Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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When this was first released I saw it with a friend who promptly re-christened it Mouth Wide Open because I nodded off pretty quickly and woke suddenly during the orgy and announced, Clearly nobody here has ever been to one. And a shocking 18 years later it is still sad to see that Kubrick’s last film doesn’t have the intended shock value, the performances are variable and it’s very difficult to understand how it could have taken 400 days to shoot what are primarily lengthy talking scenes albeit the famously nitpicking Kubrick reconstructed Greenwich Village in London because of his fear of flying. Frederic Raphael updated Schnitzler’s early 20th century Vienna-set Traumnovelle to late 1990s New York City where Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses to wealthy doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that she fantasised sexually about a Naval officer she saw one day at a hotel where they were staying. Bill then descends into a long night of soul-searching and sex as he imagines what his wife might have done had she made the choice to cheat. He helps a wealthy patron Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) save a whore who’s OD’d during sex, attends a masked orgy on Long Island (a kind of warped tribute to North by Northwest) where his former med school chum is providing musical accompaniment in a blindfold and back in the city realises he’s being followed but it’s more than an existential threat. When Ziegler tells Bill that he’s fortunate not to know the names of the very powerful people in disguise at the sex party you don’t know if it’s raising questions about the Bilderberg group or another political conspiracy at large but it seems pretty daft. Whether you view this as an ineffectual satire of marriage or a cautionary commentary about sexually transmitted disease (there’s a telling scene featuring a prostitute and HIV) or perhaps a plain silly excursion into unerotic escapades, the press at the time made hay of the fact that the married couple at its centre saw their relationship disintegrate in real life and were divorced not long afterwards. The soundtrack which is principally two ominous notes would disgrace a five year old after their first piano lesson. Inexplicable in oh so many ways and yet fascinating and strangely memorable in visual loops precisely because it’s Kubrick. And the last word uttered (by Kidman) is … not expected in such a conservative outing and thereby enhances the legend.

Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

La Banquiere (1980)

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Aka Lady Banker. L’histoire de Marthe Hanau, dans tous les noms, vient de films lesbiens avant 1 Guerre mondiale sur la Dépression des années problématiques et les affaires concernant les femmes et les hommes jusqu’à la fin tragique d’une femme qui a poussé leur richesse, de partager des conseils par un système financier distribuer le journal et l’agence, qui a apparemment été basée sur des sociétés fictives. Schneider donne une merveilleuse performance, parfaitement arrondi, mais les tons changeants de la narration, des actualités humoristiques et des aigus d’une chambre à paniques bancaires, faire leur service ne sont pas pris entre les pôles de l’analyse historique et la nostalgie dans un champ précédent quelques années de Stavisky. Georges Conchon a écrit cette sortie quasi-biographique avec le réalisateur François Girod, de tout, même jette un magnifique score de Ennio Morricone dans ce domaine.

Our Brand is Crisis (2015)

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Taking a comical look at the US’s interfering with the electoral process in South America is a big leap from pure comedy into cutting edge satire:  not something for which either screenwriter Peter Straughan or director David Gordon Green are known. This version of a 2002 election in Bolivia which saw James Carville’s company deployed to get a problematic President Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida) re-elected is somewhat botched both in concept and execution. Sandra Bullock is the anchor of this mismanaged screenplay as the alcoholic depressive retired consultant drafted in to help defeat Victor Rivera, who’s being advised by her arch-rival, Billy Bob Thornton. They have history. It’s not pleasant. She suffers brutal altitude sickness and believes the candidate is hopeless until she pulls out her Machiavelli handbook and gets to work. There’s some fun – physical and verbal – but it’s not really sharp enough to score points. It substitutes a soft centre for what should have been scathing political commentary. And the cinematography is horrible.

Everything Is Copy – Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted (2016)

