3/17/09

Slap Shot

Year Released: 1977
Director: George Roy Hill
Starring: Paul Newman, Strother Martin, Allan F. Nicholls

Devil in a Blue-Eyed Redress

When those too-blue eyes play the conman, who on earth wouldn't be hustled? Is it the eyes themselves, that he's just that goddamn handsome, or is there something deeper within his persona that demands our trust and perpetual forgiveness?

I don't deny that Paul Newman is a beautiful man, but I'll give him credit for the latter, too; the man has some kind of power to bring warmth to characters that might otherwise be the villain in a story. With Paulie's touch, gamblers, convicted criminals, fugitive criminals, confidence men and mendacity-ers play our silver-screen heroes. Ugly, brown-eyed men in the same roles would find no sympathy from us, but with Paul Newman, it seems like Burt Bacharach is singing Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head in every scene that he's in, and whether it's raining or not, happiness rains down on us.

In that famed scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when the two fugitives bask in their ironic pastoral joy to the song stylings of cinema's worst meteorologist, it is fitting that the Sundance Kid's girl rides on the-is-he?-is-he-not?-adulterous Butch's handlebars; like always, he is perversing goodness and making it look like the most natural and even fortuitous moment. Because when Paul Newman does it, it's okay with me.

You might disagree, but I think it's more than good looks, even Newmanic good looks. Roles can be built with beauty, but not careers. Superstar acting careers are built on - and this is one of those silly hypotheses that I have - that ability to unwittingly promote the idea that your character is always deeper than he is written. So when your character is a drunk pool shark abusing his girlfriend, you can still side with him when he's not only good-looking, but that depth behind those beautiful black-and-white-blue eyes hints that maybe, just maybe, there is some deep-rooted problem we're not seeing that might exonerate him. The "let's give him a chance" syndrome.

Okay, maybe it's more complicated than that, but Paul Newman has it. When he stands there, leaning against the wall, looking into the distance, it feels like there is much more going on in his past, present and future than SCENE and DIALOGUE. That's what makes him such a good conman. He's a good actor, but he's also good at acting as someone who is acting. Why? Because of the intangible, involuntary fourth-dimensionality that he brings to all roles, large, small and twice-removed. His gorgeous face is the mirrors, but the smoke is everything else.

And that brings us to 1977. He isn't in the twilight of his career, but he's visibly older and familiar to all audiences. Slap Shot is a strange movie for Paul Newman. He curses, plays Hockey, engages in slapstick comedy, but yet again, he plays a hustler. Yet again, he is directed by George Roy Hill. Maybe he is hustling small-town reporters and gullible teammates in a Hockey farce film, but it's still that same confident smile that we're always falling for. Paulie still plays that not-quite-so-nice character and he still pulls it off with charm. That's one reason why Slap Shot is such a good film; a superstar actor in a familiar role performs at the top of his game for a director who has made it work before.

I give a lot of Slap Shot's credit to Paul Newman. In essence, the film is non-sense. It is a nihilistic approach to a sports comedy. Most of the characters in the film lack all semblance of three-dimensionality, existing only as running gags or plot devices. Without Paulie, I would probably still like the movie, because it's my cup of nihilistic tea, but with Paulie, it's more than that; Paul Newman floats through the increasingly ridiculous film in his usual four-dimensions, bringing a gravitational depth and some worthwhile character development to otherwise empty successions of laughter. That, in my opinion, is as much a testimony to his life and career as any Academy tribute.


Slap Shot

  It's More Than Okay With Me.   7.5/10




I am not the only person to like this movie. In 1998, Maxim magazine named Slap Shot the "Best Guy Movie Of All Time." GQ rates it similarly and Dan Jenkins, possibly the greatest sports fictionist of the last fifty years, called Slap Shot the greatest sports film of the last fifty years. Even Paul Newman considered Reggie Dunlop one of his favorite roles, even if it did give his every day speech a profanity hangover. In other words, Slap Shot has been More Than okay with a lot of people (guys).

Respectfully, I would have to disagree with both the "Guy Movie" and "sports film" comments, mostly because (1), it didn't have Steve McQueen and (2), it didn't have Kevin Costner. However, I understand both sentiments. Slap Shot was a good film and while criticism waned a little at the time, criticism now has been much more kind and I believe it's deserving. For a fun sports comedy, Slap Shot excels. Prepare for a long Loved section and a short Loathed section.

In case you haven't seen it...

Reggie Dunlop increases fandom for his third-rate hockey team by generating media lies and adding more violence to a violent game. As the already absurd sport of hockey breaks down into further and further ridiculousness, personal lives fall apart until, collectively, team, town and protagonists reach Event Horizon, passing into happiness by their own brand of mill-town American buddhism.

Loved

  • To expound on the intentionally-lowercase buddhism comment: I love the ending of this film. Braden - the Chiefs' best player, sober-buzz-kill and tight wad of tension - seeing his ex-girlfriend in the stands, decides, amidst chaos, to let loose in the most exaggerated manner; he begins figure skating and stripping amidst a Hockey battle royale. The bottom falls out of a crescendo of Edward-Lear-esque nonsense and all form and structure of the sport of Hockey dissipates, leaving nothing in its place.


  • I think what makes this film such a great "Sports film" is that it tackles the absurdity of Sporting Life. From a fans' perspective, the emotional attachment to a team and the tendency to love violence. From the players' perspective, how careers and personal lives revolve entirely around a kid's game. As the Sporting Life breaks down in the film, these absurd truths about American sports become inflamed; violence becomes all that matters and relationships are destroyed. This is put in the audience's perspective when Reg Dunlop finally meets the owner of the Chiefs and finds out that all this, their whole lives, amount to some rich woman's tax write-off.


  • While, for the most part, Reg's hockey teammates didn't have me laughing, the Hanson brothers were hilarious. While they were no Bash Brothers, their mix of childish innocence, pure violence and malleable personalities added as much humor to the movie as their silly thin frames, long hair and eyeglasses.

Loathed

  • Most of the characters of the film are boiled down too far. The emotionally-struggling girlfriends are nothing more than alcoholism jokes. Most of the hockey teammates can be summed up in entirety by the terms: sex maniac, Self-Help fanatic, pretty-boy and funny foreigners. To a certain extent, this is intentional, but when we keep revisiting each of these gag characters over the course of the film, the jokes get old. (Okay, so we agree to disagree; I also think John Belushi in Animal House gets old.)



The Otto Preminger Award
for cinematic advancement:
Violence

The Three Stooges had their own brand of comedy: slapstick violence. All men born before 1950 think they're hilarious. My anachronistic brand of movie-madness would have to agree. Fast forward to 1970. The movie M*A*S*H took violent slapstick comedy and applied it to sports, with success. Seven years later, Slap Shot brought it to another level, earning its “R” rating with a vengeance, and reinventing the meaning of “slapstick violence” (ahem, see title).

The Slim Pickens Award
for memorable mustache:
Allan F. Nicholls as Johnny Upton

Frankly, I am surprised a hockey movie made in the seventies doesn't have more mustaches to choose from, but that doesn't take away from the glory of Allan's mustache. Johnny's handlebar/zapata 'stache and his cool, team-captain-earned comfort on the Chiefs' bench is reminiscent of Elliot Gould in M*A*S*H and you know how that draws my attention. When the “head” wife begins boasting about her husband, knowing that it isn't Paulie, I guessed immediately that she meant Johnny Upton. Why? Why, of course: a good mustache.

The Hawkeye Pierce Award
for contemporary commentary:
“fags, queers, dykes...”

I don't condone the use of such terms for comic effect. Neither did I find the numerous jokes in Slap Shot, of derogatory terms for homosexuality, very funny. However, for a film made in the seventies, I found the nature of these jokes interesting. While the terms themselves are profane, in the film, they were not used to disparage anyone. They were thrown about in relative, careless geniality. The homosexuals in the film, both ambiguously so and openly so, were jokes, of course, like the rest of the film, but nothing was shown in negative light. By 1977, this isn't such a stretch, but for a sports film?

If you liked this film...

You'll find Paul Newman revisiting the fourth-dimension in The Color of Money. It's not a comedy, but Paulie is hustling, sporting and earning our kind thoughts yet again.

I once watched an 83-year-old Eva Marie Saint gush over the absent Paul Newman on stage at an Otto Preminger tribute ceremony. The adorable cutie/ex-hottie sighed heavily into the microphone: “Those eyes,” she said and shook her little shoulders... I like to think that all of his co-stars and directors thought the same way of Paul Newman as the rest of us. I am a fan; you may have noticed. Every time I pick up a movie that he has starred in, I walk away further resolute that he was a one-of-a-kind talent. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are very high up on my favorites-of-all-time list. George Roy Hill, the director of both of those movies and Slap Shot, must have thought as highly of Paul Newman as did Eva Marie Saint, albeit in a different way. I don't blame either of them.

3/3/09

Farewell, My Lovely

Year Released: 1975
Director: Dick Richards
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland

Have Faith in the Great DiMaggio

The great American hero, Joltin' Joe. Don't worry, said Hemingway's Old Man. Have faith in him. He never lets you down. He remains the same, down-to-earth and humble despite all his extraordinariness. He will always be. He will never retire. He will hit safely in every game from now until eternity.

The 56 Game Hitting Streak record-holder captured the hearts of the nation and, well, with that brand of humility and dependability, how could Depression-era America not fall in love with Joltin' Joe? In a time when everything was uncertain, all-American fathers could stumble to breakfast in undershirt and unbuttoned top, open up the newspaper and feel good that some things never changed. Dad's job hung by thread, but the faithful DiMaggio played another great game of baseball.

Meanwhile, the all-American son, Jimmy Part-in-his-hair, oblivious to his family's economic turmoil, spent his meager nickels on pulp fiction rags and indulged in the daydream of playing shamus in the dark alleys of America's Gotham Cities. Five years later, a war was breaking out in Europe and the now-teenage Jimmy was no longer oblivious to money troubles. Every morning, he and his dad looked at the newspaper together while his mother poured two glasses of orange juice. For 56 straight game-days, headlines spoke of a terrible war and Joe DiMaggio gave them good news.

The political scope of the world wasn't the only thing changing in 1941. While Jimmy played high school baseball and dreamed of being the next Joe DiMaggio, the father began reading books by Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain, popularized pulp fiction novels that were evolutionarily advanced enough for consumption by educated adults. Father and son met halfway with one author in particular, Raymond Chandler, and spoke interchangeably about the latest New York Yankees game and Philip Marlowe's latest case. It doesn't hurt that the iconic detective is a big fan of Joltin' Joe himself.

It's no surprise that Philip Marlowe became one of the most revisited roles in film history. He was the tough crime-fighter hero of pulp fiction, but he was also Don Quixote, bullied and insulted every step of the way while never losing sight of... well, that mysterious whatever-it-was that drove him to do the right thing every time. Philip Marlowe was the people's hero, America's James Bond, and - true to his Depression-era origins - he was humble and dependable in case after case after case. One by one, each of those cases were made into films with big-name actors such as Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery, and Hollywood-bound Raymond Chandler had a hitting streak of his own. In Jimmy's adolescing mind, Marlowe, like DiMaggio, would always be there, hitting safely unto eternity.

In 1975, my self-serving, exemplary Jimmy stopped bothering to part his hair. He lived in a different kind of America now, but he held fast to his childhood loves of the New York Yankees and Raymond Chandler novels. In recent years, he watched James Garner's and Elliot Gould's off-beat adaptations of Philip Marlowe, but it just wasn't the same. To him, Marlowe was as much a time and a place as he was a person. Then the DiMaggio-happy Farewell, My Lovely arrived in theaters, and while the leading actor was too old for the role, he too was a relic from a time and a place when Jimmy and his father shared the morning paper and baseball news.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.



Farewell, My Lovely

  It's Only Okay With Me.   6.5/10




Robert Mitchum played Jeff Markham/Bailey in the film noir classic Out of the Past. To this day, Mitchum's portrayal of the private detective is heralded as a paragon example of the genre. His performance as the ill-fated but ever strong and witty Markham is about as iconic as a private detective can get, except for one major detail: on the door to Jeff Markham's office, the brass letters do not spell out P-H-I-L-I-P M-A-R-L-O-W-E.

A part perfectly cast is a holy grail of Hollywood. Christopher Reeves as Superman. Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Patrick Stewart as Professor X. Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan. Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill. John Leguizamo as Luigi. While these are up for debate (Tom Clancy preferred Ben Affleck over Harrison Ford), few people in the 1940's debated the choice of Robert Mitchum for Philip Marlowe. He was perfect. It was destiny. People asked: when would that movie be made? They didn't know that they had to wait until 1975.

It's too bad that stars align only once in a lifetime and Robert Mitchum was thirty years too late. Even Joe DiMaggio retired.

In case you haven't seen it...

Adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel by the same name, Farewell, My Lovely is a remake of a 1944 film. Marlowe is bought for one case and forced into the other. Of course, they are related.

Loved

  • Often with a film remake, fans are angry with the changes. I won't say that I'd choose Farewell, My Lovely over Murder, My Sweet for any reason, but I enjoyed a lot of the little adjustments made between films. One example is Jules Amthor. In the book and original film, Jules Amthor was a quack psychic (read New Age anything) and a man. In Farewell, My Lovely, Jules Amthor was a woman, a large Madame for a brothel. The character switch had little affect on the story as a whole and helped the film develop an identity apart from its predecessor.


  • Despite my last Loved entry, I loved seeing Grayle's drawing room. If that isn't the exact same set used in Murder, My Sweet, it is a damn good replica. Robert Mitchum walking into that room felt like cinematic deja vu. I half expected Dick Powell to start playing hopscotch.


  • Farewell, My Lovely is film history's only period-piece Philip Marlowe movie and of the film's virtues, its commitment to time and place is king of the castle. The art production was detail oriented and the cinematography was so bogged down in muddy atmosphere that it felt like watching a series of sepia photos.

Loathed

  • It is difficult to watch Marlowe have a friend without thinking of The Long Goodbye, a Raymond Chandler novel revolving around the meaning of the word Friendship. Farewell, My Lovely captured Marlowe's oft-love-hate friendship with policemen, but the newspaper man? I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. For Philip to reach the point where he would have to wholly depend on someone else, he would have to be completely broken down. In Farewell, My Lovely, Mitchum acted like mooching off of his newspaper man friend was the most natural thing in the world and that is something I can't picture Chandler's hero doing.


  • Outside of the 1940's, a voice-over narration is almost always a bad move. I understand that the movie is a throwback flick and the narration is part of the billing, but if so, they could have tried to get a little more performance out of Mitchum's voice. It sounded like Harrison Ford's intentionally bad narration in the theatrical release of Blade Runner.


  • I rated this film as Only Okay because it was thirty years too late. Let me preface this by saying that no Marlowe casting can compare to Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978). I truly believe that and I still count Robert Mitchum as one of my favorite actors of all time (in the Top 5, for sure). However, I found little pleasure in watching him act at the age of 58; he pulled the energy out of scenes, he rarely made facial expressions and he didn't move his arms... (I know you don't care, Bob, but I beg you to forgive me anyway.)


  • Just one more point about Mitchum's age: him making out with Charlotte Rampling was gross.



The Arnold Strong Award
for supporting actor:
Sylvester Stallone as Jonnie

By then, he'd already co-written a screenplay. By then, he'd written what would become Rocky. The seeds were planted for his monumental career and in his face you could see none of it. As the horny goon Jonnie, like always, we only see Sly's dumbfounded, blank look. And yet, we have to believe that there is something behind it.

The Hawkeye Pierce Award
for contemporary commentary:
Florian's

In Murder, My Sweet, Florian's changed from a nightclub to a dive bar. In Farewell, My Lovely, Florian's became engulfed by the black neighborhoods in southern downtown. The latter would never happen in a film in the 1940's, but in reality, the sudden influx of African-Americans from the south to southcentral LA was a unique and powerful history of its own. I like the revisionism and similarities to Walter Mosley.

The Fanty & Mingo Award
for out-of-the-blue allusion:
Jim Thompson

Firstly, if you don't know who Jim Thompson is, educate yourself so that you may fully appreciate this. Two years before he literally killed himself slowly with alcohol at Musso and Frank Grill, Jim Thompson walks into Farewell, My Lovely in a bit part as Old Man Grayle. It's for moments like this that I must thank the movie gods.

If you liked this film...

Go see Devil in a Blue Dress, another period piece Los Angeles crime drama with a perfect cast.

After the seventies, unusual suspects such as Powers Boothe, Danny Glover (no joke! and emmy nominated!) and James Caan have played Mr. Marlowe and recently, rumors floated around that Clive Owen might champion the role back to mainstream film. In other words, a Chandler fan has a wide range of choices by which to choose favorites. It's no secret which Marlowe film is my favorite (note the studio's original choice for casting), but if I were to pick a second, it would have to be Dick Powell and Murder, My Sweet. If anything, I can appreciate Farewell, My Lovely as an homage to that classic film, a classic literary figure and a classic acting career. As a stand alone movie, I'd have to pass.