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.

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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.”

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30-for-30: Fantastic Lies

fantastic-lies-movie-poster

Release: Sunday, March 13, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich’s Fantastic Lies establishes one simple truth that cannot be disputed no matter what your feelings are towards Duke University and the air of superiority it cultivates. The scandal that rocked the Durham-based university in March of 2006 and the manner in which it was handled became nothing short of a farce.

Zenovich is primarily linked to her documentaries centered around filmmakers and entertainers, most notably director Roman Polanski and comedian Richard Pryor. She turns to sports in her most recent effort, sorting through the chaos that ensued when three players from a high-profile men’s lacrosse team were implicated in the alleged gang rape of an exotic dancer hired for a team-sponsored party. Fantastic Lies premiered on March 13, 2016, 10 years to the day of the event.

Driving the narrative is the frenzy generated by national media who were convinced the story had but one logical conclusion: Duke was guilty. What had long been feared to be festering below the surface finally had manifested publicly. A culture in which the privileged were given every benefit of the doubt had finally run amok. Along with the media circus, so too descended upon campus countless social activists who had been waiting for something like this to happen to Duke. Fantastic Lies, then, is as much about separating fact from fiction as it is about the media and the role they continue to play in shaping public perception; how, in this case, a “tragic rush to accuse” created such a toxic atmosphere protestors (some even Duke students) called for the castration of the players responsible.

The Blue Devils’ on-field triumphs are shoved so far into the background they almost don’t exist. Fantastic Lies engages in an altogether different and more sobering manner, developing into an often disturbing legal drama that very matter-of-factly presents the investigation and subsequent fall-out as the witch trial it was. In fact the only way in which athleticism factors into Zenovich’s film is in the context of how the team’s reputation had endeared them to the community. Their 2005 campaign is touched upon briefly, a season that unfortunately ended with a loss to rival Johns Hopkins University in the championship round. It’s also made clear only two things are taken more seriously on these hallowed grounds: men’s basketball under the immortal Coach K, and academia.

Yet an interview with a student who once lived next door to some of the players reminds us that not all who have been fortunate enough to be accepted into this prestigious community — Duke infamously rejects something like 75% of all valedictorians who apply — buy into that hype. If you do manage to slip the surly bonds of Ordinariness there’s no compulsion to embrace every aspect of campus life. It’s okay to hate jocks here, too; though you might well be identifying yourself as part of an even more elite group in your refusal to attend a single sporting event. Crucially this perspective is added to impress upon us how seriously the odds were stacked against Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans when they became the players identified as the assailants of Crystal Mangum.

Mangum, an African-American woman struggling to make ends meet, was one of two dancers hired by the team and who had been paid $400 for a two-hour performance. When they refused to continue after five minutes, the mood soured and soon racial epithets and drunken threats were being thrown around. The players felt they had been hustled. Mangum proceeded to dial 9-1-1, claiming she had been sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a house belonging to captains of the Duke lacrosse team. It would take over a year of court battles, the dismissal of the head coach, the surrendering of the entirety of the 2006 season and the disbarring of a district attorney before the truth of what actually transpired in the moments before the call was finally recognized. In April of 2007 all charges were dropped against the players. Not only were there no traces of DNA found on Mangum — none belonging to the players anyway — there was compelling evidence none of the boys named were even in the house at the time of the phone call.

Zenovich does well in laying out the labyrinthian legal process in a way that’s both interesting and digestible for those not familiar with the judicial system. A significant chunk of the narrative focuses on District Attorney Mike Nifong, the man hired to represent Mangum and who was using the case to build a platform for his campaign for a higher public office. Confident the act was a hate crime, Nifong’s crusade, with the help of some corrupt cops, would soon prove to be an egregious example of how human nature can obstruct justice. The probe thus became an immensely flawed process that violated the accused’s fundamental right to due process. As one source puts it, that process would have been a comedy of errors if any of it was funny.

Of course the situation was anything but comical. Mangum’s false accusations bruised Duke’s reputation and irrevocably changed the lives of the three players and their families forever. If you aspire to become a professional athlete one thing you absolutely cannot afford is to become implicated in a rape case. And despite being found innocent, Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans are never going to be able to escape the stigma attached to their days at Duke. There has, however, been a silver lining to their trials and tribulations. These experiences had a transformative power, particularly for Seligmann who ended up transferring to Brown University to finish his undergraduate studies before pursuing a law degree at Emory University. In addition to his plans to pursue a career in law, he also has become an active member in the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization committed to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.

Fantastic Lies is a highly emotional documentary that to some degree feels like a peace-offering to the families of these students. Zenovich’s unbiased approach seems to uphold every major tenet of good journalism. There is truth and accuracy, humanity and fairness in her reporting. That this installment feels less like an ESPN film and more like a particularly twisted episode of Law & Order indicates the director felt no obligation to adhere to a certain formula. This is an independent voice, free of bureaucratic input. This is the bald-faced truth. If it isn’t, she and only she will remain accountable for further muddying the waters. The power of the account proves Zenovich is all too aware of this.

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a-former-public-editor-for-the-new-york-times-explained-why-the-duke-lacrosse-case-was-the-perfect-media-storm

Recommendation: Incredibly complex legal case proves to be a consistently absorbing watch. Bolstered by an emotional intensity and featuring an almost overwhelming amount of fact-based evidence to support the notion Duke had been victimized of a vicious smear campaign, Fantastic Lies feels as though it’s in another class when it comes to ESPN films. This is a remarkable work that should be seen by everyone who believes they have the Duke student body completely figured out. A must-see documentary that is as upsetting as it is vital. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . .]

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Everybody Wants Some!!

'Everybody Wants Some' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Richard Linklater

Directed by: Richard Linklater

All right, all right, all right — so it’s been over twenty years since Matthew McConaughey brilliantly repurposed those famous Doors lyrics, and it might seem a little suspect that director Richard Linklater would take another trip like this down memory lane, in 2016. Has he run out of ideas? How will he find a way to crowbar some long-lost cousin of David Wooderson in to the story? How close was he to leaving the project titled Dazed and Confused 2? Naturally, a project like this raises more than a few questions.

Those concerns all but disappear without notice like a Saturday morning hangover when, after only a few opening scenes, we find ourselves jettisoned back to the days of disco, coke (well, here it’s replaced by a wealth of weed) and, of course, the Walkman. Part of the deal here is remaining open-minded about developing another love affair with a different decade but the same director, and if you’re able to do that you’ll find there was indeed room for one more of these in his catalog. Everybody Wants Some!! may have to wait some time before it gains cult status, but then, so did all those hazy high school hijinks.

Rather than focusing on the culmination of another semester wherein the best and the worst of seniors and their underclassmen alike are brought out, Linklater inverts the time table and builds toward the first day. The story follows a collegiate baseball team through the final weekend of summer, centering on a new pitcher named Jake (Blake Jenner), one of the most talented players at his high school, who finds himself navigating this unfamiliar, deeper pool of talent and competitiveness. Meanwhile he and his teammates negotiate, and largely embrace, the various social stigmas attached to being a college athlete.

Once again Linklater gathers together a cast of relative unknowns to help keep the distraction of celebrity status to a minimum. There’s the mustachioed and most-likely-to-go-pro McReynolds (Taylor Hoechlin); Roper the ladykiller (Ryan Guzman); stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell); faux-philosopher Finnegan (Glen Powell); Plummer (Temple Baker) . . . who’s just kinda there; Jay (Justin Street), who’s a total psycho and the team’s current pitcher; the gregarious Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), who also kindly takes on the task of orienting freshmen to the team; Beuter (Will Brittain), a good-old boy with the southern-fried accent; and Nesbit (Austin Amelio), an upper-classman burnout with a passion for the game. There are others as well but this is the core.

They’re wholly believable as an actual college baseball team, and if not that then their perpetual involvement in shenanigans establishes them as the next best frat house behind Delta Tau Chi. It helps that the performances are uniformly fantastic — energetic and naturalistic. There’s genuine camaraderie between them, especially once the movie shifts into its second third, where the boys start figuring out what everyone is all about. On the female side, there are far fewer stand-outs — Everybody Wants Some!! is likely to struggle to pass the Bechdel Test — but Zoey Deutch as Beverly, a theater major Jake finds cute, anchors the film in slightly more romantic territory with her warmth and optimistic outlook on life.

The love child of Animal House and Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s baseball-themed bacchanalia feels like a long lost relic, a film made years ago that’s only now being rescued from the clutches of development hell and resuscitated for audiences too young to appreciate how far out Linklater’s paean to the ’70s really was. It’s a fleeting watch, and it’s not for the narrative-minded. The story boils down to a team learning to gel before the grind of spring training locks them back into regiments and routines. From start to finish this is a raucous party atmosphere and it might be harder to identify with a group of extroverted athletes than say, a cross-section of high school broken down into its many cliques.

Nevertheless, Linklater has once again managed to tease out intensely strong feelings of nostalgia and bittersweetness by stuffing so much into these precious last days of summer. The film, despite itself, is a study of maturity and accepting responsibility. Kids turning into adults is as inevitable as waking up one morning in these houses to find crude drawings all over your face.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about finding your place in a larger group, about figuring out what you can contribute. Find out what matters most to you. That’s true of college but it’s most poignant when you consider the vaster pool of possibilities outside of school.

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Recommendation: A gentle nudge in the direction of some of our glory days, Everybody Wants Some!! functions as a highly amusing diversion (even if it’s not outright hilarious). A game cast combines with a mise en scène that brilliantly pays tribute to the fashion and social etiquette of a decade long since passed. Perhaps it’s best not to make comparisons, but this one’s kinda hard not to recommend to those who fell in love with the director’s previous efforts. Baseball fans might be disappointed to learn how little ball is actually played, however. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “I’m too philosophical for this shit!”

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30-for-30: Survive and Advance

'Survive and Advance' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 17, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

Thrown off balance by Houston’s sudden switch to the zone defense, the North Carolina State Wolfpack, “the cardiac kids,” scrapped to find a last-second shot that would once again elevate them over their opponent and into the upper echelon of improbable victories. But there were seven seconds left on the clock and Houston was frustrating almost every available option. Finally, a dangerous cross-court pass to Dereck Whittenburg at the top of the key. He was 30 feet from the basket when the ball went up.

In hindsight, of course that shot was going to go in . . . well, in a way. The shot came up short but power forward Lorenzo Charles was there for the put-back to lift the sixth-seeded NC State over #1 Houston in one of the most iconic college basketball moments of the 20th Century. In the aftermath, college hoops was gifted one of the more amusing and simultaneously heartwarming sequences of video feed: head coach Jim “Jimmy V” Valvano running around on the court, looking for someone to embrace and finally grabbing some random fan before his players finally found him in the crowd. Seriously, what does a guy have to do to get a hug?!

You couldn’t find a Hollywood script that had an ending like this. And even if you could find someone who would write this Cinderella story, good luck casting the parts — Jimmy V in particular. If it’s not the sheer unlikelihood of the Wolfpack’s nine consecutive come-back victories, seven of which they were losing in the final minute of play, then surely it’s the enigmatic, emotional and beloved head coach that makes this story one for the ages. This is the kind of thaumaturgy sports fanatics would drag their better halves to a theater for to prove sports are something worth investing your time in.

Jonathan Hock, a nine-time Emmy Award-winning sports documentarian, weaves together two distinct but inextricably linked stories in a patchwork of emotion and nostalgia for an era that has long since passed. One story, set in the present, finds the members of the 1983 squad gathering for a reunion at a small restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, where they share and compare stories and memories of their collegiate careers. The other constructs a profile of Jimmy V, introducing him as an enigmatic, emotional and supremely confident young coach before integrating him further into the community after he boldly announces to his players on the first day that he will win the national championship.

But this is far more than a pep talk about the vitality of team synergy, a filmic letter of encouragement to future college prospects. In the process of forming the shape of the now iconic head coach Survive and Advance, a title that dually serves practical and philosophical purposes, also traces how Valvano embraced life challenges, namely his cancer diagnosis, post-college coaching. Part of that profile building is laced with painful reminders of how fleeting the moments that define not only players and coaches but people, ordinary people, really are. Valvano’s appearances at NC State 10 years after the win and at the 1993 ESPY Awards are masterfully placed within the context of the story.

Though the facade may look and feel familiar (this is not the first time a documentary crew has become invested in a miracle team, and that’s just within the realm of this sport), Survive and Advance is nonetheless one of the best that ESPN’s long-running series has to offer, manifesting as a classic underdog story whose ability to inspire transcends college athletics and for that matter, the world of competitive sport. It’s the essence of the personnel that make it great, but also difficult to write a review without waxing lyrical about the coaching, about the circumstances or the conviction Hock has in the notion that sports teams are family units.

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Recommendation: This particular documentary is one of this reviewer’s favorites, as it offers one of the most emotionally satisfying and at times devastating narratives available in the series. I doubt I’m talking to anyone else here but the college hoop fans but even if you hold a general curiosity about miraculous stories, I highly recommend giving this one a shot, if for no other reason than the chance to familiarize yourself with the wonderful human being that was Jim Valvano. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Every day, every single day, and in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.”

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TBT: The Graduate (1967)

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For the second pick of November ’15 we’re going back to what has been referred to me time and again as a classic. A coming-of-ager to end all coming-of-age films. It’s Dustin Hoffman’s second big screen appearance, one that officially opened up the doors to a promising and diverse career, one that I am ashamed to admit I have experienced precious little of. My world has been rocked today as I have learned that 1) Dustin Hoffman, and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways, has been around much longer than I had thought he had been; and 2) I hadn’t planned this at all, but this TBT is in a way commemorative. Today marks one year since the sudden and tragic passing of the much-acclaimed director of 

Today’s food for thought: The Graduate.

'The Graduate' movie poster

Worrying about the future since: December 22, 1967

[Netflix]

An idle mind is the devil’s playground, some Philippians once decreed. Given that, I had an entire sandbox and an assortment of twisty slides to go down thinking about all of the dirty things I could be doing instead of watching this incredibly annoying movie. This character (yes, that’s right, the graduate) doesn’t do anything the entire movie but complain about upper middle-class white male privilege. “Oh no, my life is going in no direction in particular. Guess I’ll go float on a raft in the middle of my pool for the rest of the summer.”

A solid basis for a Kevin Smith movie. Let’s just watch Dustin Hoffman look really good for an hour and 40 minutes in a sun-tinged pool in some swanky house in Burbank. Or wherever the location was. I do find it kind of ironic: I have drifted for much of my post-collegiate life (because I’m no good at making actual, important decisions). I’m middle-class . . . maybe not upper-middle-class but I’ve been fortunate. Where are the cameras? Oh yeah, that’s right, I think out loud, snapping back to reality.

Two things, one probably more important than the other: 1) I’m not an attractive, young movie star and 2) I’m not an attractive, young movie star who gets his bones jumped by Anne Bancroft. See? I’m telling you, this is a movie about privilege.

The Graduate is supposed to be this whole quirky, kinky romantic thing involving Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and a family friend, the lovely but pathetically insecure Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft). The film is hardly romantic and it certainly isn’t charming. Although it does tick the quirky and kinky boxes. It all starts when she asks Ben to drive her home after a welcome home party in Ben’s honor.

Things get a bit awkward as Ben suddenly finds himself alone with her in her room as she undresses. But they won’t do the dirty here — no, they end up getting a room in a hotel where apparently all manners of trysts and assignations occur. This is where we get that iconic shot of Bancroft’s crossed legs in the foreground, with a smitten Ben Braddock lingering in the background, hands in his pockets. Perhaps if Ben weren’t such an incorrigible stiff — I mean that in the least sexual way possible — this movie would be over a heck of a lot sooner, saving me and anyone else who can’t buy into whatever charm Hoffman’s supposedly laying on in his second big screen performance from another 80-some-odd minutes of flaccid comedy.

Complications arise when Ben’s parents set him up on a date with the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to Mrs. Robinson’s disapproval. She hates the thought of Ben going for someone his own age. (Yeah, what a pervert.) When Ben eventually falls in love with Elaine, following a rough first date during which he attempts to distance himself from her at the behest of her mother, all bets are off that Ben’s once quiet life will continue as normal.

Early in the film a family friend encourages the young man to live a little, to enjoy himself just for awhile before he settles down. That was actually Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) who gave him that advice. Ergo, anything comical about The Graduate stems less from performances and situation as it does from our omniscient vantage point. We know everything and the poor husband knows nothing. I saw more disdain for living than pleasure in embracing life’s unpredictability. Less comedy and more pent-up sexual frustration. The Graduate is all about the latter; I’m not so sure about the former. I suppose one thing that was pretty amusing was how adamant Ben was in ensuring Mrs. Robinson he isn’t a virgin.

More mysterious than how this film has garnered such popularity is Hoffman’s awkward, wooden performance. The goal is to exude that post-graduation malaise but his delivery doesn’t seem very assured. Not to mention, being a womanizer first and a stalker second doesn’t really speak to my experience. And I doubt I’m alone. I’m also not a saint, but if The Graduate is supposed to be a commentary on that awkward ‘next step’ after college — his insufferable parents would like it very much if he attended graduate school; after all, what were those four years of undergrad for anyway? — it’s painting anyone who hasn’t had a life plan in broad strokes and in a pretty ugly color.

Setting aside thematic content, The Graduate just isn’t that creative. It assesses the budding relationship between Ben and Elaine as they continue finding common ground, while an ever envious Mrs. Robinson goes out of her way to make life exceedingly difficult for Ben. It’s another tale of home-wrecking and heartbreaking. The malleability of a young man’s happiness: if he can’t get this, then he’ll settle for that. If not that, then something else. Ben, in the latter half of the film, goes into full-on creeper mode, seeking out Elaine after a major reveal causes her to move out of her parents’ house and back to college, where she apparently is now with some other guy. And while the conclusion ends on a curiously ambiguous note, it’s not wholly unpredictable. The whole damn thing has been about indecision.

All of this ho-ing and hum-ing is set to the tune of a fairly inspired Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, which is one of a few things I’ll take from this movie and cherish. The film is brilliantly scored. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Seems other people will love you more than you will know. Just . . . not . . . me.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 'The Graduate'

Recommendation: If you like your movies testing your every last nerve, you might try out The Graduate. Yeah, it’s an early Dustin Hoffman performance but I didn’t find it a great one. A coming of age movie with almost no wisdom to impart, I have to say I am massively underwhelmed by this thing. 

Rated: PG 

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: In Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s first encounter in the hotel room, Bancroft did not know that Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it, because it reminded him of schoolboys trying to nonchalantly grab girls’ breasts in the hall by pretending to put their jackets on. When Hoffman did it onscreen, director Mike Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman began to laugh as well, so rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall. Hoffman banged his head on the wall, trying to stop laughing, and Nichols thought it was so funny, he left it in.

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TBT: National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002)

Panic time is now over as I have finally found something to talk about this Thursday. (Why don’t I have a DVD plan with Netflix yet? That would surely eliminate some of this stress of finding movies I want to see only to be denied by a limited viewing availability. Oh, wait. That’s right. It costs more money. Yes, I’m poor — I can’t afford that kind of an upgrade, and yes, I will allow you to snicker at me. That’s totally fine.) But once again my DVD library saves me and I don’t have to skip out on

Today’s food for thought: Van Wilder.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder

Refusing to graduate since: April 5, 2002

[DVD]

It might be surprising to some that a film like Van Wilder, a male college freshman’s wet dream, shares the umbrella title ‘National Lampoon’ with the likes of comedy classics such as the Vacation films and Animal House. How could the company have allowed such a degradation of their comedic appeal to happen? Of course, I hold my judgment for what came after the Ryan Reynolds vehicle. There’s a movie floating out there called National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj which extends Kal Penn’s redemptive story arc from this film into a full-length feature in which he grows into his own at a fictional England-set university. The less said about that one though, the better.

No, the National Lampoon name wasn’t properly sullied until that film debuted (to an audience of silent crickets) in 2006. Truthfully its reputation may have been done in even before this, as the early 2000s gave birth to a litany of unrelated, increasingly juvenile concepts such as Barely Legal and of course, who can forget N.L. Presents: Cattle CallVan Wilder isn’t particularly revolutionary comedy, demonstrating a keen interest in sexual conquest à la the American Pie franchise while consciously veering away from the more creative situational comedy that produced the Griswold family. Still, with Reynolds starring as the big man at Coolidge College and an emphasis on raucous party-hosting, at least the atmosphere vaguely recalls the scent of John Belushi’s frat house.

Walt Becker’s Van Wilder represented a bright spot in a dark decade when J2 Communications bought the license to the Lampoon name. Even the Chevy Chase-led Vegas Vacation couldn’t bring about the kind of success the original family outings had. The story concerns a young man who, afraid of life after college, perpetually puts off graduating despite a seven-year undergraduate career. He frequently refers to his stay at Coolidge as a “dare to be great” situation, implying that his undecided status is not only intentional but beneficial. How else do you sample all that a major university has to offer?

Of course, his attitude doesn’t sit right with everyone, most notably his father, Van Wilder Sr. (Tim Matheson) who promptly puts a stop on tuition checks when he discovers his son has spent the better part of a decade at Coolidge without earning a degree. Forced to take action to ensure his continued flourishing, Wilder enlists the help of his foreign exchange student/horny assistant Taj Mahal Badalandabad and longtime friend Hutch (Teck Holmes) to plan a semester filled with fundraisers disguised as extravagant bacchanalias. (I still feel like I missed out on the ‘Sue Me, Screw Me Soiree.’)

In full control of his own destiny, Van Wilder is a thoroughly likable young man and that’s wholly due to Reynolds’ comfort in the role. He oozes charisma, optimism and yes, okay, sex appeal but he’s also generous and surprisingly altruistic for a supposed party boy. His knowing winks at the camera — ‘Oh wow, you guys didn’t think that I could pull that off? Me neither!’ — lend the film most of its appeal. Daniel Cosgrove’s Richard Bagg makes up for what Reynolds cannot provide: the film’s obligatory antagonism. Someone has to try to knock the King of Coolidge down a notch or two, right?

As president of Delta Iota Kappa (that’s DIK for short, get it?), Bagg sees Wilder as a threat to his future of attending the prestigious Northwestern University to become a doctor having learned his girlfriend Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid) has been associating with a different social circle when she’s assigned to cover Van Wilder for a story for the campus paper. Cosgrove goes all in, expending a good deal of energy playing this pig of a frat president who winds up on the receiving end of two of the film’s most notorious pranks — one, a scene involving Twinkies and dog sperm (yummy!) disguised as goodies in a false waving of the white flag; the other a highly amusing use of laxatives. The rivalry between Wilder and Bagg is gross and juvenile and ultimately pointless, but damn it if it’s not entertaining stuff.

The most thoroughly unbelievable aspect of Van Wilder is Reid’s journalist Gwen. Not that her stories are outlandish, or that pretty women can’t be journalists. Reid simply doesn’t convince. I buy her story of her movie brother playing hockey for the New York Rangers more than I buy her as a member of the press. But what does any of this really matter anyway? Are we really supposed to believe Wilder’s refusal to graduate is the x-factor in how Coolidge comes together as a community? Would this many people bother to rally around a single student’s cause? A cause that’s in no way health-related nor beneficial to the greater social good. We need look no further than how Van Wilder ends to understand what this particular movie is lampooning.

Becker clearly enjoys mocking the bureaucracy behind higher education. A raucous Hawaiian-themed blow-out brings closure to Wilder’s daddy issues, unites Taj with the girl of his dreams, and finally throws Gwen right into Van’s lap, even if this was a foregone conclusion the moment we first saw the two interact. That the film ends in spectacular party fashion says much about what is expected of the average college student.

Recommendation: It may not rank amongst National Lampoon’s best but Van Wilder is a solid enough addition to the film franchise that expanded the reputation of the humor-based magazine of the same name. From the opening scene this film launches an all-out campaign to offend and disgust in the name of poor taste. If you’re not a fan of that kind of stuff you may as well ignore this. If that stuff sits right with you, this might have been a film you watched over and again before you left for college. Or maybe that’s just me.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

TBTrivia: Ryan Reynolds only saw a rough cut of the film before it came out. He hasn’t seen the film since.

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Photo credits: http://www.alchetron.com; http://www.veehd.com 

30-for-30: Guru of Go

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Release: Saturday, April 3, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bill Couterié

When Loyola Marymount University’s Hank Gathers dropped to the hardwood without warning, his teammates and close friends thought he was fooling around. It was a fair assumption to make given the charismatic player’s inability to take anything seriously off the court. But an irregular heart rhythm wasn’t anything to joke about. After the frightening event he was put on medication in an attempt to control the condition, but as the combined pressures of being in the West Coast Championship Tournament along with his greatly reduced efficiency on the floor due to the prescribed drugs began to mount Gathers’ overwhelming confidence in his ability to overcome anything foreshadowed tragedy.

On Sunday, March 4, 1990 in the WCC semifinal against the Portland Pilots Hank collapsed again after a blistering drive to the basket for a slam dunk. This time he wouldn’t be getting up.

Documentarian Bill Couterié presents an emotional but restrained film that pays tribute to the obscenely short lifespan of a talented college player whose prospects of going pro were more than decent. However, Guru of Go centers around the controversial fast-break playing style (known nationwide as ‘The System,’ where the team would run virtually non-stop the entire game) enacted by LMU head coach Paul Westhead and how this may have played a role in the premature death of the school’s star player.

One of the more common criticisms leveled at the game by non-fans is that too many points are amassed for the individual shots to really mean anything. However you feel about the scoring system in basketball, there’s a caveat to bear in mind: no one scored more than Westhead’s squad during the 1990 season, who averaged 122 points per game. Though it’s an outdated style of play for LMU, particularly in the wake of that tragic game, some aspects of ‘The System’ have survived generations of play. After all, modern basketball has adapted to a much faster pace, played with superstar athletes who exist in many fans’ minds as gods and goddesses. In Westhead’s mind ‘The System’ is a thing of beauty, an application that has defined who he is as a coach and the teams he’s implemented it with over a 40-plus-year span. Most recently that would be the WNBA team the Phoenix Mercury. He currently is the only head coach to claim both an NBA (with the Los Angeles Lakers) and a WNBA title (with the Mercury).

Guru of Go, in such a brief running time, makes time for interviews with Gathers’ former LMU teammates, his brother Derrick, and Coach Westhead, while setting up enough context at the beginning for viewers to get a feel for the time and place in which this particularly talented athlete — undoubtedly the pride and joy of the Californian college of the late ’80s — ran into one of the most brutal game strategies ever implemented. ‘The System’ was designed to condition LMU to be able to strengthen as the game clock ran on, whereas typical teams unaccustomed to running so much would by and large be weakening. It really was a beautiful concept, but was it too much for players, even ones as talented and seemingly built to last like Hank Gathers?

Couterié briefly delves into the ugly reality following LMU’s strong run in the college championship tournament when the Gathers family sued both the school and Hank’s doctor for negligence. While this side of the story may have deserved further examination, Guru of Go is clearly aimed at lifting spirits rather than drowning viewers in sorrow and finger-pointing. In some way, the questions left unanswered in this documentary serve to add to the legacy of Gathers. How could such a triumphant player go down so suddenly? Of course life is not fair, but this is one example of how sobering that sentiment really can be.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

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3-5Recommendation: If you find yourself a fan of college basketball I doubt I need to recommend this important bit of film to you. You either have it lined up to watch at some point or have already seen it, possibly many times. Guru of Go comes highly recommended to anyone wanting to know a bit more about the landscape of college basketball in general. (I knew zilch about Loyola Marymount, personally, so that was cool.) The story of Hank Gathers and Coach Westhead’s approach to the game is not one to miss. 

Rated: N/R

Running Time: 60 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone.]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com;  www.marsreel.co 

TBT: Accepted (2006)

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Well today, I went from this to that, and that to this and that to that and finally from this to this. It’s been a struggle. While all this dilly-dallying is going on, there are kids going back to school. Or college students preparing to do so. For those people I spare no sympathies because I too was once there. I was once lugging around unreasonably weighty backpacks filled with textbooks I barely cracked all semester. I was once a freshman, riddled with pimples (ew). I was once a senior slowly but surely accepting that all of this — this façade that had come to define who I was for this part of my life — was no longer my reality. Here’s a throwback that actually still manages to recall some of those feelings. This isn’t by any means a technically accomplished movie, but it’s still 

Today’s food for thought: Accepted.

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Release: August 18, 2006

[DVD]

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bartleby “B” Gaines (Justin Long), a high school graduate falling perilously short of not only his own standards of who he ought to be (or — and how’s this for nursing those cliché withdrawals — who he is destined to become) but those of his parents as well. Bartleby is kind of falling behind as compared to his graduating classmates, and it probably doesn’t help much that he’s named Bartleby.

With frustration and pressure mounting — his parents nagging him at every second, begging and imploring him to get into a “good school” (as all loving and devoted parents ought) and his miss Smarty Pants sister egging on his fears about never getting into college — B finds very little comfort in the fact his other friends are off on a good foot, many of them getting into the first college they applied to. Left in the dust, B comes up with an off-the-cuff plan to establish a fictitious school, one in which walk-ins can sign up for any class as if it were a public health clinic. Classes they so desire in order to set foot on a path that is uniquely their own, and one constructed for their own individual brands of success. How quaint!

That Accepted is plastered with sentimentality and dick jokes — a really weird mix, bro (kind of like vodka and cat food. . .trust me, don’t try it at home) — won’t surprise anyone who happens upon the title and then chooses to embrace its contents. Everything about the process of Bartleby accruing a group of unlikelies for a common cause screams cliched and unoriginal. And that’s precisely what this is. But we aren’t meant to use our heads for this hysterical interpretation of the drafting of high schoolers into institutions of higher education. We’re meant to sit back, laugh and enjoy time going by. That’s a task made easier by certain presences in this film, in particular Lewis Black. And a task also made more difficult by director Steve Pink’s incredibly low ambitions. What could have been a film devoted to revealing the painful truth about the realities of colleges accepting more applications than they have spaces to fill, instead devolves into a raunch-fest filled with overhyped sex, drugs and rock-and-roll jokes.

I wish I were just being cute with that last line. Unfortunately all three of those boxes get ticked with no degree of shame, with a Steve Buscemi-look-a-like fulfilling the rock-star student quota (random). Accepted is a terribly lazy movie, a rehash of several other similar films whose perception of the world may not be any more healthy but are certainly more well formed than this. For the very definition of contrived is now spelt S.H.I.T. (South Harmon Institute of Technology, the fictitious community college B drafts up in an effort to show his parents he is actually attending school and not just. . .yeah, making them up off the top of his head).

Accepted gets high off of making a mockery of the college application process. It features a group of mis-fits — they are unsympathetic in this way as none of our central characters are particularly charming or even likable —  that includes Long’s “B;” (chubby) Jonah Hill’s Sherman Shrader; Maria Thayer’s Rory Thayer (hey, she used her last name!); Columbus Short’s ‘Hands’ (which isn’t nearly as perverse as it may sound); and of course, the token stoner dude, Glen (Adam Herschmann). . . who is conceived of as the dumbest person possibly on this campus. What is his major malfunction? Inhaling too many pot leaves, apparently.

This is a comedy that caters to the lowest-common IQ level and has no qualms with sticking it to ‘the man.’ The man in this case, being whoever decided that four-year degrees are the only ones worth pursuing. Steve Pink actually wisely selected Lewis Black as the mouthpiece for this particular viewpoint. His character, Ben Lewis (who happens to be Shrader’s uncle) can’t help but let his mouth overflow geyser-esque on the subject of educating America’s youth today. He always has an opinion and always has to share it loudly with the rest of us. I’m game for that, but not for the fact that no one seems to take notice of his impassioned gimmickry. Every note that Black hits is loud, but rings false. He couldn’t give a shit either. The script dictates that he should at least try.

Yeah, I can’t (and won’t) be the judge here, despite how much this movie annoys me. Extending one’s own educational background, be it for an extra semester or the pursuit of another doctoral degree, is a noble investment of one’s personal time and the film’s core message highlights the importance of staying in school and improving upon one’s self.

That’s good. That’s actually healthy. Unfortunately what Steve Pink et al chooses to do with his material is not. Rather than portraying a rather mature landscape of alternative-education avenues, his film marginalizes the individual seeking an alternative scholastic path as someone who must have something inherently wrong with them. On top of this film being an amateur production, I disagree with this film on principle. It sends all the wrong kinds of messages and for that reason, this film is bothersome.

Film Title: Accepted

“Oh man, something stinks!” (Yeah, it’s the script!)

2-5Recommendation: Don’t watch this film unless in the mood for some inane comedy, comedy that works much better in other more fully-developed films of the same ilk. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “. . .I got fired for making a shrimp slushy.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Miracle (2004)

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Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are upon our doorsteps. While most of the world’s eyes are going to be set on Sochi and their questionable accommodations, hopefully there will be a few to spare as we push forward into February on TBT. After the polls closed on Facebook in which I asked which theme would be most suitable for the month of February, my buddy Josh suggested I look back on films that dealt with the Olympics. Great call, since I both love sports stories (despite the cliches) and I absolutely am transfixed by anything Olympics-related. The amount of talent and competition on display is something we should all marvel at, even if we don’t understand a damn thing about curling; even if we don’t care much about men in tights spinning in circles on ice to music that sucks. The point is that, for a brief moment, the world seems to put all of its cat-fighting on hold for the sake of watching some truly compelling competitive drama in a variety of disciplines across a wide range of sports action. Behold, the month of February on TBT

Today’s food for thought: Miracle. 

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Release: February 6, 2004

[Netflix]

Kurt Russell is Head Coach Herb Brooks. His team is an unlikely band of collegiate hockey players. The opponent is the dominant Soviet Union hockey team, who haven’t lost in 15 years. The stage is the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York.

Miracle may not break free of the genre’s cliches, but let me know of a sports film that really and truly does. If you want to sit there and gripe about how many ways in which this film sticks to formula, you can go ahead and sit in the penalty box. Or be a benchwarmer, for Gavin O’Connor’s film is a sensational realization of a most absurd circumstance, one that helped transfer the bitterness of the ongoing Cold War onto the ice.

At the time of the XIII Olympic Games, anti-Communist sentiment had reached a fevered pitch in the United States as the U.S.S.R.’s involvement in Afghanistan became increasingly violent and unstable. This was reflected in the sea of signs and banners present at the many venues in Lake Placid, also evidenced in many shots throughout O’Connor’s film. The politics made the showdown between American collegiate athletes and the heavily favored Soviet juggernaut all the more epic. Since the Russians had dominated virtually all levels of men’s ice hockey since 1954, logic follows that Coach Brooks would bring top American talent to the Games in an attempt to match their skill and athleticism. Such was not the case.

As the iconic Coach Brooks, Russell delivers an impressive, intimidating performance. He makes sure that for the majority of the film, he won’t be your buddy. His dedication to whipping his players into shape through brutal training is put on display in this two-plus-hour sports drama. Instead of relying on naturally gifted players, he built up a team whose power would be generated from their conditioning and hard work. Under the leadership of this less-than-personable coach, life for Team U.S.A. was more akin to life in the military.

One moment in particular remains vivid: during a qualifying game for a spot in the Olympics, a few players on the bench are commenting on some of the girls in attendance. After the game, Coach ‘rewards’ the team’s distraction during gameplay by forcing them to do ice sprints (later termed ‘Herbies’) for an unspecified amount of time — needless to say, this punishment lasted long enough to ensure they were the last people out of the building that night.

Coach Herb Brooks didn’t only invoke questions from his own players, but his unorthodox methods — an overhauled training schedule and his unwillingness to allow anyone other than himself select the final team roster — sparked serious concerns from the overseeing Olympic Committee from the outset. Miracle opens with an immediately engrossing discussion between Coach and the governing body as to how they might go about facing a seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union squad. In a single scene we get the impression of a team leader endowed with supreme confidence. As the movie expands, we learn where such confidence is derived from.

Though this is that same story of a man haunted by his own personal shortcomings, using a deep pain to fuel his team’s future, it’s nonetheless inspiring, without ever going over-the-top. Given that we know the real-life outcome, the film’s a foregone conclusion in which beauty lies in the details. O’Connor sets a brilliant pace that guides us through all the requisite growing pains, the failures and the tiny window of success Coach Brooks managed to squeeze his team through. It’s a two hour film that is over in what feels like a few minutes. Rocketing towards an awesome final half hour of hockey action, in which almost no detail is spared — save for the excessive swearing and trash-talking that undoubtedly occurred — the other three-quarters of Miracle is equally moving, as we also learn of the personal challenges faced by Coach Brooks. Having to balance work with family life can never be an easy task, and because of the magnitude of his own ambition, it’s a miracle in itself the guy doesn’t wind up in a divorce.

Patricia Clarkson portrays Patty Brooks with a warm empathy that offers a welcomed change of pace from the cold machinations of a former player-turned-coach trying to do whatever it takes to drop the prefix ‘im-‘ from ‘impossible.’ Though he must often be away from family, Patty keeps Herb from disappearing completely into an obsessive state.

In many senses, O’Connor’s third directorial effort is a classic. Providing all the hallmarks of a biographical sports drama, it perhaps sets a new standard for inspirational. How one former University of Minnesota hockey coach managed to unite 20 players from different schools is one step. Taking them to the Olympics, quite another. And then going on to claim the gold medal? Scripts like that would ordinarily seem hokey if drafted for fictional purposes. Some moments in sports history are naturally born to produce winning films, and this belongs among the best of them.

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4-5Recommendation: It took yours truly until this year to get to Miracle, which is pretty embarrassing. Sure, it’s a sports film through-and-through, but the underlying story, coupled with great performances, makes for a great movie for even the casual viewer. If you haven’t checked this film out yet, then no time is better than now, particularly as we head back to Russia for another fortnight of spirited competition. Tell me, where do you hail from, and who will you be rooting for this year?

Rated: PG

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

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