Category: Sports Drama


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(A quick aside before I begin the review proper. I watched this movie in the wee hours of Monday/Tuesday morning. I haven’t had a chance to review it yet because I went out and partied on Tuesday and was hung over the entirety of Wednesday. Anyways, if my review isn’t up to my usual standards [particularly my recent reviews of Into the Wild or Melancholia], that’s why. My apologies.)

Finally! After over three years of waiting, one of my goals for this blog has finally come true. After three years of review films, I think it’s safe to say that my understanding and appreciation of cinema has deepened and my taste in movies has certainly matured since I was in high school. And one of my goals for this blog was to find a movie that I had watched for the first time when I was much younger that is supposed to be a “classic” but that I simply didn’t enjoy and finally understand why it’s held in such high regard and enjoy it as much as everyone else.

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Vertigo is the closest I’ve come although I still find the first 2/3 of that film to be an insufferable bore (thankfully, it’s last act is perfection). My viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia for this blog were marked by an appreciation of the films’ technical merits but no real pleasure (once again, still think they’re mostly insufferable bores). When I was in high school, I didn’t get the hype surrounding Raging Bull at all, and I’ve long thought that De Niro only won his Oscar because he gained 60 pounds during the film’s shoot. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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All of the other “classics” that I’m still yet to warm to beyond their technical merits have consistently suffered from what I view as a deficiency of compelling character. Lawrence of Arabia is interesting as a historical document (though skewed towards the notion of British exceptionalism) and a phenomenal bit of epic filmmaking, but the film has nothing to say about why T.H. Lawrence is such a legendary and endlessly fascinating figure. And I’m actually unsure if 2001 has anything interesting to say whatsoever. But, if there’s ever been a more intense portrait of desperate, wounded masculinity than Raging Bull, I don’t know what it is.

Scorsese is famous for his gritty, stylistic crime thrillers but anyone who’s seen The Age of Innocence or Taxi Driver (or even the recent The Wolf of Wall Street) knows that his real talents lie in burrowing into the heart of his characters; his most famous films simply combine great characters with iconoclastic style. The ultimate sacrifice of his own happiness that Newland makes in The Age of Innocence is one of the most moving and powerful arcs of Scorsese’s career. And by casting aside the typical tale of good guys and bad guys for Raging Bull, Scorsese lets us see the full force of his understanding of character in one of his most memorable “heroes,” the real life boxer, Jake La Motta (Silver Lining Playbook‘s Robert De Niro).

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Based on La Motta’s (ghost-written) autobiography, Raging Bull takes a look into the La Motta’s rise to boxing world champion as well as the ultimate self-destruction that rules every step of his life. Managed by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who only seems kept together in comparison to Jake, the film begins when a 19 year old Jake La Motta loses his first boxing fight by decision. In an unhappy marriage (Jake has a major Madonna/Whore complex), Jake meets the 15 year old Vicky (Casper‘s Cathy Moriarty), and he instantly falls for the virginal beauty. But, the two’s marriage  only leads to heartbreak and destruction for both.

With the possible exception of Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth, there has never been a male lead in the cinema as insanely jealous and aggressive as Jake La Motta. What’s more astounding is the extent to which Jake himself owns up to and wished to atone for his outrageous behavior. Jake is sweet and tender with Vicky until they get married and sleep together. And from that point forward, he’ll beat and harass her if she so much as looks at another man. At one point in the film, she referred to another boxer as a good looking man  and Jake beats him so viciously in their next match that he’ll never be good looking again.

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And, at the end of the day, Raging Bull is an attempt by Martin Scorsese to explore the dichotomy of Jake’s violent and brutal presence in the ring (and how said violence makes him successful as a boxer) and that same violence and brutality destroying his personal life. Jake becomes convinced that his brother is sleeping with Vickie just because Joey beat a mobster outside a club to protect Jake’s honor. And so Jake beats Joey within an inch of his life. And although that toughness means Jake can stand toe to toe with Sugar Ray Robinson, it makes him an awful husband and a generally terrible human being.

And Robert De Niro’s performance makes this film. On some level, I still question if the film is as deep and definitive of overt masculine desperation as it makes itself out to be or if Robert De Niro is just that good. Regardless of the answer to that question, De Niro gives one of the finest performances of his iconic career as Jake La Motta. There’s a scene later in the film where La Motta’s been arrested and is thrown in jail, and the animalistic ferocity of De Niro’s performance is one of the most intensely acted scenes in film history, and the rest of the movie lives up to that high standard. To be honest, him gaining the 60 lbs. himself seems like an unnecessary stunt when his performance alone carries the film.

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The film’s cinematography is as brutal and unforgiving as the movie’s script. Trust me when I say you haven’t seen a boxing movie like this before. Replacing the “boxing ballet” of titles like Rocky with buckets of blood and in-your-face camera angles, Raging Bull makes you feel every punch and every cut. In fact, Raging Bull goes beyond reality unless Jake La Motta’s final bout against Sugar Ray Robinson is really as bloody as this film suggests (which is to say that by the end, Jake looked like Sloth from The Goonies). And the gorgeous black & white cinematography fits just as well for the domestic segments though they are nearly as brutal and terrifying as the boxing sections (which is what makes Raging Bull such a classic).

Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty both shine in some of the earlier roles of their career (I might be wrong, but I think this was Moriarty’s first role). Vickie is less a character in her own right and more a bounce board for Jake’s insane rage. And her lack of depth is probably the sole reason I’m not giving this film perfect marks (spoiler). But, Cathy Moriarty works wonders with what she’s given, and of course, Joe Pesci is always your go to man if you need a small guy with an insane presence and a hair-trigger temper. The role isn’t as substantive as his parts in Goodfellas or Casino (I know I’m one of the latter’s few defenders), but he steals every scene he’s in as usual.

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As I said, I watched this film several days ago, and I’m at work and I just need to draw this review to a premature close. Raging Bull is clearly one of the great films of the 1980s which was sadly something of a dry period for great American cinema (the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate essentially ended the New Hollywood era of the 60s and 70s), and while I wouldn’t put it over the top of Taxi Driver as Scorsese’s best film (or even the flawed Gangs of New York for that matter), it is one of the great portraits of American masculinity and a must-see for all film lovers.

Final Score: A

 

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(a side note before my actual review. My streak of reviewing a disproportionately large number of great films continues. I am not complaining)

When I first saw Oliver Stone’s football epic, Any Given Sunday, back when it was released in 1999, I was unprepared for the complexity and maturity of this masterful film’s storytelling. I enjoyed the movie even then (it broke the mold of your typical sports story that I was tired of even at the age of 10), but it was a film with so much going on underneath the surface that it’s sort of a miracle that a blockbuster like this was even allowed to be made in the first place. It’s weird, in retrospect, that this was the first Oliver Stone film I ever watched considering the man’s large and diverse body of work (and it’s sad that this was probably Stone’s last great film). Though Any Given Sunday may not have the grand political ambitions of Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July, it’s still a powerful and multi-layered film that achieves the rare Stone feat of also being highly accessible.

I call the film accessible because at the end of the day, if you don’t have the patience for the film’s darker subtexts, it’s still a rousing and hard-hitting football drama (which subverts many sports film stereotypes at every turn). But, the power and enduring strength of the film comes from it’s almost apocalyptic outlook on the world of professional football. The film is so dark and unyielding that it still sort of blows my mind that I didn’t pick up on it even as a kid. A man pushes himself to the brink of paralysis for a chance at a signing bonus. A player gets his eye knocked out of the back of his head during a particularly brutal hit. The coach visits hookers. The typical “back up quarterback called into the spotlight” turns into an egocentric gloryhound. A young owner is ruthless in her quest for the almighty dollar but she’s right in her criticism of the old-fashioned nature of the more “morally grounded” coach. The film is harsh in its realistic portrayal of the game.

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In an alternate universe where a second professional football league doesn’t quite rival the NFL but still generates plenty of money, the Miami Sharks have fallen far from their halcyon glory days. Coach Tony D’amato (The Godfather‘s Al Pacino) has lost the fire in his belly, and his old-fashioned dedication to a running game and the basics of football is being torn apart in the face of modern high-powered offenses. To make matters worse, his aging star quarterback Cap Rooney (Dennis Quaid) gets injured during the middle of a four game losing streak at the end of the season while the ruthless young coach, Christina Pagniacci (Being John Malkovich‘s Cameron Diaz), is breathing down his neck looking for any excuse to fire him. When his second string quarterback gets injured in the same game, Tony is forced to rely on untested third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Django Unchained‘s Jamie Foxx) which brings a whole ‘nother set of complications.

It turns out that Willie is a exceptional quarterback. A natural athlete, Willie is as much a threat running as he is passing, and he can read defenses well enough to change plays to shock the other team well enough to get a sneak score. But, Willie’s quick rise to fame goes to his head in the worst way possible, and his own arrogance in his talents begins to alienate him from his teammates even as he’s leading his team to victory. All the while, a slimy team physician (Salvador‘s James Woods) is over-prescribing pain medication and letting injured players stay in the game even though their very lives are at risk because it might be the difference between a loss and victory. As Tony tries to keep his team apart (as Willie’s newfound arrogance starts to tear it apart), the Miami Sharks have a realistic shot at a playoffs berth that may do more damage to the team than if they had simply lost the rest of their games.

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One of the strengths of the film is the bordering on unbelievable depth of its cast. This is easily one of the best performances of the the late period of Pacino’s career and the only one that seems to top it off the top of my head is Glengarry Glen Ross. Tony is world-weary and beaten down and a loser despite the great man people claim he used to be. But, on those rare occasions, we see sparks of the man he could be, and Pacino makes the transitions between those two different Tony’s a magical thing to behold. This was the first performance from Jamie Foxx that gave us a hint that maybe he could be a great actor. And while this isn’t his turn in Collateral or Ray, it was still a hell of a performance from an actor mostly known for light comedic roles at the time. Hell, Oliver Stone manages to even coax a great performance from Cameron Diaz who is a second-rate actress at best.

And, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Alongside his performance in Salvador, I think James Woods part as the unethical team physician is one of the best of his entire career. And it works because it’s clear that Harvey isn’t entirely evil. He honestly believes he’s doing what these players want and what is best for the team even though it violates the Hippocratic oath. Dennis Quaid, another actor that I’m not otherwise overly fond of, shines as the football star who’s over the hill and then some but pushes himself to the breaking point because he doesn’t have any other options in life. And, one of the unsung performances of the film is from real life football legend Lawrence Taylor who more or less plays a fictionalized version of himself in the movie as a football pro with one too many concussions.

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Oliver Stone’s direction has always been peerless (even when his storytelling can be hamfisted and decidedly unsubtle), and Any Given Sunday is no exception. The only other football film I can think of that captures the excitement and energy of football better than Any Given Sunday is the football documentary Undefeated. Utilizing the combination of traditional cinematography and found footage that he pioneered in JFK (an Oliver Stone film I’m still yet to see), Any Given Sunday is a dynamic experience that both places the audience in the glitz and glamor of professional football but it also captures the brutal reality of getting hit by three different 280 pound men at once. I’m actually not sure if football has ever been portrayed this brutally from the perspective of the sheer hell the game puts its players through.

If one can make any complaints about the film, they’d have to be relegated towards its pacing and length. Any Given Sunday is a great film, but it would probably be a better film if it were about twenty minutes shorter. I’m not sure where those cuts could be made. Any Given Sunday is like a house of cards where removing one piece would weaken the whole structure, but I’m sure there’s a way that this tale could have been told more efficiently. By the two and a half hour mark, my patience began to wear slightly thin (so thank god then that the final playoff game climax was so exciting). Also, one bit of the ending seemed at least partially disingenuous because one character’s transformation seemed too neat and upbeat. Although, the final stinger of the film subverts that one last time so maybe I’m over-reacting.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until like 4:30 PM and I hadn’t gone to bed until like 7 AM), and I want to finish the second season of Star Trek. I also need to watch Eve’s Bayou before it leaves my Netflix Instant queue. So, I’ll leave you with these parting thoughts. I’m not sure if I can think of a non-documentary football film that’s better than Any Given Sunday (that specification rules out Go Tigers! and Undefeated). It was Oliver Stone’s last great film and arguably his last good film, period. If you have even a passing interest in the game, Any Given Sunday is a must-see film for its condemnation of the infiltration of money and greed into professional sports. As a scathing indictment of the narcissism that sadly rules the pros today, Any Given Sunday is an unqualified success story.

Final Score: A-

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Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.

Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.

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After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.

When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.

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This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.

And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.

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The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer  is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.

If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.

Final Score: A-

 

(Quick aside before the real review. I watched this Sunday evening I believe although it might have actually been Saturday. School started this week. It’s my final year at WVU. Which I can’t even freaking believe. Of course, I’m a 6th year senior so it’s not my first “last” year. Anyways, I watched this a while ago so forgive me if my details are spotty)

It is impossible to take on films deemed as classics with the same level of objectivity you can use for lesser known works. You compare them to the films from the same era that got less attention (even if, maybe, they deserved more). You (subconsciously or totally aware) place the film within a context of sophistication that you’ve come to expect from modern cinema. Simple things like hype or hearing everyone talk about how great a film can often create expectations that are impossible to live up to. In the past on this blog, I’ve referred to that last phenomena as the Juno effect. 1976’s Rocky is the original sports underdog story. And while it can’t be blamed for creating all of the staid sports cliches that clog our cinemas every year, time hasn’t done Sylvester Stallone’s debut any favors. If you’re looking for an easy to enjoy film, Rocky is it, but greatness isn’t a word that shouldn’t be used in conjunction with this Best Picture winner.

As arguably the most famous sports film ever made, Rocky‘s story is known by virtually all and has inspired a legion of imitators. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a sad-sack bum, a nobody boxer who pays the rent by busting heads for a local loan shark. With a crush on his best friend’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky is barely floating through life. He’s even been kicked out of his locker at the local boxing gym by the owner/trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Rocky gets the chance of a lifetime however when world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides to give a local Philadelphia unknown boxer a shot at the title after his original opponent gets injured. When Creed chooses Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa, Rocky has to train for his one shot to make it and to prove to everyone that he’s not a worthless bum.

Sylvester Stallone is not an actor. He might be one of the biggest action stars in the history of Hollywood, but he is not an actor. One can applaud him for writing the script himself for Rocky (and fighting with the studios for years to get it made), but his acting rates somewhere between Corey’s little brother in the finale of Boy Meets World and Sofia Coppola in The Godfather: Part III. That is to say, his performance is an utter trainwreck. Rocky is supposed to be a bit of a meathead, and Sly is himself obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed, but Sylvester Stallone displayed absolutely no emotional range in his performance and it often felt like he was reading his lines from a cue card out of the shot considering how nonchalantly he delivered otherwise critical lines. Talia Shire was nearly as unimpressive as the completely one-dimensional Adrian.

Burgess Meredith and Burt Young stole every scene they were in thankfully. Burgess Meredith was 69 when the film was made, but he had more life and vitality than the film’s actual youthful stars. When he tells Rocky he’s going to “eat lightning and crap thunder,” you believed him. When he called Rocky out for wasting his career as a legbreaker, you felt Rocky’s shame, and when he eats his word to approach Rocky about being his manager for the Apollo Creed fight, you could sense his own regret about his own career. Burt Young was also great as Adrian’s putz of a brother, Paulie. While Rocky is a loser who pulls himself out of the gutter, Paulie is even more pathetic than Rocky, and we see him slowly implode over the course of the film. When he finally spews his rage and despair on Adrian and Rocky, Young truly taps into something heartbreaking and pathetic in Paulie’s character.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler nearly 40 years after the film’s release to say that Rocky loses the fight at the end of the film. When that’s the only unexpected thing to happen in the film (although the fact that he gets the holy hell knocked out of him the entire fight means it’s not really that shocking where the decision goes), the movie will often feel a little cliche. The film runs for roughly two hours, and I applaud it’s decision to devote the first 3/4 of the film to trying to develop Rocky and the environment that spawned him, the movie didn’t do that very well. Why is Rocky such a bum? Why does he have such a terrible opinion of himself? He’s obviously a talented boxer. Where did he go wrong? The film tries to explore his self-esteem issues (as well as those of Adrian’s) but the film instead offers shallow portraits instead of insightful examinations.

The boxing match at the end of the film is certainly one of the most engaging sports scenes in cinema history. If the rest of the film felt too tame or too safe, the climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo is brutal. You get a great look at the hell these men put themselves through because of their own pride and their desire to put on a great show for the crowd. All in all, I enjoy Rocky. It’s a fun movie, but it’s inclusion in the canon of great American cinema is completely unfounded. The fact that this film beat Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men for Best Picture is one of the biggest crimes in the history of the Academy Awards. But que sera, sera. If you come into the film just expecting an easy to enjoy underdog story, you’ll get what you want. Anything else, and you’re setting the bar too high for a film scripted by Sylvester Stallone.

Final Score: B

I’m generally not a huge fan of sports movies (as my reviews of Hoosiers and The Longest Yard can attest). Virtually every sports film ever made is some variation on the underdog story. What separates the great sports movies (This Sporting Life, The Hustler/The Color of Money, Fever Pitch [perhaps only half a sports film as its about being a sports fan but I love it], Rocky, Bull Durham, etc) from the rest of the pack is the skillful ways in which they deviate from this formula. Whether it’s the team/individual failing at the end (Rocky), focusing more on characters than the sport itself (This Sporting Life), or exploring a darker underside of these pastimes (The Hustler), great sports films try to be something a little more than just a narrative-imbued version of a sports game. Maybe I don’t love sports movies because I’m not especially into sports, but if there is one sport that I adore (even if I rarely find the time to watch it), it’s baseball. There’s something peaceful and relaxing about a day at the ballpark (some call it boring) that other sports can’t provide (for me). Aaron Sorkin penned the script of the adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction baseball novel, Moneyball, and like virtually all of Sorkin’s work, this is sharply scripted and mature cinema that even non-sports fans can appreciate.

Moneyball is the true story of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). After the Athletics lost the 2001 ALDS to the New York Yankees (the combined income of the A’s was $37 million to the Yankees $120 million [or something close to that]), Beane realizes that if his destitute and financially strapped A’s are going to be any competition, he’s going to have try something new. While trying to find players to replace their top three guys (who had all jumped ship at the end of the season to the Yankees and the Red Sox), Beane meets Peter Brandt (Superbad‘s Jonah Hill) who was a player analyst for the Cleveland Indians. Pete subscribes to a radical and statistical driven model of baseball that promises to find top-tier talent at bottom-floor prices by ignoring all of the collected wisdom and assumed “common sense” of your average baseball scout. Beane brings Brandt to be his assistant GM, and while they fight scouts and managers who don’t think this new approach has a shot in hell of succeeding, Billy Beane and Peter Brandt set out to turn the baseball world upside down.

What was the magic moment when Brad Pitt stopped suffering from accusations that he was nothing more than overrated pretty boy and became someone that we could without irony call a first-rate actor? Much like Leonardo DiCaprio (though not quite as talented as Leo), Pitt has had to deal with a lot of cynicism about his acting ability since he’s a handsome guy. Fight Club was likely his first stand-out role for me, but the obvious answer to this question would be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which earned Pitt his first Best Actor Oscar nomination (he was nominated for best supporting actor for 12 Monkeys as well). Well, while I’m not quite ready to call his acting her an Oscar-winning caliber performance, he certainly deserves the recognition by the Academy through the nomination he received for the film. Jonah Hill was also nominated for an Oscar, and while I’m at a loss about what was so Oscar-worthy about his performance, it was nice to see just how far he’s come since being the guy buying the goldfish boots in The 40 Year Old Virgin and suckling from a busty woman for 12 hours in Grandma’s Boy. Jonah Hill proved that he can tackle dramatic material as adeptly as he does comedic fare.

Like every script Aaron Sorkin’s written (The Social Network, The American President, and even Studio 60), Moneyball pops with life and intelligence. The film gets into the nitty-gritty and dirty side of baseball, and it’s chock full of technical information and insider details that will make every baseball fan squeal with delight. Yet, Sorkin never lets the film bore you with minutiae (even though there’s plenty of it). Instead, he adds these expository monologues/dialogues into emotionally charged and entertaining moments. If you thought it was impossible to write an engaging scene about a talent scout meeting, you’d be wrong because Sorkin imbues these seemingly small moments with undertones of new school vs. old school, and business versus a love of the game. You see Billy Beane and Pete Brandt trade and cut several different people on the team, and while some directors/writers’ first instinct would be to oversell the moment, Sorkin wisely decides to err on the side of subtlety and nuance. One of the reasons I’ve never been able to stand most sports movies is that they try to beat you over the head with bombastic emotion and carefully guided audience manipulation. Sorkin’s script instead allows the viewers to intellectually engage themselves with the material and come to their own conclusions about whether Billy was right or wrong. There certainly are emotional moments (the streak scenes especially) but the film never makes things too black and white.

Does the film have flaws? Sure, but they’re mostly the kinds of things only occasionally snobby film critics like myself would notice. It’s shot very conventionally. There isn’t much artistry to the cinematography. You place a Sorkin script with Fincher directing (The Social Network) and you get fireworks. Here, Sorkin’s words have to carry the weight of the whole film and since they’re so brilliant they mostly succeed. I just wish the production of the film had been as riveting. Any sports fans should know this is an obviously must-watch film, particularly if you love baseball as much as I do. Even if you aren’t into sports or hate baseball, you don’t get scripts like this very often. I would be very excited to see this movie take home the Oscar for Best Adapated Screenplay (and for Midnight in Paris to win Best Original). Aaron Sorkin reminds us again why he (along with Charlie Kaufman) is one of the all time great script writers, and while this wasn’t the best film of 2011, it was still a truly great one.

Final Score: A-

It’s always interesting to look at artifact’s from our species past that, while considered entertainment during their times, would be considered horrendously brutal and inhumane in modern society. I will always remember the first time I visited the Colosseum in Rome (not to be confused with Morgantown’s basketball stadium) that I was struck with this overwhelming dichotomy of the ancient beauty of the structure and that sense that I was being transported 2000 years into humanity’s past against how much unnecessary violence and bloodshed occurred at that structure daily. Similarly, public executions were a mainstay of 18th and 17th century cultures, yet virtually the entire civilized world (the U.S. sadly excepted) no longer has capital punishment at all, let alone as a form of social entertainment. Bullfighting is one of the most recent crazes that while considered a noble sport for centuries has finally been recognized as unnecessarily cruel and inhumane by most modern societies. The film I just finished, 1951’s The Bullfighter and the Lady, is both a celebration of the bullfighting culture and a stark portrayal of how violent it can be. While it had its moments (and was shockingly violent for its time), the film was ultimately far too satisfied to tell a simple love story and a simple sports story to truly be great.

The Bullfighter and the Lady is the story of a young American movie producer named Johnny Regan (Robert Stack, the TV version of The Untouchables) who becomes enamored with the traditional Mexican sport of bullfighting. After witnessing a day of bullfighting at packed plaza, Johnny approaches legendary torrero Manolo Estrada (Gilbert Roland) and wants to learn how to bullfight. He also meets the beautiful Mexican señorita, Anita de la Vega (Joy Page). Switching back and forth between the blooming romance of Johnny and Anita as well as Johnny’s training in the art of bullfighting from Manolo, The Bullfighter and the Lady gives a detailed (and one would assume realistic) portrayal of the harsh and unforgiving realm of the matador. While Johnny quickly finds that he has a knack for bullfighting, it doesn’t take long before he is given a brutal introduction to what the costs are if you screw up for just one second and a rabid bull has the chance to gore you.

This film did not shy away from violence and brutality that had to be absolutely shocking in the 1950’s. While many of the film’s most brutal scenes may be considered tame by today’s standards, I was still disturbed by quite a few of the gorings and other injuries that the torreros in this film received. You can tell that Budd Boetticher (the director) knew quite a bit about the sport as the camera and the script have a considerable eye for detail. The film can be incredibly slow and boring, especially in the beginning (the end really ratchets things up though), but that is because the film wants to dispel certain preconceptions that American viewers and other non-initiated might have about bullfighting. It wants to create an elaborately detailed and constructed world so that by the end of the film, the audience will know quite a bit more than it did when it began. In that regard, the film is a success though that doesn’t really make it any more entertaining or engaging.

Outside of the surprisingly charismatic Gilbert Roland as Manolo Estrada, the acting in this film was disappointingly wooden and unemotional. The film’s final moments were actually scripted quite well but Robert Stack was able to evoke as much genuine emotion as Keanu Reeves in Speed, which is to say not any. Similarly, there was virtually no romantic chemistry between Johnny and Anita that Stack simply made Johnny come off as a creepy stalker and Anita came off as an attention deficit lover who always changed her mind but never her on-screen face. Also, with the exception of Roland’s Estrada (who was charming and heroic and likeable in a way no one else in the cast could match), all of the Mexican characters seemed unfortunately stereotypical. At one point, Estrada’s wife tells Johnny that she knows what Anita is thinking because she and Anita are both Mexican and all Mexicans think alike. It was sort of offensive, and I’m not Hispanic at all.

The romantic plot of the film was unnecessary and distracted from time that could have been spent on making the bullfighting more emotionally charged and character driven (though the last quarter of the film corrects that problem considerably). I’ve never understood why Hollywood has always felt the need to stick artificial romances onto stories that were fine on their own. Also, the version of this film that I watched was the one on Netflix to “watch instantly” because it had no DVD copy available. This is a “restored” director’s cut of the film which adds another 30 minutes to the production. I only bring this up because you can instantly tell which scenes were in the original and which were added later because the scene’s added later A) contribute nothing to the film and B ) the actual quality of the shot is much worse and more distorted. All in all, this film has some good moments. While bullfighting is brutal and horrific, it is strangely compelling to watch. Sadly, the rest of the film can’t give you a reason to be invested in the fights in the first place.

Final Score: B-

If you were to take the big four American sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) and ask me which sport would make me prefer to have my tonsils taken out again over watching for pleasure, then it would probably be basketball. I’d rather watch women’s golf than sit down for any basketball game that doesn’t involve the West Virginia University Mountaineers (my college). So, maybe that already had me predisposed to dislike the sports classic, Hoosiers, since I can’t enjoy the sport of basketball itself. However, I would be willing to bet large sums of money that even if I were a die-hard cager fan but still had my film critic sensibilities, I would still recognize this film for what it is which is an admittedly entertaining but cliche-ridden example of the cookie-cutter productions that make up 90% of the sports film market. Had the film adhered more closely to the actual story of the 1954 Milan High basketball team perhaps I could have forgiven cliche as truth, but as the film stands, which is a highly fictionalized account of a true story, I can’t help but think its reputation is a little under-deserved.

Hoosiers, playing very loose with the historical facts, is the tale of a small, rural town’s basketball team in the 1950’s. The Hickory Huskers have just lost their old basketball coach, and in steps Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), a former college coach who a national championship but has been blacklisted from coaching college ball for striking a student. With only 7 players when he arrives (one of whom that immediately quits), Norman is facing an uphill battle to turn this small (both in number of players and player size) team into a winning basketball team. Norman’s unfriendly and abrasive attitude doesn’t win him any friends with the local parents and assorted townsfolk that don’t like an out-of-towner stepping in charge of their hometown team. Dale’s problems only escalate when he signs on the alcoholic train-wreck father (Dennis Hopper) of one of his players as the team’s assistant coach. However, Dale slowly starts to shut up the locals when his team starts winning, and it looks like they could go all the way to the state championship.

First things first. Dennis Hopper’s transformation into the alcoholic Shooter was an incredible thing to watch. Along with his role in Blue Velvet, this performance only cements my opinion that Dennis Hopper at his best is one of the finest character actors around. Along with Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, this was just one of the most effective and heart-breaking portrayals of alcoholism that I’ve ever seen on film. While I would still assert that Blue Velvet was his best role (HEINEKEN! FUCK THAT SHIT! PABST BLUE RIBBON! [sorry had to do it]), this was definitely a performance that deserved the Academy Award nomination that he received for the film. Gene Hackman was good in his role although he was basically playing Gene Hackman as a basketball coach. There wasn’t anything especially original about his performance. Don’t get me started on the kids on the team who were uniformly awful actors.

My primary complaint about this film is that I feel like if you stuck a bunch of first year film school students into a room and asked them to come up with a sports film with as many genre conventions as possible, their final result would look something like Hoosiers. Let’s do a check-list. Alcoholic father of a team member finds redemption ala Tim McGraw in Friday Night Lights? Check. Smallest member of the team comes through and makes a game-winning play. Check. They win the big game. Check. The curmudgeonly coach finds his own personal redemption in this rag-tag group of players. Oh yeah. The team always looks like it’s about to lose the game but comes through at the last second. Yep. This film is a living, breathing artifact of sports cliches.

While I enjoyed the film and I’ll admit that I teared up a little bit at the end of the climactic state championship basketball game, I simply can’t get over the fact that film didn’t have an original bone in its body. It also suffered from some of the most egregious Dawson casting of any movie I’ve ever seen as all of the high school kids (except for the short one) all looked like they were in their late 20’s. I can only recommend this to hardcore sports fans, although I would be willing to bet my next paycheck that most of you have already seen Hoosiers since it’s considered a classic of the genre. I would easily recommend other sports films like Million Dollar Baby, This Sporting Life, or the TV version of Friday Night Lights well before I would recommend this particular movie.

Final Score: B-

 

 It took me 99 films but I finally got to a Martin Scorsese film for this blog. He’s always been one of my all time favorite directors and Taxi Driver is one of my five favorite films of all time. As much as I enjoyed The Departed, the Academy chose to reward him for the wrong film when there are at least three other films that he deserved the Best Director honor for more. While I wish that the first Scorsese film that I had reviewed for this blog was a classic like Goodfellas or Gangs of New York, his 1986 sequel, The Color of Money, to the classic Paul Newman pool picture The Hustler was an interesting if flawed character study of an incredibly talented man in the twilight of his life facing the end of his own era. Even if you’ve never seen the original The Hustler (which I haven’t), this is an accessible and interesting film that you might want to give a go.

The Color of Money takes place 20 years after the climactic final pool game of The Hustler where “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman in an Oscar winning turn) finally beat Minnesota Fats and was blacklisted from playing pool again. Now, “Fast” Eddie runs a bar and is a liquor salesman and makes his money by staking young pool talent that catches his eye, like John Turturro in a small cameo role. One day, a young pool shark named Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise) walks into Eddie’s bar along with his girlfriend played by the talented Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It is quickly apparent to Eddy that Vincent is one of the most talented players that he’s seen in years, but he doesn’t have the first clue how to properly make money in a pool room. Eddy takes Vincent under his wings and teaches him the art of the hustle as they make their way across a number of seedy billiard halls training for a big 9 ball tournament held in Atlantic City. Along the way, Vincent learns that sometimes you have to lose to make money and Eddy is bit with the billiards bug that got him in trouble twenty years before.

Paul Newman is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood history. Along with his long time partner, Robert Redford, he was one of the most visible and guaranteed draws in Hollywood for about thirty years. This is one of Newman’s last big roles, and while I’m not necessarily this was truly an A+ performance, I’m perfectly okay with the Oscar who won for this role as an acknowledgment of his long and storied career. Much like Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, this is an actor at the end of a spectacular career going out in a fantastic blaze of glory. Tom Cruise played his role well enough, but let’s face the fact that Tom Cruise is not a great actor. However, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was stellar as his tough as nails girlfriend. There was a wonderful chemistry between her and Paul Newman that was visible in practically ever scene they have together. She had more chemistry with Newman than she did with Tom Cruise.

The movie had some problems. The story was pretty predictable (although it had some nice turns here and there). It also could you have used some trimming down. At the same time, the story of an old pro passing the torch to a new young buck also isn’t particularly original. The cinematography was phenomenal though, and there were just a ton of original and inventive shots in the film that are pure Scorsese. Anyways, if you’re a fan of pool, you need to watch this. If you like Paul Newman, this is the film he won an Oscar for so it’s practically a no-brainer. I’d say the same thing for Tom Cruise. While Born on the Fourth of July and The Last Samurai are much better films and roles for him, this is still a good picture.

