30-for-30: Believeland

'Believeland' movie poster

Release: Saturday, May 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Andy Billman

Imagine growing up in a city where you’re taught, almost assuredly from at least the eighth grade onward, that losing is a reality you must accept, simply based on some silly geographic lottery that you were thrust into at birth. Surprise! You’re from Cleveland, and your acclimatization to watching your sports team(s) losing is best done sooner rather than later. You’re not a loser, but you’re going to have to get used to the idea of losing.

Believeland, Andy Billman’s portrait of a city synonymous with bleak winters and even bleaker sports seasons, speaks to the harsh reality of being born and bred a Clevelander, and it doesn’t hide the fact that life is viewed just a little more pessimistically in these parts. Yet the film itself isn’t pessimistic and doesn’t beg for pity. In fact it does quite the opposite, demanding respect for a steely, hard-working community patiently waiting for the black cloud that had descended following the 1964 NFL Championship, the city’s last big W, to finally let the sun shine through.

The Fumble. The Shot. The Drive. Red Right 88. The Block. The Trade. The Move. The Lip. Are breaks in the cloud even possible?

Perhaps the film’s poster, bearing some of Cleveland’s most painful trials for all to see, is also the best way to describe Believeland: a series of vignettes that anyone watching around the Cleveland area would likely find a test of endurance. To everyone else it’s a laundry list of bad things that have happened. And, as is poignantly observed by Scott Raab, a native and novelist serving as a casual narrator as he regales us — and his son — at a local diner about all the ways in which his favorite teams have let him down: only Clevelanders will be able to look back and kind of laugh this all off. “That’s Cleveland.”

The story of the woes and the worries, of the pitfalls of being ever the optimist in a place that doesn’t reward optimism takes an interesting turn with the introduction of respected business man and former New York ad executive Art Modell, who in 1961 assumed operations of the Browns organization. A series of unpopular moves put Modell squarely in the crosshairs of passionate fans, who began viewing him as a villain rather than the savior they hoped he would be. It didn’t help matters that Modell didn’t strike anyone as a sports guy; he had no knowledge of the game though his business acumen was rarely questioned.

The firing of coach Paul Brown (the franchise’s first and namesake head coach) turned heads but didn’t earn him anywhere near the animosity his handling of star fullback Jim Brown did. Brown, who was exploring a career in acting on the side, had missed a week of training prior to the ’66 season from production delays on The Dirty Dozen which greatly upset Modell, who publicly threatened him with fines for each day he would continue to miss. Brown decided instead to retire.

Two Browns down; the rest to go? As fate would have it, in a way yes they would. As Modell had a lot of clout developing in Cleveland, he also had invested in repurposing the city’s old Municipal Stadium, agreeing to let both the football and baseball franchises (the Indians) sublease the space. Unfortunately after several fiscally disappointing years Modell became disillusioned with Cleveland as a prosperous venture, and, in an effort to save face decided he would try to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland. The news of course was enough to set light to an already crackling fanbase, a fanbase that had been growing restless for some time.

Despite a referendum in 1996 that ultimately allowed Cleveland to retain the franchise name, the Browns still faced deactivation for another three years (’97 – ’99). Meanwhile, Modell was busy introducing the Baltimore Ravens, to a decidedly torn fanbase who were simultaneously glad to again have a pro football team to back, but still aching over the loss of their beloved Colts (who relocated to their current city, Indianapolis). Indeed, one of the most heartrending moments of the documentary finds fans tearfully saying goodbye to their players on the last game of the ’95 campaign, a game they managed to win. There were few celebrations though;  instead violent confrontations and security staff at the game were assaulted by particularly unruly fans. Empty rows of seats were uprooted in the stadium and tossed onto the field. It came to symbolize the very antithesis of what a sporting environment should be.

Thus ‘The Move’ occupies a major spot at the table when it comes to all the perceived wrongs done unto the Cleveland faithful, representing quite possibly one of the darkest periods in their history. It makes the acquisition of recent burnouts like Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel pale in comparison. The latter especially may have been an embarrassment in its own right, but it was no back-stabbing like the one everyone saw Modell’s collective anti-‘land strategies as. But ‘The Move’ isn’t what ultimately defines Believeland, although it is all too easy to construct the argument that this documentary is designed almost as if to pardon self-loathing sports freaks.

The advent of LeBron James, and particularly the results of the 2016 NBA season*, go a long way in suggesting what Cleveland may have to offer the world going forward. A hugely promising, explosive power forward out of Akron, Ohio, James had been all but prophesied for greatness. Yeah, okay, so I guess we need to tack on ‘The Decision’ to that list of grievances, but the narrative has since evolved from one of bitter resentment to renewed enthusiasm and belief once more that Cleveland’s relevance is only a matter of appeasing The King with the hands he needs to rule a forgotten kingdom.

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* The 2016 NBA Finals featured a re-match of last year’s Finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. After an historic 73-9 regular season record, largely on the back of a virtuoso regular-season performance from shooting guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors shocked the world by failing to clinch their second consecutive title when they ran into the powerhouse that was LeBron James and a healthier Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Because of the results, Billman has stated that he is going to offer an alternative ending to Believeland to reflect the fact that James has finally, finally put an end to that championship drought in the nation’s most cursed sports town. Stay tuned for a quick blurb on my thoughts over this edit. 

Recommendation: Believeland speaks to the loyalty of fanbases and it ties the obsession with sports into the economic health of a city in intriguing and often heartbreaking ways. It might not be enough to sway those who see Clevelanders sports fans as rabid people with too much anger, but it just might be enough to entice those curious about the state of things in a city that doesn’t on the surface seem to have much to offer. I found this to be quite an interesting take on sports history and the way those closest to sports teams choose to interpret that history. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

https://vimeo.com/157732750

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Photo credits: http://www.espnfrontrow.com; http://www.espn.com 

TBT: Brink! (1998)

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As the summer season of filmgoing winds down (well, sort of. . .Guardians of the Galaxy looms around the corner this weekend, so maybe that’s a premature statement) my inspired posts have really ramped up! Today’s TBT comes at you not from the brain of. . .well, me. . . but yeah, from someone else. Someone else’s sick mind is responsible for today’s throwback. And I won’t mention any names (Keith), but suffice it to say — this man has a great taste in movies! I had almost forgotten all about these campy Disney originals, until now. So, he suggested this one and, for anyone who has seen this, I’m sure they’ll also wonder how I could possibly go without talking about

Today’s food for thought: Brink! 

Brink

Rolling brakeless since: August 29, 1998

[TV]

Ahh, Brink! Yes, the movie title with the mysterious exclamation point at the end, the one to this day I still don’t understand. I mean, why so excited? Everytime I write that title I sound more enthusiastic than I really should about a Disney channel original movie, but you know, whatever. #YOLO.

There’s a great many things yours truly does not understand, and this movie title, not to mention how inexplicably awesome the film itself actually was, are two more things I might as well add to the list.

I ain’t gonna fake it, brah. Brink! is a pretty damn cheesy movie, but it features some blasts of summer fun that time and again recall a much simpler, innocent time. The days spent careening down streets and heckling passers-by on the boardwalk can be recalled fondly for every Californian at home catching it on T.V. for the umpteenth time at 4 p.m. right after school. For those playing the long-distance game, who don’t live in California and who aren’t steeped in the rollerblading culture, it perhaps served better as a postcard from Venice Beach.

When a group of enthusiastic young in-liners led by Andy “Brink” Brinker (that’s not an awkward name at all) clash with a rivaling group of “professionally sponsored” skaters, Brink (Erik von Detten) is forced to decide who to skate for when given the opportunity to raise money for his family by joining Team X-Bladz, the über-serious and totally rad side of skating. But does he have it in him to sacrifice his friends and the simple joy of having fun while skating in order to make money? Dedicated Brink-sters tend to view this fairly asinine struggle as Anakin slowly joining the Dark Side. You desperately want him to turn back, to use reason and logic. Possibly, The Force, if necessary, to escape a lifetime of. . . well, selling out.

Of course, deep down Brink knows that “The Force” is just him having an identity crisis. He was once a passionate skater but now finds it necessary to use his talents as a way to financially help out his family. He betrays his bro’s (Brink, c’mon man), and he even endangers the life of one of them during a street race between himself and Gabby (Christina Vidal) when trying to prove who is the better downhill skater. If there really is a Dark Side in Disney’s eyes, it’s the whole selling one’s self out to corporate greed and uniformity. Ironically actual skaters view the world the same way. Unfortunately even the corporate-sponsored ones still have to fight for food, as the sport is not — as one might imagine — a highly-paid profession.

But enough of the practical talk, this is a Disney Channel movie throwback, for crying out loud. Enough with statistical probability of making it successfully in the industry (yes, the sport of rollerblading has garnered corporate sponsorship, despite what skateboarding might have you thinking otherwise), and enough with the damn comparisons to Star Wars. I just lost an entire paragraph to that metaphor. And about to lose another one to an explanation of why that was weird. Whatever.

At the end of the day, if you haven’t experienced the fast-paced, corny-as-corn action of Brink!, you’re basically missing out. And, brah, you have been for quite some time. The child in me who sat far too close to a television set still wants to think it was longer ago than 1998. Then again, that was well over a decade ago now.

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Man, it’s gotta be a burden to possess a face that looks like that . . .

3-0Recommendation: I feel like if I need to recommend Brink! to my readers, I’ve already lost the race. You’ve either seen this one or you gave it a wide berth. I’m not really sure how some of my readers would go about even tracking it down out of curiosity now, unless they are comfortable with sifting through hours of mindless drivel on the Disney channel. Although, that might be a worthwhile sacrifice if you find yourself just curious enough.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “Whatever brah, let’s blade.”

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Photo credits: http://www.bustle.com; Google images 

Bad Words

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Release: Friday, March 28, 2014

[Theater]

When a child uses choice language around the house, they run not from their parents, but rather away from the bar of Irish Spring they know will soon be in their mouth. The expression ‘I am going to wash your mouth out with soap’ may be timeless, but it’s never quite the deterrent parents think it should be, because. . . . . let’s face it. Most of us grow up, become well-adjusted and live a long life of swearing our asses off. Not really, but hopefully the point has been made.

Harmful (i.e. ‘bad’) words are an inescapable commodity, and most of us at some point have used them, maybe even aimed them at people we are nearby or perhaps talking directly to. But why did we use them — was it out of frustration? Or were we dropping the f-bomb because we were so thrilled about something? Did we not like the way we were being treated so we assaulted those who caused us pain with colorful and spiteful language? Context and intent is everything.

Jason Bateman decides to exploit these concepts in Bad Words, his directorial feature debut. Starring as the film’s definitive anti-hero, a 40-year-old miscreant named Guy Trilby determined to become the nation’s best speller, Bateman knew in order for the material to reach its highest comedic potential he would have to step in front of the camera as well. He could not have made a better move, for his performance is unquestionably the best work he’s ever turned in. By a mile.

Every action he makes and every word he hisses at those around him is a calculated effort of a possible sociopath in the making. Just because he doesn’t swear all of the time (even though it’s still a lot of the time), it’s to whom he speaks and throws insults and the timing of his actions that really matter. His masterful understanding of social context and a person’s ability to mask their intentions are chief among the many reasons Bateman deserves much credit. In this performance, he does his best to make us not like him but damn it he’s still too great to not (quietly) root for when truths eventually do become revealed.

Bad Words epitomizes situational comedy, or at least comes extremely close. Turn to any number of scenes in which Guy is a physically dominant opponent. We’re not talking about NBA basketball here, we are watching The Golden Quill Spelling Bee competition. As a full-grown adult, he’s in the wrong place and not only does he realize this, he doesn’t care. He wants to be the best at something, and knows he is also competing well within the rules. (A technicality based on a graduation date allows him to participate.)

There’s an equal number of scenes in which his intellect goes virtually unmatched by his diminutive, prepubescent competitors. He’ll try anything to gain an advantage, and I do mean anything. Thanks to Bateman’s incredibly funny and self-deprecating performance, Guy Trilby turns out to be a man with an alarming lack of morality; a conscience so twisted he’ll expose one of his ten-year-old rivals to his first pair of real boobs (to prove they all have nipples) before he offers up an honest answer to his journalist travel buddy, Jenny (Kathryn Hahn) about why he’s committing himself to this spelling bee. He maintains no kid will be a match for his sky-high I.Q.

You might think this guy is a complex character reading this review, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. Bateman’s dedication to keeping things simple, but earnest, crafts Bad Words into a better picture than it might have been in the hands of a director just coming off the high of directing an epic superhero film, or a director whose own lofty ambitions often run away from them. It’s what makes the character better, too. Guy Trilby has one thing to prove, and that’s. . . . . . .well that’s a spoiler. One gets the sense there is a deep pain he is hiding; when the truth is revealed we know it’s a basic, fundamental issue but it completely fits. The development proves to be great debut screenwriting from Andrew Dodge.

Despite things maintaining a straightforward procedure, that’s not to say the movie lacks interest. Bad Words instead allows its low-key status to enhance character’s presences, especially with how they are introduced. En route to the competition, Guy encounters what he initially considers the world’s most annoying brat, an Indian boy named Chaitanya (Rohand Chand). Eventually this inquisitive and impossibly intelligent kid destroys his ill-begotten misconceptions via a series of misadventures they both share during the final rounds of competition. Chaitanya is, inexplicably, looking for a friend in this obnoxious 40-year-old and the two have a bit of fun before they must get down to business. . . and spell the hell out of some words.

Bateman may take a fairly predictable route, and the final rounds of this highly unusual competition make for a foregone conclusion. Such are the traits of a film created by an accomplished actor turning his attention towards a new aspect of filmmaking — there are growing pains. Fortunately, as predictable as some of the routes are they can’t be called completely safe. That is certainly one word that does not apply here, as the proceedings often take a turn to the dark and depressing. One thing we’re not going to feel in this sitting is safe — at least, not with Bateman’s character lurking around. But that’s a good thing.

For all of its rushed third act and its many foreseeable developments, Bad Words is a thoroughly entertaining comedy that doesn’t slip nearly as much as other debut attempts have in the past. (I am not Guy Trilby so I won’t call these people out by name.) It is a laugh riot in a number of scenes, surprisingly heartwarming in others and is a great example of an actor successfully bridging the gap between acting and directing.

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4-0Recommendation: Bad Words is intelligent, raunchy, insulting and touching, often in the same scene. It is a film of an impressive quality that often beckons comparisons to Bad Santa. Is it any coincidence the two share the same first word? Methinks not. But in all seriousness, yes. This movie, it’s pretty much the shit. Go see it. And no, it’s not nerdy if you find spelling bees interesting. That’s why I saw it. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Your chair called me for help. . .it’s like help me, it’s so heavy.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Blades of Glory (2007)

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And I guess we are going to switch tones here quickly, by choosing a comedy vehicle for Mr. Will Ferrell for this Thursday. A comedy that has blades. Because that is really the only thing I can say about it that’s mostly positive and truthful; or I could lie and say something really cheesy, like. . .this is a comedy with a razor-sharp wit. Eh, that line actually sounded a lot better in my head. ANYway, moving on. . . .Today is our second edition of the Olympic throwbacks, and. . .well, to be completely truthful. . .this ain’t no world-class affair. With all due respect to figure skating, there are some subjects that not even the Ferrell school of comedy can save for podium placement. 

Today’s food for thought: Blades of Glory

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Release: March 30, 2007

[Netflix]

As if it weren’t abundantly clear before, Will Ferrell will do anything to wring satire from some real world events that, admittedly, do seem ripe for comedy. Seems he really stretched himself thin here though, putting on a performance that causes more eye-rolls and face-palms than chuckles. Because his career has been molded from a prolific number of feature-length SNL skits, most of which have proven his ability to be consistently funny, there was always going to be speculation as to where and when he would take the inevitable misstep.

That moment doesn’t seem to get any more obvious than his participation in this excruciatingly bad spoof of the world of competitive figure skating. For the most part, the Will Ferrell spirit is in tact with Blades of Glory, as he is the source of the movie’s few and far between moments of chuckle-inducing comedy; but the film — directed by the people who would be responsible for 2010’s offensively unfunny The Switch — turns out to be nothing more than an Adam McKay wannabe.

It’s not like Ferrell’s many collaborations with McKay have all been successful, and even the best of their efforts have moments that tend to paint targets on the back of their heads for anyone willing to take aim at their levels of silliness. But rare is the Will Ferrell movie that is so over-the-top, so dumb that it ceases to be a movie and slowly slides into the status of being a terrible, terrible spectacle. Beginning with a premise that is as generic as a bowl of Corn Flakes, let’s hope that this is the worst Will Ferrell movie yours truly will ever lay eyes on.

Talented male ice skaters Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) disgrace themselves at an elite ice skating competition when their egos prove to be too unwieldy to be held upon a single podium. The result of a massive fight is their lifetime ban from the division of singles skating. Jimmy, an orphan having been raised by his coldhearted foster father (William Fichtner), is a sensitive, dignified male skater who apparently has so much grace his hair looks as though it has been plucked from the feathers of the finest quail; he’s a stark contrast to Chazz, who is described as the “leather-clad lothario” of ice skating. Fitting description, really. They forgot to add, “classless douche who soils the image of figure skating permanently, and seemingly out of spite.” Such ruination is obviously the aim here, but it seems as though the same effect could have been achieved had Ferrell not overacted so much, trying to make a terrible script work in whatever way he could.

Back to the storyline: the fruity pair of star-crossed nitwits discover a loophole in the bylaws, which would allow them to still participate in pairs skating, should they find a partner. Of course, neither of them are able to do that, and the only option they have left is to skate with each other and form the world’s first all-male skating couple. This is an opportunity first recognized by Jimmy’s former trainer (Craig T. Nelson) when he watches footage of the two fighting and realizes they seem to have chemistry. Over the next several days — they find out they have extremely limited time to put together a routine in time for the next World Skating Competition (a less cool Olympic-esque stage) — Coach attempts to tone down the pair’s hostility towards one another and get them focused on the task at hand.

There’s nothing here that should surprise: an extremely convenient storyline yielding hilariously unrealistic results. Except, scratch out the word ‘hilariously.’ The sole visual gag that truly works with this film is the chubby body of Will Ferrell, a blobby mess that is so clearly not the body of an ice skater. At the heart of this story there should be some chemistry between Ferrell and Heder, and while there is some to be found, it’s not enough to take attention away from this very poorly realized script.

The villains are even less threatening than usual here, and are portrayed by the exceedingly irritating tandem of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. They play the brother-and-sister pair, Stranz and Fairchild Waldenberg, who are the favorites to win it all. They use their other sibling, Katie (Jenna Fischer) in an attempt to sabotage Jimmy and Chazz at every turn. This subplot is added to no great effect and comes off as filler material for an already anorexic movie.

Blades of Glory ostensibly is nothing different from the other Ferrell comedies that take a subject and make fun of it until there’s nothing left to make fun of. But it is just bad. Jokes land less often than the fabled ‘iron lotus’ trick. Heder’s act wears thin quick, and Ferrell can’t shake the shadows of some of his better creations. The rest of the cast fair no better. Even Craig T. Nelson seems to be phoning every one of his lines in. I like stupid schtick as much as the next person, but there apparently seems to be a limit to the stupidity that can pass for tolerable. The flimsiness of Blades of Glory doesn’t cut it.

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1-5Recommendation: There are far better comedy vehicles driven by one of the greatest SNL alums of all time. Unless you have literally nothing else going on, avoid this film. It skates on thin ice from beginning to end, and now it makes sense why it took me until today to actually watch this one.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “Chazz Michael Michaels: an ice-devouring sex tornado.”

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Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com