Foxcatcher rm- Steve Carell establishes himself as a serious actor as he plays John Dupont, one of the wealthy children of the Dupont family. He seems filled with his own narcissism but yet insecure and desperate to prove to his mother and the world that he is a wonderful, worthwhile person. He is going to try to do this by investing in his great passion and that is wrestling. He envisions himself as a wrestling coach and father figure to what he hopes will be the US championship team of the 1988 Olympics. This film is based on a true story with a screenplay by Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye and is directed by Bennett Miller. It is mainly about three characters, Dupont, Mark Schultz ( Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) The latter two are brothers who have already won Olympic Gold Medals in wrestling. Mark comes across as quite introverted, islolated pliable and almost too wooden as he quickly agrees to move to the the Dupont estate and train for the next Olympics. It is hard to say if his rather blunted personality is what was intended by the story or perhaps it is some underacting by Tatum. David, the older brother and already a family man with a wife and two kids is also in a coaching mode, exudes warmth and relatedness, all of which is projected quite well by Ruffalo. He ultimately decides to bring his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids to join the US wrestling team on the Dupont estate under the irrational auspicious of John Dupont. The ambivalent relationship and tension between the two brothers is subtle and interesting to ponder. Vanessa Redgrave has a brief role as the Dupont mother who loves valuable horses and doesn’t think very highly of wrestling much to the despair of her son John. If you were into high school or college wrestling you may appreciate all the wrestling moves in the various scenes on the mats. The plot is also interesting to grapple with in this sad but very interesting story. (2014)
Draft Day- rm You have to give credit to a movie that comes up with an original theme about which millions of Americans will feel great passion. The subject is football and one of the most important, if not crucial days of the football season, which is the NFL Draft Day. In this fictional story, leading up to this day, Sonny Weaver (Kevin Costner), the general manager of the Cleveland Browns, trades away his team’s number one draft pick, for three years of future number one picks. Which player he chooses with that pick, who he doesn’t choose and the drama behind all the deals and horse trading that does go down, is the essence of this movie. Costner is supported by Jennifer Garner who plays his girl friend. She is a football executive with the Browns in charge of keeping track of the “cap” (football fans will know what this means). Dennis Leary plays the coach of the Browns with the Super Bowl ring and a million dollar salary, who is supposed to lead next year’s team to that very Super Bowl. Only he is not so sure that he likes Weaver’s intended draft picks. Speaking of million dollar salaries, Roger Godell the real Commissioner of the NFL, who is known to have a multi-million dollar salary, plays himself in the movie (obviously not for the money). By coincidence, the day that we saw this film on a cross-country air flight, the NFL is in the headlines as Roy Rice, an NFL star, has been suspended for punching out his fianceé, which was caught in an elevator video. There is a somewhat related theme in this movie, as the question is raised of how should the character of the potential draftee influence whether he is chosen as a high draft choice as compared to being chosen solely on the basis of his athletic accomplishments. You can guess which one wins out. The film is directed and co-produced by Ivan Reitman (Ghostbuster I and II and other mainly comedies). This movie won’t be at the top of our ‘picks” and we rate it a notch below Moneyball, which dealt with a related theme in professional baseball. However, we know that football fans will eat it up and there are lots of them out there. (2014)
42 rm- When a movie can tell the story of an important 20th century historical event, gets it right with the subject being our national pastime, baseball, and racial prejudice, it has achieved an extra base hit. If that movie can appeal to youngsters from pre-teens upwards and can push all the buttons of baseball fans who lived (one of us in Brooklyn) through the time frame of this story, it has hit a homerun. After experiencing this film with our two grandchildren we certainly felt that way. Jackie Robinson was chosen by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947 to become the first black baseball player in the major leagues. This film traces Rickey’s decision and Robinson’s journey out of the all black baseball league, first to the Montreal Royals, the Dodger’s premier farm club, then to the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Major Leagues. The film portrays racial slurs, threats, bean balls to the head, being refused check-in at hotels, mixed reaction from the Dodger teammates who included Dixie Walker, Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca, Gene Hermansky and Eddie Stankey. It showed tough manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) who got thrown off the team for an extramarital affair with actress Lorraine Day and kindly manager Burt Shotten (Max Gail) who wore street clothes whila managing because he promised his wife he would never put on another baseball uniform after he retired. Director and screenplay writer Brian Heigeland (who previously wrote Mystic River and won an Academy Award for his adaptation of LA Confidential) apparently got his love of Brooklyn and the history of the Dodgers from his dad. Once he got interested in this story he won the rights and the blessing of Robinson’s widow Rachel. He went out of his way to bring authenticity to the story and chose his baseball scenes from the actual box scores. Adding Brooklyn sportscaster Red Barber’s (John McGinley) play by play was a good touch. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman did an excellent job as Robinson, as did Nicole Beharie as Rachel. Their chemistry was wonderful and apparently was very moving to the real Rachel. However, if anybody other than Jackie Robinson was stealing anything other than second base it may have been Harrison Ford as Dodger GM Branch Rickey stealing the movie. His cigar chewing inflections, his determination and the glint in his eye must have channeled the real Rickey and certainly brought his spirit to the film. It may even bring an Oscar statue to Mr Ford. Of course the star is Jackie Robinson and this film will certainly allow him and his legacy to live on for future generations- a most worthwhile outcome.(2013)
Undefeated- sp Friday night football is a great American tradition throughout many parts of the United States where families watch their high school boys battle it out for the glory of the their schools . For so many of these football warriors, it is the prelude to moving into the real world and starting their careers which for many will include further training in college. Win or lose their high school football memories should be one of the many experiences, which will add to their development as young adults. However members of the Manassas High School football team in Memphis Tennessee who are black, poor, most without fathers almost all have close relatives who have recently been in jail, don’t have too much to look forward. They certainly might not be inclined to get too much out of their football experience. That is until Bill Courtney, owner of a nearby lumber factory decides to volunteer his time and knowledge to be the team football coach. Courtney missed growing up with a father and in addition to raising his own kids, he gives of himself to be a father figure to this team. Within 6 years he has instilled in the players who are drawn to the team, a philosophy of teamwork and recognition that it is how you deal with loss and setback that will make the difference in life. Rich Middlemas, a junior movie executive read in a local newspaper about some of the transformations occurring in the team. He convinces filmmakers Daniel Lindsay and T,J Martin to go to Memphis and shoot some film of what is going on there. They are able to get funding to spend a year with with this team and shoot within a 9-month period 500 hours of film which is boiled down to 113 minutes of an intimate documentary of these young men and their quest for a successful football season. It particularly captures the personal stories of three of them and reveals the inspirational nature of Mr. Courtney. The team does something that no other football team from Manassas has ever done and that is make it to the playoffs. And Mr. Middlemas does something that very few documentary filmmakers have ever done and that is to be nominated for an Oscar. (2011)
P.S. The movie won an Oscar !!
