Don’t Talk to Strange Men (1962)

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British cinema has thrown up some worthy B-movies and this is one of them, from the venerable Pat Jackson, who made his name in the documentary movement and whose first feature, Western Approaches, about the Battle of the Atlantic, remains his finest work. Gwen Cherrell’s screenplay tells the story of a flighty teenage girl Jean (Christina Gregg) who picks up the ringing telephone in a call box whilst waiting for the bus to her part-time job at the local pub run by her dad’s friend Ron (Conrad Phillips). She strikes up a friendship with the man on the line, adopts the moniker Samantha for their daily calls and convinced that this is Love, agrees to meet him. There’s been a spate of killings in the area and she pays no heed until Dad grounds her and her sensible younger sister Ann (Janina Faye) but they plan an outing to the cinema so that Jean  can meet this unseen beau. Bus conductress Molly (the fabulous Dandy Nichols) warns her not to go through with her airhead schemes but she pays no heed. Until she finds herself waiting for the real-life meeting and gets cold feet. But her little sister feels the fear and goes to her rescue … This is a surprisingly taut suspense thriller, much of it taking place in a telephone kiosk (remember them?!) and assisted immeasurably by good family dynamics (real-life spouses Cyril Raymond and Gillian Lind are the put-upon parents), bolshy Ann writing letters to politicians about bloodsports, the lowkey Home Counties setting (even the opening discovery of a young woman’s body in a barn), the rhythm established by the regular phonecalls, the bus journeys, the conversations, and a winning performance by Gregg, a model and actress better known for roles in TV’s Danger Man and The Saint. What’s interesting is of course how people do the utterly unexpected and act the opposite way that you’d expect – as in life, so in movies, and that’s what turns this into something unbearably tense. There are tropes here that would become a staple of slasher films in the Seventies. Faye has had a much longer career than her co-star and is probably better known for her big screen work in Dracula and The Day of the Triffids and has often appeared at Hammer conventions. She has also directed a short film called Green Fingers starring Ingrid Pitt. She previously appeared in the rather similarly-themed Never Take Sweets from a Stranger. Actress and screenwriter Cherrell would go on to write The Walking Stick (1970), Brief Encounter (1974) – the Burton/Loren version, and TV sitcom Leave it to Charlie (1978). Made at Marylebone Studios and on location in Bucks., and distributed by Bryanston.

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The Misfits (1961)

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What an air of melancholy hangs over this elegy to the western. Arthur Miller had written a story about cowboys killing mustangs for dog meat and it evolved into a screenplay, rewritten many times, for director John Huston. The character of divorcee Roslyn sitting out the legally required time in Reno was based on his wife Marilyn Monroe and the elaboration is strikingly different from the Monroe who inspired Pola for writer Nunnally Johnson in How to Marry a Millionaire. She befriends Thelma Ritter and they hang out with a couple of old cowboys, Clark Gable and Eli Wallach and Roslyn doesn’t realise they round up horses to kill them. The troubled set was not aided by the breakdown of the Miller-Monroe marriage, her on-set overdose, the deadening heat and the behind the scenes attempts to turn Monroe’s character into a prostitute at the behest of Eli Wallach, her friend – Huston and Miller were into it, Gable refused to let it happen. He was tremendously loyal to his co-star and she regarded him as a father figure. He wanted this to be his swansong before his retirement from the business and said it was the best film he’d ever been in. He was only fifty-nine but looks decades older. He is utterly convincing as the jaded alcoholic taking advantage of wounded older women. He insisted on doing his own stunts but a weak heart, a heavy smoking and drinking habit, and delays his wife said Monroe caused, meant he died right after filming ended and before the birth of his only son. Montgomery Clift’s problems were evident to all involved and he would only last a handful more years himself. This was Monroe’s last credit and it remains an epitaph not just to her and her abilities – she is tenacious and febrile as Roslyn – but to an era of stardom, a genre and to Old Hollywood. Full of hopelessness, death, gallows humour and potential greatness, but Miller was not the world’s best screenwriter and failed to capitalise on the story’s promise.Nonetheless, this remains a must-see.

A Bigger Splash (2015)

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Four of the most beautiful people on the planet spend a few days together at a villa and one morning one of them is found floating on the surface of the swimming pool. Alain Page (writing as Jean-Emmanuel Conil) wrote the story La Piscine and Jacques Deray filmed it in 1969. It starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. All these years later Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decided to remake it in a different setting (using David Hockney’s famous title), a volcanic Italian island where rock singer Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery with her documentary maker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts).  She isn’t speaking to protect her voice, he’s not drinking because, as we learn, he was in rehab following a suicide attempt. Old friend, Marianne’s producer ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with a young American girl Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who’s apparently the daughter he discovered he had just last year. Tensions unfurl among the foursome and the complexities of Harry and Marianne’s previous relationship unravel as the heat pulses, Harry’s larger than life personality unsettles everyone and we wonder just what is going on: is jailbait Penelope really Harry’s daughter? Just look at Swinton’s reaction when Harry says to Penelope ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me!’ It’s something to behold. Not to mention that it happens at a karaoke party he’s orchestrated at the local bar. She doesn’t talk, he never stops. Marianne seems to be a female Bowie, a latterday Siouxsie Sioux perhaps, and Penelope likens her life to an album of twelve tracks – one side for Harry, one for Paul, six years each, with one good song on each side ‘to make people turn over’.  This is a tough film of relationships, fame, creativity or lack of it (how daring to have a singer unable to vocalise), the choices people make to withdraw and have different kinds of lives than the crazy ones they used to  lead. There’s a clever, ironic screenplay by David Kajganich and the volcanic landscape is a useful and unforgiving correlative for tensions that are going to boil over… Fiennes and Swinton are wonderful.

The Bad News Bears (1976)

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Has-been pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) winds up coaching a hopeless Little League team at the behest of a councilman who’s PO’d at his own talentless son being denied a spot in this ultra-competitive sport. These kids really are the dregs – lazy, unathletic and truly without a prayer. Until Morris is gifted a smartass girl, Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) who’s the daughter of one of his exes and the best pitcher he could possibly get. She’s peddling star maps around Hollywood. Plus Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley) a wiseass punk old before his time who’s a great all-rounder. This year, they  might just beat their great foes, the Yankees, trained by Vic Morrow … Foul-mouthed, funny, unsentimental, this is one of the best satires of the Seventies made by that great comic auteur, Michael Ritchie, also responsible for beauty pageant comedy, Smile and political campaign movie The Candidate (not laughing now, are we?)  The screenplay by Burt Lancaster’s son Bill hits a lot of bases (!) – about the ethics of sport, teamwork, relationships, the importance of winning, and doing things your own way, but in a scathing way, of course. Lancaster had polio as a kid but played baseball at a pitch now named after this film (it’s at Ohio Ave and Sepulveda Blvd in LA). He wrote one of the sequels to this and collaborated with John Carpenter on The Thing. Matthau is simply great as the man who finally gets it together to relish the prospect of hard work and  winning, Morrow is totally on it as the opposing coach who will win at any cost and O’Neal is fabulous as the spirited girl leading the pack. This was a huge success and deservedly so. It’s the first of three films and a TV series and was remade many years later. However, forty years after its initial release it’s still the best baseball movie ever!

The Benefactor (2015)

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What a fascinating premise:  eccentric philanthropist Franny (Richard Gere) kills his best friends with a hug (you have to be there) and five years later he’s turned into Howard Hughes in his Philly mansion, long-haired, morphine-addicted and a recluse. Except for rare visits to the children’s hospital he built in his friends’ memory. Their pregnant daughter Poodles (Dakota Fanning) calls him out of the blue to get her doctor hubby Luke (Theo James) a job. He does more than that. He cleans up, says to Luke ‘Jesus you are gorgeous!’ (Richard Gere thinks another man is gorgeous!) and sets them up for life, even buying back the home Poodles grew up in so her baby will live there. He takes over every facet of their existence. This promises so much more than it delivers, with Franny a guilt-ridden junkie keen to make up for the past and try in some ways to do it better. Gere does a lot with an intriguing character but director Andrew Renzi’s screenplay doesn’t go all the perverse and sinister way that it teasingly threatens.

A Welcome to Britain (1943)

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Burgess Meredith introduces American troops to the scepter’d isle to prepare them for the bizarre rituals of the locals: this Defense Dept film was intended to smooth relations between the beleaguered Brits and the crass Yankee soldiers – with one million of them swirling around the old country up to December 1943 throwing their money around and behaving inappropriately. In an amusing series of vignettes co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Meredith, we learn how to behave in pubs (not the same as saloons), the family home, restaurants (where there’s a variation on potato for every war-rationed course); discover the geography of the country with Felix Aylmer as ‘Mister Chips’ in a classroom; Bob Hope explains shillings and pence and Beatrice Lillie performs one of her bits. All in all fairly palatable, with the glaring example of introducing the notion of coloured soldiers which yields an exchange with a General best deemed of its time. There is some gunfire and a little action with real-life soldiers but this propaganda docu-drama is notable for having been telecast Stateside in 1944.

Bridget Jones The Edge of Reason (2004)

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Catchy title, eh? And that’s just the start of this film’s problems. Time to revisit given the third in the series has just been released after … a mere dozen years. Helen Fielding herself did the screenplay (with Adam Brooks, Richard Curtis and Andrew Davies) and was presumably induced to make it more ‘cinematic’ and therefore introduces highly implausible elements that occur on foreign trips and Beeban Kidron was also assigned to directing duties. Once again we start at the turkey buffet with Mrs Jones and once again Bridget is ensconced with a non-committal Darcy. Then there’s that rivalry for Bridget’s affections between him and caddish Daniel Cleaver.  In this take on Persuasion we are cast slightly adrift on a ski slope and a Thai prison. It’s not terrible – it’s like second album syndrome – just rather lacking in the raffish charm that marked out the original. Not that this harmed box office receipts. Handled correctly, this could have been more satisfying. Note to makers:  must do better.

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)

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Nobody was actually holding out much hope for this, were they?  And it’s been a long time since we first met Renee as Bridget, the second film notwithstanding (and that’s being nice…) But in a year that’s been staggeringly unimpressive movie-wise the chance to catch up with a woman who feels less like myself now and more like an old friend was, well, pretty enticing. Even if the whole bloody story is in the title. So no surprises. And that’s the point. (Except, and we don’t wish to burn our feminist britches, Bridget’s face looks distinctly different in this sequel from shot to shot depending on the lighting. Just saying. And she’s way thinner. How? We never find out!) She’s forty-three (a year’s been shaven off…), given up the cigs, single,  the hot producer on that news show with a terrific alpha presenter for a friend (Sarah Solemani, who’s v. good) determined to get Bridget shafted, as she euphemistically puts it. But it all kicks off with Bridget literally switching gears by changing the soundtrack to her life from All By Myself to Jump Around. And that’s what she does. After attending the funeral of Daniel Cleaver who’s gone missing. There are a lot of Russian models there. Obv. And Mark Darcy (Firth looks so much older…) with wife Camilla (because that’s now the universal name for the bitch who ruins life for the Queen of Hearts, innit.) Bridget has a funny one-nighter with American Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey) who turns out to be a billionaire mathematician with a winning formula for romance. Everyone’s grown up except Bridget so there are children and husbands and busy lives for all those lovely friends whom we see in short scenes and then … there are those couplings. When Darcy turns up solo at a christening …  well! It’s a country house, the beds are big… With a result that troubles mum Gemma Jones running for the parish council on a family values ticket. And a long game of Who’s the Daddy ensues. Rather tasteless. Just like Mamma Mia. Part of the story’s eternal problem is of course dry old Darcy – even Jane Austen made it clear that the finest thing about her hero was his huge house and his great fortune. Elizabeth Bennett had her on the prize and it wasn’t him, it was what he possessed. And it takes a lot to bring a smile to Fielding’s interpretation of him. Oh well. Bridget never could choose a man. There are funny swipes at television production, celebrity human rights cases, gay families (not offensive, swear), pre-natal classes, workplace politics (a great scene with Lily Allen’s F**k You Very Much used so brutally well!) and the uneasy relationship between the horrifically repressed Darcy and the endlessly charming Qwant. Emma Thompson put a draft together after the previous versions by Helen Fielding and David Nicholls were nixed and gave herself a role as an ob-gyn. Sharon Maguire (Fielding’s BFF) is back on directing duties and Ed Sheeran gets a small funny ginger role. Year summary: one funeral, one music festival, one christening, two shags, one pregnancy, practically no calories or alcohol …  It’s all much as before. And for that we should be insanely thankful. Welcome back Bridget! It’s been way too long.

Gambit (1966)

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Michael Caine’s a Cockney burglar who spots the uncanny likeness between Eurasian showgirl Shirley MacLaine and the late lamented young wife of the world’s wealthiest man, Herbert Lom and sees the potential for robbing a priceless work of art. There’s roleplaying, misunderstandings and the fact that MacLaine has ideas of her own. This is a lot of fun but the story twists are telegraphed too quickly if you’re looking hard enough although it’s well constructed:  we see everything played out in the first 20 minutes then Caine reveals that’s how it should go.  Then it all happens – for real. Which is when it gets complicated. The principal cast play it  beautifully, however, timing the comedy with expert precision and the heist when it happens is pretty good. Adapted from Sidney Carroll’s novel by Jack Davies and Alvin Sargent and directed by Ronald Neame. The gleaming cinematography is by Clifford Stine and Maurice Jarre did the score.