The Cinema of Blah: “This Is Where I Leave You” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

Is the fall movie season upon us yet? Sort of. It certainly seems as if the tone of the films being released has moved from the silliness of summer to the (slightly) more somber and rueful mood of early autumn. But we’re still a bit of a distance away from the (possible) Oscar-bait films to come – which include (maybe) BirdmanFoxcatcherGone GirlThe Imitation GameInherent ViceInterstellar, Into the WoodsThe JudgeMr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and Unbroken – as well as the sure-to-be box-office behemoths The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Instead, what we get this weekend are two occasionally entertaining works of middling inspiration that wax mediocre in their ambitions. Neither is worth much ink (or, in this case, pixels), so I will be brief, saving my energy for future reviews of (hopefully) better movies.

This Is Where I Leave You

This Is Where I Leave You (Shawn Levy, 2014)

The last film I saw by Shawn Levy (Night at the MuseumDate Night) was The Internship, and This Is Where I Leave You shares many traits with that former effort. Both feature moments of successful comedy, yet both are mired in a morass of false sentiment and under-developed characters (particularly the women). It’s not uniformly terrible – indeed, how could a film featuring such likable performers as Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development“) and Tina Fey (“30 Rock“) be all bad? – but nor is it particularly interesting. It’s just . . . there . . . right where the screenwriters left it.

Bateman is one of four siblings – the others being Fey, Corey Stoll (“House of Cards“) and Adam Driver (“Girls“) – who are brought home by the death of their father: their mother, Jane Fonda (who needs no listing of a token credit here, I hope), claims that the father’s dying wish was for the whole family to sit Shiva (even though he and everyone else was/are de facto atheists). Leaving aside the fact that none of these folks look like they belong in the same gene pool (and The Wire has a funny article about how only one of the actors in the film is actually Jewish), the premise has promise, since forcing the members of a dysfunctional family (and there is much “dys” here) to spend time in a small space could lead to some funny results. Alas, with overbearing music blaring in almost every scene, and treacle punctuating the laughs, the overall effect is that of a generic sitcom (of particular note, since almost all of the players come from far more unique television series). You’ll chuckle, no question, but also wonder why such good actors as Rose Byrne (Damages“), Timothy Oliphant (“Deadwood“) and Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights“) are wasted in nondescript parts. See it if you must.

Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank, 2014)

Women are again neglected (by way of underdevelopment) – abused and tortured, actually – in A Walk Among the Tombstones, adapted from the book of the same title by Lawrence Block. This new Liam Neeson-on-a-tear movie from writer-turned-director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has the virtue of at least being a tad original, story-wise, and despite the truly horrific and disgusting nature of the crimes on display, it (mostly) kept me from looking at my watch for its duration (then again, I may be serial killer). Still, it is a gruesome thing, filled with silly plot contrivances of its own, and at times barely competent. Nevertheless, Neeson (hard at work already on the next Taken sequel) is always watchable, and though his attempts at a New York accent are funnier than almost anything in This Is Where I Leave You, his grim avenger makes for (somewhat) compelling cinema.

Why, however, is a drug dealer reading Nabokov in one scene? Is it meant to signify a depth of character that the screenplay refuses to supply? What, you say? It’s just a book, in one shot? Well, yeah, but details matter, and if you’re a good director, you make them count. After all, the young homeless kid, TJ (Astro, seen this past summer in Earth to Echo in a similarly pitched role), befriended by Neeson in the New York Public Library one day, is constantly dropping literary and cultural references to prove his own self-worth, so somebody, somewhere, had to think about Nabokov. Or not. And that’s the problem.

So what do we get? A sordid story about two crazies who kidnap women (usually the wives of drug dealers) and then chop them up after collecting ransom. While we are spared many of the gruesome bloody visuals, we get just enough to turn stomachs unaccustomed to such grotesquerie. And while the movie is ultimately not on the side of the psychopaths, the director is one of these people who so clearly wants to have his cake and eat it, too: killing and dismembering women is bad, but wouldn’t you like just a taste?

See it for Neeson, or go rent The Lego Movie and enjoy his turn as Good Cop/Bad Cop, instead.

