Review: ‘American Underdog,’ starring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin and Dennis Quaid

December 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anna Paquin and Zachary Levi in “American Underdog” (Photo by Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate)

“American Underdog”

Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1990 to 2000 in Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and some other U.S. states, the dramatic biopic “American Underdog” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After several years of trying to break into the National Football League (NFL) as a football player, Kurt Warner joins the St. Louis Rams, but he faces opposition and skepticism from people who think he’s too old and not good enough to play in the NFL. 

Culture Audience: “American Underdog” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in American football movies and inspirational “against all odds” true stories.

Zachary Levi and Dennis Quaid in “American Underdog” (Photo by Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate)

Even though retired NFL player Kurt Warner’s life story is already known by many NFL fans, “American Underdog” is an entertaining version of his life on and off of the football field. The movie is entirely predictable but not too mawkish, thanks to grounded performances from Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin. With “American Underdog,” directors Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin (the filmmaking brothers whose specialty is making faith-based Christian movies) tone down a lot of the religious preachiness that can be found in many of their other films. In fact, it’s pretty obvious in the movie that the biggest thing that Warner really worships is American football.

“American Underdog” (which was written by Jon Erwin, David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn) is not a completely comprehensive biopic, because it covers Warner’s life only from 1990 to 2000. He was with the St. Louis Rams from 1998 to 2003. Warner would later go on to play for the New York Giants (in 2004) and the St. Louis Cardinals, from 2005 to 2009.

“American Underdog” chronicles Warner’s life journey from his days on the football team at the University of Northern Iowa to his wannabe NFL player struggles to the first few years of his stint with the Rams. The movie accelerates and compresses Warner’s first three years with the Rams to make it look like he was on the team for a very short time before he played a life-changing game in 1999. (Most NFL fans already know what that game is.)

Up until that game-changing moment, the movie focuses on how Kurt Warner (played by Zachary Levi) was underestimated or dismissed for most of his football career. A great deal of the movie also shows the ups and downs in his personal life, including an on-again/off-again romance with Brenda Meoni (played by Anna Paquin), who was a divorced mother of two underage children when they first met while he was a student and a star football quarterback at the University of Northern Iowa. This romance, even when it was at its most painful and distant, would turn out to be the one constant in the couple’s lives when experiencing life lessons about love, loyalty and not giving up on dreams.

“American Underdog” has a straightforward narrative told in chronological order. (There are few brief flashback scenes showing Kurt as a child, played by Beau Hart.) The first third of the movie depicts Kurt’s life when he was a college student and his first few years out of college. Therefore, it’s a bit of stretch to see Levi and Paquin (who were in their late 30s/early 40s when they filmed this movie) portraying people who were supposed to be in their early-to-mid-20s. (The real-life Kurt and Brenda had consulting roles for “American Underdog” and visited the film set.)

One of the better aspects of “American Underdog” is how it doesn’t portray Kurt and Brenda’s romance in a fairytale way. Brenda (who’s four years older than Kurt) played very hard-to-get in the beginning—not in a coy way, but in a way that was a reflection of who she was at the time: a financially struggling divorcée with trust issues because her ex-husband cheated on her. In the beginning of their relationship, Brenda was emotionally aloof and outright insistent to Kurt that they wouldn’t make a good couple because she said she didn’t like sports. (Obviously, she changed her mind later.)

Kurt, as portrayed in this movie, wasn’t exactly a dashing and suave Romeo. In many ways, his courtship of Brenda could be considered aggressive and even stalkerish. When they first meet at a bar playing country music, Kurt can’t take his eyes off of Brenda. He’s instantly smitten, and she’s not. Brenda loves line dancing to country music. Kurt not only dislikes country music, but he also doesn’t know how to line dance.

However, that doesn’t stop Kurt from making his first move on Brenda. Kurt literally muscles his way in on her dance partner, by nudging the other man and telling him (in a polite manner) to get out of the way. During this first dance together, Kurt introduces himself, but Brenda is so wary that she won’t even tell Kurt what her name is. It becomes an awkward joke for the rest of the evening when she still won’t tell Kurt her name.

Their first conversation also reveals how different their lives are. Kurt came from a family where his parents split up when his father abandoned the family. Kurt’s mother Sue Warner raised Kurt and his brother as a financially struggling divorced parent. Kurt tells Brenda, “Football was the most important thing my pops taught me before he left.” Kurt adds that he has reconciled with his father, “who’s back in my life now,” but there are still some emotional difficulties in this father/son relationship.

Brenda tells Kurt, “I hate sports, so it’ll never work between us.” She tells him up front that she’s divorced with two kids. And she’s certain that this information will scare off this young bachelor college student. “If I never see you again, I’ll totally understand,” Brenda says when she tells him that she’s a single mother. Brenda’s messy personal life is in contrast to that of her parents, who are still happily married after decades together.

What Brenda doesn’t tell Kurt during their first meeting is that she and her two children are currently living with her parents because Brenda is unemployed and can’t afford to have her own place. Kurt finds out when he shows up unannounced and uninvited at the house to see Brenda and meet her children. Brenda is naturally shocked to see him. Kurt tells Brenda that he found out where she lived by asking the bartender at the bar where Kurt and Brenda met.

It’s a stalker move, but it’s supposed to show that Kurt was willing to go to certain lengths to court Brenda. Not only that, but Kurt also walked the three or four miles to get to the house because he didn’t have a car at the time. Brenda doesn’t want invite him into the house, but her son Zack (played by Hayden Zaller), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, lets Kurt into the house.

Kurt and Zack have an almost immediate bond. Zack tells him that his transistor radio in the bathroom doesn’t work, and Kurt sees that all the radio needs is a second battery. Kurt and Zack then lie down on the bathroom floor to listen to the radio. Zack happens to be legally blind, but Kurt treats him like would treat any other kid. Brenda’s other child is a daughter named Jessie, who’s about 2 or 3 years old.

Brenda starts to warm up a little to Kurt when she sees how kind he is to Zack. Eventually, Brenda opens up to Kurt when she tells him a little more about her background: She used to be in the U.S. Marines and thought that she would have a perfect Marine life, including the Marine man she married named Brad, who is not seen in the movie. But Brad cheated on her when she was pregnant with Jessie.

Brad also caused Zack’s blindness: When Zack was four months old, Brad accidentally dropped Zack on the head when Brad was alone taking care of the Zack. However, when Zack was taken to the hospital with a swollen head, Brad didn’t immediately tell anyone that the reason for the swollen head was because her dropped Zack.

Brad didn’t disclose this crucial information until more than a day after Zack was taken to the hospital. But by then, it was too late, and Zack lost most of his eyesight because of the brain damage. Doctors had predicted that Zack would never be able to sit up or walk on his own. Zack defied those predictions and had the ability to do those things as a child.

At the time Kurt and Brenda met, she had left the Marines and was studying to be a nurse. Because she has to take care of two young kids, Brenda warns Kurt that she won’t be able to spontaneously go out on dates because her kids will be her top priority. It doesn’t deter Kurt. Although some people might think that Kurt and Brenda’s “meet cute” was fabricated for a movie, how they met and how Kurt followed up really did happen this way, according to interviews that Kurt and Brenda have given.

When she finally agrees to go on a date with him, he’s gotten a truck, and the kids go with them. It’s a simple date—Kurt and Brenda just hang out at a lake and talk while the kids sleep in the back of the truck—but it’s enough to spark a romance. When Kurt takes them back to the house, and he and Brenda spend some time alone, she again tells him that their relationship won’t work. But then she practically jumps on him to kiss him, and Kurt enthusiastically kisses her too.

Over time, Brenda’s parents Jenny Jo (played by Morgana Shaw) and Larry (played by Danny Vinson) are more accepting of Kurt than Kurt’s mother Sue (played by Cindy Hogan) is accepting of Brenda. Sue is afraid that Brenda being an unemployed single mother will be too much of a burden for Kurt, because Sue went through similar struggles. Brenda tells Kurt that most mothers of men she’s dated have had similar reactions to Brenda. As the movie goes on, it shows how much Kurt and Brenda are each other’s biggest support during the lowest points in their lives.

Kurt’s NFL dreams seemed to be on track when he was recruited by the Green Bay Packers not long after graduating from college. However, those dreams got a serious setback when he was cut from the Packers after less than two days. The reason? The team’s quarterback coach Steve “Mooch” Mariucci (played by Brett Varvel) didn’t think Kurt was prepared to play in the NFL.

The turnoff for Mooch was that when Mooch asked Kurt to go on the field during practice, Kurt didn’t want to go on the field because Kurt said he didn’t know the playbook yet. As far as Mooch was concerned, Kurt should’ve been eager and ready to know the playbook on the first day of practice. Kurt’s hesitancy cost him a place on the team.

It was a painful rejection that led to years of struggle for Kurt, who never gave up on his dream to play professional football. During those lean years, he experienced unemployment and a lot of financial problems, including being temporarily homeless. At one point, the only job he could find was being a shelf stocker at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he had to face people who knew him as a once-promising college football star. Eventually, Brenda invited Kurt to live with her and her parents because Kurt had nowhere else to live.

“American Underdog” has moments where these struggles are depicted in very dramatic and very “in your face” ways—literally. There’s a scene where Kurt is stocking shelves at the grocery store, and he sees a Wheaties box with Miami Dolphins star Dan Marino on the cover. Kurt looks at the box with a sad expression on his face that says, “That could’ve been me. I should have the life that Dan Marino is having.”

In another scene, Kurt and Brenda are so financially broke, they can barely afford gas for their car. And sure enough, they run out of gas, with the kids in the back of the car, on a deserted road. And wouldn’t you know: It’s during a blizzard. And so, Kurt has to walk to the nearest gas station, which is about four or five miles away, all the while hoping that Brenda and the kids won’t freeze to death or get frostbite in the car.

After this “stranded during a blizzard” incident, Kurt realizes that he can’t continue to be financially unstable, and he has to be a better provider for Brenda and the kids. And so, Kurt does something that he vowed that he would never do: Say yes to an offer from Iowa Barnstormers chief Jim Foster (played by Bruce McGill) to play for the Barnstormers in the Arena Football League, which Kurt says is “for guys who are circling the drain.”

Kurt signs on to play for the Iowa Barnstormers, which he gripes is “all the way in Des Moines, and it’s not even real football.” However, bills must be paid, and Brenda is supportive because she knows playing professional football is what Kurt really wants to do with his life, even if it’s for a team that Kurt thinks is a pathetic joke. Luckily for Kurt, his college best friend Mike Hudnutt (played by Ser’Darius Blain) is also on the Barnstormers team.

Just like during his college football days, Kurt also becomes a star quarterback for the Barnstormers. What Kurt and Brenda don’t anticipate in advance his how much Kurt ends up enjoying the partying that comes with being a football star. His constant traveling also takes a toll on their relationship. Brenda then goes through a tragedy that also tests the love that she and Kurt have for each other.

Brenda is a religious Christian, while Kurt was not particularly religious when he first met Brenda. Over time, Kurt became a more devout Christian. And although “American Underdog” could be considered a faith-based movie, this is not a typical Christian faith-based movie where God or Jesus is mentioned every 10 minutes. There are scenes of people praying, but there aren’t scenes of people going to church on a regular basis. There’s one big church scene, and it’s exactly what you think it is, considering that it’s easy to predict or know what happened to Kurt and Brenda’s courtship.

As Kurt, Levi has somewhat of a passing physical resemblance to the real Warner, and he capably handles all the football scenes, which include several real-life current and former pro football players. Levi is known to appear in mostly comedic projects or in dramas where he’s a wisecracking comedic character, so “American Underdog” is a real departure for him as an actor. He’s an easy protagonist to root for, but the movie also shows how a single-minded persistence to follow a career dream always comes at some price to someone’s personal life.

