Category Archives: Sports

…than when standing in his shadow

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2016)

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No longer presidents but prophets

They’re all dreaming they’re gonna bear the prophet

He’s gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation

It’s all gonna split his skull

It’s gonna come out like a black bouquet shining

Like a fist that’s gonna shoot them up

Like light, like Muhammad boxer

Take them up up up up up up

— From “Birdland”, by Patti Smith

Some people have a special light. Not a light that you can necessarily “see”, per se; yet in the wake of their departure from this world, one senses a few less lumens within it. Muhammad Ali was one such individual. Normally, when a sports legend dies, you expect the usual accolades from peers and young up-and-coming athletes, citing the personal inspiration and offering admiring kudos for the accomplishments he or she made within the profession. But how many sports figures also incur this manner of observation:

For my generation and so many other people, we didn’t have a President Barack Obama; and so for my generation, in terms of exemplars—people of high achievement, high integrity (beyond my dad, my brothers, and my mom), Muhammad Ali was that for me.

That was from Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, in an interview on CNN this morning. For that matter, President Barack Obama didn’t have a, erm, President Barack Obama, either:

In my private study, just off the Oval Office, I keep a pair of his gloves on display, just under that iconic photograph of him – the young champ, just 22 years old, roaring like a lion over a fallen Sonny Liston. I was too young when it was taken to understand who he was – still Cassius Clay, already an Olympic Gold Medal winner, yet to set out on a spiritual journey that would lead him to his Muslim faith, exile him at the peak of his power, and set the stage for his return to greatness with a name as familiar to the downtrodden in the slums of Southeast Asia and the villages of Africa as it was to cheering crowds in Madison Square Garden.

That was from the President’s statement earlier today (Digby put the entire text up in her tribute this morning). Yes, even the current leader of the free world has drawn inspiration from Muhammad Ali. Clearly, Ali’s impact on our planet is more substantial than achieving status as the greatest ever heavyweight boxing champion of said world.

This is borne out by the fact that amongst those championship belts, Olympic medals and other sundry sports trophies crowding Ali’s shelf, there is also the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005), the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Award (1970), and the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage (1997)…to name a few. That’s because throughout his life, Ali lent his considerable clout, eloquence and sense of conviction to a number of humanitarian and social causes. Personally, I admire him most for his unapologetic stand against the Vietnam War in the 60s; undaunted by the fact that by doing so, he was committing career suicide.  I’m in good company…here’s today’s most touching tribute:

Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand together. I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.

– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, from a Facebook posting earlier today.

Than when standing in his shadow.” Wow. I think we’re all feeling taller today. As a tribute, I’m reposting the following review/essay that I originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo in November 2013 regarding the documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali:

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My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

-Muhammad Ali

There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. In a new documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (not to be confused with Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, the 2013 made-for-cable drama that HBO has been running in heavy rotation) filmmaker Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks.

As we know, Time heals (most) wounds…and Siegel opens his film with a fascinatingly dichotomous illustration. We witness a young Ali in a TV talk show appearance as he is being lambasted by an apoplectic David Susskind, who calls him (among other things) “…a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughably describes as his profession.” (Ali deflects the insulting rant with a Zen-like calm). Cut to 2005, and footage of President G.W. Bush Jr. awarding Ali the Medal of Freedom. It’s easy to forget how vilified Ali was for taking his stand (scars from the politically polarizing Vietnam era run deep; I know a few folks who still refer to Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane”).

Sigel then traces the evolution of Ali’s controversial stance, which had its roots in the early 60s, when the wildly popular Olympic champion then known as Cassius Clay became interested in the Nation of Islam, guided by the teachings of the movement’s leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad. Interviewees Kahlilah Camacho-Ali (Ali’s first wife, whom he met through the Nation of Islam) and a longtime friend only identified as “Captain Sam” provide a lot of interesting background on this spiritual side of Ali’s life, which eventually led to the adaptation of a new name and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. Either way, it took balls, especially considering that when he was convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the Supreme Court), he was not only stripped of his heavyweight title (and primary source of income), but had his passport taken away by the government. This was not grandstanding; it was a true example of standing on the courage of one’s convictions.

