Saturday, August 10, 2013


Year 5, Day 222 - 8/10/13 - Movie #1,505

BEFORE: Something a little different tonight - I've got a few documentaries on my watchlist, and it's high time that I started working them in.  A doc on baseball makes a perfect fit here in the sports section, even if there are no actors for me to properly link to.  I know a lot of baseball movies usually have cameos from major leaguers, so I guess I thought that "Trouble With the Curve" might show some real baseball players who might also pop up in this documentary, but no such luck.  I could point out that Justin Timberlake was in a film called "Longshot" with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who was in "The Other Guys" with Derek Jeter, who appears tonight, but it feels like a bit of a stretch.

THE PLOT:  A documentary that showcases baseball's most unpredictable pitch.

AFTER: It does seem a little odd to make a film that just focuses on one pitch, but someone saw an opportunity with one knuckleball pitcher going for his 200th game and another rising to prominence in the major leagues during the 2011 season.  They got incredibly lucky because that turned out to be the final season for Tim Wakefield of the Red Sox, and in his farewell speech, he ended up mentioning the other player, R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets.  (Since these are my two favorite MLB teams, I should really appreciate this film...)

It turns out that the knuckleballers consider themselves a tight-knit fraternity within baseball.  They're the ones that throw the sport's most difficult, most misunderstood and perhaps hardest-to-hit pitch.  They "push" the ball with their fingertips (not knuckles, so it's really a misnomer) upon release, which somehow removes all the spin from the ball - all of the other pitches use spin to put the ball in the proper place.  Think about how easy it is to shoot a cue ball on a pool table, and then think about how difficult it would be to add just enough backspin so that the ball slid along the table without turning.  See?

Incredibly, Wakefield was with the Red Sox for 17 seasons, which is rare for ANY player these days, let alone a knuckleball pitcher.  His records include most innings pitched by a Red Sox pitcher (beating out turncoat Roger Clemens) and 2nd in all-time wins at Fenway Park.  But during those 17 seasons he'd been a starter, a middle reliever, a closer, and in some stretches not used at all.  Part of that may be due to the vagaries of the knuckleball, since some managers don't like turning their game over to a pitcher so unpredictable even he doesn't know where the ball's going to end up.

That's right, the pitcher doesn't know, the catcher doesn't know, and (most importantly) neither does the batter.  As I understand it the batter might sometimes be able to predict a pitcher's routine, but if he's a knuckleballer, all bets are off.  Which, as you might imagine, can lead to more wild pitches, more passed balls, more walks, etc.  But if a pitcher can maintain some semblance of control, can also lead to more strikeouts and even one-hitters or no-hitters.

It seems like Wakefield had the good sense to peak during the ALCS games in 2003 and 2004, which of course were against the damn Yankees.  One of those ended up going the Red Sox's way and the other didn't.  But in 2003 he allowed just three runs over 13 innings of the ALCS, then gave up the winning home run - that's the vagaries of the knuckleball, I guess.  In the 2004 ALCS, when the Sox came back from 0-3, he shined in Game 5 and threw three shutout innings of a 14-inning game.  That was the year when the World Series was sort of an afterthought, and the real battle was fought in the ALCS.  I've got those games on DVD, and this made me want to watch them again. 

R.A. Dickey, on the other hand, portrays the nature of the knuckleball as a desperation pitch, used by pitchers who are not fastball pitchers, since a knuckleball can be thrown at only 60-70 mph, as opposed to a 95-100 mph fastball.  Dickey was drafted by the Rangers in 1996, and spent 14 years bouncing around the majors and minors before signing with the Mets.  He transitioned to a knuckleball pitchers sometime around 2006, as an attempt to prolong his career, Wakefield-style (or perhaps Niekro-style).  After an impressive 2011 season with the Mets (the one covered by this film) he had an even better 2012, winning the Cy Young award - the first knuckleball pitcher to do so. 

Which, as any defeatist Met fan knows, means he was living on borrowed time, and naturally he was traded to the Blue Jays for the 2013 season.  Seems about right.

I sort of wish the film had been a little more chronological - bouncing around in time turns out to be just as annoying to me in a documentary as it is in a narrative film.  Having the ability to show clips from past baseball seasons, to me, does not justify putting them in any order you want to make your point.  And with the 2011 season Dickey had, why not end on the high note?  

RATING: 5 out of 10 saved games

Friday, August 9, 2013

Trouble With the Curve

Year 5, Day 221 - 8/9/13 - Movie #1,504

BEFORE: From golf I move back to baseball, a sport I've watched and understood better.  Umm, I think. I've covered baseball as a topic before, by watching everything from "Mr. 3000" to "Fever Pitch", "The Fan", "The Natural", "The Babe" and "The Rookie".  In letting the chain find its own rhythm, it's a topic I've come back to on an almost annual basis.  But I think this will be the last time, I mean, really, what's left at this point?

I can imagine what you're wondering - why didn't I place this film after "The Fighter", since they share an actress in common?  Excellent question - the simple answer is that I didn't notice, but even if I had, that would have meant mixing up the boxing and baseball films, jumping back and forth between sports, or moving "The Fighter" off of its position as Movie #1,500.  My chain has to satisfy me on a thematically-organized level, and not just through the linking of actors.  Anyway, since I was discussing "Major League" yesterday, it's fine to point out that Rene Russo from "Tin Cup" was also in that great baseball film with Chelcie Ross (the older pitcher who talked about putting Vagisil, Bardol and even snot on the ball), who appears tonight.

THE PLOT:  An ailing baseball scout in his twilight years takes his daughter along for one last recruiting trip.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Moneyball" (Movie #1,152)

AFTER:  Well, I already had sports films mixed with war films, sports films mixed with love stories, and sports films mixed with family drama.  This one appears to also be in the latter camp, focusing on Gus and Mickey, a father and daughter coming to terms with each other, and they're both screwed up in different ways.  He's getting older and his vision is starting to go, which of course directly affects his job as a baseball scout, and she's in therapy, trying to come to terms with the way her father abandoned her for years while she was a teenager, letting other relatives raise her.  At first it seems like this was because of all the traveling he had to do to find prospects, but it turns out there was a deeper, darker reason.

The third point in the film's character triangle is a younger baseball scout for another team, who coincidentally was scouted by Gus back when he was a player, and he's coincidentally working the same circuit at the same time, and roughly the same age as Mickey, and coincidentally also attracted to her and astounded by her baseball knowledge, so it looks like we've got something cooking here, but like some of the other sports films this week, it requires the viewer to ignore one unlikely coincidence after another.

Besides, Mickey is a lawyer, and, no, wait, she coincidentally hates her job and has a career crisis JUST as the opportunity comes up to go out on the road with her father and look after him.  I get that when one door closes, a window opens and all that, but come on.  Again it feels like a screenwriter was looking for some shortcuts in order to make all the pieces fit together in a particular pleasing way.  Sometimes people get frustrated with their job and quit and it takes months or years for them to find another opportunity that interests them, that's all I'm sayin'.  But not in movies!

This film also treads in the same territory that "Moneyball" did, only from the other angle.  "Moneyball" was all about the change-over from baseball scouts who had a nose for talent, but could not always quantify the benefits of one player over another to a system that relied more on statistics and computer projections.  This film can almost be seen as an answer film, since it makes the point that the methods used by older scouts are just as viable, and in some cases better predictors of player performance.  Plus, in some ways are better, because they address the human element that can't be addressed by a computer - Gus brings a young player's parents to a game, with the hope that he'll perform better, for example.

The problem is, we've now got one film that says that computers and statistics work better, and another that says that aging, nearly blind scouts work better.  So, which is it?  Can't we all get on the same page here?  I'm all for people being productive in their golden years, but I also think there's a time when a man's got to acknowledge his limitations and pack it in.  Besides, if MLB in general is leaning toward computers over codgers, who am I to suggest they're not doing it right?

Also starring Clint Eastwood (last seen in "Play Misty For Me"), Amy Adams (last seen in "The Fighter"), Justin Timberlake (last seen in "In Time"), John Goodman (last seen in "Red State"), Matthew Lillard (last seen in "The Descendants"), Robert Patrick (last seen in "Safe House"), George Wyner, Bob Gunton (last seen in "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls").

RATING: 5 out of 10 bags of peanuts

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tin Cup

Year 5, Day 220 - 8/8/13 - Movie #1,503

BEFORE: Again, I'm playing with a handicap tonight, which is a distinct lack of golf knowledge.  Most of what I do know probably comes from "Caddyshack", anyway.  Well, at least I don't let it slow me down.  In another act of what I'm calling diving providence, today is the first day of the PGA Championship, and I did not know that in advance.  I realize the film depicts the U.S. Open, which is a different tournament, but still, I'll take it.  (I suppose it's not really that much of a confluence, since the golf season runs what, 9 months out of the year and there's always one tournament or another starting every Thursday...)

Linking from "The Legend of Bagger Vance", Bruce McGill was also in "A Perfect World" with Kevin Costner (last seen in "Man of Steel").

THE PLOT: A washed up golf pro working at a driving range tries to qualify for the US Open in order to win the heart of his succesful rival's girlfriend.

AFTER: It's unfortunate that Hollywood can't seem to make a sports movie that doesn't rely on cliché and coincidence.  Even the ones I like the best, like, say "Major League", fall back on some very overused stereotypes - the young, wild pitcher, the grizzled veteran, the even more grizzled coach, and the bitchy team owner.  And what are the chances that the team that the Indians have the most trouble playing against, the Yankees, will turn out to be the ones they need to beat to win the pennant?  Oh, probably about 100 percent.

For the most part, this film relies on many of the same broad strokes in its portrayal of a washed-up former golf pro, and the love triangle he gets into with a beautiful therapist, who's dating his former (and future) golf rival.  Now, what do you suppose the odds are they'll be the last two players contending in the last tournament in the film, and the game will come down to the last hole?

It seems like a real timesaver - why watch every sports film when you can just watch one?  What were the odds that Rocky Balboa would have to face the boxer who killed his best friend?  Even if that's not the way sports works, that's how movies tend to work.  What about the rivalries "The Karate Kid", "Run Fatboy Run", or countless others?  Most sports don't have clear heroes and villains, but movies need to.

Ah, but sometimes, in the middle of all those stereotypes and forced rivalries, there are sometimes moments that rise above.  Like Tom Berenger's character "calling his shot" near the end of "Major League" - or Daniel-San doing that crane-kick, if you can ignore that he totally telegraphed that move, and the villain decided to attack him face-first and walk right into it.

In a way, that's what we get at the end of "Tin Cup" - an 18th hole so unbelievable that you (and the golf-watching nation) can't believe what they're seeing.  It may not come from a great and pure place, if anything it comes from the lead character's stubbornness and self-destructive tendencies, but it's an occurence that transcends the situation and would gain everyone's attention, if it were to really happen.  If it were a NASCAR race, it would be like someone's car crossing the finish line while upside-down and on fire.  Win or lose, it would make the highlight reel.

Does that make the whole film great?  Unfortunately, no.  There's no reason the film had to be over two hours long, and most of the characters are very underdeveloped.  Why does Mr. Tin Cup need an entourage of 8 hangers-on, when most of them don't even have dialogue?  The movie would have worked just as well with 4 non-distinct losers who have nothing to say. 

Plus, I'm unclear on the specifics regarding why the love interest chooses one golfer over the other - they're pretty evenly matched in ability, there's just a slight difference in attitude.  OK, so one is a little more arrogant than the other - he's a pro athlete, doesn't that sort of come with the job?  I get that she eventually realizes she's more attracted to one than the other, but WHY? 

Also starring Rene Russo (last seen in "Outbreak"), Don Johnson (last seen in "Guilty As Sin"), Cheech Marin (last heard in "Hoodwinked Too!"), Rex Linn (last seen in "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), Lou Myers (last seen in "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), Dennis Burkley, Mickey Jones, with cameos from Phil Mickelson, Jim Nantz, Fred Couples, and a bunch of other golfers and commentators I didn't recognize.

RATING: 6 out of 10 water hazards

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Legend of Bagger Vance

Year 5, Day 219 - 8/7/13 - Movie #1,502

BEFORE:  Moving on to golf - from an Irish boxer to an originally Scottish sport.  Probably one of the only sports I know less about than boxing would be golf.  I've watched a fair amount, or I should say I've recorded and fast-forwarded through a lot for work (lots of high-end financial companies sponsor tournaments, and I need to research their commercials) but watching the sport itself?  No thanks, it looks way too boring.

Linking from "The Boxer", Brian Cox was also in "The Bourne Supremacy" with Matt Damon (last seen in "We Bought a Zoo").

THE PLOT:  A down-and-out golfer attempts to recover his game and his life with help from a mystical caddy.

AFTER:  I followed the actor linking, and once again it turned out well - both "The Boxer" and this film both feature characters who were in a war/conflict, and seek some form of refuge or redemption in sport.  Tonight's central character, Rannulph Junuh, was in World War I, and was the only returning veteran from a platoon of soldiers, and clearly has some form of survivor guilt.  They never really detail the circumstances, whether he was responsible for the loss of the platoon or just the (un)lucky remnant, but that's OK, we can take the horror of war as a given and move on.

When Junuh returns to the U.S., he spends a few years wandering around before returning to Savannah, Georgia, and he does not contact his girlfriend during that time.  So she moves on, and becomes a golf-course entrepreneur, quite coincidentally.  But our hero has lost his innocence, his relationship, and his golf swing.  Still, there's really no excuse for not at least writing to your girlfriend for 10 years.

Again, quite coincidentally, this passage of time allows the film to also touch on the Great Depression, so this gives a reason for the golf course to be in financial trouble, which allows for the attempt to create an exhibition tournament - and you can see the plot points leading into one another like toppling dominoes.

Much has been written about the "magical black man" character, the caddy who arrives out of nowhere with the exact knowledge to fix the main character's golf swing, attitude, relationship and life, in that order.  I'm not necessarily as opposed to the character on a racial basis as some people seem to be, but again it's a case of asking me to continually believe coincidences that get more far-fetched as the film progresses.  Late in the tournament a situation comes up that just happens to teach Junuh the EXACT lesson of humility that he needs to learn to be a better golfer, and therefore a better person.

Look, I've got nothing against golf, if that's how you choose to spend your time.  It's when people start saying that all of life's little lessons can be learned on the golf course that I start sensing B.S. Admittedly, most of the golf I've played has been of the miniature variety, but I never got the feeling that I was learning anything, facing my demons or getting in touch with my inner self by whacking a ball around a putting green.

Besides, they never say whether the caddy is an angel, a magician, or just a golf expert, and I really think you need to pick one at some point.  If you read between the lines, supposedly "Bagger Vance" and "R. Junuh" are supposed to be verbal corruptions of "Bhagavan" (aka Krishna) and "Arjuna" from the Hindu text "The Bhagavad Gita", and the golf lessons are symbolic of Krishna's advice to a warrior who refuses to fight, to get him back on the heroic path.  Again, I can't speak to this, but I did feel it was worth pointing out.

Also starring Will Smith (last seen in "Men in Black 3"), Charlize Theron (last seen in "Prometheus"), Bruce McGill (last seen in "Collateral"), Joel Gretsch (last seen in "Push"), Jack Lemmon (last seen in "The Fortune Cookie"), Lane Smith, Peter Gerety, J. Michael Moncrief, Harve Presnell.

RATING: 6 out of 10 sand traps

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Boxer

Year 5, Day 218 - 8/6/13 - Movie #1,501

BEFORE:  Last boxing film, then I'm moving on to other sports.  Linking from "The Fighter", Christian Bale was also in a film called "Equilibrium" with Emily Watson (last seen in "The Proposition").

THE PLOT:  Danny Flynn is imprisoned for his involvement with the IRA in Belfast. He leaves behind his family and his fourteen year old girlfriend, Maggie Hamill. Fourteen years later, Danny is released from prison and returns to his old working class neighborhood to resume his life as a boxer, and open a boxing club training aspiring young boxers.

AFTER: This is half a boxing film, half a film about the IRA.  Which means it's sure to be depressing, as everything about the IRA usually is.  I agree war is terrible, but I remember when the troubles were going on in Northern Ireland, and it just seemed like such a non-winning situation for both parties, and it took so long for them to agree on a cease-fire that I think most people couldn't remember why they started fighting in the first place.

Not that I have any personal experience with war - being a casualty in the dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable is probably as close as I've come.  Just remember there are no winners in war.

The main character here is anti-war, but pro boxing, which is almost a contradiction - if they're all going to stop shooting each other and start punching each other, I guess that's an improvement?  Well, the boxing club is for Catholics and Protestants, so it can be seen as a step forward.  Which is exactly why some people naturally wanted to shut it down.  Or burn it down, whichever.

Overall I found this one pretty hard to follow, since there were just too many parties with different agendas.  And some were hypocritical, like berating the wives of imprisoned Irishmen for dating other men - which in the end didn't seem all that supportive.

Who knew that they held British boxing matches in ballrooms?  That was mildly interesting...

Also starring Daniel Day-Lewis (last seen in "The Bounty"), Brian Cox (last seen in "The Zodiac"), Ken Stott (last seen in "One Day"), Gerard McSorley, Ian McElhinney.

RATING: 4 out of 10 checkpoints

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Fighter

Year 5, Day 217 - 8/5/13 - Movie #1,500

BEFORE:  Another look behind the scenes today, as I hit a big, round number of films.  I try to schedule a big or important film for these milestones, in tonight's case it's a 7-time Oscar nominee and 2-time winner.  The trick then becomes, once I try to schedule a film for a specific date, locking down the chain of films until that date.  Any additions to the chain will push the film off that date - fortunately I had left enough room in the schedule to drop in "Man of Steel" and "The Wolverine" so I didn't have to delete something as well.  And putting three boxing films together gave me a little wiggle-room - if this film slipped off of the 1,500 mark I could have adjusted by putting it earlier or later in the boxing chain.

Now, with just 100 slots left in the year (and 148 days, seems quite do-able...) it's time to take a hard look at the topics I want to cover and figure out what can and can't be done before Dec. 31.  My initial plan was to make my way through Hitchcock's filmography, and then re-assess.  But that's 50 films right there, plus a 4-film intro and a 7-film outtro - leaving me just 39 open slots, and I've got way more films than that which are vying for some attention.  So it looks like I'm pushing the Hitchcock chain back AGAIN, to 2014 - next year's going to be all about Hitchcock, Woody Allen, let's say Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers, if I'm in the mood. 

This means I've torn apart my chain and re-assembled it (which I try to do no more than twice a year) to cover marketing/economics, pop/rock music, back-to-school films, 9/11 documentaries, presidents/politics, Halloween, Westerns/horses, war films, and holiday films.  (You can almost see what the "pivot" films will be, like "War Horse", and if I can program "Lincoln" next to "Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter" I'll be a happy camper.)  Problem is, I'm 14 movies short - but I'm sure I can find a topic to close the gap.  I'm adding to the list all the time, and I'd rather be 14 movies short than be 14 movies over and have to cut something.

Linking from "Rocky Balboa", famous ring announcer Michael Buffer (last seen in "Love & Other Drugs") carries over, which lets me know I'm on the right track.  Honestly, I'm surprised he hasn't appeared in more boxing films since he trademarked his signature intro.  In his honor, let's get rrrready to rrrrrreview some more movies! 

THE PLOT:  A look at the early years of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his brother who helped train him before going pro in the mid 1980s.
AFTER:  I've already determined that a boxing film would be quite boring if it were JUST about the boxing.  There's only so much fight footage the audience can take, and there's only so much technical information about body blows and left hooks that we can stand as well.  So there has to be drama taking place outside the ring, and this film has that in spades.

From a complicated family full of half-sisters to a domineering mother/manager to a half-brother/trainer with a budding drug addiction, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic background.  Throw in a budding romance with a bartender, and it's easy to see that this boxer's life is just way too complicated.  When he starts to get the feeling that his family might not have his best interests at heart, it's time for Micky to simplify his life, and consider new management and a new training regimen, before it's too late. 

What we learn is that there's more to being a boxer than just hitting somebody (though that's important too) - there's getting the right training, then there's getting the title shot, which involves a fair amount of luck, plus you have to not only win fights, you have to win them against the right opponents.

