Down From the Shelf ~ A League of Their Own

5

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters join the first female professional baseball league and struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry.

Stars: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Jon Lovitz

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:   There are certain and specific indicators that summer is on its way: the greening grass and budding trees, the rising temps and thawing snow drifts, the appearances of short shorts and sandals (with and without socks), and the baseball season openers from coast to coast. Just as bears come out of hibernation and seek nourishment, so do the baseball fans trek to their stadiums hoping to catch a fly ball. Baseball has been called the national pastime and baseball films remain the most popular subject for sports related films.

Up until A League of Their Own was released in the summer of 1991 (and pretty much ever since) the baseball genre has been dominated by films that targeted the male moviegoers. Whether it was appealing to their comedic side (Major League, Bull Durham) or tugging at their macho heartstrings (Field of Dreams, The Pride of the Yankees), you’d be hard pressed to find a strong female presence that wasn’t relegated to the arm of the star pitcher or as the wife of the general manager.

So it’s no wonder that A League of Their Own was such a big deal because not only did it introduce a female centered film but shone a light on a time in history that many had forgotten or were unaware ever existed. For 12 years, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League operated with 15 teams featuring a grand total of 600 players. With World War II occupying the public interest, baseball executives like Philip Wrigley and Branch Rickey wanted to make sure that the sport wasn’t forgotten during that difficult time.

To keep the cherished sport viable and considering so many men were away at war, the executives turned to female players to begin this new league that would make history. Though looking at it now you can see the sexist and misogynistic overtones (short tunic dresses replaces the baseball pants worn by men), it was the athleticism of the women that left the lasting impression on the record books.

Director Penny Marshall was on a winning streak at the time and though her original casting of Debra Winger and Moira Kelly as ace baseball playing sisters recruited from a rural town who join the Rockford Peaches fell through, I think she was dealt a better hand by bringing Geena Davis and Lori Petty in as replacements.

The rivalry that develops between scrappy pitcher Kit (Petty) and her sister Dottie (Davis) plays out among other small slice of life stories brought to us by a talented cast of women that not only act their parts with style but trained hard to become believable baseball players. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell became fast friends offscreen, mirroring their Abbot and Costello-like relationship onscreen and Megan Cavanaugh is a scream as the shy Marla who makes up for her lack of camera-ready looks by consistently knocking balls out of the park.

Let’s not forget that some notable men pop up here as well: though Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Joe Versus the Volcano) is the top-billed star, he’s wise enough to find a balance between making sure his character is developed while being sure not to step on any moments that spring forth from the likes of Davis and Petty. Jon Lovitz has a dynamite supporting role as a hysterically crass recruiter and Marshall gives him just enough slack to do his shtick without steamrolling everyone else.

Inspired by a story from Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, the script from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (Splash!, Gung Ho!, Parenthood) is fairly episodic and isn’t above introducing a character for a comedic bit only to ignore them completely for the rest of the film. This approach actually helps the film not feel as long as it is by breaking up the action into what could be seen as innings along the way.

Most sport films tend to wear me out when we’re in game mode but the opposite is true in A League of Their Own. Marshall and the screenwriters have packed so much into their fictionalized story that much of the film’s developments happen on the field, in the dugout, or in the locker room. The scenes where we are away from the baseball diamond are the ones that dip in interest, but luckily those are few and far between.

Lovingly book-ended with real players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the film still works all these years later because baseball seems to be (to me) the one sport that is truly timeless. The comedic moments are still light and play off the strengths of the actors while the more dramatic sequences are handled with an honest hand, though it’s easy to see some manipulation at play.

This is one film I find myself revisiting often and I always walk away with a sense of satisfaction because there’s a winning completeness to the movie as it touches all the right bases. So now that the days of summer are creeping their way toward us, it’s time to dust off this film too if you haven’t seen it recently.

Make sure to check out Forgotten Films for more reviews in the Big League Blogathon!

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Mid-Day Mini ~ Gung Ho

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a Japanese car company buys an American plant, the American liason must mediate the clash of work attitudes between the foreign management and native labor.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Gedde Watanabe, George Wendt. Mimi Rogers, Sô Yamamura, Sab Shimono, John Turturro

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  You really have to keep in mind that Gung Ho was made in 1986 to swallow some of the ideas that the film offers up to you.  The world was in a totally different place with tensions high surrounding the protection of the job of the American worker as many jobs started being farmed out to other countries.  Those that had built their homes and families around a job were suddenly out of work as companies found faster and cheaper ways to keep up with products that were highly in demand.

In Gung Ho, that product is automobiles and the film focuses on a Japanese company that comes to a small town and takes over an automobile manufacturing plant.  The American workers clash with the Japanese management and star Michael Keaton is left in the middle as a liaison between the two.  His loyalty to his friends is tested as he tries to play both sides…to disastrous results.

Man, this sounds like a heavier film than it actually is.  Director Ron Howard (Backdraft, Parenthood, Splash) applies a light touch to the film and populates the cast with solid character actors with familiar faces.  Keaton, in the second of three movies he’d make with Howard (Night Shift and The Paper are the others) is nicely cast in a role that ultimately gets frustrating as written by Edwin Blum, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandell.  You see, Keaton’s character makes so many lame-brained promises and tells so many white lies that he almost solely creates the problems for everyone in the film.  In the hands of another actor, this may have proven interminable to watch…but Keaton is so likable and laid-back that he makes it work.

What doesn’t work for modern audiences are some truly cringe-inducing racial stereotypes that I can’t imagine played well even when it was first released.  Making nearly every Japanese joke known to man without the slightest bit of irony, I’m betting many of the people involved would like to forget these dark points of what is otherwise a very upbeat film.

Stereotypes aside, Gung Ho is a nicely structured film that’s not all together forgettable…but not one that will last in your memory either.  Thanks to a typically Howard-esqe strong supporting cast and Keaton’s leading man, it is a harmless distraction.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Splash

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A man is reunited with a mermaid who saves him from drowning as a boy and falls in love not knowing who/what she is.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Dody Goodman

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Growing up, I think I saw Splash more times than I care to admit (it was the first movie I saw on Beta!).  I think it was the fantasy nature of the film that made it so appealing and I always got a huge kick of John Candy but the romance angle of the movie went right over my head…as it often does for young children.  As I revisit some Ron Howard movies (like Backdraft, The Paper, and Parenthood) I couldn’t let this one slide by because it was a landmark film for several reasons.

First off, though Splash wasn’t the first film that Howard directed it was the huge success of this one that cemented the child actor’s transition to dependable Hollywood director.  Howard became quite in demand, churning out a movie a year for the next two decades.  In addition to making Howard bankable, this was the first role that Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah got major notice for and rightfully so.  Though the film was originally intended for Michael Keaton and Brooke Shields (which would have been interesting), watching the movie now I see how much of the film’s success is owed to the performances of Hanks and Hannah as two people from different worlds destined to be together.

The charm these two exude could fuel a mid-size city and there’s a surprising amount of chemistry on display.  Though Hanks would go on to win Oscars and Hannah would show up in lesser/lighter fare, the star wattage from both is just one piece of Howard’s excellent casting choices here.  Candy, as Hanks’ sweetly crude brother is dynamite and long before he was an American Pie dad, Levy (American Reunion) is goofball gold as a bumbling scientist trying to prove Hannah’s mermaid origins.

Ah…that’s right.  This is, after all, a mermaid tale and the Oscar nominated script manages to not date itself too much but instead works wonders with the star-crossed lovers storyline.  There’s a sense of destiny and fate that surround Hanks NYC businessman and Hannah’s sea-life mermaid that just gels and rises above its marginally silly set-up.

The first film released from Disney offshoot Touchstone pictures, Splash was an unexpected box-office hit (spawning a less impressive Disney Movie of the Week, Splash Too!) and hurtled all involved to instant stardom.  Though I’d seen it countless times, this recent viewing revealed it to be a touching love story with a little bit of magic added to the mix.