Moneyball- rm A major movie which deals with the complexities of baseball stands a good chance of capturing a big piece of the American pie. When you add a star such as Brad Pitt you have the recipe for a perfect dessert. However, this film which emerges on the scene as major league baseball is gearing for the playoff season, deals with more than just our national pastime. It is a metaphor for the problems facing so many businesses today as they realize that in order to win in today’s competitive world, you have to be more than the biggest guy around with most bucks. You have to be smart, understand modern technology and be creative. That is exactly what Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics and his trustworthy Assistant Manager and computer nerd, Yale graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) set out to prove when he realized that the meager salary cap that his owner gave him for his team couldn’t hold a candle to the one that the New York Yankees had available to them. Baseball fans, most of whom understand the fine points of the game will appreciate the logic of the idea that three guys who all together get on base as often as the big gun who makes several times all their salaries combined might be better value to draft or hold on the team. This thesis based on real events is played out with drama, humor and much realism assisted by very realistic actors playing baseball, real baseball video clips and the voices of real baseball announcers. Brad Pitt infuses into Billy Beane the determination, inner confidence and likeability that holds the attention of the audience. We shouldn’t forget a very strong (as usual) supporting role played by Phllip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s manager. The movie is directed by Bennett Miller and the screenplay co-written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, the latter being well known for producing riveting dialog which also characterized this production. (2011)
Win Win sp- The unglamorous struggles of people’s everyday lives can be the making of a good story and a good movie. Writer /Director Thomas McCarthy who seems to specialize in this approach (The Visitor and Station Agent) takes us to small community in New Jersey where Mike (Paul Giamatti )volunteers as the high school wrestling coach of the very anemic wrestling team, while he works as a lawyer who helps the elderly. Mike is feeling the stress of the economy and asks the court to appoint him as guardian of a client with some assets as well as early dementia (Burt Young) so he can get the financial commission. He puts him in an assisted living facility rather than arranging for him to be cared for at home as he promised the court.. The old man’s taciturn grandson Kyle(Alex Shaffer) appears from out of town and moves in with Mike , his wife (Amy Ryan) their two young daughters and attends the high school . Kyle happens to be a great wrestler and this is exciting for the high school team, the Coach and his two assistant coaches (Jeff Tambor and Bobby Cannavale). The conflict is complete when Kyle’s young mother(Melanie Lynskey) also blows into town. She has been an addict, not a very good mom or daughter but now wants to be involved with her father because she needs the money. There is poignant meaningful interaction between the main characters by which the audience gains insight into their struggles and growth. As might be expected Giamatti is the glue of the film as the audience feels his pain, understands his choices and wants to see him work through the jam that he has created for himself. Alex Shaffer apparently a true curly blond teenage boy was a Michigan state high school wrestling champ but had absolutely no acting experience when McCarthy cast him as Kyle and put him under his wing. He carried off his role quite well and needless to say the wrestling scenes were very realistic. Veteran producer of this film Michael London who produced Sideways, was guest speaker at our screening along with Melanie Lynskey. When a screening is accompanied by an army of security guards as this one was, who search you for cell phones and the like which had to be kept out of the theater, one tends to expect a blockbuster of a movie. That was not the case with this film, but it was a character driven movie that showed real people “wrestling” with the conflicts of their lives and trying to make the best of their situations.(2011)
The Fighter rm- Why is it that a good fight movie in the end will push your emotional buttons and bring a tear to your eye when it comes to the conclusion? Think Rocky. However, this movie isn’t really about boxing although there is lots of boxing in it. It is about family, loyalty. dreams and aspirations, self determination but not forgetting where you came from. It is based on a real people and a true story. It is the story of the boxer Mickey Ward(Mark Wahlberg) and his relationship with his older ½ brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a former boxer who once fought Sugar Ray Robinson but became involved with drugs and spent time in prison. Dicky comes back after much family interaction and soul searching and he trains his brother for the ultimate championship fight . Writers Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy along with Director David Russell provide a story with great character development where you understand them as well as seeing them grow and change. The acting is fantastic. Mark Wahlberg does a very good job getting into shape and carrying off the role of boxer and the sensitive brother here. But the major acting kudos have to go to Christian Bale who brought the older brother and his fantasies for himself and his kid brother to life. No matter how he came to this portrayal it would be a worthy tour de force but at the very end of the film there is a brief film clip of the real brothers interacting and you can see that Bale nailed all mannerisms of his character. If this film should get two acting awards, the second one would be for Melissa Leo who plays the brother’s Mom as an insensitive, selfish mother who had been managing her son’s boxing career as it was going downhill. Maybe deep down she loves her kids perhaps the older one more but you won’t feel neutral about her. We have seen Leo in other great performances in Frozen River and Conviction. The latter film along with Kings Speech, 127 Hours , The Social Network, including this one are in our opinion among the best of the films of 2010 and are all based on true stories. Truth may be better than fiction but you have to be able to tell a good story and this one certainly did.(2010)
