It’s pretty and patriotic, which may be just enough for some moviegoers seeking old-fashioned family entertainment. But director George Clooney can scarcely salvage The Boys in the Boat (C-), a true-life Depression era tale of a ragtag Washington State rowing team on a potential collision course with the Berlin Olympics. The stakes should feel rightly leviathan and rarely do. A rudderless coach/mentor story, an undercooked love story and most notably a lack of depth in showcasing team camaraderie are among the central failings of a movie about winning. The crew sport doesn’t quite provide sufficient cinematic gusto either; there are only so many ways to row, row, row one’s way to so-so dramatic results. The coach character played by actor Joel Edgerton, usually a fascinating screen presence, rarely rises to the occasion. Callum Turner is fairly effective embodying the steely, stoic protagonist and makes the most of his underwritten central role. As his love interest, the plucky Hadley Robinson provides the radiant working definition of a role being sidelined. The epic score over oars, head-scratching pivots in plot and pacing, lack of clarity about the hard scrabble kids’ disadvantages against their well-heeled East coast contemporaries, an arbitrary monologue about crafting a seaworthy vessel and the nonchalant arrival of Hitler as a Hail Mary to raise the stakes are all on the low-simmer punch list as the story drifts. There’s a particularly inconsequential passage of the characters fundraising that fails the Dr. Evil test of putting financial figures in proper context. Forgive it the clunky present-day bookends under murky makeup, the unfinished plot points or a number of squandered opportunities, though, as there’s a decent family story about the value of personal integrity and hard work buried within Clooney’s film. The movie definitely needed elements as propulsive as its real-life heroes.
Talk about “formula” racing! Neill Blomkamp’s true life wish fulfillment drama Gran Turismo (B) starts out so color-by-numbers it seems destined to lap endless circles; but polished production values, brisk action and a touching set of mentor/mentee performances lift the film into true crowd-pleasing territory. In fact, it’s the late-breaking sit-down-and-cheer underdog movie of the summer. This is basically a real-life update of ‘80s adventure The Last Starfighter; this go-around the film’s protagonist is obsessed with the titular PlayStation racing simulation game and is recruited into the world of actual professional race car driving. The movie has an ample supply of Top Gun and The Karate Kid tropes stuffed into it too but ultimately finds its own modern lane. Relative newcomer Archie Madekwe gives a winning performance playing real-life hero Jann Mardenborough, and David Harbour is a delight as his grizzled trainer Jack Salter. Less successful is Orlando Bloom in a thankless and underwritten role as the auto executive who hatches the notion of leveraging sim players to become real drivers. Djimon Hounsou and Geri Halliwell spice up their scenes with a few sensitive moments as the hero’s parents, although the plot doesn’t completely explain their sometimes odd detachment. The movie does a good job guiding casual sports fans into its racing milieu with pop-up graphics, and the directorial choices including nose-dives into the action on a variety of international tracks provide a propulsive you-are-there vibe. The movie’s assertion of believing in yourself plus its largely clean content (save for some final act profanity) make it an imminently watchable choice for family viewing.
This biographical baseball film has three strikes against it: its acting roster is somewhat inconsistent, it fouls up some of its central notions about the limits of faith and it slides in too many familiar sports movie tropes – but even so, it’s largely a rousing run around the bases of feel-good sentiment. An earnest true-life story of a little-known sports miracle, Jeff Celentano’s The Hill (B-) is equal parts formulaic and inspirational. The central slugger who overcomes a handicap in order to try out for a chance at the big leagues is a real guy from history named Rickey Hill. He’s played effectively as a plucky child by the very talented Jesse Berry and as a twentysomething by Colin Ford, who is likable but not quite as natural. Dennis Quaid portrays his pastor father, who seems a bit world-weary in his stubborn role; the actor is powerful even if he never fully matches the age of his character (mercifully, no Indy 5 de-aging effects were employed). Scott Glenn as the legendary MLB scout and Bonnie Bedelia as the screenplay’s deus ex machina (a.k.a. the Hill family’s truth-telling grandmother) make lively impressions as the even more elder states-folk of the proceedings. The film is photographed in nostalgic tones which undergird its old-fashioned themes as the overprotective dad evokes unswerving devotion to religion as an excuse to forbid his son from a potentially disappointing career in baseball that will likely ruin the frail body behind his brawny batting arm. The script insists pop’s stalwart overprotection is somewhere beyond that of the parents in Footloose or Carrie, which gets far-fetched and tedious. Of course the staunch won’t short-change the launch. Still, when the inspirational sports and emotional moments work their magic, cheers and waterworks spring forth. There are some nice sequences of subtlety early in the film showcasing observant familial and congregational traditions which get mostly jettisoned for the inevitable montage sequences and grand finale. The movie is genial family entertainment and deftly demonstrates the majesty of both belief in a higher power and belief in a disciplined work ethic to field one’s dreams.
Is mansplaining on the marquee, or is this the ultimate tribute to a flawed father? Either way, there’s a lot to love here in a tale of an unexpected visionary. Will Smith holds court as father and tennis queen-maker Richard Williams in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard (B). Smith’s is a sterling performance in an often very good film focused much more on the man whose unconventional methods of parenting and coaching ushered in a new era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis circuit than on the sisters Venus and Serena who actually played the game. The film chronicles the family straight out of Compton through Florida intensives and a variety of dramatic confrontations prior to the young women becoming global champions. Smith exhibits a full gambit of emotions as a sometimes frustrating and complicated character who prioritizes strength of character and values over the quick win, and his acting opposite powerhouse Aunjanue Ellis as his wife Oracene and with talented newcomer Saniyya Sidney as Venus provides ample dramatic fodder for all involved. Usual tough guy Jon Bernthal as happily square coach Rick Macci also sinks his teeth into the tennis tête-à-tête. The film is a bit of a circuitous journey toward ultimate uplift and eschews many of the greatest hits in the family’s journey. Still it’s a largely family-friendly triumph for representation with strong acting on display.