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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17 Again


17 Again

Zac Efron and Leslie Mann have a future as professional ballroom dancers.

(New Line) Matthew Perry, Zac Effron, Leslie Mann, Michele Trachtenberg, Thomas Lennon, Sterling Knight, Hunter Parrish, Melora Hardin, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jim Gaffigan. Directed by Burr Steers

None of us are born perfect. It is part of the human experience that we at some point regret some of our actions – or inactions – from our youth. There isn’t one of us who has survived high school who don’t at some point think that they would do things differently had they to do it over again. Unfortunately, life grants us few do-overs.

Mike O’Donnell (Perry) had it all going for him in 1989. A high school basketball standout with college scholarships coming in, one of the most popular guys in school, especially with Scarlett (Mann) an adoring and gorgeous girlfriend. it all comes crashing down when he is forced to make a decision – one that has ramifications that will affect his entire future.

Twenty years later, life hasn’t gone exactly to plan for Mike. He and Scarlett (whom he married right out of high school) are in the process of an acrimonious divorce. His teenaged kids Alex (Knight) and Maggie (Trachtenberg) think he’s the world’s biggest loser, which is true for most teenaged kids when considering their dad, but after being passed over for a promotion he thought was in the bag, he wonders if they’re not right.

He is reduced to crashing at the pad of his only friend, Ned (Lennon), an uber-nerd in high school but a software billionaire now. After encountering a janitor (Doyle-Murray) who only Mike seems to see and who has the kind of knowing smile that indicates he has information privy only to him that would be very useful in solving your problems, Mike falls into a convenient vortex and emerges out the other end looking very much like Zac Efron.

In fact this is what Mike used to look like as a teenager in 1989 – Zac Efron, which seems quite a leap of faith for Matthew Perry but there you have it. However, this isn’t 1989 – it’s still 2009 and Mike still has the same problems. There’s no going back and fixing them, not in this body switch movie. Instead what he can do is make a difference in the life of his soon-to-be ex-wife and kids.

Of course, his kids aren’t living the lives he thought they were. Alex, who Mike thought was a basketball star like he was, is the very much picked-upon towel boy. Even though Alex is a talented player in his own right, he doesn’t have the self-confidence to try out. Maggie is dating an utter douchebag (Parrish) who is trying – without any success – to get into her pants, but she is slowly crumbling under the pressure.

In order to fit in, Mike prevails upon Ned to act as his legal guardian so that he might attend school. Ned becomes far more receptive to this idea when he falls head over heels for the comely but frosty principal (Hardin). Also, Mike’s wife has begun to notice this kid who looks exactly like the high school boy she fell in love with and develop feelings for him, feelings she believes to be inappropriate. For his part, Mike begins to see her as a person instead of as his wife; the revelation is a bit of an eye-opener for him.

But despite Mike’s good intentions, things begin to fall apart as they generally do in body switch movies and he becomes dangerously close to losing everything that matters the most to him. Can he make things right or is he destined to live his life over again, this time without the people he loves?

I wasn’t expecting much from this movie. After all, most of the body switch movies I’ve seen of late have been pretty much rehashes in one way or another of Big. Quite frankly, this one is too. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed this movie’s offbeat charm.

There are some genuine laughs here, mostly supplied by Lennon. I’ve seen him in a few movies and never really noticed him especially, but he nails this one and comes close to stealing the movie. However, Efron – whose High School Musical movies I’m not a big fan of – was surprisingly good. He has an effortless, winsome appeal that makes me think that he is going to have great longevity as a movie star instead of one of those cast-aside teen idols whose stock plummets the older he gets. I think Efron has the charisma to parlay his teen movie success into a great career. He may even have the acting chops as well.

Mann is, as always, a steady performer who can play bitchy and sweet equally well. She does both here, but it is her tender side that I remember more vividly. Trachtenberg, a refugee from the Buffyverse, is solid as the Goth daughter.

I found myself liking the movie and believing in the romances, which is a credit to the performers more than the script, which doesn’t really stray very far from the body switch formula. This isn’t a genre-definer by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining enough to give it a mild recommendation. Check it out on cable if you haven’t seen it before, and if you have a teenaged daughter, prepare for a loud squeal when Efron takes off his shirt. If you are a teenaged daughter, warn your parents that they might hear one; it’s only polite.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly engaging, Efron, Perry, Mann and Lennon make this very watchable. A few actually funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve probably seen this before and probably done better. Not very groundbreaking, not at all.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some swearing and teen sexuality but otherwise suitable for just about everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zac Efron developed appendicitis during filming which began as a stomach ache. It grew painful enough that he had it checked out the day after filming wrapped and was rushed into surgery that very night. Therefore this marks the final filmed appearance of Zac Efron’s appendix.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Da Queen’s favorite, a way cool tell-all trivia track, can be selected to play during the film. Mostly useless factoids pop up every half a minute or so.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Love in the Time of Cholera