Brian Banks


There is absolutely nothing like a mother’s love.

(2018) Sports Biography (Bleecker StreetAldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Libaud, Dorian Missick, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosia Roquemore, Gina Vento, Mytie Smith, Rick Vyper, Edward Parker, Charles Alexandre, Dean Denton, Mary Faulkner, Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Kevin Yamada, Harrison Stone, Monique Grant, Elizabeth Donaldson. Directed by Tom Shadyac

 

There is little doubt that the American legal system is seriously broken. Justice seems to be the sole province of the wealthy and the white. Standards of proof seem to fluctuate depending on the color of one’s skin and the gender of the accuser.

Brian Banks (Hodge) is a 16-year-old kid with an incredible future before him. A star linebacker at Long Beach Poly high school, one of the premier high school football programs in the entire country, he has already been accepted to the University of Southern California and seems guaranteed to be on the fast track to NFL stardom.

That rosy future is interrupted by an accusation of kidnapping and rape by a fellow Poly student (Roquemore). Banks is arrested and indicted, then his ineffective lawyer convinces him to accept a plea agreement that turns out to be a raw deal for Banks, sending him to prison for five years which would be followed by probation for an additional five years – plus being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. Sounds pretty much like justice except for one thing; the rape never happened.

Banks struggles to prove his innocence, reaching out to Justin Barber (Kinnear), founder of the California Innocence Project who gently informs Banks that because he entered a no contest plea, the only way to get his conviction reversed is literally for his victim to recant her testimony.

Amazingly, Banks perseveres even though he is as much a prisoner on the outside as he was in prison. Nobody will hire a convicted sex offender and Banks isn’t allowed within a certain distance of public parks and schools. Every time it seems like Banks finds a ray of hope, some tough-on-crime politician rams through legislation that slams the door shut.

This is meant to be an uplifting, inspirational film about the power of perseverance and believing in one’s self and one’s dreams. Hodge delivers a star-making performance that carries the picture, holding his own nicely against stellar actors like Kinnear and Freeman (who plays a prison teacher whose platitudes help Banks find inner peace). While the true story is compelling enough, it is Hodge that most people will remember best after seeing this film.

Definitely the movie makes some commentary on the gulf in the justice system that exists between black and white. Had Banks been a white athlete, it’s likely that the accuser would not have been believed and even if the case went to trial, the perpetrator would have gotten a slap on the wrist if he did any time at all. Boys will be boys, but African-American boys will be criminals – at least that’s how our legal system apparently sees things.

In the #MeToo era there is a bit of tone deafness about this project. False rape accusations are relatively rare and more often than not, accusers are treated with disbelief and scorn, often being blamed for their own assault. Even though this is a true story, it’s not a typical one and the movie really doesn’t address that.

Still, Banks is an inspirational person and watching Hodge absolutely nail his performance is a treat. That the plot gets a bit maudlin especially in the last half of the film doesn’t help matters. The real Brian Banks couldn’t have asked for a better performance to capture his life; he certainly could have asked for a better movie to frame it.

REASONS TO SEE: Hodge delivers the performance of his career.
REASONS TO AVOID: The script gets a bit soapy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a certain amount of profanity, as well as some adult thematic content and accompanying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least eight of Banks’ teammates on the Long Beach Poly team eventually played professional football either for the NFL or overseas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Seaside

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Stevie D


Torrey DeVitto lights up the screen.

Torrey DeVitto lights up the screen.

(2016) Comedy (Candy Factory) Chris Cordone, Torrey DeVitto, Kevin Chapman, John Aprea, Spencer Garrett, Al Sapienza, Hal Linden, Robert Costanzo, Phil Idrissi, Darren Capozzi, Guy Camilleri, Jason E. Kelley, Alma Martinez, Alex Fernandez, Seth Cassell, Shawn Carter Peterson, Eric Edelstein, Bree Condon, Emma Jacobson-Sive, Sarah Schreiber. Directed by Chris Cordone

 

When you’re a parent there isn’t anything you wouldn’t do to protect your kid, no matter how old they are or what they’ve done. It’s just part of the deal. Sometimes you’ll go to great lengths to keep them out of trouble, even pushing the boundaries of ludicrous.

Stevie DiMarco (Cordone) a.k.a. Stevie D. is the scion of construction magnate/mob guy Angelo DiMarco (Aprea). Angelo is well-aware that he was too “soft” on his son who has turned out to be a spoiled self-centered jerk balloon. He has recently latched onto Daria de Laurentis (DeVitto), the comely daughter of his father’s lawyer (Garrett) who is new to L.A. and working at her daddy’s law firm as a lawyer until she gets herself settled. Stevie D. has pestered her to the point that she would prefer the company of cockroaches to his.

Stevie gets into an altercation at a strip club with the son of mob boss Nick Grimaldi (Sapienza) which ends up with a hit being put out on Stevie. Despite Angelo’s attempts to guy Stevie out of his mess, Nick is too furious to listen to reason. Angelo’s right hand man Lenny (Chapman) comes up with the idea of hiring look-alike actor Michael Rose (Cordone again) to be Stevie’s body double. Then, when the actor gets whacked, Stevie could safely return home after a little plastic surgery.

Michael is in a bit of a pickle; his long-time agent (Linden) is retiring and Michael’s career has been stalled for years. A good-paying job is just what he needs. However, Michael’s basic charm and genuine humanity differentiate him from Stevie like chocolate from vanilla and soon the “new” Stevie D is assisting with Angelo’s bid to get an NFL team in Los Angeles and Lenny with a career in acting but also in romancing Daria, whom Michael has fallen in love with. Hit men Big Lou (Idrissi) and Little Dom (Capozzi) keep missing opportunities to fulfill their contract, although to be honest they’re enjoying L.A. so much they aren’t trying too terribly hard.

The concept is as old as The Prince and the Pauper (and probably older still) but I don’t think it’s ever been tried in a mob comedy. Los Angeles isn’t a city exactly known for Mafiosi (although it’s had its share of organized crime over the years) and maybe goombahs in the City of Angels wasn’t exactly the wisest choice but I’d be willing to overlook that although quite frankly this would have been better suited for a New York or Boston setting. That’s just me, though.

The cast is riddled with veteran supporting actors who acquit themselves nicely, particularly Chapman (from TV’s Person of Interest) who has a career ahead of him as a tough guy with a good heart since he does those sorts of roles so well – as he does here. DeVitto who is best known for Chicago Med and Pretty Little Liars is luminous here and has a bright future as a cinematic leading lady.

Cordone is a good-looking guy who may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew; not only is he playing dual roles in the film but he’s also the writer, director and producer of the project. That’s a lot of pressure for one guy and it might account for the sometimes stiff performance that he delivers here, particularly as Stevie. Cordone also would have benefitted from a little editing; at two hours, the movie is at least half an hour too long. It’s a case of too many subplots spoil the soup; there’s just a little too much business proving what a jerk Stevie is and what a nice guy Michael is that could have been trimmed.

There are some pretty funny moments, particularly closer to the end of the film – the banter between the hit men is priceless – but the length of the movie really makes it hard to recommend. This would have fared better as something a little more frothy, a little lighter and a little less cliché when it comes to the romance between Michael and Daria which follows the Rom-Com 101 textbook a little too closely. I’d like to see Cordone as an actor where he has a different director and I’d also like to see him as a director with a different lead actor. I think that both roles would have benefitted from a more objective eye.

REASONS TO GO: The veteran supporting cast does a fine job.
REASONS TO STAY: This is way, way, way, way too long.  Cordone is a bit too stiff in the lead roles.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Sedona Film Festival, where it won the Director’s Choice Award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dave
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Late Bloomer

Gleason


Steve Gleason and son.

Steve Gleason and son.

