Sweet sports comedy with ‘Next Goal Wins’; strong old-school sports drama with ‘The Boys in the Boat’; ‘Ferrari’ a fine biopic; Terrific oddball comedy in ‘Dream Scenario’

Gear change: Michael Fassbender in ‘Next Goal Wins’.

NEW YEAR’S DAY – MONDAY 1 JANUARY, 2024

NEXT GOAL WINS *** (104 minutes) PG
In Taika Waititi’s sweet-hearted, fact-based sports comedy, heavy dramatic actor Michael Fassbender (Shame; Hunger; Macbeth) lightens up as Thomas Rongen, a down-and-out soccer coach who takes charge of a team in American Samoa that has never scored a single goal.

Away from the superhero shenanigans of Thor, Waititi delivers a very warm, very funny underdog sports yarn with a modest aspirational story about pulling together and mutual respect as the team slowly works its way through the regional competition.

Based on the same-named 2014 documentary by Mike Brett & Steve Jamison, Waititi (co-writing with Inbetweeners creator Iain Morris) also scores a small but significant victory for artistic common sense.

At a time when so many films have tried – and failed – to push messages by jamming them down people’s throats – always a doomed tactic – Waititi skillfully illustrates how subtlety beats bombastic platitudes every time.

The film features transgender character Jaiyah Saelua (played nicely by Kaimana), the first transgender player to make it to a qualifying game in the World Cup (thank you, Wikipedia).

Rather than allowing identity politics to infect the film’s charms, Next Goal Wins organically embeds this character into the overall narrative, sitting harmoniously with a strong pro-Christian theme.

So, as well as being wholly entertaining, the film serves as a timely demonstration about how tact beats stridency when it comes to promoting progressive values.

As film history teaches us, the best way to impart any message is to weave it into the fabric of story and allow it to breathe naturally on its own.

It’s much more effective and pleasing than forcing matters, which has happened far too often over the past few years, and which people sense and tend to resent.

Just ask Disney.

DREAM SCENARIO ***1/2 (101 minutes) MA
In one of his more interesting performances of late, the ever-versatile Nicolas Cage does a top job as college professor Paul Matthews, a poor shlub who has hit the mid-career doldrums with a resounding thud.

He’s a marginal academic of little note and thing prospects until he begins appearing in the dreams of other people, even people he doesn’t know.

As you’d expect, this quickly reprocesses a middle-aged loser into a social media sensation, something Paul is eminently ill-equipped to handle, especially as the dark downside of insta-celebrity push thorns into his tenuous home life.

Writer/director Kristoffer Borgli smoothly works the wonderfully whacky premise into a titter-filled psychological comedy with some cutting things to say about digital idolatry and a timely update on the age-old phrase “here today, gone later today”. Great stuff.

THURSDAY 4 JANUARY 2024

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT ***1/2 (124 minutes) PG
In a film very reminiscent of 1981’s Chariots of Fire – Vale director Hugh Hudson, who passed away on 10 February, age 86 – comes George Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat, an uplifting, aspirational fact-based underdog sports drama about the University of Washington rowing team that ultimately triumphed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics after struggling to get its act together.

Beautifully shot and reeking with luminous period detail, it’s an old-style flag-waving sports drama with hearty characters in a rousing underdog story driven by strong heartland values – overcoming adversity through persistence and courage, self respect overwhelming self doubt, putting the team before yourself, putting country above petty rivalry.

Think Chariots of Water and you’ll get a good sense of the film’s affecting tone and its many similarities with the patriotic feel and uplifting tone of Chariots of Fire.

The film’s underdog theme also resonates deeply across the whole of the sports movie genre, from Rocky to Hoosiers to Friday Night Lights, Bad News Bears, Miracle, Invincible and so on and so forth. The legacy of underdog sports films runs rich and deep through cinema history.

Very good lead performances shine forth from Joel Edgerton as the coach and especially from Brit Callum Turner as Joe Rantz, the struggling poor student who joins the team to make some money.

Though it centres on Rantz early on, the film admirably broadens its dramatic focus to cover the other members of the crew, giving an ensemble feel rather than it being one man’s story.

All-in-all, George Clooney has done an excellent job directing a very handsome, old-school production.

It’s also a bit surprising – in a good way – that somebody so well known as a long-time Hollywood Leftie (enough to be parodied on South Park) would make a movie that would have such strong and obvious appeal to a conservative audience hungry for films that dare to celebrate American values rather than those intent on bashing them.

An old-fashioned crowd-pleaser pegged by traditional value, its box office fortunes should prove telling about where the mood of the film-going audience is.

FERRARI ***1/2 (130 minutes) MA
The long-promised biopic from Michael Mann (Heat; The Insider; Collateral) lands as an acting tour de force for Adam Driver as the founder of the iconic car brand.

Set chiefly in 1957 the film, written by the late, legendary Brit Troy Kennedy Martin, who passed in 2009, tracks Ferrari’s determination to establish his company’s racing cred ahead of its reputation as a builder of consumer cars.

Penélope Cruz puts in sturdy support as Laura, his wife with Shailene Woodley almost matching her as Lina Lardi, his mistress with whom Ferrari has a son.

The drama is strong and the racing sequences are often jaw-dropping in their realism, with the infamous crash sequence coming as something of a shock, even though it’s a matter of historical record.

After Oppenheimer and Napoleon, Ferrari suggests that the public’s taste for big-screen biopics might be returning, perhaps to partially replace the forgettable fantasy action films that have fatigued us of late.