Scorsese, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise

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Oh, how I love to shoot pool.

Scorsese, Newman, Cruise–a trifecta for me. After a revisit of both films this past fortnight, I am pleased to share my opinions with you. Rack ’em up!

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The Hustler is a modern classic. It is twice the better film than The Color of Money, and it has nothing to do with Scorsese. The acting and the script makesThe Hustler better. I would bow to Scorsese for creative directorial shots, however. The Hustler is art while The Color of Money is a good film. Personally, Paul Newman’s Oscar win for The Color of Money was a gift because he lost in 1961 as best actor in The Hustler. In 1961, West Side Story won everything. I adore West Side Story, so I can’t complain too much, but I do contend that to rectify the situation, when The Color of Money came around, they gave Paul his just desserts. After all, Paul Newman was nominated four times for best actor and never won. Here was Hollywood’s chance for a fast shot. Fast Eddie wins in the end–a pseudo “lifetime achievement award”. Be my guest and disagree.

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George C. Scott played the stake horse, the pimp, the devil, who backed neophyte Fast Eddie Fulson (Newman). He was fantastic! Piper Laurie played her character, Sarah, to perfection. What a tragic character. Rarely had an alcoholic, female character presented on the screen from the early 60s evoke greater compassion and authenticity (I can only think of 1962, Days of Wine and Roses, Lee Remick). Jackie Gleason, who was an outstanding pool player, portrayed fastidious Minnesota Fats flawlessly. Willie Marsconi, the great pool player, not only coached Paul Newman how to shoot pool, he appeared in the film. You can see the white-haired master as the setter in the film. When they filmed the  great trick shots, it was Marsconi who shot them. Paul Newman spent four months learning how to shoot pool. When Fats and Eddie played the “session” for over 24 hours, it was cineagraphic suspense, bar none.  

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The Color of Money(1986) filmed by Martin Scorsese was at its best when you looked at the cinematography. For instance, in the opening of the film, Scorsese narrated while explaining the rules of 9 ball. Close ups focused on cigarette smoke filtering up. Watch for the perspective of the balls falling into the pocket. Nice close-ups, nice fore/background overlaying. The pleasure of the film was anticipating Scorsese’s next shot.

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Fast Eddie, twenty-five years later teaches the new maverick, Tom Cruise, how to hustle. Tom does what Tom does best: he brings raw energy to his character. Vince plays obnoxious to perfection. Fast Eddie calls him a “flake” meaning, Vince is so cocky, anyone would throw money down on the table to see him get beat. This makes Vincent valuable to Fast Eddie. Fast Eddie becomes the George C. Scott character, Bert. The love interest for Vince is Carmen, portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Hard-edged and smart, I thought she was the weak link in the film. Can’t say the middle of the film engaged me when the drama of the love-triangle played out. It was when Paul Newman and Tom Cruise were left to fill the screen with their energy that the film shined. In The Hustler, the beginning sequence was suspenseful. You have to wait until the last third of the film in The Color of Money to have your breath suspended.  A cool cameo comes from a Philadelphia hustler, Amos, portrayed convincingly by Forest Whitaker.

Both films are worth watching. Both are satisfying. Start with The Hustler for good old-fashioned suspense and drama.

Do you remember Piper Laurie as the mother in Brian De Palma’s, Carrie? AAAAGGGG.

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I’m off to shoot pool.

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Books and Films About Chicago: Let’s Begin with Leonardo DiCaprio

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My hometown is 100 miles west of Chicago in the middle of the corn fields. When I drove into the city for a ball game or the theater or the fine Italian food on Rush Street or the art museums or biking the Lakeshore or walking around Navy Pier or killing time before Ravinia, (There’s lots to do!) I remember those times my Mom accompanied me, and she’d throw a blanket over her head so she couldn’t see me maneuver down the Eisenhower Expressway to get to Michigan Avenue. I’ve never had a bad experience in Chicago, only lovely, romantic, fun times. It’s one of my favorite metropolitan cities in the world rivaling London, Sydney, and Rome.

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When it comes to books, three that describe the historical importance of Chicago are Devil in the White City, Sister Carrie, and The Jungle. 

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Erik Larson’s 2003 National Book Award finalist contribution tells about two historical events that occurred side by side, the making of the Chicago Exposition of 1893, and the killings at the hands of psychopath, H.H. Holmes. This non-fiction account appealed to me for many reasons. Generally, I enjoy studying the Gilded Age and the relationship between the powerful and the powerless. This time frame matched the time period and setting of my novel, The Knife with the Ivory Handle.

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Larson received acclaim for his meticulously researched account. It documented two story lines, how architectural marvels transformed Chicago in the late 1800s and a nefarious serial killer, H.H. Holmes. I was eager to read about these two topics, however, it became clear to me that the drama surrounding the 1893 Chicago Exposition could not compete with America’s version of Jack the Ripper.

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John Root and Daniel Burnham were partners and principal architects of the Chicago Exposition of 1893 along with Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect whiz of Central Park, NYC. Surrounding them were the barons of the Gilded Age in Chicago:  Marshall Field, George Pullman, Louis Sullivan, Philip Armour, and Potter Palmer. Burnham’s charm and ambition created a fair that occupied over two hundred buildings in a square mile.

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Every chapter vacillated from Burnham to Holmes’s point of view. Instead of merging the two separate stories, the division created a competition for my attention. In the end, I found myself jumping ahead every other chapter to read about the psychological progression—or the ethical digression—of a maniac. What tendencies did Erik Larson give his killer to create a psychopath able to calmly fool everyone he met? Holmes was often described with bright blue eyes, extreme handsomeness and charm. Holmes was methodical. He found beautiful women irresistible. He would charm them into loving them. Then they would go missing. He quickly assumed wealth as a pharmacist, various scams, and money inherited by women he married. In anticipation of opportunities provided by the Chicago Exposition, he built a hotel to accommodate his future victims.

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It was estimated he killed 36-200 women. Holmes would ship the remains to a third-party, who sold the body to medical houses be used as a cadaver. Larson described Holmes as an amphibian which was keenly accurate. Larson’s killer was cold, calculating, and unfeeling, and Larson refrained from gore and descriptions of the horror of the kill. I think Larson did this to match the other story of how Chicago architects competed to transform the midwest city into a metropolis to rival New York City. It wasn’t a surprise to me to learn that Larson’s background was in journalism.

Well, what does this have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio?

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Leonardo DiCaprio and his production company, Appian Way, along with Double Features picked up the rights to The Devil in the White City in 2011. He is slotted to play the killer Holmes. DiCaprio hired up-and-coming screenwriter, Graham Moore, to complete the script. Recently, Warner Bros. picked up the rights for the book and Appian Way will produce the feature. Leo is off on a long break, and I hope when he returns to work, he will get down to making this film. I’m looking forward to Gatsby next week and The Wolf on Wall Street out in he fall of 2013. This will be the fifth time Leo and Martin Scorsese collaborate. I can’t wait!

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The Windy City has a sordid, fascinating past. What do you like best about Chicago?  Do you think Leonardo DiCaprio can pull off playing a serial killer? How on earth will Graham Moore create an element of humanity in a psychopath for us to care?

Hat’s Off to John Malkovich

John’s trademark expression embodies the bored intellectual similar to James Woods: sanctimonious, manipulating, and arrogant–all visible in his eyes and the frozen line of his lips and the monotone, effeminate voice.  Quite a few of his films are flops. But when John Malkovich is really engaged in a project, he is quite brilliant and his mis-steps don’t seem to matter. Here’s a list of my five favorites.

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 Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

I appreciate German filmmaking during the Weimar Republic especially legendary director, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and  M.  Out of this time period, my favorite German film is Nosferatu(1922) directed by F. W. Murnau, starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok. If you enjoy horror films, this is one of the originals, and I think it’s ten times better and more artful than what you see today.

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Shadow of the Vampire, tells the story of F.W. Murnau’s trek with crew to create the realistic horror film at a Czechoslovakian castle. When the cast and crew arrive, the vampire Count Orlok, played to perfection by Willem Dafoe, scares and attacks the cast and crew.

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Being John Malkovich(1999)

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This is my favorite dark comedy of all time. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, it stars John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich, who plays a fictional version of himself. Philosophical, wacky, with great acting from everyone, including Cameron Diaz who plays “dowdy” surprisingly well. John Cusack gives a stellar performance.  Loss of identity and quest for control are two primary motivations for everyone in the film including the pet chimpanzee. Through the secret portal on floor 7.5, visitors travel into the mind of John Malkovich. After ten minutes, visitors are spit out on to the NJ Turnpike. What happens when the real John Malkovich discovers his own portal and goes into his own mind? It’s hysterical. The best reason to watch the film is if you love dialogue and intellectual questions posed that one normally expects from science fiction. Is the real you trapped? What is real? Isn’t an actor a vessel who assumes identities? Does he get lost? Am I a man in a woman’s body? The more times you watch it, the more nuances register. What a GREAT script by Charlie Kaufman.

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The character Craig has identity issues and only “lives” when he’s manipulating the puppets. He goes to extreme measures to secure the love of Maxine and success as a puppeteer.

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One of the rare times a film was as good as the book, this 1992 film version of the John Steinbeck classic was great because of John Malkovich’s performance as Lennie.

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Remember when Lennie defends George from Curly?

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Gary Sinise did a great job directing the film.

In the Line of Fire

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In the Line of Fire is a 1993 American thriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Clint Eastwood as Agent Frank Horrigan and John Malkovich as assassin Mitch Leary.  John received a best supporting actor nomination in this role and stole the show. His villain was perfect. It’s one of the better thrillers out there.

I have to mention the film that got him famous in the first place, Dangerous Liaisons (1988) with Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close, who should have won the Oscar for her outstanding performance.

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Have you tried reading the epistolary novel by 18th century French great, Laclos?  The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont  are ex-lovers and rivals. As bored aristocrats who manipulate others for amusement, their sexual affairs and decadent melodrama of the French aristocracy in 1790s makes it a perfect period film. Oh, the costumes! The breadth of John Malkovich’s acting guaranteed his successful transition from stage actor to film actor.  A must see.

There are many more I didn’t talk about. Which one of his films do you like the best? Emperor of the Sun? Ogre? Reds?