July 28, 2014

battered Greetings again from the darkness. What an excellent documentary on yet another in the seemingly endless string of baseball stories that are both fascinating and true. Don’t make the error of assuming one must be a baseball fan to enjoy this … it works just as well as a story of the little guy sticking it to the man (the man in this case is the court-protected giant known as Professional Baseball).

An original production of Netflix, it’s directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, brothers and grandsons of Bing Russell. You may or may not be familiar with Bing. He is the father of actor Kurt Russell, a well known character actor (a recurring role as Deputy Clem in “Bonanza“), and the driving force behind the Portland Mavericks. The Mavericks were an Independent Professional Baseball team from 1973 to 1977, and this is their story.

As a kid, Bing hung around St Petersberg, where the New York Yankees held spring training. He ended up friends with Lefty Gomez, and hung around many Yankee greats. Bing had a true passion for baseball. He loved the game, the players, and the way of life. He even used to test young Kurt on the intricacies of the game, and later created some very in-depth teaching videos.

Bing’s real impact on the great game came from his stint as creative force and owner of the Mavericks. The film does a terrific job with interviews, archival footage and other recollections of Bing and the rag-tag group of players that disrupted the industry that does not like to be messed with.

Not only was the team successful on the field, but they also set attendance records and inspired true fan loyalty. They were the last independent league allowed to play in the minor leagues, and their legacy continued even after the team was shut down: two of the pitchers invented Big League Chew, one pitcher was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the team hired the first female GM in professional ball, and they even had a left-handed catcher. Their bat boy (Todd Field) went on to become an actor and Oscar nominated director and writer (In The Bedroom). “Ball Four” author Jim Bouton made his comeback with the Mavericks, which led to his making it back to the big leagues, and even Kurt Russell spent some time playing during the Mavericks’ first year.

It’s a shame this film didn’t make the festival rounds, as it would no doubt have been well received. I expect every baseball lover will get a kick out of this, and I certainly hope others give it chance. Bing Russell’s vision and passion are to be admired and respected, regardless of the industry. He was a “can do” guy who followed his bliss and made a difference.  The film is also a reminder that sports were once played for love of the game, rather than love of the dollar.

watch the trailer:


LUCY (2014)

July 28, 2014
lucy Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Luc Besson has a track record of mixing stylistic visuals with more traditional action: La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element. This time he tries to mix those components with fantasy, sci-fi and neuroscience. His hope was that Scarlett Johannson in a snug t-shirt and Morgan Freeman as an on screen narrator (guiding us through the maze of info) would sufficiently distract viewers from the international drug-muling mess.  Scarlett’s new found expertise as action hero (thanks to The Avengers) has her cast here in a role that previously would have gone to Anjelina Jolie.
We have all fantasized about expanded brain power, and many films have touched on this: Transcendence (Johnny Depp), The Matrix franchise, and Limitless (Bradley Cooper) to name a few. Omnipotence may not be everyone’s goal, but it sure seems to be difficult to pull off in in movies. This time around, there is a Korean drug syndicate led by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) who has synthesized a drug that takes the human brain to a new level. To buy into this, you have to accept the premise that humans only use 10% of their brain … a claim long ago disproved.  Still, it’s a movie, so let’s roll with it.
There are some nice moments in the film, but the pieces just don’t fit smoothly together. Circumstances are such that Scarlett finds herself experiencing the effects of the drug – first by dancing on the ceiling ala Lionel Ritchie or Linda Blair (your choice), and then with the most awkward phone call to mom in film history. Soon enough her telekinetic powers are so advanced, she mows down the heavily armed bad guys with a flick of the finger. If that makes no sense to you, you’ll have to follow along with Professor Morgan Freeman’s charts and graphs. His lecture spells out each of the steps that Scarlett will go through and the interconnected scene cuts makes sure all movie goers can keep up … even those who don’t use 10% of their brain.
My biggest complaint is that if a movie about extraordinary intelligence is to be made, then the movie itself should at least be  smart … or witty. What the movie tells us is that expanded brain access allows us to medically diagnose our friends through a hug,  instantly change hair color while strolling through the airport, and create invisible force fields to trap our enemies. We also learn that really smart people drive the wrong way on one-way streets. In Dallas, we typically refer to those people as idiots … or at least horrible drivers. Evidently the joke is on us – those are the enlightened ones!
This movie should have been a lot more fun than it was. A tip of the cap to Mr. Besson for casting Choi Min-sik and Amr Waked (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), and for the global trek from Taipei to Berlin to Paris to NYC … and finally two things rarely seen in the same movie … a dinosaur and a flash drive. It was kinda nice to see the script attempt to make the point that smart people use their minds, while lesser beings resort to violence … though it could have been interesting to see good vs bad while ON this fancy new drug. Although Scarlett’s character remembers the taste of her mother’s milk, I expect the memory of this film will fade quickly.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a couple of impressive Scarlett action sequences and some Besson visuals are enough to carry you for 90 minutes
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have difficulty buying Scarlett’s vacuous facial expression as an indication of extraordinary brain power
watch the trailer:


July 26, 2014

a most wanted man Greetings again from the darkness. If you aren’t an avid reader of John le Carre’ spy novels, perhaps you’ve seen movie versions such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener, or The Russia House. If not, how about director Anton Corbijn’s previous film The Amercian (2010 with George Clooney)? The more you’ve read and seen these, the more you are prepared for this latest.

Mr. le Carre’ was actually part of MI5 and MI6 (British Intelligence) and uses his experiencefrom so many years ago to provide the type of post 9/11 anti-terrorism spy thriller that doesn’t focus on explosions and gun play, but rather the subtleties of communication when very smart people go up against other very smart people who may or may not share their goals. Secrets and misdirection abound. Traps are set, and sly maneuverings are pre-planned.

As if all that weren’t enough, how about yet another mesmerizing performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman? He is a master at the top of his craft here. Sure, maybe the German accent is a bit distracting at first, but it was necessary because movie audiences needed a constant reminder that he is not playing an American! I cannot explain how this chain-smoking, mumbling schlub can so dominate a scene and disappear into a character, but Hoffman most certainly does both.

In addition to a very cool script, excellent support work comes from Grigor Dobrygin as Issa, the central figure in Hoffman’s character’s work, Willem Dafoe as a somewhat shady banker, as well as Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi, and Rainer Bock. The only miscast is Rachel McAdams as rich girl turned terrorist sympathizer.

Parts of the score were excellent – the droning, ominous piano notes set the right mood. The composer was Herbert Gronemeyer, a German rock star (you’d never know from the score). This is a delicious, challenging look at international spies and how one never knows where they fall on the food chain … minnow, barracuda, shark.

**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman was such an impressive talent, and after this, there are only a couple of projects remaining where you can see his final work: God’s Project (from Sundance Film Festival) and the last of “The Hunger Games” series.  At some point, I will do a retrospective of his career, but not until his final works have been released.

watch the trailer:


LIFE ITSELF (2014, doc)

July 26, 2014

life itself Greetings again from the darkness. Director Steve James is well known for his heralded documentary Hoop Dreams, released 20 years ago. Film Critic Roger Ebert was one of that film’s earliest and loudest champions. Now, Mr. James returns the favor with a tribute to the life of Roger Ebert, based on the memoir of the same name.

James struggles a bit with the film’s structure because there is so much story to Ebert’s life, and the director’s access to the challenges faced by Ebert during his last months of life make for a story unto itself. No punches are pulled, and this is one of the most head-on presentations of illness and dying that we have ever witnessed on screen. Ebert’s cancer took his jaw and his recognizable voice, but this man would not be silenced. He passionately embraced social media and blogging to become even more relevant than ever before.

It’s fun to see the love-hate relationship between Ebert and his TV co-host Gene Siskel. This was the best kind of rivalry – one that brought at the best in both. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to them via PBS in 1975, their first year broadcasting together. I’ve said it before, but these two guys taught me how to watch a movie … how to appreciate what story was being told, and how it was being told. Their brief verbal jousts showed me that opinions can vary widely on movies and that it’s not just OK, but actually fun to debate the merits.

As much fun as their show was, what I really enjoyed was reading their full reviews in the Chicago newspapers. My trips to the library were often for the sole purpose of digging out the latest reviews (this was prior to internet). Whle I more often agreed with Siskel, it was Ebert stunning writing skills that really hit home with me. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned he won a Pulitzer at age 26, and had grown up as a journalist. His words could translate what his senses took in.

Because of all that, this documentary is very personal to me … as I’m sure it is to the entire community of film lovers that Siskel and/or Ebert inspired. The interviews with Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris (plus others) clearly display the impact of Ebert. But as personal as it is to these men as filmmakers and to me as a movie blogger, that’s nothing like the personal level we witness between Roger and Chaz, his wife. Roger’s health issues and numerous operations and rehabilitation stints show the courage and love of these two. This was heart-warming and gut-wrenching all at the same time … the kind of movie that Roger would have given a big thumbs up.

Here is what I posted the day after Roger Ebert died:

watch the trailer:




July 26, 2014

and so it goes Greetings again from the darkness. It’s very painful to witness the aftermath of an artist who has surrendered all creative efforts. Rob Reiner seems to be the director’s version of actor Nicolas Cage … just keep churning out projects that require no effort, yet provide a paycheck. Pride be damned!

