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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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.

Blue Murder at St Trinians (1957)

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A very deftly plotted entry in the Launder and Gilliat series adapted from Ronald Searle’s riotous school stories, this sees Amelia Fritton (Alastair Sim) in prison and with the school under military and police control, the girls contrive to win a bus trip to Europe and the father (Lionel Jeffries) of one of them returns in Ms Fritton’s place when he needs to hide out following a heist at Hatton Garden. With Terry-Thomas romancing Joyce Grenfell, George Cole doing his inimitable best as ‘Flash’ Harry running a marriage agency to get the sixth formers hitched, it’s all systems go for the anarchic crew. Bedlam, in  other words. Great fun.

All Roads Lead to Rome (2015)

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Be honest:  it’s January. It’s miserable. You’re back at work weeks early (February is about right – right?!) and you need to escape. So where better than la bella Italia?! And in the fine company of Sarah Jessica Parker, a woman I have adored since Square Pegs, way back in the days of analogue. She’s Maggie, the divorced former journalist now college lecturer (CCNY, since you ask) who takes her bolshy teenage daughter Summer (Rosie Day) to her old haunt in Tuscany to bail the kid out of a relationship with a vile junkie who wants her to take the rap for drug possession because she’s underage and it won’t criminalise her. Lovely. No sooner have they arrived than Maggie’s old lover of decades past, artist Luca (Raoul Bova) materialises in the villa next door where a very young woman, his presumed girlfriend, and his bitchy mama Nonna (the marvellous Claudia Cardinale) also show up. Summer wants out and so does Nonna so they steal Luca’s car. Nonna has a wedding to attend in Rome – her own! and Summer wants to go back to NYC to do the right-wrong thing for the junkie BF. Maggie and Luca chase them in her rental the whole 300km to the Eternal City … As we know road trips are emotional journeys (sob!) and all parties get the opportunity to share and care with each other amid some mayhem that could have been better choreographed – and there are a lot of long driving scenes along very dull looking roads until the police get involved and Luca tells them Summer kidnapped Nonna. Summer is a horribly noxious teenager whose view on her behaviour is altered not by the wisdom of her elders but by a come-on from a Lesbian who picks her up hitching a lift. Talk about playing into the zeitgeist of ‘gender fluidity’ as they now call it. Neither particularly well written (Josh Appignanesi, Cindy Myers) nor directed (Ella Lemhagen) or shot (whoever), this could have been so much sharper and better handled: they meant well but then there were 20 producers, this decade’s version of a Europudding …  The only scenes that really work are with Parker and Bova (they have nice chemistry) and those TV sendups when Paz Vega gets the chance to imitate the peculiarly slutty Italian journalists in the kind of cod-hysterical news presentation that characterises Berlusconi-dominated media. SJP deserves a whole lot better but it’s nice to see Cardinale in action.

Zoolander 2 (2016)

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Adam, Eve and … Steve. It’s a long time since we first met Derek and tried Blue Steel and social media appears to have radically filtered our narcissistic reality in the interim but this isn’t exactly Chanel No. 5 no matter how you cut the advertising. Justin Bieber never did anything to me but a lot of people enjoyed watching him getting machine gunned to death in the first few minutes. The setting in Rome is delectable. The cast are game. It’s a supremely silly satire about fashion vanity and everyone you have ever heard of is in it. YOU are probably in it. The story is about Fashion Interpol – run by Penelope Cruz – who get Derek and Hansel to help uncover the villain behind the assassination of pop stars. Derek finds his son in an orphanage and is horrified by his obesity. Hansel has fathered a bunch of children in Malibu (presumably an in-joke). Sting meets the irrelevant pair at St Peter’s and tells them an alternative tale of models’ origins which has a vague similarity to Christianity. Mugatu is back attempting world domination. Funny, daft, utterly inane. What did you expect?! Written by John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, Justin Theroux and Ben Stiller, who also directed.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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Has there been a more ravishing film in the last twenty years? Hardly. And that’s just the start of it. Patricia Highsmith was an exquisitely stealthy writer, composing short, even, straightforward sentences that revealed ever so slowly the beating heart of psychotic Tom Ripley (and others) in relatively neat novels and stories that crept up on you before unsettling you permanently. The world never seemed quite as balanced thereafter. Ripley is barely making a living playing keyboards at chi-chi events in 1950s NYC when the wealthy father of someone he pretends to know makes him an offer he can’t refuse:  travel to Italy, bring home the reprobate Dickie Greenleaf and all for a handsome reward. When Ripley goes there and finds the beauteous Dickie shacking up with girlfriend Marge he craves their lifestyle, apes their liking for jazz and begins to send some misleading telegrams Stateside to keep Pop on a leash and lure Dickie into a gay relationship (some hope). Then he goes to any lengths necessary to take over Dickie’s life. Including murder …  As a Highsmith fan I had many problems with this in the first instance:  I attended an early screening, attended by writer/director Anthony Minghella and I had a burning question to ask but felt constrained by the company:  why cast pug-ugly Matt Damon as Ripley?  Did Harvey Weinstein force it? Particularly because the moment you see Jude Law as Dickie you are simply breathtaken:  he just stuns. His performance telegraphs contempt, superiority, ease, all at once, he doesn’t have to speak, he just IS. (He was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination).  And the beautiful Alain Delon was the most brilliant, audacious Ripley in Purple Noon/Plein Soleil. When Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles he wipes Damon off the screen – and sees through his act. Perhaps that’s the whole point! In a study of class envy, Ripley is simply outclassed, on every level. Then there are the additions:  did Highsmith not write enough? Minghella created a whole new subplot with a woman called Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) whom Ripley encounters on the sea journey to Europe. She’s another discomfiting blonde goddess, balancing Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge but with a different kind of corny effect. So there are a lot of things wrong here if one thinks purely in terms of fidelity. But there are some right things too. There are extraordinary moments at times and isn’t that what Polanski says cinema is, moments? The entire effect can be wondrous, if you can get past the casting.

Angels & Demons (2009)

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The Pope has died. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is in conclave in Vatican City and while tension mounts among the cardinals, the anxious waiting crowds anticipate the familiar puff of smoke alerting them to the decision about their new religious leader … Enough about the plot of Robert Harris’ latest. This is Dan Brown’s prequel to the Da Vinci Code which sees Tom Hanks (p)reappearing for director Ron Howard as Robert Langdon, hired by the Vatican to assist in solving the mystery of a kidnapping – four of the preferiti have been taken, apparently by a representative of the Illuminati. Over in Switzerland there’s a problem at the Large Hadron Collider where they’re messing with the God Particle and a vial of antimatter disappears. Irish priest Ewan McGregor is in temporary charge in Rome, with Stellan Skarsgard supplying a dose of Scandi noir scepticism as head of the Swiss Guard (sadly in civvies…) so the scene is set for the collision of religion with science, ancient sects with modern technology and a tour around Bernini’s sculptures at high speed in the company of clever lady Ayelet Zurer … Oh my gosh they’ve gone and done it again, managing to turn a better book than DVC (everything’s relative, even relativity) into another sow’s ear. Gory, but you know, imagine if Mel Gibson had done it … And if you’ve just watched DVC and you think you’re hearing things, yes that’s Alfred Molina doing the narration. Rome looks stunning, as ever, even the bits made in Hollywood, because the bods in the Vatican thought it was sacrilege.

Roman Holiday (1953)

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Charm is such an interesting quality – so hard to define objectively and so hard to fake. And this film is teeming with it. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, then the subject of the HUAC witch hunt and written pseudonymously (Ian McLellan Hunter fronted for him and Trumbo’s credit wasn’t restored until 2003 on the dvd edition while the Writers’ Guild restored it in 2011) with John Dighton getting a co-writing credit. Director/Producer William Wyler wanted Cary Grant originally but he claimed he was too old – he would later be paired with Audrey Hepburn in Charade. In fact he probably saw that the role of the princess was the Real McCoy and would leave him in the shade. Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons proving unavailable (whew), Hepburn won her first major role on the strength of a screen test when they left the camera running and she talked about herself. Royal stories were au courant thanks to the coronation of Elizabeth II so the fable of a beautiful girl going incognito in Rome and having a day out in the company of a charming (and equally undercover) journalist, played by Gregory Peck, couldn’t have been better timed. The fact that Trumbo was writing in the circumstances of a man trapped by his own profession adds piquancy to this story of duty, responsibility and the desire for freedom. Peck knew what Grant knew – Hepburn was a star – and midway through the shoot did what only a gentleman would do, something unheard of, and asked Wyler to give the beguiling Hepburn equal billing. She is luminous in the role and they exchange looks that suggest something beyond pure characterisation – feeling. Everything looks wonderful and I’m pretty sure hundreds of thousands of people visited the city on the basis of this movie alone. Post-war Rome was having a moment, and what is perhaps most astonishing about this was the decision to shoot in monochrome. What were they thinking?! There’s a notable score by Georges Auric and it is flawlessly made at a time when the city was becoming known as Hollywood on the Tiber. Charm itself.

Happy 100th Birthday Olivia de Havilland!

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“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.” Errol Flynn’s final onscreen lines to Ms de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On. Two-time Academy Award winner, rebel, survivor, lady and the better half of one of the most glorious screen couples. She is part of our classical Hollywood dream and we are all the better for sharing it. Thank you and Happy Birthday!

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1969)

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Or, how a spaghetti western writer (Once Upon a Time in the West!) created the European slasher film with a stylish twist in this chic Roman giallo thriller. Dario Argento made his directing debut with this tale of an American writer (Tony Musante) who happens upon a near-homicide in a gallery and he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) become the prey of an unhinged serial killer while assisting police. If it seems a tad familiar it’s because it’s a riff on The Screaming Mimi which was already filmed under that name earlier in the decade in the US. Wonderful camerawork and sheer chutzpah camouflage a few plot holes but this set Argento on a long and brilliant career. It’s hard to see it in the cut originally intended since it varied from territory to territory but worth catching any which way you can as it just hasn’t dated. And Maitland McDonagh has written a wonderful study of the man and his influential films which is a great read. See this first!