Audible


High school football is high school football no matter who plays it.

(2021) Documentary Short (Netflix) Amaree McKenstry-Hall, Jalen Whitehurst, Lera Walkup, Ryan Bonheyo, Jamal Johnson, Teddy Webster. Directed by Matthew Ogens

 

This new documentary on Netflix is only 38 minutes long. It’s one of those rare cases where you leave a movie feeling that you wish it had been longer.

The film follows Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a senior on the football team of the Maryland School for the Deaf. This is one of the most successful teams in the country having had a 47-game winning streak snapped as we begin the film. McKenstry-Hall, clearly a leader on the team, tells his team to keep their heads high – not to let one loss define them. They have one game left in the season – and it happens to be the homecoming game.

This is more of a slice of life film than a “triumph over adversity” film, although that element is certainly there. We never see the homecoming game or how it turned out. Instead, we see Amaree dealing with his deafness, feeling isolated at home – he was not born deaf but became dear after a childhood illness. His father left the family soon afterwards, but as we see in the film is starting to rebuild his relationship with his son after years of crime and jail led to a spiritual reawakening and a desire to make amends. The relationship between the two is fragile, but improving.

We also discover that Amaree is dealing with the suicide of his friend Teddy Webster, a young man who was taken out of the Maryland School of the Deaf and put into a public high school where he was bullied unmercifully, not just for being hard of hearing (other students would regularly flick his hearing aid out of his ear) but also for being gay. His boyfriend Jalen Whitehurst is a cheerleader on the MSD team, along with Lera Walkup, Amaree’s girlfriend.

As you might imagine, the film utilizes sound design to simulate from time to time what deaf people experience. Not all deafness is the same; some hear absolutely nothing while others hear muffled and distorted sounds. The students can feel the vibrations of the music at the dance (or at a bonfire) and dance to it with the reckless abandon of youth.

If there is one criticism to be made, it’s that the movie really kind of glosses over a lot of important things; the suicide of Teddy Webster is clearly an important element in the story, but it is brought in late and discussed only in generalities. The movie also moves from being about a football team, to being a slice of life for the deaf community, to being about an individual player, to being about bullying and maybe that’s a bit too much ground to cover in a movie just over half an hour long.

This film gives you a better idea of the day-to-day realities of being a deaf high school student; it doesn’t ask for or elicit sympathy, nor does it make the student outs to be any more extraordinary than any young person dealing with an issue. What it does is make them relatable; they are, at the end of the day, like any other kids their age – they love sports, they love music, they love hanging out with each other, they hurt when someone close to them is taken from them, and they worry about their future when they graduate. It is eye-opening in its own way, but I think that the movie at the end of the day reminds us that people with disabilities are no more different than you or I; they just have challenges that you and I don’t experience, and they have long since learned to adapt their lives around them. This one is definitely worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Leaves you wanting more. Incredible sound design.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit unfocused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is discussion of teen suicide and bullying, and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ogens has directed several films in the prestigious ESPN 30 for 30 series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Surge at Mount Sinai

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The Deer Hunter


Are you talking to me?

Are you talking to me?

(1978) Drama (Universal) Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda, Pierre Segui, Mady Kaplan, Amy Wright, Mary Ann Haenel, Richard Kuss, Joe Grifasi, Christopher Columbi Jr., Victoria Karnafel, Jack Scardino, Joe Strnad, Helen Tomko. Directed by Michael Cimino

Waiting for Oscar

1979 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actor – Robert De Niro
Best Supporting Actress – Meryl Streep
Best Original Screenplay – Michael Cimino, Deric Wasburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Best Cinematography – Vilmos Zsigmond
WINS – 5
Best Picture
Best Director – Michael Cimino
Best Supporting Actor – Christopher Walken
Best Sound
Best Editing

Ritual are an important part of life. We mark various rites of passage – birthdays, weddings, funerals – with rituals whether we label them such or not. Rituals give our lives a sense of constancy, a feeling of continuation and connect us to past, present and future.

Mike (De Niro) is a Pennsylvania steelworker on his last day before joining the army with his buddies Steve (Savage) and Nick (Walken). Steve is also getting married to Angela (Alda) who is pregnant but not by Steve. The wedding is a traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony followed by a traditional raucous Russian reception. Nick proposes to his girlfriend Linda (Streep) and the next day the three friends, joined by their friends Stosh (Cazale), John (Dzundza) and Axel (Aspegren) go hunting for deer. Mike tells the group about his “one shot” philosophy of hunting.

Next it’s off to Vietnam. The three men are sent their separate ways but against all odds are reunited unexpectedly during an attack on a village which the NVA has occupied. Unfortunately, the attack fails and all three men are captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

They are tortured by sadistic guards and forced to play Russian roulette against one another. Mike manages to outwit his guards and shoots them, allowing the three men to escape. By chance an army helicopter finds them but only Nick is able to board it. Steve, who is badly injured, floats down the river and Mike goes after him to rescue them. He manages to carry Steve to safety.

Nick becomes involved in underground Russian Roulette parlors in Vietnam while Mike goes home. Embarrassed by the fuss everyone makes over his return, he tries to locate Steve. Eventually Mike locates him in a local veterans hospital. Mike is eager to go back to Vietnam and find Nick whom he is certain is still alive and whom he promised he wouldn’t leave behind in that country. All three men will eventually return home in their own way but none will come back the same as when they left.

In many ways, this is as powerful a movie as you’re likely to ever see. Cimino, definitely inspired by the scope and grandeur of The Godfather, seems to want to make a movie that explores America’s mixed emotions about the Vietnam war. Cimino wants to make an adult epic, one with plenty of symbolism and foreshadowing. While I can applaud his ambitions I do believe his reach exceeded his grasp.

