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)
1973 was a hell of a year at the movies. Bruce Lee kicked ass in Enter the Dragon, Roger Moore debuted as Bond in Live and Let Die, and smalltown California got its romantic due in American Graffiti. There was Sydney Pollack‘s The Way We Were, Sam Peckinpah‘s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Robert Altman‘s The Long Goodbye. Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick announced themselves as filmmakers to be reckoned with upon the respective releases of Mean Streets and Badlands, and Michael Crichton made cinematic history with technological advances in Westworld. Then there’s The Sting, which I’m always willing to defend in a battle to the death as Greatest Film Ever. But these are more than just great movies — these are unique and fresh-seeming efforts, influential to this day because they all pushed the envelope.
And though the horror genre received more than a few landmark films that year — The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, etc. — Nicholas Roeg’s grief-stricken terror Don’t Look Now might be the scariest. It’s certainly the most engrossing. Envelope-pushing apparently wouldn’t cut it for Roeg and Company, as the incredibly intense Venice-set thriller does more to explode the envelope into a zillion tiny bloodstained pieces. The story follows John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) in the months following the accidental drowning of their daughter Christine. Paralyzed by anguish, the couple retreat to Venice. Soon, they encounter a pair of women claiming to have a connection to the deceased Christine.
Continue reading Don’t Look Now (1973)
It’s been a week since the conclusion of the first season of Better Call Saul. “Pimento“, far and away the best single episode of the season (although I loved “Hero“), made sure Jimmy’s world was flipped upside down as we headed into the finale hour. Relationships that once meant the world to our morally-challenged lawyer are now seen in a different light, and people Jimmy once thought to be the scum of the earth are suddenly something else entirely.
It’s fitting, then, that “Marco” gives a name and a history to Jimmy’s one-time best friend Marco. In “Hero” we saw a glimpse of Slippin’ Jimmy’s adeptness in the short con game, and if he’s The Sting‘s Johnny Hooker then Marco is his Luther Coleman. After the events of “Pimento” Jimmy returned to his old stomping grounds and found Marco exactly where he left him, asleep at a bar in the middle of the afternoon, scraping by on a crappy job and a handful of half-assed scams.
Continue reading Better Call Saul 1.10 – “Marco”
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”
Most everybody loves a good con movie. While the thrill of the illegality of it all – the curiosities, the impossibilities, the big reveal – is ostensibly what makes heist flicks appealing, the fact that everything about the crime subgenre seems so damn stylish is probably more of a reason to keep making films about con artists (and more of a reason to keep watching them). The Sting remains the ultimate con movie, super stylish from start to finish, and everything that followed owes a great deal to that film. But even recent takes like Inception and American Hustle breathe new life into the idea by inhabiting a distinct aesthetic niche.
This is taking the long way around the barn to say that David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, through it is very much a part of the aforementioned genre, is a surprisingly and suspiciously unstylish little film. It’s extremely well-written, as is almost everything Mamet touches, but it’s noticeably devoid of any of the visual trickery or larger-than-life characters that we might expect. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that The Spanish Prisoner promises a lot in the first act and doesn’t quite deliver on that promise when all is said and done.
Continue reading The Spanish Prisoner (1997)