Thursday, June 11, 2020

"Hoosiers" - A Small Town Kid Can Dream

I’m appearing on the Hoosier Heartland podcast (run by my childhood and lifelong friend Ben Malcomson) tomorrow night to discuss Hoosiers, so of course I had to write about it. These are just my short thoughts on this classic sports film. For a much more in depth discussion featuring many more viewpoints (plus all of our personal top five favorite sports films), check out the podcast, and go ahead and subscribe to it while you’re at it. Ben puts out a lot of great, in depth content featuring guests from every facet of Indiana sports.

Essential Indiana Viewing

Growing up in a small town in Indiana, Hoosiers is pretty much required viewing. I had a very typical childhood and young adult life in Indiana. Basketball was a constant focus, even though I was average at best and the teams I was on never had a winning record. Basketball was just something that was part of your life. 

Hoosiers does a terrific job of capturing this mentality, and the film is still relevant despite the changes in sports culture in Indiana over the years. It takes place in the 1950s, when basketball was the main point of entertainment for many small towns. It came out in the 1980s, when basketball was still a major form of entertainment and Indiana University basketball was in its Bob Knight heyday. And now, in 2020, the film still rings true, although to a lesser degree. Many small schools have been consolidated, and basketball now has to compete with the internet for kids’ attention. But in small towns like mine, basketball is still a big deal. The crowds at the games have shrunk to mostly just parents and family at this point, but everyone still has an opinion about the coach, and we all still care about our local team, even if the passion has lessened over the years.

Watching Hoosiers brings that passion right back. The David vs. Goliath narrative, the music, the cast, the all comes together to recreate a way of life for this part of the country. Personally, the locations are the most effective aspect. My gym in Cannelton, Indiana, was considered for the film but ultimately not used. The fact that it was considered meant that our gym still felt like old Indiana basketball. Beyond the gym, the high school they used in the film eerily mirrors the high school I went to (and eventually taught at for nearly a decade). I can identify with this movie on a level that I can’t with any other film. 

In the behind the scenes material, the writer (Angelo Pizzo) and director (David Anspaugh) talk about how they worried the film would end their careers and were amazed they were given the money to make it because who cares about Indiana high school basketball outside of Indiana? It turns out a significant portion of America cares. I believe it’s largely the Midwest and small towns, but plenty from all over find something to identify with in this film. It is very much a basketball movie, but it’s also about people; people who feel stuck in a small town, people who are on their last chance, people who have been dismissed but have one chance to prove themselves. Basketball is actually secondary when you consider character arcs of all the people in the film.

Watching the film this time, Dennis Hopper’s character stuck out to me the most. As the town drunk, Hopper is taken in by Gene Hackman and given a chance to help coach. The goal is to get sober so he can stop embarrassing himself and his son. In the most memorable scene (for me, at least), a drunk Hopper stumbles onto the court yelling at the refs. He had been doing great up to that point, but then he fell off the wagon. He spends the rest of the film in the 1950s equivalent of rehab. I like this subplot for multiple reasons. First, I like the realism of it. Hopper is seeking treatment at the end, but he’s definitely a work in progress. Helping the team didn’t cure him. Alcoholism is presented as a tough problem rather than something that can be fixed if given a bit of responsibility. Secondly, Hopper’s character represents another generational aspect of small town life: drinking. The gyms I played in during high school were within walking distance of bars, and some fans would spend halftime there. No one ever pulled a Hopper, but his character still shines a light on that part of small town life. It’s not all rah rah basketball and good farm living. 

That written, Hoosiers does ultimately leave feeling pretty fucking rah rah by the end of the film, and that’s the lasting effect of the film. I grew up playing on my backyard basketball court (one of four in my neighborhood) pretending to take the game winning shot of a sectional or state championship. Even at a young age, I knew the likelihood of playing in such a game, much less hitting the winning shot, was very slim, but a kid could dream. And Hoosiers helped keep that dream going. In the end, basketball in Indiana isn’t just about winning (at least it certainly wasn’t for me). It’s about the chance to win. Hoosiers helped keep us going throughout junior high and high school. Yeah, we were never a good team, but if Hickory could win it all, then Cannelton could, too. We never did during my playing days, but we always felt like we had a chance, and Hoosiers captured that feeling perfectly.

Why Do I Own This?

To steal a joke from Wayne's World, if you live in Indiana this movie is issued to you. Actually, though, I had to buy it recently. It's a movie I watched so much growing up that I didn't feel the need to own it. But I'm glad I have it now to revisit again in the future.

Random Thoughts

For the record, Cannelton did win a sectional in 1998 (the year before my high school career began), the first year of class basketball. I still remember that weekend. It was definitely our town’s Hoosiers moment.

Been a while since I’ve watched this...and I cannot believe how much the school looks like my high school.

Jimmy Chitwood is a dick. He's like a reluctant dildo superhero. 

I love the music, but at times it is not fitting and almost sounds like something out if Romero's Day of the Dead.

