Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Cobb" - It's Almost All a Lie, but Does That Matter?

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

**Blogger sucks sometimes and makes things bold randomly. So some of this article is in bold, but that is not my choice. The only things I intended to be in bold are the section titles.

I guess I’m a sports kick now, moving from hockey (Sudden Death) to baseball. That was not intentional. It’s mainly because I listened to a podcast about Field of Dreams, and the line about none of the players liking Ty Cobb came up, and it reminded me of this movie. I always liked this movie for Jones’s batshit performance as the crazed, drunken, dying Cobb. I still like it for that, but I also used to like it because I felt like I was in the know about something. Ty Cobb, a baseball player I only knew of because of all his records, was actually a crazy, racist asshole! But a few years ago, the primary source for this movie, Al Stump, was exposed as a fraud. So it turns out Cobb may have been a dick, but probably wasn’t the psycho we see in this film. So what does that mean for this movie?

The rare underseen movie that should stay that way.

I used to consider Cobb a hidden gem among baseball movies. Hardly anyone saw it in the theaters (it made $1 million total at the box office), and it wasn’t a critical darling (65% on Rotten Tomatoes is okay, but certainly not great). I felt like I was one of the only people who knew about this movie. As it turns out, that may have been a good thing.

Here’s a little background to explain the factual issues with this movie. Al Stump was a popular sports writer in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s that was tasked with ghost-writing Ty Cobb’s autobiography. Cobb wanted a very dry book devoted to baseball. Stump produced this. Then a few weeks later, he had an article published about how crazy Cobb was while he worked with him. Then, in the early ‘90s, Stump wrote an entire book about how crazy Cobb was: Cobb is shown to be constantly drunk, disgustingly racist, quick to fire a gun in public and in his home, a wife beater, a terrible father, a murderer, etc. Then Ron Shelton makes the movie adaptation. Years later, Stump is exposed as a fraud when he tries to sell a shotgun he claims was used to kill Cobb’s father. The coroner’s report stated that a pistol had been used, not a shotgun. And then the rest of the dominoes fell. Stump had been selling Cobb memorabilia for years, most of it most likely fake. And then people started looking into the claims made in the book, and most of them could not be backed up. And now his entire book, and the movie, can be called into question. Here's an article that goes into more detail about it all.

Now there are entire books and a number of articles devoted to clearing Cobb’s name, but the damage is done. Most people think of Cobb as a racist maniac. Now, obviously Cobb wasn’t a saint. He was a product of the deep South from the late 1800s; the guy was probably a racist. But there are quotes from him supporting the inclusion of black players in baseball, and he made a comment about Willie Mays being the only player he’d pay money to watch. Also, Cobb was very competitive, so plenty of people probably disliked him. And he was divorced a couple times and apparently didn’t have the best relationship with his children. He was probably someone you wouldn’t want to hang out with, but does that make him a gun-toting racist real-life Yosemite Sam?  

That’s why I’m okay with people not watching this movie. Because Tommy Lee Jones goes all in with his performance. He’s a fucking maniac in this movie. His performance is by far the best part of the movie, but it’s now the most problematic as well. Perhaps future copies and streaming versions of the movie could include a disclaimer: “The work this film is based on has been discredited since the initial release, but please still enjoy Tommy Lee Jones going fucking nuts, even if it is not historically accurate.”

As a work of fiction, I think Cobb holds up. The overall points of the movie are still valid, even if the specifics are most likely exaggerated or made up. Do America’s children need heroes? If so, should we lie to keep them heroic? Or is it the adults that need these heroes?

With that written, the other main theme regarding a journalist’s responsibility to the truth goes right out the fucking window now, so I’ll ignore that one. Actually, now you can look at the movie as a cautionary tale of being too trusting of journalists. But in these dark days of “fake news” and people refusing to believe facts, that’s probably not a point that needs to be made anymore. Perhaps the film can serve as a historical object. Look at what used to happen before our skepticism became too strong: we used to take journalists at their word. We got burned so many times that now some dickheads out there don’t trust anything except their own opinions. Thanks, Al Stump! I’m glad Robert Wuhl portrayed you as an annoying fuckhead!

So I’ll ignore the journalistic theme and focus on that sports hero stuff...

Did we ever need sports heroes?

I love baseball and baseball movies, but one thing that always annoys me about the two is this reverence placed on the sport. It’s America’s pasttime and all that. Kids used to grow up idolizing their heroes at the ballpark. Now it’s all about the money! What happened to this perfect part of America?

I always chalk these feelings up to the idiotic idea that American life in the 1950s was perfect, and it’s all turned to shit since then. Maybe life was simpler and better for some people back then, but civil rights still had a long way to go, among other things. I think it’s a simple case of nostalgia for baby boomers. Things were better when they were kids. But that’s every generation! Shit gets worse as you get older because you know more about the world. It only seems especially bad now because as a species we’ve become more aware of how shitty we all are thanks to the internet. The ‘50s were only great for some people because it was easier to live in ignorance.

So what the fuck does that have to do with baseball? Well, baseball is just part of it. But some people, like director Ron Shelton, for instance, like to think that baseball was integral to American life back then. And I just don’t buy it. When I was a kid in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s I had favorite baseball players, but my life didn’t hinge upon their heroic image. They were just the players I rooted for and wanted to be like. When I found out Jose Canseco did steroids it didn’t cause some existential crisis within me, and it damn sure didn’t cause one for the country as a whole. Cobb would have you believe that Stump seriously worried about destroying Cobb’s image among the children of America. Thankfully, he realizes at the end that the children of America don’t need Cobb. But he claims he does. And that’s what it’s all about. Some people just want their own personal heroes to stay heroic. I think, as a culture, we’ve moved beyond that a bit, but there are still people out there that simply won’t believe bad things about people they idolize. I’m not one of those people. For instance, Louis C.K. used to be my favorite comedian, but after his fucked up behavior was exposed, I changed my opinion of him. Now I can’t watch his old stand-up material without thinking about what he was doing at the time. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. You should be able to change your mind about your heroes because heroes are people, and people fucking suck.

I guess that’s why the treatment of baseball annoys me. It’s just a game. And this is coming from someone who tries to go to an MLB game every year. I love going to baseball games. I still watch baseball on TV when I get chance. I even listen to it on the radio at times. But I don’t think of it as some sacred activity. It’s entertainment, plain and simple, and most people would disagree with even that.

Perhaps that’s why baseball movies tend to treat the sport with such reverence. It used to be more than just entertainment to them. It used to be pure, blah blah blah. The problem with that is that baseball, like every other sport, has always had scandals and awful policies. Let’s start with the big one: it was a whites only game until the 1950s. Is that what people are nostalgic about? Remember the good old days when baseball was a white sport? I hope that’s not the case. So maybe they long for the days before steroid use and other forms of cheating. Then explain the World Series being fixed in 1919. Was that back when the game was pure?

I’ve rambled all over this subject, so I’ll end with this: we’ve never needed sports heroes; we just need to take off the rose-colored glasses and realize that while the game looks different, it’s actually always been the flawed institution it is today. I just wish baseball movies would stop comparing going to a baseball stadium with going to church or something. Baseball is a great game, but it’s still just a game.

Why Do I Own This?

I own this because of Tommy Lee Jones’s performance. I’ve rewatched it plenty of times, and I’ll watch it again in the future. He’s just going for it in this movie. I sincerely believe this performance helped prepare him to play Two Face a year later in Batman Forever. In fact, Cobb and Batman Forever would be an odd, yet fitting double feature.

Random Thoughts

The opening credits music makes it seem like this is a movie about an evil dictator.

Stump and his writer buddies are annoying as fuck.

Cobb comes across as pretty damn cartoonish. I never thought that when I used to watch it, but now that I know it's mostly bullshit, it's hard to take him seriously. But now I wonder how I ever thought this was what this man was like.

I like when Cobb hurries to take a pill in the kitchen he pours some whiskey in a cup to wash it down instead of drinking straight from the bottle. Not to mention the insanity of taking the pills with whiskey in general.

So how much time has passed when they take off for Reno? It seems like it's simply the second day, but Stump's narration makes it seem like he's been there for days. But then they see Willie, who took off right when Stump showed up, and Willie says, "I told you you wouldn't last a day!" So Willie walked all a blizzard? How is he not dead?

"She married my father when she was 12, which is the way they used to do it."

With the historical aspect of the film along with the super serious score, this feels like Ron Shelton's attempt at an Oscar. Which is funny, because this film is tonally all over the place, but you could tell that Shelton thought he was making something very profound about sports heroism and truth in journalism.

"You're gonna get hurt today, you pecker-neck sumbitch!”

Tommy Lee Jones is great as usual, but he does not look like a baseball player, even an old-timey one. Perhaps it’s because Jones has always looked like a seventy-year-old man.

"It's kind of tough hitting from your back, ain't it, Cobb?"
"That's the way your mother always liked it."

I can't get over the music during the slow motion baseball scenes. It's the kind of music that would play during a death scene in a comic book movie or something. It doesn't help that when the scene goes back to normal speed, ragtime music is playing. It's just strange.

"Look! What is that? That's a man!"
"Fuck him."

This movie has my favorite quote about baseball: "Cool Papa Bell was so fast that one time he hit a line drive up the middle that hit himself in the head sliding in  to second base."

The whole ordeal with Ramona made me cringe when I first saw it, and it makes me cringe even more now, which is the point of the scene, by the way. But Stump comes off badly here too. He wants Ramona drunk, but not “too drunk to screw." What a great guy… And sure, he's drunk too, but it seems like he was orchestrating things.

I like Robert Wuhl, but I also find him very annoying in most films. I fucking hate him in this movie, especially now that I know his character is full of shit. Wait. Do I like Robert Wuhl?

Cobb's order for Mickey Cochrane still makes me laugh: "...and a bottle of cologne 'cause the sumbitch stinks!"

"I'd run you down if I was ten, fifteen, twenty years younger."

Bradley Whitford showing up as the unluckiest process server.

"Truth is a whore, just like you are, and just like my mother was."

"A Mr. Barton is here to see you. He says he's chairman of the board of Coca-Cola."
"Tell him to go downstairs and have a Pepsi."

"And we all know writers never lie."

The movie ends with the same musical issue earlier: intensely dramatic followed by old timey fun.

The credits end with two lines from Cobb. One is inexplicable: "I regret that I didn't go to college. I feel I should have been a doctor." The other is a little more fitting: "Baseball was 100% my life."

Man, that "The Real Al Stump" featurette on the DVD is crazy now that he's been exposed. He talks about how truthful the story is, and he even gives Ron Shelton a pipe he claims Cobb owned.

Shelton says early in his commentary, "Hopefully by the end of this introduction, you won't know what's real and what isn’t." He is talking about mixing images of the real Cobb and Jones, but in hindsight, it applies to the entire story.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

"Sudden Death" - Van Damme Fights a Woman in a Penguin Suit...What Else Do You Need to Know?

*I write these articles with SPOILERS. All of this makes much more sense if you’ve seen the movie, especially if you’ve seen it recently.

Another month, another Van Damme movie. This time I’m going with Sudden Death, one of the first movies I can remember mocking. I was in the sixth grade when this came out, and I watched it at a friend’s house, and we just cracked up at the cheesiness of the villains, mainly the guy who holds the chef’s wife hostage. His line, “You’ll what, burn my toast? Ha ha ha ha!” had us rolling. Honestly, I don’t remember much of this movie aside from that, and the fact that Van Damme ends up taking over as the goalie at one point during a Stanley Cup game. Rewatching it, I realized I was a foolish sixth grader, because this movie is actually pretty great.

Much better than I remembered. Also, Powers Boothe steals the show.

Sudden Death tends to (rightfully) get labeled as a Die Hard clone. “It’s Die Hard at a hockey game!” Maybe it’s the self-aware state of action films these days, and I’m feeling nostalgic for the action of the ‘90s, but this movie was surprisingly refreshing in its simplicity. It has everything I want in an action movie: Jean-Claude Van Damme, a seriously sadistic villain, R-rated brutal action, and unironic goofiness.

Let’s start with Van Damme. I think it’s pretty clear by now that I have a strange fascination with the Muscles from Brussels. I just like his movies. I’m not starting a cult or anything, though. I am aware that his line delivery is rough at times, and he’s been miscast, and he’s been under the influence of drugs during a few movies (I’m looking at you, Knock Off). So I can admit when one of his movies doesn’t work for me. This one used to be one of those, but watching it again, I realized that they don’t really use Van Damme much in this movie. He has fewer fight scenes than normal, and there is a lot of focus on the villain throughout. He has no love interest, and he spends a lot of the movie just skulking around looking for bombs. That used to be why I didn’t care that much for this one, but now it’s what I like about it. This is nothing against Van Damme, because he’s still a legitimate action star in this. It’s just that his character isn’t really that interesting, so I was glad we spent more time with the villain. Which brings me to the true star of Sudden Death: Powers Boothe.

Powers Boothe is one of those actors that I tend to forget about, then I see him in something and realize how fucking good he was. Maybe it was my subconscious that caused me to pick this film because I’ve been rewatching Deadwood in anticipation of the movie coming out later this month, and it bums me out every time I see Boothe because he died before they got the movie together. He’s so effortlessly sadistic in that show, and it sucks that we won’t see him again. But he left behind an amazing body of work to be enjoyed for years to come, and Sudden Death is a highlight.

Boothe will mainly be remembered for Deadwood and Tombstone, but he’s definitely one of those “that guy” actors that everyone remembers from one thing or another (one thing I came across while checking his filmography was a TV movie in which he played Jim Jones, and now I definitely have to watch it). He didn’t only play villains, but it was certainly his strong suit. What makes him so good in Sudden Death is that he’s able to have fun. Much like his character of Curly Bill from Tombstone, he jokes around a lot while also doing terrible things, moreso in Sudden Death than Tombstone.

For one thing, the villain in this movie (he’s given in a name in the credits, but we never hear it in the film because he’s simply the bad guy, and that’s all we need to know) does not bluff. He and his goons kill a lot of people. When one of his henchman shows up with Van Damme’s daughter, his asks why the goon didn’t kill her. (Having recently watched Swordfish, I appreciated seeing a villain in a hostage situation that was willing to kill to make a point.) I don’t find hostage executions entertaining, but I bring it up because despite these killings, it’s hard to completely hate Boothe. I think that’s a credit more to his performance than the character.

Powers Boothe has that rare ability to be a believable psychopath while also being someone you want to watch. Any villain he portrayed was instantly made more interesting by his presence. As for the character, I liked that he was nameless and simply wanted money. No cause. No revenge (although a resentment to the government is mentioned). He just wants money. He is just a bad guy, and Van Damme has to stop him. It’s impossible to top the Bruce Willis/Alan Rickman interactions in Die Hard, but Van Damme and Boothe come a lot closer than anyone would expect.

With a villain asking why a little girl wasn’t killed, you know this movie is going to have some brutal moments. Sudden Death delivers on the action front much more than I remember, but I think that’s because I used to think of this as a Van Damme movie, and now I see it as a Powers Boothe movie. So while there are fewer Van Damme kicks than I would like, there are still some hardcore moments. Aside from multiple people getting riddled with bullets, there are maimings aplenty, most memorably a chicken bone to the neck. And then there’s the lady in the penguin suit who is choked to death before being sent through a dish steaming conveyor. But let’s be honest, all you saw in that last sentence was “the lady in the penguin suit.”

So Sudden Death was originally written to be a parody (if IMDb trivia is to be believed), but it got completely overhauled...except for a fight with a penguin mascot. Yes, Van Damme fights a woman in a giant penguin suit. It’s not played for laughs, but it’s impossible to take it seriously, even when it ends in a brutal death. It’s so randomly goofy. But when you look at the film as a whole, it seems like they were torn between making a serious movie and a tongue in cheek movie. It ended up being serious, but so many silly aspects remain (presumably from the original parody script) that it can be enjoyed on a comedic level too.

The penguin fight is the highlight, but later in the movie Van Damme suits up as a goalie and takes to the ice. And he makes a game-saving goal! That’s silly enough, but when he gets back to the locker room, he fights a full goalie gear. Seeing a goalie in full gear kick someone in the face is something I didn’t know I wanted to see until Sudden Death.

I suppose that sums up my thoughts in general about Sudden Death: it’s something I didn’t know that I wanted to see. It took years of watching other action movies to get to the point that I realized this movie, in all its simplicity and goofiness, is the kind of movie I need sometimes.

No one knows anything is going on?

Obviously I liked this movie this time around, but there is one aspect of it too ridiculous to ignore: despite multiple acts of violence no inside or outside the arena knows what is happening until the very end of the game when the scoreboard blows up. Here are a few things that go unnoticed:

  • Gunfire in general in the arena, even it does happen during a game.
  • A bazooka is fired at a helicopter outside the arena.
  • A zamboni exits the arena and dumps multiple dead bodies in the parking lot.
  • A sign outside the arena is destroyed with a bazooka.

I can forgive the gunfire inside going unnoticed, but the explosions and stuff outside not being picked up by the news is insanity. I know that the Secret Service basically says they’re going to keep this quiet, but once a helicopter takes a bazooka hit outside the arena, that goes out the window, right? Apparently not.

It mainly bothers me because the assumption is that no one is outside the stadium to witness any of this. The arena is in the middle of Pittsburgh! Sure, it’s not New York, but I still think an explosion at an arena would draw a few onlookers

I understand that this takes place before smartphones and the ubiquity of the internet, but word would still have gotten out that someone was firing a bazooka in downtown Pittsburgh. It mainly annoys me because the bazooka stuff was unnecessary. Just focus on Van Damme inside instead. I think the main point of that element was to have a few more explosions for the sake of explosions. That is one major downside to ‘90s action movies; they thought blowing shit up automatically made something more interesting. It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it take me out of it a number of times.

Why do I own this?

It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

Random Thoughts

From the dark, early days of DVD: it's full frame, and it doesn't specify that on the cover. That was their go-to.

And there's a dead little girl within the first three minutes. A bit dark for what ends up being a fairly silly movie.

It is a dick move just showing up with tickets to a Stanley Cup game. He couldn't call earlier in the week?

So Van Damme is French Canadian, which is great because it's a decent explanation for his accent. But why is his last name McCord? Why not make it more French-sounding. It's just a pet peeve of mine, I guess.

Man, his kids are really butt hurt about Van Damme not being a "real" firefighter anymore. His job got you into Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, you jerks!

The dude staying with the chef's wife is dressed like a fucking vampire.

"You'll what, burn my toast? Ha ha ha!" I love the maniacal laughter. And he makes a good point, what is the chef going to do?

"Please, he needs a doctor."
Powers Boothe shoots him. "Not anymore."

Powers Boothe is not fucking around. Man, the body count is high early on.

I like a movie where all the goons really look like goons.

Van Damme is definitely not parent of the year material. Leaving the kids unattended at a major sporting event?

Speaking of Van Damme, he's very much a secondary character early on as the focus is more on the villains.

"We've messed up a few times since I've been an agent, but how the fuck did we lose the Vice President?!" What else has happened under this guy's watch?

Van Damme's son is a dick! He should be amped up to be at that game, but instead he just keeps fucking with his sister. And why does he have a fucking squirt gun with him? Ah. Chekov’s squirt gun.

"I'm Icey, the team mascot." No fucking shit, lady in the penguin suit.

So Van Damme's daughter is only saved due to lack of ammo?

"Would you like it if I filled your little mouth with spiders?" God damn, Powers Boothe!

That fight with the mascot is amazing. It's brutal (a hand in hot grease, death by strangulation in a dish steamer[!]), but it's all happening between Van Damme and a woman in a penguin suit.

So what happened to the penguin suit woman's body? I assume a goon got rid of it, but why didn’t we see that or at least have some dialogue about it?

"What the fuck is going on?!"
"Fuck you. And fuck your kid?"

"Is she up in the owner's box?"
"Maybe. Maybe she went out to dinner."
Man, such clever wordplay.

Van Damme stabs a dude in the throat with a chicken bone! I forgot how crazy, and enjoyable, this movie was.

I just realized who the Vice President is: Dewey Cox's dad. "The wrong hostage died!"

They shot a bazooka at two helicopters, and it blew up in between them somehow, only causing a rappelling soldier to fall. How did it not take out one of the helicopters?

Powers Boothe has a fake detonator that's actually a lighter? Did he get that at Spencer's Gifts? And that's a lot of forethought for a gag from a guy willing to kill so many people.

I'll give Van Damme's son a little credit. He tells him not to leave his seat, and that kid stays put for a while.

Not sure how being a firefighter means Van Damme's character has martial arts and MacGyver skills…

I'm not an action movie goon, but that seems like a terrible way to hold that weapon.

Van Damme's fake name, Tom Castillo, makes more sense than his character's real name.

"Maybe when you were born you had something wrong with your brain." You can tell from Boothe's reaction that she hit the nail on the head.

By the why, Boothe's little chats with Van Damme's daughter are oddly intense.

Van Damme must've caused multiple injuries with his jaunt through the seats, starting with that poor vendor he shoved down the stairs.

There must be fifteen or more shots of Van Damme's son just sitting at the game. Although they do mix it up now and then with him drinking a Coke to get some product placement.

Van Damme seemed to want the trainer in the locker room to die. He gave him no warning at all. Couldn't he have yelled "Hide!" or something?

I can't stress this enough: all the bad guys in this movie look so much like bad guys it's ridiculous. Why not have them dress up like hockey fans at least?

According to IMDb trivia, the owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins was a producer of this, and his wife came up with the story. I imagine the owner's wife, bored out of her mind at one of the games, imagining how awesome it would be if some terrorists stormed the owner's box during a game and threatened to blow up the stadium. Then maybe she wouldn't have to go to any more god damn hockey games!

No one noticed the roof opening during the game?

Finally, the scoreboard blowing up let's people know something fucked up is going on.

Why were the lights the terrorist and Van Damme were swinging on not on?

Even as everyone runs for their lives, Van Damme's lame ass son just sits there.

The shot of Van Damme's son sitting alone in the arena is my favorite shot in the movie.

Powers Boothe's disguise is hilarious.

His daughter technically saved herself. He was too busy trying to kick Powers Boothe's ass to help her climb back up.

I know nothing about helicopters, but that straight vertical fall seems impossible.

What an abrupt ending! It seems like there should have been another scene with the Vice President. Or a scene showing Van Damme back as a regular fireman a few months later or something.

And it ends with the kids saying he’s a “fireman,” which makes no sense. I don’t recall him putting out any fires. He acted more like a cop or bomb technician than a firefighter. But whatever, kids, at least you respect your father again, you high-standard-having shits!

Finally, why did they make it the son's birthday? It being the playoffs was the only reason they needed for Van Damme to spring the last minute tickets on them. Other than that, it doesn't factor into the story at all. And it makes it seem strange that the son gets so forgotten while Van Damme tries to save his daughter. His focus on his daughter and dismissal of his son reminded me of Interstellar. "Happy birthday, son. Now enjoy the game, and I'll see you after the explosion creates a frenzy and the bad guy plummets back into the stadium in a helicopter, which also explodes. Good job staying in that seat, by the way, slugger!"