It’s 1585 and Elizabeth Tudor (Blanchett) is well into her third decade as Queen of England slightly older but just as exquisite—and just as wary of the enemies at her gate. Led by Spain’s Philip II (Jordi Molla) a fundamentalist Catholic movement is sweeping 16th century Europe and they view Elizabeth as a Protestant heretic. Philip and his supporters have rallied round Elizabeth’s exiled Catholic cousin Mary Stuart Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) waiting for their chance to usurp the Virgin Queen’s throne and restore Catholicism in England. The queen’s trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) keeps the wolves at bay but Elizabeth is in constant danger. She finds some comfort in the company of her favorite lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) as well as the dashing explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) whom Elizabeth sees not only as an intellectual and spirited equal but also as a way to glimpse into the unexplored globe’s infinite freedom—something the Queen can never have. But when an assassination plot goes awry Elizabeth shifts her energies back to her country setting off a chain of events that will change the course of history. Just like the Queen Elizabeth herself Blanchett is also slightly older but wiser and even more poised and beautiful than she was playing the Virgin Queen the first time in the 1998 Elizabeth. That film helped put the actress on the map and gave her her first Oscar nomination—and a second nomination for playing the same character shouldn’t be far behind. Blanchett gives this enigmatic queen such flawed humanity. She’s all at once regal sarcastic knowing jealous and loving—and above all a true queen to her people. Although The Golden Age is clearly Blanchett’s movie the supporting cast is also superb especially Rush whose aging Walshingham isn’t nearly as aggressive as he was in Elizabeth but still formidable and Owen as the charismatic Raleigh who clicks in more ways than one with Blanchett. By God Queen Elizabeth needed a real man and if Raleigh had had any royal lineage she may have married him. Instead she has to pawn him off on Bess--played sweetly but blandly by Cornish (A Good Year)--and live vicariously through them until their union gets the better of her and she banishes them. Elizabeth is a woman after all. Morton too does an admirable job as the doomed Queen Mary heaving breasts and stoic resolve to her ultimate demise. As with his original Oscar-winning Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur clearly loves the splendor and pageantry of the 16th century royal court and serves up another visual treat with The Golden Age. The costumes are once again spectacular as are the sets. The battle between the British navy and the Spanish Armada is particularly stunning especially as a victorious Elizabeth stands on a high bluff wind blowing looking into the horizon at a sea of burning Spanish ships. Highly effective. Kapur isn’t very subtle in his depiction of the bad guys either. King Philip is almost Golum-like walking in a weird way mumbling and constantly rubbing his rosary beads. At any moment you expect him to hiss “My precioussssssss.” Creepy. But where Kapur’s Golden Age fails is in its pacing. While the first Elizabeth was intriguing in the making of a queen Golden Age plods through Elizabeth’s anxieties and insecurities even if Cate Blanchett is riveting in almost every frame. Things only really get going when Elizabeth forgets about being a lonely woman and gets her head in the war game. There’s also the fact that the masses may have had their fill of historical movies about this time period—from HBO’s excellent Elizabeth I (which is in essence the same story) to even Showtime’s The Tudors. Chalk this Golden Age up to bad timing.
Based on British mystery writer P.D. James’ rather downbeat novel Men takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is definitely not right. In fact society is facing extinction since the human race has lost the ability to reproduce; there hasn’t been a new child born in 18 years. But as the tagline reads “…all that can change in a heartbeat.” While the rest of England is unraveling as civil unrest runs rampant a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is found miraculously pregnant and Theo (Clive Owen) a disillusioned government agent agrees to help secretly transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of mankind. So sets in motion a race against time fraught with many horrific obstacles. Children of Men collects a first-rate cast. Leading the pack is Owen as yet another reluctant antihero. It’s a good part for the somewhat depressive actor who seems at ease when everything is going to hell around him (see Inside Man Closer etc.). Theo is initially drawn into the Kee conflict because his ex-wife a terrorist/activist--played with brief but quiet determination by Julianne Moore—asks him to. See they share their own personal tragedy so saving Kee and the baby becomes even more important to them. Newcomer Ashitey shines as Kee who really doesn’t understand at all what is happening to her but has a fair amount of spunk anyway. Other standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots) as one of Moore’s compadres with his own nefarious agenda and Michael Caine as an old friend of Theo--a throwback to a more peaceful time. Representing both old and new school Ejiofor and Caine are actors you can simply put in any film and somehow they will make them that much better. But Children of Men’s true brilliance comes from its creator. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is simply one of the most exciting cinematic storytellers working today. No genre is out of his reach. He has done kiddie flicks (A Little Princess) sexy coming-of-age dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien)—and even a splashy Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban probably the best one so far). And now Men a futuristic thriller that he crafts with absolute bone-chilling effect. Cuaron’s world is not a very happy place with the skies consistently gray with pollution and violence injustice and human cruelty around every corner. When Theo and Kee are on the run you’re expecting the worst at any moment but that’s not really where Cuaron’s head is at. He wants us to have hope. As the director puts it in the film’s production notes “Humanity has an amazing talent for destruction. But also we can show solidarity and an ability to come through problems together. In the end Children of Men isn’t so much about humanity being destructive—its more about ideologies coming between people’s judgment and their actions that is at work in this story.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
