Best Sellers

Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza in bed

At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

Formula written, if you’re feeling grouchy, inspired by Hollywood’s golden era, if you’re not, Best Sellers has two great performers at its centre – Michael Caine, still pumping out the charisma and deadly comic timing at 88, and Aubrey Plaza, who ups her ante to stay in the game with a wily old master and puts a soft edge on her usual smart sexy sarcasm.

Here’s the formula. He’s an aged writer who wrote a best seller 50 years ago but has done nothing since. She’s the poor little rich girl who’s inherited a publishing house and is now watching it collapse around her. He’s spending his days drinking and swearing; she’s flapping about rearranging the deck chairs but it looks like her ship is going down.

And then… Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) discovers not only that Harris Shaw (Caine) is, to her surprise, still alive but that he also owes her a book. And, according to an age-old contract, is obliged to go out on the road to promote it. And, after a bit of plotty throat-clearing, off the two of them go, in his right-hand-drive Daimler, on one of those “in the movies” road trips from hell – him being impossible, frequently shouting “bullshite” (yes, with an “e”), wrecking book readings, even pissing on his own book at one point, and she trying her utmost to win him round. It’s the unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object plot of most screwball comedies, the sort of thing that Ernst Lubitsch, Robert Capra or Howard Hawks polished in films like The Shop around the Corner, It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby.

Harris Shaw at the typewriter
Grouch at work!

Lina Roessler directs the thrust and parry in that classic style and keeps the energy levels up, and writer Anthony Grieco stays true to the formula for the majority of the film, until he abandons it towards the end. At which point things get a little woolly and over-cluttered. But you’ll have had your fun by then, most likely, and there is plenty to be had in the verbal swordplay of Caine and Plaza, and in sitting back and watching to see if (and how) Grieco is going to get his ducks in a row so he can pull of the double salvation (his soul, her business) in the same single coup.

Shaw is a carefully crafted stereotype – old curmudgeons are often full of racist, homophobic and sexist bile, but Grieco keeps Shaw astutely out of “cancel” territory, booze, tobacco and bad language being the old guy’s vices, and Caine’s scrofulous appearance helps too.

If you’re being fancy, Shaw is the stand-in for all the Dead White Men of canonical literature, or the Pale, Stale and Male titans of corporate capitalism. Nor is he alone in his male awfulness. All the men in this film are dreadful – like the Truman Capote-alike vindictively effete New York Times book reviewer Halpern Nolan (Cary Elwes) or Scott Speedman as the reptilian would-be buyer of Lucy’s business, who’s also eyeing her for other purposes.

The women are pretty nice, and noticeably collaborative, with Plaza mostly parking the snark to play a vulnerable creature who’s got what it takes but just isn’t sure which way to point it. Ellen Wong plays Lucy’s smart, resourceful and slightly undervalued assistant – precisely the sort of role that once made Plaza’s name.

It’s does go all-in on begging for sympathy towards the end, as if unsure whether we like these people enough – we do! we do! – with disaster and dementia and death added to the emerging tragic backstories of both him and her. Lubitsch or Capra or Hawks would have taken a brushcutter to some of this undergrowth, but overall Best Sellers is what it is, a movie designed to entertain. In book terms, think of it as decent beach reading.

Best Sellers – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Group shot with Twist front and centre


Updating Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, as Twist does, is a bold move. Usually the lure of the dressing-up box and the chance to lay on the foggy London atmospherics prove irresistible. Film-makers tend to stick with its original Victorian setting. Looking through the many, many adaptations, Twisted stands out. It’s a 1996 update set in in New York’s gay subculture. But for the most part Oliver Twist tends to be set in world of street urchins, top hats, horse-drawn carriages and much dropping of aitches.

Watching the opening moments of Twist, a question arises: when in the early production process did someone suggest bringing Oliver Twist into the Britpop era? And was this wise? Inspired? Suicidal? Genius?

It suits the Brexit mood of early 2021, of course, British exceptionalism and all that. Like Brexit, which looks backwards to a golden age of Britain before the European experiment, the Britpop of the 1990s looked back to the 1960s. So Twist is looking back nostalgically at an era that was itself looking back nostalgically and it makes absolutely no bones about its Britpop stylings.

The whole film kicks off with the 1995 song Alright by Cast (“I guess I’m alright, guess I’m alright”) – the first of many jangly laddish anthems on the soundtrack – before diving into an urgent Danny Boyle-style action sequence, all very Trainspotting, but featuring parkour on the rooftops rather than pounding along the pavement.

Then, the camera pulls back to introduce Raff Law as Ollie Twist, a  scallywag, harum-scarum street kid with a spray can ready to grafitti anything in sight. Raff Law is the son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, two twinkles in the Britpop constellation, and brings a cheeky-chappy charm (plus a sulky slappable quality) to his first major starring role, much as his dad might have done 25 years ago. He’s good casting, as is everyone in Twist.

To get the flimsiest of plots out of the way: Oliver (Twist is his grafitti tag) is picked up off the street by Dodge (Rita Ora) and Batesy (Franz Drameh), introduced to Fagin (Michael Caine), their gangmaster, and co-opted into a scam to gain revenge on an art dealer (David Walliams) wot done Fagin wrong.

Fake art is the hook on which they’re hoping to hang the dealer, so the plot chimes with the production’s mood of cheerful knock-off.

Anyone bridling at Rita Ora, a female!, playing the updated Artful Dodger, will be choking on their own spit to learn that Lena Headey, another female!, plays the updated Bill Sikes, now known just as Sikes. Game of Thrones fans hoping for a bit of Cersei Lannister hissability can rest easy, though there isn’t really that much for her to get her teeth into.

Nancy (Sophie Simnett) is still Nancy, still a female, and remains in thrall to Sikes, as she was in the original story. She also remains his (meaning her, if you follow me) girlfriend, more spit to choke on if same-sex relationships between imaginary people isn’t your thing.


Rita Ora as Dodge
Rita Ora as Artful Dodger update Dodge


Raff Law is 25 and way too old to be playing an imperilled wide-eyed child learning the tricks of surviving on the streets – in any case we’re told right at the outset that the streets are already his domain – which junks most of Dickens’s plot straight away. Nancy handily plugs the gap, the friendship and eventual romance between initially prickly Nancy and obviously smitten Ollie being sweet and lovely and a genuine emotion in among all the artifice.

Britpop icon Michael Caine playing Fagin should be a cause for celebration but Caine is off his game here, looking unwell, and though he sparkles occasionally, past glories are not recalled.

Think live-action cartoon with no actual acting being asked for or delivered. All concerned are throwing shapes rather than reaching for a character truth or even a consistent performance. The dialogue also strikes attitudes rather than adds psychological depth, and even genuine street Londoners like Rita Ora, a Ladbroke Grove girl, is struggling with the sheer awight geezerishness of it all.

Interestingly, as well as taking a small role, Noel Clarke (another Ladbroke Grover) is a producer, and there’s definitely something of the ragamuffin energy of his Kidulthood series here, in intention if not always in actual execution.

If it does occasionally also feel a bit like Guy Ritchie has got the old gang together for some Lock, Stock revivalism, the prevailing dynamics are a touch too stop-go to make everything gel. Just the one smoking barrel, then, and again I’m wondering when Britpop was first decided on as a mood board.

Look out for the reference to the art auction house Dotheboy’s (rather than Sotheby’s), a tiny but smart bit of actual Dickens referencing in a film which claims at the end to be “based on the novel by Charles Dickens”. But, really, was it?






© Steve Morrissey 2021



The Prestige

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige



After Insomnia and Batman Begins, big Hollywood numbers taken on to show studio willing – or so it seemed – Christopher Nolan is back to being master of his own destiny, writing with his brother Jonathan and also producing this lavish smoke and mirrors cat-and-mouser. Clearly an attempt to “do another Memento”, it’s about a pair of Victorian magicians in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” London, who once were bosom buddies but fell out after a trick went wrong and the wife of one of them died. And since that day they have gone on to different sorts of glory, but as deadly rivals, each trying to out-trick the other.

The title is explained early on, by Michael Caine, playing the Ingenieur, the backstage guy who devises and builds the magical apparatus for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the Prestige being the ta-daa bit of the trick when the lady is revealed as not being sawn in half at all. This has followed the Pledge (the lady is a lady) and the Turn (she is two halves of a lady), and, tricksy buggers that they are, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have a prestige of their own up their sleeves. But if you haven’t worked it out by about halfway through the film, a long, long, long way before the Nolans pull the rabbit out of the hat, then my name’s not Harry Houdini.

My gosh there are a lot of stars in this film. As well as Jackman as the more successful of the two magicians, there’s Christian Bale as his rival Alfred Borden, a more spit and sawdust character than the refined Angier, though with one devastating trick, The Transported Man, in his repertoire that baffles audiences and confounds Angier. There’s also Piper Perabo as the doomed wife, Scarlett Johansson, underused as the new lovely assistant. There’s Michael Caine, of course, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – proving again that he simply can’t and shouldn’t act, though Bowie’s is just one of many terrible performances that populate this weary trudge of a film. In fact Caine is the only one to hold the attention, in a bit part so well played that you yearn for the film to be, in fact, about him.

That’s also because Caine gets to do the interesting stuff – explain how the tricks work. The backstage secrets. In front of the curtain, magic is about misdirection and wit, two missing ingredients in this film. Instead there’s plot, lots and lots of it. And baffling digression – for instance, Jackman’s visit to the scientist Tesla, considered to be a modern magician thanks to his myriad revolutionary patents and experiments with AC electricity. The Nolans also bang the narrative chronologically back and forth Memento-style, which muddies things even more, the suspicion creeping in about halfway through that what something this laden with “developments” should be is a TV mini-series. Not enough prestige, perhaps.

Most of all this murky-looking film lacks lightness of touch, legerdemain, as the French say. Magic, in other words.


The Prestige – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2006

The Italian Job

Michael Caine and Noel Coward in The Italian Job


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



21 January



Benny Hill born, 1924

On this day in 1924, Alfred Hawthorn Hill was born in Southampton, UK. One of those children who “always wanted to be in showbusiness”, Alfred had managed to become an assistant stage manager in a touring company before joining up to serve in the Second World War, aged 18. He changed his first name to Benny as a tribute to his hero, Jack Benny, though in fact it was the British music hall that really provided the inspiration for Benny Hill’s act. Earlier to understand that music hall’s days were numbered than many of his slightly older board-treading fellows, Hill was quick into radio, even quicker onto TV and also managed to turn up in nine different films. But it was his TV work that made him famous, in particular the long-running Benny Hill Show, which aired first in 1955 and ran, in various incarnations, until 1989. The show’s trademark ending, featuring Hill being chased by scantily clad women in the style of an old Keystone Cops movie to the sound of the Yakety Sax theme, became Hill’s trademark. His show was cancelled in 1989 by Thames TV’s head of light entertainment, John Howard Davies (who had played Oliver in David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist) and Hill immediately went into a decline. A solitary man who shunned the high life, carried his scripts around in a plastic bag, he died alone in his third floor apartment of a heart attack while watching TV.




The Italian Job (1969, dir: Peter Collinson)

The story of an audacious gold bullion robbery carried out in broad daylight by robbers in a fleet of Mini Coopers, masterminded by a criminal from his own prison cell, The Italian Job doesn’t just contain one of the most famous car chases in history – and the sort of product placement it’s impossible to buy (Fiat had offered their cars but the director refused) – but it has one of the best caper-movie casts. Noel Coward as the gang boss, Michael Caine as Charlie Croker, his man on the ground, fresh out of prison himself. Benny Hill plays Croker’s boffin, the eccentric Professor Simon Peach – the man who is going to “fix” the traffic in Milan – who can be led to almost anything by the sight of an attractive woman, the bigger the better (“Are they big? I like ’em big!”). The screenplay is by Troy Kennedy-Martin best known for his witty, gritty TV work (The Sweeney, Edge of Darkness) and is full of similarly pithy lines, such as the now iconic, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” delivered with the panache that made Caine famous. This is not one of Caine’s defining movies – those were Alfie and The Ipcress File – but it is a perfect vehicle for the already existing persona of the cheeky, affable Cockney geezer, snappy dresser, ladies man, man about town etc etc. Looked at coolly, The Italian Job isn’t actually a great film, but it is stuffed with great things – its stars, its script, those cars, the general breezy air of Swinging London-ness, the Quincy Jones score. And compared to the 2003 Donald Sutherland/Mark Wahlberg remake it’s a masterpiece. As for the on-screen meeting between two of Britain’s comic geniuses of the 20th century, droll Coward and bawdy Hill, it never happened.



Why Watch?


  • One of the most iconic car chases in movie history
  • Michael Caine at full operating temperature
  • Noel Coward’s last film appearance
  • Look out for legends Irene Handl and John Le Mesurier


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Italian Job – at Amazon





Miss Congeniality

Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality



Call it nominative determinism but the Kirk Douglas-dimpled Sandra Bullock is often the most bullish person in the movies she’s in. This is presumably why somebody thought she’d be ideal playing a tough cop who makes an ugly-duckling transformation in order to go undercover at a beauty pageant. It’s completely unbelievable, of course – Bullock never for a second looks less than a Hollywood A list star, even when made up to look like a dog. But who wants believable when there’s fun to be had? And so we yield to Bullock’s brilliant comic interplay with Michael Caine, as her camp coach in feminine poise (see what I mean by unbelievable), and if that doesn’t work you can always snigger at the self-deprecatingly amusing turn as an oily MC by William Shatner’s hairpiece. Here’s a film that has all the old-fashioned energy of a 1930s screwball comedy, which generally handed decent roles to strong women, though it does get its thong in a twist trying simultaneously to validate and pillory beauty queens.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


 Miss Congeniality – at Amazon




Batman: The Dark Knight


Not having enjoyed the first Nolan/Bale Batman film (yes, he was traumatised by bats. I get it!) I wasn’t looking forward to the second.

But, having been told how great it was, how awesome Heath Ledger was, how dark it all was, I was prepared to put prejudice to one side and settle back to watch it with an open mind.

And I hated it. But no one else seems to feel this way. Why?

My own lack of soul to one side, it’s possibly something to do with the death of Ledger, a good actor who generally did more than was necessary in whatever role he took on, was happy to subsume himself to the character, unlike almost all “stars”. As the Joker, though, Ledger wasn’t really acting, he was channelling two famous previous players of the Joker – Cesar Romero (the giggle) from the 1960s TV version, and Jack Nicholson (the shoulders) from Tim Burton’s 1989 film – blending them and then replaying them at toxic volume. It was good, it was fun, it was clever but it was a stunt.

As for the “dark” aspect of the film, the guy in the bat suit is famously a nutjob, always has been, always will be. Christopher Nolan in no way made him darker. In fact such was the post-production fiddling with the film – to amp up Ledger – and the original misfire of an idea to include two villains that the Bat Man actually barely gets a look-in.

This is probably not the place to launch into an argument against Christian Bale’s acting talents, particularly when he’s being serious.

So we’ve got a jokey Joker, a film that’s really no darker than Tim Burton’s films, a disastrous dramatic weakening with the decision to introduce two villains (they’re meant to be powerful characters, they don’t need to hold each other’s hand).

Also, Christopher Nolan may be many things, but he’s not a good action director – after an hour of his incoherent editing – a beat too slow here, a beat too fast there – and his frequent dialling of the frenzy up to 11, I got bored. In fact there’s something really wrong with the editing of this throughout – I exclude the opening heist sequences which are gorgeous and seem to set the tone for an entirely different movie.

Then there’s what has been called the film’s psychological depth, its arthouse elements. I refer readers to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s collaboration Ebony and Ivory, Nolan and screenwriters appear to be saying little more than “there is good and bad in everyone”.

None of the characters, apart from the Joker, has any existence you can imagine outside the film. They’ve got no depth – look at Maggie Gyllenhaal, look at Gary Oldman, look at Michael Caine, all dropped in as if to say “hey, this is a film you know, with a budget and everything” but they’re not actually doing much more than just being there.

Also, where is the sex – sexual frisson is everything if Bruce Wayne is meant to have lost his girlfriend to the Two Faced Eckhart (whose eyeball never seems to dry out, even though he’s got no eyelid).

And what the hell is Bale saying? That weird growl is very off-putting.

I’ve had a look round to see if anyone else hated it. David Denby of The New Yorker was the only one I could find. He called it “grim and incoherent”.

Agreed. Though grim isn’t a bad thing. Sadly, it looks like there’s more to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2009

Dark Knight – at Amazon

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