Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

The Hustler * * * * ½
Directed by: Robert Rossen / 1961

Several years ago I watched Paul Newman teach a young Tom Cruise how to strut his cool-pool stuff in Martin Scorsese’s so-so film “The Color of Money.” I didn’t know it until afterwards, but Newman had reprised his “Fast Eddie Felson” from another film, a role that finally rewarded him with a "Color of Gold" Oscar prize that he should have received 25 years before. I don’t think that Newman chose to emerge back into pool shark character just for the chance to finally get a well-deserved golden statue. But, I think it helped the Academy to finally open up their eyes to the aging legend as he should have had four or five Oscars by then. Hollywood politics aside, you can’t really begin to understand Newman’s elder “Fast Eddy” without watching him come to age in Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler”.

Within the first 20 minutes of “The Hustler” I was beginning to think the film was one that I would “watch” rather than “follow”. It was interesting yet seemed to be kicking into climactic-like high-gear rather rapidly as it stayed put at the high-dollar pool duel of Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason’s great character who inspired an actual pool shark to adopt the film moniker). It felt more “Wide World of Sports” than film classic to me. Oddly, with the same quickness it kicks into, the film slows down after Fast Eddie losses liquor and then his dignity and dough (18,000+…a TON of money for the early ‘60s) to his 25 hour match with Fats while Bert Gordon (George C. Scott’s slick pool shark con) looks on with everybody else in the town. That night Eddie ditches his long-time cross-country con partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) and sharks a girl at the local bus stop. They don’t call Eddie “Fast” for nothing as within hours he puts the moves and literally moves into the manic-depressive Sarah Packard’s apartment (played intoxicatingly well by Piper Laurie) and she immediately becomes “his girl”. Geesh, that Eddie, he’s a fast one. He’s also a cold-hearted one when Charlie pleads with love and care to get him back and Eddie says, “You go lie down and die alone”. Only in the movies do people say things this harsh, but it feels sadly genuine coming out of Fast Eddie.

The thing with Fast Eddie is that his 1st place talent plays second to a lack of character and cockiness. He’s too cool for pool school. This flaw causes him to lose his cool when sharking and after beating an “Ordinary Joe” opponent, Eddie gets beat-up and left with broken thumbs. Healing and hiding back at complicated Sarah’s place he reexamines his character and soul a bit and eventually seals a deal with a new pool partner in the aforementioned Bert Gordon, a man with “cool” outside and just plain "cold" within. In the third act Eddie, Bert and Sarah travel to Louisville, KY for some high-stakes pool shooting that eventually ends up costing them more than their pockets and then back to where they began, high-rolling with Minnesota Fats.

Fast Eddie Felson isn’t my favorite role by Paul Newman, but it’s one of many challenging, in-depth characters in the legend’s film resume of likable loser-winners that I enjoy. They are characters worth watching and following, even when they come back 25 years later in 1980s taverns and pool halls decked in beer labels and bikini-clad babes on walls that once didn't need dressed up to be cool. All-in-all, Fast Eddie is a character that feels lived-in, and one that Newman really sharked a score of gold with.

-djg

Monday, October 13, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Hud * * * * *
Directed by: Martin Ritt / 1963

“Little by little the country changes because of the men we admire.” –Homer Bannon / Hud’s Father.

It’s ironic to me that the name HUD spelled backwards is a word/sound that I use to define men just like Paul Newman’s outstanding character Hud Bannon in the American masterpiece “Hud”. Guys like HUD have a head so dense with ignorance and bull that they release DUH into the air and it’s astonishing why people find it and flock to it as some sort of charm or confidence radiated from their arrogance and ignorance. Yet, people love the idea of the outsider or the tough guy, and in general all people can be pretty ignorant. I particularly don’t try to flock to such people in real life, but at time I’ve had them flock to me and walk on me. However, I do volunteer to dive into such portrayals at the movies and I can say that I was charmed by what I feel is the late Paul Newman’s greatest performance. Men like Hud lie, cheat, steal, sloth, drink, fight and womanize through a life lived for them and them only, getting away with the easy shots out, the unprincipled and unethical way. They are the block heads that won’t budge, casting the guys that are truly fighting and working for something onto the chopping block, even if it’s their own blood and block chips. Though I try to find the good in people and try to give a lot of grace, it’s still hard to deal with the Huds in real life without letting them walk all over. However, the older I get I do find benefits of doubt in the fact that people are more complex and bruised than I sometimes have given them credit for. Hud’s cattle rancher father gave up on him a long time ago, never missing an opportunity to do his own walk of disappointment on him. Even if it does feel justified and Hud seems to thick-skin-it, he still feels burned from it. I imagine that burning is from love, or lack of it from his father. But, I see his father as having a lot of love for saying what he says to his son, maybe it’s just not distributed in the right manner at times. During one such moment, Hud says, “Well, at least my dead Mama loved me.” Sometimes Huds are the way they are because of their upbringing or the fact that they just had never had anybody stick with them from the get-go, even in the tough-stuff, or in many cases they’ve never had anybody knock sense into them. In Hud’s case at the age of 34, it’s too much too late. This doesn’t make it right or excusable for guys like Hud to walk all over everyone, but it doesn’t mean that we should assume that there isn’t any good or change left in them to help mold them or push them, instead of pushing them farther away or being a push-over towards them. It’s certainly a tough balance that we all can relate with in some way or another. Most of the time a hard exterior is swapped for a past of tarnish, disappointment and hurt and this is the case with Hud Bannon. And sadly I feel that a hard exterior can even be the result of a hard interior, and sometimes people simply find acceptance and admiration in the dark side. I feel that Paul Newman shines with a wide array of added complexity branded to the insides and out of Hud, putting on a Hell’s Angel skin so full of depth, power and life that sticks beyond the last movie frame as he closes the door on his world. I gather that many film-goers have been disappointed in unanswered questions and in the bleak outcome of the screen lives and messages in “Hud”. But, I think it is played and ends to perfection and in many ways would make a great “Southwestern Moody Meditation on Man” double bill with 2007’s “No Country For Old Men”. Movies like these need to be watched and digested and need to rattle us because they ring truths in our inner and outer landscape, things we don’t really like to face sometimes. And I know for a fact that we all have known or dealt with a Hud before, some of us might even be wearing one now. Perhaps even this country has changed because of the men and actions we have come to admire and accept?

-djg

Thursday, October 9, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control * * * *
Directed by: Errol Morris / 1997

Replace “Cheap” with “Expensive” and “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” would sound like a title for a movie that might relate to politics or something in today’s ‘Merica. Then again, keeping the title as is, it could be a documentary on the G. W. Bush administration's “cheap” position on human life when it comes to wars like the one we’re currently messing our foreign relations in (shoot, I just gave away my opinion) or, it could simply be a study on prostitution or something like that. Actually, “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” is about the unique obsessions of four individuals, whose passions and lives are revealed, interviewed in-between a dizzying frantic array of old movie/stock imagery, cartoons and startling musical score all engineered under the direction of Errol Morris’ own uniquely obsession, original documentary filmmaking. Morris isn’t too far off the map of his fellow filmmaking friend Werner Herzog with this meditation on the question of mad men or geniuses, though I do think that Herzog makes better to do with such a subject and subjects. The title doesn’t really make sense when you first get a glimpse of the four subjects, who range from a Naked Mole Rat expert, a lion trainer, a garden sculptor and a robot scientist. However, it’s the robotic scientist’s research paper about sending a large amount of robots into space that the film’s title is borrowed from. “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” is an enjoyable little ride into the minds and worlds of other people. If you think you’ve got some strangeness in your life, you might either want to think again or find yourself in like-minded company snuggled up with this peculiar gem.

-djg

DJG / Brother's Keeper

Brother’s Keeper * * * * *
Directed by: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky / 1992

“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

-GENESIS / 4 : 8, 9

Driving the back roads of central and northwestern New York state had me sensing a connection to my rural Missouri roots. The blacktop slicing and winding the ridges of small towns, dilapidated shacks and farm equipment strewn across a green and rolly landscape dotted with cattle and sheep gave me the feeling of my boyhood home and farm community. “Brother’s Keeper” is a story about the Ward Brothers of Munnsville, NY, just off the map from the roads I traveled last summer. The brothers look and interact with an environment as if they and it are torn from a page of my family history. Wooly Mammoth-bearded and cloaked as if they haven’t changed clothes in six months, as if they’d looked that way since birth, Adelbert (aka: just Delbert), Lyman, Roscoe and the late William Ward are like early cave dwelling nomads (what I envision the characters crawling out of Cormac McCarthy’s outstanding post-apocalyptic book “The Road” will look like on the silver screen this winter). With layers of flannel, denim and tattered coats clinging to weathered and crackled bodies, educations and I.Q.s that aren’t necessarily at the mentally retarded level but at their own country-bumpkin-mumble-social-deprivation one, the elderly brothers are-what-they-are and there is nothing wrong with that. They butcher hogs in the front lawn (who doesn’t!?), leave their old farm machinery and vehicles where they die (why not?), keep their poultry in an old school bus (seen it-love it), live in the trashy shack they grew-up in (I know people like this), stack working televisions on top of old ones (yep), keep the same fly paper strip tacked up for 20 years (for sure), sleep in the same bed (well, maybe not for me but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for some people who don’t know any different) and till and milk a long family line of dirt and cows (for sure). Though the brothers can barely read, write or tell time they know their chores and family farm duties by heart and hand. In a community of farmers and folk who barely extend beyond what they know of their small town radius, the Ward brothers are indeed on the outside of the world, even their own. They are the type of people who are always together and ride into town on a tractor, barely communicating more than “Alright”, “Yep”, “Good” and “Uh-huh”. They are more than just genuine “Good Ol’ Boys”, and as one neighbor/friend puts-it and right in front of them, “They’re good boys. Actually they are like little boys with old faces.” In many ways I can relate to the Ward brothers, not only in my youthful blood and implanted observations, but also in my sometimes want for a simpler life, maybe not exactly similar to a Ward life, but you get my drift. But why a movie about them, what makes their story so fascinating and not simply the exploitation of an “eccentric” or “outsider” life, a life that they and many people choose or simply know how to live? What directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (both behind “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and many other documentaries) present with their excellent “Brother’s Keeper” is what became the controversial aftermath of the 1991 death of the eldest Ward brother, William. It’s a story that received a wide-range of media attention for the reclusive and shy Ward brothers and the small town of Munnsville, NY, attention that says something for itself and our lust for cheap entertainment and taking a glimpse of things that seem “different”. Hardly anybody had stepped foot in the Ward’s home in decades, people had barely gotten in touch with the boys other than small talk and now many people were knocking on their door…even Connie Chung. Could behind the thick layers, beards and piercing, na├»ve childlike eyes lay a cold-blooded killer in Delbert Ward? William had been ailing for years, so could his brother commit an act of “Mercy Killing” that his other brothers knew about, no different an act they would commit for a sick tom cat or an old cow? And if so, does this open up new legal concern as can Delbert and his brothers decipher from true wrong and right in such a scenario of judgment? And did Delbert naively say and sign a testimony he could not read or understand or was he tricked into it by bullying police officials who saw him as a joke? Or, was William’s death a crime of incest/sexual-murder, as prosecuting attorneys claim they have proof of. Finally, was this a case that extended further into the politics of sprawling suburbia hoping to devour up the small town farms and families? The answers are buried at the end of the film in a real life nail-biting court room drama. And perhaps your own conclusions, answers or assumptions might even be revealed from behind those Ward beards and the supporting cast of a loving community that stuck with Delbert and his brothers. It’s such a peculiar, unique and fascinating story that at times rings the popular tune of “Big Shots vs. Under Dogs” revealing harsh glimpses of our judicial and social system that I feel in this story is every bit as disturbing and important as the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial. On a lighter note (good or a bit iffy about it?), I think the attention for the Ward brothers has caused them to crack out of their weathered shells a little bit, by way of becoming more involved with the world's workings and even more open to their community. Also, be sure to watch the DVD extras for a wonderfully sweet short film titled “The Wards Take Manhattan”. Originally intended to be the film’s closing scene (later traded for a traditional Munnsville ending), it charmingly shows the Wards' visit to New York City for the first time, a worldly city that is only a short drive away from their isolated one just down the back roads.

