Archive for the ‘SPORTS DRAMA’ Category

Blood and Sand 1941

15 Jan

Blood And Sand 1941 — directed by Reuben Mamoulian. Sports-drama. 125 minutes Color 1941.
The Story: The son of a renowned matador becomes a renowned matador, marries his childhood sweetheart, and throws it all away.

Blood And Sand, for its cinemaphotography, won Academy Awards for Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan. The film became famous for its beautiful appearance, so general curiosity arose as to how it was done. In a bonus, Richard Crudo, a president of the American Society of Cinemaphotographers teaches us how. Fascinating. Make sure you watch.

This famous film earns five stars because of the bonus accompanying it.

What I learned was how the cinemaphotographers ran the shooting and direction of such films and a lot of what we eventually see. I was ignorant of these matters. I had seen Blood And Sand when it came out in 1941 and years later, and again now, and still I did not notice, and I was not meant to.

I was not meant to notice the color scheme which confines itself to blue and yellow and red, and when the big arena in Mexico City was rented and filled with extras, and whenever these extras are seen in groups, still there are the grades of yellow in what they wear, the blues of suits and mantillas, the stab of red. Green lashes out to startle as does a pair of purple gloves on the female star’s hands. We are led to pay attention to the blue backgrounds of scenes, the yellow walls of others. The Production Designer and Cinemaphotographer put their heads together and created sets and backdrops for love scenes that do not disappoint, although the film as a whole may disappoint.

For it is less about blood and sand, than the lust and luxury they lead to. One would not go to this film for the perilous gore of bullfighting spectacle, as I did when I saw it for the second time in my 30s. But the film does not stint the sumptuousness which underlies and defines its narrative which is erotic.

At its center three of the great beauties of the screen move around one another, embrace, and enflame. These three are young. It is not hard to watch them. Everything in the film encourages us. Linda Darnell is eighteen when she plays the young wife. She is untouched, touching, and open. The ravishing Rita Hayworth is twenty-two. She plays sin with an open smile. Tyrone Power is twenty-six. No more sumptuous male beauty ever graced the screen.

For those were the days of matinée idols. Save perhaps for George Clooney and Robert Redford, we don’t have them anymore. But in the ‘30s we had Ronald Coleman, Erroll Flynn, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Joel McCrea, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott, John Payne, John Wayne, and Tyrone Power, men whose beauty permitted them everything. Even being miscast.

Is Tyrone Power miscast as a ragged, illiterate Spanish peon? You bet he is. Tyrone Power was a gent — but who cares? He had played Zorro and would do other Latin action heroes and be a big star South Of The Border. You buy Power in Blood And Sand simply because he’s there doing it. In those days Black Irish was as good as Hispanic.

If his acting here is inconsistent, so is the acting as a whole. The child actors are dreadful. Other actors, such as Laird Cregar, either digest the scenery whole or on their own manage to make dialogue which is poor sound real. This means that, although the story has carrying power, Mamoulian creates no sense of performance style, nor could he. This is not Garbo in his Queen Christina, but Fox in a limousine left behind under Valentino’s porte-cochere.

John Carradine, an actor of old-time vocal stage technique, gets by as he always does with direct subtextless presentation that one accepts because of silent respect for its outdated fashion. Who would so mean as to scold him? He is that rare thing, the completely unembarrassed actor.

Watch J. Carroll Naish pay attention as Power’s hairdresser. Watch the details. He is one of many characters who flare through and do good work: Lynn Bari as the termagant sister-in-law, George Reeves as one of Rita Hayworth’s discards, Russell Hicks as the grandee who houses her.

Anthony Quinn steals all his scenes starting with his first in which he blows tiny smoke rings as we accompany the now young men to their fates in the bull ring. You feel he knows he would be better than Power in the leading role, and he would be — but, so what, his envy feeds his role. And, boy, is he sexy. He can’t help it. At the end of their film lives, he and Rita Hayworth would act again in The Rover and as an old man his sexiness still vibrates. Quinn, like Warren Beatty, seems to have possessed sexual confidence from birth. He oozed it. His assurance gave him the ability to appear stupid, always an advantage for an actor, since stupidity does not mean want of cunning.

And, of course, Blood And Sand provides us with the rare opportunity to experience the art of the incontestable Nazimova. Watch her as she plays the old mother on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Mamoulian had directed her on the stage before, and Pauline Kael said that Nazimova’s Hedda Gabler was the greatest performance she had ever seen. And here she is, so watch and learn.

Everything she is does is exactly the right size. No bum line louses her up. She came from Stanislavski’s Moscow Arts theatre and she knew how to embody a part, even an ill-written one, such that everything becomes natural. She never emotes. She never lies or steals a scene. She is content to represent the moral and narrative center of the story, no fuss. Watch the moment when she discards what Power hands her.

Rita Hayworth is different, because her training was dance. She is a fine actress because of it. Dance gives Rita Hayworth her marvelous carriage and the necessity for physical responsiveness — plus the nobility of her walk and the inherent sense of rhythm in everything she says and does. When she seduces, she seduces not with her guitar or her song — she seduces with the bare movement of her shoulders which house the most exquisite porte de bras in the world. Hermes Pan, who later taught her the dances he choreographed for her and Fred Astaire, said she had the most beautiful hands he had ever seen.

These are wonderful attributes for a star — which this film made her — including her inherent propriety which becomes a platform of response. In her, the flame and stillness of flamenco is alert at every moment. Did any movie actor love life so freely and fiercely and openly as Rita Hayworth when she danced?

