30-for-30: One and Not Done

Release: Thursday, April 13, 2017 (ESPN)

→ESPN (re-air) 

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

As someone who spent his college days getting lost amidst the sea of brilliant orange and bright white on Rocky Top Tennessee, I’m about to admit something that could very well lose me some friends: this documentary gave me a new appreciation for Kentucky basketball. It made me not only more fascinated by head coach John Calipari, it made me a fan. There, I said it. And I know it’s heresy. If I am to be made an example out of like an outsider in an old western, the one request I have is that you don’t string me up over the Goalpost Tavern or Cool Beans.

Traditionally Big Orange Country shows out for football far more than for in-door games played on smaller rectangles in really squeaky tennies. Maybe that’s because football there is a culture defined by Phillip Fulmer, Peyton Manning and Neyland Stadium, a gigantic fortress that beckons the faithful on crisp autumn Saturdays when the changing leaves coordinate themselves to match the student dress code. If atmosphere is what you seek in your sporting events, visit Knoxville in the height of football season.

However, the area between checkerboard-style end zones isn’t where our rivalry with Kentucky really lies. In the arena, the Wildcats are perennially great, and a perennial nuisance. The measure of greatness in college basketball is not simply judged by your regular season résumé, but how deep your runs take you in the annual NCAA Tournament, a single-elimination style pool play in which Kentucky is 126-51 all-time, with 17 Final Four appearances and eight national titles, most recently in 2012 under Calipari.

The Wildcats have for some time been the bane of their SEC opponents, mostly because of Calipari’s uniquely relentless efforts in recruiting the best of the best of the best of high school talent. These are the so-called “one-and-done”s — the 18-20 year-olds who are so good they play one season in college before going pro. As a result his pond is never less than fully stocked with some pretty big fish. The problem with this is that expectations rise accordingly, and when you’re merely ‘good’ but not GREAT in Rupp Arena, you call upon the collective strength of Big Blue Nation for a show of even greater support — as Coach Cal did earlier this year when his team, the youngest he has ever coached, hit a four-game skid and doubts of a tournament bid began to mount.

Jonathan Hock’s sixth contribution to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary series 30-for-30One and Not Done, offers a detailed and provocative look into the personal life, career and coaching philosophies of a controversial collegiate sports figure. The vocal, prone-to-spasms-on-the-sideline leader is loved by many but viewed as a problem by many more because of the reputation that has preceded him. After stints at UMass, where he got his first head coaching gig in 1988, and the University of Memphis, Calipari has seen two seasons ended in NCAA investigations that led to the vacating of tournament wins, with UMass’s star player Marcus Camby being charged with receiving improper benefits (some $40,000 by someone unaffiliated with the school) and Memphis’ Derrick Rose being ruled academically ineligible.

It isn’t often a coach regains legitimacy after the sledgehammers the governing body of the NCAA delivered, and Calipari has had this happen twice. The documentary gives you a sense of how he has been able to survive and advance beyond very public scrutiny. Whether he deserved those chances is for you to decide. The early days are certainly interesting chapters, but ultimately the film is more concerned with the phenomenon he has created since being called up to the big kids’ table, coaching one of the more recognizable brands in college basketball, with his aggressive off-season strategies for talent scouting. Today, the “one-and-done” craze has spread far beyond the reaches of the Southeastern Conference. Look at any major blue blood school now and you’ll find at least one. (Vols fans, remember when we had Tobias Harris? You probably don’t actually.)

The overarching interview with Coach — his expressive face and irrepressible energy all up in your grill during the bulk of this tightly-shot conversation — acts almost as a promotional tool for future scholarship hopefuls. He gets you to buy in to the sales pitch — that he is as committed to the players’ athletic future as much as their future in general (Kentucky has a much higher than average graduation rate amongst student-athletes but you won’t hear that as often as you will about the latest controversial thing Cal said or did). He gets you to listen to his story, how far a cry his current $7.5 million salary really is from the reality his immigrant parents faced. How he has built himself up, and subsequently became a thorn in the sides of those who couldn’t stand the way he comported himself either in press conferences or in games — some of whom call him “Satan on the sidelines”.

