Friday, April 4, 2014

FEVER PITCH: Blu-ray (Channel 4 Films/Universal 1997) Twilight Time

What could make a reasonably sane man willingly surrender his personal life? Why, devotion to a football team, of course (that’s soccer for you Yanks!) There’s really nothing to touch England’s genuine love/hate relationship with the professional league. And nothing that quite compares to the combustible and shambolic fervor erupting amongst its most diehard loyalists, who cumulatively ‘lose their plot’ and go ‘on the piss’ over every single game point. Director, David Evans manages to bottle their ecclesiastical spontaneity in Fever Pitch (1997); a sweet Fanny Adams dedicated to team spirit and those barmy buggers who cannot help but carry things more than a bit too far. Nick Hornby’s screenplay, based on his own novel, does for English soccer what Ron Shelton managed for baseball in Bull Durham (1988); namely, to make even the most casual viewer an immediate fan by using the patina of the romantic comedy to get into these silly little people’s lives and heads. You just have to love a movie that can make even rancorous football jeering seem heartwarming and sexy.
This one’s all about a boy still trapped inside a middle-aged man’s body. Life gets very complicated for popular grade school teacher, Paul Ashworth (Colin Firth) when he blunders into an ill-timed romance with priggish schoolmarm, Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell). He’s a sort of modern day Horatio Alger living by his twig and berries. She’s more of a stodgy prude for whom a good roger might just do the trick to relieve the tension.  Either way, Sarah’s quite unable to comprehend Paul’s mind-numbing devotion to eleven men. No, Paul’s not a bender; just a guy who can’t get Arsenal’s football club out of his blood. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest football in general, and Arsenal in particular, has become his way of life. Let’s call it an addiction. At the start of their awkward ‘relationship’, Sarah thinks of Paul only as a shirty skive. It stands to reason. After all, he’s refused a promising promotion at work, simply because it wouldn’t fit into his game-viewing schedule; his sense of congenial banter between them impugned whenever the radio or TV is tuned into a game, and, he has the most appalling taste in clothes. Even his boxers are Arsenal league trademarked.
In point of fact, Paul’s ‘on the pull’ for Sarah and why not? She’s ‘fit’, even if she is a tad gobby to boot. And despite her initial arrogance toward him, Sarah is destined to become Paul’s girl; it’s just that transparently obvious to her more pragmatic flat-mate, Jo (Holly Aird). Fagged by Paul’s decision to base major life decisions around the outcome of a single season, Sarah is frequently knackered. How could she have fallen in love with this anorak? So, with her ‘if you can’t beat ‘em/join ‘em’ philosophy firmly in play, Sarah feigns a superficial interest in football. But actually, she doesn’t follow Paul’s sports obsession. Okay, she’s damn well gobsmacked by the spectacle of watching her grown man throw caution, career and their plans for a life together to the wind. After all, it’s bloody ridiculous to invest this much of one’s self in something that couldn’t possibly make a difference to their lives one way or the other…or could it?
Director, David Evans taps into Paul’s slavish team spirit with an infectiously furious energy. Fever Pitch lives up to its name, primarily because Colin Firth’s frizzy-haired misfit is a lovably frustrated sod. Besides, Sarah’s no slapper, although it does not take her very long to decide she wants to shag Paul silly one rainy weekend while Jo is out of town. Paul’s best friend, Steve (Mark Strong) thinks this is a mistake. Sarah having a butcher at Paul’s bits is one thing. But a life together? How, when Paul’s already wed to the team? Nevertheless, Sarah and Paul graduate from casual – and occasionally caustic - chin wags, beyond the slap and tickle phase in their relationship; starkers after one car ride back to her place and two cups of coffee (it must have been the Sanka!). It’s all quite splendid, actually. And Paul (played as a boy by Luke Aikman in flashbacks) looks upon Sarah as his next great opportunity to make a new inductee into his house of worship – the stadium – in much the same way football temporarily brought him and his estranged father (Neil Pearson) together while he was growing up. Besides, Sarah will add variety to Paul’s usual ‘legless’ post-game celebrations with Steve.
Paul’s dad really wasn’t interested in football per say, or perhaps even in him; just a gormless ponce, who eventually left Paul’s mum (Lorraine Ashbourne) the custodian in charge of getting him season tickets. Regrettably, there have been too few lasting relationships in Paul’s life since; virtually none that did not involve tuning into the next big match on the telly. In some ways, Paul’s devotion to football has kept him isolated and friendless – except, of course, for Steve; the pair united in their debates over stats and players. But oh, no…wait a minute. Sarah’s up the duff. Thankfully, she also isn’t the kind to tie Paul down, even if he’s instantly made jubilant by the prospect. After all, a child might be the best thing for both of them and another way for Paul to impart his Anglo-mania on the next generation. So, everything’s tickety-boo for a time.
To prove his new-found fidelity to her, Paul and Sarah set about finding a new home together; he proposing a cozy little two story that is literally feet away from the stadium. Sarah is understandably reticent, and not just because of the noise level. But Paul really cannot afford much else on his modest salary, especially after the school’s headmaster, Ted (Ken Stott), learning of Sarah’s pregnancy from Paul, loses interest in helping to promote Paul to the position of class head; a prospect that would have meant more money for this new family just starting out. Ted was firstly gung-ho about Paul getting this position, despite Paul’s laconic dismissal of Ted’s enthusiasm. Now, Ted’s very cold indeed, informing Paul he cannot expect his students to follow their favorite teacher’s example when Paul is so obviously incapable of practicing what he is supposed to be preaching – namely ‘abstinence’.  
Things, predictably, reach an impasse for Sarah and Paul over one crucial match. If Arsenal wins, it would fulfill a dream Paul has had since he was a boy; victory repeatedly dashed to pieces over the last eighteen years. But Sarah has finally had enough. She cannot – and will not – base her entire future, as well as that of her unborn child, on a football game. And Paul is not about to change for anyone – even Sarah…or so it would seem. The genius of Nick Hornby’s screenplay – a considerable departure from his book – is that neither really has to make the supreme sacrifice to get their way; Sarah, turning out in the streets to partake in the fan’s chaotic revelry; Paul suddenly spying her from across the way and instantly realizing his future is with her – not the team. He’ll always love those guys, of course; and likely not to ditch his team spirit or colors anytime soon. But the exclusivity of that ‘relationship’ is now at an end; replaced with a far more meaningful bond to see him into his more uncertain emeritus years.
Fever Pitch is a joyous little distraction with lingering appeal; actually more of a bro-mance between two eccentrics united in their myopic choler over a football game. True enough, Paul Ashworth and his bald-eagle buddy, Steve aren’t exactly thinking about sweaty jocks and locker room towel snaps; but rather, the hard, sweat-soaked camaraderie deriving from a group of guys’ guys having their balls-in ding-dong for the national championship. Anywhere else, this premise would seem truly preposterous. And, in point of fact, the movie diverges considerable from its source material – both written by Nick Hornby; overly simplified and just a wee bit too conveniently wrapped up in the end. But in David Evans’ hands, Fever Pitch whips up some memorable, often hilarious furor for the sport and the stunted adolescents who can’t seem to get enough of it.  
Introducing Ruth Gemmel into this mix really throws a spanner in the works; at least for Firth’s titular heartthrob, more the foppish misanthrope than palpitating lady’s man. There’s a tangible and engaging chemistry between Firth and Gemmel that unexpectedly clicks after the bloom has been rubbed off her rather terse disciplinarian. The film works and perhaps even better still, because Firth is so gosh-darn congenial as the obtuse berk. Paul just cannot help but cock-up a perfect relationship, martyring personal happiness to Arsenal’s revolving schedule of afternoon games until almost the moment when all might be lost. Ah, but then, Firth’s daft alter-ego is eased into a life most every other adult currently knows as reality. Arguably, Paul will never be ‘an adult’. But at least, he has matured enough to become a suitable mate and role model for his yet unborn child. Gosh, we hope it’s a boy! 
Twilight Time’s first release via a new alliance with Universal Studios is very pleasing. Fever Pitch looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Minor DNR has been applied. But grain is still present and naturally reproduced. Colors are, for the most part, vibrant and natural in appearance, though not as richly saturated as one might expect. Nevertheless, this disc gives a very good representation of Chris Seager’s cinematography. Contrast is solid and flesh tones are pleasing. There are a few fleeting glimpses of age-related damage – minimal and hardly worth mentioning, except to say it is present and accounted for. Overall, good stuff – very good, indeed.
Better still, is Fever Pitch’s impressive 2.0 DTS audio, exceptionally energetic, finely detailed and with a rowdy ambiance during the football matches in particular. Fantastic fidelity and dynamic range in these acoustics, though the British slang is still a tad rough to decipher in spots.  Twilight Time gives us two noteworthy extras: their usual isolated score – the movie’s soundtrack is an eclectic blend of vintage pop tunes and orchestral background scored by Boo Hewerdine and Neil MacColl; plus a fantastic audio commentary from TT’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo – the latter also furnishing us with another insightful mini-essay about the film in her ‘liner notes’. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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