Tag Archives: film

Time for a little romance

Spring is under way.  Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, and love is in the air.  Which seems like a good excuse to write about rom-coms.  It’s easy to be uppity about rom-coms.  They’re arguably the most formulaic of screenplays and generally tend to follow the format of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, girl and boy fall out, girl and/or boy must learn an important life lesson in order for true love to triumph.  All sounds dead simple, but the writing a good one, which is say one that’s fresh and original, has the right balance of light and shade and is as light as freshly baked choux bun, is a very hard trick to pull off.

So anyway – here are my personal favourites.  And hats off to all the brilliant writers!

The Philadelphia Story, 1940 – written by Donald Ogden Stewart, directed by George Cukor

Philadelphia story

James Stewart won an Oscar for playing ‘Mike’ Macauley Connor, but the stand-out performance for me is the inimitable Katherine Hepburn in the role of Tracy Lord, a New England socialite with unrealistically high expectations both of herself and her men.  Add Cary Grant at his most debonair, and a script which sparkles with witty one-liners and you have a movie that’s not only romantic and funny, but also definitely for grown-ups.

The African Queen, 1951 – written and directed by John Huston

THE AFRICAN QUEEN

Hepburn again, this time doing verbal battle with Humphrey Bogart as she tries to convince him that it would be a good idea to turn a clapped out old tramp steamer into a lethal weapon, with which to blow up the Germans she holds responsible for the death of her brother.   Much of the film was famously shot in technicolour on location in Uganda – a testing experience for all involved.  The original African Queen was fully restored in 2012 and is now on display in a museum in Florida.

Roman Holiday, 1953 – written by John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo, directed by William Wyler

 Roman Holiday

Could this be the best-looking film of all time?  Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn enjoy a romantic dalliance while scooting around the fabulous city of Rome on a vespa.  This was Audrey Hepburn’s first major role; she went on to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA – the first ever actress to net all three awards for the same performance.   As rom-coms go, it’s one of the sweetest ever made.

 Some Like it Hot, 1959 – written by IAL Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder

 Some like it hot

If I had an all-time favourite movie, this might be it.  Marilyn Monroe at her most luminous as a ditsy banjo player intent on catching herself a millionaire, and Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis competing for her affections but unable to declare themselves because they’re both disguised as women and on the run from the mob.  To top it all, when Lemmon finally reveals to his ‘fiance’ that they can’t get married because he too is a man, he gets perhaps the most famous riposte in film history – “well nobody’s perfect!”  The film however, pretty much is.

When Harry Met Sally, 1989.  Written by Nora Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner

 When Harry met Sally

Can men and women ever just be friends?   Most of the film consists of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal debating this question – and repeatedly coming up against their very different views on sex and relationships.  For the audience, however, it’s pretty clear they’re made for each other from the outset, when they sit down to supper in a diner on the road from Chicago to New York.  This is the first movie that Nora Ephron both wrote and produced and it put her firmly on the path to becoming the queen of the modern, sassy rom-com.  It did Meg Ryan no harm either.

 Four Weddings and Funeral, 1994.  Written by Richard Curtis, directed by Mike Newell

 Four weddings & a funeral

The first and for my money, still the best of Richard Curtis’s movies, it’s a film that captures perfectly that stage in life when everyone seems to be getting married and you wonder if it’ll ever happen to you.  My sister got married in the chapel at Greenwich naval college the following year, which was used as the location for the first of the four weddings.  The film also brought Kristen Scott-Thomas to international prominence, which has to have been a good thing!

 Groundhog Day, 1993.  Written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, directed by Harold Ramis.

 Groundhog day

While most rom-coms tend to foreground the romance, over the comedy, this one does the opposite – with hilarious results.  From a writing perspective it pulls off an extraordinary trick – having a character literally doing the same thing day after day, but still managing to keep the whole thing surprising and briskly paced.  If you ever wanted proof that rom coms can also be highly original, this is it.  And of course it helps that this gem also stars Bill Murray at his deadpan best.

 Overboard, 1987.  Written by Leslie Dixon, directed by Garry Marshall.

 Overboard!

Although not universally acclaimed, I’ve always had a soft spot for this one.  The whole thing is very good natured, and real-life husband and wife, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, bring charisma and a huge amount of genuine personal chemistry to the mix.  Throw in a bunch of adorable kids and it hits all the right feel-good buttons.   I also really like the way the writer creates characters whose weaknesses turn out to be real strengths, while remaining completely true to themselves.

 Pride and Prejudice, 2005. Written by Deborah Moggach, directed by Joe Wright.

 Pride and prejudice

An argument could definitely be made for Jane Austen as the originator of the female-driven rom-com.  The aim of this version was to bring Austen’s very well-known story up-to-date by casting young, relatively unknown leads and giving a very – indeed often literally – down-to-earth portrait of Austen’s England.  However you dress it up, there’s something completely irresistible about the story of Lizzie Bennet, who defies her parents and insists on a marriage of equals based on genuine love and respect, rather than status or money.

 Silver Linings Playbook, 2012.  Written and directed by David O. Russell

 Silver Linings Playbook

If further proof were needed that even today, it’s still possible to come up with a fresh take on the rom-com, this is it.   David O. Russell’s edgy script explores how it’s often only our own neuroses that stand in the way of true love.  If a terrific script weren’t enough, two hours in the company of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence is an added bonus.  It’s not surprising that Jennifer Lawrence won an acting Oscar for her performance here and Bradley Cooper is genuinely moving.  Comedy is supplied by his football-obsessed dad, played by Robert de Niro and Jacki Weaver as his sharp-tongued mother.  Oh and it also has some pretty impressive dance scenes too!

So that’s it – my top ten rom-coms. Any other suggestions?

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Lazy Sunday

Occasionally, it’s nice to wake up with nothing in particular planned for the day.  It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have the luxury of not having to jump up out of bed the moment the alarm goes off and can instead laze under the duvet with a mug of coffee and a good book.

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

Lev Tolstoy in 1908

I recently decided to revisit War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy, which I first read when I was at university ie a fair few years ago!   It’s hard to imagine anyone publishing a novel of that length these days; I expect most modern editors would be itching to cut huge chunks out of the book.  There are whole chapters dedicated to relatively minor characters and pages and pages of Tolstoy’s philosophising about the nature of history and the role played by great men.   And yet taken together, all these things are an essential part of the whole.  They’re what make it feel real.

In the chapter I read last, Tolstoy describes how an officer, Prince Nezvitsky, is pinned up against the railings of a bridge as a whole company of soldiers swarm across it.   Although Nezvitsky is a completely minor character, Tolstoy nevertheless treats us to his thoughts about the river flowing around the piles of the bridge, snatches of conversation he half-hears, his feelings and anxieties about the battle ahead.

For a short while, the reader is plunged into Nezvitsky’s world, and can identify with him completely, so that we too are trapped on the bridge, can hear the water roaring below, mud spattering and shouts and sweat of the oncoming troops.  We too feel Nezvitsky’s relief when a fellow officer helps him break free.

This is what Tolstoy does so brilliantly – he creates an immersive world so full of the detail of actual lives that the reader cannot help but feel a part of it.   There’s something very visual, almost cinematic, about the way the whole panorama unfolds as before our eyes.

 War and Peace Film

What a novel allows, however, as film rarely can, is insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.   Tolstoy – by all accounts pig-headed and frequently insensitive in real life – nevertheless has an uncanny, almost magical knack for describing the deepest and darkest corners of the human heart.

He creates rich, complex, distinctive and very fallible characters, who cannot be other than the way they are.  Thus it makes perfect sense that Natasha Rostova, a younger member of a large boisterous family and the child of warmly generous, spendthrift parents, should be impetuous, passionate, unguarded and completely charming.   Or that Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously rich but distant father, should be insecure, clumsy, earnest, and shy.    Or that Prince Andrei, the motherless son of a pedantic and exacting father, should be arrogant and ambitious.

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 film of War and Peace

No doubt, many people find the sheer length War and Peace off-putting, but it isn’t a difficult book to read; Tolstoy’s style is wonderfully clear and accessible.   And knowing you’ll be spending a good few hours in the company of his wonderful characters only makes it seem better.

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Breaking Through

My mum may be an unlikely pioneer, but that’s what she is. Last weekend, she came down to London to take part in events celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the ordination of women priests in the Church of England.

Although she wasn’t strong enough to join in the procession from Westminster to St Paul’s, a distance of just under two miles, she and I were both able to attend the service that followed. It was a fantastic occasion and succeeded admirably in balancing a spirit of celebration with a strong sense that the journey for women in the church is far from complete.

archbishop-of-canterbury-justin-welby-and-women-priests

Mum’s in there somewhere!

Although Mum was one of the first women to be ordained, she was nearly sixty before it finally became possible. It was something she’d been waiting for throughout much of her adult life. Many of that first cohort are very elderly ladies now, and quite a few have already passed away. Yet there was very little resentment that it had taken them so long to get there.

What was striking was just how natural, how right it felt to be sitting there in the midst of a cathedral full of women, all of whom had felt the same overwhelming desire to join the priesthood, and who had refused to allow the accident of their gender to stand in their way. In hindsight, the only astonishing thing is that it took us near enough five hundred years to get here.

A number of speakers talked about the resentment they continue to experience and how venomous it can be. Women have made massive strides over the past century but there’s a growing sense that we’ve reached a plateau where, however far we might have come, real equality of remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Our daughters are doing just as well at school as our sons; in Britain and many other OECD countries, women make up more than half of graduates, but they still account for less than 7% of senior executives in the FTSE top 100 companies. Only four have women as chief executives.

The creative industries are little better. It’s still incredibly tough for women trying to make it in the film industry; the number of successful women directors and writers remains disappointingly and intransigently tiny.

Kathryn Bigelow receives her directing Oscar

The one exception: Kathryn Bigelow receives her directing Oscar

It’s hard to know why this is. Women are just as creative, just as imaginative as men, but I think sometimes we’re more inclined to lose faith in ourselves and our projects. Could it come down to the possibility that men tend to have thicker skins and a stronger sense of entitlement? Perhaps they succeed more often because they’re less inclined to take no for an answer, and more likely to think, “Screw you, I know this story has legs, and nothing’s going to stand of the way of me getting it on celluloid!”

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Only Connect

Tough week? Looking for an easily digestible slice of cinematic entertainment – something warm and gooey that will leave you with a soft fuzzy feeling as you step out of the local multiplex into the cold night air? If so, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin probably isn’t the film you’re after. That said, this is without question the best film I’ve seen so far this year.
It tells the story of Laura, an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, at large in modern-day Glasgow where, disguised as an alluring young woman, she hunts for human prey. She’s supported by a squadron of bikers who police her actions and tidy up any loose ends that might betray her. The film opens with the construction of the simulated eyes through which Laura will view the world and at no stage does the film deviate from her perspective. Insulated in her white van, she prowls impassively for victims, as the busy city bustles and flows around her. In these sequences, Glazer used secret cameras to capture ordinary members of the public going about their daily lives, oblivious both to his intentions as a director and to the intentions of his extra-terrestrial heroine. As a distancing technique, this works incredibly well, enabling the audience to share the central character’s perception of human activity as remote and impenetrable. At times, it feels as if we’re viewing ants swarming over an anthill.
The implications of Laura’s other-world alienation are soon forcibly brought home in a breath-takingly charged scene at a remote beach where a family tragedy unfolds before her uncomprehending eyes. Then gradually something begins to change. An unlooked-for gift of flowers brings with it a troubling touch of wet, red blood. She becomes curious. In another scene, the Laura encourages her latest victim, a young man with neurofibromatosis, to reach out to her with the words, “when was the last time you touched somebody?” The moment that follows is excruciatingly tender, full of the young man’s incredulity and longing, so when the time comes for Laura to finish him off, she’s unable to go through with it and he escapes her clutches. Having broken the rules under which she’s operating, she’s left with no choice but to run from her minders. She soon realises she’s painfully ill-equipped to survive alone in the hostile terrain of the planet earth. Struggling to make sense of the human world and realising her only hope is to connect with its inhabitants, her fate is sealed by her inability to feel as humans do or read their intentions.
Under the Skin is not an easy film an easy watch or interpret. Raising disturbing questions about alienation, sexuality and what it means to be human, it’s more of a film to think about and reflect on, than one to enjoy as such. All the same, as a piece of cinematic writing, it works brilliantly with a simple, yet profound story focused on a central character who is forced to change by circumstances beyond her control. The cinematography is likewise fantastic, with gorgeously luminous photography of the Scottish winter landscape intercut with terrifying images from the sci-fi lexicon, which evoke the dark, gelatinous limbo into which Laura’s victims are sucked and digested – a kind of womb in reverse. Yet even here, what survives is the human instinct to reach out and connect. All this is underpinned by a mesmerizingly beautiful sound-track by Mica Levy that brings both coherence and an eerily mysterious quality to the piece.
I confess I find it immensely encouraging that films of this calibre are being made and financed in Britain. Under the Skin may not be to everyone’s taste; it’s about as far as you can get from the usual Hollywood fare. Don’t get me wrong – I love comedies and thrillers as much as the next person and sometimes a bit of mindless escapism is exactly what you need, but it’s good to be challenged, spooked and provoked too and this film does exactly that.

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