(2016) Documentary (Open Road/Amazon) Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Ryan Gootee, Scott Fujita, Mike McKenzie, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Jesse Jackson, John Elway, Rivers Gleason, Kyle Gleason, Gail Gleason, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Blair Casey, Stephen Kantrow, Paul Varisco Jr., Paul Varisco Sr., Vinnie Varisco, Kevin Dedmon, Jim Eutizzi. Directed by Clay Tweel

 

Steve Gleason was a football player. Although a star linebacker in high school and again at Washington State, he was considered undersized and the NFL essentially turned their back on him. Unwilling to give up, he went to the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp only to be let go. Then, he joined the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints and there was something about the way he played, the way he left it all out on the field on every single play that impressed the Saints coaching staff. They signed him up and he played in NOLA for seven years as a part of the special teams unit, which takes the field for kickoffs and punts.

As a Saint, he was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in team history. On September 25, 2006, the Saints took the field at the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in 21 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the stadium and the team. In the first quarter with their opponents the Atlanta Falcons punting, Gleason broke through and blocked the punt which was recovered in the end zone by teammate Curtis Deloatch for a touchdown. The play brought the stadium to its feet and the city to its knees in joy. It was a symbol that not only were the Saints back, so was the city of New Orleans. They would go on to have the best season in team history to that point.

Although Gleason retired the season before his team won the Super Bowl, the respect his teammates and the organization had for him was such that he was given a Super Bowl ring but that was shortly after the devastating news that he had been afflicted by Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease because it was this that felled the Yankees slugger. Six weeks after the diagnosis, his wife Michel discovered she was pregnant.

Knowing that by the time his child was cognitive it was extremely unlikely he would be able to communicate as ALS attacks the neurons that control the involuntary muscular system, affecting the ability to move, speak, eat and eventually, breathe. He decided to make a series of video blogs for his child, a son named Rivers who would be born in October 2011. He would try to give his son advice about life, death, the difference between right and wrong and the importance of never giving up – things important to him but also things any father would want to pass on to their son.

]Using this footage as a backbone, documentarian Clay Tweel (Make Believe and Finders Keepers) was given extraordinary access, documenting the ex-football player’s physical progression as he is ravaged by the disease, as well as the toll it takes on his family. Wife Michel is forced to be caregiver to Steve while also being a new mom; eventually the strain overwhelms her and they add a neighbor (and self-described “hero worshipper”) Ryan Gootee to do the heavy lifting. His indefatigable attitude mirrors that of Steve himself at times.

And don’t get me wrong, Tweel absolutely refuses to paint the ex-Saint as a saint. There are times that he is literally howling in anguish at the betrayal of his body (even simple bodily functions become logistical nightmares). There are particularly heart-wrenching moments when Steve confronts his dad Mike, a genial guy but a rock-ribbed Christian whose beliefs are very much different than his son’s; in fact, Mike as a strict enough parent that his son had some resentments that percolate and bubble over while we watch (perhaps feeling a bit like voyeurs as we do) and one where he and his wife have a late night argument when she is clearly exhausted.

Gleason also is dedicated to his foundation, Team Gleason which not only helps fund ALS research but also provides the technology to ALS sufferers who can’t afford it to have more productive, fulfilling lives as well as providing “bucket list” items that patients are on a sort of deadline for; think of it as a Make-a-Wish Foundation for ALS patients making sure that they get what they need and what falls through the cracks of their insurance and government assistance. In fact, Gleason’s foundation spearheaded legislative efforts to help ALS patients get the technology they need covered under insurance and Medicare. It’s a worthy and noble cause but Gleason’s devotion to the foundation sometimes seems to supersede his dedication to his family, which disturbs Michel no end.

This is a movie that touches the human spirit and makes one proud of the species, something awfully difficult to do sometimes when all you see on the news are terrorist attacks, political hackery and mass shootings by disturbed loners with AR-15s. While I get that some critics will grouse about this being manipulative, holy crap if a story like Gleason’s can’t get to you emotionally, you really have to be something of a sociopath. Of course it’s manipulative. EVERY story is. That’s the nature of stories, particularly the true ones and this one is almost mythic in some ways when it comes to the courage and drive to live that Gleason displays and the support his family and community gives him. Personally, I thought Tweel gave a very balanced presentation of Gleason’s story, but if I’m to be manipulated, this is the way I want it to be done. At least it is emotion genuinely earned, as is the respect you’ll feel for the Gleason family and their supporters.

