30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Release: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (ESPN)

→ESPN 

Directed by: Todd Kapostasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

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

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog

Release: Thursday, July 13, 2017

→ESPN 

Directed by: Daniel H. Forer

Love them or hate them, any appreciator of grown men yelling at each other over the airwaves in the name of entertainment has Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to thank for giving birth to modern sports radio talk. At the height of their success, no one could touch them.

Directed by 10-time Emmy Award™-winning documentarian/writer/producer Daniel H. Forer, Mike and the Mad Dog offers one final parting gift to fans of the sports talk show that aired for 19 years and five — count ’em, five — hours each weekday afternoon on WFAN 101.9 FM. Nestled deep in the heart of New York, “The Fan” is famous for becoming the first radio station in the country to offer 24/7 sports coverage. Over the course of a fleeting but highly entertaining hour Forer digs into the origins of the show, the personalities that made it happen, and the mechanisms that both drove its success and that ultimately led to its downfall.

The first broadcast of Mike and the Mad Dog aired in September 1989. At the time there was little evidence to suggest the experiment would be successful, never mind end in the tearful manner in which it did in August 2008. Francesa had done the grunt work at CBS, starting out as a stat boy and college sports analyst, before expressing an interest in shifting over to radio broadcasting. WFAN at the time were looking for established talent rather than someone with no experience. Though Francesa’s encyclopedic knowledge helped him gain footing, station management had no desire to give him his own platform.

Chris Russo, on the other hand, was all but born on-air, his voice “a bizarre mixture of Jerry Lewis, Archie Bunker and Daffy Duck.” He was energetic, a Tasmanian devil behind the mic. Russo began his career at a station in Central Florida, where his thick New York accent was so alien he was sent to a speech therapist twice a week. He later relocated to The Big Apple, briefly dipping his toes into Christian radio at WMCA before becoming roped into a most unlikely gig with WFAN, where he’d spend the next 19 years foaming at the mouth over the days’ hottest sports stories.

Mike and the Mad Dog was created out of a need to better reach WFAN’s target audience — the city proper and its surrounding suburbs. A more traditional, buttoned-up format predated it and featured a revolving door of national anchors who all failed to resonate. The station desperately sought a more local feel, and in the seemingly diametrically opposed Francesa and Russo they struck gold. Not only were they true-blue New Yawkas, they were bona fide geeks who spoke in the language of the typical sports fan. They both loved sports and talking about them — they just didn’t really love the prospect of talking about them with each other.

The documentary covers an impressive amount of real estate, touching on a number of personal aspects before moving beyond the personalities and their disparate upbringings to address the numerous controversies they became involved in and occasionally triggered themselves. From the Don Imus firing in 2007 to the infamous broadcast on September 12, 2001, Mike and the Mad Dog have taken the show to some incredible highs as well as cringe-inducing lows. Consistent with their style, they dealt with backlash in their own acrimonious ways.

Given how routinely Francesa and Russo together (and individually) became the thorn in the sides of local sports figures — be they current team owners or retired players (even columnists, like the Post’s Phil Mushnick weren’t exactly safe) — those events weren’t aberrations. Of course their stance on Imus and reaction to 9/11 also didn’t do much to dispel the notion that after so many years the two had developed egos larger than the city they were covering. Their vast sports knowledge wasn’t to be questioned, yet it also couldn’t save them from getting into trouble. Forer holds interviews with friends and former colleagues who admit there were times the two just couldn’t help themselves.

Arranged marriages can be awkward, as the pair attest on camera. That’s how they viewed their relationship — less a natural coming together as it was a forceful shoving. Chemistry lacked to say the least in the early going. Yet, as time passed, they found their rhythm and gained a respect for each other, with Mike in particular being impressed with his very animated partner’s ability to hold his own in a debate. After so much time together, they became more like a family and the documentary effectively captures that spirit. As Russo might put it, sometimes family drives ya frikkin’ nuts.

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Recommendation: Mike and the Mad Dog is an intriguing exploration of the way ambition, recognition and egotism all play a hand in the shaping of high-profile careers. It is close to essential viewing for those who have lamented the break-up (now 10 years ago) and have never quite gotten over it. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 50 mins.

