Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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When we’re young, we looks at thing very idealistically I guess. And I think Woodsworth means that… that when we’re grow-up… then, we have to… forget the ideals of youth… and find strength.  1928 Kansas. High school football star Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his sensitive high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood), are weighed down by their parents’ oppressive expectations, which threaten the future of their relationship. Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) and Bud’s oil baron father (Pat Hingle) caution their children against engaging in a sexual relationship, but for opposing reasons: Deanie’s mother thinks Bud won’t marry a girl with loose morals, while Bud’s father is afraid marriage and pregnancy would ruin Bud’s future at Yale… One of the great performances, by Wood, in one of the great movies from a Hollywood negotiating carefully between outward sexuality and the censorship mores which wouldn’t be properly thrown out for another half-dozen years. William Inge’s screenplay of adolescent yearning and learning falls plumb in the middle of his own playwriting and screenwriting run, with director Elia Kazan expertly treading the lines governing behaviour and desire in a small-minded society living in stultifying olde worlde interiors. Wood gives a total performance:  from the poetry-loving 1920s kid to the girl who falls heavily for Beatty’s rich boy and doesn’t know what to do with the burgeoning wish for sex that overwhelms her very being.  She literally goes crazy for want of him. Beatty is a superb match for Wood in his screen debut: and how beautiful are they together?  He was an important actor for Inge, having done his only stage performance in A Loss of Roses. His soft questioning hooded face seems to hold all the answers to the playwright’s questions:  Is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?  Barbara Loden (Kazan’s future wife) is good as Beatty’s slutty sister Ginny and Hingle is superb as his demanding father facing ruin when the stock market fails. Christie is frightening as Mrs Loomis. There are a lot of scenes set around water – it forms part of the narrative’s sensual mythology that envelops the players:  they are literally drowning in love. Kazan coaxes hysteria from an actress who was herself troubled enough to go into analysis (it was her offscreen tormentors who really needed it) and her heartbreaking expressive emotionality makes this utterly unforgettable. This is a film that takes teenagers seriously. Moving like few other films, this is a stunning and tragic evocation of repression, lust, desire and love. Wood is simply great.

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Strokes of Genius: Federer v Nadal (2018)

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The true story lying behind the epic battle of the Wimbledon Men’s Final in 2008 between the sport’s titanic champion, grass court genius Roger Federer, and his recent rival, clay court overlord Rafa Nadal. It took place over five hours under darkening skies with lightning strikes and two rain breaks. Nadal took the first two sets, Federer the next two. Nadal says one of Federer’s passing shots in the fourth was the worst feeling he had ever experienced in tennis. The narration spins us back to their upbringing, born five years apart. You wouldn’t think it now but Federer had a vicious temper and frequently broke racquets on court. He had to learn to control his mind and co-ordinate his actions. He says he became surprised by his own creativity. You would think it was the Spaniard who had the fiery nature but he is sweetness itself. Nadal and Federer both became pro at 16 but Nadal needed to build up his strength. His vulnerability inadvertently gave him his greatest weapon – he returned late with a raised arm. It’s the greatest return since Jimmy Connors was playing. Both men come from close-knit families:  Nadal is most at home on the island of his birth, Mallorca, cooking, sailing, fishing; Federer has a happy home life in Switzerland with wife and fellow tennis player Miroslava (or Mirka), and now, their four children. Their coaches and parents and that match’s umpire stress both men’s humanity and their desire to evolve:  they make each other better. They also work hard.  While Federer seems to look effortless he trains relentlessly. One amusing shot prior to their entering the court for one French Open final shows Nadal warming up like a prize fighter while Federer looks on, hands in pockets. It’s a misleading image. One commentator suggests that it was as though the tennis gods got together and made Nadal to compete with Federer – their games are utterly opposite, yet complementary. Federer is an artist who fights;  Nadal is a fighter who also happens to be an artist.  They are two strands of tennis DNA. The one is right-handed, the other a leftie. Nadal had lost the Wimbledon final the previous 2 years;  Federer had been thrashed by him in Paris a month earlier, in three, the last set to love. Devastating.  Home movies and interviews with both men and those around them and other players makes this illuminating and the footage of the 2008 match and others compel all over again as the differences between the merely brilliant players and the champions are teased out.  Other great tennis rivalries are explored in passing:  Evert/Navratilova, Borg/McEnroe – remember 1980?!  When Borg retired McEnroe was not the same, Borg made him better. Navratilova makes the observation that those two guys are happiest in each other’s company;  Evert says she and Navratilova made each other greater players. The true greats of the sport enjoy rarefied air and are the only other people on the planet to understand what it’s like up there. We are now living in what is probably the twilight of the greatest tennis era:  this documentary shows us why.  Directed by Andrew Douglas and based on material from Jon Wertheim’s book.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

