Movie Review ~ Mary Queen of Scots


The Facts
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Synopsis: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…and to be faced with an onslaught of Oscar bait historical dramas that can arrive with hype but fade without much fanfare.  I mean, we’ve already seen what happened to Keira Knightley’s Collette earlier this fall.  Oh, you missed it in theaters?  So did I…and everyone else.  I sure hope Mary, Queen of Scots isn’t another 2018 victim of this reluctance by audiences in sitting for two hours for a period piece.  For all its historical fudging of the facts and obvious attempts to link the ill treatment of two powerful women in the past to our present state of living in a #MeToo and #TimesUp environment, this is a fantastically entertaining film that had this notorious watch-checker glued to the screen with nary a glance toward his timepiece.

I admit it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve had a history lesson on the legacy of the English monarchy so I’m going on the good faith of the opening text that in 1561 young Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) returned to her Scottish homeland.  Widowed by her husband, the Dauphin of France, she had a strong claim to the throne of England, then held by her first cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) but she wasn’t just able to waltz in and toss the crown on her head.  The Catholic Stuart posed a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth, not just in the religious differences of their subjects and not the least of which was that whoever produced a child first would be able to call the throne hers.

Over the next twenty six years the two women would wage a complex game of chess in which both moved players to the forefront for personal and political gain, only to be outwitted or strong-armed aside by the various men that conspired against the both of them.  “Men can be so cruel” Elizabeth is heard saying and in Beau Willimon’s script it’s clear that the men are the enemy (there’s not a single truly honorable bloke in the bunch) and women were kept under thumb despite their noble attempts to bring peace and order to their lands in the ways they, as monarchs, deemed correct.

Willimon’s experience as creator of the US adaptation of House of Cards was a good training ground for his work here.  The intricate political dealings between the two queens and their assembled privy councils make for some crackling good scenes of wit and retort and the heated arguments, desperate protestations, and whispered confidences come off well in the hands of our stars and the supporting players.  Even taking liberties with some historical points of interest and outright dreaming up a meeting with Mary and Elizabeth doesn’t feel as if a great historical injustice is being done.

First-time director Joise Rourke gives it her all in Mary, Queen of Scots, nicely blending costume drama (oh, those wonderful costumes by Alexandra Byrne, Thor!) and episodic schemes against Mary by the ones she holds closest. Originally courted by Lord Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite) as a favor to Elizabeth in the hopes she can control her cousin, Mary eventually weds Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden, Dunkrik) who has secrets of his own that come to light in one of several twists I was surprised to see. For those averse to staid costume drama, there are battle scenes with Mary leading a charge against an army set to overthrow her and double-crosses aplenty.

Ronan proves again she’s a force to be reckoned with, much like the doomed queen she is portraying. Headstrong (pun intended) but not without compassion, Ronan gives Mary a modern sensibility in a time and place where women may have had a regal title but rarely had the upper hand. Robbie, too, has strong moments in a role that could easily have delved into camp considering her prosthetic nose and the heavy clown make-up Elizabeth wore to cover-up the lasting scars of her pox ailment.

Filling out the cast are a stable full of actors playing Mary’s devoted ladies in waiting as well as Guy Pearce (Prometheus) as Elizabeth’s advisor and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as her confidante. The movie unquestionably belongs to our leading ladies and though the two actresses spend the majority of the film talking about one another, when they finally do meet up (in a scene that supposedly never really happened) Rourke gives the actresses room to breathe and resists the urge to lean into the catty nature Willimon’s script veers toward. The way cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan) moves his camera to create tension before the ladies first see each other had me on the edge of my seat.

History buffs may well reject this movie outright for its strident approach to the lives of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth but if you’re talking pure entertainment value then Mary, Queen of Scots has its head and heart in the right place.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Pirates! Band of Misfits

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Pirate Captain sets out on a mission to defeat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the Pirate of the year Award. The quest takes Captain and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

Stars: Hugh Grant, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Martin Freeman, Jeremy Piven

Director: Peter Lord

Rated: PG

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Still a kid at heart, I secretly love being able to see animated films and enjoy them through the eyes of an adult.  I’ve no problem finding time to see a PIXAR film with the same verve that I have for the newest R-rated action blockbuster because there’s the same great escapist entertainment to be had in the world of animation.  The animators at Aardman have long been a favorite of mine thanks to their pioneering work with stop-motion animation and their creation of the Wallace and Gromit characters.

This year when the Oscars were announced I found there was only one film among the five films selected as Best Animated film nominees that I hadn’t seen and it just happened to be Aardman’s latest effort, The Pirates! Band of Misfits.  I missed this one on several occasions in the theater and after seeing the film I regret not taking advantage of seeing the movie on the big screen with the added bonus of 3D technology.  It’s one of the strongest nominees and could just find itself with the Oscar when the big night rolls around.

The film starts off in a fairly standard way and I was just settling in for what I thought would be a familiar story when the movie pulled a nice switcheroo and turned a standard plot line on its head.  What begins as a tale of a dippy Pirate Captain and his rag-tag crew entering the Pirate of the Year Awards quickly veers into creative territory involving exotic animals, adventure on the high seas, and a few run ins with a very disagreeable Queen Victoria.  Along the way there are ample amounts of laughs and superior displays of creativity that have become the standard calling card of the folks at Aardman.

As the Pirate Captain, Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) doesn’t rely on his proper stutter and stammer but instead uses a light air to suggest that our hero isn’t as aware as he should be.  This Pirate Captain is lovably clueless, making for a winning combination when teamed up with his faithful band of misfit pirates with great names like The Albino Pirate, The Pirate with Gout, The Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate, and The Pirate with a Scarf voiced nicely by Freeman (the current Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). 

A few historic characters pop up as supporting players like Charles Darwin who is reinvented as a lovesick dweeb with a thing for Vicki (that’s Queen Victoria to you commoners) who won’t give him the time of day.  It’s the Queen Victoria character that made me laugh the most — given new life by Aardman as a scheming villainess and voiced with prim steeliness by Staunton.  This Queen is no slouch — director Lord and screenwriter Gideon Defoe (who wrote the source book) make her nice and nasty without ever utilizing any truly mean jabs.

Like the other nominees (Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, and Wreck-It Ralph), The Pirates! Band of Misfits has a lot of heart in its themes of loyalty and friendship that won’t be lost on youngsters and grown-ups that view it.  The blend of stop-motion and computer animation is seamless and beautifully detailed…showing that Aardman gets better with each film they produce.  A worthy nominee for Oscar glory, this is an easy-going fantasy adventure with enough visual gags for kids and laughs for adults.