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What's My Name: Muhammad Ali (2019)
You'll Like It Even More If It Is Your First Go-Round With Ali
One's enjoyment of "What's My Name" can, I think, be anticipated with a simple question: how much do you already know about Ali? If little, you'll love this. If much, you'll be entertained but likely not put it in the upper echelon of Ali docs.
I fall into the latter camp of that previous question, having read multiple books on Ali and pretty much seen all the relevant docs. When I saw the title of this HBO production, I thought that it would delve more into the social/political side of Ali, but instead it proved to be pretty much a straight bio of his career both inside and outside the boxing ring.
Because it is HBO at the wheel, the production value could not be higher and it does pull out some photos/videos I had never seen before. However, as a seasoned Ali scholar, I couldn't help but be slightly disappointed that "What's My Name" didn't "pick a lane, so to speak", and try to examine one issue of his life instead of tackling the whole ball of wax. Because I this, I have to rate 2009's "Facing Ali" and 2014's "I Am Ali" as better docs overall.
All of that being said, if this is perhaps the first Ali doc a viewer has ever watched, it will make quite an impression, as it does hit all the relevant points in his life and contains great music and interviews. It's long--nearly three hours--but never feels boring or slow.
So, ultimately, one's appreciation of "What's My Name" will almost certainly be determined by what they've seen of him before. Anyone can enjoy this, but Ali "scholars" may struggle with the lack of any new angle.
En man som heter Ove (2015)
Solid Adaptation Of A Spectacular Novel
Not long before watching this film, I read the novel it is based on and was absolutely blown away by how the main character--Ove--could be rendered so crotchety yet also so heartfelt and sincere at the same time. For the most part, this film adaptation of "A Man Called Ove" captures the essence of that novel.
For a basic plot summary, this film tells the story of Ove (Rolf Lassgard), an old man in a gated community who seems to relish being the "village grump". He yells at cars for driving on "the path", does routine parking/garage inspections, and is just generally unpleasant to be around. Just when viewers couldn't imagine an ounce of sympathy for Ove, however, they discover he is grieving the loss of his wife, has just been laid off from his longtime job, and is on the verge of committing suicide. The rest of the film breaks down the middle, with one half flashing back to a young Ove (Filip Berg) and wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) and roughly the other half a sort of redemption story for the present-day Ove, as new neighbors Patrick (Tobias Almborg) and Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) give him a chance at life again.
As with the novel, the beauty of this story is that despite Ove's surly and often outright brutish personality, there is a relatability factor to him that just shouldn't be there (speaking to the incredible character nuance). Nobody really wants to be "an Ove", if you will, yet we all know someone like him or have been there a time or two in our own lives. The flashbacks really help to flesh out his backstory too, as it is fascinating to see a charismatic, hopeful Ove turn into the complicated figure of the present bit by bit.
About the only thing I don't like about this film is how certain bits are played a bit too comedic for my liking. I understand the ridiculousness of Ove's situation in the first half of the film (constantly trying to die but always being "thwarted" by some problem or nuisance that needs solving), but in the novel it isn't played for quite as much comedy as it is at times here. It doesn't ruin the ambiance outright or anything like that, but it does feel a bit out of place in a film with such serious themes.
Overall, though, I can see why "A Man Called Ove" was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar (it is presented in Swedish dubbed in English). It's an emotional, deep, and yet somehow charming story of the life of a man we've all seen/known before and how he got that way.
Short But Perfectly Compelling Doc Of The Splendid Splinter
As an enormous baseball fan, I stumbled across this episode of PBS's American Masters series on Netflix. I can't say I had huge expectations, as I've done a fair amount of reading on Ted Williams myself and questioned what new information could be provided here. The actual viewing experience was exactly the opposite, however, as I found this little bio to be perhaps the most compelling piece of material on The Kid I've ever consumed.
Despite running only about 50 minutes in length, this episode is a very well-produced look at the career and life of Teddy Ballgame. It is narrated perfectly by Jon Hamm, contains footage I had never seen, and presents new interviews from family members and baseball historians.
In all seriousness, this is the type of quality that, say, an HBO would put into their documentaries. It is that well-produced, riveting, and emotional. Ted Williams was both an extraordinary baseball player and complex individual, and this piece touches on both of those things in equal time.
In short, baseball fans of nearly any age (some of the language probably rules it out for the kiddies) can enjoy this engrossing look at one of the diamond greats.
We Are Columbine (2018)
An Emotional Look At The Human Effects Of That Fateful Columbine Day
High school is such a strange beast: It seems to be a much-romanticized time in one's life from a nostalgic perspective, yet when one is actually living within its hallways often the only goal is getting done and getting out. This is before complete and utter horror/tragedy is added into the mix. Considering all those factors, as well as the unflinching (yet also careful) style of filmmaker Laura Farber (herself a survivor of that day), "We Are Columbine" is one of the most affecting documentaries I have ever seen.
For a basic summary, this doc focuses on 4-5 students (and a couple of teachers) who were inside Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when the two gunmen unleashed their reign of terror. The participants are interviewed extensively about their thoughts/feelings before, during, and after that day, as well as taken back to the school itself (many for the first time since graduation), producing an obvious flood of emotion as they re-enact their movements of that day.
