The Case for Global Film

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Archive for the ‘Sport on Film’ Category

Goon (Canada 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 26 April 2014

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:

Posted in Canadian Cinema, Comedies, Sport on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Australia 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 July 2013

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.

Posted in Australian Cinema, Global television, Sport on Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Kai po che (India 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 February 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

Posted in Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Sport on Film | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Fire in Babylon (UK 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 August 2011

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:

Posted in British Cinema, Documentary, Politics on film, Sport on Film | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Patiala House (India 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 March 2011

Akshay Kumar is Gattu

Patiala House is clearly inspired by Bend It Like Beckham and the true story of Monty Panesar’s selection (and initial success) as the first Sikh to play cricket for England. In many ways it is sentimental tosh, but I still found it good entertainment and there are several interesting aspects of the film in terms of its depiction of British Asians as viewed from an Indian perspective.

Plot outline

The Kahlon family has grown so large that they now occupy a whole small crescent of houses in Southall, West London. This small fiefdom is controlled by a fierce patriarch (Rishi Kapoor) who has named it (and his mini-cab business) ‘Patiala House’, presumably after his home town in the Punjab. He does indeed rule his little kingdom, declaring it almost outside UK law. A flashback reveals that the family suffered racist attacks in the 1970s with the death of a leading local Sikh figure in the struggles against racist thugs and the notorious SPG or Special Patrol Group (a controversial Metropolitan Police squad associated with harassing Black and Asian Londoners). The film uses archive footage, I think from 1979, when the New Zealand teacher Blair Peach was killed during a demonstration. Because of this history, the father hates the goras (‘whites’) and several years later he forbids his son Gattu to play cricket for any English team. The 17 year-old schoolboy is shown as an outstanding prospect who has already made his mark.

In the present day Gattu (Akshay Kumar) and his legion of younger brothers and sisters are kept in thrall of their father, all fearful of following their dreams to leave home and do exciting things (beyond the girls marrying approved partners). His siblings are all frustrated by Gattu’s decision to honour his father’s wishes. He still secretly practices cricket each evening but during the day runs a small newsagent’s owned by his father. He’s 34 now and seems resigned to his fate until . . . the appearance of Simran (Anushka Sharma), a young woman who has returned from an abortive attempt to make it in the Mumbai film industry. She has in tow a 12 year-old cricket-mad boy (for whom she acts as a guardian) and when the England cricket team announces that it is searching for new talent after several terrible defeats, it seems only a matter of time before the boy is urging Gattu to ‘come out’ as a cricket talent.

Commentary

The film is predictable in terms of what happens next – we want Gattu to win a cricket match for England without upsetting his father and to get the girl. It would be a pretty odd Bollywood film if it didn’t at least attempt to reach these goals, preposterous though it might seem. One review I read made the observation that what follows is similar to the German film Goodbye Lenin and that seems a good call. Since Gattu’s success would effectively ‘free’ all his siblings, they are keen to help him keep the truth from his father until his final triumph on the pitch – all they have to do is to nobble all the people who might tell the patriarch about his son wearing an England shirt.  Although what ensues has its comic moments, much of it is also quite poignant. Akshay Kumar is an athletic man who, although 42 when filming started, can just pass for 34. (By contrast, Sharma is perhaps too young even if her performance is convincing.) Monty Panesar is a spinner, but the producers have made Kumar a fast-medium bowler and with training by the great Wasim Akram he can pass as a medium pacer – perhaps like Mohinder Amarnath the Indian all-rounder who was the matchwinner when India won the 50-over World Cup in 1983. (Amarnath’s family boasts several test cricketers and since they come from Patiala it is no coincidence that they should be mentioned in the film.)

Unlike some of the mainstream Bollywood films that present only a fantasy London comprising Trafalgar Square and a villa in Hampstead, this film presents a recognisable Southall. The cricket matches utilise the Oval and for the main matches, Trent Bridge in Nottingham. Several famous test cricketers appear as themselves: David Gower, Graham Gooch, Andrew Symonds (as the Aussie who looks like he might spoil the party). But it was the appearance of Nasser Hussain, the former England test captain who was born in India that was most noticeable. His Hindi seemed rather hesitant to me and created some mirth from the South Asian audience in the cinema. I don’t remember Hussain ever provoking any comments about his decision to play for England – he moved to the UK as a 7 year-old I think and his mother is British. Andrew Symonds also has an interesting background as a cricketer. In more recent times three young British Asians of Pakistani background in the North of England, Sajid Mahmood, Adil Rashid and Ajmal Shahzad have joined the ranks of Asians playing for England. It’s interesting to go back to this Observer article written in 2006 when there were media stories about who British Asian cricket fans would support when England played South Asian touring sides in Test matches.