This movie is clearly aimed at the over 55 group, and falls into the genre I fondly call “gray cinema”. Although a more fitting description of this movie’s specific genre would be “insipid cinema”. It’s one of those movies that assumes anyone watching it has no interest in thinking, and only goes to the theatre for air conditioning and popcorn.  It’s not condescending, as that would imply it thought itself to be sharper/wittier than the audience.  Instead, it treats the audience as if we have reverted to the level of adolescence for comedy, romance and dialogue.

Michael Douglas stars as Oren Little, a selfish, racist, bitter, lonely Realtor faced with the insurmountable life decision of leaving Connecticut for his lake house in Vermont. The only thing left is selling off his $8 million family house … that is, until his estranged, former drug-addicted son shows up on his way to jail and drops off Oren’s 10 year old granddaughter (Sterling Jerins). Fortunately for the little girl, Oren’s neighbor is the kindly Leah (Diane Keaton) who embraces the girl despite Oren’s aloofness.

Enough about the story … though it is written by Mark Andrus who also wrote the decent As Good As it Gets. If you were to subject yourself to this movie, you would see: Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton alternating between scripted, lifeless flirtations and scripted, lifeless bickering; a pathetic attempt at slapstick by having Oren deliver another neighbor’s baby on his sofa; the running gag of Ms. Keaton’s character breaking into tears while singing during her nightclub act; and a paintball gun used to ward off a dog doing business on the manicured lawn. If you don’t overdose on lameness with those scenes, you should be warned that somehow a little boy’s penis is the subject for multiple one-liners. Somehow this even overrides Oren’s racism for levels of inappropriateness (without the laughs).

Mr. Reiner has directed 3 classic films: This is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally. He also has some other entertaining films to his name including A Few Good Men and Misery. All of that just makes his last decade the more disappointing ( a very kind word for it). I will never be convinced that “gray cinema” cannot be entertaining and thought-provoking. Douglas and Keaton shouldn’t have to limit themselves to supporting roles only in order to part of a quality film. However, if this is all they get offered, I recommend working personally with writers to develop projects that don’t embarrass themselves or the audience.

Other than the obvious questions about how this script received the “go-ahead”, two questions have stuck with me since seeing this one:  Why did Frankie Valli appear in this and not Jersey Boys?  Why doesn’t Frances Sternhagen work more?

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you clearly understand that there are no refunds for movie ticket purchases

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are not at the age where dog pooping jokes crack you up.

* The trailer is not being posted here just in case it might trick you into going to the movie.  If you still go, I absolve myself of any blame.


CODE BLACK (doc, 2014)

July 23, 2014

code black Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker/Doctor (an unusual combo) Ryan McGarry takes us behind the Emergency Room curtain at LA County General … one of the busiest ER departments in the country, with a waiting room filled with low income, uninsured people desperate for medical attention. So desperate that they will wait up to 18 hours to see a doctor.

We see live action sequences from C-Booth (Critical Booth) in the “old” Emergency Room prior to the opening of the shiny new facility next door. The footage is startling and quickly explains why so few doctors are cut out for this particular work. The workspace is limited and the most serious trauma cases are wheeled in with medical staff whirling around at full speed and full adrenaline. Life and death medical decisions must be made at a frantic pace, and each person must perform their role precisely during this operating ballet.

This initial C-Booth footage is not for the squeamish but sets the stage for the abrupt changes brought on by the new facility. Bureacracy and compliance put an immediate kibosh on the doctor/patient relationship. We know this because the doctors tell us. They now must spend the bulk of their time completing paperwork rather than seeing patients.

We hear directly from a group of interns and we admire their passion for medicine and healing. Still, the apparent bashing of a business-first approach and compliance-heavy process highlight the real world inexperience of these young docs. Unfortunately, very few of the veteran doctors have much to say on camera and instead, director/doctor McGarry guides us through his words and eyes in hopes of creating empathy for his “I just want to help people” devotion.

The C-Booth footage is fascinating and reminds us that “M*A*S*H” was purely entertainment and “Grey’s Anatomy” probably doesn’t even deserve to be called a medical drama. Where the film falters is in not contrasting the LA County General process with that of the suburban facilities that deal almost exclusively with the insured populace. That seems to be a much more interesting comparison than old school crash cart trauma with no tracking to the new world of hospital compliance.

JAMES GARNER remembered (link to comments)

July 20, 2014

A glitch this morning prevented the “JAMES GARNER remembered” post from being emailed to subscribers.  Here is the link to the comments I posted:

**If you received the first posting, I apologize for the duplication


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