Archive for the Sports Category

Rush

Posted in Action, Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on September 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Rush photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgI should come clean right now. You can debate whether NASCAR vs. Formula 1 racing is better till blue in the face. The whole discussion is rather uninteresting to me I must confess. Car racing has always remained a fringe sport in my eyes. Not that I don’t admire the skill involved, because I do believe it takes remarkable talent (and money) to succeed. It’s just that there are so many other sports I’d prefer to watch than blurry cars zipping around a track. That’s kind of the attitude to which I approached Rush, the new Formula 1 racing movie regarding two drivers of which I knew nothing. I’m happy to announce that this is an extraordinary film – a firing on all cylinders, exhilarating sports drama.

At heart, Rush is an account concerning two bitter rivals. Niki Lauda is an Austrian perfectionist. He’s portrayed by Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!, Inglourious Basterds), a German actor still relatively unknown to most Americans. Lauda is a driven (excuse the pun) individual that enters the sport like an outsider crashing an exclusive party. A standoffish intellectual, he is nevertheless extremely gifted. Chris Hemsworth (Thor, The Avengers) is James Hunt. He’s a Brit, equally accomplished – but more charismatic and handsome in contrast. He’s also an arrogant womanizer who goes through women like boxes of Kleenex. Given Hemsworth’s marquee name, it might seem like you could guess how the screenplay might gently guide one to take sides. But you would be wrong. In recounting the saga of Niki Lauda vs. James Hunt, the production does the unexpected. Director Ron Howard working from a script by Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen) brilliantly introduces the tale as two separate fully formed individuals. Instead of taking sides and having a narrow point of view, it proffers both with their various strengths and shortcomings in equal measure.

Rush is quite simply the greatest movie about auto racing ever made. It combines the best of both worlds: adrenaline pumping, intense action sequences featuring the sport along with an emotionally engaging character study between two fierce rivals. The mix is intoxicating as the viewer is constantly encouraging each man at different parts of the production. An evenhanded, nuanced portrait, both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl give heretofore career defining performances. They perfectly embody these two passionate adversaries. In presenting these Formula 1 race car drivers that outwardly hate one another, the script makes the brilliant case that they are actually deeply indebted to their opponent. They each push the other in their pursuit of the World Championship. I was prepared to root for Hunt, but walked away rooting for Lauda. You might see the story differently and therein lies the brilliance of this film.

Happy Gilmore

Posted in Comedy, Sports with tags on July 30, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Happy Gilmore photo starrating-3stars.jpg
Shooter McGavin: You’re in big trouble though, pal. I eat pieces of sh– like you for breakfast!

Happy Gilmore: [laughing] You eat pieces of sh– for breakfast?

Adam Sandler is Happy Gilmore, an unsuccessful ice hockey player with a powerful slapshot. After a challenge, he discovers he has a talent for golf. To be specific, he has an easy facility for driving a golf ball 400 yards. His putting, on the other hand, is horrible. Under the tutelage of club pro Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers), he joins a golf tournament. Happy hopes to win enough money to help out his grandmother whose house is about to be repossessed.

Sandler’s second major starring vehicle is his riff on 1980’s Caddyshack, another golf comedy. His idea of funny is to transplant the loud obnoxious environment of the hockey rink to the quiet, sophisticated atmosphere of the golf course. It’s clear Happy has an anger problem and he’s frequently given to losing his cool. The humor is lowbrow and a lot of it rests on Happy Gilmore’s boorish demeanor as contrasted with stuffed shirt Shooter McGavin, a villain embodied in full hissable glory by Christopher McDonald. There’s sort of an idiotic joy in seeing Happy’s aggressive behavior conflict with the civilized gold pros. A confrontation with Bob Barker of TV’s The Price is Right is a savage delight. But he doesn’t remain that way. As the plot develops, Happy becomes more likable. I think it’s relevant to point out that Happy begins as a flawed character, unable to control his temper. By managing his emotions and finding his “happy place” he finds success. Nice moral. It’s not as inspired as something like There’s Something About Mary from the same era. However Happy Gilmore has achieved a cult status and like all such films it improves with repeated viewings.

Note: Will Damron over at Papa Kenn Media was my inspiration for revisiting Happy Gilmore. He is examining vintage Sandler movies from the past. He prompted me to watch this so I could provide my own insight. Please check out his page as well.

42

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on April 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

42 photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe life of Jackie Robinson gets the treatment you’d expect in Warner Brothers’ perfectly serviceable biography. The chronicle is a suitable document of the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era. Director Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale) beatific depiction of Jackie Robinson is befitting of how Disney handles their sports pictures. It’s reverent, didactic and compelling. However given the magnitude of Robinson’s breakthrough, I was expecting a bit more grit. Perhaps in the hands of a more contentious director, the action would have seemed more controversial. There’s a brief moment of that in one particular scene involving actor Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the manager of the Phillies who vociferously opposed Robbins’s presence in MLB on the basis of his race. The scenes in which he taunts Robinson with racial epithets was even more disturbing than the many uses of the N-word in the movie Django Unchained. Perhaps that’s because this is a true story but also because of Robinson’s pacifist approach to the abuse that was forced on him. It’s is one of the few instances where you genuinely get a feel for the weight of his struggle.

42 is a polished biography. It’s got beautiful music, bright cinematography and is populated by some nice performances. Chadwick Boseman notably underplays Jackie Robinson in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s grasping for the Academy Award. He’s quite effective. As is Nicole Beharie who plays “the wife” but with an effervescence that made me want to see more of her in future films. Harrison Ford reminds us that he doesn’t always just phone it in. As Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers that signs Robinson to the team, he is truly engaging. 42 hits all the dramatic notes you’d except in a memoir such as this. It’s not particularly deep or insightful, but it is inspiring. Robinson becomes more a symbol through which other people unleash their racial hatred against. I would’ve appreciated a little more detail in the script about the man himself. More vignettes involving his personality as well as his athletic accomplishments in the world of baseball would‘ve been welcome. The lesson appears to be talent and money speak louder than hate. 42 is an admirable addition to baseball pictures that dutifully dramatize the subject in a way that is both pleasant and entertaining.

Real Steel

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Sports with tags on October 11, 2011 by Mark Hobin

In the near future, robots have replaced humans as pugilistic combatants of the sport. Former boxer Charlie Kenton, ekes out a living in illegal boxing matches between robots to pay his debts to loan sharks. Naturally his estranged son, who he hasn’t seen in years, is thrust into his life all of a sudden at this critical juncture. Together they attempt to succeed with an obsolete, sparring-partner robot they rescue from a garbage lot.  If the classic toy, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots were turned into a movie, this would be it.

On the surface, the boxing scenes among the robotic rivals are incredible.  There is a real organic feel to the robot boxing as genuine animatronic robots were used in close ups and mixed with totally believable computer animation. There’s a countrified atmosphere to the narrative as well that’s altogether unexpected. His original robot goes head to head against an actual bull at a county fair in the first match up. The battles are crisp and fluid. Later on the chronicle focuses on Atom, the disregarded robot they find buried in the dirt at the junkyard. There’s real drama in whether spunky Atom can triumph.

But why must the little boy be such a royal pain? His part (at least from a storyline standpoint) is reminiscent of the young son in the Sylvester Stallone flick Over the Top (which has always been something of a guilty pleasure for me). While that child was merely wimpy, this child is insolent and bossy. That’s a lot worse. He essentially wears the pants in his relationship with his father who is consistently schooled by this punk kid at every turn. It’s depressing seeing a macho actor like Hugh Jackman emasculated over and over throughout the film by this little brat. I’m not usually an advocate of corporal punishment, but I’d make an exception in this tykes case. He’s unbearable.

Luckily the special effects make up for the lack of character development. Hugh Jackman is a charismatic screen presence and Evangeline Lilly is quite appealing as well as his love interest.  But there are some inconsistencies in the script. It’s difficult to tell what’s really more crucial, the robot or the human who comands the robot. And why do some robots have a whole team controlling them while others just have one person? Is the quality of the robot even that important? Elsewhere, it’s hinted at that the robot may genuinely experience feelings as a human would, but that suggestion is never developed. If you don’t get too bogged down in those deficiencies, there is definitely some entertainment value in the robot boxing scenes. And honestly, that’s why you watch a movie like this anyway, right?

