Category Archives: Sports Films

Million Dollar Baby-2004

Million Dollar Baby-2004

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank

Scott’s Review #798

Reviewed August 2, 2018

Grade: A

Million Dollar Baby (2004) is arguably Clint Eastwood’s best directed film of his career. Rivaling Mystic River (2003) by a hair, the film has a raw emotional appeal, empathetic and richly carved characters, and mainstream sensibility. These combined elements resulted in huge box office success and Oscar wins for Picture, Director, Actress, and Supporting Actor in the year of its release.

Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) is a hardened boxing coach who owns a run-down Los Angeles gym. He works with his best friend and assistant, Eddie (Morgan Freeman). When aspiring female boxer, Maggie (Hilary Swank), arrives and begs Frankie to train her, he initially declines, but at Eddie’s urging, eventually relents and leads her to great success as a top female boxer. Frankie and Maggie forge a close-knit, father/daughter relationship, a substitute for the damaged one he has with his own daughter.

The final portion of Million Dollar Baby takes a very dark turn, as Maggie is illegally punched during a bout by a fellow boxer, causing her to become a quadriplegic. These events are what changes the tone of the film from a very good sports drama to a great tale in morality. Many emotions and debates transpired after this film was released and the common question of, “What would you have done?” engulfed viewers for months, all through awards season. The heartbreaking effects of the story events raises the film head and shoulders above most typical sports films.

Too often Eastwood creates films that are palpable, but in a way generic, and very Hollywood. Grand Torino (2008) and Invictus (2009) are good examples of this- especially Invictus given the sports drama element.  Some assumed that Million Dollar Baby was to be a female Rocky (1976) and the film was indeed marketed as such. For this reason some felt robbed or duped, but I celebrate this film as leaning a firm left of center with a refreshing, progressive approach.

The performances are amazing all around, even by Eastwood- never known for his acting talent. The characters are written as character driven, but not caricatures. Wounded, grizzled, and flawed, in his senior years Frankie is seeing his life having passed him by, having achieved nothing. Never has Eastwood portrayed a character as complex and reserved as Frankie.

Swank deserved her second Oscar (1999’s Boys Don’t Cry was her first) for simply becoming a boxer- her pre-filming prep schedule reportedly was insane. More than the muscle and toning she achieved, is the raw acting talent and wounded emotions she possesses. The character is written as pained and vulnerable, but also very strong. She has achieved little in her life- working as a waitress in Missouri and stealing scraps of leftovers to survive. Her family is trash through and through, only wanting her eventual riches for themselves. The character is inevitably championed as we empathize with her plight in an emotional way.

Finally, Freeman deserves recognition for being the ultimate supporting actor. As Eddie Dupris, a former fighter blind in one eye, he is the center point of the story and frequently narrates the actions of others, oftentimes offering a glimpse into the psyche of individuals. The voice of reason, he is observant and analytical, almost knowing Freddie better than Freddie knows himself. They quarrel and disagree, but are forever friends and loyal to a fault. Freeman possesses quite reserve as the audience becomes curious of his past life.

In my opinion Million Dollar Baby (2004) is Eastwood’s best film- Mystic River comes a close second, however. A seemingly formulaic story and genre are weaved into a web of humanism, emotions, and power. The film is about the characters, which makes it succeed. Eastwood has not been able to quite surpass this beautiful story, but thankfully received dripping praise and accolades for a film not soon forgotten.

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Battle of the Sexes-2017

Director-Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Starring-Emma Stone, Steve Carell

Scott’s Review #691

Reviewed October 11, 2017

Grade: A

Battle of the Sexes is a film that achieves worth on many levels- equal parts sports film, drama, and biography, the film excels across all genres, with exceptional acting and crowd pleasing storytelling. To boot, the film is a true story based not only on the very famous pro tennis match of 1973, termed the “Battle of the Sexes”, but a story of the sexual identity conflict of one of the opponents, in a time where being ones true self was not easy, especially for a public figure.

