09 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 71 | April 9, 2010

Play Ball


Our theme this week
Baseball movies

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Documentaries:  The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)
Tuesday         —   Biopics:  The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Wednesday    —   Kids at Play:  The Bad News Bears (1976)
Thursday        —   Comedies:  Bull Durham (1988)

Today’s feature
Baseball Dramas & Myth

Best in class
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)

For the real fan
Uh-oh.  Here are the two “great” films about baseball and I’m not even giving them an Honorable Mention?  I expect I may be in the minority on this, at least among fans of the game.  Both films are first-rate productions, with fine performances and other virtues too.  Each aspires to be that mythic tale that tells
the great baseball story.  You could say they’re swinging for the fences, but perhaps they should have laid off the pitch.  There is no joy in Mudville.  Like Mighty Casey, they have struck out.

The Natural
 (1984)
— Your reaction to the movie may depend on a couple of things:  whether you’re a baseball fan, and whether you’ve read the novel by Bernard Malamud.  If you’re a fan, you may find enough to like about the picture that you’ll excuse its many faults.  If you’ve read the book, though, you’ll know there’s no excuse for what they’ve done to the story.  A few points (consider this your spoiler warning), and let’s start with the end.  Roy Hobbs clobbers a long home run into the night, shattering the stadium lights that explode like fireworks on the Fourth of July.  If you’ve read the book, you know how wrong that is.  Hobbs is not the hero in the end, he’s the goat.  I’m usually sympathetic to filmmakers who change a story when they adapt it for the screen, but there’s a limit.  You wouldn’t film The Pride of the Yankees with Lou Gehrig conquering his illness to return to the team.  Likewise, you don’t end The Natural with a Roy Hobbs home run.  It’s fake, it’s condescending to the audience, and it shows you don’t know a thing about the book you’re adapting.  That aside, there is another problem with the home run.  Roy Hobbs is bleeding.  The doctor had told him he’s risking his life if he continues to play ball.  So anyone watching thinks that everything is on the line in the final at bat.  What a sacrifice.  That home run is going to kill him.  Except it doesn’t.  The next shot, and last of the film, is Hobbs playing ball in a field with his son.  The movie cheats not only Malamud, but also its own logic.  The poor audience is taken for suckers.  It’s the single most manipulative and phony scene I can remember in any sports film.  (There’s a great sports movie where they did it right, by the way.  See The Wrestler.)  I don’t know who is responsible, but I suspect Robert Redford had a part in it.  Redford is an appealing actor in many ways, and his contributions to film, especially independent film, cannot be overstated.  But he has one glaring fault:  his vanity.  His portrayal of Roy Hobbs was of a mythic god; if he had been a mortal man, it would have made a better movie.

Field of Dreams (1989) — The movie had me all the way until Ray Kinsella hears the first voices.  Unfortunately, those voices come about three minutes into the story.  When Ray hears the voices—which keep coming right on schedule, every time the plot needs a twist—I think there may be one of two explanations:  either he misses his father so badly that he’s imagining things, or he’s just completely bonkers.  Either of those options would be a movie I’d like to see.  Unfortunately, this movie chooses a third option:  the voices are real.  When that became clear, I concluded that either I was bonkers or the movie was, and I opted for the latter.  Yes, I understand fantasy and the need to suspend my disbelief.  I understand treacle too, and the need to watch my blood sugar level.  That said, the performances here are very enjoyable:  Amy Madigan (the kind of wife you want on your side when people think you’re bonkers), James Earl Jones (better here than his old ballplayer in The Sandlot; in 1976 he was a not-so-old ballplayer in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings), Burt Lancaster (always a class act), and Kevin Costner (not bonkers after all).  A few other ballplayers were raised from the dead, yet after going to all that trouble, they never quite came to life.

Bang the Drum Slowly

“‘Twas once in the saddle I used to go dashing,
‘Twas once in the saddle I used to go gay.
First to the dram-house, and then to the card-house,
Got shot in the breast, and I’m dying today.”

“Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
And play the dead march as you carry me along;
Take me to the valley, and lay the sod o’er me,
For I’m a young cowboy and I know I’ve done wrong.”

—“Streets of Laredo (Cowboy’s Lament)”

bang the drum slowlyThe baseball novel by Mark Harris was adapted for a 1950s television production, starring Paul Newman, then for film, in 1973.  The movie stars Michael Moriarty as Henry Wiggen, star pitcher for the pennant-contending New York Mammoths, and Robert De Niro as the team’s catcher, Bruce Pearson, who is neither very bright nor very talented and is dying of Hodgkin’s disease.

Bang the Drum Slowly is less a film about baseball than a study of the relationship between two men who happen to be ballplayers.  Wiggen is determined to give his friend a measure of joy during his final months.  They have their poignant moments, some tenderness and humor, nothing melodramatic.  The performances are noteworthy, especially Moriarty and De Niro, who at the time was a virtual unknown (but not for long:  Mean Streets, opening weeks later, changed that).  Vincent Gardenia is memorable as the team’s manager.

Bang the Drum Slowly is an unusual film about sports.  It’s not about winning or losing, and it’s not about how to play the game.  It’s hardly action-filled.  You could even say it’s slow, taking its cue from the title.  The point, more subtle than preachy, is that what happens on the field is not that important.  The game is not the thing that truly matters.

Extra Innings
One week is not enough to cover all the baseball movies I’ve seen, not to mention the many I haven’t.  If you’re looking for more, this list is about as comprehensive as any I’ve seen.


Bang the Drum Slowly
John D. Hancock, director

 


Bang the Drum Slowly
Robert De Niro, Michael Moriarty


Bang the Drum Slowly
Vincent Gardenia


Quote of Note
“When the Washington Sentinels left the stadium that date, there was no ticker-tape parade, no endorsement deals for sneakers or soda pop, or breakfast cereal.  Just a locker to be cleaned out, and a ride home to catch.  But what they didn’t know was that their lives had been changed forever, because they had been part of something great.  And greatness, no matter how brief, stays with a man.  Every athlete dreams of a second chance, these men lived it.”
—Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman), The Replacements (2000)

…58…59…60.

 08 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 70 | April 8, 2010

Play Ball


Our theme this week
Baseball movies

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Documentaries:  The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)
Tuesday         —   Biopics:  The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Wednesday    —   Kids at Play:  The Bad News Bears (1976)

Today’s feature
Baseball Comedies

Best in class
Bull Durham
 (1988)

Honorable mention
A League of Their Own (1992)— An enjoyable tale of women’s professional baseball during the war years, the film upsets some standard gender stereotypes and features performances from Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna, as players, and Tom Hanks as their alcoholic manager, back in the days when he was having fun.  Worth watching for the “There’s no crying in baseball!” scene alone.
Damn Yankees! (1958) — Not just a comedy but a musical comedy!  The film adaptation of the stage adaptation of the Faust legend, starring Gwen Verdon, as Lola, doing numbers like these.

For the real fan
Major League (1989)— Another film where I part company with many fans.  I found this a lot less hilarious than advertised, though Bob Uecker is entertaining, as always.

Bull Durham

bull durhamHow good a movie is Bull Durham?  It’s debatable.  It may be the top sports movie of all-time, or just a chick flick that doesn’t deserve to be ranked with a movie like The Natural, for example.  It depends on what page at Page 2 you’re reading.

My take:  neither of the above.

Bull Durham is a good movie…for a baseball movie.  It gets a lot of things right that other baseball movies do not.  Director Ron Shelton played in the minor leagues and he drew from his experience to lend the film the veneer of authenticity.  That’s not to say it’s anything like a documentary.  The dialog is highly stylized and the characters are bigger and broader than in real life.  But it feels like a movie made by people who know something about the game.

The film stars Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins as two minor leaguers, one on the way up, one on the way out, both of them involved with the same woman, a local played by Susan Sarandon who is looking for a season-long fling.  “Fling” may not be the right word; it’s spiritual for her:  “I believe in the Church of Baseball.”  Unusual for a romantic comedy, Bull Durham is set in a guy’s world, but unlike many other sports films, and to its credit, its men are capable of fleshed-out relationships with the opposite sex.

The film strikes a good balance with how it treats the game of baseball—seriously (Costner’s Crash Davis has a love for the sport that’s admirable), but not too seriously (the antics of Nuke LaLoosh, played by Robbins, get the appropriate send-up).


Bull Durham
Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins


Bull Durham
Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon

“I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” 
An odd thing to say…but understandable since he hadn’t yet seen
JFK.


Quote of Note
Will
:  You missed Pudge Fisk’s home run?
Sean:  Oh, yeah.
Will:  To have a fuckin’ drink with some lady you never met?
Sean:  Yeah, but you shoulda seen her.  She was a stunner.
—Will Hunting (Matt Damon), Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), Good Will Hunting (1997)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 08 Apr 2010 @ 09:47 PM

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 07 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 69 | April 7, 2010

Play Ball


Our theme this week
Baseball movies

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Documentaries:  The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)
Tuesday         —   Biopics:  The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Today’s feature
Kids at Play

Best in class
The Bad News Bears
 (1976)

For the real fan
The Sandlot (1993) — A new kid in town joins the neighborhood gang for a “magical” summer of baseball and battle with the mean dog on the other side of the fence.  This appears to be a favorite with many fans, but it feels contrived to me.  The charming bunch of kids are charming only in the way some adults think charming kids are supposed to be (adults who forgot that kids can be tiresome too).

The Bad News Bears

the bad news bearsThe kids are misfits, and the biggest kid of all is the coach, Morris Buttermaker.  That would be the one-and-only Walter Matthau.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing an alcoholic in charge of kids and pulling it off as he did.

Hollywood remade the film a few years ago but it doesn’t stand up to the original.  The 1976 movie isn’t especially pretty—a low-rent affair about as shiny as the beater of a car that Buttermaker drives around town—but it has an authentic feel that’s hard to replicate.  I understand the kids were able to ad lib while shooting scenes, and that may be one reason why they actually seem real.  They’re foul-mouthed, they’re petulant, they’re smart, and they’re funny.  They look and sound like kids I remember from growing up, not like kids in most other movies.  That said, I don’t recall a Tatum O’Neal in our neighborhood, but she would have been welcome.

The Bad News Bears was a sleeper hit when it was released.  It feels today like an artifact of the ’70s, a time when the pace of life was slower, it was simpler to be kid, and it was all right to poke fun at the hypercompetitive world of sports.  The movie is a good reminder:  It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you have fun that counts. 


The Bad News Bears
26-0


The Bad News Bears
Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal


Quote of Note
“Hey, I tried to teach you how to handle comics in the sixth grade, but oh no.  You wanted to play Little League instead.”
—Brodie (Jason Lee), Mallrats (1995)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 06 Apr 2010 @ 08:58 AM

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 06 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 68 | April 6, 2010

Play Ball


Our theme this week
Baseball movies

Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday         —   Documentaries:  The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)

Today’s feature
Baseball Biopics & Baseball History

Best in class
The Pride of the Yankees
(1942)

Honorable mention
61* (2001) — An HBO film directed by Billy Crystal with a great deal of heart and affection; the story of the 1961 season, with Yankee sluggers Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle vying to top Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers.
Eight Men Out (1988)
— A solid drama from John Sayles about the darkest chapter in baseball history, the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Think money is a problem in the game today?  How about a payoff from gamblers to throw a World Series?  Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Fear Strikes Out (1957)— The Jimmy Piersall story, starring Anthony Perkins as the Red Sox outfielder who struggles with mental illness and with a domineering father played by Karl Malden.
The Rookie (2002) — Dennis Quaid in an underrated film about Jim Morris.  Who’s he?  One of the oldest rookies ever to play in the majors.  The story should resonate with anyone who has an unfulfilled childhood dream.

For the real fan
The Stratton Story (1949)— Jimmy Stewart stars as Monty Stratton in the true-life story of the White Sox pitcher who loses his leg in a hunting accident, then makes an improbable comeback.
The Winning Team (1952)
— Ronald Reagan plays the great pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander, whose struggles with liquor force him from the game, then is saved through the efforts of his wife, played by Doris Day.
The Babe Ruth Story (1948) — Interesting as a cultural artifact, perhaps.  William Bendix plays the slugger in one of the least-convincing portrayals of a major league star.  (For the other side of the story, see The Babe, with John Goodman.)

The Pride of the Yankees

the pride of the yankeeslou gehrig

One year in Little League I wore the number 4.  I was very proud to wear that number.  It was Lou Gehrig’s.  Even decades after the Yankees slugger had died, his legend was the legend I cherished most when I was just learning about baseball and its storied history.  Still today, nothing else is close.

Gehrig was born in New York, pitched for the Columbia Lions, and then signed with the hometown Yankees.  In 17 years, the Iron Horse hit 493 home runs, knocked in 1,995 runs batted in, and played in 2,130 consecutive games.  He and Babe Ruth were the greatest 1-2 combination in the history of the game.  Gehrig won two MVP awards, a Triple Crown, and set records which still stand, but his accomplishments weren’t half the story.  The way he played, the way he lived, were exemplary.  Yet more than anything else, the grace he displayed when his career—and life—were cut tragically short by illness is why he is such a beloved figure, a hero to generations of fans, an immortal of the game.

The Pride of the Yankees came out a year after Gehrig died.  The filmmakers had one great story and knew enough not to mess it up.  Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright offer a charming and tender portrayal of the private life of Lou and his wife, Eleanor.  Babe Ruth co-stars in a part he was born to play, the bigger-than-life role of Babe Ruth himself.  The movie is, in my opinion, the best of the baseball biopics.  It may be a bit sentimental, but the story is what it is, and it’s hard to imagine it any other way.


The Pride of the Yankees
Sam Wood, director
Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Teresa Wright

 


The Pride of the Yankees
The Speech


Quote of Note
“A man becomes preeminent, he’s expected to have enthusiasms.  Enthusiasms, enthusiasms — What are mine?  What draws my admiration?  What is that which gives me joy?  Baseball!  A man stands alone at the plate.  This is the time for what?  For individual achievement.  There he stands alone.  But in the field, what?  Part of a team.  Teamwork.  Looks, throws, catches, hustles.  Part of one big team.  Bats himself the live-long day.  Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and so on.  If his team don’t field, what is he?  You follow me?  No one.  Sunny day, the stands are full of fans.  What does he have to say?  I’m goin’ out there for myself.  But, I get nowhere unless the team wins.”
—Al Capone (Robert De Niro), The Untouchables (1987)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 06 Apr 2010 @ 08:58 AM

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 05 Apr 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 67 | April 5, 2010

Play Ball

I love baseball.  I love movies.  I wish I could say that I love baseball movies.  I do like some of them, and some I like quite a bit, but among all the films set on the baseball diamond there are too few gems.

Part of the problem is the sports movie syndrome.  Sports are intrinsically dramatic events themselves, but what provides much of the drama in sports—the uncertainty of the outcome—doesn’t translate easily to film.  Movies are scripted, the outcome predetermined, and win or lose, even the tensest drama on the field becomes melodrama onscreen.

Sports movies, generally, know better, and the best of them are about the athletes, not the games.  That goes for baseball films too, yet other sports seem to have had better luck  in Hollywood.  Take boxing.  Raging Bull is a superb film about the life of a fighter, on the short list of great movies, period, since the 1970s.  Other films about boxers include Million Dollar Baby, Rocky, and Ali.  I can’t think of a single baseball film that I’d rank on par with any of them.

Baseball fans—and movie fans—are still waiting to see the first great movie about the sport.  You could put it this way:  if there were a Hall of Fame for movies (and there should be), not one inductee would be a film about baseball.  The flaws of baseball films tend to be the common flaws you see in many genre pictures:  they’re manipulative, or too predictable, or not as funny as they try to be, or too full of themselves when they want to be serious.

It’s been said the sports movies are chick flicks for guys.  That may seem harsh, but it’s not a bad description.  Many of them make assumptions about gender roles, with a certain point of view.  Themes are often about manhood (with much to say about fatherhood and country), and whether the films rely on cliché and stereotype or take a fresh approach is up to who made the film.

Better baseball movies shouldn’t be difficult for filmmakers willing to explore bigger themes.  My advice, not that anyone asked:  Play it straight.  Don’t go for the easy genre effects.  A few real-life stories that could make good movies:  Jackie Robinson (he starred in his own movie once, long ago, and Spike Lee has been itching to do a new film about him), Curt Flood (an historic figure with an untold story), and Moe Berg (one fascinating character).

My plea for better baseball movies doesn’t mean good ones haven’t been done before.  They have, and they’ll be featured in our theme this week.  Each day I’ll look at a different category:  documentaries, biopics, kids at play, comedies, and dramas. 

Let’s play ball.

Our theme this week
Baseball movies

Today’s feature
Baseball Documentaries

Best in class
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
(1998)

Honorable mention
Baseball (1994)— Ken Burns’s PBS series is a monumental achievement, a history of the game from its origins to the late-20th century.  It may touch all the bases, so to speak, but at 19 hours, it’s not exactly light on it feet.  Every fan should see it at least once; that might be asking enough.
When It Was a Game (1991) — A nostalgic but effective look back at baseball from the 1930s to ’50s, based on home movies from players and fans of the era.  An HBO film, followed by sequels in 1992 and 2000.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

Class tells.  It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.
— Jackie Robinson

the life and times of hank greenbergThis is the most honest film of the week.  It’s a simple story told straight:  the life of an old ballplayer, one of the greats, and an unvarnished view of the times in which he lived.  The story unfolds in standard documentary fashion, film clips from times past mixed with interviews from more recent years.  You get to see Hank Greenberg in his glory days and hear from him as an older man looking back.

The default slant for most baseball movies is that earlier times were better times, but you don’t get that here.  The 1930s and ’40s were tough times, especially for a Jew, and especially in Detroit, where Greenberg played most of his career.  It was home to Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, who both contributed to the local anti-Semitic fervor.  Fans and ballplayers, including some of Greenberg’s teammates, treated the slugger with endless abuse, yet he reacted with class, letting his bat do most of the talking.

Hank Greenberg was one of the great home run hitters of the game.  His total of 331 lifetime homers would have been been closer to 500 had he not lost 4 1/2 years while serving in the military.  He hit 58 in 1938, equaling the record for right-hand hitters and just two short of the overall mark of Babe Ruth.  (Perhaps he’d have had a better shot at the record if he wasn’t Jewish, according to this recent article.)  Greenberg was twice MVP of the league, twice a World Series champ, and the first player to make $100,000 for a season.  He was a hero to the Tigers fans of Detroit and to Jews everywhere.  He comes across as a likable figure who did his job and enjoyed the game.  His Hall of Fame baseball career was a memorable accomplishment, but because Greenberg broke down barriers for Jews, his legacy to the game and to society is even greater.  The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg documents that legacy.  It’s a good, solid film, and a well-done remembrance of a life worth remembering.


The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Aviva Kempner, director

A quick clip (too quick); more below.


The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Click here to watch the trailer (1:00) in a new window.
Click below or here to watch the film (1:35:02) in a new window.


Quote of Note
“They’re more than nasty little snobs, Kathy.  Call them that, and you can dismiss them too easily.  They’re persistent traitors to everything this country stands for, and you have to fight them, not just for the Jews, but for everything this country stands for.”
—Philip Green (Gregory Peck), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

…58…59…60.

Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 06 Apr 2010 @ 09:03 AM

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