True Romance (1993)

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How do you describe the 90s bastard child of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands? Total cool. How easy is that to achieve in a movie? Well it helps to have a script by Tarantino. And to be directed by Tony Scott. And then there’s the beyond-belief cast:  Christian Slater. Patricia Arquette. Gary Oldman. Dennis Hopper.  Christopher Walken. Michael Rapaport.  Brad Pitt. James Gandolfini. Tom Sizemore. Chris Penn. And that’s just the start of it. It’s ridiculous! It Boy Slater is Clarence, the comic book-pop culture geek who falls for the pretty call girl Alabama and makes off with a huge coke haul belonging to her pimp and pisses off a lot of the wrong people. His dad Hopper does the astonishing Sicilian-nigger speech to Walken – and how stunning are all those jaw-dropping monologues, no wonder Tarantino is so beloved by actors. (Rolling Stone called his dialogue ‘gutter poetry.’) When the gangsters come calling the violence is sickening and yet the colour lends it an appropriately ripened comic book quality.  There’s a slamdunk shootout involving Hollywood jerks and practically everyone gets killed but Clarence’s very special mentor keeps him chill. Awesome.

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Fathers and Daughters (2015)

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Russell Crowe’s the famous novelist who was driving the car in which his beloved wife died. His little girl and he survive but his injuries cause psychotic episodes so he goes away to get his mental status sorted out for a long 7 months and she’s parcelled out to his wife’s sister and her husband. Then when he returns they make his life miserable attempting to gain custody as revenge – because the women hated each other. The wealthy brother in law (Bruce Greenwood) provokes Crowe at every opportunity until he lets loose as his spasms contract his muscles and his temper flares … We’re in the present day and Amanda Seyfried is the screwed up daughter all grown up and practising paediatric psychological counselling during the day and screwing every man in sight at night until she meets her late dad’s biggest fan (Aaron Paul). The fallout from her past and her behaviour impacts on their romantic relationship in embarrassing fashion. So what’s wrong with this picture? Pretty much everything. It’s disconnected. It’s calculated to make you empathise but you don’t. It was one of those famous Hollywood Black List screenplays (by Brad Desch) that got picked up and made by an Italian director Gabriele Muccino and has an amazing cast that also includes Jane Fonda, Octavia Spencer, Diane Kruger and Janet McTeer and yet it doesn’t matter. At some level it’s dissociated from its own content and does not make a lot of sense despite the title being the name of the Pulitzer writer’s most famous novel. Weird.

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.

Notting Hill (1999)

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Julia Roberts hasn’t been the world’s biggest movie star for nothing. And in this Richard Curtis/Working Title romcom, she’s Anna Scott, coincidentally, the world’s biggest movie star who finds herself … in Notting Hill, taking a look at the wares in a travel bookstore owned by Will Thacker  (Hugh Grant). In a recent romcom doc it was astonishing to learn that Curtis didn’t want Grant to star in Four Weddings because he was too handsome and charming. He wanted someone who looked like him. Cooler heads prevailed. Well, he got his lookalike, in About Time (Domhnall Gleeson) and we know how that went, eh? Romantic comedy is perceived to be quite possibly the most popular of film genres and its characteristic narrative is based on the superficially mismatched heterosexual couple, finally reunited in their pursuit of love once a number of obstacles are surmounted.   Will has a ramshackle house in a mono-ethnic street (ie not Notting Hill, according to the social critics) with an allegedly hilarious lanky room-mate Spike (Rhys Ifans) and he socialises with fellow poshies Hugh Bonneville and his crippled wife who like to host suppers in their wheelchair-friendly home. Anna wants to live a quiet life away from the publicity attracted by her recent breakup and she and Will … well, you know. This is the pre-millennial culmination of a decade of politically correct posturing and transatlantic fumblings by Curtis which commenced with his apparently transgressive inclusion of both a deaf man and a gay couple in the screwball-lite Swiss-watch-like Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell, 1994); and here we collapse those ABC categories into a paraplegic woman while the wondrous Charlotte Coleman (TV’s Marmalade Atkins) is replaced with the ‘kookie’ Emma Chambers. In both films the disabled (!) characters’ abilities to communicate in a kind of Scotch semaphore gifts them with the ability to discern the course of true love’s path and provide direction to the misguided. At the end what is entirely absent in the astonishingly lazy script – tangible sentiment  – is supplied by an utterly beguiling take on ‘She’ (‘Elle’) by Elvis Costello, for a film that simply does not deserve it. Thank goodness for Julia! She really is fabulous.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Aka The Ghost. Robert Harris’ wickedly sly satire on the Blair Prime Ministership gets the full Polanski treatment here – replete with a changed and very shocking ending (he does this – just ask Robert Towne!). Ewan McGregor is the unvarnished wideboy London sleb journo preyed upon to become the second ghost writer of Adam Lang (a brilliantly cast Pierce Brosnan) the former PM’s memoirs after the previous one allegedly committed suicide. He arrives to his isolated  Elba-like Massachusetts retreat to find Lang is under investigation by the International Criminal Court over suspected rendition and torture for the benefit of the CIA. He begins to realise that under Lang’s suavely non-committal charm there may lie a secret that his predecessor uncovered and that he may in fact have been murdered … Harris’ own adaptation (with Polanski) is faithful to a blackly comic work with many witty characters and roleplays in particular that of Olivia Williams playing Lady Macbeth behind the throne. Brosnan is terrific as the famous charisma machine, Kim Cattrall is the cat’s pyjamas as Lang’s right hand woman (and we presume his mistress) while McGregor is perfect as the guy on the make who is pulled into something he doesn’t understand. Taut, oppressive, brilliant filmmaking with an exquisite, inventive score (his best?) by Alexandre Desplat and as for the ending … I was totally shaken by it. Stunning.

