Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019)

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

Aka Portrait de la jenue fille en feu. Will you be able to paint her? Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is instructing a class of art students in Paris. They ask her about the origins of a painting and she reminisces: France, 1770. Marianne is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) a young woman who has just left the convent and is at home on a remote island off the coast of Brittany. She is a reluctant bride to be and her mother the countess (Valeria Golino) wants Marianne to paint her portrait in secret for an arranged marriage to a nobleman suitor in Milan whose visual approval is required. The last male artist failed in his mission and Marianne must study Héloïse without her knowing. Marianne accompanies her on her daily walk under the pretence of being her companion but observes her carefully and paints her secretly. Is that how you see me? When she reveals her identity and Héloïse dislikes the portrait Marianne destroys it, to the rage of the countess who goes away for a while as long as Marianne agrees to do another portrait, this time with her subject’s full co-operation. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s. The women fall in love and Héloïse reads Orpheus and Eurydice by firelight to Marianne and Héloïse’s servant, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) whose pregnancy the women help to end. As Marianne finishes the portrait and the countess is returning they must accept what happens next … Your presence is made up of fleeting moments that may lack truth. French writer/director Céline Sciamma’s historical romance is stately, elegant and well framed:  this is a picture of female solidarity and love, grounded in the most obvious of ideas – the female gaze in a patriarchal world – in a film about looking and perception. We are going to paint. This is about turning around and acknowledging and engaging with what you see – and making a choice. The performers look and watch and are passive aggressive as society dictates they must be with their taboo affair, illuminating each other’s lives in secret. How people see each other has rarely been so truthfully portrayed. A profound, at times magical, meditation on what it means to be a woman, this is beautifully and carefully staged, with nothing excessive or ornamental and driven by stunning performances. The digital cinematography by Claire Mathon is so exquisite there are candlelit scenes you will want to reach out and touch and hang on your wall. This show and tell is far from still life. If you look at me, who do I look at?

Harlow (1965)

Harlow

Everything about me is real.  Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) arrives in Los Angeles as a teenager, pushed into showbiz by her sex-mad mother Mama Jean (Angela Lansbury) and grasping stepfather Marino Bello (Raf Vallone). Kindhearted agent Arthur Landau (Red Buttons) becomes Jean’s mentor and rescues her from glamour shots and the casting couch, while a devious Howard Hughes-like mogul Richard Manley (Leslie Nielsen) grows infatuated with the beautiful young actress. Harlow herself falls for writer/producer Paul Bern (Peter Lawford) before tragedy strikes right after their marriage and her efforts to get together with fellow studio star Jack Harrison (Mike Connors) come to nothing …  You have the body of a woman and the emotions of a child!  The big-budget version of the screen icon’s life was beaten to it by a cheaper experimental film starring Carol Lynley that barely scraped into theatres so this is the one that people remember, if at all. Adapted in part from Landau and Irving Shulman’s pulpy biography of the sex goddess by John Michael Hayes, this skips and jumps through Harlow’s life, eliminating altogether any direct reference to her relationship with William Powell (Connors plays a variation on him) or her co-star Clark Gable, more or less fabricating whole sequences and introducing an element of wantonness involving her stepfather that seems excessive even in this version of events. It’s rather lurid and seems to deviate from what is known of Harlow’s true character but it’s rather interesting to see an interpretation of the platinum blonde in vivid Technicolor with Edith Head making the most of the opportunity to create some stunning gowns. Baker had featured in the controversial Hayes adaptation of Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers a year earlier and shot a famous nude scene in the role of Rina, a thinly veiled version of Harlow – so her casting here is no surprise given that Paramount produced both pictures. Effectively, then, this is a remake in part of part of a year-old film. Baker is a decade older than Harlow at the time of her death but her performance is tender and appealing, capturing some of the spirit of Harlow’s great characters against a melodramatic backdrop that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the facts including the circumstances of her demise. Lansbury and Vallone are extremely impressive as the lusty parental figures while Buttons is very good as the kind man who remains her one true friend. A fascinating insight into how Hollywood saw itself at one time. Welcome to the velvet prison. Hayes deserves his reputation as a great writer of dialogue and he manages to invest showbiz clichés with the ring of truth especially when uttered venomously by Connors; Julie Parrish appears uncredited as Connors’ wife and would make a couple of appearances opposite him on Mannix five years later. The production design by Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira and James W. Payne is jaw dropping. The theme song Lonely Girl is sung by Bobby Vinton. Directed by Gordon Douglas. There’s nobody deader than I am right now. Oh, I guarantee all of you I won’t be by tomorrow

