Category: Sport on Film

Goon (Canada 2011)

Seann William Scott as the bloodied enforcer on the bench (from http://www.anonlineuniverse.com/2012/07/goon/)

Seann William Scott as the bloodied enforcer on the bench (from http://www.anonlineuniverse.com/2012/07/goon/)

Goon is billed as a ‘sports comedy’. It can also be more narrowly defined as a comedy about ‘minor league’ sport and it’s related to the sports biopic since the story is loosely based on the brief career of Doug Smith who wrote a book about his time as an ‘enforcer’ in minor league ice hockey from 1988 through to the late 1990s. The film could also be described as a ‘comedy-drama’. An ‘enforcer’ is a semi-official ‘fighter’ in an ice-hockey team whose job is to protect the team’s star player and also to intimidate the other team. Because ice hockey has always been a very physical game, governing bodies have tolerated a certain amount of violence on the ice. Some spectators are also keen to support enforcers. This violence is obviously attractive to filmmakers as it enables various conventional storylines and provides narrative devices to pep up genre narratives. The best-known ice hockey comedy focusing on violent play as a deliberate tactic is probably Slapshot (US 1977) in which Paul Newman is directed by George Roy Hill.

I missed Goon on release in January 2012 in the UK and I’m glad I caught most of it on Film4 last night. I found the film interesting for several reasons. First, I always find Canadian genre pictures have a different flavour to them even when, like Goon, they involve Hollywood stars. Second, the milieu of the minor or ‘semi-pro’ leagues takes the narrative into small-town locations with a more authentic working-class feel. Goon is a slight disappointment in this regard since, presumably for financial support reasons, most of the film was made in Manitoba around Winnipeg when the action in the story is supposed to be located in Eastern Canada. The enforcer’s team is the fictitious Halifax Highlanders. Even so, it is interesting to see a film that purports to be featuring St. Johns Newfoundland at one point.

The central character, the ‘goon’ is played by the American Pie actor Seann William Scott and the ‘villain’ – Ross Rhea, the legendary enforcer in the league – is played by Liev Schreiber. Writers Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg have developed the character based on Doug Smith so that he was adopted by a Jewish family (the father played by Eugene Levy, another actor internationally famous because of American Pie). Doug feels ‘stupid’ because his father and his brother are doctors and he works as a bouncer. An incident when he is watching a hockey game leads him to try out as an enforcer and he becomes successful. The narrative then leads him towards a showdown with the Schreiber character, while a sub-plot covers his relationship with the man he is there to protect, a former ace player who despises Doug because he is not a skater or a good hockey player. The ‘comedy’ in a film that is more bloody than funny is partly derived from the romcom strand. I thought this worked quite well. Doug off the ice is rather sweet and quite stoical in his attempts to woo Eva (Alison Pill). This trope, i.e. the sweet guy outside the sporting arena, is familiar from boxing pictures but it works here as well. I should point out that as well as the violence, the language is also very harsh – this may be why so many sports fans like the film.

Directed by Michael Dowse (whose CV includes directing the UK comedy It’s All Gone Pete Tong in 2004) the film seems to have earned most of its $6 million+ box office in Canada and the UK with just a limited US release.  North American sports pictures generally don’t do as well at the international box office as they do domestically. Ice hockey is popular in Northern Europe (Sweden especially) and Russia and the film does seem to have reached these territories, though perhaps only on DVD. I read that the violence tolerated in the US/Canada is not acceptable in European leagues so I’m intrigued as to what they made of the sport-based content. The rest of the narrative is universal in appeal and I think that clearly Canadian content probably helps sell the film in small towns in other countries – the IMDB message board for the film has a lively discussion of the Canadian accents in the film (which to my inexpert ear didn’t seem as pronounced as in some other Canadian films). As a Brit I find ice hockey to be the most accessible North American sport possibly because of its important role in Canadian culture. I’m still grinning at the sight of large posters depicting the Queen in the various arenas in the film. I’ve never seen that at a UK venue (but perhaps others have?).

