30 for 30: Four Falls of Buffalo

'Four Falls of Buffalo' movie poster

Release: Saturday, December 12, 2015 (Vol. III, Ep. 5)

👀 Netflix

Starring: Jim Kelley; Thurman Thomas; Scott Norwood; Don Beebe; Bill Polian; William Fichtner (narration)

Directed by: Ken Rodgers

Distributor: ESPN Films

 

****/*****

It’s easy to see why Ken Rodgers’ retrospective has been described as a love letter, not just to sports fanatics but to the city of Buffalo itself. Pro football has a certain stigma attached to it in this part of the country. The Bills are more freely associated with blown opportunities than they are with blowing out their opponents. Four Falls of Buffalo chooses to block out all that noise, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives — not an easy thing to do all things considered.

The film recounts a period in the early 1990s in which the Bills managed to make four consecutive Superbowl appearances. Unfortunately they lost every one of those games and typically in heartbreaking fashion. Influenced by nostalgia and reverence for accomplishments the rest of the nation dismissed instead as embarrassments, the tone often strikes deep chasms of melancholy and the story, much like a devoted fanbase that braves frigid winter temperatures for the sake of a good pre-game tailgate, longs for different results in the Wins/Losses columns. But as the cliché goes, if you were to ask members of the ’91-’94 squad if they would do it all again, you’d receive a resounding response in the affirmative.

After all, it’s not every season you see last year’s Superbowl “losers” return to the big stage. And then do it again, and then a third time. Four Falls of Buffalo shows how history can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and those recounting it here show impressive levels of stoicism as former players and executives alike open old wounds by reliving the moments. Rodgers works through the timeline chronologically, focusing on the unique situations that arose on each Superbowl occasion: missed field goal opportunities, mysteriously disappearing helmets, excessive trash-talking, critical missed tackles.

Along the way actor William Fichtner, a Buffalo native, steers us through the major events that shaped the era. Viewers are invited into the personal and professional lives of this rich fraternity of football talent. Here are but a few stand-outs:

  1. Jim Kelly, quarterback (1986-1996). Kelly once spurned the harsh wintry environs of northern New York for a couple of seasons to play in the United States Football League, but when the USFL folded he decided to check out what Buffalo was all about. He then spent his entire professional career with that team, his incredible athleticism and devotion to the community marking him as a fan favorite. In the comfort of his home he draws parallels between the mental battle he endured in those Superbowl defeats and his private battle with cancer. He also bravely discusses the impact the loss of his 8-year-old son Hunter had on him.
  2. Scott Norwood, kicker (1985-1991). It’s long been debated whether it was Norwood’s failed 47-yard field goal attempt — a miss so famous you can dig out the footage just by Googling ‘wide right’ — or if it was the way the game went that put the kicker into a position he never should have been in that ultimately cost the Bills their first Superbowl victory. Watching him relive the moment face-to-face with Rodgers and his camera crew is surprisingly difficult. Perhaps it was his honesty and refusal to hide from the media in the immediate aftermath that established Norwood as one of the most class acts you will ever see, not just in a professional athlete but in a person.
  3. Thurman Thomas, running back (1988-1999). Thomas became a crucial component in the “no huddle offense” inspired by Kelly’s preference for up-tempo football, a style of play that netted the team four consecutive division titles. Unfortunately he didn’t always benefit from such attention. Thomas has never been able to untangle himself from a series of misfortunes speculated to have played some part in the Bills’ losses. The first hiccup was his helmet being removed from its usual spot (on the 34-yard line) by stadium officials setting up the stage for Harry Connick Jr.’s Superbowl Halftime Show, a fit of confusion that ultimately resulted in him missing a few critical plays. The next year Thomas created a costly turnover which was converted into a pivotal Dallas Cowboys touchdown. And the fourth and final Superbowl he wasn’t able to impact the game as he would have liked thanks to an ailing body. Despite all that, fans have continued to revere him as one of the great household names.
  4. Don Beebe, wide receiver (1989-1994). As one of the fastest runners in the open field in NFL history, Beebe has been linked to one particularly stunning play — his chasing down of Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was so sure he had a touchdown that he slowed down before the goal line only to have a rude awakening in the form of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Beebe. The man was clearly destined for glory and went on to join the 1996 Superbowl-winning Green Bay Packers. His justification for leaving may not sit well with everyone but, and lest we forget, at the end of the day football is a business.
  5. Bill Polian, general manager (1984-1992). It’s not often we pay much attention to the front office, but Polian seems an exception — an amiable sort with a great love for Buffalo and the game itself. He rose to league prominence with his assemblage of the four-time-Superbowl-appearing squad, even if he wouldn’t be around to manage them during their fourth run at the title. Polian is now an analyst with ESPN.

Four Falls of Buffalo develops into a powerful testament to the pride and character of a community long plagued by hardship — a not-so-great economy, bad weather, even worse luck when it comes to football. Season in, season out Buffalo endures. Looking back, the ’90s were comparatively an oasis amidst a sea of mediocrity. No one on the current roster was even in the league the last time the Bills saw a postseason. Indeed, many dark days have followed since. 

But silly little things like “losing relevance” and “credibility” in terms of how they have stacked up against the competition ever since don’t really seem to bother Bills fans. It still hasn’t really stopped them partying in hot tubs in near-subzero temperatures before games. That’s a spirit no force of nature, not even the commissioner, can extinguish.

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Bills kicker Scott Norwood

Moral of the Story: For Buffalo Bills fans, it’s a must-watch. The tradeoff for reliving painful memories is watching a film treat your hometown/team with the respect and dignity it deserves. It also is a good one to watch to gain a deeper appreciation for the emotional burdens riding on players who come up short on the biggest stage(s). Four Falls of Buffalo is a surprisingly moving story that has much to offer even casual fans.

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 102 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.cuyahogafalls.trade 

Independence Day: Resurgence

'Independence Day - Resurgence' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Roland Emmerich; Nicolas Wright; James A. Woods; Dean Devlin; James Vanderbilt

Directed by: Roland Emmerich

Nothing brings a tear to my eye faster than knowing that Earth’s mantle is going to be safe, at least until the next ill-advised blockbuster sequel. I really felt more for the core of the planet than I did for the core group of humans at the heart of this underwhelming summer spectacle.

You might get away with arguing that Independence Day: Resurgence is simply more of the same, and that’s everything the film needed to be. And I get some of that. While we don’t have Will Smith back (too expensive), we see many favorites return: Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch as the Levinsons; Bill Pullman as the former President; Vivica A. Fox (the exotic dancer mom, remember?); and a particularly odd scientist is back, too (thanks trailers, for spoiling that one). More of the same though, in this case, just means more: more CGI, more indecipherable chaos, more gimmickry that tries to evoke the past (see Patrick St. Esprit’s stand-in for James Rebhorn’s Secretary of Defense Albert Nimziki).

For a fleeting few minutes, Resurgence shows its mettle: the invasion of Earth is, once again, astonishingly cool. And eerie. And the tagline for once fits: “we had 20 years to prepare; so did they,” only “they” in this case refers to the wizards responsible for all those nifty visual effects. The hellfire that lights up our skies somehow looks even more ominous this time around; watch as landmarks the world over are uprooted like twigs and repositioned miles away. We don’t get the chess game that resulted in gigantic fireballs engulfing major cities but we do get one hell of a Mother Ship, which, in a particularly memorable shot, is shown clamping down on at least a quarter of the planet like a massive leech. They apparently have an interest in the molten core of Earth, which they’ll drain for energy. Obviously that’s not good news for us.

The problem with ‘more-of-the-same‘ in this case is that familiarity déjà vu creeps in much too soon. Resurgence will never be appreciated on its own merits, but rather how far the apple (spacecraft?) did or did not fall from the tree (outer space?). Comparisons may be unfair, but they become less so when a director decides that humanity once again needs to come together like all the colors of the rainbow to fend off another alien invasion. Talk about some shit luck. It took everything we had in the ’90s to stand our ground, to establish Earth as the only planet that really matters in the universe. And here we are again, shaken by the scary thought that maybe it just ain’t so.

At least Emmerich, with his team of writers, has the sense to try and cover for the mistake made in setting up an almost identical invasion — no small thanks to the overly familiar shot selection — by setting the mood much more pessimistic. President Lanford (Sela Ward) seems to be a symbol of hope and unity at the start but she’s soon overshadowed by former President Whitmore’s moroseness. “There’s no way we’ll win this time.” Not with that attitude you won’t. Poor ol’ Prez; he’s been haunted ever since by the last encounter and now can’t really go out in public. So his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), who happens to be a fine Air Force pilot herself, dedicates much of her time looking after him. But that benevolence only runs as deep as the script; soon enough not even Monroe is capable of making us believe she’s the President’s daughter.

The plan of attack, drawn up by General Adams (William Fichtner), is shades of grey different from the international united front we launched last time. We’re going after the Queen this time instead of a rogue ship stationed just outside our atmosphere. The goal is to distract this supremely large otherworldly being (no, seriously, think kaiju large) from obtaining a spherical orb/macguffin that ties in to some larger intergalactic story, one that, cosmetically, feels ripped straight out of Men in Black but in concept fits better into Star Wars mythology. (Oh, there’s a cool cross-over idea: Men in Black 4: Star Wars Independence Day.)

Returning characters are given the juicier parts. Unfortunately, few of them share any significant screen time together. Giving those with more experience more prominent roles is an age-old practice that just means we get to spend more time with Goldblum’s David, which is far from a bad thing. Now a revered, distinctive member of the human race, even his dad trusts him more. And no one is telling his David to shut up. In Resurgence a larger spotlight also falls upon the personnel working inside Area 51. The base, once-upon-a-time a secret and mythical location, has since been designated as Earth’s Space Defense Headquarters. And of course President Whitmore has a few wrongs to right, so he jumps back into an aircraft to do his civic duty. On a less welcomed note, Liam Hemsworth replaces Captain Hiller’s sidekick Captain Jimmy Wilder with little enthusiasm; while Jessie T. Usher plays Hiller’s son all grown up. There’s some sort of alpha-male struggle between the two but it’s added in, also digitally, just to give the actors some lines to read. Very little of what they say to each other actually matters.

In fairness it wasn’t scintillating dialogue that defined the classic that came before — yes I’m calling it a classic — but rather an overt but not misplaced sense of American pride. After all, it was the product of American filmmakers and events took place on and around the Fourth of July. In Resurgence, though, the fire just isn’t there. There’s no Whitmore rallying cry. There are only mutterings from a jaded man who can’t seem to believe all of this is happening again.

It’s all numbing special effects stuff that impresses upon us how far technology has come in the last couple of decades. It’s less of a championing of the human spirit as it is a competition to see who has the bigger laser, the bigger home base, the smarter individual beings. Resurgence is pretty brainless. It’s certainly redundant. But I guess there’s no denying the visual grandeur, or the scope of Emmerich’s ambitions, even if all that adds up to is proof that there’s nothing bigger than the greed consuming Hollywood studios who think blockbuster sequels will save us all.

Recommendation: Independence Day: Resurgence is yet another of those sequels that few earthlings asked for. (I certainly didn’t want it.) The ridiculousness of it all threatens Michael Bay, which is to say the film tries to upstage the competition with brute force via CGI saturation. Too bad it forgets that a) humans will always remember their first alien invasion and b) they will always want Will Smith back. In ID4: 2 spectacle trumps all. Even if that means screwing up the alien mythology. Will there be more? Of course there will be. You can take that all the way to the bank, provided it’s still there. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “They’re not screaming. They’re celebrating.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Homesman

homesman-poster

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Tommy Lee Jones; Kieran Fitzgerald; Wesley A. Oliver

Directed by: Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones is once again a man whose greatness knows no bounds as he stars in, directs as well as helps to write and produce this quietly fierce tale about Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank).

Who’s that, you ask?

Isn’t that the million dollar question. An unusually strong, independent woman and fearless pioneer who takes it upon herself to transport three psychologically disturbed/physically abused women from various regions of the wild west, back to a proper care facility located somewhere out upon those sprawling Iowan plains — Cuddy is a societal enigma, an individual hardened by the hostility of 1850s midwestern American life and slowly withering in isolation. She is unwed. She’s introduced as someone somewhat desperate to shake the shackles of apparent spinsterhood. No man wants to be with her for her plain looks and, quote, bossiness, repel almost immediately.

Tommy Lee Jones’ George Briggs is a man with few scruples, and even fewer rules for trying to get along in this rough and tough world these characters perfectly inhabit in 2014. The contemporary release date can be confusing, for surely this is one gorgeously realized (and thus convincing) setting, affecting an instant nostalgia among the John Wayne faithful — or period film/western fans in general. That there’s someone of Jones’ stature (and dare I give it away now. . .okay I will. . .Meryl Streep’s) in supporting roles certainly helps. Streep may be less associated with the genre, but her ability to disappear inside her roles unsurprisingly serves her well here.

The Homesman is quite the traditional western. Except for the fact that it’s not. We have Indians who fiercely claim their territory, a harsh winter that lays spoil to many a homestead — William Fichtner’s Vester Belknap laments the disappearance of his corn crops and subsequently must deal with his rapidly ailing wife (who indeed becomes one of the three needing to be relocated) — and a script that heeds the reserved mannerisms, quaint colloquialisms and customs of the day.

But this is also a film set in the heart of America (as opposed to the literal ‘western’ territory) — Nebraska and Iowa primarily — and whose overtones, a mixture of darkly comic and comically bleak, tend to betray those of standard western romps. Slapstick violence doesn’t exist, though the heart-wrenching kind does. Death is a friend to many on these plains, while there is nothing quite like seeing TLJ in his pre-industrial jockstraps being smoked out of “his” home by a bunch of spurned settlers. He’ll soon be lynched on horseback (sounds confusing, I know) for jumping on another man’s land, so that smile won’t last. A valid argument could be made for The Homesman‘s tonal bipolarity. One minute it’s deadly serious; the next it moves the viewer to fits of giggles.

With Jones in the director’s chair, however, all is most certainly not lost. Hardly a thing is. Save for logic towards the end. The Homesman ends on a very, very strange note. And while I will maintain my promise to not ruin things here, I must comment on Jones’ decision-making at this juncture. (Like, what the hell man?!) Or, translated professionally: there are some baffling choices made at the 11th hour. Are they enough to abandon The Homesman in unfamiliar territory? Not quite. Are they apparent enough to cause a directorially-illiterate viewer (a.k.a. me) to notice? You bet your buffalo hide.

This latest effort from director TLJ finds the craftsman working respectfully — dutifully reminding us that while modern living is no breeze, we might just have it a little easier than those growing up on the frontier.

homesman-2

3-5Recommendation: Packed with reliably sturdy performances and fascinating characters — I think the trio of sick women are going to be criminally overlooked here — The Homesman finds strength in being not quite like the others. Fans of the cast and steadily absorbing narratives need apply.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “Are you an angel?”

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

The Lone Ranger

tlr1

Release: Wednesday, July 3, 2013

[Theater]

Don’t be fooled by the label. Although titled The Lone Ranger, this movie is far more interesting because of Tonto than it is because of what Armie Hammer tries to contribute to his John Reid/Lone Ranger. While even the white horse is more memorable than Hammer’s character (and a better actor, too), this is most definitely the Johnny Depp show again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing had it not been the biggest compliment one might be able to pay this loud, messy project from those who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean.

It’s release is perfectly patriotic, as it comes storming into theaters right before the Fourth of July. There’s a nice rendition of The Star Spangled Banner hidden somewhere in the story. The Lone Ranger and his whacked-out sidekick are all about maintaining freedoms and seeking justice — all of this perhaps hinting to Disney’s inability to judge the quality of the product before judging the quality of its timely release. Somewhere out there in the wild and dusty desert of movie reviews I read that this film “is a rough cut of a slimmed down, better version.” I thought this description nailed it, since what we get isn’t really a bad film as much as it has just far too much going on. There’s too many detours throughout that loosen the wheels on this old locomotive and threaten to derail the entire thing before it’s two-and-a-half-hour run time is up.

The Lone Ranger begins with a boom. A train full of passengers suddenly becomes a weapon as the dreaded Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) manages to escape capture from the empty car he’s being held in and attracts a group of criminals to help him get away. Meanwhile, the tracks that the train is currently riding are still being constructed a couple of miles down the way, and with the conductor now incapacitated, wannabe-sheriff John Reid is unable to stop the train from careening off the end. During this first clash, Reid has been inadvertently handcuffed to a Native American spirit warrior who insists he is innocent to everything that has just happened. Reid insists he be arrested anyway. These opening twenty-ish minutes are exciting and foreshadow a healthy amount of action still to come — even if these action sequences come after extended periods of sleep-inducing exposition and unwanted narrative drift.

Verbinski then saddles us up with the local law enforcement as they ride horseback into some potentially dangerous territory where they hope to find and reprehend the deadly outlaw Cavendish. Having not seen a Westerner in awhile, even I don’t think it’s fair exactly to expect a Tombstone-quality picture from Disney; nor should we have hopes that John Wayne might pop out from behind a rock and completely steal the show. I guess we have Depp doing a lot of that, but this is more in the style of those fun-havin’ pirates in the Caribbean. . .only now we are on land seeking justice instead of buried treasure and all that. The following scenes are important as well and help explain the nature of the relationship between Tonto and John Reid, and what lights a fire under his ass, compelling him to seek vengeance on Cavendish himself — and of course, what is compelling him to don the famous black mask. These scenes are also rich in spoiler material so I’ll avoid detailing them.

Up to this point, we still have a rather interesting movie on our hands. But around the corner, in terms of developing anything worth remembering, all we get are tumbleweeds and dust bowls. Oh, and evil little bunnies.

It’s when we (eventually) start getting into the character development/trust-building phase that the movie starts crumbling. Hammer’s awkward, campy lines and terrible reaction shots are slight causes for alarm. I really wanted to start calling him Armie Hammy since most of what he’s been given in this film are lines that would fit more into children’s books than in an action movie that has more violence within the story than most young Disney fans might be accustomed to seeing. The cheese-factor is through the roof with him, but at least it’s not with Tonto. Instead, all Depp wants to do is call his newfound partner ‘Kemosabe’ and feed grains to his dead bird, which functions also as a headpiece. (Apparently, this is some kind of comfort to the deeply disturbed Indian.) Even with all of the little crowd-pleasing Depp-isms on display, his character feels awfully limited.

Of course, we get kicked off onto several side stories, and this pattern really contributes to The Lone Ranger‘s profusely long run time. One such story fills us in on Tonto’s background and how he has come to liking having dead bird on head. But we no want so much as we want much good big story. Justice is what I seek, Kemosabe.

Even despite the leads being not as strong as they need to be for a film that will center around them, we get satisfactory evil with Butch Cavendish. That dirty grin worn on his screwed-up-looking mouth is just sinister enough to overlook the fact that he is stupid as all hell. (How many times can you afford to let the duo escape death, when you have them right at gun point? The whole business of getting your word in before pulling the trigger is a trick that should be retired in movies, although I know it never will.)

Helena Bonham Carter is in this movie, though she doesn’t have much to play with other than one peculiar physical deformity. Tom Wilkinson is flat and lifeless as the businessman overseeing the development of the Transcontinental Railroad project. I typically enjoy the man’s presence; here, he is a complete waste. Whatever remains of the main cast that I haven’t mentioned are not really worthy of mention and fade into the background with ease.

To the film’s credit, the ending is rather stylish, and is perhaps the only moment in the entire thing that really evoked classic Lone Ranger appeal. It may too be a case of an extended sequence of action and adrenaline, but at least it’s quite a good bit of fun. As well, the scenery is beautiful and I really enjoyed the various physical places we go to, rather than the unnecessary lengths to which the director goes to try and flesh out his story. There’s some gorgeous panoramas of the giant mesas, some unique looks at famous arches, as well as some really great camerawork around the moving trains. In a nutshell, if Verbinski could have whittled this down to under two hours the story surely would have been more compelling and a bit more dramatic. Or at least, it would have had more of an appearance of being that way. With it meandering around from point to point, it seems the director is intent on pointing out everything that makes The Lone Ranger what it is, without much of a thought to creatively fuse it all together. A good draft of a film, but this should not be the final product.

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2-5Recommendation: Diehard Pirates of the Caribbean fans probably will take to this quite well. I am not a diehard fan, but I did find some similarities in the tone and style of The Lone Ranger. However, for whatever elements the two seem to have in common, Pirates of the Caribbean was the superior film. Depp is pretty decent as Tonto, but seems a little worn out and tired. Maybe that was just the incredibly lame script.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 149 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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