Together we shall fly—or at least beat the spread.
The Basket is a rare bird indeed: a family-friendly, completely kid-safe movie with enough plot and decent enough characters to hold the attention of adults as well. Unfortunately, it also has its share of flaws.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1918, in the last days of The Great War. The small farming community of Waterville in rural Washington is dealing with the hardships of war, including casualties making their way home. Into this small town come three new arrivals who change the character of the town in many ways.
First come Helmut (Robert Karl Burke) and Brigitta (Amber Willenborg), two teenaged German orphans whose parents have been killed in the war. They have been relocated to the United States and sent to an internment camp. They have been released from the camp into the care of Reverend Simms (Tony Lincoln), the local minister who has brought them to his home in Waterville. When Brigitta and Helmut arrive in town they feel the hatred of many people around them, people who carry a deep grudge against the Germans as a result of the war. Chief among these is Nicholas Emery (Jock MacDonald), whose eldest son Ben (Elwon Bakly) has returned from the war missing a leg. However, this hatred is not shared by his second son Tom (Eric Dane), who takes a liking to Brigitta.
The other newcomer in town is Martin Conlon (Peter Coyote—E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Patch Adams, Erin Brockovich). Conlon has come to town as the new schoolteacher in the local one-room schoolhouse. He brings with him two things that will change the lives of everyone in town forever: a Victrola with recordings of the (fictional) German opera Der Korb (The Basket), and a basketball.
As Conlon teaches the town's children with the help of the opera, the townspeople get caught up in the story, discussing each day's installment like the latest episode of a serial or soap opera. At the same time, events in the community mirror the story told in the opera. Finally, the opera, the persecution of the two German kids, and the new game of basketball all come to a climax at the same time, teaching everyone some valuable lessons.
The Basket is a very sweet, kindhearted movie. It wears its aspirations to be a "family" picture on its sleeve. There is something wholesome about even the look of this movie, with its warm, colorful look at life in small-town America in the early 20th century. It has an amazing sincerity, perhaps even naïveté, that lets us know things will be okay. Helmut and Brigitta are taunted for being Germans, but somehow we know that it will turn out all right for them in the end. We know that when the shy, handsome Tom approaches the shy, sweet Brigitta, the result will be sweet, not tragic or nasty or even particularly lustful. This is the kind of old-fashioned movie where when we say the boy and girl went at it one-on-one, we know we are talking purely about basketball, and nothing more. We know that when Mrs. Emery (Karen Allen—Raiders of the Lost Ark, Animal House, Starman) goes to visit Mr. Conlon at the little schoolhouse nothing improper will occur, and even if she does appear to have a little bit of a crush on him she will certainly not mention it or do anything that might constitute marital infidelity.
The warm, friendly tone is reinforced by the striking cinematography. There is a lot of natural light used, especially during the late afternoon/early evening "golden hour." The use of this warm, natural light makes the colors of a late fall in eastern Washington really glow. Visually, the whole movie is like a postcard from a gentler, more innocent time.
The acting performances reflect an earlier time as well, and for the most part are pretty good. Coyote does a nice job as Conlon, although his Boston accent is gratingly fake. Karen Allen receives second billing here, although her part is actually quite small. Still, she does a good job with the role, showing a lot of emotional depth as a woman tormented by the loss of her son due to war wounds. The majority of the rest of the cast is made up of local actors from the Spokane, Washington area, many of whom have worked with North By Northwest productions before. They all do a good job of bringing their characters to life. Burke and Willenborg probably have the toughest assignments as the two German orphans who form the emotional heart of the story. They do a good job, although their German accents vary from quite believable to rather less so over the course of the picture. In any case, they beat Coyote's Boston accent hands down.
The Basket comes to DVD from MGM in a loaded special edition. Video quality is mostly pretty good, with colors right on the mark, solid and vibrant. There are a lot of outdoor shots showing the sky and clouds; these can be very problematic on a lot of DVD's and show a lot of artifacts. However, here I am happy to report that the skies appear as a natural, solid, azure blue, with almost no trace of digital defects. The movie does show a few problems from time to time, including some very bad aliasing and haloing, and some occasional moiré patterns, but for the most part the image is very clean and crisp. Fine details like the stalks of wheat in a field are sharp and clear. There were a few times where background surfaces showed some grain and picture noise, but it was not severe. Perhaps most troubling were a few instances where there seemed to be some motion and/or compression artifacting or "smearing" but these were brief and only noticeable if you stand as close to your TV as I do when I am examining these things.
The audio on this DVD is available in two English options: a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround track. I listened to the 5.1 track, and was pleasantly surprised at the richness and fullness of the sound. Whether it is the soft sounds of a house on a quiet street, or the sounds of birds in a tree or a soft breeze, this audio track handles them all very satisfactorily. The surround channels are used subtly but to great effect with the proper ambient sounds in a variety of settings, from a quiet wheat field to a train station and finally a basketball court.
MGM has really packed this DVD with a lot of great special features. We have a nice selection of cast and crew biographies, which help to give the talented Washington State local performers a well-deserved spotlight. There is a photo gallery with over 110 pictures divided into a number or interesting categories. There is a collection of genuinely amusing outtakes, with the usual stuff: actors blowing lines, missing cues, missing baskets, et cetera. There are a number of deleted scenes provided, which can be watched with or without commentary by director Rich Cowan. These provide some interesting insight into the filmmaking process; often, one can learn as much from what gets cut from a movie as from the stuff that gets left in.
Also provided are six behind-the-scenes featurettes, with a total running time of over 50 minutes. These are entitled "Composing," "Designing," "Writing," "Playing," "Shooting," and "Burning," and deal with various aspects of the production. It's a nice collection of information, and the filmmakers are able to go into the movie in some depth.
This DVD also includes an audio commentary track featuring director Rich Cowan and director of photography Dan Heigh. The two men are friendly and chatty throughout the track, and give a lot of interesting information. They maybe focus a little too much on cinematography and f-stops, but for the most part this is a pleasant commentary track. One thing they emphasize was the desire of everyone involved to make a family-friendly movie suitable for all ages.
Finally, as an added bonus, there is an Easter Egg hidden on the special features menu. Hit enter on your remote when you see the silhouette of an old-fashioned basketball, and you will be taken to "James Naismith's Original Rules of Basket Ball." It's a nice touch, and quite interesting.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is because The Basket is such a clearly well-intentioned movie that I hate to point out its flaws. Sadly, however, the script is really not very good, with a myriad of different characters and threads that fit together just a little too neatly.
I also had a lot of trouble with the end of the movie and its ultimate resolution. It is not until quite late in the movie that we learn about Mr. Conlon's secret past. Both his deep, dark secret and the way in which it is revealed seem contrived, and feel like something of a betrayal of the good nature of the first two thirds of the movie. Finally, after all of The Basket's good intentions and family-friendly posturing, it seemed like a bit of a cheat to have everyone's problems solved through gambling. I'm not quite sure what to make of a movie that is very inoffensive through most of its running time, but ends with the message that it's not whether you win or lose, as long as you beat the spread. It reminded me of a bit on SNL from a few years back, "The Greatest Moments in Sports Gambling History." More to the point, it felt like a real selling out of the basic decency that had underpinned the film up to that point.
I also had to wonder a bit at the overt prejudice shown to the two German kids. Yes, there was a war on at the time, and yes, the government was putting out recruiting and war bond posters that talked a lot about "Driving Back the Huns" and so forth. However, America in 1918 was a far different place than America today. It seems to me that immigrants, especially white immigrants from northern Europe, would hardly have attracted that kind of attention in 1918 America regardless of the circumstances of their arrival. The whole country was a mixture of different languages and accents back then, especially in the rural areas. As an example, I am aware of several churches in the area where I live in rural Minnesota that didn't start offering services in English until the 1950s; I suspect that other parts of rural America may have had similar experiences. In any case, I couldn't find any historical basis for these things, and the whole prejudice subplot seemed a bit forced, as a way to shoehorn an unwieldy moral lesson into the movie.
Composer/screenwriter Don Caron is the man responsible for Der Korb, the opera that provides us with the framework for the movie. While I think this was an excellent twist on a very old idea, there were several parts of the opera plot that seemed quite contrived to fit the requirements of the real-world storyline. This happened most notably at the climax of the opera, where the young German protagonist reveals the contents of a mysterious basket. The music Caron provided for the opera (and thus the movie) is nice, but does get a bit repetitive after a while. It appears to owe a lot to the music of Richard Wagner and Carl Orff.
The Basket is indeed a family-friendly movie, and is suitable for viewing by all ages. For this we should all be thankful; there seem to be far too few movies made of which that may be said. Unfortunately, it is hampered by a convoluted plot and an easy resolution that seems to betray the whole moral message of the film up to that point.
Maybe I'm getting sentimental in my old age, but for the most part I liked The Basket. All charges are dropped, and the suspect is free to go. I'm such a softie…
MGM is commended for a nice Special Edition DVD packed with extra content, although the occasional glitches in the picture could have used some fine-tuning.
We stand adjourned.
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