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.

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The Boss (2016)

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Michelle Darnell is the orphan who grows up to be a big businesswoman – Melissa McCarthy, to be exact, whose rise to titanic success arouses jealousy and she’s framed for insider trading by her ex, villainous rival Peter Dinklage, going by the name Renault (formerly Ronald). When she gets out of the clink she reinvents her brand through her former employee Kristen Bell’s daughter by virtue of a takeover of the Dandelions, a charitable group of kids that sells brownies door to door – because Bell makes the best ones ever and Michelle sees a billion dollar a year business. One of the other mothers just sees a felon. Then Dinklage sees another business opportunity and a paradoxical way to get back with the only woman he’s ever loved … Co-written by McCarthy with husband and director Ben Falcone (who also produces with her) and Steve Mallory, this trades on the star’s great ability to play a scene and there are some excellent laugh out loud moments. However subtle it ain’t and the lapses in taste prevent it being in the same league as something like Bad News Bears which it weirdly recalls (maybe it’s the kids’ uniforms). Co-produced by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, this is just not up to the standard of Spy which was so subversive, satirical and, yes, smart. This manages to be too long and too short and enjoyable and a waste of talent all at once:  is it me?!

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.

Superstar (1999)

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I realise that not all SNL knockoffs are passable but this one makes me laugh like a drain. Molly Shannon is orphaned Irish-American Catholic high schooler Mary Katherine Gallagher, a bespectacled geek in love with Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell), the dreamboat – wow! – and dreaming of, yup, superstardom. Mary’s the rewind girl in the video store and she’s obsessed with TV movies which provide a lot of her best lines – maybe the most apposite coming from Portrait of a Teenage Centerfold! (starring Lori Singer).[If this in fact exists…]  She’s relegated to the class for retards and befriends fellow loser Helen (Emmy Laybourne). She attracts the attention of Slater (Harland Williams) the mute rebel biker newcomer to the school which provides more backstory and permits her Id’s vision of Jesus to pay him a visit at this movie’s version of a crossroads. She tries to achieve her ambitions by competing in a talent show for VD (‘with an opportunity to appear as an extra in a Hollywood movie with Positive Moral Values’). Sky’s cheerleader girlfriend – the most beautiful, the most popular, the most bulimic – Evian Graham (Elaine Hendrix) is her main rival but wheelchair-bound Grandma (Glynis Johns) doesn’t want Mary to take part. The scene where she tells Mary the truth behind her parents’ death is screamingly funny – they weren’t eaten by sharks but stomped to death Riverdance-style. Reader, I howled. She and Sky both think The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the 19th-best TVM and when he and Evian split she spots an opening…This high school movie parody is for that special person in your life – your irrepressible inner gummy child! The perfect comedic holiday comedown. Written by Steve Koren and directed by Bruce McCulloch. Shannon is great. In fact, she’s a Superstar!

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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I read about this long before I saw it. Francois Truffaut’s comments in the Observer magazine one Sunday tickled my kiddish fancy but even in the 1980s Hitchcock screenings were a hard find on TV particularly of this vintage. The fact that it’s Hitchcock is rather moot (or controversial!) from an authorship perspective: it wasn’t written with him in mind at all (it was intended for Roy William Neill) and yet the tropes became part of his evolving cinematic signature. It was adapted from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt, a formidable pair who would become one of the more fascinating partnerships in British cinema. On the train trip back to England from her pre-marital ski holiday with her girl squad, socialite Iris (Margaret Lockwood) befriends an old lady governess Miss Froy (May Whitty) but when the woman disappears nobody believes her until she finds an ally in musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) whose kick-dancing kept her from going to sleep in the hotel. Every time Iris finds proof of the old lady’s existence it simply (and literally!) evaporates. Is she going mad? Everyone else seems to think so. The cast on the train are a rum sort:  Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), the cricket-obsessed Brits (who would appear in a handful more movies as these characters!); the adulterous couple the Todhunters (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers); a weird baroness (Mary Clare); a doctor (Paul Lukas); and a nun (Catherine Lacey):  all of whom seem intent on keeping Iris quiet from her apparently paranoid observations for various reasons of their own. Some turn out to be more political than others … This eve of WW2 comedy thriller persuaded David O. Selznick to invite Hitchcock to try his hand in Hollywood:  after three relative box office failures, this was a surefire hit. The effects are good (miniatures), the suspense never lets up and there is a rare menacing tension which the political subtext amplifies as quickly as the train steams ahead to the various troubled border controls. Quick-witted, smart storytelling with a winning cast:  who could wish for anything more? What did Truffaut say about this? He said he saw it once a week at a cinema in Paris and every time he tried to figure out how it worked he forgot because he got so caught up with the story. Oh yes. That’s it!

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

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Or, How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. Long, funny and full of amusing national stereotypes,this was one of a spate of expensive ensemble comedies paying homage to the derring-do of the Edwardian era. A pre-titles sequence shot silent-movie slapstick style starring Red Skelton sets the tone, while Ronald Searle’s wonderfully witty title illustrations are animated by Ralph Ayres. A London newspaper offers an enormous prize to whomever crosses the Channel and gets to Paris first. Co-written with Jack Davies by director Ken Annakin, this caper is hilarious, romantic and action-filled by turns with a cast to die for:  Sarah Miles and James Fox (reunited from the rather different The Servant!), Robert Morley, Gert Frobe, Alberto Sordi, Stuart Whitman, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Eric Sykes, Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, Willie Rushton and Terry-Thomas with spot-on narration by James Robertson Justice. Beautifully shot by the gifted Christopher Challis, this is made for Autumn afternoons. Wacky Races ahoy!

