DVD Movie Review: Goon (2011)

Goon-Seann-William-Scott1High Goon

A football hooligan is a spectator who initiates fights in the stands against other belligerents.  A hockey hooligan, or goon, is a team’s enforcer paid to intimidate and kick your cul around the rink. Mark my words: Michael Dowse‘s Goon (2011) will be a cult classic for years to come.

The based-on-a-true-story film begins as Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) realizes he is the outcast of his family due to his lack of intelligence and possessing of no true talents.  However, as a bouncer at a local bar, he quickly realizes that he has the knack for connecting his fists to other people’s faces.  This realization also comes to the attention of a local hockey team’s head coach who recruits Glatt to be the team’s goon.  The decision seems futile after watching Glatt’s first attempt on skates and introduction to his future teammates.  However, it doesn’t take long into his first game to earn his teammates confidence in a sport measured by someone’s toughness.  Glatt thrives in his role as the team’s goon, but still yearns for more.  As his undying support for his team and teammates expands, so do his talents, confidence, and popularity.

Aside from Glatt’s pursuit to find self-purpose, his character runs parallel to his roommate Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin).  LaFlamme was a once promising player on his way to the NHL until a mid-ice check from the biggest enforcer in hockey, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber), leaves LaFlamme’s confidence shattered. Glatt’s character has always looked up to Rhea for his toughness and ferocity.  It is when Glatt and Rhea meet in a small diner that the film’s final stage is set for the two heavyweights.  Rhea tells Glatt: “You have my respect. Whatever that means to you, you got it. But, know this shit hard. If ever there comes a time when it gets down to the morrow, and it’s you and me. Kid, I will lay you the fuck out.” Stars have aligned and as Rhea begins retirement, Glatt now has the opportunity to battle his hero and prove himself to his family and teammates.

Goon is unique in the way that it sticks to the story and it’s characters.  Each of the characters remains the same as they were in the beginning of the film.  However, it was the emergence of a new teammate or situation that allowed them to reach their potential.  This film always seemed like it was about to become overly quirky or even mundane, but the film never loses your attention.  Once the ending comes, you are actually looking forward to a tooth-loosening fight.

Goon is one the best sports films I’ve seen in recent times.

92 mins.

DVD Movie Review: Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001)

Footie ‘funanza’!

A tour-de-force of football movie magic – over the course of 89 minutes of screen time, there are many hilarious scenes that England fans can truly relate to. Mike Bassett is the manager of Norwich City and, having won a minor cup, is catapulted into the top job, because no-one else wants it!

Parts of the film were actually made at the old Wembley stadium just weeks after its closure and weeks before the demolition of the most famous football stadium in the world. Director Steve Barron (Coneheads (1993)) takes us into the world of Mike and his motley crew – assistant manager Lonnie Urquart and coach Dave Dodds, played by Phillip Jackson and Bradley Walsh respectively – as they take on the most coveted of management jobs. After a truly surreal qualification, England finally make their way to the Brazil World Cup finals.

Their group also includes Egypt, Mexico and the old adversary, Argentina. There, we see Mike continue in his hapless ways, and tempers reach boiling point with hilarious results including a changing room rage full of expletives it left me doubled over and with stomach cramps for two days, never has the rewind button so nearly been worn out. The film has shades of Graham Taylor’s reign as England boss, and we even have Martin Bashir following Mike from his inception as Manager, to the World Cup.

High point? It has to be striker Kevin Tonkinson’s attempt to recreate a jacuzzi, with disastrous results. There’s a little homage to a famous World Cup moment but I won’t spoil it for you, get the DVD and you will be quoting some of the best lines until you have no friends left! Here’s just one for you: ‘They did it in ’74 they did it in ’78, can they do it again? Yes, looks like the Scots are going out at the first round! Ethiopia 2 – 1 Scotland’.

Five-star genius!

89 mins.

Goal! (2005)

Back of the net?

