Tenderness


Tenderness

Russell Crowe isn't happy that some joker put his running shoes on the memorial.

(2009) Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Jon Foster, Sophie Traub, Alexis Dziena, Laura Dern, Michael Kelly, Vivienne Benesch, Tanya Clarke, Tim Hopper, Brian Russell, Lee Sellars, Lou Sumrall, Arija Bareikis. Directed by John Polson

We are all of us victims of our own nature. We can’t escape it, although we often try. We can’t fight it, although we make the attempt. We can hide it, but sooner or later our true nature emerges, the face behind the mask; sometimes, heaven help the person who witnesses it.

Eric Komenko (Foster) was brought up by strictly religious parents who blew a gasket when they found out he was having sex. Eric didn’t like that; he didn’t like it at all – so he killed them. He was arrested and tried, where a persistent pattern of abuse emerged. A sympathetic jury gave him a light sentence so he was sent to juvenile detention where he is just being released after a few years, now an adult.

He is being watched by Lt. Cristofuoro (Crowe), the tenacious semi-retired police officer who originally arrested Eric and who thinks he will inevitably kill again and has killed others before, people whom the parole board didn’t take into account. The policeman’s wife is in a coma (for reasons never fully explained in the film), so he spends a good deal of time (when not stalking Eric, who now goes by the last name of Poole) at the hospital – when he’s not pontificating in the form of voiceovers. Then again, his name transfers as “Christ’s fire” so you do the math.  

He’s not the only one watching Eric. Lori Cranston (Traub), an abused girl who has a prior connection to Eric, stows away in his trunk as he drives to Funland, where he has agreed to meet a girl (Dziena) that he’d met in prison. What Eric’s intentions are can be summed up thusly – not good. What Lori wants isn’t clear; a quick way out – maybe. Romance with a convicted killer? Possibly. Revenge? The Magic 8-Ball isn’t clear on that point. Maybe she’s working with the police to get Eric arrested and sent back to prison; maybe she isn’t. What is clear is that by the time the movie ends, someone is going to see Eric’s true nature, for better or for worse.

While the movie is based on a Robert Cormier novel, it is more of a mess than you might think. There doesn’t seem to be any clear point to the film; there’s a lot of mumbo jumbo uttered by a bored-sounding Crowe on the voiceover on the roles of pleasure and pain in life but by and large, we do get (most of us anyway) that pain sucks for a lot longer than pleasure doesn’t with or without the help of the filmmakers.

Crowe is the nominal star of the movie but it’s a glorified cameo; he does do the voiceover narration but most of his scenes are without the leading players. He’s solid enough as the rumpled cop, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Foster is pretty much the main man here, and his character is a walking jumble of complexities; he doesn’t really have the chops to pull it off but quite frankly, I’m not sure anybody does.

Traub doesn’t do a bad job as the somewhat conflicted Lori, but the script is so all over the map that it’s hard to really get a line on what she wants and what motivates her. There is a little epilogue that gives you some insight into her mindset but at the end of the ballgame, it’s too little too late.

I wish I could have liked this movie more – there were some interesting concepts and some nice psychology to it. Unfortunately, the script never really develops them and by the time the movie comes to a grinding halt, you might well be too involved in texting your friends or playing on your laptop to notice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some interesting psychological studies are to be found. Crowe is solid although unspectacular.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of potential but doesn’t quite deliver. Foster doesn’t quite carry off the complexity of the lead role.

FAMILY VALUES: Along with the inevitable bad language, there’s some disturbing sexual and violent content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Crowe was only on set for nine days and filmed all his scenes in that time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Wicker Man

The Express


The Express

Ernie Davis rumbles for the end zone in the 1960 Cotton Bowl.

(Universal) Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles Dutton, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Saul Rubinek, Nelsan Ellis, Nicole Beharie, Aunjanue Ellis. Directed by Gary Fleder

In this age where most of the great athletes in our country are of African-American descent, it seems almost incomprehensible that at one time they were not even allowed to play in the national spotlight. For those pioneers who led the way, the path was often painful.

Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) was a humble young man who had spent much of his childhood in western Pennsylvania with his grandfather, affectionately called Pops (Dutton) who had managed to rid Ernie of his stutter by getting him to read passages from the Bible. Ernie was blessed with natural athleticism, speed and strength, all good qualities to have if you want to be a football star and that’s just what he was on the verge of becoming in High School.

Syracuse University Head Football Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid) is about to lose the best player in college football, Jim Brown (Henson) to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Replacing him will be a tall order. Brown, for his part, is not unhappy to see the University moving behind him into the rear-view mirror. He encountered a great deal of racism on campus and despite being the best running back in the game by far, he had been denied the Heisman Trophy because of the color of his skin. For a man with the kind of pride possessed by Brown that’s a difficult pill to swallow, so when Schwartzwalder, with whom he had an often contentious relationship, called upon him to recruit the young Ernie Davis, Brown was understandably reluctant.

Still, he accompanies Schwartzwalder on the recruiting visit and is pleased and a little taken aback that Davis can quote all his statistics off the top of his head and obviously has a case of hero-worship. Brown relents and quietly makes his sales pitch to Davis, asserting that Schwartzwalder can make him a better player. That’s all Ernie Davis needs to hear. 

On the campus of Syracuse, Ernie has to put up with a certain amount of disdain from the students as well as a hellacious workout regimen. Even though he’s a freshman and ineligible to play on the varsity, he practices with them and dresses for the games, which is painful because Syracuse definitely underachieved that season, falling to lowly Holy Cross in the season finale.

Still, with Davis eligible to play, the 1959 season is full of hope for the Orangemen and with Davis leading the way, the Orange are propelled to an undefeated season despite encountering racial hatred and all sorts of abuse. Still, things could be worse for Ernie; he’s got a great friend in Jack “JB” Buckley, a big lineman with an easygoing sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a beautiful girlfriend in Cornell coed Sarah Ward (Beharie). When the team is sent to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on January 1, 1960 to play the second ranked Texas Longhorns for the national championship, one of the most memorable bowl games of all time would be the result, a game that would cement Davis’ reputation as one of the great college football players of all time and propel him to a destiny both glorious and tragic.

Director Gary Fleder pulls out all the emotional stops in this one, and given the facts of Davis’ life that’s not hard to do. What I don’t understand is why he and his writer Charles Leavitt felt constrained to exaggerate some of the facts of his story and flat out make up incidents that never happened, the most egregious example of which is a game at West Virginia in which, the filmmakers assert, bottles and other dangerous projectiles were thrown at the players (particularly the African-American ones) and set the scene for a dramatic confrontation between Davis and Schwartzwalder. Guys, I’m sure the same confrontation could have easily have been accomplished without maligning the good fans of West Virginia.

Rob Brown does a fine job at capturing the essence of Ernie Davis, who in life was most certainly a leader but led quietly. He was said to be unfailingly polite and kind with a gentle demeanor when he was off the football field. Brown captures that aspect of him, but gives him a core of steel that Davis undoubtedly had to possess in order to accomplish what he did, and showed the fierce competitive streak that players of that caliber must have in order to succeed.

Quaid does a solid job as Schwartzwalder, giving the crusty old ball coach a soft core but one ringed with steel. The unfortunate aspect is that while Schwartzwalder wasn’t a racist per se, he was a man of his times and it took some fortitude for him to unlearn behaviors that were ingrained into white America for decades.

I was a little concerned about the lighting which was sometimes a bit on the underlit side for my tastes, but that’s a minor quibble. While the era is captured with some success, I never really felt immersed in the era of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when this took place.

Still, I’m really glad that a film is finally being made of Davis’ life. He was the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman and would have undoubtedly had a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after being drafted and died at age 23, having never played a down in the NFL. His legacy, however, is unquestioned and his story should be told, and despite the historical gaffes, it’s told pretty well here.

WHY RENT THIS: A fair depiction of a pioneering athlete who has gone largely forgotten by history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the historical inaccuracies are completely egregious and are just as completely unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some depictions of racism with plenty of racial slurs (including the N-word) as well as other foul language. There’s also a bit of sensuality but overall, it is suitable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Penn State score is given as Syracuse 32, Penn State 6 but the actual score of the game was 20-18, one of the Orangemen’s toughest games in that undefeated season.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a wonderful retrospective on Davis that features interviews with Jim Brown and surviving members of his family and friends. On the Blu-Ray edition, there is a feature on the Syracuse championship season, with interviews with players and coaches both archival and contemporary and archival game footage from that season.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past