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.


Johnny Be Good

April 16, 2012

I haven’t looked through my records, but I feel comfortable in declaring Johnny Be Good the worst American film of this still-young year. In fact, this movie is so inept on every level that it may land the title for all of ’88.

The subject matter of the movie is a familiar one to sports fans; it’s all about the rampant unscrupulousness involved in college athletics today, particularly the sometimes shady “inducements” offered to talented players recruited out of high school.

In Johnny Be Good, the star quarterback of a small-town high school team, played by the slight Anthony Michael Hall, is wooed by the major college programs. In Texas, he’s thrown an elaborate beef feast, and an alumni wife takes him out to the 50-yard-line for some unsportsmanlike conduct. In California, he’s introduced to the women of Hollywood and comes back wearing an atrocity that makes him resemble, as someone puts it, a cross between Liberace and Prince’s mother.

None of this sits too well with his girlfriend (Uma Thurman) or his best friend (Robert Downey, Jr.), who realize he’s reneging on his previous decision to attend the state college in his hometown. And his coach (Paul Gleason), an appalling creature, has a job offer from a wealthy college contingent on Hall coming along, too.

This linear outline may leave a misleading impression of coherency. There is none in Johnny Be Good, not in the screenplay by Steve Zacharias, Jeff Buhai, and David Obst (the original Revenge of the Nerds boys), not in the director of Bud Smith. This movie is so bland and feeble, it looks like it might have been directed by a guy named Bud Smith.

Smith, a former editor whose first (and very likely last) directing job this is, has attempted to apply an improvisational quality to the movie, and he’s successful insofar as you never can be quite sure the actors knew what they were supposed to say when the cameras were turned on. Downey, recently capable in The Pick-Up Artist and Less Than Zero, is given to nonsense raps that fall into some pretty frightening dead air. Poor Hall, who was so funny in Sixteen Candles, has been encouraged to adopt a Bill Murray-like airiness, but he simply looks lost. Given the opening-day audience reaction, he is not alone.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Even in the company of other bad movies? This is a bad movie.


Rad

March 26, 2012

Any film calling itself Rad had best be taken with a grain of salt, regardless of its subject matter. As it happens, the subject matter of Rad constitutes probably the dorkiest storyline we’ve seen this year.

It’s all about the exciting world of BMX cross-country biking, in which a bunch of teenagers jump up and down, twirl, spin, and perform other herky-jerky maneuvers on their little bikes. I don’t even know what BMX stands for, if anything, so I’m not qualified to comment on the authenticity of the biking scenes. But they appeared mindless and improbable, which probably means they’re accurate.

The locale is a small American town (although the extras speak with Canadian accents), in which some money-grubbing businessmen decide to hold the world’s first BMX race, full of stunts and obstacles. The finest racers from the land are recruited, but the race seems fixed in favor of the world champ, who stands to win a fat contract from big-time sponsors if he wins.

But hold everything. Turns out there’s kid in town whose bike racing/twisting/jumping is totally awesome. Radical. Rad, if you will. He’s not about to take the fix lying down, even when the bad dudes try to change the rules on him. He qualifies for the race and the big showdown comes, as the actors go to their trailers for coffee and the stunt riders strap on their concealing helmets and go for it.

If you’ve seen Rocky, you know what happens. But director Hal Needham isn’t taking any chances—he’s even cast Mrs. Rocky, Talia Shire, as the hero’s mom. Naturally, it’s up to her to try to talk the kid out of it, as she does with the Rock.

But our hero doesn’t care that the college SATs are the same day as the qualifying heats. Man, he’s gotta race. And he gets some encouragement from an out-of-town girl who is a pro racer herself, and who quickly falls for the lad’s backwoods charm.

She also recognizes his talent: “It took me six months to airwalk; it took you one afternoon,” she says admiringly. Airwalking is something you do with your bike while arcing about 10 feet off the ground.

Needham, who used to direct Burt Reynolds’ down-home comedies, doesn’t even try to get around the corny storyline. Oddly enough, this tactic works. The movie may be ludicrous, but it has its entertaining moments. The leads are fresh, especially Lori Laughlin as the big-city girl who does a bike dance during the sock hop. Ray Walston and Jack Weston provide rather tired support as the pillars of the community.

