Happy 80th Birthday Ridley Scott 11/30/2017!

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Birthday greetings to British director Ridley Scott, who celebrates his 80th year today. Part of the vanguard of stylish ad directors who brought visual innovation and narrative flair to cinema (including Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker) he’s still going from strength to strength, continuing to make award winners and people pleasers. From the terrifying Alien whose world he has revisited with vim, through the feminist road movie Thelma & Louise, to ancient times (Gladiator, Exodus) and relentlessly contemporary genre workouts including regular collaborations with Russell Crowe, his films never fail to excite or delight or stir controversy. His upcoming release even went back for reshoots to replace the controversial Kevin Spacey:  All the Money in the World will no doubt tick all those boxes that Scott has been so keen to fill – narrative twists, spectacular action and colourful design. Long may he reign!

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

The Spoilers (1942)

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A woman doesn’t run out on the man she loves, she sticks with him through thick and thin. It’s 1900 and Flapjack (Russell Simpson) and Banty (George Cleveland) arrive in Nome, Alaska to check up on their claim to a gold mine. Saloon owner Charry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) knows that Bennett (Forrest Taylor) and Clark (Ray Bennett) are plotting to steal their claim. The new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) is part of the corrupt scheme as is the territory’s judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds) whose niece Helen (Margaret Lindsay) has a thing for Cherry’s old flame Roy Glennister (John Wayne), fresh from a trip to Europe. Roy makes the mistake of siding with McNamara which damages his relationship with longtime partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey).  Roy realizes he’s been deceived as McNamara and Stillman prepare to steal at least $250,000 while the mine’s case awaits appeal. Helen is now in love with Roy, who begs Dextry’s forgiveness and persuades him to rob a bank to take back the wealth stolen from them. Both Glennister and Dextry don black faces to disguise themselves during the heist. The Bronco Kid (Richard Barthelmess) kills the sheriff but Roy gets the blame. He is arrested and a plot forms to kill him – permitting him to escape then murdering him on the street – but Cherry comes to his rescue, breaking Roy out of jail. A spectacular train derailment occurs during his fight for freedom. Then a fierce fistfight with McNamara results in Roy getting back his mine and his girl. A great starry cast play brilliantly off one another in this spirited adaptation of the novel by Rex Beach, adapted by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed. The tone is set from the start with a shootout in this muddy town and Dietrich beats a path to the dock to greet old love Wayne. She doesn’t sing but wears several sparkly numbers in this monochrome delight. Her byplay with romantic rival Lindsay is a wonderful contrast in performing styles and her scenes with Wayne positively crackle The frequent references to Robert Service’s works are done with a nod and a wink to his own appearance as The Poet. Directed by Ray Enright who brings everything to a rousing conclusion with one of the longest fistfights ever filmed – and it’s all over the saloon! Wonderful fun.

The Strange World of Planet X (1957)

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Now let me get this straight – this fiercesome contraption of yours went on working even when you switched off the current?! In the deepest English countryside Dr Laird (Alex Mango) and his team are playing around with the electro-magnetic field and the insects in the surrounding fields are getting big as you like because the energy has to come from somewhere. Gaby Andre (Michele Dupont) is a computer scientist who tries to help out following an accident that injures a lab assistant. When hipster alien Smith (Martin Benson) arrives to warn them to stop playing around with things they don’t understand it’s already too late the and the monster bugs are already on the rampage and don’t even talk about the hole they’ve torn in the iononasphere and people are becoming murderous because those cosmic rays are just wild … With far more fiction than science and less money than sense this cheap Brit monster movie has its moments – mostly when Forrest Tucker as expert Gil Graham smokes while wearing a tasty tweed jacket or the penultimate scenes of insect ravaging. Fun but even at 72 minutes this wears out its welcome pretty darn quick. Watch out for Dandy Nichols and this was Wyndham Goldie’s last film. Paul Ryder and Joe Ambor adapted Rene Ray’s novel and it was directed by Gilbert Gunn while the music from Robert Sharples’ theremin fills in the missing action. MM #1500

Deadfall (1968)

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How do you account for the fact the jewel thief is the one criminal that respectable people sympathise with? Cat burglar Henry Clarke (Michael Caine) checks himself into a Spanish sanitarium for alcoholics to befriend the wealthy Salinas (David Buck) in order to rob his mansion. He is visited in the clinic by Italian beauty Fé Moreau (Giovanna Ralli) and asked to join with her and her much older husband Richard (Eric Portman) in robbing Salinas’ place when he’s attending a concert. As a test run they break into another stately home. After risking his life on a ledge, Clarke becomes so angered by Richard’s failure to crack the safe that he digs it out of the wall and he drags it and its contents out of the house. Fé and Clarke begin an affair, which Richard doesn’t mind because he has a new young male lover. Fé buys a Jaguar convertible for Clarke and tells him the safe contained jewels worth at least a half-a-million dollars. Before the time comes to rob Salinas, Fé travels to Tangier without letting Clarke know she was leaving. Richard then reveals to Clarke that he betrayed his male lover to the Nazis and then impregnated the man’s wife. Their baby was Fé and she doesn’t know the truth. Clarke is devastated and breaks into Salinas’ mansion on his own. Fé returns and is shocked and disbelieving when Richard reveals the truth about their relationship. She races to the Salinas mansion and her arrival alerts a security guard who shoots Clarke coming out a window… Bryan Forbes adapted Desmond Cory’s novel which has the trappings of a Hitchcock suspense thriller but instead turns into a relationship melodrama with a rather disturbing Freudian twist. Forbes made some fantastic films in the Sixties and had previously teamed up with Caine, Leonard Rossiter (as Fillmore) and his wife Nanette Newman (the Girl here) in The Wrong Box but the setup takes too long, the key tryout burglary is crosscut with John Barry conducting a concert which is really strangely shot by Gerry Turpin (imagine how Hitch would have staged it – or just watch The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the strangulated diction of Portman makes you wonder why nobody thought of Curt Jurgens for the role. His dialogue basically states the film’s themes and his enunciation is horrifically enervating: I have no idea how Caine acted opposite him. On the plus side it’s mostly well shot save for that concert hall, Caine looks his beautiful feline best enhanced by the Spanish location tan and Barry’s score is deeply attached to the film’s strange emotions, even quoting himself by using the theme from Beat Girl to stress the decadence. And it’s nice to see the glorious Ralli at work as well as watching the great Catalan guitarist Renata Tarrago play the solo on stage. Clouds, silver linings, etc.

At the Earth’s Core (1976)

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You cannot mesmerise me! I’m British! Nineteenth century scientist Dr Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) tries out his giant iron mole machine and burrows into an underground labyrinth where he and his travelling companion and financier David Innes (Doug McClure) encounter giant telepathic birds and prehistoric cavemen. They may be sub-human but they’re the master race! Adapted by exploitation producer Milton Subotsky from the story by Edgar Rice Burroughts, this was the second of three cheapo sci-fi fantasies to star TV’s beloved Virginian star Trampas, who was on those re-runs throughout my childhood. McClure had been that show’s leading man for its entire 9 years and then had a peripatetic film career despite a prolific TV history. These films were beloved of many a child but the budget Seventies production wouldn’t pass muster nowadays however it’s great fun and for cult fans there’s always the attraction of Caroline Munro as the gorgeous slave girl Princess Dia. Romance! Mind control! Pure silliness! I particularly like when Cushing tells McClure, I have a firm grip on your trousers, David. Directed by Kevin Connor.

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

Collateral Beauty (2016)

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A bereaved advertising executive Howard Inlet (Will Smith) can’t get it together so his colleagues get together and decide that his letters to Death, Time and Love should be personified by actors to persuade him back to work so they can get their wage increases. In other words they try to make him think he’s living in a Hollywood fantasy circa 1942, a time when people really had something to worry about. Meanwhile one of his colleagues is dying and dealing with it manfully. When Howard meets a woman at a bereavement counselling session who’s grieving her six-year old daughter’s death from cancer he doesn’t realise she’s his wife. That’s the big reveal. This horrifying disquisition on the examined life is as refreshing as acid rain and another example of the bewildering spiral of decrepitude that Smith’s career has become. Another reason for him to boycott the Oscars, no doubt. Preserve us all from such contemptuous mindlessness. Those letters to the Universe? Keep them to yourself. Written by Allan Loeb and directed by David Frankel.

Daddy Long Legs (1955)

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When an irresistible force such as me meets an immovable object like you something’s got to give. American playboy millionaire Jervis Pendleton (Fred Astaire) finds himself on state business in France in a broken down car and happens upon an orphanage where eighteen-year old waif Julie (Leslie Caron) is instructing the younger children. She never meets him but he pays for her tuition at a ladies’ college in Massachusetts on condition that she writes him a letter once a month – which he then doesn’t read for two years until his secretary (Thelma Ritter) insists. Then they meet up because she’s rooming (by his arrangement) with his niece. And, she falls for him without realising that he is ‘John Smith’… Gene Kelly’s influence is all over Fifties musicals – the French connection and the Broadway Melody sequence from Singin’ in the Rain play large parts in this story adapted from Jean Webster’s classic young adult novel of 1912 which already got a handful of previous adaptations, including one for Mary Pickford and another for Shirley Temple (Curly Top). Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Nora’s folks) create a long-ish but diverting vehicle for Astaire and Caron who are both entirely delightful in a situation that could be kind of creepy were it not for the fact that the unseemliness of a relationship is something addressed early on. In fact, the unsuitability of such an old man romancing a young woman is part of the drama. There are some wonderful dance sequences as you’d expect and Jervis’ obsession with music is one of the most attractive things about the story – the early scene where he bounces drum sticks off the walls is really something. This outstays its welcome by at least one fantasy sequence (with Caron aping Cyd Charisse) but overall it’s a beautiful production as you’d expect from that underrated director Jean Negulesco and it totally oozes charm.