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.

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Death Becomes Her (1992)

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The blackest of comedies, this, a satire about looks and cosmetic surgery and Hollywood that 25 years later looks a lot like contemporary society’s obsession with plastic even if it doesn’t actually predict the rise of the D-listers famous for selling sex tapes to fund their face changing which everyone pretends not to notice (seriously:  when did plastic surgery get so bad? It used to work! Nobody noticed Gary Cooper’s facelift! Or Alain Delon’s!). Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep are friends who have wildly different career trajectories (prescient…) when Meryl makes off with Bruce Willis, a talented plastic surgeon who keeps the actress wealthy while her roles diminish. Goldie meanwhile spends years sitting in front of the TV getting fat obsessing over what might have been. Seven years later … Goldie is shrunk and madeover and arrives to take what’s rightfully hers – Bruce, now an alcoholic mess – while Meryl is having it away with anyone twenty years younger. Meryl avails of a potion for eternal life sold from a Gothic castle in the Hollywood Hills by Isabella Rossellini, a sex goddess witch with a Louise Brooks ‘do who looks 25 but is actually 71. Thus Bruce and Goldie’s plot to kill her off fails and she then kills Goldie – who also gets to live forever while Bruce wonders what on earth he can do to escape them when they go to a party at Isabella’s which happens to be Night of the Living Hollywood Dead… Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script is pretty smart but goes for easy targets in horror instead of the social mores it’s ostensibly attacking.  There are nice bits – Goldie’s insight with her therapist;  Sydney Pollack as the doctor finding Meryl has no heartbeat after her head’s twisted back to front and she’s sitting up talking to him in his Beverly Hills surgery; the party at Isabella’s with an orchestra led by Ian Ogilvie and we recognise some very famous dead faces dancing – but in the main it’s a totally OTT effects fantasia, a singular failing of director Robert Zemeckis whose work I preferred in the days of Used Cars and Back to the Future.  One thing is sure in the 37-years-later last segment – these ladies don’t age quite the way they want to! For romance novel fans, yes, that’s Fabio playing Isabella’s bodyguard. Golly!

Tootsie (1982)

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Dustin Hoffman is the out of work actor (twenty years and counting) who can’t even play a tomato without creating friction. His agent, Sydney Pollack (the film’s director after Dick Richards then Hal Ashby didn’t do it) has to tell him he’s unemployable. The real-life actor’s legendary on-set behaviour is tapped here for the obnoxious New Yorker who cross-dresses and becomes a hit on a dreadful daytime hospital soap where he falls hopelessly in love with Jessica Lange, the star who’s schtupping the nasty director, Dabney Coleman (always a joy).  With Bill Murray as Hoffman’s deadpan playwright roomie, Charles Durning as Lange’s widower farmer dad who falls for ‘Dorothy’ and Teri Garr as his actress best friend the cast is an Eighties joy. The chaos behind the scenes is something of a movie myth but none of it shows onscreen. Sitcom maestro Larry Gelbart wrote the story with Don McGuire (adapting McGuire’s early 1970s play) but Pollack (who compulsively hired and fired screenwriters) and Hoffman (in a role first offered to Peter Sellers, then Michael Caine!) put more through their paces – Murray Schisgal, Barry Levinson and Elaine May. Despite this, the story goes down smooth as butter even if the central conceit is as ludicrous as making Bruce Jenner Woman of the Year. Condescending to women? Just a bit! But extremely funny. Hoffman was distressed to learn that even with makeup he would never be an attractive woman and confessed that this epiphany led him to regret all the conversations with interesting women he might have missed. Oh, the humanity!

By the Sea (2015)

