Logan Lucky

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Rebecca Blunt

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Logan Lucky represents the first film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh in four years, since he left audiences divided with a convoluted pharma-thriller whose lingering side effects included, but were not limited to, headaches, confusion and pangs of disappointment. As if trying to course correct, he returns to more familiar territory with an Ocean’s Eleven set in the deep south, where instead of casinos we’re heisting our way out from literally underneath a NASCAR race track.

This may not be a story about Bonnie and Clyde but it is a story about Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). Even with their collective experience these feel like notable roles for actors constantly searching for ways to reinvent themselves. (We’ve seen Tatum do good-ole-boy before, but Kylo Ren with a southern drawl takes some getting used to.) The Logan brothers aren’t wealthy in material possessions and they’ve suffered their share of personal setbacks. Some even say they’re cursed, what with Jimmy’s dreams of playing pro football crushed by a leg injury and his younger brother losing an arm in Iraq.

Yet by the time we’re catching up with them, they seem well-adjusted. Jimmy works a construction job and greatly looks forward to spending time with his precocious daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) who is preparing for an upcoming beauty pageant. Clyde holds down the local bar at night where he’s mostly bored but occasionally gets to impress the odd out-of-towner — in this case a pretentious British douchebag effortlessly played by Seth Macfarlane — with his bartending “skills.” Tatum and Driver are clearly in no way related but their characters are undeniably cut from the same tattered cloth. They’re kindhearted, simple people who generally don’t go looking for trouble.

That is until the day Jimmy loses even this unsure footing, when he gets fired from his job working on the Charlotte Motor Speedway because of a “preexisting physical condition” that finally gets discovered. Later he is informed by ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) that it’s going to be more difficult to see Sadie as they’re moving across state lines thanks to her new hubby (David Denman) landing a cushier job.

Pushed to the brink, Jimmy hatches a scheme with the hope of restoring some of his dignity. Money may not buy you happiness but can it at least buy you that? He intends to find out by Robin Hood-ing his way in and out of his old construction site, in the process siphoning off a few dollar bills from the elaborate network of pipes that shuttle money between the site’s vendors and the vault. He’ll be taking from the public and giving back to the very private sector. But he won’t be able to do it alone, so he enlists the one-armed Clyde and their renegade sister Mellie (Riley Keough) as sidekicks.

The framework is familiar and the action routine, certainly by Soderbergh’s own standards, but it’s with whom the director has surrounded himself that really makes the difference. With supporting parts also going to the likes of Hilary Swank and Macon Blair as detectives on the trail, Sebastian Stan as a NASCAR driver representing the aforementioned British bag-with-which-one-douches, and Katherine Waterston as a potential love interest, Logan Lucky boasts one of his most impressive casts to date. Six real stock car drivers appear in cameos — the recently retired Jeff Gordon most recognizable among them. But he’s not as funny as Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards who play state troopers of all things.

That’s not even mentioning the film’s crowning jewel.

In order to physically access the money, the brothers will require the services of a safecracker who goes by the name of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). Seeing as though Bang’s behind bars, that part is going to be a little tricky. Luckily Soderbergh can make even the most contrived development enjoyable, here inserting country music icon Dwight Yoakam as a feckless prison warden to facilitate a critical plot point. The singer/songwriter/actor is clearly relishing the role he plays in this farce, but it’s 007 himself that really digs in. Ditching the Omega and the Armani suit for striped pajamas and bleached hair, his presence alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the kind of role that tells me that James Bond may well need Craig more than Craig needs James Bond.

The characters define Logan Lucky, perhaps in a way that no other cast Soderbergh has been gifted has before. His early-2000s adaptations of the Rat Pack classic weren’t exactly high concept, but by comparison Danny Ocean made you really work for your entertainment. This is a familiar heist thriller executed with a level of enthusiasm that’s just as familiar, but unfortunately an adherence to a certain formula leads Logan Lucky into a snag not even the well-prepared Jimmy could anticipate and/or avoid. A subplot at the end needlessly rehashes details of the heist as the detectives attempt to identity the culprits — a sloppy construction that causes an unwanted momentum shift and a pair of talented actors to come across rather amateurish.

In fairness, the Tatum-Driver-Craig combo is one tough act to follow. They’re the gift that keeps on giving, keeping this rural farce on the wrong side of the law but just the right side of ridiculous.

Recommendation: With colorful and unforgettable characters, the lackadaisical plotting of Logan Lucky is more easily forgiven. Even as the buzz wears off significantly towards the end, this is one of the more purely enjoyable flicks of the late season — a cold and refreshing <insert the name of an American pilsner here> on a hot race day. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Did you just suck off his arm?”

