Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bend It Like Beckham

Year 4, Day 168 - 6/16/12 - Movie #1,165

BEFORE: From South Africa to the U.K., and from rugby (football) to soccer (football).  No direct acting links were available tonight, but at least Matt Damon from "Invictus" was also in "Dogma" with Alan Rickman, who was also in "Love Actually" with Keira Knightley.


THE PLOT: The daughter of orthodox Sikh rebels against her parents' traditionalism by playing on a soccer team.

AFTER: My co-worker, a soccer player, was somewhat shocked that I was planning to watch this film, thinking it to be far out of my comfort zone.  But it did get great reviews back when it was released, and it's like one of the most successful indie films, right?  I figured I could give it a whirl.

My first feeling about the film, it's part sports film, part relationship drama, part comedy and part social commentary.  Sometimes that can work, but here it felt more like the movie was trying to be all things to all people, and that's just impossible.   Secondly, it feels clich├ęd, with the uptight parents and people who are shocked that a girl might want to play sports.  That might have seemed shocking in the 1950's, but this film is set in the present day, and felt out of place.  Women have been playing professional sports since at least the 1980's, right?  (I kid.)

Then we've got this love triangle, which isn't really a love triangle since the relationships aren't consummated, so it's largely theoretical - but still feels forced in a way.  Each leg of the triangle feels awkward somehow, especially when the friendship between the two girls was strained because of it.

Speaking of the relationship between the girls, the unenlightened parents and other relatives mistake them for lesbians, which isn't played up enough in either a comic or dramatic fashion.  You've got to pick a direction and run with it, in order to make a point.  The mother who said she was OK with her daughter being gay - well, then what's with all the hysterics?  Is she OK with it or not?  This should have been bigger, she should have been either really OK with it, or really not OK with it.

In fact, it seems like the plot didn't push far enough in any direction - any conflicts that came up all seemed to get smoothed over quite quickly, except maybe the part about the main character lying to her parents - but even that got resolved quite quickly once she told the truth.  So the major sticking point in the relationship turned out to be...not so bad after all.  Great for the relationship, but boring for a film.

No one ever seems to get more than slightly inconvenienced about anything, even divisive cultural differences.  Everyone seems pretty well-off, no one's living in a shanty-town in Johannesburg being oppressed - so by comparison, this feels like weak sauce.   So your mother wants you to learn to cook and sometimes wear a dress?  Cry me a river, honey.

They didn't even give the soccer team a good rival team to play against.  Who did they beat?  I guess it doesn't matter, unless you want the sports part of your film to be taken seriously.  Nothing here about the mechanics of the game either, unless you count showing how a team plays slightly worse when two of its players are not getting along. 

On a technical note, if you're going to cross-cut between a soccer game and a lavish wedding, you should try to make sure that there's a point to be made in doing so.  I got zero meaning or metaphor out of the juxtaposition - yes, you can show both, but what does it MEAN if you do so?  Compare it to something like the cross-cutting at the end of "The Godfather", and you'll see what I mean.  

They keep trying to sell Americans on soccer, and time after time, it just doesn't take.  At the time of the release of this film, the WUSA was riding high, but only lasted between 2000 and 2003.  I suppose MLS is doing a little better, but I don't see it doing better than America's 5th most popular sport.  Fine by me, as according to Carlin's rules, it's not a real sport anyway, since there are dots on the ball and you can't use your hands.   (Tap dancing? Not a sport.)

Also starring Parminder Nagra, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (last seen in "Michael Collins"), Archie Panjabi, Juliet Stevenson.

RATING: 4 out of 10 penalty kicks

Friday, June 15, 2012

Invictus

Year 4, Day 167 - 6/15/12 - Movie #1,164

BEFORE:  All the way to South Africa for this one - I suppose I could have used this to bridge the topics of politics and sports, but I didn't think of it.  I also considered following "Hoosiers" with "Win Win", since they're both about high-school sports, but I didn't think of that either.  Anyway, that would have thrown off my linking, and it's so easy to link from Gene Hackman to Morgan Freeman through "Unforgiven". 


THE PLOT: Nelson Mandela, in his first term as the South African President, initiates a venture to unite the apartheid-torn land, enlisting the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

AFTER:  Sports here in the U.S. tend to be so divisive - my team is better than your team, or my city plays football better than yours.  The only time politics and sports get together is when mayors make that bet on whose team will win the Super Bowl or the World Series.  But this film shows how sports can occasionally bring the people of a divided nation together.  I suppose we do put our differences aside to root for the U.S. Olympic team, so really, it's a matter of scale.  Democrats and Republicans can argue all day long, but give them a war against a common enemy, and everyone's an American.

I was reminded a bit about the temporary suspension of baseball games in the U.S. right after the 9/11 attacks.  Eventually people determined that Americans wanted, or perhaps NEEDED the games to resume.  

The Rugby Cup was played in South Africa shortly after Mandela's election, at a time when the country was still racially divided - it would have been easy for the new government to reject all that had come before, including the flag, the anthem and the old rugby team, as symbols of Apartheid.  But Mandela stepped in and argued on behalf of the (mostly white) team, since he'd listened to their games while in prison.  And he was trying to create a new integrated country, so the automatic rejection of anything just because it was white would have just been a form of reverse discrimination.

And there's my connection to "Hoosiers" - in which the town almost voted out the new head coach.  Someone steps up, argues the case for the fairness of sports, and the coach/team gets another chance.  Another connection, an underdog team defies the odds and makes it to the championship game.  I don't think I'm giving much away here because they wouldn't be inclined to make a film about a team that loses the tournament in the second round, would they?

I can't say that I learned too much about the mechanics of rugby, other than it looks like a very brutal sport.  Oh, I learned that you can't pass the ball forward, only back or to the side.  I just tried to read some of the rules on Wikipedia and my head started to swim.  I don't really get the scrum part, and the rest looks like kicking football field goals, passing like soccer (only with hands), combined with the brutality of hockey.  Or maybe wrestling.

But I guess you don't need to understand the sport to get into this movie.  You have to care more about the WHY of the sport, and the effect that it has.  A movie covering the whys and wheres about Apartheid Could easily be boring and a big mess, but by focusing on the small, they sort of covered the large.  A neat trick.

Also starring Matt Damon (last seen in "True Grit").  

RATING: 7 out of 10 bruises

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hoosiers

Year 4, Day 166 - 6/14/12 - Movie #1,163

BEFORE: Sticking with basketball, moving down to the high-school level.  This sports chain has been like a little warm-up for my upcoming "trip around the world" through movies - I've seen films about baseball in Oakland, San Francisco and Detroit, taken a tour of California horse tracks, NASCAR in Daytona, and football in Miami and Dallas.  It's sort of appropriate, since athletes travel around all the time, right?  Tonight I'm back in the heartland of Indiana.  Linking from "Blue Chips", Nick Nolte was in a film called "Under Fire" with Gene Hackman (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace") and also in "Breakfast of Champions" with Barbara Hershey.


THE PLOT: A coach with a checkered past and a local drunk train a small town high school basketball team to become a top contender for the championship.

AFTER:  Well, I wanted basketball mechanics, and I sure got them in this film.  Shot after shot of practice drills, which seems tedious, but I suppose they really are, so that's appropriate.  The audience needs to feel the redundancy of the workouts, so the games will seem exciting by comparison.  Nice trick.

I didn't realize we were going back in time tonight, to the early 1950's - back when white people played basketball.  There's not a minority in sight, at least not until the state championship against the team from Indianapolis (?) which is bigger, stronger and more culturally diverse.

Most sports movies deal with cliches also, and this one doesn't disappoint there either - from the distant loner who's a superstar on the court but needs to be convinced to play, to the short but plucky point guard thrust into a potential game-winning situation.  For good measure there's a bunch of small-town stereotypes like the town drunk, who happens to be the father of one of the players, given an assistant coaching job to help motivate him to stay sober.

Yeah, it's a cookie-cutter story, but it still works.  And people weren't really designed to watch so many sports films in a row that follow the same formula, so I have to factor in my jadedness as a result of the last 2 weeks.  I set out to discern if all sports films are essentially the same, and I kind of have my answer. 

Also starring Dennis Hopper (last seen in "Cool Hand Luke"), Barbara Hershey (last seen in "Falling Down"), Sheb Wooley (last seen in "High Noon"), Fern Persons, Chelcie Ross.

RATING: 6 out of 10 layups

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blue Chips

Year 4, Day 165 - 6/13/12 - Movie #1,162

BEFORE: Switching from football to basketball, just in time for the NBA Finals, which started last night.  (Who? The Thunder?  WTF?)  Yes, I realize this film is about college basketball, but it's the best I could do.  Nick Nolte carries over, switching from NFL player to basketball coach. 


THE PLOT:  A college basketball coach is forced to break the rules in order to get the players he needs to stay competitive.

AFTER:  If I've developed anything from this multi-year quest to catch up on films, it's a gradual appreciation for this common three-act structure.  And it's evident again tonight - 1) recruit the team, 2) work out the plays and 3) the Big Game.  But there's a twist in this film - if the players aren't recruited the right way in Act 1, that could become a problem in Act 3.

We all know there are rules against "buying" college athletes, but don't the colleges offer the best players scholarships?  Those have monetary value, right?  I'm not an expert on that whole procedure, but any time there are rules, there are ways around the rules, or people looking to beat the system.  A gift from the "alumni association" doesn't come from the college itself, so it's in some fuzzy gray area between right and wrong.  Our whole political system runs on favors and bribes - sorry, lobbying - so where does it all end?  Sometimes in the pro leagues, where endorsement deals are perfectly legal.  It seems to be an imperfect system all around.

This film puts forth a scenario where we wonder what rules a college coach will be willing to break to put together a winning team.  And once those rules are bent, what happens when doubt settles in, or his conscience finally acts up?  Will admitting a previous violation make things better or worse?

The three acts are bookended by two of Nick Nolte's scenery-chewing soliloquies, modeled perhaps after the explosive tirades of coaches like Bobby Knight - one when his team is losing, and the other when his team is winning.  So far this week, I've learned that coaches are just never satisfied - the coach in "North Dallas Forty" was unhappy because a game-winning touchdown wasn't run as a proper play.  Yeah, but you WON the game, dude - isn't winning the most important thing?

This film has the balls to say perhaps not.  What is winning if you had to sacrifice your principles to do it - is it an empty victory?  Sure, it gets a little preachy and the conflict is a little manufactured, but there is a point to be made.

Also, there's a good amount of basketball mechanics, even if I didn't understand it all.  I could see how the practice drills directly related to situations that took place during the games. 

Also starring Mary McConnell (last seen in "Grand Canyon"), J.T. Walsh (last seen in "Nixon"), Ed O'Neill (last seen in "Disorganized Crime"), Shaquille O'Neal (last seen in "The House Bunny"), Anfernee Hardaway, with cameos from Alfre Woodard (last heard in "The Wild Thornberrys Movie"), Robert Wuhl, Louis Gossett Jr. (last seen in "Jaws 3-D"), Bobby Knight, Larry Bird, Rick Fox.

RATING: 6 out of 10 gym bags

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

North Dallas Forty

Year 4, Day 164 - 6/12/12 - Movie #1,161

BEFORE: Wrapping up football as a topic tonight, hopefully this is the last word on the subject.  I've been waiting for some channel to air this one, with no luck.  I then tried downloading it from a file-sharing site, but the download didn't work - someone must be cracking down.  Finally I broke down and rented it from iTunes, something I haven't done before - but I may need to do this more often if there is a film crucial to my chain that I can't get cheaply some other way.  If I don't watch this film tonight, my chain might fall apart - as Burt Reynolds from "Semi-Tough" links through "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" to Charles Durning (last seen in "The Last Supper").  


THE PLOT: A semi-fictional account of life as a professional football player. Loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys team of the early 1970s.

AFTER: This is right in line with "Semi-Tough", another film that show the hard living that went on in the personal lives of NFL players in the swinging 70's.  Parties, beer, pot, anonymous sex - it's strange to feel nostalgic for sex and drugs, which never really went away, but somehow it seems like both things were more free-wheeling and innocent back then.  Maybe "innocent" isn't the right word - care-free?   This was before AIDS and the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaigns.

Nick Nolte (last seen in "Jefferson in Paris"), though playing an aging football player here, was not a bad-looking guy when he was younger (he was 37 or 38 at the time) - he resembles Ethan Hawke, but with a cheezy moustache.  I'm surprised no casting director has taken advantage of their similar look and put them in a movie as father and son.  The age of 38 would be considered old for a football player, though, so Nolte does fit right in here - and he's great at playing injured or drunk or doped up (or all three at once).

The mechanics of football are here, at least to a greater extent than "Semi-Tough", but it's not always flattering.  The use of painkillers, vitamin B-12, and (I assume) steroids - since no one's ever really known for having "Vitamin B-12 rage" - is rampant, and that's just on the playing field.  Then you've got the leisure-time drugs like beer, grass, and all those wacky sex drugs people took in the 70's, like amyl nitrate.  It makes me think that Kurt Vonnegut was right, we're all just walking bags of chemicals.

No matter what Nolte's character and his teammates accomplish, it's never enough for the head coach.  In a manner similar to "Moneyball", the coach has calculated what the team's stats and percentages should be, according to his computer - too bad he's stuck using an old TRS-80. 

The movie is low-rent in a number of other ways, too - the "championship game" (clearly not the Super Bowl, even though the team's charts clearly state that's their goal) looks like it was played on a high-school field, with no crowd of cheering fans in sight.  And they could only afford one facial expression for the lead actress who plays Nolte's girlfriend - so she responds to every development in their relationship with the same combination of fear and concern that she uses while watching the big game.

I won't spoil the ending, but I will say that it's ballsy for a sports film.  And after seeing similar endings in sports film after sports film, a change is oddly welcome.

Also starring Mac Davis (last seen in "The Sting II"), Dayle Haddon, Bo Svenson (last seen in "Speed 2: Cruise Control"), John Matuszak, G.D. Spradlin (last seen in "The War of the Roses"), Dabney Coleman (last seen in "The Towering Inferno").

RATING: 5 out of 10 jumping jacks

Monday, June 11, 2012

Semi-Tough

Year 4, Day 163 - 6/11/12 - Movie #1,160

BEFORE:  Sticking with football, one of the three "true sports", and Burt Reynolds carries over from "The Longest Yard".  I think I'm done with Burt Reynolds movies after this, unless he pops up unexpectedly in something. 


THE PLOT: A three-way friendship between two free-spirited professional football players and the owner's daughter becomes compromised when two of them become romantically involved.

AFTER:  Well, if "The Longest Yard" was a football film mixed with a comedy mixed with a prison film, this is a football film mixed with a romantic comedy mixed with a social commentary on the 1970's.  The 70's were a weird decade (yes, I was there, but not as an adult) with a lot of people trying to "find themselves" (Hey, dude, you're RIGHT THERE.  You're welcome.) through these self-help seminars like EST and Primal Scream therapy.  You might be more familiar with the later incarnations of hucksterism like Tony Robbins and Scientology, but there was a time before the infomercial was invented, where people couldn't just dial a number and give away all their money, they had to go to a hotel ballroom somewhere, where they had to listen to a live seminar.  Some people perhaps preferred putting their money in a bucket and setting it on fire, with much the same result, but I digress.

ASIDE: I feel like I got scammed this weekend, by watching 2 episodes of a show on Discovery called "Stephen Hawking's Grand Design".   It was supposed to use physics and cosmology to unlock the secrets of the universe and the "meaning of life".  After a few interesting stories about Newton's theories on gravity, the nature of quarks, string theory, etc. they finally started to get around to Hawking's insight into the meaning of it all.  After a brief side-note about the "brain in a jar" theory (the belief that possibly, we're all just brains in a lab being stimulated by electrical impulses from a supercomputer, and all of reality is just an illusion of computer code), Hawking's big revelation is that reality is subjective, time and space are flexible, and light is both a particle and a wave - so the only meaning in life is that which we impart on it, and the answer won't be found "out there" but within. Honestly, I expected something more from such a respected physicist than a bunch of new-agey philosophy.  End of ASIDE.

Apparently, as part of this process of finding themselves, people in the 1970's were open to all kinds of different living arrangements.  The hippies from the 1960's were forced to grow up and get jobs, but the spirit of "free love" no doubt continued - so there was probably a lot of hinkiness and kinkiness going on, a la "The Ice Storm".  This film has some promise, since it's got a twice-divorced woman living with two NFL players, in a non-sexual reverse "Three's Company" sort of set-up.

But eventually it becomes romantic between two of the friends, creating a typical Hollywood love triangle, and we all know those end one of two ways - they stay the course, which is boring, or pull a "Philadelphia Story"-style swap at the last minute, which is more interesting, if less believable.  And a wedding that devolves quickly into a Three Stooges-style pie fight (essentially...) just proves they didn't know how to end the scene in an adult way.

All this goes down in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.  There's not much focus on the game-play, not much Super Bowl hype.  Is it possible that the Super Bowl wasn't as much of a thing back in the 1970's?  They did feature "Up With People" as the halftime show three years in a row, after all.  (kids, look it up)  They sure didn't spend a lot re-creating NFL games in this film - the game against Green Bay in particular looked like it was filmed in a high-school stadium, or perhaps in the parking lot.

The dialogue wears a little thin, too - whenever you have characters engaged in a conversation that just keeps circling back on itself (the one about photos of African trees + animals is the worst offender) it's a sign that maybe more writing could have been done.  I've read that the book this film is based on got more into the gritty behind-the-scenes antics of NFL players, but it just feels like the film may have gotten off-track.

