Summer Olympic Movie Picks- Part Two

I did a post like this for the Vancouver games a little more than two years ago and I shall unearth it again at some point at least on Letterboxd because that was certainly a lot more fun and in many cases weirder. However, the variety that is provided by the over-stuffed nature of the summer games is nothing to sneeze at. I think that these films that feature the sports of the warmer Olympiad will likely introduce you to something you want to check out. I know I found a few. These picks will be posted in three parts. You can read part one here.


Football

Since the Olympics is global I will use the international name and translate for America, this is soccer. All kidding aside, as I looked through some lists of soccer movies I was struck by the realization that the disparity between the greatness of the game and the quality of films generated by it is greatest here. Most of the ones I saw listed were sad. There are some I heard good things about but have yet to see, like The Damned United, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, and Pelada. Many of them in the US are usually about a ragtag bunch of kids on a team the best probably being The Ladybugs. As for the adult version of the game the best most recent one I saw was Rudo y Cursi which gave us this song too:

However, world cinema does provide a few more options which are suitable for all ages. If you like your soccer with genre-bending weirdness, I’d suggest the Die Wilden Kerle series from Germany. However, I’d stress you not watch any of them dubbed. I saw one dubbed the first time and it was some of the poorest collective work I’ve seen, aside from the fact that in the US we for some reason altered the chronology.

Then O Menino Maluquinho (The Nutty Boy) has a climatic game which features brilliant, practically superhuman goaltending by the protagonist, which is one of many great aspects of the film.


Gymnastics (Artistic & Rhytmic)

Unless I’m missing something major, gymnastics hasn’t had a lot of great representation on the big screen. Christopher Campbell’s list definitely makes me want to see Gymkata and it’s certainly more compelling in concept than anything I thought of or found; a rash of biopics, lame parodies and anorexia-themed MOWs and, of course, the most unfortunately executed death in Final Destination 5.

Now, Rhythmic Gymnastics seems to be absent from any real representation. Like synchronized swimming it has its notable parodies like that on Lizzie Maguire and by Will Ferrell in Old School, but I can’t seem to find anything straight. It could be great fodder for a doc in the vein of what I perceive Pina to be, as I still need to see it. There is a niche waiting to be had.

Handball

Yup, this is what thew world thinks of when you handball, just another example of our at times jingoistic naming practices, though to be fair Wall Ball is used to describe the one we know better too. Handball is another sport I’m glad to see roll around every four years and I agree wholeheartedly with this Awful Announcing post that it should be a featured on ESPN more often.

With regards to movies there wasn’t much to find. There’s Szansa a Polish film which seems to pit a nurturing, caring, intellectual, literary teacher against a hard-nosed, disciplinarian, gym teacher who crosses the line to win and winning said handball games is good for the school. Then there’s Forever the Moment a fictionalized account of the South Korean women’s handball team that competed in the 2004 games.

Hockey

Only during my occasional watching in the last games did I finally come to appreciate the version of the game which is played on grass and not ice. The only movie that seemed to jump out was Chak De! India, which is a kind of underdog story about a former player turned coach who takes over the long languishing national women’s team. This title is available to stream on Netflix (US).

Judo

Judo is a martial arts discipline I enjoy watching and pretty much always have since I’ve known of the games. The issue, as with many of these sports, has been finding a filmic representation of it.

Some quick searches brought some docs partial and short, but then as it turns out Kurosawa’s debut is a judo film, Sanshiro Sugata, wherein a young man struggles to learn the nuances and meaning of judo and life. This film is available from Criterion in one of their excellent Eclipse collections. This film is accompanied by a sequel and is referred to collectively as the Judo Saga.

Modern Pentathlon

Honestly, when I went to search out film ideas for each of these sports the one I pegged as being the hardest was the pentathlon. Truth be told, I only found one movie to pick from, but it’s called Pentathlon and Dolph Lundgren is in it. Essentially, Lundgren’s character and his sadistic trainer meet up eight years after their Olympic sojourn in an ever-escalating series of action nonsense, much of which you could have spoiled for you by the Wikipedia entry. It sounds like one of those movies that’s so brash it’s brilliant or painful – it does strike me as one of those movies I’ve seen on TV and all but forgotten.

Rowing

I mentioned in the canoe section that rowing could be found in The Social Network, however, there are a few more options to be had. You could pick either of two versions of the same tale, as comparing an original and a remake can be fun in A Yank at Oxford and Oxford Blues. For a more sports-oriented choice there’s True Blue (called Miracle at Oxford on US Home video) about a famous 1987 race. Lastly, if you want your sport as more of a setting for your drama than the premise, you have Summer Storm, which is about relationships and sexuality, and Queen of the Night, with a backdrop of politics, handicaps and romance.

Shooting

Now, I won’t be vague with shooting because the number of films that involve gunplay are countless. So I sought out films that at least feature competitive marksmen and there are two provided by Honk Kong cinema called Double Tap and Triple Tap, the former spins off from the first. Both involve rival shooters and getting involved inadvertently in crime and intrigue.

Swimming

Swimming is one of the most populated sports in terms of events, and one of the most popular at the games in general. Even on dedicated websites like Sports in Movies there isn’t a long list of swimming films. It’s hard to imagine that recreational swimming is something that needed to be created, much less that sport needed developing. However, there is a share of cinema in the pool.

Going back to 1931 you can watch Jean Vigo’s 2nd short film Taris, which is a rather artistic rendition and promotion of France’s swimming record-holder at the time. This film is available in the Complete Vigo through Criterion. If you prefer your star-power cinematic The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster. If your inclinations are more stalker-crazy there’s the fairly recent Swimfan. In the more family-friendly realm there’s the fantastical DCOM The Thirteenth Year and swimming features somewhat in A Dolphin Tale.

Synchronized Swimming

With synchronized swimming there is actually rather a balanced choice. You can either enjoy it rendered comically in this classic bit:

On in a light, whimsical, biopic musical called Million Dollar Mermaid.

It is just by its very nature one of the easiest sports to poke fun at but it is really something when done well, and something else when it’s not which both those clips prove.

The list will conclude tomorrow!

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Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10

Review- The First Beautiful Thing

Aurora Frasca, Micaela Ramazzotti and Giacomo Bibbiani in The First Beautiful Thing (Palisades Tartan)

The First Beautiful Thing is an Italian film which can be characterized in a few different ways but it’s mainly a biopic without the celebrity and a character study without the self-indulgence. It concerns Bruno (Valerio Mastrandrea) who returns home to see his estranged family as his mother is terminally ill in the hospital.

The first interesting thing about this film is that it tells simultaneous tales in a fractured narrative, which unapologetically, artistically flows back and froth in time unannounced. Thus, we first meet Bruno and his sister Valeria when they are quite young and their mother is being awarded “Prettiest Mom” at a beauty pageant at random. This scene is mirrored beautifully at the climax and we truly see why it was so crucial to have that scene be first. Bruno and his mother saw that event in very different ways; Bruno’s view being similar to his father and to an extent it shaped both him and his relationship with his mother.

This film doesn’t put on any airs when dealing with intra-familial relationships and shows them for what they are. Cultural attitudes, the estrangement and the scenario allow them to be more open than they might be otherwise but there’s still a lot of imperfection, unconditional love and silent forgiveness shown throughout. This is a film that could very easily go into over-the-top melodrama but it is beautifully restrained throughout and slowly lets go of the reins allowing for a catharsis only at the end of the film.

This film is littered with very good performances. Ultimately, it’s the kind of film wherein it would get tedious to cite them all when there are many other facets of them film also worthy of attention. However, consider this each of the three main characters have more than one actor playing them. The children have 3 stages: child, teen and adult and there’s a young version of the mother and an elderly one. All of of them are quite strong an each is playing one character in such a way that we can see the trajectory of their life. Bruno, for example, is now professor, afraid of committing, hooked on drugs, stone-faced and wary of seeing his family anew. The actors playing Bruno in earlier moments chronologically have to make this interpretation acceptable and possible and they do.

The film plays out as a tragicomic one as there are certainly moments of genuine laughter and joy and moments that can and likely will bring tears to your eyes. It strikes a delicate balance of poking fun at truths we know about family life and also knowing what draws us in and brings us back home no matter how prodigal we may be.

Similarly coming off an absolutely absorbing and wrenching climax you get a quietly resolute denouement that ends the film on just the perfect uplifting note after the expected occurred.

The First Beautiful Thing, as intimated above, is accomplished technical film. The edit works quite well aesthetically and technically to blend time. The cinematography is often lush and places us in the right perspective to properly absorb the emotion of a scene (whether in overhead, creative over-the-shoulder or wide). The score and occasional use of source music, especially the songs the kids sing with their mother, is spot on.

This is one of the best films I’ve seen to date this year. It’s the kind of film you feel as if you experience not merely watched. It’s engaging on all levels.

10/10

Review- Soul Surfer

AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer (Tristar Pictures)

Soul Surfer is an interesting film that may not yet have found its audience yet for a number of reasons but if I were a betting man, and there were bets on such things, I might be inclined to back this film as one that would find an audience through video over the years to come. It’s kind of a weird property looking at it from afar: a surfing film, which is also a biopic with a religious element to it being released in April. It’s essentially a summer film that didn’t want get buried amidst blockbusters and is trying to make some waves (yes, I can be punny, sue me) in a rather tranquil time.

None of the above is meant to sound like an indictment of the film. The fact of the matter is I truly enjoyed how multi-faceted I found the film to be. When you try and tackle too much in a film it can turn into a mess but when you can connect on disparate elements and tie them together then you’ve got something really good on your hands.

Looking at it from each perspective let’s see how the film works: firstly, there’s the surfing element under the larger umbrella of sports film. As has been said frequently, the best sports films aren’t really about the game, thus, they can hit home with the largest possible audience. However, it must be said that this movie is a sneaky good sports film. Due to the different things the film is trying to accomplish there isn’t a tremendous amount of time dedicated to the varying facets of a sports film but they get it spot on with the most important one: this film communicates in spades the love of the game and it’s mostly through cinematography, sound editing and a really well-written opening voice over, which stands head-and-shoulders above the voice over opening from the Best Picture nominee The Blind Side.

There’s also a sports rivalry, which as a subplot can either add depth or become an encumbrance on the narrative, it does the former and never gets in the way too much. As does the very chaste and timid love interest, just a little more humanity without over-complicating things. The ultimate example of its excelling in its sport movie mold is that it emphasizes, in the end, the joy of competing over that of victory better than most.

The personal journey works as well to fit the biopic mold. The stasis is well-established and then shattered and a new reality must be dealt with. There is also a very brief and practically perfect amount of time spent in the woe-is-me phase of her story. You also get a refreshingly good self-improvement montage and wonderful, if foreseeable, epiphany.

With regards to the religious aspect of the film it’s there, it’s a motivating factor in her recovery, it’s something Bethany questions and leans on. The film handles this very well not only in keeping it and making it a more true biography but adding some depth to the character and avoiding getting overly preachy and pedantic. Some films it seems can’t deal with any type of spirituality in it without it becoming a spiritual film. It’s an element that folds in very well.

If there’s anything that can be said against the narrative it’s just that there is a certain amount of evenness to it. The three facets while working well together allow you to stay on a rather even keel until the final competition. Yet it’s still a fun film to watch regardless of your investment level.

There is also some very impressive CG work done with the missing limb, it’s the best kind of CG work because it’s functional and doesn’t become the film. The sequence of the accident is also rather stunning and one of a few very well-handled and dramatically-rendered sequences in the film.

Much of the cast in this film does very well and the performances run rather deep down the line. You get three very strong performances just out of the family. AnnaSophia Robb has been mostly unseen since Race to Witch Mountain and before that Bridge to Terabithia but she shows here a rather seamless and graceful transformation to an adult role, and a leading one at that. It’s also wonderful to see Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid not just working but doing great and in a quality project. They each have their own moments to shine here. Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu play the usually jovial, supportive brothers but do have their dramatic moments. Kevin Sorbo also plays a refreshingly low-key and sympathetic character here and Jeremy Sumpter has a small part but plays one big scene wherein he shows flashes of greatness and how he is one of the most under-utilized young actors in films today.

Soul Surfer is a very enjoyable film that you should try to see on the big screen before it’s theatrical run ends.

8/10

Why “Never Say Never” Makes Sense

This is a re-post from when Never Say Never was first announced. It makes sense to post it again on the verge of the film’s release.

Never Say Never (Paramount)

So recently both on his Twitter feed and on several media sources it was reported that Justin Bieber was to be the subject of an upcoming film release. The film would follow his world tour, intercut live performances be part doc, part biopic and be in 3D. Academy-award winning director Davis Guggenheim was attached to direct it, that has changed but those were the facts.
 
I find it a little humorous some of the reactions this announcement has been met with. Surprise should not be among the reactions though, derision though not necessarily deserved, was expected.
 
Taking some of these facts into consideration: Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (as if they’re really two different people), The Jonas Brothers and even Celine Dion, of all people, recently had concert films so announcement this should be no surprise at all. Not to mention the record-breaking Michael Jackson doc This is It.
 
Not only is he talented but he’s out-earning all those acts at this point so of course a studio is going to want to put out a film. Being one who is familiar with him from his days of being pre-viral on YouTube it shocks even me that his rise to near pop immortality has been so meteoric and persistent.
 
And in 3D? Of course. Even though 3D fatigue is setting in, regardless of what scoffing studio execs say, there will still be those projects that will do it, and succeed, especially since a little more than a year has passed since Avatar smashed box office records just because it was shot in 3D. The overcharge, I mean surcharge, made it its money.
 
However, with him being a lightning rod anything Bieber-related is immediately fodder for conversation both positive and negative. It would seem this film is being overly-characterized as as a biopic, in the traditional sense of the word, much the way the photo book of his tour was being referred to as a memoir, where it is truly more of a chronicle, even if you don’t buy his assertion of it being a photo book.
 
Even more recently it was reported that Davis Guggenheim was dropping out. He is citing commitment issues as he will be plugging Waiting for Superman, his latest documentary about public education in the US, obviously there is speculation that he dropped it because his name was being dragged through the mud and the money wasn’t worth it.
 
I won’t comment on a personal/business decision but it most definitely would’ve been very time consuming. However, I don’t view this film as littering the cinematic landscape as it’s not a narrative film. It’s disposable (if you want it to be) entertainment that you can use once and destroy if you so wish and has no bearing on the overall aesthetic landscape of cinema as a whole.
 
This film will come and go and cinema will go on, so jokes or actual fears about the end times are greatly exaggerated.