American Underdog

Posted on December 18, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to child abuse and injury, tragic death of parents, family conflicts
Diversity Issues: Disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021

Anna Paquin as Brenda Warner and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Photo Credit: Michael Kubeisy
Kurt Warner dreamed big. He tells us that from the time he was a young boy watching Joe Montana on television, he wanted to be an MVP quarterback in a team that won the Super Bowl. Perhaps as much of a long shot, when he was in college he fell in love with Brenda, a divorced mother of two children, one disabled, and decided he was going to make a life and a family with her. Sometimes life is even cornier than the movies, and then they go ahead and make a movie about it anyway.

If there was ever a story to show that the difference between winners and quitters is that winners keep going just one day longer, it is the story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who was not even drafted into the NFL after college. Even after the only job he could get was stocking the shelves of a big box store, he did not give up on his dream. He did become a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, and he did make a life with Brenda. And now he and Brenda have produced this movie about what happens when you don’t give up.

Okay, so it is corny, but sometimes corny is fine. So, yes, there will be a rousing locker-room pep talk (though perhaps not from the person you might guess), and yes, people will say things like, “If this is your dream, you have to fight for it,” and “By all accounts, my dream, my story, is impossible,” and “It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have someone to share it with.” Of course they will, because those things are true. It helps a lot when the talents in front of the camera are MVPs, too, “Shazam’s” Zachary Levi as Kurt and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin as Brenda, with a fourth quarter appearance by Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, who had his own roundabout career path and thus was especially understanding. Levi is an immediately likable presence and he makes Kurt’s dream aspirational, not arrogant or selfish. Paquin brings strength and vulnerability to Brenda, showing us her fear of opening up her heart after a painful divorce and the essential support she gets from her faith in God. They keep us rooting for Kurt because it is clear his dream is based on giving the best of what he has. With any luck, this movie will do for some in the audience what Joe Montana did for Kurt, and inspire another generation to dream big and refuse to quit.

Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language, references to child abuse, and tragic deaths of parents.

Family discussion: What makes sports stories so inspiring? Why did Kurt join the Arena league and what did he learn there? What did Brenda learn from Kurt’s response to Zach? What is your most impossible dream?

If you like this, try: “The Engine” and “Rudy”

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King Richard

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including a drive-by shooting and assaults
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
The first thing you need to know about “King Richard” is that it was produced by three of the daughters of the title character, Richard Williams, and it is an unabashed love letter to their father. And two of those daughters are tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Richard Williams has been a controversial character. Unconventional does not begin to cover his approach to his daughters’ careers in tennis and the royal appellation was not intended as a compliment. But no one can argue with the results of the 78-page plan he famously prepared, with step one having two more children so he could start from the beginning. “King Richard” is the story of the Williams sisters’ early years, first when they are little girls in Compton, California and then a few years later when they are being coached at a large facility in Palm Beach, Florida, ending as Venus competes at age 14 in her first professional tournament.

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, and as he did in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” playing another real-life devoted and determined father, he gives a complex, layered performance. He makes it clear that Richard’s determination is as much the result of trauma as of ambition, as much the result of frustration and resentment over the opportunities he did not have as of his commitment to making sure his daughters had opportunities, especially opportunities no one else thinks are possible.

Actors, like tennis doubles partners, need to be a team, and Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams matches Smith at every turn, just as Oracene was a full partner in parenting and coaching their daughters. Their scenes together show us a deep and sometimes difficult connection, whether she is comforting him as she treats his wounds or confronting him about his failings.

We have all seen a lot of biopics, and they don’t make movies about real-life characters unless they did something big and important. And that is why those films always have some scene where the main character is either being pushed to succeed and another where he or she is being tearfully accused of neglecting an important relationship. This film is unusual because the girls, including their three older sisters (one of whom, Isha Price, also served as a producer of the film) never complain about the training and practices, even in the pouring rain. Richard is supporting them as much as he is leading them. The scenes of the family together, in their tiny Compton home or riding in the family van, are — the only word that applies is joyful. Richard and Oracene are dedicated to excellence in school and in tennis but it is clear that what matters most to them is giving their girls good values and the skills and confidence to achieve whatever they want.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the younger Venus and Serena, and there are solid supporting performances from everyone else in the cast including the young girls who play the other Williams sisters and the older girls who play Venus and Serena in the later part of the film. Tony Goldwyn as the taciturn Paul Cohen, a coach who agrees to take on Venus but not her younger sister, and Jon Bernthal as the more excitable Rick Macci, who brings the whole family to his training compound and puts Richard on the payroll for a percentage of the girls’ future earnings.

