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Win Win Blu-ray Review

Win Win (2011) movie poster Win Win

Theatrical Release: March 18, 2011 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: R / Songs List

Director: Tom McCarthy / Writers: Tom McCarthy (story & screenplay), Joe Tiboni (story)

Cast: Paul Giamatti (Mike Flaherty), Amy Ryan (Jackie Flaherty), Bobby Cannavale (Terry Delfino), Jeffrey Tambor (Stephen Vigman), Burt Young (Leo Poplar), Melanie Lynskey (Cindy Timmons), Alex Shaffer (Kyle Timmons), Margo Martindale (Eleanor), David Thompson (Stemler), Mike Diliello (Jimmy Reed), Nina Arianda (Shelly), Marcia Haufrecht (Gina Flaherty), Sharon Wilkins (Judge Maureen S. Lee), Clare Foley (Abby Flaherty), Penelope Kindred (Stella Flaherty), Sophie Kindred (Stella Flaherty)

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Most movie stars would have to make themselves over to believably resemble a New Jersey high school wrestling coach, but Paul Giamatti is not most movie stars. Balding, rotund, and always awkward, Giamatti may be the most famous actor who looks like an average middle-aged American man.
Partly because of that, Giamatti has had no shortage of offers to star in independent movies calling for plain leads. It's not that Giamatti can't do other things (he played everyone from Santa Claus to John Adams to a version of himself last decade), it's just that he is full of the kind of character that makers of offbeat, realistic films crave.

Tom McCarthy is such a filmmaker and thus Win Win is not only the title of his third film as writer/director but also a fair description of him and Giamatti collaborating. Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox's deputy mayor on "Spin City"), who runs a modest legal practice serving the elderly and coaches boys' wrestling on the side. The two jobs combined are not enough to supply financial comfort for Mike, his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), and their two young daughters. Mike keeps the stress of his money woes secret, but they are the reason why he spontaneously decides to become guardian to Leo Poplar (Burt Young, in his biggest non-Rocky role in ages), a wealthy old client in the early stages of dementia who he barely knows. The commission on guardianship is a $1,500 a month and with Leo consigned to an elderly home, it is easy money for Mike and easily afforded by Leo's trust.

Money troubles cause New Jersey elder care lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) to take uncharacteristic action in "Win Win." Sixteen-year-old Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the grandson of a client, becomes Mike Flaherty's responsibility.

Mike gets more than he expected, however, when Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the previously unknown 16-year-old son of Leo's untraceable daughter, shows up at his grandfather's vacated house. Kyle is a boy of few words, but over time enough are uttered to make clear that his mother is in drug rehabilitation back in their Ohio hometown and that Kyle has no one else to look out for him. Mike and Jackie put him up in an awkward, temporary situation. That changes when Kyle takes interest in Mike's wrestling team, displaying enough skill for Mike to enroll him in the school and put him on the team. This too is a win-win, as Kyle quits smoking, begins opening up to his tentative family, and even turns things around for Mike's team as its best and most encouraging wrestler.

Just as everyone seems to be doing well, Kyle's mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up in Jersey, ready to reclaim her son and eager to assume guardianship of her father. Those wishes appear to be at odds with those of everyone else, creating conflict for the second half of the film to resolve.

Assistant coaches (Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor) and Mike (Paul Giamatti) find the fate of New Providence High School's wrestling team lifted on the strengths of one boy. Mike's wife Jackie Flaherty (Amy Ryan) finds herself warming to her young extended houseguest on a shared supermarket run.

Like so many independent films, Win Win has enough comedy and enough drama to avoid being labeled one over the other. Coming off his original screenplay Academy Award nomination for Pixar's Up, on which he shared story credit with writers/directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, McCarthy weaves the two genres together so that there is often no indication where one stops and the other begins.
The movie is funny, while rarely leaving spaces for you to laugh. And it is dramatic, without ever seeming to strive for that. Mostly, it's just good, decent and human, adjectives that seemed to gravitate towards McCarthy's first two directorial efforts, The Station Agent and The Visitor.

Giamatti gives a fine leading turn that never feels like a performance. I think we see a lot of Giamatti's self in his acting, which works, because he's always compelling and thoughtful. As essentially second lead, newcomer Shaffer does a good job at staying authentically low-key. The film's striking poster art, recycled for the DVD and Blu-ray covers, raises expectations for much different characters and a much different film. With his mop of bleached blonde hair, you might take the boy for a Napoleon Dynamite-type weirdo, but that isn't Kyle. His appearance belies his more ordinary demeanor, and a past that includes tattoos, getting kicked off his old wrestling team, and having a long-strained relationship with his mother. Mike, meanwhile, is no inspirational coach/father figure, his flaws and questionable motives increasingly called to attention. Seeing these two distant personalities intersect is rewarding and the results are largely unpredictable.

Adding some levity to the proceedings are Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor as Mike's assistant coaches, neither of whom seems especially cut out for the job.

With a Pixarian 94% certified fresh Tomatometer rating from both top and all critics, Win Win is one of 2011's best-reviewed movies to date. Though timing probably precludes it from translating that warm reception into major awards, it did compete for this year's Best Sports Movie ESPY, losing to The Fighter, its most formidable competition.

Win Win Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: August 23, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Win Win is treated to an excellent Blu-ray presentation. The 1.85:1 picture is clean, sharp, and highly detailed, displaying no evidence of the film's presumably low budget. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio also satisfies. The characters don't always articulate well, but the dialogue is presented crisply, as are the few obligatory bits of indie music that give the mix some depth. This isn't a movie whose sound will strike a chord with you, but the Blu-ray can't be faulted in any way.

Young actor David Thompson, who makes his feature film debut as Stemmler, shares some thoughts on his first Sundance Film Festival. A bald, bearded Paul Giamatti and clean-shaven Tom McCarthy (who you might recognize as Dr. Bob, a.k.a. Bob... M.D. from "Meet the Parents") talk "Win Win" in this brief featurette.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Win Win's seemingly average supply of extras winds up being slimmer than expected, since each of the items runs just a few minutes at most. At least all of them appear in high definition.

Two deleted scenes (1:54) show us Mike meeting with another difficult old client and a brief car ride question from Burt Young.
It's sort of odd that these two bits are the only cuts deemed worthy of inclusion here.

"Tom McCarthy and Joe Tiboni Discuss Win Win" (6:29) lets the writer/director and co-story writer discuss their influences, research, subjects, and interests. Their remarks are good, but overpowered by movie clips. That becomes the running theme of the disc, granting these brief shorts a promotional feel.

"David Thompson at Sundance 2011" (2:27) follows the young supporting actor around the film festival, as he talks a bit about acting, the movie, and his surroundings. Also at Sundance, but with no scenery to prove it, "A Conversation with Tom McCarthy & Paul Giamatti" (2:26) gathers some thoughts from the pair about coming together on this project and how they enjoyed making it. Aside from its brevity, "Family" (2:24) most resembles a standard making-of featurette. Again, its movie clips outnumber B-roll and brisk insights from McCarthy and cast.

The National and Sharon Van Etten like the idea of performing in front of a running Paul Giamatti in their "Think You Can Wait" music video. Burt Young, best known as Rocky Balboa's pal and brother-in-law Paulie Pennino, appears on the "Win Win" Blu-ray menu montage and even more so, the film itself.

The music video for The National's "Think You Can Wait" (4:35) mixes film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, and the band moodily performing in front of projection of Giamatti's film-opening jog. The outtakes are especially incongruous with the solemn song, but it's an obvious and welcome inclusion nonetheless.

The extras conclude with Win Win's good theatrical trailer (2:22). Trailers for The Tree of Life, Another Earth, Henry's Crime, and Skateland play at disc insertion but are not accessible by menu. Neither is one for The 5th Quarter, which is seemingly hidden in the disc's files.

It seems silly to even mention this, because the audience for Win Win probably doesn't overlap greatly with the audience for digital copies, but no such luxury is offered here, despite being a fairly standard Fox inclusion. Though the lack of a DVD-ROM with transferrable files for computers and portable devices spares us the highly serious and detailed tutorial video, it does nothing to lower the list price from the studio's usual $39.99. Kind of a lose-wash depending on your digital copy dependability. The DVD includes all of the same bonus features as this BD.

The Blu-ray's menu frames clips in an assortment of shapes and sizes while score plays. The disc kindly supports bookmarks on the film and resumes playback of everything even after being ejected.

Wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) and teenaged wrestler Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer) are just what the other needs in "Win Win."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

You might not love Win Win, but the chances are great that you'll like it, especially if you have a taste for independent cinema, as the near-unanimously approving population of film critics tend to. With three distinctive, celebrated, character-driven films (plus story contributions to Up that have to count for something), Tom McCarthy has confirmed himself as a writer/director to watch. While movies like his may not fuel the business, they retain artfulness in the medium, tastefully reflecting humanity and, quite simply, entertain.

The Blu-ray is light on bonus features, but the feature presentation is top-notch and Win Win is a movie worth seeing.

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Related Reviews:
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Written by Tom McCarthy: Up | 2011 ESPY Best Sports Movie Nominees: The Fighter Soul Surfer Secretariat
Paul Giamatti: The Last Station Fred Claus | Amy Ryan: Jack Goes Boating Gone Baby Gone Dan in Real Life
Bobby Cannavale: Paul Blart: Mall Cop Shall We Dance? The Other Guys Louie: The Complete First Season
Burt Young: Rocky (Blu-ray Book) Back to School | Melanie Lynskey: Away We Go
The Karate Kid (2010) Stick It Cedar Rapids The Kids Are All Right Greenberg

Win Win Songs List: Hail the Villain - "Runaway", "Nearer My God to Thee", James Lum - "Crystal Mania", "Mary Had a Little Lamb", "Sexy Muzaak Esm", Destrophy - "Reconnect", Airbourne - "Blonde Bad and Beautiful", Off With Their Heads - "Until the Day", Johnny Jacobs - "Cornucopia", Burn Season - "Revolution", "Convenience Store Muzaak Esm", Off With Their Heads - "I Am You", James Lum - "Out of Control", "Fight! Fight! Fight! A", Marvin Gordy III & Thomas Brissette - "Thrust", Rob Swift - "Scratch Anthem", Bon Jovi - "Have a Nice Day", "Gladiator March", "Mellow Muzaak Esm", "Terrified", The National & Sharon Van Etten - "Think You Can Wait"

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Reviewed September 3, 2011.



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