Tag Archive: movies

The Natural (1984)

Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by Robert Towne and Phil Dusenberry; adapted from the novel by Bernard Malamud

“And then?  And then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said, ‘there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.'”

Sports movies always have a particular effect on the American public because of how closely we associate the games that we love to play with our own humanity.  Competition that brings out the best in us, idolatry of those that are truly the best pitchers, quarterbacks or point guards that have ever played, and the sheer wonder that comes from watching and enjoying.

The Natural is unlike any sports film of any era.  Just keeping to the baseball genre, I would describe baseball’s best entry into film, Field of Dreams from 1991 – part of the “Kevin Coster Can Do No Wrong” era of the early nineties – as a reunification of estranged father and son through their mutual love of baseball.  The numerous excellent baseball biopics of the last twenty-five years – Eight Men Out in 1988, Cobb in 1994 and the wonderfully canned and seminal The Pride of the Yankees in 1942 starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. – have shown that American has devoted its best filmmaking in sports to the baseball medium.

Based on a fictional work by Bernard Malamud, which is in turn loosely based on two cases in baseball history that mirror its overall plot, The Natural focuses on something much more important than baseball’s players or their frequently tainted stats.  It looks at the sport’s mythos; the tradition and lore of a game that at one time was one of the most astonishing aspects of our still-new and thriving country, and the wonder that to this day is still associated with a game that’s so inextricably linked to the roots of our culture as Americans.

Robert Redford, the  most all-American actor of his day and the cinematic descendants of Cooper and James Stewart, plays the film’s main focus – Roy Hobbs – a 19-year old pitching maven with a beautiful blond girlfriend (Glenn Close)  from midwest America who is invited to tryout with the professionals.

Young and naive, Hobbs is falls prey to the allure of a mysterious woman (played briefly but oh-so-memorably by Barbara Hershey), who enchants him with her furtive gestures and interest in how great he will someday be.  Hobbs, enamored, doesn’t see the madness in the woman’s eyes and before he knows it becomes a victim to the woman’s insanity in a sudden burst of violence that sidetracks what we as the audience and Hobbs  know remorsefully could have been the best career ever.

The heavy thematic presence of fate and God-given talent not to be denied by man comes through time and time again in The Natural‘s plot, and was not a small source of derision for many critics of the time.  In obscurity for 16 years, Hobbs suddenly comes to New York and subtly demands to be put on a team – as though he has a time limit on his 35-year-old body – and gets a sudden chance to start when the right-fielder (Michael Madsen in an early role) is killed in a freak accident on the field.

Given the opportunity, Hobbs becomes the best player in any league and leads his new team – the hapless New York Knights – to a sudden surge of wins.  His streak is only diverted by the arrival of a beautiful young woman (Kim Basinger), whose prettiness is a front for her subversiveness, as she is being paid and pampered by the Knights’ management to throw Hobbs off his game because – as true baseball villains – they have money betting against their own franchise.

Hobbs, naturally, is easily swayed by the film’s sirens, which brings up Homeric themes to go with others.  His hitting slump leaving fans wondering if he was just a flash in the pan, he travels with the team to play the White Sox.  Halfway to striking out, Hobbs glances in the crowd and sees a white-clad woman illuminated in sunlight.  After seeing the vision, Hobbs bullets a game-winning home run that blows apart the scoreboard.  The vision turns out to be his long-lost girlfriend Iris, who lives in Chicago with her son and for some reason carries an oblivious torch in Hobbs and his future that the oblivious farmboy cannot connect the dots to.

Back in New York, Hobbs is still enchanted by his meeting with his sweetheart of old and thus loses the heavy interest he was had in the siren, Memo.  His play goes back to his true form and thus Memo is forced to resort to more blatant methods.

Recovering in the hospital from poisoning, the doctors uncover a relic from long ago still lodged in his stomach, something that the doctors say will kill him if he plays just one more game.  Incidentally, the Knights – now in the championship against Pittsburgh – have lost every game without Hobbs and have one more chance before they lose the pennant.

Hobbs battles through the pain and comes to the game just when his team needs him.

The film’s conclusion rests firmly -and deservedly – in sports’ film lore.  As Hobbs slumps and his stomach wound – a decades-old reminder of past misfortune – causes him to play poorly, he learns that Iris’ son – his son – is watching.  His final, pennant-winning, lightning-aided home run that crashes into the overhead lights, sending a cascade of exploding glass and sparks down on the field as he rounds the bases, is cinematic glory.

The beauty of the natural, shot by veteran American Zoetrope cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, is one part period imagery and the other part an unabashed script that hearkens back to the sports’ golden age.

Hobbs’ naive but pure love of the game is put up against the dishonest, truly unsportsmanlike chattering of surreptitious gambling and fixed-gaming.  The sudden detour early-on from a baseball career set inevitably in motion from Hobbs’ youth comes back to him at age 35, giving him a second chance at glory and redemption.

These are much-clichéd theses in film and especially in the not tiny subgenre of baseball cinema, but The Natural did it better than any mimicker.  Redford’s iconic, idolized performance is filled with nuances and script truisms that would sink a less-honest actor.  Glenn Close’s angelic portrayal of Iris, reserved, wise but nevertheless full of love and support – never giving Hobbs what she knows he has to realize himself – is beautiful.  Drenched at times in sepia tones, the film’s beginning and ending – a classic game of catch amongst the tall hayfields of rural America – hearkens to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven in 1978 – and is portrait-like in its imagery and gravitas.

The film’s ode to the innocence and virtue of baseball is palpable, and at times very touching.  Before he goes out of the locker room to play the game of baseball that might be his last, Hobbs is stopped by manager Pop Fisher (a soft moment by burly actor Wilford Brimley).  Having constantly complained of his station as manager of the worst team in the league, Pop echoes earlier sentiments when he says to Hobbs, “My mother always wanted me to be a farmer.”

Answering straight and true, Hobbs responds, “My dad wanted me to be a baseball player.”

The father-son theme, touched upon briefly when we see, muted, his father collapsing outside after a game of catch, is always a resounding motif.  Following his father’s death a young Hobbs watches a tree in the backyard suddenly get struck by lightning.  In true baseball mythos, he fashions the fallen, mystical branch into a bat – Wonderboy – which becomes part of his folklore as Hobbs climbs the ranks.

Struggling in the final game of the pennant, Hobbs hits what he thinks is a sure home run, but it moves depairingly down the foul line.  What’s worse, Wonderboy breaks in two on the hit.  Hobbs asks the ballboy, Billy Savoy, to pick him out a winner as he steps up to the plate.  He is given the boy’s own homemade bat, the one Hobbs taught him how to make, with “Savoy Special” etched along the side like Wonderboy.  They both smile at each other, Hobbs in thanks and Savoy in heartfelt, innocent adoration and Hobbs uses the bat to win the game.

These poignant moments do more than pull at heartstrings.  They are part of something much larger in the plot; a throwback to a time when the tossing of a ball from father to son was a mandatory aspect of growing up, when cheating in sports was unfathomable, and when talents shown by superhuman players were, the term having a greater meaning back then, God-given.

The Natural is a wonderful chestnut of cinema and one of the most resonant sports films.  It’s a film that reminds us of a heritage we may have forgotten that is steeped into our culture, and of an unadulterated honest love of the game that hearkens back to simpler times, but perhaps times that we can learn from in our present.

Images courtesy of imdb.com, blogs.amctv.com and getfilm.co.uk, respectively.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Angela Bassett

Written and Directed by John Singleton

“How to survive in South Central,
A place where bustin a cap is fundamental..”

How To Survive in South Central, by Ice Cube

It is often forgotten that  the first African-American director nominated for an Academy Award was not Spike Lee, but John Singleton, all of 24 years’ old when his message-laden, South Central Los Angeles-set ballad of three black youths all gravitating towards different extremes premiered at Cannes in 1991, immediately placed in the festival’s Un Certain Regard category.

The film, entirely set in Singleton’s home of South Central Los Angeles – the “Hood” of the title – begins in the mid-80s, where young Tré Styles lives with his mother, Reva (Angela Bassett).  Following a roughhousing incident at school, Reva reluctantly and tearfully sends Tré to his father’s in the neighborhood of Crenshaw, knowing full well that his hard-nosed father will be the best thing for the young, bad-tempered boy.

Laurence Fishburne plays Mr. Furious Styles, the mindful, strong-willed and wise father of Tré and the voice of Singleton himself, whose most important messages come from the deep, conscionable baritone of Fishburne.  He is a rarity in the Hood of the film’s title, a single father in a neighborhood of single mothers with multiple children from different, A.W.O.L. fathers, and he knows this.  His method of raising Tré is rigidly strong and unforgiving, with a network of chores and rules.  But his love is equally as strong, and his manner and mode stresses the film’s early theme that the tough love only a boy’s father can give will lead him to making good decisions while his friends around him fall victim to the Hood’s  violence and stifling temptations.

His best friends Doughboy and Ricky, half-brothers, are archetypes of the only routes a life in the Hood offers.  Doughboy, overweight and lazy, is scolded and berated by his mother constantly, while she looks with a gleaming and supportive eye to Ricky, who hopes to play football when he gets older.

But outside of the home and on the street, Doughboy is smart, already knowing that the blood-stained alleys and weed-choked abandoned tracks of the Hood is a road you can’t tread without constantly looking over your shoulder.  Ricky, however, is naïve in his blind trust.  When an older gangbanger asks for Ricky’s football, promising to give it back, Ricky gives it to him at the ignorance of Doughboy’s warnings, and it’s promptly stolen.  Despite being outmatched and outnumbered, Doughboy demands the ball back.  He is promptly beaten, and tells everyone angrily that he’s going to the store, even though he has no money.  Later that day, following a trip to the beach by Tré with his father, Doughboy is seen leaving his house in handcuffs, destined for a stint in juvenile detention for shoplifting.

Seven years later Tré, now a senior in high school, goes to a “Welcome Home” party for Doughboy, who has just finished what we’re led to believe is the most recent in a series of stints in prison.  Ricky, a star running back at Crenshaw High, is a teenage father whose young son and girlfriend live with him at his mothers, while Doughboy and his cadre of no-hopers spend most of every day hanging around on the porch, drinking Olde English and occasionally making drug deals.

The coming-of-age tale is deepened by discussions of gentrification, sexual responsibility and teen pregnancy, dealt with in realistic conversations between Tré and Furious, as well as through brief montages showing quickly how each friend is progressing, or in Doughboy’s case degressing, as a boy in the hood.

Tré, a good student who has stayed out of trouble in the last seven years, is eager to leave Crenshaw for something better.  He is equally eager to spend his life with his young girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long), who despite earning his frustrated ire at her Catholic school scruples, knows when he is trying to be tough – it’s hard not to in the claustrophobic clime of the Hood when morals mean weakness – and when he is genuine.  Ricky, scholarship material for local universities such as USC, needs only to get above 700 on his S.A.Ts and he is in good standing for a free ride as a Trojan.

Doughboy, nihilistic, callous and eager to show off how hard he is, makes a thoughtless decision – one perpetrated by any young man with a gun looking to show his grit – at a nighttime street race with Ricky and Tré, the result of which will lead to the film’s inevitable heartbreaking climax, a reminder that a coming-of-age tale in the Hood is no fairytale.  Boyz’s powerful conclusion –encased in a twenty-minute shell of grief, retribution, responsibility and sacrifice – is steeped in the powerful points that Singleton strives to make throughout the film.  These include reinforcements of South Central Los Angeles’ chronic hopelessness (“One out of every twenty-one African Americans will be murdered in their lifetime,” Singleton displays in bold before the film’s opening titles), but also important and incredible timely wisdom (“Any fool with a dick can make a baby, but only a real man can be a father to his children,” Furious tells Tré).

Heading the cast with incredible depth is Cuba Gooding, Jr., who plays Tré, a young man forced to grow up much too fast in his volatile neighborhood and struggling to keep his sanity amongst the unthinkable.  Morris Chestnut plays Ricky with sweetness and a chivalric attribute rare in his environment – and unable to last long in.

But the true star of the film in both performance and cultural significance is O’Shea Jackson, known better by his stage name of Ice Cube.  His performance in the role of Doughboy is iconic, and his rap-star credence helps to add an incredibly raw look and feel to his character.  He is the high school drop-out, born in a broken home and in and out of prison.  He is the product of his environment, the standard of how willful and accidental government ignorance at that time led to the destitution of the African-American male in the poorly policed L.A. cesspools of aggression and brutality.  Doughboy’s presence in this seemingly endless cycle of drugs, booze, destroy-ourselves-from-within and violence-begetting-violence isn’t a choice for him; it’s life, the only world he knows.

Following the film’s climax, a degenerating spiral so obviously destined for heartbreak its suspense forms a claustrophobic, gut-wrenching nightmare, Doughboy and his pals go out looking for vengeance against a group of hoods.

Almost giving up the search, Doughboy spots them eating burgers after committing a horrific senseless act of violence.  They sneak up on them and deliver retribution as only the streets can afford.  The semi-satisfying vengeance and earned reprisal is depressing in how it doesn’t heal the aching wound of the film’s climax, but only serves to reinforce the film’s main pleas.

In this, Singleton achieves what countless screenwriters and directors have failed to achieve using the medium of film as their labor of love – relaying a real message.

In October of 1990 Singleton gathered the funds, prepped his script and started working on Boyz N The Hood, just five months after his graduation from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.  To ensure maximum realism he filmed its entirety in South Central neighborhoods – helping to raise awareness for film in the area by starting the South Central Cinema company – and also hired several gang members as consultants to give his film a credible and current look and feel, taking their advice on street dialogue and wardrobe to the extreme.  The majority of his extras were also real-life residents of the most violent areas of South Central, communities like Compton, Watts and Inglewood.

Following its triumphant debut – Singleton’s first as director – on the worldwide cinema scene and its Cannes citation, Boyz n the Hood went to the 64th Academy Awards with nominations for Singleton in both Best Director and Best Original Screenplay – where he lost to The Silence of the Lambs and Callie Khouri’s script for Thelma & Louise, respectively.  The film has gone on to become a cultural landmark, deemed significant enough for the Library of Congress to preserve it in the National Film Registry in 2002.  It’s tackling of real-world problems in a place many white Americans wouldn’t be familiar with until the Rodney King verdict and subsequent riots was unprecedented, as were its many ideas posed to the very community it depicted.

“My main message is that African-American men have to take more responsibility for raising their children, especially their boys,” Singleton later said of the theme he worked heaviest on.  “Fathers have to teach their boys to be men.”

This message, as well as others, works well for a variety of reasons, most of all Singleton’s development of meaningful, diverse and authentic characters, which bring the audience into the real scope of their suffering, their raw drama.

Even Doughboy, so often serving as the lost-cause, no-hope warning aspect of the film, has some important words.

“Did ya’ll get ‘em?” Tré asks Doughboy the morning after the night’s terrible events.  Doughboy gives him a look, to which Tré looks away from, down at his shoes.

“I don’t know how I feel about it either, man,” Doughboy explains suddenly on his own.  “Shit just goes on and on, y’know?”

Doughboy knows that he’s punched his clock in, that for all intents and purposes he’s sealed his fate, he’s accepted that it’s a life he’s lived and that he’s perpetrated and there isn’t any going back.  But for Tré, Doughboy knows there’s a lot more, and doesn’t want to see him get stuck in the same chokehold – the proverbial bird with the scarlet, rippling colors getting its feathers ruffled in a cage.

Doughboy walks away from the curb and in a trick of film slowly fades away, while Singleton explains in bold that he is murdered two weeks after the incident of the film’s conclusion.  Tré, standing at the porch, seems to look around anxiously for a second, trying to find out where Doughboy went.  Where his friends went.  Where his youth went.

This subtlety is heartbreaking, powerful, and unabashedly thematic.  Like the film itself.

Images courtesy of 1001plus.blogspot.com and flixster.com, respectively.

Cromwell (1970)

Starring Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Douglas Wilmer

Written and directed by Ken Hughes

It’s very difficult to make a historical interpretation for the silver screen that is both commercially successful and historically accurate.

It’s not that history itself isn’t interesting enough.  There are thousands of stories – whether wide sweeping gestures of great men’s great accomplishments, or the individual efforts that often get left behind by time’s pages – that often outdo fiction.  But the audience is a fickle sort (or perhaps I should say the all-too-assuming producers are?), and in order to sell the next great epic many changes to what we know as historical fact are made.  In effect, what isn’t chopped out completely is altered and colored to fit both political correctness as well as a myriad other factors that reflect the current age.

Cromwell is known by many – but not too many considering that the 1970 film goes pretty much unmentioned in most circles – as a film that not only takes historical shortcuts, but rewrites both chronology and fact itself.

Oliver Cromwell is a historical character even those with a small education in English history know a little about.  He was covered with warts, viciously anti-Catholic, occasionally cruel, and power-hungry.  He raised an army that took control of England, beheaded its King, and became England’s first non-Royal leader since Saxon days.

