Thursday, February 07, 2019

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS


Theatre director Josie Rourke turns to the big screen with a surprisingly good historical drama focussing on the period between Mary Stuart arriving in Scotland in 1561 at the age of 19, and her abdication and flight to England 7 years later at the age of 26. We then get a coda of her execution nearly 20 years later. Accordingly, those looking for a detailed examination of the Babington plot will go unrewarded. This is, I feel, rightly an interrogation of why this woman with such a strong claim to both the thrones of Scotland and England, could neither hold onto one, nor claim the other.  

In answering the question, screenwriter Beau Willimon draws parallels between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, Wales and Ireland. He posits a three-fold answer.  First, Elizabeth I transforms herself, politically speaking, into a man.  Rather than making herself vulnerable to a husband's control, she forgoes the joy of motherhood to rule uncontested, and in a manner that her court can accept.  By contrast, Mary is made weak by the ambitions of her husband, his father, and her half-brother.  Second, Elizabeth I is exceedingly lucky in her loyal, skilful and ruthless advisor, Lord Cecil, whereas Mary is ultimately betrayed by her courtiers, not just once but many times.  Finally, the film seemingly argues that Mary's own character was to blame - not least her wilfulness in marrying Darnley, and her arrogance in condescending to Elizabeth I even as she begs for an army to retake her crown. 

As one might expect from the show-runner of HOUSE OF CARDS, the script is a really good and pretty factually accurate depiction of the civil turmoil in Scotland during Mary Stuart's reign. The principal objections to Mary's rule are that she's a woman, and a Catholic.  Her protestant half-brother James' regency is thus preferred by some. Radical cleric John Knox preaches against her alleged infidelity and her allegiance to Rome.  And even those apparently on her side - her Catholic Stuart cousin Henry Stuart, whom she marries, is angry when she won't make him her successor.  Willimon deftly shows Mary manoeuvring and being outmanoeuvred, until finally she has nowhere else to run except England.

I also loved everything about the costumes and make-up in this film - beautifully contrasting the more formal opulence of the English court with the more intimate less gaudy Scottish court.  Make-up is also used with great effect to contrast Mary's insistence that she rules as herself - a strong-minded Catholic woman - and Elizabeth subsuming herself into the image of the Virgin Queen  - a theme also explored to great effect in Shekhar Kapur's superb ELIZABETH.  Max Richter's score is wonderful and I love how Josie Rourke weaves music into the foreground, particularly in the character of Mary's favourite, David. That said, Rourke can't direct a battle scene for toffee.

Historically, of course, the two Queens didn't meet. Or if they did, there's no strong evidence for it. And the director nicely hints at this in the opening moments of their meeting, as they struggle to find each other throughly gauzy sheets, giving the meeting a fantasy quality.  There is some evidence to hint at Darnley's bisexuality, if not that he slept with David. Mary's tolerance for David's cross-dressing seems anachronistic.  And of course Mary probably spoke with a French accent.  But aside from these dramatic inventions, I DO think that the film gets at something more profoundly true about how both of these women approached being Sovereign and why ultimately one prevailed and the other did not.  And that's the greater purpose of cinema, after all. We also get a typically superb performance from Ronan as Mary - but perhaps more surprisingly, a really emotionally powerful, stunning performance from Robbie as Elizabeth - one that really does steal the film.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I would love to see Robbie portray Elizabeth in a series of films. 

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS is rated R and has a running time of 124 minutes.  The film is on release in the USA and UK.

THE SOUVENIR


THE SOUVENIR is writer-director Joanna Hogg's personal memoir of her time as film student in London in the early 80s and a love affair she had with a charming but dangerous older man.  Set largely in a meticulous recreation of Hogg's Knightsbridge flat, we are introduced to the fictionalised Julie (Honor Swinton Burne) as a naive, privileged, earnest and desperately vulnerable young woman.  At first, her relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke - finally finding a role to flex his muscles in) seems innocent enough, although the age gap is troubling, as is his domineering personality. But we, as Julie, as her parents, are lulled into a sense of complacency by his posh accent and apparent Foreign Office job. Soon we discover that all is not as it seems - earlier in fact than the alarmingly innocent Julie. It starts with him cadging a tenner, and ends with a kind of emotional domination and abuse, centred around a character twist that I won't reveal.  The tension of the film lies first in knowing whether Julie will gather the strength to leave Anthony, and second in whether her mother (played by Honor's real-life mother Tilda Swinton) will intervene.  