Also starring Kris Kristofferson (last seen in "He's Just Not That Into You"), Jill Clayburgh (last seen in, umm, "Silver Streak"?), Robert Preston, Bert Convy, Richard Masur (last seen in "It"), Brian Dennehy (last seen in "Legal Eagles"), with cameos from Carl Weathers, Ron Silver (last seen in "Silkwood") and Lotte Lenya.

RATING: 4 out of 10 tuxedos

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Longest Yard (2005)

Year 4, Day 162 - 6/10/12 - Movie #1,159

BEFORE: First off, let me direct you to my first-ever podcast, containing some of my thoughts on the movie "The Avengers", as recorded in conversation with my BFF Andy, about a week ago when I was visiting him for the weekend.  If interested, please visit:   http://5by5.tv/ia/30

Now, on with the countdown.  I watched the original version of "The Longest Yard" back in November 2009 as part of my first football chain - movie #311, so that was 848 movies ago.  Sheesh - I should probably re-read that review as a refresher.  As for linking, James Cromwell carries over from "Secretariat" - all part of the plan.


THE PLOT: Prison inmates form a football team to challenge the prison guards.

AFTER: I mentioned in my review of "The Avengers" that the film follows classic Hollywood three-act structure.  Andy thought that the helicarrier sequence was quite unnecessary, but I pointed out that it forms the film's crucial second act - often when a film is not working, a writer or director will say that it has "second act problems".  (Some screenplays use a six-act structure, but even then, the six-acts can also be broken down into three sections - premise/set-up, conflict/development and resolution/wrap-up)

Once you see the formula, you can apply it to the vast majority of Hollywood films - "Star Wars: Episode IV" can be broken down into Tatooine, Death Star and Yavin sections.  "Raiders of the Lost Ark" becomes 1) South America/Princeton, 2) Egypt/finding the ark and 3) opening the ark.  As I said about "The Avengers", that film becomes 1) assembling the team, 2) helicarrier sequence (getting the team to work together) and 3) final battle.

The remake of "The Longest Yard" shares its story structure with "The Avengers" - once Paul Crewe is behind bars, he's forced to recruit a football team, get it to work together, and then the team battles the guards.  But that's about where the similarities end.  As I say about many films, the buy-in (getting me to believe the premise) is so high, it forces me to call shenanigans on everything that follows.

We are made to believe that a bunch of prison guards has enough talent and spare time to compete in a football league.  I suppose guards tend to be the burly sort, and perhaps some of them played ball in high-school or college, but the idea that a prison warden would recruit failed players and offer them jobs, just to compete in a semi-pro league, is quite far-fetched.  Even if you consider Texas to be a big football-oriented state, it seems like a bunch of bull.

Then we've got to believe that this team of guards needs someone to practice against - because they can't just split into two squads, or recruit local high-school or college players for a pick-up game.  No, it's got to be the inmates - contrivance #2.  That the warden would allow the guard-players to come in contact with inmate-players, and not see that the players would want to injure the guards, that's contrivance #3.

The motives of the warden are quite suspect - he wants Crewe to assemble a good team, but he still wants his guard-team to win.  He wants to show how powerful he is - but gives Crewe free rein to roam the prison recruiting players.  He wants the inmate-team to function well to test the guard-team, but then he hampers their practices at every opportunity.  Contrivances #4, 5 and 6.

Then we've got the presence of Burt Reynolds (last seen in "Smokey and the Bandit II") who's supposedly a former Heisman Trophy winner, who's been in the same prison for years - well, why didn't the warden ask HIM to put together a team, years ago?  It's an obvious nod to the original film, but it's yet another contrived coincidence. 

The ridiculous premise is followed by a ridiculous game, with lots of tricks, stunts and intentional injuries.  Perhaps the second act is the best one, with Crews & co. learning how to survive in prison, figuring out how to make contact with the best available players, and whipping them into something akin to a coherent squad.  But the rest really wasn't believable at all.

Starring Adam Sandler (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"), Chris Rock (last heard in "Bee Movie"), Nelly, Terry Crews (last seen in "Terminator Salvation"), Nicholas Turturro (last seen in "Mo' Better Blues"), David Patrick Kelly, William Fichtner (last seen in "Date Night"), Tracy Morgan (last seen in "Cop Out"), Cloris Leachman (last seen in "New York, I Love You"), NFL star Michael Irvin, Brian Bosworth, and wrestlers Goldberg, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Kevin Nash, Dalip Singh aka The Great Khali (last seen in "MacGruber"), with cameos from Courteney Cox (last seen in "3000 Miles to Graceland"), Rob Schneider (last seen in "Grown Ups"), and Chris Berman.

RATING: 5 out of 10 cheeseburgers