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

Leatherheads


Even in 1925, "hi, mom" was a thing.

Even in 1925, “hi, mom” was a thing.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Root, Jack Thompson, Max Casella, Wayne Duvall, Keith Loneker, Malcolm Goodwin, Matt Bushell, Tommy Hinkley, Tim Griffin, Robert Baker, Nick Paonessa, Randy Newman, Grant Heslov, Mike O’Malley, Heather Goldenhersh. Directed by George Clooney

The NFL is the most powerful sports league in the United States. The championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events on planet Earth. The league makes billions in advertising and sponsorship revenue, broadcasting rights fees, game attendance and merchandising. Millions follow their teams week after week during the fall. But it wasn’t always that way.

Carter Rutherford (Krasinski) is on the top of the world. The star football player for the Princeton Tigers football team, he is matinee idol handsome, a war hero, admired by millions and blessed with a bright future ahead of him. Pro football? C’mon, it’s 1925! Pro football is for miners, farmers and lumberjacks, the pay is ridiculously low, there are no rules to speak of and the crowds are ghastly.

Dodge Connelly (Clooney) is at rock bottom. The star player for the Duluth Bulldogs pro football team is trying to hold together his club by the skin of his teeth. They have to forfeit a football game because the game ball – the only one the team has – is stolen. As much as he loves the game, Connelly knows the future is bleak. He’s no longer a young man, he has almost no skills to speak of and football is all he knows. To make matters worse, the Bulldogs main sponsor is pulling out, and the team is about to fold.

Lexie Littleton (Zellweger) is on the ladder to success. A brassy dame hustling, scratching and clawing to make her way as a reporter in a man’s world, she’s given a plum assignment by her editor (Thompson); a lieutenant (Casella) in Rutherford’s unit has stepped forward, claiming that his war record is false. Littleton is to get the confidence of Rutherford, build him up with a series of puff pieces and then when she gets the dirt, print the exclusive. If she does it, there’s an editorial position for her.

Connelly hits upon the bright idea of enticing Rutherford into pro football. In order to do it, he’s going to have to fast talk Rutherford’s agent/publicist CC Frazier (Pryce) into even considering pro football. When Dodge brashly guarantees ten grand per game, Frazier and Rutherford (mostly Rutherford who loves the game and wants to play past his college years) agree to join the Bulldogs. Littleton, smelling a fish story, decides to tag along.

At first, it looks like the most brilliant idea ever. Huge crowds show up to see the college star – even at Bulldog practices. The players begin to work harder to get into shape and Rutherford suggests some “effective” plays he used at Princeton. Of course, being a natural athlete better than most of the people playing the game doesn’t hurt and the Bulldogs begin to win. Connelly does his part by playing up the new guy and making sure he’s the one to score the touchdowns and that Rutherford gets all the glory. Dodge is far more interested in getting the girl, but when she discovers the truth, everything is at risk.

A nice period piece that captures the very early days of professional football nicely although I’m sure the NFL would take issue with some of the more, ahem, sordid aspects of the Duluth Bulldogs. Krasinski does some fine work as the ultra-preppy Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford. He was still best known for his work in The Office at the time (which was still on the air) and launches his film career with a completely different character than his Office work and does a great job in the process.

Clooney does his usual solid job; he seems to have an affinity for period pieces (O Brother Where Art Thou, Goodnight and Good Luck) and he plays a wise-cracking, hard-nosed Leatherhead well. Zellweger seems born to play the brassy, sassy dame with more than a little moxie. She looks right for the flapper era, and gets the cadences right.

Clooney captures the period nicely, with speakeasies and swell hotels. While the football sequences are mostly played for laughs rather than for any kind of authenticity, they are at least staged in an entertaining manner. Randy Newman’s score is reminiscent of his work in Ragtime and Parenthood; look for his cameo in one of the bar scenes.

I’m not sure whether Clooney intended an homage to screwball comedies or to actually make one; either way, it’s a bit light on jokes to match up to the better examples of the genre. The chemistry between Zellweger and Clooney isn’t as convincing as it could be.

Leatherheads is flawed, but generally entertaining. They try for the kind of screwball comedy that made things like His Girl Friday, Sullivan’s Travels and Adam’s Rib, but don’t quite get there. With a better script and better chemistry between the leads, this could have been a memorable movie, but it’s still worthwhile on several fronts – just not really anything you’d want to sing the praises of too loudly. Definitely worth the rental at least if you don’t have anything particularly pressing that you’d like to see. It’s not a complete waste of your time and money at least.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice era re-creation. Clooney and Krasinski do fine jobs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fails at being a true screwball comedy. Chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger not quite there.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Due to a dispute with the Writer’s Guild of America over credit on the script, George Clooney removed himself as a voting member of the Guild.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Infamous prankster Clooney is shown playing some memorable pranks on his unsuspecting cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $41.3M on a $58M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eight Men Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Minions

Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice