Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Writer/director Franco Zeffirelli is one of the storied Italian auteurs, whose personal life and origins serve as the inspiration for this screenplay by John Mortimer, an Italophile of long standing. It’s 1935. Little Luca (Charlie Lucas) is the motherless boy who is taken care of by a group of expat English women in Florence, known as the Scorpioni, led by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who is the secretary to the boy’s businessman father. He has no interest in the illegitimate fruit of his liaison with the late dressmaker and his wife makes the boy’s wife hell when she sees him. We are introduced to Arabella (Judi Dench) a keen artist but more effective at restoration who spends most of her days at the Uffizi;  Lady Hester, the obstinate widow of the British Consul (Maggie Smith); and wealthy American and serial bride Elsa Morgenthal (Cher) who returns to Italy after years away, keen to pay for Luca’s education and puts together a trust fund for his future:  she owes his mama a great deal. She’s a flamboyant art collector, despised by Hester. The Fascists destroy the daily afternoon tea that these ladies of a certain age enjoy but Lady Hester is convinced that Mussolini’s personal promises to her ensure their safety. Luca is sent to school in Austria by his father who no longer wishes him to be an English gentleman, but a German businessman. When he returns (in the form of Baird Wallace) in 1940 the ladies are rounded up as enemy aliens. Only Elsa and Lesbian archaeologist Georgie (Lily Tomlin) are spared due to America not entering the war yet. Elsa secretly helps Jews in the district and gets the ladies out of their prison-like conditions in San Gimignano and pays for their hotel accommodation – where she winds up with Georgie after Pearl Harbour and Americans are enemies now too. She hooks up with a lawyer who has her sign over everything to him to save her life – she thinks. Lady Hester’s grandson (Paul Chequer) cross-dresses as female to be spared getting shot by the fascists and lives with them until he can’t take it any more and joins the partisan gang of which Luca is now a part… There is a gracious ensemble of actresses here and the trick of the screenplay is to shift focus to each in turn while Luca is mostly an observer, growing up with difficulty as he sees Elsa with her lover and reacts with jealousy, leading to her being endangered. Baird Wallace doesn’t convincingly play the role but since his scenes are underwritten he probably does as well as he can. However, all ends well, with some amusing interaction with Nazis (believe it or not) when Arabella protects her beloved Uffizi from their bombs. When Lady Hester has to eat crow with Elsa, she does it in the most stylish way possible – saving her life. This may be Zeffirelli’s recollection, but it’s mostly fond vignettes with no real sense of the murderousness of the fascisti and their acolytes. It’s nice to see Dench returning to the scene of A Room With a View, and with husband Michael Williams in tow. Perfect entertainment for a day dripping with fog, frost curling at the windows.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016)

