TBT: Munich (2005)

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And finally we come to the closing ceremonies of the Olympic theme TBT this February. Thank you all for joining in on the fun, and I hope you have enjoyed the spirit of competitive action for the last couple of weeks. Which TBT was your favorite event? Your least? Any surprises? With one entry left to go for today, maybe it’s this one. Despite it not having anything to do with the Winter Olympics, this last installment still touches on the Summer Games, and in a way that no other film has before. Personally, I think I discovered my favorite film of the Olympic TBTs and am very glad I didn’t go with my original choice. 

Today’s food for thought: Munich. 

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Release: My Birthday, 2005 🙂

[Netflix]

May there never be another like the Games of the XX Olympiad in Munich, Germany.

Really, the nation has never had the best of luck when it comes time for them to play host to this global stage of sports competition, since the 1936 Summer Games took place in Berlin during the height of the Nazi regime. Nearly four decades later and the Olympic flame is yet again doused by the murky waters of political tension when two Israeli competitors are murdered and another nine are taken hostage only to be killed later as well. Instead of being known as the Summer Games in Munich, the far more popular term thrown around when referring to the event sadly has become quite simply ‘the Munich Massacre.’

Steven Spielberg was keen on limiting the focus of the better part of the film’s three hours on the Games themselves, instead opting for an increasingly disturbing and suspenseful journey to find the men responsible for the attacks. A counter-terrorist unit was assembled in an effort to eliminate 11 names still at large (a number that would later increase to roughly 20-30) — needles in an impossibly deep haystack. The covert mission, codenamed Operation Wrath of God, was authorized by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (here portrayed by Lynn Cohen) in order to make a statement that the world would not allow for these acts of terrorism to go unpunished. Vengeful retaliation was the name of the game, and arrest warrants simply would not do.

So a squad of assassins (known as Mossad) led by Avner (Eric Bana) and including sharpshooters Steve (Daniel Craig), Carl (Ciarán Hinds), and Hans (Hanns Zischler) and bomb-maker/diffuser Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) were tasked with carrying out the highly risky mission, unforeseen challenges and implications lurking around every corner. Perhaps the greatest threat of all that loomed over each and every one of them, though, was the psychological aspect to the activities they would be engaging in over the course of several years. In Spielberg’s masterful recreation of this extraordinary mission, it is Bana’s Avner who suffers this the most. When he finally returns to his wife and newborn daughter, he is overwhelmed with paranoia, traumatized by the things he had seen, and generally unable to separate his personal and professional lives anymore.

This is of course to suggest that the film is broken up into three well-defined phases — the first of which sets the stage for the dramatics forthcoming by bloodily depicting the initial hostage situation in Munich; the second focuses on the Mossad mission itself and the subsequent fall-out and finally the last half hour or so of the film spends its time on the lingering, long-term effects of the Olympic Games on Germany and Israel in equal measure, simultaneously addressing the covert operation’s impacts on its key players. Bana is spectacular in selling the latter.

Grief-stricken by being separated from his family for so long, he is also plagued with horrible nightmares of the terrorist acts and of a much larger-scale vision of what his actions say about his political and religious affiliations. As a German-born Jew, Avner is a complex and morally conflicted lead role who bears the brunt of the film’s emotional component. He may have been the Dr. Banner/The Hulk at one point, but this is a substantially dramatic role that he makes entirely his own. The rest of the supporting characters form quite the entertaining repartee, with Daniel Craig’s Steve often playing the comic relief in a film that’s reticent to take its subject matter lightheartedly.

Though he’d be quick to brush it aside because he is none other than Mr. Steven Spielberg and quite acclimated to receiving praise (and so he should be), much credit still should be bestowed upon this legendary director for balancing the humorous and dramatic aspects throughout. Without touching up what is essentially a horror story with some sense of humor, the tragic and disturbing nature of the contents would be suffocating and difficult to plod through. It’s tough enough as it is.

Munich is, with the obvious exception of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg’s bloodiest and darkest epic. It also features a level of social and political complexity that might be unmatched by any of his other works. Spielberg is, for lack of a better word, a thoughtful director, evidenced by his unwillingness to draw specific conclusions about the conflict that arose in the midst of these Olympic Games. He paints a horrifying picture of a world gone mad as it pertains to the Israeli-Palestinian disagreement. He doesn’t afford a great deal of dignity to the assassins trying to avenge the deaths of the Olympic athletes, nor does he much care to judge the opposition, either. He walks a tightrope that had to have been intensely difficult to cross, and while the film did spark controversy, Spielberg ultimately managed to strike a balance between Hollywood drama and real-world drama. Without a doubt that would be a very tough challenge to face, something perhaps any other director might not have been able to handle with such aplomb.

