Tag Archives: reviews

REVIEW: Victoria – Jenna Coleman in a royal TV drama

Soap actress and Doctor Who sidekick Jenna Coleman made her bow as Queen Victoria this past weekend.

ITV’s new series is an eight-part look at the early years of Victoria’s reign.

The show is more Downton Abbey than Game of Thrones, but I was still struck by how Jenna’s portrayal owes a lot to Emilia Clarke’s performance as Daenerys Targaryen. I can totally see Victoria screaming “WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS?!!!”

She even has a “mad” grandfather, George III, who lost America – just like Daenerys’ father the Mad King lost the Seven Kingdoms.

Anyway, it’s not been lost on Twitter users that Jenna Coleman’s little queen is far more beautiful than Victoria ever was. Looks wise, Alfie Allen in a wig could have doubled for Queen Victoria (although the craziest royal casting ever would still be Ray Winstone as Henry VIII).

Of course Jenna is too pretty to be Victoria. More importantly, would a modern-day Victoria be pretty enough to be queen in the age of appearances and celebrity? Considering the grief her 4X great granddaughters Beatrice and Eugenie get for their figures and frumpiness, no. I think nothing would end the monarchy faster than an unattractive princess waiting in the wings.

But Victoria is a frothy period drama, and movies and TV do tend to cast actors far better-looking that their real life counterparts – Rufus Sewell is too handsome for Victoria’s first PM, Lord Melbourne.

And it is such a good career move for Jenna, even if it’s not a heavyweight drama that taps into the debate about the future of the monarchy in a 21st century democracy.

Another royal drama – this time a real prestige project – arrives in November in the shape of Netflix’s super-ambitious The Crown. Planned to run for six series, it will trace the life of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy) from her wedding to the present day. Actor Matt Smith, who plays Prince Philip, has promised that the writing – although respectful – is not “overly reverential”.

I’m all for dramas about the modern royal family that aren’t either rousing and predictable (The King’s Speech) or just silly (Will & Kate: The Movie). Victoria is entertainment somewhere between the two, and set in a time when royals didn’t pretend to be Just Like Us.

I wonder how long it will be before we get a well-researched, blockbuster Middleton/Cambridge biopic. Any scrutiny of them, however mild, seems to really hit a nerve.

At least Victoria will only upset historians.

Amber Heard, her acting career and Johnny Depp

If you’re interested in the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard divorce saga, you’re probably pro-Johnny. According to predominant public opinion, he’s a Legend and she’s trying to smear his name and squeeze him for cash.

To put it mildly, this so-called ‘gold-digger’ doesn’t seem to have much of a fan base prepared to come to her defence.

So who is Amber Heard? Before she filed for divorce, I’d have thought:

  • she’s a mean Margot Robbie
  • she stars in dodgy Nicolas Cage movies
  • she’s married to an actor that isn’t Nic Cage, but is similarly weird and old enough to be her dad.

At the moment, she has a part to play in the expanding Warner Bros/DC cinematic universe. I say ‘at the moment’, because internet commentators are hoping she’ll lose her role as Mera in Justice League and Aquaman. Something to do with accusing Johnny Depp of domestic violence.

Amber got to know Johnny on the 2009 set of the film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary. She had beaten higher profile starlets like Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley for the very slight and purely decorative role of Depp’s love interest. She turned 23 during filming, Depp was 45.

The Rum Diary ranks as one of the biggest flops of Saint Depp’s career. (For a beloved icon, audiences aren’t interested when he isn’t doing silly walks and gimmicks.) I watched it a few days ago, and it’s actually an OK movie with some funny moments and enjoyable performances, especially from Depp and Richard Jenkins.

People have always questioned Amber’s motives for marrying the multimillionaire superstar, but Rum Diary-era Depp still looked like the handsome Johnny of old. (Officially, they didn’t start dating until 2012.)

Amber is very beautiful like Angelina Jolie or Marilyn Monroe, but cinema-goers haven’t been able to see any vulnerability or softness in her turns as yet another femme fatale, scream queen or hot chick.

She had a supporting role in The Danish Girl as a bohemian ballerina, where it was a genuine surprise to see her in genteel Oscar bait instead of genre fare. Amber seemed so grateful for the gig she got a bit overenthusiastic, but there was heart to the performance at least.

The clip below is of Amber as the young Charlize Theron in an upsetting scene from 2005’s North Country. She’s unrecognizable – more girl-next-door than the sex sirens she portrays now.

I really wanted to get a sense of Amber as an actress, which hasn’t been easy with her body of work. I expect she must be used to losing roles to Jennifer Lawrence, Margot Robbie and Kristen Stewart.

If marrying Depp was a planned career move, it was a bad one, because having your tabloid persona overshadow your work is pretty fatal for actresses.

Perhaps after her divorce she’ll no longer be a big-ticket gossip draw.

I still maintain she’s a little hard on the ears, but it’ll be interesting to see where she goes next.

Mini movie reviews for 2016!

It’s February. That means cold, freezing weather. It is also the culmination of the awards season. Yes, it’s nearly time for the biggest, glitziest celebrity ceremony of the year – The Oscars. Chilly, horrible weather, and awards season? I think I better start with…

THE MARTIAN

Ridley’s Scott’s latest space offering is set on the red planet, where things get pretty cold for NASA botanist Mark Watney (Damon) when he’s abandoned by the rest of his team, ET-style.

Setting the tone for the movie, Watney patches himself up after getting harpooned in the gut. It’s realistic and gritty, unlike my beloved Prometheus . They’re going to “science the shit” out of this one.

Based on the 2011 Andy Weir novel, the scenes on Earth are as dry as Martian soil. Luckily, whenever things get a bit lofty at NASA HQ, something goes wrong for Watney (not that I actively wanted him to suffer.)

Mars looks like a fab destination, and the astronauts have cool space suits in a kind of burnt amber that match the scenery. It’s not as good or moving as Gravity, but it’s still a fantastic ode to human endeavour and ingenuity,  human strength and the will to survive. Matt Damon is the Best Actor on Mars.

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SICARIO

A fictional war-on-drugs action crime thriller so brutal I wondered what I was doing watching it.

Idealistic young FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) is a kidnap response expert who makes a  gruesome discovery in Arizona. She gets hauled into a narcotics task force led by the morally ambivalent Matt (Josh Brolin), a DoD/CIA bod and his even shadier partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).

Blunt is wide-eyed and vulnerable – enough to be affecting, but not so much to be miscast as a door-kicker rolling with Delta Force. She’s the audience’s proxy, not driving the story forward so much as along for the ride; in this movie, the good guys fight dirty.

Del Toro is so enigmatic he makes waking up from a nap compelling. Kate can’t tear her eyes off him; neither can the audience. She appears attracted to him, even if he scares her. He wants to protect her, even as he threatens to kill her. Intense stuff.

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THE DANISH GIRL

Save all your tears for The Danish Girl, a lavish costume drama based on 1920s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, who starts her journey as Einar, married to fellow painter/illustrator Gerda (Alicia Vikander).

They are devoted to one another, with a circle of friends who love to hear about their blissful wedded life. (An earsplitting, hyper Amber Heard cameos as ballerina Ulla, a confidante of the couple.)

But an unhappy Lili eventually meets a humane physician and becomes one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, before antibiotics or immunosuppressive drugs. “I am… entirely… myself,” beams an unconvincing Redmayne from Lili’s sick bed.

Although it starts as a two-hander, The Danish Girl is more of a blank canvas for Alicia Vikander. But it’s got its timing right, and it’s bound to find an audience willing to treat it with reverence.

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ROOM

Little Jack and his poor Ma (Brie Larson) are locked in a soundproofed shed they call “Room”.

Their captor, Old Nick, snatched a teenage Joy Newsome seven years ago, before she gave birth to Jack in captivity. In the evenings, Old Nick visits with supplies and inflicts himself on Ma while little Jack sleeps in a closet.

Mother and son eventually pull off a rather implausible escape, and wake up in hospital with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a vast cityscape, which seemed like a rapid adjustment for two people used to a cramped room with only a skylight.

Other characters start piling in: Ma’s divorced parents, lawyers, doctors, television hosts, and this is where it loses its hold. Larson is off-screen in the final act as she recovers from a suicide attempt, and we’re left with screechy little Jack making cakes with grandma and getting a haircut.

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CAROL

Trapped behind a toy counter in a Manhattan department store for the holidays, Therese (trussed up in a Santa hat like a festive fawn) is dreaming of a creative life as a photographer. Across a blur of Christmas shoppers she locks eyes with a statuesque beauty: it’s Cate Blanchett, as the titular blue-blooded 1950s socialite.

Their acquaintance becomes a love affair – dangerous, especially if Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has anything to do with it. Hounded by his private investigators, Blanchett is a free spirit – although there’s definitely something predatory about her.

Every frame is beautiful, however, it is slow, restrained and elegant – the lack of right-on wrath may make it too removed for some.

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CRIMSON PEAK

I expected a subpar Victorian horror. I knew it had a pedigree, with stars Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain directed by Guillermo del Toro, but Crimson Peak flopped at the box office.

Aspiring writer Edith’s (Mia) mother is dead, and her dad is a decent, bearded fellow – who’s got Brit aristo Hiddles trying to convince him to invest in his mining inventions.

Pa dislikes him and  his Bronte mean girl sister Chastain, but Edith marries Hiddles and returns to England to live at his crumbling estate, where gross red clay oozes through the walls and floorboards.

There’s a ghost, too, but although sinister, Crimson Peak doesn’t deliver shocks or scares like the Victorian Gothic The Woman in Black, and probably isn’t intended as a horror. It’s a dark costume drama, a weird Tim Burtonish fantasy and a brooding romance – I’m not sure. I wonder if anyone in charge of the marketing knew either.

The fab cast and the decomposing goo-mansion seem to breathe as one determined mess. Kudos to the movie’s strange warmth and passion, and to the best costumes.

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The Ballad of Ren and Rey

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has broken records, received stellar reviews and revitalized a much-loved franchise.

More importantly it gifted us Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, son of Leia and Han, Master of the Knights of Ren and Creep of the First Order. He has become an internet sensation thanks to his tantrums, his sullen ambivalence and his rejection of his former identity.

Before the movie’s release we learned that Kylo idolized Darth Vader, which is why he stomps around in a black mask that he doesn’t need.

With fans already insisting new heroine Rey was the Skywalker descendant, I wondered if Kylo would pursue her as a dark side bride and have little Vader great-grand babies. Instead we learn that Kylo himself is of Vader’s bloodline.

But he is very interested in Rey., even sweeping her into his arms and carrying her to his ship. When Rey taunts him and refers to him as a “creature” he pops his mask off and tosses his hair. “Don’t be afraid, I feel it too,” he smirks.

Rey has to pick her jaw up off the ground and re-assume her own mask – a mask of defiance.

Who is she? Technically, she’s just a scavenger abandoned by her parents. She’s no one, but her relationship with Kylo may be central to his redemption.

Her lineage has become one of the big mysteries of The Force Awakens, and there are plenty of theories.

Rey and Ren are siblings

Well poor Han had no clue.

hansolo

Credit: Lucasfilm

Some people think he unburdened his fatherly guilt to Maz Kanata off-camera at her castle. But the reason we cut away in that scene is because the audience didn’t need to hear Han explain Rey’s backstory.

It’s possible Leia secretly had baby Rey before stashing her for safe-keeping. But as the novel Before the Awakening makes clear, Rey suffers an agonizing life, waking up every day starving.

Leia’s reaction to Rey is warm but ambiguous. She greets her with a hug because the girl cared for Han and saw him die, and because Leia can sense she is strong with the force.

But are Rey and Kylo siblings? I’d say no.

They’re cousins

Did Luke’s facial expression scream Skywalker family reunion?

luke

Credit: Lucasfilm

As Rey reached out to him, he looked like he was going to chuck himself off the cliff, like that time he jumped off a ledge in Cloud City in Empire.

Vader begged him to join the dark side; Rey reaches out to him to rejoin the fight for the light. Episode VIII may reveal that Luke is her father. That’s not going to be shocking. And they could have done it in VII.

Comments from Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow hint that we might not get answers to Rey’s parentage until the end of the trilogy. That’s a long drawn out reveal when half the audience already think she’s Luke’s.

As for Kylo, cousin-rivalry will hardly have the pathos of the father-son duel in Return of the Jedi.

The Kenobi connection

A lot of fans are sold on this one; Rey is the granddaughter of old Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi.

obi

LucasFilm

Why Kenobi? He was a mentor figure for Anakin and Luke, and this is the Skywalker family show, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy has stated. And we already have a Skywalker – Ren.

Kenobi was dead before Jedi, and Rey was born after the Battle of Endor, so no way is she his daughter. But Kenobi could have had a child who went on to have Rey… It’s unwieldy.

And Kylo fighting the granddaughter of his namesake? It’s not really the “deeply and profoundly satisfying” ending Trevorrow promised.

Empire writer Lawrence Kasdan has said that Episode VIII will be “some weird thing,” which possibly suggests a stranger answer than Rey-is-a-Kenobi…

She’s the Force, reborn…

ani

LucasFilm

Some people say the shadow of Vader looms over Rey.

Rey picked up piloting and force skills so quickly both Han and then Kylo looked at her with amazement. Perhaps this isn’t Rey’s first rodeo. Yup, she’s the Rey-incarnation of Anakin/Vader.

Maybe after Anakin brought balance to the force, he saw his grandson fall to the dark side. He made the sacrifice to return and redeem him, the way Luke saved Vader.

Hmm. Although fans accept space wizards, telekinesis and ghosts, the truth is that reincarnation is considered silly.

BOOK REVIEW: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland is a tale about identical twin sisters with hidden gifts. Growing up with a hostile, depressed mother and an ineffectual father in St Louis, Violet and Kate called their eerie dreams, insights, and premonitions their “senses”.

We follow Kate, the novel’s first-person narrator, as they take divergent paths through adulthood. Kate has suppressed her senses and taken the conventional route in life, living with her husband and their children in the suburbs, whereas Violet is a proud, rebellious misfit, earning a crust as a psychic and medium.

After a minor earthquake strikes, Violet has a premonition of a catastrophic follow-up. When she announces the date in a television interview, she becomes an overnight media sensation and the international attention rocks Kate’s domestic life and the siblings’ already tense relationship.

The chapters alternate between the present day fallout and the twins’ troubled back story. It covers a lot of familiar territory for Sittenfeld – such as awkward adolescence and self-identity.

Kate’s abilities are an innate part of her, and are presented as matter-of-fact. These extrasensory flashes are a blessing for the reader, as they help break up Kate’s mundane adult life and judgmental inner voice. As someone who enjoyed the extreme introspection of Sittenfeld’s other, rather similar heroines, Kate is irritatingly priggish.

Violet is lazy, stubborn, and delights in provoking her straight-laced twin, whilst Courtney – a work colleague and friend of Kate’s geologist husband – subtly ratchets up the sarcasm and cutting remarks.

Even if some of Kate’s choices feel unbelievable, Sittenfeld’s characters and the intricacies of female relationships are again depicted with an alarming – almost spooky – perceptiveness.

The ways in which earthquakes – romantic, emotional and physical – play out for the characters make for an absorbing conclusion.