Hustle

Release: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Taylor Materne; Will Fetters

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar

Starring: Adam Sandler; Juancho Hernangómez; Ben Foster; Robert Duvall; Queen Latifah; half the NBA

 

 

 

****/*****

When you’re passionate about something it tends to show, and that’s what happens with Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle. The actor’s well-documented enthusiasm for the game of basketball bleeds over into his work here, which turns out to be some of the best of his career. Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore may have given us some good laughs, but Sandler is more compelling when he isn’t playing a cartoon.

In Hustle he shows that passion by bringing attention to the sidelines rather than center court. The behind-the-scenes role of the NBA scout is highlighted in a way that evokes the esoteric space of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019), which told the story of a sports agent navigating an NBA lockout. The emotional beats however hew closer to the traditional underdog narrative of perennial hardwood classic Hoosiers (1986). Sandler is a recognizable face but here he effortlessly blends into the crowd as a family man, a hard-working Philadelphian who loves this town, this game and being this close to it. His authentic portrayal is largely why something so familiar works so well.

A bloodshot-eyed, fast-food-slurping Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a top scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has devoted years to traveling the world over in search of the next big talent. More familiar with airport terminals than the hallways of his own home, he’s looking for a promotion that will further challenge him and also keep him closer to his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Luckily his dedication and eye for detail have built a lot of credit with team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who finally gives him a more active team role.

But then Rex unexpectedly passes away and, in a baffling development — one of a few head-scratching moments in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay, another being the weird decision to prop up the NBA Combine as if it has playoff implications — ownership is transferred not to his competent daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner) but rather to his inexperienced and vindictive son Vince (Ben Foster), who promptly 180s on his father’s decision and banishes Stanley back to the road. In Spain, he comes across a streetball game being dominated by a young phenom named Bo Cruz (NBA reserve Juancho Hernangómez) and immediately identifies him as a potential franchise-changer.

It’s already an uphill battle convincing the higher-ups to take an unknown as the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. It certainly doesn’t help when an emotional outburst during an exhibition game exposes Bo as a potential liability and triggers an unfortunate narrative in the media, one that Stanley has trouble getting in front of considering the omnipresence of Vince and his natural disdain for everything he does. The crux of the drama finds Stanley in damage control mode, trying to save his reputation while proving to his young prospect he actually cares about his future.

Hustle may shortchange the talented Ben Foster with a one-note corporate bozo role, but it’s the two leads whom we are here to see and they form a really likable team. Though each are impelled by love of family to compete at a high level, they couldn’t be more different in background and upbringing. The story doesn’t exactly shy away from sports drama tropes. Cue the obligatory training montage, where comparisons to Rocky are inescapable and feel almost intentional, and the evolution of a partnership into genuine friendship.

What helps offset the film’s many cliches is director Jeremiah Zagar’s commitment to world-building. Hustle has production design so authentic you might actually think Zagar snuck inside the Wells Fargo Center and filmed guerilla-style. Fans of the game will have a field day spotting all the names that come through the scene, with former and current players, coaches and front office staff all getting some camera time (while sneakily supplying the production with its quota of product placement). Yet it’s Anthony Edwards (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) who gets to actually leave an impression, stealing the show for a moment as a trash-talking hotshot who’s also a top candidate for the team. 

In the end, Hustle (and by extension, Sandler) isn’t trying to dazzle you with how much it knows about the X’s and O’s. It’s all about the game within the game, the psychological aspects that make pro sport so challenging. Don’t call it a classic, but the fourth quarter rally is very fun to watch. Because the performances are so earnest and believable, what’s routine ends up feeling rewarding.

“Look, I had this Rocky montage set up especially for you. Don’t blow it, kid.”

Moral of the Story: Perhaps more for NBA fans than casual viewers, Hustle is a modern-feeling sports drama that is also worth watching for another outstanding turn from the erstwhile King of Bad Comedy. (Do we start petitioning for Sandler to star in more basketball related movies? He seems to do those pretty well.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Guys in their 50’s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares . . . and eczema.”

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 

The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

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

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Just a Quick Thought: Remembering Kobe Bryant

Sunday, January 26, 2020 has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult and surreal day for hoops and sports fans in general. I’d like to pause my movie reviewing for a second to remember basketball player Kobe Bean Bryant, who passed away a day after Lebron James, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed him for 3rd place on the NBA all-time scoring list. As Saturday night turned to Sunday, we went from historic highs to tragic lows. To say this weekend has been an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. 

