Review: Amateur, Set It Up, The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter

Amateur 

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It’s a metaphor!

14-year-old basketball prodigy Terron (Michael Rainey Jr) struggles with a learning disability, his fractious home life and the reality that his dreams of making it big in the NBA will probably remain just that. Potential relief comes from Coach Gaines (Josh Charles), leader of an NCAA prep school team, who recruits Terron for his talent, and with the promises of an elite education. But it doesn’t take long for Terron to realise that the mix of sports and academics has a dark underbelly.

I have an interest in stories of this type, enjoying the likes of Friday Night Lights (in its various guises), Last Chance U, 30 For 30, and Draft Day, films and media about the vastly complex, occasionally inspirational, but frequently depressing system whereby young would-be sports stars in America attempt the transition from amateur to professional, with all of the pitfalls in-between. Amateur, from little known director Ryan Koo (adapting a short film of his) is a decent exploration of the topic.

Most of it will ring familiar to those with any appreciation of the subject matter: a young black sports star out of his depth in the murky world of intense recruitment and easy promises; a family structure barely holding together, caused in part of the patriarch’s negative experience with sport; a white saviour authority figure, who isn’t all he seems; an education system where the emphasis is on doing everything possible to pass, by fair means or foul; and a sense that the young man at the centre of it all is just another pawn, to be bartered for and traded.

While there is a certain measure of predictability, Amateur is still an enjoyable ride. Young newcomer Rainey Jr won’t blow you away, but does a perfectly serviceable job as Terron, a fundamentally decent kid who wants to do his mother proud, but his way. He is able to capture the inherent awkwardness of a young teenage who also happens to be gifted athletically, manifested in a certain way by his inability to properly comprehend numbers, and proves a decent avatar for an Instagram generation of athletes, who have bucketloads of talent before they have the know-how to use it to their advantage.

The pressure from the other end is also well realised by the performance of The Good Wife’s Josh Charles, who is bowled over by his own stresses, in scrambling to put together a competitive team, making sure his bending of the rules goes unnoticed (as well as the breaking) and fending off the attentions of rival coaches. Moving from white saviour to white devil and back again throughout the film, Charles’ performances serves as a decent expose of the undeniable hypocrisy within the system, that insists on spectacular success from its coaches, and then reprimands them for being unable to provide it within the entangling and unworkable rule systems regards recruitment.

Koo’s direction is just fine, albeit the film could do with being lit a bit better at times. The near-constant darkness is perhaps intentional, with the only really bright moments of Terron’s life being when he is on the court, but I feel like symbolism should have taken a back seat to clarity on more than a few occasions.

The film errs a little bit in Terron’s relationship with his brain-damaged father, which seems like an unnecessary emotional add-in that wasn’t required, and in the nature of its ending, which has a certain element of positivity to it that feels a little tacked on, as if the director wasn’t confident with including a pessimistic, yet realistic, conclusion. Amateur doesn’t re-invent the wheel or anything, but it is a solid presentation of desperation, hypocrisy and escape in sport, with two good central performances and excellent pacing. Recommended.

Set It Up

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You won’t be smiling.

Both Harper (Zoey Dutsh) and Charlie (Glen Powell) struggle in their roles as assistants to Rick (Taye Diggs) and magazine editor Kirsten (Lucy Liu), with their respective boss’s various shades of unconcerned, demanding and abusive. After discovering the similarities of their predicaments, they hatch a plot to get their superiors intertwined romantically, for their own personal and professional benefit.

Well, Netflix can’t always get it right. Set It Up portends to be a decent rom-com production with some established players like Liu and Diggs backing up emerging comedic talents like Dutsh and Powell, but like so many of this most over-played of genres, the mixture ends up being bland, formulaic and, worst of all, very forgettable.

Perhaps it’s just that the film feels played-out when you hit the 30-minute mark, the extent of the comedy you can get from the premise already obvious, and already receding in the distance. PA’s have it rough! Stressed out people just need to get laid! The guy is horrible to the girl for no reason at all! Parent Trap references! And what’s the deal with airline food? Dutsh and Powel do just fine with the standard “snarky twenty-somethings” they’ve been given (while having little to no chemistry if I’m being honest), while Liu and Diggs sleepwalk through affairs, but they don’t really get given any kind of opportunity with this material.

Perhaps I’m being overly-harsh, but I feel like the artistic freedoms provided by Netflix, who routinely take low-cost low-risk punts on strange properties, should leave you with the ability to come with something a bit more endearing and funny than what you get here, which is essentially a narrative following two horrible manipulative people, that the film expects you to want to get together by the end. Maybe Set It Up should have gone down the It’s Always Sunny… route with that kind of premise, with the point of the film, its humour, and this sociopathic plot to fabricate a relationship, to be an expose of horrible stupid people doing horrible stupid things and eventually getting a well-earned comeuppance.

Indeed, the film is at its best when it goes dark. When a stadium kiss-cam can’t get Kirsten and Rick making out, Charlie boos a gay couple who do, before rapidly attempting to explain to those nearby that it isn’t like that; trying to get their two bosses alone in a stalled elevator backfires when a panicked, overweight delivery man ends up in there too, and procedures to start stripping; and a recurring joke sees the two leads continually tormenting a distressed waiter for free nacho chips without ordering anything.

The common theme for those three examples is that they are all in the first half hour: after that, Set It Up descends into a comfortable, but regrettable, mediocrity. Harper and Charlie both have separate relationship issues, the manipulated relationship grows harder to maintain, their personal goals clash with professional ones and, oh yes, they both need to quit with the googly eyes at each other and hook up. Which they inevitably do, as these things seem to go, but it’s a slow crawl to minute 90, with less and less laughs and more awkward relationship drama. Director Claire Scanlon is known almost exclusively for her TV directing and editing, and perhaps she needs that more limited format to really get the best stuff out. The writer, Katie Silberman, is a relative unknown, and without intending to sound cruel, that isn’t going to change with efforts like this. Not recommended.

The Legacy Of A Whitetail Deer Hunter

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Another important milestone.

While filming his latest low-budget hunting video, Buck (Josh Brolin) hopes that taking his 12-year-old son Jaden (Montana Jordan) for his first trip to kill a deer will help repair a relationship damaged by a recent divorce. Accompanied only by cameraman Don (Danny McBride), they embark into the wilderness, but clashing personalities and emotional baggage combine to make it a less than enjoyable journey.

This low-budget (well, to an extent, Brolin isn’t going to come too cheap post-Avengers) offering popped up unexpectedly on Netflix the other week and proved to be a reasonably diverting dramedy about the fraught bonds of a father and son, as clashes of tradition and modernity play out in the middle of a standard American rite of passage.

Despite the fact that Whitetail… is a touch more serious than Set It Up, it manages to be both funnier and more heart-warming, and all in less time too. To an Irish audience, Buck looks like a self-obsessed redneck buffoon, with more guns than sense, but director Jody Hill subverts expectations wonderfully in the opening five minutes, starting with an glimpse at a “Buck Productions” video, that includes a quotation of John 3:16 and an opening line of “I’ve seen the best and I’ve killed the best”. In the real world, Buck picks up his son, as the weedy new man in his ex-wife’s life (Scoot McNairy in a one-scene cameo), looking every bit the middle-class liberal stereotype of the dreaded stepdad, surprises his stepson with a gigantic “murdered out” automatic rifle. Buck, with a preference for old Winchester’s, disapproves, naturally. From there, it’s a whiskey-swilling, inappropriate sexual talking, deer shooting adventure into the wilds, as Buck struggles to understand why his 12-year-old son needs constant contact with his girlfriend, or his vlog (“Leave a comment if you think huntin straight up sucks” he offers to his phone at one point) while also attempting to enunciate why he loves hunting so much (in the isolated wild, it’s the last place he feels in control).

The other side of things is the relationship between Buck, obsessed with shooting the perfect hunting video to boost flagging sales, and cameraman Don, an awkward guy who doesn’t know when to stop offering details of he and his girlfriend’s sexual proclivities (the very picture of the unofficial “cool uncle” who really should just shut up), and is easily pushed around by Buck. It’s amusing watching the two attempt a manufacture an emotional narrative for their video while struggling to keep things together off-camera: in the end Don is just another target of Buck’s dissatisfaction with life, a state of affairs propelled by his divorce. McBride, also a co-writer, does quite well, hooking up again with Eastbound & Down creator Hill.

Brolin is great here, but he usually is. He captures that despairing sense of a parent who wants a milestone in their son’s life to go perfectly and doesn’t know how to react calmly when it doesn’t. He also masterfully plays a total hypocrite, a person presenting himself as a man’s man’s man (with monologues about the virtue of processed American cheese), while camping in air-mattresses provided for product placement (and he also has a cowardly streak at times, brilliantly shown during a rope bridge crossing. Jordan, while only 15, is also commendable in what is a difficult role for a child actor, a three-hander in the middle of nowhere, that happens to involve some actual stunt work. Jaden wants to play his guitar, rejects the idea of working hard at something you’re bad at and chaffs under any expectations, thinking Buck’s idea of getting “blood on his boots” obscene, and he maintains that whiny pre-pubescent kid tone without it ever becoming too grating. On the cusp of puberty and dealing with his personal disappointments in life, he plays really well off Brolin, the two thinking they are incredibly different, when they are actually remarkably similar.

Hill defines his act breaks with glimpses of the manufactured video storyline Buck and Don are concocting, a clever choice to differentiate between Buck’s dreams of perfections and the increasingly sordid reality. Beyond that the visual direction of Whitetail… is nothing spectacular really, the film presumably shot on a shoe-string in the middle of the woods, though it doesn’t look bad either. Only in its finale does Hill attempt anything more inventive, in some tense climactic sequences, and that’s all the film requires. Whitetail… is unlikely to be a real stand-out on Brolin’s CV, but it’s a decent film that deserves more attention. Recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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