Lean on Pete


We all need somebody we can lean on.

(2017) Coming of Age Drama (A24) Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Travis Fimmel, Amy Seimetz, Steve Zahn, Chloë Sevigny, Rachel Perrell Fosket, Alison Elliott, Jason Rouse, Lewis Pullman, Justin Rain, Frank Gallegos, Teyah Hartley, Kurt Conroyd, Dennis Fitzpatrick, Jason Beem, Rusty Tennant, Tolo Tuttele, Francisco Garcia, Joseph Bertot, Dana Millican, Julia Prud’homme. Directed by Andrew Haigh

When we are desperate, it’s like we’re drowning; we reach out for whatever might be at hand in order to save ourselves. Often what we find is the most unlikely of life preservers.

Charley (Plummer) is a typical teen; he’s not high on high school but he is a decent football player and enjoys the camaraderie of the team. He lives with his dad (Fimmel) on the wrong side of the tracks in Portland – his mom has been out of the picture for some time now – and his Aunt Margy (Elliott) has had a huge argument with his dad and the two don’t speak to each other anymore although Charley still remembers Margy with some fondness.

Dad is a bit of a ne’er-do-well who has trouble hanging on to jobs but not, as it turns out, to the bottle. He’s initiated a romance with a married (but separated) woman who is kind to Charley. Charley is more focused on getting ready for the football season – it is the middle of summer after all – and while out running he stumbles into a world he never knew existed.

Del (Buscemi) raises quarter horses for racing on the independent circuit which means fairs and carnivals and on tracks that the English with their peculiar sense of understatement might term “dodgy.” He does so with a mixture of gruff charm and world-weary irascibility. Charley is quite taken with him and manages to get a job mucking out stables, walking the horses and doing whatever menial task Del needs done. Charley becomes enamored with a horse named Lean on Pete who is nearing the end of his usefulness to Del which means the equine is one step away from being ground into pet food in Mexico. Charley doesn’t know that though.

However, things change as they inevitably do and not for the better which Is usually the case for people like Charley. He ends up taking a journey with Pete that will take him to unexpected places as he vaguely searches for his Aunt and some sort of normal life that seems to be completely out of reach for him. This might be his only chance to get one.

This looks on the surface very much like “a boy and his horse” kind of movie in which the horse teaches the boy something about courage and determination and helps the boy turn his life around. This isn’t that kind of movie at all, however. Based on a novel by Oregon-based writer Willy Vlautin, the film has a number of unexpected turns of events that in at least one instance caused a startled “Oh!” to pass my lips That’s not easy to do, I can tell you.

Buscemi who remains an independent film icon has been on a bit of a hot streak for the past several years following Boardwalk Empire. His performances have become less quirky and more grounded and as a result he’s become more relatable as a performer. He in fact has become an actor whose films I will see just by the virtue that he’s in them. He’s absolutely magnificent as a tough guy who quite clearly does not have a heart of gold and is not a father figure; he is a survivor who has gotten that way by not getting too attached to people or horses He’s not a bad guy but he isn’t above cheating to win a race. Del exits the movie fairly early on and when he does, the movie isn’t as good.

Plummer though plays Charley so low-key as to be almost comatose. For good or for ill much of the movie’s success rests on his young shoulders and at the moment, at least for me, he’s not up to the job. I don’t feel drawn to Charley and I was indifferent as to what happens to him. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was marking time while viewing the film which is certainly not the reaction any filmmaker wants but quite frankly there are entire sequences that could have been easily cut without effecting the integrity of the film.The truth is that this is a 90 minute movie in a two hour time slot.

Plummer does get the bond between Charley and Pete just right to be fair, and that might be enough to draw horse lovers into the film and that’s an audience that quite rightly will probably appreciate the movie more than someone like me who is more of an admirer of horses than a lover of them. The movie has gotten some fairly praiseworthy reviews from critics I normally trust but I have to say that I didn’t connect with the film as much as they obviously did. Perhaps it’s just me after all.

REASONS TO GO: Buscemi is outstanding in his role. Horse lovers will be drawn to this film without a doubt.
REASONS TO STAY: Plummer plays this way too low-key. The movie is way too long by about half; there are entire sequences that could have been cut without harming the movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, brief violence and a disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in chronological order.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flicka
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Back to Burgundy

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When the Game Stands Tall


Success breeds cool sunglasses.

Success breeds cool sunglasses.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Tri-Star) Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern, Alexander Ludwig, Clancy Brown, Ser’Darius Blain, Stephan James, Matthew Daddario, Joe Massingill, Jessie Usher, Matthew Frias, LaJessie Smith, Richard Kohnke, Chase Boltin, Gavin Cassalegno, Adella Gautier, Terence Rosemore, Deneen Tyler, Anna Margaret.. Directed by Thomas Carter

Football is truly a metaphor for America, or at least America’s ideal image of itself. Individual achievement is admired and encouraged, but it is teamwork that eventually wins games.

De La Salle High School in Concord, California, is the most dominant high school football program in the nation in 2003. They have won 151 straight games – a decade without a loss – the longest streak in any sport at any level in history.  Coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel) has just won yet another state title. Offers to coach for NCAA Division 1 college teams are coming in by the bucket load but he has no interest in moving up to the next level. He tells his wife Bev (Dern) that he can do more good for the young men at this age than he can for college-age kids.

The stress though is getting to Ladouceur although only his wife and his best friend and assistant coach Terry Eidson (Chiklis) seem to notice. Pretty soon though Coach Ladouceur notices big time – a major heart attack lands him in the hospital where his no-nonsense cardiologist tells him in no uncertain terms that he has to take it easy for awhile – no spring football.

The senior class is already looking ahead, with star running back Terrance “T.K.” Kelly (James) urging his best friend Cam Colvin (Blain) to come up with him to the University of Oregon like they always had planned, although Colvin is devastated by his mom’s illness and death. The junior class is getting ready to take the reins of the next De La Salle team, with tailback Chris Ryan (Ludwig) gunning for a state scoring record and the coach’s son Danny (Daddario) finally getting a chance to shine as a starter at wide receiver, although the talented and arrogant Tayshon Lanear (Usher) derides him as getting an opportunity only because of who his father is.

A body blow is dealt to the team when Kelly is senseless murdered the day before he is to drive up to Oregon to start summer practice. Ladouceur, speaking at the young man’s funeral, admits to being lost.

He’s not the only one. The team isn’t practicing with the same purpose that they did, and that had been going on even before Kelly’s murder. The program is being accused of cherry-picking players (an accusation that has dogged De La Salle even before the film takes place) and some schools refuse to play De La Salle, so for their first game of the 2004 season they travel to Bellevue, Washington to take on Bellevue High School, the Washington State champions the previous seasons. The team loses and the streak, a big part of De La Salle’s identity, is over.

The devastation of their coach’s illness, the death of a teammate and the loss of the streak threatens to overwhelm the team. Ryan, who is playing well, is driven by his overbearing dad (Brown) to achieve the scoring record no matter how it affects the team. There is bickering and doubt. Suddenly, Ladouceur understands that this isn’t about a game anymore.

One of the most cliche-ridden genres in the movies, perhaps second only to romantic comedies, is the true sports drama. When the Game Stands Tall is not immune to those cliches and that hurts the movie overall. Certainly it has led to critics to savage the movie (see the Rotten Tomatoes rating below) and the criticism hasn’t been entirely undeserved.

Caviezel is a soft-spoken actor who rarely seems to raise his voice in any film or TV show he’s ever done. He plays Ladouceur as an even-keel sort who rather than chew out his players a la Herb Brooks in Miracle and Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday instead gives them disappointed looks which seem to affect them more deeply than physical blows. Chiklis is delightful as Eidson, more of a rah-rah sort and a great yang to Caviezel’s yin.

One of the things I object to most in this movie is the addition of the Chris Ryan character who is a complete fabrication. He is there essentially to add a subplot with a sideline dad who is borderline abusive, pushing his son to break a state record not for his son’s benefit but so he can play out his own vicarious fantasies through his son. The real Ladouceur would have never tolerated that sort of behavior and the characters are overbearing cliches that add a jarring note to the film, which could have done better without them, even though Brown and Ludwig do fine jobs in their respective roles.

The football sequences are pretty nicely done, although there are a couple of individual moves that look patently phony. There is also a really good sequence set at the Veterans Hospital where the athletes are introduced to wounded warriors back from the Middle East who are trying to overcome lost limbs and other devastating injuries. That sequence is maybe the most inspiring in the film.

I do applaud the filmmakers for taking a decidedly not underdog team and making them sympathetic. It’s hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a team that had known that much success, but sometimes it’s how adversity is dealt with rather than success that is the true measure of a person – or a team. I liked the concept, but perhaps I’ve just seen too many true sports stories in the last several years. In any case, it’s a likable enough film but certainly one that doesn’t need to be on the top of your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: Restrained work from Caviezel and Chiklis.
REASONS TO STAY: Ryan invented from whole cloth and exists only to add false dramatic tension. A few too many sports film cliches.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a scene of violence plus the violence that is inherent in football, a little bit of mild swearing and – horrors! – smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De La Salle is a private high school and costs as of this year $16,000 per year to attend although it was considerably less when this film took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Marshall
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: As Above, So Below

The Perks of Being a Wallflower


We can be heroes.

We can be heroes.

(2012) Drama (Summit) Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, Jonny Simmons, Nina Dobrev, Nicholas Braun, Julia Garner, Tom Savini, Melanie Lynskey, Mae Whitman, Adam Hagenbuch, Erin Wilhelmi, Reece Thompson, Zane Holtz, Joan Cusack, Landon Pigg, Emily Callaway, Jennifer Enskat. Directed by Stephen Chbosky

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It is somewhat ironic that while as we grow older we look back upon our high school years with more affection than any other era of our lives, while we are living those years they are often the most painful of our lives as well. We are so desperate to fit in, our self-confidence so low that we doubt even the most basic facts about ourselves. We often wonder if we are good enough and throughout our high school years we’re pretty much sure that we are not.

Charlie Kelmeckis (Lerman) is a freshman in high school. His older brother Chris (Holtz) has just graduated from the same school, a football scholarship to Penn State under his belt. His older sister Candace (Dobrev) is a senior who is dating Ponytail Derek (Braun), so named for his hippie-like appearance. Charlie discovers that Derek has been physically abusive with Candace but she tells him that it was a one-time occurrence and swears him to secrecy. His parents (McDermott, Walsh) are fairly clueless to what’s going on with him.

Charlie has a lot of problems. His best friend committed suicide the year before and he still has flashbacks to the death of his Aunt Helen (Lynskey) who died in a car accident on his seventh birthday. He finds himself unable to make friends, although he manages to make a friend of Mr. Anderson (Rudd), a sympathetic English teacher.

Two misfit seniors, Patrick (Miller) and his stepsister Sam (Watson) take him under their wings after a football game and the three become fast friends. Charlie is admitted into their inner circle, attending screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater in Pittsburgh in which Sam gets up on stage and dances provocatively. Charlie also discovers that Patrick is gay and having a relationship with a football hero (Simmons) but keeps that to himself as well.

Things are going well for Charlie overall. While he carries a torch for Sam, she has a boyfriend in college. Still, she gives him a Christmas present of a vintage typewriter, recognizing his skills as a writer and bestows upon him his first kiss – because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him unlike her own.

Charlie gets asked out to the Sadie Hawkins dance by Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) who takes him to her home and kisses him, declaring him to be her boyfriend. The relationship continues, dominated by the strong-willed Mary Elizabeth in which Charlie gets more and more uncomfortable although they have been having sex which he doesn’t mind at all.

However, in a thoughtless moment during a game of Truth or Dare, he is dared to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room and plants one on Sam instead of Mary Elizabeth. That puts him on the outs with his friends and creates a rift with the people he cares about most. Charlie’s past is beginning to catch up with him as his memories begin to resurface and old feelings begin to drag him down like an anchor into the depths. Charlie needs his friends more than ever but without a support system around him, will he be able to make it through to his sophomore year?

This is based on a book Chbosky himself wrote and adapted for the screen, becoming the rare occasion when  an author not only adapts his own work for the screen but directs it as well. The source material has been praised for its accurate portrayal of teenagers and while it is set in the early 1990s, it nonetheless resonates timelessly.

Part of the success of the adaptation comes from an amazing cast. Watson, best known as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films is simply fantastic. Sam is a very vulnerable character who is nonetheless loyal to those she loves. Watson shows that vulnerability without making it Sam’s defining characteristic.  Miller also is wonderful as Patrick. Catty and arch without becoming a gay stereotype, Miller turns Patrick into just a regular kid who happens to be gay. In doing so he does a lot for breaking those stereotypes.

Lerman is the center of the film and he does a terrific job here. While he has had his share of less than stellar performances, here he shows that he can and should be a major star. Charlie is one of the most complex characters that you’ll see in films, and Lerman imbues Charlie with all of that complexity – his angst, his self-doubt, his kindness, his neediness, his pride, his love, his cruelty – Charlie is far from perfect and while he may have more issues than most teenage kids, he certainly can’t be called unusual.

Chbosky wisely shot the film in Pittsburgh where he grew up and as the movie is said to be fairly autobiographical using familiar territory to set his film in works marvelously. Although I’m 30 plus years removed from my high school days, I felt immediate kinship with Charlie and his friends and the film resonated deeply with me, a feat indeed for a film that is clearly meant for younger viewers.

The movie has gotten its share of (deserved) praise and is one of those movies which may not necessarily be one that appeals to older audiences at first glance but the emotions and the feelings here are universal; younger audiences will relate completely to the movie and older audiences will find it resonant as well. It doesn’t hurt that it has an awesome soundtrack – any movie that contains the Smiths’ “Asleep” and David Bowie’s “Heroes” as major thematic songs is bound to be a good one.

WHY RENT THIS: Resonates with older and younger audiences alike. Amazing performances by the young cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overdoses with angst.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly mature thematic elements, depictions of teen drug and alcohol use, teen sexuality and some brief violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theater in which the movie filmed the Rocky Horror sequences was the same theater in Pittsburgh that Chbosky used to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show when he was a teen.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $33.4M on a $13M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Breakfast Club

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Day 3 of Our Film Library!

Radio


Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

Cuba Gooding Jr. turns it on.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Revolution) Cuba Gooding Jr., Ed Harris, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard, S. Epatha Merkerson, Riley Smith, Brent Sexton, Sarah Drew, Chris Mulkey, Patrick Breen, Bill Roberson, Kenneth H. Callender, Michael Harding, Charles Garren, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Michael Tollin

A good cry can be as exhilarating as a good laugh. Any movie that can move viewers to tears, then leave them marveling at the triumph of the human spirit, is the aces.

Harold Jones (Harris) is a successful high school football coach in Anderson, South Carolina. As he enters the 1976 season, his mostly untested young team has a lot of question marks, especially when it comes to character. When the star running back (Smith) and some of his cohorts lock a young man (Gooding) of diminished mental capabilities in a shed after tying him up and terrorizing him, Coach Jones and his assistant, Honeycutt (Sexton) step in and punish the boys.

Gradually, the taciturn Coach befriends the young man, who at first is unresponsive, unable even to tell the coach his name. Because of the quiet man’s attachment to transistor radios, Coach Jones dubs his new friend Radio (his real name turns out to be James Robert Kennedy) and begins an amazing, unusual relationship. Jones takes Radio under his wing, despite the suspicions of his mother (Merkerson) and the misgivings of the school’s principal (Woodard).

Radio blossoms, finally having people in his life who accept him instead of humiliate him. He goes from barely able to mutter more than a word or two at a time to an enthusiastic, talkative person, a regular at athletic practices and at the school itself, where he becomes an unofficial hall monitor and broadcaster. Gradually, he becomes an important part of the community.

But all is not perfect. The football team is not performing to expectations, and some believe that the distractions that Radio brings are to blame, particularly the town’s banker (Mulkey) whose son is the star running back who caused the initial trouble with Radio. His son plays an even crueler joke on Radio which causes the school board in the person of Tucker (Breen) to cast a suspicious eye on the situation. Radio overcomes the adversity, but nobody is prepared for the greatest obstacle of all.

The cast is outstanding, particularly Gooding. At times his expression is so truly vacant it seems that nobody really is home. And he skillfully makes the transition to an open personality, capturing the effusive personality of the real Radio to a “T”. After capturing an Oscar in Jerry Maguire, Gooding had undermined himself with a series of terrible choices (Snow Dogs, Boat Trip et al.), but Radio puts him back on the right track, at least temporarily – he still continues to be plagued with movies that are unworthy of his talents..

Harris is one of the most distinguished actors of our time. He is rarely seen in a role that he doesn’t elevate and I can’t remember him ever giving a bad performance. Here, he is low-key, a Southern gentleman desperately wanting to do the right thing, but reluctant to explain why his relationship with Radio is so important to him. It puts a strain on his relationship with his wife (Winger) and daughter (Drew), but Harris underlies the flawed goodness within the man that makes him believable and real.

Enough can’t be said about Winger. She make movies very infrequently, and that’s a shame. She has a tremendous presence, and here shows particular restraint in a thankless role that isn’t developed terribly well (she is seen reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique early on, but her character is hardly a feminist here), but Winger carries it off well. I hope she can find the time to return to the big screen more regularly but it really hasn’t happened up to now.

Director Michael Tollin captures the importance of high school football in a small Southern town, and sums it up neatly in a speech Harris gives hear the end of the film: “There’s nothing better than looking for a win on a Friday night, and waking up on Saturday morning after you found one.” He wisely concentrates on the relationship between Jones and Radio, how it develops and why. He cast Gooding and Harris well; the two work well off each other, and in one of the most gripping scenes of the movie — when a distraught Radio is kneeling in the center of his room, inconsolable, the taciturn football coach, never a demonstrative man, opens up and comforts him. The charm of Radio is that he treats everyone he meets with joy and love, as Coach Jones explains, “He treats all of us the way we wish we could treat half of us.”

Be warned; this is the kind of movie that doesn’t just elicit a sniffle; it’s a full-on, tears-streaming-down-the-face weepy that leaves viewers feeling awesome when the lights come back up. The real Radio continues to be a presence at T.L. Hanna High, where he can be found regularly during the football season leading the Yellow Jackets onto the field and joining the cheerleaders when the spirit moves him. He’s as important to Anderson as the air they breathe, and one can only feel good that the rest of us get to share him. Feel-good movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but as manipulative as this one sometimes get, it certainly worked its magic on this cynic. Don’t forget your hankies.

WHY RENT THIS: Utterly cathartic. Terrific performances from Gooding, Harris and Winger. Captures the mentality of a Southern high school football town.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a bit too tear-inducing if there is such a thing.  Sometimes a bit formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few bad words scattered here and there. Some of the thematic elements might be a bit too much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie was primarily filmed in neighboring Walterboro because the town looked more like the era depicted here. The real Radio and Coach Jones are seen at the end of the movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The making-of featurette contains input from some of the real people depicted in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53.3M on a $35M production budget; the movie just about broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Molly

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Happy Feet Two