Deliverance (1972)

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Now you get to play the game. Four Atlanta-dwelling friends Ed Gentry (Jon Voight), Lewis Medlock (Burt Reynolds), Bobby Trippe (Ned Beatty) and Drew Ballinger (Ronny Cox) decide to get away from their jobs, wives and kids for a week of canoeing in rural Georgia, going whitewater rafting down the Cahulawassee river before the area is flooded for the construction of a dam. When the men arrive, they are not welcomed by the backwoods locals, who stalk the vacationers and savagely attack them, raping one of the party. Reeling from the ambush, the friends attempt to return home but are surrounded by dangerous rapids and pursued by an armed madman. Soon, their canoe trip turns into a fight for survival… You don’t beat it. You don’t beat the river. Notorious for the male rape and praised for the Duelling Banjos scene that happens in the first scene-sequence, this film went into production without insurance and with the cast doing most of their own dangerous stunts. Reynolds is simply great as Lewis the alpha male daredevil with the shit-eating grin and a way with a bow and arrow.  This is a role that transformed his screen presence into box office. His sheer beauty affirms the audience’s faith in male potential:  when he has an accident we are devastated. What will happen now to the clueless bunch being hunted by the inbred hillbilly loons?  Insurance? I’ve never been insured in my life. I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk. Voight is the straight guy Ed who has to pick up the action baton, Bobby dithers and Drew may have been shot – or not. Author James Dickey adapted his own novel with director John Boorman and appears in the concluding scenes as the Sheriff. Like most of Boorman’s work there are narrative problems – mostly resting in a kind of empty sensationalism that however disturbing never truly penetrates, with visuals substituting for the environmental story.  This gives a whole new meaning to the term psychogeography. Squeal like a pig! The cast are perfection, with Beatty and Cox making their screen debuts having been discovered doing regional theatre. Finally, Voight’s character is haunted, the experience converted into a horror trope in the penultimate shots.  The power rests in the juxtaposing of man and nature, modernity versus the frontier, conjoined with the spectre of primitive redneck violence and its consequences on hapless male camaraderie where survival is the only option once civilisation is firmly out of reach. Danger is only a boat ride away.  A gauntlet to weekend warriors everywhere, it’s quite unforgettable.  Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything

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Local Hero (1983)

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How do you do business with a man who has no door?  Up-and-coming Houston oil executive ‘Mac’ MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) gets more than he bargained for when a seemingly simple business trip to Scotland changes his outlook on life. Sent by his colorful boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to the small village of Ferness, Mac is looking to buy out the townspeople and their properties so Knox Oil can build a new refinery. But after a taste of country life Mac begins to question whether he is on the right side of this transaction …  It’s their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can’t eat scenery!  Writer/director Bill Forsyth’s greatest work will remind you of Ealing Comedy and I Know Where I’m Going: wonderful antecedents and references but not entirely true to the atmosphere of this very magical film, operating with the underlying power of a fairytale. It’s primarily a film about characters and their interactions and it’s absolutely low-key and exact, sidelining whimsy for revelation.  This is truly a fish out of water scenario, about a man learning to live to a different beat in an utterly alien landscape. Lancaster’s inevitable arrival brings a sense of transcendence to the film, augmented by marvellous cinematography courtesy of Chris Menges and a legendary score by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. I’ve been a fan of Forsyth since I nearly choked to death laughing at That Sinking Feeling so it’s sad that he never had the long career that would have been predicted. This is a romance between people and land and sky and the immensity of living a small life, alive to the wonder. The sun, moon and stars were aligned when they made it.

Semi-Tough (1977)

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All you care about is fucking and football. Quarterback Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and wide receiver Marvin ‘Shake’ Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are professional football players who share a lush Miami apartment with multiply-divorced Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh), the pretty young daughter of their team’s owner Big Ed (Robert Preston). When Barbara develops feelings for Shake and the two begin a relationship, he insists that she join him at B.E.A.T., a New Age training programme run by the shady Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convy). His conversion to the EST-type belief  gives him more confidence but causes a rift in the cosy ménage à trois and Billy Clyde makes a play for Barbara himself. Meanwhile, there’s a big game coming up … We don’t like football that much. We just like taking showers with niggers. Rowdy, wildly provocative and profane, this satire of the business of football and the men who play it and the people around them stands out in the careers of the cast, the director (Michael Ritchie) and screenwriter Walter Bernstein, adapting Dan Jenkins’ best-selling novel (Ring Lardner Jr. had his name taken off the credits). It’s not all about Burt, but it might well be, even in one of the most likable ensembles you’ll ever see with charm just pouring off the screen. In real life Reynolds was a college ball player when an accident derailed his promising career. He invested in Tampa Bay’s (doomed USFL) team and his characterisation is partly based on Hall of Famer Don Meredith who played for the Dallas Cowboys in the Sixties and became a sportscaster with a taste for double entendres and worked as a TV and film actor. (North Dallas Forty features a quarterback believed to be based upon him). The rhythm of the script plays to Reynolds’ skills – an easy swagger, a  taste for deadly put-downs and immense charisma. The chemistry with Kristofferson and Clayburgh automatically eases the audience into the pro ball world and the ribald humour is offset by inspired slapstick. Preston is tremendous as the addled Big Ed creeping and crawling on the floor in the name of Movagenics, his newfound religion:   You outta line with gravity, Billy Clyde. That’s your trouble! Offensive, wildly funny and masterfully controlled, this is one of the best films of the Seventies and even with that cast (including Lotte Lenya, Richard Masur, Brian Dennehy and Carl Weathers), Reynolds is just outstanding in a story that is hugely generous to its characters. When Billy Clyde assuages the feelings of a matronly woman who thinks her size makes her unattractive to him, he’s so sweet and kind you believe what he tells her: There’s nothing sexier in the world than a woman who knows she’s a real woman. Bernstein, who turned 99 last month and was one of the victims of the blacklist, provides a script that is perfect for the times with the narcissistic worlds of self-improvement and therapy in his sights (the energy field, not just the football field, natch). Directed with verve by Michael Ritchie.

Fragment of Fear (1970)

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She said no – “over my dead body”. Hence, her dead body. Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a former drug addict who has written a book about his experience. He has been clean for about a year. He had recently become acquainted with his aunt Lucy (Flora Robson), a philanthropist who expresses interest in helping some of Tim’s former acquaintances. She is found murdered in Pompeii. Tim starts a relationship with Juliet Bristow (Gayle Hunnicutt), the woman who found his aunt’s body, and they are soon engaged. When the police investigation stalls,  Tim begins to ask questions of some of his aunt’s acquaintances who are all in a seaside care home. He then begins to receive warnings from unknown persons to stop his inquiries. He meets an elderly woman on the train. She hands him a note of supposed comfort, asking him to read it at home. The note turns out to be a warning about leaving matters to the police, apparently typed on his own typewriter. There’s also an ominous laugh recorded on Tim’s own tape recorder, indicating that someone was in his flat. Tim is then visited by a police sergeant, Sgt. Matthews (Derek Newark), who informs him that the woman on the train had lodged a complaint against Tim. After the woman is also killed, Tim finds out that there is no sergeant by that name working at the police station. He is then assaulted on the streets at night by two men who leave him lying on the ground with a hypodermic needle. Tim throws the needle down a gutter. He makes contact with a secret government agency which tells him that they are after the people who are threatening him, but all is – again – not what it seems to be and Tim and Juliet’s wedding fast approaches… Paul Dehn’s adaptation of John Bingham’s novel is interesting on a number of levels:  the performances of Hemmings and Hunnicutt, who were married at the time;  and the allusions to the government agency because Bingham was acknowledged as the model for George Smiley. Then there’s Yootha Joyce, forever trapped as Mildred in TV’s George and Mildred, here she’s truly sinister as the nasty proprietress of the old folk’s home where all manner of viciousness is evident. Hemmings is fine as the apparently delusional addict. He was a charismatic actor and such a beautiful icon of the mid-Sixties and the counter culture it’s hard to recall his fading from the scene to production and TV directing with anything other than regret:  this, after all, is the little boy singer who inspired Benjamin Britten to write Miles in The Turn of the Screw and the young man who brought Antonioni to decadent Swinging London for Blow-Up.  This outing is far more conventional genre material, but fascinating nonetheless for the central couple’s interactions and ideas about paranoid conspiracies, soon to be a ‘thing’ in cinema. There’s a terrific supporting cast including Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Daniel Massey, Adolfo Celi, Roland Culver and Wilfrid Hyde-White. Directed by Richard  C. Sarafian (who had worked with Hunnicutt on the previous year’s Eye of the Cat) who keeps the psychological issues on the boil, this has an astonishing jazz score by Johnny Harris which would be used to advertise Levis in the 90s in a memorable Kung Fu scenario by Jonathan Glazer. Shot by Oswald Morris.

Becoming Jane (2007)

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I have no money, no property, I am entirely dependent upon that bizarre old lunatic, my uncle. I cannot yet offer marriage, but you must know what I feel. Jane, I’m yours. God, I’m yours. I’m yours, heart and soul. Much good that is. It’s 1795 and twenty-year old Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) is a young aspiring writer who wants to marry for love. Her financially strapped parents (James Cromwell, Julie Walters) expect her to marry Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox), the nephew of wealthy Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith).  She knows that such a marriage will destroy her creativity and self-worth. Instead, she becomes involved with Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy), a charming and roguish but penniless apprentice lawyer from Ireland who gives her the knowledge of the heart she needs for her future career as a novelist… No sensible woman would demonstrate passion, if the purpose were to attract a husband. An imaginatively reconstructed story about how Jane Austen got her romantic mojo from a thin sliver of fact:  this is all that is required to steep us in more Austen mania. Thomas Langlois Lefroy described his friendship with Austen as ‘boyish’ rather than passionate, but no matter, any excuse to enter into the world of Georgian and Regency romance. The leads perform with gusto and charm – sparks fly between Hathaway and McAvoy.  The entire setting is beguiling, no matter how little connected with history while we construe – as we are intended to do – the beginnings of Pride and Prejudice from the interplay.  Affection is desirable but money is absolutely indispensable. As movies about writers go, why not?! Written by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams using tropes from Austen’s own comedies of manners and society, and directed by Julian Jarrold. How can you, of all people, dispose of yourself without affection?

Flight (2012)

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Every pilot crashed the aircraft, killed everybody on board. You were the only one who could do it!  Veteran commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has just finished partying with flight attendant and lover Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) and needs cocaine to kill off his hangover before he boards his flight out of Orlando.  He has a new co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) who eyes him with suspicion when Whip sucks up oxygen from his mask and asks stewardess Margaret (Tamara Tunie) for coffee with lots of sugar. It’s raining heavily on takeoff and there’s turbulence but Whip navigates into clear sky. A disastrous mechanical malfunction sends them hurtling toward the ground, part of the time upside down. Whip pulls off a miraculous crash-landing in a field near a church south of Atlanta while Ken is panicking and it results in only six lives being lost, four passengers and two crew, including Katerina. Shaken to the core, Whip vows to get sober but when the crash investigation exposes his addiction, he finds himself in an even worse situation and has to persuade his union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) that it was his very lack of inhibition that gave him the courage to manoeuvre outrageously.  He tries to dry out at his late grandather’s farm in the company of junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who he met in hospital… No one else could have landed that plane! The first twenty-five minutes of John Gatins’ screenplay are the actions leading up to the crash and the crash itself;  the last twenty-five are the hearing and its outcome years later.  In between we see an alcoholic variously turning away from and then back to alcohol while he is engaged in a relationship with a junkie.  This feeds into the morality tale structure:  Whip needs to see addiction in another addict and all the AA meetings in the world can’t make him face up to his demons and even she cannot reconcile his problems. The balance struck here is the same one that director Robert Zemeckis makes between the astonishing scene inside the aeroplane with the intoxicated chaos in Whip’s head and the lengthy, awful aftermath.  His co-pilot has had his legs crushed and will never fly again. When Whip visits him and his wife and becomes enmeshed in their prayers we want to laugh:  Washington’s star persona has been moving back and forth between decent and ‘street’ since it began – here it’s conflated between the two aspects and it’s some feat of performance. One scene his drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) is promising him the world, the next he’s on his knees. Harling comes to the rescue with cocaine in a scene where Washington reveals his star power – until he gets in an elevator and a little girl looks up his nose:  it tells us how far he has fallen and is s a metaphor (one of many) that structures the film. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole adult life. Harling is a Dr Feelgood whose every brief appearance is heralded by a Rolling Stones riff;  Charlie is a very loyal rep but it’s Lang who needs to be convinced. Whip’s turnaround is unbelievable to both of them. And him. Zemeckis pilots the film expertly enough through the drama although the Nicole subplot weakens the film’s impact even if it gives the audience breathing space. It struck me watching this again today that a lot of pilots have been suspended for drunk-flying since this came out:  is it really better to do a Denzel and be a little loose in those bright blue skies than entirely sane and sober? Nervous flyers beware! This is terrifying. Brace yourself. That was it. I was finished. I was done

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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That’s what you call karma and it’s pronounced Ha! In 1979 young Donna (Lily James), Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davis) graduate from Oxford University — leaving Donna free to embark on a series of adventures throughout Europe starting in Paris where she has a one-night stand with Harry (Hugh Skinner). She feels her destiny lies in Greece, specifically on the island of Kalokairi. She misses the ferry and hitches a ride on a boat owned by handsome Swede Bill (Josh Dylan) who drops her off to participate in a race but promises to return. On the island she immediately feels at home and sings at the local taverna. During a storm she seeks help to rescue a horse on the property where she’s squatting and English architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine) comes to her aid. They fall for one another and start a relationship – until she finds a photograph in his desk and he admits he’s engaged. In the present day, Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has finished off the renovation Donna always dreamed of but her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is doing a hotel management course in New York and a storm threatens the opening party. Her plans to reunite with her mother’s old friends and boyfriends on the Greek island may be scuppered although Dad (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand to help out … Crosscutting between past and present, drawing parallels between the mother and daughter, this aims to fill the awkward moral gaps the first film (and original musical) opened.  It has cinematic ambition its shambolic predecessor lacked and the flaws are more obvious as a result. Written by director Ol Parker with Richard Curtis and using plot from Catherine Johnson’s original this tells a lot of what we know. The choreography is horrible, the laughs cheap and most of the best songs were already used up so we get a lot of lesser tracks only diehard ABBA album owners might know: this really only gains momentum an hour in when Dancing Queen (finally!) gets a run through and the boyfriends in their present-day versions show up – thank goodness for Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard (who gets to wear a fat suit as his twin in a funny scene). Cher’s much-trumpeted appearance as Streep’s mother is brief but frightening – she looks like Lady Gaga (same surgeon, methinks). The Bjorns make surreptitious appearances early on; Meryl Streep’s younger iteration has brown eyes (whoops) but she can sing;  everyone sings, more or less; Andy Garcia is a Mexican managing the Bella Donna and guess who he used to date? And so on. Truly terrible. Resistance is futile.

Raising Arizona (1987)

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Ed felt that having a critter was the next logical step.  When incompetent convenience store robber  H.I. ‘Hi’ McDonough (Nicolas Cage) marries policewoman Edwina ‘Ed’ (Holly Hunter) after she takes his mugshots, they discover that she is infertile. In order to appease Ed’s obsessive desire for a child,  Hi steals one of a set of quintuplets born to Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), mega rich owner of a chain of furniture stores. Mayhem ensues when his former cellmates, brothers Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and  William Forsythe) break out and turn up on their doorstep and the child’s rich father sends a rabbit-shooting bounty hunter biker – the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse – after the kidnappers…  Everything’s chAAAnged! With hysterical overacting turns, a set piece chase to rival the best of them – all over a packet of diapers – an incredible prison break, and a winning set of adorable blond babies, this sophomore outing by the Coen Brothers divided critics after their dark-hearted debut, Blood Simple. It fizzes with photographic flourishes, nonsensical action and witty lines, with hyper-exaggerated enunciation (take a bow, Ms Hunter!) and dog-tired impersonation (by Cage) of a desperate father belatedly realising when there’s a new baby in the house that life will truly never be the same again. The meal-time pelting by his in-laws’ children crystallises his hapless sorrow.  With bravura cinematography by Barry Sonnenfeld, a yodel-along score by Carter Burwell and sparky performances by the entire cast, this is highly charged, effervescent and exuberant, practically exhorting the audience to dislike it as it races over the top and into the fantastical abyss in order to emerge with glee. Y’all without sin can cast the first stone

The Happy Prince (2018)

