erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2013 posts

Monday May 13, 2013

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticising a movie,” he said, “have at.”

That would be a good opening for a scathing review of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” but this isn’t a scathing review. I actually liked the movie. For all the complaints I’ve heard about the director’s over-the-top, “Moulin Rouge” style, as well as the anachronism of hip-hop in the 1920s and the absurdity of jazz trumpeters on sweaty New York fire escapes, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is about as faithful a literary adaptation as you’re going to get. It brings to life one of the great American novels.

The love light in Leo’s eyes
For one, we get to hear, and sometimes see on the screen, F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s words. The movie’s conceit is that after all that’s happened Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is in a sanitarium, and he’s telling the doctor his story, and soon the doctor recommends that Nick, a once-budding writer, write it all down, as therapy, which accounts for the literary tone of the subsequent narration. The Great Gatsby (2013) posterOne can’t, after all, describe the valley of ashes, brooded over by the giant eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, oculist, without sounding written. Let alone “boats against the current.”

Casting helps, too. Neither Alan Ladd (1949) nor Robert Redford (1974) seemed like men who would sacrifice everything for love, but Leonardo DiCaprio has always had the love light in his eyes. He’s Jack Dawson and Romeo, baby. He’s also played charlatan (“Catch Me If You Can”) and obsessed rich man (Howard Hughes, “The Aviator”), and combine them all and you get Jay Gatsby. The one moment he falters is when he turns on Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) with an expression on his face “as if he had killed a man.” We’re supposed to see a hidden Gatsby revealed here. But Leo doesn’t have that in him. There’s anger in his eyes, not murder.

I always imagined Nick Carraway taller than Tobey Maguire but the actor does seem like someone inclined to reserve judgment, a genial type who is the victim of not a few veteran bores. Edgerton is good, too, but… Isn’t his face too working-class for Old Money? He needs to be sleeker. Apparently Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper were considered for the role. I’d have gone Cooper.

But the casting move that leapt out at me when I first saw the trailer was Carey Mulligan. I always think of Daisy as spoiled and frivolous and kind of awful, yet there’s something inherently sweet about Mulligan. In the film, with her vulnerable eyes, she seems as deeply in love with Gatsby as Gatsby is with her. With this casting move, Luhrmann, the romanticist, turns “Gatsby” into a love story, which it is. But he turns it into a mutual love story, which … Well, we can have our arguments, and it’s been about 10 years since I last read the book cover-to-cover, but “The Great Gatsby” always felt like an unrequited love story to me. It felt like the story of a man who was deeply in love with a woman who was unworthy of that love. (See also: “The Sun Also Rises.”) It felt like the story of a man who takes 99 giant steps toward a woman and the woman who won’t take the one small necessary step toward him.

Gatsby’s great mistake
Or is that step more than small? Luhrmann makes clear that all of Gatsby’s great schemes unravel because, just as his love has demanded much of him, he demands much of his love. He demands from Daisy the absolute: the notion that she never loved Tom. And in that hot New York apartment, where Tom and Gatsby vie for Daisy, and Nick and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to watch, she can’t give him the purity of the absolute. “I did love him once,” she tells Gatsby, in words straight from the novel, “but I loved you, too!”

“You loved me … too?”

DiCaprio gives this a great line-reading. You sense the awfulness of that last word. The deflation in him. The realization of how uncentral he was to her even as she was too central to him. She was the blinking green light at the end of his dock; the woman for whom he created and gave up everything.

That’s Gatsby’s great mistake—the need for the absolute—as it’s the mistake of many young men in love, as it was my mistake when I was young and in love. That love is a greedy kind of love. If Daisy had acquiesced to it here, it would have demanded more of her and eventually consumed them in some other way.

But does a more sympathetic Daisy create a problem with the story? When Nick tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together,” and when he tells us in voiceover, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and returned to their money…” it feels like he’s talking about a different Daisy than the one we’ve been watching for two hours. It feels like he’s blaming her for the one thing—the hit-and-run, which mostly occurs off-screen—when in the novel he’s blaming her for much more than that.

Tom, of course, is beyond sympathy. He’s the most unsympathetic cuckold in literature. He’s a racist and an adulterer and a meanspirited Old Money bastard fearful of losing his exalted place in the world. He cheats on Daisy with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), and, in another careless moment, breaks Myrtle’s nose. He doesn’t know or care what other people do, doesn’t know or care what’s going on in the world. When True Love threatens his marriage, he fights back, not because he necessarily loves Daisy, but simply for the fight. To not lose his exalted place in the world. To not lose to New Money.

Why ‘Great’?
I had questions watching the movie that I never had reading the novel. Jordan tells Nick, “He threw all those parties hoping she’d wander in one night.” So why doesn’t she? Isn’t that odd? That she’d never check out this Gatsby? I mean, is it the West Egg/East Egg thing? Old Money versus New? Robber barons versus bootleggers? Is she waiting for an invitation like Nick receives? Why doesn’t he send her one?

The story is as much about class (both kinds) as it is about love. It’s about the people who have to be careful versus the people who can afford to be careless. Tom carelessly has an affair with Myrtle, and Myrtle carelessly runs out into the middle of the road to flag him down, and Daisy carelessly runs over Myrtle and keeps driving, and all of this carelessness upends Gatsby’s carefully constructed dream. In the end, Gatsby waits for love and gets a bullet in the back. This is Tom’s carefully constructed moment. He implies to Myrtle’s husband, Wilson (Jason Clarke), that the man who ran down Myrtle was the man who had an affair with her, when it was he who had the affair with her and it was Daisy who ran down Myrtle. Gatsby pays for their crimes. He has his own crimes—his work with gangster/bootlegger Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan), as well as the overwhelming burden of his love—but he pays for theirs.  

I don’t buy the sanitarium bit in the movie (Nick seems too level-headed) and I wondered about the lost relationship between Nick and Jordan (although I didn’t miss it), but I liked the ending. Nick finishes his story, this story, and puts it in his briefcase. He looks at the title: GATSBY. Then, in pen, above, he adds a final touch: THE GREAT.

Why ‘Great’? Because Gatsby was worth the whole damn lot of them. Because he thought big, and grandly, about love—a worthy pursuit. The green light blinked on and off but his love was constant.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is great, Baz Luhrmann’s isn’t, but it’s not bad. It’s not bad at all, old sport.

Posted at 07:21 AM on May 13, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday May 04, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Well, it’s not as bad as “Spider-Man 3” or “X-Men 3,” but I wasn’t exactly happy leaving the theater.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) begins “Iron Man 3” in a confessional mood, recounting, before we even see anything on the screen, the evening of December 31, 1999, Y2K Day, when, in a grand hotel in Bern, Switzerland, he inadvertently makes enemies. “A famous man once said we create our own demons,” he tells us in the dark, and then we witness the demons in utero: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a long-haired, bespectacled bundle of hero worship and nerves and spittle, whom Tony promises to meet on the rooftop of the hotel and then blows off; and Maya Hanson (Rebecca Hall), a cute, full-lipped botanist, the reason for the blow-off, who becomes one of Tony’s many, many one-night stands. Both harbor grudges as a result. Both become what they become. Question: Since Tony’s actions here are hardly reprehensible—he sleeps with a good-looking girl and uses subterfuge to avoid a crazy fan—how many other demons has he created over the years? Will we find out in “IV,” “V,” and “VI”? Please no.

Iron Man 3 posterTony ends “Iron Man 3” in a confessional mood, too. Post-credits, we discover he’s been telling this entire story, in Alexander Portnoy fashion, patient to psychiatrist, to his old “Avengers” pal, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who has a few confessions of his own. He tells Tony he’s not exactly a psychiatrist. He also admits he fell asleep two minutes into the story. Wucka wucka.

It’s supposed to be the final joke of the movie but is the final joke on us? We just shelled out $10 to $15 to watch something its creators admit puts people to sleep. How confident in your product do you have to be to do that? How obtuse? How cynical?

There’s a moviegoer born every minute.

An empty suit
In the modern world, it’s post-“Avengers,” and Tony Stark is having anxiety issues. He’s like Hamlet: He could count himself a king of infinite space were it not that he had bad dreams. Like Hamlet, he shuts himself off from the world. Unlike Hamlet, he tinkers with armor in his basement. He’s upping his tech in gee-whiz, CGI ways that probably dazzle the kids in the audience but do nothing for me. Instead of stepping into and out of his Iron Man suit—a bit I always liked—he’s now able to call the various parts of the suit to his body. This new technology is not without its bugs. Cue groin shot. Cue Mr. B saying, “But ‘Football in the Groin’ has a football in the groin.”

Tony’s also working on a virtual suit. Iron Man is walking around, or flying around, but Tony’s elsewhere doing the controlling. Iron Man is simply an empty suit. Hold that thought.

Tony’s other problem is Pepper Potts, and not just because she’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Pepper is now running Stark Industries but Tony isn’t paying enough attention to her. That trope. Plus, of course, there’s another suitor, Aldrich Killian, all spiffed up now, with doo-dads of his own. Balls even. He rolls them on a coffee table and suddenly the universe is lit up on the ceiling of Pepper’s office. He presses a button and now it’s a map of his brain. He guides Pepper, who’s starstruck, or brainstruck, the way lothario tennis pros guide the backhands of bored housewives. How confident does he have to be in his product to do that? How obtuse does she have to be not to realize what’s going on?

Elsewhere, a villain named the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) keeps breaking into network television to broadcast his dire warnings to America. His nom de guerre is Asian, his appearance bin-Ladenesque, and thus Saudi Arabian, but his accent is the purest, slowest American. Or Amurican. “Yulllllllll never see me coming,” he annunciates. One wonders what Kingsley is up to here. One figures it out before the reveal.

Elsewhere, bombs are going off and people die. We see it happening in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is just called “Chinese theater” here because it’s no longer Grauman’s. We see, too, it’s not a bomb, it’s a dude who heats up and explodes. Another dude, Savin (James Badge Dale of “The Pacific”), is able to regenerate himself through heat. He’s like a molten version of T-2. Plus he slouches on the furniture and chews gum. Cad.

Because Happy Hogan (former “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau) gets hurt in the explosion, Tony issues a warning to the Mandarin, and then broadcasts his home address to the world. Then he prepares for an attack. No, he doesn’t. Why would he do that? In fact, when Pepper wants to leave, for, you know, safety reasons, he argues with her. In front of company: Maya Hanson, returned. Which is when the attack comes and Tony’s Malibu home is destroyed in glorious, slow-mo CGI. God, but we love destruction. The secret guilt at the heart of 9/11.

Everyone in the world assumes Tony, and Iron Man, are now dead, which is why we get that shot, the most unnecessary shot in movies this year, of Pepper walking to the edge of what was once their home, looking over the edge and into the Pacific, and shouting, “TONY!” Men scream up, women down. Mars/Venus. Me, I just screamed internally.

Worst presidential ticket ever
Of course Tony’s alive. He’d ridden out in a battered Iron Man suit to Rose Hill, Tennessee, site of another 3,000-degree-celcius explosion, which he’d planned to investigate. Now he does, sans armor, and wearing baseball caps and down vests to fit in with the locals.

In many ways this is the best part of the movie. In an isolated farmhouse he acquires a partner, a kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins), who starts out properly impressed and then quickly becomes bratty. But his back-and-forth with Stark, with Downey, really, is a reminder of how witty “Iron Man” used to be, and how witless the first half of the movie was. Harley, for example, tries to manipulate Tony into staying by evoking how his own father left him. Stark stares for a second, then says, “Dads leave. Don’t be a pussy about it.”

There’s also a good scene at the site of the Rose Hill explosion, now a memorial, with five human shadows flash-burned into the neighboring walls. Tony, the man of science, says that six people died in the explosion so where’s the sixth shadow? Harley gives him the town explanation, which is a religious explanation. The five victims went to heaven. The sixth, the bomber, went to hell. That’s why he casts no shadow. But Tony doesn’t buy it. By ignoring religion and sticking to science, he finds the answer. Lesson, kids.

We get more reveals. Both Savin and Maya are working for Aldrich, who is working for the Mandarin, whom he calls “The Master.” Once we see Aldrich setting up for another broadcast by the Mandarin, though, the obvious flashed through my mind: The Mandarin’s a front, a fake, and Aldrich holds the real power. As he does. This leads to another good bit, as both Stark and his pal, the vaguely useless Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), question the Mandarin, who’s just a drunk, two-bit British actor. Kingsley is choice in these moments.

What’s Aldrich’s motivation? Yes, he wants to get back at Tony Stark for the horrible, horrible insult of not taking that rooftop meeting, but why does he hate America so? Why does he attack Air Force One with Rhodes’ Iron Patriot outfit, kidnap the president (William Sadler), and string him up, in the Iron Patriot outfit, between two oil rigs for a public execution? To make everyone afraid? And since we’re now in the Marvel movie universe of continuity, where is, I don’t know, Captain America during all of this? The Hulk? Thor? Spider-Man? At the same time, I couldn’t help but think a country that elects William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer as president and vice-president gets what it deserves. That’s got to be the worst winning ticket ever. Did the electorate never see “Die Hard 2”? “Robocop”? Ferrer as the VEEP is also a traitor. That’s another reveal. As if we need another.

The finale throws everything and the kitchen sink at us, and the kitchen sink is the only armor Stark doesn’t wear. He’s a clinking, clanking, clattering collection of caliginous junk. Pepper, in sports bra, becomes one of the fire people, which saves her when Tony can’t. Bummer: I was hoping she was done. Then she saves Tony. Then Tony, in a epilogue, saves her, and himself, by curing her and finally removing the shrapnel near his heart. Happy Hogan wakes up. Bruce Banner falls asleep. I shook my head.

The hero we deserve
“Iron Man 3” has its moments—the rescue of the 13 people blasted out of Air Force One is the best action sequence I’ve seen in a long time—and the screenplay by Drew Pearce and director Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) raises a few interesting issues. Tony Stark’s first line about creating our own demons isn’t just about Aldrich and Maya; it’s about The Mandarin, too, created by Aldrich, and by extension Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini and Manuel Noriega. Each of these men is demonic, certainly, but we make bigger demons of them. We make them threats to us. The U.S. needs its villain du jour as surely as any Hollywood action movie. Then we need our heroes to deal with them.

The hero of the first “Iron Man” is the hero we needed in 2008: a man motivated by both guilt and revenge. The hero of “Iron Man 3” is the hero we deserve today: remote-controlled and disposable; an empty suit.

Posted at 11:26 AM on May 04, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Friday April 19, 2013

Movie Review: Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’ll never be able to watch “The Wizard of Oz” again without thinking that the Wicked Witch of the West (here Mila Kunis, there Margaret Hamilton) only became that way—ugly, green, and evil—because Oz, the great and powerful (here James Franco, there Frank Morgan) fucked her and then dumped her.

Way to shit all over a classic, Disney.

What a sad thing this is. And yet it grossed half a billion dollars worldwide? Way to go, moviegoers.

Too bad. The trailer looked fun and James Franco seemed perfectly cast as Oscar “Oz” Diggs, the charlatan/magician who travels by balloon and tornado to reach the Emerald City in the Land of Oz (no relation). Franco is a good hollow man but here he overdoes it. He hits hard on jokes that need softness and kills them. They fall flat. The movie is littered with dead jokes the way “Magnolia” was littered with dead frogs. Wasn’t director Sam Raimi able to reign him in? Or was Raimi the problem?

The man who loved women
At the beginning of the movie, set in Kansas in 1905, and filmed in black-and-white with the classic 4:3 aspect ratio, Oz is trying to sweet-talk yet another girl, his new magician’s assistant May (Abigail Spencer), by giving her a music box he claims belonged to his grandmother in the old country. He’ll use this routine several times in Oz, the Great and Powerfulthe movie. Cad. Then he performs his Baum Bros. Circus magic act, which a few locals try to ruin by pointing out the wires holding up the girl. But he silences them. He cuts the wires and the girl still hangs in mid-air. Ta-da! Bad news, actually. A little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King), with wonder and hope and belief in her eyes, asks him to make her walk again. Surely he, a magician, can do it. Everyone encourages him—“Yeah, make the kid walk!”—but he backs off with a few feeble lies rather than one honest bit of truth: I can’t do that kind of magic.

As storms brew in Kansas, as they are wont to do, Oz has more problems with women. The girl, Annie (Michelle Williams), shows up at his trailer but with the news that she’s getting married to John Gale—which, one assumes, is some eventual relation to Dorothy. “He’s a good man,” says Oz, taken aback. Annie says the same thing of him but Oz waves her off. He says he doesn’t even want to be a good man, like the other men of Kansas, and like his father, who died young from hard work. No, he wants to be a great man—like Harry Houdini or Thomas Alva Edison. At the moment, of course, he’s neither. He’s a hollow man.

At this point, the Strong Man’s girl, crying, and with a music box of her own, fingers Oz, and the Strong Man comes gunning for him (grrrr). Oz gets away, barely, with top hat and valise, in his balloon, but right into the path of a tornado. As he goes down, he makes a promise, a kind of foxhole promise, to change, to do great things, although one could argue this is hardly a change. He should’ve promised to become a good man like his father.

Face heel turn
It’s in the land of Oz, of course, that the screen widens and everything turns colorful, and Oz, the man, meets a beautiful girl in a wide-brimmed hat. Her name is Theodora (Kunis). When he tells her his name is Oz, and he’s a magician, she realizes he’s the man her father prophesied: the wizard who would fall from the sky to save them all. He hems and haws but doesn’t deny it much if it’ll get him stuff: a kingdom, riches, Theodora. He gives her a music box. She gives him … well, the camera pans away discreetly.

In Emerald City, Oz meets Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz), who seems paranoid, then suspicious. She shows Oz the vault of riches meant for the King. But before he can claim it, he has to kill the Wicked Witch. And off he goes, kicking the dirt, petulant. A drag to be around.

Question: When did the character switcheroo become such a movie staple? Your ally is really your enemy, your enemy your ally. Imagine if, in the classic “Wizard of Oz,” the Witch was secretly allied with … the Scarecrow! Or Glinda! Or the Lollipop Guild! That’s how they’d do it now. Your enemy is who you least suspect! Here, even before Oz leaves on his quest to kill the Wicked Witch, we’re wondering if Evanora, or even Theodora, whose heart is breaking from Oz’s callousness, is the real wicked witch. (Psst. It’s Theodora.)

On the Yellow Brick Road, as often happens, Oz gathers partners who are reminiscent of people in Kansas. Early on, we heard him berate his assistant, Frank (Zach Braff), thus: “You’re just a trained monkey!” So in Oz, he saves the life of a bellhop monkey (Braff), who pledges unending support, but who is perpetually disappointed by Oz’s shallow self-interest. The girl in the wheelchair? She pops up as a girl made of china, whose legs Oz glues back together. The magic he can’t do in Kansas he can do here. And Annie? The girl? She’s Glinda, the witch he has to kill. But just as he realizes she’s not the wicked one, Evanora’s forces, those flying baboons, arrive, and they escape, via Glinda’s bubbles, to Munchkinland.

Believe it or not
There, everyone views him as a savior, and Glinda, who knows he’s no savior, encourages him to make them believe. That’s the theme, really: If people believe in the phony, it might become real. But Oz is having trouble. He doesn’t believe in himself. He knows he’s a phony.

That turns out to be his strength. Years ago, a friend told me I needed to write more “from my power.” Whatever it was that I was, good or bad, that’s what I should focus on. This, essentially, is what Oz does as he readies for battle. He realizes he’s not a great man, nor a good man; he’s a cad and a charlatan and a fake. So he uses these attributes to take on Evanora and Theodora, the latter of whom, in the interim, has eaten a poisoned apple, lost her heart, and gained green skin, a cackle and a broom. We first see the transmogrification in shadow. Smart move, because the makeup doesn’t make Kunis look scary, merely odd. Take away the hook nose and pointed chin and she’s ready for the cover of Esquire’s “Green Women We Love” issue.

But even as the people believe in Oz, Oz asks the Master Tinker (Bill Cobbs) to make a balloon with which to escape. Because he’s still a cad and a charlatan and a fake. And after they’ve lured the flying monkeys into the poppy fields, and after they’ve surreptitiously entered the Emerald City, and even as a captured Glinda is chained up like Faye Wray in “King Kong,” Oz fills his balloon with coin and abandons his newfound friends. From a distance we see the balloon floating away. From a distance the Wicked Witch, the woman scorned, destroys it with a fireball. Down it goes. Out pops his top hat, charred. Everyone mourns. Everyone mourns the passing of the traitorous man: their last, worst hope.

Can you see it coming? Can you see the wires? Of course you can.

Manufacturing his own death was part of Oz’s plan. And using the magic of early cinema—an invention of his idol, Thomas Alva Edison—Oz projects his image amidst flames, a la “The Wizard of Oz,” and spooks the Wicked Witch right out of Emerald City. It’s Oz’s now. And there he’ll stay. And there he’ll rule.

Brains, courage, heart
Question: Why does “The Wizard of Oz” work so well? What’s it about?

It’s about a girl who wants to get away from her family farm then realizes there’s no place like home. It’s about people who think they lack certain positive qualities—brains, heart, courage—but who, when the chips are down, demonstrate those very qualities. And it’s about uncovering the deceit of an all-powerful charlatan.

“Oz, the Great and Powerful,” in comparison, is about creating, and propping up, the deceit of an all-powerful charlatan. It’s about getting people to believe in the fake.

That’s the point of Hollywood, too, isn’t it? Getting people to believe in, and spend money on, what’s fake. But to make it truly work, to make moviegoing truly worthwhile, you need a few things “Oz, the Great and Powerful” lacks: brains, courage, and heart.

Posted at 10:46 AM on Apr 19, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday April 14, 2013

Movie Review: 42 (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was wrong about “42.”

I thought Chadwick Boseman was too soft to play Jackie but he often exudes Jackie’s frowning intensity and competitive spirit. When I saw Christopher Meloni playing Leo Durocher I assumed they were going to ignore Durocher getting banned for the ’47 season. Nope, that’s in there. They mention, in a prologue for people who don’t know U.S. history, that World War II ended in 1945 and great ballplayers like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial returned to the game, leading me to think, “Wait, Stan Musial wasn’t drafted.” He was. Barely. He served from January 1945 to March 1946. Finally, when racist fans start digging at Jackie, I thought it all sounded a bit tepid considering everything the real Jackie went through. I assumed in our PC times they were sugarcoating this bit of history and keeping the racial epithets to a minimum. Instead, they were saving it all for Ben Chapman.

"42" starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie RobinsonI was also right about “42.” It looked OK and it is OK. Given its source material, it had a chance for greatness.

Whites only
Am I the wrong audience for this movie? I know too much about the subject and nitpick. I’m also the right audience: I’m excited just to see someone playing Clyde Sukeforth onscreen.

I almost predicted it. In April 2007, I wrote the following in a piece about baseball movies for MSNBC.com:

Great baseball biopics are waiting to be made if studio execs only get off the schneid. You’re telling me you can’t make an interesting movie out of the life of Satchel Paige or Hank Greenberg or Roberto Clemente? Why not ignore the career for the season? Give us Jackie Robinson from the time he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fall of 1945, through the ’46 season with the Montreal Royals, and end the film on April 15, 1947, the day he broke the color barrier. Talk about extraordinary pressure! There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland nearly follows my parameters. He takes us from just before Jackie signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers to the end of the ’47 season. In some ways that’s smarter. In another way, a big way, it’s not. And they don’t fix that other way.

What’s the drama? In most baseball movies it’s about winning. In this baseball movie, it’s about overcoming centuries of prejudice in order to have the chance to win. No one, after all, goes to “42” to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers win the ’47 pennant. Spoiler alert.

We get spring training in Florida in ’46 and a few of the problems there. Apparently there were WHITES ONLY signs. Jackie has to stay with a black family in town rather than with the team. He has to deal with the press, including Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier (Andre Holland), who traveled and roomed with Jackie in ’46 and ’47.

Does he have doubts? Is he worried he might fail? Who knows? Do we get resentment from other Negro League ballplayers that this rookie, this upstart, this guy who wasn’t even among their best, gets to break the color barrier? There’s an early scene with Dodgers president and part-owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), his assistant Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight), and head scout Clyde Sukeforth (Toby Huss), in which they go over the options. Roy Campanella? Too nice. Satchel Paige? Too old. Jackie Robinson? Just right. It’s a Goldilocks moment.

When Rickey makes his intentions known, he also extracts a promise from Jackie to control his temper, which was imperial, and not fight back for three years. “Your enemy will be out in force and you can’t meet him on his own low ground,” Rickey says, in one of the movie’s many good lines.

But in Florida he’s an isolated man. He wears no. 9 for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ Triple-A team, and does what he does: hits, runs, fields, distracts on the basepaths. He gets in the heads of pitchers. His manager Clay Hopper (Brett Cullen), from Porterville, Mississippi, is delighted. But when Rickey calls Robinson “superhuman,” Hopper tells him not to get carried away. “He’s still a nigger out there,” he says. This leads to chastisement and threat of dismissal and Hopper comes around, as he did in real life, but the scene smells slightly of B.S. And isn’t Rickey’s comment dangerously close to the other side of the racist spectrum? You can’t integrate because blacks are inferior: lazy, shuffling, lacking in mental toughness. No, you can’t integrate because blacks are superior: Their physiques are geared toward athletics. They’re superhuman.

Old white men show up in Sanford, Fla., to shout racist epithets, and a cop interrupts the action because Sanford doesn’t allow integration on the ballfield. He, a cop, actually kicks Jackie out of the game. Afterwards, a redneck-looking guy walks up to Jackie and tells him he’s rooting for him. More bullshit? Maybe it happened. But it feels like it’s in there to soothe Southern white audiences. There were good whites, too.

Whither the ’46 season with the Royals? It’s passed over quickly. We see Jackie hit a homerun in his first game, but please read “Baseball’s Great Experiment” by Jules Tygiel. In five at-bats, with the pressure of the world on him, this is what Jackie did: 1) grounder to short; 2) homerun; 3) bunt single, stolen base, bluff to third, and balk home; 4) single and stolen base; 5) bunt single and another balk home. He went 4-5, with four runs scored and 3 RBIs in a 14-1 Montreal win. Wow. Helgeland actually puts our attention off the field, where Jackie’s wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie of “Shame”), sitting in the stands, suddenly feels sick and has to excuse herself. In the bathroom, a lady in a nice hat suggests the obvious: pregnant? Cue title graphic: “Eight months later…”

So no Montreal Royals championship. No fans chasing Jackie down the street. No line from Sam Maltin of The Pittsburgh Courier: “It was the first time that a white mob chased a black man down the street, not out of hate, but because of love.”

Jackie Robinson and the press

Jackie, surrounded.

Undramatic license
For spring training 1947, Rickey and the Dodgers eschew Florida for Havana, Cuba, to get away from the small minds in small towns, but a few of the Dodgers begin to chafe. A petition goes around, led by Kirby Higbe and Dixie Walker (Brad Beyer and Ryan Merriman), saying they refuse to play with Robinson. Others, notably Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black, who deserves a bigger role one of these days), refuse to sign. It’s all pretty clean stuff. This brand of American racism should be like bugs crawling beneath a wet rock but Helgeland divides everyone into three neat groups: 1) the loudmouth racists; 2) the guys who say “Give him a chance”; 3) the people who come around to this second point-of-view.

Durocher puts a stop to the petition (“You can wipe your ass with it!”) but then baseball commissioner Happy Chandler (Peter Mackenzie), here seen getting a manicure at his desk, puts a stop to Durocher by banning him for the season for an extramarital affair. It’s an odd cameo for Chandler, without whom, it can be argued, none of this would have happened. (The previous commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, supposedly helped maintain the color line.)

The big day, April 15, 1947, arrives. Hey, there’s Ebbets Field! Hey, there’s Jackie going into the locker room. He doesn’t have a locker yet but he’s got a uniform and a number on it, 42, and off he goes, through the tunnel and onto the field, where the press surrounds him, and where some fans boo and others cheer. The national anthem is sung in its entirety. We get his first at-bat, a sharper grounder to third, which the third baseman stabs and turns into a nice play, aided, it’s suggested, by a questionable call from the racist ump. True? Was Jackie’s first hit taken away from him? Here’s Jonathan Eig in his book “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season”:

Elliott grabbed it and tossed to first for the easy out.

I know: dramatic license. But Helgeland keeps taking dramatic license in ways that are decidedly undramatic. He takes undramatic license. He’s nonconfrontative about the greatest confrontation in baseball history.

Later in the movie, for example, we get a good scene in which Pee Wee Reese visits Branch Rickey’s office—which, in this movie, the Dodger players seem to visit as often as they take showers. The team is about to travel to Crosley Field for a series against the Reds, and Reese, a Kentuckian, has received a hate letter. He’s called a nigger-lover and a carpetbagger, and he’s wondering what to do about it. Rickey smiles. He explains the Greek origins of the word “sympathy.” Then he goes to a file cabinet and removes several thick file folders full of hate letters—all addressed to Jackie Robinson. We’re going to kill you, Nigger. We’re going to kill your son. We’re going to kill your wife. Reese takes in the enormity of it all, and, of course, it leads to the famous incident, perhaps apocryphal, in which, at Crosley, Reese puts his arm around Jackie to quiet the racists.

It’s a good scene. At the same time, one wonders if the hate mail, and the various threats on Jackie’s life, couldn’t have been used to better dramatic advantage. When Jackie walked onto the field, he was risking his life. Every day. The other players knew this. Everyone knew it. According to Eig, when Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater in the movie) stood next to Jackie on Opening Day, his brother chastised him. “What if some sharpshooter missed him by three feet and got you instead?” he asked. Tension was high. But we don’t feel much of that tension in “42.”

Until the Chapman scene.

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in "42"

The famous Reese/Robinson scene. Apocryphal?

Alabama lullaby
Ben Chapman, Alabama born and bred, was a four-time All-Star who led the league in stolen bases four times in the 1930s and retired in 1946 with a .302 batting average and a .823 OPS. He was also baseball’s most infamous race baiter. And his most infamous incident occurred in April 1947 when the Philadelphia Phillies, and its new manager, Chapman, traveled to Brooklyn to meet the Dodgers.

Here’s David Falkner in his book “Great Time Coming”:

From the moment Robinson set foot on the field, Chapman, joined by a number of players, directed an almost unprintable barrage of verbal abuse at him that continued for the rest of the series …

The movie details this abuse. It sets Chapman (Alan Tudyk, in a great performance) on the playing field, where he shouts the following:

  • Hey nigger! Why don’t you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?
  • Which one of these white boys’ wives you dating tonight?
  • We don’t want you here, nigger!
  • Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger!

It’s unrelenting. The tension is thick. You’re waiting for something to explode.

In reality this continued for the entire series, with Phillies players leveling their bats like machine guns at Jackie and rat-a-tat-tatting. Finally, in the third game, Eddie Stanky, the Dodgers’ second baseman, returned volley. He called them all cowards. “Why don’t you pick on somebody who can answer back!” he shouted.

“It was then that I began to feel better,” Jackie says in his book, “I Never Had It Made.” “I remembered Mr. Rickey’s prediction. If I won the respect of the team and got them solidly behind me, there would be no question about the success of the experiment.”

Helgeland condenses this, as he should, into one game, the first game, which the Dodgers won 1-0. The lone run comes in the bottom of the 8th when Jackie leads off with a single, steals second and goes to third on the errant throw, then scores easily on a one-out single. That shuts up Chapman. In the movie. In reality, he kept on. Racism keeps on. That’s what it does.

Worse, Helgeland cuts the tension by having Jackie leave the field after his second at-bat to rage and fume and break his bat in the tunnel to the locker room. “I have to admit that this day, of all the unpleasant days in my life, brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been,” Jackie wrote, and that’s what Helgeland is trying to dramatize. Except, again, he undramatizes it. With Jackie slouched against a wall, Branch Rickey shows up like a deus ex machina and gives him another pep talk. He brings up the way Jesus was tested: 40 days in the wilderness, etc. He metaphorically pulls Jackie up, dusts him off, and sets him out into the world again. And only then do we get Eddie Stanky coming to Jackie’s defense. Not by shouting back but by walking over to the Phillies dugout and getting in Chapman’s face.

But it’s still a powerful scene. So powerful even Brian Helgeland couldn’t undramatize it.

Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman in "42"

Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman: unrelenting.

Falling in love with a team in defeat
But back to my original question. What do you do about the ’47 season? The Brooklyn Dodgers, against all odds, won the NL pennant. That’s good. In the World Series, though, they faced the New York Yankees, who screwed up our story by winning in seven games. So how do you end the movie?

I had similar thoughts while watching “Moneyball.” I knew Billy Beane’s grand sabermetric experiment resulted in no pennant or World Series for the 2002 A’s. But writer-director Bennett Miller makes not-winning the point. He gives us the Jeremy Brown footage: “He hit a homerun and didn’t even realize it.” He gives us the job offer from the Red Sox. He gives us Beane’s moment of indecision, and his daughter singing for him on CD:

I can't figure it out
It's bringing me down I know
I've got to let it go
And just enjoy the show

Miller gives us something difficult and beautiful to carry with us from the theater. He knows the truth in the Roger Kahn line: “You may glory in team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” That line, of course, was written about the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Helgeland doesn’t do this. He tries to end on a moment of false glory: a homerun Jackie hit in late September against a Pirates pitcher, Fritz Ostermueller (Linc Hand), who had beaned him earlier in the season, and which sends the Dodgers into the World Series. Cue celebrations in Brooklyn as Rachel Robinson walks with baby carriage. Cue Jackie, in slow motion, rounding third. Cue uplifting music. But it feels like bullshit even as we watch it. And it is. They try to pass it off as a walkoff homerun when it was a homerun in the top of the 4th. Did this game lead to the pennant? I don’t know. Did Ostermueller really bean Jackie earlier in the season? He did, but with a rising fastball that hit Jackie’s arm, not his head. But it rallied the Dodgers around him. Which it does in the movie. Kind of. Sort of. In Helgeland’s undramatic way.

“42” gets some things right. But Jackie, as a person, is more complex, and more competitive, than his portrayal here. His story is also more important. It’s not about retiring No. 42 in 1997. That’s a bullshit honor anyway. No, his story is important because it’s a prelude to the civil rights movement. It’s almost a blueprint. You turn the other cheek, you act nonviolent in the face of violence, you gain the sympathy of the world. Ben Chapman is Bull Connor, and the rest of us, or the best of us, are Eddie Stanky, fed up, and finally shouting from the dugout.

Maybe next time.

Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier: April 15, 1947

Posted at 09:31 AM on Apr 14, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday April 01, 2013

Movie Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Beware the peacemakers, for they will try to blow up the world.

Could there be a better message for Easter weekend?

Here’s how it happens. In “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” after Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal almost gets into the hands of terrorists, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) encourages the nations of the world toward nuclear disarmament, and meets said leaders at Fort Sumter, which most Americans, or at least a couple dozen, will recognize as the place where the first shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired. There, he demands obedience and nuclear disarmament. The other leaders balk. So he launches his nukes. They launch theirs. All of them? Apparently. The missiles are flying. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

G.I. Joe: RetaliationAh, but it’s all a ruse! He blows up his, they blow up theirs, disarmament (and, one assumes, fallout and nuclear winter) is thus achieved, which is when POTUS reveals his new secret weapon, the ZEUS somethingorother! Seven of them orbit the earth and don’t launch weapons so much as drop them. To start the fun, he drops one on London. We watch it blown to smithereens. All of London. Gone. Poof.

I think we’ve finally entered the post post-9/11 movie world. Blowing up landmarks and cities is fun again.

Brainblock
This president, of course, is not the real president. He’s Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), an agent of COBRA, which is the organization that the G.I. Joes fight.

Who are the G.I. Joes? Complicated question for such simple things.

I had a G.I. Joe when I was a kid but it was just called, you know, G.I. Joe. He was a soldier. He had a fuzzy head and a fuzzy beard and no genitalia. Hasbro got clever soon after my childhood, for they came up with a whole slew of G.I. Joes that had little to do with either “General Issue” or World War II. They got names like Ripcord and Roadblock and Heavy Duty and Snake Eyes. Each had a different power and a different backstory, and like “Transformers” they were a TV cartoon in the 1980s (when I was in college), and after the success of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” in 2007, they made the crossover to movies, too, with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which didn’t do “Transformers” business but did OK despite horrible reviews.

Most of the Joes from the first movie aren’t back for the second. Here’s who they returned to the manufacturer:

  • Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)
  • General Hawk (Dennis Quaid)
  • Scarlett (Rachel Nichols)
  • Breaker (Said Taghmaoui)
  • Ripcord (Marlon Wayans)

Here’s who they took out of the box:

  • Roadblock (Dwayne ‘The Rock” Johnson)
  • General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis)
  • Flint (D.J. Cotrona)
  • Jaye (Adrianne Palicki)
  • Jinx (Elodie Yung)

Is The Rock supposed to rescue every insipid franchise now? That “Fast and Furious” crap was stagnating; then he showed up in “Fast Five” and its international box office zoomed from $363 million to $626 million. “Fast Six” opens Memorial Day weekend.

Bruce Willis’ General Joe Colton is supposed to be the original Joe, the reason this team, such as it is, is named G.I. Joes. But he’s retired now, as he always is in the movies now, even though he keeps an arsenal in the drawers and closets of his home. Because a well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, etc.

Palicki? Apparently she played Wonder Woman on TV. Controna? Flotsam. Yung? Jetsam.

But Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) are back, as is, of course, Duke (Channing Tatum), the star, our hero. Who gets killed after 20 minutes. Tatum had better things to do. Smart boy.

Big biceps, big guns, no brains
Each character, or toy, gets a simulacrum of backstory. Roadblock is from “the hood,” to which they return to hide out. Jaye joined the military despite her G.I.-issue father, who didn’t think women were good enough. She showed him. Storm Shadow was betrayed as a child into joining the bad guys even though the betrayal was orchestrated by the bad guys. Etc.

There’s a nice fight scene in the, I guess, Asian mountains, involving ziplines and wires and running along mountainsides like Spider-Man. I thought: “That’s kinda fun.” Bruce Willis gets off a good line about cholesterol.

Otherwise it’s big biceps and big guns and no brains. It’s Ray Stevenson’s awful, awful Southern accent, which is apparently payback (served cold) for Kevin Costner’s British accent in “Robin Hood.” It’s the President of the United States, and the rest of the world, as pawns in a game between two military organizations. The bad guys get the upper hand but the good guys win—even if tens of thousands of nukes detonate in the atmosphere and London is wiped off the face of the Earth. It’s playing Army. Except it’s the filmmakers, including producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura (“Transformers”) and director Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 2: The Streets”), who do the playing while we do the paying. In more ways than dollars.

It’s capture-the-flag again, as it was in “Olympus Has Fallen.” The Joes enter the DMZ and raise a G.I. Joe flag. Ha! When London falls, Cobra raises the Cobra flag above the White House. Bastards! Ah, but when the Joes are triumphant, the G.I. Joe flag is raised above the White House. Sorry, the American flag. Old glory. Stars and stripes.

It’s dialogue for toys:

  • “Soon the world will cower in the face of Zeus!”
  • “Let’s move! The world ain’t saving itself!”
  • “We’re going to find the men who did this to Duke and our brothers. And we’re going to kill them.”
  • “Hoo-rah!”

It’s another liberal message from liberal Hollywood.

Beware the toymakers, for they are taking over the movies.

Posted at 07:33 AM on Apr 01, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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