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Tea With Mussolini (1998 with Cher and Judi Dench)

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UK – USA – Italy / 1998

Writer and Director: Franco Zeffirelli (adapted by John Mortimer)

Cast: Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin

Set in pre-War ’30s Italy, Zeffirelli’s film centres on a group of elderly English lady expatriates (known as The Scorpioni) whose lives are transformed by the arrival of Luca, the illegitimate and orphaned son of the former employer of Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright).

She decides to raise the boy, aided by the haughty Lady Hester (Maggie Smith), the artistic Arabella (Judi Dench) and an occasional appearance by the glamorous (and comparatively vulgar) Elsa (Cher), a wealthy American socialite who sets up a trust fund for the young boy.

As Fascism begins to take root in the country, Hester takes it upon herself to contact Il Duce (Claudio Spadaro), who invites her for tea in an elaborate publicity stunt. Years later when the adult Luca (Baird Wallace) returns from an Austrian education he finds the Englishwomen have been interned, with Elsa playing a role in smuggling Jews out of the country. When she asks for his assistance, Luca is reluctant to help, but when he discovers Mussolini’s true intentions he finds himself to be the only hope for the women whose bravery and dedication gave him a better life…

The film does rely on a certain suspension of disbelief as, for example, in the scene where Nazis are halted by a British matriach urging them to “stop all this nonsense at once”, and men in drag can cast aside their frocks to join the partisans with a cry of, “I’m a man”, yet the performances restrain Zeffirell’s excesses, with Cher adding a touch of Garbo. Audiences agreed, with prime-time patronage from the likes of Rosie O’Donnell helping to boost American domestic take, and British audiences taking advantage of the film’s release during a particularly arid cinematic period and falling for the charms of this likeable period drama.

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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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Raising The Wind (Anglo Amalgamated 1961, Leslie Phillips, Sid James)

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Raising The Wind

Raising The Wind, a winner from the Carry On stable, boasts a cast of familiar British comic actors and a surprisingly sharp screenplay by composer Bruce Montgomery, who wrote the music for many of the Carry On films.

Montgomery’s screenplay sensibly stuck to the successful formula established by the Carry On and Doctor film series, focusing on the comic adventures and misadventures of an assortment of impecunious music students working their way towards finals at a London Academy of Music under peppery conductor James Robertson Justice.

There was little straightforward plot; instead, Montgomery provided plenty of splendid comic situations which were played for all they were worth by director Gerald Thomas and his expert cast. Justice, sensibly making his conductor a variation on his celebrated surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt from the Doctor comedies, “bulldozes his way magnificently through the role,” said Variety, and there was well-deserved praise for accomplished film farceurs Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Williams (notably in a hilarious scene in which his orchestra runs away with him), Liz Fraser, Sidney James, George Woodbrige and Jimmy Thompson.

UK / Anglo Amalgamated – GHW / 91 Minutes / 1961

Writer: Bruce Montgomery / Cinematography: Alan Hume / Music: Bruce Montgomery / Producer: Peter Rogers / Director: Gerald Thomas

Cast: James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Kenneth Williams, Paul Massie, Eric Barker, Liz Fraser, Jennifer Jayne, Sidney James

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Town like Alice, A (Rank 1956, Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch)

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A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute’s novel A Town like Alice, from which this film was made, was based to a degree on fact – after the fall of Malaya to the Japanese during the war, European families were split, the men to labour camps, the women and children supposedly to other camps but these were over populated and they spent months on the road, ill-fed and sick, suffering deaths along their tortuous ordeal.

Virginia McKenna plays Jean Paget, who helps her fellow marchers as best she can. She meets Joe Harman, an Australian PoW on transport duties and a spark ignites between the two. But he is brutally punished by the Japanese after stealing a chicken for her and she thinks she’ll never see him again. When their lone guard dies, the women settle down in a small village and the war’s end brings repatriation. Then Jean gets a letter from Alice Springs, Australia…

The film, which saw the two leads win BAFTAs, also saw them at the height of their popularity and the film was a domestic triumph here and in Australia. Full of emotion and drama, Lee never allows the historical sweep to overwhelm the love story at the heart of the film and despite being shot entirely in Britain (doubles were used for McKenna and Finch for scenery shots in Malaya and Australia), it remains faithful to the story from one of Australia’s favourite writers.

UK – Australia / Rank – Vic Films / 117 minutes / 1956 made in black and white

Writers: W P Lipscombe, Richard Mason, based on Nevil Shute’s novel / Music: Matyas Seiber / Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth / Producer: Joseph Janni / Director: Jack Lee

Cast: Virginia McKenna, Peter Finch, Marie Lohr, Rennee Hosuton, Jean Anderson

US title: The Rape of Malaya

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