Mary Queen of Scots (NOW PLAYING) starring Saoirse Ronan & Margot Robbie

NOTE: This review contains MAJOR spoilers for the film.

Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart. Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I. Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage versus independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones – and change the course of history. -Summary from Focus Features

While cannot highly recommend this film, it does have it’s strengths: a very fine cast, enriching music, lush set design, and gorgeous costumes.

The film is a well-intended historical drama that nevertheless falls short of expectations for a couple of reasons: first and foremost, what should be palace drama that raises the hairs on your arms, plays out meekly for much of the movie. Second, the movie’s pacing is too slow… Lastly… the movie tries to set it up as “Mary vs. Elizabeth”, yet then forgets to provide an in-depth charter for Elizabeth.

There is no clarity in why one was either Protestant or Roman would be such an insurmountable issue, partly because John Knox was so poorly written (despite having hidden the very talented and capable David Tennant behind all the hair).

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) were cousins and BOTH concerned w/ marriage (or avoiding it), as well as children (or succession). Mary ALSO wants the throne of England b/c she is a Stuart; Elizabeth is the (illegitimate to Catholics) daughter of Henry VIII and his 2nd wife, Anne Boleyn. Ronan (NOT yet 25 y.o.) is a FAB actress, thus capable of playing the regal/powerful Mary. The talent is NOT in question; she tries to rise above the (mostly mediocre, sometimes laughable) dialogue. The screenplay is by Beau Willimon (House of Cards) and John Guy, author of the biography- Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Many critics/viewers have commented on her Irish accent; it’s VERY noticeable in this film. Why did the director NOT have Ronan modify her accent to reflect Mary!? She could’ve done a Scottish accent or a French one (since Mary grew up in France). Samantha Morton (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) used a Scottish accent.

Ronan has zero chemistry w/ her love interest, Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden- a 28 y.o. from Scotland). Lowden is just TOO much of a lightweight (lacking screen presence, aside from conventional good looks- IF that’s your thing) for the role. Even in the emotional scenes, I was bored by his acting! During MOST of his romantic scenes w/ Ronan, the two desi 20-something gals sitting next to me giggled (perhaps they felt the awkwardness). Though we start out thinking that Mary and Hadley could be happy together, it’s NOT the case. Then the plot veers off the rails- MORE unexpected (and ludicrous) than I ever imagined!

In contrast to Lowden, Joe Alwyn (also in The Favourite opposite Emma Stone) as Elizabeth’s “special friend” Sir Robert Dudley seems a BIT more interesting. He also has V conventional good looks, BUT is brooding and believable. As you may recall, other Dudleys were been played by the powerhouse veteran actor- Jeremy Irons (HBO’s Elizabeth I w/ Helen Mirren)- and the dark/enigmatic Joseph Fiennes (Elizabeth w/ Cate Blanchett). Alwyn and Margot Robbie (who I hadn’t seen before) have a few moments; they relate well to each other. The main question I have: Did Elizabeth really send Dudley to the Scottish court as a (potential) husband for Mary?

Aside from Ronan, I just came away feeling V bad for the (older/experienced) actors; this includes Guy Pierce (Lord Cecil- Elizabeth’s loyal counselor), the FAB at nearly 50 y.o. Adrian Lester (ambassador Lord Randolph), David Tennant (John Knox- anti-Catholic leader), and Brendan Coyle (Earl of Lennox- Darnley’s father). Actually, Pierce does get a FEW nice moments, incl. one scene alone w/ Elizabeth. Lester (best known here in the U.S. for Primary Colors) is a tall/handsome/British theater actor who happens to be black. As in theater world (where director Josie Rourke hails from), this film uses colorblind casting for several supporting and MANY background roles. My good friend thought that was strange; it doesn’t fit w/ the historical period. I’m NOT saying there were zero POC in these royal courts. I wouldn’t have a problem IF there was a basis for it OR if the movie worked well! After all, one of my fave films- Much Ado About Nothing– has Denzel Washington as a Spanish nobleman and Keanu Reeves as his younger brother. Also, Lester has a FAB smile, BUT no smiles here!