Whether he ultimately earns your respect and/or empathy is almost beside the point. Director Jonathan Hock expressed a desire to present as complete a profile of a very complicated, divisive personality as possible and he succeeds in balancing the scales of opinion and perception. One and Not Done includes interviews with many of his supporters, friends and family but there is also the obvious disdain Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim can’t help but express in his responses. For me, a Vols fan, the best thing about this documentary is that it changed my perspective in a significant way. Maybe I’m too easily manipulated by the media. And maybe it’s just Cal (isn’t it obnoxious how I’m calling him Cal now, like he’s my pal or something!) being a great talker and sales pitchman, it made me believe this guy truly does care for his players, and believes in their futures, even if it’s off the basketball court.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: Absorbing film centered around a high-profile college basketball coach makes for a must-watch this time of year. (Yeah, yeah — I’m like a year late to this one. But the 2018 Tournament is still in play, so it still counts.) John Calipari is unquestionably a compelling and polarizing sports figure. I still see why people are rubbed the wrong way by him, but I don’t feel the same way anymore about him. And I am grateful for that. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I tell ’em, ‘you’re gonna hate me.’ But if I do right by them, they’ll win.”

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

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

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

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Release: Friday, October 14, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

If you have never heard of Cai Guo-Qiang, you are primed for a transcendent experience in Sky Ladder, a Netflix exclusive that delves into the personal and professional life of this blisteringly original Chinese contemporary artist.

In this quietly unassuming but bold and visually-oriented documentary from Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland; Touching the Void) we’re introduced to a modern Picasso, a visionary who expresses himself on the largest scales imaginable, through pyrotechnics and gunpowder. Across the world he has bathed cities in the light of his colorful, provocative works — the Illumination project in Berlin; the opening of his Ninth Wave exhibit in Tokyo; the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing; a message of peace and unity in a post-9/11 New York — and though the film is ultimately concerned with the artist’s fourth and most recent attempt to realize the most elaborate and challenging project of his career, the Sky Ladder, it finds time to showcase many of his other elaborate works along the way.

While tracking the progress of Guo-Qiang’s looming super-project in the present tense, Macdonald reaches back into the past, giving the artist plenty of room to breathe so he feels comfortable sharing his experiences growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Guo-Qiang is every bit the intellectual his exotic displays of organized chaos suggest he might be (and every bit the kind of creative free thinker Mao Zedong wished to eliminate under his regime), but more importantly he’s a man who has traveled a long and weary road. Not only is he a deep thinker and among the marquee names that have helped increase the visibility of modern Chinese artists, but the man is also easily relatable. He is a devout family man, willingly sharing his stories with his eldest daughter. Later we see him making a visit to his father, who has been stricken with a serious illness. The Sky Ladder project is also dedicated to his late grandmother, who died a month after watching it come into fruition in June of 2015. She was 100 years old.

Macdonald balances elements with a deft hand, making sure the creation around the creator doesn’t become preoccupied with the way it presents itself. This is a quietly profound story dealing in complex themes like Chinese culture, philosophy and government censorship whose framework stays on just the right side of simplistic. After all, Macdonald needn’t have slaved over finding ways to spice up the material. Guo-Qiang’s canvas — typically metropolitan skylines — does the work for him. His explosion projects punctuate the narrative with bursts of revitalizing energy as we sift through all of the elements that have come together in just the right way for the man to make a living out of blowing things up.

And yeah, about that . . . why explosions? Some context might be helpful: gunpowder, thought to have been discovered by 8th Century Taoists in search of immortality, was identified by the Chinese as the earliest chemical explosive (“fire magic”) before Europe and eventually the rest of the world began to fully realize its potential utility. We’re all familiar with its most common usage. Guo-Qiang explains how growing up in the Fujian province of Quanzhou led to his fascination with the stuff. Gunpowder in China has many practical uses, be they celebratory or otherwise. He noticed that its combustible properties could be channeled into positive forms of self-expression; to him the possibility of creation was just as readily apparent as that of destruction. These epiphanies would alter the course of his personal and professional life forever. Where he once followed in the footsteps of his father, a calligraphist and painter of some note, Guo-Qiang would soon start blazing a path all his own.

There are a great many reasons to get into this documentary. Firstly, it will require no more than 76 minutes of your time. I’ll say it again, too: this is a sensory experience to the point where the account feels more cinematic than journalistic (one can only imagine what this would have been like to watch on the big screen). Sky Ladder is not only a great escape into the wonders of modern art, it’s also an education. This is the epitome of redefining what art is and what it can be. The caveat to his form is its temporariness. Given that fireworks never seem to last long enough, the amount of resources and energy he pools into realizing these often fleeting visual spectacles tends to boggle the mind.

To top it all off, there’s a strong psychological component to the way his live shows and the grander scope of the narrative coalesce. For Guo-Qiang, many of the barriers he has had to overcome in his life have been political. It’s a shame, if entirely unsurprising, that we learn not everyone has been so eager to embrace him as a god among men. His form is entirely dramatic and can’t be packaged in traditional museums. Perhaps it’s enough to say that if, like me, your experience with “explosion projects” is more or less limited to your local Fourth of July displays, you absolutely owe it to yourself to discover what this uniquely hypnotic, visual feast has in store for you.

Recommendation: Must-see documentary for the artistically minded. (And even those just looking for “something cool to watch on Netflix.”) Incredible displays of immense complexity, color, power, emotion and originality. I have never seen anything like this before. Interested in more? I recommend visiting Mr. Guo-Qiang’s official site here

Rated: NR

Running Time: 76 mins.

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

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

In a World…

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Release: Friday, August 9, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

If ever you’ve wanted to learn more about the voices behind all those movie trailers you’ve seen, then look no further than In a World…, a glimpse into the industry of voice-overs that’s simultaneously humorous and heartfelt; awkwardly distant, yet fully immersive.

Though it features all fictionalized characters, the film tips its hat to real-life movie trailer voice legend Don LaFontaine, who’s seen in the opening title sequence (in clips of archived footage) doing a few interviews — openly expressing his joy over what it’s like having one of the most recognized voices in the world. This being released almost five years after his passing, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this film a tribute of sorts to the man behind the iconic voice. His signature phrase “In a world…” functions as an interesting title for director, writer and actress Lake Bell’s new film, as well as it serves as the motif. In the wake of LaFontaine’s death, much debate is fueled over whether that catchphrase should ever be uttered by another person; and if it is to be used again — who should be the next person to follow in his footsteps?

Lake Bell — as if writing and directing this wonderfully entertaining picture wasn’t enough — also stars as Carol Solomon, a young yet frustrated vocal coach who has yet to find her rhythm professionally. She’s first seen trying to make Eva Longoria effect a Cockney dialect for an (obviously staged) voiceover role, and this scene is every bit as humorous as it is intriguing. After her father — acclaimed movie trailer voice Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) — tells her he can no longer support her and that she needs to move out of his place, 31-year-old Carol finds her life at its most disoriented, forced to move in with her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband (Rob Corddry).

It’s difficult to determine in what capacity Bell excels the most. As an actress, her Carol is whimsical, a little more than socially awkward, and somewhat impulsive. But all of this translates into a rather enjoyable character to watch, especially as you may take note of her increasing confidence — both professionally and personally — as the film develops. As a writer, she might be even better. There is such a natural flow to the way each character acts and interacts with one another; the world she’s created is just charming. In particular, her Carol and the dorky sound engineer that she works with, Louis (Demetri Martin) have an on-again, off-again relationship that is bumbling yet heartwarming. When Louis brings Carol over one night, he insists the two sleep in separate rooms despite the obvious chemistry between them. Louis simply doesn’t want to make things more awkward than they already are; thanks to the strong script, he does. And then as a director. . . .perhaps this is Bell at her most ambitious and distinctive.

The film could have easily been dulled down by focusing on general industry trends, or by trying to make drama out of things that need no drama created for them. Much to her credit, Bell approaches an already interesting subject matter with a rarely-used angle. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the use of female voices for movie trailers was nonexistent, with the exception of the Gone in 60 Seconds trailer back in 2000. Indeed, her character’s own father, along with his equally misogynistic colleague and friend Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), demonstrate the general attitude held by males at the time — in particular, their feelings towards women attempting to earn the same status. Their conversations in the sauna are rather unsettling as they talk business. Men become cruel, uncivilized beasts before our very ears. And because LaFontaine’s line, “in a world…” is suddenly being reconsidered for posthumous use in trailers, fierce competition to become the next individual who gets to say these words is eminent. With an inventive twist, the race to become the number one movie trailer voice becomes even more heated as the identities of the competing voice talents slowly become revealed to each character.

Because the film features a cast playing individuals in an unusual and competitive career, Bell ingeniously decided to give all of her characters peculiarities to match. There’s not a single “normal” person to be found in this quirky world. Perhaps Corddry’s Moe is the closest to such a description (wow, that’s a change). The studio in which Carol works as a vocal coach is filled with weird characters — as previously mentioned, Louis is an odd one as Carol’s secret admirer; Nick Offerman makes a brief appearance as a studio manager (?) and well, yeah, you can just color your own imagination with that. . . and then there’s a wonderfully eccentric performance in Tig Notaro‘s Cher, who’s mainly there just for a few laughs. She may be limited but damn is she effective. Even the “villains” who happen to be in Sam Soto and Gustav Warner have peculiar mannerisms and character traits that make them convincingly nasty people. Considering all of this, the overarching film is quite a strange experience, if not delightfully strange.

Although Bell clearly enjoys delving into the mentality of men who are all of a sudden feeling threatened by an empowered woman in their field of expertise, one of the side effects of detailing characters this much becomes clear: the narrative does run away from her towards the end. A couple of romantic subplots veer from the very compelling narrative a few times, and while these are not entirely uncalled for, they become a bit distracting as more and more focus seems to be placed on the relationship aspects. Still, they serve to add a little bit more to the chaos of the lives behind the scenes, which I appreciated personally. I also understand where it detracted more for others and there certainly could have been some cleaning up on Aisle 7 in this department.

One of the larger ironies of this film is that when you go and check out trailers afterwards — specifically for more contemporary releases — you are going to notice a distinct lack of voice over work on the trailers you’re watching. Instead, these days, it’s all about snappier/fancier editing, increasing the frequency of taking scenes out of context for dramatic effect, and replacing what once were voiceovers with text/captions (most of which are some variant on ‘life is a journey’ — that kind of hokey B.S. most of us see right through). It’s fascinating listening to the conversation going on here, and this applies on a number of levels.

Virtually everyone on the planet is exposed to trailers and commercials, and this film provides a rare opportunity to go beyond that and get a glimpse of the dynamics of this particular aspect of the entertainment biz. Thank you, Lake Bell for providing that for us.

superfuckingawkwardyo

#superfekkinawkward

3-5Recommendation: It could be easily labeled as a film for a very niched audience. Some might even call it a snooty film for just movie buffs. Forget all of that noise. This is a heartfelt character study as much as it is a spotlight on a rarely-studied industry (at least in terms of mainstream media coverage — when was the last time you saw a documentary on the current voices of TV/film advertisements/trailers?). It is a movie that is both socially and culturally relevant and while it may slide by under most people’s radars, it most certainly shouldn’t. I highly encourage anyone who sees this film on the listing at their local theaters to go check it out.

Rated: R

Running Time: 93 mins.

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

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