How to Steal a Million (1966)

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You should be in jail and I should be in bed. Super stylish Sixties Art Nouveau heist comedy about a painting forger Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths) whose daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) needs to steal back a famous but fake statue (by her grandfather) that he’s loaned to an art museum and does it with the aid of a thief Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole) –  who’s actually a private detective investigating this sort of thing.   Harry Kurnitz adapted the 1962  story Venus Rising from a collection about art forgeries by George Bradshaw and despite its overlength it coasts on the sheerly delightful charm of the leads and some very sparky dialogue. Charles Boyer has a blast as O’Toole’s boss and you’ll recognise the chief security guard at the museum Jacques Marin because he played the chief of police in Hepburn’s earlier Parisian comedy thriller, Charade. Eli Wallach is an industrialist who feigns romantic interest in Hepburn to get at her grandfather’s work and there’s an outstanding score by John Williams as well as to-die-for production design. Givenchy dressed Hepburn – mais quoi d’neuf? Directed by William Wyler reunited with Hepburn 13 years after Roman Holiday. Bliss.

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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.

The First Monday in May (2016)

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Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the Met Gala launch of curator Andrew Bolton’s 2015 China:  Through the Looking Glass exhibition is surprisingly engaging. Tracing the connections between fashion and art, East and West, in sometimes discursive, occasionally politically confrontational situations, the strands that come together at the eleventh hour make for fascinating viewing: the influences include pre-1949 China (Bolton’s idea for a Mao hall is politely put down), Anna May Wong, traditional chinoiserie and the Dragon Lady trope that was used in Hollywood cinema as a version of the femme fatale. Cliches for the eventually dazzling display abound before being thrown out and reconfigured by Wong Kar-Wai, whose In the Mood for Love is a key concept in its foregrounding of the cheongsam, and Baz Luhrmann, who urges a rethink of the dragon heads at the entry to the building in an amusing encounter. The two-year project is painstakingly put together and two weeks before it’s due to open it’s eight days behind and the day before they’re still struggling to get the lights working. Andre Leon Talley describes the Gala as the Superbowl of social fashion and greets Rihanna as queen of the night in her astonishing gown. Sadly for the bemused crowd the Barbadian harpie then performs some dreadful rap dirge, an appalling post-prandial conclusion to what looked like a great melding of different cultural worlds and one that exposes Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour as less dragon lady than lollipop lady, practically sniggering with gratitude about her caricature in The Devil Wears Prada which of course made her a household name and not just in those that take Vogue every month. The expo proved hugely successful and it’s interesting to see the array of insightful interviewees includes a chastened John Galliano in a documentary that is highly sensitive about the fate of gifted designers and their patrons, starting with a description of the importance of the late great Alexander McQueen and TV coverage of his sad death. A fine, respectful piece of work.

Julie and Julia (2009)

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What an intriguing idea New Yorker Julie Powell had:  to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. And what an intriguing idea Nora Ephron had:  to combine Powell’s account of her food blog with Child’s own account of how she came to learn to cook in France immediately after World War 2 . This isn’t just about two cooks and a lot of food memories. It’s also about two very interesting marriages of equals – a trope that carries through the twin strands of this cooking story as the transatlantic tale smoothly whisks us through these women’s lives as they cope with their own private traumas (which have their larger correlative in 9/11 and WW2/Cold War paranoia). Of course Meryl gets the lion’s share of our interest – apart from anything else, how short did everyone else in the cast have to be to persuade us that she could be six-two?! Her joy is infectious. And the story problem:  is a blog writer really as fascinating as Child whose TV appearances are legendary? And does a call centre operator (albeit for 9/11 victims’ families) moving from Brooklyn to Queens really equate to moving to France not speaking a word of the language and giving up your career (Child was in the OSS)?  The narrative imbalance is efficiently handled with other elements – performance not being the least but Adams’s drabness is an occasional irritant when compared with Streep’s effervescence and Stanley Tucci’s suave turn as her husband. Child’s experiences with French ladies who lunch is paralleled with Powell’s, who makes the cover of a magazine labelled a thirtysomething failure by a journalist among her circle of careerist friends. The women’s lives did cross directly, but with mixed results. With the right combination of ingredients,  Ephron shows how to sift through all of the similarities and differences to concoct quite a mouthwatering feast albeit a souffle rather than a boeuf bourgignon. And boy am I hungry right now: do not watch without ready access to sustenance. Bon appetit!