-djg

Monday, October 6, 2008

DJG's Weekend Watcher

The Foot Fist Way * * 1/2
Directed by: Jody Hill / 2008

Though he’s not in it, Will Ferrell’s name is attached to this low-budget, harshly paced B-comedy on the ooohs and ouches of white trash Kung-Fu and love. Actually, I’m not quite sure what brand of martial arts is “demo’d” in this underwhelming movie other than lots of punching and kicking and yelling and cursing. From what I understand Ferrell claimed to have seen this movie a comedian’s dozen times and then won the distribution rights, hoping for a “Napoleon Dynamite”-like success (uh, not even CLOSE). But, it wasn’t Ferrell who attracted or hyped the movie for me, it was another comedic-random-wonder by the name of Danny McBride (who I think is better than Ferrell and could be just as huge). You may have been laughing at his goof-balling-gut-delivery the past year in the stupid-awesome chart topers “Hot Rod”, “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder”. I consider McBride on the heels of A(patow)-List talent and certainly the only reason to watch “The Fist Foot Way”. Well, scratch that idea and just watch McBride in the aforementioned movies or just wait for the next samey-so-so Will Ferrell buddy comedy because I’m sure that he’ll be substituting for John C. Reilly by the end of the year.

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Martian Child * * * ½
Directed by: Menno Meyjes / 2007

The best John Cusack moments find me relating with down-on-luck, pine-riding characters honing outsider traits and loner dips into the pools of bedroom pop-culture and creativity. “Martian Child” Cusack has him playing “David”, an older extension of classic characters who plays father to one that he probably could have once played. David is a successful stay-at-home science fiction book writer who decides to adopt a young boy named “Dennis”, as it was his late-wife’s long wish to do so. I find some relation to Cusack’s David, but it is little Dennis who fits more to my bill, as he opens up a world of artistic seclusion, inability to relate to others and most importantly, Lucky Charm loving that is quite inviting to me. Though Dennis might be a loner his bags are packed even deeper as he thinks, rather knows, he is visiting from Mars. He can’t seem to relate to anything or anyone, clumping life into an experiment of trying to come to terms with his abandonment. David is first taken with Dennis at the group home where he sits secluded and shielded from the sun’s harmful rays and the Earth’s harsh people in an over-sized cardboard box. He and his Amazon box have weathered many shuffles across the asphalt and wood chips, until David, seeing something of himself in the boy, coaxes him out with sun lotion and a soccer ball, not too unlike “E.T.” Soon enough, David has won Dennis over, amongst a wide-range of wrecked emotional ships and strange behavior as the two learn a little bit about life from one another and friends and family around them. Along the way Dennis is expelled from school for stealing (though, simply an extension of his documentation on human life and the deterioration of stuff), weighs himself down from gravitation pull with battery belts, reveals special Martian wishes and with 100% accuracy can nail the color of M&M’s by eating them blindfolded (except for the blue ones which have no taste). In the film Dennis is jokingly referred to as “Mini Warhol”, which is a fitting title and in fact his youthful lenses and knowledge on the world crank out more ideas and inspiration than the actual Warhol Factory. Childlike lenses are ones that we all need to watch the world from behind. Watching the DVD extras had me find that Dennis is actually inspired by true people and events, and related with pop-culture’s time line in every bit as universal as Andy Warhol. You see, the real story started when science fiction author David Gerrold (best known for the very popular and awesome original “Star Trek” episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”) decided to adopt a boy in the early '90s and the rest became pop-culture history by way of an award-winning short story and a lovely little movie. “Martian Child” as a movie isn’t perfect, but has heart, messages and inspiration that make up for that as they reach to the end of the galaxy and beyond. It's a movie for the whole family and you might just find an extension of your own self to reach out to.

-djg