‘Case 39’

Idealistic social worker Rene Zellweger (Judy, Cold Mountain) becomes more and more personally involved in a child abuse case. But things are not quite what they seem as the parents, each locked away in mental institutions, warn the authorities of what is to come. Innocent, Lillith (Jodelle Ferland – Twilight Saga: Eclipse, The Tall Man) is not. Events escalate as colleague Doug (Bradley Cooper – A Star is Born, American Sniper) dies in mysterious circumstances.

Billed as a horror film, director Christian Alvert (Antibodies, Banklady) steers the demon-child narrative into predictable territory. The result is pretty minor but saved by a strong ensemble and a convincing Zellweger.

Rating: 42%

‘Mary, Queen of Scots’

The age old story of the bitter rivalry between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth that led to the eventual execution of the Queen of Scotland. Theatre director Josie Rourke chooses to portray the story mainly from Mary’s perspective.

Returning to Scotland at the sudden death of her 16 year-old husband, King Francis II of France, a young Mary (Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn, Lady Bird) immediately lays claim to the English throne of the Protestant Elizabeth (Margot Robbie – Suicide Squad, I Tonya). Plots abound in the dour castles of Scotland and courts of England as each of the women choose to act on or ignore the different advice given by courtiers, lords and lovers.

Each feared and fascinated by the other, a complex Elizabeth is relegated to a supporting role in the adaptation of John Guy’s novel as a magisterial Saoirse Ronan dominates proceedings. It’s a turbulent time of betrayal and conspiracy. Yet Mary, Queen of Scots is a more pensive discourse than a full-blooded confrontation, a muted, suprisingly claustrophobic telling that, whilst holding interest, cries out on occasions for a little more action.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2019 (costume & make-up).

Rating: 59%

‘Room at the Top’

A terrible northern accent from Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate, Darling) mars a gritty tale of naked ambition.

Ambitious young accountant Harvey arrives at an industrial northern English city from a dirt poor background post World War II. He soon finds himself planning to marry a wealthy factory owner’s daughter (Heather Sears – Sons & Lovers, The Siege of Pinchgut). But in joining the local amateur dramatics society to further his cause, Joe Lampton meets Simone Signoret (Ship of Fools, Madame Rosa), a beautiful but unhappily married older woman.

Adapted from the Bradford-set novel by John Braine, Room at the Top explores the poverty, snobbery and prejudice of mid-century provincial England. Signoret is superb as director Jack Clayton (The Innocents, The Pumpkin Eater) explores controversial for the time extramarital affairs, divorce and (male) gold digging. But the film, with its gritty realism and political comment, has sadly dated – oh Joe, you do love me, don’t you says the simpering Susan. Along with Harvey’s ridiculous accent, it’s a film that, whilst a huge box-office success at the time of its release (1959), now finds itself something of a museum piece.

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 1960, including best film, actor and director – won 2 (Signoret for best actress, adapted screenplay).

Rating: 54%

‘A Simple Favour’

Lightweight but entertaining, A Simple Favour is an engaging comedy drama.

Suburban single mom Stephanie (Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect) gives cooking and homekeeping tips on her vlog and volunteers for just about everything at her son’s school. Yet she befriends the new-in-town glamourous, martini-drinking New York fashion executive, Blake Lively (The Age of Adaline, The Town). When Emily disappears, Stephanie sets out to help find her.

An unusually subtle approach to the material from director Paul Feig (Spy, Bridesmaids) reaps dividends. It’s all style and eye candy (Emily also has the trophy novelist husband in Henry Golding – Crazy Rich Asians, The Gentlemen) but genuinely funny at times – even if the narrative pushes its credibility in the final third of the film.

Rating: 61%

‘Gossip From the Forest’ by Thomas Keneally

November 1918 – and German plenipotentiaries make their way across the country and into enemy territory to sign the Armistice to end the First World War. Their destination is a railway siding in the bleak forest in Compiègne, north east of Paris. They are minor officials, headed by politician Matthias Erzberger, little more than scapegoats for the dishonourable task of surrender.

Mixing fiction with real life events and characters along with speculation and a smattering of rumour and hearsay, Keneally explores the immediacy of the mission. Awaiting the Germans are the two signatories, the Supreme Allied Commander and French representative, Marshall Ferdinand Foch and, for the British, First Sea Lord, Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, along with several members of their staff. Foch, with his long-held anonymosity, is determined to eke out maximum suffering for the Germans, military and civilian alike.

Threatened by famine and anarchy at home along with the perceived threat of the Soviets from the east, Erzberger has been given carte blanche to sign for peace. But the punitive demands on Germany through the proposed continued blockade of ports and huge tonnage reparations of rolling train stock, trucks, tanks and armaments strike fear in his heart. His country will starve. And Foch has made it clear that there are to be no reductions, no negotiations.

On a continent exhausted by four years of slaughter, Compiègne is the location of the final hours. Foch has set 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month for the Armistice to become official and announce the ceasefire. It’s for Erzbeger to make this happen – just a few days after the German delegation first arrived.

Accessible in its telling, Keneally produces a vivid and claustrophobic telling of those final hours of the Great War as men with their own prejudices, wants, demands are confronted by the sheer magnitude of their task. But it is also impossible to read Gossip From the Forest without being aware of the repercussions of the negotiations.

Gossip From the Forest was shortlisted for the 1975 Booker Prize (one of only two) but lost out to Ruth Prawar Jhabvala and Heat & Dust.

‘Frida’

Smart and thoughtful though it may be, Frida is an overly clean ‘Hollywood’ biopic of iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek – Savages, Once Upon a Time In Mexico).

Director Julie Taymor (Across the Universe, The Glorias) follows Kahlo from the crippling injury sustained in a tramcar accident as a teenager until her death almost 30 years later, continually wracked by pain. Her naïve folk art style failed to gain much acclaim during her lifetime: Kahlo’s renown was based on marriage to womaniser and internationally-acclaimed muralist, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina – Love Is Strange, The Da Vinci Code). She also housed refugee, Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush – Shine, The King’s Speech) for a short period and where she reportedly became his lover.

Frida isn’t a bad film – but Taymor for some reason defines this spunky, independent woman by the relationships with the men in her life – particularly Rivera. It undermines her and also avoids the depth of physical pain and suffering Kahlo went through. The result is an engaging but prettified and superficial telling of an enthralling life story. And could so do without those animations!

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 2003 (including Hayek), won 2 for best score and makeup.

Rating: 59%

‘Sense8’

Bold, sexy, ambitious – and one of the most expensive streaming series ever made as the cast move across the globe from Mexico City to Seoul, London to Chicago, Nairobi to San Francisco, Berlin to Mumbai. It’s a globe-hopping mix of sci-fi, action and melodrama – but also a deeply sincere cry for acceptance of difference.

Eight people of exactly the same age but of hugely different values and experiences suddenly discover themselves to be linked emotionally and ‘telepathically’. They share each other’s experiences unseen by others around them – as Wolfgang (Max Riemelt – Free Fall, Berlin Syndrome) is confronted by the latest Berlin gangland war, he suddenly finds himself inside the home of Kala (Tina Desai – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Dassehra) planning her forthcoming wedding into a wealthy Mumbai family. A stoned Riley (Tuppence Middleton – Downton Abbey, The Imitation Game) will see the same event as Chicago cop, Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith – TV’s Stargate Universe, Gossip Girl).

Confusion reigns supreme for the eight but San Francisco transgender activist Nomi (Jamie Clayton – The Snowman, The Neon Demon) and non-sense8 girlfriend Amanita (a superb Freema Agyeman – TV’s Dr Who, Law & Order UK), through their combined hacking skills, start to unravel events around them. Sense8s are seen as a threat to homo sapiens and there’s a multi-national, BPO, out to find them. Other clusters of sense8s dip in and out to help or hinder as the group find their united skillsets and set out to eliminate BPO and, in particular, the obsessed surgeon, Whispers (Terence Mann – Freedom, Critters).

Sexuality, gender, race and other sociopolitical issues raise their head as the intrigue and sense of sheer adventure escalate. Shoot outs galore, occasional gruesome surgery, orgies, drug abuse, raves – with the innovative Wachowskis (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) at the helm, the whole builds to a daring two and a half hour crescendo in ending the two-series yarn.

A Netflix Original

Rating: 80%

‘Freeman’

A documentary on an event that bought a nation together – the Women’s 400 metres final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. World champion Cathy Freeman carried Australia’s hopes – along with all the expectations. But as an indigenous woman, there were added pressures.

Sadly, co-directors Laurence Billiett and Stephen Page (artistic director of Bangarra Dance Company) fail to deliver anything more than a superficial exploration of the race and the years leading up to it. Little is explored of the struggles and racism faced by Freeman, the years leading up to the ‘big moment’, the massive ‘sorry’ demonstrations regarding the recognition of the Stolen Generation or the competitiveness between her and arch rival, the French reigning Olympic champion, Marie-José Pérec. All are merely touched upon – it’s the race that counts. And then the 49.11 seconds of the race are broken up, interspersed with the fluid and sensual movements of a Bangarra dancer. Zut alors. Sacrilege. Why? Up until then, the occasional glimpses of the dancer Lillian Banks to represent movement and spirit as Freeman herself talks of moments had been a nice touch.

Most know the story and the lead up – and Freeman is a documentary made for those ‘most’.

Rating: 50%

‘The Paperboy’

The croaking of frogs, the sound of cicacadas, the tangible humidity of Florida swampland pervades the Southern Gothic that is The Paperboy.

It’s all a little lurid as an extraordinary trailer-trash Nicole Kidman (The Hours, Destroyer) finds herself part of a newspaper investigation into the murder of the unpopular local sheriff: she’s convinced her redneck lover (John Cusack, Maps to the Stars, Hot Tub Machine), incarcerated for the crime, is innocent. Local boy and Miami star reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club, The Lincoln Lawyer) and David Oyelowo (Selma, A United Kingdom) head the team but Jansen gives kid brother Zac Efron (The Greatest Showman, Hairspray) a job as their driver. Emotions and passions are stirred – and not all in places expected.

Timid it’s not as director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) adapts Pete Dexter’s novel as the tale spirals into toxic excess. If you know Deliverance or Killer Joe, you will know what to expect!

Rating: 66%

‘Jirga’

Filming in the stark, highly dangerous locations and using a predominantly non-professional cast, writer/director Benjamin Gilmour returns to the Pashtun world of his acclaimed Son of a Lion (2007).

Seeking redemption, former Australian soldier Sam Smith returns to a war-torn Afghanistan and the family of the unarmed man shot on a military raid. Haunted by events, Smith looks to locals to help him pay financial recompense – and put himself at the mercy of the Jirga, the village justice system. With the ever present threat of discovery by the Taliban, Smith sets out from a disbelieving Kabul across the arid landscape of the Kandahar, first by taxi, then alone.

Sadly, whilst made with the commitment and sincerity of that earlier feature, a languid Jirga lacks any real emotion or sense of urgency. An unconvincing Sam Smith (The Invisible Man, The Nightingale) struggles, with the non-English speaking taxi driver Sher Alam Miskeen Ustad far more interesting. The cinematography, however, is quite beautiful (Benjamin Gilmour).

Rating: 46%