It took me a few mins. to recognize Tennant (Doctor Who); he is nearly hidden under a long wig, heavy beard, and dark robe. His character is SO one note- it’s laughable (which is what a few in my audience did); he is TOO good for such a role! There was a LOT of anti-Catholic sentiment in court of Elizabeth (and perhaps also among MANY of the commoners), BUT why make Knox a cartoonish villain!? Even Jordi Molla’s King Phillip II (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was more nuanced. Coyle (beloved as Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey) doesn’t have much to do, aside from looking disgusted/disappointed (w/ his son) or smirking (as he’s plotting the overthrow of Mary). Sure, it MAY be fun to be a baddie for a change, BUT this is just a waste!

The scenery is quite lovely to look at and the costumes look historically accurate, though FEW students of history objected to the use of black cloth. MOST of the men, incl. the Scottish nobles, wear black. The ladies in waiting to Mary wear black, too. Bess (Gemma Chan from Crazy Rich Asians) as Elizabeth’s confidante/lady-in-waiting wears shades of gray. Where is the tartan cloth which prominent in the Stuart family? The thick makeup and bright red wig worn by Elizabeth in the (pivotal) meeting scene reminded some viewers of a clown. We know that Elizabeth used white powder to cover up her pox scars (after being stricken w/ the disease in her late 20s). As for the action- that’s ALSO a disappointment. The military battle, where Mary’s soldiers face her older half-brother’s men, is more like a small skirmish.

Speaking of the half-brother, the actor has some potential. The men in this film are mostly drunk/useless/jokes or plotting/power-hungry; aside from Dudley and Cecil, none are loyal, thoughtful, or kind-hearted! Even Mary’s long-time ally, Lord Bothwell (Martin Compston), turns against her in the end; this is shocking/sudden. OK, that was a BIT interesting; this actor (who appeared on many TV series, incl. Monarch of the Glen) did well w/ his role. The ladies-in-waiting (incl. Chan) are a physically diverse group; they get almost zero character development. In real life, these were noblewomen who had personalities and lives of their own (aside from attending to their queens). In the eyes of MANY critics, Cate Blanchett is the ultimate Queen Elizabeth. I expected to see a BIT more of Elizabeth; Robbie did a decent job (and her English accent was good). Unless you really LOVE historical fiction, skip this film. Luckily, I saw it for free (w/ my Regal Club points)!


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You Can’t Take it with You (1938) starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, & Lionel Barrymore

This Frank Capra feel-good film (a screwball comedy) won the Best Picture Oscar; it was adapted from a V popular Pulitzer Prize-winning play. A stenographer at a bank- Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur- looking V youthful at age 38) and her VP boss- Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart, just 31 and NOT yet a star)- are deeply in love after 5 mos. of seeing each other. His cranky/ millionaire father, Kirby Sr. (Edward Arnold) needs to buy one last house in a 12 block area for a big weapons manufacturing deal. This house is owned by Alice’s kind/free-spirited grandfather- Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Barrymore as Grandpa (as everyone calls him) had arthritis and a hip injury; the script was altered, so that his character had a sprained ankle, and he could walk w/ crutches. The Vanderhof family is considered eccentric; they don’t care for money, status, so work at ONLY what they enjoy. When Tony proposes to Alice, she says he should come meet her (unconventional) family w/ his (snobbish) parents. Tony decides to visit the night before the planned event… and craziness ensues!

I watched this film for the 3rd time last week; I esp. liked the scenes of Stewart wooing (or courting) Arthur; they were V cute as a couple and had great charisma. They later starred in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. At this time in Hollywood, she was more famous that him! The scene in night court foreshadows a scene in the later (more famous film)- It’s a Wonderful Life-  all of the Vanderhof family’s friends chip in to pay off his fine. Even Grandpa’s dinnertime prayers remind the viewer of a simpler and kinder type of world.

[1] Vanderhof’s life is full because of his family and the friends he welcomes to share whatever he has, asking nothing in return. He is a rich man, indeed. 

[2] Capra emphasises his favourite theme of the little guy up against the world and succeeds…

[3] You have to be in a mood to watch this, willing to suspend all belief in reality and succumb to the notion that doing nothing for a living is better than having an honest job or worrying about the rent.

[4] This movie leaves a huge smile on my face and I think, unless you’re an extreme cynical type, it will do the same for you. It’s a warm, uplifting comedy with romance, drama, and lots of little bits for people who like “windows into the past.” Just a real treat for anyone who loves getting lost in classic films.

=Excerpts from IMDB reviews

If Beale Street Could Talk (NOW PLAYING)

NOTE: This review contains MINOR spoilers for the film.

Every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all. -James Baldwin on his novel- If Beale Street Could Talk

This is really happening: Families really are being torn apart by this. Love is really under attack by these injustices and these issues. –KiKi Layne, actor

I think the biggest message is love and hope. You never know the power of that, and how that can get you through the most tumultuous times.  -Stephan James, actor

[1] It’s a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. 

[2] The acting was great, especially Regina King. She deserves every award she is nominated for in this pic. 

[3] I did want more of the film, but that’s not to say it felt unfinished. I just wanted more of every character.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I went to see this film last FRI w/ 2 of my gal pals at one of our local indie theaters- Landmark Bethesda. Our screening was packed mainly w/ middle-aged and elderly couples (black and white). It was adapted (from a novel by James Baldwin) and directed by Barry Jenkins (NOT yet 40 y.o.) In 2016, Jenkins’ film Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar; I saw that film on Netflix (late to the game). I thought that film was pretty good; it had an unique style and BOTH Mahershala Ali and Andre Holland are actors I admire. I think Beale Street could be more relateable; it’s partly a love story and also a look at justice system in the U.S.

Tish (KiKi Layne- in her first film role), a 19 y.o. dept. store clerk, and Fonnie (Stephan James), a 22 y.o. artist are deeply in love. They grew up together (in very different families) and being a romantic pair just came naturally. Fonnie gets arrested for a (serious) crime that he didn’t commit; Tish learns that she is pregnant w/ his child. Tish’s older sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris from Chi-Raq) find a (young/white) lawyer for Fonnie, Hayward (Finn Whitrock). Both families hustle to raise funds for the defense, incl. conducting investigations outside the country. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), is VERY supportive and goes to great lengths for the love of her child. I think King could be in the running for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar!

This film is NOT about action, it’s more about character development; we see life through black people living in Harlem in the ’70s. There are some tender moments, BUT also difficult ones (which feel timeless, sad to say). Fonnie and Tish have a VERY tough time finding a place of their own to live. His best friend, Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry from Atlanta), runs into Fonnie on the street; he was gone for several yrs from the area (we discover why). Some critics commented how rare it is to just see two young black men talking about their lives and feelings.

There is a LOT of chemistry between the leads; they can convey vulnerability and strength (as situations arise). The supporting actors are quite good; the cast includes Aunjanue Ellis, Michael Beach, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, and Ed Skrein. There are MANY close-ups, long takes (reminiscent of classic films), and the music is used quite effectively. These kind of films are VERY important- they put us in the shoes of people who are rarely depicted onscreen, or NOT depicted in a realistic manner. I recommend to indie film fans (of all ages and backgrounds); perhaps some of you will take a friend/family member who prefers more mainstream fare.

A trailer for the film- “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Bringing Up Baby (1938) starring Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant

Whenever this movie comes on TCM, I recall what my dad said- “it’s too crazy.” Well, this isn’t inaccurate, BUT it’s crazy in a fast-paced/fun way. There is SO much (OK, maybe TOO much) going on in this screwball comedy; you need to pay attention. I saw it for maybe the 3rd time last week; I found myself laughing at several scenes. FYI: Katharine Hepburn had never done comedy before, and was coached by director Howard Hawks (and several veteran actors) he employed. Cary Grant was already well versed in comedy; he also used his acrobatic skills in this film. The two leads have great chemistry; they became friends and even double-dated w/ their significant others (during filming).