TMZ first reported the news that the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar and five-time world champion died in Calabasas, CA Sunday morning in a helicopter crash that left no survivors. He was 41. The total number of victims and their identities are, as of this writing, still unknown. [UPDATE: one of the nine victims has been identified as Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.] The cause of the accident is currently under investigation. Reportedly the private chopper was en route to a basketball practice in the Thousand Oaks area.

The loss is felt far beyond the NBA courts and even the sporting world.

Bryant leaves behind a legacy of brutal competitiveness and inimitable determination on the hardwood. One of the first players to go straight from high school to the pros, the prolific scorer racked up an astonishing number of accolades and achievements over a career that spanned 20 years, five NBA Championships (three consecutive) and two Olympic Games (where he won Gold with the Americans, 2008 and ’12).

Notable Mamba Moments include being named back-to-back NBA Finals MVP (2009, ’10) and making 11 All-NBA First Teams, nine NBA All-Defensive First Teams and 18 NBA All-Star Game appearances. He’s responsible for the second-most points ever scored in a single game, dropping 81 on the Toronto Raptors back in 2006 (sorry Jalen). In April 2016, during his final competitive game, a home stand against the Utah Jazz, Bryant peaced out by cashing in 60 in a hair-raising display of just what he is capable of. It was the kind of end to an odyssey that not even Hollywood screenwriters could have concocted.

The accolades didn’t stop when he unlaced his sneakers for the final time; in 2018 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film for Dear Basketball, a heartfelt tribute to the game he loved, lived, breathed and slept.

It’s a surreal day, even for someone like me whose relationship with Kobe was more described by admiration than passionate fandom. It’s sickening to think we’re in an era without the Black Mamba. That’s plain wrong. Not since the loss of flamboyant sideline reporter Craig Sager in 2016 have I felt a celebrity death so palpably, and it’s really kind of silly to even say I’ve been affected considering I’ve never had the chance to even be in the same zip code as these famous people. It’s just another stark reminder — not that I needed one four days removed from the four-year anniversary of my own mother’s passing — of the true fragility of life.


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Photo credits: Facebook; Twitter 

30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Release: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (ESPN)

→ESPN 

Directed by: Todd Kapostasy

Love him, hate him or indifferent to him you can’t really get away with saying you don’t know who Dennis Rodman is. Few American athletes have received the attention that the former so-called “Bad Boy” has. How much of that has been self-inflicted and how much of it has been healthy is the big question driving this documentary from Emmy-winning director Todd Kapostasy. Rodman’s lived so large and tabloid-friendly he may not even really need a documentary on his life but here goes this anyway.

Rodman: For Better or Worse assumes the shape of a typical cause-and-effect narrative, but it’s also a trip down memory lane by way of rockstar Keith Richards. How Rodman managed to survive his partying days, much less talk to us now coherently, is something of a miracle. Living in the fast lane has taken a toll, and that’s no revelation. Yet there are details about his most unlikely journey from scrawny, un-athletic teen to homeless person to NBA superstar and eventual teammate of Michael Jordan you can’t help but be wowed by.

Because the subject is so colorful, passionate, annoying, impulsive, repulsive — in a word, iconoclastic — Kapostasy feels compelled to spice up the presentation style. Unfortunately a lot of that is to a detrimental effect. He brings in Jamie Foxx to do some seriously distracting fourth-wall-breaking narration and the director further embellishes with a number of cheesy tableaus, all of which is meant to complement and reflect the Rodman persona. What’s more effective is the core interview which takes place in an empty auditorium, which feels something more than an accident in terms of the symbolism.

Rodman, now 58, is seated in a lonely chair center-stage, back turned to where a crowd would be sitting. As he fiddles with his lip ring and utters a series of “umm”s and “uh”s there’s often a heavy silence, like he’s still trying to figure out what went wrong. The crowds and groupies and good times are gone and have been for some time, and so has his considerable wealth. He gave away a lot of his money to people he knew weren’t real friends, doing so in order to keep that part of his identity (“Generous Dennis”) alive for as long as possible. Yet his greatest debt owed is time — to his ex-wives, to his children he’s never really known. Rodman comes across most honest when addressing how he’s not been a good dad. Still, it’s weird hearing the words “it kinda sucked” when describing the experience of becoming a father.

Kapostasy could have scaled down the saga as merely another example of just how unhealthy and fleeting fame is but he recognizes that there is far more to the story than just his tumultuous years in the NBA spotlight. For Better or Worse is divided into three major movements: his childhood, the rise to fame and then the falling away from it and his post-retirement shenanigans, like the time he befriended North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, an episode that Rodman kind of waves away as being “in the past,” and is as cringe-inducing now as it was when his drunken rantings abroad made him the target of vicious (and deserved) criticism.

The documentary is arguably at its most bizarre and fascinating when it revisits a period of transience before he made himself eligible for the 1986 Draft. He spent some time in a small town in Oklahoma, pushing past the misery of his hometown of Oak Cliff (an impoverished suburb of Dallas) — a hell he vowed never to return to. That’s not entirely surprising. His childhood wasn’t exactly a happy time; his father (named Philander, no less) walked out on the family at an early stage. His relationship with his mama was strained, and only grew more so when she threw him out of the house in an attempt to get him to take responsibility for himself. His high school days were marked by bullying and un-athleticism. Team sports at that time did not have a great deal of love for him.

After barely surviving high school his pituitary went into overdrive, giving him a foot of vertical in about a year — thus making him feel like an alien in his own body. Yet as he physically grew he remained emotionally underdeveloped. He tells us how in his early twenties he met his first true friend in Byrne Rich, a 12-year-old from small-town Oklahoma, during a summer basketball camp who was struggling with extreme introversion himself after fatally shooting his best friend in a hunting accident. What he does not tell you however, is that as of 2013 he fell out of contact with the Rich’s — a farming family who took him in when he was struggling, a family Rodman came to call a surrogate — for reasons completely unknown to them and to us all.

The bulk of the middle section focuses on the rise of both the athlete and the “Bad Boy” alter ego. A wide range of guests contribute their experiences being around him, covering him as journalists, being his teammate, his coach, his bodyguard. Throughout the film it’s strange how the subject feels like a passenger and not the driver, but we nonetheless get some insight from a lot of well-qualified people. While Shirley, his mother, addresses what drove Rodman into his shell at a young age (and she doesn’t mince words when describing just how painfully shy and needy her son was), others provide context for the bigger picture, how his turbulent upbringing and emotional immaturity made him ill-equipped to deal with the harsher realities of the business of the NBA. His love of basketball gave birth to a unique court presence that created a fandom all its own, which in turn created a kind of confirmation bias for what little he valued about himself — his ability to entertain and make others happy.

Despite how the film swells with melancholy, especially as it dives into the retirement phase, the experience isn’t a four-quarter beatdown of his character. Interviewees speak just as often to Rodman’s “sweetness” as they do his foibles. Former Detroit Piston Isaiah Thomas in particular has nothing but fond memories of his time playing with a teammate who gave his heart and soul to the team and the game. Even Michael Jordan is impressed with his dedication to the team after nights of throwing down 30+ shots (of top-shelf tequila, that is). No matter how familiar some of the archived footage is, it serves to remind how much of a force Rodman was as a player. His hustle on the court was virtually unmatched. He came into his own not just as a vital cog in some big-time NBA machines (notably the “Bad Boy” Pistons who won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90 and the indomitable Chicago Bulls of the ’90s) but as one of the most effective defenders and rebounders in league history.

For Better or Worse is definitely more about the journey than the destination. The conclusion feels empty, almost incomplete, and that’s through no fault of Kapostasy. The expensive designer shades Rodman is flashing can’t mask the pain he is in. “You’d think one of the ten most recognizable people would be happy, right?” The silence that follows is indeed awkward. The question is painfully rhetorical. If he can’t answer it, expecting anyone else to do so — or asking a documentary crew who do a good job of sorting through facts and fiction to make something up — is even crazier than his own life story.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: Fandom is no barrier to entry for this 30 for 30. It’s important to note that Todd Kapostasy does a good job of suspending judgment in his approach, making sure all voices are heard — i.e. the women he left behind to raise his own children. The documentary proves how he’s a tough guy to sympathize with, yet at the same time he’s someone for whom you often do feel sympathy. That’s a crazy dichotomy, and even if you don’t like him at all there is no denying he is a fascinating, unique individual. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.espnfrontrow.com; http://www.sling.com

Month in Review: June ’19

To those people still reading or starting to read me:

This month, as in July, I’m being told by the folks behind the scenes that it’s my eighth year of “flying with WordPress” which is a pretty amazing thing. I’m not sure whether I’ll be doing anything in observance of that landmark — in the past I couldn’t help but wax lyrical about that specific day, but at eight years old this blog just isn’t quite as spry as it once was. It can’t party like it used to. Things might get as crazy as a possible new Top That! post about eight favorite movies this year or eight moments when Johnny Depp looked most like Johnny Desperate. I don’t know. Something along those lines.

The month that’s now somehow over marks the halfway point in the movie year, which is kind of crazy too. It’s as good a time as any to take stock of the year of blogging that’s been.

