Uncut Gems

Release: Christmas Day 2019 

→Theater

Written by: Ronald Bronstein; Josh and Benny Safdie 

Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie

If they have proven anything in their last two movies it’s that few filmmakers stress you out quite like the New York born-and-bred Safdie brothers. Uncut Gems is, in a word, intense. This is a very aggressive mood piece that puts you in the headspace of a man losing control — of his wares, his sanity, his life. Relentlessly paced and cacophonous at almost every turn, the provocative presentation tests your nerves from the opening frame to the very last.

Starring Adam Sandler in a rare dramatic turn, Uncut Gems is the sibling’s follow-up to their attention-getting Good Time (2017). Indeed, if you watched that movie and noted the irony of the title as you watched things go from bad to worse for Robert Pattinson, you’re better prepared for the gauntlet that comes next. Uncut Gems throws us into New York City’s Diamond District and up against walls as Howard Ratner, a high-end jeweler and compulsive gambler, frantically runs around trying to pay off old debts by incurring newer, bigger ones. He’s in deep with the mob, but he also must contend with a wife who hates him, a girlfriend on the side, a basketball player’s superstitions and a doctor with news about a certain body part. It’s probably never been great being Howard but he’s certainly seen better days.

As for the guy playing him? You’d have to go back to the start of the new millennium to find a time when there was this much love for “the Sandman.” He became a critical darling for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002) and the praise is arguably even more deserved 17 years later; the 53-year-old is a hurricane force in Uncut Gems. He’s playing a version of characters that have made him a household name in silly comedies galore, but this is one perpetual screw-up whose failures are decidedly unfunny. Not even Barry Egan’s life was this messy. And Sandler really seems to be having fun looking ridiculous, blinged out head-to-toe and sporting extra-curly, extra-greasy hair and a set of fake pearly whites that really pulls the sleazy image together nicely. The wardrobe department helps him look the part, but it’s up to Sandler to walk the walk and talk the talk — and oh boy, does he “talk.”

The theft of a big chunk of stone from the Welo mine in Ethiopia sets the wheels in motion for one wild, turbulent ride. This stone contains pockets of rare opal and is what they call in the trade an uncut gem. Its very existence seems to inspire chaos as we watch crowds swarm around a miner who has just broken his leg in an attempt to extract it. Given the way the movie opens on a different continent, I feel like there’s meant to be some quasi-Blood Diamond commentary here on the real human cost of the gem trade, how first-world materialism is inextricably linked to the suffering and exploitation of the third world, but there’s not quite enough content here to support that wild theory. Ultimately the opening sequence is more effective at establishing aesthetics rather than ethics. There is a hyperactive quality that extends to the rest of the film, particularly in the way people interact, that never allows us to get comfortable. Characters yelling over each other will become an anxiety-inducing motif.

We shift from Africa circa 2010 to America two years later via a crafty (and kinda gross) opening title sequence married to the curious synths of Daniel Lopatin (a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never)’s explorative electronica. The New York captured in Uncut Gems is shaped by the Safdie brothers’ experiences growing up with a father who worked in the Diamond District and has a very specific energy that cinematographer Darius Khondji helps convey through his frenetic camerawork. As it is set in a part of town largely characterized by family-run business, the filmmakers restrict the cityscape to a claustrophobic network of small, private rooms where access is a privilege and often a source of frustration.

Howard’s gem store, a cozy little nook where the world’s creepiest Furby dolls reside, is one such hallowed space. Though we pass through the malfunctioning security vestibule without complication, we are immediately bombarded with Howard’s problems. It’s a particularly bad day today because his debt collectors have come calling. He owes a six-figure sum to a nasty loanshark named Arno (Eric Bogosian), who also happens to be his brother-in-law. He’s bad news enough, but his enforcer Phil (Keith Williams Richards) is the kind of guy whose phone calls and texts you avoid to the detriment of your face. Together these two make for some of the most memorable thugs in recent movie memory — arguably since Daniel Kaluuya went all bad-boy in Steve McQueen’sWidows.

Howard just may be able to save himself when he procures that precious infinity gem stone. He’s confident it will sell in the millions at auction. As we quickly learn his clients have deep pockets — he caters mostly to rappers and athletes, no small thanks to the hustle of his assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) — so he just can’t help but show off the product to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who expresses interest in purchasing it. After listening to Howard wax poetic about its mystical properties KG becomes convinced being in possession of the opal will elevate his game in the NBA Playoffs. To placate the seven-footer (who is actually very good playing himself), Howard agrees to loan him the rock for a night, taking his 2008 championship ring as collateral. He then deviates from his original plan by pawning the ring to place a large bet on the upcoming game. If there’s one thing Howard is more aware of than the danger he’s in it’s the opportunity to make a little profit.

The Safdies actually wrote this screenplay ten years ago, along with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein. They’ve created a deliberately circuitous narrative to reflect the sloppy manner in which Howard conducts his business, at the office and elsewhere. Nothing goes smoothly. There are so many intersecting dynamics and diversions and dead ends along the way it’s amazing we even have the time to see what his family life is like (spoiler: it ain’t pretty). His long-suffering wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) knows all about the affair he’s having with his assistant Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). She has agreed to wait until after Passover to divorce him but the way work keeps following Howard home — the little incident with the car trunk, for example — just may expedite that process. Meanwhile his kids don’t really fit into his busy schedule. Of course the neglected family dynamic is a familiar trope, but the Safdies — and particularly Menzel who is really fun to watch — creatively thread it through the narrative to give us a better understanding of how much Howard is truly losing here.

