The Tom Cruise intro

I have spent a larger portion of my life thinking of Tom Cruise as a bobble-headed pretty boy than otherwise, but like all false beliefs, once you realise it's not true, it's hard to remember why you ever thought that way in the first place. I mean, yes, Top Gun, and the whole thing where was career was made because of the movie where he danced in his underwear, but throughout his career, Cruise has proven to be a smart manager of his image while also pursuing projects with genius artists from the whole gamut of established masters to hot young turks, and using his clout to get films made that would surely have gotten no traction otherwise, but aren't we all glad they did? The one-two punch of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia in 1999 is proof enough that beneath the magazine model looks, the loopy ebullience about Scientology, and the refusal to look or act remotely close to his age ever since he crossed the 40-year mark, Cruise knows shit. Much more than he's given credit for.

The earliest clear-cut evidence I can find for this comes a mere three years into his career, when Cruise co-starred in The Color of Money. It is maybe difficult to appreciate this as a cunning artistic move on the actor's part, since it's not terribly good and he's not especially distinguished in it, and the plot has a lot of similarities to his other "hotshot pisses off the mentor he's trying to learn from" movies of the 1980s. But here is a film directed by noted genius Martin Scorsese and starring movie star icon Paul Newman, patron saint of all gorgeous male actors who are also terrific, surprising, and complex actors. Think of what 24-year-old Cruise must have learned on that set! And it shows, on the edges; he'd have to wait a couple more years for the first performance where he'd actually upstage a more legendary actor (and I know that Dustin Hoffman got the Oscar and all for Rain Man, but I honestly don't see any argument that Cruise isn't doing more interesting stuff with a less showy role), but his performance here is easily the best thing he'd done by the end of 1986, and it's enormously tempting to read into the film's plot of an old master wearily forcing his knowledge onto a glossy, shallow newcomer who needs some humility knocked into him echoes of Cruise absorbing Newman's process from watching him and interacting with him on and off set. There is more than a little of Newman in Cruise's Vincent Lauria, to be certain.

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The Martin Scorsese intro

No member of the New Hollywood generation transitioned to the 1980s with his talent and dignity more intact than Martin Scorsese, though Steven Spielberg comes close (but then, he was on the outskirts of the New Hollywood Cinema to begin with, and becoming an outright mainstream populist doesn't seem to have required a compromise of his principles). The decade began for Scorsese with his broadly acknowledged masterpiece, the stylised and daunting Raging Bull; he immediately followed that with The King of Comedy, his most criminally underappreciated film (I'd rank it second to only Raging Bull itself in his career). From there, it was on to After Hours, a weird and fitfully brilliant comedy that only an intelligent, thoughtful artist deliberately pushing himself could have possibly created, even if it occupies the place in his canon that Measure for Measure or the other "problem plays" occupy for Shakespeare.

And then came The Color of Money. The appeal is obvious: no cinephile of Scorsese's standing could conceivably pass up a chance to work with Paul Newman, and having the chance to make the 25-years-later sequel to Robert Rossen's The Hustler - a film and filmmaker cultishly adored by a particular breed of film lover, and Scorsese absolutely was of that breed - could only have sweetened the deal. But it was here, for no clear reason, that the full brunt of the 1980s finally seems to have caught up with Scorsese. He had made arguable or obvious failures before - After Hours and New York, New York chief among them - but the artistic ambition behind them is absolutely unmistakable. With The Color of Money, though, Scorsese just bottomed out completely; even looking ahead to the wildly erratic career he'd have in later decades, there's nothing he made so achingly generic and impersonal as this - Gangs of New York may be a fucking awful movie, but it is a Scorsese movie through and through. The Color of Money is a boring character drama that that doesn't even do a good job of cashing in on nostalgia; for all the quiet references to "25 years ago" and the career that Newman's "Fast Eddie" Felson had to give up, there's not a frame of the film that meaningfully benefits from the viewer's knowledge of The Hustler, a better drama and a better pool movie both.

It is no accident that the first, loudest, and most enthusiastic of all Scorsese boosters, Roger Ebert, publicly called him to account for wasting his talents like this; and no accident either that Scorsese took Ebert's criticism to heart and followed this with one of the most urgently personal, to the point of being alienating, films in his career, The Last Temptation of Christ. Anyone could have made The Color of Money; probably no-one should have, but Martin Scorsese least of all.

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The Paul Newman intro

I mean, I'm completely, honestly glad that Paul Newman won an acting Oscar. It would have been an indescribable lapse if he hadn't. But really, couldn't it have been for any of his other eight nominations?

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If The Color of Money works at all, it is because Thelma Schoonmaker is a genius. There is surprisingly little else that recommends itself in a movie that pairs two generations of iconic sexy male actors for the only time, gathers them under the guiding hand of one of the best handful of American film directors at the time of its production, and puts it all under the eye of the impossibly gifted cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. The Robbie Robertson score is kind of playfully dated, with its reliance on erotic thriller synthesisers, and there is of course always a great deal of pleasure to be had in watching movies about The Urban Underbelly that shoot that underbelly with relatively non-romantic clarity. But Scorsese's underbelly was New York, and the various underbellies depicted here lack the organic familiarity of the director's movies shot in his beloved hometown. Even the director's legendary gift for employing pop music in his filmmaking fails him: while there's a documentarylike precision to how The Color of Money fills itself to the brim with the kind of radio rock music that would have been heard in all the pool halls of America in 1985 and 1986, an extensive reliance on '80s corporate rock is miles and miles and miles away from the auditory brio of a Goodfellas, for example.

But the editing! That Schoonmaker, she had (and has, though I have grave misgivings about the cutting in The Wolf of Wall Street) some kind of impossible magic to her. The editing in The Color of Money is neither her best nor her worst (though it is impressive, I am sure, that she was able to get so much out of the footage without relying so heavily on the continuity cheating that has always marked her collaborations with Scorsese), but it's certainly shown off a lot more given how little life the movie would have without it. And please note, I'm not talking about the big, splashy "look at me!" editing that shows up in the pool-playing sequences, which like the boxing matches in Raging Bull, have each been designed from a completely different perspective in terms of camera movement, angles, cutting, and pacing (they're the only thing in the movie where Scorsese seems to be alive and excited to be making this movie out of all movies. In particular, the gliding camera movement in the pool scene set to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" - the only inspired song choice in the movie - feels like top-notch Scorsese, as nothing else anywhere in the film does, though a depiction of a tournament site as something like a church comes close). The pool scenes are marvels of editing, but there's no particular triumph in any film professional - editor, cinematographer, actor, production designer, whatever - doing effective work in a sequence that has been specifically designed to showcase how amazing they are.

What's extraordinary about Schoonmaker here is in all the scenes that the film isn't foregrounding style, the character moments that nobody else involved seems to care about at all. The film opens with one of these, the first meeting between Eddie and Vincent, in which the old man observes with impressed clinical detachment the raw pool-playing skills of this young wannabe hustler and the unhand instincts of his girlfriend-manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). It's simple enough material: Eddie still and watching, Vincent energetic and wild, cut between them. Schoonmaker elevates this above its basic storytelling elements, by cutting in a remarkably quick, almost choppy way for a 1986 film, but having all of that choppiness centered around Eddie, not Vincent, as we might expect; the editing makes it impossible for him to have his quiet and his reflection, by forcibly dragging him into the more kinetic film where Vincent lives. It provides the film with liveliness that it simply would not otherwise possess, and this is, in a nutshell the thing that Schoonmaker does throughout: take scenes that are, as played and shot, about people talking, and make them into scenes about people being buffeted around like… well, not to be precious about it, but like balls on a pool table.

Thank God for her, anyway, because The Color of Money is a snoozy march through obvious and pre-ordained story beats without it. Eddie decides to take Vincent and Carmen under his wing, and teach them all about the fine art of hustling on the way to a tournament in Atlantic City where he plans to debut the new, more disciplined Vincent to the amazement of the professional pool-playing world. But Vincent is frustrated by Eddie's limiting rules, and by the obvious respect and attention that Carmen gives to the older man's words, and eventually they split apart. Aimless, but remembering why he loved the game in the first place, Eddie throws himself back into the world, training himself how to be a great player again, and eventually entering that same tournament. Oh, how I bet you can't even start to imagine who he'll end up playing before all is said and done.

I haven't read the source novel by Walter Tevis, but in the film adapted by Richard Price, this could not be more of a stock scenario. Clichés become clichés because they work reliably, but not one damn thing about it here works any better than usual. Cruise, eager to do anything besides have a sexy grin, puts some passion and darkness into Vincent, but he wasn't quite aware enough yet of how to do that for it to land properly. Newman, meanwhile, coasts. He coasts like a motherfucker. We could perhaps look at this from a thick layer of meta-narrative analysis and suggest that since the film is primarily about Eddie deciding that he's been coasting himself for so long and taking steps to rejuvenate himself, Newman's performance is meant to mirror that, and since his best work comes in the final couple of scenes, that's maybe even a defensible argument. But the acting tricks that we'd expect to see in a Jacques Rivette film are not the right tricks, maybe, for a Touchstone Pictures movie from the 1980s about a cocky pool player, and while Newman coasting is still immensely charming and likable, there are too many hollow moments for it to feel like a real strategy. Meanwhile, the film's ambivalent ending falls flat on account of how little work Newman has done in advance to make it feel like Eddie might have naturally reached the point the ending requires of him.

Newman is coasting, and that hurts, but Scorsese is just being lazy, and that's what really ruins it. Not even ruins it: there's not enough spirit here for the film to have a full-on collapse, like the other low-tier Scorsese films out there. It is a dull movie, and its dullness stems in part because it has a director who has seen the hundred other movies that have the same progression of emotional beats, and so he simply copies what was done a hundred other times. It is dull because it's so proficient and impressive about being not surprising in the least degree. Everything about it strictly adheres to the standard template for '80s commercial dramas for adults, neither better nor worse; it doesn't even have the stench of a self-loathing artist behind it to make it noticeably bad. Take away all the elements on paper that seem like they should be fascinating together, and it's just invisibly functional hackwork, and that is the most disappointing thing that this production could have resulted in. Like death, the 1980s come to all men eventually.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1986
-Jim Jarmusch, one of the most important names in the restructuring American independent scene, makes the slow, jazzy jailbreak film Down by Law
-The relationships between man and machine, civilian and soldier, are plumbed with nuance, complexity, and gravity in the legendary Short Circuit
-Historians everywhere feel a shadow cross their grave as the insane The Clan of the Cave Bear asserts itself in theaters

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1986
-What will eventually be termed the Cinéma du look in France kicks into high gear with Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue and Leos Carax's Mauvais sang
-Australia's biggest export ever is, somehow, the broad-ass sitcom Crocodile Dundee
-Andrei Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice, premieres at Cannes