8th 04 - 2010 | 8 comments »

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Steve James

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As a person who lived through the melee of the 1994 O. J. Simpson murder trial, I knew I had never seen anything like it—particularly the way blacks and whites lined up on either side of the guilty/not guilty divide—and thought that certainly there never was or would be a trial like it again.

I was wrong.

Just a year before this trial of the century, a less sensational, but no less divisive trial took place in the historic community of Hampton, Virginia. The phenomenally gifted star of the Bethel High School basketball team and future NBA great Allen Iverson and three other boys (Michael Simmons, Samuel Wynn, and Melvin Stephens) were arrested for throwing punches and chairs in a Hampton bowling alley that injured three whites, including a pregnant woman. Stephens severed his trial from the other three defendants and ended up walking with a misdemeanor conviction. Simmons, Wynn, and Iverson took a bench trial presided over by a “hanging” judge and were convicted of three counts of “maiming by mob”—a felony crime put in place to allow lynch mobs to be prosecuted—and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The town of Hampton was instantly split in two. A concerted effort by a citizens group called S.W.I.S. (the initials of the four defendants) and the fortuitous ability of Virginia’s first black governor to grant clemency because he was retiring and unconcerned about facing voters the next year enabled the three boys to win their freedom after serving about four months.

Steve James, one of the world’s most gifted documentarians, hails from Hampton, and like everyone else on “The Peninsula” on which Hampton rests, was well aware of Allen Iverson. James’ father Bill, though an alumnus of Hampton High, was a huge fan of Iverson’s. After James moved to Chicago, his father used to send him clippings from the local papers about Iverson’s accomplishments on the gridiron and the basketball court—and of course, stories about the trial. When ESPN approached James to take part in its “30 for 30” documentary series, he chose to return to Hampton to try to make sense out of what happened there in 1993.

As a Hampton insider and a natural storyteller with complete command of the cinematic form, James gives viewers the lay of the land quickly and indelibly. We feast on footage of Iverson, just barely brushing past 6 feet tall, running like liquid mercury down the football field and hanging off hoop rims after authoritative slam dunk after slam dunk. We see him sink 30-foot jump shots and celebrate his touchdowns with fancy endzone moves. We also hear about his temper, his cockiness, his fatherless home, his drug-addicted mother, the neighborhood black men who stepped in to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. And we see a narrow footpath to the shore of Chesapeake Bay as James reminds us that Hampton, the oldest, continuous, English-speaking settlement in North America, also was one of the earliest centers for the slave trade. Thus, tidily, we are prepared for a discussion of race.

And, indeed, race may have caused the brawl at the bowling alley. Most of the witnesses and the defendants contend that some white bowlers had bandied about the “n” word to incite a fight. A fragment of video footage of the brawl was taken, and the chairs flying from black hands onto white bodies looks pretty savage. Iverson supposedly had been led out of the bowling alley, away from the fight, to protect his future as a top recruit for elite college athletic programs.

Jim Spencer, a Hampton Daily Press columnist and reporter in 1993, did not think Iverson was the kind of person to walk out on a fight. He ran a blunt opinion piece at the time that said Iverson and the others needed to be accountable for their actions, denying race had anything to do with the arrests. Nonetheless, no whites were arrested and considerations about the possible verbal incitements dismissed as a “sticks and stones” situation.

James had trouble getting people—including his own mother—to agree to be interviewed for the film. Iverson did not cooperate, but James skillfully blends interviews of him while he was in a minimum-security farm-prison and other archival footage, for example, holding one of his Crossover camps in Hampton (following criticism that he had avoided coming there), talking about his devoted white tutor who used to cry when he would show up at her home late for a lesson, and graduating from high school months after his classmates had already matriculated. It is through all his triumphs and trials that we get the complicated picture that is Allen Iverson.

