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.

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Street Corner (1953)

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Aka Both Sides of the Law. Coppers in skirts. Pity they haven’t got something better to do.  Two London policewomen based at Sloan Street in Chelsea go about their daily lives involved in cases of child endangerment and larceny.  Sgt Pauline Ramsey (Rosamund John) and WPC Susan (Anne Crawford) deal with a woman Edna Hurran (Eleanor Summerfield) who’s rescued a boy from drowning. The surrounding publicity means she has to return to the Army from which she went AWOL to marry sickly David Evans (Ronald Howard) and must pay the price – until a reward is given to her and the newspaper story triggers the return of her first husband looking for a share:  they never divorced. A toddler wanders out on the ledge of her tenement building several storeys up. There are tense moments as Pauline saves her and then ruminates the possibility of adoption as her own child and husband were killed in a car crash and she thinks motherhood would be a better alternative to work. Then Susan finds the child’s mother, now remarried.  Shoplifter Bridget Foster (Peggy Cummins) faces a £5 fine and abandons her 15-month old son to her mother-in-law, taking up with Ray, a crim (Terence Morgan) who sees her at a nightclub. He’s involved in a heist on jewels  in a van and pawns them at Mr Muller’s (Charles Victor) but doesn’t like the price he gets and pays a return visit.  WPC Lucy (Barbara Murray) goes to get her hair done and spots Bridget which may lead her to the thieves … Jan Read’s story was adapted by Muriel and Sydney Box as a kind of followup to The Blue Lamp which had been a huge hit in England. Ostensibly a docudrama, this production cast well-known names as a kind of insurance policy – John was in several good films since wartime, while Cummins had made her name in America. There are some moments of humour in the police station – when an older woman reports a man following her, the Sergeant (male) remarks, ‘sounds like an acute case of wishful thinking’;  while a man in the raided nightclub says ‘my wife thinks I’m in Birmingham,’ which impresses precisely nobody.  There are interesting strands to the stories – the perceived fairness of the judiciary;  Muller’s experience of the Gestapo in Berlin which he likens to Morgan showing up pretending to be a policeman looking for a bribe; the issue of parenting – the child abuse of the toddler whose mother is now apparently uninterested in her welfare following her remarriage. Muriel Box’s direction is pretty rudimentary but her storytelling skill is evident and the conclusion, when all the stories are threaded together in a chase and courtroom and there is a satisfying drawing together of the various elements. How Morgan is caught is particularly good.  In the final scene sequence Cummins is outfitted in a beret so that she resembles the gangster’s moll she played in the incredible Gun Crazy but that film is in a different league to a more plodding police procedural, albeit its focus is on the female experience: working, single, marital, maternal, streetwise and otherwise.  Shot at Gate Studios, Elstree with some interesting location work on the streets of London which looks rather lacking in business in the era of rationing and is filled with blocks of modernist council flats. There’s an interesting score by Temple Abady and fun to be had spotting actors who would become better known, principally through TV roles:  Michael Medwin, Michael Hordern and Thora Hird.

The Cruel Sea (1953)

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No one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.  Despite his guilt over a recent harrowing sea battle in which many of his men were lost, Lt. Cmdr. George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is assigned to helm the new H.M.S. Compass Rose with the help of steadfast seaman Lt. Lockhart (Donald Sinden). When the small vessel (a corvette) is sent to escort convoys of ships fighting German U-boats in the North Atlantic, the mettle of the novice crew is tested by the weather, the turbulent sea and enemy attacks in the Battle of the Atlantic, one of which nearly destroys the Compass Rose… Nicholas Monsarrat’s book was hugely meaningful to seafaring folk (like my grandfather) especially if they’d had experiences during WW2. Eric Ambler’s adaptation takes what the author described as ‘a story of one ocean, two ships, and about one hundred and fifty men’ and inscribes more character psychology to make the plot turn. This does not shirk from the terror that invariably affects the men, with Hawkins’ stiff upper lip quivering more than once in the onslaught. The decisions that are made – such as whether to launch depth charges – tear at him. His relationship with Lockhart is the story’s fulcrum: Monsarrat based that character on himself. He had been a journalist before the war and served for four years in the Royal Navy.  Stanley Baker (as cowardly Australian Bennett) and Denholm Elliott (as Sub-Lieutenant Morell) have crucial supporting roles, while Virginia McKenna makes a striking appearance as Julie Hallam, a WRNS officer. There are other well-known faces down the ranks and on land: Liam Redmond, Alec McCowen,  Sam Kydd, Megs Jenkins. The Fifties British war film had a difficult job:  to serve up the realism that the audience deserved while also being mindful of the tricky area of censorship. This is a superb example of a film that does justice to its subject while avoiding some of the book’s elements (sex scenes;  precise details of what happens to bodies split by explosives) that would never make it past the censor’s scissors. Produced by Leslie Norman, Norman Priggen and Michael Balcon and directed by Charles Frend, this is a spirited, harrowing depiction of six years at sea in a war of utter futility that the U-boats were slated to win, a tragic tale of bravery that does not glamorise the combat scenes which end so cruelly for so many. Tremendous.

 

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

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Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Hoboken dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) had been an up-and-coming prize-fighting boxer until powerful local mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) persuaded him to throw a fight. His older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is Friendly’s right hand man and lawyer. When longshoreman Joey Doyle is murdered before he can testify about Friendly’s control of the Hoboken waterfront, Terry teams up with the dead man’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and the streetwise priest Father Barry (Karl Malden) to do something about the violent gangsters controlling the dock. Terry finally figures out it was Charley getting him to throw a fight at Madison Square Garden that put him in this jam. He decides to go against his advice and testify … Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts. This classic film can never be separated from its origins:  Arthur Miller wanted to write about the infiltration of the dockers’ unions by the Mafia and his project The Hook was brought to Columbia with Elia Kazan as director but Harry Cohn insisted the criminals be called communists instead. Sam Spiegel took it on and Frank Sinatra was tapped to play Terry inintially. Miller gave up on it completely when Kazan testified and named names at the HUAC (if he hadn’t his career was dead, he named people whose names were already known); and fellow friendly witness Budd Schulberg’s screenplay could be partly attributed to a series of articles based on a true story about a longshoreman who tried to do something about union corruption. It didn’t work. (A series of lawsuits arose with the studio because Schulberg had talked to a number of individuals about racketeering and they recognised their story onscreen).  The original ending was rejected because of the censors:  crime could not win. So there is a brutal fight.  Brando’s was not the only influential acting in this film, which is a hymn to mid-century Method style, a kind of heightened reality with actors finding ‘business,’ like the accidentally dropped glove that Brando picked up and stroked, an unplanned incident that adds to the film’s text. And that legendary taxi scene between Brando and Steiger? Brando was a soft guy. He hated the cold. He wanted to be back in his hotel all the time when they were on the docks. This particular scene was shot in the studio and he wouldn’t do the decent thing and do the reverses for Rod Steiger after Steiger had acted his ass off for Brando’s shots. Steiger had to emote to a stage hand reading the script. Brando won the Academy Award and the film got Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actress (for Saint), Art Direction, Editing and Cinematography (for Boris Kaufman.) Leonard Bernstein should have won for Best Score because he makes the big dialogue scenes work. Turns out you can justify anything.  I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years. I didn’t even know it.

Downhill Racer (1969)

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In seven years I’ve never had a hot dog like you.  Smug, arrogant and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Robert Redford), joins the American ski team after their star has an accident and quickly makes waves with his contemptuous behavior and his actions on the slopes, falling into conflict with the team’s coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). He won’t ski at Wengen because he’s seeded too low. Then when he comes fourth he thinks he’s won. But he has a good face and attracts the attention of a ski manufacturer Machet (Karl Michael Vogler). A rivalry also develops between David and Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), the man who is now considered the team’s best skier, firstly romantically as Chappelet immediately hits on Machet’s assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) when he sees Creech with her.  The relationship lasts a season when Chappelet wins at Kitzbühel and alienates the rest of the team. Then the men find common ground when they are both in the running for the Olympic team and Chappelet realises Carole is even more driven and capricious than he is He’s not for the team, and he never will be. Written by the great James Salter (from the uncredited novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall), this is a classic character study told in terms of competitive skiing. The limitations of Chappelet’s smalltown origins paradoxically make him want to conquer the world – which in skiing terms means Europe. While Redford would make another kind of mountain movie in a few years (Jeremiah Johnson) this is about another paradox which team coach Hackman addresses in a press conference – why America has such fantastic mountains but lacks champion skiers (money). Chappelet wins the attentions of the glamorous Carole but he loves her money as much as the sex – when he snorts with laughter at the sight of her yellow Porsche you understand. His sketchy relationship with his farmer dad demonstrates the issue and why his tunnel vision exists. Claire is tolerant of his talent but antagonistic to Chappelet’s single-minded drive: All you ever had was your skis and it’s not enough. Chappelet may not be a nice guy, but Claire needs him and the team needs him. When a happy accident occurs, replaying a race held in jest, you know Chappelet’s glad. The almost-twist ending is just perfect. It’s amazing to realise that this was Michael Ritchie’s debut as director. He is often described as a master ironist and while the material is undoubtedly on the page, the staging is meticulously judged:  there is acute observation and colour (look at the difference a white turtleneck makes to Chappelet and how he dons blue jeans to talk to his uninterested father);  the production design in flawless in terms of contrast; there are also reverse shots that make you laugh out loud. (Look at how Claire laughs in a restaurant when Chappelet is cornered by a dumb journalist). This world is established leanly, using few reaction shots.The part is Redford’s. He had picked up on the property when Roman Polanski was working on it at Paramount prior to getting involved with Rosemary’s Baby and Salter developed the story outline from Polanski’s idea of a High Noon on the slopes, ignoring Hall’s novel. Redford and Salter travelled with the US ski team to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble and Hall picked up on an aloof quality in Billy Kidd but was also influenced by Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner who had died a few years earlier in an avalanche while fooling with a film crew. Sparv was married to Paramount Studio head Robert Evans for a few years and she has precisely the glacial attraction required for such a nonchalant self-absorbed woman. Superior, in fact. Chappelet’s need of money and fame needs that kind of woman in tow. When she doesn’t need him he is brought down to earth – literally. Claire is the warm team manager whose methods the cool Chappelet despises. There is a plot but it’s the anonymity of the slopes, the hotel rooms, the lifestyle, the effort, the brutality, that highlight the characterisations. The technical side of the film is superlative – rarely has the experience of skiing been so accurately shot and Ritchie hired cameraman Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton after seeing their work on Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. The images of Chappelet and Carole skirting the high line of the glistening white slopes under a bright blue sky are awesome. Some years ago an acquaintance regaled me with a little story about Redford at one of the Sundance Institute workshops. He kept a low profile, he said. Didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And then one morning he was out on the slopes. You could spot him without any effort:  he was the one in a hot pink suit. Somehow you just know he is channeling his inner Chappelet. Not just for ski bunnies and Jean-Claude Killy fans. Outstanding.

 

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

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Get me a bottle of milk and some tranquilisers. Screenwriter Alun Owen and director Richard Lester’s semi-documentary, wholly New Wave account of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band works wonderfully.  Shot in glistening monochrome by the inventive Gilbert Taylor the Beatles are on a train with Paul’s bolshie Irish grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who is ‘very clean,’ as everyone keeps remarking. Hounded by their fans, they are performing on a TV show directed by Victor Spinetti while their put-upon manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and road manager Shake (John Junkin) try to corral this travelling circus as Grandpa keeps going missing, showing up variously in a casino and a police station. Taylor and the five camera operators run around with Arriflexes capturing the minutiae of the band’s characters who are defined in smart exchanges and incidents, with wonderfully droll moments of mockery, self- and otherwise.  The resulting freedom accorded Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr adds to the sense of  naturalism and reality. The visual wit is complemented by the auditory, with overdubbing and non-synchronous sound combining to create an overwhelming atmosphere of effervescent fun and immediacy:  these guys are young and pulpy and enjoying their first brush with fame and their caustic, cheeky chappie Scouse personalities come across extraordinarily. That enjoyment wouldn’t last (see Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week) but these indelible images contributed to their myth. You probably know the songs … Edited by John Jympson.

Brubaker (1980)

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That’s murder they’re talking about in there. And if they condone it, how are you gonna turn around and tell these guys why they’re locked up? 1969 Arkansas. Posing as an inmate at Wakefield Prison, the new warden of the penitentiary, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), witnesses firsthand the scams and abuse inflicted upon the prisoners by the staff (maggot-ridden food, paying for medical care) and the prisoners upon one another – rape, bullying, violent beatings. After revealing his true identity when a prisoner in the tank Walter (Morgan Freeman) takes another Larry Lee Bullen (David Keith) hostage and threatens to kill him, Brubaker brings much-needed reform to the prison with the help of supporters: trustee (prisoner turned gamekeeper) Dickie Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) and administrator at the board of governors Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander). But not everyone is happy especially not the prison governors who are profiting from years of graft. When the benefactors of the old corrupt system inside the building, like Huey Rauch (Tim McIntire) and Roy Purcell (Matt Clark) are threatened by the changes, Brubaker’s battles really begin and he realises that Dickie is correct to warn him that innocent people are going to die to prove his point … Accomplices to the Crime:  The Arkansas Prison Scandal by Thomas Murton and Joe Hyams was adapted by W.D. Richter (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai) and it’s a striking and compelling film of social injustice directed by Stuart Rosenberg, based on Murton’s experiences when he was appointed under Governor Rockefeller to reform an an unprofitable prison.  The inmates were slave labour for local business, the crops on the 15,000 acres were being poisoned, the canned food was being stolen by prison officers and sold on while the inmates starved. When he discovered dozens of men had been murdered and put in unmarked graves he was dismissed. Redford is quite brilliant as the man who is at first in there undercover and then breaks out in order to save an habitual criminal who then becomes a trustee. He understands he has to play the system to make humanitarian gains but finally the demands are too much even when proposed by the woman who wanted him in there, Gray (Alexander). Freeman’s role is small but astonishing – when he sings Respect with David Keith’s neck in his hands you listen. It’s tautly written, brutal and flawlessly staged.  Rosenberg of course is the man responsible for that other great prison movie, Cool Hand Luke. This is a devastating indictment of corruption and graft and there simply isn’t a false moment.

Death Wish (1974)

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I mean, if we’re not pioneers, what have we become? What do you call people who, when they’re faced with a condition or fear, do nothing about it, they just run and hide? Once a mild-mannered liberal, New York City architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) snaps when intruders break into his home, murdering his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and violently raping his daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan). On a business trip to Tucson, Arizona he is given a gift from a client Aimes Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a revolver he uses to patrol the streets when he returns home when he realises his ideals have been completely compromised in the worst possible way. Frustrated that the police led by Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) cannot find the intruders, he becomes a vigilante, gunning down any criminal that crosses his path. Then the public finds his vigilanteism heroic… Wendell Mayes adapted Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel which arose from his own spontaneous reaction to being a crime victim. Under the direction of Michael Winner this exploitation fare becomes a muscular revenge thriller, brilliantly honing Bronson’s persona to effectively express what any normal individual might feel like doing – but would restrain themselves from actually pulling the trigger. His transformation is key to establishing the audience’s empathy. You’ll have fun identifying the thugs – watch for Jeff Goldblum. Also in the cast:  Stephen Elliott, Paul Dooley, Christopher Guest and that’s Olympia Dukakis in the precinct. The cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz is realistic and the score by Herbie Hancock immersive, making for a powerfully atmospheric narrative. Probably Winner’s best film. Fantastically judged and controversial, this is for anyone who’s ever felt f****d over.

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

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You don’t fuck me and I always have to drive. In Portland, Oregon 1971, Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a family of drug addicts consisting of his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), and another couple, goofy Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), a troublesome teenage drifter who can’t take Bob and his fear of hexes seriously. They feed their habit by robbing drug stores and pharmacies as they travel across the country. They vex tenacious cop Gentry (James Remar) and frame a neighbour for a bust. After one of them dies and the others have to stay in their motel room with the corpse because there’s a Sheriffs’ convention, Bob decides he has to clean up and go straight. Parting ways with his junkie past is tough, especially when he is stalked by an old acquaintance, Fr. Murphy (William Burroughs), who just wants to score … Director Gus Van Sant, legendary writer William Burroughs and Daniel Yost adapted James Fogle’s unpublished memoir of his junkie past. It’s a remarkably balanced movie about modern day outlaws, with the confidence to avoid moralising and just relate a story about criminals whose way of life revolves around the next fix. Their escapades are humorous and enervating, Bob’s highs are animated and amusing, the tragedy is inextricably linked to the comic ennui and unintentional deaths that this lifestyle entails. It has a remarkable texture, a combination of realistic documentary-style touches with colourful effects to suggest the visuals experienced in drug use. Told with daring and wit, irony writ large in the situation, the performances by Dillon and Lynch are outstanding. One of the best films of its era.

The Florida Project (2017)

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I need a light. I need a life. And I need to get laid. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee near Walt Disney World (the title derives from the original name of the theme park). She plays unsupervised with her motel-resident friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky (Aiden Malik), engaging in mischief, mooching from tourists, stealing, and other bad behaviour. She meets Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a child living at the Futureland motel next door, and invites her to hang out with them. Bobby (Willem Dafoe) the manager of Magic Castle, is protective of the children despite their misdeeds. Halley can’t make the rent so hawks perfume to tourists in hotel parking lots and asks Scooty’s mother, Ashley (Mela Murder) to steal food for them from the diner where she works. However, Ashley cuts contact after discovering Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey set an abandoned condo on fire. Halley begins offering her services online as a prostitute, locking Moonee in the bathroom when she has a client. Bobby notices and applies restrictions on unregistered guests in her room. When she steals a client’s Disney park passes to sell them, the man returns to demand them back; Bobby sees him off but warns Halley that he will evict her if the prostitution continues.  Halley approaches Ashley to apologise and ask for money. When Ashley mocks her for her sex work, Halley beats her in front of Scooty. Then Child Protection show up … How you respond to this artless blend of social realism and off-kilter comic narrative about children in poverty probably stems from your politics. This is a tragicomic portrait of the underclass against a backdrop of dayglo pastels which doesn’t make it any prettier despite the charming playing of Prince, a little girl who has oodles of charisma. For much of the time it seems Dafoe is in another film altogether – he is a professional actor after all. This is basically a sobering warning to teenage girls not to get pregnant in a massively overpopulated world where decent people demand that children have normal lives. Sorry, but that’s what it meant to me, fantasy ending or not. Written by director Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.