[NOTE: In my original posting today, I left out the fact that the book on which the movie is based is part of a long-running series of "Matthew Scudder" novels by Block. To be honest, I didn't care enough about the movie to mention such details. However, David Edelstein cares, and his review - with which I mostly disagree - fills in the blanks in mine.]

9/21/14: “The Skeleton Twins” at Cinema Sundays at the Charles

Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)

Come join me this Sunday, September 21, at 10:30am, as I present writer/director Craig Johnson’s second feature, The Skeleton Twins, at Baltimore’s renowned preview series, Cinema Sundays at the Charles. Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film tells the moving story of fraternal twins Maggie and Milo Dean, who must overcome their long estrangement when an attempted suicide lands one of them in the hospital. The film is a powerful tale of the emotional ties that bind us all, siblings or not. Featuring strong dramatic performances from comedians Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids) and Bill Hader (Adventureland), longtime collaborators on “Saturday Night Live,” the film also stars Luke Wilson (Legally Blonde), Ty Burrell (“Modern Family“), Joanna Gleason (“Love & War“) and relative newcomer Boyd Holbrook (2014 Maryland Film Festival closing film Little Accidents), all of whom impress. The Skeleton Twins is shot by noted cinematographer Reed Morano (Kill Your Darlings), who brings an intoxicatingly hypnotic visual aesthetic to the story. The movie currently has an 88% critic rating and 86% audience rating on the film-review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and I highly recommend you come on down to the Charles Theatre to see it. I look forward to welcoming you.

First Episode of “Reel Talk” Now Available

Reel Talk_9-2014

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Linda DeLibero, his first guest.

Starting this month, I am now the host of a local television film review program, entitled Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reedon HCC-TV. My first guest was my colleague Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – who joins me every month on Midday with Dan Rodricks, on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station. You may watch the episode on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), or online. Enjoy! The amazing HCC-TV team did a wonderful job putting this together. There will be a new episode aired every two months.

“Drop” in on “A Five Star Life” for Some Mild Cinematic Pleasures

Five Star Life

A Five Star Life (Maria Sole Tognazzi, 2013)

Up in the Air meets I Am Love, but with a nice feminist twist where the female protagonist doesn’t actually need a man to be happy. That’s how I’m billing A Five Star Life (Viaggio Sola, or “I Travel Alone,” in the original Italian) and I’m sticking to it! In this visually sumptuous (sponsored by “The Leading Hotels of the World!”) coming-to-terms-with-life story about a visually sumptuous middle-aged woman – an amazing Margherita Buy (We Have a Pope) – we meet Irene (Buy), a luxury hotel inspector who travels the world for an agency that rates five-star hotels to determine whether they still deserve all five of those stars. Along the way, she is forced to rate her own romance-free child-free life and determine the best path forward.

On the one hand, it’s a beautiful movie, buoyed by Buy’s magnificent performance, and like The Trip to Italy and Magic in the Moonlight offering the viewer the aesthetic delights of gorgeous locations that (somewhat) make up for flaws in the screenplay. On the other hand, however, those flaws accumulate to the point where the script and characters become too schematic: conversations between Irene and her sister, and Irene and her former lover feel overwhelmingly expositional; a late arrival to the story – a British feminist intellectual – is inserted into the plot, it seems, merely to force Irene into self-awareness. Still, there’s something to be said for elegantly presented and marvelously acted eye candy, and you could do worse than spend 85 minutes (blessedly short!) watching Margherita Buy traipse through some of the most stunning hotels in the world.

Drop, The

The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam, 2014)

The Drop, based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue” (which Lehane, himself, adapted for the screen), tells the story of 40-something Bob, a shy and mumbling Brooklyn bartender and erstwhile tough guy, as he struggles to maintain his calm and composure as what life he has (which isn’t much) is threatened by underworld shenanigans. Tom Hardy plays Bob, delivering yet another performance – after Lawless and The Dark Knight Rises – where his voice is altered in some way to make it hard to understand. Following this past year’s Locke, where he was so precise in his annunciation, it’s a return to form, of sorts.

The “drop” of the title refers to a designated location (changing all the time) where the mob collects funds (gambling and otherwise) from various sources. Whoever is in charge of that evening’s drop bears the dangerous responsibility of ensuring that none of the money gets waylaid or stolen. The Chechen mafia is not one to accept losses lightly.

Cousin Marv – played by the late James Gandolfini (Enough Said) in his last movie role – owns one of these occasional drops. Or rather, he used to own it, until the Chechens muscled in and made him merely a manager, leaving him with a (much reduced) seat at the table and simmering resentments. Bob works for Cousin Marv (and is his actual cousin), and though he is clearly the subordinate, there are occasional flashes of steel in his behavior that hint at their shared, possibly violent, past. One night – not a drop night, fortunately – two masked gunmen enter the bar and steal $5000 from the register (and therefore from the Chechens), setting in motion a plot filled with twists and betrayals.

Into this sordid story comes Rocco, an abused and abandoned (and adorable) pit bull puppy, found by Bob in a trash can one night as he’s walking home, and Nadia – played by Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – an abused and abandoned woman of unknown origin, in whose trash can Rocco has been discarded. Together, Rocco and Nadia (in that order) awaken Bob’s extinguished emotional core. When Nadia’s former boyfriend – and, it turns out, Rocco’s original owner – Eric (a terrific Matthias Schoenaerts, of Rust and Bone), shows up, his menacing presence threatens to awaken more than just emotion in Bob. Even while Bob remains largely a cypher, we sense his capacity for explosive violence, and spend most of the film awaiting his eventual eruption.

If all of this seems interesting, it is, up to a point. Hardy – mumbling affectation aside – is riveting, as always, and Gandolfini similarly holds our attention. I wish Rapace were as good here as she was as Lisbeth Salander, but it’s not entirely her fault that she’s miscast. And the pit bull puppy will melt the heart of even ardent haters of the breed (although the frequent close-ups of his face begin to feel a bit desperately manipulative after a while). The problems with the movie have primarily to do with the script. I haven’t read the source text, but much of what happens here feels a bit too preordained and predictable, and is not helped by Hardy’s occasional (and portentous) voiceover. We know that Bob will eventually act, so when he does, there is little surprise (the audience at my preview screening even tittered at that climax). Despite the weaker elements, however, there is much to enjoy. As a final farewell to Gandolfini, it may not live up to the standards of “The Sopranos,” but it’s still enjoyable.

Take a Fun “Trip to Italy”

In 2010, director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) released The Trip, which was compiled from 6 episodes of a BBC television series of the same name. The premise was disarmingly simple (and delightfully preposterous): two British comedians, Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), are invited by a UK magazine (The Observer) to write profiles of various restaurants in England’s northern Lake District. Actually, it’s Coogan (much better known in the States than Brydon, though Brydon is a big television star in the UK) who is the guest culinary columnist, but when his romantic partner deserts him, he invites friend (or, more accurately, frenemy) Brydon along for the ride. The fact that neither man has any particularly sophisticated knowledge of food doesn’t stop them from eating – and commenting on what they eat – with gastronomical gusto.

The result – at least in the movie (I did not see the individual TV episodes) – was a whacky road-trip movie that served as an excuse for these two very funny men (playing loosely fictionalized versions of their real selves) to riff on life, celebrity . . . and other (bigger) celebrities. We were treated to their dueling impressions of Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Roger Moore (among others). Actually, the Connery/Moore duel was my absolute favorite, since it allowed Coogan and Brydon to demonstrate true vocal versatility as, each repeating the phrase “I’d like a vodka martini; shaken, not stirred,” they seamlessly segued from Connery to Moore with no announcement or warning to the audience. It was the kind of comedy (which the British, à la Monty Python, excel at) where we couldn’t help but feel a little smarter when we got their jokes.

This didn’t mean that the film had no gravitas to it. On the contrary, even as they each cracked wise, they also admitted to their deepening melancholy in the face of advancing middle age. Was this all that life had to offer, they mused? Well, it wasn’t all that bad, but maybe it wasn’t all that they had hoped for, either.

And now comes The Trip to Italy, similarly compiled from 6 new episodes. Same idea, same actors, different country. Coogan and Brydon, just like Hill and Tatum in this past summer’s 22 Jump Street, even make fun of the very idea of doing a sequel to their first project. But is it exactly the same? Take a look at the posters for each film, side by side:

Trips

What do you see? Notice that Coogan, on the left, looks miserable in the first film, while Brydon, on the right, is the unhappy one in the sequel. Indeed, Coogan’s simmering resentments and disappointments drove the plot of The Trip, while it’s Brydon’s middle-aged crisis that is the center of The Trip to Italy. This is what makes the sophomore effort both newly interesting yet (slightly) less enjoyable than the initial outing, since for this viewer, anyway, Coogan is a more interesting screen presence and a funnier man. Still, there are delights aplenty, even if the comedians revisit many of the same impressions and imitations (Michael Caine, again! Sean Connery and Roger Moore, again!) as they did before. And despite my preference for Coogan, Brydon does own one of the funniest moments in the movie. Known in his homeland for his “small man in a box voice,” Brydon puts this strange talent to use in a sequence where they visit Pompeii and he encounters the 2000-year-old remains of a man . . . in a box. It’s absolutely brilliant. Finally, there is the breathtakingly gorgeous scenery of Italy, which makes for a lovely contrast to the mist-shrouded moors of the Lake District. Oh, and – as earlier – there’s a lot of wonderful food on display. So while the film may not be the most original offering out there, it is fun, funny and occasionally profound. Go on a date, and you’ll emerge laughing and ready for a meal.

In “Frank,” Fassbender Gets a Big Head and Half a Great Script

Frank poster

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Michael Fassbender (seen earlier this summer in X-Men: Days of Future Past), as the title character of Frank (which opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre), spends most of the movie wearing a large papier-mâché head, and this visual conceit is almost reason enough to see the film. Requiring an actor considered, by some, to be one of the sexiest around, to cover his pulchritudinous features with an ungainly apparatus seems like a silly joke on the audience. But it is quite the opposite, as the fake head serves, instead, to mute our usual reaction to the presence of a movie star, which is to project onto him or her the longstanding feelings we have for them. In Frank, the head allows Fassbender to act, hidden from our preconceptions, and to create a vibrant and moving portrayal of a deeply damaged being with only his body as a tool. And he is marvelous. It’s too bad the film is only halfway so, but that first half is almost pure genius. As long as the movie stays in Ireland, where it begins, it works, but once the film shifts to America and to the SXSW Festival (where, incidentally, I first saw it), it becomes almost pedestrian.

Frank is about a rock band fronted by a man with a serious mental illness who copes with his madness by quite literally showing a different face to the world. Frank (the man) is also a bit of a musical prodigy, and his insanity and talent attract a group of similarly unstable musicians. Into this bizarre world comes Domhnall Gleeson – an actor I confess to find tiresome (except in this summer’s Calvary) – a paragon of normality and mediocrity, who is both drawn to Frank and his entourage and repelled by their rejection of the conventions of normal behavior. In the first half of the movie, as the band rehearses and then records what is to be a major album for them, the film flirts with true greatness, examining the meanings of art and insanity, and the potential connection between the two, without being too obvious in its intentions. But then, once the album is recorded, the band is invited to perform in America, and the earlier subtlety vanishes. Obvious dialogue and clumsy dichotomies – art vs. mediocrity, sanity vs. insanity, etc. – take over the script, and the dullness that is Gleeson takes over the movie. The final scene somewhat redeems the film, but the end result is still a very mixed bag. For that powerful first hour, however, I must recommend it. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction) and Scoot McNairy (Monsters) – both almost as good as Fassbender – do fine work in supporting roles as a counterbalance to the parts that don’t succeed.

9/5/14: Happy Birthday, Mr. Herzog! Midday on Film Celebrates the Madness and Genius of Bavaria’s Favorite Cinematic Son

[NOTE: If you missed the show, you can still listen to the podcast.]

