(On Cable TV, June 2018) If The Sting doesn’t play quite as well today as it did back in 1973, it’s largely its own fault—it was so influential that, having birthed an entire sub-genre of con movies, it finds itself imitated to the point of irrelevancy. This is not to say that the film isn’t worth a look—in between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the main roles (Redford being a touch too old, but who cares), some playful directing by George Roy Hill, and a rather charming recreation of mid-thirties Chicago, The Sting was and remains a top-notch crowd-pleaser. Where it fails is in keeping a sense of surprise. Even without having seen the film before, the ending is utterly predictable … not because it’s badly written (in fact, it was quite surprising to audiences at the time), but because the basic tenets of the entire ending have been endlessly duplicated by other lesser conman movies since then. Of course, the conman is in perfect control of the plot. Of course, the con is so big as to envelop even the structures in which the con operates. Of course, you have to confuse and whisk away the victim without them even suspecting the truth. Of course, even the authorities aren’t. Surprise: zero. But… Pleasure: quite high. Mixing memorable ragtime music, fancy scene transitions and even fancier title cards, The Sting is made for fun. It’s early enough in the post-Hays code to be cheerfully amoral, but not quite dedicated to the darkness that engulfed Hollywood cinema in the early seventies.
(On DVD, February 2018) I partially grew up on seventies Disaster films (they were a popular staple of French-Canadian TV in the early eighties), and while I don’t remember a lot of about them, there is the occasional ping of recognition as re-watch them in middle age. My fuzzy memories of The Towering Inferno were a disservice to the film, which is quite enjoyable in its own bombastic way. Never mind the fascinating backstory to the film (two studios meshing together similar projects based on different books) when the end result brings Steve McQueen together with Paul Newman in a big cooperative battle of manly heroes. The film is long, but the leisurely opening act does set up a premise of fiendish promise: an enormous skyscraper, fire risks everywhere, and human failings exacerbating an already dangerous situation. It all culminates in a titular conflagration … and it works pretty well. There are a lot of familiar faces here, including O.J. Simpson as a security guard, Robert Vaughn in his usual evilness, and one last great appearance by Fred Astaire in an effective dramatic role. (He won an Oscar for it, properly understood to be about the rest of his career.) The film hits harder than expected, with plenty of sympathetic character deaths in addition to the expected reprehensible characters burning along the way. At times techno-thrillerish and at others always-getting-worse, The Towering Inferno does benefit from its mid-seventies vintage. The special effects haven’t aged well (mostly by limiting the way the disaster is portrayed—no CGI flybys of a burning tower surrounded by helicopters here) but the overall atmosphere of the film is fun. Far more successful than I expected to be, The Towering Inferno mostly holds up today … but be prepared for a long sit.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) As I go through the classic-film catalogue, some of them hit and some of them miss … and The Hustler does feel like a perceptible miss. Part of it has to do with my near-complete lack of interest in pool—given that the film has lengthy sequences of pure pool play, which may explain my difficulty connecting to the film. Of course, there is a lot more to The Hustler than pool—its central sport is almost irrelevant to its portrait of an incredibly ambitious protagonist, someone who has to confront a loss in the pursuit of victory. There’s a lot of drama along the way to a glum conclusion, but it feels as if The Hustler is simply too long for what it has to say. Paul Newman is very good, of course, and Jackie Gleason is also remarkable as “Minnesota Fats” while Piper Laurie is the film’s emotional centre. Even if film historians have a lot of praise for what the film brought to the table in the early sixties (it almost feels like a 1970s film at times), much of what The Hustler has to say has become well-worn territory, including its grim and realistic approach to character-driven drama. It still plays like a mature drama, but it can feel dull and exceptionally long at times.