Thus far in 2019:

  • Most popular new post (posted this year): The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (64 views) — who knew, with that title . . .
  • Most popular old post: TBT: Men in Black (90 views)
  • Reviews for theatrical releases: 10
  • Reviews for streamed/rented content: 8 (7 Netflix, 1 Redbox — including June’s streaming-only posting schedule)
  • Alternative content/posts: 10

Twenty-eight total posts (not counting monthly wrap-arounds) doesn’t exactly set the world on fire (not when considering back around 2013-’14 I was putting up about that many in a month!) but this more relaxed pace has been nice. With my local theater still being closed (so long, summer profits!) and the closest one being more than 30 minutes away there’s more than the usual amount of deliberating about going out these days. Plus, a number of my fellow trusted bloggers have really been making a strong case for staying home and catching up with some streaming stuff.

And that’s just what I did on Thomas J for the month of June. Let’s get into it, shall we?


New Posts

Streaming: Hold the Dark; The Wandering Earth; Unicorn Store 

Alternative Content: Top That: Seven Most Dramatic Scenes from the 2019 NBA Finals


Bite Sized Reviews 

Uncle Drew · June 29, 2018 · Directed by Charles Stone III · I enjoyed this movie apparently enough to deem it necessary to weigh in, because it was so totally unforgettable right? If you do recall, the movie basically amounts to Kyrie Irving and a bunch of other famous basketball players, both current (Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon) and retired (Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal), dressing up as old geezers who come together to form a squad at the behest of a desperate inner-city basketball coach (Lil Rel Howery — one of the movie’s few actual actors). He needs to field a team worthy of taking down that of his arch-nemesis, Mookie (a bling-ed out Nick Kroll) in the upcoming Rucker Classic, a tournament that takes place in Brooklyn every year. If he wins the big cash purse, he may just win back the love of his ex (Tiffany Haddish) — or at least earn back the right to keep paying rent. What ensues is nothing short of the types of shenanigans you would expect from a movie that casts the “big fella” (his actual name in the movie) Shaquille O’Neal as the least-convincing karate instructor in history and Nate Robinson as a dude who’s both confined to a wheelchair and can dunk the ball like Vince Carter in his prime. A movie that is just littered in NBA-approved product placement stuck on every flat surface in the frikkin’ frame. But hey, I can’t go too hard on this road-trip comedy because while there’s not as much actual balling to be found, there was a lot more heart than I was expecting. For this basketball fan, the combination of some well-chosen NBA personalities and the script’s permanent winking at the audience — “hey, look at these seven-foot-tall men in geriatric make-up” — made for a resounding win. (3/5)

Polar · January 25, 2019 · Directed by Jonas Åkerlund · For the record, I wasn’t peer pressured into this, I watched the notorious Polar (an adaptation of some online graphic novel) on my own, albeit with more than a little morbid curiosity fueling what would turn out to be a terrible, terrible decision. Polar is one of the stupidest, most over-the-top trashy movies I have seen in some time. It’s a masturbatory aid for people with violence fetishes that made me pine for the artistic restraint of Rob Zombie. It’s about an assassin on the run after being marked as a “liability” by the very firm he was once employed by (and led by Matt Lucas’ astonishingly bad big bad). While bunkering down on the outskirts of Seattle or some shit he crosses paths with a troubled teen (Vanessa Hudgens) who happens to be the lone inhabitant of a cabin across the secluded lake. Wouldn’t ya know it, they both come into the crosshairs of Lucas’ roaming henchmen, a gaggle of tattooed idiots who kill fat people badly for pleasure and torture accountants like jackals before ultimately killing them while laughing about it. That’s the kind of movie Polar is. Utterly without class. It doesn’t have to be clean like James Bond but its sole purpose seemingly is to drive up the crassness at every single turn. It’s a one-note movie that’s badly acted, poorly conceived and just ugly all around. Director Jonas Åkerlund introduces himself as an angry infant. (0.5/5)

