Judy (Rupert Gould, 2019) 6/10
This sketchy screen biography is based on Peter Quilter's play, "End of the Rainbow, charting the last year in the life of the tired and tragic Judy Garland. In the role, making a screen comeback, is Renée Zellweger who spent the last few years facing sharp criticism from the public, press and the industry, who questioned her facial features after she went through a series of face lifts. It was exactly the sort of criticism Judy Garland, the child actor, faced at the start of her career as the studio and its head, Louis B. Mayer, took control of her life and put her on a regular regime of diet and sleeping pills. The film covers her dark early career via flashbacks as her life eventually spiralled out of control and 30-years later she found herself broke, a pill and alcohol addict battling her ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), for custody of her two kids as nobody would hire her. Finally getting a gig in London, the star takes to the stage performing her repertory of songs - "Get Happy", "The Trolley Song", "You Made Me Love You", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", "The Man That Got Away" and of course "Over the Rainbow". Zellweger, who sings all the songs herself, does not resemble or sound like the iconic star but still manages to get completely under her skin capturing her spirit and bringing her to life. Looking emaciated, just like Garland was in 1969, Zellweger goes through harrowing scenes bringing to life the star's unreliability and uncertainty who could be brilliant on stage during one performance while being literally poured into her dress and pushed on to the stage by assistants the following night as she battled stage fright while in an alcoholic stupor. Her seesaw life continued right to the end although she found some measure of happiness with Mickey Dean (Finn Wittrock) who would become her fifth and final husband. This film is very much a one-woman show just like Garland's stage performances were and Zellweger overcomes the superficiality of the project with her commanding presence giving what is easily her best screen performance.
The Chaperone (Simon West, 2019) 4/10
Exquisite production is such a damp squib. Julian Fellowes adapted the screenplay and the film has a whiff of "Downton Abbey" which deals with an early episode in the life of Louise Brooks (Hayley Lu Richardson) who would go on to become a dancer and silent-movie star during the 1920s and 1930s. Accepted at a prestigious dance school in New York she leaves her hometown of Wichita, Kansas and is chaperoned by a local matron (Elizabeth McGovern), who has her hands full keeping an eye on the sassy girl. The older woman has an agenda of her own for making the trip. Estranged from her husband (Campbell Scott) - a flashback reveals the reason for her marriage unravelling - she hopes to find her birth mother who left her in an orphanage when she was a child. She is disappointed when her mother (Blythe Danner), now married into money, wants nothing to do with her although is pleased to see her. Brooks' character is the backbone of this coming-of-age drama but apart from the familiar bob, which would go on to become her trademark "look", she seems like just any other horny teenager wanting to chase men for sex and attention. McGovern comes off better as the prissy woman who gets exasperated at the young girl's antics but recognizes her talent and also finds romance with a much younger jewish janitor (Géza Röhrig). The screenplay plays it safe avoiding issues of race, sex and resists anything provocative which makes the film a dull viewing experience.
Chance at Heaven (William A. Seiter, 1933) 2/10
Corny depression era drama involving a love triangle. Good natured garage owner (Joel McCrea), engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Ginger Rogers), falls head over heels in love with a dizzy rich blonde (Marian Nixon) from New York. The girl's mother breaks up the marriage and the lady waiting in the wings moves back in. Rogers and McCrea make a cute couple but this silly and implausable film is just a waste of time.
The Mysterious Doctor (Benjamin Stoloff, 1943) 5/10
Studio-bound horror film set in a small village in Cornwall during WWII. A headless ghost, assorted murders, a simple minded villager, a mysteriously abandoned tin mine, suspected Nazis, a feisty heroine (Eleanor Parker) and the local Baron (John Loder) are part of the formulaic but atmospheric plot.
Twenty Million Sweethearts (Ray Enright, 1934) 5/10
Cute musical was Ginger Rogers' first star-role. She gets to sing, romance a singing waiter (Dick Powell) who becomes a huge radio star helped by an unscrupulous agent (Pat O'Brien). Their marriage stumbles when he is romanced by "twenty million sweethearts" who fall in love with the crooner while listening to his songs on the radio. Powell, who is clearly the star here, introduces the hit number "I'll String Along With You". Despite Rogers getting her lead break she iss relegated to the sidelines. O'Brien does his usual obnoxious shtick. Remade loosely 15-years later as the Doris Day musical "My Dream Is Yours".
Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985) 10/10
Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear" is a brilliant retelling which mixes Japanese history, Shakespeare's plot and his own feelings about loyalty. Set in medieval Japan, an aging ruler - Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadi) - decides to bequeath his kingdom equally to his three sons with the eldest having overall control. The two older sons shower him with words of love and appreciation while the younger son opposes their father's move calling him mad and a fool for thinking the brothers will stay united. Outraged by his son's audacity he banishes him and tells his other sons that he will retain an entourage of 30 warriors and live out his old age visiting both in turn. The younger son's prophecy comes true and the old man finds both his sons turning against him - first the eldest who, goaded on by his wife, Lady Kaedo (Mieko Harada), turns him out of the castle. She had waited all these years to take revenge on the old man for slaughtering her family and she now ruthlessly sets her plans in motion. The second son also turns his back on the old man and the two brothers go into battle against each other with the eldest getting slain and their father going mad and wandering the heath with only the company of a loyal bodyguard and his ever-faithful court Fool. His life now in ruins he turns to his banished son, is forgiven by him but the final outcome has tragic results. This magnificent epic, after a return to form with "Kagemusha" in 1980 which was his last critically acclaimed film, consolidated his position as one of the world's greatest film directors. It was indeed bitersweet as this re-emergence came after facing years of disapproval from critics and the public, failing health and a suicide attempt. There are many memorable sequences in the film starting with the opening boar hunt with galloping horses against a vast barren background, a brutal battle sequence shot in complete silence except for a soaring score as soldiers are brutally killed by arrows and swords, a gentle scene of the old mad man sitting in a field of flowers and every scene involving the cold, ruthless and sexually charged Lady Kaedo. Kurosawa, the production design and the film's breathtaking cinematography were all nominated for Oscars. It took over two years for the stunning costumes to be painstakingly created which are highlighted in the film with Kurosawa often directing the actors against bland coloured backgrounds allowing the green, orange, red and yellow costumes to jump out of the screen in all their splendor. The costume designers won a richly deserved Oscar. One of the great classics of the screen and a must-see.
Chernobyl (Johan Renck, 2018) 10/10
In April 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics becomes one of the world’s worst man-made catastrophes. Superbly made 5-part miniseries recreates the events of that night with riveting intensity and follows through with its aftermath with edge-of-the seat suspense and horror. A wonderful cast - Emily Watson, Jessie Buckley, Stellan Skarsgård - is anchored by Jared Harris in the lead as Valery Legasov who was the chief of the commission investigating the disaster. Thoughtful, frightening story makes you think, especially with a nuclear reactor literally in Islamabad's back yard. Won 10 Emmy awards with Harris, Skarsgård and Watson all nominated for their performances.
Bande à part / Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) 10/10
Exciting early Godard when his films had a raw and very breezy quality. Everything looks natural on screen - the actors and their seemingly unrehearsed antics (although he did rehearse them) have a natural spontaneity which in his later films became overly self conscious and arty. Two friends (Sami Frey & Claude Brasseur), both movie buffs, spend their time wandering aimlessly through Paris looking for excitement. They find "her" in an english class, a bubbly but naive young girl (Anna Karina), with whom both fall in love forming a doomed love triangle while modeling themselves on popular American culture and getting up to crazy antics - dancing spontaneously, observing a minute's silence, running through the Louvre and carrying out a robbery. Godard's fascination with Hollywood style gangsters and guns is never far away from his plots. They decide to rob money stashed at her aunt's house on a whim and out of boredom while playing out their fantasies. Like all Godard films the snappy editing, crisp (b/w) cinematography (Raoul Coutard) and a jazzy score (Michel Legrand) play their part in creating cinema magic. Great fun and Karina - Godard's muse then - is an absolute delight.
Fabiola (Alessandro Blasetti, 1949) 8/10
Blasetti's film was the first large-scale sword-and-sandal epic made after the war and had a lot in common with MGM's lavish colour production of "Quo Vadis?" which came out two years later. Loosely based on the novel by Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, the film covers Roman politics during the 4th century reign of Emperor Constantine who was fast becoming partial to Christianity. At the center of the conflict between the Romans and Christians is the romance between Fabiola (Michèle Morgan), daughter of a senator (Michel Simon), and a gladiator (Henri Vidal) who is secretly a spy for the Emperor and believer of the new faith. The senator's radical acceptance of the Christian faith and of freeing slaves puts him at odds with Roman aristocracy and he is murdered and the Christians are accused. It all ends grimly in the arena with persecuted Christians condemned to die as both lovers find themselves fighting for their lives and watched by the blood thirsty population. Massimo Giroti plays the gentle Saint Sebastian who is martyred. The original 3-hour version of the film was dubbed and drastically cut by an hour for english speaking countries. It loses much of its impact in this truncated version but manages to retain a lot of the spectacle in this handsome production. Morgan and Vidal began their ill-fated relationship during the film's shoot leading to an unhappy marriage (caused by his drug addiction) which ended with his death a decade later.