What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ? (1962)

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Or, What happens to ageing Hollywood actresses. This adaptation of the novel by Henry Farrell (by Lukas Heller, a regular Robert Aldrich collaborator) was the first of a cycle of so-called hag movies. Hardly director Aldrich’s intention, he nonetheless fuelled it himself by doing a sort-of sequel, Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte two years later with Bette Davis and the original star proposed here, Olivia De Havilland.  Davis and Crawford’s offscreen rivalry made their casting as desperate old ladies with one living off faded childhood stardom, the other failed actress condemned to a wheelchair, a riff on rumours feeding into Hollywood legends plundered here with gusto. This is a marvellous comment on what the theorists might call the monstrous feminine, the terrible toll that Hollywood takes on actresses, and the sheer deadening effect of living in a dayglo Los Angeles suburbia. Who knew what went on behind the walls of all those Spanish houses before this came along? The twist is brilliant.

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The Bling Ring (2013)

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Sofia Coppola’s interpretation of the notorious gang of narcissistic Calabasas nitwits who trolled the stars of reality TV and robbed them while they were out of town gets a rather bittersweet treatment (the story had already been a TVM but Coppola’s work derives from the Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales who has also written a book on the subject). The godhead of these brain-dead self-obsessed monsters is stardom itself, the venality espoused by The Secret is their mantra. Beautifully shot, with a disinctive palette for each of the nightlit robberies, this is a shocking insight into the mindset of the youth of today, driven by episodes of The Hills, where fashion is feeling and being a wannabe reality monster is all there is. You can feel Coppola’s desperate sorrow for a society which appears to be beyond satire.

Mary Reilly (1996)

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Valerie Martin’s novel offers a fresh perspective on the Jekyll & Hyde story – that of the Irish maid who becomes involved in the battle of the ego and id. This is one of a series of odd films in Stephen Frears’ career but it improves as it goes on after a decidedly iffy beginning, not helped by the shooting style or production design which is as odd as Ms Roberts’ eyebrow colour. There is no transformation as in the 30s classic and Christopher Hampton’s adaptation gives us a backstory of Mary’s abuse to aid her sympathy with the good/bad doctor. He is played by John Malkovich who of course had worked with the director and writer on Dangerous Liaisons. There is an array of Oirish accents on display and a chance to observe Glenn Close (another Dangerous Liaisons alumnus) as a madam rehearsing for Cruella De Vil. Michael Sheen of the permanently surprised visage is a houseman. This was meant for Tim Burton but he chose to do Ed Wood instead. Strange – but ultimately in a good way and Roberts is always worth watching.

Deadpool (2016)

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Call me old fashioned but even postmodernism has its limits. This is ultra-violent within the first 5 minutes, thrives on self-awareness, has a full rewind to bring us up to date at minute 60 and then has the customary 25-minute action denouement. So far so tiring. I prefer my self-referential movies to be sweeter. Like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This was Ryan Reynolds’ passion project for a long time and he has taken many the left turn since. Somehow we are supposed to find his dubious charms endearing – which comes up in the script, in the endless attempts to break the fourth wall. However Ed Skrein is really impressive as Ajax, the Brit Villain.

Imitation of Life (1959)

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This is a stunning film about American women, race, sexism, work, performance, relationships, family, mothers and daughters. It stars Lana Turner, lately the star of a huge scandal in which her lover, a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, was allegedly stabbed to death by her 14-year old daughter Cheryl (was it really her?!) and needing another big role to sustain a career that had begun in classic Hollywood style at Schwabs’ Drug Store, or so the myth would have it. The novel by Fannie Hurst was a bestseller that had already been adapted in 1934 and directed by John Stahl, starring Claudette Colbert. The role of Lora Meredith, the widowed (maybe) actress trying to make it in a coldwater flat with a tiny daughter, was perfectly inhabited by Turner. Her brassy look was hardening into something darker and the grasping ambitious matriarch that she becomes is not a huge leap for an empathetic audience. Two screenwriters were involved in the adaptation:  Eleanore Griffin, who had a long career, principally in originating screen stories. She would go on to adapt Hurst’s Back Street in a few years. Allan Scott had written some of the great musicals in the 30s – Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, Swing Time, Carefree, Shall We Dance… Their combined interpretations work amazingly well here. Both of them would die in 1995. The director was German emigre Douglas Sirk. He was reappraised as an auteur in the late 60s and his kitschy melodramas of the 50s were interpreted as analyses of society in the United States, distinguished by garish colours, stunning production design and coded drama. There are so many dramatic high points here it seems useless to enumerate them, but the performance by the great Mahalia Jackson is a personal favourite and Susan Kohner’s uneasy presence as the half-caste girl is perfectly matched by Sandra Dee’s sweetness. Juanita Moore is an ocean of decency as the help. It is too easy to put this down as a melodrama, but it really is one, in the original, political sense. Classic.

King and Country (1964)

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The pairing of Bogarde with Losey had unleashed an unfathomably brilliant performance in the previous year’s The Servant, but here we are in more subdued territory – even if it happens to be a war zone. Adapted from a stage play by John Wilson it is the story of a WW1 deserter who is defended by officer Bogarde at the court martial that follows. The original play apparently had a homosexual subtext which is obviated here in favour of a more pragmatic approach to issues of loyalty without complicating personal preferences (homosexuality was still illegal when this was made and Bogarde had been brilliant in Victim, 1961, which is about the subject). Tom Courtenay is fine as Private Hamp and Bogarde offers a very good interpretation in this take on class and justice. He himself served in WW2 and was at the concentration camps so he had firsthand knowledge of the evil that men do. This portrait of trench warfare is suitably grim and the issue of cowardice under fire in that war was also treated in Paths of Glory (1957), a classic of the sub-genre.

The Servant (1963)

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Robin Maugham’s devastating novel about the class system receives an elegant adaptation by Harold Pinter working with director Joseph Losey. Dirk Bogarde is utterly hypnotic as the sleazy contemptuous manservant hired to keep house for aristocratic James Fox. Superior staging, performances and psychological detail make this a keeper. For anyone who’s ever feared the malevolent motivations of their occasional household help (me!), this is unfortunately recognisable, even in a small way. Photographed by the late great Douglas Slocombe – who died this very week. Look for that first shot – Dirk Bogarde exiting an establishment bearing the name Thomas Crapper. And Pinter has a small role in a restaurant.Brilliant.

The Password is Courage (1962)

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Today is Dirk Bogarde Day at Mondo Movies (well, it’s Saturday, but to be honest it could be any day of the week such is my admiration for this Great British actor.) This was in the period when he was negotiating a different way through his problematic stardom and this is a pretty straightforward if underrated WW2 POW escape story based on the story of Sgt Major Charles Coward.  He spent years planning and making his way out of German captivity. There are some funny moments and the disconcerting sight of a Carry On ensemble actor jars slightly. Writer-director Andrew Stone (working since the 20s) manages the tone well in the face of the problematic scenario. Sometimes we forget that Germans in the main got on with their lives, to some extent, so seeing Bogarde mingling with the hoi polloi on the streets is disconcerting. (Let’s face it, the Germans came out of the war pretty bloody well, didn’t they?!) Onward.

Single White Female (1992)

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They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. You get to thinking differently about it when your imitator starts buying the same clothes. And furniture. And following you. And taking your clothes from your wardrobe when you’re at work and meeting you whilst wearing them. When I first saw this I shivered with recognition. l had had my own fairly recent SWF (stalking) experience at a workplace when the chief of personnel felt compelled to introduce me to an intern who shared my name. This individual then haunted me:  she followed me everywhere, even when I dodged out of the building each day trying to escape her after tiring of her constantly ingratiating herself into whatever group I was involved with in my office, in corridors, over lunch, after work, and eventually she took up residence for a nightmarish 4 days in my apartment pleading poverty after arriving in a rainstorm, allegedly homeless. It was then that I noticed her disgusting body odour and personal habits. Yeeuch. I don’t think I’m the first person who has literally been stalked to the point of wanting to take action. (And in fact another ‘friend’ had done something similar to me at college and took me for thousands … but that’s ANOTHER story. I am a fool.) I told only one person at work what was going on and was quite helpless in the face of an irresistible force.  John Lutz’s novel was adapted by Don Roos and filmed by Barbet Schroeder and NYC looks great: the apartment interiors are crucial to expressing the psychodrama which doesn’t remain hidden for long in this story of violent Hitchcockian doubling (look at the film clips they use). Bridget Fonda is wonderful as the put-upon Allie, a woman who undergoes the kind of sexist treatment at work that we all pretend to ignore; while Jennifer Jason Leigh is the nutjob roommate from hell who killed her identical twin years before and acts out her psychotic fantasy on Allie when her fiance walks out. This is probably the standout Woman From Hell movie of the era and while my own situation did not wind up as a slasher nightmare, it was bloody awful when my stalker paid my workplace a visit 6 months later, taken to see me in my office by an unwitting co-worker who hadn’t the vaguest idea of what I’d been put through and thought I would be thrilled to see her. I wasn’t.  So when I saw this, I could relate. I’ve written about Schroeder’s first film More  (1969) at Offscreen, the estimable film journal: http://www.offscreen.com. Enough about me. What mystifies now is what on earth has happened to the fabulous Fonda? The last film I recall seeing her in was the TVM The Snow Queen, more than a decade ago.  The unusual Ms Leigh has earned an Academy Award nomination for Tarantino’s Hateful Eight.This remains a fine piece of work and a monument to both of their very singular talents.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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For a book to not merely survive but to come intact and unbesmirched out of a screen adaptation once is great good fortune;  to do so twice is little short of miraculous. Yet this is what has happened with John Le Carre’s great, resonant spy novel which exposed the dull, continuous procedural processes underlying the killing machine of British intelligence. The late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did a fine job of whittling back the story, even if some of the agents didn’t get the kind of coverage in terms of the narrative that the 1979 BBC series was able to luxuriate in telling. Crucially, they understand that much of this is about storytelling itself and the nature of perspective. Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director, had form in adaptations. Let the Right One In (2008) seemed like a superb, inventive vampire story beneath the flat shooting style – until one reads the novel, which is essentially a screenplay template that was altered just two jots (the child abuse theme; and a scene at the swimming pool was altered  in the timeline) in its adaptation. (So much for auteurism!) However here he comes into his own. Each shot choice, every aesthetic decision, every scene, is immersive.  It is a great woozy 70s experience, with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography perfectly capturing the very brown-ness of the era in London, and Maria Djurkovic’s production design stunningly accurate. The performances are pitch perfect. Gary Oldman had a tough call to make as Smiley but if you’re not fetishistic about Alec Guinness he is a wonderful casting choice (and got an Academy Award nomination); and of the vast and interesting ensemble Benedict Cumberbatch is a fabulous, swaggering Peter Guillam, inhabiting him like a predatory male model. He looks so very different to all those other bland grey men. The scene when he ditches his gay lover is shot behind a rain-spattered window, the sound dulled down, and it is unbearably moving. Smiley’s Lady Anne is never seen fully, just in profile, as she cheats on her beleaguered husband over and over again. The green painted walls, the telephones, the music. It’s all ready and waiting. For paper addicts, this is a feast for the eyes –  notes, files, archives … Glorious!! This is simply brilliant cinema, to be watched over and over. Superb.