The Phenom

Posted on June 23, 2016 at 5:38 pm

Copyright 2016 Bron Capital Partners
Copyright 2016 Bron Capital Partners
For writer/director Noah Buschel, “The Phenom” is clearly a labor of love. For the audience, it is a small gem filled with unexpected insight and performances of exceptional precision and intelligence. We may think we know what to expect from a film about a gifted athlete who explores the impact of his abusive father with the help of an understanding therapist. But each scene has surprises, with sharp dialogue, vivid characters, and a lot to say about the business of both sports and media. This is a sports movie that quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald. And there’s a brief but powerful scene as the athlete talks to the press that reminds us of how mch this film rewards careful attention.

Johnny Simmons plays Hopper, a “phenom” of a pitcher who has had trouble delivering in the major leagues. He’s sent to the team’s psychologist, a former phenom himself, who was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine at age 22 because of his pioneering work in helping athletes achieve focus and overcome fear. Dr. Mobley is played by Paul Giamatti, who has another connection to baseball — his father, Bart Giamatti served as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Giamatti’s Dr. Mobley is understated, reassuring, and accessible. “A lot of young pitchers struggle with control,” he tells Hopper. It’s “a passing thing.” He does not even want to give it a name because that would “legitimize” it. He tells Hopper that it can be good to look back because damage from the past can be “vaseline on the lens” that interferes with our ability to understand the present and accomplish what we hope for.

Hopper’s whole life has been about getting to the major leagues. His father, Hopper senior (Ethan Hawke) is a volatile bully Hopper’s teacher describes as “an expert at cutting corners and when there weren’t any corners, he’d make circles around her.” He constantly berates his son, bragging that he taught him everything he knows, forcing him to run splits as punishment for smiling. “Never show emotion on the mound. And you’re always on the mound.” He tells Hopper to develop an “intimidation face.”

Hopper has dinner at his girlfriend’s house and is so disconnected from life off the field that he has no idea of how to respond in a home where people discuss ideas and events at the dinner table. Later, when he hurts the girl’s feelings and she speaks up, he tells her the only thing he knows: “You need to toughen up.”

Hopper clearly has to choose between two father figures — his biological father, whose approval he cannot help seeking, and Mobley, whose safe space could be something Hopper could learn to trust. Simmons finds a way to show us the feelings the repressed young pitcher still cannot acknowledge, and his scenes with both Giamatti and Hawke are all the stronger for being understated, never overly dramatic. Owing more to “Ordinary People” than to baseball classics like “Bang the Drum Slowly,” this is a touching drama made up of small moments told with truth and care.

Parents should know that this unrated film has some adult material including drugs and drug dealing, an abusive parent, and strong language.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Hopper know how to talk to Dorothy? Should Dr. Mobley have told him the truth? What was his best advice?

If you like this, try: “Ordinary People” and “Fear Strikes Out”

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San Andreas

Posted on May 28, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers

Another summer blockbuster-by-the-numbers, another dad who needs redemption and re-connection with his family, and the only way he can get it is via massive, catastrophic disasters lovingly created via CGI that feels more real than the emotions, characters, or dialog. And that brings us to “San Andreas,” the latest in schlock disaster porn.

This time, it’s an earthquake. Before the tectonic plates start to shift, we get quick intros to our two heroes, the brain (Paul Giamatti as Lawrence, a Caltech seismologist) and brawn (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Ray, a military rescue specialist turned LA Fire Department rescue specialist). This job is easier, because “no one is shooting at us.”

These scenes give the professor a chance to lecture his class and establish the scale of damage a quake inflicts and the impossibility of predicting when one will occur (until….). And it gives Ray a chance to rescue a pretty girl whose car has been knocked off a cliff, accompanied by a TV news reporter (“The Good Wife’s” Archie Panjabi) and cameraman. This is also the only clever twist in the film as the pretty girl is speeding along a narrow mountain road, reaching behind her for her water bottle and checking a text, either of which we assume are going to cause an accident. But this is not a Driver’s Ed cautionary video. Her car is knocked off the mountain by boulders, crushing it and wedging it precariously between rocks on the side of the cliff.

Fortunately, Ray and his wisecracking crew arrive to save the day, explaining what they are doing to the reporter so we can power through some more exposition and see the reporter’s notes on one of the team: “Cute but not smart.” Yep. That prepares us for what is coming all right. Except it’s not that cute. Example: two characters crash land in a baseball field and she says to him: “It’s been a while since I got you to second base!” How hilarious and quippily romantic in the midst of the entire state falling into the ocean!

We quickly establish Ray as a devoted father and estranged husband. Final divorce papers arrive in the mail and his ex, Emma (Carla Gugino — please get a better agent) is moving in with Richie Rich, I mean Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), who has a mansion and a private plane and says that the skyscrapers he builds are his children. To sharpen Ray’s sense of being displaced, Daniel offers to fly Ray’s daughter Blake to her volleyball tournament in San Francisco, instead of driving with her dad.

As if to manifest Ray’s internal upheavals, the earth begins to shake, first in Nevada, where the Hoover Dam collapses, and then on the West Coast, when the fault line of the title, overdue for a major quake after more than a century, seizes, shifts, and heaves.

The special effects are so extensive that it amplifies their unreality. The movie is more concerned with the individual windows exploding out of the buildings than it is about the underlying mechanics of what is actually happening. It is preposterous enough that the professor not only predicts the second quake but hacks into the television networks. Wi-fi, electricity and broadcast channels are still operating, apparently, which is a long shot, but also people are actually watching the television news to find out what is happening, which is even more unlikely. And then, odds fast plummeting below zero, San Francisco is evacuated in a pretty orderly fashion (some folks stopping to loot flat-screens — why it it always flat-screens?), presumably so we can relish all the destruction without worrying too much about the people, the opposite of the neutron bomb. This is PG-13 “action violence,” designed to be exciting, not terrifying.

Goodbye, Golden Gate Bridge, cables swinging vertiginously. Goodbye Coit Tower. All those pretty pixels and algorithms, so cleverly arranged. California is shredded with the same glee the boys who played at our house used to have in wiping out the Sims with every possible kind of catastrophe.

What is terrifying is the Randian twist that has Ray abandoning any duties he has in LA to rescue just two people, both of whom are in his family. And in the middle of Armageddon, he somehow finds time for a heart-to-heart with his ex, after the scales drop from her eyes to understand what a selfish monster Daniel is. For all the literal flag-waving and reference to rebuilding at the end, this is a curiously sour portrayal of disaster as family therapy.

Parents should know that this film concerns a major earthquake affecting Nevada and California, with many collapsing buildings, roads, and bridges, fires, floods, looting, fighting, gun, characters injured and killed, references to death of a child, some disturbing images, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What does this movie teach us about skills and plans we should have for emergencies? What did Emma and Ray learn about one another and why did it take an earthquake for them to reach that understanding?

If you like this, try: “The Towering Inferno” and “The War of the Worlds”

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