Archive for the ‘Bad News Bears’ Category

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Tanner Boyle

July 8, 2017

1977toppsBoyle

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training hit theaters 40 years ago today. It was a haphazard sequel, a degradation, a mess. It was also, for me, pure joy. I wrote a whole book on it!

Because of Tanner Boyle, I’d argue that it might even have within it some lessons we could use today. For example, when everything is falling apart, what do you do?

Tanner Boyle knows. As I explain in my celebration of the film, he simply refuses to go along with the bullshit. Tanner Boyle resists.

In 1977, everything was unraveling. Families, hopes, econ­omies. What to do? Some drifted, others flailed. The over­whelmed president seemed to be aging at an alarming rate. Skylab, a dull echo of the space program’s earlier glory, circled the globe in a repetitive, empty progression toward the inevi­table disintegration of its orbit. Everyone stared at TV reruns.

Who wouldn’t capitulate if authorities in suits appeared and reported that time had run out? If they pointed to their watches and said, apologies, the game is over, please clear the field, who wouldn’t exhale and maybe grouse or grieve but then obey?

The climactic game in the exemplary film from an era of unraveling reaches this exact point. The Bad News Bears are waved off the plastic Astrodome turf by men in charge. Not all of the innings have been played, but the game was always really more of a product than a game, a Budweiser promotion jammed in the middle of a major league doubleheader, and the allotted time for this promotion has been exhausted. It is time, boys, to accept your inconsequentiality and give up and go home.

With varying intervals of hesitation, the Bears begin to comply. Toby, Jimmy, Jose, Miguel, Ahmad, Engelberg, Ronzonni. Even Kelly Leak, the previously untamable rebel, shuffles off the field to the dugout, passing the Bears’ new coach, his estranged father, Mike Leak, who argues with the umpires briefly, to no avail. Is this the beginning of the end for Kelly Leak? Will this capitulation in a time of unraveling be the first of many in a life that will in turn grow smaller and smaller as it goes on, the seeming infinity of roads once at Kelly Leak’s fingertips shrinking eventually to a repetitive strip of pavement from rental dwelling to wage-slavery and back, again and again until the final capitulation?

It might have been the end, for Kelly and for us all, if not for Tanner Boyle. The line score of the game on the giant scoreboard in centerfield has vanished. A message has ap­peared in its place thanking the Bears and their apparently victorious opponents, the Toros. The expanse of Astroturf is empty except for one small boy at shortstop.

“Hey, where’s everybody going?” Tanner Boyle yelps. Ev­eryone else has quit, but he’s holding his ground. I’ve watched The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training a lot, repeatedly, chronically. But I still get tears in my eyes when it comes to this. Is everything unraveling? Is it all over and done? Tan­ner’s piercing voice rings out in the vast sterile space of the Dome.

“We’re not finished!” he says.

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The Astrodome Bench

May 24, 2015

BadNewsBears-300x168You Are the Eyes of the World

Four

I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. I thought I’d seen all I’d ever see, and anything in my path from here on out would be familiar repetition. I didn’t have the courage to push past that resignation.

Here’s a scene from a game that never happened on a bench that no longer exists. It’s from The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a 1977 movie with which I’ve long been obsessed. In the movie, generally considered to be a notably inferior sequel to its 1976 predecessor, The Bad News Bears, the titular little league team travels without parents in a customized van from California to Houston to play an exhibition game against the best little league team in Texas in between games of an Astros’ doubleheader. The Texans pummel the Bears for a few innings, and then suited functionaries hustle onto the field to call the game early.

“Time’s up,” one of them says. The head umpire awards the game to the Texas team, which begins to celebrate. The Bears, stunned and disappointed, walk off the field, with one exception.

I can feel myself getting choked up as I start to think about the exception. It’s been this way for thirty-eight years, ever since I first saw the movie in the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont.

My new book came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s about my eyes, how they were wrenched into seeing something new despite my failing nerve, my resignation. It’s about my first year or so as a father. It’s about my son Jack. I took the day off from work on its release date to celebrate with Jack and my wife and our own little spin-off sequel, a second boy named Exley. We went to the children’s nature museum and both boys had a great time. When it was time to go, Jack didn’t want to.

“Where’s everybody going? We’re not finished!

These are the words spoken by the one player, the Bears’ shortstop Tanner Boyle, who refused to accept that the game in the Astrodome was being called to a halt. It could also stand as the message vibrating through every fiber of Jack’s body when it’s time to move on from a moment he’s enjoying.

That’s life, right? You have to just accept that sometimes the game, the fun, is just over. Right?

Consider a sublimely talented player pictured on the bench in the background of the photo. On the left, in the warm-up jacket: that’s J.R. Richard. In the years directly following the filming of the scene he would become one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. Then in 1980 he would suffer a stroke and never pitch in the majors again. This is more dramatic but not essentially any different from anyone’s story, which is: the game ends.

However, in the moment shown here, the bench has begun to react to a push back against this eventuality. Tanner has begun eluding the two men in suits who’ve been ushered forth from some invisible authority to pull him from the field. The Bears have begun enjoying themselves again. In a moment the Astro on the far right, Bob Watson, will say, “Let the kids play,” and the lone non-uniformed figure in the picture, Mike Leak (William Devaney), the star player’s estranged father, who has recently been enlisted as the previously, luridly unsupervised team’s coach, will pick up the notion and begin rallying the crowd with a chant that will become what the sequel is known for, if it’s known for anything:

“Let them play!”

The chant builds, Tanner keeps eluding the suits. Every time I see this, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times, my eyes moisten.

This past weekend my family went on a charity walk that involved one loop around a big lake. Back in the days when I’d thought I’d seen all there was to see, one loop around this lake would have been nothing. But the sun was beating down and the baby kept yanking off his sun hat and beating his head against my wife’s chest and Jack kept wanting to sprint everywhere but along the route we were supposed to be taking. There were dandelions everywhere, and he wanted to pick them and gather them and blow on them because he remembered that dandelions in another form were capable of this dispersal. I explained that dandelions go through a process, going from one thing to another, and only when they’ve changed to gray dusty bulbs can you make a wish and blow their seeds everywhere.

“The seeds scatter and go into the ground and make more dandelions,” I said.

“Dandelions make dandelions?” he said.

“Right.”

“Why do dandelions make dandelions?”

How do you answer this? Dandelions make dandelions make dandelions. But why?

“Come on, we’ve got to get around this lake,” I finally said.

“But why do dandelions make dandelions?”

I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. Now I know I have no idea where it’s going or even why. Sometimes—to be honest more often than not—I feel like the suited functionaries trying to wrestle Tanner Boyle into complying with their rules. It’s time to go. Why? Because! But sometimes from where I sit I’m beginning to see, even enjoy, unstoppable endless dandelions seizing the field.

To be continued.

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Carmen Ronzonni

August 17, 2011

Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Carmen Ronzonni

Ever since my air conditioner died a few weeks ago I don’t trust any of the things humming and groaning in my home—the dishwasher, the fridge, the microwave, the computer: each seems on the brink of having some small, cheap, vitally important cog snap and cause the whole mechanism to seize up and go silent. I’ve lived a meandering life, awake only in stories, never forging any kind of direct, pragmatic connection to actual events, and my tendency for anxiety feeds into my literary dreaminess so that every possible setback seems not simply one problem to solve but an omen foreboding the inevitable unraveling of daily life into a tragedy, as if a broken toaster will lead, eventually, to me freezing to death on an ice chunk in Antarctica or gagging fatally on Elizabethan poison. More than once in the last few days I’ve thought of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the horrifying novel in which the whole of human civilization as we know it is shown in smoldering irrevocable cinders, in a state of tragic fall, and a father and a son walk through it together, barely surviving. I am a father now and I have a son. I am nervous; everything seems provisional; at the core of it all as always I feel fake.

I turn and have always turned to stories. Yesterday various stories travelled alongside me by chance or design. I read a book about how to calm unhappy babies, the story there being that several methods must be mastered and executed perfectly or there will be a house full of suffering. My son is too young still, just a couple weeks into his life, to have hit the period when some babies start wailing for hours on end, but he has had his fussy moments, and I’ve tried to bring the story of the book to life and have felt like I wasn’t quite doing it right, and my own son felt awkward in my hands and in the gap between the ideal story and the real fakery of life. I read that book on the bus but kept getting my attention coaxed away by two guys talking nearby, trading stories of things gone wrong to the point that litigation ensued. The story one of them told that I can recall now involved a man with cancer in one eye who went in for surgery to get the eye removed and the surgeon removed the other eye by mistake. Later, at lunch, I read a couple articles sent to me by my father and a friend, respectively, both articles concerned with identifying the narrative embedded behind certain current events. In the column my dad sent, the author traced the roots of the London riots to a sense of profound desperation, the riots a grab for power by the powerless. In the column my friend sent, the author criticized President Obama for failing to tell a pointed story in his words and actions, instead attempting to placate both sides and in doing so satisfying no one. My thought when I read the former article was that the roots of riot are everywhere now, and my thought when I read the second was that even the President is faking it, and not even that well. On the long, bumpy bus ride home I stared out the window at what seemed like imminent ruins.

In my mind, the specter of Carmen Ronzonni presides over the anxious flimsiness of all things. He is, as his teammates in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training quickly realize, a fake. That he is friends with Kelly Leak buys him a lot of time and credit with the team, but once he actually has to start pitching in game conditions, the ineptitude beneath his fakery becomes apparent, and it begins to dawn on the Bears that he and they are all doomed. He’s supposed to be their pitcher, the center of their hopes, but he is only a collection of imitations and bluster. He is insubstantial, a scarecrow stuffed only with stories.

Still, maybe there’s a place for guys like Carmen Ronzonni. When I first saw the movie back in 1977, I was drawn first and most strongly to Kelly, Ogilvie, and Tanner, and I think I sided with the general feelings of the team regarding Carmen. Even though I hadn’t even seen the first Bears movie yet, I understood that Carmen was an outsider, and though (or maybe because) I saw some of myself in his tendency to use imitation in place of anything real, I kept Carmen at arm’s length. He wasn’t quite one of us. But as I’ve watched the movie more recently and repeatedly, I’ve come to think of Carmen as a deeply important member of the team in terms of the sequel. I see him this way not only because the team needs a pitcher and not even because his persona of recycled bullshit is a crystalline microcosm of that deeply American genre, the sequel. It’s this: maybe a guy saturated in stories can help things feel more like a story and not just part of some mundane conveyer belt toward the bone yard.

This is not just an abstract thing, either. There are a couple of cases in which Carmen livens things up in a concrete way, such as when he swipes a couple of Playboys and brings them back to the guys in the hotel room. More importantly, he’s a key figure, along with Kelly, in procuring the van that takes the boys to Houston. Kelly is the driver of the van and we assume he was the driving force in the ballsy move to take possession of the van, but it seems there would be no van without Carmen’s mysterious connections (I believe Carmen’s explanation about where they got the van is an uncharacteristically terse statement along the lines of “From a guy I know”). Carmen, albeit a bullshitter, has bullshitted his way into the darker, more grown-up world that Kelly rides through. Though he comes off as a fake as a baseball-playing boy among the other boys, he seems, at least according to Kelly’s estimation of him as “cool,” as if he has been more successful at finding a legitimate place among the older hoodlums that we assume Kelly hangs out with when not smashing home runs with the Bears.

Carmen’s legitimacy as an experienced outlaw reaches its apex in one of the film’s best scenes. The Bears have made their getaway from their parents, but they still need to pass through one more barrier before truly embarking upon the Open Road, that barrier being a police car that starts to follow the van (this scene starts at about 6:30 in the clip below). When this police car is noticed by the team, almost everyone begins to panic. Kelly will become the hero of the moment, acting quickly and coolly, lighting a cigarette and putting on his hat and shades to make himself look older. (This transformation worked on me as a kid—back then, he really did suddenly look like an adult—but when I watch the film now Kelly’s stoned, acned leer as he salutes the cops marks him hilariously as the single most suspicious-looking driver in history). But while Kelly is leaping into action, Carmen is encouraging everyone to “stay cool.” It could read like another blowhard moment from the imitating interloper, but something about it rings true, as if Carmen, the boy made up entirely of stories, has been through moments like this before, charged moments, the heartbeats of a storied life. When the police move on without pulling the boys over, Kelly slumps and exhales, betraying a nervousness he had kept hidden, the boys exult, and Carmen smiles and nods in the center of it all like a happy maestro who knew how the song would go all along.

And speaking of songs, the makers of the sequel chose this happy moment (about 7:30 in the clip below) to unleash what they surely hoped (in vain, it turned out) would be a runaway hit song, James Rolleston’s “Life Is Looking Good.” Soaring, cheesy freedom! I chase that sweet lie through all disintegrations.

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Special thanks to nunyer for creating Carmen’s card.

For more on the skewed, illuminating America of the Bears, please check out my ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.

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Kelly Leak

August 5, 2011

Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Kelly Leak

Giving Kelly Leak a player of the week award is kind of like handing Jesse Owens a “participant” ribbon at the end of the 1936 Summer Olympics. But this has been the happiest week of my life, so the player of this week could only go to Kelly Leak. I don’t have many words or much time to say them at the moment, but you can read some of my thoughts about Kelly Leak over at Deadspin, in a chapter from my book on The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training called “The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived.”

The back of Kelly’s baseball card would be mind-boggling, judging from the glimpses of his performances seen in The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training. Here’s what we know from those glimpses: in the seven plate appearances shown in those films, Kelly homered three times, tripled, doubled, singled, and was intentionally walked. These results suggest that he may have actually been underselling himself when he tried to hit on a woman in Amanda’s dance class by saying that he was hitting .841. Player of the week, player of the year, player of all recorded time. 

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Special thanks to nunyer for creating Kelly’s card.

For more on the skewed, illuminating America of the Bears, please check out my ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.

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Ahmad Abdul Rahim

July 14, 2011

Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Ahmad Abdul Rahim

“Don’t give me none of your honky bullshit, Buttermaker.” –Ahmad Abdul Rahim

Every once in a while over the last few months I’ve read to my wife’s belly. A friend suggested this would be a way to familiarize the kid in there with the sound of my voice. I recite from On the Road, at random, a page or so at a time. It is either my favorite book or one of my favorite books, depending on whether I’m in the thrall of one of my other bibles at a given time. When I first read it, as a seventeen-year-old freshly ejected from high school and with no marketable skills or college plans, it gave me some hope for the possibility of a joyous life. But I can’t really argue with anyone who would say that it is, as Ahmad Abdul Rahim might put it, at least if he was a grown-up extension of the incarnation of his character in the first Bears movie, honky bullshit. I would argue back that no matter how the book hits you, it’s at least a sincere attempt by the author to write what felt true, and taken in the context of the times it was a great leap forward in the pursuit of honest art, but it’s hard to miss now that it can also easily be summarized as a story of a bunch of white dudes with the privilege of that great but selective American power, mobility, careening around the country as tourists gawking at and romanticizing classes of people locked into societal positions that don’t allow mobility: south of the border or in the ghetto Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty “dig” the fellaheen masses. To their credit, Jack Kerouac and the protagonists in his book are pioneers of mainstream American culture in their championing—or even noticing—of people outside the margins of the prevailing popular conception of “real” America, that Leave It to Beaver fever dream. But the book entered that mainstream not on the strength of any reformative tendencies but because it tapped into and even defined a myth at the very heart of America, the road tale, breathing new life into the Whitmanesque lyricism of taking to the open highway just when the highway system was literally opening up the entire country, and just as the baby boom generation was on the cusp of reaching driving age. The book had great timing in proclaiming this message: the world is yours to explore. This message is why I read the book to the wriggling bulge inside my wife’s belly. The world should be open to everyone to explore.

Of course, the world is not open to everyone to explore, or rather there are varying degrees of openness, depending on who you are and where you are. If you’re a white guy, yes, certainly, have at it, explore. Who’s going to stop you? However, if you’re not white, certain restrictions may apply. You can try to explore, but at some point you’re probably going to be stopped, questioned, and in various other ways, some merely annoying and others terrible, reminded of the limitations of your mobility.

One of the reasons the Bears sequel resonated with me when I was a kid and still moves me now, despite its many flaws, is that it taps into that myth of the open road. More than that, it even could be seen to expand that myth to some extent, showing new protagonists at the wheel: children. This was more of a case of a film reflecting society than shaping it, however, as the movie was made primarily to continue cashing in on the success of the first movie, hence the decision to shape the plot to please the target audience: 9-year-old boys like I was at the time of the film’s release. Besides this profit-driven novelty of unsupervised youth loose on the road, the road narrative element of the movie was more or less inherited honky bullshit, a little white boy’s dream of unfettered, junk-food-glutted freedom. Unfortunately, Ahmad Abdul Rahim is no longer aware enough in his dumbed-down sequelized incarnation to make any kinds of cultural critiques of the going’s-on around him. In fact, practically the only moments in which his character is able to rise above the boisterous noise of the team chorus is when he squawks at various times that the Bears are about to get caught and will be “goin’ to the joint.”

There’s some aptness to his character, the only black player on the team, being the most aware that unauthorized mobility around America would seem destined to end up not in beatnick-style “kicks” but in the lockstep progression of suspicion, apprehension, and incarceration. Unfortunately, the “real” Ahmad Abdul Rahim—a sensitive and ebullient individual—is replaced in the sequel by a facsimile whose range of emotions has been diminished in most cases to a couple of broad strokes: wide-eyed enthusiasm and wide-eyed fear.

Underneath the limiting script, he’s still Ahmad. There are echoes of the liveliness of his character from the first film here and there, such as in his last at-bat of the Astrodome game when he smacks a triple, recites a Muhammad Ali rhyme at third base, and slaps five with probably the most awkward low-five slapper in history, third base coach Rudi Stein. An even better glimpse of Ahmad, perhaps the only true glimpse of the real three-dimensional Ahmad from the first movie, comes in the very beginning of the movie, when the new, militaristic coach of the team tells him that instead of bothering with Ahmad he’s going to be calling him Andy. Ahmad mouths the name to himself. Andy? You can see him thinking, wondering, worrying. It’s not easy to live in a world of honky bullshit.

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Special thanks to nunyer for creating Ahmad’s card.

For more on the skewed, illuminating America of the Bears, please check out my ode to The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.

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Toby Whitewood

June 22, 2011

Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Toby Whitewood

[My ode to the 1977 movie The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is now available. To celebrate, I’ll be shining a weekly spotlight on the boys in the customized van.]

The first two Bears to appear on screen in the 1976 film The Bad News Bears have strong connections to the adult world. The first of these boys shown, Kelly, is even taken for an adult, perhaps sardonically, by Buttermaker, who mutters “thanks, mister” to Kelly after the latter lights his cigarette for him. Kelly operates a motorized vehicle like an adult, smokes cigarettes like an adult, and even seems to be as freighted in his scowling silence with adult world troubles and history as the wrinkled, morning-boozing Buttermaker. After lighting his future coach’s cigarette, he rides off on his motorcycle, leaving the sunny little league field, the little boy world, to go back to his adult world burdens and mysteries.

The next Bear to appear, and the first to utter a line of dialogue, is Toby Whitewood, who arrives at the field with his shifty, unctuous politician father and so is the first of the Bears to witness that his new coach is an alcoholic mercenary rather than the altruistic caretaker that most children assume the adults in their lives to be. It’s unclear whether this information registers with Toby, who is sent away by his father from the decidedly adult conversation between coach and councilman, but later moments featuring Toby in both the first film and the sequel reveal that Toby absorbs at least some of the things he overhears while in the proximity of adult goings-on. For example, in the first Bears movie, he explains to Buttermaker (going on something that he overheard his father saying) that Jose and Miguel don’t speak English. For another example, in the sequel Toby arrives at the field with sole knowledge of the identity of the team’s new coach.

The Bears don’t have a team captain, but if they did you could make a case that it would be Toby. Of the Bears who lead in various ways, Kelly (the team’s superstar) is too much of a lone wolf to man that role, Ogilvie (the de facto assistant coach and, in the sequel, the team’s sober-minded co-parent, along with the stoic, worldly Kelly) not enough of an on-field presence, Tanner (the inspirational leader) too fiery and volatile. This leaves Toby, who knows things about the adult world without losing his essential identity as a boy, and who is able to speak for the boys to adults. He’s the one who informs Buttermaker that the guys took a vote and decided they don’t want to play anymore, and in the sequel he’s the one who tells Kelly’s dad that while they need him to pose as a coach they don’t really need him to coach. (Interestingly, in both cases these Toby-voiced team decisions to separate from the adult in charge lead very quickly to coaches Buttermaker and Leak finally and fully taking the reins and leading the boys.)

Not much is shown of Toby’s playing abilities in the first film, but in Breaking Training he blossoms into arguably the team’s second-best player, after Kelly. In the game in the Astrodome, he singles in both of his at-bats, the second of those hits sparking the big last-inning comeback. He also scores a run, and he records the most rousing put-out of the game, tagging out a Toro who falls for the ol’ hidden ball trick. (This trick, which is denigrated by the Toros’ coach as a “cheap cotton-picking faggot trick,” is predicated on one of the more noticeable of sequel’s many departures from standard little league rules, which don’t allow for runners to lead off, but then again with decidedly elongating and pubescent figures such as the sequelized versions of Kelly, Ogilvie, and Rudi, perhaps the Bears have somehow moved en masse and without explanation out of little league to Babe Ruth league.) The whole trick plays out like an illustration of Toby’s connection to the adult world, the ball that Coach Leak slips into Toby’s glove like an objectification of all the many bits of esoteric knowledge adults have passed along to Toby. Toby, unsurprisingly, handles this new adult-given secret like a pro, poker-facing the Toros runner into taking a lead.

But Toby’s true nature comes out not during the ruse but just after it has been revealed. If Kelly, a Bear you could easily imagine also donning a poker face, had been the one to tag the fooled runner out, he would have likely reacted afterward coolly, as if it was no big thing, but Toby is still a boy, and he roars and cheers and laughs as he shows that he had the ball the whole time. Throughout the sequel, Toby is one of the team’s most exuberant enthusiasts, a leader of what I have come to think of as the “wow, cool” chorus, the boys amazed by the van and the open road and motel rooms and nudie magazines and the Astrodome and the Astros and by simply having the chance to play. He knows things about the adult world, but he has not yet slipped into that dim, weary realm.

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I found out this past weekend that I’m one hug removed from David Stambaugh, who played Toby Whitewood. Some years ago Stambaugh was a member of a touring acting company that also included my cousin Andrea, who had glowing things to say about her fellow actor’s good heart and warm personality. Stambaugh seems to have eventually given up acting for a life as a minister. In a Hollywood Interview feature from just a few months ago, the reverend reflected on his life as a Bear.

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And speaking of Bears and interviews, Alex Belth at Bronx Banter was kind enough to lob a few questions my way about the new book.

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When Bears Walked With Angels

June 7, 2011

My book on the 1977 film The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is officially out today. In honor of those sequelized Bears, I thought I’d share one of my favorite pictures ever, apparently from a publicity photo shoot around the time of the film’s release. Seeing Ogilvie with an angel on each arm makes me think there might yet be hope for the world.