One Day I Hope To Pay For This Movie With a $20 Bill With Her Face On It: Harriet

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Harriet is the first film about the famous underground railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Harriet will finally break ground on an overdue story. While this would usually give the film an edge, it has been plagued with various criticisms since its announcement, which has hampered public excitement. I think several of the critiques are understandable and worth considering, and I would recommend reading responses by black critics for more insight. However, for this review, there wasn’t any criticism that I agreed with that pertains to the film directly. 

Harriet is, in many ways, a by-the-numbers biopic. Sometimes Oscar-bait speeches and historical reverence threaten to bring it down. However, those moments never bring down the film too much. There are a couple of reasons why I think Harriet is able to rise above being a subpar biopic into a great film.

  1. There simply aren’t a lot of biopics of black women.
  2. There is a strong emphasis on family, and it’s genuinely touching to see Harriet’s family play such a key role here. It helps humanize her and balance out the more superhero-esque feel the movie tries to go for. 
  3. Harriet’s Christian faith is leaned into. There are moments of this film that remind me of Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Harriet is not nearly as stylized or flat-out weird as that film (although explicit connects between Harriet and Joan of Arc are made) but it does take Harriet’s religion seriously. One of the reasons I love The Messenger is because when I saw it, I realized it was the first time I had seen a movie focus on, and take seriously, a woman’s religious faith. 
  4. There are several stylistic choices (including the depictions of her visions) that elevate the film and make it feel worthy of the big screen. 
  5. The whole cast is wonderful. Lesley Odom Jr. and Janelle Monae are excellent and charismatic, and director Kasi Lemmon’s son Henry Hunter Hall, in particular, is a surprise. He has a cool “look” and is a scene-stealer. Joe Alwyn is fine as the (mostly fictitious) son of Harriet’s owner. In all honesty, though, I spent most of his screen time thinking about how strange it is that he’s dating Taylor Swift, and that his southern accent is pretty good for a Brit
  6. And speaking of Brits, Cynthia Erivo is our titular hero, and she’s incredible. There are two aspects to her performance that stuck out in particular. First is Erivo’s acting in the scenes where Harriet arrives in Philadelphia and has to learn how to be free. I had never considered this- acting free after a lifetime of enslavement- as a difficulty freed African Americans had to face, but Erivo is able to wordlessly communicate Harriet navigating through this new world through observation and imitation of those around her. And second, Erivo conveys a deep inner life of Harriet that we aren’t privy to. I always felt like Harriet, no matter how quiet she was being, had an incredibly complex mind and a thousand thoughts going at any given moment. 

Harriet is American History, biopic, slavery, and feminist storytelling 101. It’s a primer that will hopefully be an access point for many people. I don’t mean this to be derogatory in the least; this means I want another movie about Harriet Tubman, and other movies about all sorts of black women and other heroes (or villains) of history. 

After all, Harriet Tubman’s last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.” It seems in that spirit that Harriet will hopefully help prepare a place for even more stories like it, stories that can go even further, higher, and deeper. 

Double Feature: Dora and the Lost City of Gold + Blinded By the Light

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

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The main issue with the new live-action Dora film is that it has an identity crisis: is it a movie version of the show, or is it a meta-commentary of the show, updated for an older audience? 

The film chooses to do both, to its detriment. There will be scenes where characters say something like, “Silly Dora, maps don’t talk,” or will make fun of Dora for speaking to the audience. But in the next scene, Boots the Monkey will talk, or something else magical will happen. Making fun of the central concept of the show is disrespectful because it not only insults its audience but also because the show is very good at what it does and is quality children’s entertainment. The movie ends up aiming young, so the meta-commentary isn’t even clever enough for fourteen-year-old edgelords. So if it’s not for older audiences, and it’s disrespectful to the young kids who watch the show, who is it for? The film never answers this question. 

But on the positive side, Isabela Moner is charming as Dora, taking the role seriously but with a twinkle in her eye, and is able to sell most of the antics and jokes. Michael Pena and Eva Longoria are lovely as her parents, and I found it refreshing to have two (living) parents who are shown to be deeply loving and respected, and even when they need to be saved by Dora, they are never made the butt of the joke. 

The entire Latinx cast is game and most are good, although sometimes they struggle with nailing the inconsistent tone. Jeff Wahlberg as Diego is the weakest link, and because there are too many characters, his traits are made nearly interchangeable with the other classmates on Dora’s trip, and a bafflingly unnecessary and dull “romance” doesn’t do him any favors. 

