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Every Hero Needs A Villain – What Happens When Baseball Is The Bad Guy?

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42 has a problem. The 2013 film means to tell the story of Jackie Robinson and the teardown of Major League Baseball’s color barrier. It also means to be a sweet display of good triumphing over evil. It also means to reflect America in baseball, Civil Rights in Robinson, and it really also means for the MLB of 1947 to triumph over the evil, ignorance, and hate of the day. The problem, though, is that the conflation of baseball and America cuts both ways. In the America of the day, baseball was the oppressor, and baseball was the status quo. The color barrier was not some cultural tic, an oddity of the time; it was the law of the land for several decades, a compact entered into voluntarily by every league member.

In this respect, 42 has the same personality disorder as other Baseball Movies about change and the triumph of individuals over the establishment, even a feel-good comedy like A League of Their Own or a technical, inside-baseball story like Moneyball. For a story to have a hero, it must to have a villain, but the sport’s reflection in popular culture – as America’s pastime, as a map of our national psyche and a memory bank of our individual stories, both ephemeral and eternal – prevents these films from appraising the dynamic honestly. A movie like 42 celebrates Jackie Robinson, and it clearly adores baseball, but that the two were in fundamental opposition would have presented an unavoidable truth to 42, had it chosen to ask the meaningful questions.

Is Robinson a hero, an incorruptible testament to the unstoppable power of merit, and evidence of progressive societal change? Or is he a victim, robbed of prime professional years by a racist unwritten rule, and forced to meet unrealistic standards of behavior and performance just to hold the same job as less-talented players?

Take Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn General Manager who signs Robinson – to what extent is he a shrewd businessman capitalizing early on an impending sea change, and to what extent is he an idealist, using his influence to right the wrongs of society? Is baseball itself the suppressive, immovable status quo? Or is it blind meritocracy, where a high enough batting average might silence even the most racist manager hurling insults from his dugout steps.

42 ignores these dualities by boiling Robinson’s considerable accomplishment down to its most inoffensive, sentimental core. Racism in the film is represented in the kind of bald, disgusting displays – Ben Chapman (the Phillies Manager) and his slurs, a player’s cleats and their spikes – that are easily attributed to and left in a time long passed by, unfortunate relics from a different era. The casual, endemic racism infecting baseball, and America – the foundation that afforded Chapman the confidence to strip a man’s humanity in front of an entire stadium – is essentially ignored. In 42, teammates withdraw, but quickly realize the error of their ways. Those who don’t come around suffer the ignominy of a trade to Pittsburgh, where they ostensibly continue to play professional baseball for a large paycheck. It’s easier to to ship the elephant in the room to the Ohio Valley than address it.

42 treats Robinson as a symbol, which is mostly the way he is imagined today anyway, but the film’s reluctance to humanize him in any way betrays its larger problem. How can a film with an unquestioning love of baseball be honest about baseball? It must treat the sport as both exception and rule – as a romantic, everlasting representation our national identity, a malleable, evolving institution, subject to winds of change from outside and within, but also something inherently infallible but still subject to the flaws of the human condition. It’s impossible, however, to treat the game as both, in equal measure, which is why in 42, a nation of racists – militant or incidental – is represented by a handful of abhorrent characters who are either fired or traded, and why Branch Rickey must appear to be more than just a money man who can see the future.

It’s why the film makes a mere passing mention of Negro Leagues players – as talented or moreso than Jackie – who were cruelly denied Major League opportunity because the time wasn’t right. It’s why the film doesn’t acknowledge that Robinson’s first year in the Majors came a full seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, sixty-one years before the nations’ first Black president. 42 makes a hero out of Jackie Robinson, but can’t bring itself to make a villain out of baseball – or the monoculture baseball is meant to represent.

These movies can’t help but empathize with baseball, removing agency from the game to preserve its wholesomeness in retrospect. 42, A League of Their Own, Moneyball – they all argue the same idea: if you can win, you can play. The goods are all that matter. Baseball is never the manager at the top of the steps; at worst, it’s a guilty bystander, a product of circumstance. That’s why, in each of these films, the insurgents and individuals are met by actors from within, establishment members who see the value of change. In this way, the films undermine baseball’s compliance, shifting the role of the game from oppressor to oppressed.

Branch Ricky and the teammates who come to support Robinson are the benevolent insiders in 42. That they may have had additional motives – to win, to keep a job – is never given much consideration. In A League of Their Own, the role of benefactor is played by Ira Lowenstein, the General Manager who tries desperately to keep the women’s league afloat, meeting the girls’ eventual return to the kitchens of America with a sincere lament. It’s also represented in Jimmy Dugan, the Major League hero who legitimizes the women he manages with the title “Ballplayer,” – once he realizes his players can do more than just complain about their periods, break nails, and cry about men.

In Moneyball, it’s Red Sox owner John Henry, greeting Billy Beane with a fat check once Beane’s revolutionary strategies prove successful. Importantly, it’s also Beane himself; Moneyball is a story that allows baseball to sincerely represent both the establishment and the insurgent. Sure, Beane’s new-age metrics and scouting ideas are met with dismissal and disdain by ancient talent evaluators who would rather discuss a player’s girlfriend than his on-base percentage, but Beane eventually succeeds, the champion of a movement that started within the league’s rank and file.

Moneyball admits – with comparative ease, since it’s about the invention of new scouting methods instead of the exclusion of an entire race or gender – what these other films cannot: that the idea of baseball as a collective cultural force, as a romantic ideal, exists solely in the minds of individuals. Major League Baseball is a collective, but it’s a corporation, a business. Billy Beane is a rogue agent within the sport until his methods prove profitable.  Jackie Robinson – and the black players that immediately followed him – were threats with an earning potential too enticing to ignore. The women in A League of Their Own were accepted for as long as their earning power was necessary, and after that they were packaged in a Cooperstown time capsule, granted an exhibit for their time in the game.

Mostly, the films stop just short of these admissions, though, because baseball’s strongest similarity with America is its selective memory – the convenient way it chooses its history. The idealism of Rickey, the sympathy of Dugan, John Henry’s offer – they are meant to reflect the inherent idealism of our national pastime, a core fiber that resists the negative pressures of a given day. In 42, A League of Their Own, and even in Moneyball, the opposite is actually true – baseball’s driving principle is instead a preservation of its own interests, and that Robinson’s integration, The All American Girls’ League, Billy Beane’s statistical revolution are the exceptions that prove the rule. Baseball doesn’t seek change; change seeks baseball. How the game answers the call depends largely on how much it’s incumbent population stands to lose. What these Baseball Movies can’t admit is that baseball does in fact mirror America; the reflection just isn’t always pleasant.

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer

The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.

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Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo has crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.

Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.

Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonic scape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.

Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involve R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.

That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.

There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and the way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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The Best Movie Trailers of 2019

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Best Movie Trailers 2019

They exist to sell a product, but there’s also something about movie trailers that inspires certain ticket buyers to get to the theater early: the promise of movie magic. Before we have a chance to be disappointed by their final products, the best trailers are constructed to show off endless potential — the suggestion that audiences are in for an amazing cinematic treat. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but there’s nothing better than being seduced — and for a few moments, that’s exactly what the best movie trailers of 2019 do. Below are some of my favorites from the past year.

Smarmy Murder

Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s followup to The Last Jedi seems to have found a safer home for the director’s irreverence (I’m not aware of any diehard murder-mystery fans, at least), and it’s trailers have been free to lean heavily into that twisted playfulness. If you’ve gone to a theater in the last three months, it’s been hard to avoid seeing this one a million times (including at times as an ad before the previews), but the relentlessly snappy pacing, ironic edits, and pervasive shots of actors hamming it up really drive home that Knives Out is looking to be a wickedly fun romp. Whether it succeeds or not, there’s no question that the trailer makes me want it to. 

Ready or Not

This one hits more traditional beats when it comes to unspooling its gleefully barbarous premise, and knows just how to mix the tension with the violence with the cheeky one-liners. But it’s the use of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” that really pushes this trailer over the top, as the song works brilliantly for both magnifying the drama during the screaming moments, and providing an excellent contrast between its blatant romantic sincerity and the sarcastic amorality of this bizarre predicament. Also, Henry Czerny.

The Hunt

This one’s a bit more subtle about its dark comedy, but there’s no question that there are plenty of smirks lurking just below the surface of this premise. A cabal of elitists hunting a bunch of backwoods yokels for sport is the kind of satiric setup that has potential for real bite (enough to get the film’s release indefinitely delayed, apparently), and this trailer does a great job of playing that element up, suggesting a more brutal and sardonic version of The Hunger Games. The tired look on Betty Gilpin’s face as she moseys down train tracks or calmly drives over someone’s head showcases a low-key humor that hopefully is reflected in the final product. Fingers crossed that The Hunt eventually sees the dark of theaters.

Moody, Mysterious Spooks

Midsommar

There’s always something refreshing about a horror story that takes place in the daylight, and the trailer for Midsommar appeals perfectly to this sentiment. Plucky strings, tribal drum beats, and plenty of off-kilter camera angles help set the creepy stage for a relationship problem that is about to manifest itself in a physical problem, but one that is smartly only hinted at. The bright, lush environment and comforting tradition initially draws you in (like any good cult would hope), but exactly what’s in store for this young woman and her companions? Flashes of gore and deformity near the end are what linger, even after a sunny visual finale. Very enticing.

The Lighthouse

It’s possible that this trailer could have just consisted of nothing but the weather-worn faces of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe staring back at the audience, punctuated by the droning bellow of the fog horn, and that might have been enough to sell people on this thing. Of course, what follows is a stark, visual feast that also does a masterful job at dropping clues as to the possible supernatural mystery, but layering them in the potential madness. Dark, ominous trappings are slathered on as thick as the sea-faring accents, giving off an old-fashioned horror vibe. Despite a deep dislike for the actual film, I could watch this trailer forever, and dream of what else could have lurked out on that lonely island.

If Only They Lost the Song

1917

Bolstered by gorgeous images courtesy of the great Roger Deakins (whose sumptuous cinematography can only help no matter what it’s in), this trailer does a masterful job at communicating to audiences just what a nail-biter this WWI story promises to be. Starting out with an innocuous shot of two soldiers lazing beneath a tree, and ending with one of them dodging explosions, the tension is meticulously built step by step, gunshot by gunshot…until a sappy, tone-deaf song called “Wayfaring Stranger” cuts in halfway through and tries to ruin everything with hammy emotional telegraphing. It’s a curious choice, as the textured, frank visuals and dialogue don’t otherwise give off a manipulative vibe. Still, there is stirring power in that imagery, enough to make me want to see more. Just…save the song for the end credits, please.

What. The. Hell.

Bird Talk

It’s generally not desirable to feel even slightly repulsed after viewing a movie trailer, but I have to confess that the bizarre images here are cut together in a way that doesn’t quite agree with me. So why is it good? Because that seems to be exactly the sort of note Xawery Zulawski’s film is trying to hit, with its disorienting fish-eye lenswork and indecipherable depictions of what seems like general depravity, even if I can’t point to exactly why. Even the special effect for that weird flaming car looks wonky and nightmarish. Not every film has to be pleasant to work, and neither does a trailer; Bird Talk looks intense and intriguing and indecipherable, and that’s good enough for me.

Pleading For Attention (and Actually Getting It)

Joker

Every year there are trailers for movies that desperately want to be taken seriously as films, and I’m not sure there was a better example of that in 2019 than Joker. With its gritty, scum-on-the-lens look, an early burst of cruelty, and use of Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” to lay the irony on thick, there’s no question of this promo distancing the final product from traditional ‘comic book’ movies. There’s also no question that the trailer does a magnificent job at showcasing the film’s best element: a writhing, tortured, smirking, dancing, on-the-edge Joaqin Phoenix. While it’s debatable whether Joker itself ultimately deserved all the attention, putting Phoenix’s performance front and center in the trailer was the best way to get it.

The Cream of the Trailer Crop

Richard Jewell

This is a fantastic example of how to communicate an overall old-fashioned approach to sharp storytelling, yet break up the standard formula with well-timed asides. The premise and protagonist are firmly established through standard trailer character development, but it’s the interspersing of those chilling interrogation scenes that really drive the point home and solidify the character as supremely sympathetic. The soft piano notes are joined by a growing orchestra, the frequency of these inserts picks up as the blatant railroading intensifies, and by the time the crescendo hits, the trailer has told a story that we want to see a resolution to — and that subtle nod suggests it’s going to be a very, very satisfying one.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Almost a mini-movie in itself, the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spans the range of emotional beats found in the film it’s cut from, roughly (and impressively) in the same order, all while cementing the unmistakable tone of the film’s creator. What’s being sold here is exactly what audiences are going to get, and that’s a sprawling Hollywood epic filled with sharp dialogue, offbeat B-movie/TV show asides, and a undercurrent of a looming, horrific incident that will come to a head in the last reel. An aging cowboy, a loyal sidekick, a radiant princess, and a creepily smiling ogre are set in a neon fantasy land full of make believe, where dreams (and sometimes nightmares) come true. It’s a primer for a magical fairy tale, and also the most complete, all-encompassing, masterful trailer of the year.

***

Of course, these are just my picks for the best trailers of 2019 — what are yours?

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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