Lisa Watches an Oscar Nominee: The Hustler (dir by Robert Rossen)

Hustler_1961_original_release_movie_posterFor my final Oscar-nominated film of the night, I watched the 1961 film The Hustler.

Filmed in harsh black-and-white and featuring characters who live on the fringes of conventional society, The Hustler is one of those films that’s so unremittingly bleak that it would probably be so depressing as to be unwatchable if not for the talented cast.  Paul Newman plays “Fast Eddie” Felson, a pool hustler who is talented but cocky, a guy who has the talent of a winner and the self-centered, self-pitying personality of a loser.  When we first meet Eddie, he and his manager, Charlie (Myron McCormick) have traveled all the way from Oakland to New York, all so Eddie can challenge and hopefully beat the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason).  Eddie does get his chance to challenge Minnesota (or perhaps I should call him Mr. Fats?) and comes close to winning.  However, in the end, Eddie is too arrogant and impulsive and he ends up losing to Mr. Fats.

Defeated and humiliated, Eddie is hiding his meager possessions in a storage locker at the local bus station when he first meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie).  Sarah is an alcoholic and an aspiring writer.  She claims to be a part-time student but we never actually see her in class.  She walks with a pronounced limp and she has a habit of declaring the world to be “perverted, twisted, and crippled.”  Soon, she and Eddie are living together, two lost souls who support and destroy each other at the same time.  When Sarah attempts to write a short story about Eddie, Eddie responds by destroying the page and ordering her to never write about him again.  Charlie views Sarah as a destructive influence and decides that he doesn’t want to have anything else to do with Eddie.

However, Eddie soon finds a new manager.  Bert Gordon (a demonic George C. Scott) is a gambler who says that if Eddie sticks with him, Eddie will not only get rich but he’ll defeat Minnesota Fats as well.  At first, Eddie wants nothing to do with Bert but, when his own attempts at hustling lead to him getting his thumbs broken, Eddie has a change of heart.  Under Bert’s guidance, Eddie find success but he does so at the expense of what little decency that he had to begin with…

Eddie is an interesting character, one who most viewers will probably have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, he’s a jerk.  He’s an arrogant, cocky jerk who thinks that he’s the best and who either uses or allows himself to be used by almost everyone that he meets.  Though he definitely ends up being exploited by Bert, Eddie knew what he was getting into when he made his deal with the devil.  Though he loves Sarah and she loves him, Eddie still treats her poorly.  There are just so many reasons to dislike Eddie Felson.

Except, of course, Eddie Felson is played by Paul Newman.

Seriously, it is possible to dislike a character played by Paul Newman?  As an actor, Newman was so charismatic and projected an innate goodness that came through even when he was playing a character who didn’t always do nice things.  As written, the character of Eddie spends the majority of the movie acting like a louse.  But, as played by Newman, Eddie becomes a wounded anti-hero, the bad boy that every girl dreams of somehow redeeming.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to see The Hustler.  Gleason and Laurie both give good performances.  George C. Scott, meanwhile, is like a force of nature.  Just listen to him as he shouts, “You owe me money!”  Director Robert Rossen finds an odd beauty in some of the sleaziest parts of New York City.  But, in the end, the main reason to see The Hustler is for Paul Newman’s amazing performance in the title role.  It’s a great performance that elevates the entire film.

I have to admit that I don’t know much about pool.  During my first college semester, I lived in a dorm that had a pool table in the front lobby.  There was always a large group of people gathered around that table, playing pool and generally looking like a bunch of hipster douchebags.  Sitting in the lobby meant having to listen to a constant soundtrack of balls clacking against each other, followed by people saying, “Such-and-such in the corner pocket” or whatever the Hell it is people say when they’re playing pool.  (To be honest, though I could hear the voices, I rarely listened to what they were actually saying.)  I don’t know if the people playing pool in the lobby were any good.  But, after seeing The Hustler, I can say that Eddie Felson would have beaten all of them.


Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)

Dave Poster

Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.


* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!

Shattered Politics #42: Blue Sunshine (dir by Jeff Lieberman)

(I wrote an earlier version of this review for HorrorCritic.Com.)


Occasionally, on twitter, I would take part in the Drive-In Mob live tweet session.  Every Thursday night, a group of exploitation, grindhouse, and horror film fans gog together and watched the same film and, via twitter, provided their own running commentary track.  It was always terrific fun and a good opportunity to discover some films that you might have otherwise missed.  It was through the Drive-In Mob that I first discovered a low-budget cult classic from 1978, Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine (directed by the underrated horror director Jeff Lieberman) opens in the late 1970s.  Across California, people are suddenly going bald and turning psychotic.  At a party, singer Frannie Scott (played by Richard Crystal) has a nervous breakdown when another reveler playfully pulls off his wig and reveals Frannie to be hairless.  Frannie responds by tossing half of the guests into the fireplace and then running out into the night.  He’s pursued by his best friend Jerry Zipkin (played by future director Zalman King) but when Frannie is accidentally killed while running away, Jerry finds himself accused of being a murderer.  Even as the police pursue him, Jerry starts his own investigation.  He quickly discovers that there’s an epidemic of bald people suddenly murdering those closest to them.  The one thing that these people have in common: they all attended Stanford University in the late 1960s and they all used a powerful form of LSD known as “blue sunshine.”  Now, ten years later, they’re all having the worst flashback imaginable.

And, perhaps most dangerously, the campus drug dealer, spoiled rich kid Edward Fleming (Mark Goddard), is on the verge of being elected to the U.S. Congress.  Not only it is possible that Edward may have taken the acid himself but Edward and his campaign manager have their own reasons to try to make sure that Jerry never reveals the truth behind Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine is probably one of the best of the old grindhouse films, a film that embraces the conventions of both the horror and the political thriller genres while, at the same time, neatly subverting our expectations.  Director Jeff Lieberman emphasizes atmosphere over easy shocks and the film’s cast does a pretty good job of making us wonder who is normal and who has dropped the blue sunshine.  Wisely, Lieberman doesn’t resort to giving us any easy villains in this film.  Much like the best horror films, the monsters in Blue Sunshine are as much victims as victimizers.  I especially sympathized by one poor woman who was driven to rip off her wig by the sound of two particularly obnoxious children chanting, “We want Dr. Pepper!” over and over again.  Seriously, that’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

Blue Sunshine is one of those wonderfully odd little cult films that makes me thankful that I own a DVD player.  First released in 1978, Blue Sunshine mixes psychological horror with political conspiracy and the end result is an unusually intelligent B-movie that remains relevant even when seen today.  Blue Sunshine was originally released on DVD by Synapse Entertainment and it has since been re-released by the New Video Group.  I own the Synapse edition, which features a very entertaining director’s commentary with Jeff Lieberman as well as a bonus CD of the film’s haunting and atmospheric score.