Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Director Joe Wright does his damnedest to pump up Darkest Hour with tricky visuals and little jolts of energy, but the stodginess of this drama is finally overwhelming. The film depicts the early tenure of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as British Prime Minister, with particular attention to how he bucked political pressure when his nation’s soldiers were stranded at Dunkirk, trying to bring them home without engaging in peace talks with Nazi Germany. Oldman is fine as Churchill, though I feel he sometimes lets the makeup do the heavy lifting on the performance. More problematically, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten trudges along as a dull history lesson dressed up with rudimentary narrative trappings, like the plucky newcomer (Lily James) who serves as a sort or audience surrogate and the wry wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s wistfully supportive at just the right time. Churchill is a towering figure in world history. Darkest Hour suggests he might be too big for the screen.
The House (Andrew Jay Cohen, 2017). The premise of this comedy is woefully thin, and Andrew Jay Cohen shows little concept of how to effectively pump it up. A middle class couple (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) are blindsided by the cancellation of a scholarship they were counting on to send their daughter (Ryan Simpkins) to a pricey private college. They land on a scheme, cooked up by an emotionally reeling friend (Jason Mantzoukas) to open an underground casino in their idyllic suburban neighborhood. Besides the inevitable appearance of comically threatening gangsters, that’s really about it. There are ringers throughout the cast, but no one can really make a joke land, a flaw that is probably less on them than on Cohen’s wobbly directing. As co-writer of the recent Neighbors comedies, Cohen evidenced at least a little interest in slipping actual ideas amidst the scatalogical banter. There’s none of that here, leaving just a joyless romp.
Dear Heart (Delbert Mann, 1964). Geraldine Page plays Evie Jackson, a small town woman who journeys to New York City for a postmasters convention. As conceived by writer Tad Mosel (who adapted his own short story for the screen), Evie is a vivid crafter of flattering fictions about herself. In many stories, that quality would intertwine fingers with a pitiable neediness, but that’s not quite the case here. There’s fortitude to Evie, too, and Page prospers in exploring the character’s layers. Mann also offers witty, withering portrayals of the default gruffness of New Yorkers and the unfettered social debauchery of the civil servants away at their annual boondoggle, all of which Mann depicts with a keen eye for detail. The plot sags a bit in the third act as it skews towards the conventional in Evie’s budding relationship with a greeting card salesman (Glenn Ford, out of his depth against the sparkling inventiveness of Page), but overall Dear Heart is steely and cunning.