Paquin also makes her character command the screen with a believability. Brenda is both strong and vulnerable as someone who knows what it’s like to have broken dreams but has enough love in her heart to encourage Kurt to follow his football dreams, even if it means Kurt has to sacrifice time that he could be spending with her and the children. Yes, there are thrilling football scenes, but the movie’s heart is really in the relationship between Kurt and Brenda. It’s a reminder that anyone who achieves fame and fortune through a career always had supportive people along the way who helped with those achievements.

As for the supporting cast members, Dennis Quaid shows up in the last third of the movie as Rams head coach Dick Vermeil, the person on the team who believed in Kurt the most, even when numerous people—including Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz (played by Chance Kelly)—told this coach that he was making a mistake in supporting Kurt. Mike was one of the naysayers until Kurt proved him wrong. Quaid plays the role in a standard way that still manages to convey some individual personality. Zaller (who is legally blind in real life) is a scene stealer as Zack. He’s not an extremely polished actor, but child actors don’t get much more adorable than Zaller in this movie.

“American Underdog” mostly succeeds in its obvious aim to be a heartwarming and inspirational movie. It’s not pretending to be artsy or subtle. And the movie isn’t going to be winning any prestigious awards. But for audiences who want to see a drama about “ordinary” people who can do “extraordinary” things with persistence and the right support system, then “American Underdog” delivers on those expectations. The movie does a good job in conveying the message that people’s true characters are made during their most difficult times.

Lionsgate will release “American Underdog” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital on February 4, 2022, and on Blu-ray, DVD, 4K Ultra HD and VOD on February 22, 2022.

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Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

Review: ’12 Mighty Orphans,’ starring Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen

June 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

“12 Mighty Orphans” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Preston Porter, Woodrow Luttrell, Sampley Barinaga and Jacob Lofland. Pictured in middle row, from left to right: Levi Dylan, Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Manuel Tapia, Austin Shook and Michael Gohlke. Pictured in front tow, from left to right: Slade Monroe, Jake Austin Walker, Bailey Roberts and Tyler Silva. (Photo by Laura Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics)

“12 Mighty Orphans”

Directed by Ty Roberts

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1938, mainly in Fort Worth, Texas, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” (based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A high school football coach begins working at an orphanage, where he assembles a ragtag team of teenage football players, who must fight for respect and overcome several obstacles in football and in life.

Culture Audience: “12 Mighty Orphans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in traditionally made “against all odds” sports movies.

Luke Wilson and Jake Austin Walker in “12 Mighty Orphans” (Photo by David McFarland/Sony Pictures Classics)

Unapologetically sentimental and earnest, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie that embraces its hokey tropes and ends up being a charming story. Most of the movie is utterly predictable, because there are so many underdog sports movies that have covered the same territory in a similar way. Somehow, it all works well for “12 Mighty Orphans,” which tells the true story of the Mighty Mites, a Texas orphanage football team that defied low expectations to go all the way to the Texas state championships.

People who already know this story probably won’t learn anything new, but this dramatic depiction is still compelling, thanks to commendable performances from the cast members. Directed by Ty Roberts (who co-wrote the “12 Mighty Orphans” screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer), “12 Mighty Orphans” is based on Jim Dent’s 2008 non-fiction book “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.” The movie (which had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) hits a lot of the same beats as other inspirational sports movies about underdogs.

There’s the coach who ignores the naysayers, motivates his team, and turns them into winners. There’s the talented but hotheaded team member who lets his temper get in the way of his sportsmanship. There’s the sneering coach from another team who can’t believe these ragamuffins could possibly be better than his team.

The movie, which takes place in 1938 during the Great Depression, begins with the introduction of Harvey Nual “Rusty” Russell (played by Luke Wilson), who has left a comfortable teaching position at a high school to take a teaching/coaching job at the Masonic Home, an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas, that has about 150 children in residence. Rusty has moved with his loyal wife Juanita Russell (played by Vinessa Shaw) and their two children: Betty Russell (played by Josie Fink and Lillie Fink), who’s about 4 or 5 years old, and another unnamed daughter, who’s about 6 or 7 years old.

Juanita, who will be teaching English at the orphanage, isn’t happy about this move because Rusty took this job without even discussing it with her. Rusty will be teaching math at the orphanage, but his true passion is coaching football. The orphanage’s doctor A.P. “Doc” Hall (played by Martin Sheen) recommended Rusty for the job, but Doc and Rusty don’t meet in person until Rusty and his family arrive on the premises. Doc is also a football enthusiast, and he becomes Rusty’s biggest ally at the orphanage. Doc also serves as the movie’s voiceover narrator.

To his shock and dismay, Rusty finds out that not only does the orphanage not have a formal football team but the orphanage also don’t have football uniforms. Doc also says that when the orphans do play footbal, they play during two seasons: One season where they can wear shoes, and they other where they don’t wear shoes. The orphanage is so financially strapped that there aren’t enough athletic shoes to last an entire year. Despite these obstacles, Rusty is determined to put a football team together and have the team compete with high school football teams in the league.

Rusty gets resistence from the orphanage’s corrupt chief administrator Frank Wynn (played by Wayne Knight), who physically and verbally abuses the male orphans. (Frank has a large paddle named Bertha, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it.) Frank also forces the male teenagers to work in an orphanage sweatshop to make garments and shoes that he sells for his own personal profit. Needless to say, the sweatshop work violates all types of child labor laws.

Frank thinks that the male teens in the orphanage shouldn’t be playing competitive football because he thinks the time spent on practice and games should be used for his grueling sweatshop work. However, Frank is overruled by his boss, who tells Rusty that Rusty can put together a football team, under one condition: “It’s very important that it does not interfere with the day-to-day [activities] of the home.”

Through a process of elimination (some of the boys don’t qualify for the team because of low grades), 12 teens (whose average age is 16 to 17) join the football team. They call themselves the Mighty Mites. The 12 members of the team are:

  • Hardy Brown (played by Jake Austin Walker), an angry young man who becomes the team’s star linebacker
  • Wheatie “C.D.” Sealey (played by Slade Monroe), who comes out of his bashful shell to become the team quarterback
  • Douglass “Fairbank” Lord (played by Levi Dylan), the pretty boy of the team
  • Leonard “Snoggs” Roach (played by Jacob Lofland), a foul-mouthed jokester
  • Leon Pickett (played by Woodrow Luttrell), an introvert
  • Miller Moseley (played by Bailey Roberts), the smallest player on the team
  • Cecil “Crazy” Moseley (played by Michael Gohlke), Miller’s brother who happens to be mute
  • Amarante Pete “A.P.” Torres (played by Tler Silva), who doesn’t say much in the movie
  • Gonzolo “Carlos” Torres (played by Manuel Tapia), who is A.P.’s brother
  • DeWitt “Tex” Coulter (played by Preston Porter), the tallest person on the team
  • Ray Coulter (played by Austin Shook), Tex’s brother
  • Clyde “Chicken” Roberts (played by Sampley Barinaga), a redhead who overcomes his fears to become a solid team player

Abusive orphanage administrator Wayne is the story’s biggest villain, but the movie also has other antagonists. Luther (played by Lane Garrison) is a cigar-chewing, arrogant businessman who has invested in a rival football team. He’s dead-set against letting the Mighty Mites play in the high school football league because he thinks the orphanage isn’t a legitimate school. “Orphan football,” Luther sasy to himself disgust. “That’s as dumb as letting women vote.”

During a football league hearing to decide whether or not the Mighty Mites can compete against other high school football teams, Luther objects because of the rule that a competing school must have at least 500 students. However, Rusty has found a clause in the rulebook that can make an exception for a team if the coaches of the other high schools give a majority vote to allow the team. Rodney Kidd (played by Scott Haze), who happens to be Luther’s brother-in-law, is presiding over the hearing.

Luther thinks that his family connection will give him an easy advantage in this battle. But to Luther’s anger and disappointment, the coaches of the other high schools vote by a majority to let the Mighty Mites compete in the league. It can be presumed that these other coaches probably thought that these orphans would be easy to defeat in football games, so that’s why they readily allowed the Mighty Mites into the league.

But as what happens in underdog stories like this one, the Mighty Mites were severely underestimated. They start winning games and become folk heroes. The team attracts the attention of businessman Mason Hawk (played by Robert Duvall, in a small role), who invests in the Mighty Mites. (“Apocalypse Now” co-stars Sheen and Duvall have a scene together in “12 Mighty Orphans.”) Later in the story, President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Larry Pine) becomes a Mighty Mites fan. Treat Williams has a small role as Amon Carter, founder/publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

And every underdog story seems to have emotional baggage and trauma. Hardy is a very talented football player, but he has an explosive temper that can get him into trouble. Why is he so angry? Before he came to the orphanage, he was found lying next to his dead father (who was murdered), and Hardy’s mother didn’t want to take care of Hardy, so she sent him to live in the orphanage.

C.D. also has a mother who abandoned him at the orphanage, when he was 7 years old, after C.D.’s father left the family. C.D. hasn’t seen his mother in the 10 years since then. When C.D. mother’s Wanda (played by Lucy Faust) unexpectedly shows up at the orphanage with her current husband, it leads to an emotionally raw confrontation that’s very melodramatic, but it fits well in this often-melodramatic movie.

Doc, who is a widower, has his own personal demons: He’s an alcoholic. And he confides in Rusty that his wife died during childbirth. Based on his tone of voice, Doc is still haunted by his wife’s tragic death. As for Rusty, he tells his football team during an emotional moment that he can relate to them because he’s an orphan too.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie where Doc says in a voiceover about Rusty: “He knew that football would inevitably bring self-respect to the boys.” And there are plenty of “pep talk” scenes that are exactly what you would expect. As formulaic as this movie is, there’s still a level of suspense in the movie’s best game scene: the Texas state championship. Viewers who already know the game’s outcome can still be drawn in by the thrilling way that this game is filmed for the movie.

Rusty is portrayed by Wilson as an almost saintly mentor who never loses his temper, even when some of the boys on his team rudely insult him and each other. By contrast, Knight’s depiction of the loathsome Frank is almost a caricature of a villain. Out of all Mighty Mites, Walker (as Hardy), Monroe (as C.D.) and Lofland (as Snoggs) get the most screen time to showcase the characters’ personalities. All of the acting is believable, but sometimes hampered by corny dialogue.

“12 Mighty Orphans” was filmed on location in Texas, in the cities of Fort Worth, Weatherford and Cleburne. That authenticity goes a long way in this movie’s appeal, since so much of the film comes across as a made-for-TV movie. Is this movie going to be nominated for any awards? No, but it’s not a bad way to be entertained. And people don’t even have to be fans of American football to enjoy “12 Mighty Orphans.”

Sony Pictures Classics released “12 Mighty Orphans” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, with an expansion to more cinemas on June 18, 2021.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

A Woman's Work: The NFL's Cheerleader Problem
“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” (Photo by Samanta Helou-Hernandez)

“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem”

Directed by Yu Gu

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

Being a cheerleader for the National Football League might look glamorous on the outside, but the harsh reality on the inside is that NFL cheerleaders are often being paid below minimum-wage salaries, if they are being paid at all. In fact, being an NFL cheerleader is a job where the employer makes you lose money, not make money, because the cheerleaders have to pay for work-related expenses, including trips to their teams’ football games and other team-related events; the cheerleader outfits (which are work uniforms); and the photo shoots they do for their team calendars—all without reimbursement from their teams or the NFL. And to make matters worse, the cheerleaders have to wait until the football season is over before they are paid their insultingly low salaries. Meanwhile, NFL team mascots (who are usually male) and waterboys are paid a lot more than cheerleaders, even though NFL teams use cheerleaders a lot more than mascots to sell team merchandise and to attract fans to games and other team events.

“A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” is a superb documentary that exposes the entrenched system that refuses to fairly compensate cheerleaders for the work that they do. Many NFL teams require that their cheerleaders sign contracts allowing teams to set the rules of employment. But, depending on the state, the contract might be illegal if the cheerleader is considered an employee rather than an independent contractor/freelancer. The bottom line is that NFL cheerleaders (who are almost always female) are literally the poster children for some of the worst gender-based salary gaps in the United States. They are the lowest-paid football employees at NFL games.

