Invincible

Today on inspirational sports dramas: Invincible, which is the true-to-life story of Vince Papale (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg), a football player. Why is his story important? Because he was a bartender who went to an open tryout for the NFL — no, seriously — and managed to win himself a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles. Could you imagine something like that happening nowadays? It wouldn’t. But in 1976, in what was even at the time and unprecedented move, such a thing did happen.

Or, it kind of happened. If you either know your NFL history or decide to look it up online, you’ll see that more than a few liberties were taken from the real story. Most importantly, for me at least, was a change made regarding how much football Papale played. In real life, he had played, both professionally and non-professionally, for years. In the film, he plays a couple of nights a week in a field with his buddies in a no-pads “league.” The film plays out as more inspirational as a result, as it leads us to believe that someone who plays games with regular guys could have a shot at the NFL.

The film is essentially one big “you can do it if you really try” storyline. Papale works hard and is eventually rewarded for his effort. He jogs a lot, is good at catching a football, has a big heart, and is in great shape for a 30-year-old. Those are all the ingredients that anyone needs to make an NFL team, apparently, even if it is only on special teams. More NFL teams should hold open tryouts. I’m sure there are plenty of people like this out there.

Invincible ends with an epilogue letting us know exactly how long Papale’s career was. If there’s a downer moment in this otherwise inspirational movie, it’s the epilogue. As it turns out, Papale didn’t have a long NFL career, and even when he was playing, it’s not like he was a great player. He was a fringe NFLer at best, and the film would have left the audience more cheerful and upbeat had it not told us just how successful — not very — Papale was at staying in the NFL.

Oh. Right. The movie. I’m supposed to be talking about the movie, not about Papale’s lack of success after the movie’s story fades to black. Okay, this is your generic underdog sports movie. Every beat you expect it to hit, it hits. Every scene you think it will include, it has. About the only difference I can think of is that pretty much everyone in the film — outside of his soon-to-be teammates — wants Papale to succeed. His friends and colleagues cheer him on, and I can only think of one guy who’s more indifferent than negative.

For the most part, though, you’ve seen this movie before. Do you need to see it again? With everyone so positive and Papale so confident, there’s never any doubt that he’s going to fail. He really does feel, for lack of a better word, invincible. The point when he starts to think that he might not succeed feels artificial because no signs have pointed in that direction, and his triumphs don’t really work because there’s never much doubt regarding the outcome. You need that negativity and adversity for this type of story to be effective, and it’s missing from Invincible.

What else doesn’t work? The love story, if you can call it that, between Papale and another bartender, Janet (Elizabeth Banks), gets barely any time to develop and feels tacked-on — likely added because the two wound up an item in real life and we needed to know that. The two actors have no chemistry, their conversations are so shallow that you never think they could fall in love, and this adds unnecessary minutes to the film that either could have been cut or used better elsewhere.

We’re also never really given any indication as to why the Eagles’ coach, Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), would pick Papale to be on the team, except that he has blind faith in the man. The rest of the coaching staff voted for someone else to make the last spot on the team, and by all accounts hiring an actual football player is the logical decision, especially when he’s not hated by the rest of the players on the team. But Vermeil picks Papale, and it would have been nice to know why. Maybe have a scene where he justifies his pick to the general manager?

Mark Wahlberg kind of looks like Vince Papale. He is also in good shape. That’s likely why he was cast. The film is not an actor’s showpiece; it’s a PG-rated, mostly happy-go-lucky, Disney film, after all. There are no strong performances in a movie like this. Wahlbeg carries himself as a (very small) football player. That’s all that’s necessary. Greg Kinnear kind of looks like Dick Vermeil. Elizabeth Banks is just really pretty. There. The lead actors have been justified and described.

Invincible is a cutesy-poo inspirational sports drama about a Regular Joe managing to make an NFL team. You’ve seen this type of film before, and unless you’re looking for a family friendly version of this story, you have little reason to watch this movie. There’s not enough adversity, too much cliché, a terrible romance, and actors who are here either because of their looks or physique; their acting skills are unimportant because they’re barely having to act. Invincible is not worth your time.

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The Spectacular Now

Who would have seen this coming? Miles Teller had a role earlier in 2013 in 21 & Over and was terrible. Here, in The Spectacular Now, he’s natural, sympathetic, and genuinely funny. The actor who received praise for his supporting role in Rabbit Hole shines through once again. My hope is that Teller decides to stick to these types of films. His strength is not obnoxious and offensive comedies like 21 & Over; he’s at his best in a movie like this one, where he doesn’t have to force anything.

Lots of movies are the same way. The ones that try to force the jokes are the ones that wind up the least humorous, the least watchable. The Spectacular Now feels so real because it doesn’t force anything. It draws you in with real people and lets you watch them for 90 minutes. You see them go through the highs and lows of a relationship — or not a relationship, if the character Teller plays is to be believed. It has a fantastic sense of itself and it doesn’t try to manipulate you in any way, except perhaps in one shocking moment — although it makes less of a deal of it than you will at the time.

Teller plays Sutter Keely, an 18-year-old approaching graduation. He recently broke up with Cassidy (Brie Larson), although he still thinks about her all the time. He drinks a lot, carrying a flask he uses to spike his soda. He drives under the influence, he doesn’t care about his marks, and he could actually fail to graduate if this keeps up. One morning he wakes up in a lawn with a girl, Aimee (Shailene Woodley), standing over him. She’s on a paper route — her mom’s, but she does it if her mother stayed out too late — and Sutter decides to help her out. He doesn’t know where his car is, anyway.

The two become fast friends. The thought of Cassidy starts to dissipate, although it doesn’t fully disappear. Sutter isn’t looking for a new girlfriend, while Aimee’s never had a significant other before. The two share parents they won’t stand up to, and while they initially seem like opposites we learn they have more in common than would appear on the surface.

For the first two-thirds of The Spectacular Now, we sit and observe the progression of their relationship. They begin spending more time together, enjoying each other’s company even more, and eventually get to the stage where both are confident to call the other more than a friend. The film is sweet at this point and observant, although it has hardly covered any new territory. About the only thing separating it from other similar films is that its characters feel real, which is unlike most movie teenagers you’ll see.

It’s after the first hour or so when the film reveals its true nature, taking us to a darker place than similar films dare to venture and becoming as focused on maturing its characters as it is on their relationship. This transition is handled well, largely because the seeds are planted early on so that when they sprout later on it doesn’t come out of left field. We saw the signs and now it’s time for the characters to deal with situations they’ve created.

Despite the film being told from Sutter’s perspective we get almost as much insight into Aimee’s life as we do his. Sutter’s immaturity and personality come from his parents — he and his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) don’t speak much and his father (Kyle Chandler) left when he was young. Understanding that is key into “getting” the character. Aimee’s home life is similar, in that she feels responsible for her mother, not the other way around, and her father died early on.

None of the characters feel like your typical movie teenagers. Sutter is extroverted but emotionally stunted. He thinks he’s the greatest thing has to come to terms that other people don’t see him that way. Aimee falls in love and seems more sure of herself, but without any prior experience she can’t really know. Cassidy could have easily been portrayed as either perfect or the Queen B, but instead comes across as someone who will always have feelings for Sutter but realizes that, as he is now, there is no future with him.

The three teenage characters are played by actors who turn in very naturalistic performances. Miles Teller, as I already touched on, is shockingly good. Shailene Woodley is sweet and innocent early on and gains confidence as the film progresses. That’s tough for an actor to portray. Brie Larson’s role is anything but generic. The film treats its subject matter and characters with respect, as only the good teenage movies do. It doesn’t pander or talk down to them, and as a result we’re treated to a smart and honest film.

The Spectacular Now might not be particularly focused on its narrative, but its characters are top-notch and feel very realistic. We get to observe them for such a time that when the time comes for them to blossom — or fail — we understand exactly why either (or both) happens. Their relationship is sweet, the humor comes from a very natural place, and the production treats its teenage subjects with respect. The story goes in a darker direction than similar films, and it feels honest and true throughout. This is a good movie.

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Everly

Here’s how I imagine the pitching session for Everly going:

“Hey. So, what would the film be like if Die Hard was led by a Woman, and the people trying to kill her had previously enslaved her and forced her into prostitution?”

“Uh, probably lots of fun.”

“So, can we make this movie?”

“Sure.”

And then Everly got made. Taking place solely in an apartment building — and on Christmas, no less! — the film follows Everly (Salma Hayek) as she defends her home from a bunch of hitmen, cops, and Yakuza.

No, really. That’s the entire movie. She spends 90 minutes fighting off a succession of bad guys. Her estranged mother (Laura Cepeda) and daughter (Aisha Ayamah) — yes, this movie does the whole “fractured family” thing, too — eventually become endangered, and we slowly find out exactly what got Everly into this situation. But, mostly, it’s a bloody and violent movie in which Salma Hayek gets to shoot a whole bunch of people who want her dead. Some of them are more interesting than others — a man named the Sadist (Togo Igawa) is more fun than generic SWAT members, but they’re all going to try to kill Everly over the course of the film.

Is there much more to it than that? Not really. One of the men who initially tries to kill her survives her retaliation, and he’s kept alive for most of the film. There are a couple of funny sequences in which Everly has to do “normal” things even in spite of the constant danger that she’s in. But, mostly, it’s just Everly vs. the world in a “who can kill whom first” fight where “the world” is represented by all sorts of unsavory people.

If you’re a fan of semi-serious action movies, this is one you’re going to like. Despite not having a grindhouse aesthetic — it’s a slick-looking movie — it reminded me of the likes of Machete and Planet Terror. It’s over-the-top and silly, and also incredibly violent and contains some pretty solid action. Of course, the obvious parallel is one I already mentioned, which is Die Hard, as the general setup is more or less just Die Hard but with Salma Hayek in the role of John McClane, and also she’s much better prepared for the situation than he was.

Now, Everly isn’t as good as Die Hard, so don’t you worry about having replacing Die Hard on your annual “non-traditional Christmas movies we have to mention because it’s edgy” list, although I think Everly might make a good double-feature with its inspiration. Both films do take place on Christmas, after all, so you can call them “Christmas movies.” In fact, with its frequent ironic use of Christmas songs, one could make the argument that this is more of a “Christmas movie” than Die Hard is. Everly is bloodier and sillier, and in all honesty being “Die Hard with a woman” makes it worth talking about all on its own.

Salma Hayek is made to be a compelling and believable action heroine in Everly. Part of the reason is because of how committed Hayek is to the role. It’s a physically demanding role, and she’s dives in headfirst into all the violence, and then also has to portray genuine emotions on top of that. She pulls it off, which is all sorts of awesome. She’s the only actor worth watching in the movie, but she’s so good that even in the non-action scenes — of which there are very few — Everly remains good.

I’m not here to tell you that Everly is a must-watch movie, but if you’re looking for a female-led Die Hard — I don’t think there was one before this — that takes a gleeful approach to violence, then it might be worth seeing. Salma Hayek handles the action like a veteran, keeping the emotion and intensity high throughout, and the over-the-top gore and silly characters keeps things fresh. Everly is a lot of fun from start to finish, and if you like violent action movies set in a single location, you’ll be right at home watching it.

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Raw Review (January 26, 2015)

Spoilers follow for the January 26th episode of Raw.

So, with the Royal Rumble over, fans aren’t happy. WWE could have made it up to them with a superb episode of Raw, but thanks to a blizzard hitting a good chunk of American, Raw is coming to us live from the WWE offices. Does that mean we’re going to have any matches? We’ll see.

It opens with Michael Cole and Booker T sitting down and talking about the blizzard that shut down the plans for tonight. We’re going to get to see the entirety of the triple threat match at the Royal Rumble, as well as the full Rumble match, too, which caused so much controversy on social networks. That’s kind of nice of WWE, given that those were the only two matches on the PPV worth seeing.

JBL is serving as the “meteorologist” of the evening, as he is on the roof of the building. He tells us it’s cold and stuff. Then we go straight to the triple threat match from last night. I’ll re-post my thoughts on it here.


WWE World Heavyweight Championship Match: John Cena vs. Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar

Lesnar spams suplexes, Rollins plays the cowardly heel to perfection, and Cena is there to bridge the gap. This is a triple threat match that is wonderfully crafted and performed. It’s exciting from start to finish, has an incredibly fast pace, a ton of near-falls, a good number of finishers and signatures, and a couple of spots that are worth seeing the match for alone.

It’s only January, and we already have a strong contender for match of the year. Lesnar takes so much punishment in this match that, for perhaps one of the only times during his current run, his outrageous paycheck seems worth it. And he comes away looking like the beast he is. A good chunk of the match is Cena/Rollins, as Brock Lesnar took so much abuse that doctors had to come out and check on Lesnar.

Lesnar eventually ignores the doctors, comes back in, and wins the match. Rollins hits a great top-rope move, is hit with a couple of German Suplexes, an F-5, and then takes the loss. What a fun match.

Match Rating: ****1/2

Seth Rollins is interviewed by Michael Cole after the match finishes. It seems less scripted than most interviews are, or perhaps it’s just because Seth Rollins is really quite good on the mic in less showy situations. Weirdly enough, WWE shows “highlights” of the match Rollins was in last night, but does it in the traditional “still photo” way they do to try to get people to pay to see them. How much sense does this make when they literally just showed the entire match on free TV?

Rollins explains that he deserved to be in that match, and he realistically could have won it. He also says he underestimated Brock Lesnar last night, although he thinks Lesnar did the same to him. Cole tells us Lesnar’s interview is up next, and thanks Rollins for his time. Rollins says if Lesnar’s next, he’s not leaving; Lesnar will have to kick him off the seat if he wants it.

After the commercial break, Rollins is indeed still sitting in that seat. He gets up when Lesnar approaches and then knocks the seat down. It’s picked back up by a random crew member. Paul Heyman is also here. Heyman pumps up Lesnar, and Lesnar does the same for himself in this totally-not-taped-earlier interview. We get a flashback to last WrestleMania, which thankfully does not consist solely of still photographs. Lesnar and Heyman think very little of Roman Reigns winning the Rumble match. Then we get to see that entire match.


The Royal Rumble

You know how these work, right? It’s every man for himself, with someone coming out every 90 seconds, and you’re eliminated if you are thrown over the top rope and both feet hit the floor. The last man standing gets to main event WrestleMania.

The Miz and R-Truth start the Rumble match tonight, but surprise entrants start as early as the third entrant. Bubba Ray Dudley is #3, which is all sorts of awesome. He does get a couple of eliminations, but he doesn’t last all that long. Curtis Axel is supposed to come out sixth, but Erick Rowan attacks him and heads to the ring, which allows for a Wyatt Family reunion, which is lots of fun. The Boogeyman gets to square off against Bray Wyatt, and I really hope Boogeyman is back to stay, even though I doubt he is. He’s treated like a joke here, which is too bad.

Wyatt is actually one of the most successful entrants this year, as he eliminates a whole bunch of superstars all on his own. Zack Ryder returned at #9, although nobody really noticed that he was gone. Daniel Bryan comes in at #10. #14 is Diamond Dallas Page, which might matter to some people. He hits a bunch of Diamond Cutters. Bryan surprisingly gets taken out by Bray Wyatt relatively early, actually.

Goldust and Stardust go at it for a while, which is approximately the 300th time we’ve teased that match. Kofi Kingston was out at #17, and he got booed, because Bryan was taken out and this is a smark crowd. Kofi’s “spot” this year involves falling onto the Rosebuds, who save him, although, only for a few seconds.

Roman Reigns, the likely favorite at this point, still comes through the crowd, but does so with a security guard beside him, and with a myriad of boos accompanying his entrance music. The fans turned on him, just like Batista last year. At this point, about the only one who could win and get cheered would be The Rock.

Damien Sandow comes out at #21, but Miz tries to take his spot. He’s thrown out instantly by Reigns, so Sandow enters the ring instead. He hits a couple of moves but then Rusev eliminates him. He then continues to mimic the Miz. What a wasted opportunity.

Dean Ambrose comes out and is the first one to get cheered since Bryan’s elimination. The whole thing felt relatively lazy and not particularly smart when it came to booking. The surprises all came early, Bryan’s elimination killed the crowd, and really should’ve happened later on, and there are no potential surprises in the last five or so. No Orton. No Rock. Kane does get to break Shawn Michael’s total eliminations record, which is swell, but that’s about the highlight of the match.

Roman Reigns eliminates Big Show and Kane at the same time to “win” the Royal Rumble.

Big Show and Kane then attack Reigns after the match, which brings out The Rock, in a desperate attempt to save the show and make the save for Reigns.

Rusev then comes back into the ring, because he was never officially eliminated. But Reigns spears him and throws him out to actually win this time.

Match Rating: ***

The Rock congratulates Reigns in the ring afterward, since this is about the only way that fans are even kind of okay with Reigns winning. What a cheap way to try to save Reigns’ reactions. And it wasn’t even successful!

Following the match, JBL, Booker T, and Michael Cole talk about the Rumble match for a brief moment, which had its audience reaction edited for the Raw replay, by the way. Reigns then gets interviewed by Byron Saxton. He tells us a silly story about learning how to swim, which is how he tries to defend how he is awesome but might not be the most experienced. He then talks about the crowd last night, telling the fans that they’re entitled to boo or cheer whoever they want. It might not be fair, but it doesn’t matter. He also talks about The Rock, and family, during which time he mentions Umaga, so as far as I’m concerned, all is forgiven.

We’re then shown an interview from last night involving John Cena, which is interrupted by Rusev, setting up a match between the two of them in the future. That’ll happen at Fast Lane in a few weeks. Triple H has also called out Sting to show up at that PPV. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also named as the next inductee into the Hall of Fame.

