Monday, December 01, 2014
My mother grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. Every December, we would be regaled with tales of her winters in the city of lake effect snow storms. I grew up in Seattle, where snow hardly ever falls and when it does the city shuts down. So we heard lots of stories that began, “You think this is bad…” and then morphed into narratives we knew by heart. There was the storm where the winds blew so hard that the snow drifts reached my mother’s second story bedroom window. Then there was the storm that lasted two weeks where the flurries were so blinding that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We learned about power outages, burst pipes, iced sidewalks, snowball tournaments, and wonderful white Christmases. Whenever we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the scene of Jimmy Stewart running through the town of Bedford Falls came on, mom would gleefully announce, “That’s exactly what it looks like in Buffalo.” Last week Buffalo suffered a century storm that I’m not sure even mom experienced, but the city was so snowbound that the NFL game between the Bills and Jets had to be postponed and moved to Detroit. That’s undoubtedly a winter story we would have heard had it happened while she lived there.
What could all those trapped citizens do when admonished not to travel? No school, no football, no shopping, and certainly no cinema or concerts. For my mother, she would gather around the radio with her siblings and parents to listen to all kinds of great programming. Today, we gather around the 65-inch HD TV for a wide variety of media choices. Likewise, considering that the upcoming holidays mean locating some good gift ideas along with the polar vortex, which threatens to trap some of us in our homes this winter, I thought about soccer movies that could entertain us during the long, cold nights even if we live in San Diego and don’t have to worry about being shut-in by snow. Some of my suggestions have soccer as the central narrative, some use soccer as a backdrop for other messages, and some simply have intriguing soccer moments.
For pre-school and elementary school kids or the kid in all of us, there are several great G-rated choices. “Rio” is an animated film about a macaw who finds himself chasing unrequited love from Minnesota to Brazil in the dead of winter. While Brazil’s equatorial sun is welcomed, it’s also Carnival season and as a rare macaw he piques the interest of exotic bird smugglers and is captured. However, the guards watch a soccer match on TV. Their distraction allows the hero and his amour to escape. Even while chasing their prey through the streets the guards stop to catch a moment of the match on a bar TV. As a nod to the World Cup in Brazil, “Rio 2” has a full-out soccer match between rival teams of macaws in the jungle Pit of Doom. A movie for really young players is Dora’s (the Explorer) Super Soccer Showdown, rated a very gentle G. With the same simple narrative and kind approach to a topic, Dora plays soccer with Boots, visits with her horse Sparky, and joins her friend Benny for the Rain Forest talent show. A wonderful family movie, “The Cup” is rated G, but don’t let that rating make you believe the film is simplistic. Viewers of all ages will love the story of World Cup fever invading the quiet calm of a Buddhist monastery in India. Young monks threaten the centuries old traditions when they clamor to watch the finals and do almost anything to achieve their goal. Based on a true account, the comedy was an official entry in several film festivals.
Players 9 to 12 years old and their families would enjoy several of these PG films, a rating they earn with some pre-teen hijinks and toilet humor. “The Big Green” relates the story of a ragtag group of students who are formed into a soccer team in a small Texas town. In this film, the female adult is the soccer expert, an English exchange teacher who convinces an out-of-shape sheriff to help her coach in hopes of motivating her students to respect themselves and set goals. It’s a fairly typical underdog sports movie, but the kids are engaging and the stereotypes aren’t nearly as overwhelming as in some films. I’m not sure why they made Soccer Dog the Movie and Soccer Dog: European Cup as PG entertainment since the premise is much more appropriate for younger viewers, but the PG parts are fairly tame and the dog is cute, cuddly, and fun to watch. So most kids should be fine with it. For older viewers, there are some PG flicks that speak to their burgeoning interest in the opposite gender and adventure. The great soccer film “Gregory’s Girl” is 32 years old, but still delightful. Gregory loses his spot on his winless soccer team to a GIRL! But he’s also 16 and can’t help but find himself intrigued by his feisty, talented and cute replacement. The film is Scottish, so the language can be a bit daunting to our American ears, but it’s worth the struggle. I never realized that cinema icon Michael Caine did a movie with Sylvester Stallone, but “Victory” benefits from the pairing to be an engaging WWII drama centering on a Nazi propaganda stunt allowing a group of POWs to play the German National team. The POWs plan to use the event as a means to escape. Dozens of plot twists and complications make this an engrossing adventure as well as a stand-out soccer film. Pele’s in the cast and John Huston directs, so it has a good cinematic pedigree. One of my recent favorites isn’t really a soccer movie, but has a wonderful soccer scene near the conclusion. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from last year with Ben Stiller I consider to be an underappreciated family film. Walter is a dreamer who lives a quiet, uneventful existence and works ironically for Life magazine. Everything is turned upside down when he meets a woman he likes, his mother is being moved to assisted living, Life is closing, and he loses the photo for the final cover. The movie expresses wonderful values, has sharp comedic moments, and that breathtaking soccer scene at sunset on the foothills of the Himalayas.
Moving up the rating scale, these PG-13 movies combine soccer with significant interpersonal challenges. “Bend It Like Beckham” is a classic, both for girls who aspire to play soccer at the college and pro level, and for anyone interested in how cultures adjust and survive when submerged in a dominating foreign culture. Another film that features a girl is “Gracie” based on a true story of a family that loses a son and his sister who wants to take his place on the soccer team. She has to battle not only a system that won’t allow girls on the boys’ team, but also a family stuck in their own grief and hesitation. Although about the struggles of a young woman, Gracie speaks to the level of passion any player requires in order to succeed. “Bella” is the sweet story of a Mexican soccer superstar who ends up making some serious mistakes losing his place in the soccer stratosphere and a young waitress who is fired from her job just as she discovers she is pregnant. The film addresses issues such as who are we when we have to separate from our passion and how do we find a life that includes not only love but kindness. Combining kung-fu with soccer, “Shaolin Soccer” will appeal to any teenage boy who likes fast-paced action, great stunts and some wicked soccer moves. When an ex-soccer player down on his luck crosses paths with a kung-fu master, he is re-energized to play again. He reunites with his brothers, forms a soccer team, and then teaches the players some unusual moves that give them a winning edge. Unrated but appropriate for teens is “Pelada,” whose tag line is “two players, twenty-five countries, one game.” The documentary chronicles the journey of two soccer players and their two friends on a quest to play soccer all over the world. They come across some extremely unusual and occasionally dangerous circumstances, but soccer protects them in the slums of Rio de Janiero and Nairobi, and brings an interesting resolution to the conflicts between Arabs and Jews on the West Bank of Israel. An amazing, inspirational story. Likewise, “Streetball” is unrated. Again, I highly recommend for teen players and their families. This documentary details one competition of the Homeless World Cup held yearly for teams from up to 56 countries. The team members are homeless or disenfranchised players and this movie follows the South African team made up of ex-convicts, drug addicts, and orphans. As the players struggle to become adept at the sport they also learn how to pull themselves out of their circumstances. It’s an inspirational but difficult film to watch.
Two of my favorite movies fit into the soccer category. Both are rated R and I do suggest they be viewed just by parents and older players, especially my first film, “Babel.” This difficult movie explores not only the human condition but the sharp cultural contrasts that breed fear and prejudice. When an American tourist, Susan Jones, is shot on a tour bus on a remote Moroccan road, the U.S. government immediately declares the event a terrorist attack when in fact it was two boys who had been given a rifle by their father to shoot jackals eating their goats. The manufacturer of the gun is Japanese and has a deaf teenage daughter who is barely clinging to sanity and acts out in sexually provocative ways. Meanwhile, the Jones’ nanny, a Mexican illegally working in the U.S. faces a dilemma. Since the Joneses are detained in Morocco, Amelia must stay to watch the children, but her son is getting married in Mexico. So she decides to go to the wedding with the children in tow. Unfortunately, on trying to return to the U.S. they are detained and then try to flee through the desert into America. Although Amelia has been in the United States for 16 years, she is deported. The stories are intertwined and shift in time and location. Some stories are unresolved. When Susan is taken to the home of a veterinarian to treat her wound, there are soccer posters on the walls of this isolated location, a symbol I believe of an activity that provides a common thread across nations, cultures, religions and politics. The second film might be okay for younger teens as its R rating is based on language, not violence or sexual situations. It tells the story of Brian Clough, an eager English coach who gets the opportunity to take his rival coach’s spot at the head of Leeds United, at the time England’s top club. However, his ego and his brash style get him in trouble quickly with fans, management and players. His long-time assistant coach and best friend eventually leaves for another job. Clough suffers a dramatic fall from grace before finally discovering his bearings. He has been labeled the greatest coach never to helm the National Team. The movie details how significant the word “team” is in this team sport. When everyone is working together, success is possible, but conflict leads only to disaster. It’s a good film for older players with aspirations of college and pro careers to witness the flaw of arrogance and the power of partnership.
We may not all need to spend long evenings in a white, freezing wintery shroud, but we can all appreciate an evening of good entertainment. If it happens to include soccer than it gives legitimacy to the passion our kids decided to pursue. As the popularity of soccer grows in the U.S., we will certainly see more films using the sport to bring out a point of view and tell an absorbing story. There are hundreds of films that focus on soccer. Most, however, are not really quality products just like so many other sports films that don’t really demonstrate the reality of play. Some of the movies I highlighted are silly and unrealistic, but nonetheless entertaining, so I’ve excused their shortcomings. All of these films are available on Amazon both to purchase and to stream and others are available on Netflix. I challenge you to make your own discoveries based on your family interests and tastes. Put “soccer” in the search box of any site that streams or sells movies. Comedy, drama, even musicals have all centered on soccer giving lots of options for viewing long past winter.