My All American

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


Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for war violence including intense sequences of brutality, and for brief language
Profanity: Some strong and offensive/abusive language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense wartime peril and violence, characters injured, abused, and killed, some disturbing images, parent strikes a child with a belt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2014
Date Released to DVD: March 23, 2015 ASIN: B00HLTDC9O
Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures
Copyright 2014 Universal Pictures

Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie breaks into the top ranks of American directors with “Unbroken,” showing an exceptional understanding not just of actors, but of tone, scale, and letting the camera tell the story. Working with the magnificent cinematography of Roger Deakins (“True Grit,” “Skyfall”), she adopts a classical style well-suited to the WWII setting, but every choice is careful, thoughtful, and powerful.

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, this is the story of Louis Zamperini, the son of Italian immigrants. He was a rebellious kid who became an Olympic athlete. His bomber plane crashed over the Pacific, and he survived for 47 days at sea, before being captured with one surviving crewmate, by the Japanese. In the prison camp, he was singled out for horrific abuse and repeatedly beaten.

The screenplay by the famously off-beat Joel and Ethan Coen is straightforward, direct, and sincere, keeping the focus on the war years, with the incidents from Zamperini’s past brought it primarily to show us how he relies on his memories to keep going. “Nobody’s chasing me,” he tells his brother who is urging him to run faster as he trains for a race. “I’m chasing you,” his brother tells him.

That internalized sense of mission helps him hold onto the idea of his own power as the brutal Japanese captors try to take everything away from him.

The opening scene puts us in the sky, and Jolie superbly evokes the thrill and the terror of flying on a bombing mission in aircraft that seem barely past the era of the Wright brothers. The crash scene is vertiginously disorienting. Jack O’Connell plays Zamperini with an effortless masculinity, understanding that it has nothing to do with macho posturing, just an imperishable sense of integrity, courage, and honor. O’Connell, Finn Witrock (“Noah”), and Domhnall Gleeson (“About Time”) perfectly capture the rhythms of an experienced crew, some amiable wisecracks and bravado to recognize the perilousness of their situation, but always focused, on task, and always, always, putting the team first.

We become so attached that it is sharply painful to see the characters experience such deprivation and abusive treatment. Japanese pop star Miyavi (real name Takamasa Ishihara) plays the sadistic Mutsushiro Watanabe, known as Bird. He knows of Zamperini’s celebrity as an athlete and sees that he is a symbol to the other prisoners.

If the Bird can break Zamperini, it will crush the morale of the whole camp. So, he singles Zamperini out for beatings and mind games. But Zamperini knows that “we beat them by making it to the end of the war alive.” He simply will not give up, and defining his own sense of what it means to win allows him to maintain a sense of control that is his most powerful weapon.

It is gorgeously filmed, superbly acted, and directed with great sensitivity and compassion, but the real impact of the film comes at the end, when we learn through a few simple titles, what happened to Zamperini after the war. Even Jolie recognizes that there is nothing she can put on screen to match the real-life footage of Zamperini, back in Japan at four days before his 81st birthday, running with the Olympic torch.

Parents should know that this movie includes very intense and disturbing wartime peril and violence, with a plane crash, an extended period lost at sea, and grueling prison camp abuse, and some strong language including racist epithets. School-age bullies harass and punch a character and a parent beats a child with a belt.

Family Discussion: What was the toughest challenge for Louis? Why didn’t he give up? Why did he forgive his captors?

If you like this, try: the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and Zamperini’s own book, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life, along with the films Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, also based on real-life WWII stories of American prisoners of war.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Sports War

Winter’s Tale

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and some sensuality
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Supernatural and crime-style violence, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2014

Winters-Tale-Movie“Winter’s Tale,” based on the acclaimed novel by Mark Helprin is deeply romantic but also pretty daffy. There are exquisite images and some grand themes but also some clangers, some murky mishmash in the set-up, poorly designed special effects, and one badly botched miscasting that throws everything out of whack.

The exquisite images are not hard to come by with Colin Farrell along with “Downton Abbey’s” Lady Sybil, Jessica Brown Findley with auburn hair that makes her look like a pre-Raphealite dream, and a white horse who looks like he should be pulling Cinderella’s coach.  The setting feels like a fairy tale, too, first turn of the 20th century Manhattan and then a fabulous snow-covered mansion out in the New York countryside.

Farrell plays Peter Lake, left behind as a baby in America when his immigrant parents were rejected for health reasons and sent back to Ireland.  They put him in a model boat with the nameplate “City of Justice” and set him off toward the shore.  When we meet him, he is a thief, formerly allied with a brutal, scar-faced crime boss named Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe).  Everyone has very literary names in this story except for the horse, who is called Athansor in the book but here is just known as Horse even though, according to one character, he is really a dog.

Now Soames is determined to kill Lake.  Rescued once by a mysterious white horse, Lake knows he has to get out of town.  He goes on one last expedition to steal enough to pay for his journey.  When he is ready to leave just before dawn, the horse refuses to budge.  Lake sees the family leaving a luxurious townhouse and decides to see what he can take.  He has an intuitive skill with mechanics and easily breaks into the safe.

But one member of the family has stayed behind.  Her name is Beverly Penn (Findley) and she is dying of consumption (the 19th century term for tuberculosis).  She has to be surrounded by cold all the time, and the family has gone to the country house ahead of her to prepare a tent for her to sleep in.  Lake steals nothing but her heart, and loses his own in return.  Because she knows she is dying, smaller problems like his being a thief do not really bother her.  “What’s the best thing you’ve ever stolen?” she asks him.  “I’m beginning to think I haven’t stolen it yet.”  Instantly, he knows that his purpose in life is to protect her.

So far, so good, but then the argle bargle about transcending time and everything being connected starts up and it feels like the rules change at random.  Or, at least, that a nearly-800 page book lost big chunks in the translation to the screen by writer-director Akiva Goldsman.  This relationship between Lake and Penn seems to have some grander purpose, which is why Soames is so determined that he must stop it.  He seeks permission from “The Judge,” played by Will Smith.  It’s not entirely Smith’s fault that it is at this point things start to completely fall apart.  The role is poorly conceived and written and he is catastrophically miscast.  Lake ends up getting somehow catapulted into the present day but without his memories.  As he tries to piece things together, the pieces of the movie come apart.  There are way too many fortune cookie-style pronouncements about eternal battles between good and evil, miracles, destiny, and how we are all connected themselves, even a few from the underused Graham Greene who appears briefly just to throw out some deep thoughts about how God, the devil, angels and demons are just “the newer names” for the forces he describes. Penn says, that “the sicker I become, the more clearly I can see that everything is connected by light.”  But by the end, nothing in this movie feels connected to anything.

Parents should know that this film has sexual references and a situation, supernatural and crime violence, some disturbing images and scary surprises, sad death, and brief strong language.

Family discussion:  How are the rules for this world established and why are they important?  What could only Beverly understand as a result of her illness?  

If you like this, try: “Stardust,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” and “The Fountain”

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