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Directed by David Hunt

      In 1994, Brandon Burlsworth (Christopher Severio) defied the odds by becoming an official member of the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. He was overweight at first, but he eventually lost weight and built up his muscle mass while reaching even more triumphs: he was selected for the All-American team. Life at home wasn't easy for him because of his alcoholic father, Leo (Michael Parks). At least his mother, Barbara (Leslie Easterbrook), was there for him as well as his older brother, Marty (Neal McDonough).

      Everyone loves a good underdog sports story. Classic ones like Rudy, Hoosiers, Miracle, The Blind Side and Remember the Titans all have a major trait in common: they are about human beings first and foremost. Fortunately, Greater ranks up there with those classics because writer/director David Hunt and co-writer Brian Reindl keep the film focused on Burlsworth's life while showing the audience the the social, familial and innate struggles that he had to go through Burlsworth was picked on for his weight by his teammates and came from a dysfunctional family, but he studied hard, trained hard and kept his faith in Christianity which helped him to persevere and become an American hero.

      Hunt and Reindl do a great job of unmasking the human being behind the American hero in a way that's family-friendly and inspirational without being cloying or excessively preachy, although it does somewhat skirt that delicate line toward the end with the narration that explains the inspiring, uplifting messages quite simply and explicitly. That's forgivable because the uplift is well-earned. Who doesn't want to feel great about life and inspired with kernels of wisdom every now and then? So what if the plot is formulaic? Every film follows some kind of formula; it's more important how follows it. At least Greater never becomes clunky and dull like last year's My All-American.

      Christopher Severio gives a solid performance in the lead role and caries the emotional burden of his role with conviction. The same can be said for the supporting actors and actresses each of whom helps to add to the film's authenticity and sense of humanism which is its greatest strength. I've written it before in past reviews, but I'll write it again because it's important: humanism is a truly special effect in modern American cinema because it's so rare while CGI should be re-labeled as standard effects. Although the running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, it breezes by like 90 minutes. Ultimately, Greater is the best underdog sports movie since The Blind Side. It will make you stand up and cheer!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Hammond Entertainment.
Now playing at Regal E-Walk and select theaters nationwide.


Directed by Kim Seong-hun

      While on his way home with a cake for his daughter's birthday, Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) drives through a poorly-constructed tunnel that collapses and traps him inside his car. All he has are 2 water bottles, the birthday cake and a cell phone to survive. Meanwhile, Dae-kyung (Oh Dal-su), the commander of the rescue team, desperately tries to have Jung-soo rescued by drilling into the tunnel from above. Lee (Doona Bae), Jung-soo's wife, anxiously waits for any news about the rescue mission.

      More happens than the plot description above, but in order to maximize your enjoyment of Tunnel, those plots points will not be spoiled. The screenplay by writer/director Kim Seong-Hun wastes no time getting to the meat of the story---within the first 5 minutes, Jung-soo is already trapped inside the tunnel. There have been a number of survival films about people being trapped somewhere, including Daylight, Buried, 127 Hours and The 33. Despite that The 33 is based on a true story and Tunnel isn't, the events that take place in Tunnel actually feel more believable than the ones in The 33. Seong-Hun deftly maintains suspense from the second that the tunnel caves in to the very last frame. He cunningly opens the film with a shot of what looks like a tunnel, but it's actually a small water pipe instead. That opening scene prepares you for all of the surprises to come. Knowing when to jump back and forth between scenes inside the tunnel and the rescue team along with Jung-soo's wife above ground is tricky because it risks the diminishment of the film's momentum, but, fortunately, thanks to the sensitive screenplay and terrific editing, the transitions between both scenes work. Each of the performances, especially Ha Jung-woo's, is convincing without any hamminess. Having a charismatic actor as the lead helps tremendously.

      Tunnel's greatest strength, though, is when it comes to what it avoids doing: there's no schmaltz like in The 33, reliance on shaky cam or unnecessary tangents. It earns each and every emotion in a way that feels organic. Moreover, the balance between the intensity of Jung-soo's ordeal and the brief lighter moments prevents the film from turning into an exhausting, monotonous experience like in Buried. Although Tunnel is 127 minutes long, you never actually feel the weight of the running time. If only Hollywood's blockbusters could be even half as gripping, smart and emotionally engrossing!

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Well Go USA.
Now playing at AMC Empire 25.

The Intervention

Directed by Clea Duvall

      Four couples gather at a mansion in Savannah, Georgia: Jessie (Clea DuVall), who owns the mansion, and her partner, Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), Annie (Melanie Lynskey) and her boyfriend, Matt (Jason Ritter), Lola (Alia Shawkat) and Jack (Ben Schwartz), as well as Jessie's sister, Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and her husband Peter (Vincent Piazza). Little do Ruby and Peter know that the true reason for the get-together is so that their friends can persuade them to divorce because they believe that they're stuck in an unhappy, stale marriage that's past the point of being saved.

      Dramas used to lead the American box office back in the day, but suddenly we're stuck with shallow, CGI-infested tentpole films made for $100 million or more that lack a heart, mind and soul. Along comes the low budget American drama The Intervention that has plenty of heart, mind and soul---in other words, it humanism, a truly special effect. Adults used to drag their kids to the movies, but most of the time, their kids have to drag them to the movies nowadays. How refreshing it is to watch an American film that's for adults, that can't be turned into a video game. and where no one gets eaten by zombies for a change! In The Intervention, the plot, just like life itself, is simply complex: a group of friends/couples come together, talk about issues that they've been bottling up inside them, and experience epiphanies within the course of a weekend.

      Writer/director Clea Duvall, in her directorial debut, does a great job of keeping you engaged by this very human story because she brings the complex characters to life with the help of the naturally talented actors and actresses onscreen. No one over-acts or under-acts. Yes, the film is talky and could be turned into a play, but it never feels stuffy. Duvall balances the drama with just the right amount of comic relief/levity. Each of the characters is flawed in their own way which makes them relatable. With the exception of Lola whom Jack had just met, everyone feels like they've been friends for a while. Kudos to Duvall for tackling the issues of love and friendship so astutely. It's captivating to watch the relationships gradually evolve, and to observe the different character arcs. Most importantly, though, the third act, where most dramas tend to fall apart, actually works effectively while remaining plausible, honest and mature like the rest of the film. At an ideal running time of 90 minutes, is engrossing, wise, funny and well-acted.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Now playing at Village East Cinema.

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