Besides breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947 and the baseball sport telecast color barrier in 1965, Jackie Robinson co-founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem, served as vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, campaigned for twoconservative political figures (Richard Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964) and still found enough time in the day to fight for Civil Rights until his death in 1972. Doesn’t that come across as a life that is worth recounting on screen, one of variance and (admitted) ambiguity? Brian Helgeland’s “42” has a much narrower focus, choosing instead to chronicle Robinson’s early baseball career in typical biopic fashion; “42” is a classical feel-good sports movie/biopic whose sentimentality is cemented by notable performances and comprehensive period detail that is as effective as a conveyer belt cinematic life story can be, for better and for worse.


“42” charts Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) transition from Negro League obscurity to Brooklyn Dodgers fame, his relationship with Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), and the vast racial barricades that Robinson faced from aggressive managers and disapproving fans and fellow players who don’t welcome the mixing of races in America’s national pastime. We also get a glimpse of the early days of Jackie’s marriage to Rachel Isum (Nicole Beharie), including Isum’s adjustment to a not so welcoming world.


The fact that Helgeland’s film is extremely traditional in scope and execution is its greatest strength and weakness; this very time-honored portrayal of a fraction of Robinson’s life will rouse and inspire the crowd in all of the ways it needs to, no more and no less. From Rickey’s opening monologue about moxie and grit in the game of baseball in his quest to “find Jackie Robinson” to Robinson’s last lap around the diamond after his home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates, “42” paints the life of a true American icon in the broadest, most recognizable strokes possible, yet another celebrity fed to the sports movie machine.


Not to say that there aren’t glimmers of inspired decisions in here somewhere. Boseman’s Robinson is scrappy and hard-nosed, to be sure, but Boseman portrays him as far more than just another rebel with a cause; he is able to properly convey that Robinson was a man under constant social pressures, desperate for acceptance yet not willing to give in to the bigoted powers that be. In such a linear and well-known story, nuance like this carries “42” along.


Even with Boseman’s performance and Helgeland’s admittedly briskly paced screenplay, “42” come across as a very boilerplate and, let’s admit, toothless film. Biopics by nature come across as a very observational genre, one that doesn’t usually takes sides in regards to its subject and just presents the facts in a way that is digestible, yet everyone knows that Robinson is the man who integrated baseball; this is a road well traveled cinematically (“Soul of The Game”, “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson”), already paved with this information. Helgeland’s film could’ve benefited from a more all-encompassing approach to Robinson’s story, a la Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic “Ray”, a film that wasn’t afraid to sketch musician and Civil Rights activist Ray Charles in a more ambiguous and humanizing light while still maintaining a level of earnest authenticity to its time.


The quintessential Jackie Robinson movie, one that addresses the man, the myth, and the legend in equal measure, still has yet to be made. Brian Helgeland’s “42” is a well-meaning, yet utterly toothless introduction to the life and accomplishments of a multi-faceted American icon.


The Lords of Salem



I certainly couldn’t have predicted the amount of panache musician Rob Zombie would bring to his cinematic work. He became established through the band White Zombie before branching off on his own, channeling a love for grisly schlock-horror that followed him from hard rock stardom to the writer-director’s chair. His first two features, “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” fit into the niche of visceral horror thrills that entertain as much as they horrify, two grisly thrill rides that combine the hard-rock weirdness Zombie has worked with throughout the years with interesting Southland narratives.

In his latest film, “The Lords of Salem,” Zombie heads in the complete opposite direction, combining slow burning gothic spookiness with tales of witches and Satanic worship in Salem, Massachusetts, and he fails pretty spectacularly. Zombie’s vision and cinematographic sensibilities are still here, but the spark of scary-good entertainment is gone. “The Lords of Salem” is an unremarkable supernatural wash.

Heidi Hawthorne (Mrs. Zombie herself, Sheri Moon) is a troubled former drug addict who MCs as a member of the “Big H Radio Team,” a trio of local rock radio personalities including friends Whitey Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Munster Jackson (Ken Foree). Hawthorne receives a mysterious package in the mail from a group that calls themselves “the Lords,” a group of Salem witches and Satanic worshippers from the 1800s, which contains an ominous recording that has a strange effect on Hawthorne and kickstarts her descent into the occult.

I’ll say this about director Rob Zombie: all of his work has a clear sense of style, being steeped in schlock horror, that compliments his cinematic talents. Unfortunately, those sensibilities don’t work well with “Lords.” His sense of style simply doesn’t translate well to a film so portentous, serious-minded, and slow, clearly taking many cues from the worn pages of “The Exorcist” and other horror classics. The only sense of eerie in “Lords” comes from Moon Zombie’s spirited performance, one that hides many layers of self-doubt and checkered history. The rest of the cast is on occult horror autopilot.

And that’s what I can say about “Lords of Salem” as a whole. This was Zombie’s chance to break into a different mold of horror, one more serious and ripe for scares that claw at the memory and rest in the subconscious; he gets the chilling build-up yet forgets the pay-off. Slow burning portentous horror is not Rob Zombie’s strong suit, as “Lords of Salem” proved to me that Zombie should stick to thrills instead of chills.