The Spy Behind Home Plate


Moe Berg: The catcher is a spy.

(2019) Documentary (The Ciesla FoundationMoe Berg, Larry Merchant, Sam Berg, Ira Berkow, David Povich, Bud Selig, Nicholas Dawidoff, Jerry Reinsdorf, Brad Ausmus, Franklin Foer, Neil Goldstein, Tommy Thomas, Irwin Berg, Ed Harkey, Ray Robinson, Denise Shames, Robert Kaplan, Joseph Cascarella, Ray Errol Fox, Jonathan Black, Stan Bernard.Directed by Aviva Kempner

 

They say truth is stranger than fiction but sometimes truth is exactly like fiction. The story of Moe Berg, a handsome Jewish baseball player during what is considered the Golden Age of baseball reads like something Ian Fleming might have written. You might well scoff but the fact is that Berg knew Fleming and the two were friendly – who knows how much of Fleming’s fiction was truth?

Morris “Moe” Berg was born to Jewish immigrants who clearly hoped for a better life for their children; his dictatorial dad wanted his brother Sam to become a doctor, which in fact he became; he wanted Moe to be a lawyer. Moe in fact did graduate from the Columbia University School of Law but preferred a career in baseball, a game he loved to play and excelled in as an undergrad at Princeton.

As a Major League ballplayer, Berg was middling; he did last 15 years in the majors as a can’t hit/good field catcher for five different teams (mainly in the American League). He started out with his only National League team the Brooklyn Robins (who later became the Dodgers) as a shortstop, but in something of a fluke he wound up being a catcher because Brooklyn needed someone behind the plate more than they did in the infield. He was nicknamed “the Professor” because of his insatiable thirst for knowledge. He spoke seven languages fluently and did extraordinarily well on the radio quiz show Information Please to the astonishment of his teammates – the audio clips from his appearance on the show are among the highlights of the film.

Berg spoke Japanese fluently which is likely the reason that he was added to an all-star team that toured Japan in 1933 and again in 1934 and it might be there that his career in espionage began. He took clandestine footage of the Tokyo skyline during a visit to a hospital there which according to journalist Paul Bernard may have been used to assist James Doolittle in his retaliatory raid following Pearl Harbor, although Kempner doesn’t bother to follow up on the claim. Then again, much about what we know about Berg is conjecture; the man was intensely private during his life and kept mainly to himself. Like both of his siblings, he never married and while he had people he was friendly with, even his closest friends admitted that he was a hard man to truly know.

When Berg was asked later in life what he did in the war, he would only smile and hold a finger to his lips, as if what he did was top secret. As a matter of fact, it was. His great assignment occurred during the Second World War when he was recruited by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) to locate Italian physicists and determine how close the Germans were to successfully detonating an atomic bomb. He was also tasked with observing their genius physicist Werner Heisenberg who was in charge of the project with orders to kill him on the spot if it appeared they were close. Most of what we know bout his service in the OSS came from secret documents released years after the war was over.

There are a ton of interviews in this movie, maybe too many; some of them appear from an aborted documentary from years ago that was partially filmed but never completed.. Some of the interviews are with people who neither knew him or were particular experts on his career. There is archival footage of his baseball career (and they do show excerpts of the home movie footage he took in Japan) as well as plenty of photographs but the movie feels padded out and extended; I get the sense that Kempner was frustrated that there isn’t more out there on a man who on the surface at least seemed far more intriguing than most documentary subjects.

There is a ton of information but we never get a sense of who Berg was as a person and that was probably how Berg wanted it. He remains today as ever an enigma, a man who fascinates even the casual viewer but is essentially not really knowable; even those closest to him admit that he was a difficult man to really get to know. That hardly makes for good documentary filmmaking but Kempner does the best she can with what she had. A pity she didn’t cut out some of the chaff here and settled for a shorter film.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one, almost too good to be true.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berg was played by Paul Rudd in a dramatization last year of one of several books written on his story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher is a Spy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Isle of Dogs

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Fastball


Fastball right down the middle.

Fastball right down the middle.

(2016) Sports Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Kevin Costner (narration), Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Derek Jeter, Denard Spain, Mike Schmidt, Justin Verlander, Rich Gossage, Eddie Murray, George Brett, Bryan Price, Aroldis Chapman, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Steve Dalkowsky, Joe Posnansky, David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Bench. Directed by Jonathan Hock

The game of baseball speaks to the American soul in ways that football and basketball can’t. It is a means of reaching back to our past, to simpler times and embracing who we once were as a people. While some of those things are ugly – the racism and segregation of the early era, the influence of gamblers and performance enhancing drugs and the erosion of the game as football became America’s Sport – the game endures in the hearts of many Americans as the symbol of all that is good about this country.

One of the enduring arguments in baseball concerns the most common and lethal pitch – the fastball. To wit, who throws the fastest? It’s a little easier these days with modern technology to answer that question, but where does that put the iconic power pitchers of earlier days? Guys like Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson and Bob Feller? Attempts were made to measure the latter two, most notably in Feller’s case when his fastball was measured against a motorcycle going full speed.

This documentary, made under the auspices of Major League Baseball and narrated by Costner, whose association with the sport is as close as any actor’s in history, looks at the fastball, including its impact on the sport, its place in our imagination and the cultural significance of the act of throwing one.

There is a talking head factor here, but most of them are former major leaguers, talking about the nastiest fastball they faced or about their own experiences throwing it. There are segments on Johnson, Feller and Koufax along with Nolan Ryan, Goose Gossage and Steve Dalkowsky, the minor league player whom the character “Nuke” LaLoosh from Bull Durham was based on. He had a major league fastball, but his control was terrifying. He might have made the major leagues though one season but for a heartbreaking injury.

The stories are the major thing here, and nobody is as entertaining a storyteller as a ballplayer. One of the things that gets this movie over is the combination of the technical aspect of baseball, showing how the speed of the fastball is measured (which I was surprised to discover isn’t the speed when it’s hitting the plate but about ten feet from the pitcher’s mound) as well as what appeals more to the emotional side of the sports fan as well as to the tech geek.

There is plenty of archival footage and a great sense of the mythic quality of baseball and I think that’s what mainly captivated me about the documentary. Nothing taps into the American soul better than baseball and if you are not from this country, if you’re going to understand Americans you first need to understand the game of baseball. Watching this masterpiece of Americana will almost certainly give you an insight into the American psyche, although non-fans of the game might not get some of the reference points. However, you don’t have to be a fan of the game to admire the sight of a thrown baseball exploding past a policeman going nearly 100 MPH on a motorcycle.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively combines technology and mythology. Captures the mythic quality of the game. Some very entertaining stories.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to non-fans.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chapman currently holds the record for the fastest pitch thrown in a Major League Baseball regular season game; 105.1 MPH on September 25, 2010 in San Diego when he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, iTunes, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knuckleball
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Embrace of the Serpent

No No: A Dockumentary


Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

(2014) Documentary (Arts + Labor) Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Ron Howard, Bruce Kison, Mudcat Grant, Dave Cash, Al Oliver. Directed by Jeff Radice

Florida Film Festival 2014

As someone who lived through the 70s, I can tell you that I never thought them particularly turbulent or interesting. Many point to the 60s as being a far more fascinating decade but the 70s had its share of difficult times. Looking back through the eyes of someone who was in his prime then and turned out to be a much more important influence than you could imagine, I can see that the 70s were far from boring.

Dock Ellis is probably not that well-known outside of baseball fans and knowledgeable baseball fans at that. He pitched his last game in 1979 and his glory years were from 1970-76, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates but also with the New York Yankees (he also pitched for the New York Mets, the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers).

During his time in  the game, Ellis was an impressive figure. Baseball is full of characters who march to their own drummer but Ellis was one of a kind. He was kind of a Superfly with a great slider. Outside the stadium he was the paragon of style and fashion; inside he was a dogged competitor. Both on and off the field he spoke out against what he thought was wrong. He was a powerful individualist.

