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Evil Under The Sun (1982 with Peter Ustinov and Diana Rigg)

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UK / 1982

Director: Guy Hamilton
Writer: Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel by Agatha Christie

Cast: Peter Ustinov, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Maggie Smith, Denis Quilley, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely, Roddy McDowall, Sylvia Miles, Emily Hone, John Alderson, Paul Antrim, Cyril Conway

Director Guy Hamilton follows the tradition established in previous films such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, by taking a an Agatha Christie novel and adapting it for an all-star cast. Peter Ustinov again takes the role of the fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, this time investigating the mysterious death of bitchy actress Diana Rigg on a remote holiday island.

On the island, which is run by failed actress turned proprietress Maggie Smith, Ustinov meets the assembled cast – most of whom have a reason to do in the ineffably unpleasant Rigg. Smith is in love with Rigg’s frequently cuckolded husband Denis Quilley. There’s also James Mason, who is a theatrical entrpreneur threatened with ruin if Rigg doesn’t star in his show, Roddy McDowall, a writer to whom she agreed to give her life story, a deal she later reneged on. Then there’s Nicholas Clay, who is having an affair with Rigg, and Clay’s shrinking violet wife Jane Birkin, who is aware of the situation but seemingly powerless to do anything about it. In addition, there’s Emily Hone, Rigg’s step-daughter to whom she is insufferably horrid and Colin Blakely, an industrialist who has given Rigg a jewel of great value and now wants it back.

As is inevitable in a Christie mystery, Rigg is done away with (this time via a blow to the head) and Smith implores Ustinov to solve the crime before the authorities arrive at the island and close down the hotel. Naturally, though, Ustinov only has to throw a stick at the guests to hit someone with a motive for committing the heinous crime. Taking painstaking time over each of the guests’ alibis, Ustinov recreates the crime time and again – trawling for and discarding each of the many red herrings – until he asks all the guests to join him in the drawing room where he will provide the denoument to the wicked tale.

Scriptwriter Anthony Schaffer plays to the brittle humour of the ’30s high society while director Hamilton (who had previously directed the Agatha Christie mystery The Mirror Crack’d) keeps the action moving along swiftly, playing again to the humour of the characters but keeping the movie from descending into farce. Both Schaffer and Hamilton realise that the fun of the film comes in the interplay of personalities and Poirot’s deconstructing the mechanics of the crime – no matter how implausible – rather than emphasising the social realism of the times.

Variety singles Ustinov out for praise, commenting on the greater degrees of warmth he brings to the Poirot character and then goes on to say: “Next to Ustinov, Maggie Smith shines as the hotel proprietress in love with the murdered woman’s husband. The latter is another nice-but-worried character played with quiet gusto by Denis Quilley. Diana Rigg as the stage star makes it believable in one short song and dance scene that she really is a star… Roddy McDowall is clearly enthusiastic about playing the clown for a change. Jane Birkin is thoroughly convincing as the withering maiden wife of Nicholas Clay, as she is when later emerging as a fashion-conscious beauty. She does some quite funny turns as an actress, too.” For Video Movie Guide, it is a “highly entertaining mystery.”

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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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Movies

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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