Sigel has unearthed some revelatory archival footage from Ali’s three years in the wilderness. He still had to pay rent and feed his family, so Ali essentially found a second career during that period as a professional speaker (likely making him the only world-famous athlete to have inserted that phase of life usually associated with post-retirement into the middle of one’s career). During this time he represented himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam, giving speeches against racism and the Vietnam War (he shows to have been quite an effective and charismatic speaker). One mind-blower is footage of Ali performing a musical number from a Broadway play called Big Time Buck White.

It’s hard to see this film and not draw parallels with Edward Snowden; specifically to ponder how he will be viewed in the fullness of time. Granted, Snowden is not as likely to get bestowed with the Medal of Freedom-but god knows he’s being vilified now (remember, Ali didn’t just catch flak from the usual suspects for standing firmly on his principles, but even from dyed-in-the-wool liberals like Susskind).

Another takeaway is that there was more going on than cloaked racism; Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to speak his mind on hot-button issues.

As one interviewee comments on the Islam quotient “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […] Muhammad Ali occupies a weird kind of place in that shifting interpretation of Islam.” Welcome to Bizarro World.

SIFF 2014: Fight Church ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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Man goes in the cage. Cage goes in the arena. Preacher’s in the cage. Preacher says a prayer, the two men proceed to pound the holy crap out of each other, and the crowd goes wild. Sunday! SUNday!! SUNDAY!!! Elmer Gantry meets Beyond Thunderdome in this objective and fascinating doc directed by Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, which profiles several manly men of faith (MMA competitors all) who lead “fight ministries” (a growing trend). But…what about that whole “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” thing in the Bible? Well, if watching The Legend of Billy Jack taught us anything, it’s this: Do it in the name of Heaven, you can justify it in the end.

Mano a mano: Rush ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 28, 2013)

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I’ll admit up front that I don’t know from the sport of Formula One racing. In fact, I’ve never held any particular fascination for loud, fast cars (or any kind of sports, for that matter). If that makes me less than a manly man, well, I’ll just have to live with that fact. However, I am fascinated by other people’s fascination with competitive sport; after all, (paraphrasing one of my favorite lines from Harold and Maude) they’re my species. There’s certainly an impressive amount of time, effort and money poured into this peculiarly human compulsion to be the “champion” or securing the best seats for cheering one on; even if in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean shit to a tree.

So what is it that motivates a person to squeeze into the cockpit of what essentially amounts to an incendiary bomb on wheels to go screaming around tight curves and through mountain tunnels at speeds up to 350mph? Well, aside from the intense adrenaline rush, the international fame and glory, the piles of dough and the unlimited sex (alright…perhaps I haven’t completely thought this through).

Apparently, back in the 70s, there was a “merciless” mano a mano sports rivalry (even sexier than the one betwixt Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky?!) involving a pair of European F1 drivers. Now, I’m taking director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s word for it, because prior to watching the Frost/Nixon team’s latest fact-based drama Rush, I had never heard of Austrian race driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) or his professional nemesis James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) who hailed from the UK. The two were a classic “oil and water” mix. Hunt was the reckless rock star type, reveling in all the hedonistic excess at his disposal. Lauda was decidedly more reserved and methodical, in both his professional and personal life.

The one thing that these two men did share in common was their lofty opinions of themselves. The precise origins of the rivalry are not made 100% clear; so I assume it’s your typical scenario of two males with high-T levels jockeying for the alpha position (don’t the sports announcers routinely refer to the drivers whizzing around the racetrack en masse as the ‘pack’?  “He’s pulling ahead of the pack!”

As one might expect, there’s a lot of ear-plug inducing scenes involving loud cars navigating dangerously narrow roads at suicidal rates of speed, as the two rivals chase each other on assorted Grand Prix courses all around Europe and Asia. What you might not expect, however, is the compelling dual character study that lies at the heart of the film. The “rivalry” reveals itself to be more of a relationship borne of a begrudging mutual respect; taking on an even more interesting dynamic following Lauda’s near-death experience in a horrific fiery crash on the  deadly Nurburgring circuit in 1976.