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

30-for-30: No Más

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Release: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Eric Drath

Spectators historically aren’t accustomed to seeing a professional boxer not finish what they started — at least, not voluntarily. When Roberto Durán, the man with two of the most devastating fists in all of boxing, waved his gloves at his opponent in the 8th round of a 15-round bout signifying that he didn’t want to fight anymore, no one believed what they were seeing. On November 25, 1980, the man with “hands of stone” turned his back on more than just a fighter he did not respect.

The bout in the Louisiana Superdome became infamously known as the ‘No Más fight.’ Despite the fact he lost, Durán’s actions were so bizarre the story that emerged was all about him losing, rather than his opponent winning. That’s a reality Sugar Ray Leonard has had difficulty reconciling all his life, and as we are introduced to him in the opening frames there’s a bitterness barely hidden behind his otherwise calm demeanor, a bitterness about the way history has been written. Somewhat counterintuitively, No Más is (mostly) told from his point of view.

Eric Drath, associated with a number of sports documentaries and short films, wants to know, perhaps as desperately as Leonard himself, what it was that caused Durán to throw in the towel that night in New Orleans. Divorced from the event by several decades, the film offers a unique perspective as it captures the once-bitter rivals in much more casual settings — except for the part where it throws them back together in the ring for a casual chat in a climactic show-down (of words), set under bright lights but sans the bloodthirsty audience. It’s a little cheesy but I found the trick nonetheless effective. And despite being 60 years old Durán’s eyes can still pierce a hole straight through you.

Durán and Leonard famously hated one another. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the three fights they committed to was the fact that there actually were three fights — neither one managed to end the other outside of the ring, despite temptation. The Panamanian in particular was hostile, openly mocking Leonard by calling him “a clown.” (And remember that one time he saved a middle finger salute for Leonard’s then-wife?) Durán had several reasons to consider the American his enemy. For one, his childhood was spent enduring the political turmoil that made his hometown of El Chorrillo an often unpredictable environment, as the United States and Panama fought for control over the Canal. Durán’s father was an American-born man who bailed on the family early. Durán also perceived Leonard’s popularity as grossly overblown and that he wasn’t as good a fighter as he proclaimed himself to be. (For those keeping score, Durán only won one of these three fights.)

For a film dealing with such marquee names, No Más plays out in quite the understated manner. The story develops quietly and methodically, bobbing and weaving in between present-day footage of Leonard preparing for his visit to Panama and archived footage of the events themselves. If anything the final reveal is underwhelming in its brevity. I would have liked to have heard more about what these two talked about in the ring. Drath pulls interviews from family, friends, former trainers and fighters — notably Mike Tyson — to help contextualize events. Supermodel and photographer Christie Brinkley also weighs in. These soundbites are far from the most insightful clips the 30 for 30 series has featured, and Tyson in particular isn’t a very good talker, but his recollections of how he felt when he witnessed ‘no más’ delivers a surprising gut-punch.

Perhaps what we gain from the experience isn’t so much revelatory as it is a reminder of the fragile emotional state boxers are so often in while in the ring. Durán almost certainly quit out of pride, but you’ll never hear him say those words, nor give any indication this is how he really feels inside. If he says anything about it today he’ll still tell you it was stomach cramps, not Leonard’s attacks that caused him to quit. He also actively denies ever uttering those infamous words. Some may dismiss this as merely the hubris of the defeated. But “no más” was at such odds with the boxer’s comportment, the way he carried himself both publicly and privately, that it makes this documentary quite the fascinating mystery. We, like Leonard, may not get the closure we’re looking for, but at the same time we learn quite a lot along the way.

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3-5Recommendation: Fascinating, if occasionally frustrating recounting of what may or may not have happened during Durán-Leonard II in New Orleans gives fans of boxing some food for thought. The interviews beyond the boxers themselves aren’t the greatest things ever but there’s certainly enough here to recommend for followers of the sport or those itching for some more in-depth coverage after seeing Hands of Stone, the semi-autobiographical account that was released in theaters earlier this year.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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30-for-30: Fantastic Lies

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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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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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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.businessinsider.my 

30-for-30: Four Days in October

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Release: Tuesday, October 5, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Gary Waksman

In October of 2004 the Boston Red Sox became the first team in major league baseball to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series at the championship level. In that famous set they sent their BFF’s the New York Yankees packing, eking out two desperate wins at Fenway before making the dreaded trip to The Death Star Yankee Stadium for their signature final two victories.

Boston was able to carry their historic momentum into the World Series, making short work of the St. Louis Cardinals in a 4-0 sweep, tallying eight consecutive playoff wins and securing their first World Series Championship in 86 years. The Curse had indeed been reversed. But as some players noted in interviews at the time, something about defeating them Yanks felt more satisfying than receiving their rings. Director Gary Waksman certainly seems to agree. Their dominance in the World Series becomes such an afterthought here, making only a brief appearance in the form of a line of text slotted in at the end credits.

Though, it sort of makes sense for Four Days in October to play out as more of an underdog story than an encapsulation of their entire too-good-to-be-scripted postseason run. October 17, 18, 19 and 20 were the most pivotal of all, and they successfully encouraged the seething hatred shared between the two cities to peak at perhaps an all-time high. There’s a strong, prideful, cultural component to the film that may not be understood or that does not translate well to those who aren’t represented by the talking heads in this film — including Boston native and series creator Bill Simmons — but that which is integral to the experience. The real meat-n-potatoes of this rivalry is the tension underlining every pitch, every stolen base, every out, every controversial call.

On the matter of controversial calls (this really is a perfect segue): one of the pivotal acts, one of the defining moments of not only the series but of this film is the now legendary performance put on by Curt Schilling in Game 6, in which he pitched like a man possessed — or perhaps just in delirium from the pain he was in — against the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, allowing only a single run in seven innings while his right sock turned red from blood loss following an impromptu medical procedure that allowed him to play. His heroic effort, along with some clutch homers from none other than David Ortiz enabled the Sox to best the pinstripes 4-2, forcing a decider and putting the Yankees even further back on their heels, heels that were threatening to give way at any moment.

The controversy? Four Days in October‘s original format runs fifteen-ish minutes longer than what you’ll find on TV now. The (six-year-old) film has been trimmed to fit within the hour block in an effort to accommodate live games that sometimes often run long. There are several episodes within 30 for 30‘s first season alone that fit within that time block, but few of them feel as obviously affected by editing as this. What’s worse, the nature of what’s missing from the final reel — a substantial amount of Schilling’s Game 6 performance — would have undoubtedly elevated the drama. It often feels cheap and lazy to criticize something based on stuff that’s not there or stuff you think you want to see included but no sports fan is going to say there isn’t enough material in this particular chapter of a storied rivalry to fill a time block twice as long. Or more.

Adding to the drama around the production is the acrimonious manner in which Schilling and ESPN parted ways earlier this year after the former pitcher (who had worked for ESPN for six years almost to the day) yet again engaged in what was deemed a social media no-no (particularly for employees who regularly appear on camera). He tweeted a rather radical political image that commented on North Carolina’s recent law changes regarding bathroom use for transgender people, a move that put the Worldwide Leader in Sports in a not-so-difficult position. They kinda had to fire him. There’s conspiracy, and fan paranoia can run rampant if left unchecked, and then there’s what can only be described as bad publicity. The re-cut version of the film aired after Schilling’s firing, and Schilling didn’t much appreciate it. Don’t you just hate it when things become overly political? I hate that Four Days in October slightly suffers because of these distractions.

Working with what we have here, there’s still plenty to become invested in, even if you’re not a believer in America’s pastime being a game that often lasts five hours long. The documentary features some truly compelling highs: Dave Roberts’ game-saving stolen bases; Ortiz’ walk-off home runs; A-Rod getting handsy with Bronson Arroyo (who could forget?). A good chunk of audience reaction and fan celebration — mostly the Red Sox faithful, occasionally a New Yorker with their mouth agape — is spliced in with soundbites from players and their little moments in front of the camera. The enthusiasm behind the scenes is genuinely contagious. If there’s one thing that isn’t missing in Waksman’s film, it’s the heart and soul of Boston baseball. This is unabashedly a film for those dedicated fans, and why shouldn’t it be. This really is a remarkable story.

