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My Top 60 films - No 4: ' Darkest Hour' (2017)

Darkest Hour (2017) remains one of my favourite movies especially of very recent years and forms a trio of films that have British nationality and BREXIT as its backdrop.

Following the BREXIT vote in 2016 there were a succession of films such as Darkest Hour, Their Finest (2016) and of course Dunkirk (2017) which were all about the same extraordinary critical event in world history – that of the fall of France in 1940, where Europe had fallen, America had isolated itself (‘America First’) and it was Britain alone: does that remind you of anything? They were also incredibly successful as between them they accumulated over $750m of box office takings, so they struck an emotional chord amongst the cinema going public both in the UK and also in the USA.

Darkest Hour though is probably the better of the three although I am fond of them all. It was partly based on the memoir Mr Churchill’s Secretary, written by Elizabeth Leyton who was Winston Churchill’s personal secretary from 1941 to 1945 and tells the story of when Churchill becomes Prime Minister in 1940 and how he had to deal with the greatest threat we faced, that of Nazi Germany.

Gary Oldman of course plays Churchill for which he rightly won the Oscar as Best Actor- and as the great man he totally inhabits the role, thanks in part to the tremendous make up and visual effects team of Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick (also Oscar winners for the film), but also getting the balance right of a character who was vivid to say the least.

Lily James –before she played Meryl Streep’s younger self in Mamma Mia! – Here We Go Again (2018) – plays Layton who is initially scared of Churchill, but who becomes very proficient and soon becomes a confidante of the man. James is very good as the vulnerable secretary and through her we learn about Churchill and the stresses that he was working under. The film does not flinch from the conflicts that Churchill had with people and institutions. His relationship with King George VI is not an easy one because of Churchill’s previous support for Edward VIII during the Abdication, and politicians in his own cabinet distrust him for everything from his defection to the Liberal Party to how he performed when he was in the Admiralty.

But the film has a good heart. Oldman and Adams play off each other really well and there are some light moments as when she tells him that “where she comes from” (i.e. the working class), his two fingered salute means something totally different.

Criticism of Darkest Hour usually revolves around the scene towards the end of the movie where Churchill takes a tube to Westminster and gets involved in a discussion with working people about what he should do – should he continue the fight against the Nazi’s or sue for peace. Now although some critics struggle with this scene, I actually think it is the film’s emotional high point. Whether it happened or not in reality is not that important – it is more symbolic as you needed a way to highlight what the mood of the nation was at that time. And Joe and Jane Public give it to him straight!

So, I really rate Darkest Hour , apart from Churchill and the British nation, it was also Gary Oldman’s ‘finest hour’ and it’s not a bad history lesson either.

My Top 60 : No 3. Silent Movie (1976)

I can’t have a Top 60 without something from Melvin Kaminsky – or the great Mel Brooks in other words. In fact Silent Movie (1976) is one of no less than 5 of his films that I have chosen and all were made consecutively. Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977) and lastly History of the World Part I (1981). Now that is because I am a Mel Brooks man rather than say a Woody Allen one- fun is nearly always more important to me than the intellect.

But like all of Mel Brooks’ films, there is a serious side to Silent Movie. He was ‘hot’ after the successes of Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein – they had earned for Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox in excess of $200m, that was a huge figure when you consider that the combined budgets of the two parodies was just $5m. However, Brooks has always been interested in the health of Hollywood and the movie industry, and in Silent Movie he was able to pastiche not just the era of silent films but also the tendency for large faceless conglomerates to take over American Film Studios and to pack it with ‘yes men’.

So, Silent Movie starts with Mel Funn (Brooks himself of course) who is a great film director recovering from his drinking problem, who with his sidekicks Dom Bell  and Marty Eggs ( played by Brooks’ stalwarts Dom de Luise and Marty Feldman) pitch a script for his new film- which is for the first silent picture in 40 years. Now the joke is that Silent Movie is itself silent with just music, subtitles and only one word of dialogue actually spoken throughout –and that is from Marcel Marceau the mime artist who says “Non” (they want him in their planned silent movie).

The film studio rejects Brooks’ idea as it is due to be sold to ‘Engulf & Devour’ a thinly disguised play on the real life Gulf & Western Industries who brought Paramount Pictures but Mel Funn convinces the studio chief (Sid Caesar) to finance it if he can get Hollywood’s biggest stars to appear in it.

So, our intrepid threesome goes out to bag the biggest stars at that time and that is where the real fun begins. They get Burt Reynolds (who gets surprised in the shower), James Caan, Lizi Minnelli, Paul Newman and also a certain Anne Bancroft (Mrs Mel Brooks).

There are a few more twists and turns on the way but it is a riotous 86 minutes of joy. It is very funny as well as a fine commentary to what was happening to Hollywood at that time, and is still going on. But it is a fun film in the sense that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and the world seems a happier place when watching it. Brooks knows his film history and harks back to the days of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd with some great slapstick routines. As you would expect from Mel Brooks, the comedy is broad and sometimes crude but still very funny with it.

It is also a very gutsy film because Mel Brooks had previously made Young Frankenstein in black and white and now a silent movie which was unheard of until the relatively recently The Artist (2011), but it paid off and although it rarely gets shown these days it is an absolute treat.

Armchair Theatre - Brown Skin Gal, Stay Home and Mind Bay-Bee (1971)

The Excellent Talking Pictures TV has hit gold again with the broadcasting each Sunday of Armchair Theatre which originally ran from 1956 to 1974. It was the brainchild of ex Dr Who legend Sydney Newman who wanted to change British drama from the ‘anyone for tennis?’ upper middle class sort of play to subjects that working class people were having to address, so it was more Angry Young Men. Thames TV took over production of the series from 1968 until it ended 6 years later.

I think it fair to say that the quality of the episodes do vary but the series was responsible for blooding a new generation of writing and acting talent in these isles, including such people as Colin Welland (Chariots of Fire), Harold Pinter ( The Caretaker) and Phillip Saville (Boys from the Blackstuff).

The most recent episode (10th February) was the first class Brown Skin Gal, Stay Home and Mind Bay-Bee (1971). The title -taken from the Harry Belafonte calypso folk song- stars the always excellent Billie Whitelaw who is riveting as Ruth, a bored and sexually frustrated psychologist abandoned by her husband and with a young daughter to care for. Her life appears listless and without excitement as it consists of coffee with her girlfriends (fellow suburbanites (Anna Cropper and Ann Firbank), reading Henry Miller sex opuses and tanning herself in her garden.

Her life though gets disrupted when she rents out her basement to Irish manual worker Roger (Donal McCann) and over a period of days and weeks the two of them get the hots for each other. Ruth imagines making love to him whilst he fantasies about them getting married. Her girlfriends joke about her having fun with Roger the Lodger whilst his friend (Mark Kingston) encourages him to “get in there!” (it is the 1970’s after all!).

However both are too frozen by their social mores to get close to doing something to get together and both back out and are ultimately frustrated. To be honest, I think Billie Whitelaw’s character would have eaten poor old Roger alive but both characters are desperately lonely and end up as they started – frustrated and unhappy.

The play though is very well scripted by Robert Hollies who is perhaps best known for the film based on his book about the fight over a newly created African state at the end of the British Empire Guns at Batasi (1964) and had previously served (and was then kicked out of) the Gloucester Regiment for his portrayal of Army life. He creates and sustains the tension needed between Ruth and Rodger but it is Billie Whitelaw who keeps you watching. This is not the Billie Whitelaw as the demonic nanny in The Omen (1976) or the pursuing widow in Payroll  (1962) also on Talking Pictures TV, but as a luminous divorcee bored out of her head and wanting adventure, lust, romance and companionship back in her life again.

Certainly well worth a watch.

My Top 60 -No 2: You Light Up My Life (1977)

 

I first saw You Light Up My Life on its release in 1978 and it was regarded as a ‘little’ film and something of a ‘sleeper’, in that it had no major stars in it, its production budget was not huge and you might think that it didn’t have a lot going for it. However it made 40 times its budget, it won an Oscar and Grammy for its title song which when re-recorded by Debby Boone became No1 in the US Charts for almost three months.

The writer, composer and director of You Light Up My Life was one Joseph Brooks. He first came to attention as a hugely successful writer of advertising jingles in the US until he started scoring movies such as The Lords of Flatbush  (1974), co-written and co-starring the then unknown Sylvester Stallone. You Light Up My Life was Brooks’ baby and he even paid $150,000 for the film to be screened to pick up a film distributor which he achieved. There was though a very bitter afternote however. In 2009, Joseph Brooks was investigated by New York police and was indicted on 91 charges of rape and other sexual charges but before he could attend trial he committed suicide in 2011.

But for me the real star and driving force behind the movie is one Didi Conn. Who is she? She is probably better known for the role she made her own a year after making You Light Up My Life – a small film called Grease where she played Frenchie as she did in its sequel in 1982. She was also recently the oldest competitior in ITV's Dancing on Ice. In You Light Up My Life, Conn plays Laurie who is under the thumb of her comedian father (Joe Silver) who includes her in his act- but what she really wants to do is write songs and to sing. She is already engaged but falls for a director of an upcoming film (Michael Zaslow) which she is told she will be the leading actress of, but when she calls off her wedding, the director, turned dirty rat, gives her role to someone else and leaves her standing. Laurie, distraught, tells her father he has to let her go and she sets off to New York on her own with her music and her ambitions. Later on, Laurie’s song (You Light Up My Life) is released and it and she goes to No 1.

Conn as the vulnerable Laurie is terrific in what was her first major film role and the film reaches an emotional climax with her singing the extraordinary theme song. Now the song in itself has a real story behind it. Didi Conn lip-synchs the song that on the film was actually sung by Ukrainian soprano Kvitka Cisyk, but it was re-recorded by Debby Boone when it was an enormous success and in fact was the biggest seller of any single in the 1970’s in the US (including those released from the blockbusters Grease & Saturday Night Fever). I still have the soundtrack LP (that dates me) and the theme song deservedly won the Oscar for Best Original Song, beating Nobody Does It Better from The Spy Who Loved Me.

You Light Up My Life is still a personal favourite of mine. Didi is always worth watching and you do root for her as she aims to live her own life. Catch the theme song performed (but not sung!) by her below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlRFQbFl_kA