King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

Pixels


Game over.

Game over.

(2015) Family Sci-Fi Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Dan Aykroyd, Affion Crockett, Lainie Kazan, Ashley Benson, Denis Akiyama, Tom McCarthy, Tim Herlihy, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart, Dan Patrick, Rose Rollins. Directed by Chris Columbus

It’s hard to believe, but the 1980s are now three decades in the rear view. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out in the local video arcade, losing quarters at a terrifying rate and listening to Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and Culture Club on the radio and, being me, looking like a reject from the 70s. My fashion sense has always been a decade out of whack.

But the sins of the 80s are catching up with us. The footage of a video game championship contest are among the clips that have been sent out by NASA in a probe into outer space, hoping to find intelligent life and re-assure them that we are peaceful and eager for friendship. Instead, the aliens (whom we never see) get the wrong idea; they believe these violent games to be a declaration of war and in their culture, they send out their warriors to face our warriors in a test of strength, only our warriors don’t have a clue what to do with these now-archaic video games.

It will be up to Brenner (Sandler), the runner-up in the contest and boyhood friend to President “Chewy” Cooper (James) to save the day, along with the winner of the contest, the arrogant Eddie (Dinklage) and  another childhood friend, Ludlow (Gad) who is a raging conspiracy theorist these days in tow. A fetching Marine Colonel, Violet Van Patton (Monaghan) serves as the military liaison with Brenner’s Arcaders team with Admiral Porter (Cox), the Pentagon Chief of Staff, who doesn’t think much of Brenner and his team. They ain’t much but they’re all we’ve got.

This is based on a short film which is far superior to the feature. There are no name actors in it and the special effects are much less detailed shall we say. Still, it’s far more entertaining than this flat and generally unfunny comedy which has been somewhat justifiably excoriated by the critics. However, I have to admit that the video game characters, the scenes in the arcade in the 80s and the general vibe induced a nice feeling of nostalgia in me, which I assume was the point. But unfortunately, I needed more and I assume, so did most of those who have been panning the film.

Certainly it helps to have had some connection to the 80s to enjoy the movie at all, but like a lot of Sandler films as of late, this just isn’t that funny. It’s almost all shtick, and that is the kind of humor that can be taken only in small doses, at least by me. Sandler, who had done some pretty funny movies early on, like Happy Gilmore for example, hasn’t really made me laugh for it feels like a decade or more. I don’t know why; he’s a genuinely funny guy, and he has a quick wit that comes out in talk shows. It just feels like he’s playing the same character over and over again, so much so that he has stopped caring about it. I can’t say for certain that it’s true but it sure feels that way watching him.

I like Kevin James too but he suffers from the same issues as Sandler; mostly, playing the same guy in generally unfunny comedies. There were some moments, like when he appears in front of a crowd that clearly hates him and he’s nothing but polite and almost ignorant of the hatred directed at him – now, that was funny. Some have said that he blends the girth of Christie, the timidity of McConnell, the ignorance of Perry, the reading issues of Dubya and the hair of Paul – essentially the perfect Republican presidential candidate. I don’t know if that was the filmmakers intention but the role certainly satirizes modern politics nicely – and subtly. I wish there was more going on like that.

Instead, we get the bombast of the space invaders, coming at us with Centipede, Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong. We get a life-size Q-Bert and gigantic Froggers hopping across traffic. I think it probably sounded impressive to the producers and the executives who greenlit this, but there really is no way to make the clunky graphics of the 80s come off as anything other than clunky graphics. And don’t get me started on the extraneous, completely unnecessary 3D.

Every summer there’s always one movie that just bites the big one, and this summer it appears to be this one. It gives me no joy to say this; I think Adam Sandler is a decent guy who really needs to make some different choices in movies. He needs to re-invent himself and I wish him luck at it; comebacks are notoriously hard in Hollywood but Sandler is still a talented guy. So are most of the people involved with this movie but this would have better been left a short.

REASONS TO GO: Video arcade nostalgia. Some of the more satirical stuff works.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very funny. Special effects are clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: Some slightly foul language and suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Akiyama plays Pac-Man inventor Toru Iwatami, the real Iwatami appears in the film. He didn’t want to play himself because he speaks no English.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super Mario Brothers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Primeval