Mansfield Park (1999)

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It could have all turned out differently I suppose. But it didn’t. Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is born into a poor family with far too many children so she is sent away to live with wealthy uncle Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), his wife Aunt Norris (Lindsay Duncan) and their four children, where she’ll be brought up for a proper introduction to society. She is treated unfavorably by her relatives, except for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom she grows fond of. However her life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of worldly Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola). The path of true love never runs smoothly and then there are matters of money. Matches are made and Fanny rejects Henry which sends everyone into a spin and certain romantic fancies turn to actual sex … Well what a palaver – a Jane Austen adaptation that puts sex and politics and money front and centre in the most obvious way. Patricia (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) Rozema’s adaptation plays with the form and breaks the fourth wall and even introduces some very out-there drawings which take Uncle Harold Pinter down a moral peg or three:  he’s made his money in slavery and his son Tom’s return from the West Indies with a terrible illness makes him produce some very realistic impressions of his father’s predilections and the depredations of the slave trade. Austen was the hottest screenwriter in the world in the 1990s (not that she knew a thing about it) and survives even this quite postmodern dip into adaptation by the Canadian filmmaker with some delightful performances, particularly by O’Connor who is given lines from Austen’s own private correspondence in her addresses to camera. But sex? In Austen? Tut tut! Charming, in its own perversely witty fashion.

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The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

Calendar Girls (2003)

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It’s not just jam and Jerusalem you know. Annie (Julie Walters) and Chris (Helen Mirren) are the two bored laggards at their Yorkshire branch of the Women’s Institute. When Annie’s husband dies young from leukaemia they come up with a plan to raise money for a relatives’ seating area in the hospital – but last year’s WI calendar only raised a few hundred quid so inspired by Chris’ son’s porn mag collection they devise a calendar with a difference. It’s a raving success. But Chris’s son goes off the rails, Annie is inundated with mail from her fellow bereaved and a trip to the Jay Leno show in LA brings out the tensions between the two. This real-life inspirational story of middle-class middle-aged countrywomen could have been truly mawkish but the interpretation by Tim Firth and Juliet Towhidi covers timidity, adultery, WI politics and bake-off rivalry amid the joking and stripping. Mirren and Walters are both specific and broad when it’s required. There are great character roles particularly for Penelope Wilton, but also Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Celia Imrie and Geraldine James with Ciaran Hinds, John Alderton and Philip Glenister bringing up the shapely rear. There’s a great moment when the band Anthrax introduce themselves to the infamous ladies. Directed by Nigel Cole.

Prevenge (2016)

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Children these days are so spoiled, like, Mummy get me the new Playstation, Mummy kill that man. Screenwriter and actress Alice Lowe makes her directing debut in this low-budget horror thriller about a widowed seven-month pregnant woman who takes directions from her highly vocal foetus and goes on a killing spree avenging her late husband whose climbing buddies (male and female) cut the cord to save their lives on an expedition gone wrong. Interspersed with her horribly awkward midwifery appointments there are gory murders, some funny sight gags (getting stuck in a dog flap) and the big joke is about the invisibility of a pregnant woman in the world, even when murdering all before her. Her job interview with yet another guilty party exposes the prejudice towards pregnant workers.  Shot in a sporadically inventive way by Ryan Eddleston (underpass = birth canal, etc.), there are problems in the writing and exposition and in some ways this doesn’t really hit the extremes you might expect despite the violence. The twist ending materialises when the eventual arrival of the totalitarian newborn doesn’t exactly quell the maternal rage. For fans of the genre, there is the bonus of a Seventies-style score by Toydrum.   I’m not grieving I’m gestating! The expectant mother of all slashers.

The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

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The odd pairing of Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing probably killed off this picture, which in turn put the final nail in the coffin of RKO Studios which Rogers had helped make millions in the Thirties. A neat idea isn’t quite tonally right and Channing’s drag queen-type weirdness – a voice that doesn’t quite fit that long face – doesn’t help. Rogers is  Rose Gilray, the eponymous saleslady, recovering from a NYC corset business that goes bust (ahem), she takes up the opportunity to repay her debt to steel manufacturer Jim Carter (David Brian) by bringing barbed wire cross country under cover of a stash of undies. However en route to Texas at a cattlemen’s gathering in Kansas City she encounters cattle baron Joel Kingdom (James Arness) who is constitutionally opposed to putting up fences but he likes her a deal. There’s some fun as traveling companion singer Molly Wade (Channing) crushes on rough rider Clint Eastwood. She’s lost her own job since wearing a corset on stage.  Everywhere they go they meet Charles Masters (Barry Nelson) driving one of those new-fangled mechanical horses. He likes Rose too.  The ladies wind up in prison when Kingdom makes his case against Carter – who likes Rose a lot. A good spin on feminism that just lost a lot of fizz somewhere between the idea and the cutting room with some bad rear projection thrown in for good measure. Written by Stephen Longstreet and Devery Freeman, directed by Arthur Lubin.

Panic Room (2002)

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Divorced mom Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) are no sooner moved into their new four-storey NYC brownstone than the previous owner’s grandson Junior (Jared Leto), caretaker Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and psychotic Raoul (singer Dwight Yoakam) have broken in to steal millions in bearer’s bonds belonging to Junior’s grandpa – now the Altman money (much more) happens to be in the eponymous space where the ladies have decamped. Trouble is, these guys really want that money and are arguing amongst themselves and in the panic room little Sarah is going into diabetic shock … This was part of Foster’s reinvention as a paranoid action woman – triggered only when Nicole Kidman had to withdraw from the role due to injury.  Screenwriter David Koepp wastes absolutely no time in putting the ladies in jeopardy and it’s a face-off between their ingenuity and the desperate men’s resorting to violence that fuels the narrative which is disrupted again by the arrival of Altman pere (Patrick Bauchau). After a taut mid-section it descends into a rather predictable shootout at the conclusion but not before there are some genuinely thrilling moments including a visit by the local police force following Meg’s phonecall which she has to disavow because the thieves are watching on the extensive CCTV system. A good example of the home invasion thriller and nice to see a blonde Kristen Stewart pre-nose job! And a nicely ironic physical example of what the snowflakes would call a safe space …. (ha!) Directed with his usual flair by David Fincher.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day 3D

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You just can’t go around the streets killing people. Well, you can actually. James Cameron has revisited one of the key films of the 90s and possibly the greatest action film ever made. It was re-released for one night only – 29 August –  the date the T-1000 was released to an unsuspecting world. In this time-defying work Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is whiling away the months in a state mental health facility while her kid John (Edward Furlong) is in foster care practising those sneaky skillsets that his mom has taught him because in the future he’s the leader of the humans in a machine-led dystopia. While T-1000 (Robert Patrick) has been sent back to kill John, The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been sent to protect him in one of the greatest face-offs (literally) you will ever see. Once the computer boffin (Joe Morton) has been engaged rather forcibly to help destroy his creations (in a philosophical 360 these will destroy too) there is nothing for it but fight to the death. I didn’t like the 3D and it actually added nothing but migraine in this 4K edition. This is sensational from concept to execution. And you don’t need me to repeat the lines or the warmth between Der Ahnuld and Furlong or the genius of casting Hamilton who is ripped to the max in the greatest action role outside of Sigourney in Aliens. Robert Patrick gives me nightmares. This is future shock like no other. No need to tamper with brilliance so the visual jolts bothered me greatly:  a weird choice given that this is a warning about technology, a fever dream that has particular resonance today.  Written by Cameron and William Wisher Jr. This is intense.

The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Christopher Strong (1933)

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Aka The Great Desire and The White Moth. Don’t ever stop me doing what I want. Fascinating and startling Pre-Code drama starring Katharine Hepburn not as the eponymous Member of Parliament but a daring aviatrix modelled on Amy Johnson. Lady Cynthia Darrington meets the married Sir Christopher (Colin Clive) at a party and they can’t help but fall for each other. His wife, Lady Elaine (!) (the fabulous Billie Burke) worries about their daughter but the frankly virginal Cynthia stirs Christopher, especially when she dons a silver moth costume for a fancy dress ball and to hell with marriage and flying… for a while. The clever way to illustrate sexual congress – a bedside lamp switched on with just Hepburn’s bangled wrist in shot as we see from a clock it’s the wee small hours – the use of altimeters not just as a signal for her ambition but a correlative for this extra-marital relationship – and of course Hepburn’s striking look in her second film appearance – make for a stylish Art Deco picture. Cynthia’s final flight after she discovers her pregnancy still gives her an opportunity for personal expression and record-breaking and it is this aspect – and the fact that the film was directed by Dorothy Arzner (with a little help from silent director Tommy Atkins who also assisted on Hepburn’s debut Morning Glory) – means this was rehabilitated over the years by feminism. Adapted from Gilbert Frankau’s novel by Zoe Akins. Quite dazzling.

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