The Two Popes 2019 ****

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There’s been plenty of criticism of the lowest common denominator programming on Netflix; from Bright to The Ridiculous Six, there’s often a pervasive, musty aroma of a bottom drawer project that no-one else wanted. Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quite a different kind of animal, a carefully wrought adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play about the changing of the guard in the Vatican. As a roman a clef, it bears more of a resemblance to The Crown in that it features a decidedly populist view of historical events; while hardly worth faking a box-office run for, it should do Netflix no harm to demonstrate that yes, they can generate genuinely meaningful content.

Let’s be honest, here, a lot of the fun of The Two Popes is in the margins. Did you know that Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) was a huge fan of Kommisar Rex, a tv show about a crime-fighting dog? Were you aware that his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) would drink Fanta and eat pizza with him like a couple of home-boys while they plotted the future of the Catholic Church? A funny end-sequence has them on the couch watching football; the de-mythologising of the papal home-life is a big part of the appeal here. An opening sequence, in which Francis whistles Abba’s Dancing Queen seeps into an orchestral version that provides a surprising and irreverent soundtrack to the initial selection of Benedict as Pope.

Meireilles hasn’t done too much to open up the play; the beautiful backdrops at the pope’s retreat and at the Vatican provide much to engage the eye while two great actors bring the popes to life. This is a two-hander piece much like Volker Schlöndorff’s excellent 2016 film Diplomacy, with vivid flashbacks to Francis’ struggles as a young man in Argentina. Both Hopkins and Pryce give big, relish-able performances as quite different men, and the script never lets sight of the weight that both men suffer from a deep sense of despair at their church’s failure to act over internal abusers.

The Two Popes has surprised many by coming straight out of the traps to secure Golden Globe nominations; given the pedigree of the cast and director, it’s certainly in the running for awards attention. Perhaps it’s too wordy and worthy for pop-corn-swilling crowds, but it’s an excellent, thoughtful film, and it would be nice to think that it may well end up with a higher competition rate than Roma or The Irishman; it’s a tighter, more disciplined film that either of these prestige pictures. If nothing else, it’s a great start to Netflix’s Papal Cinematic Universe, (PCU) with plenty of other key figures ripe for Pope-sploitation.

Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion 1997 ****

romyPower sucks, or certainly the abuse of it does; whether convictions are the result of the on-going MeToo revolution or not, it’s to be hoped that the film industry will no longer be a place where one man can successfully blacklist a wronged woman. Mira Sorvino has made accusations of exactly that nature, and it’s pretty much apparent that her career took a nose-dive from Oscar winner for Mighty Aphrodite to Hallmark tv movie queen. Two years after her Academy Award, she did some of her best work in this delightfully feather-weight Touchstone Pictures comedy which pairs her with Friends star Lisa Kudrow. While everything from Bill and Ted to Dumb and Dumber gets prequels, sequels and reboots, Romy and Michelle has been left on the shelf, and that’s a real shame, because it’s a funny, likable film with strong female characters.

The point of origin is a play, Ladies Room by Robin Shiff; one that gave birth to the characters of Romy and Michelle, played by Sorvino and Kudrow respectively. The tagline, The Blonde leading the Blonde, reflects the fun that’s had with the heroines being somewhat gauche; the gag is that Romy and Michelle are losers, but they resolve to fake it until they make it, specifically because they’re headed home from LA for a high-school reunion which they hope won’t reflect their penury. A chance encounter with Heather Mooney (Janeanne Garofalo) in a Jaguar repair-shop inspires the girls to deceive their old friends and foes alike by pretending to have invented Post-It stickers and other white lies. Of course, the internet hasn’t happened yet, so it’s quite possible to get away with such untruths, since fact-checking seems to have been an unknown art in 1997.

There’s lots of fun to be with David Mirkin’s film; early roles for Justin Theroux and Alan Cumming, who has a wild dance scene set to Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time in the film’s celebratory climax. But Sorvino and Kudrow are a revelation, with great comic timing, just enough pathos, and two characters who should have spawned a franchise for sure. And this is a story where the girls kick ass, take on the bullies and braggarts, and win in a most satisfactory way. There’s no way to accurately assess the injustice done to actresses like Sorvino, but giving Romy and Michelle a dust down, or even a sequel, might be a tiny step in the right direction.

Beats 2019 ****

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After the pioneering work of Bills Douglas and Forsyth, then the bursts of energy created by the Trainspotting/ Braveheart era, the Scottish film industry has had feet of clay every since; a slew of Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland funded duds which not only failed on their own merits, but also stopped any indie scene from developing. Brian Welsh’s Beats feels like the kind of low-budget, high yield drama that could have been made at any point since the millennium; a simple story of friendship between two Scottish boys Johnno and Spanner (Christian Ortega and Lorne Macdonald), this adaptation of Kieran Hurley’s play is shot in a spare black and white, with occasional bursts of colour when the music takes over, notably in an eye-popping rave scene. The spirit of the mid-90’s period is well caught, and the narrative is carefully charted to avoid the clichés that hobble most local films. Beats is the kind of accessible, entertaining film that looks easy to make, but requires considerable skill all round; anyone who ever lost their mind outside a Portakabin in a field goodness-knows-where will know exactly what Beats is all about.

Beats has a UK release on DVD and blu-ray from September 9th 2019. Or Stream Below.

A Man of No Importance 1992 ****

Albert Finney’s career had phases rather than just a highlights; while his 80’s output was something of an anti-climax for the actor who burst into world cinema in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by the 1990’s, there were increasing opportunities to see the great man giving it both barrels. In Suri Krishnamma’s charming comedy-drama, Finney excels as Alfred Byrne, a gay bus-conductor who feels forced to repress his sexuality due to the mores of the time. His unrequited passion for fellow driver (Rufus Sewell) remains just so, but Byrne sees an opportunity when the striking Adele Rice (Tara Fitzgerald) gets on his bus. He quickly arranges a performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome with Adele as the star, but emboldened by Wilde’s words, Byrne’s attempts to reveal his true nature end badly for him.  With the atmosphere of 1963 Dublin persuasively caught, A Man of No Importance is one of these lucky films that sees great talent well harnessed; after Finney’s death, this was deservedly mentioned alongside Tom Jones, Under The Volcano and The Dresser as amongst Finney’s best.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed 2009 ***

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Writer/director J Blakeson made the most of a limited budget with this theatrical Uk thriller, a kidnapping drama with twists and turns that would have amused Peter Shaffer. Gemma Arterton is Alice Creed, the daughter of a rich man, who is unceremoniously kidnapped by two men Vic and Danny (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compson). All is not what it seems, but Blakeson does well with a few Isle of Man locations, and strong performances from all three leads keep the momentum going for the full 96 minutes.  The Disappearance Of Alice Creed does contain some strong, disturbing sexual scenes, but they’re justified in terms of the plot, and well-handled.

Hamlet 1996 ***

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William Shakespere’s classic text is usually cut for theatrical or cinema performances, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production goes the opposite way, restoring every possible word over a mighty 242 minute running time. Branagh himself essays the student who returns home to find his father dead and his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) in thrall to his uncle Claudius. Elsinore is depicted in majestic fashion, and the cast, combing Charlton Heston, Ken Dodd, Robin Williams, Richard Briers and Jack Lemmon, is as highly eclectic as it sounds. Casting Brian Blessed as Hamlet’s father typifies the larger-than-life feel of this epic production, one more jewel in a film laden with glittering elements, woven together to create a great record of the definitive revenge story.

Dogville 2003 ***

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Writer/director Lars von Trier created a vivid theatrical experience in this 2003 drama, with Nicole Kidman as Grace, a woman who stumbled unannounced into the Rocky Mountain’ township of Dogville. Rather than use (or simulate) real locations, von Trier sets the action on a stage set, adding a layer to theatricality that’s initially distracting, but strong performances from Kidman and a cast including Paul Bettany, James Caan, Lauren Bacall quickly establish the feel of the small Colorado town. Dogville’s hefty 174 minutes take their time in establishing how Grace relates to the community, but there’s a devastating twist at the end that elevates this claustrophobic chamber piece into the realms of high art.