Major League

March 11, 2011

*Not named in review.

Just in time for the opening week of baseball season, Major League arrives to kick off another round of baseball movies from Hollywood. This movie better hope for a quick jump out of the batter’s box, because it doesn’t figure to have much speed on the base paths.

Major League is in the unfortunate position of being compared with last summer’s Bull Durham, a wonderful baseball movie that covers some of the same ground as the new film. Let us be brief and merciful. Where Bull Durham was sharp and quirky and sexy, Major League is dull and predictable and flat. While the former film steeped itself in character, the new movie is a situation comedy.

The situation is that a new owner (Margaret Whitton) has inherited the hapless Cleveland Indians. She’s had an offer to move the franchise to Miami, but she can’t legally uproot the team unless they draw fewer than 800,000 fans during the season. How can this goal be underreached? Just lose, baby.

So she gathers the sorriest bunch of cast-off players she can find, hires them, and sits back to watch the numbers in the “L” column pile up. Naturally—you could probably see this one coming—the team begins to win, and win big, when they hear of her insulting attitude.

The main players include a battle-weary catcher (Tom Berenger), a prima donna shortstop (Corbin Bernsen, from “L.A. Law”), a fleet outfielder (Wesley Snipes), a spitball pitcher, a voodoo practitioner, and other colorful types. Garnering the most laughs is actor-announcer Bob Uecker, as the Indians’ play-by-play man, a booster who isn’t above slandering the opposing players (“He’s a convicted felon, isn’t he? Well, he should be”).

Director-writer David Ward cooks up some conventional situations for these characters. The relationship between Berenger and an ex-girlfriend seems particularly superficial stacked next to the original, adult attraction between Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham.

Elsewhere, Ward has written enough snappy one-liners to keep the film moving (he won an Oscar for writing The Sting), but, as he proved with his first directorial outing, Cannery Row, he does not seem to have the touch as a director.

Of course, Major League should provide some wish-fulfillment for Cleveland fans. Their team does great, in the movie. When I drove home after seeing the film, I flipped on the radio and the Mariners were losing, 11-1. Do you think anyone is interested in making a movie about a team that has never had a winning season?

First published in the Herald, April 6, 1989

Hmm, I didn’t even mention Charlie Sheen’s role as the dangerously wild pitcher, a genuinely funny turn. Of course I was wrong about this movie’s staying power; it caught on with audiences, although I stick with my original opinion. Uecker’s role is something of a precursor to Fred Willard in Best in Show, now that I think about it. By the way, does anybody remember the Margaret Whitton era? It lasted for this movie and a couple of other things. The less said about the curren state of Mariners baseball, the better.

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Lucas

March 10, 2011

Lucas is a precocious 14-year-old who has a few peculiar habits. He collects locusts. He carries a tape recorder that plays a sort of soundtrack to his life at key moments. And he goes to high school—because, “I’m accelerated,” as he says—with a bunch of older kids.

Which means that Lucas is lonely, if bright. And Lucas is the story of a crucial turning point in the boy’s growth, when he finds out the meaning of life and love.

That already sounds pretty wet, and Lucas steps into most of the gooey traps of such a story. Lucas (Corey Haim) meets a new girl (Kerri Green) in school; but she’s 18, and although she befriends the shrimp, she falls more seriously for the school football star (Charlie Sheen, Martin’s son).

This is Lucas’s first heartbreak, and drives him back to his locusts (Lucas—locust—get it?). But Lucas contrives a way to prove his manhood on the football field, and conveniently finds another girl to replace his true love.

This leads to a distastefully manipulative ending. In fact, the ending is so bogus, it makes you forget the fact that writer-director David Seltzer has pulled off a few sensitive scenes along the way.

Seltzer gets a nice offbeat tone to a variety of encounters. When Sheen first notices Green, for instance, it’s at a school laundry, where they duet in an unusually long scene, both of them nervous, testing each other. And there’s a fresh angle to the scene in which Lucas brings his heart’s desire to an outdoor symphony concert—via the sewer. They travel underground until they’re near the performing shell, then they simply crack open a manhole cover not far from the music and enjoy the sounds wafting across the night.