This is a movie that dwells on minutiae. It comes to the point – and surpasses it – of being cinematic babble. The wedding sequence that takes place over the film’s first hour (!) is a good 45 minutes too long. While it’s supposed to establish what the men are giving up and leaving behind, at the end of the day I don’t think all of this is necessary to the story. Worse yet, Cimino and his co-writers create lapses that sacrifice logic for emotional power. For example, the Russian roulette sequences which are at the heart of the film – what captor would give his captive a loaded weapon? That’s why there are no recorded instances of American POWs being forced to shoot themselves as is depicted here. Why wouldn’t you shoot your captor if you were going to do that?

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some powerful performances to be observed here. De Niro was in his heyday, on a string of roles that established him as one of America’s best actors in the 70s and 80s (and of course all the way through until now) and his work as the film’s moral center garnered him yet another Oscar nomination. Streep, already with two Oscar wins to her credit, was luminous as Linda while Walken established his career with a searing performance that would win him Oscar gold.

Ultimately what undoes the movie is its lack of focus. I’ve watched the movie several times and each time I try to find what it is that has so engrossed people whose opinion I respect and who consider this one of the best movies ever made. Each time I come away unable to find that same level of respect, although there is some. Ultimately I am let down by this film, one which in trying to be realistic, symbolic and thoughtful falls into the abyss of being none of the things it tries to be. In my opinion, this is the most overrated Best Picture winner of all time.

WHY RENT THIS: Some powerful performances by some of the best actors of the time whose careers received big boosts from this film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overblown, overrated, overly long wedding sequence, full of plot holes and inconsequential business.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some extremely intense situations and images, war violence, language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cazale was in the final stages of cancer when filming began and due to his weakened condition, his scenes were filmed first. When the studio caught wind of his condition, they put pressure on Cimino to replace the dying actor but Meryl Streep put her foot down and threatened to leave the production if Cazale was removed. He died shortly after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Unbelievably, nothing but the usual suspects.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar concludes!

Waiting for Forever


Sometimes, fashion ISN'T in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes, fashion ISN’T in the eye of the beholder.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Freestyle Releasing) Rachel Bilson, Tom Sturridge, Blythe Danner, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Davis, Scott Mechlowicz, Jaimie King, Nikki Blonsky, Nelson Franklin, Richard Gant, Roz Ryan, Michelle Sebek. Directed by James Keach

True love sometimes requires patience. It doesn’t always occur in a manner that is convenient or timely. Sometimes we have to wait for the other person to catch up. They don’t always do that.

Will Donner (Sturridge) is a quirky young man who takes to wearing a bowler hat, a vest and pajamas. He juggles and entertains with other sorts of street performances in order to make enough money to get by. He hitchhike from place to place but not at random, as he tells a carful of captive audience – no, he is following somebody; the actress Emma Twist (Bilson).

Emma is a childhood friend of Will’s who helped him get over the grief of losing his parents in a train accident when he was nine. She promised him soon after she left Dodge (or whatever small Pennsylvania town they’re both from) that she’d always be there to take care of them. That was the last time they spoke, nearly17 years ago. Since then, he’s followed her from town to town on the off chance he might get a glimpse of her. Oddly, his captive audience thinks this is cute and romantic and not creepy and stalker-ish.

Emma is in not a very good place. She has returned to her hometown to be with her father (Jenkins) who is dying. Her mom (Danner) is doing her best to care for her husband but she needs help. Emma’s show has been canceled so she has time on her hands and she has just broken up with her boyfriend Aaron (Davis) who is more than a little possessive about his girl. Or ex-girl.

Will’s brother Jim (Mechlowicz) upbraids his brother for being shiftless, jobless and maybe possessed of some sort of mental illness (and it’s hard to argue with him). Will is staying with his good friend Joe (Franklin) and working up the courage to approach Emma. When he does, things go pretty well at first until Emma’s boyfriend shows up, ready to forgive her and take her back. That’s when things get ludicrous.

This is one of those indie romantic comedies that you wonder deep down if the writer led a sheltered life. I’ve learned one thing about movies in my years of watching them and reviewing them and that is you can’t force charm but Keach tries to do just that. By dressing up Will in such an odd way it screams either of two things – indie charming or mentally ill. Will kind of fits both descriptions.

That’s a shame because Sturridge has some moments when he’s genuinely likable; then his character does or says something that can be misconstrued as genuinely creepy. This is the stuff that restraining orders are made of, but at least he’s not violent, just kind of sentimental and sappy unlike Emma’s boyfriend  who we later find out killed a guy she was flirting with. Yup, Emma’s a whacko magnet.

Bilson, mostly known for her TV work on “The O.C.” (and lately, “Hart of Dixie”) is a burst of sunshine in every scene she’s in. Her character is a bit neurotic at times but Bilson injects a note of real sweetness into the role that simply makes you smile whenever she’s onscreen. She has plenty of big screen charisma to make the transition from TV to movies very doable with the right role.

The ending of the movie, with its murder plot takes a left turn into Unbelievableland. One gets the sense that Keach wants to make a modern romantic comedy but without all the conventions of a Hollywood rom-com but gets turned around and winds up making something that not only doesn’t ring true but actually the only ringing you really here is the alarm bells that are going off in your head. This was a misfire that hopefully will allow cast and crew to move on to better things.

WHY RENT THIS: Bilson is fresh and breezy while Sturridge has moments of genuine charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mistakes creepiness for sweet romance. Lacks any real comedic force.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a smidgeon of violence, a surprisingly small amount of foul language and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hometown scenes were filmed in Ogden, Utah.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $25,517 on a $5M production budget; it was a box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notting Hill

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Les Miserables (2012)