' ' Cinema Romantico

Friday, March 23, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Drive, He Said (1970)

“Drive, He Said” (1970) opens with a collegiate basketball game being invaded by anti-war radicals who briefly stage a theatrical protest that no one in the crowd seems to take all that seriously. It’s a pretty blatant mixing of disparate Americas, sports’ safe space and the persnickety insurgents who refuse to stick to sports. Of course, look at the way Jack Nicholson, in his directorial debut, employs frenzied camerawork to render the basketball scenes, deliberately yielding a sensory overload with the roars of the crowd, the shouts of the cheerleaders, the sounds on the band, the shots on hoop shown from every conceivable angle. This is not a conventional Big Game but something else entirely; it feels like an earthquake rumbling beneath the floorboards, threatening to swallow the place whole.

There is certainly something rumbling within Hector Bloom (William Tepper), the squad’s star player but also the roommate of the principal anti-war radical, Gabriel (Michael Margotta), whose manic prodding spurs Hector to question his place on the team and his team’s role in campus life. Why this unlikely duo are roommates at this advanced stage of their collegiate careers is never explained and feels disingenuous, but then, “Drive, He Said” is not the sort of movie concerned with being nominally true, only emotionally, and it sometimes is, even if sometimes those emotions become so hysterical the movie feels like it’s out of control.

Hector’s rebellion, however, comes across less purposeful than meekly unplanned, walking out on the basketball team when his coach wants him to run laps, telling a professional basketball team that wants to sign him to a contract that he wants hot dogs to be sold to spectators for fifty cents cheaper. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad, which Tepper plays to, with an air of someone who doesn’t have enough inner-inspiration to be a radical, maybe because he knows he’s not smart enough. He says his major is Greek, but it may as well be Underwater Basket Weaving for as much time as we see him studying.

Even if his Coach, played by Bruce Dern with a believable tough love, actually comes across concerned for his star player’s well-being, the shoulder Hector chooses to lean on instead is Olive (Karen Black), wife of a school professor, Richard (Robert Towne), with whom the jock is having an affair. Not that it’s an affair long on traditional passion. When Hector says he loves her, Tepper lets you feel all the pitiful desperation this confession entails, which is made worse by the way Black barely has Olive engage with these sentiments. Indeed, in their sex scenes, Black evinces a woman who is closed off even in the most intimate of acts. That she has drifted so far from her husband seems inevitable.

Richard is played by Towne with an oddly, wonderfully disengaged air, seeming like a man who would have been all in the revolution of the 60s and now has mostly let it pass him by, hardly even bothered by his wife’s dalliance, at one point sitting down with both Hector and Olive at the dinner table to talk things through. This is one of the few scenes when Nicholson resorts to a more classical three camera style of editing, sort of twisting the screw on traditional domestic dramas, particularly when Black calls both men on the carpet as, more or less, big babies who deserve each other.

Running concurrent to all this is Gabriel, urging Hector to rebel even as he goes off the deep end, devolving into madness in the hopes of not getting drafted for Vietnam. Some of these scenes, like his campus streaking, feel more broad than scarily moving, yet there is still a powerful cumulative effect in his madness, particularly in how he gets further and further from whatever cause it was he sought to champion in the first place, sort of a mirror for the era, leaving radicalism for hedonism, emblemized in how he tries to rape Olive.

Only Olive finds her way out of this emotional mess, as Gabriel gives into madness and Hector simply falls back in line with the team, the comfort of the community re-opening his arms to him. The movie ends with Gabriel driven away to the insane asylum while we see Hector, through the back of the ambulance window, shout “Your mother called”, as if they are all just kids, waiting for this whole bad interlude to pass before everything is ok again.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

To Go or Not to Go

In the summer of 2009 I went to a matinee of “Public Enemies” with a couple friends. Before the screening, we had gone to the BBQ place across the street and I’d consumed an early afternoon beer, which went along with the couple cups of coffee I’d had that morning and the typical couple glasses of water I like to have after my couple cups of coffee. And even if I used the theater’s restroom facilities prior to the movie, well, the movie was two and a half hours long, and midway through, I felt, you know, the urge. And it just kept getting worse. But, what was I going to do? LEAVE THE MOVIE AND GO TO THE BATHROOM? If that’s kooky talk under any circumstance, on par with taking out my smartphone and scrolling through it while the movie is happening, it is doubly kooky where Michael Mann is concerned. Any second of any Michael Mann movie, as we Michael Mann devotees can attest, is capable of sizzling your retinas. And that experience was nothing compared to later in the year when I went to see “Broken Embraces.” Whew, was that bathroom emergency bad. Whatever. I didn’t leave. I wouldn’t dream of it. “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” was, as you likely remember, five hours and thirty-two minutes long and I didn’t go to the bathroom. When I watched “The Heiress” for the first time, I was at home but still so transfixed that when I had to go to the bathroom I nevertheless literally refused to stop the DVR to walk down my own hallway to go. I do not go to the bathroom during movies.

I went to the bathroom during “The Hurricane Heist.” The situation wasn’t even as dire as “Public Enemies” or “Broken Embraces”, but as soon as I had to go, the need weeded its way into the back of my mind. “Hey. I have to go to the bathroom.” The sweet, awful irony was that sitting a few chairs down from me was an older woman who spent half the movie rifling through her bag and sucking on her soda cup as if trying to suck up someone’s soul and the other half of the movie getting up to go to the bathroom. Every time she got up to go, I’d think, “See? It’s easy. Just get up and go.” Then, midway through the movie, some dude came into the theater, using his smartphone as a flashlight to sit down almost directly behind me. He probably just snuck in after the movie he actually paid to see ended, which seemed to be confirmed when a couple minutes later a couple theater employees entered, scanned the crowd, and then left, but still. Anymore these days, with, shall we say, The State of Things, anytime someone enters a theater midway through the showing, I am simply conditioned to get nervous. And Jesus do I resent being conditioned to get nervous. But that’s a subject for another sermon. The point is, this dude took me out of a movie I was only halfway in to begin with, and so, I though “the hell with it.”

And I have to say, the act of leaving a movie in the middle of it with the express intent of simply dashing to the bathroom and then hustling back to the movie felt…weird. As a longtime glasses wearer, it felt like the few times I’ve been in the shower with my glasses on, where everything looks so weirdly clear that it looks completely different. Ineffably, the theater hallway, the theater bathroom, all of which I’ve been in hundreds of times, looked…different. After all, I wasn’t walking out on a movie. That’s a whole other feeling. Walking out on a movie is like turning off a game midway through because it’s a blowout; you have consciously stopped caring about the result. Leaving a movie to run to the bathroom, on the other hand, is like not being able to watch a game you really want to watch while it’s happening. And even if I didn’t really care what I was missing in “The Hurricane Heist”, especially since I left in the middle of some sludgy action scene, the sensation of being out of a movie I was watching was so foreign that it threw me for a loop. I was walking normal but I felt like I was staggering.

It felt so strange that I tried to remember the last time it happened. And in wracking my brain, I think, I swear, the last time prior to “The Hurricane Heist” I left a movie to go to the bathroom was…“The Phantom Menace.” (I don’t remember the precise moment I left. My guess would be around the time Pernilla August forced out the line “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the sun from setting.”) Whatever that says about “The Phantom Menace”, the primary point here is that the last time I left a movie to go to the bathroom was the 90s! The last gasp of the Clinton Administration! “The Hurricane Heist” marks the first time I’ve left a movie to go to the bathroom since the turn of the century!

I know, I know, I could have just walked out. And while I, dutiful film blogger, was bound, as we both know, to finish “The Hurricane Heist” to write a true review to tell you, potential ticket buyer, to stay the hell away, in reality, I feel like saying I left to go to the bathroom says more than if I walked out. Walking out on a movie means that the movie has nonetheless stirred something up in me something so palpable that I am choosing to actively reject it. I will not give up on the movies like this movie has so clearly given up on itself. Leaving a movie to go to the bathroom, however, means the movie has given up and I have given up too. And since I had given up, I figured I might as well be comfortable.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

5 More Actors to Say “If they had held onto the plutonium, we wouldn’t be having this conversation”

I am excited for the new “Mission: Impossible” movie, “Fallout”, not least because I was an avowed fan of the previous installment, “Rogue Nation”, both of which were written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. But even if you removed McQuarrie from the equation, as well as the immense quality of McQuarrie’s crack at the M:I franchise, I would still be excited for “Fallout” and I will explain why. In the “Fallout” trailer I recently caught, for all the nifty looking derring-do packed within, what most caught my eye was what most caught my ear – that is, Angela Bassett appearing on screen to say this: “If they had held onto the plutonium, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

