The Natural

With the World Series in progress, we decided to go baseball themed with The Natural. Released in 1984, Barry Levinson’s film stars Robert Redford, Glenn Close, and Robert Duvall. It is rated PG for some violence.

The Natural tells the story of Roy Hobbs (Redford), a man with a cloudy past and a passionate love for the game of baseball. Hobbs, after almost 20 years since setting out to play professional baseball, comes out of nowhere and joins the pitiful New York Knights, taking the team from perennial losers to a more than respectable team. His unbelievable, yet mysterious run draws the attention of many, including sportswriter Max Mercy (Duvall), who attempts to uncover Hobbs’ secret. Meanwhile, Hobbs relives the fame he once sought out before being inexplicably shot by a young woman, while also struggling to deal with these memories.

7.0 out of 10

I am a huge sports fan. More specifically, I am a huge baseball fan (Go Yanks!). Despite this, I would be lying if I told you my favorite movie genre was the sports genre. For some reason, these movies never seem to satisfy me. They always seem to be boring and uninteresting. However, there is always the occasional exception (Rocky, Moneyball, Raging Bull-if that counts). For me, The Natural categorizes itself in between the classics and the disappointments.

1980’s cinematography has a more authentic feel to it. It had advanced greatly since the days of black and white, prominent just 30 years prior, but isn’t nearly as flashy as the 3D, Imax kind of stuff we have today. It’s really very simple, and this gave movies a sense of nostalgia and authenticity that is especially relevant in this film. The movie takes place in the 1920’s, so the language, the costumes, and the general feel of the time period are extremely important for the audience to get a grasp of. I think that the movie did a good job of doing just that.

The costumes have a great 20’s feel to it, from the baggy uniforms to the sleak suits. The language is very old, allowing the characters to sound like they should. And the aforementioned cinematography is luscious  and brings out certain aspects of the era that make the viewer feel the 1920’s. This was one of the more respectable aspects of the movie: the fact that I was able to feel the time period. I was able to connect with Roy Hobbs and the period he was living in, even though I live in a completely different era.

The actors’ performances are all pretty good. Glenn Close was pretty good as Hobbs’ childhood friend Iris (even if her character was really terribly utilized). Robert Redford and Robert Duvall were both good as Hobbs and Mercy, respectively. Nothing special, just good.

But that’s why I wouldn’t consider this film great. It’s nothing special, just good. The acting is just good, the script is just good, the storytelling is just good. There wasn’t anything that stood out to me. No acting performance of a lifetime, no memorable quote. Maybe the scene where Roy literally hits the cover of the baseball, but other than that, the movie just isn’t memorable enough.

And let me get back to Glenn Close’s character. She isn’t introduced at all, she appears about three quarters of the way through the movie, we have no idea who she is, yet she turns out to be extremely important. It comes off as a desperate attempt by the writers to solve the slump they decided to put Hobbs in. It was little things like this that prevented this film from being great. It had the tendency to be very predictable at moments (spoiler)– Hobbs’ homer at the end, Iris’ son being Hobbs’ child– which got kind of irritating. And considering baseball is the most unpredictable sport out there, is predictability appropriate?

The reason many find this film to be a classic is the nostalgia and antique feel it brings surrounding the fantastic game of baseball, which it does do well. It’s far (FAR) from perfect, and it’s plagued by practicability and a lack of a standout moment. In the end, this film is a well hit, but doesn’t quite reach the fence (as cheesy as that sounds).
~Vig

8.5 out of 10

I’ll start off with a few informal notes since I am a baseball fan.

GO RED SOX! Ok start, but it’s still early!

So, when I think of the Red Sox, I also think of my favorite player in history Teddy Ballgame. Ted Williams and I always loved the scene with Roy choosing number 9 as his in (What I always saw as) a tribute to the greatest hitter who ever lived.

There, that was a segway, right? So this is not real a review for me, it’s a tribute. I remember my sport-obsessed cousins having a case for their VHS tapes packed with sports movies. Every time I took a look at that case when I was a kid, I was admittedly envious. I’d mentally take notes of titles like The Sandlot, Angles in the Outfield and The Mighty Ducks just so I could them from (Another ancient artifact) Blockbuster later.

And, upon my first viewing at 11, I loved The Natural. Sports movies are, in general, about as safe as they come. I have mentioned this before. A regular guy is set up. He’s good at something. He’s noticed. He wins some. He loses some. But he wins it all in the end. But I love sports movies BECAUSE they are safe. Because I often know what to expect from them and its a win/win. If the main character (s) win, I’m satisfied. If he loses, I’m surprised. It doesn’t get much safer than that for Hollywood.

And The Natural’s no different really. Except it has one thing that those other sports movies do not have. Robert Redford. Redford is the centerpiece in this classic film. He is the classic everyman and hero that the story really requires. The story, in and of itself, is just a modern legend. It’s the definitive baseball narrative nowadays. Like Roger Ebert once said, it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. Meaning that I have kind of accepted that sports as a genre is kind of spinning its wheels but that does not stop its movies from executing their stories very well.

roy hobbs

Robert Redford is that execution. He supplies the classic lead needed to be that execution. I have heard that he prepared thoroughly for this role by watching dozens of games and scores of footage in order to look genuine, not like an actor playing one. That shows here. I often find myself feeling whatever he feels along with him. I feel when he rises and I feel when he thinks that he has wasted his potential.

But everyone can attest to feeling that home run. That penultimate scene. How glorious is it when those sparks are flying while Roy rounds those bases, realizing his dreams and accomplishments? Pretty damn glorious. Although the original story ends with him striking out, I don’t really take a side as to which one is better because both work with his story. One has him with humility and one with victory. Both actually work fine by me. But, in the case of the film, nothing beats his final game. Nothing.
~Zach

IMDB: 7.6
Metacritic: —
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

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Captain Phillips

This week we’ll be looking at Captain Phillips, based on Richard Phillips’ memoir A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea. The film is directed by Paul Greengrass and stars Tom Hanks. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences that contain some violence and bloody images.

Captain Phillips depicts the real-life hijacking of the US Maersk Alabama in the horn of Africa three years ago by Somali pirates, along with the subsequent kidnapping of the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), as a hostage. As the movie progresses, we see both Phillips and Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the leader of the Somali pirates, struggle with leadership while also experiencing personal troubles and conflicts they  seem to share, while also experiencing the tense crisis and the US government’s attempt to thwart it. While they both wait for their respective sides to arrive and provide help, we see their resourcefulness (Or lack thereof) and get a glimpse at what makes them who they are: leaders during a challenging time.

6.5 out of 10

Tom Hanks is probably my favorite actor of all time. He’s timeless, and so genuine in every single performance, whether it’s as a gay man with AIDS (Philadelphia) or an astronaut (Apollo 13). Tom Hanks is definitely one of the greatest actors of this generation. Captain Phillips proves he’s still got it.

Even though it looks like he may have been playing a somewhat exaggerated version of Phillips, Hanks still plays it really well. He has the intensity, emotion, wits, and insecurity necessary to make a realistic hero. He is brave and daring, but still a bit hesitant and fearful. The final few minutes were fantastic, largely in thanks to Hanks’ tear-jerking, emotional portrayal of a confused and scared Phillips. It uncovers a part of him we haven’t seen before; the deep, emotionally intense side. However, besides Hanks’s stellar performance and maybe Barkhad Abdi in his film debut as the main antagonist, I didn’t see much in the rest of the cast. Perhaps it’s because they’re relatively unknown, or because their characters were bland, but I wasn’t too fond of the rest of the ensemble.

The film makes its money off of it’s intensity and fast pacing. It’s what people want to see. They want to be thrilled and excited. The entire film from beginning to end is a thrilling adrenaline rush, something that is really hard to accomplish in any type of film. It was visually enticing as well, and keeps you on the edge of your seat. This is what makes this film an enjoyable film overall. However, while I feel like this is a strength for the film, it also leads to various weaknesses. The film is so set on making itself exciting and thrilling that it forgets to teach us about the characters. We know virtually nothing about the crew and pirates, and in some ways we knew nothing about Muse and Phillips themselves. The film spend two hours and ten minutes on its plot, and about five minutes on its build up. I know I was ranting about excess build up last week, but a cameo by Catherine Keener is all they can give me? Additionally, there were definitely scenes that could have been cut down. I mean seriously, didn’t we know the Somalis would lose the entire time? And why did the navy get so much screen time?

If I’m speaking honestly, I don’t think I’m giving this film enough credit. It does have a really well written script, it is extremely exciting, and the ending is fantastic. The storytelling is also really good, especially for a film with such a complex, intricate plot. But nonetheless it has its flaws. It’s characters were a bit underwhelming, it ran about twenty minutes too long and worst of all, the film had trouble finding an identity. Was it an action film, or a story about bravery and heroism? Some of you readers may ask why it matters. Isn’t a movie just a movie? To that, I say, if a film doesn’t know itself, then it can’t portray it’s message properly. This film didn’t know whether to show you the intensity of the situation through particulate navy strategy or Phillips balling his eyes out. 

So overall, is this film good? Sure. You’d probably like it more than I did.
Is this film worth seeing? Why not. Tom Hanks is awesome.
Is it Oscar winning-material? Eh… Not quite

~Vig

8.5 out of 10

“Everything’s going to be ok.”

Captain Phillips, played very believably by an aged Tom Hanks, hears these words a lot in this movie. Personally, though there are plenty of great monologues and nuances to mention, that quote sums up the movie for me. It’s uttered in the beginning by the pirates as they take Phillips hostage and by the end, when he is assured by a doctor he’ll be fine.

captain phil

I was very worried this movie would go after angles that would crush its narrative power. I walked in believing it’d just be a carbon copy of Argo with some cartoonishly evil pirates and Tom Hanks added to distract from its unoriginal story. But the writers didn’t go for that. They didn’t go for what the previews made it look like. They went the right way. A way that shows the humanity of all the characters, even the “villains” without relying on those action filled “Yeah America!” moments to keep it afloat.

That has been kind of a trend. Its been somewhat normal to turn actual historical incidents into either a sob story or some sort of triumphant action movie, wiping out all the emotion and truth in the process.

Captain Phillips keeps it quiet and contained. The bulk of what I remember takes place in a small escape boat where the pirates and Phillips often just converse about the situation. They talk about their hopes and how they got there. One of the lead pirates, Abduwali, gives an especially poignant speech about how he always wanted to go to America and how he resorted to robbing boats to get money. It’s quiet moments like these, often transitioned between each other with some beautiful tracking shots of the sea, that make the louder moments all the more exciting. Sometimes, you can’t have a crescendo without a diminuendo.

Captain Phillips develops its characters so well using this. I found myself rooting for the crew when the pirates attack yet still feeling terrible whenever the impoverished Somali characters have to face the failure of their first stab at piracy, the life that has been somewhat forced on them.

That is an amazing feat and, more importantly, a testament to the film’s pacing and three-dimensional characters. Captain Phillips may be trapped but so is everyone else. Each person is stranded in their own way hoping that something will some how come through for them. So, by the end, when we see the government agents celebrating a “job well done” next to a shaking, traumatized Phillips it leaves us with empathy for everyone.

But don’t worry, it’s all going to be ok.
~Zach

 

Bonus Video: Interview by Captain Phillips on Larry King Live, one year after his experience.

IMDB: 7.9
Metacritic: 83
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Rush

This week, we’ll be examining the newly released Rush, directed by Ron Howard. The film stars Daniel Bruhl, Chris Hemsworth and Olivia Wilde. Rated R for language, nudity, some disturbing images and brief drug use.

Rush follows two European race cars drivers, James Hunt (Hemsworth), a brash, handsome womanizer, and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl), a witty and intelligent, yet cocky genius, in the midst of their heated race to become the greatest. Throughout the next six years, both of the drivers rise to the top: Formula 1.

Though they are each completely different in terms of style and personality, they become fierce competitors, and by 1976, they are pitted against each other in a battle of wits, bravery, and speed. In ’76, with Lauda dominating Hunt during the early stages of the season, Lauda suffers a tragic accident at the German Grand Prix after crashing his Ferrari in the rain because Hunt had insisted the race go on. Lauda leaves the accident with life-threatening third degree burns to his heads and his lungs, with seemingly no chance to become World Champion. The rivalry had just begun.

8.0 out of 10 

I am a huge sports fan. Basketball, baseball, football; you name it. The one thing that doesn’t draws my interest is NASCAR. So obviously, I wasn’t necessarily excited to watch this film. Nevertheless, it was Ron Howard and looked good, so I decided to see it regardless.

The film certainly has its pros and cons. For starters, the acting was very good. Despite the lack of any huge names besides Thor, I mean Chris Hemsworth, (and Olivia Wilde was in like, a scene and a half) the actors do a very good job, especially the two leads. Daniel Bruhl and Hemsworth were both fantastic as clashing racers. The way they developed themselves and their rivalry was very strong, and the chemistry between the two was phenomenal. The ending, in which Hunt is seen talking with Bruhl after winning the championship, is a perfect display of this connection: How these two racers learned from each other, and were motivated by each other. How they saw each other as friends, even. Without this emotional connection, the film would have fallen apart. On the flip side, the love interests seemed forced and irrelevant. I never believed that any of it was genuine romance. Really, all it did was consume screentime.

Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt

Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt

I also found the film a bit inconsistent. We saw fives minutes of James Hunt, then thirty minutes of Niki Lauda, so on and so forth. It evened itself out eventually, but this discrepancy in narration still led to an awkward, unsteady pacing. Additionally, I was slightly bored with the first half, excluding the first 10 minutes. Right out of the gate, we saw the beginning of this fantastic rivalry and wanted more. What we actually got was was build up. Build up is never bad, but in this case, it threw off the pace that had been set after their Formula 3 race. However, Rush hit its stride once it entered 1976. The film got much more intense once the race for World Champion started. It generally became more fast paced and exciting, something that I enjoyed.

While Rush had an excellent soundtrack and gritty cinematography that allowed it to become both visually and audibly appealing, what really makes this film is its direction. Ron Howard is a very good director, How the Grinch Stole Christmas put aside. He understands the concept of originality and is able to apply it to true stories such as A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. The movie was about a real life rivalry, and what’s important to understand is that both of these characters are the protagonists. They were enemies to each other, but to an audience, there is no hero or villain. Howard directs the film in such a way that we find ourselves supporting both of them at one point. The fact that we can’t pick sides contributes to the realism of the rivalry and makes the film fun to watch. It isn’t one sided at all. We can empathize with both of the characters, and that is really what viewers want; to form a connection with a character.

To those of you who don’t like racing, check out this movie. Really, it’s a stretch to consider this movie a racing film. It’s not about the race on the track, it’s about the race of life between two men who appear to hate each other but actually rely on and respect the other. This face paced, exciting film is definitely worth a watch. ~Vig

8.0 out of 10

Ron Howard’s a mixed bag. His producing credits range from Frost/Nixon to Katy Perry: Part of Me. And his production company has about the same of a record as his own. So, naturally, when I heard he was making a film called “Rush” about James Hunt, I was….indifferent. I didn’t really know what exactly to expect from a racing film directed by him.

Ron Howard

Ron Howard

But, you can’t ignore such a diverse portfolio as Ron Howard’s, so (Vignesh and) I decided to dive into this movie. And I can say one thing, I wasn’t disappointed whatsoever…

I’ll get the negative out of the way first, it’s like any other racing film. Competitor wins. Competitor keeps besting our protagonist but suddenly (GASP) our hero rises to the finish and beats his challenger.

But damn, does Rush do it well. The races are so grand and epic you can’t help but get invested it in it. Great soundwork as the cars roared right past the screen. They managed to milk every bit of reality and engagement they could out of every race and it never really lost its touch. If anything, it got progressively better.

Hemsworth and Bruhl, if they can play out one emotion, its want. Its that insatiable thirst to beat ones rival. They may occasionally have to work with okay dialogue but, boy, do they make it work. The most reliable source ever, Wikipedia tells me Niki Lauda really enjoyed this movie even if it may have been a not so flattering portrayal but who can blame him? You could have me be a murderer in my biopic and, if it were played this well, I’d be in the front row for twenty showings straight. Really, hope I can see these guys a lot more.

Sometimes, however, it gets to be too grand for its own good (And I mean that in the best way possible). Seeing your investment in the vents of a film escalate then deteriorate as we move between races and so/so stabs at personalizing the characters more can put a dent in it at times. Nonetheless, Hemsworth and Bruhl really step out of themselves and into their characters to give it their all which makes all the difference with (What can be) problematic pacing).

In that, Rush teaches a valuable lesson. Occasionally, especially in this genre, It’s OK to be “cliche”. You can certainly rectify it so long as you have a great mix of acting, visuals, a wonderful grip on the action, and, the icing on the cake, Hans Zimmer in the background. Seriously, I can’t think of a time when Zimmer has dissatisfied my ears yet.

Call me unprofessional (This is only a blog after all), but I am a huge sucker for a healthy mix of well-made action with some satisfactory emotions behind it. That basically makes me a fan of 90% of sports films from the past 30 years but I stand by it. I’m not particularly giving an A for effort, I’m just saying I totally got what I expected in an unexpected fashion.

Ron Howard, nobody can predict what the next project to be added to your eclectic portfolio will be but if its as good as this, I just might be comfortable with calling myself a “Ron Howard” fan. However, I won’t forgive you for your Katy Perry exploits.

~Zach

IMDB: 8.2
Metacritic: 75
Rotten Tomates: 89%