Moneyball

Posted in Drama, Sports with tags on September 23, 2011 by Mark Hobin

“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us.” –Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics

I’m a pushover for an underdog story. There’s something about the “come from behind“, “no one said they could do it“, “triumph over all odds” tale, that really resonates with me. Perhaps it’s the emotional exhilaration watching the person that no one thought anything of, superseding all expectations to become the most impressive competitor. That’s the driving force behind the storyline of Moneyball, the chronicle of Billy Beane. As general manager of the Oakland Athletics, he took a low payroll and was able to assemble an impressive team to compete against the big boys with deep pockets. I’m talking about the Yankees, specifically, a baseball franchise with more money than God.

As the drama begins, the A’s are coming off a particularly good season. They’ve made it to the playoffs yet again, only to fall short of the championship. Once the series is over, their best players are lured away by teams that can promise larger paychecks. Beane laments that they’re like “a farm team for the New York Yankees.” How to do battle in a game where money can buy a championship? Then he meets Peter Brand (a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta). He’s working for the Cleveland Indians and it’s through his analysis and non-traditional sabermetric approach to scouting players that attracts Beane’s attention. Brand evaluates players based on objective, empirical evidence rather than the traditional scouting methods. He becomes Beane’s assistant. With Brand’s help, he attempts to create a competitive baseball team at a fraction of the cost.

Brad Pitt is extraordinary. It’s not a showy, awards-bait performance but it is powerful in it’s subtlety. He’s remarkably restrained. Because of Pitt’s appearance and the subject matter I was reminded of Robert Redford’s The Natural while watching this. Both are uplifting stories about baseball, however Moneyball isn’t a sports movie, fundamentally. It deals more with what happens behind the scenes – beating the odds using non-traditional methods. Baseball informs the narrative and there are many rousing scenes of the sport in action, but it’s Billy Beane that permeates the drama with such considerable heart. We get not only an intimate glimpse into the soul of the man, but also the A’s organization and the various players that affected that winning season.

Ultimately what makes Moneyball so amazing is Billy Beane. Moneyball is adapted from American investigative journalist Michael Lewis’ 2003 book of the same name. This literary source is the basis for the script by master scribes Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. It’s telling that the most exciting scenes of Moneyball aren’t the competitive games, but the back and forth trading of players. One particularly amusing scene has Beane and Brand haggling over acquiring Ricardo Rincón from the Cleveland Indians. It’s a masterfully written spectacle. Everything simply takes place in a room over the phone. There’s no reason why that should be so riveting, but it is. If statistics and computer analysis sounds like a surprising subject for a film, you’d be right. It’s the film’s biggest shock that the business of Baseball could actually be made more exciting than the game itself. A film that celebrates the romance and majesty of a game in a way I’ve never seen before, much like the man, Billy Beane, himself.

Warrior

Posted in Action, Drama, Sports with tags on September 9, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Two brothers seek redemption in a mixed martial arts or MMA tournament. Brendan is living in suburban Philadelphia with a wife and kids. He’s behind in his mortgage and will lose his home within a month unless he can make the payments. The other, Tommy is a troubled Iraq war veteran back from the conflict, who hides a secret. Audience pleasing sports drama does for mixed martial arts what Rocky did for boxing. It probably goes without saying, but if you’re even remotely interested in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) this is required viewing.

The fighter film is the perfect archetype to show the literal struggle of man against the world. I have always been a sucker for these types of stories for that very reason. It’s hard in this day and age to take on this subject creatively because it has been the topic of numerous films over the years. The family struggling to pay the mortgage, the once alcoholic father trying to make amends with his sons, the estranged brothers who haven’t talked to each other in years, the students cheering on their beloved, but recently suspended schoolteacher, it’s all here, piled up high with an extra helping of melodrama. That shouldn’t be surprising coming from writer/director Gavin O’Connor’ who also did the rousing Miracle, the Disney drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He has a somewhat theatrical touch and the proceedings here might have benefited from less fabrication and a bit more gritty realism. Warrior shamelessly manipulates the vocabulary of other, better movies of this type in appropriating emotion and excitement. Rocky, Raging Bull, The Wrestler, The Fighter – it suggests every one of these at various times throughout its running time. While it never matches any of the aforementioned for depth, I was still surprisingly moved by the entire thing. Yes, it’s a formula picture. The manipulation is indisputable, but there’s no denying that it’s skillfully done.

The plot is cleverly divided into two distinct halves. The first is a soft, tender examination of the relationship between father and his two sons. A little screen time is focused on their training.  There is some discussion regarding the upcoming brawl, but the majority of the action is focused on the bond amongst this broken family now reunited by circumstance. The scenes are beautifully acted and authentically moving. Nick Nolte is Paddy Conlon, the boy’s father. He’s outstanding. He hasn’t given a performance this articulate since Affliction in 1997.  Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are his adult sons. The script uniquely spends equal time on each of their stories. Despite being opposites, I found myself conflicted in my support. I liked them both. The second half concerns the big “Sparta” contest in Atlantic City which is a huge $5 million winner-take-all MMA competition. Since neither brother has been battling in the professional MMA arena, how to justify admittance to an event in which only 16 competitors compete?  It’s mostly based on connections and luck so the brother’s welcome into the events was pretty far-fetched. Both of them are the very definition of a dark horse contender.  But the fights are so viscerally presented, the struggle is a joy to behold. It’s an epic battle between uplifting victory and bone crushing defeat.

This is an old school schmaltzy “rise from the ashes” tale of family. Sibling relationships, father and sons, it’s the genuine emotion that gives weight to the thrill of the altercations in the cage matches that follow. And what fights! They’re incredibly brutal. They mean so much more because we know the stakes behind them. This isn’t original, but it masterfully appropriates from the best and gives us a remix that amplifies emotion to the highest degree. Everything feels vaguely familiar and yet I ate up every cliché with delight.

Senna

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Sports with tags on August 30, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Riveting documentary on the life and career of Brazilian Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna. Formula One or F1 is the highest class of single seater auto racing sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). Senna, who in his ten years of F1 competition won the world championship three times, is widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest F1 driver of all time. The film builds a fairly convincing case of Senna’s importance in the pursuit of racing.

We are presented with an organized and interesting story, enjoyed by the fanatic as well as the casual spectator. Make no mistake, however, it will help to have some interest in auto racing to truly appreciate this biography.  A motorsport enthusiast will find more to love here. Filmmaker Asif Kapadia uses archival footage to show what it’s like to race from the driver’s perspective. These scenes are exhilarating. Formula One cars race at speeds of up to 220 mph (360 km/h). I, not knowing anything about Formula One Racing, gained a real appreciation for the talent and skill needed to be successful. You have to essentially memorize the racetrack because the twists and turns come so fast, it’s impossible to navigate without having some prior knowledge of what’s coming.

Where the picture truly shines is in the narrative which is built entirely from existing footage from Senna’s life. Director Asif Kapadia pored through thousands of hours of film to assemble the brilliantly edited piece of filmmaking here. Senna initially began his career with racing go-karts as a teenager. It clearly was a pivotal time in his life because it laid the groundwork for his life’s passion. He refers to kart racing as the purest form of the sport where politics played no part. He wistfully recalls those days a couple times during the story. We get to know the man directly and his own words largely form the structure of his story. When new narration is inserted, it’s underlying original footage of the era. Through brilliantly assembled archival footage we are introduced to the man and offered a window into his personality. He often comes off as surprisingly humble. Given his triumphs I would have expected a much more boastful individual.

His fierce patriotism is emotionally affecting. It’s inspiring to behold what he meant to Brazil, where he remains a national hero. Brazil didn’t have the greatest image as it was suffering through terrible times. But he reflected his Brazilian roots with joy. He brought honor and acclaim to his nation. After every victory he would take his lap of honor waving the Brazilian flag. Perhaps his most emotional race was the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. Surrounded by his countrymen, it was an event Senna was overjoyed to win. His pride is infectious.

Director Kapadia has a respectful almost fawning reverence for Senna that sometimes gets in the way of an impartial depiction. This is where the biography falls short.  We’re invited to side with Senna in his intense rivalry with French World Champion Alain Prost. Of course what would his story be without a nemesis? But Prost, with his smooth, relaxed style, doesn‘t seem particularly hateful. He was rather successful however, ultimately becoming a Formula One Drivers’ Champion, four-times. Also Senna’s clashes with Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the FIA from 1985 to 1993, contribute to his grievances. It‘s during these moments Senna appears aloof and frustrated with the pastime. All of these controversies flesh out the profile of a man essentially in love with, but occasionally disheartened with the sport. It’s a stunning portrait and the documentary overall is absorbing from beginning to end. The tension climaxes to a momentous event at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. It’s an emotional conclusion, one you won’t soon forget.

Secretariat

Posted in Drama, Family, Sports with tags on February 3, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Following the death of her mother, a Virginia housewife agrees to take over her feeble father’s stables, despite having no knowledge of horse-racing.  Walt Disney Pictures has a workmanlike approach to producing these uplifting sports dramas.  They’ve tackled baseball (The Rookie), hockey (Miracle), golf (The Greatest Game Ever Played), basketball (Glory Road) and football (Invincible).  I guess it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention to horse racing in this decent docudrama.  The production is glossy and conventional.  If you aren’t already aware of the thoroughbred racehorse Secretariat’s achievements, the film will hold a lot more excitement.   Interestingly the focus is not on the horse, but rather its owner and the obstacles she overcame.  Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery with grace and charm, determined that she knows best.  Indeed she seems otherworldly as she is never wrong in her assertions.  That’s admirable, I suppose, but it also makes for a distinct lack of tension. To be fair, the tale does radiate genuine warmth and casting John Malkovich as Secretariat’s trainer was genius.  He brings a subtle edge to a movie that is all warm fuzzies.

The Fighter

Posted in Biography, Drama, Sports with tags on December 19, 2010 by Mark Hobin

Gritty sports drama detailing the early years of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward and his half-brother who helped train him.  The subject matter of underdog fighters might seem like old hat.  Anyone who has ever seen the classics Rocky, Raging Bull or The Wrestler will be familiar with the blueprint for these types of stories.  But the surprise here is that the acting compares favorably with, and perhaps even surpasses, those extraordinary movies.  The script resonates all the more emotionally as a slice of life about four people from the working class mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts and how their lives intersect.  Every actor is at the top of their game.  Mark Wahlberg is convincing as the star.  He’s supported by actresses Melissa Leo and Amy Adams, unforgettable as Micky’s mother and girlfriend, respectively.  Both performances are among the best of the year, but it’s Christian Bale’s raw, heartfelt Dicky Eklund that’s a revelation. A heartbreaking portrayal that combines his physically emaciated appearance with fast talking speech mannerisms as his law breaking, crack addicted half-brother.  He’s so mesmerizing, the focus is as much on him as it is on Micky.  It’s the relationship of all four characters that make the film so powerful.  An example where the actors have produced better work from their interaction with each other.  I think I may be willing to forgive director David O. Russell for I Heart Huckabees now.

The Karate Kid

Posted in Drama, Family, Sports with tags on December 1, 2010 by Mark Hobin

The common objection goes, why remake a classic film?  It’s never going to be as  engaging as the original and it’s a lazy way make a buck.  You’ll feel even more jaded when you realize the movie’s producers, über famous Hollywood couple Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, have cast their own son as the titular star.   While it doesn’t hold up to the 80s coming-of-age story, the production’s biggest twist is that it’s surprisingly good.  The cinematography features gorgeous scenery of China which adds some authenticity to the surroundings.  The title is actually a misnomer since the competition is all about Kung Fu not Karate.  But why is everyone so young?   The chief bully looks like he’s around 10.  He’s not threatening and has zero personality.  Granted, Jackie Chan is excellent as a maintenance man who teaches martial arts.  Jaden Smith gives a relaxed performance, but he’s too overly confident for us to ever be worried for him.  As a result, the drama isn’t as powerful as it could have been.  Padding the plot to a ridiculous 140 minutes is unnecessary torture.

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