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What’s good about this? It’s not actually Potterworld. So, no ugly children (well… maybe a few, but briefly) and no long-drawn out battle between Good and Evil. Maybe…. Because this moneymaker is now the first of goodness knows how many sequels due to the gazillions it’s already earned within a week of release. And it’s good. It’s not really what you’d expect. It’s got a muted palette with occasional jolts of monochrome to indicate who might be bad (that’s you, Colin Farrell) amongst the hoi polloi thronging the machine age streets  which are being subjected to some serious beast-action chopping through the bricks and cement. Meanwhile Eddie Redmayne is Edwardian magizoologist Newt Scamander, arriving at Ellis Island with some cute platypus-like creature called a niffler who has a magpie-like yen for silver and disappears in a bank looking for coins where a wannabe baker Jacob (Dan Fogler) takes his case by mistake after being turned down for a loan. Scamander is the future author of the eponymous book, which is found by Harry Potter, in other words he’s a former student at Hogwarts. He didn’t fight in WW1 – too busy fighting dragons, as it happens. NYC is on lockdown against magic and in denial about it so it’s not really a good time to arrive. Witches are on the menu and wicked foster mother Samantha Morton has her charges out campaigning against the subculture of which her eldest Credence (Ezra Miller doing Buster Keaton) is a part, which is very  unfortunate for her. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) wants to haul Newt in to the Magical Congress for importing his funny little creatures to the country but he needs to return one of them to the desert –  which he magicks with a Mary Poppins-like flourish out of the suitcase which has been retrieved: problem is now there’s a Muggler baker in on the secret only here he’s called a No-Maj.  There’s a race against time, as we are warned by the clock at the Congress which tells us of an impending doom-like scenario. There’s an extremely funny sequence at Central Park Zoo which you have to see to  believe but it involves a mating situation. And there’s a sidebar romance between Jacob and Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) who likes this chubster.  And a scummy nightclub scene rather like one we know from Star Wars. And there’s the big issue: a certain angry teenager who might just … explode, as PO’d adolescents are wont. A politician suffers the consequences of his rage. And Graves (Farrell) wants to find him….  and Newt. This is an enjoyable wallow in nostalgia but instead of seeing those huge offices worked by people in Vidor’s pre-Depression classic The Crowd we have darkened rooms filled with typewriters which are … typing automatically! It’s a vision for those of us amused by gadgets and tricky machines, a steampunked 1926 filled with huge department stores and smog where women wear trousers and men are either brave eccentrics or weapons of the state. More than that, beneath the vision is a message about persecuted minorities and cults and the measures they take – not very nice betimes – to secure their own existence. Including white-out chambers where people are being lobotomised, or its nearest equivalent (‘obliviated’ as they call it here). So much for human rights under self-appointed dictators, eh? And this underground lot are led by a black woman, Carmen Ejogo. Will she turn out to be Fidelia Castro?! If I have any problems here it might be to do with casting – there’s enough money floating around this world so can someone please give Eddie Redmayne (wearing Benedict’s Sherlock coat or something very like it) assistance with his diction?  He could at least enunciate correctly now that he’s not confined to a wheelchair or concealing his male parts. I can’t decide whether he’s adequate to the task, really good in an underwritten part or just plain wrong. The relationship with beady-eyed Waterston is barely worked out:  in a way you don’t care because she’s not right either. But you should . This efficiently-tooled behemoth of parallel realities comes from the mythical Potter universe ie producer David Heyman and director David Yates. It’s oddly like Ghostbusters, but … different. And there are enough plot threads to function as a preview of several coming attractions.  The screenplay was conjured by the godhead herself, JK Rowling:  is there nothing she can’t do?

The Gambler (1974)

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Comparisons may be odious – but this suffered somewhat in comparison with Robert Altman’s California Split, released just a couple of months earlier. James Caan was certainly a hot ticket at the time following The Godfather (and TVM Brian’s Song) and this semi-autobiographical story by James Toback about a college professor in thrall to his gambling addiction is rich in allusion and emotion, since it is vaguely adapted from Dostoevsky’s eponymous novella.(The Great Sinner, 1949, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, comes from the same source.) A fantastic supporting cast of Lauren Hutton and Paul Sorvino enhance this modern morality tale, which is directed by Karel Reisz and edited by future director Roger Spottiswoode. Toback went on to become a director himself. Look sharp for Antonio Fargas and James Woods down the ensemble. Caan was really terribly good in the role and one can only regret that he wasn’t always making the best choices for his particular onscreen qualities:  this was originally intended for Toback’s friend Robert de Niro but Reisz didn’t want him. This was remade with Mark Wahlberg a few years ago. Watch this instead.

Top Five (2015)

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A comedian attempting to be taken seriously for his latest film release whilst preparing for marriage to a reality TV star re-evaluates and deconstructs his life and career in the company of a journalist (Rosario Dawson) who has some questionable issues in her own life. Writer/director Chris Rock might be accused of making a typical vanity project (and indeed Adam Sandler, who has a cameo as himself along with Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg, has been accused of doing just that.) But this has some major jibes about race, indulgence, vanity and rank stupidity that elevate this to something beyond parody and there’s a nice scene at the Comedy Cellar where Rock/Allan, one of the all-time great standups, gets to find his mojo again.