Archive for the ‘sports’ category

King Richard

November 21, 2021

king-richard

You may be forgiven, watching King Richard, for wondering what exactly Richard Williams’ deal was. Was he a prophet or a damned lucky delusional? As tennis fans know, Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. As the legend goes, Richard planned — literally, a 78-page plan — a future in tennis glory for his daughters before they were even born. He got this notion when he caught Virginia Ruzici on TV winning a tournament. If Ruzici won a lot of money doing this, Richard reasoned, think how much two girls could win. Richard didn’t know anything about tennis, but he learned, and he taught his daughters.

Now, what possessed this man to predict that his Black daughters could dominate a theretofore blindingly-white sport, and that they would both be born with the athletic genius to do so? Did Richard receive a nighttime whispered message from a herald? Further, in King Richard, once Richard gets his girls on the right track, he consistently goes against the grain of everything he’s advised to do. The girls’ coach says they need to start playing in the Juniors? No, Richard says, they’re not ready yet. Nike offers a $3 million endorsement deal? Well, Richard says, we’re gonna hold off. Richard gambles a frightening amount on his instincts, on his sense that he’s right. (We might catch a bit of subtext that Richard, who grew up in hard times abused by racists, is wary of all the received wisdom that comes from white faces — well-meaning, but white.)

Will Smith plays Richard as a batch of conflicting signals — sometimes cramped and cynical, sometimes carried along by his dreams. People, including his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), keep telling Richard he’s heading for a fall, cruising for a bruising. But he has no fear of failure; he seems to fear regret. He doesn’t want to look back and mourn the risks he didn’t take, the money he left on the table. Smith finds something fiery in Richard’s center; the man’s entire being and sense of self are tied up in being vindicated. Through his daughters’ triumphs, the world will tell Richard Williams that he was right. Richard pisses off one elite coach (Tony Goldwyn) and moves on to another (Jon Bernthal, in the funniest performance) and pisses him off. Nobody has seen things done the way Richard wants them done. This guy is nuts. And yet the world keeps sustaining his vision. Smith uses his star charisma — which makes the audience lean towards him — to make Richard seem nourished by everyone else’s doubt. All the film’s energy is directed towards Smith; it’s Richard’s story, not Venus or Serena’s. 

Richard is an odd man to hold the center of a film that also boasts, somewhere off to the side, two lightning bolts like Venus and Serena. The story Richard tells about himself (and which this movie co-signs) has a Biblical whiff about it: God tells Richard (or Noah, or whoever) that this thing is going to happen, must happen, and you’ve got to prepare for it. The Richard of this movie (truly I know little of the man aside from what Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and writer Zach Baylin give us) is a prickly, flawed, arrogant, possibly great man whose character goes somewhat unresolved, our questions unanswered. And it’s not that the movie is trying to be the sportsball equivalent of Last Year at Marienbad or anything; it just recognizes there’s more to him, to anyone, than even two hours and twenty-five minutes can capture. 

Alas, this male’s vision is mightily supported by a woman (Aunjanue Ellis comes through with a loving, sensible turn that even in moments of quiet watchfulness is the film’s moral compass) and by, of course, two girls. If not for them, there’d be no him. King Richard plays us out with Beyoncé’s “Be Alive,” which is about Venus and Serena: “We fought and built this on our own.” True enough. But the movie needs Richard’s righteous self-regard; it would be too close to a standard sports biopic without it. All the familiar beats are there, the advances and seeming setbacks, leading up to the big game with the whole universe hanging on it, and … well, you’ve seen sports films before. But maybe you haven’t seen Richard before. 

Ford v Ferrari

February 16, 2020

fvfChristian Bale should lighten up more often. Usually he plays dark or tormented or both, but in Ford v Ferrari, as ace car racer Ken Miles, he literally sings a ditty called “I’m Happy” twice, and he looks it — he isn’t just singing it ironically. Both times, Ken is behind the wheel, where he feels most alive. Bale is in skinny mode (as was the actual Ken Miles), but his color is good, he has a robust laugh, and he enjoys a warm and healthy bond with his young son Peter (Noah Jupe) and with his wife Mollie (Caitríona Balfe) — the latter knows him better than anyone and won’t put up with whatever crap he might shovel out.

Ford v Ferrari, make no mistake, is nothing revolutionary. It does nothing unexpected; even its twists follow in the footsteps of earlier films. But it’s an increasingly rare example of non-franchise entertainment for adults, it’s carpentered extremely well (its dialogue isn’t always fresh, but as William Goldman said, screenplays are structure), and it offers the sort of generous, heedless fun that only a big studio movie can. Essentially, it’s a buddy film; the other buddy is Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racer retired due to a bum ticker and cooling his heels designing and manufacturing high-performance cars. Carroll and Ken are part of the brotherhood of speed, the fast company. They respect each other, they yell and throw things at each other, they love each other.

If this movie and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were shorter (both clock in at north of two and a half hours), they might make a good bromance double feature. Whereas Quentin Tarantino meditated on toxic masculinity, though, FvF director James Mangold would like you to consider nontoxic masculinity. Ken couldn’t be a more acceptable male, even for the mid-‘60s; he generally defers to his more grounded wife. Carroll, by contrast, seems to have no home life at all. (The real Shelby was married seven times, and was in the midst of his seventh divorce when he died in 2012, at 89.) Both men are recruited by the Ford Motor Company to make their brand sexier (a Lee Iacocca brainstorm) by building and driving a car that can dethrone the insurgent but insolvent Ferrari at Le Mans.

I don’t know or care how closely the script (by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, building on an earlier Jason Keller draft) sticks to real events. It’s a cracking story beautifully told. I don’t begrudge it its status as a Best Picture nominee; indeed, it may be the most purely, uncomplicatedly enjoyable of the nine finalists. But back to nontoxic masculinity: our heroes don’t enter into Ford’s agenda for the competition. They’ve won enough. They only have something to prove to themselves. Now, this might sound perfectly banal, and on one level it is. But it’s accomplished with such free-flowing good feeling and wit, and it knows so well that we instinctively lean towards people of great intelligence and acumen, that the tropes are just road markers that we expect and want to be there. There, though, the Tarantino likeness ends; there’s nobody of complexity and shaky self-worth like Rick Dalton, who needs a massacre to put him back on top. Ford v Ferrari is almost Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with two Cliff Booths.

Damon, though at times dipping perilously close to his wry Matthew McConaughey impression, invests Carroll Shelby with regret tempered by gratitude that Carroll can still be part of the brotherhood by making his brothers great cars. Carroll has to deal with the corporate suits, typified by blustering Tracy Letts as Henry Ford “the second” (who nevertheless gets a redemptive moment) and oily Josh Lucas as Ford PR man Leo Beebe. Ken Miles, the amiable no-nonsense Brummie, tends to respond to authority with a cheerful two-finger salute. Together these men — workin’ men with grease under their fingernails — grumble about the home office but stride forward to get it done. There was a time this movie would have been the big hit of the year and won all the trophies, and during that same time I would have pointed out its familiarity with much more disdain than I feel now, when a film about the professionalism and decency of grown-ups seems to paint a richer, sunnier fantasy world than anything dreamed up by Disney or Stan Lee.

Moneyball

September 25, 2011

What wins baseball games? According to Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller, it’s whoever can get onto first base. That’s it. Looking for expensive star players — men with athletic flash and power — won’t cut it for a team like the Oakland Athletics, which doesn’t have the budget to compete with iconic outfits like the Yankees or the Red Sox. As the film starts, the A’s are about to lose three major players to New York and Boston. The team’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) listens to his scouts talk about possible replacements — this guy’s “tools,” that guy’s arm. Beane thinks this is beside the point, but he doesn’t quite know how, yet. A chance meeting with Cleveland Indians bean-counter (and composite character) Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) lifts the veil from Beane’s eyes. He becomes obsessed with going after cheaper players who can get onto first base. That’s it.

This is all laid out simply enough for us sports illiterates to understand and appreciate. Moneyball is, in part, a David and Goliath story: the scrabbling A’s against the teams with fat checkbooks for shiny players. As it happens, a winning team needs neither — just good craft backed by science, the number-crunching of sabermetric analysis. I have a friend who’s both an accountant and a baseball fan, and Moneyball would probably be his new all-time favorite movie if it showed a little more of the statistical elbow grease involved in actually sussing out what a player can offer a team. The movie glides over it, focusing on the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza team of Beane and Brand. The windmill Beane tilts at is the institutionalized, hidebound methods that have “always worked,” except for when they don’t. Sabermetrics might not work all the time either, but at least they veer closer to the goal of winning a game than to star-fucking.

Director Bennett Miller has a flat, journalistic approach, which didn’t work at all for me in his previous film, Capote, which deserved more style. But not only does it work for this material, it’s true to it. It’s meat and potatoes, no flash, and the 47-year-old Brad Pitt is photographed to bring out the sags and wrinkles in that former baby face. There’s no romance to the movie, no fantasy, just men in smelly drab rooms worrying about losing both the game and their jobs. The game itself is shown glancingly or in pixellated video footage — there’s no big win that everything hinges on; the closest we get is the suspense (for those who weren’t paying attention back in 2002) over whether the A’s will break the record of nineteen consecutive wins. But even this doesn’t matter: as Beane says, the game that matters is the last one. Nobody but baseball wonks remembers the rest.

Moneyball is a fine, strong, adult movie, and its theme can easily apply to any number of other walks of life. Essentially, it’s about the friction between the monks slouching over calculators and the generous bellies (like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s manager Art Howe) full of instinct and intuition. In the end, as in life, neither comes out definitively on top. The dialogue (by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) is fast, cynical, but workmanlike — this is a culture of men who don’t talk to hear themselves talk. (Women barely exist here, though Beane’s musically gifted daughter, played by the appealing Kerris Dorsey, indicates why Beane isn’t in a rush to leave Oakland.) For a movie about literal game-changers, Moneyball doesn’t have the cold dazzle of something like The Social Network (to which it has been compared), but it doesn’t need it; indeed, I enjoyed Moneyball more. It’s not clever, it doesn’t traffic in literary symbols. It’s about grown-ups and what they do for a living. This sort of thing is not currently in abundance at the multiplex.

The Fighter

December 11, 2010

The Fighter isn’t really a “boxing movie” — it’s more about family dysfunction — but it boasts some of the best ring footage in quite a while. Essentially, there are two masters a director of modern boxing sequences can serve. The Rocky model lunges for excitement and catharsis, a mini-dramatic arc ascending from round to round; the Raging Bull template puts you inside the battered skull of a pugilist. David O. Russell, who directed The Fighter, nods to both but really follows neither. The star and co-producer, Mark Wahlberg, has said his aim in the fight scenes was realism, and indeed the trading of punches, the guarding of body and head, play so unemphatically that the punishment dealt and received comes across as more dramatic. The fights have a documentary, real-time rhythm.

The movie paints a basically warm picture of Lowell, Massachusetts welterweight Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his older half-brother and trainer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). Micky is trying to rise in the ranks, but he can’t depend on Dicky, who had his day in the sun years ago in a bout with Sugar Ray Leonard and is now throwing his life away in a crackhouse. I don’t know quite how rosy the film makes the real story, though you wouldn’t know from the script that Dicky, after getting clean in jail and helping Micky stage a comeback, was pinched for crack possession six years later and again last year for domestic assault and attempted murder.

You look at Wahlberg and you know he can throw a punch but would almost rather not. You look at Christian Bale and you’re not sure if he can manage a punch (he shed considerable weight to play the dissipated Dicky), but he always seems ready to deck somebody. Wahlberg underplays, as usual in his lead roles (he was livelier in The Departed), while Bale practically dances on the ceiling. The dynamic here is less De Niro/Pesci in Raging Bull than Keitel/De Niro in Mean Streets. Bale’s showboat performance, all but guaranteed to draw Oscar attention, gets wearying after a while: “Sit the fuck down and be quiet,” you might want to yell at him. Between Dicky, the overbearing matriarch of the family (Melissa Leo), and the seven sisters with attitudes like coyote traps, it’s perhaps no wonder that Micky is so recessive and unaggressive — weird traits for a boxer.

Two such disparate acting styles could, but don’t here, result in a cold front/warm front thunderstorm. What it comes across as is a Kabuki-theater version of the good-brother/bad-brother trope, as old as Cain and Abel. (Part of the greatness of Raging Bull was that it centered on the bad brother.) Amy Adams turns up, flashing a tramp stamp and dropping F-bombs, as Micky’s love interest and smuggles some clear-spoken sanity into this indecisive movie. Should Micky ditch his bad-news brother and strike out on his own, or stay true to his family? Fifteen minutes shy of the end credits and he and the movie are still waffling on the answer. The film becomes Amy Adams’ property by default, because we share her character’s baffled frustration with the whole situation.

The Fighter isn’t bad, but it’s disappointingly conventional coming from the mercurial talent David O. Russell, who hasn’t had a film in theaters since 2004’s I Heart Huckabees; his 2008 political comedy Nailed remains unfinished. I get the sense that Russell may consider Micky and Dicky’s comebacks his comeback. It’s his way of saying “See, I can be a good boy and deliver a low-budget critics’ darling with Oscar buzz.” But aside from some low-down, bottom-dog humor involving Dicky’s crackhouse misadventures (he’s always jumping out of windows into trash bags to avoid getting caught by his mother), The Fighter is missing Russell’s particular prickly comic sensibility. It’s being positioned as this year’s The Wrestler (no surprise that that film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is a producer here), but it lacks a star who’s lived the conflict; what it has are some authentically grungy Lowell locations, a star who humbly brings a local hero to the big screen, and another star who seems to see his character as a license to overact.

Whip It

October 4, 2009

Some movies share their directors’ personalities. Martin Scorsese’s films are excitable and jittery, like him. Jim Jarmusch is laid-back and inscrutable, and so are his movies. Whip It, the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, is friendly and fun-loving and nurturing, as she seems to be. It was probably inevitable that Barrymore’s first effort should be a you-go-girl tale of empowerment and sisterhood; what’s surprising is how deftly it avoids the clichés. The characters are allowed to be complicated and contradictory; even the villain of the piece is given a few lines that almost made me root for her.

Scripted by Shauna Cross from her amusing novel Derby Girl, which she based on her own experiences in roller derby, Whip It has an unlikely heroine for a female-jock fable — Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), a disgruntled 17-year-old trapped in Bodeen, Texas. Bliss is being groomed for beauty-pageant glory by her mom (Marcia Gay Harden), but would rather shop for boots and hang with best bud Pash (Alia Shawkat). Beyond that, she doesn’t know what she wants, until she finds her way to an Austin roller derby and falls in love with the squalling, jostling chaos of it, and the spectacle of bad-ass women with trashy outfits and makeup, trashy talk, and trashy attitudes. Bliss lies about her age and tries out for the underdog team Hurl Scouts.

Unlike the strapping goddesses-on-wheels in past derby films, like Raquel Welch in the moribund Kansas City Bomber and Claudia Jennings in the anarchic Unholy Rollers, Ellen Page stands five-foot-one and seems built to get bumped around the track. But Bliss, it turns out, has powerful little legs, and once she gets the hang of wearing skates again, she’s incredibly fast. Barrymore (who also appears as the terminally out-of-it skater Smashly Simpson) and the great cinematographer Robert Yeoman shoot the matches as close in as possible, enough to see the pain and pleasure of the sport. Bliss weaves in and out of the thick cluster of opponents, while burlier “jammers” like Smashly or the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) throw legs and elbows to bounce their foes out of play. It’s terrific fun, and Barrymore never lets us feel protective towards the females getting bashed around — such a feeling would run counter to the mood of rowdy sisterhood.

The generous-hearted Barrymore even gives us a fine bad girl — Iron Maven, severe and mean as a blade, played by Juliette Lewis in what deserves to be a comeback performance (where has she been?). Iron Maven seems out to get Bliss personally, but then we find out why in a few simple sentences that bring her into focus. It’s not about Bliss, it’s about Iron Maven’s own life. Whip It likewise doesn’t caricature Bliss’s mother (who has weird little pockets of rebellion herself) or her father (Daniel Stern in a nicely calibrated amiable-daddy turn). Off the track, Page’s scenes with Alia Shawkat have the bumps and spikiness of real friendship, and a subplot featuring a rock dude Bliss falls for doesn’t distract too much. Barrymore, 34, already has a lifetime of acting behind her (and she’s having a great year, which began with her brilliant Little Edie in Grey Gardens), and as a producer and now director she seems interested in small-scale stories about women that wouldn’t fit comfortably on Lifetime. I don’t see the downside.

Tyson

April 26, 2009

b9vfl4b63kwezuou41rpknito1_500The writer/director James Toback is clearly mesmerized by powerful, dangerous black men and the sexual mystique they supposedly pack. In 1971, Toback expanded an Esquire article into a book about football star Jim Brown; seven years later, he cast Brown in Fingers as a pimp who memorably slaps two women’s heads together. Toback’s interest eventually turned to Mike Tyson, who has appeared as himself in two Toback efforts (1999’s Black and White, wherein he bitch-slapped Robert Downey Jr., and 2002’s When Will I Be Loved). Toback’s new documentary Tyson, which has just opened in New York and L.A. before it expands to other cities, completes the trilogy. Tyson, who obviously trusts Toback, sits for his camera and tells his story. We’re never sure how much of it to believe, but the way Tyson tells it is in itself revealing.¹

Convicted rapist, ear-biter, self-proclaimed animal: Tyson couldn’t be a more fitting tormented anti-hero for a Toback film if Toback had created Tyson himself. Forty when the film was shot, and looking puffier and mellower, Tyson takes us through the narrative of his life, which offers more redemptions and falls and redemptions and falls than any six novels. The fat, lisping kid from Brooklyn grew up, with the help of trainer Cus D’Amato, into a feared ring assassin, a boxer who gained a rep (like Rubin “Hurricane” Carter) for decimating his opponents in the first round. (In the most hyperbolic example of this, he sat Michael Spinks down in 91 seconds.)

As anyone who’s seen Raging Bull knows, the great boxer is not always — maybe even not usually — a great human being. Tyson, however, seemed almost hell-bent on living up to the tabloids’ bad-boy image. In the film, Tyson is generously dismissive of his tumultuous eight-month marriage to Robin Givens (“We were just kids”) but reserves his wrath for Don King, who he says stole his money, and Desiree Washington, whose 1991 encounter with Tyson led to his six-year sentence for rape (of which he served three). Significantly, Tyson allows that he might have taken advantage of other women, but not her. So either he was caught this time, or was innocent in this case but never got caught those other times.

Toback doesn’t question or judge; he just lets Tyson have his say. Over and over again, the older Tyson says “I can’t blame anyone but myself.” There’s no equivocation in his language; his version of events may be debatable, but his sincerity isn’t — he says what he believes, and he believes what he says. Toback doesn’t need to provide counterargument; we’re doing that ourselves. By the time the film gets to Tyson’s infamous 1997 rematch with Evander Holyfield, which left a chunk of Holyfield’s right ear on the ring floor, the titan’s fall seems complete. The movie doesn’t get into Tyson’s subsequent legal woes, gliding ahead into a portrait of Tyson as proud daddy (by several different women) and wannabe grandfather. He’s frequently photographed staring off into the ocean at sunset, like a beached sea monster who’s lost his home. Tyson doesn’t pretend to be a balanced picture, but it’s a fascinating peek into a teeming, demon-filled brain that isn’t like anyone else’s.

¹For instance, describing a quick tryst with an anonymous woman in some bathroom, Tyson says that he performed “fellatio” on her. Either he truly isn’t aware of the proper term “cunnilingus,” or this is the biggest Freudian slip in the history of documentaries. That Toback (a) didn’t correct Tyson and (b) left it in the film says something, though I’m not sure what.

The Wrestler

December 17, 2008

Mickey Rourke is a beast in The Wrestler, though, of course, one with heart and soul. His character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, used to be huge on the wrestling circuit in the ‘80s. Now, after countless mistakes and the body slams of time itself, Randy lives in a trailer (when not forced to sleep in his van when he can’t make the rent) and pops painkillers to get through the day. He works part-time at a supermarket, lugging boxes back and forth. He still wrestles; the ring and the milieu itself (the locker room, the flea-bitten conventions where he sells memorabilia) are the only places he gets any respect.

The Wrestler, written (by Robert Siegel) as an above-average washed-up-palooka tale and sensitively directed by Darren Aronofsky, will work best for you if you have any residual affection left for Mickey Rourke, who, like Randy, seemed poised to own the ‘80s but then threw it all away. On one level, the movie is an art-house Rocky Balboa, in which Rourke, like Sylvester Stallone, stages a comeback parallel to his character’s. We feel for and root for Randy (as we felt for and rooted for the elderly Rocky) for reasons that go well beyond the screenplay. Rourke napalmed his own career through arrogance, and now he returns, hungry and humble, wanting only to do the work.

Randy shambles through snowy New Jersey, finding no solace in life outside the ring. He tries to get something going with a kindly stripper (Marisa Tomei), but she doesn’t quite know what to make of him — is he into her because she’s a stripper, or what? For a while, reconciliation seems possible between Randy and his daughter, not because the script sells it so well but because Rourke brings a tender desperation to his scenes with Evan Rachel Wood, and she’d have to be made of stone not to respond. The movie gets a little on-the-nose when Randy has a heart attack in the second act, but Rourke and Aronofsky ignore the easy symbolism; there’s a fine scene when Randy takes a shower, trying to protect the cellophane-wrapped gash in his chest as if it were a new tattoo.

I’m always eager to learn from a movie, especially about what people do for a living, and The Wrestler offers some insight (which feels authentic) into the inner workings of wrestling: the pre-match meetings between “foes” to determine which moves they’re going to use on each other; the razor blade hidden in the wrist wrap to draw one’s own blood for effect. The punishment gets nasty at times (the staple-gun bit has already become infamous), but we see that for Randy, it’s just a part of the gig, though he doesn’t bounce back from the damage as quickly as he used to. Real life is infinitely more painful for him — sitting alone in his trailer, drinking himself to sleep, clinging to whatever brief contact he can get (the scene in which he and a neighborhood kid play a Nintendo game featuring a pixellated Randy “the Ram” is both funny and sad).

With the exception of his underrated death fantasia The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky has always been drawn to the grit and despair of the down and out, starting with his debut Pi and continuing with Requiem for a Dream. This movie completes the trilogy, I guess; it’s atypical in Aronfsky’s portfolio in that there’s nothing visually flashy about it whatsoever — the only pumping-up comes from ‘80s hair-metal songs, Randy’s preferred personal soundtrack (the scene where Rourke does a barroom dance for Marisa Tomei to Ratt’s “Round and Round” deserves to go on a greatest-hits montage of his screen work). Aronofsky keeps his camera steadily on his star, knowing that Rourke brings everything the movie needs — himself, and his intimate knowledge of failure. It’s one of the decade’s great performances.

Rocky Balboa

December 20, 2006

You could trace Sylvester Stallone’s life pretty accurately through the Rocky movies. Stallone and Rocky Balboa, the punchy but good-hearted boxer who put Stallone on the map, started out bums and became kings. Then in the ‘80s, the kings became bums — Rocky III and IV were crass junk, exploiting racism and xenophobia, respectively. The films were beginning to reflect Stallone’s out-of-touch decadence. Rocky V was an attempt to return to roots, but nobody took it seriously. With Rocky Balboa, though, the bums become kings again. Easily the equal of its forefather thirty years ago, the movie is more stirring and even more thought-provoking than the grim, overrated Million Dollar Baby.

Those who grew up with Rocky, as I did, will find themselves most susceptible to Rocky Balboa’s charms. It’s primitive, manipulative, simplistic, all the things the original Rocky was. But I also have to admit that when the creaky old Rocky ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his newly adopted dog Punchy, reached the top, and punched the air in triumph, I wiped away a tear or two. Because those are not just steps. And Rocky Balboa isn’t just another Rocky sequel — it’s the last, coming from an actor/writer/director who, like his character, just wants to go the distance one more time.

Rocky is a widower now — he lost Adrian to “the woman cancer” four years ago. He owns a restaurant (named after Adrian) and hangs out there somewhat haplessly, regaling the diners with his old boxing stories. His brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), as irascible as ever, paints abstract art during downtime at the meat factory and can’t face the past, which Rocky seems stuck in. His son Rocky Jr., who now goes by Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), toils as a corporate drone and feels negated by his father’s shadow. It’s a pretty bleak picture until an opportunity arises: the current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who has run out of worthy opponents, is talked into an exhibition match with Rocky after a computer-simulated match between the two puts Rocky on top.

Gone, mostly, is the empty flash of the previous Stallone-directed Rocky films. Rocky Balboa is a classical piece of filmmaking, with stately fade-outs and an attentive eye for dialogue nuance. Rocky chats up a bartender (Geraldine Hughes) who turns out to be Marie, the punky girl he advised to steer clear of the wrong crowd in the first Rocky. Marie is all grown up now, with a teenage son who calls himself Steps. Hughes, a disconcerting dead ringer for Emily Watson, brings some of Talia Shire’s reticence and toughness to the almost-romance that develops between Marie and Rocky. Stallone shoots on the gray, snowy streets of Philly, in its bars and restaurants, harking back to a time when locations in movies had character — the ‘70s. Rocky Balboa is comfortable with the past (it even brings back Spider, the guy Rocky defeated pre-Apollo Creed in the first Rocky).

Then the climactic fight arrives, and after a strong start — in which we genuinely fear for Rocky’s sagging flesh and “brittle” bones — Stallone and editor Sean Albertson get a little too crazy with the flash-cuts and impressionistic strobing imagery. One can imagine grouchy Paulie squinting at the results and growling “What the hell is this? Lemme see the fight!” And eventually Stallone does snap out of it and lets the fight choreography lead the editing. Then again, Rocky Balboa isn’t really about the match, any more than Rocky was (the sequels lost sight of that, at their peril). It’s about a bum turned king turned bum who finds it in himself to reclaim, however briefly, his throne.

Miracle

February 6, 2004

Here’s a happy surprise. Miracle, which looks like a flag-waving Disney sports movie, gives us instead a complex portrait of a man, and Kurt Russell delivers a major performance as that man while barely varying his facial expressions or the rhythm of his gum-chewing (all coaches, it seems, must chew gum). As Herb Brooks, who coached the United States amateur hockey team to Olympic victory in 1980, Russell adopts the rounded vowels of Minnesota, giving his usually knife-edged speech patterns a loose poetry they’ve never had before. Nothing else about Herb is loose, though. Hair parted to the side in a helmet-head cut without a strand out of place, Herb yells without seeming aggressive and argues without seeming argumentative. Rigid to the core, he’s always right, and knows it.

Herb is positioned as the kind of simple optimist — if you work and bleed hard enough for it, you can have it — that America needs in its time of “malaise,” as Jimmy Carter famously put it. Uncertain about its position in the world, frazzled by a decade of turmoil and excess, America at the end of the ’70s is an underdog. Herb hasn’t gotten the memo on that, or on anything else except hockey. (His wife at one point has to wrest his attention away from his roster list so that he can catch a TV report about the hostages in Iran.) Herb doesn’t see any reason why a sufficiently scrappy, passionate, and hungry team can’t stand skate to skate with the feared Soviet team, which has won every gold medal for over a decade.

This isn’t Rocky IV all over again: None of the Soviet players scowls at an American player and sneers “Ve vill break you.” In fact, for much of the movie, Herb pays more respect to the Soviet team than he does to the team he’s driving so hard. Obsessively watching films of the Soviets on the ice, he knows why they’ve been champions, and he knows that the only way to beat them is to play like them. The triumphalism at the climax is not jingoistic but a sort of relief that an underdog team from an underdog country held off a great team against the odds.

Herb’s training, which borders on sadistic at times, takes up about two-thirds of the movie. He hammers the players like a Zen master, pushing them to their physical limits and beyond. Once they learn precision, they must learn passion. Herb understands that shared anguish can result in a foxhole rapport, the cement of a winning team. Soon enough, players aren’t just asking to play hurt; they’re demanding it. The players jokingly give Herb a whip for Christmas, in both a tweak at their relentless taskmaster and a tribute. Herb’s assistant coach (a solid job by Noah Emmerich, serving as the good cop to Russell’s bad cop) sometimes shakes his head at the boss’s excesses but never questions them.

“You were born to be hockey players,” Herb shouts at his boys at a crucial moment, and he, too, was chosen by the gods of the ice; he’d been a player on the 1960 Olympic team (the last American team to win), but got cut at the last minute. This is Herb’s chance to take the gold, and fortunately he has a patient wife (Patricia Clarkson, who does what she can in the Wife role) who won’t get after him too much about picking the kids up from ballet or hockey practice when he’s got a 4:00 meeting. Herb takes the team right up to the top and right down to the wire, and Kurt Russell maintains a quiet, unshowy intensity. His big moment is played in shadow, at a respectful distance, when emotion finally overwhelms Herb to the point where he can’t chew it along with his gum, and he goes off to be alone while the crowd goes crazy. See Miracle even if you don’t give a damn about hockey (I don’t): Kurt Russell as this tight, held-in man is the purest, most expressive thing you’re going to see at the movies this season.

Seabiscuit

July 25, 2003

Galloping virtually alone in the adult-interest lane among too many comic-book movies and teen-geek fantasies, Seabiscuit the movie is as much an underdog this summer as Seabiscuit the horse was during the Depression. For about 40 minutes, Gary Ross’s adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller feels a bit unfocused and awkward. Its three human leads — auto seller Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who owns Seabiscuit; trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), who gentles the horse into a contender; and failed boxer Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who becomes Seabiscuit’s jockey — are introduced separately, and it takes a while for all three to get together. While we wait, narrator David McCullough makes the damn thing sound like one of the more earnestly journalistic PBS documentaries.

When the men unite around the horse, though, Seabiscuit gains power and depth. Seabiscuit, who famously got more newspaper ink in 1938 than FDR and Hitler, is positioned as the rejuvenating soul of a sick nation — a long-odds hoss who surprises everyone and surges to greatness. Ross tells the story with a minimum of schmaltz, though he can’t resist some pieties in the dialogue, as if he didn’t trust the combined magic of editor William Goldenberg and cinematographer John Schwartzman to create poetry in motion. The racing sequences are unflashy yet exhilarating, generating old-school excitement without techno music or CGI. We know the odds, we know what’s at stake, and we’re given a God’s-eye view of the races. Seabiscuit could’ve worked just as well — maybe even better — as a silent movie; in its modest way it re-introduces pure cinema to a summer full of bloat and hype.

Exquisitely cast, the movie focuses more on the embattled men at its center than on the titular champion. Jeff Bridges gives his lines an air of fatuous hucksterism — he’s glib, a salesman for Seabiscuit as well as for cars — but Bridges’ essential decency also comes through, as when he frets about the injured horse and his injured jockey going through with the climactic race. Chris Cooper will likely never be plausible as, say, an office manager or web designer, but he has perfected his piece of the Laconic Man of Nature turf; a man of very few words, Tom Smith (nicknamed “Silent Tom” back in the day) has to speak volumes with subtle eye shifts or grudging smiles, and Cooper is more than up to the challenge. Tobey Maguire risks making Red Pollard somewhat unstable and hot-headed, a realistically beaten-down young man whose very presence seems to calm the frightened, abused Seabiscuit, as if the horse had finally found his soulmate.

As he showed in 1998’s now-and-then fantasy Pleasantville, Gary Ross has a gentle eye for time-capsule stories; the period of the late ’30s is effortlessly evoked — the whistlestop speeches, the men in straw hats, the effusive radio announcers (William H. Macy has fun as the fictional “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, who uses clownish sound effects to augment his rhapsodies to the equine champion). Seabiscuit may have been largely a media hero (his tale inspired an earlier film, 1949’s The Story of Seabiscuit with Shirley Temple), but his legend was hard-won. The movie’s glowing reviews — which fairly sigh with relief at the respite from overkill like Bad Boys II — are earned, too. Seabiscuit is not a work of great art, but it tells its solid story with grace and dignity.