If you thought a San Francisco police detective (Michael Douglas) was hard to break imagine how tough it is to sway a London shrink (David Morrissey). Leave it to Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) to try. The sinful author has resurfaced and--in the nearly decade and a half since the first Basic Instinct--moved to London. Old habits die hard however and she’s again being investigated for a sex-gone-awry homicide. This time it’s renowned shrink Michael Glass who’s charged with keeping a watchful eye on the elusive seductress--and does he ever! He tries to maintain his professional ethos but what’s a platonic doctor-patient non-relationship to him is the ultimate aphrodisiac to Tramell whom Dr. Glass diagnoses with “risk addiction” and delusions of omnipotence. And so begins the Freudian chess match: How long can he resist the femme fatale and how long can she resist him resisting her? In Basic Instinct 2 Stone makes us feel naughty--and not a “good” naughty. She looks great and there aren't any uh extra close-ups but subtly put almost 15 years have past since the first installment and Stone is no spring chick--er rabbit as it were. For her to still be oozing sex as if it’s only been a sequel-standard couple of years is creepy even though she looks nowhere near her age. The accompanying smolder and breathy voice make it hard not to laugh; she’s actually too regal an actress for this stuff. Morrissey--who strangely resembles the Smiths singer of the same name--does fine work with an unenviable role of a steely bloke intrigued by the seedy London underworld his patient enjoys. But it’ll take repeated broodings for him to be the next Clive Owen. The biggest waste of talent comes from Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) as Glass’s mentor. She has no place here and that’s meant solely as a compliment. In some ways Basic Instinct 2 is such a shame: When the film operates purely as a murder mystery--at least for its first half--it’s somewhat engaging. Sadly the only reason there’s any interest in this long-delayed sequel at all is the prospects of sex to outlast its original. Thus it is clear to see how cantankerous a film this must’ve been for director Michael Caton-Jones but he does the best he can with all the sexual innuendo that leads up to all the sexual (anti-)climaxes. The completely absurd opening sequence gives it all up without even playing hard to get. It immediately feels like a traditionally slick dull and revelatory film whereas the first one offered us foreplay first before moving on to no-holds-barred sex; there’s neither that brand of foreplay nor sex here. More ridiculous still is the second half as the film eventually feebly attempts to hide improbable twists behind the sordid mind of a writer.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars in which the Christians tried to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered the Middle East in the 7th century. With the battle cry of "God wills it! " thousands of Europeans answered the call and were able to retake the fabled Holy City in the 11th century. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1186 between the Second and Third Crusades. A fragile peace prevails mostly through the efforts of Jerusalem's enlightened Christian king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the military restraint of the legendary Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But it's difficult to maintain the peace. There are extremists within the Christian brigades--known as the Knights Templar--who want to wipe every Muslim off the face of the Earth. On top of that King Baldwin's health is failing. Once he's gone war is sure to follow. If ever there was a need for a hero this is the time. Enter the young French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is in deep despair over the loss of his family. He joins the Crusades after the father he never knew Godfrey (Liam Neeson) comes back from Jerusalem and convinces him it's a quest worth fighting for. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son he also passes on that sacred knightly oath: to protect the helpless safeguard the peace and work toward harmony between religions and cultures so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth. No pressure or anything though.
Orlando Bloom carries his first major motion picture very well easily handling the chores of being such a gallant conscientious and morally upstanding knight. As Balian the Troy costar plays the gamut. He broods over his lost wife and child has father-son epiphanies upholds his knightly duties on a regular basis falls in love with a beautiful but troubled princess and finally bravely defends the Holy City from the encroaching Muslim army thus becoming a legend. Not bad for a day's work eh? There are even times especially toward the end when Balian is standing before the denizens of Jerusalem urging them to fight when you swear you can see a little of Bloom's The Lord of the Rings alter-elf Legolas creep in. The supporting cast also does an adequate job painting a picture of some trying times. Chief among them: Jeremy Irons as King Baldwin's right-hand man Tiberias; Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) as the evil leader of the Knights Templar; Massoud as the great warrior Saladin; and lovely Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Princess Sibylla King Baldwin's sister who captures our hero's heart but makes some bad choices with dire consequences.
Even if these sword-and-armor epics are all blending together you've got to give props to the directors who make them. These films are massive undertakings and Kingdom of
Heaven with the expert Ridley Scott at the helm is no exception. The Oscar-winning director of course has had his fair share of recreating history first with the classic Gladiator and then with the contemporary Black Hawk Down. But in recreating the Crusades Scott faces his toughest challenge to date and takes on the responsibility very seriously. He is painstakingly meticulous with details even as he is building a 12th-century Jerusalem or corralling 2 000 heavily costumed extras for the colossal climactic battle sequences. And it is always a good thing when a historical film can teach you something you may not have known like what the heck the Crusades were really all about. No Kingdom's biggest obstacle is timing. While it certainly has more substance than Alexander it is not nearly as intense and stirring as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the granddaddy of them all Braveheart. Too many of its ilk has come before and the concept has unfortunately worn thin.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.