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.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Pompeii (2014)

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
Written by Janet Scott Batchler & Lee Batchler and Michael Robert Johnson

There are so many new releases each week anymore that it is impossible to get to them all. There are inevitably great films that go unnoticed, underappreciated, or even unseen. There are also those terrible ones that manage to make millions upon millions of dollars because they have the finance and marketing behind them to get people in the seats opening weekend. It's hardly a fair system, but that's the way it is. Sometimes we must try a little harder to find the really good movies out there, and sometimes the blockbusters or awards season heavy hitters are quite good too. But I've always said seeing the truly bad films will always help put the good ones into perspective.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: The Deal (2014)

Directed by Nick & Colin Barnicle

Alex Rodriguez has been in the news a lot recently, alongside the decade long battle against steroids in Major League Baseball. Now linked, conceivably, to his legacy forever, the recent steroids scandal that finds A-Rod banned for the length of the 2014 season, meaning his $25+ million dollars will be left on the table, uncollected, is not the subject of ESPN's latest effort in their 30 for 30 Shorts series. However, Alex Rodriguez does remain at the forefront of attention in it. With their latest effort, the Barnicle Brothers, Nick and Colin, explore Rodriguez's surprise deal with the New York Yankees.

Amid the largest contract in history at the time, $252 million/10 years, and a series of losing season with the Texas Rangers, Alex Rodriguez sought a winning club with either the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees, two teams who hate each other, and claimed to be, by many sports fans and experts alike, to be the greatest rivalry in sports. The battle for the greatest player in the game set out as a duel between two tradition rich franchises. It goes without saying that the Yankees got their man in the end, but this film focuses in on the how. How did it all come about when at a time, it appeared A-Rod to the Red Sox was a done deal.

This is not a poorly constructed film by any stretch of the imagination. The Barnicle's even inject a bit of tension and intrigue into a story that, otherwise, is merely an insidious vehicle to promote the interests of ESPN. The Red Sox and Yankees are great franchises, and good ball clubs, but ESPN has had a love affair with the rivalry for as long as I can remember, throwing other great sports and baseball stories under the rug just to plug the two teams a little bit more. With their latest short, I fear they may have taken it even one step further. This film has little to no point in existing at all.

Why is the story of how the Yankees signed Alex Rodriguez relevant in the current era of baseball. Certainly there was a time when this would have been an interesting story, but 10 years later, knowing now what we do of the outcome? Who cares? Especially when there is no mention of the fact that Alex's accolades during his time as a New York Yankee, and perhaps even further back, are forever tainted with the residue of performance enhancing drugs and his poor charade he's managed to put on pushing his innocence in the matter. But worse yet, the film makes the Yankees out to be the big, bad, "evil empire", stealing the greatest player in the game from their rival and building a monster, unbeatable team on the field. Since the signing of Rodriguez, the Red Sox have, in fact, won 3 World Series Titles to the Yankees mere 1.

Somebody please tell me why this story carries any weight at all.

* - WOOF!

Friday, February 14, 2014

About Last Night (2014)

Directed by Steve Pink
Written by Leslye Headland

On this Valentine's Day, couples across the country take the opportunity to celebrate their love. That love is a gift to many, packaged in many different sizes and forms. Openness and honesty are just two of the wonderful attributes that love affords us, being able to speak frankly with our significant others, let all lay bare with no secrets, no filter. Sometimes that is just what we might need after a long day of work, or otherwise. We may get to feel this type of connection in our personal lives if we are so lucky to have formed such a relationship, but what about our night out at the movies? Why don't we see more films without filters? About Last Night may not be the prime example of love, but it certainly lacks a filter.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

RoboCop (2014)

Directed by Jose Padilha
Written by Joshua Zetumer and Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner

Am I in a no win situation if I tell you I've never seen the original? I know it is beloved by many, and just as about every other film series these days, a reboot seems sacrilege. But perhaps a fresh perspective might shed an unbiased light on the material? Maybe? At this point maybe then I should also ask whether the fact that I enjoyed this reboot also puts me in a no win situation? Have I lost you yet? Are you still reading? Am I just writing into the vast vacuum of the blogosphere at this point? No? Yes? Are you tired of rhetorical questions yet? If not, then sit tight and hear me out as I review the new Robocop. I won't call it a defense, yet, since I have no clue how fans of the original will react to this new film, but I liked it!

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Judging Jewell (2014)

Directed by Adam Hootnick

The state of journalism is in flux with the expansion of social media and instant reporting (or gratification depending on how you look at it). Long ago it stopped being about who got it right, and instead news agency deal in sensationalism and who got it first. Turn of the century "yellow journalism" by William Randolph Hearst and others made sure journalistic integrity was a thing of the past. But in the heightened technological age of Facebook and Twitter, the social court of opinion is as harsh as it's been. But just before that precipice was the unfortunate story of Richard Jewell, and how a miscarriage of journalism can trump the due diligence and job well done by the justice system.

Richard Jewell was a minimum wage security guard during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games, and is responsible for saving the lives of over a hundred the night a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Park. I place the word "saving" in italics because in the days and weeks following his heroic actions, Jewell soon became public enemy #1, and society lambasted and scapegoated his integrity and his pride, accusing him of being responsible. Hootnick's short film is one of the better example of the power of the 30 for 30 shorts series.

Hootnick highlights not just the story of the bombing and subsequent events, but he highlights the underlying causes of the gruesome public trial that followed. We live in a world where everyone's an expert, and whether we have all the evidence, some of it, or even in some cases no evidence at all, the greater public makes the decision on the fate of a person's legacy. The film beautifully concludes with a statement made by Jewell after being cleared of all charges, claiming his name cleared. However, it had already been dragged through the mud enough that not all could come clean, with some still accusing him of having gotten away with it. I hope that in the future we can recognize and praise our heroes a little better than the disservice we bestowed upon Richard Jewell.

*** - Good

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Monuments Men (2014)

Directed by George Clooney
Written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov

Art can mean so many different things to so many different people. It stands on its own in each individual's mind. Paintings, sculptures, buildings, literature, film and television, music; all are valid art forms, but depending on the subject, the merits of each can vary greatly, as can the satisfaction of the artistic expression, or of the artistic experience of interacting with art. But much of world culture is built on the very foundation of art as the human experience, the human condition. It captures history, politics, social movements, love, anger, commitment. Without it, we could very well lose our existence, for without our history what are we, and whither shall we go?