Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny

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Back in Time


Marty McFly can't understand what all the fuss is about.

Marty McFly can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Claudia Wells, Bob Gale, Don Fullilove, James Tolkan, Huey Lewis, Alan Silvestri, Andrew Probert, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Adam F. Goldberg, Bill Shea, Frank Price, Rob Klein, Ed Dennis, Tyler McDonald, Martin Sanchez, Adam Kotras, Joe Wolser, Jill Henderson. Directed by Jason Aron

When it opened in 1985, Back to the Future was an immediate sensation and a runaway hit. Some have proclaimed it the perfect movie; nearly everyone in the industry praises the script as one of the best ever written, making a time travel story work (much harder than you’d think) but supplying it with memorable characters, plenty of thrills, great eye candy (for its time) and thought-provoking situations. After all – if you traveled back in time when you were high school age and met your parents while they were in high school, would you have hung out with them?

That’s at the heart of what Back to the Future is. Thirty years after the original, we have finally surpassed the date that Marty McFly came to the future – from this point forward the entire trilogy takes place in our past.

In many ways a cultural touchstone, we mostly all grew up or have been fascinated by as adults with the concepts of hoverboards, self-lacing Nikes, jackets that blow-dry themselves, lawyers being abolished and of course flying cars. This was a bright future – not necessarily pristine as there were bad neighborhoods, drug abuse, poverty, crime and Griff who was a little bit of everything with a bionic twist.

Now we’ve reached that era and while it isn’t exactly the future that Zemeckis and Gale envisioned, they did get a few things right – including 80s nostalgia, thousands of cable channels and Mr. Fusion. Just kidding about the last one.

This documentary looks not only at the movies and in particularly the sequence set in 2015, but also at the BTTF fandom, including the Flux Capacitors rock band (who will be playing in a road show along with screenings of the movie in select cities starting next month) and Delorean enthusiasts who have had their cars customized to look like the time machine. Some of these are even street legal.

While I have to admit that the interviews with Michael J. Fox were a little bit hard to watch – yes, all the cast members are 30 years older but Fox’s Parkinson’s reminds us that he has been through a lot more than most of us have been through over that same time – it is clear that everyone involved with the movie has fond memories not only of the shoot but of the public’s reaction to it and the continued enthusiasms displayed by the fans.

Some folks might not realize that when the movie first started shooting, Fox wasn’t available because of his Family Ties commitments; actor Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty instead. However, six weeks into shooting it became clear that Stoltz, who is a very fine actor, just wasn’t right for the part. They managed to then get Fox, who would film his television show on weekdays and on weeknights and weekends would do the movie. It was exhausting but was clearly worth the effort because we, the viewing public, not only got a classic TV show from the deal but also a classic movie trilogy.

I have to admit that I appreciated the fan stories much more than the professional talking head interviews, much of the material for which has been covered in interviews on DVD and Blu-Ray editions that are easily available, much of it on the new 30th anniversary Blu-Ray collection. In some ways, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment; the editing appears a little haphazard, the flow of the film is a little choppy and as I said, the reliance on talking heads is too much.

Still, the movie is so good, so iconic, so central to Western culture that it is hard to watch this movie and not feel the warm fuzzies inside. We all connect to the trilogy whether we saw it as children or as adults. Even if the insights here aren’t especially new or revealing, it is still fun to revisit the movies as well as the fans who have been so devoted to them. Zemeckis has said that there will be no Back to the Future 4 (although I’m a big believer in “never say never”) so we will have to make do with this and what transpires in comic books and videogames that are inspired by the film. With the recent milestone in our review, it is a very good time to go back in time.

REASONS TO GO: Clearly a labor of love. Fan stories are quite interesting. The background of Zemeckis’ previous films gives good context.
REASONS TO STAY: Talking head overload. A bit disjointed. Doesn’t feel fully formed.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to the sexuality of the trilogy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original Back to the Future had its initial surprise premiere at the Century 21 theater in San Jose, California.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix, Vimeo, Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trekkers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness commences!

Lawless


The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

The Bondurants confront the law, or vice versa.

(2012) Crime Drama (Weinstein) Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Dane DeHaan, Chris McGarry, Tim Tolin, Gary Oldman, Lew Temple, Marcus Hester, Bill Camp, Alex Van, Noah Taylor, Mark Ashworth, Tom Proctor, Bruce McKinnon, Eric Mendenhall, Toni Byrd, Robert T. Smith. Directed by John Hilcoat

Crime movies about the Prohibition era tended to be centered in Chicago or other big cities and involved gangsters with Tommie guns in big cars shooting at coppers and other gangsters in glorious black and white. There haven’t been a lot of movies about the effects of bootlegging in rural areas except during the ’70s and those tended to be more corn pone comedies than anything else.

However bootlegging was a going concern outside of the cities as well. In Franklin County, Virginia, the Bondurant brothers have become legends since their heyday during the Depression. The three brothers are led by taciturn Forrest (Hardy), the brains of the operation, who never met an awkward silence he didn’t like. Middle brother Howard (Clarke), more brute than man, would be the brawn of the operation other than he partakes a little more of the moonshine than he probably should. Finally there’s Jack (LaBeouf), a kid with big dreams but little backbone as yet.

The Bondurants mostly sell their liquor to Floyd Banner (Oldman) who in turn puts their product into his speakeasies. It’s a pretty cozy arrangement with the local Sheriff (Camp) looking the other way. However, federal agent Charlie Rakes (Pearce) comes out of the big city with big ideas, a dandy fashion sense, a really swell haircut and enough corruption to rot every orange in Florida. He wants a piece of Bondurant pie and Forrest, well, he’s just not that willing to give it to him. So a kind of war erupts between the honest bootleggers and the corrupt federal agents. Welcome to the 1930s, Jack.

There are plenty of extraneous characters in the mix, like the waitress that Forrest hires to work their gas station/restaurant (Chastain), the daughter of a preacher that Jack falls for (Wasikowska) and the mechanical genius (DeHaan) who befriends Jack and becomes an integral part of the operation. There’s also plenty of violence, with gun battles erupting with a somewhat depressing regularity. Prohibition was no picnic after all.

Hilcoat, who teamed with Aussie alt-rocker Nick Cave (who wrote this based on a fictionalized account of the real-life Bondurant clan) on the highly praised western The Proposition (which also starred Pearce, come to think of it) has a good ear for period rhythms, not just in speech but in depicting the hard scrabble daily lives of those who lived in that era. He certainly managed to snag an impressive cast; even those in throwaway roles are high-powered and indeed they all deliver; there’s not a subpar performance in the bunch.

En route to becoming a punch line, LaBeouf had moments where his talent shown through and this was one of them. Although Hardy shows why he is today one of the biggest and most promising stars in Hollywood by making his character the focus of attention without using much dialogue to do it in, LaBeouf at least stays pretty much within shouting range of Hardy which is no mean feat. Both of them have to deal with Pearce’s highly mannered yet compelling performance as the movie’s ostensible villain which is ironic because he’s the cop and the good guys are the criminals. Oh, irony!

Speaking of compelling, the story is a good one and although not technically accurate – the real Bondurant brothers were not above being ruthless in their dealings and while the contempt they had for the federal government was likely quite accurately portrayed here, they weren’t saints. However, other than oral traditions about the boys, there isn’t a ton of information about them out there so we kind of have to rely on the words of witnesses long dead.

There are moments throughout when the story seems to lose its way and you can feel the movie sputtering a bit. However, Hilcoat is a director who I think should be getting a little more attention from the film cognoscenti than he has been and while nothing in life is certain, I think we’ll be seeing further interesting films from him in the years to come. Certainly with a cast like this he can’t go wrong and while the movie could have used a bit more judicious script editing, at least it’s never boring. Definitely a sleeper to look out for if you haven’t seen it yet.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderful cast. Compelling story.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit aimless in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence (some of it graphic), a bit of swearing and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Composer/musician Nick Cave wrote the screenplay based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, the grandson of the Shia LaBeouf character and is based loosely on actual events.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of bootlegging in Franklin County, a featurette on the background of the Bondurant family and a music video by Willie Nelson.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.7M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, VuduiTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Road to Perdition
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Love and Mercy