She has an amazing body – like a boxer. It’s hard for her to make a wrong turn. She’s always in perfect balance. She has that beautiful coordination that allows you to stop and make a turn and never fall off balance. This gives her an amazing sense of timing. I’ve never seen a girl that had that odd rhythm and control. -Hawks on Hepburn

A young/nervous zoologist, Dr. David Huxley (Grant- wearing thick glases), is VERY excited by the news that an intercostal clavicle bone has been found to complete his brontosaurus skeleton, a project 4 yrs in the construction. He is anxious re: securing $1M for the museum where he works from a wealthy/widowed donor- Mrs. Random. David is engaged to be married to his uptight assistant, Alice. He still refers to her as Miss Swallow; he is disappointed when she says their marriage will be ALL business b/c his work comes first. Who says that classic films don’t have dirty jokes/meanings!?

A lawyer, Mr. Peabody, will make the decision on behalf of the donor, so David needs to make a good impression. Troubles arise when the straight-laced David meets a flighty young heiress, Susan Vance (Hepburn), who keeps doing things which make him look bad in Peabody’s eyes. (BTW, Christopher Reeve based his performance as Clark Kent in Superman and its 3 sequels on the character of David.) The more David wants her to go away, the more Susan keeps showing up, then purposefully drawing him in (b/c she finds him attractive). Susan has a “wardrobe malfunction” at a fancy gathering; such a state of undress was rarely seen in films approved by the Hays Code. David eventually learns that Mr. Peabody is Susan’s good friend (who she calls “Boopy”), and her “Aunt Elizabeth” is Mrs. Random!

The “baby” of this title is a young leopard that was sent from Brazil by Susan’s brother. She thinks that she can keep him in her NYC apt (LOL… and also scary)! Hepburn had a very close call with the leopard. She was wearing a skirt lined with little metal pieces to make it swing in a pretty way. When Hepburn turned around quickly, the leopard made a lunge for her back; the trainer had to intervene w/ his whip to save the actress. This film employed a great number of split screen and optical tricks, such as rear screen projection, so that having the leopard in close proximity to the actors could be kept to a minimum.

[1] One scene after another at breakneck pace, but never a dull moment. As soon as one laugh stops, another one begins. In case you haven’t gotten the point, I highly suggest you see this movie. 

[2] In “Bringing Up Baby” her Susan Vance is a very interesting diversion from her more usual type of character… beguiling in a completely different fashion, playing a slightly scatterbrained, sprightly, charmingly delinquent woman, who seems to have no control over anything; least of all her feelings for Grant.

It’s remarkable to see this absurd little man, bespectacled, unworldly and cutting an orthodox figure played so perfectly by the suave Grant. This is gleefully played on with the sublime scene where Hepburn and Grant are trying to catch the leopard – Kate butterfly net in hand! She accidentally happens to break his glasses and is even more taken with him without them…

[3] Grant’s clearly the superego character, straitlaced and repressed and anti-life (it’s no accident he works with bones). Hepburn was never lovelier than she was here — she’s the id character, all action and movement. We laugh partly because Grant needs to be loosened up, but partly because some of Hepburn’s actions are shocking. Ideally, we should be in the same position as Grant in the movie: half-attracted, half-afraid.

[4] While many films regarded as classics in the ’30s seem somewhat dated now, Bringing up Baby seems as fresh as it ever did, thanks largely to the energetic central performances. Grant is terrific as the professor who gradually loses his inhibitions, but Hepburn steals the show as a self-absorbed young woman who wins the audience over through her lack of inhibitions.

