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Morning Sun
  • SISNEY: At the movies, part I

  • My ultimate dream job, as writer, would be a professional movie critic. Of course, I realize that would make it a professional obligation to sit through sludge like “2012” and the next half-dozen or dozen “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, but, hey, no jobs are perfect.

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  • My ultimate dream job, as writer, would be a professional movie critic. Of course, I realize that would make it a professional obligation to sit through sludge like “2012” and the next half-dozen or dozen “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, but, hey, no jobs are perfect.
    Now that I write on sports six days a week and have a DVD recorder to preserve old videotapes, I watch more movies than ever before on down time.
    For example, on Father’s Day Sunday, I watched three Marx Brothers comedies — “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “A Day at the Races” — in a row after I realized I misspelled “Barracudas” about 15 times in Sunday’s paper. I wrote down “barracudas” once and “barricudas” another time in my notes, but, of course, I chose the wrong spelling for the article. Rather than beat myself up all day, I thought watching my favorite movie comedians would be a better remedy and help me face the week ahead.
    Now, I thought I would share my 10 favorite sports movies, in alphabetical order and divided into two columns, five this week and five next week. Please remember, like Lou Reed said in “Coney Island Baby,” “Different people have peculiar tastes.”
    "The Bad News Bears" (1976; directed by Michael Ritchie)
    Some folks prefer their baseball movies on the romantic side ("Field of Dreams," "The Natural") or mushy side ("The Pride of the Yankees," "Bang the Drum Slowly"). I prefer humor, since I remember laughing a lot more than crying or being all choked up during my playing days.
    "The Bad News Bears" provides moments of recognition like few sports movies do. Oh sure, I thankfully never had a coach who tossed us batting practice completely sloshed, never played on the same baseball team with a girl and our antics were never scored by Bizet's "Carmen." However, I do remember trash talking between players, profanity bursts, fights and scraps between teammates and the other team, fielding errors galore, post-game meals at fast food restaurants, players who struggled lifting a bat and how seriously some people took Little League baseball.
    Arguably more than any other sports movie, "The Bad News Bears" gets right at the heart of what competition, the desire to win at whatever cost and tasting success can do to a person and entire groups of people (i.e. teams). Regard the shift in the behavior and mentality of Coach Morris Buttermaker (played superbly by Walter Matthau) after the Bears start winning baseball games and make their way to the championship game against the hated Yankees and their hated coach Roy Turner, who epitomizes the old sports motto, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
    In the Big Game to conclude the film, director Ritchie and screenwriter Bill (son of Burt) Lancaster wisely chose to not give us a happy ending, but the correct one, the most honest possible ending because the Bears have already won the game just by making the championship game. Two "Bad News Bears" sequels and numerous imitations, usually manufactured by the Disney feel-good assembly line, never quite get it right. Stick with the original.
    Page 2 of 4 - "Breaking Away" (1979; directed by Peter Yates)
    It's almost enshrined in stone that all sports movies give us a happy ending, because who needs to sit still for 90 minutes or 120 minutes of a sports movie just to watch Rocky or the Mighty Ducks lose and leave the movie on a downtrodden note.
    Like "Rocky," "Breaking Away" is one of those sports movies that deserves its happy ending because it creates interesting, likable, and quirky but life-affirming characters who make for somebody we can place an emotional investment in.
    Dennis Christopher plays Dave, an ordinary guy from Bloomington, Ind., who develops an obsession with everything Italian, especially Italian bicycling, and he begins speaking Italian and playing opera records every chance he gets and renames his good old American dog "Fellini," driving his dear old American dad (played by Paul Dooley) up a wall. He even starts a little romance with a college girl, creating an Italian alter ego since he's afraid to be himself to impress the girl. He's at that crucial age of life transitioning between childhood and adulthood, discovering himself in the process.
    Dave and his three friends are called "cutters," a derogatory term describing the fact their fathers built the foundation Indiana University stands on and they never get to enjoy it because they're not rich enough to attend college. After a big brawl on campus between "the cutters" and college students, Dave and his friends end up in the Little 500 bicycle race on campus, which sets the stage for a rousing finale. Writer Steve Tesich based his screenplay on his real-life experiences and people he knew, and location shooting in and around Bloomington only adds to the experience.
    "Bull Durham" (1988; directed by Ron Shelton)
    This is the rare, extremely rare, sports movie where winning and losing are non-relevant and not everything hinges on the Big Game. Rather, it's about the eccentric and idiosyncratic nature of professional athletes — minor league baseball players, in particular — and "Bull Durham" considers superstitions, curses, etc., and other quirks of human behavior.
    We know that baseball players will not talk about a no-hitter or perfect game in progress, respect the nature of a winning streak or hitting streak and will hold onto anything believed to be good luck, or some players will go as far not to wash their batting helmet during the season (Craig Biggio) or not shave (entire teams) after their first postseason win.
    Kevin Costner stars as Crash Davis, a veteran minor league catcher who's brought in to be a mentor to the bonus baby hot shot pitching prospect Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh (Tim Robbins). Crash and Ebby are recruited by an English teacher at a community college and narrator to be her "one man" for the baseball season. She's Annie Savoy, played with gusto and great humor by Susan Sarandon, and Sarandon turns what could have been an exploitative role into a transcendent character.
    Page 3 of 4 - Director Ron Shelton treats both romance and baseball seriously, since he intertwines them as being similar bedrock foundations of the American Experience, and "Bull Durham," like "Rocky," could be a perfect date movie with, in theory, romance for the women and baseball for the men. Shelton knows his way around baseball, since he played five years of minor league baseball in the Baltimore Orioles system.
    Four baseball movies came out around the same time — "Bull Durham," "Eight Men Out," "Field of Dreams" and "Major League" — and they only helped to fire my imagination.
    "Caddyshack" (1980; directed by Harold Ramis)
    What do Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase, a Baby Ruth candy bar and a dancing gopher have in common? They are stars of "Caddyshack," arguably the funniest sports movie ever made and the best golf movie.
    Dangerfield, Murray, Knight and Chase basically perform variations on their stand-up routines or what made them famous on television or in the movies — Dangerfield and Murray play anarchist slobs, one big on wisecracks (Dangerfield) and the other big on impromptu speeches (Murray), Knight overreacts marvelously esp. when Dangerfield gets under his skin and Chase plays his standard aloof, detached wiseacre but with a twist on New Age/Zen philosophies. Dangerfield, Murray and Knight basically steal the show from Chase because he's too laidback for his own good.
    As the bizarro groundskeeper Carl Spackler, Murray gives better speeches than Lombardi and he's as quotable as Yogi Berra. You might cherish the Dalai Lama story and Murray's Cinderella story about the former groundskeeper turned Masters champion. I do, of course, and I like his ramblings about killing gophers. Almost every main character gets at least one great line and I favor Judge Smails’ "You'll get nothing, and like it."
    We don't go back to "Caddyshack" year after year for the teenaged caddies and their unimportant dramas in the movie, we go back, in part, because some of us wish golf courses were as entertaining as Bushwood in "Caddyshack." "Caddyshack" mostly works because it tosses anarchic comedians up against a sport filled with "a tradition unlike any other."
    "Chariots of Fire" (1981; directed by Hugh Hudson)
    This 1981 British production won four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Original Music Score (Vangelis), Best Original Screenplay (Colin Welland) and Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero) — and joins “Rocky” and “Million Dollar Baby” as the only sports movies to win Best Picture statuettes.
    American sports fans may not care about the film’s commentary on class divisions in the British Empire circa 1924 or all the grizzled old British character actors in supporting roles. Rather, “Chariots of Fire” earns its place in history because of the athletic (running) events in the film, its behind-the-scenes look at what goes on inside an athlete’s mind and how athletes compete for something more than fame and glory, and its musical score.
    Page 4 of 4 - Our two protagonists, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, are seen as not only great athletes — great runners — but complex individuals who run at the highest level for distinctly personal reasons. Abrahams is the hotheaded, difficult Cambridge University student-athlete proving himself and fighting against anti-Jew prejudice. Liddell is the son of Scottish missionaries to China and wears his religion proudly, almost defiantly; Liddell sums it up, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But, He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
    Vangelis (full name: Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou) made his fame on scores for movies. His music for “Chariots of Fire” possesses lush, ethereal, dreamlike qualities that fit together perfectly with running; you may remember the scene in “National Lampoon’s Vacation” when Clark Griswold and his family make a run for Walley World set to “Chariots of Fire.”
    To Be Continued. . . .

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