A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 401 – Bull Durham

Bull Durham – April 5th, 2011

I remember first seeing this movie with Andy some years back and liking it fine, but not being bowled over by it. And I wasn’t sure why at the time. I mean, it had a cast I liked and sure, I don’t like baseball but it, like last night’s movie and The Natural aren’t so much baseball movies as stories using baseball as a vehicle and a theme. So what about it just didn’t sit well with me? And I’ve figured it out. This movie is a romantic comedy. And oh boy am I picky when it comes to romantic comedies.

Now, this movie is not nearly as problematic as crap like What Women Want and that piece of shit called You’ve Got Mail (I really really really hate that movie). And I enjoy it! I enjoy it quite a bit. But there’s something in there that rubs me wrong and it’s a well worn romantic comedy trope. A strong female character is presented and she knows all sorts of things about her area of expertise (baseball, in this case). But through the course of the movie she finds that she doesn’t truly know what she wants in life and love and must be shown what she’s been blind to by a man she first rejects. What softens it here is that Annie doesn’t reject Crash. She’s interested in him, for certain. He just doesn’t want to play around. He wants something either more frivolous or more serious. Compatible in many ways except the way Annie works during baseball season. So I’m a lot more willing to let him have his rom-com smugness than I usually am.

Okay, the line “Why do you get to choose?” still makes me cranky. She gets to choose who she wants to sleep with because it’s her body, jackass – no one says you have to take her up on the offer but you don’t get to choose for her. And in everything else? Annie is awesome. This is the thing about romantic comedies. They often do have a fantastic female character. It’s just that the romance portion seems to need to include the female character learning about love from a man. Shame, that, because Annie seems to have everything else well in hand. She knows her own mind about everything else. She’s well-read, thoughtful and philosophical, but also rational. She knows how the season works. Annie Savoy spots a promising player in the minor league team the Durham Bulls. And if she hooks up with said player and coaches him through the season, he ends up having the season of his career. He gets a lifetime of baseball playing theory and advice and she gets a fun relationship for the duration of the season. And it all works out just fine for her and she’s happy. Until about twenty minutes into the movie. If that.

The movie introduces Crash Davis, a catcher who’s had a chance at the majors and ended up back in Durham, and Ebby “Nuke” LaLoush, a pitcher with a fantastic arm and not a lick of sense. Annie sees them as her best prospects and tells them as much. Crash passes on her offer and so she takes on Nuke for the season. And between Annie’s coaching off the field and Crash’s advice on the field, Nuke ends up having a killer season (when he listens). But of course Annie realizes she doesn’t really want Nuke. Sure, she’s willing to keep going, but it’s no longer enough for her. She wants Crash, and not just for the season. This creates a conflict, since she’s committed to Nuke. Crash wants her, she wants him and Nuke’s there like a big slab of beef wedged between them. As a plot set-up, it’s fun. As are the interactions between all three of them.

There are some fantastic scenes in this movie. I love Annie’s tutoring of Nuke and his dawning realization that hey, people know stuff and maybe he should pay attention. I love how he’s getting strange but useful advice from Annie on how to get his mind in the right place for the game and then practical down-to-earth useful advice from Crash on how to actually play. It’s a great balance and combination of personalities. And then Annie and Crash have some good chemistry. I might not like the smugness, but really, by the time the movie hits its peak they’re both miserable and grouchy because neither of them can have what they want and they’re too far into the season to change anything. It also helps that I like both of them. Crash is, overall, a nice guy. He plays good ball, he gets on well with the rest of the team. Annie’s a nice woman, perhaps a little over-focused on her sexual allure, but hey, she’s hot and she knows it and she uses what she’s got to help players she likes. And she has no shame in it. The movie attaches no guilt or anything of the sort to Annie’s relationships and history, which goes a long way towards making me like it.

Overall, it’s a fun comedic movie with a romance at the center but plenty of stuff surrounding it that make it an a-typical romantic comedy. I love Susan Sarandon as Annie and Tim Robbins really does play a good affable lump, doesn’t he? And much as I dislike the smugness, I think this role is a tossup with Ray Kinsella for Kevin Costner. Both excellent performances from him. It’s a good script, full of quick and clever lines. Sometimes Annie’s voiceover exposition is a little much, but I don’t mind it. It gets sentimental without getting maudlin and in the end I feel like all three main characters got to actually stay who they were to begin with, just in a far better configuration.

April 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 400 – Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams – April 4th, 2011

A few things before I really get to the movie: One, we are now on movie 400. That’s pretty amazing to me. 400 movies in 400 days. We’ve watched through conventions, holidays and hospital visits. We’ve seen new movies, old movies, movies we liked, movies we hated. And we have a little under 200 more to go. I look at our list now and what’s left feels so small in comparison with when we started. Two, I had no idea this movie was based on a book. I often read through the IMDB trivia while we watch, because I like having a head full of pointless facts, and quite a lot of it had to do with the adaptation. Tomorrow I think I’m going to track down a copy of the book and check it out, because while I enjoy the movie, tidbits about the book intrigue me.

Now, on to the movie itself. This is one of those movies that everyone’s seen. It’s become a bit of a cultural icon, with the “If you build it…” line being quoted and spoofed all over the place. As is common with such things, it’s sort of reached the point where it’s inevitable that for every person who loves it and maintains that it’s a well made and meaningful movie, there’s someone else who thinks it’s overrated and maudlin. I fall somewhere in between. Because while I can see some of the criticism, I can’t deny that the movie makes me tear up every time I watch it. It has an emotional impact I appreciate.

The thing is, baseball is a vehicle here. Much as it is in The Natural. There’s a story to be told and baseball is used to carry it. I guess I just find this particular story more interesting. It’s a story about redemption and choices and family and growing up and growing old. We meet our main character, Ray Kinsella, and get a quick review of his life. He grew up in New York, rooted for the team opposing his father’s favorite. Resented his father’s push towards baseball. Headed to California for college and immersed himself in the 60s counter culture. He ended up marrying and starting a family, buying a corn farm in Iowa. His father died before they could make amends. They argued about baseball and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Black Sox scandal and that sets the stage for the movie.

Ray hears a voice out in the corn one day. It tells him to build something and later he sees a baseball diamond out in his field. So he builds it. He sinks his family’s entire savings into it. And his wife is skeptical, but she helps him because he is utterly passionate about it. He has to build it. And after he does, “Shoeless” Joe shows up in the diamond. Young and in the prime of his career. Other players soon join him but he’s not done. Soon he’s tracking down an author named Terrence Mann, who heavily influenced his young adulthood. Then they go to find a man who played only a single game in the majors before retiring. Yes, it’s about baseball, but it’s a quest too. Complete with a road trip.

What I love about the movie is that it isn’t just about baseball. Yes, the sport is a keystone in the plot, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole literary theme going on, with Mann and his works being a major point in Ray’s character. And there’s a strong theme of family, with Ray and his wife working as a team, with Ray and his daughter talking baseball and watching the ghosts of old greats play on their field. Ray’s wife Annie’s brother Mark shows up to threaten the farm, which is going bankrupt thanks to the space the baseball field takes up. And the spectre of Ray’s father, John, hovers through the entire story. And my favorite character (aside from Mann, who is played wonderfully by the fantastic James Earl Jones) is one who barely plays at all.

My absolute favorite character arc in this movie is Archie “Moonlight” Graham, or Doc Graham. He played a single game and retired, going back to school to become a doctor. Ray and Terrence learn that he took care of the whole town he lived in, devoting his life to making sure kids had the care they needed and the town held together. In a bit of time travel, Ray meets the late doctor, who corrects him when Ray says it was a tragedy that he only played for five minutes. Graham tells him no, if he’d only been a doctor for five minutes, that would be the tragedy. Graham doesn’t go with Ray, but then his younger self shows up, plays, and makes the same exact choice. To give it up and be a doctor. And there is something there that touches me. If I was going to get truly sentimental, I would say that it not only makes this movie for me, but it informed me as a person. That sometimes, some people just have to go down the path of service, not the path of glory. That those decisions will always be impossible to make any other way when we’re faced with them. I love Graham’s character. I love Burt Lancaster as his older self and Frank Whaley as his younger self. It sets this movie aside for me.

There are plenty of good performances in this movie, notably Ray Liotta as Jackson and Kevin Costner as Ray. I really like Amy Madigan as Annie and I always enjoyed her funky attitude towards the whole situation, questioning and accepting at the same time. Because it’s all fantastic. They build this field and then a dead ball player shows up in the middle of it before walking off into their cornfield. They have the same dream featuring Fenway Park and an author they hadn’t talked about before a PTA meeting discussing banning his books (and I love this movie for being so vehemently anti-censorship, by the way). And that’s ridiculous! But she stands firm because she knows it’s important and she’s a strong woman in the face of pressure. I love that.

So it’s heavy-handed. It’s heavy-handed in interesting ways for a movie that’s ostensibly about sports. It’s got a lot of thought in it, and a lot of care. And it’s got an Action Research! scene. It’s a movie that takes the time to make you want to care about the main character as well as the people around him. You care about Terrence Mann through him before you meet him. You care about the ball players and Doc Graham and you care about Ray’s father. It’s a fantasy movie. It’s got ghosts and magical voices and time travel, so there’s all of that going for it for me too. And it comes together. It all plays out in a well-paced movie that never feels uneven to me. It feels balanced and really, it feels literary. Which I know now is likely because it’s based on a book and I think that speaks well to it as an adaptation. We’ll see how I feel after I actually read the book itself.

April 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 399 – A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own – April 3rd, 2011

When I was in high school I hated gym class. If you played a sport after school you didn’t have to take gym, but I was a drama/tech geek and I suck at sports, so gym class it was. It was usually small and of course made up of the unathletic types, like myself. I’m sure we were hugely frustrating for the gym teachers, who were really very cool ladies. I only realize how cool they were now that I’m this far away from it. At the time I resented their insistence that I learn how to stretch properly. But I do recall one awesome time in high school gym when one of the two women who had to deal with us brought in a woman who’d actually played pro baseball.

This movie had come out maybe a year and a half before. Everyone knew it. It was one of the few movies my whole family had agreed to rent with no argument from either myself or my brother. So when we skipped our usual jog around the gym and stretching followed by a half-assed game of badminton so we could sit down and hear about the real story of the AAGPBL. Somewhere I have a signed baseball card from her and for the life of me I cannot find it tonight and cannot remember her name off the top of my head. I’ll kick myself later when I find it somewhere obvious.

My point is that while this movie has some heavy handed moments and relies on some historical inaccuracy in order to make the story more engrossing, I’ve got a minute personal connection to it. And even though I never wanted to play baseball or any other pro sport, I feel like it tells a story that’s important to me. Last night I was struck by how few women were in the movie, and how limited their roles were. That’s not at all an issue here. Showing a group of women from all walks of life, a variety of characters who happen to also be women? That’s part of the whole point of this movie. And I like that while it’s about the two/three main characters it’s also about the team and about the league itself.

The story follows two sisters, Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, who make it into the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The whole reason they have the opportunity at all is because it’s the middle of World War II and players from the major leagues were being drafted and going off to war. So some enterprising folks created a league for women, hoping to fill the bleachers with people who just wanted to see a live ball game. Dottie and Kit end up on the same team, the Rockford Peaches. And so the movie goes, showing us Dottie and Kit’s rivalry (Kit’s always felt like she plays second fiddle to Dottie, regardless of Dottie’s intentions) set against the development of the team and the league in general.

There’s a lot of baseball in this movie, which is as it should be. Sure, there’s plenty of scenes showing the ladies on the team during their down time, but there’s also a lot of playing on the field. There are montages of women throwing, batting, catching, fielding, running, etc. Women who know what they’re doing and are getting to do it on a bigger stage than ever before. It struck me while watching that while last night’s movie is certainly about baseball, this movie shows a whole lot more actual playing. Because it’s not just Dottie and Kit on the field. You meet all their teammates, from Mae and Doris, two outspoken New Yorkers, to the rest like Shirley and Marla and Helen and Evelyn and Ellen Sue. Shirley learns to read through the course of the film. Marla’s never left home before and ends up leaving the team when she gets married. Evelyn’s son accompanies the team when his father doesn’t want to take care of him while his mother’s on the road. There’s a beauty queen and a dance hall bouncer. Sure, it’s clear that the cross-section of personalities and backgrounds is intentional, but I appreciate seeing them all come together through etiquette lessons and illicit nights out dancing and the interminable bus rides between games.

And then there’s Jimmy Dugan, their coach and manager. A drunk who wasted the last few years of his own baseball career, Jimmy takes the job just for the money, figuring he won’t have to actually do anything. When it’s clear he won’t be any help, Dottie steps in to run the team, keeping them going until Jimmy realizes that he actually has a team of honest to goodness ball players out there. Ball players who can win. And of course the two butt heads (okay, Jimmy butts heads with everyone – that’s his role) but in the end they’ve earned each other’s respect. In this, the movie is as predictable as last night’s was. The movie sets up a couple of conflicts and then lets them play out precisely the way you expect them to, with the ups and downs and eventual reconciliations you knew were coming. It’s a comfortable movie in that way, bolstered by several excellent performances. I truly enjoy Geena Davis as Dottie and Tom Hanks as Jimmy, though it’s Lori Petty as Kit who steals my heart. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are great in the supporting roles of Mae and Doris and I love seeing David Strathairn as the mind behind the league, Ira. There are some great fun moments and some great sentimental moments and the pace is kept up by the pace of the games we’re shown, so I can excuse the predictability here.

