Four Frames – The Natural (1984)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Barry Levinson’s hagiographic baseball epic The Natural.

Of all the films made about the sport of baseball, plenty have struck out, while only a handful have truly knocked it out of the park. None, however, can compare to The Natural.

It’s unsurprising that a sport so revered by its innumerous followers should provide the backdrop to a picture whose central character is seemingly touched by the divine.

The Natural

Determined to become “the best there ever was” in baseball, the rise to greatness of gifted 19-year-old farm boy Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford, aged 47 at the time of release) is brutally cut short by a maniacal femme fatale dressed head-to-toe in black (Barbara Hershey), who lures him to her hotel room before shooting him.

Sixteen years later, Roy joins the dead-end New York Knights as a “middle-aged rookie” and becomes an overnight sensation when he literally knocks the cover off the ball, a feat lent extra drama when a thunderstorm breaks out as the ball is struck.

The Natural

His belated ascent to baseball deity is threatened when he again allows himself to succumb to the wrong woman, this time in the form of the duplicitous and manipulative Memo (Kim Basinger). However, redemption presents itself when his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) re-enters his life.

Director Barry Levinson’s sophomore picture incurred the wrath of many by jettisoning the downbeat ending of Bernard Malamud’s source novel in favour of a wholly triumphant final reel.

The Natural

It’s the crucial play-off game and a debilitated Roy steps up to the plate knowing the Knights’ whole season rests on his shoulders. Cometh the hour, cometh the man; he sends one final, glorious home run crashing into the stadium lights, exploding them in a shower of sparks that light up his lap of honour in front of an enraptured crowd – all played out in slow-motion as if time itself is in awe.

Shameless and implausible it may be, but for a genre that so repeatedly wallows in melodrama, it remains an iconic moment in sports cinema. All the ingredients are there; from Randy Newman’s superheroic score, to Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography, which imbues each frame with a warm and nostalgic beauty.

The Natural

The film takes Arthurian legend (Roy’s Excalibur-esque bat Wonderboy, fashioned from a tree split in two by lightning) and Homer’s The Odyssey and fashions its own mythos out of the mix. It also lathers on the religious sub-text, most strikingly during a key moment when Iris, dressed all in white and stood in the stands watching Roy play, is bathed in an angelic glow courtesy of Deschanel’s astonishing use of lighting.

As hagiographic as it is towards Hobbs – and, in turn, Redford – The Natural perfectly captures the joy of witnessing the sort of greatness that comes along only once-in-a-lifetime.

Debuts Blogathon: Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Debuts Blogathon

As the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, nears its end, we’ve saved one of the very best till last. Tyson from Head in a Vice is covering the one and only Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s hugely influential 1992 debut. Tyson was the first movie blogger to follow me and I’ve followed his posts ever since. His site is a real one-of-a-kind, providing entertaining reviews of genre fare, as well as his long-term Project: De Niro to watch and review all of Bobby’s films and his popular Desert Island Films feature (I promise to sort mine out soon!). Simply put, this is a fantastic site you really need to be following.

Quentin Tarantino

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

When Chris and Mark posted about this project, I immediately knew I could only do it if I could grab Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs.

Reservoir Dogs PosterFor my money, it’s the greatest directorial debut and the man has continued to inspire and make incredible movies in his uncompromising style. Luckily, I was quick off the mark and the boys gave me this movie to talk about. Now I have it, I’m here to offer my thoughts on the film, Tarantino himself and the lasting effects Reservoir Dogs has had on cinema.

Reservoir DogsWhat can I say about Reservoir Dogs that hasn’t already been said a million times, by people much more respectable than me? Not a lot, but I’ll throw some stuff out here anyway. For those that don’t know, the plot goes a little something like this: a diamond heist goes bad and the thieves are left to pick up the pieces back at their warehouse headquarters, all the while suspecting that a traitor in their midst sabotaged the operation.

Tarantino’s style can be seen immediately in the opening scene, and it showcases what most people associate Tarantino with – dialogue. The conversations his characters have in all his movies, I mean, you can tell a Tarantino film just by tuning in to a conversation. The smallest, most subtle things take on so much meaning and for me no one writes like this man. I didn’t see the film on its release (as I was 10-years-old), but I can imagine people watching it and wondering who the hell this Quentin Tarantino guy was; writing, directing and acting in his debut movie.

Reservoir DogsThen the opening scene kicks in and we are listening to some guys talking about random things like tipping and the subtext of Madonna’s Like a Virgin song. It just holds your attention, then the guys leave; the suave crew walking out of the diner in slow motion, set to the George Baker Selection’s super cool Little Green Bag. Wow. You’re just hooked, and here we are over 20 years later, the effect has not diminished at all.

Reservoir DogsI love how within this opening scene, where the issue of tipping the waitress comes up and Mr Pink’s refusal to tip, sets into action a discussion that not only tells us all we need to know about these characters, but even foreshadows the events of the film. Mr Pink won’t tip, showing he mostly cares only about himself (I’ll be honest, his argument is solid and I hate tipping). Mr White believes the waitress works hard and deserves a tip, which shows despite being a criminal he cares for people, which is what leads him to be so blindly trusting with regards to Mr Orange. Mr Blonde offers to shoot Mr Pink for a joke, foreshadowing his sociopathic tendencies. Mr Orange tells Joe that Mr Pink refused to tip, playing the part of a rat, which he is. Joe pressures Mr Pink to tip and he does, showing Mr Pink is ultimately a coward. All that is gleaned from an argument about a tip. That is great writing, and a standard which he has continued throughout his career.

Reservoir DogsIt’s a heist movie where we never actually see the heist. People always assume it’s a horrendously violent film, yet apart from the police torture scene – the camera even cuts away from the ear slicing – it really isn’t that violent. Most of it is set in a warehouse, with a small cast. Yet I can’t find a bad thing about it. Everything from the dialogue, to the cast and the music is not only perfect, but something which is synonymous with all of Tarantino’s films. He finds random music in Japanese clothing stores. He takes washed up actors and gives them the part of a lifetime. But mostly he just does what the hell he wants, when he wants.

Reservoir DogsAs a fan, the one thing I think I love more than anything else Tarantino-wise is that all the characters from his films are alive and real to him. They all play out in his head, and by doing so he has created an intricate, instantly recognisable movie universe – one which boasts a family tree of miscreants that overlap between movies in weird and wonderful ways. This chart shows the links, and it just emphasises the detail and thought that goes into everything he writes.

Reservoir DogsThese connections – however subtle they may be – bear little effect, if any, on the plots of Tarantino’s movies. Instead, they’re like Easter Eggs that reward observant onlookers: in-jokes that might mean nothing to us, but mean the world to their creator. Even in his early work, Tarantino was building his own giant playground, in which not only his individual movies co-exist, but their characters’ paths cross and intersect behind the scenes.

I could go on and on about it, but I’m merely scratching the surface. Ultimately Reservoir Dogs is a work of genius by a debut director and a film that, while he may have bettered in my opinion with Pulp Fiction, will easily stand the test of time. I’m hungry, let’s get a taco.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Dave from ccpopculture provides a piece on New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik’s 2000 debut Chopper. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Tomorrow is the penultimate post in the Blogathon and comes courtesy of Shah from Blank Page Beatdown with his piece on Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. Don’t miss it!