I liked the way that Micky's career was contrasted with Dicky's - one brother is coming up in his career at the same time the other is sliding down the other side.  But Dicky's still telling his stories, still living off the limited success that he did have, and still seen as an expert, even though his personal life is in shambles.  True, HBO is making a documentary about him, but not the one he thinks.  They're more interested in his illegal extra-curricular activities than his planned boxing comeback.

Micky has to make a difficult decision about whether to jettison his family and strike out on his own, or stick with the plan and possibly never gain the success that he may deserve.  I can see this as symbolic of the choices that many people have to make - how long should one stay working at a job which guarantees only limited success?  When should one chart a new path and switch jobs, even if doing so risks the entirety of one's career?  

Rocky had Philadelphia, and Micky Ward had Boston - or Lowell, to be more specific.  Having grown up outside of Boston and having spent a fair amount of time within the city limits, I think the portrayal of a tough Boston-area family was spot-on, right down to the accents.  And if you think the boxers are tough, you should meet their sisters.  I think my favorite part was when they started brawling with Micky's girlfriend over who was "classier".  Girls, you all lose that argument when you start to duke it out.   Reportedly the real Ward/Eklund sisters didn't like the way they were portrayed in this film, and started causing a scene during the premiere screening.  Which sort of proves the movie's point, if you ask me. 

Also starring Mark Wahlberg (last seen in "The Italian Job"), Christian Bale (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Amy Adams (last seen in "Man of Steel"), Melissa Leo (last seen in "Red State"), Jack McGee (last seen in "Drive Angry"), Mickey O'Keefe (as himself), with cameos from Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman.

RATING: 7 out of 10 sparring sessions 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Rocky Balboa

Year 5, Day 216 - 8/4/13 - Movie #1,499

BEFORE: It turned out to be a rather smooth transition, from superhero movies to sports films - perhaps that's because I'm starting with boxing, and comic-book fights and boxing matches obviously share a few things...

I waited a long time for some premium channel to run this one, after watching Rocky III through V in a previous boxing chain - but none did.  So I'm forced to watch a version with commercials that ran on FX, I can't imagine they chopped it up too bad, except for adding the breaks. Linking from "Here Comes the Boom", Henry Winker was also in "The Lords of Flatbush" with Sylvester Stallone (last seen in "Daylight").

THE PLOT: Rocky Balboa comes out of retirement to step into the ring for the last time and face the heavyweight champ Mason 'The Line' Dixon.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Rocky V" (Movie #517)

AFTER: This movie takes its sweet time, getting Rocky back into the ring - for a while it didn't even seem like the script had that destination in mind at all.  The first half of the film shows Rocky visiting his wife's grave, telling boxing stories at his restaurant, embarrassing his son, and spending time with a woman who he knew when she was a little girl.  Because that's not weird at all.

He's got plans to get back into boxing, possibly at the local level - why he doesn't spend time at a gym training other fighters, I have no idea.  But the guy's looking pretty old at this point, especially when you see how much his son aged since the last film.  His plan gets fast-tracked when ESPN runs a computer simulation to determine how Rocky, at his peak, would fare against the current heavyweight champion, and this sparks enough debate that the actual fight gets proposed.

It's considered an exhibition match, a glorified sparring contest, though I don't see how this works on a practical level for the boxers - "Punch the other guy, just not very hard?"  But considering the knockout record of his opponent, it does make sense that people would question whether power beats endurance, or the other way around.  Remember, Rocky always "wins" if he goes the distance.

So Rocky agrees to the fight - hey, it's not like he can get brain damage, because, seriously, how much brain is left at this point?  And how much did he even start with?  But a key element of every other "Rocky" movie is missing here - did someone forget about the importance of the training montage?

Also starring Burt Young (last seen in "Win Win"), Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes (last seen in "Gran Torino"), Milo Ventimiglia (last seen in "Armored"), A.J. Benza, with cameos from Mike Tyson (last seen in "The Hangover Part II"), Frank Stallone and Michael Buffer (last seen in "Love & Other Drugs").

RATING: 4 out of 10 rounds (of course...)