If who hadn’t held onto the plutonium exactly? The IMF, I assume, but who cares?! What does it matter in the face of a line as good as that?! I have myriad qualms with Hollywood these days, sure, but why was Hollywood invented if not to provide a safe space for lines like “If they had held onto the plutonium, we wouldn’t be having this conversation”? Of course, as movie-y as the line is, you still need a quality actor to sell it, an actor like the magnificent Bassett, whose downshifting gravitas gives “plutonium” as much credence as Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd’s wide-eyed farce in  “Back to the Future.” Still, because my mind works a certain way, when I heard Bassett say it, I immediately begin wondering what other actors could properly sell the same line.

A few possibilities.....

Nicole Kidman. Few actors have as comprehensive a verbal playbook at their disposal as her eminence, Ms. Kidman, and here I think she’d be best served giving the line her patented schoolmarm ring. You know, not necessarily emphasizing the ludicrous drama of the line but instead dialing that drama back and scolding the line’s recipient with a vocal sort of sigh, like she is mentally issuing a red checkmark.

Bob Balaban. The precise, quiet voice of Balaban has a unique knack for making the funny sound serious and the serious sound funny, a trait ripe for one crack, just one, at the word “plutonium.”

Tom Hanks. You know how Hanks does that thing where he speaks in semi-flustered, halting sentences evoking a kind of comic incredulousness? It would give “plutonium” the ring of a desperate white collar middle manager, one who knows it’s ridiculous asking his employees to acquire plutonium, and isn’t really surprised they didn’t get the plutonium, but now is hearing about this lack of plutonium from upper management.

Holly Hunter. Few do venomously sly as well as Hunter, and that’s why if she said this line, she could make it sound like the cruel reprimand it is even while suggesting the tantalizing possibilities of what’s in store when she finally does get her hands on that plutonium.

Nick Searcy. I like to imagine Searcy would add a “nincompoops” to his reading. He’d say something like, “If you nincompoops had held onto the plutonium we wouldn’t be having this conversation”, as if plutonium was the side of mac & cheese his subordinate forgot to pick up with Searcy’s character’s fried chicken lunch.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Body and Soul

Set principally in a Budapest slaughterhouse, an early shot in “On Body and Soul” finds a cow penned into a corral in close-up. If this is generally how most of us think of cattle, waiting around to be turned into beef, that assumption is immediately challenged as the shot reverses so that we sort of see the cow’s point-of-view, looking over its shoulder, as the animal looks out a nearby window and toward the sun, which is pushing through the gray clouds. Then the movie cuts to one of its two principal characters, Endre (Géza Morcsányi), the slaughterhouse’s financial manager, gazing out his office window and soaking up that same sun. In that moment, humankind is linked with the cattle, evincing the idea that our souls are no different than theirs, challenging our proclivity to view them as nothing more than our meat, a challenge made even more explicit during a lengthy scene shortly after that spares none of the grisly slaughterhouse details.

Director Ildikó Enyedi, however, is not content to merely let the parallels lie there. No, her opening images are of a stag and a doe in the snowy wilderness. And while these scenes, returned to throughout and juxtaposing nature’s majesty against nature re-ordered by man in the slaughterhouse, are eventually revealed as something apart from what we initially think, they also evoke a National Geographic special, a live look at these deer in their habitat. And though Enyedi’s vision is far more formalist than, say, the hidden cameras of “Planet Earth: Blue Planet”, that is still sort of what “On Body and Soul” comes to resemble, a National Geographic special for people, at least until its back half when the narrative gives itself completely over to its central romance involving kindred misfits and sacrifices much of its edge for quirky romance.

Up until that point, the film focuses on the day to day of the slaughterhouse, where Mária (Alexandra Borbély), the new quality inspector, initially makes life difficult for Endre with her exacting standards. Enyedi, however, shows little interest in the specifics of the business’s inner-workings, preferring to equate the office environment with those cattle corrals. Fewer scenes take place in offices than in the lunchroom, where Endre typically eats Jenö, played by Zoltán Schneider in a comically droll performance that almost entirely involves him shoveling food into his mouth as he grunts observations between bites, as if fattening himself up to continue with such drudgery. His observations frequently involve, shall we say, political incorrectness, whether it is about his own wife, whom Endre once dated, or Mária, who Endre can’t help but ogle in spite of himself.

