Williams: Formula 1 In The Blood (2017)

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The accident didn’t just happen to Frank, it happened to everybody. Frank Williams’ career as an F1 team boss didn’t quite end in 1986 as his eponymous team was cresting towards major success but his mobility was brought to a crashing conclusion at a wall in the South of France when he was rushing to the airport to get back home to England. He was in and out of consciousness for six weeks after snapping his spine in two and became a quadriplegic overnight.  His team would come visit him at the London Hospital to regale a man barely alive about the latest intra-team spats between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell simply to try and keep him going. The man who ran 12 miles a day and competed in marathons was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. This revolves around his refusal to engage with his family’s desire to come to terms with the horrific accident and how they handled it – he simply never mentioned it and got on with things, unable to share a bed with wife Ginny and looked after by a 24/7 carer. Ginny wrote a book (A Different Kind of Life) in 1991 which she recorded in secret with the help of a writer friend. The conflict in the film is this: Frank has never read it while his daughter Claire, now team boss (and says I never expected to be given the keys to the shop) is in tears at the fact that her mother died of cancer in 2013 without the couple ever discussing its contents, namely her anguish at his physical destruction.  Ginny’s absence is the most powerful presence in the story. The narration is primarily excerpts from the book (filmed to her audio as staged reconstruction, like the crash) but visually the film mostly consists of Claire Williams interviewed today and archive footage starting with Williams in his early career as a Northern chancer selling spare parts, obsessed with becoming a driver and sharing a flat with posh Etonians, one of whom, Piers Courage, died in one of his early cars. The film concludes with Claire reading to her father from Ginny’s book and there are perhaps a few tears in the man’s eyes.  It’s a feeble conclusion considering the breadth of his actions. The impact of his own attitudes was borne at far greater price by third parties, the team’s recent failure to achieve podium finishes notwithstanding, a terrible fate for an old school marque. Williams’ imperturbable visage had a quite different, sinister affect when he was introduced (like Count Dracula) in slo-mo in Asif Kapadia’s magnificent Senna, clearly the villain of that tragic piece, when he and Patrick Head forced the greatest driver of my lifetime, who was at the forefront of the F1 driver safety campaign, into a dangerous car to his death, literally cut off in his prime. This is the flipside of Williams’ refusal to engage with humanity, open his mouth and speak. Sadly, when you look at this old, strangely enigmatic quadriplegic, dead from the neck down, you realise that sometimes bad things can really happen to bad people. It’s a vital story in F1 history but it’s hard to care. Featuring interviews with Mansell, Peter Windsor (who was in the crash with Williams), Jackie Stewart and Head. Directed by Morgan Matthews.

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The Games (1970)

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How will it end?/I’ll get to the top./How will you know?  American Scott Reynolds (Ryan O’Neal), Briton Harry Hayes (Michael Crawford), a Czech Army man Pavel Vendek (Charles Aznavour) and an Australian Aborigine Sunny Pintubi (Athol Compton) train for the Rome Olympics marathon and their paths cross at various international meets before the big event which ends up taking place in gruelling heat … That boy’s gonna be our Silver Cloud. Starring Ryan O’Neal, with a screenplay by Erich Segal and a score by Francis Lai. It’s got to be Love Story, right? And yet, wrong. For Michael Winner helmed this paean to distance running and endurance before that classic and this adaptation of a novel by Hugh Atkinson sadly fails to entirely rise to the momentous occasion amid evident effort. Presumably a budgetary problem prevented better cinematography and editing – so much of what could have been a beautiful travelogue looks dreary because a lot is shot in England.  Issues of personal relationships, nationality and race (!) rear their heads, as one might expect. Crawford is the central character – a milkman with an unbelievable running time and he’s fairly unbelievable in the part (his later TV gurning as Frank Spencer is hinted at) but the other roles are more satellites to his story.  However it’s interesting that O’Neal’s character is a Yalie with a heart problem! (See above).  The mentoring relationships are central to the narrative and it’s Crawford’s with the inimitable tough-as-old-boots Stanley Baker that works best although Jeremy Kemp’s with Compton’s is fascinating, given the issues involved. The actual race is quite thrilling and the outcome is hugely satisfying. The crowds are mostly cardboard cut-outs, believe it or not.  Nice to see the real Kent Smith, Sam Elliott and Leigh Taylor-Young (Mrs O’Neal, as an uncredited co-ed) in the cast.  There’s an interesting sidebar about TV coverage and how US scheduling influences sporting events. Notable for a Lai-Hal Shaper song From Denver to LA performed by one Elton John who became famous later that year and had the record (s)quashed. Isn’t the poster rather cool? You run against yourself

The Karate Kid (1984)

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Go find your balance. Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves West to Southern California with his embarrassing mother, Lucille (Randee Heller) and quickly finds himself the target of a group of school bullies led by Johnny (William Zabka) who study karate at the Cobra Kai dojo led by psycho Nam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove). Fortunately, Daniel befriends Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita), an unassuming Okinawan repairman at his apartment complex who just happens to be a martial arts master himself. He  winds up doing a lot of chores in exchange for karate lessons and starts putting together his own ideas about life from Mr. Miyagi’s aphorisms. Unfortunately, Daniel likes a lovely upper class girl at school Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) who also happens to be dating Johnny, who simply continues his campaign of bullying. Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel under his wing, training him in a more compassionate form of karate (Goju) and preparing him to compete against the brutal tactics of Cobra Kai … Come from inside you, always right picture. This fusion of Carrie with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Rocky (which shares director John Avildsen) is equal parts feel-good morality tale and teen fantasy, with a transformation story and a nice boy at its heart. Daniel is played beautifully by Macchio – goofy and cute, irritating and charming, all at once – while the bullies are clichés (maybe they all are) and the girl is just super nice. A little more heft is given the story with Daniel’s resentment at not having been given a choice at the house move, putting him into the path of these violent classmates whose actions are worthy of adult vigilantes (and numbering Chad McQueen in their midst); and Mr. Miyagi’s life isn’t a bed of roses either as Daniel discovers when he finds him drunk and reads a letter.  If you’re not up and cheering at the pleasing, rabble-rousing ending then you should probably check your pulse. It’s too long, but it’s pretty wonderful. And the soundtrack is fantastic.  Written by Robert Mark Kamen. Wax on, wax off

Neptune’s Daughter (1948)

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Can’t you get in enough trouble here without going below the border? Aquatic dancer Eve Barrett (Esther Williams), now partnered with Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) in a swimsuit design company, tries to stop her scatterbrained sister Betty (Betty Garrett), from falling in love with Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalban), a suave South American polo player. Unbeknownst to Eve, Betty has actually fallen for Jack Spratt (Red Skelton), a masseur who is posing as Jose. To protect her sister, Eve finds the real Jose, agrees to a date and also falls in love… If you keep throwing yourself at men you are only going to get hurt!/Not if my aim is good! A fun, frolicsome Forties MGM musical of mistaken identity that teams swimming queen Williams with Latin Lothario Montalban for their third hit movie.  Garrett and Skelton are marvellous in the supporting roles. A Technicolor delight. Written by Dorothy Kingsley (a woman! Heaven forfend!), this clip of the great Frank Loesser’s satirical song is up especially for the censorious killjoys who should spend their time listening to rap music – get back to the land of normal sane people then, please. Preferably not! Merry Christmas – but you’ve probably cancelled that for religious/sexist reasons too. Bah, humbug to all the snowflakes!

 

Junior Bonner (1972)

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Rodeo time, I gotta get it on down the road/What road? I mean, I’m workin’ on my first million, and you’re still workin’ on eight seconds. Middle-aged rodeo rider Junior Bonner (Steve McQueen) returns to his Arizona hometown where he reunites with his family, which includes his charming, troublemaker of a father, Ace (Robert Preston), and his ambitious real estate-developer brother Curly (Joe Don Baker). Mom Elvira (Ida Lupino) is estranged from her husband. So while Ace dreams of finding his fortune in Australia, Junior is determined to conquer a tough bull named Sunshine by riding it for eight seconds. Can Junior claim victory over Sunshine and stay in the rodeo business?… Junior, you’re my brother, and I guess I love you. Well, we’re family. I don’t care what you do. You can sell one lot or a hundred lots. I’m just tryin’ to keep us together. Directed by Sam Peckinpah from a script by Jeb Rosebrook, this is a wonderful, warm, sympathetic portrait of a man having issues with ageing, returning home to a scrappy if welcoming family in a changing West and finally figuring out who he is. This is another Peckinpah film about the coming of modernity to the frontier and when we see The Wild Bunch embroidered on a suited-and-booted rider’s saddle blanket it’s just one thread of symbolic commentary in the bountiful narrative. There’s a great use of split-screen for the Prescott rodeo and the performances are memorable in an affecting, compelling film, probably Peckinpah’s most gentle outing with an undertow of violence beneath the gentility and quest for honour. McQueen is brilliant as the cowboy staking his claim. There’s one of him, and one of me

Miss Congeniality (2000)

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It’s not a beauty pageant, it’s a scholarship program. When a domestic terrorist threatens to bomb the Miss United States pageant, the FBI puts Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) in charge and he rushes to find a female agent to go undercover as a contestant, replacing the disqualified Miss New Jersey. Unfortunately, Eric’s partner FBI Special Agent Gracie  Hart (Sandra Bullock) is the only woman who can look the part despite her complete lack of refinement and femininity. She prides herself in being one of the guys and is horrified at the idea of becoming a girly girl.  Going undercover is tough and she’s taken under the wing of camp Brit Victor Melling  (Michael Caine) for a total makeover, while hard as nails pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) steadily assumes the role of suspect in chief … In place of friends and relationships you have sarcasm and a gun. A light and funny take on the transformation arc with a reversal of the usual tropes, this is Bullock’s baby – she produced and shepherded the production straight into our hearts. With its fish out of order scenario intact, this proceeds to reverse expectations – becoming a beauty queen is no walk in the park, demanding starvation, exfoliation and high heels;  masquerading as a socially conscious peace-lover when you’re a gun-wielding action woman gives her more pause than she thought;  while camouflaging her true identity from alpha females who look good in swimwear troubles her as she gains new friends. As the irony ratchets up a notch with William Shatner MC’ing proceedings and the chase complements the on-stage glass harp playing and self-defence exhibition, Bullock shines in a frothy, fun star performance.  After a while you forget why you’re here! Written by regular Bullock collaborator Marc Lawrence with Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas, this is directed by Donald Petrie.  Haven’t you been drinking too much Coppertone?

The Harder They Fall (1956)

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What do you care what a bunch of bloodthirsty, screaming people think of you? Did you ever get a look at their faces? They pay a few lousy bucks hoping to see a man get killed. To hell with them! Think of yourself. Get your money and get out of this rotten business.  After seventeen years reporter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself out of work when his newspaper folds. He’s so skint he agrees to work for the shady boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to help hype his new boxer, the massive Argentinian heavyweight Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Toro looks the part but he has no actual boxing talent and all his fights are fixed. When he gets a shot at the title against the brutal and sadistic Buddy Brannen (Max Baer), Willis is faced with the tough decision of whether or not to tell Toro that his entire career is a sham as they move eastwards across the country and one fighter is killed in the ring and Brannen wants to fix Toro good … What gives, Eddie? I looked up Toro in the book. There’s no record of him in South America. Famous as Bogart’s final film before his death from cancer, this is a characterful work about ethics from Philip Yordan’s sparky screenplay which he adapted from Budd Schulberg’s novel. Bogart has an admirable arc as he evolves from a cynical sportswriter to the press agent coming to terms with the horrible corruption at the core of his sport:  will he write an exposé and take it down? The pairing of Steiger with Schulberg’s material again two years after On the Waterfront has its own attractions as well as offering an opportunity to see his Method acting stylings clash with Bogart’s classical theatrics. Jan Sterling does well as Bogart’s wife, functioning overtly as his conscience while Harold J. Stone is terrific as Bogart’s colleague, a broadcaster who can’t stand how he’s promoting Toro. Burnett Guffey’s glistening monochrome cinematography gives us some of the best fight scenes we’ll ever see in this tragic epic about life bristling within the ropes. Tough as you like, this was inspired by real-life boxer Primo Canera. Directed by Mark Robson.  Don’t fight it, Eddie! What are you trying to do, hold onto your self-respect? Did your self-respect help you hold your job? Did your self-respect give you a new column?  

The Swimmer (1968)

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God what a beautiful feeling. We could have swum around the world in those days. Well-off middle-aged ad man Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) has been away for most of the summer and is visiting a friend when he notices the abundance of backyard pools that populate their upscale suburb. Ned suddenly decides that he’d like to travel the eight miles back to his own home by simply swimming across every pool in town. Soon, Ned’s journey on this hot summer day becomes harrowing; at each house in the tony neighbourhood, he is somehow confronted with a reminder of his romantic, domestic and economic failures.  He meets up with the family babysitter, Julie (Janet Landgard), then party girl Joan (Joan Rivers in her debut), until he finally meets an old flame, actress Shirley (Janice Rule) and it is this encounter that leaves him devastated… Ned Merrill, still bragging! The John Cheever short story first published in The New Yorker in 1964 is clearly an allegory and the titular trope serves us well in a literary form;  in cinema it works differently – literally immersing us in the experience of a middle-class man confronting his demons with every stroke, melodrama contained in his every movement in this day-long odyssey through his life during which he loses everything he holds dear. Directed by Frank Perry in his home town of Westport, Connecticut, and adapted by his wife Eleanor, there were some unspecified scenes shot by Sydney Pollack (uncredited). It’s daring and ambitious and possibly not for all tastes even as we become aware of Lancaster interrogating his own masculine affect:  it starts out with a taint of realism which becomes more and more stylised from pool to pool so that we eventually understand the symbolism. Finally we see Ned as others see him. Producer Sam Spiegel had his name removed from the credits. The score is by debutant composer Marvin Hamlisch. As a man sizes up his life and his place in the ultra-competitive world, and is faced with his failures, he is finally left alone in a pair of swimming trunks, past his prime with nothing to his name. It’s brilliant. I’m a very special human being

They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969)

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Don’t forget your poor old mother. Yowza yowza yowza! In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932 wannabe film director Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) encounters manipulative MC Rocky (Gig Young) when he wanders into a dance marathon on the Santa Monica Pier.  Rocky enlists contestants offering a $1,500 cash prize. Among them are a failed actress Gloria (Jane Fonda) whom he induces Robert to partner; a middle-aged sailor Harry Kline (Red Buttons); delusional blonde Alice (Susannah York); impoverished farm worker James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia). Days turn into weeks as the competition drags on and people either drop out or die. Rocky will do anything for publicity and initiates a series of gruelling derbies and nerves fray as exhaustion sets in … That soap’s a little hard. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson’s adaptation of the 1935 Horace McCoy novel plugs straight into its melodramatic core – a musical drama about economic despair. And the air of desperation hanging over these lost souls is like a fug, admirably sustained by director Sydney Pollack. Fonda is superb in a complex performance as the brittle cynic whose psychology is gradually broken while all around her succumb to the physical pressure. Her fear drives the story. How extraordinary to think that Charlie Chaplin had acquired the rights to the property eighteen years earlier, intending to cast his son Sydney opposite Marilyn Monroe in the roles played by Sarrazin and Fonda. It fell apart when Chaplin was refused re-entry to the US on foot of his political sympathies. When Fonda was approached by Pollack he asked her what she thought of the material and the character and she writes about it as a turning point in her career:  This was the first time in my life as an actor that I was working on a film about larger societal issues, and instead of my professional work feeling peripheral to life, it felt relevant. It also marked the beginning of Sarrazin’s years as a leading man – somehow he fell out of fashion in the late Seventies. He would die in 2011. There are some wonderful contrivances like the flash forwards that certain critics found irritating but it all works to build a mythic aspect. This is a stunning, disturbing indictment of social artifice and possesses a haunting quality, with its title becoming a catchphrase (and inspiring a hit song) and Gig Young’s fraudulent host inducing a kind of existential dread of showbiz ‘characters’. Maybe the whole world is like Central Casting – they got it all rigged before you ever show up

Driven (2001)

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He’s a younger, better you. Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue) is an up-and-coming young star of the open-wheel circuit known as Champ Car, but he’s slipping in the rankings as the championships loom. Under pressure from his promoter brother Demille (Robert Sean Leonard) and wheelchair-bound team owner Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds), Jimmy is given a mentor – Joe Tanto (Stallone), a legendary former CART racer whose career and marriage to Cathy (Gina Gershon) were destroyed by a tragic accident. Joe has to earn the rookie’s trust, while attempting a career comeback following years of retirement, dealing with persistent reporter Lucretia Clan (Stacy Edwards), and seeing Cathy, now married to rival racer Memo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente). Meanwhile, Jimmy is pursuing Sophia (model Estella Warren), the girlfriend of top driver Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) and there’s a journalist (Stacy Edwards) following everyone around the place in search of a scoop for her season-long coverage … Fans of Formula One racing will have spotted Stallone lurking in the team areas in the late 90s, attempting to get top-secret information for a biography of Ayrton Senna, killed while driving for Williams in 1994. He abandoned that idea when he got nowhere and decided to go his own way in an action drama set in Champ Car, albeit with guest spots from some of my own sporting heroes (Jacques Villeneuve! Juan Pablo Montoya!). As an F1 nut (or petrolhead) there is nothing more exciting on this good earth than watching a live race:  this consigns the danger into a raft of effects and no matter how impressive they cannot compete with the real thing. There are also some geographical issues:  for F1 fans the great races are the European classics at Monaco, Monza and Spa.  This was shot at Long Beach, Chicago, Florida, Canada and Japan. Stallone is of course starring in this Renny Harlin-directed epic, with real-life NASCAR enthusiast Burt Reynolds co-starring, (but in a wheelchair, recalling F1 team owner Frank Williams) and in a nod to his own epic lifestsyle, he comments of the journalist pursuing them, She’s doing an exposé on male dominance in sports. More of this ironic dialogue would have enhanced the fast-cutting and action sequences which don’t dwell on the ever-present danger of death in a tangle of metal – here the outcomes from a crash are minimised to a broken ankle. It’s never going to get to the root of what makes drivers do what they do despite the tagline What Drives You? but there’s a nice sense of jeopardy, coming to terms with the past and some terrific racing – even a completely implausible episode through night-time traffic in Chicago. As if! That’s movies for ya. The best motor racing movie is still Grand Prix;  and the best film about Senna would take devastating form in the titular documentary. Stallone wrote the screenplay from an original story by Jan Skrentny &  Neal Tabchnick. Glad you stuck around