A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 401 – Bull Durham

Bull Durham – April 5th, 2011

I remember first seeing this movie with Andy some years back and liking it fine, but not being bowled over by it. And I wasn’t sure why at the time. I mean, it had a cast I liked and sure, I don’t like baseball but it, like last night’s movie and The Natural aren’t so much baseball movies as stories using baseball as a vehicle and a theme. So what about it just didn’t sit well with me? And I’ve figured it out. This movie is a romantic comedy. And oh boy am I picky when it comes to romantic comedies.

Now, this movie is not nearly as problematic as crap like What Women Want and that piece of shit called You’ve Got Mail (I really really really hate that movie). And I enjoy it! I enjoy it quite a bit. But there’s something in there that rubs me wrong and it’s a well worn romantic comedy trope. A strong female character is presented and she knows all sorts of things about her area of expertise (baseball, in this case). But through the course of the movie she finds that she doesn’t truly know what she wants in life and love and must be shown what she’s been blind to by a man she first rejects. What softens it here is that Annie doesn’t reject Crash. She’s interested in him, for certain. He just doesn’t want to play around. He wants something either more frivolous or more serious. Compatible in many ways except the way Annie works during baseball season. So I’m a lot more willing to let him have his rom-com smugness than I usually am.

Okay, the line “Why do you get to choose?” still makes me cranky. She gets to choose who she wants to sleep with because it’s her body, jackass – no one says you have to take her up on the offer but you don’t get to choose for her. And in everything else? Annie is awesome. This is the thing about romantic comedies. They often do have a fantastic female character. It’s just that the romance portion seems to need to include the female character learning about love from a man. Shame, that, because Annie seems to have everything else well in hand. She knows her own mind about everything else. She’s well-read, thoughtful and philosophical, but also rational. She knows how the season works. Annie Savoy spots a promising player in the minor league team the Durham Bulls. And if she hooks up with said player and coaches him through the season, he ends up having the season of his career. He gets a lifetime of baseball playing theory and advice and she gets a fun relationship for the duration of the season. And it all works out just fine for her and she’s happy. Until about twenty minutes into the movie. If that.

The movie introduces Crash Davis, a catcher who’s had a chance at the majors and ended up back in Durham, and Ebby “Nuke” LaLoush, a pitcher with a fantastic arm and not a lick of sense. Annie sees them as her best prospects and tells them as much. Crash passes on her offer and so she takes on Nuke for the season. And between Annie’s coaching off the field and Crash’s advice on the field, Nuke ends up having a killer season (when he listens). But of course Annie realizes she doesn’t really want Nuke. Sure, she’s willing to keep going, but it’s no longer enough for her. She wants Crash, and not just for the season. This creates a conflict, since she’s committed to Nuke. Crash wants her, she wants him and Nuke’s there like a big slab of beef wedged between them. As a plot set-up, it’s fun. As are the interactions between all three of them.

There are some fantastic scenes in this movie. I love Annie’s tutoring of Nuke and his dawning realization that hey, people know stuff and maybe he should pay attention. I love how he’s getting strange but useful advice from Annie on how to get his mind in the right place for the game and then practical down-to-earth useful advice from Crash on how to actually play. It’s a great balance and combination of personalities. And then Annie and Crash have some good chemistry. I might not like the smugness, but really, by the time the movie hits its peak they’re both miserable and grouchy because neither of them can have what they want and they’re too far into the season to change anything. It also helps that I like both of them. Crash is, overall, a nice guy. He plays good ball, he gets on well with the rest of the team. Annie’s a nice woman, perhaps a little over-focused on her sexual allure, but hey, she’s hot and she knows it and she uses what she’s got to help players she likes. And she has no shame in it. The movie attaches no guilt or anything of the sort to Annie’s relationships and history, which goes a long way towards making me like it.

Overall, it’s a fun comedic movie with a romance at the center but plenty of stuff surrounding it that make it an a-typical romantic comedy. I love Susan Sarandon as Annie and Tim Robbins really does play a good affable lump, doesn’t he? And much as I dislike the smugness, I think this role is a tossup with Ray Kinsella for Kevin Costner. Both excellent performances from him. It’s a good script, full of quick and clever lines. Sometimes Annie’s voiceover exposition is a little much, but I don’t mind it. It gets sentimental without getting maudlin and in the end I feel like all three main characters got to actually stay who they were to begin with, just in a far better configuration.

April 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Bull Durham

April 5, 2011

Bull Durham

Well we’ve reached the end of our short baseball movie marathon. We don’t own any more after these four. I suppose we could have bought Major League but do we really need a Charlie Sheen movie at this point? So with this we’re done with Baseball and can move on to something else.

I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it. I think it was probably the first movie I saw Tim Robbins in, and he’s always fun to watch. Of course it’s another Kevin Costner movie as well, and that’s fun too. But the real star of this movie is Susan Sarandon and she makes the movie great.

In the opening monologue Susan introduces her character, Annie Savoy, who is a new age mystic who worships at the church of baseball. She’s a fan of the minor league Durham Bulls and each season chooses a young man from the line up to spend the season with. This particular year she has narrowed the choices down to two: a wild young pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh and a wise-in-the-ways-of-baseball catcher named Crash Davis who has been brought in by the management to foster LaLoosh and vet him for the major leagues.

