Champions (2023) **** – Seen at the Cinema

If there’s any justice in the world this fresh take on the feel-good movie will trump fading franchise at the box office. Sure, we’ve been here before. Due to a misdemeanour or professional fall from grace, grouchy lame duck is forced to coach a bunch of lame duck misfits. Hell, The Mighty Ducks (1992) even took the same route of community service, though that regarded a lawyer.

Despite his position as a mere assistant coach in the most minor of minor basketball leagues,  Marcus (Woody Harrelson) has an NBA level of arrogance. To escape an 18-month jail sentence following a DUI, he is handed an intellectually challenged gang who test more than his patience. On a  personal level, he has to swap seeing a team as something that can blindly follow his instructions to a group of individuals whose lives require understanding. And go from being an inveterate Tinderite to a keeper.

Marcus as well as Harrelson has his work cut out because you’ve never come across such a bunch of scene-stealers from animal-loving Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) who has a morbid fear of water to Showtime (Bradley Evens) whose specialty is celebration despite his constant inability to hit the target due to his insistence in turning his back on the hoop when taking a shot. In between you’ve Ms Consentino (Madison Tevlin), a legend in her own lunchtime and natural born hard-ass leader, and Darius (Joshua Felder), the team’s top player whose interaction with coach is limited to “Nope” as he goes immediately on strike.

Considerable effort goes into grounding the lives of these characters, all gainfully employed, none actually lame ducks. And seeing the world from their point of view. And thankfully, the movie avoids all signs of virtue signalling, the characters so vibrant on screen they are just a joy to watch.

In plot terms, we are treated to a series of sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching episodes, while Marcus gets wise to his situation and transforms from selfish a**hole to caring person, while not losing sight of his main function which is winning. Along the way, he attracts a girlfriend Alex (Kaitlin Olson), Johnnie’s sister, a 40-something singleton, happy to put up with passable if it means regular sex and with a refreshing line in punchy dialog that would put any cocky fellow in his place.

It doesn’t end the way you’d expect, which is probably another first for this kind of picture, but it’s a very enjoyable ride. You couldn’t choose a more difficult subject than acceptance of the intellectually challenged in the community and director Bobby Farelly (Dumb and Dumber To, 2014), who would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of getting easy laughs from such characters in the past. In his first movie for nearly a decade, he sprints past every potential trap with aplomb, only stopping to indulge in a vomit scene that seems a prerequisite of his style.

A good many of the laughs are at Marcus’s expense and often a phrase used in coaching comes back to bite him. And basketball is such an easy sport to understand, you run from one end of a court to another and lob a ball into a basket so the only tactical element we have to absorb is the intricacy of one specific move, helpfully translated from arcane sporting jargon into the easily understood by a dollop of Shakespeare.

Part of the joy of the feel-good movie is that it will be borne away on the box office wind by word-of-mouth, that impossible-to-define trick where audience approval wins out over gigantic marketing spend. Alternatively, we might live in the kind of cynical society that is already immune to the heart-warming. I hope not because this is immensely enjoyable without stooping to tear-jerking.

Woody Harrelson (Triangle of Sadness, 2022) is back to his best and you can see why he was at one time an out-and-out star. And there’s the credits bonus, unless this is snazzy CGI, of Woody singing and playing the piano and doing a back flip in the pool.After decades of bit parts and television roles Kaitlin Olson comes exceptionally good in a zingy role that delivers a side order of angst. As a bonus on the acting side are roles for Cheech Marin (The War with Grandpa, 2020)  and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, 2021).

Book now.

Ford vs. Ferrari / Le Mans ’66 (2019) *****

So good that immediately on finishing a screening I pressed the re-watch button. But then this proved such compulsive viewing on original release that I saw it at the cinema four times in as many weeks. High-octane pedal-to-the-metal drama that easily takes the chequered flag from such illustrious predecessors as Grand Prix (1966), Le Mans (1971) and Rush (2103).

Astonishing racing footage is matched by a gripping narrative of ambition and revenge played out at the highest level by a quartet of terrific performances. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), humiliated by competitors in the domestic market and thwarted by his plan to take over Ferrari, decides to steal the Italian giant’s crown at Le Mans, the 24-hour race considered then the pinnacle of motor racing achievement rather than Grand Prix.

He hires Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American winner of Le Mans, who now runs a sports racing construction business and in turn he recruits maverick English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Putting a spanner in the works at every possibly opportunity is oily Ford top executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who constantly shifts the goalposts because he’s just mean that way or to win commercial advantage. Driven as much by personality conflict as anything else,  the narrative pivots on Shelby shouldering the job of placating both big business and his maniac driver while outmanoeuvring all in sight to achieve his goals.

Jargon overload should be the kiss of death but that bold decision to involve the viewer in the minor and major technicalities of motor sport – proven and unproven techniques such as applying strips of paper to a car or battering the car boot with a hammer to increase its capacity and so comply with an arcane rule – pays off big time so that the picture can actually cover in greater depth the reality of running a racing team. Winning can be a matter of millimetres, tiny alterations amounting to massive differences during a race.

And it helps the narrative thrust that Le Mans is a single race rather Grand Prix or Nascar where over a season inevitably attention and excitement will sag. Other races are easily accommodated because they are vital to the end result, either in personal or technical terms. This is the ultimate battle against the odds, not just novice Americans taking on the big boys  of Italy, but the ageing driver needing to prove himself again and again and the constructor sometimes giving in, sometimes not, to big business.

It’s pretty difficult to retain audience involvement with the competitors masked up but (as Top Gun: Maverick would later prove) little works better than having your half-hidden driver (or pilot) reveal his emotions by talking to the machine, providing a commentary on the action, though Miles’s favoured expression of “giddy-up” may not qualify as a technical term.

Interestingly enough, the principals are all indifferent, not to say occasionally shady, businessmen, Henry Ford II laboring in the shadow of his father, the repair shop run by Miles shut down by the taxman, Shelby selling the same car over and over to multiple buyers. But this is a richness of character rarely seen in action films, flaws usually restricted to sexual or alcoholic peccadilloes. Nor is there any sign of the old trope of wife/lover unable to watch drivers race, and marriages/relationships buckling under that pressure. Instead Miles’ wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) rejoices in his skills while Henry Ford II clearly has a string of lovers.

The contrast between the romance and the reality of speed is no better expressed than when Ford is taken for a spin by Shelby or between the devil-may-care and the safe than when Shelby takes control of an aeroplane.

So many internal obstacles, Beebe’s manoeuvrings for a start, remain to be overcome never mind complications on the track that it is pretty much one twist after another with one awful ironic twist left for the climax of the race.

Christian Bale (Thor: Love and Thunder, 2022)  picked up most of the acting plaudits, nominated for a Golden Globe, but I thought Matt Damon, Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas ran him close. Damon (The Last Duel, 2021) delivers a restrained performance that occasionally cuts loose to reveal the carefully camouflaged daredevil. Letts (Lady Bird, 2017), better known to me as a playwright, brings the right mixture of arrogance and power. One-time matinee idol Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) eases back on the shit-eating grin and is one of the most self-righteous business bad guys you could encounter.

Sterling turns also from Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2021) as Lee Iacocca (who later wrote a book about brilliant he was, although there’s little evidence of that here); Catriona Balfe (Belfast, 2021) and Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, 2018) as her son. Special mentions for Ray Mackinnon (News of the World, 2020) as Shelby’s number two and Remo Girone (The Right to Happiness, 2021) as Enzo Ferrari.

Distinguished career as director James Mangold has enjoyed  – from Walk the Line (2005) and 3.10 to Yuma (2007) to Logan (2007) – this has to be the peak, brilliantly bringing the human side into a movie that could easily have concentrated on the machines. He drew on an equally brilliant screenplay by Jez Butterworth (Spectre, 2015), John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow, 2014) and Jason Keller (Escape Plan, 2013).

Hustle (2022) ****

Never thought I’d be praising the acting of Adam Sandler –  or lasting to the end of a Netflix movie (yep that includes The Irishman). Except that this effort which appeared to be very off-message for the sports genre suddenly veered back on course towards the finishing line I thought it had the makings of a genuine five-star movie, almost the prequel to all those Kevin Costner-type picture where the washed-up sports star/coach ends up working with a team from Nowheresville.

For a long time the movie’s tension derives from it looking as if the career of wannabe basketball star Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez) is going south before it has even begun, partly from self-inflicted issues and partly from the shenanigans of the all-powerful,  and in so doing exposes the rough and dirty underbelly of basketball.

Scout Stan Sugarman (Adam Sandler) achieves his lifetime ambition of being promoted by ageing owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) to assistant coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. But Merrick’s sudden death sends Stanley back on the road where he discovers hustler Bo playing in an ordinary outdoor court. Having incurred the enmity of Vince (Ben Foster), Rex’s son and new team boss, and with Bo being denied a contract, Stan quits and tries to get Bo accepted into the national trials (known, for the uninitiated, as the Combine Draft).

But Bo, who has a conviction for assault, blows his chance, loses his potential breakthrough spot and except for Stan’s herculean efforts would be on a fast track back to Nowheresville. Which would have been an interesting picture in itself, there being far more losers in sport than winners, and always room in some lower league for a washed-up coach.

Sure, there’s the usual unusual training regime (this is the home of Rocky after all), and plenty one-to-one scrimmaging and amazing shots, but mostly it moves at a slower pace, a character study more than anything, as Stan learns to mentor his pupil and his pupil learns to cope with mental pressures. Opportunities to widen the picture’s scope – a potential romance with Stan’s daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) or crisis in the Sugarman home – are ignored in favour of a sharper character focus.

I’m no fan of basketball, never watched a game, couldn’t name a single player unless they starred in an animated feature, and yet I was fascinated by the way the game was played, the ins-and-outs of on-field play. Having watched it, I wouldn’t say I was any more educated, couldn’t even tell you how many people were in a team or even how long as game lasted, but for sure it kept my interest.

There’s contrasting use of social media – one that triggers the young man’s downfall, another that prompts his comeback. But in the main, especially if like me you are unfamiliar with the game, you are mostly gripped by the tension, the consequences of failure for Stan far greater than failure for Bo, and the eventuality that there is no way this can work out. And in that respect it’s not like Rocky or Any Given Sunday where the steps to success are more readily pinpointed.

Like Brad Pitt, Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems, 2109) is entering potentially the “last leg” of his career. He’s lost the annoying nasal whine and the manic comedic energy and transitioned the loser persona into a more recognisable human being. Denied the need to strive for laughs, his delivery is more conversational and realistic. Juancho Hernangomez, a basketball player, making his acting debut, sensibly restrains himself. Queen Latifah (The Tiger Rising, 2022) has also stepped away from comedy although she enjoys some good riffs with Sandler. Jordan Hull (The L Word: Generation Q, 2019-2020)  also makes her movie debut. Ben Foster (Hell or High Water, 2016) plays the mean boss. SNL graduate Heidi Gardner is another stepping out of her comfort zone.

There are some anomalies, most notable being that Sandler seems a few inches short of being a former basketball player. Also, you would have to imagine that a young man who came from a tough background and hustled for a living was unlikely to be deterred by a few insults coming his way and equally unlikely to throw away so much food. And also, I never knew the basketball find actually came from Spain, the location work confusing to say the least, I thought he just spoke Spanish, hardly a rare language in America. And who is this guy called “Himself” who appeared to be played by over a dozen people?

Jeremiah Zagers (We The Animals, 2018) does an excellent job or reining in Sandler and the fact that the ending turns this into a warm-hearted drama does not lessen the fact that for most of the time it felt like anything but is testament to his skill.

Available on Netflix.

King Richard (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Absorbing sports biopic mixing feel-good and a no-holds-barred approach to the titular subject with a terrific performance from Will Smith. Some commentators complained the film was too long but I was so caught up in it I was surprised when it suddenly came to an end. Beyond recognizing the achievements of the Williams sisters, I had no foreknowledge of the Williams story. The movie follows their early years until the professional debut of Venus (Saniyya Sidney).

Although following a traditional triumph-over-adversity narrative, this is as concerned about the intricate workings of U.S. tennis where the odds were so stacked against black players, saving Arthur Ashe, that club members were taken aback to register the boldness with which Williams Snr, entered their arena. For most of the picture what we see is struggle, Richard Williams (Will Smith) trying to interest coaches in his two daughters. The tennis system is laid bare, the need for funding and then big bucks sponsorship the ultimate goal, the Jennifer Cipriani case quoted as the downside of a system where parents push their children to the limit, setting aside any interest in a normal childhood in a bid to break into the professional game.

Williams is both inspiration and a complete pain in the neck. He comes across as warm and awful at the same time, a whole set of rigid rules getting in the way of the happy family he seeks to establish. His arrogance takes some beating. Having devised a business plan to turn his kids into superstars he finds it difficult to change his tune even when his methods result in zero success. He wants to correct the coaches, on occasion cheat them, but is so determined that Venus and Serena will not become tennis brats that he holds back their leap up the junior tennis circuit in case it prevents their development as people, impacts on their education and denies them a childhood.

The tennis matches are well handled. My ignorance about the Venus sisters’ career path meant that I found the actual tennis riveting. And the fury of children beaten by the upstart Venus tells you all you need to know about the pressures facing prodigies.

Zach Baylin’s debut screenplay is terrific, finding time to fill us in on Williams’ checkered past, professional and romantic failure. Prejudice isn’t limited to white people, he is beaten up by local hoods while a neighbour calls in social services. Charting the family dynamics allows wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) an occasional turn in the dramatic spotlight. The relationship between Venus and Serena (Demi Singleton) is well nuanced as they move from giggling kids to more mature teenagers, loyalty to each other tested when Venus receives preferential treatment, each with their individual battles, until in specific ways they take charge of aspects of their careers.

Will Smith (Bad Boys for Life, 2020) is a sure thing for an Oscar nomination, but the supporting cast is exceptionally strong. Aunjanue Ellis takes a giant step up from television (Lovecraft Country, 2020) and as the sisters Saniyya Sidney (Fences, 2016) and in her rmovie Demi Singleton – just 15 and 14, respectively – are both delightful and convincing. Jon Bernthal (Those Who Wish Me Dead, 2020) and Tony Goldwyn (The Mechanic, 2011) play real-life coaches, the former frustrated to the point of torture by Williams’ antics.

Reinaldo Marcus Green (Joe Bell, 2020) delivers on several counts: drawing sterling performances from the actors, allowing the screenplay to breathe so the picture doesn’t feel cramped or rush, and setting genuinely exciting tennis matches.

This is already a certified box office flop, in part because of Warner Brothers’ hybrid release, in part I guess don Richard Williams polarising public attitudes, and that’s a shame because it is thoroughly enjoyable and despite misgiving about Williams as a person it is a truly astonishing achievement that against all odds a security guard and his nurse wife should have achieved such success.

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