Friday, June 27, 2014

Goon (2011)

Director: Michael Dowse

Quick, One-Timer Summary

Doug Glatt is a simple young man living in small town in Massachusetts. He's big. He's strong. He's a bouncer. He's not very bright, but he has a good heart. Doug is generally a pleasant fellow, though he does lament the fact that he doesn't seem to have a real purpose in life.

One night, at a local minor league hockey game, Doug's purpose presents itself. When an unruly player for the visiting team charges into the stands while screaming homophobic slurs, Doug, whose brother is gay, absolutely destroys the vulgarian with his bare hands. This earns him a walk-on tryout from the local team's coach. Though Doug can barely skate, he becomes just proficient enough to stay upright and become a first-class "hockey goon" - a player whose sole purpose is to fight in defense of the more skilled players on his team.

Though Doug's a complete teddy bear off the ice, woe be to
any player whom he sizes up for a Biblical beat-down.
Doug's prodigious fighting prowess soon earns him a promotion to a more legitimate farm team, where he's tasked with serving as enforcer for an immensely talented but selfish and skittish young French Canadian named Xavier Laflamme. Doug overcomes the doubts of his teammates and earns their respect as an earnest, supportive comrade.

In the final game of the season, Doug's team is in a must-win game against a rival that features the most respected and legendary goon in the minor league hockey ranks - Ross "The Boss" Rhea (Liev Schreiber), a narrow-eyed, chain-smoking, savvy, calm, and tough-as-pig-iron veteran who knocks people out in the manner that most humans discard a used tissue. Doug's stand-off with Rhea is a dream scenario for every hockey fan with bloodlust in his or her heart.

Did I Like It?

Right off the stick - no, Goon is not as good as Slap Shot. But man, it's not that far off.

This was the second time that I watched this movie, and I love it. Though it can be a little uneven in just how stupid Doug is portrayed, it does nearly everything that it sets out to do very well.

The greatness that is Slap Shot and Goon are due to their focal subject matter - the unnecessary and idiotic yet often entertaining violence ingrained at many levels of hockey. Let's face it: most of these guys are not Rhodes Scholars. They play hockey. Some of them fight a lot on the ice. Nearly all of them curse a ton. And very few of them are aware of just how funny they can be - often unintentionally. Where Slap Shot gave us the ultimate comedic panoramic of minor league hockey culture, Goon gives us an oddly endearing and hilarious character study.

Doug is a great character, and Seann William Scott was a perfect casting choice. Doug is the textbook case of a man whose heart is vastly larger than his brain. The fact that he's an absolute tank whose fists are, as his gloriously vulgar best buddy Pat puts it, "bigger than my uncle's f****n' prostate," gives the story a soulful element that even a hands-down classic like Slap Shot is missing. You pull for Doug in the same way you pull for Rocky Balboa. Sure, Doug's not fighting for the heavyweight title, but his battles are just as epic in their way.

Featuring one of the best build-ups ever in sports film,
we're treated to the final confrontation between veteran
and rookie warriors - Rhea versus Glatt.
So enough with the mushy stuff. How are the fights? They're bloody awesome. If you enjoyed the thrill of seeing Mickey "The One-Punch Machine Gun" O'Neil do his thing in the ring in Snatch, you'll love what Doug does to the obnoxious ruffians on opposing teams. I'm probably revealing a bit of my own bloodlust here, but I find the thrashings that Doug dishes out wonderfully entertaining. And the elder statesman of goonery - Ross "The Boss" Rhea - is played to perfection by Liev Schreiber. Rhea's self-awareness of his station in the hockey world is a nice counter-point to Doug's innocence.

But there's an interesting revelation about the fights: there is, among certain practitioners of goonery, a kind of code that nearly borders on chivalric rules of engagement. At the beginning of one hockey match in the film, before the puck even drops, an opposing player and fellow enforcer (played by former real-life NHL enforcer Geroges Laraque) calmly turns to Doug and asks, "You wanna go?" Doug replies, "Okay, yeah." The instigator gives an earnest, "Good luck, man." The two punch the hell out of each other for a while, get separated, and the opposing player nods his head and offers Doug a "Good fight, man." Doug responds with a simple, "Thank you." There is a certain old-world charm about the entire exercise in ritualized violence.

So here's where I overthink it and almost doubt myself. Could Goon be a satire, perhaps even unintentional, for United States militarism? Or could it be seen a misplaced but humorous apology to excuse bloody violence? Are we supposed to think that Doug's lone stand-out talent - pummeling people into pulp - has merit as long as his heart's in the right place? Maybe so. Maybe not. Either way, there is something a bit deeper to be explored when one considers what, if any, greater message is being conveyed.

Whatever the case, I can't help but return to one simple axiom when I watch a movie like Goon: It's more important to be kind than to be intelligent. Doug is admittedly far from intelligent, but he has more than enough heart to go around, and he just wants comrades who need him and whom he can defend. These themes make Goon a bit more than just a solid sports comedy, and worth your time if you've no strong objection to some fairly graphic hockey violence. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Top Secret! (1984)

Directors: Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker

Netflix Instant Watch? Yup.

Boy am I glad that my wife has just enough appreciation for goofy humor to sit through this one with me. I hadn't watched it in over 15 years, and she had never seen it.

90 minutes well-spent.

The Zucker brothers movies don't really require much explanation. If you've seen Airplane!, any of the Naked Gun series, or Kentucky Fried Movie, then you know what these guys are all about. You also know whether you like them or not. Top Secret! is no exception.

I think fewer people are familiar with this movie since it wasn't quite the hit that Airplane! or The Naked Gun were. I'm not completely sure why, though perhaps it was due to the musical numbers. For those who haven't seen it, Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, an Elvis-type rocker who goes to East Germany  to perform (this was in 1984, after all, so that was still fertile ground for storytelling). Sprinkled through the film are nearly a half dozen parodies of popular rock tunes from the 50s and 60s. They're chuckle-worthy since they do have some goofy lyrics and funny little sight-gags, like Rivers pantomiming morbidly realistic suicide scenarios while singing a cheesy love song. But mostly these song and dance numbers just drag a bit.

As with all of their movies, every element of the medium is
fair game for for a gag. Case in point - warping perspective
to have a dead-serious Nazi answer a ridiculously
massive telephone. Some of these visual jokes 

are easy to miss, but hilarious if you can catch them.
These aside, the movie's hilarious. Just as with all of their very best movies, the Zuckers and Abrahams made damn sure that the actors all played everything completely dead pan. This, of course, is the lifeblood of goofy comedy. Once it gets too kinetic or slapstick, the routines get very old very quickly. But when you have a stone-faced East German general stoically making dildo references, it's comedy gold.

In keeping with their strength of spoofing time-tested, formulaic genres, the Zuckers and Abrahams go after the classic popular spy movie. The great thing about these is that there is a clear love and eye for detail for the very genres that they're drawing so heavily from. It's only because we know how serious it's supposed to be when two spies are engaged in a clandestine meeting that it becomes hilarious when one of them gives the other an exploding cigar, acting just as serious through the entire ridiculous exercise. And just like any director of a good James Bond flick, the Zuckers and Abrahams always know what marks they're supposed to hit.

If you've never seen it and enjoy really goofy humor, or if you just haven't watched this one in a while, fire it up. It's a treat.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tyson (2008)

Director: James Toback

Many may disagree, but I think Mike Tyson is one of the most fascinating people of our generation. And this 2008 documentary presents him in ways that illustrate exactly why I find him so.

Between the ages of 12 and 15, I knew of Mike Tyson as nothing less than a force of nature. He was not only the heavyweight champion of the world (back when that title still held a good amount of heft), but he was known for annihilating opponents in the ring. World-class, enormous fighters who had trained for decades would get leveled by this smaller, unspeakable fast, powerful and ferocious kid in less time than it took the viewers to get through their first fight-time beer. The day that he lost his title to Buster Douglas in 1990 was as shocking to me as if someone had told me that the moon had exploded. Tyson's bizarre and tragic decline in the years after that loss have become the stuff of infamy.

At 22, Tyson became the youngest ever to win the
heavyweight title. This began a four-year span in which
he became one of the most dominant forces in sports in
the 20th century.
Tyson's life story has already carried more than one extremely interesting biopic, including the 2002 ESPN Outside the Lines series which focused on him. Of course, Tyson was still a semi-active boxer at the time, so his professional life was not yet finished. This more recent release offers the look back at a man who, at the time, had been three years fully retired from a the sport which he seemed to have been born to dominate.

This more recent documentary offers a more complete picture of a man who, though still only 47 years old, has been all of the following: Brutally poor, neglected and bullied child. Hardened street thug and thief. Repeat juvenile offender. The youngest undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Publicly (falsely?) accused wife beater. Drug addict. Expert boxing historian. Convicted (erroneously?) rapist. Muslim extremist. Philosopher. Bipolar disorder sufferer. Three-time husband. Father of six. Comedian. Broadway performer.

The story of a person who has been all of these things is interesting enough, but Tyson offers far more. The movie is told almost entirely in Tyson's own words, putting together various narratives, sound bites, and monologues given by the man himself as he recounts, reminisces, and reflects on his deeds and thoughts through his tumultuous rises and falls. And this is the real draw.

Those who mostly know of Tyson through the odd headline or occasional news bulletin about his more outrageous behavior are likely to have long ago labeled him "crazy." Or "an animal." Or things far worse. Such labeling is dismissive and ignorant, as Tyson clearly shows. Mike Tyson always has been, and still is, a strange and sometimes barely-coherent collection of a full range of human traits - rage, sorrow, joy, naivete, regret, profundity, profanity, lust, discipline, chaos, and more. When you listen to his words, often given in an almost-hypnotic stream-of-consciousness method, it is clear that there is intelligence and introspection, fractured and contradictory though it may sometimes be.

Tyson's infamous press conference meltdown in 2002. One
of many moments put in a different light in the film through
Tyson's narration.
One particular scene comes to mind. In 2002, Tyson was doing a press conference to promote his title fight against Lennox Lewis. During the Q and A, a reporter asked a question that greatly agitated Tyson, at which point Tyson went into a profanity-laced rage, nearly physically assaulting the reporter. When seen on its own merit, it seems very easy to come to two conclusion: (1) Tyson could have literally killed this man with his bare hands if his entourage hadn't held him back. (2) Tyson was a wild dog who would attack if he felt the slightest bit disrespected. However, the 2008 Tyson explains it differently. He calls himself "terrified" of people at that time. Once you hear him say this, some subtler details of the tirade become clear. His voice is cracking while he screams. He is actually on the verge of tears as he yells, "You wouldn't last two seconds in my world!!" From Tyson's own narrative of this event, it's clear that he is not talking about the realm of fighting, but the realm of his own mind. At that point in his life, his demons had been consuming him from the inside for nearly two decades. Hardly an enviable condition, especially when the person has moments of lucid introspection that offer the pain of awareness. Tyson offers this type of illumination several times.

It's hard to imagine another person even remotely like Mike Tyson coming around in my lifetime. This film may not be the exhaustive, definitive documentary about him when it's all said and done, but it offers the best first-hand account of the people and events that shaped him. Completely worth checking out for those interesting in boxing, sports, psychology, or just fascinating people.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Director: Ari Folman


This animated film tells the true story of a former Israeli soldier who seeks out past military comrades with whom he served during the notorious massacres in Beirut in the mid 1980s. He is attempting to recover memories that he has lost from that time period, having only fragmented, confused chunks of these moments lingering in his mind. As he speaks to different soldiers who were also present, his memories start to return, which may or may not be such a desirable thing.

What Did I Think?

A pretty amazing film, though one whose true power really shows itself in the final two or three minutes.