Because cheerleaders have an image of being there as eye candy, many people assume that cheerleaders exist to appeal mostly to men. But considering that women are attending more football games than ever before, and there are countless young girls who aspire to be cheerleaders, it’s an issue that should be of concern to NFL fans, regardless of a fan’s gender, and a wake-up call for how fans want to support their teams with their money.

The documentary focuses on two former NFL cheerleaders who are among those leading the fight to change the system so that NFL teams will begin paying market-rate compensation to their cheerleaders for their work. Both women have filed landmark lawsuits that have brought many of these issues to the public’s attention.

Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a former Oakland Raiders cheerleader, sued the team in 2014 for back pay that she felt was owed to her. Her class-action Raiderettes lawsuit paved the way for similar lawsuits that year. Maria Pinzone, a former Buffalo Bills cheerleader, also filed one of those similar class-action lawsuits, but her Buffalo Jills lawsuit had more defendants—the Buffalo Bills, Citadel Broadcasting (the subcontractor hired to manage the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad), Stephanie Mateczun (the Buffalo Jills alum who managed the cheerleading squad) and the NFL.

Also featured in the documentary are the legal teams for each women—Pinzone’s attorney Sean Cooney and Thibodeaux-Fields’ attorneys Leslie Levy, Sharon Vinick and Darci Burrell get the most screen time from each legal team. Lorena Gonzalez, a former Stanford University cheerleader who is now a member of the California State Assembly, is also featured as a prominent ally to cheerleaders who are fighting for a fair wage. Because lawsuits like these often take years to get resolved, Thibodeaux-Fields and Pinzone went through some major life changes during the course of filming the documentary: Thibodeaux-Fields started the movie as the mother of one child, and ended the movie as the mother of three. She and her husband also relocated from California to London when he was transferred for his job. Pinzone got married, but tragically lost her mother to breast cancer one month before her wedding.

Just like athletes, cheerleaders for professional sports teams spend years training to hone their skills. Many of them have professional experience as dancers and/or gymnasts, and they have to go through a challenging recruitment and audition process before being chosen by a team. The work they have to do for the team on and off the field is also more strenuous and demanding than what mascots are required to do—not to mention that mascots, who are usually in costume disguises, aren’t held to the same standards of beauty and physical fitness that cheerleaders are required to have. The documentary also points out that the women who have filed the lawsuits are not expecting to be paid the same salaries as athletes, but they want to be paid at least the same if not slightly more than the team mascots who do a lot less work than cheerleaders do. It blows away the myth that these are women looking to get rich from their lawsuits.

In fact, as seen in the documentary, the lawsuits come with heavy prices, financially and personally. Through candid interviews with Thibodeaux-Fields, Pinzone and other cheerleaders who have been involved in these lawsuits, it’s clear that being a cheerleader for the NFL was a dream of theirs since they were children, and they (as well as some of their family members) have had an intense loyalty to their NFL teams. But standing up for their rights meant that they had to sacrifice their NFL cheerleader dreams and important team relationships they made along the way. Their lawsuits virtually ensure that they will never work for a professional sports team again, not to mention the insults, threats and blackballing they would get in other ways. (Thibodeaux-Fields’ lawsuit has been resolved. Pinzone’s lawsuit is still pending, as of this writing.)

“A Woman’s Work” also takes a responsible approach of showing the perspectives of people who disagree with the lawsuits, including NFL fans and current and former NFL cheerleaders. (The lawsuits’ defendants aren’t interviewed—no doubt because their attorneys wouldn’t allow it—but there is some news footage of people such as Mateczun and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mentioning the lawsuits in TV interviews. Not surprisingly, the defendants say that don’t think they did anything wrong.)

The cheerleaders who think it’s wrong to sue for a higher salary usually say that being an NFL cheerleader is a “privilege,” a “sisterhood” and a “tradition” that shouldn’t be disrupted by asking for a living wage that meets the state’s minimum standards. They also think taking legal action is destructive because it tarnishes the reputations of the football team and other cheerleaders who want nothing to do with the lawsuits. The documentary includes footage from a Raiderette reunion in Las Vegas, as well as male and female fans at football games, who have derogatory and sexist things to say about cheerleaders who dare to ask to be paid fairly for their work. The point is clear: Men should not be blamed as the only ones who want to keep the cheerleaders in their place, because women can be just as adamant in the belief that cheerleaders should accept the way it’s been done for years.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, had one of the best lines in the movie in response to this belief: “When you’re in the NFL, you’re not part of a family. You’re not in the will. You’re part of a job.”

UPDATE: PBS’s “Independent Lens” series will premiere “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem” on January 4, 2021. 1091 Pictures will release the movie on digital on January 26, 2021, and on VOD on February 2, 2021.

Pepsi launches global capsule collection with Boohoo, Umbro, Le Specs, New Era, Anteater

April 24, 2018

PepsiCo
(Photo courtesy of PepsiCo)

The following is a press release from PepsiCo:

Iconic beverage brand Pepsi® announces a global capsule collection with fashion partners Boohoo, Umbro, Le Specs, New Era and Anteater. In the brand’s latest extension of its 2018 global #LOVEITLIVEIT campaign, Pepsi intersects art and sport to celebrate the world’s beautiful game – football – on a new pitch: fashion.

“Pop culture acumen – from sport and music to art and culture – is embedded in our Pepsi brand identity. It’s exciting to see our brand extend its power beyond the refreshing cola it is traditionally known for,” said Natalia Filippociants, Senior Marketing Director, Global Pepsi Trademark, Global Beverage Group, PepsiCo. “Football is the world’s game – and that culture and lifestyle goes beyond where and how we watch the game, to how we love and live the game. And that is where this fresh capsule collection plays. It brings the spirit and energy of football off the pitch and into lifestyle apparel and accessories.”

The 2018 Pepsi “Art of Football” Capsule Collection consists of an alliance with labels originating from around the world — including Russia’s Anteater, the UK’s Boohoo and UmbroAustralia’s Le Specs and the U.S.’s New Era. The collection includes a range of streetwear apparel and accessories such as t-shirts, backpacks, bucket hats and iPhone cases from Anteater; hoodies, tracksuits, t-shirts and cropped jackets from Boohoo; soccer t-shirts, shorts and balls from Umbro; sunglasses from Le Specs; and fashion headwear and t-shirts from New Era. The collection will be available beginning May 21st at each individual partners’ e-commerce site, and department stores and fashion specialty retailers where the partners’ brands are normally sold, as well as the full Pepsi “Art of Football” Capsule Collection available on http://www.boohooman.com/pepsi.

The 2018 Pepsi “LOVE IT. LIVE IT. FOOTBALL.” campaign collides football with art, bringing to life some of football’s greatest stars with distinctive artwork from emerging visual artists from each of their home countries — Argentina’sDIYEBrazil’s Bicicleta Sem FreioGermany’s DXTR, U.S’ Kim Sielbeck and UK’s Iain MacarthurEach item in the Pepsi “Art of Football” Capsule Collection incorporates the artwork – another way the disruptive art aesthetic links and animates all campaign elements, from the limited-edition player packaging and arresting out of home that is more art than billboard, to thumb-stopping digital content and a blockbuster TV commercial.

For more information on the Pepsi “Art of Football” Capsule Collection, join the conversation online with #LOVEITLIVEIT.


About PepsiCo

PepsiCo products are enjoyed by consumers more than one billion times a day in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. PepsiCo generated more than $63 billion in net revenue in 2017, driven by a complementary food and beverage portfolio that includes Frito-Lay, Gatorade, Pepsi-Cola, Quaker and Tropicana. PepsiCo’s product portfolio includes a wide range of enjoyable foods and beverages, including 22 brands that generate more than $1 billion each in estimated annual retail sales.

At the heart of PepsiCo is Performance with Purpose – our fundamental belief that the success of our company is inextricably linked to the sustainability of the world around us. We believe that continuously improving the products we sell, operating responsibly to protect our planet and empowering people around the world enable PepsiCo to run a successful global company that creates long-term value for society and our shareholders. For more information, visit www.pepsico.com.

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