Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

Jeez, who’d have thought an hour and 12 minute film would have so much depth?  And an hour and 12 minute film that encompasses…an hour and 12 minutes at that?  Yes, “The Set-Up” occurs completely in real-time, three years before “High Noon” did it, so obviously you have a very limited window in which to get to know characters like Stoker, his girl Julie, his crooked trainer, the feared mobster who organizes the dive that Stoker’s supposed to take in his boxing match, and many other faces and voices in the night street or the smoky boxing hall.  It’s impossible to really get to know these people in 1+ hour of their lives, but nevertheless, that forlorn look on Stoker’s face when he sees that Julie isn’t in the crowd to cheer him on, or that look of sadness from Julie as she walks the streets with that ticket in her hand, or the look of ominous disappointment and suppressed rage on the face of the mobster Little Boy as Stoker fights on, answer nothing about who these people really are, but bring about just enough questions in our minds to make us care.  In just over one hour, Stoker Thompson will meet his destiny – seems hardly plausible within the confines of a hour-long sampling of melodramatic fiction, but still, what an open-ended slice of riveting drama.

Considering a large portion of “The Set-Up” is nothing more than Stoker’s match against his younger and heavily-favored opponent in its entirety, it’s surprising how much depth and plot/character development this film really has, and it’s all in the setting and the faces – what everyone does, not what they say.  I was impressed at how much was going on from the outset, and it all takes place within the confines of one little section the city, in a single town square.  As fans make their way into the arena, the camera sweeps down from a few stories up, gliding through the crowd as they discuss the odds, the fighters, and what-not, and then focuses on a single lit apartment a block away, where Stoker takes a nap before his big fight.  That fluid camera is stylish and highly noticeable, perhaps overly-so, but if anything it makes it all the more apparent that this is all in real-time, that every person in this little berg is connected in some way, that one person’s actions have consequences for someone else – basically that time is fluid – so what can it hurt?  But what I was most impressed with was the setting, and how the characters are affected by that atmosphere and interact with it.  In any given scene, whether it’s outside the boxing hall, or in Stoker’s apartment or in a back alley or in the crowded stands or in the ring or in the cramped but intimate training room where all the fighters prep for their bouts (and where the sense of camaraderie amongst the fighters is wonderful), you can feel how hot and stifling it is.  I don’t think I’ve noticed sweat on character after character as much in any other film as I’ve noticed here – I mean, every single person has sweat pouring off their faces, it seemed like.  What a quick and easy way to tell you that a setting is hot and cramped, and in short order I felt the sweaty, unbreatheable air in that training room, or the hot breath of screaming fan after screaming fan surrounding the ring.  Quite a depiction of place – you the viewer feel nearly as uncomfortable as Stoker, the has-been fighter out of place amongst all these up-and-comers.

Faces and places really did it for me, while a lot of the dialogue, typically forced in that 1940s cinema kind of way, left something to be desired.  In particular, I was disappointed that Stoker’s wife Julie, at least at the outset, was little more than a worried what’s-the-point-of-getting-your-brains-based-in, nagging, overacting stereotype that did little to further the depiction of women in movies back in that day…until she’s on her own once Stoker leaves for his match.  Unsure of whether or not she wants to go to the match, as Stoker wants her to, she simply wanders the streets, with that ticket in her hand taunting her and beckoning her to make a decision.  Finally, she comes to an indoor arcade with carnival games, music and bells and whistles and laughing permeating the air in just one instance of the film’s outstanding use of sound, but then, having second thoughts, she leaves, and walks a few blocks until all that sound gradually dies out, replaced by silence, save for the traffic beneath her as she stands on a foot-bridge, looking off into oblivion.  Even those cars are partially drowned out, so that we experience what she experiences, as the world is drowned out and she’s left to consider many things about her life, her husband’s life, the universe, and everything.  We can’t be sure of what exactly is going through her mind, but that look of pained indecision on Audrey Totter’s face, coupled with the image of her hands wringing that ticket, tells us all we need to know – she’s in agony, and what good would it do to confine that to one particular reason?  Sure she’s made it known that she wants Stoker to hang up his gloves so they can lead a quiet life together, but this moment of dialogue-free silence suggests that that was just one of many thoughts going through Julie’s head.  After one of the ickiest moments of stereotypically melodramatic dialogue I’ve seen in some time, Julie just needed to shut up and take a walk through a few blocks portrayed using dynamic cinematography, shadows, and sound to become one of the most fully-realized and conflicted characters imaginable, just by standing on a bridge and holding a ticket to a boxing match.  One of the finest scenes in the film.

