Although set about 200 years before the world had ever heard of Lady Diana Spencer this is the true story of another royal Spencer The Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) whose personal and professional life and innate sense of fashion and glamour made her all the rage in England and led her to a royal life of triumph and tragedy. Sound familiar? Based on Amanda Foreman’s award-winning biography this compelling film version introduces us to a dynamic woman whose feistiness and sense of style made her a star attraction in England’s royal circle. Smart as a whip and eventual leader of the progressive Whig party Georgiana had it all--except the one thing she wanted most the love of her husband The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) who became so obsessed with siring a son that he turned to open affairs with other women including his wife’s best friend Bess (Hayley Atwell). This humiliation and betrayal by her husband and friend leads to her own attempt at romantic happiness in a sizzling affair with the abolitionist Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). Putting it simply Knightley has the role of a lifetime and socks it home with the kind of acting bravado she hasn’t displayed even in her best films Pride and Prejudice and last year’s Atonement. This is the kind of part an actor kills for an emotional powerhouse that allows her to run the gamut from glamour queen powerful political force tortured wife passionate lover and tragic heroine. The story of this Duchess has it all and is only enhanced by the eerie parallels to her royal descendant Princess Diana. If there is any justice Knightley will be nominated for an Oscar. She deserves it. Fiennes is equally good enjoying his finest screen outing in some time as the cold-hearted Duke who puts his own selfish goals above all else. Their scenes together are spectacularly well-acted. Atwell is demure and understated as Bess the third wheel in a very complicated relationship. She’s slyly amusing particularly in scenes she shares at the dining table with the Duke and Duchess. Cooper makes a strong impression turning up the heat as the dashing Grey especially in a smoldering love scene with Knightley. The ever-reliable Charlotte Rampling is regally comfortable in the role of Lady Spencer Georgiana’s proper mother who tries to dole out useful advice against all odds. Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy) does not have a long directing resume but you wouldn’t know it from the first-rate production he has mounted for The Duchess. Dibb recreates the privileged world of these somewhat pained characters with no detail spared. Dibb’s widescreen framing of this historic soap opera is breathtakingly beautiful to see his obvious filmmaking confidence paying off in a great looking motion picture. But it is a lot more than just pomp and circumstance. Often period dramas tend to get bogged down in spectacle and forget the human element. This is a case where moviegoers will be glued to their seats from first frame to last. It’s a whopper of a story he has adapted (with Jeffrey Hatcher and Anders Thomas Jensen) that thankfully doesn’t get lost in minutiae. Of particular note are Michael O’Connor’s costumes and Jan Archibald’s loopy hairstyle designs along with a stirring musical score supplied by Rachel Portman.
Morris Buttermaker (Thornton) doesn't really let himself get too involved in anything. He wakes up drinks a beer exterminates a few household pests for a living drinks some more beers and maybe gets laid. That's about it. Sure he was once a professional baseball player who pitched in the Show for about two-thirds of an inning but now he just uses that experience to pick up women. One such woman a tough-nut lawyer and overachieving single mom (Marcia Gay Harden) bribes Buttermaker into coaching her son's Little League team. Suddenly faced with a woefully inept racially mixed team of 12 misfits Buttermaker has got to whip them--as well as himself--into shape if they have any chance of making it to the championship let alone beating the reviled returning champs the Yankees and their overbearing coach (Greg Kinnear). Yeah Buttermaker is about to get seriously involved.
Although it's hard to top Walter Matthau's original irascible Buttermaker casting Thornton as the baseball-pelting beer-swillin' yet lovable curmudgeon is kind of a no-brainer. Since Bad Santa the actor--with his devilish goatee unkempt hair and rumpled clothes--has become the new W.C. Fields albeit an edgier one capitalizing on the I'll-deal-with-kids-but-I-really-don't-like-them persona. On top of that Thornton has a killer under-his-breath delivery especially when he's trying to dole out er words of wisdom to his team: "I know a tie is a lot like kissing your sister but the way we've been coming along it's more like kissing a really hot stepsister." The kid actors--most of them unknowns--also do a fine job. You've got the usual suspects from the first movie: the rather rotund Engleberg (Brandon Craggs); the hotheaded Tanner (Timmy Deters); and the shy and weird Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones). Then you've got slight variations: the statistic-spouting nerd is now an Indian kid (Aman Johal) who carries around a laptop; an Armenian kid (Jeffrey Tedmori) struggles with the beliefs of his old-fashioned family; and a wheelchair-bound paraplegic (Troy Gentile) represents the politically correct "every kid can play" mentality. The one player hard to replace in the remake however is the team's ace in the hole pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer. Tatum O'Neal played her brilliantly in the original as a tough but sensitive girl who could pitch the ball like there's no tomorrow but who was looking for a father figure. She sparred well with the crabby Matthau. In this version Amanda is played by newcomer Sammi Kane Kraft a real-life ace pitcher who can't quite measure up in the acting department. Tatum you were missed.
The 1976 Bad News Bears was ahead of its time. A story about a less-than-warm-and-cuddly coach who lets the kids smoke drink beer curse up a storm and spout politically incorrect racial slurs wasn't something you usually saw in a so-called "kid" movie. But it managed to hit a home run with the anti-establishment. Unfortunately you couldn't make the same movie in today's more conservative climate but director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) sure tries his darnedest to give the audience a taste of what made playing with the original Bears so much fun. In this Bad News Bears the kids still mouth-off and Buttermaker still drinks. Several scenes such as Buttermaker telling Amanda to quit trying to make him her father are taken verbatim from the original. Even the same albeit cleverly disguised variation of Bizet's Carmen punctuates the action. But my question is this: if the burning desire to re-create the classic was too great why make an almost exact replica minus all the political incorrectness (which basically made the original such a hoot anyway)? Why not veer off and do something different? I suppose it's Linklater's way to bring in a new crop of fans who haven't seen the Matthau/O'Neal version as well as a way to pay homage. Still if I wanted to see the real Bad News Bears I'd rent the original.