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

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Release: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Mike Tollin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: NR

Running Time: 51 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . . ]

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

When the Game Stands Tall

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Release: Friday, August 22, 2014

[Theater]

Dignity and courage. Those are two words you cannot separate out of any sports movie, good, bad or ugly. Whether handled delicately or with blunt force, there comes a point where the film either shoehorns in these values or cleverly suggests them through a combination of strong writing and impassioned performance.

When the Game Stands Tall is a film based on the trials and tribulations experienced by the De La Salle Spartans, a central-California high school football team put through the wringer when they first surrender an unheard-of 151-game winning streak to a team they could have beaten. They then lose their head coach temporarily to overwhelming stress that culminates in a heart attack and his sitting out for a good portion of the season. And finally the increasingly desperate Spartans tragically lose a key player and good student to a senseless act of street violence.

Reality is often more like a nightmare, and this is hardly the first time young players’ mettle has been tested for the sake of general audience entertainment. The fact’s not offensive so much as it is uninspiring. As trying a time as this is for a once-proud team (goodness only knows what it was like for the real community), this particular film — one built almost exclusively out of cliches — is much more so.

Beginning with a ruthlessly jejune Jim Caviezel as head coach Bob Ladoucer, any honest evaluation of this poorly-conceived model of sports-as-therapy must take note of him and his flat delivery first and foremost. After all, this is ostensibly his movie, given the fact he was responsible for building such a winning team over the years. However, his part is written so poorly and unfortunately Caviezel delivers so awkwardly that whatever dignity remains in the film, it pertains more to side-line issues. Where Coach is meant to inspire and invigorate his team — indirectly, us — with spirited pep talks that emphasize brotherhood, faith and character, he instead lectures and recites, driving any interest to continue listening right out the door. . .along with any reasonable viewer or casual sports fan.

The many tough faces of Ladouceur are intended to reinforce the unique circumstances; evidence of how thin he had stretched himself to make the team exceptional. But Caviezel takes it to the point of effecting numbness. Even the practice dummies players drill themselves into repeatedly have more personality than he does. It should be mentioned that the emphasis on his listless expressions throughout many scenes is one rather ill-advised move on the part of director Thomas Carter. The actor is absolutely not the only one to blame. Unfortunately he bears the distinction of being caught in the act.

When moving away from this disastrous crusade to prove the head coaching position ain’t for everyone, we thankfully intercept only decreasing levels of terribleness on the offensive and defensive ends. Supporting cast isn’t exactly impressive but they at least offer up something akin to what is expected of a sports-film, performance-wise. Richard Kohnke, along with Alexander Ludwig, Matthew Daddario, Stephan James and Ser’Darius Blain round out the key players at the quarterback position and offensive line, respectively.

While Kohnke’s Rick Salinas is at the star position, he’s largely bereft of complexity but that’s not really a problem, as he doesn’t have much screen time. Ludwig follows the trajectory of every most mis-interpreted jocks who have issues at home. In this case, he’s slave to an overly-enthusiastic father (Clancy Brown) who demands the best from his son, and wants nothing more than for De La Salle to get back on track. Who knew statistics were more important than family? Meanwhile, Daddario is handed the part of the coach’s son Danny, whom Ladouceur is compelled to protect until the very last minute. No need to worry; nothing terrible happens, though I’m sure you’re aware already of that kind of conflict resolution. “Show me what you got, kid.” (And then he does precisely that.)

The Game somehow finds a pulse in James’ T.K. Kelly, an impressive athlete and genuinely nice guy who is struck down at the ripe age of 18. Not only is his story the strongest of the lot, the young actor offers up an affectionate spirit we can actually support. Sports fans often seek enthusiasm out of the stories they seek out on the silver screen. James is  one of the few who doesn’t look disinterested in being on set. He’s also not an uncompromisingly stereotypical player, though his journey to a heartbreaking premature end isn’t the biggest break from convention.

There’s no denying some of the emotional build-up is actually earned. An overt religious overtone actually helps elevate moments of sadness rather than drown them in off-putting sentimentalism. One particular speech comes to mind. And Caviezel has a moment or two where he doesn’t seem to be rehearsing his lines. But as far as I am concerned and the way I like my sports represented, I should have come equipped with more padding for the beating I was going to take when it comes to the cliched and predictable.

When it comes down to it, When the Game Stands Tall forgets to really take a stand for anything.

Michael Chiklis un-bald is a very different Michael Chiklis

Michael Chiklis un-bald is a very different Michael Chiklis

2-0Recommendation: One can probably do much worse than Thomas Carter’s woeful interpretation of a community rallying around their local sports team in the wake of multiple difficult circumstances. But that’s a coin with another side to it, and of course you are going to come across far superior versions. Hopefully one day there’ll be a better movie to represent this incredibly resilient community. I don’t really recommend this one even to sports buffs considering the other competition that’s out there waiting.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Family isn’t just blood relatives. You’ve got me and 60 brothers. . .”

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

TBT: The Waterboy (1998)

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To round up August TBTs I really would like to review a football movie in light of the upcoming season that has somehow invited itself upon our doorstep. Yes, the end of August, for me anyway, is quite exciting for reasons beyond upcoming movie releases. This weekend, my Tennessee Vols (Shout Out!) #GBO #YOVO (“You’re Only a Vol Once”) shall play their season opener, wherein we will probably be whooping some ass, seeing as though the first game is always a one-sided affair to give the host an extra boost of confidence and maximize the crowd’s enjoyment to kick things off. So, with the beginning of the fall sports season occupying about as much space in my mind from here on out as the movies will be, I figured this would be a good theme for this week. Of course, this particular film selection is sillier than all Hell, but it still qualifies for one of my more memorable football/sports films to date. And, in a way, this will be a throwback to the glory days of Adam Sandler’s career, before he became (or tried to become) more serious, more mature and clearly, less creative. R.I.P. Good Adam Sandler. 

Today’s food for thought: The Waterboy.

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Release: November 6, 1998

[VHS]

Bobby Boucher (Sandler) may not have much going on inside his head, but he does serve one very important purpose, and my, how passionate he is about that purpose: providing his football team the necessary water they need to stay hydrated. Getting constantly heckled and made fun of doesn’t really bother Bobby much (at least he doesn’t show it at first), and it sure doesn’t bother head coach Red Beaulieu (Jerry Reed) until one day he decides to make an example out of Bobby and unceremoniously relieve him of his duties at the fictionalized University of Louisiana, citing him as “a distraction to his players.”

When Bobby is then picked up later as a waterboy for an in-state rival team, the South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs, the head coach, Coach Klein (played by none other than “The Fonz”) notices the new-hire to harbor a particular talent that could be more useful on the field than off of it. He soon convinces Bobby to start playing for his team, seeing in him a potential for getting his coaching mojo back since his genius playbook was stolen by his sworn enemy, Beaulieu some years back.

Klein discovers an incredible tackler in Bobby Boucher, the awkward albeit friendly simpleton who has been sheltered all his life by his overbearing mother (Kathy Bates). Klein encourages the kid to take out his frustrations on the field, and channel all that energy into being the best tackler he can be. And because Henry Winkler is. . . .well, Henry Winkler, a really strong and memorably bond is formed between this coach who’s lately been unsure of his coaching skills and the newest member of the team.

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“Hmm….how to take down an entire offensive line of Fonz’s. . . ?”

Of course, this is an Adam Sandler flick. An early one, but still a Sandler flick. That means this film is more formulaic than Baby Gerber’s. Bobby gets booted from one team only to join another, finds a special talent, hones it while at the same time proving to his teammates he belongs after they initially reject him, and he goes on to become the team’s hero. Why, of course this movie is going to be unrelentingly dumb. It’s going to be predictable from the beginning. Yet, the core of the entertainment usually lies within Sandler’s colorful characters, and his Bobby Boucher is no exception. He’s a special kind of Southerner, one with a small brain but a big heart. And all the while he’s poking fun of the over-juiced jock/football player. You can’t exactly call this genius work, but there’s no way you can deny him the creative bit.

Another Sandler custom is that one can always be sure to be introduced to a few similarly-ridiculous characters that somehow make Sandler’s character more likely to fit in, if given the right moment. Case in point, there’s the usual cast of friends to work beside Sandler and provide for him the typical goofy, puerile atmosphere. He enlisted the help of Jonathan Loughran (Sandler’s personal assistant on every set); Peter Dante; Allen Covert; Rob Schneider; and some others to bring that familiar Sandler circus to the sidelines. As is also customary in a Sandler flick, there’s likely to be a few stand-out cameos as well. This time, he convinced sports commentators Jimmy Johnson, Brent Musberger, and Dan Patrick to get in on the action and they apparently seem to embrace his school of humor as they each deliver one-liners that are more often than not hilarious.

Sandler does make it easy to rail against his films, but The Waterboy will forever be one of his best efforts. It is unapologetically stupid and impressively redneck, yes that’s true. But it is a fan-boatload of fun. How can anyone hate someone who commutes to and from his job via lawn mower? This is a guy who makes John Deere look like a legitimate lifestyle! As the water boy slowly makes a name for himself, he finds a girl to stand beside him (Vicki Vallencourt — this movie features some classy names, by the way), and eventually the entire community that is South Central Louisiana has the water boy’s back as he takes the team to a title game against the dreaded Beaulieu and the Cougars. Again, it’s the rise to fame that you’ve seen depicted a million zillion times before, but nonetheless it’s about as endearing as Sandler has or ever will be.

How the times have changed.

3-0Recommendation: Any fan of Sandler’s has already bought a copy of this and has watched it to death. If you haven’t already seen this you’re likely to never get to it, which is quite alright. It would seem the ‘Recommendation’ section has never felt more redundant. The movie features Adam Sandler at his most idiotic, but hey — I’ll take this over his recent fumbling attempts to be more family-oriented. (How Grown Ups is meant to portray adult life in the mind of Adam Sandler is beyond me.) In my eyes, you don’t really get much more vintage Sandler than The Waterboy. Filled with stupidity, the movie is also somewhat sweet; plus, it makes a redneck bon mot out of the sport of football, making the SEC look even better than it already is. And, of course, in the spirit of the season, LET’S GO VOLS!!!!

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 90 mins.

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