As in her previous, outstanding, films  - UNRELATED and ARCHIPELAGO - Joanna Hogg creates these wonderfully tense, nuanced, naturalistic chamber pieces where characters are trapped in seemingly ordinary conversations but so much is going on in their interior lives - so much is unsaid - and the stakes seem so high. Tom Burke is absolutely superb as Anthony, in the most difficult role of creating a character at once despicable, but also pitiable, who we have to believe is charming enough to be loved. Honor Swinton Burne is not called upon to show such range, but is convincing in playing a shy young woman. If THE CROWN needs to cast a shy young Diana they need look no further. And stealing the show, we have a deliciously funny cameo from Richard Ayoade with one of the most quotable lines in film. I'd repeat it here but it gives away too much plot!

Kudos to Joanna Hogg, whose idiosyncratic scripting and shooting style got the best out of a new actress and creates a slow-build tension and genuine emotional involvement in the lives of these characters.  One must also comment on how she captures particular visuals - a shot of the Grand Canal (perhaps one of the most hackneyed scenes and yet so beautiful and apparently fresh here) - or a disagreement in a hotel room that's so emotionally difficult to behold that we see it reflected in a mirror.  This film really is unique, disturbing, beautiful and melancholy.  I cannot wait to see the second part. 

THE SOUVENIR has a running time of 119 minutes and is not yet rated.  The film played Sundance 2019 where Joanna Hogg won Grand Jury Prize - World Cinema - Dramatic.  It will also play Berlin 2019. It does not yet have a US or UK release date. 

ROBIN HOOD (2018)


Otto Bathurst's remake of the Robin Hood myth is a dismal effort. His directorial style is sub Guy Ritchie - all mockney bovver without any of Ritchie's kinetic energy or wit. The resulting film is a CGI heavy mess, full of dull action scenes and bad performances acting out a worse script.  Lead actor Taron Egerton has none of the charm or glee of his KINGSMAN role playing "Rob".  Eve Hewson is very pretty as his working class girlfriend Marion, but she has to also play a woman who thinks her boyfriend died in the crusades, only to find him inconveniently alive while she's shacked up with Jamie Dornan's Will Scarlett. Neither she nor the script betray the requisite emotional depth or range to pull off that storyline.  And WTF is Dornan doing here? Recent turns on UK TV show he's actually a very good actor.  He's definitely playing well below himself here. The same can be said of Ben Mendelsohn doing that evil villain thing he's done countless times before, not least in ROGUE ONE. He looks bored doing it, so it's no surprise we're bored seeing it. As for F Murray Abraham - magisterial in AMADEUS - he's utterly anonymous here.  Avoid at all costs.  

ROBIN HOOD is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 116 minutes. It was released last year and is now available to rent and own.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?


CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is a lovely film about a rather unique story that works essentially as a two hander between its award-winning stars, Melissa McCarthy and the ever-glorious Richard E Grant.  McCarthy plays one-time successful biographer Lee Israel, who has fallen out of fashion and into alcoholism and squalor.  One day she chances on a genuine letter from Fanny Brice of FUNNY GIRL fame, and through small steps begins to make money by forging letters from famous writers with just the right amount of wit and salaciousness to fetch the very highest prices.  To do this didn't just need a loose grasp of ethics and a facility with vintage typewriters but genuine literary taste and skill. One of the saddest moments of the film is when Lee realises that this is her most popular work in years, and it's not even in her voice. Of course, soon the collectors start to realise that her work is fake - she's "finding" too many letters, and some question whether Noel Coward would really have been so overt about his homosexual advances.  The FBI contact her dealers, and she has to get her fellow alcoholic, the roguish, charming Jack Hock to fence the letters for her, making him an accomplice.

What I love about this film is the genuine chemistry between McCarthy and Grant as Israel and Hock and the contrast between her misanthropy and his boyish charm and glee.  Underneath both there's a story of expectations dashed and a live that hasn't lived up to their hopes - and in Hock's case in particular the sadness over fading looks, the inability to talk one's way out of travel. Both are victims of a faster, prettier world.  And while aware that their schemes are wrong, don't really see the harm in it. It feels like a schoolyard jape, just like the prank calls they make.  The final scene between the two has a quiet pathos - self-awareness, of mortality, crime, art.  The reality of what they did and are. It's desperately moving.

I also love the beautiful recreation of early 90s New York and the milieu of those bookshops that deal in first editions and collectibles. There's a certain look and indeed smell to those stores (I frequent them!) and this film somehow just captures that particularity and person. 

Finally, I admire the light touch, but never evasiveness, with which screenwriter Nicole Holofcener and director Marielle Heller treat Hock's dying of AIDS, and indeed both characters' homosexuality. The result is delicate, elegant, and more moving for it. 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME has a running time of 106 minutes and is rated R. The film played Telluride, Toronto and London 2018. It was released last year in the USA and is currently on release in the UK.

MARWENCOL


This isn't a review of the new much-derided film WELCOME TO MARWEN starring Steve Carell, but rather a review of the 2010 much-loved award-winning documentary on which that film is based.

Mark Hogancamp was an apparently normal guy living in a small town.  But he was also recovering from alcoholism, a talented artist, and a secret transvestite.  One day he was in a bar and a bunch of nasty bigots beat the crap out of him because he admitted he liked wearing women's clothes.  The resulting injuries were so severe his face had to be reconstructed and he suffered brain damage. But this being America, the money ran out for treatment, despite the fact that Mark was still evidently traumatised. 

Mark couldn't draw anymore because his hands shook too much.  So he created a world of his own in which to recuperate and live a life that HE controlled.  He did this with barbie dolls, and later one-sixth size models, dressed in world war two uniforms, peopling a Belgian village called Marwencol.  Mark created stories for these models - some standard WW2 stories - some that were clearly helping him play out and deal with his attack - some expressing his desire for love - some expressing his desire to freely dress as he would wish. 

Mark didn't just create his stories but photographed them using an old camera, without a light meter. He didn't even think of himself as an artist.  But the resulting images are beautifully staged and framed. The attention to detail is astonishing. The ability to create images that speak to us emotionally profound. And then of course, there are images that are just plain weird, and move us because they evidently reflect Mark's life and attack.  Not to mention the endless patience of his friends - especially the women - who have to deal with Mark turning them into love interests or victims of the Nazis!

This documentary is a beautiful, short, moving insight into the life of a man battling his own demons, but also dealing with a cruel world, sublimating it all into the most surprising, stunning, wonderful art.  It's a gorgeous, if sometimes, weird world, and a truly unique film. 

MARWENCOL has a running time of 83 minutes and is available to rent and own. You can also buy art and merchandise at here.

Monday, February 04, 2019

VICE


VICE is an occasionally very funny film that contains a great performance. But it's also an overlong, baggy mess in which half of what the director throws at the film fails to stick. Even worse, it's a film that pretends to be as close to factual as possible, even while committing the cardinal mistake of painting Bush 43 as nice but stupid (he was neither).  And worst of all, it's a film that pretends to give us some kind of emotional truth about Cheney's loving home life while accusing him of being a venal power-hungry shit. This is all fine, so long as you don't then claim that what you're doing isn't partisan but "factual".  It's simply asinine for a movie director to claim that he's just showing us facts, when he's already admitted that much of what Cheney did is secret.  You can't claim that it's fact that Cheney did X or thought Y.  And to then throw in a mid-credits sequence that wants to cut off criticisms of the film as being nonsense, because it's factual.... well this is the worst kind of bullshit.

But anyway, there are many good performances in bad films.  Christian Bale's depiction of Dick Cheney is indeed a great performance and worth the ticket price. Unlike Rami Malek donning some fake teeth and an accent to play Freddie Mercury, Bale goes way beyond a mere impression (as perfect as his accent is).  In fact, it's pretty insulting to see both of these performances nominated for the same award.  Bale inhabits his character - gives him nuance, and depth, and a whole range of emotions. He has Cheney be a genuinely loyal steadfast father, a loving and proud husband, an almost absurdly slow-moving politician, but also a greedy, conniving, Machiavellian thinker.  When Bale's Cheney turns to the screen at the end of the film to address us, I utterly believed his apologia pro vita sua to be authentic and convincing.

Bale is matched in his endeavours by Amy Adams as his wife Lynne, but I'm pretty sick of two-dimensional Lady MacBeth characters and found little to really engage with.  I thoroughly enjoyed Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, but he's played, literally, for laughs. But Sam Rockwell looked like a Mad magazine version of W.  So yeah - this is pretty much a one-man show.

As for McKay, the gonzo collage style directing that made THE BIG SHORT so successful goes haywire in VICE.  This film is indulgent, over-long, bizarre, heavy-handed, bludgeoning. I get the fishing metaphor Adam! I don't need to continually cut back to a sinister looking fish moving through water or have end-credits of bait.  I also really think I'd rather not have you use Cheney's heart-transplant donor - a young dead veteran - mouth your script from beyond the grave. That's just distasteful.  Overall, I don't want to get my politics from Mad magazine, and that's what this film is. 

VICE has a running time of 132 minutes and is rated R.  It was released last December in most global markets. It will play Berlin 2019.