There were times I was a little bored, which made the hour and a half feel like two, but the young girl next to me was loving it. When Dora asks the audience in a fourth-wall break, “can you say neurotoxicity?” the girl very solemnly said out loud, “I can’t say that.” That was enough to charm me, and this movie is almost as charming. 

 

Blinded By the Light

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Blinded By the Light’s trailers do this film a great disservice. Whether you’ve seen the trailer a couple dozen times like my family has, or just once, the impression you’re likely given is, “It’s a feel good movie.” And while that isn’t bad within itself, the feel-good genre is predictable and can be a little stale, and a Pakistani boy from Thatcher’s Britain realizing his artistic dreams because of Bruce Springsteen had plenty of opportunities to be that. 

But Blinded By the Light, directed by Bend It Like Beckham’s Gurinder Chadha and based on the book by Sarfraz Manzoor, is not that. Yes, it may make you feel good, but it’s got some other things to say. For one thing, while it’s certainly in-love with Bruce Springsteen, it’s much more of a love letter to any pop culture that we use to communicate to others. We’ve all been in a place where we are able to relate to someone simply through our shared interests. When we aren’t able to say something straight, we may say it in the language of our favorite movie or musician or book, and usually we do that because that piece of media spoke deeply to us first. 

The film also has something more thoughtful to say about following your dreams them, “screw your family and do it.” It, like The Farewell, wrestles with the complications that come with being at the crossroads of collective vs individualist cultures, and reveals truths about both. Then it interprets Springsteen’s work into something universal and complex enough to speak to both cultures. 

Something not touched upon in the trailers that is present in the movie is the racism faced by the Pakistani characters. This racism was true of the time period but also looks a lot like racism around the world today. Further, Blinded By the Light, albeit very loosely, questions what it is like to be a person in an oppressed minority group who uses pop culture to escape the daily pressures of such oppression, yet that exact pop culture is made by someone from the dominant group that oppresses you. However, despite all of the difficulties endured by the characters in this film, it also has moments of uplifting hope and humor and whimsy that reminds us of the holistic lives of the characters.

I walked away from Blinded By the Light with an appreciation for The Boss, a Springsteen in my step, and something to think about.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost, But This Movie Is: Tolkien

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Tolkien is a new biopic about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Biopics are hard to do because they usually go one of two ways. The first is where they become about the lead actor trying to imitate a famous figure and thus they simplify and whitewash history so that the story can be inspirational. The second way is where the biopic is a reinvention of a personality that tries to imply certain things about the person, which also whitewashes and simplifies history, and makes the person an icon of a specific cause or identity. It is very hard to tell the story of a person that doesn’t play only into what people want that person to mean to them.

So, what about Tolkien? Tolkien the man (played here by Nicholas Hoult) isn’t a particularly well-known individual. His work lives on but, outside of academic circles, his life doesn’t have much influence on the common perception of his work. What is the purpose of telling his story?

During the film, one of Tolkien’s professors tells him, “People take a certain comfort in the past.” This is, unfortunately, the unintentional thesis of this biopic (and to be fair, of most biopics). Between all of the scenes of twentieth-century British boyhood, from dead mothers to boarding schools to uptight fathers to drinking tea with the chaps, gallivanting around the pastures, and reading old books under the guidance of professors, the antiquated anglophilia of the movie fails to do much beside remind me of better movies, particularly Dead Poet’s Society and The Imitation Game. The stories of men like Tolkien have been told many times before. That doesn’t mean Tolkien’s life is irrelevant by any means- he was a real person- but it means the film has to work harder to tell his story in a creative fashion, which it does not do. Therefore I feel like I’m watching a remix of other films, rather than a story personal to one man.

To its credit, Tolkien isn’t concerned with making everything in Tolkien’s life have a direct 1-1 correspondence to something from his books (unlike, say, 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas). While there are some brief direct allusions to his work (“it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring”), overall the film is more interested in creating an atmosphere where Tolkien could find his stories.

