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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In Darkness (2018)

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It’s alright, I’ve got friends with eyes. In London blind pianist Sofia (Natalie Dormer) overhears a struggle in the apartment above hers that leads to the death of her neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski). It is the start of a journey that pulls Sofia out of her depth and brings her into contact with Veronique’s father, Zoran Radic (Jan Bijvoet), a Serbian businessman accused of being a war criminal in the Bosnian crisis twenty years ago. Sofia is drawn into a dangerous world of corruption, investigating police, hitmen, the criminal underworld and the Russian mafia—a world with links to Sofia’s past and a path of revenge she has kept hidden until now… She really is a mystery box. Dormer co-wrote this with director (and boyfriend) Anthony Byrne, and she does what all actors should do – gives herself a great part, even if the action doesn’t really capitalise on the dynamic plot tension although the direction moves you through the surprises with ease.  A blind pianist with a secret, her origins are camouflaged with twist upon twist, until the real reason behind her accommodation is revealed. Even in the final scene, you will be asking yourself what really happened – and does she have some remnants of the sight she was born with? The real flaw here is the portentous political issue at its heart. With Neil Maskell cast as a good cop, Ed Skrein as a bad guy who might be good and Joely Richardson as his very bad sister, the casting makes hay of the convoluted premise and the opening titles with their point-of-view position will confuse your expectations:  Dormer’s similarity to Anna Massey isn’t the only reminder of Peeping TomBlood is blood. You can’t turn your back on that

Gone With the Wind (1939)

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What a woman.  The life of petulant southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), from her idyllic youth on a sprawling plantation, through her survival through the tragic history of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her tangled love affairs with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who marries his cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland); and roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) who wants her for himself and makes money as a blockade runner while Ashley goes to warLand’s the only thing that matters, the only thing that lasts. The drama of David O.Selznick’s search for Scarlett is well known, so too the issues with the directors (George Cukor was replaced by Victor Fleming, who was replaced for a spell by Sam Wood) but it’s the antebellum grandeur and the personalities of this epic historical romance set against the Civil War that continue to enthrall.  The beauty of plantation life is contrasted with the vivid scenes of Atlanta in flames;  the picture perfect homes and life embroidering and dancing and romancing are juxtaposed with the screams of the dying soldiers. Scarlett’s deceitful delusions about Ashley are dissipated by the reality of his cowardice. And there are the unexpected mini-dramas too:  that Scarlett becomes a can-do woman and saves Tara as her family cry bullying; when Rhett drunkenly asserts his droit de seigneur over Scarlett, she wakes up the next day as pleased with herself as the cat that got the cream. This image still has the capacity to shock (if not entirely surprise). That the screenplay and the performances effortlessly manage the extremes of humanity is a tribute to the talent behind the scenes and in front of camera. Gable is magnificent, but so too is de Havilland as Melanie, the kindest woman ever, who has the breadth of compassion to handle everything put her way and unexpectedly expresses delight when Scarlett kills a Yankee soldier. However it is Leigh’s film:  she is simply perfect as the selfish coquette who becomes brave when everyone around her is falling to pieces and she lives a wholly ironic life as a result. They say great characters make great books and I read it when I was fourteen, a great age to appreciate the feeling that Margaret Mitchell gives to these fully developed people living through the worst of times and trying in their own particular way to survive it. Expertly adapted by Sidney Howard. Wonderful. Tomorrow is another day

The Damned (1969)

