Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

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Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super