directed by Brian Helgeland
First, go read this conversation by my two pals, Odie Henderson and Steven Boone. They discuss 42. I had already been excited to see it, because I love baseball movies, and I love Harrison Ford, and I love the Jackie Robinson story. I was already “in”. But reading that from them was the clincher. I went and saw it in the theatre. I laughed, I cried, I got goosebumps, I felt proud to be an American. Home run. I talked with Steven about 42 at Ebert Fest, and he said, fondly, “It is just so corny.” (Read their piece to see what that word means to him, and what it means in terms of films about black people in America. It’s awesome!) I knew even halfway through 42, my first time seeing it, that I would have to own it. It’s just one of those movies. So I watched it again recently. It holds up. With all of the wonderful scenes, I am still really struck by his first practice game in the minor leagues, the first time a black man took the field with white men. It may be the longest baseball sequence in 42. It shows Jackie Robinson being thrown ball after ball (the pitcher refusing to pitch properly to him), which then ends up biting said pitcher and his team in the ass because once Jackie Robinson is on base, he proceeds to steal second, AND steal third. This is all drawn out in what may be predictable sports-formula ways, but I love the sports-formula. It is my favorite film formula. What that scene shows is multi-layered: we see the racism in the crowd, those who “Boo” him when he first walks out. But then we also see the almost tight-lipped fearful smiles of the black people in the same crowd, who cannot even believe what is happening, it is a dream come true, and yet … what is going to occur? Will they be made to “pay” for this in some way? All of that is there. Jackie Robinson has not been accepted by his fellow team-mates (far from it), AND the opposing team are angry at the position they are put in. So we have all of that. But then we also get to see how Jackie Robinson played. Even in the face of the swirling shit-storm of racism and publicity, once he is on base, he knows who he is, and he knows that it’s every man for himself out there, and he is GOING to take second base, because second base is HIS. And once he is on second, he is GOING to take third base, because third base is HIS. Director Helgeland really lingers in this scene. Even more so than the big major-league games later at Ebbets Field, as momentous occasions as those were, he knows that this game, in a dusty field in Florida somewhere, is the real Big Moment. It’s a thrilling baseball sequence. It’s not a home run, a grand slam, a dramatic diving catch – but it is a thrilling scene, a nail-biter. But there is so much to love about the film. Harrison Ford, as Branch Rickey, with protruding stomach and protruding eyebrows, shows his real stuff here, and shows why I am so excited about this phase of his career. Here, he plays support staff, and he reminded me of, oh, Thomas Mitchell or someone, one of those great character actors in the past. Here, the normal roles are reversed, as Odie and Boone point out. Harrison Ford plays the white sidekick to the black male lead. There is an amazing scene in one of the hallways leading up to Ebbets Field between Ford and Chad Boseman. The racist heckling was taken to a new level by the manager of the Phillies, and instead of fighting back, Robinson left the field. Trapped in this long narrow hallway, he goes nuts in private, smashing the bat against the walls, screaming and crying. Branch Rickey finds him there. They have a talk. Robinson finally says to Rickey, “Do you have any idea what it feels like to have someone talk like that to you?” There is a long and emotional pause, and then Ford replies, “No. I don’t.” Thank God that was his reply. And thank God Harrison Ford played that role. He has such gravitas as a movie star, already. He walks into the film and brings his star power with it. But, true to form, in the interviews he gave (included in the special features), he keeps saying, “I am so glad I was given the opportunity to be part of this story, to play such a part.” If you pay close attention to how Harrison Ford talks about his career (and I do, I always have), then you know that this is how he speaks. Always. It is not an act. That is why he is a great movie star. For every other element of the film, please read Odie and Boone’s piece. They cover it all. But I love all of the other players, I love Pee Wee Reese, I love Hamish Linklater’s part (he really looks like an old-school baseball player), and I thought Chad Boseman was excellent in what was a very very difficult and challenging part. I watched it the other night with tears streaming down my face, and I consider that an evening well spent.
