Wolves (2016)


Game on!

(2016) Sports Drama (IFC) Michael Shannon, Taylor John Smith, Carla Gugino, Chris Bauer, Zazie Beetz, Wayne Duvall, Jake Choi, John Douglas Thompson, Danny Hoch, Christopher Meyer, John Michael Bolger, Matt Gorsky, Cindy Cheung, Noah Le Gros, Matthew Porretta, Seth Barrish, Ron Simons, Gibson Frazier, Jessica Rothe, Lynn Marocola. Directed by Bart Freundlich

 

We look at young people much the same as we look at the game of basketball. Mostly, we see the grace, the athleticism and the beauty but what we don’t see are the pounding, the punching and the ugliness that go along with the game – or in being young. Those of us who were once young may remember how rough a go we had it but we have trouble tolerating that same roughness in the young.

“Saint” Anthony Keller (Smith) is a star high school basketball player who has a good shot at getting a scholarship to Cornell. He’s a sharp shooter in the New York City high school athletic scene who is lights out from three point land. He is attending one of the toniest private academies in the City, has loving, supportive mother (Gugino) and a father who also once had high school athletic glory advising him. But Lee Keller (Shannon), while outwardly supportive, has a dark side. Most obvious is a gambling problem which has put him deeply in debt with the kind of people you don’t want to owe a nickel to, let alone fifty thousand dollars.

Anthony also has a sweet girlfriend named Victoria (Beetz) but there is definitely trouble in paradise between the two of them. She wants to go to college in California while his institute of higher learning of choice is Cornell in New York. The pressures begin to mount on Anthony, particularly since his father is getting more and more abusive and more and more out of control. During a street basketball game, he meets ex-New York Net Socrates (Thompson) who urges him to believe in himself. He needs to do that more than ever, particularly since the Cornell coach (Porretta) is questioning Anthony’s will to win, particularly because Anthony has a habit of passing to friends rather than taking the critical shot himself.

It all comes to a head as the basketball playoffs progress and the pressure mounts for Anthony to prove himself. With everything that Lee has built crumbling around him and Anthony feeling the pressure for the first time in his life can Lee shrug off his own demons and his own intense jealousy of Anthony’s success? More importantly, can Anthony take the next step from being a great scoring threat to being a potential college basketball star?

The word you’ll see used most commonly to describe this basketball film is ”cliché.” The story is extremely predictable, taking tropes from sports dramas both based on reality and fiction. What Anthony goes through here is nothing we haven’t seen celluloid athletes have to overcome before. I will say that the basketball sequences are actually believable and seem to have actors who can actually play ball and look comfortable doing it. That’s not always the case with sports dramas.

The cast is pretty good though. Shannon is an Oscar-nominated actor who always seems to turn in a performance that just can’t be ignored. He is as intense an onscreen presence as there is in Hollywood and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off him whenever he is onscreen. Shannon gives Lee an undercurrent of passive-aggressive rage that combined with his obvious character deficiencies makes him a compelling – not quite a villain but a flawed antagonist. While there is obviously plenty of father-son love here, there’s also an alpha male contest that flares up, sometimes with catastrophic results. One of the things that really caught my attention was that there is a point late in the film where Lee does something unconscionable – one wonders if it is an accident, male posturing gone out of control or worse still – a deliberate attempt for Lee to change the fortunes of Anthony’s team so that he could win by betting on his son’s team to lose. It is not clear which is the case, but it does make for fascinating consideration.

Most of the other roles are underdeveloped or underwritten. Smith is a fresh-faced talent who hints at having it in him to become a big star, but Anthony as written is either too good to be true or too polite to let his feelings out. He is generally polite and respectful of his elders but he isn’t above taking out an opposing player when his temper flares up. Gugino is a very talented actress who doesn’t get the respect she deserves, at least to my way of thinking. She rarely gets roles that really let her shine and basically she’s the cliché Long-Suffering Mom here. Chris Bauer as a family friend is a little too nice considering that Lee is such a jerk, but then that’s what the script calls for.

I would have liked to have seen this go a little bit more out of the box, but the writer chose to play it safe. Since Freundlich was the writer, he can’t blame the writing for the troubles with his film – well, I suppose he could. I would have liked to see more depth of character and less stereotypes and less of white people rapping (which just looks silly) and less dumb humor (such as an Asian player being chastised for using the “N” word the way the African-American players do). There are some wins in the movie, just enough to make it worth a view but not enough to make it worth spending a lot of time, effort or money in seeking it out.

REASONS TO GO: The brotherhood of athletes on the same team is nicely captured..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pretty rote and contains many ludicrous notes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity, racial slurs and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wolves debuted at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Dark Wind

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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