The Hustler (1961)

With Paul Newman playing Fast Eddie Felson, a young, swaggering hot shot, The Hustler is more about character than competition. At the start of the film, Eddie strolls into a dive pool hall looking for Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). Fats is the champ of champs in pool. He agrees to play Eddie who in a marathon session has won $18,000. Fats is ready to call it a night, but Eddie, who’s been guzzling whiskey, insists on continuing the game. By the next morning, Fats has defeated intemperate Eddie, who leaves in shame. Observing all this is Bert Gordon, gambler and manager who knows it all. Before Eddie’s out the door, Bert imparts some pearls of wisdom about character. As Bert sees it Eddie’s got talent, but that doesn’t make you a winner, strong character does.

The Hustler isn’t so much about pool as it is about character. We don’t see as many great shots as I expected and often the score isn’t clearly stated. What we’re to watch for is Eddie’s character.

The middle of the film centers on Eddie meeting the equally melancholy drifter Sarah (Piper Laurie), who drinks too much and hangs out at the bus station where she isn’t judges and where she can get a drink at all hours. Sarah is pretty but sad. She’s a habitual liar without direction. She’s lame, but has pride. She’s very hurt and damaged by life and so is Eddie. Water seeks its own level and their love is based on sharing the pains that come with getting kicked around and lacking the wisdom from a mentor, parent or worldview that helps a person weather life’s storms and accept responsibility.

After a kind of honeymoon period, Eddie returns to the pool halls where his talent gets him victory and his bravado gets his thumbs broken. He heals under Sarah’s care, but is drawn back to hustling. Burt lures him to Louisville where Eddie believes he can win big. Burt offers wisdom, but he’s essentially a serpent whose main concern is his own wallet.

The Hustler is a dark film full of melancholy, but gripped me. Newman, Laurie, Scott and Gleason all put in excellent performances, which garnered four of the film’s nine Oscar nominations. While it’s a dark film, it wasn’t too depressing. Still you might like some lighter fare during the quarantine.

Force Majeure

On a family ski vacation in the Swiss Alps, Ebbe, Tomas and their two children Harry and Vera. They’re a young, attractive family with what people’d expect is a wonderful family. As they’re eating lunch after a morning of skiing. As they take in the view, an avalanche, a controlled avalanche moves down the mountain. Soon the avalanche doesn’t look so controlled and viewers panic. While Harry and Vera scream for their parents, Ebbe protects them while Tomas grabs his phone and seeks to save his own skin. All this is captured on video.

The avalanche doesn’t hit the deck. No one’s really hurt — except Ebbe’s trust in Tomas and their marriage.

The rest of the film explores Ebbe’s new distrust of Tomas and his coping with crumbling self-esteem. Every time they share a meal with another couple Ebbe must retell the story and each time Tomas comes out looking like a horrible man.

The film looks at what it means to be a real husband and father and how distrust cuts to the quick. It’s a fascinating exploration of marriage and masculinity. Can this marriage be saved?

I found the film absorbing and didn’t know what to expect. I’m not sure what I think of the end, though I would call it a satisfying conclusion. My only criticism of this quiet, intense film is that the children were so on the sidelines. Perhaps they just are in Swedish families, but while Harry did have moments of realism, Both children’s characters could be more developed.

2020 Oscars

The only way to survive watching the Oscars in my opinion is to watch the end (as opposed to the whole thing) with Steven Crowder & Co.

Cuties

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I don’t know the director’s intent, but Cuties, a French coming-of-age film, was sad and disturbing. The heroine, 11 year old Amy has come to Paris with her mom and two younger siblings. Her mother is devastated to learn that her husband, who’s still back in Senegal, has chosen a second wife. It hits Amy hard, but her reaction is far more self-destructive than she knows.

At her new school, Amy becomes obsessed with joining a mean girls clique, who’re preparing to dance in an upcoming competition. That sounds a bit harmless, though sacrificing your self-respect to befriend people who mock, humiliate and hit you, is not a good choice. I cringed when the girls kick out their lowest status member and Amy strives to get accepted by a group of misguided, powerful jerks.

Amy and her new “friends” get way over their heads in social media and sexy dancing.

SPOILER ALERT

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My Sundance Film Festival Highlights

My favorite parts of the Sundance Film Festival were:

  • The food and atmosphere at the Sapphire Chase Lounge on Main Street
  • The film Minari
  • The film Truffle Hunters
  • The Sundance TV Lounge
  • The Q&A’s with directors and film casts
  • The daily recap videos
  • The orange volunteer jackets
  • The appreciative festival patrons
  • Getting to see Robert Redford, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Lee Isaac Chung (director of Minari)
  • The cinematography of The Mountains are a Dream that Call to Me
  • The esprit de corps of my fellow volunteers
  • Getting to bump into relatives around town
  • The panels on Downhill and Charm City Kings
  • The luck of the draw of the eWaitingList
  • The ease of getting around town

 

On Maggie Smith’s Zingers

Three of the Downton Abbey cast members, Michele Dockery, Laura Carmichael and Allen Leech, review Maggie Smith’s best lines from the TV series.

Burning

I hoped the award-winning Burning would be an absorbing, compelling film. It might be for some viewers, but I gave up on this nihilistic story about three lost young people. The main character is a young man in his 20s who tries to keep his family farm going as his parents are gone.

While in Seoul he bumps into an old classmate, a pretty girl who reminds him that before she had plastic surgery, this gawky hero had told her she was ugly. She soon lures him into her world and has him watching her cat as she gallivants around Africa where she meets a destructive Korean jet setter.

Most of what I saw was a series of awkward scenes of this odd trio. The hero hopes to win the girl’s love, who’s smitten with the rich guy, who doesn’t care an iota for the girl and even indicates this to the weak, lovesick boy.

The rich kid shares that his big hobby is setting old green houses on fire. Soon after that I turned off the DVD. The slick film’s characters were too empty and soulless for me.

Blow Up

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About as exciting as it gets, i.e. not very

Michelangelo Antonoini’s Blow Up has an intriguing end, but the almost two hours leading up to it were painfully boring. It’s the story of a jaded, nihilistic, rich photographer who happens to photograph what appears to be a couple of lovers in a park. After blowing up the photos he sees what looks like a shooter lurking in the bushes. What’s really going on? The photographer returns to the spot and finds the man’s dead body.

So far that sounds like an intriguing plot. My concise description leaves out the scenes of vapid, sexy girls whose characters are no more developed than a mannequin’s and the occasional dull conversations the photographer has with his agent or the woman in the photos who tries to get them back once and then never follows up when she doesn’t get them.

Everyone in the film is tired. The young people, whether they’re at a concert or having sex appear dead bored with life. A couple of girls practically stalk the photographer hoping to do a shoot and get famous. None of that pans out.

Don’t waste your time. There’s a clip on YouTube of the film’s end which includes a bunch of mimes who play tennis and it’s a clever mini-film on our perceptions. That’s worth a couple minutes. Otherwise, the film is too esoteric for me. I don’t want to spend two hours watching a bored, passive lost generation.

SPOILER
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Shoplifters

Winner of the 2018 Palm d’Or at Cannes, Shoplifters was at the top of my to-watch list. It’s now out on DVD and I got it from the library after a short wait.

Set in Tokyo, Shoplifters takes us into the hovel where a motley crew makes up a family. Early on it’s quite foggy how this grandma, mother, father, teenage girl and boy related. They live hand to mouth off of the grandma’s small retirement allotment, the mother’s wages at a commercial laundry, and by shoplifting. The teenage girl works at a kind of sex shop, but it seems she can keep all her earnings.

The “dad” teaches the boy to shoplift and during one of their sprees, they discover a young girl of 4 or 5 who’s neglected and abused. They coax her to come home with them because they feel sorry for her. This quiet girl, whom they name Lin, comes to feel at home with this rag tag family, that doesn’t follow society’s rules.

They are a likable bunch even though they take advantage of each other quite a lot. They keep secrets from each other and

The way the film delves into poverty I was reminded of Kurosawa’s and Renoir’s The Lower Depths. You know that the┬ácharacters’ behavior is the main reason they’re stuck in poverty. Since the Shoplifters features children, it pulls the heartstrings more than Kurosawa and Renoir’s films.

I found Shoplifters┬ácharming, but also depressing in parts. Yes, there were moments that highlighted everyone’s generosity and kindness. Their quirks were endearing. I thought the sex club that the teenager worked in to be disturbing, particularly the first scene there. Later we learn more about the grandmother’s role in the girl’s life and her plight of prostitution, though not entirely revealed to the grandmother is even more disturbing.

While I didn’t want an unrealistically happy ending what we got was too abrupt and I wanted to know more about what happened to the teenager.

All in all, despite good acting, I was disappointed by Shoplifters as the story’s rather bleak and it left too many bows untied.

Bohemian Rhapsody

I knew all the Queen hits, but didn’t know much about the band’s history or Freddie Mercury’s life. I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend figuring it would be more entertaining than a marathon awards show, since those usually drag on and on.

The film acquainted me with the general background of the band. I found it interesting that one musician was an astro-physicist, another studied dentistry and another studied electrical engineering. Of course, the big star was Freddie Mercury, who was a performer par excellence.

Born Farrokh Balsara, Freddie Mercury is the center of this film. The film goes through the band’s history which was inseparable from Mercury’s life. In many ways as unique on the surface Mercury seemed, the events and relationships he experienced follow that of many stars – parents who don’t understand, dissatisfaction with the ordinary life of study, followed by work and conventional family, joining a band, fighting for success, disagreements once success is attained, destructive excess and rebellion with the corporate types running things, Yet, while this was nothing new to anyone growing up in the era, who know this music scene and the biographies of its brightest stars, the film does entertain. Queen’s music still has wide appeal.

The film’s strength is its music and visuals. There’s a lot of color and glitz which fit Mercury. Actor Rami Malek won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance and he did succeed in bringing Mercury back to life.

Yet this is not a film that would get a screenwriting award. I felt the story sped through the drama that shaped the band and Mercury. It’s as if it was written based on a checklist: quickly show conflict with stern father who doesn’t understand music, show meeting his wife and jump to their marriage. Check off requisite arguments between the band members and with the music business guy. I hoped for more depth and a closer look into Freddie.

Essentially, Freddie’s life was a sad one. Like many in his position, he trusted the snake, who is certain to appear once you’re successful and throwing big parties. He didn’t appreciate the people he could count on. Nothing was enough. Early on Freddie’s father tells him that he can’t get anywhere pretending you’re someone that you’re not. On the one hand, Freddie’s right to reject the message as his father’s ideas about getting a steady job, etc. aren’t what he was born to do. However, the tragedy of Mercury’s life was that he didn’t understand the wisdom in his father’s statement. Mercury perfected his role as performer, but his other facets were neglected and undeveloped. It’s a pity he didn’t grow as a mature friend, colleague, or intimate partner. He didn’t develop Farrokh Balsara; like Elvis and so many others, his life was tragic because he focused so much on his persona and not on his inner life or soul.

In short the movie was worth watching, but I’d love it if it were shorter and focused on particular areas of Mercury’s life rather than everything. The Steve Jobs film by Aaron Sorkin is a better example of how a biopic can show a person’s life concisely.