American Gigolo (1980)

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A romantic drama about a male prostitute. Well it would have to be the beautiful Richard Gere at the peak of his masculinity in every sense – he was the first star to be photographed full frontal. Then of course a decade later he would play the man hiring the whore in Pretty Woman – not that my three year old cousin whose fave movie that was had the remotest idea. Paul Schrader’s fantasy about procurement, licentious behaviour and surfaces plays remarkably well these days. Gere is Julian Kaye, the high class multilingual (quiet there at the back) gigolo who usually works for an elegant procuress, Anne (Nina van Pallandt) sleeping with rich older women and squiring widows about town. He takes a job as a favour for street pimp Leon (Bill Duke) which turns into a very rough trick in Palm Springs and days later he’s had a murder pinned on him. Detective Hector Elizondo pretty much knows it’s not him but has to go after him anyhow. In the interim Julian has fallen for an unhappily married politician’s wife Michelle Stratton (model Lauren Hutton) and finds himself untouchable. That’s the big irony in this cool and observant film about narcissism and control. It became famous for two things – the Blondie song in the title sequence (Call Me)  which is reworked into thematic sequences and the montage in which Julian picks out his wardrobe – all Armani. The abstract images for the sex sequences particularly between Gere and Hutton seem to crystallise emotional detachment but the final image in which Julian perversely finds freedom in prison with Michelle on the other side of a window is pure Bresson. He rescues her and she saves him right back. Very interesting indeed and a key reason for Gere’s superstardom after the studio wanted Christopher Reeve and John Travolta turned it down – as he did many roles which then fell in Gere’s capacious lap…

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Jackie (2016)

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Did I really see this film?! That’s an appropriate afterthought given its hallucinatory quality, a narcotised morphine fever dream about a woman with a flip haircut, boiled wool suits and a voice from the Marilyn playbook. Natalie Portman doesn’t remotely resemble the upperclass journalist who married into the crass Kennedy family and wound up First Lady with her husband’s brains spattered into her lap on an ill-judged trip to Texas, home to LBJ. Yet that doesn’t matter because after a half hour of her narration you are sucked into this Warholesque meditation on fame and public approval. She lies constantly to journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) interviewing her for Life after the assassination and then tells him things she insists cannot possibly go to print. She will edit the image and control the myth – which she calls Camelot. That record spins as she cascades into a vortex of desperation and disbelief. This will be her version of events. She crashes around the White House, drunk; argues with Bobby and Jack Valenti about the funeral and changes her mind back and forth about how much of Lincoln’s leavetaking should be imitated, while the clodhopping Kennedy sisters try to manipulate the situation;  when her husband’s casket is put on public view she sympathises with LBJ that this should be the terrible beginning of his Presidency. One suspects it is precisely the beginning he desired. Real footage of her White House restoration tour for TV is intercut with a grainy impressionistic copy where she is coached and cheered from the sidelines by Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Suddenly Portman’s embodiment doesn’t seem as mad. She retracts all the truthful statements from her account to White – what she did with her husband’s skull, the sound of the bullet – but it is to Father Richard McSorley (John Hurt) that she speaks about her loveless marriage, her insecurities, her need to have her dead children interred with their father. Their burial in the rainy hillside at Arlington feels like the ultimate cruelty. Archive footage is impeccably interwoven with this recreation of events in which we all have an investment, even those of us born long after they occurred. As she leaves the White House for the final time she passes Hamiltons department store and sees rows of window mannequins wearing her wigs and two-piece Chanel imitations. What is real? What is performance? she muses. One gets the distinct impression she knew more than most. And off she goes, homeless, to an unknowable, husbandless future. Written by Noah Oppenheim with a visceral arrest of a soundtrack created by Mica Levi, undercutting the sense of camp that this sad and crazy brilliance otherwise imparts. Andy Warhol is alive and well and still making movies. There is just one word for this: astonishing. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Oh!

