Sports

Undefeated

Undefeated is such a well-meaning, heart-on-its-sleeve documentary that one feels morally obligated to write words in praise of it. In fact, anyone admitting to a dislike of the film runs the risk of being called a heartless crank. Having scored a 2011 Academy Award nomination in the Best Documentary category, it’s safe to say that Oscar voters are not in the camp of doubters and naysayers.

There is, after all, so much to appreciate in directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film about a North Memphis high school football coach and his hardscrabble Menassas Tigers’ 2009 miracle season. The documentary vividly profiles each of its four principal subjects: There is the compassionate and voluble coach Bill Courtney, whose commitment to his players borders on saintly; the troubled Chavis, battling anger issues as he seeks to be a mature team leader; the sweet-tempered O.C., blessed with superior talent but struggling with academics in his quest for a scholarship; and “Money,” an honors student and undersized lineman with a never-say-die attitude. Read the full review here

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Senna

When setting out to make “Senna,” his documentary about the namesake racecar driver, director Asif Kapadia scored a major coup when he gained access to the entire Formula One archive. The footage that Kapadia unearthed turned out to be a goldmine revealing Ayrton Senna’s entire professional career, including races, meetings, press conferences and interviews (with Senna, his peers and closest associates). Together with home movies and broadcast excerpts from Brazil (Senna’s home country), Kapadia and his team have managed to create an astonishing tribute to the driver considered a national hero in Brazil, comprised entirely of already-existing footage. Indeed, “Senna” stands as a triumph of Kapadia and his collaborators’ knack for story craft and their ability to sort through a staggering volume of material and piece it together into a unified, powerful narrative.

The only contemporary elements recorded for the documentary are the layers of interviews that add context and commentary to the unfolding footage. As Kapadia charts Senna’s Formula One career from his 1984 debut to his tragic 1994 accident, we hear from motorsport journalists, including veteran Brazilian writer Reginaldo Leme, The Guardian’s Richard Williams, and former ESPN writer John Bisignano, along with professionals like Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, both of whom owned racing teams that Senna drove for, along with Alain Prost, Senna’s legendary rival. The remembrances they and several others – including Senna’s mother and sister – share provide richness to the characterization of Senna that emerges from the footage.

The man at the documentary’s center is rife with contradictions. A devout Catholic, Senna frequently cited his belief in God as his driving force and likened the experience of auto racing to spiritual epiphany. Off the track, Senna expressed deep concern for the impoverished plight of many of his countrymen, particularly the underprivileged children growing up in poverty (an end title informs us that a school founded in Senna’s name in 1995 has since educated 12 million Brazilian children). At the same time, Senna was no saint either. He enjoyed his lavish comforts (he even hailed from a prosperous Sao Paolo family) and his celebrity as he shrewdly cultivated his image, whether as a national hero, a wronged underdog or a boyish scamp. And Senna was not above the egotistical trappings of competition either, as his tense relationship with Prost (who won four Formula One titles to Senna’s three) bears out. In one sequence, Senna is accused of deliberately sabotaging Proust’s chances of winning a crucial race, and we note the undercurrent of bitterness that charge even their off-track interactions. As a result, we don’t like or dislike Senna so much as admire him for his confidence and talent.

Thanks to Kapadia’s exhaustive, illuminating use of Formula One archival footage along with Gregers Sall and Chris King’s skillful editing, “Senna” reaps maximum emotional wattage from every beat of its story. Because of the proliferation of video cameras during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the filmmakers luxuriate in a wealth of available coverage and camera angles to document every major event, complete with close-ups, reverse- and reaction-shots that have the visceral continuity of any made-from-scratch racing movie. Most spectacular is the extensive use of racing footage taken from cameras mounted just behind the drivers’ seats – it has the feel of an exhilarating video game, till we remember that this is real and so are the casualties.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Written by: Manish Pandey
Cast: Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Viviane Senna, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Jackie Stewart, Jean-Marie Balestre

The Fighter

The less you know about “Irish” Micky Ward before watching The Fighter, the better. The power of David O’Russell’s boxing drama may be most deeply felt on those viewers discovering Micky’s story here for the first time. Those already familiar with the underdog particulars of Micky’s career trajectory will still enjoy the film’s performances and the genuinely riveting boxing sequences, but may not be so transfixed by the script’s largely conventional story arc. Scripted by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, The Fighter follows Micky’s rocky road from a small-time Massachusetts boxer to an international big deal, navigating the push-pull dynamics of a cantankerous family strong on loyalty but weak on emotional stability.

The Fighter is really about two fighters, Micky (Wahlberg) and his older brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). The latter is a has-been boxer who once made it to a title bout with Sugar Ray Leonard. Now, though, Dicky is a part-time trainer to Micky and a full-time crackhead, too strung-out to show up on time to his brother’s training sessions and his trips to boxing matches. Micky has ambition and talent, but he’s trapped by his loyalty to his dysfunctional family, by the guilt that his mother (and manager) Alice (Melissa Leo) uses to keep him under her thumb. But eventually the Ward clan’s constant drama of crime and drugs threaten to derail to Micky’s dreams, and, after the crack-addled Dicky is hauled back into prison, he uses the opportunity to strike out on his own.

Micky’s resolve and self-confidence finds its spark in Charlene (Amy Adams), his tough-chick girlfriend. Charlene shields Micky from Alice and Dicky’s toxic influence, and, under her and Micky’s new trainer O’Keefe’s wing, he finally makes a name for himself in the boxing circuit. But there’s a parallel story of redemption going on, that of Dicky himself. After watching a TV documentary made about his own shameful train-wreck of a life, Dicky decides to clean up his act. It’s stirring to see the crosscut footage of Micky revitalizing his career in the ring while Dicky revitalizes his mind and body in the confines of prison; both men are finally breaking the shackles of their hard-luck fate.

Despite the story’s connect-the-dots, sport-as-redemption storyline, Wahlberg, Bale and O’Russell breathe galvanic life into tired material. Somehow, they make each and every boxing sequence a tense, nail-biting experience because so much is at stake for these brothers, from self-respect to their livelihoods and their very destinies. The elemental mechanics of the redemption story, the metaphor about the transformative potential of one’s passion and, as corny as it sounds, of the love between brothers, between Micky and Charlene and, ultimately, among family members are all put through their paces rigorously here.

O’Russell serves the story’s dramatic and emotional beats capably. He doesn’t impose sarcasm or irony here — ordinarily one of the trademarks of his brand of storytelling (put to excellent and appropriate effect in his previous outings) — but allows Micky, Charlene, Dicky and the Ward clan’s interrelationships, fraught with antagonisms, to evolve naturally, so that the characters’ fruits feel earned in the course of The Fighter. Where the film stumbles, though, is in its broad representations of, frankly put, Massachusetts “white trash”: Melissa Leo turns in a flinty performance but her Alice, with her bouffant hair-do, tacky get-ups and chain-smoking come across as borderline parody; Alice could just as easily be at home in an SNL spoof of the film. The same goes for the representations of Alice’s gaggle of daughters, all stringy-haired and half-literate. These characters fail to find much dramatic traction because their cultural tics are laid on so thick.

Bale almost falls overboard into parody himself with his spastic, wild-eyed portrayal of the gaunt, crack-addict Dicky, but the performance is so consistently off-kilter and gutsy that it’s tough not to admire it. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that, for half this film, the character Bale portrays is constantly, frighteningly high, and his performance, therefore — for all its self-conscious nuttiness — finds its justification. Keeping The Fighter confidently on its feet is Wahlberg whose steady, soulful performance gives the film its urgent moral center. Wahlberg ensures we stay rooted in Micky’s journey, for all the script and fellow performers’ broad strokes, cliches and conventionalities, and that we root for the scrapper through every round in the ring.

Grade: B

Directed by: David O’Russell
Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Mickey O’Keefe, Jack McGee