Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

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Should you murder me, remember you murder your sister… and you murder your queen!  Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Catholic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne with the aim of also taking the English throne which is her birthright, guided by her adviser Bothwell (Martin Compston). However, Scotland and England fall under the rule of her cousin, the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Each young Queen beholds her ‘sister’ in fear and fascination. Mary has to deal with the ambitions of her bastard half-brother James Murray (James McArdle) and succumbs to the charms of the bisexual Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) in order to become a mother but his father (Brendan Coyle) has designs on power. Her reign attracts the hatred of Protestant reformer John Knox (David Tennant) who stirs up the natives against their tolerant Catholic ruler and calls her a whore. Elizabeth’s adviser Henry Cecil (Guy Pearce) carries out her bid to assist in driving a civil war designed to remove Mary from the throne… Do not play into their hands. Our hatred is precisely what they hope for. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you. Adapted from John Guy’s biography by Beau Willimon, it may seem hasty to declare that despite its raft of historical inaccuracies this still has a lot to recommend it, even if its PC multiverse of many races and choose-your-own-perversion plays into the right-on millennial world rather than the well documented dour backdrop of sixteenth-century Scotland (things are ever thus there…). Willimon is of course responsible for Netflix’s House of Cards and knows his way around politics and other games of thrones so the focus on the women struggling against the counsel of conniving men drives the drama forward while the plotting literally gallops apace. With Tennant doing Knox as the Comical Ali of fundamentalist Protestantism the odds of us supporting the bastard English Queen are low to zero, despite the crosscutting suggesting links both emotional and physical between these young rivals. The Virgin Queen is in fact more in touch with the reality of both of their situations, surrounded by controlling men, as the fabricated meeting between them (a liberty also taken in the 1971 version) clarifies: she recognises that Mary’s beauty, bravery and motherhood are both her greatest assets and her deepest flaws and have led to her downfall. She herself is more man than woman, she declares – her reign has made her thus. Ronan plays Mary as a variation on Joan of Arc – a sharp military mind with a conscience as transparent as her pallor and bright blue eyes (albeit Willimon writes her as a feckless Marie Antoinette a lot of the time), while Robbie’s Queen is the one beset with the miseries of the pox and a devious court craven by her power. They are both tremendous but this is really Ronan’s show, as the title suggests. Pearce, Lowden and Compston are particularly good in their treacherous sideshows. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see two of the best young actresses in the world leading a film of such affecting performances.  The final contrasting shots of Mary’s meeting with destiny and Elizabeth’s costumes and cosmetics literally solidifying into a stony inhuman edifice linger in the mind.  Directed by Josie Rourke. I know your heart has more within it than the men who counsel you

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Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

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What do you see besides a big dumb guy? A Roman Catholic nun (Deborah Kerr) and a hard-bitten US Marine (Robert Mitchum) are stranded together on a Japanese-occupied island in the South Pacific during World War II. Under constant threat of discovery by a ruthless enemy, strafed by Japanese bombers, they hide in a cave and forage for food together. Their forced companionship and the struggle for survival forge a powerful emotional bond between them and then the Japanese arrive ... Perhaps God doesn’t intend me to take my final vows. Charles Shaw’s novel was adapted by director John Huston and veteran screenwriter John Lee Mahin, who declared this the favourite of all of his films. And what a smooth run it is, taking two established actors and playing with their personae in the way that Huston is reiterating the setup from The African Queen except here Bogie is the hollowed-out macho Mitchum, a much leaner proposition, and Hepburn is replaced by Kerr, replaying her Irish Catholic nun from Black Narcissus and giving her a comic twist (her casting maybe a nod to that beach scene in From Here to Eternity). Their flintiness is worn down by alcohol and great writing with just enough danger to make it a potent admixture. The cinematography by the great Oswald Morris is splendid and Georges Auric’s score is as jaunty as a sea shanty. Kerr and Mitchum have great chemistry and would be paired again in The Grass is GreenerOnly God knows what’ll happen to us

The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

The Verdict (1982)

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Sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes people have a great capacity to hear the truth.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. Or he was. He’s a washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser who’s reduced to scouring the obits for clientele. When former partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) puts a straightforward medical negligence case his way, he’s inclined to take the settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston whose hospital doctors anaesthetised a pregnant woman into a coma four years earlier. Her sister and brother-in-law have been devastated. Then he makes the mistake of visiting her and his humanity is reawakened … David Mamet adapted the novel by Barry Reed and it’s as much a character study as a legal thriller but it’s all that too. However it has a rare quality – elegance and even eloquence, all the while hitting the generic markers. Polanski says films are made up of moments and we have a raft of them here. The moment when Galvin’s Polaroid of his client is developing in front of her comatose vegetative body is haunting:  it’s when he rediscovers his own dignity while bearing witness to her lack of it entirely. When the biased judge (Milo O’Shea) tries to dissuade him from taking the case, clearly on the side of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the attorney for the Catholic Church of whom Mickey declares, He’s a good man?  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! And we know this of course because we’ve all seen Salem’s Lot. When Concannon removes his coat from the judge’s armoire we have the proof that the judiciary is corrupt. It’s subtle but keen social signalling, he’s a bagman for the boys down town, as Frank realises. Frank is tempted by a wonderfully hooded divorced woman Laura (Charlotte Rampling) who just happens to turn up in his favourite Boston watering hole. We sense she’s no good but she’s an alcoholic too and her codependency draws us in. And seventy minutes into this well-structured exposition she triggers Frank’s turnaround: I can’t invest in failure any more. Frank is loaded up on bad witnesses but one is missing and it’s his last minute journey that turns into a dark night of the soul as well as a time of enlightenment.  Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as a nurse scorned.  Frank’s exhausted closing to the jury is riveting. We become tired of hearing more lies. We become dead. But director Sidney Lumet uses silence as brilliantly as dialogue. Look at the way he shoots the NYC street scene between Mickey and Frank when Mickey has something terrible to tell him. Masterful. Frank’s hungover mornings on the couch, his afternoons on arcade games, his evenings alone with the bottle, are as significant to this narrative as his defeatist courtroom attitude.  This is one of Newman’s greatest performances – he allows that absurdly handsome face to look tired, the rightful appearance for an old soak – but it’s also a great portrait of the Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation and a reminder to never give up on those who do not have a voice. A wonderful film about adults coping in a mire of payoffs and professional malpractice and personal failure.

Mystic Pizza (1988)

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Why does it hurt so much? Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) are sisters working with Jojo (Lili Taylor) at the pizzeria in Mystic Connecticut. Kat is an egghead astronomer aiming to get into Yale who falls for the father (William R. Moses) of the child she’s babysitting while his wife’s away. Daisy is a good time gal with eyes for a WASPy law school grad Charlie (Adam Storke) who’s actually been sacked for cheating on his finals. Their mother favours Kat and worries perpetually about Daisy.  Jojo gets cold feet on the day of her wedding to fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio) and then goes to pieces when they eventually split. Meanwhile the pizza parlour’s proprietress Leona (Conchata Ferrell) is worried that her revenues are slipping and the girls think that a spot on The Fireside Gourmet‘s TV show would do the trick… There are terrific performances gracing this sleeper which illustrates all the strengths of the respective actresses:  it’s not hard in retrospect to see that Pretty Woman would be all Roberts’ when you see her shaking out her hair and raising her hemline to catch a lift on the roadside. Amy Holden Jones’ story and screenplay about this Portuguese Catholic community got a rewrite from Perry Howze & Randy Howze and Alfred Uhry and it’s decently handled by Donald Petrie but that soundtrack is seriously intrusive! For details obsessives it’s fascinating to hear the adenoidal tones of Robin Leach describing Mar-a-Lago on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and that’s Matt Damon playing the preppie’s little brother during an excruciating dinner party. A major cult at this point.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

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You are Queen of Scotland by birth, Queen of France by marriage and Queen of England by right. There was a swathe of period dramas in the wake of the 1968 riots – perhaps there was something comforting about a retreat into the past, no matter how bloody or violent. Director Charles Jarrott made something of a specialty of this in British cinema and this somewhat by-the-numbers evocation of one of the great rivalries for the crown boasts stellar performances by Vanessa Redgrave as the eponymous Catholic beauty and Glenda Jackson as Protestant Elizabeth I, the bastard daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. It doesn’t trouble with a lot of truth although Patrick McGoohan has a field day playing Mary’s half-brother James, the wannabe Scots ruler, and there’s some interesting bed action between Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, planted by Elizabeth to seduce and destroy Mary, and her Italian advisor, Ian Holm, in a tale rife with adultery and bisexuality. The last twenty minutes focuses on a fabricated meeting between the two women, all the better to sweeten the dramatic pill, to a swoony John Barry score and delicious photography by Christopher Challis. Off with her head! Written by John Hale.