Jews and Baseball rm- An American Love Story- You don’t have to be Jewish or a baseball fan to get something out of this well done documentary. However, the more you fit into these categories, the more you will want to be sure that you catch up with this film. Every Jewish kid should get a DVD of this film for his or her 13th birthday. It is written by Ira Berkow, Pulitzer Prize winniing author and directed by Peter Miller. There are interviews with baseball greats and people who knew them. There are also personal comments by people such as Larry King, Ron Howard and Dustin Hoffman The emergence of Jewish baseball stars, mirrors the story of the Jewish immigrants being able to partake in the American dream. The difficulties that these baseball heroes encountered spotlight the anti-Semitism that festered in the United States. The film also makes a point of showing that the problems that these Jews had in taking their rightful place on the baseball diamond were not very different than the next group had in challenging the discrimination barrier in this game. This latter point was illustrated in an incident that happened at the tail end of Jewish icon Hank Greenberg’s baseball career during the rookie year of Jackie Robinson. Robinson was trying to beat a base hit when he collided with Greenberg who was playing first base. As the two highly competitive players brushed themselves off, Greenberg gently offered Robinson good luck in dealing with the resistances, which he knew Robinson, would experience as the first black baseball player. The film tells the stories with interviews of the pioneer Jewish ball players in the major leagues. One such player is the legendary Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodger Sandy Koufax, who will be known forever for pitching four no hitters and also skipping a crucial World Series game in order to attend Jewish high Holiday services. This movie also profiled a budding Jewish baseball player whose name we sadly don’t recall because he only had one major leagues at bat during which time on the first pitch he was hit in the head and suffered a severe concussion. After months of recovery he is still struggling in the minor leagues hoping to come back to major-league baseball with the hope of living his dream. This movie is about the baseball dream that many Jewish kids have had and a select few have realized but it is a dream that every kid understands.
127 Hours- rm- You go to this movie knowing that it is the story of the guy who was hiking and mountain climbing by himself and his arm got pinned by a boulder and he couldn’t get out so he cut his arm off. This subject matter will eliminate a number of potential movie viewers and is probably why our Friday night movie theatre was only 1/3 filled. On the other hand (if you will pardon the pun) it is co-written by Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle who directed the movie and who also who won an Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire as well as making Transformers. Boyle’s pacing keeps the movie moving although it is mostly focused on James Franco who does a terrific job portraying the real life Aron Ralston. There are flashbacks which appear to be to his childhood and parents which if you have read about him know that some of these are premonitions of his ultimate marriage and having a son. His fantasies and his wishful thinking while he is caught in this dilemma are very realistic and it is very easy to feel you are inside his head. The clips of the real life Ralston at the end of the movie with his wife and child, swimming and mountain climbing with one arm will push that emotional button for most people. If you are one of those people who knows that this is a movie that will have special appeal and meaning to you, you will not be disappointed. (2010)
* * *
The Blind Side – nf- A few months after the Academy Awards we decided to see this movie since it was nominated as one of the 10 best pictures of year and of course Sandra Bullock was named Best Actress. While it was a good performance by Bullock who had a fine southern accent for her character, we decided that she probably was given the Oscar for “her body of work”. The movie was a predictable “feel good” story that in our opinion was not in the same league as the other nominees for best picture. It is based on a true story of Michael Oher, an oversized black teenager from the wrong side of the tracks ( Quinton Aaron), who gets “adopted” by a rich Memphis couple ( Sandra Bullock and country music star Tim McGraw) with two kids of their own. The school football coach drools over his potential as a offensive lineman but it is not until his new Mother knowing that he has tested to have high aptitude in the “protectiveness” scale encourages him to “protect” the quarterback or the running back as he would protect his own new found family does he show his stuff. He now is able to use his size and power and become a great football player who is recruited by many colleges including his new parent’ s alma mater “Ole Miss”. In order to play football and stay in the game he had to be tutored by a teacher who also went to Ole Miss played by Kathy Bates. There are a few mild twists and subplots in the story line but no big surprises. You come away from the movie with a warm feeling, especially as you look at the closing credits interspersed with photos of the real Michael Oher and the family that adopted him, as well as confirmation that he eventually made the NFL. (2009)