Canadian trailer:

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Alexander England as the English cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Alexander England as the England cricket captain Tony Greig (left) and Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer

Howzat! is an Australian television mini-series (2×90 mins) first broadcast in Australia in 2012 and now being shown in the UK on BBC4 to coincide with the start of the latest Ashes Cricket Series. I confess to not having had particularly high hopes at the outset, but I found the story to be compelling, even though I knew the outcome. The series deals with the challenge to ‘World Cricket’ in 1977 posed by the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, owner of the commercial Nine Network in Sydney. Before Murdoch, Packer was the businessman prepared to take on the cricket establishment in Australia and ultimately in London where the International Cricket Conference had its HQ. Recognising that the most famous cricket players were very poorly paid, Packer realised that he could lure them into contracts to play cricket for his cameras (he had been refused exclusive TV rights to international cricket played in Australia, despite offering far more money than the state broadcaster). When he secretly signed 35 leading players, the cricket authorities fought back and for two years Packer’s ‘World Series’ existed alongside a weakened official programme of official international cricket. The ICC eventually regained control of the players, but Packer got his exclusive contract and cricket was never the same again. Packer has since been credited with many of the innovations that characterise modern cricket (day/night cricket, the white ball and coloured clothing etc.).

My description of the conflict might not sound too enticing if you aren’t a cricket fan but as a drama this mini-series has several advantages. Firstly it has the eternal battle between Aussie and Pom – the brash Australian and the stuffed-shirt Englishman. Social class is also part of this with the cricketing authorities located in Lords cricket ground  in London and Packer and the players generally around the pool and the barbie. In reality, however, Packer isn’t as uncouth as he acts. He came from a wealthy family and his father had edited the newspapers within the media empire. There is a nice moment in the script when Packer demonstrates that he knows exactly what ‘fancy phrases’ mean and part of the pleasure of the film is watching the stuffed-shirts (the ‘old farts’ as the similar Rugby Unions officials were memorably termed) under-estimate Kerry Packer. The film is partly a biopic and we learn that Packer’s interest in cricket is very much linked to his memories of his father. But it is also a boardroom thriller (Packer spent rather more money on his challenge than the company could really afford) as well as a historical film about sport. Having said that, there wasn’t much actual cricket in the first episode and what intrigues most is the politics of the game.

Howzat! has a conventional narrative structure and visual style. The script by Christopher Lee and the central performances by Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer and Abe Forsythe as John Cornell are very good and lift the film above routine drama. Packer is a larger than life character, rich and boorish but with a keen eye for a business opportunity. He is a universal figure whereas Cornell is defined solely in Australian terms. It seems an indicator of the production’s intentions to appeal only to a local audience that the Cornell character is never properly explained. He is the one who, as fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s agent, takes the original idea for World Series cricket to Packer. Cornell is young and attractive with a beautiful young wife – but the narrative does not also explain (until the final credits) that he is also the comic foil for Paul Hogan the comedy superstar of Australian TV and with Hogan he produced the hit film Crocodile Dundee in 1986.

The series was made by Southern Star Productions (now part of Endemol) with support from Packer’s own Nine Network. It might be seen as a vanity project except that Packer himself died aged only 68 in 2005. The politics of the series are interesting in their attempt to present Packer as the driven man, haunted by his father’s preference for Kerry’s brother Clyde. Packer in this film narrative has no home life or seemingly much interest in women – the script instead offers a typical mix of bullying cruelty laced with sentimentalism in Packer’s working relationship with his secretary Rosie and the suggestion that Packer opened the hallowed Members’ Pavilion of the Sydney Cricket Ground to women in 1978 (a significant move in the antediluvian world of cricketing behaviour). This ‘personal story’ obviously precludes any real discussion of the overall questions about the power of the media moguls in Australia on other media organisations and indeed on other sports organisations. It tends to focus on the central battle in which Packer is clearly a force for change.

PackerDVDThe second episode includes more cricketing footage and more focus on the players. I suspect much of the script is fairly bland in its attempt to represent the players and their camaraderie and personal rivalries. Some of the reviews of the series in the UK have joked about the players’ appearance (those 70s shaggy haircuts and facial hair, huge collars, browns and yellows etc.) I actually thought the actors looked the parts pretty well. A personal observation is that, at the time, Tony Greig was probably my least favourite sporting character – a white South African as England captain during the apartheid era – but in this series and in the glowing tributes from former players that followed his death in 2012, he comes over as a much more attractive figure.

I think there are other Australian mini-series like this, including one about the battles between Packer and Murdoch that I’d like to see coming to UK television. In the meantime, Howzat! is still available on the BBC iPlayer and a DVD is released in the UK on July 22. If you have any interest in cricket this is a ‘must watch’ and there is plenty for the non-sports fan as well.

