It’s been too long since a movie has come out of the gate as a plainspoken crowd-pleaser. (Especially after the pile-up in the past couple months of commercial and esthetic misfires from the studios.) But twenty-nine-year-0ld Ryan Coogler’s second feature (after the vivid, emotional tragedy of “Fruitvale Station”) brings it all home with “Creed,” the seventh movie featuring Sylvester Stallone as Philly palooka turned sentimental champ, Rocky Balboa. The first film was almost forty years ago, which means sixty-nine-year-old Stallone was just about Coogler’s age when John Avildsen directed “Rocky” in 1976. Playing the son of one of Rocky’s most memorable adversaries—the title tells the lineage from Apollo to Adonis—Michael B. Jordan surpasses the dignity of his down-to-earth role in “Fruitvale Station” with a go-for-broke range of emotions, dealing with ambition, talent, legacy, romance in all its written variations. Stallone? At his minimalist best as a man of the streets, shouldering years of quiet living: where has this fine actor been hiding these recent years? Read the rest of this entry »
Terror: give it a new name, call it “Meru.” Instead of don’t look in the basement, do… not… look… down… Speaking specifically as a male acrophobe, Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary is achingly beautiful, eye-widening and testicle-tautening. The two-trek telling follows three American climbers (including Chin, also co-cinematographer), in a second attempt to reach the as-then unconquered 21,000-foot pinnacle of the Shark’s Fin of Mount Meru above the headwaters of the Ganges River in India. Few have seen the vistas, the time-lapse perspectives are mesmerizing, and Jon Krakauer’s punchy, often prosaic commentary still manages to situate the compulsion and obsession of the deadly sport into larger contexts. Read the rest of this entry »
Faux-uplift sports movies are $144 a dozen, slipped-and-slid into multiplexes on far too many weekends: sports is sports, and depicting the rush of a play, the massed hysteria of a shared moment, is just as conceptually fraught as the depiction of live music performances. And all those poor underdogs of the world of mass-marketed movies! But when a movie attains its own heart and soul by watching that dream in motion—think “Hoop Dreams”—the result can be magical. The first glimpse I had of Maria Finitzo’s wondrous “In The Game,” about fifteen minutes of a 2014 cut, was a contained little knockout. (I was pleased to weep.) The feature, gentle, assured, compassionate, left me softly thunderstruck. For four years, Finitzo follows a girls’ soccer team at Brighton Park’s primarily Latino Kelly High School, with an eighty-six-percent poverty level and a $4 million budget cut during the course of her observation. Read the rest of this entry »
Doug Glatt is a pitiable dolt who goes from nondescript bar bouncer to minor league hockey goon. In the gleeful “Goon,” this simpleton makes an incremental step toward accepting his inadequacy. Seann William Scott (“American Pie,” “American Pie 2,” “American Reunion”) plays Doug, partly inspired by the Doug in the 2002 book “Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey.” The film “Goon” is a bracing comedy at his expense that makes no excuses. Read the rest of this entry »
Poop happens. In “Legendary,” an Oklahoma-set bullying/high-school wrestling tale, produced by wrestling conglomerate WWE Entertainment, veteran television director Mel Damski works the uplift. An opening voiceover by Danny Glover about Sooner exceptionalism accents his sibilant sonorousness, and the overemphasis sets the tone for the rest of the movie: It’s Karo syrup coming at you in gusts and quarts. (Glover is the wise older man who offers up knowledge down by the river.) A bullied, fishbelly-white teen milquetoast (Devon Graye) honors the memory of his long-dead father, a local wrestling legend, by becoming a pin-down prodigy. I’ve never witnessed terrible acting by Patricia Clarkson before; here, she’s less phoning it in than texting an SOS to her agent. Pitting wrestler John Cena against her skills, even with her barking performance, is cruelty beyond the call. Message: it’s no “Rudy.” 107m. (Ray Pride)
“Legendary” opens Friday at the Chatham and the Wilmette.
“What are you going to do with your life?” asks narrator Bill Murray at the opening of “Ballhawks,” a local-color documentary about a local pastime. Mike Diedrich directs and shoots a lustrous answer by portraying grown men with baseball gloves who gather on the streets outside Wrigley Field during Cubs games. He makes his sympathies clear in the understated, bittersweet score by Eric Sproull. Nicely designed graphics place on screen the key stats for each of the seven “ballhawks” who zealously chase balls that fly over the stadium wall. They fumble Diedrich’s softball questions about why. It’s “definitely a distraction from life itself,” admits Dave. Moe testifies: “It’s nothing that’s life-changing or anything, although it’s my life.” Diedrich never doubts them, not even the one, maybe math-impaired, who states he has “eight million things signed by Ernie Banks.” Another actually thinks he should get a lifetime pass to the bleachers by “donating” to their original owner 4,000 baseballs he caught: “I earned it, you know, with the things I’ve done at the park over the years.” Mike Leonard, an NBC Today Show feature correspondent, argues: “Anything with passion is heroic.” Batting practice or grand slam, an out-of-the-park Major League Baseball ball is like life. “Catch something. Hold on to something. And we’re all trying to hold on to something. I don’t think that’s crazy at all,” philosophizes the Winnetkan, who may not mean it when he says, “I hate to get all metaphysical. I think people who laugh at them [ballhawks] are crazy.” 74m. (Bill Stamets)
“Ballhawks”‘ Friday 8pm screening at Siskel is sold out; Diedrich and ballhawks will appear. Some tickets are left for screenings Friday 6pm, Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 5:30pm.
Todd Hickey and Kirk Ledger’s latter-day venture into direct cinema, “Takedowns and Falls,” documents the 2006-2007 season of the Central Dauphin Rams, a high-school wrestling team in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania hoping for a state championship. The filmmakers say the lineage of inspiration for their film includes “Vision Quest,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Hoop Dreams” and “Spellbound.” Their work holds interest even if it never attains the estimable heights of its documentary forebears: aficionados of the sport are likely to get more from the story than the average viewer. The earnestness of the students, their unspoiled hope, may be the most memorable element. Footage of landscapes and matches shot on 35mm film (along with digital video) is a strength rare in contemporary documentary. 122m. (Ray Pride)
“Takedowns and Falls” opens Friday at Facets. Hickey will appear at Friday-Saturday screenings as well as Sunday at 1:30pm and 4pm. A trailer is embedded below. Read the rest of this entry »
In 1957, the Monterrey Industrials crossed the border into the U.S. and won thirteen games in a row to emerge as Little League champs. For the past fifty years, as many as fifty pitches to make a film about the feat were vetoed by the team, claims screenwriter W. William Winokur. The team took a swing at his, however, and struck out. The first ten minutes of “The Perfect Game” contains an eye-rolling checklist of trite lines, shots and musical cues, even if the last ten minutes yanks happy tears of triumph with its functional cliches. It’s “an underdog story,” points out one of the twenty producers. Storylines include embittered Cesar (Clifton Collins, Jr.), the one-time towel-fetcher and jockstrap-washer fired by a Major League team who finds a new calling as coach of the kids. He shaves, stops drinking and gets sweet on a local señorita with a strict dad. Up north there’s a plucky gal who breaks into the sports beat to cover the story. And then there’s the embittered foundry worker who overcomes his grief for a dead son just in time to cheer his other son pitching the historic game in the title. As in a string of recent sports dramas, civil-rights issues test the mettle of athletes on the road. As a white Texas newspaper editor notes: “the wetbacks winning sells more papers.” Winokur and director William Dear (“Angels in the Outfield,” “Harry and the Hendersons”) take that business plan to heart. With Cheech Marin, Emilie De Ravin, Bruce McGill, Patricia Manterola and Louis Gosset, Jr. 118m. (Bill Stamets)
Already in production on a new thriller, Clint Eastwood, nearly 80, still impresses with the strength of his filmmaking acumen in the straightforward inspirational drama, “Invictus.” A classically fashioned crowdpleaser, it’s a tale of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), after his release from decades in South African prisons, hoped to start repairing the racial rift after the history of apartheid by encouraging a white rugby team in its mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Matt Damon plays the Afrikaner captain Mandela must convince. The drama is polite but the implications touching. There’s a stirring film to be made with such material, but it’s a marvel that “Invictus” even got financed and distributed through a major studio. Eastwood still has tricks up his sleeve. The climax, bringing sports-crazed fans of both races together, is a modest joy. South African screenwriter Anthony Peckham based his script on “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” by John Carlin. With Scott Eastwood, Robert Hobbs, Langley Kirkwood, Bonnie Henna, Grant Roberts, Patrick Holland. The title comes from an 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley, apparently much beloved by conservative essayists. 133m. Anamorphic 2.40 widescreen. (Ray Pride)
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Alamo,” “The Rookie”) writes an uplift drama based on “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” a 2006 book by Michael Lewis about Michael Oher’s rise from the mean streets of Memphis to a five-year, $13.8-million contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Quinton Aaron (“Q” from “Be Kind Rewind”) plays this giant teen as sweet and shutdown. He’s a rescue by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, respectively). This well-off couple brings him home, after seeing him walking along a rainy road one night. “Big Mike” goes to the same private Christian school as their daughter. A one-night stay on the couch leads to legal guardianship, better grades, football glory and courtship by college coaches. “The Blind Side” portrays the Touhys as a personable family, except for the obnoxious son played by Jae Head. Bullock appeals as another plucky can-do gal. “The Blind Side” comes soon after the release of “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” another account of an African-American adolescent overcoming heartbreaking obstacles. Oher’s story is measurably lighter. Lewis wrote that Oher scored in the ninetieth percentile for “protective instincts.” Hancock increases this to the ninety-eighth. (Who knew the Memphis school system ranked kids by their instincts?) This may explain his stats as a left tackle, thanks to Leigh Anne coaching him that his team is like his new family. The cringe factor is less than you’d expect, although the gradually more graphic flashbacks to Oher’s childhood trauma are cliched. Hancock congratulates the Touhys for their charity and does not get sacked for it. With Lily Collins, Kathy Bates, Ray McKinnon, Adriane Lenox and eight coaches as themselves. 126m. (Bill Stamets)