The Angel Who Pawned Her Harp (1953)

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A beautiful blonde angel (Diane Cilento) arrives in The Angel, Islington on a goodwill mission to soften the heart of pawnbroker Joshua Webman (Felix Aylmer). To raise money for her earthly mission, she pawns her harp for £20 and declares her love for the shop assistant Len (Philip Guard) who is immediately taken with her. She shows the people she encounters the path down which their happiness lies, whilst winning at the dogs and dodging pickpockets (Alfie Bass and Thomas Gallagher) and tries to improve people’s economic situations (pretty dire at the time) and puts couples together. This is a fairly typical British film of its post-WW2 era, blending elements of sentiment and whimsy with social realism (but you could take issue with the way that Jewish characters are represented). There are some nice visual touches – my favourite occurs when Bass gets planted in a birdcage during a foiled burglary. This was adapted by Charles Terrot from his novel and TV play with Sidney Cole and directed by Alan Bromly. Quite charming, with Cilento immensely impressive as the naive visitor in one of her earliest appearances, really becoming the Angel of Islington. There’s a pleasant score by Antony Hopkins.

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All the Right Moves (1983)

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Who in the hell gave you that power? You’re just a coach. You’re just a high school football coach. Steff Djordjevic (Tom Cruise) is the star player of his high school football team and desperately hoping that his football talents will earn him a scholarship. That’s his only chance to get out of his dying hometown of Ampipe, Pennsylvania where his father and brother and every other guy works at the plant before they’re laid off. When a heated argument with his coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) gets him kicked off the team and blacklisted from college recruiters, petty revenge is taken on Nickerson’s house. Steff is blamed and then has to fight for a chance to achieve his dream and escape the dead-end future he faces while girlfriend Lisa (Lea Thompson) wants to study music but reckons she’ll never have the chances that he’s screwed up … From the roughhousing in the changing room to the nasty barroom exchanges and the explicit sex scenes and the unfortunate friend (Chris Penn) who knocks up his girlfriend and has to get married, this has the distinct whiff of authenticity yet never really makes you like it. The blue collar Pennsylvania milieu reminds you both of Flashdance and The Deer Hunter yet the narrative feels underpowered and even Cruise can’t really make this work. Risky Business was his slicker film that year and it’s a colder piece of work while fundamentally dealing with the same crap game of college entrance and kidding other kidders but it stays in the mind in a different way.  Michael Kane’s screenplay was based on an article by Pat Jordan and this marked the directing debut of the great cinematographer Michael Chapman.

The Odd Couple (1968)

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Don’t point that finger at me unless you intend to use it. Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon) is suicidal over his divorce and checks into a cheap hotel to off himself. Then his back gives out, he has second thoughts and he calls his friend Oscar the sportswriter (Walter Matthau) in the middle of their regular poker game. Oscar figures he can save Felix from himself and invites him to move in. Felix’s neat obsession drives slobby Oscar crazy and he arranges a double date with the English Pigeon sisters from another apartment upstairs but Felix cries about his divorce and it sends the empathetic ladies home and Oscar over the edge. Mike Nichols’ staging is replicated here to the extent that you feel you’re watching a lot of this on the other side of the proscenium. However that doesn’t detract from the strength of the performances, grounded in Neil Simon’s mordant wit:  who sends a suicide telegram?  How two mismatched men get over their divorced status and then enter a virtual marriage themselves and find out what it is that made their wives leave them is the whole show. There’s terrific support from Herb (TV’s Big John, Little John) Edelman as Murray the cop and John Fiedler as Vinnie, who get a taste for Felix’s delicious sandwiches even if the stench of disinfectant from the playing cards forces them out. With a notable score by Neal Hefti (how could you forget that theme), a screenplay by Simon himself and a rather theatrical directing job by Gene Saks, this is a good but not great comedy, but marks the first of four collaborations between the writer and Lemmon, that Everyman of Seventies cinema.

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

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If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

Fletch (1985)

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Are you putting a whole fist up there Doc? Irwin Fletcher (Chevy Chase) is an undercover reporter doing a drugs story while disguised as a homeless junkie on the beach when he’s approached by businessman Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson) to kill him for $50,000 because he’s got bone cancer. Fletch identifies himself as Ted Nugent. He then investigates this fascinating proposition, donning a myriad of disguises and identities (we particularly like the 49c teeth), getting mired in Stanwyk’s marital disarray, property deals, police corruption involving Chief of Police Karlin (Joe Don Baker) – and murder. And he gets to know Alan’s LA wife Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) in a mutually satisfying fashion. Win! Gregory Mcdonald’s novel gets a fast-moving adaptation from Andrew Bergman, a director in his own right (there was some additional uncredited work by fellow writer-director Phil Alden Robinson.)  Chase gives the performance (or performances) that you’d expect – droll and deadpan, always amiable (yet plucky!) and the running joke about his bizarre expense claims is well done. Fine, funny lighthearted fare handled with his customary aplomb by director Michael Ritchie, energised by a typically zippy plinkety-plonk score from Harold Faltermeyer, the go-to composer for zeitgeisty mid-Eighties entertainment. Chase even dons an Afro to play basketball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There’s a wonderful supporting cast including Geena Davis in the newsroom, David Harper (of The Waltons!) as ‘teenager’ and Kenneth Mars:  we are thrice blessed!

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

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Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. Years after a disastrous cross-country car trip when they’re leaving college in Chicago, freshly divorced political consultant Harry (Billy Crystal) runs into journalist Sally (Meg Ryan) in NYC after she’s just broken up too. They console each other over their numerous dating fails and become each other’s late night phonecall while introducing their own best friends to each other and have to stand by while they watch the pair (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) fall in love and get married. He’s depressive but funny, she’s awkward and self-indulgent. Then when Sally finds out her ex is marrying the woman he dated after her she gets upset – she was supposed to be the transitional person! – and calls Harry and then she and Harry sleep together … Nora Ephron’s witty and insightful comedic tale of contemporary relationships is so true it’s not even funny. What happens when you date your best friend after a traumatic divorce and they know absolutely everything about you? What good can possibly come of it? That was the discussion between director Rob Reiner and smarter-than-thou writer Ephron that led to this. The scene in Katz’s Deli is crowned by Reiner’s mother’s line that is now part of the language – I’ll have what she’s having:  Crystal dreamed it up but only after Ryan suggested faking an orgasm. The aphoristic exchanges are broken up with interviews to camera featuring old married couples recalling how they met. Now when somebody tearfully declares I hate you you’ll have to think twice about what they’re really saying. A modern classic.

 

 

Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …

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 Big Lebowski (1998)

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Nobody fucks with the Jesus. The Dude abides. Where to start with one of the most cherished films there has ever been? Not in the beginning. I may have almost had a coronary from laughing the first time I saw this at a festival screening prior to its release, but a lot of critics just did not get it. It’s the Coen Brothers in excelsis, a broad Chandler adaptation and tribute to Los Angeles,  a hymn to male friendship and the Tao of easy living with some extraordinarily surreal fantasy and dream sequences – not to mention some deadly bowling. Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey ‘Dude’ Lebowski, a guy so laid back he’s horizontal but he gets a little antsy when some thieves mistake him for The Big Lebowski and piss on his rug (it really tied the room together). Best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) is his bowling buddy, an uptight Nam vet with adoptive-Jewish issues in this hilarious offside take on director John Milius. Steve Buscemi is their sweet-natured friend Donny and John Turturro is the unforgettable sports foe, a hispanic gangsta paedo in a hairnet, Jesus Quintana. After the rug issue is handled, Dude is hired by his namesake (David Huddleston) a wheelchair-bound multimillionaire philanthropist, to exchange a ransom when his young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped. Naturally Dude screws it up. There’s a band of nihilists led by Peter Stormare, some porn producers (Bunny makes flesh flicks), Lebowski’s randy artist daughter (Julianne Moore) and a private eye following everyone. And there’s Sam Elliott, narrating this tale of tumbleweed and laziness.  Everyone has their signature song in one of the great movie soundtracks and Dude has not only Creedence but White Russians to really mellow his day. Just like The Big Sleep, the plot really doesn’t matter a fig. This is inspired lunacy and I love it SO much.