Kai po che (India 2013)

(from left) Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput) and Omi (Amit Sadh)

Why do Bollywood distributors make no attempt to sell their films to audiences outside the South Asian diaspora? Kai po che as a title doesn’t mean anything if, like me, you don’t know Hindi. I’ve learned since from a review that the title is “the war-call uttered during kite-flying in Gujarat”. The film is based on a novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, by Chetan Bhagat. I’ve read Bhagat’s five novels and enjoyed them all (his publicists promote him as the biggest-selling English language novelist in India) and I would have been immediately drawn to this film. Not only that but it is an Indian cricket film. Fortunately, sheer chance meant that I read a review so off I went to Cineworld without a second thought.

Kai po che is adapted and directed by Abhishek Kapoor, whose previous success was Rock On!, a film I found to be ‘OK’ but which I know was very popular in India. (Weirdly, Kai po che is exactly the kind of movie I said that I wanted to see rather than more Rock On!s.) With Kapoor and Bhagat as attractions the film has been eagerly anticipated in India, even though there are no major stars in the film. As far as I can see it is proving to be a winner of sorts after only a couple of days on release.

The story is set in Ahmedabad, the main city of Gujarat. It spans a period of ten years or more and the film narrative is mostly concerned with a flashback to 2000-2. Three young men are attempting to set up a retail business. Govind the maths genius is the sensible one, Ishaan the cricketer is the dreamer and Omi is the one with contacts – notably his uncle who is a local Hindu nationalist politician and the controller of the local temple properties. He agrees to lease the trio a shop space. The narrative drive comes from the different aims of each of the three leads – which represent the alternative goals/dreams of middle-class Indian men: success in business, politics or sport. (The importance of family is, of course, central to the plot.) Govind wants to make a success of the business, but he also falls for Ishaan’s sister Vidya, who he is attempting to tutor in maths. Omi finds himself, against his will, sucked into supporting his uncle’s political ambitions. Ishaan at first is unenthusiastic but then very taken by the amazingly talented 12 year-old Ali who comes to play cricket at the shop’s nets and eventually to accept Ishaan as a coach (Ishaan has played cricket at ‘district level’). This relationship will be one of the triggers for a crisis in the narrative, since Ali’s father is a political campaigner for the local Muslim party in opposition to Omi’s uncle. There are two other major dramatic events which will threaten the strong relationship between the three young men, the prospects for their business and the future of Ali as one of India’s great cricketers – but I won’t spoil the plot.

Amrita Puri as Vidya

Amrita Puri as Vidya

The adaptation changes the original story in several ways. One whole section is removed and some of the outcomes are attached to different characters. Chetan Bhagat is credited as one of the scripting team so I assume that he approves (whereas his relationship to 3 Idiots is more contentious). The excluded section is the trip the trio make to Australia but that would have been an extra budget cost and it isn’t essential to the story. Bhagat’s presentation of his stories is quite unusual – more like the idea of short stories being ‘told’ to an audience – in his case told to the real-life novelist Chetan Bhagat. This prologue and epilogue device has been cut and overall the narrative has been streamlined and made more ‘feelgood’. I’d have liked to see the original story on screen but I understand why it has been changed in this way. The pluses still remain. The three central characters are quite ‘real’/ordinary middle-class young men and it’s good to see a different city environment (beautifully presented). The performances are very good and the direction and editing deliver an engrossing and coherent narrative drive in just over two hours (running times vary in reviews but the UK certification agency says no cuts in the 125 mins). There is only one ‘song sequence’ – a day out on the coast when the three young men have a ‘bonding session’, including a leap off a cliff into the sea, possibly the only really cheesy moment in the film. I can’t really comment on the rest of the music in the film, which I confess I didn’t really notice.

Ali, the cricket prodigy, (centre) played by Digvijay Deshmukh alongside Amit Sadh as Omi

I think this is going to be an affectionately-remembered film in India and it adds one more title to the emergence of a new kind of popular cinema which is more realist, more interested in social issues, but still ‘popular’ in appeal. If you are close to a multiplex I’d urge a visit – why not avoid the tedium of the Oscars and go see something more interesting?

Rave review in The Hindu

Fire in Babylon (UK 2010)

The triumphant West Indian team celebrating a wicket by Michael Holding at the Oval

This is a highly enjoyable film. It couldn’t really fail as a nostalgic celebration of arguably the most successful sports team of all time. But it’s a good watch for all audiences – whether or not you remember the West Indies Test team of the 1970s and 1980s. There is actually relatively little about cricket itself as a game, but a great deal about what it represented as a political and cultural force for Caribbean people in the period.

