Beyond Skiing Everest


Mike Marolt ponders the cost of his obsession.

(2018) Sports Documentary (1091Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, Jim Gile, Jewel Kilcher (narrator), John Callahan. Directed by Mike Marolt and Steve Bellamy

 

High altitude skiing is not for the faint of heart. It combines two disciplines – mountain climbing and skiing – and requires stamina (because the moment you finish your scaling of a peak, you are skiing down it) and courage as mistakes at these heights can be costly. As Gile ruefully puts it, “I don’t want my last word to be ‘Oops’.”

Identical twins Mike and Steve Marolt and their boyhood buddy Jim Gile grew up in Aspen, Colorado, where you learn how to ski almost before you learn how to walk. They previously appeared in the documentary Skiing Everest (2009) which documented their attempt to climb up the world’s tallest and arguably most famous mountain and then ski back down it – without oxygen or Sherpa guides. That attempt proved frustrating as the commercialization of Everest has led to logjams of dilettantes going up the paths which have been set for them by Sherpas who have also thoughtfully provided pre-set ropes. For those attempting to scale the mountain without oxygen, stopping can be deadly.

The trio, all enshrined in the Skiing Hall of Fame, decided that going up mountains that were more remote, more off the beaten path, would suit their purposes better. Therefore their de facto leader Mike began researching peaks above 8,000 meters (a smidge under 26,250 feet) that had good snow and few climbers. They would travel the world, from the Andes to the Himalayas, documenting their attempts. They have skied down more peaks above 8,000 meters than any humans have ever done, and they do it by so-called pure climbing – without the aid of oxygen or guides.

=The documentary combines the footage taken on their many trips which is often impressive indeed, along with interviews with the three men, who are now in their 50s and still finding mountains to climb and ski back down. There is little to no input from anyone else other than the three; the disadvantage to that is that it robs the film of context. We hear the men talk about the various trips like this is a vacation movie they’re showing on super-8 film for friends. While their expertise is undeniable we get little understanding about why they do what they do, why they chose these particular mountains other than the criteria I mentioned above, and what others think of their accomplishments.

Also, in a nearly criminal move, we never hear from their families and loved ones that are left behind for months at a time; only in the last ten minutes do we even realize that they have families and get the sense that their absences are difficult on them. We only hear through the mouths of the three men themselves; their wives and children do not appear to speak for themselves. One suspects that the subjects of the documentary might not like what they hear.

One can’t help but admire the accomplishments of these three men and they seem to be pretty eloquent speakers, but I would have appreciated some other points of view other than theirs. That would make for far more interesting viewing and a less homogeneous documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really extraordinary vistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: High Altitude skiers, in addition to the mountain climbing gear they must take, add an average of sixty pounds to their packs for their ski equipment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Himalayan Ice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

The Legend of Swee’ Pea


(2015) Sports Documentary (1091) Lloyd Daniels, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, John Lucas, Howard Garfinkel, Geary Hendley, Keith Glass, Kenny Graham, Leo James, Ernie Hall, Saul Lerner, Lois Tarkanian, David Chesnoff, Ron Naclerio, John Valenti, Ramon Ortiz, Jabari Joyner, Robbito Garcia, Alvis Brown, Avery Johnson, Benjamin May, Tom Kancholosky, Anita Hendley. Directed by Benjamin May

 

Every so often a basketball player comes along who is considered can’t-miss; they are recruited heavily out of high school by the biggest college programs in the sport and some go on to long, productive careers in the NBA; guys like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had those kinds of career. And then, there is Lloyd Daniels.

Daniels is a New York playground legend. At 16, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the world – including in the NBA. His mom died when he was a child; he spent most of his time being shuttled between one grandmother in Queens and another in Brooklyn. His father, who never recovered from his wife’s death, sank into alcoholism. Eventually, Lloyd joined him in alcohol abuse at a young age, and went on to get addicted to crack just as it became epidemic in New York.

Lloyd liked to party but he didn’t particularly like going to class and almost never went. One thing not explained in the documentary is how he was allowed to play basketball when he wasn’t attending class. In my day, you couldn’t participate in extracurricular athletics if you didn’t maintain at least a “C” average, but New York in the Nineties might have been different. In any case, Daniels is dyslexic which may explain his ambivalent attitude towards school. However, one thing he was serious about was basketball and he was a 6’7” guard who could pass AND shoot, a rarity. Lots of coaches were foaming at the mouth trying to get him into their programs. He eventually aged out of high school without graduating or passing a single course.

He wound up being accepted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a scholarship. The Running Rebels were coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian who were always one of the favorites to win the NCAA title back then. But his college career was derailed before he’d even played a single game; he was arrested in a crack house on a police sting operation on February 9, 1987 and Tarkanian threw him off the team. With a drug arrest in his portfolio, he essentially became untouchable. Also not mentioned in the documentary was the involvement of Richard Perry, a noted gambler who helped steer Daniels to UNLV and the ensuing investigation of whom would lead to Tarkanian being forced out as coach of their team.

Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff thought he got a raw deal and helped him get into the Continental Basketball Association with the Topeka Sizzlers. However, his addiction followed him and he was dropped from the team. Going back to New York City, he resumed smoking crack and after trying to rip off some drug dealers of an $8 vial of crack, was shot three times in the chest. He actually died, but was saved by skilled surgeons and lived to play again.

This time it was Coach Tarkanian who came calling; now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. Daniels, given a second chance, started to look like he deserved one. He was showing signs of the skills that had made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits of his generation. Unfortunately, the Spurs weren’t doing all that well as a team and Tarkanian was let go. When John Lucas, a recovering addict himself, was made coach, he saw some disturbing signs in Daniels. Eventually, after a two year stay with San Antonio – the longest of his professional career, he was let go and ended up playing with a myriad of teams, six in the NBA finishing just seven games shy of being vested in the player’s pension program.

These days, Daniels is an AAU coach in New York. In middle age, he bears a striking resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His voice is raspy from years of smoking crack. He is divorced, and while his three kids are all college graduates, he frankly gives credit to his ex-wife. Former radiologist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin May got the opportunity to film Daniels; at times he seems to be a very willing subject, opening up about his addictions and what they cost him. We see him visiting the house where he was arrested in 1987, where the wheels began to fall off on his life and career. Tears come to his eyes when he thinks about that cost.

While he appears open and affable here, there is the other side of Daniels. He is still drinking, which is why his ex-wife declined to be interviewed for the project. We also hear a variety of phone messages left on May’s answering machines of Daniels, wheedling for money and accusing him of exploiting Daniels. Eventually, the calls grow more and more angry and confrontational until they end on a conciliatory note.

This is truly a cautionary tale and shows how incredibly difficult it is to get out of poverty; Daniels had all the tools to have an NBA career that would have set him up for life. Sadly, he never got the guidance he needed to deal with life and his addiction would eventually overwhelm his talent. Daniels was failed by those closest to him, failed by the public school system, failed by society but most of all he failed himself. This is the sort of documentary that would have been perfect for the ESPN “30 in 30” series but sadly, it never made it there which is just symbolic of Daniels’ life in general.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale about wasted potential and drug abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: The documentary feels a little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers of the film is legendary New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Without Bias
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Booksellers

And Two if By Sea: The Hobgood Brothers


Seeing double.

(2019) Sports Documentary (1091) Daniel Tosh (voice), CJ Hobgood, Damien Hobgood, Kelly Slater, John John Florence, Carissa Moore, Sal Masakela, Mick Fanning, Jordy (Smith, Brett Simpson, Clifton Hobgood, Taj Burrow, Joel Parkinson, Jack Robinson, Khloe Andino, Tanner Gudauskas, Pat Gudauskas, Keanu Asing, Peter King, Charlotte Hobgood, Courtney Hobgood, Maureen Hobgood, Rachel Hobgood. Directed by Justin Purser

 

Having an identical twin must be somewhat mind-blowing. I don’t know about you, but I would find it a bit freaky if there was someone who looked exactly like me wandering around (poor devil) and if I was essentially lumped in together with him, often being mistaken for him? I’m sure it would get old pretty fast.

Then again, there are some advantages to having a twin. There’s always someone there to drive you forward, to give you motivation to outdo them. Plus, if you’re ever caught doing a crime, you can always blame it on the twin.

The Hobgood brothers CJ and Damien are both pro surfers, both world champions on the tour. They hail from Satellite Beach, Florida which also happens to be the hometown of maybe the most decorated surfer of modern times, Kelly Slater. This irreverent documentary stands out from all the other surfing documentaries (and brother, trust me, there are many) in that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Comedian Daniel Tosh provides the voiceover narration and the graphics identifying the various interview subjects are if not outright funny (for the most part they are) are at least snarky.

The surfing footage surprisingly doesn’t dominate the screen time; most of it is pretty gnarly (in the parlance) but in all honesty I’ve seen gnarlier (is that even a word?) in other films. For those who haven’t viewed many surfing docs, it might look pretty intense but those who have seen more than a few will likely find it solid but unspectacular.

I do like the insights we get into what it takes to be a pro surfer; how much sponsorship is required to get a surfer through the tour (over $90K minimum just for travel and expenses). Also, there’s an honesty to how the brothers are depicted here; they are presented not just as cool dudes on the beach but also as men who succumb to temptation, men whose competitiveness gets away from them from time to time and men who aren’t always prone to doing the right thing.

The abundance of talking heads may tire out some, but the irreverence helps combat that. I do like the attitude here; this is definitely something a little different. And I like different.

REASONS TO SEE: Not yo mama’s surfing doc. There’s a lot of straightforward honesty here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loads of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hobgoods are the only identical twins to date to both win pro surfing tour championships.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Endless Summer
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spirits in the Forest

Blink of an Eye


The King and I.

(2019) Sports Documentary (1091 Media) Michael Waltrip, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Richard Childress, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Mike Helton, Ty Norris, Buffy Hawthorne, Larry McReynolds, Ken Schrader, Brooke Hondros. Directed by Paul Taublieb

 

In the annals of auto racing, few names inspire the passion that Dale Earnhardt’s does. Known during his career as “The Intimidator,” he was known for his aggressive driving style. His fans adored him and in general, all racing fans at the very least respected him.

Michael Waltrip in 2001 was on the other end of the racing spectrum. The younger brother of three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, the affable Michael was best known for a stat he certainly wished wasn’t the case; 462 races without a win. Most drivers would never have gotten the opportunity to drive 462 races without winning, but he had the cache of his brother’s last name and was well-liked by owners and fans alike.

Waltrip became good friends with Earnhardt following a crash in which Waltrip’s car essentially hit a concrete wall and disintegrated around him; Waltrip was miraculously unscathed. Following the crash, Earnhardt looked in on Waltrip and declared him “one tough son-of-a-bitch!” The two often hung out together and Waltrip was often a guest on Earnhardt’s boat the Sunday Money. When Earnhardt decided to put together his own racing team together, he wanted his son – whom he was grooming to be his heir – and Waltrip to be his teammates.

=This documentary, based loosely on Waltrip’s own memoirs, looks at Waltrip’s early career, his desire to be a driver from a young age, and his relationship with his brother Darrell which was perhaps one that wasn’t as close as it might have been; the older Waltrip here admits he only helped his younger brother out “when it was convenient” and expressed regret that he wasn’t a better brother.

But in a larger sense, it’s about the unlikely friendship between Earnhardt and Waltrip and the moment that forever links them; the 2001 Daytona 500, which Richard Petty, the most successful NASCAR racer of all time and an early mentor of Waltrip, calls “Our Super Bowl.”  On February 18, 2001, the Intimidator was out to win but not for himself; he wanted to see his son or his friend cross the finish line first and ran interference, blocking the cars that might have overtaken the two of them in the final laps of the race. As Waltrip crossed the finish line, Earnhardt was involved in an accident on turn four when Sterling Martin made contact with his car and knocked it into the path of fellow driver Ken Schrader.

It looked like a minor accident at first but there were signs that something was seriously wrong. As Waltrip was celebrating his first win on Victory Lane, he received the awful news; his friend and teammate was dead. “We’re all capable of handling the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” Waltrip muses, “But I don’t know many who have had to handle both within seconds of each other.”

Even if you’re not a Dale Earnhardt fan or even a NASCAR fan (and I’m neither), the movie still packs quite an emotional wallop. Waltrip, 18 years later, is still devastated by the events of the 2001 Daytona 500 and often tears up when discussing some of the highlights of his friendship with Earnhardt. Waltrip tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve anyway but he is an engaging subject and at one time interrupts an interview with Petty to tell the NASCAR legend how much his advice and support meant to him. It’s a part of that Southern chivalry thing, I think.

What the documentary doesn’t do is ask hard questions about how Earnhardt died; while end-credit graphics mention that following Earnhardt’s death safety changes were regulated and there have been no fatalities since. What the film doesn’t tell you was that NASCAR resisted those changes for more than a year after Earnhardt’s death, and that Earnhardt had been the fourth driver in eight months to die in a similar fashion. It can also be said that little background is given to the life of Earnhardt but this is Waltrip’s story, after all.

Earnhardt is a bona fide legend, one whose shadow continues to loom over NASCAR 18 years after his death. His fans remain among the most rabid in NASCAR and number 3 decals (Earnhardt’s car number) continue to adorn the cars of his fans to this day. Waltrip has since retired from racing and works as a commentator for Fox Sports as his brother does. This movie might not appeal to non-racing fans but I would encourage them to see it anyway; at it’s heart this is a human story as all great sports stories should be.

The film is currently in limited release but Fathom Events will be hosting nationwide screenings on September 12th, 2019. If you are interested in catching this in the theater, please heck your local listings for the theater carrying it nearest you.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives us a peek behind the NASCAR curtain. Packs an emotional wallop. Michael Waltrip is one of those guys you just naturally root for.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soft when it comes to exploring the causes of the accident and the repercussions of it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some racing action and scenes of horrific auto racing crashes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A dramatic feature based on the documentary is currently in the planning stages.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Senna
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Brittany Runs a Marathon

Offside


Coaching resting face.

(2019) Sports Documentary (Green Box EuropeNatalia Baginska, Joanna Patusiak, Joanna Pres, Kinga Szymanska, Martyna Brodzik, Aleksandra Sudyk, Marta Fil, Patrycja Michalczyk, Natalia Grib, Patrycja Trzcinska, Aleksandra Witczak, Roksana Rataczyk, Natalia Oleszkiewicz, Kornelia Grosicka, Lukasz Haliniarz, Martyna Iwanek, Weronika Szymaszek, Beata Niesterowicz. Directed by Miguel Gaudėncio

 

While we in the States tend to think of soccer (called by everybody else football) is a painfully slow and less athletic sport than the manly sport of American football, that’s just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. Football (the non-American kind) requires stamina, skill and intestinal fortitude to push beyond your limits when you are sure you couldn’t possibly run even one more step.

The ladies of the Olimpia Szczecin squad possess that kind of fortitude and much of it is largely due to their coach, Natalia Baginska. Her job is to motivate the women to push themselves higher and harder than they ever have. She is a stern taskmaster and keeps her charges busy as the club, sidelined for the off-season, prepares for the oncoming season with practices, scrimmages and practice games, called “friendlies” in the parlance.

Gaudėncio, a native of Portugal now based in Szczecin, has established a particular style for better or for worse, that is essentially cinema verité along the lines of an Errol Morris. He’s also fond of black and white, which worked nicely for the boxing documentary Down But Not Out but was a tactical error her; Soccer is a sport of color from the rich green of the pitch to the colors of the uniforms. It makes the film more drab than it has to be.

What really disappointed me about the movie though was once again he gives virtually no context about what we’re seeing. Why did he choose this team to follow? What happened with their season? He also doesn’t identify which player is which and we mostly see them in workouts without uniforms so we can’t even figure out the numbers. The games he does show often we get no sense of the flow of the game; there are some bits and pieces of the team on offense, other bits and pieces of the team on defense and occasionally celebrating a goal. We have no idea who they are playing.

We do get a sense that the players work hard and that the coach is a combination therapist and motivational speaker as well as a tactician although we get no particulars about the latter role. We do get plenty of scenes of various body parts on the players getting massaged which I suppose communicates the muscular aches and pains the ladies have to endure but it’s a point that seems to be getting made a bit too repetitively.

Of the three documentaries I’ve seen from Gaudėncio this is by far the one I’ve enjoyed the least. By halfway through the short documentary I was checking the time, praying for the film to end. By the time it did, I felt like I hadn’t gotten to know the coach all that well and the players even less. Not being all that well-schooled in the game of soccer, I can’t even tell you if the team improved over the course of the film.

However, the movie does have the advantage of being timely, released as the United States women’s team was capturing its most recent World Cup title so there might be some interest from that angle. I think it would be a good film for aspiring soccer players both male and female to see what is involved with becoming a top-level player. However cinema buffs may find the film to be a little too disjointed to be all that enjoyable.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a sense of how hard these athletes work.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks any sort of context whatsoever.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two of the partners in Green Box Europe are originally from Florida but now live in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Down, But Not Out
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Hurley


Hurley Haywood and husband Steve Hill revisit a place of happy memories.

(2019) Documentary (The Orchard) Hurley Haywood, Patrick Dempsey, Simon Gregg, Hope Haywood, JC France, Frank Stella, John Patton, Don Davis, Bill Warner, Sam Posey, Diane K. Hewitt, Don Leatherwood, Jim Busby, Richard Pendell, Steve Hill, Gerry Meara, Patrick Lons, Andy Chapman, Pattie Hughes Mayer, Susan Snodgrass. Directed by Derek Dodge

 

The world of sports car racing and endurance racing was back in the 70s and 80s a little more visible than it is today when NASCAR and Formula 1 dominate the auto racing world. Back in the day though Hollywood superstars like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen both were competent sports car racers. Today the studios would have apoplexy if big stars risked life and limb in sports car racing although some big names, like Patrick Dempsey, continue to race.T

In that world, Hurley Haywood looms as a legend. The only 5-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona race (these days sponsored by Rolex), he also won the Le Mans endurance race three times and the 12 Hours of Sebring twice. Along with partner Peter Gregg in the 70s, they were the most dominant team on the endurance racing circuit ever.

Haywood came from money and privilege; he traveled extensively as a boy and young man, and was matinee idol handsome. He fell in love with auto racing at a young age and started driving full size cars at the tender age of twelve. While still in college at Jacksonville University (he still calls Jacksonville home), he entered a sports car race and beat local professional Peter Gregg. Impressed with the young man’s skill, Gregg took him on as a partner and mentor and the two never looked back.

This documentary looks back on the life and career of Haywood and deals with issues beyond the race track. For one thing, Haywood is a gay man, a definite no-no in the 70s when the sport was a symbol of masculinity and beautiful models surrounded successful drivers to which Hurley was no exception. He kept his personal life separate from the track and was clearly uncomfortable discussing it in contemporary interviews. He didn’t come out until last year but doesn’t seem to have harmed his career to any appreciable extent; while he has retired from active driving, he continues to work in the sport as a mentor and coordinator for Dempsey-Wright racing, the team that the aforementioned Patrick Dempsey (who is a producer for the documentary) is part of.

Some of the more poignant moments come from Hurley’s longtime companion and husband Steve Hill, who talks about not being able to share in Hurley’s victories so as not to out him. He would watch through a chain link fence while his partner celebrated on Victory Lane. Gay men in that time learned to accept such treatment in order to keep from ruining the careers of their partners or having their own careers ruined. Although it isn’t discussed, homophobic drivers certainly could have purposely caused accidents that could maim or kill Haywood if they so chose; it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Another subject tackled here is mental illness and Gregg suffered from it. Nicknamed “Peter Perfect,” the driven and intensely competitive racer strove for perfection in every race he ran. Never able to maintain relationships for long due to his illness, he drove wives away with his womanizing and friends away with his often-cruel behavior. Eventually even Hurley, his closest friend, was forced to step away. Although the two men reconciled shortly before Gregg’s death, Gregg’s suicide hit Hurley hard. There had been whispers that Gregg and Hurley had a romantic relationship but Hurley shoots that rumor down, echoed by the friends and family of Gregg who assert that he was quite straight.

There is some compelling archival racing footage, although because of the nature of the races we don’t get a sense of the overall strategy of endurance racing. Much of the film is set at the Daytona International Speedway and we do get a sense of the allure for the place. Haywood’s reverence for Daytona is quite clear.

Early on Dodge gets a bit coy with the gay issue, even though at this point anyone who would want to see the movie is likely aware of Haywood’s sexuality. That coyness was unnecessary and a bit over-cute to be honest. My main problem with the movie is that Dodge in trying to tackle the prongs of mental health, homosexuality and sports car racing history ends up really portraying none of those topics with any kind of completeness and we’re left with an unsatisfied feeling after the film finishes. Part of that may be due to Haywood’s own tendency to play things close to the vest, something he did as a survival tactic as a young man. Today he remains somewhat private and rarely do we get to see how he feels about certain things.

Nonetheless Hurley Haywood is a fascinating subject and a charismatic individual who is kind and courtly. He is aware of his status as a racing legend and is proud of his accomplishments as he should be. He has no wish to be a gay icon; he merely wants to live his life with his husband in peace and one certainly can’t begrudge him that. Still, I wish the film would have been a bit more forthcoming or at least, dived a little deeper into the many fascinating aspects of Haywood’s life and career.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles some important subjects outside of the racing world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dodge tries to do a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, a discussion of suicide and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Abnormal Attractions

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel


They keep their heads covered to show their devotion to God.

(2018) Sports Documentary (Menemsha) Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Ryan Lavarnway, Josh Zeid, Scott Buchan, Ty Kelly, Cody Baker, Jason Marquis, Jerry Weinstein, Cody Decker, Peter Kurz, Jon Moscot, Jeremy Bleich, Danny Valencia, Jonathan Mayo, Margo Sugarman. Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger

 

As underdogs go, there are few more under than the Israeli national baseball team. Even back in the 80s, the spoof Airplane! Joked about handing out a tiny pamphlet sized book called Great Jewish Athletes to passengers looking for a little light reading. Baseball has had a few great Jewish players including Hank Greenberg and most notably, legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax. Sadly, while Koufax is fawned over in the film, Greenberg who was one of the great sluggers of the game back in the day gets nary a mention.

Most of the players for the Israeli team that was fielded for the 2017 World Baseball Classic – a kind of World Cup for baseball – were American Jews who have at least one Jewish parent or grandparent which qualifies them under the Heritage Rule which allows players of a different national descent to play for that team rather than the country they are actually citizens of.

For the most part Team Israel was made up of players who were career minor leaguers or had just a cup of coffee in the majors. One big exception was Ike Davis, a slugger for the New York Mets and later the Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Injuries had shortened his career, but he was hoping to make a comeback when he agreed to play with Team Israel.

The team was ranked 41st in the world and were derided by the press as “has-beens and never-will-bes” but that only served as motivation for the team who beat the heavily favored Great Britain team in Brooklyn to qualify for the 16-team tournament. Placed in Pool A, they would be playing in Seoul, South Korea.

Many of the players weren’t really practicing Jews and almost none of them had been to Israel. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson arranged to fly the team there in his own private jet, beginning a spiritual and personal journey for the team who began to appreciate their Jewishness more. A terrorist attack that occurred while they were touring the country further cemented their connection to their heritage.

Once the tournament starts, the team captures the imagination of the world, becoming the Cinderella story of the tournament. The film doesn’t really cover the individual games in more than a cursory fashion but then again, the movie isn’t about the games themselves.

One of the quirks the team was known for was their mascot, Mensch on the Bench. Sharp Shark Tank viewers may recognize it from an episode of that show, a light-hearted parody of Elf on a Shelf. Well, Team Israel had a life-sized version who accompanied the team to most media events and games. That was indicative of the light-hearted spirit that the team possessed as a whole.

The bonding of the team isn’t particularly unusual; most teams bond in some fashion and Team Israel was no exception. The 2017 team hoped to win the WBC but not for the reasons you might think. They wanted the future of Team Israel to be populated less by American players but with Israeli-born players. A disgruntled Cuban at a press conference excoriated the self-described “Jew Crew” because of this, but that doesn’t hold a whole lot of water – the Cuban team could certainly have recruited players of Cuban descent from other countries had they chosen to.

At the end of the day underdog movies are pretty much a lifeblood for sports documentaries and this one, while occasionally inspiring, really doesn’t add much to the picture except for one item – the awakening of the players to their Jewish heritage. Those scenes in which the players react to Jewish traditions and ceremonies are among the most compelling in the film. Clearly the players grow a connection to Israel and those are the moments that make the movie satisfying. Unfortunately, the standard sports clichés that litter the baseball sequences keep the movie achieving all-star status.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heartwarming and occasionally inspiring documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film loses some steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three directors are childhood friends and met Mayo through a Jewish summer camp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Cecil

Coming to My Senses


This is the look of a man who lives life on his own terms.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Aaron Baker, Laquita Dian, Arielle Baker, Taylor Kevin Isaacs, Dan Baker, Katie Devine, Igor Fineman, Adam Rice, Adam Zerbe, Pat McMahon, Dominic Gill, Rick Bobbington, Hollyn Thompson. Directed by Dominic Gill

Aaron Baker had his whole life ahead of him. He was one of the up-and-coming stars on the motocross circuit and the sky was the limit.Then in 1999 he suffered a horrific injury during a race, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

The prognosis was grim. Doctors told him that he had a one in a million shot of feeding himself ever again. Walking was just about out of the question. Plenty of people who have the kind of injuries Baker had suffered essentially sit back and wait to die but Aaron Baker wasn’t that kind of person.

He took the negativity as a challenge and swore to himself that he would walk again someday. Through physical therapy and an innovative concept – his sister painted each of his toenails a different color and he visualized his muscles moving to each colored toe. He began to show signs of movement.

Then the rug was literally pulled out from under him; his insurance company refused to continue to pay for physical therapy, essentially telling him that they weren’t willing to throw money into a situation that was medically hopeless. Aaron grew depressed and even his mother Laquita sank into alcoholism to cope with her son’s pain.

But the funny thing was that this only shored up Aaron’s determination. His mother, infected by that determination, found a kinesiologist that not only Aaron could afford but who proposed a radical program of exercise. Soon he indeed was able to walk again but that wasn’t enough for Aaron. An athlete his entire life, he decided to take up bike riding, riding a tandem bike across country and then later a specially built three wheel bicycle. Recently, he decided to walk 19.6 miles from Death Valley to Baker, California to call attention to the hope that all good things are possible even to those with the direst of injuries.

Gill and maybe Baker as well have an affinity with the desert; it seems to be the landscape in nearly every shot. Some of the cinematography (which Gill also provided) is breathtaking but not as much as the story is. You can’t help but admire Aaron Baker’s determination. He is living proof that doctors aren’t always right and that the human spirit can be more powerful even than modern medicine. These are not lessons we should ignore.

At times this feels a bit heavy on the bro-ness. Maybe extreme sports bring out that reaction in me but the guys and gals who practice these types of sports have a surfeit of testosterone running through their veins. Maybe it’s because they drink far more Mountain Dew than human beings should be allowed to but I found it off-putting in places

That aside, the inter-cutting of Baker’s desert journey with his rehabilitation is mostly effective although there isn’t always a lot of context provided; things like this cost money and while sponsors are vaguely alluded to, we don’t really get a sense of how fundraising was accomplished. There’s also almost no comments from any of Aaron’s peers in motocross or among the paraplegic community. We really see this almost entirely out of Aaron’s and Gill’s eyes and that gives the movie a bit of a hagiographic feel that it would have done better without.

REASONS TO GO: This is an inspiring journey, literally and figuratively.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the movie feels a bit heavy on the “bro.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing there are more than 1.46 million Americans afflicted with spinal cord injuries of varying degrees.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

Chasing Great


Richie McCaw is flying high.

(2016) Sports Documentary (Abramorama) Richie McCaw, Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Watson, Graham Henry, Barney McCone, Dr. Ceri Evans, Schalk Burger, Gilbert Enoka, Dan Canter, Allain Roland, Phil Kearns, Steve Hansen, Margaret McCaw, Dr. Deb Robinson, Joanna Spencer-Bower, Gemma Flynn, Donald McCaw, Andre King, Arlo Feeney, Charlotte Brewer. Directed by Justin Pemberton and Michelle Walshe

 

I will start this out by stating that while I’m familiar with the sport of rugby (having played it once or twice in college) I am not knowledgeable about it. Most people who are going to be attracted to this film in the first place are those who love the sport to begin with and maybe follow it on some of the global sports channels that are available on cable and satellite TV.

Those sorts will already be familiar with the name Richie McCaw. He was the captain of the New Zealand national team known as the All-Blacks from 2007-2015 and became the first team to win the World Cup of Rugby two years in a row (like the Soccer world cup and the Olympics, the World Cup of Rugby is played only every four years). He is revered by many knowledgeable pundits as maybe the best to ever play the game.

He’s tailor-made to be the game’s ambassador to more heathen countries like the United States where the sport is barely on the radar of most Americans – it certainly isn’t a national obsession like it is among Kiwis. McCaw is matinee-idol handsome, articulate in interviews and an intense player who has made a career of leaving it all out on the pitch after each and every match.

The drawback is that McCaw is an intensely private person who keeps his motions close to the vest for the most part. The exception is the 2007 World Cup which the heavily favored All-Blacks were ousted in the quarter-finals by France which is, surprisingly, a Rugby world power. Richie took the loss hard as did all of the All-Blacks. In fact, the press weren’t much better; they described their national team as “a disgrace to the nation.” That’s a bit harsh but then, national obsession.

We get some insight into McCaw as a man; he is certainly driven and from a young age he not only wanted to be an All-Black, he wanted to be a GREAT All-Black. It was always part of his plan and he and his Uncle Bigsy came up with a strategy to get him there. He still has the napkin that his uncle and he wrote the strategy down on. We also see that he’s a licensed pilot of single-engine planes and helicopters; he flies a great deal during the course of the film, even climbing into a glider and soaring engine-free above the beautiful Kiwi landscape.

But we don’t get a lot of insight into Richie as a person. We see him eating meals with his Mum and Dad, being a bit affectionate with his girlfriend (a woman’s hockey player named Gemma Flynn) but we don’t hear much about what he’s thinking, feeling. If you want to learn what makes McCaw tick beyond the “driven” and “competitive” clichés, you’re not going to find much here.

There’s plenty about McCaw’s mental acumen, his ability to strategize calmly in the face of adversity and his ability to inspire his teammates to push harder. We rarely see anything negative about McCaw, some sour grapes sports journalism at most. This skirts the edge of hagiography and then jumps in with both feet. It doesn’t help that the directors don’t really make much of an effort to do anything terribly innovative. It’s the standard formula of home movies re-enactments and event footage.

I’m sure there are people here in the States waiting for a documentary like this but for the most part, it’s not going to make any new converts. Rugby’s a great sport but it needed a much better documentary than this to really get any sort of traction here in the States.

REASONS TO GO: You don’t have to be a rugby fan to appreciate this film (although it helps).
REASONS TO STAY: The form is fairly pedestrian – sports documentaries 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports violence – rugby is a contact sport, mates.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCaw grew up on a farm in a fairly remote part of New Zealand; his parents still live there.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Senna
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Fantastic Woman

F(l)ag Football


A band of brothers.

