Friday, January 29, 2010

10 Favorite Sports Movies (#1-5)

5. Slap Shot (1977, George Roy Hill)
"They brought their fucking toys with them."
Whenever Paul Newman starred in a George Roy Hill film (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), an instant classic was produced. Reg Dunlop (Newman) is the captain of a hockey team that is really sucking. They aren't horrible but they just can't seem to get it together. You could suspect that one of the many reasons, is that the players are just horrible human beings. The characters are foul mouthed and they play dirty. In once sentence I've just summed up the essence of Slap Shot. How could such an amazing film be based on such characters with simple premises? Hill somehow pulls it off by capturing the spirit of giving into the stereotype of being a "man." Similar to Animal House, this is one of the quintessential "guy" movies and yet so many people still haven't seen it.Hill also captures the ice in a very unique way. The sound for its time is phenomenal as we hear the puck go flying across the ice and the players slam into the walls. Honestly I notice how short my thoughts on this movie are but I love the film because it is in fact so simple and yet still so enjoyable. Its about men and just how rough they can get in competition with each other.

4. Bull Durham (1988, Ron Shelton)
"Who are you anyway?"
Each of the main characters in this film is constantly trying to win the affection of someone (a lover) or something else (baseball) both out of love or trust. You have Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) who is an excellent minor league catcher who may soon be putting away his glove. You have Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) who is a up-and-coming minor league catcher who has no maturity whatsoever. You finally have Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) who is a woman obsessed with baseball and wants to date a baseball player. Of the three, Annie is the most interesting as one might want to call her a tramp, groupie, or slut but she truly just wants to be in love with a man who knows the ins-and-outs of her favorite sport. She pursues both Crash and Nuke and the two relationships contrast perfectly. Crash and Annie discover that they both love other things (like favorite writers) outside of baseball while Nuke during his time with Annie realizes that he wants nothing more than to be a star player. Crash is soon tasked with getting Nuke's head in the game and he discovers that Nuke can't play if he has a single thought that isn't baseball related (like a relationship with Annie) going around in his head when he pitches. The whole film revolves around these three unique characters and their complex relationships with each other over the course of a season. This is just as much a study on love and friendship as it is a look inside the heads of sports celebrities.

3. The Hustler (1961, Robert Rossen)
"I got talent, so what beat me?"
The story of Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a story about defeat in a game of pool brought on by his lack of character in the way the he lives his life. Pool is depicted as this game where players only talk to each other so they can judge each other's character, and the film has plenty of that (despite character being Fast Eddie's flaw). Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie) is Eddie's drunk lover and is showcased just as much as Eddie making it one of my favorite female roles in a predominantly male cast. Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) is perfect as this stern villain who has it out for both Eddie and Sarah. Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) is quiet but he has this presence where he remains the passive king of the pool hall. The black and white color perfectly fits the tone for the film while the editing captures both the speed and the pauses that occur while setting up a shot and finally hitting the ball. I think by now I've realized that character is all at the center of great sports movies, and the characters in this film outright state that the way to succeed in competition is character (which is the answer to the quotation at the beginning of this passage). The Hustler paints pool as this epic tragedy, and Newman and co. make it believable.

2. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
"You win, you lose. You win, you win. Either way you still win."
Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) is depicted as a man full of anger, grief, and the incapability of loving a woman past just having sex with her. When LaMotta first meets his future wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), he becomes obsessed with her as he watches the young girl go swimming. LaMotta wants her and he gets, her but as he soon goes on to become a professional boxer, his wife is just a sexual object. Vickie then begins to cheat on Jake possibly with Jake's brother Joey (Joe Pesci). Jake suspects something and very quickly his violent life inside and outside of the ring meshes together. When Vickie comments that a fellow boxer looks good, LaMotta beats his face to a pulp when their match comes up. He later goes home and does the same to Vickie. The fight scenes in the ring are brutal for the time. The camera is always close to the action and the sight of fists hitting bodies as blood and sweat flies everywhere is only benefitted by the black-and-white color of the film. After LaMotta retires from the ring and his love life, he becomes a pathetic stand-up comedian at a night club. Past that, we don't learn much else about LaMotta but within the context of Paul Schrader's story, we know all we need to know to observe a typical yet thrilling Scorsese-driven examination of the lengths men go to be with the women they obsess over.

1. Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James)
"Coach keeps asking me, when you going to grow?"
This documentary film isn't just about basketball, but also about an examination of ambition. Two black kids named Arthur Agee from South Side Chicago and William Gates from the Cabrini Green projects want to be NBA players. Arthur's dad is unemployed and is fighting a drug problem while Will's family lives without any electricity. We see their poverty and the way that Steve James depicts this authentic feeling reality, we feel as if there is little hope that these kids will ever succeed. The film follows the two boys from eighth grade to their freshman year of college. We watch as recruiters from St. Joseph's High School (which recruited the famous Isaiah Thomas) see the two boys playing on a basketball court at their local playground and immediately pick up the two boys. The boys debate going to the school because they read at the fourth grade level, have to commute ninety minutes, and not many black kids go there for Arthur and William to relate to. Conflict soon arises. Arthur's college transcripts won't be sent out unless his parents pay tuition and evidence is uncovered by the filmmakers that Arthur is a special case because of his athletic ability on the court was not what the recruiters thought it would be. William tears a ligament and this may affect his future as a player. I'm not going to say what happens next, but what is it about this film that makes it so different than others? This is a film that captures life. It shows that life is what defines a player. It shows actual dreams come true in front of our eyes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

10 Favorite Sports Movies (#6-10)

10. Downhill Racer (1969, Michael Ritchie)
"Skiing isn't much of a team sport."
Downhill Racer is a quiet movie where the cinematography sharply captures the angles and curves of a ski slope and here are several long takes that show skiing from the skier's point of view. It also tells the story of a champion like it is a tragedy. It's the story of a man who concentrates on honing his skiing skills so much that he ignores everything else. Skiers after all go down the slopes by themselves. They sit in a hotel room the night before a competition. by themselves. David Chappellet (Robert Redford) is the champion of the US ski team and he never falls in love, he is never interesting in a conversation, and he never expresses much emotion. Unless you talk to him about the one thing he loves to do, winning. Redford has the challenge of playing an emotionally detached character while making him believably interesting and he accomplishes the role with a great deal of nuance. David behaves like a champion (there is no underdog story here), like a man who is the best he is at what he does. Gene Hackman also co-stars as the coach who must hold his team together as they all have to deal with not being as good as Chappellet. In the meantime, David's relationship with his lover fails while his career succeeds.

9. Field of Dreams (1989, Phil Alden Robinson)
"If you build it, he will come."
Ray (Kevin Costner) is a modest farmer who while walking in his cornfield suddenly hears a voice from above deliver a message. With those words, Ray then sees the image of a baseball field in the middle of his corn field where Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta in his breakout role) will return to play along with other greats from the 1919 Black Sox. The movie requires sensible acting to ground the story and the cast is rounded out by Ray's relaxed wife Annie (Amy Madigan), a doctor (Burt Lancaster) who always wanted to play with the pros, and a writer (James Earl Jones) who used to be in love with baseball.  Yet the film doesn't lose any sensibility in the meantime because the story is more about baseball than any form of a religious message. The imagination in this movie is very tough to analyze. It is similar to Harvey starring Jimmy Stewart in which a man truly believed he had an imaginary friend (who happened to be a bunny). There is just something about the structure of this film that draws us into the believability of a man walking into a field to hear a voice. The movie never questions that event, instead it concentrates on Ray's struggle to build the field as he feuds against a corporate villain. There was a time when baseball was this peaceful and simplistic national pastime and this explains why the players from the past wish to return, to ward off the corporate business that sports have become.

8. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973, John D. Hancock)
"When I die, in the newspapers they'll write that the sons of bitches of this world have lost their leader."
Baseball catcher Bruce Pierson (Robert De Niro in his breakout role) learns that he will only have one more season left to play the sport since he has an incurable disease. This may sound like a morbid starting point for a sports movie but the catch (no pun intended) of this movie is that the team's pitcher, Henry Wiggins (Michael Moriarty), is the only man who finds out about Pierson's secret and decides to make Bruce's last season his most memorable. This dynamic is interesting because Wiggins is the star of the team who everyone worships while Pierson is the runt who everyone makes fun of and teases. The film follows the pair from spring training, to a strong pre-season start, to problems playing in the hot weather, to dissent from fellow players on the team, and all the way up to the final game of the year. The movie follows these players on the road as well and we see Henry and Bruce experience everything from falling in love with a prostitute to talking to telephone operators about the latest sports scores. The baseball very quickly takes a backseat to these characters and the film is not full of that many of those "inspirational sports moments." Instead, a majority of the inspiration comes from Henry and Bruce's relationship on the road and in the clubhouse (where Oscar-nominee Vincent Gardenia plays the team's manager who is just as humorous as he is good at giving inspirational speeches). Soon Bruce starts playing some of the best ball of his life and Henry is the man who is sure that Bruce's last months have joy and dignity.

7. Any Given Sunday (1999, Oliver Stone)
"Ever since college, people have been telling me what to do."
Any Given Sunday is 170 minutes long but it is the quickest movie you'll ever experience. The film is full of MTV style cuts, montages, violent close-ups, and jarring sound effects. Yet the film isn't just a masterful example of editing, the story survives the style despite the plot being relatively cliched. Stone casts a wide variety of actors to play an injured veteran quarterback, a doctor who allows injured players to play, the promiscuous wife of a team owner, a new quarterback who becomes an overnight sensation, and a coach who retains his wisdom despite the fact that his team is on a losing streak. Dennis Quaid is the injured quarterback who ponders retirement because his entire life has been dictated by his elders, but now he has had enough of the game. The quote at the beginning of this passage is from his character and this is truly one of Quaid's most endearing performances aside from Far From Heaven. James Woods and Matthew Modine are team doctors that constantly disagree (one thinks the other is letting injured players play just so the doctor can keep getting paid). Ann Margret plays the late owner's wife whose daughter (Cameron Diaz) has taken over the team because the wife can't see what her late husband saw in a "man's sport." Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) is the third string quarterback whose predecessors have been injured and he is so new to the game that he even throws up during a huddle. Yet Willie suddenly gets a hang of things and becomes the star of the team as the fame starts to get to his head leading him on a road to redemption. Finally, Al Pacino stars as Tony D'Amato, the coach of the Miami Sharks. Do I need to say more? Well the rest of the cast includes John C. McGinley, Aaron Eckhart, Jim Brown, Bill Bellamy, LL Cool J., and Charlton Heston. Yet somehow, this film remains underrated despite these wonderful performances.

6. Hoosiers (1986, David Anspaugh)
"Strap, God wants you on the floor."
There's something about high school and college sports that is just more exciting to me than pro. Just my opinion, but I feel like David Anspaugh knows this as well. I'm not knowledgeable enough about sports to know what it is about college/high school sports that makes them more exciting to me as a viewer, but Hoosiers captures the suspense and energy that I find in watching games from my high school on a local TV channel. Now I may not come from as small of a town as the one in this film, but I feel that this movie accurately captures small town America at its finest. The film shows the feeling of support behind a team whether it be from the guy who cuts your hair or the concerned parent at the town hall meeting. The film also uses the art of montage extremely well, setting up these shots of buses going back and forth across middle-America. Yet this film would be nothing without the performance of Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale. Norm is trying to make a comeback because of a scandal that sent him to this small town and we quickly see how efficient, skilled, experienced, kind, and rough of a man that he is. For such a complex character, he is so likable. Dennis Hopper also stars as Shooter, the alcoholic father of a player who Dale also tries to redeem along with himself. In short, the film is just as beautifully shot as it is enjoying.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

UPDATE: I wasn't able to cut it. I saw a lot of both  fantastic and horrible films in 2009 but I wasn't able to keep up reviewing all of them with school being so hectic. So here I go giving it another try again with "year 2." I'm also going to start rating movies as good, okay, or bad. Keep in mind I try to just collect my thoughts and not write a formal review.

Post-apocalyptic movies must be challenging to make. You have to say something special about humanity that could only be said in an "end-of-the-world" setting and not just make it a statement about humanity in general. After all, films set in modern times can work that way just as well. A variety of topics and styles have been shown in this genre. From George Miller's Mad Max to the recent mediocre adaptation of The Road, style is a key component. Sadly, The Book of Eli falls into the category of being too stylistic with little substance.

Shot like a music video, the landscape of The Book of Eli is seen as a bleak gray populated by souls either too young (to remember what life was like before the great war that caused the end-of-times) or old souls that try to stick to the way things used to be. Grey haired people and grey environments... whether the symbolism is blatant or unconscious it just stays as an observation I made and it has no bearing on the lack of emotion present in the movie (which in my opinion is when symbolism works the best, and this movie is full of symbolic dialogue and imagery that falls flat). The film also has the typical action-movie slow-mo, sound design that is all over the place, and the typical cliche of a man walking from screen right ("so clearly he must be going west!").

The characters are unfortunately not that well thought out as well. Take the various henchmen, they are all these tall or fat bald men that might have an overabundance of facial hair so they all look the same. Having some unique supporting characters might help round out the cast but instead we have throwaway characters like the blind mother (Jennifer Beal) or the old man (Michael Gambon) who lives down the road from the shanty-town where most of the movie is set. Gary Oldman doesn't deliver one of his memorable villainous performances and instead "chews the scenery." Denzel Washington portrays the lead as a violent and peaceful man that will fight for his religious beliefs despite the preaching found within the book he carries. The statement that is trying to be made with the Eli character doesn't work well in this script by Gary Whitta (of PC Gamer magazine fame) especially considering the only character with any emotion (and no need for skin ointment) is the young girl played by the beautiful Mila Kunis.

The action sequences aren't even that special but they are at least the only scenes that are remotely interesting, exciting, or even complex. In the meantime there is no stable balance of emotion surrounding the book itself. In fact, I could care less about the book since there are two polar opposites (Washington's Eli and Oldman's Carnegie) vying for control of it. Also, a lot of people have been talking about the twist at the end but to me it feels like a "what the fuck" moment for a "what the fuck" moments' sake. It adds nothing to the character except make him seem more powerful (read as "badass") than he seems.

The worst thing about this film, is that it doesn't grab your attention (despite how the entire first ten minutes are "meant" to be emotional). There is nothing inventive about this post-apocalyptic tale and when telling stories about the end of the world, that is what you need to be- inventive. Just having intensity... well that doesn't work unless you have drama which the directors (Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes) have demonstrated with their past films- Menace II Society as well as Dead Presidents.