Major League (1989, dir. by David S. Ward) and Major League II (1994, dir. by David S. Ward)


I’m so excited that baseball’s back!

The 2020 regular season of Major League Baseball is going to start on July 22nd and it’s going to last until September 27th.  The teams will play 60 games and the World Series will be held in October.  It’s an abbreviated season but there was no way to avoid that.  I’m just happy that there will at least be some games played this year.

Of course, as excited and happy as I am, I can’t deny that baseball almost always breaks my heart.  Just a few years ago, I was so excited when a Texas team finally won the World Series.  Later, we all found out that the Astros won because they cheated, which will forever taint both the legacy of the team and the MLB.  It breaks my heart to say it but, as far as I’m concerned, no Texas team has yet to legitimately win the World Series.

And then there’s the Rangers.  I’m a Rangers fan.  I love the Rangers.  I was so excited the two times that they made it to the World Series and I’ve never gotten over their loss to the Cardinals.  (Their loss to the Giants I can accept because the Giants were a great team and they earned their wins.  The Cardinals, on the other hand…)  Ever since 2012, though, the Rangers have always broken my heart.  It’s been a while since we’ve had a great Rangers season.  At the start of every season, though, I say, “This is our season!”  And no matter how badly things end, I always say, “Next season, we’re going all the way!”

I guess that’s why I love Major League.

Major League is the ultimate underdog baseball movie.  It’s a film about a fictional version of the Cleveland Indians.  Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), the new owner of the Indians, wants to move the team to Miami but to do that, she’s going to need to have the worst season ever, one where the team plays so badly and breaks so many hearts that even the most loyal fans stop coming to the games.  It shouldn’t be too hard since the Indians have’t even won a pennant in over 30 years.  But to make sure that it happens and that the team only wins 15 games over the entire season, Phelps recruits the worst players she can find.

The team that she puts together is made up of has-beens and never-weres.  Some of them have raw talent but none of them know how to play as a team.  Ex-con Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) has a killer fastball but is so near-sighted that he’s a danger whenever he steps on the mound.  Catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) is a veteran team leader but his knees are so bad that he can barely walk.  Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) is fast but can’t hit worth a damn.  Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) can hit home runs but only if the pitcher throws him a fastball.  Just as Rachel expected, the team struggles at first.  Even when they start to show signs of improvement, she cut back on their budget and sells their equipment, all to try to make winning impossible.  It’s only when their manager, ex-drywall salesman Lou Brown (James Gammon), tells them that Rachel wants them to lose that the team comes together and starts to win.

Everything that’s great about baseball can be found in Major League.  I love all the scenes with the fans slowly coming around to believing that maybe the Indians actually could win it all.  I’ve been through that so many times with the Rangers that I know exactly how they all felt.  I love the interactions between all the players on the team, from the new players eager to win to the veterans who just want to survive another season.  I love the scenes with the play-by-play announcer (Bob Uecker) trying to put a good spin on the way the team plays.  (All together: “Just a bit outside!”)  And mostly, I love that the film treats the game and its players with the respect that they deserve.  So many other films would have turned a character like born-again pitcher Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) into a punchline.  Instead, in Major League, he gets a standing ovation after he pitches his last game.  The best thing about Major League is that it loves baseball, both the games and the players.

Since Major League was a success at the box office, it was eventually followed by a sequel, Major League II.

Major League II picks up the season after the first movie ended and it tells the exact same story as the first film, just not as well.  Almost everyone from the first film is back (though Omar Epps takes over the role of Willie Mays Hayes from Wesley Snipes) but the charm and the chemistry from the first movie just aren’t there.  The players have to set aside their egos and learn how to play like a team all over again.  The main difference between the two movies is that it takes a lot longer for the Indians to start winning in the sequel than in the first film.  Plus, the sequel just isn’t as funny.

Even if the sequel is a let down, the first Major League is still one of the best baseball movies ever made.  If the Indians could win the pennant in Major League, maybe there’s hope for my Rangers yet!

A Movie A Day #68: Hoosiers (1986, directed by David Anspaugh)


I’m back!

Even though it has only been a week since I last did a movie a day, I feel like I’ve been gone forever.  Thank you to everyone who commented or messaged me while I was gone.  It turned out that I just had a bad sinus infection.  It was painful as Hell but, with the help of antibiotics and the greatest care in the world, I’m recovering.

Last week, I asked if anyone had any suggestions for what the 68th movie a day should be.  Case suggested Hoosiers and so it shall be.

In 1951, Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) arrives in the small Indiana town of Hickory.  He is a former college basketball coach who has been hired to coach the high school’s perennially struggling basketball team.  Emphasizing the fundamentals and demanding discipline from his players, Dale struggles at first with both the team and the townspeople.  When he makes an alcoholic former basketball star named Shooter (Dennis Hopper) an assistant coach, he nearly loses his job.  Eventually, though, the Hickory team starts winning and soon, this small town high school is playing for the state championship against highly favored South Bend High School.

For many people, Hoosiers is not just “a basketball movie.”  Instead, it is the basketball movie, the movie by which all other sport films are judged.  Hoosiers is inspired by a true story.  In 1954, small town Milan High School did defeat Muncie for the Indiana State Championship and they did it by two points.  Otherwise, Hoosiers is heavily fictionalized and manages to include almost every sports film cliché that has ever existed.  How good a coach is Norman Dale, really?  Almost every game that Hickory wins is won by only one basket.

Why, then, is Hoosiers a classic?  Much of it is due to director David Anspaugh’s attention to period and detail.  Some of it is due to Gene Hackman, who gives a tough and unsentimental performance.  Whenever Hoosiers starts to cross the line from sentimental to maudlin, Hackman is there to pull it back to reality with a gruff line delivery.  Even his romance with the one-note anti-basketball teacher (Barbara Hershey) works.  Hickory feels like a real place, with a real history and inhabited by real people.

And then there’s Dennis Hopper.  Along with Blue Velvet, Hoosiers was Hopper’s comeback film.  After spending twenty years lost in the Hollywood wilderness, better known for abusing drugs and shooting guns than acting, Hopper had just come out of rehab when he was offered the role of Shooter.  Amazingly, he turned the role down and told the producers to offer it to his friend, Harry Dean Stanton.

According to Peter L. Winkler’s Dennis Hopper: Portrait of an American Rebel, this is what happened next:

Stanton (who, ironically, was also considered for Hopper’s role in Blue Velvet) called Hopper up and asked, “Aren’t you from Kansas?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you have a hoop on your barn?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you may be the guy that David Anspaugh’s looking for.”

Harry Dean Stanton was right.  Dennis Hopper, still very much in recovery, totally inhabited the role of the alcoholic Shooter and gave one of the best performances of his often underrated career.  Both Shooter and the actor playing him surprised everyone by doing a good job and Hopper received his only Oscar nomination for acting for his performance in Hoosiers.  (He had previously been nominated for co-writing Easy Rider.)

You don’t have to like basketball to enjoy the Hell out of Hoosiers.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #96: A Simple Plan (dir by Sam Raimi)


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The 1998 film A Simple Plan reunites Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton.  After previously playing adversaries in One False Move, they played brothers here.  However, it’s not just the cast that makes A Simple Plan feel like a spiritual descendant of One False Move.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan deal with greed and violence.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan take place in a small town where everyone thinks that they know all there is to know about each other.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan feature Paxton as a man who turns out to be something more than what the viewer originally assumed.  Perhaps most importantly, both One False Move and A Simple Plan are meditations on guilt, greed, and community.

A Simple Plan takes place in Minnesota, in a world that seems to exist under a permanent layer of snow and ice.  While out hunting, Hank (Bill Paxton), his well-meaning but dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their redneck friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across an airplane that has crashed in the woods.  Inside the airplane, they find a dead pilot and a bag containing 4 million dollars.  At first, Hank says they should call the authorities and let them know what they’ve found but he rather easily allows Jacob and Lou to talk him out of it.  Instead, they agree that Hank will hide the money at his house until spring arrives.  They also agree to not tell anyone about the money but, as soon as he arrives home, Hank tells his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) everything that has happened.

Needless to say, this simple plan quickly get complicated.  Sarah is soon telling Hank that he should not trust Lou and Jacob.  The local sheriff (Chelcie Ross) saw Hank and Jacob leaving the woods after discovering the plane and may (or may not) be suspicious of what they found.  Alcoholic Lou starts to demand his share of the money early.  As things start to spiral, Hank finds himself doing things that he would have never thought he would ever do.  Or, as Sarah puts it, “Nobody’d ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”

And then, one day, a mysterious FBI agent (Gary Cole) shows up and says that he’s looking for the plane.  Except that, according to Sarah, he’s not really with the FBI…

It’s appropriate that A Simple Plan takes place in a world that appears to be permanently covered in snow because it is a film that is both chilly and chilling.  Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are both perfectly cast.  (Thornton received an Oscar nomination for his performance.  Paxton undoubtedly deserved one.)  Bridget Fonda turns Sarah into a small town Lady MacBeth and Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe, and Chelcie Ross are all memorable in smaller roles.

(Brent Biscoe, in particular, is a redneck nightmare.)

The next time that you want to contemplate the evil that is done in the name of money, why not start off with a double feature of One False Move and A Simple Plan?

 

Shattered Politics #63: Primary Colors (dir by Mike Nichols)


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Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state.  After spending his entire life in politics, Jack is finally ready to run for President.  Even more ready is his equally ambitious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).  Jack proves himself to be a strong candidate, a good speaker who understands the voters and who has the ability to project empathy for almost anyone’s situation. He’s managed to recruit a talented and dedicated campaign staff, including the flamboyant Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and journalist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester).  Henry is the son of a civil rights leader and, as soon as they meet, Jack talks about the first time that he ever heard Henry’s father speak.  Within minutes of first meeting him, Henry believes in Jack.

