Thursday, September 29, 2016

Eddie The Eagle

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken, Iris Berben, Mark Benton, Keith Allen, Jo Hartley, Jim Broadbent
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Besides being at the center of an inspiring underdog story that seems tailor made for the big screen, the qualities possessed by British Olympic ski jumper Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen an underdog sports movie. A person who's so singularly focused on achieving the impossible that they're not taken seriously in the slightest. They either have a lot of guts or are really dense, and through much of Dexter Fletcher's deliriously entertaining biopic Eddie The Eagle, our title character is confronted by naysayers informing him it's the latter. Whether that be a parent, his teammates or coaches, the one thing they can all agree on is that he's a lost cause. And while much of that is realistically warranted and grounded in concern for his safety, more of it has to do with how he looks and acts. Viewers who think they know how it's all going to pan out are completely right, mainly because it did actually happen and the scenario represents one of the most reliable and predictable movie formulas around. But when it's executed well, it's also really effective, and this is one of those great reminders of that.

As a young boy growing up in Great Britain in the 1970's, Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) always dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics. Awkward and hardly much of an natural athlete, he practiced various events in the backyard and around the house, frequently encouraged by his supportive mother, Janette (Jo Harley) while his hard-nosed father, Terry (Keith Allen) dismisses his Olympic dreams as a time waster. After succeeding as a skier as a teen, he sets his sights on the Winter Games, eventually taking an interest in ski jumping.

With Great Britain having gone decades without a ski jumping team and the British Olympic Committee determined to keep him out, Eddie begins training in Germany, where he meets former American ski jumping champion turned alcoholic snow groomer, Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman). Still bitter from his acrimonious exit from the sport, he initially refuses Eddie's pleas to train him, dismissing him, as an unteachable klutz. But Eddie's tenacity and the verbal abuse he takes from the more experienced Norwegian jumpers causes Bronson to take him under his wing, attempting the impossible in helping him qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics. But what might be the bigger challenge is him being taken seriously once he gets there.

Even during a time when amateurs like Eddie could actually qualify for the Olympics, what he accomplished was pretty newsworthy. Then again, the sports movie template is built on true stories exactly like this, so while the amount of truth always varies, it all really comes down to the execution. This has a lot going for it, including some excellent early practice scenes establishing the young, awkward Eddie's Olympic fanaticism, seeking inspiration from books like "Moments of Glory" and "My Life in Ski Jumping," the latter being the memoir of Bronson's former, estranged coach, Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken). Once we get to the actual competition, the action scenes are well staged by Fletcher, at times even inducing a sense of dread as we look down through the eyes of this clueless rookie who's talked himself into believing he can jump from 40 to 70 and then eventually 90 feet.

More often than not, Bronson's job seems to be stopping this kid from killing himself, reluctantly and against his better judgment evolving into a coach and mentor. It's only upon realizing that with a lot work, he may actually have a shot. Sure to be overlooked, Mark Margeson's throwback musical score stands as one of the year's big achievements in marrying a film's era with its story and thematic content. Somehow sounding like a blissfully bizarre cross between Vangelis' Chariots Fire, Hans Zimmer's Days of Thunder and the theme from The Greatest American Hero, it's so steeped in the scores of that era that many will probably assume it was lifted from an 80's sports movie. That extra touch goes a surprisingly long way here, as it's tough to imagine certain scenes working as well without it in the background, or even in some more obvious moments, the foreground.

Disguised enough behind crooked eyeglasses and oversized clothes to bare a striking physical resemblance to the film's real life inspiration, Taron Egerton makes Eddie endearing, gutsy and likable, portraying him in the best tradition of screen sports underdogs. In the too few instances when the material calls for him to get serious, he proves capable of that as well. Playing a fictional composite of the real-life Eddie's various coaches, it isn't a backhanded compliment to say Hugh Jackman gives one of his more charismatic recent performances as Bronson Peary.

Effortlessly owning every scene he's in, it was a good move to cast Jackman and an even better one to completely ignore reality in favor of letting him help create this character whose relationship with the protagonist drives the story. He also has the film's best musical moment, when Bronson takes to the slopes to show his pupil and a shocked Norwegian ski team how it's done. Like most sports movies, it's usually as much about the mentor as his student and Bronson still has some demons to deal with concerning how his career ended, permanently damaging his relationship with his ex-coach. Of course redemption can only come through coaching Eddie.

Possibly the strongest aspect of the entire film is the fleeting acknowledgment, even made by Bronson himself, that this kid is in danger of becoming a joke, viewed as nothing more than a circus sideshow act to be laughed at by fans and the ratings-seeking media.  If he fails to deliver then his 15 minutes are up, and Olympic history won't look kindly on him, if at all. Briefly, the script explores this fascinating idea before safely retreating to comfortable confines of its formula. That's fine, but you can't help but think it's a reminder that as immersive as these sports movies are, there is a creative glass ceiling in place that very few have been able to shatter.

It's slightly disappointing when the screenplay leans more heavily on the comedic elements than the interesting implications of Eddie's popularity, but this just isn't that type of movie. That much is clear with the casting of Christopher Walken as Bronson's legendary Olympic coach. On one hand, his presence in any film is always a welcome event, but accompanying it is this undeniable expectation of weirdness. Surprisingly, there isn't too much of that here and he does a fine job in his one major dramatic scene, adding to rather than distracting from the movie's inspirational climax.

It's hard to find a genuine crowd pleaser that goes down as easy as this, and regardless of how many details or facts were adjusted along the way, whatever was done worked in terms of providing maximum entertainment value. Fitting comfortably in the wheelhouse of similarly themed sports films like The Rookie, Miracle, Remember The Titans, Invincible, Cool Runnings and the more recent McFarland, USA, Eddie The Eagle may even be a cut above a few of those, managing to get more little things right.

Whether it's the performances, the direction, the soundtrack or the skiing scenes, there are are many moments where you think it will take flight like it's protagonist, ascending to upper echelon of sports movies occupied by the likes of Rocky, Rudy or The Karate Kid. The story was certainly ripe for it and there's an artfulness in Fletcher's filmmaking that suggests that if the writers took things a little more seriously, it could have gotten there. And while that's an ironic criticism given its subject, I'm not completely sure this would be as enjoyable if it did. So what we're left with is a solid, inspiring mainstream sports movie that can be recommended with unqualified praise to basically anyone. And that counts for a lot.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Glen Powell, Wyatt Russell, Temple Baker, J. Quinton Johnson, Will Brittain, Juston Street, Dora Madison Burge
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Richard Linklater has this gift of being able to extract meaning from what on the surface should seem like nothingness. It appears as if he's more interested in watching people hang out than plot, conflict or any kind of narrative structure we'd normally associate with crowd-pleasing movies like the one he's made. Even its jarringly punctuated title, Everybody Wants Some!!, doesn't seem to mean anything aside from the obvious Van Halen shout-out, or at least means as less as its previous working title, That's What I'm Talking About. It would be all too easy to write this off as a self-indulgent nostalgia trip for its director, who chose as a follow-up to his recently Best Picture-nominated Boyhood, a movie centering around a bunch of 80's college jocks looking to get as drunk, laid and stoned as possible in the last days before classes start. And yet, it's still strangely wonderful.

This has been Linklater's specialty, dating all the way back to 1993's Dazed and Confused, to which this will be most closely compared, and for good reason, since he's labeled this its "spiritual sequel." That's a good way to put it as the tie that binds both (besides their period settings and autobiographical angle) is that laid-back, fly-on-the-wall quality of watching authentic characters hang out, only to realize by the end how much you've grown to care about them. It's the opposite of self-indulgent, as it never really asks you think or feel anything and the beats of its bare bones story hardly register as it's unfolding. You just watch and listen, losing yourself in it.

Working also as the perfect follow-up to the experimentally significant Boyhood, it picks up at the same life stage, only with entirely new characters and set in a different era. Carrying with it the same sense of almost improvisational spontaneity that's become Linklater's calling card, you rarely feel your strings being pulled.  And of course, the soundtrack rocks. If there are certain filmmakers who need to spread their wings and branch out in different directions, he's definitely not among them. Not when he does this so well.

The year is 1980 and college freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) has arrived at the off-campus house he'll be sharing with the other players on the Southeast Texas State University baseball team. A star pitcher in high school, he's now suddenly the small fish in a much larger pond, a reserved, quiet guy surrounded by teammates from different walks of life, each with wildly distinctive personalities. There's team captain McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), the best player and seemingly the only one with legitimate major league potential; Jake's roommate, Billy "Beuter" Autry (Will Brittain), a farmboy with a girlfriend back home; Scheming, intellectual pick-up artist, Finnegan (Glen Powell), who's often the ringleader of a group that also includes fellow party animals Roper (Ryan Guzman), Dale (J. Quinton Johnson) Plummer (Temple Baker) and Brumley (Tanner Kalina). There are also two tranfer students with completely unhinged pro-level pitcher, Jay (Juston Street) and bearded, stoned philosopher Willoughby (Wyatt Russell).

Upon their arrival, the coach promptly lays down two rules: No alcohol in the house and no women upstairs. Within 12 hours, both are broken and whatever superficial differences these teammates have evaporate in their united quest to attain both, finding them party hopping in search of the wildest time. What Jake finds instead is Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a quirky theater student with whom he connects on a level that's far different than what his new friends are experiencing. As he comes out of his shell and the guys take him in as one of their own, there's still that looming issue of classes beginning in a matter of days, and while they might be too stoned, drunk or hung over to notice it right now, the rest of their lives are about to start.

Considering this is a movie about a college baseball team, there's only one extended sequence late that takes place on the field. It's worth noting that section works really well because so much quality time is spent with all these personalities beforehand. We're either at the house, in the car prowling for girls or at a nightclub or party from the minute we're introduced to the team. It's one of those movies that will have detractors complaining that "nothing happens" throughout its running time. To an extent, they'd be right since so little occurs in terms of actual action, at least as we're accustomed to seeing it in a coming-of-age comedic drama like this. But it's also a movie where everything happens since Linklater has the ability to capture what's it's like just hanging around, and in talking about seemingly innocuous things, revealing more than any manufactured conflict would. Much of that can be attributed to the casting, with a group of little known actors who so believably slide into the skin of these early 80's jocks that leave little doubt that we're watching or listening to anyone other than the authentic article.

As the protagonist, Jake (serviceably played by Jenner) might be the least compelling character, if only because he's our entranceway into a world where everything seems to be happening around and to him, dragged along for the ride, but quickly adapting. The movie really belongs to Glen Powell as Finnegan who steals every scene in a way reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey's big breakout in Dazed and Confused. He's goofy when necessary, but the smartest and most cunning of the bunch, frequently infusing the story with a surprisingly amount of pathos. It's when he's on screen (which is nearly the entire running length) and eventually when Zoey Deutch enters the picture as Jake's love interest, Beverly, that the movie feels most alive and real. The scenes between them carry a realistic Before Sunrise-like vibe that not only takes the film to an entirely different and welcome place thematically, but to a new setting as well, with the jocks finding themselves at an artsy costume party thrown by the theater students. This entire sequence, and it's results, represent the movie's high-water mark, both visually and in terms of its meaning for the characters.

Whether it's that party, or a punk concert earlier, there's this idea so perfectly captured by Linklater that the social barriers present in high school now cease to exist in this four-year universe where everyone can indiscriminately go from party to party adapting to a different crowd and taking on new identities. And despite the script being a semi-personalized account of his own college experiences and undoubtedly conjuring up memories for those with similar ones, he manages to show this without relying exclusively on nostalgia. Sure, the period details such as the costuming, production design and music are spot-on, but it's just there because we are, rarely drawing attention to itself or stopping for conversations that unnecessarily remind us the era we're in.

In the midst of all this, it also manages to be genuinely funny, and not in the frat boy, toilet humor kind of way the trailers falsely implied. Many of the gags and one-liners are smart, playing off the characters' personality quirks and absurdity of various situations, which is becoming increasingly hard to do well in an R-rated comedy. At nearly two hours, there's a strong argument to be made certain scenes needed tightening and trimming, but that's almost always the case of late. At least here we're given extra time with people worth spending it with. And it would all probably play even better upon a rewatch, as there's a hypnotizing quality about this that practically invites it. Something about it is hard to shake, suggesting a lengthy shelf life for both the film and careers of its stars.

It's tempting to say Linklater's recent work invites comparisons to Cameron Crowe due to the increasingly autobiographical nature of his output, but that's not entirely accurate since he's never been as transparent a filmmaker. This will turn some people off, while others appreciate his dedication to showing instead of telling, wearing us down to the point that we're forced to admit he's on to something with these characters, some of whom may or may not strike a chord of recollection in our own lives. And it's because of his almost maddeningly laid-back approach that the ending feels so right, revealing an unexpected depth that further justifies the film's existence. It's only when considering a key character's name and the phrase written in class in the final scene, that we realize how true the tagline is that they "came for a good time, not a long time."