Inferno (2016)

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Humanity is the disease, inferno is the cure. The second sequel to The Da Vinci Code begins horribly. By which I mean it looks like one of those cheapo knockoffs you see on The Horror Channel in the wee small hours (and otherwise). A lecturer (Ben Foster) throws himself off a tower after being chased. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, returning for the third entry in the series) wakes up in a hospital being tended by a doctor with an enormous overbite (Felicity Jones) – frightening in itself. She tells him he’s been shot while he has terrible hallucinations with blood pouring in torrents and people with faces back to front (you can see how that might happen given the company and a presumed brain injury). He’s lost his memory and has no idea how he’s wound up in Italy. Then some woman pretending to be police murders another doctor and the pair make away from the gunfire with some difficulty given he’s hooked up to IVs all over the shop. He’s been given a painting that depicts The Inferno but his copy contains elements that don’t belong in the original. And so we set off on a chase around the Uffizi and then we’re off to Istanbul and a rather interesting ending in a cave with shades of The Man Who Knew Too Much with some visits to the World Health Organisation in between. The visual palette is awful. It looks just like a brown below-par giallo. There is nothing to indicate that this is any good but its place in the Dan Brown symbology behemoth is typically humourless (despite the presence of the hilarious Paul Ritter) and unimaginative – let’s face it, we’re in Florence with a doctor called Sienna, which would indicate a left/right brain issue and not just Langdon’s. And so it goes. The lecturer though is revealed to be a billionaire keen to solve a global issue. We can all read the legal judgments on where Mr Brown got his stories:  I’ve read Lewis Perdue’s novels so I’ve a pretty good idea. However this is tampering with Dante. I know David Koepp is the rather gifted screenwriter entrusted with the book (and I must put my cards on the table and admit I’ve not read this one) and he’s not responsible for the choices of director Ron Howard (him again) or any aesthetic decisions. Hey – it’s an action thriller with Tom Hanks (paired again with Sidse Babett Knudsen after their desert romp …) and the world overpopulation problem. If you can find those old rose-tinted spectacles (literally) you might quite enjoy some of the incendiary scenes and a somewhat tantalising villain. And some running. Ho. Hum.

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Vanilla Sky (2001)

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Life is but a dream. Within a dream. Within a dream?! Since nobody concerned with this ever really knew what it was about, with 5 possible interpretations of the ending (and there is an alternative ending too…) there’s no reason why the little people should venture a suggestion. It might be that a vanity project for The Cruiser about a feckless publisher (Cruise) who inherited the business from his late papa and winds up in some sort of lucid dream courtesy of a tech company promising eternal life hit the complicated role spot. He romances Sofia (Penelope Cruz) a woman he’s met courtesy of his writer friend Brian (Jason Lee). The other woman, who leaves him disfigured in a car crash is f***buddy Julie played by Cameron Diaz, who’s very good;  while Kurt Russell is the court-appointed psychologist deployed to find out WTF is up with the man behind the mask and his weird visions. A remake of Spanish film Open Your Eyes/Abre los ojos, also starring Cruz, perhaps this was just some kind of Scientology wet dream gone wrong in another case of Let’s remake that movie because all films in other languages seem so much smarter than ours even when they’re utter nonsense. Who can tell?! Wake up, people keep telling Cruise. I know! I know! A very strange misstep for Cruise and Cameron Crowe, but it looks great thanks to John Toll and there’s a fascinating soundtrack (Nancy Wilson, well done). It certainly doesn’t help that the ending involves a skyscraper – in a film released three months after 9/11. Incomprehensible!

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.

Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

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Le chirurgien Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) souhaite remodeler le visage de sa fille Christiane (Edith Scob), rendue méconnaissable suite à un accident de voiture, mais pour cela il doit effectuer des greffes de peau qu’il aura prélevée sur des jeunes filles, enlevees par son assistante (Alida Valli). Le film marque la rencontre de Georges Franju (archiviste avec Henri Langlois a la Cinematheque Francaise) avec le duo de romanciers et scénaristes Boileau-Narcejac. (Ils se retrouveront deux ans plus tard pour Pleins Feux sur l’assassin (1961), cette fois-ci pour un scénario original) .Adapté du roman de l’énigmatique Jean Redon publié dans la collection angoisse du Fleuve Noir (on chuchote qu’il s’agirait d’un pseudonyme de Fréderic Dard) ce film reste un modèle du genre. Tout se passe comme si le réalisateur n’avait jamais vu de film de ce genre et il réinvente tout… et miracle il le fait parfaitement, les cadrages, les éclairages, la direction d’acteur, un régal… et l’angoisse et bien là ! C’est un film aussi fantastique que politique, rappelant les experiences medicales et honteuses de la seconde guerre mondiale mais les images mettent en avant une espece de la magie, de l’espoir, de l’amour. Incroyable.

The Devil’s Rain (1975)

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Admittedly I am not a fan of the satanic and the rep this film has had in its wake is not good, given that Hollywood’s very own high priest Anton LaVey actually plays one in this occult horror. Which really makes me uncomfortable. There are two principal attractions – William Shatner, if you’re a completionist;  and John Travolta, ditto, although his Danny is not of the Zucco variety and you’ll have to be very sharp-eyed to spot him. There’s a terrific Hieronymus Bosch title sequence and then we’re amid a family meltdown (literally) when Shatner sees his parents victimised and vows revenge – but meeting up with local warlock (Ernest Borgnine) sways his belief. Meantime, Tom Skerritt, Shatner’s younger brother, is on the warpath, with his wife and Eddie Albert, who’s an expert in ESP and the occult. And then we’re back in the 17th century looking at the ancestral origins and everyone’s in their Salem outfits … There’s a book of damned souls, an amulet, and a lot of face-melting. Shatner’s mask of course became the original mask in Scream, if you want some meta info. There’s a hotchpotch of stuff here to the point where you expect it to transform into a western, given the locale and the potential for tumbleweed blowing into your face. I don’t know how Ida Lupino felt about appearing, but Borgnine was utterly spooked. Directed by Robert Fuest, who did the Dr Phibes movies. You have been warned.

Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

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How fabulous was Kim Novak? She had an intimate relationship with Richard Quine which led to probably her best performance, in the later Strangers When We Meet, but in their collaboration here she’s the gorgeous Gillian, who bewitches staid publisher James Stewart when he moves into the apartment above her shop in snowy Greenwich Village. She puts a love spell on him because he’s engaged to Janice Rule, who made her life hell in college. Then … she starts to like the idea of being human. With Ernie Kovacs as the crazed overpraised writer on Shep’s books, Jack Lemmon as Gillian’s kooky brother and Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold in a witch-off, this is a highly enjoyable adaptation by Daniel Taradash of John Van Druten’s stage classic. Beautiful in every way, Gillian’s shop is why my lounge looks like I’ve been doing some Magic in Mexico research myself. Scored by George Duning and shot by James Wong Howe, this is a perfect romantic entertainment with one of the best cats ever. Love you, Pye!

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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This was the first movie poster I ever bought, for my very first home while I was away at college, a studio apartment that was even smaller than the one inhabited by Holly Golightly, that flighty Manhattan party girl. Heavily sanitised for contemporary audiences, there are still people to this day who don’t understand that she’s a prostitute. I wonder what they make of Paul Varjak? Do they think he’s breaking in 2E’s bed?! With the passing of time, Audrey Hepburn feels ever more like a sprightly cipher, hardly human, barely knowable. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that this Truman Capote story was for, and about, Marilyn Monroe, and that he was upset that she wasn’t cast. There’s magic in this concoction adapted by George Axelrod:  from the first sight of Holly in the Givenchy dress; her wonderful cat (Cat);  the party; Holly singing Moon River; the courtroom mess; and the final, lovely scene when Paul (George Peppard) makes her see sense and finds Cat and we believe she might have a different kind of life. There is the opportunity to nit-pick and there are some that hate Mickey Rooney playing Oriental. And the scene where Holly gets the telegram about Fred is upsetting. It is this twist from happy go lucky to tragic that marks out the film as a major turning point in the star’s persona and indeed her future career. She hits a lot of different notes. But somehow director Blake Edwards sustains the lightness of touch that makes this Hepburn’s best-loved movie: there is a clarity and charm and brittleness that belie the churning emotions beneath. She’s not an icon for nothing. And I still cherish my poster – the original, theatrical, Sellotape-stained mess that it now is.

Judex (1963)

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The worlds conjured by Georges Franju are the very definition of magic. The inkiness of the images in Judex are part of the scheme of homage to silent cinema and the crime serials of Feuillade in particular, as this is a remake. Channing Pollock is the avenger determined to get money back from banker Favraux from the little people he swindled in the Panama Scandal.  People wear bird masks, German shepherds rescue the heroine from the catwoman and all manner of people are after Jacqueline, the banker’s daughter, when he apparently dies and she rejects her inheritance.  Maurice Jarre’s score embellishes the dreaminess. Cinema as sorcery.

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

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Writer/producer/director Roger Corman’s Poe cycle was a fine series of interpretations of the Gothic maestro whose work was always incorporated into the high school curriculum – so the exploitation filmmaker knew he had a ready audience of teens! However this lowly ambition was superseded by the sheer good taste and elegance of the productions, seen here at their best in this sumptuous symphony of colour, shot by Nic Roeg when he was still Britain’s best cinematographer (well, along with Oswald Morris). This, the seventh in the series, is written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell and incorporates the story Hop Frog as a sub-plot. Jane Asher is the mediaeval wench who is kidnapped by tyrannous Prince Prospero as the plague rages outside his fortress and her lover and her father are imprisoned in the dungeons while all manner of devil worship takes place above them, with Hazel Court presiding … Tremendous sense of atmosphere and if not in the same class as The Seventh Seal, bears some narrative similarities. Price is diabolical, as ever, while it’s great to see Patrick Magee as Alfredo, his evil sycophant.

To Catch a Thief (1954)

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Always regarded as a lesser Hitchcock, this really came alive when I saw a decent dvd transfer, with sparkling seas and diamonds, brilliant aerial photography of the South of France and of course the beautiful Kelly and Grant, both simply stunning to watch. The witty screenplay by John Michael Hayes, adapting from local adoptee David Dodge’s novel, glides over some unnecessary plot elements, highlights both stars’ finer points and blesses everyone concerned with some delightful double entendres. Watching this one is reminded of true glamour and how fleeting it is in reality. Sensational. You can read about the three legendary collaborations between Hitchcock and Kelly in my essay Alfred Hitchcock & Grace Kelly on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-kelly.