To Each His Own (1946)

To Each His Own

Are you proud of your life? In World War 2 London, fire wardens Josephine ‘Jody’ Norris (Olivia de Havilland) and Lord Desham (Roland Culver) keep a lonely vigil. When Jody saves Desham’s life, they become better acquainted. With a bit of coaxing, the ageing spinster tells the story of her life, leading to a flashback of her life in upstate New York town where is the daughter of pharmacist Dan (Griff Barnett) and she is proposed to by both Alex Piersen (Philip Terry) and travelling salesman Mac Tilton (Bill Goodwin) but she turns them both down. A disappointed Alex marries Corinne (Mary Anderson). When handsome US Army Air Service fighter pilot Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) flies in to promote a bond drive, he and Jody quickly fall in love, though they have only one night together. Months later she gives birth to his son in a New York hospital and her plans to adopt the baby by stealth go wrong when Corinne’s newborn dies and she and Alex take in the child, known as Griggsy.  Bart has died in the war and then Jody’s father dies and she has to sell up. She starts up a cosmetics business in NYC under cover of Mac’s former bootlegging enterprise and reveals to Corinne she’s been propping up Alex’ failing business and will continue to do so but she wants the baby – her son – however the boy misses his ‘mother’ … You sin – you pay for it all the rest of your life. A morality tale that doesn’t moralise – that’s quite a feat to pull off but master producer and screenwriter Charles Brackett (with Jacques Théry) does it. This miracle of straightforward storytelling never falls into the trap of over-sentimentality and is helped enormously by a performance of grace notes and toughness by de Havilland, who won an Academy Award for her role as the unwed mother who through the worst of ironies loses access to her own baby when a finely executed plan goes wrong. Her ascent through the business world is born of necessity and grim ambition to retrieve her son – and the scene when she has to admit there’s more to parenting than giving birth is one of the finest of the actress’ career. Just bringing a child into the world doesn’t make you a mother … it’s being there … it’s all the things I’ve missed. The subject of illegitmacy is handled without fuss and de Havilland is surrounded by fine performances, acting like a sorbet to her rich playing of a woman whose coldness is pierced by the thoughts of her lost son: Culver is excellent as the no-nonsense English aristo who engineers a reconciliation; Anderson is fine as the flip rival who gains the upper hand while knowing her husband still loves his childhood sweetheart; and Lund scores in his debut in the double role as the flyer chancing his arm at a one-night stand and then as his own clueless son twenty years later, wanting nothing more than a night with his fiancée. A refreshing take on that strand of stories known as the Independent Woman sub-genre. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.  I’m a problem mother

 

Mr Jones (2019)

Mr Jones

The Soviets have built more in five years than our Government has in ten. In 1933, Gareth Jones (James Norton) is an ambitious young Welsh journalist who has gained renown for his interview with Adolf Hitler. Thanks to his connections to Britain’s former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), he is able to get official permission to travel to the Soviet Union. Jones intends to try and interview Stalin and find out more about the Soviet Union’s economic expansion and its apparently successful five-year development plan. Jones is restricted to Moscow where he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard) a libertine who sticks to the Communist Party line.  He befriends and romances German journalist Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) who reluctantly sees him follow the path of murdered journalist Kleb in pursuit of a story. He jumps his train and travels unofficially to Ukraine to discover evidence of the Holodomor (famine) including empty villages, starving people, cannibalism, and the enforced collection of grain exported out of the region while millions die. He escapes with his life because Duranty bargains for it on condition he report nothing but lies. On his return to the UK he struggles to get the true story taken seriously and is forced to return home to Wales in ignominy … They are killing us. Millions.  Framed by the writing of Animal Farm after a credulous commie-admiring Eric Blair aka George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) expresses disbelief that Stalin is anything but a good guy, this is an oddly diffident telling of a shocking true story that’s art-directed within an inch of its life. Introducing Orwell feels like a disservice to Jones. Norton has a difficult job because the screenplay by Andrea Chalupa is too mannerly and the film’s aesthetic betrays his intent. Director Agnieszka Holland is a fine filmmaker but the colour grading, the great lighting (there’s even a red night sky shot from below as Jones and Brooks walk through Moscow) and the excessive use of handheld shooting to express Jones’ inner turmoil somehow detracts from the original fake news story. It happens three times during food scenes including when he realises he’s eating some kids’ older brother. Shocking but somehow not surprising and amazingly relevant given the present state of totalitarian things, everywhere, in a world where Presidents express the wish to have journalists executed and some of them succeed. Some things never change. Chilling. I have no expectations. I just have questions

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

Dont Tell Mom the Babysitters Dead

I’ve had a very rough thirty-seven years and I need a break. Sue Ellen Crandell (Christina Applegate) has just graduated high school and her plans to join friends on vacation in Europe are ruined when her divorced mom (Concetta Tomei) decides to take off for two months to Australia leaving an elderly woman Mrs Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin) in charge of Sue Ellen and her twin Kenny (Keith Coogan) a stoner and slacker, 14-year old romantic Zach (Christopher Pettiet), 13-year old tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris) and 11-year old TV addict Walter (Robert Hy Gorman). However Mrs Sturak dies of shock at the state of Kenny’s bedroom and after disposing of her at the local mortuary they realise she has taken the money for the summer. Sue Ellen draws the short straw and has to find a job. After failing miserably at a fast food place where she hits it off with co-worker Bryan (Josh Charles) she fakes her age and her way into an admin position at General Apparel West where designer boss Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy) thinks she’s found an heir apparent.  While waiting for a paycheque she has to use petty cash to make the grocery bills and conceal her identity from office rival Carolyn (Jayne Brook) because she’s Bryan’s sister. Then the company runs into trouble and Sue Ellen’s unique (and recent) insights into teen fashion might just save the day … Did he just finish reading Dianetics or something? In which a grisly black comedy premise mutates into a tale of an accidental teenage career woman and her stoner brother who turns house husband chef, this is a feast in more ways than one:  the Nineties fashion, the role reversal whereby the kids assume adult roles more convincingly than the grown ups, and there’s a hilarious scene when Kenny chastises Sue Ellen for acting like an ungrateful spouse, home late after he’s spent the day cooking using Julia Child’s TV show to tutor him. Cassidy is outstanding as Sue Ellen’s boss who regresses to a candy-guzzling kid when her job is on the line, and an attractive cast of kids give spirited performances but it’s Applegate all the way. The imaginative use by David Newman of the Psycho score to see off Mrs Sturak is highly amusing. Written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison and directed by Stephen Herek. A relic of its era, in the best possible sense. Babysitters suck

Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat

For the women the kiss, for the men the sword! American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) comes to London to star in a show produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). He meets and attempts to impress model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to win her affection, but she mistakes him for Horace. Jerry pursues her to Venice where she is promoting the work of Jerry’s love rival, fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) and visiting her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) who is Horace’s wife … My dear, when you’re as old as I am, you take your men as you find them – if you can find them. With a score by Max Steiner and songs by Irving Berlin, who couldn’t love this arch, witty treatise on love? And there are also all those extra tasty treats for connoisseurs of the period – particularly our favourite, Eric Blore as Bates, Hardwick’s fussy valet; incredible gowns designed by Bernard Newman; and the high Art Deco production design typical of the era’s screwball romances but specifically the Big White Set by Van Nest Polglase constructed for the Astaire/Rogers musicals. It’s probably the best loved of the duo’s ten pairings and with good reason, the combination of song and dance reaching peaks of sheer perfection in this the fourth time they co-starred. In fact, it’s Heaven. Swoonsome, amusing entertainment in the smooth classical style. Written specifically for Astaire and Rogers by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, adapted from a stage play, this was RKO’s most profitable film of the decade. Directed by Mark Sandrich. In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course

The Gauntlet (1977)

The Gauntlet

On a scale of one to ten, I’d have to give her a two, and that’s because I haven’t seen a one before. Hard-living ageing cop Ben Shockley (Clint Eastwood) is recruited to escort Augustina ‘Gus’ Mally (Sondra Locke), a key witness in a Mob trial, from Las Vegas to Phoenix. But far from being a nothing witness in a nothing trial as Commissioner Blakelock (William Prince) insists, Gus is a lovely, well-educated if coarse call girl who claims to have explosive information on a significant figure that makes the two highly expendable targets. Ben starts to believe her story after numerous attempts are made to kill them and they have to travel across the unforgiving desert without official protection, pursued by angry bikers and corrupt police officers and he contacts his direct boss Josephson (Pat Hingle) to try to rearrange the outcome  ... Now, the next turkey who tries that, I’m gonna shoot him, stuff him, and stick an apple in his ass. Chris Petit remarks elsewhere that this in its own way is as significant to the Eastwood screen persona as Annie Hall is to Woody Allen’s – and that’s true, insofar as it examines masculinity (and it’s shown up in elemental form), quasi-feminist principles and gut-busting hardcore action and thrills based on the first formal rule of movie making – people chasing people. Written by Michael Butler and David Shryack, they were working on a screenplay originally intended for Brando and Streisand (can you imagine?) and Brando withdrew in favour of Steve McQueen and Streisand then walked – leading to Eastwood coming on board to direct and star so the self-deprecating humour took on a new edge as he challenges institutional corruption and general stupidity (mostly his own) once again. Locke is great as the prostitute with a planet-sized brain, a heart of gold and a mine of information and she’s every bit as resourceful as you’d expect when the two hit the road running. Fast, funny and occasionally quite furious, this is a key film in both of the stars’ careers. Shryack would go on to write Pale Rider (1985) for Eastwood and it was that decade’s biggest grossing western. There are some marvellous jazz solos from Art Pepper and Jon Faddis. Smart, rip roaring fun, a pursuit western in all but name. I can go anywhere I please if I have reasonable suspicion. Now if I have suspicion a felony’s been committed, I can just walk right in here anytime I feel like it, ’cause I got this badge, I got this gun, and I got the love of Jesus right here in my pretty green eyes

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

For Your Eyes Only theatrical

Welcome to Remote Control Airways! After a British information-gathering vessel gets sunk into the sea, MI6’s Agent 007 (Roger Moore) is given the responsibility of locating the lost encryption device the Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC) and thwarting it from entering enemy ie Russian military hands led by the KGB’s General Gogol (Walter Gotell). Bond becomes tangled in a web of deception spun by rival Greek businessmen Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) who initially presents as Bond’s ally and Milos Columbo (Topol); along with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), a British-Greek woman  seeking to avenge the murder of her parents, marine archaeologists working for the British Government … The Chinese have a saying: “When setting out on revenge, you first dig two graves”. This is the Bond that rather divides the purists. Culled from the title story in the eponymous collection along with another, Risico, plus an action sequence from Live and Let Die, this is back to basics and a down to earth reboot after the sci fi outing Moonraker. James visits late wife Tracy’s grave (from OHMSS) and has to live on his wits instead of Q’s (Desmond Llewelyn) gadgets – hence the Lotus exploding early on followed by a hair raising Keystone Cops-style chase through a Spanish village in a rickety little Citroën 2CV. It’s got to be one of the more visually pleasurable of all films, never mind in the franchise, with heart-stoppingly beautiful location shooting in Greece and Italy, and Greece standing in for some scenes set in Spain. Bouquet is a fabulous leading lady with great motivation – revenge – and she can shoot a very mean crossbow.  The action overall is simply breathtaking – that initial helicopter sequence around the abandoned Beckton Gas Works (which Kubrick would turn into Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket), the ski/motorbike chase and jump, the mountain top monastery that lends such a dramatic impact for the final scene, the Empress Sissi’s summer palace in Corfu that provides such a distinctive setting, the yachts that home the catalysing confrontations which include sharks! Glover (originally mooted as Bond himself, years earlier) makes for a satisfying ally turned villain after the jokey title set piece, the winter sports, and the use of the bob sleigh run are quite thrilling. Topol is very charismatic as the Greek helpmate Columbo, Kristatos’ former smuggling partner; and Lynn-Holly Johnson is totally disarming as the ice-skating Olympic hopeful and ingenue Bibi Dahl who has an unhealthy desire for inappropriate relations with a clearly embarrassed Bond. Smooth as butter with Moore very good in a demanding realistic production. What’s not to love in a film that channels the best bits of Black Magic and Martini adverts from the Seventies?! This boasts the first titles sequence in the series to feature the song’s performer, Sheena Easton, singing a composition by Bill Conti and Michael Leeson. Badass Cassandra Harris who plays Columbo’s mistress Countess Lisl Von Schlaf was visited by her husband Pierce Brosnan during production and the Bond team duly took notice. Charles Dance makes a brief appearance as a henchman of Locque (Emil Gothard), a hired killer deployed by Kristatos. Out of respect for the recent death of Bernard Lee, the role of M was put aside. The screenplay is by vet Richard Maibaum and executive producer Michael G. Wilson while long time editor John Glen graduates to the top job and does it wonderfully. Remarkably good in every way, this is one of the very best Bonds and even though it was the first one of the Eighties feels like it could have been made an hour ago. Don’t grow up. You’ll make life impossible for men

The Fan (1981)

The Fan 1981

Dear Miss Ross, I’m your biggest fan. Broadway theatre star Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is successful, famous and nervous about rehearsing for a new musical. She’s still in love with ex-husband Jake Berman (James Garner) who has moved on with a newer model, and his absence creates a void in her life. Despite her loneliness, she doesn’t reciprocate when a fan, record store assistant Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn), starts sending her letters which are intercepted by her loyal secretary Belle Goldberg (Maureen Stapleton). The letters exhibit an obsessive interest in Sally and become steadily more personal and explicit, causing Belle to warn him off. This angers Douglas so much that he starts getting violent, with everyone in Sally’s immediate circle being targeted Quick, let’s think of something funny. The kind of film you’d think wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting released in the wake of John Lennon’s murder (and Bacall lived at the Dakota building too), this is a mix of high end midlife backstage melodrama and slasher horror exploitation, with the first half hour’s truly terrible pacing and poor editing ultimately damaging it on both fronts albeit the balance is finally struck in the last third. Bacall seems to the manner born as the quick-tempered diva giving Belle a hard time, while both Hector Elizondo as the police detective Raphael and Garner are particularly at ease in their supporting roles with some real chemistry between them and the leading lady on the screen. A strange mix of genres that doesn’t work overall but it’s somehow satisfying to see Bacall cast as the Final Girl confronting her deranged fan and Stapleton is outstanding. The music is by the legendary Pino Donaggio and there’s the bonus of seeing Bacall hoofing on stage in the manner of her own hit Applause (based of course on All About Eve, whose plot this rather wickedly limns). Watch out for Dana Delany and Griffin Dunne in small roles while legendary columnist Liz Smith appears as herself (George Sanders proving dead and therefore unavailable). If it wasn’t for the stabbings this might have had something to say about the dangers of being a celebrity. Adapted by Priscilla Chapman and John Hartwell from the novel by Bob Randall. Directed by Edward Bianchi and shot by an individual called Dick Bush. I rest your case.  I’m more than a fan, I’m a friend

Father of the Bride (1991)

Father of the Bride 1991

From that moment on I decided to shut my mouth and go with the flow. Los Angeles-based shoe factory proprietor George Banks (Steve Martin) leads the perfect life with his wife Nina (Diane Keaton), beloved twentysomething student architect daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) and little son Mattie (Kieran Culkin). However, when Annie returns from her semester in Rome with Bryan Mackenzie (George Newbern) her new fiancé in tow, he has a hard time letting go of her. George makes a show of himself when he and Nina meet Bryan’s parents at their palatial Hollywood home; then Nina and Annie plan a grand celebration with bizarre wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer (Martin Short) and the costs escalate wildly to the point where George believes the entire scheme is a conspiracy against him … It’s very nice. We’ll change it all though. Let’s go! This remake and update of the gold-plated classical Hollywood family comedy is much modernised by husband and wife writer/director Charles Shyer and screenwriter Nancy Meyers but retains a good heart. Carried by a marvellous cast with Martin superb in a difficult role – sentimental and farcical in equal measure as he confronts a crisis triggered by the loss of his darling little girl to another man!  – his voiceover narration is perfectly pitched between loss, self-pitying acceptance and mockery. It’s interesting to see Meyers lookalike Keaton back in the camp after Baby Boom (and not for the last time).  The early Nineties era of comedy is well represented with Short side-splitting as the insufferable but indispensable wedding planner with his impenetrable strangulated locutions; and Eugene Levy has a nice bit auditioning as a wedding singer. The ironies abound including the car parking issue forcing George to miss the whole thing; and the first snowfall in Los Angeles in 36 years that means the absurd swans have to be kept warm in a bathtub (if nothing else, a brilliant visual moment). The updating includes giving Annie a career and given the dramatic significance of homes in Meyers’ work it’s apt that she is (albeit briefly) an architect – a homemaker of a different variety. George and Nina’s marriage is a great relationship model without being sickening – a tribute to the spot-on performing by the leads in a scenario that has more than one outright slapstick sequence – meeting the future in-laws at their outrageous mansion is a highlight. Adapted by Meyers & Shyer from the original screenplay written by another husband and wife team, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was adapted from Edward Streeter’s novel. The eagle-eyed will spot the filmmakers’ children Hallie and Annie as Williams’ flower girls. Hallie has of course continued in the business and is a now a writer/director herself. Hugely successful, this was followed four years later by an amusing sequel. For more on this you can read my book about Nancy Meyers:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pathways-Desire-Emotional-Architecture-Meyers-ebook/dp/B01BYFC4QW/ref=sr_1_1? dchild=1&keywords=elaine+lennon+pathways+of+desire&qid=1588162542&s=books&sr=1-1. Directed by Charles Shyer. That’s when it hit me like a Mack Truck. Annie was like me and Brian was like Nina. They were a perfect match