Bruhl and Hemsworth both give commendable performances (each actor also bears an uncanny physical likeness to his respective real-life counterpart). Bruhl (who played the “hero” Nazi sniper in Inglourious Basterds) is proving himself a versatile character actor, and Hemsworth’s infectious energy and brash scenery-chewing recalls a young Peter O’Toole. The excellent Alexandra Maria Lara (The Baader Meinhof Complex) plays Lauda’s devoted wife Marlene, and Olivia Wilde appears as Hunt’s supermodel trophy wife, Suzy.

I found Howard’s film reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s Downhill Racer, another sports movie that isn’t really so much about sports per se, as it is an examination of the obsessive nature of a person who strives to be a “champion”. In that 1969 character study, Robert Redford plays a talented but arrogant athlete who joins the U.S. ski team, immediately butting heads with the coach (Gene Hackman), his teammates and pretty much anyone else he comes in contact with (OK, he’s a dick). Like Hunt and Lauda (at least, as they are dramatized here), the Redford character only seems truly fulfilled when he’s “winning”…everything else is superfluous.

I also see a corollary with Howard and Morgan’s previous collaboration, suggesting a diptych. The adversarial dynamic between David Frost and Richard Nixon is similar to Lauda and Hunt’s. Frost was handsome, outgoing and had a rep as a “ladies man” (like Hunt) and Nixon was brooding and stand-offish, yet quietly crafty (like Lauda). Frost and Nixon circled each other warily, like two boxers vying for the champion’s belt. I’m not sure how I got from Formula One to politics. Say, is there some kind of trophy for what I just did?

Lawyers, sons and money: Win Win ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 2, 2011)

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Back in my wintry Alaskan radio days (back in the 20th Century) there was a corny old one-liner that I wasn’t too proud to recycle once or twice as a weather forecast zinger:

In fact…it is SO cold, that as I drove past the courthouse this morning on my way to work…I spotted a lawyer who actually had his hands in his own pockets.” (SFX rim shot)

I don’t mean to insinuate that a “lawyer” is, by definition, an opportunistic, self-serving type;  what profession doesn’t have its “bad apples”? There are a lot of straight-shooting idealists out there practicing law. But I think we can all agree that that there are very few attorneys  who have never met a loophole or “gray area” they couldn’t eyeball from outer space-with their glasses cracked.

You get a vibe that attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), the lumpy middle-aged protagonist of writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s new film Win Win, likely began his law career as one of those straight-shooting idealists. He’s an amiable fellow and a solid family man who devotes a good portion of his free time coaching the local high school wrestling team. There’s a noticeable deficit of statuettes in the trophy case, but Mike and his assistant coach (Jeffrey Tambor) try to keep up the positive reinforcement.

It’s too bad that Mike can’t turn some of that positive reinforcement back onto himself. While out for a morning jog with his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), he suffers a full-blown anxiety attack. Once the paramedics leave, Mike sheepishly opens up to his concerned pal (also an attorney) about the financial worries that have been keeping him up nights. Mike also confesses that he’s envious that Terry has amassed a relative fortune through his own successful law practice. Terry does his best to empathize, but as he is still reeling from a recent divorce, he’s anxious and depressed himself.

When one of his clients, an elderly man named Leo (Burt Young) is declared legally incapacitated, Mike comes up with a brainstorm for turning this “loss” into a “win win”. In order to pull it off, however, Mike will have to dive headfirst into one of those “gray areas” that I referenced earlier. After a brief wrestling match with his conscience, Mike offers himself to the court as Leo’s legal guardian. Leo can continue to live in his own house, and Mike will check in on him.

The judge raises an eyebrow, but grants him guardianship. So how does the “wrestling with his conscience” part figure in? Mike is fudging just a wee bit…and his wife (Amy Ryan). He actually intends to put Leo in an elder care center (a nice one, of course), so he won’t really be fussing with taking care of him, per se. Oh-and he’ll sort of “pocket” the monthly $1500 stipend Leo’s estate pays him for being a guardian. But, as long as Leo is content, and Mike is making some extra money to help support his own family, everybody wins-right?