Unfortunately powerful individualists in the 70s were attracted to recreational drug use. Ellis famously pitched his no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. Now, while the film doesn’t really cover this, it should be said in the interest of full disclosure that there are some who dispute this, including the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Press, Bill Christine, who was at the game and knew the team well. Corroborating evidence has been hard to find but in fairness, neither has any information disproving the story. What is not in dispute is that drug abuse was rampant in the major leagues at the time.

The main offender and Ellis’  usual drug of choice was dexomyl, an amphetamine commonly known as greenies is the locker room. Use of the drug was widespread in Major League Baseball and while the MLB continues to have drug issues (mainly with steroids), recreational drug use is apparently not nearly as common in the majors as it was back then.

Ellis was also known for being a proponent for players’ rights, particularly those of African-American descent. He was in the line-up when the Pirates dressed an entirely non-white team, the first time in Major League Baseball history that had been achieved. He was known to argue with management when he felt he was in the right, sometimes stridently.

However, his drug abuse and sometimes distracting behavior undoubtedly shortened his major league career. He would eventually get straight and after retiring from the game became a counselor to major league players and helped many of them get rehabilitated. When he died in 2008 from complications from liver disease, he was far too young but had left an indelible mark.

The documentary about Ellis is clearly a labor of love. First-time feature filmmaker Radice is based in Austin and has been working on this since reading Ellis’ biography ten years ago. Like many independent documentaries, it has been filmed in bits and pieces as the filmmakers could afford to go out and get interviews in Pittsburgh (where they talked to many of Dock’s old teammates) and Los Angeles (where Ellis grew up and where many of his family and friends still reside).

Like many independent documentaries, there is also a tendency towards talking heads. The filmmakers interviewed more than 50 people for the film and while that adds a lot to the mix, it’s just too many. Still, I can understand Radice’s dilemma; all of the interviews are pretty interesting and give a good deal of insight into Ellis.

The drug use is certainly a big part of Ellis’ life but that’s not all he was and the movie does a good job of portraying who he is as a person beyond the more sensational stuff. Sometimes the portrait is humorous, sometimes frightening (one of Ellis’ four wives did leave because Ellis, no longer himself, was menacing her physically) and often touching. Baseball wasn’t big enough to contain a larger-than-life person like Ellis by itself. In essence, this is a documentary about a person, not a drug abuse documentary nor a baseball movie although again, both play major parts in who Dock Ellis was.

Unfortunately, Ellis passed away before the filmmakers could interview the man himself but one of the movie’s highlights is an archival interview when Ellis was reading a letter from the great Jackie Robinson commending him on his activism and urging him to continue. The tough pitcher, one of the most competitive in the game and one of the most unique individuals to ever play, breaks down into tears. Dock Ellis got it, and the filmmakers do as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights. Ellis is an engaging character.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language, drug content and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to self-financing his debut effort, Radice employed a volunteer advisory board to help him get through rough patches. The board included former major league pitcher Scipio Spinks, photographer and Ellis family friend Glen E. Friedman, documentary director Keith Maitland and SXSW/Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black. No, not that one; that one is spelled Lewis.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Congo

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Edge of Tomorrow

Million Dollar Arm


Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Disney) Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Darlshan Jarlwala, Gregory Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma, Rey Maualuga, Bar Paly, Al Sapienza, Jaspaul Sandhu, Lata Shukla, Harish Shandra, Yashwant Joshi, Mike Pniewski, Suehyla El-Attar, Autumn Dial, Gabriela Lopez. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball, that most American of all sports, has gone global. Asian teams routinely win the Little League World Series and there have been Major League players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Latin America has long been a pipeline of major league baseball stars. There are even European players in the Majors. One of the places that have gone largely untapped, however, is India.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is a sports agent. He’s a pretty good one, good enough to buy himself a good life; a beautiful house, a Porsche, a downtown L.A. office and a steady stream of models to date. He’s also cocky enough to think that he doesn’t need the big agency he works for, so he strikes out on his own with his partner Aash (Mandvi). There he finds out that things aren’t quite so easy.

In fact, they’re near impossible. With his agency nearly bankrupt, they are relying on signing a high-profile NFL linebacker named Popo (Maualuga) to save their bacon. However, when he is swept away by the omnipresent agents from a big corporate agency, they and their receptionist Theresa (Rachel) are left to ponder what to do next.

For J.B., the answer comes at him like a bolt of lightning. He is sitting at home, binge drinking beers and aimlessly switching back and forth on the channels of his satellite TV between Indian cricket and the talent show Britain’s Got Talent when it hits him – India has more than a billion people that don’t follow baseball. If they could find a couple of pitchers from India, guys used to bowling in cricket, it might open up a brand new market much like Fernandomania did in Mexico.

He pitches it to a Chinese-American gazillionaire named Chang (Ma) who likes the concept and decides to invest. JB wants a major league scout to go with him. Aash can’t find one but does find a retired scout named Ray (Arkin) who might just have narcolepsy but who really knows his stuff. Aided by a laid-back Indian handler named Vivek (Jarlwala) and a baseball-obsessed translator who wants to be a coach someday named Amit (Pitobash), he goes on a tour of India, setting up tryouts for the show which proves to be quite popular. Out of the tryouts he finds two prospects – Rinku (Sharma) who is gangly and graceful with an odd ritual before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Mittal) who is a powerful thrower with control problems. The two winners accompany JB back to America.

There they will be as bewildered and confused by American culture as JB was by theirs. Working with former major league pitcher Tom House (Paxton) who now coaches at the University of Southern California, they know nothing about the game and have to be trained in the basics of fielding and batting, not to mention having their throwing motion worked on (incidentally, neither one of them played critic and both were ambivalent about the game both in the film and real life). JB kind of leaves them to the wolves.

That doesn’t sit well with Brenda (Bell), who rents the back unit of JB’s house and has gotten to know the boys. She knows they need to know he cares about them; that they feel lost and alone and without support. Of course, you know she and JB will develop a relationship but can these two raw talents from India beat the odds and get signed to a major league contract?

This is a Disney true life sports underdog movie so you can probably guess the answer to that question (and if you can’t, you can always Google it). Like a lot of these films that have come from Disney of late, this follows pretty much the same formula. Fortunately, there are some things that set it apart.

The sequences in India are colorful and amazingly shot. You get a sense of the chaotic conditions in that country, from the traffic to the lack of hygiene to the kind of crumbling colonial infrastructure that remains in a titanic bureaucracy. All that’s missing is the distinctive odor that, as Hamm puts it, comes and goes.

Lake Bell, so good in In a World… continues to develop into one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actresses. She’s smart, pretty and can be glamorous when she needs to be but seems much more comfortable in scrubs than in fancy dresses. She makes a fine foil for the likable Hamm who is looking for life after Don Draper. His role is surprisingly complex; he’s been able to get by on his charm and a grin, but that is no longer the case and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it. He also can be a bit of a jerk although he’s basically not a bad guy. In short, like most guys.

They do have Arkin amongst the fine supporting cast but he spends most of the movie literally asleep, which is a waste of the talents of a guy like Arkin. Mandvi, one of the funniest guys on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is utilized mainly as the straight man here and while he gets his share of comedic moments, again this isn’t really what he’s best at. The two young Indian actors garner empathy, but they aren’t developed well enough to go much farther than “fish out of water” status.

This is decently entertaining; you won’t go wrong by spending your ten bucks on it at the multiplex, but it isn’t anything that you’ll go home wanting to see again. While the Indian sequences certainly looked pretty marvelous on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting to catch this on home video, but as I said, there are things that elevate it above the sports film cliches that it is desperately trying to cling to. All that’s missing is Hamm screaming “Show me the money!”

REASONS TO GO: Hamm and Bell are endearing. India sequences are quite enjoyable.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Arkin is wasted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few mild swear words and some suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real J.B. Bernstein wasn’t an agent. He was (and is) a sports marketer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Blended

42


Ebony and Ivory...

Ebony and Ivory…

(2013) Sports Biography (Warner Brothers) Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk,  John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr., Gino Anthony Pesi, Brett Cullen, Cherise Boothe. Directed by Brian Helgeland 

I think that I’m not alone in admiring Jackie Robinson or considering him a personal hero of mine. Nearly every American is aware that he was the first African-American to play in major league baseball – in fact, many erroneously believe he was the first African-American to play in professional sports – Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall both played in the NFL in 1920 and Robinson made his debut in 1947. But Robinson’s achievement bears closer examination; at the time baseball was America’s pastime. The reaction to a black man in the game most closely identified with the American spirit was not unlike the same reaction one might get if they spit on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Branch Rickey (Ford), president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a very good baseball club, having challenged for the pennant for years. Rickey, a devout Methodist, had made the decision to bring a black man into baseball, a decision that horrified his second in command Harold Parrott (Knight) who envisioned the white fans of Brooklyn deserting the team in droves.

However Rickey was not to be denied and so he went on an exhaustive search to find the right man for the job. He considered a number of stars from the Negro Leagues (some of whom, like Roy Campanella, would end up on the team eventually) but eventually settled on Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. Impressed with his character, Rickey summoned the player to Brooklyn.

Robinson, recently married to college sweetheart Rachel (Beharie), is a bit mystified. He has no idea what Rickey has in mind and it is inferred that the idea that he’d be the one to break the color barrier is the furthest thing from his mind. When Rickey tells him he’s looking for someone to turn the other cheek, Robinson is insulted; are they looking for someone without the guts to fight back? “No,” Rickey thunders, “I’m looking for someone with the guts not to fight back.”

Robinson has more than enough guts and he reports to spring training…in Florida. Naturally the natives don’t take too kindly to an uppity you-know-what playing a white man’s game – in Sanford, the sheriff threatens to shut down the game if Robinson plays. His manager, Clay Hopper (Cullen) is read the riot act by Rickey. Eventually, Robinson makes the minor league Montreal Royals, one step away from the big leagues. He spends the season there.

In 1947, Robinson attends training camp – this time in Panama – with the Dodgers and the team is fully aware that Robinson, who’d torn up the International League with Montreal the previous season, is going to be on the opening day roster and on April 15, 1947 Robinson makes history by taking the field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

It’s an uphill struggle however. His own teammates circulate a petition, asking Rickey to reconsider (manager Leo Durocher (Meloni) essentially tells them that if they don’t like it, they can expect to be traded). Things aren’t helped much when Durocher is suspended for the season and Burt Shotton (Gail), of whom a New York Sportswriter consistently referred to as Kindly Old Burt Shotton (it’s in Roger Kahn’s excellent The Boys of Summer if you want further insight to this story), is hired in his place.

On the field, Robinson gets it from all sides – the fans, the players, even the managers, particularly Ben Chapman (Tudyk) of the Philadelphia Phillies whose graphic racial attacks are as reprehensible and as vicious as anything you’re ever likely to hear. Hotels refuse to put the Dodgers up because of Robinson’s presence and yet the man perseveres, refusing to give in, turning the other cheek until both cheeks are bruised.

The question to ask here is whether or not the movie tells Robinson’s story properly and I’m of two minds of that here. I think it does a really good job in establishing his relationships with Rickey and Rachel, as well with sportswriter Wendell Smith (Holland) who is hired more or less to be Robinson’s assistant – picking him up and driving him around, arranging for lodging with black politicians when the white hotels won’t admit him, essentially serving as friend and confidante. He also gives Robinson perspective from time to time which proves valuable.

A Jackie Robinson biography had been in the works years ago, with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington attached. Sadly, it never came to pass and sadder still, part of the reason why was studio reluctance to do a movie about Robinson. However, it is a hopeful sign that Warner Brothers agreed not only to do the film, but allow an unknown to be cast in the lead.

Boseman has a relaxed, easy presence that is fiery in places, tender in others. He has the potential to be a star, not only because he captures some of the personality of Robinson but clearly fleshes out the legend some. Unfortunately, the writers really didn’t give him a lot to work with in terms of defining who Robinson was beyond the diamond. That might not be entirely their fault – Robinson was an intensely private man who tended to keep most of his thoughts and feelings to himself. However, Rachel is still alive as are two of his three children and perhaps some contact with them might have fleshed out Robinson’s profile a bit further, although it’s possible they would have preferred to keep what the ballplayer wanted kept private during his lifetime the same way afterwards.

Beharie is also lustrous here and shows signs of being an excellent leading lady. I hope this role gets her some further roles in big films – she has the beauty and the charisma to carry them. I really liked her as Rachel, although again we fail to see the extent of the support she gave Jackie which was considerable by all accounts.

Ford gives one of the most memorable performances of his career, playing Rickey note-perfect as a Bible-thumping curmudgeon on the outside with the kind of heart of gold on the inside that the real Rickey rarely revealed to the public. There’s a really nice scene in a locker room after Jackie is spiked and is being stitched up when he asks Rickey why he did what he did and finally Rickey comes clean with him. It’s the kind of scene that shows up on Oscar telecasts.

I liked this movie a lot, but could have liked it more with a little less baseball, a little more character and maybe a little more time overall with Jackie off the field. Even so, this is an impressive film which I can pretty much recommend without hesitation. As cultural icons go, Robinson has left a towering legacy. That legacy is deserving of a movie that reflects that and while I’m not sure 42 gives it what it deserves, it at least makes a fine attempt in the meantime.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what he endured. Ford does some of his best work ever.

REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give you a sense of who Jackie Robinson was other than what you can deduce from the history books.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some pretty bad language including liberal use of the “N” word (which you have to have if you’re doing a bio on Robinson since he heard it more than his share) and some thematic elements that might be disturbing to young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in his career Harrison Ford has portrayed a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; positive reviews overall for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A League of Their Own

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The ABCs of Death

Trouble With the Curve


Trouble With the Curve

Amy Adams discovers that Clint Eastwood is very sensitive about “empty chair” jokes.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, Joe Massingill, Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross, Raymond Anthony Thomas, George Wyner, Bob Gunton, Jack Gilpin, Clifton Guterman, Scott Eastwood, Jay Galloway. Directed by Robert Lorenz

 

Baseball is a game of timing. The batter has to time his swing just so to connect and hit it out of the park. The runner has to start his sprint and just the right time to successfully steal the base. The outfielder has to time his jump to put himself in a position to catch the ball. And the pitcher has to know when the right time to throw that nasty fastball down the middle is or else he’ll be watching the ball exit the playing field.

Life is all about timing too. Nobody know that better than Gus Lobel (Eastwood). A longtime scout for the Atlanta Braves, he was responsible for signing some of the most important players in the history of the franchise. He’s an anachronism though; whereas in the post-Moneyball era clubs have come to rely on computers and statistics, Gus is all about instincts and intangibles. He can tell more about a player from the sound of their bat connecting to the ball than most scouts can from an entire laptop full of statistics and computer analyses. The Braves have the number two pick in the upcoming draft and they’re interested in a player named Bo Gentry (Massingill). They send Gus to check him out.

But that timing is actually bad. Gus is developing macular degeneration and isn’t seeing as well. His friend (and chief of scouting) Pete Klein (Goodman) recognizes that something is wrong. Worried for his friend and knowing that Gus’ contract is up in three months which the general manager Vince (Patrick) hasn’t decided to re-sign him, and knowing that Philip Sanderson (Lillard), an ambitious and ruthless scout wants Gus gone, calls Gus’ daughter Mickey (Adams).

Mickey is also in the midst of some bad timing. She’s a lawyer whose relationship with her dad has been chilly for some time, which is more or less how Gus wants it. She’s also ambitious and driven, bucking to be the first female partner in the firm and the youngest partner ever. She’s working on an important case for the firm and winning it would be her key to having her name on the door.

Pete wants her to go down to North Carolina and keep an eye on the old man. She’s reluctant to do it – and her proud and cantankerous dad doesn’t want her to do it. In true Hollywood fashion, that’s exactly what she does.

At first the two are back in their usual patterns of behavior. Then into the mix comes Johnny Flanagan (Timberlake), a pitcher that Gus once signed who had a promising career until he blew his arm out. Now he’s scouting for the Red Sox, hoping to land a job in their broadcast booth next season. He too is there to see Gentry and determine whether he’s worthy of the first pick in the draft.

He gets googly eyed for Mickey pretty much from moment one but she’s just out of a relationship with a fellow lawyer (Guterman) that left her feeling as if she might be emotionally closed off after all. However it doesn’t take long for Flanagan’s charm to work on her and the two begin to get closer.

However, Gus has his doubts about the arrogant, self-absorbed Gentry who certainly can hit them out of the park. Nothing the stats and his direct observation tell him that there’s anything other than big time endorsement deals and multi-million dollar contracts in Gentry’s future – other than his gut. While Gus’ baseball instincts aren’t in question, he doesn’t seem to know how to relate to his daughter and she blames him for abandoning her twice.

This is not so much a movie about baseball except metaphorically and baseball has always worked superbly well as a metaphor. This is first and foremost a movie about relationships. It is also a movie about communication – and  movie about timing, yes.

Eastwood has made an art out of playing the cantankerous old man and he does a pretty solid job of it here. He came out of retirement (as an actor) to do this for a friend and colleague when some space opened up on his directing schedule when Beyonce Knowles’ pregnancy put the planned remake of A Star is Born into turnaround. Although Eastwood isn’t saying it this time, there’s a good chance this is his final film as an actor so that accounts for something.

Adams is one of the most likable actresses in Hollywood. She’s very much the girl next door type, although she can be smoldering and sex when she needs to be (as she is in a lake swimming scene). She has some good chemistry with both Timberlake and Eastwood. I have to admit that she’s been one of my favorites for several years now.

Goodman, Patrick and Lillard are solid character performances and Goodman, who once played Babe Ruth on the silver screen, makes a fine baseball man. Lillard is a fine actor as well – no reflection on him – but his character is kind of cliché in nearly every way. I don’t think the character needed to be drawn quite the same way; he could have been a passionate believer in computers as a tool for evaluating baseball talent without being quite such a d-bag. I think the movie would have worked better with a more sympathetic antagonist.

There are some real emotional scenes to deal with here, most of which having to do with the things that caused Gus to be so closed off and, well, scared to put it bluntly. That these things affected his relationship with his daughter is a pleasant surprise. These scenes and others that deal with the way they relate to each other are the best in the movie. The presence of Eastwood and Adams doesn’t hurt either, but while the writing is flawed, the basic premise is solid and the movie works overall. Definitely this is not one just for baseball fans or geriatrics.

REASONS TO GO: Eastwood is always engaging and Adams makes a nice foil for him. Baseball sequences are good. Some nice dialogue and character development.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Would have been better without a generic antagonist.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can get salty; there are some sexual references and some of the themes are pretty heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood, who had announced that the 2008 film Gran Torino would be his last on-camera appearance came out of acting retirement to star in long-time producing partner Lorenz’ first film as a director.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bull Durham

ATLANTA BRAVES LOVERS: The team Gus works for is the Braves;  the walls of the Braves offices (and Gus’ home) are decorated with pictures of their greatest players going back to their days as the Milwaukee Braves.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 2

Moneyball


Moneyball

Brad Pitt hopes his latest draws bigger crowds than this.

(2011) True Sports Drama (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Kathryn Morris, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Bobby Kotick, Brent Jennings, Nick Porrazzo, Jack McGee, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Bennett Miller

In Major League Baseball, as in most anything else, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some ballclubs have enough money to afford anything and anybody, others have to watch their budget carefully.

The Oakland A’s are a have-not ballclub. As General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) puts it, there’s the rich clubs and the poor clubs. Then there’s fifty feet of crap…and then there’s Oakland. Owner Stephen Schott (Kotick) doesn’t have the money to compete with a New York Yankees, for example. After the A’s lose in the divisional championship to the hated Yanks, the A’s are gutted by free agency going into the 2002 season; All-Star First Baseman has been signed by the Yankees, Johnny Damon by the Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen to the Cardinals.

