Monday, April 28, 2008

Best Basketball Documentary Since Hoop Dreams

THE HEART OF THE GAME How is it that even sports documentaries seem to end with the great film cliché, “The Big Game”? You know how it works: you start with the scrappy underdogs that don’t have a chance. Then that key player or coach comes in and turns every thing around and suddenly there is a chance to be champions. But it all hinges on that last big event when the whole world seems to be watching.
Maybe it’s because that last pass, shoot or race can still put a lump in the throat and tear in the eye of even the most hardened of sports fans and movie goers. The Heart of the Game, a documentary about a girl’s high school basketball team, the Roosevelt Rough Riders of Seattle, Washington, follows a new coach as he builds the team over seven years.
Ward Serrill, the film maker, could not have known he would end up with the aforementioned cliché when he began the project, but he must have been thrilled when it came about. Bill Resler, the college economics professor who became the team’s coach, dreamed about the cliché of the big game and had to live through turmoil until “the big game” came about. And that turmoil, particularly the trials of two star players, Devon and Darnella, provides much of the drama for the viewer.
The film is out on DVD and I highly recommend it for the sporting thrills, social commentary and unexpected humor (archive footage of early twentieth century woman’s basketball. And you thought the guys used to have funky uniforms).
There are ways the church is like a team, but I was struck by the differences. To be on the team, you had to go through try-outs to prove you were worthy. Christ welcomes every one into the church, precisely because we are not worthy (He is).
On a team the star player often is given preferential treatment if that person can make the difference between winning or losing. In the book of James, preferential treatment in the Church is expressly forbidden.
On a team, by its nature, the players have many superficial similarities. The players are the same age, gender, usually from the same geographic location (an exception to this rule provides much of the film’s interest) and similar talents. The church the Apostle Paul describes has people of every demographic.
When you think about it, the church is quite a unique institution. And there is no way it could stick together if we didn’t have the Coach we have. (The Heart of the Game is rated PG-13 for strong language and was released this year.)
And since we’re talking about sports films, let me give you some recommendations, in no particular order, my Top Ten Sport Films:
Chariots of Fire (1981) is a great sports film, Best Picture winner, and one of a handful of mainstream Hollywood films with an evangelical Christian as its protagonist. Eric Liddell, “The Flying Scotsman”, a sprinter who made a stand for Christ in the 1924 Olympic Games and captured the imagination of the world. The film doesn’t move as quickly as Liddell, but moving it is. (rated PG for reasons hard to discern)
Field of Dreams (1989) is a film about baseball, nostalgia, and becomes (rather surprisingly) about the prickly but vital relationship between fathers and sons. Kevin Costner is at his best, and there’s the treat of seeing Burt Lancaster in one of his last roles. Never mind that it inaccurately shows lefty Shoeless Joe Jackson as right-handed, it gets everything else right. (rated PG for language)
Rocky (1976) is a great film because of its ending. Sly Stallone wrote his own first starring role, wisely celebrating the boxer’s limitations as much as his hidden virtues. Like Field of Dreams, it celebrates the courage of “going the distance”. (rated PG for strong language and a lot of pugilistic violence)
Hoosiers (1986), The best formulation of the cliche of building the team up for the big game. (rated PG for language)
Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) is one of Robert de Niro’sfirst great starring roles as a big league catcher who isn’t too bright. Michael Moriarty plays the friend that looks out for him. The film makes one consider what it takes to be his brother’s keeper. (PG for a lot of strong language)
It Happens Every Spring (1949) beats out Major League, Tin Cup and even Caddyshack as my favorite sports comedy. The other three are very funny, but their crass humor earns their R ratings. Spring takes a more whimsical approach, as a professor (Ray Milland)invents a chemical that repels wood and figures out a sporting application for his product.
North Dallas Forty (1979) is not at all a family film. I got into hot water when I recommended this film to an InterVarsity friend of mine when the film was first in theaters. But I love this film, if just for the opening scene of Nick Nolte as NFL veteran feeling every bruise and break from years on the field as he gets out of bed in the morning. It also asks some good questions about the price put on integrity and one’s very soul in the world of professional sports (and the world in general). (rated R for sexual situations, violence, language, alcohol and drug abuse)
Cinderella Man (2005) and The Rookie (2002) I likebecause I’m getting older, and it’s nice to see other older guys succeeding in the arena (Russell Crowe as Jim Braddock in boxing and Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris in baseball). But the stories are true, and the men’s Christian faith is a part of both stories. (CinderellaMan is rated PG-13 for language and violence, The Rookie is rated G)
I doubt The Heart of the Game would have been made if it were not for Hoop Dreams (1994), a three-hour documentary that follows two young African Americans who go from boys to men, following their dream of basketball saving them from the ghetto. A great sports film, but even more, a film about the narrow vision of opportunity offered to those in poverty. (rated PG-13 for language)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Thoughts on "Sullivan's Travels"

Some cheery thoughts for your day:
According to the website of Bread for the Hungry, more than 854 million people in the world go hungry. In developing countries nearly 16 million children die every year from preventable and treatable causes. Sixty percent of these deaths are from hunger and malnutrition.
According to World Vision’s website, more than a billion children subsist on less than a dollar a day. Also according to World Vision, fifteen million children around the world have lost one or both parents to AIDS and 6,000 more are added each day.
According to Christians in Crisis International, in the last 2,000 years, 43,000,000 Christians have been martyred for their faith; over half of those were in the last century. Over two hundred million Christians face persecution today, and on average 300 Christian believers die each day for their faith.
I sometimes think about statistics like these when I go through my day-to-day activities. When I’m trying to decide whether to buy Mission Brand or Doritos Brand corn chips at the grocery store. Or when I’m on the phone with a potential customer at the hotel and helping to decide whether to get a standard room or spend a few hundred dollars more for a suite. Or when I’m writing a movie column.
So many of the things we do in our life seem so inconsequential when compared with the trials and struggles so many people face in the world. Sometimes it seems that all of our pursuits, vocationally, personally and even spiritually are trivial if one considers them in the light of the “big picture”.
Well, there is a “little picture” that can help put this existential dilemma into perspective. The picture, titled Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is considered by many to be the masterpiece of writer and director Preston Sturges, even compared some of his other wonderful films such as The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story.
In the film, Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a movie director known for his zany comedies (such as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1938), but when he considers the continuing economic straits in the country and the war in Europe he wonders if he shouldn’t be doing something more serious. He decides to make a film that explores the human condition, O Brother, Where Art Thou? But Sullivan’s staff questions whether he can really understand suffering, since he grew up in pampered private schools and now lives in the luxury of a Beverly Hills mansion.
So Sullivan dresses as a hobo and tries to live on the road looking for “trouble”. But Sullivan is a very valuable man, and the studio tries hard to protect him from any real “trouble”. But when Sullivan runs into real trouble, he learns the value of the laughter his films provide.
He gains this knowledge in a wonderful scene in the film that takes place in a Black church in the Deep South. The congregation looks to care for people less fortunate than themselves. So they invite members of a chain gang to visit their church for the picture show. For a moment, the congregation and the prisoners forget their sorrows as they laugh at the travails of Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. (Off the subject, but as they ask in Stand By Me, why can Goofy talk but not Pluto?)
It is tempting to think that the little things we do in life are meaningless. But it is not meaningless to make others laugh. Or to provide small acts of kindness. According to I Corinthians 10:31 we can even give glory to God when we eat and drink.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the bigger problems in the world. We should seek God’s wisdom to find ways to feed the hungry, cure the sick and protect the oppressed. But God has put us all in our particular place in the world, and we are to do the work God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10).
Not that our hearts shouldn’t ache for the suffering in the world – Jesus was certainly concerned. But He also spent years in the carpenter’s trade and took time to laugh with children. As Sullivan learns in the film, the world has enough trouble. We don’t have to look for it.
Oh, and I should mention again, Sullivan’s Travels is very funny, full of slapstick and dry wit. And Veronica Lake of the hair covering the face plays The Girl (she’s called that in the credits) and she was never lovelier. And if you ever wondered where the Coen brothers got their title for Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, it was from Sturges.