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.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Jesse Andrews

Seeing the trailer for the film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I couldn't help but dread something like Wes Anderson directing The Fault in Our Stars. That sentence may seem negative towards the two parties involved, but I actually liked The Fault in Our Stars to some extent and have found at least some intermittent enjoyment from Wes Anderson's filmography (some of his films are better than others). The problem is the mixing of the two, the mixing of the heavy subject of a girl dying of cancer and the type of comedic quirk that has come in vogue with the success of Anderson. Instead, what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl ends up becoming is an original voice telling an unconventional tale that manages to be funny, heartfelt, and at times very raw.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Ted Turner's Greatest Race (2015)

Directed by Gary Jobson

The 30 for 30 shorts series has wielded quite a few stunners, and when you include Errol Morris’ It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports shorts, you could even compile a greatest hits and have a pretty good compilation on your hands. However, the series has a few clunkers as well, films which don’t quite seem to fit the format for whatever reason. Perhaps they need more fleshing out to fully tell the story they’re trying to tell, or perhaps the subject matter is just dull to begin with. I fear that with the latest in the series, Ted Turner’s Greatest Race, it may be a combination of the two. The film speaks to Turner’s triumph at the 1979 Fastnet yachting race, which is notable for its inclement weather conditions.

The Fastnet race is a race which begins in England, races around the Fastnet rock just off the coast of Ireland, and finishes at the port of Plymouth. In 1979, Turner and his crew faced strong storms at open sea, but managed to persevere and win the race. However, there were countless other boats whose fate were lost at sea, with crews having to abandon boats and some lives even being lost at sea. Gary Jobson, who was part of Turner’s crew, directs without a true sense of the type of story he wishes to tell. I couldn’t tell whether I was supposed to see Turner as this great man who won this impossible race, or whether I was supposed to see the 1979 Fastnet as a great tragedy. Jobson seems to want it both ways, but succeeds in neither.

Part of the film’s unconvincing tribute to Turner is Turner himself, who speaks about the Fastnet with mild interest, leaving me to believe it was just another race to him, which either means his ego is enormous, his pride/interest in his accomplish is insignificant, which may also lead me to believe that he is not affected by the lives lost during the race. As I said in the opening paragraph, perhaps if Jobson had a feature length to explore the details of the race, the intricacies of Turner and the other crew, a better film would have resulted. But at the same time, I’m asking myself how much I even want to see that film, based on how unsuspenseful and uneventful Jobson seemed to make a pretty intense boating race.

** - Poor

Monday, June 22, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

Directed by Pete Docter
Written by Meg LaFauve & Josh Cooley and Pete Docter

Pixar has changed the game with animated films more than a few times. Initially, of course, it was with the release of the first ever feature length computer animated film, Toy Story, which proved the method could not only be financially and commercially successful, but also that computed animated films could be a viable and convincing storytelling medium. Any more it seems hand drawn animation is a thing of the past, with Disney’s The Princess and the Frog almost marketed as a nostalgic look back the style. Pixar’s successful, in addition to its innovation, has stemmed from its masterful storytelling and endless imagination. These two powerful elements in the Pixar tool belt have allowed them to present more mature content in the realm of “kid’s movies”, with Inside Out perhaps being the most mature yet.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Iris (2015)

Directed by Albert Maysles

When I wake up in the morning, I jump in the shower, put in my contact lenses, shave, and get dressed. When I pick out my clothes, I often default to the same old same old. For me, having an office job, that means a polo and some slacks. Not very creative. I run downstairs, eat my breakfast, and slip on my shoes. Shoes, now there is where I have a chance to make a statement! I admit to having a few more pairs than I used to (living with someone who worked for a shoe company for 7 years will do that to you), so my choices here are a little more colorful than the “uniform” I put on upstairs. My weekends are often spent in t-shirts of my favorite sports teams or musical acts, paired with jeans or shorts of some kind. What I’m trying to say is I don’t make a statement when I dress. I’m sure my “fashion” goes mostly unnoticed throughout the day.

Friday, May 29, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30: Sole Man (2015)

Directed by Jon Weinbach & Dan Marks

I just googled “How much does a pair of Jordan’s cost?” The answer? Well, it’s complicated, you see. There are so many different pairs and variety of the classic basketball sneaker. There are high end and low end, high top and low top. Some of the cheaper ones will run you closer to $100, some of the expensive ones, well, upwards of $200. For sneakers. The Jordan shoe is a cultural thing at this point, part of the fashion lexicon. But where did this all start? Nike of course! Well, no not really, but certainly it had to have been the brilliant marketing idea of Phil Knight! Well, no not really, but everyone knew marketing MJ would be the easiest way to the bank! Well, still no, not really. If it weren’t for Sonny Vaccaro, the Jordan sneaker, and just about everything else in basketball show history, may never have been.

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: The Anti-Mascot (2015)

Directed by Colin Hanks

After an uproarious topic such as Sidd Finch in the previous installment of the 30 for 30 Shorts series, perhaps it is only logical to move on to mascots for its next production. In this Colin Hanks directed short, the mascot is explored in a different way than most people think about mascots. When I think about mascots, I imagine the Philly Phanatic, and the current reigning MLB mascot king, Orbit from the Houston Astros (if you are unfamiliar, please peruse YouTube to your own joyous benefit). These often furry friends are marketed to entertain the children out to enjoy a game at the ballpark, often garnering laughs from their adult audience as well. They keep the atmosphere loose and enjoyable for the fans; all except one that is, the anti-mascot.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

San Andreas (2015)

Directed by Brad Peyton
Written by Carlton Cuse

“Some men,” as Alfred tells us in The Dark Knight, “just want to watch the world burn.” I suppose he is right in many ways, though perhaps not to the extreme that the Joker wanted to watch the world burn in that film. But in terms of entertainment, there certainly appears to be an audience for the disaster film, which depicts great forces of nature, or acts of war, or the invasion of aliens, etc., wiping out parts or all of the world in one fell swoop. I suppose the draw is the hero complex inside all of us, wondering how we might respond in such a situation, hoping that, if put into the same situation as the hunky hero, we might save everyone on the planet too. At the same time, there is something somewhat sadistic about the genre, reveling in seeing thousands, millions die in a tsunami or fire or earthquake. The best disaster movies, however, play on the most basic human elements of love and survival.