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IMDb Top 250: The Sting (1973)

WIPE VS. IMDb

(Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, there may be spoilers below.)

Director: George Roy Hill

Screenplay: David S. Ward

IMDb rank: #99

IMDb user quote: “The caper movie uber alles . . . A magical plot, dead on art direction, brilliant supporting roles (most notably Robert Shaw, ya falla?), and the guiding hand of Redford/Newman chemistry make this one of Hollywood’s great films.” – moman818, from Los Angeles, 10/10 review

Wipe’s take: The Sting marks the second and final pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, an enduringly popular duo whose initial collaboration Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – also directed by George Roy Hill – currently sits at #148 on the IMDb top 250. It came as a bit of a surprise when The Sting took home an armful of Oscars in the spring of 1974, including Best Picture (it had been virtually shut out of the Golden Globes, earning only a screenplay nomination); however, by this time the film, a late-December-’73 release, had struck it big at the box-office and started a sensation on the Billboard charts with its soundtrack, composed mainly of old Scott Joplin piano rags adapted by Oscar-winner Marvin Hamlisch.* Today The Sting appears to have lost little of its ability to charm audiences, who remain enthralled by the Redford-Newman iconography, and perhaps even more so by the film’s playfully convoluted plot, which is divided into segments (“The Set-Up”; “The Hook”; “The Tale”; etc.) detailing the various stages leading up to the film’s climactic con (“The Sting”). As in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the keyword for The Sting is “fun”; its champions are most likely to laud the film as a supreme example of “pure entertainment.”

Viewing The Sting for the first time recently, I was indeed entertained, if not supremely so. I doubt I’m alone in confessing a penchant for films in which the characters hatch a plan that unfolds in carefully delineated stages towards some tremendously rousing payoff (I’m thinking not only of caper flicks but of prison-break perennials like The Great Escape [IMDb #100], The Bridge on the River Kwai [#70], and The Shawshank Redemption [#1]). The Sting follows this line of plotting admirably (it certainly had me “hooked,” to use the con-man parlance), except I would hesitate to call its climax rousing. When we finally reach the point at which the con-men played by Redford and Newman swindle the gangster Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) out of a half-million dollars, the victory occurs rather hastily (taking place within the last ten minutes of the film) and with surprisingly little fanfare.

Perhaps this is to the film’s credit. In an age where Soderbergh’s glitzy, preening Ocean’s trilogy sets the standard for its genre, it’s certainly nice to look back at a caper film with the good grace to underplay its climactic grift, and with the modesty not to bask in its own cleverness for too long. When Redford’s character declines his cut of the big score, telling Newman “Nah, I’d only blow it,” it’s a sign that both the character and the film itself basically mean well – for neither does it seem ultimately about the money, but rather about the humble rewards of pulling off a great story. (Actually, in the Redford character’s case it’s also about earning retribution for a pal Lonnegan had murdered. Almost forgot about that. Probably because the film’s so darn good-natured you tend to overlook the grisly murders that occasionally crop up.)

One other aspect of The Sting intrigues me, and that’s the handsomeness of Redford and Newman in contradistinction to practically all the rest of the major cast onscreen. Now, obviously, one expects that the best-looking people in the average Hollywood film will be its stars (except where Judd Apatow is concerned), but there seemed something especially pronounced about the unattractiveness of everybody but Redford and Newman in The Sting. (It also doesn’t help that Redford never looked fitter than he does in this film. Wow he’s dashing.) I’m not the first person to notice that the two lead women in The Sting are not what you’d call “conventionally attractive.” This wouldn’t bother me at all if one of these women didn’t happen to turn out to be a treacherous assassin (knew she was funny-looking for a reason!), and if the other weren’t relegated to a very unimportant role, despite the fact she’s playing Newman’s live-in love interest (knew she wouldn’t get much screen time!). Meanwhile, Robert Shaw’s character is made noticeably less attractive by means of a padded hunchback (if I’m not mistaken), and by a herky-jerky limp (which, in fairness, Shaw brought with him to the set from a recent handball accident).

Again, I should not be shocked that Redford and Newman turn out to be the most beautiful people in the cast. But I did detect a little more effort than usual put into foregrounding their beauty by surrounding them with mortal-looking people. (Plus I’m not even sure the two actors share many shots together. Better to admire them in separate close-ups I guess.) Even if I’m right, and this is the machinery of movie-star vanity at work, it hardly overwhelms the picture, which, as I previously stated, is pleasantly modest in tone and approach.

Does the movie merit top-250 status? I would say no, but it does belong near the top of any person’s list of “Movies with Impossibly Attractive Male Leads.”