We find out that Dean Ambrose came to WWE headquarters … for no real reason. He gets to cut a brief promo, though, so there’s that.

Daniel Bryan is interviewed next. He reminds us of what happened over the last year. This mostly exists so that Bryan can defend Reigns winning the Rumble. We’ll see if that works. The Rock couldn’t get Reigns cheers, so we’ll see if Bryan can.

A joint interview between Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar happens next. Paul Heyman kicks out Michael Cole and takes over as the interviewer. Heyman dominates the conversation — he doesn’t let anyone else speak for a long time — and tells Reigns that he knows Reigns’ family better than Reigns does. Heyman then puts over Reigns wonderfully. He does the same for Lesnar. Reigns eventually turns and faces Lesnar, telling the champion that he’s going to win. These conversations seem so much less forced and far rawer than the ones that normally happen. They stand up, face each other, and shake hands. The WrestleMania main event might have just been saved.

Our commentating team briefly discusses what just happened before Raw concludes. This was a surprisingly decent episode of Raw. This type of thing should become a monthly WWE Network show.

The Good: Cena/Rollins/Lesnar. Rollins’ interview. Umaga mention. That last interview segment.

The Bad: So much of the Rumble match.

Match of the Night: John Cena vs. Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar.

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Cake

Unlike what its title might indicate, Cake is not at all a sweet, fluffy, or otherwise enjoyable film. It’s downright miserable from start to finish, much like its protagonist, Claire (Jennifer Aniston). You don’t come away from Cake happy or smiling, but sad and contemplative. It’s a powerful movie about grief and pain, and features one of the best performances — and a very nice change of pace — for its leading lady.

Claire has chronic back pain and pops pills in order to deal with it. She’s got scars all over her body, and has to attend support groups and physical therapy. The reason is initially hidden from us, only revealed midway through the film. A woman in her support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has recently committed suicide. Claire often thinks about doing the same thing, so she finds herself fascinated by Nina. Aided by her live-in nurse/housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza), she winds up trying to figure out everything about Nina — all while being haunted by her ghost. Or maybe it’s just a hallucination caused by the pain and the tonic of alcohol and pain pills she has every day. I’m thinking probably the latter.

The film is ultimately about Claire overcoming the mental and physical barriers that are preventing her from making even a partial recovery. She became this way six months ago and has made no progress. She struggles to even get pills now, since she should no longer need them. Does she even want to get better? Why is she so miserable all the time? As Cake plays out, we find out the answers to these questions.

Cake touches on issues that aren’t particularly easy to digest. Depression, suicide, chronic pain, guilt, grief — none of that is particularly fun to discuss. I can see lots of people being turned off by how unhappy a lot of Cake is. Maybe the title is misleading; maybe it’s intentionally that way. Maybe the filmmakers want to draw you in with the promise of a sweet movie starring Jennifer Aniston and then show you a realistic portrait of an unhappy individual in order to make a stronger impact.

It’s quite the emotional story. Claire isn’t exactly a likable person, but since we grow to understand her during the course of this character study, that doesn’t really become an issue. She’s interesting enough and is never boring to watch, either. If nothing else, she always does something that’s worth watching. Sometimes you see the kindness in her, and you hope that she’ll be able to permanently find that side of her once more. Whatever trauma she suffered is keeping her from that.

A good chunk of the film’s success comes from Jennifer Aniston in the leading role. Stripped of any sort of glamour, she turns in the best performance she’s had in years — and maybe of her entire career. She’s heartbreaking and absolutely fantastic. It’s a nice change of pace and will hopefully serve as a corner being turned for Aniston. She’s truly wonderful in Cake, and while this type of role isn’t an “every movie” type of thing, it’s nice to see that this is a place she can take us.

Meanwhile, Adriana Barraza, who plays a nurse/housekeeper is up to the task of keeping up with Aniston. It’s a very important supporting role and Barraza does a wonderful job in it. There are a couple of somewhat distracting cameos from actors you’ll recognize like William H. Macy and Lucy Punch scattered throughout; they play important roles but it’s distracting to see them show up for a single scene and then leave.

How good is Cake? Sam Worthington is in this movie, and he’s genuinely good! That might be the biggest surprise that it has to offer. All of its acting is good, with Jennifer Aniston and Adriana Barraza being the standouts, but for a serious drama like this one, it’s a pleasant surprise to see Sam Worthington not ruin it. Meanwhile, the film gets to hit on some heavy themes, become emotionally involving, and work as an impactful character study. Cake is an effective movie from start to finish and well worth your time, assuming of course that you can handle its not-so-sweet themes and characters.

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