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

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Giulietta Masina suspects that her event manager husband is a philanderer and a mystic confirms her worst fears so she hires a private eye to follow him and get the proof. That’s it, in a nutshell. Except it’s SO much more. She’s more contained, conventional, bourgeois than her cliquey flamboyant friends who show up to have a seance to celebrate her birthday. They all have artistic lives, huge hats, exotic lovers and her equally worldly sisters have beautiful little children to add injury to insult. The woman next door entertains her lovers in a tree house:  when Giulietta returns her cat she demurs from their offer to join them. She enters a world of fantasy and flashback, frequently finding an amusing correlative on TV for her woes and Fellini indulges his wife’s character in all kinds of daydreams and psychic excursions, memories of frightening nuns from childhood, intimations of sex in a brothel. She’s so different from the artificial environment in which she finds herself which is incredibly photographed and looking as fresh as if it were made yesterday. The images are like jolts to the senses:  this was the maestro’s first feature in colour and boy did he revel in its painterly possibilities with Gianni De Venanzo’s cinematography making pictures that sing. Critics argue about the film’s significance and whether it was his explanation to Masina for his own extra-marital life, but it is sheerly wondrous, a throwback to when films mattered.

Possession (2002)

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To get ahead in academia you have to be pretty tough. My own supervisor told me, I know you’re after my job. And didn’t read a page of my work for three and a half years. And stayed in his job. Quelle surprise. (45% of doctoral candidates drop out because of this kind of sanctioned behaviour.) Well, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) has been passed over for an academic post that went to Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens) and has to keep labouring under eccentric Irish Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in search of anything relating to Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam),  the subject of an upcoming celebration and famous for a collection of poems dedicated to his wife (Holly Aird). Mostly Roland is cataloguing recipes. Ensconced in the London Library, however, he steals a couple of handwritten letters tucked in a book which he thinks are written to a lady poet, Christabel La Motte (Jennnifer Ehle). He follows his hunch to the acknowledged expert on her work, lecturer Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and despite her extreme misgivings, they visit her relatives, descendants of La Motte, and thence to France and Whitby, on the trail of what they find was a forbidden and adulterous romance. The stories are told in interweaving parallel, with a hint of French Lieutenant’s Woman about it all, but with added Lesbianism (La Motte has an inhouse painter, Lena Headey). Wolfe is assisting American literary bounty hunter Cropper (Trevor Eve) to get anything related to Ash and the mystery thickens and takes on a vicious patina with lives at risk. The story is wonderful even if Neil LaBute is probably the last director on earth you would expect to be handling it.  David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute himself each did a draft screenplay. The acting is the problem. Paltrow is horribly stiff, Eckhart cannot pronounce her name correctly (it sounds like Mad) and the stories that emanated from the set about their intolerance of each other and lack of chemistry certainly dooms any reality about their performance. LaBute made Roland brash and American so we get a culture clash that’s underlined a few times in the dialogue. Ehle is rather an insipid player but the romance with Northam is convincing and tragic and the impact on the women in their lives is horribly realistic. AS Byatt’s novel was a great literary bestseller and if it doesn’t work in its entirety (the Gothic potential was clearly not realised in lighting, cinematography or design) it’s a pleasing narrative, occasionally very touching and mostly well told with some nice performances by Tom Hollander and Anna Massey in the supporting cast. Red buses. Books. Libraries. I’m there!

Camelot (1967)

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“Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/that was known as Camelot.” Might for Right. Justice for All. Proposition:  does nominative determinism predispose one to a penchant for a particular film? Um, yes, in my case I was named to love all things Arthurian – even this, a famously lambasted adaptation of the long-running stage hit from Lerner and Loewe. The show was adapted from TH White’s The Once and Future King and Lerner did the screenplay which was directed by Josh Logan, a man not unfamiliar with the musical genre. King Arthur is looking back at his life on the eve of battling his best friend, Lancelot du Lac, whose romance with Queen Guinevere has broken up their marriage and the Round Table and the dreams of law and chivalry, with impish David Hemmings as the bastard Mordred planning a takeover. If you don’t find your heart beating lighter when Franco Nero sings to Vanessa Redgrave one of the great songs, If Ever I Would Leave You… then you must be made of stone. They fell in love in real life, Redgrave bore him a son and then in 2006 they finally married. In an art-imitates-life-imitates-art scenario they were reunited onscreen as former teenage lovers reuinited in old age in Letters to Juliet (2010). Even at 3 hours there are several songs omitted as well as the character of Morgan Le Fay, but hey, it’s less problematic than time-travelling to Broadway circa 1960. This is the musical that made Richard Harris a very wealthy man when he spent years touring it. Great Bank Holiday viewing! Now, where’s my soundtrack album…

The Devils (1971)

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A drama set in the wake of the 17th century war between Catholics and Protestants. Or, more specifically, about demonic possession, witchcraft and the denouncing of Catholic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) in Loudun, France, courtesy of some crazy-assed nuns when Cardinal Richelieu was on the prowl. Adapted from a play by John Whiting and a book by Aldous Huxley, this barely got released, given that this was the era of X-ratings and heavy censorship and there are a number of versions. This is the one where Vanessa Redgrave is the deformed nun having masturbatory hallucinations about Oliver Reed, said priest. It is horror, surrealism, politics and religion, all wrapped up in the vision of the extraordinary director Ken Russell with the splendid production design of Derek Jarman which all concludes (naturally) in a fiery conflagration. Russell was named Best Director at the Venice Film Festival despite the film being banned in Italy. A really oddly brilliant modernist essay on belief. Not easily forgotten but a bit much for 3AM. Did this really happen or was I having a particularly lucid Stilton dream? If you’re looking for an amazing read, Russell’s autobiography is just the ticket. And for some more historical background on this time, see La Reine Margot (1994), starring Isabelle Adjani, who still looks around 17 despite being in her 60s.