My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)


A snow day is a great day!

(2016) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Will Forte, Erick Abbate, Romy Beckman, Ness Krell, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page, Amy Sedaris, Susanne Blakeslee, Barry Mitchell, Olivia Bucknor, Clara Young, Finn Robbins, JD Blanc, Michael Sinterniklaas, Stephanie Sheh. Directed by Claude Barras

 

What makes a movie a kid’s movie? Is it because the protagonist is a child? Or is it because it’s animated? Maybe the subject matter is less complicated than a film aimed at older audiences? These are all fair questions and while it is generally fairly easy to tell what is a movie meant for the elementary school set and what is not, some films are a little bit harder to gauge.

Icare (Abbate) is a sad, lonely child. He lives with his alcoholic mom in a flat which is littered with empty beer cans that his mom has consumed. His father is long gone. His only joy is flying a kite with a superhero drawn on it – one that perhaps is his notion of who his dad is. On a stormy day, his mother will no longer be able to abuse him any longer .

A kindly cop named Raymond (Offerman) takes Icare to a local orphanage where he declares that his name is Zucchini which is apparently what his mom called him for reasons never explained. As he has so little of her left to remember her by (poignantly he brings an empty beer can with him and his kite – his only two possessions) he insists on being referred to by that sobriquet even though it doesn’t really suit him, as Simon (Beckman), the resident bully, points out while spitefully calling him “Potato” which while cruel is entirely apt.

Most of the kids have a horror story to tell; Ahmed (Mitchell) waits for his deported mom to return, while Alice (Young) was removed from an abusive household and bangs her fork on her plate when she is stressed. Simon himself is the son of criminals who are jailed, leaving him in the orphanage to hope for adoption – although as Simon cynically informs Zucchini whom he eventually learns to respect, the kids are too old to have a chance at adoption.

Into this wacky family of kids comes Camille (Krell) whose father murdered her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. She lives with an aunt (Sedaris) who only keeps her for the stipend the state pays her and is cruel and abusive towards her niece. Zucchini takes a shine to Camille and the two rapidly become inseparable. A field trip to the mountains with married teachers Paul (Forte) and Rosy (Page) only cements that bond. As for Zucchini, he has developed a close relationship with Raymond who is thinking of adopting him and maybe Camille as well. But the Aunt wants to bring back Camille to her house so she can get the government payments again. Will this new family be quashed before it can even be started?

The film is based on a children’s book which is apparently much darker than what is onscreen here; the look of the film is much different than the illustrations that are part of the book as well. This stop motion animated feature has a very European look to it; the big heads but expressive faces, the eerily long bendy arms and the backgrounds that speak of the Alps. It certainly doesn’t look like an American film and maybe that will put off some.

And, like European films that are aimed at children, it refuses to talk down to them. The movie looks at tragedy and doesn’t turn away or sugarcoat it. It allows the children to grieve, to be sad. It allows them to overcome and that is the important message; not that Zucchini had a tough time of it but that he came through it and in doing so was able to trust and love again.

The movie does have some flaws; from time to time I felt myself wondering how much was going to be piled onto Zucchini and let’s face it, there’s a lot. While the kids are a little bit too good to be true for the most part – Simon is the clear exception and even he is basically a decent kid – the adults are damn near Saints other than Zucchini’s mom and Camille’s aunt.

The movie does have the virtue of brevity; the film is only 70 minutes long so even those with the most acute cases of ADHD should be able to sit through the entire length of it. It also has a lot of bright colors that will keep the really little ones engaged. Never underestimate the value of bright colors and simple shapes in keeping the toddlers out of trouble.

The movie is full of moments of genuine emotion without leaving you feeling manipulated; it comes by those moments honestly. You can’t help but feel for these orphans who have been through so much yet are so resilient. Despite his mother’s shortcomings, Zucchini misses her. He feels her absence keenly. Perhaps that is the most human thing about Zucchini after all.

REASONS TO GO: The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings. For once, the film doesn’t talk down to children. The subject of parental loss is tackled with some sensitivity.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly dramatic in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The loss of parents might be a bit more difficult for the young and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Switzerland’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language film for the 2017 Oscars; while it didn’t make the final short list, it did pick up a nomination for Best Animated Feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pippi Longstocking
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Raw

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Storks


For those who wonder how babies are made, here's your answer.

