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City Slickers (1991, Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern)

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Gags fly thicker than bullets in a Leone movie in comedy western City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal (on whose story the screenplay was based), Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby as Mitch, Phil and Ed, three urban buddies who seek to exorcise their mid-life crises by spending their annual two-week holiday on a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. At the dude ranch, they team up with an assortment of other holidaymakers, including Bonnie (Helen Slater), under the guidance of leathery trail boss Curly (Jack Palance).

When the drive starts, the city slickers are inept drovers – Mitch sets off a stampede with his portable coffee grinder – but gradually Curly begins to teach them how to appreciate life and to believe in old western values. But when Curly dies suddenly, Phil and Ed intend to abort the mission. However, Mitch insists that they continue with the drive and, as they progress, he realises the value of his marriage and family. Womaniser Ed admits he really loves his wife and newly-divorced Phil starts a relationship with Bonnie. Finally Mitch leads the group as they successfully help the cattle to ford a raging river and deliver the herd to the Colorado ranch.

“I call this my ‘coming of middle age movie’, said Crystal, who passed his plot notes to Mandel and Ganz, who “supplied me with a very funny script that remained faithful to the storyline”. The sharply observed, often moving screenplay gives the film genuine realism, making it more than simply a comic, gag-filled western in the tradition of, say, Paleface . The characters are credible and driving direction by Ron Underwood never loses sight of the key characters or abandons them in favour of a smart joke. Palance creates a character who brilliantly and believably embodies the beliefs and behaviour of the old west and, as a result, was rightly rewarded with the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

USA / 1991

Director: Ron Underwood
Writers: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandell, from a story by Billy Crystal

Cast: Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Bruno Kirby, Jack Palance, Patricia Wettig, Helen Slater, Josh Mostel, David Paynter, Tracey Walter

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Movies

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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Movies

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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