Emma Stone might very well have given her best portrayal of her young career as Billie Jean King, the talented tennis pro featured in the film. She is kind and fair, but a fierce proponent of women’s rights in a time in the United States when feminism was beginning to first take shape and women, and their male supporters, demanded equal treatment. At first uncertain whether Stone could pull the role off (not because of lack of talent, but the women seem so different), she truly shines as the tomboy athlete with shaggy, feathered locks, and a toothy grin.

Equally worthy of praise is Steve Carell, who bolsters his film credo by tackling the role of King’s opponent and foe in the big match, Bobby Riggs. Portrayed as a certifiable “jerk” and a sexist pig, Carell somehow pours the perfect amount of sympathy and likability into the part. We witness scenes of Riggs’ playfulness with his young son and tender yet troubled relationship with his wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue in a well cast role), that never seems neither trite nor contrived, but rather quite genuine.

In fact, the acting in Battle of the Sexes is across the board good. Sarah Silverman drips with confidence and humor as Gladys Heldman, founder of World Tennis magazine and leader of the troupe of female tennis players she parades around southern California seeking the same respect and pay as their male counterparts. Bill Pullman, makes the most of his one dimensional role of Jack Kramer, a wealthy and male chauvinistic  promoter, while the talented Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as Marilyn, the bisexual, closeted lover of Billie Jean- giving a blend of vulnerability and toughness to her role.

The romantic scenes between Stone and Riseborough smolder with tenderness and heart as they forge ahead with their forbidden romance. The film makes clear that a same sex romance in those days, while accepted by those around them, would be met with shame and rejection by a large part of King’s legions of fans- this is a heartbreaking reality. One of the most tear-jerking scenes comes at the end of the film, when a victorious King is unable to acknowledge Marilyn- her openly gay male dresser earnestly whispers to her that one day she will be free to love who she truly loves- the scene is poignant.

Directors Dayton and Faris carve a finale that is careful not to fall into cliched territory. Given that Battle of the Sexes is a sports film, this is a real risk, as typically these genre films teeter into the “good guys beat bad guys” fairy tale land. Rather, while the film does champion King in the end, the moment is laced with good humor, drama, and sentimentality that does not seem forced, but rather honest and real- I enjoyed the final act immensely.

As the film progressed I found myself drawing parallels to the ever dramatic and historical 2016 Presidential election- sure to have films made in years ahead-and King in many ways mirrors Hillary Clinton while Riggs resembles Donald Trump in the sexist department. The political and sports “Battles of the Sexes” warrants an amount of analysis. My point is a sad one and as much as I love the film, I was left with a cold feeling that forty five years after the famous Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs match, male superiority and chauvinism is alive and well in the United States- we still have so much progress to make.

Battle of the Sexes is a film with fantastic acting, stellar casting, passion, excitement, and a telling of a historical, true story. In short the film contains all of the elements of a compelling cinematic experience.

The Blind Side-2009

The Blind Side-2009

Director-John Lee Hancock

Starring-Sandra Bullock

Scott’s Review #580

Reviewed January 2, 2017

Grade: B-

The Blind Side is a 2009 film that garnered huge buzz and accolades largely  based on rave reviews for Sandra Bullock’s performance. Bullock subsequently went on to win an Academy award for the role (I personally would have awarded any of the other four nominees instead).

The story is surmised as a rich, white couple from the suburbs “rescues” poor black football player and gives him a decent life that he otherwise would not have been able to have.

I was impressed with Bullock’s performance, but I left the theater a little disappointed. I know this is a true story, but do we really need yet another movie about a poor black kid being “rescued” by rich, white people? Think Finding Forester. This film is riddled with the typical stereotypes (rednecks, racist friends, political/religious views)that seem a bit overdone.

Disturbing to me are folks that think The Blind Side is the best film in decades- no- it is certainly not. It is definitely a feel good, warm, fairy tale sort of movie, that, besides Bullock’s performance, seems rather ordinary.

I was expecting a bit more due to the success of the movie and would recommend this as a rental only or anyone who aspires to watch all of the Oscar nominated features.

Invictus-2009

Invictus-2009

Director-Clint Eastwood

Starring-Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman

Scott’s Review #579

Reviewed January 2, 2017

Grade: B

As sports films go, it is very difficult, especially a sports film based on real life actions, for a director to avoid cliches and make the film not a sappy, saturated mess. I will point out some of the latter day Rocky films as examples of cheese, not that those are true stories.

Nevertheless, Clint Eastwood has given us Invictus, and while the film is certainly predictable and sappy, somehow it also works as an above average offering.  This is undoubtedly helped by the superior acting of stars Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, who give both compelling and nuances performances.

While not a masterpiece, for the sports genre, it is above average, as it combined a South African history lesson along with good drama. Freeman portrays the famed Nelson Mandela, during the period when he took over as President and subsequently ended apartheid. He used the 1995 World Cup rugby matches as a way to unite his people. Damon stars as a key rugby player.

Invictus is a rousing, triumphant sports film with a happy ending one can see for miles away. There is particularly a rooting value and rallying cry to the film since the subject matter is an important social issue and historically significant.

I wish that the film might have contained more character driven elements, but it was clear the type of film that it was. Nothing very surprising ever developed as the film was certainly straight-forward. Still, a worthy effort that is a feel-good film.

The Fighter-2010

The Fighter-2010

Director-David O. Russell

Starring-Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale

Scott’s Review #546

Reviewed December 11, 2016

Grade: A-

The Fighter is an excellent film. Being a sports film there are the inevitable cliches, which make the entire sports film genre rather predictable. But this film is a very well done story and based on real-life figures (the Ward brothers). Tremendous acting by Wahlberg, Bale, and Melissa Leo, in the role of Mama Ward- a role of a lifetime.

The telling is a true story of Mickey Ward, a boxer from Massachusetts and his battle to stardom, dealings with family members, and his love life. The characters may be ever slightly overdone in the rugged, rough, Bostonian way, almost appearing New Jersey-Soprano-ish instead of New England, but the message is clear- they are in the boxing world and tough guys (and gals).

This film is much more character driven than many similar sports movies. thank goodness, and the casting is spot on. There is the inevitable final boxing match and the standard reaction shots, but again sports films are riddled with cliches. The real win here is with the characters layered, complexities as they love and hate each other.

Bale and Leo deserved their Oscars for their respective roles, specifically Bale for the shocking weight loss and spot on character imitation.

Creed-2015

Creed-2015

Director-Ryan Coogler

Starring-Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan

Scott’s Review #495

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Reviewed October 16, 2016

Grade: C+

Creed will certainly please die-hard fans (and there are legions) of the Rocky franchise, eager for a trip down memory lane to revisit with Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa”. For those yearning for a slice of nostalgia and a harkening back to 1976, when the first Rocky was released, Creed will be a crowd pleaser. For others expecting something new or innovative to the story will not be as satisfied. The film is predictable for sure, with all of the expected elements of a sports film.

Instead of Rocky Balboa being the main attraction- he is now a senior citizen and long since retired, now owning a modest Italian restaurant in Philadelphia, the action centers on a young fighter- bastard child of Apollo Creed- Rocky’s nemesis turned friend from the first few installments. Adonis Johnson Creed (played by up and coming star Michael B. Jordan) is his name and until rescued from a group home (he has a temper and fights a lot, naturally) by Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) he does not know fighting is truly in his blood. Determined to make it big in the boxing world, he moves to Philadelphia and convinces Rocky Balboa to train him. Along the way he meets a love interest-Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson), a musician.

The main positives for me are the nods to past history and a few sentimental moments throughout the film. How wonderful to see Rocky Balboa again- like catching up with an old friend we have not seen for years. We learn that sadly, Paulie and Adrian (Rocky’s brother-in-law and wife) have long since died and a sweet moment shows Rocky visiting their side by side graves, pulling up a chair, and reading the newspaper to them. Rocky’s son has moved far away so Rocky is left a lonely man- and Apollo’s son revives a father figure element within Rocky.

Also nice are some flashback scenes to the earlier Rocky films and we see portions of Rocky’s and Apollo’s fights. The plethora of external Philadelphia scenes do bring authenticity and familiarity to the film and this is a wise decision, instead of too many interior scenes in a studio.

Otherwise, the film is largely  a miss. The formulaic, predictability must have been intentional to make Creed an ode to fans and a film that is easy to watch.  We are served the many “inspirational” training scenes as Adonis trains and trains for the big match- with conveniently an arrogant, loud, Londoner, with an equally unlikable coach. The “good vs. bad” mentality that the film develops is contrived and completely plot driven- it makes Adonis that much more likable and gives him the rooting factor. This occurs time and time again in sports films. Why not make both fighters nice guys? But, of course, the film also gives Adonis a temper- to insure that he appeals to the testosterone driven fans expecting such.

Phylicia Rashad and Tessa Thompson are clearly stock characters- we get the standard reaction shots from both as they wince along with the blows that Adonis receives, and Rashad gets an unintentional comic moment- when Adonis lands a flattening blow on his opponent, she proudly professes “that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”. Interesting to note however, is the clever decision to make Bianca suffer from progressive hearing loss. Having her handicapped gives her a nice humanity, though once the fight scenes begin this is never mentioned again.

A standard boxing film with the expected elements- testosterone, brutal fighting, a bit of sentimentality for good measure, and dutiful female characters with little substance, Creed is a guys movie, basic and predictable, with little edge and lots of machismo. However, it does capitalize on the Rocky franchise and offers a nice little nod to the past. Otherwise, it is a rather forgettable film with a mediocre story.

Unbroken-2014

Unbroken-2014

Director-Angelina Jolie

Starring-Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson

Scott’s Review #260

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Reviewed August 1, 2015

Grade: B

Unbroken tells the true story of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, a runner during the World War II period, who was also serving in the military during this tumultuous time in history. His story is one of bravery, courage, and endurance, as he survives a hellish experience in Japanese prisoner of war camps after having crashed in the Pacific Ocean, stranded for 47 days, as if that were not enough to break a man.

Mainstream Hollywood fare to the hilt, this film is surprisingly directed by Angelina Jolie (a woman) and written by the Coen brothers, the latter usually emitting less traditional and more quirky fare than this film. Jolie directs what is arguably a “guys movie” that contains very few women in the cast, and the ones who do appear are either a loving mother or giggling schoolgirl types, so the big names associated with Unbroken surprise me. I would have taken this work as a Clint Eastwood film. Unbroken, which was expected to receive several Oscar nominations, was shut out of the major categories.

Visually, Unbroken is slick, glossy, and shot very well- it looks perfect. The cinematography, sound effects, and costumes look great. The cast of good-looking young men look handsome even while battered and bruised and half starved. While in a way this is a compliment, it is also not one. Unbroken lacks any grittiness and plays it quite safe. Even the scenes of abuse and beatings lack an edge to them.

This is not to say that the film is not good. It is good. I found myself inspired by the lead character of Louis, played by Jack O’Connell, for his resilence during his ordeals. O’Connell gives a very good performance as his motto, “If I can take it, I can make it” is repeated throughout and who will not cheer at his accomplishments? Zamperini, who has traditional Italian parents having relocated to the United States, are strict but fair. Louis’s older brother, Peter, is his best friend and is the person who has the most faith in him. At first Louis is on the verge of becoming a punk, in trouble with the law, if not for the interference of his brother, who gets him interested in the sport of running.

