King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

Rockaway


The young cast of Rockaway.

(2018) True Life Coming of Age Drama (Paladin/Gravitas) Keidrich Sallati, Maxwell Apple, James DiGiacomo, Tanner Flood, Colin Critchley, Harrison Wittmeyer, Nolan Lyons, Sophia Rose, Wass Stevens, Marjan Neshat, Frankie J. Alvarez, Wendall Lloyd, Nicholas J. Coleman, Jake Taylor, Luke Guldan, Drew Powell, Dan Puck, Christy Escobar, Samantha Cocozza. Directed by John J. Budion

 

NOTE: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, skip the rest of the review down to the last paragraph and just read that. Basically going through almost any element of the plot or evaluation of the various elements of the film may spoil your experience of it. If you’ve already seen it, read on…

There are plenty of coming of age dramas out there; films that depict a season or a year in the life of the lead character which becomes critical to shaping them into what they eventually become. Often these films are viewed largely through a sepia lens, the tones of summer and autumn becoming golden and sun-dappled with the warm refraction of memory. It is difficult not to compare those celluloid memories to your own.

Anthony (Sallati) and John (Apple) are a couple of kids growing up in a small town on Long Island long since immortalized by the Ramones but when this is set, 1994, the boys have bigger fish to fry. Their drunken stepfather (Stevens) beats on their long-suffering mom (Neshat) and on the boys themselves; when the younger John comes home with a slightly and easily mended shirt, dear old dad smacks the boy upside the head and not in a friendly, dad fashion but in a mean drunk fashion with the express intent to intimidate.

Still, there are things that the boys have to look forward to – their beloved New York Knicks are in the midst of an unlikely run into the NBA Finals against the heavily favored Houston Rockets. While Patrick Ewing was the ostensible star of the team, the player who had captured both of their hearts (especially John’s) and much of New York City as well was blue collar shooting guard John Starks.

They also have a plan to murder their stepfather, involving a broken light fixture, a whole lot of tennis balls, and a boiler. Whenever their stepfather is drunk and arguing (and smacking around) their mom which is nearly every night, Anthony soothes his plucky but timid little brother with tales of Mr. Doo, who is anthropomorphized poo and the stinkiest stool in town.  Anthony is extremely protective of his little brother; following the torn shirt incident, Anthony swears to John that their stepdad will never touch him again.

The two boys lean on each other exclusively and while Anthony is very affectionate with his mom, he has no illusions that she will ever get rid of the monster in her bedroom and knows he will have to do it if the family is to survive. However, into this horrifying situation comes a group of guys who become almost like family – the leader Billy (Wittmeyer), intelligent and thoughtful Brian (Flood), small tough-talking Dom (DiGiacomo) and motormouth Sal (Critchley) who clearly went to the Vinnie Barbarino School of Charm.

The boys will bond over bicycles, baseball games, the mystery of boobs and the improbable run of the Knicks and a deep friendship will result. It’s a bond that will last a lifetime, but they could have no way of knowing the type of curveball that will be thrown their way.

For some reason after reading the synopsis of the movie I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about seeing it but I was pleasantly surprised that this is actually a solid film. It’s not a movie that sheds any particularly novel light on domestic abuse, although the matter-of-fact tone it takes about it gives the viewer an idea of how a family in the grip of an unpredictable drunk bully suffers through uncertainty over just when he will erupt and what will trigger it. Walking on eggshells doesn’t even begin to describe it.

That said, the coming of age aspect of the movie has all the right feels and while the end of the movie becomes anti-climactic after a fashion (the big emotional scene that precedes it tends to drain the viewer) the story keeps the viewer largely engaged. There feels like lately a tendency to make movies run a bit longer than the story supports it; this one runs exactly as long as it needs to be.

They don’t really do a great job of re-creating the era; some of the cars parked at the side of the road and in parking lots and driveways were manufactured well after 1994 (imagine if in American Grafitti there were AMC Pacers and Chevy El Caminos parked at the sock hop. The amount of years that separated 1955 from 1973 is a little less than 1994 until 2018 – 18 years versus 24 years for the math-challenged.

The movie rests strongly on the shoulders of the juvenile actors; other than the mom and the stepdad there are almost no adults visible in the film. The problem with most juvenile actors is that they try to act and that’s what happens here; the performances come off as mainly stiff and forced. They would have benefited from a hand at the helm that would calm them down and elicit performances that feel less like performances. It doesn’t help that most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional. Even John, the stand-in for writer/director Budion, doesn’t have a ton of depth to him beyond his obsession with Starks, his devotion to his big brother and his terror of his father. Anthony comes off as nearly too good to be true; he is the emotional center of the movie without a doubt but even he sometimes feels more like an archetype than a real person.

I liked this movie a lot more than I expected to and that’s not easy to do. It snuck up on me and maybe that’s the best way to approach it. If you read all the way through the review to this point and haven’t seen the film yet (ignoring the advice I gave you at the very beginning), this is still a film worthy of seeing but the experience you have with it, having soaked in what I’ve already written about it, will be much less meaningful than if you followed my advice. If you skipped down to this paragraph, by all means stop what you’re doing and stream the movie on whichever service you prefer (see below) and then come back and re-read the review. See if you don’t agree.

REASONS TO GO: This is a coming of age movie with an edge and has all the feels you need.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the young actors try too hard and end up with performances that don’t feel true.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Budion began his career as a special effects supervisor, working on such films as Beasts of No Nation and The Grand Hotel Budapest. This is his first feature as a director and the film is loosely based on events from his own childhood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sandlot
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Anthem of a Teenage Prophet