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Review of OVERCOMER (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
Christian sports drama
2019, 119 min., Color
Sony Pictures
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

Overcomer is the latest inspirational Christian film from brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick, with Alex serving once again as director and also starring. Like the others before it—Flywheel (2003), Facing the Giants (2006), Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011), and War Room (2015)—there’s frequent mention of God and prayer. Unlike the others, there are quite a few come-to-Jesus moments rather than a single pivotal one. That’s not a criticism, mind you. It’s a fact. If you’re put off by preachy films (“You were created to know and worship Him”), then you won’t want to buy or stream this one.

But it’s also a fact that the Kendrick brothers keep improving. The writing is a little more polished, the camerawork has grown stronger, and there are more sophisticated shots—some, in this film, using drones. The overall production values are far superior as well, the result of a $5 million budget (compared to the $20,000 budget the Kendricks had to work with for their first film). While the brothers’ early films mostly cast members of their Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia (where Kendrick was an associate pastor), they’ve graduated to using more professional actors . . . and that also help to elevate the overall quality. This time there’s also a killer soundtrack, with the highlight a song (“You Say”) by Grammy- and American Music Awards-winner Lauren Daigle.

What further elevates this film is a more savvy sense of potential audiences. Some of the earlier Kendrick brothers’ films felt like simple parables that followed the same facile conversion/resolution that readers encounter in the Bible—a Saul-to-Paul transformation that begins close to rock bottom and pivots to salvation after the subject finds Jesus. Overcomer is a little more sophisticated than that, insomuch as it juggles a number of conversions or reconversions of people who are at different stages of life and belief. As preachy films go, this one has more plotting and interest.

Kendrick, a marginally passable actor, plays John Harrison, a history teacher and basketball coach at Brookshire Christian School who prioritizes basketball above all else in his life. Shari Rigby plays Amy, his wife who thinks he should be more involved with their sons’ lives apart from basketball—though not enough, apparently, for the filmmakers to make the boys more than window dressing. Priscilla Shirer, meanwhile, plays Principal Brooks, who insists that John take over coaching the Cross-Country Team after their whole town downsizes following a massive plant lay-off and his basketball team is decimated. What follows is as predictable as Hoosiers and almost as rousing.

John’s focus soon shifts to Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson), an orphan raised by her grandmother. Hannah is the only student to show up for Cross-Country try-outs. Asthma and all, she’s his entire team. It’s a little troublesome that the Kendricks felt that they had to make this African American girl a thief, especially when her thievery isn’t really integral to the plot. She squirrels away her stolen items rather than using them, but the reason for doing so is never revealed—just as we never know why John remarks that he put his watch down and now it’s gone, but never looks for it or questions where it went until she presents it to him later (you knew it would happen). It’s also unfortunate that the Kendricks felt compelled to make an old blind African American man a former drug addict, so that the only criminal elements in the film were ascribed to black characters. But I suppose it’s good that the Kendricks included African Americans as major characters at all, rather than just slipping them in as token extras. The principal is black, and they get points for having the blind man, Thomas (Cameron Arnett), be the one to help John see that he wasn’t focusing enough on Christ.

Young viewers might be able to identify with Hannah, middle-age viewers with John and his wife, and older viewers with Thomas. All three generations at different stages of life wrestle with problems that are solved by accepting Jesus, and while it happens most movingly with Hannah it’s the Yoda-like wisdom of Thomas and his relationship with Hannah, not John’s, that emerges as the subplot that generates the most interest and gets the Christian message across in a more subtle and palatable way. If the Kendricks figure out how to follow Thomas’s lead in future films, they might be able to take the next leap and create faith-based films that don’t whack people over the head with a Bible or hymnal.

Review of Creed II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No
2018, 130 min., Color
Drama
MGM/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

If there were an Energizer Bunny Award for movie franchises, I’d nominate the Rocky series. How many times can you go with a familiar formula and still crank out some pretty effective films? Well, Elvis Presley films not withstanding. As the aggregate fan/critic site IMDb.com attests, there’s really only one stinker in the original bunch:

Rocky (1976)—8.1 out of 10

Rocky II (1979)—7.2 out of 10

Rocky III (1982)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky IV (1985)—6.8 out of 10

Rocky V (1990)—5.2 out of 10

After that last disappointment, sixteen years later the franchise picked itself up off the mat and scored another TKO, though it would seem the producers weren’t comfortable counting higher than five in Roman numerals. Rocky Balboa also marked a change in direction for the franchise and star Sylvester Stallone, who was coaxed out of retirement for one last fight before turning to managing fighters—specifically, the son of his old friend and foe, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers)—in the two films to follow:

Rocky Balboa (2006)—7.2 out of 10

Creed (2015)—7.6 out of 10

Creed II (2018)—7.4 out of 5

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Review of WARRIOR (4K UltraHD combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2011, 140 min., Color
Sports drama
Lionsgate
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense mixed martial arts fighting, some language and thematic material
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: 4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, DigitalHD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I would have bet against Warrior, a 2011 sports drama from writer-director Gavin O’Connor.

I would not have believed that an old-style boxing (mixed martial arts, actually) film could successfully appropriate the Rocky Philadelphia setting, the Rocky notion of an underdog who’s out of his league, the Rocky subplot of a woman in the boxer’s life not wanting him to fight, and a Russian champion who comes to the U.S. for “the big fight” . . . and put it all together in a package that’s just as engrossing and exciting as that 1976 benchmark boxing film.

It helps that the plot turns on a former alcoholic boxer and boxing trainer who is estranged from his two adult sons, and that Nick Nolte plays the father, Paddy Conlon. It helps too that Tom Hardy plays the younger brother, an intense young man who holds a grudge against his older high-school-teacher brother, Brendon (Joel Edgerton). The performances of the three male leads are searing and help to elevate a film that throws every boxing cliché into the ring. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but not like this. The characters may be familiar types, but each actor brings something new to the formula. Warrior runs a hefty 140 minutes, but it never drags.

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Review of BRING IT ON: WORLDWIDE #CHEERSMACK (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2017, 95 min., Color
Sports-comedy
Rated PG-13 for crude sexual material
Universal Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMI 5.1
Bonus features: C
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

#KindaDumb

I get it. We live in a digital world, where everyone who walks from here to there is on their cell phone checking email, posting or replying to social media, or doing everything but watching where they’re going. Cyberbullying can be more devastating than in-person bullying, and bodyshaming and trolling are more common than “your mom” insults used to be. So it #KindaMakesSense that the sixth installment in the Bring It On franchise would tap into that. And the potential was certainly there.

But Bring It On: Worldwide #Cheersmack really is kind of dumb. The acting is bad, the cheerleading acrobatics take a backseat to online insults, and the characters are so cardboard you could knock them over with a little finger or hearty belch.

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2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS: CHICAGO CUBS (Collector’s Edition) (Blu-ray)

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chicagocubscollectorsedcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 20 hours, Color
Shout! Factory
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: Widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0
Bonus features: C
Includes: 8 single-sided Blu-ray discs
Amazon link

There are plenty who would lay claim to the title of “World’s Biggest Cubs Fan,” but I think I could build a case as well. As a kid I attended one to three games per week over the summers, working to raise money to afford the $1 bleacher seat, 10-cent program, 35-cent Frosty Malt, and 15-cent bus fare. During the school year I faked being sick more than a few times so I could watch Jack Brickhouse call the games on WGN-TV. Once, a friend and I even bicycled six hours round-trip across the city to knock on the door of Cubs player Glen Hobbie to ask for his autograph (many players were listed in the phone book back then). So you’d have to say that I’m part of the intended audience for this 2016 World Series Champions: Chicago Cubs (Collector’s Edition) Blu-ray.

But let’s be clear about what this eight-disc collection is, and what it’s not. The set includes a single Blu-ray disc for each of the seven World Series games plus a bonus disc of Game 6 of the NLCS that the Cubs won in order to advance to their first World Series since 1945. And each of those discs is a complete game telecast, sans commercials, 7th inning stretch, and pre-game show, and with only an abbreviated wrap-up—no locker room celebrations.

It’s too bad, though, that there’s not more postgame coverage. I don’t even remember seeing the Cubs carry David Ross around the field on their shoulders after Game 7, for example, but it was one of those moments that fans (and, of course, Grandpa Rossy) will never forget.

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