Tag Archives: sports movies

Hail Mary

American Underdog

by Rachel Willis

Directed by the Erwin Brothers, the life story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner is filled with the kind of inspirational messaging that is sure to hit all the right plays for a certain segment of the movie-going population.

That’s not to say American Underdog doesn’t have appeal for a wider audience, but the studio knew what it was doing with a Christmas day release. There’s football, an underdog dreamer, and a smidge of Christian faith, all bundled together in a surprisingly funny, if familiar, package.

Zachary Levi is the perfect embodiment of a quarterback with a dream delayed. From an early age, Warner has hopes of an NFL future. The movie starts with the unreality of Kurt’s goal—a short narration outlining the long odds of making it to the pros. But Kurt has genetics on his side, plus genuine talent. Unfortunately, nobody wants him.

Exactly why he’s unwanted isn’t always clear. We learn Warner spent most of his college career on the bench, only getting his chance to play as a fifth-year senior. Something about discipline is the reason behind this, but it’s never fully laid out. He isn’t part of the NFL draft upon finishing college, but he does get a chance with the Green Bay Packers. However, a misstep ends his career in Green Bay.

The film trains its focus more on the hardships Warner faced off the field alongside his girlfriend, single-mother Brenda (Anna Paquin), and his perseverance to work through them.

This is the more interesting part of Kurt’s story, and the screenwriting team of David Aaron Cohen, Jon Gunn and Jon Erwin (also co-director) know how to engage the audience. It’s not the victories on the field that matter most – though they are impressive – but the sheer determination to make the dream happen.

Of course, it’s easy to root for a man who pursues his goals with such dogged persistence and nary a negative thought. He faces hardships but with such grace, it borders on unrealistic. Even while working as a stock boy at a local grocery store, living in an apartment with no heat in the middle of winter, Brenda and Kurt radiate the kind of positivity that you typically find in a film with a faith-based anchor.

There is some cringe-worthy dialogue, and you can’t expect a movie like this to skip the inspirational speeches, but American Underdog wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s not too hard to ignore the schmaltz.

Faith. Family. Football.

Under the Stadium Lights

by George Wolf

Which is more likely to embrace the cliches inherent in sports: interviews or movies?

The sheer number of daily opportunities pushes the scale toward the Q&A, but while we’re waiting on the next superstar baller to “take it one game at a time,” Under the Stadium Lights scores one for the big screen.

Based on the book “Brother’s Keeper” (also the movie’s original title) by Al Pickett and Chad Mitchel, the film takes us inside the 2009 high school football season with the Abilene Eagles. The bitter taste of their playoff defeat the year before fueled the players and coaches as they made another run for the Texas state playoffs.

Mitchel (played by Milo Gibson, 6th son of Mel) was not only an Abilene police officer that year, he was also the Eagles team Chaplin. Through his “safe space” program, the players were encouraged to share the tough times they were going through off the field, and to lean on their football brothers for the strength to persevere.

That’s a commendable story. But director Todd Randall and screenwriters John Collins and Hamid Torabpour tell it with no regard for human shades of grey, which is a problem.

No doubt these mostly black and brown players did have troubling patches in their young lives, but the film paints the young men as one dimensional vessels strengthened by the good word of this white man. These are high school seniors, and there’s nary a word or thought about girls, sex or anything other than remaining vigilant in their virtue.

Don’t expect even a whisper about any systemic causes for the problems at home, either. While no one would argue the value in making good life choices, this is a bootstrap fantasy, where what isn’t talked about amounts to tacit approval of blaming the needy for just not working hard enough.

Often hamstrung by preachy and obvious dialog, the the cast does very little to elevate it. Save for the welcome presence of veterans Laurence Fishburne, Noel Gugliemi and Glen Morshower in small roles, performances alternate between hyperbolic over-emoting and emotionless cardboard.

Early on, though, the football scenes are a surprise bright spot. It’s actually charming that Randall forgoes cheesy reenactments for the real game films, but when he reverses that decision in the third act, the resulting clash gives the new footage an even more sterile and pretend quality.

A big congrats to the 2009 Abilene Eagles on what must have been a great season. But with Texas high school football on its mind, “lights” in its new title and no roster spot for nuance, the movie version will have you longing for Friday Night.

Do It For the Hwyl!*

Dream Horse

by George Wolf

How much of a feel good story is this? Dream Horse is the second film to tell it in just the last five years.

2016’s Dark Horse introduced it as a splendid documentary, with archival footage and first person accounts from the working class U.K. folk who pooled their money to breed a race horse. That horse, named Dream Alliance, become an unlikely winner, ultimately racing for the Welsh Grand National title.

If you’ve seen that doc (and I recommend it), it will come as no surprise that narrative filmmakers are having a go at the tale. I mean, it’s got majestic horses, regular Joes and Jans crashing the owners boxes, triumphant sports moments, and it really happened! Barton Fink couldn’t have cooked up anything more big screen ready.

Director Euros Lyn (lots of TV including Doctor Who) has a terrific anchor in Toni Collette, who stars as Welsh barmaid Jan Vokes. It was Jan’s idea to form a “syndicate” ownership group for a racehorse, leaning on bar regular Howard Davies (Damien Lewis) – a tax advisor with some experience around the track – for backup.

For Lyn and screenwriter Neil McKay (also a TV veteran), the challenge becomes keeping the generic sports cliches from overpowering the moments that transcend sport. And for the most part, they do.

Yes, you’re going to hear swelling music and a dismissive trainer admitting “there’s just something about him…” But more importantly, you see people finding a renewed joy in their very existence – and a touching pride in knowing they were a part of something worthy enough to outlive them.

One of the many joys of Dark Horse was getting to know this colorful gang in person – they are a collective hoot. Collette, Lewis and a solid ensemble bring them all to life in warm and witty fashion, while Lyn earns some bonus points for the refreshing way he brings out the real players for a curtain call.

The best sports movies are almost always about more than the sport. Dream Horse doesn’t forget that. You can bet on it.

*a old Welsh saying meaning doing something for the stirring sensation, fervour, emotion and enthusiasm

The Right to Bare Arms

Golden Arm

by George Wolf

You know it’s been 34 years since we got a funny movie about arm wrestling?

True, it was Stallone’s Over the Top and it wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but the point is…the drought is over! Golden Arm is here with a new tournament, new stakes and plenty of laughs.

Danny – aka The Dominator! (Betsy Sodaro) – is a tough lady trucker who enjoys a good bar fight and the womano y womano competition of arm wrestling. Danny’s good, but not good enough to beat “Fuckin’ Brenda” The Bonecrusher (Olivia Stambouliah) in the upcoming championship tourney.

But you know who could be? Danny’s old friend Melanie (Mary Holland, who stole so many scenes in last year’s Happiest Season). Mel might be a soft spoken wimp who can’t even stand up to rude customers at her struggling bakery, but Danny also remembers Mel as having one impressive right arm.

So we’re gonna need a training montage!

First-time feature director Maureen Bharoocha serves it up, along with some nicely organic info on the rules of the game that serve to get us situated (don’t forget to “suck and tuck!”). And as Danny and Mel take to the road, the debut screenplay from Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly provides plenty of room for inspired antics (the bit about Twister had me howling) on the way to the arms race that ends with a 15k Grand Prize.

Holland and Sodaro make an endearing odd couple, and it’s the pure engagement of their characters that keeps the film afloat during a shaky first act. But hang in, because from picking out Mel’s wrestling persona (“I’m ‘The Ex-Wife!'”) to a gynecologist’s detailed condemnation of the phrase “balls out,” it just gets funnier as it rolls along.

Call it “stupid funny” if you want, but it’s still funny, with some underlying themes about gender stereotypes, personal growth and female friendships that are far from dumb.

It’s the bawdy excess that’s in your face, so close you may even miss the wink-wink nods to both the Stallone flick and The Karate Kid. But those bits of subtlety are even more evidence that the rough edges in Golden Arm don’t come from sloppy construction.

With this one, it’s guns out, fun’s out.

Sibling Smackdown

Fighting With My Family

by Hope Madden

Rarely, if ever, has WWE PR been as charming as Stephen Merchant’s biopic Fighting with My Family.

A traditional underdog tale, the film is also savvy enough to know how to wield its source material to broaden its audience beyond your traditional WWE fanatic.

Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh) — or Britani or, later, Paige — takes part in her family’s business. Mornings, she hands out flyers to their wrestling events, mainly to passersby who look down their noses at the notion.

Afternoons she helps her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) coach local kids on the arts of grappling. Evenings, she gets in the ring with her brother, mum (Lena Headey) and dad (Nick Frost) to entertain amateur wrestling enthusiasts in Norwich, England.

Then the call comes inviting Saraya and Zak to audition for WWE at an upcoming London Smackdown event.

The set-up is there and, for any sports story, it is golden. Scrappy working class upbringing? Check! Sibling rivalry? Check! Opportunities for montage? Everywhere!

Better still is a madcap supporting cast you can’t help but love. Frost and Headey share a really lovely and incredibly goofy onscreen chemistry as the Mohawk-sporting ex-con patriarch and former homeless drug addict turned devoted mum. Merchant’s sharp direction and even sharper script avoids condescension or sentimentality.

The solid first act dovetails nicely into a less comedic journey for Saraya, the only sibling the WWE actually hires. Additional supporting players cannot live up to the charisma of Saraya’s family, but Dwayne Johnson plays himself and he has enough charisma for an entire cast.

Vince Vaughn, adding one more to a string of solid performances, plays the recruiter/drill sergeant/coach who helps Saraya find her individual strength for the journey to WWE Diva.

Pugh is the spark that makes the engines go, here. Though Saraya’s wigs are not always believable, her inner conflict and fighting spirit are.

While Fighting with My Family manages to sidestep or subvert a lot of genre clichés, it hardly breaks new ground. Instead, Merchant elevates the familiar with a more authentic feeling backstory and a winning cast.





Family Feud

Creed II

by George Wolf

In the history of elephants and rooms, Creed II earns a special mention for its spit take-worthy moment when a boxing commentator finally deadpans,”It’s all a bit Shakespearean, isn’t it?”

Why yes, it is, in fact more than a bit.

It’s a daddy issues melodrama on steroids, one that hits every crowd pleasing note and works every manipulative angle it can pull from the long and storied history of this franchise. And true to the fighters at the heart of these films, the new Creed will not be denied.

Let’s be honest, the first Creed rebooted the Rocky warhorse so effectively, it was a surprising left hook to nearly everyone who hadn’t seen writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan’s stunning work in Fruitvale Station.

But that was pre-Black Panther, and though Coogler is missed for this sequel, promising indie director Steven Caple, Jr. displays similar instincts for slaying sentimentality with smaller moments of conviction.

And lots of great fighting.

Much of that needed conviction comes from Jordan, who returns with fervor as Adonis Creed, the newly-crowned heavyweight champ who gets an instant challenge from Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of…who else but Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Adonis’s father Apollo when Rocky wouldn’t throw the damn towel.

Drago the Younger is huge and strong (one trainer rightly dubs him “a balanced breakfast”), leading Rocky (Stallone), still haunted by Apollo’s death, to advise against the fight.

Adonis also has Bianca (Tessa Thompson, splendid as always and sharing great chemistry with Jordan) and their positive pregnancy test to consider, along with a truckload of pride and unfinished business.

Stallone, who of course started all this with the original Rocky screenplay, steps back in as co-writer, and in many ways Creed 2 becomes just as much Rocky’s story as Adonis’s. But it feels right, thanks to another award-worthy turn from Sly and a character arc that rings true enough to consider moving on without him next time.

Caple, Jr. delivers some of the same grit that made his The Land such a hardscrabble, underseen winner, while also bringing a fresh eye to the boxing choreography. Yes, each round is as unrealistically action-filled as most boxing films, but what do you want, a Pacquiao/Mayweather tap-dance?

No, you want to applaud the good guy knocking the evil Russian’s mouthpiece out while you cheer like it’s Cold War Reunion Night at TGI Fridays, and Caple, Jr. makes sure you will.

It doesn’t hurt when that original Rocky music kicks in, and it’s again weaved into a vital soundtrack subtly enough to not overstay any welcomes.

But beyond all the button pushing, sentiment and nostalgia are characters, and this all falls like a tomato can in the fist round if we don’t have reason to care about them. We still do.

Gotta fly now.

 





Anyone For Tennis?

Battle of the Sexes

by George Wolf

A fight for equality playing out inside sports arenas. Sound familiar? Battle of the Sexes isn’t just an effortlessly engaging piece of entertainment, it’s a compelling reminder that the sporting world has long been intertwined with the social and political movements of the day.

In 1973, Billie Jean King was 29 years old and the leading name in women’s tennis. Bobby Riggs was a 55 year-old former champion who missed the spotlight. As the “women’s lib” movement grew, they met for three sets of tennis that was watched by ninety million people.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) choose wisely in running the soul of the film through King. Bolstered by Emma Stone’s gracefully layered performance, the film’s emotional connection comes from King’s dueling inner conflicts: the responsibility of carrying the women’s game forward and her growing attraction to the tour hairdresser (an excellent Andrea Riseborough).

A taut script from the Oscar-winning Simon Beaufoy finds marks that often speak directly to today’s “stick to sports” crowd. In one particularly biting scene, a defiant King argues for equal prize money on the women’s circuit, telling the condescending director of the tour (Bill Pullman) that he’s a constant gentleman “until we want a bit of what you’ve got.”

As he was in the actual ’73 event, Riggs is the film’s camera-loving ringmaster, a born huckster who tells a recovery group they don’t need to stop gambling – they just need to get better at it. Steve Carell nails the role, and not just because he has the look and the attitude. In the quieter moments away from the cheering crowds, Carell gives us a faded star in search of purpose, finding the authenticity that Riggs leaned on to remain endearing.

The period details are just right and, thanks to some nifty work by two athletic body doubles, so is the tennis. Faulting only with some fleeting moments of flippancy, Battle of the Sexes wins by serving up both a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the human drama than ultimately made it so much more.

 

 





Goon Baby Goon

Goon: Last of the Enforcers

by George Wolf

Seven years ago, we got three successive blasts of fresh air released in roughly 18 months: Kick-Ass, Machete and Goon. Sequels for the first two quickly followed, each doomed by an approach that seemed oblivious to all that made their origin stories so appealing.

It’s taken quite a bit longer, but Goon: Last of the Enforcers is here to complete the unfortunate trifecta.

Lovable hockey goon/overall simpleton Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) is touched to be named captain of his Halifax Highlanders squad, but when he’s beaten to a bloody mess by new goon on the block Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell), Doug faces some tough decisions.

His girl Eva (Alison Pill) is pregnant and really doesn’t want him fighting anymore, so Doug takes a sad gig handling “insurance documents.” But with his team in disarray and a familiar itch to scratch, Doug starts training with old foe Ross Rhea (Liev Schrieber) for a possible return to the ice.

Familiar sports movie cliches follow, but that’s not what makes this new Goon so disappointing. The problems come from forgetting to give us any authentic reasons to care about Doug, or any attempts at humor that rise above sophomoric.

Jay Baruchel returns as co-star/co-writer, and takes the big chair for his debut as a feature director. His vision falls well short of the bawdy bulls-eye the first film delivered, sorely missing the script input from original co-writer Evan Goldberg (Pineapple Express, This Is the End, Sausage Party, Superbad). Goldberg’s smart brand of humor is just what this film needs more of, as it relies instead on silly gags aiming for the lowest hanging fruit.

Also gone is the goon so easy to love. Doug is much too broadly drawn this time, reduced from a big-hearted brute we rooted for to a village idiot merely there to laugh at, not laugh with.

Goon was an underdog winner. Last of the Enforcers earns the penalty box.

 





Too Much Movie, Too Little Time

Tommy’s Honour

by Christie Robb

I know zilch about golf, and was fascinated by the story of the father and son who pioneered the modern game, Thomas Morris and Thomas Morris Jr. But there was just too much story squeezed into this movie: class snobbery, ambition, shifts in morality, romance, father/son drama, the development of golfing as a profession, the innovations in technique, the designing of greens, death, grief, alcoholism…

The movie lacked clear focus and, thus, presented enough of the elements of the story to intrigue, but not enough to satisfy—often the case when a book is adapted. In this case, the screenplay was written by Pamela Marin and Kevin Cook, based on Cook’s own 2007 book Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son.

In Jason Connery’s film (yup, Sean’s son), the story is framed by the questions of a young reporter. He has traveled up to Scotland to interview Old Tom (Peter Mullan), who then launches into the tale of his son (Jack Lowden): a golf prodigy discontent with the way the gentlemen at the St. Andrews club treat his greenskeeper father. Young Tom is also unhappy that the toffs take the lion’s share of championship winnings and is determined to correct this, over the protestations of his father who is more at peace with the status quo.

Young Tom’s machinations to obtain more cash and to increase the prestige of the golf player come off a bit petulant and his disdain at his father’s lot in life undercuts the coolness of his father’s career. (Not only a greenskeeper—he was himself a champion—still the oldest winner of the Open Championship—who designed something like 70 golf courses and made equipment.)

It’d be enough, I think, to keep the focus on the golf, but at the same time, the movie tries to cover the relationship between Young Tom and the older woman he falls for (Ophelia Lovibond). She’d given birth to an illegitimate child and this causes a rift between Young Tom and his religious mum. Fine, certainly interesting. But there’s not enough time spent on the relationship to make the audience care about it and the romance takes focus off the golf. Then the woman’s death in a subsequent birth seems to be the catalyst for Young Tom’s decent into alcoholism and early “tragic” death. (Tragic in quotes as the movie seems to imply that Young Tom died from exposure—insisting he finish a golf match inexplicably held in Scotland on Christmas Eve, in a blizzard. A death’s not tragic if you can avoid it by going inside.)

To me, the best part of the movie was the credits sequence where the Connery flashes old photos of the real-life father and son with some simple accompanying text about their lives. So, ultimately, I’d have rather have been introduced to this story as a documentary. Or, if acted, as a BBC or Netflix series that would have allowed all the different facets of the story enough room to really shine.

Verdict-2-0-Stars





Grandmaster Flash

Queen of Katwe

by Hope Madden

Director Mira Nair has a long history of films told with respect to the cultural heritage of the story itself. Having begun her career as a documentarian, she also builds in an eye for authenticity that can be sorely lacking in underdog sports films – which, on its surface, does describe Queen of Katwe. In fact, those genre trappings tend to be the film’s only major flaws.

The film follows Ugandan teen Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga). A child of devastating poverty, Phiona finds escape – and eventually incredible success – in chess.

Nair periodically stumbles over her formula. Particularly effected are the talented David Oyelowo. As Phiona’s chess coach, Oyelowo’s lot is to be the comprehensively honorable, selfless mentor with little to do besides look heavenward as he worries over his students with the unflagging encouragement of his by-the-playbook supportive wife (Esther Tebendeke).

But fear not, because Lupita Nyong’o sets the screen ablaze with a performance that reminds us just why she won that Oscar. As Phiona’s mother, she depicts a survivor’s stubborn strength that belies deep, heartbreaking emotion. She’s magnificent.

Making her screen debut, Nalwanga also impresses, surrounded by a talented ensemble of young actors. The large, often loud group around her makes great use of dialog, argument and physicality, but Nalwanga expresses an enormous range of emotion with the slightest change in expression. Hers is a quietly memorable performance that easily carries the film.

There were so many ways this movie could have gone wrong. You can almost see it being told from the point of view of the white, American journalist Tim Crothers researching the tale and learning valuable lessons from the tenacity and noble sacrifice of its heroin. Thank God, this is not that movie.

Crothers’s book (based on his Sports Illustrated article) was adapted for the screen by William Wheeler. Wheeler penned Nair’s weakest feature, 2012’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, using exactly that “white reporter learning from a subject of color” framework that is so, so tired. So tired.

While he – and by extension, Nair – can’t quite break free from “inspiring sports film” clichés, those weaknesses are easily eclipsed by a set of magnetic actors and a true story that cannot help but move you.

Verdict-3-0-Stars