This sort of sexually charged talk is further invoked in the theft of powder from the slaughterhouse that is employed to make the animals mate. The police are summoned, but so is a psychologist, Klára (Réka Tenki), enlisted to review each employee in such a manner as to uncover who might have committed the crime. If this seems a narrative stretch it hardly matters because of the film’s overall surrealist streak, one prominent in these interrogation sequences, distinctly evoked in the moments when Klára’s hair becomes noticeably frazzled, sort of a tonsorial emblem of the palpable tension permeating on account of the taboo questions and answer, a tension that feels ready to explode. Yet, as if sensing the topicality of questions surrounding romance in the workplace, the movie diffuses that tension, revealing these interrogations as a mere device to bring Endre and Mária together as the characters are made to realize that they are sharing the same dreams.

Those dreams are of them as deer in the woods, re-casting the meaning of these preceding sequences, and if at first these two unconventional lovebirds are keenly content to continue their atypical courtship in the dream state, it becomes obvious that their arc will involve having to wake up, ahem, to reality, though their real lives never feel that thought out, or as poetically rendered as the sequences involving those deer. Instead Endre is given a limp left arm as a means to connote how he no longer wishes to you know what, while Mária seems suspended in some sort of perpetual adolescence, still seeing a child psychiatrist and re-enacting events of the day with dolls, which was better illustrated, honestly, in “Spaceballs”, but which is never really explored in any detail beyond the surface, reducing her to an unfortunate pile of quirks.

Their romance climaxes with a conspicuously dispassionate sex scene, like two people who are just figuring out how this works, animal instincts taking over. And if the characters had fully come into their own, this might have played not merely as a corporeal exercise but an eruption of the soul.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Hurricane Heist

(Reader’s Note: “The Hurricane Heist” was so visually unappealing we have foregone including stills with this review. They are all awful.)

There are two moments in “The Hurricane Heist” when reality wonderfully intrudes. These occur when circumstantial allies Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), US Treasury Agent, and Will Rutledge (Toby Kebbell), meteorological ace, in the midst of trying to fend off a US Mint robbery, stop to pee, and then later when they pause for peanut butter and jelly. Rest breaks and protein injections suggest a gleam in director Rob Cohen’s eye, gleefully giving time to actual physical concerns a movie with a title like “The Hurricane Heist” would normally ignore. Alas, this is about as much fun as the movie ever allows itself, never reveling in its character archetypes like a Roland Emmerich joint might while mostly forgoing thinking outside the action box to just re-heat leftovers from so many movies before it. When you plant a set-up in the first two minutes involving a football hook & ladder and don’t find a way to literally engineer it during your climactic tri-semi truck chase, really, what good are you?

Maggie Grace, bless her heart, tries to have fun as she credibly guffaws at the bad jokes her character tells or is made to endure, or as her character takes the wheel of her flatbed truck carrying $600 million in cash that needs to be removed from circulation and plows through tobacco fields to avoid the traffic trying to evacuate coastal Gulfport, Alabama on the account of an approaching Category 5 hurricane. This move is meant to demonstrate Casey’s dogged ingenuity that will so frustrate her gruff partner Perkins (Ralph Ineson) when he turns coat to steal the cash they are carrying. That’s a spoiler, perhaps, but it happens very early in the proceedings. Plus, double crosses, and even half a triple cross, abound, and you will find yourself wishing that villainous hacker Sasha (Melissa Bolona), dressed like she’s going to the club rather than the center of a CAT5, was the chief villain anyway since she at least breaks the bad guy mold. Casey, as fate would have it, winds up off the premises when things go wrong and in the company of Will, and eventually his brother Breeze (Ryan Kwanten), the trio forming a makeshift resistance.

The hurricane effects do not inspire awe. Jan de Bont’s decades-old “Twister” contained some dull computer generated tornadoes not unlike Cohen’s computer-generated hurricane, but de Bont mixed his with real images of fabulously threatening black and green and purple Midwestern skies. Cohen has no such desire, making you wish he’d add some sharks to all that violent wind for a little variety. He drenches everything in a dismal grey, and I mean everything. If that makes sense in the pouring rain, even inside the US Mint all green of the cash is washed out, not to mention the green of Sasha’s cocktail dress. Even during the eye of the storm climax when the sun comes out, the film barely brightens, unintentionally underscoring its sleepiness despite so much noise. Noise is also a product of the action scenes, where lots of bullets are fired in the rain, while the aforementioned semi truck chase down an endless freeway is repetitive and as short on practical effects as the hurricane.

The thieves, meanwhile, are short on motivation, though writers Jeff Dixon and Scott Windhauser dangle a couple tantalizing southern Robin Hood threads they oddly have no real intention of exploring, rendering all of Cohen’s artfully placed American flags in the background as nothing more than a kind of patriotic product placement. If anything, because of Casey’s virtually non-existent backstory, all this red, white and blue might have spoken to her staring down these robbers as a sense of simple duty, though this is more inferred than conveyed. No, the intended emotional through-line here is that of Will and Breeze, evinced in the movie’s opening scene, one in which the adolescent brothers are forced to watch their father die in Hurricane Andrew, a scene that literalizes something like a groaning skull in the clouds, suggesting, I guess, mother nature as the grim reaper, though this plays less philosophical than like an inadvertent punchline.

This traumatic event spurs Breeze to become a heavy drinker and Will to become a weatherman in the hopes of fighting back against hurricanes. That plot point also evokes “Twister” and its characters’ desire to develop better warning signs for tornadoes, and there are further hints of “The Day After Tomorrow” as Will is allowed one speech about the hell Earth inflicts on its own climate. But as soon as Will mentions climate science, “The Hurricane Heist” drops it. It’s a real missed opportunity. After all, at a crucial moment late in the proceedings, when Breeze reveals his hidden home armory to help in the heist prevention while proudly citing his Alabama residency, you can practically hear liberals groan, not unlike how I heard (literally!) an audience member at my screening yawn when Will mentions climate change to Casey.

“The Hurricane Heist”, of all movies, teases merging blue state priorities with red ones, only to quickly let its glimmer of bipartisanship fly away in the wind.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Barrier is Broken (Coming to Terms)

My favorite college basketball game is the 1989 NCAA Tournament first round tilt when 16th seeded Ivy League upstart Princeton came within a single precious point of usurping top seeded, then-hardwood colossus Georgetown. What I remember most is how the seemingly impossible gradually became possible and then suddenly seemed so probable that I felt as if I was holding my breath the entire second half. Even watching it now, knowing the outcome, I feel tingles, not least because of the crowd, how it collectively gasps at every Princeton make and moans at every Princeton miss, and how you can sense them sensing they might be witnessing history, and which Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning seems to sense too as he gallantly raises his level of play. That Princeton lost, 50-49, is what made it, in retrospect, mythic. Had Princeton won, the What If? would have never been a question at all, and we would have been deprived the tantalizing possibility of every ensuing NCAA Tournament being the one where the impossible dream might come true.

That game is what made me realize March Madness, as it was colloquially called until the NCAA trademarked the term into wretched oblivion, was all about the underdog. The NCAA has tried to write the underdog out of the script, which Princeton’s non-win helped to prevent as has been recalled many times over in the years since, but for all the NCAA’s stodgy regulations nevertheless favoring the CBB oligarchs, the tournament itself has remained refreshingly, gloriously egalitarian. I am liable to forget Final Fours and National Championships, but I will never forget staying up late when I was supposed to be asleep to listen on the radio as the Richmond Spiders became the first 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history to defeat a 2 seed (Syracuse). A couple years later I ditched out on an event at my Lutheran church because, for the love of God, it was the first day of the tournament, and thank God too, because I saw Santa Clara and some scrawny freshman named Steve Nash become the second 15 seed to beat a 2 (Arizona). That particular upset equation has happened more frequently over the years while so-called mid-majors like George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth have begun penetrating the deepest reaches of March Madness, and yet, the 16 over 1 remained ever elusive.

It almost happened several times, of course, and Tournament devotees can recite them all by heart, like favorite albums, each one a little jewel of almost, whether it was Murray State and the immortal Popeye Jones pushing Michigan State to overtime in 1990 or less heralded cracks at the summit, like the Fairfield Stags, replete with a losing record, nearly preventing North Carolina coach Dean Smith from tying the record for most college basketball victories in 1997, a personal favorite, which did not go down to the wire but where the agony of potential blue blood ruin was still so palpable for so long. Every time the upset of the ages seemed close to happening, however, like Florida A&M legitimately running with vaunted Kentucky for 30 minutes in 2004, the top dog would pull away, leaving me to wistfully smile and remark, “Maybe next year.”

Maybe next year was a phrase often attached to Tony Bennett, head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers, one of the best in his profession not to reach the Final 4. That he had not was often connected, or so it is routinely said, to his playing system, a brand of slow-tempo offense and suffocating defense that in an era of so-called pace and play comes across antiquated, more Princeton, in fact, than Georgetown. Even so, it only seemed like a matter of time, and their 2017-18 season, in which they finished with a record of 31-2 and ranked #1, suggested it would be, a chance to re-write Virginia basketball history, one that has always ignominiously been attached not to a win but a loss — that is, Chaminade, a Roman Catholic Marianist university in Honolulu, then an NAIA school, legendarily toppling the top-ranked Cavaliers in a tiny Hawaii gymnasium in a game that was not televised in 1982.

In a wonderful Sports Illustrated piece commemorating that fabled upset’s 25th Anniversary, Alexander Wolff wrote about Virginia’s star player, 7’4 Ralph Sampson, who was great, a future Hall of Famer, but somehow never great enough, carrying the burden of that defeat for the rest of his life. It was a reminder how a historic victor goes hand-in-hand with a historic loser, and as a native Iowan who had invested far too much of himself in an Iowa State basketball team in 2001 that became the fourth 2 seed to fall prey to a 15 (Hampton) I can speak candidly about how brutal it is to be on the receiving end of a defeat that brings most everyone else exaltation.

When the bracket for the 2018 NCAA Tournament was unveiled, it did not go unnoticed that the Pennsylvania Quakers were the first Ivy League team to earn the lowest possible seed since.....Princeton in 1989. That Penn appeared perhaps under-seeded ignited bullish thoughts of their springing the 16 over 1 upset, except that those of us specializing in the cosmic sector of athletics knew straight away that this meant the Quakers were doomed. Indeed, Kansas took Penn’s early shots and won. That seemed to settle the question for this year, and one could be forgiven for already wondering “Maybe next year” when University of Maryland, Baltimore County tipped off against Virginia late Friday night. If at first the wonderfully named Retrievers went toe-to-toe with Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, entering halftime tied at 21, history felt more like a fun probability than a serious threat.

But in the second half, UMBC turned and burned. If NCAA Cinderellas often being made on the backs of buzzer beaters have conditioned us to think these games will be close, the Retrievers re-wrote the fairytale, surging to a 14 point lead in the second half's first four minutes. The upset suddenly felt inevitable even if every person who marveled at UMBC on Twitter was countered by an order not to jinx it, just as my beautiful, perspicacious girlfriend, a Washington D.C. native and so basically a Maryland native too, kept telling me not to jinx it as I espoused a bewildered OMG at every Retriever swish. But, it was over. I knew it was over not because UMBC was clearly in the mystical zone, and not just because Virginia’s pace of play is inadvertently designed not to mount comebacks, but because of the look on Tony Bennett’s face. It was one of those little smiles that isn’t really a smile (see below), the kind a character in a noir gets right at the end when the web of his own making has entangled him. Because the game played out this way, it meant that I had time to come to grips with Maryland, Baltimore County becoming the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed, 74-54, as it happened, and my feelings, despite years of preparation, took me by surprise.

When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first two men to summit Mount Everest in 1953, the highest peak on Earth was one of the last great physical barriers. From there, more people climbed Everest, and then more and more, finally reaching the unfathomable point where people pay absurd prices for guided expeditions to the top and literally wait in line to attain the summit. Something that once was so special is now taken for awful granted. That is not to downplay Maryland, Baltimore County’s achievement or suggest I am not happy for their team and university, and that is not to suggest that in coming NCAA Tournaments #1 seeds will start dropping like flies in the first round. Maybe it will never happen again. Still, As UMBC’s lead grew larger and as the minutes on the clock grew shorter, the more I felt the splendid prominence of that Georgetown/Princeton game shrink. There are so few barriers left anymore in sports and the 16 seed beating the 1 seed was one of the last and most formidable.

