This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of The Sting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
In many instances a film is like a con: it wants to hook you, it wants to make you personally invested in the outcome, and it wants you to walk away with a smile on your face and slightly less in your wallet. If the endeavor is a success, there will always be enough to suggest that the artist — the film artist or the con artist — knows a truth that you do not. If the endeavor is unsuccessful, the feeling of being cheated will linger and frustrate.
If we apply this analogy to today’s film industry, of course, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be considered the most ambitious long con in Hollywood history. But things weren’t as complicated in 1973, and that year produced arguably the least-complicated Best Picture winner ever in George Roy Hill’s The Sting. A complex plot, high stakes for hardnosed characters, themes of friendship and honor amongst thieves — these elements are all there, but they’re intentionally deployed to the background of a filmgoing experience that’s less concerned with a moral message than a good time.
Continue reading The Sting (1973)
The name “George Roy Hill” might not be a household name here in 2016, but if the man himself doesn’t ring a bell you probably still know his films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are his best, riding high on the indomitable pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That pair would be separated for Hill’s ensuing films The Great Waldo Pepper and Slap Shot, both of which are well-crafted if not ultimately as powerful as those other two. The one that might throw you for a loop is The World According to Garp, a film from late in Hill’s career starring Robin Williams in his first dramatic role.
…that phrase doesn’t mean what it did back then, though, because “Williams in a dramatic role” isn’t as much of a novelty nor is it even something that seems worthy of being highlighted today. Dead Poets, One Hour Photo, Good Will Hunting, Awakenings and Fisher King let Williams be Williams — not merely Comedic Williams or Dramatic Williams — and despite the films themselves being best suited to the “Drama” category at your local rental store you probably don’t think twice about the star being a guy who most consider to be one of the funniest ever to walk the planet.
Continue reading The World According to Garp (1982)
There was a time when I’d never met a movie about con artists that I didn’t like. You name it: the almighty Sting, the classic you-didn’t-even-know-this-was-a-con Usual Suspects, George C. Scott’s The Flim-Flam Man; modern takes like Matchstick Men, Catch Me If You Can, American Hustle; the super-rewatchable original Italian Job and the super-rewatchable remake Ocean’s Eleven. Some of these — like, say, The Spanish Prisoner — technically aren’t that great as far as cinema is concerned. Maybe that’s part of what’s so damn endearing about them: they’re movies, not films, which means they could conceivably appeal to just about anyone because style and fun outweigh technique and competence. I think I was just fine with that for a while, and I might still be.
But I also remember taking issue with Christopher Nolan (you: “who the hell are you to challenge Christopher Nolan?”; me: “I have as many Oscars as he does“) when he made the following comment about heist movies in an LA Times interview while filming Inception:
I originally wrote [Inception] as a heist movie, and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms…they’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that — to me — that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes.
Continue reading Focus (2015)
The story of Paul Newman’s 1981 film Fort Apache, The Bronx is far more interesting than the film itself. When Newman suited up as a police officer in the South Bronx for a film about his ongoing fight for justice in the toughest neighborhood in the city, the context was a little too close for comfort: in the nine months preceding the filming of Fort Apache, at least twelve unarmed black and Puerto Rican individuals were killed by police officers throughout NYC (this is 1981, the most violent year of A Most Violent Year). The staunch opposition to the film saw massive protests, riots, a lawsuit and the formation of the Committee Against Fort Apache, all geared toward the halting of a film that many perceived to be defamatory and racist. Fort Apache got made, but it was one of the more dangerous film productions in the city’s history.
Newman himself got a big slice of Defamation Pie, too, courtesy of The New York Post. After reading the printed “facts” that Newman claimed were nothing of the sort, the actor accused the paper of “irresponsible journalism” and eventually referred to the Post as a “garbage can”. The paper ran a piece called “What Paul Didn’t Tell Us About Fort Apache” in the days following, and the dispute went in circles from there — people blamed the filmmakers for racism and defamation, Newman blamed the newspapers for false reporting and defamation, and film critics blamed Fort Apache, The Bronx for being kind of a shitty movie anyway. Paul Newman felt strongly about the journalistic integrity issues he encountered, and ultimately his extremely charitable history and consistent care for the underprivileged outweighed anything the Post said about him.
Continue reading Absence of Malice (1981)
Michael Douglas famously referred to Coma as the first time he was a part of something with a good story, a good cast, and a good director. The latter of those compliments, while true, was at that point based only on Crichton’s debut feature Westworld and his earlier made-for-TV flick Pursuit. The middle statement, about the cast, seems oddly self-serving considering Douglas is in the cast. The actor’s career was likewise young, and oddly enough Mike Crichton and his brother Douglas once published a story under a pseudonym that combined their first names: Michael Douglas.
Whatever conspiracy the Michaels and the Douglases have cooked up here, it probably isn’t as sinister as the conspiracy afoot in Coma. Based on the highly popular novel of the same name by Robin Cook (a friend and contemporary of Crichton’s), the story of Coma is as well thought-out as Douglas claimed. The pairing of Cook and Crichton is a match made in medical thriller heaven, and Crichton’s script treatment of the novel is accurate and respectful of the source material. Slight changes were made, but the overall sense of paranoia that pervades the book is very much intact in Crichton’s screen treatment.
Continue reading Coma (1978)
The Coen Brothers’ filmography seems to alternate between “beloved” and “pretty much unknown.” For every Fargo and Big Lebowski there’s a Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. Nonetheless, it’s this writer’s opinion that each one of their movies is carefully crafted to near-perfection. (Okay, the jury’s still out on Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty. ) Of course, if I hold all their movies in such high esteem, what’s the point of a review? Well, because first of all I want you to know that The Hudsucker Proxy exists. And secondly because it deserves as much analysis as any of their other films.
In a hyper-Art Deco 1930s Manhattan, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), president of Hudsucker Industries, has flung himself off the top floor of the downtown headquarters. With company stocks about to go public, the board of directors, led by Sydney J. Mussburger (Paul Newman), plots to depress stock prices by hiring an incompetent president as a scapegoat and then buying back the company. That incompetent proxy turns out to be oblivious business student Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). But that’s only the beginning of the Coens’ madcap screwball parody that satirizes every rung of the workforce ladder, from the mailroom grunt to the head honcho. Continue reading The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
S’all good, man. Our lovable lawyer Jimmy McGill states categorically that he’s “no hero” during the third episode “Nacho“, and a large part of the fourth episode “Hero” seeks to play with that assertion. It also seeks to play with our expectations (much as I despise the phrase “play with our expectations”) about Jimmy’s transformation into Saul, revealing more about his past in the process.
The set-up for most of the episode is Jimmy’s purchase of a brand-spanking-new billboard advertising his fledgeling firm. He buys a new suit (the exact same suit his rival Hamlin wears) and creates a new logo (very nearly the exact same logo as the logo of Hamlin, Hamlin and McGill). He almost dyes his hair but decides to just photoshop the hairdo on the billboard picture instead. And when disaster strikes, our hero springs into action in what ends up being exactly what we’d expect from him — old dog, old tricks, new suit and haircut.
Continue reading Better Call Saul 1.4 – “Hero”
There’s a long legacy of sports films where the heroes are the starry-eyed, passionate lovers of the game, the athletes who play from the heart and, despite a lack of technique or formal training, still come out on top. Even Rocky emerges from his loss against Apollo Creed with the blood, sweat, tears and girlfriend to prove that, in the end, he’s the real winner. Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is not one of these movies. If you asked George C. Scott’s character, Bert, what those other heroes had in common, he’d tell you it was “character.” Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie, on the other hand, has none. The Hustler tells the story of how Eddie (our hero, if you can call him that) earned his character.
The opening scene introduces Fast Eddie, a drifting pool shark, as he executes his latest con in a small town billiards hall. Just as he’s about to put away the eight ball in a finishing move and claim all the bets, the camera decides to stay on his face, completely ignoring the action on the table. We know Eddie wins because of the sound of the ball landing in the pocket, but that’s not the sound Eddie lives for. He’s there for the shit-eating grin he gets to wear the moment he wins. For the groans of gamblers that have lost money on a rigged bet. For the wad of cash he gets to shove in his breast pocket. He’s good at pool, sure. Hell, he’s the best anyone’s seen. But there’s no indication yet that he plays pool for any other reason than that it’s a game that attracts the greasy, betting types with loose wallets. For Eddie, pool’s a means to an end of fame and glory. And this, somehow, is the protagonist we’re supposed to fall in love with.
Continue reading The Hustler (1961)