Bull Durham (1988)

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Bull Durham is actually a fairly religious film. The only catch is the fact that the religion in question is baseball with its multitude of superstitions, curses, annual rituals, and rites of passage performed daily by all those playing in the games or sitting in the bleachers cheering on their club. There’s even a shrine set up to late-great Yankee backstop Thurman Munson. The other religious sects, namely Christians and adherents to voodoo, are shown as real airheads but really everyone in this film is a bit of a laugh.

I personally found the contemporary comedy Major Leagues (1989) a fairly nasty sports film but what sets Bull Durham apart is that good sense of fun while still truly finding the joy in baseball. Because it truly is a joy. I will stand by that as a lifelong lover of the game even if I hung up my spikes in middle school.

There are still very few feelings so exhilarating as throwing a baseball and hearing the crack (or ping) of the bat as the ball goes soaring into the outfield for a base hit. Or that great moment when you make that diving catch or get that winning hit and everyone cheers you on. Whenever the ball comes down the pipe in slo-mo and it feels like you can crush it to kingdom come. I experienced each of these wonderful sensations at least once in my middling career as a kid.

But most of the time, the experience is made up of a lot of strikeouts, errors, getting hit by pitches, and that’s just as much a part of the game as all those previously mentioned aspects. In such a way, it seems like baseball has always been wrapped up in the human experience and that what allows it connect all people.

This film, in particular, is a bit of a love triangle. Baseball groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is annually immersed in the baseball culture of the Single-A, Minor League team The Durham Bulls. Each season she takes a young player under her wing, teaching them about the game, and holding court with them until they move on.

Her latest protege is the big strapping, bubbleheaded, heat-throwing pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Though Nuke has a big league arm he also can’t throw a strike. It’s the veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who is brought in by the management to refine their young talent. They meet in a local bar for the first time only to almost get into a fist fight until Crash cooly asserts, “You couldn’t hit water if you were falling in it!” And it’s true. But under the tutelage of Anne and the wry experience of Crash, Nuke turns into something. Someone who actually has a chance at “The Show.”

Crash was there once for 21 days but he never had the talent of this young kid. So he must watch others move on to their big chance as he stays behind and grinds out his career away from the scrutiny of the bright lights and big contracts. And it’s in Bull Durham where something becomes increasingly clear.

We so often think of sports as glamorous shows of skill by superstars with million dollar paychecks which is in one sense true. But for every one of those stories, there are probably a thousand more who will never be known. No one cares if Crash winds up with the most career home runs in Single-A, except Anne that is. He ends up scrounging around for another job. Maybe a catcher for a different club or a small time management position. In fact, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the Annies and the Crashes because their whole life is baseball and yet in sporting terms, they’re past their prime. Thankfully they can have each other to dance through life together.

Bull Durham has it’s profane moments, it’s slow patches, and some good ones too but it’s the goods ones that usually stand out and the very fact that this film genuinely seems to care about baseball — but that does not mean there’s simply reverence — there’s enough respect to show the inane stuff too. It’s treated as American’s Pastime. But even that past time had the “Clown Prince of Baseball” (Max Patkin) who is also fittingly featured in this one.

Some of the best moments happen on the diamond with our two ballplayers giving themselves mental pep talks whether it’s predicting the next pitch in the batter’s box or going through the signs. When they’re gathered around the mound not to talk strategy but to discuss what wedding present they should get for their newly hitched teammate. And of course, every time Nuke shakes off one of his catcher’s signals, Crash proceeds to tell the opposing hitter what’s coming as payback. That’s when baseball is fun. Because it is a game. When you lose sight of that it ceases to evoke the same pleasures.

3.5/5 Stars

Thelma & Louise (1991)

thelma__louiseposterThemla & Louise hardly feels like typical Ridley Scott fare but then again, neither is this a typical movie. It pulls from numerous genres that have been depicted countless times before from buddy movies to caper comedies, road films, and the like. But perhaps the intrigue begins with the two leads.

It’s not simply the fact that they are two women sharing conversations together although that is often not a common enough occurrence in a world where the Beschel Test is often a stumbling block, but it is the fact that the two women are played so exquisitely by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

They start out as two people stuck in a deadend world and they feel like the heirs to some of Altman’s heroines in films like Nashville and 3 Women. In fact, it’s a rather ironic development that screenwriter Callie Khouri went onto another project called Nashville. Still, when we look at their lives one is a small town waitress with a gruff boyfriend (Michael Madsen) the other a bit of a bubble-headed subservient housewife married to a grade A jerk. It’s easy to pity them and to want something better for them–at least some kind of escape from their everyday monotony. In one sense, that’s what the entire length of the film gives them and much more.

A single weekend away in a single irrevocable moment of decision evolves into not simply a gripping film but a rather astonishing adventure where they get to step out in ways that they never knew possible. True, there is murder and armed robbery involved but what makes the movie work at all is the very fact that we still care a great deal for these individuals. They tiptoe across boundaries but it never feels brazen. It’s accidental, brought on by necessity, fear, and the like. Even to the end,  it’s as if Thelma & Louise naively believe that they are a notorious pair of outlaws but they don’t quite know how dark a place the world can actually be. It’s neither Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. For good reason, they are simply Thelma & Louise.

One of the most memorable sequences involves Davis robbing a gas station register just as nice as you please using the pithy monologue she learned from the charismatic charmer J.D. (Brad Pitt in a key role early in his career) who always sports a cowboy hat and also ran off with all their dough. She feels completely out of place committing such an act, waving her gun around as the attendant empties the cash register into her waiting bag. But still, she does it and it epitomizes the inhibitions the two women begin to cast off.

But it’s also the same rascal J.D. who rats on them as they look to make their way to Mexico away from the authorities they believe are hot on their tail. Louise is paranoid of such things and Thelma is still just looking for fun but they’re together and that’s the important thing. Except the authorities on the other end of the line, digging around for answers, are actually led by a cop with integrity (Harvey Keitel) who seems generally worried about their well-being. He sees so clearly that their situation is atypical. They are not criminals even if they want to be.

Importantly Thelma & Louise remain friends to the end, even going so far as to visit the grand canyon together one final time. And that brings us to the film’s conclusion. While not wanting to sound too cryptic and simultaneously not wanting to spoil the experience for others, I can only say I wish Ridley Scott would have chosen a more brazen denouement or otherwise done away with his conclusion altogether. What he comes to is a compromise of an ending that lacks any satisfaction. But then again, maybe it reflects Thelma & Louise. They thought they had so much–that they were such big, bad people–except what did they end up with? Nothing at all aside from a polaroid picture to forever immortalize the craziest of road trips.

4/5 Stars