Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Hustler

Robert Rossen's penultimate film, The Hustler (1961) makes an excellent drama. Featuring one of Paul Newman's best performances, it's a stone-cold classic.

Pool shark Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) dreams of challenging champion Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Eddie loses his first match with Fats, along with his reputation. He romances troubled alcoholic Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) while dreaming of a comeback. Eventually, slick manager Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) arrives, offering a rematch - for a price.

Based on Walter Tevis's novel, The Hustler is a simple but powerful morality play. Rossen and cowriter Sidney Carroll draw Eddie as cocksure, talented but overeager; he's destroyed by his own cockiness. He respects Fats but disowns fellow swindler Charlie (Myron McCormick) and becomes outwitted by a smooth-talking billiards player (Murray Hamilton). His relationship with Sarah proves empty and aimless, Eddie struggling to engage her affection. Bert offers money and a rematch but can't provide Eddie the satisfaction he desires.

The Hustler does an excellent job skirting clich├ęs. Rossen places Eddie and Fats' showdown upfront, allowing the scene to play at length. Their respective styles (Eddie's eagerness, Fats' calm deliberation) define their characters within an engrossing set piece. Rossen's sparse but expressive direction makes Eddie out of place everywhere, whether dive bars, a lakeside retreat or posh Kentucky penthouses. Every game's matched by defeat or tragedy, from a poolroom maiming to a hotel suicide.

Paul Newman excelled at playing tough antiheroes, and Fast Eddie's ambition and rough amorality fits like a glove. Newman reprised the role decades later in The Color of Money (1986). Jackie Gleason's charming, no-frills performance makes a nice foil. George C. Scott dials down his ferocity into an affable monster. Piper Laurie's tragic anguish adds emotional heft. Look for Murray Hamilton as another hustler and Jake LaMotta as a bartender.

The Hustler's simple, effective tragedy strikes a chord. Rossen's moral is simple enough: success doesn't breed happiness, personal failings undercut material gain. When told with such sparse, affecting power, viewers don't mind.

History Buffs: Lawrence of Arabia review

Last week, the History Buffs YouTube channel (devoted to analyzing historical accuracy of movies) uploaded a detailed and worthwhile review of Lawrence of Arabia. I've explored this topic myself in some detail, but lacking the skill or personal charisma for video reviews, this is a valuable find. We will agree to disagree on the Deraa Incident and other specifics.

This channel has an extensive back catalog, commenting on movies and television past and present, but this is a good place to start. If you have a half-hour to spare, check it out!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Cincinnati Kid

The Cincinnati Kid (1967) started as a Sam Peckinpah project, until that director's antics on Major Dundee led to his firing. Norman Jewison took over, helming this slick but unremarkable star vehicle.

Eric Stoner (Steve McQueen) operates as a poker player in Depression-era New Orleans. Professional gambler Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson) arrives in town, and Eric convinces his friend Shooter (Karl Malden) to arrange a match. But sharp-eyed rival Slade (Rip Torn) also has an eye on the prize. And Eric's torn between the affections of his girlfriend Christian (Tuesday Weld) and the lecherous Melba (Ann-Margaret). 

The Cincinnati Kid blatantly recycles Robert Rossen's The Hustler (1961), substituting poker for pool. Jewison makes a stab at period realism with grimy dives and Alf Landon posters, but it's all Hollywood poverty: the high wattage star power and Jewison's stylish direction overwhelm any faux-realism. The movie works better in individual scenes than the whole, especially the cockfight intercutting bleeding roosters, sweating onlookers and foaming beer bottles.

Screenwriters Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern make the plot mechanics simple: a cocky up-and-comer squaring off against a grizzled veteran. The Cincinnati Kid tries enervating the drama with a useless love triangle: naturally, Eric's torn between the good Christian and slutty Melba. It all builds to a climactic poker match that's as tedious and it is predictable.

Steve McQueen's well-suited for the lead, making Eric tense, edgy and insecure beneath an icy exterior. Edward G. Robinson phones in his performance, while Tuesday Weld and Ann-Margaret are mere eye candy. Karl Malden's shifty manager, Rip Torn's smooth card shark and Joan Blondell's vulgar dealer make stronger impressions. Jazz musician Cab Calloway has a minor role.

The Cincinnati Kid makes passable entertainment. The Hustler certainly isn't a bad template for any movie; it's just a shame Jewison does little beyond changing the setting and the sport.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Falling Down

"Feels good to exercise your rights, doesn't it?"
Joel Schumacher isn't associated with scintillating satire or trenchant commentary: see his tone-deaf racial drama A Time to Kill (1996). It's amazing that Falling Down (1993) is so good. Thanks to a sharp script and Michael Douglas's pointed performance, it's bleakly funny and surprisingly nuanced.

Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) loses his job with a defense contractor. Pushed over the edge, he goes on a rampage through LA, dispensing justice to criminals, immigrants and assorted scum. Retiring police detective Prendergast (Robert Duvall) notes the pattern of Foster's seemingly-random assaults, piecing together his movements. He discerns that Foster may be targeting his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and daughter (Joey Hope Singer).

Falling Down's opening sets the stage: Foster stuck in traffic, annoyed by chattering onlookers, honking horns, a buzzing fly, a cacophony of everyday annoyances. His outburst seems a righteous release, whether battering Korean store owners, fighting Latino punks or holding up a fast food restaurant. He shows equal hatred for panhandlers and rich golfers. He's the quintessential Angry White Man, seeking revenge upon a stratified, multicultural society that no longer values him.
Many films would leave it there, encouraging vicarious revenge thrills with a token "violence is bad" tag. But screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith repeatedly mitigates our sympathy. A white supremacist (Frederic Forrest) considers Foster a kindred spirit, sharing Nazi memorabilia like a Zyklon-B canister. We learn that Foster has anger issues and stalks his wife. If Foster shows glimmers of self-awareness ("I'm the bad guy?") he soon embraces his persona, doffing army fatigues and toting a bag of stolen firearms.

Nonetheless, Michael Douglas makes him uncommonly sympathetic. Established as a towering rage machine, Douglas slowly peels back Foster's resentment and vulnerability, becoming deeper while descending into madness. When threatening criminals or calling his wife he seems a creep; when watching home videos or befriending a family he inadvertently takes hostage, he seems vulnerable. Douglas achieves an admirable balance, making Foster sympathetic without our rooting for him.

Detective Prendergast provides a faultless foil. His own life is a mess, from his fragile wife (Tuesday Weld) and affair with a colleague (Rachel Ticotin) to his impending retirement; his coworkers treat him with condescension. Nonetheless, Prendergast isn't out shooting people, pointed up Foster's insanity. Robert Duvall underplays with restraint and humor, ably working his way through a midlife crisis.
Falling Down mixes trenchant observations (a fired banker screaming that he's "Not economically viable!", echoing Foster's rage) with broader humor, like a kid teaching Foster how to fire a LAWS rocket. Smith's script is cleverly constructed, weaving satire with a whodunit structure. The ending is underwhelming, a gunpoint confrontation that's inevitable but not entirely convincing. Still, Schumacher's staging allows for tension: we don't know if Foster will hurt his daughter or wife, though a happy ending seems unlikely.

Among the supporting cast, Barbara Hershey and Tuesday Weld are one-note, more plot devices than people. Rachel Ticotin makes a likeable partner-paramour for Prendergast. Raymond J. Barry, D.W. Moffat and John Diehl assay minor roles. Vondie Curtis Hall's protestor and Michael Paul Chan's obnoxious store owner make strong impressions, though Frederic Forrest's Nazi creep is a scene-stealing class of his own.

Falling Down easily could have been another Death Wish or Joe, celebrating rage against a permissive society. Instead, Schumacher shows such outbursts as empty, destructive and pointless, our vicarious identification a sick joke. A remarkable achievement from a director best-known for giving Batman nipples.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book (2016) marks Disney's third stab at Rudyard Kipling's stories. The first was a 1967 animated effort, well-liked but rarely ranked among Disney's best. Second came a 1994 live action film, which is more King Solomon's Mines than Kipling. This latest effort is an entertaining if slight adaptation.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi), orphaned as a child, lives as a "man-cub" with Akela's (Giancarlo Esposito) wolf pack, under the tutelage of panther Bageera (Ben Kingsley). When Sher Kahn (Idris Elba), the much-feared neighborhood tiger, demands Mowgli's extermination, Bageera tries convincing Mowgli to rejoin human society. Mowgli befriends sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and finds a way to harness human talents to an animal lifestyle.

The Jungle Book stays reasonably close to Kipling's text though it borrows liberally from earlier Disney flicks (including two awkward musical numbers). Favreau makes incredible use of digital effects, with photo-real animals and jungle astonishing even in our age of Na'avi and Serkis apes. The movie offers exciting set pieces: a buffalo stampede and mudslide, Mowgli kidnapped by an army of monkeys, an immersive flashback/dream sequence.

Neel Sethi, unfortunately, makes a bland young hero; likeable enough, but lacking charisma or a distinct personality. The all-star voice cast compensates: Bill Murray's stoner Baloo, Ben Kingsley's sage Bageera, Idris Elba's silky Sher Kahn all hit the mark. Christopher Walken plays King Louie as a simian Colonel Kurtz, brooding the shadows until bursting into song. Scarlett Johansson voices the seductive Kaa, Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong'o Mowgli's wolf parents.

While offering few surprises, The Jungle Book hits the mark. Favreau finds the balance of childhood wonder and jungle violence, shortchanging neither kids nor adults.