Grandma (2015)

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We enter this film in the middle of a breakup that is sharp and swift as poet and unemployed academic Lily Tomlin disposes of her much younger Lesbian lover of four months, Judy Greer. She describes her as a footnote. Then she breaks down in the shower. No sooner is she wearing her mortar board and gown than teenaged granddaughter Julia Garner shows up pregnant needing $630 for an abortion at five forty-five that evening. Grandma only has $43. Her longtime companion died 18 months earlier and hospital bills left her broke and she cut up her credit cards. They spend the day hitting on people she knows looking to make up the difference. This is an exercise in writing craft:  give interesting people a problem and solve it. Because it’s about a writer it’s told in six chapters. Grandma has cool friends but when they hit the feminist bookstore run by Elizabeth Pena (late, lamented, what a loss), Greer is unexpectedly there working and they have the mother of a quarrel. Laverne Cox owes her but hasn’t any money on her so gives her a tattoo and petty cash. Julia introduces Grandma to the moron who knocked her up – and she beats him up. They roll up to the fabulous modernist home of Sam Elliott – and Grandma’s surprising and hidden sexual past is opened up in an incredible scene-sequence, beautifully played by both parties. Push comes to shove and they have to go to the office of her daughter Marcia Gay Harden, a powerful businesswoman, and look for the money there. This is a very smart, well-told tale, of people who make families in unusual ways, about the perils of love, marriage, illness, parenthood, mother-daughter relationships, reconciliations and how hard it can be to get an abortion. (Just wait for the scene outside the clinic to see what happens to Tomlin!). Written and directed by Paul Weitz, who had worked with Tomlin on Admission:  this is her first starring role since Big Business with Bette Midler in 1988. She’s fantastic in this sharp story of septugenarian life,spiky, witty, wise, decent above all and occasionally sad. All the exposition is done succinctly and inventively and the running time is just 79 minutes. Politically correct – in a good way and extremely funny to boot. Who knew that ‘writer in residence’ could be a term of abuse? !

Agatha (1979)

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In 1978 writer and notorious drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s wife Kathleen devised a speculative account of crime writer Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. It was initially proposed as a documentary for the BBC.  Christie had died shortly beforehand and her representatives tried to get it stopped. This elegant and suspenseful big-screen account is daubed in an autumnal palette shot by Vittorio Storaro and effectively contained by Michael Apted.  Tynan’s story is a pastiche of Christie tropes in a screenplay she co-wrote with Arthur Hopcraft (and her novel came out to chime with the film’s release). Vanessa Redgrave is simply luminous as the shy, introverted writing genius whose husband Archie (Timothy Dalton, Redgrave’s real-life long-term boyfriend) has confronted her about his affair with a woman in his office and his desire to get a divorce in order to marry the other woman. Agatha takes off and arrives in Harrogate, the destination spa town where his mistress is heading with her aunt, in order to plan a ghastly revenge. All of Britain is searching for her. The police don’t like her husband’s reaction and suspect him of murder. In a story where practically everyone is pretending to be someone else, the only occasional downside is the effect of Dustin Hoffman’s pantomime as (fictional) US journalist Wally Stanton, obsessed with tracking down the world-famous woman who had just published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Perhaps that’s what they call star power. This lies somewhere between mystery and romance, biography and faction. Christie notoriously refused to address this episode in her autobiography and it was officially attributed to amnaesia. We shall never really know. Now that’s REAL star power.

Lady Luck (1946)

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Babara Hale is the latest generation of Mary Audrey to fall victim to her elderly relative Frank Morgan’s predilection for gambling – this we learn in an amusing opening montage that brings us up to date in post-war Los Angeles. Then she falls for Robert Young who meets her because of her grandpa’s book – and not the kind she sells in her new bookstore. They get married, she realises he too is an incurable gambler but then  – literally – the tables are turned on him in Vegas. Genetics, you know. Tonally odd, this is ostensibly comedic but anyone who knows someone who married a gambler will feel distinctly discomfited – even if it concludes to everyone’s advantage. Some nice photography in LA and Vegas retains interest.

Funny Face (1957)

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The bookshop assistant who’s picked out to model by the world’s leading fashion photographer and uses a trip to Paris to try out her belief in empathicalism. Charm, wit, style, panache – and that’s just the costumes. Acting by Hepburn and Astaire, direction by Donen, photos by Avedon, humour by Kay Thompson, clothes by Givenchy. music by Gershwin. An MGM musical in all but name (in fact they all went to Paramount.) City by Paris. What more could you possibly want? ‘Smarvellous.

The Love Letter (1999)

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Sometimes you need a pleasant diversion from well, everything, and then you remember a little movie shepherded into production by Kate Capshaw (who has never worked enough in my humble opinion) and all is well with the world. She’s a bookstore owner and single mom on her own for the summer in this wonderful New England seaside hamlet and comes across said letter and it drives her crazy – and everyone else who reads it – because they all think it’s about them. With a terrific supporting cast of Ellen DeGeneres (in a rare break from TV), Tom Selleck, Blythe Danner and Geraldine McEwan, this is a beautifully made, gorgeously set, well modulated comic drama of romance and manners. Tom Everett Scott isn’t my idea of Romeo, but that’s the worst that can be said. I have serious shop envy over this (and You’ve Got Mail, naturally). It was adapted by Maria Maggenti from the novel by Catherine Schine. The point of this work is that it’s the thought that counts! For all of us who want epistolary romance, as it were. Look out for Capshaw’s daughters Jessica Capshaw and Sasha Spielberg in walk on roles. As refreshing as a sea breeze.