Sunday, April 15, 2018

YOUR WEEKEND MOVIE MENAGERIE: A BULL, A BUNNY AND A GO-RILLA



"Walt Whitman once said, 'I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.' You could look it up." -- Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) in Bull Durham

Bull Durham, Ron Shelton’s beloved ode to the piquant ambience and perhaps more elusive spirituality of baseball, especially the minor league variety, is staring down its 30th anniversary—the movie debuted on June 15, 1988, and upon its release almost instantly entered among the ranks of the best movies ever made about the game. (My own choice for top honors would be Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears, and even among Shelton’s own work I prefer the soured fury of Cobb, the writer-director’s great rumination of the nature of heroism, a movie which worms its way toward daylight out of the curdled soul of its subject, Ty Cobb, an undeniably great player who was broadly recognized, by his contemporaries as well as historians, as a despicable human being.)

One of the things that made it seem so fresh in 1988, and why it doesn’t seem date or stale even now, is that Bull Durham dismantled over a decade of post-Rocky expectations as to what audiences wanted out of a sports movie—there are no big-game, all-or-nothing scenarios played out on the field, just comedy, disappointment, and a dash of poetry here and there; the most well-known, oft-quoted speech in it is only marginally related to the game; and the moment when one of the main characters gets called up to “the show” is played out not with cheers and orchestral bombast, but as it would likely play out in real life, with a sense of slowly digested disbelief (on the part of the one being called up) and a dazed and disoriented stewpot of mixed emotions for everyone else who gets to watch him go.

Seeing the movie again recently, I realized just how well, despite a nit to be picked here and there, and just how much of the essence of the game it manages to capture. Yes, Tim Robbins’ form on the mound is unconvincing as the hard-throwing AAA pitching prospect Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, but Robbins effortlessly accesses the kid’s cocky, know-nothing character, located somewhere between the sandlot and a vague awakening of adulthood, and every pitch, wild or controlled with pinpoint accuracy, conveys the nonchalant, raw energy of talent flailing in search of focus. That famous laundry list of convictions trotted out by Costner’s world-weary catcher Crash Davis in response to Annie’s question, “Well, what do you believe in then?” (you know Crash's answer), is overwritten in a way such that a naturalistic actor like Costner can’t make it sound natural, organic-- though Annie does provide a nifty auto-critique later when she responds to another of Crash’s proclamations with a audibly annoyed “Oh, Crash, you do make speeches!” And even the Whitman quote that Annie closes the movie with isn’t exactly a quote, but instead a niftily paraphrased distillation of some of Whitman’s thoughts on the game parsed out over time. (Worry not, Ms. Savoy— Brian Cronin in the Los Angeles Times did indeed look it up.) However unreliable Annie might be as a factual source—she self-admits getting her authors mixed up more than once and professes the stabilizing quality of breathing through one’s eyelids—the spirit of Whitman is what is at stake, and that is something the movie, however improbably, gets right. It’s almost a perfect affirmation of Annie’s character, and the movie’s, that even through misquotation the endgame is a specific, tangible truth.

Those are the nits. But in the spirit of celebration, and presuming everyone who has read this far will be familiar enough with the movie that a perfunctory regurgitation of Bull Durham’s “plot” will be unnecessary, I’d like to proceed in listing nine points of pleasure I take from Ron Shelton’s thoroughly wonderful movie, nine answers for nine innings, my own sort of answer to the question Annie Savoy poses to Crash Davis. In the matter of Bull Durham, well, what do I believe in then?

I believe in the Bulls mascot.
The at-first wildly ineffective Nuke LaLoosh gets two shots at the man in the full-body bull outfit—the first one sails perilously close to his head, causing him understandably to hit the deck, the other plunks him right between the horns, dropping the poor bastard like a bad date. And the perfect timing and editing of the shots elevates the plunk from potential concussion-or-worse tragedy to great high-low comedy.

I believe in a subtle reference to baseball movie history.
In what must be a nod to the bed-ridden boy asking Lou Gehrig to hit a home run just for him in The Pride of the Yankees, a batboy approaches Crash, who has been battling the voices of doubt in his head as he approaches a minor-league home run record, with a new piece of lumber. “Get a hit, Crash,” the boy offers in support. “Shut up” is the response, followed by an almost-too-quick-to-notice “just kidding” slap on the kid’s chest by Crash’s batting gloves.


I believe in the cleansing power of a player-umpire dust-up. It all starts with a misunderstanding. The ump says, “Did you call me a cocksucker?!” The player, Crash again, says, “No, I said it was a cock-sucking call.” Not words to de-escalate a situation, to be sure. The face-to-face shouting and spittle inflicting begins: “You want me to call you a cocksucker?” “Go ahead! Try it!” “’Pretty please!’ Beg me!” “Call me a cocksucker, and you’re out of here!” And then the masterful quiet before the storm, Costner’s decision to have Crash eschew further histrionics and go low for emphasis, the way he drops down to a whisper, never breaking gaze with his opponent, to deliver the payload: “You’re a cocksucker.”

I believe in musical deliverance.
The movie opens with a woman vocalizing the emotions of gospel music before we first hear Annie’s voice professing her own belief: “I believe in the church of baseball.” Underneath Annie’s elaboration of this profession the singer continues, joined by a church organ, which will later be echoed in composer Michael Convertino’s score and, of course, by the subtle omnipresence of the stadium organ, a beautiful nonverbal synthesis of one of the movie’s central ideas, the possibility of the profane being elevated by the spiritual.

I believe in a man’s right to believe.
The measure of respect Shelton holds in reserve for Jimmy, the Christian player who tries to drum up interest in locker room bible study, is notable (especially when placed against the cynical rain endured by representatives of faith in a movie like North Dallas Forty). The players aren't interested in religion much, and they dole out the raspberries for this obvious hayseed, but among the razzes Jimmy is allowed a good moment, a moment to be taken seriously. "I know y'all think I'm pretty square,” he says, barely audible above the general locker-room cacophony, but I believe what I believe." A movie which honors Annie’s polytheistic stabs at enlightenment does right by allowing its minor characters similar opportunities for self-expression. And I do love the moment when the players bring out Jimmy's wedding cake in the locker room reception after he improbably marries Millie, who makes a hobby of sleeping around with the other players. There's a plastic figurine of the bride and groom screwing atop the cake, and the actor, William O'Leary, manages to pull off the most charmingly embarrassed "Oh, my Lord!" in movie history.

I believe in righteous sexual innuendo.
Annie lays on the bed and writhes with pleasure as, just out of camera range, Crash is doing something she really likes. The camera pulls back to reveal he’s painting her toenails. And then they jump in the tub and do what nature intended, all to the strains of the relatively obscure 1951 R&B crossover hit “Sixty-Minute Man” by Billy Ward and his Dominoes:

“Lookee here, girls, I’m telling you now, they call me Lovin’ Dan
I rock ‘em, roll ‘em all night long, I’m a sixty-minute man…
There’ll be 15 minutes of kissing/Then you’ll holler ‘please don’t stop’
There’ll be 15 minutes of teasing and 15 minutes of squeezing
And 15 minutes of blowin’ my top…”


I believe in the power of a lesson learned.
There is no better moment of comedy in Bull Durham than the one which occurs when Nuke attempts to shake off the signs Crash is using to request pitches during the closing outs of a potential shutout win, an event which would be a milestone in confidence-building for the young hurler. “This son of a bitch is throwing a two-hit shutout, he's shakin' me off. You believe that shit?” Crash complains. And then, addressing his opponent: “Charlie... here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well.” Nuke delivers his pitch, not Crash’s, and the ball is hit squarely for a home run. When Crash heads to the mound, Nuke confirms that Crash revealed the pitch to the batter. “Yep,” Crash, the teacher, says to his student. Then a pause to reflect: “Man, that ball got out of here in a hurry. Anything that travels that far oughta have a damn stewardess on it, don’t you think?”

I believe in clarity. For all of Annie’s florid self-expression (and Shelton’s), the moment when she reflects upon Nuke having been called up to the major leagues is her brand of observation at its most crystalline: “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”

I believe in the power of forlorn revelation.  I wouldn’t trade the sense of melancholy that settles in on the last 15-20 minutes of Bull Durham for 90 straight minutes of adrenalized, “Gonna Fly Now”-induced excitement. Not that the movie is some sort of soul-searing bummer at its conclusion-- of course it finds its own way to the upbeat. But Ron Shelton figures a dramatically cogent way for his characters to deal with having to process loss and dissatisfaction and self-disappointment, and that’s not what I or any viewer could have expected after exposure to a decade of sports movies that were, to paraphrase a friend of mine writing about Bull Durham, so fiercely dedicated simply to naming the winners of the world. Part of the power of Shelton’s unexpectedly rich comedy is that there is room in the world for losers too.

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If you have Netflix and are of an inclination to have your mind bent by a genuinely disturbing horror film, I cannot recommend the entirety (unless you have 90 minutes just aching to be slaughtered) of the recent anthology film Holidays (2016), which as you may have guessed, consists of segments from up-and-coming writer-directors, as well as the well-established likes of Kevin Smith, which riff of holiday-centric themes-- perennial slasher favorites like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, of course, but also ones relatively untouched as yet by the genre, like St. Patrick’s Day. But I can encourage you to seek out, between the beginning and end of Holidays, writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s contribution to this omnibus, Easter, a smashingly effective mood piece, a grim and disturbing meditation on the strange comingling of religious and secular iconography that the holiday encompasses. McCarthy, the writer-director of The Pact and At the Devil’s Door, imagines a scenario in which a young girl struggles to reconcile the images of the Easter Bunny and the risen Christ, with her nonplussed mother no great font of illuminating information. Later that night, when the girl accidentally spies the Easter Bunny delivering his nocturnal goods, she’s forced to confront the synthesized significance of those images, as well as a terrifying possible future, head on.

McCarthy’s movie thrums at a much lower frequency than much in the horror genre these days (especially as represented by Holidays), yet it burrows much deeper under the skin than, say, the admittedly effective jump scares of A Quiet Place. And its surface “sacrilege” reveals a much more resonant, sympathetic nature, encompassing unaccountable belief and horror in the same framework with the beginning of a young girl’s journey toward adulthood, toward reconciling those conflicting images and influences for herself in a way that means cutting all ties with the familiar world. All within about 10 minutes. And all while retaining the capability of freaking an unsuspecting viewer completely the fuck out. Don’t search up details on the Internet—just fast-forward three segments into Holidays and see McCarthy’s terrifying movie for yourself.

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Anyone remember Flip Wilson’s great comic bit about the go-rilla? I thought about it more than once during Rampage, the new CGI-soaked action thriller about George, a rare and quite good-natured albino ape, resident of the San Diego Wildlife Preserve headed up by top-drawer primatologist Dwayne Johnson, who gets exposed (as do a lone wolf and an already cranky crocodile) to a pathogen which re-edits his genetic composition, causing him to grow outrageously and become, shall we say, irrationally impatient. Newly inspired by science, this is a gorilla who really goes, and when all three are lured to Chicago by a powerful sound wave generated by the evil brother-sister team who created the pathogen (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, who I’d almost swear is doing his best Eric Trump), awesome monster battles and destruction ensue.

The key to Rampage’s success is, as is true of most movies the guy stars in, is Johnson, who establishes a credible, funny, sympathetic relationship with George which not only gooses the plot but generates an unexpected surge of emotion throughout. (Dino De Laurentiis was right—I cried when monkey… Well, no spoilers here!) The script hammers a little too hard on Johnson supposedly not being “a people person,” especially for an actor who radiates such a genial presence, but that’s a minor flaw. And it’s nice to see an action star who is able to sell his apparent invincibility the way Johnson can—here’s the real man of steel.

And he ably anchors a game cast, including Naomie Harris as a disgraced biologist who helps him track George and the other, much scarier mutations, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, channeling Robert Downey by way of R. Lee Ermey, as the mysterious FBI agent who dogs all their trails and who may be less sinister (but no less disarmingly imposing) than he appears.

My only expectations for Rampage were for a Saturday-afternoon diversion, and it was gloriously that. But at the risk of exposing my inner yahoo, this one delivered the unpretentious goods right from the start and held me from exciting sequence to exciting sequence and all points in between, all the way through the end credits and a hip-hop repurposing of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” (“Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage”). And speaking of repurposing, this movie manages a far more satisfying evocation of the Toho kaiju aesthetic than either of the Pacific Rim iterations did, and it’s loaded with humor and emotion and moments, like Akerman dropping into the jaws of her most monstrous creation, that made this 58-year-old goofball hoot and cheer with abandon. I had a great time, and at the end I happily joined with my fellow multiplexers in a round of applause for a rampage well done.

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Sunday, April 01, 2018

ROYALLY DERANGED: THE SCARLET EMPRESS



The Scarlet Empress (1934), starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser and “a supporting cast of 1,000 players,” is director Josef von Sternberg at his most grandiose and excessive, which is just another way of saying "at his best," at the height of a state of expressive delirium no other director has ever really matched. (Though many have, either consciously or subconsciously, tried-- I wonder if Ken Russell ever admitted envy for von Sternberg or this film.) Von Sternberg paints his pictures with gasp-and-giggle-inducingly broad strokes, but his approach is no joke. There’s an exhilarating strain of claustrophobia in the director’s films which is given its freest rein here. His frames are burdened with grandeur, luxury and horror closing in, and he achieves a genuine sense of epic sprawl and decadence, despite the orchestrated sense that the whole of Russia, royalty as well as the entirety of its oppressed, terrorized subjects, exist in a subterranean network of grottoes shot through to the dankest corners with spiritual rot.

Not an element of the film is misplaced from von Sternberg’s apparently obsessive zeal; the story of the innocent and eventually calculated ascendance of the Prussian princess who would come to be known as Catherine II, “Russia’s most powerful and sinister empress,” whose presence, initially meant to temper “the madness of the holy Russian dynasty,” soon becomes its corrupt fulfillment, is its own particular journey into a purple heart of madness. (The quoted descriptions are taken from the intertitles von Sternberg uses liberally throughout his film, which in concert with his rapturous imagery, do much to link The Scarlet Empress to the history of silent film, which at the time of its release was a mere five years in the rearview mirror of history.) I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie which so absolutely feels like the fulfillment of its director’s intentions, indeed his entire career, but if that movie exists this is surely it-- if anyone can point me to any accounts of the production of The Scarlet Empress, I would greatly appreciate it.

In the meantime, I will avoid ever seeing The Scarlet Empress with a hip, modern audience who would certainly pounce upon its eccentricities and indulgences, its Elbrus-heightened performances, with the fury of a thousand Satellites of Love. Know-it-alls prone to poses of superiority toward a film style which doesn’t ring true to their experience wouldn’t know what to do with John Lodge, as Count Alexei, royal emissary and ladies’ man to the court, lustfully curling his lip toward the under-age and under-experienced Catherine from beneath mountains of sable, or Louise Dresser as the callously impatient Empress Elizabeth, who commissions young Princess Sophia to her royal fate, a vicious monarch played in the flat, unaffected style of dust bowl-era Jane Darwell, constituting a contrast of style Armando Iannucci might appreciate which results in a delicious clash with Elizabeth’s ornately royal carriage. And God prevent us from their assessment of the pleasures of Sam Jaffe’s lunatic grand duke, Peter III, who even invokes Harpo Marx, eyeballs clacking furiously in their sockets, as he spins off toward his doom.

As for the great movie star, there’s a particularly dirty frisson in watching Marlene pop her own orbs as she’s first exposed to the dirty secrets of the royal house, then continuing the hypnotic gaze as she slowly, seductively morphs into the monstrously self-aware Catherine of history, one refracted of course through a more familiarly diffuse lens of Hollywood Dietrich. Catherine seems unhinged in her own way from the start, which of course makes her the perfect addition to this Russia house, as Dietrich slowly exposes her heart and soul, the tarnish of evil visible through scrims of gauze and lit by the most exquisite, quivering candlelight. The Scarlet Empress is, on its own terms I think, just about a perfect movie; it’s gloriously, royally deranged.