Here she dances cruelly with Anthony Quinn. It is the first time we see her like this, full of self-esteem, fun, and arranque. Rita Hayworth on screen writes her own rules — and you’ve got to agree with her. Rita Hayworth had spent her youth Spanish dancing in night clubs’ floorshows with Eduardo Cansino, her father. She knew exactly how to do all this from the time she was twelve. It was her doom and delight.

Here the cherry on the Sundae lies in the bonus of Ricard Crudo’s teaching on what made so much of this film so beautiful. What the technique was. How it was prepared in advance by the directors of photography in cahoots with the art direction by Richard Day and Joseph C. Wright, with the set decoration by Thomas Little, and the blend of costumes by Travis Banton.

Why should we care?

All I know is they were beautiful and young, and this was their moment 80 years ago.

Many talented young actresses appear in films nowadays. Many are beautiful. Rita Hayworth is gone — vanished into the archives or emergent in the immortal immoral momentary masochism of Gilda. Many young actresses star in films nowadays, and many are worth seeing and more than once. Their material is more contemporary. Their attack on their roles more schooled. Some have a rare authority. Some surprise us. Many give delight and deserve the admiration they inspire. But what can this celestial banquet be compared to her? Where will you find her? Where is the feast and the fete? Useless to look. You won’t find what is not there. Next to Rita Hayworth, the movie actresses of today are potato chips. Next to Rita Hayworth they are snacks.



17 Nov

Creed – directed by Ryan Coogler. Sportsdrama. 133 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: a young man whose father was a famous boxer, but killed in the ring, takes up the calling with the help of one of his father’s opponents in the ring.


I like boxing movies. From 134 B.C. on, I’ve seen them all. This one, of course does not rank with The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg, for that one had inside its drama something real, whereas this one has its drama something typical. It’s a type of movie: a boxing movie. It is all geared to a wrap-up, and you know by its structure what that wrap-up is to be. A ritual. And worthwhile as some rituals truly are.

Ritual or not, that doesn’t matter here because the writing is so clean and the direction so energetic and young. Just what’s needed.

It also has the big assistance of the performance of Phylicia Rashad who opens the film with a performance standard that ensures the acting that will follow will be of a noble order.

And it is met. Certainly by the beauteous Tessa Thompson who plays the young singer our hero, Creed, falls in with. And by every one around Creed, who is played by Michael B. Jordan, who played the young troublemaker in the same director’s Fruitvale Station.

What are actors made of? If you are fortunate as Jordan is, actors are made of wonderful eyes. And if ever a person was meant to be on the silver screen it is he.

He is in great shape, and his training is so horrendous, you wonder that he doesn’t give up the ring and take up acting. He’s a lovely performer, completely convincing in the madness which the climactic fight takes him through.

Opposite him is Sylvester Stallone. I’ve always found him to be an actor difficult to behold. The droopy lids. The droopy mouth.

But the one thing about him which has always dominated his acting is his love of it. And also that, no matter what he looks like, he’s meant to be there doing that.

Even as an actor always meeting his calling, I’ve stayed away from the sort of stories he’s involved with. The first Rocky was the last one I saw. He was great in it. But he is greater by far here. As the old reluctant trainer, Rocky Balboa, he gives true value in every scene; he’s fascinating to watch; you don’t quite know what he’s going to do next; or say next.

Don’t miss him. He is that rare thing, an artist in a part, at an age, in a story, where his whole life has exactly meant him to be.


Body And Soul

01 Nov

Body and Soul – directed by Robert Rossen. Sports Drama. 104 minutes Black and White 1947.


The Story: A poor young man, to be a boxing champion, risks his soul and almost his body in the attempt.


The earliest great boxing film, it is a good picture raised to a masterwork by the genius of James Wong Howe: he took a hand-held camera into the ring and followed the grand-finale fight on roller skates. The film has a gritty, realistic, newsreel-in-the-streets quality, which creates a world, the Bronx, from which the fighter fled by means of one seedier, the ring.

At first one wonders what the German actress Lili Palmer is doing in it as the good woman, except soon it is plain that she really is a good woman and a voluptuous one too. On the opposite side of the fighter stands his mother, Anne Revere, with her stoic, modest probity. And Art Smith as his kindly dad.

All around the fighter hover a swarm of trainers and promoters and pals, men and women of mixed motives. Williams Conrad plays his guilt-ridden trainer, Joseph Pevney plays his chum, and Canada Lee the boxer he defeats and then befriends. Lee, himself a boxer, executes his final scene in a flare of intensity.

Behind these ignorant, greedy, devoted souls stands the chill person of the American powerbroker, played with ruthless élan by Lloyd Gough.

The film was a huge hit in its day, but its day was the same day as the HUAC. When you look at the film today, you can see that it presents a perfect model of capitalism at its most ruthless, thoughtless, and cruel. The boxer is thrice a commodity. He is worker, product, and buyer. All are a commodity – never human – each a thing to be manipulated into great profit. The boxer himself does this. He is the worker who transforms himself into a moneymaking machine and he buys into himself as popular merchandise. It is a powerful dramatic construction, and one never surpassed in film to my knowledge.

Whether or not this was understood by the Un-American Activities Committee, it dragged in John Garfield, who plays the boxer and produced the film, as a Communist. He was not one, but he was forever blacklisted from work. So were Anne Revere, Lloyd Gough and his wife, Art Smith, Robert Rossen, and scenarist Abraham Polonsky. Their careers were destroyed; they were impoverished and publicly shamed. Canada Lee, the greatest of all Negro Rights Activists, was hounded to his death by it at the age of 45. He was not a communist either.

Nor is the film Communist. Just because it is not Capitalist, does not mean that it is Communist. It is not a polemic either, so advise yourself to see it. As you would see any beautiful work of art. As you would see any picture filmed by James Wong Howe.



