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Baseball Movies

As a way of getting through the lull between baseball seasons, my son Daryl and I decided to join Netflix and rent baseball movies. Some descriptions are  from the IMDB website.

Bad News Bears (original, 1975 ONLY—no sequels or remakes, please!)
Maybe it’s because watching this with my kids when they were little made for quality time, but it remains my favorite baseball film to this day. All heart. With a very old Walter Matthau, a very young Tatum O’Neal, and an adorable buncha misfit kids.

A League of Their Own: Baseball and Feminism—what could be bad? Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks, Geena Davis. 1992.

The Fan: Wesley Snipes is Bobby Raeburn, an ace hitter recently sold to the SF Giants for $40 mil. “Robert DiNiro reprises his stock loser/psycho role, as Raeburn’s biggest fan, with predictable results.” Robert DiNiro, Wesley Snipes, Ellen Barkin, John Leguziamo.

Damn Yankees: “The devil steps in to grant the wish of an aging baseball fan who longs to see his losing team triumph.” Musical–this is where Ya Gotta Have Heart comes from. Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston. 1958.

The Babe: John Goodman plays Babe Ruth. A biopic that’s supposedly nowhere near the truth, most fans and critics hated it, but I love Goodman and I enjoyed it well enough.

Bull Durham: Sexy Susan Sarandon attends The Church of Baseball, where each season she takes a new player as her lover, mentoring him to improve his game. Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Kevin Costner.

The Natural: “An unknown middle-aged batter with a mysterious past appears out of nowhere to take a losing 1930s baseball team to the top of the league.” I found this exceedingly boring, despite the pretty actors: Robert Redford, Glenn Close. 1984.

Field of Dreams: The first time I saw this I felt like I was on a hallucinatory trip and cried from beginning to end. Now I find the whole thing sort of silly. Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Amy Madigan. 1989.

Fever Pitch: If I didn’t loathe the Red Sox this might be one of my top three favorites. Drew Barrymore long hairA loony Red Sox fan (are there any other kind?) consistently puts the team before his girlfriend. The idiot even rejects a trip to Paris so he won’t miss a game. With Jimmy Fallon and the incomparably luscious Drew Barrymore.

Angels in the Outfield I (1951): A young woman reporter blames the Pittsburgh Pirates’ losing streak on their obscenely abusive manager. While she attempts to learn more about him for her column, he begins hearing the voice of an angel promising help for the team if he’ll mend his ways. As he does so, an orphan girl who is a Pirates fan and has been praying for the team begins noticing angels on the ballfield. Sure enough, the Pirates start winning, and the manager turns his life around. Very Fifties. Paul Douglas, Janet Leigh. **

Angels in the Outfield II
(1994 ): I saw this before the original. Surprisingly—I usually prefer old classics to new mush—I liked this one better. The same idea more or less, but because of what film can do now, like show “angels” manipulating the players on the field, it’s more engaging. And Equal Opportunity Adoption gets a plug. Danny Glover is great, but the younger kid played by Milton Davis Jr. walks off with the whole movie. As he says all the time, “It could happen.” Brenda Fricker, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd. ****

The Stratton Story: Another fifties type film. Major League pitcher Monty Stratton loses a leg in a hunting accident, but becomes determined to leave the game on his own terms. James Stewart, June Allyson. This was a little low-key, but it’ll do if you’ve got the baseball jones bad enough. 1949. *

Bingo Long and the Traveling All-Stars: In director John Badham’s comedy, baseballers Bingo Long (Billy Dee Williams) and Leon Carter (James Earl Jones) lead a group of fellow black players defecting from the Negro League in 1939 thanks to their unethical, tightfisted team owners. The duo soon strikes out on their own, forming a barnstorming squad that squares off against their white counterparts in pickup games. Richard Pryor is among the familiar faces in the topnotch cast. This movie had its moments–but only moments. **

Brewster’s Millions: “Minor League ballplayer spends money to qualify for inheritance. Excellent daffy comedy with hard-working lead performances. This movie is a classic.” 1985. Richard Pryor, John Candy. Way fun. ***

Cobb: Ty Cobb was as crazy as they come. He was violent, racist, and misogynist, and thought he could do whatever he wanted because he was “the best baseball player ever.” Is that where the arrogance comes from? Seems to be. Tommy Lee Jones is a great actor, and he has a blast chewing up the scenery as Cobb. I might’ve liked the guy for being funny and a few other redeeming qualities, like supporting his ex-teammate, the alcoholic Mickey Cochrane,  if he hadn’t been so godawful bad to women. Here’s the IMDB summary:  “Non-reverential Hollywood biopic about one of baseball’s greatest players. Critically acclaimed lead performance draws in drama fans seeking strong character portrait.” (1994) Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl

Fear Strikes Out: True story of ballplayer battling mental illness and domineering father. “This dark drama, with its vivid lead performance, pleases classic drama fans, those seeking baseball movie without the usual cliches.” I liked this a lot; it’s the actors that made it. I kept wondering if Perkins was preparing for his iconic role in Psycho.  (1957) Anthony Perkins, Karl Malden.

Hustle: “An ESPN Original Movie about the true story of hit king Pete Rose and the allegations brought against him about betting on baseball. Nicknamed “Charlie Hustle” for his play on the field, Rose took that same aggressive reputation off the field which ultimately led to lifetime banishment from the game he loved.” (2004)

Major League: “High-spirited, upbeat baseball comedy/farce about underdog team that goes for the pennant. Critics frowned on formulaic plot, but this is one of the all-time best baseball comedies.” (1989) Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen.

Mr. Destiny: “Middle-aged, average Joe struck out in his final high school at bat. But with a little help, he gets to relive his shot at glory. This is an overlooked mainstream comedy which is funny, fantastical, and slapstick”–or so says IMDB. I found it pretty silly and mundane. (1990) James Belushi, Linda Hamilton. *

Pride of the Yankees: “Highly acclaimed, sentimental biopic about Lou Gehrig, the famed baseball player stricken with terminal disease. Much-loved, widely appealing, slow-moving drama remains a firm bet for lovers of pathos-tinged drama.” (1942) Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright. Slow-moving is right! Boring is more like it. Only real die-hard baseball history buffs will love it. *

The Scout: “Mood-swinging baseball movie about talent scout discovering teen phenomenon starts out as light comedy, abruptly becomes deeply sentimental drama. Best reserved for true baseball fans, due to its abundant baseball cameos.” (1994) Albert Brooks, Brendan Fraser. Eh. *

Soul of the Game: Black baseball greats Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson vie to be the first Afro-American major leaguer, only to see the outspoken rookie, Jackie Robinson, get chosen. (1996) Delroy Lindo, Mykelti Williamson, Blair Underwood. This movie has a lot of heart. It could have used a little more clarity–I wasn’t sure much of the time where we were in time and space. Still, this was one of the best of the bunch. The acting–Del Lindo especially–is superb. *****

Stealing Home: A washed-up baseball player is called back home to deal with his childhood sweatheart who committed suicide. There, he remembers the past and the relationship they had, and finds himself again. (1988) Mark Harmon, Jodie Foster.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: A tough woman takes over a turn-of-the-century baseball team, and has problems with a couple of her prize players until she sings their troubles away. (1949) Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly.

The Perfect Game: A real tearjerker, about a bunch of kids from a dirt poor Mexican town who make it into the US Little League World Series. More I cannot reveal, but have a box of tissues nearby.

Baseball: A film by Ken Burns. During this year’s off-season, I made the grave error of renting Ken Burns’ baseball documentary, a ten-disc production. I interspersed them with other movies, but as of this date only managed to see five–half the total. This overblown opus  is so godalmighty boring I keep moving them down down down on my Netflix list. Now, with a little over a month until baseball season, when I’ll be watching too many games to be renting so many films, I decided to move the baseball movie movies up the list, but I can hardly stand the prospect of watching any more of the Burns opus. Still, I feel like I have to finish – kind of like doing homework.

Happy Spring Training!


Tropic Thunder

Offensive? Absolutely.
Should it be boycotted or otherwise censored? Absolutely not.

After reading this paragraph about Tropic Thunder in a San Francisco Chronicle review I knew I had to see the film ASAP:

One of the best pieces of satire involves Speedman’s ill-fated starring role in a movie called “Simple Jack.” The jokes are clearly set up to make fun of actors who play mentally disabled characters in an attempt to get Oscars, not the disabled people themselves. Several advocacy groups have asked moviegoers to boycott “Tropic Thunder.” But if anything, it seems as if they should be protesting “Forrest Gump.” –Peter Hartlaub

I have intentionally never seen Forrest Gump: from the trailers I perceived the film to be a disgusting portrayal of a mentally disabled person. I even avoided the Academy Awards that year by going out to see an art film, unable to bear watching Tom Hanks give another weepy acceptance speech, as he did for his role in Philadelphia. Because Gump is so beloved by American movie-goers, it’s become something of an obsession with me, so when I heard  that Tropic Thunder pulverized it, nothing could stop me from going to see TT.