What this movie is is a romantic comedy that takes place in and around a baseball season. We follow the Bulls as they struggle through the year. They loose a lot, they win a few. Truth be told we, as an audience, don’t really care too much if they win or loose because that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about Annie and Crash, who are clearly meant for each other, and the forces keeping them apart. Primary among these forces is their own foolishness in not being able to admit to one another just how much they deserve to be together. Each of them, in their own way, ends up mentoring Ebby “Nuke” Laloosh. Annie through her new age mysticism and Crash through his pragmatic experiences after years of living and breathing baseball.

Annie is a strong, if eccentric, character. I like a woman who’s not afraid to take charge. The problem is that Crash feels he is too mature to play her games and she has her own rules she feels she needs to play by. So they spend the movie dancing around the issue and refusing to acknowledge just how clearly perfect they are for each other. Crash spends a lot of time indulging in a sort of self pity that he can’t have what he wants, and Annie is frustrated that she can’t really have what she wants either. And Nuke? He’s just glad to be there.

As I said before this is Susan Sarandon’s movie. We get brief moments inside Crash’s head and we get to see a lot of him and Annie interacting with the gifted but somewhat thick headed Nuke, but it is Annie’s narration that really sets the mood for the film and keeps it on track. It’s a wistful, slightly desperate mood. This is not a movie about innocent first love – it is a movie about experienced world-weary people who realize that, yes, they deserve some happiness.

I also have to complement writer/director Ron Shelton for his deft use of soundtrack to manage the emotion of the film as well. This movie has a sultry, eclectic, nostalgic and sometimes humorous soundtrack. It works well with the whole sense of who Annie is as a person with her candles and silk cords and mountains of brick-a-brack. Indeed the whole movie feels like an extension of her eccentric personality. Annie is an engaging and beautiful character wonderfully portrayed by a fascinating actress and it was a treat just to be able to spend a little time tonight in her strange but amusing world.

April 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 400 – Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams – April 4th, 2011

A few things before I really get to the movie: One, we are now on movie 400. That’s pretty amazing to me. 400 movies in 400 days. We’ve watched through conventions, holidays and hospital visits. We’ve seen new movies, old movies, movies we liked, movies we hated. And we have a little under 200 more to go. I look at our list now and what’s left feels so small in comparison with when we started. Two, I had no idea this movie was based on a book. I often read through the IMDB trivia while we watch, because I like having a head full of pointless facts, and quite a lot of it had to do with the adaptation. Tomorrow I think I’m going to track down a copy of the book and check it out, because while I enjoy the movie, tidbits about the book intrigue me.

Now, on to the movie itself. This is one of those movies that everyone’s seen. It’s become a bit of a cultural icon, with the “If you build it…” line being quoted and spoofed all over the place. As is common with such things, it’s sort of reached the point where it’s inevitable that for every person who loves it and maintains that it’s a well made and meaningful movie, there’s someone else who thinks it’s overrated and maudlin. I fall somewhere in between. Because while I can see some of the criticism, I can’t deny that the movie makes me tear up every time I watch it. It has an emotional impact I appreciate.

The thing is, baseball is a vehicle here. Much as it is in The Natural. There’s a story to be told and baseball is used to carry it. I guess I just find this particular story more interesting. It’s a story about redemption and choices and family and growing up and growing old. We meet our main character, Ray Kinsella, and get a quick review of his life. He grew up in New York, rooted for the team opposing his father’s favorite. Resented his father’s push towards baseball. Headed to California for college and immersed himself in the 60s counter culture. He ended up marrying and starting a family, buying a corn farm in Iowa. His father died before they could make amends. They argued about baseball and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Black Sox scandal and that sets the stage for the movie.

Ray hears a voice out in the corn one day. It tells him to build something and later he sees a baseball diamond out in his field. So he builds it. He sinks his family’s entire savings into it. And his wife is skeptical, but she helps him because he is utterly passionate about it. He has to build it. And after he does, “Shoeless” Joe shows up in the diamond. Young and in the prime of his career. Other players soon join him but he’s not done. Soon he’s tracking down an author named Terrence Mann, who heavily influenced his young adulthood. Then they go to find a man who played only a single game in the majors before retiring. Yes, it’s about baseball, but it’s a quest too. Complete with a road trip.

What I love about the movie is that it isn’t just about baseball. Yes, the sport is a keystone in the plot, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole literary theme going on, with Mann and his works being a major point in Ray’s character. And there’s a strong theme of family, with Ray and his wife working as a team, with Ray and his daughter talking baseball and watching the ghosts of old greats play on their field. Ray’s wife Annie’s brother Mark shows up to threaten the farm, which is going bankrupt thanks to the space the baseball field takes up. And the spectre of Ray’s father, John, hovers through the entire story. And my favorite character (aside from Mann, who is played wonderfully by the fantastic James Earl Jones) is one who barely plays at all.

My absolute favorite character arc in this movie is Archie “Moonlight” Graham, or Doc Graham. He played a single game and retired, going back to school to become a doctor. Ray and Terrence learn that he took care of the whole town he lived in, devoting his life to making sure kids had the care they needed and the town held together. In a bit of time travel, Ray meets the late doctor, who corrects him when Ray says it was a tragedy that he only played for five minutes. Graham tells him no, if he’d only been a doctor for five minutes, that would be the tragedy. Graham doesn’t go with Ray, but then his younger self shows up, plays, and makes the same exact choice. To give it up and be a doctor. And there is something there that touches me. If I was going to get truly sentimental, I would say that it not only makes this movie for me, but it informed me as a person. That sometimes, some people just have to go down the path of service, not the path of glory. That those decisions will always be impossible to make any other way when we’re faced with them. I love Graham’s character. I love Burt Lancaster as his older self and Frank Whaley as his younger self. It sets this movie aside for me.

