Baseball season is here again, and to celebrate, we’ve got seven baseball-related movies: baseball comedies, baseball gangster films, baseball father-daughter dramas, baseball documentaries, and even Babe Ruth being knocked around in the back of a crazy taxi cab.
But there’s more to life than baseball. We also have Japanese warlords, talking cartoon rabbits, and punk rock pioneers. Add to that list an early film written by one of the world’s poppiest, peppiest screenwriters, and a bold, moving, absolute must-see documentary about five legendary filmmakers who went to war, photographed it, and came back to tell the tale, and it’s fair to say you won’t be wanting for entertainment anytime soon.
Five Came Back (Netflix)
Journalist Mark Harris adapts his 2014 nonfiction book into this three-part, three-hour Netflix original documentary, and it’s a triumph; the book itself is great, but the documentary does it one better simply given its ability to show clips of the films in question. Five Came Back (2017) both argues and proves that film is a powerful medium for communicating ideas in an emotional way. But at the same time, it’s a moving, powerful evocation of how alluring and how corrosive images of war—and, finally, war itself—can be. As WWII loomed, five key Hollywood filmmakers—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens—felt the need to do something for their country.
They wound up overseas making all different kinds of propaganda films and documentaries to help bolster the troops’ morale, educate the folks back home, or simply record history. Of course, nothing went as smoothly as one might imagine. There were periods of trial and error, experiments with re-staging events, and many creative and technical decisions made on the fly. Sometimes visions were compromised, sometimes the films won Oscars, sometimes they were flops, and sometimes the footage was too gruesome to even show. When they came back, they were all changed forever. Interspersed with footage, vintage interviews, photographs, and narration by Meryl Streep, five modern filmmakers—Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Lawrence Kasdan—turn up to champion the five original heroes.
Trouble with the Curve (Netflix)
Just in time for baseball season comes the misunderstood Trouble with the Curve (2012), which was quickly labeled the anti-Moneyball. That’s true, but rather than one movie being good and the other being bad, they’re both fascinating looks at different sides of the same coin. In one of his rare acting roles for another director, Clint Eastwood plays crusty, aging baseball scout Gus Lobel, who works for the Atlanta Braves and relies on his eyes, ears, and instincts to find good talent. A young upstart, Phillip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), has used a computer to find a hot new hitter, and wants to sign him, even though he has never been to the park to see the man play. Gus knows better.
Unfortunately, Gus’s eyesight begins to go, so his plucky daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) reluctantly joins him on the road, resulting in many arguments and heart-to-heart talks; both actors rise above the material and find genuinely emotional touches. Plus Justin Timberlake is here as an ex-ballplayer who drives Mickey crazy, and John Goodman plays Gus’s loyal old pal. Director Robert Lorenz had worked with Eastwood since 1995 as an assistant director and producer, and makes his directing debut here; it has a few amateur bumps, but the high quality of the performances and the sheer joy of the outdoor baseball scenes make it worth, if not a home run, then at least a triple.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Netflix)
Based loosely on a novel by Gary K. Wolf and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is, frankly, one of my all-time favorite films. On the surface, it’s an absolutely mind-blowing technical marvel, an intertwining combination of hand-drawn animation and live-action that must have been close to impossible back in 1988, and could not be duplicated today; modern CGI would not carry quite the same hands-on effect. After the initial astonishment, it becomes apparent that the movie is brilliantly funny, not only in its clever line readings and perfect slapstick, but also in its inherent appreciation for the art of comedy (“Goofy’s a genius!”)
A deeper look reveals a clever homage to Los Angeles detective films ranging from The Big Sleep to Chinatown. But an even closer reading cements it as a masterpiece of satire, a sly parody of modernism and encroaching civilization, a kind of controlled, corporate chaos replacing the more innocent, zany chaos of the cartoons. All that aside, the movie is just fun, fun, fun. The late, great Bob Hoskins is perfect as boozy detective Eddie Valiant, and Christopher Lloyd is insidiously creepy as Judge Doom. Kathleen Turner is unforgettable as the sultry Jessica Rabbit (with Amy Irving providing her singing voice), and Charles Fleischer, of course, is Roger. It received six Oscar nominations and won three (Best Editing, Visual Effects, and Sound Effects Editing), plus a special Oscar for animation director Richard Williams.
Even though he had recently won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (for Dersu Uzala), and even though he was widely recognized as one of the most famous and celebrated filmmakers in the world, by 1980, Akira Kurosawa couldn’t get a film made. Thankfully two of his fans, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, came to his rescue and helped secure funding for what became Kagemusha (1980), one of the director’s most beautiful epics, and one of his best films in color. Set in the 16th century, it concerns the feudal lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), who is fatally wounded by a sniper.
Slowly dying, yet hoping to fool his enemies into thinking he is still alive and in command, he orders that a “kagemusha,” or a shadow (or double), be used to stand in for him for a period of three years after his death. Shingen’s brother finds a thief who is a dead ringer for the lord (also played by Tatsuya Nakadai). But the trick is fooling those closest to Shingen, including his concubines, that the faker is the real thing. A key sequence is a jaw-dropping, painterly nightmare in which the thief imagines himself stalked by the real Shingen, although Kurosawa’s legendarily stunning, heartbreaking battlefield sequences are here to be savored as well. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Art Direction. Netflix offers the 162-minute U.S. theatrical release version, in Japanese with English subtitles.