(2015) Sports Documentary (Abramorama) Cyd Ziegler, Wade Davis, Jared Garduno, Drew Boulton, Tall Paul, Christophe Faubert, Joey Jacinto, Roc, Shockey, Shawn Rea, Molly Lenore, Brenton Metzler, Jeremiah Phipps, Jim Buzinski, John, Alon, Brian, Duffy, Juan Gibbons, Neil Giuliano. Directed by Seth Greenfield

 

There is a misconception of gay men that they are limpwristed and effeminate who are more into figure skating than football. The truth is that there are all sorts of gay men; some are indeed more in touch with their feminine side but there are others who are just as macho as Mike Ditka.

The National Gay Flag Football League grew out of pick-up games that gay men put together to play football. Many found playing football in any sort of competitive manner to be uncomfortable for them while others wanted to use it as a means of meeting new people with similar interests. Something unexpected happened however; the teams of predominantly gay players began to bond. Like, really bond as brothers. Starting in New York City, the idea of gay leagues began to catch on in cities around the country. Eventually, the National Gay Flag Football League was born.

A competitive tournament of gay teams around the country culminating in a championship game was the brainchild of sportswriter Cyd Ziegler, himself an ultra-competitive football player. His team, the New York Warriors, became the dominant team winning three Gay Bowl championships in a row. In Gay Bowl IX however, they were dethroned by the Los Angeles Motion led by – Cyd Ziegler who had moved out to the City of Angels.

The Warriors, led by team captain Wade Davis (a former NFL player) were chomping at the bit to regain the title that they’d lost. The Motion, sporting two of the best quarterbacks in the league in reigning MVP Drew Boulton and Christophe Faubert, were just as motivated to repeat. The dark horse was the Gay Bowl X hosts the Phoenix Hellraisers, led by quarterback Joey Jacinto who has a cannon for an arm and Jared Garduno, the team’s heart and soul.

The documentary follows the three teams as they prepare for the weekend event. We hear from the players, many of whom found the acceptance here that they couldn’t find in the gay bar and club scene. As the movie goes on some of the players talk openly about their coming out and some of those stories are heartbreaking. Davis tells us that his extremely religious mother, whom he had been especially close to as a child, essentially washed her hands of him. Los Angeles captain Brenton Metzler talks humorously of how his sister, a lesbian wishing to deflect her parents attention away from herself, outed him against his wishes.

There are a lot of clichés about football, how it builds character and forges bonds not unlike those forged by soldiers. One of the movie’s chief successes that as the movie goes on we begin to realize that these aren’t just gay men; they’re men period. Just like straight men. No difference whatsoever. Well, other than the fact that they prefer men as romantic and sexual partners.

A word about the latter; the tagline for the film “A documentary about coming out…and scoring” does a disservice to the movie. Throughout the film the players make it clear that there is nothing sexual for them about playing the game; it’s all about the competition and the game itself. Their minds aren’t going to “His tush sure looks good in those jeans” for the most part. The sexual innuendo of the tag line contradicts this stand and reinforces the perception that gay men have no control of their sexuality. Well, no more than straight men do anyway. Come to think of it, the film’s title doesn’t do its message any favors either. These men are as tough as nails regardless of their sexuality but I suppose that since the point is trying to change perceptions of gay men that to a certain extent their sexuality has to be part of the equation but still it feels like they could have been a bit more sensitive to the film’s overall message that these are talented, hard-working and masculine football players who happen to be gay. Their sexuality is part of who they are but it isn’t the only thing that defines them.

The movie spends an inordinate time at player practices to the point of tedium. The cumulative effect of this is that when the actual games are played, it becomes anticlimactic to the viewer. Other than the actual championship game, little time is spent on any of the other games that go on in the tournament (the winning team and runner-up will have played seven games in the course of three days which is grueling for any kind of athlete) other than brief snippets and scores. We don’t really see the results of all the practicing until that championship game and even then we don’t really get a sense of the teamwork that goes on.

I’m not sure that this is essential viewing from a cinematic standpoint but from a social standpoint this film is a teaching moment, serving to humanize gay men and put faces on them that aren’t necessarily RuPaul’s (although some of the Phoenix players don dresses to put on a charity fundraiser drag show). Anything that is going to help break down stereotypes is a winner in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Your perception of what gay men are might get changed. The outing stories are heartbreaking in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Far too much time is spent observing practices.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some sports violence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most recent Gay Bowl was played in Washington DC. The 2017 edition will be played in Boston.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hearing is Believing