Category Archives: Sports

Blu-ray reissue: Fat City ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 22, 2017)

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Fat City– Powerhouse Films Blu-ray

John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell).

Like most character studies, this film chugs along at the speed of life (i.e., not a lot “happens”), but the performances are so well fleshed out you forget you’re witnessing “acting”. One scene in particular, in which Keach and Tyrell’s characters first hook up in a sleazy bar, is a veritable masterclass in the craft.

Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see (think Barfly meets The Wrestler), but still well worth your time. Masterfully directed by Huston, with “lived-in” natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film. The print is beautifully restored, and extras include new interviews with the cast.

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 Nazi sniper “hero”  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?

Get your kicks: Top 10 Sports Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2012)

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With Super Bowl weekend upon us, I figured this would be as good a time as any to trot out my top 10 sports films. As usual, my list is alphabetical; and please, no wagering!

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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 subtext on the difficulties that South Asian immigrants face assimilating into British culture. Also with Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.

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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 an insightful coming of age story and a rumination about the 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.

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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.

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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. Ritchie’s film has a verite feel that lends the story a realistic edge.

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Fat City – John Huston’s gritty, low-key character study was a surprise hit at Cannes in 1972. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, it’s a tale of shattered dreams, desperate living and beautiful losers (Gardner seems to be the missing link between John Steinbeck and Charles Bukowski). Filmed on location in Stockton, California, the story centers on a boozy, low-rent boxer well past his prime (Stacey Keach), who becomes a mentor to a young up-and-comer (Jeff Bridges) and starts a relationship with a fellow barfly (Susan Tyrell). Granted, it’s one of the most depressing films you’ll ever see, but still well worth your time. Beautifully acted and masterfully directed, with “lived-in”  natural light photography by DP Conrad Hall. You will be left haunted by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which permeates the film.

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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.    

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North Dallas FortyNick Nolte and Mac Davis lead a spirited ensemble cast in this locker room peek at pro football players and the political machinations of team owners. Some of the vignettes are allegedly based on the real-life hi-jinks 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 on in his career.

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Personal Best – When this film was 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 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 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. Scott Glenn is excellent as a hard driving coach.

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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. A puckish satire.

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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-like 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.

Play oddball: Top 10 off-the-wall sports films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2012)

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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:

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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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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!

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.

Stalking tall: Big Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2009)

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.

Paul (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 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… 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, 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 screws up enough courage to make a beeline for his hero’s booth, in hopes of a meet and greet. Unfortunately, the evening (and  Paul’s life) goes sideways from that point forward.

The film is an odd mix of broad social satire and brooding character study; but for the most part, it works.  Partially, it’s about the cult of celebrity, especially as it applies to the tendency Americans have to turn a blind eye to the sociopathic tendencies displayed by some multimillionaire athletes. The film takes a few unexpected twists and turns that reminded me of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, another quirky indie character study that keeps you on your toes by challenging your expectations right up to the end.

Oswalt is 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 is suitably obnoxious as Paul’s radio tormentor, “Philadelphia Phil”. Gino Cafarelli is good as Paul’s brother, an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer, and  Serafina Fiore is a hoot as his wife, an orange-tanned, big-haired, high-maintenance East coast princess straight out of Soprano world.

This is the directorial debut for Siegel, who also wrote the screenplay for last year’s critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated  sports dramaThe 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

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 17, 2009)

I witnessed something you don’t see very often on TV, on  last Sunday’s 2008 Golden Globes Awards. Sincerity. Mickey Rourke took to the stage to accept his statue for his performance in The Wrestler, and delivered one of the most heartfelt monologues never penned by a screenwriter (i.e., it was  sans the usual mawkish Hollywood bullshit that you usually hear on an awards show).

The parallels between Rourke’s real-life redemption story and that of the character he plays in the film  hit me like a freight train running through the middle of my head, and I felt a lump in my throat. “Jesus H.,” I told 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  I saw Old Yeller.

It’s funny. As the lights went down in the theater at the screening of the film I had attended the night before, I had no clue that Bruce Springsteen had penned an original tune for The Wrestler (it 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 playing the “gentle giant” clowning around with neighborhood ki, or offering backstage advice and encouragement to 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, realistic backstage glimpse at 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.

The documentary-like feel 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 clichés  are overshadowed by the outstanding performances.  Aronofsky has previously shown a propensity for style over substance; I have to credit him  for reining in that tendency this time out and allowing his actors to stretch and breathe  (I thought his junkie-chic drama Requiem for a Dream  was the most pretentious, overrated and unpleasant film in recent memory. I forgive him now).

Sensitive viewers  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.