Tuesday, April 1, 2014

THE NATURAL (1984), BULL DURHAM (1987), FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)


Since I'm taking a break from the 1001 blog this month, my friend Droppo3000, the writer of the new Atlanta Braves baseball blog http://atlantabraves19701980.blogspot.com/ and one of the biggest baseball fans I know has asked if he could look at some baseball movies for me. Very nice of him to give me a break. And without further ado, here's Droppo!
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Thanks, Chris. I certainly love baseball movies, especially old school baseball movies. I was going to look at my all-time favorite, The Bad News Bears, but my old stick in the mud friend says that I need to stick with the ones from some list he's doing. Well, that's all right, I see three listed that I'll be happy to re-watch.

The Natural

The first one is The Natural. I'm not going to lie to you. The first time I saw this movie at the theater I was really..."under the influence of an illegal substance that is ingested orally but seems to have gained a certain recent acceptance in the state of Colorado." That was all right though. The Natural had a certain dream-like feel to it that seemed appropriate to the state of mind I was in at the time. It will be interesting to see it now.

I still can't shake that dreamlike feel I get even after viewing today. That feeling is part of baseball's mystique. This movie could never be about football. It has to be about dreams, redemption and second chances. The music thundering, the ball slamming off the Wonderboy Bat-smashing lights, clocks or nearly decapitating a sportswriter. What exactly happened to Roy Hobbs before he made his comeback? Eh, you fill in the blanks, it isn't what matters here. Accept the mythology, accept the movie.


Bull Durham
The next one on the list is Bull Durham. The church of baseball-It says it in that narration right off the bat. This movie also relies on its own baseball mythology. But it's not a poetic dream (even if you are being read Walt Whitman while you're tied up). It's superstition, it's disappointment, it's low wages, it's hard working class hard knocks and it's everyone living their dream. It's the minor leagues done right by Ron Shelton, someone who lived and breathed minor league baseball during his playing days and shows it for all of baseball's fun and hardships (mostly fun for the audience). Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins play the veteran catcher/goofball-hotshot- young pitcher combo very well. And who wouldn't to be in the minors if you get chosen for the season by minor league baseball tart, Susan Sarandon?



Field of Dreams
The last one on the list is Field of Dreams. This is closer and probably even goes further than  the mythological baseball dreamworld of The Natural. Sappy, romanticized and illogical...and I love it! I wonder how they figured this one would ever work on the screen? "I mean it's man moves to Iowa with his family and voices tell him to build a baseball field over his crop with the help of a guy who is like the guy that wrote Catcher in the Rye and the ghost of Burt Lancaster." Wow! What an odd synopsis. Only it works. And I won't lie to you, I got more than a little misty when Kevin Costner starts to play catch with his dad!


And for good measure, here's a list of 10 other baseball movies I have an attachment to.

1. The Pride of the Yankees-Certainly a baseball classic with Gary Cooper as the ill-fated baseball legend Lou Gehrig. But the scene where Babe Ruth promises the kid he'd hit a homer and Lou Gehrig trumps him by promising the kid he'd hit two always bothered me. At least, Babe got to play himself.


2. The Babe Ruth Story-Not that well received of a film, and William Bendix playing the teenaged Babe Ruth was pretty ridiculous, but I admit that I still like this sanitized biographical story of the Bambino. So sue me.



3. It Happens Every Spring-Ray Milland plays a scientist who invents a fluid that repels wood. So it's natural that if you dip a baseball with it, they can't hit it. I seem to remember a lot of scenes where a batter would swing at a pitch and the ball would jump over his bat and he would stare back in bug-eyed disbelief. I also remember that Alan "the Skipper" Hale Jr. had a small role as a catcher.



4. Rhubarb-Ray Milland (his generation's version of Kevin Costner, it would seem) in a story about a cat named Rhubarb who owns a baseball team. Or maybe he inherited a baseball team. I remember the movie had a dramatic rain delay scene. Or something like that. Look, I haven't seen the thing in forty years, I can't remember the details. Did I mention that Ray Milland was the 40's version of Kevin Costner?



5. The Pride of St. Louis-Legendary pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander overcomes his drinking problem to get out the Yankees in the 1926 World Series...No, wait. That's Ronald Reagan in The Winning Team. The Pride of St. Louis has Dan Dailey playing the great ole St. Louie pitcher Dizzy Dean, who becomes a broadcaster after his playing career is over and keeps saying "ain't" and "slud into third" during broadcasts and his improper use of English makes the local teachers want him off the air so the kids won't say things like "ain't" or "slud into third!" The teachers do change their minds, and Ole Diz eventually gets his own charcoal brand.



6. Fear Strikes Out-Anthony Perkins plays mentally unstable ballplayer Jim Peirsall. The most famous scene is Perkins climbing the backstop. The fact that Perkins throws like a girl is a bit troubling.


7. Damn Yankees-The movie version of the Broadway musical featuring Ray Walston as the Devil. I have seen this on stage with Dick Van Dyke as the devil. The team Joe Hardy plays for in the movie and I'm guessing during the original Broadway run was The Washington Senators. Since there were no Washington Senators after 1971, some stage versions feel the need to switch the thing to the Cleveland Indians. But I'm old school, so I'd certainly want to keep any production I see as the Washington Senators.




8. Bang the Drum Slowly-Pretty cool to see Robert De Niro as a young, hick baseball player. Also, pretty depressing to see Robert De Niro as a young, hick, terminally ill baseball player. It's sad, but has something to say about unlikely friendships and coming through for your mates. (Sorry if that sounds cornball, as Michael Moriarty's character from the movie says about the song The Streets of Laredo). And don't call it a baseball version of Brian's Song or I'll have to throw you one high and inside.



9. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings-Enjoyable comedic look at a barnstorming black baseball team from the 40's. The film stars Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams and most importantly James Earl Jones, because when he later says "People will come, Ray" in Field of Dreams, Bingo Long has long before established his baseball chops.


10.The Bad News Bears-Got to mention my favorite baseball movie of all and it's not just because I had a teenage crush on Tatum O'Neal. A team of underachiever kid ball players making a great comeback in their season really hadn't been done before. It's been done about 1,000 times since.




That's all I got, Chris. Thanks for letting me have my say.

droppo3000 http://atlantabraves19701980.blogspot.com/

Friday, March 28, 2014

WINGS (1927), SUNRISE: A STORY OF TWO HUMANS (1927)THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)

     In the beginning...She Blinded Me With Silents (Post 12 of 12)

Clara Bow in Wings
I just finished reading Bill Bryson's book One Summer: 1927. Bryson pieces together the important events that were happening in the United States at that time: Prohibition, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge the great Mississipi flood, the Roots of the Great Despression and at the center of it all the young pilot Charles Lindbergh, who became the most famous man on earth that summer.

Bryson also talks about the movies of that year and I realized I hadn't seen the two movies that won the first ever Academy Award that won the best picture Oscar that year. I say two because, William Wellman' Wings won the Best Picture Production Oscar and F. W. Murnau's Sunrise: the Story of Two Humans won the Best Picture, Unique and  Artistic Production. So there were essentially two Best Picture winners that year and they were very different from each other.

Wings is a high adventure thriller often set in the front of a plane doing battle during World War I. Bryson points out that "to the astonishment of everyone he (Director William Wellman) made one of the most intelligent, moving and thrilling pictures ever made." The movie was big budgeted and seemed like a big gamble, but the story of two American pilots who start as enemies and end up as best friends and battle in the air over the skies of Europe proved to be a huge hit. 

'Many people went to Wings to not thrill at the aerial acrobatics, but gaze in admiration at its female lead, Clara Bow."-Bill Bryson

The two buddies are played by Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen, but the top billed star of the production was actually the biggest female star in Hollywood, Clara Bow (Rin Tin Tin the German Shepherd was the biggest male star). You could say that Bow's part of the girlfriend of Buddy Rogers probably should have just been a supporting role. Since she's such the biggest name here, it seems like there are a couple of scenes with Bow that are just thrown in. But I really didn't mind. I found Bow so charismatic, I actually wish she had had more to do. It's easy to see why she was such a big star, even if for only a short time.

Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien in
Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans

The other Best Picture winner was Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans, a drama about a man whose mistress convinces him to murder his wife and run away with her. After initial resistance, he agrees and takes his wife out on a rowboat to strangle her and dump her body overboard. As he's about to do it, he becomes overwhelmed with guilt and decides not to do it and asks her forgiveness.. He has to win back his wife's affection, but he does. This is a plot point I had a little trouble getting past. Keep in mind the wife realizes he's about to kill her, yet she does eventually forgive him. I'm just feeling that if my spouse was clearly about to kill me, that would pretty much be the end of the relationship. He also proves to be so volatile, that he's lucky he doesn't kill his mistress towards the end of the movie. That being said, if you could overlook this plot point, the reestablishment of their relationship is very heartwarming and provides many poignant and heartfelt moments. It does devolve into a couple of odd comic interludes (an especially strange one involving a pig) that made me think I was watching a Harry Langdon comedy at times, but the movie did get back on track and the scenes featuring the rescue of the man's wife after a storm brings everything to a satisfying conclusion.

Oh, yes and speaking of Rin Tin Tin. I brought up the German Shepherd because I also finished Susan Orlean's book (hey, two book references in one blog!) Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend, where she discusses the German Shepherd's rise to be the biggest movie star in Hollywood in the 20's. So I was really knocked out when I was watching Sunrise and there is a scene where the husband is taking his wife out on the boat to do her in. His dog goes crazy at this turn of events, breaks his tether and swims out to the boat and the husband has to take his dog back to shore and start his plan over again. But thanks to the dog's diversionary action, the man has time to change his mind. The hero dog is (or course) a German Shepherd.

But which of these two films was the real winner that year?

The answer is...none of the above 

"It is a painful irony that silent movies were driven out of existence just as they were reaching a kind of glorious summit of creativity and imagination, so that some of the best silent movies were also some of the last ones."-Bill Bryson
Al Jolson sings for his Mammy in The Jazz Singer.
Yes, the real winner of the 1927 sweepstakes was The Jazz Singer, forever remembered as the first movie that talked.

"The Jazz Singer was by no means the first sound movie. It wasn't even the first talking picture-but that was a nicety lost on its adoring audiences. For most people, The Jazz Singer would be the picture that made talking pictures real."-Bill Bryson

The story is about Jack Robin (Al Jolson) who forsakes singing in the synagogue for his Rabbi father to embark upon a career in show business. Though much clumsier than the other two films listed above, the artistry of any silent picture simply couldn't compete with Al Jolson singing "Toot Toot Tootsie" or "My Gal Sal." It really is a silent movie (very heavy on the cue cards) with a few songs and some dialogue here and there. It's entertaining in an antiquated way and the movie's relationship between Jack and his parents does have some moving moments.

One thing for sure, movies were never the same.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE LAST LAUGH (1924, GERMANY)

     In the beginning...She Blinded Me With Silents (Post 11 of 12)

                                          
The Last Laugh

F. W. Murnau's  The Last Laugh, the story of the character disintegration of a porter/doorman after he is relieved of his job and uniform, is yet another movie I first saw in my History of Film class and watching it today there are three things that stand out to me. 

The first, and one of the reasons the movie is looked at in a film class is the point of view of the camera which is sometimes distorted and never plays it straight with its narrative point of view. We get the inebriated view of the doorman when he drinks and the distorted and overblown laughter of his neighbors when they are mocking him. The camera moves quickly and sharply when the porter is doing his job and in his element. When his gets his dismissal letter, the film slows down and the vision of the porter is blurred, not wanting to read what is on the paper.

The second way to look at this film is as a character story. The doorman/porter is relieved of his job and stripped of his duties and the whole world crumbles as he becomes a lowly (in his eyes) washroom attendant. Emil Jannings plays the porter as an overly proud man who struts around like a peacock. It's partly to Janning's credit that we nevertheless feel such sympathy for him when this once strutting peacock becomes a washing room attendant and seems to barely now possess the capability to even move.  

The third way to look at the film is the ending. The real ending of the movie has the ex-doorman at his depth of despair in the washroom, not too far from the end. But there is a tacked on epilogue that begins with a title card that says something to the effect that the ending of this movie that you are about to see is basically nonsense, but we're going to show it to you anyway. So, the doorman is given an inheritance that is given to him because he was nice to a millionaire in the washroom. We see the now rich ex-doorman eating caviar, being waited on and living a happy life.

If the movie had ended in the washroom, perhaps it would have just been too bleak for the audience to accept. But since the ending is so far-fetched, perhaps they could have cut to one final shot of the old man dying with a smile on his face, with the part with him getting rich being shown as just a happy dream and the last thought he would ever have. But who am I to re-write The Last Laugh?

Friday, March 21, 2014

BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925, SOVIET UNION)

In the beginning...She Blinded Me With Silents (Post 10 of 12)

Battleship Potemkin

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (a film on the rebellion of of a Russian battleship and the subsequent reprisals from the czar's army) is yet another silent I first encountered in The History of Film class I took during the 80's. It makes me nostalgic for my "textbook" A Short History of the Movies by Gerald Mast.

Here are some points on Battleship Potemkin from Mr. Mast:

1. Eisenstein has the visual ability to convert huge groups of people into complex and striking geometric shapes.

2. Eisenstein's montage increases the sense of movement and tension as the individual shots collide, crash, explode into each other.

3. Eisenstein's ability to alter mood: From the peaceful idyllic sequences of the striking workers at rest and play to the vicious slaughter of vicious slaughter of the workers in their tenements.

4. Eisenstein's sense of metaphor to comment on the action: the sickening slaughter of the dumb and defenseless ox, which comments on the slaughter of the workers.

5. Eisenstein's vision that the capitalistic Czarist system is  fundamentally inhuman and inhumane, an obstacle not only to physical survival but also human fellowship, family and brotherhood.

6. The power of his cutting is unmistakable (All the various shots and points of view of the sailor breaking the plate with the biblical platitudes on them)

7. For a film with a mass protagonist, the faces of individual people are strikingly memorable.

8. The film's five parts, mirroring the five-act structure of classical drama, form a taut structural whole: from the unity the sailor's build on the ship to the unity between ship and shore, to the unity of the entire fleet.

9. The most dazzling editorial sequence of all in the film is the slaughter of the innocent Odessans on the Steps.

10. The film time for the sequence on the Odessa Steps is longer than the actual time it would take a group of people to run down a flight of steps. Subjective time, the way it felt to be there, replaces natural time.

The most famous sequence in this film is definitely the murder of the innocent on the steps of Odessa by the czarist army. This has been called by many one of the most influential scenes in film history (obvious example-Brian De Palma in The Untouchables). One thing is for sure, you can't get through The History of Film class without it.