My favourite films from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s

Recently I got into a conversation with my partner about old films. Classic films. And it turns out I’ve not seen that many, so I can’t really call myself a cinephile. Because – and here’s where I ‘fess up – I’ve seen ALMOST NOTHING from before 1950. It’s an issue I’m – very slowly – trying to address.

But it did get me thinking about what I HAVE seen, and how the bulk of my cinematic knowledge starts in the 1970s.

So, here are some of my favourites from those three decades. What would you make your list?

1950s
Some Like It Hot (1959)
North by Northwest (1959)

1960s
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Mary Poppins (1964)
The Great Escape (1963)
Dr No (1962)
Barbarella (1968)

1970s
Star Wars (1977)
Alien (1979)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather: part two (1974)
Animal House (1978)
Serpico (1973)

American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.

Rush: fear, rivalry, a playboy and a rat

‘With fear, you must prevent nor cure. Fear must not be allowed to take hold in the first place. If you are in a canoe, never listen to the roar of the rapid ahead before you let go of the river bank. Just do it!’ Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl in Ron Howard's RushSome great men and women are defined by their parents, or shaped by the world around them, or simply, are just born champions. In the case of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, their rivalry – both on and off the track – fuelled their desire to win, honed their skills and gave them the drive and determination to succeed.

You could argue that, without the other, perhaps neither would have pushed himself to become a champion, at least not at the same rate. To backtrack a second, if you hadn’t guessed by now I am of course referring to Rush. A film about two F1 racing legends in the ’70s, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth as the charismatic playboy Brit James Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as the calculating workaholic Austrian Niki Lauda. The film roughly charts their rise at the start of the ’70s in Formula 3, through to their intense rivalry for the Formula 1 title in 1976, culminating in an epic race at the Japanese Grand Prix.

With Rush, I feel director Ron Howard had a point to prove. Following the debacle of Angels & Demons (Ewan McGregor jumping out a helicopter to save the Vatican from a bomb anyone?) he wanted to remind us that this was the guy who directed Willow, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon, to name aRush-Chris-Hemsworth-On-Set-Photo-rush-2013-film-31196500-778-1024 few.

And prove a point he did, with a compelling, engaging and riveting tale. Formula 1 is not for everyone, some would go as far as to say it can come across as dull, being more a competition between mechanics and how they’ve set the car up, than driver skill. However back in the ’70s there was nothing even remotely approaching the levels of safety we have today. There was real risk, indeed there are numerous points in the film where Bruhl’s Lauda talks about percentages, how he’s happy with a twenty percent chance of dying, but no higher. Think about that for a second, that’s huge. No wonder these guys were scared.

Howard’s direction is telling in that sense, whilst he makes the races exhilarating and exciting, you get a real sense of the danger involved. Whether it’s Hemsworth’s Hunt vomiting before every race – with his team just saying that means he’s ‘raring to go’ – or Lauda demanding greater levels of safety and less risk, it’s nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat stuff.

And it’s not just the race sequences. Why would these guys even set foot in these metal death traps? Desire. The desire to win. The desire to be champions. RushAnd the desire to beat their fiercest rival and the only man equal to them on a race track. Whilst the other drivers during this decade had skill and nerve, Lauda and Hunt were a class apart. They needed each other.

A nuanced script by Peter Morgan (who also penned Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland and The Damned United among others) gave us a glimpse, not only of their rivalry, but within it, their admiration for one another. Both men were complicated and flawed, such are the minds of champions. Funnily enough, the quieter moments between the two are the ones that really draw you in. As such, you end up caring for both of them, albeit for different reasons.

Hemsworth cuts a dashing figure as James Hunt. Not a million miles away from Thor, but he plays it well. A thousand brake horsepowered thumbs up should go to Daniel Bruhl though. His portrayal of Niki Lauda was like holding a mirror up to the man himself.

Hemsworth will obviously dominate the marketing material to draw the crowds in but, in some ways, this is Bruhl’s story more than Hemsworth’s. And I imagine, come awards season, he’ll get the recognition he deserves. So hats off to him, and hats off to Ron Howard for a splendid return to form.

Bittersweet biopic – The Look of Love

I saw this at an advance screening back in November 2012. It doesn’t come out till the start of March in the UK, but as that’s realistically not that far off, let’s review!

The Look of Love is about the life and career of Paul Raymond aka the ‘King of Soho’, played by Steve Coogan. Born and raised in Liverpool, Raymond moved to London and opened Britain’s first strip club – the Raymond Revuebar – in 1958.

Featuring acts such as nude dancers performing with snakes, his club often grabbed headlines and incurred the wrath of authorities for its controversial nature. Yet, as you’d expect, this increased its popularity and success.

Within a few years Raymond expanded into publishing and bought adult title Men Only in 1971. However, the real reason he gained the ‘King of Soho’ name in the 1970s was down to property. Building his portfolio up purchasing much of Soho, he passed a fortune on to his grandchildren estimated upwards of £650m.

tamsin egerton steve cooganThe setup
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan, the film features a strong cast including Anna Friel, Imogen Poots and Chris Addison.

It’s also a bit of a showcase for British comedy, with appearances from David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Simon Bird and more. In the case of Bird and Addison they’re hidden under a lot of hair (it is set in the 70s!), but you’ll laugh when you spot them.

To call it a comedy though, would be misleading. It’s a biopic – informative, tragic, funny, touching and ultimately bittersweet. It charts the rise of Raymond’s empire and the relationships with the women central to his life and success: wife (Friel), mistress (Egerton) and daughter (Poots).

Tender, tragic and charming
Coogan is quite brilliant in this role. In some ways Raymond can come across as quite unsympathetic; no time for his children, first abandoning his wife for his mistress, then mistress for whomever the next girl may be.

tamson egerton steve cooganCredit to Coogan, he manages to give Raymond a warmth and accessibility. He comes across as a guy trying to do his best, but doomed to make the same mistakes with all the women in his life, of which there are many. He also plays the role quite straight, allowing comic moments to reveal themselves accordingly – plus this gives room for more obvious comedic characters to shine.

Friel is outstanding as the fiery, yet vulnerable wife, coming in and out of his life at various moments. Egerton, too, plays her part well, as the sexy mistress who eventually runs out of patience with Raymond’s philandering ways.

For me, the biggest revelation was Poots as Raymond’s daughter, Debbie. Clearly a doting if misguided father, he indulges her every whim, including her desire to perform on stage headlining her own show. It isn’t a success and this kick-starts Debbie’s downward spiral, resulting in her death from heroin in 1992.

Poots gives Debbie an innocence and vulnerability that really gives dramatic heft to her fall from grace. Particularly when Raymond just isn’t there for her in the ways a father should be. When catching her doing cocaine for the first time, his fatherly advice is to ‘make sure it’s the best stuff and not rubbish from street dealers’.

Sex sells where love fails
This film shares a certain something with biopic Gia, based on the rise and fall of America’s first supermodel Gia Carangi, starring Angelina Jolie. It also had elements of Blow – a biopic starring Johnny Depp – based on the real life story of American cocaine smuggler George Jung.

Whilst both those were set in America, grand in scale and glamorous, The Look of Love is very much a British affair. Quirky, subtly amusing; finding comedy in tragedy and absurdity of the situation. There’s glamour, nudity and drugs, but it’s on more of an understated British level.

Ultimately, it’s an interesting little tale of a showman’s rise to fame through exploitation of the age-old motto ‘sex sells’. Yet what it does most cleverly – if you take away the glitz and glamour – is tell the tale of a man who surrounds himself with sex, yet fails to succeed at love. Either pushing it away with wives and girlfriends or – in the tragic case of his daughter – failing to live up to his responsibilities as a father.

Sometimes jumping between comedy and tragedy can seem jarring and uneven in tone, leaving the audience confused about what they are supposed to feel. Winterbottom does a great job, balancing these two elements to keep the film light when it needed to be, yet ensuring dramatic scenes still rang true.

So if you like true stories in a period setting, filled with tender, subtle drama and light, comic moments, go see it. But don’t expect an out-and-out comedy. It’s a more nuanced, reflective and complex tale – and that’s a good thing.