My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
This week’s reviews focus on three baseball movies.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Revisiting Billy Crystal’s love letter to baseball and two of its greats proves that this film is a lot better than I originally thought. One of the reasons for its success is the incredible ensemble of character actors that Crystal assembled: Anthony Michael Hall (terrific as Whitey Ford), Richard Masur, Bruce McGill (loved him since I was a kid), Christopher McDonald, Donald Moffat, and Seymour Cassel. You may not know all their names but you know their faces and they’re the backbone of this great baseball movie.
At its heart, there are the impressive performances of Barry Pepper and Thomas Jane as Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Pepper gets to show more range here than his usual military-types. He captures Roger’s humility and sells his inability to play to the audience/commentators. This might be Thomas Jane’s finest work as an actor. Jane, who has sadly been relegated mostly to action films, shows here that he can carry a movie. His Mantle is funny, frustrating, sad, and wise. Like the greatest portrayals of historical characters, Jane captures the complexity of this icon.
When I first saw Billy Crystal’s TV movie, it may have been too subtle for my young mind to appreciate. Now having made my own movies, I appreciate it so much more. His grounded approach avoids cliches. It isn’t flashy or fanciful. It’s the kind of movie I starve for in today’s cinematic landscape. So well done, Billy, you made one of the best baseball films in movie history.
Watched on HBO Max.
Talent for the Game (1991)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Director Robert M. Young and Edward James Olmos made one of the best Westerns, one of the best American films of the 80s with The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. Here, they tackle the sports genre and though their take on baseball is nowhere near as profound as their treatment of the Western, it still remains a memorable film.
Most of that credit goes to Olmos. Watching him is a master class in acting: his movements, his combination of levity and gravitas, his ability to literally do nothing in a close-up and yet communicate so much. His chemistry with Lorraine Bracco (always a great presence in movies) is lively, sexy, and real.
The best parts of Talent for the Game are the ones that hint to Young’s other work, the more grounded independent fare. When the film drifts into Hollywood land with sports movie cliches, it falters. But there’s enough good here to make this a baseball movie worth watching again.
Watched on Amazon Prime.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
I think Brian Helgeland is a good writer but his directorial efforts always leave me wanting. Whereas he wrote one of the most masterful crime films ever (L.A. Confidential), he failed to adapt Richard Stark to the screen with Payback (yes, I’ve seen his director’s cut and it’s not much better). His treatment of the Jackie Robinson story is more evidence that Helgeland should say behind the keyboard, not the camera.
That doesn’t mean 42 isn’t enjoyable. It’s an entertaining, sometimes moving piece that hinges on two performances. Chadwick Boseman is solid as Robinson. He shows the foundation of being a strong leading man, even if his performance never surprises. The one who does surprise is Harrison Ford. I worried that the actor would ham it up as Rickey but, after I got used to his delivery in the first scene, Ford manages to steal the movie. He gives a pitch perfect performance from the way he talks to the way he walks to his subtle, touching moments to his few stereotypical Ford-finger-pointing scenes. This is the kind of character Ford should have been picking since the turn of the 21st century. His role is as action hero is over and it’s embarrassing to watch him try. But the actor, as proven in some of his best films of the 80s, has range and his Branch Rickey shows he can play character parts when his heart is in it. Let’s just hope his upcoming role in 1923 is just as good.
Back to Helgeland, his approach to the material is far too polished for my taste. It’s the modern Hollywood feel, like every movie Spielberg makes these days, where every exterior is over-lit and all the characters seem to shine off the screen. It’s far too glamorous of a take on the Robinson story, exemplified by a Natural-like finale that falls flat. The truth is that Helgeland’s script needed a Curtis Hanson or a Clint Eastwood. Those filmmakers took great scripts and made great movies out of them, something Helgeland has yet to accomplish.
Watched on DVD