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Black Hero, Whitewashed

A glossy biopic about Jackie Robinson soft-pedals racism




42. I've long felt a weird sense of nostalgia for baseball of bygone eras. It must be something about the grainy newsreel footage or the baggy uniforms or the increasingly ludicrous sideburns and moustaches of those old heroes of the diamond. Whatever the reason, I take far more pleasure in baseball's past than in its present. Writer/director Brian Helgeland (who has too many "screenplay by" credits to list, including brilliant adaptations of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) had all the potential for creating a Jackie Robinson biopic that would get me there, coming alive with the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, maybe even providing some much-needed cultural commentary. It tries, valiantly at times, but never quite makes it.

At some point in the mid-1990s, Spike Lee and Denzel Washington tried to get a Jackie Robinson project off the ground, but nobody was willing to pony up the cash. This could spur a conversation about racial bias in Hollywood, particularly how it has affected Lee, one of the best known, most woefully underfunded filmmakers in the business. But this may not be the place. And there's no point lamenting what might have been.

Helgeland tells the story of Robinson's rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the series of pivotal, contentious moves leading up to it. I understand the motivation here: A full biography would dilute the dramatic intensity of the story, and probably require more than one movie. But by narrowing the focus, there is an inherent risk -- one that 42 unfortunately succumbs to. With such a short timeline there's precious little room to contextualize personal motives or cultural mores.

For example, after an awkward expository voice-over, the story jumps straight to Dodgers head executive Branch Rickey (an uncharacteristically hammy Harrison Ford), who summarily pronounces that he's bringing a player from the Negro Leagues to the ball club. We get no insight into his thought process or the poisonous fog of race-hate hanging over America in 1947.

With the notable exception of one team manager (Alan Tudyk as an epithet-spewing cracker), there's no life given to the antipathy and fear Robinson must have confronted constantly. Helgeland keeps the institutionalized racism of the day at arm's length, suggesting rather than showing it. Even when some of Robinson's teammates mount a petition to keep him from playing, they come off as merely ignorant and strange, rather than hateful or cruel.

Helgeland paints a picture of human nature as inherently good but muddied occasionally by bad judgment and misplaced traditionalism. I admire his optimism, but it may not be the right attitude for the subject matter. 42 is a story about a sea-change in American race relations, with professional baseball as the microcosm. But the way it's told feels too easy, too simple and sentimental. It has more than a few good things going for it, but more than anything the movie left me wanting more -- more insight into Robinson's character, more verisimilitude about the culture of the day, and more baseball. PG13. 128m.

GINGER & ROSA. My initial reaction, upon leaving the theater, was that I had just watched a 17-year-old girl cry for an hour and a half. Ginger (Elle Fanning) cries almost constantly, usually in that hoarse, seismic way that precludes conscious thought. Fanning makes it all-too-real, and that may be the highest praise I have for Sally Potter's movie.

The title characters are teenaged best friends in London circa 1962. Ginger is the child of bohemian intellectuals ill-suited to child-rearing. Rosa is the darkly sexual daughter of a working single mother. As the specter of nuclear holocaust looms, their very intimate relationship turns down a dark, painful corridor.

The lead actresses (Fanning and Alice Englert) inhabit their roles with an almost disturbing naturalism, and the vagaries of teen life in a bombed out post-war landscape ring true. But the characters surrounding them (including a miscast Christina Hendricks as Ginger's mother) are generally unsympathetic, if not completely unlikeable. As Roland, Ginger's philandering philosopher of a father, Alessandro Nivola delivers a note-perfect, almost unwatchable performance of selfishness embodied and rationalized by intellect.

There isn't a moment in Ginger & Rosa that I can look back on with fondness, but fair enough. It's a tough little story about an unpleasant time and place; I can't say I'll watch it again, or that it even resonated, particularly. But it is a strong, competently made movie, and it did provoke a reaction. PG13. 90m.

-- John J. Bennett


OBLIVION. Ha ha. Tom Cruise's career led him to Oblivion. (Forgive me.) In this sci-fi adventure he's part of a "mop-up crew" on a future Earth that's been destroyed by alien war. But he finds inhabitants (including Morgan Freeman) who make him question his mission. PG13. 126m.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. A tattooed Ryan Gosling stars as a motorcycle stunt driver who starts robbing banks to provide for his baby and baby-mama. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, whose last film, 2010's Blue Valentine, was an emotional wrecking ball. R. 140m.

Get ready to do "The Truffle Shuffle." On Sunday, Richard Donner's 1985 kids' adventure flick The Goonies (based on a story by Steven Spielberg) comes to the Arcata Theatre Lounge at 6 p.m.

The Humboldt County Library's latest "Based on the Book" film series has the theme "Shadows and Fog: San Francisco Noir." The series continues Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. (at the Eureka main branch) with Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Hosted by Michael Logan. Free.

On Earth Day (that's Monday, btw), HSU students and faculty will host Switch, a documentary on the future of energy, including oil, fracking, nuclear and renewable sources. The film is screening at 250 college campuses across the country. It will show at 7 p.m. in the Van Duzer Theater. Tickets are free but should be obtained ahead of time at the HSU ticket office.


THE CROODS. A prehistoric family must look for a new cave in this likeable animated comedy featuring the voices of Nic Cage and Emma Stone. PG. 96m.

EVIL DEAD. This gory remake of the 1980s camp-horror classic about a group of young'uns, a cabin in the woods and a supernatural skin-bound book has less camp, more viscera. R. 91m.

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. Bruce Willis, "The Rock" and Channing Tatum play guys with big muscles and guns. They shoot stuff. PG13. 99m.

THE HOST. Alien body-snatchers complicate another boring teenage love triangle from Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series. PG13. 125m.

JURASSIC PARK 3D. That 3D T-Rex made me spill my Diet Coke! PG13. 127m.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. White House action-thriller with a Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) protecting the president (Aaron Eckhart) from evil Koreans. Yawn. R. 100m.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL. James Franco stars as the young wizard-to-be in this visually rich but ultimately hollow prequel. PG. 130m.

SCARY MOVIE 5. What's scary is how many people pay money -- genuine U.S. currency! -- to watch this stuff. PG13. 85m.

-- Ryan Burns


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