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Aka Caduti degli dei or Götterdämmerung. It does no good to raise one’s voice when it’s too late, not even to save your soul. Wealthy industrialist family the Essenbecks have begun to do business with the Nazi Party.  The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals) is murdered on the night of the Reichstag fire and the anti-Nazi vice president of the company Herbert Thalmann (Umberto Orsini) is framed. His wife Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling) and their children are taken by the Gestapo. The family’s empire passes to the control of an unscrupulous relative, the boorish SA officer Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff). Waiting in the wings are his son Günther (Renaud Verley) a sensitive and troubled student, and his nephew Martin (Helmut Berger), an amoral deviant playboy who molests his young cousin as well as a Jewish  girl. Martin is dominated by his possessive mother Sophie (Ingrid Thulin) the widow of Baron Joachim’s only son, a fallen WW1 hero. Friedrich Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) an employee of the family firm and Sophie’s lover, ascends in power despite his lowly social status, thanks to Sophie’s support and the SS officer and family relation Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) who pits family factions against each other to move their steel and munition works into state control … This is the secret Germany. Nothing is lacking. The dissipation of a wealthy German dynasty becomes an arc for the destruction of Germany and the rise of Nazism:  offset by a backdrop of decadence and perversion, Visconti’s operatic portrait of society gone rotten makes him the principal chronicler of that history in an Italian-German co-production. The cast is stunningly gorgeous – just look at Rampling! – enveloped in the exquisitely accessorised sets. The startling cinematic arrival of the equally lovely Herr Berger (who was seen briefly as a waiter in Visconti’s segment of Le streghe) in full drag as Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel is not to be quickly forgotten;  nor his incestuous sex scene with his mother. He embodies the narcissistic amorality at the core of the work which despite its luxuriousness is a critique of bourgeois collaborators standing by while their country is jackbooted. It is an explicitly Freudian work and transformed Bogarde into a European star. Written by Nicola Badalucco, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, this is the first of what is known as the director’s German trilogy, comprising Death in Venice and Ludwig, collectively a subjective account of that country’s terrible history told in devastating, beautiful imagery. Hugely successful and influential in its day, despite the horrors, you will gasp and swoon in equal measure at the shocking sumptuousness. Nazism, Gunther, is our creation. It was born in our factories, nourished with our money!

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

Red Sonja (1985)

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If you yield only to your conqueror then prepare to be conquered – Amazonian!  In the prehistoric Hyborian Age, power-hungry Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) captures the priestesses guarding the Talisman, a mystical orb that created and can destroy the world. But one of the priestesses Varna (Janet Agren) escapes and seeks out her warrior sister, Red Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen), to warn her about Gedren’s plan for world domination. Lord Kalidor of Hyrkania (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Talisman’s keeper, insists on helping Sonja, and though she scorns the assistance of any man, she soon gains respect for Kalidor’s fighting prowess…  I don’t need eyes to find you I can smell you at a hundred pacesFrom a lively, funny screenplay by George (Flashman) MacDonald Fraser and Clive Exton adapted from Marvel’s character Red Sonya of Rogatino (created by Roy Thomas), this is a gloriously silly swords, sanda(h)ls and sorcery romp with vengeful barbarian babe Nielsen basically engaging in very extended foreplay with sidekick Schwarzenegger, who thrusts valiantly throughout. There’s a lot of fun with young Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.) and his faithful manservant Falkon (Paul L. Smith) when the four team up to go after the talisman. With a vivid score by Ennio Morricone, this excapist fun moves like the clappers and is all satisfyingly done in 86 trim minutes – a lesson that could be learned by contemporary blockbuster bores. Directed by Richard Fleischer. This is the way I came in, you fool!

John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)

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Nobody ever gets out. In North Bend Psychiatric Hospital in rural Oregon, 1966 a patient called Tammy dies in strange and violent circumstances. Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed there after she burns down a house. She is suffering from amnaesia.  It seems an angry spirit of a former patient is haunting the girls (Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker) who are being treated on her ward and they are disappearing one by one. Dr Gerald Springer (Jared Harris) pays Kristen no heed and in fact subjects her to terrible medical treatment when she warns of the girl called Alice Hudson who was a former inmate and whose ghost stalks the corridors. What did the others do to her to make her swear revenge? And why is she included? Kristen makes desperate escape attempts after the staff ignore her fear of losing her life to the spirit… You stay locked up long enough and you start to believe that you’re nuts. You’ll recognise some visual references to other films here – and what else would you expect from the maestro John Carpenter? This is a small-scale exercise in tropes from the medical horror sub-genre with an attractive cast playing it for real, even if there’s something of a tribute to Nurse Ratched by Susanna Burney in this Sixties-set Snake Pit. It may turn on the most rudimentary issues and beliefs of psychiatry and ideas about how a personality might take steps to insulate against past traumas but it’s probably true to the era. In the midst of the Mean Girls scenario are some observations about how people deal with being institutionalised in physically violent and threatening environments. However it’s fast and fun and efficiently dramatised by the great Carpenter. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Sleep tight, sugar!

Deliverance (1972)

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Now you get to play the game. Four Atlanta-dwelling friends Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) decide to get away from their jobs, wives and kids for a week of canoeing in rural Georgia, going whitewater rafting down the Cahulawassee river before the area is flooded for the construction of a dam. When the men arrive, they are not welcomed by the backwoods locals, who stalk the vacationers and savagely attack them, raping one of the party. Reeling from the ambush, the friends attempt to return home but are surrounded by dangerous rapids and pursued by an armed madman. Soon, their canoe trip turns into a fight for survival… You don’t beat it. You don’t beat the river. Notorious for the male rape and praised for the Duelling Banjos scene that happens in the first scene-sequence, this film went into production without insurance and with the cast doing most of their own dangerous stunts. Reynolds is simply great as Lewis the alpha male daredevil with the shit-eating grin and a way with a bow and arrow.  This is a role that transformed his screen presence into box office. His sheer beauty affirms the audience’s faith in male potential:  when he has an accident we are devastated. What will happen now to the clueless bunch being hunted by the inbred hillbilly loons?  Insurance? I’ve never been insured in my life. I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk. Voight is the straight guy Ed who has to pick up the action baton, Bobby dithers and Drew may have been shot – or not. Author James Dickey adapted his own novel with director John Boorman and appears in the concluding scenes as the Sheriff. Like most of Boorman’s work there are narrative problems – mostly resting in a kind of empty sensationalism that however disturbing never truly penetrates, with visuals substituting for the environmental story.  This gives a whole new meaning to the term psychogeography. Squeal like a pig! The cast are perfection, with Beatty and Cox making their screen debuts having been discovered doing regional theatre. Finally, Voight’s character is haunted, the experience converted into a horror trope in the penultimate shots.  The power rests in the juxtaposing of man and nature, modernity versus the frontier, conjoined with the spectre of primitive redneck violence and its consequences on hapless male camaraderie where survival is the only option once civilisation is firmly out of reach. Danger is only a boat ride away.  A gauntlet to weekend warriors everywhere, it’s quite unforgettable.  Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything

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Broken City (2013)

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Your Honour, it’s murder. Even when the police do it. Former cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) sees a chance at redemption for his past sins when New York City’s Mayor Nicolas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) calls on him for a special job. Hostetler thinks his wife, Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is having an affair and that it may hurt his chances for re-election. However, a bigger scandal than expected pulls in Billy right at the start of his investigation. Double-crossed by the mayor, Billy begins a relentless quest for justice… There are some wars you fight and some wars you walk away from. This isn’t the fighting kind.  A fantastically entertaining neo-noir written by Brian Tucker and directed by Allen Hughes (minus twin brother Albert). Beautifully shot (by Ben Seresin) in NYC, this has all the tropes you want from a genre entry about corruption in the body politic, including Jones in a wonderful old-style performance like a Forties broad. There are some nice character roles for Griffin Dunne, Kyle Chandler, Jeffrey Jones and Barry Pepper in an expansive ensemble who give this slick outing some grit. Alona Tal is a joy as the wisecracking secretary. Maybe you’ve seen it all before – and there are whiffs of Wahlberg in The Yards and even a slight touch of Chinatown, with a passing flash of Sidney Lumet – but it’s coated in a starry lustre and never fails to crackle with atmosphere even when Crowe is actually phoning it in.

Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.