Legendary (2010)


John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

John Cena puts a sleeper hold on the movie.

(2010) Sports Drama (Goldwyn/WWE) Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover, Madeleine Martin, John Posey, Tyler Posey, Teo Olivares, Kareem Grimes, Christopher Alan Weaver, Robert Bryan, Angelena Swords, Yvonne Misiak, Lara Grace, Patrick Cox, Dennen D. Tyler, Vince Antoine, Andrew Sensenig, Ritchie Montgomery, J.D. Evermore, Courtney J. Clark. Directed by Mel Damski

Sometimes you can’t escape the shadow of your older siblings and parents. Sometimes, you don’t want to. Sometimes, you even need to embrace it.

Cal Chetley (Graye) has an imposing legacy; both his dad and his older brother Mike (Cena) were high school wrestling state champions which is a big deal in Oklahoma. However, his dad passed away ten years ago which his mom Sharon (Clarkson) partially blames on wrestling. Mike has just been released from prison, having made a series of really bad choices.

But Cal, who is somewhat scrawny and bookish, has been bullied mercilessly and thinks joining the wrestling team will give him the skills and self-confidence to deal with those who are tormenting him. His mom is horrified at the idea; even his brother, who is meeting with Cal in secret, isn’t real keen on the idea but reluctantly agrees to give him some private training.

To an extent, the idea works. Cal is able to fend off the bullies and even manages to attract a somewhat goofy girlfriend (Martin) and even impress the coach (J. Posey) to a certain extent. But when Mike’s past catches up to him, will Cal be able to win the state championship and in so doing become legendary?

This came out at a time when World Wrestling Entertainment, the pre-eminent professional wrestling brand, was attempting to market their superstars in movies, following the success of Dwayne Johnson. Cena, a square-jawed all-American sort, was thought to have the charisma and acting chops to pull it off but while he does have a certain amount of magnetism, he didn’t quite have the acting chops to make it past B-movie star status. Films like this one didn’t help his cause.

This is a movie whose heart was in the right place, but that was about all. Clarkson, a previous Oscar nominee, is one of those actresses who never seems to give a bad performance but never really gets credit for being one of the finest actresses working today, which she is. While this is ostensibly about Cal, this is Clarkson’s film; she dominates it. Cena, who was also ostensibly being pushed as a serious actor, is oddly relegated to a supporting role. Maybe the strategy was to bring him along slowly, but it feels like he’s kind of the odd man out here. Glover appears in a kind of “Old Man and the Sea” cameo whose connection to the Chetley family is explained later but feels like a part that was written in hastily at the last minute because a producer said “Hey, we can get Danny Glover; write in a part for him.”

The issue here is that the movie follows the cliches of an underdog sports drama to a “T” and really offers nothing new to the genre. While it’s supposed to be loosely based on a true story, the film feels remarkably manufactures. Other than Clarkson, there’s not a genuine emotion generated here. Even the soundtrack is an autopilot, utilizing a hard rock score during wrestling scenes, and maudlin piano and strings during the more emotional scenes. While Clarkson is an under-appreciated treasure who saves the movie from being unwatchable, this is a movie that justifiably can be said is only legendary in the bargain DVD bin.

WHY RENT THIS: Patricia Clarkson carries the film.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable and cliché plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of wrestling violence, brief nudity and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was released on home video a mere 18 days after it began its limited theatrical release run; at the time that was the shortest span between the two for any film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A blooper reel, a behind the scenes look at Cena recording one of the songs that appear in the film, a fashion photo gallery, a look at the wrestling training that went on for the young actors and a profile of the father and son actors John and Tyler Posey.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $200,393 on a $5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eddie the Eagle
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny

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Foxcatcher


Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller

The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.

It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling.  A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.

Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.

Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?

This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.

There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.

What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”

More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.

Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.

Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game

Win Win


Win Win

This could be a poster for the generational gap

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, David Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins. Directed by Thomas McCarthy

 

We sometimes find ourselves at an ethical crossroads and find ourselves pushing the line out a little bit in order to make things work. Those kinds of boundary pushing have consequences, albeit sometimes unintended ones.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a genuinely good man who is enduring an especially rough patch. His elder law practice is crashing and burning and the financial fall-out from that is severe, leading to anxiety attacks while out jogging with his best friend Terry Delfino (Cannavale). Mike is the coach of the local high school wrestling team and a more woeful bunch of athletes you are unlikely to meet; their season is going down in flames and although Mike is a decent coach, the writing is most definitely on the wall. Of course, his assistants are Delfino and Stephen Vigman (Tambor) who is a CPA who shares the dilapidated office building with Mike which should tell you something about his good-guy-making-bad-decisions persona.

Mike is representing Leo Poplar (Young), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The state wants to put him in a care facility but Leo wants to stay home. Mike discovers that Leo’s living will allows for a guardian in the event that Leo becomes unable to make decisions on his own and that the guardianship will pay $1500 a month to cover expenses. Mike petitions the judge (Wilkins) to allow him to be Leo’s guardian since they’ve been unable to locate Leo’s daughter. The judge allows this and Mike then turns Leo over to the facility anyway so he can pocket the expense money which will keep him somewhat solvent.

Then Kyle (Shaffer) shows up. Kyle is Leo’s grandson and came to town hoping Leo could put him up. Mike, feeling a little guilty, takes Kyle in which Mike’s wife Jackie (Ryan) whole-heartedly supports. It turns out that Kyle’s mom, Leo’s daughter Cindy (Lynskey) is in rehab, a drug addict who has been an unreliable caregiver. This sets Jackie’s dander up, but what floats Mike’s boat is that Kyle is also an Ohio wrestling state champion. Mike arranges for Kyle to be enrolled in his high school and adds Kyle to his team, instantly turning the program around. Seems to be a win-win situation for everyone, right?

Wrong. Cindy shows up and she wants to take Kyle back to Ohio. Worse still, she wants guardianship of her father, not so much the responsibility (which she would be unlikely to be able to handle anyway) but the money that goes with it. Of course this turns everything upside-down; Kyle is happy being part of a stable family and he mistrusts and despises his mother but he also wants Leo out of the facility and back in his home where he belongs. Mike’s web is quickly unraveling.

McCarthy has previously directed The Station Agent and The Visitor which are both very fine films, and you can add this to his filmography of movies that will stay with you long after the final credits roll. The characters aren’t indie film archetypes who appear in movie after movie; they are people with their own unique set of characteristics and who behave realistically in realistic situations. Most of us will relate to Mike’s financial predicament because most of us have been there or are there now.

Giamatti is one of those actors who almost always gives a terrific performance and along with his work in Barney’s Version of late seems to be at the top of his game, impressive at every turn. He’s become one of my favorite actors, one who can get my butt into a theater seat just because he’s in the movie. He makes Mike not just an everyman, but a believable one; a basically decent man pushed to the wall to make decisions that aren’t necessarily good ones but expedient ones. I think we all have done that at least once in our lives.

Ryan is also wonderful, playing Jackie as equally good-hearted and supportive but strong – she takes no crap but at the same time her heart goes out to a boy who has had a rough go. She’s like a she-bear whose cubs are threatened when her family – which includes Kyle – is threatened and why Mike leaves her in the dark about what’s really going on is understandable in that he wants to spare her the anxiety he is feeling, but also not in that his wife would be a solid rock. Ryan makes you wish you had a wife like her if you don’t have one, and if you do have one, count your blessings.

Shaffer has been receiving a lot of attention with his performance and for good reason. He is a natural and has great screen presence. You’d never know this was his first feature film, so natural is he before the camera. Like any first-timer there are some rough patches but this kid has some amazing potential and if he chooses to go this road, he certainly is going to be someone to keep an eye on.

The ending was a bit sitcom-ish for my tastes but that’s really one of the few bumps in the road that this movie takes us on. There are some wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Tambor, Young and Cannavale as well as Lynskey who has a pretty thankless role but does it well.

McCarthy is developing an impressive library of movies with his name on them and is a director that is rapidly becoming one who I’ll go out of my way to see sight unseen. He certainly has made another film here that is one of those quiet gems that you don’t hear much about but turns out to be well worth checking out. This is one worth finding at your local video or streaming emporium.

WHY RENT THIS: Giamatti and Ryan are terrific with some good support performances. A sweet film that doesn’t sugarcoat the hard choices. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit formulaic in the ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language gets pretty rough in places and there are some allusions to drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Shaffer’s feature film debut; he was a New Jersey State wrestling champion in 2010 as a sophomore in high school but his wrestling career came to a close when he broke an L-5 vertebra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD edition has a music video from The National for their closing credits song “Think You Can Wait.” The Blu-Ray edition adds a Sundance tour by actor David Thompson and a brief interview of McCarthy and Giamatti, also from Sundance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.8M on an unreported production budget; it is likely that the movie made a good chunk of change relatively speaking.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer