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 …

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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.

The Bad News Bears (1976)

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Has-been pool cleaner Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) winds up coaching a hopeless Little League team at the behest of a councilman who’s PO’d at his own talentless son being denied a spot in this ultra-competitive sport. These kids really are the dregs – lazy, unathletic and truly without a prayer. Until Morris is gifted a smartass girl, Amanda (Tatum O’Neal) who’s the daughter of one of his exes and the best pitcher he could possibly get. She’s peddling star maps around Hollywood. Plus Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley) a wiseass punk old before his time who’s a great all-rounder. This year, they  might just beat their great foes, the Yankees, trained by Vic Morrow … Foul-mouthed, funny, unsentimental, this is one of the best satires of the Seventies made by that great comic auteur, Michael Ritchie, also responsible for beauty pageant comedy, Smile and political campaign movie The Candidate (not laughing now, are we?)  The screenplay by Burt Lancaster’s son Bill hits a lot of bases (!) – about the ethics of sport, teamwork, relationships, the importance of winning, and doing things your own way, but in a scathing way, of course. Lancaster had polio as a kid but played baseball at a pitch now named after this film (it’s at Ohio Ave and Sepulveda Blvd in LA). He wrote one of the sequels to this and collaborated with John Carpenter on The Thing. Matthau is simply great as the man who finally gets it together to relish the prospect of hard work and  winning, Morrow is totally on it as the opposing coach who will win at any cost and O’Neal is fabulous as the spirited girl leading the pack. This was a huge success and deservedly so. It’s the first of three films and a TV series and was remade many years later. However, forty years after its initial release it’s still the best baseball movie ever!

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)

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The turn of the century set musical has honourable precedents and reached a peak of classicism with Meet Me in St Louis. Five years after that came this, a good humoured outing concerning the takeover of a baseball team by Esther Williams, who gets to dunk in a swimming pool which is of course a propos. Sinatra, Kelly and Munshin would be re-teamed 6 months later in On the Town, the classic film musical made on location with young choreographer Stanley Donen. This was Kelly’s idea. Inventive direction by musical master Busby Berkeley adds to the fun of the gambling plot and the play itself.