Category: Miscellaneous Sports

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-

 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-