Five Corners

November 8, 2012

Before John Patrick Shanley wrote the beautifully crafted, crowd-pleasing screenplay to Moonstruck, which has placed him among the hottest writers in the movies today, he wrote a script called Five Corners. This earlier piece, made into a film by producer-director Tony Bill, shares the New York setting and the ethnic flavor of Moonstruck.

Yet, despite the territorial similarities, it becomes clear early in Five Corners that this movie is a different serving of pasta. Here Shanley reveals his theatrical roots, for this film is like a small Off-Broadway play, full of absurdism and daring.

The Five Corners of the title refer to a section of the Bronx where different ethnic groups (and Shanley’s storylines) come together in 1964. The action is triggered by the prison release of Heinz, a brutal thug who was jailed for attempted rape.

Three other people were affected by the attack. Linda was the intended victim, and she assumes Heinz will come after her again. James is Linda’s estranged boyfriend, who was partially disabled when he tried to protect her from Heinz. Harry is another friend who had prevented the rape when he stepped in and “iced Heinz completely with a pitcher of beer.”

Now Harry’s a peaceful follower of Gandhi and Martin Luther King; he’s named his Saint Bernard “The Buddha.” Harry’s off to Mississippi to march for civil rights, but first Linda asks him for protection from Heinz.

This is the main matter of the film, but there are other elements at play. Occasionally intersecting with the central plot are the adventures of two spirited women (Elizabeth Berridge, Cathryn de Prume) as they lark through town. More bizarrely, an algebra teacher is felled by an arrow in the back as the film begins. The Bronx police are stumped. Says one: “Indians?”

Shanley’s script establishes an odd tone throughout, an absurdism that skitters from comedy to horror. For the most part, director Bill is true to this offbeat vision, staging things in an appropriately middle-range, deadpan style (aided by some topnotch photography by Fred Murphy, who recently shot The Dead). There’s an authentic sense of the rundown streets of the Bronx, particularly at an almost magical neighborhood fountain called “The Oval.”

This consistency of tone apples to the ensemble performances, too, especially the central quartet: Tim Robbins as Harry, Todd Graff as James, John Turturro as Heinz (the German name of this very Italian character remains a mystery), and Jodie Foster, as Linda.

Foster, who has a child was an exceptionally honest actress, is noteworthy. One can’t help but observe that her character’s situation (dreading the advances of an unwanted admirer) is queasily reminiscent of Foster’s own problems with the man who shot Ronald Reagan to get her attention, John Hinckley.

I think Five Corners is a tad too self-conscious to succeed at its many ambitions, but it’s good to have around, if only because Shanley’s conceit is usually restricted to the experimental theater. The inevitable question: When is this guy going to start directing his own scripts?

First published in the Herald, January 1988

Shanley did get to direct a in Hollywood two years later, and it was Joe Versus the Volcano, a very peculiar movie that has its fans. Then back to the theater as well as screenwriting, but he returned to the movie-director’s chair with Doubt, in 2008.


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.