30-for-30: One and Not Done

Release: Thursday, April 13, 2017 (ESPN)

→ESPN (re-air) 

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

As someone who spent his college days getting lost amidst the sea of brilliant orange and bright white on Rocky Top Tennessee, I’m about to admit something that could very well lose me some friends: this documentary gave me a new appreciation for Kentucky basketball. It made me not only more fascinated by head coach John Calipari, it made me a fan. There, I said it. And I know it’s heresy. If I am to be made an example out of like an outsider in an old western, the one request I have is that you don’t string me up over the Goalpost Tavern or Cool Beans.

Traditionally Big Orange Country shows out for football far more than for in-door games played on smaller rectangles in really squeaky tennies. Maybe that’s because football there is a culture defined by Phillip Fulmer, Peyton Manning and Neyland Stadium, a gigantic fortress that beckons the faithful on crisp autumn Saturdays when the changing leaves coordinate themselves to match the student dress code. If atmosphere is what you seek in your sporting events, visit Knoxville in the height of football season.

However, the area between checkerboard-style end zones isn’t where our rivalry with Kentucky really lies. In the arena, the Wildcats are perennially great, and a perennial nuisance. The measure of greatness in college basketball is not simply judged by your regular season résumé, but how deep your runs take you in the annual NCAA Tournament, a single-elimination style pool play in which Kentucky is 126-51 all-time, with 17 Final Four appearances and eight national titles, most recently in 2012 under Calipari.

The Wildcats have for some time been the bane of their SEC opponents, mostly because of Calipari’s uniquely relentless efforts in recruiting the best of the best of the best of high school talent. These are the so-called “one-and-done”s — the 18-20 year-olds who are so good they play one season in college before going pro. As a result his pond is never less than fully stocked with some pretty big fish. The problem with this is that expectations rise accordingly, and when you’re merely ‘good’ but not GREAT in Rupp Arena, you call upon the collective strength of Big Blue Nation for a show of even greater support — as Coach Cal did earlier this year when his team, the youngest he has ever coached, hit a four-game skid and doubts of a tournament bid began to mount.

Jonathan Hock’s sixth contribution to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary series 30-for-30One and Not Done, offers a detailed and provocative look into the personal life, career and coaching philosophies of a controversial collegiate sports figure. The vocal, prone-to-spasms-on-the-sideline leader is loved by many but viewed as a problem by many more because of the reputation that has preceded him. After stints at UMass, where he got his first head coaching gig in 1988, and the University of Memphis, Calipari has seen two seasons ended in NCAA investigations that led to the vacating of tournament wins, with UMass’s star player Marcus Camby being charged with receiving improper benefits (some $40,000 by someone unaffiliated with the school) and Memphis’ Derrick Rose being ruled academically ineligible.

It isn’t often a coach regains legitimacy after the sledgehammers the governing body of the NCAA delivered, and Calipari has had this happen twice. The documentary gives you a sense of how he has been able to survive and advance beyond very public scrutiny. Whether he deserved those chances is for you to decide. The early days are certainly interesting chapters, but ultimately the film is more concerned with the phenomenon he has created since being called up to the big kids’ table, coaching one of the more recognizable brands in college basketball, with his aggressive off-season strategies for talent scouting. Today, the “one-and-done” craze has spread far beyond the reaches of the Southeastern Conference. Look at any major blue blood school now and you’ll find at least one. (Vols fans, remember when we had Tobias Harris? You probably don’t actually.)

The overarching interview with Coach — his expressive face and irrepressible energy all up in your grill during the bulk of this tightly-shot conversation — acts almost as a promotional tool for future scholarship hopefuls. He gets you to buy in to the sales pitch — that he is as committed to the players’ athletic future as much as their future in general (Kentucky has a much higher than average graduation rate amongst student-athletes but you won’t hear that as often as you will about the latest controversial thing Cal said or did). He gets you to listen to his story, how far a cry his current $7.5 million salary really is from the reality his immigrant parents faced. How he has built himself up, and subsequently became a thorn in the sides of those who couldn’t stand the way he comported himself either in press conferences or in games — some of whom call him “Satan on the sidelines”.

Whether he ultimately earns your respect and/or empathy is almost beside the point. Director Jonathan Hock expressed a desire to present as complete a profile of a very complicated, divisive personality as possible and he succeeds in balancing the scales of opinion and perception. One and Not Done includes interviews with many of his supporters, friends and family but there is also the obvious disdain Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim can’t help but express in his responses. For me, a Vols fan, the best thing about this documentary is that it changed my perspective in a significant way. Maybe I’m too easily manipulated by the media. And maybe it’s just Cal (isn’t it obnoxious how I’m calling him Cal now, like he’s my pal or something!) being a great talker and sales pitchman, it made me believe this guy truly does care for his players, and believes in their futures, even if it’s off the basketball court.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: Absorbing film centered around a high-profile college basketball coach makes for a must-watch this time of year. (Yeah, yeah — I’m like a year late to this one. But the 2018 Tournament is still in play, so it still counts.) John Calipari is unquestionably a compelling and polarizing sports figure. I still see why people are rubbed the wrong way by him, but I don’t feel the same way anymore about him. And I am grateful for that. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I tell ’em, ‘you’re gonna hate me.’ But if I do right by them, they’ll win.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.kentuckycrazies.com; http://www.cbssports.com 

Unsane

Release: Friday, March 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan Bernstein; James Greer

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh is to date the most recognizable filmmaker to have publicly touted the virtues of making movies using your own smartphone. We aren’t talking Instagram videos of course, but full-length feature films. In this case, a gritty horror film about a young woman who can’t get away from her stalker. The director behind popular, lavish productions like Ocean’s Eleven and Traffic has now come to embrace the increasingly popular backpack-style approach to filmmaking as a means of avoiding unwanted financial headaches and focusing upon that which matters most — the actual making of the film.

Unsane was filmed entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. Unfortunately the final product ends up being an indictment on that particular choice of tech. Much like our possibly mentally unstable protagonist, the film simply does not look well. The color scheme is pallid, almost sick-making in light-starved environments and the claustrophobic spaces into which we are forced do nothing but bring attention to the inferiority of smartphone cameras. I’m no expert on photography or cinematography, but as I understand it the iPhone does not give the user the option to adjust aperture (the hole in a camera lens that determines how much light will be let in) and Unsane‘s ugly aesthetic attests to these limitations. The story itself is not all that engrossing, but the entire enterprise suffers on a technical level to the point where the low overhead becomes very difficult to ignore, much less defend.

Unlike Sean Baker, who found great success in his 2015 street drama Tangerine, interestingly among the first few feature films to dabble in Apple, Soderbergh’s implementation tends to draw attention to style and like the worst of found-footage (which this film mercifully isn’t), ends up more as a gimmick than the product of creative budgeting. That’s an issue made more apparent by the fact that Unsane doesn’t move us the way it should, particularly in post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood. The performances are strong, especially that of star Claire Foy, but Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s screenplay doesn’t develop into much more than a fairly standard psychological horror in which the viewer’s perception of reality is constantly being challenged. Only, it isn’t constant. In Unsane, we are only for a brief moment unsure whether to trust the ‘hero’ or the needle-wielding orderlies against which she constantly rebels.

The British actress plays a driven businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini. The promise of a new, less complicated life awaits her in a new city, some 400 miles away from her hometown, her mother (Amy Irving) and her ridiculously maladjusted man-child of an ex, one David Strine (Joshua Leonard). But when one of her first attempts to truly move on turns south thanks to unwanted and repressed memories rising up at a most inopportune moment, Sawyer finds herself turning to a local mental health facility for answers. During the course of a promising discussion with one of the experts, Sawyer confesses she has contemplated suicide in her past. The next moment she is being admitted as a patient, apparently against her will. Her privileges and personal items are quickly forfeited at the door to some decidedly unsympathetic staff.

Unsane starts strong, but the disorienting effect created by a series of personal invasions quickly disintegrates like a pill in water. Chalk that up to how impatient Soderbergh is in steering the film to its bloody and predictable conclusion. The best part of the film is simply getting settled in at this really creepy, depressing joint. A 24-hour watch becomes a weeklong stint as Sawyer’s aggressive self-defense mechanisms are used against her as proof of her instability. In that time she meets a few of the patients, many of them wretches, like Juno Temple’s Violet. But then there is also Nate (Jay Pharaoh), who appears to be the only person willing to listen. More importantly, she also begins experiencing what may or may not be hallucinations of her ex, which sends her into more apoplectic fits that in turn send her into solitary confinement.

