As a young, golf-obsessed, working-class caddy growing up at the turn of the century, Francis Ouimet (Shia LeBouf, providing excellent, intense work here) is mystified when his considerable skills are recognized and he's allowed to join the ranks of the elitist sport as an amateur player. While his father (Elias Koteas) objects to his aspirations, Ouimet struggles through failure, class prejudice, and self-doubt to find himself at the 1913 U.S. Open playing with, and eventually against, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane), Ouimet's personal hero, and the best player the game had known up to that point.
While a game of exquisite challenge, golf doesn't exactly lend itself easily to cinema. To think of the best golf movies around leads to the one and only selection: "Caddyshack." Perhaps absurd, but true. "Greatest Game Ever Played" is the latest motion picture questing to somehow overcome the distinct lack of cinematic qualities the sport possesses and, under the eye of director Bill Paxton, "Game" comes awfully close to dead solid perfect.
In his second feature directorial assignment, Paxton continues to develop into one of the best filmmakers around. With his 2002 debut "Frailty," Paxton demonstrated he could skillfully sculpt mystery and suspense. "Game" presents an even bigger challenge with its soft Disney roots, tricky period ornamentations, and problematical story. The tale of Francis Ouimet is not one of furious pace and constant triumph, but of steady determination and natural talent. Paxton emphasizes the gentle nature of the story by trusting the material to a certain extent, and permitting the silence of golf and the concentration of the participants to lead the action. If it sounds boring, I can assure you it isn't. "Game" is about golf and one of the finest contests any sport has seen, but it's also a character study on how great playing comes from sportsmanship and skill, which makes for superb drama.
Maybe fearing a little disinterest in the subject matter from the viewer, Paxton comes armed with some frantic visuals to help goose the excitement. Most encourage the pace of the film, such as the kinetic way Paxton follows the golf balls in mid-flight, enjoying the fine details of the course and its accouterments along the way. While others, like a blitzkrieg rain montage or a scene capturing a ladybug as it peacefully lands on a golf ball just before impact, go a little overboard in the style and ambition department. Paxton also indulges broadly when it comes to Ouimet's detractors, who are one step away from moustache-twirling monsters. In the overall context of "Game," the thickly underlined negativity surrounding Ouimet, from his disapproving father to boorish, class-obsessed golf enthusiasts, is necessary to paint a bigger portrait of the era. Paxton's smooth abilities behind the camera really ease the unpleasantness in these sequences, as such fumbled cartoonish villainy is a quick way to a headache in lesser films.
One character that could potentially become a clichéd brute is Harry Vardon, Ouimet's idol and competition. "Game" actually opens with Vardon's vivid childhood travesty of having his poor family relocated so their land could be cleared to make room for a golf course. The men in charge of Vardon's trauma are a constant source of anxiety for the player, and Paxton holds the images of these ghoulish men always in sight, giving Vardon very sympathetic motivations and reminding the viewer that he is not Ouimet's enemy, but a fellow professional with his own concerns and doubts. Wonderfully played by Stephen Dillane, Vardon is a great adversary for Ouimet, but one that simply wants to play against him, not destroy him.
Employing an AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1 aspect ratio, 1080p high definition presentation), "Greatest Game" makes for an idyllic HD viewing environment, utilizing fresh outdoorsy locations and heavy period detail. The image quality has trouble with pure black levels, looking overly contrasty during sequences lit by candlelight or evening shots. Once the action hits the links, the BD performance improves tremendously, capturing the fertile greens of the tournament grounds with salivatory detail. The crisp look of the golfing sequences amplifies to the enjoyment of the picture, especially with the macro cinematography Paxton prefers, marvelously preserved here on the disc.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix on this BD compliments the visual scheme brilliantly. Paxton tinkers with sound throughout the film, and the track feeds that intent sharply, hitting the listener from all sides with snappy golf sound effects and dense crowd atmospherics. While dialogue is balanced suitably, this mix is all about the deep whooshes and solid thwacks on the fairway; there's outstanding clarity of movement on the track, creating a cool 3-D audio environment that backdrops the dramatics superbly. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also available.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Bill Paxton is a master class in affable, knowledgeable informational track comfort. Unabashedly in love with his movie, Paxton is eager to share secrets and intentions behind every inch of the frame, including the manufacturing of America in Montreal, the film's numerous "Yellow Submarine" homages, and a necessary rundown of visual inspirations. Plus there's the opportunity to hear Paxton employ phrases like "not digging the chili" when describing irritated characters. Paxton is a joy to listen to, imparting a massive amount of background detail to savor while watching the film.
Writer/producer Mark Frost shows up on a second commentary track, using the audio space to discuss how his book became a feature film, detail the historical accuracies of the picture and its golfing nuances, and to communicate his love for the game. While far more clinical than Paxton's chat, Frost is equally as enthusiastic, bestowing the listener with a full belly of facts and figures about the film, making the final product a more intimate experience the second time around.
"A View from the Gallery" (15:22, 480i) is the obligatory BTS featurette on the disc, only here there's a distinct effort to communicate the overall spectrum of production accomplishments. Interviews with cast and crew delve into motivation and on-set spirits, while Paxton acts as the unofficial tour guide as the film goes from page to screen. With only 15 minutes to work with, this featurette accomplishes quite a bit.
"Two Legends and the Greatest Game" (6:50, 480i) allows Mark Frost an opportunity to discuss the history between Ouimet and Vardon, using vintage photographs to help communicate the personalities of the men behind the movie.
"From Caddie to Champion: Frances Ouimet" (25:15, 480i) is a television program from 1963 that interviews an elderly Ouimet about his career and golf philosophy. It's an amazing snapshot of the legend at 70 years of age, conducting the second half of the chat while walking along the very same greens where he achieved his fame.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
As the competition heats up, along with Ouimet's fame, "Game" does fall into the trappings of a typical underdog story. However, Paxton has earned the right to indulge some audience-pleasing theatrics through his dedicated direction and smart casting. The odds were against Paxton from the beginning: period drama, golf, Disney...it didn't seem possible to overcome such handicaps. Yet, "Greatest Game Ever Played" is a studied, thoroughly entertaining drama that defies all expectations, returning the honor to the game of golf and the sporting thrill back into movies.
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