Mike’s scheme runs like clockwork-until a potential spanner in the works named Kyle (Alex Shaffer) rolls into town. He’s Leo’s teenage grandson, who, despite his taciturn nature (quick to deflect any questions about his parental situation) ingratiates himself with Mike’s family-especially after he turns out to be a gifted wrestler. Mike can’t believe this streak of luck. But as they say-no good deed goes unpunished. Enter Kyle’s estranged mom (Melanie Lynskey), just out of drug rehab, armed with an attorney and looking for a steady income (like the $1500 a month she could get if the court appointed her as Dad’s legal guardian). Mike’s streak could be over.

In the hands of a lesser team (McCarthy co-wrote with Joe Tiboni), this narrative that could have descended into turgid family soap. But luckily, this is Thomas McCarthy, the actor/director who also helmed The Station Agent and The Visitor. A true “actor’s director”, McCarthy coaxes pitch-perfect performances from the entire cast.

It’s refreshing to see Giamatti underplay a role for a change; he’s a fine actor, but has been known to ham it up. It’s an outstanding turn, especially in his scenes with newcomer Shaffer (admirably holding his own with the seasoned players). The development of their relationship is central to the story, and neither of them hits a false note. Ryan is a wonder to behold as always; I think she remains a sorely underutilized talent and needs to be offered  a leading role immediately, if not sooner. Touching (but never maudlin), funny (without mugging) and genuinely heartwarming, this is a must-see.

Guys have body issues, too: A Matter of Size ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 16, 2010)

You know-us dogs aren’t really so much of the dogs that we think we are.

-from the 1955 film Marty

When you think “star athlete”, it invariably conjures up an image of a man or a woman with zero body fat and abs of steel. It certainly bears no resemblance to the doughy disappointment peering back at us from our full-length mirror (well…speaking for myself). Granted, there is the odd exception-Babe Ruth, CC Sabathia, David Wells, George Foreman, John Daly and Charles Barkley come to mind (and give some of us hope). Not that I ever considered pro sports as a career-but at some point in our lives, those of us who are “persons of size” must make peace with the cards we have been dealt.

Herzl (Itzak Cohen), the unlikely sports hero of a delightful audience-pleaser from Israel called A Matter of Size has been dealing with his “cards” for some thirty-odd years, and has yet to come up with a winning hand. Sweet-natured, puppy-eyed and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, he lives with his overbearing mother, Mona (Levana Finkelstein) and works at a restaurant, commandeering a salad bar.

Mona loves her son, but has odd ways of expressing it (chiefly due to her lack of a social filter). “You’re getting too fat!” she scolds, belaboring the obvious; in the next breath she’s encouraging him to finish up some leftovers in the fridge (eating and complaining…two things my People excel at).

Just when you think the situation couldn’t get more demoralizing for the hapless Herzl, he gets fired from his job, essentially for being visually unaesthetic to the workplace (read: Management objects to having a morbidly obese employee tending the salad bar).

But then, two things happen to Herzl that could potentially turn his present state of gloom around: he experiences a mutual spark of attraction with a lovely woman in his weight watchers group (Irit Kaplan) and finds a new job at a Japanese restaurant, managed by an ex-pro sumo coach (Togo Igawa). Guess what happens? (Hint: As you probably know, sumo is a sport that celebrates and reveres big fellers, elevating them to rock star status).

It would have been easy for directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor to wring cheap laughs from such a predominately corpulent cast, but much to their credit (and Danny Cohen-Solal, who co-scripted with Maymon) the characters (and actors who play them) ultimately emerge from their trials and tribulations with dignity and humanity fully intact.

Even the sight of four supersized Israeli gentlemen bounding through a grassy field, garbed in naught but their lipstick-red mawashis makes you want to stand up and cheer (as opposed to pointing and snickering). Ditto for an endearing, sensitively directed seduction scene between Herzl and his girlfriend, and a subplot concerning one of Herzl’s buddies who, empowered via the sumo training, begins his journey of coming out as a gay man. Needless to say, the film is ultimately about self-acceptance, in all of its guises.

And that’s a good thing.

Blu-ray reissue: Death Race 2000 (1975) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

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Death Race 2000 – Shout! Factory Blu-ray

At first glance, Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult gem about a “futuristic” gladiatorial cross-country auto race in which drivers score points for running down pedestrians is an over-the-top black comedy. It could also be viewed as a takeoff on Rollerball, as broad political satire, or perhaps wry commentary  on that great American tradition of watching televised bloodsport for entertainment. One thing I’ll say -it’s never boring! David Carradine is a riot as defending race champ, “Frankenstein”. Also featured in the cast: Mary Woronov (Eating Raoul) and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. This Blu-ray is part of Shout! Factory’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series, with cherry-picked titles from the legendary “no-budget” producer’s inventory of 1970s and 1980s exploitation films. It’s debatable whether hi-def improves some of these curios, but most of them are cult buff catnip.

That’s like, your opinion, man: Top 10 most off-the-wall sports movies

By Dennis Hartley

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Okay, so maybe you’re not particularly in the mood for the inspirational locker room speech, the decisive last minute rally or to cheer for the underdog. Perhaps your tastes lean more towards the cultish and the offbeat? No worries, I’ve got all your, um, bases covered this evening. Here are my quick picks for the Top 10 Most Off-the-Wall Sports Films:

All the Marbles-A droll sleeper with Peter Falk as the manager of a female wrestling tag team. This was director Robert Aldrich’s final film (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen).

The Big Lebowski– I will admit that I am not quite as enamored as the cultish devotees, but this is THE sports film for those who sure as shit do not fucking roll on Shabbos.

Bite the Bullet-Out of his myriad films, Gene Hackman has declared this unique western about a long-distance horse race to be his personal favorite. Who am I to say neigh?

Caddyshack– I know a lot of people who worship this movie. A tad overrated, IMHO, but Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and Ted Knight are all aces.

Cockfighter– Regretfully, I cannot guarantee that no animals were harmed in the making of this film, but it features a career-best performance by the late, great Warren Oates.

Death Race 2000 (1975)- God, I miss Paul Bartel. Avoid the 2008 remake at all costs.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters-An amazing documentary about some very obsessed video game competitors. You truly could not make these characters up. See it.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-You know the rules. Two men enter…

The Seventh Seal-Don’t give me that look. Chess counts as a sport.

Shaolin Soccer-Shaolin monks apply their martial arts prowess on the soccer field. This could only come from the mind of Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). It’s tons o’ fun!

Stalking tall: Big Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

Limited goals: Oswalt and Corrigan in Big Fan.

There are sports fans, and there are sports fans. And then there is Paul Aufiero, the protagonist of writer-director Robert D. Siegel’s new film, Big Fan. To say that Paul (Patton Oswalt) is an uber-fan of the N.Y. Giants football team is a vast understatement. The Giants are his raison d’être. Every night before he goes to bed, he doesn’t say his prayers. Instead, he religiously breaks out his dog-eared yellow-ruled tablet and furiously scrawls out a litany of devotion to his team, which he then delivers like a well-rehearsed sermon in his nightly call to a popular local sports talk radio program. Occasionally, he is compelled to offer a point-by-point rebuttal to his arch-nemesis, a Philadelphia Eagles fan who calls into the same show for the express purpose of antagonizing the Giants fans.

You see, Paul (who is sort of a cross between Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty Piletti and John Kennedy Toole’s literary creation, Ignatius J. Reilly) has a lot of spare time to devote to defending the honor of his team against evil radio trolls, because he doesn’t really have too many other distractions in his life. A 30-something bachelor who still lives with his mother, he works an undemanding job as a parking lot attendant and has virtually no social life (if this sounds like it’s shaping up to be one of those depressing character studies about empty lives of quiet desperation, I am here to tell you something… you’re right.) Well, Paul does have one friend named Sal (played by indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan) who shares his undying love for the team;  and he doesn’t date much, either.

One night, while Paul and Sal are out and about enjoying a bit of the Staten Island nightlife (who knew?) they happen to spot one of their beloved team’s star players (Jonathan Hamm) getting into a limousine at a local gas station. The two pals, walking on air and feeling beside themselves with fan boy giddiness, decide to surreptitiously tail the player and his entourage, to see how the other half lives. Eventually, they find themselves at a pricey strip joint in Manhattan, where Paul eventually screws up enough courage to make a beeline for his hero’s booth, in hopes of a meet and greet. Unfortunately, the evening (and subsequently, Paul’s life) proceeds to go sideways from that point forward.

