L.A. Film Fest: Papa Vinyard sees THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL and LAND HO!
BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL
Right off the bat (no pun intended), let me just say I'm not a big baseball (or sports) guy. I played Little League as a babe, but my view of the plate was always from either left field or the bench because I was last on the roster. Living around New York, I enjoyed my fair share of Mets and Yankees games over the years, but I couldn't tell you one statistic, record, or factoid that wasn't highlighted in EIGHT MEN OUT, *61, or A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN.
And yet, this documentary managed to get to me.
If you don't know the story of the Portland Mavericks, basically Kurt Russell's dad Bing, who started out as a baseball player before getting steady work as an actor for over a decade, left Hollywood for Oregon in 1973 to start the first independent baseball team in the U.S. Portland hosted a Major League team prior to '73, the Portland Beavers, but their attendance rates were so down that the franchise jumped ship out of town. Russell saw an opportunity in the resulting vacuum, and set about assembling a team. See, the rest of America's minor league teams were affiliated by major franchises, who used the teams to cultivate talent for the big leagues; finding talent that the heavy hitters (again, no pun intended) weren't gunning for meant that the Mavs were mostly scrappy, shaggy, mischief-making ruffians that the majors had passed over (including a certain upstart player better known at the time as a Disney star). That underdog aspect quickly became their biggest asset, both with the press, the fans, and even in their record: they came so close to winning the pennant that it's heartbreaking even though the existence of the team was something of a miracle unto itself.
Bing's grandsons (and Kurt's nephews) Chapman amd Maclain Way have crafted a loving, cinematic tribute to their granddad and this underexposed chapter in baseball history. The MAJOR LEAGUE-esque hook of the nuts running the nuthouse, so to speak, is inviting and surprisingly well supported. The underdog formula remains common, but effective; you like these guys just for sticking up to the big dogs, and every success Bing and his team achieve feels deserved and rewarding. Bing, himself, is a fascinating figure, and though he died over a decade ago, we get a good sense of his loud, savvy, American-as-apple-pie personality and behavior. He played a supporting character, Deputy Clem, on BONANZA for almost 15 years, but downplays his relative success to the cameras: "In 15 years, I didn't solve a single case." The whole film plays a sort of hero-worship in regards to Bing, but what we see of his character and his accomplishments makes a good case for that approach.
Still, the one-sidedness makes the film feel a bit long. There's no moments of doubt, no Francis Ford Coppola contemplating suicide in HEART OF DARKNESS. The nepotism goes beyond the Ways; various members of the Russell/Way family edited, scored, and appear in the film, so don't expect some deep reveal into the dark side of this particular organization. Even the team's allegedly outrageous antics, which are hinted at as being much worse than the infamous behavior documented in MLB vet (and later Maverick) Jim Bouton's book Ball Four, aren't discussed or shown as much as they're laughed about and admired. Once all the fascinating factoids, such as director Todd Field's history with the team as a batboy and the efforts by the MLB to box them out of national fame, are layed out, what's left is a fairly rudimentary underdog story with a bittersweet conclusion. Field is working on a fictional adaptation of this story, and I have a feeling that will be able to get at the dark corners of these characters and their journey that the documentary refuses to face head on.
Having said that, the documentary is touching, emotional, and accessible. The phrase "inside baseball" is named as such because baseball fans sometimes talk to each other in what seems like a different language, their sentences peppered with accurate-to-the-one-thousandth stats, but the film never gets too exclusive for us laymen. I enjoyed the Ways' examination of this interesting moment where a bunch of overlooked baseball players, who may have otherwise never played for crowds of fans, got their moment in the sun.
But I'm telling you, if Todd Field gets Kurt to play his old man, that movie could very well be the cat's pajamas.
Two senior citizens and former brothers-in-law, Mitch and Colin, are at Mitch's Kentucky house eating a nice dinner and having some drinks. Mitch is a rambunctious good ol' boy, an aging doctor who refuses to retire: "They'll have me buried and my hand will be sticking out of my grave, still trying to operate." Colin's more of a soft-spoken introvert, getting over his second divorce after dumping the last of his emotional and financial resources into the failed marriage. Like he was discussing something he saw on TV, Mitch casually mentions that he's bought two tickets to a flight to Iceland departing that very night.. Colin instinctively balks at the idea, but he realizes that as a retired divorcee, he's got nowhere better to be. So they go to Iceland.
That's basically the whole premise of Martha Stevens and Aaron Katz' LAND HO, a buddy comedy about two old guys "getting their groove back" (as Mitch and Terry McMillan both put it) while traversing the gorgeous glaciers and hot springs of Iceland. Right away, the peppy soundtrack and colorful titles inform us that this isn't going to be some stodgy, hokey look at two old guys rockin' out in the countryside; no, the film has a peppy, ODD COUPLE-esque energy that is simultaneously honest and cinematic in its depiction of Mitch and Colin's exploits.
Earl Lynn Nelson, as Mitch, has the showier role of the two, and is a southern-fried charmer of limitless proportions. He wears his lowbrow, lecherous leanings on his sleeve, and has no qualms about telling girls (even his own niece, who joins the pair at one point) to wear shorter dresses and high heels to complement their physical assets. He's got a seemingly limitless supply of both marijuana and libido, and is constantly trying to get Colin (or whomever's around) to join him on his high plain of existential enjoyment and indulgence.
Colin, on the other hand, is naturally quieter and more cynical, and his recent troubles have left him somewhat lethargic and unenthused. Still, his friendship with Mitch is a close one, and he's completely willing to go along with Mitch as he brings girls, pot, and his own quest for fulfillment into Colin's orbit. This movie is about these two older gents taking a bite out of the ass of life, but it's Colin who's the one who has to grow and learn to get out there and enjoy the time he has left on this earth. Paul Eenhoorn (THIS IS MARTIN BONNER) is likably empathetic and kind of sad at times, and in the moments where Colin and Mitch are reveling in their adventures, the smile on Colin's face feels like a huge win.
The Icelandic location work is absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The film goes from the nightclubs and hotels of Reykjavik to the glaciers of The Golden Circle to the geysers at Strokkur, and it's all captured with an effective level of awe. Even if the comedy stuff failed miserably, the film would function just fine as a travelogue of Iceland. In fact, it reminded me of Michael Winterbottom's THE TRIP in some ways, with its two male leads traversing a foreign countryside and taking in the sights while dealing with their mortality and trying to enjoy themselves. Except in this one, there are maybe slightly less movie references (and significantly less Michael Caine impressions).
What the film doesn't remind me of is GRUMPY OLD MEN, LAST VEGAS, GRUDGE MATCH, or any of other "goofy old guy" comedies. No, from the stunning scenery on display, to Earl Lynn Nelson's badass and unrelenting Mitch, to the repeated use of Big Country's classic "In A Big Country," LAND HO! is in a class by itself. I could've done without the excessive transition shots of the pair dancing to non-diagetic pop music atop mountains and glaciers, and the first segment prominently features two female characters who are uninteresting and kind of annoying, but traveling through Iceland with Mitch and Colin is a plain old good time at the movies.
These reviews originally appeared on Righteous Film
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