Romancing the Stone (1984)

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“Wilder? Joan Wilder?!” What must it be like to meet your Number One fan and they don’t want to hobble you like in Misery but to help you out in the middle of the jungle in South America?! Ah, just perfect this, a romantic action adventure that brought Kathleen Turner to megastardom for a short spell, playing the unmarried romantic novelist who’s allergic to everything. After completing her latest magnum opus she rushes to Colombia when her sister Elaine (!) (Mary Ellen Trainor) calls for help. She brings with her a treasure map sent by her late brother in law who’s been hacked to death:  the map is the ransom for her sister’s freedom. Antiquities hunters Ira (Zack Norman) and Ralph (Danny De Vito) are holding her but Joan gets the wrong bus at the airport on the helpful advice of Zolo (her brother in law’s killer) and when she realises, causes it to crash.and is rescued by exotic bird smuggler Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) promising to repay him for his wrecked Jeep with travellers’ cheques. A love-hate relationship ensues as they spend the night in a crashed aeroplane, dance the hell out of each other, get help from a drug lord who’s her biggest fan (I love that scene!), and find the enormous emerald that’s the cause of all the trouble in the first place. “Aw man, the Doobie Brothers broke up!” moans Jack on finding an old issue of Rolling Stone. Witty, fast-moving, scintillating actioner (written in 1978) with great performances from all concerned. Turner is just great in one of the best movies of the Eighties. The horrible coda to all this is that the brilliant first-time writer, Diane Thomas, was killed in the Porsche Carrera gifted her by Michael Douglas when her boyfriend was driving her home after she’d had a few. The novelisation of this and its sequel, which she was unable to write because of being contracted to doing a draft of Always for Spielberg, is credited to one Joan Wilder. Tremendous, timeless entertainment. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Possession (2002)

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To get ahead in academia you have to be pretty tough. My own supervisor told me, I know you’re after my job. And didn’t read a page of my work for three and a half years. And stayed in his job. Quelle surprise. (45% of doctoral candidates drop out because of this kind of sanctioned behaviour.) Well, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) has been passed over for an academic post that went to Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens) and has to keep labouring under eccentric Irish Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in search of anything relating to Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam),  the subject of an upcoming celebration and famous for a collection of poems dedicated to his wife (Holly Aird). Mostly Roland is cataloguing recipes. Ensconced in the London Library, however, he steals a couple of handwritten letters tucked in a book which he thinks are written to a lady poet, Christabel La Motte (Jennnifer Ehle). He follows his hunch to the acknowledged expert on her work, lecturer Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and despite her extreme misgivings, they visit her relatives, descendants of La Motte, and thence to France and Whitby, on the trail of what they find was a forbidden and adulterous romance. The stories are told in interweaving parallel, with a hint of French Lieutenant’s Woman about it all, but with added Lesbianism (La Motte has an inhouse painter, Lena Headey). Wolfe is assisting American literary bounty hunter Cropper (Trevor Eve) to get anything related to Ash and the mystery thickens and takes on a vicious patina with lives at risk. The story is wonderful even if Neil LaBute is probably the last director on earth you would expect to be handling it.  David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute himself each did a draft screenplay. The acting is the problem. Paltrow is horribly stiff, Eckhart cannot pronounce her name correctly (it sounds like Mad) and the stories that emanated from the set about their intolerance of each other and lack of chemistry certainly dooms any reality about their performance. LaBute made Roland brash and American so we get a culture clash that’s underlined a few times in the dialogue. Ehle is rather an insipid player but the romance with Northam is convincing and tragic and the impact on the women in their lives is horribly realistic. AS Byatt’s novel was a great literary bestseller and if it doesn’t work in its entirety (the Gothic potential was clearly not realised in lighting, cinematography or design) it’s a pleasing narrative, occasionally very touching and mostly well told with some nice performances by Tom Hollander and Anna Massey in the supporting cast. Red buses. Books. Libraries. I’m there!

High Season (1987)

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The life of the screenwriter can be challenging, that of the writer/director even moreso, particularly if you’re a woman. Clare Peploe has mostly been associated with her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci, but she has forged her own directing signature. It has a variable imprint. This story of a hard-up photographer (Jacqueline Bisset) in Rhodes falls on its sword despite an enviable location, lovely cast and some sharp scenes.  The tone falls between stools – Bisset’s good friend Sharpie (the rarely seen Sebastian Shaw) has given her a vase that she can sell to the unscrupulous Konstantinos  (Robert Stephens) to save her house since her philandering sculptor husband (James Fox) has taken a commission from Lord Byron fanatic Yanni (Paris Tselios) to lure tourists that sets his patriotic fanatical mother (the wonderful Irene Papas) crazy. An English couple turn up – played by Kenneth Branagh and Lesley Manville – and they are the equivalent of Charters and Caldicott on holiday. Their scenes are hideously wrong. Peploe has no idea how to control them and they ruin the film’s delicacy which ultimately turns on the identity of the infamous Tenth Man. There is neither rhyme nor reason to the film’s opening sequence but hopefully DoP Chris Menges had a nice holiday.  The location photography is stunning.