These little touches suggest that Seltzer has some desire to avoid the usual formula for these stories, and he’s got gobs of sincerity.

That makes it all the more irritating when Seltzer slips into the nonsense of the final sequences, as Lucas insists he wants to play on the football team, in some desperate attempt to recapture the attention of his red-headed heartthrob. This, although he’d earlier announced that football players and cheerleaders were hopelessly superficial. He wasn’t quite right; it’s the film that gets increasingly superficial.

Seltzer’s cast is agreeable enough; Haim is an engaging Lucas, Green is underwhelming but steady as the focus of Lucas’s attention, and Sheen, who looks more like his father than his brother, Emilio Estevez, has an interesting quality. Although he’s good, he never seems quite at ease; it’s as though something is eating at him. Rather than detract from his performance, this actually makes it more intriguing.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

I was going to drop the Charlie Sheen Week business but then coming across this review (entirely at random, I swear), I was struck by the final sentences. Because things still are very much eating at Charlie Sheen. This movie brought on a memorable bout of high-rhapsody writing from Roger Ebert at the time, who compared it to The 400 Blows; but hey, the movie’s about a smart, bespectacled Chicago kid wrestling with first love, so let’s give the guy a pass. My review failed to mention another fresh young face in the cast, which belonged to Winona Ryder (let the whispers of the “curse of Lucas” proceed apace). Seltzer went on to make Punchline a couple of years later—and perhaps a man named Seltzer had to make a film about comedians—which wasn’t bad, but his follow-up was Shining Through, a train wreck. He created the Omen series, so he’s probably fine.


Eight Men Out

March 9, 2011

Certain true stories add up to more than just the random events of a particular place and time; they tattoo themselves onto the shared consciousness of an entire nation. Such a story is that of the notorious Chicago “Black Sox,” who threw the 1919 World Series.

If you were ever a child who loved baseball, chances are you heard this story. If you heard it, you never forgot it. The Chicago White Sox of 1919 were heavily favored to win the series, but they lost, and in the months after the series, it was revealed that eight Chicago players were involved in a payoff to dump some games. All eight were banned from baseball forever.

Director John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), who has been wanting to film this story for years, recognizes that there is much more in this tale than the tragedy of Eight Men Out (as the title of the movie has it, held over from Eliot Asinof’s book). The “Black Sox” scandal was a sharp disillusionment to the national character, a tear in the nationwide return to normalcy in the postwar years.

The affair is still haunting, and it contributed one of the most wistful moments in all Americana: the little boy who confronted the incomparable hitter “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and pleaded, “Say it ain’t so, Joe—say it ain’t so.”

That moment is retained in Sayles’ film of Eight Men Out, which lovingly re-creates its era. Sayles skillfully sketches the circumstances that led to the players’ sellout, including the hard cheapness of Chicago owner Charles Comiskey, and the ruthlessness of the gamblers who set up the fix. The players are drawn into the fix with an offhandedness that belies the deep scar their actions would leave.

It’s an ensemble piece, but Sayles gives special attention to three players: Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), the illiterate but gifted player who went along with the fix almost casually; Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who knew about the fix but did not participate in it, and was banished from baseball anyway; and Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who saw the end of his career coming and agonizingly went along with the deal.

The many characters fly by, but Sayles keeps them distinct. Sayles himself plays Ring Lardner, and writer Studs Terkel plays a fellow journalist. Other ballplayers are played by Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, James Read, and Don Harvey. John Mahoney does his usual excellent work as the team’s bewildered manager. Some of the sleazier money men are played by Kevin Tighe (he was also a meanie in Sayles’ Matewan), Michael Lerner, and Richard Edson.

As opposed to the black-and-white world of greed and culpability in Matewan, Eight Men Out has no easy villains; everybody seems to have their reasons. The film is most poignant as a study of a few men who made a mistake, whose names were permanently blackened, and who wound up losing their livelihood and their joy.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

A fine job on a great American story, even if the film sometimes seems to have been made by a journalist dabbling in cinema. Aside from the tracing of national disillusionment, of course Sayles’ interest in the story had much to do with its portrait of the rift between ownership and labor, a tale that keeps re-telling itself (as it is right now in both the sports world—an NFL lockout looms—and an epic union-busting showdown in Wisconsin). When I said everybody had their reasons, it referred mostly to the players whose names were tarnished. The owners kept their jobs.


Young Guns

March 8, 2011
Brat Packing Heat

It’s easy to chuckle at the thought of a bunch of Hollywood’s pampered Brat Packers essaying the roles of rough-and-ready cowboys. But the fact is, the stars of Young Guns are probably better suited to pay these roles than many of the actors who have played historical Old West figures through the years.

After all, Billy the Kid was only 22 when he died. Many of the upstart gunslingers of the West were brats in their own right. Why shouldn’t they be played by kids?

Young Guns, in fact, at least tries to veer near historical truth now and again, as it pertains to the budding career of Billy the Kid. John Fusco’s screenplay picks up young William H. Bonney (played with bright-eyed craziness by Emilio Estevez) as he rolls under the kindly wing of John Tunstall (Terence Stamp), who is raising a hellion troupe of young “regulators.” When Tunstall is murdered, the regulators band together under Billys’ exuberant leadership, and their bloody ride of revenge begins.

The other young guns—”The flotsam and jetsam of frontier society,” as somebody puts it—are played by Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips (of La Bamba), Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, and Charlie Sheen (in real life, Estevez’s brother, and by now a bigger star). They go through some reasonably familiar formula paces, which means the movie has a cardboard quality but also has a few good old-fashioned moments.

The view of Billy as a fun-lovin’ psycho is not especially new, though Estevez does play the role as an almost modern-day character, not too far from his anti-establishment smarty-pants in Repo Man. Sutherland’s cowboy poet leads the movie into its ickiest sections, as he falls for a Chinese girl and begs her to run away with him.

Elsewhere, though, director Christopher Cain does capture some of the unpredictable violence and fever of the youthful desperadoes. A scene in which Billy flies off the handle and blows away some captured bad guys catches the hair-trigger violence of the character, and a later scene in which he deliberately disarms a would-be bounty hunter in a bordello taps into some wicked black humor.

Cain also has an evident affection for Westerns in general. He’ll let characters say things such as “The only chance I have is to run hell-bent for leather.” (No one knows what that means, but it sounds good.)

And he nods toward the traditional Western with the casting of Jack Palance, the all-time evil hired gun of Shane, to play a similarly despicable villain here, plus a cameo by Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s son, who plays Pat Garrett. Wayne’s presence is a nice link to the Western of old, though it can’t help suggesting the likelihood that the Duke could’ve mowed these whippersnappers down before supper.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

This sounds a little generous to me now; I remember when Young Guns II came along, I thought it was a distinct improvement, in part because of the energy boost supplied by the New Zealander at the directing reins, Geoff Murphy. But if every era gets the Billy the Kid it deserves, then Young Guns can accurately be said to represent the late 1980s.


Wall Street

March 7, 2011

Gekko and Fox: Morning in America

In the opening scene of Wall Street, our young hotshot stockbroker hero wheels into his office for another big day. When his secretary asks him how he’s doing, he says, “If I was doin’ any better it’d be a sin.”

That’s about the size of it. In Oliver Stone’s morality play, this hungry kid sins by becoming the Faust of the stock exchange, selling his soul to a devil/madman/genius who controls half the money in New York City (and this the relevant world).

Stone has mapped out the struggle of good and evil before, most impressively in his battle-zone dramas, Platoon and Salvador. This time he’s indoors, but these soldiers still talk about making a killing, and they even wear uniforms—the suspenders and yellow power ties of the Wall Street infantry.

As the film opens, greenhorn Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) has his eye on the imminent main chance, which means he’s trying to land the ultimate high-roller Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as a client. When he finally blusters his way into Gekko’s office, the great man is sitting among his Cuban cigars and $600,000 paintings taking his own blood pressure. “Whatever you do,” he tells the kid, “don’t upset me.”

Bud manages to make a modest killing by using an inside tip. Gekko rewards him with a visit from a paid companion and a lunch of (appropriately) raw meat. It isn’t long before the rest of Bud’s life is looking up; Gekko’s former mistress (Daryl Hannah) is now installed as a girlfriend, and Bud musters enough for the down payment on a million-dollar Upper East Side condo, complete with appalling modernist design.

At some point Bud begins to get the idea that his illegal procurement of inside information, including dressing up in a janitor’s outfit to sneak into lawyers’ offices, is going to catch up with him. And even that it may be wrong.

Hollywood folks have been wondering whether this bull-market movie might have lost some of its relevancy, in the wake of the big crash. I suspect not. Presumably the same cutthroats are safely in place in the real Wall Street, despite Black Monday; there weren’t that many brokers jumping out of windows. And greed knows no off-season anyway.

Besides, Wall Street would be an enjoyably entertaining movie anytime. Stone occasionally allows large philosophical observations to drift into his characters’ mouths, and the movie’s a bit too long for its flimsy weight. But most of the dialogue, by Stone and Stanley Weiser, is crackling, and spoken by a colorful cast.

Stone can’t quite make anything interesting out of Daryl Hannah’s role, and Gekko’s wife, played by dishy Sean Young, is around much too little. But Douglas is forceful and reptilian in his Mephistopheles role, with a lot of juicy speeches culminating in his declaration that “Greed is right.”

Sheen, who also played the central role in Platoon, is fine as the callow trader. His father, Martin Sheen, plays his father here, the film’s voice of blue-collar reason, who can’t brook his son’s strange insider language and $400 suits.

Stone has made the movie as an ethical lesson, and he tries to demonstrate that all those dollars that have been flying merrily around for years may actually be connected to ordinary peoples’ lives. Actually, I suspect that the thing audiences may remember about this movie is how much fun it is to be in the limo and the Lear jet. That may not be what Stone intended, but it’s certainly the spirit that made Wall Street what it is today.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

That last paragraph turned out to be true, to the point that the real-life buccaneers of the early 21st century made their role model Gekko look like a piker, an idea Stone got some play out of in the Wall Street sequel. Some young actors involved with the film might have drawn some unintended lessons from it too; give Stone credit for spotting the buzzing grandiosity inside Charlie Sheen, which has lately been on such prominent display. The movie’s overstated in the manner of High Stone, a style that manages to seethe with a certain jangly energy even when it makes you want to slap your head. The sequel did not catch the old crazy fire, possibly because fiction had been embarrassed by reality at that point.


Nate and Hayes

March 4, 2011

November. The word itself seems to encourage inactivity: it’s a fat, lazy month full of food and football, a languid lull before the storm of the holiday season.

Novemberitis has traditionally infected movie studios as much as anybody else; it’s usually a slack time for new movies, as distributors prepare to release all their blockbusters during the Christmas holidays.

This is the time of year when small, serious films find their way to movie screens. Title such as Testament, Boat People, and Nicaragua: Report From the Front, have all appeared locally in the last fortnight. Ambitious films such as Bob Fosse’s Star 80 get their couple of weeks in the sun before the December onslaught.

But the studios can’t give the hungry public a steady diet of art films. Besides, there must be something offbeat sitting on the shelves, some weird little movie that didn’t seem releasable before; why not spring it on an unsuspecting nation during this slow November?

Maybe that’s what Nate and Hayes is. Believe me, I don’t know what other explanation to give. Nate and Hayes is this pirate movie, with Tommy Lee Jones as the swashbuckling “Bully Hayes,” whose real-life adventures are on vivid display.

Did I say real-life? Sorry. That could be misleading; nothing in Nate and Hayes comes close to resembling reality as we know it. But that’s okay; the idea here is to present non-stop action al a Raiders of the Lost Ark, not give a documentary account of the hardships of pirate life.

This Hayes fellow escorts a young missionary couple to a South Sea island. Later, when the girl is kidnapped by a band of marauders, Hayes helps the young hero recover the bride. Complication: Hayes loves the lass, too.

It’s the latest retelling of the 1956 western The Searchers, a favorite of young filmmakers for years (Star Wars was partially inspired by it). This time out, it’s done with jokes and acrobatics, and no time out for characterization or seriousness.

The surprising thing is that some of this is pretty enjoyable. The dialogue bulges with wisecracks, probably from the pen of John Hughes, who has scripted a lot of National Lampoon projects. And director Ferdinand Fairfax has given an appropriate flair to the cartoonish proceedings, especially during the exciting opening sequence, during which Hayes runs guns and trades one-liners with some unimpressed women savages.

So, great art it’s not. And it takes a long time in completing its 90 minutes of life. But, if I were a 10-year-old, I might find Nate and Hayes very easy to take, especially on a rainy November afternoon when there wasn’t much new on TV anyway.

First published in the Herald, November 17, 1983

No such dewy lyrical reflection on the attributes of November is possible today; if the Christmas season isn’t in full swing by November 10, something is very wrong in Hollywood. This odd picture is suspected by some IMDb posters as being the basis for the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it seems more likely that both draw from the same generic well. I didn’t bother to mention that Michael O’Keefe, whose name actually sounds like a pirate, played the other title role in the film; this was just after The Great Santini and Caddyshack, so O’Keefe looked as though he might be turning into something. His next film was Richard Lester’s Finder Keepers, which memory tells me had its moments, but after that he turned into a working actor. I think the film’s original title was Savage Islands, and I remember thinking at the time of its release how lame a title Nate and Hayes was, a desperate attempt to make the movie sound like a buddy film (and giving the wrong guy top billing, too). The other funny note is John Hughes, still a year away from breaking through.


Braddock: Missing in Action III

March 3, 2011

The Missing in Action films have given Chuck Norris his brawniest character (and his steadiest work): James Braddock, the ex-Vietnam vet who keeps returning to Vietnam, mowing down Communists, and bringing innocents back. Braddock: Missing in Action III adds a new element to the series.

A prologue, set in 1975, informs us that Braddock had a Vietnamese wife. (This fact, as far as I can remember, was hitherto unmentioned in the series.) At the time of the American withdrawal from Saigon, Braddock thought his wife had been killed, and he left without her.

Twelve years later, he learns that, not only is his wife alive, but she was also pregnant at the time of their parting. She has since given birth to a son.

Devotees of Norris’s cinema will have already guessed that he hops the first plane to Bangkok and finds a way to cross the border into Vietnam, but getting his wife and son out proves harder than getting in. The obstacles include an unexpected truckload of kids (they must be evacuated too), sadistic torture, and seemingly hundreds of enemy soldiers. All of the latter are blown to smithereens.

MIA III is no better or worse than the preceding films in the series. The Saigon prologue works up some convincing panic, even if most of it is stolen from The Killing Fields. On the whole Aaron Norris directs with full-bore simplicity, though the film contains no killer effects such as the burlap bag full of live rats that was tied around Chuck’s head in MIA II.

Someday some film student is going to write a dissertation about the Missing in Action films. In some unconscious ways, despite themselves, these are interesting movies—the way in which, for instance, Braddock’s existence in the United States is absolutely perfunctory, as though he were alive only to relive the war experience. If some veterans keep returning to Vietnam psychologically, Braddock actually acts out the return. And, to paraphrase Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, this time we win.

At this point Braddock’s invincibility has gone beyond ludicrousness. He’s a superhero who doesn’t even bother dodging bullets; they magically avoid him. It’s another level of wish-fulfillment at work in these films, and like most superhero stories, it’s effective.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

And so it went. Interesting to register that this was only a dozen years or so after Saigon fell, and still fresh enough to be talked about this way.