REASONS TO GO: There are few films that are this inspiring and uplifting. It never pulls its punches, showing Gleason’s vulnerabilities and at times, failings. Tweel keeps the talking head footage to a minimum. Cinema verité at it’s very finest.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film may end up being a bit too emotionally raw for some viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough foul language to net this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gleason played seven years in the NFL, he was never drafted – he signed on with the Saints as a free agent. However, he was drafted by the short-lived XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts as the 191st player picked in their one and only draft in 2001.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Florence Foster Jenkins

Concussion


The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

The Fresh Prince of Pittsburgh.

(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman

Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.

But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?

When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.

What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.

Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.

When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.

In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.

However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.

This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.

&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Silver Linings Playbook


Bradley Cooper's fashion sense can drive a woman crazy.

Bradley Cooper’s fashion sense can drive a woman crazy.

(2012) Romance (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Anupam Kher, Shea Whigham, Julia Stiles, John Ortiz, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, Matthew Russell, Cheryl Williams, Patrick McDade, Brea Bee, Regency Boles. Directed by David O. Russell

What normal is for the most part is highly subject to debate. We look at people who have mental issues with wary eyes as if their condition is not only contagious but also subject to a sudden outbreak of violence without any warning whatsoever. And yes, there are some people who are just like that.

Pat Solitano Jr. (Cooper) has been institutionalized for eight months. There’s been some sort of “incident” and here he is. However, his mom Dolores (Weaver) is checking him out, apparently against medical advice but with the blessing of the courts since he’d done his time. While his cheerful friend Danny (Tucker) tries to tag along (unsuccessfully), Dolores takes Pat home to his dad Pat Sr. (De Niro) who has some issues of his own.

Pat is determined to get back together with his wife Nikki (Bee) who it turns out was kind of the source of his predicament; Pat, a substitute teacher at the same school Nikki teaches at in Philadelphia, came home early one day to find her naked in the shower with the history teacher. And there was nothing clean going on in the shower either. So Pat snapped and wound up being diagnosed as bi-polar.

Now he’s trying to get his life back together again. He’s running and exercising, losing weight and getting into shape. He refuses to take his meds because they make him feel foggy and bloated. He runs by Nikki’s house and old school, only to find that she’s moved out and started teaching elsewhere. There’s a restraining order against Pat and going by the house is a violation, causing Officer Keogh (Mihok) to drop by and remind him that he has to stop this kind of behavior.

Then his good friend Ronnie (Ortiz) and his bitchy wife Veronica (Stiles) invite him over to dinner along with her sister Tiffany (Lawrence) whose husband had recently passed away. Tiffany also has some issues of her own, not the least of which is that she’s having sex with anyone and anybody regardless of sex or even if she’s attracted to them or not. There’s obviously tension between the sisters and Tiffany, who like Pat lacks an inner filter, finally decides to leave.

When Pat discovers that Tiffany still has contact with Nikki, he knows she could be the means to his salvation. She could get a letter to his wife explaining his situation, where he is and what’s going on with him – start the process of reconciliation. However Tiffany needs a partner for a ballroom dance contest and isn’t above using her position as leverage. Pat is willing to do anything to get his wife back…even humiliate himself. But finding a silver lining isn’t easy, especially when your dad is just as OCD as you are and nobody seems to understand how in love you and your wife truly are. Yeah, you really need a playbook, one better than even the mighty Philadelphia Eagles possess.

This was a bit of a dark horse when awards season commenced last year. Although Russell had Oscar pedigree established, this particular movie wasn’t expected to contend but it wound up with eight nominations and one win. Part of that is due to the outstanding performances Mr. Russell coaxed out of his actors.

Lawrence has blossomed into one of the finest young actresses working in Hollywood. After establishing herself with Winter’s Bone a couple of years ago she has become a lynchpin in a couple of major film franchises and now has won herself a Best Actress Oscar with this performance here, a bit of a surprise considering how worthy Jessica Chastain’s performance in Zero Dark Thirty was. I will say that this certainly was a wonderful job of acting by Lawrence, one which is hard-edged and vulnerable all at once with an underlying sexuality that isn’t like anything she’s ever done before. You could say that this was her debutante ball, going from girl to woman in one fell swoop. While I still think her Oscar win was an upset, I certainly can’t complain with Oscar’s choice. She was as good as anyone last year.

Cooper was a bit of a surprise as well. He’s shown some signs of having a serious actor in him but he mostly has played comedic leads and has done so with some success. This was a nuanced performance that caught every bit of his characters compulsions and anguish. Pat’s disorder is clearly in charge and finding the way to reality isn’t an easy path when all around is dark and there are no road signs to go by. It’s a marvelous performance and serves notice that Bradley Cooper isn’t just a leading man, he’s a skilled actor who can take on just any role he chooses. This just might be what makes both Cooper and Lawrence Hollywood A-list.

Depression and bipolar disorder are no laughing matters and while the writer and director treat them pretty much with respect (although there are some humorous situations that arise out of Pat and Tiffany’s condition, there are no more so than what arises in real life) there are those who have a difficult time watching the movie because it hits close to home. That’s something to consider before heading out to the multiplex or reasonably soon, rental source.

The first two thirds of the film is as good as anything you’ll see from 2012 although in the final act it breaks down somewhat and the ending is terribly predictable and unfortunate. Clever endings are hard to come by these days however and if Russell goes with tried and true, well I suppose he can be forgiven and the studio I’m sure was pretty happy with that decision.

I will say that this is a movie that you are aware of from the beginning is going to be thoughtful and award-worthy and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Some movies will sneak up on you and build and by the movie’s end you know you watched something special. I think that Russell was all too aware of the movie’s potential and you become aware of it as well. Great performances (including from tried and true veterans De Niro, Weaver and Stiles) elevate this from a solid movie to a very good movie. It missed greatness by about twenty minutes though.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite  a bit of foul language and some scenes involving sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be produced by Anthony Minghella and directed by Sydney Pollack before they both passed away in 2008; as it turned out the movie would be the first to get nominations in all five of the “Big 5” categories of the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) since Million Dollar Baby in 2004.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100; the film received rave reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: David and Lisa

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Quartet

The Tillman Story


The Tillman Story

The brothers Tillman (Pat and Kevin) in country.

(2010) Documentary (Weinstein) Pat Tillman, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr., Marie Tillman, Richard Tillman, Kevin Tillman, Josh Brolin (narrator), Russell Baer, Phil Kensinger, Stan Goff, Jason Parsons, Bryan O’Neal. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

 

It has been said that in times of war, the first casualty is the truth. That is just as true today as when it was first spoken.

Most Americans know who Pat Tillman was; a highly paid star for the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL, he left a lucrative career to serve his country as an Army Ranger. He served in Afghanistan only to fall in battle, dead at 27 leaving behind a grieving widow, parents and siblings. The army painted his death as a heroic attempt to save his men during an ambush by the Taliban. At his funeral, the oratory from such personages as Senator John McCain as well as by a parade of army brass bordered on the hysterical in painting a picture of a heroic American who died for a cause he believed in.

But to Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mother, something didn’t smell right. She wanted details about the death of her son and the Army at first was reluctant to provide them. Then, the story changed; it wasn’t a bullet from the Taliban that killed Pat, it was friendly fire – rounds fired by his own fellow soldiers. But how could that happen? What really went on? The more questions Dannie asked, the more frustrating the answers became. The Army finally provided her with the documentation she asked for – 3,000 pages worth, most of it redacted (i.e. heavily censored).

Many women, grieving over their lost sons, would hesitate to read documents detailing the gruesome manner in which their sons died but Dannie persevered. She hired Stan Goff, a former Army investigator and current private detective, to look into the matter. After months and years of being lied to and stonewalled, Pat’s father Patrick Tillman Sr. wrote a scathing and blistering letter which finally prompted a Congressional investigation into the death of Pat Tillman.

What eventually came out was a miasma of cover-ups and an attempt to turn the tragic death of the highest profile soldier in the Army into a propaganda goldmine. Scapegoats were found and those who had the most to do with it – including General Stanley McChrystal  and possibly up to and including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – got away with it.

Bar-Levi tells the story chronologically, allowing us to discover the extent of the cover-up along with the Tillman family. He wisely allows the facts to speak for themselves and tries not to editorialize much (although the Tillman family does that for him). He is also careful to make the distinction that nobody is criticizing the military as such – just the people who would use the deaths of the soldiers for political gain.

It is easy to get consumed by outrage watching this and as the movie has been out for quite awhile there is no need to be a belated bandwagon-jumper to express my own feelings other than to say “what they said.” As a documentary, this is well-made and just a little bit manipulative; while there can be no justification for what was done, little effort is made to hear opposing sides so be aware of that when watching the film.

Pat Tillman was not a religious man – he has been characterized as an atheist as has his family by detractors which I found profoundly pathetic and a little bit funny in a sad way; I suppose there are those in the military who think the best defense is to go on the attack. It would be nice, however, for the military – even at this late date – to man up and admit what happened and let those who were responsible for lying to the family of a fallen hero be made to answer for their actions.

We all want to believe that our military hold themselves to higher standards. We want to believe that the courageous men and women of the armed forces who put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of the nation have not made that ultimate sacrifice in vain. We want their deaths to mean something. Sadly, there are those who see these human beings as means to an end. That is perhaps the most detestable aspect of this whole senseless affair.

This is a movie that will inflame your passions but at the same time it is advisable to temper that passion with a little bit of forethought; like anything else, there are no absolutes in the military. As it is an institution made up of human beings, there will always be things that happen that are regrettable and even unconscionable. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for the military or their values. It is at times necessary to shine the light on those who misuse their authority. Perhaps the real legacy of Pat Tillman is to remind us that it is at all times necessary for us not to accept things at face value and that the test of a truly free people is the ability to pursue the truth, no matter how painful it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $802,535 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the movie made a little bit of money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friendly Fire

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In Her Skin

Invincible


Invincible

Greg Kinnear and Mark Wahlberg practice the Philadelphia Eagles' secret handshake.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Disney) Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rispoli, Kevin Conway, Michael Nouri, Paige Turco, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Nicoye Banks, Stink Fisher, Lola Glaudini. Directed by Ericson Core

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones once said “Never tell me the odds.” Vince Papale not only heard him say it, he lived his life by it.

Papale (Wahlberg) was like many people in South Philadelphia in 1976, fighting for survival. He was holding down two jobs, as a substitute teacher and as a part-time bartender. When the school district cut back on teaching positions, Papale found himself in a bind. His wife Sharon (Glaudini) could handle no more and she left him, writing a vitriolic note that left no uncertainty about how she felt – the man she married was a loser who would never amount to much.

The Philadelphia Eagles NFL team was in similar straits. They’d suffered through three consecutive losing seasons, and not just losing seasons, humiliating seasons. The fandom in Philly, never known for being particularly tolerant of losing teams, was angry. Already in a bad mood because of the economy, strikes and unemployment, the lift they were looking for from their football team just wasn’t there. Owner Leonard Tose (Nouri), looking for a way out of the downward spiral, knew the team needed a change in the head coach position. Rather than hiring a well-known name, he selected a college coach with no previous professional experience – Dick Vermeil (Kinnear) from UCLA.

Vermeil was coming off an inspiring Rose Bowl win over Ohio State. He knew that he would be in the crosshairs to win immediately, but also realized that he didn’t have much in the way of personnel. In order to build more interest in his team, he announced that he was going to hold open tryouts. Keep in mind that open tryouts are virtually unheard of for an NFL team, who normally add players through trades with other teams or through the college draft. 

Papale’s friends, like Pete (Kelly), who had never been the same after his brother was killed in Vietnam, and Tommy (Acevedo) who was on strike at Westinghouse, and his employer at the bar Max (Rispoli) all urged Papale to attend the tryout. Not only was Papale a superfan, he was also dominant in the pickup football games played in a loose league that pitted the employees and customers of various South Philly bars against one another. When Max’s comely cousin Janet (Banks), a hardcore Giants fan, chimes in, he finally gives in despite the misgivings of his father (Conway).

The local media treats the tryouts as a joke and for the most part they are, but Papale, who is big and speedy and also has heart and determination catches Vermeil’s eye. Of all the tryouts, Vince is the only one to be invited to training camp. The guys at the bar are ecstatic and all of South Philly picks up on it. Vince is their hero, living a fans dream.

The other players in the Eagle locker room are not so sanguine. They look at Papale as an upstart, an invader and an affront. They all expect him to be cashiered after a few days as does Vince himself. To everyone’s surprise, he hangs in there. Papale doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit and he gives everything he can, figuring he might as well leave it all on the field. After all, he is 30 years old. When is he going to have another chance to try out for an NFL team?

For Vermeil, the pressure becomes exponentially more intense. As the Eagles lose game after game in the preseason, the press is howling for blood, the fans are right there with them and only his wife (Turco) seems to be in his corner. Still, Vermeil knows what it takes to win whether in college, high school, NFL, pee wees what have you. And although it is getting harder to keep Papale, who is taking quite a beating from the resentful veterans, he just can’t deny the attitude which is precisely what he wants to instill in his team. 

At last, he relents and gives Papale the last spot on the team to play on the special team squad. Although the media spotlight on Papale brings the kind of attention to the team that sells tickets (which makes Tose happy), if Papale doesn’t perform in the games, it is going to be very bad for Vermeil. Their fates are now inextricably linked.

Of course, this is a Disney sports film so you know immediately how the movie is going to end. It is totally formula, but it is a successful formula. Wahlberg is convincing as a big hearted fan full of self-doubt. Director Core has captured the atmosphere of South Philly perfectly. Da Queen’s family is from Philly (although not the south side) and she vouches for the authenticity. It has the feel of a working class neighborhood, where everybody knows each other and they’re all in the same boat together.

The football scenes didn’t ring as true to me, with players leaping like gazelles (although the pop of the hits was captured nicely on the soundtrack) and shimmying and shaking. Frankly, Friday Night Lights caught more of the feeling of being on the field than Invincible did. Still, that can be overlooked, particularly when you throw in the awkward romance that is generated between Janet and Vince, two wounded souls that are gun-shy but drawn to each other like a moth to a flame.

Disney has created itself a new niche in the sports underdog movie, with things like The Rookie and Remember the Titans among others. Invincible doesn’t disgrace itself and in fact hits a lot of notes really nicely, much the same way Miracle did. If you’re looking for a reason to feel good, here’s a movie that will generate the warm fuzzies in just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Successful sports underdog movie hits all the right notes. Wahlberg captures the never-say-die attitude of Papale perfectly. The romance between Wahlberg and Banks works.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ll feel like you’ve seen this movie before.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some football violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Both of Papale’s real life children make cameos in the film, during a pick-up football game his daughter Gabriella play the quarterback who throws the ball to her brother Vincent, wearing the makeshift #83 jersey.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a terrific feature on the real Vince Papale, “Becoming Invincible” which nicely imitates the NFL Films documentary style. On the Blu-Ray edition, “Becoming the Vet” shows how the filming took place at Franklin Field, the Eagles’ home field from 1958-1970; the filmmakers used computer graphics to give the stadium the look of Veteran’s Stadium, where the Eagles played at the time the movie was set but was imploded in 2004, shortly before filming began.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even and possibly made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Fog (2005)