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Bridge On The River Kwai, The (1957 with Alec Guinness and William Holden)

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David Lean The Bridge on the River Kwai

UK / 1957

Director: David Lean
Writers: Pierre Boulle and (uncredited) Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson based on Pierre Boulle’s novel
Cast: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald

David Lean’s seven Oscar, four BAFTA-winning epic is, though superficially about the use of British POWs to build a railway bridge for their Japanese captors over the river Kwai in Burma, really about how individual characters face up to duress and circumstances outside their set of experience.

The film opens at a POW compound where cynical American Major Shears (William Holden) rests from grave-digging to watch the arrival of a new batch of British prisoners, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), whistling the now-famous ‘Colonel Bogey’ march.

Greeted by the camp commandant Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), they are told to start work on the railway bridge across the river Kwai. However, Nicholson points out that under the Geneva Convention, officers are not expected to undertake manual labour. His attitude sets up the conflict between him and Saito, resulting in Nicholson being confined to the ‘sweat box’ in the searing heat and, in the ensuing confusion, Shears manages to escape.

The film now follows the two men, cutting between Shears’ survival, arrival at an Allied hospital and reluctant recruitment by commando Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to return as a guide for a small force to blow up the bridge and, more dramatically, the strange relationship between Saito and Nicholson. MO Major Clipton (James Donald), acting as a go-between (and hence the audience’s eyes) draws together the intransigence of Nicholson and the bushido beliefs of Saito and shows how much their beliefs coincide in terms of duty, honour and country. Nicholson agrees to take over the command of completing the bridge, believing it will not only boost morale but prove British superiority while Saito sees it not just as surrender but proof of his superiority. As Nicholson becomes more obsessed with building the perfect bridge, so Warden and Shears approach the bridge, bent on destruction…

The film, although set in the war, is almost violence-free, being solely about the battle of wills between Nicholson and Saito. Both Guinness and Hayakawa (the former an Oscar-winner, the latter nominated for his role) give superb performances of driven men but both with a human side. Shears’ character, in contrast, is of the chancer in war, the cynic who is only an officer because he stripped a dead comrade’s uniform for the POW privileges and has to be blackmailed back into the jungle to do his ‘duty’. By using such complex characters, Lean offers an almost unique look at conflict and duty, superbly shot by Oscar-winner Jack Hildyard with a deserved Oscar-winning screenplay from Boulle (and Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, uncredited at the time because of their Hollywood blacklisting but posthumously restored).

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California Split (Columbia 1974, Elliott Gould, George Segal)

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California Split

California Split is a movie about the adventures of two card players, and it stars two of 70s-era Hollywood’s most prolific male actors. Elliot Gould (M*A*S*H, 1970) plays Charlie Waters, a small-time card player who has the charisma and moxie of someone who’s way better at the tables than he actually is. Alongside him is George Segal (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966) who plays Bill Denny, a magazine writer who moonlights as a casual player. Charlie and Bill meet in a California poker parlour game that turns heated over a dealt card hitting the floor, raising concerns of cheating. Despite this, the game continues, and one of them wins. This leads to the two players getting mugged by one of the game’s sore losers, giving them an experience that’s worth bonding over. The two become fast friends and this starts them off on a poker adventure that will test and reveal their true spirit.

In a 1974 review, Roger Ebert called California Split a “magnificently funny, cynical film”, which is probably the best way to describe the succeeding events following Bill and Charlie’s meet up. Regarded by many to be one of the best poker movies ever made, California Split is a quirky but ultimately realistic and darkly comedic look into the life and mind of card players. Despite this, you don’t really need to know a thing about poker beforehand in order to enjoy the movie. It’s a classic American adventure movie that has inspired countless other road trip movies and casino films.

From start to finish, California Split follows Bill and Charlie through the race tracks, seedy bars, private poker parties, Vegas’ second-rate casinos, treating bruises with hot shaving cream, waking up to massive hangovers, and even another mugging in which their instincts are put to the test. The result is less of a movie with careful exposition, and more of what feels like an inside look into the hilariously nightmarish world of America’s casino scene. The Telegraph calls the film one of Robert Altman’s best out of his extensive catalogue. It is brilliantly pieced together by his signature subtle visual prose, realistically overlapping dialogue, and the bravely understated introductions of his many quirky characters, California Split is one of the 70s’ definite must-see adventures. Such was the film’s realism that PartyPoker state that legendary player Thomas Austin Preston Jr. aka ‘Amarilo Slim’ had a small part. In his time Slim was known as one of the greatest ever poker players, winning 4 WSOP bracelets, and would have been an inspiration for the two main characters.

California Split is definitely a treat not just for card players, but for anyone who likes well-crafted movies about friendship and the makings of the American Dream.

main stars
George Segal, Elliot Gould Ann Prentis, Gwen Welsh, Edward Walsh, Joseph Walsh, Bert Remsen

crew details
Director: Robert Altman
Producer: Joseph Walsh, Robert Altman
Director of Photography: Paul Lohmann
Editor: O. Nicholas Brown, Lou Lombardo
Composer: Phyllis Shotwell
Screenwriters: Joseph Walsh
Production Designer: Leon Ericksen

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51st State, The (2001, Samuel L Jackson, Robert Carlyle)

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51st State

In The 51st State after three decades of experimentation, pharmacologist Elmo McElroy (Samuel L Jackson) creates the perfect drug: POS-51. Orchestrating a bomb plot to kill his boss, The Lizard (Meatloaf), he heads to Liverpool for a date with gangster Leopold Durant (Ricky Tomlinson) and a $20 million payday, more than The Lizard was offering.

Thanks to his new bodyguard, Felix (Robert Carlyle), Elmo avoids a gunfight with an assassin sent by The Lizard – who survived the bomb – but he’s also on the radar of corrupt cop Virgil Kane (Sean Pertwee), who tortures Durant to death, forcing Elmo to find another buyer. Local gangster Iki (Rhys Ifans) looks ideal, but can he be trusted?

Cinema loves a rags-to-riches tale, and while McElroy’s journey is great entertainment it pales compared to the story of the film’s writer. Stel Pavlou worked in a London off-licence, writing in his spare time. After sending his 51st State screenplay to Tim Roth, the Reservoir Dog politely declined but forwarded it to his friend Jackson, who signed up and kick-started production.

Pavlou’s inspirations are obvious – Quentin Tarantino – and wholly relevant to his leading man, whose sense of fun, style and menace make the transatlantic journey intact. The addition of Carlyle and Tomlinson produces that other kind of chemistry and led to speculation, sadly unfulfilled, that Jackson had agreed to a cameo in The Royle Family .

Ronny Yu brings energy to the project, allowing the actors to enjoy the action and overcome the occasional liberties of plot and character. Together they judge the audience’s tolerance spot-on, having Ifans declare “I’m even getting on my own nerves,” and keep this pyrotechnic panto on the road.

UK / 2001

Director: Ronny Yu
Writer: Stel Pavlou

Cast: Samuel L Jackson, Robert Carlyle, Meatloaf, Ricky Tomlinson, Emily Mortimer, Sean Pertwee, Rhys Ifans

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Annie (1982, Albert Finney, Carol Burnett)

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Annie Albert Finney

After the smash-hit Broadway musical version of Annie the powers that be obviously decided that a cute redhead would mean big bucks. Consequently Annie weighed in at $60million, and charmed the pants off Hollywood (it won nominations for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award) and children around the world with the great tagline: The Movie of Tomorrow.

So familiar and loveable are the story and eponymous star (Aileen Quinn) that one critic went so far as to describe it as “the film that made people actually want to be orphans.” Improbable as that may be, Annie is a corking story that follows the Oliver Twist mould of poor, pretty orphan makes good. Set during the depression, feisty orphan Annie dreams of a future in which the sun will shine and she can leave the orphanage, escaping the clutches of the evil Mrs Hannigan (Carol Burnett).

Annie’s dreams seem to come true when she is adopted by the wealthy Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) and warms his hard heart. But dark forces conspire against her. Mrs Hannigan and her brother Rooster (Tim Curry – who also starred in Oliver Twist that year playing another baddie, Bill Sykes) try to trick Annie away from her new-found affluence and take the rewards for themselves.

Quinn, Finney and Burnett all received their share of praise with the latter being consistently singled out. The acclaimed critic Pauline Kael described her as: “the soused, man-hungry Miss Hannigan… Carol Burnett is both hag and trollop… she’s gloriously macabre.”

USA / 1982

Director: John Huston
Writers: Harold Gray, Thomas Mehan

Cast: Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Grace Farrell, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, Aileen Quinn

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