Move Over, Kevin Costner!

Baseball movies do not exactly accelerate my pulse rate. They’re like annual flu shots-a dreaded, painless, but get-it-over-with-fast necessity. That’s why I amaze myself at how much I liked The Rookie . This true story about Jimmy Morris, the high-school chemistry teacher in Texas who finally achieved his lifelong goal to become a major-league pitcher, is a delightful and surprising exception. In a warm, sincere and beautifully understated hearty handshake of a performance, Dennis Quaid is a triumph, and the superb direction by John Lee Hancock, who produced the enchanting My Dog Skip , conjures the same feel for small-town values and the way real people talk and think that illuminated that fine film. The Rookie is that rare G-rated Disney film that is so honest and unsentimental you can laugh and shed an occasional tear without a trace of guilt. That’s more of an accomplishment than it sounds.

The Rookie is so fastidious that even the mystical undertones in the film’s opening narrative setup do not distract. Seems that back in the 1920’s, an old coot with a dream of hitting oil came to Big Lake, Tex., and so convinced a couple of local nuns that they invested their own money and blessed the barren site in the name of St. Rita, patron saint of hopeless dreams. Years later oil did come, and so did a kid with a strong pitching arm and another hopeless dream. Jimmy made it as far as the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983, but had a disastrous shoulder injury in 1986, and retired in 1989. Ten years later, he ends up with a wife and three kids, teaching science and coaching the Big Lake High School baseball team, which hasn’t won a game in years. When the kids find out what a great pitcher their coach used to be, they make him a deal, promising to win if he’ll take one more crack at big-time pitching.

The boys win the district championship. Now it’s his turn. Jimmy makes the tryouts with his three kids in tow, changing diapers between pitches, and still manages to clock fastballs at an astounding 98 miles per hour. The major-league scouts, dumbfounded, break tradition to hire a man old enough to be his teammates’ father. If it all seems impossible, you don’t know the power of St. Rita.

The theme: It’s never too late to make a dream come true if your faith is strong enough. It’s corny, but The Rookie has such a clear-eyed vision and such a quiet, naturalistic pacing that it ends up defeating the most devout cynicism. The writing, by Mike Rich, captures the atmosphere of life on the road to the majors and the idiomatic speech patterns of the stadium fans, staunch friends and supportive relatives who pave the way to glory. And director Hancock, a native Texan, makes every nuance in the American landscape believable. The film owes much of its strength and character to Dennis Quaid, the most vulnerable and emotionally accessible jock since Gary Cooper played Lou Gehrig, whose grit and heart inform each scene, and to the miraculous Rachel Griffiths as his wife Lorri, the voice of practical reason (and what a perfect Texas accent that voice is!), who provides a nice balance between pragmatism (“Dreams can’t buy gasoline or put groceries on the table”) and the kind of unconditional love that helps her hold onto her man without hanging on him at the same time.

From The Stratton Story and Pride of the Yankees to The Natural and Field of Dreams , great baseball movies all have one thing in common: an inspirational passion to excel against all odds in a noble and unselfish way that redefines heroism in humanistic terms. The Rookie does it seamlessly. Another (yawn) baseball movie that finds redemption in a catcher’s mitt, you say-but give The Rookie a chance, and you’ll find the rewards as stimulating as they are unexpected. It’s a sports film with feel-happy appeal for all, regardless of age or interest.

Exclusive: Monster Stinks

By contrast, a pretentious horror called No Such Thing is a feel-lousy flop with no appeal for anybody. It’s the latest head-scratcher from Hal Hartley, an independent director whose work is often acclaimed by the kind of creepy wackos who lurk in the corridors of arty film festivals , but rarely seen by the kind of people who actually pay money to see movies. This one is about-let me get this straight-a filthy, deformed, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed monster with two giant ram’s horns protruding from the top of his goatlike head. He’s been around since the dawn of humanity, he’s indestructible and he’s wanted back in New York by Helen Mirren (of all people), who plays “The Boss,” a ball-breaking, chain-smoking producer of one of those gruesome, sensation-seeking TV shows with high ratings and low ideals for which no news is catastrophic enough. “There’s a world of bad news out there,” she barks at the staff. “All we need to do is get our hands on the worst of it.”

The Mayor has sold off downtown Manhattan and what’s left of Ground Zero to a Hollywood studio, terrorists are blowing up the bridges, the subways have been evacuated after religious groupies set off poison gasses. But this is just filler. What “The Boss” needs is some truly lurid trash that will gross out millions for an overnight Nielsen.

Caramba! Young, naïve pencil sharpener Beatrice (Sarah Polley) shyly mentions that her photojournalist boyfriend and his camera crew have disappeared while on assignment looking for the Monster in the frozen wastes of Iceland. So it’s off to get a story. Alas, her jumbo jet crashes, breaking every bone in her body, but the blank-faced Beatrice is the sole survivor. Six months later, walking with crutches, she continues to the ice floes, accompanied by her doctor (Julie Christie, of all people), and meets up with the Monster face-to-face. The creature has murdered the TV crew, but it takes a kinky liking to Beatrice, and the movie turns into a flaked-out Beauty and the Beast . The Monster is sick of people, humanity and civilization, he confides to Beatrice, “and it’s getting worse every year.” The only man who can kill him is a troll named Artaud.

Back in New York, Beatrice, who is now dressed like a woman in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, worries about the Monster, played by Robert John Burke like a cross between the creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing and a water bison in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, while the poor, misunderstood creature is exploited by the media and reduced to freak status, like the Elephant Man. This is not a comedy, but Hal Hartley doesn’t know that. The best laugh comes when the ugly thing screams at a television interviewer: “I knew you when you were young pond scum. It took millennia for you to evolve into fish. Pathetic!” He must be talking to David Letterman.

The movie drags on, but there’s no need for me to. The question Hal Hartley numbly tries to pose: Since we all need something to hate and fear, what will the world be like without our monsters? The big payoff: Duh-the Monster is us ! “I’m not the monster I used to be,” sighs the centuries-old wiseacre from Reykjavik. “I’m tired. I’m weak. I’m losing my memory and I can’t sleep. This is ridiculous.” You’re telling me? I watched the brainless insanity of No Such Thing with mounting disbelief. That Iceland must be some place. Oddities just kind of grow there, like two-headed calves-first, Björk, and now this.

Melissa Errico Misses Her Mark

Melissa Errico is an attractive girl with acting talent and a fluttering soprano singing voice that seemed well-suited for such Broadway musicals as Les Mi z and High Society . Unfortunately, it’s my sad duty to inform you that her perky but misguided cabaret debut at the Cafe Carlyle is something of a fiasco. In an intimate setting, it’s easier to detect the frailties of a voice that wanders annoyingly off pitch, and whoever convinced her to open with an up-tempo jazz arrangement of “The Song Is You,” with a disastrous scat chorus that probably has Ella Fitzgerald moaning with pain from the clouds above, should be forced to face a firing squad at dawn.

Her patter is forced and giddy, and in a pinch she climbs the grand piano and lies flat across the top, singing horizontally, as though Dixie Carter had never done the same thing, in the same room, on the same piano, dozens of times before. On standards by Cole Porter, Kurt Weill and Johnny Mercer, she doesn’t even come close to investigating the subtext of the songs. On Dave Frishberg’s “Do You Miss New York?”, she doesn’t bother to interpret the complex but witty lyrics. She sings about trading the joys of Manhattan for a pair of L.A. parking spaces as though she was auditioning for a high-school cheerleading team. Rodgers and Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” taken at the wrong tempo, is dull proof that her voice is better suited to the theater stage, not the floor of a hotel supper club.

Not surprisingly, it’s when she moves into the more contemporary “story” songs of Randy Newman and Oleta Adams that her afflicted vibrato and the introspective material forge some attempt at wedded bliss. The dramatic force of which she is capable really shines through all the cabaret drivel when she dissects a theater piece like Stephen Sondheim’s “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George (a show she will soon appear in at the Kennedy Center). Ms. Errico is phenomenally lucky to have Lee Musiker on piano and Jay Leonhart on bass, but they are from such an advanced college of musical knowledge that her struggle to keep up with them is frankly awkward. For her encores, she is charmingly joined by her father, an orthopedic surgeon who is also a skillful pianist. It’s a nice family touch. Bring back Rosie Clooney. Move Over, Kevin Costner!