Beth Harmon: “You think I’m a prima donna, don’t you?”
Harry Beltik: “It’s chess. We’re all prima donnas. [Anya Taylor-Joy to Harry Melling, “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020)]
A long time ago while I was working and living in the Washington, DC area I heard of a small church located on one of the secluded back streets in Georgetown where, one Saturday a month, about 4 to 6 mediums were available to, for maybe $10 to $20, spend an hour reading your fortune. Of course, I just had to scientifically investigate this development (AKA, it sounded weird so of course I had to check it out). Hence, I had a different medium read my fortune for the next two months. One was fairly accurate while the other one was so wrong that I almost burst out laughing in her face. The experience there was sort of like a medium “competition” with the winner being the one who was less wrong than the others (or maybe better able to fool the suckers into coming back again). I bring this story up because this month’s post will involve competition. Strange competition!
Now before you mentally say, “What the H…” let me further explain what I’m getting at. There is sport competition such as baseball, football, basketball, tennis, etc. However, there are also other types of sports competition but not necessarily recognized or even legal. Anybody ever do ferret-legging (enduring two live ferrets in your trousers tied up at one’s ankles for as long as one can)? Yow! Or how about baby tossing where you, Ahhh… never mind. It seems like you can turn on any TV channel either day or night and see some, usually inane, game show where people are competing against each other either physically (“American Gladiators”), mentally (“Jeopardy”), or allowing themselves to be willingly humiliated (“Let’s Make a Deal”). Actually, regarding “Deal,” why is it that most of those contestants sort of look like they would fit in just fine with the mob that stormed the Capitol Building recently. Hmmm! Maybe that Capitol mob might be participants for a new type of game show entitled, “Let’s Make a Plea Bargain Deal!” Anyway, movies and TV have explored many different types of strange or unusual competition even if it’s not labeled as such. I will discuss some of these, both memorable and obscure as well as both popular or those stinking worse than a garbage dump. Some pertain to sports while others involve an individual/group vs. another individual/group over/for, something. Now, let’s begin!
Fist-fighting can be a form of physical competition. Two such films that come to mind are “Hard Times” (1975), and “Donnybrook” (2018). “Times” starred Charles Bronson as Chaney, a middle aged almost mute hobo arriving in Depression era Louisiana in 1933 who starts earning money fighting competitive illegal bare-knuckle matches against younger opponents once gambling addict/promoter, Speed (James Coburn) becomes his manager. Unfortunately, Speed’s addiction complicates their relationship until Chaney has to risk his earnings on a fight against a formidable opponent or Speed will be killed. This was action director Walter Hill’s first picture and it was a pretty good first-time effort. It had fine location cinematography by Phillip H. Lathrop, especially of New Orleans along with excellent art direction and costumes evoking the time period. It also had fine performances by James Coburn as Speed, and Strother Martin as Poe, an old junkie who is Chaney’s cut man during his fights along with exciting fight sequences under Hill’s direction. However, “Times” could have even been better if two problems could have ever been resolved. Unfortunately, those two problems were Walter Hill and Charles Bronson. Hill has had his successes (“48 Hrs.”, “The Long Riders”, etc.), but in all honesty, he never moved beyond being just an average director. Too often, his action scenes were too loud, disjointed, erratic, and unbelievable although that was not the problem specifically here. His biggest problem here was in his direction of actors (excluding Coburn and Martin), and which was a problem in all of his later films. Too often his screen characters were either undeveloped, or had no emotional depth and believability beyond doing the “old” strong silent tough guy routine to hide the fact that they were just posing, not actually acting. As for Charles Bronson, his problem was something else entirely.
Bronson certainly looked like and was, an actual physical presence in the role. However, beyond that, he had about as much emotional weight as a feather. Bronson was an underrated actor throughout most of his life playing rough, tough, and uneducated individuals who, at times, had surprising emotional depth earlier in his career roles, even if sometimes his characters didn’t or wouldn’t say much. He was almost always interesting, usually in supporting roles whether he played good guys or bad guys. Unfortunately, everything changed once he finally became a big-time international movie star after a series of hit foreign films when he was in his late forties. He copped to a really bad acting style which I have aptly named, “The George Raft Syndrome” (Yes, it’s another one of my syndromes!). This is a syndrome where an actor, say like George Raft, actually gave some really fine dramatic performances when he was younger [“Souls at Sea” (1937), “If I Had a Million” (1932), “Spawn of the North” (1938), etc.], but when he got older, he changed his acting style to always say very little while trying to just be an unemotional tough guy. Once Bronson did this, he quit being a real actor and instead just became a caricature doing the same one-note role, over and over again like in “Hard Times”. If you want to see someone else currently doing this same thing, check out all of the trash movies that Bruce Willis has been doing for the past ten years or more. The “George Raft Syndrome” is alive and well in Hollywood!
“Donnybrook” is a portrait of desperate individuals trying to escape their dead-end lives in a heartland America crippled by ignorance, poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, and crime. Their means to attain this goal is by entering a winner take all $100,000 grand prize at the Donnybrook, an illegal no-rules bareknuckle mass cage fight with as many individuals that are willing to pay the admission fee to participate in. The last person standing is the winner no matter how many other participants they have to maim or kill in the process. You have “Jarhead” Earl (Jamie Bell), an ex-Marine with a junkie wife, two kids, and so desperate that he commits a violent robbery to obtain the fee money. You also have “Chainsaw” Angus (Frank Grillo), a psychotic and murderous meth dealer/user who needs the money to restart his meth business after his crude lab is destroyed in a fire. He is accompanied by his sister/accomplice Delia (Margaret Qualley), a suicidal/murderous meth user who is constantly being physically abused by him. They will all ultimately have a final rendezvous at the Donnybrook. This is a brutal dark film, grim in its presentation of individuals whether they are participants in this event or spectators watching like the Roman mobs who used to flock to an arena to watch gladiators fight to the death. The only difference here is that rather than reciting, “We who are about to die, salute you,” they instead, all say the pledge of allegiance to a waving American flag before this bloody game begins. The acting is excellent all around and Tim Sutton’s direction pulls no punches (no pun intended). It may be hard to take but, like a slow-motion train wreck, “Donnybrook” is something that you just can’t turn your eyes away from.
Well, now let’s move on to highlight another type of strange, brutal, and ruthless competition in a movie. This brutal competition is… sheepherding and the movie in question is “Babe” (1995). OK, I know! it’s neither brutal nor ruthless. However, as a movie about a strange type of competition it is definitely delightful and truly heartwarming. Babe is the name of an orphaned piglet won at a contest by Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell), the owner of a rural farm in England who finds that Babe has the ability to sort out the different types of farm hens so he tries to have him do the same thing as a potential herder for his sheep. Innocent Babe convinces the sheep to allow him to herd them to the consternation of Rex, the lead sheepdog which leads to conflict involving Rex and some of the other farm animals. This conflict ultimately comes to a head when Babe is later entered into a sheepherding competition. As if you haven’t already figured it out, Babe is a classic children’s movie. However, more importantly, it is a great movie period! Usually, films classified as children/family movies are not considered as anything more than artistically lightweight if they are to be even considered at all. That would be a mistake here. There have been a few truly great children films that deserved acclaim and were well worth being appreciated by people of all ages. Some examples are films like “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), and “Hugo” (2011). Oh, and Victor Fleming, who directed both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” in the same year and won Oscars for Best Director and Picture for “Wind” got it for the wrong picture. He should have got it for “Oz” and it should have won Best Picture that year too, G-ddamnit! (I had to say that!). George Miller (“Mad Max”) who produced the film (Chris Noonan directed and was nominated for Best Director) waited ten years before bringing the story to the screen because he waited for the special effects CGI technology to be developed so his vision for the film would be just right. It was a wise decision. Noonan’s brilliant direction makes it appear that live animals are actually speaking words (no soft nylon thread under any animal’s lips being pulled like in “Mr. Ed”). Veteran character actor Cromwell also gave a wonderful Oscar nominated performance (can you believe he once played Stretch Cunningham on the original “All in the Family”). “Babe’s” CGI special visual effects won the picture its only Oscar (out of seven nominations), but despite that, it’s still a timeless and charming classic!
Rodeo riding is another strange/unusual competition that has been highlighted in movies [“The Lusty Men” (1952)] and on Network TV [“The Wide Country” (1962-63)]. However, the one that I’d like to favorably mention is the Network TV show, “Stoney Burke” (1962-63) starring Jack Lord. “Burke” highlighted the rough and tumble lifestyle of an itinerant competitive rodeo rider always competing for the always elusive National Rodeo Championship “Golden Buckle” accompanied by his fellow band of companions like E.J. (Bruce Dern) and ethically dubious Ves (scene-stealing Warren Oates). Besides some top-notch actors like Dern and Oates along with great guest stars in various episodes, the show also had top production talent behind it like future Oscar winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, composer Dominic Frontiere (“The Outer Limits”), and Producer/Writer/Director Leslie Stevens (“The Outer Limits”, “The Name of the Game”, etc.). Lord’s Burke was a principled and honest everyman, but he had a temper and could make foolish or rash decisions that were hurtful or counterproductive. Numerous episodes highlighted Stoney often being injured from his rodeo competitions, financially broke, used, deceived, and constantly getting into difficult situations frequently caused by Ves’s scheming manipulations. The show presented a portrait of individuals that were often fallible, yet distinctly very human. Unfortunately, “Stoney Burke” only lasted one season consisting of thirty-two black and white episodes. It deserved better. If you ever get a chance to see it, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Next up, have any of you ever seen a roller derby contest? They used to have male and female contests on local TV when I was young. I still have fond memories of a particular roller derby contest where one of the male players when slugged by an opposing player flew over the railing of the roller rink and into the crowd where someone in the crowd immediately ran up to him, stomped him some more and then ran off into the night while being chased by three arena security guards. It was better than watching Saturday Night Wrestling. With that cultural memory in mind, I just had to include the roller derby comedy drama film, “Whip It” (2009) into this month’s Blog Post discussion. Roughly based on the life of Shauna Cross (who also wrote the movie’s screenplay), and her fictional novel, “Derby Girl”, “Whip It” starred Ellen Page as Bliss Cavendar, a moody Texas teenager (aren’t they all) whose former beauty queen mother wants her to continue the family beauty queen tradition. Preferring a lobotomy with a butter knife rather than carrying on said, family tradition, Bliss finds a different direction in her life after encountering a group of roller derby girls and, after secretly attending a game, decides she wants to try out for a spot on the Hurl Scouts, a perennially unsuccessful roller derby team. Of course, this being a coming-of-age story, our Bliss wins a spot on the team while discovering that she does have some innate natural skating ability. Now with her derby moniker, “Babe Ruthless” she’s set to be a part of the team while trying to keep her parents in the dark about her new obsession.
First time director Drew Barrymore does a top-notch job balancing both the comic, as well as the dramatic elements in the film. She also gets fine support from her talented group of actors. As Bliss’s parents, Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern (who for once, doesn’t get the S&%T kicked out of him like when he was doing the “Home Alone” movies) are just fine as her likeable parents. Bliss’s team mates like the always dependable Kristen Wiig as a single mom, old timer Juliette Lewis (at age 36?), and others like singer/actress Eve, and ex-professional stunt woman now turned actress Zoe Bell are excellent too. Barrymore even had a small role as one of Bliss’s team mates as well as having Jimmy Fallon playing the derby ring announcer (Don’t quit your night job yet, Jimmy!). However, the weight of the movie is on Ellen Page’s shoulders and she carries it off with style. If you look up the word, “spunk” in Webster’s Dictionary you’d probably see her picture next to the definition. She might be typecast playing that type of role all the time but in this film, she is endearing rather than annoying. Although the roller derby premise is the only original twist to an old tired movie storyline (misfit finding purpose in her life despite her mom’s possible objections) “Whip It” is still worth seeing despite its lightweight elements.
The last two types of strange competition that I’d like to discuss concern two competitive contests that one doesn’t ordinarily think of although one of the two has just recently received great recognition and justified acclaim. As for the other one, well, hold your noise when I tell you about that one. Anyway, the better one concerns the competitive sport of Chess. Surprisingly. there actually have been some excellent films about chess competition. For examples there was “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) based on the life of child prodigy chess player Joshua Waitzkin, “Pawn Sacrifice” (2014) a biographical drama of Bobby Fischer’s life starring Tobias Maguire, and “Critical Thinking” (2020) the true story about the 1998 Miami Jackson High School chess team and their Cuban-American teacher Mario Martinez who helped them become the first inner-city team to win the U.S. National Chess Championship starring John Leguizamo as Martinez. However, there is one story of chess competition that I’d like to particularly praise although it was not a movie but, rather, a limited seven-episode miniseries on Netflix. That miniseries was “The Queen’s Gambit” (2020) written and directed by Scott Frank and starring Anya Taylor-Joy.
“Gambit” was based on the 1983 novel by author Walter Tevis (“The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”, etc.) and it tells the story of Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), an introverted and at first, unexceptional child who is sent to an orphanage at age nine after her mother dies by suicide in a car accident. Once there she discovers, by accident, the custodian (Bill Camp) playing chess. Fascinated, she keeps nagging him to teach her which he ultimately does. From that point on her natural visualization skills enhanced by the tranquilizers handed out daily to the children by the orphanage staff help her to become a formidable chess prodigy who, as she grows up, leads her into playing increasingly difficult competitive tournaments with the ultimate goal of becoming the best chess player in the world. Unfortunately, her goal, as well as her life might be totally derailed due to her increasingly self-destructive emotional and psychological issues as well as an increasing drug and alcohol dependency.
There are so many things to praise about “Gambit” that I almost do not know where to begin. First, the casting and acting is first rate. Veteran character actor Camp is wonderful as Beth’s gruff teacher. Acclaimed film director Marielle Heller [“Can You Ever Forgive Me” (2018), “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019), etc.] gives a powerful dramatic performance as Beth’s adoptive mom Alma, a depressed, functioning alcoholic who discovers that after her husband leaves them, she and Beth can still survive due to Beth’s chess playing. Her Alma is needy, desperate for excitement, longing to love/be loved by someone, supportive, and, at times, almost reversing roles with Beth being the more mature one than Alma. Actors Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as both of Beth’s early competitors/mentors and later lovers/close friends are also compelling especially Brodie-Sangster in a swashbuckling confident performance. However, the entire series is anchored by Taylor-Joy’s towering star-making performance as Beth. Joy uses her startlingly beautiful otherworldly face as both a mask to hide her pain and emotions, and as a weapon to stare down her opponents and anyone else standing in her way. Joy, who in real life studied ballet, used her ballet training in her body movements both around and during the chess matches imparting a unique individual physical style to her character. As her character grows more confident and successful you see her physical appearance remarkedly change in the more fashionable clothes she wears and in how she now moves her body with grace, style, and assertiveness. It’s an incredible physical transformative performance.
I’ve sang the praises for writer/director Scott Frank for awhile now and I’m going to do it again for “Gambit”. This guy just plain writes great screenplays creating multifaceted characters that are believable and real. He pays great attention to details in his films from getting the period settings of the story right (the fifties and sixties) to ensuring that the chess boards are always set up correctly and that the chess games and positions are realistic. He enlisted the help of National Master Bruce Pandolfini (who also originally advised author Walter Tevis when he wrote his novel) and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov as consultants. Best of all, besides his skill in getting great performances from his actors, in “Gambit” his direction, whether it’s of Beth looking up at the ceiling and you see imaginary chess pieces being moved on the ceiling chess board or of the actual chess matches themselves, the competition scenes are exciting and suspenseful. Four weeks after Gambit’s debut, it became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries ever receiving universal acclaim by the viewing public as well as the chess community too. As a final observation, interest in chess and the purchase of chess sets by the public, especially women, increased exponentially since its showing.
The last type of strange competition that I want to discuss is definitely something that you do not often see highlighted anywhere (although they did show it a few times on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” a long time ago). As far as I know, there has only been one movie ever made incorporating this particular type of competition. Hence, that is the movie that I will now discuss to end this month’s Blog Post. That sports(?) competition is…
And the movie is…
“Over the Top” (1987)
This classic (??) starred Sylvester Stallone (Yeah, you all know how much I love him) as Lincoln Hack… I mean, Hawk (Sorry, I was just thinking about Sylvester’s previous writing and directing efforts), a long-haul trucker who walked out on his wife (Susan Blakely) and child (David Mendenhall) ten years ago. Well, maybe he walked out because his wife was finally fed up due to the fact that: (1) he couldn’t speak coherent English, (2) he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, and (3) he probably couldn’t even feed himself without help. Needless, to say, his sickly wife now wants him to pick up their son from military school and drive him to the hospital where she is staying while the two of them bond along the way (You know, like getting drunk on Boone’s Farm and getting into bar fights at cheap strip joint dive bars for example). Of course, by the time they arrive, wifey dies, sonny blames dad, and sonny runs to wifey’s Gazillionaire grand-dad (Robert Loggia) who does everything possible to keep them apart (Robert, I hope you at least got paid very well for debasing yourself in this film). Of course, then “Missing Link” Lincoln decides he wants to enter the World Arm Wrestling Championship in Las Vegas to win the prize money and a new bigger truck (of course) while hoping to win back his son’s love again (also, of course!).
This testosterone turd was the brainchild of schlock Israeli producer, screenwriter, director and former Canon Studio co-head Menahem Golan, maker of somnambulant action films with such noted thespians as Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester (Legend in his own Mind) Stallone usually starring. Originally, they wanted Don Johnson for the role but Golan wanted a big star so he paid a ton of money to get Stallone instead (Don Johnson should drop down on his knees every night to thank G-d he didn’t act in this mess!). Sylvester also co-wrote the screenplay which consisted of him saying such howlers as…
- “I always wanted to be a milk shake” (Well, he already has the brain of a milk shake so I suppose that’s the next logical step!)
- “What I do is I just try to take my hat and I turn it around, and it’s like a switch that goes on. And when the switch goes on, I feel like another person, I feel, I don’t know, I feel like a… like a truck. Like a machine.” (Other than justifiably comparing himself mentally to an inanimate hunk of metal, maybe next time he should just take that hat and stuff it in his mouth and spare all of us from having to hear him try to speak!)
At the 8th annual Golden Raspberry Awards in 1988 Stallone was nominated for Worst Actor of the year. Although he’s won that award four times (“Rhinestone”, “Rambo III”, etc.) along with another six times for his other artistic talents (Director, Screenplay, etc.) in other categories which is still an all time Raspberry record, he lost this time to Bill Cosby for “Leonard Part 6” (an inspired choice, if I do say so myself). However, “Over the Top” was not left out that year at the “Raspberries.” David Mendenhall won two Raspberries for Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star so there is some justice in the world. Way to ashcan your career David. Good job!
To conclude, all I have to further add is that, my job here is done, so until next month Dear Reader I bid thee, Adieu!