Bea Arthur-Inspired Classics Week
I’m putting a unique spin on classics week here at the Film School Blog, so indulge me and travel down the wormhole with me for a moment. I awoke last Thursday morning to a hot cup of coffee and a Facebook post that asked, “Why is Bea Arthur blowing up social media?” An odd occurrence indeed and it didn’t take long to find out why. Apparently a painting of an artist’s rendering of Bea Arthur sans clothing recently sold for $1.9 million (you can check out the artwork here if you dare). What the heck does this have to do with cinema, and more importantly classics week? Well, nearly 20 years ago a little known film actually involved said artwork of naked Bea Arthur as part of its narrative.
Like most of America, I missed “Airheads” when it was released in theaters in 1994. Later introduced to the film via VHS, the film has gained traction as somewhat of a cult classic in the past two decades. In addition to a surprisingly good cast, the film offers a glimpse into early Adam Sandler and Chris Farley shtick that would be a staple of their films throughout the 1990s. Like the serious hard rock the film champions, “Airheads” doesn’t mess around with much of an exposition and gets right to the meat of the narrative.
Los Angeles rocker Chazz Darvey (Brendan Fraser, “The Mummy” series) and his band mates are hoping for their big break that leads to a record deal. Tired of waiting to get noticed, they sneak into a local rock station with the hopes of getting their single played on the air. When the band is denied, they turn to plan B — plastic guns from the toy store — to hold the station hostage until their single gets played. What happens as a result is far from what they could have ever imagined, and with the help of some very unlikely people.
There is a strange endearing quality to “Airheads” thanks to the likeable cast, simple storyline and overall feel-good nature of the film. Subplots include the radio station changing formats (“Rebel radio’s going soft?”), the mixing of music and the corporate world, and the party that develops outside the station. Then of course there are those Bea Arthur naked pictures. The band makes an outrageous list of hostage demands with hopes of later using the insanity defense. Demands include a football helmet filled with cottage cheese, a giant baby bottle, and naked pictures of Bea Arthur … which we later find out exist, at least within the diegesis of the film, when record exec Jimmie Wing (Judd Nelson, “The Breakfast Club”) notes, “Bea Arthur, nice.”
For a mid-90s comedy that flies under the radar, “Airheads” boasts a ridiculously talented cast that features Steve Buscemi and Joe Mantegna. Mantegna is brilliant as rock & roll DJ Ian. Though he’s not a musician, Ian represents everything that rock & roll stands for and ends up being more of a catalyst for the band’s efforts than their faux guns. Buscemi manages to bring a bit of depth to Rex’s character with subtle moments that show just how much he worships the band’s leader, Chazz. Michael Richards (TV’s “Seinfeld”) is hilarious as a roving inside man that manages to get into all sorts of predicaments despite the band not knowing he’s there. David Arquette, Michael McKean and Ernie Hudson help fill out a diverse cast.
“Airheads” is also a launching point for the film careers of Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Both SNL alums were at this point a year away from lead roles, and you can clearly see shades of future characters in this film. Pieces of Sandler’s character Pip seep into his later films, especially “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.” The film is also a precursor to some familiar Farley tropes. It served as a perfect training ground for both young actors who would prove they were ready to become leading men in the comedy genre.
Despite setting the stage for Sandler and Farley films of the ‘90s, “Airheads” is a film that I like to classify as a lingering ‘80s comedy that seems four or five years past its time. The ‘80s throwback is directed by Michael Lehmann, known for other quirky projects in both film (“Heathers” and “Hudson Hawk”) and television (“Californication” and “Bored to Death”). Under Lehmann’s direction the talented cast bring a simple yet vibrant script to life and makes this film a must-see cult classic … naked Bea Arthur jokes and all.
‘Promised Land’ Raises Fracking Awareness
The recent Matt Damon project “Promised Land” was released on DVD a few weeks ago with little fanfare. Should you care? Yes, you should care very much, but not for the cinematic reasoning typically given in the Film School blog. You should care about the issue of “fracking” and the questions proposed in the film’s narrative. Hydraulic fracturing — or fracking as it is commonly called — is the process of drilling deep into shale rock using fluid and a somewhat unknown mix of chemicals to release and capture natural gas. There seems to be competing studies regarding the environmental safety of the process, and energy companies have their sights set on Illinois for the next big drilling project.
Top natural gas consultant Steve Butler (Matt Damon) moves from rural county to county, locking up land for energy giant Global Crosspower Solutions, a company that specializes in fracking, to drill for natural gas. Because of his own small town upbringing, Butler is convinced fracking is a sure way to give small farming communities the economic boost they desperately need. When one community fights back, Butler begins to question everything about himself and the industry he believes in.
“Promised Land” was co-written by Damon and John Krasinski (TV’s “The Office”), and Krasinski also appears in the film as Dustin Noble, an activist with a tale of how he lost his own family farm due to the harmful effects of fracking. The cast, which also includes Frances McDormand (“Fargo”) and Hal Holbrook (“Lincoln”), has great chemistry and offers a gritty look at the plight of modern farming communities. Unfortunately the narrative spins its wheels after a long exposition, with plenty of convenient plotlines that has it landing uncomfortably between the social problem film and a political thriller.
Early in the film Butler is rewarded for his sales record with a high ranking V.P. position at Global Crosspower Solutions, though throughout the rest of the film he comes off as naïve and clueless at the first sign of resistance from landowners. The goal is to make Butler a sympathetic character, and the film effectively does that in the opening minutes of the film when he reveals his sales secret as true conviction to landowners leasing their land to his company.
To add some depth to Butler’s character, he should come off more polished as a salesman as he grapples with the townspeople and the potential ramifications of his industry. The plot convenience continues when Butler quickly meets attractive single schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, “Rachel Getting Married”), setting up the obligatory love interest subplot. It thins out some potentially deep subject matter.
Directed by the great Gus Van Sant, “Promised Land” works as a character-driven independent film but falls very flat if you have any other expectations. More importantly, it further opens up the dialogue regarding a controversial yet rarely discussed issue of fracking and the effect it may have on depressed farming communities throughout the U.S. Though set in rural Pennsylvania, “Promised Land” really takes place in “Anytown, U.S.A.” including many of the southern Illinois communities that will soon be right in the middle of the debate.
I would recommend first watching the 2010 documentary “Gasland” for some deeper insight into the world of hydraulic fracturing. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and takes an anti-fracking stance. There is also the pro-fracking documentary “FrackNation” for the counterpoint arguments. “Promised Land” stands somewhere in the middle — appropriate for a film that struggles with finding a true identity. For additional reading on the issue in southern Illinois, I recommend this
— Travis Yates
“Iron Man 3″ works with darker material
This weekend marked the release of Marvel Comics’ “Iron Man 3” and while the franchise may be my favorite of Marvel’s recent productions, you have to wonder how many times Marvel Studios can go to the well with their popular comic book heroes. After seeing Tony Stark in solo action twice since 2008 (including a somewhat disappointing “Iron Man 2”) and again in 2012 as part of the super hero team in “The Avengers” I had serious doubts about the third installment of the franchise. With a bold combination of dark material and humor, “Iron Man 3” manages to stay on a solid flight path that redeems mistakes made in the sequel and sets up potential missions.
Paranoid after the alien invasion that unfolded in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) now spends the majority of his time building an array of new Iron Man suits, driving love Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) away. A seemingly insignificant New Year’s Eve meeting with scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) long ago suddenly becomes very significant when Killian’s involvement with a terrorist known as the Mandarin is revealed. With his home and Iron Man suit in shambles, Stark must rely on his own ingenuity to discover and stop the Mandarin.
Director and co-writer Shane Black returns to a familiar narrative that made the first “Iron Man” so successful, focusing more on Tony Stark than on his superhero alter ego, Iron Man. When his suit is damaged early in the rising action, it is Stark that must face a gang of semi-competent antagonists alone, using his intelligence and spare parts borrowed from the suit. It makes for a much more engaging story than a man clad in an impenetrable iron suit running around blowing things up (which seemed to be most of the plot of “Iron Man 2”).
For you comic loyalists, “Iron Man 3” gives the Mandarin character a makeover. Though the original Mandarin is of Asian descent, the film casts Guy Pearce as a hobbled scientist and eventual villain in a fun twist of events. Although the ten rings of power (Mandarin’s source of power) are referenced in the original “Iron Man,” the Mandarin’s primary power in this film comes from his work with fellow scientist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, “The Town”) and her Extremis project, which allows the human body to regenerate. Killian’s character is intriguing because he can match Tony Stark in wit and panache, making for some clever exchanges. They even share in their own personality dichotomy given Killian’s role in creating the Mandarin and Stark of course as Iron Man.
Watching Stark wrestle with a new set of demons carried over from his appearance in the crossover film “The Avengers” really humanizes him, and the darker material is refreshing for the series. A hero is exciting for action, but it’s hard for an audience to relate to someone who can never be defeated. Given his flamboyant personality, seeing a vulnerable side of Tony Stark is a welcome addition to the series and makes the latest effort stand out.
Having said that, the film still comes off incredibly predictable. You can only watch a super hero in trouble so many times before knowing step-by-step how it’s going to play out. This is not a knock on the Marvel Comics films but more a case of simple overkill. You really need some sort of game-changer to freshen up the formula, and in this case it quasi-works with Stark’s internal struggles. But this is an action film and the added melodrama only gets you so far. A combination of character exploration and humor kept the film interesting, but completely void of suspense.
The film wraps up a fantastic trilogy that has only a minor hiccup midway through with “Iron Man 2.” So what’s next? Downey Jr. is currently in negotiations to appear in an “Avengers” sequel and possibly future “Iron Man” films. As an integral part of the group it makes sense to include him in future “Avengers” films, but I think it would be wise to end the “Iron Man” story with this last film. It’s a perfect final chapter for Tony Stark, though knowing Marvel we haven’t seen the last of Iron Man.
— Travis Yates
This weekend was the NFL Draft, an event that has become much more than just a selection process of college players for 32 NFL teams. Since 1936, the NFL Draft has been a tool used for teams to draft the rights to sign players from the college ranks, and with the NFL now a billion dollar industry and the 24-hours-a-day media hype leading up to the draft, it is fair to now label it a phenomenon.
NFL Network has a daily show labeled “Path to the Draft” in the months leading up to the draft and sports entities such as ESPN, Yahoo! Sports and NFL Network hire journalists that specialize in analyzing players and predicting picks. The draft is a laborious process for everyone involved, but perhaps no one knows the true stress of the event better than those affected most — the players. The 2007 documentary “Two Days in April” follows four NFL prospects as they prepare for the biggest weekend of their life.
Choosing college prospects that translate to good professional players is not an exact science, but the process is handled with great care and surprising precision. With millions of dollars potentially on the line, prospects typically do everything they can to improve their draft slot. The film is a fascinating look into not only the physical but also psychological conditioning players go through in preparation for the biggest job interview of their lives. You often forget these are mostly 21- and 22-year-olds facing such intense scrutiny. They are placed under a microscope and — according to the film — vetted almost as closely as a potential FBI agent. They are poked, prodded and worked out in several phases, interviewed in mass numbers and in one-on-one settings, and given IQ tests and psychological evaluations. Weeks earlier, they were sitting in classrooms and riding high as the stud athletes on their respective campuses.
All four players in the film are represented by the global sports management company IMG and the group is a diverse collection. We’re cleverly introduced to the players through a series of “scouting reports” with names, colleges, nicknames and predicted draft rounds. They include potential first rounders and possible late round picks (the draft consists of seven rounds).
No matter a player’s predicted draft position, the preparation is the same. Players spend weeks at the IMG Training Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where they work on drills such as the 40-yard dash. It’s not all physical, however, as “Two Days in April” takes us deep inside the training academy where players receive media and interview training and a cognitive ability test known as the “Wonderlic.” We follow them as they spend a week at the Senior Bowl college all-star game, go through the scouting combine, a veritable meat market for pro scouts and general managers, and finally to their on-campus pro days where they go through individual drills for scouts and coaches.
Watching the film is also a unique look at the prospects’ home lives and friends and families as they hope to become millionaires and professional football players. Oklahoma’s Travis Wilson and his mother appear more concerned with the money and perks that come with being a high draft pick than anything else, while Arizona State’s Derek Hagan deals with the disappointment of sliding out of the first two rounds after expecting to go in the first round.
There are incredibly heartwarming moments, including one where the ailing grandmother of Oklahoma’s Clint Ingram tells him God kept her alive to share in his special draft moment, and awkward ones like New Mexico’s DonTrell Moore throwing a large draft party only to sit round after round, waiting to hear his name called.
Despite the booming popularity of the draft, “Two Days in April” flies under the radar like a fringe late-round draft prospect. NFL “super-agent” Tom Condon was initially attached to the project as a producer but left IMG during filming, leading to some messy contractual disputes with the production company. ESPN eventually backed out of promoting the film, leaving it with little media exposure.
It’s worth a watch for any sports fan interested in the front end of the complicated process of building a championship team. While we as fans typically spend one weekend watching the draft, “Two Days in April” shows that in reality it is months and months of preparation that lead up this crazy phenomenon known as the NFL Draft.
— Travis Yates
Cruise film marks successful launch of blockbuster season
You can consider the latest Tom Cruise vehicle “Oblivion” the official kickoff to Hollywood’s blockbuster season, though the film pushes the boundaries of the typical big-budget film. Instead of a talent-heavy, special effects-driven feature with a thin plot, “Oblivion” offers a refreshing change from the norm. It is a bold yet masterful sophomore effort from a relatively unknown director that features a captivating plot and stylistic mise-en-scene.
It is the year 2077, six decades after an attack on Earth by aliens known only as “scavengers” left the moon destroyed and the Earth uninhabitable. Technician #49 Jack Harper (Cruise) is part of a two-person team stationed on Earth to monitor drones and extraction machines meant to use the planet’s remaining water for life on the moon Titan, where Earth survivors are colonizing. A security-purposed memory wipe leaves Jack with only haunting dreams of a life in New York City with a woman he does not recognize. When an unknown craft crashes on the planet, Jack pulls a woman (Olga Kurylenko, “Quantum of Solace”) from the wreckage who happens to be the woman from his dreams. Her arrival sparks a series of events that leave Jack questioning everything, including his very purpose on the planet.
After watching “Oblivion” I felt like I watched a combination of some of the great science fiction films from the past. Not surprisingly after researching the film I learned that Kosinski indeed meant to pay homage to some of the top sci-fi films from previous decades. Paying homage vs. blatant copying is a fine line, but Kosinski has created a fresh narrative with little nods here and there to his sci-fi predecessors. You can clearly see influences from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Empire Strikes Back” among others.
It’s hard to believe this is only the second film for director Joseph Kosinski, with 2010’s “Tron: Legacy” serving as his directorial debut. The diegetic world in “Oblivion” is based on his own graphic novel, so it only made sense for him to serve as co-screenwriter and director. You often hear of an actor or director taking on a passion project; “Oblivion” seemed to be as much for Universal Pictures. They surrounded an inexperienced director with talents such as Cruise, Morgan Freeman, and veteran cinematographer Claudio Miranda and took great care in not leaking the plot’s many secrets.
Fresh off his Academy Award win as the cinematographer for “Life of Pi,” Miranda does a wonderful job bringing a barren futuristic world to life in a surprisingly vibrant way. With an early sequence in the exposition when Jack Harper swoops down from the skies in his bubble ship, Miranda is off to the races. Despite a majority of the film featuring only one or two on-screen characters, I can’t recall a single static shot. Though the film features a barren landscape it appears as if the film itself is alive with cameras moving in unison with Harper as he travels deeper down the proverbial rabbit hole searching for answers. The narrative is so engaging that the action sequences that play out late in the rising action almost seem out of place.
The narrative in “Oblivion” is brilliant in its simplicity. Despite only having a few characters to work with, Kosinski weaves past and present timelines in mind-tickling puzzle with all the pieces eventually falling into place. In a film like this you know twists are coming, but in this case you’re never quite sure from where. The opportunity to include subplots and backstories exists, but Kosinski and his screenwriting team wisely keeps it simple and focuses solely on the main plot.
For me, “Oblivion” easily becomes the early frontrunner for the “Film of the Year” MacGuffin Award. With beautiful cinematography and mise-en-scene, an intriguing narrative and subtle nods to groundbreaking sci-fi films of the past, the movie defies expectations of the modern blockbuster. Kosinski and his crew took their time developing the plot, Universal Pictures did its part in not revealing too many details in the marketing campaign, and Cruise is as vulnerable as he is heroic. If “Oblivion” is any indication of the future, the summer blockbuster season should be a great one!
“Hungry for Change” Full of Revelations
Is the food that we eat really as bad as alcohol and hard drugs? That’s the claim made by the new-to-Netflix documentary “Hungry for Change.” I think at this point it’s safe to assume most people are aware that the processed foods we eat aren’t that great for us, but what this film does is succinctly point out just how much the food that line our grocery store shelves lacks nutrition. The movement to eat healthy certainly isn’t new to film and has been the focus of several documentaries in the past few years. “Hungry for Change” manages to sum up what several of those films encompass while sharing its own inspirational message.
The basis of “Hungry for Change” is our society’s obsession with dieting and the fact that the processed foods we consume today contain little nutritional benefit and actually counteract our efforts to get healthy and fit. Though it’s not rocket science, it is more difficult than one might think to truly eat healthy on a regular basis. Jobs, family and other responsibilities often get in the way of the time and money it takes to maintain a diet that consists of foods our bodies are meant to consume. Instead we turn to processed foods that contain compounds and chemicals that might actually strip our bodies of key nutrients.
Directors James Colquhoun, Laurentine Ten Bosch and Carlo Ledesma break “Hungry for Change” up into tiers that address the diet industry, the effects of stress and food on our bodies, the benefits of a natural, healthy diet, and a side narrative featuring a character named Natalie who is depressed due to her poor food choices and sedentary lifestyle. That narrative is a bit simplified and out of place for this otherwise sophisticated film, utilizing classic filmmaking tools such as a bland color palate when Natalie continually makes poor life decisions and a vibrant set design when she makes positive changes in her life. Despite the hiccup, the film exposes some scary details about the food we eat.
The best claim of the film that may or may not come with a pinch of hyperbole is the comparison of refined white sugar and flour to hard drugs and alcohol. The entire rhetoric of the film is anti-sugar, but it also condemns MSG (monosodium glutamate), high fructose corn syrup and many other refined products that are commonly used in everyday foods.
Our current modern lifestyles and eating habits go against thousands of years of what our bodies have been programmed to consume, leading us to replace them with high calorie/low nutrient processed foods. It’s a scary combination of factors that explains the rising obesity rates and declining physical and mental health in our society.
The film may be a bit too snarky for some viewers. The panel of experts in the film includes authors, doctors and filmmakers who are billed as “teachers” in the credits. I found it rather Zen-like but after 90 minutes of being told everything we eat is bad I could see where it may come off as a bit condescending. After all, the movie left me running to the kitchen to check the ingredients of food that I already considered a healthy option. Most of the panel shares their own inspirational stories that include facing suicide, losing 250 lbs. and surviving cancer. Though the news about the food we eat is bad, the overall message is one of hope and promise.
“Hungry for Change” lays out a clear plan for a healthy lifestyle for your body and mind, and why the two often go hand in hand. In a world where corporations use every persuasive trick in the book to get us hooked on their products, it’s important for all of us to become savvy consumers, especially when it pertains to what we put in and on our bodies. Watching “Hungry for Change” is a great first step in that direction and aptly named. Just be prepared to clean out your cabinets when it’s over— you’ll likely be hungry for a change.
“Olympus has Fallen” a fun throwback
When I first saw the trailer for the new action/thriller “Olympus has Fallen” it looked decent, if not predictable, but something I would probably wait to rent on DVD. I typically start a new week of film class by asking my students if they saw any good movies over the weekend, and last week one answered, “’Olympus has Fallen’ was really good.” This came on the heels of a colleague telling me it was surprisingly good. Getting the message, I headed out to AMC this weekend to see what surprises the film had in store.
Shamed Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, “Chasing Mavericks”) is toiling away at a D.C. desk job when a group of North Korean terrorists invade the White House. Banning manages to sneak inside the building and quickly sets out to rescue the President (Aaron Eckhart, “The Dark Knight”) and foil the terrorists’ plans. As more is learned about the terrorists’ true intentions, Banning’s mission goes from saving the president to saving the country.
While I won’t go as far as saying this film was great or recommend it to a colleague, I will say it serves a purpose – and a fun one at that. “Olympus has Fallen” is a bit of a throwback to the action films of the ‘80s, paying homage to the era of Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone. With a diverse filmography, Gerard Butler is more than capable of stepping into the boots formerly worn by the Bronsons and Schwarzeneggers of the world. Political intrigue, guns and explosions, evil foreigners and an unstoppable protagonist effectively resurrect a familiar Hollywood formula. And it’s a formula that – much like the protagonists in these films – we thought was left for dead but apparently is very much alive. The recipe card looks a little something like this:
One part evil foreign antagonists: This one is incredibly timely as a group of North Korean terrorists led by the dastardly Kang (Rick Yune, “The Man with the Iron Fists”) take the president and his cabinet hostage in an effort to lay waste to the U.S. while their country invades South Korea. This one comes complete with a surprise traitor from the U.S. side that helps plan the attack, though we really never find out why. These films never were much for character development.
One part Lone-wolf protagonist with a tragic past: Secret Service agent Mike Banning is relegated to desk duty after making a split decision to save the president while the First Lady plunges into an icy river during a car accident. Tortured by the inability to do what he truly loves causes him to do terrible things like miss a 4th of July BBQ with his wife (I’m serious). Sure, Banning could have found a more exciting detail in the private sector, but like any real hero he’s a patriot through and through and dutifully serves out the president’s punishment while waiting in the wings for a shot at redemption, which conveniently leads us to…
An invasion plan that manages to fool everyone: Despite the tightest security of possibly anywhere on the planet, the White House is easily infiltrated by North Korean terrorists while U.S. military and police personnel not named Mike Banning come off as completely clueless and incompetent. Kang delivers a classic line in evil fashion, “It takes your military 15 minutes to respond to the White House … we took it down in 13.”
A handful of continuous implausible scenarios: Without this key ingredient “Olympus has Fallen” would likely last more than seven hours. Three-on-one fight? No problem! Grenade launcher vs. pocket knife? Piece of cake. If the protagonist can’t take out three or four evil foreigners at a time, how is he going to save the world in less than two hours? To make a protagonist great, you have to continuously stack the deck against him (or her). This is a simple fact that just comes with the territory, folks. Besides, it’s fun to see the credits feature characters such as “Bad Guy #4” or “Man with Grenade Launcher.” And lastly…
A dash of the threat of nuclear destruction: For our hero protagonist to truly save the world, it has to be on the brink of nuclear destruction. This is a fun twist that comes into play late in the film’s rising action that leads to predictable yet fun climax.
One countdown clock: See above.
There’s not much back story in “Olympus has Fallen,” but it sticks to a tried-and-true formula, albeit a bit archaic, to get the job done. You know what’s around every corner and there’s no surprise ending, but that’s OK, too. For 120 minutes, Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) takes us back to a bygone era where butt-kicking and saving the day makes everything in the world right again.
Celebrating Opening Day with “The Rookie”
This Monday marks Major League Baseball’s opening day, and we’re making an exception here at the Film School blog with back-to-back classics week with a film to celebrate America’s pastime. Though it is a team sport, baseball is really a celebration of individual performances with a road to the big leagues paved with proverbial blood, sweat and tears. In 1999 a story unfolded in west Texas that is about as unlikely as you will ever find. It didn’t take long for Disney to take notice, bringing the story of Jim Morris to life in “The Rookie.”
After a brief stint in the minor leagues, the professional baseball career of pitcher Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid, “Pandorum”) was shut down due to a series of injuries to his throwing shoulder. Now a high school teacher and baseball coach in Big Lake, Texas, 35-year old Morris lays down a challenge to his fledgling team – win a district championship and he’ll try out for a Major League baseball team. The Big Lake Owls hold up their end of the deal, winning a district title. Morris reluctantly throws for scouts and somehow tosses a fastball 10 miles per hour faster than his minor league pitching days. Signed to a minor league deal by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Morris spends months on the road away from his family with one ultimate goal – get the call to join the big leagues.
The most important part of “The Rookie” is Morris’ story, and for the most part, Disney gets it right. The majority of events that seem too good to be true are actually just that, from the unlikely district championship by the Owl baseball team after a one-win season to Morris’ big league debut in what is essentially his hometown of Arlington, Texas. A few liberties are taken along the way for dramatic effect, as is the case with every “inspired by a true story” film. Screenwriter Mike Rich (who also wrote the sports drama “Radio”) spent time a lot of time with Morris and in Big Lake to get a real feel for the story. Though many of the minor characters are fictional, the key facts of Morris’ story are there.
I tell my students often that their own biases will determine the frame in which they view a film. I experienced this first hand with the recent viewing of “The Rookie.” Though I’ve watched the film several times, this was the first time seeing it since my son was born. In the past I’ve viewed the film though the eyes of the protagonist, Jim Morris. Thanks to my own new perspective (and Disney’s inspirational touch of course), I saw the film in a new light that included the bigger inspirational story and how many people were inspired by the improbable success achieved by Morris.
The film’s climax and falling action are about as satisfying as you’re going to find in a Hollywood narrative. The fact that nearly everything is completely accurate (it actually took Morris four pitches to strike out his first batter, not three) makes it all the more impressive. The DVD comes with a must-see short documentary featuring interviews with Morris, Quaid, screenwriter Mike Rich, and director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”). It takes us into the ballpark at Arlington where Morris walks us through his first big league experience, pitch by pitch. “The Rookie” may not be the best baseball film ever made (though it certainly should make any top 10 list), but it does document what is quite possibly the most improbable true story that the game has ever seen.
And the game of baseball keeps on giving. As I write this review, New York Mets pitcher Scott Rice just closed out the team’s opening day victory versus the San Diego Padres. Why is this significant? Rice has spent 14 years in the minor leagues without a trip to the big leagues. After nearly a decade and a half, Rice recorded two strikeouts in one inning pitched – the ninth inning – to secure the victory in his big league debut. Somebody call Disney.
“Blue Chips” wouldn’t make it past the second round
We’re in the thick of NCAA’s March Madness with the championship tournament down to the sweet 16, and the Film School blog is honoring the spring tradition with a classics week featuring college basketball.
1994’s “Blue Chips” is a who’s who of the early 90s basketball world and serves as Shaquille O’Neal’s acting debut. The film is a combination of on-court action and behind the scenes drama that blend together for both a celebration and critique of the college sports world.
After two national championships and several conference titles, the basketball program at fictional Western University has fallen on hard times. Highly competitive recruiting has changed the game as colleges are now offering blue chip recruits money under the table in a corrupt talent grab. With pressure mounting after a losing season, head coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) is forced to choose between running a clean program and breaking the rules in order to make another run at the national championship.
The first thing any sports film must decide is if it is worth ponying up the money necessary to portray a real program or create a fictional one. In the case of “Blue Chips” the filmmakers chose to create a Los-Angeles based school, the Western University Dolphins, and replaced the NCAA with a fictional collegiate league. It was probably a wise move given the controversial material such as point shaving and recruiting violations in the film; I highly doubt any NCAA programs would want to be associated with the movie.
The film does achieve a decent level of verisimilitude with several legends from the basketball world, despite the faux setting. The list includes Larry Bird, Dick Vitale, Rick Pitino, Bobby Knight and Jerry Tarkanian (who himself faced several NCAA sanctions in his long NCAA coaching career). Then-current NBA players Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway were cast as two of the three blue chip recruits sought by Bell and were prominently featured in the on-court basketball sequences.
Despite the efforts of Nolte and appearances by heavy-hitters from the basketball world, “Blue Chips” falls short due to a weak script and supporting cast. Classic cinema sleaze ball J.T. Walsh (“Good Morning Vietnam”) is typecast as an overbearing alumnus with deep pockets. Ed O’Neill (TV’s “Modern Family”) is a muckraking journalist who nearly breaks the corruption scandal, but his story spins its wheels in the background rather than taking a more deserving prominent role in the film. The back story between Bell and his ex-wife (Mary McDonnell, “Independence Day”) is never explored despite decent on-screen chemistry.
“Blue Chips” made the choice to feature action over drama, with an emphasis on in-game basketball sequences rather than developing the dramatic narrative. The film’s attempt at a raw look at the greed and corruption that no doubt permeates college sports is glossed over a bit by a self-serving celebration of the very athletes that the NCAA had recently created in O’Neal and Hardaway. Nolte does his best Bobby Knight impersonation while trying to bring Coach Bell to life, but the overall message is ultimately lost. In a tournament of sports films, “Blue Chips” would likely get bounced in the second round.
Popular culture recently celebrated a big birthday when ESPN turned 30 years old. In honor of the milestone, ESPN produced a series of documentaries under the name “30 for 30.”
The films explored the biggest stories, athletic contests and sports superstars of the modern ESPN era. The initial series of films were a smashing success and ESPN has continued the series with “30 for 30, Volume II.”
New to Netflix is the sixth offering from the second volume, “You Don’t Know Bo.” The film debuted in December 2012 and documents the life and career of one of the most popular athletes of the ‘80s, Bo Jackson. The subtitle of the film is “The Legend of Bo Jackson,” aptly titled as the film artfully pieces the legendary moments of Bo Jackson’s athletic career into a narrative that captures the essence of a man who captivated an entire country in the late 1980s. The title “You Don’t Know Bo” is of course a play on the popular Nike ad campaign “Bo Knows” which introduced Bo Jackson to parts of the country that might have somehow missed his amazing exploits in the sports world. While Bo was beginning to dominate professional football and baseball, Nike had Bo dominating just about everything short of playing the blues.
More importantly, the film allows Bo and those who knew him best to tell his side of such a storied career. Director Michael Bonfiglio reveals a complex individual in Bo Jackson who came to age in the era of a rapidly changing sports culture that was propped squarely on his broad shoulders. Bo was considered somewhat an anti-authority figure simply because he refused to embrace the flash and style of the ‘80s sports culture that he inadvertently helped create. The truth is that for all the things Nike claimed Bo to be, Bo just wanted to be himself, nothing more.
This is documented over and over in the film, from Bo’s refusal to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after they sabotaged his senior year at Auburn to the quiet life he now enjoys outside of Chicago. Key figures that share memories include former teammates, notable broadcasters and a host of high school and college coaches that played an integral role in Bo’s career. The film also paints Bo as a true pop culture icon, from the infamous Monday Night Football game versus Seattle where he ran over brash linebacker Brian Bosworth to his notorious status in the football video game Tecmo Bowl. It’s a fascinating walk down memory lane.
The tale of Bo Jackson’s career, as most people know, is painfully tragic. “You Don’t Know Bo” echoes that sentiment with somber music, impactful testimonies and ironic opinions. Noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews states that Bo Jackson’s strength is ultimately what caused his career-ending injury, as a less powerful runner would not have run through the tackle that dislocated his hip. Bo looks straight in the camera and says he wouldn’t change anything, but it’s hard to truly believe him. Though he seems to have made some kind of peace with the injury that ultimately ended his football and baseball careers, the film tells a different story. We learn of a fierce competitor who relished in using his natural abilities to prove to himself and anyone who ever doubted him that he was the very best.
Though Bo Jackson’s career was short, it was arguable as impactful as any sports figure in the modern era. From his role in changing the face of sports marketing to being one of the most well known athletes in the world, Bo handled everything in his career with grace and humility. His story truly is, as the film points out, a tale of “What if?” And while we can only speculate what his career might have looked like had he not been injured, thanks to this fantastic “30 for 30” documentary we can at least say we finally know Bo.