For those who wonder how babies are made, here’s your answer.

(2016) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman, Chris Smith, Awkwafina, Ike Barinholtz, Jorma Taccone, Amanda Lund. Directed by Doug Sweetland and Nicholas Stoller

 

In a cutthroat commercial world, one must adapt to survive. Nobody knows that better than the storks, who at one time delivered babies exclusively. However, as satisfying as that job was, it wasn’t very lucrative. Now they toil for Cornerstore, a dot com shopping site that bears a sneaky resemblance to Amazon. Less baby poop to clean up, too.

Junior (Samberg) is the best courier in all of stork-dom. He has earned the attention of Hunter (Grammer), the boss stork who is looking for someone to succeed him. Junior seems the most likely candidate. All in all, Junior’s life is going exactly the way he wants.

Not so for Nate Gardner (Starkman), a little boy who is bored and lonely. His Mom (Aniston) and Dad (Burrell) are both completely involved in their real estate business with little time for their son. He desperately wants a sibling to fill his time, preferably one with ninja skills. As a result, he sends a letter to the Storks hoping to get a new baby brother.

Junior gets his first assignment as Hunter’s protégé; he is to fire Tulip (Crown), a human girl (the only human on Stork Mountain) whose delivery to her parents was messed up by the psychotic stork Jasper (Trejo) so she has been trying to earn her keep for the storks, except that she’s something of a klutz. Hunter has had enough of her, but the tender-hearted Junior exiles her to the “mail room” where letters requesting babies are essentially warehoused, as the storks don’t answer those any longer. Of course, Tulip being Tulip, she accidentally activates the baby-making machine with a single letter – the one Nate Gardner sent.

Now there’s a baby to be delivered and Junior realizes that it must be done quietly or his career is history. So he and Tulip set off to get the rugrat delivered, while Nate prepares his house for the new arrival and the deliverers are chased by a pack of very limber wolves (don’t ask) and when Hunter finds out from Pigeon Toady (Glickman), a real stool pigeon, things are going to get even more complicated.

The tone here skews towards the whimsical, with occasional moments that recall the Looney Tunes which are part of the Warner Animation Group’s DNA. The Rube Goldberg-esque baby making machine is fun to watch in action and the Wolves who turn themselves into submarines and motorcycles (among other things) are also pretty clever.

That said the movie also goes for the Disney points by getting the family bonding thing going between Nate and his parents and setting Tulip up to find her “birth” parents. Kids today are also a lot more sophisticated; while they may not necessarily know how babies are born, they certainly know that storks don’t bring ‘em. In that sense, the story is a bit antiquated.

The voice casting is top of the line, and one must give the producers kudos for including both Key and Peele in the cast; they work as well together here as they do on their hit Comedy Central show, albeit with less scintillating material. In fact, things pretty much go the non-subversive route, although the anti-corporate tinge here might infuriate your average Trump supporter.

In any case, this is pretty lightweight material that will keep your kids occupied and likely not rile you up too much unless, of course, you tend towards the heavy capitalist philosophy of life. Chances are you’ll be drifting off with far better movies on your mind while you watch this bit of fluff with your kids.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of whimsy displayed throughout the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Plenty of cliches displayed throughout the movie.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic elements and some kid-friendly action sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Ty Burrell character is a real estate agent; Burrell also plays a real estate agent in his TV series Modern Family.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Arthur Christmas
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Stray

The 5th Wave


You can run but you can't hide from the critics.

You can run but you can’t hide from the critics.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chloë Grace Moretz, Zackary Arthur, Alex Roe, Nick Robinson, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Maika Monroe, Tony Revolori, Nadji Jeter, Flynn McHugh, Cade Canon Ball,  Alex MacNicoll, Michael Beasley, Justin Smith, Geoffrey Kennedy, Adora Dei, Parker Wierling, Terry Serpico, Charmin Lee, Gabriela Lopez, Bailey Ann Borders . Directed by J Blakeson

Sometimes you wonder why a film gets made. You look at the various reasons; a hit comic book franchise, a remake of a beloved classic, a box office star is attached, an Oscar-winning director is attached. Or maybe it’s part of a young adult fantasy series.

