Sunderland ‘Til I Die

Nipping at the heels of First Team: Juventus is another Netflix footy doc, although this one could be called The Last Team (I Would Play For). Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a riveting account of the once-storied franchise’s spectacular red-card tumble from grace.

The contrast between the clubs couldn’t be any more, um, black and white. Juventus (aka, “The Old Lady”, and “the Zebras”) were sent to a lower league as a punishment for their involvement in Italy’s notorious match-fixing scandal. Some called it a slap on the wrist, the team kept much of its talent, and was soon back destroying opponents in the Serie A and abroad. Sunderland, on the other hand, stunk like days-old herring.

Juve boasts a who’s who of talent, like Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s richest athletes. Sunderland’s got a who’s that? of talent. The Italian giant’s practice facilities are the Ritz-Carlton, Sunderland’s look more like a Holiday Inn.

A once proud side, Sunderland was demoted from the Premier League, where it battled the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, global billion-dollar behemoths who sign players with blank checks and whose jerseys can be spotted from Rio to Tokyo. Sunderland were punted down to League One, where the casual fan wouldn’t recognize many, if any, of their opponents — Scunthorpe United, Wycombe Wanderers, Southend United — some of whom have home grounds that seat a whopping 30,000 (!) fewer spectators (Sunderland play in the state-of-the-art 50k capacity Stadium of Light. Scunthorpe’s Glanford Park seats 9,000).

Sunderland ‘Til I Die chronicles the team’s struggle to keep a permanent manager (the team changes them like a hotel’s bed-sheets), acquire players during the transfer window, and develop talent from its youth ranks.

This becomes an increasing struggle, as the billionaire owner at the time didn’t feel like ponying up for top-tier talent. Drafting from within sometimes works for competent, thrifty, organizations, but more often than not players aren’t pitch-ready and are brought along too soon and flame out, or are poached by bigger fish once they show promise.

As Sunderland swim in increasingly smaller ponds, you get to see how the organization is squeezed. Their players speak out publicly, they lose their top striker, and become, according to one local cabbie, a “poisoned chalice.”

It’s a reminder to those of us weaned on North American sports, especially from this vantage point, to appreciate the foreboding specter of relegation. If there were lower leagues to be demoted to, the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs of old would’ve been sent there. After all, this is a city with a rich tradition of stink.

Sunderland ‘Til I Die is the warts and all sports club doc that First Team: Juventus should’ve been.

It’s heartwarming, engrossing, and a reminder of the cultural continuity-affirming importance of professional sport.

***1/2 (out of 5)

Santa Claus (1959)

At our latitude, Santa Claus comes with a set of built-in expectations: an unhealthy BMI, a felt suit, more hos than a red light district, and of course, the white beard.

1959’s Santa Claus, aka, Mexican Santa Claus, aka, Santa Claus vs. The Devil, upturns the sled, and gives us so many weird twists and turns that it makes for must-see Christmas viewing (especially if you’re tired of seeing James Caan glower at Will Ferrell on every fourth channel this time of year).

In this version, children, not elves, are the unlucky toilers in Santa’s employment standards-skirting workshop, and director Rene Cardona goes through great pains to show us that the kids are of every color and creed: there’s a protracted scene of ethnic stereotypes as American kids with cowboy hats, Germans in dirndls (say that three times fast) and Africans in grass skirts sing traditional, and decidedly un-traditional songs (the Brits sing a few bars of “London Bridge is Falling Down,” for reasons that defy logic and description).

And weirder still: Santa’s workshop isn’t on the North Pole, but is lunar. So it’s not a stretch to say this film is sheer lunacy.

He really knows when you’re sleeping/awake, as his base is equipped with espionage equipment that’d be the envy of the Stasi: telescopic eyes, satellite dish ears, etc. so he can peer down onto the earth’s surface and find out who’s been naughty/nice (depicted here, oddly, as “good” vs “liars).

Santa’s antagonist is “Pitch,” which sounds like some obnoxious a capella singer but who is in actuality a devilish emissary sent by Satan himself to spoil Christmas (“pitch” is a reference to a pitchfork). Pitch gets inside the heads of children to make them do bad things, like chuck projectiles at Kris Kringle or covet expensive dolls.

As weird and wonderful as Cardona’s infamous Night of the Bloody Apes (in which a bad scientist tries to treat leukemia, a bone marrow ailment, with an animal heart transplant) Santa Claus is a real break from your typical holiday fare, not to mention reality.

*** (out of 5)

[Listen to the Really Awful Movies Podcast team discuss Mexican Santa Claus!]