Phar Lap

June 29, 2020

pharlapFirst things first: For those who don’t know what a Phar Lap is (I didn’t), an explanation is in order. Phar Lap was the great Australian racehorse who trounced his competition in the years 1928-31. When he was brought to America in 1932, Phar Lap won his first race, then died – foul play was hinted. Phar Lap is the story of those years, from the purchase of the horse – a skinny colt with good blood­ lines, he cost about $800 – to his final trip to America.

The true story has all the elements for a good movie: the early, dispiriting years, followed by success because of faith and plenty of elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations (Phar Lap became so unbeatable that he was once the subject of an assassination attempt from a speeding car). Still, one may be forgiven for suspecting that the film takes its inspiration from racetrack movies as much as from historical record.

The characters include the clean-faced stableboy (Tom Burlinson) who really loves the horse the most; his sweet girlfriend (Georgia Carr); the miserly American owner (Ron Leibman); his classy, sympathetic wife (Judy Morris); and the tough trainer (Martin Vaughan) given to saying things like, “Don’t tell me I’m training that horse too hard – I think I know a thing or two about horses,” etc.

The pleasantly surprising thing about Phar Lap is that only the stableboy and his girl come off as horse-yarn stereotypes. The owner and the trainer turn out to be more complicated. The owner may be something of an uncouth lout, but he has his moments of grace.

And the trainer is torn between his pride – in developing Phar Lap at a time when nobody else had faith in the horse – and his need for money. To pay off his dreams of a horse-training empire, he must work Phar Lap – who becomes a reliable winner – until the gelding is in danger of burning out.

That the characters are something other than black-and-white is probably the work of playwright David Williamson, the screenwriter of Gallipoli, The Club, and The Year of Living Dangerously. Williamson’s intelligent script provides some villains, though, in the form of an Australian Racing Club which insists that Phar Lap carry extra weight to make the races closer.

Director Simon Wincer doesn’t instill much snap into the proceedings. It’s more of a handsome film than an exciting one. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who shot Tender Mercies, has managed some impressive period photography.

Unfortunately, the film (the most expensive ever made in Australia) comes at a point of over-saturation in the genre of come-from-behind movies. I’ve just about had it with slow-motion replays of races won at the finish line, with reaction shots of spectators brushing away tears, all scored to a ripoff of the music from Chariots of Fire. Phar Lap doesn’t do any of this too badly, but we’ve seen this kind of thing one too many times.

First published in The Herald, April 1984

Wincer has had a long career (his last work was 2011’s The Cup, a horse-racing movie), with the notable miniseries Lonesome Dove included. Burlinson had been in The Man from Snowy River the year before this film came out; Judy Morris’s long acting career also includes writing the screenplays for Babe – Pig in the City and Happy Feet. Also in the cast is Gia Carides, who went on to a long career. This is the first day in a week of Australian films on this website, and there will be more horses.


Caddyshack II

May 13, 2020

caddyshackIIA lunkhead comedy, Caddyshack II simply recycles the same jokes and basic idea of the first Caddyshack. As such, it’s surprisingly painless, although the level of tastelessness gets rather heady at times.

Like the first film, Shack II is set in a snobbish country club. Head snobs Robert Stack and Dina Merrill are appalled at the sudden presence of Jackie Mason, a self-made millionaire who has joined the club only to please his daughter, who wants to fit in with the polo-shirt crowd.

Mason’s character, aside from embodying a vague ethnicity, also indulges in the sins of bad clothes, bad manners, and bad one-liners. A friend pulls the daughter aside and asks, “He’s not your real father, is he?”

The movie asks us to believe that Mason eventually buys the country club, and turns it into an oversize putt-putt golf course, with windmills and hockey rinks. (It also asks to believe that Dyan Cannon, who plays a club aerobics instructor, would be attracted to Jackie Mason.) Naturally, this enrages the blue bloods just that much more; they put out a contract on Mason’s life.

Dan Aykroyd does a cameo as the soldier of fortune who’s hired to kill Mason, and Chevy Chase, who was in the first Caddyshack, has a slightly larger role as the owner of the club. Both do familiar shtick. Randy Quaid turns up as Mason’s obnoxious lawyer, who believes that the problem with golf is that there’s not enough physical contact in it.

It’s all lowbrow and gross, with the expected comic thrust being the humiliation of rich people – not that there isn’t plenty of room for jokes about various animal body noises. And speaking of animals, the destructive gopher from the first movie is back, bearing a peculiar resemblance to Chevy Chase.

Jackie Mason, who is riding the success of his Broadway one-man show, The World According to Me, slips in his brand of Catskills humor, which sometimes cries out for a drummer to supply the rim shots. Sample: Stack tells Mason how to ride a horse: “Just hold on tight, grip with your knees, and let the animal do all the work.” Mason: “Sounds like my wedding night.” Ba-dum-bum.

