Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous (2005)

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I just don’t want to become FBI Barbie again. Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is Amiable Agent according to the newspapers following her success at the Miss United States pageant but it fouls up her success in the middle of a bank heist. When her romance with a fellow agent ends she spends ten months being made over as the face of the FBI enduring book signings and teamed with bodyguard Sam Fuller (Regina King) who is far from impressed with her celebrity. The pair has to put aside their differences when one of Gracie’s former beauty queen pals, Cheryl Frasier (Heather Burns) is kidnapped with pageant MC Stan Fields (William Shatner) and the FBI is put on the case but Gracie decides this is one for her on her own.  Fuller has other ideas … The face of the FBI uses her words or her fists. Not a chair. And no snorting. Bullock returns a few weeks after becoming runner-up to Miss United States and she’s her old self, just dying to hit somebody except her fame is foiling her effectiveness on the job. Beauty queen rivalry is replaced with her violent new colleague Fuller, which sucks up the energy she used on her departed boyfriend now stationed in Miami. There are fun moments and a nice chase with a supposed Dolly Parton impersonator (with a nice cameo by you know who). Not as charming as its predecessor with more PC marks hit (gay, black, drag, kid, etc) but mildly entertaining. Bullock’s charm carries most of it and there are some good exchanges when she uses pageant clichés in highly inappropriate scenarios. King is good as the tough lady who beats up on anyone – even Regis Philbin and old people looking for Gracie’s autograph –  and it’s nice to see Treat Williams as the Vegas bureau chief and Eileen Brennan as Shatner’s mom but even in a comedy Enrique Marciano’s dimwit agent beggars belief. Great advertising for Vegas though! Written and produced by Marc Lawrence (based on characters by him, Caryn Lucas and Katie Ford) and directed by John Pasquin.  It’s been months since I had a good debriefing although I’m really more of a boxers man

 

 

Stalag 17 (1953)

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How do you expect to win the war with an army of clowns? 1944.  It’s the longest night of the year in a German POW camp housing American airmen.  Two prisoners, Manfredi and Johnson, try to escape the compound using a tunnel but are quickly discovered and shot dead. Among the men remaining in Barracks 4, suspicion grows that one of their own is a spy for the Germans. All eyes fall on cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who everybody knows frequently makes black market exchanges with the German guards for small luxuries. To protect himself from a mob of his enraged fellow inmates, Sgt. Sefton resolves to find the true traitor within their midst… Director Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum adapted the autobiographical Broadway hit by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trczinski, a canny blend of comedy and drama which asks serious questions of its players yet taints the seriousness with jokes and the high jinks with irony. Holden is superb as the entrepreneur whose go-getting attitude would be admired back home but in a POW camp it’s a different story. The men are stratified by their ethnicity and class. Rob Strauss and Harvey Lembeck repeat their stage roles as Animal and Harry, and are highly entertaining comic relief, with Don Taylor, Neville Brand and Peter Graves making up the principal roles. The Nazis are led by Otto Preminger’s rather hammily amusing Colonel von Scherbach which casts the enemy as something of a Greek chorus to the loyalties being figured out by the Americans under deadly pressure. Sefton is a model for the Scrounger played by James Garner in The Great Escape while the whole provides a template not just for the legendary Sergeant Bilko but Hogan’s Heroes on TV. Holden got a deserved Academy Award:  he stands out, yes, but in the right way. He’s not exactly Bogie in Casablanca but it helps to think of him in that shadow even if he felt he didn’t deserve recognition and many thought he should have had it for his previous work with Wilder – Sunset Blvd. He’s just swell in a film that is shrewd, bittersweet, hilarious, human and true.

