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

Don’t Think Twice


Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

Nothing says kooky more than a wheel of Improv players.

(2016) Dramedy (Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Keenan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, Emily Skeggs, Chris Gethard, Sondra James, Richard Kline, Sunita Mani, Steve Waltien, Kati Rediger, Pete Holmes, Richard Masur, Adam Pally, Lena Dunham, Maggie Kemper, Ben Stiller, Miranda Bailey, Seth Barrish, Erin Drake. Directed by Mike Birbiglia

 

Funny isn’t easy. If it was, everybody’d be a comedian. Of all the comedic disciplines, improvisation is one of the hardest. It requires quick thinking, a quicker wit and gluttony for punishment. Improv artists have a tendency to live hand to mouth and the odds of them making it are long indeed.

The Commune is a long-time improv group in New York City founded by Miles (Birbiglia) and currently consisting of MC Samantha (Jacobs) who is the girlfriend of Jack (Key), the most promising individual comedian in the group. Allison (Micucci) is an aspiring graphic artist and Lindsay (Sagher) smokes a whole lot of pot and is the daughter of wealthy parents who pay for her therapy. Finally, there’s Bill (Gethard), a kind of sad sack kind of guy who has a number of personal problems.

All of them harbor the ambition of getting an audition with Weekend Live (Saturday Night Live if they could have gotten the rights to use the name and footage). However, they’ve been hit with the bombshell that the run-down theater they’ve been using has been sold and is about to be converted to an Urban Outfitter; they have one month to get out.

But all is not lost. While they look for an affordable space, a couple of members of the Weekend Live group caught the group at a performance and have extended audition invitations – but only to Jack and Sam, largely because Jack grandstanded at the performance knowing that the cast members were there.

The group is happy for them, but it is happiness tinged with jealousy, anger and disappointment. Miles, who makes a great deal out of the fact that he had auditioned for the show ten years earlier and had been, as he puts it, “inches away” from the big time, is particularly out of sorts about it. He’s also teaching improv to pay the bills and beds his students whenever possible.

Bill is dealing with a family issue that is taking up much of his attention, although he is grateful for his fellow Commune-ists who surround him and make inappropriate jokes to keep his spirits up. However, as the days wind down, it turns out that Jack gets the gig at Weekend Live and Sam doesn’t, although she doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing for reasons that become clear later on in the film but you should be able to figure out without any problem. Now with Jack gone and the clock ticking, the group is beginning to disintegrate as it becomes clear that not everyone is going to have their dreams come true.

Birbiglia is a gifted stand-up comic and as his first time in the director’s chair for Sleepwalk With Me showed, he has some potential in that role as well. As in that film, his character here is not always the most pleasant of people – Miles is arrogant and a bit jealous of Jack’s success which only points out the lack of his own. He sleeps with students which is a major no-no even though the students he’s teaching are adults, and he puts down his friends with barbs that have just enough truth in them to bury themselves in the skin.

Key shows off his formidable talent here better than he has in anything other than his Comedy Central show with partner Jordan Peele. In many ways, Key mirrors his character; of all the actors here (other than Stiller, who makes a cameo as himself) he has the best chance to reach stardom. With more performances like this under his belt, he certainly will get a look from the studios and the networks.

Most of the main actors here have improv experience other than Jacobs and she underwent rigorous training in the art which as mentioned earlier is not as easy as it looks. As a team they work well together and the onstage footage has some pretty fun moments, but the drawback is that improv really is best experienced live; it rarely holds up as well on film. Still, the movie has an air of authenticity about it because of the experience of Birbiglia and his cast (as well as Seth Barrish, the co-writer who also appears as a Lorne Michaels-like figure in the film).

It is a dramedy so the moments of savory and sweet are fairly balanced out, although given the subject matter I would have appreciated a bit more comedy than drama. There is a little bit of tendency towards soap opera in the middle third as the relationships begin to collapse and the Commune begins to implode.

For all that, this is a solid film that has some wonderful moments (a discussion between Jack and Sam that makes it painfully clear that their relationship is over comes immediately to mind) as well as a few misfires. It’s definitely worth seeing, even if you aren’t into improv. The truth is that this is the kind of movie that might actually make you a fan, or at the very least, more respectful of those who practice the art.

REASONS TO GO: A glimpse of what goes into making an improv group work.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have used some more laughs.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s plenty of swearing and a good deal of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The cast performed as an improv troupe for two weeks prior to shooting. Some of the footage of their performances is used in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Little Sister