Foxcatcher 2014 ***

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Bennett Miller’s claustrophobic true story about athletics trainer John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his sinister input into the well-being of his charges is a cold, unlikable but intensely gripping drama. Channing Tatum sports some amusing late 80’s hairstyles as Mark Schwartz, a champion wrestler that Do Pont wants to prepare for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but Mark’s brother David (Mark Ruffalo) has his suspicious about the millionaire’s methods. Tatum, Ruffalo and particularly Carell turn in darkly shaded performances, and the looming violence of the finale is handled in a calm and un-exploitative way. Carell is frequently off-screen for long periods of the film, but his physical transformation makes Do Pont into an unnerving and domineering creation.

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Grand Prix 1966 ***

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John Frankenheimer’s 1966 epic of motor-racing comes in at a cumbersome 176 minutes, but if you can manage the length, there’s plenty of rewards for patient viewers. Making full use of widescreen and split-screen formats, Frankenheimer creates an impressive sense of realism about the sports action, with James Garner as Peter Aron, who has to balance his feelings for guilt about another driver’s injury with his drive to win at all costs. The international cast features Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune and a somewhat damp squib of a romantic interest in Eva Marie Saint, and the off-track chicanery has dated badly. But the racing sequences are thrilling particularly because the technology of the cars appears so primitive; grand prix racing looks pretty dangerous, and its no surprise to learn that many of the drivers involved in filming died within years of the films’ release.

This Sporting Life 1963 ****

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Love him or hate him, and the excesses of his later work didn’t appeal to many, Lindsay Anderson was a true auteur long before the French made the term fashionable; his 1963 drama This Sporting Life is a brilliant sports picture, featuring a massive performance by Richard Harris. As rugby league footballer Frank Machin, Harris kicks and punches his way to a living, but his aggression comes at a personal cost via his relationship with Margaret (Rachel Roberts). Anderson has made his name with ‘free cinema’, a well-observed documentary form, and his stack black and white photography adds verisimilitude to Machin’s fall from grace. Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter went on to feature in Anderson’s later films, and This Sporting Life is a milestone in British cinema; terse, downbeat but with a vibrant beating heart in Harris’s towering performance.

 

Kingpin 1996 ***

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Anyone who has read Peter Farrelly’s book The Comedy Writer will understand something about the darkness that underpins the cheerfully bad-taste comedies he makes with his brother Bobby. Kingpin is a good example of their tragic-comic style, with Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson, whose bowling career is ended when he loses a hand. He joins forces with Amish man Ishmael (Randy Quaid) and attempts an unlikely comeback, with competition with bewigged star player Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray) their ultimate goal. The acting talent involves suggests that Kingpin could be a serious, melancholy drama, but instead it’s a silly, good-natured and boisterous parody of sports-movie clichés, with Murray in typically good form.

Paradise Alley 1978 ****

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Sylvester Stallone’s career has been peppered with throwbacks; whether with Rocky, Rambo or The Expendables, he can’t let a franchise idea go. He probably learned a lesson from his directorial debut, in which he reprises the underdog story of Rocky but with a novel twist; he plays Cosmo Carboni who, together with his brother Lenny (Armand Assante) is working the wresting circuit in hell’s Kitchen circa 1946. They’re pot of gold is brother Victor (Lee Canalito), who is making it big in the ring, but the brother’s friendship is tested by the potential success. Stallone loves a good montage;  scenes of carrying large blocks of ice up flights of stairs replace the running montages of Rocky. But Paradise Alley is more complex than most sports movies, looking into the motivations of the characters looking to make a packet; Damon Runyon-esque moments where Stallone is struggling to get his dancing monkey to perform are emblematic of the problems of aspiring dreamers whose ideas exceed their grasp.

Bull Durham 1988 ****

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Writer/directror Ron Shelton’s success was something of a 1990’s phenomenon, and his collaborations with Kevin Costner (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) demonstrated his gift for making thoughtful sport movies. Susan Sarandon plays Annie, a baseball groupie caught between her affections for rising star Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins) and older hand Crash Davis (Costner). Winning is always the goal in sports pictures, but Bull Durham takes plenty of care with the action outside of the baseball diamond, with the rivalry between the two men never over-shadowing Annie’s feelings for them. Costner, Sarandon and Robbins all exude character, with Costner returning to the diamond successfully with Field of Dreams and For The Love of the Game.

The Hustler 1961 ****

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It’s hard to credit that the Walter Tevis whose novel was adapted by Robert Rossen for this classic slice of pool-hall drama is the same author responsible for The Man Who Fell To Earth. Then again, the story of a Californian shark making it in New York city certainly plays like a story of an alien fighting for survival in a strange environment, Paul Newman is at his charismatic best as Fast Eddie Felson, who takes on reigning champion Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in this downbeat but absorbing character study. Piper Laurie makes an unusual love-interest as Sarah, and Rossen makes great use of his own experiences as a poll-hall hustler; his movie positively reeks of authenticity.