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

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. I’ver reviewed Fiona Handyside’s study of Coppola on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

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The film that marked Joan Crawford’s comeback after she was unceremoniously dumped by Metro, this is a reworked and condensed adaptation of James M. Cain’s Depression-era novel by Ranald McDougall, with uncredited rewrites by melodrama specialist Catherine Turney. And:  William Faulkner, Albert Maltz, Margaret Gruen, Margaret Buell Wilder, Thames Williamson and Louise Randall Pierson. Director Michael Curtiz didn’t want Crawford – she was the last of a long list that was topped by Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck – and they fought tooth and nail throughout production with producer Jerry Wald acting as go-between. She’s the woman with the straying husband who starts baking cakes and waiting tables to support her daughters – the younger one, Kay, is a smart and funny tomboy, the elder, Veda (Ann Blyth) is a spoiled puss of a musician with a taste for the high life. The action takes place over four years in the Forties as Mildred starts up her own restaurant and builds a chain with the help of her husband’s realtor partner Wally (Jack Carson) but when playboy investor Monte (Zachary Scott) enters the fray, a tangled web of business and adultery leads to murder. Crawford gets to show off her full emotional range in this superb maternal melo mix of independent woman, weepie and film noir, distinguished by Ernest Haller’s deep shadowy photography and Max Steiner’s score. And what about Anton Grot’s sets! Crawford took home the Academy Award for Warner Bros. What a show!

Bad Neighbours 2 (2016)

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Aka Neighbours 2:  Sorority Rising.  They’re back! Well, everyone’s gone and grown up. Sort of. Opening on a horribly vomitous sex scene, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne realise they’re having another baby. They’re trying to sell their house and it’s in escrow now which they do not understand even when the realtor tries to explain. All they know is their toddler daughter keeps playing with a pink dildo in front of people. Meanwhile, Zac Efron’s bestie Dave Franco is getting married. To a guy. So he has to move out of their place and has nowhere to go – except back to the old frat house, where some bolshie girls led by Chloe Grace Moretz want to set up an alt-sorority so they can party righteously. He mentors them until they dump him while he’s lecturing them (they do it on their phones). So he teams up with Seth and Rose to get rid of the girls in order that their house sale goes through. There ensues … total mayhem! Screamingly funny, flat out gross out, hilarious, physical, bad taste comedy. Five buckets of money, that’s all you need. For anything! Party on, rad dudettes! Written by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien and director Nicholas Stoller.

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

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People trust me with their secrets. But who do I trust with mine? You, only you. The unreliable narrator is a very difficult trope to pull off in a novel – still more problematic in film. Yet Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Zoe Heller’s modern classic is effortlessly stylish, using the diary entries of deluded self-hating lonely Lesbian teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) to underline, contradict and stomp on what we are seeing, misleading everyone in the process. Her obsession with younger beautiful newcomer Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) at the secondary school where she works enmeshes them both in a terminal spiral of disaster when she sees her rival giving an underage boy (Andrew Simpson) a blow job in the art room…  Zoe Heller is a writer of supreme style – her column was one of the best things about The Sunday Times in the late 1990s, when that newspaper was still excellent. Her father Lukas was a great screenwriter – principally remembered as a key collaborator of Robert Aldrich on some of his best films. So the book she wrote seemed less like an accidental change in career and more like a premeditated move into something logically excellent but with even more impact than her columns, something for the ages. The genius of the novel is that everyone in it is deceitful, concealing some aspect of their actions, whether now or in the past, and the construction of the film’s screenplay by the brilliant playwright Marber both condenses and hones the narrative to a merciful 90 minutes (I hate long films – hate them! And the credits that go on for days!) so that it becomes an exemplar of screen storytelling. The performances by Dench, Blanchett and hapless hubby Bill Nighy as Sheba’s much older husband are simply stunning. I’d forgotten how brilliant this was. A must-see and one of the best films of the dreadful Noughties directed by theatre great Richard Eyre. Perfectly thrilling.  It takes courage to recognize the real as opposed to the convenient

While We’re Young (2015)

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Noah Baumbach has made some pretty smart and funny movies about pretty smart and funny people but this one really hits a nerve. Perhaps it’s the zeitgeist – the childless fortysomething creatives pitched against a world of baby fascists and hipster wannabes who will lie, cheat and thieve their way to get ahead. Or perhaps it’s just a great script with all of the above just, y’know, incidental to the bigger picture of contemporary humanity. Whatever. It’s great!