Wednesday, December 17, 2014

ESPN 30 for 30: Youngstown Boys (2013)

Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist

Youngstown Boys marks the third entry into the 30 for 30 series by the Zimbalist brothers (The Two Escobars, Arnold's Blueprint). Each of their first two films, one of which is a short, were brilliant entries, exploring the films subjects with a certain curiosity and care that brings forth the best in documentary filmmaking. Their curiosity, their hunger to find the whole truth, and not just what their interview subjects are willing to give them, sets the Zimbalist brothers apart when it comes to the 30 for 30 series. Their passion brings forth not only an entertaining style, but also a complete one. The completeness of some of the films in the series is lacking. Often featuring great stories with great ideas, the filmmaking is often the culprit which keeps it back from being a great film and instead reserves a spot in the mediocre range instead.

ESPN 30 for 30: Bernie and Ernie (2013)

Directed by Jason Hehir

Life is kind of designed to be a team sport, isn't it? I could wax poetical about how we're all tied to each other, every action has a ripple effect, etc. etc., but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about 1 to 1 relationships. Father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister. For some, these relationships are built in luxuries, for others they're nonexistent. For Bernard King, that was the case. Growing up in Fort Green, Brooklyn, his father and mother were less than compassionate, less than loving. As a result, Bernard spent most of his time on the basketball court, finding ways to occupy his time, follow his passion, and make a better way for himself.

ESPN 30 for 30: This is What They Want (2013)

Directed by Brian Koppleman & Brian Levien

Tennis has long been a sport of privilege. Played on the restricted grounds of country clubs across the nation. The proper gentlemen's sport. I myself never played the game until a bout a $20 racket in college and played on the courts available on campus. It is a tough game, one that demands precision, endurance, power and finesse. Jimmy Connors was not from privilege, and he was most certainly not a gentleman. He was, however, a superb tennis player, one that sporadically dominated the sport and left anyone he encountered in his competitive wake.

ESPN 30 for 30: Big Shot (2013)

Directed by Kevin Connolly

Admittedly, this is where the series left off for me. The large majority of the blame can easily come from life itself, as professionally and personally my schedule filled up. But looking at the entry itself, Big Shot, it very well may shoulder at least some of the blame. A lot of things had to come together to make this film so far from anything I should be remotely interested in. Hockey in and of itself is not a sport I hate by any wide margin. In fact I call myself a casual fan. Casual in the fact that I know my hometown team and a few of the really big names in the sport. I may  go to one or two games a year, and watch a handful more on television, but past that my knowledge of the sport and certainly of it's history is well below my general knowledge of several other sports.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh & Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro

My own personal opinion is that Peter Jackson is a master of Middle Earth. He has the tone, the setting, the visuals, the characters, he has it all down to a certain level of perfection that one imagines he must have retreated from his real world life to spend a few years residing along with the elves, the hobbits, the dwarfs, all for research for his films. These last 15+ years of spending time in such a magical place have been an impressive way to spend a career, and I am sure he would spend another 15+ for another such journey. For all of his hard work, plenty of fans have flocked to theaters to be as included and enthralled with the adventures of a few hobbits as his level of efforts appears to provide.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Directed by James Marsh
Written by Anthony McCarten

Having never read Stephen Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time, I cannot, in good conscience, sit here and ponder those celestial bodies and scientific enormities for which Hawking’s life’s work has concentrated in any sort of academic manner. I can, however, boldly explore their more sentimental and emotional aspects, as James Marsh and his team have set out to accomplish in this film. The answer to all things has been sought by humans across all times, emblazoned in the conscious of many through religion, media, and science. This curiosity for the beginning of all things, the middle of all things, and the end of all things is the most basic and natural curiosity of humans that fuels all other curiosities.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Belle (2014)

Directed by Amma Asante
Written by Misan Sagay

The period drama is a tried and true genre, with romance aplenty. A lot of times, these films are based on either actual events, or famous novels by one or more of the Bronte sisters. They have been done well, they have been done poorly, they have been done to a mediocre level. They have been done a million times over, and yet they have their audience, devoted and loving. It's a genre that may tread on familiar themes time and again, but these are good themes, and when done well can be extremely effective. Belle turns the tables on these conventions by adding a new layer: an aristocrat who happens to also be black.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Untucked (2014)

Directed by Danny Pudi

In this day and age of college athletics where uniform fashion has taken over, I have never stopped to think of where that fashion sense came from. Like many, I'm sure, the Oregon football team would seem a logical place to start. Phil Knight, founder of Nike, being an alum, Oregon has featured an incredible number of jersey combinations and eccentric styles. But recently Adidas has jumped into the game in basketball, supplying Louisville during their recent championship season with Zubaz jerseys that even feature sleeves. The throw back uniform is very popular too. It seems nowadays anything that happens to be different, happens to be stylish.

But what I didn't know, is such fashion revolution can be tracked back to Bo Ellis and Marquette University. In the 70s, Marquette featured one of the best basketball programs in the country, and much of that was the result of the coaching style of Hall of Famer Al McGuire, and the rest can be attributed to the fashion style of Bo Ellis. Ellis, a 6'9" basketball player from the hood in Chicago became the first male student at Mount St. Mary's, a local Milwaukee college that featured a fashion design program. He revolutionized the Marquette jersey, which was already radical for its time, when Ellis decided to place the Marquette name along the bottom of the jersey, meant to be worn untucked.

Such an idea was crazy at the time, and even seems odd now that a rule has been in place prohibiting it since 1984. But that untucked jersey became a fashion statement for a team of self-proclaimed misfits and mavericks. Danny Pudi's film manages to highlight this interesting story in such a way that it doesn't fall in the trap of praise and worship for its subjects. Unlike the similarly fashion driven short from this series, Disdain the Mundane, the film is less about looking at an eccentric basketball player interested in fashion, and more about knowing what drove that player to his interests and accomplishments, along with how it affected the culture of college basketball and the Marquette program.

*** - Good

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Thomas McCarthy

There is not a single baseball movie that I don't enjoy. I start my review with that statement as a sort of qualifier for the review. Since Million Dollar Arm is a baseball movie, I knew going in I would at the very least enjoy myself. Now, I try as best I can to separate out the fact that I can glean joy from a film and being able to appreciate it in its craft. For example, I don't stand here and try and argue that Mr. 3000 or Hardball are great movies. But I enjoy the crap out of both of them, without shame. As an enormous fan of the game of baseball, I am biased. I admit that. I also admit that my slant may not account for the non-baseball fan. I finally admit that the Disney saccharine of this film is neither a surprise, or a detriment to the film.

Disney has never been accused of being dark, gritty, or even realistic for that matter. Instead Disney consistently opens up their imagination, hope and positive outlook. Imagine this: a sports agent (Jon Hamm) who broke with a big time firm to try and make it on his own. He's not making it. Imagine this: two Indian kids who have never picked up a baseball, let alone played the game at all, win a special competition that nets them money, and a trip to America to train for a Major League tryout. Seems pretty sketch to me, but of course Disney also only deals in true inspiring stories. So our heroes Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) are no longer a dream, but a reality. Real fish out of water, attempting to bring a new sport to a billion people. Heh, I guess Disney is realistic.

What we have here, as you might expect from the above paragraph, is standard Disney fare. But before you discount the film based on that statement, realize that what Disney has done for 80 years now is produce good, family friendly entertainment. Everything about this film is designed to appeal to the masses, but in doing so, it hits all the highlights of genre to get there, and it does it fairly well. There is comedy, there is drama, there is romance, there is inspiration and opposition, there is sport, friendship and even a cultural education. We get the kitchen sink, and as a result it may not be found in the upper echelon of the Disney catalogue, but because it cares first and foremost about its characters, it succeeds.

Rinku and Dinesh are two kids worth cheering for, and the filmmakers seemed to make perfect casting decisions bringing in Sharma and Mittal, who found their way to American audiences in Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, respectively. Although coming from a different culture, they remain extremely relatable as they go through the culture shock. Amit (Pitobash) provides the comic relief, Brenda (Lake Bell) the romantic interest and inspiration, and Bill Paxton surprises as the unorthodox pitching coach that shows real heart in trying to turn two kids into Major League pitchers. Meanwhile, Hamm, the lead in the film, leaves something to be desired from his role, and perhaps some of that disappointment comes from his character being a bit of a jerk through most of the film. But I was not surprised to find out that Thomas McCarthy (The Visitor, Up, Win Win) was the one who penned the film. He has consistently shown a knack for putting the character first, and giving the audience something to connect with.

It's hard to be over the moon about anything in this movie, but by the end it also becomes increasingly difficult to say anything bad. The finished product takes us on a pretty incredible journey right alongside these two kids and while it ultimately ends up being somewhat conventional in its outer shell, the inner workings of the characters and performances make for a fairly uplifting movie going experience. It doesn't blow you away, it doesn't break new baseball movie ground, it doesn't break the rules. Instead Million Dollar Arm manages to entertain by staying strictly within the conventions and rules of the "based on a true story" and sports movie genres.

*** - Good

Godzilla (2014)

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein

Having seen none of the other Godzilla films, a blip on my movie watching radar I hope to resolve in the near future, there is no context for the monster from the deep for me. Nothing to compare it to, and nothing to expect from it. I of course have a basic understanding of the concept of a giant monster who rises from the deep to lay waste to grand city's like Tokyo and New York City, etc. However, my context for the film comes from it's sophomore director, Gareth Edwards, whose debut feature, Monsters, succeeded greatly with its subtle use of CGI and mysterious treatment of the title characters. This brought me definite hope and interest into the 21st century version of a beloved monster franchise.