The problem, however, is that there are constant hints that Jack may not be worthy of his admiration.  There’s the fact that he’s a compulsive womanizer who is given to displays of temper and immaturity.  When one of Jack’s old friends reveals that Jack may have impregnated his daughter, Jack and Susan respond with a pragmatic ruthlessness that takes Henry by surprise.

When one of Jack’s mistresses threatens to go public, Henry is partnered up with Libby (Kathy Bates) and sent to dig up dirt on her and her sponsors.  When the former governor of Florida, Freddie Picker (Larry Hagman), emerges as a threat to derail Jack’s quest for the nomination, Henry and Libby are again assigned to research Picker’s background.  Libby is perhaps the film’s most interesting character.  Recovering from a mental breakdown, Libby has no trouble threatening to shoot one political opponent but she’s still vulnerable and idealistic enough that it truly hurts her when Jack and Susan repeatedly fail to live up to her ideals.  As an out lesbian, Libby is perhaps the only character who has no trouble revealing her true self and, because of her honesty, she is the one who suffers the most.

First released in 1998 and based on a novel by Joe Klein, Primary Colors is an entertaining and ultimately rather bittersweet dramedy about the American way of politics.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson may be playing Jack and Susan Stanton but it’s obvious from the start that they’re meant to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to Travolta’s attempt to sound Southern, this is ultimately one of his best performances.  As played by Travolta, Jack Stanton is charming, compassionate, self-centered, and ultimately, incredibly frustrating.  One reason why Primary Colors works is because we, as an audience, come to believe in Jack just as much as Henry does and then we come to be just as disillusioned as Libby.  Emma Thompson’s performance is a little less obviously based on Hillary.  Unlike Travolta, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Hillary’s voice or mannerisms.  But she perfectly captures the steely determination.

Primary Colors captures both the thrill of believing and the inevitability of disillusionment.  It’s definitely a film that I will rewatch in the days leading up to 2016.

Embracing the Melodrama #59: At Any Price (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


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With Embracing the Melodrama coming to a close (only two more reviews to go, including this one!), I want to take this opportunity to tell you about a good film from last year that didn’t get quite as much attention as it may have deserved.  The Iowa-set At Any Price is a look at greed, family secrets, and even murder in rural America.  It’s not a perfect film but it features a perfect lead performance from Dennis Quaid and it’s worth taking a chance on.

Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer who also works as a sales representative for the Liberty Seed Company.  Henry sells genetically modified seeds and one thing that this film gets absolutely right is just how cut-throat the seed business truly is in the heartland.  Henry is very proud to be the top seed salesman in the county, with only Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) coming close to matching him.  The film’s best scenes are the ones that follow Henry as he travels along his route, selling seeds, giving away candy bars, and always flashing his wide grin.  It’s only as the film progresses that we start to notice how desperate that grin really is.  Henry, we soon realize, is motivated mainly by greed and fear.  He’s the type of farmer who will go to a stranger’s funeral just to try to buy the deceased’s land.  Henry is also the type of guy who is willing to cut ethical corners to sell seeds as well.  As far as Henry is concerned, he’s only doing what he has to do to make sure that he has a successful business to pass on to his family.

Henry is all about his family and, while that may be his redemption, it’s also his family’s curse because Henry is something of a control freak.  Henry’s loyal wife (Kim Dickens) turns a blind eye to Henry’s mistress (Heather Graham).  Meanwhile, his oldest son has fled Iowa and moved down to South America.  Henry’s remaining son, Dean (Zac Efron), is more interested in pursuing a career in NASCAR than on the family farm.  Eventually, as the result of a shocking and almost random act of violence, Dean is forced to pick his future.

With both Neighbors and That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron has been reinventing himself as a skilled comedic actor.  Before that, however, he appeared in a series of movies that were meant to show his dramatic range, films like The Paperboy, Parkland, and this one.  These films ranged in quality from terrible to good but, in all of them, Zac Efron felt miscast.  Efron is the weak link in At Any Price.  Dean is supposed to be a character driven by both anger and a need to win (at any price — we have a title!) but when we look at Efron’s pretty blue eyes, we’re left with the impression that there’s not much going on behind them.

Far more effective is Dennis Quaid.  Quaid is so likable in the role that it takes a while to realize that Henry is essentially a monster.  And yet, you never totally lose your sympathy for him.  He has his own demons, demons that he’s passing down to his son.  The power of Quaid’s performance is that you can tell he knows he’s wrong but he just can’t stop himself.

At Any Price is a good farmland melodrama, full of beautiful landscapes and carefully observed details.  It’s not a perfect film but it is one worth watching for anyone who is wondering whatever happened to the American dream.

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