(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.
(On DVD, June 2011) Casino Jack never played in more than a few dozen theaters, but this limited release had more to do with its specialized subject than any particular fault in the film’s execution. Consider the total audience for a low-budget sardonic comedy about a real-life American lobbyist who ended up in prison after a few spectacular instances of fraud, taking along a few others with him. It’s not exactly wide-audience stuff, but maybe that’s a good thing, because this fictional take on the Jack Abramoff story may not be able to afford much in terms of production values, but it can afford to be remarkably engaged about its subject. For the facts, have a look at Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which covers the same ground from a documentary perspective. For a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a professional con man like Abramoff and a blackly amusing look at the way Washington really works, however, get this film. Kevin Spacey shines as Abramoff, portraying a complex character with a lot of empathy. Supporting players include Barry Pepper as a business partner, Jon Lovitz as a hilariously inept businessman with ties to the mob and Rachel Lefebvre as a woman scorned. While the film does feel a bit flatter than it should be given the subject matter, it’s not a bad time at all, and one gets the feeling that Abramoff himself would like the result. The DVD contains only a few special features. Skip over the gag reel and deleted scenes, but sadly-deceased director George Hickenlooper’s written notes and pictures of the production give an intriguing glimpse of how a low-budget film shot near Toronto could double for Washington and Miami thanks to second-unit work and clever location scouting.