Posted on April 25, 2024 at 5:07 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content, language throughout, and graphic nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Character is injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 26, 2024

“Challengers” is about a love triangle set in the world of professional tennis. We follow the configurations of the various romantic and sexual encounters like we follow the ball being hurled over the net left to right, right to left. It is beautiful to watch, with cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, but more perfume commercial than story. The characters have almost no complexity, increased understanding, or consequences.

Zendaya, who also produced the film, plays Tashi, a young superstar turned coach after a knee injury. Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, Riff in Spielberg’s “West Side Story”) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, young Prince Charles in “The Crown”) are best friends, doubles partners, and tennis boarding school roommates. All three are, even by movie star standards, impossibly gorgeous and erotically compelling. In their world, all that matters is using their physicality in the strongest, most competitive manner. This is the film that should be called “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.”

As in his earlier films, like “Call Me By Your Name” and “Bones and All,” director Luca Guadagnino makes “Challengers” intensely charged with sensual pleasures and, in their more extreme form, obsessions. Unlike “Bones and All,” these characters are not literal cannibals. Only spiritual, metaphorical cannibals.

“I love you,” Art tells Tashi. “I know,” she answers. And not in an endearing Han Solo way. Early on in the film (but late in the timeline), we see her marking up a proposed ad featuring her and Art as coach and tennis champion, wife and husband. The text says “Game Changer.” She adds an s, giving herself equal prominence. In a later scene, a flashback set when Art and Tashi are in college and she and Patrick are in a relationship, she gives him feedback about his tennis game during foreplay. The sex never happens, though, because he does not want her to coach him. “I’m a peer,” he insists before they part in a fury. What he cannot seem to understand is that intensely competitive tennis is all she is.

Challengers trailer

The story takes us back and forth in time, and you have to watch the characters’ hair to remind yourself whether they are teenagers, college students, or in their early 30s, and who is sleeping with who. Note the A to Z in the male characters’ names, and their nickname during their doubles years, Fire and Ice, amplifying their opposition and connection. The three characters are like charged ions, pulled toward each other, unable to touch or to break away.

Parents should know that this is a very explicit and erotically charged film, with non-sexual male nudity (steam room, locker room), very strong language, smoking, and drinking.

Family discussion: How would the story have been different if Tashi had not been injured? Do you think she will try to make her daughter into a tennis star?

If you like this, try: “Personal Best” and “Malcolm and Marie”

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The Beautiful Game

Posted on March 28, 2024 at 12:56 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language, a suggestive reference, brief partial nudity and drug references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to drug abuse, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to tragic violence
Diversity Issues: Class issues

“We sat up late into the night talking about how we could change the world.” That was the origin of the Homeless World Cup. Mel Young and Harald Schmied attended an international meeting of editors, founders, and directors of street newspapers, staffed by people who were unhoused. They wanted to create an opportunity for other unhoused people to have the same opportunity to attend an international event devoted to showing their best. What could unite the world more than a Homeless World Cup of “the beautiful game” of football, the “universal language,” except, of course, when the US insists on calling it soccer.

So this is a based-on-a-true-story underdog sports team story, with touching lessons about teamwork and sportsmanship. It has extra resonance because it shows us unhoused people are individuals, and without being preachy, the film reminds us that some people in that category are damaged, have mental illness or addiction issues. Some made bad choices and some just had very bad luck. Some have just been away from regular human interaction for so long they have forgotten the basics. But with a goal and team, they have purpose. “The miracle is respect,” one of the game’s organizers says.

This film has a ton of heart, lively sports action, beautiful scenery, and the true MVP every time we see him, Bill Nighy as Mal, the coach of the English team.

Mal sees Vinny (Micheal Ward, a standout in “Empire of Light”) playing with a soccer ball in a park and offers him a chance to go to the Homeless World Cup in Rome as a part of the England team. Vinny insists that he is not homeless and is insulted for being thought to be. But the chance to play, to have something to be proud of to share with his young daughter, is too much to resist, and he finds himself on a plane with Mal and the rest of the team. The other players include Nathan (Callum Scott Howells), Aldar (Robin Nazari), and Cal (Kit Young). As we might expect, we learn something about the backstories of the team and the players learn something about teams. In this case, since the rules of the Homeless World Cup allow members of one country’s team to substitute on another, the team is soccer in the largest sense and the entire unhoused community.

It is touching to see the team checking into the modest hotel and seeing it as luxurious. “Is it okay to use the shower?” one asks, almost unable to believe. The fierce commitment of the players is touching, too, but not as touching as one team’s reminding their coach that for them, winning means being a part of something and seeing the beauty of The Eternal City. The small audience in the bleachers is almost superfluous. The players are the fans, bringing as much enthusiasm as a cheering crowd filling an arena.

The idea of “winning,” like the idea of “team” is constantly enlarged. The beats of the story are specific and meaningful. The members of the team may not have a place to live but the team is their home. Don’t let Neflix cut off the credits, as the scenes of the real Homeless World Cup participants are wonderful.

“A dash of panache, please.” “True champions show their worth in defeat” “Everyone has a reason for being here.” the name of that miracle is respect Not homeless England is their home. priests in cassocks playing with s soccer ball, scenery

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, brief non-sexual rear nudity, and references to drug addiction, gambling addiction, and child neglect.

Family discussion: What made Vinny change his mind about the team? About acknowledging that he was homeless? Why does the World Cup mean so much to the players?

If you like this, try: “Greenfingers” and the documentary, “Kicking It.”

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Football Without the Boring Parts — Great Football Movies

Posted on February 5, 2024 at 10:45 pm

Get ready for the Super Bowl with some of my favorite football movies:

Burt Reynolds, who played college football, stars in The Longest Yard as former pro player who puts together a team in prison. (Ignore the Adam Sandler remake, please.)

North Dallas Forty is a darkly comic look at the game with Nick Nolte as an aging player who clashes with the coach.

Remember the Titans is inspired by the true story of the first integrated team at a Virginia high school, with Denzel Washington as Coach Boone. You will cry, I promise.

(Did you catch Ryan Gosling and Hayden Panitierre?). Here Washington and the real Coach Boone talk about the role.

Al Pacino and Cameron Diaz star in Any Given Sunday.

There’s more Ryan Gosling in this little-seen football movie gem, The Slaughter Rule:

Chicago is my home town, so I have a soft spot for Brian’s Song, one of the cryingist movies of all time, the true story of Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, with Billy Dee Williams and James Caan.

Why not have a mule as your kicker? Try Gus and see.

Or you could try The Game Plan, featuring real-life former college football player Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson in a more family-friendly story about a selfish quarterback who discovers he has a ballet-loving daughter:

I’m a big fan of the silly but fun Keanu Reeves movie, The Replacements, with Gene Hackman as the coach, a kind of Dirty Dozen of football. Catch “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau on the team.

You can see Favreau in another crying football movie based on a true story, Rudy.

The Express is the true story of the first Black winner of the Heisman trophy, Ernie Davis.

Draft Day has Kevin Costner as a GM whose most important strategic decisions are about the draft.

Or watch them all at once!

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The Underdoggs

Posted on January 25, 2024 at 8:50 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, sexual references, drug use, and some underage drinking
Profanity: Constant very strong and vulgar language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana and alcohol, including children getting drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie

Normally, seeing kids use bad language does not make me laugh, not because I am offended but because it is just lazy. So I’m not proud of it, but I admit that “The Underdogs” made me laugh, not because kids use four-letter words or because star and producer Snoop Dogg does, but because it was about more than the shock value. No one will ever call Snoop an actor –he can barely focus on playing a character designed to be as much like his off-camera persona as possible — but he is an able performer and this basic underdog story benefits from being so evidently dear to his heart. We learn from end credits sequence that Snoop created a real-life football program for kids. And we learn from the pre-movie warning that the movie has strong language “that may not be suitable for children” and then goes on to say, in very colorful terms, to disregard that because kids who are not supposed to be watching this….stuff… curse more than the rest of us…..explitives. Those two bookends set the scene.

Snoop plays Jaycen, known as Two Js, a selfish and arrogant former star football player who now spends his days rattling around his gigantic mansion, smoking weed, and getting into trouble. A judge (Kandi Burruss) offers him community service coaching a kids’ football team and he refuses. He does not want anything to do with kid or, really anyone else. So he is given clean-up duty instead, with an orange vest and a pole for picking up dog poop.

And who should be at that location but a scrappy little team of, say it with me, underdogs. And, what a coincidence, who should be the mother of one of those kids but Jaycen’s high school girlfriend, Cherise (the always-appealing Tika Sumpter). She gives Jaycen something the judge did not, a reason to at least pretend to be someone who cares about something other than himself. It is still pretending, of course, but we all know where this is going, as do the characters, who have all seen “The Mighty Ducks” and probably countless other movies about scrappy underdog sports teams with reluctant coaches who grudgingly realize they want to to be the person the team needs them to be.

Trailer for The UnderDoggs

It’s no one’s idea of a classic, or even of being what you might call “good,” but it is an easy watch that stays out of its own way. Mike Epps shows up as Jaycen’s old friend, Kareem, a hustler and sometime carjacker, who moves in and talks his way into a spot as assistant coach. The kids on the team are the basic Smurf-types, each one getting one attribute — quiet, mouthy, butterfingers, etc. Snoop has good chemistry with the kids, though, and they are tougher than he is, which helps keep things moving. George Lopez shows up as Jaycen’s high school coach, reminding us of the difference it can make in a child’s life to have an adult who cares.

The film meanders back and forth between the kids’ underdog team formula and occasional meta-commentary on the classic tropes of the genre, but either way it is enjoying itself so much it is impossible not to go with it.

Parents should know that this movie is raunchy and vulgar. Characters, including children, use constant strong and graphic language with many insults. A child character’s nickname is a coarse word for a female body part. Characters smoke weed and drink and children get drunk and throw up. There is some potty humor. A character is careless with a gun but no one gets hurt.

Family discussion: What made Double J decide to take coaching seriously? What makes a good coach? Is it true that we want to see successful people fail?

If you like this, try: “The Mighty Ducks” and “The Bad News Bears”

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Next Goal Wins

Posted on November 9, 2023 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and crude material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to very sad death of a child, comic vehicular injury
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2023

Copyright 2023 Searchlight
Two coaches are fired for dismal performance at the beginning of “Next Goal Wins,” the fact-based story of the worst professional soccer team in the world, based on the 2014 documentary of the same name. The team that not only never won a game but never scored a goal is on the tiny US territory of American Samoa. Still smarting after the worst defeat in the history of international soccer, 31-nil against Australia, Tavita (Oscar Knightley) reluctantly fires the team’s gentle coach, and announces he is bringing in someone from the outside world.

Meanwhile, in one of the funniest scenes of the year, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is also being fired. To make it even more painful, the message is coming from the sport’s supervising panel, which includes his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Elisabeth Moss as Gail) and her new boyfriend (Will Arnett as Alex). They are not unsympathetic, but Tom’s performance and that of the team he coaches have deteriorated badly and they think he needs a chance of scene. There’s hardly a bigger change than a team in a tiny island on the other side of the world. Without any alternative, he goes, bringing a suitcase full of alcohol with him.

Taika Waititi, who co-wrote and directed the film and appears briefly as a minister, benefits from one of the most enduringly popular of all genres, the fact-based underdog team combined with the redemption arc for the coach story — think of “The Bad News Bears” or “A League of Our Own.” He is very aware of the minefield that is impossible to avoid in a story of people of color whose job in these stories is usually to be cute and a little bit simple and to be both enlightened by the more sophisticated, if troubled, white coach and to enlighten him as well with their folk wisdom. Waititi, who grew up in New Zealand with a white, Jewish mother and a Maori father, has a delicate touch, and calls out the issue explicitly a couple of times to let us know that these characters and this film may be whimsical, almost a fairy tale, but these are real people who are very aware of these tropes not just in stories, but in their lives. They even joke about not wanting Tom to be a white savior and about pretending to share mystical native wisdom to inspire him. There is gentle humor about the Samoans, but not at their expense. We do not get to know too many of the players, but Tavita and his wife Ruth, played by the wonderful Rachel House, have significant roles.

Waititi’s character almost winks at us as he introduces the film, telling us it is a true story “with a couple of embellishments.” But the parts you might guess are made up really did happen. One of the team’s star players was Jaiyah Saelua, a trans woman in our terms, but in Samoan culture a part of a third gender called fa’afafine that is not only accepted but cherished. In real life, Tom was supportive of Jaiyah without any hesitation, but the film adds some tension by giving Tom some trouble accepting Jaiyah (a heartfelt performance by non-binary actor Kaimana). And the basics of the story really happened, including the ignominious Australia game and how meaningful the experience was for Tom and the Team.

It is warm-hearted and endearing. It has the same appealingly modest tone that the team does; it just wants to have fun and score one goal.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drinking, a very sad off-screen death, a vehicular injury played for comedy, and some discussion of being uncomfortable around non-binary and trans people (note, in real life, as you can see in the documentary, Rongen was unhesitating and unequivocal in his support for the trans player).

Family discussion: Have you ever had a coach who made a difference in your life? What would you do if you were asked to coach this team?

If you like this, try; “A League of Their Own,” “The Damned United,” and “Ted Lasso”

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