Monday, March 28, 2011


(For Raimifest, run by Bryce Wilson over at the witty and wonderful Things That Don't Suck.)

" get the feeling that Billy Chapel isn't pitching against left handers, he isn't pitching against pinch hitters, he isn't pitching against the Yankees. He's pitching against time. He's pitching against the future, against age, and even when you think about his career, against ending. And tonight I think he might be able to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer."

Forty-year-old Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is at the very end of his career. Pretty much everything has collapsed around him - his tumultuous baseball career is ending with a losing season, and his long-term but difficult relationship with New York career woman Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) seems to have similarly, and permanently, hit the skids. To make matters worse, the poor bastard is throwing his last game in Yankee Stadium, where thousands of fans have gathered to jeer at him. Though focused on the game at hand, Chapel recalls key moments in both his career and his relationship with Jane, and becomes so involved in his memories that he doesn't immediately realize that he's pitching the best game of his life.

The last of Costner's baseball movies grows a little schmaltzier with each viewing. The romantic stuff gets longer and more irritating every time I see it - Costner and Preston do their best with the often leaden dialogue, but the hideous MOR pop tunes on the soundtrack oversell the emotions at too many moments.

That said, it's a thoroughly adult romance - we're not asked to believe in a younger woman's attraction to an insanely older man, and Costner and Preston are totally credible through the ups and downs of their believably difficult relationship. The then-15-year-old Jena Malone offers a nicely realized performance as Jane's daughter Heather, a sweetly human foil for both characters.

And, AND, the baseball scenes remain some of the best ever made. The acting really sells the in-game action, with Costner totally believable as a pitcher facing his final game, as is John C. Reilly as his catcher - their relationship feels like one that has been built over years (and JK Simmons, in his first of many appearances in Raimi films, is a joy as their coach). These scenes gain authenticity and dramatic heft with the longtime voice of the Yankees Bob Sheppard and veteran announcer Vin Scully thrillingly calling the game.

You're basically on the mound with Chapel, and his ongoing monologue offers as vivid a sense of the game's mechanics as you'll get anywhere else. The film captures the odd sensation of being completely alone in front of 50,000 people.

Basil Poledouris' theme is a great piece of film music, the perfect accompaniment to the end of an era, and to a tired man's last desperate fight. The brass that ascends beneath the strings is the perfect musical reflection of the conflict within Billy, mirroring the rise of his spirit against his exhaustion and the considerable odds against him. The script from Michael Shaara's novel is generous with character moments, and Costner savors each one. And there's some gorgeous photography as well (from veteran DP John Bailey), as here where Chapel makes a rare plea for divine intervention, and the lights of Yankee Stadium come alive as if in response:

And Reilly's "Just throw" speech before the 8th inning is an impassioned and beautiful monologue, surely one of the cinema's great declarations of heterosexual male-male love.

It's directed by Sam Raimi, and it's challenging to place it comfortably in his oeuvre. It falls in the middle of what one might call a "realist" period in his work, bookended by the modern noir A Simple Plan and the effective character piece The Gift. But though it lacks the gonzoid energy and freneticism of his best known work (from the Evil Dead films through the Spider-Man trilogy), it's no less effects-driven: much CGI was used to fill the seats of Yankee Stadium during the film's off-season shoot (along with actual Yankee fans who showed up to heckle Costner and Reilly for local colour). Most impressive is the sequence in which Chapel "clears the mechanism", a mental means of shutting out the stadium's noise section by section. And one wonders if a more realistically-inclined filmmaker would have brought as much viscera to the film's most harrowing scene in which Chapel receives a career-threatening injury at the wrong end of a table saw.

The scene brings out the best in Jane as she fights to save Billy's hand, tapping into a heroic desperation we've seen in Raimi's films before:

In the end I keep thinking back on Zhang Yimou, who was called upon to defend his retreat into martial arts territory with Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He explained that every Chinese filmmaker has at least one wuxia film in him. Perhaps every American filmmaker has at least one baseball film in them. Given that Raimi himself is a fan of the national pastime, who're we to begrudge him this film?

I first caught For Love of the Game theatrically in October 1999, at the end of the first baseball season I'd followed with any interest. Pretty much every year I watch it shortly after the baseball season winds down, a perfect film for the twilight of the season. And though its flaws become more evident with each viewing, I still get caught up in it, and the 9th inning still makes me cry. I dislike The Natural for the way it deifies its hero, and I find the climactic home run overdone and bland. The characters in For Love of the Game are more recognizably human to me, frail, vulnerable, prone to bouts of total assholishness, capable of greatness, and truly at their best in the company of kindred spirits.

Evil Dead 2 was a staple of my high school years, but For Love of the Game is the Raimi film I've spent the most time with. In some ways, as I draw perilously near to Chapel's age (and I note that Raimi himself turned 40 the year the film was released), I find more real resonance in his conflicts than the cartoonish battles of Ash against the undead. It thrills me to see someone with whom I find more and more familiarity with each passing year finding (and proving) that he's not yet done. It's a solid story, beautifully told, informed by a maturity and gravitas one doesn't often see in Raimi's work. And yet Chapel possesses a likable charm, an often self-defeating capacity for error, and a movingly human strength, all of which he shares with the most memorable of Raimi's heroes. And his goal is no less heroic: to use that aching old arm one more time to push the sun back up in the sky. And give us one more day of summer.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


The entire nation of Iran is transfixed by a World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain. Though forbidden by law to attend the game in person, several devoted female fans attempt a variety of schemes to gain admission. A few of them are caught, and held in a makeshift pen just feet away from a gate to the stadium in which this crucial game is unfolding.

Jahar Panafi's 2006 film is a thriller. It's an incisive examination of Iranian sexual politics (giving voice to both the women who are practically enslaved by them and the men who find themselves frustrated having to enforce them. As powerfully as it exposes the double standards of Iran's laws, the film never lapses into polemic: Panafi's humanism means none of the film's disparate, desperate characters are cast as villains. It's an essential look at the social policies and lives of the citizens of Iran, and, because of how it powerfully shows the power of football to unite people across such artificial lines, it happens to be a great fucking sports movie.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, last year's Palme d'Or winner from the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, seems to be getting released in the States on a slow but steady schedule thanks to the stalwart distributor Strand Releasing. Case in point its San Francisco run - after its screenings today, its last day on the SF Film Society screen, it's moving over to the Presidio where San Francisco good guy Frank Lee is showing it for another week.

So this is one of those times where criticism turns into promotion, 'cause having seen the film your proprietor can only urge my fellow American cinephiles to RUN. RUN to any screening near you and let yourself live in this gorgeous, otherworldly, amazing film.

Weerasethakul has become the poet of the Thai countryside, capturing both the lives of the people who live and work there (or are simply passing through) and the mythology that informs those people's spiritual lives. Uncle Boonmee is spun from a 1983 book in which the title character discussed visions of his past lives experienced during meditation, but the movie expands into Weerasethakul's own life, crafting a fanciful tale that encompasses many of his tropes, including Thai soap operas and mythological creatures. A friend who saw Uncle Boonmee with me noted that all of Weerasethakul's films seem to begin with the same foley: the sound of insects gently but insistently buzzing in the forest, with occasional interruptions from nocturnal human activity. I observed that the film ends, as many of his others, with its characters adrift in the modern world, with canned music and blinking lights abuzz with a similar electricity. Weerasethakul's films are all animated with a lifeforce that carries from the mythologized past and, optimistically, beams even from the gaudiest, most obnoxious present. (He seems as tapped into the Unified Field as David Lynch.)

Weerasethakul continues to spin tales close to his heart in his own unique, quiet language. Minimal gestures - a hand on a shoulder; a fish breaking the surface of a water - land with volumes of emotion. The natural world comes to life in colors that simply don't exist in any other film. Weerasethakul poignantly chose to shoot Uncle Boonmee on film (suggesting that a tale that confronts mortality should be shot on celluloid, a dying medium), but the end result is tumescent with lifeforce, and as hypnotized as one becomes watching it one can't help but feel uplifted by its spirit and warmth.

The film is the culmination of a years-long project centering on the town of Nabua near the Laotian border. Phantoms of Nabua, a short film Weerasethakul shot earlier as part of the project, can be viewed here.

Monday, March 7, 2011


It was fun to revisit this film at the end of a very busy weekend, which saw your proprietor in Los Angeles for a cleverly conceived, stealthily executed birthday party for a dear, dear friend. During the trip we headed up to Hollywood and stopped by the three houses owned by David Lynch, one of which served as a set for his mid-90s noir psychodrama Lost Highway. About 24 hours later we were back in San Francisco, entering the house, and the fractured mind of deeply troubled saxophonist Fred Madison, on the Castro's screen.

Having rewatched a number of Lynch's films recently, I found LOST HIGHWAY less compelling than some of the others. We might safely attribute the film's more overtly noir flourishes to the influence of writer Barry Gifford, from the more clearly delineated underworld within which Mr. Eddy lurks to the elusive machinations of Patricia Arquette's alluring femme fatale. But on the whole it's built as instinctively as any of Lynch's other films, and just as dually-obsessed. Just as Fred, in extremis, transforms into the bewildered young Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), so does Fred's wife Renee reappear as Alice, a moll for Mr. Eddy who proceeds to upend Pete's already tenuous existence.

The film is bookended with lovely but frantic shots of a highway's line disappearing under the headlights of a speeding car (and scored beautifully by David Bowie's "I'm Deranged", perhaps marking the film as a vent of pre-millennial angst). But the linearity this suggests is thwarted constantly. Left is right in this section of Lynch's universe, right down to the casting: counterculture icon Henry Rollins appears as a prison guard, and the similarly iconoclastic Gary Busey turns in a lovely miniature of a performance as Pete's quietly concerned and clearly loving father. The music is similarly fractured, from Lynch mainstay Angelo Badalamenti's orchestral malaise to Barry Adamson's hypercharged noir jazz to Trent Reznor's horrordrones. But the biggest sonic imprint is left by Rammstein, whose forthright German vocals and heavyheavy guitars prove a perfect coup de grace for ultimate chaos (Lynch put the songs in after discovering that the crew had been listening to them obsessively during the shoot.) As intuitively conceived and unexplained as they are, Lynch's films always feel smooth and reasoned, but even as the film seems to close the circuit, ending as it began, Fred twitches and shifts, ready to explode and derail. Hurtling us and all our questions into a black, unanswering abyss.

It's entirely possible that my remove from LOST HIGHWAY (and disinclination to put it up with Lynch's best work) is some kind of defense against its unrelenting darkness. But one wonders if Lynch himself was put off by what he unleashed here: after creating his darkest features back-to-back (TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and this), he crafted the genial and G-rated (if still thoroughly Lynchian) THE STRAIGHT STORY for Disney.