Summer of Sports Films: Air Bud

Air Bud illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

 

Air Bud – 1997

Dir: Charles Martin Smith | Starring: Buddy the Dog

Sport: Basketball

Review: A boy finds a dog that can (sort of) play basketball and since there is no rule specifically saying “Dogs can’t play basketball” his team is allowed to use the dog to help them win a Junior High Championship.

There is also a very controversial court ruling on who the rightful owner of the dog is; despite the original owner having the dogs papers the judge decides that possession should be based on whom the dog runs to when called upon. This ruling was decided outside the courtroom on the lawn in front of the courthouse.

“For the underdog in all of us!”

Summer of Sports Films: Victory

Victory illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

Victory (aka Escape to Victory) – 1981

Dir: John Huston | Starring: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pelé, Max von Sydow

Sport: Soccer

Review: A British soldier P.O.W. agrees to coach a Allies squad of soccer players/prisoners against a German Nazi commanders squad of elite German super stars. The game escalates from a “friendly” match to be held within P.O.W. camp to becoming what the Germans hope to be a show of power and propaganda within a large stadium in recently occupied France. The Allied soldiers are expected to escape during the match but players are apprehensive because of their desires to show up the Germans on the field.

This film is a reinterpretation of the infamous “Death Match” that was believed to have occurred in 1942 within occupied Kiev between German artillerymen and former star players from two prominent Russian Soccer Clubs. At the time of the filming the U.S.S.R. had still been spreading the rumors that after the Soviet players embarrassed the German officers (despite German referees trying to fix the match) that the SS shot several of the Soviet players dead on site. However, after the fall of the U.S.S.R. eyewitness’ from the match began to speak freely on the game and discounted the Soviets story as propaganda and that several of the Soviet players believed to have been shot dead had died due to events unrelated to the game many months later and in separate War related instances. The film merely chooses to take the aspects of Germans playing Soccer against their enemy and how that could be a pretty risky endeavor and added in various escape plots that occur both in the prison camp and at the soccer stadium to try and make a grand WWII fable.

The only aspects of the film that are very much worth watching is the Soccer match held at the last 3rd of the film. Michael Caine seems to be fairly uninterested in his role as player/coach during the portions of the film that are very weakly trying to emulate The Great Escape and Stallone is an awkward fit throughout the film and seems like he was just jammed in at the last minute by a producer. John Huston would have been 74 or 75 during the filming of this and pretty much saved any creative touches for the Soccer match and left the P.O.W. camp portions to be directed on autopilot. Its an interesting bit of history (albeit false history) but I can’t recommend it to anyone except for Soccer fans who want to see Pelé deliver some silly lines in broken english and show off his amazing Soccer skills.

Summer of Sports Films: This Sporting Life

This Sporting Life illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

This Sporting Life – 1963

Dir: David Storey | Starring: Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, William Hartnell

Sport: Rugby

Review: 

Frank Machin (played by Richard Harris) is a hard-shelled English factory worker who decides he’s good enough to play for the company owned League Rugby team. When the factory/team owner decides to give him a shot Machin proves his skills and immediately becomes a star player. With his newfound wealth and stardom he hopes to win over his woefully depressed landlord whom he had been failing to make progress with. Both she and he are tortured and complicated people with a mountain of baggage to try and overcome before they can ever hope to become a happy pair.

 

This is a really interesting look at ego and early 60’s sports stardom with a unique lead character; but has a love story that takes center stage and begins to beat a dead horse and you find yourself hoping the film wraps up sooner than later. Richard Harris is fairly good in this, but the character is wildly boorish and mopey in such a strange way, he delivers on being a real weirdo who you aren’t sure what he is capable of. The problem with such a character is that when paired with a dower old maid of a love interest the interactions become tiresome and I found myself loudly groaning at their slog of a “love affair”. Many of their scenes could have been paired down to shorten the film length and also so that it wouldn’t drown out a lot of the Rugby/Celebrity aspects, which were very interesting and handled quite well. There is a really great movie in here if it were just edited down a fair amount.

These old trailers really liked to make a movie seem like it will forever change your very being after having witnessed it:

Summer of Sports Films: Breaking Away

Breaking Away illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

Breaking Away – 1979

Dir: Peter Yates | Starring: Dennis Quaid, Dennis Christopher, Daniel Stern, Paul Dooley, Jackie Earl Haley

Sport: Bicycle Racing

Review: 

A group of 19-something townies are living an idle existence between adolescence and adulthood within the shadows of the University of Indiana. They desperately hang onto their last teenage year before the expectations and pressures from their families will become all too much for them to pass the days away swimming in the quarry or just cruising around Bloomington. Dave Stoller finds a purpose within his bicycle and is aiming to be a racing champion like his Italian heroes; when the University decides to allow a local non-student team to enter into their annual race it becomes a watershed moment for everyone in his life.

Coming of age films are a genre almost unto themselves but this belongs in the high echelons with films like Stand by Me and American Graffiti. This is a sublime film. The direction, acting, script (Best Screenplay Oscar), and characters are all so organic that the entire film just breathes-into you like an experience you are actively taking part of. Sports is woven into this picture far beyond the base bike racing of the central character, it’s a presence that finds it way into every character in the film at different depths and with its own unique history. The authenticity and accuracy of these characters is what makes the film sing and it’s in a tune that I would imagine would be agreeable to many generations of Americans well beyond its 1979 setting.

Its unfortunate that the massive yield of teenage angst films harvested in the 1980’s may have drowned out this picture from the history books. I give this my utmost recommendation.

