Shoot Your Shot

White Men Can’t Jump is a slam dunk. Despite the title, White Men Can’t Jump is a more iconic part of black cinema. Complete with playful trash talk and emphasis on streetball. White Men Can’t Jump is steeped in the 90’s with colorful outfits, a hip-hop score, an Atari video game, and a cast that got big around the time. The titular white man who can’t jump is Woody Harrelson as college basketball player Billy. Since he’s white and geeky looking, Billy manages to hustle streetballer Sydney and his crew.

Wesley Snipes is hilarious, but Syd is no chump. So he decides to join Billy and his fiery Puerto Rican girlfriend Gloria played by a scene stealing Rosie Perez. Basically Blade, Carnage, and Renee Montoya hustle streetballers to pay off gangsters. At least gangsters are Billy’s problem, Syd is more concerned with buying a house for his family. Harrelson and Snipes play off each other well whether on the court or bonding. I even believe Harrelson and Perez as a couple, but Billy does make a lot of stupid bets.

It feels like the movie will end several times, but there are countless hustles going on that bring the characters back to square one. When a basketball competition doesn’t work, Gloria gets her wish to be on Jeopardy. I expected appearances from real life basketball players, but I wasn’t expecting Alex Trebek. It feels like the end once again, but Billy still needs to prove to Syd and himself that he can jump. White Men Can’t Jump is a basketball film that any race can enjoy.

White Men Can't Jump

Billy plays ball against Syd

Three Men and a Racehorse

Seabiscuit is the little horse movie that could. Although nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Seabiscuit lost almost every Oscar to The Return of the King. I don’t watch many horse movies, but Seabiscuit is worthy of all its recognition. Set during the Great Depression with old fashioned narration from David McCullough, Seabiscuit was a Thoroughbred racehorse who was small, angry, and lazy, but became an underdog for the people. The movie centers around three men: the salesman, the trainer, and the jockey.

Jeff Bridges plays charismatic car salesman turned horse promoter Charles S. Howard. Fresh off his Oscar win for Adaptation, Chris Cooper plays older horse trainer Tom Smith. After their previous film Pleasantville, Tobey Maguire reunited with director Gary Ross to play redheaded stubborn jockey Red Pollard. An angry jockey needs an angry horse, so all three men come together to make Seabiscuit the unlikely champion. Maguire brings the same level of enthusiasm that he brought to playing Spider-Man.

Fellow Spider-Man co-star Elizabeth Banks also appears as Howard’s younger supportive second wife Marcela. Along with fellow Pleasantville co-star William H. Macy as energetic racing announcer “Tick Tock” McLaughlin. Though Red and Seabiscuit have a strong bond, he’s forced to relinquish the jockey seat after a terrible accident. Real life jockey Gary Stevens plays replacement jockey George Woolf. They win against the frequent winner War Admiral, but Seabiscuit later sustains a similar injury to Red. Their bond only grows stronger when they build eachother back up. Seabiscuit is as inspirational as the horse himself.

Seabiscuit

Red Pollard rides Seabiscuit

Running for God

Chariots of Fire was the first British Best Picture winner in over a decade. Most of the younger British cast was unknown and the director Hugh Hudson was more known for documentaries. Though Raiders of the Lost Ark left a stronger impact, Chariots of Fire did launch the careers of many Brits including Richard Griffiths, Kenneth Branagh, and Stephen Fry. For a long time I had no idea what the movie was about aside from one iconic scene. Most people are familiar with the scene where men are running in slow motion to the late Vangelis’ Oscar winning Best Original Score, but few know the context. Chariots of Fire is actually about the 1924 Olympics and the title is referenced in the Bible.

The historical aspect also won the movie Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design. Much like A Man for All Seasons, Chariots of Fire is about a man’s unwavering conviction to his faith. In this case, the story centers on two British athletes motivated by their respective religions. Harold Abrahams is the Jewish athlete who runs to fight anti-Semitism. Ben Cross is a little arrogant, but ultimately sympathetic in his desire to win. Harold’s personal life is seen with his attendance to Cambridge, love of Gilbert & Sullivan, and romance with singer Sybil played by a young Alice Krige.

Ian Holm was the only actor nominated for his portrayal of Harold’s passionate coach Mussabini. Eric Liddell is the devout Christian athlete who runs for God and refuses to work on the Sabbath. Ian Charleson is fully committed to Eric’s convictions. Although Harold and Eric are technically rivals, they rarely interact. More time is spent with their fellow runners Aubrey Montague and/or Lord Andrew Lindsay. Races are especially powerful with the rest of Vangelis’ often anachronistic sounding 80’s electronic score. Although Chariots of Fire isn’t my cup of tea as a slow-paced sports movie, I was won over by its strongly Christian themes and inspirational message.

Chariots of Fire

Eric (foreground) and Harold (background) run on the beach

Stone vs. Bronze

Early Man is late to the game. What do cavemen and soccer have in common? Absolutely nothing, but Aardman decided to make a movie about it. Of course they do call it football since it’s a British production. After Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, studio founder Nick Park made Early Man his next project. I really think Aardman needs to choose their projects more carefully. Between The Pirates! and Early Man, no original concepts come close to what came before. It’s an enjoyable cave adventure, but not exactly Oscar material.