If you read the summary, then you know not to expect anything uplifting here, and I didn't. However, Waltz with Bashir is certainly not a 90-minute slog through graphic brutality of war. The stories are very personal, sometimes very poetic, first-hand accounts of Israeli soldiers who were part of missions to find and kill supposed terrorists in Lebanon in the 1980s. Yes, there are battle scenes and tense, life-or-death moments depicted, some of which are starkly disturbing. Still, the film routinely brings things back to a personal, human level, so that you don't lose sight of how the warfare affected individuals, both physically and psychologically.

The animation is wonderful. Using a blend of traditional hand drawn figures and digital techniques to obtain ultra-smooth movements, many of the scenes are hypnotic in their simple beauty. The bright colors convey a sense of the natural Mediterranean beauty of the area, which makes the pallid browns, blacks, and greys of the battle scenes that much uglier.

A great example of one of the running contradictions
through the film - the dazzling use of color illustrating
both the casual cool of the soldier in the foreground, with
a fighter jet dropping bombs in the background.
Of course, this raises the question: why should we animate something as serious as war? Does a drawn and painted rendition of such horrors somehow cheapen them? The answer to this may be a matter of taste, but I was of two minds about it. Yes, the animation has far less shock value than would actual video of soldiers being brutally gunned down and blown up. Yes, there is a certain stylizing that that may come off as an oddly artificial veneer pasted over something that should only be given in its rawest form.

But this is the genius of the film, or any graphic representation of very real horrors. It allows a relatively soft landing into realms where most of us have never been and hope to never find ourselves. Instead of being immediately repulsed by detailed, realistic, and graphically unadulterated images, the illustrations allow us to dwell on the ideas and ideologies behind the brutality.  It also allows the depiction of some of the dream-like descriptions given by the soldiers as they detail their own bizarre and sometimes surreal mental states.

And then, the movie lets you have it. During the final 15 minutes, several former Israeli soldiers recount an absolutely brutal revenge massacre exacted by Christian Lebanese soldiers against Muslim citizens of their own country in Beirut. For most of the retelling, the visuals are of the same animated variety that the entire film has been in. However, during the final three minutes, the images shockingly become live video taken on the scene in 1985. No longer do we have the buffer of illustrations to save us from the sight of mutilated men, women, and children lying among the rubble. It is then that we have basically experienced exactly what the protagonist (and director of the film) has been searching for - a final recollection of exactly what he has been blocking away from his mind for so many years.

Obviously, this is not a "fun" film to watch. But it is a necessary film to watch for those of us who have never seen war first-hand, in order to gain some understanding of the insanity of it and how it might impact someone's psyche. I highly recommend it, just as I recommend knowing what you're in for. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Director: Bryan Singer

If anyone wants the four-alarm, dork-out version of my take on the X-Films, I did a review of all the previous flicks a few weeks back. Here's the link.

Spoiler-Free (i.e. "short," by necessity) Summary

Some time in the decade of the 2020s, Earth has become an absolute hell. Seemingly-indestructible, highly intelligent robots known as "Sentinels" have hunted down an killed nearly all mutants, while humans have splintered into various factions fighting on one side or the other. Concentration camps have been created, and many of the planet's cities have been reduced to little more than charred rubble from all of the devastation.

A handful of the very few remaining mutants, including the iconic Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr, a.k.a. "Professor X" and "Magneto" devise a last-ditch plan to send their comrade Logan (Wolverine) back in time to prevent the complete annihilation that they are about to face. Having determined that the entire Sentinel war was set into motion by an assassination in 1973, Logan must have his consciousness sent backwards into his 1973 body to muster the younger Xavier, Lensherr, and other useful mutants in order to save their future. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that, once he arrives in 1973, his legendary companions are embroiled in all manner of problems to overcome.

What Did I Think?

Welcome back, Bryan Singer.

It's excellent. In fact, I'm ready to say that Days of Future Past is at least as good as the best two X-Films to date: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class.

Beast, Xavier, and Logan get big chunks of the screen time.
The focus on fewer characters is a welcome change from
the weaker entries into the X-Men movie canon.
This one could have been a mess, given its ambitious plot. Time travel stories can get ridiculously convoluted, and ensemble casts can dilute any sort of character development. Future Past avoids these problems, for the most part, by not losing its main focus. Though dozens of characters appear or are briefly alluded to, the bulk of the screen time is given to Xavier, Magneto, Logan, and Mystique. This was exactly what the vastly inferior X-Men: The Last Stand had failed to do - give us a small group of characters to anchor everything else.

Speaking of characters without giving anything away, one newcomer to the film series (but a mainstay of the comics) is given a nice amount of time in the middle of the tale, and he nearly steals the show. When the main players part ways with him, I was ready for a sequel immediately.

The basic story idea is one that we've seen in film before, most notably in The Terminator - someone must return to the past in order to make one key change that will prevent an apocalyptic future. This movie adds a tiny, intelligent wrinkle in that, instead of the time traveler physically making the journey through the 4th dimension, his consciousness is sent back to inhabit his own past body. This avoids the cliched time travel device of the young self facing off against the older self (though this can be handled well, like in the brilliant Looper). Not to mention that this actually side-steps one of the major, if hypothetical, paradoxes of time travel theory - that of two of the same object occupying the same dimensional planes. This is a detail that a sci-fi geek like myself appreciates.

At the heart of the story is what has always been the soul of the X-Men, ever since their creation by Stan Lee back in the 1960s - the question of how two groups of beings, one with vastly more power, deal with one another. Is the approach one of fear, cynicism and alienation? Or one of hope, optimism, and cooperation? It's these themes that elevate the X-Men mythology beyond mere mutants with cool powers, wearing flashy uniforms. This entry into the series makes sure that its action/adventure elements don't overwhelm the meatier topics at play.

Watching the mutants of the dark future desperately (and
often futilely) attempting to fend off the lethal Sentinels
is eye-popping stuff.
But hey, it's an X-Men movie. We want to see some cool powers and action scenes to go with the heavier subjects, right? Hell yeah! And we do, indeed, get plenty of action. In fact, Future Past may have some of the best action sequences in the entire series. Some of the opening sequences, which take place in the blasted future of the Sentinel war, feature some fast-paced fights that cleverly illustrate some pretty cool mutant powers. In the 1973 era, we've got some nifty one-on-one fights involving Beast, Wolverine, Mystique, and a handful of others. And again, that "new character" I alluded to earlier has arguably the most entertaining sequence that's ever been used in an X-Men film.

I wouldn't have thought that another blockbuster would come out this year that was the caliber of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Glad I was wrong. I'll be going to catch this one again, and I may even spring for the IMAX treatment. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

(This movie is the 513th out of the 1,149 complete list of 'Films to See Before You Die,' which I am working my way through)

Director: David Fincher

Rapid, Spoiler-Free Summary

In New Orleans in 1919, just as the First World War ends, a young boy named Benjamin is born with a puzzling malady. Though a newborn infant, he has the physical decrepitude of a person well into his eighties. Over the ensuing eight-plus decades, Benjamin not only survives, but ages in reverse.

While undergoing his lifelong age reversal, Benjamin has travels and experiences many of the joys and sorrows of human life. He eventually goes off to faraway lands, becomes involved in World War II, discovers pleasures of the flesh, and falls in love. Though few of these experiences is especially unique, Benjamin's odd condition results in a very singular perspective for both him and those who are closest to him.

What Did I Think?

It's not a bad movie, but I'm not altogether sure what the point of it was. And this isn't what you want viewers of your movie to feel when you offer them two hours and forty-five minutes of story.

The idea of a protagonist who ages in reverse is certainly interesting enough. The mere concept begins to raise certain questions about how such a fantastic person would function and interact with others, and how such a condition would affect the perceptions of the inflicted and those who come to know him for long periods of time. We do, indeed get this in the movie right away, as the grotesquely aged newborn Benjamin is immediately abandoned by his father. As Benjamin advances into and through his childhood years, living at a retirement home under the care of the matronly young African American caretaker, the only people who seem to offer him any understanding are the extremely aged with whom he lives.

The 20-something year old Benjamin. The movie flirts
with some interesting themes as we see how people act
towards him, but it never plumbs the depths as much as
it could.
There's certainly a notion here to chew over - how one's physical appearance has much more influence over how others treat us than our words or even actions. Though Benjamin has the size, mental maturity, and behavior of a very young child, none outside of the home looks at him with anything but disgust. The end of the film offers and interesting counter-point to this, when the elderly-yet-childish-looking Benjamin returns to the very same retirement home. When taken together, these bookends of the film may offer the most profound statement that the story has to offer.

And yet, I felt that such poignant themes were lacking. After all, what is the point of having a character like Benjamin is you're not going to use his most distinguishing feature to do some social exploration? And make no mistake - his singular physical condition is his most distinguishing feature, and this is perhaps the biggest weakness of the movie. There's really not much personality to him. Once you get beyond what makes him "curious," you're just left with a plain old nice guy. Hardly anything to spend nearly three hours watching. Which brings me back to the question: if you're not going to imbue him with any outstanding personality traits, then you'd better use him as a foil to examine some more engaging topics. The movie doesn't either one with much imagination or depth.

Another, lesser, issue that I have with the movie stems from the nerdier part of my personality: the physiological aspect of Benjamin's condition. Many viewers probably wouldn't bother to spend energy on this, but I couldn't help question why, at the end of his life, he would shrink down to child-size. He wasn't born the size of a full-grown adult, so why would the reverse happen? Yes, I know that it's all pure fantasy, but I'm just looking for a little logical consistency.

On a much larger scale, is there any possible way that Benjamin would not have been taken away by military scientists to become a lab rat? He never makes much effort to hide his condition, and it's hard to imagine him just coasting through life without at least a visit from parties interested in a walking miracle who may hold the key to the fountain of youth. This is also never so much as mentioned or explored. Would it have killed someone to at least try and insert a touch of consideration for it?

It all comes out as very mediocre. The cinematography is highly polished, so the film is a pleasure to look at. The acting is solid, and the human emotions are sincere and exhibited well. These help carry along a lengthy movie that resulted in, to me, a subtle shoulder shrug.

(513 films down, 636 to go before I die.)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Dinner With Andre (1980)

Director: Louis Malle


A struggling playwright and stage actor in New York has an engaging dinner with an estranged friend.

Yep. That's it.

What Did I Think?

Apparently, this movie was hailed as a wonderfully novel and fascinating experiment in film - an entire movie composed of almost nothing more than a single conversation presented in real time between a couple of friends. The premise being that the conversation itself will be so fascinating that no other effects, adornments, or "movie tricks" should be necessary.

Straight away, I have a problem with considering this approach "novel". Way back in the earliest days of cinema, one of the common criticisms leveled at the medium was that is was usually comprised of a single camera shot, trained on a single set where there actors played out the story. In other words, it was essentially a stage play. Eventually, certain geniuses like Georges Melies, D.W. Griffith, and others started to make use of the techniques of varied photo perspectives and film editing, which set film apart from other storytelling media. With this bit of history in mind, a film like My Dinner With Andre seems much more like a regression rather than something bold or novel.

Visually, this is all you get in this movie: Andre (right)
absorbed in his own exposition, and Wallace sitting there,
wearing a perpetually dopey look of puzzlement.
So what about the "dinner"? Is the conversation truly that engaging? My short answer is "no." The entire thing revolves around the Andre character telling his estranged friend, Wallace (both of whom play somewhat fictionalized version of themselves), about his whereabouts and thoughts during the past several years, during which he had all but vanished. Andre had been a very successful writer and director in the New York theater scene, but he had turned his back on that success, as well as his wife and children, in order to basically "find himself" and seek out some sort of life purpose. It's a bit of a Gauguin story.

For most of the first 30 to 45 minutes, Andre talks about various experimental workshops and communes in which he has taken part, in order to stoke some sort of creativity or new perspectives on life. These involve strange near-bacchanalia, shared spontaneous experiences, and other quirky and bizarre gatherings and individual characters. During this first half or so of the film, I couldn't shake the feeling that people who are directly involved in the theater and its creative processes would be enthralled. To someone like me, however, it came off as self-absorbed pretension. This is typified by the fact that these two men, who claim to have little to no interest in finery or "bourgeois" trappings, are eating in a 5-star restaurant. I refuse to believe that the writer (Wallace himself) failed to realize this. I'm just not exactly sure what the point of this detail was. Maybe that Andre is blind to his own hypocrisy? Or perhaps that, in the end, he just doesn't care anymore? Either conclusion is unsatisfying.

The conversation does eventually take a turn towards the more universal, not merely restricting itself to an analysis of literary or theatrical creativity. When the conversation turns to more accessible subjects such as where we do or do not derive pleasure in life, or how one engages in a meaningful existence, it does become more engaging. But there wasn't quite enough of it for my liking.

Surprisingly, I found the acting rather poor. Perhaps is was because the two actors are more accustomed to the stage, but they seemed to be overdoing it a bit. The intonation, gestures, and facial expressions all seemed meant for an audience who was sitting 20 to 100 feet away from them. Had they (or maybe more naturalistic film actors) played it with more subtlety, then it would have had exponentially more power. Though I suspect that this is a personal preference of mine, given that I generally dislike any actions or speech that I feel are overly dramatic.

This certainly wasn't a film for me. But I can easily see how those who are deeply into the theater or creative personalities would greatly enjoy it. If you count yourself among this group, you should certainly give it a try.

Forthcoming Reviews:

Top Secret!, Tyson, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Goon, and Coraline. Stay tuned!!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29 (2008)

Quotes like that one at the top of this
movie poster are probably what led to
my ultimate feelings about this one...

Director: Kevin Rafferty

This documentary was a tad disappointing.

I'll watch a sports documentary about damn near anything. In watching nearly every one of ESPN's extraordinary 30 for 30 series, I've enjoyed tales about burnt-out football prodigies, trans-gendered tennis players, coked out NASCAR drivers, and plenty of other odd topics related to athletic endeavors. Because of my passion for the general topic, I was excited to see a well-received film on something I knew nothing about - an apparently epic football game played in 1968 between two long-time rivals of the Ivy League - Yale and Harvard. The movie was lauded when it came out in 2008, and I'd had it floating around my Netflix queue since around that time. Maybe 6 years of anticipation did the film a slight disservice.

The story of the game is well told. The contest is presented with chronologically-ordered clips of the pivotal plays, from the kick off to the final gun. Between the plays are interviews with various players from both teams, each giving his recollections and reminiscences about a game that was exceptional to those who cared.

And this is the problem for me. I felt that by the end, I should have cared more. But I didn't.

The original TV footage of the game is pretty cool to see.
It reminded me of the pre-HD days of my youth.
Yes, it was an exciting game in which an underdog (in this case, Harvard) came back from a major deficit to upset one of the better football teams in the country. However, Yale was not among the absolute elite in the nation. They were ranked #16 at the time. Nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but they weren't exactly the 1960s Boston Celtics. And Harvard wasn't a team of scrubs. Though they weren't ranked as highly as Yale, they were an undefeated team with some talented players. This sapped the game of a bit of drama for me.

Another expectation I had that went unmet was that the game symbolized some grander commentary about U.S. society at the time. Through the player interviews, we do get some sense of how the contrasting views of the Vietnam war and anti-government sentiment affected some of the players and their interactions with their teammates and classmates, but the game wasn't really the grand analogy for American society that I was expecting.

The men involved in the game, including a very young Tommy Lee Jones (who comes off as the ultimate curmudgeon in his interviews), have some personality. Some are amiable blue collar types, while others are self-important windbags. This certainly helps maintain some magnetism. But there weren't any classically memorable storytellers in the group, which would have helped.

A good sports documentary, but nothing approaching the very best the genre has to offer. I have to feel that there are much more compelling sports tales to be told, with more intriguing personalities and a stronger connection to society as a whole.