Weekend Film Recommendation: Twilight

My name is Harry Ross, and here’s the way my life has gone: First I was a cop and then a private detective. And then…a drunk. Also, in there somewhere, a husband and a father. You’d think with all that, the world would lose its power to seduce. But you’d be wrong.

So intones Paul Newman’s character in this week’s movie recommendation, the deliberately old fashioned 1998 film noir Twilight directed and co-written by the estimable Robert Benton. The film centers on a wealthy Hollywood family comprising former movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon) and their teenage daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon).

Let me pause to note that two sentences into this recommendation and I have already mentioned 5 Academy Award winners!

The plot: After a disastrous effort to take Mel away from a stupid, sleazy paramour (Liev Schreiber), Harry was injured and moved in with the Ames family. He has long since recovered, but sticks around ostensibly because Jack has been diagnosed with cancer. But the truth is he is desperately in love with Catherine. Jack sends him on a mission to pay off someone whom Harry suspects is blackmailing the couple. He cares about both of them, even if he doesn’t completely trust them, so he returns reluctantly to private detective work. Thus begins a tortuous mystery involving murder, betrayal and long-buried secrets.

Though intentionally packed with many 1940s noir elements, the film from another point of view is a twist on the old detective stories in that the classic private investigator (e.g., in The Big Sleep) was an outside critic of his rich and powerful clients, less wealthy but with better judgment and morals. Here, Harry Ross is not much more than a pet, living on the estate of his benefactors, doing menial work and longing for Catherine’s love when he is in fact (as Mel puts it) a bit player in a movie starring other people.

The unmatched cast also includes James Garner, Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, John Spencer and M. Emmet Walsh (In a vivid part given that he doesn’t even say a word!). Directing such a seasoned and talented group must have been a pleasure for Benton, who clearly has respect for the genre. He also contributed a script with sharp dialogue as well as some well-timed funny lines. Many of the scenes recall either specific 1940s detective films or at least their general style. If that isn’t Old Hollywood enough for you, the Ames house was once the home of Dolores Del Rio and Cedric Gibbons.

Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber were cast I assume in the hopes of bringing in some younger viewers, and perhaps as well for their sex scene, but they bring much more than that to the table. Both are strong performers who pass my newbie test of screen greatness: They are completely at ease in scenes with the established superstars around them.

The only thing that clanged for me in this movie was the introduction about 35 minutes in of a comic sidekick played by Giancarlo Esposito. His character just doesn’t fit the mood of the rest of the picture, and his scenes are the one part of the film where things drag a bit. Other than that, this is for me irresistible viewing and I find it mysterious that it was not a hit with audiences when it was released. I suspect it underperformed because it was aimed at an older audience in an era when said audience did not buy many movie tickets (As the Boomers age, films like this have done better box office, which is fantastic if like me you enjoy films that are aimed at someone other than teenagers and adults who think like teenagers).

I can’t close this review without noting that this is already the third time this year that a Paul Newman film has been recommended here at RBC (Slap Shot by me and Cool Hand Luke by Johann). Compare the performances in those markedly different movies and you will see what an acting treasure he was, with extraordinary range, emotional subtlety and intelligence (in addition to being a mensch in real life).

Weekend Film Recommendation: Slap Shot

George Roy Hill and Paul Newman scored two mega-hit, crowd pleasing films with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting (Recommended by Johann Koehler here). When they reunited in 1977, the commercial temptation would have been to more or less repeat themselves. Being highly creative artists, they instead challenged many of their fans’ expectations by making a foul-mouthed, violent, raunchy comedy set during America’s dreary blue collar decline: 1977′s Slap Shot.

Some (though not all) viewers were appalled. But, with critic Gene Siskel being the most well-known example, reactions to Slap Shot have warmed over time to the point that it is today justly regarded as a classic American movie.

The plot: The Chiefs are a minor league hockey team who lose more than they win under aging player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman). Meanwhile, the local plant is closing, leading the team’s owner (Strother Martin) to shop the franchise around. His career and marriage on the rocks, Dunlop knows he needs to gin up some victories and some interest for the team. The answer comes in the form of the Hanson brothers, who lead the team into a new style of hockey: Beating the crap out of their opponents! The dirty play pays off as The Chiefs start to win and the fans begin to rally around them. Meanwhile, there is lots of 1970s bed-hopping and retrograde attitudes under threat.

Some may be surprised that the script was written by a woman. But Nancy Dowd, whose brother was a minor league hockey player, knows her way around the game and also around people who use language that would make a sailor’s parrot blush. Hockey fans love the authenticity of the film, not least that Michael Ontkean (As a clean-cut Princeton grad who is the star of The Chiefs and disapproves of dirty play) and many of the other performers were in fact excellent hockey players. The resulting film is funny, rude, politically incorrect and a jolly good time. Having lived myself though the 1970s de-industrialization of Western Pennsylvania and seen all the leather suits, huge shirt collars, towering heels and other fashion horrors I can vouch for this film’s accuracy about life at the time.

Newman, in a role that was a stretch for him (he apparently rarely even swore in private life), gives a very appealing comic performance as an over-the-hill jock. He also has great byplay with his frequent co-star Strother Martin and with Jennifer Warren as his ex-wife. Andrew Duncan is hilarious as a radio announcer with hair from hell. Lindsay Crouse, as Ontkean’s binge drinking wife, delivers a one-note and eventually tedious performance, but all of the other smaller parts are well-turned by the actors.

Last but not least, the scenes of the hockey games are very well done. Everyone can skate and the crushing impacts and high-velocity shots feel real.

Slap Shot will never be shown at a church social or at a gathering of anti-violence activists. As long as that doesn’t put you off, get ready to laugh and be enormously entertained.

p.s. Some fun trivia: can you name ALL the films that Newman and Martin were in together? Martin’s Wikipedia entry claims six such pairings, but I could only come up with five so I am either forgetting one or *gasp* Wikipedia is wrong about something.

**Special Guest Star** Weekend Film Recommendation: Cool Hand Luke

This week, Johann Koehler of Cambridge University follows his excellent guest review of The Sting with his take on another Paul Newman classic. Over to Johann, with my warmest thanks:

This weekend’s movie recommendation is Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), adapted for the screen from Donn Pearce’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, and starring Paul Newman in the title role.

The film begins with Luke’s arrest for decapitating parking metres during a drinking binge. The plot elides his trial and sentencing, and skips straight to his arrival at a local ‘road prison’, where the Captain (played by Strother Martin) quickly identifies his new prisoner’s nonconformity, as evidenced by Luke forfeiting recognition for distinguished service during the war. The ensuing film is a heady mix of sharp dialogue, impeccable character development and fine cinematography, all of which is steeped in Southern lyricism and religious allegory.

Luke’s nonconformity forms the mystery that much of the film seeks to unravel. Whenever he is questioned about where his inability to adhere to rules comes from, Luke’s response is either cryptic or it is nonchalant. What we can discern, however, is that much of his nonconformity is intrinsically bound up with his extraordinary tenacity. Luke occupies much of his time in the first half of the film setting himself tasks that require fulfilling meaningless goals, ranging from boxing far above his weight to betting on how much he can eat. The rest of the inmates find his tenacity contagious, and Luke’s charisma infects them with the desire to finish the arbitrary tasks the prison guards set for them in much shorter time than they would otherwise require. The script hops quickly between each of these tasks without letting the viewer become too wrapped up in the profound sadness and pathos that saturate the simplicity of the prisoners’ existence.

In addition to Martin’s Captain, the film is replete with magnificent supporting performances, including by George Kennedy as Luke’s best friend Dragline, Jo Van Fleet as his mother Arletta, and a host of familiar faces including Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper. Look fast as well for a brief cameo by the real-life subject of the film, Donn Pearce.

The cinematography is superb. The film is punctuated by key moments in which Rosenberg relies heavily on extreme close-ups, allowing minute facial expressions to do the work that he chooses the dialogue should not. For instance, both the brutality of Luke’s boxing match with Dragline and the devastating sadness upon hearing the news of Arletta’s death are neatly captured by the close-up shots of the actors’ faces. It’s such a relief when a director provides the space for an actor’s talent to breathe on the screen, instead of the wearisome modern dependence on split-second moves between dozens of camera angles in an effort to imbue scenes with drama.

The ultimate message of the film isn’t so much one of redemption as it is one of reconciliation with loss and resignation to one’s fate. If you’re looking for an uplifting film to start off 2013, look elsewhere. However, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a beautifully nuanced and thought-provoking world, look no further than Cool Hand Luke.

p.s. Knowing RBCer’s fondness for movie trivia, I’ll give kudos to anyone who can answer the following: Luke is assigned the number 37 upon his arrival at the prison. Without searching Google, do any erstwhile Sunday-schoolers know what Luke 1:37 says, off-by-heart? Hint: it refers to Luke’s unshakeable tenacity.

***Special Guest Star*** Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sting

Johann Koehler of Cambridge University is a criminologist, an innovative thinker and a lover of movies. His blog, The Phronetics, is a regular visiting ground for me. Knowing him as a film buff, I asked him to contribute a review of one of his favourites, The Sting. Over to Johann:

Fans of Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s pairing in 1969′s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would have been raring for a cinema ticket in 1973 to see Hollywood’s most bankable leading duo in George Roy Hill’s multiple Academy Award-winning The Sting.

The plot revolves around a desperate revenge story shrouded in fanciful con artist scheme-ery. After the murder of his mentor, Redford’s Johnny Hooker, an impulsive neophyte in the world of confidence schemes, looks to Newman’s Henry Gondorff for instruction and assistance in bringing about the demise of the villainous Doyle Lonnegan (impeccably played by Robert Shaw). Shaw projects the same unpredictable brutality he mastered as Henry VIII in Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 classic A Man for All Seasons and the Newman/Redford team deliver a characteristically heart-warming performance redolent of Butch and Sundance.

While the film has been rebuked for a plot that drags at times, one can’t help feeling eager to find out how the final scene’s con plays out. In truth, the ‘long con’ provides a deeply satisfying ending. In contrast to the ‘short con’, in which the con artist fleeces the mark for all that he has on his person, the ‘long con’ is a much more deliberate and vicious scheme. It requires that the mark be seduced into the con artist’s deception and to participate in the construction of his own demise. In so doing, he ultimately becomes both the perpetrator as well as the victim. Lonnegan thus becomes either the most unsympathetic villain, or the least, depending on your mood while watching the film.

Scott Joplin’s jolly ragtime music, anachronistically written two decades before The Sting is actually set, imbues the film with enough whimsy to conceal the bitterness of the underlying storyline. And for a master-class in comic acting, be sure to look out for Newman’s show-stealing drunken poker scene on the train.

Closing trivia note from Keith: The money that Rick Blaine gives up to a needy couple using number 22 on a rigged roulette wheel finally gets paid back by Johnny Hooker in this movie.