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This week:

The Bad News Bears

Filthy says:
"Were in the shitstorm of Fall now, folks."

When you look at the art of storytelling through the ages, you find there aren't many different classic archetypes. Most of today's stories are ripoffs of Greek, Shakesperean and Encyclopedia Brown models of greed, lust, tragically-doomed pansies and cop-buddies in over their heads. There's nothing wrong with retelling the same old stories. It's part of the tradition. Hell, the Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer aren't the same stories that old blind bugger told. They're the interpreted and evolved versions that finally were put to paper by someone else. Akira Kurosawa's Ran is a damn good interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear, West Side Story's a new way of telling Romeo and Juliet, and Candy Bottom's gang-bangs with Ismene and the "man who had come from Argos" create a new and profound understanding of Sophocles' Antigone. I assure you, the original play had nowhere near as many silvery strands of hot jizz dripping off hot chicks' noses, and that helps us understand Antigone's accusation that Ismene had done "holy things criminally." The point is, retelling a story is fine if you have something new to add, or a fresh interpretation.

But, the great tradition of expanding and reinventing a classic story falls apart in the hands of those lazy, unimaginative grassfuckers in Hollywood. Sometimes they get it right, and they expand on a classic story. Other times, they just riff on someone else's hard work like a shitty bar band churning out "Everybody's Working for the Weekend" for the thousandth time. The lazy bastards don't add anything, they just grab the idea and try to cash in. The unimaginative ones want to reinvent the story, but are incapable. All they do is twist it up and soil it, like a pair of my boxers, without ever really understanding what made the story a classic.

Hardball is the latest example of Hollywood's penchant for sucking a classic dry. As we all know, this story of Keanu Reeves as a degenerate and drunken gambler who has to coach a little league team to pay off a gambling debt is yet another retelling of a classic Greek myth. In ancient times, the boozy and doomed Dionysus was hired under the table by Zeus to coach Hercules' baseball team because Zeus was too busy banging the snot out of Aphrodite to do it himself. In 1976, director Michael Ritchie reinvented the story for our times in The Bad News Bears. That movie has it all over the shitty, self-satisfied, cheap-sentiment Hardball. Hardball probably would have worked as a Lifetime Channel flick starring Tony Danza aimed at women who don't know and don't want to know anything about baseball. Sadly, Keanu Reeves is no Tony Danza.

Both movies have alcoholic losers forced into coaching little league baseball for money. Neither coach wants to be there and starts out crotchety. Both flicks are about teams that are by far the worst in their leagues. Both have the hardass coaches of other teams as the bad guys who want the losers out of the league. Against all odds, both of these loser squads end up in the championship game.

The Bad News Bears is honest to the kids, to the game and to the modest transformations people can make. It's about the very real issue of kids' self-esteem and it knows how much kids are capable of and what's important to them. Hardball is concerned with Hallmark sentiments and easy solutions. The difference is as simple as the casting: Walter Matthau is a way more convincing curmudgeonly drunk than Keanu "Holy shit! I STILL can't act" Reeves.

Bears is about the kids, typical miserable middle-class kids in danger of having so little self-esteem that they grow up to be unemployed gas jockeys. The film is beautifully shot in that washed-out California late afternoon light. When the kids fight, it looks like kids fighting, rolling around on the ground, scrapping and rarely landing a punch. When they play baseball, they look like kids, making mistakes, falling down, letting easy grounders get by. They are real kids playing baseball, and that's a fuckload harder to capture on film than you might think. They are ragged, dirty and appropriately foul-mouthed. What comes out of their mouths sounds like the same experiments in filth I conducted on Indian Guide campouts and baseball diamonds. Matthau is an unredeemed drunk. He starts the movie with a beer, and he ends with one. And all the way through, the guy drinks like a fish with the shakes.

Hardball doesn't give a flying fuck about the kids. It is about Reeves and how he is magically transformed from a selfish loser to a saint who just loves kids so much he wants to be with them all day. All this change just by coaching little league for a few weeks. With this movie, there are no shades of gray, no in-between: Reeves has to be the lowest loser, and the kids have to be super-duper sympathetic, because the filmmakers only know how to use a fucking sledgehammer. Reeves is always shot grimy, the kids might as well have fucking halos on their heads. Their mouths are chock full of valuable lessons for Reeves. Their lives are readily given in the service of the BIG, FUCKING IMPORTANT MESSAGE about how we shouldn't be so fucking selfish. It's a heavy load for the kids to carry, but they seem better equipped for it than the filmmakers.

At the beginning of the movie, Reeves is a drunk, but about halfway through, he simply stops drinking. No fucking problem. No shakes, no vomiting and headaches. It's just that that character trait got in the way for the filmmakers.

You know what? Fuck Hollywood. Fuck director Brian Robbins and fuck writer John Gatins for the way they treat kids. Fuck all Hollywood pricks who make big message movies about giving back to the community by using kids as angelic props. It's insincere horseshit that they clearly don't believe. If they did, they would try to understand how kids act, how they think. They'd treat the kids as more than cute little joke and message deliver machines. They'd give the kids some personality beyond the ridiculous politically-correct sainthood these black boys get. And they wouldn't kill one off just because it's the cheapest, fastest and laziest way to make an audience get the fucking point. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: killing a kid is the cinematic equivalent of crack. It's a cheap, easy high.

And double-fuck John Gatins for single-handedly trying to destroy baseball by using it as the backdrop for two gag-inducing movies in one summer (he also wrote the ass-shredder Summer Catch). For what he's done, he might as well have Freddie Prinze, Jr. drop his pants and take a shit on Cal Ripken, Jr.

In The Bad News Bears, the team sucks. They can't win and they aren't going to be magically turned into winners. So Matthau brings in ringers: a girl pitcher and the toughest punk in the neighborhood. We see Matthau actually practice with the kids, teach them fundamentals. We see him yell at them, throw a beer at one kid, and get so caught up in trying to win that he takes the fun out of it for them. It's only through the kids silent disappointment that Matthau gets the idea. These kids aren't playing to win so much as they are to learn self-respect. They don't win the championship. They lose. But the little shits done't care. They learned they aren't total losers, their self-esteem is intact, and they sure look a hell of a lot happier than the winners as they pour beer all over each other in celebration of second place.

Of course, Hardball ends with the team winning the championship. The filmmakers don't have the capacity to think of anything more subtle. Winning material prizes is the only thing Hollywood understands. Success is measured in cash, cars and trophies. At the beginning of Hardball, they are the shittiest team in the league, and although we barely see Reeves teach them anything on the field, they become superstars. We don't see a single kid grow through the season. Sure, a few make 180-degree changes as required by the script, but they're as believable as my explanation to Mrs. Filthy about what happened to the nice tablecloth. And the littlest guy, the kid who never got a hit, drives in the winning run. Jesus Christ in a Strike-out, Throw-out double play. It's like the producers gave Gatins a bonus for every sports cliché he could drive into the ground.

What really fucks the movie, what takes away from any time that might have been spent with the kids, is the tedious tale of Reeves' redemption. We spend half the movie watching him running away from bookies he owes money to. It's supposed to add some suspense to the movie, and maybe it would have if he weren't so boring and underdeveloped. As it is, he's just bouncing from one stereotyped thug to the next (the coldheart, the barber, the kindhearted Irish barkeep).

One final thing that pisses me off about Hardball: the makers don't even get the little details right. First, Reeves bets even money with bookies. Bookies don't take even money. There is something called the "vig," usually about 10%. That means that no bookie in the world lets you bet $1,000 to win $1,000. You bet $1,100 to win $1,000 and the other $100 is the bookie's profit. Second, how in the fuck are the Cubs and White Sox playing each other at the same time the NBA season is underway? Interleague play doesn't start until June, long after the NBA regular season. Finally, if Reeves is meeting the kids at 11:00 a.m. and then taking them to a ball game "in an hour," why the fuck is the game at night? And why the hell are the Cubs and White Sox playing in the old Tiger Stadium? This kind of shit just proves the makers have no interest in the truth, just warping time and characters to their own self-righteous agenda.

Fuck them. Five Combined Fingers for The Bad News Bears and Hardball. Four go to the Bears and you know what's left for Hardball. If I ever have a kid, you know which one I'll let the little brat see.

Got 12 minutes? Check out my writing and acting debut, Presto, P.I. Don't worry, it's free.

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