As the years go by and war erupts, Louis embarks on a tour of duty in the military and his plane crashes in the water providing yet another test of courage and stamina. Louis is strong and in many ways always the leader of the group he is intertwined with. The scenes of the three survivors stranded on the raft for days become slightly tedious, but perhaps this is the films intention, as they eat raw fish and raw bird to survive. Much of the remaining action is set in two Japanese war camps as Louis (and others) struggle to survive until the massive war has ended- they do not know if they will live or die.

The central antagonist- a vicious Japanese sergeant named “Bird”, perplexed me. Blatantly targeting Louis and administering cruel beatings and heaping tests of strength upon Louis, presumably out of jealousy because Louis was an Olympic athlete, why did Bird not simply kill him? His motivations were also odd- In one scene, Bird tearfully tells Louis that he knew they would be friends from the beginning and seems to admire him. Bird’s father, going by a photo, seems a hard, mean man. Is this why Bird is so vicious? Bird’s character is not well thought out. Also, every single Japanese character is portrayed in a very negative light, which sadly is common in war movies. Surely, despite being a war, there had to have been a few Japanese people who were not cruel. Character development and depth is not a strong suit of this film.

At the end of the day, Unbroken is a good, solid, war drama with an inspiring message of triumph, faith, and determination. Indeed, a positive message to viewers of all ages. The abuse/torture scenes are tough to watch, but the end result is a feel-good story. The snippets of the real Louis Zamperini at the end of the film are wonderful to watch.

Rush-2013

Rush-2013

Director-Ron Howard

Starring-Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl

Scott’s Review #162

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Reviewed August 31, 2014 

Grade: B+

Rush, a film directed by Ron Howard, delves into the world of auto racing with the true story of the 1970’s rivalry between racing superstars of the day James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The film mainly focuses on the time period from 1970-1976 and the series of races and championships involving the two with some of their personal life trials and tribulations thrown in. At first bitter enemies, a respect and friendship slowly builds over the years.

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl both give excellent performances as Hunt and Lauda, respectively. Ron Howard, a very mainstream, Hollywood style director carves a nice film that is not edgy or particularly risk taking, but is a solid biopic that works and will hold the viewer’s interest. The film is not gritty and has a definite safe feel to it, but that is unsurprising since Ron Howard directed it and is a characteristic of his films. Reportedly, the feud between Hunt and Lauda is slightly embellished from the low-key real life feud and some events are created for effect- Hunt never beat up a reporter in Lauda’s defense. The racing sequences are compelling and are not overdone or take away from the human aspect of the film. I loved seeing the real life Hunt and Lauda at the end of the film as is quite common these days when telling a true life story. Bruhl, an unknown to me, received a deserving Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Rush is not a movie to go down in history nor will it leave one thinking about or asking questions days from viewing it, but a slick, competent, entertaining story with impressive acting by the two leads.

 

Undefeated-2011

Undefeated-2011

Director-Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

Starring-Montrail “Money” Brown

Scott’s Review #134

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Reviewed July 25, 2014

Grade: B

Undefeated is an emotional documentary, a true story of a high school football coach brought in to a struggling, poor, suburban Memphis area high school and leading the team to a championship title. The story of the coach taking various students under his wing, father figure style, and helping them succeed in, not only football, but scholastics as well is inspiring and heartwarming. The coach’s passion really shines through to the viewer in this story.

As wonderful a story as it is, I felt slightly let down by it is as, yet again, the slant on the story is of an affluent white family swooping in to a poor black neighborhood and saving the black kids with their mighty influence. Why can’t we see a film that is the reverse? In the 21st century this is becoming slightly offensive and one-sided. It is The Blind Side with real people! With that rant made, the documentary is pretty awe-inspiring and the coach portrayed as a fantastic, truly caring human being. I laughed, cried, and rooted for the struggling football team to victory. The portion on what has since happened to the football players is interesting to see.  Undefeated won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2012.