James also talks to some of the S.W.I.S. members, who called the incident the most blatant example of racism they had ever seen in the Virginia judicial system. There is some intimation that prosecutor Colleen Killilea had political aspirations, and indeed, she is now a judge who refused to be interviewed. Regardless of whether one feels the boys deserved some kind of punishment for their part in the brawl, one has to conclude that 15-year sentences for first-time offenders who were not unequivocally tied to the crime (Killilea told Sports Illustrated at the time, “While we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred,” which put the maiming by mob charge into play) was a miscarriage of justice. James says that Iverson’s fame undoubtedly worked against him at trial, but for him in winning release. Amusingly, right after James shows a scene of jubilation about Iverson’s release, he cuts to Michael Simmons remembering his reaction with a laugh: “What about me?”

James’ skilled editing provides many such laughs and evenhandedly juxtaposes the outrage of black Peninsula residents with the law-and-order uprightness of its white population. He also makes it clear that black residents who had moved on up in the world were also against Iverson and his codefendents. James shoots scenes of the well-to-do blacks watering their lawns in fashionable neighborhoods, though the suggestion of one interviewee that they simply didn’t want to lose ground in the racial divide seems a little too simple. It was, as another interviewee put it, an issue of class more than race.

James went in search of his roots in such a way as to find out more about a community he only half knew. When asked about race relations today, one of the S.W.I.S. members said it’s a tiny bit better. A middle-aged black man says it’s like watching a duck. You see the duck glide smoothly on top of the water, but you never see its legs paddling furiously underneath. James ends this superb film with a group of geese moving across a pond in Hampton.


22nd 11 - 2009 | 6 comments »

Big Fan (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Robert D. Siegel

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Are diehard sports fans sick? This seems to be the central question around which The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel has built the literate, intelligent script for his directorial debut, Big Fan. He shines his interrogatory light on Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a 37-year-old parking lot attendant who lives—and almost dies—for his team, the New York Giants, presenting us with a character study with all the intensity of Taxi Driver and none of that film’s easy answers.

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When we first meet Paul, he is caged in his tiny booth, listening to a Friday-evening sports radio show, writing in a spiral-bound notebook, and taking money from drivers on the other side of his window. He rings up one ticket, asking for $5. “I was only in here for, like, five minutes,” the driver complains. “Five dollars,” Paul says. Frustrated, the man pays and says as he drives off, “Have fun in your little box.” Paul half-registers the insult.

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We see him take public transportation to his home on Staten Island. Once home, we hear the words he has been scribbling at work, his rebuttal to the callers he has been listening to all night—especially Philadelphia Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport)—spoken with the passion of a true-blue Giants fan and worshipper of powerful defensive linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). It is only when his voice reaches a shout that we hear a yell from behind his wall—his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz) telling him she’s trying to sleep. After the show, his best friend Sal (Jeff Corrigan) calls to debrief about the show, with Sal calling Paul some kind of genius for the poetry of his off-the-cuff words, knowing nothing of the time Paul puts in to composing his thoughts. They make plans for game day and sign off. Paul takes a tube of lubricant out of his nightstand in preparation for the evening jackoff.

Paul spends Saturday trapped at his nephew’s 7th birthday party. His mother lavishes praise on her son Jeff’s (Gino Caffarelli) do-it-yourself commercial for his law practice and scolds Paul for not accepting a job offer from his brother-in-law (Joe Garden) to work at Price Town, a membership warehouse store. On their drive home, he angers her for using the word “fuck” to describe his brother’s adulterous affair with his current, second wife (Serafina Fiore). “It’s ok for him to do it, but it’s not ok for me to say it,” he says contemptuously. Naturally, the conversation degenerates into an argument about his dead-end life.

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Game day is what Paul lives for. He and Sal walk confidently among their people, the other diehard Giants fans who are tailgating outside the stadium. Cut to a close-up of a car battery hooked up to some cables. Paul and Sal, unable to afford tickets inside the stadium, sit in the now-abandoned parking lot watching the game on a portable TV, cheering, fist pumping, and dancing for joy when their team wins. Then back to their confining real lives.

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That is, until the day they spot Quantrell at a gas station on Staten Island. They follow his car to what appears to be a drug buy and then into Manhattan, where he enters a strip joint. Paul and Sal follow him into the club and scrape together their last few dollars to buy him a drink. When he doesn’t wave them over, they approach him. Nervously declaring their admiration, Paul lets slip that they followed him from Staten Island. Drunk, stoned, and enraged, the linebacker beats Paul, putting him in a three-day coma and ending up on suspension until the police and the league can investigate the incident.

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What Paul does from here on out provides the viewer with a chance to assess the film’s central dilemma. As we watch Paul’s black eye and his physical pain recede slowly, we look for signs of change. Will Paul cooperate with a police investigation and let his lawyer brother sue the bastard? Convention would have us expect Paul to finally awaken from his hero worship and strive for a new meaning in his life apart from his total fixation on football. But Siegel isn’t interested in uplift or change, which makes this a character study of unusual depth. The key to Paul’s decisions lies in an argument he has with his mother. Exasperated by Paul’s attempt to stop Jeff from suing Quantrell on his behalf, Paul’s mother wonders when he is going to get a real job, get married, and raise a family. “Why? Because you and Jeff say so?” he sneers. “Everyone says so,” his mother responds, sounding the call of the majority about what a normal life looks like. “I don’t want that!” Paul yells, and slams out of the room.

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Paul doesn’t want to be like everyone else. He sees hypocrisy, meanness, and greed all around him. His devotion to the Giants is pure, he’s above it all. But look at his face. He’s bored and sullen almost all the time. His greatest pride is that as a regular caller (Paul from Staten Island), he gets put on the air every week to spout his passion and tell off the opposition. He’s a winner by his own standards, and when the Giants start to lose without Quantrell in the line-up, it’s all his fault.

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Siegel accurately conveys the superstitious bond fans have with their teams. They’ll win if I’m at the tailgate party, they’ll lose if I don’t watch the first five minutes, or whatever a fan decides is the talisman of good or bad luck. Paul controls his life entirely through his relationship with the Giants, and yet he’s as trapped as the people in the “straight life.” Siegel is careful to frame Paul in his booth, in his car, on the bus going home as a solitary creature of habit—not so different from the rat we see scurrying across the garage where Paul works, except that the rat has more freedom of movement. What made Paul stop? What rebellion started out healthy and ended in a blind and undeserved devotion to a sports team? Anger clearly fuels it—it’s not surprising that Paul worships a linebacker, a position meant to take down the ball carrier with punishing efficiency. Fear of failure is another, where all he has to spend is psychic energy in helping his team (himself) be a winner.

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Patton Oswalt gives a terrific performance as Paul, a man with complex emotions boiling under the skin but rarely surfacing. He shows the kind of restraint that many actors might not be able to achieve, yet still manages to glow with anger; if you want to see what makes the prototypical angry white man tick, Oswalt’s got it nailed. Corrigan as his best friend makes up the perfect passive side of this two-headed coin—you rarely see angry, ineffectual people like Paul without a lackey. Corrigan is wonderfully engaging, a shot of humanity in an uncomfortable film while still being an enabler of Paul’s monomania.

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Paul’s mother doesn’t even get the dignity of a first name, but Kurtz plays her way beyond her type. In a hilarious, recognizable scene from life, she separates all the condiments from the takeout Chinese food they frequently order into sandwich bags, as Paul mocks that all she needs now is 6,000 egg rolls. “It’s a sin to waste food,” she replies, even though that’s really all her bagging efforts are—a waste. Jonathan Hamm, in his acting debut, does little but play a version of his real life as a former All Conference defensive linebacker for the Clark Atlanta University Panthers. Nonetheless, his massive physical presence and his switch from jovial star to savage attacker are extremely effective. Siegel gives him some horn-dog dialogue Paul overhears in the men’s room that highlights what a “real man” he is to contrast Paul’s impotence.

Most of all, Siegel’s script is easily the most literate, well observed, and fully fleshed I’ve had the pleasure of seeing realized on a movie screen. While I thought his direction was fine for a first effort, I believe his script had as much or more to do with the fine performances his cast delivers. I’m now a big fan of Big Fan and Robert Siegel.


8th 10 - 2009 | 5 comments »

2009 CIFF: The Athlete (Atletu, 2009)

Directors/Screenwriters: Davey Frankel and Rasselas Lakew

2009 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This Sunday, October 11, the annual running of the Chicago Marathon will take place. Part of the route surrounds the theatre where the CIFF films are being shown, which will make it very difficult for moviegoers to navigate their way to any screenings before 5 p.m. (just another reason we shouldn’t have gotten the 2016 Olympics—bad handling of multiple events and traffic). However, if any of this weekend’s marathoners want some inspiration, CIFF has, like last year, booked a marathon-related film whose first screening will be the day before the big race. The Athlete is a biopic that tells in a rather unique way the story of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who burst onto the world stage by winning the 1960 Olympic marathon race in Rome in his bare feet. Rasselas Lakew, in addition to cowriting and codirecting this film, also plays the lead, offering as much grace and internal fortitude as the real Bikila must have had to face the challenges his short life held for him.

Athletea.jpgThe film opens with a striking close-up of Lakew as Bikila, his chin buried in a white fleece collar. He begins a narrative of his life as a can of film is opened and the film mounted and threaded through a projector. The Athlete moves backward and forward through time, as Bikila is shown going about his business or speaking to friends and people he meets—a strategy of both showing important incidents in Bikila’s life and having Bikila or others relate them in a slightly awkward expository fashion that the actors, nonetheless, still seem to pull off fairly well.

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Bikila is a national hero. When he is stopped on the road leading from his home village of Jato to his current home in Addis Ababa for an identity check, he complies willingly and gives two bottles of honey to the soldiers at the checkpoint. One upbraids the other for stopping a great man like Bikila and then tells her that he has gotten honey from his home village to help heal his wounds. Bikila, after his historic wins in Rome—sweet victory in the land whose fascist regime had invaded his country in 1936 and sent him fleeing into the mountains—and in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games only 5 weeks after having his appendix removed, was forced to drop out of the Mexico City race at the 18-mile mark due to injuries. He feels the pang of an unfinished race and hopes to compete in the 1972 Munich Games.

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Bikila visits the training camp for Ethiopian athletes. The coach is skeptical about his return to form, but his old friend Onni (Dag Malmberg), a transplant to Ethiopia from Sweden, gives Bikila hope and tells him that he needs more rest between races now that he has gotten older and more injury-prone. Bikila had earlier encountered a horse that had been blinded and abandoned by an owner who no longer wanted it. He went out to shoot it before it was killed by hyenas, but changed his mind. “I met one who was at the end of the road. He could not see but his legs still had the will to carry him forward.” This is Bikila in a nutshell.

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The film is filled with quiet, poetic moments like this, often using parallel images to communicate the circle of life. For example, Bikila is in a car accident that sends his VW Beetle onto its side. Bikila lays on his back, half in half out of the car, looking at the sky until some men find him in the morning. The accident costs him the use of his legs, but his competitive drive takes him into archery and then into Norway’s Ridderrennet cross-country sit-ski race—source of the opening close-up—in which he is pulled on a sled by dogs while he and an able-bodied man pole and steer. The sled goes out of control at one point and flips on its side. Bikila is again on his back looking at the sky. This time, however, Bikila sees the sun shine through a brief break in the clouds and insists on righting the sled himself. This is a subtle way to suggest that Bikila has progressed past the race he never finished and found grace in accepting his condition and the things he can do.

The film ends at the end of the screening of the film we saw being threaded onto the projector at the beginning of the film: sports documentarian Bud Greenspan’s The Ethiopian. Emperor Haile Selassie, for whom Bikila had served as an Imperial guardsman, approaches Bikila to shake his hand as the dignitaries in the audience rise to give him a standing ovation. I was tempted to do the same myself.

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The Athlete has created a new approach to biopics that finds a way to weave flashbacks into present time (even when the exposition feels a little stiff), suggest the beginnings of not only the circumstances, but also the character of its subject, and produce visual metaphors that are subtle and powerful. The landscapes of Ethiopia and Norway are breathtaking and woven into the story, the archival footage well chosen, and the use of music (I’m buying the soundtrack if I can) superb. If I were running on October 11, I’d want to watch this on October 10 to learn about the heart of a champion. l


9th 05 - 2007 | no comment »

The Color of Money (1986)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

As Scorsese himself put in the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, his kind of pre-indie film artist seemed to have no place once the era of the blockbuster began. Through the early ’80s Scorsese’s oeuvre was still interesting and provocative. The sweat-inducing pop-culture satire of The King of Comedy (1983), along with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, could be said to have closed the curtain on an unofficial trilogy studying the intersection of the celebrity media and the sociopath. After Hours (1980), a picaresque, absurdist comedy featuring Griffin Dunne as an office drone whose momentary lapse into frightened anger at loopy date Rosanna Arquette is punished to the point where he seems to have an entire city out to get him. The film gained Scorsese a Best Director award at Cannes. Yet The King of Comedy, though sickly brilliant (and brilliantly sick), is borderline unwatchable in its sourness, and After Hours is formless and cartoonish, inferior to the Elizabeth Shue vehicle Adventures in Babysitting (1987), the Disney rendition of the same idea. Satire was not Scorsese’s thing, and his eruptive visual sensibilities had been tamed almost to flatness.

The Color of Money was both a ticket for Scorsese back to the mainstream and a return to his cinematic roots in the pungent milieu of bars, pool halls, and wiseguys (and girls). It also presented a daunting challenge in that it was a star vehicle for Paul Newman returning to his greatest role in one of the great American movies – one that had paved the way for filmmakers like Scorsese – Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). In Rossen’s film, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, eponymous hero “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) challenged the world’s greatest pool player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) twice. He lost the first contest because of his emotional volatility. He won the second when all that had been scoured from his body, in the intermediate process of romancing and losing to suicide the self-destructive, bottle-abusing bohemian girl Sarah (Piper Laurie). Both the suicide and the rematch were thanks to Eddie’s sharklike backer Burt (George C. Scott). Finally, Eddie, unlike, it is suggested, Fats, refuses to sell himself out to this nocturnal life, walking out on Burt and the life with a bag full of cash, to Burt’s jocular threat, “Don’t play anymore big-time pool halls!”

Walter Tevis’ follow-up novel The Color of Money touched the expected bases, such as reuniting Eddie with Fats. For their adaptation, Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price (a fine author whose The Wanderers had been lovingly filmed by Phillip Kaufman) reduced references to the first film to a cryptic line from Eddie, when he recalls that “somebody retired me,” in explaining why his titanic skills on the green felt have gone to seed. We rediscover Eddie smooth-talking his girlfriend, bar owner Janelle (Helen Shaver), but being distracted by the sounds of the pool tables in her joint, most specifically the “sledgehammer break” of Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), who is kicking the ass of Julian (John Turturro), Eddie’s own stakehorse. Eddie is now a wealthy liquor salesman, but he longs for the adrenalin-factory that is high-stakes pool playing, betting, and hustling.

tcr_color02.jpgTimes, of course, have changed. Nine-ball is now the game of choice, and the young players are all cokehead punks rather than boozy sharpies. Vincent is an horrendously talented player who prefers his abilities at computer games and doesn’t give a fig – yet – for money. His femme fatale girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), met Vincent at the police station, when she drove getaway for her previous boyfriend who robbed Vincent’s parents’ house. She shows her necklace to Eddie; it belonged to Eddie’s mother’s, and Vincent remarks that his mother “has one just like it…Vincent’s sweet – Vincent’s real sweet.” Therese mutters, adoringly awed by this royal schmuck. Vincent works as a quick-talking toy salesman in a hideous suburban retail barn. Eddie, carefully soaking in these details, begins with equal care to manipulate them. His master plan is to take Vincent on a full tour of East Coast pool halls to teach him the arts of hustling in a carefully plotted campaign to win a major nine-ball championship in Atlantic City.

Eddie must extricate Vincent from his work-a-day life. He establishes his grandee abilities in a memorable dinner table scene in which he explains that Vincent has, in his gauche, the overeager style a “natural character…you’re an incredible flake,” that is, a perfect persona for entrapping the greedy, self-impressed types who engage in the almost mystically charged macho challenge of the pool hall. Eddie appeals to Vincent’s enormous ego and pride by giving him a Balabushka cue, the most perfect instrument of pool. “John Wayne carries ’em like this!” Vincent gushes. Eddie also works on Vincent’s insecurity over keeping Carmen with his low wage (“She don’t dig the allure of this place,” Eddie assures Vincent, regarding the toy store), a game Carmen eagerly buys into in. “We got a racehorse here! You keep him happy, I teach him how to run,” Eddie urges, and the pair tie Vincent’s ego in knots until he signs on.

Eddie is leaving behind frayed relationships with an aggrieved Julian, and with Janelle, fuming at his almost adolescent inability to commit. Vincent and Eddie’s relationship evolves, part father-son, part jealous admiration on Eddie’s part (“Like watching movies of myself thirty years ago”). Vincent is driven by a young egotist’s need to establish dominance, which leads him to brazen shows of skill and spectacles, all of which cuts against the grain of Eddie’s efforts to teach how to be an actual hustling champion, the guy who makes the big scores by sucking in money players. Returning to Chalkie’s, a pool hall run by its one-time sweeper Orvis (Bill Cobb), Vincent’s insistence on caning Eddie in a warm-up match and then the local quickdraw Moselle (Bruce A. Young) costs him the chance to play the desired opponent, a numbers chieftain who always plays with $5,000 in pocket. Eddie walks away cringing and berates Vincent later. Asking how much he won, Vincent announces “One-fifty!” Eddie retorts; “You walk into a shoe store with a hundred and fifty bucks, you come out with one shoe!”

Carmen, trying to manipulate Eddie, teasingly flashes him. Eddie irritably puts paid to this when he drags her in the bathroom: “I like it in the shower!” “Child care!” is how he describes handling this pair. Eddie teaches Vincent a vivid lesson of the harsher aspects of the game. When Vincent won’t bring himself to beat a man whose esophagus has been removed, Eddie bloody_lip.bmptells him to lose on purpose and then leaves him without any money to pay up just long enough for Vincent to be roughed up. When Eddie returns to rescue him, pretending to be his angry father, he’s made his point: nice guys finish last. Slowly, Vincent learns to temper his showiness with Eddie and Carmen’s carrot-and-stick approach, and in a marathon match with the fatuous reigning champ Grady Seasons (Keith McCready), after a sexual threat from Carmen, dumps the game, setting up the perfect scenario for Atlantic City.

Eddie, on a high, takes the Balabushka out for a spin, and gets caught in a match with a weird young player, Amos (Forest Whitaker, positively screaming “star potential”), who eventually proves to be a sublime hustler. It’s a humiliation Eddie finds crippling. He tells Vincent and Carmen to do the rest by themselves, giving them the stake money, a rejection to which Vincent reacts with howling filial rage, tearing a rail off the wall and throwing the cue after Eddie. Eddie determinedly sets about rehabilitating himself as a player, first acknowledging his weakened eyes by getting a pair of bifocals and then retracing steps, refining his style, and taking down all of Vincent’s opponents and a few more (including a noxious punk, played by Iggy Pop, the epitome of everything Eddie’s at war with), before arriving at the championship. Scorsese’s merciless eye for kultur evokes the town’s faux-classy aura with such touches as presenting the pool hall using a soaring crane shot and a blast of organ music, suggesting it’s a cathedral for spivs, and highlighting a lacquer-haired singer killing the exoticism of “The Girl From Ipanema.”

When Eddie encounters Vincent and Carmen again, she is goggle-eyed in stating “Vincent’s changed!” Vincent is now hard, critical, and voracious. Instead of being tempered by Eddie’s lessons, he’s absorbed them into his narcissism. In the championship, Eddie destroys Julian, and Vincent breaks Seasons, bringing them to a quarter-final face-off. But Vincent has devised an intricate revenge on Eddie; he deliberately loses to him. Eddie is, of course, overjoyed, and reunites happily with Janelle in his hotel room, until Vincent and Carmen knock on the door, presenting him with a cut of the money they won betting on him. Janelle dismisses Vincent: “Little prick!” But Eddie stews until he uses Carmen to bait Vincent into a private rematch. “All I want is your best game,” Eddie requests. “You can’t handle my best!” Vincent spits. But he relents. “If I don’t beat you this time I’ll beat you next month,” Eddie says assuredly, and declares, before the film’s concluding freeze frame; “Hey, I’m back!”

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AMPAS agreed, and awarded Newman his belated Oscar for the role; in ’61, Newman had bewilderingly lost to Maximillian Schell’s excellent, but more limited supporting turn in Judgment at Nuremberg. Advised by Scorsese to play the film’s comic scenes as if they weren’t comic, Newman delivers an often sublimely sketched performance as a man who seems light years removed from his youthful, volatile, suffering self, but still has him lurking inside, along with a large dash of Burt’s master manipulator. Eddie is still fighting his worst side, trying to age gracefully without losing his zeal – he’s still shy of commitment and complacency. But Newman occasionally hits beats too heavily, like his berating of Mastrantonio in the bathroom scene, which degenerates to pure Oscar-clip gravitas.

The film contains perhaps Tom Cruise’s best performance. Scorsese uses Cruise’s trademark persona – blithe embodiment of a yuppie-masculine ideal of unleashed hubris, athletic grace, and emotional vacuity – and drags it down quite a few social levels. Vincent is as antiseptically charming a wunderkind as his Top Gun character. Vincent partly hankers to go to West Point (he believes his video games will, in a few years, make him a qualified push-button warrior), but soon heartily embraces the vicious, venal qualities of a great pool shark. Mastrantonio keeps pace with both men in her flinty, charged performance, and she masterfully manages the bitterly amusing shift of her character from dominant witch to terminally confused backseat driver.

Superbly scripted by Price, with endlessly quotable dialogue, The Color of Money is nowhere near as dramatically compressed as The Hustler or Scorsese’s best works, but it is one of his most purely watchable films. It is also in a different mould and predicts in some ways Scorsese’s next film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in that it is a drama of moral and personal regeneration, rather than a tragedy like em>The Hustler. It also charts, as precisely as other Scorsese works, like The King of Comedy without that film’s contempt for its characters, the often painful things men and women do to each other in situations charged with desire and ambition.

Scorsese slyly extends Taxi Driver’s motif of the iconography of the motion picture Wild West extending into and defining modern, unheroic existence. The pool artistes of The Color of Money pitch themselves as gunslingers – Moselle even wears a cowboy hat – trying to best each other. Eddie, as the aging gentleman of the game trying to leave behind a troubled past recalls one of Peckinpah’s aging heroes, or Gary Cooper’s Man of the West (1958), a man for whom the seediness of his past and the sorrows of the milieu he dwells in has a humanizing, sensitizing effect. In this way, Scorsese links together strands that swirled through his early films and through the American life he charted. The Balabushka cue, swapped back and forth by Felson and Vincent, is an Excalibur, like the weapon that is the focus of Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950), loaded with suggestions of male sexual potency, as surrogate father and son jockey to see who is the most worthy to wield it. Eddie eventually retains the stick, and, in a hilarious touch, Janelle presents him with its vaginal counterpart, a cue chalk.

The film, Scorsese’s second with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who paints the film with a gauzy, smoky appeal, was a real stylistic reinvigoration. The soundtrack is a careful layering of punchy original music by Robbie Robertson and rock classics, some re-recorded specifically for the film to blend them precisely into the film’s texture. In between the crisply caught evocations of seamy urban America, the pool sequences are dazzlingly filmed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing makes abstract whirlpools out of the skittling balls. When Vincent beats Moselle, the camera rapidly circles the table as Cruise strikes samurai poses and dances to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” between performing shots of supreme legerdemain – a perfect fusion of Scorsese and Cruise’s show-off voltage. l


12th 03 - 2006 | 1 comment »

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Director: Sam Wood

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Lou Gehrig’s ashes had barely cooled when this biopic of him hit movie screens across America. The film garnered several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and is beloved by baseball and film fans alike. I understand why hero-worshipping baseball fans would hug this starry-eyed film to their numbered jerseys. Film fans, though, have no excuse. Although a star-studded cast was assembled, headed by the great Gary Cooper as Gehrig, with a competent, if sentimental, director at the helm, this film is all ham and no bone. What went wrong?

