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

Mystic River (2003)

Mystic_River_posterWhen you enter into the world of a film you often expect it to be perfect in your own minds-eye, following your own rationale to a logical conclusion. In that sense, Mystic River is invariably imperfect in how it ties up all its loose ends, but then again, what film really can bear that weight — and it’s all subjective anyhow. Instead, Clint Eastwood’s Boston-set drama builds off a story about three young boys and evolves into an engaging police procedural intertwining the lives and events of these three individuals. But it all starts with a game of street hockey.

After losing their ball down a gutter drain, the three lads sign their names in a slab of wet cement, only to be accosted by a formidable man who won’t take their small act of defiance. He yells at the most unnerved of the three to pile into the backstreet of his tinted car. The boy thinks he’s off to the police station, but these men have far more traumatic intentions for him. It’s three days before young David flees into the woods like a spooked animal disappearing into the fog.

It’s a harrowing entry point of reference, that only makes sense after flashing forward to the present. The three boys are grown up. Dave, still hounded by his past, is married and raising his young son. Although work is hard to come by, they’re eking by.After a stint in prison and the death of his first wife, Jimmy is remarried, running a local convenience store. Sean is the straight-arrow of the bunch and became a cop.

As is the case with youth and childhood friendships, the ties that bind us together are often severed with the passing of time as people grow up and drift apart. But those formative years never leave us and when these three men are subsequently thrown back together, their past resurfaces.

One evening when Jimmy is in the backroom of his shop his daughter from his first marriage, the vivacious Katie gives him a goodnight kiss, as she is about to go out with friends. That same night Dave spies her partying at the local watering hole, but before he goes home he gets into an altercation with a mugger — at least that’s what he tells his wife. Except the next morning, Sean is assigned to a local crime scene along with his colleague (Laurence Fishburne), and it looks to be a grisly ordeal.

From thence forward, the seeds of doubt begin to spring up in our minds. What did Dave really do? Who killed this girl full of life and exuberance? Jimmy wants to know those exact same answers, and he’s welling up with bitterness and discontent. Sean walks this fine line of doing his duty and treading lightly on this man he used to know well and now is practically a stranger. Meanwhile, Dave lives his apathetic little life, looking to obfuscate what happened that night with the help of his fearful wife.

But of course, when Jimmy catches wind of what Dave did, he puts two and two together and comes to his own convenient conclusions. He wants justice after all. Even when Sean and Whitey make crucial discoveries of their own, it’s too late to stop the wheels from turning. Jimmy’s mind is already made up.

To his credit, Brian Helgeland’s script adeptly keeps all its arcs afloat, crisscrossing in such a way that leads to more and more questions, because there’s ever a hint of ambiguity. Nothing is quite spelled out and that’s paying respect to the viewer. However, there are moments where Mystic River enters unbelievable or even illogical territory, near its conclusion. Still, that does not take away from its overall strengths as a magnetic character study and gripping procedural. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn especially give stellar turns, the first as a frightened and mentally distressed man, the other as a hardened ex-con with vigilante tendencies. The fact that each character is grounded by their families is a crucial piece of the storyline, tying them all together.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

ShawshankRedemptionMoviePoster (1)This film originated from a Stephen King novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The actress actually does play into this movie and her famed hair flip from Gilda even makes a memorable appearance. However, the shortening of the title not only simplifies things, but it refocuses the film on what it is all about. You guessed it. At its core, Shawshank is about the redemption of one man who would never let his hope or ardent spirit be quelled. That man is the memorable, but generally unassuming, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins).

His story began back in 1947 when he was put on trial after being accused of riddling his unfaithful wife and her lover with bullets in his drunken rage. We see bits and pieces of what happened, but not everything. Andy quietly maintains his innocence, but he is dealt two back-to-back life sentences in the Shawshank state penitentiary.