-Cam

* Hamlisch’s score is often credited with reviving a ragtime craze in America, but the truth is that Joplin’s music had already enjoyed a popular resurgence a few years prior to The Sting, when Joshua Rifkin’s album of Joplin rags sold in excess of 100,000 copies in the United States. Still, the zenith of the craze has to be located in The Sting soundtrack’s reign at the top of the Billboard 2oo for five weeks in May and June of 1974. Semi-interesting footnote to all this: A Joplin biopic – called Scott Joplin – was released in 1977, starring Billy Dee Williams, and directed by Jeremy Kagan – a.k.a. the guy who would go on to direct 1983’s much-maligned The Sting II.

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Burn Hollywood Burn!

I think this music video excoriates the racial indignities of Classical (and to a large extent, Modern) Hollywood filmmaking as forcefully as any essay could. I’m posting the video today for no better reason than to offer a stark reminder of Hollywood’s ugly history, lest we forget in our jubilation over this year’s Oscars. Hollywood may have “progressed” to the point where black-themed films like Precious can stand out at the Academy Awards ceremony (6 nominations, 2 wins), but the fact remains that there have not been significant steps taken in “Tinseltown” to redress its racist and prejudicial past – or even truly to confront it. Hollywood’s quick to congratulate itself when it does something “right” (standing ovation for Mo’Nique, ladies and gentlemen!); but it doesn’t care openly to admit when it’s done something wrong. (Incidentally, Barbra Streisand’s remark before announcing Kathryn Bigelow’s name for Best Director – “Well, the time has come” – wasn’t nearly sardonic enough, for my liking.)

I’ve got an idea: How about an Oscar montage that acknowledges the shameful legacy of Hollywood racial stereotyping – a veritable cavalcade of “mammy” and “spooked Negro” clips set to the bold orchestral splashes of Bill Conti? Better yet, just show this P.E. rap video on the big screen at the Kodak Theatre, and watch the audience squirm.

I shudder to think that the new liberal Academy may be delusional enough to cheer along as Chuck D and crew bid them all to go up in flames.

-Cam

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Oscar, adjective. (UPDATED)

It’s Oscar night – the one night of the year when we can all look forward to four-plus hours of Hollywood celebrating itself with one overblown musical number, self-congratulatory speech, and poignant cutaway to Mickey Rooney in his nosebleed seats after another. This year, the field of Best Picture nominees was expanded to ten, signalling two things: 1) the Academy needs an excuse to include popular fare like District 9 in its marquee category, for ratings and marketing purposes; and 2) the Academy’s going to have its teleprompter writers working overtime thinking up pithy ways to (over)praise these ten nominees. In other words, expect flattering adjectives to abound in tonight’s telecast.

Recognizing this, we at Wipe have decided to offer our own version of “Oscar predictions”: instead of predicting the winners, we predict the adjectives mostly likely to be used on teleprompter screens in praise of the nominees (limiting ourselves to the Picture category, in the interest of brevity). And as an added bonus, we offer our own adjectives in response to the Academy. (I know what you’re thinking, but no, we’re not only out to piss on the Oscar parade.)

Call it our Oscar round-up – or “Wipe-up,” if you will.

The Ten Best Picture Nominees are:

Oscar says: “Heartwarming”

Wipe says: “Republican”

Oscar says: “No Holds Barred”

Wipe says: “Overdone”


Oscar says: “British”

Wipe says: “Pedo”


Oscar says: “Tender”

Wipe says: “Mushy”


Oscar says: “Soaring”

Wipe says:  “Clooney”


Oscar says: “Groundbreaking”

Wipe says: “Techno-horny”


Oscar says: “Unflinching”

Wipe says: “Unsubtle”


Oscar says: “Innovative”

Wipe says: “Techno-racist”


Oscar says: “Jewish”

Wipe says: “Philosophi-coen”


Oscar says: “Heartstopping”

Wipe says: “Heartpounding”

Check back after the ceremony to see how well we scored in our Oscar predictions!

*UPDATE: Stymied by the teleprompter! By our count, we only correctly predicted one adjective: presenter Charlize Theron used the word “unflinching” to describe Precious. Other than that, zilch. They didn’t even use “Jewish” to describe A Serious Man, which is baffling. Oh well, at least we all had fun, right folks? (But seriously, talk about a snoozer.)

-Wipe

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TIME CAPSULE REVIEW

Lust for Life (1956)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Screenplay: Norman Corwin

Kirk Douglas gives one of the screen’s great performances as Vincent van Gogh in this artist biopic, filmed in luscious Metrocolor with CinemaScope lenses. What Douglas accomplishes as Van Gogh is loads more impressive than the over-feted celeb-mimicry of recent biopics (i.e. Foxx as Ray; Hoffman as Capote; Streep as Child). Without video evidence of the artist’s living personality, mannerisms, vocal intonations (a luxury that more often than not turns acting into impersonating), Douglas is left instead with the task of re-vivifying, in flesh, the emotional expressiveness found in Van Gogh’s artistic legacy (his paintings, as well as his famous letters to his brother Theo). It’s a performance that draws equally on the physical and the psychological; Douglas’s muscular body—shown vigorously at work as a miner early in the film, and violently as a drawer and painter thereafter—seems constantly ravaged by Van Gogh’s creative hunger and inner agonies. (How the hell did Douglas lose the Oscar to Yul Brenner?*) As Paul Gauguin (in a role that won him the Supporting Oscar), Anthony Quinn threatens to devour the scenery every time he’s on screen, but his trademark volcanism and bluster are kept in balance with Douglas’s implosive, frayed-nerve sensitivity. Whenever the two share scenes, the body thrills.  And if you leave aside the acting, the picture is still a beauty—narratively fluid and gloriously eye-filling. Minnelli’s use of Van Gogh’s psycho-colours as inspiration for his own palette yields a masterful symbiosis; the film’s visualization of Van Gogh’s The Night Café alone proves that, pace b&w devotees, colour belongs to the cinema.

*Jesus Christ, look who else Yul, the “King of Siam,” beat out that year: Sir Laurence Olivier (Richard III); James Dean and Rock Hudson (both Giant).

-Cam

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Stand-out performances from 2009

With the announcement of the Oscar nominations just around the corner (February 2), I thought it an opportune time to bring attention to a few fine performances from last year that are likely to be shut out of the running. Some of these performances stand an outside chance of grabbing a nomination (a hunch tells me Anthony Mackie might steal a spot in the Supporting Actor category); others are clearly nowhere near being in the race, by virtue of appearing in “lowbrow” or strictly commercial fare. All together, the following comprise ten of my favourite male and female performances of 2009.

Alison Lohman in

Drag Me to Hell

Provided a blessedly soothing, sweet-tempered presence amidst a maelstrom of blood, flames, and witch vomit. ______________________________________________

Zac Efron in

Me and Orson Welles

Proved his ingenuousness (already traceable on his always-flush, emotion-stained face) by way of a beautifully poignant vocal and ukulele number. ______________________________________________

Beyoncé in

Obsessed

Made fiery, fierce red hair iconic; upgraded her fierceness with a rousing (if ideologically loaded) defense of domesticity by fisticuffs.

______________________________________________

Tobey Maguire in

Brothers

Manifested post-traumatic stress with paranoid, spectral eyes; scared the hell out of me and broke my heart, often in the same scene.

______________________________________________

Charlotte Gainsbourg in

Antichrist

Went to the limits for a no-class director; transcended his bullshit by channeling rage and madness on an almost super-human level.

______________________________________________

Omari Hardwick in

Next Day Air

Rendered a potentially trite drug kingpin character fully dimensional, with humour, style, and moral complexity to spare.

______________________________________________

Abbie Cornish in

Bright Star

Did justice to Keats’s effusions in her beauty and charm; clarified Fanny Brawne’s own passion in moments ranging from tranquil to devastating.

______________________________________________

Anthony Mackie in

The Hurt Locker

Unforgettably expressed a soldier’s anxieties in his final, heart-wrenching breakdown in front of Jeremy Renner’s (seemingly) unflappable bomb defuser.

______________________________________________

Rachel Weisz in

The Brothers Bloom

Rather amazingly shaped a ludicrous mess of quirks into a tolerable, even beguiling character.

______________________________________________

Johnny Depp in

Public Enemies

Eschewed his recent streak of commercial showboating in favour of a more refined, fascinating intensity; redeemed a misguided gangster narrative with movie star charisma.

Honourable mentions: Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Zoe Kazan in Me and Orson Welles; Sam Rockwell in Gentlemen Broncos; Shoshana Bush in Dance Flick; Richard Kind in A Serious Man; Edith Scob in Summer Hours

Cam

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Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire (2009)

Director: Lee Daniels

Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher

Novel: Sapphire (1996)

That I caught up with Lee Daniels’s Precious late in the game (i.e. this past Monday), following its run of resoundingly successful festival appearances (major awards at Sundance and TIFF; standing ovation at Cannes) and hyperbolic critical notices (both gushy and censorious), clearly influenced my perceptions of it, and not for the better. It’s no secret that hype can be a wickedly distracting thing; but it can also tell us a lot about a film.

Oscar talk™–which Precious has been receiving since well before its domestic release last November–is high on my list of warning signs that a movie secretly has no integrity. Part of what’s so ruinous about awards season—and perhaps the very idea of handing out awards for films in the first place—is that it invites and rewards fawning: in most instances (not to say always), the films that emerge as “award-hopefuls” at year’s end are those custom-designed to flatter voters’ tastes, their sense of self-importance and awareness of “important” subjects (people like Kate Winslet and Stephen Daldry devote their entire careers to making these kinds of films). I couldn’t shake the impression while watching Precious that every “raw,” “powerhouse” moment in it was calculated to appease (liberal-minded) award-voters–perhaps because, from my vantage point mid-way through awards-season, I can see how well the film has succeeded in doing just that.

Maybe it’s unfair to place the blame on the filmmakers for the hype Precious has generated; they may have originally had only the best intentions in mind. (Besides, could the Oscars have possibly been in their sights when they debuted at Sundance?) All I can say, for my part, is that the award fever surrounding the film, and integrated into its marketing/campaign strategy (no doubt with the complicity of Lee “Monster’s Ball” Daniels), has significantly deadened the actual emotional experience of watching the film. I find it very difficult to be moved by a film when all its dramatic peaks–including the heart-tugging dialogue between Gabby Sidibe and Paula Patton, and Mo’Nique’s tearful climactic monologue–come straight out of the trailer I’ve seen a dozen times. Hyping Precious in their own right, these emotion-soaked clips have become the Oscar-jockeying equivalent of the f/x “money shots” in previews for summer blockbusters. Again, the calculation shows the more the hype grows.

Perhaps I digress. Aside from my above complaints–which all seem external (though, I think, not inconsequential) to the film in some sense–what else can I say about Precious? Most of you should know by now that the film is about an obese, illiterate black teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) from Harlem who struggles daily with poverty and an abusive mother (Mo’Nique), as well as the trauma of being raped and twice impregnated by her biological father, until education and the efforts of a kindly teacher (Paula Patton) transform her life. Being a “liberal-minded” viewer myself, I found that the film did make a lot of concessions to my particular biases, and it didn’t always feel like a ploy: I especially appreciated the film’s attempt to imbue nearly every character–even the monstrous Mo’Nique–with a measure of self-understanding and humanity (more than can be said for the potential Best Picture-winner Avatar). And it is a rare film indeed that allows you to see the beauty and inner-consciousness of an overweight, African-American female character, not to mention a film that deals so directly with incest, abusive parenting, and class and racial issues.

But (another but!), just because Precious addresses the latter issues directly, doesn’t necessarily mean it does so adequately, or responsibly. I’ll tread lightly here and reference other critics, since I’m definitely out of my area in discussing some of these topics. As glowingly as the film has been praised by some critics (Peter Travers composed a love poem or two, calling it the best film of 2009), other critics (Armond White most famously) have attacked it as racist, demeaning in its representation of inner-city black life, and particularly problematic in light of its critical standing with the majority of (white) critics.  Nikole Hannah-Jones of The Oregonian perhaps frames the anxiety about Precious best: “I am skeptical about a movie that seems so heavily steeped in black pathology, yet is so embraced by the mainstream. Of course incest and illiteracy occur in the black community, as [they do] in all communities. But with so few black dramas on the big screen, I also know ‘Precious’ presents this view in a cinematic vacuum.” You begin to see what Hannah-Jones and White mean the more Precious relentlessly piles on the un-prettiness of inner-city life (e.g., Mo’Nique’s pathetic attempt to appear presentable for a social worker by throwing on a wig and smearing on lipstick; stylized flashbacks that highlight the sweat on Precious’s father’s belly as he unbuckles himself to rape her; a late appearance by the AIDS virus). Why are so many (white) critics eating this up, without compunction? Why is Precious the only film with black themes to emerge as a contender this awards season?

The other major problem, touched on by White and several other critics, is that the film casts only light-skinned performers (Patton, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey) in the sympathetic, kind saviour roles. This is particularly alarming given that, as Latoya Peterson points out on the excellent blog Racialicious, Patton’s teacher character is darker-skinned and wears dreadlocks in the original novel. With a light-skinned actor occupying this role, the character seems to join a long line of predominantly white teacher/saviour figures in films about inner-city education (in the same blog posting mentioned above, Peterson provides a hilarious clip from MadTV to illustrate the prevalence and ridiculousness of this phenomenon). Further compounding this problem is the film’s depiction of Precious’s shame at her own skin colour; she speaks of desiring “a light-skinned boyfriend” and even envisions herself a skinny white woman while fixing her hair in front of a mirror. I don’t doubt that a black girl could have such self-consciousness about her skin colour; I am merely troubled by the fact that the film takes it for granted that Precious desires to be white (it’s almost offhandedly treated), and never comes to terms with where this identity issue stems from (could movies like Precious, with their light-skinned angels, be partially responsible for perpetuating this self-image problem?). In the absence of any deeper reflection on skin colour, Precious’s self-hatred in the film appears as just one more element to flatter critics’ sense of “raw truth” in this telling of an African-American story.

[For a fine summary of the debates surrounding Precious, see this article.]

-Cam

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