Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Film Rolls, Round 23: The Internecine Project and The Bad News Bears

The previous update had our guys in 2019 South Korea, but a couple quick rolls of the dice are getting them into the last regular cube!

Mookie, rolling first, gets us to The Internecine Project, which is one of my favorite genres of stuff that comes from Kino Lorber sales: James Coburn movies that make you wonder how he became a first-name-on-the-poster movie star when he never played a likable character!

A couple nights later, Bruce would roll a 9 and land on The Bad News Bears, which stars another unlikely-seeming leading man from the era, Walter Matthau, and everything about its placement here is kind of screwy: That I had somehow never seen it before - I seem to recall everyone else in elementary school having seen it on network TV way back in the day - and that I had ordered an Australian special-edition Blu-ray because, for whatever reason, Paramount had never put it out on Blu-ray. Screwy, considering that bit about it being kind of deeply embedded in Gen X-ers heads and was popular enough to get remade!

So, how did our little plastic guys and big rough-looking guys do?

The Internecine Project

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)
Available for digital rental/purchase on Prime or elsewhere; Blu-ray on Amazon

The Internecine Project is not much of a movie, really, but you can sort of see how it could be: It's got a devilishly good premise, decent talent in front of and behind the camera, including and perhaps especially star James Coburn. It's just that this particular story demands a certain tone, and the filmmakers can't quite find it. Or maybe they can, but there's someone or something preventing them from getting it right.

The film starts with London-based Professor Robert Elliot (Coburn) being told that he has been tapped for a senior advisory position to the President. But while he's a recommended academic and television talking head, his history as a spy is the sort of thing that will cause a major scandal if discovered. There are five people who can incriminate him (Harry Andrews, Ian Henry, Michael Jayston, Keenan Wynn, and Christiane Kruger), all located close enough that he can, perhaps, pull off an audacious plan, leading them to murder each other in the course of one night, even as he flirts with the reporter (Lee Grant) writing a profile.

This feels like it should be a lot of fun, in a mean-spirited, noose-tightening way, but never quite clicks. It appears to have passed through many creative hands and constant rewrites, and this isn't the sort of thing that can just be slapped together: The plot has to fit together like a Swiss watch, the various antagonistic characters need to be interesting enough to overcome audience disdain, and you've got to put the audience into a specific mood and keep them there. It almost works, most of the time, but neither Elliot nor his five targets are fleshed out enough to engage much emotional response. You need the little thrill of admiring a perfectly-sprung trap closing around a good person, or rooting for an anti-hero in some way, and much of the time, this movie is too tentative to do that fearlessly.

Except, perhaps, for James Coburn. There's precious few out there today with his kind of vibe, a guy with leading-man charisma despite often projecting sneering contempt, sexy because a partner knows they'd be flying too close to the sun. He gets that the argument for a guy like Elliot as a Presidential adviser is that he's smart, charismatic enough to make a good argument, and pragmatic, but that the danger of him is that pragmatism crossing the line into amorality. He knows the assignment and why he signed onto the movie, and seems to hold onto it no matter what else is going on with the production.

Sadly, not everybody is on the same wavelength, and the movie never quite clicks as a result.

The Bad News Bears

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Australian Blu-ray)
Available for digital rental/purchase on Prime or elsewhere; American Blu-ray on Amazon

Oh, that's great; if I were handing out awards for the movies in this little game, The Bad News Bears would definitely take "what took you so long to get around to it?". It's baseball, Walter Matthau, and kids' stuff that is earnest, irreverent, and occasionally absurd, executed just about as well as it can be.

You know the score, even if you don't necessarily know the specifics for this movie: Ragtag group of kids, reluctant mentor, each teaching the other valuable lessons as they compete against a league full of rich twerps who look down on them. What makes it different, perhaps, is the unsanitized nature of the whole thing; these kids aren't one good opportunity from things being good, they don't have good haircuts, they've picked up racist language. Morris Buttermaker is a drunk, and like the kids, there's not something to be fixed. Baseball is an escape, but not a path to escape. The moment when Buttermaker realizes that and accepts that this season need not have higher aspirations than that is kind of joyous.

But on top of that, this is one of the more sincere love stories I can recall, which sounds strange to say, but that's the tragic flip side to the joy of the final game: Matthau's Buttermaker and Tatum O'Neal's Amanda Whurlitzer love each other. It's not romantic or sexual (don't be gross), but he cannot imagine anything that would make happier than being her father, and she badly wants to be his daughter. It can't be, of course - there's her mother, after all, and for all his faults, Buttermaker knows that that will never work, and it's maybe not healthy that she will destroy her arm to gain his approval. They're as doomed as any pairing in a romantic tragedy, and they're going to have to figure out how to fill the holes in their life some other way.

Along the way, there's a lot of good jokes, genuine fondness for these kids, and a knack for shooting unglamorous locations that highlights how ordinary and run-down they are without looking down on them. The movie gets right into it to start and gets right out when it's done. It's enjoyably mixed as the Bears go on a winning streak, as there's clearly both a little of Buttermaker still having enough professional athlete in him to really enjoy winning, but also just not knowing kids enough to realize that the opposite of being checked out isn't being obsessed with winning.

It's a laugh-out-loud funny movie that hides how smart and sentimental it is by looking disreputable, a real gem.

Two very different mid-1970s movies get us to:

Mookie: 78 ¾ stars
Bruce: 79 ¼ stars

Awfully close as we head into the big finish!

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