Category: Football


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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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There are two criteria by which I judge the effectiveness of a documentary. Either it moves me emotionally (Children Underground, Undefeated) or it makes me think about the world in new ways (Road to Guantanamo). I’m not sure if a film has ever moved me as much as the 2011 Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Undefeated, and if a viewing of The Road to Guantanamo doesn’t leave you incensed about the handling of aspects of the War on Terror, you’re brain dead. Following one season in the life of one of the nation’s most respected high school football programs, Go Tigers! is a more cerebral experience than its spiritual successor, Undefeated, and if it never hits the emotional heights of Undefeated, it may have something more valuable to say.

Undefeated is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (it’s currently a strong contender for the best, period), and so it’s almost unfair of me to compare Kenneth Carlson’s Go Tigers! to that much-beloved film. Though both films share the structure of following three players through one season (Undefeated also focused on the coach), Undefeated was far more focused on the personalities and emotional growth of the four subjects it portrayed. It was an intensely emotional  and character-driven ride. Go Tigers! is more detached and driven by the meaning of the football town to the team where it plays as well as what type of priorities would produce such a consistently excellent football program.

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In Ohio (and arguably the nation), there is no bigger football program than Massilon, Ohio. Having played for 105 seasons when the film begins, the Masillon Tigers are the oldest high school football team in the nation and easily one of its most successful. Football isn’t just a game in Massilon, Ohio; it’s a way of life. The town lives and dies on the success of the football program, and after a 4-6 season, the town is in a rut. The Massilon school system is on the verge of financial collapse, and if the town can’t pass a levy to salvage the schools, the school’s will have to make devastating cuts across the board. And, in the eyes of the coaches and teachers and players, the only way to convince the town to raise the taxes for the levies is for the high school football team to have a successful season.

Go Tigers! is told from the point of view of three seniors on the football program. Ellery Moore is a natural leader, but the football program is what’s keeping him out of prison where he’s already served a term in juvie for rape (which he denies, but says prison was what he needed regardless). Danny Studer is a gifted artist whose father is the conditioning coach for the team, and Danny’s been bred for football his whole life. And David Irwin is the star quarterback whose biggest concern becomes not making the necessary pass, but finally passing the ACTs. And whether they want it or not, the fate of the whole town lies on these boys’ (and the rest of the team’s) shoulders.

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The residents of Massilon make the obsession of Friday Night Lights‘s residents of Dillon seem like a passing fancy. Danny and David were both held back one year from entering high school so that they could be bigger to play on the football team, and other than an English teacher, no one has a problem with it. Rather than cut some money from the gargantuanly bloated football program, the town wants to raise property taxes on everyone to save the schools. On the day of the biggest game of the season, the high school band has permission from the mayor to march through any establishment in town they choose. Their stadium looks nicer than many smaller colleges. Football is the king of Masillon.

The film is abound with little tidbits exploring the obsession that Massilon has with football, and it isn’t afraid to ask serious questions about where this town’s priorities are. By framing the film’s actions in a town trying to salvage a financially wrecked school system during a major election, the film poses the obvious question of “would this town be in such a mess if the football program weren’t so large?” It also asks such questions as “Would these boys struggle academically if the football program weren’t their lives from the cradle?” And that last part isn’t hyperbole. The film opens with members of the football team staff/booster squad (it isn’t entirely clear) visiting a woman just after she’s given birth and putting a football in her baby’s crib. They do this for every newborn boy in town.

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I watched this movie several evenings ago, but I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. And, this is my first night back in Morgantown after spending the whole summer back in Philippi. I’ve spent most of today in the process of moving and unpacking. It’s as fun and exhausting as it sounds. The fun part is sarcasm. So, I’m going to draw this review to a close. Go Tigers! may not be as life-affirming and immensely enjoyable as Undefeated, but that’s an outrageously high bar to clear. If you have even a passing interest in football, you should give this film a go. I’m not a huge football fan, and I still found it brilliant.

Final Score: A

 

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I work a lot this week. I’m not complaining. I get a paycheck and this is one of my last weeks as a manager before I voluntarily step down to just being a part-timer (cause working nearly 30 hour weeks and being a full-time college student does not really equate to academic success). One of the downsides of working and doing school is that I will occasionally watch a movie and then not have time to actually review the film til several days later. I.e., that’s just what happened after I finished the truly excellent Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. It’s arguably the best documentary that I’ve ever watched, and it deserves a better review than I can give it after not having much time to think about it since viewing it in the wee, wee hours of Wednesday morning.

It’s very easy to make films with schmaltzy heroes that bring deliverance to some underprivileged group. The Blind Side and The Help are both built on fantasy and racial condescension (The Blind Side is a true story but plays hard and loose with the real life facts of Michael Oher). It’s harder to make a gritty, realistic story full of unsympathetic leads and outright bad people (read: Happiness). The hardest type of movie to make though is one with real-life heroes that doesn’t feel manipulative or unnecessary. To make a film with an uplifting message that exists for a reason other than to just make us feel better about ourselves. 2011’s Undefeated clears that bar and sticks the landing.

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Undefeated is the truly inspiring, real-life recording of the trials and tribulations of the Manassass Tigers, a struggling inner-city football team in Memphis, Tennessee. The team hasn’t made it to the play-offs in years, and in their entire 110 year existence as a high-school, they’ve never won a play-off game. Volunteer head coach Bill Courtney intends to turn the team around. It’s his sixth year as the team’s coach, and with his current crop of seniors, his odds of making to the play-offs have never been better. But, football is secondary to helping to shape these young boys into men for Coach Courtney, and the Coach always keeps character at the forefront for his young athletes.

Alongside Coach Courtney, the film also paints a painfully honest and intimate portrait of the lives of several of the players on the team. O.C. Brown is the team’s star athlete and the only one with real college prospects. Although O.C. is very poor and lives with his grandmother, one of the assistant coaches allows him to stay at his house to help tutor him so he can pass the ACTs to get into school. “Money” Brown is the brains on the team but can’t afford college and tears his ACL during an early game in the season. And the team bad boy, Chavis Daniels, has a massive chip on his shoulders, but Coach Courtney refuses to turn his back on him even when he crosses the line one too many times.

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My viewing experience of Undefeated for the first time was one of the most emotional experiences of my entire movie-viewing career. It’s not an especially difficult task to make me cry, but to have me uncontrollably sobbing is a feat only a handful of movies have accomplished. Undefeated took me to that place three times and I legitimately spent the last hour or so of the film going in and out of tears. It was the rare film that was both exceptionally honest and true. It didn’t hold back from how awful these kids lives were and what little hope many of them had once high school ended. But when it delivered its moments of uplift, it struck a more emotional chord than I can almost begin to describe.

I’m not sure if documentary film directors are eligible for the Best Director award at the Oscars, but if they are, it’s a crime that Undefeated‘s
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin weren’t nominated (and the film definitely deserved some type of editing recognition). Though the film is a documentary, it never stops having a cinematic feel, and if you hadn’t told me before hand that this film was a documentary, I would have honestly believed that it was just a very authentic feeling film. The movie carries such dramatic weight and is a seriously visual undertaking that even people who don’t enjoy documentaries should find plenty to attach themselves to in this film.

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I hope it’s clear that I have a lot to say about this movie. It now joins The Tree of Life as arguably the best film of 2011 (and it’s infinitely more accessible than Terrence Malick’s opus), and it simply eclipses every other documentary that I’ve reviewed thus far. The film gets favorable comparisons to Hoop Dreams (which I’ve never seen) if you want more context for the film’s import. But, as I’ve said, I watched the movie before going to bed at like 4 A.M. Tuesday (so technically Wednesday), and while many of the heart-wrenching details of the film have certainly stuck with me, I no longer feel like I can do them proper justice after this extended absence. All you need to know is that this film gets my rare perfect score (though not so rare this week since the last movie I reviewed, The Godfather: Part II, also got this score) and that I don’t give “A+”s away lightly.

Final Score: A+

 

Baseball is America’s nominal past time, but declining television ratings for the world series and the increased difficulty in selling out the home staidum (unless you’re the Yankees or Red Sox) show that my favorite sport is on an unfortunate decline in popularity. America’s true national sport would easily have to be football as the attention given to both college and professional football borders on being scary. Outside of the film and television adaptations of the novel Friday Night Lights (and perhaps the overly-schmaltzy Remember the Titans), there haven’t been too many great football movies or shows, which is a shame because football is easily the most exciting and engaging sport (though I prefer the tranquility and deliberate pace of baseball). 1974’s The Longest Yard (not to be confused with the 2000’s remake starring Adam Sandler) is not one of those great football movies. While considered a sports comedy classic, I could count on one hand the number of times the movie made  me laugh, and it wasn’t until the actual football game at the end that I began to have any reason to pay attention to the film.

The Longest Yard stars Burt Reynold as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a former quarterback for the NFL who was kicked out of the league for shaving points off a game. He now spends his days bouncing from one rich mistress to the next in a directionless funk. After stealing his most recent mistress’s car and leading the police on a Smokey and the Bandit style chase, Crewe ends up carted to the Citrus State Prison, at the direct request of its corrupt warden. The warden wishes that Crewe will coach the guards football team which is a semi-professional team that were national runners-up five years in a row. After turning down the warden’s offer (under the threat of violence from the team’s quarterback, the head guard), Crewe eventually changes his mind after a couple days working on the chain gang. Crewe is then tasked with putting together a team of the convicts to play against the guards in a warm-up match so the guards can get real experience in before their first real match. Crewe quickly realizes that this match could be the opportunity these prisoners need to regain their pride and dignity and have one shot to show the guards just what they’re made of.

For the first hour and fifteen minutes of the film, it was painfully torturous to watch. For the vast majority of the film, Crewe is not an especially likeable fellow, and while these convicts are at least honest about being criminals (as compared to the corrupt and violent guards), that doesn’t make any of them except for perhaps Caretaker likeable in the slightest. Honestly, the only character who had any development over the course of the film was Crewe, and it was fairly cliche stuff in its own right. Similarly, for a film that is marketed as a comedy, it is remarkably not funny. It was almost as if the film couldn’t make up its mind as to whether it wanted to be a comedy or a drama, and it failed at being either. The only times in the entire film that I was able to laugh was during the football game, which was the only entertaining part of the film period.

Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest stars and sex symbols of the 1970’s. There’s a photograph of him without any clothes on and strategic objects covering his junk that I wish I could bleach my brain to get rid of. I don’t get it. While he did voice one of my favorite animated characters growing up (Charlie in All Dogs Go to Heaven) and I enjoyed his films Deliverance and Boogie Nights, my enjoyment of those films was not directly related to his work in them. He seems to me to be the archetypal pretty face who gets by more on his looks than any real talent. He seems to have one mode which is glib sarcasm and arrogance and perhaps the most annoying laugh this side of Phyllis Diller. Also, he didn’t have his iconic mustache in this role, and I could just feel his usual mojo just disappearing right out of the film.

The film isn’t completely without positives. I enjoyed the actual football match quite a bit. I respected the writers’ decision to make both teams cheat as much as humanly possible, and the scene where Crewe intentionally throws the football at one guard’s nether regions two plays in a row elicited a nice guffaw. Also, the football action itself was well choreographed. No one would confuse either team for professionals, but they played well and were fun to watch. Unfortunately, the beginning of the film was so snail-like in its entertainment that I couldn’t enjoy the end as much as I should have because of how mentally exhausted I was (not from mental exertion but sheer boredom). If you’re a Burt Reynolds fan or a fan of sports films, I would recommend this one but you’ve probably seen it before. Everyone else can steer clear.

Final Score: C+