Sawyer’s descent is undoubtedly disturbing, even difficult to watch at times for reasons beyond the fact it is literally difficult to see what’s going on. The film touches on certain disconcerting realities of the social media age in that invisibility and anonymity are precious commodities, especially when you are the target of a stalker. (And not to keep pouring it on, but I really wish this dynamic wasn’t introduced by a needlessly distracting cameo.) Foy is a force to be reckoned with in her character’s darkest moments — and I hope this is what we are witnessing; I don’t know how it gets any darker than what goes down in the rubber room. And the fact she isn’t an entirely sympathetic individual gives Unsane more of an edge. There is such a lack of comfort everywhere you turn.

Indeed, those anticipating a Soderbergian take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or even Shutter Island would be better off re-watching those films and just imagining what they would be like with someone else at the helm. In fact they would be even better served going back to Side Effects, a film that spun a similar tale of corrupt institutions in cahoots with special interest groups — another in which we couldn’t ever be sure who was telling the truth. That film may have been convoluted and ultimately confusing, but given that both films deal in issues of mental health and the real-life nightmares pharmaceutical companies often induce, Unsane gives us the ability to compare. And it is the weaker film, even ignoring Soderbergh’s attempt to thematically merge grainy footage with his character’s fraying mentality.

And in case you want to know, I have a Samsung Galaxy S7. And I love the way it makes me feel like a pro when I take pictures.

Recommendation: Familiar B-horror filtered through a rather off-putting visual aesthetic makes for an iffy recommendation. If you support everything Steven Soderbergh has ever done there is a great chance you’ll like this more than me. I’m not subscribed to the thought he is a particularly original filmmaker, and that may have hurt me here. With all my issues with the way the film appears, it is still impressive what these guys are able to do in 10 days with a phone on what basically amounts to a selfie stick. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking


It is a heavy beyond leadened heart that has moved me to create this post. One of the brightest lights in our universe has eked out its final flicker. The iconic physicist Stephen William Hawking died today at the age of 76. His family says that he passed away peacefully in his home in Cambridge, England. He leaves behind a daughter, Lucy, and two sons, Robert and Tim.

The enigmatic Mr. Hawking will be remembered for so much more than enduring over half a century with a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease that over the course of decades slowly denied him physical movement, and for his tireless efforts in and stunningly resourceful methods for working around the many obstacles the results of a progressively devastating neurological disease threw his way.

Mr. Hawking was a man whose intellectual capacity was only matched by a boundless ability to inspire and excite. Who honestly would not get giddy whenever they came across a headline stating something about his theories about the future of mankind — or its possible origins? The prospect of going on without him, living life without Stephen Hawking guiding the way, flagging up signs of potential trouble with increased intelligence in human-engineered A.I. — that kind of loss has an impact not unlike that of the strange and (potentially terrifying) cosmic phenomenon known as the Black Hole.

supermassive blackhole Dave as ‘Gargantua’ in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci fi epic Interstellar

It is immature of me to say, but this just isn’t fair. The inevitability of his succumbing to an ailment that he lived with far longer than any doctor might have expected is, I suppose, an easier pill to swallow than the sheer shock created by the randomness of John Forbes Nash and his wife or Princess Diana being involved in fatal car accidents. But life does and has to go on. And so does the work of the scientific community, and the millions upon millions whom he has inspired and instilled a thirst for knowledge and truth. The question is, to what corner in the cosmos do we point in our backyards at night whenever we want to have little private sounding boards with one of the great minds of our time?

Where is our fascination with artificial intelligence leading us? Will our future really look like it does in Blade Runner 2049? Or will we revert back to tribal living, and worshipping shit like the sun and the clouds and the trees? What is the actual value of life? Is it measured scientifically, or is love all we are here to find and feel comforted by? I’m quite sure I don’t have answers to any of that, but I know that whenever Stephen Hawking said something either speculative or that held scientific weight, I listened. I am going to dearly miss that soothing voice of wisdom.

I think if Mr. Hawking were still here he’d urge us all to carry on these discussions ourselves. To never stop thinking about the possibilities. As long as we keep pushing for answers, not even the sky is the limit. And when you’ve lived like this wonderful, brilliant man has lived, you’re the kind of light that actually has a chance of surviving a black hole.

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking. 1942 – 2018


Click here to read my review of The Theory of Everything, a 2014 romantic drama which detailed the personal life and career achievements of Stephen Hawking.

Science-y/otherworldly films worth talking about: Under the Skin; Interstellar; The MartianEx Machina; Arrival; Blade Runner 2049; Annihilation


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.huffingtonpost.com; http://www.interstellarfilm.wikia.org

Annihilation

Release: Friday, February 23, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Alex Garland

Directed by: Alex Garland

Annihilation is the reason for many things. It is the reason why science fiction is my cinematic genre of choice — there is something thrilling about breaking the rules and getting away with it, and here is a world in which the laws of nature really don’t apply. It is the reason why in British director Alex Garland I trust, blindly, from here on out.* But Annihilation is as much a disturbing spectacle as it is a confounding one, and so it is also the reason why I’ve been having such strange dreams lately.

Nightmares. They’re called nightmares.

Annihilation‘s poor box office performance is the reason why it won’t hang out in theaters for long, and why it will be making its international debut on Netflix after America is through with it. It wasn’t as though 2016 was anything to shout about for Paramount, but apparently this past year found the American distributor for Garland’s latest cerebral test piece, an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, enduring one of its worst financial years on record. In attempting to avoid yet another financial face-palmer, Paramount decided to restrict Annihilation‘s theatrical run, electing for the old ‘(in)direct-to-streaming’ method to help soften the blow in international markets.

The financial realities facing movies often have no place in my reviews — I find it boring if not depressing to bring up numbers and statistics, and I’m sure I’ve already lost people here — but I feel an obligation to come to the defense of producer Scott Rudin, who said damn the torpedoes and pushed through Garland’s original vision for the film, despite fears from Paramount over Annihilation posing too much of an intellectual challenge for the general moviegoing public. Rudin did this in the face of Paramount’s competitors making money hand-over-fist with Star Wars and Star Wars spinoffs.

Predictably, the studio’s gamble has been rewarded with a net loss worth tens of millions. As much as we I like to be bombastic in my chastising of those same people for trotting out nine hundred Michael Bay movies a summer, they are inevitably not going to receive anywhere near the credit they deserve for taking a financial risk on something a little out of the ordinary. And Annihilation is way, way, way out in left field. You won’t see anything else like it this year.

The story, as it were, focuses on an all-female expedition into the depths of the unknown — it’s The Descent, but instead of spelunking into hell we’re just going to walk there, armed only with assault rifles and PhDs in various applicable fields of study. Natalie Portman‘s Lena, a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University who has also served seven years in the Army, is recruited into a team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, and comprised of paramedics (Gina Rodriguez), physicists (Tessa Thompson) and geologists (Tuva Novotny). Their mission, like all the ones before that have failed, is to find the source of ‘The Shimmer,’ an iridescent bubble that has been slowly encroaching over the marshlands near the American coast after a strange atmospheric phenomenon. They must breach the bubble and prevent it from spreading further, ideally before Wonderland subsumes Manhattan.

Unlike with Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole, however, almost everything inside The Shimmer has the potential to mutilate and eviscerate and — he’s going to say it, isn’t he? — annihilate. The Shimmer is a place where all living things have taken on the DNA of other living things. Genetic mutation has rendered the flora as beautiful as the fauna is terrifying. But the bizarreness doesn’t stop there. Humans trespassing into the unknown themselves begin suffering horrifying transformations, and we know that the last expedition that came here — which involved someone near and dear to Lena’s heart — certifiably went insane. (Anyone else unable to get that footage from the camcorder out of their head?)

The Briton, first a novelist, then a screenwriter and now a director, is one of those storytellers that recognizes that the brain is a muscle and that, like all muscles, it needs to be flexed. This has already been proven true in his directorial debut, a secret-lab-experiment-gone-awry in Ex Machina — a film that took a very scientific approach to proving differences between man and machine. Though far from being the first to broach the subject, Garland fleshed out his drama through nuanced explorations of the human psyche, relying upon established scientific techniques like the Turing Test — a method for measuring a computer’s intelligence and awareness. In the process he created a journey that was both profoundly relatable and distressing.

The best of Annihilation, the spectacular ascension (or descent, if you prefer) into the abstract in the third movement — aptly titled “The Lighthouse” — similarly plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation. What has created The Shimmer also seems to have exposed the fragility and vulnerability of man — refreshingly represented here by a group of steely-nerved women — in the face of something much bigger, more intelligent, and, unlike in Ex Machina, something entirely unfamiliar. Those climactic moments — wherein Jennifer Jason Leigh vomits a bunch of light in a cave and Natalie Portman dances with a weird duplicate of herself as produced by that same Vomit Light — collectively represent the epitome of why science fiction cinema has such a hold on me.

Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.

* Maybe . . .

Recommendation: A cerebral puzzle left to be deciphered by lovers of smart science fiction/fantasy, Annihilation is what happens when The Thing is cross-bred with the DNA of Predator and The Descent. If you were hooked by Alex Garland’s first directorial outing, get a ticket to this one. In my opinion he has avoided the sophomore slump by producing one of the most exciting and surprising movies of the year. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Can you describe its form?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Month in Review: February ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Happy New Year from Thomas J! Since I didn’t create one of these posts end of last month, I figured I’d belatedly wish everyone it now. And this also gives me a chance to ask: how well are you keeping up with those new year’s resolutions? That’s okay, I didn’t make any either. And if I did, they are so well-forgotten only eight weeks into the year it begs why I even made them in the first place.

Despite appearances, I have been seeing many a good movie. But out of fear of getting further backed up, I think at this juncture I’m going to be cutting ties with a few reviews and moving on. I’ve had ideas about what I have wanted to say, but at this point getting back into that headspace feels like beating a dead horse. I’ll list a few of my reactions to this year’s crop of Best Picture nominations with incredibly in-depth, one-line reviews. I think by now everyone has settled far enough into a consensus on many of these titles anyway.

So, without further ado, here is what has been happening in the last several weeks. (Hold on to your butts.)

Mansfield, NJ


New Posts

The Commuter

The Cloverfield Paradox


My Oscar Reactions (best picture only)

The Shape of Water — didn’t see; didn’t want to see; won’t see. I’m not supporting inter-special romances. I’m just not.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — two of the very finest performances of the year in Frances McDormand as a grieving mother and Sam Rockwell as a racist hick cop. Jaw, meet floor.

Phantom Thread — sigh. Why did PTA and the great DDL have to get locked in on this boring twaddle about the haute couture of 1950s London? Pass.

Darkest Hour — a towering performance from Gary Oldman means he is all but guaranteed the Best Actor award, but Best Pic seems a long shot. The drama that surrounds him plays out far too didactically to be considered a true heavyweight contender.

The Post — safe, predictable and disappointingly trite, not to mention a tad too leftist, even for me — a decidedly liberal snowflake.

Dunkirk — amazed to see this nominated. Good for Christopher Nolan. It’s about time.

Call Me By Your Name — the nominee that I know the least about. What little I have read about this one has been glowingly positive. Bummed that it never even veered close to my area.

Lady Bird — I was blown away by a little independent picture that has next-to-no chance of winning it all. From Greta Gerwig, here comes a firecracker of a coming-of-age story that tells it like it is. Loved this one. And Saiorse Ronan — you go, girl.

Get Out — . . . really? I mean, this was fun but it’s a little too “lite” for the Oscars, don’tcha think?


Blogging News 

So there is going to be a sacrifice. I will NOT be participating this year in the Blind Spot series. Last year it was fun, but I don’t think I can make that kind of a long-term commitment this time around. Perhaps next year.

But as Natalie Portman deduces in Annihilation, “it’s not killing everything. It is just making something new.” Well, this isn’t technically a new feature, but my 30-for-30 spotlight has been long dormant. (You can check out all posts in that series by clicking here or by visiting the submenu up top under ‘Features’). It is making its return in March. Look for extensive basketball coverage as we enter the NCAA Tournament (where my Tennessee Vols are actually, finally, going to enjoy some post-season action). Most likely these will be posted on the last day of each month. If you too are a sports fan, keep your eyes peeled!


That’s it for now. What do you hope will win in the Big Four categories this coming Sunday? And will the Best Picture presenters find an even more creative way to confuse us all this year . . . ?