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)

The Night Before

“This is the kind of movie that’s so bad, you gotta tell someone about it.” Can’t take credit for that, as it was my viewing companion, but she’s dead-on. The Night Before is a putative Christmas comedy that’s putrid in execution and puts the rank in rank amateur.

Three stoner dramatis personae have a tradition, as mindless as whoever concocted this as a plot device: to hang out and get blotto together on Christmas (and also to try and seek passage to an exclusive party, The Nutcrackers Ball).

Their leader is soon-to-be-dad Isaac (a frumpy-dump Seth Rogan), so if this is a Hero’s Journey, this is more of the sandwich variety. Milking the lazy stupefied Peter Pan-t-load mien he’s come to adopt in just about everything, Rogan’s Isaac is terrified at the prospect of growing up and pending fatherhood. His wife, sensing this, enables Isaac in a kind of last night of freedom: giving him a container full of pharmaceuticals so he and his pals can cut loose Hangover-style, minus the charm, direction or the comic timing.

That an 8 month-along mom-to-be would do something that stupid beggars belief, but even dumber, that her “rock,” (“Like Dwayne Johnson”, she ‘jokes’. Seinfeld eat your heart out) would actually indulge….well, that’s the set up, for a movie that’s so tonally off, it needs a tuning fork, and is about as enjoyable as a set of cymbals clanged upside your noggin.

The usually reliable Joseph Gordon Levitt (Ethan) cuts a wan, labored Kevin Spacey figure as a loser who’s still hung up on an ex years later and resorts to side hustle work as a Santa elf (he’s even the butt of a joke: “a 33-year old elf?” In terms of age-inappropriate behavior, though, he gets off easy)

And to round out the idiot triumvirate (the name “Three Stooges” is already taken) is Chris (Anthony Mackie), a star NFLer, who — and kudos here for the realism — is suddenly a breakout star due to banned substances.

The Night Before features repugnant bathroom sex, steroid abuse, dick pics, a nose-bleed into a Martini, projectile vomiting during midnight mass, and a host of indignities too numerous to be unaccompanied by even the slimmest shred of wit or joy. And also James Franco and Miley Cyrus. The state rests, your honor.

As willfully ugly as a Christmas sweater, and as actively repellent as any comedy ever made.

* (out of 5)