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Hullabaloo


Saturday, February 02, 2008

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

Pre-game movie marathon


By Dennis Hartley

This being Super Bowl weekend and all, I figured this would be as good a time as any to trot out my top ten favorite sports films (and the runners-up). As per usual, my list is arranged in no particular ranking order. So, gentlemen (and ladies)-start your DVD’s!

This Sporting Life (1963) - This movie was part of the string of “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s/early 60s. Films like Look Back in Anger, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and youthful working class angst. This Sporting Life was an important watermark for both its director (Lindsay Anderson) and star (Richard Harris). Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical young rugby player who has a gift for the game and subsequently becomes an overnight sports star. Criterion recently gave this one the deluxe treatment, including an excellent transfer.

Personal Best - When this film was first released, there was so much fuss made over a couple of brief (and tastefully done) love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was probably one of the most realistic, non-condescending portraits of female athletes to ever reach movie screens. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; his pre-production research included spending some time closely observing Olympic track stars at work and at play. The women in his story are shown to be every bit as tough and competitive as their male counterparts; Hemingway and (real-life pentathlete) Donnelly deserve credit for not sugar-coating their characterizations in any way. Scott Glenn is excellent as the women’s hard driving coach.

Fat City - This 1972 character study is one of John Huston’s lesser-known works, but IMHO it is one of his finest. Stacey Keach (in the role of his career) is an alcoholic, down-and-out prizefighter who becomes a mentor for a neophyte boxer (Jeff Bridges). Susan Tyrrell is a real standout as Keach’s love interest (she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this role). I’ve always preferred this film to Rocky because there’s no sentimentality or audience pandering. The song “Help Me Make it Through the Night” haunts the film, and has never sounded so bittersweet. A downer, but well worth a peek.

North Dallas Forty - Nick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a fantastic ensemble cast in this locker room peek at the lifestyles of pro football players and the machinations of team owners. Some of the antics are allegedly based on the real-life hijinx of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning (who scored a career achievement award from the Screen Actor’s Guild last Sunday) is perfect as the coach. Peter Gent adapted the screenplay from his original novel. This film is so entertaining that I can almost forgive director Ted Kotcheff for foisting Rambo: First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s on us a bit later in his career…

Slap Shot - A puckish satire. Paul Newman skates away with his role as the coach of a slumping minor league hockey team in this classic, directed by George Roy Hill. When Newman learns about a possible sale of the franchise, he decides to pull out all the stops and start playing "dirty". The entire acting ensemble is wonderful, and screenwriter Nancy Dowd’s riotously profane locker room dialog will have you rolling. Newman’s Cool Hand Luke co-star Strother Martin (as the team’s manager) handily steals all of his scenes. Lindsey Crouse is memorable as a sexually frustrated "sports wife" in a rare comedic role. Michael Ontkean performs the funniest "striptease" bit in the history of film, and the endearingly sociopathic “Hansen Brothers” have to be seen to be believed.

Bull Durham- Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, insightfully written and splendidly acted rumination on life, love, and oh yeah-baseball. Kevin Costner gives one of his better performances as a seasoned, world-weary minor league catcher who reluctantly plays mentor to a somewhat dim hotshot rookie pitcher (Tim Robbins). Susan Sarandon is a poetry-spouting baseball groupie who selects one player every season to take under her wing and do some, er, special mentoring of her own. A complex love triangle ensues. It’s sort of Jules and Jim meets The Natural. I miss whip-smart, “adult” comedies like this-they are sadly MIA these days.

Hoop Dreams – One of the most highly praised documentaries of all time, with good reason. Ostensibly “about” basketball, it is at its heart about perseverance, love, and family-which is probably why it struck such a chord with audiences as well as critics. Director Steve James follows the lives of two young men from the inner city for a five-year period, as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. Just when you think you have the film pigeonholed, it takes off in unexpected directions, making for a much more riveting story than one might initially expect. A real winner.

Bend It Like Beckham – OK, so this is a shamelessly formulaic “feel good” flick-but only the most coldhearted cynics will be immune to its charms. Director Gurinder Chadha (she also co-wrote) whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly mixes the audience-pleasing elements of Rocky with some of the plot devices one finds in a typical Bollywood romance. The story centers around a headstrong young woman (Parminder Nagra) who is upsetting her traditional Sikh parents by following her “silly” dream to become an English soccer star. Chadha also weaves in a subtle subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face while assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (who plays a likable character for once!)

Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 film from director Michael Ritchie examines the tightly-knit and highly competitive world of Olympic downhill skiing. Robert Redford is cast against type, and consequently delivers one of his more interesting performances as a talented but arrogant athlete who joins up with the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gene Hackman is outstanding (as always) as the coach who finds himself at frequent loggerheads with Redford’s contrarian demeanor (he makes John McEnroe seem like a lovable guy). The film has a cinema verite feel that gives the story a realistic edge.

Death Race 2000 – At first glance, Paul Bartel’s film about a futuristic gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score extra points for running down pedestrians is an outrageous, gross-out cult comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as a broad political satire, or perhaps a wry comment on that great, timeless American tradition of watching televised bloodsport for entertainment (Super Bowl XLII, anyone?). One thing I’ll say about this movie-it’s never boring! The film was produced by the legendary king of no-budget cult movies, Roger Corman. It was written by Charles Griffith (a Corman veteran), who also penned the original Little Shop of Horrors and Bucket of Blood. David Carridine is a riot as the defending Death Race champ, “Frankenstein”. Also look for Bartel’s longtime leading lady Mary Woronov and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. If you were able to stomach Eating Raoul, you’ll love this one.

And the Silver Medals go to (the next 10):

Rocky
Field of Dreams
Raging Bull
When We Were Kings
Breaking Away
Body and Soul(1947)
The Natural
The Hustler
The Longest Yard (1974)
Fear Strikes Out

And the Bronze Medals go to (the next 10):

Any Given Sunday
Hoosiers
Lagaan - Once Upon a Time in India
All the Marbles
Murderball
Without Limits
A League of Their Own
Running Cool
Caddyshack
Kansas City Bomber


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