HEART OF CHAMPIONS (2021)

October 31, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We’ve seen most of this before in a long list of inspirational sports stories where the beleaguered, tough as nails coach comes in and unites a rag-tag team while teaching life lessons. However, with (2-time Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon cast as the coach, we know there will be at least one performance worth watching. The screenplay is from Vojin Gjaja and it’s directed by Michael Mailer (son of 2-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, Norman Mailer).

The film opens in May 1999 as a crew team finishes last in the Collegiate Rowing Championships. Inner-team bickering and animosity exists thanks to domineering Team Captain Alex (Alexander Ludwig, “Vikings”). The following year, the team is introduced to their new coach, Coach Murphy (Shannon). He has a different approach and he’s focused on creating a team, rather than a few guys with oars. All we really learn about Murphy is that he’s an alum and former rower for this same college, and an Army and Vietnam veteran who lost friends in the war, and carries that burden with him every day.

Alex (Ludwig) is back for his senior year and his goal is to be chosen for the Olympics team … a goal his over-bearing father (David James Elliott, “JAG”) reminds him of every few minutes. The other two crew members who get significant screen time are John (Alex MacNicoll, ALL ROADS TO PEARLA, 2019) and newcomer Chris (Charles Melton, THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, 2019). John is dating Alex’s ex-girlfriend Sara (Ash Santos), while transfer student Chris is dealing with a recent tragedy, and also attracted to Sara’s friend Nisha (Lilly Krug, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, 2021). And yes, at times the melodrama of these folks is just a bit too heavy-handed and soap opera-ish. Coach Murphy is clearly the most interesting character, yet the film spends the bulk of its time on the youngsters and their daily journey.

One of the plusses here is that the sport at the center is rowing, which at least veers from the typical sports fare. But then we learn very little about the sport, other than it blisters your hands and causes your lungs to burn … and there is “swing” which occurs when the team is in full sync. Mr. Shannon does as much with his underwritten role as possible; however, overall the movie is just a bit too generic with its final lesson of, “a loss is not the end.” Should you have an interest in a true life rowing story, allow me to recommend the 2013 book (my son recommended to me), “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics” by Daniel James Brown

Opened October 29, 2021

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BAD BOYS FOR LIFE (2020)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” In this third entry of the franchise, those song lyrics are what we are asking cocky and aging Miami detective Mike Lowery (Will Smith). An old case comes back to haunt him and a scorned lover comes back to hunt him, and he may or may not have his old reliable partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) by his side.

It’s been 25 years since director Michael Bay introduced us to ‘Bayhem’ with his first feature film, BAD BOYS. It took another 8 years for the sequel BAD BOYS II, and now 17 years later, we get this long-anticipated third film. Only instead of Michael Bay (who is listed as a producer and makes a cameo), Belgian directors (and former film school buddies) Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah are directing. Fans of the franchise need not be worried, as the two expected and necessary elements are present: partner banter and Bayhem action.

Detective Mike Lowery (Smith) is an old school bull with a badge, and Detective Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is simply ready to ride off into the sunset of retirement as Pop-Pop with family, including his new grandbaby. Also back for his third run with the bad boys is stressed out Captain Howard played by Joe Pantoliano and the ever-present Pepto Bismol.

Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) is sprung from jail in Mexico by her son Armando (Jacob Scipio). Mother and son have two missions: take back their drug cartel, and take revenge on those responsible for her arrest and the death of Isabel’s husband. Oh yeah, Isabel is part-witch and a former lover of rookie cop Mike Lowery. What a tangled web … and that’s without including another surprise twist. Their revenge checklist includes many Miami dignitaries … and a vow to make Lowery the last to die.

There is another surprise near the beginning of the film, and that motivates Lowery to get involved to help solve the string of murders – not yet aware that he’s on the list. Of course Detective Burnett is drawn out of retirement and they are forced to work with a new Special Forces team called AMMO. Surprisingly, neither of the ‘Ms” stand for Millennial, and instead it’s Advanced Miami Metro Operations. The team is led by Rita (Paolo Nunez), another former Lowery lover, and includes badass Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), hulky computer whiz Dom (Alexander Ludwig), and wise-cracking Rafe (Charles Melton) as a verbal sparring partner for Lowery.

What follows is car chases, shootouts, fancy weapons, drones, and helicopters. And lots of one-liners at stressful moments. Lawrence is especially effective with the banter, and fans will be happiest when he and Smith are jabbing back and forth. This time, much of their grief towards each other focuses on mortality and growing old. The partners are close, but their life philosophies vary greatly. Of course we do get the fiery finale, and this one involves a helicopter and a stunning hotel that’s been left in ruins.

Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan (originally slated to direct) wrote the script, and for the most part stays true to what the fans want – banter and action – while making note of the 17 years that have passed for these bad boys, “Ride together. Die together” always seemed like an absurd phrase for two cops, but the partner dynamics are in full force here, even though this movie (as well as the other two) are closer to live action cartoons than an actual police thriller. The end credits scene sets us up for BB4, and if they wait another 17 years, I calculate Will Smith will be 68 years old. Instead of a Porsche, he’ll be driving a Buick.

watch the trailer:


THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR (2019)

May 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Taking star-crossed lovers to a new dimension, director Ry Russo-Young (BEFORE I FALL, 2017) presents Nicola Yoon’s best-selling YA novel as a traditional love-at-first-sight romance augmented with contemporary twists and issues. Tracy Oliver (GIRLS TRIP, 2017) adapted the story for the screen and enhances the familiar trope with racial, cultural, economic and political aspects – resulting in a romance meant to both charm and influence. If only those enhancements had played a larger role, this little film might really have had something to say.

The film certainly succeeds with its charm. Yara Shahidi (“Black-ish”) and Charles Melton (“Riverdale”) star as Natasha and Daniel, respectively. These are two beautiful young people blessed with electric smiles to complement their great hair and world class cheek bones. She is a Jamaican immigrant and a scientific prodigy as a high school junior, whereas he is a first generation U.S. born Korean who writes poetry while prepping for his Dartmouth admission interview. His family long ago christened him as the one who would be doctor.

Loosely based on the courtship of author Nicola Yoon and her husband, even the meet-cute for Natasha and Daniel has a theme: Deus Ex Machina – God from the Machine, where magical powers or destiny bring the two together. Not only does Natasha wear a jacket with the Latin phrase, but the conductor on Daniel’s subway even counsels the delayed passengers to “Open up your heart to destiny.” OK, by now you know if this is your type of movie or not. I would offer a mild caution to naysayers with this – Natasha and Daniel are fun to watch as they get to know each other, and there are some breath-taking shots of New York City interspersed throughout the film courtesy of cinematographer Autumn Durald. These two things make the film watchable no matter how deep your allergy to cuteness runs, although the tour of NYC sometimes has the feel of (a well photographed) tourist brochure.

The political side of the story comes courtesy of Natasha’s ‘last hope’ meeting at the immigration office to postpone her family’s deportation scheduled for the next day. We only get to see quick glimpses of the process, but it’s enough to understand the red tape she has tried to maneuver in order to keep her family in NYC after 9 years. More of immigration attorney John Leguizamo would have contributed a bit of substance to the film. The immigration topic is also broached in Daniel’s family as his parents came to the country and started their own business. The American Dream giveth and taketh away. The immigration bits work as plot devices, but the film is most comfortable as a story of star-crossed lovers accompanied by “Crimson and Clover” in a karaoke bar. However the film’s biggest mystery might be how the couple survived sleeping all night in a New York park without getting mugged or even needing to brush their teeth before their crucial meetings. The magic of love.

watch the trailer: