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.”

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

30-for-30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

30-for-30-small-potatoes-movie-poster

Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

When Donald Trump made the ‘small potatoes’ remark it was after he had wrapped up an interview with the director for this very documentary. He was referring to his dalliance with sports team ownership, his dismissiveness hinting at days that were so far in the rearview he couldn’t even see them anymore. He was already over it, the way you get over a summer fling.

In the early 1980s Trump briefly owned a franchise within the United States Football League — the New Jersey Generals — before growing bored with it and selling it to an Oklahoma oil magnate who in turn sold it back because he couldn’t keep pace with the travel schedule required to watch his team play. Trump did agree to speak candidly about his involvement with the USFL so anything seemed fair game. However, at the time of the interview (sometime in 2009), Trump’s magnificent hair was already thinning, evidence that at this point his image was so firmly cemented he no longer seemed obligated to care about his hair. And if he didn’t care about how thin his hair looked, how could he possibly still care about a business venture that fizzled out all the way back in 1986?

Mike Tollin (executive producer of such shows as All That, Smallville and One Tree Hill) seeks multiple perspectives rather than going all Salem Witch Trial as he tries to find out the cause of the USFL’s collapse a mere three years after its establishment. A variety of interviews with former players, coaches and team owners alike — Burt Reynolds even weighs in — are spliced in between segments from the present-day Trump interview.

The USFL was first envisioned by a New Orleans businessman named David Dixon some 17 years before Trump’s acquisition of the Generals in 1983 helped legitimize the league as something worth investing not only money but time into. The establishment of the league was predicated on the notion it would run differently than its older and more popular brother, the NFL, which played its schedule through the fall season, concluding with the Superbowl in February. The USFL, then, would be played in the spring and summer months, capped off with a National Championship game. Following what was known as ‘The Dixon Plan,’ the USFL found the inaugural season somewhat successful though crowd attendance and media exposure disappointing. It was after that first season franchise owners started having eyes larger than their stomachs.

The Dixon Plan had set into place limits on spending and had also helped teams secure prominent locations where they would play their games, all moves which helped make the USFL a little more competitive with the NFL, even if that was ultimately not the intent. Not until Trump, anyway. The advent of legendary running back Herschel Walker, who cost Trump a whopping $4 million, indicated a shift in the league’s priorities — rather than looking towards long-term security team owners began signing higher-profile talent which ultimately broke many a franchise’s bank, with single-player signings often exceeding salary cap space four or five times over.

There were other significant moves made that steered the USFL toward an altogether uncertain and less stable future. With Trump’s business savvy he began poaching NFL talent and even went after collegiate players in an effort to “level the playing field.” This ultimately triggered yet another out-of-control spending spree and further set the league back financially. But that was nothing compared to what the Donald had up his sleeve next. In perceiving the USFL to be an organization that could possibly rival the more institutionalized NFL, Trump advocated for a schedule change so the games could be shown on TV alongside those other “more important” games.

In 1985 everything changed when the league decided to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL for their monopolization of television markets. It was a disastrous move that all but spelled the end for the USFL. Over the last season many teams had already folded or had merged with other more notable franchises, and Trump’s Generals was still trying to pile on the star talent to make them the team to beat. While the court ruled in favor of the USFL there would be no flags for excessive celebrations. Damages amounted to a grand total of $4 (that’s not a typo — they had a check cut in the amount of $3.67 or something), which is not quite enough to get franchises up and running again. No one, not even Trump’s sexified Generals, would see a fall season of action.

Small Potatoes, for obvious reasons, leans heavily on the business side of things and while that could spell boredom to many viewers, it’s a narrative that only gets more interesting as it goes on. We needn’t live in denial; the real game is played behind the scenes rather than on the field and the competition is far uglier. What had begun as a potentially prosperous and exciting alternative to mainstream football had been decimated by a series of hasty, if not altogether poor decisions that were never actually made in the league’s best interests. David Dixon would be spinning in his grave if he ever knew what became of his idea.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews. 

the-donald

Recommendation: Packed with fascinating insight into the inner workings of a fledgling football league, Small Potatoes, one of the very earliest installments, asks that simple question: who’s responsible for the USFL’s sudden disappearance? There’s something bittersweet about this film, about knowing how dominant the NFL has become over the years and realizing that even if the USFL hadn’t folded in the 80s, it almost assuredly would have in the 90s and early 2000s. I also had no idea Donald Trump ever owned a football team, so that was fascinating in and of itself. It’s also funny coming to the realization that apparently he was never good enough to become an NFL franchise owner. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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Joy

Joy movie poster

Release: Christmas Day 2015

[Theater]

Written by: David O. Russell; Annie Mumolo

Directed by: David O. Russell

Does a movie have an obligation to become the very thing its title advertises? Should we feel duped if that title says one thing and then the story goes off and does something else?

No, Joy is not a movie about the emotion. It’s about the person who came up with the Miracle Mop. It’s a vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence post-Hunger Games. It’s depressing and frustrating and strange and cold and a lot of other things that don’t necessarily sell movie tickets. It’s about women’s empowerment, a tip of the hat to entrepreneurship and a Cliffs Notes guide on how to get a product patented. And right now it’s my favorite David O. Russell movie.

Lawrence’s rising starlet may not be the most convincing canvas upon which to base a portrait of struggling 1950s housewife Joy Mangano — there was a crowd of giggling teenaged girls in my screening, three of whom left about halfway in after realizing this wasn’t quite the movie they were expecting. But Lawrence did manage to turn a completely fictitious girl who could shoot arrows more accurately than William Tell and wore dresses that caught on fire into a living, breathing sensation that the world fell in love with. Why couldn’t America’s favorite twenty-something thespian take this role and own it too?

The story of Joy isn’t so unlike the story of anyone who has had to sacrifice most of themselves, including their own happiness, in order to support and care for others. In a time where gender inequality dictated employment opportunities for women, Joy shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as heroically selfless so much as being remarkably resilient, doing what she must to try to make ends almost meet . . . although there is something sort of heroic about having to endure these specific conditions.

She lives at home with her highly dysfunctional family: mother (Virginia Madsen), who never leaves her bedroom or turns off the TV; father, (Robert DeNiro) who has recently moved back in because it once again hasn’t worked out with his significant other; and Mimi (Diane Ladd), who at least provides some moral support. Joy also has two kids. Of course the house isn’t big enough for everyone and dad must share the basement with Anthony (Édgar Ramírez), Joy’s ex-husband, someone whom he doesn’t much care for. The family dynamic is hectic and its important we feel it. Although a rather unconvincing final scene overcompensates for the quagmire that has been Joy’s life up until that point — it’s 10 years on, she’s wealthy and her problems have all but disappeared — the movie proper really takes place in the first half.

Out of these humble, somewhat oppressive environs a billionaire inventor and businesswoman would emerge. Unfortunately she would be totally unprepared for the fiercely competitive nature of commerce. She enlists the help of her father and his new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who has a very strong business sense about her, to give her some financial backing and perhaps even some confidence that she could finally legitimately pursue her ambition of bringing an idea she had to the attention of the masses.

So, I guess I take it back. This movie really is about joy, but not in the way you might expect. This is a much subtler, less palpable sense of satisfaction, the kind that one might experience after selling their home but for a much, much lower price than they originally had asked. In what has been for sometime a difficult market to sell in, they should be pleased they sold at all. Lawrence proves once again she is wise beyond her years, shading a character that’s meant to be much older than the actress actually is with layers of humility, dignity, courage and a crumbling, though still existent, sense of humor. This kind of tough skinned exterior is tailor made for Lawrence, and it is a joy to behold once more.

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Recommendation: David O. Russell reunites with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and DeNiro for the third consecutive film, though this one has much more modest ambitions than arguably either of his previous two projects. It’s particularly small compared to the likes of the hoopla surrounding American Hustle. The Lawrence faithful should warm to her character here while others are sure to gain some insight into how products are converted from pet projects into marketable items. Joy is fascinating on several levels.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Never speak on my behalf about my business again.”

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

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs movie poster

Release: Friday, October 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Aaron Sorkin

Directed by: Danny Boyle

The poor return on investment regarding Danny Boyle’s take on the iGenius is quite surprising considering the quality of the product. As of this posting, Steve Jobs has just barely recouped half of its original $30 million budget, suggesting that perhaps the third time is not the charm. (Steve Jobs follows on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and arrives two years after Ashton Kutcher donned the glasses and black turtleneck in Jobs.)

Seems many are already thinking differently and choosing not to sit through yet another episode. It’s unfortunate because Michael Fassbender’s transformative performance, along with another scintillating Aaron Sorkin screenplay, one based partly on interviews he conducted and the Walter Isaacson biography of the same name, all but epitomize compelling cinema. Steve Jobs, the man, with all his idiosyncrasies and flare for making dramatic last-second requests of his thoroughly overburdened staff, is almost too good to be true.

Steve Jobs grants audiences backstage passes to three significant product launches, exposing them to the environmental, political and psychological conditions that, at least in the framework of the film, lend greater weight to the public unveilings. While the three-act construction has invited criticism over the fact it’s programmed to repeat itself — the story features the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988 (the result of Jobs’ brief departure from Apple in the wake of the failed Macintosh), and finally the iMac a decade later — there is beauty in simplicity.

The cyclical pattern yields an unexpected irony. The film boots up on a dramatic but effective note. Lack of exposure to Jobs’ abrasive personality is a great possibility for viewers not well-versed in their Apple history but in the span of a ten-minute scene wherein he insists he doesn’t have a daughter nor any financial responsibility to former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the cards are laid out for all to see. Alas, the curse of being gifted. The irony? Simply how applicable that old adage is: ignorance really is bliss. Are we better off knowing the jerk or just the icon? Alas, the curse of being better-informed.

Meanwhile a crowd buzzing with excitement begins stomping their feet in the auditorium in preparation for the revolution. Backstage, its creator is at war with personnel and with himself. In this particular setting technical issues arise when a failed voice demo, wherein the Mac is intended to greet the world with a friendly ‘Hello,’ sends Jobs into overdrive, prompting him to bring the heat down on engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Like it or not, we’re going to become privy to more of Jobs’ brutal demands as the clock ticks away. Boyle makes sure to cut away just before Jobs steps out on stage — his instincts telling him the presentations themselves aren’t as interesting as the drama of Jobs’ crippling social awkwardness. Watch Jobs clash ideologically with former CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, absolutely brilliant) as he attempts to make clear his vitality to a floundering company. His conversations with cofounder and closest ‘friend’ Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, masterfully restraining himself) serve as some of the harshest truths as Jobs argues Woz and the rest of the team behind the Apple II — widely considered a failed product — deserve no credit for what they did years earlier.

Then of course there’s the motif of Jobs’ on-again, off-again flirtation with assistant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet, and you guessed it, she’s also excellent). Hoffman remains by his side throughout, trying her best to manage expectations — good luck — and manage Jobs’ near-tyrannical approach to seizing control of the company he had created.

Where the repetition begins to truly bear fruit is the frequent reemergence of key characters in Sculley, whose relationship with Jobs throughout the film is fraught with tension, and a now matured Lisa Brennan (Perla Haney-Jardine), who Jobs has finally recognized as his own. Jobs eventually makes amends with the former CEO prior to the introduction of the iMac but Hoffman reminds him that his withholding of Lisa’s college tuition has embittered her profoundly.

The design was certainly a gamble. But repetition, as it applies to many things in reality, provides opportunities to improve and advance. Evaluate and reinvent. That’s precisely what happens in this taut and disciplined story, an emotional crescendo resultant from our third-party witness to his brutally honest interactions with a core group of individuals. It’s absurd to think of Fassbender as an insufficient box office draw — though I won’t deny names like Leo and Christian Bale would have upped the numbers — as the Irish actor has proven lately the depths of his emotive abilities as well as his tendency to play cruel characters. Leo’s too big and if you think Fassbender doesn’t look the part, how could Bale ever hope to succeed?

All of this isn’t to say the film is flawless. It’s not quite the product we’d presume its subject would like it to be. Boyle simply can’t resist the urge to tie the narrative up in a white little bow at the end, using the top level of a metropolitan parking garage as a setting to downplay the gravity of Jobs’ ultimate apology. An apology that couldn’t have come at a more awkward and unlikely time. It’s something close to heartwarming to watch unfold, yet for everything the film has done to prove why his Machiavellian mentality puts him in a category all his own, this is a betrayal.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in 'Steve Jobs'

Recommendation: Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is, in my mind, a serious Oscar contender. Richly dialogue-driven drama features few scenes where there isn’t someone going on a verbal tirade either on the offense or in defense of themselves and their reputations. Talky pictures aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but if they are yours, you won’t find many films this year that create such an intense atmosphere and a generally dramatic picture than Steve Jobs. I don’t think I care much for the guy but I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of him.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “We will know soon enough if you are Leonardo da Vinci or just think you are.”

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

Truth

Release: Friday, October 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: James Vanderbilt

Directed by: James Vanderbilt

Truth be told, a movie featuring household names like Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, one propped up on real-world events of this magnitude shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through. Yet, here we are.

To clear the air first: don’t think of this as the definitive Dan Rather biopic; think of it as a drama that calls upon his iconic red suspenders and larger-than-life personality when convenient. If anything, this is the story of Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who believed she had unearthed some new documents alleging then-President George W. Bush had not met the minimal standards required of fighter pilots at the time of the Vietnam War (thus affording him a loophole from joining in the fight) and had been protected politically, rendering his hypothetical AWOL status one of the most well-kept secrets in recent American history.

Okay, so we’ve been misled a little bit. Of course, that might be on us since it’s easier to associate this shameful chapter in broadcast journalism with a certain face. And it’s easier to recall Rather’s final farewell with teary-eyed reverence than anything Mapes may have said or done as she watched her career collapse like the Hindenburg.

With that in mind, Blanchett is far from a bad alternative as she impetuously fights a losing battle in an effort to exonerate herself and her good friend from this now infamous ethical debacle. The argument she presents? The authenticity of said documents — which turned out to be forgeries created in Microsoft Word and which she gained after a brief meeting with Stacy Keach’s Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett — isn’t the big picture. Finding out precisely what happened with Bush’s involvement in the armed forces in the early ’70s is.

This is almost verbatim what she tells a panel of hard-nosed, ultra-conservative lawyers — some of whom fought on behalf of former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove prior to his 2007 resignation — in the film’s spectacularly unspectacular final scenes. The big, bad showdown, as it were. This, after being cautioned by her own lawyer to simply keep her head down and try hard not to fight back. Old habits die hard I guess.

Truth is, of course, very well-acted. Blanchett settles in to yet another tough female lead who’s difficult to get along with, introduced as someone whose chip-on-their-shoulder couldn’t be any more apparent. In her lowest moments we see her popping Xanex and chasing it down with white wine, behavior reminiscent of her troubled Jasmine. Her performance is reason enough to see the picture. Redford, inhabiting the undoubtedly challenging role as the iconic CBS anchor, delivers a subtler and more emotionally reserved performance and is thoroughly likable, despite minimal screen time. Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss round out the team working under Mapes but they don’t register at all, in terms of performance or their contributions to the drama.

Truth is, writer/director James Vanderbilt, who penned the screenplay for David Fincher’s Zodiac, forces empathy for Rather and his pseudo-surrogate daughter — I can’t think of a better way to describe the pair’s relationship, at least as it’s presented here — as they journey down the gauntlet of shame and humiliation. The feeling hardly eventuates naturally. This is the Salem Witch Trial sans witches and torches. The American people feel it’s well within their right to take down these journalists as hard as they damn well can, their argument being these people make a living out of digging into other people’s lives. Those not in the business are painted as villainous and bloodthirsty.

Truth is, no matter how you slice it, the innate complexities of the matter make the drama a tough sell to anyone who is unable to look past the political motivations of Hollywood interpreting these events. The liberal slant is far from subtle. The package is too neatly contained to be real life. Despite several sizzling moments of dialogue (mostly spat by a righteously indignant Blanchett) was there any good reason this didn’t materialize in the form of a thoroughly revealing documentary . . . . maybe on 60 Minutes?

That’s the kind of irony that will never be, seeing as this film’s trailers were blacklisted from CBS. It’s an even harder sell when the events depicted in Vanderbilt’s feature film debut are laced with such contriteness you have but one option come the film’s end: feel bad for the people who failed to uphold one of the major pillars of good journalism.

Recommendation: Truth is a strange experience. On one hand it’s well-performed and suitably emotional as we experience the catalytic events that ended Mary Mapes’ and Dan Rather’s careers in shame. On the other, there’s no denying this has an agenda all its own, which is a little frustrating as there is a better movie in here somewhere underneath the moral indignation (for both the American people and the ones getting done in). I don’t want to get into the politics of what constitutes good journalism, I’d rather get into the politics of good acting and Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford indeed make a good team. They’re very strong cogs in a relatively weak engine.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Our story is about whether the President fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that, they want to talk about fonts and forgeries and they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum.”

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