directed by William Berke
It’s a year after Detour, when Ann Savage gave a performance for the ages. Savage was a busy actress, and Renegade Girl is a B-Western with a lot to recommend it (most of all, her). Inspired by the real-life story of Confederate guerrilla fighter William Quantrill, Renegade Girl is about the guerrilla warfare that erupted in the Missouri territory in 1864, and even continuing on after the end of the Civil War. The world portrayed in Renegade Girl is a dangerous one. Towns are burnt down. People are killed. Gangs hide out in the hills. It is not safe to travel alone. Here, Ann Savage plays Jean Shelby, who is the head of a gang. She knows that she is an “outlaw”. She understands the choices she has made, and they have been her own choices. Her gang’s purpose in life is to harass and thwart the Yankee interlopers (watch how Ann Savage says the word “Yankee”, how her whole face changes, hardens). But Jean Shelby has another more personal goal. An Indian fighter named Chief Whitecloud was responsible for killing her whole family. She will not rest until she has her revenge. Her status as the leader of a gang is all treated very matter-of-factly in the film, making it an interesting feminist statement. It’s just taken for granted that a group of tough gunslingers would follow the orders of this diminutive blonde woman, and Ann Savage is completely convincing as a woman with a mission, a woman willing to give up the comforts of life in order to kill Yankees, and track down Chief Whitecloud. She is a “wanted woman”, and she is taken prisoner by the Yankee troops, where she meets a certain captain Fred Raymond (Alan Curtis). You can see her take a shine to him from the second she lays eyes on him, but then her face falls. He’s wearing a Yankee uniform. She is quite open about the fact that she has “made men like her” in order to get them to “talk” and give her the information she needs. We know what “like” means in this context, and you can see that hard cynicism in Ann’s performance. She’s been around. She’s done horrible things. While she does fall for the Yankee captain, she does so in a way that does not betray the “outlaw” character she has already established. Jean Shelby is not used to being in love. She is not sure how to behave. When he seemingly disappears on her, she falls apart. But then gathers herself together, his rejection of her hardens her resolve, puts her beyond the pale. She will escape, join up with her gang, and kill Chief Whitecloud. It doesn’t even matter now that the Civil War is over. For people like Jean Shelby and her gang, the war will never be over. They couldn’t re-enter society anyway if they tried. There’s some excellent horse riding in the film, with the gangs galloping at full speed through forests and plains. Some of the scenes are pretty wooden, with the script over-explaining itself, and some of the editing choices are shoddy. People just stand around talking in offices or rooms and then they all walk out the door together. It’s odd. You feel like there should have been a cut earlier. The pace is therefore off. There’s one reason to see Renegade Girl and that’s to watch Ann Savage at work. She has a beautifully malleable face, expressive and interesting. Sentiment fights with cynicism, often in the same moment. Her voice has that flat tough-dame affect that she used to frightening lengths in Detour, only here she uses it to command her troops, to keep them in line, to boss them around and to make sure she comes out on top. It’s a fascinating feminist film, and because it is Ann Savage playing the role, you never once doubt that she could control a wild group of outlaws and have them do her bidding. Not for one second do you doubt that she is who she says she is.
All of Me
directed by Carl Reiner
I still remember Roger Ebert’s review of this film (which I saw in its original release, and then many more times, when my friends and I would rent it), and how he wrote:
Although it is Tomlin who disappears into Martin’s body, she does not disappear from the movie. For one thing, her reflection can be seen in mirrors, and there is some exquisite timing involved in the way they play scenes with each other’s mirror images. For another thing (and this is really curious), there is a real sense of her presence even when Martin is alone on the screen: The film’s premise, which seems so unlikely, begins to work.
That’s exactly right.
Lily Tomlin does show up in all the mirrors, and there are some very funny bits in regards to that, but for me the real magic of the film – the premise – comes to full fruition in the court room scene when Steve Martin has fallen asleep at the table because he stayed up working the whole night before. Lily Tomlin, encased in Steve Martin’s body, tries to wake him up (using her voice, we only hear her at this point), and when that fails, she takes over. The Judge is waiting, the witness is in the witness stand, the opposing counsel looks over curiously. It’s a big and public moment. When Lily takes over, of course all we see is Steve Martin – but in that scene we actually sense the desperate attempt of the prissy woman inside him trying to “act like a man”. He gets up, awkwardly, and starts to saunter over to the witness box like John Wayne, burping, clearing his throat, spitting off to the side, in an insane display of macho gestures which leaves the entire court speechless. It also leaves me falling off my chair laughing. Again: this is all Steve Martin, but because of the powerful set-up and because of Lily Tomlin’s presence, we totally SENSE that it is HER who is making him act like this. It’s so hilarious. So we have a woman in a man’s body, making the man act like a stereotypical man in order to “pass” as an actual man. Say what? And it works? It totally works. There are a couple of other great scenes of physical comedy, when Lily Tomlin has first flown into Steve Martin’s body and he discovers that she controls the left-side and he controls the right – so he lurches himself across the sidewalk, basically at war with himself physically. There are other things in the film, his unhappiness with being a lawyer, he wants to be a jazz musician, his inability to commit to a woman, etc. These things are just character elements, so that we know who this guy is … but then, in the final moment, when the camera swoops around to the gigantic mirror and we see Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin dancing in it, we get the payoff to all of that information. It’s not a sentimental ending, although it is emotional. We don’t see them kissing in the moonlight. We see them dancing, cavorting around together, dancing with each other and for each other, and it goes on and on and on … as the credits roll … it keeps going on. Until finally she leaps into his arms, and he can’t take it, and they both fall to the floor in a heap. That’s how the film ends. I love it. You can sense that there is a growing tenderness between the two adversaries, that she is as limited as he is, in terms of love and living a full life. And, according to All of Me, living a full life is represented by dancing around like a little kid with someone you love/care about. I love the innocence of that final shot. It’s beautiful. And, side note, I still say “backinbowl” on occasion, and have been doing so ever since the film first came out. It works in a lot of different scenarios. If I’m feeling confused, if I don’t understand the instructions given to me, if I have to re-read a passage to understand what I’m reading … “backinbowl” really sums it up. Love this movie.