Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

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Every day when I get up and I see there’s a whole new other day I go absolutely ape! Richard Benson (William Holden) is holed up in a swish Paris apartment with a great view and he has two days left of his 20-week contract to fulfill a screenwriting assignment commissioned on the basis of the title by a monied producer.  He’s spent all that time travelling around Europe, having an affair with a Greek actress and drinking. Now he’s hired a typist called Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn) who’s really a wannabe writer who spent the first six months of her two-year stint in the city living a very louche life. He dictates various opening scenes of The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower and eventually constructs a version which takes off with Gabrielle standing in for the lead actress in a story which mutates into a spy thriller. Her actor boyfriend in the story (Tony Curtis) dumps her (in reality she has a date to keep in two days – Bastille Day) and she gets embroiled with Benson himself as the presumed villain. When Gabrielle takes over the storytelling she turns him into a vampire because of a childhood obsession with Dracula. He rewrites it like the hack he really is and gives it a Hollywood ending – straight out of Casablanca. Real life meshes with reel life and Noel Coward – playing his producer Alexander Myerheim – materialises at a party in the film within a film. Marlene Dietrich has a cameo and Curtis has great fun in his supporting role as a narcissistic Method actor. This postmodern remake of the French film Holiday for Henrietta by Julien Duvivier and Henri Jeanson got a rewrite by George Axelrod and it’s brimming with Hollywood references and a surplus of nods to the films of both stars:  talk about meta! It was put into production by Paramount who exercised their contractual rights over Holden and Hepburn, reunited after Sabrina a decade earlier. They had had a much-fabled affair then and Hepburn allegedly turned down Holden’s offer of marriage due to his vasectomy as she was obsessed with having a child. She was by now married to actor and director Mel Ferrer and Holden turned up to the set in a very bad way, still not over her. His drinking was out of control and he had numerous accidents befall him which ended up scuppering the final scene. It was directed by Richard Quine, who had previously made The World of Suzie Wong with him and that gets a shout out too. Hepburn’s husband Ferrer has a cameo here as a partygoer and Sinatra does some singing duties when Benson announces the titles of the film within a film. There are far more laughs here than the contemporary reviews would give it credit, with some shrewd screenplay analysis and Benson even talks at regular intervals about his planned book The Art of Screenplay Writing which sounds like a useful handbook. Hepburn was outfitted as ever by Hubert de Givenchy who betrays her terrifyingly anorectic frame and he also gets a credit for her perfume despite this not being released in Smell-O-Rama. Hepburn had legendary Claude Renoir (the same) fired as director of photography because she felt he wasn’t flattering her and had him replaced with Charles Lang, who accompanied her to her next film, Charade, which shares a location with this – the Punch and Judy show at the front of the Theatre de Marigny. There’s a sinuous score by Nelson Riddle.

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George Michael: Freedom (2017)

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I knew how to make these records and I knew just how to make them jump out of the radio. George Michael was making this film about his career when he died so unexpectedly and tragically on Christmas Day last year. Slickly narrated and beautifully edited, this astonishing combination of archive footage, home movies, music videos and contemporary interviews with his peers, friends and lawyers is as artfully constructed, witty, mesmerising and moving as the music of the man himself.  From his schoolboy antics with Andew Ridgeley in a terrible ska band through the unexpected stardom of Wham! when they played up their wideboy appeal with satirical lyrics which largely bypassed the masses, to his phenomenal breakthrough as a solo artiste, this manages to be both a testimonial to his own brilliance as well as a scathing commentary on the demands of the music industry. Following his astonishing crossover success in the US where he got a Grammy for Faith, the resistance from the black community (who played him day and night on radio) to what would now be termed his ‘cultural appropriation’  led to the great Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I which Sony America did not want to promote. His battle with the company (put down to cultural differences – hmmm…) coincided with his meeting the man of his life, Anselmo Feleppa, when their eyes met across a stage in Rio. But his new companion was soon diagnosed with HIV and when he died Michael was faced with a legal action against Sony for restraint of trade, which he lost. Amongst the interviews (clearly recorded before his death and therefore this is somewhat lacking in the latter stages) directed by Michael with his co-director and former manager, Michael Austin are Ricky Gervais, busy extracting the urine calling him “my favourite singing convict,” Tracey Emin, Elton John, Mark Ronson, Nile Rogers and Clive Davis, who compliments Frank Sinatra (or his publicist) for writing a letter urging George to promote his work while excoriating Michael’s decision not to turn up at the opening of an envelope. How absolutely ingenious that he chose Linda Evangelista to be his avatar – and how very Nineties! It’s very cool to have Stevie Wonder, one of his many admirable and admiring collaborators, throw into the race debate, “You mean George is white?! Oh my God!!!” (What must they make of Elvis?!) The most revealing personal section of the film is rather strange precisely because the people upon whom it pivots are not there except in slight footage or photos – his lover and his mother, and Ridgeley is not interviewed either. This is a man undone by grief about their deaths and who took years to process his losses, pouring it all into amazing songs. He could write and interpret lyrics like nobody of his generation. His narration is composed from old interviews. His description of being at home in England at Christmas while Feleppa was awaiting the outcome of an HIV test in Brazil is unbearable:  he had not even told his parents about his new relationship and thought he himself could be infected. The other irony of the film is the title itself (also one of his recordings) because he felt so imprisoned by his sexuality, his accompanying psychological difficulties and the recording contract which so confined him:  how completely bizarre that this should be a Sony Music film and it is now an obituary to Michael by Michael himself. If he were to be remembered, he says, it would hopefully be as a great singer-songwriter and as someone with integrity. Written, produced and directed by George Michael, this clearly had to be somewhat rewritten as it was not completed prior to his untimely death. What a guy. And what an unutterably terrible loss.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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Whoever heard of a cowardly ghost. It’s 1900 and widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is finally breaking away from the oppression of the awful in-laws, renting a sea cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and maid Martha (Edna Best). That’s despite the estate agent’s advice to take another property because … it’s haunted by its former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a presumed suicide. When he appears to her on a regular basis he insists it was an accident when he fell asleep in front of the gas fire. They have a frosty relationship but it becomes something more than mutual tolerance and he calls her Lucia because she’s more Amazonian than she believes. He insists on keeping his portrait – in her bedrooom. He is incensed when she cuts down the monkey puzzle he planted himself. He teaches her salty language and by dictating a sensational book – Blood and Swash! – he saves her from penury and a dread return to her late husband’s home. He appears at the most inopportune moments, for a year anyhow. One day at the publisher’s she encounters Uncle Neddy (George Sanders) a most unlikely children’s author. She is romanced, to the grievous jealousy of Daniel. She is the only person who likes the suave one, and the joke’s on her as she finds out one day in London.  The years pass … The paradox at the centre of the story is perfectly encapsulated by Tierney whose very blankness elicited criticism:  for it is the dead seadog who brings her back to life. There’s a very funny scene when he’s seated beside her on the train and the clever writing actually conveys the joke. Philip Dunne adapted the novel The Ghost of Captain Gregg and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick, a pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. This is utterly beguiling, a sheer delight and an enchantment from another time. Directed rather beautifully by Joseph Mankiewicz.

The Shining (1980)

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In the bigger scheme of things I have no idea what this film is about and I don’t know anyone who does. It started as an adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel but it evolved into something he disliked intensely.  It boasts a key performance in Jack Nicholson’s career – in which those eyebrows are utilised to express something truly demonic and he launched a million caricatures not least when he hymned Johnny Carson.  The bones of King’s novel are here – wannabe writer Jack Torrance decamps with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and little son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains to act as caretaker in the off season, hoping to overcome writer’s block. His son has psychic premonitions, possessed by the building itself, which however do not manage to overwhelm him and he shares their secrets with chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) with whom he communicates telepathically. Then Jack senses the hotel’s secrets – it’s built on a Native American burial ground – and he starts to lose his mind as we begin to connect the dots with a party that took place in 1921 and a photograph …  What happens here is not as important as how it looks.  Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Diane Johnson remove all the tropes that characterise the haunted house novel and we are left with overlit flatness and unsaturated colours that repeat and repeat and create their own rhythm. There are images that sear themselves on your brain:  the elevator pouring blood into those endless corridors that get longer and longer as Danny cycles up and down the hotel;  the twin Grady girls; the bar that suddenly opens up;  the nubile young woman who turns into an old crone; Wendy finding out what Jack’s been typing for months and months on those sheaves of paper;  Danny’s voice, growling red rum, red rum;  and Jack hacking through the bathroom door with an ax as Wendy cowers; Jack killing Dick, whose return to the hotel is because he senses that Danny needs him; the maze filling with snow as Danny tries to escape his lunatic father. Kubrick’s authorial vision produces something very odd and compelling and against the notion of the traditional horror film, perhaps minus all those strange theories promulgated by the documentary Room 237 which has a major preoccupation with presumed spatial discrepancies in the building’s layout. This is notable for Garret Brown’s use of the Steadicam, another instance of Kubrick’s obsession with using all the then-new technology to create powerful visuals. This production may have arisen from the master’s deep need to make a commercial hit after the failure of the beautiful Barry Lyndon, but one thing’s for sure about this ghost story like no other – once seen, never forgotten. Here’s Johnny!

Snowbound (1948)

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Terrifically tricksy adaptation of the Hammond Innes (remember him?!) novel The Lonely Skier.  Dennis Price (you had me at hello!) is a former soldier recruited by his WW2 CO Robert Newton (Price is an extra on his film set) to pretend to be a screenwriter at an Alpine resort where a motley assortment of characters is gathering – the most English Englishman ever, Guy Middleton, Italian comtessa Mila Parely, Marcel Dalio. Stanley Holloway and a self-announced Greek, Herbert Lom (yeah, right!).  Price is producing reports for Newton in between ski runs and it eventually transpires that they’re all in search of a horde of gold stashed during the war. There’s wads of tension, a Christie-esque scene in which Holloway laughingly disrupts a gun quarrel by dint of opening a door, a marvellous torchlit search on the mountains when Price is inevitably injured by Lom – a Nazi, obviously – and left for dead, and a conflagration for a conclusion. It’s a bit too clever by far but give me mountains, give me snow, give me gluhwein, I’m there. Wonderfully atmospheric. Adapted by Keith Campbell and David Evans directed by David MacDonald. A Gainsborough production.

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Three black women in a car get stopped by a cop. Turns out they’re not joyriders. It’s early 1960s Virginia and they’re mathematicians at NASA where Kevin Costner is watching the Russians send a monkey and a mannequin into space via satellite while they’re still trying to work out orbital range and stopping potential astronauts from burning up on re-entry. Everyone’s under pressure so it’s time to call in the coloured women in that other building with their own special lavatory facility. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi this tells the hitherto little-known true story of the gifted women who got those rockets into space. Kathryn Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, Cookie in TV’s Empire), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (pop singer Janelle Monae) are the three friends who are the numbers wizards and Jim Parsons is the head math guy in Costner’s wing who resents Johnson’s preternatural abilities which she still keeps up despite having to run a few miles every day to the coloured bathroom. Out of the loop and fed heavily redacted material, she still bests every man in sight. And they’re all white. John Glenn (Glen Powell) visits the site and makes sure to shake the hands of the human computers to the evident annoyance of supervisor Kirsten Dunst and it takes a village led by him and Costner to start slowly moving mountains – not from an altruistic position but because it makes sense to get good people to work faster since it’s a space race (in those days you didn’t get medals for just taking part.) Plus he doesn’t want to be burned alive and he trusts human judgement more than machines (the new IBM is kind of a running joke but with a different outcome than in Mad Men.)  Johnson is romanced by Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali and everything works out in the end: Glenn re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and they all get with the space programme. Some of the ‘facts’ are not even true but hyped up for effect (Johnson used a white bathroom). This is bland biographical soapy drama so keen not to offend that it loses its narrative affect early on. Just as the ladies keep their heads down and step back from the racial segregation demos (who has the time when they’re putting men in rockets) this sticks to calculating the optimum conditions for a launch into orbit and a safe return. And look what that focus has achieved at the box office – gold. Which is the only colour that matters in Hollywood. Stunningly shot by Mandy Walker, the vintage newsreel inserts are wonderful.

I Capture the Castle (2003)

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Dodie Smith’s classic 1930s coming of age story gets a beautiful treatment in this adaptation by Heidi Thomas, directed by Tim Fywell. Romola Garai is the seventeen-year old Cassandra Mortmain, daughter of the desiccated formerly successful novelist, a cadaverous James (Bill Nighy) who has been blocked for twelve years. He’s married to dedicated nudist and avant garde artist Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), his second wife. He served time in prison for attacking Cassandra’s mother with a cake knife. They live in ungenteel poverty in a rented castle which is in a state of terrific decay with a beautiful sister Rose (Rose Byrne) and young brother Thomas. The gorgeous farmhand next door Stephen (Henry Cavill) loves Cassandra but she only has eyes for American Simon (Henry  Thomas) who inherits the whole property of which the castle serves a part; while Simon falls for Rose. Simon’s brother Neil (Marc Blucas) and Cassandra confide in each other … and while superficial romance proceeds and social niceties are observed, and a forthcoming marriage might save them all, the principal relationships fall apart and Cassandra tries to fix everything while losing the man she really loves. Fantastically observed and – it has to be said – captivating – adaptation, with spot-on performances all round. Look fast for Dolly Wells as a horrible saleswoman.

By the Sea (2015)

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I have major typewriter envy. Why do I say this? A few weeks ago I missed out on a vintage red Italian one in an online auction, much  to my dismay. It’s very like one that Brad Pitt has in this film, a work of fetish objects, looking, voyeurism, sex and surfaces. We could be crass and strike through the star texts and just say, Brangelina made a Seventies French art house porno:  go figure.  But no matter how meta you want to make it, as a confrontational post-honeymoon disaster flick, it’s not Boom! A more elegant discussion hinges on the individual sequences: the first seventy minutes when their marriage is dissected in fragments:  the arrival at the seaside hotel of this couple married for 14 years;  Roland’s a writer,  Vanessa used to be a dancer; her reliance on pills and the hole in the wall through which she observes a newly married couple having sex in the room next door;  his daily trips to the bar and his conversations with widowed proprietor Nils Arestrup (in French), looking for a subject, drowning his sorrows while he remains blocked – in all senses. It’s opaque and inexact and a gloss on a marriage gone stale enduring its own particular troubles which are only suggested by Vanessa’s refusal to have sex with him. Then she appears to be pushing him to have sex with the newlywed woman next door. Then the twenty-minute sequence when he joins in with her voyeurism and they get the young couple, Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, liquored up and he concludes they’re miserable too as they observe them together again, through that hole in the wall. Now it’s more than sexual stimulation: Roland is trying to control the images too, in an effort to redirect his marital narrative. It’s very well directed and much better written than anything else Jolie has made so far:   every shot is framed with great care and her own skeletal shape frequently dictates how we look at the story, ironically it’s her own performance that’s perhaps not as impressive as you might expect. Then, the last twenty minutes. What happens when Vanessa enters the drama being staged next door and Roland finds himself looking at her, being disrobed, is what triggers revelations and a change in storytelling. Roland was looking for a subject, Vanessa couldn’t endure seeing a successful young marriage. We learn what happened three years ago. Roland writes again. The cinematography by Christian Berger is beautiful, bathing each image in gorgeous natural light. The soundtrack is to die for, with Jane Birkin crooning Jane B in a broad song selection dominated by her own other half, Serge Gainsbourg, that agent provocateur par excellence, with other choice Seventies chansons dimpling the pictures at opportune moments. What am I going to do now? Watch it all over again. It’s that fascinating. Then I’ve got to find my Lina Wertmuller collection. And a new-old typewriter.

 

Agatha (1979)

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In 1978 writer and notorious drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s wife Kathleen devised a speculative account of crime writer Agatha Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. It was initially proposed as a documentary for the BBC.  Christie had died shortly beforehand and her representatives tried to get it stopped. This elegant and suspenseful big-screen account is daubed in an autumnal palette shot by Vittorio Storaro and effectively contained by Michael Apted.  Tynan’s story is a pastiche of Christie tropes in a screenplay she co-wrote with Arthur Hopcraft (and her novel came out to chime with the film’s release). Vanessa Redgrave is simply luminous as the shy, introverted writing genius whose husband Archie (Timothy Dalton, Redgrave’s real-life long-term boyfriend) has confronted her about his affair with a woman in his office and his desire to get a divorce in order to marry the other woman. Agatha takes off and arrives in Harrogate, the destination spa town where his mistress is heading with her aunt, in order to plan a ghastly revenge. All of Britain is searching for her. The police don’t like her husband’s reaction and suspect him of murder. In a story where practically everyone is pretending to be someone else, the only occasional downside is the effect of Dustin Hoffman’s pantomime as (fictional) US journalist Wally Stanton, obsessed with tracking down the world-famous woman who had just published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Perhaps that’s what they call star power. This lies somewhere between mystery and romance, biography and faction. Christie notoriously refused to address this episode in her autobiography and it was officially attributed to amnaesia. We shall never really know. Now that’s REAL star power.