Category Archives: Football Movies

Paper Lion (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Scrawny guy plays quarterback.

            Lighthearted adaptation of George Plimpton’s best-selling novel detailing his account of playing for the Detroit Lions football team as a back-up quarterback despite having no real experience.  Alan Alda plays Plimpton and the movie’s main focus is during the team’s training camp and his shock at just how hard and rigorous being a pro-quarterback really is.

The film’s most amusing moments come during the many weeks of practice when Plimpton finds that even throwing a pass is difficult because the defenders are so quick that they are in his face and have him on the ground before he is even able to react. Even taking a hand-off from his center proves to be a difficult process as it jams his thumb. Director Alex March does a fine job of giving the viewer a feeling of Plimpton’s experience by having the defenders come barreling towards the camera until you feel like you’ve been tackled yourself.

What makes the story interesting is the fact that despite being an intellectual man from Harvard Plimpton still ends up having the same competitive spirit as the rest of the players. He becomes determined to prove himself by memorizing the playbook and practicing until he is able to function decently in the position. He even finds himself getting into a potential fist-fight with another man at a bar when the man makes a disparaging remark about the team.  Although the players quickly realize that he is not a legitimate athlete and try to scare him away they become impressed enough with his perseverance and fiery spirit to eventually be willing to play for him, which is a nice touch.

The cast is loaded with actual players and coaches incluing: John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Alex Karras, Sugar Ray Robinson, Roger Brown, Frank Gifford and the then head coach Joe Schmidt. All of them are given a lot of screen time and a surprising amount of lines. Despite what one may think they do an exceptionally good job. They are likable and believable especially coach Schmidt. In fact it is their presence that really helps make the movie succeed and gives the viewer the impression that they are experiencing the NFL as it is, or at least as it was at that time. There is even a segment featuring legendary coach Vince Lombardi, which is special.

Probably the only character that I felt wasn’t necessary was Lauren Hutton as Plimpton’s super-hot model girlfriend.  Now, I have never read the book, so I am not sure if Plimpton had an attractive girlfriend in real-life, or not, but the character here seemed to be put in for eye candy and added little if anything to the story.

The footage shown of an actual exhibition game that the Lions play against the St Louis Cardinals at the old Busch Stadium is vivid. So many times film of this nature will borrow footage from another source and then incorporate it in, but the grainy film stock always makes this evident and distracting and here that wasn’t the case. The camera gets right down on the field with the players and you see the plays and hits up close. You even hear the trash talk and a bit of cursing although they do edit some of that out.

The film’s drawback is that it is too serene for its own good. There is never any dramatic tension, or conflict. The pace and music is so easy going that at times it seems ready to put you to sleep. The film had the backing of the league, which I felt ended up compromising it. Some of the harsher ugly elements of football boot camp were clearly glossed over. I would have wanted something a little bit meatier, even if it had been for a only a few brief scenes. The film hasn’t particularly aged well. The ‘big’ players of yesteryear look rather puny by today’s standards. The game and conditioning has evolved a lot and I felt this story should be revisited in the modern day setting.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 23, 1968

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Alex March

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, Netflix streaming

The Best of Times (1986)

best of times

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10 

4-Word Review: Play the game over.

            Robin Williams plays Jack Dundee, a man who on November 15, 1972 dropped a sure touchdown pass in a football game with their chief rival Bakersfield. Now, 13 years later, he still dwells on it all the time and even watches old film footage of it in his basement. He becomes obsessed with playing the game again with all of the same players. The problem is that most everyone has moved on including their star quarterback Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell) who is now working as a local car mechanic due to a knee injury that he suffered during that game. Jack persists and eventually gets a game scheduled, but that proves to be only part of the battle.

The script, by Ron Shelton, has an interesting point that could touch anybody. Who out there doesn’t want to go back and relive some past mistake, or regret, and make it better? The fact that he also lives in a small town and is constantly being reminded of it hits home as well. I was born and raised in a small, Midwestern town, so I know it can be hard to live down certain things. So, in context, it is a great theme. As people age and fall into a dull routine of a dead-end job and marriage it is sometimes an event that happened to them when they were younger that matters and in that capacity it is a great idea.

The problem is that the execution of it is contrived and dull. The first 45 minutes are spent with endless conversations of the ‘dropped pass’ that goes nowhere. Some of the psychological tactics that Jack uses to motivate not only his teammates and those from the other team into playing the game is somewhat interesting, but not terribly funny. In fact there is very, very little in this movie that is funny, or even halfway creative for that matter. It seems to be nothing more than the regurgitated ‘feel good sports formula’ that has been done a million times before without adding anything new. The final game sequence has all the expected clichés and what should be exciting and thrilling becomes boring and tiresome. I was almost hoping that Jack would drop the damn thing again when he had his second chance, which gets shown in annoyingly slow motion, as it would have been funnier and if anything given us some sort of surprise as everything else is painfully predictable.

The only time this movie that gets even slightly amusing, and I do emphasize amusing as there is nothing in here that is at any time hilarious, is when they bring back all the old players who are now middle-aged and out-of-shape and try to hold a practice. Having now grown to middle-age myself I can say succinctly that you can’t go back again even if you want to and the movie brings this up in some of the vignettes, but then doesn’t go far enough with it.  Instead, just as the film should be gaining some sort of momentum, it gets bogged down with a meandering segment involving the men trying to reconcile with their wives after some inconsequential tiff.

There is also the fact that if someone who has not moved on in their life and dwells on something as much as Jack does than in most cases would be unable to have long-term relationships with other people, or even hold down jobs. Yet here our hero is in a pretty good marriage and a cushy job. It would have been more interesting and probably funnier had the Jack character been a crook, or living on the absolute fringes of society and not been able to adjust to life until he had a second chance at the catch. Of course this would have been considered too ‘edgy’ by most Hollywood producers and I’m sure test audiences of which Hollywood is very dependent on would not have approved, which probably explains why the character is so boringly normal.

For what it’s worth Williams gives an energetic and engaging performance. The character is not all that well developed, but Robin gives it some life and helps make the movie passable. Russell seems a bit a dull here despite being an always durable actor. I realize the character is a bit passive, but having him transform into an aggressive, angry leader at the end seemed forced and phony. I was also disappointed that legendary character actors appear here including Carl Ballantine, Dub Taylor, Kathleen Freeman, and R.G. Armstrong and are given nothing more than a line of dialogue a piece and in the case of Ballantine only one word, which seems outrageous.

I have nothing to recommend here. I am giving it two points simply because the production values are high enough that it doesn’t look amateurish, but the flat, slightly implausible storyline needs to be injected with some sort of originality. Even for fans of Williams I would say stay away from it as seeing him in such blah proceedings doesn’t make it worth it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: January 31, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Roger Spottiswoode

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Black Sunday (1977)

(In celebration of the Superbowl coming to Indianapolis, which is also the headquarters to Scopophilia, movies about football, or ones that have football as their theme, will be reviewed all this week and through Superbowl Sunday.)

By Richard Winters

My Rating:  6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blimp wrecks the Superbowl

            Based on the Thomas Harris novel this film involves a female terrorist named Dahlia (Marthe Keller) working for a group called Black September. She plans on killing thousands of people at the Superbowl with the help of a blimp captain named Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), who is also a disgruntled Vietnam vet. As they are putting their plan into place their compound is attacked by an Israeli anti-terrorist group headed by Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw). He decides not to kill Dahlia when he has the chance, but they confiscate all of their materials including a tape recording by Dahlia talking about a massive terrorist attack planned on U.S. soil in the near future.  Kabakov gives this information to the F.B.I. and they go on the offensive trying to track down what their operation is, as the details are vague, before they can pull it off.

Overall, as a spy thriller, the film is pretty good. I had to chuckle a little at the fact that the government takes the vague threats seriously and acts so swiftly based simply on an obscure tape recording when in real-life our government was warned long before the 9-11 attacks that a terrorist plot was being planned, but did nothing because they didn’t think it was possible. It would be nice to think that the government could one day act as semi-efficiently as it does in films.

There are indeed some memorable moments. One includes Kabakov shoving his gun down the throat of a suspect (Michael V. Gazzo) and giving him a very terse ultimatum ‘Blink for yes; die for no’. There is also an exciting well-choreographed shoot-out chase that starts out in a hotel lobby, goes through the streets and alley ways of the city, and ends up on the ocean beach. Another twisted moment is when Dahlia and Michael go to an isolated hanger in the Mojave Desert to try out a gadget that can supposedly shoot thousands of bullets in a single shot. The image of seeing all the tiny holes created on the wall of the shed from the bullets is cool enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that the wooden beams that crisscrossed the same wall were untouched. This scene also has a good bit of black humor when one of the employees of the hanger, who thinks the machine is a camera, and stands in front of it smiling only to have hundreds of bullets go slicing through him.

Shaw is excellent in the lead although it took me awhile to adjust to him in that type of role simply because he has played so many dark characters so well that it was hard to see him as a good guy. I liked that the character is human and admits to his mistakes, namely to the fact that he doesn’t kill Dahlia when he first has the chance. He also professes doubts about himself and his career, which adds to his multi-dimension. He tends to lean towards rogue tactics when forced, which helped reflect the brutal nature of the business that he was in. Certain lines that the character says are made memorable by Shaw’s dialect and tone that probably no other actor in the part could have done quite as well. I was also amazed at the incredible run he does during the game when he races down several flights of stairs and across the entire football field, which almost becomes a highlight in itself. I know the actor suffered from a weak heart and ended up dying from a heart attack just a year after this film came out, but I was almost surprised that he didn’t fall over from one right there.

Keller is great as the female adversary. Her American acting career never really took off, but that still doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong actress. Her expression when she is caught in the shower with a gun pointing at her is priceless. I liked how initially she is portrayed as the ‘sane’ one in relation to the Dern character, but by the end it becomes quite clear that she is probably more evil and crazier than he could ever be. Her fight with Michael inside his house when they fear that their intricate plot may be falling apart is definitely her finest stuff.

Dern of course is an exceptional actor whose unique style and odd intensity make him a joy to watch even if the script is poor.  He is certainly well cast here, but I wished he was given more screen time and latitude as I don’t think his talents where given quite enough justice. His best moment maybe the long rant he has during one of his counseling sessions at the V.A. Medical center.

The film’s weakest point is what should’ve been its strongest, which is the segment involving the blimp barreling into the stadium. The set-up is perfect and consists of the some dazzling aerial photography and good up close footage of the football game. However, the actual blimp attack is highly compromised.  For one thing the edits are quick making it hard to follow. A much smaller blimp was used in the long shots and in the scenes where the spectators are running scared onto the field director Frankenheimer put the front end of the blimp onto a crane, which looks tacky and obvious. The blimp’s explosion is fake and when it was all over I felt disappointed. The film’s promotional items, including the film poster as seen above, promised this spectacular event, but then doesn’t come through. It almost makes one feel cheated and ruins the movie’s other good points.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1977

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video