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Intimacy in the sewers followed by fantasy in the gods, and then, total silence.  As he flees England to France in the wake of his release from prison, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) tries to reestablish his life, finish his writing work and disdain his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Colin Morgan) whose father the Marquis of Queensberry had him gaoled for his homosexuality following a libel suit.  All the while he is hounded by the press who have made his life a misery in a society  whose denizens once enjoyed being sent up by him but which are now all too happy to shun him. He is assisted in exile by his literary executor Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and loyal friend, journalist Reggie Turner (Colin Firth). But when his identity is revealed to a hotel proprietor following a fracas with bullying English tourists, he is obliged to take up residence in Paris where he slides into dissolution, corresponds with Bosie and is cut off by his wife Constance (Emily Watson) on the advice of her solicitors… There is no question that Everett achieves something rather special here:  he inhabits Wilde with the kind of comfort that can only come from someone who has long shepherded this project as well as playing him a number of times on stage;  the acknowledging that Bosie was truly Wilde’s Achilles heel – he simply cannot resist the nasty little bugger, a beauty, a nauseating irresponsible temptress in male clothing, a sop to Wilde’s vanity.  He is his downfall and he is simply irresistible. Everett doesn’t spare Wilde physically either – bloated, drugging and drinking, wearing rouge, he’s a braggart whose survival depends on his wit yet he says he found God in gaol:  in that cell there was only himself and Christ. He has lost his strength yet he musters a violent thug within to confront holidaying yobs who recognise him in France:  that their showdown occurs in a church is a nicely Wildean touch. He finishes De Profundis;  he tells the story of The Happy Prince both to his sons in flashback and to the two street boys he befriends in the Parisian underworld. The multi-faceted backwards and forwards in time structure should confuse but doesn’t because the focus is all on Oscar:  and Everett is savage as appropriate.  This is a self-inflicted theatrical exit, fuelled by lust and blind obsession, invariably leading to terrible pain which he seems unable to stop. We are watching a great writer decompose, in all the senses that that term might conjure. There are all kinds of second-tier attractions:  the mood of melancholy offset with famous bons mots and rueful self-examination;  the locations;  the portrayal of male friendship and loyalty;  the hypocrisy writ large even within Oscar’s own worldview because he tells people what they need to hear even when everyone concerned knows it’s not true (Ross truly loves him and Wilde loves him back, just not in the same way);  his thoroughly wistful longing to see his small children again which grieves him terribly;  Everett’s old pal Béatrice Dalle (from Betty Blue) turning up as the proprietress of a risqué bar;  the interweaving of onstage characters from Wilde’s plays with his real-life associates; the wondrous score by Gabriel Yared. Frisky, fruity and just a little salty – rather like the man himself. It’s a heartbreaking  and profoundly literary valentine, wise and witty and immensely good. What a debut for Rupert Everett, film writer and director.  Surely Love is a wonderful thing

The Verdict (1982)

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Sometimes people can surprise you.  Sometimes people have a great capacity to hear the truth.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer. Or he was. He’s a washed up alcoholic ambulance chaser who’s reduced to scouring the obits for clientele. When former partner Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) puts a straightforward medical negligence case his way, he’s inclined to take the settlement from the Archdiocese of Boston whose hospital doctors anaesthetised a pregnant woman into a coma four years earlier. Her sister and brother-in-law have been devastated. Then he makes the mistake of visiting her and his humanity is reawakened … David Mamet adapted the novel by Barry Reed and it’s as much a character study as a legal thriller but it’s all that too. However it has a rare quality – elegance and even eloquence, all the while hitting the generic markers. Polanski says films are made up of moments and we have a raft of them here. The moment when Galvin’s Polaroid of his client is developing in front of her comatose vegetative body is haunting:  it’s when he rediscovers his own dignity while bearing witness to her lack of it entirely. When the biased judge (Milo O’Shea) tries to dissuade him from taking the case, clearly on the side of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the attorney for the Catholic Church of whom Mickey declares, He’s a good man?  He’s the Prince of fucking Darkness! And we know this of course because we’ve all seen Salem’s Lot. When Concannon removes his coat from the judge’s armoire we have the proof that the judiciary is corrupt. It’s subtle but keen social signalling, he’s a bagman for the boys down town, as Frank realises. Frank is tempted by a wonderfully hooded divorced woman Laura (Charlotte Rampling) who just happens to turn up in his favourite Boston watering hole. We sense she’s no good but she’s an alcoholic too and her codependency draws us in. And seventy minutes into this well-structured exposition she triggers Frank’s turnaround: I can’t invest in failure any more. Frank is loaded up on bad witnesses but one is missing and it’s his last minute journey that turns into a dark night of the soul as well as a time of enlightenment.  Mamet’s then wife Lindsay Crouse is brilliant as a nurse scorned.  Frank’s exhausted closing to the jury is riveting. We become tired of hearing more lies. We become dead. But director Sidney Lumet uses silence as brilliantly as dialogue. Look at the way he shoots the NYC street scene between Mickey and Frank when Mickey has something terrible to tell him. Masterful. Frank’s hungover mornings on the couch, his afternoons on arcade games, his evenings alone with the bottle, are as significant to this narrative as his defeatist courtroom attitude.  This is one of Newman’s greatest performances – he allows that absurdly handsome face to look tired, the rightful appearance for an old soak – but it’s also a great portrait of the Catholic Church as a corrupt corporation and a reminder to never give up on those who do not have a voice. A wonderful film about adults coping in a mire of payoffs and professional malpractice and personal failure.