Win Win (2011)

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s sport. And if there’s one thing Americans love more than sport, it’s sport movies. Rocky, Jerry Maguire, and Gene Hackman’s genre-defining Hoosiers all kept cinemas as crammed as basketball stadiums over the years. Which brings us to new high school wrestling drama Win Win, a film that sticks close to the tropes of tried and true big-hitters (i.e. battered hero ‘finds’ himself again thanks to association with extracurricular activity) but never quite makes it into the premiere league of sporting classics.

Of course, Win Win is more than just a sports movie – it’s also a Paul Giamatti movie. With the Sideways actor having effectively cornered the market in down-on-their-luck depressed middle-agers, Win Win finds Giamatti playing New Jersey attorney Mike Flaherty. Struggling to support his wife and two kids, Mike’s on a one way road to Nowhereville. Until teen runaway Kyle (Alex Shaffer) tumbles into his life. Having fled his alcoholic mother, Kyle ends up bunking at the Flaherty’s, and when he enrols in the local high school where Mike’s a wrestling coach, Mike discovers that Kyle’s abilities on the wrestling mat far outshine those of his own team.

Directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also helmed exceptional middle-age drama The Visitor, Win Win is both cosy and charming. Amy Ryan in particular delivers a fantastic, no-bullshit turn as Giamatti’s long-suffering wife, while McCarthy keeps the domestic drama nicely in balance with the quirky comedy. But while the pacing rarely lags, Win Win’s feather light approach to drama feels more like a friendly local kick-about than a powerhouse Man U vs Liverpool clash. Which is no doubt McCarthy’s intention, his film having more in common with low-key indies than certain grandstanding boxing epics. In short: a winning drama that never punches above its weight. 4/5

Via Out In The City

The Way (2010)

Charlie Sheen may have spent much of this year on the warpath, but it’s heartening to find that father Martin Sheen and brother Emilio Estevez are still capable of concentrating on ‘the work’. With Estevez in the director’s chair, and Sheen in front of the camera, The Way is a timely showcase of the talent that still resides in this uniquely controversy-courting of Hollywood families.

Thomas Avery (Sheen) is a near-retirement doctor whose restless son Daniel (Estevez) dies in the Pyrenees while tackling the Camino de Santiago, a Christian pilgrimage trail that leads to the Spanish Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Journeying to France to pick up Daniel’s ashes, Thomas makes a split-second decision to walk the Santiago trail himself, and scatter Daniel’s ashes along the way.

Hippy mentality ebbs through The Way as Thomas encounters numerous intriguing pilgrims – among them James Nesbitt’s motormouth writer and Deborah Kara Unger’s angry enigma Sarah. Recalling Sheen’s The West Wing, The Way is a ponderous, surprisingly joyful drama that revels in character beats and inner discoveries. Sheen himself proves as enigmatic a lead as he ever was, alternately warm, out of control and distant.

Estevez’s greatest achievement as director is nimbly weathering the pitfalls of the average road movie. Where other journey-based films have succumbed to the trap of a methodical, sequential framework, Estevez dodges such hazards by harnessing a lively pace, and packing his film with colourful characters and breathtaking vistas. The soundtrack is also unexpectedly lively, a left-field resurrection of Alanis Morissette’s ‘Thank You’ lifting an extended montage into sonorous paradise. At two and a bit hours, it’s just a pinch too long. But when that’s the worst that can be said about a film revolving around a man walking a really, really long way, you know you’re onto a winner. 3/5

Via Out In The City

Celluloid Life: It’s A Family Affair

It’s late evening on a Thursday. I really should be spending these blessed twilight hours researching and writing stuff that, y’know, people will actually read (I think, I hope)… But it’s been a week since my last confess- I mean blog entry, and I should really big up the blog love. As fate would have it, I’ve seen two films this week that I wouldn’t mind actually procrastinating over (one massively so, the other, well, you’ll see…). They both had one thing in common – fucked up families.

Home is a French film that took its bow at last year’s Cannes. It’s a story overflowing with whimsy and vision, following a close-knit family whose idyllic, middle-of-nowhere house is set right next to a disused motorway. But when the motorway is re-opened to the public, mother Martha (Isabelle Huppert) and her clan have their peaceful lives irrevocably changed. At once comedy, drama and tragedy, Home has quite a few knives in the air, and nary drops a single one. It’s a shock to find that it is director Ursula Meier’s first time behind the lense – Home is as assured an exploration of a whole raft of sexy themes as you’re ever likely to find. Its central family is also probably the best on-screen brood since Little Miss Sunshine – warm, messed up and together, you can’t help but love them and their initially carefree existence. Only when the motorway opens does the facade of a happy life begin to crack, and hints at darker undertones begin to appear. Huppert is fantastic, a loving mother with an innate fragility, and Meier frames her film like a work of art. You can never go home again, the saying goes, but you can – and should – definitely check out Home. A-

Next up… Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel and John Goodman. Two quirks and a loveable oaf. And they’re the crux of an oddball, off-kilter flick called Gigantic. Don’t ask what the title means – it’s never explained. Yes, Gigantic is one of those films (you should have realised that when I called it “oddball”), a film that would quite happily sit on the DVD shelf next to Spotless Mind and anything by David Lynch.

Dano plays Brian, a single 28-year-old bed salesman who wants to adopt a Chinese baby. Odd. By way of selling racist, homophobic Al (Goodman) a bed, Brian meets Al’s kooky daughter Harriet (Deschanel), who likes to be called ‘Happy’ even though she seems to be in a perpetual state of prozac-induced delirium. Odder still. Also, a horrible homeless man seems to want Brian dead, and is stalking him all over the city. Yeah, you guessed it – VERY ODD. Structurally questionable, but rammed with fantastic performances, you find yourself liking Gigantic almost despite itself, even if it is strange and slightly ugly. Like a puppy-runt, or a hideous jumper your favourite late gran gave you. It’s never anything short of entertaining, with both Brian and Harriet’s families proving to be nuttier than a bag of peanuts (Goodman, of course, steals the show). But the lack of firm question-answers to just about anything feels slightly snotty. In the film’s press notes, first-time director Matt Aselton admits that he didn’t want the film to “indulge” in all the characters’ rich back stories. You might admire his finesse, but you might not necessarily like it. Now that’s odd. B-