Wednesday, February 18, 2009
A curious year for the movies
By Jim Caple
Last year, I complained about a lack of accountability in Academy Award voting -- hey, if Corky Simpson gets outed for not voting for Rickey Henderson, I want to know who voted for Kim Basinger in 1997 -- and this year, I have another beef. A phrase popularized by the movie industry has crept into sports, and it needs to be stopped.
We need a moratorium on "body of work" being applied to athletes.
I hope that doesn't make me sound like some old scout complaining about ballplayers saying "velocity" instead of "speed" and "command" rather than "control." Those might be unnecessary evolutions in terms, but they also are harmless. But "body of work" is part of a disturbing trend of ballplayers thinking they should be regarded not as mere athletes or even entertainers but as "artists." Well, I'm sorry, but that's just nonsense. It's nothing more than putting on airs.
Michelangelo had a body of work. Edgar Degas had a body of work. Ken Griffey Jr. has a career. A great career. A Hall of Fame career. But a career, nonetheless.
General rule of thumb: If your accomplishments include pieces in the Louvre or The Art Institute of Chicago, you have a body of work. If they fit on the back of a baseball card, you have a career.
OK. My pulse is back to normal. And now, the envelopes ...
Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
Langella is flat-out terrific in this, making former President Richard Nixon sympathetic, menacing, sad and -- somehow -- fun. Nixon, of course, was a huge sports fan who supposedly called a play for the Redskins that lost them 13 yards. He also once told reporters that if he had it to do all over again, he would have been a sportswriter. But my favorite Nixon sports story is this: When he welcomed the Apollo 11 astronauts back to Earth after they became the first men to walk on the moon, he asked them, "Did you hear how the All-Star Game came out?" Now that, my friends, is a fan.
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
I was delighted to see Jenkins honored with a best actor nomination after his very solid career (i.e., body of work) in supporting roles. He reminds me of a pitcher who spends years anonymously performing the much more demanding job of set-up man, entering games with runners on base and the score tight and pitching two important innings, then finally getting a break as a closer and showing he can do that just fine, too, and that in fact, it's easier to hold a three-run lead when you come in with nobody on base and only one inning to pitch. Which, I guess, makes Jenkins a little like Eddie Guardado.
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
What is he doing with a nomination? He has the same dull expression throughout the movie -- as New Yorker critic David Denby points out, Pitt never transmits a sense of joy as his body grows younger. Pitt doesn't act in this movie; he wears makeup. Great makeup, but it's still makeup. Essentially, he was on performance enhancers for three-quarters of the movie. And the thing is, I generally like Pitt. But as I wrote last year when comparing his running mate, George Clooney, to Don Drysdale, Pitt's cachet far outstrips his box office performance. According to the figures at the-movie-times.com, he doesn't have a movie in the top 100 grossing films of all time (the unwatchable "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is at 101). Take away the "Ocean" movies (ensemble pics in which he is only one of many marquee names), and he has only a handful in the top 350 (that is based on U.S. box office figures -- he fares better in worldwide box office figures, but even then, his top movie is the awful "Troy" at 66).
Don't get me wrong. I'm not equating movie revenue with acting chops. You can be a great actor without making blockbusters. But should you be considered a "star," especially a star of the level at which Pitt is generally considered, when Sean Astin, Kirsten Dunst, Jack Black, Rebecca Romijn, Geoffrey Rush, Cameron Diaz, Vin Diesel, Rachel McAdams, Gary Sinise, Halle Berry, Rupert Everett, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Judge Reinhold and 57 other actors and actresses all somehow average a bigger gross per movie than you do? No. And if Clooney is the movie equivalent of Drysdale (and really, what is Drysdale doing in the Hall of Fame?), Pitt probably is Catfish Hunter or Dizzy Dean, guys whose reputations are due as much to something other than their careers -- i.e, nicknames for Catfish and Dizzy, celebrated relationships for Pitt.
Sean Penn, "Milk"
Penn is superb (as usual) in this movie, and he should win but probably won't. That's too bad, but what I really want to know is this: Now that two ballplayers linked to Madonna (Jose Canseco and Alex Rodriguez) have admitted to steroids use, did ex-husband Penn ever juice? 'Roid rage might explain all those flare-ups with the paparazzi. And remember, we know Spicoli abused drugs.
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
Rourke is the Josh Hamilton of Hollywood. Like Hamilton, he once was a promising young talent (was his Boogie in "Diner" the absolute coolest cat or what?) who destroyed his career with drugs and alcohol. Then he turned things around and came back with a spectacular performance in 2008. Hamilton hit .304 with 32 home runs and 130 RBIs and made the All-Star team. Rourke won the Golden Globe and will win the Academy Award for his role as an old wrestler. Personally, I'd pick Penn or Langella. Rourke is great in the movie, but my question throughout is whether he is acting or simply playing himself. It does, however, definitely rank as the best acting performance by the back of someone's head.
Angelina Jolie, "The Changeling"
In case you were wondering, Jolie is 27th on the aforementioned list of top grossing actresses (right between Anne Hathaway and Tea Leoni), which, to keep our earlier analogy going, makes Brangelina more like Jennie Finch and Casey Daigle than Steffi Graf-Andre Agassi or Mia Hamm-Nomar Garciaparra.
Melissa Leo, "Frozen River'"
I missed this movie when it was in the theater (along with everyone else) and was tempted to treat Leo's performance the way a college football coach handles his vote in the coaches poll -- by having his sports information director fill out the ballot while he watches more game film. But feeling guilty, I rented "Frozen River" and watched it at home. I guess Leo's performance is supposed to make us feel sympathy for a single mother living so far out on the margins that she resorts to smuggling illegal Chinese and Pakistani immigrants across the border. All I kept thinking throughout, however, was that if she didn't feel the need to rent a big screen TV or smoke or buy pricey bath products when she didn't have a bathtub, she might have been able to feed her children something more than popcorn and Tang. In other words, I wish I had an SID who could have watched the video for me.
Meryl Streep, "Doubt"
She's been nominated a record 15 times for an Oscar and a record 23 times for a Golden Globe, but perhaps her greatest honor was when she supplied a guest voice on "The Simpsons." Undoubtedly, Streep is a great, great actress who has made some outstanding movies. But have you ever said to yourself, "Hey, I have to go to that new Meryl Streep movie?" In that, I think she's like Greg Maddux. One of the best pitchers in history, but never one who boosted attendance much. (And since I know you're wondering, Streep is No. 76 on the top earning actresses list, between Diane Keaton and Nia Long.)
Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
You know what is most important in a movie critic? Not that you usually agree with him/her. Not that you ever agree with him/her. No, what's most important is that you know what sort of movies your critic likes and dislikes. For instance, if your critic likes Adam Sandler comedies or Vin Diesel action pics, that will give you needed perspective when gauging his/her review of a foreign film with subtitles. And after having my local critic rave about "Rachel Getting Married" and the long French movie "A Christmas Tale," and then subsequently enduring both films in the same week, I now can say I never again will go to a movie he recommends if it's about a dysfunctional family with dependency issues. Yes, Hathaway is very good in "Rachel Getting Married," but then again, Danny Granger made the All-Star team this year, but that doesn't mean the Indiana Pacers are a good team or one you want to spend your money to see.
Kate Winslet, "The Reader"
She's going to win, but her best acting performance this year was when she pretended to be so overwhelmed at winning the Golden Globe that she needed help walking to the stage. Which brings up an odd point. She won the best actress Golden Globe for "Revolutionary Road" and the best supporting actress Globe for "The Reader." Yet here, she's up for best actress for "The Reader." Why is it considered a supporting role by one awards show and a lead role by another? Can you win a Gold Glove as a catcher and a Cy Young the same year?
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Adapted by the same screenwriter, "Button" is essentially "Forrest Gump," only instead of the gimmick of a mentally challenged man who somehow finds himself in every major historical event of the 1960s and '70s, you have the gimmick of a man who ages backward. The difference is, Forrest did interesting things. He taught Elvis to swivel his hips, rushed for touchdowns at Alabama, fought in Vietnam, spoke from the Lincoln Memorial, played a role in pingpong diplomacy, ran across the United States and got in on the ground floor of Apple. But apart from a minor skirmish in World War II, Button does almost nothing interesting. Don't get me wrong: I found the movie entertaining. I recommend seeing it. But best picture? No way. To be a best picture nominee, it should have told another story. I'm talking the story about a man who grows younger as he ages. About a man who is rejected time and again when he is chronologically young but proves everyone wrong when he gets "older." A man who is physically superior in his 30s than he was in his 20s and more so in his 40s than in his 30s. A man who has reversed the aging process so much that he signs a two-year contract at age 46. I'm talking, of course, about "The Curious Case of Jamie Moyer."
I actually enjoyed the movie more than the book, which is rare. But the adaptation I look forward to most is "Moneyball," which Steven Soderbergh is directing. Pitt -- who, as I showed above, is Hollywood's anti-"Moneyball" actor -- supposedly wants the role of Billy Beane. Well, Pitt and Beane both are handsome, so I guess that makes sense. But what about the rest of the people in the book? Some suggestions:
Feel free to come up with your own matches for Kevin Youkilis, Omar Minaya and Eric Chavez ...
Ron Howard has spent half a century in Hollywood, appearing in two of the most successful series in television history ("Andy Griffith" and "Happy Days"), starring in such movies as "American Graffiti" and "The Shootist," then going on to become an Oscar-winning director of such films as "A Beautiful Mind," "Apollo 13," "Splash" and "Cinderella Man." He's worked with everyone from Andy Griffith and George Lucas to John Wayne and Russell Crowe. As part of the "Happy Days" touring softball team in the late '70s and early '80s, he also played in Wrigley Field, County Stadium, Shea Stadium and Candlestick Park, to name just a few (and there have to be some great stories about those games). In short, he's worn a baseball cap longer and more successfully than anyone since Nolan Ryan.
I liked "Milk" a lot and would have liked it even more had I not gotten one of the last seats in a corner of the balcony (yes, a theater with a balcony -- when was the last time you were in one of those?), behind a speaker, so that it was difficult to hear the dialogue in a few scenes. It was like watching a game from behind a post at Fenway Park. I can't really blame director Gus Van Sant for my seat, but it keeps me from giving my vote to "Milk."
Some people criticize "Slumdog" because they find its plot -- impoverished boy from the streets of Mumbai can win a fortune on a game show -- far-fetched, dishonest, contrived and filled with unbelievable coincidence. They're right. "Slumdog" is an unbelievable tale. So is "Great Expectations." Besides, who would have believed that the Arizona Cardinals -- the least successful franchise in the NFL -- would play in the Super Bowl, thanks to a former grocery store stocker and the son of a sportswriter covering the game? Or that the Tampa Bay Rays would go to the World Series after losing 96 games the previous season and finishing in last place almost every season of their history? Or that a man who had cancer eating away at his lungs and brain would recover to win the Tour de France more times than anyone? Or any of the amazing, inspiring stories we see every year in sports? Far-fetched, unbelievable and impossible are not only routine in sports, they are what make sports so compelling. Why would we want less in our movies?
So I have no problem with "Slumdog." What's unbelievable to me, however, is that anyone liked "The Bucket List."
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.