But Cromwell didn’t look like Richard Harris, didn’t speak with Harris’ Irish lilt that the actor almost successfully covers up, and while he most certainly walked around with assumptive authority, it was more of a waddle than a typical Harris strut.

But more potentially damning than the character is the characterization.

Cromwell’s very demeanor, look and opinions are polished and buffed to encompass a true patriot of democracy and staunch advocate of the common folk.

Cromwell is shown in the film as a devout lord, supportive of all things England – including its king, Charles I, before the unscrupulous, totalitarian tactics of said King drive him to Parliament.  There he moves from neutrality to extremism in mere moments, becomes not only a rebel leader but an overnight military genius while leading his own army, and eventually arrests the King himself for treason.

The reconstructed history lesson is also rife with ashamedly heavy-handed directorial tactics that put Cromwell on hero display.

Before battle, Cromwell looks into the camera and says something wonderfully anecdotal that is actually historically attributable to a knight from the Royalist side.  The battle of Naseby – the most important battle in the war – is rearranged so that Cromwell’s army is outnumbered by the King’s to a tune of 3:1.  In actuality, it was the Royalists who were the ones heavily outnumbered.

And before that battle, an aide, panic-stricken, remarks on the heavy enemy numbers. Cromwell, calm, retorts, “And was Gideon not outnumbered when he fought the Amalekites?”  Consulting the Bible for the first time since after-mass Catholic school, I found that Gideon warred against the heavy numbers of the Midianites, not Amalekites.

So why am I even writing about this movie?  It takes more artistic license than 2000’s bloody mess The Patriot, and casts an actor almost as unlike his title role as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror.

Guinness as the soft spoken, extravagant, and arrogantly stubborn Charles is a pitch-perfect representation of the King.  From his sad-looking, hooded eyes to his high forehead and culture-defining mustache, he looks the part better than any actor who ever attempted to play an English monarch.

And in the way he carries himself as Charles, the only plausible explanation for the success is that the production team must have traveled back to 1644 and nabbed the King as Guinness’s assistant.

The King is equal parts annoying and affecting, impossibly frustrating and yet, very relatable.  He refuses to listen to reason from his closest advisors, to the point that they are forced to turn against him.  He politely agrees to parley with dominant forces – whose tolerance for the monarchy hangs on a crumbling ledge – only to secretly plot another war against them.  He stands firm on a subject, but then immediately submits to the whispers of his French wife, as his monarchy and England crumbles around him.

And yet, there is pity and, yes, even a quiet reverence for him.  He was raised to believe he was chosen by God, that his rule is ordained and his word Gospel, and yet his kingdom’s people rally against him.  His inability to give power to Parliament is frustrating, almost to the point of stupidity, but seeing as how the monarchy had heretofore been the law of the land, one can’t help but understand.

When Charles is sentenced to death for treason – something the viewer expected as inevitability from the beginning –  Guinness’s shocked and deeply hurt face prompts us to reconsider what is actually happening, to realize how unprecedented, how devastating such an occurrence is.  The tragedy is in Charles’ own inability to reason and compromise, yes, but also in the fact that the unrivaled leader of an entire country was put onto trial and beheaded like a peasant thug.

So, yes, I credit Guinness’s role for how much I turned out liking Cromwell.  His role as stuttering, effeminate Charles fitted the antagonist slot well, opening up the requisite Cromwell characterization and dramatic plot turns, but  the side story concerning the King, his family and his chamber were the most effective parts of the movie.

Guinness’s acting did more wonders than the producers maybe imagined.  By being so effective in his own role, he overshadowed the shortcomings of other actors, whose roles, not talent, were questionable at times.  In contrast, his effectiveness in his own role allowed Cromwell to transcend the porous history it was stretching thin, adding credence and reassurance to a period drama so that the writing didn’t necessarily have to.  Nowadays I call this the “Hopkins Solution”; using a peerless legend to concrete a shaky period film.  Back then, it was all Guinness.

Cromwell wasn’t accurate, no, but as a period drama it was incredibly engrossing.  Its politics submerged the viewer into a rarely visited 17th century world of intrigue, while the bullheaded, testosterone-filled bouts of egomaniacy kept the suspense crackling.

And all it took was the tireless efforts of one of England – and the world’s – greatest thespians to turn a potentially lackluster drama, into a damn fine one.

Images courtesy of http://shillspages.com, www.guardian.co.uk and http://www.starwarped.net