First published in The Herald, July 31, 1988

That last joke was pretty good. Sorry, Jackie, all is forgiven. If I’m reading IMDb right, this was the last big-screen feature directed by Allan Arkush, a former Roger Corman guy who did Rock and Roll High School and a huge amount of TV since. 

Field of Dreams

October 11, 2019

fieldofdreamsField of Dreams is based on a baseball novel called Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. (The marketing honcho who came up with the limp new title should be smacked.) The book begins with an Iowa farmer who hears a voice whispering the words, “If you build it, he will come.”

Somehow the farmer takes this to mean that if he builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, the ghost of the great player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson will appear there. And so the diamond is built, Jackson appears, and the farmer goes on a magical odyssey that includes kidnapping writer J.D. Salinger and taking him to a Red Sox game.

As you can guess, such a book requires a delicate balancing act. It is the sort of balancing act that might be easier achieved in a novel than in a movie, since the phantoms of Kinsella’s fantasy become much more real when seen on the screen. That’s one of the problems of the film version, written for the screen and directed by Phil Alden Robinson.

Robinson’s other problem is that he has a tendency to state, rather than show, his themes. And he’s made the characters into survivors from the 1960s, thirtysomething folks who still (loudly) carry the dreams that shaped them, a point he hammers home incessantly.

Yet, for its occasional clumsiness, “Field of Dreams” exerts a lyrical pull. The corn runs as high as an elephant’s eye, but a lot of it is irresistible. Farmer Ray (Kevin Costner) quickly builds his baseball field, to the remarkable approval of his wife (Amy Madigan) and young daughter. He’s afraid of becoming like his father, who never did a spontaneous thing in his life; so Ray listens to his voices. After playing catch with “Shoeless” Joe (and other ghostly members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” team) for a while, Ray goes off on his quest to find the famous writer.

The movie changes J.D. Salinger into a fictional writer (played with gusto by James Earl Jones), who is going to lead Ray to a small town in Minnesota and the eventual revelation of what this has all been about.

The fantasy elements are difficult to capture. But the cumulative effect of all the whimsy is quite persuasive, and it helps that Robinson catches both the romance of baseball mythology and the mid-American beauty of the farmland. “Is this heaven?” asks the confused ballplayer. “No,” says Ray, “It’s Iowa.”

There is flavorful supporting work from Ray Liotta, as “Shoeless” Joe (Liotta, short­legged and dark, even looks like a baseball player from the 1920s), Timothy Busfield (from TV’s thirtysomething) as Ray’s skeptical brother-in-law, and Burt Lancaster, who does one of those bigger-than-life cameos that reminds you that there really were movie stars once.

Kevin Costner was last seen as a more down-to-earth baseball player in Bull Durham, and he underplays all the dewy myth-making going on here. Costner brings an unadorned reality to his simple character, a man who found a diamond in a cornfield.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

It would seem from this review that I didn’t anticipate the movie becoming instantly beloved. But at least I picked up on a couple of lines that would turn into catchphrases, including the “No, it’s Iowa” bit. Phil Alden Robinson has had a wandering career since the success of this film, which is curious for someone who obviously found the popular pulse for a moment there. I would have to watch this movie again to see whether it’s any good, but I’m not feeling the pull. Meanwhile, the real-life cornfield used for filming has become a place of pilgrimage and, occasionally, baseball games.

Listen to Me

January 8, 2013

listnetomeIn Listen to Me, college coach Roy Scheider describes his avocation as “probably the scariest, most fascinating sport on the face of the planet.” What is this thrilling sport: Basketball? Football? The four-man luge?

Of course not. It’s debating. Yes, Scheider plays the wily coach of one of the country’s best debate squads. Now, I apologize in advance to debaters and debate fans everywhere, but let me suggest that debate is perhaps not the most scintillating subject for a movie. Probably debate is very exciting in and of itself, but it does have a tendency to make a film somewhat talky.

Listen to Me is plenty talky, although it does make an attempt to mix its scary/fascinating sports scenes with coming-of-age drama. The story, from director Douglas Day Stewart (He wrote An Officer and a Gentleman) deals with three students on the debate team, all of whom carry their own problems into battle.

The team leader (Tim Quill) comes from a Kennedyesque clan of wealthy politics; his father (Anthony Zerbe) wants him to use debate as a springboard into political life. But Quill’s secret wish is to be a tortured writer.

Another student is an engaging Oklahoma hayseed (Kirk Cameron), another is a beautiful-but-distant Chicago sharpie (Jami Gertz). Cameron’s main goal is getting Gertz to go out with him, and he becomes peeved when she won’t: “If you’d look at this empirically, you’d see that it’s all your fault,” he tells her, a debater to the end. Frustrated, he and Quill wind up frolicking in a fountain with debate groupies.

