Bleed for This

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Copyright Sony 2016
Copyright Sony 2016
We watch sports for the skill.

We love sports for the heart.

Sports stories give us heroes whose determination and courage is constantly tested. The athletes who face those challenges — who live for those challenges — can help us understand and face our own. Vinny Pazienza was a great boxer, but what made him heroic was not his skill in the ring or his unprecedented wins in three different weight classes. It was his comeback from injuries he got in a deadly car crash, including a broken neck so severe that it was not clear whether he would ever walk again. He was given the choice between spinal fusion that would guarantee that he could walk but would prevent him from getting back in the ring, or six months in a Torquemada-style halo contraption literally screwed into his skull, where the slightest bump could paralyze him forever but, if everything went perfectly he might regain enough mobility to fight again, he chose the halo. He ended up resuming his training — against the advice of his doctors — and removing the halo after three months, then returning to boxing. Let me put it this way: knocked down worse by life than by any opponent in the ring, he was up by 9.

For his first film in more than ten years, writer/director Ben Younger (“Prime,” “Boiler Room”) tells the true story of one of the greatest comebacks of all time. Miles Teller, himself a survivor of a serious car accident, plays Pazienza, known as Vinnie Paz. We first see him sweating out the last few minutes before a weigh-in, swathed in plastic wrap, on a stationary bike, determined to make weight so he can still qualify as a lightweight. He just makes it, stripped down to a thong. That night, instead of getting some rest, he stays up most of the night playing blackjack and having sex. But the next day, he wins.

Vinnie loves his fights. After each one, he’s ready for the next. His mother listens from the next room, holding her rosary and lighting candles as his sister watches the fights on television. But his father (Ciaran Hinds) is literally in his corner, urging him on and arguing with his fight promoters. Vinnie switches to a new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who has a sometime drinking problem but who has taken fighters all the way to the top. Kevin persuades him to stop trying to qualify for the junior welterweight class and put on some extra weight to fight as a junior middleweight. Things go pretty well until the car accident.

And that is how he learns who he is. Vinnie has never stopped for anything and nothing has stopped him. He worked hard at boxing, but never considered why or whether it mattered to him. Literally and metaphorically immobilized, he discovers that the combination of recklessness and determination gives him a way to get back in the ring.

Teller is one of the best young actors working today, and he makes Vinnie’s physicality real. His chemistry with Eckert gives what could be yet another boxing story hold our attention, even without the usual romance. Younger makes the family scenes of a rowdy middle class Italian vibrant — you can almost smell the oregano. And the story of resilience and redemption is always welcome, especially when it is as well told as it is here.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, brutal fight scenes, and graphic and disturbing images including a fatal car accident, surgery, and other medical procedures. Characters smoke and drink, including alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: Who helped Vinnie the most? Why did fighting matter so much to him?

If you like this, try: “The Fighter” and “Creed”

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Based on a true story Drama Sports

Sully

Posted on September 7, 2016 at 2:00 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Acohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, dire and tense real-life situation, airplane near-crash
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 9, 2016
Date Released to DVD: December 19, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LBWHQRA
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers

Pay attention to the numbers in “Sully,” the new movie from director Clint Eastwood, with Tom Hanks as “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who lost both engines and landed his plane safely on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. 208 is the number of seconds that Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) had from the time two “bird strikes” took out both of the plane’s engines. 1549 was the number of the United flight, an Airbus A320-214 flying from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to a stopover at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. 155 is the number of people whose lives were saved by Sully’s quick thinking. And 17 — I will let you find out for yourself why that number matters in one of the film’s key turning points.

We know what happened. No one can forget those images of the passengers standing on the wings of the plane on the river in freezing weather. And 208 seconds, no matter how tense and exciting, is not enough for a film. Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki sets the film in the days after the “controlled ditching” (that is the technical term), as Sully and Skiles are lauded as heroes by the media and cross-examined with skepticism by the investigating authorities, overseen by the National Transportation Safety Board. The facts were improbable, even unimaginable. The panel chair (“Glee’s” Mike O’Malley) notes dryly that they have never before listened to the “black box” recording in the presence of the people on the tape. Everyone in the room knows that is because they were all dead. When asked about “the crash,” Skiles interrupts to correct the choice of words: “It was not a crash. It was a ditching, a forced water landing.”

Even Sully, following the intensity of the emergency landing and his concern for what he refers to as the “155 souls” on board, including the crew, is in something of a daze. He is peppered with questions: “When did you last have a drink? Are you having trouble at home?” He is interviewed by Katie Couric and appears with the crew on David Letterman’s show. And yet, he is facing a challenge every bit as daunting and far more complex than losing two engines at a low altitude. There is the relentless, often hostile, dissection of every one of those 208 seconds through an extensive government investigation and the media spotlight, reviewing every decision, every risk assessment, every protocol. Was that second engine really out? Could they have made it to a runway in New Jersey? The only questions tougher and more suspicious than those of the investigators are those Sully asks himself. He is numb from the trauma of the forced landing and especially from the excruciation hours until he was told that all 155 souls were safe.

The script from screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, based in part on Sullenberger’s book, is one of the most well-crafted, tightly constructed screenplays of the year, efficient in providing us the information we need without getting us lost in technical jargon, and making each return to the seconds of crucial decision-making more revealing and more compelling. Hanks, as always, is superb in conveying the ultimate of decency and integrity. And I promise, after this, when they recite the safety details at the beginning of your flight, you will listen.

Parents should know that this movie has extreme, intense peril with some disturbing images. Characters drink and use some strong language.

Family discussion: What experience and character qualities made it possible for Sully to think through his options so quickly and figure out a way to save everyone on board? Were any of the questions they were asked unfair?

If you like this, try: “Apollo 13” and “Captain Phillips,” two other fact-based films with Tom Hanks in charge of a vessel in trouble.

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Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week IMAX

London Has Fallen

Posted on March 3, 2016 at 5:22 pm

Copyright Gramercy 2016
Copyright Gramercy 2016

“London Has Fallen” is a love letter from producer-star Gerard Butler to himself and every bit as dumb and dreary as that sounds. This sequel to the more violent of the two attack on the White House movies of 2013 follows an opening scene of a drone attack on a terrorist group, establishing the revenge motive, with a re-introduction to our hero, manly showboat Secret Service hero Mike Banning (Butler), out jogging with (and out-jogging) President Benjamin Asher. “What are you made of?” the President asks with the same air of astonished admiration producer/star Butler clearly expects from the audience. “Bourbon and bad choices,” says Mike, letting us know that he is harder than nails and tougher than hell. All right, then!

Bad news from London. The Prime Minister has died. So that means all the world leaders will attend the funeral, creating a security problem of unprecedented proportions and a heck of a traffic jam, too. Meanwhile, just to amp up the emotion in the laziest possible way, manly Mike and his adoring wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) are expecting a child. Mike stops home to chat with her about paint samples for the new nursery (and whether six security cameras trained on the crib is overdoing it, “and a Kevlar mattress,” ha ha). He also composes a draft letter of resignation but has to leave when the President needs him for the trip to London.

The rest of the movie is just a lot of shooting and explosions as most of the world leaders are wiped out and Mike has to keep the President safe and get him back to Washington. Plus some totally predictable (especially if you saw the last one) scenes of officials back home in the situation room watching intently on screens and saying things like “I think you’d better see this,” and at least one highly predictable death of a major character and at least one “surprise” about a traitor who turns out to be someone previously trusted.

I’d say it was more FPS game than movie, but at least in a game there is some excitement in the challenge of skill and timing. This is just passively watching things and people getting blown up and blown away, with many squishy sounds to remind us that blood is spurting. It is porn-y and fetishistic in the loving depiction of so much carnage, with iconic locations destroyed and many characters killed.

Just as distasteful is the portrayal of producer/star Butler as super-smart, always right, always picking the right target to hit and the right corner to turn, and able to take out dozens of bad guys all by himself, every single time. Excesses of self-regard and self-promotion are dwarfed by a complete failure of self-awareness. Mike blows away yet another swarthy generic bad guy and someone says, “Was that necessary?” “No,” Mike answers casually and moves on to the next one.

Those bad guys are tough. Not only do they blow up the city and murder world leaders, they “are all over social media.” Try burning that down, Mike Banning!

Gerard, was this movie necessary?

No.

Parents should know that this movie has extensive, intense and graphic peril and violence with guns, explosions, terrorism, and many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, world leaders assassinated, massive destruction, and constant strong language.

Family discussion: How do Mike and the President see things differently? If you were running the Secret Service, what would you do to protect the President?

If you like this, try: “Olympus Has Fallen” and “G.I. Joe”

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Action/Adventure Series/Sequel

My All American

Posted on November 12, 2015 at 5:32 pm

If I wrote this review the way writer-director Angelo Pizzo wrote the script for “My All American,” it would be something like this: I saw a movie. It was about football. Freddie Steinmark worked hard and inspired his team, but then got sick. It was sad.

Copyright 2015 Clarius Entertainment
Copyright 2015 Clarius Entertainment

Pizzo wrote two of the best sports films of all time, “Rudy” and “Hoosiers,” but here, in another real-life sports story, he has decided that the audience needs a kind of running commentary from every character to explain — instead of show — the audience what is going on. In an early scene, Steinmark’s mother (Robin Tunney) tells him that because he is smaller than his friends, he will have to work harder. Later, other characters tell us repeatedly what we should be able to see: that he works harder than everyone else, that he is religious, even that he is handsome. This is a movie where a coach actually says that Steinmark has courage and guts. The dialogue is so exposition-heavy that it is like sawing lumber.

It is good to see a biopic that does not rely on the usual scenes of the girlfriend complaining that the lead character does not spend enough time with her. But Steinmark is portrayed as such an all-around saint that he is bland, without any character beyond niceness and determination. All of the characterizations are paper-thin. It is as though everyone on the screen is just another color commentator, not a character.

Steinmark (Finn Wittrock of “The Big Short”) is the son of hard-working Catholics. His father has two jobs, security guard by day, cop at night, but is so dedicated to his son’s athletics that he never misses a practice or a game. When a teammate suggests that perhaps Steinmark’s father is living his own dreams of an athletic career through his son, Freddie says no and the subject never comes up again. Freddie wants to play for Notre Dame and then the Chicago Bears. But college coaches think he is too small — except for Darrell Royal (Aaron Eckhart) at the University of Texas, who recruits Steinmark and his best friend. Steinmark’s devoted girlfriend, Linda (Sarah Bolger, one of the adorable Irish girls from “In America”), is accepted to UT as well.

Steinmark is so remarkable (as everyone keeps telling us and telling us and telling us) that he is made first-string in his sophomore year. He leads the defense so successfully that the championship is within reach. And then he begins to have a problem with his leg.

There are very clumsy attempts to do what “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” did in creating a sense of time and place. Here, the references to the war in Vietnam (and the protests), the moon landing, long hair, and 60’s songs are jarring and haphazard. The absence of any person of color may be authentic as regards the team, but on the campus? In the hospital? It is so strange that it becomes a distraction. The framing story of an interview decades later with Royal adds nothing. The football scenes are capably staged, but do not move the story forward.

There are references to Steinmark’s faith — he goes to mass every day and we see him pray and encourage his friend to pray. But we never get a sense of what the faith means to him or how it helps him understand his illness. There is more drama and more character in a throwaway scene involving another player who loses his position than there is in the portrayal of Steinmark’s story.

And there is only the slightest reference to one of the most interesting parts of the story; the lack of treatment options for someone with cancer in 1969. Steinmark’s diagnosis came just before the United States made its first major commitment to a “war on cancer,” with federal funds being used for research. This is the kind of context that could have provided the story with the impact it fails to muster.

Parents should know that there is brief strong language and a brief view of a bare tush, as well as discussions of serious illness and a sad death.

Family discussion: Were you surprised by Bill’s reaction to being replaced? What was it about Steinmark that made him so important to his coach?

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

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Based on a true story Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Sports

Battle: Los Angeles

Posted on March 11, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Destined to be remembered primarily as yet another step toward closing the gap between games and movies, the essence of “Battle: Lost Angeles” is a lot of boom-boom and a bunch of “ooo-rah.” And essence is all it is; no room here for anything but action. That’s a good thing because every time they start talking, you hope for the chases and explosions to start up again.

We see that the world is under attack and then we see 24 hours earlier, just enough time for brief introductions to the characters we’ll be following. Come on, say it along with me! Seen-it-all and seen-too-much vet on his last assignment, still struggling with survivor guilt over the men who died on his watch, innocent from the sticks whose mother signed for him to enlist at 17, guy about to get married, Navy corpsman earning his American citizenship and hoping to become a doctor, team leader just out of Officers Training School and about to become a father, etc. etc. It doesn’t matter much because pretty soon they will all be wearing so much gear and running around so fast we will hardly be able to tell them apart.

At first, it appears to be meteor showers that for some reason were undetected until they were about to crash off the coast of California and some other regions. But then we learn that the objects hurtling toward earth are slowing on descent; they are mechanical. And then stuff starts blowing up in a “textbook military operation” from another planet. And they have all the intel. We know nothing about who they are, what they want, what weapons they have, and basically, how to stop them from the complete annihilation that appears to be their goal. Troops are mobilized and deployed, with circumstances changing so quickly around them that quickly they are providing more information and support than they are getting. Our group is originally sent to rescue a small group of civilians and get them out of the way before US forces bomb the city to eradicate the enemy. But things are far worse than they thought. Contrary to their briefing, the aliens are attacking by air as well as ground. Their mission becomes survival, recon, and then out and out combat.

It tries to be “Independence Day” crossed with “Black Hawk Down.” It doesn’t come close to either.  It’s howlingly bad in places, with clunky construction and ham-handed attempts to insert moments of drama in the midst of all the action (one of the men just happens to be the brother of a Marine who died under the Staff Sergeant’s command, and sadder but wiser civilians and fighting forces learn that war with aliens is hellier than ever).  No one expects this film to be anything more than a delivery system for adrenaline and testosterone, with a bit of alien autopsy and some welcome recognition of the abilities and integrity of the military, but even in that category, it doesn’t pass muster.

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Action/Adventure Fantasy Science-Fiction
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