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Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Casual Critic — Miracle

Twenty-five years ago today, the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team won the gold medal. Of course, the game everyone remembers was two days earlier, when we beat the hated U.S.S.R. in the midst of the Cold War.

Miracle pulls off the difficult task of keeping your interest while telling a story of which the ending is known long before you ever pop in the DVD. The story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey team is mostly told through the experiences of the head coach, Herb Brooks, whose personal story is compelling enough to drive the film. Yet Brooks' story never dominates the movie, which likely would have caused it to veer off in a direction that most viewers hadn't come to see.

Vaguely remembering the time in my life that solidified me as a life-long sports fan — I just assumed Philly's teams always went to the championship as a kid—I enjoyed the opening montage that gave you a brief history of the time period. More than a sports movie, Miracle captured the group dynamics of the team in a way that kept you guessing. At several points, I was wondering whether Brooks was a genius or a jackass that eventually did a mea culpa to get his team back. I was surprised by the length of the final game sequence, but game action generally does not overwhelm the film.

This is the first DVD I've seen where the extras are very good. Apparently added after the death of Brooks — tragically killed in a car accident before the film was complete — one extra shows raw coverage of a pre-production meeting (or meetings) with Brooks that shows some of the psychology he brought to coaching that was just great. Another answered a question I thought of as I watched the movie—being that they were depicting actual games, how closely did the action mirror reality? Side-by-side viewings of game film and the movie are flat out cool, and answer the question leaving no doubt the there was enormous attention to detail.

Even if you're not a sports fan, Miracle is worth watching.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Casual Critic — John Grisham's Bleachers

Reading John Grisham's Bleachers, I couldn't help but think the guy got sick of hearing about how he never wrote about anything except lawyers. The problem is that when he writes about lawyers most of us feel like we're getting a glimpse into an intriguing world we know little about. That strength doesn't exist for Bleachers, which seemed like an attempt at a character-driven story about a character readers never get the chance to care a whole hell of a lot about.

Neely Crenshaw returns to the small town of Messina where he grew up and starred as a high school quarterback to take part in the town-wide vigil in the dying days of legendary coach Eddie Rake. The football-crazed town revolves around the Friday night games at the high school, and Rake's success had made him the most powerful figure in town. Adored and, at the same time hated, by his former players, Rake worked them into the ground. His career, though not his legend, finally ended when he literally worked one player to death.

Grisham seemed to have selling the movie rights in mind when he wrote this. One particular chapter finds the former players listening to the recording of the play-by-play of Messina's greatest comeback—which was also the scene of the team's darkest secret. While it no doubt could have made some decent film work, reading large chunks of play-by-play of a game in which the outcome is already known produced less than interesting reading. Besides, the secret wasn't all that dark or hard to figure out.

There's just too many cliches weighing down this rather short read. A coach's tough love going too far, the quarterback having dumped his nice girlfriend for the local slut, the previously mentioned secret, and more get crammed in. There are the beginnings of some decent characters, but there's just not enough to make the reader truly care.

It's brevity ultimately saves it from hitting "skip it" on The Casual Critic's scale, but barely. Instead, Instead, I hesitantly suggest that you read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Casual Critic — Manchurian Candidate

Manchurian Candidate was a solid effort by produce Tina Sinatra to remake the 1962 film her father starred in. I can't say it kept me on the edge of my seat, but it was much more than a little intiguing.

Denzel Washington plays a veteran of the first Gulf War, Ben Marco, who can't shake the feeling that something is wrong with his memories of the war. When the hero of his unit, Raymond Shaw, is thrust into the national spotlight as the unexpected vice-presidential candidate, his suspicions lead to action. He is branded as paranoid by the military, a label we never suspect is true as much as we might have, and we get an ending that is just ok.

My only major criticism of the film was the motivation of the Manchurian Global corporation, which was suspected of brainwashing the military unit. Only after I learned — in the DVD extras, which were decent — that the original film used a communist link as the suspected source of evil did I know what was nagging at me. There just wasn't enough motivation for Manchurian to try to create, and ultimately control, a candidate.

I was drawn into the film rather quickly. In fact, some of the plot lines that were hinted at but ultimately never pursued were downright scary, as it seemed like there was going to be some unintended parallel link to the way John Kerry toted his military service in the latest presidential race. (There wasn't.) However, the sci-fi, psychological elements that prevailed erased the this-isn't-so-far-fetched potential. (Unless . . . nah!)

Washington brought his usual passion to the role of Marco. He sells the potential paranoia of his character pretty well, and I thought he made the connection between Marco and Raymond Shaw work. That connection, made in the one scene the two are alone, allows the ending.

There were some other big names in this film besides Washington. Meryl Streep was very good as career politician Eleanor Shaw, Raymond Shaw's mother and a key player in the sinister Manchurian plot. The "bitch" in the character wasn't overdone, though there was one freaky scene with her and her son that had Oedipal overtones that seemed out of place. Jon Voight's role as the jilted V.P. candidate seemed like it was cut short and could've offered more.

This one is worth watching, especially if you're a fan of Denzel Washington.

Thursday, February 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Myron Cope's The Game That Was

My Eagles are in the Super Bowl. That's right, my Eagles. Of course, I'm merely a fan, but that's how any good fan thinks of their team. So, as the two-week hype-a-thon continues, and broadcasters in Philadelphia debate (literally) whether or not Terrell Owens was limping as he got off the plane in Jacksonville, I figured it was the perfect time to read Myron Cope's The Game That Was: The Early Days of Pro Football.

Cope essentially set out to write the football version of The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence S. Ritter, which covered the beginnings of pro baseball. I haven't read the book, but hope Ritter used a lot more narrative than Cope. While Cope's collection of interviews has it's moments, it ultimately falls short of what it could have been.

Cope merely offers the transcribed words of his interview subjects, only offering explanation or context when he felt it necessary. While Ed Healey, Red Grange, Ole Haugsrud, and the like may have been great football players and the forefathers of today's game, great writers they are not. I admit I was more interested in the guy's I've heard of — Art Rooney, Steve Van Buren, and George Halas — I think Cope's method was the real problem.

The chapter on Marion Motley and Bill Willis proved it to me. These are the two guys credited with breaking the color barrier of the modern game. I'd never heard of these guys, but unlike the other chapters this one had a very specific part of football history to tell and stuck to it. I thought it was the most interesting, and readable, chapter of the book.

While other chapters allowed interviews to ramble a bit, there are certainly some nuggets the dedicated football fan will enjoy. Contract squabbles are far from new, a franchise was once sold for a buck, and T.O. won't be the first to play with a broken bone.

Published in 1970, the book offered one unique aspect to today's reader that I doubt could have ever been intended—perspective on the unending love of "the way things used to be." The book opens bemoaning the soon-to-come day when pro football was going to solely be played in domed, climate-controlled stadiums, which I read while the biggest story leading up to the 2005 conference title games was the weather. Readers also hear plenty from the early players about "today's stars," who are now the guys griping about present stars.

This one might be tough to find (though I found it for a more reasonable price than the link our site received for it), but it might be worth it for the true fan of football history.