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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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

Hostiles (2017) starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, & Wes Studi

The quietest moments of his [writer/director Scott Cooper’s] movie are often the best. Wow, Majors, what a find! He had the ability to command the screen w/o showboating. -Grace Randolph (Beyond the Trailer)

It has everything I want in my modern revisionist westerns. It’s slow-paced and quiet, beautifully filmed, uses realistic graphic violence and is extremely sad from the opening scene to the end credits. -Kellen Quigly (YouTube)

This is a movie is about PTSD in the Old West. It’s about the harshness of war. Captain Joe Blocker is introduced as a man who represses any feeling that isn’t hatred, guilt, grief or wrath. War has tortured his soul and landed him in a pit, and for a long time, instead climbing out, he just continued to dig the hole deeper and deeper… -Mark Mirabella (YouTube)

Synopsis: In 1892, after almost 20 yrs of fighting the Cheyenne, Apache, and Comanche natives, US Cavalry Captain, Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), is ordered by his superior, Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang), to escort an elderly/ailing Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi)- the man he MOST despises- and his family from New Mexico to the chief’s ancestral home in Montana (Valley of the Bears). Joseph’s unwelcome assignment is complicated when a grieving widow, Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), joins his band of soldiers and travelers. Then, an aggressive pack of Comanches attack and other dangerous events occur. On a path filled w/ hostiles, can this soldier complete his final duty w/ his life (and mind) intact? 

Director Scott Cooper, who was at the helm of 2009’s Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaalseems VERY comfortable w/ the Western genre. This film (which I missed seeing in theaters late last Fall) contains MANY beautiful wide shots of landscapes. Cooper’s characters are much more complicated than what you’d find in a typical (think John Ford/John Wayne) Western. Though it’s well-made, it can seem slow and (according to some critics)- a BIT self-indulgent. I feel that about 10-15 mins could’ve been edited out. The themes here are quite dark, so if you’re looking for an escape, this is NOT the film for you! From the first scene of Hostiles, viewers know that things are going to get real. 

The performances of the ensemble of actors is the main reason to see this film, along w/ its dialogue (some of which is quite deep and unexpected). Rosalee, though she suffered so much and is racked w/ grief, still held to her faith in God (as she explains to Blocker in a quietly effective scene). I thought Pike (as usual) did VERY well w/ her role; Rosalee  grew and changed over the month-long journey. Traveling w/ the Indians, she came to see them as real people, NOT merely savages to be feared. I was pleasantly surprised by how well a bearded Rory Cochrane (Blocker’s oldest friend- Master Sgt. Thomas Mertz) portrayed a depressed soldier. He often drinks heavily, suffers from PTSD (as does Blocker), and feels that life is NOT worth living anymore. A grad from West Point, played by up-and-comer Jesse Plemons (Lt. Rudy Kidder), is articulate, capable, BUT maybe too kind-hearted for his own good. There are a few light moments involving Timothee Chalamet (Philippe DeJardin, a French immigrant turned Army private); his role is VERY minor. The standout soldier (and actor) is newcomer Jonathan Majors (Corp. Henry Woodson- a strong/loyal/religious African-American who has served yrs under Blocker). Majors has that X factor; the viewer’s eye is drawn to him even when he’s NOT saying anything. He gets to have one of the best scenes in the 3rd (final) act opposite Bale.

On this journey, we also meet Ben Foster (disgraced soldier/murderer Philip Wills); he and Blocker served together yrs ago. Wills (wearing chains and stripped of his rank) ran away from his post and brutally killed several innocent people. At a small town, Lt. Col. McCowan (Peter Mullan) asks Blocker to escort Wills to a fort for his punishment (hanging), and Blocker quickly agrees. It’s obvious that Blocker feels contempt for Wills, BUT the prisoner is quick to point out that they’re BOTH killers, and the roles could be easily reversed. Foster (a quite gifted actor) should’ve gotten some more to do. There is a volatility and sense of unease which he creates w/ Wills.

The native actors, incl. Canadian Adam Beach (who has appeared on many films/TV shows) and Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World- also co-starring Bale), don’t have a LOT of dialogue, BUT are portrayed in a realistic/sympathetic manner. Studi (who is a film/TV vet) has a kind of solemnity, strength, and can also be vulnerable. He has come a long way from the villainous/warrior Magua viewers loved to hate (The Last of the Mohicans). This tale is (mainly) about the personal journey of one white man- Blocker- who comes to see the natives as fellow humans.

The film rests on Bale’s (always capable) broad shoulders, and he doesn’t disappoint. He even learned some of the Cheyenne language, which he speaks w/Studi (who I wished had been a BIT more developed). MANY of us have watched Bale grow-up onscreen; he has evolved from a slim/fresh-faced/wide-eyed teen to a muscular/middle-aged/powerhouse actor. For his portrayal of Blocker, Bale has tapped into his dark side; there is anger, resentment, hate, worry, and (in time) empathy and kindness on his face. Rosalee (w/ whom he forms a connection) is a catalyst for change in his life, as is the suicide of Mertz. I thought that Blocker’s change of heart was TOO abrupt, BUT this film is worth a watch. 

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) starring Robert Mitchum & Deborah Kerr

I watched his film (w/ my mom) this past week at AFI in Silver Spring, MD (theater across the street from my current apt). I’d seen it before (on TCM), BUT let’s face it- Mitchum is a big man meant for the big screen. This film was shot on location in the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago) in Cinemascope. This film is rightly compared to The African Queen w/ a female being a religious missionary and a hell-raising male thrown together in wartime. The African Queen was set during WWI; this film is set on a small Pacific island in WWII.

John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable and Marlon Brando all wanted to play, or were sought for, the part of Mr. Allison before Robert Mitchum was cast. Mitchum worried that Kerr would be like the prim characters she often played; after she swore at director John Huston during one take, Mitchum (who was in the water) almost drowned laughing. The two actors were friends until Mitchum’s death in 1997.

Deborah Kerr is a nun who hasn’t yet taken her final vows.  Being alone on the island with Mitchum is a temptation, no doubt- LOL! At that time, the Catholic church imposed strict censorship laws on films dealing with religious situations/characters. In the original book by Charles Shaw (inspiration for this film), the marine and the nun fell in love. Huston created a resolution in which the marine and nun gain strength, hope and determination from each other. There’s a great parallel between Cpl. Allison and the Sister. Each dedicated themselves to their respective vocations- he is dedicated to the Marines; she is dedicated to the Catholic Church. Mitchum shows what depth and sensitivity he could bring to a part. Kerr earned an Oscar nom! 

The script called for several Japanese-speaking officers and a company of troops to be on the island. There were no Japanese men on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago; a few who spoke the language were eventually found in an emigrant community in Brazil. For the non-speaking Japanese troops, 50 Chinese men (who worked in the restaurants and laundries of T&T) were hired. Some locals were upset b/c work didn’t get done while these men had their 15 mins of fame.

[1] If you are looking for a movie with heart and real content, this could be perfect. The acting is top-notch, as is the cinematography. The plot flows beautifully and holds your attention to the very end. 

[2] It’s the subtlety that makes this film work they way it does. 

[3] Mitchum- an actor who only really has one persona, and yet is a good actor all the same. It didn’t matter whether he was playing… he was still the same sturdy, laconic Robert Mitchum. But within that one persona, he has a full range of expressiveness and credibility. This is among his best performances.

[4] Kerr- she conveys every thought and emotion through tiny gestures, facial twitches and changes in posture. Above all, she brings a very warm and believable character out beyond the stereotype.

-Viewer comments from IMDB

Darkest Hour (2017) starring Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, & Kristin Scott-Thomas

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

Within days of becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must face one of his most turbulent and defining trials: exploring a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany, or standing firm to fight for the ideals, liberty and freedom of a nation. As the unstoppable Nazi forces roll across Western Europe and the threat of invasion is imminent, and with an unprepared public, a skeptical King, and his own party plotting against him, Churchill must withstand his darkest hour, rally a nation, and attempt to change the course of world history.Synopsis from Focus Features

… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
–Excerpt from two of Churchill’s speech (before the Battle of Britain)

I saw this historical drama on SAT; it is part of Regal’s Oscar movie showcase (FEB 23-MAR 4). Darkest Hour (directed by Joe Wright) is very well-made w/ (I assume) great attention to period details. I esp. enjoyed the music (composed by Dario Marinelli). Gary Oldman is completely transformed; his Churchill is both intimidating, yet (somewhat) relatable in the quiet moments. It’s not just about the cigars, whiskey (champagne for lunch- FYI), and a quick temper. Churchill has doubts, many ideas (some that are unpalatable to his own party), a sense of humor, and- most of all- thinks that victory over the Nazis is possible. We know Oldman is capable of delving deep into each role; however, this takes him to another level!

Kristin Scott-Thomas (who has been working in France for many years) plays Clemmie, Churchill’s supportive (yet NOT a pushover) wife. It was nice to see her on the big screen after a long time. Another woman in this tale is a young typist, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James from Downton Abbey), who works closely w/ Churchill, though quite upset by their first meeting. Was this character based on a real woman? Or did the screenwriter create an (accessible) character to draw the viewer into the world of WWII-era British politics? I suspect it was a bit of both. Miss Layton is able to adjust to the (eccentric, sometimes insensitive) ways of her employer, who becomes Prime Minister (May 1940) at the start of the film. James does a fine job, able to keep a stiff-upper lip (as was expected in that world), yet also expressing strong (yet controlled) emotion in few key scenes.

Churchill keeps his “enemies” in his cabinet, including former PM Neville Chamberlain (considered a coward by many) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane from Game of Thrones). Halifax, who turned down the PM job before Churchill was chosen, wants to negotiate some sort of peace w/ the Germans (if possible). Of course, Churchill can’t stomach that idea; he has trouble even saying the name “Hitler” when required. The PM’s speeches and radio broadcasts helped inspire British resistance, especially during the difficult days of 1940–1941.

I was very impressed by Ben Mendelsohn (who plays King George V); he hails from Australia and has been receiving critical acclaim after breaking into Hollywood in middle-age. Check him out in S1 of Bloodline (Netflix) or in Rogue One (a prequel to Star Wars), if you haven’t already. Not only does Mendelsohn get the unlikely king’s (subtle) stutter right, his mannerisms and expressions seem pitch-perfect for a man deeply concerned about his nation (yet unable to express his feelings). At first, he is “a bit scared” of Churchill (FYI: He supported Edward’s marriage to Wallis Simpson), though the men become allies in time. Any man whose name frightens Hitler is worth his support, King George explains to Churchill.