In the end, Uncut Gems offers a unique but pretty uncomfortable viewing experience. The truly nerve-wracking climax simulates the thrill of a gambler’s high. This confronting drama is a curiosity you admire more than you purely enjoy, though I personally did get a kick out of seeing sports radio personality Mike Francesa pop up in a cameo as one of Howard’s restaurateur friends, Gary — just one of several non-professional actors involved. Uncut Gems is a perfect reminder that being entertained can sometimes mean feeling like you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown for two straight hours.

“I’m not smiling inside.”

Recommendation: Like its protagonist, Uncut Gems is by and large caustic and unpleasant. Sandler acquits himself very well, playing a character you really can’t take your eyes off of even when you want to. Yet for a movie whose style is very in-your-face, it’s the abrasive dialogue that you may have a harder time getting out of your head. To put it magnanimously, the colorful language comes across as authentic New Yorkese. To be more honest: it is the single most compelling reason for me not to sit through this ordeal twice. Please understand this Recommendation section is not written on behalf of Common Sense Media — I’m not one to complain about swear words or someone who evaluates all movies for their Family Values appeal, but in Uncut Gems the f-bombs are excessive to the point of becoming a distraction. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Come on KG! This is no different than that. This is me. Alright? I’m not an athlete, this is my way. This is how I win.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

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.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

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.

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

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

Top That: Seven Most Dramatic Scenes from the 2019 NBA Finals

If you were to tell me back in October that the Golden State Warriors would not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy for the third straight year and the fourth in five seasons, I would have called a Flagrant Two on you for excessive foolishness.

If you do the math, taking it all again this year would be less a feat than it would be fate: Take the core four — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala — and then add three-time NBA All Star center DeMarcus Cousins to a championship-winning roster that, oh by the way, acquired the likes of Kevin “Burner Twitter Account” Durant two years prior, who confirmed it was indeed a good idea to get out of dodge by earning back-to-back Finals MVP status in that time. There’s also a number of solid bench players who could go off at any moment — the likes of veteran point guard Shaun Livingston, Duke alum Quinn Cook; even Sweden’s own Jonas Jerebko got in on the action.

And while we’re at it, may as well factor in head coach Steve Kerr, well known for his brilliant sharpshooting back in the heyday of the Chicago Bulls and today for his incredible leadership abilities.

His team has more collective talent than any team in the league but you can’t understate his ability to steer it through adversity and five consecutive Finals appearances’ worth of fatigue. He’s a player’s coach if there ever were one. Look no further than the fact the notoriously hot-headed Draymond Green is still a Warrior, despite earning enough technical fouls in the 2016 NBA Finals to warrant a one-game suspension — largely viewed by the public as one of the decisive factors in the Warriors’ historic collapse (I say one of, because the other is undoubtedly the tandem of then-Cleveland Cavaliers Lebron James and Kyrie Irving).

Unbelievable skill, passionate playing, and lofty standards set by a highly likable, accomplished player-turned-head-coach — and let’s not discount the brilliance of GM Bob Myers who put many of the pieces together — all equates to a franchise built to dominate the league for the foreseeable future. A dynastic (and dynamic) team that, on paper and on the hardwood, can’t be slowed — much less stopped four times in a best-of-seven set.

Then Toronto happened.

(Yeah, okay injuries happened too. But then injuries can always happen to any team at any time, and let’s not pretend the Warriors haven’t benefited from some ailing opponents during this run. Granted, these were some terribly timed ones and they happened in dramatic fashion. But . . . Zaza Pachulia, anyone . . . ?)

Back to the more relevant specifics. The rebirth of Kawhi Leonard also happened. And it was scary. Say what you want about who the Warriors did or did not have at a critical juncture and about Leonard himself:

  1. the inscrutable body language
  2. the seemingly Terminator-esque personality
  3. the way he left one of the most winning franchises in the NBA

But there’s no denying The Claw is among the most effective two-way players the modern game has to offer. On evidence of his transcendent play in this year’s Finals alone, he just may be the best player in the league not named Lebron James. And that ruthless determination trickled down to his not-inexperienced teammates. After basically single-handedly bringing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks back down to earth in the Eastern Conference Finals, and dispatching with the Philadelphia 76ers on a last-second bouncer in the series prior, Leonard inspired his teammates to rise to the occasion. Jalen Rose said it: it takes a championship mentality to beat the champs. It was a true team effort, with big contributions from the likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and of course Kyle Lowry himself, whose former brother-in-arms DeMar DeRozan was sent away to the Spurs in the acquisition of Leonard this season.

Let’s be clear: I truly enjoy the Warriors’ brand of basketball. It’s exciting, intense, creative, selfless. From an entertainment perspective it doesn’t get much better than watching the “Splash brothers” destroy everyone else’s dreams from way beyond the arc. Despite a few hiccups along the way — the lamentable signing of the aforementioned Pachulia, apparently among the league’s most hated players and the (also aforementioned) clap-back episodes of a thin-skinned Durant in response to his critics after leaving OKC for Golden State — I’ve loved what this team has done for the NBA. It’s made the sport more relevant than ever.

And yet — and YET! — I couldn’t wait for the Raptors to finally get some. They’re the East Coast version (okay, the Canadian version) of the Warriors — affable, unbelievably talented, experienced, and now armed with The Claw. It’s a nice change of pace. The Toronto Raptors’ 4-2 victory over Golden State earned the city — the nation — its very first NBA Championship. Oh, Canada — that was awesome.

Below you’ll find seven of the most dramatic scenes from these ultra-dramatic Finals. (Press pause on the images to stop the slideshow.)


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(7) Game 3. When fans and players collide. Kyle Lowry dives into the crowd trying to rescue a loose ball, then gets shoved by a clearly irritated fan. But it gets better. That fan is none other than GS minority owner Mark Stevens, whose actions were not only widely condemned by fans and players alike, they also earned him a one-year ban from the court and a fine of $500k. The money may be nothing to that guy, but the public embarrassment is pretty damaging. Wonder who will take court-side seats with him when he’s finally let out of the dog house. 

(6) Game 5. An unfortunate but sadly predictable scene. After sitting out more than a month with a “mild calf strain” suffered in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals vs the Houston Rockets, Kevin Durant re-enters a win-or-go-home situation vs what appears to be their equals. After playing only 11 minutes (but scoring 12 points), he goes down while clutching at his ankle. The Toronto faithful shamefully began cheering, only for the players to quickly show good sportsmanship by telling them to shut up with that noise. Durant later would later confirm successful surgery on a ruptured Achilles tendon, effectively rendering this season — and all of his 2019-’20 season — officially over. 

(5) Game 4. Fred VanVleet hanging on literally tooth and nail (or eye, in this case). After taking a vicious but inadvertent elbow to the face, the former Wichita State Shocker had to leave the game to receive seven stitches after profuse bleeding from his eye. (Shudder.) Oh, and he chipped part of his tooth, too. Talk about leaving it all out there.

(4) Game 6. Steph Curry reacts to Klay Thompson going down at the opposite end of the court after an awkward landing and with an apparent knee injury. This is a pretty powerful scene. It’s not often you see Curry deflated to such a degree. But something else about this scene was quite incredible. While Thompson needed help from his teammates just to get off the court after the play, he needed to return to the court in order to shoot two free-throws he was owed. If he didn’t, he would have forfeited the night then and there. In what must have been tremendous pain, Thompson re-emerged, sending a blast of energy back through the crowd as he demonstrated once again the Warriors’ indomitable spirit, no matter how grave the situation. Don’t tell me injuries ruined this series. They very nearly won this game.

(3) Game 6. With no time-outs left and their season on the line, the Warriors call . . . a time out. This situation rarely occurs and I didn’t realize that when you call an excessive time-out you not only award the other team a technical free throw, you give them possession as well. Down by a point, and after a mad scramble for the ball as it approached the half-court line, less than a second left to play, it was really all they could do to stave off the inevitable. Some decry these last tenths-of-a-second as anti-climactic. I thought it was completely the opposite. A wild finish to a series that had no right to be this dramatic. 

(2) Game 6. The Canadian faithful in one of the many satellite “Jurassic Park” viewing parties (pictured here, Maple Leaf Square), set to explode as the final seconds tick away in the 2018-19 season. It’s about to become real. The Toronto Raptors are on the verge of winning its very first NBA title in its 24 years of existence. I still get the chills seeing these images. 

(1) Post Game Celebration. Kawhi Leonard proves he is indeed a “fun guy” as he celebrates with his team after beating the mighty Warriors 4-2. This is Leonard’s second NBA title (in 2014 he helped the San Antonio Spurs overcome the Miami Heat which at the time had the Big Three in Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, and also nabbed his first Finals MVP trophy). 


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Photo credits: Business Insider; Newsweek; Sports Illustrated; The Washington Post; ABC; InsideHook; BNN Bloomberg; New York Times

Month in Review: May ’19

Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit’s that time again! Another month of cinematic magic to look back on, or . . . since it’s early in the year, perhaps lament the lack thereof. From yet more pointless biopics (Tolkien, if you take a look at the numbers, apparently only has $4 million worth of fandom, but that paltry figure surely betrays the popularity of his works and indeed of the man himself, whose fantastical realm created a global fraternity of deeply loyal, line-memorizing fans), to Dennis Quaid looking totally annoying and embarrassingly in need of a paycheck intruding your local cineplexes in this hackneyed home-invasion “thriller”, or even a lack of good animated films (Ugly Dolls — no thanks, no thanks), I’ve felt like Keanu Reeves wandering the arid Sahara in search of answers, or at least decent entertainment this month. (Oh but John Wick 3 delivered. Or, it delivered what we have come to expect from it by now and not a shred of texture beyond that.)

May did hold some intrigue, however, what with the Godzilla sequel (yes, I know you hated the first but I didn’t) and the Elton John biopic (admittedly bordering on gratuitous profiting too) both coming out on the same weekend. There have also been several interesting things popping up on streaming platforms that uh, yeah, I haven’t gotten around to yet — remember when I said I would do a whole month of streaming-based reviews? Thank goodness this is a blog and not an actual job. I’d be fired twice by now for not delivering. Maybe I should fire myself. I suppose it’s not too late to do such a thing (stream an entire month’s worth of movies that is, not fire myself). But I’m not setting any hard deadlines.

Before we dive into it, there’s just one other thing I’d like to mention. Note the new feature on the side, Beer With Me! This is something I’ll be maintaining casually as I stumble upon new beers that I like (and can confidently recommend) and maybe figure out some ways to incorporate my love of IPAs with my love of movies. Like, for example, I might feature a Beer of the Month in these recap posts — something that might actually justify this otherwise middling and superfluous feature I created. Give it a look, feel free to share comments/suggestions about what I should try next in the comments section here or, of course, on any of my posts.

Without any further verbal spewage, here’s what has gone down on the world’s most active movie-related blog in the month of May.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu; John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Other: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (Redbox)

Alternative Content: 30 for 30: Seau


Bite Sized Reviews

High Flying Bird · February 8, 2019 · Directed by Steven Soderbergh · Calling all NBA fans! This is your movie. His second consecutive “portable” production, once again shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird tells of the creative maneuvers an ambitious, hard-working talent agent (André Holland) seeks to pull off in a bold attempt to put an end to the 2014 work stoppage that prefaced that season. Melvin Gregg plays Holland’s (fictitious) rookie client, Erick Scott, a gifted player both lusting after the glam and the glory of being a pro baller while being scarily unprepared for the realities of being a professional athlete. Deadpool 2‘s very own Zazie Beetz plays a crucial supporting role in both his personal and professional development. The script by Moonlight scribe and accomplished playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney draws undeniable parallels between old-fashioned slavery and NBA ownership (and if that seems sensationalist, consider the awful spectacle that befell the Los Angeles Clippers — incidentally that very same year, when then-owner Donald Sterling was forced to sell the team after audio recordings of him making some odious remarks about his own players were leaked to the public). Brief interviews with current players (Karl Anthony Towns, Donovan Mitchell and Reggie Jackson) tie seamlessly into the narrative and give perspective on the pressures faced by rookies to perform in the modern game and age of Twitter. So, in case it isn’t obvious, High Flying Bird is a film of specifics — it’s inarguably the Ocean’s 11 director’s most esoteric project yet, with sport and business jargon abounding. High Flying Bird is also a notable step up in terms of picture quality, thanks almost entirely to the gleaming urban setting. Unlike the drab, murky interior shots that dominated (and plagued) his previous effort Unsane, here buckets of sunshine wash over the silver edifice of New York City, adding a sense of style and elegance to a narrative that isn’t afraid of tackling the ugly underbelly of the National Basketball Association. Insightful for fans, likely isolating and boring for everyone else. (4/5)

Venom · October 5, 2018 · Directed by Ruben Fleischer · Oh boy, where do I even start with this. I guess let’s start with I hated it, pretty much beginning to finish. The first standalone, live-action movie focused upon the (only bad) people-eating exploits of the anti-hero Venom, an alien symbiote who inhabits the body of disgraced journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), finding it a match made in alien heaven, is one I only wish I could un-see. The first half of the film obligingly fulfills some human drama quota, trudging through the consequences of Brock’s overreaching during a tense interview with self-anointed global savior Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, victim #1 of some truly terrible dialogue and bland, wanton villainy), his probing questions over what’s really going on behind the scenes at the mysterious Life Foundation causing his fiancee (Michelle Williams) to lose her job there and thus end their relationship, leaving Brock vulnerable to forcible alien penetration. When his superpowered alter-ego begins taking over in earnest, Venom swings like a bipolar teen from dull and no fun to sensationally goofy and downright dumb, the voice of Venom coming across as a misunderstood rascal rather than an extraterrestrial being of dubious morality. The movie hits a low with Williams shoving her tongue down the throat of said alien, the act managing to be both creepy and an utterly unconvincing change of heart in one fell swoop. Hits a high when the end credits roll. Okay, that’s not entirely fair — Tom Hardy at least deserves a nod for being a good sport, though neither he nor the rest of the talented ensemble (including Jenny “Marcel the Shell” Slate as a scientist with a conscience) are enough to elevate this clunker out of the lower echelons of superhero adaptations. (1.5/5)


What’s been your favorite movie this month?

Just a Quick Thought: Thank you, Craig

craig-sager

Craig Sager, the long-time sideline reporter for the Turner broadcasting network, passed away today, December 15, 2016 at the age of 65 after a long and courageous battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He leaves behind a wife and five children, as well as a spot on the sidelines and a place in front of the TNT cameras that will likely never be filled again.

Perhaps the only thing that ever rivaled Sager’s enthusiasm for the events he covered or the number of iconic events with which he will forever be associated — Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in 1972 (which broke Babe Ruth’s record); the 2000 Sydney Olympics; the 2015 NBA Finals . . . while battling his illness — is his wardrobe. Over a 40+ year-long career Sager had shaped a public image as only he could; his colorful, outrageous suits have raised as many eyebrows as any NBA player sporting the latest en vogue fashion item. Or any Hollywood starlet trying to make a statement on the Red Carpet.

craig-sager-wardrobe

The inimitability of Craig Sager runs far deeper than his outward flamboyance, a flamboyance that stood in a strange contrast to his direct, matter-of-fact line of questioning. If anyone needs evidence of the kind of influence he had around the league, they need look no further than the rapport he shared with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

The way he continued to hone his craft even during the darkest periods of his life is a miracle. It, in all likelihood, will come to define the journalist as a figure we should all look up to. His stoicism (and his suits) were gems of the National Basketball Association. Two days before he passed he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. He will be dearly missed. Rest in paradise, Craig.


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30-for-30: Believeland

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Release: Saturday, May 14, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Andy Billman

Imagine growing up in a city where you’re taught, almost assuredly from at least the eighth grade onward, that losing is a reality you must accept, simply based on some silly geographic lottery that you were thrust into at birth. Surprise! You’re from Cleveland, and your acclimatization to watching your sports team(s) losing is best done sooner rather than later. You’re not a loser, but you’re going to have to get used to the idea of losing.

Believeland, Andy Billman’s portrait of a city synonymous with bleak winters and even bleaker sports seasons, speaks to the harsh reality of being born and bred a Clevelander, and it doesn’t hide the fact that life is viewed just a little more pessimistically in these parts. Yet the film itself isn’t pessimistic and doesn’t beg for pity. In fact it does quite the opposite, demanding respect for a steely, hard-working community patiently waiting for the black cloud that had descended following the 1964 NFL Championship, the city’s last big W, to finally let the sun shine through.

The Fumble. The Shot. The Drive. Red Right 88. The Block. The Trade. The Move. The Lip. Are breaks in the cloud even possible?

Perhaps the film’s poster, bearing some of Cleveland’s most painful trials for all to see, is also the best way to describe Believeland: a series of vignettes that anyone watching around the Cleveland area would likely find a test of endurance. To everyone else it’s a laundry list of bad things that have happened. And, as is poignantly observed by Scott Raab, a native and novelist serving as a casual narrator as he regales us — and his son — at a local diner about all the ways in which his favorite teams have let him down: only Clevelanders will be able to look back and kind of laugh this all off. “That’s Cleveland.”

The story of the woes and the worries, of the pitfalls of being ever the optimist in a place that doesn’t reward optimism takes an interesting turn with the introduction of respected business man and former New York ad executive Art Modell, who in 1961 assumed operations of the Browns organization. A series of unpopular moves put Modell squarely in the crosshairs of passionate fans, who began viewing him as a villain rather than the savior they hoped he would be. It didn’t help matters that Modell didn’t strike anyone as a sports guy; he had no knowledge of the game though his business acumen was rarely questioned.

The firing of coach Paul Brown (the franchise’s first and namesake head coach) turned heads but didn’t earn him anywhere near the animosity his handling of star fullback Jim Brown did. Brown, who was exploring a career in acting on the side, had missed a week of training prior to the ’66 season from production delays on The Dirty Dozen which greatly upset Modell, who publicly threatened him with fines for each day he would continue to miss. Brown decided instead to retire.

Two Browns down; the rest to go? As fate would have it, in a way yes they would. As Modell had a lot of clout developing in Cleveland, he also had invested in repurposing the city’s old Municipal Stadium, agreeing to let both the football and baseball franchises (the Indians) sublease the space. Unfortunately after several fiscally disappointing years Modell became disillusioned with Cleveland as a prosperous venture, and, in an effort to save face decided he would try to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, Maryland. The news of course was enough to set light to an already crackling fanbase, a fanbase that had been growing restless for some time.

Despite a referendum in 1996 that ultimately allowed Cleveland to retain the franchise name, the Browns still faced deactivation for another three years (’97 – ’99). Meanwhile, Modell was busy introducing the Baltimore Ravens, to a decidedly torn fanbase who were simultaneously glad to again have a pro football team to back, but still aching over the loss of their beloved Colts (who relocated to their current city, Indianapolis). Indeed, one of the most heartrending moments of the documentary finds fans tearfully saying goodbye to their players on the last game of the ’95 campaign, a game they managed to win. There were few celebrations though;  instead violent confrontations and security staff at the game were assaulted by particularly unruly fans. Empty rows of seats were uprooted in the stadium and tossed onto the field. It came to symbolize the very antithesis of what a sporting environment should be.

Thus ‘The Move’ occupies a major spot at the table when it comes to all the perceived wrongs done unto the Cleveland faithful, representing quite possibly one of the darkest periods in their history. It makes the acquisition of recent burnouts like Tim Couch and Johnny Manziel pale in comparison. The latter especially may have been an embarrassment in its own right, but it was no back-stabbing like the one everyone saw Modell’s collective anti-‘land strategies as. But ‘The Move’ isn’t what ultimately defines Believeland, although it is all too easy to construct the argument that this documentary is designed almost as if to pardon self-loathing sports freaks.

The advent of LeBron James, and particularly the results of the 2016 NBA season*, go a long way in suggesting what Cleveland may have to offer the world going forward. A hugely promising, explosive power forward out of Akron, Ohio, James had been all but prophesied for greatness. Yeah, okay, so I guess we need to tack on ‘The Decision’ to that list of grievances, but the narrative has since evolved from one of bitter resentment to renewed enthusiasm and belief once more that Cleveland’s relevance is only a matter of appeasing The King with the hands he needs to rule a forgotten kingdom.

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* The 2016 NBA Finals featured a re-match of last year’s Finals, between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. After an historic 73-9 regular season record, largely on the back of a virtuoso regular-season performance from shooting guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors shocked the world by failing to clinch their second consecutive title when they ran into the powerhouse that was LeBron James and a healthier Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Because of the results, Billman has stated that he is going to offer an alternative ending to Believeland to reflect the fact that James has finally, finally put an end to that championship drought in the nation’s most cursed sports town. Stay tuned for a quick blurb on my thoughts over this edit. 

Recommendation: Believeland speaks to the loyalty of fanbases and it ties the obsession with sports into the economic health of a city in intriguing and often heartbreaking ways. It might not be enough to sway those who see Clevelanders sports fans as rabid people with too much anger, but it just might be enough to entice those curious about the state of things in a city that doesn’t on the surface seem to have much to offer. I found this to be quite an interesting take on sports history and the way those closest to sports teams choose to interpret that history. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

https://vimeo.com/157732750

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30-for-30: This Magic Moment

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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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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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TBT: The Basketball Diaries (1995)

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The fourth and final installment in the NBApril segment of Throwback Thursday is already here. Well, goodbye April. Sorry you couldn’t stick around for longer. . . . . . . . . . . And also, apologies that this month could not have ended on a better note. I guess this is just going to be one of those times where a little bit of forethought or organization to the list of movies I was planning on watching this month might have helped. A little secret: not all of the films on this feature are ones I have seen before and technically speaking they are brand-new films to me, and therefore some reviews may be different than the ones I might or could write if I had memories about the film in question. Therefore, I kind of am breaking my rules for the TBT set-up a little bit, but I’m young and unruly and get out of my way or you’ll pay, listen to what I say. And with that attitude in mind, let’s jump right into blabbering on about 

Today’s food for thought: The Basketball Diaries. 

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Release: April 21, 1995

[Netflix]

Less about basketball than it was about addiction to hard drugs, The Basketball Diaries was a tough film and an even tougher film to appreciate, much less enjoy. Though it boasted a thoroughly gripping performance from an incredibly young Leo and saw Markie-Mark transitioning nicely from hip-hop headphone to the grainy celluloid of the mid-90s, the film ultimately failed to amount to anything more than an aggressively anti-drug public service announcement.

The Basketball Diaries is the kind of movie I imagine would function fairly effectively as a freshman and/or sophomore phys-ed or wellness class educational film. The St. Vitus Cardinals might have gone down in high school legend as the definitive cautionary tale of students pondering a life road less traveled. . .for damn good reason. I

Granted, this was a fact-based adaptation — a loose one at that — of the autobiography written by Jim Carroll, who had later gone on to become a published writer after a brush with death when he fell into a serious drug addiction at the age of 13, quit his basketball team and dropped out of school.

Clearly, the film had no commitment to presenting any sort of crowd-pleasing elements considering it was charged with depicting such terrible and alarmingly commonplace poor decision-making in the underprivileged youth. This was (and remains) a disturbing reality for millions, though after sitting through The Basketball Diaries just one time, one wished they had had just a little more time to prepare themselves for the unexpected sermon that was to come.

An in-diapers DiCaprio was tapped to portray 12-to-16-year-old Jim Carroll, who’s first seen as part of an unstoppable high school basketball team in New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-one-year-old DiCaprio imbued Jim, a young boy with few healthy outlets or interests, with an aggressive and voracious appetite for finding trouble. Jim’s refusal to play by the rules was impressive work considering it was little Leo’s fourth or fifth big-screen appearance. Jim’s friends were perhaps even worse, particularly the loud-mouthed and brutish Mickey (Wahlberg). A quiet kid named Pedro (James Madio) and the comparatively level-headed Neutron (Patrick McGaw) — ohhh!!! I get the nick-name now! — rounded out the rat-pack of tragic city-bound gadabouts.

The Basketball Diaries made one simple but glaring error in its harrowing depiction of several lives corrupted by narcotics. It forgot to create empathetic characters. Equally possibly, it refused to. Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey in particular was impossible to care about as he remained a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. (Rare is it in a film when one finds themselves so turned off by the characters they wind up rooting for their demise.) Jim and company fall so hard the punishing scenes later on became redundant.

The film’s sloppy, underdeveloped writing didn’t help matters either. While the stalwart performances from Leo and Markie-Mark managed to make up for whatever character depiction was also probably missing in the script, the two budding actors couldn’t save the film’s lack of true suspense-building as every step of the way was one predictable fall from grace to the next. Slumming it through The Basketball Diaries felt akin to playing a game of Mario where all you do is fall down the levels, never able to catch a break and ascend back up.

Well-intentioned, The Basketball Diaries was frustratingly one-note and challenges the viewer to the extreme in terms of offering reasons to empathize, provided the obnoxious characters and the cold indifference of their self-created realities. The script made stabbing attempts at making Jim three-dimensional at the very least, using the occasional voiceover by DiCaprio to instill some sense of passion for life that the boy still clung to, even during his most desperate days. The rest, meanwhile, remained helpless as the script damned them to their predictable fates. Since getting close to these people wasn’t possible, it felt more like good riddance than it did good-bye.

Unfortunately, the film failed to go to the more thoughtful, reflective places more often. Jim’s ability to write about his world offered fleeting moments of lucidity and even hope, though wallowing in darkness and despair was favored more often, as was relying on the cold calculations of the world to provide answers to whatever it was these lost people were looking for in life. A largely unsatisfying yet jarring film experience.

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2-5Recommendation: The Basketball Diaries is an effective piece of D.A.R.E. propaganda (with which I have no arguments against, death at the hands of hard drugs like heroin is a terrible tragedy) but it borders on being too heavy-handed and monotonous. Leo DiCaprio fans should probably see it for another good, early performance but for anyone out of the loop on this, they aren’t missing much by not venturing down this dark avenue.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “You’re growing up. And rain sort of remains on the branches of a tree that will someday rule the Earth. And it’s good that there is rain. It clears the month of your sorry rainbow expressions, and it clears the streets of the silent armies… so we can dance.”

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TBT: He Got Game (1998)

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Yesterday marked the end of the regular 2013-’14 NBA season. I do realize that to a great many people this day passes with the significance of a fart, but to some, April 16 marks the official arrival of a much-anticipated point in the year, the moment when professional basketball becomes VERY interesting to watch (and some non-fans will even admit to this being the moment where basketball is watchable at all), the moment that beckons all players to step up their game, because now it’s not just about the paycheck. This is about something more lasting, it’s about establishing legacy. Its about how history will end up favoring teams and players, coaches and organizations. Yes indeed, the 2014 NBA Playoffs begin this coming weekend, and to help celebrate, 

Today’s food for thought: He Got Game

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Release: May 1, 1998

[Netflix]

Given that Spike Lee directed this film, it’s a wonder there is no mention of the New York Knicks anywhere in this basketball-centric drama from just before the turn of the millennium. A true blue-and-orange supporter, you can always find Spike Lee somewhere up-in-arms on the sidelines at Madison Square Garden. The man has his viewpoints and opinions, and though that may not be something that characterizes every director, it certainly applies to him.

He Got Game is the result of a stunt Spike Lee pulled by hiring then-NBA rookie Ray Allen quite literally in the middle of a game between Allen’s team at the time, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Knicks. When Lee asked if Allen would be interested in the part of Jesus Shuttlesworth (a name that’s in the discussion for one of film’s all-time greatest), Allen walked off the floor and quit the game. The Bucks lost 90-44. Not really, but everything up to and including the conversation actually did happen.

While Ray Allen’s best performances will certainly remain on the hardwood, the 23-year-old proved to be an engaging enough presence in one of the film’s major roles. He played the son of convicted murderer Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel Washington in his third go-around with Lee), who, upon the governor’s wishes, would receive a shorter prison sentence should he be able to convince Jesus to attend and play for the governor’s alma mater. The governor arranged with prison staff to release Jake for one week so he could track his son down and ask him to sign a letter of intent, which would officially commit him to Big State, the governor’s school. Naturally, in a week this would prove to be a nearly impossible task given how far Jesus has distanced himself from his father.

Lee framed the story with a timeline that provides the ensuing drama with just a little bit more tension. Jake had exactly one week to not only locate his son, but then somehow speak to him and then give him significant career advice. If he failed to persuade the town’s most talented star to go to Big State, back to the grind it would be for Jake.

Jesus Shuttlesworth was a phenom, although his father liked to think his incredible talent was manifested in the gene pool. In Jesus’ childhood Jake liked to push him hard and often past the brink to strengthen his son mentally and physically. Unfortunately, and the shock is mostly due to Denzel’s incredibly balanced performance, Jake has something of a dark streak in him and his competitive spirit. . .and drunkenness. . .often seized control of his calm and gentle demeanor. At the same time fierce competition drove the father-son relationship, it often brought it to a screeching halt and Spike Lee handled these ups-and-downs better than anything in his lengthy final cut.

As a writer, Lee proved to be somewhat the astute observer of conversational dialogue and human interaction. He Got Game feels organic in its development, which might explain why Ray Allen fits better into this film than many athletes who are shoehorned into a 90-minute product-placement ad. Scenes tend to linger for longer than they should at times, while others are strung together in rapid succession; journeying through Spike Lee’s late-90s sports drama is a little like flipping through the pages of a photo album — you tend to gloss over several photos and pages and stay on others, and that’s precisely how the film is paced.

Though some became a little repetitive, Lee threw in a few vignettes involving Jesus’ increasing conflict with making a decision about where to go to school; his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson) — a number of the scenes with her took place at the extremely photogenic Coney Island amusement park on Long Island — and also his relationship with his weirdo aunt and uncle who became his legal guardians following the death of his mother and the incarceration of his father. Together, these little stories merged satisfactorily to give the impression of a walking-in-his-shoes perspective. Jesus Shuttlesworth was on the verge of superstardom, yet had a responsibility to his young sister at the same time. He insisted she go to school and become educated, and by way of avoiding setting a double-standard, he came to understand he must play for a college himself.

The question remained, though: which one to select?

Spike Lee intertwined (arguably too) many subplots to create his realistic depiction of a chaotic time in a young basketball player’s life. It blended curious social commentary with sports politics to induce the headache athletes undoubtedly feel while going through the college selection process. But for Jesus, that was only part of the picture; his father being back around bothered him deeply yet at the same time forgiveness wasn’t what was being asked of him. Jake finally came clean and told his son what the conditions were for him being on the outside. And it was just one of many moments that played out with a painful realism.

Adding to the film’s dedication to keeping it real (damn, there’s a ’90s expression for ya), Lee managed to get a hold of several noteworthy names, including NBA Coaches Rick Patino and George Karl, and the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton and even MJ himself literally get a word in during a brief montage. Can’t forget “yeah baby!” Dick Vitale, either.

He Got Game is Spike Lee’s ode to the late 90’s; from the romanticized settings at the amusement park to the dimly lit courts in the city where the one-on-one showdowns happened, its a visual treat as much as it was in tune with reality. It paid off to hire a top-talent athlete as well, as Ray Allen offered the film a vulnerable soul to care for, even if his acting chops likely won’t earn him anything more than bit parts. I’m sure that sits perfectly fine with Allen, as his role on the real courts is anything but a ‘bit’ part. I can’t wait to see how he performs in the Playoffs this year.

Go Jesus Shuttlesworth!!!

