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A region 2 DVD review of BALLS / MÄNNER WIE WIR by Slarek
 

If you were breezing through this week's new releases on the sites a few of UK on-line retailers, you might just stumble across a film called Balls (actual title Männer wie wir, which translates as 'Men Like Us'), and a good many of you will hop straight past it because more than one of these sites have chosen to label the film 'gay interest'. In terms of its subject matter it would certainly qualify for the queer cinema label, but a film as energetic, cheerily upbeat and well made as this one does not deserve to be so narrowly pigeonholed (the same is true for a great deal of queer cinema, of course). It seems daft that a formulaic but entertaining story of underdogs winning against the odds, one that would normally be seen as mainstream fare, is in danger of being consigned to a specialist audience simply because the main characters are gay. Mind you, I'm not completely naïve here – I do realise that a large portion of the mainstream audience are still intolerant enough to run a mile on spikes rather than watch a movie featuring even one gay character, let alone eleven. Which is a shame, as it's that still widely held prejudice that this film so effectively highlights and challenges, and in delivering a worthwhile message in an audience-friendly wrapper, it could make ideal viewing for more mainstream-orientated viewers.

In terms of plot, there is nothing – and I do mean nothing – about Balls that will particularly surprise you. The formula goes like this – a sympathetic lead character is humiliated and challenged to complete a task that everyone believes him incapable of, but he goes off anyway in search of those who will aid him in his quest, and returns to do battle, in which he will inevitably triumph. It's Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces again, the inspiration for just about every mainstream movie from Hollywood and beyond since George Lucas swallowed the book whole and spat it out as Star Wars back in 1977.

In this case our hero is young and good-looking Ecki, the goalkeeper for a local football team and a boy whose lack of progress with his girlfriend turns out to be down to his own unrealised preference for young males. When the discovery of his true sexuality is made suddenly and embarrassingly public, Ecki is dropped from the team in an instant, and in the argument that follows he is challenged to put together a gay team to play against his old team-mates. In the heat of the moment he accepts, but in this rigidly heterosexual sport, where is he to find such players?

There can be few of you who could not write the rest yourself, and to be honest if you've already made a guess how it all ends, well you're probably right. The plot holds no surprises here, but the exuberant handling by American ex-patriot Sherry Horman is surprisingly seductive and quick off the mark. The opening credits briskly set the scene and the style for what follows, with busy camerawork and snappy editing underscored by breezy rock track, the action laced with engaging character detail and amusing comic asides.

But if the film is weakened by its adherence to generic cliché, it also unexpectedly draws strength from it too. A formula that is traditionally used for the (re-) establishment of masculinity by allowing the hero to discover his inner strength, defeat the enemy and marry the princess, here becomes a route to the establishment of gay pride and acceptance by friends and family. Thus a comic take on the Seven Samurai recruitment of warriors is not only frequently funny, but gently deflates the widely held (but statistically unlikely) belief that football is a purely heterosexual game, while a locker-room talk to prompt Ecki out for the final match sweetly reveals the level of his mother's non-judgemental devotion to her son. Inevitably the gay stereotypes are there, but are never overplayed and are counterbalanced nicely by players cool enough to adorn any young fan's bedroom wall, and a trio of bikers whose tenderness and affection for each other sits very comfortably behind their hard-ass street image. A particularly amusing aside has David Beckham, an international sporting icon and one of the game's most admired and recognised figures, singled out as both an inspiration for the players and a highly desirable gay icon.

It's a mistake to label a film like Balls for gay interest only, especially as its message of tolerance and understanding is targeted very specifically at the audience most likely to react to that misjudgment. Yes it's very formulaic, but it's also funny, energetic and genuinely worth your while – just put those silly prejudices aside for 90 minutes and you may just have a damned good time.

sound and vision

If you caught the first post of this review you'll know that the preview disc we were working from gave no clear indication of the picture or sound quality. Well it's good news, as both are pretty damned fine. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is sharp and with pleasing contrast and colour, although many scenes appear to have a slight yellow cast to them. In these postmodernist days, it's hard to tell if this was intended or not.

The 5.1 soundtrack is a very lively one, with good seperation, a fine dynamic range and some very beefy LFE bass, notably in the night club scene in which Ecki wonders whether he might be gay after all after narrowly escaping a fisting. There is a slight treble bias evident in some scenes, which adds a slight hiss to the letter S.

extra features

The only one of real note is the Making-Of Featurette (14:35), an entertaining and informative collection of behind-the-scenes footage, some of which is set to the English language tunes used in the film. A nice mixture of crew and cast antics and revelations on how shots and scenes were filmed.

There are also Trailers for The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Transylvania and 4:30.

summary

Balls (released as Men and Balls in the US) may have few narrative surprises, but in the detail and positive messages about gender choice it's a real star, and also happens to be great fun to watch. Peccadillo's DVD scores on picture and sound and includes a very worthwhile 'making-of' featurette. Please, don't let the 'Gay Interest' label put you off – this is a very enjoyable and positive movie that deserves to find a wider audince than it is in danger of doing. See it, enjoy it and tell your friends.

Balls
Männer Wie Wir

Germany 2004
91 mins
director
Sherry Horman
starring
Maximilian Bruckner
Willi Thomczyk
Jochen Stern
Judith Hoersch
Carlo Ljubek
Mirko Lang

DVD details
Region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
German
subtitles
English
extras
Making-of featurette
Trailers
distributor
Peccadillo Pictures
release date
6 November 2006
review posted
9 November 2006