 Final Score: B+

For true cinephiles, one of the greatest pleasures of watching movies is seeing an actor in the prime of his youth after you had primarily known him for roles that he had done much later in his career, if not the very end of his career. British actor Richard Harris was a performer I knew most readily for his role as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator and as Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films, before he passed away. He was a man in the twilight of his life in both of those roles, and had I not been informed before hand, I would have never believed the extraordinary performance in the film I just watched, This Sporting Life, was him 50 years ago, in his debut role. Knowing that this was his debut film though helps to explain just why he had such a magnificent acting career.

This Sporting Life is a character study wrapped in political commentary played as a classical tragedy, and while it has several flaws that keep it from perfection, for a film from the early 1960’s, this is a dark, gritty treatise on social class and ambition that serves as a great ancestor to the modern character study classics such as There Will Be Blood or A Single Man. It tells the story of Frank Machin (Richard Harris), a coal miner who finds sudden fame and limited wealth when he is signed to be a member of his town’s prestigious rugby team. However, despite finding success on the rugby field, Frank has to deal with the fact that his station in life has basically remained exactly the same despite bringing money and prestige to those that own the team. At the same time, he must deal with his feelings towards his widowed landlord (Rachel Roberts) that she does not reciprocate, and over the course of the film’s not insignificant length, Frank spirals into a world of depression, abuse, and violence. It’s heavy stuff, but played marvelously well.

I can’t begin to say enough great things about Harris’s performance in this. It was very Brando-esque, and I can almost imagine in my head an American version of the film where Brando plays Frank’s part but plays something like football or hockey instead of rugby. Someone should have jumped on that idea. While Harris occasionally has some strange enunciation to his words, his performance is full of the sort of raw emotion, passion, and ready to explode intensity that you only see from greats like Brando, De Niro, or Day Lewis. It was awe-inspiring. His co-lead, Rachel Roberts, was also magnificent as his land lord who is nearly as damaged mentally as Frank is. They have a strangely powerful chemistry together and while their romance was quite disturbing to behold (especially the scene that bordered on rape), it was also compelling in the way the best tragic love stories are.

If you like sports movies, you need to check this one out. If you like dark character studies, you need to check this one out. If you like master classes on acting prowess, you need to check this one out. It runs a little long and some scenes were probably unnecessary but that doesn’t stop this from being a great film. This is easily one of the best sports movies that I’ve watched in a good long while, and while it isn’t one of the greatest character studies of all time, it’s still fantastic. For those who are concerned that since it’s so old it couldn’t be nearly as dark as I claim it is, you’ll just have to trust me on that.

Final Score: A-

Ever since Rocky climbed up the steps of the Philadelphia Public Library, there has been something about the under dog story that has enchanted movie-goers ever since. Seeing somebody who is put down, not expected to succeed, up against insurmountable odds, and seeing him succeed fulfills a certain amount of catharsis and escapism that everybody needs to feel every once in a while. Generally speaking (Rocky being the most notable exception), a lot of these under dog stories are based off true events because the story might be too happy and escapist if it were fictional. So, 2010’s The Fighter, while not necessarily being a great film, serves as another fine entry into the classic under dog genre.

The Fighter is the true story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer who is suffering from an extended losing streak and is on the verge of his career falling apart due to disappearing from the radar. Mickey is trained by his older brother Dicky (Christian Bale in an Oscar-winning performance), who was a semi-successful boxer in his hey-day but has descended into self-destructive drug abuse. The film focuses as much on the dysfunctional relationship between the various members of this family including the brothers controlling mother Alice (Melissa Leo in an Oscar-winning role), the veritable army of daughters, and Mickey’s new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) as it focuses on the comeback story of Mickey’s career. The film offers a pretty harrowing and heart-breaking look at the way the drug problem tears apart families.

The films story isn’t something you haven’t heard before and it left more bored on occasion and waiting something more interesting to happen. However, this is a performance film where there are several performances that if you’re a fan of great acting, this movie is a must watch. This is easily Christian Bale’s best performance since American Psycho. He is terrifyingly accurate in his portrayal of the junky brother. He looks, acts, and just radiates the part. He inhabited the character and just became Dicky. Melissa Leo was great as the mother, but I was actually much more impressed with Amy Adams performance as Mickey’s girlfriend. She should have won the Oscar in my opinion. Mark Wahlberg was also great, but this wasn’t as good as his performance in The Departed or Boogie Nights.

I can recommend this film to any body who likes a good sports movie, or if you’re a serious Christian Bale fan, then you definitely need to watch it. I’m sure that if the Academy was still only nominating 5 films a year for Best Picture instead of the current 10, this one wouldn’t have received a Best Picture nomination, but it’s still worth a watch. I’ll probably forget a lot of things about this film years from now, but Christian Bale’s incendiary performance will stay with me for a long time.

Final Score: B