Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By debbie lynn elias
Observer Film Reviewer 

FASTBALL • I SAW THE LIGHT • JANE WANTS A BOYFRIEND • THE BRONZE

MOVIE REVIEW GRAND SLAM:

 

Fastball

Still in the midst of spring break and with baseball season fast upon us, it's a moviegoing grand slam this week with everything from a biopic on an American institution, Hank Williams, to a foul-mouthed, hard talking, stuck-in-the-past Olympic bronze medalist comedy to the tenderness of a young woman with Asperger's looking for love to a look at one aspect of the greatest American pastimes, baseball. First up to the plate. . .

FASTBALL

Justin Verlander. Sandy Koufax. Bob Gibson. Bob Feller. Walter Johnson. Goose Gossage. David Price. Nolan Ryan. Just a few of the pitching greats covering the decades of baseball whom we hear from and hear about in Jonathan Hock's exhilarating documentary FASTBALL. And just who's doing the talking about some of these legends? Derek Jeter. Hank Aaron. Wade Boggs. George Brett. Johnny Bench. Tony Gwynn. Davey Johnson. Mike Schmidt. And that's just the tip of the starting line-up. Then, clear the mechanism for one of the most well-known baseball fans, actors and MLB supporters in history serving as narrator and setting the tone of FASTBALL. Kevin Costner. But, just what is the ultimate question being asked? Easy. Who pitched the fastest fastball ever? And that's just what we find out in FASTBALL.

Hock is no stranger to sports documentaries. Each has always been fascinating, taking us into the mindset of players, the history of various sports and brought together with an understanding appreciated by both sports lovers and those not so inclined. With FASTBALL, Hock takes a look inside baseball and specifically, pitching. A sport that boils down to a battle between a man with a stick and a man with a rock with someone throwing the ball as hard as they can while someone else tries to hit it (as opposed to being hit by it), age old questions have loomed for the past 100+ years since the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club developed a set of rules that formed the basis for the game we now call baseball and played their first game in 1846. What's it like pitching a ball at 100mph? Better yet, what's it like trying to hit a ball whizzing towards you so fast it sounds like a train whistle? How did you measure the speed of a fastball before radar guns were employed in 1974? How has pitching, and the fastball, changed over the decades?

With a keenly blended tale of Hall of Famers reminiscing about the "glory days" of the game to analyzing different styles and different eras, interspersed with some very cool physics lessons about pitching and visual cognition, and archival footage, the result is fascinating. No seventh inning stretch needed for this documentary as you're in it for a full nine innings. We see the first "official" test for determining the speed of a fastball back in the 1930's with Bob Feller, "The Heater from Van Meter" pitching against a racing motorcycle. (Spoiler alert: Feller was faster.) Then, there's the Remington Rifle Range testing with Walter Johnson aka "The Big Train". And of course, there's Nolan Ryan, in a class all to himself.

Gems emerge with die-hard fans will appreciate, like three innings of private footage shot of Sandy Koufax throwing a perfect game 1965 (only three innings because the film ran out) punctuated with the audio of Vin Scully calling the ninth inning. Hank Aaron delights with his stories while Bob Gibson provides an insight into the racial divide during his days with the Cardinals and how that affected his pitching.

Broken into and "inning" format with headers like "92 vs 100", "Perfect", "Timeless", "The Closer" and "The Eternal Question", FASTBALL knocks it out of the park. It's a perfectly pitched grand slam.

I SAW THE LIGHT

Going from America's favorite pastime to a piece of Americana, we shine a light on the Oscar-caliber I SAW THE LIGHT and the legendary Hank Williams. Written and directed by Mark Abraham, I SAW THE LIGHT delves into the man behind the showman, honing in on the period of Hank Williams' life from his meeting with his future wife Audrey, to his rise to of unparalleled fame, all unfolding before us by way of a narrative told by Williams' manager Fred Rose(played by Bradley Whitfield) following Williams' death. The technique works well as it provides exposition without disrupting highly charged dialogue exchanges which are the cornerstone of the side of Williams we see here.

Starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen as Hank and Audrey, respectively, each gives the performance of their careers as they revel in the complexity of the individuals and their stormy love-hate relationship. Hiddleston mesmerizes, dazzling with complete immersion and transformation as he embodies the very essence of Williams. He simmers, getting under our skins as we watch the often unlikeable Williams win us over with a smile and a song that comes from the heart. Hiddleston eloquently captures the passion we have long heard in Hank Williams songs. Moments of volatility and alcohol-infused rage are countered with lengthy single shot scenes of reflective quiet and calm. He embraces the pain of Williams' spina bifada with tacit nuance. Taking the performance to greater heights, Hiddleston sings every song in the film himself, and plays guitar. Going through extensive vocal training with Rodney Crowell, Hiddleston nails even the toughest vocals complete with yodeling on Williams' classic, "Lovesick Blues."

Elizabeth Olsen astonishes. The depth and strength of the emotion that she brings to Audrey is something we have never seen from her before, but hopefully will see again in future roles. She digs in her heels with the same ferocity and determination Audrey Williams herself was long known for. You believe Olsen as Audrey being the driving force behind Williams, pushing to get him recognition and fame while hooking herself to that star in her own need to be in the spotlight. Olsen shows us the unseen Audrey, the fashion sense (including those amazing personalized leather "Audrey" cowboy boots Audrey always wore), the self-taught business hustle and the undying love and hate that fueled Audrey and Hank. There is not a moment that feels false in Olsen's performance.

Supporting cast is also standout starting with Cherry Jones as Williams' abrasive and controlling mother Lillie. As electrifying as Hiddleston and Olsen are together, just watch Jones and Olsen in some key scenes. Bradley Whitford imbues Fred Rose with layers of ambiguity thanks to Rose's role in Williams' life - song publisher, manager, father figure - as each "hat" is often at odds with the other.

Abraham takes us from Nashville to Hollywood and back again, never lingering on circumstances for long, opting instead to focus on the emotional result and reactions of Hank and Audrey and their relationship. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti captures the period through lighting and lensing, celebrating the authenticity of Merideth Boswell's production design with an intimacy both on-stage and off. And when it comes to authenticity, look no further than costume designer Lahly Poore-Ericson. The attention to detail amazes and nevermoreso than with the period perfect tones of browns and off-stage fashions worn by Hank and Audrey to the on-stage "Nudie Suits." Western/Country Western/Hollywood History aficionados may recognize the Nudie Suits as they were the hallmark of all the "singing cowboys" and country western celebrities of the day . Made in Los Angeles by the legendary Nudie Cohn, the suits were an integral part of the Williams persona and for I SAW THE LIGHT, the making of these costumes were overseen by Nudie's granddaughter herself.

When it comes to the music, applause applause to music producer Rodney Crowell who not only worked with Hiddleston, but re-recorded all of Williams music tracks for the film, using the same instruments and technology and style as that of Williams himself. Rounding out the musical aspect of the film, Abraham smartly hired musicians as opposed to actors faking it as musicians to comprise Hank Williams' back-up band, The Drifting Cowboys.

Although some may be disappointed by not seeing "the expected" of a biopic, Mark Abraham's storytelling approach is one that will enlighten, amaze and entertain. You will see the light of Hank Williams with I SAW THE LIGHT.

JANE WANTS A BOYFRIEND

With April as National Autism Awareness Month it's wonderful to see yet another film approach autism with positivity and awareness. That film is JANE WANTS A BOYFRIEND. Written by Jarret Kerr and directed by Will Sulllivan, Jane is a high functioning girl with Asperger's. Living with her parents and always having her over-protective sister Bianca watching her every move, life takes a turn for Jane and Bianca when their parents announce they are selling the family home and moving to the City.

Believing that Jane is incapable of being on her own and caring for herself ,although she capably works as a costumer for the theater company in which Jane is now performing the starring role of a play, Bianca and her parents believe it falls on her to have Jane move in with Bianca and her boyfriend. While imitation is often the sincerest form of flattery, it isn't to Bianca when Jane decides she wants a boyfriend, too.

The shining star in JANE WANTS A BOYFRIEND is Louisa Krause. As Jane, she sparkles with wide-eyed wonder. You want to see Jane succeed and achieve all of her dreams. A key component to the character is her love of classic movies from the 30's and 40's, something that fuels Jane's desire and image of love and the perfect man. Krause embraces the films and emulates the dialogue in Jane's daily life with endearing charm. And just wait until you see Krause with Gabriel Ebert as Jack, the "normal" man who really likes Jane. Sweet and charming.

Surprisingly, Eliza Dushku falls flat as Bianca, particularly when performing in-character Shakespeare. (Could explain why she wasn't a part of Joss Whedon alumni-filled "Much Ado About Nothing.) The sisterly bond and over-protectiveness never feels truthful.

Director Will Sullivan and his cinematographer Brandon Roots are at their best when telling the story from Jane's perspective, capitalizing on Jane's obsession with old movies and her job with the theatre company, creating an almost magical rose-colored view of the world through Jane's eyes. Similarly, the camera doesn't shy away from the struggles Jane has with the "normal" people and situations around her, thus propelling us into moments of trauma perfectly brought to life by Krause.

THE BRONZE

Who doesn't love a mean-spirited, foul-mouthed anti-hero, trying to stretch out her already over-stretched fifteen minutes of fame? I know I do, especially when it comes in the form of writer and actor Melissa Rauch in THE BRONZE.

Hope Ann Greggory was once America's darling. As written by Rauch and co-writer Winston Rauch, the pair together with director Bryan Buckley, go for the gold as much is gleaned from Olympic images we've seen over the years, notably injured Keri Strugg being carried by her coach Bela Karolyi after sticking a one-legged vault landing to win a gold medal. Only in this case, an injured Hope Ann Greggory doesn't get the gold. She goes home with THE BRONZE. Ouch.

Never able to bounce back from the loss, Hope Ann is an abrasive and abusive spoiled bitch of a person. Still living in her dad's basement, she wears nothing but her Olympic uniform (years after the fact), still has her teeny-bopper pony-tailed banged hairstyle and steals money from the mail in her dad's mail truck to sustain her self-absorbed existence while glomming freebies from local merchants still catering to her "celebrity". But the day comes when all that may change when Hope Ann's former coach dies and a letter comes to Hope Ann telling her if she takes over the training of the former coach's prized pupil and get her to the Olympics, Hope Ann will get $500,000. Hmmm. Just get this girl Maggie to the Olympics, not win them, and she gets $500K? Hope Ann is in. Of course, nothing is that easy and twists and turns abound, starting with Hope Ann sabotaging Maggie's training. Adding fuel to the fire is Ben, the son of the local gym owner, and Lance, a former Olympian and long-time "enemy" of Hope Ann, and who is now Head Coach of the US Olympic Gymnastic Team.

Rauch sets the tone with snappy cadence and attitude in the profanity-laced dialogue that is killer. Walking the balance beam of offensive raunch, as both writer and star, Rauch does infuse Hope Ann with some niceties that may predictably lead to some form of redemption. Exhibiting star quality of Haley Lu Richardson as Maggie. Key to much of Richardson's youthful exuberance is that as a trained dancer, she does many of the gymnastic routines herself including the balance beam, the entire floor routine and the bars, adding much to the film and the character.

I saw the light

And uh-oh, Avenger in the house! Scene-stealing as Lance is Sebastian Stan. Who knew he was comedy gold? Stan has comedic timing that most veteran comics can't achieve. And like Richardson, he did many of his own gymnastic stunts, not to mention the bulk of a bare-all gymnastic sex scene you've never seen before and may never see again. According to Rauch (also a hands-on producer), Stan did about 85% of the "gymnastics" himself. Both Rauch and Stan did, however, have body doubles courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Directed by Bryan Buckley, pacing is well done, with only about 10 minutes of scenes that could use some trimming to tighten the story to match the crispness of Rauch's script and edginess of Hope Ann.

 

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