Down From the Shelf ~ Jumpin’ Jack Flash

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bank employee gets a coded message from an unknown source and becomes embroiled in an espionage ring.

Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Collins, John Wood, Carol Kane, Annie Potts, Roscoe Lee Browne. Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, Michael McKean, Tracey Ullman

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Here’s an example of a movie I always remember being better than it is. Over the years I’ve returned often to this strange mix of comedy and intrigue with fond memories of fun only to wind up 106 minutes later wondering why I thought it was so great.  Don’t get me wrong, as a showcase for rising star Whoopi Goldberg, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is aces but considering the actress was coming off her Oscar-nominated breakthrough performance in The Color Purple and was several years away from winning her Oscar for Ghost one can’t help but see this as a minor blip on her way to the A-list.

You aren’t wrong in thinking the role of a lonely bank employee that gets roped into a real-life spy adventure is a strange fit for Goldberg.  Just like Sister Act was conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler, Jumpin’ Jack Flash was intended for Shelley Long who opted for The Money Pit and Outrageous Fortune instead.  Aside from a few instances that were surely the result of Goldberg’s improvisation, the dialogue and overall plot seems generally unchanged from when it was Long’s…and that’s problematic.  With no discernible personality, Goldberg’s character (and the actress herself) struggles at the confines of a screenplay that often works against her more than it does her any real favors.

After original director Howard Zeiff was fired after a few weeks of filming, actress and first-time director Penny Marshall was brought in and that also doesn’t exactly help things.  While Marshall would go on to have several notable efforts like Big, A League of Their Own, and Awakenings, the rookie mistakes are evident.  Though it has comedy in fits and starts, the tone of the movie is all over the place.  One moment it’s an office comedy, then it’s an international thriller before getting Keystone Kop-y after Goldberg finds herself locked in a telephone booth tethered to the back of a tow truck.

With all these items in the minus column of my critical spreadsheet, why do I keep returning to this one?  Clearly, it’s Goldberg and it’s thanks to her the movie remains a rainy day option.  Managing to sell most of the malarkey dialogue she’s tasked with, Goldberg’s NYC vibe creeps in at opportune times.  I still get a kick out of her conning her way into a royal gala at the British embassy dressed as Diana Ross and lip-synching to one of the singer’s tunes.  While the telephone booth scene is quite screwball, listening to Goldberg riff on her situation provides some nice chuckles.  Let’s also give a hand for a fine supporting cast of familiar faces and a great big roll of the eyes at the ancient computer technology that at one time was cutting edge.

A hit at the box office, even if Jumpin’ Jack Flash is an interesting step in Goldberg’s ladder to stardom and hasn’t aged well at all it’s still better than Burglar, Fatal Beauty, and the string of other head-scratchers she appeared in the years after The Color Purple was released.

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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