30 for 30: Jeanette Lee Vs.

Release: Tuesday, December 13, 2022 (Vol. IV, Ep. 17)


Starring: Jeanette Lee; Sonja Lee; Doris Lee

Directed by: Ursula Liang

Distributor: ESPN Films





Jeanette Lee is a Korean-American former professional pool player who (to use a Leeism here) took the sport by its balls in the mid-90s. She earned the nickname ‘The Black Widow’ for her ferocious competitive spirit. Jeanette Lee Vs. is a documentary from director Ursula Liang that offers a glimpse of the fire that drove Lee at a young age to win at the highest level and as well the cold water that tried to put her out as a woman trying to break into a male-dominated sport.

There’s an implied “Me Against the World” mentality about the seemingly incomplete title that makes sense once we’ve spent some time with the subject. It’s an allusion to the social dynamics Lee often found herself combatting, at least at first, positioned against just about everybody — certainly the men who leered, but also her female peers who weren’t entirely thrilled about the amount of attention Lee’s meteoric rise and TV coverage garnered. As the film evolves beyond competition, the playful nature of its title also takes on a much weightier significance. 

It’s not a particularly in-depth treatment but there’s enough to give the layperson a good sense of Lee’s mental fortitude and physical toughness, for the odds were stacked against her in ways beyond societal prejudice. While Lee reflects upon the emotional challenges of growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in Brooklyn, the documentary becomes more a testimony to corporeal suffering. Of all the things she has experienced in her life, from a father who walked out on the family when she was five, to being subjected to Jimmy Kimmel’s masturbatory enthusiasm on The Man Show, it’s her own body that’s been most unkind.

Scoliosis from when she was 13 left her feeling alienated and in constant pain. Yet discomfort was no match for her desire to move on from her directionless teen years and start beating the men at their own game in pool halls across the country. As a 50-year-old Lee describes to camera the myriad ailments it has also caused, her similarly numerous achievements seem all the less likely.

That she managed to not just be competitive at a high level — racking up more than 30 national and international titles over a career spanning 24 years — but came to dominate a sport that requires physical poise and intense mental focus, all the while helping to raise the profile of the women’s game, is an act of defiance as much as it has been a catalyst for inclusivity. 

In bringing us up to speed on her current battle with terminal cancer, the film takes a more emotional turn. Yet a pity party never materializes despite extensive, behind-the-curtains footage capturing Lee at her most vulnerable and introspective. Family members and former opponents alike contribute to a sense of communal support for ‘The Black Widow,’ but it is Lee the straight-shooting interviewee, especially as she speculates about the uncertainty of the future, that elevates this narrowly-focused documentary into the realm of general audience appeal. 

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Nailed the look

Moral of the Story: On one well-manicured hand, it feels like director Ursula Liang could have gone into greater detail about Lee’s playing days, particularly the tension among members of the WPBA (Women’s Professional Billiards Association) as she came to prominence and took self-promotion to a whole new level. On the other hand, it is yet more proof of the range of stories 30 for 30 can cover. And it isn’t just the fact it’s a niche sport that makes it feel different. Available to stream on ESPN+. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 51 mins.

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

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com  

Decades Blogathon – She’s Gotta Have It (1986)


Be sure you don’t miss Movie Man Jackson’s take on the 1986 Spike Lee Joint ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ over on Three Rows Back!

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Brooklyn movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 (limited)


Written by: Nick Hornby

Directed by: John Crowley

For future generations, when kids look up the word ‘nostalgia’ in the dictionary, they’ll just see a poster of The Force Awakens beside it. And, you know, that’s cool. I can’t say that would be a poor definition.

I guess what I’d like to see is a little asterisk directing attention to the footnotes, where John Crowley’s Brooklyn would get at least some recognition for its heavily nostalgic appeal.

Here is a gorgeously mounted production, the culmination of inspired performances from rising stars and notions of old-fashioned romance steeped absolutely in nostalgia. A labor of love propelled by an urgency to prove ‘old-fashioned’ isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘old hat.’ Okay, so the film is set several decades ago but its consideration of foreign environments and experiences resonates strongly in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. And any American watching on is sure to be reminded of their own border crisis with their southern neighbors.

I should probably stop myself there. This film needs not to be introduced as some polemic political statement. Immigration isn’t so much problematic as it is traumatic. At the same time, Brooklyn shouldn’t be misconstrued as a film that romanticizes the immigration process. In this film life is far from a fairytale — it’s tough, and so it should be. Driven by emotion, it depicts the conundrum Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself in having left the comforts of sleepy Enniscorthy behind to pursue a life in the States. Story ultimately measures the success of its protagonist on the basis of her ability to overcome (or perhaps embrace) notions of familial customs, cultural acceptance and personal growth.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby adapts the 2009 Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, fashioning a drama that warms the heart as effortlessly as it breaks it. Though the story certainly drifts and never forms into something entirely unexpected, the more contemplative scenes play out naturally, unburdened by structure, and are rather potent given the conditions the protagonist must endure for some time. It all feels a little less aimless when Eilis meets the kindhearted Tony (Emory Cohen), a boy from an Italian family whose confession over liking Irish girls — hence his presence at a small get-together put on by Irish Brooklynites — endears him to her.

And so it is: Brooklyn becomes an acting showcase. Cohen turns out to be nothing short of a revelation. His Tony oozes the kind of charisma most Movie Stars today wish they were gifted with. He may not light up as many cigarettes or don any leather jackets, but Cohen has that James Dean swagger. Tony is the kind of stand-up guy who merits comparisons to the likes of Romeo Capulet and Jack Dawson. In that way, the film aches with nostalgia for the days where genuinely good men fell into genuinely romantic relationships, not contrived meet-cutes in which the likes of Gerard Butler and Justin Long find themselves flung into . . . because, script.

In this movie our ultimate concern revolves around relationships, but that’s not for a lack of ambition. For someone trying to assimilate to another part of the world, establishing relationships is a crucial step. It’s the only step at first. Through a deeply introspective character study Brooklyn proposes that one little step can form an entire bridge. For the thousands of people who have passed through Ellis Island and elsewhere, it can be a matter of life and death, and that’s not a reality the film takes for granted.

Of course, ultimately Eilis is a very fortunate young woman. And the film doesn’t take that for granted. Tony’s introduction tinges the film with a romantic filter. The light in an otherwise dark room. Call it a fairytale if you wish, but precious little feels good about the sacrifices Eilis must make in order to get to a good place. There’s nothing particularly magical about the background from which Tony hails. He may be a plumber, but he’s also a hard-working, good-natured young man who shows genuine interest in Eilis’ determination, intelligence and forward-thinkingness. If ever there were a couple who deserved one another’s company this year it is these two.

In the context of contemporary romantic offerings, Brooklyn reigns supreme in 2015, but don’t call it a perfect movie. Serendipity isn’t the right word, but a subplot involving her return to her homeland following a tragic development is rigged with convenience at every turn. Locals seem to conspire against Eilis ever returning to America: a friend is to be married a week after she is scheduled to return to Brooklyn and her mother accepts an invitation on her behalf; she is set up on dates with eligible bachelor Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, picking up steam now); Eilis is even coerced into taking over her sister’s desk job. People can’t seem to stop talking about Eilis’ good fortune. Time constraints come to define this phase of the story and some of these later scenes, and Gleeson’s character in particular, feel underdeveloped as a result.

But the purpose of the return journey is very well understood. Going back to Ireland adds complication. The second boat ride gives an already conflicted girl (and viewer) yet another perspective to consider. What if life in Enniscorthy actually could be different, more opportunistic? How radically has the girl changed in the time since? The transformation may not be so dramatic but it is certainly noticeable and remarkable. If it weren’t for such confident and prideful work from its young stars, the film wouldn’t be in a place where it could reasonably pose these questions. Brooklyn is stunningly authentic, incredibly enjoyable and the fact it so effectively communicates its reverence for classic cinema qualifies it as one of the finest this year has to offer.

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 6.23.02 PM

Recommendation: Brooklyn has classic romantic appeal, and with any luck it will attract a larger audience than its silly little trailers are likely to generate. Performances make the characters easy to buy into and feel for in the end, while a sublime 1950s milieu is too easy to believe as the genuine article. A great study of character, not to mention a great date night.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.”

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 Drop


Release: Friday, September 12, 2014 (limited)


Fairly unsurprisingly, The Drop is a compelling modern entry into the gangster/crime genre.

Tom Hardy. James Gandolfini. There’s something foregone-conclusion-y about pairing those names together and sticking them in a mobster flick. It’s likely to be damn good. Of course you’d be forgiven for not being taken with the relatively bland title. But for dismissing lonely old Bob Saginowski (Hardy) who carries around a pit bull pup for most of the movie? Totally inexcusable.

That’s a side of Bane you won’t see too often. Even less from Charles Bronson. And doubtful there were many times in Tommy Conlon’s life where he felt so sensitive.

As striking a visual as Hardy nursing an abused and abandoned puppy can be there’s something more poignant in the reincarnation of Tony Soprano as “Cousin Marv.” The duo are indeed cousins who run a dive bar in Brooklyn, with the latter having proudly owned the operations for decades now and the former merely tending bar. If only life were actually that simple, though. Targeted as a ‘drop’ location by a dangerous Chechen criminal syndicate, this particularly dingy cave suddenly magnetizes all sorts of dirty money flowing in from various unsavory individuals.

When two dim-witted thugs hold the bar up one evening, Saginowski and his cousin find themselves in hot water with Chovka (Michael Aronov), a mob leader not even Tony Soprano would want to cross on a good day. The pair are left scrounging for the missing $5,000 before they too find themselves disappearing in a windowless conversion van parked in the shadows of some nondescript alleyway.

Hardy — if you can believe it — puts on a stellar performance as a sheltered, fumbling everyman whose social ineptitude symbolizes that part of the iceberg we can see peeking above the surface. Sooner or later we’ll get to know how deep it goes into the water. Before we do, there are several layers to Cousin Marv we need to peel away before coming into the frightening realization of how truly shady this whole operation is. This place is rotten from the inside out, and the last thing we are ultimately concerned with are the drops themselves.

The Drop blends sharp social commentary with an indomitable devotion to creating atmospheric tension. An unnerving turn from Matthias Shoenaerts as Eric Deeds, a renegade criminal with a keen interest in the dog Bob discovered in a neighbor, the broken but beautiful Nadia (Noomi Rapace)’s trash can one night on his way home from the bar, adds to that greatly. Seemingly channelling his inner Joker in his unrepentant disregard for logic or reason, Shoenaerts casts a shadow that puts the dreaded Chechen gang in perspective. Clearly there are degrees of evil here that we ought to be aware of. Therein lies the genius in having the omniscient perspective: we eventually learn no one is clean but as the story develops our willingness to take the lesser of two evils is directly proportional to how much we’re shocked by the developments.

Rapace isn’t the focus of attention here but her fragile state’s still worthy of mention as she offers up a vulnerability not found in the male characters. And her performance proves yet again how kaleidoscopic the Swedish actress’ image truly is. For Bob Saginowski Nadia represents a chance to outgrow his circumstances and become something more, all while still wrestling with a dark past of her own.

Perhaps owed to the effectiveness of the transfer of book to film at the hands of writer Dennis Lehane (responsible for both versions), you will likely not come across a more atmospheric and capably-acted crime drama this fall.

Or, maybe you will.

But it won’t have James Gandolfini in it, who in this case doesn’t even need to raise his voice to remind us of the ease with which he could command the screen. Additional credit must be given to the strong direction of Michaël R. Roskam, who’s only had one previous film released (and to similar critical success, as a matter of fact), for never allowing the sobering reality of Gandolfini’s absence hang too heavy over the proceedings. Marv is chameleonic, blending seamlessly with the decay of his surrounds. As the big man once again does with his favorite material.


4-0Recommendation: Reiterating, the appeal is pretty clear here. The box office draw comes twofold in a dreamlike pairing of Hardy and Gandolfini in a thoroughly well-written and well-crafted reflection of a much harder life in America. Despite there being a substantial amount of commentary on the subject already, The Drop offers a clear-eyed view of some very, very, very gray areas indeed. Aside from a few limited moments of bloodshed, the lack of substantial gore might be one immediate way you can distinguish this effective thriller. It relies on studying and assessing character motives and relationships, and if that’s your sort of thing, you should be buying yourself a ticket right now rather than reading this blog. (But seriously, thank you for reading this blog.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “Are you doing something desperate? Something we can’t clean up this time?”

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