It should be noted that this film has one of the greatest movie Dads of all time – bravo Paul Dooley!

This trailer is a bit hokey and feels like those weird re-edited trailers you see for a movie just before it starts on local TV:

Summer of Sports Films: Tin Cup

Tin Cup illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

Tin Cup – 1996

Dir: Ron Shelton | Starring: Kevin Costner, Rene Russo, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Dennis Burkley

Sport: Golf

Review: Kevin Coster stars as “Roy McAvoy” a driving range Golf Pro / slacker in west Texas where he wastes away his days shooting the shit with his friends, giving occasional golf lessons, and hustling the locals out on the regional courses. He falls for a Psychiatrist (whom also happens to be his greatest golf rival’s girlfriend) and she leads him down the path of striving to win the U.S. Open, a golf event where anyone can enter as long as they meet a few simple skill requirements. He has to overcome “going for it” when “playing it safe” would be the easier and more successful path but would challenge his very inner being that has also been the greatest detriment in his golfing career.

There is a pretty hefty pile of Romantic Comedy Sports films a person can dig into if they wanted and I would say you can certainly do a lot worse than this one. Costner is playing the fairly standard “Sam Malone” character type while Rene Russo is the tough female lead who is stand-offish at first but finds Costner to be a nice project to work on but his lifestyle and behavior ultimately wins out. The sports side of it is simple enough, some Golf references will go over peoples heads but will appeal to those with a slightly more than basic understanding. One interesting aspect of the plot is that there really isn’t a “villain” per se despite them presenting Don Johnsons character as such, he’s more-so there for Costers character to deflect his own issues back at himself rather than he actually being devious or threatening. Beyond all of that its just a matter if you enjoy the West Texas atmosphere and the endearing supportive cast. Your milage may vary but I find it to be an enjoyable light breeze of a movie thats charm grows with repeated viewings.

Here’s a trailer that makes Costner’s character seem like an absolute lunatic and the music used is really terrible, guh, I really dislike this trailer:

Summer of Sports Films: Le Mans

Le Mans illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

Le Mans – 1971

Dir: Lee H. Katzin | Starring: Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Fred Haltiner

Sport: Auto Racing

Review: Steve McQueen is an American race car driver participating in the 24 Hour race at Le Mans. In the previous years event he was in a terrible accident that resulted in another drivers death and he has to brace that burden while also pushing he and his car as close to the edge as he can.

I’ve not seen a film (outside of a documentary) put such a laser focus on a single sporting event in the way Lee H. Katzin has with the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. This film is a love letter to every single aspect of the spectacle. For motorsports fanatics this must have been a godsend in 1971 because there would have been no way, short of flying to France, to see this event with such detail. I have to assume television coverage for an 24 hour endurance race was sparse at the time and its unlikely they would’ve captured even a 10th of what goes on. The films rawness is almost to the experimental levels with long wordless stretches of film, minimal score, and the lens capturing so much motorsport minutia. The hollywood forumula is sacrificed to present things as honestly as possible and showcase the warts and all nature of the event. The drama and excitement is all there just dolled out in waves and doses as the real world race would but captured from far more angles than ever could have been before.

There is some additional plot to try and break things up and give a bit of depth to the characters. It is welcomed, but unfortunately the dialogue and performances during these scenes isn’t crafted very well. Steve McQueens star power did little to overcome the word that spread of the film not exactly being an action-drama most audiences would expect and the film was a box office flop.

I highly recommend this movie for film buffs for at the very least to see how a sports film will never be produced again. Filmed at the real event, with real crowds, real rain, and real cars. Every ounce feels and looks as authentic as anyone could ever hope to achieve. Having just seen trailers for the upcoming Ron Howard film “Rush” I can tell you that the synthetic glob of CG that film is trying to pass off as 1970’s auto racing is pretty embarrassing compared to what was captured in this film. If you can be patient with a films pacing I highly recommend this very unique work.

Its seems an actual offical trailer does not exist on Youtube, so here is the 2 minute segment of the race’s start. I think it does a good job of representing the film:

Summer of Sports Films: Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

Chariots of Fire – 1981

Dir: Hugh Hudson | Starring: Ben Cross, Eric Liddell, Iam Holm

Sport: Olympic Running

Review: Two British track athletes aim for gold in running at the 1924 Olympics. One a rich Jew and the other a Scottish missionary. One runs for glory and the other for god and glory. All in a time when huge swatches of the world could only dream of a snow balls chance in hell of attending or competing in the games while an American, European or British ruled nation won every single Track & Field medal.

It was impossible for me to cheer on for these two characters because I have some sense of history and how the state of the globe was so stacked in their favor. The Scottish missionary is a bit more interesting because of his devout faith and how isn’t willing to just dash it all off for the sake of running for his country, but even that is easily resolved ultimately because of the Flag he is running under. One would assume the other characters Judaism could come into play, but its never presented as an issue and really his only issues are that he is able to afford an expensive trainer and that upsets some old fops at his exclusive college.

This film won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981 and thats a shame. The cinematography is filmed really well in some great locations with nice sets and it has an iconic theme song. But every character is an insufferable dork. Ian Holm is apparently playing an Arab man but you’d have no way in knowing that due to his attempt at an accent and appearance. There is a hilarious montage of the U.S. track team training via series of bizarre training methods scored to an intense and extremely 1980’s synthesizer track (this movie takes place in 1924). The plot just doesn’t feel as important and historic as they try to convey and much of the films scenes are entirely forgettable. I don’t understand why this is lauded as much as it is.

Here is the Trailer: