Darkest Hour: Overrated

Directed by Joe Wright
Perfect World Pictures, 125 minutes, PG-13

Back in 2002, the BBC declared Winston Churchill (1874-1965) the greatest Briton of all time. He was certainly omnipresent—famed orator, Nobel Prize winning author, military man, and the holder of just about every governmental office imaginable, including two stints as Prime Minister (1940-45; 1951-55). Maybe that's why several British audiences gave a standing ovation to Darkest Hour. I, like many others, have reservations about such unbridled hero worship, but I have none about Darkest Hour. It is like Churchill himself—puffed up on its own perceived importance. I say this even though Gary Oldman won the Golden Globe's Best Actor honors for portraying Churchill, and even though some consider this film to be a potential dark horse to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Fiddlesticks, say I! But let's give the film credit for doing a decent job with the situation that gives the film its title. (Churchill never actually uttered that phrase.) It covers just 2 ½ weeks of Churchill's time as Prime Minister—from Neville Chamberlain's resignation following Hitler's invasion of the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, to the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France on June 4. It was an extraordinary moment in history, one in which many British leaders thought the nation's only chance for survival was to sue for peace. Churchill emerged as the perfect wartime leader. He was prescient in warning the government of Hitler's evil intentions, dogged in his resolve, and brilliant in his ability to craft inspirational speeches. As Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) says near the end of Darkest Hour, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."

This film also looks good. Scenes in the underground war rooms, Parliament, and London streets are bathed in sufficiently drab English hues that enhance the possibility of impending apocalypse, and the film's closing sequence—though cinematic hyperbole—is a stunner. Director Joe Wright also uses effective slow motion street tableaux to capture emotions ranging from fear and dread to resolve and defiance. The overall gloom is further deepened by physical allusions to Churchill's personal financial woes and by the deep-furrowed petty wrangling of Parliamentarians engaged much in political jockeying as dealing the dangers of the moment. I also credit the film for not dodging the possibility that Churchill was an alcoholic. (Franklin Roosevelt certainly thought so and used advisor Harry Hopkins to keep Churchill at arm's length.) It even invites us to question Churchill's past judgment (the bungled World War One Gallipoli campaign) and present (the decision to sacrifice men deployed a Calais).

For all of that, Darkest Hour is at heart a cinematic look at the Great Man Theory of history. Exaggeration, invention, a histrionic musical score, and the dumbed-down fawning of those who sense they are in the presence of a demigod ultimately undermine the power of the visuals. The fawners include Churchill's deputy, Anthony Eden (Samuel West), his young secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), and his long-sacrificing wife Clementine (Kristin Scott-Thomas doing a Sian Phillips imitation). Never mind that Eden was actually among those who thought Britain needed to consider throwing in the towel, that Layton didn't have a brother at Dunkirk and wouldn't be Churchill's secretary until 1941, or that Clementine was equally invested in Winston's legacy. Nor is there evidence that Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) or Halifax were plotting a party coup against Churchill. There is one scene so preposterous that it's Disneyesque on the fantasy scale. Churchill was many things, but a man of the people he was not. He did not, as the film would have it, bolt from his limousine and jump on the Underground to solicit the views of ordinary Brits, trade Macaulay passages with a black passenger, and whip the subway car into bellicose resolve. This is ahistorical nonsense served with a PC twist.

Just to be clear, my brief against Darkest Hour isn't rooted in anti-Churchill views. To repeat an earlier point, Churchill was a valiant wartime leader. Faced with the specter of fascism, better that the leader be a tiger than a Teddy bear. The film works best when Churchill is self-assured, arrogant, even  crude (though Oldman seemed too much like LBJ with a cigar in those scenes). I was not enamored of attempts to soften Churchill's gruffness with avuncular interludes in his dealings with Layton. At times, you might also think that Churchill was the one with a stammer, not King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn).

Mainly I don't see what all the fuss is about. If you've seen Season One of The Crown, you have witnessed a far superior portrayal of Churchill—that of John Lithgow. Indeed, Jeremy Northam's Eden was also a better performance, as was Jared Harris of George VI and Harriet Walker's Clementine. Joe Wright's Darkest Hour looks good, but it tries so hard to cover all the bases that it often feels like it's more about 21st century concerns than mid-20th century perils.

Rob Weir


Half Holidays and Groundhogs


Tomorrow is Groundhog's Day: the one day of the year Bill Murray is relevant. Just kidding. I like Bill Murray. But there's no doubt that watching that film he made in 1993 has become almost as big a ritual as waiting for the news from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as to whether or not Phil, the resident rodent, has seen his shadow.

It's all a great bit of fun—so much so that other towns across the country have tried to steal Punxsutawney's thunder by appointing prognosticating marmots of their own. (I lied above; groundhogs aren't really rodents; they're marmots, which are little more than tubby squirrels. For real. You can look it up.) Punxsutawney reigns supreme though—thanks to Bill Murray. Few of us take the day seriously and tend to rely more on the National Weather Service than Marmot Meteorological Inc. Plus, it hardly matters to New Englanders if Phil sees his shadow. We just do the math and yell "Wahoo!" if he does and a longer winter is forecast. Winter will be over in six weeks? Wahoo! For those who don't know, "Wahoo!" is an olde New England term that roughly translates: "Throw the rest of them quashes and tofus out the back for the hippies, Maudie. Bust out them steaks in the freezer, and fire up the grill." That's a mouthful, so Wahoo is more compact.

Perhaps I exaggerate. What would you say, though, if I told you that Groundhog's Day is actually an important day on the calendar? The day didn't start out being about marmots. Scots and Germans once started looking for animals emerging from their holes around February 2, especially rabbits, snakes, and badgers—a folkloristic way of gauging the weather. Christians used to celebrate Candlemas on February 2 because it was 40 days from Christmas and Mary could go to the temple to be purified after giving birth, and wouldn't have to live outside the encampment anymore. (Hey, I'm just reporting here.)

But February 2 isn't important for those reasons either. Its significance lies with our Scots, Irish, Welsh, and other Celtic ancestors. Today, Westerners have just four seasonal markers: the spring equinox (March 20), the summer solstice (June 21), the fall equinox (September 22), and the winter solstice (December 21). The Celts knew a lesson every child knows: the anticipation of an event is often better than the event itself. To that end, Celts had eight calendrical markers, the four just mentioned, plus dates between them, which were more worthy of celebration.

Think about it. Long before the spring equinox we notice the days getting longer and it's sort of a bummer when it comes, because it really isn't spring anywhere except places where they don't have seasons. Likewise, as much as I love long days, the summer solstice is depressing as it means the light will slowly drain from the sky starting the very next day. So the Celts add four fire holidays in between the equinoxes and solstices, two associated with women and two with men.

Tomorrow is actually the female fire day of Imbolc (ĭhm-ōlk), which is probably how it got associated with Mary in the first place. Europeans used to burn leftover parts of their Yule logs that day and, yep, Yule was a pagan holiday that was celebrated with (ahem!) mistletoe, wreaths, and decorated trees. For me, though, by Groundhog's Day I begin to see how much lighter the days are becoming and I can feel the sun's rays beating upon me with greater strength—even on a cold day.

After the spring equinox—which Celts called Ostara—comes the next Celtic Half Holiday—the one many of us celebrate as May Day. The Celtic is Beltane. The fires are said to be male and it's a phallic fertility celebration. Every wonder why we dance around a pole on May 1? Or why there are a lot of June weddings? (You might want to consider some of these "shotgun" matches!)

The summer solstice—Celtic Litha—occurs in June and round about August 1 comes the early "harvest," an event called Lughnasadh, which looks more imposing to say than it is (Lew'-năh-săh). Harvest festivals are almost always female. Some of the fires go toward baking bread or harvest feast foods in the hearth.

The fall equinox—Mabon—sneaks up on us in September, but before we settle in for the winter to eat squash and tofu, there's that event we call Halloween. The Celts called it Samhain (Să'-wēēn) and it's actually such a big deal that it lasts two days; that is, through November 1, which we call "All Saints Day."  Saints? Nope! The fires went hand in hand with gifts left in the woods for spirits. All the small fires were put out and embers were used to ignite a massive bonfire to illuminate a blowout feast and to appease the spirits so they'll make winter a mild one.

Next is winter itself; call it solstice or call it Yule. Then comes the dark and cold. By February, we need a warm marmot with which to cuddle. Or maybe just a roaring fire instead! The Scot in me notes that Imbolc is just one week after Robert Burns Day (January 25), traditionally celebrated by having a dram or two or three. Time for some fire as that warmth has worn off. 

Rob Weir


Graham Stone Music: Album of the Month

Until the Day

I can't remember the last time I was so bowled over a by a debut release. Graham Stone Music is the performing nom de guerre of Graham McCune Stoll, a young man who hails from Virginia and dispenses insights and wisdom like an old sage. Until the Day is one of those rare albums where you listen to a track and exclaim, "Man, that's one helluva song," and the next one makes you repeat yourself. And the one after that, and….

Stoll's husky baritone immediately puts one in mind of Ari Heist, but Stoll's songs come from the road, not the urban canyons of New York City. "Flowers of Montana" is a gorgeous song. Stool is named for Gram Parsons, who would have been proud to have penned lines like But the flowers in Montana all are bloomin'/And the river by the mountain/is clear and cold/And the flower on my arm will stay forever/ I’m not a young man, but I’ve never felt so old. If it doesn't look like much on the page, listen to the song and ask yourself how a guy barely 30 can write such a line and sing it with such wizened grace. Next, take Stoll's folk persona, add some buzzy electric, head for the open Big Sky lands, and check out "Canyonlands." Pack some sweet country and hop a "Midnight Train" bound for Boston, once the lost rambling is over. Lace the song with thoughts of a woman somewhere along the line. If "Strong Constitution" is to be believed, Stoll likes his women strong and independent. The heroine of this folk country tale shows no fear: She's got a strong constitution/steel in her spine/A spirit more precious than jewels/ She's got a strong constitution/She's made up her mind/She won't take no shit from a fool. "Kathleen Jean" is a sweeter Virginia "queen," but she too knows what she believes. 

Stoll's songs move us in many ways. "Free and Homeward" places us in the middle of John Brown's Raid and recounts events from the perspective of a doomed slave. It's dark and tragic and builds to a loud growly moment, yet offers final redemption: …I am free/and I am home. "On the Run" is a rocker with boot kicking grit; "Richmond City Blues" also rocks, but in the vein of songs that get the honky tonkers off their stools and onto the dance floor. "Until the Day" touches things deeply human—livin' alone with all my fears and I defy you to remain stoic during "Meaningless," a dying rich man's gift and dispensation to a young servant.

What a record! Buy it. You'll have a hard time moving it down your playlist.

Rob Weir


Uncommon Visions at Forbes Library

Susan Boss, Mark Brown, and Michael Tillyer
Forbes Library

You only have a few days left to catch a fine show of three Western Massachusetts artists, whose work is on display on the second floor library. I like local art shows for precisely what this one does; it provides new ways of thinking about things in contexts we've not see many times before.  So here are some pictures to whet your appetite: surreal paintings from Mark Brown, contemplate textiles from Susan Boss, and—a personal favorite—the whimsical sculptures of Michael Tillyer.

If you can't make the show before it closes at the end of the month, check out Websites. They may not be household names (yet), but they are worth discovering.
Brown: Harvest. Isn't the late summer garden explosion just like this?

Boss: Our Heads are Round. Take that, blockheads!
Tillyer: The Simmerer

Tillyer: The Artist's Wife

Tillyer: Bird on a Branch

Tillyer: Five Unopened Things (box, package, book, letter, apple!)

Tillyer: Rex (Some might recognize Rex from installations at Art in the Orchard)


Vonnegut Undiscovered: For a Reason

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Dial Press, 297 pages
★★ ½

Readers and writers both have their salad days—readers when they fall hard for a writer and work their way through that writer's oeuvre, and writers when they reach the height of their powers. Back in the 1970s I devoured Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007) like a starving man who crashed a Roman banquet. Forget Cat's Cradle; back then, all Vonnegut was the cat's meow. Well before he died in 2007, I prided myself with having read all of his novels, short stories, and important essays. Since then, however, unpublished Vonnegut short stories have been discovered, so I guess that makes me the fool for thinking myself a completist, right?

Maybe not if we go back to the adjective "important." Look at the Birdie first came out in 2009 and I didn't rush to read these 14 previously unpublished short stories because other such stories disappointed me. But when Amazon reissued them and briefly offered them for $1.99, I took the bait. The verdict? I'm glad I didn't spend more. Look at the Birdie isn't terrible, but there's not much to recommend it unless you are new to Vonnegut's work, in which case let me envy the treat you have in store when you finally bite into masterpieces such as Mother Night (1961), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973).

As for Look at the Birdie, a few things must be said. The most obvious is that Vonnegut was not yet the writer of the aforementioned classics. Most of the tales were written in the 1950s before he found his voice. Mostly they were a young writer's attempt to earn money by getting magazines to publish him. These offerings weren't "unpublished" because he stuck them in the back of his sock drawer and forgot they were there; they were rejected in an era in which there were many outlets for aspiring fiction writers. Righty so; they're at best mediocre. Like many creative people—artists, musicians, poets, playwrights—Vonnegut tried (too) hard to emulate his heroes: O Henry, Twain, Orwell, Shaw, Swift, Wells…. Once he became the Vonnegut we know, he cast out most of the other voices in his head. (There was always a bit of Twain and Swift.) Second, these are pieces from the 1950s that are time bound, not unstuck in time.

Does a story about finding what looks to be a butter knife but is actually the spaceship of tiny beings entice you? There's no reason "The Nice Little People" should, given that all the aliens do is be tiny—and nice. Smallness also gets a workout in "Petrified Ants," which is actually veiled commentary of Soviet bureaucracy. It won't mean much if you're too young to remember the USSR!

We see Vonnegut trying on genres to see if they fit. "Ed Luby's Key Club" tells of a humble working-class couple that save their money and drive to an expensive out-of-state restaurant each year for their anniversary. On this particular occasion they arrive to find it has become a members-only dinner club, and Luby transformed into an arrogant mobster who tries to frame them for a murder. At best this is a mild social class drama, but mostly it's a mash of The Fugitive and third-rate mysteries. Its contrived ending is testament that Vonnegut was thinking within genres rather than trusting his imagination.

Equally weak is "King and Queen of the Universe" in which a well-heeled and naïve couple get talked into a flawed good deed that turns into a caper. "Hello Red" is a darker version of "The Farkle Family," a future Laugh-In gag. I was also baffled by the choice to name the collection after a particularly contrived tale of a disbarred psychiatrist-turned-extortionist with a unique way of getting away with murder. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say a decade later.

Any good news? One might find relevance in "Shout about It from the Rooftops" and its takedown of celebrity fame. It revolves around a window salesman, an angry man, and a wife whose tell-all confessional isn't what it seems, though that doesn't prevent it from becoming a mass market hit that brings nothing but misery. "Little Drop of Water" holds interest in our post-Harvey Weinstein times given that its protagonist is a serial womanizer. But I'll warn you to keep an airsickness bag at the ready for the resolution, which is really, really dated.

If given the pick of the litter it would be the opening "Confido" in which humble Henry Bowers invents a machine that tells us what we want to hear and makes us feel good—until it doesn't. Confido learns and begins to call things as they are. Let's just say that honesty isn't always the best or most comforting policy. We might want to read this one as a prescient warning of dangers inherent in artificial intelligence. Maybe.

Mostly this is dated stuff penned by the man who became Kurt Vonnegut. I want to believe that once Vonnegut entered his salad days he squirrled these ideas away for a reason. Perhaps had he lived a few years longer, he might have salvaged pieces of them from his writer's junkyard. I'm fairly certain those reworked parts would be more sublime than these wholes.

Rob Weir