What happened in Munich is, in a word, dismaying. Since the events occurred in 1972 there has been no shortage of terrorist activity across the globe, and there’s been no sign of these disturbances slowing down or lessening in their intensity or frequency. We occupy shared space, something that may sound like a simple concept but is inherently not. This isn’t a game of Sims wherein every action is mostly harmless and bears no consequence. People are animals. This isn’t what the movie tried to tell us, but it is a notion I have not only had for some time, but one that has been cemented by an experience like this one.

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4-5Recommendation: Often uncomfortable viewing, Munich‘s existence is also important. Perhaps even essential. Incredibly well-crafted and visually arresting, the scope and depth of the material will most likely appeal to more politically-minded viewers, though it is in no way an elitist film. I encourage anyone who wants to watch a thoroughly engaging film who has yet to see Spielberg’s near-masterpiece to devote some time out of their day to this one. It may even be a new favorite Spielberg film for yours truly. Whatever that may mean to you.

Rated: R

Running Time: 164 mins.

Quoted: “We inhabit a world of intersecting secrecies, living and dying at the places where these secrecies meet. This is what we accept.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imfdb.org; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Cool Runnings (1993)

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East Tennessee weather, Jamaican me crazy. It’s been unseasonably warm these past couple of days even for our standards. As I’m blogging today I’m sitting outside in shorts and t-shirt in February, and the thought just crossed my mind that today’s entry is twice as appropriate. We have a movie that will not only warm the hearts, but one that should warm up the body after watching nearly a fortnight of winter Olympic competition — a movie about the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. Even though these winter games are my preferred version, I really am not a fan of the cold, and I’m really slacking on my winter activities as of late. I haven’t skied in nearly two years. And I sure as hell have never been in a bobsled, or know anyone who bobsleds for sport or as a career. So what, exactly, drew me to this throwback? Simple. This is supposedly a classic sports story, one that would fit my February theme and also one that should appeal to me because it’s the winter Olympics. And, after last week’s letdown, I figured I should seek out something with a little more appeal, something that everyone knows or at least has heard something about. 

Today’s food for thought: Cool Runnings

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Release: October 1, 1993

[YouTube]

Four young men from the tropical island of Jamaica learn to bond with each other as they make history in their bid to become the nation’s first Olympic bobsled team.

If you’re a director taking on the task of crafting a sports drama, you are well aware of the nature of the challenge you’re up against. It’s no secret that this genre is rich in cliché, steeped in emotional manipulation, and burdened by an ever-deepening track of a formulaic storyline. Those who appreciate these kinds of films are able to overlook the pitfalls because if there’s one thing they do right, its that they remind us that sometimes real-world events play out in a dramatic fashion that can sometimes surpass the drama that fictitious films provide. As great as the next Christopher Nolan saga may be, there’s escapism in recounting the amazing feats performed by “ordinary” people (read: those who do not spend their lives in the performance arts). If you’re that director or that actor involved in the sports-moment recreation process, you have a wonderful opportunity and responsibility to cause audiences to sit back and think, “Wow, imagine that.”

Cool Runnings is a film that checks all of the boxes as far as opponents to the genre are concerned: it’s really cheesy, the story is nothing if not predictable, and the script won’t come close to receiving any nominations from stuffy high-brows. However, this is a film that has a chance to win over even the most judgmental of film snobs. John Turteltaub’s film is not only a great deal of fun, it’s soulful.

Talented track athlete Derice Bannock (Leon) has his Olympic dreams quickly dashed during a qualifying 100-meter race when he is tripped up by the small, quiet and unconfident Junior Bevil (Rawle D. Lewis) and fails to pass the finish line. However, he’s not quick to give up hope entirely when he bumps into a large man by the name of Irv Blitzer (John Candy), a two-time Olympic bobsled winner who was teammates with Derice’s father a good many years ago. Derice’s fierce determination and genuine likability slowly — and here’s the manipulative aspect coming into the fold — but surely convinces the recently-turned-bookie to put together an unlikely team for a shot at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The team is required to have a total of four, so Derice drafts Junior and the other track athlete involved in the tripping incident, a hard-headed jock named Yul Brenner (Malik Yoba) to round out the numbers.

Often times in films that have such an extraordinary set of circumstances unfolding the director’s greatest challenge — ignoring the avoiding sports cliches (which is damn near impossible to begin with) — is setting up a premise that will not only make sense, but that will fit the blueprint of a 90ish-minute movie. Given the odds against team Jamaica in these winter games, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this movie potentially clocking in at over two and a half hours, considering the vast amount of detail Turteltaub could have injected.

Opting for a fast-paced and heartwarming experience set to the beat of an inspirational tone, he opted to exclude a great many developments that may have occurred in reality in order to suit the Disney image. This results in a few of the major moments in Cool Runnings coming across as contrived and seemingly underdeveloped. While it’s ludicrous to think that the same four men who were unable to control a slapped-together chunk of metal down grassy Jamaican hillsides are the same four who experience a modicum of success and glory at the ’88 Winter Games in the vortex of tight competition, the film is bolstered by lovable characters who make every step of the way a pleasure to take.

John Candy is as per usual a delight as the boys’ coach and team leader, a man with an axe to grind since his last Olympic attendance was blemished when it was revealed that he placed a weight at the very front of his sled, causing his Gold medals to be taken away and his reputation to become permanently tainted. With this young and obscure team from Jamaica he now finds redemption. He must overcome obstacles of his own when he discovers that one of the qualifying judges of this event is none other than his former Coach, Kurt Hemphill (Raymond J. Barry), who initially disqualifies the team out of spite. Cue the requisite inspirational speech moment in which Coach manages to sway the judging panel decision in Jamaica’s favor. It’s one of many moments that could have used some more work, but it satisfies enough

So the cynics can have their opinion. Cool Runnings isn’t perfect. Not by a long shot. But taking place of technical complexity and innovation is a vibrant, beating heart. Performances delivered by a largely unknown cast give off vibes of clever improvisation, although they likely were working from a less-than-impressive script. Doug E. Doug’s Sanka is especially memorable and together with a decent character arc provided for Lewis’ Junior, the essence of this highly improbable escapade is evident and also sufficient to consider this sports drama a successful one.

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3-5Recommendation: This section seems pretty obsolete for Cool Runnings, because I feel like I’m the last person on Earth who has seen this film. That said, if you haven’t yet, please change that. It’s a great time and makes you yearn for the days when we had films with John Candy in them. (I believe this was his third-to-last big screen appearance before his tragic death in 1994.) And I haven’t said it yet, but. . .GO TEAM JAMAICA!!!

Rated: PG

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme; get on up, it’s bobsled time! Cool Runnings!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.bustle.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Blades of Glory (2007)

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And I guess we are going to switch tones here quickly, by choosing a comedy vehicle for Mr. Will Ferrell for this Thursday. A comedy that has blades. Because that is really the only thing I can say about it that’s mostly positive and truthful; or I could lie and say something really cheesy, like. . .this is a comedy with a razor-sharp wit. Eh, that line actually sounded a lot better in my head. ANYway, moving on. . . .Today is our second edition of the Olympic throwbacks, and. . .well, to be completely truthful. . .this ain’t no world-class affair. With all due respect to figure skating, there are some subjects that not even the Ferrell school of comedy can save for podium placement. 

Today’s food for thought: Blades of Glory

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Release: March 30, 2007

[Netflix]

As if it weren’t abundantly clear before, Will Ferrell will do anything to wring satire from some real world events that, admittedly, do seem ripe for comedy. Seems he really stretched himself thin here though, putting on a performance that causes more eye-rolls and face-palms than chuckles. Because his career has been molded from a prolific number of feature-length SNL skits, most of which have proven his ability to be consistently funny, there was always going to be speculation as to where and when he would take the inevitable misstep.

That moment doesn’t seem to get any more obvious than his participation in this excruciatingly bad spoof of the world of competitive figure skating. For the most part, the Will Ferrell spirit is in tact with Blades of Glory, as he is the source of the movie’s few and far between moments of chuckle-inducing comedy; but the film — directed by the people who would be responsible for 2010’s offensively unfunny The Switch — turns out to be nothing more than an Adam McKay wannabe.

It’s not like Ferrell’s many collaborations with McKay have all been successful, and even the best of their efforts have moments that tend to paint targets on the back of their heads for anyone willing to take aim at their levels of silliness. But rare is the Will Ferrell movie that is so over-the-top, so dumb that it ceases to be a movie and slowly slides into the status of being a terrible, terrible spectacle. Beginning with a premise that is as generic as a bowl of Corn Flakes, let’s hope that this is the worst Will Ferrell movie yours truly will ever lay eyes on.

Talented male ice skaters Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) disgrace themselves at an elite ice skating competition when their egos prove to be too unwieldy to be held upon a single podium. The result of a massive fight is their lifetime ban from the division of singles skating. Jimmy, an orphan having been raised by his coldhearted foster father (William Fichtner), is a sensitive, dignified male skater who apparently has so much grace his hair looks as though it has been plucked from the feathers of the finest quail; he’s a stark contrast to Chazz, who is described as the “leather-clad lothario” of ice skating. Fitting description, really. They forgot to add, “classless douche who soils the image of figure skating permanently, and seemingly out of spite.” Such ruination is obviously the aim here, but it seems as though the same effect could have been achieved had Ferrell not overacted so much, trying to make a terrible script work in whatever way he could.

Back to the storyline: the fruity pair of star-crossed nitwits discover a loophole in the bylaws, which would allow them to still participate in pairs skating, should they find a partner. Of course, neither of them are able to do that, and the only option they have left is to skate with each other and form the world’s first all-male skating couple. This is an opportunity first recognized by Jimmy’s former trainer (Craig T. Nelson) when he watches footage of the two fighting and realizes they seem to have chemistry. Over the next several days — they find out they have extremely limited time to put together a routine in time for the next World Skating Competition (a less cool Olympic-esque stage) — Coach attempts to tone down the pair’s hostility towards one another and get them focused on the task at hand.

There’s nothing here that should surprise: an extremely convenient storyline yielding hilariously unrealistic results. Except, scratch out the word ‘hilariously.’ The sole visual gag that truly works with this film is the chubby body of Will Ferrell, a blobby mess that is so clearly not the body of an ice skater. At the heart of this story there should be some chemistry between Ferrell and Heder, and while there is some to be found, it’s not enough to take attention away from this very poorly realized script.

The villains are even less threatening than usual here, and are portrayed by the exceedingly irritating tandem of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. They play the brother-and-sister pair, Stranz and Fairchild Waldenberg, who are the favorites to win it all. They use their other sibling, Katie (Jenna Fischer) in an attempt to sabotage Jimmy and Chazz at every turn. This subplot is added to no great effect and comes off as filler material for an already anorexic movie.

Blades of Glory ostensibly is nothing different from the other Ferrell comedies that take a subject and make fun of it until there’s nothing left to make fun of. But it is just bad. Jokes land less often than the fabled ‘iron lotus’ trick. Heder’s act wears thin quick, and Ferrell can’t shake the shadows of some of his better creations. The rest of the cast fair no better. Even Craig T. Nelson seems to be phoning every one of his lines in. I like stupid schtick as much as the next person, but there apparently seems to be a limit to the stupidity that can pass for tolerable. The flimsiness of Blades of Glory doesn’t cut it.

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1-5Recommendation: There are far better comedy vehicles driven by one of the greatest SNL alums of all time. Unless you have literally nothing else going on, avoid this film. It skates on thin ice from beginning to end, and now it makes sense why it took me until today to actually watch this one.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “Chazz Michael Michaels: an ice-devouring sex tornado.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Miracle (2004)

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Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are upon our doorsteps. While most of the world’s eyes are going to be set on Sochi and their questionable accommodations, hopefully there will be a few to spare as we push forward into February on TBT. After the polls closed on Facebook in which I asked which theme would be most suitable for the month of February, my buddy Josh suggested I look back on films that dealt with the Olympics. Great call, since I both love sports stories (despite the cliches) and I absolutely am transfixed by anything Olympics-related. The amount of talent and competition on display is something we should all marvel at, even if we don’t understand a damn thing about curling; even if we don’t care much about men in tights spinning in circles on ice to music that sucks. The point is that, for a brief moment, the world seems to put all of its cat-fighting on hold for the sake of watching some truly compelling competitive drama in a variety of disciplines across a wide range of sports action. Behold, the month of February on TBT

Today’s food for thought: Miracle. 

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Release: February 6, 2004

[Netflix]

Kurt Russell is Head Coach Herb Brooks. His team is an unlikely band of collegiate hockey players. The opponent is the dominant Soviet Union hockey team, who haven’t lost in 15 years. The stage is the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York.

Miracle may not break free of the genre’s cliches, but let me know of a sports film that really and truly does. If you want to sit there and gripe about how many ways in which this film sticks to formula, you can go ahead and sit in the penalty box. Or be a benchwarmer, for Gavin O’Connor’s film is a sensational realization of a most absurd circumstance, one that helped transfer the bitterness of the ongoing Cold War onto the ice.

At the time of the XIII Olympic Games, anti-Communist sentiment had reached a fevered pitch in the United States as the U.S.S.R.’s involvement in Afghanistan became increasingly violent and unstable. This was reflected in the sea of signs and banners present at the many venues in Lake Placid, also evidenced in many shots throughout O’Connor’s film. The politics made the showdown between American collegiate athletes and the heavily favored Soviet juggernaut all the more epic. Since the Russians had dominated virtually all levels of men’s ice hockey since 1954, logic follows that Coach Brooks would bring top American talent to the Games in an attempt to match their skill and athleticism. Such was not the case.

As the iconic Coach Brooks, Russell delivers an impressive, intimidating performance. He makes sure that for the majority of the film, he won’t be your buddy. His dedication to whipping his players into shape through brutal training is put on display in this two-plus-hour sports drama. Instead of relying on naturally gifted players, he built up a team whose power would be generated from their conditioning and hard work. Under the leadership of this less-than-personable coach, life for Team U.S.A. was more akin to life in the military.

One moment in particular remains vivid: during a qualifying game for a spot in the Olympics, a few players on the bench are commenting on some of the girls in attendance. After the game, Coach ‘rewards’ the team’s distraction during gameplay by forcing them to do ice sprints (later termed ‘Herbies’) for an unspecified amount of time — needless to say, this punishment lasted long enough to ensure they were the last people out of the building that night.

Coach Herb Brooks didn’t only invoke questions from his own players, but his unorthodox methods — an overhauled training schedule and his unwillingness to allow anyone other than himself select the final team roster — sparked serious concerns from the overseeing Olympic Committee from the outset. Miracle opens with an immediately engrossing discussion between Coach and the governing body as to how they might go about facing a seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union squad. In a single scene we get the impression of a team leader endowed with supreme confidence. As the movie expands, we learn where such confidence is derived from.

Though this is that same story of a man haunted by his own personal shortcomings, using a deep pain to fuel his team’s future, it’s nonetheless inspiring, without ever going over-the-top. Given that we know the real-life outcome, the film’s a foregone conclusion in which beauty lies in the details. O’Connor sets a brilliant pace that guides us through all the requisite growing pains, the failures and the tiny window of success Coach Brooks managed to squeeze his team through. It’s a two hour film that is over in what feels like a few minutes. Rocketing towards an awesome final half hour of hockey action, in which almost no detail is spared — save for the excessive swearing and trash-talking that undoubtedly occurred — the other three-quarters of Miracle is equally moving, as we also learn of the personal challenges faced by Coach Brooks. Having to balance work with family life can never be an easy task, and because of the magnitude of his own ambition, it’s a miracle in itself the guy doesn’t wind up in a divorce.

Patricia Clarkson portrays Patty Brooks with a warm empathy that offers a welcomed change of pace from the cold machinations of a former player-turned-coach trying to do whatever it takes to drop the prefix ‘im-‘ from ‘impossible.’ Though he must often be away from family, Patty keeps Herb from disappearing completely into an obsessive state.

In many senses, O’Connor’s third directorial effort is a classic. Providing all the hallmarks of a biographical sports drama, it perhaps sets a new standard for inspirational. How one former University of Minnesota hockey coach managed to unite 20 players from different schools is one step. Taking them to the Olympics, quite another. And then going on to claim the gold medal? Scripts like that would ordinarily seem hokey if drafted for fictional purposes. Some moments in sports history are naturally born to produce winning films, and this belongs among the best of them.

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4-5Recommendation: It took yours truly until this year to get to Miracle, which is pretty embarrassing. Sure, it’s a sports film through-and-through, but the underlying story, coupled with great performances, makes for a great movie for even the casual viewer. If you haven’t checked this film out yet, then no time is better than now, particularly as we head back to Russia for another fortnight of spirited competition. Tell me, where do you hail from, and who will you be rooting for this year?

Rated: PG

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.movieleadership.com; http://www.imdb.com