‘National Champions’ Presents Its Melodramatic Case for Student-Athlete Compensation

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National Champions (CREDIT: Scott Garfield/Courtesy of STX Films)

Starring: Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Running Time: 116 Minutes

Rating: R for Big Boy Executive Language

Release Date: December 10, 2021 (Theaters)

National Champions is certainly timely, as the subject of student-athlete compensation has made its way up to the Supreme Court, and players are now permitted to financially benefit from their name, image, and likeness. But I don’t imagine that this conflict will play out in real life anywhere near as operatically it does in this movie. That’s not a criticism! I’m in the theater to be entertained, not to confirm that they get all the facts straight. And for the most part, I was thrilled, amused, and riveted.

Stephan James is at the center of it all as star quarterback LeMarcus James. James (the actor) played Jesse Owens in his breakthrough role, so he’s building up a bit of a resume of athletes who take a historical stand. LeMarcus is a senior playing his last college game in the looming title bout who’s also the presumptive number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft. But he’s calling an audible, as he announces that he’s boycotting the game unless and until the NCAA agrees to recognize varsity athletes as employees and pay them accordingly. He’s got about three days to convince his teammates and his opponents to join him, while also ducking out of the way of his coach (J.K. Simmons), various college football administrators and executives, and the NCAA’s ruthless outside counsel representative (Uzo Aduba).

Director Ric Roman Waugh and screenwriter Adam Mervis (adapting his own play of the same name) have painted a massively cynical portrait of the state of college athletics. Some of their tsk-tsking is well-founded, but my god, is it breathtakingly overwrought. It kinda has to be, considering that pretty much every line of dialogue frames everyone’s decision in life-or-death stakes. This could be a formula for unbearable soul crushing, but thankfully the premise has to allow at least a hint of optimism to poke its way in throughout. That lightness helps us realize that the ridiculousness of all the melodrama is a plus, as laughing at the moral righteousness of this exploitative system is a healthy reaction.

One other noteworthy observation before I go: several real-life athletes and sportscasters appear as themselves, which would add some authenticity, but that’s undercut by the lack of real-life branding. The teams in the championship game are from fictional schools, and ESPN (or any other sports network for that matter) is never once mentioned. I’d argue that the fakeness is weirdly the right choice (though I imagine it actually wasn’t a choice at all); this isn’t the real world after all, but a slightly heightened version of it.

National Champions is Recommended If You Like: Over-the-top line deliveries, Sports movies without any sports, Kristen Chenoweth performances without any singing

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Salaries

I Saw ‘Spiral’ and ‘Wrath of Man’ on the Same Weekend, and I’m Happy with That Decision

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(CREDIT: Brooke Palmer; Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

Spiral:

Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Samuel L. Jackson, Marisol Nichols

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: May 14, 2021 (Theaters)

Wrath of Man:

Starring: Jason Statham, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett, Chris Reilly, Laz Alonso, Raúl Castillo, DeObia Oparei, Eddie Marsan, Scott Eastwood, Niamh Algar, Babs Olusanmokun, Josh Cowdery, Andy García, Rob Delaney, Lyne Renée

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 119 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: May 7, 2021 (Theaters)

I’m tempted to say that Spiral is my favorite Saw movie, but that wouldn’t mean all that much, as it’s only the second one I’ve ever seen. And it might not even be true anyway, since I enjoyed the philosophical conundrums that Saw 2 made me ponder. But Spiral has a whole “surprisingly favorite” vibe to it in opposition to the rest of the series. It may not be entirely different from its predecessors, but it diverges enough for me to go, “I’m pleased with the new direction.” I may not have seen Saw, Saw‘s IIIIV, Saw 3D, or Jigsaw, but I’m familiar enough with them to feel like I’m emerging upon a new horizon. The torture is still too mentally and visually taxing, but the game’s rules and players have been updated.

As for Wrath of Man, I can confidently say that it is indeed my favorite Guy Ritchie movie. Although I should note that I haven’t seen his early stuff, so this might sound like faint praise. (My previous favorite by default was probably Aladdin. Or the parts of The Gentleman with Hugh Grant.) But Wrath of Man nevertheless stands tall on its own, and in opposition to the rest of its director’s filmography. Instead of being about a bunch of gangsters having a bloody good time, this is about a bunch of criminals and working stiffs being deathly, DEATHLY serious about everything. This movie is so bleak. It’s as bleak as a butt. It’s an elemental examination of Violence, Retribution, and Pure Evil. I don’t want to spend all my moviegoing hours in Wrath of Man Land, but visiting there every once in a while provides a healthy catharsis.

GRADES:
Spiral: 3 out of 5 Minghella Rocks
Wrath of Man: 4 out of 5 Statham Hartnetts

‘Villains’ Flips the Home Invasion Thriller Script Over and Over Again

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CREDIT: Anna Kooris

Starring: Maika Monroe, Bill Skarsgård, Jeffrey Donovan, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Baumgartner

Directors: Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: R for Gunfire, Bloody Whacks on the Head, and Resourceful Cocaine Use

Release Date: September 20, 2019 (Limited)

Don’t you just hate it when you’re a criminal on the run and you break into a house and then it turns out that the homeowners are much more devious than you are? This seems to happen relatively often in the movies, but perhaps less so in real life. I certainly would not want to participate myself, both because breaking and entering is illegal and because it can be quite creepy to walk around an unfamiliar house. But I am perfectly happy to watch others do it, and the latest example why is Villains.

This bloody little black comedy thriller stars Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgård as Mickey and Jules, a couple whose love is strong and tender enough to overcome the stress of covering up their crimes. It’s a neat trick that they pull off with their performances, wherein they get us to root for them by consistently reminding us of their humanity without ever asking us to excuse their convenience store robbery in the opening scene. It certainly doesn’t hurt how much they stand in contrast to Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick’s George and Gloria, a couple whose efforts to craft the perfect genteel dollhouse-style home has led them to kidnap a little girl (Blake Baumgartner, who played a young Nicole Fosse in Fosse/Verdon) and chain her up in their basement. Mickey and Jules’ efforts to escape this predicament while negotiating an uneasy truce with George and Gloria makes for an economical little battle of wits (as well as an occasionally physical battle) that will have you constantly puzzling out (along with the character)s what the best course of action is.

Villains is Recommended If You Like: Don’t Breathe, Ready or Not, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

Grade: 3 out of 5 Negotiations

This Is a Movie Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

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CREDIT: Richard Foreman, Jr./SMPSP

I give Sicario: Day of the Soldado 2.5 out of 5 False Flags: https://uinterview.com/reviews/movies/sicario-day-of-the-soldado-movie-review-cia-vs-drug-cartel-sequel-is-tense-and-well-crafted-but-shallow/