and secluded war rooms of the British Empire. Knowing what we now know of the things Hitler and the Nazis did it seems inconceivable that the British military would even consider a peace agreement with them but they did. And the speech that Churchill presents near the very end of the film remains as stirring today as it was when it was delivered.

The entire movie relies on one major thing and that is the performance of Oldman as Churchill. Many actors have played this role. And with the right prosthetic makeup many would be able to look like the man. But it takes an enormous amount of skill to not just look like Churchill but to bring him to life. Oldman has done that here in the most amazing way. Every nuance in his abilities is used here to make the man come alive. Moments occur where the words are gone and he falls silent but the emotions, concerns and mindset of the man are on display by Oldman. He won the Oscar for Best Male Performance and deservedly so for his role here.

Earlier this year we were presented with the film DUNKIRK about what happened on those beaches that day. This movie would make a fantastic double feature with that film, using this one to set up what happened that day and the month prior. That’s all this movie focuses on, the month that it took for Churchill to take office, pull off Dunkirk and to inspire a nation. It does so looking glorious at the same time with cinematography, set design, costuming and makeup that make you feel as if you are there. You can’t pay a better compliment to a film than that.

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It looks like this year there are a number of great movies vying for the Oscar for best animated feature. Trying to choose just one is going to be a difficult task. Even more so when you see a film like COCO in the mix.

Years ago a musician in Mexico left behind his wife Imelda and their young daughter Coco to pursue his dreams of offering his music to the world. When he never returned his wife had to fend for herself becoming a shoemaker in their town. She passed her business on to her children along with the edict that no one would ever partake in or enjoy music in their family ever again.

Flash forward several generations to the present where young Miguel feels a passion for music in his soul. With no outlet he hides his talents, listening to the music of Ernesto de la Cruz and watching his old videos. Cruz was a national treasure, beloved by all, whose music is remembered to this day.

The annual Day of the Dead festival is fast approaching, a time when families gather together and honor their namesakes by placing pictures of them on the mantle surrounded by food and gifts when they return to look in on at their ancestors. Miguel is reminded of this by his grandmother, Coco's daughter, as she sets things in place with Coco sitting nearby, the oldest member of the family now.

In the hope of showing his family how wrong they've been about music Miguel decides to enter the local talent show during the festival. Before he can do so he is discovered and his guitar smashed to pieces. At the same time he finds the picture of Imelda was folded and it appears de la Cruz was his Grandfather. With no instrument he decides to borrow the guitar of de la Cruz displayed in his crypt. But on this magical night when the dead are allowed to look in on their families touching the guitar sends him to the Land of the Dead.

Miguel finds his family including Imelda. Still bitter she forbids him from pursuing music when she helps him return. Needing the blessing of a family member to return home, Miguel escapes Imelda and the rest, setting out to find de la Cruz with the help of Hector, someone who claims to know him. Their search reveals more than Miguel expected to learn as well as helping him to realize that family is indeed the most important thing there is. If only he can make it back to them.

Disney and Pixar have come up with a meaningful story that doesn't rely on a standard fairy tale, incorporating the traditions and history of a culture taken for granted many times. Most of us may not be aware of the traditions of the Day of the Dead or know only about it on a superficial level seeing the painted skulls on display in movies and TV. By using this as the background for the story here they're opening up to many for the first time the richness and importance of the holiday.

If the historical aspects themselves were not important enough the tale of the importance of family is one that should be heeded. In a world where young people toss aside their heritage and ignore the family structure in society this movie takes that concept and clings to it, showing that family is perhaps the most important thing there is in life. The support and love of family supersedes that of close friends, well intended politicians or anyone who feels they should be more important in your lives. In telling this story it shows the heart that is the center of a true family.

But the story isn't the only thing to enjoy here. The Disney tradition of mind boggling animation, in any format, is still on display. The sumptuous colors seen here will dazzle the eye and capture your imagination. Miguel's first glimpse into the world of the dead is fueled by a combination of deep blues and bright oranges mingling together to show the city lit in celebration.

When I first heard of this movie nothing piqued my interest. I'm delighted to report that even those unsure of whether to watch this film or not will find something to enjoy here. For me this is another great Disney movie to place on the shelf alongside the treasured classics of the past.

UPDATE: Since this review was written COCO has gone on to win the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song. Congratulations to the film makers behind this film, it was well deserved.

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If you consider yourself a movie fan but have yet to hear of the Criterion Collection turn in your movie fan card. I’ve touted the amazing things being offered in the past by companies like Twilight Time, Shot Factory, Olive and Arrow. Criterion was one of the first companies to bring forth full-fledged special editions of classic movies with numerous extras that make them worth tossing out the old version of a film in favor of theirs. If you need an example of why here is one.

Released in 1991, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was the second time that the character Dr. Hannibal Lecter appeared on screen having been seen just a short time in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER. But the performance of Anthony Hopkins in this version will forever be sealed in our minds as the perfect performance to associate with the character. But maybe you’re not familiar with the story.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is in training to become an FBI agent. Her desire is to work in the behavioral science department. She’s called to the office of Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) for a special assignment. They’re doing a survey of serial killers and he wants to send her to see Dr. Hannibal Lecter in prison in the hopes he will respond better to her than most and agree to answer the questionnaire.

Starling goes to visit Lecter at the facility he is imprisoned in for the criminally insane, first having to deal with the facility’s head Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) before being taken to the now iconic cell block that holds Lecter. Behind a Plexiglas wall she sees him for the first time and he converses with her. But Lecter is one to use psychiatric measures against those he confronts and the pair play a cat and mouse game until he finally agrees after a traumatic experience with the man in the cell next to his.

Crawford is actually working on a current case, another serial killer the press has called Buffalo Bob. His assignment to Starling was in reality a hope for clues that Lecter could provide. He takes Starling along with him on the case as they begin to investigate the latest victim. Each has been killed but held captive after several days and each has had portions of their skin removed. As Starling delves deeper into the case and her communications with Lecter, he begins to offer her clues to aid in finding the new killer. But at what cost? Her sanity? His freedom? Or is there something more going on here?

The film is one of those perfect movies that works on all levels. The direction of Jonathan Demme is some of the best ever committed to celluloid. He combines all of the pieces used to create a film that terrifies and fascinates at the same time. That combination of music, cinematography, acting, sets, costuming, stunts, makeup and more are all molded into a movie that you won’t forget after seeing it just once. Having the opportunity to watch it more than a single time just helps you to appreciate the effort and end results all the more.

The film was released in blu-ray format before in a collector’s edition by MGM so why bother picking up this version instead? That’s where Criterion shows what they do best. To start with the presentation of the film with a 4K digital restoration approved by director of photography Tak Fujimoto. The images on screen are the best you will find for this film. But the extras are not limited to that.

The audio commentary track from 1994 with director Demme, actors Foster and Hopkins, screenwriter Ted Tally and former FBI agent John Douglas (the actual agent Crawford was based on) is here. A new interview with film critic Maitland McDonagh focuses on both the film and a brief discussion about serial killers in reality and on film. There are 38 minutes of deleted scenes. If this wasn’t enough there are four documentaries that feature hours of interviews with the cast and crew. Then there is a behind the scenes featurette. The storyboards used for the film are on hand to view. The original trailer is here. And this new version includes a book featuring an introduction by Foster, an essay by critic Amy Taubin, articles written by Thomas Harris, the author of the book the film is based on, from 2000 and 2013 on the origins of Lecter and lastly an interview with director Demme. That’s an extensive amount of extras along with the best presentation of the film ever all brought together by Criterion.

While I’ve been aware of Criterion this is my first time viewing one of the versions they’ve put out. I’m glad to see that they live up to their reputation. As a matter of fact they have exceeded it. They not only put out versions of popular films such as this one they make it a goal to seek out classic films of the past as well as foreign films that might not have gotten the attention or been made readily accessible to movie fans around the world. It’s a tremendous and thankless job that they do. After my experience with this film let’s hope that they carry on with their goal and achieve it daily.

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MVD’s Rewind Collection is offering another release, this time the action adventure film BLACK EAGLE starring martial arts star Sho Kosugi in the lead role and a then unknown martial arts actor named Jean-Claude Van Damme as the bad guy’s henchman. Let me begin by saying that this series from MVD is great for those of us who not only ran video stores back in the day but frequented them as well. The slipcover for this release will bring back those memories complete with the “Be Kind Please Rewind” stick to the category sticker slight bent tearing off the cover itself.

When a US plane carrying a new laser tracking system is shot down over the Mediterranean the country can’t afford having it fall into the wrong hands. With some dastardly Russians led by Col. Vladimir Klimenko (Vladimir Skomarovsky) nearby the CIA needs to get an operative to Malta fast. Their second best man is already on his way but they need the best. They need code name Black Eagle.

Ken Tani (Kosugi) aka Black Eagle, is already in the middle of a mission but is pulled for this operation. He’s unwilling to go since his agreement calls for him to have these two weeks free to be with his sons Brian and Denny (Kosugi’s real life sons Kane and Shane). His handler Dean Rickert (William Bassett) has already prepared for this having had agent Patricia Parker (Doran Clark) pick the boys up and take them to Malta already. Tani agrees and heads there as well. In addition to Tani and Parker Father Joseph Bedelia (Bruce French), an ex-demolitions expert who once worked for Rickert but is now a priest in Malta, is recruited as well.

Tani arrives and with the help of Bedelia is able to find the sunken aircraft just as the Russian trawler pulls alongside their boat. Helping Col. Klimenko is his personal aide and bodyguard Andrei (Van Damme). Taking photos of Bedelia and Tani they feed them into their computer to find out who they really are. Now the race is on to recover the tracking system first.

Of course this will involve a face to face confrontation ala James Bond between combatants where they act civil to one another. That ends and with the gloves off they can now fight using any means necessary. And since the kids are there why not use them as bargaining chips?

When Tani and Bedelia go after them to rescue them from a seaside castle the bad guys are no match for Tani’s flying fists and swirling kicks. As Bedelia helps rescue the kids and Parker who was captured as well, Tani eventually faces off against Andrei. This is the fight we’ve been waiting for as martial arts fans. But the fight, while well done, is short lived with Tani leaping into the ocean to join his sons aboard Bedelia’s boat.

With no choice now but to see the mission through Tani sends his sons to safety. He meditates, puts on camouflage makeup and sets out to board the Russian ship to reclaim the stolen tracking system. And there is no doubt that confrontation between Tani and Andrei will finally take place.

I remember seeing the movie when it was first released on video actually having bought it for the store I owned. It was a decent movie then and actually holds up fairly well today. It may not be the greatest of action films but it delivers on all counts. There is story, combat skills, explosions and gunshots enough for any film. It’s well shot too and the locations are used to their full effect. Perhaps the weakest component here is the acting abilities of Kosugi’s sons, much of which is due to their age.

A second weakness is also a problem with the MVD release and that is no subtitles. Both Kosugi and Van Damme, having two distinctive and thick accents, are a bit hard to understand at various points in the film. This isn’t a poor reflection on either but it does make you miss some of the dialogue. Perhaps it was decided that the dialogue didn’t matter as much as the action. Still, they would have been nice.

As I said earlier the MVD Rewind Collection is showing to be one worth picking up. The transfer of film to disc is impressive and well done. And the extra included are some that will please fans of the old video stores. To start with included in the disc is a mini poster for the movie, about the size of those used to decorate the counters at many stores years ago. The extras on the disc are enjoyable as well starting with the option of watching the theatrical cut or an extended version with over 11 minutes’ worth of extra footage. In addition to that option there is SHO KOSUGI: MARTIAL ARTS LEGEND a featurette with interviews of both Sho and Shane Kosugi, THE MAKING OF BLACK EAGLE with 2017 interviews with Kosugi, Clark, Shane, Dororta Puzio, director/producer Eric Karson and screenwriter Michael Gonzalez, TALES OF JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME featuring the cast and crew discussing the then unknown who went on to bigger films, THE SCRIPT AND THE SCREENWRITERS featuring both Karson and Gonzales, deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer.

It’s not only a solid movie that can be enjoyed but the extras are entertaining as well. And for fans of video stores you’ll enjoy being able to find yet another of those movies that at one time could only be discovered by making a trip to your local mom and pop store. The memories generated by this release are enough alone to make it one worth picking up.