I felt joy as the barrier was broken, but I also felt sadness, such sadness, such strange, terrible sadness, to see it go.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: One on One (1977)

If “Hoosiers”, another basketball movie, opened with world-wearied Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) driving through rural Indiana for one last chance in nowheresville, “One on One” opens with apple-faced Henry Steele (Robby Benson) cruising the L.A. freeway for his first chance at the Big Time. Norman Dale’s one last chance works out, not simply because it is narratively pre-ordained but because he has Seen Some Things, things like what Henry Steele is about to go through, coming to grips with the pressure cooker of big time college athletics and employing lessons learned in the name of teaching young kids right. Indeed, Henry Steele probably could have used a Norman Dale in his life. As the movie opens, fans in his small Colorado gymnasium chant his name as he hogs the ball and shoots to win. And though Henry is portrayed as something of a hick, he is not so dumb as to not get exactly what he wants from the college of his choice, including a brand new ride. If this movie was made in 2018 then Henry would have called an ESPN conference to decide between Western University and Faber College.

That edge is what makes “One on One” surprisingly agreeable, the unintentionally hilarious detour into an After School Drug Special notwithstanding. There are fewer scenes on the basketball court than you might realize, even if Benson really was, it turns out, a pretty decent basketball player in real life. No, Lamont Johnson’s film is just as interested in the entire athletic ecosystem, where Henry is summoned first not to the classroom but the office of his coach, Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin), whose secretary functions as something like his caretaker and academic advisor, getting him out of tests if it interferes with practice, lining him up with a paying job where he doesn’t do work. One of the best scenes involves Henry going to his job and quickly learning that he is expressly forbidden from actually doing work from the incensed, overworked Latino landscaper (Hector Morales). If this was “Rudy”, no doubt these two men would become fast friends. Here, Henry is more or less told to eff off, and the racial and economic dynamic here is striking for the way it is not played up. Indeed, Benson just allows Henry to take this in like it’s the nautral order.

Benson’s voice, which is barely pitched above whisper, makes him sound more like John-Boy Walton, though you can easily hear him giving all thanks to God in some post-game interview, often exudes an apple-faced innocence that is quite deceiving. When he tells his tutor Janet (Annette O’Toole) that he never had to study because he played sports you can’t quite tell if, a la Thurman Merman, he’s messing with you, so guilelessly does he say it. Maybe that’s why Janet warms to him, at least after first dismissing him as just some dumb jock.

Alas, Henry and Janet’s eventual relationship barely flies, with the movie essentially arguing that Janet falls for him on the strength of his reading “Moby Dick”, not least because we are meant to believe this book-averse jock has read the totality of “Moby Dick” when he cites a single quote. They had Bartlett’s in 1977! C’mon, Janet! You’re smarter than that! What’s worse, Benson and O’Toole emit next to no chemistry, polite or otherwise. There is more tension in Henry’s brief standoff with his Janet’s teaching paramour, a haughty academic who doesn’t like jocks and vice-versa. That the movie doesn’t really allow either one of them to be a good guy in this moment suggests a surprising depth that Henry and Janet’s relationship could have used.

Coach Smith isn’t really a good guy either. He can’t stand Henry’s “hotdogging”, an in-game showboating tendency that is at-odds with Henry’s otherwise soft-voiced personality, a contradiction the movie shows no interest in, and lashes out at his star recruit. Before long, Henry is riding pine and Coach Smith wants him to renege his scholarship. Henry, though, feeling emboldened with his academic standing strengething and a sense of self emerging, refuses, which means he has to take “the treatment”, to borrow Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s term. This emerges as the heart of the movie, and part of me almost yearned for it to be remade as a Will Ferrell sports movie, with the comic actor holding strong, like if Nick Saban was the Dean Wormer, trying to prevent some young punk from lousing up his finely tuned Process. Still, his standing fast and refusing to tuck tail and run is inspiring.

You could say it is reminiscent of modern college basketball, where coaches are athletic autocrats and kids get no slice of the pie that they are directly responsible for baking, except that college basketball has, more or less, always been that way. I wished there’d been a post-credits scene where Henry spilled the beans about getting paid to the L.A. Times.