The Basket Movie Review
What is it that seems to go so horribly wrong whenever filmmakers with good intentions set out to make and old-fashioned, sentimental, family movie with a message?
I know these movies aren't inherently rotten -- the simple and wonderful "My Dog Skip" is evidence enough of that -- but somehow most of the writers and directors who try to produce pictures with positive values almost invariably get mired in an giant stew of tiresome platitudes.
Sometimes this staleness is merely awkward. Sometimes it's downright annoying (see "A Dog of Flanders" -- or better yet, don't). And every once in a while it's sheer agony, as is the case with "The Basket."
An ever-so-ardent, nails-on-chalkboard schooling in several Commandments and the Golden Rule, it's a story with a lot of potential about a German brother and sister, World War I refugees adopted by a minister in a rural Washington farm community where they're not at all welcome. But everything good about it is buried neck-deep in the painfully trite clichés.
With its war orphan clichés, one room schoolhouse and general store clichés, pretty wheat field vistas accompanied by a flag-waving score, mischievous teenagers in gatsby caps and short pants -- even a barn fire with a kid trapped inside, for crying out loud -- this sappy, spiritless, slow-pitched picture has its heart in the right place, but it's so hard to sit through you'll want to become one of the movie's bigoted school yard bullies just so you could beat up the director.
The plot revolves around the town's boys learning the then-novel game of basketball from their easygoing new school teacher (Peter Coyote) who has a dark past. In a few weeks there's a competition in a nearby town and if they beat the state's best team, they'll bring home $500 the local farmers need to buy some newfangled farm equipment.
Dying to be a part of the team is enthusiastic young Helmut (Robert Karl Burke), but he and his beautiful teenage sister Brigitta (Amber Willenbourg) endure rough treatment at school and the wrath of much of the community for being immigrant Krauts in the same town where one incensed farmer's has just seen a son come home from Europe crippled, shell shocked and dying from the effects of mustard gas.
Of course, his other son is sweet on Brigitta, which doesn't got down well with the fuming farmer.
Of course, the schoolteacher is full of anecdotes, sage advice.
Of course Helmut -- who has been practicing his hoops by tossing wadded up shirts into a bushel basket nailed to a telephone pole -- will be called on to save the big game.
In the few moments that "The Basket" is not wholly predictable, it's only because nonsensical plot elements appear out of thin air, like when the epileptic kid has a seizure and almost falls off a balcony railing during a basketball game.
Unenthusiastically acted and blandly directed by TV documentarian named Rich Cowan, "The Basket" is utterly flat and flavorless except when it comes to its messages about tolerance, pride, war, perseverance and patriotism. Then its about as subtle as an angry nun with a ruler. In one scene Helmut proudly barks the Pledge of Allegiance as the orchestral score crescendos completely out of control. OK, OK, we get it!
With the aid of a good script doctor and an experienced period director -- say a James Ivory or an Ang Lee -- "The Basket" might have been salvageable. But in the condition it's in, the movie nothing but a bungled Sunday school lesson.