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

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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

Fastball


Fastball right down the middle.

Fastball right down the middle.

(2016) Sports Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Kevin Costner (narration), Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Derek Jeter, Denard Spain, Mike Schmidt, Justin Verlander, Rich Gossage, Eddie Murray, George Brett, Bryan Price, Aroldis Chapman, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Steve Dalkowsky, Joe Posnansky, David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Johnny Bench. Directed by Jonathan Hock

The game of baseball speaks to the American soul in ways that football and basketball can’t. It is a means of reaching back to our past, to simpler times and embracing who we once were as a people. While some of those things are ugly – the racism and segregation of the early era, the influence of gamblers and performance enhancing drugs and the erosion of the game as football became America’s Sport – the game endures in the hearts of many Americans as the symbol of all that is good about this country.

One of the enduring arguments in baseball concerns the most common and lethal pitch – the fastball. To wit, who throws the fastest? It’s a little easier these days with modern technology to answer that question, but where does that put the iconic power pitchers of earlier days? Guys like Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson and Bob Feller? Attempts were made to measure the latter two, most notably in Feller’s case when his fastball was measured against a motorcycle going full speed.

This documentary, made under the auspices of Major League Baseball and narrated by Costner, whose association with the sport is as close as any actor’s in history, looks at the fastball, including its impact on the sport, its place in our imagination and the cultural significance of the act of throwing one.

There is a talking head factor here, but most of them are former major leaguers, talking about the nastiest fastball they faced or about their own experiences throwing it. There are segments on Johnson, Feller and Koufax along with Nolan Ryan, Goose Gossage and Steve Dalkowsky, the minor league player whom the character “Nuke” LaLoosh from Bull Durham was based on. He had a major league fastball, but his control was terrifying. He might have made the major leagues though one season but for a heartbreaking injury.

The stories are the major thing here, and nobody is as entertaining a storyteller as a ballplayer. One of the things that gets this movie over is the combination of the technical aspect of baseball, showing how the speed of the fastball is measured (which I was surprised to discover isn’t the speed when it’s hitting the plate but about ten feet from the pitcher’s mound) as well as what appeals more to the emotional side of the sports fan as well as to the tech geek.

There is plenty of archival footage and a great sense of the mythic quality of baseball and I think that’s what mainly captivated me about the documentary. Nothing taps into the American soul better than baseball and if you are not from this country, if you’re going to understand Americans you first need to understand the game of baseball. Watching this masterpiece of Americana will almost certainly give you an insight into the American psyche, although non-fans of the game might not get some of the reference points. However, you don’t have to be a fan of the game to admire the sight of a thrown baseball exploding past a policeman going nearly 100 MPH on a motorcycle.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively combines technology and mythology. Captures the mythic quality of the game. Some very entertaining stories.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to non-fans.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chapman currently holds the record for the fastest pitch thrown in a Major League Baseball regular season game; 105.1 MPH on September 25, 2010 in San Diego when he was a member of the Cincinnati Reds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, iTunes, Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knuckleball
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Embrace of the Serpent

Down, But Not Out


Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

Daria gets some instructions from Przemek.

(2015) Sports Documentary (Green Box) Alicja Cichewicz, Anna Pazdur-Czarnowska, Przemyslaw “Przemek” Rydynski, Daria Strzepka, Agnieszka Szmerek. Directed by Miguel Gaudéncio

Some call boxing the “sweet science” for reasons I can’t fathom. Any aficionado of the sport will tell you that it isn’t just two lugs throwing punches at one another; boxing requires skill, strategy and the ability to literally think on your feet.

A quartet of Polish women are going to an amateur boxing tournament in Poznan to box in their first matches. They are Alicja, Anna, Daria and Agnieszka – which sounds a bit like a Swedish pop group – and they are accompanied by their coach Przemek. He acts as their mentor, confidante, cheerleader and comforter. As the matches continue, the girls learn that sparring is a lot different than boxing, that heart and courage can take time to accumulate and that the sport is so much harder than it looks.

Filmed in gritty black and white, the film has a bit of a verité look to it, a cross between a newsreel and noir. Portuguese director Gaudéncio has a good eye and lines up some really nice shots, although at times he seems to fall in love with his own imagery; early on, an out of focus shot of passing streetlamps runs on interminably. I suspect that he is still learning the rhythms of film making, or at least of editing.

Even so, the movie runs on a mere 67 minutes so there is brevity to it, but it covers a 24 hour span. That’s not nearly enough time to get to know five people, and so Gaudéncio opts not to even try. We get no interviews, no voiceover narration, no graphics. Just raw footage and there is something to be admired about that.

Still, even a documentary is telling a story and in that sense Gaudéncio abrogates his responsibility by simply putting up the footage and letting us see it, forcing us to draw our own conclusions. Why did these four women, all of whom are beauties, enter the ring in the first place? What about what is likely the world’s most brutal sport appealed to them? What did they hope to accomplish? Were they intending to turn pro? None of these questions are answered because none of these questions are asked.

We end up not caring much who wins or loses each fight; we are simply observers and are not invested in what we see. That is the difference between raw footage and a documentary; in one, we become interested in the subjects because we know something about them and can relate to them. The other is like watching a boxing match on HBO – worse still, because HBO generally tells you something about the boxers and who they are. Here we are left with little more than names.

The paucity of information is offset somewhat by the dazzling electronic soundtrack and the beautiful black and white images. Perhaps this is a movie that simply should be experienced without preconceptions and without judgment; in that sense, this is what cinema verité is supposed to ideally be. However, this isn’t a film that is inclined to spoonfed their audience anything and while we get maddening glimpses of who these people are, we don’t get enough to really want to get to know them further which is simply death to a documentary.

At the end of the day the fighters and their managers become mere faces on a screen. Pretty faces, yes; but just faces nonetheless. They are no more compelling than the animatronic figures in the Disney parks and that does them a disservice. I think I see what the director was going for here, and I can admire his desire to make something unique, but unique doesn’t necessarily mean better always. I think there are those who will love this movie – certainly boxing fans will want to see it – but I think that there are many more who will find this a hard sell.

WHY RENT THIS: Love the soundtrack. Some cool cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No interaction with boxers whatsoever. Look, Ma, I’m directing. Style over substance.
FAMILY VALUES: Boxing violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The longest production element was the soundtrack, which took four months to record and sync.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: The Gift