In the early 1970s, retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) wants to get back into the limelight and proposes a challenge match against the number one female player, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone). The Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors got back together with Carell for this reality-based story about the 1973 ”Battle of the Sexes” showdowns where Riggs enjoyed playing a chauvinistic clown while King took the challenge more seriously. The film captures the look, style and blatant sexism of its era in a handsome and effective way, nicely building tension during the climactic match, but also showing how homophobia risked holding King back. Very entertaining, with solid work from the two stars.
2017-U.S. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, Robert Graf. Directed by Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton. Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy. Music: Nicholas Britell. Cast: Emma Stone (Billie Jean King), Steve Carell (Bobby Riggs), Andrea Riseborough (Marilyn Barnett), Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming… Elisabeth Shue, Fred Armisen, John C. McGinley.
Trivia: At one point, Brie Larson was reportedly cast as King.
Last word: “We quickly learned that the choreography would be the most important thing, because learning how to do a serve or backhand like Billie Jean was more of an impossible dream than a reality. This was the first time where I really thought through the physicality [of a character]… once I felt more physically able, I would be able to develop more of the interior life of her. There was a lot of bulking up, tennis lessons, learning her stance, and feeling my way into her body. She is a machine.” (Stone, Vanity Fair)
When the music program at his school is in danger due to budget cutbacks, teacher Scott Voss (Kevin James) intends to raise cash by becoming an MMA fighter. It may be hard to believe that this is the only way to save his friend the music teacher’s (Henry Winkler) job, but James’s likable performance is one reason why this comedy is a fairly pleasing time-filler. Several real-life MMA fighters liven things up, as the 42-year-old former college wrestler starts training for the impossible. A predictable underdog story obviously, but Winkler is fun as the dedicated, goofy music teacher.
2012-U.S. 105 min. Color. Directed by Frank Coraci. Screenplay: Kevin James, Allan Loeb. Cast: Kevin James (Scott Voss), Salma Hayek (Bella Flores), Henry Winkler (Marty Streb), Greg Germann, Joe Rogan, Gary Valentine.
Trivia: Co-produced by James; co-executive-produced by Adam Sandler.
A look at the life and times of Ronnie Peterson, the great Formula One driver who was killed during a race at Monza in 1978. Made under the supervision of his daughter, Nina Kennedy, who also appears on camera and serves as co-executive producer, the film takes us back to Peterson’s early years, how he met the love of his life, Barbro, and how he made his way to the top of Formula One racing in the 1970s. Thanks to a wealth of archive footage, home movies and fresh interviews with some of the other great profiles of the era (including Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti), we get to know a man who seemed genuinely kind and decent, but also learn how hair-raisingly dangerous Formula One was at the time. Gripping, but a tad unsatisfying in the end, as it refuses to delve deeper into the deaths of Ronnie and Barbro.
2017-Sweden. 91 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Mia Sohlman. Directed by Henrik Jansson-Schweizer. Screenplay: Morgan Jensen.
Like everybody else, I was hooked on the excellent FX anthology series American Crime Story whose first season focused on the murder trial against O.J. Simpson and I didn’t really care about a documentary. After all, we all ”know” this case. Curiously, that’s exactly what director Ezra Edelman was thinking when ESPN first offered him this project. Edelman felt that there was nothing left to say about Simpson. But the sports network wanted to do something longer than a standard two-hour movie, and Edelman realized that this might be a chance to go really ambitious. The trial of the century would just be a part of a much bigger story about America and its never-ending racial issues and celebrity culture.
The film begins with the rise of Orenthal James Simpson, who became famous in the late 1960s as a football running back. He had a successful NFL career throughout the 1970s. Known as ”The Juice”, Simpson was loved for how fast and smooth he was on the field – and off. Trusted enough to become one of the first African-American stars to be used as a spokesman for various products aimed at white audiences, Simpson was comfortable in front of cameras. His background was the San Francisco projects, but Simpson found a beautiful white woman, Nicole Brown, to marry and built a comfortable life in Brentwood, throwing lovely parties for his affluent, white friends. However, there was a much darker side to ”The Juice”. When Nicole and a friend of hers, Ron Goldman, were found brutally murdered in 1994, everything changed.
A referendum on racism
Nothing happens out of the blue and the filmmakers let us understand that the marriage between Simpson and Brown was anything but idyllic behind the scenes – he was cruel, jealous and violent. All the warning signs were there and in hindsight it is kind of jaw-dropping to see how the murder trial completely capsized and became a referendum on racism. The extremely effective sight of Simpson not being able to fit his hand into the glove from the crime scene, and the disastrous testimony from police detective Mark Fuhrman (who is also interviewed in the film) made everybody forget about the victims and conjure images of a police conspiracy. Even though race had no place in that case, there was no way that it wouldn’t poison everything. The filmmakers draw a clear connection between each part of the film, enlightening and entertaining us through colorful, insightful interviews, riveting archive footage and evocatively shot urban visuals that emphasize the feeling that we’re watching an intriguing thriller. We learn how race played into O.J.’s fame even though he himself showed no interest in those issues, why the 1992 riots happened after the Rodney King trial and how they played into the Simpson case, and why both the defense and the prosecution were to blame for the outcome. But the film is far from done after the not guilty verdict. The aftermath is equally exciting to watch as Simpson, unable to recover mentally from his crimes and the verdict, went down a pathetic path that landed him in prison after all, punished much more severely than he would have been had he not been O.J. Simpson. There was no justice for his victims during the murder trial, and ironically not for Simpson either when the prison doors slammed behind him in 2008.
Originally released for theaters, the seven-hour long film is now best seen as a five-part miniseries that ESPN put together. It’s a true-crime saga for audiences that were intrigued by 2015’s The Jinx and Making a Murderer, but its scope is superbly ambitious, marrying a fascinating murder case with themes of color and class that reach far beyond it.
O.J. Made in America 2016-U.S. 467 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Ezra Edelman, Deirdre Fenton, Libby Geist, Nina Krstic, Erin Leyden, Tamara Rosenberg, Connor Schell, Caroline Waterlow. Directed by Ezra Edelman. Music: Gary Lionelli.
Trivia: Filmmakers Peter Hyams and David Zucker are included among those interviewed.
Oscar: Best Documentary Feature.
Last word: “It was exhausting. Flat out. Honestly, I still weirdly am exhausted by it in a way that’s hard to even articulate. The subject matter is not exactly… It’s dark. You’re living with this thing that is all-consuming and it’s also exploring chapters of a man’s life in a relationship and different aspects of the way we treat each other as people that doesn’t exactly bring a smile to your face. As invigorating as it is to try to sort out a challenge that’s putting something together like this and doing it cohesively, it is also like the feeling of you’re just living under this cloud constantly.” (Edelman, Deadline)
After launching their career in documentaries by making a film about Swedish soccer team Malmö FF, the directors returned to the subject – after all, they were lucky enough to witness the rise of a soon-to-be superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This film chronicles the early phase of his career, from Malmö FF through Ajax, the successful Dutch soccer club, using spare footage from the directors’ earlier films and fresh interviews with various profiles from this period. Interesting to see how Zlatan went from a happy, charismatic teenager to the cold, inaccessible icon that we usually see now whenever he faces the press. Unfortunately, the film never gets close to the man himself, resorting to guesswork that leaves us none the wiser.
2016-Sweden-Italy-The Netherlands. 95 min. Color. Directed by Fredrik Gertten, Magnus Gertten.
HE TAUGHT HIM THE SECRET TO KARATE LIES IN THE MIND AND HEART. NOT IN THE HANDS.
Teenager Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) move with his mother to California, meets a girl, makes enemies with the young members of a local karate dojo, and befriends a mysterious, elderly Japanese repairman (Noriyuki Pat Morita). John G. Avildsen returned to the formula that made his Rocky a hit in 1976; geared toward younger audiences, this underdog story was also very successful. Done with immense charm, an engaging soundtrack of pop hits, and a genuine feeling for the challenges of growing up as a teenager. As expected, Avildsen makes the final showdown in the karate ring exciting. Great efforts by Morita and Macchio, believable even though he was well over 20 years old at the time.
1984-U.S. 126 min. Color. Produced by Jerry Weintraub. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Screenplay: Robert Mark Kamen. Song: ”You’re the Best” (performed by Joe Esposito). Cast: Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso), Noriyuki Pat Morita (Kesuke Miyagi), Elisabeth Shue (Ali Mills), Randee Heller, Martin Kove, William Zabka… Larry Drake.
Last word: “I had a terrific casting director, Caro Jones, and Pat was the first person she brought in to audition for Mr. Miyagi. He came in, had a video camera setup and he just knocked it out of the park. I went and told the producer, Jerry Weintraub, I said, ‘This guy is it. You don’t have to look anymore.’ He said, ‘Who?’ I said, ‘Pat Morita.’ He said, ‘Pat Morita? Give me a break. He’s a comedian. We need a real actor for this guy.’ So I blew a couple weeks looking at other actors and finally convinced Jerry to give the guy a proper screen test. When he saw it, he realized what I was talking about.” (Avildsen, Crave)
Muhammad Ali was before my time. I never saw his fights – he was a larger-than-life character I read about long after The Greatest had retired. Watching old clips, like the one above, a 1967 Howard Cosell-hosted encounter between Ali and fellow heavyweight boxer Ernie Terrell that doesn’t end well (although Cosell looks pleased), gives a hint of what kind of forceful presence Ali had.
Two days ago, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74, and the time has come for this movie and TV blog to remember how the greatest sports profile of our time was portrayed.
When We Were Kings (1996) must be the first time I was thoroughly educated on Muhammad Ali. The great, Oscar-winning documentary did what the 1977 biography on Ali, titled The Greatest and starring the champ himself, failed to do – capture the boxer at his most charismatic, showing why the world was enraptured with the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Kinshasa.
Muhammad Ali was closely tied to movies and culture right from the start. He makes a brief appearance in the boxing drama Requiem for a Heavyweight(1962). In 1978, he was the subject of a campy DC comic book, “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali”. He also made a charming appearance with Sylvester Stallone at the 1977 Academy Awards, declaring himself to be the “real Apollo Creed”. Reading Roger Ebert’s 1979 interview with Ali as they’re both sitting down to watch Rocky II is amazing.
Ali, born as Cassius Clay, was always controversial and cocky, but still irresistible. His courageous refusal to go to Vietnam in the late 1960s became the subject of a TV movie, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013), which focused not really on Ali but the relationship between the justices on the bench. Still, the film showed how much of an impact Ali’s refusal made as the nation was turning against an unjust war.
Michael Mann’s 2001 biography Ali was a showcase for Will Smith, but the movie as a whole suffered from a familiar problem with biographies – too much has been crammed into a screenplay. And, boy, was this a dramatic life. There was no way that a mere two and a half hours could cover all of Ali’s accomplishments and controversies.
You could still easily make more movies out of separate incidents in Ali’s life. Apart from his exciting career, a worthy subject would be how Ali tackled racial issues, falling victim to his own prejudices at times but still becoming an unrivaled role model. We have likely not seen the last of Muhammad Ali on screen.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of legendary heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, talks his father’s one-time rival and best friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) into training him. After six Rocky movies, Stallone was done… but then came the talented director of Fruitvale Station (2013) and convinced him to do a glorious comeback. Thanks to a good script that admittedly follows the formula of the old movies but finds a fresh, youthful and compelling way to do it, and very solid performances by Jordan and Stallone (the latter giving one of the best of his career), it works. The film paints portraits of both Adonis and Rocky at their stages in life that we can believe in, and the climactic bout is intense.
2015-U.S. 133 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sylvester Stallone, Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, Kevin King Templeton, Charles Winkler, Irwin Winkler, David Winkler. Directed by Ryan Coogler. Screenplay: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington. Cast: Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson Creed), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish. Voice of Liev Schreiber.
Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Stallone).
Last word: “I told [Stallone] all about my dad, and he goes ‘wow, hmm, okay.’ I can’t tell if he’s into it or not. I kind of got the vibe that he wasn’t, which I could understand. So I finally said, ‘Hey, maybe we could take a picture for me and my dad?’ He said, ‘Man, no problem.’ I’ve still got the picture. He says, ‘You want some stuff?’ And he grabs a bunch of T-shirts and signed them all for my dad. I’m freaking out, going home with this stuff. So right there it felt like a victory for me. Just the fact I even told Sly the story that was based on me and my dad’s relationship.” (Coogler, Deadline)
Young Eddie Edwards has dreamed of being an athlete since he was a boy and decides in his early twenties to become Britain’s first Olympic ski jumper. The story of how ”Eddie the Eagle” came to endear audiences, in spite of his lack of success at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, gets its big-screen treatment… but as the actual Eddie says in interviews, 90 per cent of the film is fiction. One should rather see this as a playful, shamelessly manipulative but delightful saga steeped in 1980s details (with a very apt music score) and a satisfying cast; Hugh Jackman is the standout as a (fictional) alcoholic former ski jumper who becomes Eddie’s mentor.
2016-Britain-U.S. 106 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling, Rupert Maconick, David Reid, Valerie Van Galder. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Screenplay: Sean Macaulay, Simon Kelton. Music: Matthew Margeson. Cast: Taron Egerton (Eddie Edwards), Hugh Jackman (Bronson Peary), Christopher Walken (Warren Sharp), Mark Benton, Keith Allen, Jo Hartley… Jim Broadbent, Edvin Endre.
Last word: “There were people who did help [Eddie] along the way. And of course, you know, in a film you got six, seven, different characters who come in and play some part in that journey. It becomes confusing, and you gotta introduce someone to tell a story. So we, you know, we reduced it to one super character, which happened to be Hugh Jackman. It’s a story telling exercise. It’s fact told in a fictional way. That’s where it’s born of.” (Fletcher, Huffington Post)
A WOMAN’S PLACE IS ON HOME, FIRST, SECOND, AND THIRD.
When America enters World War II, Major League Baseball is forced to change; a newly formed women’s league attracts unorthodox players… and one very reluctant coach (Tom Hanks).Big (1988) director Penny Marshall reunited with the star of that film for another charming comedy, this time a reality-based depiction of how women battled 1940s prejudice in a very male field. Done with a light touch that works in spite of the running time; the sentimentality of the final moments hits home because of how attached to the characters we’ve become. A great feel for the period helps, and this is a dynamite cast, including Hanks who’s hilarious as the drunken coach.
1992-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Elliot Abbott, Robert Greenhut. Directed by Penny Marshall. Screenplay: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel. Song: “This Used to Be My Playground” (performed by Madonna). Cast: Tom Hanks (Jimmy Dugan), Geena Davis (Dorothy “Dottie” Hinson), Madonna (Mae Mordabito), Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn… Garry Marshall, Rosie O’Donnell, Téa Leoni, Bill Pullman.
Trivia: Debra Winger was allegedly first cast as Dottie. Followed by a TV series in 1993.
Last word: “There was a big tryout where [the actresses) were judged on running, catching, hitting. Throwing is always the hardest for girls because they throw differently. But I would not read — and really good — actresses unless they could play ball, or were trainable.” (Penny Marshall, New York Daily News)
The Armstrong Lie (2013) was a fascinating documentary that did something original; this biographical drama is disappointingly by-the-numbers. Not only is the story of how cyclist Lance Armstrong kept winning the Tour de France by being part of an advanced doping program unnecessarily rushed, making it hard for us to relate to any character (even the guy who’s supposed to be a hero, David Walsh). But Ben Foster’s dedicated performance is also compromised by too many scenes where Armstrong comes across like some bad guy in a cheap thriller.
2015-Britain-France. 103 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay: John Hodges. Book: David Walsh (“Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”). Music: Alex Heffes. Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet… Dustin Hoffman.
The story of how the Soviet Union built the most famous national hockey team in history gets a funny, compelling and irreverent portrayal in this documentary, helped by the no-nonsense attitude of some of its Russian interview subjects, especially Slava Fetisov, the old team captain. Even if you have no interest in hockey, you’re likely to get intrigued by the story of how young players were forced to give up their youth to serve the state, symbolized by coach Viktor Tikhonov, a man whose brutal methods they despised. We also learn how some of them resisted the dictatorship’s impossible demands. As in another Cold War-themed documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), it’s hard to resist this entertaining piece of nostalgia about a time when superpowers battled each other in sports arenas.
2014-U.S.-Russia. 84 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by Gabe Polsky.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Werner Herzog.
Last word: “[Fetisov] realized that I was trying to do something unusual and very interesting and profound. He kinda opened up on that idea. He said that he’s never spoken to anybody for so long. He was finally allowed to be himself. He wasn’t a politician. He was just genuinely telling the story. He needed to tell the story and I really wanted to tell the story. I didn’t know he was even going to be in the movie, or a character or anything. When I interviewed him, he didn’t want to be interviewed… and then he agreed to meet with me for fifteen minutes. That turned into an interview that lasted five hours.” (Polsky, Mile High Hockey)
Light heavyweight champ Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is struck by a personal tragedy and has to start his life over, with help from a trainer (Forest Whitaker) in a small-time gym.Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter’s script has a few themes in common with that show, as it explores the consequences of having a bloody job where you think it’s worth putting your family in jeopardy. Grim and realistic at times, but at heart this is really another Rocky III (1982) doing everything it can to mask the formula. Still, directed with conviction, and Gyllenhaal delivers an impressive performance; we believe in him, and therefore the movie itself.
2015-U.S. 123 min. Color. Widescreen. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Screenplay: Kurt Sutter. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal (Billy Hope), Forest Whitaker (Titus “Tick” Wills), Rachel McAdams (Maureen Hope), Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson… Tyrese Gibson.
Trivia: Originally conceived as a vehicle for Eminem in the shape of a sequel to 8 Mile (2002). Lupita Nyong’o was allegedly first cast for a role, but had to drop out.