First and foremost, we must blame New York sportswriter Paul Gallico, who contributed the story and the treatment. Because of him, we are to believe that a sportswriter, played by Walter Brennan, discovered Gehrig, became his best friend, and was the only person with him when he got the terrible news that he was dying of ALS. Second, we must blame the screenwriters, Herman Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling, for not slam-dunking the treatment in the circular file where it belonged and attempting to bring a little reality to the story of a fine role model who deserved better.

We also must blame the haste with which this film was conceived and created. It is clear that the Samuel Goldwyn Company wanted to make as much hay out of the widespread grief Americans felt at Lou Gehrig’s passing as possible. Making a buck in haste has never done a movie any good.

And what lapses in quality did that haste cause? Well, there was no effort to create a dramatic arc surrounding Gehrig’s career. He just hits balls hard and far. Beyond a little rookie baiting at the start of his career with the Yankees, he doesn’t seem to know his teammates at all, so the gimmick of casting several real Yankees, including Gehrig’s real best friend, Bill Dickey, was just that—a gimmick. Instead, we are fed generic characters to fill his private life. In addition to the sportswriter, we get Gehrig’s quaint German parents (Else Janssen and Ludwig Stössel) who are trotted out when needed for a bit of comic relief and to build the mildest, most nonthreatening tension possible (Mama wants Lou to be an engineer instead of a baseball player; Mama meddles in the home-decorating plans of Lou’s new wife).

Cooper’s performance is adequate. He has a winning smile and demeanor, and he closely resembled Gehrig, but he mugs horribly when trying to convey the first stages of ALS. Teresa Wright does her best to bring some sass to Eleanor Twitchell, the woman Lou eventually marries. She does a pretty good job of it, that is, until she becomes Mrs. Gehrig. Then all she gets to do is be deliriously in love and have several playful wrestling scenes with Cooper. Of course, the real Gehrig frequently played hurt and sick to reach his record of 2,130 consecutive games; he broke his hand at least 17 times. It’s hard to imagine Lou being able to wrestle with such gusto even before the ALS set in. I can only conclude that the wrestling was meant to serve as action–or maybe it was someone’s idea of an ingenious substitute for sex, since we never see Wright and Cooper in bed together at any time during this film.

Someone also thought it would be a good idea to put a completely gratuitous dance number in the movie. So we get a sort of tortured tango in which specialty dancer Veloz does something similar to the headbanger now used in pairs figure skating to his partner Yolanda as the Ray Noble Orchestra plays some hideous Latin music in the background. These performers are featured prominently in the credits. None of them made it to the Golden Age of Musicals. Big surprise.

Finally, I blame Babe Ruth for dancing on the grave of a man he feuded with for the last six of Gehrig’s 14 years with the Yankees, not speaking to him until the final tribute in Yankee Stadium. The Babe is featured prominently in a number of scenes, but most obscenely during Gehrig’s famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech at the end. We get a medium shot of Cooper as he starts the speech; framed full face in the corner of the screen like one of today’s TV station logos is Ruth.

There are so many inaccuracies in this film that it would take another post to list them all. Period costumes, cars, and props are entirely dispensed with. The actors don’t age over time either. But the most egregious error, the one that shows the careless way this film was hacked together, is having Cooper portray the left-handed Gehrig as a right-hander in every way but when batting. According to IMDb, this one concession to accuracy was accomplished by flipping the film; Cooper apparently batted right-handed for the camera, too.

All in all, I think there’s room for another biopic of Lou Gehrig, now known mostly for the disease which bears his name. I think his reputation as a man and a ballplayer needs to be rescued from the grotesque legacy of The Pride of the Yankees.


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