Burnt (2015)

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I used to work in a restaurant. The worst the chefs did was race the lobsters on the floor before boiling them to death. Here? Not so much. Chef. Adam Jones. Burnt. They couldn’t decide what to call this and Jon Favreau’s funny cooking film used the first one. Was this supposed to be a comedy? About a narcissistic egomaniacal sexually irresistible angry violent drug addict running a Michelin-starred kitchen? I barely trust injecting junkies to record music. And I don’t have to eat anything they’ve touched. So Bradley Cooper (sporting his French) winds up in London to make amends with everyone he screwed over in Paris (they’ve all taken the pre-Brexit Eurostar) to get a third star in Daniel Bruhl’s hotel (the Langham, if you want to avoid it). He’s spent the interim shucking a million oysters in N’Oleans. It’s like assembling a gang for a heist. Except it’s not that good but we know they’ve all got a bone to pick with him. Maitre d Bruhl is in love with him. Of course he is! Emma Thompson is the psychotherapist drug testing him every week passing messages from Bruhl. Very professional. And he hires Sienna Miller whom he wants to turn into another version of himself, an angry perfectionist – who also has to fall in love with him because she’s a divorcee with a sassy kid. And her revolution in his kitchen is boil-in-the-bag fish to seal in the flavours (I’m afraid a certain frozen food company got there before her). Matthew Rhys is the rival chef going crazy in another restaurant while they clamour for critical acclaim. Uma Thurman is the Lesbian food critic (and she’s good.) But dialogue reveals that even she hasn’t been capable of resisting him.  There are a lot of cooking montages. A former girlfriend and fellow cleaned-up junkie Alicia Vikander turns up. She’s the daughter of the restaurateur whose place he screwed up. She used to be in love with him. Quoi d’neuf?! His debt collectors turn up the night they think Michelin men have arrived.  Adam Jones has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There is a lesson learned but it’s too much to regurgitate. This is what could be called an equal opportunities offender. Mercifully it’s just 96 minutes long because whatever director John Wells and screenwriter Steven Knight (from a story by Michael Kalesniko) had in mind it didn’t make it through the editing. Or, worse – maybe it did. This is Cooper trying to re-make Kitchen Confidential – which was cancelled on the small screen. (You’re an actor with producing chops so you ask yourself:  would Beatty/Redford/Cruise make this? No!)  I worry in hospitals that I need an AIDS kit to test the doctors who don’t wash their hands and splash blood everywhere. Now restaurants too? Definitely not for vegetarians. I’ve lost my appetite.

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All About Eve (1950)

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Bette Davis is theatre great Margo Channing, whose home is invaded by the unexpectedly venal Eve (Anne Baxter), a scheming no-name tramp who wants to take her place, steal her man and take over Broadway. Writer/director Joe Mankiewicz’ portrait of womanhood, ageing, rivlary, marriage, theatre and performance was based on industry scuttlebutt about the legendary Tallulah Bankhead and Lizabeth Scott during the Broadway run of The Skin of Our Teeth – or Elisabeth Bergner’s trouble with her secretary, depending on who you believe. Davis was in fact accused of imitating Bankhead – whose hairstyle she sports. In fact she had a cold when the film started and her director asked her to keep her voice like that. She only got the role because Claudette Colbert endured a back injury prior to production, in a case of life imitating art. Margo needs a new hit, written by her great friend Hugh Marlowe, whose wife (Celeste Holm) is her best friend. He’s always writing young, Margo’s getting older. Her lover is her director, Gary Merrill, a younger man, who just might up and run to Hollywood. Her ex-vaudevillian dresser Birdie (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t trust Eve one little bit and once ingratiated into the group, Eve does her best to alienate everyone and isolate Margo. There are endlessly quotable lines, many from acerbic critic Addison De Witt (George Sanders) with a wonderful walk-on from Marilyn Monroe as his latest protegee from the Copacabana Academy of Dramatic Art. Mary Orr’s story The Wisdom of Eve was published in 1946 and then adapted for radio three years later. She sold it to Fox and it was then adapted by Mankiewicz but she never received screen credit. She did however get an award from the Screen Writers Guild for Best Original Story. This is usually referred to as a Camp Classic – which is odd in a way because it’s about a woman asserting traditional femininity against a queer attack in an anti-fairytale (as it were). Davis is simply brilliant, whatever, reconciling the two facets of Margo – grand gestural movement (learned from Martha Graham) and closeup emotionality. Just classic.

