Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

Director: David Street

Country: UK, Spain, USA

Runtime: 104 mins

The Flying Scotsman rides again

Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree is a sporting figure of remarkable tenacity. The 2006 dramatic biopic The Flying Scotsman tells the story of how, despite psychological difficulties and run-ins with the cycling authorities, he twice broke the world one-hour distance record on a bicycle (“Old Faithful”) that he had constructed from scrap metal and parts of a washing machine.

David Street’s new documentary film, Battle Mountain, covers a subsequent period in Obree’s life and career after the cyclist decides to enter the World Human Powered Speed Championships. Adopting a filming strategy in which Obree is never asked to repeat any behaviours for the camera, Street observes as the Scot constructs a new bicycle, to be ridden prone-style, in his kitchen at home. Obree complains that people only remember him as a bloke that made a racing bike out of a washing machine (“It was only one part”, he says), yet is soon proudly cutting pieces out of a saucepan to make shoulder supports. There are some wonderfully comic moments, not least when Obree enlists his two sons to squeeze him between the living room wall and a piece of furniture in order to determine the width of the narrow aerodynamic shell that will encase his bike.

During the course of developing and testing the new machine Obree opens up about the psychological problems that he has faced in his life, partly explored in the earlier film, and the contributory factors, which have resulted in suicide attempts. In terms of his psychological well-being a lot appears to be at stake for Graeme in taking on the challenge of breaking the world speed record. However, things do not go smoothly. At one point during training he experiences an unfortunate side-effect from anti-depressant medication, leading to a hospital operation and an enforced period of recuperation.

But perhaps worse than this, the new bike – nicknamed “The Beastie” by Sir Chris Hoy – turns out to be highly unstable. Nonetheless, Obree persists through all the psychological, physical and technical difficulties and finds himself at the allocated location for the Championships – Battle Mountain in Nevada – in September of 2013. His psychologist, he opines, would not be pleased to know about the pressure he is putting himself under. For those who don’t already know the outcome I won’t spoil things by revealing what transpires, but suffice to say that you would need a heart of stone not to come away full of admiration for this most extraordinary of athletes. Battle Mountain is an enthralling, funny and ultimately joyous addition to the pantheon of against-the-odds sports stories.

Rating: 4/5

Speed Sisters

Director: Amber Fares

Country: Palestine, USA, Qatar, UK, Denmark, Canada

Runtime: 80 mins

A high-octane documentary that offers thrills as it rides roughshod over stereotypes

Amber Fares’s thrilling high-octane documentary about the first all-female street car racing team in the Middle East begins with a statement of intent from the 19 year old reigning champion: “I want the whole world to know there is a girl called Marah Zahalqa who represents Palestine”. By the end of the film I felt like shouting not just Marah’s name in the street, but the names of all the other team members. They are Maysoon (the manager), Noor, Mona, and Marah’s closest challenger – Betty.

Speed Sisters follows these racers through two seasons of the street car championship, during which director Fares drives donuts over stereotypes about Palestinian women. In the conservative city of Jenin we see the young women walking around with their heads uncovered, long hair flowing. Marah’s father tells us he has always supported her ambition to race cars and has made sacrifices for her. When her grandfather says she ought to have a job that would get respect, such as being a doctor, dad points out that she is respected. He’s right, too. It’s not just the female audience at races that cheer on the women; the men are cheering for them as well. The biggest problem for the team is not the conservatism of Palestinian society, but the Israeli occupation.There are few places to practice and to get to race events the women must waste hours getting through checkpoints, sometimes with soldiers tear-gassing stone-throwing youths as the traffic passes through.

Towards the end of the first season some tension arises within the team after Betty is awarded a race win despite having infringed the rules. There is a suspicion that the racing authorities recognise the publicity value of her photogenic good looks and are trying to tilt the championship in her favour. Betty herself emphasises her femininity, getting herself prettified so as not to appear a “tomboy” and doing pouty photoshoots after getting a sponsorship deal. However, just when it appears that Betty might be turning into a sporting pantomime villain (rather like Tony Hawk in All This Mayhem), the occupation rears its ugly head and draws our sympathy back to Betty.

Whilst on the way to practice, the car carrying a few of the girls runs over a rock and they stop to check for possible damage. A hundred or so metres away there is a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers. One of them, completely unprovoked, fires a tear gas canister which hits Betty in the back. This act, deliberate and cruel, is caught on camera for all to see. The girls speed away with Betty on the back seat, in pain and crying. The attack leaves a particularly nasty bruise, from which she recovers, but who knows what psychological scars might remain? On another occasion, one of the girls, upon smelling teargas, remarks that it reminds her of her childhood.

I don’t want to give away the results of the championship, but the rivalry between Betty and Marah continues until the last moment of the final race, and the final update before the credits tells us that the rivalry will continue into the next season.

Speed Sisters is troubling, thought-provoking and ultimately uplifting. This is the best documentary I have seen so far this year.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

Director: Stephen Frears

Screenplay: John Hodge (from the book by David Walsh)

Country: UK / France

Runtime: 103 mins

Cast: Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Dr Michele Ferrari), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman)

It’s not about the bike; it’s about the massive doping program

Based on the book by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, The Program is a gripping dramatisation of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, seven times winner of the Tour De France until those titles were stripped from him in 2012 following revelations about doping.

Walsh meets Armstrong early in his career, before the Texan starts winning races. A knowledgable sports writer, Walsh finds Armstrong to be likeable but judges him not to be capable of winning endurance races. This is an assessment that Armstrong himself receives from a team doctor, being told that his physique doesn’t provide an adequate power-to-weight ratio. When he starts winning races, Walsh is rightly suspicious, but his concerns are not shared by other journalists. Later, when Walsh really starts to rock the boat other journalists worry about their own privileges being taken away. “We’re all drinking soup from the same trough”, one tells him, to which Walsh responds “Didn’t you ever wonder why we have to drink soup from a trough?”

Armstrong undoubtedly suffered when he was being treated for testicular cancer. This is not a condition you would wish on anyone. Someone trying to find some good in Armstrong might point to the huge sums of money his charitable foundation subsequently raised to assist other cancer survivors. But he also used his foundation as a shield behind which to hide his doping activities. These did not just include his own personal drug use. Armstrong was responsible for setting up the entire doping program within the U.S. Postal team. Members of that team also bullied and intimidated other cyclists, as well as journalists, in order to prevent the truth being revealed.

Armstrong’s story is compelling enough, but the film benefits from the casting of Ben Foster in the lead role because he bears a distinct resemblance to the cyclist. It is quite spooky to watch as Foster’s Armstrong repeats to journalists his mantra that he has never failed a drugs test (a speech that he hones by saying it over and over to himself in the mirror). Appearance aside, Foster’s performance is excellent throughout. Chris O’Dowd brings a touch of humour to his portrayal of David Walsh, which provides a welcome contrast to the otherwise serious subject matter. John Hodges’ script and Frears’ direction ensures that the whole thing moves along at a good pace.

One thing that comes across very strongly in The Program is the willingness of so many people to believe in the myth of Armstrong the superhuman cancer survivor. Why do people have such a need to believe in heroes, especially when this leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous? But an even bigger question, perhaps more important than the issue of Armstrong’s cheating, is why so many journalists allowed themselves to be hoodwinked. Even when there were strong reasons to be suspicious of Armstrong many sports writers simply failed to ask the key questions. Of course, this is a failure that extends beyond sports writing, which is why it is so important.

Rating: 4/5

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Foxcatcher_First_Teaser_Poster

Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman

Country: USA

Runtime: 129 mins

Cast: Steve Carell (John du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), Mark Ruffalo (David Schultz), Sienna Miller (Nancy Schultz), Vanessa Redgrave (Jean du Pont).

Steve Carell is a revelation in this magnetic real-life tale of tragedy

Full of dark foreboding right from the start, Foxcatcher is definitely not one of this year’s feel-good movies. This is a story of loneliness and family tensions, and shows that for some people no amount of wealth can bring happiness. In the opening scene we see Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), giving a lacklustre talk to a hall full of puzzled schoolchildren about what it took him to become the 1984 Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling. Afterwards, he collects his cheque from the school administrator, who mistakes him for his brother Dave (also a gold medallist, and who had originally been booked to talk).

This moment is indicative of the relationship between the two brothers. We learn that Mark was raised by his older brother after their parents separated, and that Mark relies on the tactical advice of Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in order to succeed in wresting. Whereas Dave is cheerful, gregarious, and has a wife and family, Mark lives alone, is quiet, serious, and less articulate. Mark is approached by John du Pont, heir to America’s wealthiest family, to join his Foxcatcher wrestling team. He does so, but when brother Dave is also approached he declines to answer the call because he doesn’t want to uproot his family.

Subsequently, du Pont takes on a fatherly role towards Mark, deliberately playing on his insecurity that his success is owed to Dave. But underneath all his talk of leadership, du Pont is also insecure, the product of a troubled background. He only had one friend as a child, who – it turns out – was paid to be his friend. He hates horseriding, the favoured sport of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who still lives on the estate and manages a large stable. In turn, she regards wrestling as a ‘low’ sport and looks upon her son’s involvement with disdain. Although she only makes a couple of brief appearances in the film, it is strongly hinted that the difficult mother-son relationship underpins John’s increasingly erractic behaviour, leading ultimately to tragedy. Jean would appear to be the ‘foxcatcher’ of the title, a reference to her involvement in hunting with hounds.

After some early success, everything starts to go south for Mark. Du Pont introduces him to cocaine with predictably disastrous results and Dave is offered a sufficiently large sum of money to induce him to join the Foxcatcher team. The already unsettled team dynamics worsen further following the death of Jean.

Steve Carell, best known for his comedy roles (The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Office), is a revelation as John du Pont. From the outset he appears only partly connected to reality, with a way of speaking that is strangely distant and affectless. One of the oddest moments occurs early on, when du Pont turns up at Mark’s house late at night to talk about bird-watching, a topic on which du Pont has written books. He tells Mark: “You can learn a lot from birds. I’m an ornithologist. I’m also a patriot”. The flunkies around du Pont are mostly unfriendly and uncommunicative, presumably not wanting to openly comment on their boss’s oddness but yet happy to collect their handsome salaries. Dave rightly asks just why this wealthy man would be interested in creating a wrestling team.  The answer would appear to be that he hopes to receive the recognition from his country that has been denied him by his own mother.

Foxcatcher moves along at a fairly stately pace, building an atmosphere of strangeness and slowly revealing the complicated relationships of the key characters. For those more used to a punchier kind of pacing in films, Foxcatcher might seem a little slow, but I found it utterly magnetic albeit gloomy. As well as Carell’s outstanding performance, Channing Tatum also turns in an impressive performance as Mark Schultz.

Rating: 5/5