We Are Marshall


They are Marshall.

They are Marshall.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Warner Brothers) Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Katie Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Brian Geraghty, Tommy Cresswell, Christian Kanupke, Nina Jones, Kevin Atkins, Mark Patton, Robert Patrick, Katie Kneeland Directed by McG

The American Experience 2015

On November 14, 1970, a chartered plane carrying the football team of Marshall University, the Thundering Herd, back to Huntington WV where the University is following a loss to the East Carolina Pirates clipped some trees on the approach to the runway and crashed into a gully a mile from landing safely. Every one of the 75 souls on that plane died in the horrific, fiery crash.

It remains the worst loss of life regarding an American sports team in history but it was more than that. Along with almost the entire Marshall football team, the plane carried the athletic director for the university, four trainers, all but one of the coaches, a state legislator, a city councilman, four physicians and 25 boosters. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash and 18 were orphaned.

The effect on the community was devastating. Huntington was then (and is now) a small college town; much of the town’s life revolves around the university and their football team, though it had been mediocre in recent years, still was a source of pride to the town. With the town paralyzed by grief, Marshall’s acting president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) was ready to discontinue the football program. However, Nate Ruffin (Mackie), a wide receiver who hadn’t gone on the trip to East Carolina due to an injury, convinced Dedmon (with the help of the student body) to keep the team.

The surviving coach, Red Dawson (Fox) was offered the head coach position but was too grief-stricken to accept. After a long, fruitless search, Jack Lengyel (McConaughey) from tiny Wooster College, was given the job. It wouldn’t be an easy one. Essentially, they’d be starting a team from scratch, utilizing athletes from other sports at the University and former members of the Junior Varsity. Dedmon, at Lengyel’s urging, petitioned the NCAA to allow freshmen to be eligible to play on the Varsity. At the time, Freshmen were forbidden to play for the Varsity, the line of thought being that they didn’t have the maturity to handle the pressures of big time college athletics and that a year adjusting to college life would be more beneficial; the NCAA has since changed their rules on that matter.

Still, it would be an uphill battle and everyone knew that the team would be just awful that year. Would a team woefully unqualified truly be able to honor the memory of those who had died, or would they tarnish it? Is just stepping on the field enough?

While We Are Marshall disappointed at the box office when it was released, it has since become something of an icon of the true sports drama genre. Certainly the story is compelling enough; watching an entire town and university grieve for an unimaginable tragedy is almost mind-boggling. Even now, almost a decade after the movie came out, I still mist up just thinking about it.

For the most part, McG handles the tragedy with sensitivity. For one thing, he doesn’t show the actual crash, just the aftermath. He doesn’t beat the audience over the head with grief, although certainly the grieving process is a part of the film’s story. Less is more in this case.

McConaughey at the time this was made was best known for romantic comedies in which he usually found an excuse to take his shirt off. In many ways, this was the movie that led us to reconsider our opinion about the actor and reveal that there was more to him than a laid-back romantic lead. The guy can act, as was revealed more recently with an Oscar win and an Emmy nomination.

There are some other performances here that are worth knowing. McShane plays a University trustee in favor of discontinuing football; his son – the starting quarterback – had died in the crash and in many ways his grief had overwhelmed him. Fox is outstanding as Dawson, a man with survivor’s guilt who slowly comes on board with the idea of resuming his life. Mackie’s Ruffin provides leadership for the team and University. Strathairn gives Dedmon gravitas and the reliable character actor is at the top of his game here.

One of the few things I can fault the film for is its dialogue. It doesn’t sound like human beings talking; it’s mostly a series of inspirational quotes. I would have preferred fewer platitudes and more realistic conversation. While it might have looked good in the script, it creates a gulf between audience and character that is unnecessary; we really want to relate to them and it’s harder to when they sound like Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig’s final speech.

That said this is one of the most moving sports films ever made, right up there with Hoosiers and The Miracle. Some might find it to be manipulative – the subplot involving Katie Mara’s waitress character (she was the fiance of Ian McShane’s son) certainly is – but overall I thought the movie comes by its emotional impact honestly. It can take more courage to get up in the morning and move on with your life than it does to step onto a battlefield, and in the face of overwhelming grief, the courage and heart of an entire town and University is to be admired.