[5] Notwithstanding the obvious physical humor and improbable situations, it’s almost impossible to miss the obvious anatomical references played to the hilt with every mention of the word “bone.” Not only was Grant’s character misrepresented by the unfortunate name, but he seemed to be having a lot of fun while on the chase for the elusive brontosaurus piece – “My bone. It’s rare. It’s precious. What did you do with it?” How many takes do you think it took to get through those scenes? 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Casablanca (1942) starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid & Claude Rains

Here’s Looking At You, Kid… & Immigrants & Refugees

This (classic) film LOVED all over the world wouldn’t have been made w/o immigrants and refugees (MANY of whom were fleeing war). The ONLY woman that Rick (Humphrey Bogart) loved- Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman)- was Swedish; her husband/freedom fighter Victor Lazlo was Austrian. Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) was British, as was Sidney Greenstreet. Director Michael Curtiz was an immigrant from Hungary; the cast/crew sometimes had a difficult time understanding his accent. Ugarte (Peter Lorre) was also Hungarian; he who fled to London in 1935 before coming to the U.S. Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), the young woman dumped by Rick early in the film, and her husband (Marcel Dalio- he plays the croupier), fled Paris before the German occupation in 1940. The Nazi officer, Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), was actually a German w/ a Jewish wife. Carl (S.Z. Sakall), the jovial/elderly waiter, was Jewish and came from Hungary. There are MANY others; Warner Bros. claimed that 34 nationalities worked on Casablanca.

With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas… Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait. -Excerpt from the opening narration

An Unique Love Triangle: Rick, Ilsa, & Victor

No one is the baddie (or malicious) in this trio- VERY rare for a classic Hollywood film! At first, Rick is “neutral,” just content to run his business. Then he sees Ilsa again (after perhaps 2+ yrs, if you’re going by historical events); they met and fell in love in Paris. Ilsa (who is Norwegian) is married to Victor, a Czech man who survived being imprisoned in a concentration camp, BUT still sticks to his values. Victor (who is tall, blonde, and VERY composed/gentlemanly) is portrayed as a natural leader. He loves Ilsa and relies on her for support, incl. in his work. In one pivotal scene, he inspires nearly everyone in the Rick’s cafe to sing the French national anthem.

Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean what you’re fighting for. -Rick asks

You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die. -Victor replies

Rick (who is short, dark, and moody) is the reluctant hero. He also loves Ilsa; he never sticks w/ one girlfriend for long (as Renault comments). Seriously, WHO could compete against Bergman!? In the flashback scenes in Paris, we see a different side of Rick- he’s charming, relaxed, and optimistic. Once Rick realizes the difficult situation that Ilsa and Victor are in, he starts thinking what he can do to help (though he doesn’t reveal it to anyone- TOO dangerous). Rick makes it so the young Hungarian man wins at roulette, so he can fly to America w/ his wife. This pleasantly surprises his employees (and even the VERY cynical Renault); thus, love is a force for change in this film.

Play It, Sam: Friendship, Music, & Race

For this time period, it was a VERY bold move to have Rick’s BFF (and also employee) be played by a African-American man. Dooley Wilson was a singer, NOT an actor or pianist; he did a great job w/ his role. We don’t know how he and Rick came to be pals or why they’re so loyal to each other. Sam plays the (iconic) song which reflects Rick and Ilsa’s love story- You Must Rememer This. When Rick gets drunk/mad, he tells Sam to go away, BUT Sam refuses (b/c he is a supportive friend). The filmmakers received MANY positive comments/letters from black viewers who were happy to see such a prominent/developed character. There is an unfortunate line where Ilsa refers to Sam as “the boy”- cringeworthy to modern audiences, yet probably NOT rare in the ’40s.

The Beginning of A Beautiful Friendship: Rick & Renault

Renault gets a LOT of the best lines in this movie; he is cynical, opportunistic, yet NOT necessarily a villain. We learn that Renault served in WWI. The Nazis are the big baddies, though Renault operates in the gray areas of society. He gets a part of Rick’s gambling proceeds to look the other way. If a woman happens to be pretty, Renault will listen to her concerns. There is chemistry between Bogie and Rains; they banter w/ each other in a fun/quick way.

You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he’s just another blundering American. -Maj. Strasser comments re: Rick

We musn’t underestimate “American blundering.” I was with them when they “blundered” into Berlin in 1918. -Renault replies