This was a popular theme, and I have not revisited it for a while. I turned my chair around, and slid six films from a stack in front of me. There are two foreign language films; also a suspenseful psychological horror, an historical epic of importance, a modern crime thriller, and even a musical. One of the foreign language films is a powerful war film, and perhaps one of the best films ever made. See what you think.
Now with added clips or trailers!
*****Most contain plot spoilers*****
This film covers the youth of Queen Elizabeth I, during the turbulent times of that period in history. Australian actress Cate Blanchett might seem an unlikely choice as the queen, but she not only looks the part, she takes the role, and makes it her own. The complex politics and religious divides at the time are handled without lecturing, and soon made clear to the viewer. Intrigues abound in the Royal Court, as various factions compete to marry off the queen, and gain power and favour for themselves. The young queen has to grow up fast, making decisions about who to trust, and what advice to follow. Blanchett is always believable in her journey from youthful innocence, to become one of the most powerful monarchs in British history.
The cinematography is excellent, as are the accurate period details, costumes, and music. But what made this film stand out for me, and remain a joy to watch to this day, is the quality of the whole cast, however small their part. Cathy Burke is heartbreaking as the dying Queen Mary, and Christopher Eccleston excels as the scheming Duke of Norfolk. Fanny Ardant captivates as Mary of Guise, and the whole film is almost stolen by the incredible performance of Geoffrey Rush, as the spymaster and power behind the throne, Walsingham. Even one of cinema’s tough guys, Vincent Cassel, gives a very amusing turn as one of Elizabeth’s suitors, the Duke of Anjou, who is discovered to be a bisexual transvestite, of all things.
Everyone knows the story behind this powerful queen, so there are few surprises to be had, naturally. What makes this film so good, is that you can watch it, knowing the end, yet still be immersed in the story as if you had no idea. This is historical drama at its very best.
When A Stranger Calls (1979)
One of the best examples of psychological horror ever made, and yet almost unknown to many modern film fans. This original version (forget all remakes-please) is as riveting to watch today, as when I saw it on release. Wide-eyed Carol Kane stars, as babysitter Jill Johnson, alone in a house looking after the children of the Mandrakis family. She gets a ‘phone call from an unknown man, with the famous line, “Have you checked the children?” At first she thinks it is a prank, but the calls continue, so she contacts the police. They trace the call, and in a wonderful moment of cinematic terror, tell her that the caller is inside the house, on another line. She runs outside, and when the police arrive, they discover the children have been horribly murdered.
Charles Durning, the reliable overweight father figure of American cinema, arrives as investigating detective, John Clifford. He eventually tracks down the killer, who is sent to an asylum.
Events then move on. Seven years later, Clifford has left the police, and is now a private detective, employed by the Mandrakis family to hunt down the killer, who has escaped from the mental hospital. Jill Johnson is now married, with children of her own. One night, she is at a restaurant, and receives a telephone call. Did you You guess it? The voice at the other end asks, “Have you checked the children?”
It doesn’t get much better than this, and the film inspired many later cliches in the horror genre, as well as at least two remakes. Don’t watch it alone. And don’t answer the telephone.
By complete contrast, a modern American musical drama, based on the successful stage play of the same name. This is a star-studded big-budget production, with the feel of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals factored in nicely. It is essentially a take on the story of the career of The Supremes and Diana Ross, but they are naturally never mentioned. All the usual musical elements are there. A struggling backing group, following a famous singer around on tour (Eddie Murphy) find themselves discovered by a slick new manager (Jamie Foxx) who moulds them into a top-selling girl group.
On the way, there are romances, affairs, betrayals, and some insight into the record companies and corruption that was widespread during the 1960s. Beyonce Knowles is very good as the star of the group, Deena Jones, who eventually goes solo, and even appears in films. Others in the group fare less well, with one falling pregnant, and another badly used in a love triangle. Jennifer Hudson, who was a TV talent show contestant, manages to convince in the role of Effie White, single mother and bitter member of the group. If you have ever seen a musical, you can guess the rest. After all the break-ups and heartaches, the girls reunite for a triumphant return concert, and it all ends happily ever after.
So why do I have this film? Despite winning countless awards, some of the acting can be best described as wooden, and the cliches are so signposted, you can easily make a snack and catch up afterwards. I have it because of the songs. There are some really great tunes on this soundtrack, all sung with real talent and raw emotion by both Knowles and Hudson. The rest of the music is good too, and showcases the changing styles over the years that the film is set in.
But one thing holds true. If you don’t like the songs, you won’t like the film.
This is a French film, about an incident in the Spanish Civil War. It is also about power, and a young man coming to realise how cruel life can be. I confess from the start that this is a niche-market film, and I have it because I am interested in the subject. However, the star is Jean-Louis Trintignant, one of the best and most famous actors ever to come out of France, and that alone makes it worth watching.
It is told from the point of view of a teenage officer, recalled from school in France to join the Nationalist army led by Franco. He is sent to be taken under the wing of his father’s old friend, the arrogant and gay Colonel Masagual. This man determines to toughen up the young Rafael, by having him assigned to an execution squad. Franco’s army are killing all their enemies in the areas that they have conquered, whether prisoners of war, communists, or union militia.
Trintignant is spellbinding as Masgual, coldly ordering killings, or arguing with his juniors whilst wearing a hairnet. He strives to drive all humanity from Rafael by immersing him in the constant executions. Some scenes will stay in the memory; blood being cleared after the shootings, and the blank wall where the prisoners are shot. But it is the interplay between the main characters that holds the viewer’s attention, with a sharp and incisive script, alongside compelling performances.
This film may be hard to track down, but it will reward your time.
Eastern Promises (2007)
Directed by David Cronenberg, with a terrific cast, including Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel, this is a convincing modern gangster film, set in London. It tackles the sex-traffic trade, and the involvement of the Russian Mafia in illegal activities in the capital of the UK. Sexual abuse of young girls, drug addiction, and secret police, all feature in this exciting film, that delivers some pretty convincing twists in its plot too. (Which I will not reveal.)
Despite some use of graphic violence in fight scenes, this is not a run-of-the-mill gangster film. It strives for as much authenticity as possible, from the locations in London, to the accurate Russian Mafia tattoos displayed on the body of Mortensen’s character. Because of the plot twists, I will not go into great detail, but with Cronenberg at the helm, and a cast including such stalwarts as Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Sinead Cusack, you can be sure that you are in for a treat.
Come and See (1985)
I have written about this film before, so I will just repeat what I said previously. It is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.
‘This is a Russian film from 1985. It is set during the German invasion of Belarus, and follows a young man, and a girl he meets, on their journey to join a band of partisans. It is not a film of great set piece battles, but does not shrink from depicting the horrors of the German atrocities carried out during this period. Over half of the film is a build-up to the final section, and concerns the confusion and terror experienced by the young couple, as they find themselves plunged into this unexpected war after losing their families. It has to be remembered that this is a Soviet-era film, so portrays the German troops as little more than beasts. However, the situations depicted are all based on truth, so the actual behaviour of the real Germans was never less than questionable, to say the least. With strange surreal imagery, and odd, dream-like situations, it is something of an ‘Art House’ film. It is also, very possibly, one of the finest films ever made; at any time, anywhere, about anything.’
I hope that I have managed to introduce you to some films that you might enjoy. Please let me know in the comments, if you agree, or disagree, with any of these short reviews.