Combustible Celluloid
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With: Michael Shannon, Carla Gugino, Taylor John Smith, Chris Bauer, John Douglas Thompson, Zazie Beetz
Written by: Bart Freundlich
Directed by: Bart Freundlich
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and brief sexuality
Running Time: 109
Date: 03/03/2017

Wolves (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Slam Flunk

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

While the performances are strong in this coming-of-age drama, it suffers from being too familiar and predictable, while wobbly, hand-held camerawork continually breaks the spell of the storytelling.

In Wolves, Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith) is a high school basketball star and is looking forward to attending college at Cornell. But several problems arise. His kindness and teamwork on the court is frowned upon by the college coach, his girlfriend may be pregnant, and his father, Lee (Michael Shannon), is far from a good role model.

An arrogant college literature professor and a compulsive gambler, Lee has amassed an enormous debt and dangerous people are after him. Then, he aggressively and cruelly injures his son in a game of one-on-one. Anthony sits out the next big game, but when he realizes that his father may have taken advantage of his injury, he makes a drastic, and dangerous decision.

Writer/director Bart Freundlich (Catch That Kid, Trust the Man) fills his cast well. Michael Shannon is one of the greatest actors working today, and he's not afraid to explore his character's deepest inadequacies. It looks as if Taylor John Smith can actually play ball, and Carla Gugino as Anthony's mother is an active character rather than the usual support for the males.

Chris Bauer is striking as Anthony's uncle Charlie, a man with a past of his own. But the awkward, greenish-gray cinematography makes the character moments feel staged, rather than natural, and the random cutting makes the basketball games feel choppy rather than dramatic.

Moreover, bits of plot feel awkwardly smashed into place, giving the characters less time to breathe and to be fleshed out. But perhaps most distracting is its similarity — and inferiority — to Karel Reisz and James Toback's excellent 1974 film The Gambler, as well as its 2014 Mark Wahlberg remake.

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