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Journalist Jacob Bernstein’s portrait of his late mother, beloved essayist, humorist, journalist and writer/director Nora Ephron, is a fascinating portrait of a woman whose very private leavetaking mystified her friends, proving that for her, death, at least was not in fact copy ie material to be used as comedy, despite her parents’ advice. The combination of contemporary interviews with home movie footage in Beverly Hills where screenwriters Phoebe and Henry relocated their family of four little girls from NYC in the Forties interlaced with film clips and excerpts from her TV interviews creates a distancing device that makes her art all the greater. When accused of malevolence for cruel descriptions of people like Julie Nixon she accepted the charge. Yet her magnetism was legendary, her dinner parties the place to be. She channeled her enormous betrayal by (second) husband Carl Bernstein into a book (Heartburn) and movie that complicated their divorce and the custody arrangements over their sons. One of them was yet to be born when she found out Bernstein was sleeping with the British Ambassador’s wife, Margaret Jay, whose physical flaws Ephron described in devastating fashion. Interviewed by Jacob, Carl admits to his son that it had enormously damaged him and, he says, what Jacob and Max must have  thought of him and Jacob admits that this is true. Ephron had a cycle of movies that just didn’t work, starting with the Meg Wolitzer adaptation This Is My Life which had resonances about her life with her siblings as children. She fell out with sister Delia when it came to adapting the latter’s novel Hanging Up, which outlined their upbringing and the problems with their alcoholic mom and philandering pop. (The sisters were stunned when they found out about their father’s serial infidelities as they had always believed their mother to be insane and fabricating the stories).  Their tensions were eventually resolved and their relationship is underscored when Delia says, When we died … and realises her error. Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson all read extracts from her work;  Steven Spielberg says getting her to laugh was like winning an Oscar;  so many people sought her approval and so many received her counsel, whether they wanted it or not. She told people what to do. The fact that she didn’t inform any of them that she had leukaemia?  Some appear to interpret it as a kind of betrayal rather than the woman’s own resilience and choice to remain detached and private in an era of oversharing. Since oversharing appeared to be her avocation you can kind of empathise. She had a lot of lunches with a lot of people in the days before she went to hospital and never breathed a word of her terminal illness. (She loved food but never ate dessert).   She made Julie and Julia when she knew she was dying and everyone remarks upon how much kinder she was since marrying writer Nicholas Pileggi, and that the portrayal of Tucci and Streep was as much a reflection of them as it was of Paul and Julia Child. She was saying that it was possible to have a supportive husband and she wasn’t making it up because she was married to such a man. Utterly fascinating and a remarkable work about women in movies from a son whose devotion and puzzlement are equally evident. What is copy is what is lost.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Writer/director Franco Zeffirelli is one of the storied Italian auteurs, whose personal life and origins serve as the inspiration for this screenplay by John Mortimer, an Italophile of long standing. It’s 1935. Little Luca (Charlie Lucas) is the motherless boy who is taken care of by a group of expat English women in Florence, known as the Scorpioni, led by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who is the secretary to the boy’s businessman father. He has no interest in the illegitimate fruit of his liaison with the late dressmaker and his wife makes the boy’s wife hell when she sees him. We are introduced to Arabella (Judi Dench) a keen artist but more effective at restoration who spends most of her days at the Uffizi;  Lady Hester, the obstinate widow of the British Consul (Maggie Smith); and wealthy American and serial bride Elsa Morgenthal (Cher) who returns to Italy after years away, keen to pay for Luca’s education and puts together a trust fund for his future:  she owes his mama a great deal. She’s a flamboyant art collector, despised by Hester. The Fascists destroy the daily afternoon tea that these ladies of a certain age enjoy but Lady Hester is convinced that Mussolini’s personal promises to her ensure their safety. Luca is sent to school in Austria by his father who no longer wishes him to be an English gentleman, but a German businessman. When he returns (in the form of Baird Wallace) in 1940 the ladies are rounded up as enemy aliens. Only Elsa and Lesbian archaeologist Georgie (Lily Tomlin) are spared due to America not entering the war yet. Elsa secretly helps Jews in the district and gets the ladies out of their prison-like conditions in San Gimignano and pays for their hotel accommodation – where she winds up with Georgie after Pearl Harbour and Americans are enemies now too. She hooks up with a lawyer who has her sign over everything to him to save her life – she thinks. Lady Hester’s grandson (Paul Chequer) cross-dresses as female to be spared getting shot by the fascists and lives with them until he can’t take it any more and joins the partisan gang of which Luca is now a part… There is a gracious ensemble of actresses here and the trick of the screenplay is to shift focus to each in turn while Luca is mostly an observer, growing up with difficulty as he sees Elsa with her lover and reacts with jealousy, leading to her being endangered. Baird Wallace doesn’t convincingly play the role but since his scenes are underwritten he probably does as well as he can. However, all ends well, with some amusing interaction with Nazis (believe it or not) when Arabella protects her beloved Uffizi from their bombs. When Lady Hester has to eat crow with Elsa, she does it in the most stylish way possible – saving her life. This may be Zeffirelli’s recollection, but it’s mostly fond vignettes with no real sense of the murderousness of the fascisti and their acolytes. It’s nice to see Dench returning to the scene of A Room With a View, and with husband Michael Williams in tow. Perfect entertainment for a day dripping with fog, frost curling at the windows.

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (2016)

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Gary Numan appeared like a Kraftwerk clone from another planet at the end of the Seventies with his band Tubeway Army and their earworms, Cars and Are Friends Electric? His appearance drew ire from the critics, who played no role in boosting him since he just … manifested, like a badass machine dream. His unique musical approach was to take Moog synth sounds and feed them through guitar effects pedals. It was the height of the New Wave and even within that loosely defined movement he was an anomaly. Not that you’d really learn this here because this concerns his move to LA a few years ago with his feisty former fan wife, their three lovely daughters and is really about mental health, financial woes and the difficult writing of his make or break album and emigrating to the US because he’s broke and needs to connect with more opportunities. We learn a huge amount about his (few) relationships;  his Asperger’s diagnosis when he was a kid; very little about his tunnel vision and determination; and the eventual difficulties with his manager father when he kept going on expensive tours that led to his folks going to ATMs at night and using their credit cards to pay the bills. He and his wife both succumbed to depression around his 50th birthday and the stress of keeping going and raising three small children whom they struggled to conceive is movingly told. It’s an engaging piece of work with some beautifully staged sequences including several mobile camera shots upside down which is presumably an objective correlative for his view of the world. And his wife’s hair colour is different in every scene. But there’s not enough about the music or what actually happened to make – and break up – Tubeway Army! Darn it! For another film, perhaps, or the Uncut version. Directed by Steve Read and Rob Alexander.