Thursday 4 October 2007


Fear Strikes Out (1957) dir. Robert Mulligan
Major League (1989) dir. David S. Ward
Hardball (2001) dir. Brian Robbins
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) dir. John D. Hancock
Bad News Bears (1976) dir. Michael Ritchie
Bad News Bears (2005) dir. Richard Linklater
Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977) dir. Michael Pressman
Bad News Bears Go to Japan (1978) dir. John Berry

Guest review by Greg Klymkiw

With baseball playoffs just begun it seems appropriate that Paramount Home Video should have released this nine-movie box set entitled the “Game Night Collection” as a bit of cinematic foreplay to the main event (as it were). As someone who has virtually no interest in sports I still find myself a sucker for great sports pictures since the addition of story, character, mise en scene and on occasion, pure big-screen hokum become a perfect substitute for watching the thing itself. In a sense, these pictures often delve into that one area of sports some actually find fascinating - the world of sports – that is, everything about and around the sport rather than the sport itself.

American cinema is, of course, overflowing with sporting activities as a backdrop, but it is probably safe to say that it is baseball and football that are – by far – the most popular. In the movies, if football is analogous to war as it so often is (think Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” as a recent example), baseball occupies a somewhat loftier, though gentler metaphorical position than football – that of Life itself. Winning is nice, but how you play the game is just as, if not more important.

When this box set presented itself to me, I was actually pretty excited since I had seen many of these films when I was a child and had some really fond memories of them. I was also looking forward to catching up with a few of the newer titles I had heretofore missed and to take a new look at a couple of the more recent offerings. Upon actually finishing the whole box, my initial hopes weren’t necessarily dashed, but the collection turned out to be a pretty mixed bag.

Happily, in all such sets, there’s usually at least one Crown Jewel in the mix and this box is no exception. While I’ve always had fond memories of “Fear Strikes Out” this most recent viewing yielded one of those rare experiences where the benefits of age (mine and the film’s) allowed for a whole new appreciation of this minor masterpiece of the 1950s. The inspiring true story of Jimmy Piersall a star hitter, shortstop and outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who fought his way to the top with the help of his insanely demanding and driven father only to suffer a highly public nervous breakdown is the stuff movies are made of. And this picture delivers big-time.

The relationship between father and son often provides highly-charged drama, but as portrayed in this extraordinary movie, it chills to the bone with its portrait of a father pushing his son out of both love and selfishness to dizzying heights of fame on the surface, while deep-down, shoving his son into a deep, dark closet mired in fear and intimidation. Karl Malden as Dad and Anthony Perkins as Jimmy electrify the screen with their searing, staggering performances. As horrendous as Dad is, Malden still infuses the character with a warmth and humanity that makes the character all the more tragic. Perkins, in a role pre-dating his turn as the nut-job in Hitchcock’s Psycho is equally extraordinary – careening wildly from the shy romantic young man with a dream to the psychologically battered and drained vegetable in a straight-jacket.

“Fear Strikes Out” is also noteworthy as one of seven terrific pictures from one of the great producer-director relationships in American cinema. As a team, Producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan always delivered the goods – daring to take us on journeys few mainstream pictures were willing to take in the late 1950s to early 1960s. They tackled a wide variety of important social issues with taste, intelligence and most, importantly, a fabulous sense of showmanship. The pictures they made together were as supremely entertaining as they were thought-provoking. If they had only made “Fear Strikes Out” and their timeless adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”, that would surely have been enough to secure them a place in motion picture history, but they kept on delivering.

It’s also interesting to mention how this creative relationship really points to the importance of producers with vision. Once this team split up, Mulligan kept directing pictures, but they were all a pale imitation of the collaborations with Pakula. Pakula, on the other hand began directing his own pictures during Mulligan’s decline. Pakula kept delivering and continued the legacy of creating masterworks (“Klute”, “The Parallax View” and “All The President’s Men” to name a few) while Mulligan barfed up such celluloid chunks as “Summer of ‘42”, “The Other” and “Same Time Next Year” (and sadly, those pieces of crap were his “watchable” pictures – try sitting through “The Nickel Ride” sometime).

Sadly, “Fear Strikes Out” has absolutely no extra features, but it’s a solid transfer of a gorgeous-looking black and white picture and happily enhanced anamorphically.

“Fear Strikes Out” is a terrific movie to own. Within the context of this box set, it shares (thankfully on a separate disc) a slim-line case with “Bang the Drum Slowly”. Directed by the painfully bland John Hancock, this TV-movie-style (visually) and annoyingly muted drama pretty much makes mincemeat out of Mark Harris’s lovely novel and screenplay. A young Robert DeNiro as a doomed simpleton ball player works hard to charm and touch us while Michael Moriarty as the pal who takes pity on him is equally moving. Alas, the picture plods along like molasses, looks downright ugly, has little feel for capturing the simple joy of the ball fields, dugouts and dressing rooms and is saddled with an especially grating musical score. There are no extras with “Bang the Drum Slowly”, but none are really required.

The other piece of bad news in this box set is a double-trouble double-header. Two separate discs sharing another slim line case are a pair of what might be the worst baseball pictures ever made: “Hardball”, a bile-inducing story of loser Keanu Reeves finding himself while coaching a ragtag group of inner-city kids to little league victory and “Talent For The Game”, a dull-as-dishwater picture directed by the no-talent hack Robert M. Young (‘nuff said) and starring Edward James Olmos (‘nuff said) as a baseball scout who turns a small town simpleton into a major leaguer. Lorraine Bracco is in it too. Christ, she has an annoying voice. Watching her in this picture, I’m absolutely stumped how Scorsese made her beyond-palatable in “Goodfellas”. “Talent For The Game” has no extra features, but “Hardball” is inexplicably jam-packed with extra features including a pretty useless commentary track with the supposed writer and director and a mess of promo junk.

Getting its own slimline case, the single disc of writer-director David S. Ward’s “Major League”, dubbed the “Wild Thing Edition”, is loaded with a variety of extra features including an okay commentary with Ward. If you liked George Roy Hill’s “Slap Shot” (and I most certainly do), you’ll probably enjoy this raucous version of that hockey classic set against the backdrop of baseball but without Hill’s panache and Nancy Dowd’s brilliant dialogue. That said, “Major League” made me laugh quite a bit when I first saw it and coming back to it was like putting on a comfy old pair of slippers – it still managed to deliver the well-worn goods.

Rounding out the set are four different titles with the “Bad News Bears”. Sharing one slim-line case are two separate discs of the original Michael Ritchie comedy classic and the recent Richard Linklater remake. Ritchie’s picture from Bill Lancaster’s terrific script holds up so marvelously that one wonders why the remake was necessary – especially since it really doesn’t try to move into new territory like some good remakes actually can (I always like to cite the first three versions of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as an example of how this can work beautifully.). Ritchie’s original stars, the inimitable hang-dog schlub Walter Matthau as the drunken foul-mouthed lout who manages to coach an equally foul-mouthed group of kids to ball-diamond glory with the help of the foul mouthed tweener pitcher Tatum O’Neal. It’s a great picture – both funny and moving. Linklater’s remake, as mentioned is absolutely unnecessary, but thanks to Lancaster’s script (which remains largely intact) and Billy Bob Thornton who is surprisingly good in Matthau’s role, it’s kind of watchable. Sadly, Ritchie’s film has zero extras and Linklater’s ho-hum remake is jam-packed with extras.

Uh, Earth to Paramount Home Video . . . rectify this, please.

The final offerings in this box are the original sequels to Ritchie’s original. On two separate discs in the same slim-line plastic case you will first find “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”, a horrendously unfunny sequel with none of the original cast and an utterly unappetizing William Devane making a poor replacement for Matthau. The other sequel, “Bad News Bears Go To Japan”, is not without laughs as the misfits find themselves in the land of the rising sun. Paramount wisely secured Bill Lancaster to write the script and they cast a very entertaining Tony Curtis in the coach role. Is it good? Not exactly, but it’s a decent-enough time-waster.

If you don’t own “Fear Strikes Out”, “Major League” and the original “Bad News Bears” and want to own all three of them, then it’s probably your best bet economically to pick up the box set. At the end of the day, it’s probably best to rent all three and hold out to buy “Fear Strikes Out” and Ritchie’s “Bad News Bears” when Paramount Home Video gets its act together and issues proper special editions of them.

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