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DVD reviews: 'Phenom' isn't your typical sports movie

Normally I can take or leave sports movies. Too many follow what I’ll call The Rocky Template, focusing on an underdog who triumphs in the end (although the approach predates Sylvester Stallone’s flick). But I do try to review titles here that go beyond my personal likes and so, primarily based on the cast, I requested “The Phenom” (2016 / RLJ Entertainment / 85m / $29.97 BR / NR) when it was offered and I was presented with a very happy surprise. This is not your typical sports movie. Writer/director Noah Buschel’s film concerns major league rookie pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) who has a meltdown on the mound, is sent to the minor leagues and put into the care of a sports therapist (Paul Giamatti). Through their sessions and flashbacks, we learn what led up to his crisis – primarily due to his abusive, often incarcerated, drug dealing father (Ethan Hawke at his most loathsome). In some ways, this too is a cliche approach, but it is elevated here by the writing and performances.

Those expecting a lot of action on the diamond are in for a disappointment; this is a character study of the young man and his interactions with the two older ones who are conflicting influences in his life – a kind of bromantic triangle. Hopper must learn to shed his father’s negative influence for the positive ones of his doctor who, it transpires, has been through his own emotionally crippling crisis. For that matter, dad once had a shot at a baseball career but partied it away – though whether that led to his issues or vice versa is not explored. These are fleshed out characters who are given their full due by the film’s trio of leads. Especially impressive is young Simmons who holds his own with the seasoned Giamatti and Hawke (alas those two share no scenes together). If you don’t give a hoot about sports movies but do like good drama, don’t pass this one by.

This week’s titles include two science fiction films far removed by each other in terms of quality. Let’s dispose first of the one I suggest you’ll want to avoid: “Alien Outpost” (2014 / Shout Factory / 92m / $19.99 / NR). Trumpeted as being from the same folks who bring you “Game of Thrones,” this low-budget exercise certainly has none of that cable series’ lush production values. The premise has an alien invasion force destroy a bunch of major cities worldwide before being defeated (we are not told how) by Earth’s forces. A few aliens in remote areas (the film is set in Pakistan) continue fighting guerrilla style, opposed by outposts of human forces. Partway through the proceedings, it comes to light the alien nasties have come up with a method of mind control courtesy an implant in the neck (shades of “Invaders from Mars”). It thus becomes impossible to know which of the locals are friend and which are foe. Filmed in some desert locale and relying more on controlled humans than aliens for the enemy the film’s low budget is patently obvious.

Yes, the allusions to our war on terror in the Middle East are clear as is the film’s desire to invoke a “Hurt Locker” vibe. Despite being sold as a sci-fi flick, it’s more war movie – and even more it’s a movie about soldiers yakking and horsing around with each other than scenes of combat(for the best example of that check out a William Wellman film called “Battleground”). An few aliens show up briefly every so often, use their ray guns and are fired on by the humans, using rat-a-tat machine guns that we’ve been told have no impact on the invaders. (Our people conquered their enormous space fleet and this is the best weaponry our soldiers have?) Mostly they seem to rely on assaults by their zombified minions and keep a safe distance. The scenes with the soldiers hanging around between battles have a feeling of reality but what they’re nattering away about is pretty forgettable. If a war movie with bug eyed monsters instead of, say, Nazis, is something you’ve been hankering for, this is it.

Far more satisfactory, both as sci-fi and as a film – and notable for achieving something with limited finances – is “Equals” (2015 / A24, Lionsgate / 101m / $24.99 BR/ PG-13), set in some future society that is, of course, dystopian. Emotions of any kind are forbidden and those who find them welling to the surface – a “disease” referred to as Switched On Syndrome – are forced to undergo chemical treatment. Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart portray co-workers, Silas and Nia, who develop a romantic attraction for each other and must hide their feelings from other associates and especially from the police whose main duties it seems are to be on the alert for that infraction. (intriguingly Hoult also played the zombie whose human qualities resurfaced in “Warm Bodies”). Silas is sussed out by policeman Jonas (Guy Pearce) who is one of the “Hiders” and he takes the young man to a support group (one of whose members is Jackie Weaver). They ultimately offer the couple some hope of escape, but the film offers no idea of where to. Not unlike “Lobster” (reviewed here a few weeks ago) it’s unclear just how widespread this emotionless society might be.

It scarcely matters in a movie that has such a terrific cast doing justice to a well-written script. The emphasis here is on the characters and how they react to their predicament and to each other – and it can be forgiven as well that there are echoes of “1984” and “Brave New World” (as what dystopian sci-fi dos not?), not to mention “Star Trek’s” planet Vulcan and even “Romeo and Juliet” (you’ll know it when you see it). By that same token there are no special effects, CGI or otherwise (at least so far as I noticed). By its use of a stark, white unisex wardrobe, inventively realized sets and creative use of existing locales (in Tokyo and Singapore) “Equals” is a sterling example of a lower budgeted film being conceived and realized within its limited resources. I suppose much the same could be said of “Alien Outpost” but at least Drake Doremus’ film is about something. More indie genre films should have such a goal.

Jackie Weaver is also in the cast of “Blunt Talk” (2015 / Anchor Bay, Starz / 312m (2 discs) / $39.98 / TV-MA), which presents Patrick Stewart as Walter Blunt, “America’s most trusted newsman. Maybe.” This is another one of those bad behavior series that cable is so fond of these days. Blunt is not averse to copious consumption of alcohol and recreational use of pharmaceuticals. In the very first episode he is caught by police in his car whilst getting personal with a transsexual prostitute; he fights them off – tazering one officer and kicking another in his privates – before mounting the vehicle’s roof and declaiming Shakespeare. Later in the series, he tosses aside his moral objections to have sex with a woman who’s written a book defending capital punishment. He may find her views repellent, but he also thinks she’s hot. For that matter, every staff member on Blunt’s news team has some sort of quirk or deviation. The series tries to inject some heart by having Weaver’s husband (Ed Begley Jr.) spiraling into dementia but only after milking a few gags from his behavior. My sometime viewing companion was much more taken with the show than I was, so you might get more mileage out of it than I did. I found it pretty forgettable and too often prone to go for the easy, smutty joke. I’ll admit to deriving some enjoyment from seeing Stewart portray a jerk and the supporting cast is quite splendid, as well. And there are some surprising guest stars on hand – including Stewart’s old “Star Trek” compatriot Brent Spiner.

If you’re anywhere above middle school age, you’ll probably want to give “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy Come Home” (1969, 1972 / Paramount, CBS DVD / 86, 80m / $24.99 each BR / G) a wide berth. As you might gather from the ratings, these are strictly for the kiddies. Both feel like the half-hour TV specials padded out to feature length, mostly through the use of musical interludes. The former has forgettable songs by that master of the same, Rod McKuen, while the latter features ditties by the Sherman brothers (best known for Disney’s “Mary Poppins”). In the first, perpetual loser Charlie Brown turns out to be a whiz at spelling and ends up in a national spelling bee; in the second title Snoopy contemplates returning to his previous owner, a little girl who’s in the hospital. The slim plots are extended to feature length by such sequences as Snoopy setting up a sound system to play “The Star Spangled Banner” at one of Charlie Brown’s softball games or Schroeder performing a Beethoven sonata on his toy piano. The plot is in no way advanced and the animation will not erase memories of “Fantasia” from your mind. Youngsters might be amused, but their parents will likely be bored to tears. Pop the disc in the machine for the rugrats and find something else to do for an hour and a half.