Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

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The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

Cat People (1982)

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You think it’s love but it’s blood.  Irena Gallier (Nastassia Kinski) has a dark family secret, one that resurfaces dramatically when she reconnects with her estranged brother, Paul (Malcolm McDowell). She moves into his home in New Orleans but when he disappears for a few days during which a vicious murder occurs, Irena finds herself enamored with zoologist Oliver Yates (John Heard) whom she meets in the city zoo. As her brother makes his own advances toward her she begins to experience feelings which she knows make her different to other humans. Oliver’s colleague Alice (Annette O’Toole) is suspicious of this beautiful naive woman whose eyes betray her.  It’s not long before the dangerous curse of the Gallier clan rears its feline head and Irena finds out her parents were brother and sister, descended from leopards who mated with humans and who transform back to their original species after coitus… I was prepared to dislike this as much as I did the first time I saw it, which was a long time ago. Paul Schrader’s adaptation or remake (with Alan Ormsby) of DeWitt Bodeen’s supremely gripping horror fantasy for producer Val Lewton forty years earlier seemed to have been trashed to make an exploitative wild sex fantasy with the undertow of nastiness which I always found to be Schrader’s troubling trademark. This time around however I found it compelling, daring and even – yes – moving. This fantastical mix of zoology, myth and desire is audaciously put together with some very telling references – a scene in a river straight out of Italian rice movies; a setup to remind us of Richard Avedon’s portrait of Kinski with a python the previous year; and the overriding idea of sex’s transformative power. The occasional forays into fantasy land are utterly beguiling. With that cast and their contrasting performing styles it’s hard to pick out a favourite because it’s so well written and their roles so well determined that they do completely different things. If it were left to my cat Gilbert, he’d point out McDowell’s because of the utterly arresting incarnation of half-man half-cat on the bathroom floor (a scene that disgusted me when I first saw it…) which made him sit right up, presumably recognising kin. Kinski has a terrific time in her difficult role which is literally a sex kitten who becomes a cat woman; while Heard is the man obsessed who has to do things most men wouldn’t mind in order to set her free. Meet the parents would have been quite the feat in this case. It’s a remarkable achievement and I’m thrilled to have seen it again to revise my smart ass opinion from years ago. A nightmarish portrayal of a sexual awakening that has touches of greatness, adorned by a magnificent score by Giorgio Moroder and that song by David Bowie. Wow!

Lolo (2015)

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Superwoman au travail et un goofball dans la vraie vie. C’est Violette (Julie Delpy), directrice du défilé de mode, qui rencontre Jean-René (Dany Boon), même s’il est un peu branché, en vacances dans un spa de Biarritz avec sa meilleure amie Ariane (Karin Viard) . Dans le style romcom typique, ils se rencontrent – mignonne sur un thon massif qu’il laisse tomber sur ses genoux. C’est un bumpkin de Biarritz, c’est une Parisienne avec un grand cul. Ils sont faits l’un pour l’autre! Ils passent une semaine dans le bonheur sexuel et se retrouvent à Paris où il est employé en informatique, ayant conçu un système ultra-rapide pour une banque régionale. Quand il passe la nuit, il rencontre son petit garçon Eloi (Vincent Lacoste) qui se révèle être un narcissique de dix-neuf ans encore appelé par le diminutif de l’enfance, Lolo. Il est un artiste wannabe et sa co-dépendance envers sa mère est en fait une couverture pour saboter sa relation, mais elle est aveugle à ses escapades et continue à le cosset. Il met de la poudre dans les vêtements de Jean, drogue son verre quand il est présenté à Karl Lagerfeld (lui-même) et quand rien de tout cela n’aboutit, il engage son ami Lulu (Antoine Loungouine) pour infiltrer le programme informatique de Jean. et le rendant célèbre comme terroriste cybernétique. Jean lit le journal de Lolo où il a documenté son plan – et se rend compte qu’il fait partie d’une série d’hommes intimidés par le garçon, mais Violette n’y croit tout simplement pas. Il faut la fille maussade d’Ariane (Elise Larnicol) pour faire comprendre à Violette que Lolo a ruiné ses relations (y compris son mariage avec son père) depuis l’âge de sept ans. Elle coupe finalement le cordon. Il s’agit d’une satire œdipienne, drôle et drôle, sur la vie sexuelle des femmes quand elles atteignent un certain point et que leurs enfants refusent de les laisser partir. Joliment joué par toutes les pistes, ce romcom Oedipal, d’une écriture sombre et amusante, a été écrit par Eugenie Grandval et réécrit avec la star et metteur en scène Julie Delpy, s’inspirant de The Bad Seed (1956). Il faut beaucoup de coups à la mode pour les femmes, la paranoïa relationnelle et les parents sont victimes d’intimidation par les enfants qu’ils se sont livrés. Le dialogue est extrêmement drôle et pointu et présente plusieurs brins de difficultés pour les femmes de carrière qui cherchent à entamer une relation sérieuse: j’en ai marre des smartass parisiens qui me décoiffent, déclare Violette. Beaucoup de plaisir avec des références sexuelles très explicites

Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

Only You (1994)

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Faith (Marisa Tomei) believes from a childhood episode with a ouija board that it’s writ in her destiny to marry ‘Damon Bradley.’ So she calls off her wedding to a podiatrist and runs away to Venice with BFF and sister in law Kate (Bonnie Hunt) to locate an elusive man who is a colleague of her husband-to-be flying there that day. They have to go to Rome to track him down. When she meets cute a man who helps with her shoe (Robert Downey) he claims to be him. But after a romantic evening he says his name is actually Peter Wright and he really has fallen in love with her. Then he gives in and apparently assists in her quest to find this fabled individual who really is in Italy. Mild, not as good as you’d wish but never as bad as you’d dread, this modern spin on Cinderella from Diane Drake is a decent romcom with delightful leads, a fantastic supporting turn from Hunt, stunning scenery and a fetishist’s appreciation of fine footwear. You want more? Sheesh! Directed by Norman Jewison.

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!

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

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It behoves us on Jack Nicholson’s 80th birthday to celebrate one of his most scorching performances in a totally filthy film. In this remake of the James M. Cain novel, he’s the drifter who fetches up at a diner in the middle of nowhere and becomes embroiled in a sordid romance with the proprietor’s wife (Jessica Lange) who wants him to kill her husband (John Colicos). Director Bob Rafelson was one of those people who played an enormous role in Nicholson’s career. Nicholson wrote the screenplay for Head, the movie about The Monkees, the band Rafelson created for a TV comedy show and then they became almost as big as The Beatles. He produced Easy Rider which gave Nicholson the keys to the kingdom, pretty much. Then he directed him in Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, where he gave two of his great performances. They would reunite a decade after this for Man Trouble but this adaptation by David Mamet (making his debut as screenwriter) really hit buttons on release – I didn’t see it because I was way too young but I remember the fuss – and the trailers – and the poster!. The kitchen sex scene is one of the most jaw dropping couplings you will ever see this side of a porno and both Nicholson and Lange are simply astonishing in this tale of utter amorality. Some people don’t like the ending, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. This is some birthday celebration, eh?! Golly!

The Love Lottery (1954)

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Long before George Clooney thought of it, matinee idol Rex Allerton (David Niven) decamps to Lake Como to escape the hordes of girlie fans who besiege him everywhere he goes, even in his dreams:  this commences with one such nightmare when he’s torn to pieces at a premiere by the adoring mob who all look like Peggy Cummins. He falls for mathematician Anne Vernon who’s doing the calculations for gangster Herbert Lom that blackmail him into being the prize in a worldwide raffle. This mild satire from Ealing has some ambition but the writing doesn’t really hold up – the story by Charles Neilson-Terry and Zelma Bramley Moore was written by Harry Kurnitz and producer Monja Danischewsky. There are some good scenes and Niven does a lot with thin material with Vernon making hay as the clever woman who eventually falls for his charms. The attempt to marry his lady love in church is good but the payoff gag with Cummins isn’t really done as well as it could have been. There are a lot of short dream sequences which detract from the narrative momentum but on the plus side it’s beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe and edited by Seth Holt, directed by Charles Crichton. And Humphrey Bogart does everyone a favour by showing up in a cameo.

Arlington Road (1999)

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You know you’re watching a terrific thriller when Joan Cusack’s sudden appearance at a phone booth makes you jump out of your seat in fright. The screenplay by the gifted Ehren Kruger is concerned with homegrown terrorism, a notion that has never gone away but had particular currency in the era of Timothy McVeigh. Jeff Bridges is the recently widowed history lecturer who discovers that his new neighbours might be plotting something very nasty indeed and realises too late that his young son is spending way too much time in their company. This is a brilliantly sustained tense piece of work which never drops the ball and is tonally pretty perfect. An underrated achievement. Directed by Mark Pellington.