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

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Down, But Not Out


Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

(2015) Sports Documentary (Green Box) Alicja Cichewicz, Anna Pazdur-Czarnowska, Przemyslaw “Przemek” Rydynski, Daria Strzepka, Agnieszka Szmerek. Directed by Miguel Gaudéncio

Some call boxing the “sweet science” for reasons I can’t fathom. Any aficionado of the sport will tell you that it isn’t just two lugs throwing punches at one another; boxing requires skill, strategy and the ability to literally think on your feet.

A quartet of Polish women are going to an amateur boxing tournament in Poznan to box in their first matches. They are Alicja, Anna, Daria and Agnieszka – which sounds a bit like a Swedish pop group – and they are accompanied by their coach Przemek. He acts as their mentor, confidante, cheerleader and comforter. As the matches continue, the girls learn that sparring is a lot different than boxing, that heart and courage can take time to accumulate and that the sport is so much harder than it looks.

Filmed in gritty black and white, the film has a bit of a verité look to it, a cross between a newsreel and noir. Portuguese director Gaudéncio has a good eye and lines up some really nice shots, although at times he seems to fall in love with his own imagery; early on, an out of focus shot of passing streetlamps runs on interminably. I suspect that he is still learning the rhythms of film making, or at least of editing.

Even so, the movie runs on a mere 67 minutes so there is brevity to it, but it covers a 24 hour span. That’s not nearly enough time to get to know five people, and so Gaudéncio opts not to even try. We get no interviews, no voiceover narration, no graphics. Just raw footage and there is something to be admired about that.

Still, even a documentary is telling a story and in that sense Gaudéncio abrogates his responsibility by simply putting up the footage and letting us see it, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. Why did these four women, all of whom are beauties, enter the ring in the first place? What about what is likely the world’s most brutal sport appealed to them? What did they hope to accomplish? Were they intending to turn pro? None of these questions are answered because none of these questions are asked.

We end up not caring much who wins or loses each fight; we are simply observers and are not invested in what we see. That is the difference between raw footage and a documentary; in one, we become interested in the subjects because we know something about them and can relate to them. The other is like watching a boxing match on HBO – worse still, because HBO generally tells you something about the boxers and who they are. Here we are left with little more than names.

The paucity of information is offset somewhat by the dazzling electronic soundtrack and the beautiful black and white images. Perhaps this is a movie that simply should be experienced without preconceptions and without judgment; in that sense, this is what cinema verité is supposed to ideally be. However, this isn’t a film that is inclined to spoonfed their audience anything and while we get maddening glimpses of who these people are, we don’t get enough to really want to get to know them further which is simply death to a documentary.

At the end of the day the fighters and their managers become mere faces on a screen. Pretty faces, yes; but just faces nonetheless. They are no more compelling than the animatronic figures in the Disney parks and that does them a disservice. I think I see what the director was going for here, and I can admire his desire to make something unique, but unique doesn’t necessarily mean better always. I think there are those who will love this movie – certainly boxing fans will want to see it – but I think that there are many more who will find this a hard sell.

WHY RENT THIS: Love the soundtrack. Some cool cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No interaction with boxers whatsoever. Look, Ma, I’m directing. Style over substance.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The longest production element was the soundtrack, which took four months to record and sync.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Gift

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)