The film is an odd mish-mash of broad social satire and brooding neo-realism; but for the most part, it works quite well (as long as you aren’t expecting a “feel good” experience). I suppose it has something to say about the cult of celebrity, especially as it applies to the tendency in our society to turn a blind eye to the blatantly sociopathic public behavior of some multimillionaire athletes. The story takes a few unexpected twists and turns that reminded me a lot of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, another quirky indie character study that keeps you on your toes by challenging your expectations right through to the end.

Oswalt is quite impressive, giving a fearless performance in this decidedly unflattering role (you are most likely to be familiar with him from his work as a standup and the myriad of quirky supporting characters he’s played on TV shows like Reno 911). Corrigan is excellent, as always (when is somebody going to give this perennial second banana a starring role?). Michael Rapaport (who appears to be the “go-to” actor when a “drunken mook” is required) is suitably obnoxious as Paul’s radio tormentor, known on-air as “Philadelphia Phil”. Gino Cafarelli is good as Paul’s brother, an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer, and the unknown Serafina Fiore is a hoot as his wife, an orange-tanned, big-haired, high-maintenance East coast princess straight out of Sopranoworld.

This is the directorial debut for Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay for last year’s critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated The Wrestler. There are enough parallels (dark character study, sports backdrop, blue-collar East Coast milieu) to suggest that there may be a certain theme running through his work. Or perhaps it’s too early to judge, based on two films. It will be interesting to see what he decides to do next.

Greetings from Asbury Park: The Wrestler ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

I witnessed something extraordinary toward the end of last Sunday’s 2008 Golden Globes Awards. It was an anomaly you don’t see very often on TV.  It was Something Real. Mickey Rourke took to the stage to accept his (well-deserved) statue for his amazing performance in The Wrestler, and proceeded to deliver one of the most heartfelt, gut-wrenching monologues never penned by a screenwriter, and it was  sans the typically mawkish, faux-sincere Hollywood bullshit one usually hears when an actor makes an acceptance speech.

The parallels between Rourke’s real-life rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption story and that of the character he plays in the film (which I had just screened the night before) suddenly hit me like a freight train running through the middle of my head, and I felt a lump in my throat. “Jesus H.,” I kept telling myself, “…it’s only a stupid awards show,” but by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since the first time I saw Old Yeller.

It’s funny. As the lights went down in the theater, I had no clue whatsoever that Bruce Springsteen had penned an original tune for The Wrestler (the song isn’t heard  until the closing credits). Yet, from the first moment Mickey Rourke shambled onscreen as the fading, world-weary wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, I thought to myself, “This guy just walked right out of a Bruce Springsteen song!” More specifically:

 I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra

I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova

I could walk like Brando right into the sun

Then dance just like a Casanova

Rourke walks like Brando right into the kliegs and gives the performance of a lifetime in director Darren Aronofsky’s grim and gritty character study (scripted by Robert D. Siegel). When I say “grim and gritty”, I’m not kidding. This film ain’t exactly a day at the beach, or even a quick stroll out on the boardwalk to grab a knish. “The Ram” is a semi-retired, down-on-his-luck pro wrestler, reduced to co-billing at the odd exhibition match or autograph-signing down at the Legion Hall. He lives alone in a trailer park, where he occasionally gets locked out for coming up short on the rent.

Still, he remains amiable and gracious; whether he’s playing the “gentle giant” and clowning around with neighborhood kids or offering backstage advice and encouragement to admiring young wrestlers. Nonetheless, his pained, ravaged road map of a face can’t hide an undercurrent of quiet desperation. After a health scare puts the kibosh on plans for a career comeback, he comes face-to-face with his mortality. He reaches out to a stripper, with whom he has been hoping to develop a personal relationship (Marisa Tomei, in a wonderful performance). She is quite fond of him, but keeps a professional distance (she doesn’t date “customers”). She encourages him to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), which may be his toughest match-up yet.

There are really two films here. One is a fascinating, cinema verite-style glimpse at the world of pro wrestling; the camaraderie, the carefully orchestrated stagecraft, its kitschy cult of personality and the peculiarly devoted fans who fuel it.  Even though it’s common knowledge that most of the violence is “faked” in this sport, Aronofsky and his technical crew really make you feel Rourke’s “pain” in these fictional matches, particularly when he comes up against a competitor who peppers his upper torso with a staple gun (looked real to me!). The neorealist vibe is undoubtedly due to the fact that the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, has been the DP for a number of documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Taxi to the Dark Side, and most notably, When We Were Kings).

The second narrative centers on the rekindling of the father-daughter relationship. This part of the story is more boilerplate; but scripted clichés  are overshadowed by the outstanding performances. From my observation, Aronofsky has previously shown a propensity for style over substance; I have to credit him  for reining in the camera gimmickry this time out and allowing his actors to breathe and stretch (I know this is heresy in some circles, but I found his junkie-chic drama Requiem for a Dream the most pretentious, overrated and unpleasant film in recent memory. I forgive him now).

Sensitive viewers should be aware that there are many squirm-inducing moments; while Aronofsky has toned his visceral, “in-your-face” tendencies down a notch or two, some of the mayhem portrayed in the wrestling matches is still potentially upsetting. Those caveats aside, I would recommend this film to strangers. It’s that good (I’m sure Mickey would appreciate the support). Then again, you could save the $10, and instead enjoy a quiet night at home with your dog. I think Mickey would be cool with that plan, too.

Get your kicks: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

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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. As usual, my list is arranged alphabetically, as opposed to ranking order.

Bend it Like Beckham – Writerdirector Gurinder Chadha whips up a cross-cultural masala that cleverly marries up “cheer the underdog” Rocky elements with Bollywood-style exuberance. The story centers on 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!)

Breaking Away – This beautifully realized slice of middle-Americana (filmed in Bloomington, Indiana) from director Peter Yates and writer Steve Tesich (an Oscar-winning screenplay) is a perfect film on every level. More than just a sports movie, it’s a genuinely touching coming of age story and insightful rumination about the simple joys and social fabric of small town life. Dennis Christopher is outstanding as a 19 year-old obsessed with bicycle racing, a pretty coed and anything Italian. He and his pals (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley) are all on the cusp of adulthood and trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Barbara Barrie and Paul Dooley give warm and funny performances as Christopher’s blue-collar parents.

Bull Durham- Writer-director Ron Shelton really knocked one out of the park with this very funny, well-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 Jules and Jim meets The Natural.

Downhill Racer – This frequently overlooked 1969 gem 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 the coach who finds himself at loggerheads with Redford’s contrariety. The film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

Fat City – This 1972 character study is one of John Huston’s lesser-known works, but I consider it one of his finest. Stacey Keach (in the role of his career) is an alcoholic, down-and-out prizefighter who mentors 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.

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 winner.    

North Dallas FortyNick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited 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 hijinks of the Dallas Cowboys, replete with wild parties and other assorted off-field debaucheries. Charles Durning 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.

Personal Best – When this film was first released, there was so much fuss over a couple brief love scenes between Mariel Hemingway and co-star Patrice Donnelly that many failed to notice that it was one of the most realistic, non-condescending portraits of female athletes to ever reach movie screens. Writer-director Robert Towne did his homework; he spent time 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.

Slapshot – 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 (in a rare comedic role) is memorable as a sexually frustrated “sports wife” . Michael Ontkean performs the funniest “striptease” bit in the history of film, and the endearingly sociopathic “Hanson Brothers” have to be seen to be believed. All in all, it’s a puckish satire.

This Sporting Life – This early Lindsay Anderson effort from 1963 was one of the “angry young man” dramas that stormed out of the U.K. in the late 50s and early 60s, steeped in “kitchen sink” realism and working class angst. A young,  Brando-esque Richard Harris tears up the screen as a thuggish, egotistical rugby player with a natural gift for the game who becomes an overnight sports star.