Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Wolverine, the Black Sox and Meryl Streep being Irish - Reviews #30
Eight Men Out (John Sayles, 1988) is a meticulous reconstruction of the Black Sox scandal, which saw a gaggle of poorly-paid Chicago baseball players agree to throw the 1919 World Series for 10 grand a piece. Based on a 1963 novel, Sayles' straightforward, detailed telling focuses on Buck Weaver (John Cusack), pitcher Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) and the legendary "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney, who is just superb). Though Weaver sat in on meetings between the conspirators, he never took a penny and was singled out in contemporary press reports as the White Sox's top performer during the series. Cicotte initially resisted organiser Chick Gandil's overtones, but ultimately buckled after he was denied a bonus by club owner Charles Comiskey. Jackson's role remains disputed, though historians tend to lean towards his innocence. The three were ultimately banned from baseball for life, along with five other players.
We start with an uplifting opening sequence that sees the rampaging White Sox clinch the pennant. Superbly scored, shot and edited, with one particular high spot that sees Jackson thump a home run, the scene may just have got me interested in baseball. Returning to the club house, the players find a celebratory crate of wine and decide it's a good time to enquire about their long-promised bonus. You're looking at it, Comiskey's sidekick tells them. It's flat, naturally. With pay so low and their boss backtracking on his word, Sayles suggests, the players are plum pickings for unscrupulous gamblers, including Sleepy Bill Burns (Christopher Lloyd, who's distractingly artificial), Billy Maharg (Richard Edson) and Sport Sullivan (Kevin Tighe), all three ultimately backed by multi-millionaire gangster Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner). When the series starts, and the on-field fluffs keep coming, sportswriters Ring Lardner (Sayles himself) and Hugh Fullerton (Studs Terkel) smell a rat - and start digging.
Sayles slightly contracts the timeframe for dramatic purposes - the incident with the wine happened after the team's 1917 series win, while the team played on into 1920 and the players' trial ended in 1921 - but shows an impressive fidelity to the bulk of the facts that extends to the locations of meetings. Where he falls short is in successfully elaborating on the motives of the crooked players, beyond the pay packet, which wasn't that substantial. Though Sayles shows Rothstein's exact movements during a matchday and Cicotte's aggressive pitch that signalled the fix was on, he skimps on the explanatory conversations that would have filled in various blanks and leaves out the odd telling detail, curiously neglecting to mention Cicotte's expensive new farm. Or Gandil's swift departure for California, with $35,000 in his pocket.
It's difficult to fault the rendering of time and place and, at least to this unskilled eye, the restaging of the matches is extremely adept and exciting. Cusack's look of bewilderment, alienation and frustration on the field as he sees the team crumbling around him is moving and the scenes of the Sox briefly reneging on their pledges and going hell for leather are triumphant, but given the absolutely fascinating, highly emotive subject matter, Sayles doesn't really articulate the scale of human drama present, or provide the social and emotional context to make Eight Men Out a great, even definitive take on the scandal. That the gut-smacking sledgehammer to end them all, a young boy's tearful plea to his idol for some form of explanation ("Say it ain't so, Joe") doesn't pack a wallop is a sign of the film's failings. Indeed, the film doesn't strike quite the right note until the devastating, bleached-out coda, which works extremely well and set the tone for the following year's Field of Dreams, another movie dealing with the Shoeless Joe legend. Eight Men Out is a highly engrossing, very well-acted movie, but given the writer-director and the entirely compelling topic, it doesn't quite hit the heights. (3)
The Perfect Specimen (Michael Curtiz, 1937) is a fun Warner Bros comedy, with Errol Flynn cast against type as the eponymous figure: a sheltered heir to a small fortune, imprisoned within the ivory towers of his grandmother’s estate. One day sassy chick Joan Blondell smashes through the fence and drives off with his heart. Not literally, of course, that wouldn’t play so well to a mainstream audience. The film is episodic and slight, but unapologetically so, with some amusing set pieces that include Flynn’s roadside punch up with hopeless pugilist Allen Jenkins. The ever-likeable Jenkins (later the voice of Top Cat’s Officer Dibble) is just one of a heap of well-known character actors turning up here, along with Hugh Herbert, May Robson, Harry Davenport and Edward Everett Horton – stealing the film hands down as a pathetically subservient, nervy personal secretary. There’s the odd concession to high culture, with a recurring reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but mostly this is standard screwball stuff, utilising the considerable charm of its impressive cast. (2.5)
See also: Flynn's screwball follow-up, Four's a Crowd.
Park Row (Samuel Fuller, 1952) – Maverick director and former tabloid hack Sam Fuller made 22 features. This 1952 labour of love remained his favourite: a hymn to the founders of modern American journalism that begins with a long, sentimental speech about the titans of Park Row (America’s Fleet Street) and features a great action sequence in which crusading editor Gene Evans repeatedly dashes a low-level gangster’s head against a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Nice.
Our story proper begins in that most Fuller-ish of places, a saloon. There, a bunch of hacks on New York’s bestselling daily, The Star, spends their evenings swilling booze and exchanging dreams and bitter bon mots. When idealistic reporter Gene Evans takes a break from the bar to nail an epitaph to the grave of an executed man that reads ‘Murdered by The Star’ – an acerbic bolt of pure fury from Fuller that’s among the neatest things he ever did – the paper’s owner (Mary Welch) marches in, sacking him and his chums on the spot.
So Evans starts up the paper he’s always dreamt of – The Globe – and cheery, impressionable young buck George O’Hanlon throws himself off the Brooklyn Bridge for a laugh, giving him a first-rate first splash. But Welch doesn’t take such competition lying down, especially not from a man she quite fancies, and so begins a circulation war that spills over into resentment, hatred and good old-fashioned violence.
As you would expect, Fuller has a real feel for the material, filling his script with the usual insider terminology and slang. Leaving just enough in his account for some vodka and cigars, the writer-director-producer spent the rest of his savings – some $200,000 accrued making hit war films – on this pet project. Much of the cash went on a fastidiously complete recreation of the Park Row of his memory, including a multitude of four-storey buildings. The film’s designers queried his logic, saying the tops of the structures would never be seen on camera. Fuller said he didn’t care: "I had to see it all. I had to know everything was there, exact in every detail."
The sets are constructed in an ingenious way that allows Fuller’s camera to wind his way through the nooks and crannies of the offices, the intensity of the shooting schedule belied by the wealth of innovation behind the camera. The director’s crab dolly, a wheeled platform that allowed the camera to move in any direction, aids the spectacular direction, getting us up close and personal during Evans’ periodic stomps up and down the titular street, generally looking for someone to thump.
Park Row is a punchy, sometimes dynamic blend of heartfelt sentiment and acerbic cynicism that could only have come from one director. Whilst it occasionally appears over-earnest or self-congratulatory, and has too much repetition across its 80 minutes, it’s flavourful and immersive, with a no-name cast that ideally suits its ink-stained universe. (3)
Ah yes, the old trick of filling the poster with pictures of boobs. To be honest, if you went to see the film based on this, you'd be disappointed. Steiger's Native American wife wears an unrevealing tunic for the whole film. At no time does she dig out a scanty green number and expose her heaving chest.
Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957) is an embryonic version of Dances With Wolves in director Sam Fuller's familiar tabloid style: short, flamboyantly written and with the best stuff right at the top. It begins on Palm Sunday, 1865, "the last day of the war between the states", with Fuller taking us to the very heart of the conflict via a mesmerising opening tracking shot. Corpses are strewn across the smoking landscape, where an unmanned cannon has fallen silent, smashed to pieces. An air of desperation and exhaustion hangs heavy over the action. A Yankee soldier on a knackered horse staggers towards some unknown, meaningless destination. A shot rings out and he slumps to the ground. A Confederate infantryman (Rod Steiger) lowers his gun and moves forward. Ransacking the man's pockets, he finds a food parcel and begins eating the spoils off the dying man's stomach. That line from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down comes to mind: "We were hungry, just barely alive." Having had his fill, Steiger straps the man to the guy's own horse, and takes him to a field hospital. It's a brilliant intro. But then Steiger starts talking and the film goes downhill.
Accents are a funny thing. It's nice when someone gets a voice down pat, but it often feels like window-dressing. And illogical window-dressing at that, since Nazis don't generally converse with one another in heavily-accented English. Jimmy Stewart gave a great performance in The Shop Around the Corner without attempting a Hungarian accent, and Claude Rains was a fitting French captain in Casablanca despite his distinctive English tones. Keeping your own accent also means you avoid taking a road to supposed 'authenticity' that's full of pitfalls. A terrible voice can sink a film, or at least prove a major distraction, and that's the case here. Playing a second-generation Irish immigrant fighting for the Confederacy, who finds a new home with the Sioux, Steiger opts for an accent that can best be described as 'South Asian Norwegian'. Perhaps he was confused about playing an honorary Indian, because no matter how bold and progressive the film is, offering an insightful look at Sioux customs, it still has a hero who sounds like a sort of Slumdog John Qualen. By d'yevil.
