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.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

People Places Things (2015)

Written & Directed by James C. Strouse

The beauty of cinema is the fact that there are stories out there that cover nearly anything and everything a person may be interested in seeing or learning about. There are tons of genres, and even sub-genres below that to entertain, frighten, uplift, and to provide an escape for the audience. In today’s cinema realm, there are so many independent options amidst the big dollar, big studio summer blockbusters and awards season dramas that many films can go unnoticed by many. There is also a chance that if you look hard enough you can find the loving father and husband with beautiful twin daughters who gets cheated on by his wife and subsequently fights to spend more time with his children and deals with the break-up of his family by writing a graphic novel about it meanwhile slightly falling in love with one of his student’s mothers sub-genre.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Directed by Guy Ritchie
Written by Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram

“File under: shameless, unimaginative reboot of dormant 60s television show”, and you may be missing the mark with Guy Ritchie’s latest. The notion is tempting, especially given the recent rumblings in pop culture about Hollywood pushing out sequel after reboot after sequel, seemingly devoid of any kind of originality. The argument can be saved for another day, but suffice it to say, yes, there are a lot of sequels and reboots, but I also believe there is plenty of great, original stuff every year too. Of course, as a young man in my 20s, I never saw, or for matter of fact heard of the television show this film is based on, so I will not comment on how it remains faithful to source material or not. But this only serves as evidence that old can become new again to entertain a whole new era of audience.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Look of Silence (2015)

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

In 2013, Joshua Oppenheimer made waves in the documentary community with his startling, brutal, and all too real film The Act of Killing, which chronicled the mass murder of Communists in Indonesia in 1965. Oppenheimer turned his camera on two men who carried out these killings, and who are still in power in that country today, and let them run rampant, often bragging about and re-enacting their techniques of annihilation. Oppenheimer’s ability to remain a fly on the wall and allow these men to demonstrate their demons in front of the camera for the whole world to see was both extremely brave, patient, and revolutionary in the documentary genre. I had never seen anything like it before, and while not an easy film to swallow, it was one which was massively effective in its storytelling and delivery, such that I appreciate it immensely.

Friday, July 31, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Brave in the Attempt (2015)

Directed by Fritz Mitchell

As the Special Olympics are underway, ESPN has made a good marketing ploy by releasing this short film on the subject of Eunice Kennedy-Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, and the founder of the Special Olympics. ESPN has often aligned the release of their 30 for 30 films with sporting events, and it makes sense, but none of them seem to transcend the moment quite like this one does. It wouldn’t matter when Brave in the Attempt was released, it would be just as powerful. Other films would suffer from offseason disinterest, but Fritz Mitchell’s new entry into the series is too human to find that pitfall.

Mitchell takes us on a journey which sees both discrimination and shame laid upon those with intellectual disabilities. Eunice Kennedy had an older sister with an intellectual disability, and saw warehouses full of neglected, ostracized people, thrown to the side to rot away. The film draws parallels to the Civil Rights movement, and is certainly a celebratory documentary, featuring plenty of those close to Eunice to lay praise at her remembrance. Some may see this as too perfect, and I’m sure Eunice wasn’t perfect, the parallel overstated, but the reality is Eunice gave of her privilege for the betterment of these people, and that is worth celebrating.

But what also makes Eunice, and in fact this film, so endearing is her spirit. The film’s name is derived from a gladiatorial battle cry, claiming if they do not win the battle, at least they will be brave in the attempt to win. For Eunice, the Special Olympics was a great vehicle through which the world could see the ability of people with intellectual disabilities, and bringing them to the spotlight helped bring reform in America and numerous other countries. But at the heart of Eunice and the Special Olympics is competition, and there is a reason not everyone gets a medal, that this is not a participation event. This is sport, this is competition, and the thrill of victory can be experienced by anyone, including these inspiring and capable athletes.

Eunice was certainly brave in her attempt, and attempt that has succeeded.

*** - Very Good

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Spyball (2015)

Directed by Christina Burchard & Daniel Newman

Some stories just seem like they may be too good to be true, too cock full of mystery, suspense, and characters which could only be penned by the most imaginative screenwriters, those which it would be inconceivable to be real life people. But in reality, as I am sure most of us have seen, reality is often far more fascinating than fiction, delivering the unbelievable, larger than life characters that are then later adapted to fictionalized versions of themselves on television or in the movies. Films based on true stories are often the most popular, as it seems people connect much more with something they know to be real, even if the Hollywood version is a gross twisting of the truth for entertainment's sake. But the story of Moe Berg could in fact be an amazing work of fiction filmmaking on its own, without any fluff or romanticizing the truth.

Berg was a baseball player, and a below average one at that. A lifetime .243 hitter who specialized in mediocre defense at shortstop later became a catcher of some efficiency. But Berg is more fascinating for his off the field accomplishments, which include being efficient in seven different languages and spying for the US Government. Burchard and Newman's film focuses more on the latter than anything else in Berg's life, chronicling his exploits as an undercover spy on barnstorming trips to Japan, and his post baseball adventures which include an assassination mission into Europe to eliminate Werner Heisenberg and any attempt by the Nazi's to obtain the knowledge of nuclear fusion, or the atom bomb. It really does sound too good of a story to be true, and the filmmakers present it as fact, yet also happen to mention that Berg was a secretive person who did not discuss his service with the US Government, so I am not sure where their research comes from or how credible it is.

In fact, the filmmaking style is nothing too impressive overall, as we are essentially treated to "story time" with Bill "Spaceman" Lee of Boston Red Sox fan. From one on field eccentric to another off field one, the story time with Lee does happen to be the perfect framework within which to present the odd story of Moe Berg. As the story unfolds, I found myself much more wrapped up in the espionage of Berg than worrying about what techniques the filmmakers used, etc. In fact, this is great evidence that they pulled me into the story and held me through the run time. Whether that is the merit of Berg or Burchard/Newman is a question perhaps for others to answer, as for me the fact that I had a hell of a time watching this short is plenty on my plate to call this 30 for 30 short one of the better in the series, and certainly one of the most fascinating tidbits from sports history. If I were to pick from the 30 for 30 catalog that I would want Hollywood to dramatize, Spyball may top the list.

***1/2 - Great

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish and Paul Rudd & Adam McKay

Admittedly, I am not a comic book “nerd” (and I use that term affectionately). In fact, my exposure to the Marvel Universe, like so many others, has been through the Cinematic Universe, and the MCU alone. Now, I happen to rub elbows with a few comic book “nerds”, who are much more familiar with the characters of Marvel, and have quite a bit of insight when it comes to them and their movies (I’m told to highly anticipate Doctor Strange). So I at least knew a little bit about Hank Pym and Ant-Man before seeing this screening. But my anticipation was more from a filmmaker standpoint even then a storyline perspective, mostly because of the talked up removal of Edgar Wright from the project, most notably the director’s seat. While Wright still receives a screenwriting credit, many have feared that Ant-Man, with the absence of Wright, would become just another superhero movie to add to Marvel’s collection.