|by Peter Sobczynski
Just because there have been approximately 700 tributes to the late, great Paul Newman that have highlighted a few choice titles from his long and illustrious career, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a 701st, as this week’s column will hopefully prove.
Although hardly a week goes by without the passing of some celebrity or another, very few of them make the kind of impact that last week’s announcement of the passing of Paul Newman had on the general population. As a movie star, he was one of the greatest--talented enough to be considered one of the finest actors of his time and beloved enough by fans to retain his enormous popularity for over a half-century. As a philanthropist, the millions and millions of dollars that he helped raise for charity helped better the lives of countless individuals over the years. His Newman’s Own line of foods would have been a worthwhile venture if only because of how the profits generated from sales were donated to charity, but they also tasted good and exposed a large number of people to the wonders of organic food. Finally, in an industry where self-interest is normally the name of the game, his unerring sense of personal and professional loyalty was something to truly admire. (Case in point. A few years ago, he agreed to star in the film “An Unfinished Life” for the late Robert Altman, with whom he had worked before on “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” and “Quintet” As Altman later recounted in an interview I did with him in 2003, “They wanted me to do it in Canada and I kept saying "Why, aren’t there any bears here?" I said that I wasn’t going to do that and I finally quit. They were thrilled-Harvey called Paul Newman and said "We got rid of Altman-who can we get to direct this?" Newman said "Uh, you don’t seem to understand. I was only doing this because of Altman. I’m out of here."
In the wake of Newman’s passing, it is only logical that some people might want to pay tribute to the man and his work by nestling in and watching DVDs of some of his most iconic films. The only problem with that is that there is truly an embarrassment of riches in this regard. Since making his big-screen debut in the 1954 Biblical epic “The Silver Chalice” (which he often referred to as one of the worst films of his career), his batting average for films that were both artistic and commercial successes proved to be pretty astonishing. “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “Slap Shot,” “The Verdict,” “Nobody’s Fool,” “Road to Perdition”--most actors could have forged an entire career on only one of those films. Of course, not every film that he made became as well-known as those titles but that doesn’t mean that the rest of his filmography is somehow wanting. To that end, I would like to use this week’s column to point you towards some Newman films that generally don’t crop up when his work is discussed--while they may not be as famous as his most iconic works, they are still often-fascinating films that serve as a reminder that he was one of the greats and that there will never be another one quite like him.
TORN CURTAIN (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): I am perfectly aware that it may seem like the height of perversity to kick off this mini-tribute by highlighting this 1966 film that is generally regarded as a career low point for both Newman and director Alfred Hitchcock. However, this espionage thriller, in which Newman plays an American scientist who seems as if he is defecting to Russia during a trip to Copenhagen, much to the confusion and chagrin of fiancée Julie Andrews, is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would have you believe. As Cold War dramas go, it is reasonably taut and engaging and while it is clear that Hitchcock, who was generally the star of all his movies (even people like Cary Grant and James Stewart would defer to him), and Newman, a member of both the new star system and a proponent of the Method acting style that flew in the face of Hitch’s highly stylized approach, did not get along very much, this mutual dislike provides the film with an intriguing level of tension that fits nicely with the rest of the material. If nothing else, it should be seen for the bravura set-piece in which Newman is forced to kill a man quietly in order to protect his secret and discovers just how hard it is to actually take another person’s life.
BUFFALO BILL & THE INDIANS , OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): In the months leading up to this film’s release on July 4, 1976, the idea of Newman playing legendary Western hero/showman Buffalo Bill Cody in a film directed by Robert Altman in his follow-up to the great “Nashville” sounded so irresistible that it was expected by nearly everyone to be a huge popular success. Unfortunately, when Watergate-weary audiences discovered that the film was actually a caustic satire about America and its tendency to buy into overblown myths as a way to avoid grappling with the realities of its history and presented Buffalo Bill as a drunken idiot whose reputation is due almost entirely to the creations of his ever-present biographer (Burt Lancaster), they avoided it in droves and it became a major flop. Today, of course, the cynical tone of Alan Rudolph ‘s screenplay is a lot easier to swallow and while it may not be one of Altman’s best films, it is certainly one of the more intriguing ones. As for Newman, he perfectly captures the blowhard nature of the character and is ably supported by a great cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Chaplin, Joel Grey and Will Sampson as Sitting Bull. Besides, if you like this one, perhaps it might inspire you to check out the other Altman, Newman collaboration, the bizarre sci-fi allegory “Quintet,” a film that I am convinced will one day reach the audience that it deserves.
THE COLOR OF MONEY (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $9.99): I admit that on the surface, including this 1986 effort may seem a bit strange to include in a list dedicated to Newman lesser-appreciated films--after all, it was the sequel to the classic “The Hustler,” it found him teaming up with the great director Martin Scorsese and an up-and-coping star by the name of Tom Cruise, it was a hit at the box-office and it scored him his long-overdue Oscar for Best Actor. Despite that kind of pedigree, the film tends to get shuffled to the side in discussions of Newman’s career and his Oscar is often dismissed by many as nothing more than a make-up from the Academy for having passed him over so many times in the past. This is a shame because while it may not quite rise up to the heights of the original, it is still an incredibly entertaining movie that works both as a continuation to a classic film and as a work in its own right. Although there are plenty of things to admire here--Scorsese’s stylish direction, the killer soundtrack and a performance from Cruise that showed that he had the ability to move from teen roles to more adult material--the standout is, of course, Newman’s return to the role of Fast Eddie Felson. Forget all the talk from naysayers--Newman’s ability to revisit one of his most popular characters and effortlessly show how he has changed and evolved (or not) over 25 years is amazing. Even if he had won the Oscar for one of his previous nominations, he still would have deserved it for his work here.
TWILIGHT (Paramount Home Video. $9.99): In 1994, Newman teamed up with director Robert Benton for an adaptation of Richard Russo’s novel “Nobody’s Fool” and the result was a critically acclaimed box-office hit that earned Newman yet another Oscar nomination (and quite frankly, he might well have won it if he hadn’t been up the “Forest Gump” juggernaut). Four years later, the three reunited for this low-key and slyly entertaining mystery in which Newman plays a ex-cop-turned-private eye who lives with a dying actor (Gene Hackman) and his wife (Susan Sarandon) and for whom he does the occasional favor, such as slipping down to Mexico to retrieve their wayward daughter (a pre-stardom Reese Witherspoon). When he agrees to deliver some blackmail money, he finds himself in the middle of an unsolved case involving the disappearance of Sarandon’s first husband 20 years earlier. Granted, the plot is awfully familiar but as the film progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that the storyline cooked up by Benton and Russo is pretty much beside the point--the real purpose is to simply allow a gallery of great veteran actors (including James Garner, Stockard Channing and the invaluable M. Emmet Walsh) the chance to play off of each other and that is where the film truly succeeds. In what could be seen as a continuation of the two Lew Harper detective films that he did earlier in his career (1965’s “Harper” and 1975’s “The Drowning Pool”), the role fits Newman like an old shoe and watching him acting against the likes of Hackman, Sarandon and Garner (all of whom are clearly thrilled to be working with him) is a perfect example of how his pure star power could elevate even the most mediocre material into something worth seeing.
NEW AND NOTABLE
CAN’T HARDLY WAIT--10 YEAR REUNION EDITION (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.94): Yes, the title comes straight from a classic tune from the late, great Replacements, but considering the dull-witted and obnoxious twerps populating this stridently unfunny look at the misadventures of a group of high-school students as they celebrate the end of the school year over the course of one long night (imagine “Dazed and Confused” without the humor, richly-drawn characters and documentary-like feel for the subject but with Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage), perhaps the filmmakers should have called it “Bastards of Young” instead.
CHAPTER 27 (Genius Products. $19.99): In one of the sleaziest and most contemptuous films to come along in a long, long while, Jared Leto overacts wildly as Mark David Chapman in this unpleasant and insight-free look at the couple of days in early December 1980 from when he arrived in New York City to the moment when he murdered John Lennon outside of his home at the Dakota apartment building. Even ickier, the film was actually shot outside the actual Dakota, a nod to authenticity that Yoko Ono (who still lives in the building) must have really appreciated.
CSNY DÉJÀ VU (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.98): Working under his directorial nom de plume of Bernard Shakey, legendary rocker Neil Young chronicles the recording of his incendiary 2006 anti-war album “Living With War” (featuring the hit single “Let’s Impeach the President”) and the cross-country tour that he embarked upon with former bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash--a show that, as we see, clearly divided audiences between those who agreed with Young’s sentiments wholeheartedly and those who were outraged that a veteran musical artist would dare to voice his opinions of the world instead of simply giving them the empty display of nostalgia that they paid $200 to see.
FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): Considering that this latest hit from the Judd Apatow comedy factory, in which ordinary schlub Jason Segel (who also wrote the screenplay) gets dumped by his TV star girlfriend (Kristen Bell), goes off to Hawaii on vacation to forget and winds up staying at the same resort as his ex and her new rock star paramour (a very funny Russell Brand, featured everything from pearl necklace jokes to excerpts from a musical version of “Dracula” staged entirely with puppets to several shots of Segel’s genitals (and yes, the film is available on Blu-Ray), you may wonder how there could possibly be additional footage deemed unsuitable for theatrical release. And yet, this two-disc set (not counting one of those increasing ubiquitous and relatively useless digital copies) contains both the original theatrical version and a second one running seven minutes longer. If that isn’t enough, the set also includes commentary from most of the key participants, numerous deleted, extended and alternate scenes, audition tapes, behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers and something called “Drunk-O-Rama.”
IRON MAN (Paramount Home Video. $39.99): Considering that this superhero epic was one of the year’s most popular hits to date, I am going to assume that no explanation on my part is necessary, except to note that if you left as soon as it ended when it was in theaters, you really should sit through all the end credits in order to uncover the little surprise at the end. Beyond that, this two-disc set includes deleted scenes, multi-part documentaries on the history of the character and the making of the film and, perhaps most intriguingly, the screen test that Robert Downey Jr. did in order to convince the skeptical producers that he was the man for the job.
LOU REED’S BERLIN (Miramax Home Entertainment. $24.95): In this acclaimed documentary directed by Julian Schnabel, the incomparable rock legend performs his harrowing 1973 song cycle “Berlin” before an appreciative hometown New York City audience. Although not quite as exhilarating as the Martin Scorsese/Rolling Stones collaboration “Shine A Light,” this is pretty much essential viewing for music fans I general and followers of Reed in particular. Hopefully, if enough people are turned on to this DVD, perhaps Reed and Schnabel will collaborate on a sequel featuring a performance of Reed’s infamous 1975 album “Metal Machine Music.”
MY THREE SONS--SEASON ONE (CBS DVD. $39.99): I know, I know--when I watch episodes of this TV sitcom classic about an ordinary suburban guy trying to raise his three sons following the death of his wife, I am supposed to look at star Fred MacMurray as a bumbling but essentially decent sort who always knows the right thing to say or do and the most devoted family man imaginable. Alas, before I ever got around to seeing this show, I had already seen him playing two of the most loathsome and amoral rat bastards to ever hit the screen in “Double Indemnity” and “The Apartment,” so whenever I watch an episode now, I keep waiting for him to just snap like he is “The Stepfather” and I keep fearing for the safety Chip, Robbie, Ernie and even old Uncle Charley (William Demarest). Other vintage TV shows hitting DVD this week include “Adam-12: Season 2 (Shout! Factory. $54.99), “Beauty and the Beast: The Complete Series” (CBS DVD. $89.98), “Edward the King” (Acorn Media. $59.95) and “Sports Night: 10th Anniversary Edition” (Shout! Factory. $69.99).
NUMBERS--SEASON FOUR (CBS DVD. $59.98): Out of the goodness of my heart, I will not kick off the blurb for the latest installment of the popular math-based cop show by making my usual dumb joke about the hero being a cop who prefers pi to doughnuts. Instead, I will merely point out that among the episodes on display here, Math Cop finds himself battling a roving gang of math punks known as the Base Sixes and finds himself teamed up with a calculator-toting hot-shot rookie who puts their lives in danger when he refuses to show his work. Other currently-running TV shows arriving in stores this week include “Click & Clack’s As The Wrench Turns” (PBS Home Video. $29.98), “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil” (Paramount Home Video. $26.98) and “My Name is Earl: The Complete Third Season” (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98).
PULSE 2: AWAKE (Genius Products. $19.98): Considering how disastrous their initial attempt to remake the Asian horror favorite about ghosts who manage to invade our world through our computers and cell phones when they tried it a few years ago (original writer/director Wes Craven was removed from the project early on, there were rumors of endless reshoots and reedits and the final product sat on the shelf for a long time before receiving only a blink-and-you-miss-it theatrical release), you would have thought the Harvey and Bob Weinstein would have thought it wise to simply leave this property alone. Instead, they have offered up this direct-to-video sequel in which the remaining human survivors of the ghost plague reside in technological dead zones and one man (“Battlestar Galactica” star Jamie Bamber) must trek to an area overrun with malevolent spirits in order to find his missing daughter.
SCHOOLGIRL REPORT 4: WHAT DRIVES PARENTS TO DESPAIR (Synapse Films. $24.95): This fourth installment of the popular Swedish soft-core film series, a collection of vignettes allegedly meant to “educate” parents and viewers about what their children are supposedly doing behind (and on) their backs, is quite possibly the oddest of the bunch in terms of the stories being presented. A girl seduces her teacher in order to get a better grade--normal enough, I suppose, for this genre of filmmaking. A perv pretends to be a doctor in order to give “examinations” to all the nubile lasses who come his way--again, nothing that far out of the ordinary. A bunch of kids form a prostitution racket so that they can avoid having to get real jobs--okay, that is a bit on the weird side. A beautiful black girl who has been attracting all the attention at school is invited to a party by her fellow schoolgirls, not realizing that they plan on having her sexually assaulted in order to show her up--that is downright disturbing. Then, in the final segment, cult icon Christina Lindberg (the star of such classics as “Anita: The Shocking Account of a Young Nymphomaniac” and the immortal “They Call Her One-Eye”) plays a young girl who finds herself having surrealistic erotic fantasies about one of the few people in the world that she shouldn’t be having surrealistic erotic fantasies about--her brother. For those unfamiliar with this particular screen subgenre, this particular film might not be the best place to start but those who have seen more than their fair share of such films will likely be thrilled to finally have a decent and fully uncut version that they can watch, no doubt late at night and with the sound turned down.
SOCCER MOM (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.99): In an effort to boost the morale of her daughter’s failing soccer team, a mom (Missi Pyle) with way too much time on her hands does the only logical thing possible--she impersonates an Italian soccer legend (Dan Cortese) and helps to inspire them to victory. Geez, all my mom did during my soccer days was supply the occasional load of orange slices.
TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (Thinkfilm. $27.98): In between making acclaimed documentaries on the Enron collapse and the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson, filmmaker Alex Gibney turned his cameras to the torture policies enacted by the Bush administration après 9/11 by recounting the story of an Afghan taxi driver who was taken into custody after being accused of a rocket attack that he had nothing to with and turned up dead a weak later with injuries so severe that his legs were essentially pulped. The result is one of the angriest and best documentaries to date about our failures in Iraq and it won Gibney this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2580
originally posted: 10/03/08 14:12:47
last updated: 10/05/08 11:17:12