The problem with building this atmosphere, however, is that the movie wants to focus on Tolkien’s fellowship with his friends, yet the movie spans half of his life. This means there are long portions without his friends, and since the movie is much less interested in showing how those parts of his life influenced his work, those scenes feel like filler and lack any interest or urgency that the friendship scenes have. This is worsened by the fact that each section of his life is shown as utterly independent from the other. Take, for example, his relationship with his wife Edith (Lily Collins). Except for one scene where she meets his friends, the groups are kept completely separate. The “fellowship” part of his life, which ends up being the heart and theme of the movie, is established with these mates and is never connected to Edith, who from her first appearance is framed not as a friend but solely as a love interest.

And that’s fine, but it means the film, which is more interested in how fellowship influenced Tolkien’s works than how romance did, could have omitted all of Edith’s part and very little harm would have been done. This is not only poor storytelling but is a truly missed opportunity to explore how Edith became the inspiration for all of Tolkien’s iconic female characters.

This is only part of Tolkien’s focus problem. The movie has a framing device where Tolkien is in WWI going to the front lines to find his friend. He passes out and has rapid-fire flashbacks through his childhood, mother’s death, boarding school years, and courtship with Edith. The pace slows down significantly to show his college years, before jumping back to the war scenes and the framing device. He finishes out his mission, and suddenly the movie is back in chronological order with no flashbacks as we finish out on him as a family man, which means we miss out on other things about Tolkien, like his Catholicism, friendship with C.S Lewis, and his other group of artistic friends, The Inklings. If the movie was truly going to be about friendship, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the timeframe of the film start with Tolkien’s school friends, their war experiences, and then Tolkien recovering from the trauma of war and losing some of his friends by creating The Inklings? I guess that would make too much thematic sense.

The focus problems come with a pacing problem, which is a result of a screenplay that makes confounding choices on which scenes should be brief and which ones should be long. Most of Tolkien’s childhood flashback scenes are annoyingly brief, which means none of the relationships get to marinate and build. Meanwhile, there are several very long scenes, but these scenes are mostly of Tolkien talking about other people, which confuses us on who this movie is about. Hoult’s (and his eyebrows’) performance is competent, but he is so easily overshadowed by the other actors that it is disappointing to remember that he is the lead. I’ve seen good movies about quiet introverts (2017’s Paterson) and mediocre/boring ones (2016’s Loving). It’s possible to have charisma and still be a soft-spoken, introspective type, but Hoult and this movie just simply aren’t up to the task.

If you want to make a theatrical release, especially now in the age of streaming, there is a degree to which you have to justify your movie being in a theater. People only have so much time and money to spend at the movies, and so it has to be a movie worth seeing on a big screen. Tolkien never justifies itself in being a big-screen movie. Frankly, I don’t think it justifies itself being a movie. It simply doesn’t have enough insight into Tolkien and what makes his work still so beloved and relevant.

So what is the purpose of telling Tolkien’s story? I think it is to make me wish I had spent my time rewatching The Fellowship of the Rings instead.

-Madeleine D.

Satire and Catharsis: BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman is the true(ish) story of Ron Stallworth (a fantastic John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s, who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. He talks to the “organization” members (and even David Duke) on the phone, while fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (an excellently understated Adam Driver) goes in person to the meetings. This Spike Lee Joint is a little too long (clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes) but is entertaining and is an odyssey of different genres, moods, and political and social discussions.

BlacKkKlansman has a satiric undercurrent that, I’d argue, is not fully effective. The Klan members in the film here are not simply mocked for their supremacist ideologies. They are also mocked for things like being uneducated, southern, gun-loving, and fat. Things that, while they may describe some Klan members, are not directly tied to being racist. Making the KKK members caricatured and so removed from what we would like to think of ourselves (along with making the heroes more typical of Hollywood standard of beauty), removes white audiences from thinking too hard about whether they have anything in common with these Klan members. Instead, you can sit back and think, “Of course I’m not like that. I’m not racist. I’m not like them.”

This is why Jordan Peele’s Get Out was so effective- it asserted that white liberals can be racist (Peele produces here). It uses the language of white people assured of their innocence against them. BlacKkKlansman does not challenge in the same way.

Saying someone is racist or not needs to stop, because that halts productive conversation on race. Anyone is capable of saying racist things, and when a white person is told they are being racist, the response should not be, “I’m not racist so I can’t say racist things.” It should be, “What did I do and how can I stop?” Being so binary is unproductive, and yet it is what this movie deals in (there are some exceptions, like the character of Flip, but it is the overarching tone of the film).