WHY RENT THIS: McConaughey breaks out as a dramatic actor. Deeply moving and effective subject matter. Handled with reverence and respect.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subplots are occasionally manipulative and the characters tend to speak in platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: The material can be very emotional and those who are sensitive about such things should probably steer clear. There’s also some mildly harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While much of the movie was filmed in Huntington, the stadium that the Thundering Herd played in back in 1971 – Fairfield Stadium – had been demolished in 2004. The filmmakers used Herndon Stadium in Atlanta for Marshall’s home games in the movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray both include an ad for West Virginia tourism, a featurette on legendary college coaches and what techniques they used to motivate their students and a brief look at Marshall University today.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.6M on a $65M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

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McFarland, USA


Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

Kevin Costner urges one of his runners on.

(2015) True Sports Drama (Disney) Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Diana Maria Riva, Omar Leyva, Valente Rodriguez, Danny Mora, Morgan Saylor, Elsie Fisher, Martha Higareda, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Ben Bray, Vanessa Martinez, Adriana Diaz Chapa. Directed by Niki Caro

The American dream is a finicky thing. We all want to achieve it, but there are places in this country where just surviving day to day is about all anyone can hope for. When that happens, we must learn to rely on each other to be our own safety net.

McFarland in California’s San Joaquin Valley is such a place. Made up mostly of farm workers (mostly of Mexican descent) on nearby agribusiness, the town touts itself as America’s Fruit Basket. The reality however is that there are few services and almost no money for what they do have.

Jim White (Costner) is coaching football at a suburban high school when he gets into an altercation with a spoiled brat of a player which ends up with a frustrated White throwing a shoe at the locker which then takes an unintended ricochet and hitting the player. Adios, tony suburban high school job and bienvenidos best job that he can get, in the middle of nowhere where the only restaurant in town has a six item menu and none of them are burgers.

White feels like a fish out of water and his family are also feeling like aliens. They are awakened every morning by a rooster crowing and none of them speak any amount of Spanish. He’s the new P.E. coach at McFarland high, as well as the assistant football coach and he’s not even that when he refuses to put a player in who is exhibiting signs of a concussion and the head coach demands that Principal Camillo (V. Rodriguez) remove the prickly assistant coach, which Camillo does although he can’t really afford to fire him, since they have no substitutes or back-ups. So White continues as the P.E. teacher as well as a life sciences teacher.

One of the things that White notices is that some of his kids – most of whom get up at 4 AM to go out and work in the fields before coming to school for 8 hours and then returning to the fields until dark – are incredibly fast and durable owing to that many of them run from school to the fields miles away every day and have been since they were ten or twelve years old. With the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body of high school athletics in the Golden State, initiating a statewide cross country championship (this takes place in 1987 just for the record) White has a brilliant idea; establish a cross country team, do well enough to get some attention and then get a job offer in some civilized suburban community where he and his long-suffering wife (Bello) and kids, young Jamie (Fisher) and soon-to-graduate Julie (Saylor) belong.

He recruits a team by hook or by crook and ends up with mercurial Thomas Valles (Pratts), the swiftest of the bunch; Johnny Sameniego (Duran), an easygoing sort; David (R. Martinez) and Damacio (Aguero) Diaz as well as their chunky but all-heart brother Danny Diaz (R. Rodriguez) and lady’s man Jose Cardenas (Ortiz). They have raw talent but not a lot of technique or discipline – nor a lot of desire in what they consider to be a foolish pursuit. Cross country is, after all, a sport for prep schools and rarefied air.

What they do have however is a solid work ethic, ingrained in them by their hours in the fields, and a sense of family and community. In fact the latter is central to the existence of McFarland – everybody in McFarland is family, to the point that Jim’s wife is moved to say “No place has ever felt like home to me as much as this one.”

Still, as the team begins to get some success, White begins to attract the attention of schools like Palo Alto High, who have a large budget and a history of winning. With the state championships within reach, will Jim commit to his runners the same way they’ve committed to him or will he move on and get the kind of lifestyle he always dreamed of?

This could easily have been just another sports underdog movie and there are always a few of them every year. Disney seems to be the most active purveyor of them, and in all fairness they have brought it down to a science. There are some formulaic aspects to most of these movies – the introduction, the first failed attempts, the coming together, the falling apart, the reuniting and the triumph – and some of those are present here. When you’re watching one, you know intellectually that the team/individual is going to triumph. Nobody, after all, wants to go to a movie to see someone fail.

Therefore it’s the journey to that triumph that makes these sorts of movies successful and the reason McFarland USA succeeds is that the filmmakers in the person of director Niki (Whale Rider) Caro from New Zealand who shows a surprising empathy for the Mexican-American culture. We are shown how they support one another and the innate friendliness and warmth of the people. Sure, there’s crime (there is a scene where White mistakes a car club for a Latino gang and later a real gang takes on the car club) but there always is where there is poverty and there’s plenty of that to go around in McFarland.

Although the racial aspect is played up, the filmmakers surprisingly kind of gloss over the racism directed to the McFarland team (one elitist runner makes a few cracks but is shut down by one of the runners for McFarland early in the movie) and towards the McFarland community in general; I would have liked to have seen that avenue explored a little more but I’m not surprised that it wasn’t; Disney is sensitive about such things and tend to turn a blind eye even in films in which those elements are a central feature. The Mouse, after all, prefers a world where such ugliness doesn’t exist.

But exist it does, so you’ll have to just assume that the team endured rougher treatment than is shown here. Generally speaking, the film isn’t about that in any case – the movie celebrates the sense of community that the Mexican-Americans of McFarland have created.

Costner tends to thrive on these sorts of roles and he does so here, giving White a kind of craggy resourcefulness and a willingness to learn about the culture into which he’s been thrust (he goes out on a Saturday morning to pick cabbage with his students in order to experience what they’re going through). The more he bonds with his team, the more about the culture he becomes involved with.  After missing his daughter’s birthday dinner, he throws her a quinceanera, a Mexican celebration of a young girl’s 15th birthday which is a really big deal in that culture. It’s one of the movie’s most charming scenes.

Most of the Hispanic cast is solid, with Mora getting plaudits as a friendly store owner and Leyva as a skeptical dad who wants to pull his sons from the team – every moment they’re practicing with the team they’re not working in the fields and that means money not going into the family’s pocket or more to the point, food not going onto their table. Riva plays his wife, one of those no-nonsense practical Mexican wives that in Southern California are as common as palm trees and as beautiful in their own way as the Pacific.

Some critics have accused the movie about being patronizing towards Hispanics in that the movie portrays White as the unifying force that brings the team together and inspires them to win, sort of a “they couldn’t have done it without him great white hope” sort of thing. I didn’t see it that way; for one thing, the reality of the situation is that this predominantly Hispanic high school did have a white cross country coach and he did lead them to an amazing run of success, but the movie isn’t about a white guy showing the Hispanics how to do it – if anything, he learns more from them than they do from him.

 

I found myself drawn in by the film. Sure it has all the cliches of a typical underdog true life sports movie, but then again I’m a sucker for those cliches so it doesn’t bother me quite so much. What I really liked was the sense of family and community spirit that the movie celebrates. While I can’t say for certain that every Hispanic community is like that, I know that they do continue to exist and I, for one, wouldn’t mind living in that sort of community myself.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely promotes a sense of family and community. Some very nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit formulaic. Could have tackled racism aspect harder.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language, brief violence and some thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Costner attended high school for one year in Visalia, only 40 miles north of McFarland.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Maps to the Stars

When the Game Stands Tall


Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

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

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

The Rocket


The Rocket

Hockey ain't no game for sissies!

(2007) True Sports Drama (Palm) Roy Dupuis, Julie Le Breton, Stephen McHattie, Patrice Robitaille, Mike Ricci, Francois Langlois-Vallieres, Randy Thomas, Vincent Lacavalier, Sean Avery, Remy Girard, Pascal Dupuis, Ian Laperriere, Stephane Quintal. Directed by Claude Biname

Every sport has its Babe Ruth; a dominant figure who changes the nature of the game forever. However, once in awhile, a player comes along who not only changes the nature of his sport forever, he changes the world around him as well.

Maurice Richard (Dupuis) is the most dominant ice hockey player in his era. A gifted goal scorer, a rough customer and a talented playmaker, he has led the Montreal Canadiens to the upper echelon of the National Hockey League. His suspension for the remainder of the 1955 season after striking an official caused rioting in Montreal.

And yet he came from humble beginnings. As a teenager (Langlois-Vallieres) he worked in a factory by day and played junior league hockey at night. His exploits on the ice impressed young Lucille Norchet who would eventually become his wife (Le Breton). He also impresses scouts for the hometown Canadiens enough that he is given a tryout for the team which has been mired in a bout of underachievement for years. Their new coach, Dick Irvin (McHattie) wants winners. He doesn’t see any on his squad.

Watching Richard’s tryout, he realizes he has a player whose will to win is like nothing ever seen before in hockey. Although hockey experts caution Irvin against signing the young winger due to the number of injuries he’d suffered in the junior leagues, Irvin takes a chance and signs him. At first, it doesn’t look like a brilliant idea. Richard is inconsistent on the ice and when he breaks a leg during a game, it looks like the Canadiens got a lemon – a fragile player susceptible to injury.

But Richard does come back. Put on a line with Elmer Lach (Ricci) and Hector “Toe” Blake (Thomas), he becomes one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the game. His skills make him a target – the Rangers send out “Killer” Dill (Avery), a noted goon, to take him out of the game permanently but Richard is well able to defend himself.

Part of what makes him a target is his status as a French-Canadian. Back in the post-World War II era of the NHL – indeed, in all of hockey – French-Canadians were second class citizens. They were given separate caged-in seats to watch the game from at the Montreal Forum, and the players were the targets of racial slurs and excessive violence.

Richard’s skills made him one of the first French-speaking hockey players to acquire a mass following. He had a regular column in the Montreal daily newspaper that was a must-read for French-speaking citizens of the city. He criticized Clarence Campbell, commissioner of the NHL, for not administering discipline in the same way when French-Canadian players were involved. His columns were so inflammatory that eventually the Canadiens had to ask him to stop writing them or risk being fined by the league.

Richard is never paid very much, relatively speaking and feels it necessary to work at the same factory he did as a teenager during the summers when hockey is on hiatus. Supporting his family is very important to him and he is worried that if his hockey career comes to an end prematurely he won’t be able to do that. Still, despite the hardships, despite the injuries, even despite the abuse he perseveres to become the greatest hockey player of his time – and arguably ever.

Before Gretzky there was Richard and it’s hard for us Americans to comprehend what he means in the province of Quebec and specifically in Montreal. I suppose it’s very much like Michael Jordan in Chicago or Carl Yastrzemski in Boston but it’s much more than that. It goes beyond that adulation of an athlete – it’s almost a cultural thing. Richard is very much part of the identity of French Canada.

Before this movie was made, there was a four hour miniseries (in 1999 to be exact) about Richard that also starred Dupuis (who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to the Rocket) and much of this movie is taken from that mini-series. Director Biname does an admirable job with a microscopic budget (by Hollywood standards) and while the movie smacks of boosterism a little bit, there seems to have been an effort to make it as factual as possible. However, there are times when the low budget aspect of the movie shows onscreen which is unsettling.

Dupuis is stolid in playing Richard for the third time in his career. Richard was never the most charismatic of men – he preferred to lead quietly. That makes it difficult for Dupuis to truly grab your attention onscreen as he pretty much has to low-key it throughout. The same goes for Le Breton as Lucille; she never really has much to do other than being the faithful, loyal wife.

McHattie gets much more of a plum role as the fiery Coach Irvin. He brings the irascible coach to life, his belief in Richard helping the player achieve what he did. His is the most memorable performance of the movie. There are also a number of former and current NHL stars in the film, some having more prominent roles than others such as current Tampa Bay Lightning star Lacavalier as the Canadiens’ elegant star Jean Beliveau and former San Jose Shark Ricci as Richard’s linemate.

This isn’t the greatest hockey movie ever but it may very well be the most earnest. There is no doubt that Richard revolutionized the game and has left an indelible mark both on the NHL and on Canada; I would have liked to see a little more of the latter, but they do a great job on the former. Most Americans wouldn’t know a slap shot from a wrist shot but this is a movie that offers insight to the Canadian soul, particularly her French speakers.

WHY RENT THIS: As much of a look back at cultural and class inequalities of the era as a full-blown hockey movie. Decent hockey sequences give you an idea of how dominant Richard really was.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poor production values are noticeable in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some hockey violence and quite a bit of blood as a result, a smattering of foul language and yes, there’s smoking which let us remember was common back then. Get over it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was reviewed by Richard himself shortly before his death in order to maintain as much accuracy as possible.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 22 minute feature on the real Richard and his impact not only on the game of hockey but on Canada and the province of Quebec in particular. It’s a pretty extensive piece with interviews with contemporaries of Richard as well as current NHL players.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Hangover Part II

Invincible


Invincible

Greg Kinnear and Mark Wahlberg practice the Philadelphia Eagles' secret handshake.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Disney) Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rispoli, Kevin Conway, Michael Nouri, Paige Turco, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Nicoye Banks, Stink Fisher, Lola Glaudini. Directed by Ericson Core

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones once said “Never tell me the odds.” Vince Papale not only heard him say it, he lived his life by it.

Papale (Wahlberg) was like many people in South Philadelphia in 1976, fighting for survival. He was holding down two jobs, as a substitute teacher and as a part-time bartender. When the school district cut back on teaching positions, Papale found himself in a bind. His wife Sharon (Glaudini) could handle no more and she left him, writing a vitriolic note that left no uncertainty about how she felt – the man she married was a loser who would never amount to much.

The Philadelphia Eagles NFL team was in similar straits. They’d suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, and not just losing seasons, humiliating seasons. The fandom in Philly, never known for being particularly tolerant of losing teams, was angry. Already in a bad mood because of the economy, strikes and unemployment, the lift they were looking for from their football team just wasn’t there. Owner Leonard Tose (Nouri), looking for a way out of the downward spiral, knew the team needed a change in the head coach position. Rather than hiring a well-known name, he selected a college coach with no previous professional experience – Dick Vermeil (Kinnear) from UCLA.

Vermeil was coming off an inspiring Rose Bowl win over Ohio State. He knew that he would be in the crosshairs to win immediately, but also realized that he didn’t have much in the way of personnel. In order to build more interest in his team, he announced that he was going to hold open tryouts. Keep in mind that open tryouts are virtually unheard of for an NFL team, who normally add players through trades with other teams or through the college draft. 

Papale’s friends, like Pete (Kelly), who had never been the same after his brother was killed in Vietnam, and Tommy (Acevedo) who was on strike at Westinghouse, and his employer at the bar Max (Rispoli) all urged Papale to attend the tryout. Not only was Papale a superfan, he was also dominant in the pickup football games played in a loose league that pitted the employees and customers of various South Philly bars against one another. When Max’s comely cousin Janet (Banks), a hardcore Giants fan, chimes in, he finally gives in despite the misgivings of his father (Conway).

The local media treats the tryouts as a joke and for the most part they are, but Papale, who is big and speedy and also has heart and determination catches Vermeil’s eye. Of all the tryouts, Vince is the only one to be invited to training camp. The guys at the bar are ecstatic and all of South Philly picks up on it. Vince is their hero, living a fans dream.

The other players in the Eagle locker room are not so sanguine. They look at Papale as an upstart, an invader and an affront. They all expect him to be cashiered after a few days as does Vince himself. To everyone’s surprise, he hangs in there. Papale doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit and he gives everything he can, figuring he might as well leave it all on the field. After all, he is 30 years old. When is he going to have another chance to try out for an NFL team?

For Vermeil, the pressure becomes exponentially more intense. As the Eagles lose game after game in the preseason, the press is howling for blood, the fans are right there with them and only his wife (Turco) seems to be in his corner. Still, Vermeil knows what it takes to win whether in college, high school, NFL, pee wees what have you. And although it is getting harder to keep Papale, who is taking quite a beating from the resentful veterans, he just can’t deny the attitude which is precisely what he wants to instill in his team. 

At last, he relents and gives Papale the last spot on the team to play on the special team squad. Although the media spotlight on Papale brings the kind of attention to the team that sells tickets (which makes Tose happy), if Papale doesn’t perform in the games, it is going to be very bad for Vermeil. Their fates are now inextricably linked.

Of course, this is a Disney sports film so you know immediately how the movie is going to end. It is totally formula, but it is a successful formula. Wahlberg is convincing as a big hearted fan full of self-doubt. Director Core has captured the atmosphere of South Philly perfectly. Da Queen’s family is from Philly (although not the south side) and she vouches for the authenticity. It has the feel of a working class neighborhood, where everybody knows each other and they’re all in the same boat together.

The football scenes didn’t ring as true to me, with players leaping like gazelles (although the pop of the hits was captured nicely on the soundtrack) and shimmying and shaking. Frankly, Friday Night Lights caught more of the feeling of being on the field than Invincible did. Still, that can be overlooked, particularly when you throw in the awkward romance that is generated between Janet and Vince, two wounded souls that are gun-shy but drawn to each other like a moth to a flame.

Disney has created itself a new niche in the sports underdog movie, with things like The Rookie and Remember the Titans among others. Invincible doesn’t disgrace itself and in fact hits a lot of notes really nicely, much the same way Miracle did. If you’re looking for a reason to feel good, here’s a movie that will generate the warm fuzzies in just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Successful sports underdog movie hits all the right notes. Wahlberg captures the never-say-die attitude of Papale perfectly. The romance between Wahlberg and Banks works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ll feel like you’ve seen this movie before.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some football violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both of Papale’s real life children make cameos in the film, during a pick-up football game his daughter Gabriella play the quarterback who throws the ball to her brother Vincent, wearing the makeshift #83 jersey.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a terrific feature on the real Vince Papale, “Becoming Invincible” which nicely imitates the NFL Films documentary style. On the Blu-Ray edition, “Becoming the Vet” shows how the filming took place at Franklin Field, the Eagles’ home field from 1958-1970; the filmmakers used computer graphics to give the stadium the look of Veteran’s Stadium, where the Eagles played at the time the movie was set but was imploded in 2004, shortly before filming began.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even and possibly made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Fog (2005)