Apologies

I apologize for the lack of posts of late. Unfortunately, life has conspired to get in the way of several posts, including a couple for some blogathons that I had been looking forward to.

I hope to have things figured out and to resume posting in the very near future (I already have several ideas). Thank you as always for your patience!

Review: THE ROCKETEER (1991)

The Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon

This post is written as a part of the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central.

Cliff (donning the Rocketeer helmet and rocket for the first time): “How do I look?”

Peevy: “Like a hood ornament.”

When you were a kid, was there anything quite as cool as a rocket pack? Sure, superheroes like Superman can fly, but he’s really an alien from another planet. But a rocket pack? That’s something anyone can strap on and fly off anywhere you wish.

Except that in 1938, the ability to fly takes on a whole other nefarious meaning, because both the U.S. and German armies are trying to develop a working model for military purposes. When the audience first sees the rocket pack, it’s being hauled by two goons across an airfield, with the FBI in hot pursuit, and in the process, they destroy a brand new plane being flown by Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and manage to stash the rocket in a hanger where it is found by Cliff and his friend/father-figure Peevy (Alan Arkin).

IMG_0053

That’s the set-up for the 1991 Disney/Touchstone Pictures film THE ROCKETEER, which was Joe Johnston’s second directorial effort (following on 1989’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS). Based on a comic book series, this was Disney’s second foray into comic-inspired films (the first being 1990’s DICK TRACY).

One thing that I completely missed as a kid but sticks out to me now is how, in becoming The Rocketeer, Cliff is really the accidental hero. When he and Peevy find the rocket, neither of them is thinking anything remotely heroic. Their plane crash in the opening sequence also took out a gas truck, and its owner Bigelow (played with wonderful sleeze by Jon Polito) wants them to pay him back for the loss. This makes Cliff’s motivation for keeping and using the rocket one of financial necessity, not a desire to do good or right wrongs.

IMG_0054

Not to say that Cliff is a bad guy. He’s just a regular guy with real-world problems, and he sees the rocket as a means to an end. Billy Campbell sometimes gets a bad rap for his performance here, but I rather like him. He’s not especially heroic, but then he really shouldn’t be because he’s not a hero in the normal sense.

IMG_0056He’s also a bit of a dolt when it comes to how he treats his girlfriend, aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). If there’s one fault I can find with the film, it’s that there really isn’t much chemistry between the two actors (despite the fact that they were allegedly dating during filming). This is a relationship because the script says so rather than because the actors sell it, even though they both look the part.

Cliff also quickly finds himself the rival (in more ways than one) with leading man Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Sinclair is obviously a take on Errol Flynn, and Dalton is clearly enjoying himself in the role. First, he is revealed to be behind the gangsters who were trying to steal the rocket, as he admonishes the head of the gang, Eddie Valentine (played, in a real stretch of casting, by Paul Sorvino). Later, Sinclair starts to make a move on Jenny, at least in part because he knows she knows who has the rocket.

IMG_0055He’s also sent his henchman, Lothar (Tiny Ron) in search of the rocket. I suppose it’s their way of calling back to the fact that this is a comic book movie, but Lothar is a bit distracting because of his obvious prosthetic makeup that seems like a leftover from DICK TRACY. The character also disappears for stretches at a time, becoming more of a plot convenience than an actual important element.

Getting back to Cliff, it’s interesting in that when he finally uses the rocket, he does it because he has no other choice. In fact, pretty much every time he becomes The Rocketeer, it’s to clean up a mess he’s created: he first has to rescue an over-the-hill pilot who is only flying because he’s trying to help Cliff out; later, Cliff needs to save Jenny from Sinclair after he uses it to escape a couple of FBI agents who also are after the rocket.

IMG_0057It’s this last wrinkle that might be the film’s only (minor) misstep plot-wise. Adding in the FBI adds a fourth group that either has or wants the rocket, and it’s a bit much to keep straight (as a kid, I remember being confused by who was who). I can forgive the added complexity a bit by the fact that these agents are working for the inventor of the rocket, who is none other than Howard Hughes (the always good Terry O’Quinn). He wants the rocket back to keep it from falling into Nazi hands; Neville Sinclair turns out to be a Nazi agent hiding within Hollywood society.

The presence of the FBI also provides one of my favorite little touches in the film. Towards the end, the FBI and the Valentine gang find themselves on the same side, shooting against the Nazis. At one point, Valentine and one of the agents stop firing their machine guns for a moment, look at each other, have this moment of ironic realization, and resume firing.

Despite a few creaky effects that definitely show their age, the film’s climax aboard a Nazi zeppelin works pretty well, and the final resolution that does Sinclair in calls back nicely to an earlier sequence where the rocket is damaged. I also really enjoy how Sinclair’s fiery plunge takes out the “land” in the “Hollywoodland” sign.

The Music

When I first saw THE ROCKETEER I really only knew James Horner based on his scores for STAR TREK II and STAR TREK III. Also being a big fan of John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN (1978), I was a little apprehensive about a composer who I felt was more subdued in his approach (silly me).

Indeed, his opening cue is not bombastic in the classic superhero vein. Instead, Horner wrote an absolutely gorgeous, long-lined melody from which to base the score. His main Rocketeer theme is one of my favorites from Horner’s entire body of work, and it is absolutely gorgeous in its first appearance, performed initially by solo piano over the opening credits. He also wrote a “B Theme” for The Rocketeer, which kicks in just as Cliff’s ill-fated flight takes off:

“Main Title / Takeoff”

Character Themes

In a style similar to Williams, Horner also wrote themes for Jenny and for Sinclair. His  “Jenny” theme, which follows her character throughout the film, receives a lovely concert arrangement on the soundtrack that is introduced by piano, strings, harp, and solo French horn:

“Jenny”

Sinclair’s themes consist of two motifs. The first is a descending motif similar to the one that Horner used in STAR TREK III to represent the Excelsior. The second, more sinister is four rising notes that are usually played in the low brass. Both make several appearances in the track “Neville Sinclair’s House” which plays over Jenny being brought to Sinclair’s home, his (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce her, and her discovery that he is a Nazi agent.

Excerpts from “Neville Sinclair’s House”

Action Cues

IMG_0059Because this is a superhero film, the action music is arguably the most important part of the score. Despite my unfounded initial reservations about the main theme, Horner does a magnificent job in tweaking his themes for the action cues. My favorite bits come from Cliff’s first appearance as the Rocketeer, as he rescues a pilot in mid-air. A bombastic version of the main theme accompanies Cliff’s attempts to successfully pilot the rocket, including two falls that are wonderfully scored by Horner:

“Flying Circus” excerpt #1

He also brings back the second “flying” motif at the end of this sequence, scoring a humerous bit of action as Cliff flies out of control. This also includes one of the moments I definitely remember from the trailers: Cliff plows through a field as two guys who look like they should be selling Bartles and James wine coolers remark, “biiiig gopher.” It’s also perhaps the best use of the Jew’s harp I’ve ever heard in an action cue (an admittedly short list).

“Flying Circus” excerpt #2

IMG_0058One of the unfair criticisms of James Horner is that he tends to recycle themes from previous scores. While he does do this, I don’t think its to any greater degree than most composers. If anything, he tends to reuse rhythms or short phrases rather than whole themes. For THE ROCKETEER, he does keep this to a minimum, save for the Sinclair theme I mentioned earlier, and his chromatic motif from “Genesis Countdown” in STAR TREK II. This latter motif appears most prominently in the build to the climax, which occurs in Griffith Park Observatory. As the tension builds between Cliff and Sinclair over an exchange of the rocket for Jenny, this motif plays prominently in the underscore. As Cliff manages to turn the Valentine gang against Sinclair (because of his Nazi roots), Sinclair then unleashes a hidden squat of Nazi foot soldiers, followed by the reveal of a giant zeppelin hiding behind the observatory (not sure how this is physically possible but  go with it). The remainder of the cue is rounded out by the expected action music featuring the main themes as well as Sinclair and Jenny’s themes.

Excerpt from “Rendesvouz at Griffith Park Observatory”

The final selection is from the final climax of the film, which takes place aboard the zeppelin. Once Sinclair is killed, Cliff (now rocket-less) and Jenny run across the top of the zeppelin which is being engulfed in flames. Finally, Hughes and Peevy arrive in the nick of time to rescue them, as a final statement of Sinclair’s theme plays over the Nazi emblem disappearing in the fire.

Excerpt from “The Zepplin”

Final Thoughts

All in all, THE ROCKETEER is an immensely enjoyable film that unfortunately didn’t do well at the box office. Joe Johnston does a terrific job nailing a period feel (a talent he would also bring to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER later in his career), and all of the actors perform their roles well. It’s a shame that the film didn’t do as well as it could have on it’s initial release, but it seems to have found an audience thanks to home video. Despite the rash of comic book movies these days, few seem to have the heart and characters of a film like THE ROCKETEER. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.

 

The Underappreciated

The Music of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

This post is written for the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central. It also continues my look back at the music of the Star Trek films in general.

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE | STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN

The success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN virtually guaranteed that there would be a third Star Trek film. Nicholas Meyer, who had so skillfully written and directed the second film, refused to do the third based on his displeasure with the idea of bringing back Spock. Ironically, this would wind up putting Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, in the director’s chair for the second Star Trek sequel, which was written and produced by Harve Bennett.

IMG_0051One area of continuity between this and the previous film was the retention of James Horner as the composer. In this second film, he would be given the chance to add new themes, primarily for the Klingons and the Genesis Planet, and also further develop multiple themes from the previous film.

In looking back at the scores of the various Star Trek films, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK seems to have fallen in the proverbial crack between the excellent STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and the immensely entertaining STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (although the score to the latter film is certainly polarizing). On a more personal level, this particular soundtrack holds a special place for me:

STAR TREK III introduced me to the world of film music.

I had been aware of movie theme songs for a long time (my childhood was marinated in all things STAR WARS), but in terms of underscore, this was the film that made me sit up and notice.

The moment comes about halfway through the movie. The Klingons have landed on the Genesis planet and are tracking an away team of Saavik, David Marcus, and a rejuvenated Spock. Suddenly, and without warning, the sun begins to set on the rapidly aging planet. As both Kruge and David watch, there is this emotional swelling of fluttering strings playing over the scene. It only lasts for about 30 seconds, but I had never consciously noticed a moment so brought to life by the underscore quite like that. Ever since then, I was hooked.

“Sunset on Genesis”

(What’s amazing is that this cue was not included in the original release of the score).

While this is a very personal connection, I think that overall THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK gets overlooked by those who simply think of it as James Horner doing a rehash of his score to the previous movie. While many of the themes are no doubt similar, I think this is a very superficial and unfair critique. Its popularity was certainly not helped by the rather abysmal first CD release, which is missing a lot of quality music yet found room for an embarrassing disco version of the theme song. Ugh.

The score, like the film itself, is much more emotional and personal than it’s predecessor, and the orchestration suits that very well. In many ways, it’s a more mature score than THE WRATH OF KHAN, and is one that is more suited to sitting down and listening to rather than something to have on in the background. There is a subtlety here that isn’t really present in much of KHAN, especially in the lower registers, and if you’re not paying attention you might miss it.

Of course, the Kirk and Enterprise themes are both there from the previous film, and while I absolutely love the Jerry Goldsmith theme, these two from Horner might be my favorite character themes from the films (I’ve always thought of the Goldsmith theme representing Star Trek itself rather than any particular character). Horner also makes the best use of the original Alexander Courage fanfare of any of the composers, particularly in a moment that I will get to later, typically rotating the theme across multiple sections (primarily the horns and trumpets).

“Stealing the Enterprise”

This sequence is easily the best in the film and the score, and with the possible exception of “The Enterprise” from STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, this may be my favorite cue in the entire series. If you want just the highlights of what James Horner Star Trek music is, this is it distilled into a fantastic eight minutes and forty-two seconds. The entire cue is a wonderful romp that perfectly fits the action on screen, as Admiral Kirk and his party, well, steal the Enterprise.

Some highlights:

There’s an interesting theme (3:11) that Horner brings in with the horns right when the team beams over to the Enterprise. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember hearing it anytime before or after this scene. In addition, nowhere in the series is the Alexander Courage fanfare better used than in the moment right as the Enterprise is set to pull away from space dock. The music builds as Courage’s theme moves through the orchestra until the order for “one-quarter impulse power” is given, and the ship slowly starts to move.

"Gentlemen. May the wind be at our backs. Stations please."

The U.S.S. Excelsior, and particularly Captain Stiles, receives a piano/mallet percussion-based melody (right about the 39s mark) that I can only really refer to as the “pompous-ass” motif.

"This isn't reality. This is fantasy."
“This isn’t reality. This is fantasy.” -Uhura

It makes an appearance pretty much any time the Excelsior crew is on screen, such as the moment when Stiles is interrupted while filing his nails (!!). I also refer to it as the “pompous-ass” motif because it underscores the scene with Mr. Adventure, right before Uhura locks him in the closet. It’s also worth noting that James Horner would later seemingly adapt this into a secondary theme for Timothy Dalton’s character, Neville Sinclair, in THE ROCKETEER.

The bit of the cue (starting around the 6:13 mark) is a perfect example of building and releasing tension. The Enterprise is heading towards the giant space doors, but it’s unclear whether they are going to open. Then, at the last minute, Scotty works another miracle, and the Kirk theme is reprised in triumph as the Enterprise exits and turns towards space. For a moment, a lyrical rendition of the Enterprise theme plays once, but is interrupted by the approaching Excelsior. After some back-and-forth between Stiles and Kirk, the Enterprise warps away. As the shiny-new Excelsior begins to power up its fabled transwarp drive, Horner supplies some gloriously over-the-top “revving-up” music until, just like in the movie…nothing happens.

"Kirk...if you do this, you'll never sit in the captain's chair again."
“Kirk, if you do this, you’ll never sit in the captain’s chair again.”

“Bird of Prey Decloaks”

"I dinna expect to take us into combat, you know!"

This is another back-and-forth cue that plays the Kirk theme off of Horner’s Klingon theme. The latter theme is another polarizing bit among Trek music fans. I happen to think it’s fine; Goldsmith’s is so good it’s not really fair to compare them. My favorite moment is when it looks like Kirk has won the battle, and there is a tremendous trumpet counterpoint playing over Kirk’s theme. Then, the crew slowly realizes that they’ve overtaxed the jury-rigged Enterprise, and the tone takes a turn for the worse.

"Klingon bastard, you've killed my son..."

I also have to mention the next scene, where Kruge orders the death of one of the landing party (which ends up being David), and we see Kirk’s reaction to the news that the son that he just was reunited with is dead. In addition to being some of Shatner’s best acting in the series, it’s particularly striking that the entire sequence is (appropriately) unscored.

“A Fighting Chance to Live”

 

"Destruct Sequence 1. Code: 1-1-A"

Another glaring omission from the original CD, “A Fighting Chance to Live” chronicles the final moments of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Slightly dissonant strings play over a mournful version of the Enterprise theme as Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov set the auto-destruct sequence and beam away just as the Klingon boarding party arrives. Interestingly, there is a percussion underscore for the actual destruction of the ship, which I never realized was there until I heard it on CD (and is perhaps the first and only appearance of the “thunder sheet” in Star Trek music).

“Genesis Destroyed”

 

The Final Dawn on Genesis

This track contains another favorite moment of mine, where Kirk , climbs to the top of cliff, having just defeated Kruge, and looks out over the doomed landscape of Genesis. While I go back and forth on the merits of the actual Genesis “theme” (it’s really a take on Holst’s Uranus: The Magician), it works well here. This is particularly true when contrasted with the Spock theme and then the classic early Horner trumpet flourishes as the bird of prey warps away from the exploding planet.

“The Katra Ritual”

 

"Sometimes the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many."

Finally, ”The Katra Ritual” is another evocative piece of music, starting quietly with rumbling percussion that slowly builds, adding strings, gong, and orchestra as the Fal-Tor-Pan is performed. This sequence, along with the sunset moment I mentioned at the beginning, were really what got me into film music to begin with; a journey that started more than 30 years ago.

…and the Adventure continues…

“Nautical But Nice”

James Horner and the Music for The Wrath of Khan

This post is written as a part of the Second Annual Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Becky at Film Music Central. It also continues my look at the music of the Star Trek film series. For previous reviews: 

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE 

Despite the financial success of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), the film was considered by Paramount Pictures to be a disappointment, owing to spiraling production costs and a script that came together literally at the last minute and that led to a story that left many Trek fans cold.

The end result was that Paramount Pictures decided, if there was to be a second Star Trek film, the budget would have to be considerably smaller. Series creator Gene Roddenberry, who was largely blamed for the cost overruns from the first film, was reduced to an “Executive Consultant” role, while well-regarded TV producer Harve Bennett was put in charge of the franchise.

As he was developing the script with writer Jack B. Sowards, Bennett turned to novelist-turned-director Nicholas Meyer to helm the film. Meyer had recently directed TIME AFTER TIME (1979), but he had almost no familiarity with Star Trek. This actually turned out to be a good thing, since he was able to focus on making the best film possible without staying overly (excessively) reverential to the material.

The worst of times; the best of times…

The reduction in the film’s budget affected several aspects of production; however, what could have been seen as a hindrance was actually embraced by director Meyer. In addition to finding creative solutions around the need to have to starship bridges (the Reliant is simply a redress of the Enterprise) and a decreased effects budget (there is a number of re-used shots of the Enterprise from the first film), the film’s music would be affected as well.

“I believe that art thrives on restrictions, and that when you’re forced to be ingenious, things get better than if you can throw oodles of money at the problem.”
– Nicholas Meyer, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN director’s commentary.

Because of his standing in the film community, there was simply no way the producers could afford to bring back Jerry Goldsmith, despite the incredible score he had produced for the first film. To take his place, Meyer would turn to a 28-year-old relative unknown: James Horner. Horner had scored a few small films to that point (including BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS [1980] for Roger Corman), but this was his first major composing assignment.

Needless to say, Horner took advantage of the opportunity.

IMG_0051From the start of the project, Meyer had envisioned Star Trek as a version of Horatio Hornblower in outer space (ironically, this was one of Gene Roddenberry’s initial takes as well). This in turn led Horner to consider a more sea-faring style compared to the high-concept science fiction approach taken by Jerry Goldsmith.

This new focus is certainly evident in Horner’s main titles, which are made up of two complementary themes: first is one that I’ve always identified with Admiral Kirk, while the second with the Enterprise. I’m not sure if Horner himself intended this, but it’s how I’ve always associated them. On balance, I think I prefer the smoother Enterprise theme, but both work quite well. Horner also restored the Alexander Courage fanfare to the main titles (it having been dropped by Goldsmith), and its use at the beginning of the titles would become a staple for the series until STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991).

“Main Titles”

USS_Reliant

James Horner would also write a motif for Khan, and thus a controversy was born. While I find the charge to be mostly overblown, Horner has garnered criticism over the years for self-plagarization. Nowhere is this more apparent than his continued use of variations of the Khan theme , which became known as the famous/infamous “Horner Four-note Danger Motif.” Here, the four notes appear as the Enterprise is approaching the Reliant, unaware that Khan and his group have taken over the ship. When the image cuts to a closeup of the Reliant bearing down on Kirk and company, Horner lets loose with the full Khan motif:

Excerpt from “Surprise Attack”

khan-attack

The Kirk and Khan motifs play well off of each other, and Horner uses them both to great effect particularly during the final battle in the Mutara Nebula. Here at times, he uses a more action-oriented, abbreviated form of Kirk’s theme to play off the more fanfare-like qualities of the Khan theme. Quiet mysterious underscore follows the ships playing hide-and-seek in the nebula, with the occasional blast of one or both themes as one captain tries to get the upper hand on the other. Another aspect the the cue that continues to catch me off guard occasion is the way the sound drops off into silence, only to roar back as Khan suddenly appears immediately in front of the Enterprise.

Excerpt from “Battle in the Mutara Nebula”

Genesis_device_transporting

The aftermath of the battle leads to Khan activating the Genesis Device, causing the wounded Enterprise to flee and Spock to ultimately sacrifice himself for the good of his ship. This sequence also introduces another motif that would find its way into many Horner scores in the future (including THE ROCKETEER (1991), which I am also reviewing for this blogathon). It’s something I affectionately refer to as the “revving-up theme,” it consists of three notes that rise chromatically. Often, Horner repeats this twice in different registers, allowing the two “revs” to overlap. It’s an effective way of the music showing that there is a build-up to something happening. Here, that motif builds as Kirk’s theme appears in the high brass, as he realizes that the crew is doomed unless they can somehow restore the warp drive.

Excerpt from “Genesis Countdown”

In a subtle but effective bit of directing, Meyer allows the camera to slowly track from Kirk over to Spock, who realizes that there is only one way out. It’s also a fantastic bit of acting by Nimoy in this scene, as he conveys so much in just a slight tilt of his head and a determined exit from the bridge.

spock2

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the theme that Horner writes for Spock, which plays throughout the film, most notably in the scene in Spock’s cabin where he transfers command of the Enterprise to Kirk and at the end of the film, where he dies trapped inside the reactor room.

“Spock (Dies)”

His theme is first introduced with electronics played over a lovely harp melody. As he dies, the electronics are largely replaced by a solo French horn. Spock’s theme would be developed further in STAR TREK III, forming a third thematic pillar with the Kirk and Enterprise themes in that film.

But that’s another blog post…

Ubiquitous Cues: #10

Just for fun, I’m starting a rundown of the Top 10 Ubiquitous Cues in film. This is a list scientifically curated by me sitting down with a notepad and jotting 10 titles down as they came to me. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, which is what the comments section is for 🙂

In any case, this will be a list of what I think are ten of the most recognizable cues from film, and in one case, it’s not even a cue that was written for the film in question. This is music that almost anyone on the street will recognize, even if they don’t know where it’s from.

“Bishop’s Countdown” – Aliens (1986), James Horner

Case in point, unless you are a film music fan, I doubt you’ll immediately recognize this choice from the track name or perhaps even the film. That said, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard it before.

“Bishop’s Countdown”

During the 1990s-2000s especially, you would hear a portion of this track in a movie trailer each summer (sometimes for multiple movies). Heck, even the trailer to THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005) managed to work it in:

How many times can you remember hearing this cue in a movie trailer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and be on the lookout for the #9 cue coming soon, which will be a bit of an evolutionary step forward.

Review: MAJOR LEAGUE (1989)

This post is written for the Play to the Whistle Blogathon hosted by Kira at Film and TV 101 and Josh at Reffing Movies.

img_1714

What better film to pick for the Play to the Whistle Blogathon than one that features a down-on-its-luck team defy the odds and take down a much stronger foe? No, not that one. No, not that one either.

No, I’m talking about the 1989 baseball classic, MAJOR LEAGUE. Written and directed by David S. Ward (best known for writing THE STING (1973) and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE  (1993)), the film tells the stirring and emotional story of a band of underdogs who….

…oh who am I kidding. The film is an absolute riot and easily one of the best sports comedies of all time.

The plot is fairly simple: Rachel Phelps, a former exotic dancer, inherits the Cleveland Indians baseball team from her dead husband. Not wanting to live out her days in Cleveland, she hatches a plot to field the worst possible team she can, because if overall attendance drops below a certain threshold, the league will allow her to relocate the team to Miami, Florida.

And boy, what a team they put together. I think the Cleveland Indians of MAJOR LEAGUE should go down as the most colorful sports team in film history. Every major character (player or not) leaves a lasting impression and is perfectly cast:

  • ML_castJake Taylor (Tom Berenger), the worn down veteran who sees this as his last chance at being a winner;
  • Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), the former convict with a blazing fastball and undiagnosed vision problems (and who helped make the song “Wild Thing” into a sports anthem);
  • Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), a blazing runner who needs to have his talent catch up a bit with his showboating;
  • Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), a slugger from Cuba who prays to the god Jobu because he, “No can hit curveball. Straight ball, I hit very much. But with curveball…bats are afraid.”
  • and of course, beleaguered Indians announcer Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker), who chugs Jack Daniels during the game and popularized the call, “Juuuuuuust a bit outside!”

Another key to the success of this film is its setting. To fully appreciate the era in which MAJOR LEAGUE was made, we must travel back to an alternate dimension where the Cleveland Browns (American football) were good, while the Cleveland Indians were a complete mess. Cleveland itself has earned a reputation here in the US for being a…well…a dump, and the opening credits, which are set to Randy Newman’s song “Burn On” sets the stage perfectly.

Added context for any non-US readers: the Cuyahoga River is a major river that runs through the city of Cleveland and that has famously caught fire a number of times due to pollution. 

ML Harris rum
Eddie Harris makes the tragic mistake of stealing Jobu’s rum

Smartly, the vast majority of the movie is spent either on the field or in the clubhouse, allowing the rag-tag group to bounce off of each other. Old-timer pitcher and devout Christian Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) tries to start a religious war with Cerrano, prompting one of the famous exchanges in the film:

Cerrano: “Jesus. I like him very much. But he no help with curveball.”
Harris: “Are you trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?”

ML hats
“Hats for bats, keep bats warm.” – Pedro Cerrano

Likewise, overpriced free-agent Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), who is more interested in life after baseball than actually playing it, starts a feud with rookie Vaughn and later with Taylor for a lack of effort. He also has a hilarious run in with Cerrano during spring training, with the big Cuban taking one of Dorn’s golf club covers for his bat.

ML Haywood
“Haywood leads the league in most offensive categories, including nose hair.”  – Harry Doyle

The on-field action is surprisingly good. While no one will confuse many of the stars of the film for real baseball players (Charlie Sheen was at one point offered a scholarship to play college baseball, and his ability to throw a decent fastball helps sell several of the scenes), the filmmakers do a good job of editing around the stars to make it fairly convincing.

Side note: I was amused to find out that the guy who plays the Indians’ nemesis, Yankee slugger Clu Haywood, actually served as the real Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching coach for a time.

The plot of the film plays out as you would largely expect. The team, which starts off terrible, begins to improve. In response, Phelps begins taking away things like transportation (first they are downgraded to a plane that is literally duct taped together and then later to a bus) and therapy equipment like a working whirlpool (which is solved by putting a motor boat engine inside). Eventually the team gets wind of her overall plan to lose and decides that the only course of action left is to win the pennant outright.

Which of course, they do. Surprising? No. But that’s not really the point of the film. The point is how they do it, and MAJOR LEAGUE’s version of the cliche “winning it all” scene is one of my favorites. It ties together a number of threads that were dropped earlier, particularly a scene where Jake Taylor is alone in the stadium and imagines does the famous Babe Ruth “calling his shot” moment and the fact that Taylor’s knees are bad. At the same time it doesn’t take the obvious route of Taylor crushing that game-winning home run.

If I had to find fault with the movie, the only place I can really point to is in a side plot involving Taylor and his ex girlfriend Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). Now, I’ve confessed my irrational dislike for Russo on Twitter, but here I can’t even really blame that. It’s just that this side plot is terribly unnecessary.

Taylor takes Vaughn and Hays out for a celebratory dinner to kick off the season, and he spots Wells having dinner with another guy (who turns out to be Tom, her fiancé). He then proceeds to, well, stalk her through the movie, including a scene where he crashes a party at Tom’s place. Eventually, when he busts in on HER place, they end up sleeping together, and eventually, during the celebration at the end of the pennant-winning game, she reveals that she has left Tom. Because of course, that’s what happens in these kind of movies.

But who cares? I know I didn’t…and Taylor’s behavior is at times obsessive to the point of being creepy. You know what though, that’s not the point of the movie, and their plot doesn’t intrude too much on the film to be damaging. At worst, the scenes between Taylor and Wells amount more to “ok, time to go grab a drink/snack” when you’re watching at home.

Finally, since this is Listening To Film after all, a brief word about the music. I say brief, because there really isn’t much to say about it. Being a late 80s film, there are a number of pop songs used throughout the film, most notably “Wild Thing” by X, which is used as Ricky Vaughn’s entry song. For the rest, James Newton Howard turns in a score that is so unabashedly 80s  with prominent synth and rock instrumentation. Most famous is probably the track “Pennant Fever,” which plays over a montage of the Indians slowly improving and gaining ground in the standings.

“Pennant Fever”

Newton Howard also wrote a love theme for the film that, again because it was the 80s, was turned into a song for the end credits. The song, called “Most Of All You” and performed by Bill Medley, is again both wonderfully and cringingly pure 80s ballad. It’s one of those songs that, if you grew up in the 80s, you might recognize but not be really sure why.

“Most Of All You” performed by Bill Medley

Ultimately, the songs and the music do work well for the film, because all are part of a pure 80s time capsule of a movie. It’s been a long time since the Cleveland Indians played in Municipal Stadium (affectionately called the Municipal Pig Lot by folks where I grew up). These days, they are competitive, and have been for most years since the mid 90s. But maybe, just maybe, they have the ghosts of Jake Taylor, Ricky Vaughn, and Pedro Cerrano to thank for that success.

MAJOR LEAGUE isn’t a movie that will move you to tears or keep you on the edge of your seat. But it will make you laugh out loud, smile, and have a great time for an hour and a half or so. And isn’t that really what movies are for?

General Chang and STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

“In space, all warriors are cold warriors.”

This post is written for the Christopher Plummer Blogathon hosted by Sean Munger. Thanks for the opportunity to participate, Sean!

plummer-blogathon-banner-2aEver since the success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, subsequent films in the Star Trek universe have largely been judged by their villains (with STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) being the obvious exception). And like Shinzon in STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) and Nero in STAR TREK (2009), many often feel like pale imitations of Khan himself.

However, this is not the case for Klingon General Chang in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, which in my humble opinion is the only film in the series to challenge WRATH OF KHAN for the top spot among all Star Trek films. Chang is a big part of why I love the film so much, and a lot of that is due to his portrayal by Christopher Plummer.

img_0047As an actor who comes from theater, Plummer was the ideal choice to play a Klingon general with a penchant for quoting from the works of Shakespeare (even if they are not, as he remarks in the film, in the “original Klingon”). Unlike some of Trek’s more one-note villains, Chang is at various times cordial, cunning, or ruthless. Plummer’s theater background is most evident in the trial scene, where Chang is called upon to prosecute a case against Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy for the assassination of the Klingon chancellor. He shows tremendous range here, from quiet and almost chatty when he discusses the amount of Romulan ale consumed by McCoy prior to the attack to bombastic when, in perhaps the most famous exchange in the scene, he evokes Adlai Stevenson II’s famous remark to Russian Ambassador Zorin by yelling at Kirk, “…don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!!!”

IMG_0048
“Have we not heard the chimes at midnight?”

Because Chang is not (deliberately) set up as the villain of the film, Plummer also has the added challenge of portraying someone who might be a reluctant ally to the Federation when he comes aboard the Enterprise for an ill-fated diplomatic dinner. His initial encounter with Captain Kirk is not one of hostility but one of admiration, as Chang sees himself and Kirk as two sides of the same coin. Plummer plays both his arrival and departure scenes with the perfect balance of relish, comradeship, and menace so that, despite the good intentions of Chancellor Gorkon, you’re not quite sure what to make of this bald fellow with the bolted-in eyepatch.

His attitude also serves as an interesting mirror on the character of Captain Kirk. Of course, Kirk is portrayed as the hero in these stories, but how would that hero be viewed by his long-time adversaries? While his deeds may not be celebrated, he certainly deserves respect as a warrior, particularly from a race like the Klingons. One gets the sense that Chang has had a similarly distinguished career as Kirk, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his appearance to Kirk and his crew is not dissimilar to how Kirk is viewed by the Klingons. The fact that both Christopher Plummer and William Shatner are classically trained Canadian actors makes the parallel even that much closer.

IMG_0050

Both characters also carry with them considerable prejudices as well. While some of Kirk’s is rooted in the death of his son at the hands of the Klingons, there is also the ingrained distrust built up over years of conflict that is shared by both. This is most apparent during the dinner scene, where a comment by Chang is attributed by Kirk to Adolf Hitler just prior to the Nazi invasion of Europe. It also helps that Plummer’s delivery when he responds, “I beg your pardon?” is absolutely perfect. Ultimately though, Kirk is able to overcome these prejudices (admittedly only after being sent to a Klingon gulag) and recognize that it is possible to make peace with one’s enemies.

ffh7ymChang, of course, isn’t able to make this leap, and because of how he sees Kirk as a mirror of himself, he believes that Kirk is right there with him about there being, “no peace in our time.” It is here during the final battle that Plummer lets loose, chewing the scenery with incredible gusto as he mockingly quotes Shakespeare from his cloaked bird of prey. While I suppose this aspect of his performance could be considered hammy, I just enjoy it so much that I can’t find fault. Chang is clearly having a wonderful time, slowly toying with his adversary, and his shocked expression upon realizing that Kirk has beaten him along with his subdued, “to be…or not to be,” final line is the perfect way for him to go out.

A couple of minor character issues aside — I was never convinced that Chang was anything BUT the bad guy, and his reveal as such in the film is more of a “well duh” moment than a surprise — Christopher Plummer certainly belongs up there with Ricardo Montalban when discussing the best villain portrayals the Star Trek franchise has produced. I cannot imagine another actor in the role, which is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give.

Finally, Christopher Plummer also made his mark in a different role: narrating the first teaser trailer for the film. Set to clips projected over the surface of the Enterprise, it’s probably my favorite Star Trek trailer of all time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Plummer, Chang, and the trailer, and thanks again to Sean Munger for the chance to revisit one of my favorites.