But BlacKkKlansman does not just contain satire; it also contains catharsis. Ron gets the last laugh. He throws his arms around David Duke and mocks him. There are moments throughout the film that are meant to not only say, “we will overcome” to black audiences, but relieve anxious white audience members. Catharsis is a good thing, and film is an excellent medium to provide it.  But pairing it with satire is tricky, because satire is supposed to provoke conversation, and catharsis is about ending it, in a way that relieves the pressure of such a conversation and/or oppression to a person or group of people.

There is also the question of who this movie is intended for. It draws a direct comparison between the KKK and Donald Trump.

I am not opposed to politics in film. If you are, don’t see a Spike Lee film about the KKK. But by doing this in an overt way, the film makes less sense in who its intended audience is. The movie sure isn’t going to be watched by a KKK member, unless the trailer really confused them. It will make Trump supporters feel like they are being accused of being aligned with the KKK. It will make a white audience who are assured of their enlightenment feel smug. And I doubt black Americans need a reminder of how white supremacy and the ideals of the KKK, as shown in events like Charlottesville, are so prevalent today.

Making fun of the KKK could be an effective way to strip them of power, but doing it so that what is being made fun of includes attributes unrelated to the psychology of their hate is not effective satire. It may be cathartic, but it does not do what needs to be done, which is have people recognize these attributes in themselves. The more white audiences realize how they believe (whether they mean to or not) in aspects of KKK ideology, and how those ideologies are the foundation of America itself, the more an honest healing process can begin.

But here I have to admit my own prejudice. I’m white. I can talk about wanting nuance and complexity, because while I despise white supremacy and the KKK, I am not directly affected by it. I have never been on the receiving end of such violent, oppressive hate. So I will never be able to empathize fully. I will never be as angry as every black person in America has the right to be.

So while this wasn’t the movie I want, and I still think there are problems, this is Spike Lee’s movie. And he can be as angry as he wants, and can make a movie where the good guys win, black Americans have a victory, and he can call out President Trump as he likes. This movie is his prayer of lament. Of anger. Of despair. Of hope. So in that regard, I think others will find great comfort in this film, and if you watch it with discerning eyes, it should make you uncomfortable. Not just with others, but with yourself.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

There is one more thing I must add. The best part of the film, and one of the best scenes of the year, answers the question most white people have probably asked at some point: “why can black people say ‘black power’ but I can’t say ‘white power?’” Near the climax of the film, Lee cuts back and forth between a meeting of the KKK, and a black power meeting. The KKK is about looking backward, mythologizing and endorsing the violence of the past, and glorifying white-led oppression. It’s about securing lies about the white race. The black power meeting is about remembering the truth, and learning how to move forward. One is about honesty, the other is not. And Lee does challenge some of the black power movement’s more radical ideas, but in this case, it is clear that white power and black power do not share the same meaning, just for different races. The ability to say this, without words, through the narrative of the movie, is one of the best uses of cinema I have seen.

-Madeleine D

I Would Probably Invest in a Ponzi Scheme If Jack Black Sang To Me: The Polka King

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Netflix’s new movie The Polka King is a biopic of the real life Polka King of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewan. In 2004 he was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme to finance his various polka enterprises. The film is based off the documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King and notes the real Jan Lewan wrote about his life while in jail.

I knew this movie was about this scheme before I went in. The trailers and film summary tell you the movie is going to be about the scheme. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film I realized, with a start, Hold on, Lewan is scheming people out of their money!

Why did it take me so long to realize the film was portraying Lewan’s Ponzi scheme, when I knew that was what the film was about? How was I so surprised by what I knew before I pushed play?

What I saw while watching was a kind, hard-working family man who was just so… so genuine. Sure, part of it was that he was played by Jack Black, but his dreams and unabashed hope for America and love for his family and unyielding work ethic made me forget that what he was doing was technically illegal. People were giving him the money willingly! He was giving people generous interest on their money (at least for a while). What’s so wrong with that?

So in a way, Jan Lewan, and The Polka King, schemed me. I was duped in a film about people being duped. So what you should take away from this is that if Lewan asked me to invest with him, I probably would. I would be a tremendous sucker. Please don’t call me up for (my little bit of babysitting) money. But that also means, at least to this particular viewer, that the film not only pulled me in and made me sympathetic for the criminal protagonist, but also made me into one of the characters. It put me in the place of the investor who fell for his charm and earnestness.  

