Legally Blonde (2001)

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Years before the feel-good musical! Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is the beyond blonde Californian sorority queen who just wants to settle down with her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) after graduation from college and on the night she thinks he’s going to propose he dumps her  – for a brunette swot Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) who’s going to Harvard Law with him.  Elle decides to follow him and crams for the Law School Admission Test – and winds up at Harvard too, pretty in pink with her beloved chihuahua in tow. She’s laughed out of class and takes refuge at a hair salon owned by Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) and gets real, hits the books and winds up being romanced by her tutor Luke Wilson and getting on the team to defend a wealthy widow who’s accused of murdering her much older husband. Very funny outing with the redoubtable Witherspoon giving a barnstorming performance in a smart satire with a big princess heart at its centre.  The concluding courtroom scene is a doozy. With a slew of nice supporting cast including Ali Larter, Oz Perkins, Victor Garber and Raquel Welch, this is nicely shot by Anthony B. Richmond, and directed by Robert Luketic from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, adapting Amanda Brown’s novel (the first in a series).

The Nanny Diaries (2007)

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This book is probably the most grimly depressing and dispiriting I have ever read. I literally wanted to barf up civilisation afterwards. It’s a fictionalised account of the experiences of two college grads’ nannying for the well-heeled in NYC. It’s far from Mary Poppins. Yet husband and wife team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini took the Mean Girls framework of an anthropologist’s perspective and have protagonist college grad Anne/Nanny (Scarlett Johansson) use this horrible work experience – which she literally falls into in Central Park – as field work for a graduate programme in anthropology (her minor.) She majored in business so her hard-working nurse mom expects her to be CFO some day not the indentured slave of an Upper East Side non-working lady who lunches, Mrs X (Laura Linney, in a very good performance), just not on normal food. For the first while, you want to abort the awful child Grayer (Nicholas Art) but his behaviour improves and anyhow it’s too late, he’s practically 6. Annie falls for Hayden the Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans) who lives on the same floor of the Fifth Ave apartment building while Mr and Mrs X’s marriage falls apart. Annie finds out from the other nannies (they’re an army) that she’s the Type C – 24/7, no time to herself. Paul Giamatti is the philandering husband who gropes hot nanny in the end, bringing to a close everyone’s superficial relationships while Annie gets stiffed (monetarily) by Mrs X. The fantasy construction  of the Museum of Natural History-style dioramas lifts the social commentary, as does the red umbrella which gives Annie flight and amplifies the Poppins references. It’s good to see the Met in such sparkling style after a recent clean-up. This film serves horrible material awfully well and it plays much better than it reads with the Parents’ Society meetings being particularly illuminating about people who breed but don’t actually mother. Strange – but somehow understandable! Johansson is very good and has a nice slapstick physical style and her friendship with Alicia Keys (wearing makeup) is quite believable. A tart treatment of an iffy source.

Lord Love a Duck (1966)

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“Everybody has to love me! Everybody!” It’s Barbara Ann Greene’s year, or so her horoscope says. So enamoured is prodigy Mollymauk (Roddy McDowall) of gorgeous Tuesday Weld he endeavours to give her everything she wants. It starts with 12 cashmere sweaters, spring break at Balboa, marriage to an appropriate doofus and … murder! Taking potshots at all teen trends from beach party movies to progressive education (botany is called plant skills, years before Allan Bloom warned about listening to educational weirdos), this satire skewers and cauterises everything a couple of years before If… and The Graduate. Al Hine’s 1961 novel was adapted by debut director George Axelrod and Larry H. Johnson. Lola Albright is great as BA’s mom the Playboy Bunny turned cocktail waitress and Weld is brilliant:  see her model those sweaters for her father – seriously provocative and strange and it’s a shame given the focus on costume that it’s not in colour. Ruth Gordon is always worth watching. This is a lot of fun, even if the scattershot approach isn’t entirely satisfactory.

Imitation of Life (1959)

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This is a stunning film about American women, race, sexism, work, performance, relationships, family, mothers and daughters. It stars Lana Turner, lately the star of a huge scandal in which her lover, a gangster named Johnny Stompanato, was allegedly stabbed to death by her 14-year old daughter Cheryl (was it really her?!) and needing another big role to sustain a career that had begun in classic Hollywood style at Schwabs’ Drug Store, or so the myth would have it. The novel by Fannie Hurst was a bestseller that had already been adapted in 1934 and directed by John Stahl, starring Claudette Colbert. The role of Lora Meredith, the widowed (maybe) actress trying to make it in a coldwater flat with a tiny daughter, was perfectly inhabited by Turner. Her brassy look was hardening into something darker and the grasping ambitious matriarch that she becomes is not a huge leap for an empathetic audience. Two screenwriters were involved in the adaptation:  Eleanore Griffin, who had a long career, principally in originating screen stories. She would go on to adapt Hurst’s Back Street in a few years. Allan Scott had written some of the great musicals in the 30s – Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, Swing Time, Carefree, Shall We Dance… Their combined interpretations work amazingly well here. Both of them would die in 1995. The director was German emigre Douglas Sirk. He was reappraised as an auteur in the late 60s and his kitschy melodramas of the 50s were interpreted as analyses of society in the United States, distinguished by garish colours, stunning production design and coded drama. There are so many dramatic high points here it seems useless to enumerate them, but the performance by the great Mahalia Jackson is a personal favourite and Susan Kohner’s uneasy presence as the half-caste girl is perfectly matched by Sandra Dee’s sweetness. Juanita Moore is an ocean of decency as the help. It is too easy to put this down as a melodrama, but it really is one, in the original, political sense. Classic.