Footie and the flicks have, down the years, had a relationship best described as lacklustre. Let’s face it, a game between Accrington Stanley and Crawley Town has more passion (and certainly more grass-roots realism) than the alleged soccer in movies such as Escape to Victory (1981) or When Saturday Comes (1996) although to be fair, more recently, there have been the excellent Looking for Eric (2009) and The Damned United (2009).

There’s a fair chance that the acting on display in your average Saturday kick-about is better, too – but Goal! (2005) by director Danny Cannon (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), and, erm, Judge Dredd (1995)) at least made the effort to change all that.

Kuno Becker stars as Santiago Munez, a young Mexican football-obsessive living in Los Angeles. His dad doesn’t approve of his obsession with the beautiful game, but, when he’s talent-spotted by former Newcastle striker Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane) who’s on holiday in LA, the big-time (well, Newcastle United) may beckon. As Foy says: “I’ve spent muddy days watching young lads beat the hell out of each other. But once in a while, there’s one that comes along and lifts your heart.”

It’s based on a true story, of course – and some of the former hottest representatives from the world of football also appear in the movie, including David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Raul, and Newcastle United’s then captain Alan Shearer.

The cinema has given audiences scores of beloved, inspiring films about sports, from Rocky (1976) to Raging Bull (1980). Producers Mike Jefferies and Matt Barrelle wondered why Hollywood hadn’t yet spawned a great football movie: “We’ve seen a myriad of tremendously successful films that use sport as a backdrop-films about baseball, basketball, golf, you name it-and it just seemed incredible to me that the world’s biggest sport-and, in fact, the biggest form of content on television today-has never been the subject of a decent movie,” said Jefferies when the film was first released.

Judge for yourself, but this mostly scores for me – took me a while to catch up with it, but the combination of Becker’s winning performance and the (for a change) genuinely credible footy action on display make this perfect for a pre- or post-big match film on a Saturday.

118 mins.

Ten Favourite Sports Movies

This sporting life

So here we go with our personal favourites in the field of sports movies (see what I did there?) It’s not an ordered ‘top ten’, nor is it a definitive list of the best ten ever made, before we get the now-customary emails and comments saying ‘you suck’. You’re still welcome to tell us we suck, it’s a free country. Hell, you could even tell us you like what we do, tweet this page and plaster it across social networks everywhere – but don’t let us tell you what to do. Feel free to chime in with your favourites. We’ll start with James‘s picks this time, as he has graciously ceded the honours to me in the past. He’ll probably post a lot of worthy stuff, so I’ll be on hand to lighten the mood once he’s (doubtless) banged on about Rocky (1976). Over to you, James.

James’s Choices

Rocky III (1982)

Well, in fact, I am not going to ‘bang on about Rocky (1976)’ by John G. Alvidsen, even though, along with Rocky Balboa (2006), it’s undoubtedly the best of the series, winning the Best Film Oscar way back in the day. But it simply wasn’t as much fun as this, the third installment, which was directed by its perrenial star Sylvester Stallone, and which I first saw, also way back in the day, on a double bill (remember those?) with Airplane! (1980). Ah, of such are memories (and future careers) made. With hindsight, it’s not actually very good, is part the third, but it does have a cracking, brutal performance from Mr. T as Clubber Lang, a brutal boxer who is working his way through fighter after fighter to get to Rocky, and a swang-song performance from Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s long-time trainer, Mickey, who really doesn’t want to see his boy in the ring with Lang. ‘He’ll knock you into tomorrow, Rock.’ But, of course, Rocky is having none of it, and it turns out to be Mickey’s last fight. And will it be Rocky’s? What do you think?

Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961)

Please don’t start whining on about how pool (either 8-ball, 9-ball or straight) is not actually a sport, because you would be wrong. Glad we got that cleared up. Simply the best film of its star Paul Newman’s career, bar none, and a remarkably intelligent, gripping and tragic examination of what it means to be a winner and a loser. George C. Scott is also exemplary as the evil gambler Bert Gordon, who will let nothing, least of all ‘Fast Eddie’ Felson (Newman) or his troubled love Sarah (Piper Laurie) stand in his way. And, of course, there are the two pool showdowns with the man Eddie came to town to beat – Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). They really do not make ’em like this any more.

Raging Bull (1980)

Probably Martin Scorsese’s finest film ever, for which he (to the Academy’s shame) did not pick up Best Film. Robert de Niro, in one of the finest performances of his career, for which he  did win the gong, plays real-life boxer Jake La Motta, a fighter whose violence and temper takes him temporarily to the top in the ring, but destroys all that he holds dear in the ‘real world’. With fights that are nothing short of breathtaking, characterizations that  could only have come from the mind and pen of Paul Schrader and one of the most moving, tragic denouments in all cinema, this simply soars, and is a film for the ages.

The Damned United (2009)

For my money, this may not be the best film ever made about football, but it’s certainly in the top one. It’s an absolutely kicking adaptation of the, apparently, somewhat fictionalized account of Ol’ Big Head Brian Clough (Michael Sheen), and his turbulent (and very brief) spell in charge of Leeds United, after he had already beaten Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) to the then First Division prize with Derby County. Sheen, as modern cinemagoers have come to expect following his performances in The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008), is excellent as Clough, and Timothy Spall provides admirable support as Clough’s long-suffering friend and assistant Peter Taylor, and the film as a whole emerges as a riveting account of the football battles of yesteryear.

Looking for Eric (2009)

Ken Loach rarely makes a film with characters that are difficult to warm to, and this is no exception – while the basic premise is obviously rooted in fantasy, straightforward, gutsy performances keep it grounded in working-class, football-loving realities, while the story’s darker side ( a gun-wielding local ‘psycho’ businessman, and the danger this poses to all concerned) is treated with respect and unflinching realism. A fairy story this ‘aint, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for magic. And Eric Cantona himself? A marvel, as you might expect – he’s already won his spurs as an actor, and he’s clearly having a great deal of fun playing himself here: ‘I am not a man. I am Cantona.’

Colin’s choices

Lucas (1986)

Starring a diminuitive Corey Haim, a pre-meltdown Charlie Sheen, and providing the big-screen debut for Winona Ryder, Lucas is really about love, feelings and other gushy stuff like that. It does have a very strong American football theme going through it, which proves pivotal to events, so I’m going with it. A note to our US chums – just remove the word ‘American’ when you read this. For my money, this is a prime example of a seriously under-rated feel-good film. It could easily have fallen into a formulaic boy meets girl, girl loves someone else, boy joins football team to impress girl, girl… well, you get the drift, I’m sure. A good script and some solid performances brought together under the watchful eye of David Seltzer (yes, that one) elevate this to a better product than the sum of its parts. Just don’t worry too much about the actual rules of football, or you’re likely to be disappointed. It’s a story, K?

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

In my humble and modest opinion, if you’re tired of Dodgeball, you’re tired of life. This film hit our screens when Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn were pretty much at the top of their game, and when Rip Torn – who played the wonderful Patches O’Houlihan – had been at the top of his for years. The young Patches was played by Hank Azaria, and if you’ve got the voice of Homer Simpson playing a character, you’re doing something right. Out-of-context cameos by Lance Armstrong, William Shatner, The Hoff and Chuck Norris add to the fun. Just one watch of this film and the tired platitude ‘it’s probably the way he wanted to go” takes on new meaning. You’ll see. Dodgeball is a tremendous amount of fun and at no time takes itself seriously. Watch out for the deus ex machina and remember the fundamental five Ds of Dodgeball: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and…dodge.

Cool Runnings (1993)

Imagine a sport populated almost entirely by Caucasian peoples, well versed in the harsh winters of the northern hemisphere and inventors of countless sports that exploit the fact that their countryside is covered in snow for 5 months every year. Then throw in a few happy-go-lucky and upbeat Jamaican guys. Under-equipped and poorly trained, they decide to race in one of the most dangerous events in the winter games – the bobsleigh. Featuring Leon, who seems to have been in everything for around 20 years, Malik Yoba (ditto), Doug E Doug and Rawle E Lewis as the team and the late, great John Candy as their trainer, Cool Runnings is just plain fun. It’s also based on a true story (one that I was lucky enough to see unfold live at the Winter Olympics of 1988). Luckily, in real life, the teams were not at all hostile (as in the movie) and welcomed the Jamaican team with open arms. Still a great story, even if the facts don’t get in the way.

The Blind Side (2009)

I was determined not to watch this. Then I was going to watch it but I was determined not to enjoy it. Then I watched it and fell in love with Sandra Bullock all over again. For a guy who doesn’t really like to watch film representations of real-life tales (it’s a long story, buy me a beer and I’ll tell you) I was truly taken by this. Bullock deserved all the praise she got for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy, and Quinton Aaron likewise for his portrayal of football star-in-the-making Michael Oher. A truly uplifting movie about how one person’s kindness and disregard for colour of skin or the disdain of her peers can bring out the true character of an abandoned, homeless teenager and literally change his life.  The juxtaposition of Bullock’s sassy Southern lady and Aaron’s shy and self-effacing kid from the projects works all the better because much of it really happened. A true fairy tale for the modern age.

Shaolin Soccer (Siu lam juk kau ) (2001)

Having seen Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and loved it, I was keen to see what madness lay in the previous outing involving Stephen Chow, Hong Kong-based director, actor and martial arts nut.  While not of the same calibre of KFH, it has a real charm about it, and it flies the flag of uncompromizing and generally mental Hong Kong cinema. If you need a heads-up, read our review of Gong Tau (2007) for a taster of the insanity. Written so much larger than life, Chow’s efforts engage on such a real schoolboy gung-ho level, it’s practically impossible to not like them. Similar, in a way, to the films of Bollywood, there’s romance, intrigue, drama and an almost impossible amount of butt kicking. Mix in some magic, some bad guys and replace the dancing with football and you have Shaolin Soccer. It’s like anything brilliant – it’s simple, effective and it delivers the goods. See it.

by Colin Moors

The Color of Money (1986)

Rack ’em!

I wanted to talk a little about Martin Scorsese‘s The Color of Money (1986), having already dealt with its predecessor, Robert Rossen‘s The Hustler (1961).

Now The Hustler is quite simply one of the finest sporting dramas ever committed to film, but Scorsese’s sequel really ‘aint half bad. It garnered its star, Paul Newman, the only Best Actor Oscar of his career (and everyone knows that he should have won at least half a dozen, not least for his original portrayal of the troubled ‘hustler’ ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson), and it was Tom Cruise’s breakout role, playing the cocky but hugely talented 9-ball pool player Vincent Lauria, who has much to learn from Eddie about the fine art of making money with a pool cue.

His sexy, streetwise girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is far more willing initially to learn the ropes and adopt a professional attitude to hustling, because she understands very well that ‘rich can be arranged’, as Felson says. But, as Fast Eddie throws himself back into a world he felt he had long since walked away from, his own need for action begins to alter his relationship with his new protégé.

Richard Price’s screenplay manages the impressive feat of updating the cool, laconic language of Walter Tevis’s original book (Tevis also wrote The Hustler), and Newman et al are never less than convincing in the depiction of the trio’s dynamic descent.

Cruise is Cruise before he was really Cruise, and on purpose – his star quality shone through very early, particularly in the pool play itself and the sharp exchanges over the tables. It may be one of those films that might drag for you, if you have no real interest in either the game or its gambling subculture, but I would urge you to stick with it to the finish – a more satisfying and slick sports movie would be hard to find.

119 mins.

When We Were Kings (1996)

Just a knockout

I am very grateful to my friend and New Europe colleague Andy Carling for many things, but the most recent of these would have to be his recommendation that I sit down and enjoy an evening with Messrs Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Leon Gast, who is the director of the quite extraordinary documentary When We Were Kings (1996).

Truth be told, I am not the biggest fan of boxing – particularly in its modern incarnation, I find it to be little more than a pissing contest between the promoters and their punch-drunk semi-morons who always appear to have the egos to match their pecs.

However, the heavyweight championship match that took place in Zaire in 1974 between then Heavyweight World Champion George Foreman, an utterly formidable fighter, and underdog challenger Muhammad Ali (who, aged 32 at the time, was amazingly ten years Foreman’s senior), and the build-up to the bout, was something else again – and I am ashamed (though, ultimately, glad) to admit that when I at down to watch Gaston’s film, I actually did not know who won the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ all those years ago.

So, what’s the difference between boxing then and now? Simple. Muhammad Ali.

Like most people, I was obviously aware of Ali by reputation, knowing him to have been an incredibly cock-sure, even arrogant fighter, but these terms simply do not do justice to a man who was as witty, genuine and passionate outside the ring as he was balletic inside – Gast’s remarkable assemblage of footage from the time, interspersed with the thoughts of iconic sports commentators and black icons such as James Brown and Spike Lee, combine to create a documentary that is every bit as engrossing and exciting as the very best sports biopics, the only difference here being that the fighting is real.

And, boy oh boy, what a fight. Assuming that there are some uninformed souls out there, I will extend the same favour to you that Andy did to me, ie I’m saying nowt, but will simply leave you with the assurance that you will never again see the likes of the time, place and personalities on display in this film.

Seconds out!

89 mins.

Invictus (2009)

InvictusA worthy try

Certainly, he’s a director in vogue. Clint Eastwood has made a remarkable transition over the years from the spaghetti-western, moody-strong-silent type and amoral urban avengers that characterized his earlier roles, as well as the broad (though thrilling) sweeps of his first directorial efforts, such as Play Misty For Me (1970) and High Plains Drifter (1973), into a nuanced, creative helmsman of some of the most intelligent films of recent years.

Sidestepping his overrated Changeling (2008), but noting with real affection his very affecting Gran Torino (2008), and not forgetting of course his remarkable trio of critical and box-office smashes Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), this is a man who has lived up to his earlier promise.

And so, does the run of good (even great) form continue with Invictus (2009)? Good question.

Well, there can certainly be no doubting the director’s courage – in choosing a historical drama (about Nelson Mandela, South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid and, well, rugby) that would normally have studio execs coughing nervously, Eastwood has cocked a well-deserved snook at the powers-that-be who are seemingly decreeing that US cinematic output need not really be about anything at all.

However, in choosing to essay what is still a politically sensitive situation, with protagonists (one of whom is an icon) who are still with us, problems arise when it comes to deciding whether, even with Eastwood’s clarity of vision, we are really learning much about the characters at the story’s core, or merely being treated to an uplifting, exhilarating, fairy-tale take on what actually happened.

Cinema always fictionalizes, to be fair – and there can be no doubting the sincere attempt of South African writer Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes (2009)) to bring John Carlin’s novel to life. Take the film’s opening – released from prison on 11 February, 1990 after 27 years, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) travels in a motorcade that passes between two fenced sports fields, with affluent white youths in immaculate uniforms playing rugby facing a pitch on which black children kick a football. The latter run to the fence, to catch a glimpse of their hero, while the white boys are lectured by their coach that this day will be remembered as being when South Africa went into freefall. An elegant metaphor, then, for a racially divided nation, and sport would prove to be one of Mandela’s strategies to unite South Africans.

As president, four years later, Mandela decides to use the national rugby team, the Springboks – which had for generations been an embodiment of white supremacy – to galvanize the ‘reborn’ country, which is preparing to host the 1995 World Cup. So, can he first bring Afrikaner captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) around, and what can the team achieve against the world’s finest?

The title Invictus is taken from a short poem by British poet William Ernest Henley, first published in 1875, that Mandela often read to himself while imprisoned on Robben Island: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Such stirring stuff aside (on which the film resoundingly delivers, as one might expect), there is however a sense that perhaps it doesn’t really enter into either of its key characters’ lives in any depth – Freeman, on the one hand, while charming, witty and dry as ever, does not really give the impression of being under the enormous pressure that Mandela undoubtedly was, as he struggled to keep his nation united, while Damon certainly looks like a rugby player, but we do not learn his character’s actual thoughts on apartheid or even his take on Mandela.

But never mind – there is certainly truth to be found here, even in the absence of real depth, and chances are very good that you’ll be standing on your seat and cheering at the final whistle.

133 mins.

The Damned United (2009)

The Damned UnitedNot bad, young man…

Wouldn’t you know it? Colin was recently complaining about the relative dearth of really good films concerning the beautiful game and, while he was coming more from the hooligan-culture side of things, the same could be said of movies about football itself.

However, 2009 has thus far proved contradictory as far as that sentiment goes – even though it was about the most hideous football team on the planet, Scumchester United, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric (2009) was a warm, very enjoyable romp featuring no less than old ‘Ooh-Ahh Cantona’ himself and, now, we have The Damned United (2009), a superbly crafted take on the trials and tribulations of Ol’ Big Head himself, Brian Clough.

And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s everyone’s golden boy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon (2008), further cementing his growing reputation as one of the planet’s finest character actors, at the centre of play, with his remarkable, nuanced take on one of Britain’s most loved/loathed football managers.

Director Tom Hooper makes his feature-film debut, while Peter Morgan (who wrote the play and screenplay for Frost/Nixon) offers up a gritty, believable adaptation of David Peace’s novel, itself one of the best books ever written about footy.

And we join Clough/Sheen just when the young man is about to make good – the manager of second division Derby County in 1967, Clough has big plans for the team. A shot at the big time arrives in the third round of the FA Cup, when Leeds, who were leading the first division at the time, are drawn at home to The Rams. Clough, believing Leeds’ succesful manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) to be very much a man after his own heart (they both grew up in the same part of Middlesborough, and both live and breathe the game), is deeply offended when the manager snubs him upon his arrival with his team at Derby’s ground, which Clough had worked very hard to make spick and span for the visitors.

The match proves to be a tough affair and, despite their best efforts, Derby lose 0-2. Clough initially blames the brutality of the Leeds players (lead by Billy Bremner (Stephen Graham) and Norman Hunter (Mark Cameron)), but he and his faithful assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall, excellent as ever) recognize that their side simply aren’t good enough on a technical level, and so set out to change things with canny signings. But the club’s frugal chairman, ‘Uncle’ Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) is extremely anxious about the investment and more so about the fact that Clough didn’t consult him about the signings. Ol’ Big Head is vindicated, however, when Derby win the Second Division title in 1969, and are set to face Leeds once again, but this time in the first division. Uh-oh…

Of course, it must be said that if your interest is not normally inclined towards the cut-and-thrust of top-level football management, you might decide to give this a miss.

But that would be a pity because, like all the best biopics (and sport flicks), this is about so much more than surface, erm, sheen – the characterizations, led of course by the lead man but superbly supported by Meaney as Revie and his thuggish players, are at once intellectually arresting and gripping – nothing short of thrilling, in fact.

And, as far as the recreation of an era is concerned, Hooper doesn’t put a foot wrong – from hideous hairdos to mud-and-blood soaked pitch battles.

For my money, this may not be the best film ever made about football, but it’s certainly in the top one. Kicking!

97 mins.

Resurrecting the Champ (2008)

Resurrecting the Champ (2008)Punch drunk

Film critic-turned-director Rod Lurie (The Contender (2000) and TV series Commander in Chief (2005)) offers up a deliberate, sober film with good performances that packs a surprisingly solid emotional wallop.

Erik Kernan Jr. (Josh Hartnett) plays a writer who’s coasting on the reputation of his famous-sportscaster father, writing so-so stories for a Denver newspaper under editor Metz (Alan Alda). Estranged from his wife Joyce (Kathryn Morris), Erik is even prepared to exaggerate his ‘great career’ to keep in the good books of his son Teddy (Dakota Goyo).

But his true ambitions still stir, and Kernan sees a chance when he lands an interview with magazine editor Whitley (David Paymer) – he has encountered a homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson) some days previously, who claims to be a great 1950s boxer named Bob Satterfield and, when Whitley’s not interested in any of his mundane story ideas, Erik pitches him an article about the man who calls himself ‘The Champ’. Everyone insists that Satterfield died 20 years ago, but the info that his research assistant (Rachel Nichols) digs up appears to back up The Champ’s story. He delivers a brilliant cover story, ‘Resurrecting the Champ’. Now Kernan’s a star and the work’s pouring in, but there’s just one problem – boxing expert Epstein (Peter Coyote) is adamant that Satterfield really is dead. ..

Based on a true(ish) story, Lurie and writers Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett examine the role that lies play in our everyday lives, and also explore the notion that, while the public frequently reacts with outrage to exposed scams, truth as a commodity is perhaps no longer the order of the day for the media.

To drive the point home, the film lingers on the actual emotional consequences of letting people down – the dynamics between The Champ (a really great performance from Jackson) and Kernan and Kernan and his son are far more realistic than one would normally expect from Hollywood mainstream.

Jackson is far removed from the wacky/wise homeless guy cliché – instead there’s a sense of real menace and insanity to the character that keeps the take credible, avoiding the other cliché extreme of ‘Scary Homeless Man’ while Hartnett masters both Kernard’s lazy ambition and the shame he feels when his lies return to haunt him.

The screenplay, meanwhile, plays very skilful games with the ‘It’s such a great story: who wouldn’t want it to be true?’ shtick and, overall, the film stands as an intriguing lesson in ethics.

112 mins.

The Wrestler (2008)

The Wrestler (2008)But the fighter still remains…

Gerald Loftus returns with his thoughts on Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-touted extravaganza…

Somewhere back in the late 1980s and early 90s, around the time of Saddam Hussein’s transformation from “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to plain old bad guy, the professional wrestling world liked to use guys dressed up as Arabs as foils for the all-American good guys such as ‘Hulk Hogan’ and ‘Sergeant Slaughter’  After Desert Storm and Saddam’s blustering about “the mother of all battles”, how could an obvious loser like mustachioed ‘General Adnan’ possibly beat the guy swathed in the Stars and Stripes?

In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the arch baddie is ‘The Ayatollah’, presumably an Iranian, but in the world of CZW (Combat Zone Wrestling – ultraviolent professional wrestling) these geopolitical niceties are for sissies.  And Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is the peroxide-tressed American Hero (“USA! USA!” chant the fans) who will fight that momma of all career battles.

Therein any resemblance to Rocky (1976) ends.

I don’t normally comment on Hollywood films, figuring that there are more than enough people in the blogosphere who will beat me to it.  My cinematic territory is usually South of the Med and east of the Oder-Neisse, places where I can milk maximum socio-political content from the oodles of international films that screen in Brussels.

But socio-political content there is a-plenty in The Wrestler, which, despite its title, isn’t just a wrestling film.  Plus I think that Mickey Rourke – whose work I really never knew before this film – probably deserves the Oscar for Best Actor after his amazingly nuanced (yes) performance in the title role.  Fellow Brussels blogger/editor/writer James Drew, in his annual Picturenose Oscar picks, has Frank Langella getting the statue for his role as a jowly president, but maybe James hasn’t seen Mickey Rourke (Update: he has!).  That said, I myself have yet to see Frost/Nixon, not to speak of Slumdog Millionaire and a bunch of other contenders.

Rourke has been doing the rounds of European TV and print journalists in conjunction with The Wrestler‘s release this month, and the trailer has created a certain anticipation for what many see as the performance of a lifetime. Not knowing Rourke’s previous work, I can’t speak as to his evolution, but it’s clear that his personal story of failure and (possible) redemption is compelling – there’s no doubt in my mind that his performance is truly worthy of his Golden Globe, his BAFTA, and beyond.

Now back to my socio-political stuff.  Well, there is that Ayatollah, and it’s a nice little touch to give ‘The Ram’ an Iranian-American doctor.  But mostly it’s about the great insight into the underside of America (apologies to the state of New Jersey, but the location shots bring back memories of Atlantic City in the winter rain and other childhood nightmares).  Brooklynite Marisa Tomei does a very credible ‘New Joysie accent, and is perfect in her role as a single mom who befriends The Ram.

You’ll learn more about ‘pharmacists’ in the locker room, the economics of trailer park leases (no cash, no key), and strip-club etiquette (not a brothel, at least not technically) than many a learned tome can provide.  And in the America of 2009, with the ranks of the desperate increasing with every house repossession, how many will be forced to earn their bread in ways unheard of since Depression-era dance marathons?

Frankly, I had not seen a wrestling match since the early 1990s, when my father used to tape WWF Summer Slam extravaganzas for his grandchildren, starved of American culture by their parents’ worldwide wandering in places bereft of TV.  It was good, clean(?) fun, with the bad guy (a favorite whipping boy was ‘IRS’ who used to appear in the ring with suit, tie, and briefcase before he got trounced by some patriotic tax refusenik) always clearly identifiable.

Now we know that you can’t always spot the bad guy by what he wears, and that good guys can have, as they say, ‘issues’.

115 mins.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Punching out

Thirty-two years have now passed since Rocky first went the distance with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in 1976. Rocky, the story of Sylvester Stallone’s likeable no-hoper, written by Stallone and directed by John G. Avildsen, took the Best Picture Oscar and thus was a legend, and of course a franchise, born.

While all subsequent installments were enjoyable in one way or another, the scripts since part III went dumb and dumber. But Stallone’s Rocky Balboa narrative keeps it sharp and simple, targeting the head as well as the heart. Our hero now owns an Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia, and trots out old stories/poses for pictures to amuse his customers, à la De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980).

But, as he tells his brother-in-law and old corner-man Paulie (a really enjoyable Burt Young, as ever) on an annual pilgrimage to the grave of his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire’s character fell victim to cancer in 2002), he wants to fight one more bout – and current title-holder Mason (The Line) Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who’s kept his spot at the top by fighting nobodies, is sparked into offering Rocky a charity exhibition bout after a computer-program matchup on TV, which pits Dixon against an in-his-prime Rocky, ends with the latter victorious. Surely not…

Stallone does lay it on a bit thick, of course; the schmaltzy sense of loss that pervades proceedings, and the visits to Adrian’s former haunts such as the crumbled ice-rink and the boarded-up pet shop, are almost stifling – but don’t worry, the big man redeems himself with naturalistic, cute and funny dialogue and some emotional punches which are, by and large, as convincing (in a fairytale sort of way) as the marvellously choreographed ‘big fight’ itself.

Believe it or not, the latter is in fact very suspenseful, as well as gutsy. And the end? Bittersweet, natch, and I’m saying no more – the press notes asked reviewers to be discreet, and there’s no way I’m getting into a fight with Stallone, even if he is now eligible for a bus pass.

Get your ticket punched instead, say goodbye to an icon, and enjoy a little well-crafted (if shameless) nostalgia.

102 mins.