Monday, July 14, 2014

Land Ho!, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, The Battered Bastards of Baseball

Land Ho!
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

The Battered Bastards of Baseball

Aren't we past the point when a movie can score laughs just by putting bad words in an old man's mouth?

Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, co-directors of "Land Ho!", haven't received the message. They've cast a man named Earl Lynn Nelson as Mitch, a surgeon (recently forced to take early retirement) whose wife has left him. As the movie opens, Mitch surprises Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), his widowed former brother-in-law, with two first-class tickets to Iceland, where the two can forget their troubles and return to nature. The trip constitutes the entirety of Katz and Stephens' wafer-thin movie, and they rely on Nelson to carry it with an endless supply of profanity and reefers and a propensity to objectify and abash younger women that we are supposed to find…charming? I found the character loathsome and the movie charmless (save for some breathtaking shots of a narrow waterfall trickling slowly down the face of a mountain). I liked Eenhoorn so much last year in the title role of the hidden gem "This is Martin Bonner." He tries valiantly to bring dignity to this straight-man role, but I mostly felt embarrassed for him… Documentarian Joe Berlinger directed the first-rate "Paradise Lost" series that helped secure the release from prison of the West Memphis Three. Unfortunately, his latest film exhibits none of the narrative thrust, human drama or economy of storytelling of those works. Instead, "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger" is a mind-numbing recitation of names, dates, and places, the cinematic equivalent of a detective's office wall. You'd fall asleep (as I did, repeatedly) even if you'd been empaneled on the jury. For many of us, a large part of the intrigue of the Bulger case starts after the killings: Whitey's years as a fugitive, the manhunt, and his eventual capture here on the Westside of Los Angeles. Berlinger doesn't get into any of that, or into motivation. To him, this is purely a criminal case; motive is not a required element. The paying moviegoer, though, is entitled to more than she'd get from newspaper clippings and trial transcripts… The feel-good movie of the week - a must-see (at least on Netflix) for baseball fans - is Chapman and Maclain Way's documentary "The Battered Bastards of Baseball," about the short-lived independent class-A Portland Mavericks of the mid-1970's. Kurt Russell's father, Bing, spent his youth hanging out with the championship teams of the New York Yankees. He played pro ball for a short while before decamping for Hollywood, where he achieved fame in "The Magnificent Seven" and as Deputy Clem for twelve seasons on "Bonanza." When the triple-A Portland Beavers folded in 1972, Russell bought the Pacific Coast League franchise for $500 and put Kurt to work selling tickets. Part showman, part huckster, Bing held open tryouts and put together the most motley 30-man crew of castoffs, rejects, and scary dudes you'd ever want to see. What united them - beside the dream of somehow making it back to the bigs - was not so much love of the game as the desire to stick it to the "bonus babies" of the MLB-affiliated minor-league teams they played. This they did by running the bases hell bent for leather and taking low-percentage risks that, for a while, all paid off. They shattered attendance records, garnered unprecedented media coverage (Joe Garagiola devoted two episodes of his national show to the spectacle), and made the league final before losing to rival Bellingham. "Battered Bastards" is full of loving and hilarious interviews with everyone from Kurt to the team's female GM (age 24 at the time) to the players and manager to the bat boy, Oscar-nominated "In the Bedroom" producer Todd Field. It's nine innings of wall-to-wall smiles.

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