When he gets there initially he looks to be a pushover, not ready for the dark recesses and the harsh reality that is prison life. In his typically smooth mode of voice-over, Morgan Freeman, as camp grifter Red, recalls when he first set eyes on this man. He didn’t know it then but Andy would prove to be a life-changing acquaintance, and he also proved to have more guts than Red was expecting.

They first cross paths when Andy comes to Red inquiring about getting a rock hammer and Rita Hayworth. Red obliges and these trinkets allow Andy to shape rocks to form a chess set. The poster goes up on his wall and others soon follow. He’s a man who always strives to stay busy, and he never lets his circumstances get him down.

It doesn’t come easy though because the local prison gang christened “the sisters” are used to getting their way with any inmate they cross paths with. Andy is not one such individual, and he pays the price, receiving beatings on multiple occasions. Still, he keeps on living and ultimately makes a name for himself by providing tax advice for one of the most notorious guards. It’s after this specific moment when he wins a round of beers for his mates that they begin to see the extraordinary individual in their midst. He goes by the credo, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Following his own words to a tee, Andy begins to prove his worth and earn respect as he gives tax advice to many of the prison attendants and guards. Even the hypocritical warden uses his services to keep his finances and office in order.

Andy is also transferred from doing grunt work to helping the aged prisoner Brooks in the library. It’s a step up and unprecedented in the history of the prison, but then Andy is truly special. After Brooks is released and tragedy strikes his life, Andy continues to improve things. He regularly writes his representative for funding so he can get more books and his work finally pays off. He also sets up a program so prisoners and workers alike can gain the equivalent of a high school education.

As the years pass, the prisoners get older and the posters change on Andy’s wall from first Rita, to Marilyn, and finally Raquel. About that time, a young prisoner named Tommy finds himself in prison and all the old timers like his energy. Andy resolves to get the young man an education and Tommy, in turn, shares some potentially life changing evidence with Andy. But it all comes to naught. The warden maintains his tyrannical reign and the defenseless Tommy is struck down.

Andy begins to lose some of his privileges as the warden starts to clamp down on him again by throwing him into solitary confinement for two months. When he gets out, Andy’s hope is still alive, sharing with Red about his dream of someday going to Zihuatanejo in Mexico to live in solitude. Red thinks it’s all folly, but agrees to do something for him if he ever gets out.

Then during an upcoming roll call, all of a sudden, just like that, Andy Dufresne is gone for good. To add insult to injury, he used his business acumen to stick it to the warden who is investigated by the police. Andy has the last laugh.

After so many rejections and denials, Red finally gets his parole and he looks like a mirror image of Brooks, a man who grew to know the Shawshank as his only way of life. It looks pretty fast and grim on the outside now. But Red has a purpose that Brooks did not, in Andy. He keeps his promise to Andy and rendezvous with his old friend.

Shawshank is a thoroughly engaging film and it works because of the performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Robbins acts as such a bright light despite his solemnity and subtlety. He is unceasingly upright;  the perfect contrast to this prison which is a vile, disgusting place full of corruption and violence. Freeman is the cynic and in many ways, he stands in for the audience. He wants to believe in a man like Andy as much as us, but the world initially tells him he cannot. However, Andy proves Red and the world wrong, by redeeming what has fallen. I can never get over that truth because it is such a powerful message told in such an engaging way.

4.5/5 Stars

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

68168-shawshankredemptionmovieposterStarring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, the film begins with a young banker who is falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover. He soon finds himself in Shawshank prison, the year 1947. When he arrives the resourceful “Red” (Freeman) believes the aloof man will be a pushover. However, after a major turning point Andy does many extraordinary things in the prison. Whether it is a nice deed for a friend, improving the prison library, carving chess pieces out of rock, or doing taxes for the guards, he keeps himself busy. The strict warden keeps him down but unlike others, Andy does not lose hope. He still has one miraculous trick up his sleeve. Fittingly he instills “Red” with hope and in the end they are reunited. I found this film intriguing because in such a corrupt and immoral place, Andy always seems to strive for good. His spirit is ultimately inextinguishable.

4.5/5 Stars