Movie Review ~ 12 Mighty Orphans

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Haunted by his mysterious past, a devoted high school football coach leads a scrawny team of orphans to the state championship during the Great Depression and inspires a broken nation along the way.

Stars: Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Jacob Lofland, Levi Dylan, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen

Director: Ty Roberts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: TBD

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Having seen enough sports movies to be able to at least write a small children’s chapter book on which ball goes with which game, I looked at the upcoming 12 Mighty Orphans and felt like pointing at it and saying, “I know what you are and all the cliché tricks you’re going to play”.  Because, after all, there’s not a lot that’s been left unsaid in the case of these football movies about a rag-tag group of misfits that have to band together to rise above adversity.  Plenty of films before it have gone the distance, scored the field goal, made the touchdown, and knocked it out of the park (oops, wrong sport) and while the entertainment might be passable, it was likely going to be fleeting.

Let me tell you that 118 minutes after I began 12 Mighty Orphans, based on Jim Dent’s ‘Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football’, I was the guy sitting in his living room in the dark watching the credits with tears drying on my face.  Yes, this film got me and got me good, and it was for no other reason than it’s a well-made audience pleaser that steers clear of cheap sentiment in favor of heart on the sleeve compassion.  It’s almost shockingly benign and while I’m not sure this approach would have worked with a more modern story, the period-set drama is the perfect playing field for the real-life events to unfold.

Arriving at the Texas Forth Worth Masonic Home for orphans in 1938 with his family, teacher and coach Rusty Rusell (Luke Wilson, The Goldfinch) has an uphill battle creating a team from scratch and gathering enough interest from the boys who’d rather do anything but play an organized sport.  Forge forth he does, with assistance from a wised teacher nursing a not-so-secret fondness for drink (Martin Sheen, The Dead Zone) and his caring wife (Vinessa Shaw, Hocus Pocus) but with a number of roadblocks from crooked employees and, eventually, a local coach that fears Rusty’s “Mighty Mites”. 

There’s a run-of-the-mill playbook for any kind of biographical sports film and director Ty Roberts follows that fairly close for the majority of 12 Mighty Orphans, but along the way he doesn’t forget to coax generous and gallant performances out of Wilson and Sheen, offering both men wonderful opportunities to shine.  Roberts also handles some of the more saccharine turns with a stronger hand, not letting the film go slack as a result – we all know there’s going to be something that knocks things down before the final build-up, but the screenplay from Roberts, Lane Garrison (who co-stars as the Big Bad coach), and Kevin Meyer, doesn’t make that the true climax of the piece. 

A film like 12 Mighty Orphans is one my dad would have loved to see and I’m sorry he’s not around for me to recommend it to him.  Maybe that’s another reason why I was so sad near the end and also why I appreciated the film’s detailed information on where all of the characters we’ve come to know wound up in their lives.  It’s more than just a “Dad” movie though, it’s one that all would be able to enjoy with equal pleasure.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Mud

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mud

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Owing a lot to similar coming-of-age tales like Stand By Me, The War, and even Whistle Down the Wind, Mud is director Nichols third film and follow-up to his critically hailed feature of 2011, Take Shelter.  What Nichols has crafted for his latest movie is an involving tale that mixes a few genres into its pot, puts the top on, and then waits for it to boil over.  While it simmers for a while and eventually ends up a satisfying if not quite hearty meal, Mud was a strong showing in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

McConaughey has really been on a roll in the last few years.  After making a strong starring debut with A Time to Kill in 1996, he eventually sidelined into lighter fare that may have made money at the box office but didn’t season his acting chops any.  Then he started becoming involved with more independent features and that’s where he’s struck gold again.  Last year he made memorable appearances in Magic Mike (really the only good thing about the movie), Bernie, and Killer Joe.  Now he’s back in the leading man chair for Mud, playing the titular character…a man on the run that has a way with words.

Two boys find Mud living in a boat placed in a tree by flooding in the bayou and soon become involved with his plan to sweep the girl he loves (Witherspoon in a nicely muted small supporting role) off her feet and away to the gulf waters to avoid the law.  Mud paints a nicely romantic tale of forbidden love to the two boys but as the film develops we learn that everything isn’t as it seems and that some truths haven’t been acknowledged.

The film is told through the eyes of Ellis (Sheridan, in a well-layered performance) who seems to be on the same trajectory as Mud when it comes to falling for the wrong girl.  Barely a teen, he has eyes for an older woman and the pain of first love is handled by Sheridan and Nichols with care.  Paulson and McKinnon are nicely cast as Ellis’ parents, small-town folk adjusting to the reality of moving from their river home.

As you can see, there’s a lot of storyline to juggle and Nichols keeps everything flying for much of the film, only letting things dip when it feels natural.  Nichols once again is working with his Take Shelter star Shannon (Man of Steel) and resists casting him in several roles he may have been right for in favor of wisely utilizing him as the uncle to a friend of Ellis.

Mud is another nice departure for McConaughey – grubbed up with chipped teeth and greasy, tousled hair…he’s a fascinating character study that McConaughey seems to gobble up with aplomb.  As Mud starts to see the forest for the trees, we see the character at a crossroads rather than the actor making choices.  Nichols has given him a nice framework that McConaughey thrives in.

What I appreciated most about the film is the way that Nichols lets things happen in a naturalistic fashion.  It’s peppered with several edge of your seat moments…and not always for the reasons you’d expect.  If in the end the film sacrifices some of its earlier unexpected moments for a finale that feels too pat, it can be forgiven for the earlier noble attempts at something different.