Documentary Review: The Two Escobars (2010)

Release Date: June 22nd, 2010
Directed by: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Music by: Michael Furjanic

All Rise Films, ESPN Films, 104 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

The Two Escobars is one of my favorite installments of the original run of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series. I actually ranked it number two on an older website I ran.

This documentary follows the lives of Colombian soccer legend Andrés Escobar and Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The men were not related by blood but were related in their pride of Colombia and their lifelong love of soccer.

Both rose up from nothing and became forces in Colombia; one gained power through creating a massive criminal empire, the other gained admiration through becoming one of the greatest soccer players in the world. Both men gained respect; one through fear and one through competition. With two powerful forces within the same borders, they had to cross paths. This film is about that fascinating story.

Production-wise, this was a great documentary and one of the best ESPN has released in their 36 year history. The story was well-constructed and like most of the 30 For 30 films, the editing and interviews were exceptional. While a lot of films in this series cover a multitude of topics and stories, this is far and away the best story the series has told after the Nelson Mandela/Rugby film The 16th Man.

This documentary is on Netflix (well it was when I originally reviewed this). I would beseech any sports documentary fan, especially soccer fans, to check this out.

Film Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

Release Date: September 1st, 2017 (Telluride)
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Music by: Dario Marianelli
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films, Focus Features, 125 Minutes

Review:

“You can not reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” – Winston Churchill

Now that there are nine or so films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, there is more competition and it opens the floor up to more films that may otherwise get snubbed. But on the flip side of that, sometimes there are pictures that work their way onto the ballot that shouldn’t be there. Actually, it’s pretty common now. Darkest Hour is one of those films.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it enough to leave with a positive opinion of the film but if a movie is nominated for Best Picture of the Year, it had better be pretty damn exceptional.

Darkest Hour boasts some incredible acting but to be brutally honest, even great acting can’t save a disjointed and oddly paced film. While I was pulled into Gary Oldman’s Churchill, as he dominated nearly every scene, the film just shifted around like loose marbles in a shoe box. I felt like a cat watching a laser pointer.

While the film has also been nominated for Best Cinematography, I didn’t like it at all. The picture was dark and smudgy. Maybe the projector was on the fritz in my theater but the trailers before the movie all looked normal. This was a film shot with boring colors in dark places with high contrast lighting. While that can be presented well, I felt like I was watching a big television event from a major network in the ’90s and not a major motion picture on the big screen in 2018. The presentation made it feel like a mid-’90s BBC docudrama.

The strength of the film is the performances by the actors, especially Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn, as the King. The two women, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, also did fine work but were limited in their roles, as Churchill was always the film’s primary focal point. Another strength was the presentation of Churchill, as Oldman’s transformation looked seamless and perfect.

The film only covers the few weeks between Churchill’s rise to the role of Prime Minister to the moment where he decides whether he is going to go to war with the Nazis or negotiate a treaty. We all know how this ends but it’s how he came to his decision that is the gist of the film’s story. While parts of the film drag and should have been whittled down, the last twenty minutes or so were really solid.

Darkest Hour was a good movie but it lacked in a lot of areas that a Picture of the Year nominee shouldn’t. But the Academy is incredibly political and that could very well be the reason why this is getting major accolades.

Film Review: Miracle (2004)

Release Date: February 6th, 2004
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Written by: Eric Guggenheim
Music by: Mark Isham
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich

Walt Disney, Buena Vista Pictures, 135 Minutes

Review:

“Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.” – Herb Brooks

*written in 2014.

Miracle is considered by many, if not most, to be the best hockey film ever made.

I don’t agree with the popular opinion, although it is a good film. The problem though, is that there is a real under-abundance of hockey movies. I mean, compared to baseball, football and even basketball pictures, hockey is really underutilized as a subject for sports films. While I would put this in probably the top two or three hockey movies of all-time, it would be hard to put it in a top ten including other sports.

While the subject matter of this film, the 1980 Winter Olympics and the United States’ beating of the unstoppable Soviet team during the Cold War, is compelling, it falls flat when comparing it to the bigger picture.

There are scenes in the film that are great. In fact, the acting is stellar. The problem is that it is just missing the magic you find in films like The Natural, Field of Dreams, Rudy and Hoosiers. While it has a bit of a magical feel at times, it never really pulls you in as emotionally as those other classic sports motion pictures.

Additionally, the pacing of this film is strange, as at times it drags and other times it flies by. There are also so many characters to get to know, that you really can’t get to know any of them all that well. The film suffers from not investing more time in just a few people; instead it gives you bits and pieces of many people. It plays like a television pilot overstuffed with too many characters from the start.

Miracle is a good film, despite the criticisms I have. It just isn’t the great movie that people believe it to be. At least, that’s how I see it.

Documentary Review: Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015)

Release Date: May 16th, 2015 (Cannes)
Directed by: Gabriel Clarke, John McKenna
Written by: Gabriel Clarke
Music by: Jim Copperthwaite
Cast: Steve McQueen (archive footage), Chad McQueen, Neile Adams, Louise Edlind

Content Media, McQueen Racing, Pit Lane Productions, 102 Minutes

Review:

Le Mans is my favorite movie about auto racing. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a classic with fantastic action and a true sense of realism unlike anything ever filmed on the subject before it. It feels like a documentary accented by the presence of Steve McQueen.

The story behind the film is more intriguing, however.

This was Steve McQueen’s dream project, as it focused on his biggest love: motorsports. More specifically, it focused on the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, which is the biggest annual motorsports event in the world, which pits all the top auto manufacturers against each other with the best drivers in the world, gunning for bragging rights and world supremacy, at least until the following year.

McQueen was at the point in his career where he could be attached to anything and any studio would just write a check. However, due to creative problems, production issues, falling behind and the immense undertaking that this film became, the project turned into a nightmare for all involved. McQueen’s vision was his vision, whether or not the people brought on to help him realize it, understood what they were doing or not.

This documentary also analyzes McQueen’s personal life, its ups and downs and how all that played into his attitude and his handling of creating this dream. Le Mans was an arduous task that had to be finished but McQueen’s personal demons didn’t make it any easier.

In the end, the film got made, it didn’t do so well upon release but has grown to cult status among car and racing aficionados. It’s an amazing film for a lot of reasons and this documentary shows you why.

Plus, it’s always a treat to watch McQueen’s Le Mans footage. This also has a lot of behind the scenes stuff mixed in.

Documentary Review: That Guy Dick Miller (2014)

Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (SXSW)
Directed by: Elijah Drenner
Music by: Jason Brandt
Cast: Dick Miller, Lainie Miller, Gilbert Adler, Allan Arkush, Julie Corman, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Fred Dekker, William Sadler, Robert Picardo, Ernest R. Dickerson, Corey Feldman, Robert Forster, Zach Galligan, Jonathan Haze, Jack Hill, Leonard Maltin, John Sayles, Mary Woronov

Autumn Rose Productions, End Films, 91 Minutes

Review:

If you don’t know who Dick Miller is or at least recognize his face, you were probably born after the year 2000. Even then, if you’ve ever watched a film before that time, you have most likely seen him at one point or a dozen.

Dick Miller was in everything from the 1950s through the 1990s. No, seriously, he was. Well, at least it seemed like he was in everything. The man has 180 credits to his name according to IMDb. Growing up in the ’80s, I saw him pop up a few times a year in the coolest movies of the time. The one that will always stand out the most for me was his part in Gremlins, which was the first time I remember seeing him. Every time I saw Mr. Miller after that was always a nice treat.

As I got older and went back and watched older films, especially when I found a love for Roger Corman’s pictures, I started to experience a younger and hip Dick Miller. He started his career in a lot of those early Roger Corman pictures and that association would serve him well, as all the young directors who rose to prominence, who were influenced by Corman, started hiring Miller for their films.

This documentary goes back and shows Miller’s early life, how he made the connection with Corman and how his career blossomed in unseen ways because of it. I love that it goes through his long history in films and interviews a lot of the people who were there alongside him. It also talks to the directors who hired him and have a love for his work.

Dick Miller is a guy that deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the films he was a part of. He was a mainstay in Hollywood for decades and if he was in a movie it sort of legitimized it as cool. It didn’t matter when he got older either, as he took over the screen in his cameos in a lot of Joe Dante’s pictures.

That Guy Dick Miller is a pretty awesome documentary for fans who grew up watching this guy work. Even if you aren’t familiar with him, this is probably still enjoyable and will give you a solid appreciation for the man and the films he was a part of.

Film Review: I, Tonya (2017)

Release Date: September 8th, 2017 (TIFF)
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Music by: Peter Nashel
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Mckenna Grace

LuckyChap Entertainment, Clubhouse Pictures, AI Film, Neon, 119 Minutes

Review:

“I mean, come on! What kind of friggin’ person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?” – Tonya Harding

I thought that the trailer for I, Tonya was really good and I wanted to see the film. The main thing I wondered about though, was how they were going to actually portray the events in the movie. Part of me felt like the film could have the effect of making Tonya Harding some sort of misunderstood cult hero or the victim. While the film does humanize her, as it should, and it also shows the abuse she dealt with throughout her life, I feel like it was pretty fair to the story, as no one other than Tonya and those around her, knew what actually happened in regards to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan.

I like the point of view that the film took, in that it was based off of the interviews and testimonials given by Harding, Jeff Gillooly and LaVona Golden. The film’s plot would often show events from the three main characters different interpretations. Tonya would tell her story, then her mom or Jeff would cut in to correct it or defend themselves. I liked the way the plot was structured and the quick cuts worked really well for that quick shifting narrative.

However, that worked to the picture’s detriment too. At least, at one point in the story.

You see, the film worked really well as just a straight up biopic for the first two-thirds or so. I was pretty engaged in the story and Tonya’s life before the Kerrigan incident. In fact, when it shifted to the incident, it pulled me away from a film I was enjoying to where I suddenly found myself knee deep in something else. I thought the film just threw itself into the incident without a better build up, as the vibe immediately felt different and it hit you out of nowhere but I guess that’s how it went down, as far as we know. It was like watching a really good story about a girl who wants to be an Olympic figure skater, overcoming all the odds, as the decks are stacked against her and then like a punch to the gut, you are reminded as to why this is a story in the first place. It just takes you out of your element.

Still, overall, the plot was well structured and the narrative curveball doesn’t do much to derail the film. It just felt like a major hiccup and then it was gone.

The performances in this movie are all fantastic. Allison Janney steals every scene that she is in and her Oscar nomination is well deserved. Margot Robbie was spectacular as Tonya and Sebastian Stan, who I am mostly familiar with as being the Winter Soldier, was the real surprise of the bunch, as he plays a character so far outside of what I’ve see from him. It’s like he went from a badass like John Wick to Kip from Napolean Dynamite. It’s a hell of a transformation from his most famous role.

I don’t think I, Tonya is anywhere near a Picture of the Year contender and it wasn’t nominated. However, the performances have been justly considered and Robbie and Janney are up for Oscars. I think Janney has a real shot but Robbie has much steeper competition in the Lead Actress category.

Documentary Review: Ken Burns Presents: The West (1996)

Release Date: September 15th, 1996 – September 22nd, 1996
Directed by: Steve Ives
Music by: Matthias Gohl

PBS, 537 Minutes (8 episodes)

Review:

Ken Burns makes the best documentaries for television, in my opinion. So his take on the Old West was pretty compelling, enjoyable and informative. Granted, he just produced this one and wasn’t a writer on it or the director.

The director is Steve Ives, who presented The West in the same style and format as Ken Burns’ other documentaries. It is full of a lot to sink your teeth into and for a big fan of the Old West and American history, there is a lot in this epic series that a viewer might not know.

Like most of the documentaries with Burns’ name on them, this one is in multiple parts of one-to-two hour films. Each one focuses on a theme and a different era.

The interviews, the photos and all the other material used to piece this thing together are top notch.

One thing that is absolutely exceptional about this series is the music and that majestic opening theme.

If you have seen a Ken Burns documentary, you already know what to expect. If you haven’t seen one, strap in for a long, epic tale with more information and stories than should be able to fit in a 9 hour running time. Yes, there is that much here to digest.