Movie Review: “Pelotero” (Ross Finkel/Trevor Martin/Jonathan Paley, USA/Dominican Republic 2011)

Major League Baseball has for many years received a considerable amount of talent from the Dominican Republic. The system whereby they are signed is at best very far short of perfect and at worst outright exploitative, not to mention quite unfair competitively. This film exposes some of the ugliest elements of the system. It should be noted that the system has changed a bit since when the film is set, but not enough that the problems it sees are assuaged.

Pelotero follows two Dominican prospects, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, as they go through the process of signing with MLB teams when first eligible. MLB’s rules only allow players to sign after turning 16 and fix the first eligibility date as June 2, making every player eligible and the first June 2 after his 16th birthday. Because teams place a high premium on youth and have limited international budgets, the top prospects are 16-year-olds who sign immediately on June 2. The competition among teams has led to high costs in signing the players (pricing the lower-budget teams out of signing the top prospects) and a very strong incentive for players to lie about their ages or even complete identities, the latter of which has led to countless scandals over the years.

This film examines the issues through following its two prospects. Sano is considered one of the top prospects in recent memory, and we get a good look at the 15 year old who turns 16 just in time for signing, a poor kid who is surrounded by his family, an agent, and a trainer. He’s rather immature (big shock), but is also an incredible athlete whose trainer and agent seem to be taking good care of him. Then, a scout from the Pirates suddenly says, “He doesn’t seem like a kid. The maturity. The way he talks to you. So, that’s a concern.” As a result, MLB begins investigating his age, performing DNA tests, bone tests, and records searches that all agree with his family’s story that he is 16, but, after months of investigation that cost Sano his chance to sign on June 2, MLB still considers his age “inconclusive.”

Most teams refuse to sign Sano because of the age questions, but the question about his age really seems to exist only because one scout from a small market team desperate to sign the top prospect implausibly claimed that the kid seemed too mature for 16, against all evidence the film has shown so far. It’s a fascinating and rather depressing picture of how corrupt the baseball system can be with Dominican players and how difficult it can be for them to make it through the system in tact even when they haven’t done anything wrong. We see his family try every method it can of proving his age and do everything MLB asks of them, only to have MLB announce that its results are inconclusive and one scout insist that he’s the kid’s only hope. It’s ugly, but it’s the type of mess that we rarely get a chance to see from the player’s perspective, and this film gives us a shot at it.

Meanwhile, Batista is an almost disturbingly serious kid who works hard and is a good prospect but nowhere near Sano’s level, and yet apparently through most of the process no one questioned his age. Then, when the best offer he got was for $450 000 instead of the $1.5 million he was expecting, he turned it down and waited for a new offer. MLB then decided to investigate him as well and came back with the same “inconclusive” result. However, his trainer decided to investigate on his own and quickly (so quickly that it really makes MLB’s investigation questionable at best) finds that he was the same age in two elementary school grades and then his mother admits to lying about his age.

The film does an excellent job of presenting these two players, the desperate situation they are in, and the trials and tribulations of the signing process. It also absolutely destroys any pretense of impartiality or competence by MLB’s investigations unit, which took far too long to investigate both kids and came out with nonsensical “inconclusive” results in both cases. I also don’t see any sign anywhere that the film cheated journalistically, though MLB has refused to say anything in response to it.

Visually, the film thankfully avoids the traditional sports documentary pitfalls. It presents its story very plainly and simply, without graphics and other visual tricks and with only a small amount of narration. It’s not visually stunning, but it’s a good, smart look that allows the story to shine and lets it stand apart from most sports documentaries. My biggest issue was with the insistence on showing subtitles for everyone with a Spanish-language accent, regardless of how clearly they spoke–it was a bit distracting and annoying.

All told, this is an interesting film that works either as an absolute takedown of MLB’s system in the Dominican Republic or as a human interest story about two desperate families who need their children to help them to escape poverty through baseball but run into road blocks along the way.

Movie Review: “Trouble with the Curve” (Robert Lorenz, USA 2012)

Let’s start this with what should be an uncontroversial statement: Clint Eastwood is not and never has been a good actor. He has spent his entire career playing the same thing: tough, grouchy (often to the point of being vicious), solitary men who, underneath the harsh exterior, have hearts of gold. From the beginning of the Man with No Name’s trilogy in 1964 to this film, Eastwood has really never tried to do anything else. The only difference between his recent work and his work from nearly a half-century ago is that he now spews seemingly innocuous bile and bizarre old-age jokes to create his own comic relief. Now, there is certainly a good point about that: He at least recognizes the limits of his talents and stops short of stretching himself places he’s not capable of going (except apparently the Republican National Convention). However, the fact that he has become such an iconic “actor” and been rewarded with two Best Actor Oscar nominations is frankly disturbing.

In Trouble with the Curve, Eastwood’s first performance in a film he did not direct himself since In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, USA 1993), he does not stretch himself any further. The same attempts of humor that populated his over-celebrated performance in Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, USA/Germany 2008) populate this film, and remain the only things separating him from the ’60s westerns that made him famous. He plays an old baseball scout with failing eyesight who is watching his job slowly disappear under the onslaught of computers and statistics (one of the many baseball stupidities in this film). Eastwood is a perfect casting decision, but also one who is not going to add anything to the film, which is, in a way, emblematic of the film’s myriad problems.

This is the type of film that always bothers me, because its strengths are mostly masked by glaring flaws that should have been obvious early on but may even have been added along the way. Fundamentally, the film’s biggest problem is that it has no idea what it’s about. Consider the plots that the film attempts:

  • An aging baseball scout, seeing his job slowly replaced by computers and statistics in the modern world, makes his last stand.
  • An aging baseball scout, obsessed with his job above all else, discovers that his eyesight is going and attempts to work through the job nonetheless.
  • A 33-year-old lawyer whose life otherwise appears to be coming together finds out that her father is gravely ill and so attempts to repair their long-broken relationship.
  • A long-absent father and his daughter find themselves trapped together on a road trip by circumstances, with a dark secret from their past haunting their every conversation.
  • A lawyer finds herself in a relationship that, while it sounds good on paper, has no feeling and finds herself irresistibly (and supposedly inexplicably, though he is of course incredibly good looking) attracted to someone who does not fit her schema for life.
  • Two young people who are connected only through their connection to one man, the woman’s biological father who was always absent and the man’s surrogate father to whom he had no biological connection, fall in love.

That’s six films, not one. When you try to tell all of these stories at once, what you actually do is tell a very thin, surface-level version of each, robbing it of all of the depth and emotional power it could have had. Further, look at those stories. Is this movie about the father, the daughter, their relationship, or the daughter’s other relationship? Using multiple plots like this can work if there is a single narrative thread, but a single thread isn’t here, so it doesn’t work.

It’s easy to see how the plots could have happened: the aging baseball scout losing his job to computers and stats mirrors the daughter’s change of relationships from the good-on-paper-but-passionless relationship to the opposite, the foil of the players he’s carefully mentored to the daughter he ignored emphasizes what he’s done with her, the fact that Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake playing the younger roles means that they are going to have to have a romance, and there needs to be some reason besides just being a bastard that the old man didn’t care for his daughter (after all, Eastwood can’t really be a bad guy). It could easily be that writer Randy Brown began with a screenplay telling any one of those stories and telling it well and then had these things added along the way for the sake of family-friendliness and/or commercialism (particularly the Adams/Timberlake romance). Someone should have realized that the film was way off course at some point–hell, Eastwood himself, for all his faults as an actor, is a very talented director who should have recognized the problems (though admittedly focus has been a problem of some of his films as well)–but it apparently never happened.

Visually, the film is actually a bit better than it deserves. It works on a full, saturated color palette that really fits the whole baseball story perfectly and while Robert Lorenz couldn’t be said to have done anything particularly interesting, that once-common look is now relatively rare in modern filmmaking and he certainly doesn’t do anything else that takes away from it. It’s not the most visually creative film, but it’s far from bad. Long-time Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern and Lorenz deserve some credit for at least doing that much, especially considering the derision that Lorenz and Randy Brown deserve for so much of the film.

The only actors other than Eastwood with significant screen time are Amy Adams, who is really pretty bad in her performance, keeping a lightness and effervescence that does not befit the character. Meanwhile, that same type of lightness and effervescence is perfect for Justin Timberlake’s character, and he fits that perfectly. His charm and charisma are a perfect fit and he handles a simple role. The film doesn’t expect much of anyone except Adams, and she unfortunately fails.

And of course, no baseball film would be complete without making some ridiculous baseball mistakes. Eastwood is supposed to be scouting a high school baseball player (who is apparently playing the busiest high school schedule ever) the team wants to draft first overall. The “stats guy” (another problem: no one believes in reading stats out and ignoring scouting completely) and younger scout Timberlake both compare him to Albert Pujols and he’s a fat kid playing third base, but then the stats guy calls him a five-tool player. No corner player goes first in the draft, because there’s a limit to the upside of any such player and no high school third baseman can be considered someone who may have plus speed and defense. A left-handed pitcher with decent mechanics gets compared to Sandy Koufax as though that’s a good thing. Koufax had terrible mechanics and that’s why he flamed out young in spite of his unbelievable greatness.  He also gets compared to Randy Johnson for his fastball when Johnson’s success was in fact almost entirely dependent on his slider. The Red Sox decide to pass on the kid they had ranked first for the draft based on the fact that a scout from another organization said, “He can’t hit the curve” and apparently the Sox have no interest in stats (which is of course the opposite of reality–the Red Sox are, along with the Rays and the Astros, perhaps the most SABR-friendly team in baseball). (This is really just scratching the surface. Over at his blog the Dish, baseball writer Keith Law called the film “an insult to anyone who works in the baseball industry.”)

Overall, this is a frustratingly bad movie with a lot of flaws. Not worth seeing.

Movie Review: “Knuckleball!” (Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg, USA 2012)

I don’t really like reviewing documentaries, particularly when I don’t find them particularly compelling. The reason is that they’re very difficult to judge and really quite different from non-documentary films, because they also require some fidelity to truth–they have to be held to journalistic standards as well as artistic ones, and there are only so many subjects on which I have enough knowledge to be able to make journalistic determinations. So, I have to do at least a little bit of research before I feel comfortable saying anything at all about a documentary. I read plenty of what I could find about Rodriguez after watching Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK 2012), so that I could feel reasonably confident that the film was presenting reality. For this film, I luckily don’t have to do research, because I know plenty about baseball already.

More importantly, this documentary isn’t even sure what it’s about, so I would have no idea what to research if I wanted to. The title suggests that it’s a documentary about the knuckleball, a rare and rather bizarre pitch that has been in use in baseball since the early 20th century but never been the most popular pitch. Fascination with the knuckleball has grown in the last few years with the rise of R.A. Dickey, who is one of the most well-spoken and interesting players in Major League Baseball, as a Cy Young award winner while throwing the knuckleball. One could make a film about the knuckleball examining issues like what its movement actually is and why it has never been terribly popular despite quite a few very successful practitioners in history (Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Joe and Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Eddie Cicotte, just to name a few), and it could be very interesting.

However, Stern and Sundberg seem to be using the knuckleball simply as an excuse to tie together two otherwise unconnected stories: the career of R.A. Dickey and the career of Tim Wakefield. They are two interesting and well-liked players (and Dickey is a pleasure to hear almost any time–he’s well-spoken and has lots of great stereotypical nerd interests) and Wakefield was leaving the game just as Dickey rose from relative obscurity to prominence throwing the same pitch that had been Wakefield’s bread and butter for so many years, but it seems odd to title the film Knuckleball! and then barely talk about the pitch itself.

Even within its narrative about the two pitchers, the film feels very uneven. It spends a lot of time talking about Wakefield’s search for his 200th career win, but Dickey instead is mostly seen attempting to find his way out of a terrible slump. We see Dickey talking to other knuckleball specialists (Hough, the Niekros, and Wakefield) and talking a ton about how traditional pitching coaches don’t know how to help, but his career is covered very briefly. Meanwhile, Wakefield gets a long tribute that focuses on his successes, built around his ultimately successful quest for 200 wins.

All of this unevenness makes the film end up feeling like Stern and Sundberg wanted to make a documentary just about Wakefield’s final season but realized they needed to fill more time and so added in some stuff with Dickey. It’s unfortunate, because a serious examination of the knuckleball would be fascinating, and many of the issues that would be worth exploring get mentioned but not explored because of the nature of this film.

Visually, Stern and Sundberg fall into the traditions of sports documentaries, using simple interview shots and lots of montages that include far too many extra images of things like schedules and statlines. It’s a style that I’ve frankly never favored anyway, and it’s now been so overused as to lose any interesting elements it may once have had. The biggest positive of ESPN’s now fairly long-running 30 for 30 series has been its willingness to look a bit different–to let its directors run with some different techniques than the interview-montage back-and-forth and overuse of dull graphics that characterizes most of the field, and this film frankly reminded me of what a breath of fresh air some of those films have been because of that distinction.

However, the film does seem to play fair with the facts. It doesn’t gloss over Wakefield’s failures in his quest or ignore that he was demoted to the bullpen at the start of his last season. It doesn’t pretend that the longtime decent pitcher was released from the Pirates for no apparent reason but rather admits that he had a terrible season that led to his release. It doesn’t ignore Dickey’s struggles after his breakout (in fact it arguably makes Dickey look worse than he actually is). The problems with this film are all artistic, not journalistic.

Overall, this isn’t a very interesting film. It starts with what should be an interesting subject, but goes in a very dull way with it and ends up being something only of interest to a major Tim Wakefield fan. It’s a missed opportunity, which is too bad for viewers. It won’t make you sorry you spent an hour and a half watching it if you’re interested in Wakefield, but it won’t draw you in otherwise.