KING RICHARD (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Sports parents. Band parents. Dance parents. Cheerleader parents. Drama parents. We all know THOSE parents … and many of us, whether we admit it or not, ARE those parents. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (JOE BELL, 2020) and first time screenwriter Zach Baylin bring us the story of the unconventional, hard-driving, flawed, well-intentioned father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

Will Smith portrays Richard Williams in a showcase role that he capitalizes on. Richard Williams is not a particularly likable man – his hustler mentality is eclipsed only by his stubbornness. But more than anything, Richard Williams was committed to giving Venus and Serena every opportunity to succeed in a tennis world that seemed like a different universe to the Compton neighborhood in which they were raised. Richard and his wife Oracene (an outstanding Aunjanue Ellis, THE HELP) coached the young girls themselves in public parks via instructional articles in Tennis magazines. Both parents balanced their jobs with this coaching, and Richard spent a significant amount of time “marketing” the girls to professional coaches, most who had no interest in taking on pupils who couldn’t pay.

Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and younger sister Serena (Demi Singleton) trust whole-heartedly in “The Plan” their father has in place. It’s a plan designed to place million dollar checks in their hands, and lead them to the top of the tennis world. Their first break comes in the form of John McEnroe coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus. The real fun begins when Richard cuts a deal with super coach/trainer Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal) to take on both girls and cover the families living arrangements in Florida.

What makes this film work is that so many of us can relate to just how difficult it is to be a parent, and never settle for less when it comes to the kids. Now, Richard Williams is an extreme example – and his enormously successful daughters have dealt his approach a hand of credibility. Richard and Oracene are presented as very protective of their daughters, but also obsessed with helping them excel at school, tennis, and life. Given that there are three other daughters living in the house, it’s surprising that we don’t get more details on the reactions from those girls to the favorable treatment of Venus and Serena. The family is presented as being very tight-knit and loving, but it’s difficult to swallow that jealousy didn’t rise up periodically.

This truly is the story of how Richard Williams remained focused on getting his daughters to the top, so don’t expect the tennis history of Venus and Serena. The young actors playing them are excellent, but this takes us through the foundation of their careers while overcoming adversity, not the professional highlights. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) makes the tennis look legitimate, while also bringing us the family intimacy. In fact, the scene in the kitchen is one of the more intense and well-acted scenes we will see this year, and the camera work amplifies the tension. On the lighter side, we get Will Smith singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, and the closing credits show actual clips of Richard, Venus and Serena, as well as a rundown of their impressive achievements. Director Green has delivered a crowd-pleaser with some poignancy and a few well-placed messages. It wouldn’t surprise to see a few award nominations attached to this one.

Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning November 19, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE MECHANIC (2011)

December 26, 2011

(Video review)

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one delivers everything we have come to expect from a Jason Statham movie … plenty of action, fight scenes, gun play, and a man wronged by the system and on a mission for vengeance. It is a remake of the 1972 film starring Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent, and written by Lewis John Carlino.

As in the original, a master hit-man (Statham) takes an apprentice under his wing. Here, it’s played by Ben Foster, who was so good in 3:10 to Yuma. Foster brings energy and intensity to his role, and a playfulness that Statham’s character doesn’t always appreciate. The two have pretty good chemistry, but face it, the only real reason to watch this movie is for action scenes and violence.

Donald Sutherland has a fairly brief role as Statham’s mentor and the film definitely misses him once he’s gone. The bad guy is played by Tony Goldwyn, who just doesn’t have the screen presence to play a big time baddie. Goldwyn is an excellent TV director and seems much better suited behind the camera. He has been typecast as the bad guy ever since Ghost and his presence often evokes groans from the audience.

The director is Simon West.  His best film is from 1997 … Con Air.  No surprises in this one, which is fine. With Statham movies … we want what we expect. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

watch the trailer:


CONVICTION (2010)

November 7, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on a compelling true story and spurred by a “60 Minutes” segment, the film tells the story of Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank) who dedicated 18 years of her life to proving the innocence of her incarcerated brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell).

The natural assumption would be that Betty Anne wrote letters and hounded police and attorneys so that no one would forget Kenny. The truth is far more fascinating. From an abusive and underprivileged childhood, Betty Anne rose above all and reinvented herself once her brother was found guilty of murder. She got her GED, graduated from college, then law school, and became his attorney. With assistance from Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, old evidence was re-analyzed and witness testimony was contested. The outcome is public record and more proof that fact can be stranger than fiction.

Pamelay Gray’s script is handled by director Tony Goldwyn, who is known mostly for TV projects. He is talented enough to let the story and his excellent cast do the work. Swank, of course, is the perfect choice for this role and seems quite at ease. Rockwell, one of the more under-appreciated actors around, is very strong in capturing the lovable Kenny, as well as the red-hot tempered alcoholic who was always in trouble with the law. The relationship between this brother and sister is established via childhood flashbacks and prison visits. We never once doubt that Betty Anne would commit to this challenge, even if we do question the wisdom of doing so.

Have to mention some of the rest of the cast. Minnie Driver is Abra, Betty Anne’s law school classmate who joins her in Kenny’s cause. The movie never really explains why she does this, but she adds a nice element. Melissa Leo is the cop with a chip who railroads Kenny. We see later how her life turned out and can only think she deserves every bad thing that can happen. Ari Graynor plays Mandy, Kenny’s teenage daughter and an almost unrecognizable Clea DuVall is excellent as her mother Mandy. The performance that really jumps off the screen is that of Juliette Lewis. We first see her testifying in court and then again almost two decades later as a burned out shell of a person. Her few minutes here are staggering to watch.

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another melodrama, but it is really fascinating to see what the love of a sister can accomplish. I was shocked that the end trailer didn’t mention that Kenny died in a freak accident just 6 months after his release. Betty Anne is on record as saying that while tragic, at least he died a free man.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the words “based on a true story” make your heart race OR you have always wondered what a drugged-out Juliette Lewis would look like (yikes!)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: movies about dirty cops annoy you OR you wouldn’t lift a finger, much less dedicate your life, to help your brother or sister