Teacher on a path to self-destruction

Brendan Fraser plays the reclusive Charlie in The Whale. (Photo courtesy of A24)

By Richard Ades

When Charlie leads an online English class with his own image blacked out, he tells his students it’s because his camera doesn’t work. But we intuitively know that’s a lie.

The teacher (Brendan Fraser), whose obesity confines him to his house and usually his couch, is ashamed of who he’s become. As the story unfolds, we learn that his shame is based on more than simply his 600-pound body.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) from the script Samuel D. Hunter adapted from his own stage play, The Whale is a maddening but sometimes compelling portrait of a man who refuses to slow his descent into death. His only friend, a nurse named Liz (Hong Chau), pleads with him to go to the hospital to head off imminent heart failure, but Charlie refuses. His excuse is that he has no insurance and would only go into debt.

Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and only friend (Photo courtesy of A24)

The truth is that Charlie doesn’t care whether he lives or dies. All he really cares about is reconnecting with his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), from whom he’s been estranged ever since his wife divorced him due to a gay affair. Yet when he somehow persuades the teenager to pay a visit, she turns out to be so angry at him—and, it seems, at the world in general—that he becomes convinced her life has been ruined by his absence. It’s one more reason to devalue his own existence.

Yet another reason comes to light thanks to an unexpected visit from Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary for a religious cult that believes the “end times” are imminent. Charlie knows all about the cult, as it was implicated in a tragedy for which he blames himself and that sent his life into its downward spiral.

Sadie Sink as Charlie’s angry daughter, Ellie (Photo courtesy of Niko Tavernise)

It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive character than Charlie, which is one reason the film has garnered nearly as many critical detractors as admirers. On the other hand, Fraser has won praise for finding the humanity in the gentle and perversely optimistic Charlie and will likely be considered for an Oscar. Also worthy of notice are the supporting performances of Chau and Sink as Charlie’s friend and daughter, respectively.

Besides the fine acting, The Whale distinguishes itself by finding a slender reason for optimism amid all the gloom. The result is that those who stay until the end will likely be moved more than they ever expected to be.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Whale (rated R) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

Are Puss’s days of glory behind him?

Puss in Boots (right, voiced by Antonio Banderas) seeks to recover his squandered nine lives with help from Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayak, left) and Perro (Harvey Guillen).

By Richard Ades

Shrek’s favorite feline swashbuckler comes face to face with his own mortality in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

It all starts when Puss (Antonio Banderas) realizes he’s carelessly, if heroically, used up eight of his nine lives. The Grim Reaper-like Big Bad Wolf (Wagner Moura) then shows up and threatens to finish him off for good, forcing him to play it safe for the very first time. Abandoning his trademark cape, boots and sword, he hides out in the home of crazy cat lady Mama Luna (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who unwittingly steals his last bit of self-respect by dubbing him “Pickles.”

The poor feline seems destined to spend the rest of his remaining life in this miserable place, but fate intervenes when the home is invaded by Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and her adopted family of bears. Puss learns they’re in search of a magical star that can grant any wish, and he immediately decides to make that his quest as well. After all, he’s desperate to find a way to get his first eight lives back so he can return to his heroic ways.

Directed by Joel Crawford from a script by Paul Fisher, Tommy Swerdlow and Tom Wheeler, the animated flick brings back Puss’s one-time girlfriend, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayak). Like other Shrek films and spinoffs, it also incorporates characters from classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, though not always as we remember them. The chief villain, for example, is the former “Little” Jack Horner (John Mulaney), who’s now grown into an oversized menace.

Accompanying Horner is Ethical Bug (Kevin McCann), an insect who bears some resemblance to Jiminy Cricket and sounds exactly (and hilariously) like the late Jimmy Stewart. Bug tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to serve as Horner’s conscience.

But the flick’s most effective lessons are imparted by its most adorable character: Perro (Harvey Guillen), a down-and-out Chihuahua whom Puss finds trying to pass himself off as just another cat in Mama Luna’s overpopulated home. Not that the humble Perro ever tries to lecture others. Instead, he teaches by example, living his life with gratitude for every pleasure and friend it sends his way.

With glorious animation and a first-rate cast voicing not only the funniest characters but the scariest ones, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish may be too intense for the youngest children. But for older kids, as well as us really old kids, it’s an amusing and warm-hearted romp with an inspirational message or two thrown in for good measure.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (rated PG) opens Dec. 21 in theaters nationwide.