Which is why I’m glad it wasn’t one of many stop-motion animated movies nominated. It’s alright to be average every once in awhile. The animation is up to the usual standard, but it does look goofier than usual. This time the talented British cast consists of the mostly unrecognizable voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, and Timothy Spall. Early Man takes place during a semi-modern Stone Age. Dug thinks big as he hunts with his pet boar Hognob and fellow dimwitted cavemen & women.

When their land is threatened, Dug discovers a much more evolved civilization from the Bronze Age. The eccentric and greedy Lord Nooth keeps everyone distracted with soccer matches. Apparently cavemen invented soccer, so Dug challenges the ruler to a high stakes game. He gets help from a lovely Bronze Age vendor named Goona and manages to teach his tribe how to play. Early Man is a funny romp, but I’m still not a big enough fan of sports or cave people to get properly invested.

Early Man

Dug, Hognob and Goona gather footballs

Boxing Brothers

The Fighter fought its way into the big time. I’ve seen many boxing movies, but The Fighter is just as much a family drama as it is a boxing drama. It’s based on real life Lowell, Massachusetts boxing brothers Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund. Raging Bull director Martin Scorsese and The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky were both considered to direct, but the reigns ultimately went to David O. Russell. Since The Fighter is something of a comeback story, it made sense that this was his first film in over 6 years. The entire cast was dedicated to making the most realistic boxing movie they could.

Christian Bale pulled another one of his notorious body transformations by losing a lot of weight to play the crack addicted Dicky. The movie within a movie is an HBO documentary that depicted his drug use. Dicky’s struggles were enough to finally win Bale an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Mark Wahlberg is no slouch either convincingly getting into fighting shape and mimicking the real life Micky’s mannerisms. Being from Massachusetts himself, Wahlberg had a lot in common with the former boxer. His struggle was living in his brother’s shadow and not making it with him around.

The Fighter is a family affair with lots of personal drama revolving around Micky’s strained relationship with his controlling mother, meek father, and multitude of seven gossiping sisters. Melissa Leo was equally deserving of her Best Supporting Actress win. Amy Adams was only nominated for her hot-blooded portrayal of Micky’s eventual wife Charlene. Though I’m used to seeing her in “good girl” roles, Adams is just as profane as everyone else in the movie. The cast also includes Micky’s real life trainer Mickey O’Keefe and Sugar Ray Leonard. Matches are more realistic, but the outcome remains the same. The Fighter made Best Picture nominated boxing flicks cool again.

The Fighter

Micky trains with his brother Dicky

Piece of Meat

The Wrestler brought Mickey Rourke back into the ring. Boxing movies are a dime a dozen, but there really aren’t that many professional wrestling movies out there. Probably because most people think wrestling is fake anyway. The Wrestler feels realistic thanks to director Darren Aronofsky. It’s not disturbing like most of his films, but it is an emotional journey. The camera follows Rourke very closely in his big comeback as pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson. He’s got the long blonde hair of Hulk Hogan, but his glory days are long behind him.

Randy is old, broken down, and one heart attack away from dying. Forcing him to give up his wrestling career and move on with his life. Rourke is in impressive shape with a performance to match. He won so many awards, yet somehow didn’t win Best Actor. The Wrestler earns its R rating with very brutal and bloody wrestling matches. Randy’s main romantic pursuit is aging stripper Pam played by a very naked Marisa Tomei. Even at 44 years old, Tomei looks really good for her age.

She was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Most of the profanity comes from Randy’s strained relationship with his daughter Stephanie played by Evan Rachel Wood. Even when his life starts to get back on track, Randy manages to sabotage his job at the deli and his relationships with Pam and his daughter until wrestling is all he has left. It’s heartbreaking to see Randy risk his life by getting back in the ring, but everything is left on a suitably ambiguous note. The Wrestler puts up a good fight.

The Wrestler

Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s final leap

Put Your Heart in the Game

Love & Basketball is the greatest decade spanning basketball romance movie I’ve ever seen. Not that there are any other movies like it. Love & Basketball had a dedicated cult following that I couldn’t ignore for very long. I mostly watched it thanks to my brother’s growing interest. It ended up being my favorite romantic drama with a predominantly black cast. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood based a lot of the story on her own life experiences. Spike Lee took a chance on her work by producing the movie himself. Love & Basketball was intended to be sort of a black version of When Harry Met Sally… and it shows in the best way.

Much like the always present game of basketball, events are separated into 4 quarters. The first quarter explores childhood. the second quarter explores high school, the third quarter explores college. and the fourth quarter explores adulthood. Monica and Quincy end up as next door neighbors with an adorable love/hate dynamic as they bicker, yet end up sharing their first kiss. The film does a good job of pointing out the differences between men and women who play sports. Quincy has his entire career laid out for him, but Monica has to fight while keeping her emotions in check. When Monica gets a makeover, Quincy starts seeing her as more than a friend and they hook up a lot sooner than I thought.

Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps have natural chemistry thanks to dating in real life. Their relationship gets especially steamy in a strip basketball sequence. Of course their relationship gets complicated when their families and separate aspirations come between them. Quincy isn’t kept in good hands with Dennis Haysbert as his cheating professional basketball playing father ruining their family. Monica has her supportive sister played by Regina Hall, but her greatest obstacle is her unsupportive mother played by Alfre Woodard for the first time. As Monica and Quincy continue to diverge, a final high stakes game of one-on-one just might be enough to bring them together. All’s fair in Love & Basketball.

Love & Basketball

Monica and Quincy play basketball

Le Mans ’66

Ford v Ferrari is the last 20th Century Fox film nominated for Best Picture. It couldn’t have happened to a more old fashioned movie. In fact, Fox always wanted to bring the racing rivalry between Ford and Ferrari to life. At one point they wanted Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, but Matt Damon and Christian Bale are suitable replacements. After Logan, director James Mangold shifted gears back to the biographical dramas he used to make with acclaimed films like Walk the Line.

I’m still not an automotive expert, but even I know the idea of a Ford beating Ferrari in a race sounds like a pipe dream. Ford v Ferrari is all about Ford being challenged to build a racecar with enough speed to outrace Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Damon is the determined automotive designer Carroll Shelby and Bale appropriately portrays his hotheaded frenemy Ken Miles. Shelby is close with Miles’ family and does everything he can to push the racer.

Even when everyone else is trying to get him out of the driver seat. They deal with the heads of Ford played by Jon Bernthal and Tracy Letts. They also deal with a lot of scientific mechanics in order to get the Ford GT40 to crazy speeds. Racing scenes are so fast and smooth that you feel like you’re right there. No wonder Ford v Ferrari won technical awards like Best Film Editing and Sound Editing. Though the outcome isn’t fair, the thrill of the race is more than enough. Ford v Ferrari is an honest-to-goodness sports drama about the American dream.

Ford v Ferrari

Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles on a Ford

Formula 1

Rush is a 2 hour long adrenaline rush. I’m not a racing expert, but I stand by my philosophy that a good movie can make anything interesting. Though I’ll admit I primarily watched Rush because I assumed it would be a top Oscar contender. You have Academy Award winning director Ron Howard, the biographical angle, and strong reviews from critics. Yet Rush wasn’t nominated for a single Oscar. Just 2 Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Supporting Actor.

I’ll further admit that Chris Hemsworth was another major draw for me. It doesn’t help that he looks exactly like Thor without a beard. I guess he was kind of typecast with long hair for awhile. Rush explores the Hunt-Lauda sports rivalry of the 1970’s. James Hunt is a British Formula 1 racer who drives a McLaren. Niki Lauda is an Austrian Formula 1 racer who drives a Ferrari. Though the film doesn’t stray away from their mutual admiration for one another, a heated rivalry makes better conflict. Chris Hemsworth gives his all to a more dramatic performance and Daniel Brรผhl made his presence known.

Imagine Thor racing against Baron Zemo. Both racers are driven to outclass each other and they couldn’t be more different. Hunt is a partying playboy who indulges in drugs and sex (including a very naked confrontation with Natalie Dormer). Lauda is more levelheaded, though he does make a mistake that leads to severe burns. Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara have a front row seat as their respective wives. Howard makes every race dramatic with fast cuts, slow motion, and moody lighting. Rush is an underrated slice of racing history.

Rush

James Hunt and Niki Lauda

Always Protect Yourself

Million Dollar Baby packs a serious punch. I haven’t seen much of Hilary Swank, but she’s an actress who always makes her performances count. She’s far from a typical 2 time Best Actress winner. It only took 5 years after Swank won for Boys Don’t Cry. Both films feature an intense transformation that the Academy Awards couldn’t ignore. Million Dollar Baby is the first movie to win Best Picture after the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended. It’s not the greatest boxing movie ever made, but it does go deeper than most. All thanks to the personal Oscar winning direction of the legendary Clint Eastwood. He also produced, starred, and provided the subtle guitar score.

Eastwood is the gruff but good hearted boxing trainer Frankie Dunn. He has his own personal problems ranging from faith to family. Although initially refusing to train a girl, Maggie Fitzgerald is exactly the aspiring young underdog he needs in his life. Together they train and eventually bond over their shared struggles. Similar to her previous award winning role, Maggie is from a trailer park with a scumbag family and has her life cut tragically short. Million Dollar Baby also gave Morgan Freeman the opportunity to finally win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Former boxer Scrap has great interplay with Frankie, a lovable mentor role with Maggie, and Freeman narrates as well. The role is practically redemption for not winning for Shawshank Redemption. Several before they were famous actors include Jay Baruchel as a more dimwitted aspiring boxer. Plus many future Marvel actors like Anthony Mackie, Michael Peรฑa, and a very skinny Mike Colter. Swank still steals the show with her impressive muscle tone, heartfelt sincerity, and brutal boxing matches against real life female boxers. The ending is heart-wrenching, but the message of Million Dollar Baby is clear to always protect yourself and fight for your dream.

Million Dollar Baby

Frankie and Scrap help Maggie in the ring