Offside


Coaching resting face.

(2019) Sports Documentary (Green Box EuropeNatalia Baginska, Joanna Patusiak, Joanna Pres, Kinga Szymanska, Martyna Brodzik, Aleksandra Sudyk, Marta Fil, Patrycja Michalczyk, Natalia Grib, Patrycja Trzcinska, Aleksandra Witczak, Roksana Rataczyk, Natalia Oleszkiewicz, Kornelia Grosicka, Lukasz Haliniarz, Martyna Iwanek, Weronika Szymaszek, Beata Niesterowicz. Directed by Miguel Gaudėncio

 

While we in the States tend to think of soccer (called by everybody else football) is a painfully slow and less athletic sport than the manly sport of American football, that’s just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. Football (the non-American kind) requires stamina, skill and intestinal fortitude to push beyond your limits when you are sure you couldn’t possibly run even one more step.

The ladies of the Olimpia Szczecin squad possess that kind of fortitude and much of it is largely due to their coach, Natalia Baginska. Her job is to motivate the women to push themselves higher and harder than they ever have. She is a stern taskmaster and keeps her charges busy as the club, sidelined for the off-season, prepares for the oncoming season with practices, scrimmages and practice games, called “friendlies” in the parlance.

Gaudėncio, a native of Portugal now based in Szczecin, has established a particular style for better or for worse, that is essentially cinema verité along the lines of an Errol Morris. He’s also fond of black and white, which worked nicely for the boxing documentary Down But Not Out but was a tactical error her; Soccer is a sport of color from the rich green of the pitch to the colors of the uniforms. It makes the film more drab than it has to be.

What really disappointed me about the movie though was once again he gives virtually no context about what we’re seeing. Why did he choose this team to follow? What happened with their season? He also doesn’t identify which player is which and we mostly see them in workouts without uniforms so we can’t even figure out the numbers. The games he does show often we get no sense of the flow of the game; there are some bits and pieces of the team on offense, other bits and pieces of the team on defense and occasionally celebrating a goal. We have no idea who they are playing.

We do get a sense that the players work hard and that the coach is a combination therapist and motivational speaker as well as a tactician although we get no particulars about the latter role. We do get plenty of scenes of various body parts on the players getting massaged which I suppose communicates the muscular aches and pains the ladies have to endure but it’s a point that seems to be getting made a bit too repetitively.

Of the three documentaries I’ve seen from Gaudėncio this is by far the one I’ve enjoyed the least. By halfway through the short documentary I was checking the time, praying for the film to end. By the time it did, I felt like I hadn’t gotten to know the coach all that well and the players even less. Not being all that well-schooled in the game of soccer, I can’t even tell you if the team improved over the course of the film.

However, the movie does have the advantage of being timely, released as the United States women’s team was capturing its most recent World Cup title so there might be some interest from that angle. I think it would be a good film for aspiring soccer players both male and female to see what is involved with becoming a top-level player. However cinema buffs may find the film to be a little too disjointed to be all that enjoyable.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a sense of how hard these athletes work.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks any sort of context whatsoever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two of the partners in Green Box Europe are originally from Florida but now live in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Down, But Not Out
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour

Top Spin


Eye on the prize.

Eye on the prize.

(2014) Sports Documentary (First Run) Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Michael Landers, Michael Hsing, Joan Landers, Massimo Constantino, Brenda Young, Jonathan Bricklin, Stefan Feth, Barney Reed, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Michael Croitoros, Sean O’Neill, Jun Gao, Dory Gheorge, Stan Landers, Xinhua Jiang, Linda Liu, Erica Wu. Directed by Sara Newens and Mina T. Son

Florida Film Festival 2015

Back in the day, my family used to have a ping pong table in our Southern California backyard, a table my father, who tended towards formality in such things, insisted on calling “table tennis.” He taught me how to play and after a bit of a learning curve, I got to be okay at it. In fact, I remember enjoying the fast-paced play although when we moved from that home the table did not move with us and I stopped playing.

I cannot even fathom the dedication and perseverance displayed by three young American Olympic hopefuls – Ariel Hsing (a national champion), her friend and rival Lily Zhang and young Michael Landers. All three are making their bids to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and are training like fiends, in addition to completing their schoolwork and getting ready for college.

Most of us probably don’t have much regard for table tennis but it is an Olympic sport for a reason. The ball moves nearly as fast as the eye can see; the players have lightning quick reactions and must have nimble footwork, agility and arm strength to return volleys at sufficient speed to compete at the highest levels.

It is also a sport that America doesn’t dominate; in fact, we are ranked only 45th in the world. As you can guess, the Chinese tend to produce the best players. Landers in fact skipped his last semester of high school (taking correspondence courses online in order to graduate) so that he can train in China where he discovers he is nowhere near the level that the focused and disciplined Chinese athletes are, although he tries gamely.

It turns out that the kids are more or less no different than any kid their age, although Hsing pretty is one of those blessed individuals who seems to succeed at everything she does and makes it look effortless, although judging from how hard her father trains her that it is anything but. Her father Michael is ambitious and relentless; there might well be a little stage father in him but not only is she genuinely gifted but she is as ambitious and relentless as he; any dad worth his salt will move heaven and earth to give his little princess whatever she dreams and that’s what he’s doing and successfully I might add.

It might be said that the Hsing family fits the Asian-American stereotype as being driven for success and focused on it to the exclusion of all else, and maybe they do. However the Zhang family is a bit more laidback about it, although Lily is just as primed to make the Olympic team as her friend and rival is. While Ariel wins most of their head-to-head matches, the two are both high on the national rankings and their rivalry is both fierce and friendly. Watching them play each other is to see sports at its finest.

The qualifying process for the American Olympic team is a little bit unusual compared to other more familiar sports. The top finishers at the US Championships are sent to the North American Championships for a round robin tournament with the Canadian champions; the winners of the various divisions qualify in total; no Americans may qualify or only Americans might qualify. It all depends on how they do in the tournament. Waiting for them is the Canadian champion, Jun Gao who might be the best player not living in China.

I have to admit I wasn’t especially jazzed to see a documentary on young people playing ping pong when I originally heard the movie was playing at the Florida Film Festival but Da Queen was so I made sure we attended the sole screening at the Festival. I can’t say that the stories of these extraordinary kids really moved me to any extent; we’ve seen these kinds of documentaries before, either on ESPN or in theaters. Extraordinary kids pursuing a dream, be it in the arts, sports or in some other endeavor. While the directors give us a sense of the dedication of these three teens and in some cases of the isolation and loneliness that they endure, we don’t get a real sense of the pressures and social conflicts that come with pursuing that dream. I would have liked a little more in-depth examination of how the kids themselves felt at living an abnormal lifestyle compared to what their friends are doing.

The filmmakers take ping pong VERY seriously and you probably will too after seeing this. I will admit that I was not enthused about this film the way some of those in my circle of film buffs were; I was impressed with how the physics of the game were examined and displayed in super slow motion camera work which gives you a more graphic idea of the athleticism that is required to excel in competition table tennis, but quite frankly while I was rooting for the kids to succeed, it felt like I’d been through it all before.

I may have been a little too hard on this movie. I’m well-aware that those who saw it at the FFF came away impressed, more so than I. Maybe I was just in Festival exhaustion mode. In any case, while my interest wasn’t necessarily held, I suspect that most people will feel the opposite once they see it. It’s hard not to admire the filmmakers passion for the sport and the players; while their stories may not especially seem much different than other sports and other players, it is sufficiently inspiring that even non-players of the sport and non-buffs of film may find their interest piqued.

REASONS TO GO: Clear love for the game of ping-pong. Physics are breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very different from other prodigy docs. Not enough detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Newens and Son have received M.F.A. degrees in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Poltergeist (2015)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi


Jiro Dreams of Sushi

The face of the world's greatest sushi chef.