‘Avatar’ sequel is beautiful but plodding

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, left) and Jake (Sam Washington) confer during a fiery moment in Avatar: The Way of Water. (Photos courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

By Richard Ades

If you plan to see Avatar: The Way of Water, make sure you’re prepared.

Most importantly, visit the restroom before it starts. That’s always a good idea for a movie that runs three hours and 12 minutes, but especially for one that has a whole lot of, you know, water in it.

Almost as important: Refresh your memory about the original Avatar, which opened in 2009. Director James Cameron obviously remembers it well, since he’s been working on this and future sequels for the past 13 years, so he assumes we all do. That’s why he jumps right into the action without explaining who all these people and avatars are, or even what an avatar is.

In brief: An avatar is a genetically engineered body that resembles the Na’vi, the 10-foot-tall inhabitants of the world Pandora, but is remotely controlled by a human whose own body is in stasis. The new film’s main protagonist is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who turned into an avatar in the first outing and later became chief of the local Na’vi clan while starting a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the previous clan chief.

As Jake’s narration explains in the film’s early moments, the Na’vi have led a peaceful existence since repelling human invaders years earlier. However, that peace abruptly ends with the appearance of a new invasion force led by another holdover from the original Avatar, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Since Quaritch was killed during the first incursion, he and his soldiers return thanks to a new type of avatar called a “recombinant,” which is embedded with the memory of a specific human.

The immediate result of the attack is fire and destruction that are keenly seen, heard and even felt by us viewers thanks to 3-D images shot at 48 frames per second (twice the normal rate) and accompanied by sound technology that makes our very seats shake beneath us. If you were looking for a reason to return to the multiplex, this “you are there” experience is it.

A typically awe-inspiring scene from Avatar: The Way of Water

As an innovator and master of cutting-edge technology, Cameron is simply without equal. He uses motion-capture wizardry to not only create an exotic world that is beautiful and fully realized, but to place the viewer right in the middle of it.

Once there, unfortunately, the viewer soon realizes that Cameron is not without equal as a storyteller. He and his four co-scripters set up a bare-bones plot with a predictable progression: Jake becomes a Na’vi resistance leader, then is forced to flee with his family after Quaritch captures Spider (Jack Champion), a human teenager who knows all the rebellion’s secrets. The family seeks refuge among a remote ocean-going clan and hopes Quaritch won’t find them there.

But, of course, it’s only a matter of time before he will. Since there are more than three hours of that time to fill, the flick pads it out with a series of digressions that often come off as mere excuses to show off its impressive imagery while underlining its pro-environment and anti-war messages. Ironically, it all leads to a finale so destructive and drawn out that you eventually start wondering, “Isn’t everyone dead by now?”

Through it all, the movie is an odd combination of images that are gloriously unique and plot points that seem derivative of previous works of cinema, TV and even video gaming. Many have seen similarities to 1990’s Dances With Wolves, while I also saw reflections of Moby Dick, Platoon, Stranger Things and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. By the end, Cameron is even borrowing from his own 1997 blockbuster, Titanic.

At the very end, the movie reveals that it’s only paving the way for more episodes—not surprisingly, since the second sequel was shot concurrently with the first. So go see Avatar: The Way of Water if you can’t resist the chance to bask in its revolutionary technology and imagery. Just be aware that Cameron is in this for the long haul, and he expects you to be as well.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Avatar: The Way of Water (PG-13) opens Dec. 16 in cinemas nationwide.

Spielberg directs his own origin story

A young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is introduced to cinema by his parents, Bert and Mitzi (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams). (Photos by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

If you ever wondered how Steven Spielberg became a cinematic wizard, your curiosity should be partially satisfied by his new semiautobiographical film, The Fabelmans.

Assuming the tale is to be believed, Spielberg owes his fascination with movies to Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 blockbuster, The Greatest Show on Earth. His fictitious stand-in, a boy named Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), sees the flick only after being dragged to the theater by his parents. Even so, he finds himself transfixed by the experience.

Sammy seems especially awed by the movie’s giant train crash—so much so that he asks for a model train set for Hannukah just so he can engineer a miniature crash of his own. The resulting damage to his expensive toy angers his father, Burt (Paul Dano).

On the other hand, his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), theorizes that Sammy had to recreate the chaos in order to feel it was under his control. Secretly, she urges him to borrow his father’s movie camera so that he can capture the crash on film and watch it over and over.

This sets up a pattern that continues throughout: Burt, a practical-minded computer scientist, doesn’t understand Sammy or his growing devotion to moviemaking, which he dismisses as a mere “hobby.” But Mitzi, a gifted pianist, has an innate appreciation for her artistically minded son.

