Posts Tagged ‘Roger Ebert’

Football and Comedy

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

Football, a brutal sport symbolizing man’s primal quest to conquer territory, offers humor as compelling as the viciousness of Dick Butkus, the grace of Lynn Swann, and the agility of Walter Payton.

Necessary Roughness exemplifies the underdog theme, a common focus in sports films.  Film critic Roger Ebert noted, “I fell for it again this time, because it was well done, and because the movie doesn’t try to pump itself up into more than it is, a good-humored entertainment.”

Starting from scratch after a corruption scandal, which includes recruiting violations and steroid abuse, forces the firing of its coaches and the expulsion of its players, except one, the Texas State Fighting Armadillos hires Coach Ed “Straight Arrow” Gennero.  A lack of players forces him to rebuild by employing “iron man” football, where the same players take the field on offense and defense.

At the heart of the team is a player who might have ranked with Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Terry Bradshaw as one of the best quarterbacks ever.  Paul Blake, on the verge of entering college, quit football to take care of his family’s farm after his father died—a decade and a half ago.  To pass the time, Blake throws footballs at a scarecrow that he dresses with a football jersey.

Necessary Roughness utilizes the device of gathering misfits coming together to win the game against a superior opponent.  Blake throws the winning touchdown to Charlie Banks, the only player remaining from the corruption-laden squad.

Little Giants, too, relies on the underdog story, pitting the O’Shea brothers—played by Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis—against each other.  Kevin O’Shea is a former Heisman Trophy winner, hence, a football legend in his hometown of Urbania, Ohio.  Now a pee wee football coach, Kevin prides himself on leading the best players Urbania has to offer.  Danny, meanwhile, strives to lead the misfits cast off by Kevin.  During halftime of the climactic game between Kevin’s Little Cowboys and Danny’s Little Giants, Danny tells a story about how he beat Kevin racing their bikes down Cherry Hill, an iconic part of Urbania.  It only happened once, but it proves that you only need “one time” to score a victory.

A trick play called “Annexation of Puerto Rico” helps the Little Giants defeat the Little Cowboys, despite the latter’s superiority.

The Replacements told the story of the fictional Washington Sentinels during a players strike.  Shane Falco finds another shot at football stardom when he replaces Eddie Martel as the Sentinels quarterback.  A college phenom, Falco suffered an ignominious defeat in a bowl game, burned out quickly in the professional ranks, and wonders what might have been.  Jimmy McGinty, the newly hired coach, recruits Falco along with other players who, under other circumstances, would never get a second look.  Or a first one, probably.

Martel crosses the picket line, though the players don’t have the same respect for him that they do for Falco.  McGinty sends in Falco, the Sentinels win, and another underdog football story ends in victory.

Gene Hackman, Keanu Reeves, and Brett Cullen played, respectively, McGinty, Falco, and Martel.

On his web site www.brettcullen.com, Cullen revealed his awe at standing on the field at Nextel Stadium—which served as the Sentinels’ home stadium—with the film’s location manager.

“I call him the first night I got into Baltimore and said, ‘Let’s get together.  I’d been there for a day,” Cullen explained.  “So, we had dinner at McCormick and Schmidt’s and after dinner we got in his car and he said, ‘Come on, I want to show you something.’  We drove over to the stadium, which was completely dark.  We went around to the back entrance and he flashed his badge to security and they let us in.  We walked onto the field and out to the 50-yard line in the Ravens stadium, and you look at all those seats being full, and you’re playing football and you’re in a fishbowl and everyone’s screaming at you—it’s a lot like being a gladiator.  I saw it and went, ‘I get it now.’  That was real thrilling for me.  That was one of those moments before we started doing the picture that I went, ‘Wow this is going to be cool.'”

The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynolds, James Hampton, Michael Conrad, Bernadette Peters, and Eddie Albert.  This 1974 film centers on a game between prisoners and prison guards.  It’s fixed, though—the warden ensures a victory for the guards by threatening Paul Crewe, played by Reynolds.  Crewe, a former pro quarterback, was known to fix football games.  In turn, the prisoners think he’s thwrowing this game for some kind of bribe.  All is going according to the warden’s plan until Crewe decides to turn against the warden.

In his memoir But Enough About Me, Reynolds exposed his method of filming at a real-life prison—Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.  “I’d filmed in prisons before, and I knew it was essential to have the inmates on your side, so in addition to building a football field complete with bleachers, we had six basketball courts installed on the yard.  I also knew from experience that every prison has its inmate leadership, so I went to the top man and made him my stand-in.  His name was Ringo.  He looked like a Brahma bull with glasses and he was serving ninety-nine years for manslaughter and kidnapping.

“Six months later I was in Nashville shooting W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings when who should appear at my trailer door but Ringo.  There were a couple of state troopers guarding me, and I was afraid of bloodshed if they knew who he was, so I sent him to James Hampton’s trailer.  Ringo told Jimmy that he’d decided ‘to take a vacation.’  The next time I saw Ringo, he was leaning against a wall watching us shoot a scene.  A week or so later I heard that he was back at Reidsville, in solitary confinement.

M*A*S*H, based on the novel by Richard Hooker, revolves around the antics of the doctors, nurses, and enlisted men at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 during the Korean War.  A football scene gives real-life NFL player Fred Williamson an opportunity to showcase as Dr. Oliver Harmon “Spearchucker” Jones, a neurosurgeon who also played professional football for the 49ers.  Through Jones’s tutelage, the 4077th team creates sufficient confidence to place a bet with the rival team from the 325th Evacuation Hospital—with one catch, however.  Hawkeye devises a scheme to keep Jones out of the game for the first half.  Then, the 4077th will get larger odds from the 325th, bring Jones into the game, and receive a windfall upon victory.

In his review of M*A*S*H for the New York Times, Roger Greenspun wrote, “In one brief night scene, some MASH-men and the chief nurse meet to divide the winnings of the football game.  In the distance, a jeep drives by, carrying a white-shrouded corpse.  The nurse glances at it for a second, and then turns back to her happy friends—and we have a momentary view of the ironic complexities of life that M*A*S*H means to contain.”

Forrest Gump features the title character as an outstanding kick returner for the University of Alabama.  In turn, he becomes an All-American football player.  After college, Forrest becomes a war hero in Vietnam, a ping-pong champ, and a shrimp tycoon.  In his review for the New York Daily News, Dave Kehr commended director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, who played the title character, on creating Forrest’s life journey from the 1950s to the 1980s.  “With Hanks’ graceful and creative performance at the center (his first role since his Oscar for ‘Philadelphia’), Zemecks combines a mastery of wide-screen composition, camera movement and long-term patterns of theme and image to create na original and deeply moving experience,” wrote Kehr.  “The sweetly sentimental and the unbearable grotesque exist side by side, with little to mediate between them.”

An episode of The Odd Couple features Alex Karras as a guest star.  In the episode “That Was No Lady,” Felix engages in a romance with a woman named Melanie, who shares his passion for New York City’s culture.  Unbeknownst to Felix, Melanie is the wife of Jarrin’ Jake Metcalf, a football star, who’s working with Oscar on his autobiography.  When Felix wants to confront Jake because love has made him strong, Oscar responds, “Strength has made him stronger.”  In the end, Melanie returns to Jake leaving Felix with wonderful memories that hopefully dull the pain of heartbreak.

Silent film star Harold Lloyd stars in The Freshman, a comedy about a college football player.  The Turner Classic Movies web site lauds the film’s production qualities, sourced to Lloyd’s attention to detail:  “The Freshman lacks the high stakes of Keaton’s comedies and the pathos of Chaplin’s struggles but it doesn’t lack for comic invention or filmmaking polish.  Longtime Lloyd collaborators Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer direct and his regular writing team (Taylor, Ted Wilde, John Grey, and Tim Whelan) provide the story, gags and titles, but this is Lloyd’s production down the line and lavishes all the time and money necessary to perfect every gag.  The campus backgrounds are filled with students, the big dance has Lloyd maneuvering through throngs of couples while quite literally tearing his suit apart (a hilarious sequence that builds to a predictable yet comically perfect gag finale), and the big game looks like ti was shot at a real championship match.  Throughout it all, every last extra seems to hit their marks and react on cue.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 7, 2016.

Crash, Nuke, Annie, and the Bulls of Durham

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

“I believe in the Church of Baseball.”  So begins Bull Durham, a 1988 cinematic voyage exploring the charm of the minor leagues.

Written and directed by former minor league ballplayer Ron Shelton, Bull Durham expresses a journeyman’s wisdom and weariness honed by 12 years of striving to get to the majors.  Crash Davis played in “the show” for 21 days, but his career has mostly consisted of toiling around the minors as a catcher.  His odyssey to small towns and small ballparks brings him to the Durham Bulls of the Class A Carolina League for an assignment—tutor rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh on the finer points of pitching and life.

Played by Kevin Costner, Crash tosses condescension towards the hurler at every opportunity, but his frustration rises to volcanic proportions when LaLoosh defines success as a Porsche with a state-of-the-art stere0:  “Christ, you don’t need a quadrophonic Blaupunkt!  What you need is a curveball!  In the show, everyone can hit heat.”

LaLoosh taunts with sarcasm by questioning whether Crash has ever played in the major leagues.  Crash responds in the affirmative and to the wonder of his fellow Bulls:  “Yeah, I was in the show.  I was in the show for 21 days once, the 21 greatest days of my life.  You know, you never handle your luggage in the show.  Somebody else carries your bags.  It was great.  You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.”

Los Angeles Times film critic Sheila Benson wrote, “On paper, Crash is the jock that women dream about, the sensitive, quirky, knowledgeable man’s man who will debate you the merits of Susan Sontag at the drop of a batting average and who knows his way around a garter belt as surely as he knows his way from first base to home.”

An early scene uses Costner’s narration to describe the inner workings of a batter’s mind during an at bat.  When Crash steps out of the batter’s box, the dialogue between him and the Bulls’ batboy shows that Bull Durham is not a conventional Hollywood movie; the batboy says, “Get a hit, Crash” and the veteran catcher responds, “Shut up.”

Annie Savoy complicates Crash’s mission to educate LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins.  Possessing a keen eye for the intricacies of baseball, Annie’s summer ritual is to “hook up with one guy a season.”  Initially, she narrows the pool to Crash and LaLoosh, who receives the nickname “Nuke” from the older, wiser, and sensual Bulls fan.  Crash abandons Annie’s romantic paradigm, arguing that his veteran status absolves him of trying out.

Shelton’s Crash-Annie-Nuke love triangle prompted Chicago Tribune film critic Dave Kehr to write, “With Crash functioning as Calvin’s surrogate father on the field and Annie as his domineering mother-goddess off it, Shelton creates a startlingly new variation on the traditional romantic triangle.  The predestined couple starts off with a child; they have to raise him and send him off before they can begin their own love story.”

Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert praised Susan Sarandon’s portrayal of Annie.  “I don’t know who else they could have hired to play Annie Savoy, the Sarandon character who pledges her heart and her body to one player a season, but I doubt if the character would have worked without Sarandon’s wonderful performance,” wrote Ebert.  “Annie could have been portrayed as a lot of things—as a tramp, maybe, or a pathetic case study—but Sarandon portrays her as a woman who, quite simply, loves baseball and baseball players and wants to do her thing for the home team.”

Meeting on set triggered a romance between Sarandon and Robbins—though never married, their partnership ended in 2009.

One of the signature scenes of Bull Durham is the gathering of Crash, Nuke, and other players on the pitching mound during a game.  When Bulls coach Larry Hockett, played by Robert Wuhl, heads to the mound, he finds out the amalgam of problems causing the distraction.  Crash explains, “Well, Nuke’s scared because his eyelids are jammed and his old man is here.  We need a live rooster, is it a live rooster?  We need a live rooster to take the curse off José’s glove, and nobody seems to know what to get Millie or Jimmy for their wedding present.  Is that about right?  We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”

Larry answers, “Well, uh, candlesticks always make a nice gift.  Maybe you can find out where she’s registered, maybe a place setting or a silverware pattern.  Okay, let’s get two!”

Wuhl ad-libbed the line, based on a recent experience—he and his wife tried to find a wedding gift for a friend.  The studio wanted to cut the scene because it did not move the plot, but focus groups before the movie’s premiere highlighted the scene as one of their favorites.

Besides film immortality, Wuhl received another benefit.  In a 2013 interview on Sirius XM’s Raw Dog Comedy, Wuhl explained, “Plus, for me, I never have to worry about any time I’m invited to a wedding, what I’m gonna get somebody for a present.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 18, 2016.

Matthau, Madison, and Buttermaker

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a former minor league ballplayer with the unenviable task of managing a team consisting of loudmouth Little Leaguers.  Matthau’s rumpled persona matches the Buttermaker character like lox matches cream cheese.  Perfectly.

Buttermaker’s Bears squad, though initially pitiful, nearly beat the Yankees in the North Valley League of southern California, thanks to star pitcher Amanda—a daughter of an ex-girlfriend of Buttermaker—and Kelly Leak, a star athlete who looks and acts like he’s auditioning to be the next James Dean.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie comes by most of its comedy fairly easily.  Matthau is, of course, an engaging performer, and the role’s a good one for him as he sits in the dugout, hung over and bleary-eyed, watching his Bears come out of the first inning 26 runs behind.  The kids are good, too; [director Michael] Ritchie sees them in a fairly tough and unsentimental way, and lets them use the sort of dialog we’d like to think 12-year-olds aren’t familiar with.”

Contrary to the myth of A-list stars isolating themselves while not filming, Matthau engaged with the kids’ families on set.  In a 2005 Tampa Bay Times article, Keith Niebuhr quoted Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played the Bears catcher.  “As far as the adults, Walter Matthau (coach Morris Buttermaker) was in a class by himself.  As great as he was around the kids, he was even better around the moms.  Behind the field, the tree-lined area between the field and the concession stand, the mothers would camp out there.  And during off time, Walter would come out with Jack Lemmon occasionally and do an old vaudeville routine, which would keep the mothers in stitches.

In The Odd Couple, Matthau translates his portrayal of New York City sports writer Oscar Madison from the stage to the screen.  Matched with Art Carney in the play, written by Neil Simon, Matthau received plaudits in Walter Kerr’s New York Times review.  “He is a gamut-runner, from grim, to game to simple hysteria and when he finally does have his long overdue nervous breakdown, with his voice sinking into his throat like the sun in the western seat he is magnificent,” wrote Kerr.  Additionally, the noted critic praises, “But perhaps our man is best of all when he is merely intimating contempt in his sneering dark eyes, with a baseball cap peaked backwards on his untidy head and his face curled in scorn until it looks like the catcher’s mitt.”

Carney portrays television news writer Felix Ungar, Oscar’s friend, who suffers from a martial rift, which sends him into an emotional tailspin.  Finding refuge at Oscar’s apartment, Felix exemplifies domestication that Martha Stewart would envy.  When Felix’s dedication to cleanliness borders on obsessive, frustration overwhelms Oscar.  In a monologue bathed in a combination of pathos and hilarity, Oscar confesses, “I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up.  Everything you do irritates me.  And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me.  You leave me little notes on my pillow.  Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.  ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes.  F. U.  Took me three hours to figure out F. U. was Felix Ungar!”

In the movie, Matthau plays against Lemmon, his co-star in several films, including Grumpy Old MenThe Fortune Cookie, and The Odd Couple II.  All’s well that ends well—at the end of The Odd Couple, Felix exorcises his marital ghosts and spends time with the attractive Pigeon sisters while Oscar, in an example of Felix’s habits rubbing off, admonishes his poker buddies to keep the poker table clean.

Matthau passed away in 2008.  Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times revealed the reality behind the actor.  Citing Lemmon, Downey wrote, “Fact is, says the actor whose finicky Felix Unger played opposite Oscar, they were an odder couple than some realized, for the Matthau he knew was a fragile figure, susceptible to ailments of all kinds, with a pinch of hypochondria thrown in, who would cringe and bruise if a stranger made the mistake of slapping him on the back.

“Lemmon says: ‘He was Felix.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 28, 2015.

Live From New York

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

RemingtonSaturday Night Live has been a gateway to movie stardom for several cast members.  Animal House, CaddyshackBeverly Hills CopWayne’s WorldStripesMeatballsFoul PlayMean GirlsTommy BoyAnchormanGhostbustersScrooged, and the Austin Powers trilogy, among several others, source their success in the talents of those inhabiting Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Center, NBC’s headquarters.

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The Comedy and Tragedy of Bob Crane

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

RemingtonBob Crane became a television icon with his starring role in Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy set in a POW camp in Germany during World War II.

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Aaron Sorkin and the White House

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

RemingtonBefore he became the architect of the fictional Bartlet presidency on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin wrote the 1995 film The American President.  Sorkin’s story depicts the end of President Andrew Shepherd’s first term.  Shepherd, a democrat, is a widower with a teenage daughter; his wife died before the campaign.

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Beyond Gil Grissom

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

RemingtonCSI, after 15 years, has been canceled.  William Petersen starred in the show about Crime Scene Investigators in Las Vegas from its debut in 2000 until 2008 as Gil Grissom, the lead investigator of the night shift.  Grissom was fascinated by the different aspects of solving a crime.  Without judgment, he took a pure observer’s role in his investigations.

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Bush, Gore, and the 2000 Presidential Election

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

RemingtonHBO’s 2008 tv-movie Recount dramatizes the events surrounding the controversial Florida votes in the 2000 presidential election.  A complex tale involving arcane election law, Recount benefits from an all-star cast portraying the proceedings that Americans watched in real time for more than a month on cable news channels.

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Stern and Stars

Friday, April 10th, 2015

RemingtonThe 1997 movie Private Parts, based on Howard Stern’s autobiography of the same name, has fairly rich television connections.

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Origins: “Casablanca”

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

You must remember this:  Casablanca is a classic movie.  But did you know this?  Casablanca had less than auspicious beginnings.

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