Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel


They keep their heads covered to show their devotion to God.

(2018) Sports Documentary (Menemsha) Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Scott Buchan, Ty Kelly, Cody Baker, Jason Marquis, Jerry Weinstein, Cody Decker, Peter Kurz, Jon Moscot, Jeremy Bleich, Danny Valencia, Jonathan Mayo, Margo Sugarman. Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

 

As underdogs go, there are few more under than the Israeli national baseball team. Even back in the 80s, the spoof Airplane! Joked about handing out a tiny pamphlet sized book called Great Jewish Athletes to passengers looking for a little light reading. Baseball has had a few great Jewish players including Hank Greenberg and most notably, legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sadly, while Koufax is fawned over in the film, Greenberg who was one of the great sluggers of the game back in the day gets nary a mention.

Most of the players for the Israeli team that was fielded for the 2017 World Baseball Classic – a kind of World Cup for baseball – were American Jews who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent which qualifies them under the Heritage Rule which allows players of a different national descent to play for that team rather than the country they are actually citizens of.

For the most part Team Israel was made up of players who were career minor leaguers or had just a cup of coffee in the majors. One big exception was Ike Davis, a slugger for the New York Mets and later the Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Injuries had shortened his career, but he was hoping to make a comeback when he agreed to play with Team Israel.

The team was ranked 41st in the world and were derided by the press as “has-beens and never-will-bes” but that only served as motivation for the team who beat the heavily favored Great Britain team in Brooklyn to qualify for the 16-team tournament. Placed in Pool A, they would be playing in Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the players weren’t really practicing Jews and almost none of them had been to Israel. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson arranged to fly the team there in his own private jet, beginning a spiritual and personal journey for the team who began to appreciate their Jewishness more. A terrorist attack that occurred while they were touring the country further cemented their connection to their heritage.

Once the tournament starts, the team captures the imagination of the world, becoming the Cinderella story of the tournament. The film doesn’t really cover the individual games in more than a cursory fashion but then again, the movie isn’t about the games themselves.

One of the quirks the team was known for was their mascot, Mensch on the Bench. Sharp Shark Tank viewers may recognize it from an episode of that show, a light-hearted parody of Elf on a Shelf. Well, Team Israel had a life-sized version who accompanied the team to most media events and games. That was indicative of the light-hearted spirit that the team possessed as a whole.

The bonding of the team isn’t particularly unusual; most teams bond in some fashion and Team Israel was no exception. The 2017 team hoped to win the WBC but not for the reasons you might think. They wanted the future of Team Israel to be populated less by American players but with Israeli-born players. A disgruntled Cuban at a press conference excoriated the self-described “Jew Crew” because of this, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water – the Cuban team could certainly have recruited players of Cuban descent from other countries had they chosen to.

At the end of the day underdog movies are pretty much a lifeblood for sports documentaries and this one, while occasionally inspiring, really doesn’t add much to the picture except for one item – the awakening of the players to their Jewish heritage. Those scenes in which the players react to Jewish traditions and ceremonies are among the most compelling in the film. Clearly the players grow a connection to Israel and those are the moments that make the movie satisfying. Unfortunately, the standard sports clichés that litter the baseball sequences keep the movie achieving all-star status.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heartwarming and occasionally inspiring documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses some steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three directors are childhood friends and met Mayo through a Jewish summer camp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cecil

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H


H for...howyadoon?

H for…howyadoon?

(2002) Crime Thriller (Tartan) Jin-hee Ji, Jung-ah Yum, Ji-ru Sung, Seung-woo Cho, Woong-ki Min, Yong-soo Park, Hyuk Poong Kwon, Eol Lee, In-kwon Kim, Kil-soo Park, Sun-kyung Kim, Bu-seon Kim, Roe-ha Kim, Seon-mi Yeon. Directed by Jong-Hyuk Lee

We assume we have control over the things we do. The truth is that our actions are programmed just as surely as any computer – programmed by our environment, by our upbringing, by our own nature. Changing the programming can be an arduous task – or a terribly simple thing.

When a serial killer named Shin Hyun (Cho) turned himself in after brutalizing and murdering six women, all of South Korea breathes a sigh of relief, particularly after the monster is put behind bars where he belongs. But ten months later, when copycat killings begin to appear in Seoul, Police detective Kang (Ji) is assigned the case with his partner Kim (Yum).

Working from clues left at the scenes of the first two crimes, the two detectives determine a suspect and stake out his home. Unfortunately, the killer realizes he’s being watched and attempts to flee into a nearby nightclub. After killing a third woman – exactly the way Shin Hyun had murdered his third victim – Kang shoots the killer and puts him into a coma.

That doesn’t stop the copycat killings. Two more murders are committed and this time they are captured but claim to have no memory of the crimes. Detective Kang determines that they had availed themselves of the services of Dr. Chu (S.K. Kim), a hypnotherapist. An interview with her will send Kang on the road to a confrontation that has been building his entire life and turn this case on its ear.

Director Lee – who also helmed the Bizarro Western The Good The Bad The Weird was clearly influenced by David Fincher’s Se7en. This is part police procedural, part thriller and part slasher flick. Some of the killings are fairly disturbing and while there isn’t a ton of gore, there are some nightmare-inducing images the squeamish may want to turn away from.

Ji makes for a classic anti-hero, a rumpled detective burdened by the sins of others having seen humanity’s worst side, and the weight of his past heavy on his soul. He is a tough customer but his eyes reflect a weary vulnerability. It’s a terrific performance that transcends language.

Lee keeps the tension at a comfortably high level, allowing brief breaks but never for long. While the movie’s ending was a bit of a cop-out, while getting there you’re never quite sure who can be trusted and what the motivations of anybody are. While the movie’s main conceit is not necessarily uncommon, it’s not been utilized in quite this fashion.

This is yet further proof that some of the best filmmaking in the whole world is going on right now in South Korea. Although this film is over a decade old, it carries with it many of the traits that make Korean cinema great – a willingness to tackle subjects that we would consider taboo, an unflinching eye on violence and suffering and acting performances that are generally more modulated than those in other Asian nations. For those looking for a terrific edge-of-your-seat thriller that you haven’t seen before, this is one that should go on your short list.

WHY RENT THIS: Tense and intense. Reminds me of the movie Se7en.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Reminds me too much of the movie Se7en. Twist ending a bit of a no-brainer.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly severe violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was remade in 2009 as the Indian film Amaravathi.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Saw the Devil

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waking Ned Devine

World War Z


Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

Flying zombie, disinterested extras.

(2013) Action (Paramount) Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Matthew Fox, David Morse, Ludi Boeken, Fana Mokoena, Elyes Gabel, Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, Moritz Bleibtreu, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove, Fabrizio Zacharee Guido, David Andrews, Vicky Araico. Directed by Marc Forster

When in the midst of a global pandemic, the sheer magnitude and scope of the carnage can be overwhelming. You can’t wrap your head around it. Instead, everything boils down to the basics – protecting yourself, protecting your family.

Gerry Lane (Pitt) used to work for the United Nations as an investigator into human rights abuses. He was put in harm’s way frequently, going to some of the worst cesspools of humanity that you can imagine. Tired of being away from his family and knowing his marriage wouldn’t survive much more of him being away and in jeopardy, he retires and goes home to Philadelphia to be the dad to his daughters Constance (Jerins) and Rachel (Hargrove), not to mention husband to his wife Karin (Enos).

But all of that turns upside-down after being caught in a traffic jam in which seemingly normal humans turn into super-rabid flesh-eating ghouls, zombies for lack of a better term. He manages to steer them to safety in the apartment of a Hispanic family whose son Tomas (Guido) shows a bond with Gerry’s daughters. Gerry gets a call from his old U.N. boss Thierry Umutoni (Mokoena) who offers to airlift Gerry and his family (which now includes Tomas) to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic. Gerry is in no position to turn it down.

But there’s no such thing as a free ride and Gerry is expected to earn his keep. Umutoni wants Gerry to find the source of the plague so that it might be cured. Gerry doesn’t want to leave his family but the U.N. Military Commander (Dale) essentially blackmails Gerry into it so off he goes with gung-ho U.N. research virologist Dr. Fassbach (Gabel) to find out how to stop this plague which will wipe out civilization in a matter of days if it isn’t stopped.

So begins the roller coaster ride as Gerry and his team go from place to place in a desperate race against time to find the cause of the plague and somehow cure it before civilization collapses entirely, and that collapse is coming almost as fast as the terrifyingly speedy zombies who seem to have the upper hand.

This isn’t a typical zombie movie in which entrails and blood form the main fascination. While there is some leg munching, we rarely see the zombies in close-up except in the last third of the film when Lane is in a World Health Organization research facility in Wales and has a close encounter with a tooth-clicking zombie that is as terrifying as the opening Philadelphia sequence is. If only the middle third was as good as the opening and closing sequences.

There is a lot of carnage but most of it is off-screen. People do get killed but we rarely see it precisely, making it a definite PG-13 kind of movie. There will be those who miss the explicit gore that comes with a zombie movie but I didn’t think it necessary myself here.

Those who loved the Max Brooks book this was based on will miss a lot more than gore. The movie follows the book only in the barest of chalk outlines. While some of the characters from the book appear here, it is often in different contexts. The tone and themes of the book are essentially gone, along with the whole conceit that this is an archival document of a war that had already ended.

Pitt is one of the more appealing actors in Hollywood and he uses that here to make Gerry a character with a bit of a one-track mind – getting back to his family. Da Queen loved that the U.N. Observer was so…observant. Watching him connect the dots was fun, although not as fun as watching the zombies crawl up a stone wall like ants. While the digital zombies lacked character (the way that you get zombie character in such things as The Walking Dead) it is certainly fun watching them swarm. It emphasizes the inhuman portion of them.

This is basically Pitt’s show. He is onscreen nearly every moment and the focus of all our attention. Few of the other characters are developed at all, if any and for the most part even Pitt’s Gerry is kind of one-note. Still, the suspense of walking in dangerous areas with zombies about is impressive and I found myself on the edge of my proverbial seat for much of the movie. Think of it as extra icing on the zombie cake.

REASONS TO GO: I really liked the Brad Pitt character and his performance. Zombies like ants; great visuals!

REASONS TO STAY: Fans of the book will be very disappointed. A little all over the place plot-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s quite a bit of zombie violence, some disturbing images and some intense sequences of suspense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Fox’s role was originally much larger and was to be set up to be the human villain for the expected sequel. However after multiple re-writes the role was slimmed down to just five lines of dialogue.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100; the film got surprisingly decent reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Darkest Hour

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White House Down