Unfortunately, the incident also sets up the pattern of characters speaking in baldly descriptive and psychologically tinged terms. Even though Tony Kushner co-wrote the script with Spielberg, it lacks the finesse he brought to earlier Spielberg works such as Lincoln and last year’s West Side Story remake.

High school classmate Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) tries to convert Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) to Christianity.

Partially making up for the script’s heavy-handedness are committed performances by all involved, including Dano and Williams as the parents, Francis-DeFord as young Sammy, Gabriel LaBelle as a teenage Sammy in later scenes, and Seth Rogen as Paul’s best friend and co-worker. And the literary clunkiness all but disappears when Judd Hirsch breezes in for a cameo as a film aficionado who fully understands Sammy’s compulsion to make movies. Hirsch’s brief appearance is so memorable that Oscar buzz is inevitable.  

Sammy’s devotion to moviemaking grows amid a series of challenges, such as the antisemitism he faces after his father moves the family to a new home in northern California. This has painful consequences, but also amusing ones when an amorous classmate (Chloe East) takes it on herself to convert him to Christianity.

More devastating is the growing tension between his parents, leading to a painful discovery Sammy makes with the help of his beloved “hobby.” The experience nearly causes him to put his movie gear away for good.

But, of course, we know he won’t, because his real-life alter ego grew up to be one of the world’s most successful directors. For those who have long admired Spielberg’s work, The Fabelmans offers an interesting, if imperfect, glimpse at the forces that helped to shape him.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Fabelmans (PG-13) is available in theaters nationwide.

Less fun than a Lambo sighting

Frank Grillo as Ferruccio Lamborghini, tractor manufacturer-turned-automaker, in Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend (Photos courtesy of Lionsgate)

By Richard Ades

Ferruccio Lamborghini’s new biopic could have been called Lamborghini v. Ferrari, as the rivalry between the two Italian supercars is a central theme. It’s fortunate that it wasn’t, as that name would have made it even harder to avoid comparisons with 2019’s far superior Ford v. Ferrari.

Instead, the flick is called Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend, thus promising an in-depth study of the entrepreneur who created one of the world’s most exotic automobiles. Sadly, however, it also has trouble living up to that title, as it leaves us with little idea who Lamborghini really was. Written and directed by Bobby Moresco (co-scripter of Crash), it comes across as just another biopic about a man whose ego and ambition dominate his life.

Where did this ambition come from? It’s a mystery, as the young Lamborghini (Romano Reggiani) already has his eye fixed on success when he returns to the family farm after serving in World War II. Rather than settling back into his old life, he tells his father he plans to make his fortune by designing and marketing a superior breed of tractor.

“You’ll throw your life away,” his pragmatic father (Fortunado Cerlino) warns him.

“But what better way to do it than in search of greatness?” the son replies.

That begs the question: Do real-life people really talk about “greatness” in such an abstract way? Maybe not, but they do in this film, adding to the feeling that Moresco has crafted a generic and rather rushed (97-minute) biopic that doesn’t take time to flesh out its protagonist.  

Lamborghini (Frank Grill) introduces his namesake sports car to the world.

The presence of a devoted best friend and loving wife (Matteo Leoni and Hannah van der Westhuysen) do help to humanize Lamborghini, but they abruptly disappear from the film soon after it makes a jarring leap several years into the future. There we find that Lamborghini (now played with rigid determination by Frank Grillo) has become a successful tractor manufacturer with a new doting wife (Mira Sorvino).

Eventually, of course, Lamborghini branches out from farm machinery into high-class automobiles. According to the film, it’s all due to a brief encounter he has with the one and only Enzo Ferrari (Gabriel Byrne), during which he brashly offers to help improve the automaker’s celebrated product. Ferrari responds dismissively, which is depicted as the catalyst that propels Lamborghini on a quest to create his own luxury sports car—and to do it in time to debut it at a prominent auto show just months away.

The frantic scenes that follow, with their shop talk of aluminum engine blocks and wet sumps, might interest the kind of auto geek who’s likely to be drawn to a film called Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend. But they do little to fill in the blanks of a biopic that promises more than it delivers.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Lamborghini: The Man Behind the Legend (rated R) opens Nov. 18 at select theaters and VOD outlets.

