The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Six-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in sleepy smalltown Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, spending their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) who visits every summer, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour the mentally defective Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck) their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges by a redneck white girl Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) whose own father Bob (James Anderson) has attacked her, the trial and surrounding issues expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping and the accuser’s father has a bone to pick with Finch and his children … This feels like it has always been here:  the gracious Peck in the role with which he would come to be identified and young Scout’s view of unfolding events, the most violent of which are all offscreen. Horton Foote’s careful adaptation of Harper Lee’s instant classic and Pulitzer Prize-winner (with Dill a stand-in for her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) both heightens and elevates the issue of white supremacy in some of the shot set-ups by director Robert Mulligan, never mind the text in which the innocent victim of white justice is mysteriously shot by the police while allegedly escaping. Perhaps that’s the quibble of someone viewing it in retrospect twice over – the 1960s take on a 30s point of view. The sense of place and period ambiance is impeccable and the playing of the motherless girl by Badham (sister of director John) is hugely influential in its insistence on how we see things are – or were, perhaps, with no distractions or subplots to take from this essential drama of the rights of the vulnerable with the odd scene properly essaying the effect of horror films, just as a child experiences life. Each of the children makes a lasting impression. The courtroom scene is classic and the quiet dignity of the black community rising to their feet as Atticus leaves the legendary trial sequence is very moving. Quite monumental.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

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An utterly compelling sequel? Yes, it’s possible.  In fact for many people this is better than the original. But then it’s a prequel as well as a sequel and has an absorbing richness deriving from the fabled origins of the Mob back in Sicily and its growth during the Prohibition era. Robert De Niro plays the young Vito Corleone and his life is juxtaposed with that of his son the current Don, Michael (Al Pacino), as a Senate Committee closes in on the Mafia and his rivals start wiping out everyone in sight while he tries to expand his casino interests in Las Vegas. An immensely fulfilling narrative experience with stunning performances including legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth and Troy Donahue playing Connie’s latest squeeze, Merle Johnson – Donahue’s birth name.

The Godfather (1971)

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Make him an offer he can’t refuse. Go to the mattresses. Leave the gun, take the cannoli. The Godfather is truly the I Ching, non vero? Mario Puzo’s novel is gripping but kinda schlocky, Francis Ford Coppola saw a way to imbue it with a kind of classicism at a time when the few Mafia movies that had been made were really just cheap-ish thrillers. The story is that of family, brothers, inheritance, murder and mayhem. If you do the Paramount Studios tour (and I thoroughly recommend it) you can see the NYC set where Michael takes out the crooked cop and the rival who’s tried to assassinate his father Don Vito – a friend obsessed with production design asked me if the floor (tiled) was still there and I had to disappoint them. But it was a thrill. Because no matter how many times you see this film it lures you in, just like they do Sonny to the tollbooth on the Causeway (jeez, the first time I saw this I didn’t go to bed till 2 in the morning. The image of James Caan being rattled like a ragdoll under machine gunfire is unforgettable and horrible. Never mind the horse’s head…)  Watching Pacino transform from the good youngest son to the efficiently vengeful killing machine is really something – his movement under the greatcoat and bowler at the movie’s end makes you weep at how his idealism has curdled into limitless violence and ambition, and that closing shot, when his wife is literally shut out in that long shot … Oh, I feel like I’m turning into Edward G. Robinson:  Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?! It’s impossible to state how great this film is and watching it side by side with its great sequel is one of the singular pleasures of this mortal life. Seeing it in a big screen revival raised my spirits. It’s simply stunning I have it on all the time chez moi because sometimes you have to make yourself feel good and despite its content it is paradoxically comforting. Coppola did a fine job in making over the material so that you feel like you’re watching a parable about America rather than a tale of scuzzy mobsters. But he knew mid-production there was a scene missing and so he asked screenwriter and script doctor Robert Towne to help him out: the result being the garden scene when the Don is handing over the family business to the war hero son he thought would become a Senator. You can read about that in my book about Towne: https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1472425177&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon. What a fabulous film. I believe in America

The Judge (2014)

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It is probably more than coincidence that the antagonist in The Judge (Dobkin, 2014) is Robert Duvall, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962).  Here he plays the title character, a smalltown and self-righteous official called Joseph Palmer who winds up in bigtime trouble the night his beloved wife is buried and has to be (highly reluctantly) defended by son Hank, Robert Downey Jr., the film’s producer, a criminal lawyer in Chicago whose wife is divorcing him.  He says of his position, “Everybody wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the bathtub.” It is a long tale, well told, with hints of incest, lost love, and plenty of prolix speeches from Hank, a Downey specialty overindulged somewhat here. Massachusetts stands in very prettily for Hoosier country, Indiana, while the family’s secrets are steadily unfolded, one by one. This patriarchal drama brings together two of the screen’s powerhouse performers, with the extravagantly gifted Downey turning in a mighty performance opposite not just the other legendary Robert D, but Billy Bob Thornton, with whom Duvall has also shared some impressive time in Sling Blade (1996) and The Apostle (1997). This is a long, cool drink of a movie with a closing sequence that suggests it might be a third franchise for Downey. The jury is out.