Movie Review ~ Escape from Pretoria


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two white South Africans, imprisoned for working on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC), determine to escape from the notorious white man’s `Robben Island’, Pretoria Prison.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Ian Hart, Daniel Webber, Mark Leonard Winter, Nathan Page, Stephen Hunter

Director: Francis Annan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Just when you think you’ve seen all the prison movies you can take, along comes Escape from Pretoria and you find that you have to give it a chance.  I mean, it’s an important true-life tale of political prisoners in the late ‘70s South Africa unjustly jailed for spreading propaganda denouncing apartheid who form a clever plan over time to escape their captors.  Along the way there are setbacks and strife, inspirational moments and bitter defeats, culminating in a broad daylight break out for freedom. Let’s be real, The Shawshank Redemption it ain’t but it stirs some of the same emotional vibes of that gem of a film and uses them to keep your interest for much of its tense running length.

Caught setting off small explosives that send political messages with anti-apartheid sentiment into the air, Tim Jenkin and Stephen Lee were both sentenced to multiple years in Pretoria Central Prison in 1979.  Unable to bribe their way out of confinement, it would have been easy to just accept their sentence and serve their time but Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe, Victor Frankenstein) wasn’t going to give his racist government the satisfaction of holding him prisoner.  Though his other anti-apartheid inmates felt that serving their time was an honor and an important representation of their sacrifice for the cause, Jenkin, Lee (Daniel Webber), and French prisoner Leonard Fontaine (Mark Leonard Winter, The Dressmaker) were of the belief they could do more outside the walls.

For over a year, Jenkin plotted an ingenious method of escape.  It didn’t involve digging a hole or shimmying through a sewer drain but making keys to the prison cells out of the wood scraps they had at their disposal.  With a number of doors to account for and even more methods of opening them, making the keys was easy but figuring out the sequence of events without getting caught was the real challenge. Jenkin’s trial and error over time is what writer/director Francis Annan uses to create some fairly suspenseful sequences along the way, keeping audiences unconsciously biting their nails or gripping their armrests.  Each bead of sweat that hangs precipitously from a brow and every key that won’t open a lock when it has to is worth at least a few fingernail clippings.  That Annan can keep up this atmosphere throughout is worth noting, especially when you can tell the budget for this one wasn’t huge and the simple sets require some imagination to work in.

Though he (like everyone in the movie) battles more with his accent than any prison guard, Radcliffe continues to take on interesting roles that challenge him.  He seems intent to not play the same character or shade of character the same way twice and that’s impressive.  He’s long past the point of having to prove he’s more than just Harry Potter and now you can see he’s doing it for himself and not to show his naysayers he’s limited.  As an elder prisoner, Ian Hart (Mary Queen of Scots) has a nice turn as a source of sage advice for Jenkin…even if he doesn’t always like what the more seasoned inmate has to say.  Winter, too, is good in early scenes as a man determined to get out not just for his own freedom but so that he can reunite with his child, though he gets increasingly wild as the film progresses, the first half of the movie is a well crafted look at a man intent on not letting the system beat him.

It would be easy to browse past this one but I’d encourage giving it a chance.  Like the recent underseen remake of Papillon, while it may look predictable, it isn’t as cut and dry as it may appear at first glance.  With Annan’s intelligent direction and the excellent performances throughout, this is one prison film you could get locked up in.

Movie Review ~ Mary Queen of Scots


The Facts
:

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.