MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘Greater’ should be a crowd-pleaser for its intended audience

Greater / Courtesy image

Greater is not the type of film national critics are going to warm up to. The story of Brandon Burlsworth’s life and its effect on his family is too pure, simple, and true for some to get.

That’s O.K., though. No movie is made for everyone. I suspect those inclined to see Greater will be moved by the film produced by Fayetteville native Brian Reindl and directed by David Hunt, and not be put off by the movie’s many messages.

If Greater is a film you are interested in seeing, don’t let heavy-handed critics, seeking to be dismissive and derisive keep you away.

As Reindl recently said, “It’s not a movie made for the sophisticated film-festival set, but for an audience looking for a movie they can laugh and cry with and go away feeling uplifted.”

Greater not only tells the story of how Brandon’s drive and focus transformed him from being an overweight joke of a college football player into an All-American offensive guard and a NFL Draft selection, but it also details the crisis of faith his older brother Marty faced after Brandon tragically died in an automobile accident just 11 days after he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.

Compared to other films on screens in the same theaters, Greater was made on a shoestring budget of around $5 million, according to Reindl, who wisely took advantage of every tax exemption he could get his hands on. Whatever production values the film may have lacked faded as I became engrossed in the story that I already knew very well, having covered the Razorbacks during Burlsworth’s playing days with the Arkansas Razorbacks, and knowing many of the persons depicted in the film.

Creative license is taken here and there, but the emotional core of the film rings so true in its depiction of a young man who had the uncanny ability to push all the “manure” to the side and focus as football player, student, teammate, brother, son, and Christian.

Reindl and Hunt, who co-wrote the script, use an effective storytelling device of personifying Marty’s spiritual doubts as a scraggly, old farmer who interjects his way into Marty’s grief. The old farmer, Nick Searcy who played Art Mullen on Justified, feeds Marty’s darker thoughts as Marty (co-producer Neal McDonough) attempts to wrap his faith around the seemingly meaningless loss of his 22-year-old brother, who was poised to become a NFL football player.

The struggle of faith prompts Marty’s memories of his brother’s life, and extended flashbacks details Brandon’s many struggles before he ultimately triumphed on the field and in the classroom. Brandon’s life was not easy, but he persevered and proved his doubter’s wrong.

Razorback fans will dote on Burlsworth’s rise to prominence, particularly as it traces his senior season of 1998 when the Hogs opened the year with an eight-game winning streak. The movie does cover Arkansas’ stunning loss to No. 1 Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville, and the role Burlsworth unfortunately played in Clint Stoerner’s stumble and fumble.

Chris Severio gives a heart-felt performance as Brandon in the movie that will prompt laughs and quite possibly tears. Leslie Easterbrook as Barbara, Brandon’s mother, is particularly good at the end of the film when she consoles Marty and helps him begin to reconcile the loss of his brother.

The movie features a pretty funny cameo by former Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt, as well as former Arkansas athletics director and had coach Frank Broyles as himself.

Grade: B

Hell or High Water
(R) 1 hr. 42 min.

Hell or High Water / Courtesy image

With super-hero throw-downs and fantasy epics dominating movie theaters, this hasn’t been the kindest of years for those seeking cinematic diversions of a more down-to-earth sort.

The cure for such woes is in theaters right now in the gritty, modern-day Western Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.

The film centers around two brothers backed into a financial corner who resort to robbing banks to pay off the overdue mortgage of their deceased mother’s ranch.

Playing off the legend of Jesse and Frank James, but with predatory reverse-mortgage lenders replacing the role the railroads as the target of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard’s ire.

Jeff Bridges is Marcus Hamilton, the cagey Ranger out to stop them with help from his reluctant partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is kind of fed up with dealing with Marcus’ cantankerous ways.

Yes, the plot is familiar as the dirt that fills the terrain of the film, but the details and the dialogue with which Sheridan flavors his old recipe makes what could be plain and boring, tasty and fulfilling.

Tanner’s been in prison, but life hasn’t been that easy on Toby either. He’s divorced and broke after caring for his ill mother. His ex-wife detests him and his two sons resent him. Saving the ranch, which is within a week of being foreclosed, is Toby’s way of leaving something for his boys and perhaps earing a bit of redemption in their eyes. And he’s willing to damn himself to make it happen.

The devil-may-care Tanner is game for anything, joining his brother on the bank-robbing spree through a desolate West Texas terrain that’s as dry economically as it is agriculturally.

Under Mackenzie’s direction, all four of the principal actors shine, establishing character and motive of all the characters. He gives the contrasting relationships between the brothers and the Rangers a chance to breath, and the four actors take full advantage.

Foster’s Tanner is a rapscallion, who’s likeable but also scarily impulsive. He knows who he is, and he accepts his likely fate. He does love his brother, and he’s ready to go out with a bang.

Bridges has truly become a treasure on the big screen the last two decades. His grizzled Marcus susses out the motive behind the brother’s spree all the while cracking on Alberto’s Comanche heritage. The digs get under Alberto’s skin, but Birmingham shines, retaliating with equally biting quips about Marcus’ age and uselessness. There’s kinship between the two that runs deep, and both actors bring meat to the film with their performances.

Foster and Bridges have showy parts and the lines that likely stand out over time, but Pine’s performance is the backbone of the film. Understated and direct, Pine excels as a smart but troubled man, desperate to make a bad situation work for his family. His face is hollow and haunted despite his movie-star good looks, and you feel the weight of his desperation as he schemes to save the ranch and stick it to the banks that preyed upon his mother’s ignorance and misfortune.

The film has its share of action, like any chase movie or Western should have, but the show rests on the strong character created by the actors, their director and the screenwriter. Hell or High Water is a finely crafted film that belies its familiar plot.

Grade: A

Classic Corner

The King and I

The Malco Razorback Theater in Fayetteville in conjunction with Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies presents two special showing of the 1956 adaption of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday in celebration of the movie’s 60th anniversary.

Movie musicals reached their apex in the 1950s before falling out of favor in the late 1960s, and Walter Lang’s opulent telling of the story of a Welsh instructor who travels to Siam to be the live-in teacher of 15 of King Mongkut’s 67 royal children ranks among the best of all the Broadway musicals adapted to film.

The lavish film thrilled audiences and critics alike, though some critics did complain that three musical numbers were cut from the original production. Yule Brynner gave a commanding performance as Mongkut that garnered him one of the film’s five Oscars. Deborah Kerr starred as Anna Leonowens, the strong-willed teacher, who earned the respect of the King by speaking truth to him even when he didn’t want to hear it. Rita Moreno plays Tuptim, one of the King’s wives, who is in love with another.

Kerr is obstinate and enchanting all at once playing off Brynner’s even more stubborn King as she attempts to show him the error of his way in supporting slavery. As strong as Kerr’s performance is, credit must be give where it is due. Marni Nixon dubbed her singing voice in the film as she did in the 1957 version of An Affair to Remember.

The movie overflows with wonderfully choreographed musical numbers, but Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance are standouts.

The cliché that “they don’t make them like they used to” perfectly fits this picture, and if you love musicals, the chance to see the movie on the big screen is a treat.