(On DVD, December 2017) There’s something oddly satisfying, in theatrically-inspired movies, in seeing the way the script piles on a series of interpersonal conflict in the first half, only to detonate them all in the second. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does it better than most, helped along by terrific dialogue from playwright Tennessee Williams, the dramatic intensity of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles, and some able assistance from Burl Ives as the patriarch whose impending death forms the catalyst of all conflicts. Despite some surprisingly comic moments, this is a fairly heavy film, especially when all the emotional bandages are removed at the big conflicts within the small cast of character are allowed to explode. Despite some glaring coyness (the homosexual themes of the relationship between the lead male character and his mourned friend hay not be expressly mentioned, but they’re glaringly obvious), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof hits its dramatic peak in time for its third act, punctuated by a thunderstorm. Taylor is in fine form here, showing the extent of her dramatic range even as illness and personal tragedy befell her during the film’s shooting (her husband died in a plane crash midway through production, which had to be halted to accommodate her grief). The result is still worth a look sixty years later as a good example of what fifties dramas could be, even when hobbled by the Hays Code and social conventions of the time.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) A cliché isn’t necessarily a cliché if it’s in the film that came up with it in the first place. So it is that pointing at Cool Hand Luke as a big bunch of familiar prison-movie moments is useless, given that it made up half of them and competently executed the others. It’s not subtle, though: first-time director Stuart Rosenberg doesn’t miss an opportunity to go for Christ symbolism whenever possible, and the mirror-glasses thing also gets a lot of play. Otherwise a paean to resisting authority, Cool Hand Luke is notable mostly for Paul Newman’s performance (echoed at the end of the film) as a rebellious inmate unable to quietly do his time. It evolves in a fairly standard prison picture, although the chain-gang aspect gives it a slightly different flavour. It’s not a cheery film, although individual moments may appear more encouraging. George Kennedy appears in a dramatic performance that got him an Oscar but may surprise viewers familiar with his more light-hearted roles. One of the film’s standout sequence has to do with a woman lasciviously washing her car in full view of a convict gang—it’s so over-the-top that it gets a laugh or two. Otherwise, Cool Hand Luke is memorable for the bluntness of its execution, and for depending on Newman as its narrative anchor. It doesn’t quite feel as fresh as it must have been at the time, but keep in mind that 1967 was at the cusp of two very different eras…
(On Cable TV, October 2017) One of the peculiar pleasures of re-watching older movies is that you get to experience the same mystifying questions as previous generations of moviegoers. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that means watching the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage and smiling while wondering what such an atonal sequence is doing in a western movie. Reviewers have been asking that question for nearly fifty years, so I feel in good company. Not that this is the only question left unanswered by this film, which seems dead-set on not doing things the conventional way. While the buddy chemistry between Paul Newman and Robert Redford is next-level fantastic, everything else seems made to defy convention. Our charming but quixotic characters are out of time, too late for western heroics and too early for gangster drama. They flee rather than fight, but find themselves caught by fate several minutes later. There’s comedy overlaying a heavy drama (and one of the most famous tragic endings in movie history, overlaid with comic markers). But it works, largely because screenwriter William Goldman knows what he’s doing, and because of the great actors taking on the lines. The comic moments work—the “enough dynamite” sequence is still very funny. The result has survived the year reasonably well, largely because few studios would be willing to take that many chances with a big-name film these days.
(On TV, November 2016) What?, you say, Kevin Costner playing an idealized stoic male loner figure designed to make women swoon? Well, yes. Message in a Bottle, predictably adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, starts with a mystery (who is the man who would write such a heartbreaking letter and toss it off to sea in a bottle?) and gradually ends on the trail of a sensitive model of masculinity, still grieving over the loss of his wife in a picturesque eastern seaboard town. Cue the waterworks, cue the stirring music, cue the sage old man, cue the lies that lead to rifts, cue just about everything that such Nicholas Sparks-inspired movies have. It’s mechanistic and calculated and cynical and obvious and it still works in some fashion. It helps that the actors are good at what they do: Costner is Costner, obviously, but Robin Wright makes for a suitably bland heroine and Paul Newman shows up as a wizened old man. Throw in Ileana Douglas as spunky comic relief and Robbie Coltrane as a gruff boss and the clichés just write themselves into comforting lines. The audiences for this kind of movie are self-identified—the rest of us might as well not even try to comment.