The Stratton Story

Jimmy Stewart had the lanky build for a Randy Johnson-like pitcher and as one of the biggest box-office draws of the late 1940′s, was perfect to play White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton in the ‘true’ feel-good Stratton Story.  Stratton was one of the winningest pitchers in the American League in the 1930′s until an off-season hunting accident took one of his legs.  His recovery and subsequent return to pro ball, albeit the minor leagues, nonetheless is a terrific story of grit and determination.  Stewart is, as always, reliable but June Allyson shines as the perky, imperturbable Ethel, the wife who pulled him through.  A great look at baseball in the 1930′s.

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Raising Arizona

This is, without a doubt, one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.  The Coen brothers’ second movie is a fast, funny, surreal look at a world that exists but seems to only in a parallel American South universe.  Nicolas Cage is a recidivist, as he is referred to in the movie (a habitual criminal to those who don’t memorize dictionaries), who marries his prison guard wife (Holly Hunter) and is forced to steal a baby when she is found to be barren.  Two more unready parents could not be imagined and  prison escapees John Goodman and William Forsythe and, well, the whole cast add to the hilarity.  There is not one miscast role and the dizzying camerawork by future director Barry Sonnenfeld is a joy to watch.  Ultimately though, it is the razor-sharp script that makes this one stand as possibly my favourite Coen brothers movie.  There are so many quotable lines that  over 20 years after my first viewing, I still find myself inserting them into conversation.

9.5/10

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The Man Who Never Was

The death of director/cinematographer Ronald Neame last year reminded me of a crackerjack thriller he directed in 1956, The Man Who Never Was. Ewen Montagu was a British wartime intelligence officer who spearheaded an operation to divert German attention from the planned Allied invasion of Sicily to Greece by planting some unorthodox evidence…a body. The details make for some exciting ‘true story’ stuff, with Clifton Webb doing a great job as Monatagu and a young Stephen Boyd, eerily menacing as a German spy. The Cinemascope cinematography by Oswald Morris looks stunning, though I’m sure it helped to have a director who was also a D.P. 

8.5/10

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Fear Strikes Out

“A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings.” – Earl Wilson. It has been said by many in the game that a pro ball player makes it based on mental toughness as much as talent. A hitter has less than a second to decide whether he will swing, where he will swing and what to do once he swings and if he succeeds 3 out of every 10 times, he is considered a success. And this with tens of thousands of people screaming at him, many not favorably. This would be enough to drive a normal man crazy and that’s exactly what happened to Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall, documented in his autobiography, Fear Strikes Out. His harrowing ordeal became a movie in 1957 with Anthony Perkins as Piersall and Karl Malden as the tough father with all his dreams invested in his son. Malden is, as usual, terrific and Perkins was certainly able to convey the depression and internal struggle that Piersall fought his whole life but as a ball player, well, Perkins makes a good depressed person. He is just too slight and weak to make us believe he was able to make it that far (and he has a terrible swing). But overall, still a fine movie.

7/10

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Sugar

It’s a good year when a baseball movie gets released but it’s a great year when a good baseball movie shows its face. Sugar is that movie. From the writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who plumbed the depths of drug addiction in Half Nelson, comes this behind-the-scenes look at life for Dominican Republic ball players trying to make it to ‘The Show”, the Majors. It’s alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming and demonstrates the many hardships that these ‘strangers in a strange land’ have to endure. If you like baseball, you’ll love this one.

8/10

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Star Trek (2010)

When word came that Lost and Alias creator J.J. Abrams was rejiggering Star Trek and (gasp!) making a prequel about when the original crew meets, Trekkers were all in a tizzy (since I’m not one, I wasn’t). I am happy to report that he has made the best Star Trek movie yet, a movie that is Trek enough for the fans yet very accessible for the non-fan.  Most of the casting choices are spot-on younger versions of their older counterparts and the action and special effects are top notch.  I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me that they loved it even though they knew nothing about Star Trek.  Highly recommended.  (Abrams has signed to direct the sequel scheduled for next year.)

9/10

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Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd

…or Kidd for kids. 

I grew up watching (and loving) Abbott and Costello movies.  Every Sunday morning at 8:30, ABC in Detroit broadcasted one of the Universal A & C movies.  It was only when I got older and became a movie buff that I was surprised to find that although I had seen the Universal movies countless times, there were several I had never encountered because the boys had a contractual deal that allowed them to make one movie a year outside Universal. Three of these are now in public domain, Africa Screams, Jack and the Beanstalk and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd and every one of these movies stinks.   Captain Kidd is probably the least odoriferous of the three but the non-stop unmemorable musical numbers (SIX songs in a 69 minute movie) and childish (even for A & C) comedy bits that have been done many times before almost make it unwatchable.  The movie’s one saving grace is the great Charles Laughton hamming it up mercilessly as Captain Kidd.  He seems to be a natural-born comedian who throws himself into every bit with gusto and whenever he is on-screen, I found a smile on my face.  It reminds me to check out his original turn as Captain Kidd seven years before.

4/10

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