The print ads for Listen to Me have been suggesting that the film somehow tackles the abortion issue. Abortion happens to be the topic chosen for the debate teams, and it’s argued in the scary/fascinating climax, which is a debate in a Washington before some members of the U.S. Supreme Court. But the film has nothing to do with the subject; it’s strictly a theoretical football, to be tossed back and forth.

This brings up one of the irritating things about Listen to Me. The movie argues both sides of the abortion question. It does this so skillfully that you’re left with no feelings at all on the subject. This, according to the movie, is exactly what good debaters should be able to do: argue either side of a case at the drop of a hat. In other words, the characters learn how to say almost anything, with no regard to what they really think or feel. Presentation is everything. In this way, the film makes a good case for debate as a training ground for future politicians.

First published in the Herald, May 11, 1989

Which is why I’ve always found the idea of debate totally weird—we should teach people how to successfully argue empty arguments? It sounds like a recipe for creating terrible people.

Those Glory, Glory Days

December 17, 2012

gloryglorydaysThe glorious event referred to in the title of Those Glory, Glory Days is the victory of the 1961 Tottenham soccer team in the football Final Cup—the first time a soccer team had won the English “double” in this century. (I’m not exactly sure what the “double” is, but it seems to be something very, very big.)

This victory is the central event in the lives of four schoolgirls, who form an exclusive club to follow and worship the ups and downs of the Tottenham Spurs. The season is remembered in flashback by Julia, who in adulthood is a journalist covering her old favorite team.

In the flashback, the young Julia (Zoe Nathenson) gains entry in the secret club when she reveals her football fanaticism in class one day. When the teacher asks her name, Julia claims her name is Danny. “I’ve taken a pseudonym,” she blithely announces, in honor of her all-time favorite Tottenham player, Danny Blanchflower.

This foolish act impresses the other club members (Sara Sugarman, Liz Campion, and Cathy Murphy), and they take Julia/Danny to the football stadium, where the initiate her in a ceremony that includes strapping on a Spurs kneepad and invoking a “God playing football, in a Spurs shirt.”

They follow the team’s successes throughout the season, climaxing in some frenzied attempts to get tickets for the Cup Final game, which has Julia spending a reverential night in the deserted team headquarters.

At the same time, the film charts the marital woes of Julia’s parents, who seems as oblivious to their child’s enthusiasm for sports as she is of their problems.

This little tale is an autobiographical screenplay by Julie Welch, who really is a sportswriter for a London newspaper. Welch went through soccer mania as a child, and she actually bumped into her childhood idol, Blanchflower, many years later (an encounter that forms the framing device for the film).

Welch’s script is directed by Philip Saville, who captures a number of lovely moments, notably the stadium initiation and Julia’s frantic rounding-up of her pals when she thinks she really has got tickets for the Cup Final.

Saville doesn’t quite tease out all the possibilities in the situation. Julia’s night in the team headquarters, full of awards and photos, is not quite the marvelous epiphany it should be, for instance.

But he gets most things right, and he’s certainly done well by his leading lady, Zoe Nathenson. She gives a lively performance as Julia, with her hair all askew and her ungainly eyeglasses held fast with scotch tape. The performance has the kind of clarity that only some child actors seems to be able to give, and it gives the film its steady forward motion.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Another of the “First Love” series produced by David Puttnam. I like soccer, although I betray my ignorance of the leagues and seasons and all that, which is mystifying.

16 Days of Glory

August 6, 2012

One of the surprises among the Oscar nominations was the absence of 16 Days of Glory in the best documentary feature category.

Even among those who hadn’t seen it, the film sounded like a natural choice; after all, the documentary category is usually filled with moves few people have heard of and fewer have seen. 16 Days, on the other hand, was the official record of the ultra-ballyhooed 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Surely that gave it shoo-in status?

Well, ask Cher and Steven Spielberg about shoo-in status. 16 Days of Glory didn’t make it, and now that the film is going into wide release, it’s more obvious why. Competent, well-photographed, and shrewdly constructed, 16 Days is nevertheless a perfectly ordinary sports documentary, no better or worse than the average Super Bowl highlights film.

The segments, focusing on individual performers, are only as beguiling as the particular subjects. There are some interesting omissions: Carl Lewis, for example, and the fall of Mary Decker.

The opening scenes are rather good—the stadium erupting in a mosaic of flags, created by the cards held by spectators, and the torch passing from Jesse Owens’ granddaughter to gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who slaps the steep stairs in front of him as he hikes the last leg to the top.

The first segment is a twist: Dave Moorcroft, British world-record holder in the 5,000 meters, suffers from a chronic pelvic injury that strikes him on the day of the final heat. He gamefully finishes the race, however, in pain and lagging far behind the leaders.