Once upon a time, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Harry Potter series, after all, smashed box office records but not only that, was well-written, meticulously crafted and the films that were made of the books were gorgeous and entertaining for audiences both young and old. But then came Twilight and it was basically a Harlequin romance aimed at tweens and their moms, and frankly wasn’t nearly as well-written as they were.

After that, a series of attempts to cash in on those two enormously popular franchises came with varying degrees of results, mostly bad. The formula that seemed to work best involved the Twilight tropes; a plucky young heroine, check. Forces supernatural or extraterrestrial arrayed against her, check. Foxy young hottie from home she has a mad crush on, check. Mysterious young hunk takes a hand in her life as protector and/or mentor, check. The heroine develops feelings for both young studs, check. Young tweens and teens and their moms take sides as to who would be the best man for the plucky young heroine, check.

Essentially, this is an alien invasion movie for tween girls, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, but the movie is so completely derivative of much better movies (and a few that are genuinely awful) that it’s impossible to really take it seriously. I haven’t read the Ben Yancey book (the first of a trilogy) that the film is based on, but I certainly hope that it is less hokey, less full of incredible lapses of logic, as this one is.

The premise is that young Cassie (Moretz), a resident of Dayton, Ohio, witnesses the arrival of a gigantic alien spacecraft. An electromagnetic pulse is sent out, rendering all electric devices inert. That was the first wave. The second wave was a series of natural disasters – earthquakes and tidal waves – that destroyed the coastal cities. The third wave was a biological plague that took out a number of the survivors, including Cassie’s mom (Siff). The fourth wave is the infiltration of the parasitical aliens on human hosts, putting the aliens among us in forms indistinguishable from our own. The fifth wave…well, that’s something you’ll find out if you watch this turkey.

Actually, the premise isn’t a bad one and the special effects are pretty nifty. Moretz is a fine actress and to her credit she puts in a solid performance in a role that essentially requires her to feel sorry for herself a third of the time, be paranoid a third of the time, and be mulishly determined to find her little brother (Arthur) who got separated from her at about the time their father (Livingston) is taken from them.

I don’t have a problem of cobbling elements from other stories and films together to make something new, but what’s here is so much like other films in the young adult genre that there seems to have been little creativity put in to making this something different or special; instead the focus seems to be on hitting all the notes that will supposedly bring tweens and their moms into the theaters in numbers that have made the Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent series successful. That this hasn’t happened may be a sign that that audience which has been of late rather notoriously undiscerning about the movies they’ve chosen to throw their obsession to, may be a welcome sign that this demographic is starting to require a little more thought to bring them into the theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Moretz gives a game effort.
REASONS TO STAY: Derivative and hokey. Predictable young adult sci-fi pabulum. Gigantic holes in logic and reason.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and sci-fi destruction, along with some adult themes and a brief scene of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Reznik was male in the book; she is played by a nearly unrecognizable Maria Bello here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

The Forest


Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

(2016) Horror (Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Ibuki Kaneda, Noriko Sakura, Jozef Aoki, Yuho Yamashita, Terry Diab, Akiko Iwase, Nadja Mazalika, Lidija Antonic, Cami Djeric, Tales Yamamoto, Yasuo Tobishima, Osamu Tanpopo, Kikuo Ichikawa, Gen Seto, Yuriri Naka. Directed by Jason Zada

In Japan, the Aokigahara Forest has a lethal reputation. Located at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji, it has been for generations a place where people have gone to commit suicide, and thus has a reputation of being haunted even among some fairly rational Japanese citizens. It is not a place where tourists are encouraged to go.

Now that reputation is worldwide thanks to this horror film which kicks off the 2016 movie release year. Game of Thrones vet Natalie Dormer plays a dual role as twins; Jess, the black sheep who has left messes for her more grounded sister Sara to clean up all her life. The two have been inseparable since the death of their parents when both were six years old; Jess was traumatized because she actually saw the bodies (Sara was spared that by her grandmother (Diab) who raised the two of them afterwards).

Now, Jess who teaches English at a girl’s school in Tokyo has disappeared, lost in the Aokigahara and Sara, who refuses to believe that her twin is dead despite being told that since more than 48 hours have passed since Jess went into the forest that it was likely she had killed herself, travels to Japan to find her over the objections of her husband Rob (Macken). You see, Sara has this connection with her sister; she always knows how she’s doing, and her connection tells her that Jess is still alive.

When she gets to the Aokigahara, she meets Aiden (Kinney) an American travel writer doing a story on the forest for an Australian magazine. He is venturing into the forest guided by Michi (Ozawa) who the park rangers use to periodically go through the forest and pick up bodies of suicides who have been successful. He allows the distraught but certain Sara to accompany him on a run through the forest, but warns her to stay on the path and to disregard anything bad that she might see as the forest sometimes plays tricks on those who are sad. He reminds her that it is very easy to get lost in the 14 square miles of dense forest.

The three venture into what seems at first to be a beautiful mountain forest but soon Sara begins to hear things, and has visions of unpleasant memories from her past. Eventually they find Jess’ camp but not Jess herself. It is starting to get late and Michi is eager to return back home; they can search for Jess in the morning but Sara insists on staying the night to wait for her sister to return and reluctantly Aiden agrees to stay with her and make sure she’s okay. However, once night falls and with Michi gone, the Forest will begin its work on Sara’s mind and soon it becomes apparent that all of Sara’s inner demons are going to be used against her. Can she survive the night and find her twin? Or has Jess been dead all this time to begin with? Will the Forest claim another victim?

First-time feature director Zada is given a juicy concept to work with but writers Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai have let him down somewhat by muddling things up with the Sara/Jess backstory and making it more about their personal horror than about that of the forest. I would have preferred more focus on the Aokigahara and less on Sara’s childhood. The movie also suffers from dumb horror protagonist syndrome; who in their right minds would stay in an unfamiliar forest overnight, particularly one with as grim a reputation as the Aokigahara? And for someone who believes in a psychic connection between twins, Sara seems pretty disbelieving in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon; seems to me that a character like that would be a little bit more open-minded. I get that Sara was frantic about her sister but you would think that level-headed sorts like Michi and Aiden could have talked her down.

But to the thing that brought you to see this movie in the first place. While there are some legitimate scares to be had here, there aren’t enough of them to make this more than of mild interest. Some of the images were downright creepy, but there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen before and in much better movies. The movie’s soundtrack also tends to give away every single scare, which after awhile tends to lessen the effectiveness of them.

Dormer, however, is another story. The Game of Thrones veteran has a rabid fanboy following and for good reason. However, more importantly, the girl has screen presence. With the right roles and a little bit of luck, she could be a big star in the not too distant future. She shows a good deal of range here, playing two diametrically different characters in the same film and making it work.

The rest of the mostly Japanese cast acquits itself nicely with Ozawa, a big star in Japan making his English language debut, also showing some big potential. Kinney, who is best known for his work in Chicago Fire, plays a role very different than that in his television show which bodes well for his future.

The Aokigahara Forest has a great horror movie in it, but this isn’t that. While it isn’t awful, there aren’t enough reasons other than Dormer to really go out of your way to see it. While this wasn’t actually filmed in that forest (the outdoor scenes were mostly filmed in Serbia), the Aokigahara is a looming presence here. I suspect that some enterprising writer and filmmaker will eventually come up with a movie based there that will scare the crap out of us somewhere down the road. Until then, this will do, but just barely.

REASONS TO GO: Dormer shows some star potential. Some of the scares are pretty intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Wastes a great concept and a better location. Could have used more good scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror, horrifying images and disturbing thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dormer visited the actual Aokigahara Forest to research her part and ventured five meters off the path to take photos while walking through the forest; her Japanese guide and driver refused to step even half an inch off the path.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Here Comes the Boom

Message From Hiroshima


It's the devastation you can't see that will move you.

It’s the devastation you can’t see that will move you.

(2015) Documentary (Cinema Libre) George Takei (voice), Kazuo Fukushima, Akinori Ueda, Ryoga Suwa, Hisako Miyake, Kinue Nakamitsu, Chieko Fujiki, Yoshie Oka, Junko Ohta, Kyoko Nakamura, Noboru Hirabayashi, Sumiko Uesugi, Takuji Enami, Akia Nakazawa, Tsuneo Kasai, Nenkai Aoyama, Haruto Oda, Isao Toi, Yoshie Nakatani, Masako Nishida, Sadako Imada. Directed by Masaaki Tanabe

The American attitude towards the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is essentially, “Well, they brought it on themselves, and it saved millions of American lives in the process.” For the most part, Americans believe that these bombings were justified.

Message From Hiroshima may change all that. Director Masaaki Tanabe was seven years old and a resident of the Nakajima district in central Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Fears of American bombings of a more conventional nature had led his parents to send him to stay with his grandmother 32 miles away when the bomb hit. His mother and brother were killed in the blast; his father died two weeks later from the burns he sustained. To say that this is a personal project for him would be an understatement.

The film mostly consists of anecdotal accounts of life in Hiroshima before the bomb, the devastation caused by the bomb and the effects on the community afterwards. The domed Industrial Promotion Hall – once the pride of the city where exhibits on exports from the town were regularly given and where government offices were located – which was reduced to a shell (seen in the photo above) and is the only building in the district (if you can call it a building anymore) that remains as a stark reminder of the devastation. Across the river where Nakajima was located, a peace park full of monuments to the fallen (a burial mound of remains of unknown citizens is also located here) that is both beautiful and sad.

Jocelyn Cervenka created computer graphic re-creations of the Nakajima based on photographs and survivor descriptions that are used to great effect here. They display a vibrant city center, full of shops and restaurants as well as residences. In the background, the river flows, the heart of the city. George Takei from Star Trek who has his own horror stories from the war, narrates wonderfully and describes how the citizens of Hiroshima were once very in tune with the river; bathing, swimming, diving from the various bridges and fishing were regular parts of the lives of the citizens of Hiroshima. One of the casualties of the war is that, according to Takei, that is no longer the case. I would love to see her graphics made available online so that people can take an interactive tour of Nakashima. It would not only be instructive but a lovely way to preserve that lost world forever.

The accounts of the survivors are incredibly moving and to see how raw the wounds continue to be for these now elderly people, youngsters when the bomb was dropped, still are 70 years after the fact. Watching them break down into tears as they describe seeing the devastation, of waiting for parents who never came to claim them, of not even finding bones of their loved ones for them to bury (those close enough to ground zero, which was essentially where Nakajima was, were vaporized by the heat of the blast). Listening to these accounts makes me wonder how Japan was able to move on from this kind of wound.

But this isn’t an anti-United States film. What it is mostly is a means of preserving a way of life that is now a distant memory for elderly citizens of a city that was beautiful in 1945 and continues to be today, but has been indelibly changed by the experience. The movie is only 52 minutes long and I suspect it couldn’t be any longer because as human beings, we couldn’t handle the deep emotions for much more than the time we are given here.

I will admit that I’m one of those Americans who looked on the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as necessary evils. I no longer think that’s the case after viewing this movie. Anyone who thinks that detonating a nuclear device is a solution to anything should be made to watch this movie. Should we have foregone the nuclear option and instead mounted a conventional invasion of Japan that would have cost millions of lives both American and Japanese? Honestly, that’s the kind of dilemma that makes me glad I’m not President; Truman must have grappled with this for years after the fact. I don’t know that what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are worth the lives that were saved, I honestly don’t. I will say that for me at least, Hiroshima is no longer just a few paragraphs in a history book. The meaning is far more intense and personal to me now. I urge anyone who can see this film. It’s a life changer.

While the movie is making the rounds in one-off exhibitions usually sponsored by churches or peace organizations, it is also available on Amazon and can be viewed free for Amazon Prime subscribers. If you’re interested, you can view it here. I strongly urge that you do.

REASONS TO GO: Emotionally devastating. Short anecdotes of survivor accounts effective. Computer graphics work nicely. May change your mind about the nuclear option.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing images, graphic descriptions of carnage and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Best of Enemies

Southpaw (2015)


Brothers in battle.

Brothers in battle.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent, Skylan Brooks, Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, Beau Knapp, Miguel Gomez, Dominic Colon, Jose Caraballo, Malcolm M. Mays, Aaron Quattrocchi, Lana Young, Danny Henriquez, Patsy Meck, Vito Grassi, Tony Weeks, Jimmy Lennon Jr., Claire Foley. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

The popularity of boxing has a lot to do with primal emotions; conquer or be conquered, imposing your physical will on another. But the ring has a lot more to it than that. Some look at it as a symbol of all that is corrupt with our society; others look at it as an opportunity for redemption. The ring is what you make it.

Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal) has made a lot out of it. An orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, he has managed to take his strength, his absolute drive and his rage and channel it into the light heavyweight championship. However, his wife Maureen (McAdams), who was also an orphan in Hell’s Kitchen, is concerned. Billy is taking a fearsome amount of punishment with every bout and in his most recent one against a fighter who shouldn’t have come close to doing as much damage, it’s worse than ever. She’s concerned that one day soon that he’ll push himself too far and be permanently damaged.

But in the meantime, they are basking in his success; his manager Jordan Mains (50 Cent) has negotiated a $30 million deal with HBO which would set him up for life, and while Maureen is hesitant to let Billy fight so soon after the last beating he took, there’s the future to consider.

But that future is about to get changed in a big way. A single moment leads to Billy losing everything; his title, his career, his family, his self-respect – a moment that Weinstein’s trailer department thoughtlessly spoiled. Billy finds himself out on the streets, looking for work. He finds it in a dilapidated old gym, run by dilapidated old Tick Wills (Whitaker).

Eventually Billy finds his center again but in his way is a payday that will help him regain some of what he’s lost but set himself up to take revenge on those who took it. He is left with a conundrum; to continue on the path he’s on and struggle indefinitely, or to go back the way he came to risk losing himself – but to possibly gain regaining himself. Tough choices, but the answer becomes clear – his daughter comes first.

And in fact, this is sort of the same choice that every hero in every boxing movie has ever made, from Rocky Balboa to Jake LaMotta and everywhere in between. This is, in essence, one 124 minute boxing movie cliche and as long as you understand that going in, you’re going to be all right more or less, but that’s as far as you would go normally; just watch it and move on to other entertainments. What elevates this particular film is Jake Gyllenhaal.

After an unjustly Oscar-snubbed performance in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal returns with an equally marvelous showing here. He went from the emaciated weasel in the former film to a buff muscle-bound athlete here and the two roles couldn’t be more dissimilar in every other standpoint as well. Both characters are imperfect and somewhat flawed but while his character here has a good heart that his wife brings out of him. While his character in Nightcrawler is slick and savvy, Billy is direct and simple. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has street smarts. You never tire of watching him.

Mostly after that the level of supporting performances drop off. McAdams and Whitaker are both just fine but they get little screen time and . Laurence, as Billy and Maureen’s daughter Leila, is clearly a rising child star. She plays a little girl dealing with some absolutely adult issues and pulls it off like a champ. Hopefully being in a film with actors the like of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker will only help her skills rocket into the stratosphere.

The boxing scenes are solidly done, often employing a POV type of camera work that makes you feel like you’re in the ring with Billy and/or his opponent. This could have been gimmicky but it is used to great effect and never feels cheap. It’s a rare case where a camera trick actually enhances the movie rather than makes you realize you’re watching a movie, a very difficult line to balance. Also, Southpaw effectively captures the sordid world of boxing, but truthfully no better or no worse than most of the better movies about boxing.

There is a bit of a thug life vibe here – think Gyllenhaal in his End of Watch role – that at times rings a little false; it’s sort of like 1997 called and wants its attitude back. However, given Gyllenhaal’s performance (and that of Oona Laurence) there is enough to solidly recommend the movie despite a story that feels like it was written in 1949. And the fact that you could apply the story essentially to both eras is a reason to rejoice – or to get very depressed. Maybe both at the same time.

REASONS TO GO: Another outstanding performance by Gyllenhaal. Some fairly intense boxing scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very cliche. A little too thug life for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence both in the ring and out and lots and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Billy Hope was originally cast with Eminem and filming actually began with him in it, but production had to be halted when he opted to concentrate on his music career; Gyllenhaal was eventually cast in the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Champ
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Down, But Not Out

We Are Marshall


They are Marshall.

They are Marshall.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Warner Brothers) Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Katie Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Brian Geraghty, Tommy Cresswell, Christian Kanupke, Nina Jones, Kevin Atkins, Mark Patton, Robert Patrick, Katie Kneeland Directed by McG

The American Experience 2015

On November 14, 1970, a chartered plane carrying the football team of Marshall University, the Thundering Herd, back to Huntington WV where the University is following a loss to the East Carolina Pirates clipped some trees on the approach to the runway and crashed into a gully a mile from landing safely. Every one of the 75 souls on that plane died in the horrific, fiery crash.

