Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

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Grand Prix (1966)

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The only thing to do here is drive as fast as you know how and hope your car doesn’t brake. Have you ever been to the racetrack at Monza? It’s eerie. It has an aura of death about it. It seems to be hanging in the gloom of all those tall trees. Probably the memory of those spectators killed trackside 1961:  and the final race here in the fictional reconstruction of the 1966 season told from the perspectives of four drivers is at Monza and the death is of a driver, whose broken body is strung up on a tree as his car flies off the north ridge. It’s shocking. This is a brillant film, still the best by far of all the motor racing films, with an opening 20 minute sequence on the street circuit at Monaco that is one of the best in the history of cinema. Of course it helps to be a petrolhead, but the screenplay, by Robert Alan Arthur, is clever and artful, blending action and storytelling and characterisation as efficiently as you’ll ever see in that opening, using the TV commentary to introduce us to Pete Aron (James Garner) who causes a terrible crash sending Brit driver Scott Stoddard into hospital with appalling injuries and destroying both their Jordan-BRM cars. Pete is forced to look for a drive in Japan with Toshiro Mifune doing a take on Soichiro Honda. Twice world champion, Ferrari driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is looking for another title but has young team-mate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) to contend with. If there isn’t enough drama on the track, there’s a complex of love lives off it, with Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) looking for love and finding it for a spell with Pete while her husband continues to relive his late brother’s career despite being drugged to the hilt; the married Jean-Pierre falling for American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint); and Nino meeting Lisa (Francoise Hardy – nope, she doesn’t sing!) in a bar with an amusing exchange of perfunctory sentences before they get together and she becomes the perfect racer girlfriend, attending the races, timing the laps. This is a great sports film and one that is redolent with both danger and romance. It’s amazing looking and I only wish I could have been around for the original release in Cinerama which would do justice to the split-screen and the amazing Super Panavision 70 cinematography by Lionel Lindon with Saul Bass. It’s as tightly wound as a suspense thriller with the threat of death on every corner and it’s tough on the business side of this most unforgiving sport and the obsession of its participants. For fans there’s the joy of seeing real-life heroes like Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, oh, a whole host of legends. Adolfo Celi does a take on Enzo Ferrari aka Manetta and real-life BBC reporter Raymond Baxter interviews Nino at Brand’s Hatch. Years later, in 1996, my acting hero (Garner) met my driving hero (Jacques Villeneuve) at Monza to celebrate the film 30 years after its release:

Garner was a fine driver and after shooting this – doing all his own driving and one fire stunt with butane that nearly went fatally wrong – he founded the American International Racers team, running cars in Formula A (just below F1), driving in the Baja 100, all leading to his eventually being inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

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The Racing Scene is a documentary following the team in 1969 when he finally broke it up because of the money and time commitment. He drove the pace car at the Indy 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985. What a mensch. He said after making Grand Prix – thanks to his Great Escape castmate Steve McQueen dropping out! – he simply had to be involved in the sport.  This won Academy Awards for editing, sound and sound effects (none for the magnificent Maurice Jarre score) but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Simply sensational. Directed by John Frankenheimer, whose wife, Evans Evans, has an uncredited role.

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Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

The Hustler (1961)

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What’s so great about the film that made Paul Newman a superstar? This grim tale of Fast Eddie Felson the up and coming pool shark and his manager/nemesis Bert Gordon (the vicious George C. Scott is well cast) who wants to take the mantle of Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) at Ames Billiards Parlor in NYC is an enduring classic rooted in 50s social realism.  When Eddie loses face and money he retreats to the railway station locker room and cafe and finds another waif, the apparently confident but alcoholic Sarah (Piper Laurie) who like him is an accident waiting to happen. Stunningly designed by Harry Horner and shot by Eugene Schufftan, this is a story of people enclosed by their chosen occupations. The film’s very texture is pure gloom. Newman is simply great as the guy who dares to return to the pool hall even after he’s had his thumbs broken and confidence shattered:  not everyone loves pool sharks.  For most of the film the only light is coming from his eyes. Gleason is superb as the laconic competition and Scott is as evil as you’d expect. Laurie is heartbreaking as the price of Eddie’s ambition. This earned a fistful of Oscar nominations and ended up with two wins (for Horner and Schufftan). It was adapted from Walter Tevis’ story by Sydney Carroll and director Robert Rossen.  Rossen has a complex reputation. He was a man whose actions created a lot of ill-feeling on film sets. He was a former blacklistee (named by colleagues) who himself became a namer of names to HUAC after a second go-round in order to work again. But this comeback film drew upon his own experiences with its driven, failing, vicious, deadly characters. He grew up a poor Russian Jew in New York and did whatever he could to earn a buck. Desire and ambition were at the core of his being. He was a longtime member of the Communist Party when Communists played such a huge role in New York theatre and his screenplays in the 30s and 40s were concerned with society and poverty and getting out. The work certainly suited the studios who employed him at the time:  he got John Garfield to give a truly brilliant performance in boxing classic Body and Soul.  Unlike his fellow director Elia Kazan, he could never mend those bridges after the HUAC hearings.  His next film, Lilith, would be his last, reportedly after a contentious relationship with star Warren Beatty:  Lilith, after all, was a psychological study of a strong (if probably psychotic) woman, and it’s a strange piece of work that simply shines with the alluring lustre of Jean Seberg and the emotion of the truly felt. But after that experience he stated that if he never made another film he had The Hustler to his credit. It is a tragic story, well told. Rossen died aged 57 in 1966.

Crash and Burn (2016)

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Irishman Tommy Byrne is a legend in the motor racing world – the extravagantly talented driver who screwed around, screwed up and threw it all away, is how the story goes. He raced in F3, pissed off a lot of people like Van Diemen teammate Ayrton Senna, himself the subject of an even more ultimately tragic film, and aroused the ire of rivals like Keke Rosberg who used to hit him on the head in passing and whom Byrne openly calls ‘a dick.’ He got to drive for F1’s McLaren team at a time when they had the best car going but his attitude annoyed Ron Dennis. His lifestyle had a major question mark over it, with no money to pay his way into the sport, he took forms of sponsorship which led to his socialising in extremely dodgy company. His car was switched and he lost his drive, in every sense of the term. Instead of hanging around in Europe as Eddie Jordan suggests he should have done, he decamped to the US where he was top driver in his class and seconds away from seizing the 1989 triple crown and getting a free ride into IndyCars, another driver crashed into him and his dream was over: he lost the $80,000 winnings and his marriage hit the skids. He went to Mexico where he consorted with more gangsters, did drugs and whores and messed up all over as he drove his career into the ground. His sponsor was found dead in a swimming pool. Byrne spent a long time drinking, smoking weed and collecting ferns for a living while living in a trailer. It took years for him to get back in the driving world where he works training young up and coming champions. He could have been a contender. He should have been winning in F1. But he’s alive to tell the tale.  His current wife says she believes the sadness is still with him. Produced by David Burke and directed by Sean O’Cualain, this is just an amazing story, compellingly told, with a cast of interviewees known to every petrolhead and there’s the charismatic Byrne himself in the middle of the action, supplying VHS archives of the glory days.

Superstar (1999)

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I realise that not all SNL knockoffs are passable but this one makes me laugh like a drain. Molly Shannon is orphaned Irish-American Catholic high schooler Mary Katherine Gallagher, a bespectacled geek in love with Sky Corrigan (Will Ferrell), the dreamboat – wow! – and dreaming of, yup, superstardom. Mary’s the rewind girl in the video store and she’s obsessed with TV movies which provide a lot of her best lines – maybe the most apposite coming from Portrait of a Teenage Centerfold! (starring Lori Singer).[If this in fact exists…]  She’s relegated to the class for retards and befriends fellow loser Helen (Emmy Laybourne). She attracts the attention of Slater (Harland Williams) the mute rebel biker newcomer to the school which provides more backstory and permits her Id’s vision of Jesus to pay him a visit at this movie’s version of a crossroads. She tries to achieve her ambitions by competing in a talent show for VD (‘with an opportunity to appear as an extra in a Hollywood movie with Positive Moral Values’). Sky’s cheerleader girlfriend – the most beautiful, the most popular, the most bulimic – Evian Graham (Elaine Hendrix) is her main rival but wheelchair-bound Grandma (Glynis Johns) doesn’t want Mary to take part. The scene where she tells Mary the truth behind her parents’ death is screamingly funny – they weren’t eaten by sharks but stomped to death Riverdance-style. Reader, I howled. She and Sky both think The Boy in the Plastic Bubble is the 19th-best TVM and when he and Evian split she spots an opening…This high school movie parody is for that special person in your life – your irrepressible inner gummy child! The perfect comedic holiday comedown. Written by Steve Koren and directed by Bruce McCulloch. Shannon is great. In fact, she’s a Superstar!

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

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Or, How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes. Long, funny and full of amusing national stereotypes,this was one of a spate of expensive ensemble comedies paying homage to the derring-do of the Edwardian era. A pre-titles sequence shot silent-movie slapstick style starring Red Skelton sets the tone, while Ronald Searle’s wonderfully witty title illustrations are animated by Ralph Ayres. A London newspaper offers an enormous prize to whomever crosses the Channel and gets to Paris first. Co-written with Jack Davies by director Ken Annakin, this caper is hilarious, romantic and action-filled by turns with a cast to die for:  Sarah Miles and James Fox (reunited from the rather different The Servant!), Robert Morley, Gert Frobe, Alberto Sordi, Stuart Whitman, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Eric Sykes, Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, Willie Rushton and Terry-Thomas with spot-on narration by James Robertson Justice. Beautifully shot by the gifted Christopher Challis, this is made for Autumn afternoons. Wacky Races ahoy!

Bad Words (2013)

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It’s not hard to imagine Jason Bateman as being a mean-spirited piece of work:  he came off like that as a child TV actor and it was probably in Arrested Development that he obtained a sympathetic persona. Here he’s entirely credible as a bitter vicious forty year old exploiting a loophole in the legendary children’s Spelling Bee championships to get his revenge for a childhood situation. Assisting him is a journo along for the ride and a great story, played by Kathryn Hahn (who with her up-do disturbingly resembles someone I know in public service who spends a lot of time in a psych ward…). The interchanges with the kids are lewd, nasty and funny. Allison Janney and Philip Baker Hall round out an impressive cast. Bateman made his directing debut here from a  screenplay by Andrew Dodge. A very enjoyable black comedy particularly if you’re having a bad day!

The Fast and the Furious (1955)

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An early Roger Corman production co-directed by star John Ireland, this hot rod movie is the original that spawned the later billion dollar franchise. Boasting a lot of road speed scenes followed by race track footage, co-star Dorothy Malone is the whole show. For cinephiles, there is a terrific cameo by Iris Adrian who would do a similar job ten years later for Disney in That Darn Cat!