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I have major typewriter envy. Why do I say this? A few weeks ago I missed out on a vintage red Italian one in an online auction, much  to my dismay. It’s very like one that Brad Pitt has in this film, a work of fetish objects, looking, voyeurism, sex and surfaces. We could be crass and strike through the star texts and just say, Brangelina made a Seventies French art house porno:  go figure.  But no matter how meta you want to make it, as a confrontational post-honeymoon disaster flick, it’s not Boom! A more elegant discussion hinges on the individual sequences: the first seventy minutes when their marriage is dissected in fragments:  the arrival at the seaside hotel of this couple married for 14 years;  Roland’s a writer,  Vanessa used to be a dancer; her reliance on pills and the hole in the wall through which she observes a newly married couple having sex in the room next door;  his daily trips to the bar and his conversations with widowed proprietor Nils Arestrup (in French), looking for a subject, drowning his sorrows while he remains blocked – in all senses. It’s opaque and inexact and a gloss on a marriage gone stale enduring its own particular troubles which are only suggested by Vanessa’s refusal to have sex with him. Then she appears to be pushing him to have sex with the newlywed woman next door. Then the twenty-minute sequence when he joins in with her voyeurism and they get the young couple, Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, liquored up and he concludes they’re miserable too as they observe them together again, through that hole in the wall. Now it’s more than sexual stimulation: Roland is trying to control the images too, in an effort to redirect his marital narrative. It’s very well directed and much better written than anything else Jolie has made so far:   every shot is framed with great care and her own skeletal shape frequently dictates how we look at the story, ironically it’s her own performance that’s perhaps not as impressive as you might expect. Then, the last twenty minutes. What happens when Vanessa enters the drama being staged next door and Roland finds himself looking at her, being disrobed, is what triggers revelations and a change in storytelling. Roland was looking for a subject, Vanessa couldn’t endure seeing a successful young marriage. We learn what happened three years ago. Roland writes again. The cinematography by Christian Berger is beautiful, bathing each image in gorgeous natural light. The soundtrack is to die for, with Jane Birkin crooning Jane B in a broad song selection dominated by her own other half, Serge Gainsbourg, that agent provocateur par excellence, with other choice Seventies chansons dimpling the pictures at opportune moments. What am I going to do now? Watch it all over again. It’s that fascinating. Then I’ve got to find my Lina Wertmuller collection. And a new-old typewriter.

 

The Princess Diaries (2001)

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What a delight this is, another sweet-natured comedy from the house of Garry Marshall, late, lamented, etc. Striking the balance of humour with taste is a challenge for most filmmakers but he never seemed to hit a bum note, as it were. Thus we have in this adaptation of the Meg Cabot novel (in the days before YA was all violent vampiric dystopias) a hairy half Greek geek Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) living in a converted San Francisco firehouse with her alt-lifestyle mom (Caroline Goodall) and going to high school with BFF Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) where the mean girls led by Mandy Moore hold sway. Right before she turns Sweet 16 she’s summoned to a meeting with her utterly charming grandmother (Julie Andrews) who it turns out is Queen of Genovia, a small European principality – and she’s the Crown Princess and heir to the throne following her father’s death! Well! Isn’t it every little girl’s dream to don pretty pink dresses and a tiara? Not Mia! But there are cool handbags and a chauffeur Joe (Marshall regular Hector Elizondo) who’s a combo of Shaft and Fairy Godmother and Mia gets a makeover that has her secret crush, Lilly’s brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman) in a semi-swoon. This was the movie that properly introduced Hathaway to the world and it was all because Garry Marshall showed audition tapes to his granddaughters who told him she had the best princess hair (it was supposed to be Liv Tyler!). Mia has misgivings about such responsibilities and the rivals for the crown are delighted by her public displays of clumsiness which the press cover relentlessly. She needs to make a decision and even Fat Louis her delightful cat can’t make it for her as the future of Genovia hangs in the balance …  People who loved Cabot’s book (possibly that included Whitney Houston who co-produced) took issue with some of the changes including from NYC to San Fran but it makes for terrific tween (and older!) light entertainment with a nice uncredited cameo by Larry Miller. If cars are your thing there’s always that fabulous Ford Mustang to enjoy. And who doesn’t want to be the Queen?! You too shall go to the ball. Cinderella makeover movies rock!

Grease (1978)

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It took me a while to like this – not because it’s inherently unlikeable, but when I was a child and taken to see this on a big day out at a city cinema EVERYONE except me had seen it and knew every line of dialogue, never mind the songs which were ubiquitous at the time. I could barely hear a word over the audience recycling the whole film from start to wretched finish. But it’s so fantastic, isn’t it? The adaptation of the stage hit by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs cannily invoked the current for Fifties nostalgia in an era of huge social and political flux, reinvented song modes – he said/she said, tributes, gang chants – and put it all together in an engaging paean to the high school experience. The soundtrack album was huge – second only to Saturday Night Fever, the other half of Travolta’s twofer. What a year he had! Bronte Woodard and producer Allan Carr wrote the screenplay, which altered the stage show, added songs, and cast the oldest teenagers on the planet and somehow … it all works. John Travolta is simply a charisma machine and his idiosyncratic take on the music is unforgettable. It was his idea to bring Olivia Newton-John on board despite her scant acting experience and boy does she get the makeover treatment. Jeff Conaway is brilliant as Kenickie and as for Stockard Channing and Didi Conn:  oh!  A raft of Fifties TV personalities add to the authentic feel with Frankie Avalon appearing as Teen Angel. Daring, funny, witty, vastly entertaining. Oh my. What a wonderful film. You know the rest. Directed by Randal Kleiser.