Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!

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“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.” Errol Flynn’s final onscreen lines to Ms de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On. Two-time Academy Award winner, rebel, survivor, lady and the better half of one of the most glorious screen couples. She is part of our classical Hollywood dream and we are all the better for sharing it. Thank you and Happy Birthday!

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Barbecue (2014)

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Fifty year old Lambert Wilson is a typically bourgeois Frenchman, running the family firm, living it large, if healthily, with younger women on the side, when he hits a wall and has a heart attack out running with his doctor wife. He decides to reinvent the wheel and uses the warning to start smoking and generally going crazy, having a mid-life crisis which causes a chain of re-evaluation of his circle of friends. They all get together at various dinners which invariably provide opportunities for embarrassment – but happily they then decamp to a villa in Provence, which is where you want to reinvent your life, isn’t it. A nice summer evening’s entertainment from writer/director Eric Lavaine and Wilson, well, he’s wonderful. As ever.

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

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This is the film that turned Jane Austen into a mega-industry. Producer Lindsay Doran asked Emma Thompson to adapt her favourite Austen novel (two female protagonists, lots of action) after they worked together on Dead Again. Five years later, after several handwritten drafts,  input from other actors, and almost losing it all on a laptop, Thompson had forged an ingenious (and Oscar-winning) interpretation making it comprehensible to a modern audience including subtle and necessary changes to push along the narrative. It’s a brilliant disquisition on money, family (first and second), class, courtship rituals and etiquette. With Ang Lee directing in a language and a culture of which he had scant knowledge, the overacting from the ensemble was toned down and a stylish, witty, moving, suspenseful, elegant film was made. It’s a long time since I watched it and it proves just the tonic on a summer’s day when it’s bucketing down.

Beat Girl (1959)

Beat Girl poster

One of those legendary Brit cult films that seem like such a curate’s egg at this distance. Divorced architect David Farrar brings a French poodle (Noelle Adam) home to his sulky beatnik teenage daughter Jennifer (Gillian Hills) and she discovers Maman was a stripper and a whore. She spends her time with other privileged kids like Peter McEnery and Shirley Anne Field and they groove to Adam Faith’s music at the Offbeat Cafe before taking off in a chicken run just for kicks. The strip club near the Offbeat run by Christopher Lee is the key to Maman’s past and Jennifer gets a taste for it after finding out from him that her colleague Greta (Delphi Lawrence) shared more than just a background in dance class in Paris. This is part-melodrama, part-shocker, with one extraordinarily lewd strip scene featuring the talents of ‘Pascaline’. Adam Faith’s musical partnership with John Barry finally bore fruit for him after this and he scored some chart hits (his speech impediment is what’s striking here); while this was Barry’s first film score and the first British soundtrack album ever released. Lawrence doesn’t feature in the credits despite being central to the plot;  Oliver Reed – whose uncle Carol got him the role – is in the ensemble as ‘Plaid Shirt’;  if you look fast you’ll spot Carol White in the Offbeat. The story and screenplay were by Dail Ambler, while direction was by Anglo-French Jew Edmond Greville, whose career came to a halt under the Nazi Occupation. Gillian Hills had already been in Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons 1960, which, as far as snowy Alpine adultery dramas go, is top of the list. She later became famous as a ‘ye ye’ singer in France and she’ll always have a place in my heart for playing Alison in the TV version of The Owl Service as well as starring as Elizabeth in Demons of the Mind, written by my late friend, Christopher Wicking. She had several other acting roles but later turned to illustration and married the manager of AC/DC. Tres cool, daddy-o!

Without Reservations (1946)

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Claudette Colbert is the famous author of a political allegory that’s been snapped up by Hollywood. On the train while travelling to the studios she meets a Marine (John Wayne) who could play her hero now that Cary Grant’s dropped out but she conceals her identity – Wayne doesn’t like the book – and an array of misadventures ensue. He’s accompanied by best bud Don DeFore (two DeFore movies in one day, howzaboutthat?!) and they are both charmed by the cute little lady whose antics are clearly inspired by two of her previous train and road movies – The Palm Beach Story and It Happened One Night. They are both classic comedies. This is not, even if it is based on a novel written by two smart women, Jane Allen and Mae Livingston: I am presuming the acclaimed novel Colbert has written is Ayn Rand-lite.  They detour to New Mexico where their host advises her to write based on her experiences before chasing them off his property with a shotgun. In the end they take 80 minutes to get to LA by which time I was gnawing at my own arm in frustration. Louella Parsons issues some of her radio gossip and Cary Grant turns up but it’s not enough to save this, even with Colbert being her customarily lustrous self. Interestingly, however, given that this is a romantic comedy, it ends on a shot of a bed, with Colbert and Wayne being joyously reunited just offscreen … daring!

Battle Hymn (1957)

Battle Hymn poster

I love the films of Douglas Sirk because despite their largely being remakes of weepies he cuts through the sentiment with astringency and formal style. Usually. Not so here in an adaptation of a memoir by preacher Dean Hess. Hudson is full of remorse for having accidentally killed 37 children in a German orphanage in WW2 and signs up to train fighter pilots in Korea leaving wife Martha Hyer at home to brood (literally – she’s pregnant). He conceals his religiosity and newfound ministry from old buddy Don DeFore and his colleagues until he’s found out and they feel deceived. He puts his beliefs to good use in acts of atonement for local orphans who are being cared for by Anna Kashfi (the London Irish model who pretended to be Indian, even fooling husband Marlon Brando). She falls for him, unaware he is married and he participates in bombing missions and then tries to save DeFore after a disastrous outing and the orphans need to be saved from repeat attacks. This is in many ways a typical service movie but with added mawkishness rendering it close to intolerable even with Hudson acting his socks off and some more than decent aerial photography.

Unlocking the Cage (2016)

Unlocking the Cage poster

The Nonhuman Rights Project does amazing work. I’m a fan of Steven Wise’s book Rattling the Cage so this account, filmed by doc veteran DA Pennebaker is a welcome opportunity to see what they are trying to achieve for animals through legal means. This tracks the process of the team’s attempts to act on behalf of apes, elephants and cetaceans by interrogating the notion of personhood (which applies to corporations) for creatures who cannot enter into human contracts. Chris Hegedus does an amazing job keeping up the tension but there are scenes which are frankly distressing as we are exposed to the conditions of the animals they are representing. And if you have read anything lately, you will know that Tommy, one of the chimps from the movie Project X, with Matthew Broderick, is now missing:  supremely ironic and sick. Between Wise, Peter Singer and David Attenborough we might yet triumph over the vile predilections of humans. A fine piece of work and a fascinating film.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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Admittedly as a woman I am not the target audience for this biopic of pioneering gangsta rap/hiphop outfit Niggaz Wit Attitudes who shot to fame with the eponymous album documenting their experiences in South Central LA. A bunch of arrogant black men who don’t speak the Queen’s English? Quick, call the Kardashians! The first thirty minutes – and oh, one hundred or so ‘motherf*****s’ – are tough to endure.  But once you get accustomed to the casual sexism, violence, drug abuse (massively toned down, apparently, since this was officially sanctioned), nudity and sometimes incomprehensible argot, it settles into a fairly traditional music business movie with everyone divided against each other and robbed blind by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Ice Cube is the first to pull the plug with a solo album and go all Hollywood with an appearance in Boyz in the Hood. Then a really full-on maniac Suge Knight comes into the frame with Death Row records when Dr Dre decamps for his solo album. Directed by F. Gary Gray who made a lot of the guys’ videos back in the day. Ho hum. Or, should I say, F*** Tha Police?!

Blind (2014)

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Norwegian writer/director Eskil Vogt has made a startling debut feature. Ingrid has suddenly lost her eyesight and retreats to her apartment where she believes her husband spies on her. She takes solace in her fantasies and integrates her own experiences with those of neighbours and imaginary characters along with some pornographic episodes which eventually leads to our discovery that she is dealing with another natural human phenomenon … and all the storylines are tied up to align with it. Clever but also somewhat shocking –  the apartment setting, the paradoxical voyeurism, the attempt to synchronise remembered images with reality of clumsy living, the storytelling which has resolution in a satisfying and surprising fashion combine to impressive effect.