Romantic partners on the run in Central America

Trish (Margaret Qualley, right) and Daniel (Joe Alwyn) get acquainted in Stars at Noon. (Photos courtesy of A24)

By Richard Ades

When an American journalist has an affair with a British businessman in Stars at Noon, it begins as a financial transaction: She offers to sleep with him in exchange for American dollars.

Trish (Margaret Qualley) is in dire straits, being stuck in Nicaragua with no money, no passport and no support from her stateside editor. But she finds herself in even direr straits after hooking up with Daniel (Joe Alwyn), who claims to do humanitarian work for an oil company but attracts an unusual amount of attention from a scary Costa Rican cop (Danny Ramirez).

Why? Why, indeed. Director and co-scripter Claire Denis never explains why Daniel is in the cop’s (and eventually the CIA’s) crosshairs, nor does she fill in Trish’s back story. The acclaimed French filmmaker is more interested in establishing a tense atmosphere that justifies the new couple’s eventual run for their lives. In this, she succeeds, though she takes so much time doing so that even the frequent interludes of sex and nudity may fail to keep viewers intrigued.

Stars at Noon is based on Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel, which was set during a U.S.-led attempt to overthrow Daniel Ortega’s leftist government. The new movie takes place in COVID-era Nicaragua, as can be seen by the face masks characters don when entering public places.

Much has changed in Nicaragua between the 1980s and the present—in particular, Ortega has morphed from a revolutionary leader to a standard-issue dictator who jails opponents. However, the movie only hints at the current dynamic by showing ever-present armed troops in the streets and by allowing the two lovers to briefly address the political situation: Trish predicts the government will find an excuse to cancel the upcoming elections, while Daniel holds out hope that supporters of democracy will prevail.

What’s behind Trish’s cynicism and Daniel’s optimism? If only we knew, the characters, and thus their romance, would be more interesting.

It’s particularly frustrating that we know so little about Trish, the chief protagonist. At one point, she apologizes to an official for writing a story about kidnappings and other presumably government-sanctioned crimes, which suggests she was once an idealistic reporter rather than a desperate woman who tries to dilute her misery with alcohol. Qualley does what she can to add depth to her portrayal, as does Alwyn, but the script gives them little help.

Inevitably, Stars at Noon becomes a couple-on-the-run movie, harking back to any number of flicks made throughout the history of cinema. The difference is that in most of its predecessors, we knew who the characters were and why they were forced to flee. Filmmaker Denis is purposefully vague on both counts, leaving us with little reason to care—or to feel anything except a general sense of dread. That, the film does well.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Stars at Noon (rated R) opens Oct. 14 in select theaters and on demand, and will begin screening Oct. 28 on Hulu.

Determined mom goes to war with bureaucracy

Bunny King (Essie Davis) holds aloft the tool of her trade.

By Richard Ades

The title of the New Zealand film The Justice of Bunny King may be its most optimistic element.

Its homeless heroine is waging an uphill battle to regain custody of the two children who were taken from her due to her criminal record. And though she’s sly and resourceful, she’s pitted against an entrenched bureaucracy that refuses to see the reality of her situation.

“Justice” appears to be an impossible goal. Yet the more unreachable it seems, the harder Bunny works to attain it, because that’s who she is.

Essie Davis (The Babadook) plays Bunny as someone who throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever she tries. In the beginning, we see her walking up and down lines of traffic with a squeegee and a broad smile as she cleans windshields in exchange for whatever coins drivers toss her. Later, she retires to the home where she cooks and babysits for her sister (Toni Potter) in return for a place to sleep.

All this she does cheerfully, but there’s a hole in her psyche the size of her physically challenged daughter (Amelie Barnes) and teenage son (Angus Stevens). She’s determined to regain custody but knows that will happen only if she can find a suitable home, something that’s likely beyond her income level.

Then, just as a solution appears to be at hand, she stumbles into the terrifying realization that her teenage niece Tonyah (Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie) is being abused by her sister’s partner (Errol Shand). She tries to fix the situation but only succeeds in making her own life harder. And, thanks to combination of bad luck and bad choices, things just keep getting worse.

Bunny and Tonyah (Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie)

Directed by Gaysorn Thavat from a story she co-conceived with Gregory David King and screenwriter Sophie Henderson, this could be seen as a cautionary tale of the steep odds faced by those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder. First of all, though, it’s a character study of a woman whose instincts sometimes get her in trouble but whose courage and determination are beyond reproach.

Davis’s all-in portrayal keeps us engaged whether Bunny’s antics are amusing us or tying our stomachs in knots. McKenzie and the rest of the cast offer strong support, as does Ginny Loane’s naturalistic cinematography.

The Justice of Bunny King doesn’t go where you expect—or want—it to go, but Davis makes the trip memorable.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

The Justice of Bunny King opened Sept. 23 in select theaters and will be available on demand beginning Sept. 30.

Anime pals take an eventful walk in the woods

Trying to scare off an angry beast they meet in the forest are (from left): Drop (Ayumu Murase), Roma (Natsuki Hanae) and Toto (Yuki Kaji). (Photos courtesy of Studio Madhouse).

By Richard Ades

The opening of Goodbye, Don Glees! finds teens Roma and Toto (Natsuki Hanae and Yuki Kaji) racing their bikes down a dark, twisty road. A near-collision with an oncoming motorist sends Roma flying into the nearby woods, with Toto following behind. After getting their bearings, the two find themselves looking out over the magical place they see as their gateway to the world beyond their tiny village: an airport.

We have to wait to learn what happens next, as the Japanese anime film then flashes back to the events that led up to this moment. They include a fireworks display, a forest fire and a difficult journey the boys undertake along with their new friend, Drop (Ayumu Murase). The ostensible purpose of the trip is to prove the trio didn’t start the fire, but that’s really just the “MacGuffin” that launches a trek filled with danger, beauty, self-discovery and a touch of supernatural mystery.

Goodbye, Don Glees! was directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, who’s previously worked only in television and on 2017’s No Game, No Life: Zero, a big-screen prequel to a TV series. So this is her first completely original work, made more so by the fact that she also wrote the script. It’s an impressive debut, filled with awe-inspiring images and indelible characters, each experiencing a private version of teenage angst that isn’t always clear to the others.

Roma, embarrassed by the odor he picks up shoveling manure on his uncle’s farm, suffers from low self-esteem and is too shy to admit his feelings for Tivoli, a classmate he idolizes. Toto struggles to keep up his grades in order to fulfill his parents’ lofty plans for him. And Drop, the newcomer, carries a burden that will be obvious to viewers long before it is to his companions.

The teens’ inner struggles often cause them to lash out at each other. It’s probably predictable that they eventually learn to appreciate each other more thanks to the shared travails the journey puts them through, but the plot also leaves viewers with some unexpected developments—including one that defies rational explanation.

Filled with impassioned speeches about finding one’s “treasure” and tinged with a sense of mortality, Goodbye, Don Glees! may be too difficult for young children. In fact, the original Japanese version may challenge some English-speaking adults, especially when it divides the screen between subtitles and the characters’ social-media posts. Fortunately for slow readers, a dubbed English version is available, though seeing it would deprive you of hearing the masterful work of original voice artists Hanae, Kaji and Murase.

In case you’re wondering, “Don Glees” is the name of a club Roma and Toto founded. As we learn late in the film, the moniker was inspired by their pessimistic attitude toward life.

Rest assured that if you enter the theater feeling the same way, you’ll leave on a more buoyant note.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Goodbye, Don Glees! (PG) will be screened Sept. 14 and 20 (original Japanese version), and Sept. 18 (English version) in theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s Marcus Crosswoods Cinema 17 (all three dates) and AMC Dine-in Easton Town Center (Sept. 18 and 20 only).  

Kaepernick’s career-ending act of conscience

Colin Kaepernick (center) takes a knee during a pre-game rendition of the national anthem in 2016. Flanking him are teammates Eli Harold (58) and Eric Reid (35). (Photo: Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group/TNS/Alamy Live News)

By Richard Ades

Kaepernick & America, a new documentary on blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, points up an ironic fact: When the then-San Francisco 49er began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, he saw it as a way of protesting America’s racial injustice without disrespecting its flag.

Earlier, Kaepernick had simply remained seated during the anthem to speak out against incidents of police violence against Black men. But then Nate Boyer—a 49ers fan who’d served as a Green Beret—sent Kaepernick an open letter saying he considered this a hurtful act. The two met, and Boyer suggested taking a knee as a more respectful way of getting his point across.

So Kaepernick began dropping to one knee, only to be booed by fans—and by a presidential candidate who never missed a chance to foment anger, particularly against people of color. The quarterback’s career soon came to an end.

Directors Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow interview several people who speak about Kaepernick on several levels: as a star quarterback who felt called upon to risk censure for the sake of his beliefs; as a person of mixed race and cultures, with all the additional pressures that entailed; and as the perfect foil for Donald Trump, who riled up supporters by saying team owners should fire any player who refused to stand for the flag.

Among the interviewees are CNN news anchor Don Lemon; Hue Jackson, one of the few Black men who’ve coached NFL teams; and DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist. Others include April Dinwoodie, an authority on transracial adoption, who theorizes about how Kaepernick might have been shaped by his personal history as a mixed-race child who was adopted and raised by White parents.

One person who isn’t interviewed is Kaepernick himself, who no longer seems interested in commenting on the controversy he inspired. It’s therefore understandable that he appears only in archival footage, but it’s also disappointing. His absence may leave viewers feeling they don’t really know the man who was willing to pay such a high price simply for exercising his right to free speech.

On the other hand, viewers will be all too familiar with the picture of America the film presents: one in which angry White men with guns use Kaepernick’s No. 7 jersey for target practice. We recognize this picture because it bears such a close resemblance to the America we still live in.

One commentator predicts that Kaepernick eventually will be seen as someone who—like the late Muhammad Ali—took an unpopular stance that ultimately was seen to be the right one. That note of optimism seems particularly justified following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, with its new and lethal twist on “taking a knee.”

If that reconciliation ever happens, it may be of some consolation to Kaepernick, but it still won’t bring back his career.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Kaepernick & America will be available through streaming outlets beginning Sept. 2.

New baseball series atones for classic flick’s omissions

Carson (Abbi Jacobson, left) gets acquainted with Max (Chante Adams) in a scene from A League of Their Own. (Photos courtesy of Amazon Prime Video)

By Richard Ades

There’s a moment in the 1992 film A League of Their Own when a ball gets away from a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A Black passerby palms the ball and throws it back with power and skill, after which both women smile at each other in recognition of their mutual love of the game.

The scene, lasting mere seconds, is the flick’s sole acknowledgement of the fact that some Black women played baseball back in 1943 and would have tried out for the then-new league if they’d been allowed to. But they weren’t, as the women’s league was just as segregated as its male counterpart was until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers some four years later.

Prime Video’s new A League of Their Own series, like its big-screen predecessor, revolves around the real-life women’s baseball teams that were formed to give fans something to watch while male players went off to fight World War II. But it’s hardly the same story. The series institutes changes designed to make up for elements of the film that now seem dated at best, insensitive at worst—starting with the short shrift it gives to 1940s racial discrimination.

The character at the center of much of the plot is still a married White woman who tries out for the league while her soldier-husband is serving overseas. Here, she’s named Carson Shaw and is played by Abbi Jacobson, who co-created the series with Will Graham. But playing just as big a role is Max (Chante Adams), a Black hair stylist who lives for baseball and is determined to join the league despite its color bar.

There are other differences, too. While the movie shows men such as an alcoholic coach (Tom Hanks) playing leadership roles in the women’s league, the series is a study in female empowerment. Even when Carson’s Illinois-based team is given a former pro player (Nick Offerman) as a coach, he shows little interest in fulfilling his duties. In this version of reality, there’s no male savior in sight.

The new series also delves into the possibility that some of the league’s players are more than just friends off the field. In fact, the challenges of being queer in the 1940s becomes a major theme.

Members of Carson’s team, the Rockford Peaches, gather in the locker room.

The eight-episode first season surrounds both Carson and Max with a host of colorful friends and colleagues. Carson, of course, has her teammates, starting with the free-thinking Greta (D’Arcy Carden), who surprises her early on with a kiss that forces her to re-examine everything she thought she knew about herself. For her part, Max has a fearsome mother and a supportive father, but primarily she has best friend Clance (Gbemisola Ikumelo), a would-be artist who’s as devoted to the world of comic books as Max is to baseball.

Everyone, from the leads to supporting players and guest stars, is portrayed with as much style as a curve ball and as much gusto as a triple play. Even so, the series takes a while to hit its stride.

In the first episode, the dialogue is filled with enough raunchy language to undermine its sense of time and place. (It doesn’t help that a 1960s Janis Joplin anthem is heard over the closing credits.) Later, some of Max’s scenes take her so far from baseball that they seem part of another series altogether. Especially superfluous is an episode in which she and Clance search for crabs to serve at an important party.

Eventually, though, things begin to coalesce. We learn that Carson and Max are on similar life paths, in more ways than one, and we come to care about them and about those around them.

By the end of its first-season arc, A League of Their Own still seems like two related stories rather than a cohesive whole, but at least they’re interesting stories. Besides, maybe that’s the price the series pays for correcting one of its popular predecessor’s chief shortcomings.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

A League of Their Own premieres Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.