Replacing players of that caliber from established ballclubs is nigh on impossible given the salary limitations that Oakland had. An attempt to get a decent player at a bargain basement price from the Cleveland Indians ends badly, but Beane notices that the Cleveland GM is listening to advice (indirectly) from someone in the room he doesn’t recognize. Beane eventually finds out that the non-entity is Peter Brand (Hill), a Yale economics graduate who has some pretty radical ideas on valuing players, mostly based on ideas from statistician Bill James who is persona non grata in baseball.

Brand gives Beane the idea of bringing ballplayers into the organization based on On-Base Percentage (OBP) as opposed to traditional baseball philosophy which takes into account home runs, fielding, RBIs and hitting. The team’s scouts and baseball brain trust are appalled as Brand seems to be recommending players who under traditional rules of thought are marginalized, players like Scott Hatteberg (Pratt), a catcher whose arm has been blown out and is facing the end of his career until Beane signs him up as a first baseman; Dave Justice (Bishop), a former star in the twilight of his career and Chad Bradford (Bond), a relief pitcher with an unorthodox delivery.

A’s manager Art Howe (Hoffman) also has some severe objections, exacerbated by a contract dispute. Howe and Beane butt heads constantly, Howe playing his line-up according to his point of view and Beane frustrated that the players he’s acquired aren’t being utilized properly. As a result, the A’s begin to lose. Often.

Beane, whose daughter Casey (Dorsey) is hearing rumors of his imminent unemployment, has got to pull things together, but can it be done? Is Brand’s theory simply smoke and mirrors and more than a century worth of wisdom actually the best way possible?

This is a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball movies, a sports underdog movie for those who don’t like sports. The script by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) is smart and doesn’t talk down to audiences while at the same time explaining some of the concepts being put forth – not the overly complex ones mind you but just enough to make sense to the casual viewer.

Pitt is one of America’s biggest stars and that fact often causes him to be underrated as an actor and yet he has roles like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that are Oscar-nominated, and not because he won the nomination in a cereal box either – it was well earned. There are some whispers going around Hollywood that he might be being considered for another Oscar nomination for this role too.

Beane is a complex man and Pitt captures those complexities, from his kind heart to his competitive fires. He wants very badly to win the last game of the season (which is the World Series-clinching win) partially fueled by his own promising but ultimately disappointing on the field career which he gave up a scholarship to Stanford for.

Hill is somewhat the comic relief but not because he is doing a typical Jonah Hill part. Brand (a fictitious character by the way) is part genius, very shy and quite un-self confident. Brand gets laughs because he’s a bit of a novice at the game of baseball and so he doesn’t fit in very well. He’s a nerd working in a jock factory.

The filmmakers wisely shy away from re-creating baseball scenes, mostly relying on archival footage in which the faces of the actors are digitally inserted. That means the audience isn’t forced to sit through badly staged sports sequences with actors who are obviously not athletic pretending to be professional athletes.

There are a lot of flashbacks to Beane’s baseball career which are I suppose to show his motivation for wanting to win so badly as a General Manager. There are way too many of them and they only serve to slow down the film, which is slow enough at times. Keep in mind that this is a movie about the front office more than it is about the ball field. Much of the action takes place on phone calls and in conference rooms.

This is one of the surprises of the year. It’s a movie that far surpasses expectations and turns out to be a legitimate Oscar contender. Had this been released in November or December, there would be reams of copy praising Pitt as a potential Best Actor and the movie itself a possible Best Picture. I was sold on this movie from the first few minutes and completely locked in for the duration. This gets a very high recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Brilliant performances and an amazing script. Need not be a baseball fan to love this movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The action moves slowly from time to time. Flashback scenes to Beane’s baseball career seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director of Photography Wally Pfister was hired somewhat quickly after the original DP had been arrested on serious charges and was unable to do the film.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d go the home route on this one; nothing here really screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Wanted