In Your Queue: Baseball Docs


In baseball, it’s often said that “you just can’t write this stuff.” Sometimes the real-life drama of the game is so unbelievable that you’d roll your eyes if it were a movie. That makes it all the more difficult to make a good baseball film. Give it a think: You probably don’t need both of your hands to count them all, so susceptible are they to insufferable schmaltz, rank sentimentality and invalid team loyalties.

It’s documentary where baseball films really take off. Bull Durham and Bang the Drum Slowly aside, it’s hard to take most baseball films seriously. Even the classic ones, like Mr. Baseball or Major League, need a qualifier when talking about them. You don’t often need that when talking about documentaries, and no documentary captures the spirit of the game so thoroughly as Ken Burns’ recently updated Baseball (streaming on Netflix and Hulu+), an 11-part, 22-hour history of the sport, from its invention in the 1850s through the current steroid era and every up and down that the game – and the country – face in between. Even if Burns himself suffers from an invalid team loyalty (to the Red Sox), it doesn’t show in this immense, lovingly crafted PBS production.

Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball (Hulu+) is the surprisingly emotional story of two high-school teams from Japan – the reigning champions and a public school that has never gotten beyond regionals – trying to reach Koshien, the hotly contested summer baseball tournament where players like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka made their names before the MLB. It means everything to these kids – the players and their classmates alike – and they show it in this short, relatable doc through their hard work and through their tears and their observance of the traditions of those who went before them.

In Ballplayer: Pelotero (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu+) the dark side of baseball comes out as young Dominican players (Minnesota top prospect Miguel Sano and Houston prospect Jean Carlos Batista) go through the struggles of poverty and humiliation of an MLB investigation into their ages (a huge problem with Dominican prospects) as they try for a better life through baseball.

There is a rough American parallel in Harvard Park (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu+), the story of Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis, premier players of the 1980s, who went through similar struggles in South Central but ended up back every summer to train at the park. For them, like a lot of the early ball players, baseball is a way out more than a pastime. They do it for love of their family as much as for the love of the game, though the love of the game is never in question.

Alex Cox Repo Man Q&A – 4/12/13 – Alamo Drafthouse, Denver



There was a full house on Friday night at the Alamo Drafthouse in Denver for a screening of Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man, the first 35mm screening at the Denver Drafthouse since its opening.

The film is a sort of low life gutter punk approximation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that mingles a story of disaffected youth, disaffected middle age and stolen alien bodies together for a test drive and rides it right off the edge of the cliff in magnificent glory.

It’s an interesting Q&A, going into the backstory of Tracy Walter and Sy Richardson’s characters, the generic products, a little about the soundtrack, and Cox learns about the death of The Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams (they showed this video before the film), and Cox’s own life as a repo man for GMAC. I edited out the questions because you couldn’t really hear them, and he sort of repeats the question as he answers it.

For a first trip to the Drafthouse, it’s hard to ask for a better experience. Seeing a great print of a really fun film like Repo Man in 35mm with the director there for a post-screening Q&A made it, aside from Cox’s completely wrongheaded opinion on Black Flag aside (you can hear me booing for a second), a pretty special night.

Check out the Kickstarter that Cox talks about for Bill the Galactic Hero.

In Your Queue: Old Men and Thieves (“I’m Not Rappaport”, “The Good Thief”)


I’m Not Rappaport – Herb Gardner (1996)

It’s a damn shame that we’ve lost both Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis in the years since I’m Not Rappaport came out. They were true titans, actors with depth and range honed on the stage in the 40s before making it to Hollywood. They star here as Nat Moyer and Midge Carter, two old Joes who while away the days in Central Park, each fleeing pasts full of regret as well as the limited future offered to them by a daughter who wants to send Nat off on “the Siberian Express” to a home, and a tenant board president that wants to oust Midge from his superintendent job and his apartment. A common enemy, the young bully JC (Guillermo Díaz) and the old bully (Craig T. Nelson), and a common friend, the young artist Laurie (Martha Plimpton) unite these two men to common goals, even though Midge can’t stand Nat, who never met a moment of silence he liked. Davis and Matthau are a perfect couple, bounding back and forth between spasms of hilarity and pulses of heartbreak with a fine ease. They are charming to the extreme in every second of the picture. Charm is something of a dead artform these days, where everyone is so busy brooding or being a badass to flash that smile and break into any heart like a crowbar. (Available to stream on Netflix)

The Good Thief – Neil Jordan (2003)

Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief — a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville French new wave classic Bob le Flambeur — was the first film Nick Nolte starred in after his notorious arrest (and mugshot) for driving under the influence of GHB. He wasn’t in rehab that long, but a string of bombs between The Good Thief in 2003 and The Thin Red Line in 1998 make it a fair deal to call this a comeback film. And what a comeback it was for the gravelly leading man. He plays Bob, a lowlife gambler and junkie with a colorful background in big money heists and art forgery who is wasting his life away in beautiful Monte Carlo. Or at least Monte Carlo has beautiful parts, but Jordan takes us to the back alleys and dive bars that the tourists don’t usually get to see. That’s where Bob assembles his crew to pick off a vault full of priceless paintings once he realizes the ones hanging in a new casino are forgeries. Like any other heist film, only a tenacious cop (the maniacal genius, Tchéky Karyo) and one of the most sophisticated vaults ever designed stand in the way of the biggest score of their lives.

As a film, I prefer The Good Thief to Bob le Flambeur, maybe only for the fact that I saw the remake first. Bob le Flambeur is also excellent, but there is an existential malaise that permeates the original that the remake doesn’t have. It’s livelier, which feels like an important thing in a heist movie. Both are more than heist films, though that’s the main thrust of each. They are both about a crooked sort of redemption. Neither of the Bobs is an underdog, they are both unrealized heroes who have lost their path in life in a dramatic way. In The Good Thief, Anne (Nutsa Kukhianidze), a young girl with a broken wing making all of the wrong choices that Bob has already made, is his path to redemption. She may not need all of the help he offers, indeed she may actually help him more than he helps her, but redemption isn’t a solid state, it’s whatever gets you by. The odds are against it working, but it’s Monte Carlo, so its worth the bet.

(Available on Netflix — and just for good measure, you can stream the original on Hulu)

Hugo – Martin Scorsese (2011)


I have no idea how this fell through the cracks, but it’s been sitting here as a draft since November, 2011.

Late on in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) stands upon the stage in his tuxedo, drenched in spotlight, a mix of nerves and excitement in his face and in his voice, and welcomes the wizards and magicians in the crowd.

Despite coming towards the end, it’s a fitting welcome to this film too. It’s a film which was seemingly handcrafted entirely by wizards and magicians, made for people in awe of the kind of magic and wizardry that the camera can be used to compose. The camera may not be made of gears and sprockets anymore, it may not print onto celluloid anymore, or even have the same dimensions that the original film magicians, but the spirit is the same, and so is the magic — especially from Scorsese and Bob Richardson’s hands.

Adapted from the children’s novel by Brian Selznick (grandson of the legendary David O. Selznick), Hugo tells the story of a little poor boy (Asa Butterfield) in 1920s Paris who goes to live in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station after the death of his father (Jude Law) in a fire. Barely more than an orphan, Hugo is stuck tending to and winding the station’s clocks for his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk and a scoundrel who has been off on a bender for weeks by the time the film starts. Hugo has nothing left of his past life, except an old mechanical man that he and his father were trying to fix, his father’s notebook about how to do it.

When he is caught stealing parts in aid of that purpose by Papa Georges, an old toymaker who keeps a booth in the station, an adventure is set before Hugo and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the toymaker’s goddaughter who may literally hold the key to unravel the mystery behind the mechanical man. It’s an adventure that traces through the origins and history of the cinema as well both of their family histories, one that radically changes each of their lives, and maybe even the world as we know it today.

Early on, though, I had a tough time getting past the idea that Scorsese had decided to jump onto the bandwagon and make a 3D film — and a kids’ movie no less. How do you get blood and Catholic guilt into a kids’ movie, and why does it need to be in my face about it? But not only is Hugo enjoyable in 3D (and 2D as well), it turns out to be the best use of the format to date. It’s the first time that I’ve seen where 3D was used genuinely, not as a gimmick to pad the box office receipts like so many others.

Of course none of that would mean anything without the tender story to take a piggyback ride on. Selznik’s original, and John Logan’s adaptation are beautifully crafted and seemingly tailor made for Scorsese’s historian sensibilities. You can feel every bit of Scorsese the skinny, bed-ridden boy in the ragamuffin Hugo, who is so alone and afraid of being sent to the orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) that he doesn’t know what to do when he is presented with a friendship. And Isabelle, the story’s quasi-narrator, doesn’t fall into the trap of Hugo’s information crutch, even though she starts out an expository character. Chole Moretz rescues her with grace and cunning. She’s a bookworm’s bookworm, tough and loyal with a lot more Francie Nolan to her than Hermoine Granger (who needed a fair bit of saving from Emma Watson herself). But it’s Sorsese who is the real wizard here, whipping this all together with a superb eye, a deft hand and a whole lot of heart.

Yi Yi: A One and a Two – Edward Yang (1990)


Let’s be upfront about this: Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two is a masterpiece. It was a masterpiece when it was released in 2001, it was a masterpiece when Criterion released it on DVD in 2005 and it’s a slightly prettier masterpiece now that they released it on Blu-Ray on March 15.

Yi Yi is Yang’s most beautiful and touching film, an emotionally complex visual poem of the struggles of a family in Taipei after Granny (Ru-Yun Tang) falls into a coma. “The spark that led me to make this film was I decided that I was going to make a film about life, from birth to death,” he told Michael Berry in 2002 for Berry’s book, Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers.

Breaking that lifespan down into three generations of a family allowed Yang to tell the story in a more manageable way, framing it around three family events, and allowed the normally conservative Yang to become the most playful he’s ever been with his cinematic space – a necessity for the film’s youngest star, the inquisitive, introspective eight-year-old son, Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), to 
come to life.

Unlike many other Taiwanese films, the narrative in Yi Yi is not bogged down by a deluge of Taiwan’s tumultuous political and cultural history. The characters live and breathe in their own time, in their own way, and get into their own trouble without the help of the Kuomintang. Yang’s teasing camera, along with the film’s universal themes of love, regret and death allow it to become Yang’s – and probably Taiwanese cinema’s – most accessible film. “It’s not death I’m interested in here, it is life,” he told Berry. “In life, you have to go through these things to test your own boundaries. Sometimes it is only when we are faced with loss that we truly appreciate how 
sacred life is.”

In some ways, it’s what Band of Outsiders is to the rest of Jean-Luc Godard’s work: A wonderful gateway drug that leads you to chase the sensation again, and the deeper you dig, the harder you have to work for it. But unlike some of Godard’s material, Yang’s work is always worth the doing.

Up – Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (2009)


It must be freeing to know that you have an audience before you even compose your first thought for a project. It’s a luxury very few people enjoy in the movie business, but an audience is a fait accompli for anyone working with the Pixar logo at the head of their credits. Pixar has the kind of track record that renders bad reviews all but moot, but they don’t take their good standing for granted. They work harder, as individuals and as a company, with each new picture so as not to betray the quality of what came before just to make a cheap buck. It’s the mouse that sells the toys.

Pixar has not failed that legacy with Up, Pete Docter’s daydream follow-up to his nightmare awakening of Monsters, Inc. It follows the story of Carl Fredricksen, a former balloon salesman turned elderly curmudgeon who is slowly being squeezed out of his home, his comfort and his life by a great villain called time.

On the eve of being evicted and sent to a nursing home, Carl does what any rational person would do: He turns his house into a zeppelin with thousands of helium-filled balloons and steers it towards South America, hoping to land on Paradise Falls, a mythic-yet-real spot in Venezuela. It’s the spot that he and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, had always planned to visit together, but they ran out of time before they could get there. He is joined – accidentally, as it were – by Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is looking for the “Assisting the Elderly” badge to fill out his sash.

With WALL-E last year and now Up, Pixar has, oddly enough, grown up a little. It’s not because of the elderly characters or the lack of inanimate objects with speaking parts (animals still talk here, though not of their own accord); there’s a new layer of depth and emotional resonance. That could have been assumed to be a fluke in WALL-E, but not only weren’t these themes a fluke, they’re expanded upon in Up. Now we arethe characters, instead of wishing there were some way that the characters could really exist.

The old yarn that Pixar doesn’t really make kids’ movies has never been more true with Up, yet it’s also their most innocent since Toy Story. Though exploring new depths, they’ve not left the old adventure hat on the rack – the film is all but dedicated to the spirit of adventure. It’s the reason behind Carl and Ellie’s sweet, youthful romance, Carl’s regret in old age and even Russell’s childish naivete. Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes were adventurers. Even the out-of-place moments (doggie planes?) and blunt conceits (the too-literal “life’s-weight-on-his-shoulders” metaphor) can be forgiven, as they perform dutifully in service to the kind of thrilling movie adventures we regular folks can only dream of, but which the wizards at Pixar perform with ease.

Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (2008)


For those born after the incident, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s dramatization of the 1977 interview series between British TV presenter David Frost and then-former President Nixon offers a comfortably Sorkin-esque glimpse behind the scenes of Frost’s landmark grilling of Nixon over Watergate, the coverup and the aftermath that dominated an era of national politics.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is an ambitious TV man whose once-bright star is fading after his American talk show is canceled. He is stuck in entertainment’s second tier, longing for another taste of fame, American-style, and sees the resignation and subsequent pardon of Nixon (Frank Langella) as a way back into his table at Sardi’s. Laying out the hefty sum of $600K to secure the interview with the tough-as-nails Nixon – at the time living in pitiful seclusion and writing his memoirs – Frost and his team of researchers quibble over their goals and are wholly unprepared for the cagey Nixon on the big day; Nixon talks circles around the process, deflecting from the real issues with glancing blows of sentimental minutiae.