Smith says that seeing the video of Richard Williams protecting then-14-year-old Venus from an intrusive reporter — and the look of pride and relief on her face, the confidence that he would always have her back — had an enormous impact on his notion of what it means to be a parent. It inspired him to be both a protector and a supporter of his children’s ambitions.

Smith does not go for the easy win here. He tones down his endless charm and screen charisma and tendency to charm to let Richard shine through. In his sensitive performance, we see that Richard is damaged and vulnerable. He knows he is dealing with people who are unimaginably more powerful than he is and that they will find his manner and appearance discomfiting. These are people who like being comfortable. He knows he does not have the luxury of getting angry when they open doors he knows his daughters deserve to go through. He is insistent, not confrontational, and always polite, though he knows that holding back is demeaning and unfair. “You’re wrong but I won’t hold that against you,” he smiles, and it is a Richard smile, not a Smith megawatt grin.

Like all champions, he keeps his eye on the ball and he leads with his strengths. He did something even more important and even more difficult than raising “two Mozarts” — he raised daughters who love him enough to want the world to see him the way they do.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drug references and alcohol, sexual references that are crude and predatory, and some violence, with assaults and a drive-by shooting, and some family conflict.

Family discussion: Would you want to be part of this family? What would be in your 78-page plan?

If you like this, try: “Venus and Serena,” an excellent documentary

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12 Mighty Orphans

Posted on June 15, 2021 at 8:13 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references, brief teen drinking, smoking, language, and violence
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to alcoholic parent, alcoholic character, teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: WWI battle flashbacks and reference to sad deaths, brutal corporal punishment, beatings, injuries, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright 2021 Sony Pictures Classics
In the Texas dust bowl of the Depression era, the most under- of underdog football teams captured the hearts of people across the state, across the country, and even one fan in the White House. For them, the team of teenagers from a Fort Worth orphanage was a symbol of hope and courage. Oh, and along the way, they came up with an innovation that transformed the game of football.

Director/co-screenwriter Ty Roberts follows his previous two Texas-based films, “This Side of the Dirt” and “The Iron Orchard” with “12 Mighty Orphans,” based on a fact-based novel by Jim Dent.

Teachers Rusty Russell (a subdued but solid Luke Wilson) and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) arrive at the Masonic Home and School for orphans. They are committed and admittedly optimistic about giving the residents hope, opportunity, and a sense of belonging. That includes setting up a football team, even though the boys are smaller than the other players in the league, have no practice field or equipment, and literally have never held a football before. As we learn in brief flashbacks over the course of the film, Rusty is suffering from PTSD due to his experiences in WWI, including the death of the brother he promised to protect.

At he Masonic Home, there is a kind-hearted doctor with an alcohol dependency (Martin Sheen) and a brutal, angry man named Frank (Wayne Knight), who sees the boys only as free labor for his print shop. Frank beats the boys for the slightest infraction and considers every moment away from the shop for school or football, as stealing from him. He, by the way, is stealing from them, skimming money from the shop.

Rusty and Doc start working with the boys. And the boys start winning games. When the other teams find they cannot beat them on the field, some of them start trying to beat them in other ways. Rusty has to make up for the smaller size of his players with a new strategy called the spread defense that would change the game of football at the most fundamental level.

Cinematographer David McFarland uses muted tones to evoke the era, a nod to the sepia images we associate with the era but also providing a context of dust, depression, and deprivation. Even though there are moments of intense emotion and struggle, Roberts maintains a quiet, deliberate tone that adds dignity to the storytelling, though it slows sections of the film, particularly when characters and incidents and issues start to pile up in a distracting manner. Sheen gives some wry sweetness to a thinly conceived role that balances Wilson’s subtle decency. The real triumph of the story is not in the goals scored but in the way that dedication, attention, and a good example can transform not just those who are inspired directly, but those who see in them possibilities not previously imagined.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, crude sexual references, alcohol abuse, scenes of combat, and injuries with some graphic images.

Family discussion: Why did Rusty think football was so important for the boys? How do we treat parentless children differently now?

If you like this, try: “Remember the Titans” and the book that inspired this film.

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Dream Horse

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in pub, alcoholic portrayed as cute and funny
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent, off-screen serious injury of a horse
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2020 Bleeker Street
Dream Horse” is a fact-based underdog, or maybe under-horse story about an improbable equine champion. But the real thoroughbred in the movie is the endlessly talented Toni Collette, who plays Jan Vokes, a cashier at a big box store in Wales, who dreams of breeding a racehorse. This is a solidly constructed feel good movie, with performances and details that make it better than it needs to be.

Even those who do not know the story and have not seen the popular documentary, “Dark Horse,” about the real story, have a pretty good idea of where this is going. There will be an impossible dream, some early signs of success, setbacks, struggles, and a triumphant conclusion, with glimpses of the real people (and horse) in the final credits. Those credits, by the way, are one of the film’s highlights; don’t miss them, as the actors and the Welsh villagers they portray sing a classic song by Wales’ favorite son Tom Jones together.

It is Collette who helps to make the story feel fresh and authentic, along with the staging of the race scenes by Welsh director Euros Lyn, so exciting we lean forward in our seats, as though it will help our favorite be first over the finish line. She is called upon in the film to sit in various owners’ seats at various racetracks and make each expression of worry, excitement, fear, and ecstatic joy look different and real and she, well, crosses the finish line ahead of the pack every time.

Jan feels stuck as the film begins. Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) snores at night and bores in the daytime, watching reality television shows about veterinary procedures and ignoring Jan except when absent-mindedly asking what’s for tea. She has two jobs, cashier at the store and barmaid at the pub. When she isn’t being ignored by Brian, she is caring for her elderly parents. There is nothing to make her feel a sense of hope or purpose.

And then she overhears a customer at the bar talk about his time as part owner of a racehorse. He is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant who nearly went broke when the syndicate failed. Jan realizes that if she can just get everyone to give ten pounds a week, she can breed a racehorse by buying a retired mare and paying the stud fee to get her pregnant. A lovably quirky group of people from the village and a couple of Howard’s friends agree to join. And they agree it isn’t for the money or for the craic (Celtic term for fun, but for the hwyl (pronounced hoyle, and a Welsh term meaning more than fun, fun plus enthusiasm, spirit, and purpose). The film’s wisest choice is making it clear that the miracle is not the horse. It is the chance to believe in something and to be part of a community.

The foal is born, but the mare dies. In some other versions of the story we might spend time on how the syndicate members care for the motherless colt, named Dream Alliance, but in this one we skip ahead to bringing him to the training facility of the country’s top racehorse trainers, played by Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”). No training montage here. We skip right from his initial no to, the “wait a minute, that horse is really fast” to, well, being off to the races.

That leaves perhaps too much time with the overly cutesy townsfolk. I think we are past the time when the town drunk is supposed to be funny or adorable. And the resolution of Howard’s conflict with his wife, who is understandably worried about a repeat of his past losses, is improbably easy. But then there is another chance to hold our breath at the races, and to cheer for Dream Alliance, for dreams, and the alliances that make them come true.

Parents should know that this film includes some potty humor, scenes in a bar, a town drunk whose alcoholism is played for humor, a sad death, and a serious injury of an animal.

Family discussion: What dream would make a difference in your community? Why was it so difficult for Jan’s father to tell her he was proud of her? How did money change the way the group made decisions? What would you do just for the “hwyl?”

If you like this, try: “Dreamer” (also inspired by a true story), “Phar Lap,” and “The Black Stallion”

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Football Movies for Super Bowl Week!

Posted on February 6, 2021 at 8:00 am

Copyright TriStar 1993
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.

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.

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.

Or watch them all at once!

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