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You see a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal.  Five teenagers enduring Saturday detention in a Chicago high school bond over their enmity of their supervisor (Paul Gleason). Yawn. Except this was probably the most audacious film of its year, courtesy of auteur John Hughes who got teens like nobody did. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is the nerd from the academic clubs,  Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is the champion wrestler bullied by his folks, Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is the strange outcast, Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is daddy’s little girl who bunked off to go to the mall, while John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the tough guy whose father beats him.  They are all from completely opposing school cliques with nothing in common and they hate each other and everything they believe each other stands for. Then they realise that they all have major issues at home and that they could have some fun even if they never speak to each other after the bell rings … Party like it’s 1984. You know you want to.

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

Somebody Up There Likes Me

Maybe Chicago’s got a heart but I ain’t found one.  Young Italian-American Rocky Barbella (Paul Newman) endures abuse from his father (Harold J. Stone) and despite his mother (Eileen Heckart) and her constant efforts to intervene he messes with small-time crime with his streetwise friend Romolo (Sal Mineo).  His consequent run-ins with the law lead him in and out of detention centers and prisons. When it seems he has it together, Rocky is drafted into the wartime Army but can’t stick the regime and goes AWOL. He takes up boxing to earn quick money with coach Irving Cohen (Everett Sloane), but when he discovers he has a natural talent in the ring, he builds the confidence to pursue his love interest, Norma (Pier Angeli), and fulfill his potential as a middleweight fighter. Pressured to take a bribe, his reputation takes a major hit.  He doesn’t know how to redeem himself except by fighting …  Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Rocky Graziano’s autobiography is full of clichés – but they’re good ones because they’re true. Filled with big, dramatic performances and great action which is what you want from a gutsy story of an abused child through his spells in juvie and prison and the Army, this is a wonderful portrait of NYC and its denizens and the final bout is heart-stopping. The right hooks aren’t confined to Rocky, Lehman’s dialogue is ripe with zingers:  The trouble with reading the phonebook is you always know how it’s going to come out.  Gleaming monochrome cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and a song by Perry Como add to a magnificent movie bio experience but one is forced to ask what Paul Newman’s career would have looked like if its intended lead James Dean hadn’t died before this went into production:  his Rebel co-star Mineo (who looks altogether lustrous) bolsters the teen crim story and the beautiful Angeli was engaged to Dean for a while (as well as doing The Silver Chalice with Newman). His ghost is everywhere. Look for Robert Loggia and Dean Jones down the cast list.  Directed by Robert Wise.

Love Means Zero (2017)

Love Means Zero

Nick loves the buildup. When things crash or don’t go the way he wants, Nick moves on.  A startling insight into famed – and infamous – tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, whose Florida tennis academy is associated mostly with Andre Agassi, who refused to have anything to do with this film. Interviewed on camera and frequently referring to himself in the third person, Bollettieri created his persona out of necessity, primarily financial, when he needed money for some of his eight wives and families and already in his forties. Intense, volatile, passionate and driven, he managed what seems to have been a mix of juvenile detention centre and luxury hotel, with his favoured students living in the nice bit, the other kids in cramped dorms and doing menial work to earn their keep. It became a kind of feeder for the tennis tour and he did everything to encourage students to attend. Some of them appear in staggeringly revealing interviews. Agassi was part of a Vegas contingent and Jim Courier was a contemporary they despised who worked harder and they eventually faced each other in the 1989 French Open where Bollettieri sided with Agassi which just made Courier determined to win. At the break for rain Bollettieri was doing a TV interview instead of helping his charge. When Courier got the victory, he split with his coach.  The hurt he experienced when Bollettieri was cheering Agassi and staying silent on his own points is clear. When Agassi won at Wimbledon in 1992, Bollettieri split with him after years of using him to gain publicity. Agassi found out in USA Today. He had asked Bollettieri never to coach his rivals but when Boris Becker approached Bollettieri he took him on and Becker faced Agassi at Wimbledon in the 1995 semi-finals and beat him. Bollettieri is remarkably unconscious of his behaviour on camera and claims to remember very little. However Kathy Horvath, a teen prodigy whom he sidelined in favour of pretty Carling Bassett (of the brewing dynasty), remains bitter to this day, while Bassett acknowledges it and suffered herself when her egomaniac father took over from Bollettieri:  she got an eating disorder, which she admits on camera.  Her father died in 1986 and her career disappeared.  She’s been yesterday’s news for a long time and I last read about her after she got pregnant by another player while still a teenager and a story ran that she was cutting coupons for groceries. She believes if she had been allowed to stick with Bollettieri she would have been a great player. Becker maintains that Bollettieri is a life coach whose chosen communication vehicle is tennis:  Nick Bollettieri never won a game of tennis in his life. Courier made his peace with the man years ago. He sold the academy to IMG sports agency and became incredibly wealthy, not that he shared it with his co-workers as they make clear yet they claim they’d do it all over given half a chance. This is a fascinating piece of work, rather like its subject and a very timely screening mid-Wimbledon with wonderful footage and some truly shocking stories of what he inflicted on kids rich and poor alike. Directed by Jason Kohn.

Nous irons tous au Paradis (1977)

Nous irons tous au paradis

Aka Pardon mon Affaire, Too. Étienne (Jean Rochefort), Bouly (Victor Lanoux), Simon (Guy Bedos) et Daniel (Claude Brasseur) sont encore dans la quarantaine. Les affaires vont bien et il y a de nouvelles femmes qui leur causent des problèmes. Étienne imagine Marthe (Danièle Delorme) a acquis un amant. Lui et ses amis ont acheté ensemble une maison de week-end pour poursuivre des vies loin de leurs épouses et de leurs familles. Les complications habituelles de la romance, de l’adultère, de la jalousie, de l’amitié, des disputes et des rires surgissent chez les hommes d’âge moyen, accompagnées de complications typiques … Le réalisateur Yves Robert et le co-auteur Jean-Loup Dabadie revisitent la scène deux ans plus tôt, des personnages de Un éléphant ça trompe énormément jalonnent la narration d’Étienne. Simon est toujours dominé par sa mère, Bouly veut être un vrai papa mais on ne sait toujours pas si Daniel est gay. Plus ça change!

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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Just remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.  In the summer of 1983 precocious piano prodigy, American-Jewish-Italian 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending the days with his archaeologist father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and translator mother (Amira Casar) at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy.  Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a handsome American doctoral student who’s working as a research assistant for Elio’s father and living with them for the holiday to help him with his academic papers. Amid the sun-drenched splendour, while Elio pursues relationships with local girls, he and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire that will alter their lives…  Adapted by the venerable filmmaker James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, this is a uniquely atmospheric work by director Luca Guadagnino which attempts successfully to convey how people really think and feel about each other while consumed with desire. Most of the acting nominations were for Chalamet but Hammer is stunning in a role he was born to play. There are moments that take the breath away – shot choices that focus on his face, shifting lens length and emphasis and particularity to indicate his conflicted thoughts about instigating a relationship with a mere boy.  We understand how his mind works. When the older gay couple visiting the Perlman home stand listening to Elio play an affecting piano piece, Hammer hovers very briefly in the background in the doorway and his effect on people is such that the younger of the men looks over his shoulder, as though the very plates had shifted beneath him, even with a passing glimpse of this astonishingly attractive guy. Such is Oliver’s power. His beauty is tactile. He eats up life with the same enthusiasm he gobbles food. He folds in his imposing height to avoid intimidating people. But his touching of Elio’s shoulder during a volleyball game signals his intentions. It’s such a physically demanding characterisation. He is wooing us all. The puppyish Elio has no hope. Hammer projects his position as lust object with immense sympathy. His introduction to the family involves Perlman’s customary intellectual test which he passes with flying colours in an audition that might telegraph social embarrassment but lends the drama its comic and humane undertow. It also skewers the viewer’s fear that this is a film about pretentious people:  we soon realise these are instead people of passions. There is a coyness of course to the exposition of the sex – we see Elio having intercourse with his young girlfriend but we never witness the act between him and Oliver. Instead, when they finally achieve total freedom and intimacy away from the family home, in the mountains outside Bergamo, the correlative for this is a waterfall:  it’s somehow overstated yet understated at the same time, perfect for young men going wild in the country, figuratively sharing an orgasm in public. The brief flashback sequence is done in tinted negative, another decent aesthetic choice. Mirrors are used sparingly to convey psychological turmoil and brief parental distance. And if T.S. Eliot encouraged you to dare eat a peach you might think twice before doing it after watching this:  masturbation played ultimately for endearingly awkward laughs, more Philip Roth than American Pie. What a marvellously thoughtful and beautifully judged piece of cinema, one that lingers in the mind long after viewing for its grace and beauty and generosity and its remarkable sensuality. Richard Butler must be thrilled.

 

Caddyshack (1980)

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It’s in the hole!  Teenager Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works as a caddy at the snob-infested Bushwood Country Club to raise money for his college education. In an attempt to gain votes for a college scholarship reserved for caddies, Noonan volunteers to caddy for a prominent and influential club member (Ted Knight). He struggles to prepare for the high pressure Caddy Day golf tournament while absorbing New Age advice from wealthy golf guru Ty Webb (Chevy Chase) and greenkeeper Carl (Bill Murray) deals with a pesky gopher who insists on popping up at the most inopportune moments … From one-liners, crude triadic exchanges, skits, long payoffs and slapstick sequences of inspired genius, this is practically the Sophocles of Eighties comedy. In a weekend of sport – Wentworth! The Monaco Grand Prix! The Indy 500! Champions League Final! The Paris Open’s first day! – take a break from all the high-falutin’ gentlemanly point-scoring and watch one of the funniest low brow films ever made! Written by Douglas Kenney, Brian Doyle-Murray and director Harold Ramis. These performers were all at the height of their considerable comic powers and it’s a scream. OMG I love it!

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Mermaids (1990)

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Weird things happen. It’s 1963. Fifteen-year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) is tired of her wacky mom (Cher) moving their family any time she feels it is necessary. When they move to a small Massachusetts town Mrs. Flax begins dating kindly shopkeeper Lou (Bob Hoskins) whose wife has run away. Charlotte and her 9-year-old swimming enthusiast sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), hope that they can finally settle down. But when Charlotte’s attraction to an older man Joe (Michael Schoeffling) the convent’s caretaker gets in the way, the family must learn to accept each other for who they truly are just as the President is assassinated and the nation mourns…  June Roberts’ adaptation of Patty Dann’s book is adept and appropriate, giving Winona Ryder one of her best roles and she plays it beautifully. Funny, warm and engaging, this works on so many levels but it doesn’t dodge the effect of maternal neglect – which is also a case of overpowering personality:  Charlotte’s fantasy fugue to New Haven is a sharp reminder that mother-daughter relationships are a minefield and when the daughter starts imitating the mother’s promiscuous behaviour (in between attempts to live like a Catholic saint) Mom doesn’t like it and there’s collateral damage. The girls are not products of marriages – just a teen romance and a one-night stand with an Olympic athlete (maybe) and when things get tough, Mom always gets going.  It’s Charlotte who wants to settle down. There’s a wonderful running joke about Mom’s inability to prepare any food other than hors d’oeuvres or sandwiches served with star-shaped cookie cutters. With great dialogue, lovely scene-setting and on the button performances (Cher giving one of her best), there’s nothing in this well-judged comedy drama you can’t like even though it unexpectedly swerves directions, more than once.  The characters are still sympathetic despite being curiously narcissistic:  that’s good writing. Cher tops it off with The Shoop Shoop Song! Directed by Richard Benjamin.

I, Tonya (2017)

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There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants! In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. We first see her as a three year old in 1970s Portland Oregon where her monstrous multiply-married mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) insists that she be mentored by Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) at the local rink.  In 1994, her world comes crashing down when her violent ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) conspires with her moronic and delusional bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to injure Harding’s friend  and fellow Olympic hopeful and biggest rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding’s life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she’s forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history…  When producer and star Robbie read Steven Rogers’s pitch black comedy she didn’t realise it was based on a true story (sort of). Her determination to bring this radical post-modern interpretation of one of the most notorious sporting crimes in the last quarter of a century to the big screen is testament to both her good taste and her chutzpah – this after all is her first starring role and she produced the film. She gives a powerhouse performance in a difficult role, delineating Harding’s evolution from white trash teen to triple axel-crushing rink monster routinely routed by snobby judges who want someone more ‘family’-friendly as their poster child and create the conditions for unconscious revenge against the powers that be. You were as graceless as a bull dyke. It was embarrassing! Janney’s performance has won all the awards (never forget she was everyone’s fave woman in the world in The West Wing) however she plays this crushing creature for a couple too many laughs.  It’s Robbie who has the tough job here – convincing us in this self-reflexive narrative that she really did deserve plaudits and not the horrifying level of domestic abuse which she came to expect after being reared by a veritable dragon in human form. Having each of the characters variously interviewed and breaking the fourth wall occasionally to ask why their contribution isn’t being featured at different points in the story reminds you that there are competing testimonies here.  The end credits, complete with real-life cringe-inducing footage of the ghastly individuals (this is really a documentary!) interspersed with Harding’s uplifting, magical performances makes you wonder how the poor girl ever survived the rank and file awfulness of her dreary Pacific north-west background. The interview with Hard Copy journalist Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) and the juxtaposition with the breaking news of OJ Simpson as the drama concludes in 1994 reinforces the underlying story of newsmaking in the 90s and how these two stories changed TV journalism forever. Brilliantly constructed and performed and well executed by Craig Gillespie. 6.0! Go Tonya!