18 Dec

Creed – directed by Ryan Coogler. Sportsdrama. 133 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: a young man whose father was a famous boxer, but killed in the ring, takes up the calling with the help of one of his father’s opponents in the ring.


I like boxing movies. From 134 B.C. on, I’ve seen them all. This one, of course does not rank with The Fighter with Mark Wahlberg, for that one had as its drama something real, whereas this one has its drama something typical. It’s a type of movie: a boxing movie. It is all geared to a wrap-up, and you know by its structure what that wrap-up is to be.

That doesn’t matter here because the writing is so clean and the direction so energetic and young. Just what’s needed.

It also has the big assistance of the performance of Phylicia Rashad who opens the film with a performance standard that ensures the acting that will follow will be of a noble order.

And it is met. Certainly by the beauteous Tessa Thompson who plays the young singer our hero, Creed, falls in with. And by every one around Creed, who is played by Michael B. Jordan, who played the young troublemaker in the same director’s Fruitvale Station. 

What are actors made of? If you are fortunate as Jordan is, actors are made of wonderful eyes. And if ever a person was meant to be on the silver screen it is he.

He is in great shape, and his training is so horrendous, you wonder that he doesn’t give up the ring and take up acting. He’s a lovely performer, completely convincing in the madness which the climactic fight takes him through.

Opposite him is Sylvester Stallone. I’ve always found him to be an actor difficult to behold. The droopy lids. The droopy mouth.

But the one thing about him which has always dominated his acting is his love of it. And also that, no matter what he looks like, he’s meant to be there doing that.

Even as an actor always meeting his calling, I’ve stayed away from the sort of stories he’s involved with. The first Rocky was the last one I saw. He was great in it. But he is greater by far here. As the old reluctant trainer, Rocky Balboa, he gives true value in every scene; he’s fascinating to watch; you don’t quite know what he’s going to do next; or say next.

Don’t miss him. He is that rare thing, an artist in a part, at an age, in a story, where his whole life has exactly meant him to be.



28 Jul

Southpaw ­– directed by Antoine Fuqua. Sportsdrama. 123 minutes Color 2015.


The Story: The Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion falls on evil days and rises once again.


All boxers are born punchdrunk. They would have to be thickheaded to stand the blows to their heads and thickheaded to imagine a fight could ever solve whatever drove them to want to fight to begin with.

Jake Gyllenhaal certainly grasps this as his basis for the character’s energy. It’s been used before in Kid Galahad, Rocky, The Fighter, and Wallace Berry’s 1931 The Champ of which this film is a dead ringer – the story of a fighter who puts his life together for his young son, the appealing Jackie Cooper, in this case for a daughter, the appealing Oona Lawrence. Southpaw is as dated as the antimacassar.

It is essentially an old-fashioned Victorian melodrama – at least it becomes that once Rachel McAdams is out the picture. While she is in it, the writing is superb. Once she is out of it, the writing degenerates, as it has to, to feed the dastardly plot. Cary Grant received his only Oscar nomination for playing the same ne’er-do-well parent in George Stevens’ Penny Serenade. But the present film gives Gyllenhaal no such Oscar scene as the famous one Grant played with Beulah Bondi.

But it does provide the four principal players with acting roles each of them makes wonderful.

As the twelve year old daughter, Oona Lawrence strengthens every scene she plays. Rachel McAdams, holding the reins on her out-of-control angry husband, has just the right touch. After all, her husband is puerile; he can’t help it. Forrest Whitaker’s acting improves with every film I see him in: he has lost the bid for pity which once marred his work.

However, these characterizations exist apart from the melodrama they are forced to pass through. 1-2-3 Melodrama declines subtlety of characterization; it requires types. So, although the work the actors do is worth the film-time, it is impossible to root for the outcome, because we already know what it is. If the lady is tied onto the railroad tracks she will be snatched from under the wheels of the train in the nick.

Gyllenhaal’s work is somewhat sideswiped by having to bear this melodrama-load.

He claims to have accepted the role because it was about a man learning to be a father. Of course, it is no such thing, though that is a value we are asked to accept. Nor is it about a man learning anger-control, although that is a value we are asked to accept. Anger-control takes a life-time to ingrain. It isn’t even a story about a man rising from the dregs of defeat, although this is also such a value, because we never believe in that defeat’s convenient, clumsy arrival as a plot convention. The material is mangled by the dead sentimentality of its form which is claptrap and a  sham.

What makes it work is watching Gyllenhaal and the other actors work.

Gyllenhaal gives his character a voice as though scabs lined his vocal chords. Not every actor can generate a character-voice; Bette Davis never could. This voice allows you to wander into his character and find inside his Billy Hope a mother-wit and a grasp of values, alongside of a gruesome swagger and a plodding gullibility, the bravado of a big-horned ram and the docility of a lamb.

Gyllenhaal is truly ugly in the ring. So we are not asked to pity a pretty face. He wears an undergrowth of short red beard, his teeth are blackened, his hair is shorn on the sides like a con’s. Billy Hope is a character so well made you wish it could have been supported by a story that did not sabotage it. Melodrama forces care. So, alas, we cannot care.

I don’t know why we are not told that a left-handed boxer is at a great disadvantage in the ring and in what way; that could have been a drama element for us. But, at least, we are taken through Gyllenhaal’s training by Whitaker; so we learn something of ring tactics, footwork, and the fact that good fighters don’t destroy opponents with haymakers. All it takes is the force of a five pound jab to knock the brains of an opponent into a coma.

All the information Gyllenhaal has given on Terry Gross ‘s Fresh Air, The New Yorker, and elsewhere, has enlarged one’s respect for this actor’s clarity of wit and the inevitability of his calling.

Fights in fight movies are stories within stories. In this film, they are superb. But the larger story that houses them in Southpaw is prefabricated.

I recommend the movie, but not over Mark Wahlberg’s The Fighter. Wahlberg makes his character modest and withdrawn. Gyllenhaal’s character is volatile and brazen, inside of which is an intelligence just daring to peek out. They are both wonderful actor performances. Southpaw is well worth seeing therefore, even though one wishes its larger story was as true as its fights, or as the acting of its actors is true.








01 Oct

Rush – directed by Rob Howard. Sports Auto Racing Action. Niki Lauder and James Hunt duke it out in Formula 1 races in the 1970s. 122 minutes Color 2013.


As anyone may do what I have done and look up these two once renowned drivers, they may easily find that the story Rush tells of them is bunk.

First of all they knew one another, liked one another, even bunked together. Second of all, Lauder did not quit racing because he preferred marriage to winning. He quit the Japanese race in the driving rain that day because, after a near fatal accident six weeks before, his tear ducts ran because his eyelids had been burned off and he could not blink. Lauder went on to race well into the 80s.

This put-up-job is a dumbing down into palatability of the fact that in this story of the tortoise and the hare, the hare wins. The reckless yet skilled, madcap yet smart, dissolute yet devoted driver James Hunt is the one most of our attention is on. But that is because the actor who plays him is so good looking. And we want this bad boy character to prevail, of course, for Niki Lauder seems to be rather a grunt.

However, one cares about neither of them. Never mind their roles, neither actor is likable. And that’s where the win lies for actors. You may wonder which wins the World Championship, Lauder or Hunt, but you do not care which actor wins, and mere curiosity is not a strong engagement factor for an audience. When you think of actors who have played big-time drivers – Clark Gable, Steve McQueen, Tom Cruise, Mickey Rooney, James Garner – you have a list of actors an audience can get behind. With Chris Helmsworth as Hunt you have a super-hero. He’s a very good actor. But you don’t need a very good actor in the role. You need someone you care whether they live or die.

The film itself is beautifully made. One gets a sense of what it is like to be on course during these races. The editing is kaleidoscopic, of course, and hyped up, because actually racing 74 laps is essentially an endurance contest over tedium marbled with occasional mortality.

At the matinée I attended the theatre was virtually empty.





The Grandmaster

11 Sep

The Grandmaster – written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Drama. Two master martial artists are drawn to one another, though they are both sworn to duel. 130 minutes Color 2013.


See it by all means in a theatre now. For is a film of such resplendent beauty, subtlety, and distinction that you must sit back in the dark of a vast hall and let it play itself out hugely before your amazed eyes. You mustn’t wait until it comes into your mere parlor.

It is not a story about athleticism or about martial art, but about character and martial artists. Their dances are performed to music, and are shown in flashes, not of bodies bashing one another, but of slices of hands, scraps of wrists, flourishes of robes and fur. You would not want to see the actual moves. What you do want to see is the result of them. A body crashing through a window. You do not want to see technique. What you do want to see is the half smile of the executant.

What you want to see is beauty, and this you see in every frame, every face, every costume, every setting, and in every delivery of them to your astonished and gratified eyes. Beauty stirs in the puddles and the reflections of the gates in the puddles, in the waiting snow on the bough in the battle in the blizzard. And why should you see this? Why is this being offered? Because inherent in it is the dignity and discipline inherent in life lived – not necessarily this Chinese way – but inherent in life lived in many ways.

To establish that dignity and that openness, we are given as The Grand Master the face of Tony Leung, one of the most beautiful faces ever to bless the screen. And the face of Zhang Ziyi, whose mouth enchants as once enchanted the mouth of Janice Rule. You cannot but be lost in the beauty of these two faces, for their beauty expands and vibrates into a latitude which only movie faces of this beauty can do, and we are given plenty of opportunity to dwell upon them, for they are filmed close-up, still, often, and well.

Beauty has no moral. It is an arena to itself. Go. Bathe in it. You owe it to yourself. I say you do. I say you deserve it and you have always deserved it.









17 Apr

42 –– directed by Brian Helgeland. Sports Docudrama. In 1947, Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team ushers the first negro player into major league baseball, Jackie Robinson, and it aint easy. 129 minutes Color 2013.


I wanted this film to last forever. Is that true, I asked myself, and the answer was, Well, maybe as long as a baseball game.

It has a terrible musical score, full of triumphals and emotional sofas, whereas the material speaks for itself without outside assistance. But you just have to set this torture aside the same way as Jackie Robinson had to set aside the taunts and meanness and murder threats which dogged him as he underwent the ordeal.

What a valiant human being!

What a thing to do!

I lived in Queens when it went on, and my brother was a Dodgers fan with the radio on. It was happening five miles away. It was happening right there. The radio being a more intimate medium than TV, it was happening right in the bedroom I shared with him.

It was a scandal.

It was a scandal because no one much thought about blacks not playing on baseball teams in those days. Only a few black families lived where I lived, but Freddy Perkins was always first choice on the schoolyard team, so in a way it was a scandal also because so much was being made of it. And because we said to ourselves, Oh, right, I never thought of it in major league baseball. How odd of me!

But it was a big deal, and this film realizes that it is still a big deal. The human suffering hidden in black faces is of vast importance.

And that’s what we see in Chadwick Boseman who plays Robinson. I can’t imagine how anyone could be better or more right. While he does not have the monolithic aspect of Robinson, he certainly has the finesse for Robinson’s skills stealing bases and holding his ground while being heckled by crowds and boycotted even by his own team members. And he certainly is a gentleman.

As Branch Rickey, his sponsor in the endeavor, Harrison Ford gives a big hammy performance, which, from this actor, at least is something. The part is very well written, and Ford is quite stirring and entertaining in it.

There isn’t much more to say about the film.

Except that you owe it to yourself to see it. You owe it to your heart to be filled with compassion and gratitude for the valor it took for these two men, these two and no other, to do this for us. You just do.


Trouble With The Curve

09 Oct

Trouble With The Curve – directed by Robert Lorenz. Sports Drama. A blind baseball scout is helped by his estranged daughter to scope out a heavy hitter on a high school team. 111 minutes Color 2012.
Clint Eastwood plays the same grouch he has played from the beginning of his career in films, which began in his mid-30s, and now, at over 80, he is still swinging on that star. He walks good. He talks bad, like tea through a teabag. This gives a strain to his utterance which is a stand-in for dramatic grasp. But there is no doubt in the world that of this he is a master. So we watch him to see if something will happen. Will he break through? No. A creature of unerring solitude, he will stalk on. Well, if that’s what you want to do, okay. “I’ll take the bus,” is his last sardonic snap in this piece, and we understand his crankiness perfectly. The presence of him before us with all his wattles intact is without question impressive, as though Yosemite itself had walked before us. He seems always to have a perfect right to be here. So there is hardly a chance to question his ability to exercise that right, so we must say nothing about his craft or whether at 80-something he would have a child of 30-something, with the past history with her the film describes. For anyhow, the film lies more in the capable hands of Amy Adams, an actor of considerable range of character, if you consider her ditsy dame in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the stern consort in The Master, and the striving ally of The Fighter. It’s a very good part for her, as she confronts and cooperates with a father who had abandoned her. The baseball stuff is quite arresting, as it was in Moneyball, and she plays one who is a master at it. She plays off her encyclopedic memory of it against her new swain, played with considerable interest by Justin Timberlake, as a man willing to wait for her to come in from the outfield. There’s a lot of fun to be had watching the three of them carry on in local Southern saloons. Adams has virtuoso hair, such that she can appear to be a glamor pus in one scene and a legal eagle in the next, for, as with certain actors such as herself and Sean Penn, the hair is the first character choice to be made. She invites a lot of attention as we watch Eastwood refuse to court her and Timberlake refuse not to court her. Eastwood produced this piece, and his usual staff were on hand to edit it and bring it forward before and after, so it has a coherence unusual in modern films, and its director gives his actors lots of latitude and lots of space around them for us to settle in with them. Eastwood has frequently played in and directed stories in which an older absent father has had to face off with a difficult daughter or daughter figure, and this one offers no surprises, except that in this one the daughter is the preeminent figure. The twist at the end with the pitcher is neat. I like that pitcher a lot. John Goodman is also with us, an always welcome person, is he not? What is the story here, and why is it good? It has to do with the truth being jeopardized and eventually breaking through. I like stories like that.


Gentleman Jim

03 May

Gentleman Jim — directed by Raoul Walsh. Sports Drama. An Irish roughneck boxes his way to the world championship opposite Francis L. Sullivan. 104 minutes Black and White 1942.


“What am I watching this thing for?” I ask myself, for I am full face with a type of picture I am familiar with and which thank goodness is no longer made. The over-the-top smiles and paste-thick Irish accent of Alan Hale cues the question. Oh, yes, I remember now: it’s a movie made in a period when immigrants from Europe were more recent than they are today, a period when we didn’t have the word “ethnicities,” but the word “nationalities.” We didn’t have the word “media,” but in those days there were German language newspapers, and Yiddish and Chinese newspapers, and “Abie’s Irish Rose” was the popular radio show. People were just over from the old country and felt their security depended upon living near one another and loudly holding onto the mores of their motherland. I am first generation myself. John Ford’s films were slathered with an Irishness that no longer exists, and this of Raoul Walsh is also. In the mid 1950s “nationality” dissolved, replaced by the sectionalization of popular music, but until ten years after The War, everyone listened to Bing Crosby, who no longer exists either, although Frank Sinatra does, whose popular territory is certainly bounded with a frontier of nationality. Such nationalist immigrant films as Gentleman Jim are long gone. Barry Fitzgerald is unthinkable today. But I stuck with the film, which is remarkable in several ways. Low-life, high-life, comedy, family drama, action, romance, farce commingle with Shakespearean ease. The huge fight crowds in pre-Boxing Commission days are fabulously unruly, for no one could direct films of mass mayhem like Raoul Walsh. They lend enormous excitement to the fights. The bouts themselves are brilliantly filmed, and it is clear that Errol Flynn is performing them, no easy feat, since Corbett, the father of modern defensive and strategic boxing, had easy feet himself and danced his partners into exhaustion. It is one of the best fight films ever made in terms of the events themselves. Outside that everything is hearty – a blarney shattered by such films as Raging Bull, Someone Up There Likes Me, The Set-Up, and especially The Fighter which put pat to the notion of good healthy family support for their darling of the ring which Gentleman Jim promulgates like a jig. Flynn is perfectly cast in this part, one of many he would play in Walsh’s films. He is highly energized, impenitently boastful, lithe, strong, and Irish as Paddy’s pig, although actually came from Tasmania.  He is very good, and well supported by Minor Watson, Jack Carson, Arthur Shields, Rhys Williams, and William Frawley. As with all Walsh’s films the foundation of the action is romance, but Alexis Smith is incapable of suggesting the sexuality underlying the lady’s interest in Corbett. She is always the lady, never Judy O’Grady. Walsh wanted Rita Hayworth or Ann Sheridan, either of whom would have been better at it. But the key player in this is Ward Bond — so loud and clear for John Ford so long that we never knew what a fine actor he was. The key scene of the film is his reconciliation with Flynn; his sweet shyness is riveting. Going from the brash slugger, Francis L. Sullivan, to the beaten world heavyweight champion, he makes Sullivan into the foolish titan he was. Flynn’s lines about Sullivan’s lying in bed that night, lost, is marvelous piece of film writing. I was born the year Corbett died in the town he lived in, Bayside, Long Island. Corbett Road, I was familiar with. His fights took place in the 1890s, but everyone in the country knew who he was. This was Errol Flynn’s favorite film, enormously popular in its day.  You might check it out to see why.


The World’s Fastest Indian

21 Feb

The World’s Fastest Indian — directed by Roger Donaldson. Sportsflick. A 68-year-old man shoots for the world speed record on a 40-year-old bike. 127 minutes Color 2005.


This is a children’s film. It is about a man who gets by on magical mechanics. On the surface of it, it is about a feat, and as such, like National Velvet, it is the story of a single person’s faith and pertinacity – and. after encountering many obstacles, in the end the individual shines through. But here the obstacles are all mechanical failures of one sort or another and they are solved by the mechanical genius of Burt Munro, our hero, with the help of persons he meets on the roadside. But that is not what really fuels the adventure and the story of this movie. That is not the real story. What it is really about is how all those folks on the roadside are actually charmed. By what? By the soul and spirit of Munro. And the movie is actually the story of that. It is not a story about an underdog or people’s rooting for an underdog. Rather, it is a story about people responding to the delighted life force, the élan vitale of a single person and joining up to help him because of it. To make this person we have Anthony Hopkins. He makes Munro deaf, odd, abstracted, full of jokes, and a certain shine. It is a perfect example of a star commandeering a story and making it understandable and more true, since, from all we are told, the actual New Zealander, Burt Munro, had this shine too, and in this film he shines through, not because of his mechanical magic but because of this very shine. It is one of Hopkins’ master-creations. He gives him joie de vivre, a happy heart. Everyone somehow is beguiled by this broken-down, keys-missing, upright player-piano. They drop the prison they are in to free him from his, because he is already free.



Blood And Sand [1941]

27 Jan

Blood And Sand — directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Sports Drama. 125 minutes Color 1941.


The Story: A poor illiterate boy from Seville becomes Spain’s greatest matador, marries his beautiful childhood sweetheart, and then meets Rita Hayworth.


The lipstick on her mouth is the slash of death. As soon as she appears in purple, you know Tyrone Power is in Dutch. Anyone would be.

She’s 22 but she plays a woman of marked sophistication and massively confident sexual greed. She is never dressed down but always up and never less than to kill. Like gold coins, men move through what Hermes Pan her choreographer called the most beautiful fingers in the world. The part made her a star.

Even here, you can see what a good actress she is, her gift dependent upon her responsiveness. Just watch her in the big confrontation scene with Linda Darnell; watch how everything Darnell says to her hits her and what she does with it.  She has a natural inbred Meisner technique.

There are many attributes that made Hayworth a star, but let’s just notice one of them: she has the most beautiful carriage. You’d have to wait until Cyd Charisse to meet her match. Look how the shoulders and hands are carried as she dances. She has three of these, one sitting down playing a guitar in which she moves only her shoulders, one where she subjects Power into a bull of her bidding, and one of full upright fornication which she does with Anthony Quinn.

Quinn, when young, is sexier than Power. His eyes burn with the hatred of an Italian whore; nothing could be hotter. And then we have Linda Darnell who is 17 years old here and unutterably touching. These film stars have such natural gifts. Darnell has the power to inhale with her eyes. It’s not a trick. She simply does it as an attribute of what she is. To witness such things is to cause wonder in us.

The weak link in all of this is Power himself who never has a hardon as the matador. He never investigates the character; he misses the eager brash guttersnipe of that scampering scamp of a boy he began as. You never feel his love of the sport, upon which the story depends. Of course, as in all bullfight movies, you cannot show the actor actually fighting the bull. If it were football, it would be different.

Blood And Sand is renowned for its color scheme of gold, ice blue, and blood red which the director imposed on it, and its Special Features contains a commentary by a modern cameraman Richard Crudo, a tutorial on the cumbersome challenge of Technicolor, which here is thick, rich, and saturated. Mamoulian paints with film, right from the start with an all-but-naked adolescent boy racing through a blue moonlit countryside. He spray paints Hayworth’s banquet flowers black. He spray paints John Carradine’s deathbed sheets grey. Darnell’s dresses are always white, black, or true blue. And Mamoulian dyed Hayworth’s hair auburn, which it remained for the rest of her career.

The backstage work of bullfighting is arresting, and we are treated to a supporting cast of considerable strength: John Carradine as Power’s faithful friend, J. Carroll Naish as a wise fellow matador; Laird Cregar as louche journalist full of himself; as Power’s mother, storied actress Ala Nazimova. The movie is a lot of different sorts of fun: its camera work, color schemes, bright casting, two gorgeous young women, although, as you will see to your amusement and forgiveness, lead does not add weight to melodrama.




23 Sep

Moneyball – Directed by Bennett Miller. Sports Biodoc. A baseball general manager battles against entrenched custom and the odds. 133 minutes Color 2011.

** * * *

The picture is not just moving at the end, but all along, as various reckless moves are reckoned out carefully and executed. This may sound cold. For the content of the movie is not emotional, and its players do not emotionalize it either. The emotion involved is the emotion in the audience which can root, not for a great person, which Billy Beane was not, but a great idea, which is what he pursued. A great idea, such as Freedom or such as Democracy or such as Justice. Beane was not a particularly attractive personality, so the film is not like a Frank Capra movie, which in every other way it resembles, because it does not have Jimmy Stewart in it. Instead it has Brad Pitt, a great actor, provided he does not have to put on a suit and tie, and one who could easily access the towering rages and sense of peril and tension which Beane emitted – but Pitt does not do this. He presents Beane as just as driven, but saner than he was, but that makes Beane a person we can watch with a certain engaged coolness. Coolness is a temperature that can induce tears of joy, and it does. The justice of Pitt’s playing allows full scope for the forces arrayed against him, first by his chief scout in a part superbly played and then by the field manager played as a taciturn dog-in-the-manger by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a role Hoffman would have been tops in when younger, Jonah Hill is a dream. Sports people tend to be dumb, and Beane’s glomming onto this person who was not dumb makes the two of them into a sort of Abbott and Costello we can root for, two losers who might turn out to be winners. One’s attention is drawn to Hill in every scene, because he is so open, and you feel that the character always has been open and always has been dismissed as a dweeb. I hand him this year’s Oscar. The methods this character uncovers and uses were not new to baseball – if you read Ted Williams’ books on his life and on batting you can see that long ago Williams was a master statistician, that he knew everything about the ballpark, everything about the shadows on the field at a certain time of day, everything about the pitcher he was up against, and to learn more, he let the first pitch pass, no matter what – and back in the day he wasn’t the only one. But here the statistics are computerable, and the fun of the film is to see these two make hay of that fact, by hiring for the lowly Oakland A’s the refuse of the majors and turning those players into good account. The joy is not their good account but the good account of the shattering of long inopperational conventions. [ad#300×250]



The Rookie

07 Aug

The Rookie – Directed by John Lee Hancock. Sports Drama. A 40-year-old baseball coach keeps his promise to God. 127 minutes Color 2002.

* * * * *

Carter Burwell’s score draws a line under every scene with the same color as the scene, making the obvious unmistakable. This is exactly the way to score a film such as this, a Disney sermon, which is inspirational and important. Important for people to see who have not fulfilled their promise. Because it’s never too late. When you consider a film like this, it’s easy to see what’s there: story, yes; situation, yes; talented actors, yes; competent direction; yes, proper filming, yes; clear roles, yes. Script, no; characters, no. It’s not that people say what people would never say under the circumstances, so much as it is that they do not say enough and that what they do say lacks the power of personal verbal flavor. This means, with too little dialogue, the actors must fall back on their personal eccentricity, which Rachel Griffiths wisely does, or that actors must fall back on acting, which makes them look ridiculous in the case of that wonderful actor Brian Cox in his final scene (watch him grasp for straws) or like a ham, which is the case with Dennis Quaid. Quaid, always well cast, is an actor of great charm and application. Good looking, with a grin and a smile almost as endearing as Brando’s, and with a winning way about him. He is a terrific male physical specimen and an ideal sort of all-American type (don’t put him costume drama, though; don’t ask him to play a European of any kind).  But over time, he has gotten to be very technical actor, and you can see it in his mouth. He makes faces. (And you rally have to be Greta Garbo to know how to do that.) So he gives less of a gutsy or eccentric or innocent performance than one which fulfills the routines of the script. Still he is a lovable cuss, and has his moments here. The film promulgates bourgeois American virtues and feelings. Why not? That’s Disney’s job always. Someone has to do it. And I need it from time to time. What makes the whole thing work is that the baseball stuff  works like blazes and that it is cast bottom-heavy with superb senior actors who give foundation and validity to the message without spelling it out in any bigger letters than Carter Burwell uses. This clarity makes it possible to turn elsewhere without disgust. Good family fare, to be sure.





Soul Surfer

25 Apr

Soul Surfer – Directed by Sean McNamara. Second Chance Sports Docudrama. A young female athlete tries for a comeback after a terrible accident. 106 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

This movie has a self-embarrassed Christian side-story, and I am embarrassed by its embarrassment. I am not a practicing Christian, but I find it odd that I know of no modern American film which actually embraces as an ingredient of story the spiritual strength which is to be found in the Christian Church, not by saints, or ministers, but by ordinary persons who are also the leads in films. Am I wrong? In this story, spiritual strength is certainly what is called for when the young lady‘s athletic career seems to be completely compromised by what happens to her.  Like all sports stories, it is the record of triumph against odds. In this case, the sport is the enchanting and unthinkable sport of surfboarding. Wonderful to behold, spectacular beyond imagining, one watches the athletes – all of them female – strut their stuff on the crests. The amazing thing about the sport of surfboarding is it does not take place in the racing surface of terra firma. It’s all done on water! How unusual! So the unheavals of water make it a great treat to watch. However, I wish the spiritual side of the piece had been more fully realized. In many ways, the film seems amateur – as how could it not with thirteen screenwriters – but that does not matter so much, when one realizes that it is the actual story of Bethany Hamilton, an Hawaiian girl who actually went through this ordeal. I wandered into the film because Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid were in it playing her parents. Helen Hunt’s pinched look is a perfect launching point for her skills as an actress which are not pinched, but open, flexible, and immediate. Dennis Quaid is in fine figure, with his intense concern and winning grin. Given the flaccidity of the script, they are both good, and both surf, as well. AnnaSophia Robb plays Bethany most convincingly. It’s a good family film. And for me, as well, it helped once more to dissolve more of my difficulty with handicapped people, and a good job too.



127 Hours

22 Feb

127 Hours — directed by Danny Boyle — Sports drama. A young deserteer/mountaineer finds himself trapped in a canyon. 94 minutes Color 2010.

* * * *

I found myself detached watching this. Let’s assume it’s not because of a piece of undigested cheese, for the film is filled with a thousand felicities. But I have three questions. The film turned out to be exactly what I expected it to be: the story of a man escaping, played by a good-looking actor of some talent. James Franco plays him as a Merry Andrew isolate. I question the choice, not of an isolate, but of a man who is essentially volatile. The volatility may be inherent with Franco, but I wonder if the actual man, Aron Ralston was so. For Franco the desert is a lark. But if Ralston were actually a fellow of serious humor and of steady temperament, what would have happened to him in that canyon? As it is, on the soul-level, nothing happens to him. All he learns is: Always tell someone where you are going. Then, there is a problem with narration, by which I mean editing. In such a story it seems necessary to put the audience, not in the shoes of the main character, but in their own shoes in that perilous place. But that’s not what we get. What we get is the editing machine in that perilous place. So the editing takes over our job for us, without our saying we need it to. There are five million cuts, none of them necessary for our entry into the tale. So we end up with a virtuoso camera and editing, of which we never cease to be aware, and which, in my case, keeps me aloof from the events and from the actor playing him. For the actor is left with no single scene that is his own. Every scene is the camera’s, the editor’s. Franco is always on camera, but we are never allowed just to be with him. This is sad, because the story is remarkable, and because the list of things done well in this film would have no end: the desert shown, the meeting with the two girls hiking and their adventure, the kissing of the staple, the trailing of the rope, the handling of the rock-fall, the great last ten minutes of the picture. Another problem with the picture, just at present, is that too much is known about it beforehand; its publicity has killed it. But it is well worth seeing; it is not depressing; it is harrowing only when it needs to be and less harrowing than a thousand horror films. Expect the expected, and you won’t be disappointed.



Beautiful Boxer

18 Feb

Beautiful Boxer – directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham – drama of a Thai renowned kick-boxer determined to become a female. 118 minutes color 2005.

* * * * *

Anyone across whose mind has passed the notion of altering their gender from male to female will have experienced in large or in little what this story dramatizes as a whole and will feel fascination and sympathy with it. Nong Toom, an effeminate teenager, enters the grueling and violent world of kickboxing to fee a sex change. His first goal is to help his disabled parents, but he is so skilled he becomes a national treasure – particularly when he starts wearing girl-makeup in the ring. The scenes of boxing are remarkable, the training is horrendous, the environment the same as for boxing anywhere, lousy. The film is brilliantly mounted and told by the director/writer; the editing and music and photography are stunning. And the brutal bullying, shame, and confusion are exactly no different from what any of us have received for the same natural quandary the world over, from the time we humans were children to the time we are old. So frightening is the situation — perhaps nothing is more frightening in life than to be derided for the body one has to survive inside of within one’s present incarnation — that one can only respect the strength of character Nong Toom’s determination shows in going through with his desire to be the beauty he sees in females. The boxer and his/her story are famous in Thailand, and Nong Toom is played by a champion current Thai kick-boxer, Asanee Suwan. What the film demonstrates more clearly than any Rocky movie can do is that the fight against gender-preference oppression requires a masculinity of a force greater than the force of homophobia by far, and that nothing less will do.



The FIghter

06 Feb

The Fighter – Directed by David O. Russell – Boxing Picture. Drawn between the force-fields of his family and his future, a failed fighter chooses. 115 minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

It’s a fight picture. Which means that it is like all fight pictures in the same way that all Tango pictures are about a certain form, each with its ritual moves, its setbacks, and its dazzling triumphs. However, it is unlike other fight pictures in that this picture is not about someone fighting against the odds in the ring, where one other person doesn’t want the hero to win, but against a crowd — a whole family and town of persons whose desire to have the hero win bids fair to having him fail. Those who love him love him too much to permit him to breathe. They all want the victory – for themselves – and every one of them is ignorant of that fact. They are led by the hero’s immediate family which is led by his volatile controlling mother who is also his manager. She is played to perfection by Melissa Leo, and it is a performance that never betrays the character by letting up on her strategies and her sentimentality and her willful ignorance. Leo never injects the character with a depth that is not inherent in her. She is the mother of seven daughters and two sons, and only one of those sons does she really love, and it’s not the fighter. It’s the older one, a balding palooka played by Christian Bale, in a showy role, an opportunity which he makes full and imaginative use of. The story is based on two real fighters, brothers, Micky and Dicky Ward — and Dicky, Bale’s character, is exactly like the mother, domineering and massively self-ignorant. The picture cleverly opens with him walking in glory with his brother past the local classes of Lowell Mass as though he were the fighter of the title. Even the fighter’s girlfriend eventually wants to control the fighter, played, in a perfectly cast picture, by Amy Adams, as a tough-minded barkeep. The problem is that the fighter himself will fight in the ring, but not outside the ring. He is not volatile; he is steady and withdrawn. It’s the hardest role in the movie to play, for, while Bale’s character tries the patience of everyone in the movie, Mark Wahlberg’s character tries the patience of everyone in the movie house. Eventually he has to get into the boxing ring with his own mother before he can stand up for himself. Mark Wahlberg gives a beautifully judged performance, but one so surrounded by the color and fireworks of the group that it may go unregarded, unrecognized, unrewarded. Yet Wahlberg is able to summon a resident dumbness in perfect response to the drubbing his family gives him. The film is beautifully directed, filmed, costumed, and set, but, of course, fight films depend upon editing. The fight sequences go well; there are three of them; but scene speed steals meaning from drama, and modern editing does our job for us such that we in the audience, being told what to do with every quick cut, are never allowed, any more than Micky Ward is allowed, to let things sink in long enough to register.  When Wahlberg finally seizes the stage the editing needs to become steady to match his energy, but it doesn’t; it remains volatile, and so the denouement is absolutely lost. Anna Magnani on camera must be edited one way; Henry Fonda another. But not here. Which means, we see the picture, we admire the picture, but in the end we do not care anything at all about the picture or about anyone in it at all.


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