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By David O'Grady
Now that spring has sprung something other than a leak, the sunshine beckons us outdoors. For many a weekend warrior, this means a pickup game of hoops at Upper Noe Rec Center, a tennis match at Noe Courts, or a soccer match at Dolores Park. Or maybe you've scored tickets to watch the Giants at Telephone Company Park.
But if a lingering cloud delays your outdoor plans, consider renting a sports movie from a Noe Valley video store. The following picks cover the wide world of sports in all their drama, corruption, competition, and celebration.
Baseball's First Big Scandal
Director John Sayles reminds us in his film Eight Men Out (1988) that the great game of baseball has been rocked by scandal before--and survived. The movie tells the story of the 1919 World Series, when eight players on the Chicago "Black" Sox threw the series to collect payoffs from well-heeled gamblers. Sayles makes the most of his strong ensemble cast, including David Strathairn (most recently Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck) as a pitcher facing the end of his career, and John Cusack in a breakout performance as third-baseman George "Buck" Weaver, who knows about the conspiracy but plays to win.
The real villain in this carefully observed period piece is the tight-fisted White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who stiffs the players out of their post-season bonus early in the film. Caught between the greed of an owner and the bookies who make a killing off their games, the players have little choice but to get a piece for themselves.
As he did in his coal-mining masterpiece Matewan, Sayles in Eight Men Out again shows the consequences of too much power in too few hands.
Rugby's Version of Mad Max
Murderball (2005) lost the Best Documentary Oscar this year to that penguin movie, but the film's stars, the athletes competing on the U.S. wheelchair rugby team at the 2004 Paralympics, probably aren't bent out of shape about it. Like the nickname for wheelchair rugby suggests, "murderball" is a rough sport, where contestants bash one another in armor-plated wheelchairs resembling vehicles from Mad Max as they scuffle to get the ball across the end line of a basketball court.
The brutal physicality on display in Murderball is matched by the indomitable personalities of its players, who reveal their stories of paralysis as they prepare to face archrival Canada in a quest for the gold. The gift of the documentary dwells in its restraint. It refuses to turn the players' misfortunes into excuses, or their successes into movie-of-the-week clichés. These guys are angry, hard-working, foul-mouthed, horny, funny, fragile, competitive, and, above all, compelling to watch.
Indiana, Part I
For a healthy dose of redemption in sports, look no further than Hoosiers (1986), the story of a middling high school basketball team in small-town Indiana in the 1950s. When a new coach, played with understated resolve by Gene Hackman, comes to town, he has to confront the second-guessing town patriarchs, undisciplined players, and a disillusioned star reluctant to re-join the team. The coach's unorthodox methods, unpopular at first, soon rehabilitate the players, the town, and even the town drunk (Dennis Hopper). But can the coach save himself from his overly competitive drive and still take the team all the way to the finals?
Its outcome predictable, Hoosiers still delivers on the strength of its performances. Barbara Hershey, playing one of the school's teachers, reminds viewers of the cruel limitations of small-town life and the tension between loving your home and wanting to leave it. A rich and rewarding movie, Hoosiers sounds a hopeful note for second chances in life, both on and off the court.
Indiana, Part II
Ask cyclists about their favorite cycling movie, and without fail they will name Breaking Away (1979). Set in Bloomington, Ind., the story follows the destinies of four young men known as "cutters"--the sons of men who worked in the town's rock quarries--in their first year after high school. One of the townies, Dave Stoller, is a cyclist who worships the Cinzano cycling team so much that he listens to Italian opera, speaks Italian phrases to his parents and friends, and even poses as an Italian to woo a local university student.
Dave gets his chance to race against the Cinzano team, but the competition ends in disaster when the Italians knock Dave off his bike, sending his life's passion into a spin. With the help of his friends, though, Dave takes up his bike again, determined to win the Little 500 bike race and to figure out his future.
Director Peter Yates captures the feeling Richard Linklater would later mine in Dazed and Confused, that outwardly laconic period when the tribe of youth confronts the uncertainty of adulthood. Breaking Away feels equally authentic in its portrayal of Dave's home life, which is full of love but sometimes lacking in understanding.
Yet the movie is best remembered for one of the most exhilarating training scenes ever filmed: Dave streaking down the highway on his razor-thin tires, drafting off a Cinzano truck going 60 miles per hour, as Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony keeps the pace.
Sikhs and Soccer in West London
With the 2006 World Cup starting next month in Germany, it's a great time to watch the soccer movie Bend It Like Beckham (2002). The title refers to soccer star David Beckham's ability to curl a soccer ball in flight, but the story is about a young woman named Jesminder, who will have to bend the rules of her Sikh household in West London if she's going to play soccer for a local team.
It won't be easy for Jess, well acted by Parminder Nagra (Dr. Neela Rasgotra on TV's E.R.). Her parents want her to become a traditional Sikh woman--meet a boy, learn to cook aloo gobi, start a family--and put away childish things like soccer. With the help of her friend Jules (played by Keira Knightley) and her coach, Joe, she sneaks around her parents to follow her dream. But the complicated wedding of Jess' older sister puts soccer and family on a collision course, forcing Jess to confront her deception--and potentially choose between her family and her dream of playing professionally.
Mother-daughter dust-ups, love triangles, a lavish Sikh wedding, pulsing modern Indian dance music--and a little soccer--create an infectious, lighthearted mix that will sustain you through the silly and overlong ending. Ideal for early teens, Bend It Like Beckham will send all ages back out into the sunshine with a smile. n
David O'Grady is a film enthusiast who lives on Noe Street. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.