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Withnail And I (1987, Richard E Grant, Paul McGann)

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Former actor and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of The Killing Fields, Bruce Robinson made his highly impressive directorial debut with witty and perceptive black comedy Withnail and I. set at the fag-end of the “Swinging Sixties” which The Times called “a striking, quirky slice of autobiographical comedy … a film with a personal, thoughtful touch: rare qualities in the frantic, imitative world of British screen comedy”.

Withnail and I , originally written as a novel in 1970, is a semi-autobiographical piece based on the filmmaker’s life as a drama student and actor; said Robinson, “Every incident in the film happened at one time or another. They’re just little things I noticed between about 1967 – when the ‘sixties’ really exploded – and 1970, and condensed into a couple of weeks at the end of 1969. It was an astonishing time to have gone through. So animated. For me it was ‘the best of times and the worst of times’.

In many ways this is a celebration of that period in my life”. The film opens with an unforgettable pan around the truly disgusting London flat inhabited by out-of-work actors Richard E Grant (“Withnail”) and Paul McGann (“I”, Robinson’s celluloid alter ego and the film’s laconic narrator) whose sink, crammed to the brim with suppurating dirty dishes covered with green fungal growths that would keep a mycologist in work for months.

Their diet largely consists of alcohol and drugs, with down-at-heel dealer Ralph Brown providing the latter. Grant and McGann decide to get out of London and borrow Grant’s gay former actor uncle Richard Griffiths’ cottage in the Lake District. When the intrepid duo finally reach the cottage after a hazardous drive, they find the place lacking in light, heat or water. The weather is wet and their stay is further enlivened by encounters with a randy bull and with psychotic poacher Michael Elphick. And things go from bad to disastrous with the arrival of Griffiths who, filled with passion and red wine, takes a shine to McGann and, during the night, attempts to seduce him. McGann is saved by a telegram from his agent summoning him back to London. On the way he and Grant are stopped for drunken driving and when they reach Camden Town, find an eviction order on their flat and Brown in possession. However, McGann has been offered a leading role in a play and, as the Sixties draw to a close, he and Grant go their separate ways …

Withnail and I is very funny, intelligent, and ultimately, thanks in large measure to the extraordinarily good performances elicited from Grant, McGann and Griffiths, affecting. The characters, apart from “I”, narrator and embryo writer, were composites of people who were part of Robinson’s world of drama school and struggling actors and the considerable strength of the film lies in characterization and performance rather than plot and narrative. Grant (later to star for Robinson in How To Get Ahead in Advertising ) and McGann were perfectly cast and made assured and telling film debuts, with Grant taking the honours and displaying fine, and subsequently triumphantly confirmed, talent.

First-time director Robinson, having provided himself with a splendid screenplay, proceeded to bring it to the screen with considerable skill and perception. “It was like building the Titanic”, he said, “We’d sit up and talk and re-read it all night. We learned from each other. I knew nothing about directing, but I had acted, so we worked on getting the performances right. Richard E Grant who plays Withnail, is as straight as they come, half a junior aspirin and he’s on his back. So one night I kept him up and force fed him vodka, got him completely demolished. The next morning we dragged him to rehearsals, pissed as a tart. But I wouldn’t let him go until he’d got it right. From then on, he had a chemical memory of what it was like to be wasted. Once we got that we were off, we were flying”.

UK / 1987

Writer and Director: Bruce Robinson

Cast: Richard E Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffith, Ralph Brown, Michael Elphick

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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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China Moon (1994, Ed Harris, Madeleine Stowe)

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China Moon Cast

A top notch cast raises the temperature of tight, modern noir China Moon in which homicide detective ED HARRIS becomes accessory to murder after he falls for siren MADELEINE STOWE.

In the sweltering humidity of a small Florida town, lonely copper Kyle Bodine (Harris), starts sweating over glamorous but unhappy Rachel (Stowe). She’s married to banking tycoon Rupert Munro (CHARLES DANCE), an abusive sort who doubles Rachel’s misery by playing away from home. Incredibly, she starts coming on to Kyle. But no sooner have they jumped in the hay than he finds himself embroiled in a brutal murder, dumping Rupert’s body in the town lake. The tension rises as he tries to push eager rookie partner Lamar Dickey (BENICIO DEL TORO) off his trail, but blinded by his love for Rachel, he starts making costly mistakes.

Roy Carlson’s story has the lean attack of the best noirs with Larry Kasdan’s Body Heat being the most obvious informant. In his directing debut, John Bailey (who had previously been Kasdan’s favourite cinematographer), tightens the suffocating atmosphere with a gripping acceleration of pace. As The Washington Post cooed at the time of release, his film is “smarter than Basic Instinct and sexier too, as well as being the most stylish, most convincing love story since The Last of the Mohicans.”

Ed Harris shows once more why he’s among America’s best actors with a “stellar performance… bringing his customary quiet, focused intensity to a tailor-made role” (Variety).

USA / 1994

Director: John Bailey
Writer: Roy Carlson

Cast: Ed Harris, Madeleine Stowe, Charles Dance, Benicio Del Toro, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Roger Aaron Brown, Patricia Healey

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Baby And The Battleship, The (1956, John Mills, Richard Attenborough)

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Baby and the Battleship

John Mills and Richard Attenborough were ideally cast  in The Baby and The Battleship and were at their lower-decks best as sailors who go ashore when their battleship puts in at Naples. They visit baker’s daughter Lisa Gastoni who agrees to go out with Attenborough only if they can take her baby brother Martyn Garrett with them.

When they become involved in a brawl in a cafe, Gastoni and Attenborough get away, leaving Mills literally holding the baby. The ship sails without Attenborough and Mills has the problem of looking after the baby which he has smuggled on board the ship. Mills’ fellow sailors rally round and help him with the child. But the battleship is involved in taking part in and exrecise and when Andre Morrell, a Marshal from a friendly totalitarian state pays a visit to the ship, the baby has to be smuggled from one hiding place to another.

Baby and the Battleship

Sophistication was at a premium: the farce was broad and very entertainingly played for all it was worth by the well-chosen performers under the spirited direction of Jay Lewis who kept the pace fast and furious and the comedy quotient high.

Among those in the large cast making useful comic contributions were such familiar British film faces as Morell, Lionel Jeffries, Ernest Clark, Thorley Walters, John Le Mesurier, Kenneth Griffith, Gordon Jackson, Patrick Cargill and, almost inevitably in a British film of the period, SAM KYDD. Harry Waxman’s lush cinematography, notably of the well-used Naples locations, and the bright musical score by James Stevens and Humphrey Searle, attractively wrapped up a blithe comedy which “as an example of good wholesome British fun”, said Variety, should be hard to beat”.

UK / 1956

Director: Jay Lewis
Writers: Jay Lewis, Gilbert Hackforth-Jones, from the novel by Anthony Thorne

Cast: John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Michael Hordern, Ernest Clark, André Morell, Lisa Gastoni, Martin Miller

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