Such self-satisfied broadsides aside (I'm sorry, I really do like Fuller), Run of the Arrow turns out alright. The titular rite-of-passage - which sees Steiger forced to outpace some rampaging Sioux, or else find a new skin - is exciting and well-paced, with an intelligent follow-up in the second half. Fuller's much-celebrated focus on the feet during that sequence was actually enforced by Steiger's sore ankle, but elsewhere there's some strong direction that makes the most of several ambitious, realistic sets. Steiger is periodically effective, even hampered by that ridiculous voice, with Ralph Meeker perfectly cast as his main nemesis - a cigar-chomping Indian-hater - and Brian Keith an effective moral yardstick, though the rest of the cast is largely nondescript. The interesting, well-researched portrait of the Native American lifestyle is ultimately overtaken by a drawn-out action climax that begins effectively, with an interesting subversion of Western folklore that sees the Indians riding to the rescue, but frankly goes on a bit. Fuller's script also lacks clarity, even when dealing with his favourite theme of redemption, which is very unusual for this filmmaker.
In the end, Run of the Arrow is a fascinating, admirably ambitious film, but it's a long way from being a classic, with confused plotting and an inability to build on its fascinating opening scenes. On this evidence, it's a damn shame that Fuller never made a full Civil War picture, as he seems ideally suited to the material. But then again, every Fuller film starts and ends with a bang, and though John Ford's 21-minute section of How the West Was Won ('The Civil War') is extraordinary, his feature-length treatment of the conflict he remained so obsessed with, The Horse Soldiers, is a shambles. (2.5)
Trivia note: This was the first movie to use blood squibs. No Run of the Arrow, no Wild Bunch. A small price to pay for that peculiar thing Steiger is doing with his larynx.
C'me 'ere Rogue: Paquin's mutant hitches a ride with Wolverine.
X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) is a superior comic book yarn, thanks to intelligent writing and deft characterisation, alongside the whizz-bang thrills. Anna Paquin is Rogue, a teenage girl who goes for her first kiss and leaves the recipient in a coma. She’s one of a breed of mutants left with powers they can’t control after a leap forward in evolution. Allying herself with a fellow mutant, cage fighter Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue is taken under the wing of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who wants to forge a peaceful future for mutants and humans alike. Unfortunately his old ally Magneto (Ian McKellen) thinks a war is brewing and is keen to get in some pre-emptive strikes, ideally using the super-powers of Xavier’s students. The film has its shortcomings, relying too heavily on CGI effects – which date very quickly and don’t really have the requisite movie magic – and failing to flesh out several minor characters. But it’s a very well-scripted, engaging film: sometimes funny, frequently touching and with impressive star turns from Paquin and Jackman. Roll on X-Men 2! It came out in 2003? Oh I see. (3)
Dancing at Lughnasa (Pat O'Connor, 1996) is an oddly muted drama in which nothing really happens, for an hour and a half. "Progress is a comfortable disease," observed grammar-phobic poet e e cummings. For him, maybe, but for five unmarried sisters in '30s Ireland, it's anything but, as the march of time throws their life together into jeopardy. The spectre of industry and dwindling school rolls are looming, threatening to put teacher Meryl Streep (who is really annoying here, sometimes intentionally) and professional knitters Sophie Thompson and Brid Brennan out of work and break up the family unit. Not that they seem very happy to begin with, bickering and casting light on another's neuroses in a way that becomes quickly wearing very quickly. There's love in the house, for sure, but there's a lot more repression and glumness, much of it uninteresting and trite.
As well as the breadwinners, we meet happy-go-lucky Kathy Burke, fifth sister Catherine McCormack - spending a summer with returning lover Rhys Ifans - a clergyman brother ravaged by dementia (Michael Gambon), and young Darrell Johnston, the story told through his eyes. The film has uniformly good performances, but it's often cliched and unenlightening, with an opening and closing voiceover that apes How Green Was My Valley (see #19) and seems to bear little relation to the action in between. On the plus side, occasional moments of insight peek through the overbearing script and there are two really good scenes. One has the family flicking through a photo album and recalling lost love; it's a quiet tour-de-force from Burke. The other, which partly gives the film its title, is simply great, as the sisters begin dancing to a song on the radio, their celebrations growing ever more feverish until they spill out into the yard. It's a moment of sheer wonder amid much muddled misery. (2.5)