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3-5Recommendation: As a non-fan of Spike Lee (typically), He Got Game appealed to the basketball lover in me, and there’s no doubt this is the audience it serves best. But anyone who has followed Spike Lee should see this as well. A Celtic fan? Then you must consider catching a piece of your boy’s acting career if you haven’t already (and if you don’t hate him for going to Miami).

Rated: R

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “People veer off the path, so what? God forgives them. When will you. . .?”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Hoosiers (1986)

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Well hello there. Welcome to a new month of some blasts from the past, and this time we indeed do have a few of those. I’d like to officially welcome you to NBApril. The NBA Playoffs are just around the corner at the end of this month. One film that comes to mind that is a great ambassador for the sports genre is the highly improbable story of an Indiana high school basketball squad that defies all odds to compete in the state title game. With impacting performances, a strong sense of nostalgia for a more simple time, and a wonderful if not familiar story, this week’s entry quickly gets us into the spirit of the post-season. 

Today’s food for thought: Hoosiers.

Hoosiers

Release: November 14, 1986

[DVD]

Welcome to humble old Hickory, Indiana, a hardened agricultural community that comes together every fall to get behind their high school basketball team, the Hickory Hoosiers. Small-town Indiana isn’t the kind of place that takes quickly, if at all, to the idea of change or going against the grain of tradition and routine. Getting set in a certain way gives the impression of consistency and stability. But when a new head coach is hired to coach the boys and he is anything but their ideal candidate, how will the town cope with the choice they are more or less forced to accept?

To put it insanely complicatedly, David Anspaugh’s riveting sports drama Hoosiers is a classic. One cannot think of a basketball movie and not have the iconic images found in this love-letter to the fifties in mind almost immediately. The throwback look and tones in his film recall a much more simple time, but it’s not so old-school as to avoid being relatable. It tells the story of a very unlikely high school team that goes on to compete in the Indiana State Championship game, adding in a few excellent twists on the conceit and establishing a strong sense of nostalgia not to be forgotten by those who have seen it.

The modest school had been looking for a new coach, when they finally came across Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)’s résumé. Dale was a man with an interesting reputation, with his last job ending in a firing for physically abusing his players. He arrived in Hickory, somewhat hat-in-hand, knowing his old friend Cletus (Sheb Wooley) would approve of his credentials.

But no sooner the news of the hiring broke out did Coach Dale get mobbed with questions from the inquisitive community at an impromptu town meeting held at the barber shop (of all places). From the get-go it’s apparent the outsider never had made friends quickly, and with this particularly opinionated crowd, Dale drove a much harder bargain by being short on words and light on reassurance that he was on their side. The way in which he performed his job would prove to be an even bigger shock, though the film’s overriding tension is established in the aforementioned scene.

Hickory High is a town so small its basketball team originated with seven players. On the first day of practice Coach let two of them go since they refused to pay attention while he was addressing them. It would be but one of many instances of him demonstrating his desire to control and drive his basketball team hard. He had purpose in Indiana, and was willing to do whatever it took to prove he had coaching chops despite what his personality may have lacked. Thanks to Gene Hackman’s committed performance, Dale was portrayed as a man with a fiercely competitive spirit that bordered on obsessive. It’s his clash with the community and the odds that were stacked against him personally that made Hoosiers such an engaging watch.

Though Hackman brought on a tour de force performance playing the controversial high school head coach, there was a second contribution that stood out as particularly memorable and emotional. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Coach Dale approached one of his player’s fathers, the town alcoholic Shooter Flatch (Dennis Hopper) and requested he become the team’s assistant coach. It was an offer not without strings attached, however. Dale informed Shooter he would need to clean up his act in order to be present at the games. It’s a memorable scene given Hoosier’s undeniable thematic search for second-chance opportunities. For Shooter, this was his own pivotal moment of redemption.

But for the young squad, their moment of redemption was standing behind a coach frowned upon by the entire Hickory community. During a second community meeting at town hall, in which a vote was to be taken regarding the future of Coach Dale as head coach, his players decided in order to do the impossible this season it would have to be with him and no one else. While it may be the movie’s most outstanding cliché, it hardly feels like one at the time. The team unity from this point on is actually incredibly inspiring. The Hickory Hoosiers proved almost everyone wrong as they advanced further in the tournament, eventually stunning the state by proving themselves worthy of a trip to Indianapolis to face the much more athletic and physically dominant team from South Bend.

Anspaugh did little with his direction to sway opinion on the film’s tendency to walk a cliched path. It’s very easy to set this fact aside, though, when the performances and circumstances were this good. Hackman is eminently watchable as the rough Coach Dale. The kids are a likable bunch of no-named actors who provided just enough charisma to give the illusion they were all the actual basketball team who accomplished the unthinkable. The illusion is one to be watched again and again. On top of being a thoroughly enjoyable throwback to the fifties, Hoosiers has incredible relevance. Though it was made in the 1980s, it’s unrelenting passion and focus on the game withstands the test of time as it seems just as inspirational a film for coaches to show their teams before competing in this year’s Final Four games as it probably was in the decade it came out in.

Exciting, engaging and tremendously earnest, this is a sure-footed underdog story that remains to this day a thoroughly investing and nostalgic watch. It’s one that can be enjoyed again and again, especially this time of year.

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4-5Recommendation: Though it undoubtedly helps to be a follower of the sport, Hoosiers compels as a true story dramatization even for non-fans. It’s beautifully shot and is imbued with a heartwarming tone that allows its central performances to truly flourish. If you want to talk classic basketball films, let’s talk Hoosiers.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

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