U.S.: Brian Helgeland, 2013, Warner Bros.
"42" was the number Jackie Robinson wore when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the number on his uniform when he broke professional baseball's unwritten ban against blacks playing on the previously all-white teams. That number, and Jackie, are parts of not just sports history but of American social, cultural and political history as well.
The movie 42 is the story of how Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) crossed that barrier, of what Jackie and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) went through in the years covered (from 1945 to 1947), of how he stood up against taunts, jeers, and verbal and physical abuse both on and off the playing field, and how he (and the people who chose him, supported him and played with him) finally ended the shameful history of racial prejudice in baseball -- opening the door that thousands of baseball players of color have gone through ever since.
It's also the chronicle, filmed by writer-director Brian Helgeland, of a lesser-known hero named Branch Rickey. Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) was general manager of the Dodgers in 1945, and he was the executive who conceived and masterminded Robinson's entry into the major leagues, handpicking him as the player to take on the job of cracking the racial barrier.
Rickey was 65 when he chose Robinson, and Robinson was 26 when he signed the contract. But the movie makes them a well-matched, intuitively connected team. Rickey, whom Ford plays as a tough old man with a gravelly voice and a dry, candid wit, comes across as a guy with lots of baseball savvy, but also with a burning sense of fair play and righteous indignation. Boseman plays Jackie as a tough, ambitious young kid with a similar send of justice, who seizes the chance Rickey gives him.
The movie begins with Robinson still playing for the Negro leagues in Kansas City, and Rickey -- far away in Brooklyn -- cooking up his plan to integrate baseball. (Among Rickey's other candidates were catcher Roy Campanella and the ageless master pitcher Satchel Paige, both of whom eventually made it to the "bigs" as well).
Then we watch as Robinson, under Rickey's protection, goes from the Kansas City Monarchs to the Montreal Royals (a Dodger farm team) and finally to the Ebbets Field stomping grounds of "Dem Bums" (the Dodgers) -- all the while having to cope with the hostility of other teams, segregation, isolation in the South, physical threats and the hostility of some of his teammates as well. The most memorable of the scenes of racial tension is the heckling session -- a grinning torrent of six-letter words (all the same word, beginning with "n") poured on Jackie by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played with utterly believable malice and ease by actor Alan Tudyk).
Jackie Robinson played himself in the 1950 bio-movie The Jackie Robinson Story, with mixed results. (The Hollywood Reporter, though, predicted a possible movie career for him -- which is something that actually happened for the young actress who played Rachel Robinson, Ruby Dee.) Boseman endows Jackie with an inner turbulence tightly contained. We can accept Boseman's Jackie as a great athlete, and also as a charismatic and determined figure -- matched every step of he way by Beharie as wife Rachel.
As Ford plays him, Rickey is clearly acting out of conviction. Rickey, who had seen racism in action his entire career, simply felt that black players were getting a raw deal. He wanted to right some of those wrongs. But he was also acting out of enlightened self-interest. Rickey knew, as a canny baseball man, that a lot of first-rate talent was being ignored and wasted. He wanted both to improve his team and to improve America -- and he ultimately did both.
The Dodgers, after all, were no desperate, floundering team looking for a gimmick to create controversy and draw crowds. They had finished second in the National League pennant race the year before (to St. Louis) and they had star players -- including shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and second baseman Eddie Stanky (Jessie Luken) -- as well as the most colorful manager then in (or out of) the sport, Hollywood ladies' man (he was married to actress Laraine Day) Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni). Durocher was the dugout philosopher who coined the phrase "Nice guys finish last."
These Dodgers were among the elite units in baseball, but they were also cursed with their own share of prejudice (Walker was among the players who circulated a petition against Jackie), yet also blessed with tolerance and anti-bigotry as well. Branca, Stanky, Durocher (who had to miss the season, after pressure group objections to his private life) and Reese were among Jackie's allies. And Reese, in real life, was responsible for a gesture that makes for the movie's single most moving moment. When a crowd jeers Robinson (as was usual in his early major league days), Pee Wee (who hailed from Kentucky) walks over to his teammate, puts his arm around Jackie's shoulders, and looks out quietly at the abusive fans.
I liked 42. I liked the performances, including fine turns by John McGinley as the elegant sports announcer Red Barber and Andre Holland as another reporter and Jackie's guide, Wendell Smith. Moments like the scene with Robinson and Reese -- which you just don't see in most new movies (at least done that convincingly) -- are a big part of what makes 42 good.
Writer-director Helgeland is no softy. As either writer or as writer-director, he's been a specialist in tough, knowing neo-noirs -- ranging from L.A. Confidential (which won him a best screenplay Oscar) to the putridly violent and brutal Point Blank remake (with Mel Gibson) Payback. 42, in his hands, is not overly sentimental. But he's no automatic hard-edged cynic either. 42 is emotional and, at times, inspiring. Helgeland tells it well, with feeling for the characters, especially Jackie and Rickey: for what they meant to their time and ours, to baseball and to all of us. Sometimes, it's good to have a hero. Or two.
Evil Dead (C)
U.S.; Fede Alvarez, 2013, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Gore-happy, drenchingly bloody horror movies like the new Evil Dead, movies so soaked with phony blood that everybody begins to look like a Jackson Pollock splatter painting (heavy on the red), can sometimes be fun if they're cheap and irreverent and inexpensively creative, looking as if their blood comes out of a syrup bottle, their special effects come out of somebody's basement, and their actors are mostly desperate young unknowns trying to shriek their way to stardom. In other words, if they're something like the original 1981 The Evil Dead, the wildly excessive and effective cheapo-terror show that jump-started the career of its nervy young director Sam Raimi and its wildly hammy young star Bruce Campbell.
But when the shockers cost millions of dollars and have an expensive production, like the new Dead remake by now-producers Campbell and Raimi, it helps if they have some acting, some ideas, a script -- and a good one, not just another of those anything-for-a-shock outlines that know no limits and make no sense.
This remake, which is directed and co-written by Fede Alvarez, takes place in one of those sinister cabins in the murky woods, where horrible things will happen to the five good-looking kids who have unwisely cut themselves off from society, gone to the depths of the dark forest and will soon discover, in their cabin in the woods, body-hopping demons and all kinds of frightening new uses for common household utensils, like kitchen knives and nail guns.
In the original, the quintet was just there for whoopee. Here, they're on a mission of mercy. Four of them are there accompanying their dope-addicted pal, Mia (Jane Levy), to help get her though an unusually terrifying cold turkey session. These four guardians include Mia's not-too-swift brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), his know-it-all pal Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and sexy friends Olivia (Jessica Lucas) and Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). These five find what initially seems a bare, deserted cabin (a family hideaway), but quickly becomes full of stuff, almost all of it dangerous. And things begin to go really wrong when Eric finds and reads the Necromicron, or Book of the Dead, which is bound in human skin -- and then get even worse when he unwisely says a supernatural password.
What follows is an all-out attack by the badly behaved dead, which eventually go completely bloody bonkers. If you've seen the original, you can guess a lot of what happens. In fact, even if you haven't seen the original, you can probably guess, since it's been repeated endlessly in what became the subgenre of the cabin in the woods horror film, the best of which was last year's ingeniously twisted and twisty Cabin in the Woods. That movie revamped and revitalized the whole sub-genre. The new Evil Dead, often both predictable and illogical, has no real purpose other than to scare us silly -- or scare us sillier.
Director Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues have some good ideas here, mostly visual, but some bad ones too, mostly dramatic. Despite a script polish by Diablo Cody, the characters ring false. So does everything else, beginning with the acoustics of the cabin, in which sheer bloody screaming murder can be going on in one room, but apparently completely unheard by the people in the next room or outside.
In what I guess you can safely call the now legendary original The Evil Dead, there was a furious, part-satiric energy that hurtled you along and repeatedly zinged up the movie. In this Evil Dead, the script is terrible, the acting negligible and the visuals grueling. The problem with a lot of today's horror movies, and particularly the ones adapted from 1960s-70s low-budget classics, is that their enlarged scale makes them seem ridiculous and inhuman. I didn't find this Evil Dead scary, but maybe that's because I tend to think that life can be scarier.