Tag Archives: B-

SURROUNDED

Producers: Anthony Mandler, Aaron L. Gilbert, Jason Michael Berman, Derek Iger, Letitia Wright and Ade O’Adesina   Director: Anthony Mandler   Screenplay: Andrew Pagana and Justin Thomas   Cast: Letitia Wright, Jamie Bell, Jeffrey Donovan, Brett Gelman, Michael K. Williams, Kevin Wiggins, Luce Rains, Andrew Pagana, Augusta Allen-Jones and Herman Johansen   Distributor: MGM+

Grade: B-

Westerns are sufficiently rare commodities nowadays that one shouldn’t dismiss even a medium-grade one too quickly.  “Surrounded” has a very simple plot, its message of racial intolerance is rather heavy-handed, some of its contrivances are far-fetched, and it’s ploddingly paced.  But it boasts a good cast, authentic locations, and some gorgeous cinematography by Max Goldman.  On balance it comes out a worthwhile watch, especially for fans of that endangered species, the oater.

The protagonist is Mo Washington (Letitia Wright), a freed slave who became a Buffalo Soldier by posing as a man and has continued the imposture after leaving the service in disgust over the brutality of the Indian Wars.  She’s also used the guise to purchase a plot of land out west and is now traveling to claim it, keeping the treasured deed in her ever-present Bible.

As the movie opens, in 1870, Mo’s boarding a stagecoach for the trip across New Mexico (the film was actually shot in the Land of Enchantment, much of it at the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu immortalized in Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings).  Curly, the surly driver played by Kevin Wiggins with a touch of Slim Pickens in his drawl, orders Mo to sit on the rear luggage rack rather than with the other passengers—somber lawman Wheeler (Jeffrey Donovan), flamboyant salesman Fields (Brett Gelman) and uptight matron Mrs. Borders (Augusta Allen-Jones).

Traveling through the plains, the coach is attacked by a gang of outlaws led by the notorious Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell), who’s just pulled off a bank robbery.  In the tense encounter that follows, Fields is wounded and the outlaws scattered, save for Walsh, who’s taken prisoner.  But in the film’s most extended action sequence, the stagecoach is dragged toward a cliff by the frenzied horses with the screaming Mrs. Borders inside; and unwilling to take Mo’s hand and leap to safety, she’s carried off with it.  In the aftermath Wheeler and Curly take Fields off to the nearest doctor on foot, leaving Mo behind to guard Walsh until they can return with a posse.

The movie then turns into a dialogue-driven two-hander for a long stretch, with Mo and Tommy parrying with one another for an advantage as they wait and deal with intruders, whether rampaging Comanche or a smooth-talking black man named Clay (Michael K. Williams, in one of his final performances), who claims to be a local farmer offering them help but, Walsh insists, is really an untrustworthy bounty hunter.  Tommy tries to soften up Washington, whose gender he’s recognized, with tales of his background as a Union soldier and the treatment after the war that forced him into a life of crime; he even offers to split the loot from the bank robbery with her if she’ll release him.  Mo firmly resists his blandishments, even though her precious deed of ownership was lost with the stagecoach and her hopes of settling down in peace appear to have been dashed.

Eventually more outlaws show up, and Mo has to deal with the bloodthirsty killers—including a thug huge enough to snap her like a twig—as best she can.  (Be forewarned that one sequence gets pretty gory.  Mo’s definitely unrestrained when it comes to defending herself.)  By the time the posse returns, headed by Wheeler and the local sheriff (Herman Johansen), there are plenty of corpses to deal with, and Mo has to face the possibility that racism will triumph and the better future she envisaged will completely evaporate.

“Surrounded,” edited by Ron Patane, has problems of pacing, and the central plot point regarding Mo’s posing as a man frankly strains credulity, given Wright’s slight frame and very high voice.  (Not without reason does Mrs. Borders question whether Washington is a boy or a girl.) 

But Wright manages to convince us that Mo could have pulled it off, and embodies her steely resolve with economical skill.  Bell makes Tommy a loosely charismatic fast-talker, the sort of fellow even quicker with a lie than with a gun, and it’s nice to see Donovan in a relative good-guy role for a change as the resolute, principled Wheeler.  The supporting cast is fine, with Williams nicely playing a man who might be as deceptive in his way as Walsh and Washington are in theirs, and Gelman, Wiggins and Allen-Jones having obvious fun bringing their Western stereotypes to life.

And the film looks great.  Russell Barnes’s production design isn’t particularly elaborate, but it’s effective, as are Megan Coates’s costumes.  And Goldman’s wide-screen compositions are so sumptuous in their use of the majestic locations that one can understand why director Anthony Mandler (who honed his style on music videos and concert films, many with the Jonas Brothers, before making an auspicious feature debut with 2018’s “Monster”) and Patane would want to linger on them.  (It’s a pity that the film is only being released on MGM’s streaming service and not in theatres, where the images could be seen to best advantage.)  Robin Hannibal contributes a cleverly folksy score.

At a time when Westerns are no longer the staple they once were, it’s a pleasure to encounter one that, despite some flaws, mixes the old tropes with some new twists to generally agreeable effect.            

SHOOTING STARS

Producers: Rachel Winter, Spencer Beighley, LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Jamal Henderson and Terence Winter   Director: Chris Robinson   Screenplay: Frank E. Flowers, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor   Cast:  Wood Harris, Mookie Cook, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalie Paul, Algee Smith, Dermot Mulroney, Khalil Everage, Scoot Henderson, Kaitlyn Nichol and Avery S. Wills, Jr.   Distributor: Peacock

Grade: B

With talk swirling about LeBron James’s possible retirement from the NBA after twenty years as a league superstar, a movie about his formative experiences in high school is timely, and “Shooting Stars,” based on the 2009 book James collaborated on with Buzz Bissinger, covers them reasonably well.  Over the course of the four-year span it primarily focuses on, the movie deals with James’ growth as a player and a person, but emphasizes the support he got from friends and supportive adults, and doesn’t ignore the difficulties he faced—some of them from self-inflicted wounds.  It also doesn’t erase the rough edges (though it smooths out some of them), as a result coming off as something more than a simple goody two-shoes inspirational puff piece.  It does engage in simplification, and in some ways it can’t help but remind you of an afterschool special—one that tells a story already covered extensively in a variety of media—but while no classic, it’s still nicely done.

It begins in Akron, Ohio, in 1996, with James, whose hardworking single mom Gloria (Natalie Paul) is pleased that he’s found a sort of surrogate father figure in Dru Joyce II (Wood Harris), who coaches LeBron (played by Sir Myles), along with his own son Lil Dru (Ascen Lomack) and pals Sian Cotton (Kaden Amari Anderson) and Willie McGee (Thomas Shaw III) in basketball.  The four boys, aged nine and ten, spend their time on the court or playing video games, dreaming of careers in the NBA.

The time quickly shifts to 2000, with the boys, who’ve come to call themselves the Fab Four, about to enter high school and ready to join the varsity team together as freshmen.  The school of choice, Buchtel High, has a stellar sports program and imposing academic standards, as well as a spot as an assistant coach for Joyce.  But when the basketball coach indicates that while LeBron (now played by Mookie Cook), Sian (Khalil Everage) and Willie (Avery S. Wills, Jr.) are shoo-ins for Varsity slots, Lil Dru (Caleb McLaughlin)—who is, in fact, still small—will be relegated to Junior Varsity.

That’s not okay with him, of course, and so he persuades his buddies that they should instead enroll at St Vincent-St Mary, the Catholic school whose new coach Keith Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) was recently fired at Central Michigan for a remark he’d made (the exact nature of which is elided here).  Lil Dru persuades an initially dismissive Dambrot that he should accept him and his three friends as Varsity prospects as a group, and also help them get scholarships.  It’s not long before he has the quartet replacing his senior players in the starting lineup, not without some complaints from parents; but those fall silent as the team goes on to win two successive state championships.  Press coverage explodes, and LeBron, the standout, becomes a national sensation.

The screenplay covers some highlights and bumps in the road along the way.  The Fab Four becomes the Fab Five with the addition of transfer student Romeo Travis (Scoot Henderson), whose initial surliness is a problem.  Coach Dambrot’s departure for the University of Akron brings some acrimony, as well as team turmoil when Joyce becomes his replacement.  LeBron has a “cute” meeting at a raucous party with Savannah (Kaitlyn Nichol), who becomes his steady girlfriend.  But there’s controversy when Gloria arranges her son to get a Hummer, and even a suspension in his senior year, when LeBron is charged with violating state athletic association rules about accepting valuable gifts (here, too, details of the incident are fudged for dramatic effect). 

But though one can quibble over details, the picture works overall.  Harris brings sincerity to Coach Dru, and Mulroney has a field day shouting out rude remarks as the irascible Dambrot.  McLaughlin brings easygoing charm to Lil Dru, and Paul a spicy vulnerability to Gloria.  Most importantly, the court action is expertly staged, and given the requisite excitement by cinematographer Karsten Gopinath and editor Jo Francis (as well as composer Mark Isham, an old hand with such material—he scored “Varsity Blues” and “42,” after all).  But it’s also convincing because Cook, while perhaps not the best actor of the bunch, is an authentic high school hoops standout, and along with others makes the court scenes credible.

“Shooting Stars” isn’t a slam dunk among sports movies, but it’s a likable retelling of the amazing high school career of LeBron James and the enduring friendships he forged during his youth.