Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Walk (2015)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne

In 1974, I was not even born yet (not to make anyone feel old). In 2001, I was in my 8th grade math class. In 2008, I was in college, and just entering into my love of film by seeing literally anything and everything I could. If a friend, roommate, classmate had a film I hadn’t seen, I wanted to see it. At that point in time I was far less concerned by the quality, wanting to absorb every piece of movie magic that I could. I couldn’t really explain what it was that made me so movie mad, but there truly was magic in it. Even the worst of films I saw I found something interesting, or worthwhile. There is such joy, and sorrow, and sympathy, and an even fuller list of emotions available in the viewing of a singular film. 2008 was also when Man on Wire was released, which completely blew me away. Lucky for us, it didn’t actually blow Philippe Petit away.

Monday, September 28, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: The Pittsburgh Drug Trials (2015)

Directed by Michael Jacobs

I have found that the level of intrigue and craft in the 30 for 30 series, shorts or feature, has maintained such a high level through its remarkable run into a third volume beginning this fall. However, with that tremendously high level of craftsmanship over a period of time that includes well over 100 films, the series is bound to deliver a clunker every now and then. The Pittsburgh Drug Trials, unfortunately, is one of those clunkers. There is quite a bit about this story that could be quite interesting, especially given the players involved in such a drama unfolding amidst a great sports reign in the Steel City.

During the late 1970s, Pittsburgh found itself the center of the sports world with the Super Bowl champion Steelers and the World Series champion “We are Family” Pirates, whose famed these song brought the city together for a championship on the strength of Willie “Pops” Stargell. Pittsburgh, however, soon found itself the center of a controversial trial concerning the distribution and use of cocaine in the 1980s. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth began an inquiry to oust the use of cocaine and other drugs in MLB, looking to become a pioneer professional sports league in drug testing. As we all now following the steroid scandals of the 1990s and early 2000s, that vision did not come to pass.

Michael Jacobs’ film unfortunately lacks any bravado or punch to it, instead playing out too procedurally to even whiff at interesting material. The truly unfortunate thing is I believe this material could be quite interesting if presented in a more striking and imperative manner. Instead we get talking heads with such a slight disinterest that I can hardly believe that the men involved are either sorry or aware of the cultural and business impact their actions in the 80s has had on not just the game of baseball, but drug culture in the United States in general. “Oh yea, I dealt drugs to players, it was the thing to do back then. It was cool. No big deal.” “Oh yea, I watched this short about the Pittsburgh drug trials, it was whatever, no big deal.” No, seriously. No big deal.

** - Poor

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: First Pitch (2015)

Directed by Angus Wall

Travelling back to September 11th, and the days following, is never an easy thing for me, or I imagine any American, to do. That day everything stopped. There were no planes in the sky, cars on the road, and there were no more baseball games in MLB ballparks. It was the easy and most obvious decision for Commissioner Bud Selig to cancel all games, but the indefinite period was ominous, as we knew things had to continue at some point. While the crisis in New York and Washington was and forever will be bigger than baseball, part of the recovery process for our nation was getting back to “normal”, and being able to enjoy ourselves at baseball games and movie theaters and concerts. The simple freedoms of our nation because an important part of how the US responded. Pride in our freedom.

Director Angus Wall takes us back to one night in particular that united the people in the wake of the terrorist attacks: the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. George W. Bush had thrown the first pitch as President before, but not in this type of setting. Waiting until the series returned to New York, site of the attacks on September 11th, Bush’s first pitch in that game was much more than just a pitch. It symbolized the pride and unity of the nation to return to its beloved pastime, and to stand together in defiance of the terrorists as a proud nation of free people. Reliving this simple yet impactful moment in US history, a simple throwing of a ball before a game, brought back so many things from my memory that I was not expecting.

I may be biased as a baseball fan, but reliving President Bush’s first pitch showed the impact the game of baseball has on this nation. It is an American invention, the American pastime, and an American institution, unlike any other. Sure, a team called the Patriots may have gone on to win the Super Bowl that year, and overall football is probably a more popular sport than baseball, but the history of the game of baseball, and the impact made from a simple appearance in New York on such a huge stage by our President after such terrible events solidified the relationship between baseball and the United States. The fact that Bush managed to fire in a perfect strike from the mound was perfect, Yankee magic. 

*** - Very Good

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Sicario (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Taylor Sheridan

Summer movie season is over and as we enter fall we also enter the awards season of movies. September is often a little early, but certainly October, November and December are often full of the types of movies that will be up for multiple Academy Awards come February. The latest from Denis Villeneuve, who also directed the nominated films Prisoners and Incendies, may have delivered another awards season hit with Sicario, which features plenty of Oscar worthy material throughout. Focused on the drug war that mixes with Mexican immigration, border patrol and Southwestern crime, Sicario manages to take the viewer through a heck of a thrill ride, maintaining tension from the opening scene through the end.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass (2015)

Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Mark Mallouk & Jez Butterworth

As I sat down in the theater in anticipation of the new Johnny Depp/Scott Cooper movie, Black Mass, a movie about a notorious gangster in Boston, there were various conversations that surrounded me. The lady next to me seemed quite sure she knew just about everything about everything, including movies. This was annoying. Meanwhile, the gentlemen in the row behind me discussed film in a much more respectful and engaging manner, commented on one particular aspect of the film we were about to see that I had not considered recently: that of the losing streak Johnny Depp seems to be on. Depp is a star, an A-lister recognizable by most all in this country that pays any attention to pop culture. The commentary from the gentlemen allowed me to reconsider Depp’s last few years. And while he has had some films that have made some money, has he truly had a great performance since Sweeney Todd, nearly a full decade ago?