Now the film doesn’t get high marks exactly for how they make Lewan likeable. Patriotism, love for family, hard working, lovable goofiness, and an accent is the easiest and most black and white way to make a protagonist likeable. But the film does get high marks for using this as a way to make the morality of the situation grey. How can such a good man get punished so harshly? Should he even be imprisoned- did he really understand what he was doing? But he did, and now I’m angry that I’m defending him.

Ultimately, the film is able to stay pretty unbiased towards the material. It presents Lewan as a well-intentioned man who did wrong, which is how he was described in real life. The audience is the one that is left frustrated on how to respond.

Jack Black grounds the film with his Lewan being a wily, whimsical man with dreams and a dark ambition. He does most of the heavy lifting as his supporting cast get to ramble free with their own kooky stories. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch, but are really there just to give stakes to the greater story. Their individual side plots do not have any thematic resonance on their own. Most of their contributions are true though, and the entire film is fairly accurate, which just goes to show how finding the right story is all you need for a compelling real-life movie. This movie is the true The Greatest Showman.

However, it’s the job of a film, a piece of art, to take a real-life story and find the thematic, universal message within it, and the failure of The Polka King to tie everything together and make each thread of the movie count, not just let it be filler distraction, makes it a weaker film.

This is director Maya Forbes’ second feature film, her directorial debut being 2015’s incredible Infinitely Polar Bear, a tender semi-autobiographical story about her own childhood. The Polka King is a less precise film, maybe because it is more of a comedy and doesn’t have Forbe’s own life and personal stakes in it. With a little more care, every scene and storyline in Polka King could have hit home perfectly. With a little more thought, the film could have relied less on Jack Black to pull the storylines of the other characters into his own.

That being said, The Polka King is a satisfying, whimsical real-life fable and cautionary tale that tells a story too crazy to be true. Just be warned- you might find yourself sympathizing with someone who would try to take all your money. Bleeding hearts (and get-rich-quick suckers) be warned.

-Madeleine D

Drama In Front Of and Behind the Camera: All the Money in the World

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“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

J. Paul Getty was not just the richest man who walked the earth in 1973, he was one of the richest man who had ever walked it. He found oil in Saudi Arabia and was an infamous penny pincher. He achieved the success we all dream of in one way or another.

But Getty, no matter how smart or savvy or wary he was, lacked the humanity we all hope we have. On July 10th of 1973, Getty’s grandson, Paul Getty Jr., was kidnapped in Rome by Italian gangsters. They asked for $17 million as ransom. Getty refused, and in the end, only paid $2 million, because that was what he could get as a tax credit.

It makes you wonder, was it the money that turned Getty Sr. into stone? Or was it in him all along? Or do you have to stay asleep to some things to keep the American dream? To believe it’s worth it?

With Getty Sr.  as an immovable force, it’s up to Getty Jr.’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to fight for her son’s life, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to help negotiate Getty Jr.’s release. As they suffer loss after loss, with Getty Jr. slipping from their grip, they’ll wake up to some realities of their own.

To me, All the Money in the World  is as intense as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. While Dunkirk relies on the cold hand of time, All the Money in the World relies on the anticipation that something is going to happen, I was just not sure what. This might be because I didn’t know anything about the Getty story going in. I’m sure it will be different for everyone, but for me, watching a boy my age being kidnapped, tortured, with my own mother sitting beside me, watching the mother on screen do everything in her power, well, it got to me. I even nearly threw up during one scene (you’ll know it when you see it), and I had my eyes closed. The film leaves every scene with a cliffhanger, keeping the audience as frustrated as the characters, pulling us along and then making us lose hope over and over again, until the final scene where we can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s the kind of engrossing experience that only film can provide.

Christopher Plummer has been getting all the publicity for replacing Kevin Spacey mere weeks before the film’s release date, but this truly is an ensemble film. Plummer, though, does deserve all the credit he is getting. He makes nuance out of a role that would have just been stitched together with thematic lines. His and director Ridley Scott’s professionalism and talent are the real takeaway from the reshoots.

Michelle Williams gives a nomination-worthy performance as Abigail Getty Harris. She infuses grit and determination into the character, and she rejects every normal “hysterical mother” trope given to her, holding the screen in a fierce grip that puts her among the best female performances of the year.