There are plenty of good performances in this movie, notably Ray Liotta as Jackson and Kevin Costner as Ray. I really like Amy Madigan as Annie and I always enjoyed her funky attitude towards the whole situation, questioning and accepting at the same time. Because it’s all fantastic. They build this field and then a dead ball player shows up in the middle of it before walking off into their cornfield. They have the same dream featuring Fenway Park and an author they hadn’t talked about before a PTA meeting discussing banning his books (and I love this movie for being so vehemently anti-censorship, by the way). And that’s ridiculous! But she stands firm because she knows it’s important and she’s a strong woman in the face of pressure. I love that.

So it’s heavy-handed. It’s heavy-handed in interesting ways for a movie that’s ostensibly about sports. It’s got a lot of thought in it, and a lot of care. And it’s got an Action Research! scene. It’s a movie that takes the time to make you want to care about the main character as well as the people around him. You care about Terrence Mann through him before you meet him. You care about the ball players and Doc Graham and you care about Ray’s father. It’s a fantasy movie. It’s got ghosts and magical voices and time travel, so there’s all of that going for it for me too. And it comes together. It all plays out in a well-paced movie that never feels uneven to me. It feels balanced and really, it feels literary. Which I know now is likely because it’s based on a book and I think that speaks well to it as an adaptation. We’ll see how I feel after I actually read the book itself.

April 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Field of Dreams

April 4, 2011

Field of Dreams

Our third baseball movie is not really a baseball movie. Oh, sure it involves baseball and it has a couple baseball games in it, but it’s not really about baseball. It’s a supernatural drama about missed opportunities and reconciliation. It’s about impossible magic and dreams. It’s gorgeous and mythical and special.

Part of what makes this movie so magical is how aware the characters in it are of how impossible the events in their lives are. When Ray Kinsella starts to hear a voice in his corn field he doesn’t immediately go out and do everything it says. He spends some time agonising about the idea that he’s going insane. He knows that his actions appear crazy to the people around him. Luckily for him his wife is completely understanding of his new found quest and his daughter, with her childlike nature, is almost as much a part of what’s going on as her father is.

So Ray plows under his corn field and puts up a baseball diamond because he thinks it’s something he’s meant to do. And ghosts of baseball players past start coming to his magical diamond to play again. First there’s “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and soon he is joined by his team mates, all of whom were banned from baseball for throwing a world series game. It’s an opportunity for them to enjoy the game they used to love so much once more. Baseball here is every lost dream, every missed chance, every youthful decision that could have gone another way, and Ray is able to give these poor lost souls something they didn’t have in life: redemption.

Then Ray feels compelled to go to Boston to seek out a reclusive author named Terence Mann who has isolated himself and given up on the ideals of his youth. At first Terence will have none of it, but soon he finds himself also caught up in Ray’s madness and the two of them head out to Minnesota in search of a mysterious ball player who had a major league career that lasted all of one game. As they take this journey together things get progressively more strange and confusing. They arrive in Minnesota to find that “Moonlight” Graham has been dead for more than a decade and that he was better known as a philanthropist and doctor. Meanwhile the forces of pragmatism and level-headedness are closing in on Ray’s wife and threaten to take the baseball field away from him.

The writing in this movie is absolutely spellbinding. From Joe’s speech about losing baseball being like losing a limb – feeling it still there but knowing that it’s gone – to every fantastic flowery phrase uttered by Terence Mann this movie is packed with fantastic dialog. From the touching, funny and stirring voice over that introduces the film to its magical conclusion when the true purpose of the field of dreams is revealed this movie IS a dream. A delirious and beautiful dream.

The star caliber involved is almost blinding. Terence Mann is the role that James Earl Jones was born to play. The arc he portrays – from isolated and miserable to alive with delight at the implausibility of his own fate – is the stuff from which acting legends are born, and Jones delivers such power to the role that he almost manages to make the movie about him instead of Ray. Kevin Costner, meanwhile, does his usual trapped every-man character, and does it well. He manages to perfectly capture the buried hurt of Ray and his pain over the death of his estranged father so many years ago. Then there’s the immortal Burt Lancaster as the kindly doctor Archibald Graham. He gets one of those fantastic speeches this movie is full of when he describes his dream of batting, just once, in a major league game – something he never got to do in his life and has had to reconcile himself to never having.

Amanda is going to use her library powers to get a copy of the novel this movie was based on, and I’m dying to read it now myself. I want to know how much of the credit for the magic of this movie goes to novelist W. P. Kinsella and how much is the work of screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson. Either way this movie is a treasure and something to be watched over and over again for anybody who loves the ideas of dreams coming true. I just have to be sure I have enough tissues handy when I do.

April 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 399 – A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own – April 3rd, 2011

When I was in high school I hated gym class. If you played a sport after school you didn’t have to take gym, but I was a drama/tech geek and I suck at sports, so gym class it was. It was usually small and of course made up of the unathletic types, like myself. I’m sure we were hugely frustrating for the gym teachers, who were really very cool ladies. I only realize how cool they were now that I’m this far away from it. At the time I resented their insistence that I learn how to stretch properly. But I do recall one awesome time in high school gym when one of the two women who had to deal with us brought in a woman who’d actually played pro baseball.

This movie had come out maybe a year and a half before. Everyone knew it. It was one of the few movies my whole family had agreed to rent with no argument from either myself or my brother. So when we skipped our usual jog around the gym and stretching followed by a half-assed game of badminton so we could sit down and hear about the real story of the AAGPBL. Somewhere I have a signed baseball card from her and for the life of me I cannot find it tonight and cannot remember her name off the top of my head. I’ll kick myself later when I find it somewhere obvious.

My point is that while this movie has some heavy handed moments and relies on some historical inaccuracy in order to make the story more engrossing, I’ve got a minute personal connection to it. And even though I never wanted to play baseball or any other pro sport, I feel like it tells a story that’s important to me. Last night I was struck by how few women were in the movie, and how limited their roles were. That’s not at all an issue here. Showing a group of women from all walks of life, a variety of characters who happen to also be women? That’s part of the whole point of this movie. And I like that while it’s about the two/three main characters it’s also about the team and about the league itself.

The story follows two sisters, Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, who make it into the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The whole reason they have the opportunity at all is because it’s the middle of World War II and players from the major leagues were being drafted and going off to war. So some enterprising folks created a league for women, hoping to fill the bleachers with people who just wanted to see a live ball game. Dottie and Kit end up on the same team, the Rockford Peaches. And so the movie goes, showing us Dottie and Kit’s rivalry (Kit’s always felt like she plays second fiddle to Dottie, regardless of Dottie’s intentions) set against the development of the team and the league in general.

There’s a lot of baseball in this movie, which is as it should be. Sure, there’s plenty of scenes showing the ladies on the team during their down time, but there’s also a lot of playing on the field. There are montages of women throwing, batting, catching, fielding, running, etc. Women who know what they’re doing and are getting to do it on a bigger stage than ever before. It struck me while watching that while last night’s movie is certainly about baseball, this movie shows a whole lot more actual playing. Because it’s not just Dottie and Kit on the field. You meet all their teammates, from Mae and Doris, two outspoken New Yorkers, to the rest like Shirley and Marla and Helen and Evelyn and Ellen Sue. Shirley learns to read through the course of the film. Marla’s never left home before and ends up leaving the team when she gets married. Evelyn’s son accompanies the team when his father doesn’t want to take care of him while his mother’s on the road. There’s a beauty queen and a dance hall bouncer. Sure, it’s clear that the cross-section of personalities and backgrounds is intentional, but I appreciate seeing them all come together through etiquette lessons and illicit nights out dancing and the interminable bus rides between games.

And then there’s Jimmy Dugan, their coach and manager. A drunk who wasted the last few years of his own baseball career, Jimmy takes the job just for the money, figuring he won’t have to actually do anything. When it’s clear he won’t be any help, Dottie steps in to run the team, keeping them going until Jimmy realizes that he actually has a team of honest to goodness ball players out there. Ball players who can win. And of course the two butt heads (okay, Jimmy butts heads with everyone – that’s his role) but in the end they’ve earned each other’s respect. In this, the movie is as predictable as last night’s was. The movie sets up a couple of conflicts and then lets them play out precisely the way you expect them to, with the ups and downs and eventual reconciliations you knew were coming. It’s a comfortable movie in that way, bolstered by several excellent performances. I truly enjoy Geena Davis as Dottie and Tom Hanks as Jimmy, though it’s Lori Petty as Kit who steals my heart. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are great in the supporting roles of Mae and Doris and I love seeing David Strathairn as the mind behind the league, Ira. There are some great fun moments and some great sentimental moments and the pace is kept up by the pace of the games we’re shown, so I can excuse the predictability here.

What does get me about this movie, unfortunately, is the attempt to make it cover everything. It’s got the conflict between Kit and Dottie. It’s got the conflict between Jimmy and Dottie. It’s got the beginning of the league and its possible end. It’s got the backdrop of the war and the possibility that some of the players’ husbands won’t be coming home. It has a set of bookend scenes set in the present day with a reunion of the players as older women. It’s got all the ball playing. It covers sexism and women as objects and it even tries to touch on segregation. And I understand why it has all of that. I get the intention behind every single one of those things. Unfortunately, it’s a two hour movie. So all of those things get mixed in together and some of them just don’t get the time they deserve and that’s a pity.

Still, I do enjoy this movie. There’s something about it that hits me even though I am as unathletic as they come. It’s a fun movie that shows women getting to use skills they’d been told they shouldn’t even have, let alone expect to show off. It’s got some immensely memorable lines and performances and I admit, I can’t hate on the overly sentimental ending because it makes me tear up every time. Maybe I’m biased. Or maybe it just manages to pull together and be a fun movie about baseball and history and women in just the right way to make me smile.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A League of Their Own

March 3, 2011

A League of Their Own

The second day of our baseball quadruple play is a fantastic contrast to the first. Where The Natural is an mythic tale of epic larger-than-life forces clashing through the game of baseball this movie is an intimate and light hearted film set during a historic time for the sport. This fictionalized re-telling of the creation of the girl’s baseball league could have been heavy handed. It could have been a movie about prejudice and breaking barriers. The characters in the film do have to deal with these issues, but they’re not really what the movie is about, I think, and that makes it a lot easier to watch than it could have been.