Friday, September 11, 2015

ESPN Soccer Stories: Hillsborough (2014)

Directed by Daniel Gordon

My venture into the ESPN Soccer Series of films is quite tardy considering its initial release came last spring in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil. However, it also seems fitting that my tardiness is started off with a film like Hillsborough, one of two feature length documentaries in the Soccer Series. I must say up front that my knowledge of soccer (and especially its history) is extremely limited, and as such I will provide no insight into how I likely remember the events depicted or described in the series. I am not the source of “fact-checker” and can only take these films at face value. But all indications are that the tragedy at Hillsborough found solace and resolution at a very tardy date relative to its impact on not just the soccer world, but also in Sheffield in England in general. Families went years without resolution.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Delaney (2015)

Directed by Grant Curtis

The National Football League is arguably the most popular sports league in America today, having surpassed Major League Baseball as the nation’s pastime. That pains me to say as a baseball fan, but the numbers tell the story of unparalleled popularity in the sport of football in this country. Of course, with popularity comes fame and fortune and player worshipping. It doesn’t really matter the sport. With the violence of football though, player’s careers are so much shorter in the NFL than probably any other major professional sport. The running back position in particular has become a peculiar position, seeing peak performance for such a short while before fading back into black and never seeing a football field again. These bursts of light on the football field are great to see in action. But in the case of Joe Delaney that light went out far too early.

Delaney was the star running back of the Kansas City Chiefs when he tragically drowned while attempting to save three young boys who were drowning in a pond near a water park. Delaney’s star was rising on the football scene, giving new life into a down franchise that had struggled for years before Delaney’s arrival. He gave hope to the Kansas City fan base. These types of stories are always a little hard to take given their tragic nature. In a short format, the director, Grant Curtis here, has only a limited time to show us who Joe Delaney was as a man, and why we should care deeply about his unfortunate passing. Curtis does about as much as he can.

Delaney was a very simple southern man who put others before himself in most every way. He worked hard to provide for his family and only expected enough change in his pocket to buy a Coke at the store when he liked. His selflessness was admirable, and something that many modern day diva athletes seem to miss on the field and off (though not all, there are good men in every league today that do great work in their communities). The cartoon recreations seem out of place in the flow of the story of Joe Delaney, but other than that, Curtis shows us a brief glimpse of what made Joe Delaney a beloved father, husband, teammate and football player. Little more can be asked of the format.

*** - Good

Friday, August 21, 2015

Z for Zachariah (2015)

Directed by Craig Zobel
Written by Nissar Modi

Few actors have been on as much of a hot streak as Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor in my opinion. Coming off great turns in The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave, respectively, the pair get a chance once again to showcase their chops, this time together for the first time. But Z for Zachariah is a far different film than Wolf or 12 Years. It is a film that many people won’t see and many others likely will never hear of. An overly simple and low budget independent film, Z for Zachariah is the type of move that could easily gain a following for its unique take on its subject matter (survival after a global catastrophe), for its incredible (albeit small) cast, and for the continuing impressive filmmaking by director Craig Zobel.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

American Ultra (2015)

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Written by Max Landis

In the past decade, there have been many successful films in many different styles. For instance, the Jason Bourne series single-handedly created a new action movie style that begot plenty of other knock-offs, even, arguably, the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. There have also been cute indie romance films, like Adventureland in particular (as its cast ties in nicely with that of this film). Of course, the master of derivation himself, Quentin Tarantino, has released a few hits these past 10 years as well. Then of course you also have the stoner-comedies like Pineapple Express. Everything comes from somewhere, and even with the films mentioned above, they came from something released even before them. With American Ultra, director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis want all of it. They throw the kitchen sink at the project, and hope some of it sticks.

Monday, August 17, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30: Angry Sky (2015)

Directed by Jeff Tremaine

In October of 2012, Red Bull Stratos saw daredevil Felix Baumgartner plummet to the earth from what essentially looked like outer space (the stratosphere) at an altitude of approximately 24 miles above the surface of the earth. This stunt was much publicized and celebrated, mostly due to Red Bulls advertisement, but the stunt was notable for all extreme sport enthusiasts as well, which is why it caught the attention of Mat Hoffman, BMX biker extraordinaire. Hoffman soon also found out the story of Nicholas Piantanida, a New Jersey trucker who performed similar stunts in the 1960s. Finding Piantanida’s story worthy of exposure, Hoffman contacted his friend Jeff Tremaine, who had directed the Mat Hoffman 30 for 30 installment The Birth of Big Air.