(2011) Documentary (Magnolia) Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Takashi Ono, Masuhiro Yamamoto, Hachiro Mizutani, Joel Robuchon. Directed by David Gelb

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that I adore sushi. I love the subtle taste of the fish blending in with the texture of the rice, the little surprising kick of wasabi and the salty tang of soy sauce. I’m not talking about the rolls that Americans tend to prefer (although I love those too) but of the more traditional Japanese form of fish and rice alone.

Jiro Ono owns Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is located in the bowels of a Tokyo subway station. It has ten seats and only ten. All he serves there is sushi. Jiro has been making sushi since he ran away from home at age 9. He’s 85 now and has been making sushi for 70 years. You’d think that in that amount of time he’d be pretty good at it.

Pretty good doesn’t even begin to describe what Jiro does, however and the good folks at the Michelin Guide agree. They’ve awarded Jiro and his restaurant three stars, the highest rating that the guide offers and Sukiyabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant to possess that rating. The citizens of Tokyo are fully aware of how good his sushi is; reservations are mandatory as you might guess and there’s a one-month wait to get in.

Jiro is one of those sorts who lives to work. He is passionate about sushi; he even has dreams about it, dreams he has written down and then turned into reality at his restaurant. He pursues perfection with single-minded determination that is at once both admirable and unsettling. He doesn’t seem to have any life outside of his restaurant; he works every day all day except for government holidays and even takes those off begrudgingly. His work ethic is admirable but you can’t help but wonder, is’t there something more to life than this?

Not for Jiro and he seems happy in his life. He has two sons; the eldest, Yoshikazu works with Jiro in the restaurant and is being seemingly groomed to take over the restaurant when Jiro retires but Yoshikazu is 60 himself. The youngest, Takashi, owns his own restaurant in one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It’s a mirror image of Jiro’s (literally; Jiro is left-handed and Takashi right-handed and so they have their set-ups reversed from one another). Both men labor under the shadow of their father and neither seems to mind.

We are shown the methods of making sushi, accompanying Yoshikazu to Tokyo’s main fish market, to the instruction of the apprentices to the selection of the rice (Jiro gets a special kind that the rice vendor sells only to him because Jiro’s the only person who knows how to cook it properly). This isn’t, despite the title, a movie about sushi at all, although once you see the flavorful tidbits displayed lovingly in their dishes you might get a hankering for some.

What this is about is the pursuit of excellence and its cost. Jiro is a driven man, determined to be a national treasure in Japan and one of the most influential sushi purveyors of all time. Restaurant critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, talking about Jiro’s eldest son, says wistfully that when a man’s father is as influential and as important as Jiro is, even if he’s just as good as his father was he’ll never be able to measure up. He has to be twice as good in order to escape comparisons.

In fact, Yamamoto suggests, it was actually Yoshikazu who made and served the sushi to the Michelin representative. One never gets a sense from either of Jiro’s progeny that they have the same kind of drive their father possesses. Jiro may dream of sushi but his sons might have different dreams, even though they did both choose to join their father in the sushi business.

You see, it’s really difficult to tell because there’s no context here. We don’t see Jiro at home, only at the restaurant. When he is interviewed, it is about his career and about the business of making sushi. If Jiro collects stamps, loves baseball or enjoys cross-stitching as a hobby, we would never know because we only get to see this one aspect of him. I don’t know if this is all there is to the man but I kind of doubt it.

This is mostly a mostly fascinating and occasionally frustrating movie that hits most of the right notes. I would have liked a little bit more about Jiro (he does go to a class reunion in his native village and visits the grave of his father, who abandoned him when he was a young boy) but at the end of the day, he will be remembered for his sushi and that is mostly what we see here – his driving force and his one true love.

REASONS TO GO: A study of the relentless pursuit of excellence. Interesting father-son dynamic and a lovely peek into Japanese culture – and cuisine.

REASONS TO STAY: There’s no context here.

FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes showing the fish being sold in the fish market that might be traumatic for some tots who might love their goldfish but otherwise this is absolutely fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Meals at Jiro’s sushi restaurant start at 30,000 Yen or about $370 U.S. dollars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are exceptional.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

SEAFOOD LOVERS: The film shows a number of the different types of seafood that Jiro uses in his restaurant, from massive tuna to tiger prawns to haddock – both as fresh catches in the fish market and as finished product in his restaurant.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:God Bless America

Make Believe


Make Believe

Voguing, teen magician style.

(2010) Documentary (Crowd Starter) Neil Patrick Harris, Lance Burton, Krystyn Lambert, Bill Koch, Hiroki Hara, Derek McKee, Siphiwe Fangase, Nkumbozo Nkonyana, Gay Blackstone, Joan Caesar, Joe Diamond, Kyle Eschen, Ben Proudfoot. Directed by J. Clay Tweel

Magic is meant to look effortless;  a wave of the hand, a gesture, a subtle movement and the impossible becomes real. Getting that sort of effortlessness takes hours of practice and unbelievable discipline. For teenagers, that kind of commitment is rare indeed, particularly when it comes to something so ephemeral and let’s face it, something with bleak career prospects.

The World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas is perhaps the most prestigious gathering of magicians, conjurers and illusionists in the world. Each year they present a Teen Magician competition for up and coming talents ages 13-18. This is the real deal; there is some pretty decent prize money not to mention an opportunity to be noticed by people who can help you along in a potential career.

They come from all over the world; a magic duo from South Africa (Fangase, Nkonyana) who work their own culture and the allure of the World Cup (which was held in their country the year after this particular Seminar) to tell a story; a young man from rural Japan (Hara) who practices his craft obsessively in remote places, lonely and misunderstood by those who live in his village.

They also come from the United States as well; a beautiful blonde from Malibu (Lambert) with ambition and drive, one who understands the difficulties faced by a female magician and already armed with membership in the prestigious Magic Castle and mentorship from an established magician; a youngster from Colorado (McKee) who has tremendous potential but may or may not be ready for the competition; a veteran participant (Koch) who is entering his last year of eligibility and wants to go out in a blaze of glory.

For all their dedication and determination, these are all still teenagers with all the social awkwardness and angst that it implies. Their self-discipline and sacrifice is to be admired as it would be in a gymnast or a figure skater going for Olympic gold. Most kids have no more ambition than to have their parents buy them the latest videogame, or to hang out at the mall with their friends – or even more likely, in Internet chat rooms.

I liked the way first-time director Tweel got us to know and care about these kids. Not all of them are people you’ll want to be best friends with, but you’ll at least want to spend some time with them and hope they find the success they’re looking for. While Lambert’s single-mindedness has been off-putting to some critics, I found that she was no different than some of the student council members I’ve known. She is a young woman who knows what she wants and is determined to go after it; far from being off-putting, I found that commendable as most women are discouraged from those sorts of things as being non-feminine. Trust me, she’s very feminine, quite pretty and if she continues her pursuit will undoubtedly go far, whether that pursuit is magic or something else.

I found myself enchanted with Hara’s approach to magic which is quite visual and blends the subtle and the showmanship quite nicely. Also the South African duo, who came from a background of poverty the American contingent might have been surprised at, was charming and guileless. To some extent, the American kids all had an eye on their own career and were somewhat guarded on-camera; it was when they let their guards down that I felt that the movie was at its most compelling.

This might be a bit hard to find in video stores but you can order the DVD from the movie’s website. This isn’t the kind of hard-hitting documentary that tackles issues that affect us all, but it is a slice of American pie that comes straight from the heart (even if not all the participants are American). There’s enough warmth and charm here to make it worth viewing; whether or not it bears repeated viewing is truly a matter of personal taste but for my money if you get an opportunity to check it out by all means do so.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at young people dedicated to their craft and some beautifully staged magic tricks. Makes you care about the participants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat scattered in its approach. Somewhat disposable subject as documentaries go.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words scattered here and there but otherwise fine for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producers Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon were previously responsible for the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a how-to tutorial on how to perform some of the magic tricks shown in the movie, as well as some that are not.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $13,141 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie broke even at best but probably didn’t.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel