(On Cable TV, February 2017) There’s a good-natured quality to A League of Their Own that makes it hard to dislike, but that doesn’t mean the film is a solid home run. As a look inside all-women baseball leagues during World War II, it manages to thread a fine line between social concern and outright entertainment. You do have to be a baseball-loving American to get the most out of it, though, as the script quickly takes the familiar route of making baseball a national prism rather than a simple sport. At least Geena Davis is a good lead, with able supporting performances from Tom Hanks (in an out-of-persona turn as a boozy has-been) and (believe it or not) Madonna back when she was trying to be taken seriously as an actor. Jon Lovitz also shows up in a surprisingly non-annoying role. Much of the story will feel familiar, but the epilogue stretches our affection for the film by trying too hard for instant nostalgia for characters we’ve barely met. Thanks to Penny Marshall’s no-nonsense direction, A League of their Own is an effective, basic movie. Not too challenging, not too dry—just good enough to leave everyone happy but not bowled over.
(Second viewing, On TV, October 2016) I’ve been re-watching a lot of pre-1997 movies lately, mostly films that I saw before starting to put capsule reviews on this web site. Much of the time, it’s an imposed event: the films haven’t aged well, fall short of what I remember, or don’t benefit from the power of discovery. And then there are exceptions like Beetlejuice, who ends up being just as good, if not better, than what I remembered. Beetlejuice is peak Tim Burton after all, blending gentle horror and black comedy in a mixture that remains largely unique even today. Alec Baldwin is fun as a good-hearted character (especially after his persona solidified in cad roles) while Geena Davis is spectacular as his wife. Winona Rider is remarkable as a goth teen, but it’s Michael Keaton who remains the film’s biggest asset, delivering an unbridled performance as Beetlejuice that remains, even today, a bit of an oddity in a far more restrained filmography. The special effects are still terrific, and their pre-CGI jerkiness adds to the film’s charm. Beetlejuice still works well largely because it’s so off-beat, doing and considering things that would be polished away in today’s far more controlled environment. The two musical numbers are a delight, and the macabre gags still feel faintly daring. It’s a film that certainly doesn’t overdo its welcome and scarcely more than 90 minutes, and it’s still a lot of fun as a comedic Halloween choice. See it if you haven’t, see it again if it’s been awhile—chances are that you will be surprised at how well it holds up.
(On TV, June 2016) Watching Thelma & Louise twenty-five years after its release, I expected the experience to be less … upsetting than it was. After all; Thelma & Louise is recognized as a feminist classic, I’m pro-feminism; it’s a quarter-century later, social attitudes have changed … why should this be anything but a safe period piece? But it’s not. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis star as two women out for a weekend away from their spouses, but find themselves driven to a crime spree through a set of circumstances—and despicable men. Thelma & Louise remains an infuriating film even today largely due to the realization that it’s still an exceptional film. Films with two strong female leads are still rare, and film to be written from such an explicitly female perspective are even rarer—especially in Hollywood. Ridley Scott may have directed the film with his typical visual flair, but most of its impact squarely depends on a script written by Callie Khouri, channelling female frustrations and anxieties in reluctant wish fulfillment. Pretty much all the male characters are out to do harm to our leads: It’s not just Christopher McDonald’s unrepentant abusive husband or Brad Pitt’s captivating first turn as an opportunistic thief: It’s also Harvey Keitel as an investigator, sympathetic to our protagonist but tasked to enforce the dominant male narrative that has designated the protagonists as dangerous criminals. Thelma & Louise still pushes buttons a quarter-century later, and forces audiences to realize how little progress has been made along the way. Perhaps worse is the realization that the kind of film that is Thelma & Louise, muscular mid-budget standalone thrillers with some social relevance, have been almost evacuated from the Hollywood scene, replaced by fantasy narratives designed to sell latter instalments. I’m upset all right, and I can’t think of higher praise for the film.
(On TV, June 2013) As amazing at it may seem, I had actually forgotten that The Fly was directed by David Cronenberg. Don’t worry, though: within moments, it all came rushing back… as did the memories of being utterly terrified by bits of the film at age 12. Seen from the perspective of an adult, The Fly isn’t as terrifying at a purely visual level. It is, however, quite a bit more insidious about its body horror and the gradual devolution of its character into a mindless beast. Jeff Goldblum can still look upon this as one of his most defining performances as the mutating scientist, while Geena Davis strikes just the right notes as a journalist who finds herself with a lot more grief than she expected chasing a good story. What really doesn’t work so well is John Getz’s character arc going from creepy ex-boyfriend to shotgun-wielding saviour. Cronenberg’s craft means that the film still, more than twenty-five years later, works quite well despite analog effects and sometimes-torpid pacing. The Fly is worth a look, and not just as part of Cronenberg’s filmography.