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.

A Touch of Love (1969)

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Aka Thank You All Very Much. Margaret Drabble adapted her 1965 novel The Millstone and it gets excellent treatment by director Waris Hussein. Sandy Dennis is Rosamund, the product of a liberal progressive home run by two elderly parents who barely know she’s alive. She finds herself living alone at their ever-so London flat doing a doctorate at the British Museum and pursuing her social interests in the company of good friend and fellow intellectual Lydia (Eleanor Bron), fending off the advances of upper class Roger (John Standing) and sex fiend Joe (Michael Coles). Neither realises she’s a virgin. She’s introduced to gay TV presenter George (Ian McKellen – no, really) and has a one-night fumble which results in a pregnancy which she manages to mess up aborting and goes ahead with it, much to Lydia’s astonishment and perhaps even her own. Lydia needs a place to live so they end up sharing digs. We learn more about Rosamund’s situation through constantly unfolding flashbacks, revealing a complex identity which is never simplified rather amplified, especially as her behaviour when her daughter is born is more mature than that of anyone around her. While her baby is sick and requires life-saving surgery she still has a PhD to complete and horrible nurses to fight on every hospital visit. Then she runs into Roger again and wonders should she reveal the existence of his child, since nobody actually knows yet who fathered this object of her affection. This is classy, well-told drama, with a tremendous performance by Sandy Dennis in a very demanding role and a great ensemble in support. Superb, with lovely cinematography by Peter Suchitzky and the surprise of seeing horror-trash producer Milton Subotsky’s name on the credits.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

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I was mystified by the title sequence to this film – slomo images of ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Then a Russian family get murdered in the snowy forests. It wrong-footed me as I suspect it was meant to do. Because this is really a very long howl of protest by the great John Le Carre about the horrendous nature of corruption at the heart of the British establishment and the City of London, that sacred cow of Labourite and Tory alike, whose exponential development has led to the nicest residential areas turned into bulletproofed enclaves for Russian mobsters. Perry (Ewan McGregor) is a lecturer in poetics, in Morocco with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) on a holiday we realise is intended to repair their marriage following his relationship with a student. He meets loud and noisy Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) at a party, becomes embroiled with his family and secretly agrees to bring a memory stick to London for the attention of MI6 who send Hector (Damian Lewis) to examine its contents. Dima launders money for the  Russian Mafia. Hector’s aim to get Dima and his family away from the Mafia’s clutches in exchange for information  is quickly disavowed when it becomes apparent he doesn’t yet have enough to get ‘the Prince’, head of the Russians, who wants to go legit with the help of a politician (Jeremy Northam) by laundering money properly through setting up a bank in the City. So Perry and his wife are asked to help a rogue mission for MI6. Danger, Will Robinson … This is a very specific kind of spy thriller and one that quietly sneaks into your brain, rather like a political worm unsettling your conscience, as Dima contaminates Perry’s. Hossein Amini’s adaptation does a fair job structuring what is hardly a classic spy tale but its morality lingers, as does the  realisation that Dima’s ultimate situation has been triggered by the classic act of familial  entrapment, witnessed, funnily enough, by Gail. Susanna White had the pleasure of directing Le Carre as a doorman to the Einstein Museum in a production of which he had an Executive role: those famous images of the scientist sticking his tongue out replay when it hits you what a confidence trick this film has pulled off. It makes you THINK.