Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Cleo, Shakespeare & all that jazz

400 years today since Shakespeare died (aged 52 in 1616) - lots of celebrations here in the UK, including an all-star marathon on The Bard on BBC tonight, while the BFI is mounting a two-part retrospective. I am sure my 6 different HAMLETs and 4 MACBETHs will get an airing too, then there's Orson's CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT ...

One Shakespeare artefact which may be overlooked now is this 1964 album by Cleo Laine. I had it at the time when I was just a teenager, so it was great to download the tracks again a while back (the album itself or the CD had not been available for a long time)\. Cleo has always been one of our favourite vocalists - her concerts with husband Johnny Dankworth were always great value as they certainly delivered and exceeded expectations. We saw them several times in the '70s and '80s, and I loved several of her other albums, particularly WOMAN TALK, another '60s classic. 

Cleo wraps her delicious tones and immaculate phrasing around those timeless words from the plays and sonnets - she swings, she hits the high and low notes as only she can. An Amazon review puts it: "A perfect marriage of words set to music, melody and jazz invention. Singing and playing of the very highest calibre. This recording has greatly improved my life". 

This is the track listing: 
1. If Music Be The Food Of Love / 2. O Mistress Mine  / 3. Duet Of Sonnets / 4. Winter / 5. My Love Is As A Fever / 6. It Was A Lover And His Lass / 7. Dunsinane Blues / 8. Take All My Loves / 9. Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind / 10. Shall I Compare Thee / 11. Witches, Fair And Foul / 12. Fear No More /  13. Sigh No More, Ladies / 14. The Compleat Works. 

In the wake of so many obituaries lately, that first verse of "Fear No More" is so apt:
"Fear no more the heat o' the sun
Nor the furious winter's rages.
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and lasses all must,
As chimney sweepers, come to dust."

Friday, 22 April 2016

Camping with Scott & Bailey + Fr Brown & the Doc

but Lady Felicia and Mrs McCarthy steal the show.

British TV is going through one of its quality periods with so much good stuff on one's recorder/Sky Box is practically working overtime!

HAPPY VALLEY and THE NIGHT MANAGER may have finished, but there is a new series (just 3 episodes) of the terrific SCOTT & BAILEY (we worked through the first four series over the winter months) - Sally Wainwright's gripping series of police investigations into murder cases set in Manchester. This new series is not written by her though, and somehow is not the same without Amelia Bullmore (centre) as the detectives' snappy DCI Gill Murray - she retired in the last series (Amelia also wrote several episodes). The new series too is more grim and downbeat, while we still enjoy the backstories of Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) and Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) and their complicated lives. Both actresses are exemplary, as usual. Wainwright in the previous series also provides great roles for actors like Nicola Walker and Joe Duttine (CORRIE's amiable window cleaner) or Kevin Doyle (DOWNTON ABBEY's nice Mr Molesley),Geoge Costigan, Tracie Bennett, Rupert Graves, Danny Miller, Sally Lindsay, Lisa Riley, or Ellie Haddington  to get their teeth into, often as those damaged killers ...
Two female detectives, one motherly with family problems, the other emotionally immature with disasterous relationships, have varying levels of success applying their eccentric outlooks on life to their police cases and private lives.
Tucked away in the afternoon slot though has been 4 series of FATHER BROWN, based - very loosely - on the G.K. Chesterton stories of the priest detective. These series have apparently nothing to do with the stories, and are total fiction as the investigating cleric is based in a pretty 1950s (great period detail) Cotswold village, and he is aided and abetted by local posh Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and his parish clerk/housekeeper Mrs McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack - having a lot of fun here). 
The friendly rivalry between the women keeps the series watchable and they get to wear some great '50s fashions and hats. Lady Felicia often wears gloves too and little mink stoles, and has a roving eye for any presentable man (Nancy Carroll is as fascinating as Honeysuckle Weeks in FOYLE'S WAR another discovery a while back). Mark Williams anchors it all as Father Brown often dealing with outlandish plots and annoying local chief detective Tom Chambers. The 45 minute episodes are fun and ideal afternoon viewing - must be a formula that works as there are over 40 episodes in the 4 series. 

We did not discover DOC MARTIN until its last series, so it is also fun going back to early series as we follow the grumpy, often rude doctor (Martin Clunes) in that ideal Cornish village Portwenn (actually Port Isaac in Cornwall) and the amusing stories that arise with the various locals and his slow romance with school-teacher Louisa (Catherine Catz). Quality casting here with Eileen Atkins, Stephanie Cole, Selina Cadell and Claire Bloom (as his icy mother, below) all of course marvellous, as is Stewart Wright (left) as the love-lorn policeman, and there is an adorable dog, eccentric locals, and lovely scenery - another winning formula then, Created by Dominic Minghella, there have  been 54 episodes in 7 series since 2004, so a lot of catching up!
Dr. Martin Ellingham, a London-based surgeon, relocates to the picturesque seaside village of Portwenn, establishing himself as the area's general practitioner. He grew up in the area having been raised by his now widowed Aunt Joan Norton. His reasons for leaving London and the high-paid life of a consultant are not clear initially but related to a phobia about blood he has recently developed. He soon meets several of the locals and eccentricity abounds. Martin's situation is made more difficult by what can only be referred as an almost complete lack of an acceptable bedside manner. He is gruff, abrupt and intolerant, not only in issues related to medicine, but to life in general. He and the headmistress of the local school, Louisa Glasson, are clearly attracted to each other and despite their awkwardness, slowly develop a relationship. They do marry and have a baby and then separate and then .... Catz and Wright are also in a rather good new BBC comedy series, I WANT MY WIFE BACK, and there is also that great other BBC comedy BOOMERS about those retired couples with amusing roles for the likes of Alison Steadman, Stephanie Beacham and Russ Abbott. 
CAMPING is another of those quirky Sky series (STELLA, MOUNT PLEASANT, STARLINGS) offbeat comedies that draw one in and one never knows or expects what is going to happen next. CAMPING is written by Julia Davis (who also directs the first 4 episodes) who also plays Fay the new girlfriend of Tom (Rufus Jones) who has left his wife and who feels young and groovy again, to the consternation of friends Robin (Steve Pemberton) and his bossy conrol-freak cow of a wife Fi (Vicki Pepperdine - a new discovery for me). Other friends on their camping holiday are ex-alcoholic Adam (Jonathan Cake) and his downtrodden wife Kerry (marvellous Elizabeth Berrington). The creepy campsite manager is David Bamber who stumbles across Fi pleasuring herself when her bad manners and one of her migraines leaves her behind as the others go on a fishing trip. Then there is that scene at the hospital, and at the antiques shop where Tom and Fay cannot control themselves ... The scene is set for amusing confrontations as Adam hits the booze and is jealous of Tom and Fay's constantly having sex, then Tom has to return to London as his wife is in a coma after an overdose and Fay is on the loose ..... how is it all going to end? There are only 6 episodes, but we are hooked, as is my friend Martin. It is a series though one will either love or hate, It is a jet black cringe-inducing comedy which "descends into a hell of bitterness, grief, jealousy, sexual experimentation, drugs, insanity and possibly murder." Control-freak Fi too is worried her son will grow up gay, eating mozzarella and other foods gays eat, and she is incensed when well-meaning husband Robin leaves a fossil for the son to find on the beach ... then at the hospital she has further demands to make on the doctor examining her son.
Brace yourself for a holiday to remember. A group of old friends go on a camping holiday in Dorset to celebrate a birthday. However, tensions and emotions quickly start to rise.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

RIP Prince

A shock too to hear of the sudden death of Prince (1958-2016), aged 57 (American gossip sites have been speculating on a music superstar who has been ill recently ...). I loved Prince back in the day, he has been rather off the radar for us UK people in recent years. I loved his 1979 album PRINCE with "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and his original "I Feel For You" - even better than the 'Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan' cover version, which defines 1984 for me ....' Prince though was one of those Rock geniuses up there with Elvis, Bowie, Lennon, Michael Jackson and, er, mid-period Madonna - and like Stevie Wonder he had endless songs still to release. His androgynous looks and style were trailblazers too, just like Bowie - to lose them both in the same year barely four months in, is tough.. How we liked those hits and videos, esp. "Sexy MF", "When Doves Cry", "1999", "You Got The Look", Kiss", "Cream" and of course he also wrote "Nothing Compares to U". etc. Like all tortured geniuses he had peaks and troughs as he fought the music scene - rather like Joni Mitchell who retired from it all (He liked Joni too, they got on well). But 57 is far too young to go. Again like Bowie, he had to cope with being seriously ill in recent years .... Its a legacy that we will explore in more detail ... its a good job he did not die yesterday or the news here would be hard pressed to decide which would be the top story, the passing of Prince or British 'national treasure' Victoria Wood, while today is all about The Queen being 90 ....
  • Guy Hamilton (1922-2016), aged 93. Another veteran British director, who helmed four Bonds including GOLDFINGER, boys own adventures like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE and BATTLE OF BRITAIN, as well as camp delights like EVIL UNDER THE SUN and THE MIRROR CRACK'D. Not a stylist like Losey or Schlesinger so the movie buffs won't be chiming in, but he certainly knew how to create popular entertainments. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

RIP Victoria

Hearing that Victoria Wood (1953-2016) has died (also of cancer and only 62) has been as shocking as if she had been part of the family. Another titan of British entertainment gone then ....
The multi Bafta award-winning writer, director, actor and comedian was indeed part of the family entertainment scene, as we grew up watching all her wonderful series and enjoying her writing. 
Wood found fame in the 1970s with NEW FACES and THAT'S LIFE, then in the 1980s with her TV series VICTORIA WOOD AS SEEN ON TV (I have the dvds which are endlessly re-watchable) and was awarded a CBE in 2008. She won five Baftas including two for her one-off ITV drama HOUSEWIFE 49. She paved the way for the likes of French & Saunders, ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS and the like. Her DINNERLADIES too is comedy heaven with that cast of characters (most of them from CORONATON STREET) who were like her repertory company. 
Then of course there's ACORN ANTIQUES and so much more featuring her long-time collaborator Julie Walters. Her PAT AND MARGARET was terrific too. I only have to think of "Two Soups" to start laughing, or her stand-up comedy shows and TV specials and "Let's Do It" ...). Her comedy caught the mundanities of everyday life without being cruel. Her AS SEEN ON TV series showed her comic genius too; those mini-documentaries were as good as anything by Alan Bennett - like her monologues for Patricia Routledge' Kitty. Then there were her AN AUDIENCE WITH .... shows and those tours selling out the Albert Hall over and over. Everyone from Roger Moore to Delia Smith queued up to appear in her great Christmas specials. 2014's THAT DAY WE SANG which she wrote and directed was a delight too (with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton). We can quote several sketches verbatim. Here's just one:
BBC director general Tony Hall said: "Victoria Wood was a woman with a stunning array of talents - a comedian, singer, songwriter, actress and director." The tributes here in the UK will be warm and heart-felt - like when David Bowie died back in January, or Sir Terry Wogan or Ronnie Corbett ... Victoria was equally loved and influential.

The Lion & The 7th Dawn ....

A William Holden and Capucine double feature! and Audrey gets a look in too ...

Left: Capucine visits Hepburn and Holden on the set of PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES;  right: Capucine, Audrey and Givenchy on a night out in 1972.
Audrey Hepburn and Capucine were indeed good friends - muck-rakers are even trying to suggest more about them now, but we are not going into that, we don't do unconfirmed gossip here. Both of them though had relationships with William Holden - it is now documented that he and Audrey had a romance during SABRINA in 1954 but due to his vasectomy she went on to marry Mel Ferrer. She and Holden were teamed again in PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES (filmed in 1962 but not released until 1964, I found it unwatchable when finally caught up with it recently) but he was ageing rapidly as drinking a lot then .... By the early Sixties he was involved with French model turned actress Capucine - one of our favourites here, as per label items on her - and they did two films together. 
THE LION was filmed in Africa in 1962, directed by Jack Cardiff from a novel by Joseph Kessel, it is a fascinating re-view now. Its another of those 20th Century Fox CinemaScope and colour films that seldom get seen now. In it Capucine is the wife of game reserve warden Trevor Howard. Holden is her former husband who arrives as she asks him to visit as their daughter is growing up wild and getting too attached to the lion of the title. Pamela Franklin, just after playing Flora in THE INNOCENTS in 1961 score again as the tomboy daughter who has reared 'King' the lion since he was a cub and is now the only one who can handle him. Cardiff's memoir "Magic Hour" goes into the problems they had keeping Pamela Franklin safe when around the lion. It all ends rather predictably with Capucine looking very tailored in her African outfits. Holden of course had interests in wildlife in Africa so the project must have been one he was interested in.
Capucine was very effective too as the Eurasian facing the death penalty in THE SEVENTH DAWN in '64 where Holden gets involved with the ridiculously young Susannah York. The Malaysian setting is quite exotic, and Freddie Young's (LAWRENCE OF ARABIADR ZHIVAGO, etc.) photography adds to the moody, violent and lush atmosphere of the film, directed by Lewis Gilbert. I liked this a lot in 1964 but again it has hardly been seen since, Perhaps it is one of those films that goes unnoticed for some reason, despite having an excellent story, superb cast and breathtaking scenery. Although it is "entertainment" we see the brutal reality of how a dedicated (and duped) Marxist revolutionary lets deep, committed friendships fall to the wayside, in fact uses those very friendships, to further his political cause, as Dhana (Capucine) faces execution by the British if Holden cannot capture the rebel leader as time runs out ...
Like other "entertainments" of the time, like Rank's THE HIGH BRIGHT SUN in 1964 or Fox's THE LOST COMMAND in '66, it tells a fictional story against political unrest - whether in Malaysia, Cyprus, Algeria or ... 
Capucine also did those two comedies with Peter Sellers that we like a lot: the first PINK PANTHER in 1963 and the zany, madcap WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? in 1965. How we loved that then .... and, as per label, we like her in SONG WITHOUT END with Dirk Bogarde, NORTH TO ALASKA with Wayne, and the delirious Trash Classic that is WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, also in '62.
Holden, after his great '50s roles, particularly for Billy Wilder, again looks older here, and the dyed hair does not help, but he had further hits with Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH in '69 and NETWORK in '76, as well as all those lesser items. 

Holden died in 1981 aged 63; Capucine committed suicide in 1990 aged 62, and Audrey died in 1993, aged 63, Susannah died in 2011, aged 72 ...

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Opposite Sex, again

A story of love, revenge and Jungle Red nail polish.
In 1936 the public flocked to see the stage play of Clare Boothe Luce’s THE WOMEN. In 1939 MGM turned it into a huge film hit starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and seemingly every other female star on the lot. Then in 1956 the studio remade it, adding songs, men (the previous versions featured only women) and glorious colour and Scope to THE WOMEN. Re-christened THE OPPOSITE SEX it entertained audiences all over again with the deliciously catty tale of elegant wives who “substitute fashion for passion and the analyst’s couch for the double bed”. The star-packed cast in headed by June Allyson.  She plays Kay (called Mary Haines in the Norma Shearer original) a perfect wife and mother who discovers her husband has been having a fling with mantrap showgirl – the glamorous and malicious Crystal Allen (Joan Collins – a good substitute for the original Joan [Crawford]). To win him back, she must learn to use her claws without ruining her manicure. So Dolores Gray. Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, Ann Sheridan and Ann Miller teach her the fine arts of gossip, innuendo and backstabbing. Its witty, wicked fun!

It looks good too – all those ‘50s gals in those ritzy ‘50s outfits – Dolores in particular as catty Sylvia wears some stunning creations – dig that green number !  Allyson by contrast look rather wan and badly hair-styled (unlike in say WOMAN’S WORD in ‘54). La Collins (maybe the only cast member still alive and in our face at 82 – she is on this week’s Graham Norton Show here) get to wear some flash outfits too, and has an amusing music number set in the tropics, with lots of bananas. Helen Rose dressed them all. There’s also Carolyn Jones, Charlotte Greenwood and Alice Pearce as the Jungle Red saleslady spreading all that gossip. Agnes Moorehead is a blast as the Contessa Kay meets on the train to Reno for her divorce.
The plot is nicely twisted too, its Sylvia who takes up with and bankrolls Buck Winston (not the Contessa as in the original) and the climax at the nightclub is nicely worked out. Kay is a retired band singer (cue a few musical numbers by husky Allyson) and her husband a theatre producer, employing those showgirls like Crystal who is manipulating him nicely until Kay fights back …. The bitchslap above is a posed shot – its done differently in the film. Dolores Gray of course steals every scene, one can hardly take one’s eyes off her – like her other appearances in ITS ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, KISMET and DESIGNING WOMAN

THE OPPOSITE SEX, directed by David Miller, remains a lot of fun - it may be  Trash Classic but its a terrific one - I have seen it lots of times since I was a kid, and lots on it here. I was given a free copy of the 2008 latest remake of Luce's original, but could not be bothered to check how bad it was. 

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Burtons go Boom!

More Tennessee Williams mayhem, sorry - arthouse classic, or if you want, a Trash Masterpiece .... whatever, its certainly a cult movie now. (see THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS STONE - below).
It must have seemed a good idea at the time for arty culty director Joseph Losey to team up with The Burtons in 1968, after the relative failure of his 1966 Bond spoof MODESTY BLAISE (perhaps MY cult movie...) and then ACCIDENT in '67 - the last of his with frequent players Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker.

BOOM! is now regarded as a camp Trash Classic in some quarters, and maybe it started that era of Burton and Taylor's decline at the box office - after their mid-60s artistic hits WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, after those popular items like THE VIPS. THE SANDPIPER IS a Trash Classic even if Minnelli gave it some surface style and gloss and Taylor looked marvellous, if a little dumpy. They must have thought they were being artistic doing another Tennessee Williams (but "What were they thinking?" - even though they were drinking a lot at the time...) - even if it was a failed play of his "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" which the ageing Tallulah Bankhead had done on stage with Tab Hunter as her younger Angel of Death - that would have been something to see! 
Here are some choice comments from various websites on this fascinating misfire ..... 
As serious art, BOOM! is a bomb. Yet, as a testimony, a very camp testimony, to the lives of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noel Coward, and Tennessee Williams, it is literally hysterical in its preoccupation with the emptiness of wealth, sex, and luxury.
 It is the incredible Miss Taylor who grounds this late 60's arthouse flop, and manages to transcend it's failing qualities, to make it a screen orgy of bad taste and over the top drama!
Taylor's role (like Vivien Leigh’s MRS STONE) is really that of an aging rich gay man who is trying to hang on to youth and the beauties that money attract. Burton's role is that of the hustler who is all that is left for the old queen to attract. But as with so many Williams works it all must be encrypted and coded so that the America of the late 50's and early 60's could handle his true intentions. 

Taylor plays ageing hedonist Flora “Sissy” Goforth, the much-married, drug-addicted, richest (and it’s been argued, the most irritating) woman in the world. From the windswept high solitude of her all-white villa on the edge of a cliff in Sardinia, the terminally ill Goforth is in denial about her imminent death, distracting herself by dictating her memoirs into a tape recorder, as she coughs up blood, and directing her diva’s wrath at her long-suffering servants in fractured Italian. She is visited by the enigmatic Christopher Flanders (played by Burton), a failed poet turned gigolo notorious on the international jet set as an ambiguous and parasitic Angel of Death who materialises whenever a wealthy woman is about to die. 
Burton is too old for the role that was written for a man in his twenties and Taylor is too young and too healthy looking to be the dying Sissy. As an elite high society gigolo Flanders surely should be a bronzed adonis, someone like Terence Stamp in Pasolini's TEOREMA, also 1968. Clad throughout in a samurai warrior's robe (complete with ceremonal sword) Burton look haggard and faded. It's he who looks like he is dying, instead of Taylor.
In theory BOOM! initially may have seemed promising. Taylor and Burton were show business royalty and the public was still entranced by their glitzy soap opera lifestyle. Taylor had triumphed in earlier film adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays like CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959). Joseph Losey was a hip, art-y director of the moment, critically acclaimed for films like THE SERVANT (1963).

Taylor plays in full-throttle imperious, overripe, scenery-chewing diva mode, and shrieking like a harridan, Her Sissy Goforth is self-parodic, unhinged and drag queeny - maybe that was the only way to play it - no wonder John Waters says Taylor’s appearance and abrasive performance in this film were a beloved source of inspiration for Divine.
BOOM! is incredibly beautiful to look at, weirdly enjoyable and frequently mesmerising in a way only a truly trashy bad movie can be. Losey’s prowling camera and elegantly composed shots ensure it’s never dull to watch - especially when Noel Coward arrives as The Witch of Capri ! and Taylor wears that kabuki outfit with that spectacular head-dress ...

Like in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER or NIGHT OF THE IGUANA or SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH that weird Williams poetry comes through the bizarre situations. The set must have been expensive too. Taylor and Losey went on the equally bizarre and culty SECRET CEREMONY, also filmed in 1968 in London. This too  was a notorious flop at the time - and this is where I  come in, as I saw Burton and Taylor with Losey and "The Sunday Times" esteemed film critic Dilys Powell discussing the film on stage at the 1970 CINEMA CITY exhibition at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm in London. SECRET CEREMONY had been badly received, cut, and sold to television and they were outraged at its treatment. I can still picture Elizabeth, looking great in a patchwork gypsy-style dress and flashing that diamond ring. Burton and Losey seemed hangdog about it all ... 
Our affection for Elizabeth grew in her later years: all those diamonds, perfumes, her AIDS charity work, her varying weight and looks ... for me though her great era was that decade from 1954 (THE LAST TIME I SAW PARISGIANT, RAINTREE COUNTY, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER and, yes, CLEOPATRA) when she and Marilyn were the twin deities of the era, as Sophia and Brigitte came to the fore.

The Burton era though was passing, were the public getting tired of their ritzy lifestyle and antics as they were forced to make more and worse films to maintain their lifestyle? - people were just not going to see them, together or separately, any more - and who could blame them with items like HAMMERSMITH IS OUT, BLUEBEARD, THE DRIVER'S SEAT, ASH WEDNESDAY .... ZEE & CO though was another genuine Trash Classic we will have to re-visit it soon.
Losey had another success, artistic and popular, with THE GO-BETWEEN in 1971 and was then mainly filming in Europe. He directed Burton again in his 1972 THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY, which a lot of people, including me, didn't bother with at the time - despite it also featuring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider - or maybe it did not hang around long enough for us to see it. It was though deadly dull when I finally got the dvd a while back. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Ralph & Tilda show, Matthias & Channing too ...

Almost a double bill this week:  the recent A BIGGER SPLASH  at my local art cinema on Tuesday evening, followed by HAIL, CAESAR there on Thursday morning

Luca Guadagnino's new film which - intriguing for me - is a remake of Jacque Deray's stylish French thriller LA PISCINE from 1969 which re-teamed Alain Delon and Romy Schneider with Maurice Ronet whose daughter was played by Jane Birkin - a very stylish murder story around that swimming pool.

This time around its Ralph Fiennes in towering form (as he has been since Wes Anderson's THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), with Tilda Swinton as a Bowie-esque rock star on holiday on that Italian island, ,she is mainly silent after throat surgery, and with hunk de jour Matthias Schoenaerts Paul, as her lover.  Her ex-record producer Fiennes turns up with daughter Dakota Johnson (the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffiths, and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren) and soon is playing games to win Marianne (Tilda) back. I loved Guadargnino's operatic melodrama I AM LOVE in 2009 - a modern Italian classic, where Tilda - a goddess here - was amazing again (see Tilda label). 
Fiennes and Swinton are never less than compelling - Fiennes' scene dancing to the Rolling Stones's "Emotional Rescue" is fantastic, and its one of their songs I love and play a lot. His character is so annoying and he plays it perfectly - great to see an actor enjoying himself so much. The cast are all dedicated here, stripping off frequently, and Tilda gets to wear to some fantastic clothes. Despite the sex and nudity I could see why it did not play at our local main cinema - a tad too arty perhaps for the multiplex kids. Of course I will have to re-see LA PISCINE now too soon ... Guadragnino came out in a recent interview and one can see the gay sensibility here.
The BFI says: "25 years after BARTON FINK the Coens revist Capitol Pictures with another colourful portrait of studio-era Hollywood. This time its the 1950s and Capitol boss Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is making a prestige Roman epic, but all hell breaks loose when star George Clooney is kidnapped. Many familiar faces populate an extraordinary cast." 
Josh Brolin as Mannix heads the cast, Ralph Fiennes is the fastidious director Laurence Laurentz (a Cukor-Minnelli type) saddled with an Audie Murphy type singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich - that name would have to be changed in the '50s) in his new film of a sophisticated hit play; Scarlett Johansson is the Esther Williams clone swimming star who is unmarried and pregnant; Tilda plays rival sisters and gossip columnists - surely a nod to Hedda and Louella? There's also Channing Tatum doing "No Dames" a camp musical number, a sort of hommage to Gene Kelly and those dancing sailors. The Coens stir it all together in a pleasing pastiche of 1950s movie cliches. The Roman epic is fun too - think Robert Taylor in QUO VADIS or John Wayne at the foot of the cross, or Heston as BEN HUR being very thirsty ..... There really was an Eddie Mannix at MGM back in the day, a Mr Fixit for the stars.  

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mrs Stone, on her Roman balcony, 1960

We have written about Mrs Stone here before - that beauty on a Roman balcony in 1960. That Tennessee Williams boxset some years back (in the great era of dvds when we had to collect everything) was an ideal compendium of his greatest hits, with A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (with new added material like Brando's screen tests etc), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOFSWEET BIRD OF YOUTHBABY DOLLNIGHT OF THE IGUANA and the 1960 film of his story THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS STONE. (I suppose it couldn't fit in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, SUMMER AND SMOKE, THE FUGITIVE KIND, THE ROSE RATTOOBOOM! or THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (I always forget THE GLASS MENAGERIE, as have never seen any version of it, though I have read the text). ... more on all these at Tennessee label).

Right: Rich, lonely and vulnerable, Mrs Stone is easy prey for heartless gigolo Paolo (Warren Beatty) and his malevolent female pimp The Contessa (Lotte Lenya).

THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS STONE is always a pleasure to see again, maybe not a great movie, but a splendidly enjoyable melodrama where Vivien Leigh is again ideal - this time as Karen Stone, an ageing famous actress fleeing from her public and taking up residence in Rome where she "drifts" after her husband inconsiderately dies next to her on the plane. She avoids concerned friends like Coral Browne, but soon falls prey to predatory creatures like the Contessa and her stable of young beauties for every taste (viz the old gent meeting his trick in the opening credits). No-one suggests decadence like Lotte Lenya and she certainly scores here, as Mrs Stone is soon bedazzled by Paolo (Warren Beatty in his debut) who treats her mean and takes her money, but as Mrs Stone becomes addicted to sex she throws caution to the winds after coolly resisting Paolo's casual blandishments at the start.
Soon though he is mocking her and arranging other dates with that young actress new in Rome (Jill St John), while the homeless young man stalking Mrs Stone (Jeremy Spenser, below) becomes more bold ... finally the abandoned Mrs Stone throws down her keys to the vagrant and thinks that five years more is all she wants ... one almost laughs out loud at Beatty's youthful beauty and petulence as Vivien again sketches her desperation (this of course captures her after the Olivier years) - 
if the film had been better (it was directed by theatre director Jose Quintero) it could have been one of her great roles equalling Scarlett O'Hara or Blanche DuBois, or THE DEEP BLUE SEA or her last appearance in SHIP OF FOOLS and she looks great in those Balmain outfits. 
(Pauline Kael in "I Lost It At The Movies" says: "The Tennessee Williams novella is about a proud, cold-hearted bitch without cares or responsibilities who learns that sex is all that holds her to life, it is the only sensation that momentarily saves her from the meaningless drift of her existance" and who used her youth and beauty to get ahead and now finds she is reduced to purchasing both. Vivian has some delicious scenes with Lotte, who is as perfect as her Rosa Klebb here.   

Penny Stalling in the very entertaining Flesh and Fantasy (1978) says: 
“Tennessee Williams wanted the lead in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone to go to Katherine Hepburn, after seeing her performance as the scheming mother in Suddenly Last Summer. But Hepburn, who resented the way her advancing years had been treated in that film, had no intention of inviting comparison between herself and the lonely middle-aged actress who buys the attentions of a male hustler. Although the public was intrigued by rumors of an off-screen liaison between the film’s subsequent stars, Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty, Spring was a disappointment at the box office. It seems that audiences were uncomfortable with the film’s depressing theme, and with the painful similarities between the lives of Vivien Leigh and Karen Stone.”
(Hepburn, of course, had already done the love-starved woman in Italy falling for a handsome man, in Lean's SUMMERTIME in 1955, so would hardly have repeated herself). 
(There was, incidentally, a 2003 remake of MRS STONE with Helen Mirren and Olivier Martinez (right) - they may have shown more flesh and Helen did her usual thing, but (like THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY where they also trowel on period detail) it just couldn't catch that 1960 original, and Anne Bancroft in one of her final roles as the Contessa was somehow all wrong, her decadence amounting to stealing the chocolate biscuits...). 
Contrast with Tom Hiddleston in HIGH RISE

Claudia as Sandra, 1965


SANDRA: A return to Visconti's operatic melodrama from 1965, VAGHE STELLE D'ORSA (its from a poem) or OF A THOUSAND DELIGHTS or simply SANDRA - which I have written about here before [Visconti, Cardinale, Sorel, Craig labels]. 
It is a small film in the Visconti canon, overshadowed by those big operatic productions like THE LEOPARDTHE DAMNEDDEATH IN VENICE or LUDWIG
I first saw it when I was 19 in 1965 and then it became unobtainable for a long time. It was great to catch up with it again last year, and it was as powerful as I remembered. The stunning black and white photography by Armando Nannuzzi show Claudia Cardinale at her zenith, along with Jean Sorel as her brother and English actor Michael Craig as her husband.

Sandra and her husband return to the family home, one of those sprawling Italian mansions, in the Etruscan city of Volterra, where family secrets are slowly uncovered, as Sandra has to confront her brother who wants to resume their once-incestous relationship (Claudia and Sorel are both stunningly attractive and powerful here), her mentally ill monther and the crumbling estate and the secret about their father and the war ... Visconti builds it to a powerful climax,and the images still resonate.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Romy as Sissi: 1955, 1956, 1957

I first saw the Austrian SISSI when I a kid and was fascinated by all those costumes and this chubby teenager Romy Schneider. Sissi (who became Empress Elizabeth of Austria and led a fascinating life) with her father in Bavaria and with her pet deer, and escaping from home and meeting the young Emperor Franz Joseph, and their romance. He is supposed to be marrying her older sister but chooses Sissi instead to the consternation of his domineering mother. Sissi's own mother is played by Romy's real mother, Magda Schneider, star of a previous generation. The film's success spawned two further ones, also directed by Ernst Marischka: SISSI THE YOUNG EMPRESS in 1956, detailing the early years of their marriage and coping with mother-in-law who wants to bring up their child, and how Sissi copes with the rigours of court life, and in 1957, SISSI: THE FATEFUL YEARS OF AN EMPRESS as Sissi travels around Europe, becomes estranged from the Emperor, is tempted by other romances, and gets over tuberculosis by having a holiday in Greece! (The real Elizabeth was an expert horsewoman and used to go horse-riding in Ireland).
The kitsch is piled on thick but they are all richly enjoyable when one is in the mood. A box of good chocolates and a glass of something sparkly goes down a treat with them. All three were edited into one film FOREVER MY LOVE with highlights of each, and that is quite enough for me, even if dubbed into English. Walt Disney wanted Romy too but she resisted - he got Hayley Mills instead! 
Romy of course went on to that great career, becoming a French cinema icon in the '70s, a very busy decade for her, after her films in England and America, before her untimely death in 1982 aged 43 - as per my other posts and reviews on her films - see Romy label. I have been collecting all her films, theres quite a lot - over 60, including some rubbish ones, but she is endlessly fascinating and attractive and still has a cult following as one of Europe's great international stars - particularly her films with Alain Delon (we will be looking at LA PISCINE again soon), and for director Claude Sautet. 
I have been to the real Empress Elizabeth's summer palace in Corfu, and to her private chapel - the building is now a casino. 
This is what I said about the series when I began this blog: 
SISSI - 1955. I liked this when I saw it as a kid. There are 3 SISSI films, all made in Germany in the '50s, all are saccharine, sentimental confections, very chocolate box cover with pretty dresses, rural scenes, and court intrigue about the early life of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and seeing them now they are just as enjoyable as ever – the interfering mother-in-law is a particular delight. 
LUDWIG, 1972
All 3 are edited into one compilation FOREVER MY LOVE which is fine for seeing the best of them. The SISSI movies are a guilty pleasure, even if Romy hated them and soon changed her image 
Romy returned to the role for Visconti in his monumental LUDWIG in 1972 where Helmut Berger is ideal as Ludwig, and Trevor Howard and Silvana Mangano are also right as the Wagners. Romy brings a lot of brittle humour and insight to the role of the older Sissi this time around. Right: the 1982 PARIS MATCH issue, which I still have, covering her eventful life and death. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Senso, 1954

Another look at Visconti's SENSO induces rapture as we wallow in this opulent romantic and tragic costume drama, up there with Luchino's best recreations of that lavish past: THE LEOPARD, DEATH IN VENICE, LUDWIG, L'INNOCENTE ... films one can lose oneself in. 

This 1954 film has been nicely restored and is a key movie in the Visconti canon now. Alida Valli has one of her best roles as "the wanton countess" - one of its titles then, and Farley Granger was imported to play her reckless, selfish Austrian lover. Massimo Girotti plays her husband. Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli were assistant directors, Pierre Tosi as usual did the costumes, script by Visconti and usual collaborator Suso Cecchi D'Amico -  but with Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles as dialogue collaborators. Bruckner's 7th Symphony and Verdi's ""Il Trovatore" provide the stunning musical background to this tale of doomed love, deceit and betrayal.
Venice, spring of 1866, in the last days of the Austrian occupation. A performance of Il Trovatore ends up in confusion due to an anti-Austrian demonstration, organised by Count Ussoni. His cousin Countess Livia Serpieri falls in love with vile Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler, but the times are changing.

As usual, Visconti recreates the opera house scenes and Valli gives one of the all-time great movie star performances - overlooked in that great year 1954 - while Granger is adequate and attractive as the wastrel deserter she falls passionately in love with, as he casually betrays her and takes her money which was meant for the revolutionaries. She then betrays him and he is hauled off to be executed for desertion, while she runs mad through the streets ..... its a stunning operatic climax; Or as a review at IMDB puts it: "the wealthy older woman and a manipulative wastrel. After wheedling a small fortune out of her to bribe a doctor who declares him unfit to serve, he dumps her. But hell hath no fury....Luchino Visconti pulls out all the stops, ending with a finale reminiscent of Tosca (but with a twist). Senso is a shameless and unforgettable wallow in Italianate passion." It is one of the great Italian films. More on Valli and Visconti at labels.