Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Directed by Peter Sohn
Written by Meg LaFauve

It seems rare to receive two Disney/Pixar films in the same calendar year. Since I can remember it has been my tradition to celebrate my June birthday with the release of the latest in the line of great Pixar films, but this year, we get an added treat of a fall, Holiday Pixar release, The Good Dinosaur. And while it could, and has been, argued that Pixar has declined with its recent releases, not releasing great work as consistently as it has in the past, instead delivering perfectly entertaining, but otherwise underwhelming and bland work. Many have called 2015’s earlier release, Inside Out, one of the animated production companies very best, hoping for a resurrection in the sustained greatness of the Pixar product. Indeed, Inside Out is one of my favorite releases so far this year, and the best animated film I’ve seen. However, The Good Dinosaur, with large shoes to fill, seems content delivering an underwhelming narrative.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Room (2015)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Emma Donoghue

The art of cinema has such a wide variety of stories to tell, with so many genres and styles. The beauty of the art of cinema is the movie-goer’s ability to go see a movie about anything, to be taken anywhere in the world (or beyond), to be placed in any person’s shoes, to laugh, to cry, to smile. The emotional gambit that is cinema is truly remarkable, and this holiday season many people will flock to the theaters for a great, heartwarming family tale, or something to make them laugh, feel happy, be thankful, and be merry. With Room, the film based on Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel of the same name, audiences should proceed with caution. If you have a soul and a heart, you will cry. Room is not the type of heartwarming film you may think of during the Holiday’s, but it is the type of film that portrays the incredible resiliency of children, and the indelible bond between mother and child.

Monday, November 23, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Tose: The Movie (2015)

Directed by Mike Tollin

Mike Tollin’s previous film in the 30 for 30 series, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? may have been an informative piece on the USFL, if not a very good one. Tollin teams here with NFL Films to present the story of former Philadelphia Eagles owner Leonard Tose, who bought the team for $16 million, only to sell them for some $70+ million, most of which went to pay off gambling debts in nearby Atlantic City. Tollin presents the rosy picture of an eccentric hometown owner, often citing the gambling problems, womanizing, and other vices as novelties that made the man interesting. To take such a viewpoint on the subject is short-sighted, making Tose: The Movie too personal.

What Tollin also manages to do, is take this film and make it an advertisement for his own dream, to make a feature length dramatic film about the life of Leonard Tose. Some of the film is even spent describing his long process of attempting to get the film made. As a result, by the end of the film I was overcomes with mixed emotions, none of which were particularly promises or good signs of the product delivered previously. The roundtable interview with Ron Jaworski, Dick Vermeil and two other former NFLers close to Tose presents the most interesting conversation in the film, as the men remember someone who meant an awful lot to their careers and even to them as men.

However, the rambling mess presented by Tollin feels way too much like a self-promoting commercial for me to say that I enjoyed the brief film, or that any of the redeeming qualities of the film or the man Tose himself will stick with me afterwards. With such a limited time to explore the subject of Leonard Tose, Tollin’s pre-occupation with other objectives leaves me to wonder how poorly conceptualized the film was, or perhaps how uninteresting Tose, the man, actually was.

** - Poor

Friday, November 13, 2015

Love the Coopers (2015)

Directed by Jessie Nelson
Written by Steven Rogers

Each year I hear complaints about how early it gets dark after daylight savings time ends. Each year I hear complaints about how early Christmas is projected on the consuming public by corporations, and even radio stations. First of all, of course it’s dark out, it happens every year, get used to it. Second of all, I agree, any reference to Christmas prior to Thanksgiving is annoying. Because of the impending extravaganza of Christmas, I have always thought Thanksgiving is one of the most overlooked and underrated American holidays. Even this year there are complains about Starbucks red holiday cups. All this insanity only serves to detract from the true spirit of both of these holidays. We are entering into the time of year meant to be thankful, to get together with our family, and celebrate all our blessing, not to lament our perceived curses.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30: Trojan War (2015)

Directed by Aaron Rashaan Thomas

Volume III of ESPNs 30 for 30 series has begun, and I am excited to delve into the new sports documentaries produced by this series. As with any extended series of films (re: my Bond review earlier today) there will always been bad films, mediocre films, and good films in the series. When the volume is so great (this is the 61st film in the official series, not counting the shorts and shoot offs in the series), there quality of output will vary with each release. But there always remains the great potential of a remarkable film, and most of the films to this point have, at the very least, been some form of entertaining, informative, or a poignant mix of both. With Trojan War, the series looks to Aaron Rashaan Thomas to chronicle the meteoric rise of the University of Southern California football program under coach Pete Carroll, and its eventual downfall.

Spectre (2015)

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by John Logan and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth

Of note: I am a huge James Bond fan. One who has read all of Ian Fleming’s original 007 novels (though not yet any of the post-Fleming installments from Gardner, Benson, et al. – it will be curious if these works ever find their way into the series as the Fleming stories are long gone by now), and seen all of the 007 films, including the “un-official” installments like Never Say Never Again, and Casino Royale. (See my detailed thoughts as part of my James Bond marathon from a few years ago.) In any normal review I may say this is irrelevant, as with each film comes a new story and a different perspective, personalized by the baggage, experience and expectations brought to the table by each viewer. But in the case of Bond, my mind becomes a little more analytical, comparing everything to past installments. I am completely incapable of seeing Spectre in an isolated fashion, separate from past films in the series. However, based on the structure chosen by the filmmakers during the Daniel Craig era, the lack of separation between films is apparent, with 007 being a more consistent narrative from film to film than any other time in the series. In many ways, this is to Bond’s benefit.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: #BringBackSungWoo (2015)

Directed by Josh Swade & Josh Shelov

The problem I had with Josh Swade’s previous entry into the 30 for 30 series was that he made it too personal. His style is very much that of a video diary, and the problem is I’m not quite sure how interested I am in the interests of Josh Swade. In that film, There’s No Place Like Home, we see Swade parading around trying to get other people to buy into his idea to buy the original rules of basketball for the University of Kansas. In #BringBackSungWoo, and don’t even get me started on the stupidity of the hashtag title, Swade sets out to bring a Korean, Kansas City Royals superfan, Sung Woo Lee, back to Kansas City in time for the 2014 World Series, believing him to be a good luck charm based on Lee’s August KC trip which set the Royals on a winning streak.

As with There’s No Place Like Home, Swade’s passionate mission seems half-baked. On a whim, he travels to South Korea to find Sung Woo Lee, who has just started a new job and does not believe it appropriate to ask for vacation time so soon to travel back to America to root on his favorite team in the World Series. Swade manages to make every interaction with Lee’s company awkward, whether it be with the company’s PR director, or Lee’s boss. He never manages, at least not on film, to even convince me that Lee “needs” to go to America to cheer on the Royals. Also lost in all this is Lee’s own wishes. Sure, as a superfan I’m sure he would love to see them in person, but he clearly feels a responsibility to his employer to stay in Korea and show his commitment. It’s potentially a once in a lifetime opportunity, but Swade arrogantly seems convinced that his desires align with those of Sung Woo Lee’s.

Where this film does succeed, however, is in its portrayal of Sung Woo. He is an extremely passionate Royals fan, and one who exudes a certain level of positivity that it becomes infectious, and is refreshing in a day and age, at least in America, where negativity typically wins out for most sports fans. Sung Woo instead enjoys the moment for what it is, win or lose. He will cheer his team on to victory, and applaud their effort in defeat. It is very cool how social media has allowed people from all over the world who have similar interests to connect. I sympathize with Sung Woo given the Royals defeat to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. I’m not sure I sympathize with Swade.

**1/2 - Average

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Robbed (2014)

Directed by Eric Drath

Eric Drath has now been involved in this series four times as a director, to the detriment of the series. I don't want to rip on him too much, as his films have been quite serviceable, but unfortunately nothing more. Robbed may be his weakest yet. It tells the story of Ali-Norton III, which took place in New York City's Yankee Stadium in September of 1976, the same time when the city's police force was striking for higher pay. As a result, the fight became a sideshow to the protests from the cops and the general disarray that surrounded the stadium and multiple celebrities in attendance. However, the fight itself remains notable for its controversial decision in favor of Muhammad Ali, when almost all in attendance were convinced Ken Norton had finally pulled through for a moment to hang his career on, a victory over the loudmouth champ.

Where Drath fails is really in content. The story is there, and is a compelling one, but he never surrounds the bare bones with any meat to chew on. I understand the short format makes it challenging to fully flesh out all the intriguing details of a story, but Drath seemingly wastes 16 minutes on generalizations. For the most part, the story is completely told by talking heads and brief clips of the fight itself. It needs more file footage of the rioting/protesting/mess that surrounded the stadium. If the footage doesn't exist, then we need more first hand accounts, and more specific examples then "there was unruliness outside". And for a film that calls itself Robbed to describe how Norton was robbed of winning the fight by a judge's decision, it sure seems to lack sufficient video evidence of the fight. As I say, there are fleeting punches documented, but ultimately Drath spends too much time with talking heads describing the fight than he does showing the viewer the fight.

His best achievement in the series to date, Renee was much more curious about its subject than Drath seems interested in here. Robbed feels like a lazy attempt to reenter the arena of 30 for 30 for Drath. It seems unfortunate that neither Ali or Norton were able to be interviewed for the film, but that can't be helped by the filmmaker. I would have liked to have heard what they had to say about their experience in the ring, and around the stadium that day (it was hinted Norton had difficulty even making his way into the stadium prior to the fight). The film strained to ever delve into any small details like that. For documentary films I have noticed that the best often make an effort to highlight such small, interesting details, while the ones who paint with broad strokes, highlighting only the obvious larger storyline often fail to impress or capture my attention.

**1/2 - Average

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Our Tough Guy (2014)

Directed by Molly Schiot

Our Tough Guy brings a lot of the same sentiments to mind as the previous short, The Great Trade Robbery, but in different ways. For most of the short run time I sat wondering why this subject? why make a film about this? The subject is John Wensink, a former NHL player for the Boston Bruins. What makes the film seem quite inaccessible to me is the fact that it is a personal love song to a player from a city, a player with which I am unfamiliar, and a city in which I do not live. For fans of the Boston Bruins I am sure the film might prove far more effective, but as it were, it came as a struggle to me.

However, upon reflection of the film I gleaned at least a certain level of appreciation. For, while I may know nothing of Wensick or the Bruins for that matter, I do know his type. The NHL enforcer, a position since written out of the game with new rules and new unspoken rules of conduct on the ice. I can, though, recall Jody Shelley, my hometown teams "enforcer". He has since ascended to the press box as the color commentator for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he was our "tough guy". On the ice to protect his fellow teammates, and to gain the team needed energy when most needed, he doesn't score many goals, may not be the best skater, needless to say he is not the star of the team. But the enforcer remains an important role on a hockey team, one that someone must fill.

So while I don't know John Wensick, or care a lick about the Boston Bruins, the sentimentality shown towards him by the filmmaker and fan base is undoubtedly relatable. This type of respect is further reaching than just hockey as well, each sports team as an unheralded fan favorite, someone the fan base is able to appreciate without the need for a full line in the box score, or national attention. They are "ours" because they are us.

** 1/2 - Average

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: The Great Trade Robbery (2014)

Directed by Stuart Zicherman

Recalling some of the most one sided trades in the history of sports can be a really fun exercise. Babe Ruth's contract sold for $100,000? John Elway for Mark Hermann, Chris Hinton and Ron Solt? Dr. J to the Nets for $3 Million? The list could go on, but included in that list is the Hershel Walker trade the struggling Dallas Cowboys made, which helped build their dynasty. I don't find it necessary to discuss the exact terms in this review, watch the film if you don't know them. What I would prefer to do with this review is speak more generally about the different kinds of films we see from the 30 for 30 series. I bring this up because, to be completely honest, this particular film works more as a history lesson that it does as entertainment or artistic storytelling. In other words, the story being told is simple, and it is done in a simple and straightforward manner. The film exists to communicate the terms and results of the trade.

It's a fine line between what this film does and what others in the series have done to set themselves apart. However, I struggle with films like this that are so straightforward that I feel like I'm more being informed than I am entertained. When that happens I don't feel like it's a true film, and that sounds harsh to say, and maybe I'm way off base to put it in those terms, but that is what I experienced with this particular film. "So that happened, and so what?" I understand the documentary genre, or maybe I don't, but my favorite documentaries tell, yes, true stories, but do so in compelling, thought-provoking manners. The Great Trade Robbery does not do that. It exists to inform and toot the horn of Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones for pulling off one of the best deals (for the Cowboys, not the Vikings) in the history of sport.

It does a good job of informing the viewer of the circumstances of the trade, the terms of the trade, how and why the Cowboys pulled it off. From that perspective, it really does cover it's bases in terms of the who, what, when, where, why and how questions. So I can't complain too much. But it fails to color in that outline. It fails even to creatively color outside those lines.

** - Poor