If Ali-Frazier was the fight of the century, Frost-Nixon was to be the sit-down of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred tête-à-tête meant to be, whether for redemption or conviction, the real final words of the chapter. Ali lost – he was unprepared for the Champ’s left hook – but Frost comes out the prettier one in this battle. Sheen plays Frost with a dopey smirk that’s off-putting enough to Nixon to lead him right into the eventual sucker punch.

The knockout blow isn’t the star of this picture, however. Nixon is, and what Langella lacks in physical likeness he more than makes up for with the depth of the Nixon spirit, which, 30 years later, comes off like a mean, ugly dog, as repugnant as it is empathetic.

Nixon moved on (and became richer), but the fact that the interview changed nothing – not the Cold War and certainly not corrupt politicians or a tougher press corps – is not the point. The timing ofFrost/Nixon’s release, in these lame-duck last moments of the George W. Bush presidency, won’t be lost on most viewers, and Howard utilizes the Nixon-Bush connection of corruption to create the kind of after-the-fact liberal catharsis that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic sorely missed. As Nixon tacitly confesses, his admission of guilt in the film is more heavily defined than in the original interviews, but it’s a cherry that sits nicely on top of an “Obama won” sundae. What it does is give us some hope, slim as it might be, that there is a new Frost out there waiting patiently for his chance at flustering Bush into a “whoops, sorry” moment, even a tacit one.

Ms. Couric, line one.

Lou Reed’s Berlin – Julian Schnable (2008)


(My first ever film review)

There are few genuine musical happenings anymore. The world has evolved into the kind of interactive place where the musical happening should thrive, but instead it’s succumbed to the corporate clenched fist. Now, instead of Axl and Elton rocking a wet Wembley to bed with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the closest we get to an event is a demand for a public apology to the Jonas Brothers for ridiculing their purity rings.

Lou Reed pisses on that apology. In 2006, the rock pioneer dusted off Berlin, his 1973 rock opera album telling the story of Jim and Caroline, two strung-out lovers and their inevitable downward spiral, and brought it to the live masses with a small orchestra and choir. The Brooklyn concert, Reed’s first in a tour series, was documented by Academy Award–nominated director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the resulting film was recently released on DVD. It was a musical happening as pure as the driven snow, honest and without corporate hindrance, and it was done just because he felt like doing it.

“[The album] didn’t really get a chance for people to hear it,” Reed says about Berlin’s original release during a Q&A at New York City’s Film Forum in July. Coming off his first solo effort, 1972’s breakthroughTransformer, Reed should have been bulletproof. But Berlin, released the following year, was an unmitigated flop, critically and commercially failing to live up to the still-unflagging popularity of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song musically dissimilar to his other work.

“It’s the other side of ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’?” Reed says. “It’s the real one. Maybe no one wanted to hear or see that. It was in the middle of glam rock and it was a dose of reality – a certain kind of reality.”

Thirty-five years later, Berlin is a cult classic. Reed’s voice isn’t as steady as it used to be, but he easily commands the stage.

“I’d performed a couple of the songs out of context [in past concerts], but the way it really works, for me anyway, is in context,” he says. “I always thought of it as a whole piece.”

Berlin is a concert film at first blush, but as it proceeds, it becomes something closer to the theatrical production Reed intended to produce in the early ’70s. Thanks to the loving orchestration of sequences shot by Lola Schnabel, we see the lives of Jim and Caroline and their struggles with drugs, abuse and suicide coming alive to the pace of the songs. The enchanting Emmanuelle Seigner (also of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as Caroline, the heroine of heroin. The years it took for this project to be fully realized were well worth it in the end, as Berlin digs out a new spot in the conversation of best concert films.

The Wrestler – Darren Aronofsky (2009)


A few years ago in Sin City, it was said that Mickey Rourke’s character, Marv, had “the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century,” that he would be right at home “in a Roman arena, taking his sword to other gladiators like him.” Underneath the makeup and prosthetics, perhaps, it was just as true for Rourke as it was for Marv.

In The Wrestler, the Coliseum has morphed into a squared circle, and Rourke looks perfectly at home on the canvas even as he takes folding chairs to the head. He plays Randy the Ram, an aging ’80s wrestling superstar still clinging to the last, lingering particles of limelight in small, untelevised wrestling shows.

After a heart attack forces him to retire, Randy flounders around aimlessly, unsure of how his life should commence now. He picks up extra work at the supermarket deli counter, the only suitable retirement home for the self-identified “old, broken-down piece of meat,” to fill the time. Sensing his loneliness, a stripper friend, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), suggests he try bonding with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he barely knows.

Pro wrestling is not an easy subject to take seriously, but director Darren Aronofsky displays it well as a spellbinding muscle ballet, sweaty and bloody, but graceful and addictive all the same. He avoids the ubiquitous camp elements associated with the “sport,” instead focusing on the human elements within the dressing room where these mountains of men are just as fragile and soft as everyone else.

But the rousing comeback of Mickey Rourke is what the film is about, if you listen to common theory. And while that’s mostly true, that conversation unfortunately omits Tomei, who, like Rourke, is rising from the ashes of a career never quite fulfilled after the promise of My Cousin Vinny.

To that point, she gives an absolutely sterling performance here, baring all by night as Cassidy, a stripper at the end of her career, and by day as Pam, the mother of a 9-year-old boy looking for a new life. The dichotomy mandated by her job mirrors the Ram’s in some ways; both are trying to figure out which life is more important. The film gives Tomei some of the heaviest lifting as Randy gradually makes his way through Cassidy’s barrier and into Pam’s life.

Aronofsky, too, had some knocks to recover from after The Fountain. He elevates the film above script level with the small touches of genius that are all but expected of him now, a well that seemed to have run dry.

His usual bag of camera and editing tricks is left backstage, but Aronofsky allows for one soulful flourish: a crushing, one-take Steadicam shot as Randy walks from the back of the supermarket into his new life behind the deli counter. The whirring purrs of refrigerator motors are his only cheers on this new runway, and Randy even fools himself with it for a moment before the reality sinks in that he’s traded the sharp spotlight for flat fluorescents. To complete that sobering splash of cold water, his nametag doesn’t read “The Ram” or even “Randy,” but his given, decidedly unexciting name: “Robin.”

Waltz With Bashir – Ari Folman (2009)


When Israeli writer-director Ari Folman was 19, he enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces as part of a regiment that invaded southern Lebanon. Like all soldiers, he saw and did unspeakable things – the kind of things that would mark any man for life.

But then he forgot.

That’s where Waltz With Bashir opens: the forgetting. On a stormy night in Israel, two old friends, Ari and Boaz, get together for a drink to discuss Boaz’s recurring nightmares. Twenty-six dogs chase him through the streets on a nightly basis. It stems from a scarring incident during the war and when they begin to talk about it, Ari realizes he’s never dealt with any of his war demons in his films because he simply doesn’t remember them.

The lone memory that remains from the incursion into Lebanon is a stark image of Ari and two fellow soldiers bathing in the ocean as illumination flares gracefully drift to the earth, shedding light on bombed-out apartment buildings and all below them.

But it never happened. Not like that, anyway. And so, 24 years later, he sends himself off on a new mission: one to remember. What he discovers are different versions of the same horror story about the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila by the Christian Phalangists as revenge for Bashir Gemayel’s assassination.

Naturally, it’s impossible to disentangle politics and history from a film like this, no matter what conflict is at its heart, but that’s where we get lost as noncombatant viewers. To get heated about the real incident and whatever came before or followed is to miss an opportunity to heal the wounds.

It’s true that most modern war films are imbued with the lofty goal of showing us the folly of war – that even in the best of circumstances, war is an unbelievably useless endeavor. No film has yet succeeded, nor can they, but that’s no reason to give up on them.

Waltz invites you to make your own decision about the military brass, but shows a deep compassion for the rank and file, Palestinian and Israeli alike, proving at last that there is no such thing as a best circumstance in war. At first bloodshed, all sides are wrong.

The real unavoidable argument, for our purposes, regards the animation.

Because of that device, a certain poetic license is allowed. As much as the film is about war, it’s also about the mutability and self-distortion of memory, and that makes animation the ideal medium to paint battle as the surreal experience it is. Waltz never pulls punches on the hard stuff, either. The trembling hands and beads of sweat before the kill remain, an effect as beautiful as it is terrifying.

The titular (and literal) waltz itself is breathtaking in a way that someone aiming a camera could not have captured. But it’s unlikely that’s how it happened in real time. To put a filter of 20 years over a millisecond of a memory is to forge its authenticity. The animated rendering doesn’t quite say, “This is a dream,” but it nudges the idea that war may be remembered in soaring poetry and dime-novel prose alike.