Herzog and Kinski Cobra Verde

Director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski taking the dynamics of their relationship to a whole new level on the set of “Cobra Verde” (1987)

Born in 1942 in Munich, Werner Herzog grew up in a remote Bavarian mountain village (you can learn more about his early life in interviews that aired recently on NPR’s Fresh Air), far removed from the battle-scarred landscape of post-war Germany, as well as from all forms of technology. And yet by 19 he had moved beyond these simple beginnings to make his first film (a short entitled Herakles). 10 years later, in 1972, he established his international reputation with his third feature-length fiction film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, his first collaboration with volatile German actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he would make 4 more movies: Nosferatu the VampyreWoyzeckFitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde. Starting in the late 1980s, Herzog began to focus much more on documentary storytelling (though he had always made documentaries previously, and would continue to make fiction films, going forwards), and now has a body of work that includes such nonfiction masterpieces as Little Dieter Needs to FlyGrizzly Man, the Oscar-nominated Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Regardless of genre or format, Herzog’s ongoing cinematic obsession has almost always been an exploration of the intersection of madness (or, at the very least, eccentricity) and genius (or, at the very least, creative yearnings), whether it be the story of a man dragging a 300-ton boat over a mountain in the Amazonian jungle (Fitzcarraldo) or of a wannabe animal rights activist being eaten alive by a bear (Grizzly Man). In some cases, the filmmaker’s methods have, themselves, replicated the mad genius of those of Herzog’s protagonists (the story of the filming of Fitzcarraldo, as profiled in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams, is at least as interesting as the movie, itself). Whatever one thinks of Herzog’s (very prolific) artistic output, he is undeniably passionate about the medium of cinema, and one of the great directors of the second half of the 20th century and first half of the 21st.

So join us on Friday, September 5, as Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – celebrate the life and work of this great filmmaker on his 72nd birthday on Midday with Dan Rodricks, on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm.

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

[Correction: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly identified the above photograph as being from the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)]

“The November Man” is Perfect for Late August (Which Means It’s Not That Great)

November Man

The November Man (Roger Donaldson, 2014)

The last two weeks have seen the usual weak roster of films that studios tend to release in late August, before the autumn slate of Oscar contenders come out. The summer blockbusters are done, and now we must bide our time until the anticipated return of quality (we hope). After If I Stay and When the Game Stands Tall, we now get The November Man, from Australian-born New Zealand director Roger Donaldson, a man who in the past has given us such reasonably competent thrillers as No Way OutDante’s Peak (which, like this new film, starred Pierce Brosnan), Thirteen Days and – my favorite among them – The Bank Job. Unfortunately, The November Man is neither reasonable nor competent. It is, upon occasion, a lot of fun – if you don’t mind senseless violence and gaping plot holes – which elevates it above pure stinker level. That’s not much, but at least it’s something.

The film sees Brosnan – 12 years after his last outing as James Bond, in Die Another Day – return to action-movie form as a former CIA operative (with, somehow, an unexplained British accent) with an axe to grind with his ex-employer and ex-trainee (now promoted to full operative status). Brosnan – except for a few scenes in which he overdoes the hand-wipe-over-brow to indicate stress – is terrific, and it’s a joy to see how much he’s still got it. Unfortunately, Luke Bracey (G.I. Joe: Retaliation), as his protégé, is anything but terrific. In fact, he’s dull, dull, and then dull. Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, where she starred opposite Brosnan’s replacement as Bond, Daniel Craig) livens things up a bit, but no one next to Brosnan is as entertaining as unknown Bosnian gymnast Amila Terzimehic as a Russian assassin whose body is as flexible as it is deadly. Too bad she’s not in the movie for more than a few minutes.

To describe the plot would be a wasted venture, as very little of it makes sense. The various secret services are alternately super-efficient and bungling, and people are killed throughout – in glorious bloody close-up – with neither reason nor sense. The car chases and action sequences, however, are staged well, and when Brosnan is one the move, too distracted by bullets to wipe that brow, he’s a powerfully kinetic force that must be watched. Idiocy, slaughter and proficiently managed mayhem: if that’s your thing, you’ll enjoy at least parts of the film.

O, the Ecstasy of Tragedy! “If I Stay” Delivers Melodrama and Not Much Else

If I Stay

If I Stay (R.J. Cutler, 2014)

What a week! The two films screened for press were this and When the Game Stands Tall, neither of which impressed. The only way this movie looks good is by that comparison, sadly. Based on the best-selling young adult book of the same title by Gayle Forman, If I Stay comes with a built-in opening-weekend audience. I have not read the book, nor am I of the target demographic, so all I have to go on is the feeling of dread and nausea that spread over me with each passing minute of screen time. Who would die? Who would cry? Oh me, oh my!

Right away the film had problems. Its lead, Chloë Grace Moretz, so good – and, most importantly, natural – in Kick-Ass and Let Me In, here seems to have developed a severe case of “acting.” She telegraphs every emotion to the audience with head shakes, nose flares and dilating pupils. It’s unfortunate, as Ms. Moretz is a very likable presence, even if she has no chemistry with her onscreen co-star, Jamie Blackley (We Are the Freaks). Perhaps we can simply chalk up this and Carrie to growing pains. I hope so. Her talent lies (or lay, anyway) in effortlessly revealing the strangeness below the surface of normality. When we see her exertions, however, it’s painful.

If I Stay tells the story of how Mia (Moretz), a talented young cellist in a family of former punk rockers, gets into a car accident, suffers severe head injuries and almost dies. For most of the film, she lies in a coma, remembering her life (via flashbacks) and deciding whether or not to leave it behind and head into the white light of the beyond. While her body is trapped in the hospital bed, her conscious mind wanders the floors of the hospital, which is how she is able to discover the fate of the family members who were with her in the car (hint: theirs is not a happy fate). As tragedy is layered upon tragedy and Mia feels less and less inclined to fight for her own life, a certain emotional numbness sets in. Who else will die? How far will the filmmakers go to make Mia’s case as dire as possible? It’s tragi-porn at its most extreme.

But just when you thought all was lost, along comes Adam (Blackley), the love of Mia’s (extremely young) life. Will his affections make up for Mia’s loss? Will the song he writes for her bring her back from the brink? Speaking of Adam’s music – he’s a rocker, like Mia’s parents – I found his supposedly brilliant songs (the ones that get him an awesome record deal) rather conventional, and more pop than rock. But music was the least of my complaints. What was more annoying was seeing Mireille Enos – so terrific in AMC’s (and now Netflix’s) “The Killing” – reduced, yet again, to playing the mother role in a feature film (as she did in last year’s World War Z). Give the woman a role worthy of her!

I stayed till the end, but kept on saying to myself, “If I leave . . .” Unless you’re a diehard fan of the source text, I’d leave the movie for someone else to see.

“When the Game Stands Tall”: Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Clichés of Corn

When the Game Stands Tall

When the Game Stands Tall (Thomas Carter, 2014)

“Inspired by the extraordinary true story” (as the poster reminds us) of how the members of De La Salle High School‘s football team struggled to regain their sense of purpose (and of faith) when they lost two games in a row after a 151-game winning streak, When the Game Stands Tall hits every tired sports movie cliché in the playbook and augments each one with ostentatious displays of Christian belief that are clumsy enough to embarrass even the most devout among us. It’s a fiasco of messy storytelling that asks us to care about its grotesquely underwritten characters just because they spout platitudes of brotherhood and God. When one of the families faces an actual tragedy (sorry, but losing games doesn’t count), we mourn their loss, but it’s hard to feel anything truly genuine since we hardly know those involved. The movie strives to be Hoosiers but instead comes across as the The Passion of the Coach, which perhaps shouldn’t surprise us since said coach is played by Jim Caviezel (Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). Drop kick me Jesus, indeed!

On the plus side, When the Game Stands Tall is that rare example of a film where the 2nd act is actually the strongest part of the enterprise. Normally, screenplays that start and end well suffer in the middle: it’s a lot easier to write the fun opening and wild finish. But here, the first 45 minutes are completely unfocused, with barely distinguishable young football players running around looking mopey, presaging their inevitable defeat. Once that defeat happens, however, the movie jettisons its religious mission for a bit and focuses on the game that brings the team together and turns their fortunes around. While it does that, it’s (somewhat) interesting. And then it all falls apart again. But I think I’ll save this movie somewhere in my memory bank as one to show my students in the future, as the exception that proves the rule of the usual script issues. Badly acted and poorly conceived, the film is otherwise not worth its ticket price, however. Stay away.