The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

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A League of Their Own (1992)

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Every girl in this league is going to be a lady. In 1988 Dottie Hinson (Lynn Cartwright) is persuaded by her daughter to attend an event at the Baseball Hall of Fame commemorating the women’s league established during World War 2, when her husband had gone to fight and she was left looking after the farm with her younger sister. This prompts a flashback to the day a scout (Jon Lovitz)came calling and lured them into professional sport after candy bar mogul and Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) decides to set up a new event with women athletes when the Major League games might be shut down for years. Dottie (Geena Davis) isn’t too keen despite being a great catcher.  But her younger sister and pitcher Kitty (Lori Petty) wants to make something of her life and they go together to try out at Harvey Field in Chicago and join a crew of other women doing something new:   a pair of New Yorkers, taxi dancer  ‘All the Way’ Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and her best friend, bouncer Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell);  soft-spoken right fielder Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram); illiterate, shy left fielder Shirley Baker (Ann Cusack); pitcher/shortstop and former Miss Georgia beauty queen Ellen Sue Gotlander (Freddie Simpson); gentle left field/relief pitcher Betty “Spaghetti” Horn (Tracy Reiner); homely second baseman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), first baseman Helen Haley (Anne Ramsay); and Saskatchewan native Alice ‘Skeeter’ Gaspers (Renee Colman). They and eight others are selected to form the Rockford Peaches, coached by Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) a former player and a drunk who wasted the last five years in a bottle and is only doing this for the money. But some of the women actually want to win even as their internal team rivalries threaten their potential … I have seen enough to know I have seen too much. What a great line! That’s one of the commentators on a high point of a game late in this marvellous film, which in its pitch (yes!) perfectly catches (yes, again!) the hopes, fears and achievements of the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League, a sporting institution established when the men went off to fight. From a story by Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel craft a screenplay that is characterful, witty, broad and specific, with each player given an arc to play beyond what’s on the field.  Davis is superb as the charismatic woman whose younger sister only sees a rival who has blocked her throughout her life and Hanks gives a perfect comic performance as the guy who finally touches base once again with his inner competitor when he needs to persuade others of their worth.  Moving and funny in turn, and a brilliant tribute to a little-known period in sport, this is a superb entertainment, proving director Penny Marshall’s hit with Big was no fluke. She was inspired to make this after seeing a 1987 documentary and she set the project in motion. What a gal. The credits sequence rounds it out with one of Madonna’s best songs (This Used to be My Playground) over a game with the older women and some inspiring photographs. Ladies, it’s been a thin slice of heaven

 

 

How Do You Know (2010)

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Don’t ever listen to me when I drink Guinness. Lisa Jorgenson’s (Reese Witherspoon) entire life has been defined by softball, but at 31, she is deemed too old to play and cut from the team. After being cast adrift, she begins a fling with Matty (Owen Wilson), a charming womanizer who plays professional baseball. About the same time, she goes on a blind date with George (Paul Rudd), a businessman on the hook for stock fraud. Caught in a romantic triangle with the two men, Lisa ponders the meaning of love as she moves in with Matty, has dinner with George and George himself is speechlessthroughout because he has learned that his father wants him to go to prison for a securities fraud that he himself has carried out.  Then when Lisa realises who she’s shacked up with, she moves out – twice … There are a lot of bright moments in this relationship dramedy or romcom with a starry cast getting some fun lines but it’s really Witherspoon’s chance to shine. However auteur James L. Brooks’ storyline comes unstuck – which is a pity because even if it’s about people whose lives are variously derailed, and the most convincing scene in the whole thing is in a birthing ward where George’s secretary (Kathryn Hahn) has just had a son out of wedlock, the narrative has nowhere for any of them to go:  it even concludes at a bus stop, for crying out loud! Nobody here is a completely dim bulb but they’re not gifted with the smarts required for this soft-centred delight to really take off and even the Machiavellian Nicholson’s puppet master fails at the end. Strange – but not an entirely unenjoyable meeting of talents despite Brooks not really caring enough about what makes anyone tick to pull it together. Maybe that’s what gives it the ring of truth.

Fences (2016)

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Some people build fences to keep people out and some people build fences to keep people in. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector married to Rose (Viola Davis) for eighteen years in 1950s Pittsburgh. His life is filled with regrets, particularly when it comes to his chance of playing baseball twenty years ago before the game had mixed leagues. He believes he has cheated The Grim Reaper in the past. His son Cory (Jovan Adepo) is promising at football but he squashes his ambitions. For fear of racial discrimination? Jealousy?  This is the kind of film I dread seeing never mind commenting about for fear of the thought police. It’s a draggy theatre adaptation of a famously acclaimed work which is worthy and conscious and PC and all that kinda annoying stuff. It’s all talk. Troy left an abusive home, killed a man in a robbery, went to prison, found a talent for baseball. Until one hour in, it’s hard to watch, even with Washington and Davis reprising their Broadway roles and some good sidebars with the supporting actors: Stephen Henderson as his friend, Mykelti Williamson as his ‘touched’ younger brother, his illegitimate son Russell Hornsby who arrives to collect money. They are physically placed as though everyone were still behind a proscenium. Then – when Troy confesses to Rose his mistress is about to have his bastard and it’s all about him – she lights up and grips the screen by the throat and it finally gains a life of its own – legitimate cinema, as it were. This is all about family and responsibility and the weight you attach to your experiences even at the cost to your relationships. What Troy does next – and how Rose responds – is the whole show. The original play by August Wilson (whose alterations to the proposed screenplay shortened it over the long period of development prior to his death) takes place in a yard, like a lot of American plays. Part of the reason it took so long to reach the screen was Wilson’s insistence upon a black director. Washington’s direction of the adaptation reinstates the text and once that first difficult act is done, he gets more courage and inserts a song and a montage of how life has gone. And then … So it’s not great cinema but it gives concrete proof of Davis’ brilliant stage performance. Personally I found Washington harder to take not just for his personification but his enunciation. This is a tough watch for all the above reasons. Three strikes …

Moneyball (2011)

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Nobody reinvents this game. Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the Oakland A’s during their 2002 season was initially adapted by Stan Chervin for Sony who dropped the project after going through a couple of directors. It was brought to the screen with Bennett Miller helming, and draft screenplays by Steven Zaillian then Aaron Sorkin. Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, the team’s general manager who decides to adopt a radical approach:  sabermetrics, as promulgated by super-smart Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character based on the real-life assistants. Billy trades and sacks players with impunity, ending and starting careers, buying in flawed sportsmen at low prices, confounding conventional wisdom. Against all the usual odds, the team is winning but Billy is literally Billy No Mates with his policy, killing off the scouting process as he pursues victory. He tries to maintain a good relationship with his daughter, who spends most of the time with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), and finds comfort in listening to the pre-teen who composes songs on the guitar he buys her. What a clever, well written drama this is:  the idea is, play the same game but with a different strategy; make a winning team out of a losing team;  make statistics real by visualising them. It uses Billy’s own backstory – with visual, narrative and musical cues – to illustrate his rationale and keep the narrative moving forward. The ongoing narration by TV baseball commentators serves both to distance us from Billy (Pitt plays an essentially unknowable, unpredictable character); and as Greek chorus, to pace the story, justify Billy’s choices (or not) and to let us know how he is succeeding with this innovative player approach. It’s a very shrewd narrative choice. And in the midst of it are Billy and Pete, a rhyming couple, teaching each other lessons. Pitt and Hill are absolutely superb in an absorbing, brilliantly constructed drama.

A Foreign Affair (1947)

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When tightly wound Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) arrives in rubble-strewn Berlin on a fact-finding mission about GI morals she doesn’t reckon on falling for smooth-talking black marketeer Captain Pringle (John Lund) or indeed his mistress Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) whose ex is a former Nazi high commander… Billy Wilder was stationed in his favourite city for the US military in 1945, years after he’d fled when Hitler came to power. He was shocked by everything he saw and was charged with reorganising the entertainment industry and editing footage from the camps. He shot film of the city and instead of going to a mental hospital when he discovered what the Nazis had done to his only family, returned to Hollywood where he made a crazed Bing Crosby movie about interspecies breeding in the Tirol called The Emperor Waltz. Then he returned to this subject – post-war Berlin and how diplomacy was a thin veneer over a lot of mucky surviving and blind eyes being turned to the reality – via a story by David Shaw. It caused a lot of censorship problems for Paramount, where the interiors were shot, while locations filming took care of the exteriors. Dietrich is the only possible person to be Erika, the slinky seductive songstress who winds everyone around her finger delivering louche songs by Frederick Hollaender that speak to her own background on the cabaret scene in the city. She and Arthur are cannily deployed against one another and this led to serious frostiness on the set. The politics of occupation and accommodation and the pointlessness of reeducating the shameless were never so hilariously depicted and this wasn’t even screened in Germany until 1977. Nobody gets out of this unscathed. Adapted by Robert Harari and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. You can read more about this in my article on Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/billy-wilders-a-foreign-affair.

A Few Good Men (1992)

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You can’t handle the truth! And there it is, the reason people watch this movie – a superannuated cameo by Jack Nicholson as the charismatic single minded blowhard Col. Nathan R. Jessep whose orders to kill an unsatisfactory young Marine lie behind this legal conspiracy  thriller. It’s a star vehicle for Cruise as the supposedly naive military lawyer investigating the case against two Marines at Gitmo with his superior Lt. Commander Demi Moore, but this is all anyone’s been waiting for – the courtroom climax, an unfortunately well-telegraphed star-off outcome to an efficiently low key fizz of a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin who adapted his play and robs us of any suspense. Oh well! Directed by Rob Reiner.

Field of Dreams (1989)

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If you build it he will come. Kevin Costner is hearing voices in the cornfield and they’re not in his head. So he builds a baseball diamond where the crops ought to be and gives the ghosts of the Chicago White Sox team accused of fixing the 1919 World Series a chance to play again. That’s it. And it’s so much more:  it’s about redemption, fixing father-son relationships, being loyal, second chances, learning how to express love, living your dreams. It’s a charming, brilliant, magical adaptation of WP Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson and is a modern classic. Romantic in the best sense, this is truly worth your while. In real life, a very long court battle to build a real field of dreams (24 to be exact) on the movie’s location site in Dyersville just got the go-ahead by the Iowa Supreme Court. Corny!

Secret In Their Eyes (2015)

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Billy Ray adapted and directed this remake of the original Argentine film to a  mixed critical reception:  El Secreto de sus ojos was a melodrama whose scarce believability was given gravitas by a grafted-on political subplot because you can do that with films emanating from countries that operate as secret states/fascist juntas/totalitarian dictatorships and murder hundreds of thousands of their own citizens per annum for fun [can’t you just imagine what they were going to do to the British citizens on The Falklands?]. Los Angeles, not so much. So Ray substitutes the FBI, covering up for the murderer, Marzin (Joe Cole), of the teenaged daughter of rising star agent Jess (Julia Roberts) because he’s a useful informant watching a mosque and he’s dumped her body in a warehouse next door. Jess’ best friend Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spends 13 years hunting him down when he resurfaces and he and Detective Dumpy Willis (Dean Norris) track his cosmetically enhanced self via his comic book art, Dodgers obsession and interest in racehorses. Meanwhile assistant DA Claire (Nicole Kidman) who’s now risen to the position of DA tries to advise on the side while Ray admires her, uselessly, and they realise that Jess is sitting on a secret … This works better than the original. Its setting renders it more plausible, the performances by a starry cast are (ironically) much less melodramatic and Roberts is especially good as the traumatised mother who just needs retribution. An underrated outing about guilt and missed opportunities, with good cinematography by Danny Moder who lights up LA.

Frankenweenie (2012)

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A real return to form for Tim Burton with another stop-motion animation, this time a remake/expanded version of a decades-old short, the story of Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who is devastated by the death of his dog Sparky but through science class and an experiment on a dead frog, he learns how he might bring him back to life. A glorious spin on the Frankenstein story with a genius character by the name of Edgar, a creepy bug-eyed buck-toothed little hunchback frenemy who rats out Victor’s secret and soon all the animals in the pet cemetery are making a return … Written by Leonard Ripps (in 1984) from Burton’s original idea, with a screenplay by John August and apologies to the source, Mary Shelley who probably never saw this one coming! A great pastiche of monster movies. Brilliant, moving and funny as hell. Love it.