In some ways this film seems the closest I’ve seen to melding a Bollywood approach to a specific narrative with a setting outside India that is more than simply an ‘exotic’ backdrop. (I haven’t seen Shah Rukh Khan’s last US-set film.) I suspect that other producers will study it carefully. Meanwhile, with the Cricket World Cup in India bubbling up nicely and England and India tying a match, it offers an entertaining diversion.

Posted in Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Sport on Film | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Fighter (US 2010)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 February 2011

Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg as mother and son

This is the time of year when the cinemas are block-booked with Award-nominated films. Nearly all of these are English-language films which means we are a bit stuck for new product on the blog. Still, it is good to find real blue-collar American films in contention and I thoroughly enjoyed The Fighter – more really than I expected to.

Outline (no spoilers)

Micky (Mark Wahlberg) has eight siblings – seven sisters and an older brother Dicky (Christian Bale). His mother Alice (Melissa Leo) has had at least two husbands and Micky is presumably the son of George Ward (Jack McGee). It’s 1993. The family are working-class celebrities in Lowell, Mass. as a result of Dicky’s boxing career which ended after a fight with the great Sugar Ray Leonard fourteen years previously. Dicky has now become a crack addict but still attempts to live off his reputation. Micky, nine years younger, attempts to succeed in the ring ‘for the family’, but with his mother as his manager and Dicky as his coach, he appears doomed. Only when he meets a tough but bright barmaid, Charlene (Amy Adams) does he find a chance to move forward.

The film is based on the real life events surrounding Micky Ward and the brothers (as they are now) appear in a video clip included in the end credits. (According to Wikipedia, the fights actually took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s.)

Commentary

Before seeing the film I hadn’t realised that Mark Wahlberg had been working for four years to make the film happen and that he himself came from a large working-class family in the Boston area. Darren Aronovsky was approached to direct but he ended up as Exec Producer and Wahlberg worked again with David O. Russell who had directed him in the Gulf War satire, Three Kings (1999). Aronovsky’s name immediately brings up the question of The Wrestler. There is a similarity between the two films – both are extremely well-directed with strong performances and both are in one sense throwbacks to the adult (as distinct from 15-25 year-old) orientated films of the 1970s. The Wrestler is more ‘romantic’ and driven by a performance from Mickey Rourke that almost mirrors that of his real life career. It might be argued that Mark Wahlberg is similarly-placed, but his performance is much more low-key and he is upstaged by Christian Bale as Dicky. In a sense, this was also a ‘comeback’ for David O. Russell.

I’ll probably be in a minority on this since Bale is getting all the plaudits, but I thought his casting was perhaps a mistake and his performance was ‘too much’. As my viewing companion pointed out, the real brother may have been similarly ‘too much’, but in a film it’s about how the performances work together. Christian Bale’s star persona is partly built around his physical style and his star performances as larger than life characters who are deranged in some way. Interestingly, the Boston Critics awarded the ‘Ensemble Acting’ prize to the film and that seems the right approach. The film has seven Oscar nominations including Supporting Actor Nominations for Leo, Adams and Bale. Wahlberg has to be content with a shared producers nom for Best Film. The Academy always goes for the showy performance it seems.

The other strange aspect of the film for me was the presentation of the seven sisters (from hell) – although, again, this may have been ‘true to life’. (Russell also discusses this and it is true that some of the sisters are weirdly engaging.) The strengths were the presentation of Lowell – a town I associate with textile workers during the Industrial Revolution – and the re-created boxing matches. I’m not a boxing fan as such, but certain fighters interest me because of their backgrounds (currently Amir Khan). I didn’t remember Micky Ward so I had no prior knowledge as to how the fights might work out. The film is fairly conventional and boxing stories are a Hollywood staple. Nevertheless, I became emotionally involved in the fights, almost as if they were ‘real’ (which in one sense they were of course). I think Russell and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In) made the right decision in showing the fights in long shot as they would be seen on HBO rather than ‘getting in close’ a la Raging Bull. One fight takes place in the UK and it is completely surreal with an American stuntman playing Liverpool boxer Shea Neary.

I think I feel much as I did with The Wrestler. If mainstream American films were this good on a week by week basis, I might go back to watching them again. I hope David O. Russell is able to make more films set in this kind of milieu. There is an interesting take on Russell and on the politics of the film on the World Socialist Website.

Posted in American Independents, Sport on Film | Leave a Comment »

Chak De India! (India 2007)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 19 November 2010

The diverse group of young women representing India at hockey.

I’ve now seen three films written by Jaideep Sahni and they have all been consistently interesting and enjoyable, all picking up on aspects of contemporary Indian society and developing stories that are slightly unusual but still offering mainstream entertainment. Earlier posts discuss Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh, Salesman of the Year. Chak De India! has a big star in Sharukh Khan but he gives a nuanced and restrained performance allowing the real stars, mostly unknown young women working as an ensemble, to come to the fore.

The title refers to an exhortation supporting India’s Women’s Hockey Team. The scenario is that the Shahrukh Khan character was India’s Hockey Captain in the World Championship Final against Pakistan when he missed a penalty in the dying seconds which could have taken the game into extra time. He is vilified in the press and then accused of being a traitor and handing the game to Pakistan. Because he is a Muslim, this charge is pursued throughout the media and he is forced to withdraw from the sport. Seven years later he is given the chance to return, but as the coach of the women’s team, who so far have been poorly supported by the hockey establishment. Nobody gives the team much chance of even being sent to Australia to compete in the World Championships and the little group of senior players is not initially impressed by the appointment of a new coach.

There are some interesting ideas involved in this set-up. The corruption of the sporting establishment is hinted at. The lower status of hockey in comparison with cricket becomes part of one of the many subplots when one of the young women rebuffs her boyfriend who as a cricketer in the national team assumes that his girlfriend will just abandon her ‘hobby’ to follow him. (Hockey is one of India’s main sports and there had been considerable national success for the men’s team before the women emerged at this level.) But the major issue in the film is the ‘shame/injustice’ that the coach feels about his World Championship failure and the national pride that he feels so strongly. This translates into more than just ‘team building’ – the young women must also learn to play for India first, for the team second and for themselves (or their specific state/cultural identity) only third.

As an ‘external’ viewer I haven’t quite decided if the film goes slightly too far with its patriotic zeal and nationalist fervour, but I guess I’m prepared to accept it. If this was a British film, I wouldn’t – I’m the kind of sports supporter who always roots for their own town/county team ahead of ‘England’ as a national team. So, I’d have been sent home from the hockey team. However, I can see that in India the issue is rather different.

The best part of the film for me was the sequence showing young women turning up from all over India representing different regions, ethnicities and religious affiliations. Their clashes with the old-fashioned administrators and then amongst themselves was well written, as was the struggle they faced in meeting the coach’s tough training demands. Throughout this Shahrukh Khan showed admirable restraint. The second half of the film shows the young women in Australia. If anything I would have liked more of this. I’d like to have seen them interacting more with the other teams and coming more into contact with Australian culture. As it is the games are well shot and exciting. The other teams are not demonised too much (but the script is endlessly confused by whether it is England, Great Britain or the UK which is competing – I don’t blame the writer, it is confusing). For the record, Wikipedia reports that the success of India’s women at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester was the inspiration for the film.

I tend to think of Sahni’s scripts as being a form of ‘New Bollywood’ as they don’t feature song and dance ‘spectacles’ (but the music score by Salim and Suleiman Merchant is very effective and Sahni wrote lyrics for two or three songs, including the title song). This was the first film Shimit Amin directed from a Sahni script and he does a good job. The stories take place in a recognisable fictional world and the characters are believable. I think that this is one of the best sports films that I have seen.

Posted in Hindi Cinema – Bollywood, Indian Cinema, Sport on Film | 1 Comment »

Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (China 1957)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 April 2010

I’ve been foraging in the bargain bins at YesAsia.com again and I was pleased to find a couple of films that I have been looking out for. The first is this film from Xie Jin – his first high profile success and a key Chinese film in what scholars refer to as the Seventeen Year period (i.e. from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 up to the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966).

Xie Jin is the single most important Chinese director of this period – and he continued to direct films after the end of the Cultural Revolution and into his late 70s. He died in 2008 and his last film in 2001, Woman Football Player No. 9 was a virtual remake of Woman Basketball Player No. 5. None of Xie Jin’s films are available in the UK on DVD, but his best-known film in the West, Two Stage Sisters, is available from the British Film Institute on 35 mm.

The DVD that arrived was published in China by Beauty Media (www.gzbeauty.com). These DVDs also seem to be available via Amazon.com, but YesAsia is considerably cheaper. I wasn’t expecting much and in that sense I wasn’t disappointed. The disc is Region 0 (NTSC) and played fine on my sometimes temperamental player. But although the sound was OK, the image was bleached out (this was one of the first Chinese colour films, I think) and very scratched – it must have come from a damaged 35 mm print source. As the running time matches IMDB’s 86 mins (84 for DVD), I can’t be sure if it has been cut, but it certainly felt like it – see below.