In & Out (1997)

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I miss Premiere magazine so much. Once a month,that cellophane-wrapped thud on the hall floor, after the postman had been by, struck joy in my heart. Specifically, I miss Paul Rudnick, that grade-A satirist whose campy sendups made me whoop with laughter. He was Libby Gelman-Waxner! But lo! Hollywood really did come calling to him hence his spot-on insider comments and this exquisitely rendered smalltown gayfest is true to classical tradition yet ever so sweetly rubs the generic nose in contemporary mores. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is the inspirational smalltown Indiana high school English teacher who’s outed at the Academy Awards by his dimwit former student Hollywood actor Cameron Drake  (Matt Dillon) despite being three days from his very straight wedding to formerly fat colleague Emily Montgomery  (Joan Cusack). His wrist literally becomes limp when he’s called gay in front of billions of people. Mom Debbie Reynolds and dad Wilford Brimley want the wedding to go ahead and he’s sure he does too until showbiz correspondent Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) waltzes into town with the other paparazzi  – and stays. Just wait for the Selleck-Kline clinch! Howard’s Barbra Streisand-themed stag night is all for naught as he recognises his true nature and battles with the authorities to keep his job while his students eventually do an ‘I Am Spartacus’ act at graduation and Cameron rides back into town in his white sports car to save the day. Great fun, hilarious jibes and Kline gives an extraordinarily precise comic performance in a beautifully rendered upside-down satire of American family movies. Reynolds is especially good as the mother who will just die without a day in church. This was of course inspired by Tom Hanks’ unwitting outing of his former high school teacher when he was collecting the Oscar for Philadelphia. Adeptly directed by comedy expert Frank Oz.

Superstar (1999)

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I realise that not all SNL knockoffs are passable but this one makes me laugh like a drain. Molly Shannon is orphaned Irish-American Catholic high schooler Mary Katherine Gallagher, a bespectacled geek in love with Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell), the dreamboat – wow! – and dreaming of, yup, superstardom. Mary’s the rewind girl in the video store and she’s obsessed with TV movies which provide a lot of her best lines – maybe the most apposite coming from Portrait of a Teenage Centerfold! (starring Lori Singer).[If this in fact exists…]  She’s relegated to the class for retards and befriends fellow loser Helen (Emmy Laybourne). She attracts the attention of Slater (Harland Williams) the mute rebel biker newcomer to the school which provides more backstory and permits her Id’s vision of Jesus to pay him a visit at this movie’s version of a crossroads. She tries to achieve her ambitions by competing in a talent show for VD (‘with an opportunity to appear as an extra in a Hollywood movie with Positive Moral Values’). Sky’s cheerleader girlfriend – the most beautiful, the most popular, the most bulimic – Evian Graham (Elaine Hendrix) is her main rival but wheelchair-bound Grandma (Glynis Johns) doesn’t want Mary to take part. The scene where she tells Mary the truth behind her parents’ death is screamingly funny – they weren’t eaten by sharks but stomped to death Riverdance-style. Reader, I howled. She and Sky both think The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the 19th-best TVM and when he and Evian split she spots an opening…This high school movie parody is for that special person in your life – your irrepressible inner gummy child! The perfect comedic holiday comedown. Written by Steve Koren and directed by Bruce McCulloch. Shannon is great. In fact, she’s a Superstar!

The Heart of the Matter (1953)

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I read most of Graham Greene by the age of 12 and I can still recall the day in the public library when I put my mitts on this:  it was the last book of his I read until I reached my third decade. I just didn’t get it. And why would I?! I was far too young to appreciate the nuances beyond the immediate plot. Trevor Howard plays Scobie the Brit policeman abroad (in Sierra Leone) who sends his grieving wife home and embarks on an affair. In the novel he ends his own life but due to censorship this is not the ending here. It’s capably handled by director George More O’Ferrall (who made The Holly and the Ivy and Angels One Five) working from a screenplay by Lesley Storm (probably rewritten by Ian Dalrymple). It is unique in featuring a soundtrack entirely composed of indigenous music. It was produced by London Films, the company set up by Alexander Korda. Howard was never better than here.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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This came out right after I’d spent my first summer in New York City. Seeing it was like being immersed in a very warm welcoming bath. And what a cherishable film it is, a Chekhovian comedy drama about the impossible lives and loves of a trio of sisters played by the incredible Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey with Allen himself and Michael Caine and Max von Sydow rounding out the cast. This is on constant rotation chez moi. One of the greats.