The next segment is a heart-tugger. The Japanese Judo master Yamashita is injured during a semi-final match, and visibly limps from the bout. He can’t rest, however, because all the matches take place on the same day. So we see him dragging his bad leg behind him and, somehow, keeping opponents away from it, until he achieves a stirring victory.

The triumphs are real, and a tribute to the athletes. Producer-director-writer Bud Greenspan can’t resist the temptation to heighten each contest by emphasizing the odds against the athletes who will win.

It’s the oldest sports cliché in the world, of course, much beloved by columnists and broadcasters, and Greenspan is pretty brazen about exploiting it; athletes are portrayed as too old, too slow, or too unheralded to win, but they come through in the final reel.

Greenspan has been careful (except, perhaps, at the grand finale) not to turn the film into a bloody show of nationalism, which is no small feat considering what was done to the Olympics by politicians (of every stripe) eager to cash in on the flag-waving.

Greenspan makes no attempt to make the film into the kind of visual poetry of, for instance, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of the 1936 games. It’s sheer reportage, with only the occasional stray detail catching the marvelous poetry possible in athletic competition: the reluctance of Rowdy Gaines, expecting the worst, to turn around and look at the results after he has won a gold medal in swimming; the wife of hurdler Edwin Moses doing some hurdling of her own as she jumps onto the track to hug the winner; an unidentified American woman raising her hand to her mouth while on the awards platform, revealing fingernails of wild hue and length.

Two more cavils: not enough women (Joan Benoit and the inevitable Mary Lou Retton are the only women who have segments); and the narration, spoken by Daniel Perry, is exactly the kind of overblown hooey that’s been a sports staple for years. How many times do we need to hear, “The athletes entered the stadium like the gladiators of old,” before it can be retired?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1986

The slights to Cher and Spielberg were for Mask and The Color Purple. The L.A. Olympics are remembered as Reagan-era patriot games, and indeed everything was wrapped in red, white and blue. You may not recognize some of these names, but most of them were very familiar at the time. Mary Lou Retton was, of course, the Gabby Douglas of those Games, but multiplied by the number of stars in the flag.

Brewster’s Millions

July 3, 2012

Brewster’s Millions has been a reliable commercial property since—well, since near the beginning of the history of movies. The story of a man who must spend a million-dollar inheritance in order to inherit even more has been filmed six times.

It’s natural that the idea would be revived again. The plot is such a sure-fire comedic premise that you can envision any one of the talented comics of today taking the property and scoring with it. Eddie Murphy or Bill Murray or Michael Keaton would all do well by it.

But Richard Pryor got it, and he probably needed it the most. Pryor’s star has been dimming steadily since his concert-film zenith a couple of years ago, and Brewster’s Millions ought to improve his standing.

Times being what they are, the amount of the inheritance has been beefed up considerably. Pryor, as a has-been pitcher for the Hackensack Bulls minor-league baseball team, inherits a fortune from his eccentric great-uncle (Hume Cronyn). The catch: Pryor must spend $30 million in 30 days. If he does it, he’ll inherit the old coot’s entire fortune—about $300 million worth. If he fails, he’ll get zilch.

He can’t give it all away, and he can’t acquire any assets. The money has to be completely gone at the end of the month. Oh, and he can’t tell anybody why he’s spending all this money, either. That means his best friend (John Candy) and his new accountant (knockout Lonette McKee, from The Cotton Club) assume he’s being foolhardy with his wealth.

You can see why the movie’s got a lot of built-in promise. There’s plenty of wish fulfillment at work here: Of course we all want to think about the various ways we’d spend that much dough if—I mean when we win the lottery next week. The film puts Pryor in that position, and delivers some pretty satisfying fantasies.

Pryor pours it on thick: natty clothes, a penthouse hotel suite in downtown Manhattan, well-paying jobs for all his friends. He leads an entourage to a posh restaurant and asks the matire d’ what the most expensive champagne is. “Chateau Lafitte 1961,” the fellow replies, apprehensively. Pryor mulls that over, and turns to the crowd behind him: “Hey, you guys like Lafitte?” Resounding cheer from the crowd—and from the audience, too.

The movie has such a talent bank—including the scriptwriters of Trading Places and Walter Hill, the director of 48 HRS.—that I was expecting more. It’s funny, and Hill moves the film along at a whipcrack rate, but it’s completely without surprises. In fact, the movie is so nonstop, you feel a little wiped out at the end. It would have been nice to pause now and again and get to know the characters a bit more.

It’s going to do good business, and it’s certainly fine to have Pryor back in harness. But for everyone concerned, Brewster’s Millions seems entirely too safe and sane.

First published in the Herald, May 1985

Ah, what to do with Richard Pryor: the studios never really did get a handle on that. But this kind of safe approach really does seem wrong.