Alliances Broken


It’s all smiles and fun and games until the money runs out.

(2021) Sports Documentary (1091) Steve Spurrier, Chris Martin, Charlie Ebersole, Alex Orendorff, Mike Woodell, Robert Vanech, Roscoe Mynck, Conor Orr, Benjamin Sturner, Daniel Kaplan, Darren Heitner, Olivia Liette, Freddie Wehbo, Bryan Woodfork, Tom Veit, Dillon Smith, Dylan Sesco, Zach Bromwell, Aaron Evans, Jeff Fisher, Hines Wood, Christina Martin, Ronnell Hall, Jennifer Smith. Directed by Steven Potter

 

The National Football League is in many ways the 800-lb gorilla of professional sports. Not since the American Football League in the 1960s has the NFL had a serious challenge to its dominance, and even then it just absorbed the whole league into itself. There have been several start-ups since, mostly positioned in the Spring as to not compete directly with the NFL. The football graveyard is littered with their corpses; the World Football League, the United States Football League, the XFL and the United Football League – all started out with high hopes, only to end up scattered to the four winds.

Even the indoor Arena League didn’t hold out for long; after a brief resurgence, it too died. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t repeated attempts to try where the others failed, and at first glance the Alliance of American Football (AAF) seemed to have the ingredients to succeed. The visionary at its head was Charlie Ebersole, son of the sports broadcasting legend Dick Ebersole (who back in 2001 co-founded the XFL with Vince McMahon). He also had some pretty heavy hitters in the upper echelons with him; Super Bowl-winning GM Bill Polian, legendary coach Steve Spurrier, former Minnesota Vikings owner Reggie Fowler, and football strategist Jeff Fisher.

From the beginning, Ebersole preached fan interactivity. A web app was designed to allow fans to bet on plays in real time. A point system was designed that at the end of the season would give players a share of a prize pool depending on how much community work they did. Ebersole had a deal with CBS to broadcast games and a tireless staff that promoted the league and tried to get their communities fired up about spring football.

But it was all smoke and mirrors. The financing, which Ebersole had touted, just wasn’t there. Also, in order to get the league an advantage over the returning XFL, he rushed the league into action a mere eleven months after announcing its formation, giving the organization nowhere near enough time to develop. Starting a football league is not just coming up with some cool team names and announcing try-outs – there are literally millions of moving parts, from securing practice and game facilities, arranging for health insurance (players do get injured, you know), purchasing equipment for the players, the training room and the front office, arranging for travel and accommodations, and so on and so on and so on. These things take time and patience.

Perhaps it was the charismatic Ebersole’s charisma that had people believing, but believe they did, even when there were troubling signs – the league had difficulty meeting payroll after the first couple of weeks (as it turned out Fowler turned out to be laundering money and was indicted for it, taking out a gigantic portion of the league’s operating budget), the merchandise was priced insanely high, tickets were given away more often than sold in an effort to make sure that the television audience didn’t see a mostly-empty stadium. Also the broadcasting deal was not as advantageous as Ebersole led people to believe; most of the AAF games were broadcast on the cable CBS Sports Network which reached far fewer households.

Even so, it came as a shock when after only eight weeks the league ceased operations. Players were left high and dry, thrown out of hotels whose bills hadn’t been paid; staffers who had moved cross country suddenly found themselves in a city where they knew no one with a mortgage and no job. Many vendors went unpaid, forcing some of them into bankruptcy as well.

This documentary began life as a series of player interviews for the Orlando Apollos social media, but as things began to unravel, first-time filmmaker Steven Potter found himself making a different kind of movie. His inexperience shows in places; some points are hammered home with a great deal of repetition, others are given no exploration at all. Potter had almost no budget at all, utilizing money given him as a graduation gift to defray expenses. For that reason, we don’t really hear too much from the financial guys (other than through videos of interviews and press conferences) but we do hear from players like Chris Martin, an offensive lineman who had gone to the University of Central Florida and after playing on NFL taxi squads, finally had an opportunity to play in his home town. He is articulate and warm, although Potter does relate the story of the drowning of his son before the league started up, which is kind of brutally inserted into the film near the end, and creates some tonal problems.

But the story is nonetheless an interesting one, and Potter does a good job in laying it out. Given that there are two more spring leagues on the horizon – the XFL under new ownership, and a reboot of the old USFL – it appears that despite the daunting obstacles of starting up a professional football league and that no outdoor spring league has ever lasted more than three seasons – there are those still believing that this time it will work.

REASONS TO SEE: A thorough post-mortem of a league that was doomed to fail – and the human fallout from that failure.
REASONS TO AVOID: Interesting, but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and rude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Potter was initially hired to provide promotional films for the Orlando Apollos AAF franchise; after the league went belly-up, he decided to use his footage and create a documentary about the league’s rise and fall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Stairs

Kipchoge: The Last Milestone


The face of African wisdom.

(2021) Sports Documentary (Universal) Eliud Kipchoge, Peter Nduhiu, Patrick Sang, Barnard Lanat, Augstine Choge, Dr. Patrick Njoroge, Denis Noble, Yannis Pitsiladis, Julien Wanders, Jos Hermans, Sir Jim Ratliffe, David Brailsford, Bobby Kotchell, Dr. William Ruto. Directed by Jake Scott

 

Kenya has produced some world class distance runners, from Kip Keino on to Eliud Kipchoge, who many consider the greatest marathon runner of our time. He owns the world record of 2 hours, 3 minutes set in 2018 at the Monza marathon. He has also won nearly every major marathon, including Boston, New York, and the Olympics. However, the Kenyan legend had his eyes on a different sort of prize.

What Kipchoge proposed to do was something that nobody had even considered before; to run a marathon in under two hours. In order to do it, he would need optimum conditions; a closed course in Vienna was selected. The course had to be as perfectly level as possible, the payment without blemish. The weather would have to be coolish, but not too cold.

In the first half hour of the movie, we meet Kipchoge and there is almost a hero-worship going on; he is depicted as a humble, disciplined, inspirational and driven man who is beloved as a national hero in Kenya – all of which is true. Mr. Kipchoge has one of those faces that holds your interest; it is the face of African wisdom, older than time and just as permanent. But a lot of what he says sounds like it came out of a Nike commercial, a self-help handbook, a positive message poster, or all of the above.

It is only when we get into the nuts and bolts of the preparation for the historic run that the movie takes off. We see the immense preparation that takes place as well as the cutting edge science that is used to give Kipchoge every advantage in breaking the milestone. When he runs, a phalanx of pace runners are ahead of him in a Y-shape in order to cut down wind drag on the Kenyan runner. For that reason, when Kipchoge does achieve the impossible (it is not really a spoiler to pass on this information, any more than it is to mention that the Titanic sinks at the end of the movie) it is not considered an actual world record because the conditions were not marathon race conditions.

Still, the achievement is incredible, something to gape at in helpless admiration. As someone who would time his own marathon with a calendar, I could truly feel awe at the achievement. Clearly the filmmakers did as well, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it did feel like they didn’t really explore the man Kipchoge too deeply during the film; he remains more of an icon than a human being throughout the movie and that’s a shame because from what glimpses we do get, the man Eliud Kipchoge seems to be a man who viewers would likely be very interested in getting to know better.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s hard not to admire someone taking on a challenge that is seemingly impossible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sort of a hagiographic collection of self-help aphorisms.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jake Scott’s father, Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott, was a producer on this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Flix Fling, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Barkley Marathons
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Tupac and Biggie

The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World


The gesture that still shakes the world.

(2020) Sports Documentary (1091) Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Ralph Boston, Mel Pender, Francoise Hamlin, Patty Van Wolvelaere, Brian Meeks, Dr. Harry Edwards, Selma Roberts, Richard Lapchick, Tom Farrell, Craig Masback, Paul Hoffman, Steve Livingston, Edwin Roberts, Larry Questad, Michelle Sikes. Directed by Tom Ratcliffe and Becky Paige

 

We are all aware of the brouhaha that Colin Kaepernick found himself in when he chose to take a knee during the national anthem at NFL games to protest violence against people of color as well as racial inequality. However, that wasn’t the first time a single gesture at a sporting event polarized the country.

At the 1968 Summer Olympics at Mexico City, just such an event occurred. It had been a violent summer, with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King assassinated as well as Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. Protests against the Vietnam War were in full swing. Throughout the summer, black athletes, organized by San Jose State’s Dr. Harry Edwards, discussed boycotting the games altogether in protest of racial injustice, but at the end of the day were persuaded to participate.

In the 200 meter dash, American Tommie Smith was heavily favored to win. He was one of those who considered boycotting the Games, although in addition to feeling left out of his own country’s privileges, he also took great pride in being an American. Despite pulling a groin muscle in the semifinals, he managed to win the 200, setting a world record in the process. Fellow American John Carlos, both athletes at San Jose State at one time, finished third, just .04 seconds behind white Australian Peter Norman.

On the victory stand, both athletes were shoeless, wearing black socks only. Carlos wore a necklace of beads in honor of the black Americans who had been lynched over the years. Both men stood during the playing of the National Anthem with fists upraised, heads bowed, each wearing a single black glove. Both athletes heard boos cascading through the stadium as they exited the ceremony.

Reaction was swift and negative. International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage – who had not protested the Nazi salute at the 1936 Berlin games – wanted both men expelled from the Games. When the United States Olympic Committee refused, he threatened to expel the entire team. Both men were forced to leave the Olympic village and returned home to vitriol and death threats.

In the years since, their actions have been seen as acts of courage and of conscience, as well they should. The men are rightly considered heroes for taking a stand against injustice. This documentary, just a hair over an hour long, chronicles the events leading to that moment that is indelible in Olympic lore, with the genesis of the boycott and protests, the formation of Edwards’ Olympic Project for Human Rights which promoted the boycott, the contributions of the all-white Harvard rowing crew team who supported the boycott, and the aftermath of those actions. While there is an abundance of talking heads in the film, it does put together the events well and provides context. In particular, Smith and Edwards both prove to be compelling subjects – in fact, nearly all the interview subjects are, but those two truly stand out.

Given the backlash against Kaepernick and those athletes who continue to kneel at the Star-Spangled Banner today, the timeliness of this story is obvious. The fact that many of the same issues that Smith and Carlos protested in 1968 were still issues in 2018 is a sad testament to the institutional racism that continues to dominate the experience of Americans of color despite protestations to the contrary.This should be required viewing for all high school students.

REASONS TO SEE: Well laid-out.
REASONS TO AVOID: A plethora of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racial violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smith and Carlos were both pallbearers at the funeral of Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist on the stand with them that day, in 2006.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Salute
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Valentina

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