It remains the worst loss of life regarding an American sports team in history but it was more than that. Along with almost the entire Marshall football team, the plane carried the athletic director for the university, four trainers, all but one of the coaches, a state legislator, a city councilman, four physicians and 25 boosters. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash and 18 were orphaned.

The effect on the community was devastating. Huntington was then (and is now) a small college town; much of the town’s life revolves around the university and their football team, though it had been mediocre in recent years, still was a source of pride to the town. With the town paralyzed by grief, Marshall’s acting president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) was ready to discontinue the football program. However, Nate Ruffin (Mackie), a wide receiver who hadn’t gone on the trip to East Carolina due to an injury, convinced Dedmon (with the help of the student body) to keep the team.

The surviving coach, Red Dawson (Fox) was offered the head coach position but was too grief-stricken to accept. After a long, fruitless search, Jack Lengyel (McConaughey) from tiny Wooster College, was given the job. It wouldn’t be an easy one. Essentially, they’d be starting a team from scratch, utilizing athletes from other sports at the University and former members of the Junior Varsity. Dedmon, at Lengyel’s urging, petitioned the NCAA to allow freshmen to be eligible to play on the Varsity. At the time, Freshmen were forbidden to play for the Varsity, the line of thought being that they didn’t have the maturity to handle the pressures of big time college athletics and that a year adjusting to college life would be more beneficial; the NCAA has since changed their rules on that matter.

Still, it would be an uphill battle and everyone knew that the team would be just awful that year. Would a team woefully unqualified truly be able to honor the memory of those who had died, or would they tarnish it? Is just stepping on the field enough?

While We Are Marshall disappointed at the box office when it was released, it has since become something of an icon of the true sports drama genre. Certainly the story is compelling enough; watching an entire town and university grieve for an unimaginable tragedy is almost mind-boggling. Even now, almost a decade after the movie came out, I still mist up just thinking about it.

For the most part, McG handles the tragedy with sensitivity. For one thing, he doesn’t show the actual crash, just the aftermath. He doesn’t beat the audience over the head with grief, although certainly the grieving process is a part of the film’s story. Less is more in this case.

McConaughey at the time this was made was best known for romantic comedies in which he usually found an excuse to take his shirt off. In many ways, this was the movie that led us to reconsider our opinion about the actor and reveal that there was more to him than a laid-back romantic lead. The guy can act, as was revealed more recently with an Oscar win and an Emmy nomination.

There are some other performances here that are worth knowing. McShane plays a University trustee in favor of discontinuing football; his son – the starting quarterback – had died in the crash and in many ways his grief had overwhelmed him. Fox is outstanding as Dawson, a man with survivor’s guilt who slowly comes on board with the idea of resuming his life. Mackie’s Ruffin provides leadership for the team and University. Strathairn gives Dedmon gravitas and the reliable character actor is at the top of his game here.

One of the few things I can fault the film for is its dialogue. It doesn’t sound like human beings talking; it’s mostly a series of inspirational quotes. I would have preferred fewer platitudes and more realistic conversation. While it might have looked good in the script, it creates a gulf between audience and character that is unnecessary; we really want to relate to them and it’s harder to when they sound like Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig’s final speech.

That said this is one of the most moving sports films ever made, right up there with Hoosiers and The Miracle. Some might find it to be manipulative – the subplot involving Katie Mara’s waitress character (she was the fiance of Ian McShane’s son) certainly is – but overall I thought the movie comes by its emotional impact honestly. It can take more courage to get up in the morning and move on with your life than it does to step onto a battlefield, and in the face of overwhelming grief, the courage and heart of an entire town and University is to be admired.

WHY RENT THIS: McConaughey breaks out as a dramatic actor. Deeply moving and effective subject matter. Handled with reverence and respect.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subplots are occasionally manipulative and the characters tend to speak in platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: The material can be very emotional and those who are sensitive about such things should probably steer clear. There’s also some mildly harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While much of the movie was filmed in Huntington, the stadium that the Thundering Herd played in back in 1971 – Fairfield Stadium – had been demolished in 2004. The filmmakers used Herndon Stadium in Atlanta for Marshall’s home games in the movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray both include an ad for West Virginia tourism, a featurette on legendary college coaches and what techniques they used to motivate their students and a brief look at Marshall University today.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.6M on a $65M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!