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Recommendation: Unfortunate that some extracurricular stuff comes into play here, but Four Days in October is nonetheless sufficiently exciting and recounts several of the defining moments throughout that stunning week in the postseason. Bostonians have this one set on replay every fall, while Yankee fans, I just don’t see making the effort to track this down, even if it is right there on Netflix. I don’t blame them. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 53 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.beyondhe.com.au; http://www.foxsports.com 

30-for-30: Four Falls of Buffalo

'Four Falls of Buffalo' movie poster

Release: Saturday, December 12, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Ken Rodgers

It’s easy to see why Ken Rodgers’ retrospective has been described as a love letter, not just to sports fanatics but to the city of Buffalo itself. Pro football has a certain stigma attached to it in this part of the country. The Bills are more freely associated with blown opportunities than they are with blowing out their opponents. Four Falls of Buffalo chooses to block out all that noise, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives — not an easy thing to do all things considered.

The film recounts a period in the early 1990s in which the Bills managed to make four consecutive Superbowl appearances. Unfortunately they lost every one of those games and typically in heartbreaking fashion. Influenced by nostalgia and reverence for accomplishments the rest of the nation dismissed instead as embarrassments, the tone often strikes deep chasms of melancholy and the story, much like a devoted fanbase that braves frigid winter temperatures for the sake of a good pre-game tailgate, longs for different results in the Wins/Losses columns. But as the cliché goes, if you were to ask members of the ’91-’94 squad if they would do it all again, you’d receive a resounding response in the affirmative.

After all, it’s not every season you see last year’s Superbowl “losers” return to the big stage. And then do it again, and then a third time. Four Falls of Buffalo shows how history can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and those recounting it here show impressive levels of stoicism as former players and executives alike open old wounds by reliving the moments. Rodgers works through the timeline chronologically, focusing on the unique situations that arose on each Superbowl occasion: missed field goal opportunities, mysteriously disappearing helmets, excessive trash-talking, critical missed tackles.

Along the way actor William Fichtner, a Buffalo native, steers us through the major events that shaped the era. Viewers are invited into the personal and professional lives of this rich fraternity of football talent. Here are but a few stand-outs:

  1. Jim Kelly, quarterback (1986-1996). Kelly once spurned the harsh wintry environs of northern New York for a couple of seasons to play in the United States Football League, but when the USFL folded he decided to check out what Buffalo was all about. He then spent his entire professional career with that team, his incredible athleticism and devotion to the community marking him as a fan favorite. In the comfort of his home he draws parallels between the mental battle he endured in those Superbowl defeats and his private battle with cancer. He also bravely discusses the impact the loss of his 8-year-old son Hunter had on him.
  2. Scott Norwood, kicker (1985-1991). It’s long been debated whether it was Norwood’s failed 47-yard field goal attempt — a miss so famous you can dig out the footage just by Googling ‘wide right’ — or if it was the way the game went that put the kicker into a position he never should have been in that ultimately cost the Bills their first Superbowl victory. Watching him relive the moment face-to-face with Rodgers and his camera crew is surprisingly difficult. Perhaps it was his honesty and refusal to hide from the media in the immediate aftermath that established Norwood as one of the most class acts you will ever see, not just in a professional athlete but in a person.
  3. Thurman Thomas, running back (1988-1999). Thomas became a crucial component in the “no huddle offense” inspired by Kelly’s preference for up-tempo football, a style of play that netted the team four consecutive division titles. Unfortunately he didn’t always benefit from such attention. Thomas has never been able to untangle himself from a series of misfortunes speculated to have played some part in the Bills’ losses. The first hiccup was his helmet being removed from its usual spot (on the 34-yard line) by stadium officials setting up the stage for Harry Connick Jr.’s Superbowl Halftime Show, a fit of confusion that ultimately resulted in him missing a few critical plays. The next year Thomas created a costly turnover which was converted into a pivotal Dallas Cowboys touchdown. And the fourth and final Superbowl he wasn’t able to impact the game as he would have liked thanks to an ailing body. Despite all that, fans have continued to revere him as one of the great household names.
  4. Don Beebe, wide receiver (1989-1994). As one of the fastest runners in the open field in NFL history, Beebe has been linked to one particularly stunning play — his chasing down of Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, who was so sure he had a touchdown that he slowed down before the goal line only to have a rude awakening in the form of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Beebe. The man was clearly destined for glory and went on to join the 1996 Superbowl-winning Green Bay Packers. His justification for leaving may not sit well with everyone but, and lest we forget, at the end of the day football is a business.
  5. Bill Polian, general manager (1984-1992). It’s not often we pay much attention to the front office, but Polian seems an exception — an amiable sort with a great love for Buffalo and the game itself. He rose to league prominence with his assemblage of the four-time-Superbowl-appearing squad, even if he wouldn’t be around to manage them during their fourth run at the title. Polian is now an analyst with ESPN.

Four Falls of Buffalo develops into a powerful testament to the pride and character of a community long plagued by hardship — a not-so-great economy, bad weather, even worse football. Season in, season out Buffalo endures. Looking back, the ’90s were comparatively an oasis amidst a sea of mediocrity. No one on the current roster was even in the league the last time the Bills saw a post-season. Indeed, many dark days have followed since. And they will continue to come.

But silly little things like “losing relevance” and “credibility” in terms of how they have stacked  up against the competition ever since don’t really seem to bother Bills fans. It still hasn’t really stopped them partying in hot tubs in near-subzero temperatures before games. That’s a spirit no force of nature, not even a bullheaded NFL commissioner can extinguish.

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Bills kicker Scott Norwood

Recommendation: For Buffalo Bills fans, it’s a must-watch. The tradeoff for reliving painful memories is watching a film treat your hometown/city/whatever with the respect and dignity it deserves. It also is a good one to watch to gain a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices professional athletes make. So often sports are dismissed as trivial events, and perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are, but Four Falls of Buffalo is a great story, one that has much to offer even casual fans. (Full video included below . . . with apologies in advance for the quality of the audio.)  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone . . . ]

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Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.cuyahogafalls.trade 

30-for-30: This Magic Moment

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 4.13.36 AM

Release: Thursday, April 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Erin Leyden; Gentry Kirby

What happens when big money and even bigger egos obscure a clear path to victory? You get This Magic Moment, a documentary filled to the brim with ‘what-if’s and ‘what-could-have-been’s. In it, the flashy Orlando Magic finds itself under scrutiny for handling the Shaquille O’Neal-Penny Hardaway era with butterfingers.

Many questions are raised here, but none linger quite like the one concerning the very fabric of what the Magic were and what they could have been. How could a team that slammed the brakes on the damn near unstoppable locomotive that was the Chicago Bulls, also make so many consecutive playoff appearances without ever bringing back the hardware? Even given Shaq’s infamous superstition, there was something else going on, something other than bad luck. Senior ESPN Films producer Erin Leyden and producer Gentry Kirby, sharing directorial credits here, seek tangible explanations.

This Magic Moment jettisons viewers back to the early days of the franchise, where we see a much younger (and trimmer) Shaq being courted like the new Prince of the Magic Kingdom. His noncommittal attitude at the time foreshadowing the uncertainty that lay ahead. These days weren’t all gloom and doom of course, and while Shaq doesn’t dominate the narrative quite like one might expect, he certainly gives us plenty of reasons why the years in Orlando were the most cherished of his 19-year career. The film is as much about the organization’s failures as it is about Shaq’s trajectory from collegiate talent to world-famous personality. (In the ’90s he was breaking backboards. Now he’s the seal of approval for at least 50 products, including essentials like Dove For Men, Drone watches, Vitamin Water, Gold Bond, and — oh yes — sleep apnea masks.)

Indeed this is more Shaq’s show than anyone else’s. Even still, Leyden and Kirby budget their time efficiently enough to make room for Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway — the jelly to Shaq’s peanut butter — who, as he steadily worked his way into the national spotlight, threatened to take some of it away from the Magic’s most prized possession. Moving away from the formative years, This Magic Moment delves into the veritable pissing contest that developed between Shaq and a second burgeoning superstar, an off-court game of one-upsmanship that threatened to derail the whole enterprise. As per the life of a professional basketball player, success is typically measured based on their commercial appeal: shoe deals, new commercials, international trips to foreign lands to spread the goodwill of an American monopoly.

There’s also the whole debate swirling around whether Shaq made the right decision to bail for the sunny beaches of southern California in 1996 to become Kobe Bryant’s partner in crime on the Lakers, leaving Hardaway as the sole alpha male back in Orlando. Comments he makes in the present seem to suggest that Shaq at the very least thought it wasn’t the right one. He’s left pondering poolside with a 40-something-year-old Hardaway about what they could have done together had he stayed. How many titles could they have won if certain other things had worked out differently?

There’s a lot of emotion to be invested in this story, even if you’re not a diehard supporter of the glitz-and-glam of the Orlando Magic. Amidst all the talk of numbers, odds and probabilities, there lies a fundamentally human story about what it takes to be successful in life. And just because you find that success doesn’t mean it’s going to last.

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shaq-penny-screengrab-660x400

Recommendation: This Magic Moment isn’t exactly the definitive story of Shaq but it gives viewers and fans of the game some insight into his beginnings as an NBA star. The film is made so much more watchable due to the personalities involved, and for anyone who calls themselves a fan of basketball they can’t deny Shaq was one of the biggest players in NBA history, in more ways than one. This is a commentary on the business of the NBA as much as it is a personal journey for a big-time player. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 101 mins.

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

30-for-30: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks

'Winning Time - Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks' movie poster

Release: Sunday, March 14, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Dan Klores

When people talk about Reggie Miller, arguably the greatest to ever put on a Pacers uniform, they only seem to focus on two things: the New York Knicks and Knicks superfan Spike Lee. It’s never about Indiana, the very state and legacy Miller’s cold-blooded three-point shooting was designed to protect; nor is it ever about the controversial decision to draft him over local favorite Steve Alford in 1987. No, it’s always about how much fun it is watching Reggie struggle, and fail, to win games set in Madison Square Garden.

Acclaimed documentarian Dan Klores (Crazy Love) attempts to catch Reggie in a bottle in this highly amusing, high-drama profile of one of the most bitter and intense rivalries in league history: that which pitted the humble rural fans of Indiana basketball against the polished, urbanized Knick faithful in the quaintly nicknamed series “The Hicks Vs. The Knicks.” Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks may be a title that leaves precious little to the imagination, but there’s still a lot to discover here for fans who have let this chapter in NBA history get away from them.

How many remember the shadow Reggie had to crawl out from under, his immensely talented older sister Cheryl, who happened to drop 100 points in a single high school game? How many recall the Forrest Gump-like beginnings he had to overcome, relying heavily upon leg braces for much of his childhood? I mean it’s just too easy to forget after a sensational career like his that he wasn’t even supposed to be able to play. What of the charitable bets Spike and Reggie exchanged before one of the games: if the Knicks won, Reggie would have to visit Mike Tyson in prison (incidentally located just outside of Indianapolis); if the Pacers won, Spike would give Reggie’s then-wife a role in his next film. Ah, such beautiful symmetry.

Winning Time wastes precious little in constructing the stage. Reggie, the notorious trash-talker that he was, is first seen locking horns with would-be alpha male John Starks, by all accounts one of the Knicks’ great shooters, but one who made himself easier to distinguish because of his head-butting Miller in the middle of a packed Fieldhouse (a move, by the way, that did nothing to quell the ravenous Indiana fanbase). Then, a montage of other players with whom Reggie’s had run-ins — watch Michael Jordan being restrained from killing him.

Then the narrative turns the spotlight on the Knicks and their tough, physical style of play under head coach Pat Riley, infamous for refusing to allow his players to fraternize with the other team at any point during the season. The Knicks’ penchant for physically abusing opponents necessarily meant any playoff series featuring them and the Pacers (who combined for a 104 – 60 record over the ’94 and ’95 seasons) was bound to get nasty. Throw in Reggie’s ongoing feud with Spike on the sidelines and you officially have a party. His relationship with the filmmaker came to define not only that playoff run but the Pacers-Knicks rivalry of the ’90s, and it’s a narrative that nests itself cozily amongst all the other drama.

You’d think with a title like Winning Time there’s something to be said for the Pacers’ failure to make the NBA Championship series the year they triumphed over the Knicks, but apparently there such things as moral victories. It’s made abundantly clear Reggie doesn’t measure success based on championship series drama, the number of titles won or how many rings he has. To the uninitiated, this might come across a strangely vindictive process, but all that really mattered is what mattered to Reggie and that was putting a city that never sleeps to bed.

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Reggie Miller choke on it

Recommendation: One of the better offerings in 30-for-30‘s first volume of titles, Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks is, in the broadest sense, a psychological evaluation of an intensely competitive mind. It’s also quite adept at analyzing fan psychology, using the high-profile Spike Lee as a lightning rod. A highly entertaining package.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 78 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.pacersgear.com; http://www.sneakerhistory.com

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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Photo credits: http://www.amazon.com; http://www.rollingstone.com