Mark Wahlberg makes no impression here. I suppose his character is necessary, but… you know. Meh Wahlberg. Not a performance that, I dare say, is worth eight times more than Michelle Williams’. (http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/michelle-williams-paid-8-times-less-than-mark-wahlberg-for-all-the-money-in-the-world.html).

On the other side of the story, Romain Duris as Cinquanta, aka, “the nice kidnapper,” is incredibly charismatic and gives a tender performance. He and Charlie Plummer have the chemistry it takes to make the scenes of Paul’s imprisonment more compelling than they are written to be, and it’s a shame he is being overlooked in coverage of the film.

I like to say that a movie needs to justify its existence. Why is it a film I should spend money and time on? Particularly for live-action dramas.For example, I didn’t think last year’s Loving or this year’s Darkest Hour elevated their respective material to a cinematic level. Both of those films were high quality, but I didn’t gain something from watching them I couldn’t have gained from reading a Wikipedia article about their subjects.

All the Money in the World gives the audience multiple reasons for why it is a movie. The film is thrilling, and the adrenaline from watching it is not something you’ll get from a detached experience of reading it. And the film, no matter how bluntly, tries to say something about wealth, and create themes out of the historical events. Most of the time, it succeeds. And it’s an exciting ride nevertheless. It kept me engaged and left me with things to think about.

Ironically enough, a film that explores the selfishness and corruption of Paul Getty Sr., and his refusal to awaken to his family’s needs, has been a film that through behind-the-scenes drama has been a part of Hollywood’s own awakening to its corruption. Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations were punished, and the revelations about the pay disparity between Williams and Wahlberg have pushed home the persistent gender pay gap. Let’s just hope Hollywood, unlike Getty, doesn’t try to fix things cheaply.

-Madeleine D

V for Victory: Darkest Hours

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“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” – Winston Churchill, speech given to the House of Commons, June 4th, 1940.

Great speech, huh? One of the best the world has ever heard. While you may assume you know about Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England during WWII, the man who guided the country through its “darkest hours,” Director Joe Wright and actor Gary Oldman want to take you through the first month of his term and try to reveal more about the man.

When I review a movie, I try to either put aside or state my personal preferences. There is no true objectivity in art, and so I try to judge both the technical achievement of a film and the thematic.

So, before I give my verdict on Darkest Hour, I should say that I have seen two other WWII films this year in Dunkirk and Their Finest. And within the last six months I have watched multiple WWI and WWII films (Empire of the Sun, The Wind Rises, Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Lawrence of Arabia, Wonder Woman, Sophie’s Choice) and frankly, I’m just tuckered out. Also, British period dramas are not my cup of tea. Sorry. I can appreciate them, but there are only so many I can take. I would not make a good Academy member.

So Darkest Hour to me felt much longer than two hours. I was alert and engaged, but I was also not opposed to an abrupt exit.

Part of the reason is that I think films, to some degree, need to validate why they are films. If you are going to ask someone to pay money to see your film in a theater, there needs to be a compelling reason why. Darkest Hour is a lead-up to one of the most famous speeches in the world. That’s great, but besides “come see Gary Oldman’s great performance,” there isn’t anything here that I either haven’t experienced before, seen before, or could not have found out from a Wikipedia skim.

Moreso, 2017 has been a year characterized by out-of-the-box filmmaking. There have been the Justice Leagues and The Circle’s of course, but there have also been the Get Outs, Wonder Womans, Okjas and Logans and Lady Birds. Films that, even if they are not technically perfect, are ambitious and different. Films that spotlight new voices and talent.

Darkest Hours is classical. That’s not at all a bad thing. It is top-quality filmmaking. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) makes each frame of the film mean something. Whether it is framing Churchill alone in a claustrophobic space as he tries to make a decision, or showing the ‘God’s eye view’ of the battlefield, nothing is wasted or unintentional. The script is tight. The score is haunting. All of the actors do a fine job, with Gary Oldman completely disappearing into his role. His makeup and prosthetics aren’t obvious or distracting. The entire film ticks like an intricate machine, and hits every beat.

I think, though, what makes filmmaking such a powerful medium, what keeps it culturally relevant, are the messy films that have something to say and push our expectations. My tastes are leaning towards those films, and they stay with me longer.

If you want to see a fantastic lead performance, and if you love history and admire perfect filmmaking, see Darkest Hour. Appreciate it. But I don’t think that if you miss it, you’ll be missing out on one of the best films of the year.

-Madeleine D