Tag Archives: sports movies

Queen of the Waves

Young Woman and the Sea

by George Wolf

She died in 2003 at the age of 98. And to this day, the New York parade that honored her in 1926 is the largest the city has ever given to a single athlete, man or woman.

Her name was Trudy Ederle, and that year she became the first woman to swim the 21 miles across the English Channel.

Disney’s Young Woman and the Sea brings Trudy’s story to streaming with broad strokes of sports inspiration, and a grounded lead turn from Daisy Ridley that consistently keeps engagement afloat.

Ridley brings intimacy to Trudy’s early struggles against health issues and sexism, crafting a quiet determination to conquer both through swimming the Channel.

Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and writer Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can) adapt Jeff Stout’s source biography with a familiar treatment of Trudy’s path to history. Solid supporting players (including Jeanette Hain, Kim Bodnia, Tilda Cobham-Hervey) create an Ederle family unit with an earned humanity. In contrast to forced underdog sports dramas such as the recent The Boys in the Boat, the family dynamics here feel earned, and that fuels the conflicts that come with the arrival of Bill Burgess (Stephen Graham).

Burgess – who swam the Channel himself years earlier – sees through the attempts by insecure males to sabotage Trudy’s quest, and commits himself to helping her succeed, even when the Ederle family wants to call it off. The period details are affecting, Rønning mines tension from an outcome we already know, and Ridley makes sure Trudy is inspirational without becoming a one note hero.

Young Woman and the Sea may never attempt to shake up the sports biography playbook, but it doesn’t feel like pandering, either. Disney obviously knows the game plan, and the film’s commitment to execution delivers a satisfying and overdue salute to a woman who earned it.

We Got Blisters Yes We Do

Backspot

by George Wolf

Yes, Backspot is a film about the drama surrounding members of an all-star cheerleading squad. But 2-4-6-8, you will no doubt appreciate a mindset that aims higher than a standard Young Adult pandering.

Riley (Devery Jacobs) and her girlfriend Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) both cheer for their high school squad in Cananda. Riley hides serious anxiety behind her outward confidence, but she jumps at the chance to try out for the Thunderhawks, an elite team run by the no-nonsense Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood).

Assistant coach Devon (Thomas Antony Olajide, bringing some expert level attitude) lays down the law on day one: “Don’t sing that song, Come On Eileen.”

Okay, then.

Riley, Amanda and their friend Rachel (Noa DiBerto) make the cut, and with the championships looming in just two weeks, the girls are immediately thrown into an intense training regimen that will test their physical and mental limitations.

Director and co-writer D.W. Waterson expands her 2017 short as a mix of Whiplash, Personal Best and Bring It On. With writing that’s often smart and performances that are reliably authentic, Backspot urges you to respect the athleticism, commitment and battered feet of these competitors, while not shrinking from the problematic aspects of the competition culture.

Jacobs, returning from the short film, is terrific. Riley isn’t a shy YA teen just waiting for her specialness to be seen; she’s a real world young woman driven to succeed while trying to navigate the expectations at home, on the mat, and in her relationship with Amanda.

Wood digs into her gum-chewing taskmaster role with understandable relish. Because while Eileen delivers one of the film’s most pointed messages (“the world is not kind to weak people, especially people like us”), she’s not held up as an infallible beacon of integrity.

These shades of grey are welcome, and they help Waterson overcome a reliance on shaky cam closeups or moments when certain actions come with consequences that seem a bit too tidy. Bonus points for Amanda’s Ohio State sweatshirt.

And as the championship cheer action comes to a close, you may hit the showers thinking you’ve just seen a sports movie, a queer anthem or a coming-of-age dramedy, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Which means there’s plenty right about Backspot.

Driver Education

Gran Turismo

by George Wolf

When I used to coach youth baseball, I would sometimes encourage the use of video games to teach the young ones about rules, game situations and strategy.

And then one day the Major Leagues called up one of my best players!

Nah, that would be crazy. Almost as crazy as the true story at the heart of Gran Turismo, a trope-laden but surprisingly engaging mix of product placements and underdog sports heroics.

Orlando Bloom is Danny Moore, a UK marketing exec for Nissan who worries that young people are caring less about driving cars and more about driving simulators, specifically Gran Turismo on PlayStation. So, Danny proposes a contest that would fuel excitement for real driving.

Find the 10 best “sim” racers in the world and send them to GT Academy boot camp. The academy champion will join Team Nismo and compete in actual races against seasoned pros who will hate them.

The fact that this actually happened to Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) in 2011 is mind-blowing, and director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) presents the racing action with an engaging fantasy/reality mix of burning rubber and game graphics that seems fitting.

Madekwe (Midsommar, Heart of Stone) gives Jann a sense of wounded determination that is easy to root for, but it’s David Harbour’s turn as no-nonsense driving instructor Jack Salter that consistently comes up a winner. Harbour’s chemistry with Bloom is antagonistic and amusing, while Jack and Jann eventually develop a bond of respect and affection that carries some warmth.

But getting there is a long 135-minute road, with some hazards.

Screenwriters Jason Hall, Zach Baylin and Alex Tse hamper Blomkamp’s foot-on-the-gas highlights with cliches, manufactured rivalries and the overwrought dramatics of Jann’s struggle to connect with his father (Djimon Hounsou). And while the constant instructions to Jann and his fellow drivers are a nicely organic way to keep the rest of us updated on the stakes, mounting distractions kill the buzz too often.

The hook here is a gamer earning his racing stripes, and the attempts at some Rocky-esque search for dignity aren’t strong enough to support it. But – much like Jann himself – when Gran Turismo is free to fully embrace what it is, the film can shine with a thrill of unexpected victory.

Team

Shooting Stars

by George Wolf

It’s a good time for basketball stories. Ben Affleck’s Air landed as a vital addition to the Michael Jordan legend, White Men Can’t Jump got a serviceable update, Boston and Miami just finished a thrilling NBA semi-final while Denver routed LeBron and the Lakers to make it to their first NBA finals.

But King James is still in the game this year, at least on screen. Peacock’s Shooting Stars relives LeBron’s days with the Akron Fab Four on his way to being hailed by Sports Illustrated as “the Chosen One” while he was still a teen.

Based on the book by James and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, the film gives a dramatic treatment to much of the territory covered so effectively in the 2008 documentary More Than a Game.

James (Marquis “Mookie” Cook) and longtime friends Dru Joyce (Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things), Sian Cotton (Cobra Kai‘s Khalil Everage) and Willie McGee (Avery S. Willis, Jr.) grew up playing basketball together on teams coached by Dru, Sr. (Wood Harris). When it was time for high school, the Fab Four all eschewed local favorite Buchtel High and enrolled at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary, to ensure the diminutive “Lil Dru” would get a fair shot to play.

With no-nonsense coaching from college vet Frank Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) and the addition of Romeo Travis (Sterling “Scoot” Henderson) to the inner circle, St. V’s Fab Five quickly became a national powerhouse.

Director Chris Robinson keeps things on a nice even keel, pulling solid performances from all with a good balance of off-court camaraderie and hoop excitement (the latter buoyed by future top-5 NBA pick Henderson and the Univ. of Oregon’s Cook – who has LeBron’s high school dunking pose down pat). Writers Juel Taylor (Creed II), Frank E. Flowers and Tony Rettenmaier do an admirable job of distinct characterizations, but with James and his business partner Maverick Carter as executive producers, a sanitized, almost after-school vibe starts to creep in, especially for anyone who enjoyed the home video authenticity of More Than a Game.

We know what became of James, but no matter where you stand on the GOAT debate, Shooting Stars will remind you that how he turned out continues to be taken for granted. In the public eye since adolescence, James is now the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, sends kids to college and speaks out on social justice while enduring the social media scrutiny MJ never imagined. And to this day, his biggest misstep has been an ill-advised television special.

Still, LeBron has been insistent that Shooting Stars “is our story,” which is indeed how the film ultimately feels. And while it’s rooted in one special team from Ohio that earned trophies and built some lifelong friendships, there are also healthy reminders of the universal life lessons that can come from organized sports and committed coaches.

That’s a winning combination.

Tears in His Eyes, I Guess

The Phantom of the Open

by George Wolf

Olympic ski jumping found its unlikely warrior in Eddie the Eagle. Championship golf has a similar everyman hero in Maurice Flitcroft, and while Maurice still needs a catchy nickname, his tale finally gets the big screen treatment with The Phantom of the Open.

Maurice actually made his name years before Eddie, when he qualified for the British Open back in 1976.

And?

Up until that time, Maurice was a crane operator at a British shipyard who had never played even one full round of golf.

Cinderella story, meet Cinderella boy.

Well, not exactly, as Maurice shoots the worst round in Open history and quickly runs afoul of the course director (Rhys Ifans).

But a legend is born, and right from the film’s storybook-styled opening, director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) and writer Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) adapt Scott Murray’s book on Maurice’s often hilarious exploits with a whimsical, endlessly optimistic treatment. It fits like a pair of plaid pants at the 19th hole.

And what perfect casting. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance effortlessly brings Maurice to lovable life as a gentle, indefatigable dreamer. He’s also a soft-spoken family man, devoted to his wife (an equally perfect Sally Hawkins), the older stepson who’s embarrassed by him (Jake Davies) and his twin sons obsessed with disco (Christian and Jonah Lees).

His wife supports him, so why shouldn’t Maurice take a stab at the Open? Why can’t his friend at the shipyard open that pub he’s always wanted? And who says his boys can’t be disco dance champions? The world is your oyster, go find that pearl!

The film may not always share Maurice’s grand ambitions, but it has plenty of good humor and nearly overflows with crowd-pleasing charm. An unassuming ode to staying committed to what – and who – you love, The Phantom of the Open plays to the gallery with an awkward, sweater-vested panache that makes one history-making slouch seem pretty tremendous.

We’re Gonna Need a Montage

Hustle

by George Wolf

Adam Sandler’s passion for basketball is fairly well known, so the fact that Hustle is a love letter to the NBA shouldn’t be a huge surprise. And, this being a sports movie, you can expect some familiar benchmarks the film wisely doesn’t shy away from.

But this film about the heart and commitment that’s required in the Association boasts plenty of both from nearly everyone involved, landing Netflix an enjoyable winner.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a road-weary scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose devotion to team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) is finally rewarded with a job on the bench as Assistant Coach.

But with clear shades of the Buss family drama in L.A., Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster) wrestles control of the team from his sister (Heidi Gardner), and Stan is back living out of a suitcase while he scours the globe for a susperstar.

Writers Will Fetters and Taylor Materne set some nice stakes early, as Vince dangles a return to coaching in front of Stan. The quicker he finds the team a game-changing phenom, the sooner he can be home closer to his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull).

On a gritty playground in Spain, Stan thinks he’s found his unicorn in the 6’9” Bo Cruz (NBA vet Juancho Hernangomez). The talk of big money lures Bo to Philly, but the path to a payday hits some roadblocks, and Bo’s longing for this mom and daughter back home creates some effective character-driven parallels with Stan.

Sandler and Hernangomez share a sweet, funny chemistry, and a constant stream of past and present NBA stars adds plenty of authenticity. Even better is director Jeremiah Zagar’s (We the Animals) skill in framing on-court action with speed, sweat and a tense, in-the-moment feel that gives the standard sports themes some needed vitality.

Hustle is a story of father figures, redemption, perseverance, and leaving your mark. No one’s claiming to re-invent anything here, and the winking nod to an iconic Rocky moment cements a self-awareness that only adds to the film’s charm.

It’s also another example of Sandler’s versatility, and the good that comes from surrounding himself with unique voices. When Sandler cares, he shines.

And he clearly cares about basketball.

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.