Sgt. Bilko (1996)

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Can’t is a four-letter word in this platoon! Sergeant Bilko (Steve Martin) is in charge of the motor pool at his Kansas base but more importantly he oversees his base’s gambling operations and occasionally runs a little con game, all under the oblivious nose of his commanding officer, Colonel Hall (Dan Aykroyd). After Bilko’s old nemesis, Major Thorn (Phil Hartman), shows up, intent on ruining his career and stealing his girlfriend, Rita (Glenne Headly), Bilko must take extra care to cover his tracks while concocting the perfect scheme to take down his foe… I have been avoiding this since it came out (a long time ago) because I grew up watching the Phil Silvers show on re-runs practically every night. I even gifted myself a box set of the series a short while back.  However I’m glad to report that far from the grimfest I half-expected it’s a very likeable physical comedy with some great setpieces perfectly cued to showcase Martin’s adeptness at farce. The material and scenarios are somewhat updated to accommodate modern mores – which provide some fun during a dorm check – and Hartman gets a wonderful opportunity to exact revenge for a laugh out loud prank which we see in flashback:  the best boxing match ever on film with both participants taking a dive! And then Bilko gets his turn when all the chips are down and the guys line up to help him out. It’ll never erase the great TV show but there are compensations – Headly as the woman forever scorned (until she bests him) and the chance to see a soft side of Aykroyd who allows all the chicanery to take place without ever expressing a cruel word. And Austin Pendleton shows Bilko how to play poker! There’s even Chris Rock and Phil Silvers’ daughter Cathy who come to audit the base and cannot catch Bilko for love or money. It’s like watching a magician!  she declares. Very funny indeed. Andy Breckman adapted Nat Hiken’s show and it’s directed by Jonathan Lynn.

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Any Which Way You Can (1980)

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You’re fast and you like pain. You eat it like candy. I’ve seen a few cases like that in my time. The more they get hurt, the more dangerous they become. But you got to be durable, too. Real durable. Most ain’t.  Trucker turned underground bare-knuckle prize fighter Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) is about to retire but he is asked by the Mafia to fight East Coast champion Jack Wilson (cult baddie William Smith), who has been crippling opponents in his victories. To get Philo to agree to fight, the Mafia kidnaps his old love, Lynn Halsey-Taylor (Sondra Locke). When Jack finds out, he agrees to help Philo rescue Lynn. Afterward, Philo and Jack decide to fight anyway to settle who is the better brawler… This mix of fighters and singers and mobsters and mothers and monkeys (Clyde the orangutan is back) proves that for Warner Brothers in the Eighties, Eastwood was the moneymaker who could do anything he wanted howsoever he chose. With Ruth Gordon as his mom, Geoffrey Lewis as his brother and a bunch of bikers back from their previous road trip, this either hits your funny bone or it doesn’t. The terrific country songs don’t hurt and Glen Campbell even performs some of them in the best bar ever. Written by Stanford Sherman developing the characters from Every Which Way But Loose by Jeffrey Joe Kronsberg and directed by Buddy Van Horn who used to choreograph Clint’s stunts. And that’s not a euphemism.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

 

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There’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) is the hardman and advisor to Irish American gangster Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) who’s at war with Italian Mafia boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) at the height of Prohibition. When crooked bookie Bernie (John Turturro) the brother of Leo’s mistress and Tom’s lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) is threatened by Caspar, the dark-hearted and brainy Reagan is found out by Leo and appears to switch sides in an escalating rivalry over liquor distribution that has a huge body count… It’s hard to pick out a single sequence of brilliance in this positively baroque outing but today I’m choosing the attempt on Leo’s life to the sounds of Frank Patterson warbling Danny Boy: what a stunning declaration of visual bravura (kudos to DoP Barry Sonnenfeld). Brutal, witty, dazzling, beautiful, postmodern and classic, this is a masterpiece. The dialogue is straight out of old gangster movies (and Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key) and coming out of Byrne’s accented mouth sounds hilarious:  you gasp at some of the lines, they’re so stunningly written. The narrative is constructed on well known gangster tropes and turns them inside out in a film that acts as a commentary on the genre – Tom’s asides with the Irish policemen are an excruciating Greek chorus! – as well as exulting in its excesses, its ghastly violence, its humour, its morality, its sheer decadence. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and directed by the former, this is one of the modern greats that engages the brain, the heart and the mind with Reagan’s psychology supplying Byrne with a career-defining role. Astounding.

A Kid for Two Farthings (1955)

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A warm, atmospheric portrait of the Jewish community in Petticoat Lane, Wolf Mankowitz adapted his own novel to be directed by that supremely empathetic man, Carol Reed, whose own pictures of childhood would reach a kind of apogee with Oliver! Jonathan Ashmore is little Joe, whose mother Celia Johnson is left alone while her husband works in South Africa and their tailor landlord David Kossoff’s stories entertain but also soothe Joe when one after another his pets die. Joe believes in unicorns so when he finds a one-horned kid goat he thinks fairytales come true and his story is intertwined with that of the startlingly sweet Diana Dors, in love with her boxer boyfriend Joe Robinson, who like most of his ilk, is mixed up with lowlifes who want him involved in match-fixing. Joe now thinks if things happen there’s a 50/50 chance it’s because he’s wished for them on his unicorn:  he’s got a point …This piquant comedy drama has excited some critics about its portrait of Anglo-Jewry but let’s face it nowadays that goat would be a kebab. A wonderful, vibrant film with a great cast including Sydney Tafler, Sid James, Brenda de Banzie, Lou Jacobi, Joseph Tomelty and Irene Handl, this makes you feel like you’re right in the middle of everything. It features young Ashmore’s only film performance – he grew up to be Bernard Katz Professor of Biophysics at University College London:  what a shlemiel!!

True Deception (2016)

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Aka The Adderall Diaries. Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky this James Franco-starrer (he also produced) is an adaptation of a misery memoir by ‘orphaned’ writer Stephen Elliott whose inconveniently live father shows up to wreck his reputation and publishing deals. At the same time he becomes obsessed with a murder case involving millionaire Hans Reisner (Christian Slater) who’s accused of killing his wife;  and sexually involved with a journalist (Amber Heard) who’s had a bad childhood herself. Much of the story is compressed into conflicting montages and competing flashbacks squeezed into a relatively short running time of 83 minutes so it’s hard to reconcile the somewhat wasted star power with the narrative. The mirroring idea of the villainous murdering father on trial is a rather obvious metaphor, real or not, and the writer’s block being solved by a true crime is verbally compared with Capote and Mailer. But the writing process remains mysterious and the scenes with Slater are fairly perfunctory. Cynthia Nixon shows up as one of the few drug-free actors in this narcissist’s psychodrama. One wonders why Franco was drawn to playing this role following True Story (2015). However the main interest here and maybe for him is seeing two very pretty people in an S&M relationship with some scenes rather reminiscent of Madonna’s great embarrassment, Body of Evidence. Memories are made of this. Sigh.

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

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British cinema is always in crisis yet has boasted its share of indisputably great filmmakers and Robert Hamer was one of them, even if nobody particularly noticed at the time. He had contributed The Haunted Mirror sequence to portmanteau horror Dead of Night a couple of years earlier and was adept at any number of genres. This Ealing production was not in the comedy idiom so beloved of moviegoers but rather belongs in the realm of poetic realism that started in France in the Thirties; we might instead call it film noir. Adapted from the novel by Arthur La Bern, by Angus MacPhail, Henry Cornelius and the director, the mainly Yiddish world of Bethnal Green carries on as  one of its inhabitants, married Rosie Sandigate  (Googie Withers), hides her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) who’s escaped from Dartmoor and taken refuge in the familiy’s air raid shelter. She then conceals him in the bedroom she shares with her staid older husband (Edward Chapman). It’s Sunday morning and Tommy wants to have it away with her while she tries to carry on the masquerade of housework, laundry, preparing lunch and getting her feckless adult stepdaughters out of the way. Meanwhile the police (Jack Warner, who else?) and a newspaper reporter are on Tommy’s trail and it concludes in achingly existential fashion … Enormously evocative portrayal of a certain era adorned with an intensely felt performance of stridency and eroticism by the fabulous Withers (dontcha LOVE that name) who had met and married McCallum after they appeared in The Loves of Joanna Godden. It’s shot with gleaming precision by Douglas Slocombe while Georges Auric contributes an endearingly melodramatic incidental score for an atmospheric outing in which the radio plays such an elemental role in punctuating the drama. The ensemble has such familiar faces as Alfie Bass, Sydney Tafler, Hermione Baddeley, Jimmy Hanley and Sid James (as the leader of a dance band). Hamer would go on to make one of my favourite British films, Kind Hearts and Coronets but this is a marvellous reminder of the post-war era, the meaning of ‘a couple of anvils’ and how to feel when that dangerous wideboy resurfaces in your humdrum life.

Second Chance (1953)

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RKO made some pretty fast-moving, fun noirs and this is one of them – shot on location in Mexico with good looking people, as was the wont of Howard Hughes, by now in charge of the studio. The screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Oscar Millard was based on a story by DM Marshman Jr who shared writing credit on Sunset Blvd and went back east after this to join the world of advertising. Rudolph Mate was directing for 3D so other than the pulchritude of stars Robert Mitchum as a boxer and Linda Darnell as a singer – he’s helping her escape the attention of her mobster boyfriend Jack Palance – there’s a stunning climax in a cable car. Palance was at the peak of his Hollywood heaviness and he’s as good as you’d hope.

Till The End of Time (1946)

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Guy Madison (to whom Canadian avant gardist Guy Maddin owes his moniker) is the young Marine home from WW2, a typical draftee after Pearl Harbour and college dropout, whose parents welcome him back but stop him from discussing his experiences. He can’t settle down to civilian life and hangs out with war widow Dorothy McGuire while second banana star Robert Mitchum’s head injury is causing outrageous headaches and boxer Bill Williams can’t deal with losing his legs. This study of PTSD is part of a wave of films that tried to explain the difficulties of post-war adjustment. Los Angeles was like most major cities subject to a crimewave committed by vets and this middle-class take on malaise is mostly decent stuff, and the propaganda aspect is to be expected, adapted from the Niven Busch novel They Dream of Home by Allen Rivkin and directed by Edward Dmytryk. It ends happily in a fistfight started by a bunch who sat it out and call themselves patriots. This was overshadowed by the Academy Award-drenched The Best Years of Our Lives but is worth a watch, particularly for McGuire.The theme tune, derived from Chopin’s Polonaise Opus 53, was a huge hit for a young Perry Como.

The Ring (1952)

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Billed as a boxing movie, this is so much more. It’s really a vivid and flavorful account of the Mexican immigrant experience in Los Angeles. Directed by German emigre Kurt Neumann, who began making European-language versions of Hollywood films and then became famous decades later with sci-fi such as The Fly, we start with an authoritative doc-style voiceover explaining the topography of LA and the Mexican area. Adapted from the Irving Shulman novel (he specialised in post-war juvenile studies – you will know Rebel Without a Cause), we are introduced to young Tommy Cantanios (Lalo Rios) whose family is falling on hard times and when he’s subjected to a racist attack he beats the crap out of his assailants. He’s spotted by a boxing promoter Pete Ganusa (Gerald Mohr) and wins his first fight in a technical KO. His sometime girlfriend (Rita Moreno, top-billed but in very much a supporting role) cannot agree with his decision to pursue this lifestyle and it takes him a while to see the writing on the wall when he starts losing and his earnings are chewed up by his team. The casual racism of the era is well captured and there’s a very good scene in a diner when a sympathetic cop recognises ‘Tommy Kansas’ and ensures he and his friends get something to eat despite the management’s policy. Tommy has some hard lessons to learn, Moreno is beautiful and sweet and the family dynamic is somewhat cliched but touching. You’ll probably recall Rios from Touch of Evil, and a few years later he featured in Lonely is the Brave. He died aged just 46.  This is a very interesting piece of work for so many reasons, boxing being just one of them.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

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The only time my parents expressed any concern about my childhood viewing habits was when they found me watching comedy double act Abbott and Costello – because Bud Abbott was such a bully. This reminds me of those halcyon summer mornings before tearing off to play with my friends then whiling away afternoons at the tennis club before a night of Christopher Lee acting all Fu Manchu. Sigh! Here, no sooner have our bumbling duo graduated from private detective school than a boxer on the run from the cops requires their services. He’s alleged to have killed his manager. His girlfriend’s father injects him with invisibility serum to help him find the gangster who framed him and all hell breaks loose when everyone thinks Costello is a great boxer. A classic match ensues. The special effects by Stanley Horsley are fantastic, the jokes funny (I especially like the one about a Whole Nelson) and it’s fast and furious. If you don’t like it, chances are you had better check your pulse.