What does get me about this movie, unfortunately, is the attempt to make it cover everything. It’s got the conflict between Kit and Dottie. It’s got the conflict between Jimmy and Dottie. It’s got the beginning of the league and its possible end. It’s got the backdrop of the war and the possibility that some of the players’ husbands won’t be coming home. It has a set of bookend scenes set in the present day with a reunion of the players as older women. It’s got all the ball playing. It covers sexism and women as objects and it even tries to touch on segregation. And I understand why it has all of that. I get the intention behind every single one of those things. Unfortunately, it’s a two hour movie. So all of those things get mixed in together and some of them just don’t get the time they deserve and that’s a pity.

Still, I do enjoy this movie. There’s something about it that hits me even though I am as unathletic as they come. It’s a fun movie that shows women getting to use skills they’d been told they shouldn’t even have, let alone expect to show off. It’s got some immensely memorable lines and performances and I admit, I can’t hate on the overly sentimental ending because it makes me tear up every time. Maybe I’m biased. Or maybe it just manages to pull together and be a fun movie about baseball and history and women in just the right way to make me smile.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 398 – The Natural

The Natural – April 2nd, 2011

I’m going to say this up front so there’s no beating around the bush: I don’t enjoy baseball as a game. I find it interesting as a cultural phenomenon, but well, I don’t watch it and I haven’t ever really felt a desire to. It’s slow and I don’t find it particularly engrossing, the same way other people would probably find my favorite video games boring. Different tastes for different folks. So when I watch a movie that has baseball as its foundation, well, it’s got to have something to draw me in other than the game. Oddly enough, a few months back Andy (who also does not watch baseball or particularly enjoy it) decided we should get some baseball movies. So we got this, which I had never seen, and three others that I had. I could have dealt without this one.

I know, I’m a horrible person for saying so. I mean, this is a classic, right? The score is iconic, as are more than a few shots and moments in the movie. It’s Robert Redford and Barry Levinson! How can I not be entranced by this movie! But I’m not. It’s not bad. I didn’t dislike it. But it just didn’t capture me. Even looking at it from an allegorical perspective, pulling in meaning from the talk about Homer and making connections with mythology as well as Arthurian legend didn’t really do it for me. I mean, I like those things, but the allegory here is using baseball as its vehicle. The appeal of allegory is to present one story in the guise of another. What would be the point if the guise wasn’t as interesting as the original? It’s not like we’re talking religious stories that need to be communicated in a time of censorship here.

It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, to be honest. Set in 1939, it’s the story of the meteoric rise of a baseball player, Roy Hobbs. We get a little backstory, seeing how he grew up being taught how to play by his father. We watch him make his own bat. We see him head to the city to play ball and meet up with a mysterious woman who later shoots him for no reason that the movie sees fit to explain (it’s hinted that she was responsible for a string of athlete shootings but the movie doesn’t bother to elaborate). And then we pick back up with him in his 30s, over the hill and starting out as a rookie with the down-on-their-luck Knights. Everyone thinks he’s just a benchwarmer, sent in to ruin the team even more thanks to some shady dealings with the majority shareholder, the sinister Judge. But of course he’s not. He’s amazing. He’s downright magical.

The rest of the movie plays out fairly predictably. I won’t say that’s a bad thing, because it’s using some well known tropes and that just means it’s been put together by people who know how to build a story. But it does mean that I felt very little in the way of tension. As soon as Roy meets femme fatale Memo? I knew he’d start striking out. As soon as his old sweetheart, Iris, showed up to give him moral support from the stands? I knew he’d start doing better. When she said she had a son? Come on. Did anyone need a reveal there? From the moment we meet the Judge in his darkened room it’s a sure thing that someone’s going to either try and take Roy out (again) or get him to throw a game. This is not a movie full of unexpected twists and turns. It tells you everything that’s going on, plain as day.

Fortunately, it’s well acted and well shot. Visually, it’s a lovely movie. And I did enjoy Robert Redford’s performance. He gets the vast majority of screen time. I wish I could say more about the women in the movie, but they’re all fairly one-dimensional, which I found thoroughly disappointing. I would have liked a little more than a villain in black, a sweetheart in white and a temptress who flips back and forth and I would have liked some more well-developed parts for Barbara Hershey, Glenn Close and Kim Basinger. I also would have liked things to move a little faster. As it is, the movie plays out much in the way I’ve always seen baseball itself. A whole lot of standing around, punctuated by some actual playing every so often. It felt like this movie took hours and hours and hours to play out. Sure, there were moments I enjoyed and I appreciated the cinematography and the acting and definitely the score. But overall it just didn’t speak to me.

April 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment