Tuesday, 21 January 2014

PARAMOUNT GAME NIGHT COLLECTION - Baseball Films Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw: FEAR STRIKES OUT & Original BAD NEWS BEARS Homeruns, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY & MAJOR LEAGUE Ball Fours, HARD BALL, BAD NEWS BEARS sequels & remake all Strikeout.

It's the middle of a cold, dark winter.

Hockey is in full swing.

Baseball is a dim memory.

It seems as good an excuse as any to haul out the old Paramount Home Video nine-movie DVD box set entitled the Game Night Collection as a cinematic post-coital cigarette and pillow talk to the main event which occurred, it seems, so long ago.

Rating of Collection: **1/2
Ratings of Individual Films:
Fear Strikes Out (1957) dir. Robert Mulligan ****
Major League (1989) dir. David S. Ward **1/2
(2001) dir. Brian Robbins *
Bang the Drum Slowly
(1973) dir. John D. Hancock **
Bad News Bears
(1976) dir. Michael Ritchie ***1/2
Bad News Bears
(2005) dir. Richard Linklater *1/2
Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) dir. Michael Pressman *
Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) dir. John Berry *1/2

Review by Greg Klymkiw

As someone who has virtually no interest in sports I'm still a sucker for great American sports pictures since the addition of story, character, mise en scene and on occasion, pure big-screen hokum become a perfect substitute for watching the thing itself. It's a genre that can delve into that one area of sports I actually find fascinating - the WORLD of sports – that is, everything about and around the sport rather than the sport itself.

American cinema is, of course, overflowing with sporting activities as a backdrop, but it's probably safe to say that baseball and football are – by far – the most popular activities to Uncle Sam's worshippers. In the movies, if football is analogous to war as it so often is (think Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday as a great example), baseball occupies a somewhat loftier, though gentler metaphorical position than football – that of LIFE itself. Winning is nice, but how you play the game is just as, if not MORE important.

When this box set presented itself to me a few years ago, I was pretty excited since I had seen many of these films when I was a child and had fond memories of them. I was also looking forward to catching up with a few of the newer titles I had heretofore missed and to take a new look at a couple of the more recent offerings. Ploughing through the whole box, my initial hopes weren’t necessarily dashed, but the collection turned out to be a pretty mixed bag.

Happily, in all such sets, there’s usually one Crown Jewel in the mix and this box is no exception.

While I’ve always had happy halcyonic thoughts about Fear Strikes Out, this most recent viewing yielded one of those rare experiences wherein the benefits of age (mine and the film’s) allowed for a whole new appreciation of this masterpiece of the 1950s. The inspiring true story of Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins), a star hitter, shortstop and outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who made it to the top with his insanely demanding, driven father (Karl Malden) goading him on, resulted in a highly public nervous breakdown. It's the stuff movies are made of and Fear Strikes Out delivers big-time.

The relationship between father and son often provides highly-charged drama, but as portrayed in this extraordinary movie, it chills to the bone with its portrait of a father pushing his son out of both love and selfishness to dizzying heights of fame on the surface, while deep-down, shoving his son into a deep, dark closet mired in fear and intimidation.

Karl Malden as Dad and Anthony Perkins as Jimmy electrify the screen with their searing, staggering performances. As horrendous as Dad is, Malden still infuses the character with a warmth and humanity that makes the character all the more recognizable to anyone who has experienced that special love-hate tug with their own father. Perkins, in a role pre-dating his turn as the nut-job in Hitchcock’s Psycho is equally extraordinary – careening wildly from the shy romantic young man with a dream to the psychologically battered and drained vegetable in a straight-jacket.

Fear Strikes Out is also noteworthy as one of seven terrific pictures from one of the great producer-director relationships in American cinema. As a team, Producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan always dared to take us on journeys few mainstream pictures were willing to take in the late 1950s to early 1960s. They tackled a wide variety of important social issues with taste, intelligence and most importantly, a fabulous sense of showmanship. The pictures they made together were as supremely entertaining as they were thought-provoking. If the team had only made Fear Strikes Out and their timeless adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, that would surely have been enough to secure them a place in motion picture history, but they kept on delivering.

It’s also interesting to mention how this creative relationship really points to the importance of producers with vision. Once this team split up, Mulligan kept directing pictures, but they were all a pale imitation of his collaborations with Pakula. Pakula, on the other hand began directing his own pictures during Mulligan’s decline. Pakula kept delivering and continued the legacy of creating masterworks (Klute, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men to name just a few) while Mulligan barfed up such celluloid chunks as Summer of ‘42, The Other, Same Time Next Year and sadly, those pieces of crap were his “watchable” pictures – try sitting through Mulligan's coat-hanger abortion upon Jason Miller's The Nickel Ride sometime. Sadly, the Fear Strikes Out DVD has absolutely no extra features, but it’s a solid transfer of a gorgeous-looking black and white picture and happily enhanced anamorphically. It's a movie worth owning and within the context of this box set, it shares (thankfully on a separate disc) a slim-line case with Bang The Drum Slowly.

The latter title, directed by the painfully bland John Hancock, is rendered TV-movie-style (visually) and the muted drama pretty much makes mincemeat out of Mark Harris’s lovely novel and screenplay. A young Robert DeNiro as a doomed simpleton ball player works hard to charm and touch us whilst Michael Moriarty as the pal who takes pity on him is equally moving.

Both actors make the film worth seeing, but the picture moves lugubriously, looks ugly, has little feel for capturing the joy of the ball fields, dugouts and dressing rooms and is saddled with a grating musical score.

There are no extras with Bang The Drum Slowly, but none are really required. As a point of comparison though, this set might have benefitted from including the live television adaptation from the 50s wherein scriptwriter Arnold (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) Schulman and director Daniel (A Raisin in the Sun, Fort Apache – The Bronx) Petrie blended the techniques of radio drama with live theatre and cinema (along with those of live television itself), thus rendering a perfect example of cusp-period artistic expression during the dawn of television as a medium that was worth extending far longer than it lived. Their challenge was to translate a tale that spanned two baseball seasons, numerous locations (including dugout action) and a huge cast during one live hour of drama. Ultimately, it’s handled with the kind of originality and efficiency that Hancock's 70s film version can't even begin to hold a candle to.

The other piece of bad news in this box set is a double-trouble double-header. Two separate discs sharing another slim line case are a pair of what might be the worst baseball pictures ever made: Hardball, a bile-inducing story of loser Keanu Reeves finding his inner-self while coaching a ragtag group of deprived inner-city kids to little league victory and Talent for the Dame, a dull-as-dishwater picture directed by the once talented (Alambrista, Short Eyes) Robert M. Young, who turned-into-no-talent-sell-out-hack. Starring an earnest ('nuff said) Edward James Olmos (‘nuff said) as a baseball scout who turns a small town simpleton ('nuff said) into a major leaguer ('nuff said), it's virtually unwatchable. Lorraine Bracco ('nuff said) is in it too. Christ, she has an annoying voice. Watching her in this picture, I’m absolutely stumped how Scorsese turned her into the beyond-palatable Henry Hill moll in Goodfellas. Here, she sounds like a frog with a firecracker going off in its butt. Talent For The Game, as it should be, has no extra features, but Hardball is inexplicably jam-packed with extra features including a pretty useless commentary track with the purported writer-director and a mess of glorified EPK junk.

Getting its own slimline case, the single disc of writer-director David S. Ward’s Major League, dubbed the “Wild Thing Edition”, is loaded with a variety of extra features including an okay commentary with Ward. If you liked George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (and I most certainly do), you’ll probably manage to enjoy this raucous baseball version sans Hill’s directorial panache and Nancy Dowd’s brilliant dialogue. That said, Major League made me laugh quite a bit when I first saw it and coming back to the picture was like putting on a comfy old pair of slippers, managing quite ably to deliver the well-worn goods.

Rounding out the set are four different titles with the Bad News Bears. Sharing one slim-line case are two separate discs of the original Michael Ritchie comedy classic and the recent Richard Linklater remake. Ritchie’s picture from Bill Lancaster’s terrific script holds up so marvelously that one wonders why the remake was necessary – especially since it really doesn’t try to move into new territory like some good remakes actually can. (I like citing the first three versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as an example of how this can work beautifully.) Ritchie’s original, stars the inimitable hang-dog schlub Walter Matthau as the drunken foul-mouthed lout who manages to coach an equally foul-mouthed group of kids to ball-diamond glory with the help of a foul-mouthed tweener, pitcher Tatum O’Neal and foul-mouthed little criminal on a motorcycle, a very young Jackie Earle Haley. It’s a wonderful picture – both funny and moving. Linklater’s remake is not only necessary, but thanks to Lancaster’s script (which remains largely intact) and Billy Bob Thornton who is surprisingly good in Matthau’s role, it’s kind of watchable, but why bother when the original rocks big time and in its own way, hasn't really dated. Sadly, Ritchie’s classic has zero extras and Linklater’s ho-hum remake is jam-packed with extras.

The final offerings in this box are the 70s sequels to Ritchie’s original. On two separate discs in the same slim-line plastic case, you'll first find Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a horrendously unfunny followup with few of the original cast on board and an utterly unappetizing William Devane making a poor replacement for Matthau. The other sequel, Bad News Bears Go To Japan, has a few laughs as the misfits find themselves in the land of the rising sun. Paramount wisely secured Bill Lancaster to write the script and they cast a very entertaining Tony Curtis in the coach role. Is it good? Not exactly, but it’s an okay time-waster and has a good number of ludicrous American-styled Japanophobic gags.

If you don’t own Fear Strikes Out, Major League and the original Bad News Bears and want to own all three of them, then it’s probably your best bet economically to pick up the box set. That said, I do hope Paramount Home Video gets its act together and issues some extras-loaded Blu-Rays of Fear Strikes Out and Ritchie’s Bad News Bears. That would be manna from Heaven.