TT wasn’t half as hilarious as promised, though it had its side-splitting moments. As a big fan of both Jack Black and drug jokes, I cracked up over his version of a junkie in withdrawal. Unfortunately, Black is seriously upstaged by Ben Stiller’s gross [fr]antics and Robert Downey Jr’s stunning portrayal of an Australian actor playing an African-American. Not to mention over-the-top special effects and bombs bursting in air. This movie is truly a mixed bag.

The main characters are actors on the set of a war movie, and TT opens with a bunch of fake trailers showing each one’s last film. The Ben Stiller character, Tugg Speedman, starred in Simple Jack, clearly a satire of movies about mental retardation (i.e., FG), not of retardation itself. Satire always carries the risk of coming off as a mirror image of its subject, and I can see why people interpreted it that way in this case. Still, I didn’t think the movie so terribly offensive at this point.

But then Kirk Lazarus, played by Robert Downey Jr., admonishes Speedman for going full retard in his Simple Jack portrayal. He goes on and on, giving examples of actors who played mentally challenged characters without going full retard–Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Hanks in Gump. The point of this little lecture escaped me—whether because it was unclear or because I was cringing so much I don’t know—but it became obvious to me why disability activists went ballistic.

What’s telling is that the moviemakers were concerned enough about putting Downey in blackface that they consulted with African-Americans, yet didn’t bother to do the same with anyone in the disability community about Simple Jack. It never even occurred to them: like most able-bodied people, they’re utterly clueless in this area. People whose lives haven’t been touched by disability have no notion of the lives of people with disabilities and their families. As evidence just read some of the countless commentaries on Tropic Thunder telling disability activists to “lighten up,” or the clever new t-shirt slogan, Don’t go full retard.

Listen up, kids: Retard is not a noun; it’s a verb. When used as a noun it’s an insult. At this point in history, people who gasp with horror over the N word laughingly call each other retard without the least bit of compunction. They can’t imagine why it’s being called offensive. Actually, I’m not offended when I hear or read an insult to a person with a disability; I’m hurt. I first encountered this kind of mean, hurtful talk soon after giving birth to a child with a disability, and I was chided for being too sensitive. Those who don’t live with disability know nothing about this kind of language. I don’t point this out to excuse their ignorance, but rather to explain some of the disgusting discussion passing for dialog on this issue.

But movie boycotts are in general a bad idea. In the late 70s the gay community boycotted Cruising because it portrayed gay men’s culture as violent. To review it for a weekly newspaper, I crossed the picket line in front of the theater. Several of my friends were on that line, and I asked one of them how she could protest a film she hadn’t seen. Her response: “The word of gay and lesbian activists all across the country is good enough for me.” I was appalled—to publicly and vociferously object to a movie based on someone else’s evaluation struck me as utterly mindless. It still does, even if I agree that Tropic Thunder is mean and hurtful. People are always telling me I have no right to trash Forrest Gump if I didn’t see it—but at least I’m basing my opinion on having viewed several scenes from the movie, as well as having read a ton of reviews and criticism.

There’s another riff in Tropic Thunder related to disability that I haven’t heard anyone mention, possibly because it’s so baffling. Matthew McConaughey, who plays Speedman’s agent Rick Peck, seems to have a child who is in some way disabled. In one scene the child stands beside his father, who’s talking on the phone and says, “At least you get to pick him,” referring to adoption. Then, at the end of the film, Peck is flying home when the camera zooms in on the same child sitting across the aisle from him. What to make of this? Were the moviemakers trying, albeit lamely, to atone for all the retard jokes? I doubt they were, but if so, they missed the mark.

If anyone involved here had a shred of consciousness, they might have redeemed Tropic Thunder simply by showing Rick Peck and his child interacting in a loving way, especially since Peck is the only character in the film with half a conscience. But by throwing a disabled child into the mix without rhyme or reason, the moviemakers revealed more of their confusion about disability.

As negative as some of the chatter about Tropic Thunder is, the mere fact that it’s happening is a positive development. Disability and retardation aren’t topics usually discussed by the ill-informed, able-bodied population—in fact, most people assiduously avoid the topic as if they might catch something. The silence that surrounds disability speaks volumes. For this reason at least, calls for a boycott of Tropic Thunder are misguided. The dialog it’s inspired may be rife with insult rather than illumination, but somewhere along the way a few people just might end up becoming enlightened

November 24, 2008: I recently deleted a whole bunch of comments on my blog by mistake. There was a comment on this post questioning my assumption that Rick Peck’s son was supposed to be disabled. I don’t know if he was or not, but I am obviously not the only viewer who thought he might be: tons of visitors got here by searching under “Rick Peck’s son disabled?” or some variation of the phrase. So–I wish someone would comment if they have any knowledge or even just an opinion about it. — MS