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Film Review: Glory Road

Glory Road is a sharp, crisply made, thoroughly modern product that spares no detail or expense

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After finding that hand-drawn animation was long past its expiration date, and having stalwart affiliates Miramax and Pixar leave the halcyon comfort of its company’s umbrella, you might say that Disney has had a rough go of things in recent memory. Silently, but very surely, though, the studio has begun to reinvent itself, becoming ground zero for a modestly profitable niche genre: The underdog sports movie. With Glory Road, another conventional but shamelessly entertaining, feel-good crowd pleaser, the studio has now hit on each major sport, following Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Miracle. Deep within the dregs of moviedom that is the month of January (and not coincidentally released for the weekend prior to Martin Luther King Day), any ray of light is welcome, and Glory Road goes above and beyond, in spite of sticking very rigidly to their proven formula. Sticking to the conventional, in this case, is not a bad thing at all.

Glory Road‘s central facilitator is scrappy, hard-nosed coach Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), who in 1965 is plucked from a high school girls coaching job to helm the struggling Texas Western men’s basketball program, primarily because he played in college for another legendary coach of the day, Henry Iba. In spite of a limited budget, a dearth of scholarships, and forced to live in a campus dorm with his wife (Emily Deschanel) and two young boys, Haskins embraces the opportunity to coach a Division I team, even as he is told that “football is king” in Texas. Taking note of his limited options, he decides to look off of the beaten path for players who he can mold into his defensive-minded, fundamental brand of basketball. This leads him and his staff of two to New York, Detroit and Gary, Indiana, among others, where after some badgering he’s able to secure the services of seven largely unheralded black players, including the talented but raw and completely self-absorbed Bobby Joe Hill (Derek Luke, in a logical extension of his character from Friday Night Lights). As with Hill, all of Haskins’ newcomers are highly skilled but entirely foreign to the concept of playing within a system, which turns the impetus back to the strong-willed coach and his ability to harness such unfocused potential.

After dealing with the inevitable friction between the largely white set of incumbent players and the new black recruits, Haskins is unrelenting in running them through the ringer at the smallest sign of dissention. Many practices are marked by innocuous drills, endless wind sprints and suicides (the end-to-end runs that are admittedly very brutal), and one player even threatens to leave before being persuaded back. After a fast start to their season, a stretch of seventeen wins in a row, Haskins’ flagrant disregard for the traditionally-acknowledged racial boundaries within Texas Western’s athletic program still raises the ire of the boosters, the white alumni who of their own inclination bankroll a great deal of the school’s athletic activities (oh, where would college athletics be without boosters; just ask Notre Dame), therefore acting as the voice of Haskins’ conscience whether he wants to hear it or not. Haskins remains staunch within his original plan, deflecting the pressure and keeping his players out of the line of fire. The season’s first loss in a road game at Seattle sparks a heated exchange between the white players, who resent being pushed aside, and the black players, who scoff at the whites’ notion that they’ve been made the minority. Other road trips are marred by the beating of one player in a diner restroom, and the vandalizing of players’ hotel rooms. It turns out that Haskins’ wife is making a concerted effort to maintain her husband’s better interests, keeping him aloof to reminders of the harshness of their adopted reality.

As with any movie of a similar ilk, how it ends is not of particular consequence, as much as how the story gets them to that final climax. Jon Voight appears under significant makeup in the movie’s third act as Adolph Rupp, renowned coach of the University of Kentucky, whom Texas Western meets in the 1966 NCAA championship game. Voight not only adopts his mannerisms and vocal cadence, but as far as the story is concerned, he provides a stiff reminder for Haskins about the weight and significance of the young coach’s situation in a context that he can fully understand. His role in the film itself may be minor, but the implications of his presence alone are key to the completion of Haskins’ journey in terms of both emotion and character. Rupp is portrayed as trepidant, standoffish and slightly defiant in his exchanges with Haskins, both direct and indirect; he is the wry, time-tested counterpoint to Haskins’ eager, youthful go-getter. One can infer that Rupp’s attitude has racial undertones similar to those shown by the boosters (it is true that Rupp had not recruited a black player up to that point), but it can also be reasonably understood that Rupp takes Haskins as a competent and even prescient basketball mind, recognizing his talents and abilities while remaining somewhat unsure about his decisions. Haskins made the decision to put out an all-black lineup in the championship game, against Rupp’s all-white lineup, which provides a conveniently literal, albeit, still true framing of the conflict as a whole.

A late-era holiday like Martin Luther King Day often gets drowned by heaps of pusillanimous drivel about the Civil Rights leader’s importance in the establishment of racial equality (they were important to be sure, but the level of monologuing about the man has badly over-simplified and romanticized his contributions). For the most part, Glory Road manages to stay within the confines of safe-yet-effective commentary, even as we all understand through and through that the period encompassing the Civil Rights movement was tumultuous and even violent. If he was indeed kept largely unaware of the controversy surrounding him up until the final game, the driving factor behind Haskins’ radical strategies may have been his drive to win at all costs, controversial or otherwise, rather than a conscious effort to offer a milquetoast Civics lesson to crusty advocates of an ancient disposition. Time is as effective as anything in hyperbolizing unprecedented occurrences like the Kentucky-Texas Western championship game in 1966, but stepping back to observe the entire picture provides a more realistic perspective.

Glory Road is a sharp, crisply made, thoroughly modern product that spares no detail or expense, but it is not without soul. (In spite of being a Jerry Bruckheimer production.) It is very much the spiritual cousin of a film like Walk the Line in the sense that its execution may appear rather pedestrian, but dig just a little deeper and you’ll find a film lifted up by the sheer magnitude of its subject and the performances within it. It isn’t on the level of Walk the Line, but saying that is to degrade it very little. There isn’t a single thing out of place within Glory Road; Lucas is spot-on as the hard-driving Coach Haskins, probably the best performance of his career so far, and Emily Deschanel runs with what little she’s given and adds an emotional urgency to the proceedings, especially later on in the film. In fact, the movie may have benefited even more from some deeper exposition, a minor shortcoming that could be remedied with the release of a Director’s Cut DVD later on. But as it is, Glory Road is a perfectly good reason to venture out to the theatre during the New Year’s barren early weeks. A degree in Basketball 101 is not required to enjoy it, either, just an appreciation for a well done, uplifting story.

GLORY ROAD
Directed by: James Gartner
Starring: Josh Lucas, Derek Luke, Emily Deschanel, Jon Voight

Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion

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Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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