Obviously, the Columbine tragedy (much like 9/11) will also stick out in the historical registers because the heinous act was the first of its kind (or at least the first that received enormous attention). Though school shootings have (horrifically, sadly, and intensely frustratingly) become more commonplace since 1999, 20 years ago it was something that just hadn't happened before on that type of scale. Because of that, it is indelibly burned into the cultural zeitgeist.
I think the hallmark of "We Are Columbine" is how Farber chooses to focus almost exclusively on the stories of those selected classmates. This really narrows the focus of the piece and makes it a tight treatise on how the event effected them all. In a rather astute decision, Farber spends a decent amount of time establishing who these people were even before 4/20/99, including what the Columbine HS culture was like. This is then contrasted with what their lives are like together, with the shooting incident being the fulcrum point in that transition.
It is absolutely harrowing to hear them tell their own unique, individual stories from that day and see how they deal with that part of their past. While relatively few people have been in that sort of scenario, we have all (for the most part) been to high school, thus making the settings, thoughts, and feelings intensely relatable.
I've seen a number of negative reviews for "We Are Columbine", which baffles me a bit (considered how emotionally affected I was by the material). I think what one must remember is that this doc doesn't set out to provide new technical information about the day of the shooting. Besides the emotions of individuals, no "new information" is unearthed here. But, I will argue, that unearthing of emotions from those who survived and are willing to tell their story is more than enough to hold interest all the way through (the runtime is only about 80 minutes as-is).
Overall, I found "We Are Columbine" to be one of the most emotional, hard-hitting docs I've seen in some time. I compare it to "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (the Fred Rogers doc) in terms of ability to tap into deep emotions both positive and negative. Don't go in expecting a blow-by-blow description of that day. Instead, allow yourself to be sucked into the stories of the students-turned-adults. If you can do that, you'll likely be as entranced as I was.
350 Days (2018)
A Look At The Hard Road Of The Pro Wrestling Life
The glitz and glamour of professional wrestling is undeniable. Those figures become "gods among men" of sorts who are idolized by thousands of screaming fans every night. What one doesn't always see, however, is that grueling, overwhelming travel schedule that those wrestlers are subjected to. That is the focus of this documentary.
Basically, the premise here is that wrestlers spend 350 days on the road each year, a ridiculous grind that makes family life basically impossible and promotes drug use, promiscuity, and alcoholism. Wrestlers such as Bret Hart, Greg Valentine, Paul Orndorff, Superstar Billy Graham, Superfly Jimmy Snuka, and Ted DiBiase (to name just a very few...many wrestlers "poke their head in" to offer brief thoughts) are interviewed about what it was like travelling from place to place in vans, buses, and airplanes and what that experience did to them personally.
I ultimately think that one's overall enjoyment of "350 Days" will come down to how many other wrestling docs they have watched. For someone like myself, who scopes out anything related to the topic, there really isn't a ton of new information. It is great to hear from "the old gang" again, but nothing really groundbreaking in terms of new material. For those who may be a bit newer to this sort of material, though, it might be more eye-opening in terms of the lifestyle that pro wrestling engenders.
What will pique the interest of all viewers, however, are some of the dichotomies present within the information. For example, though all the wrestlers bemoan the physical pain and time on the road that just comes from the profession, almost to a man everyone wouldn't change anything or would go back and do it again. Also, while some individuals blame the travel/lifestyle for their wild behaviors, others (like Lanny Poffo) take full responsibility. It is interesting to hear how these old wrestlers process their past behaviors.
Overall, this is a fine little documentary about the world of professional wrestling. As I've said, the "mileage may vary" a bit depending on your previous knowledge of the subject, but either way it is still a solid piece of work. Just seeing some of the "old gang" on camera again is largely worth the watch alone.
Pet Sematary (2019)
Either Doesn't Understand The Source Material Or Doesn't Care To
I'm usually not angry when a film significantly changes the source material in adapting a novel. The two mediums are just so different that one can't just port into the other. What I can't forgive, however, is when the writers/film-makers don't seem to understand what the novel "is all about". That is exactly what happens in this version of "Pet Sematary"
For a basic plot summary, this film tells the story of the Creed family, who have just moved into rural Maine from Boston for a fresh start out in the country. Husband Louis (Jason Clarke) is a doctor, while wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) takes care of children Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie). One night, after the death of family cat Church, neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) shows Louis a "special place" in the woods, and the next day Church is back in Ellie's bedroom. But the cat is also...changed...and not in a good way. When tragedy late strikes the Creed family, Louis is faced with a horrifying decision related to that place beyond the Pet Sematary.
What so often gets misunderstood about "Pet Sematary" is that it isn't a horror piece. I mean yes, it is scary, but primarily based on the psychological battle that is waged in Louis' internal consciousness. Yes, cemeteries and zombie-like creatures are a bit creepy, but the real knowing horror here is whether or not we'd make the same decision(s) that Louis does.
Well, at least that was the thesis of King's novel. Here, however, about halfway through that focus is radically changed, with much more focus (an entire half-hour at least) on post-resurrection dealings. This completely destroys the calculus of the entire piece and changes it into something else entirely. The problem, of course, is that it is still built on the bedrock of King's tale, which means that it just doesn't work.
In this film, there is no great internal battle within Louis presented. Events just seem to play out in almost a pre-ordained fashion. Another big misstep is completely excising the angle (from the book) involving Rachel's parents, as well as giving lip-service only to Rachel's deceased sister Zelda, who factors so prominently in the text.
Overall, I'm not quite sure what happened here. Either the filmmakers just didn't know how to adapt the story (I could actually forgive this easier, as so much of it takes place within Louis' own head), or they tried to create almost a completely new, more horror-based product. Unfortunately, either way the end product ends up being pretty poor. This project seemed to come out of nowhere, and will likely recede back to those depths just as quickly.
WrestleMania 2000 (2000)
Doesn't Quite Live Up To Billing, But Still Pretty Solid
The sixteenth WrestleMania is one that seems to have a lot of hype attached to it. The combination of it being a nice round number (2000), a big four-way finale, and the fearlessness (for better or for worse) of the WWE at the time likely all contribute to this perception. While WM 2000 isn't a bad event, by any means, I would also argue it isn't one of the great Manias either.
A few of my thoughts...
-The lack of even one singles matches hurts this card. I realize that the WWE is experimenting with many different formats at this time, but sometimes the traditional 1X1 match is better than anything off-the-wall or crazy. A good example of this is the Jericho/Benoit/Angle Three-Way match. I feel like any combination of those two would have been better than the three of them mucking around.
-The best match on the card, hands down, is the Three-Way Ladder match between the Dudleys, Hardys, and Christian/Edge. This is high-flying, absolutely insane professional wrestling at its very best. Not only were all these guys fearless, but it wasn't a "sloppy fearless" either (like Mick Foley would often lapse into). No, these teams were all incredibly talented and not afraid to take risks (that they almost always pulled off successfully).
-The tag match featuring Kane/Rikishi vs. Road Dogg/X-Pac is pretty entertaining/solid, if the traditional "random talents thrown together" type of structure. This is the type of match in which the talented guys who couldn't get a storyline developed before WrestleMania are just thrown together in hopes of the talent winning out over the "heat". In this case, it works well enough.
-The Fatal Four-Way finale, featuring a McMahon in every corner, is indeed an entertaining prospect. The Rock (Vince), Big Show (Shane), Foley (Linda), and Triple-H (Stephanie) put on a decent show, but the overall effect proves to be slightly lackluster in total. Not only is it difficult to follow the action a lot of the times, but the ending is disappointing in the way it features the McMahons over the actual star talent. In other words, the weeks of build-up to this match were far superior to the end result.
Considering that Steve Austin, the company's biggest star at the time, was recuperating from various injuries during this period, it is amazing that WWE was able to pull this show off as well as it did. I'll always argue it is more "hype" than "substance", but there is certainly talent present...no one is doubting that. That sets enough of a baseline bar for entertainment even if the overall product isn't in my top WM events.
The Wind (2018)
A Better Ending Would Have Made This Truly Great
When I first saw a trailer for "The Wind", I was intrigued by the mix of the western and horror genres. While that mixture does indeed produce a tense, foreboding atmosphere where a great story is set up, the final act really lets all the air out of the balloon by providing an ending that is disappointing no matter which way one looks at it.
For a basic plot summary, "The Wind" tells the story of Lizzy Maclin (Caitlin Gerard), who lives with husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) on the untamed western U.S. prairie of the late 1800s. Their only neighbors for miles are Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee), and the two couples form a sort of uneasy truce with each other: they both "want their space" but at the same time are comforted that they are not completely alone. When both women begin to experience strange haunting-like scenarios (and blame demonic possession) and then a pregnancy-issue scenario accelerates the timetable, the isolated and windy open prairie may be as much to blame as anything else. Who knows what may reside in its theretofor uncharted depths.
All the setup and atmosphere in "The Wind" is actually very strong. It takes a non-linear approach to time (which really sucks the viewer into the proceedings) and despite being only about 90 minutes still manages to take its time and develop the characters. It is creepy in spots, thoughtful in others, and really sets up a scenario in which most viewers will be genuinely curious about how it will all shake out.
Only helping matters is Gerard, who pretty much steals the show here. If she is still a relative unknown now, that could change based on a performance like this. She is integral to nearly every scene and is the character viewers really empathize with. If "The Wind" would have been better overall, this could have been an award-winning acting job.
Unfortunately, the ending of this film is an enormous letdown. I don't mind the ambiguity of interpretation one bit (is it actually a demon or Lizzy's mind playing tricks on her?), but the cardinal sin here is that only one side of that coin is presented all along (i.e. the supposed "twist" doesn't work). The entire film, we are treated to a story in which it seems pretty straightforward what is happening (or at least could be happening). Then, the filmmakers pull a bait-and-switch by interjecting this "maybe she is just lonely/crazy" supposition right under the wire. Had this been a theme throughout it may have worked, but as it was it just felt like a way to end the flick when the writers didn't have a great plan to do so.
Thus, as much as I enjoyed the buildup, atmosphere, and acting in "The Wind", a better ending cold have upped my rating as much as two whole stars, I believe. Sadly, this ending feels tacked-on rather then anything really well thought-out. A missed opportunity, for sure.
Royal Rumble (2000)
Rumble A Dud, But Other Matches Save The Day
Usually in a Royal Rumble event, I'm mostly interested in the Rumble itself, as it is almost always an entertaining ruckus. In this 2000 edition, however, the 30-man extravaganza was mostly a dud, and the PPV was mostly saved by the matches around it.