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Hail, Caesar!

'Hail Caesar!' movie poster

Release: Friday, February 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen

There’s a new Coen brothers film out in theaters and it is called Hail, Caesar! It chiefly depicts a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood fixer, a man charged with ensuring that studio productions stay on track and avoid disruption or shut-down due to various intervening factors, not least of which being a movie star’s actions away from the set. Call it a function of public relations but this custodial role actually seems even more thankless.

As a modest Coen brothers fan, I bought a ticket. I watched as the film played. When it was over, I got up and headed for the exit. I got into my car and drove home. Such is the perfunctory, mechanical, obligatory, bland, boring manner in which the Coens chose to “make” their new film. This is a total head-scratcher, a real WTF-er.

All the elements seem to be in place for an uproarious, clever comedy. The talent is there behind the lens and the pens. The cast is the sort only directors with the kind of pull brothers Joel and Ethan now have can afford: Josh Brolin is the fixer, Eddie Mannix. George Clooney stars as Baird Whitlock, a name as epic as the film he’s starring in (you guessed it, Hail, Caesar!). Scarlett Johansson reinvests in her native New York accent playing DeeAnna Moran, the star of a spectacular water-themed production that will apparently involve lots of synchronized swimming, while Ralph Fiennes is a British director unhappy with a miscast  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) in his stage drama. Frances McDormand isn’t exactly Marge Gunderson this time around but she does have the distinction of being in the film’s funniest scene (and it is great). Channing Tatum plays a tap-dancing Communist and Tilda Swinton has a double role as twin sister journalists.

Oh yeah, I think I forgot Jonah Hill but that’s okay, because so did the Coens. Hill’s cameo barely registers as it seems to have already had its time in previews that have played to death the little flirty moment he gets to have with Johansson. No harm, no foul though. At least I can say Hill is consistently compelling with the two lines of dialogue he gets.

Hail, Caesar! can hang its hat on other things besides its staffing. Visually, it’s a beautiful piece and a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A sparkling sepia filter bathes the backlots of 1950s studios in a warmth that belies the business-like approach of both Brolin and the narrative at heart. But it’s not all glamorous, for the Coens seem to be indicting Big Business while celebrating the end product, the beauty of filmic imagery and the devotion of a cast to see its completion. Hail, Caesar! is, if nothing else, confirmation that the ‘magic of movies’ really lies in the sequence and number of phone calls a studio exec happens to make. But please, I turn to the Coens to be entertained, not educated. Or maybe I came to be educated, too, but I still put my needs in that order.

The film does very little entertaining. In fact it’s a surprisingly meandering, mindless affair where plot threads begin and taper off out of nowhere; where the comedy comes in spurts and the weirdness rules with an iron fist. Hail, Caesar! is perhaps at its worst when tracing Mannix’s single biggest problem of the day: locating and returning Baird Whitlock who gets kidnapped from his own trailer. This is a subplot that goes nowhere. A group of Communist sympathizers explain to Whitlock the arrogance of studio executives and how they get off on making millions for themselves (and their higher-ups) while never properly paying those who contributed their creative talents — several of the members of this clandestine group are screenwriters, you see — thus the reason why they are holding one of Hollywood’s biggest names for ransom.

Yeah — take that, you big meanies! This arc would have been compelling had it made any effort to engage the audience but philosophical and ideological ramblings (which seem to have this weird effect on the movie star) offer a painfully obvious exit for any theatergoer not well-versed in the Coens’ tendency to wander aimlessly every now and then. This time I don’t blame those people that couple for leaving; Hail Caesar! spends way too much time indulging.

And then it leaves such little time for other stories, such as DeeAnna’s concern over raising her soon-to-be-born child and Hobie Doyle’s aspirations. Mannix offers to protect the former’s image of having a baby out of wedlock (this is the 1950s, remember) by allowing her to put her baby up for adoption until she can claim it without the public becoming any wiser. Doyle is having a hard time fitting into a more talky role and must decide if he wants the western to define him as an actor or if he wants to grow and develop into something more. At least he seems to be comfortable finding a date to the premier of one of his own movies.

There’s another half-baked story involving entertainment beat reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker — anyone notice a pattern yet? — in which both are morbidly curious about the disappearance of Capitol’s prized possession in Baird Whitlock, and both still have questions about his legitimacy as a star in the first place. Some scandal about sleeping with a male director to get a role early in his career? What? You could almost consider the Thacker sisters prototypes of the folks over at TMZ, their ability to show up at any time and out of thin air simultaneously alarming and amusing.

The Thackers’ presence is microcosmic of the Coens’ unusually tedious throwback: at its best it is a mildly amusing, grin-inducing gossip column. At its worst it is a waste of time, with some moments so dreadfully boring it’s a wonder how a film that’s critical of the film-making process managed to keep them in the final cut.

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Recommendation: One of the Coens’ weakest efforts to date, Hail, Caesar! has its moments but too often the laughs are lost in an unfocused narrative that spreads itself too thin across an arguably too ambitious cast. That said, those who are cast in the film fit right into the scene and do well with what material they have. There’s no such thing as a bad performance here but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cast this good fail to compel in any significant way. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Would that it were so simple . . .”

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The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

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Jupiter Ascending

ja-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  The Wachowskis

Directed by: The Wachowskis

As Jupiter ascended, my patience and enthusiasm did precisely the opposite, and at warp speed, too.

After production delays stalled the Wachowski siblings’ follow-up to their impressive Cloud Atlas, I still held out hope that even with extensive CGI surgery the general experience would remain unaffected. I guess I was right. The story we’re presented — a girl, born under a starry night sky, doesn’t believe she’s worth much but as it turns out she is actually on a collision course with an unearthly huge responsibility: saving her/our planet from being harvested by a campy celestial tyrant — remains as a decent second-draft that needed more updates than the visual component of the film did. All of this is to suggest I overlooked the fact that maybe, just maybe, the Wachowskis had been sitting on their weakest story to date.

Sure, you can go ahead and snicker at a polished Channing Tatum whose Caine Wise humbles his Magic Mike on the virtue of insane hair-do’s alone. His goofy appearance makes the film ripe for parody, as do the talking reptilian villains, Eddie Redmayne’s awful performance and Mila Kunis’ lack of credibility as a planetary savior. Part of what makes a Wachowski creation entertaining as well as endearing is this tendency for their situations and characters to stay on just the right side of bizarre. Odd customs and cultures, strange dialects, occasionally clunky dialogue and over-the-top action sequences trickle their way into each one of their productions. It’s as much fun to go along with the ride as it is to nitpick over their ongoing infatuation with Asians and creative nomenclature. Jupiter Ascending, however, oversteps a line.

Jupiter Jones loses her parents much too soon, and so she’s raised in a strange and somewhat oppressive Russian household that has her waking up at quarter to five each morning to scrub toilets and bemoaning how much she “hates her life.” I think I would too with a name that may or may not imply I am a gigantic blob of gas. It’s a good thing she’ll soon be targeted by a powerful intergalactic family that has just lost its matriarch and needs a new heir. The surviving Abrasax siblings — Balem (Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) — are squabbling over who should seize control of their estate, a sector of the universe that includes Earth. Tatum’s genetically-modified human/wolf appears in Chicago to rescue Jupiter from a random attack by some of Balem’s minions (the Keepers) once the freckled maniac learns of her existence and her true identity. The girl of course has no idea what is going on.

Funny enough, neither do we.

Her naivety swells to the point where it becomes the driving force behind the narrative. This is a little misleading because at the heart of this space opera is the need for Jupiter to find her true calling in life, and to her that means finding the one person she really loves. That’s something that overrides her desire to own the Earth. If you’re not distracted by the incredibly cool renderings of space and its myriad civilizations — toss in an intergalactic police force referred to as the Aegis for further confusion — then you might have the unfortunate luck of coming to the realization that this is all the Wachowskis have to offer here. Jupiter Ascending is a standard love story mired in overly complex mythos, poor acting and silly storytelling.

Damn it if the ideology of these Abrasax weirdos doesn’t tease something greater though. There’s this almost poetic fascination with the largest celestial body in our solar system and how a superior form of intelligence may someday be the downfall of our civilization. Jupiter, the planet, is really a thing of beauty and the film can’t emphasize this enough. The visuals are jaw-dropping, even if they’re mostly dedicated to action sequences that go on a few minutes too long. But even on Earth, as Jupiter is shrouded in a cloud of bees that refuse to sting Her Majesty, the cinematography is beautifully refined.

I’d be okay with the story taking a backseat to impressive scenery had the Wachowskis not already established themselves as filmmakers who pride themselves on being able to present the complete package: stunning visuals accompanying intelligent, if not revolutionary storytelling. Everyone in awe of Jupiter and her ascent can only feel completely betrayed by this declension.

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1-5Recommendation: I’m not really sure that I do. I think I feel more comfortable recommending you save a few bucks and going to check out something else.

Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “I will harvest that planet tomorrow before I let her take it from me. . .”

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Foxcatcher

foxcatcher-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: E. Max Frye; Dan Futterman 

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Enigmas like paranoid-schizophrenic John Eleuthère du Pont prove it was prudent for both Steve Carell and the Americanized The Office to bid adieu to one another. Of course, that transition was as much a matter of inevitability as the tragedy we traipse toward in Foxcatcher, but a fog of doubt descended quickly in the wake of the departure of one of prime time television’s most ridiculous characters. What comes next? What do you hope to achieve, Michael Scott?

Obviously the answer ‘to be the best in the world’ won’t suffice. In this grim and isolated setting Carell has a funny way of suggesting that this has actually been the goal for some time now. At the very least, there brims beneath a haggard physique this desire to be taken more seriously; that’s if taking next year’s Oscars by storm is out of the question.

Carell hooks up with New York native Bennett Miller (whose directorial CV includes 2005’s Capote and 2011’s Moneyball) along with the incredibly versatile Mark Ruffalo and an ever-more watchable Channing Tatum on the set of the inauspicious Liseter Hall Farm — some 200 acres of land acquired and later expanded upon by the wealthy Du Pont family, a prominent American clan built primarily upon the manufacturing of gunpowder. To say Carell portrays the mentally disturbed, socially repressed heir to the Du Pont family fortune would be a criminal understatement. Carell keeps the beak (okay so it’s exaggerated a bit) but dispenses with the comedic charade and his warmth as a basically decent human being. It’s in the way he slowly, deliberately breathes and speaks in an entirely unnatural cadence that defines this as a tour-de-force performance you won’t want to miss.

Meanwhile, Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo) Schultz are accomplished wrestlers, both having won Gold medals in the 1984 Olympics in Seoul, although older brother David is the vastly more celebrated athlete. You’ll have a difficult time recognizing Tatum in this fragile, downbeat portrayal of a younger brother trying anything to make his life work for him. He’s categorically not the same actor I was introduced to in 21 Jump Street. Ruffalo effects a gentle soul whose family life trumps what he does for a living. Though his stoutness suggests he won’t ever be taken down easily, his willingness to abandon psychological sanctuary for the opportunity to rise to the top once more just isn’t present. It is in Mark.

Miller’s uncompromising vision requires everyone to dig deeper than they have ever before. Even Vanessa Redgrave, who plays matriarchal Jean du Pont and gets all of three lines to speak. For at the heart of Foxcatcher exists a profoundly troubled mother-son relationship; whereas Jean has prided herself on a tradition of equestrian excellence — Foxcatcher Farm is a thoroughbred racing stable after all — her son wishes to coach and inspire a group of young men into Olympic training and medal contention.

John’s desperation to be validated by his own blood yields his cruel treatment of two athletes he essentially stalks and coerces into a game of psychological abuse and manipulation. He says he would love to see America soar once again — this trio of the Schultz brothers and Coach du Pont would surely be a force to be reckoned with even during the Olympic trials — but what he really means is that he would love to see his mother smile at him. Just once. A pat on the back could go a long way. But Jean declares the sport to be ‘low,’ and something she wishes to not even recognize, lest it be the downfall of the Du Pont legacy. The irony is seated before her during one of the film’s more revealing scenes.

Regrettably Sienna Miller, as David’s wife Nancy, and Anthony Michael Hall feel a tad underused, though they aren’t the centerpiece. The moral of this story: Tatum and Ruffalo are heartbreakingly good. They unquestionably appreciate the significance of whom they represent here. They’re two of the most decorated wrestlers in history, winning more NCAA, U.S. Open, World and Olympic titles than any other American brother duo who took to the floor. The circumstances are ripe for tragedy. Miller certainly capitalizes, creating a quiet, slow-burning thriller that refuses to compromise intensity for Hollywood glitz and glam. There aren’t too many films out right now that will make you feel quite as uncomfortable with such little violence or bloodshed depicted.

Credit that to the fact that this all actually took place. Now that’s a chilling thought.

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4-5Recommendation: Foxcatcher is a harrowing experience that deserves a much wider release than it has received. A slow roll-out of one of the best-acted dramas of 2014 is just not the way this beauty of a film should have been treated yo. Of course, I ain’t got no say in the matter. But if we could scrap, like 1,000 screenings of that stupid The Interview flick and replace it with something much more substantial and meaningful, you won’t find me complaining. I don’t think I need to mention performances anymore here, so rather what I’d recommend is checking this one out for a solid — if slightly contrived — recounting of an American Dream shattered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “A coach is a father. A coach is a mentor. A coach has great power on an athlete’s life.”

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