Plot outline

The protagonist is Tian, a 40 year-old retired athlete who has become a coach and at the start of the film he arrives in Shanghai to coach the local women’s team. The team is in some ways more like a ‘girls’ or young women’s team since all the players, as far as I could see, are students of 17-18. They are all giggly and the man who welcomes Tian describes them as ‘naughty’ in the English subtitles (which are somewhat unreliable). One of the team is a particularly tall young woman named Lin Xiaojie, ‘Player No. 5′ who arrives at the training camp after the other girls. She has a boyfriend who is pressurising her to go to university to study engineering and she later tells the coach that her mother doesn’t really approve of her basketball either. Tian proves to be a strict coach who requires discipline from his team members and there are some frictions between him and the team, some jokes about a single man coaching a team of young women and some petty jealousies within the team – in fact, many of the conventions of the Hollywood team sports drama. However, the film shifts gear when in a series of flashbacks we realise that Tian himself was a star basketball player as a young man in Shanghai in the late 1930s, when he loved a young woman (Lin Jie) whose father owned the team that Tian played for. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure at this point, but most readers will have guessed that Tian’s girlfriend eventually became the mother of Lin Xiaojie and inevitably she must meet Tian again.

This plot outline suggests that the film will be a mix of the sports film with traditional Chinese film melodrama. But in fact it is more than that since any film made in China in the 1950s also had to have a directly political/ideological function – to promote the PRC, national pride in Chinese identity and the benefits of the communist system. Chinese films in the 1950s, produced by the state-run studios, were expected to follow the approved aesthetic of ‘socialist realism’ – that strange version of Hollywood realism developed in the Soviet Union under Stalinism to emphasise the heroic nature of workers and collectivism in a socialist society being built with revolutionary zeal. Most films would include a strong element of didacticism, often related to current Chinese Communist Party policies. Xie Jin includes one such speech (which is actually delivered twice) in which Tian tells a story about being humiliated as an athlete from the ‘sick man’ state of East Asia when he visited the West and how it is the duty of the young women on the basketball team to become strong athletes and to work together as a team in order to project their pride in the nation through victory on the basketball court.

Tian (Liu Qiong) holds his washboard as he tries to explain to the girls that he does his own washing. "Don't you?" he asks. Lin Xiaojie (Cao Qiwei) is the tall girl behind his left shoulder

This speech stands out in what is in other ways a conventional Hollywood-style sports film. Xie Jin does not display the socialist realist visual aesthetic – he is able, somehow, to combine Hollywood with the traditional Chinese melodrama and escape official disapproval. Xie’s Hollywood influences are primarily John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy – he also refers in interviews to being influenced by Bicycle Thieves. Though not as accomplished – or as beautiful – as the later Two Stage Sisters, Woman Basketball Player No. 5 is recognisably the work of the same director. By all accounts the film was very popular in China and even represented the PRC abroad, but I’m still suspicious about the version on this DVD (and on VCD). There are some odd inserts of train shots (almost Ozu moments!) that don’t make narrative sense as they are rural scenes when all the main characters are in Shanghai. Later, when the team travel to Beijing, there is a train sequence with a group song (dubbed by opera singers). The final scenes of the film are very rushed and I do wonder if anything else was there in the first cut – but again there are similarities with Two Stage Sisters. Instead of the Hollywood ending that often celebrates the moment of triumph, the ‘now’, Xie’s two films finish by suggesting that the major work is just beginning (i.e. as the team fly off to represent China overseas).

I enjoyed the film, but felt a little disappointed that the budget didn’t run to more than a few glimpses of Shanghai and Beijing in the 1950s. The representation of Shanghai in the late 1930s is reminiscent of Two Stage Sisters with villainous businessmen and Tian forced to play against a team of American sailors as part of a crooked deal. The melodrama works well and there is an interesting use of a symbolic pot of orchids which Lin Jie (herself a No 5 player in the women’s team in the 1930s) gives to Tian. A similar potted orchid then turns up in the later scenes. The actors are generally good and there is some interesting action on court, but I did feel that the actress who played Lin Xiaojie was rather ungainly in her movements for someone playing a top athlete. I think I may now buy some more Xie Jin films via YesAsia. (Two Stage Sisters is available.)

There is an interesting debate about Xie Jin on The Auteurs website discussion forums and two of his films are included in Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, ed. Chris Berry, BFI 2003.

The best direct commentary on Woman Basketball Player No. 5 that I have found is from Timothy Tung in ‘The Work of Xie Jin: A Personal Letter to the Editor’ in John Downing (ed) Film & Politics in the Third World, NY: Autonomedia, 1987. Tung stresses that Xie Jin was a celebrated ‘director of women’ and that he tended to find a new female star for each of his major films. He also argues that the group of young women seen in the film display an “uninhibited vitality” that was rare and fleeting in Chinese Cinema in the Seventeen Years period. The film was released at a time when Mao had announced the ‘Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign, urging intellectuals to speak out and the girls could be seen to represent a bright future of liberation. But the Anti-Rightist campaign stifled such voices only a few years later.

The best online resources on Xie Jin are available from Jump Cut No 34.

A translation of the full film script by two American students is available here.

Posted in Chinese Cinema, Melodrama, Sport on Film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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