She (1965)

 

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This Hammer adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel works because it takes it seriously and never really slides into camp territory, which the material always threatened. The performances are dedicated, Ursula Andress is so extremely beautiful and the narrative is well handled by screenwriter David T. Chantler.  Robert Day makes sure the archaeologists Major Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) the reincarnated love interest and their valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are credibly established to include their initial scepticism about a lost Pharaonic city. The saga of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is ultimately a tragic tale of romance, culminating in horrible self-sacrifice and immolation. Andress was re-voiced by Nikki Van der Zyl who did a lot of voiceovers for Bond girls and wound up becoming a lawyer and a painter. It was shot in Israel (which leads to a dialogue gaffe…) The handsome Richardson would be Raquel Welch’s co-star in the following year’s One Million Years BC and he was briefly considered to replace Sean Connery as Bond.  He gave up a long career in Italian films to become a photographer.  This was a huge hit back in the day and perfect entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon.

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Wild Oats (2016)

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Shirley MacLaine is the beloved retired schoolteacher whose husband dies and her insecure unhappily married fusspot daughter Demi Moore (looking about 30 – sheesh!) brings a realtor to the funeral to assess her home for post-mortem sale. MacLaine insists upon staying there and is mistakenly sent a life insurance cheque for $5 million instead of $50,000.  Best friend Jessica Lange encourages her to make off with it and the pair of them embark on the adventure of a lifetime – fetching up in the Canary Islands where they enjoy very different romances. Divorced Billy Connolly hits on MacLaine but all is not what it seems when she wins nearly half a million euros on blackjack and a US insurance investigator turns up to ask about the unfathomably large cheque, encouraging her to bribe him and bolt while Connolly disappears. Is he a conman?! Meanwhile Lange gets involved with a younger man with a Mrs Robinson fixation. Back in the US, another company rep, the wonderfully sentimental Howard Hesseman, pairs off with Moore to bring Mom back home and face justice. It all winds up in a shootout at a winery with the island’s biggest gangster. You have to be there! For armchair tourists – this looks gorgeous and the ladies are quite the heroines. The gray dollar audience is being well catered for. This is better than assisted living! Directed by Andy Tennant from a screenplay by Gary Kanew and Claudia Myers.

Tootsie (1982)

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Dustin Hoffman is the out of work actor (twenty years and counting) who can’t even play a tomato without creating friction. His agent, Sydney Pollack (the film’s director after Dick Richards then Hal Ashby didn’t do it) has to tell him he’s unemployable. The real-life actor’s legendary on-set behaviour is tapped here for the obnoxious New Yorker who cross-dresses and becomes a hit on a dreadful daytime hospital soap where he falls hopelessly in love with Jessica Lange, the star who’s schtupping the nasty director, Dabney Coleman (always a joy).  With Bill Murray as Hoffman’s deadpan playwright roomie, Charles Durning as Lange’s widower farmer dad who falls for ‘Dorothy’ and Teri Garr as his actress best friend the cast is an Eighties joy. The chaos behind the scenes is something of a movie myth but none of it shows onscreen. Sitcom maestro Larry Gelbart wrote the story with Don McGuire (adapting McGuire’s early 1970s play) but Pollack (who compulsively hired and fired screenwriters) and Hoffman (in a role first offered to Peter Sellers, then Michael Caine!) put more through their paces – Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson and Elaine May. Despite this, the story goes down smooth as butter even if the central conceit is as ludicrous as making Bruce Jenner Woman of the Year. Condescending to women? Just a bit! But extremely funny. Hoffman was distressed to learn that even with makeup he would never be an attractive woman and confessed that this epiphany led him to regret all the conversations with interesting women he might have missed. Oh, the humanity!

The Meddler (2015)

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Dramedy is a thing. Comedy + drama. And it sounds like it should be a messy genre splice but in reality it’s probably the principal form of filmed entertainment. This is a superb example – a theme you dread, a widowed mom who moves cross-country to live off her daughter’s coat-tails, but it works, and how. Susan Sarandon is the displaced Brooklynite Marnie unwilling to put a headstone on her late hubby’s ashes anywhere and she’s bought an apartment that used to be in The Hills. Her go-to soundtrack is Beyonce, she adores action movies (Jason Statham anyone?) and she loves nothing more than phoning her daughter day and night on her iPhone (major product placement here) and shopping at LA’s Grove (I hear ya.) Rose Byrne is Lori the TV scriptwriter who’s the recipient of her home-invader Mom’s 24/7 calls and she’s heartbroken after breaking up with movie star Jacob and the truth is both women are heartbroken after Dad’s death. Which is more than a year ago, as it turns out. Marnie’s in a state of some denial. She gets involved with Lori’s friends and pays for a Lesbian wedding, volunteers at a hospital and dogsits when Lori goes east to shoot a pilot (a phrase that sees Marnie arrested at an airport). She visits Lori’s therapist. To discuss Lori. She likes the Apple salesman so much she takes him to nightschool cos he’s got no wheels. She walks onto a Hollywood set and winds up being background in a film which leads her to meet a retired cop and biker, Randy Zipper (JK Simmons) who likes her almost as much as his chickens. In one of the film’s many amusing apercus, we learn, For the optimal combination of happiness and productivity, all roads lead to Dolly Parton. Boy are those hens happy layers! This is warm, funny, affecting but not sickening, and really terrific about mom-daughter relationships. Sarandon is superb and Byrne is always good value. Nifty supporting performances from Michael McKean, Lucy Punch, Harry Hamlin and Jerrod Carmichael really light up a totally surprising, entertaining and tonally true story about relationships, bereavement, sex … and chickens. And remember, ladies:  eyes, throat, crotch! Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.

T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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You’re a tourist in your own youth. That’s how I felt too, when I sat down in an empty cinema for this – a far cry from the wild reaction that I expressed and experienced when the Godhead of Nineties movies made its debut. Wow! What a rush that was! Twenty years ago. Which is the real shocker. And age is what this is all about – age and betrayal and memory (or nostalgia) and payback. Renton is back – after making away with all that dosh in London. Sickboy – call him Simon now – ain’t too happy and beats him up. He rescues tragic Spud from certain death. Franco’s just had himself stabbed in prison so he can escape and lure his teenage son away from hotel management and into a life of crime … Revenge? Yes, please. There’s tragedy, fun and kickbacks to spare in this blackly comic outing with portions of Porno mixed up with a narrative carved from the original novel and several flashbacks to the old action and new-old footage of the guys as kids. Edinburgh like the rest of the British Isles is now afloat in Eastern European whores, one of whom has her claws into Simon but whom Renton fancies. Then there’s a scheme to set up Simon’s pub as a rival brothel to a chain of ‘saunas’ which invites interest from the proprietor. And in between bizarre music videos – check out Your Dad’s Best Friend by Rubberbandits! – a hilarious excursion picking pockets at a Loyalist club and digressions on George Best at Hibs, the rhythm section of director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and the superb cast (with the obvious exception of Tommy) is reassembled with a sense of style and a closing of the book, as it were. Spud gets a great storyline and there’s a nod to his precursor when Irvine Welsh turns up as chief car booster. Stick to the day job, dude. And there’s a brilliant payoff with a toilet bowl. Whew, it’s okay then. All is right with the world. Choose this.

The Turning Point (1977)

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Although like most female humans Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was part of my upbringing I would not say that I’ve ever been a real balletomane and this film must work better for those who are. Because even though it’s ostensibly about the relationship between an ageing prima ballerina and her former rival, now a housewife and mother to an upcoming star, there’s an awful lot of performance. A lot. Arthur Laurents’ screenplay was based more or less on the friendship between dancers Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye (who was a co-producer with Laurents and director Herbert Ross, who was married to Kaye. The three had a complex personal/sexual relationship.) Leslie Browne – Brown’s real-life daughter by fellow dancer Kelly Kingman Brown – plays Emilia, the teenage dancer who’s talent-spotted by The Company when they come to town in Oklahoma City, reuniting Emma (Anne Bancroft as the fictionalised incarnation of Nora Kaye) with DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine, as the fictionalised Isabel Mirrow). DeeDee’s memories of her life as a successful dancer and giving it all up when becoming pregnant by fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt), now her husband and partner in a dance school, start churning. When she accompanies Emilia, Emma’s god daughter, to NYC, to spend the summer and realise her dream, she strays from her marriage, is shocked by her ambitious daughter’s affair with the male lead Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and eventually has it all out with lifelong rival Emma over whether she lost the lead in Anna Karenina years ago due to her pregnancy:  and she wonders, Was she ever really any good? It’s a question that has haunted her for nearly two decades. The fact that their confrontation ends in a catfight was a point of contention among critics. However as funny as that scene is – and it winds up being highly comic – it is an emotionally and dramatically logical conclusion to a relationship between women constrained by fiercely deprived physical experiences and discipline:  there have been major psychological consequences to choosing these lives. Finally they can break free and tell people who they really are (up to a pointe…) And as Emilia’s star rises, Emma’s falls, and DeeDee comes to terms with the reality of her own decisions. Baryshnikov’s real-life lover Gelsey Kirkland had been offered the role of Emilia but she was being treated for drug addiction at the time, which is how Browne ended up playing a version of herself. There is a narrative thread about male dancers and homosexuality in the film and why DeeDee might have married Wayne but Yuri is like a cockerel in a hen house. A terrific work about women, marriage and career and there’s great stuff about the business of running a company and all the bitchiness one expects from a backstage movie. But there’s so much ballet!!! It shares the record for the most nominations for an Academy Award without a win. Bancroft and MacLaine are really marvellous and hit all the notes, but I wonder how this would have been if the producer’s first choice – for whichever of the lead roles she wanted – had been accepted by Princess Grace of Monaco. Wow.

All Roads Lead to Rome (2015)

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Be honest:  it’s January. It’s miserable. You’re back at work weeks early (February is about right – right?!) and you need to escape. So where better than la bella Italia?! And in the fine company of Sarah Jessica Parker, a woman I have adored since Square Pegs, way back in the days of analogue. She’s Maggie, the divorced former journalist now college lecturer (CCNY, since you ask) who takes her bolshy teenage daughter Summer (Rosie Day) to her old haunt in Tuscany to bail the kid out of a relationship with a vile junkie who wants her to take the rap for drug possession because she’s underage and it won’t criminalise her. Lovely. No sooner have they arrived than Maggie’s old lover of decades past, artist Luca (Raoul Bova) materialises in the villa next door where a very young woman, his presumed girlfriend, and his bitchy mama Nonna (the marvellous Claudia Cardinale) also show up. Summer wants out and so does Nonna so they steal Luca’s car. Nonna has a wedding to attend in Rome – her own! and Summer wants to go back to NYC to do the right-wrong thing for the junkie BF. Maggie and Luca chase them in her rental the whole 300km to the Eternal City … As we know road trips are emotional journeys (sob!) and all parties get the opportunity to share and care with each other amid some mayhem that could have been better choreographed – and there are a lot of long driving scenes along very dull looking roads until the police get involved and Luca tells them Summer kidnapped Nonna. Summer is a horribly noxious teenager whose view on her behaviour is altered not by the wisdom of her elders but by a come-on from a Lesbian who picks her up hitching a lift. Talk about playing into the zeitgeist of ‘gender fluidity’ as they now call it. Neither particularly well written (Josh Appignanesi, Cindy Myers) nor directed (Ella Lemhagen) or shot (whoever), this could have been so much sharper and better handled: they meant well but then there were 20 producers, this decade’s version of a Europudding …  The only scenes that really work are with Parker and Bova (they have nice chemistry) and those TV sendups when Paz Vega gets the chance to imitate the peculiarly slutty Italian journalists in the kind of cod-hysterical news presentation that characterises Berlusconi-dominated media. SJP deserves a whole lot better but it’s nice to see Cardinale in action.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

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Woody Allen’s musical comedy is a delightful collage of Thirties movie genres – romance, screwball, ghost, crime, all told by the daughter DJ (Natasha Lyonne) of perpetually unlucky in love writer Joe (Allen) and his ex-wife Steffi (Goldie Hawn), who now lives in Upper East Side splendour with liberal lawyer Alan Alda, his engaged daughter Skylar (Drew Barrymore) and their right-wing son Scott (Lukas Haas) and 14 year old twins (Natalie Portman and Gaby Hoffman),  plus his ancient dad whose Alzheimer’s means he has to be supervised by their wicked Bavarian housekeeper. They have posh people problems ie none at all and when DJ pushes her father into a relationship with an unhappily married art historian patient Von (Julia Roberts) of her friend’s mother, a psychoanalyst, we get to see the sights in Venice where Joe affects a knowledge of Tintoretto to get into her good books. Everyone gets to sing (whether they can or not), there’s a dance routine in a maternity ward, a robbery involving one of Steffi’s pet criminals who breaks up Skylar’s relationship with Edward Norton, and it all culminates in a Duck Soup ball in Paris on Christmas Eve with Steffi and Joe recreating their romance from many years ago with a high-wire romantic dance by the Seine. Simply wonderful, nutty fun with a to-die-for soundtrack put together by Dick Hyman.

The Great Gilly Hopkins (2016)

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This adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s popular Seventies novel for tweens gets a decent treatment. It’s about a chippy foster kid (Sophie Nelisse) who makes life difficult for everyone charged with taking care of her, the latest being eccentric Trotter (Kathy Bates) whose next door neighbour is an elderly black man Mr Randolph (Bill Cobbs) who dines with her each evening. They make a different kind of family, reading at meals and being each other’s best support. Little WE (Zachary Hernandez) is also being fostered by Trotter and Gilly – real name Galadriel – impresses him the way she carries on her mean girl bullying at school, until she sees he’s being bullied by horrible boys and she teaches him how to handle himself. She creates friction with her teacher Miss Harris (Octavia Spencer) and although she’s very bright she pretends she’s dumb as a post. The teacher sees right through her act. She wants desperately to be with the birth mother Courtney (Julia Stiles) who’s dumped her and who has finally sent a postcard from San Francisco, a long way from Maryland. This prompts Gilly to write her a letter lying about the terrible circumstances in which she’s found herself. Since her mother has finally made contact with her grandmother, Glenn Close, she turns up on Gilly’s doorstep to meet the grandchild she never knew existed until that correspondence which also brings social workers to Trotter’s door. The letter means she’s going to be removed from the only happy home she’s ever known and she regrets it but can do nothing about it…. This could have been a deliberate, messagey work but it’s tough love tenderised by humour and really smart performances. That it’s directed by Stephen Herek is the big surprise – the man who brought us Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Dude!