It’s a tough sell for a movie fan who doesn’t want sports anywhere near their precious medium to plop a complete and uncut boxing match smack-dab in the middle of your movie.  It’s bad enough that most horrendous sports movies make the main event the big climax, complete with stupid commentary that basically makes it Sports for Dummies, right?  But to show a boxing match from start to finish, with nothing else to further the narrative?  Inconceivable!  Or not.  This match was thrilling, gritty, raw, and powerful.  So it doesn’t have the animal noises or extreme close-ups or slow-mo/fast-mo that made the fights in “Raging Bull” so compelling…so what?  This is just two men, one of whom we get to know very intimately beforehand, punching each other in the face – does it get any more intimate than that?  One the bell rings to start every round, the lights go down – literally.  As the men fight, the background is nothing but pure blackness, and the occasional wisps of smoke – they’re in their own world when they’re bashing each other’s face in, and even though the sound of the crowd cheering becomes nearly deafening, everything else becomes secondary to the two men in the ring.  I wouldn’t say it’s like they’re in Hell, with the black backdrop and the smoke, but more like purgatory: literally, they’re in no-place, except within themselves.  And even if you were to brush this off as just any other boxing match that happens to be surrounded by a narrative, that in and of itself deserves credit – seriously, were these two actually fighting?  Sure looked that way – I haven’t seen a more convincing fight in a fictional film before or since, “Raging Bull’s” hyper-reality aside. 

You instinctually get caught up in the excitement of a boxing match, but here, the stakes are raised when you consider just how great Robert Ryan is as Stoker.  His performance as the reformed but internally conflicted outlaw in “The Wild Bunch” is already one of my favorite performances ever, but this one, from twenty years earlier, is right up there with it, and it’s all in how subdued and plain natural he is.  There’s those forlorn looks he gives when he unsuccessfully scans the crowd for Julie, or looks out the window in the training room and sees that the lights in his apartment are off, and starts beaming with the thought that Julie’s coming after all, or that look of bafflement and then defiance when his trainer finally tells him after the 3rd round that he has to take the fall.  What an expressive face, and he barely needs to move a facial muscle to express!  His unassuming and low-key demeanor, and those looks on that face that gets more and more swollen as the fight progresses, are key to making Stoker a compelling character, and it’s why what happens after the fight is so suspenseful, where the screams of a crowd and a full arena are replaced with dead silence, expressionistic shadows, and sheer desperation.  This film is a tiny blip on the radar of these characters’ lives, but because of this longing glance here or that quiet moment of reflection there, you can start to piece together the complexities of these peoples’ relationships with each other – it really feels like they’ve known each other for years, and we start watching right in the middle of that.  Why the hell does Stoker do what he does when he’s made aware that the fix is in?  Machismo?  Pride?  Who knows…I can’t presume to speculate after knowing this guy for just an hour and 12 minutes, but it might just have something to do with a woman standing on a bridge with a ticket.  When we’re shown this time and place, how it looks and sounds and feels and smells – when we see the weight of the world on Stoker and Julie’s shoulders, rather than told about it in their own corny words – this is an astonishing piece of filmmaking.

9/10

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Fat City (John Huston, 1972)

It’s the story of two boxers – one past his prime, the other not yet in his prime, and each one’s attempt to make it big (or in Tully (Stacy Keach), the older one’s case, make it back).  Working from the ground-up in a dinky little gym, fighting in sparsely-advertised bouts against other has-beens or other raw rookies, and balancing boxing with hard labor jobs, no money, and woman trouble, the fame and glory usually afforded to the hero of a sports movie is out of the question.  We know it, and whether or not Tully and Ernie (Jeff Bridges) want to admit it, they probably know it too.  “Fat City” is a pretty hopeless movie, in that its grungy, disheveled protagonists are chasing hopeless pipe dreams – just what you’d expect in a John Huston movie, reminding us of the the gold diggers’ hopeless pipe dreams of fame and fortune in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” decades before “Fat City”, and of drunk counsul Geoffrey Firmin’s hopeless pipe dream of reconciling with his wife in “Under the Volcano” years after “Fat City.”  I don’t think that “Fat City” is quite as consistent or as stunningly unique as either of those films, but when it works, it works.  When it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  Exactly what you’d expect from a decent movie 😉 .

It does the right thing by being a sports film that’s not a sports film.  In the same vein as “Raging Bull”, “Fat City” doesn’t focus entirely on the sport or the big showdown, but rather, at least the majority of the time, on characters who just happen to be athletes in that particular sport.  The boxing scenes themselves are excellent, especially when close-ups on, say, Tully’s out-of-it face perfectly reflect a possible ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’ mindset that’s just haunting and says more than any dialogue could, but really, the story here is about Tully and Ernie themselves, and how they balance boxing with their incredibly unexceptional everyday lives.  Jeff Bridges is solid if unremarkable as Ernie, a young and impressionable kid who you’re never sure if he actually wants the life of a boxer and the life of a husband that he finds himself drifting into rather than working hard for (though Candy Clark as his wife is little more than a stereotype – I was glad she had as little screentime as she did).  But really, the star of the show here is Stacy Keach, who’s just outstanding as Tully.  Yeah, he’s athletic enough (and emotive enough) for the boxing scenes to seem genuine, like he’s fighting not just for some comeback shot, but for his soul.  But the bread and butter of this performance, and this film, are the scenes of Tully’s everyday life, getting by one day working in the field and one drunken binge at a time.  When he’s drinking, he seems drunk.  When he’s working in the fields, you can feel his exhaustion and his sweat.  When he’s trying to calm down a distraught Oma (Susan Tyrrell) at the bar, the back-and-forth between the two feels authentic and improvised.  Maybe it’s just me, but I can think of few images that feel more genuine and heartwarming than that of a drunk Tully and a drunk Oma arm-in-arm outside the bar, laughing, singing, rambling and shuffling along.  I’d say that it’s a prime example of a John Huston-esque image, but I have no idea how to describe what a John Huston-esque image is.  As soon as I saw it, I just automatically attributed it to something John Huston would show us, for whatever reason, so I leave it at that.  But one of the best scenes in the film involves little more than Tully trying to convince Oma, now his girlfriend, to eat the dinner that he’s made in their shabby little apartment.  As she’s getting more and more shrill and uncontrollable, Tully’s so desperately trying to keep his cool, but his rage – rage at Oma, at the box of Oma’s jailed ex’s clothes sitting on the floor, at his being washed up as a boxer, at being unable to hold a job, at his lot in life – can barely be contained.  In an otherwise just-above-average addition to John Huston’s filmography, Stacy Keach is wonderfully subdued, even in the middle of a bout or a drunken binge (though Susan Tyrrell, who remarkably received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Oma, makes me wanna  from the moment she enters the picture with how shrill and irritating she is.  If anything, though, at least I can feel Tully’s pain 😛 ).

Really, the biggest issue I had with “Fat City” was its pacing and just a bizarrely uneven story structure.  Whenever a chunk of the movie focused on Ernie, I felt like Tully needed more of the movie’s emphasis, and whenever Tully dominated the proceedings, I felt like Ernie needed more screentime.  I suppose you can consider that a compliment, that I cared enough about these two characters to be annoyed whenever one seemed to be getting the short-shrift in terms of screentime, and maybe it was that the two just didn’t have all that much screentime together, but I just feel like more balance was needed between the two men and their stories – and I can’t even say which one really got the shaft, it all depends on which scene I’m watching at the time.  Also, by the end it’s implied that months, maybe even years, have elapsed from film’s beginning to film’s end, but boy was I taken aback by this little revelation.  In a movie this short (it’s only an hour and a half), that’s just another indicator that more balance was needed in story structure.  Still, though, “Fat City” is a fine film, with nice parallels to be drawn between the stories of 30-something Tully and 20-something Ernie – Ernie possibly reminding Tully of better times, Tully’s current lot in life serving as a possible sign of what’s to come for Ernie, etc etc.  They meet up under friendly terms at the YMCA in one of the film’s first scenes, and their paths grow more and more divergent as the story progresses, only to come together once again in the film’s final shot, a wonderful one.  But with a dual-storyline as uneven as “Fat City”‘s, I’m not sure that the movie even deserves such a profound and screencapingly great final shot.  Either way, though, it’s a shot that’s ambiguous and leaves a hell of a lot up in the air about the maybe-bleak, maybe-hopeful future of these guys – a telltale sign of a damned good, genre-defying ‘sports’ movie.

8/10

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)

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It’s been called Mickey Rourke’s big comeback role, his resurrection as an actor after years spent in professional and personal purgatory.  I’m in no position to say whether the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a return to form for Rourke, because frankly I’m just not familiar with his earlier work, neither from when he was a well-regarded actor in the 80s nor in the 90s when he returned to boxing and made one ill-advised acting decision after another (“90s sucked,” his Randy tells Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) over beers.  Indeed).  So I can only take critics’ or Mickey Rourke fans’ word for it that this is the comeback performance being hyped all over town.  Well shit, it certainly feels like a comeback performance.  Not just because it’s a great performance from an actor who hasn’t done much in a while (because it is a great performance, one that might go down as one of the seminal performances of this young century), but because this portrait of Randy the Ram embodies just about every aspect of a comeback – a fall from grace and a rise from the ashes, complete with layer upon layer of pain, both physical and emotional, being exerted on this man from a society that’s rejected him, and from himself.  It’s remarkable how the story of a broken-down man’s rise from the abyss avoids almost every cliché of the sports movie or the overcoming-adversity movie.  I never knew such an oft-used formula could be so natural, and it’s all thanks to, yes, the professional resurrection of Mickey Rourke.

Pro wrestling’s probably one of the dumbest things ever invented.  I thought that for years before seeing Darren Aronofsky’s movie, and I still think that after seeing the movie.  Just the thought of ravenous men of the lowest common denominator rooting for so-called wrestlers who aren’t even fighting an actual fight and choreograph every punch, chair slam, and even fight outcome, is just fucking retarded.  I love sports, I love movies, but when they mix, the result is most often a clichéd, predictable, boring shit-fest.  So who knew that Darren Aronofsky could buck that trend with a movie about, of all things, a fake sport?  Actually, now I know better than to use the word “fake” so freely.  The fight’s staged, the “winner” of the fight is decided long before the so-called combatants enter the ring, and even some of the punches are fake, but some things, like a staple gun in the bicep or a cut on the eyelid or being thrown from the ring into the crowd or beating the shit out of an opponent with a prosthetic leg, just can’t be faked.  It’s still stupid as hell, but at least I know now that this shit hurts.  I’m not sure how much of Mickey Rourke’s performance in the ring was real, how many of the stunts were actually done by him, how much of a beating he himself took (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a lot – the man’s not young anymore, but boy is he still ripped), but hell, I was convinced that there’s nothing fake about all the blood and body aches and beatings that these wrestlers take after seeing Randy the Ram putting himself through the emotional and physical grinder.  Wrestling’s still stupid, but for the Ram and his fans, it’s still a way of life.  The fans dig the sheer brutality, and Randy knows how to oblige them.  In the ring, the Ram and his opponents are like animals, mortal enemies bent on the other’s destruction, but backstage, we get a glimpse of the fascinating camaraderie between the wrestlers as they agree on how the upcoming fight’s gonna go down, sell each other ‘roids like it’s candy, and the “loser” of a fight gives the “winner” a heap of praise and a pat on the back for another show-stopping performance.  Even while hitting each other with folding chairs and throwing each other into barbed wire, it’s just another day at the office, and Aronofsky’s miminalist style, taking us around every makeshift dressing room in various union halls and high schools and these wrestlers’ (co-workers’) preparations with documentary-like detail, gives a semblance of reality to a form of entertainment that’s so often called fake.  Could Aronofsky and his writer, Robert Siegel, have laid off the over-emphasis on Randy’s moral quandary of wrestling vs. health maintenance a little?  Sure.  Scenes like the one where Randy observes the sad state of other retired wrestlers at an autograph signing with quiet dread and horror overdoes it a little, but even then, to see what becomes of these ‘roided out entertainers in a “fake” sport, is shocking and disturbing nonetheless.

What Mickey Rourke does in the ring as Randy the Ram is brutally physical and tough to watch, both during the fights and during post-fight touch-ups when medics sew him up, remove the staples from his back, and all that yummy stuff.  His wounds, his punches, his winces of pain, and every drop of sweat on his face, drool dripping down his chin, and vomit on the floor are palpable and a testament to Mickey Rourke maintaining the sheer physical ability to do that stuff even now, past the age of 50.  What he does as the Wrestler is physically demanding and, frankly, devastating to watch, but what he does outside the ring as a has-been wrestler trying to survive in a world that’s nearly forgotten about his former glory is just as devastating.  Rourke pulls no punches, lays everything on the table with his bruised and battered body in the ring, and he lays everything on the table again outside the ring.  His performance as Randy the Ram is an incredibly vulnerable, open, and brutally honest one.  So much of “The Wrestler” just follows Randy through his daily life as he tries to occupy himself in his trailer after suffering a heart attack, or trying to make the best of his new job behind the deli counter, or trying to woo Cassidy as the strip joint, making small talk while she gives him a lap dance.  His scarred and worn-down face, his hunched-over gait, his unruly hair, his deep, tired voice, Mickey Rourke as Randy defines world-weary.  He’s tired of being locked out of his trailer until he pays the rent, tired of being too awkward around Cassidy, tired of making the low-pay wrestling circuit before crowds of mere hundreds in high school gymnasiums…but he makes do, because he doesn’t know any other way to live.  It all comes to a head, though, when Randy tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).  She wants nothing to do with him (and probably rightfully so…we only get subtle hints of how their relationship got to the strained point it’s gotten to, but you can just tell that these two have been through hell), but once his heart attack gives him an ultimatum that the only livelihood he knows isn’t gonna cut it anymore, he sees her as his last chance to be relevant to somebody in the world.  “I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone,” he confesses to her on the boardwalk he used to take her to years before.  “I just don’t want you to hate me.”  Here’s the point in almost any other rise-from-the-ashes movie where the flawed hero makes his teary confession, breaks down and later rises up and makes something of himself.  But not Mickey Rourke, and not in this movie.  In a confessional scene that should be clichéd, not for a second does Rourke overdo it, not for a second does he get too emotional or pander to the audience for sympathy.  As his daughter regards this broken husk of a man for the first time in years, he tries and fails to hold back the tears, just barely tearing up as his voice wavers and he can barely hold it together – but does.  I imagine this will be the brief snippet of a scene shown when Rourke’s name is called as one of the five Best Actor nominees on Oscar night (and if there’s any justice, the scene shown moments before Rourke ascends the stage to accept his trophy), but it’s so far from the typical Oscar bait scene where the hero breaks down in tears and makes his powerful confession.  This moment for the Ram was real, and genuine, and probably as painful for him as any beating we see him take in the wrestling ring, if not more so.

“The Wrestler” is a story about finding fame, losing it, and not regaining that former glory, but trying to.  And not just for Randy, because we see throughout the movie a nice little symmetry in the stories of Randy and Cassidy – two people who aren’t young anymore, but who’s livelihoods (wrestling and stripping) depend on at least the illusion of youth and vitality, and how they’re coping with the loss of that youth.  When he’s not wrestling, Randy has to deal with life in a crappy trailer, a crappy supermarket job, and his cold and distant daughter, while Cassidy has to deal with her young son and her feelings for Randy, a customer she isn’t allowed to get involved with.  They’re both trying to juggle their messy personal lives and their, well, just as messy professional lives, even down to their professional vs. real names (Cassidy/Pam and Randy/Robin).  Through the subdued (well, at least when Mickey Rourke’s not in the ring), method-esque, and great performances by Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei and the movie’s gritty realism with the handheld camera and unapologetic focus on wrestling’s physical toll on Randy’s body, Randy and Cassidy’s (or rather, Robin and Pam’s) search for a meaningful existence avoids cinematic cliché and feels real.  

Yes, it even feels real in the midst of Randy’s big rematch against his old so-called arch nemesis, the Ayatollah.  This is where you’d expect Randy to have his big Rocky vs. Apollo Creed, La Motta vs. Sugar Ray Robinson, Fast Eddie Felson vs. Minnesota Fats emotional comeback.  And all the ingredients of the oft-repeated comeback/rematch formula are there, with the big entrance to Guns ‘n Roses, Randy’s speech (which will bring tears to your eyes if you consider yourself a human being), struggling more with his own weaknesses than with his adversary, and the dramatic build-up, complete with musical flourish, to his signature RamJam.  This whole thing is built up as the Ram’s big return to glory, one last moment in the sun, but in reality, it’s all just…sad.  He’s not making this big comeback because he wants to, but because he has to, because it’s all he knows.  He has no choice but to return to this way of life that his personal demons, his ‘roided out body, and his weak heart beg him to stay away from.  The spectacle, the pomp and circumstance of the wrestling ring where Randy the Ram is idolized are teasing us, because we know that it’s the Ram, not Randy, that they’re cheering, and all the cheering in the world won’t solve his problems, but only get him through the day with a paltry paycheck (we can only hope he’s that lucky, though).  Quite the contrast between how exciting Aronofsky makes the big fight and the reality of it, where hundreds are cheering the Ram on, but Randy, the man, attracts the admiration of no one.  “The only place I get hurt is out there,” he tells Pam before the big fight, pointing to the big scary world beyond the ring.  “The world don’t give a shit about me.  You hear them?  This is where I belong.”  What a profound thing for an old, broken down piece of meat to say!

9.5/10

The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961) and The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese, 1986)

One character, two movies, 25 years apart.  I’m not sure if I can think of another sequel made so long after the original, but here we stand with “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money”, and here we stand with Fast Eddie Felson.  It’s the part that launched Paul Newman into stardom, and to this day Fast Eddie is one of cinema’s most enduring characters.  But, is that just because of the cocky but conflicted Eddie that a young Newman brought to the table in “The Hustler,” or does the enduring legacy of Fast Eddie owe something to how an older and far different Newman practically turned Fast Eddie into a new person entirely 25 years later?  Even though one movie might be better than the other (and these are two vastly different movies, in both style and quality), I think it’d be in one’s best interest to see both, to get both sides of Paul Newman and both sides of Fast Eddie Felson.

The biggest error I could’ve made going into “The Hustler” was expecting something resembling the typical sports movie formula: the hotshot rookie, in over his head, gets massacred by the big dog, then goes off to hone his skills and find himself, and come back for the big rematch.  That’s not what “The Hustler” is all about, and for that I should be glad.  I hate most sports movies I see, especially ones with that particular formula, so I should’ve been pleasantly surprised (hell, downright ecstatic) to find out that this was a deep character study where that character just happens to be a pool player.  But I wasn’t.  I don’t know, chock it up to my own expectations being so smashed (no matter how much for the better) that I couldn’t catch up or to an often-meandering screenplay, but not much of “The Hustler” spoke to me.

Is it a well-made little pool movie, though?  You bet it is.  In the expertly envisioned pool halls and what-not, games and 25-hour marathons between Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are like a clash of the titans.  You can’t help but be riveted, as the tight editing of those games and the dead-serious performances completely sell the tension and utmost seriousness of this so-called game.  And outside the pool hall, a number of scenes are handled wonderfully, especially those involving the bizarre relationship between Eddie’s unstable, alcoholic girlfriend Sarah and his egomaniacal manager Bert.  It really says something about the uniqueness of a movie when you can cast aside something as compelling as the king of cool Paul Newman playing pool for his life in favor of George C. Scott literally driving Piper Laurie completely mad.  It’s just one lustful glance here, one unintelligibly whispered word there, but it’s all very subtle, and the final result on poor Sarah in that bathroom is quite disturbing…even more disturbing than Bert’s greedy, draining effect on Eddie himself.

But moments of cinematic genius like this were a little too few and far between.  Despite those moments of intense psychological trauma that easily transcended typical late 50s/early 60s melodrama, despite Robert Rossen’s gritty and moody direction (especially in that wonderfully atmospheric purgatory that is the pool hall), despite excellent performances all-around, little of “The Hustler” really floored me.  The romance between the flawed Eddie and the just as flawed (if not more so) Sarah often fell flat, to the point that Eddie often became that stereotypical brute that tries to put that annoying dame back in line and Sarah would either weep or give Eddie some rousing speech about finding himself.  These performances, especially by Laurie and George C. Scott, offer us glimpses of greatness that one or two times too often descend into stereotypical drunk or stereotypical machismo monster, respectively. Paul Newman, though, gives a performance of incredible range and power as Eddie goes from suave to dead-serious to incredibly frustrated in the blink of an eye.  That it wasn’t quite as extraordinary as his job in the later “Cool Hand Luke” is a small complaint at best.

They’re all very good performances, but none of them are the film’s best.  No, not even the incredible Paul Newman gives the film’s greatest performance.  The greatest performance of “The Hustler” belongs to Jackie Gleason.  That’s right, Ralph Kramden himself, in a rare serious role, appearing in just two major scenes with just a scant line of dialogue here or there, is nothing short of an imposing, incredible presence as the “reigning champion” Minnesota Fats.  It’s not in dialogue delivery, because the Fat Man has little if anything to say once he’s working his magic on the table.  No, it’s all in that aura he gives off: that aura of greatness that he provides with his game, and that aura of the utmost serious.  Watch in that first match against Eddie, as he just goes about his business: expressionless, putting ball after ball in the pockets, moving around the table as if in a waltz.  He’s a surgeon on that pool table: 100% professional, never making the mistake Eddie makes of bringing too much emotional baggage to the game.  And despite that youthful, cocky lust for winning at any cost, Eddie appreciates that attitude, so that a 25-hour marathon between the no-nonsense veteran and the brash prodigy becomes a perfect dance.

And then there’s Eddie’s final, potentially dangerous confrontation with Bert during that rematch with Fats.  Things get heated, but the Fat Man just…sits there, between the two, leaning on his cue, with that face that says everything about what this man has seen in years and decades as the pro’s pro.  That face…it’s not indifference towards this squabble between a hustler and his manager, but it’s not forlorn disappointment either.  It’s something in-between.  It’s…a “been there, done that” face, and nothing more.  Was Fats once the money and winning-obsessed hustler that Eddie is now, brash and exuberant?  We can’t be sure, but we can be sure that he’s seen so many like Eddie in his day, and knows so much of the ins and outs of that entire pool and hustling culture that this movie gives us a short but excellent glimpse of.  Paul Newman might have all the flash, but Jackie Gleason is the consummate professional.  For the likes of Bert, it’s about money.  For Fast Eddie, it’s about the thrill of victory…and money.  But for Fats, the man who’s seen it all and has practically purified himself of every vice of the hustling culture, it all boils down to one thing, summed up perfectly by Eddie: “Fat Man, you shoot a great game of pool.”

So here we are, twenty-five years later: new movie, new director, and as it turns out, new Fast Eddie Felson.  So, why does “The Color of Money” fall short of greatness even more precipitously than its predecessor?  Again, it was inappropriate expectations on my part.  With “The Hustler,” I was expecting the traditional sports movie formula, but got something far more advanced and wasn’t quite prepared.  With “The Color of Money,” I actually came in expecting greatness from perhaps the greatest of modern American filmmakers, and that fell short.  In fact, oddly enough, perhaps the worst thing “The Color of Money” has going for it is that Martin Scorsese is behind the camera.  Here’s the man who had already made some of the finest American films of all time prior to this and would go on to make some of the finest American films of all time afterwards…which is why it’s pretty shocking how “ordinary” “The Color of Money” is.  And it all boils down to story.

I suppose Scorsese was trying to go mainstream with this one (it is, after all, a sequel), but really, what I saw was a formulaic sports movie much like any other with the occasional Scorsese visual touch that tries to spice things up a little.  Jaded veteran finds a gifted but raw rookie and takes him under his wing, shows him the ropes, rediscovers a thirst for the thrill of competition, and of course it’s practically decreed by the sports movie gods that the two, teacher and student, must meet in a final epic duel.  Hell, sports movie, kung fu movie, it’s a formula that’s been done a thousand times by a thousand directors, which is why I’m surprised that the wildly original Scorsese would be the 1,001st.  Just six years prior, Scorsese made “Raging Bull,” the greatest of all sports movies because the sport, boxing, became irrelevant next to the intense psychological study of Jake LaMotta.  Even the boxing matches themselves, the best ever filmed, transcended sports movie cliché to become a metaphor for LaMotta’s angry, pathetic soul.  You put that next to the pool matches of “The Color of Money,” overly-glorified with Scorsese’s visual panache, and you’ve got quite the contrast.

But oh, thank god for Paul Newman.  This ain’t your parents’ Fast Eddie Felson.  Like the actor playing him, Eddie’s older, more confident, and wiser (or at least thinks he’s wiser) than that young miscreant he once was.  It’s that cool middle-aged confidence that drives the performance, and it’s not until much later on that he breaks down, his own demons of his youth re-emerging in some scene-stealing, Oscar-bait moments of utmost vulnerability (and they worked…it is odd that of all of Paul Newman’s performances he’d win his only Oscar for this one, but whatever).  There’s actually a moment or two where this older Eddie, now acting as manager to young Vincent, starts acting eerily similar to George C. Scott’s sleazy Burt years before that’ll send a shiver down your spine.  If the movie seems formulaic, Newman’s absolute dominance of every scene he’s in gives an otherwise predictable sports movie with Scorsese-esque bells and whistles some relevance.

But predictable “The Color of Money” is, and terribly so.  From the outset, the contrast between Fast Eddie’s generation and the energetic, foul-mouthed, video game-playing younger generation is blatantly obvious.  Too many times, Paul Newman’s Eddie is nothing more than your typical wise old sage, and Tom Cruise’s Vincent is just laughably stereotyped as the brash student, an exaggerated product of 80s youth with the big hair, the kung fu moves during pool matches, and the job at Child World.  The Fast Eddie of the previous movie was a lost, directionless soul who practically stumbled into a final rematch with Minnesota Fats by accident.  Now, though, the veteran Eddie and hotshot Vincent are destined to face each other – not by some serendipitous fate, but by mere movie convention.  Even some of those vintage Scorsese moments are just…weird.  There’s a moment later on where Eddie is trying to revitalize his game, and we see him having his eyes tested in that huge machine with the dramatic music swelling.  It’s like something out of the Six Million Dollar Man…utterly bizarre and a far cry from the careful subtleties of “The Hustler.”

So what do you get when you combine the great Martin Scorsese and the great Paul Newman with a very average sports movie premise?  You get an above-average sports movie, and an above-average road movie as Eddie shows the hustling ropes to Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen in pool joint after pool joint, but just that: above-average  (except, might I say, for maybe the best soundtrack of 80s hits I’ve ever heard in a single movie.  Scorsese always had an excellent, excellent ear for popular music).  I mean, there’s just so many moments of quick cuts, quick close-ups and cue’s eye view that you can take before visual innovation becomes scene-filler.  It’s interesting, at least, to see the evolution of a single movie character after so many years, and at the same time marvel at the change in Newman.  In a performance that may actually equal that of “The Hustler,” the cocky kid is now streetwise mentor, at times lamenting his student’s cavalier attitude (which is the understatement of the century considering how over-the-top Tom Cruise is), at times dangerously mirroring his own so-called manager of so many years before.  But to the movie’s credit, there is one moment that defies convention, following the big pre-ordained duel between teacher and student, when Eddie makes a crucial decision with the obligatory big championship within arm’s reach.  Seeing what he’s turned Vincent into, perhaps seeing a little bit of his old self, he’s realized what the game is all about.  And with a final 9-ball break and a final exclamation of a great player’s return, we at last see a respect and an appreciation for the game itself that would rival Minnesota Fat’s.

The Hustler: 8/10

The Color of Money: 7/10

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

I dreaded finishing this movie after watching Robert Walker’s Bruno in the first 5 minutes.  He was too talky and smarmy in that early 1950s movie kind of way, and I figured the rest of the movie would have that Raymond Chandler overdrive kind of feel to it.  And then he started describing the perfect murder…introduced too quickly by the movie, I thought, but it was the way Bruno was describing it, with such genuine passion and excitement, completely absorbed in it, that made me realize that Bruno was no ordinary early 1950s talker.  This is a genuine psychopath.  It would be so easy for Hitchcock to make him a prototypical psychopathic villain whom the shy and unimposing tennis champion hero has to overcome, but Hitchcock does an absolutely brilliant thing by feeding us just a morsel or two of Bruno’s life and motivations, and nothing more…just one scene or two suggesting a spoiled heir with a very inappropriate relationship with his mother, and we’re left to merely speculate about how somebody could get this way, with really no definitive answer.  So while we see Bruno off in the distance of Washington DC’s monuments or simply staring at Guy playing tennis while everybody else watches the ball (which would be creepy in just about any movie), it’s that teensy bit of knowledge we have that something ain’t right with this guy, with a hell of a lot more speculation, that elevates him above a typical villain.  Hell, he’s even similar to Norman Bates in that we end up rooting for him at a point or two as he stalks Guy’s bitch of a wife, and just a bit of hope in we the audience that maybe, just maybe, he can get that lighter out of the storm drain, obviously not because we hope he succeeds in his outrageous plot, but because, in his sick mind, he so wants to.  Bruno’s really quite the interesting figure, then, in that he’s a malevolent force even more powerful off-screen (via mailed maps, keys, and a gun for example), but  also one whom we have just enough information about to say, and more importantly care about, “what the fuck is this guy’s problem.”

Of course Hitchcock was an artist with the camera and the art of film pacing, and in terms of all of that Strangers on a Train is flawless…in fact, a few of its setpieces may make this his most technically impressive film that I’ve seen.  Bruno’s slow stalking of Guy’s wife at the carnival, music, sudden appearances from off-camera, shadows, and all, is a brilliant build-up to what we know has to happen, and yet we have no idea.  The cross-cutting of Guy’s tennis match and Bruno’s journey to where it all began is just as brilliant…they’re both hurrying along for different reasons, yet both trying to reach the same destination…as Bruno says, there’s a murderer in all of us, and the perceived similarities between he and Guy become startling…you can’t help but wonder if there is indeed a shred of appreciation in Guy for what Bruno did.  Here’s a movie about the darkness in all of us, and where that might come from, and the degree to which we’ll show it given extraordinary circumstances, much like many other Hitchcock films.

Of course films like Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds will always be considered the A-list of Hitchcock’s films and it will be those that will never be forgotten.  Vertigo will never be topped as my favorite Hitchcock, but at this very moment, I might as well look past all those others that could be named by some Ethiopian who’se never seen a movie in his life, because in my mind they’ve all been topped by Strangers on a Train.

10/10

P.S.: just about the only problem I had with it was Patty Hitchcock as the spunky sidekick…just like those 5 minutes in Psycho, girl couldn’t act to save her life.  Nepotism at its not-so-finest  😛