Documentary Review: Of Miracles and Men (2015)

Release Date: February 8th, 2015
Directed by: Jonathan Hock
Music by: Joel Beckerman, Phil Hernandez, Chris Maxwell, Robert Miller

ESPN Films, 103 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2015.

This was one on the more recent 30 For 30 films put out by ESPN.

This documentary covered the Soviet Union’s national hockey team during their dominant heyday and showed the famous “Miracle” game from their perspective, which provided a pretty unique take on the event.

Of Miracles and Men starts off by showing us how the Soviets developed their hockey game and the unorthodox approach to coaching that its founder had.

Unable to study the renowned Canadians, who made the sport famous, the Soviets taught themselves how to play from the ground up with no point of reference. Their coach analyzed everything he could outside of hockey and thought of ways to incorporate these things into the Soviet training routine. He took methods from dancing, weightlifting and other places. All of this showed how the Soviets developed such a refined style that was all their own at the time.

The documentary goes on to show the growth of hockey in the U.S.S.R. and how the nation developed immense pride for their athletes and the sport. All of which eventually lead to them playing some exhibition games against Canada.

While looked at as underdogs and not taken seriously, the Soviet team crushed Canada. And then they kept crushing Canada. And then they crushed everyone else, including the United States.

Where here, in America, we are told of the legend of the “Miracle” game from a very pro-American stance. This documentary shows the tale in a much more realistic light and provides the back story in a way that is more fleshed out than any version I’ve ever heard.

In the end, the Soviets weren’t so bloodthirsty about us, as we were of them. In fact, when they lost, they were more upset that they lost and weren’t looking at it as a failed attempt to topple America. In fact, they had toppled us quite a bit before this game and have toppled us after. Truthfully, the Soviets owned America historically. And today, the Russians still regularly kick our ass, even though we have amazing teams year after year.

An example one of the Soviet players gave in the film, is that this is like a fan of Sophia Loren who gets to kiss her. Years later he is still talking about the kiss. However, if you ask Loren about it, she probably doesn’t even remember it.

If anything, this film opens the viewers eyes to the propaganda machine.

In its simplest form, the “Miracle” game was a game played between really young athletes who just wanted to play the game because it was what they enjoyed doing. Athletes who were probably too young or focused on the game, to fully understand what was going on between these two countries politically.

In comparison to other 30 For 30 documentaries, this one fits in the upper echelon in terms of quality. The editing, interviews and narrative were fantastic. I just wish ESPN did more 30 For 30 films on hockey. I think this is only like the third one out of 60 plus films.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Red ArmyMiracle and The Nagano Tapes: Rewound, Replayed & Reviewed.

Documentary Review: Red Army (2014)

Release Date: May 16th, 2014 (Cannes)
Directed by: Gabe Polsky
Written by: Gabe Polsky
Music by: Christophe Beck, Leo Birenberg
Cast: Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak, Scotty Bowman, Vladimir Pozner

Gabriel Polsky Productions, Sony Pictures Classics, 84 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2015.

Gabe Polsky and Werner Herzog, now regular collaborators, worked together on this documentary. Polsky directed and conducted the interviews, where Herzog produced it.

This film follows the story of the Soviet Union’s last great hockey team, as told through their point of view. It follows them through their early days as kids in the system, through international competition, the Olympics, political and social turmoil, as well as their journey to North America and the NHL.

The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of legendary player Viacheslav Fetisov. He is dynamic, charismatic and, at times, an abrasive cantankerous jerk. But he does seem to tell an honest story and expresses his feelings and his tale pretty thoroughly. He’s straightforward and comes with a no nonsense approach, other than poking fun at the director here and there.

The most important thing about this film, is how intimately it portrays these young players relationship with the Soviet Union’s sports system and the hardship and challenges they faced. It also displays their loyalty to their country and the pride they had for playing on the national team but it evolves into their inability to trust their coach and that same system, as it holds them prisoner and doesn’t allow for them to have lives.

Through the broken promises and mistreatment over the years, many of these players eventually left the crumbling Soviet Union for the greener pastures of the National Hockey League in the United States and Canada. It then follows their struggles in the NHL and how these Russians adapted and then changed the game at it’s highest professional level.

This is a thought provoking and fast-paced documentary. It has something for everyone, whether you are into sports, politics or both. Truthfully, it is one of the best hockey documentaries that I have seen in quite some time.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Of Miracles and MenMiracle and The Nagano Tapes: Rewound, Replayed & Reviewed.

Ranking All 30 Second Series Episodes of ESPN’s 30 For 30

*Written in 2015.

Luckily for us, ESPN decided to do another set of thirty films to expand this series. Now that this series has also reached 30 films and we got the soccer spin-off series, I’m hoping we get a third generation.

But for now, here are the 30 films of the second series ranked. And to be honest, all of these are really good.

1. Survive and Advance
2. Of Miracles and Men
3. Requiem for the Big East
4. Ghosts of Ole Miss
5. No Más
6. I Hate Christian Laettner
7. Big Shot
8. Bad Boys
9. You Don’t Know Bo
10. Benji
11. Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau
12. Brothers In Exile
13. The U Part 2
14. Bernie and Ernie
15. Free Spirits
16. Angry Sky
17. Rand University
18. This is What They Want
19. When the Garden was Eden
20. Sole Man
21. The Price of Gold
22. Brian and the Boz
23. The Day the Series Stopped
24. Slaying the Badger
25. Broke
26. 9.79*
27. There’s No Place Like Home
28. Playing for the Mob
29. Elway to Marino
30. Youngstown Boys

Ranking All 30 Original Episodes of ESPN’s 30 For 30

*Written in 2014.

1. The 16th Man
2. The Two Escobars
3. Muhammad and Larry
4. Little Big Men
5. Once Brothers
6. Straight Outta L.A.
7. Kings Ransom
8. Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
9. Silly Little Game
10. Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks
11. June 17, 1994
12. Guru of Go
13. The U
14. Four Days In October
15. Pony Excess
16. Without Bias
17. Fernando Nation
18. One Night In Vegas
19. The Band That Wouldn’t Die
20. No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
21. Marion Jones: Press Pause
22. Jordan Rides the Bus
23. The Best That Never Ways
24. The Birth of Big Air
25. Into the Wind
26. Unmatched
27. The Legend of Jimmy The Greek
28. Run Ricky Run
29. Tim Richmond: To the Limit
30. The House of Steinbrenner

Book Review: ‘Leave No Doubt: A Credo For Chasing Your Dreams’ by Mike Babcock & Rick Larsen

*Written in 2015.

Mike Babcock is already one of the greatest ice hockey coaches of all-time. He is the only coach to win the Stanley Cup, the World Championship and gold at the Olympic Games. He is also still pretty young and has a lot of years ahead of him, considering he recently signed a deal making him the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs for at least a decade. So who wouldn’t want to read his words of wisdom?

It is rare that a leader as great as Babcock allows someone to get inside their head. This book is certainly a treat in that respect. He has accomplished a lot but he is still very down to Earth and humble. It isn’t a book about ego or his accolades, it is more or less a book about how his attitude and passion helped him achieve victory on the ice and in life.

It is a short book but it doesn’t need to be an epic. He goes through all of the big parts of his career and describes his mindset and how he overcame and succeeded in the face of hard challenges.

The book teaches leadership and attitude management in a very straightforward and practical way. Most of what Coach Babcock says in this book is common sense but Leave No Doubt is a solid piece of work that exists to serve as a reminder of how one should carry themselves personally and professionally.

His passion is clear and it works as a great motivator while working your way through this quick read. There isn’t much new or world changing in the book but it is one of the best written and straight to the point works on its subject matter.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Tough Guy: My Life On the Edge by Bob Probert and Kirstie McLellan Day, Made In America by Chris Chelios and Kevin Allen

Film Review: Miracle (2004)

Release Date: February 6th, 2004
Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Written by: Eric Guggenheim
Music by: Mark Isham
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich

Walt Disney, Buena Vista Pictures, 135 Minutes

Review:

“Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.” – Herb Brooks

*written in 2014.

Miracle is considered by many, if not most, to be the best hockey film ever made.

I don’t agree with the popular opinion, although it is a good film. The problem though, is that there is a real under-abundance of hockey movies. I mean, compared to baseball, football and even basketball pictures, hockey is really underutilized as a subject for sports films. While I would put this in probably the top two or three hockey movies of all-time, it would be hard to put it in a top ten including other sports.

While the subject matter of this film, the 1980 Winter Olympics and the United States’ beating of the unstoppable Soviet team during the Cold War, is compelling, it falls flat when comparing it to the bigger picture.

There are scenes in the film that are great. In fact, the acting is stellar. The problem is that it is just missing the magic you find in films like The Natural, Field of Dreams, Rudy and Hoosiers. While it has a bit of a magical feel at times, it never really pulls you in as emotionally as those other classic sports motion pictures.

Additionally, the pacing of this film is strange, as at times it drags and other times it flies by. There are also so many characters to get to know, that you really can’t get to know any of them all that well. The film suffers from not investing more time in just a few people; instead it gives you bits and pieces of many people. It plays like a television pilot overstuffed with too many characters from the start.

Miracle is a good film, despite the criticisms I have. It just isn’t the great movie that people believe it to be. At least, that’s how I see it.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Mystery, Alaska

Film Review: I, Tonya (2017)

Release Date: September 8th, 2017 (TIFF)
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Written by: Steven Rogers
Music by: Peter Nashel
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Mckenna Grace, Paul Walter Hauser

LuckyChap Entertainment, Clubhouse Pictures, AI Film, Neon, 119 Minutes

Review:

“I mean, come on! What kind of friggin’ person bashes in their friend’s knee? Who would do that to a friend?” – Tonya Harding

I thought that the trailer for I, Tonya was really good and I wanted to see the film. The main thing I wondered about though, was how they were going to actually portray the events in the movie. Part of me felt like the film could have the effect of making Tonya Harding some sort of misunderstood cult hero or the victim. While the film does humanize her, as it should, and it also shows the abuse she dealt with throughout her life, I feel like it was pretty fair to the story, as no one other than Tonya and those around her, knew what actually happened in regards to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan.

I like the point of view that the film took, in that it was based off of the interviews and testimonials given by Harding, Jeff Gillooly and LaVona Golden. The film’s plot would often show events from the three main characters different interpretations. Tonya would tell her story, then her mom or Jeff would cut in to correct it or defend themselves. I liked the way the plot was structured and the quick cuts worked really well for that quick shifting narrative.

However, that worked to the picture’s detriment too. At least, at one point in the story.

You see, the film worked really well as just a straight up biopic for the first two-thirds or so. I was pretty engaged in the story and Tonya’s life before the Kerrigan incident. In fact, when it shifted to the incident, it pulled me away from a film I was enjoying to where I suddenly found myself knee deep in something else. I thought the film just threw itself into the incident without a better build up, as the vibe immediately felt different and it hit you out of nowhere but I guess that’s how it went down, as far as we know. It was like watching a really good story about a girl who wants to be an Olympic figure skater, overcoming all the odds, as the decks are stacked against her and then like a punch to the gut, you are reminded as to why this is a story in the first place. It just takes you out of your element.

Still, overall, the plot was well structured and the narrative curveball doesn’t do much to derail the film. It just felt like a major hiccup and then it was gone.

The performances in this movie are all fantastic. Allison Janney steals every scene that she is in and her Oscar nomination is well deserved. Margot Robbie was spectacular as Tonya and Sebastian Stan, who I am mostly familiar with as being the Winter Soldier, was the real surprise of the bunch, as he plays a character so far outside of what I’ve see from him. It’s like he went from a badass like John Wick to Kip from Napolean Dynamite. It’s a hell of a transformation from his most famous role.

I don’t think I, Tonya is anywhere near a Picture of the Year contender and it wasn’t nominated. However, the performances have been justly considered and Robbie and Janney are up for Oscars. I think Janney has a real shot but Robbie has much steeper competition in the Lead Actress category.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Its a pretty unique sports biopic, so it’s hard to say.