I forgot how deadly serious this movie is. 

I love seeing Chelcie Ross disappointed. 

There are some jarring cuts in this film. The main one that comes to mind is the break in the winning montage to show Hackman shoving Hopper's face under water.

We always sucked in high school, but sectional time still felt as important and exciting as this movie made it seem like. 


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

"Swelter" - Why, Jean-Claude, Why?

SPOILERS ahead, but who cares?

It’s the first post of the month, so it’s time for another Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. Lately I’ve been deciding to hold off on the more well-known Van Damme movies so I don’t have to finish this series off by writing about twenty DTV movies in a row. So each month I go through JCVD’s filmography to revisit (or in this case, watch for the first time) a lesser known movie. That is how I came across Swelter. This movie is only a few years old, and it features Van Damme in a supporting role for some reason. Lennie James is the star, and Alfred Molina is also in it in a more prominent role than Van Damme. The movie itself is forgettable and is oddly similar to U Turn. But what intrigued me the most was why Van Damme would do this movie at all. 

"I'm getting too old for this shit."

Swelter is about a criminal-turned-sheriff (James) with a hazy past. Ten years ago, the sheriff was part of a casino heist. After being shot, the gang leaves him behind with the money. They get captured and he gets away. Cut to present day, and the gang members are out of prison and want the money that the sheriff got away with. 

There’s a lot more bullshit going on with the story, but that’s the gist of it. The plot is not very interesting, but Van Damme’s casting is. He’s not the sheriff, which is fine, but most perplexing is that he isn’t the head of the gang. Van Damme is onscreen nearly every time the gang leader is, so why not just cast him in the role? Instead, Grant Bowler portrays the gang leader and has more screen time and many more lines than Van Damme. It’s perplexing.

I kind of get Van Damme playing third fiddle to James and Molina, but fourth fiddle with Bowler ahead of him? What the fuck is happening? Despite being onscreen quite a bit, Van Damme barely speaks until forty-five minutes into the movie. It’s distracting. Anyone watching has to be waiting for more to happen with his character, but it never really goes anywhere, though there is a slight attempt.

At the halfway point, Van Damme suddenly becomes a character. He’s weary of the criminal life, which is why he says, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” He develops a nearly unspoken relationship with a local bartender, and he eventually has a change of heart about being in the gang. He confronts a fellow gang member after said member rapes a young woman. In the ensuing fight, he gets stabbed and dies. Later, it’s revealed that the bartender kept his last unfinished glass of whiskey as a tribute to him. 

This odd bit of characterization feels completely tacked on. It’s as if the filmmaker was surprised that Van Damme would take such a nothing role, so he decided to make something up for him halfway through filming. I just don’t get why Van Damme would settle for this role. It’s not so much that he’s too old for such a part, but he is too famous for it.

I know that Van Damme isn’t exactly a hot commodity these days, but Swelter isn’t a popular movie. This is the type of movie Van Damme should star in. Instead, he’s in a role that he would have taken in the early days of his career, like in No Retreat, No Surrender. I’m sure the role paid well, and that’s the main reason for him to take the job. It’s just a shame to see him so under utilized. 

I suppose what upsets me the most about this role is that Van Damme took it for such a shitty, unknown movie. Maybe he thought this was going to turn out to be something. I’ve often thought that Van Damme needs to abandon being the star in these DTV movies and take lesser roles in theatrical films. I hope that’s what he thought he was doing with Swelter. Hopefully, if Van Damme decides to take a small role again in the near future, he’ll be more discerning and find a film that actually makes it into theaters. 

Why Do I Own This?

It's a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie...but I wish I didn't own this because he's barely in this one, and the movie is an incomprehensible slog.

Random Thoughts 

Van Damme's character is William Stillman. Fuckin' Bill Stillman, are you serious? 

Five minutes in, and all the attempts at being "stylish" are very annoying: the choppy flashback, the way-too-mobile camera, shots framed by a cross or from above a ceiling fan, blood spatter on the camera, etc.

"They haven't moved in ten years."
"Neither have my bowels."
What? Come on, make a dick joke here. Not shitting for ten years is fucking stupid. Either joke is lame, but at least go with one that makes sense, especially when a fucking doctor is delivering the line.

So the sheriff doesn't even want a place to play pool in town? This movie came out in 2014! Is playing pool still something people worry about? Does he want to ban dancing, too?

So the burlesque dancers have to clock in, but their routine was less than two minutes long. Are they paid by the second?

No roundhouse kicks yet, but a lady does want to immediately bang Van Damme when she meets him at about forty-five minutes in, and that's definitely a staple of Van Damme movies.

Everyone is this fucking movie is so vague it's never clear what exactly is going on with most of the characters. 

And there are just way too many bland characters to keep track of, much less care about.

Surely Van Damme isn't going out by being stabbed by a rapist…

...I guess he is. Fuck. This. Movie.