Fighting with My Family · February 22, 2019 · Directed by Stephen Merchant · Stephen Merchant, like many of us, probably wouldn’t last many rounds in the ring but he apparently knows his way around the arena of the uplifting sports biopic. Fighting With My Family is a familiar story about an underdog struggle but the level of conviction in the storytelling helps set it apart. British actress Florence Pugh emerges as a true star in the lead role of Saraya Jade-Bevis (better known by her ring name, Paige), a British female wrestler with aspirations to take her talents and passion beyond the rink-a-dink family business (they’re all wrestling fanatics, too). But it isn’t just her dream to be one of those famous stars she sees on American wrestling programs like the WWE, and that’s what makes Fighting with My Family deliciously (and heartbreakingly) complicated. Merchant handles the divergent paths of Saraya/Paige and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) with a harder than expected truth, stopping short of being manipulative or overly sentimental. While Pugh rarely puts a dramatic foot wrong as she goes from a local celebrity in her home town of Norwich to a lost soul bleaching her hair and tanning herself unnaturally in an attempt to fit in to a strange land, the performances all around are very strong and likable. From Nick Frost and Lena Headey chipping in with fun turns as the roughneck but always supportive parents, to a hilariously antagonistic Vince Vaughn as a wrestling promoter/trainer, to Lowden matching Pugh stride for stride as he handles the crushing disappointment, Fighting with My Family may tell the story about an individual’s success but it takes a true team effort to make a movie about it as enjoyable as this. (4/5)


Beer of the Month

I’ve never met a sour that I actually liked . . . until now. Flying Fish’s Salt and Sea Session Sour is quite a delight. Brewed with strawberry and lime. Extremely drinkable. I’m stoked. What’s your favorite beer? Is it a sour?


What movies are you most looking forward to in July? 

Top That: Seven Most Dramatic Scenes from the 2019 NBA Finals

If you were to tell me back in October that the Golden State Warriors would not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy for the third straight year and the fourth in five seasons, I would have called a Flagrant Two on you for excessive foolishness.

If you do the math, taking it all again this year would be less a feat than it would be fate: Take the core four — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala — and then add three-time NBA All Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a championship-winning roster that, oh by the way, acquired the likes of Kevin “Burner Twitter Account” Durant two years prior, who confirmed it was indeed a good idea to get out of dodge by earning back-to-back Finals MVP status in that time. There’s also a number of solid bench players who could go off at any moment — the likes of veteran point guard Shaun Livingston, Duke alum Quinn Cook; even Sweden’s own Jonas Jerebko got in on the action.

And while we’re at it, may as well factor in head coach Steve Kerr, well known for his brilliant sharpshooting back in the heyday of the Chicago Bulls and today for his incredible leadership abilities.

His team has more collective talent than any team in the league but you can’t understate his ability to steer it through adversity and five consecutive Finals appearances’ worth of fatigue. He’s a player’s coach if there ever were one. Look no further than the fact the notoriously hot-headed Draymond Green is still a Warrior, despite earning enough technical fouls in the 2016 NBA Finals to warrant a one-game suspension — largely viewed by the public as one of the decisive factors in the Warriors’ historic collapse (I say one of, because the other is undoubtedly the tandem of then-Cleveland Cavaliers Lebron James and Kyrie Irving).

Unbelievable skill, passionate playing, and lofty standards set by a highly likable, accomplished player-turned-head-coach — and let’s not discount the brilliance of GM Bob Myers who put many of the pieces together — all equates to a franchise built to dominate the league for the foreseeable future. A dynastic (and dynamic) team that, on paper and on the hardwood, can’t be slowed — much less stopped four times in a best-of-seven set.

Then Toronto happened.

(Yeah, okay injuries happened too. But then injuries can always happen to any team at any time, and let’s not pretend the Warriors haven’t benefited from some ailing opponents during this run. Granted, these were some terribly timed ones and they happened in dramatic fashion. But . . . Zaza Pachulia, anyone . . . ?)

Back to the more relevant specifics. The rebirth of Kawhi Leonard also happened. And it was scary. Say what you want about who the Warriors did or did not have at a critical juncture and about Leonard himself:

  1. the inscrutable body language
  2. the seemingly Terminator-esque personality
  3. the way he left one of the most winning franchises in the NBA

But there’s no denying The Claw is among the most effective two-way players the modern game has to offer. On evidence of his transcendent play in this year’s Finals alone, he just may be the best player in the league not named Lebron James. And that ruthless determination trickled down to his not-inexperienced teammates. After basically single-handedly bringing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks back down to earth in the Eastern Conference Finals, and dispatching with the Philadelphia 76ers on a last-second bouncer in the series prior, Leonard inspired his teammates to rise to the occasion. Jalen Rose said it: it takes a championship mentality to beat the champs. It was a true team effort, with big contributions from the likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and of course Kyle Lowry himself, whose former brother-in-arms DeMar DeRozan was sent away to the Spurs in the acquisition of Leonard this season.

Let’s be clear: I truly enjoy the Warriors’ brand of basketball. It’s exciting, intense, creative, selfless. From an entertainment perspective it doesn’t get much better than watching the “Splash brothers” destroy everyone else’s dreams from way beyond the arc. Despite a few hiccups along the way — the lamentable signing of the aforementioned Pachulia, apparently among the league’s most hated players and the (also aforementioned) clap-back episodes of a thin-skinned Durant in response to his critics after leaving OKC for Golden State — I’ve loved what this team has done for the NBA. It’s made the sport more relevant than ever.

