La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

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Ivanhoe (1952)

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Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) is determined to right the wrong of kidnapped Richard the Lionheart’s predicament, confronting his evil brother Prince John (Guy Rolfe) and Norman knight Brian de Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders). His own estranged father Cedric (Finlay Currie) doesn’t know he’s loyal to the king but feisty Rowena (Joan Fontaine) is still his lady love although his affections are now swung by the beautiful Jewess Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter to Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer), who is almost robbed by the knights and whose fortune can aid the King. Robin Hood appears and Ivanhoe joins forces with him and his men, there’s jousting at the tournament and love lost and won, and a trial for witchcraft ….  Adapted by AEneas MacKenzie from the Walter Scott novel, this was written by Noel Langley and Marguerite Roberts, whose name was removed subsequent to her being blacklisted. It’s glorious picture-book pageantry in Technicolor, such a wonderful change from those grim grey superhero and historical excursions to which we are being currently subjected in the multiplex. Everyone performs with great gusto, there’s chivalry and action aplenty, a great baddie, a kangaroo court, a ransom to be paid, a love triangle, a king to rescue, costumes to die for and properly beautiful movie stars performing under the super sharp lens of Freddie Young to a robust score by Miklos Rozsa. It was the first in an unofficial mediaeval MGM trilogy shot in the UK, followed by Knights of the Round Table and The Adventures of Quentin Durward, all starring Taylor (Robert, that is) and shot by Richard Thorpe. Prepare to have your swash buckled. Fabulous.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

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Sofia Coppola knows what it feels like for a girl. When the officials at Versailles gave her the very big keys to open up the palace and reimagine a little Austrian girl lost in the vicious and foreign French royal court working from Antonia Fraser’s biography, they probably didn’t picture this — a portrait of teenage decadence in the pastel palette of macaroons (magenta, citron, mint) scored to a New Romantic soundtrack as if she were making an Adam and the Ants video.  Kirsten Dunst is the kid sold to the gormless dauphin (Jason Schwartzman) in a strategic alliance organised by her mother the Empress (Marianne Faithfull). Her father in law the King Louis XV (Rip Torn) is like a Texan cowboy carrying on with Madame du Barry (Asia Argento). Her husband has no idea what to do in bed and she’s a giggly kid who spends her nights drinking and gambling with her girly friends and it takes a visit from her brother Emperor Josef (Danny Huston) to explain to the mechanically-minded prospective king about locks and holes, and a year later, finally, the marriage is consummated and a baby girl is born.  Seven years of foreplay!  The life of conspicuous consumption of colourful costumes and cookies and candy is swopped for something almost rural and natural at Le Petit Trianon where the young mother holds a different kind of court and succumbs to an affair with the Swedish Count Fersel (Jamie Dornan) and frolics with her little girl in the meadows. The mood alters and the cinematography (by Lance Acord) attains the backlit flared quality of a nature documentary:  this is impressionistic and expressionistic all at once, reliant on Dunst’s face and the overall vision of a writer/director in sympathetic tune with her tragic protagonist whose perception of the vicious society over which she holds sway dominates the narrative. The final quarter hour is the nightmare:  people are starving because the peasants are bearing the cost of the war in America, and propaganda and lies, dead children and the baying mob are at the door. This is a fabulist film about fashion and feeling and food and it gets into your head and your heart. If you don’t like it, you know what you can go eat.

Three Men in a Boat (1956)

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Jerome K. Jerome’s witty novel gets a colour boost in this amusing Edwardian comedy of three men who just want to get away from the various women in their lives and take to the river Thames as far as Oxford in a row boat with their dog (the lovely Montmorency) where naturally they encounter even more of the finer species. Laurence Harvey, Jimmy (Whack-O!) Edwards and David Tomlinson are the gents in question while various of the wonderful wives and girlfriends and interfering prospective mother in law include Shirley Eaton, Jill Ireland and Martita Hunt. Some very amusing sequences involving canned pineapple, punting with a photographer capturing the outcome, putting up the tent, the Hampton Court maze and a night time raid on the boating ladies’ bedroom, are treated with a lovely light touch. Delightful entertainment adapted by Hubert Gregg and Vernon Harris with a splendid score by John Addison (I love that guy!) There’s plenty of weather and even some cricket for anglophiles and look fast for Norman Rossington making his debut! (To say nothing of the dog.) Directed by Ken Annakin.

The Black Shield of Falworth (1954)

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The Fifties enjoyed a bout of jousting, knights, chivalry, swords and damsels in distress, cruel aristos and injustices righted by decent kings. Tony Curtis is a peasant who discovers he and his sister Barbara Rush are actually the children of a man who was falsely accused of treason and murdered by beastly David Farrar, who aspires to the Crown of Henry IV;  Janet Leigh is the daughter of Herbert Marshall who will ultimately reinstate them as their protector and a friend of their late father. Curtis trains to be a knight and gets revenge by killing Farrar in trial by combat and America’s sweethearts get together in the end after some very funny scenes, with Craig Hill bringing up the rear very handsomely indeed. Lushly photographed by Irving Glassberg with a rousing soundtrack by Hans Salter and well directed by Rudy Mate. Oscar Brodney adapted Howard Pyle’s novel, making several crucial plot changes. A Universal Production.

The Princess Diaries 2 (2004)

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You won’t get me saying a harsh word about Garry Marshall but even I have to concede that this was … probably unnecessary! A sequel to the sweet Meg Cabot adaptation (by Gina Wendkos and Shonda Rimes) it deals with the thorny question of college grad Mia’s ascent to the throne. She has to get married because a single girl cannot be Queen! And this being a cross between Ruritania and Monaco it’s got to be arranged with a suitable husband so Andrew Jacoby (Callum Blue) is lined up for a test run. Viscount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies) is plotting to take over the crown himself through his nephew Nicholas (Chris Pine with extremely large hair) who’s homing in on the beautiful princess without being aware of his role. Mia has 30 days to find a husband! Everyone’s back, including Fat Louis, that great cat. If nothing else it presents Julie Andrews with an opportunity to sing and to bemoan her own romantic situation with Hector Elizondo! Sigh.

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!

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

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I disliked the Tim Burton evocation of Alice in Wonderland so much I almost barfed;  this one, I guess I acclimatised to the concept after all these years, despite misgivings. Even if this doesn’t conform much to the story or the vision of Carroll, perhaps the autumnal hues don’t grate as much as the earlier film. Mia’s back with great big hair, Sacha Baron Cohen does a Werner Herzog impression as Time,we have an explanation for Helena Bonham Carter’s oversized head and Mr Depp lithps hith way through his Hatterisms. Actually, it’s quite good!

I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

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A strange entry in the Powell and Pressburger canon but one of oddly sentimental value and cherished by a lot of people. Raymond Chandler wrote: “I’ve never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialised as a show place.” Wendy Hiller is marrying a Scottish laird for money but has to wait a week on the Isle of Mull for the weather to improve before she can reach him in the Hebrides. In the meantime she meets naval officer Roger Livesey and a strange kind of romance ensues. With superb production design and photography, a million pilgrimages were born. (I’ve made the phonecall but never gone. Yet.) Told as much through landscape as behaviour, it is movie magic.

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.