Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why I love sports movies

I love sports movies. Sometimes in spite of myself, sometimes in spite of the fact that I don't follow sports in real life. There is a charm to the standard sports drama that never fails to appeal to me. It's the underdog story, the inevitability of the underdog to win, and the satisfying righteous nature of that mega-happy ending. Sports dramas are reliable that way: they enthrall, they inspire, and they're usually pretty straight-forward. Sports comedies follow the same plot structure, only the defeats and short-falls are hilarious instead of heartbreaking.

Dan also loves sports dramas. And, since I've been subjecting him to every manner of "I know you don't want to watch this movie, but it's an important movie that you should like", I decided to watch a couple of movies I knew we'd both enjoy.

I started off with The Greatest Game Ever Played. I figured this was a sure-thing. Dan loves golf. Dan loves Boston. This was a movie about a famous golf player from Boston. The fact that it's a Disney movie directed by Bill "Game Over, Man" Paxton, starring Shania TheBeef gave me pause, but I was doing this for Dan, so I put it on my Netflix queue. I'm so glad I did. Most of my family members are avid golfers and I've lived in Massachusetts my whole life, yet I had never heard of Ouimet and "The Greatest Game Ever Played". It's an incredible story and I really feel that this movie did it justice.

The Greatest Game Ever Played is partially a biopic of two golfers (Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon) and partially about the world of golf in 1913 and how these two players changed golf forever.

Vardon came from humble backgrounds to be the most successful and famous professional golfer of his time. Francis Ouimet was from a working-class family and grew up at the foot of a prominent country club in Brookline. Ouimet was inspired by Vardon at an early age, and Ouimet finds himself playing in the U.S. Open against Vardon. Ouimet and his ten-year-old caddy, Eddie Lowrey, are amateurs, but determined to win. The resulting round of golf was called "The Greatest Game Ever Played" by local papers.

The story itself is so incredible that Dan and I took to Wikipedia several times to see what amount of Disneyfication was going on, but the most unbelievable aspects of the story are the ones that are true. And Bill Paxton is actually a pretty good director. He does an excellent job of character exposition and gives a great moody undertone to balance out this mega-happy ending. Paxton even gets artsy with us, using clever camera angles and cutaways to illustrate the nerves Vardon and Ouimet feel before every swing of the club.

Shia LaBeouf is likable and just awkward enough as the young golfing prodigy Ouimet. But what I liked the best in this film were the supporting performances. Elias Koteas as Ouimet's father, with a flawless French Canadian accent, is a tough blue-collar guy who just wants his son to succeed, but not in golf. Stephen Marcus (you've seen in him as Nick The Greek in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is bombastic as Ted Ray, the big golfer with a short temper. And this film would not be half as good as it is without Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowrey, Ouimet's loyal, wise-cracking caddy. My favorite scene from this film is the one where the men in charge of the U.S. Open try to manipulate the pair into replacing Lowrey with "a proper caddy". Lowrey bursts into hysterics, in a way that was instantly recognizable and believable as the way that any kid reacts when they feel betrayed and heartbroken. "They told me you'd want to..." he chokes out between sobs to Ouimet, and it got me. My heart was wrenched.

Another thing I liked about it was how it visually contrasted the world of the rich club members and the world of the golfers. The former is polished and cold, the latter is dingy and earthy.

The other sports film I watched with Dan was The Blind Side. It was good. Not "deserved to be nominated for Best Picture and for Sandra Bullock to win Best Actress" good, but simply good. The real power to this film, like The Greatest Game Ever Played, is that it's hard to believe it's all true. It is simply incredible that anyone could escape the life that Michael Oher was living. It's incredible that anyone would take a person they hardly knew into their family, with few questions asked. That story itself is well worth watching, and leaves you with a good feeling. Other than that, this movie is pretty standard. I think the reason Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for it was because the role proves that she can act and that she can pull off a Southern drawl quite nicely. But she doesn't exactly disappear into the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy. I just think she's so very much like Leigh Anne Tuohy that no one else would have even been considered for the role. The character, in spite of being based on a real person, is very Bullock-esque. I was very much aware that I was watching Sandra Bullock. It's still a sin that she won over Gabourey Sidibe's performance in Precious, but at least now I have a little more perspective. Tim McGraw and Kathy Bates are also in this movie. They're okay, too. I really wonder if those roles were given simply because the real people got to pick who would play them in a movie. I could see Leigh Anne picking Bullock, Sean picking McGraw and Miss Sue choosing Kathy Bates. Nothing spectacular.

I did really enjoy Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher, but the performance confused me. The role is very similar to Precious in Precious, but without the narration, we lose our concept of the character's inner thoughts and feelings. Through much of this movie we are simply left to wonder why Michael is so cryptically stoic. I feel this is the place where the film falls short. Those moments where Michael does express himself, on the field and off, are the ones that really let this movie soar. But we don't see enough of them. The way we see Michael portrayed in the movie, and the real-life clips and photos at the end seem like two different people. The movie-Michael is withdrawn, stone-faced and insecure. The Michael we see in clips and photos flashes wide grins, and seems to have personality oozing out of his pores. This disparity bothered me. I would have liked to know more about how he felt in those times, and seen that big friendly personality emerge more often.

Where I do think the movie triumphs is showing how those of us who live outside of the harsh world of the ghetto are the ones with a blind side. We don't know what it's like for those people who live there. We don't hear or see anything about them unless they're being arrested or killed. And we don't do anything to help them because of it. All Michael Oher, and so many other young people, need a safe environment surrounded by people who truly care about them in order to succeed. This is the same lesson Precious provides, but it's delivery will make most people uncomfortable. The Blind Side is able to deliver the message that love is what saves people while not making people uncomfortable with their ignorance or inaction to "the other America". Which is why it was more successful than Precious. But that isn't important as long as people are taking that idea to heart at the end of the film, and I hope they are.

The Blind Side is a great family movie, and it is heartwarming to see how the entire Tuohy family falls in love with Michael. Kind of made me want to run out and adopt a football player.

If you want a sure-fire, feel-good, mega-happy ending, go with a sports movie every time. Others I recommend are The Natural, Miracle and Rudy.

And feel free to dump some Gatorade on someone the next time they do a good job. Nothing says "Nice work!" like being cold, wet and sticky.



Nena Nadine said...

I thought about not commenting on this one but then I thought you might think I don't like sports movies. I do like sports movies even though I lack a care for them in RL.Rudy is timeless (and one of my husbands favorite movies. Note, my husband went to school for film). I would probably laugh hysterically at its absolute terribleness now but I loved The Mighty Ducks when I was a kid. I had to watched over a hundred times. ha ha.

Noel said...

I also loved The Mighty Ducks! I think that's something our generation can bond over.
I understand why a lot of people don't like sports movies, they are unapologetically prediactable and sentimental. Ironically, I tend to dislike romantic comedies for the same reasons. That's why I think the underdog story is why I like them so much.