Analysis Reviews

Four Indie Sports Movies that are Slam Dunks

Joe Compton of GoIndieNow stops by to offer up some indie sports movie goodness.

Hello, fellow Plotaholics. It’s March Madness time for those of you into sports, and it’s also that time of year where on a random Thursday in the middle of the month I get super excited thinking finally this will be my year to win the bracket pool and by 8 PM PST that evening I get hit with the swift reality check that I am out already, a mere one day in. Then I get on with my life. 

And what is this life that I get on with? Well, for those of you who read last month’s article, you know I create and support independent art, which of course includes Indie Film. This has been a great month of Plotaholics podcasts, all revolving around the Sports Movie. Well, here are 4 more sports movies, from the Indie side of the filmmaking world, that you can add to your list.

WIN WIN (2011) 

Written and Directed by Tom McCarthy; Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, and Bobby Cannavale  

This is a film about a struggling small town lawyer/ volunteer high school wrestling coach, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti)  who takes in one of his client’s grandsons (Alex Shaffer) and quickly realizes the kid is the best wrestler he has ever seen. However in this film the wrestling isn’t all done within the confines of a mat in high school gym. 

Yes, there is much more to unfold throughout this film and those layers are just one of the reasons this film is amazing.

Let’s start with the writing. Tom McCarthy is such a maestro when it comes to unfolding layers upon layers within a plot, and while that might be nothing new, what is unique to how McCarthy does it is that he puts that focus squarely on the protagonist–a style he crafted in The Station Agent and then again in The Visitor, two indie films that showcased 2 household indie names (and really before they were household ones) in Peter Dinklage and Richard Jenkins.

Win Win is McCarthy’s first foray into trying this with an already-established household name in Paul Giamatti, but there really is no safer choice for this than Giamatti–an actor who has always seemingly found layering within his performances even when scripts may not necessarily call for them. Between McCarthy’s style and Giamatti’s acting chops this becomes the perfect set up for success. Giamatti is the perfect balance between lovable, wanting to be a good guy, and doing bad things. Walking that line is so interesting and so relatable because it’s not all about the choices he makes. It’s the way he handles the consequences and his internal feelings in justifying these actions.

So with that playing out right in front of the audience allowing the audience to be privy to what Giamatti is trying to hide, it doesn’t take us long to gravitate to the other characters and see how they figure it out, if they do,  but also how they deal with those revelations. That’s the surprising measure of this movie.

The other surprising measure is how funny it is. I am baffled at how Bobby Cannavale did not get more recognition for this film. He was off the charts funny and so much the needed comic relief and voice of mediocrity whenever a serious notion might creep in or bog the story down.

Win Win is not perfect. It has some predictable elements that come together and you kind of hope for a little more in an Indie film but that is so minor compared to so many films you see with this underlying premise. The difference between those middle of the road 3 shot films and this one is well all of what I just said, which makes it unique enough to stand out.

Win Win Rating: 1 Shot

EIGHT MEN OUT (2011) 

Written and Directed by John Sayles; Starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, Jace Alexander, Bill Irwin, DB Sweeney, and John Mahoney

Eight Men Out offers a look at the fix of the 1919 World Series, the famous “Black Sox” scandal that rocked baseball and exposed the world to the underbelly of organized crime that made even the purest of games seem crooked and crush all of spirits.

I know it sounds bleak but welcome to a John Sayles movie. John Sayles is not one of those glass half-full type of filmmakers. That being said, the way he captures the uses his fimmaking prowess to give you an ultimate sense of that time and era is masterful.

This is the type of movie that–besides John Cusack and Charlie Sheen–stars a bunch of guys you recognize from some show or other movie but aren’t quite sure of their names. Case in point, Michael Rooker, who of course thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy is a household name. But this movie came out in 1988, and I still think people would have a hard time placing him today. He is awesome in this film as the arrogant Chick Gandil. There’s Gordon Clapp, who you will know from NYPD Blue, who plays Ray Schalk. Then there’s David Straithairn, the actor’s actor who plays another veteran in Eddie Cicotte. All these guys show what the times were like, what it meant to make the choice they made, and the arrogance they had to feel above everyone else.

Then there’s Cusack who anchors a lot of the good representations and purity of the times only to be caught up in a net he can’t get out of. His proud moments in which he rises above are stellar and are really what give this film a unique edge.          

The way Sayles films the baseball action to all the behind-the-scenes stuff, we really feel there and present. The dulling of the color in the film is another subtle nuance that just adds that little bit of charm. You have to appreciate filmmakers who go that extra mile, I know I do. 

This film is a masterpiece, carefully crafted, well acted, well shot, and impressively neutral in its look at this amazing moment in sports history.

Eight Men Out Rating: 0 Shots

TEEN WOLF (1985)

Written by Jeph Loab; Directed by Rod Daniel; Starring Michael J Fox, Susan Ursitti, James Hampton, Lorie Griffith, and Jerry Levine

Wait! Teen Wolf was an Indie film? No way! Yep, in fact it’s more of an Indie film than Eight Men Out. Teen Wolf had no international release, but did very, very well for what it was in the box office, mainly because of Michael J Fox, but I am going to make a different case as to why in a moment.

Teen Wolf is the story of Scott Howard, a nerd with ambitions to be more than the loser he seems to be or thinks of himself as. One night, when he starts to go through some not-so-usual changes, he discovers that he comes from a long line of werewolves. Upon discovering this, his whole world does an immense 180 degree turn. He thinks his dream may be coming true, but it becomes much more than the average teen has to deal with. 

This is a comedy in the same vein as Pretty In Pink or Breakfast Club. Often, the jokes are the stinging reality that resonate harder than a quick punchline might. That’s what really makes the movie unique and stand out from the 100’s (and I am not exaggerating) of movies with a similar premise or like-minded teen premise. 

For those of you who are only familiar with the TV show you know exactly what I am talking about as that became more of dramedy than anything. The film holds up, I think, solely because of the work of Jeph Loab’s script and Rod Daniel’s direction.  Then you couple that by putting into the hands of incredibly underrated thespian in Michael J Fox, and you have yourself a classic. 

Teen Wolf deals with angst, bullying, and fitting in with a kind of duality you rarely see in these teen movies, especially for its time. That’s why it holds up and why the jokes work, even now. Jerry Levine was that guy who played Styles in nearly every movie he was in beyond and before Teen Wolf (besides his creepy turn in Boy Meets World as a cult leader). Styles is an iconic character that provides the moral ambiguity needed to allow Michael J Fox to push the boundaries and explore his rebel teen angst in a way most of us couldn’t even dream of.

This movie is a classic and while it hugs the cliche a tad bit, you ultimately stay with it for the ride.

Teen Wolf Rating: 1 SHOT

HOOP DREAMS (1994)

Written and Directed by Steve James; Also Written by Fredrick Marx; Cinematography by Peter Gilbert; Edited by Steve James and Fredrick Marx

THE DOCUMENTARY of SPORTS DOCUMENTARIES!! Hoop Dreams chronicles the story of 2 inner city African American high school basketball stars and their pursuit to be in the NBA.

Anyone who knows me, knows I am sucker for films about duality. This film, even though it presents that element, it does not give you what you hope for when you start to really get into it. More on that in a moment.

First, I want to talk about how this film became a film because it was never going to be that actually. Steve James was producing a 30 minute short film segment for a PBS program, and in doing so, found there was so much more to this compelling and incredible story that he went back and got what we now know as this film. This film spawned a generation of documentaries and a style that had never been seen before or at least had never been perfected before, not in a compelling manner like this.

This film is a benchmark beyond being a great film and make no mistake, this is a great film. Never have you had an opportunity to really get into the mode of another person and feel what they feel, experience what  they experience, and grasp a world that you may never have been privy to before.

It is as amazing as it is emotional, as it is real. More than that, it is relevant and holds up even some almost 30 years later. If you like to people watch, yeah the basketball element is very strong here, but I think the people watching element is even stronger, and thus I think this movie has a mass appeal. I also like the way in which it approaches the storytelling in a narrative sense and gives you some twists and turns.

Hoop Dreams is a benchmark film and a must-see for any documentarian, future documentarian, and anyone who is an avid basketball or people watcher.

Hoop Dreams Rating: 0 Shots

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