Gimme Danger (Amazon Prime)
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch cast rock star Iggy Pop in two of his movies, in a supporting role in the surreal Western Dead Man (1996), and in a conversation with Tom Waits in the anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Now, for the documentary Gimme Danger (2016), he sits down with Pop—credited under his real name, James Osterberg—to talk about The Stooges. For the uninitiated, they were an early punk band fronted by Pop that released three masterful albums between 1969 and 1973. In my book, the Stooges could easily be one of the 10 greatest rock bands of all time, but Jarmusch calls them the greatest.
Whether Jarmusch effectively supports his thesis is up for debate, but at least Pop proves to be a great raconteur, telling stories of his humble beginnings, how he learned songwriting from TV shows like Howdy Doody and Soupy Sales, and how he grew tired of being a drummer looking at other people’s butts. Loose and raw as they are, the Stooges albums were, according to Pop, actually carefully constructed and calculated to break new ground—their musicianship is a thing of genius and not accident. Jarmusch ignores Pop’s solo career, as well as the more recent, failed Stooges albums (like The Weirdness) and does not interview any rock critics or outside musicians that may have been inspired by the band, but Pop alone is more than enough to make an entertaining documentary.
Ken Burns’ Baseball (Amazon Prime)
Back in 1990, Ken Burns’ long-form television documentary The Civil War was a groundbreaker; it was seen as a more complete, honest, and no-frills way to tell an important story, and, above all, it was highly watchable. A few years later, the filmmaker followed it up with the mammoth, nine-part, 18-hour Baseball (1994). Though it may be just a game, the history of this sport has a great deal to do with the history of America, and Burns’ achievement here is extraordinary. It traces the game’s origins—loosely evolving from cricket and rounders—explores stars like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and the Negro Leagues, as well as the rise of Jackie Robinson. Interviewees include Billy Crystal, director John Sayles, writer Studs Terkel, announcer Vin Scully, and players like Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams.
Burns can be forgiven for spending a huge chunk of time on the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, specifically the legendary sixth game. After 12 grueling innings, and stuck in a tie, the Sox’s Carlton Fisk hit what looked to be a game-winning home run—Fisk frantically willing the airborne ball to stay fair—but it hit the foul pole. Game seven started with three runs for the Sox, but they could not hang onto the lead. Burns depicts all this drama with extraordinary amounts of suspense and heartbreak, as if it were all still happening today. Amazon Prime offers all nine essential episodes, plus Burns’ belated sequel, The Tenth Inning, which came along in 2010. Every baseball fan needs to see this.
Major League (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
This ramshackle, dim-bulb, goofball movie is probably the funniest baseball comedy outside of the original The Bad News Bears (see below). Written and directed by David S. Ward, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Sting, Major League (1989) starts with a wobbly premise. A shallow trophy wife inherits the Cleveland Indians from her dead husband, and she wishes to sell it, but according to the contract, can only do so if attendance drops to a certain level. So she begins stocking the team with the biggest losers available. From there, of course, comes comedy gold.
Tom Berenger is the catcher with the bad knee who couldn’t make it in the Mexican Leagues. (Rene Russo co-stars as a love interest for him.) Charlie Sheen (previously in Eight Men Out) is “Wild Thing” Vaughn, a former inmate with a crazy, uncontrollable fastball. Wesley Snipes is Willie Mays Hayes, unable to hit anything but ground balls, but a speedy base runner (and stealer). And Corbin Bernsen is Roger Dorn, who hopes to retire soon and doesn’t really care to play. James Gammon is terrific as coach Lou Brown, barking the players in his gruff voice (“I’m deeply moved!”). The movie was a modest-sized hit, followed by two sequels, which nobody cared for. Apparently real-life ballplayers to this day revere this as a cult classic and frequently quote its dialogue.
Boiling Point (Amazon Prime)
In Japan, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano is a superstar, known as a comedian, a talk show host, and an actor. In the U.S. he might be known for his roles in things like Battle Royale or the new Ghost in the Shell. But true cinephiles know him as a filmmaker who writes, directs, and stars in his own films. He has made all different types, but he specializes in crime films with doses of black humor; they spend long amounts of time quietly simmering, and then exploding in outrageous showers of bloody violence. Boiling Point (1990) was his second feature film as director, and worth pointing out this fine springtime for its funny baseball sequences.
Masaki (Masahiko Ono) is a sad-sack benchwarmer who begins the movie sitting in an outhouse during a game, apparently never having been up to bat. When not playing, he works at a gas station, and there he crosses paths with a yakuza, in a bad way. With the help of a friend, he decides to travel to Okinawa to get a gun. His contact there is played by Kitano, so stone-faced loony that he can make you laugh hours after the film is over. There are unforgettable scenes at the beach and at a karaoke bar, as well as one that includes a bouquet of flowers. Boiling Point isn’t quite as polished as Kitano’s later features like Sonatine, Fireworks, or Brother, but it’s crazy and spiky and worth seeing.