The story starts here during World War II when the players in major league all go overseas to fight int he war. Back home the owners decide to put together an all female league to provide baseball while their players are away. This movie follows a few of the members of one of the teams, the Rockford Peaches. Primarily it is the story of two sisters from Oregon, the tall, gorgeous and mature Dottie and her passionate younger sister Kit. Dottie is a born baseball player with unbelievable natural talent but it is her sister Kit who has a true passion for the game. The two of them find themselves recruited to the new all female league where they meet the colorful cast of team-mates with whom they will be playing. There’s the loudmouthed Doris, the sexpot Mae, the less than feminine but strong hitter Marla, and others. The man hired to coach the team is a drunken has-been named Jimmy Dugan, but he can’t be bothered to crawl out of the bottle so the level headed Dottie ends up coaching as well as catching.

The central conflict of the movie is between the two sisters. Kit resents Dottie’s effortless skill and it causes friction between them. Meanwhile the very existence of their league is in peril because the major league owners don’t see the need for these girl players once the boys come home from war. Pretty much the whole rest of the movie is a series of little anecdotes that tell the story of the Peaches, and by extension of the tenuous start of all female major league baseball.

The fun thing about this movie is that it is almost all played for laughs. Penny Marshall has packed the cast with fantastic comedians and there are a lot of moments here that still make me laugh out loud after multiple viewings. In particular Rosie O’Donnell as Doris and Jon Lovitz as the scout Ernie are hilarious. You get the impression that they were given leeway to improvise a lot of their performances, and they bring the movie to life. All of the cast does. Marshall uses a lot of looped and extra dialog to pack extra jokes and punchlines into every scene.

I’m a huge fan of Geena Davis, and this is probably one of her best roles. Dottie is such an effortlessly competent character, so wonderfully in command that it’s simply fun to see her at work. Lori Petty as Kit is all crazy energy, a perfect portrayal of the young woman who is always in her sister’s shadow. David Strathairn portrays what appears to be the only man who believes in the female league, and does so with heart and panache. Of course Tom Hanks is brilliant. This is a less favorable role at first than most he has taken, and it’s interesting to see him play somebody who has so clearly given up on himself. Oh, and yeah, there’s Madona spoofing her own public persona as Mae. Every single role is a home run.

Then there are the bookends to the film which show an aged Dottie in the nineties going to the baseball hall of fame exhibit that features all these girls from the league fifty years later. They lend a bittersweet air of nostalgia to the whole thing. It’s not really specifically about women’s baseball at this point, it’s more a look at how for all of us life moves on. It could be any fiftieth reunion and it would have the same feel – wonder at seeing people you hardly recognise any more and sadness knowing that there are those who you’ll never see again.

This movie does a wonderful job of combining comedy with drama. It takes a deft touch to tell a simple human story about people unexpectedly given a chance to do something they have a passion for but have been prevented from doing professionally and at the same time make it laugh out loud funny and deeply emotional. It looks deceptively simple when you see it on the screen, but this movie is a layered and clever gem that tugs on the heart strings in just the right way.

April 3, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Drumline

February 5, 2011

Drumline

Would you believe I bought this movie twice before I even saw it? Amanda wanted me to add this to our collection with several other movies intended to even out the distribution of our movies – which rather heavily favor the action and sci-fi genres. So I ordered it from Amazon, but when it arrived I was horrified to discover that I had inadvertently purchased the “fullscreen” version. Which naturally meant that I had to go and buy it again. Because I’ll be damned if I sully any movie by watching the bastardised version if I have any possible option. I’m glad that I did too, because this is a fun, well put together movie, and it would be a crime to mess with its composition.

At its heart this is a sports movie. It’s the story of an unbelievably talented individual who is a little too full of himself and needs to learn to care about his team before he can truly achieve victory. We’ve seen it before, most recently when we reviewed Stick It. It’s full of familiar archetypes like the wise and draconian seeming coach who puts the well being of his team ahead of the outcome of the competition. The domineering team owner who will make sacrifices for a win. The smarmy rival coach who cares more about winning than anything else. The stern older team mate who acts as a reluctant mentor and eventually overcomes a clash of wills with our hero so that they become fast friends. It feels like a blend of Bull Durham, The Natural, Stick It, Major League and a hundred other sports movies besides. As such it was familiar and comforting to watch. It doesn’t hold any big surprises but it’s fun to see the plot unfold and there really is a lot of great precision marching band footage to watch as well.

Nick Cannon stars as our hero Devon Miles. Miles is the most talented snare drum player in the history of time itself (it would seem) with the power to enliven a high-school band performance with just a little flare from his sticks. He’s got a full scholarship to go to college and join in the extremely competitive world of scholastic marching bands. At college he quickly proves that he is suave and smooth with the ladies, a master of the drums and able to memorise any cadence demonstrated for him in an instant, and so completely full of himself that he is destined for trouble. The band leader is Dr. Lee, a man who cares deeply about the music and is dismayed that modern razzmatazz has taken the place of precision and well played tunes. He’d rather his band were playing Earth Wind and Fire or Flight of the Bumblebee than Snoop Dog. As such he’s getting a reputation for being out of touch and unable to reach the youth of today – and he’s under extraordinary pressure from the school dean to restore the band to its former glory and win the upcoming marching band championships.

The motto of the band is “One band – one sound” which doesn’t work too well with Miles’ rebellious attitude. Naturally he buts heads with Sean Taylor, the head of the drums corps. Sean thinks that Devon is a bad influence, even if he IS talented. So will Devon learn to work with the team instead of grandstanding? Will Dr. Lee find a way to reach the kids of today with his classic music tastes? Will Devon win the affection of the cute cheerleader? Will their team be triumphant in the end? Of course!

Two things make this film a success in my mind. One is the great cast they brought together here. Nick Cannon as Devon is all charm, even when he’s at his most egotistical. He has an irascible grin that bodes all kinds of mischief, and a chip on his shoulder the size of all of Texas. As Dr. Lee Orlando Jones is the soul (and funk) of the movie. He does a great job showing us how much his character cares about the music and about these kids, and how desperate he is to reach them. Sean Taylor is portrayed by Leonard Roberts, who does a great job being both antagonist and protagonist as he tries first to break Devon down so that he can build him back up stronger than before. Rounding out the cast is the ever classy Zoe Saldana as Lalia – the cheerleader love interest. Her side plot is probably the least suspenseful part of the movie since Devon seems to charm her from their very first meeting, so you never get a sense that she’s some kind of out-of-his-league and unattainable ideal who eventually falls for him (which is more what I would expect to see.) The two of them have great chemistry though, and it’s fun to see Devon so effortlessly sweeping her off her feet in a sort of fantasy wish fulfilment way. Who wouldn’t want to have such a natural facility with intimidatingly attractive people?

The other highlight of this movie is the actual performances. I’m not an aficionado of marching band, but the way that director Charles Stone III films them makes them exciting, intense and fun to watch. He also doesn’t rely on the same techniques I’ve seen in such recent sports movies as Stick It and Bring It On where the routines are compressed into quick montages – the marching band routines in this film may be short, but they all feel like complete songs. It’s thrilling music with fancy footwork and complex choreography. There are quite a number of performances throughout the film, and they never get tired or old – which makes this movie just a lot of fun to watch.

Indeed even after watching the movie I wasn’t tired of marching bands. I had to look around Youtube and see what’s available to watch. It should be no surprise to anybody that my favorite of the ones I watched is video game related. Tonight for MST3K I will have to watch the short about Mr. B Natural – who wants to recruit people into high school band because he/she is a shill for Conn Ltd. (a manufacturer of band instruments apparently.)

February 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | 1 Comment

Movie 318 – Stick It

Stick It – January 12th, 2010

I might have mentioned some time back that I’m not big on athletics. I always hated phys ed in school and I’ve never enjoyed watching team sports on television (or live, for that matter). My one major exception is the Olympics. I still don’t watch the team stuff, like the hockey games or baseball or whatever. No. My events are figure skating in the winter, along with some of the jumping if I pass by it, and gymnastics and diving in the summer. I dabbled in both gymnastics and figure skating when I was younger, but was never really good enough or interested enough in either to warrant any sort of intensive training. But I still enjoy watching. So why hadn’t I seen this movie before today?

I’m utterly serious here. This is not a brilliant movie destined for awards and greatness. It’s a silly teen movie about gymnastics with lots of cute turns of phrase and teenage rebellion winning the day. But it’s along the same lines as other things I’ve liked and it’s about gymnastics, which I enjoy watching. So what was up with me that I missed this until now? It’s even got Jeff Bridges in it. Jeff Bridges! Who seems to be everywhere right now, but whatever. I didn’t even know he was in this movie until the opening credits. Astounding.

This was a purchase Andy made back when we started the project. Along with Center Stage and its ilk, it was one of those things we put in the collection in order to sort of even it out. After all, most of the movies sitting in stacks around our apartment are action movies or serious dramas. Things Andy bought because they’re his taste. Not working in a video store and therefore not being surrounded by movies all day, I wasn’t picking up DVD after DVD of things I enjoy or was curious about, so the collection was decidedly weighed in his favor. So we decided to pick some things I was likely to enjoy more or already enjoyed. And well, Bring It On ended up being something Andy really liked, so that’s cool. I think he was pleasantly surprised by this one too, which is nice, because so was I.

Oh, it’s just as silly as I thought it would be, but it was fun too. Main character Haley Graham gets in trouble for vandalising an unfinished house and through some bizarre court settlement ends up getting sent to train at a gym for elite gymnasts, which she used to be until she dropped out in the middle of a major competition. How does that even work? Are deals like that made in real life? Juvie or hardcore gymnastics? Seriously? Whatever. Handwave that and you’re on your way to lots of snarking between Haley and her new gym-mates as Haley pretends she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks, butts heads with her new coach (Bridges as Burt Vickerman), and tries to get back in shape after years out of the sport. Of course she ends up training hard, wins herself a spot at a smaller meet, then wins herself a spot at a bigger meet and along the way learns an important lesson about herself and team spirit.

See, this was written and directed by the same woman who wrote Bring It On, so there’s a similar feel to it all, but it’s not an exact replica. For one, it doesn’t have the same sort of competitive vibe going. By the end of the movie it’s not so much one team against another as it’s the athletes against the judges. After a rather weak revelation about why Haley walked out of the big competition years back (seriously, the movie spends like, five minutes on something that’s a major plot point otherwise) she makes friends with her teammates and really seems to want them to do well. But a loose bra strap costs one of them major points despite a flawless performance and thus the rebellion. Haley somehow gets every gymnast at the meet to default, sometimes showing their own bra straps in protest, except for one chosen athlete the whole group thinks should win. And so it goes for the climax. And it’s all very feel-good and thoroughly unbelievable because while yes, the judging and point values and so on and so forth are indeed the subject of much debate and irritation amongst athletes, getting every single gymnast at a major meet, the outcome of which has a possibility of determining spots on a world championship team, which will determine spots on the Olympic team, to agree to default? Yeah, never going to happen. In Bring It On the right team wins after a full on competition. Here, it’s not about winning, but come on. This is a sport in which the aforementioned Kerri Strug did a vault on a sprained ankle to make sure her team took gold. She went to her knees as soon as she was sure she’d locked the landing. She couldn’t stand on the podium and had to be carried by Bela Karolyi. Maybe one or two gymnasts at this level would throw a meet this big to make a point, but not everyone. It made me roll my eyes a little.

All that being said, it was still a lot of fun. I mean, it doesn’t have to be believable. It wasn’t believable from the outset with the whole thing where Haley’s father (look close and you might recognize him as Laszlo Hollyfeld from Real Genius) “finances” her “punishment” at the gym and the court is totally cool with that. And there is something fun about seeing these gymnasts band together to be all “bra straps? oh come on!” And there’s some fun gymnastics to watch too. The cast is peppered with real high level gymnasts, both as body doubles for the main cast and as the rest of the competing athletes at the meet and at Haley’s gym. And they’re good. They’re fantastic to watch. There’s a great bit during an in-house competition at Haley’s gym where each event is shown with all the girls overlapping as they perform, each one wearing a different colored leotard. It’s a neat effect and the floor routine in particular, done with a kaleidescope sort of view is pretty cool. I could have done without the narrative voice-over, even if it does have some cute lines, but Missy Peregrym did a good job as Haley overall. Jeff Bridges was a lot of fun to watch and like I said, the gymnastics were good. I’m glad Andy bought this, even if I’d never seen it, and even with it’s ridiculousness and plot holes (Haley walks out of another meet and yet still goes to nationals or whatever it was that meet was to qualify for?) I still liked it.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Stick It

January 12, 2011

Stick It

When we started our movie project Amanda was concerned that there were so many movies in our collection that I had purchased for myself without her input. She felt we needed more movies that were hers only and not so much mine. To this end she made some suggestions. I should buy some cheesy movies for girls – to which end we bought Bring it On and Drumline and Center Stage and Save the Last Dance. Then, in the way I have I went a little bit overboard. Once I started buying cheesy teen movies I couldn’t stop. Which is why we own Stomp the Yard. And why we own this movie.

We hadn’t seen this before watching it (or before I bought it for that matter) because I’m crazy that way. All I knew for sure was that much was made at the time this movie came out of the notion that the film makers chose to cast gymnasts instead of actors in some supporting roles. So I suppose I was expecting a lot of good tumbling. What I was NOT expecting was to see Jeff Bridges in the opening credits, lending the movie an air of legitimacy.

Of course this movie is still pure escapist fantasy, it just happens to have an Oscar winning actor in it. Our heroine is Haley Graham, a young woman who was born to be a gymnast but doesn’t want to be one. At the start of the film she’s horsing around with a couple friends of hers, doing stunts on her dirtbike, and does a bunch of property damage to a house under construction. The judge presiding over her case gives her a choice: go to military academy or go to a prestigious but insular school for professional gymnasts. She would rather go to military academy, but ends up in gymnast high anyhow. There she is under the tutelage of the self obsessed washed up coach Burt Vickerman.

The first two thirds or so of the movie revolve around Haley and Vickerman. He is played by the inimitable Bridges, who gives him the prefect blend of snobbish know-it-allness with a tender heart. Missy Peregrym portrays the rebellious but unbelievably talented Haley. Vic has to figure out why it was that this promising young gymnast walked out on her team during the world championships, and she has to figure out if she trusts him enough to let him train her. Sure there’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s well played, humorously written, and directed with a sort of fun hyper kinetic flare.

As I mentioned before many of the smaller roles in the movie were given to actual gymnasts. The movie is filled with constant gymnastic stunts, and it must have made it much easier to edit it together with fewer stunt doubles. It looks like the three lead gymnasts (heroine Haley, bitchy Joanne and comic relief Wei Wei Yong) all had stunt doubles for some of their more complex bits, but most of the other girls did all their own stunts and routines. Writer/director Jessica Bendinger treats gymnastics as an X-Treme sport, just saddled with a stodgy judging system that stifles creativity and individuality. She uses a lot of flashy techniques to keep the action from boring the audience. The performances are filled with quick edits, with stunts (and falls) seen from multiple angles, so that the gymnastic routines are compressed into quick “best of” bursts of unbelievable looking stunts. (At one point I found myself wondering if they were using a wire rig for some of the stunts, but I suspect not. These are people who have trained their entire lives to actually do for real some of the things we’ve seen simulated with wires and special effects in the movies we’ve watched over the last three days.) There’s one particular training montage that shows multiple routines superimposed over each other in a kaleidoscopic whorl of activity. It’s really quite mesmerising.

The last third or so of the movie is given over to the national championships. In the usual way for a sports themed movie. The twist here is that Haley’s rebellious character arc leads to a somewhat different and more fantastic ending than I had been expecting. I would say that it takes its cues from Strictly Ballroom more than from any sports movie I can think of. I suppose that since this is a movie about wish-fulfillment for young gymnasts it’s kind of nice that the fairy tale ending isn’t just about winning. (In that regard I found it similar to the ending to Bring it On.)

My one complaint about the movie would be that Bendinger is at times fairly blunt with her story telling. There are a number of segments in the movie where the plot, as well as the thought process of our heroine Haley, are presented as voice over monologue. It feels clumsy and out of place, and I think I would have rather seen the movie without those bits. I have to wonder if they were forced upon the movie by a studio executive who wanted things to be clearer for the audience or if they were part of the original script.

Still, this is a fun, pretty movie. It manages to drive home the serious sacrifices that a young gymnast must make in the name of her craft (both in terms of the physical toll on her body and the fact that she can have no life but gymnastics) and at the same time be a light-hearted fantasy film. It has montages of brutal painful training while at the same time having a scene where the gymnasts perform stunts in a local mall while wearing prom dresses. Fantasy, but also homage to the art of gymnastics. I liked that blend.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 205 – Shaolin Soccer

Shaolin Soccer – September 21st, 2010

We are endeavoring to watch more of our subtitled movies so we don’t end up with a backlog at the end, so last night we pulled what we thought was a subtitled movie. Alas! It was dubbed! So tonight we’re making up for that with an actually really real subtitled movie. I just wish it had been fully subtitled. Oh, the movie itself is fine, but then at the end they show some bloopers before the closing credits, and while it’s easy to tell what’s funny when Stephen Chow starts corpsing, some of the others really do require one to understand what’s being said. Oh well. Can’t have everything. Even if this movie does try valiantly to do just that.

This isn’t a movie that hides its intentions. It’s pretty obvious from the outset what’s going to have to happen. We start with star soccer player Golden Leg Fung being paid off by rival Hung to miss a crucial kick, ending Fung’s career and leading to Hung becoming the coach of Team Evil. Yes, you read that right. Team Evil. Having a Team Evil in the movie is like having a Victor Von Doom, only more obvious and no one’s handing any government secrets over to Team Evil. Just soccer championships. Team Evil is Chekhov’s Gun here. You can’t introduce a Team Evil without guaranteeing that the plucky misfit team that the rest of the movie spends building will eventually face them in a climactic soccer battle. It’s required, and the movie gladly delivers.

But first we need the plucky misfit team, and plucky misfits they most certainly are. The team starts with a chance meeting between Fung and a young man named Sing, also known as the Mighty Steel Leg. He’s a kung fu master who wants to bring the wonders of kung fu to the masses, but the masses don’t seem to give a shit. Which is a pity, cause the way the movie showcases kung fu, it’s totally fucking awesome. You can punch your car into a parking spot! Cut giant words into the walls of buildings while flying! Go faster than a speeding bullet and be more powerful than a locomotive! Okay, not those last two explicitly, but it’s implied through a series of exaggerated examples that yes, you would definitely be super duper if only you too knew kung fu. Fung’s all about getting a team together to challenge his old nemesis and Team Evil, and together he and Sing recruit Sing’s brothers – all kung fu masters with their own specialized moves – and some local hooligans and practice being awesome.

There’s Iron Head (first brother – also a janitor at a karaoke bar), Hooking Leg (second brother – a dishwasher), Iron Shirt (third brother – a harried business man), Lightning Hands (fourth brother – unemployed) and Light Weight (smallest brother – stockboy in a grocery store). One by one they show up to join the team and regain their lost faith in Shaolin kung fu. There’s hints at a backstory involving their father making them learn kung fu and their kung fu master dying, but it doesn’t matter much. Who cares about backstory when we have wirework and bullet time?

The movie is full of over the top special effects with the team doing things like kicking soccer balls so high they take an hour to come back down, flying fifty feet in the air to make a shot and goalies stopping balls that move so fast they create vortices. Iron Shirt can catch a ball with his stomach and hold it there, spinning, before launching it out again. Hooking Leg resembles a sort of super human breaker and now I want to see a soccer ball incorporated into a breaking routine on So You Think You Can Dance. Once the team is put together and they’re in the championship they face teams like Team Mustache, who all seem to be women with fake facial hair and some super sweet aerial moves. And of course Team Evil, who get their very own black smoke effect. It’s all really a showcase of wild moves and exaggerated facial expressions.

And then there’s Mui. She works at a sweet bun stand, using tai chi to make the best sweet buns ever. There is, of course, a love story between Mui and Sing and it’s silly and over the top just like the rest of the movie is. And I’d count it as a B plot except Mui ends up being super important. I don’t think it’s really spoiling things to say she saves the day because when you get down to the end of the movie and things look dire (of course they look dire – plucky misfits against Team Evil, remember?) there’s really only two choices for who’ll step in and help the team. And I’d rather it was Mui than Fung, cause Mui totally deserves a moment to shine and I can’t help but like that the team needed a slightly different way of moving in order to save them. Team Evil relies on brute force and the Shaolin team does too. Mui doesn’t, so she kicks ass.

There are a lot of bizarre non sequiturs and it’s not like any particular plot point is unexpected. It’s a ridiculous movie, from Iron Head’s constant smoking – even on the field – to the fact that there’s a Team Evil. It’s got a love story that should feel wedged in but doesn’t and there’s no backstory for the majority of the characters but it ends up not mattering. It’s all just so silly, but it’s also all just plain fun. I hesitate to use the word ‘wacky’, but it kind of fits here. In a good way. This is a movie that just wants to be amusing and cheerful and it succeeds admirably.

September 21, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment