Tuesday, April 21, 2015

ESPN Films: It's Not Crazy, It's Sports (2015)

Directed by Errol Morris

Building on the success of their documentary film series, 30 for 30, ESPN recently decided to call on a good friend and acclaimed documentarian to do a series of short films on the passion and craziness of sports. Errol Morris had previously directed a series of commercials for ESPN, called It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports, that centered on the eccentricities of passionate sports fans. With this new series of short documentaries, Morris takes it one step further unfolding the strange obsessions and hobbies of some of the sports world’s most fascinating fans.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Beyond the Reach (2015)

Directed by Jean-Baptiste Leonetti
Written by Stephen Susco

Between making blockbuster hits, stars these days are often bolstering their resumes and acting chops by cutting their teeth either on the stage or by participating in low budget indie films that either go directly to DVD, or are only released on a minimal amount of screens nationwide. While I would no longer classify Michael Douglas as a star, his time has passed, he is still a big, recognizable name with many great titles to his name. Star power can often buoy films like Beyond the Reach at the box office, allowing the actor to deliver on the promise of a vehicle for their talents to shine. Every so often, the story and direction of a small time movie can make an impact as well, star power or not. But when the two are marries harmoniously in the creative landscape of independent filmmaking, something truly special happens.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

True Story (2015)

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by Rupert Goold and David Kajganich

The James Franco and Jonah Hill combination has delivered plenty of hits and plenty of laughs throughout the past decade of movie making. Each has also had their time in the spotlight for dramatic performances; Jonah Hill for Moneyball, and James Franco for 127 Hours. However, True Story marks the first time these two Hollywood hits matchup in the same movie for the sake of drama instead of comedy. This alone creates an odd atmosphere of anticipation, leaving me wondering whether they will break out laughing eventually, with the joke on the audience. But for Rupert Goold, making his directorial debut, this film is no laughing matter. And for the real life people this film represents, True Story hits all too close to home.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It Follows (2015)

Written & Directed by David Robert Mitchell

The genre of modern horror films has never really been up my alley in terms of filmic experiences. There are droves who will flock to the movie theater late at night to catch the latest gory rampage or spine-tingling jump scare movies. The “found footage” genre is still going strong nearly two decades after the success of The Blair Witch Project. While I can find it within my heart to appreciate that other people appreciate these types of horror movies, I often find the gross-out or cheap scare approach to be lacking in imagination and instead preying on the scared wits of its viewers (like me, I’ll admit it, the jump scares get me). But just because the jump scares work on my psyche doesn’t mean I’m enjoying the story being crafted, by the execution of the scare. So how refreshing it is to see a filmmaker delve into the past to accomplish something new in this era of horror films. David Robert Mitchell manages to be original all the while totally lifting from the horror classics of the 70s and 80s with It Follows.

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Unhittable: Sidd Finch and the Tibetan Fastball

Directed by Peter Sillen

With the coming of April comes the march of April Fools. I’ve never been a huge proponent of the tradition, often finding the “jokes” not to be funny on the basis they’re too unbelievable or unconvincing. Each year we have them, and while most are not very good or very funny, there are always a few that seem to be worth it. Then there is Sidd Finch. Having not been alive in 1985, I do not have firsthand knowledge of this hoax, or how the general public reacted to the April 1 issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured a story on the best pitching prospect of all time, Sidd Finch, who could throw a fastball 168 mph.

In retrospect, a story about someone who can throw the ball 168 mph is certainly too good to be true, but the way Sports Illustrated sold the hoax makes it a classic April Fool’s joke. Recruiting reporter George Plimpton to cook up the hoax, Sports Illustrated depended on its stellar record as an accurate, fair sports magazine to lull their readers into the disbelief of such an uber prospect as the Met’s Sidd Finch. Featuring the right formula of fantastical storylines plus the right players willing to participate in this farce, Plimpton backed up his made up player with real life Joe Berton and the willing participation of the New York Mets, making the story and the photographs seem that much more real.

Thinking of the circumstance in today’s terms of social media and immediate personal reaction, the story wouldn’t stand a chance, but that makes the “curious case of Sidd Finch” no less impressive an April Fool’s joke. Peter Sillen’s film gives us a fun look into the pieces that went into orchestrating the successful joke. Sports are part of American entertainment. They exist for our pleasure and enjoyment. Often the players and fans get caught up in the competition of the game and the joy and pleasure are lost. Sidd Finch is a good reminder that sports are meant to be fun, and that there is plenty of fun to be had both on and off the field of play.

*** - Good

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ESPN 30 for 30: Of Miracles and Men (2015)

Directed by Jonathan Hock

Seemingly each year Hollywood manages to take the same idea and do it twice. So I suppose I should be none too surprised to find that ESPNs 30 for 30 film Of Miracles and Men tackles the same subject matter of the documentary Red Army, also releasing this year. Of course, unlike the Armageddon/Deep Impact, Volcano/Dante’s Peak dual films, the subject matter explored in these documentaries is far more interesting to me. In 1980, the US Men’s Olympic hockey team crafted the “Miracle on Ice”, defeating the hated Soviet Union team who was the best in the world. For a moment in time, the college kids assembled in Lake Placid were the best in the world, but what Jonathan Hock explores is not how those kids got there, but how the moment became so big. Without the powerful Soviets, that night in Lake Placid would have been like any other hockey game.

ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: The Billion Dollar Game (2015)

Directed by Nick Guthe

I recently took a day and a half worth of Paid Time Off. It was a Thursday afternoon and all day Friday. I decided to take these days off because the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was tipping of its (now) Second Round of play. These two days have always been huge days in sports for me. In high school, college and now beyond, I have probably wasted as much time mulling over the filling out of my bracket as I have watching the games on TV. TV, what a wonderful invention, and how fortunate we are to have the chance to see all the games of the tournament live on national television. But of course, it wasn’t always like that. The tournament wasn’t always such a huge, lucrative event. It wasn’t always prime for the Cinderella team or the unexpected upset. That is until 16 seeded Princeton gave powerhouse #1 seed Georgetown all they could handle in the opening round of the 1989 tournament.

Princeton, spoiler alert, fell that day, but by a mere point. In a game as exciting as it was close, national audiences were transfixed by the “can’t miss” television, which caused CBS executives to decide to air ALL tournament games nationally. In addition, Princeton paved the way for mid-major conference teams to remain a part of the tournament. Around that time, teams from the Ivy League and other mid-major conferences were regularly getting blown out in tournament play by their larger counterparts, so much so that it was in the conversation to bar mid-major teams from even being in the tournament, reserving those spots instead for more powerhouse conference teams to have a chance to win the championship. Without the way led by Princeton, there would have been far less excitement over the past 25 years, with Cinderella teams and huge, unexpected upsets as rare as the dodo bird.

The Billion Dollar Game basically lays out this agenda in very business-like fashion. Literally. Nick Guthe’s films does a good job of focusing on the business side of the game, investigating the contracts of CBS/Turner to broadcast the games. Guthe uses this data to project the theory that the popularity of the tournament can be directly linked back to the Princeton/Georgetown game in 1989, and as such, so can the billions of dollars the tournament games are now worth to be broadcast. The film, however, ends up feeling more like a cold conference room presentation to a board making decision on whether to invest in the tournament or pass on the opportunity than it does a film made for entertainment. Unfortunately, the source rich topic of the NCCA tournament is turned into an infomercial, and one without a wacky host to garner interest.

**1/2 - Average

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Get Hard (2015)

Directed by Etan Cohen
Written by Jay Martel & Ian Roberts and Etan Cohen

For years, Will Ferrell has ruled atop the comedy kingdom, creating quite the legacy of hit comedies from his time as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, and expanding on towards his own massive career in the movie industry. His career as we know it, however, may begin to wind down just a little bit. His trademark immature humor is impinging upon his growing age, which creates a dichotomy which grows more and more tiresome and less and less believable. I have no doubt his roles will evolve to fit his age as the public demands more comedy from Ferrell. Kevin Hart, on the other hand, has a career which is just blossoming. To pair these two comedy giants for the first time seems like a perfect pairing for a great comedy and a box office hit. With Get Hard, they take a step into the batter’s box, but instead of hitting a home run, they manage a measly single (which is at least far better than a strike out).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Insurgent (2015)

Directed by Robert Schwentke
Written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback

Having been a big fan of the Harry Potter series, the literature that kicked off the recent young adult trend in both book and film series, I cannot fault either the authors or the studios for capitalizing on what is a pretty great business opportunity. And if that sounded fairly cynical, it was not meant to be, as I fully support the fad, which has produced plenty of entertainment for the young adult crowd. I cannot speak to the quality of series such as Percy Jackson or even for that matter the literature quality if the Divergent series this film finds itself in, but if it gets the younger generation reading, and thinking critically about any number of topics, then I suppose it can’t be all bad for the sake of some entertainment. And for that matter, the first film in this series, Divergent, laid the groundworks for what could be a very promising series.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Chris Weitz

Disney began the decade with the massive box office hit Alice in Wonderland, and has since moved to capitalize on the concept of reimagining their greatest animated successes of years past, releasing new and improved live action versions. Alice was followed by Oz: The Great and Powerful and last year’s Maleficent. Each was a new take on an existing classic in the category, offering a new story for a new generation of audience. With their latest, Cinderella, Disney strays from their strategy, giving the keys to the kingdom to filmmakers Kenneth Branagh and Chris Weitz, who take the classic story of “Cinderella” and, instead of re-envisioning it from a different perspective, or a different point in the story, they choose to give us the same fairy tale that enchanted audiences of the animated classic.