Tag Archive: Sports


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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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Undefeated1

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+

 

(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-

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