The Wind of Change (1961)

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Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made an epoch-defining speech in South Africa’s Cape Town parliament in February 1960 which gives this film its title. He was referring to the decolonising process and this story looks at the impact of black immigration on white working class Britons in the wake of the Notting Hill race riots.  Johnny Briggs plays Frank, an unemployed Teddy boy who hangs out at coffee bars and despises the black men taking on the factory jobs and dating white girls. He lives at home, surviving on welfare benefits and handouts. His parents, Donald Pleasence and Hilda Fenemore, have diametrically opposed views of him – Dad thinks he’s feckless and racist, Mum thinks he needs  more understanding and a nice girlfriend. One night he and his mates attack black men in the park and his own sister Jose (Ann Lynn)  gets scarred and her parents discover she’s been going out with a black man. What happens to him proves a major fulcrum in all their relationships. It’s interesting to see the race problem being handled in this way, albeit the ‘action’ sequences are broken up with the kind of long dialogue exchanges more familiar from TV shows. Johnny Briggs’ performance is certainly of note for its febrile aspects and this can be grouped with the earlier Sapphire and Flame in the Streets as efforts to grapple with a social problem which has had massive ramifications.  It’s nice to see Ann Lynn, principally in the film’s last third. She also featured in Flame in the Streets and you might spot her in A Shot in the Dark and The System. She really made her name in TV in the Sixties and for showbiz info freaks, she was married to Anthony Newley when this was shot. Distributed by Bryanston, this was written by Alexander Dore and John McLaren and directed by Vernon Sewell.

A Stolen Life (1946)

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What could possibly be better than a Bette Davis film? Why, a film with two Bette Davis performances, of course! And this, her first self-produced outing, is a compelling drama with that hoary Forties trope of the good twin/bad twin variety. Reserved artist Kate Bosworth (I know…) goes to visit her cousin Charlie Ruggles at the family’s enormous cottage getaway on Martha’s Vineyard only to fall for lighthouse keeper Glenn Ford, whom Davis ensured to cast. Their cosy dates are usurped by the visit of her identical twin Pat, a confident, glamorous and highly sexed character who masquerades as Kate, steals her beau, marries him and then dies in a boating accident with her twin, after which Kate pretends to be her and discovers the truth about her sister’s life …  This is a brilliant, Grade A melodrama, a blend of noir, horror and psychology, playing on Davis’ complex duality, all set on open seas, fog-shrouded cliffs, chi-chi Boston townhouses and an artist’s garret. Davis’ performance as her introverted Self and her own Other – rumoured to be based on professional nemesis Miriam Hopkins! – is captivating. This was technically a remake, the story having already been made in England before WW2, adapted from the source novel by Karel Benes with Elisabeth Bergner in the lead. But this is very much a Hollywood adaptation by Margaret Buell Wilder and the screenplay came from the practised hand of hit playwright and novelist Catherine Turney, a woman regularly hired by Warner Bros for the films of Davis and her other great rival, Joan Crawford. I’ve written an essay on the subject which you can find here:  http://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part1.

Legend of the Witches (1970)

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In the annals of Britsploitation this has an appropriately legendary rep – but still seems only available in its truncated 72-minute form. The brainchild of ‘auteur’ Malcolm Leigh, active from the late 60s until 1980, it’s an excuse to stage alleged initiation ceremonies in the altogether – drama documentary I believe it’s called. Accompanied by an unusually restrained voiceover, we are treated to a history of witchcraft through visuals, drawings and illustrations as well as filmed inserts demonstrating links to mainstream religion (ie Christianity) and its supposedly appropriated rituals. One sequence shows a series of illustrations of sex orgies but the voiceover insists that this is not in fact what we are seeing. Show and … don’t tell?  The last section, linking rhythmic sounds and electronica to the patterns in which people fall prey to belief is pretty convincing (I was reminded of a friend who spent a weekend with some headbangers chanting and being deprived of food – at which point the captives would have believed in anything just to get protein.) It’s been suggested that the main actress in the staged scenes is Jane Cardew of horror/trash fame, but I’m no expert. All those exhibitionists look the same after a while. Leigh made ‘religious’ drama docs something of a speciality but he’s best known for that foot fetishist’s fave, Games That Lovers Play, starring Joanna Lumley before she became a housewives’ rave. Only for the committed.

Nocturne (1946)

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Post-war Los Angeles.  The streets are dark and the traffic flows. And in the Hollywood Hills, in a fabulous modernist manse, a composer plays his Nocturne to a woman in shadows, dedicating this to her as he dumps her. A shot rings out. He slumps to the keyboard. Detective George Raft doesn’t buy the suicide theory. The clue must lie with the photograph missing from the philandering composer’s gallery of women, all called ‘Dolores’.  The chief suspect is Lynn Bari, a wisecracking starlet, just one of many in the harem. When Raft disturbs her on the set of her latest epic at RKO (the studio behind this Edwin Marin-directed noir), she quips, Why don’t you get on your scooter sonny boy and blow, I’m about to emote. He’s smitten. When he asks his mom Mabel Paige how she would feel about his marrying a murderess, the gun enthusiast waxes lyrical and says, Well, so long as she’s a nice girl. This is a noir with humour. Raft of course is best known for his gangster roles but in this riff on Laura (not to get too Ecoesque, but don’t all films speak of other films?) he’s a detective with a life and there is serious gleaming detail in this flick. We see Hollywood Boulevard as it was, with scenes at the Pantages Theater, the Studio Players’ Club and some hot nightspots. The homes are great and the lines are better. Joseph Pevney, better known as a director, is terrific as a heavy. Bari is wonderful, as we already saw in Blood and Sand and it may surprise some nowadays that she was the fave pinup of the forces after Betty Grable. She was married to Sid Luft, the producer who later married Judy Garland. Their son was taken away from him when a judge ruled that his home with Garland was not a suitable environment for a child. Bari later was a very popular TV star which means she has not one but two stars on Hollywood Boulevard. This came out of Joan Harrison’s production deal: she was one of three women producers in Hollywood at the time.  She had been Hitchcock’s longtime producing and writing partner and had a taste for crime stories (she even married Eric Ambler). The screenplay was written by Jonathan Latimer, a well-known writer in the genre who liked hard-boiled with a twist of screwball comedy, much in evidence here. (He wrote Topper Returns, amongst others.) Terrific, knowing stuff, even if you kinda see the end coming!

Crimson Peak (2015)

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Gothic romantic horror? I’m there. Jane Eyre, Rebecca and all that good stuff. Problem Number One. Just looking at Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska’s names gives me what I believe doctors call the Heebie Jeebies. Aren’t they bloody scary? And so is this, literally. And the casting is of course part of the situation. (Someone should ask directors why it is that they cast unlikeable actors and actresses in leading roles – seriously: why don’t they ASK SOMEONE?) You have to care about people in films, even if they are writing Gothic stories and have to be told they’ve forgotten to include a love plot – very meta. I don’t really care what happens to aspiring authoress Miss W when she leaves the US and takes off to fortune hunter Tom’s castle in England, even if she is sporting the hairdo of my favourite pre-Raphaelite heroine and her dad’s been bludgeoned to death by her sister-in-law (Jessica Chastain – see what I mean?) on a sink (horrible). Problem Number Two. This is seriously violent, gory and bloody. It may be that Guillermo del Toro (and co-writer Matthew Robbins – seriously!) wanted to twist Edith Wharton and Bluebeard into a ghastly postmodern fantasia of comic book horror but I’m with the man who said I’ll try everything once except incest and folk dancing. Did they forget to include folk dancing here? Well gee whiz everything else is thrown in … My bad. No. Theirs, actually.

Money Monster (2016)

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Guy walks into a TV studio with a suicide vest and a gun … Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. This is both current and Seventies, a flavourful account of working in TV on a show specialising on stock picking when it’s held to account by an aggrieved viewer who’s bet the farm and lost. It’s hosted by smarmy Lee Gates (George Clooney) who opens every episode doing an outrageous dance with two black go-go girls and some seriously offensive outfits. Julia Roberts is Patty, the voice in his ear who’s on directing duty when delivery man Kyle (Jack O’Connell) hovers behind the prop walls, puts the vest on Lee and a gun to his head and demands answers from Ibis, a company that Lee said was ‘safer than a savings acccount’ and lost $800 million in one afternoon. So there’s a quest to go after the CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) whose own spin doctor (Caitriona Balfe) can’t locate him, the Korean drug and sex monster who created the algorithm and Icelandic hackers who help track down the plane and find Camby. This gets better and better as it goes along, with some outrageous humour, particularly when Kyle’s knocked up girlfriend goes mediaeval on him after being brought in to stop him:  Lee says to Kyle, So you’re the calm one in the relationship. And it’s this moment that turns the film into something else, when Lee actually goes through a variety of Stockholm Syndrone and vows to get Camby to explain what human hands were on all that money gone, inexplicably… Of course there is one massive problem and that’s when the film takes to the streets and we lose the plot somewhat:  Jack O’Connell is no Al Pacino (he’s great in 71, not this), there is no Attica! moment and his accent is wonky. Balfe, in a key supporting role, never even bothers with an American accent and sounds completely out of place. She has one huge moment at the end – and blows it by totally underplaying it. Wrong move. For this we must blame director Jodie Foster, an actress of literally legendary proportions. Clooney and Roberts are fantastic in a film that has instances of true hilarity but ends … rather predictably.

Child in the House (1956)

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Stanley Baker in a film noir tearjerker? Practically. He’s the estranged career criminal husband of a woman who’s been removed to hospital, seriously ill. Their young daughter (Mandy Miller) has to stay with her aunt Phyllis Calvert and uncle Eric Portman, in a very troubled childless marriage. She’s not enamoured of children, he is.  Father and daughter meet in secret but he’s on the lam again, leading to complications. Cy Endfield (working pseudonymously) was reunited with Miller from the earlier The Secret (starring his fellow blacklistee Sam Wanamaker) but she was of course best known throughout Britain as Mandy from the 1952 film of that name in which she played a deaf mute, with Calvert playing her mother. She also enjoyed fame from her 1956 recording of Nellie the Elephant. She’s a very convincing actress here and continued professionally until 1963 when she relocated to New York, became an au pair and got married. This was the first of Endfield’s collaborations with Baker, which brought us the brilliant Hell Drivers the following year, followed by Sea Fury, Jet Storm, Zulu and Sands of the Kalahari.  This was adapted from the novel of the same title by Joan McNeill, a prolific Irish writer little mentioned nowadays. There is some terrific location shooting – and who doesn’t want to see Fifties London fog?

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

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Where to start with this midcentury Marilyn classic? She’s showgirl Lorelei Lee, gold digger supreme, who takes a transatlantic cruise with BFF Dorothy Shaw (Russell) to wed her naive heir of a fiance Gus (Tommy Noonan) in France. His father sends a private eye Ernie (Elliott Reid) to catch her doing anything untoward. But while he falls in love with Dorothy, Lorelei attracts a silly old diamond mine owner ‘Piggy’ (Charles Coburn) who’s travelling with his no-nonsense battleaxe wife, who happens to have a rather eyecatching tiara. There’s the US Olympic men’s athletics team, a very wealthy boy with a very deep voice and some amazing songs – including ‘Diamonds Are a Girls’ Best Friend,’ that iconic Marilyn showstopper the opening notes of which are trilled by Marni Nixon, whose death was announced yesterday. Howard Hawks directed Charles Lederer’s adaptation of the stage show by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, which had been staged on Broadway with Carol Channing. Loos had of course written the source novel in the 1920s. It’s a brilliant excavation of class through satire and there are amazingly risque lines and gags and despite what everyone says, it’s really the men who are being objectified. The girls are the whole show. Sublime.