And yet — and YET! — I couldn’t wait for the Raptors to finally get some. They’re the East Coast version (okay, the Canadian version) of the Warriors — affable, unbelievably talented, experienced, and now armed with The Claw. It’s a nice change of pace. The Toronto Raptors’ 4-2 victory over Golden State earned the city — the nation — its very first NBA Championship. Oh, Canada — that was awesome.

Below you’ll find seven of the most dramatic scenes from these ultra-dramatic Finals. (Press pause on the images to stop the slideshow.)


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(7) Game 3. When fans and players collide. Kyle Lowry dives into the crowd trying to rescue a loose ball, then gets shoved by a clearly irritated fan. But it gets better. That fan is none other than GS minority owner Mark Stevens, whose actions were not only widely condemned by fans and players alike, they also earned him a one-year ban from the court and a fine of $500k. The money may be nothing to that guy, but the public embarrassment is pretty damaging. Wonder who will take court-side seats with him when he’s finally let out of the dog house. 

(6) Game 5. An unfortunate but sadly predictable scene. After sitting out more than a month with a “mild calf strain” suffered in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals vs the Houston Rockets, Kevin Durant re-enters a win-or-go-home situation vs what appears to be their equals. After playing only 11 minutes (but scoring 12 points), he goes down while clutching at his ankle. The Toronto faithful shamefully began cheering, only for the players to quickly show good sportsmanship by telling them to shut up with that noise. Durant later would later confirm successful surgery on a ruptured Achilles tendon, effectively rendering this season — and all of his 2019-’20 season — officially over. 

(5) Game 4. Fred VanVleet hanging on literally tooth and nail (or eye, in this case). After taking a vicious but inadvertent elbow to the face, the former Wichita State Shocker had to leave the game to receive seven stitches after profuse bleeding from his eye. (Shudder.) Oh, and he chipped part of his tooth, too. Talk about leaving it all out there.

(4) Game 6. Steph Curry reacts to Klay Thompson going down at the opposite end of the court after an awkward landing and with an apparent knee injury. This is a pretty powerful scene. It’s not often you see Curry deflated to such a degree. But something else about this scene was quite incredible. While Thompson needed help from his teammates just to get off the court after the play, he needed to return to the court in order to shoot two free-throws he was owed. If he didn’t, he would have forfeited the night then and there. In what must have been tremendous pain, Thompson re-emerged, sending a blast of energy back through the crowd as he demonstrated once again the Warriors’ indomitable spirit, no matter how grave the situation. Don’t tell me injuries ruined this series. They very nearly won this game.

(3) Game 6. With no time-outs left and their season on the line, the Warriors call . . . a time out. This situation rarely occurs and I didn’t realize that when you call an excessive time-out you not only award the other team a technical free throw, you give them possession as well. Down by a point, and after a mad scramble for the ball as it approached the half-court line, less than a second left to play, it was really all they could do to stave off the inevitable. Some decry these last tenths-of-a-second as anti-climactic. I thought it was completely the opposite. A wild finish to a series that had no right to be this dramatic. 

(2) Game 6. The Canadian faithful in one of the many satellite “Jurassic Park” viewing parties (pictured here, Maple Leaf Square), set to explode as the final seconds tick away in the 2018-19 season. It’s about to become real. The Toronto Raptors are on the verge of winning its very first NBA title in its 24 years of existence. I still get the chills seeing these images. 

(1) Post Game Celebration. Kawhi Leonard proves he is indeed a “fun guy” as he celebrates with his team after beating the mighty Warriors 4-2. This is Leonard’s second NBA title (in 2014 he helped the San Antonio Spurs overcome the Miami Heat which at the time had the Big Three in Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and also nabbed his first Finals MVP trophy). 


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Photo credits: Business Insider; Newsweek; Sports Illustrated; The Washington Post; ABC; InsideHook; BNN Bloomberg; New York Times

Month in Review: May ’19

Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s that time again! Another month of cinematic magic to look back on, or . . . since it’s early in the year, perhaps lament the lack thereof. From yet more pointless biopics (Tolkien, if you take a look at the numbers, apparently only has $4 million worth of fandom, but that paltry figure surely betrays the popularity of his works and indeed of the man himself, whose fantastical realm created a global fraternity of deeply loyal, line-memorizing fans), to Dennis Quaid looking totally annoying and embarrassingly in need of a paycheck intruding your local cineplexes in this hackneyed home-invasion “thriller”, or even a lack of good animated films (Ugly Dolls — no thanks, no thanks), I’ve felt like Keanu Reeves wandering the arid Sahara in search of answers, or at least decent entertainment this month. (Oh but John Wick 3 delivered. Or, it delivered what we have come to expect from it by now and not a shred of texture beyond that.)

May did hold some intrigue, however, what with the Godzilla sequel (yes, I know you hated the first but I didn’t) and the Elton John biopic (admittedly bordering on gratuitous profiting too) both coming out on the same weekend. There have also been several interesting things popping up on streaming platforms that uh, yeah, I haven’t gotten around to yet — remember when I said I would do a whole month of streaming-based reviews? Thank goodness this is a blog and not an actual job. I’d be fired twice by now for not delivering. Maybe I should fire myself. I suppose it’s not too late to do such a thing (stream an entire month’s worth of movies that is, not fire myself). But I’m not setting any hard deadlines.

Before we dive into it, there’s just one other thing I’d like to mention. Note the new feature on the side, Beer With Me! This is something I’ll be maintaining casually as I stumble upon new beers that I like (and can confidently recommend) and maybe figure out some ways to incorporate my love of IPAs with my love of movies. Like, for example, I might feature a Beer of the Month in these recap posts — something that might actually justify this otherwise middling and superfluous feature I created. Give it a look, feel free to share comments/suggestions about what I should try next in the comments section here or, of course, on any of my posts.

Without any further verbal spewage, here’s what has gone down on the world’s most active movie-related blog in the month of May.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu; John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Other: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (Redbox)

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Seau


Bite Sized Reviews

High Flying Bird · February 8, 2019 · Directed by Steven Soderbergh · Calling all NBA fans! This is your movie. His second consecutive “portable” production, once again shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird tells of the creative maneuvers an ambitious, hard-working talent agent (André Holland) seeks to pull off in a bold attempt to put an end to the 2014 work stoppage that prefaced that season. Melvin Gregg plays Holland’s (fictitious) rookie client, Erick Scott, a gifted player both lusting after the glam and the glory of being a pro baller while being scarily unprepared for the realities of being a professional athlete. Deadpool 2‘s very own Zazie Beetz plays a crucial supporting role in both his personal and professional development. The script by Moonlight scribe and accomplished playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney draws undeniable parallels between old-fashioned slavery and NBA ownership (and if that seems sensationalist, consider the awful spectacle that befell the Los Angeles Clippers — incidentally that very same year, when then-owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell the team after audio recordings of him making some odious remarks about his own players were leaked to the public). Brief interviews with current players (Karl Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell and Reggie Jackson) tie seamlessly into the narrative and give perspective on the pressures faced by rookies to perform in the modern game and age of Twitter. So, in case it isn’t obvious, High Flying Bird is a film of specifics — it’s inarguably the Ocean’s 11 director’s most esoteric project yet, with sport and business jargon abounding. High Flying Bird is also a notable step up in terms of picture quality, thanks almost entirely to the gleaming urban setting. Unlike the drab, murky interior shots that dominated (and plagued) his previous effort Unsane, here buckets of sunshine wash over the silver edifice of New York City, adding a sense of style and elegance to a narrative that isn’t afraid of tackling the ugly underbelly of the National Basketball Association. Insightful for fans, likely isolating and boring for everyone else. (4/5)

Venom · October 5, 2018 · Directed by Ruben Fleischer · Oh boy, where do I even start with this. I guess let’s start with I hated it, pretty much beginning to finish. The first standalone, live-action movie focused upon the (only bad) people-eating exploits of the anti-hero Venom, an alien symbiote who inhabits the body of disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), finding it a match made in alien heaven, is one I only wish I could un-see. The first half of the film obligingly fulfills some human drama quota, trudging through the consequences of Brock’s overreaching during a tense interview with self-anointed global savior Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, victim #1 of some truly terrible dialogue and bland, wanton villainy), his probing questions over what’s really going on behind the scenes at the mysterious Life Foundation causing his fiancee (Michelle Williams) to lose her job there and thus end their relationship, leaving Brock vulnerable to forcible alien penetration. When his superpowered alter-ego begins taking over in earnest, Venom swings like a bipolar teen from dull and no fun to sensationally goofy and downright dumb, the voice of Venom coming across as a misunderstood rascal rather than an extraterrestrial being of dubious morality. The movie hits a low with Williams shoving her tongue down the throat of said alien, the act managing to be both creepy and an utterly unconvincing change of heart in one fell swoop. Hits a high when the end credits roll. Okay, that’s not entirely fair — Tom Hardy at least deserves a nod for being a good sport, though neither he nor the rest of the talented ensemble (including Jenny “Marcel the Shell” Slate as a scientist with a conscience) are enough to elevate this clunker out of the lower echelons of superhero adaptations. (1.5/5)


What’s been your favorite movie this month?

Month in Review: March ’19

Whoops. I’m a day late on this. April Fools on anyone waiting with bated breaths to see this post pop up in their feed yesterday. March is a pretty slow month for movies (keep your eyes peeled for a belated review of Us — yes that was a pun and no I can’t believe I haven’t seen it either, what’s wrong with me, how can I call myself a movie critic blah blah blah). But if you’re a sports nut it’s kind of the second coming of Christmas. That’s where I’ve been for the past several weeks, head buried in stats and sports headlines, screaming at the TV because it was totally its fault that my Tennessee Vols lost to Purdue in the Regional Semis. Between the end of the NBA and NHL regular seasons, the beginning of March Madness™, and Opening Day in baseball, there’s almost too much stuff to watch.

On the subject of TV, I am tempted to try something different in the next month or so and do a pure streaming month, no theatrical outings at all. There are some good reasons for doing so. A) My local theater is closed for remodeling, leaving me with a 30 minute drive (one way) as my closest option; B) more streaming means saving keesh while further justifying paying for the service and C) the number of titles catching my eye on Netflix alone right now is something just slightly south of insane. Like, I’ve got options. The problem with trying this experiment in April is, well . . . Avengers: Endgame. It comes out this month and as much as I am dreading the crowds and the preposterous three-hour running time, I don’t know if I want to miss that in theaters. So if this streaming takeover does happen, it will probably be May at the earliest.

Anyway, that’s enough getting excited about the future. Let’s dwell on the past a little bit more and see what went down on Thomas J during the month of March.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Captain Marvel

Streaming: The Guilty (Den Skyldige); The Dawn Wall

Alternative Content: Top That: My Ten Favorite Films of 2018 (plus something extra!); 30 for 30: The Last Days of Knight; The Marvelous Brie Larson #3


Around the Blogosphere

Snap Crackle Watch just posted a list of some quality documentaries available for streaming. Lots of good stuff here, as well as some timely reminders of the difficult watches I have in front of me, like Leaving Neverland.

With the release of Disney’s live action version of Dumbo, Drew’s Movie Reviews takes the opportunity to go back and take a look at the original animated movie from the ’40s.

One of the more time-tested ways of getting this pasty-white British bum in a movie chair is to dangle a really eye-catching title in front of him. Take, for example, this Sam Elliott vehicle, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, which will be among the first reviews to go up here in April. (A shout out to Keith and the Movies for flagging that one up.) But then I’ve just been reminded by Eric Isaacs (yes, of Isaac’s Picture Conclusions fame) that Mel Gibson is in a new movie — it looks suitably grisly (it’s from the writer/director of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99) and it’s called Dragged Across Concrete. Sign me up, right now.


What kinds of things most immediately attract you to a movie? 

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 

Just a Quick Thought: Thank you, Craig

craig-sager

Craig Sager, the long-time sideline reporter for the Turner broadcasting network, passed away today, December 15, 2016 at the age of 65 after a long and courageous battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He leaves behind a wife and five children, as well as a spot on the sidelines and a place in front of the TNT cameras that will likely never be filled again.

Perhaps the only thing that ever rivaled Sager’s enthusiasm for the events he covered or the number of iconic events with which he will forever be associated — Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1972 (which broke Babe Ruth’s record); the 2000 Sydney Olympics; the 2015 NBA Finals . . . while battling his illness — is his wardrobe. Over a 40+ year-long career Sager had shaped a public image as only he could; his colorful, outrageous suits have raised as many eyebrows as any NBA player sporting the latest en vogue fashion item. Or any Hollywood starlet trying to make a statement on the Red Carpet.

craig-sager-wardrobe

The inimitability of Craig Sager runs far deeper than his outward flamboyance, a flamboyance that stood in a strange contrast to his direct, matter-of-fact line of questioning. If anyone needs evidence of the kind of influence he had around the league, they need look no further than the rapport he shared with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

The way he continued to hone his craft even during the darkest periods of his life is a miracle. It, in all likelihood, will come to define the journalist as a figure we should all look up to. His stoicism (and his suits) were gems of the National Basketball Association. Two days before he passed he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He will be dearly missed. Rest in paradise, Craig.


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.blog.speroforcancer.com