Triple H vs. Cactus Jack (Mankind) is the big draw here, and they elevate it to all-time classic status. One feels equal amounts of respect and pity for Foley as he sacrifices his body for the "good of the show". Helmsley even does the same.
The Hardy Boyz vs. The Dudley Boyz is basically a precursor to the TLC matches that would proliferate in WWE in short order. These two teams really put on a great high-flying show and every second of their match deserves to be watched.
One could say the same about the New Age Outlaws in a different way (more with the mics/personality than with the actual wrestling). Here, they are paired with the un-exciting Acolytes but still manage to make it watchable. The Outlaws seem to take a lot of flak for being "all talk", but boy oh boy do arenas "pop" when they come out.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the Rumble itself seems both short and slow at the same time. The winner seems rather telegraphed from the very beginning, and when an impromptu dance party is maybe the highlight of the match, you know there are problems.
Overall, though, I can still give this event a quality ranking due to the excitement of its "buildup" matches. For the first time in perhaps, well, ever, the Rumble is the letdown of the PPV.
Survivor Series (1999)
A Lot Of Weirdness Sets An Odd Tone
Coming off the heels of a mostly disappointing SummerSlam in 1999, the Survivor Series was once again mostly another dud. While the matches themselves improve a bit, there is just a bit too much odd behavior all-around (especially the broadcast booth) for this event to be all that good.
Some of my thoughts...
-Debut of Kurt Angle, who would go on to have a nice WWE career. -Kane vs X-Pac (the latter of which really puts on a great show) might be the best overall match on the entire card. A good performance and they didn't try to make too much of it. -I was never the biggest fan of Chyna or Jericho, so this match didn't really do much for me. -The New Age Outlaws reunite and make a strong case for being legitimately one of the most influential tag-teams in WWE history. Their gimmick and call-and-response routine is memorable, and always generated a big pop.
One thing I found quite odd in this event was the performance of the Ross/Lawler performance team. First, the cringe-worthy sexual references fly fast and loose in the early-goings, to the point where it was clear that must have been a company talking point or philosophy at the time (one I would agree is not needed or a good long-term strategy). Then, once Steve Austin is "taken out" of the main event via the car crash, Ross spends the rest of the broadcast oddly arguing quite profusely with Lawler over the severity of that event. Far too much of an over-sell, if you ask me. All this created a strange overall tone for the night.
The finale (Big Show/HHH/Rock) is above-average, but that's about it. The action never stops all the way through (very fast-paced), but I felt like the event didn't have a ton of heat or crowd response behind it, either.
Overall, this is another sub-par WWE event to close out 1999, a year that had begun so strong. From what I remember, the product would once again improve as the new millennium dawned, but as of this even it was in a bit of a rut.
Too Many Odd Pairings
Despite featuring a pretty talented roster at this point in their history, the WWE in this SummerSlam '99 event just doesn't match them up well enough to create a compelling card. Maybe this was a "pieces being moved into position" sort of event, but either way it falls a bit flat.
A few examples...
-Al Snow/Boss Man is an oddity all the way around. -Shamrock/Blackmon in the "Lion's Den" is such a tired gimmick, only started because of Ken's ties to UFC. -Test vs. Shane McMahon. Sure...okay. Test is starting to get a bit of a push, while Shane is working his way into a prominent role in the company as well. At this point, though, nothing special. -Big Show & Taker vs Kane & X-Pac may legitimately be one of the strangest match pairings I've ever seen. No really angle at all, just a bunch of talented wrestlers thrown together. Decent enough match, but not memorable in the slightest. -I feel the only reason Billy Gunn vs. Rock happened at all is because Gunn won the previous KOTR and thus was required to get a push.
The only two real highlights of SummerSlam 1999? The introduction of the Triple Threat Match (and even the performance itself was stale in this case) and the return of Jesse "The Body" Ventura (to his home state of Minnesota, no less!), who is always entertaining.
Other than that, though, this one is pretty much a dud. The talent alone keeps it from being truly awful, but absolutely none of the stories did anything for me.
What More Could One Ask For In A Film?!
Back in 2017, I enjoyed Jordan Peele's "Get Out" (giving it 8/10 stars here). However, my one "beef", if you will, with that flick was that I felt it couldn't stand alone without the social commentary. As a straight suspense thriller, it likely doesn't work. To me, that is where "Us" separates itself from even that solid effort and vaults into the rarified air of all-time classic. It is an incredible social commentary, yes, but can/could also stand alone as just a spooky horror/suspense movie nearly as well.
For a basic plot summary, "Us" tells the story of the Wilson family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke), wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). What starts as a pretty typical middle-class family vacation quickly takes a dark turn when a family shows up in the driveway of their getaway bungalow in the middle of the night. The Wilsons quickly discover that this mystery family is a doppelgänger of their own unit...but in a dark, twisted way. The alternate-Wilsons terrorize the real-Wilsons, and viewers are left in the dark until nearly the very end of the film in terms of why this is happening.
There are so many interesting concepts in play here, some of which include:
-Some great family dynamics and character-building in the early goings. For the social-message piece of "Us" to work we need to care about the characters, and that is not a problem here. The humor gets a bit over-the-top at times, but nothing that takes you out of the experience too much. -The concept of doppelgängers is always a bit of a spooky one, and "Us" plays this to the hilt. This is where the film can and does work as a straight suspense piece. -Flashbacks centering on Adelaid's character give the film much-needed backstory and set the table for what is to come. These treks into the past are also wonderful for the little touches that Peale uses to create a sense of place, from the music to the clothing worn and the language/slang spoken.
Then, of course, there is the final 15-20 minutes that quite literally changes everything (which I will not entirely spoil here). There are two ways that "twist ending" films usually work: Either the twist comes as a complete surprise with really no way of guessing it (see: "The Village"), or breadcrumbs are laid throughout and it still manages to catch the viewer off-guard (see: "The Sixth Sense"). As a movie-watcher who is always very engaged in the experience, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the latter approach, and that is exactly what "Us" does to perfection. Not only does the ending completely shock the viewer with its social declaration and implications, but also in how certain signs were pointing that way all along.
Overall, there was never a single minute spent watching "Us" that I was disengaged from the experience. Whether it was the flashbacks, character-building, tension/suspense, or social commentary, this one had me hook, line, and sinker. I'm not usually one for immediately re-watching a film after the original viewing, but this is the rare exception in that it can be experienced in nearly a completely different way once the first viewing is complete and "mentally processed". To me, this is cinema at its finest.
King of the Ring (1999)
Solid All Around
When one considers that a character known by the moniker "Mr. Ass" won the King of the Ring tournament in this event, the entire pay-per-view is actually more solid than what you might expect.
Some of the highlights include...
-The Hardy Boyz tag team breaking onto the scene with their high-flying brand of wrestling. In a short amount of time, they would revitalize and revolutionize the company's tag matches. -Rock vs. Undertaker is a solid contest. Nothing spectacular, but just two really solid wrestlers putting on a good show. -Despite being won by Billy Gunn, the KOTR tourney was more carried by Road Dogg & X-Pac, who put in yeoman's work each and every match to pump the crowd up. They won't get much credit as headliners, but they certainly kept the PPV from ever getting stale. -The build up to the Austin/McMahons handicap ladder match was a bit anticlimactic and stupid, but the match itself was entertaining. Austin/Vince was one of the best rivalries in the history of the WWE, and it may have been at its peak at this point in time.
All in all, KOTR '99 is a solid all-around card despite the lack of a standout moment or match.
WrestleMania XV (1999)
Only Austin/Rock Prevents Utter Disaster
Despite being held in the midst of a very successful WWE streak, WrestleMania 15 is (rather strangely) mostly a dud. Only an Austin/Rock finale saves it from being an extremely poor show.
When one match on the card features boxer Butterbean duking it out with Bart Gunn, you know something isn't quite right. This event features perhaps more individual matches than any other in WM history (certainly until that point), but most are rather short (perhaps that is a mercy in this case).
I can't quite put my finger on why this event just falls flat, as the card contains a number of talented performers. X-Pac, Undertaker, Triple H, Mankind, Big Show, & Road Dogg are all here, but they just aren't put in positions to succeed.
To be honest, even the Rock/Austin finale isn't all that great of an overall match. The "pop" is incredible, yes, but the match itself is just "okay". A bit too frantic for my taste with very little pacing.
Overall, WrestleMania 15 continues the tradition of the past 10 or so years of this event of the odd-numbered ones being mediocre (oddly, the even-numbered ones are pretty good). Watch for Rock/Austin, but almost the entire rest of the event can be skipped and nothing really major will be missed.
Mr. McMahon Takes Center Stage
For many years, Vince McMahon was either behind the scenes (owner) or behind the mic (announcer) for the WWE. As 1998 turned into '99, however, he stepped out of the tuxedo and into the wrestling role itself. While this Royal Rumble isn't nearly one of the best, it is still very entertaining because it represents one of the greatest feuds in WWE history.
To me, there is no doubt that the angle between Mr. McMahon and Stone Cold Steve Austin is maybe the most exciting (or at very least interesting) in the history of the company. I mean, everyone's dream in life is to beat up and give the finger to the boss man, right?! That's the catharsis (the heart of the WWE experience) that plays out here, with Austin of course playing that role perfectly. When him and McMahon are doing their thing, there is an electricity in arenas that is almost unmatched.
Besides the Rumble itself, which is usually always entertaining, the other great match on this card is The Rock vs. Mankind. It says a lot about the WWE talent-wise that this can be the penultimate event. This could easily have been the finale and no one would have gone home disappointed.
The '99 Rumble also represents the debut (or at least close to it) of lead announcer Michael Cole. While at first I was skeptical, as Jim Ross had been so good, but Cole proves to be a great mic man and it is nice to have a new voice in the mix.
Overall, this card is very back-heavy, but the talents of Rock, Mankind, Austin, and McMahon truly do make it worthwhile. If this hadn't happened sometime earlier, WWE is clearly on top of the fading WCW at this point.
As Sentimental As They Come, But Still Engaging
The story of the Maris/Mantle home run chase of 1961 is steeped in baseball lore, from the Babe to the asterisk and everything in between. While director Billy Crystal doesn't unearth any new information or angles with "61*"-nor does he try-he does a good job of capturing the drama of that entire season and its meaningfulness in the baseball lexicon.
For a basic plot summary, "61*" tells the story of the 1961 baseball season, where Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) and Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) both challenged the decades-old single-season home run record that had been standing for decades (Babe Ruth's 60 homers in 1927). The film mainly focuses on the struggles of Maris, the North Dakota country boy who felt enormously pressured by the press, the fans, and perhaps even the specter of Ruth himself. While Mantle was everyone's darling and seemed the one destined to break records, it was ultimately Maris who was thrust into the spotlight he always so desperately avoided.
I think the main thing to keep in mind about "61*" is that it is very much a sentimental portrait of the events, players, and times. I'm sure a more nuanced, angled film on the topic could be made, but that wasn't Crystal's intention from the get-go. This is the type of movie that could have been filmed in gauzy tones and swelling scores (the latter of which occur frequently, come to think of it). It is Crystal basically telling this baseball story that is legendary to him, especially as a Yankees fan at heart. It practically drips with pizazz, mythos, and melodrama.
Of course, this isn't exactly a bad approach at the end of the day. It certainly leans into the clichés/legends, but it also gets enough of the story right to be considered accurate. The framing device of the McGwire/Sosa 1998 home run chase is a brilliant filmmaking stroke, albeit one that has not aged well after the steroid allegations of the years following it.
The acting also really stands out. Pepper is convincing as the tortured Maris, while Jane often steals the show as the enigmatic and legendary Mantle. The rest of the cast is also filled out by a who's who list of actors that'll make you say "I've seen him/her somewhere before!". In other words, many great character actors pepper the roll.
Overall, "61*" is a solid baseball tale made by an accomplished filmmaker (Crystal) who is also a legitimate baseball fan and thus can come off as authentic. It is over-dramatic and sentimental almost to a fault, but it gets the information it wants to convey across in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Depending on your ability to let the "ghosts of history" wash over you, "61*" may even garner a higher ranking.
Survivor Series (1998)
Tournament A Good Shakeup From Usual Format
Generally-speaking, I hate the traditional mixed-tag format of the Survivor Series, so I really liked the championship tournament approach of this event. It wasn't perfect, but it really mixed things up enough to be unique and entertaining.
Whenever there is a tournament, it means a lot of shorter matches in lieu of several longer ones. This works well in matching up all the best superstars against each other, but at the same time kid of diminishes the impact of each (e.g stars like Stone Cold or The Rock are better when their theme pops once rather than 3-4 times).
What makes this PPV stand out to me, though, is the continued involvement of Vince McMahon himself into the proceedings. It's intriguing how they are basically re-enacting the real-life Montreal Screwjob into the fabric of the entertainment here. This will only get more interesting in the future when McMahon himself starts climbing into the ring more, but for now just having him seem to call all the shots is an interesting development.
This is basically the period where the WWE really starts blurring the lines between the owners of the promotion and the promotion itself. The McMahons go from the behind-the-scenes owners to front and center in the thick of the action.
Overall, I'll rank Survivor Series 1998 as a solid event because of all the talent it features. Nothing truly epic happens, but there are a lot of good pairings here and the dramatic "corporation" angles are great.
Not Bad, But Falls A Little Flat
By this point in WWE history, that had re-built from the disastrous mid-90s and put together a talented roster filled with innovative angles. As such, an event like SummerSlam 1998 isn't going to be horrible. For whatever reason, though, the event does seem to fall a bit flatter than those around it.
A few thoughts...
-A new character like Val Venis (basically riffing on a porn star trope) shows just how far into the "Attitude Era" the company really is at this point. -Shamrock vs Owen Hart in the Lion's Den is certainly innovative, but such a clear jab at UFC that was probably un-necessary. -Mankind vs. New Age Outlaws is fun to watch, especially with Foley taking that character to new levels seemingly with every PPV at this point. -The Ladder Match between Rock & Triple H doesn't have a ton of "pop" to it. I'm not sure if this because it is pretty straightforward or because the ladder concept was losing a little steam (I would guess the latter). Maybe it would take TLC matches to rev up that engine again. -Austin vs. Undertaker is a perfectly acceptable finale, but one featuring an angle that really has no "future" in it. This is one of those scenarios where the two "top dogs" are matched up against each other, put on a decent show, and then go their separate ways again.
So, while featuring a solid talent roster, SummerSlam '98 is a bit of a step backward in terms of overall entertainment factor.
King of the Ring (1998)
An Iconic Moment If There Ever Was One
Earlier in 1998, the WWE cemented its Attitude Era at WrestleMania 14. In King of the Ring 1998, that bar gets pushed even higher, what with a match that will go down in history as one of the most iconic (and industry-changing) of all-time.
I won't beat around the bush: that match is a Hell in A Cell between Undertaker & Mankind. Foley puts on a show like no other, allowing Taker to thrown him off the enormous structure (onto a table), choke-slam him right through the top of it (I don't believe this was planned), and then piledrive him onto a mat full of thumbtacks. Not only is it entertaining/shocking for Foley's utter fearlessness (perhaps a bit of stupidity mix in as well), but it shows that the WWE was only going to double-down on the edgier content strategy. No longer was the WWE going to be able to call itself "wholesome family entertainment". This match marks the final turning point in that process, with the danger, blood, and general feel of the whole show.
Some other highlights of this really solid card:
-Another Shamrock/Rock match, which were always surprisingly entertaining. -The major debut of X-Pac, a spunky little guy who flies around with reckless abandon. -Kane vs. Stone Cold being a solid finale (if not quite a bit overshadowed by the carnage that had come before).
Overall, KOTR '98 was a great overall event filled with talent, solid matches, and an edge the WWE hadn't had in a long, long time. Some may see this as where professional wrestling became too profane or beyond the realm of family entertainment. Others will see it as where the company really started beating back WCW again and re-asserting its dominance on top of the pro wrestling food chain. Either way, it was iconic to say the least.
WrestleMania XIV (1998)
More Cultural Event Than Great Wrestling Showcase
WrestleMania 14 goes down as one of the most memorable of all-time. DX, Mike Tyson, and Stone Cold have all "aged well" in WWE lore. After recently re-watching this event, however, I found it to be indeed a cultural touchstone, but also somewhat lacking in great matches.
The first four matches on the card are all duds. Then, at least things start to pick up a bit with The Rock vs. Ken Shamrock. Shamrock will never be the most flamboyant pro wrestler (despite being obviously the best real fighter of the entire mix), but here they showcase Rock's vocal talents and continue to lean into that angle (with good reason considering he's so smooth at the mic).
The New Age Outlaws vs. Cactus Jack & Chainsaw Charlie is kind of a mess, but at least an iconic one with the use of the dumpster.
The penultimate battle really ratchets up the intensity, with Undertaker squaring off against "brother" Kane. Pound for pound, I would consider this match the overall best on the card. The buildup is superb and the match itself is well-executed and entertaining.
Then, of course, there is Michaels (now the lead DX-er) vs. Austin, with Tyson looming in seemingly all corners. Again, this match isn't the greatest in terms of technical skill excitement, but the charisma of both participants (as well as how well DX and the Austin brands had been built up) still make it feel like a major event.
What WM 14 signals, at least to me, is that the WWE is truly embracing their Attitude Era signification rather than sort of being embarrassed by it. Now, the fingers and lewd gestures are front-and-center, and the crowd loves it. Call it debasement or call it entertainment, but either way you look at it the WWE wins in terms of publicity or buzz.
Royal Rumble (1998)
The Beginning of The Attitude Era
When someone talks about the "Attitude Era" of the WWE, this is the event I usually point to to show it really coming together. Though not a great card in its own right, it's a very positive sign that the WWE's floor at the moment is a 6/10 star event (considering a year or two previous they were putting out some of the worst content in their history).
A few thoughts/observations on the '98 Rumble:
-The best single match on the card is probably The Rock vs. Ken Shamrock. Rock's vocal skills are being highlighted (finally), while Shamrock's intensity is fun in a goofy sort of way.
-Legion of Doom vs. New Age Outlaws is actually a decent tag match (this coming from an individual who usually is not "into" tag matches much at all).
-Unfortunately, the Rumble itself isn't all that great. Very top-heavy and then filled with a bunch of jobbers. Having Stone Cold win it the second year in a row also feels a bit anticlimactic, but it was fun to see him briefly lock up with The Rock at the end (that pairing would becoming iconic in little time). Mick Foley's three personalities (Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love) all entering at different times was hilarious too.
-The finale, Shawn Michaels vs. Undertaker, is a bit of a letdown match-wise but somewhat redeemed by the Undertaker/Kane angle. Much like Hart/Undertaker a few events ago was more of a "push" for Michaels, this match's main purposes seems to be the push for the "brotherly rivalry". The casket on fire is a great, memorable image in WWE history.
Overall, the '98 Rumble isn't the greatest of PPVs, but it is entertaining enough to be watchable. The Attitude Era is off and running!
Survivor Series (1997)
Yes, The Screwjob, But Also A Lot Of Positives
The 1997 Survivor Series event will always be primarily remembered for the "Montreal Screwjob". While nothing will change that negative connotation, this event was actually pretty remarkable in terms of signifying some very positive changes within the WWE.
-Kane bursts on to the scene (here battling Mankind), and he will eventually provide Undertaker with a worthy foe (something that had been desperately needed for quite some time). -The New Age Outlaws (Billy Gunn & Road Dogg) really come together here, and they would be a fun pairing in the years to come. -Rocky Maivia (later "The Rock") takes a larger role in the Nation of Domination, presaging his breakout as a singles superstar right around the corner. -Steve Austin wrestles a great rematch with Owen Hart, especially considering Owen had nearly broken his neck with a botched piledriver in their previous matchup. -To be honest, even the Screwjob itself-where Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels, and referee Earl Hebner only knew the true outcome of the match going in-paved one clear way forward. It was morally reprehensible and I would never outright condone such treatment of an icon like Bret Hart, but it led Shawn to D-Generation X (which thrived) and laid the roots for the "Mr. McMahon" character that would increasingly come out from behind the mic in short order.
So, even though the '97 Survivor Series will forever be branded with the controversial decision of its final match, this is truly the best WWE PPV of the previous 2-3 years to that point. The doldrums of the mid-90s seem to be ending as the company ramps up for 1998.
The End Of An Era In Many Ways
Looked at in historical context, SummerSlam 1997 represents the end of an era for the WWE. It would be the last time that Bret Hart would leave an arena victorious (at least for a very long time) for the company, and after 2-3 years of transition events the WWE is about to enter the Attitude Era. As this event stands, however, it ends up being more of a place-holder than anything.
A few comments...
The first match of the card (HHH/Mankind in a steel cage) might just be the overall best, with Mankind getting in some tremendous bumps and even showing some different personas that would define his character going forward.
The Owen Hart/Stone Cold match is pretty solid up until the ending, when Owen delivers a botched piledriver and momentarily paralyzes Austin, leading to not only an awkward match conclusion but extensive real-life neck issues that would plague Austin for the rest of his WWE career.
The Bret Hart/Undertaker finale is okay, I guess, but really seems more like a place-holder again for the re-animation of the Hart/Shawn Michaels feud that would come to a (memorable) head later in the year. In other words, Undertaker was a holding tank to extend the Hart/Michaels heat. He plays the part well, but it ends up seeming a bit like a "thrown together" pairing.
With the benefit of hindsight, this event looks worse than it probably did at the time. Watching it now, however, mainly just reminds me how much-improved the product would quickly become in the near future.
King of the Ring (1997)
Pretty Pedestrian All The Way Around
As the WWE moved into the middle months of 1997, they faced a bit of a clashing of styles. Despite finally building up a roster of players that was pretty solid, they were still using old-school formulas to pair them up. In a few years, this would all change: Stone Cold would become the beer-swigging everyman, The Rock would be Mr. Cool, and the McMahon itself would even take center stage. Like it or hate it, I would argue that was a much needed shake-up because of what we see in events like King of the Ring 1997: Great talent in boring match pairings.
Let's look at a few of them:
-HHH beating Mankind for the KOTR mantra. "HHH" was not yet the more interesting "Triple-H" character, while Mankind had yet to sprout his different personalities. As a result, this is just a typical match between two good ring athletes, with little to no heat behind it. -Michaels/Austin suffers from the fact that for whatever reason, that pairing doesn't quite work as well as Austin/Hart (as seen at WrestleMania 13). These two were the top superstars in the game at the time, but again really didn't have any angles to play off of. Once again: a solid match with little hype. -Featuring Faarooq in any sort of main event is a bit ridiculous, but at the same time the WWE was running out of opponents to pair with Undertaker. It wouldn't be until Kane came along later that 'Taker really got a compelling opponent.
So, KOTR '97 is a bit odd in that it features a very solid stable of talent, yet with most of those figures not reaching (or being allowed to reach) their full potential. A straight-down-the-middle 5-star rating is the result.
A Goofy Movie (1995)
A Solid Cartoon Flick At A Fascinating Time
When it comes to animated cartoon features, the delineating line is now almost as simple as "pre-Toy Story" and "post-Toy Story". Before that Disney-Pixar team-up cartoons in theaters were for kids and kids alone. Young kids, at that. What Toy Story proved, however, is that an animated flick could transcend that boundary and appeal to adults as well as children.
Just 6-7 or so scant months before Toy Story changed everything, A Goofy Movie premiered and largely got "lost in the shuffle", I believe. Had it dropped a bit later, perhaps it could have better captured the momentum. As it was, A Goofy Movie transfixed pre-teen adolescent audiences--including yours truly--for a (very) short time with its odd-yet-winning mix of music, humor, family relationships, and shenanigans.
For a basic plot summary, this story tells the story of Max (Jason Marsden), son of the infamous Goofy (Bill Farmer), going through his adolescence. Despite being extremely self-conscious of his appearance and gulp-like chuckle, he strives to win the attention of Roxanne (Kellie Martin). Just when things seem to be looking up on that front, Dad Goofy decides to take him on a weeks-long, father-son fishing excursion across the country. Max promises Roxanne he's going to the Driveline concert--the most popular band ever!--setting himself up for a tangled web of decisions and emotions out on the open road with Pops.
I know it sounds ridiculous considering this a cartoon starring Goofy, but I honestly believe this little film (about 78 minutes in total) could be watched 100 years from now and still have the same effect on viewers. I truly don't think this is a case of me suffering from "90s nostalgia" and rating this film higher because "I liked it as a kid".
The beginning of the film feels very much High School Musical-esque, with teen drama taking center stage. I don't care if it's 1995 or 2025, the concept of awkward teen boy trying to talk to/impress equally awkward teen girl is universal. The same can be said for when Max and Goofy hit the road together, as the tenuous relationship between pre-teen son and goofball father is once again ageless. Whether through great writing/directing or pure dumb luck, this movie stumbles upon a gold mine of relevant themes.
Like I said, if only Disney knew what they potential had at this point. No self-respecting adult would have willingly sat through this in theaters at the time (there was no precedent for that), and Disney had not yet figured out how to market such fare to wide audiences either. As a result, the movie gets sucked into a sort of "black hole" of quality content that had an extremely short shelf life.
The bottom line, though, is this: I watched A Goofy Movie while I was still in grade school and loved it. I watched it as a 33-year old adult...and still enjoyed it. All things considered, I view that as a remarkable achievement. Sadly, only those within a year or two (at most) proximity to myself will have any real knowledge/appreciation of this movie, but that set will show it to their children at some point, I can almost guarantee you that!