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Movies

Straight Story, The (1999, Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek)

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In David Lynch’s Oscar-nominated film The Straight Story the director returns to playing as straight as he did with The Elephant Man, telling a story without any of the excursions to the edge of sanity that mark most of his work. And in doing so, he produces a film of warmth and variety.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who is getting on and has a dicky hip, lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Iowa. He hears his brother in Wisconsin is dying and is determined to see him again. The problem is his eyes are too bad to drive and Rose is a little simple and can’t be trusted behind the wheel. He can’t afford the air fare but what he does have is a tractor-mower. And so, with a trailer behind him, he sets off on the 300-mile journey just above walking pace… The film is about those he meets along the way: a runaway girl, a war veteran in a bar with whom he swaps hidden secrets, a woman who’s run down 14 deer in seven weeks (“… and I have to take this road”); and as one of the centrepoints of the film, a stopover after an accident with ex-mower salesman Danny Riordan (James Cada). Each encounter reveals more about Alvin as well as offering a Lynchian insight into rural America’s communities and people. And, at the end, when he reaches brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), Lynch again confounds expectations with an ending that is truthful rather than sentimental.

Farnsworth, Oscar-nominated for his role, was 79 and fits the part like a glove, his slowness of speech adding weight to his carefully considered words and a face, as one critic wrote, “like a wrinkled [wallet] he’d paid good money for and expects to see him out”. He started out a stuntman in westerns before moving into acting and was Oscar-nominated in 1979 for Comes a Horseman.

The Straight Story brought him to a whole new audience but sadly a few years later, in constant pain from terminal cancer, he took his own life. While he carries the film, the surrounding cast, particularly Spacek and Cada, are all perfect as are even minor characters (watch the un-credited barman when the two veterans meet). And award-winning cameraman Freddie Francis catches the lush vastness of the country Alvin passes through with beautifully framed work, including a crane shot that rises from Alvin’s progress, sweeps up to the sky and then gracefully down, to reveal Alvin about a yard further on, a beautiful visual joke that encapsulates the quality of the film.

USA / 1999

Director: David Lynch
Writers: John Roach, Mary Sweeney

Cast: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, James Cada, Jennifer Edwards, John Farley, Harry Dean Stanton

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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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