Since the film doesn’t carry a disclaimer that says, “Professional bikers; please, don’t try this at home,” a lot of kids are probably going to wind up with collections of bumps and bruises, attempting to imitate the riders. When is somebody going to make a film that dramatizes the excitement and reward of studying for college SATs? That’d be radical.

First published in the Herald, April 1, 1986

I don’t know how I failed to mention that the competition is known as Helltrack, but somehow I did. (And by the way, it was shot in Calgary.) If you’re wondering how I didn’t know what BMX stood for, it was because this was before the Internet and I was frequently apart from any kind of research sources.

This is how I wrote about movies in 1986: I would go from an evening screening to the AP office across the street from both the Northwest Preview Room (a tiny little space for 35 mm. previews) and the Seattle Times building. I would walk into the office of the bureau chief and retrieve a slightly-larger-than-typewriter-sized box left there for the use of Seattle-based reporters for the Herald (as far as I could tell I was the only one). Sometimes I would nod to the AP reporters who sat there in their office; they must’ve wondered who I was and who set up such a cockeyed system (I was never without the cringy sense that I didn’t belong there, which encouraged me to write my reviews as quickly as possible). I would write a review on a teeny screen on this bulky black box, and when I was finished writing, would dial a telephone number (and some codes or something) and place the receiver on the phone-sized openings on the top of the machine, where it would screech and send the story. Then I would fold up the machine, place it back in its corner, and skulk out. I am sure this affected my writing in some strange way. All of this now seems like some kind of vaguely-remembered dream, thankfully long in the past.


Bull Durham

January 23, 2012

Sex and sports. Are these the crucial issues for human existence?

Possibly, and they certainly are important to Ron Shelton, a screenwriter who makes his directorial bow with Bull Durham.

Shelton wrote the script for The Best of Times (1986), a delightful little movie about marriage and football. In Bull Durham, he combines some man-woman stuff with a loving look at minor league baseball. The result is one of the most likable debuts in recent memory.

The movie is introduced by Annie (Susan Sarandon), a team follower who annually chooses one young member of the minor league Durham Bulls to—ah—guide and comfort during the season. For her, baseball is spiritual business (she notes that a baseball has 108 stitches and a rosary has 108 beads). This season, she’s chosen a rangy rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, recently seen as Jodie Foster’s protector in Five Corners), a kid with a cannon arm who’d rather fool around then concentrate on baseball. She gives him her “life wisdom” and a much-needed nickname, “Nuke.”

But then someone else arrives to help bring the kid along. Veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) joins the club to help the pitcher prepare for the majors (or “The Show”) in baseball talk). Crash is one of those guys who’ve bounced around the minors forever, or, as he says when he arrives in the clubhouse, “I’m the player to be named later.”

It doesn’t take long before Annie and Crash are sensing some mutual interest. But Annie has certain standards: “I am, within the framework of the baseball season, monogamous,” she says, so Crash must put up with her reluctance and with Nuke’s rowdiness.

The film bops around in a slightly shapeless but always agreeable way. Shelton’s work is recognizably that of a first-time director; there’s an extraneous line of dialogue here, an uncomfortable camera angle there. But for the most part his keen eye for human behavior carries the day.

Individual scenes click: Crash advises Nuke that “Clichés are your friends,” when it comes to answering bland post-game interviews, and provides a litany of examples; the players, who want a day off, induce a rainout by sneaking into the ballpark at night and turning on the sprinklers; and Annie creates her version of foreplay by tying Nuke to the bed and reading poetry to him (Annie: “Do you know Walt Whitman?” Nuke: “Who’s he play for?”)

Shelton’s got a good head for the feel and talk of baseball (there are some nifty, funny interior monologues that focus on what goes through a player’s mind when he is standing in the batter’s box or on the pitcher’s mound). It’s absolutely germane that this story is set in the minor leagues; as in The Best of Times, Shelton seems most interested in those characters who haven’t quite made it, and never will. That element lends Bull Durham a poignancy that never leaves the film, even when it’s at its flakiest.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The movie sure was welcome at the time, I’ll say that for it. Shelton seems to have become disenchanted with movies, or they with him, or something; I’m not sure what explains Hollywood Homicide, his last completed feature, which was a real bust on all counts.