Ball of Fire (1941)

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Superb screwball comedy, based on a Billy Wilder story he co-wrote with Thomas Monroe subverting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Adapted by Wilder and collaborator Charles Brackett it becomes the tale of innocent grammarian Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) holed up in a NYC brownstone for four years with six other experts compiling an encyclopaedia who finds himself stumped when it comes to contemporary slang. A conversation with a delivery man leaves him at a nightclub where burlesque dancer and singer Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) performs with the Gene Krupa Orchestra and he enters a world of boogie woogie and moolah. Her gangster boyfriend Dana Andrews is on the lam and she needs to hide out to stop being forced to testify against him so feigning a cold takes up residence with the experts whereupon her illness is proclaimed “a slight rosiness in the laryngeal area” to which she retorts “It’s as red as The Daily Worker and just as sore!” Dialogue to die for, fabulous dresses (by Edith Head), a winning and unlikely romance (all the ‘dwarfs’ love her – the housekeeper, not so much), all are sublimated in a very odd shootout with Dan Duryea proving a patsy. Extremely funny indeed. Directed by Howard Hawks, this would eventually be remade by him as the musical A Song is Born.

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French Kiss (1995)

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I once sat next to an inflatable man on a flight from London to NYC but I never sat next to Kevin Kline playing a snarky French jewel thief who slips a diamond necklace into my handbag. That’s what happens to Meg Ryan as she heads for Paris where her fiance, Tim Hutton, is having it away with a Francaise. Only in romcom! Kline gets a pass at the airport because he saved policeman Jean Reno’s life. And whaddya know, Meg’s bag is stolen by Francois Cluzet in the Georges V (can’t get the staff) and she’s off to the Riviera with Kline where Hutton is meeting his girlfriend’s parents and they stay at the Carlton with a stolen credit card. There’s a confrontation, Kline pretends to be Meg’s boyfriend, and romantic disarray ensues… with a conclusion involving a picturesque vineyard.  It looks great, well it would, Owen Roizman shot it, and the story is by Adam Brooks, and if it’s whimsical and slight, well, it’s Queen Meg, it’s Kevin with a dreadful accent, Lawrence Kasdan directed them and it’s a nice scenic way to round out Thanksgiving evening. Paris? Cannes? Hell, yeah! I’m there!

After the Sunset (2004)

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An enormously charming cast makes this action comedy caper a wholly enjoyable affair. Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek are the diamond thieves tempted by One Last Job on an island paradise prior to their wedding and retirement, though he keeps delaying writing his vows. Woody Harrelson is the FBI agent determined to catch them because they’ve foiled him before. Don Cheadle is the local crime bigwig who spots an opportunity to steal the third of the Napoleon Diamonds on a cruise ship stopping in the vicinity and Brosnan has to face him down – he stole the first two. It becomes a buddy movie and the sight of Brosnan and Harrelson spooning is really something. Naomie Harris pops up with the local police to add to the Bondian references. If you’re going to do this kinda thing, do it on a tropical island with performers who have charisma to burn. There’s a great ending, BTW. Brett Ratner returned to this sub-genre with Tower Heist and they’re probably the only two of his films to feature anything resembling real people, relatively speaking. Screenplay by Paul Zbyszewski and Craig Rosenberg.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

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This is just too cool for school. Much heralded for starring Madonna, it’s a brilliant study of female friendship and a treasure hunt and small ads and being a magician’s assistant and a bored New Jersey housewife! Susan Seidelman’s sophomore outing hit all sorts of buttons but mostly it was the trendsetting pop star’s clothing that made people sit up and take notice of this loose take on Celine and Julie Go Boating (not that the fans realised this was what it was). Writer Leora Barish (Craig Bolotin did uncredited additions) turns it into an American genre piece, with magician’s assistant Susan (Madonna) making off with some valuable Egyptian earrings from her criminal boyfriend and keeps up with her friend Jim with notices in the newspaper which alert wealthy Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) to their meeting in Battery Park. She follows the engaging kook not realising when she acquires her cool jacket from a thrift store that she is now on the hook for witnessing something she knows nothing about and the key in the pocket could literally unlock a Pandora’s box of problems and murder … Engagingly written, performed and staged, with Aidan Quinn providing love interest and Laurie Metcalf some rich quips, this tale of girl power seems like a movie from another planet nowadays. And that’s not a bad thing! Get Into The Groove! Watch out for the great comic Steven Wright, John Turturro, Richard Hell, Ann Magnuson, John Lurie and Shirley Stoler. What a cast from the NYC underground/alt scene! And what a prophetic title this is:  where has the director disappeared? Seriously, The Hot Flashes? Desperately Seeking Susan Seidelman!

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

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Or, How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. Long, funny and full of amusing national stereotypes,this was one of a spate of expensive ensemble comedies paying homage to the derring-do of the Edwardian era. A pre-titles sequence shot silent-movie slapstick style starring Red Skelton sets the tone, while Ronald Searle’s wonderfully witty title illustrations are animated by Ralph Ayres. A London newspaper offers an enormous prize to whomever crosses the Channel and gets to Paris first. Co-written with Jack Davies by director Ken Annakin, this caper is hilarious, romantic and action-filled by turns with a cast to die for:  Sarah Miles and James Fox (reunited from the rather different The Servant!), Robert Morley, Gert Frobe, Alberto Sordi, Stuart Whitman, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Eric Sykes, Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, Willie Rushton and Terry-Thomas with spot-on narration by James Robertson Justice. Beautifully shot by the gifted Christopher Challis, this is made for Autumn afternoons. Wacky Races ahoy!

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.

There Was a Young Lady (1953)

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‘The war upset people more than they realise!’ intones the Duke of Chiddingford. Quite.  Michael Denison fires fiancee Dulcie Gray (his real-life wife) from her position at his London jewellery store because she’s so super-efficient at her job she’s showing him up.Then she’s nabbed by a gang of jewel thieves led by Sydney Tafler and sequestered at a country house where she ingratiates herself with them and tries to escape while they pick her brains for what turns out to be unwelcome information about the real worth  of their booty. There is some surprisingly sharp wit in what is at first glance a rather mild comedy featuring an extremely young Geraldine McEwan, distinctively voiced as ever, and Bill Owen, decades away from being a Sunday evening staple. There’s an amusing coda featuring some Very Naughty Boys. Denison and Gray were famously long married, starring together in several films, including The Glass Mountain, and Gray was also a writer of mystery and detective stories as well as being a keen conservationist of butterflies.  She died just before her 96th birthday in 2011.Co-written by director Lawrence Huntington.

The Walk (2015)

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140 feet. A walk of pure terror and joy. What Philippe Petit did in 1974 was literally a high-wire act, a dance of death between the Twin Towers. Once he saw the photograph of them, he knew he had to do it. The first part of the film is amazingly clunky considering the origins – Robert Zemeckis is a world-class storyteller but the combination of piece-to-camera and voiceover narration with this Pinocchio-esque story of a street performer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt replete with Frawnch accent) mentored by Uncle Rudy (Sir Ben Kingsley, as he insists upon being called – so be it!) is Awkward. The real action – still with the strange narrative devices – is the caper-heist nature of the preparation in NYC:  assembling a team, getting into the buildings, the donning of disguise, the criminal acts necessary to perform this magical act or ‘coup’ as Philippe calls it. One of the great ways to put across story in cinema is process – showing us something that we would otherwise know little about, and how precisely it can be done. This replicates what we already know from Man On Wire, the documentary that also uses Petit’s memoir and boasts Petit himself in the role of narrator.  The difference here is budgetary and visionary – because ultimately we accompany him not just to the edge of the Towers but across the air that separates them – and it is sweat-inducing stuff. He goes from South to North – and then – turns back. And lies down. And comes face to face with a curious seagull. It is just extraordinary and more than compensates for the shortcomings in what precedes it. We are all on the high wire. And it seems impossible, crazy, a hallucination, although we have photographs to prove that it took place and people watched it, albeit from very far away, beneath him on the streets. There were just 140 feet separating the North and South Towers and now that they are no longer there this seems … imaginary, the dream of a madman, a matter of faith. This was a miracle that really happened. Religions have been built on less.

Mortdecai (2015)

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It’s somewhat mystifying as to what esteemed screenwriter David Koepp saw in this project – other than a cult novel by Kyril Bonfogli and a star/producer in Johnny Depp. Presumably the opportunity to make a fun pastiche of a caper farce with the prospect of Depp doing a Terry-Thomas impression.At least there’s the presence of Jonny Pasvolsky for connoisseurs of male pulchritude. Ho hum.