The documentary covers the years between the humiliating test defeat of the West Indies in Australia in the winter of 1975-76 up until the 5-0 ‘Blackwash’ of England in the summer of 1984. This was the period in which Clive Lloyd led a team which was transformed from stereotypical ‘calypso cricketers’ into a honed squad of invincibles, in the process forging a symbol of a unified West Indian identity across the disparate countries of the Caribbean and bolstering the struggle against racism and colonialist hangovers.

The events are carefully narrativised so that there is a conventional story arc. So, the success of the West Indies in the inaugural World Cup in London in 1975 is not included. They beat Australia twice in the one day competition and that wouldn’t have been a good starting point. Instead we get to see them pulverised by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. I’d forgotten this and it was quite a shock. Indian commentators have noted that the film also misrepresents the next series they played against India. But apart from these manipulations the story is told in a straightforward way using archive footage and talking heads. The latter are often photographed in a stylised way, in a studio or on location in the Caribbean. As well as the cricketers themselves, the ‘interviewees’ include the great Bunny Wailer and several highly entertaining supporters. Interspersed are performances from a mento band, reggae stars like Tapper Zukie, archive footage of Bob Marley and, my favourite, a song by Short Shirt, the Antiguan calypsonian in the most outrageous costume I’ve seen in a while – I can’t begin to describe the exact colour of his hat and shoes! The impact of these interviews/performances filmed in HD video and with pulsing graphics using the African colours of green, red and gold  is all the greater because of their juxtaposition with the archive video footage on a big screen using digital projection.

The strength of the film is its clear connection between pride in cricket and pride in African heritage, emphasised by the comments of Bunny Wailer. It’s always been a sensitive area to comment on the sporting prowess of Black athletes because of the danger of ‘reducing’ Black achievement to physique rather than an overall appreciation of skill and intelligence. The film avoids this, I think, by its careful linkage of the US models (Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics etc.) with Clive Lloyd’s leadership and the fantastic individual stars of this great team. How could you not respond to the beauty, grace and power of Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’) surely the most aesthetically pleasing as well as the most lethal sight on a cricket pitch? What could top the sight of Viv Richards ducking bouncers and then sending the next ball to the boundary rope? The filmmakers have chosen the interviewees carefully so that we meet the most articulate and inspiring members of the team. Richards is a commanding presence, Andy Roberts is dry and deadly and Gordon Greenidge (who came to live in England aged 14) is the most dignified. Importantly there is one player whose presence in the documentary cuts through the possibility of too much simple idolatry on behalf of the audience. Colin Croft, one of the four bowling greats, accepted the money to join the rebel tour of South Africa in 1983 when the apartheid regime attempted to discredit the sporting boycott of South Africa. Croft survived the subsequent ban and shame to return as a respected commentator today – but many of the others on that tour had their careers, and indeed their lives, destroyed by the critical backlash. This part of the story, in which West Indian cricketers who were paid very little in comparison with modern stars were tempted by a chance to lift themselves out of relative poverty, is matched by the story of Kerry Packer’s ‘World Series Cricket’ in the late 1970s which saw Clive Lloyd’s team at odds with its own administrators in a bid to get better pay and conditions. The two stories underline the politics of international cricket.

The film works well politically. The focus on Australia, England and South Africa is justified in putting across the symbolism of the defeat of racism and colonialism. English cricket suffered from poor administration and the influence of the ‘backwoodsmen’ who still seemed to feel that they were running the Empire. The decision to make Tony Greig, a South African, captain of England at this time was outrageous. During the desperate days of overt racism in the 1970s and 1980s, most people I knew supported the West Indians unreservedly and to see Michael Holding dismiss Greig twice at the Oval in 1976 is one of my most cherished memories. (For those who don’t know cricket, I should point out that most of these West Indian test cricketers also played county cricket in England and they were heroes to UK crowds as well.)

The film was directed by Stevan Riley, a young British guy who has clearly impressed Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd and gained access to the right people. I hope the film gets seen in the Caribbean and persuades more young people to get interested in cricket so that the Test team can be rejuvenated. It’s great too to hear all the music again and it must be time for more films from the region. Go and see this film or get hold of the DVD – it’s pure joy. I’m off to dig out  some Linton Kwesi Johnson whose dub poetry is used in one clip.

Official trailer: