Though baseball is, arguably, no longer the National Pastime, Judge Bill Gibron thinks this independent film about a sick, sadistic player of the sport might deserve a place in Cooperstown.
A diamond in the Devil's eye
Bret Packard is a great baseball player. He's the Carolina Devils' star attraction, and is on the verge of breaking the record for most consecutive games played. He's fabulously wealthy, married to a stunning, statuesque wife, and dotes on his son with wide-eyed affection. He is also an intensely angry, unbelievably evil man. A life of privilege and unforced hero worship has lead to a callous, jaded view of humanity, and since he can't seem to connect with the people who praise and pamper him, he decides to destroy them. One by one, he begins the process of undermining his teammates. He makes secret deals with the pitchers. He pressures the new recruit into committing adultery. He seduces his teenage babysitter and flaunts his various mistresses and girlfriends. But when the team hits a slump, and a new age consultant is brought in, Packard's place in the pecking order is threatened. It may take an extreme act of violence before he realizes what a mess he has made of his life, his career, and the sport itself—indeed, the whole Ball of Wax.
Ball of Wax is a quite accomplished, incredibly provocative drama that drains all the mythos and majesty out of your typical sports film, only to replace it with vitriol, vice, and a clear sense of cinematic vision. Noting that all professional athletic entertainments are filled with less than virtuous villains (and some antiseptic, amoral wimps as well), filmmaker Daniel Kraus has crafted something quite unusual for a low budget exercise—a small film that plays like a big time major studio effort, albeit one with a lot more balls and bravado than what Tinseltown can concoct.
Though many will see through its limitations and lament the lack of a true hero to root for, and there is an ignominious air of hubris draped over the entire mindset of everything connected to this project, Ball of Wax is still a fascinating, fierce character study that pulls very few punches. It manages to touch us by tapping into our already existent ideas about what goes on inside the dugouts and clubhouses of most major league squads. That it also turns up the wickedness is either frightening foresight, or envious wishful thinking.
Certainly, there are moments when writer/director/editor Daniel Kraus should have known he was trading in cliché and formula. When we see the babysitter give Packard a sly, schoolgirl nod, we just know they will be knocking boots before too long. The country sh*t-kicker pitcher who needs Packard as an ally is so staunch and upright in his tightly-wound wounded quality that you instantly realize he's doomed to a self-destructive end. And when the touchy-feely motivational coach Bob Tower arrives on the scene, spiel perfectly prepared and speech modulated for maximum impact, the dressing down from our lead is not only inevitable, but warranted.
Indeed, had Kraus found a way to continue with the cynical manipulation of Brett Packard, to make his brand of controlled chaos necessary to the elements, not just a cheap dramatic thrill, Ball of Wax would have been beyond great. It would have explained sports as incisively as it destroys them. Yet as it stands, this is still a beautifully written piece, almost flawlessly executed by cast and crew.
Kraus is a filmmaker of note, not only for the power in his words, but the invention in his images. At times it's hard to fathom that this is the same person who helmed the mondo documentary Jefftowne (about a boy with Downs Syndrome). Unlike typical directors, Kraus experiments with form and composition, letting actors drift off frame while speaking, using unusual angles to accentuate certain scenes and dialogue beats. There are a few scenes when characters are speaking, but what we really want to see is the reaction from Packard, or whomever is being spoken to. Yet Kraus keeps the camera locked, letting our imagination work overtime in wondering what telltale response is coming from the co-star.
Even though this is a digital enterprise, Kraus makes the most of the transfer to film, giving Ball of Wax a very cinematic and epic look. Long shots are mixed in with those off-kilter close-ups, and the lighting is as evocative and telling as the dialogue. Add in the pitch-perfect performances (indie actor Mark Mench is spectacular here, combining charm with personal poison expertly), and you've got a film that invites you in, and then tests your narrative and character tenacity all the way throughout.
Indeed, Kraus is more or less commenting on the current state of sports with this film, an unflinching look at people who appear so disconnected from reality that they have to invent their own, perverted one. The players featured (most are just names and costume design) come across as insular and disengaged, answering the pre-game questions with standard, store-bought truisms. Baseball is viewed as less of a national pastime, and more of a frat house where everyone makes millions—and their own rules.
Packard's omnipresent manipulation is analogous to those players (A-Rod, Barry Bonds) who seem to stand apart from their teammates even as they function as part of a supposed unit. They control their own destiny, and by indirect measure, the fates of all those around them. In essence, Ball of Wax is not about sport as a business, or competition as a right of personal passage. Instead, it wants to delve into the mindset of someone who earns obscene amounts of money for having a superlative skill, and how such a superman complex can corrupt even the most hardworking, dedicated individual.
As to its technical merits, Ball of Wax is given a pleasant, professional sheen by Go Kart Films. Visually, the movie is a stunner, a pristine example of how the new modern digital filmmaking style can be married to traditional film ideals to create an innovative, exciting combination. The movie was shot on the cheap with handheld DAT cameras. The transfer over to film creates a sense of unreality, a feeling that we are looking at this movie through our own veil of ignorance and disbelief. The colors are softly saturated, the details fuzzy but still distinct. About the only invalid aspect of this entire undertaking is the lack of an anamorphic image. The 1.85:1 letterboxing preserves Kraus's framing and compositions, but the lack of a 16x9 option will annoy home theater enthusiasts to no end.
On the sound side, Ball of Wax combines a nice, nuanced mix of music and dialogue, neither one lost in the Dolby Digital Stereo presentation. The score deserves special recognition, as ex-Archers of Loaf member Eric Bachmann melds folk and fatalism to underlie all the themes Kraus is interested in. The specific songs are terrific, as are the various bits that work as sonic signatures for many of the characters. With its warm, insular envelope of auditory expertise, this is a fine acoustic offering.
Go Kart, while still a young upstart, is trying its best to better the Bigs by providing their own content heavy packages, and Ball of Wax is no different. Among the extras are three deleted scenes (involving a panel discussion, a montage from a baseball card photo shoot, and a scene where Packard reads to his son—none are definitive), an audition tape, and a film festival Q&A. It is interesting to hear fan reaction during the confab, since many seem lost as to why Kraus would make a sports movie this way. Some of the answers to their concerns do come in the accompanying full-length audio commentary.
Actor Mark Mench joins the director, and the two discuss the elements that went into, and helped define, the Ball of Wax universe. Though Kraus claims the movie is full of secrets and hidden moments, they appear incredibly obvious when he mentions them here. In reality, he apparently wants to talk down to his intended audience (Go Kart tends to skew on the 15 to 30 year old side of the demographic), inferring that they may not be bright enough to pick up on all his tricks. All odd attitude aside, we learn a lot about the Wilmington, North Carolina location and the conflicting aspects of working alongside such Hollywood productions as Dawson's Creek and Martin Lawrence's Black Knight. Overall, this is a genial, insightful discussion that may not make the movie itself any more profound or prophetic, but does allow us to see inside this filmmaker, and this particular actor's, creative process. Along with a gallery of stills and a three-minute piece from NPR on Bachmann's music, this is a well put together DVD package.
Ball of Wax may not feed your need for athletics as an allegory for life, unless you consider corruption and antipathy to be a part of your everyday world. But as a nicely realized nod to the closed-off conceit of a career in professional sports, married to one helluva misguided man, you can't ask for a better drama. Daniel Kraus and his talented cast and crew knock this one out of the park. Ball of Wax is an All-Star of an independent film.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Go Kart Films
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