30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Release: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (ESPN)

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Directed by: Todd Kapostasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

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

Paddleton

Release: Friday, February 22, 2019 (Netflix)

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Written by: Mark Duplass; Alex Lehmann

Directed by: Alex Lehmann

It’s not often that the Duplass brothers make a heavy movie. Darting in and out of the so-called mumblecore scene and playing with time in pleasantly nostalgic trips down memory lane (Blue Jay) or lurching ahead into the future with spirited abandon and childlike naivety (Safety Not Guaranteed), they typically go for heartache rather than rip-your-heart-out. But the timeline we’re dealing with in Paddleton makes it absolutely the bitterest of sweet efforts from the guys who got away with making navel-gazers about a guy living at home and a puffy chair.

Yeah Paddleton is another slice-of-life drama (supposedly the first in another four-picture deal Duplass Brothers Productions have secured with the streaming behemoth Netflix), but then it’s also a story dealing with cancer and mortality so it’s really more like the whole damn cake we’re tucking into here — life, death and . . . haunting your friend in the afterlife, maybe? This is a more serious movie, there’s no doubt about that, but if there’s a way to find the humor in something as distressing as one’s own impending death, leave it to the Duplasses to find that way.

In Paddleton Mark Duplass plays a 40-something bachelor named Michael and he’s given a diagnosis that turns out to be terminal. As an actor Duplass is a pretty reliable commodity at this point and so it’s Ray Romano playing his upstairs neighbor Andy who’s the revelation. He might never have been better than he is in this utterly neurotic, quietly devastating role — his second consecutive dramatic persona following a supporting part in Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick (2017). The two eke out a quiet, fringe existence wherein they escape the 9-5 doldrums by watching kung fu movies, eating pizza and engaging in this strange but totally fun-looking game they’ve invented called ‘paddleton’ — a hybrid of tennis, squash and basketball played off the back of a dilapidated building.

It doesn’t look exciting or rewarding but they slip into this routine like one pulls on their favorite torn Levis. There’s a comfort and security in simplicity, a notion that’s only reinforced — and with surprising profundity, too — once we’ve arrived at the crux of the movie, when Michael decides to end his life on his own terms rather than wait for the disease to land him in the hospital, hooked up to machines. Michael’s choice sets up a philosophical conundrum that Andy of course wrestles with, urging his friend to fight back. Michael doubles down, insisting this is a quality-over-quantity situation. He’d much prefer to spend his remaining time doing just what they’ve always done: pizza, kung fu, paddleton. Not necessarily in that order. Indeed there’s comfort in having a routine. No bucket-list stress, no grand speeches (well, there might be a good half-time speech delivered by Andy at some point). No plastic feelings, please.

Director Alex Lehmann previously worked with Duplass alongside Sarah Paulson in 2016’s Blue JayThe collaboration resulted in two outstanding performances and that’s been duplicated here. Romano and Duplass make for an endearing bromance that shoves the likes of Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill/James Franco and Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly to the way back seat. Paddleton is an amiable drama that toots along at about two miles an hour, features about five actors total, and physically goes almost nowhere — the narrative briefly kinks out into a brief road trip “comedy” of sorts when the pair have to procure some controversial medicine — and yet it manages to hit some profound depths along the way.

What starts out as an air of melancholy progresses to a rather stunning, emotional climax, a responsibly handled if challenging to watch dramatization of those last, ultra-heady stages of the grieving/dying process. Acceptance is a toughie, mostly because of the stepping stones you have to cross to get that peace of mind. A moment of paralyzing fear becomes the Duplass’ signature capital-A awkward scene. Yet for all the excruciating detail, Paddleton is ultimately life-affirming. These two dudes care for each other deeply. Despite being tinged with some ugliness the movie is beautiful because it makes this relationship the focus.

“Okay, so . . . if reincarnation is actually a thing . . .”

Recommendation: Two note-perfect performances elevate Paddleton above the potentially overly-sentimental, sugar-coated drama it might have otherwise been. Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, Paddleton is probably the most challenging Duplass Brothers movie currently on offer but along with the pain comes plenty of reward. A high recommendation for fans of Mark, Jay and whatever other Duplass may be lurking out there. Oh, and Ray Romano too. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “I’m the dying guy!”

“I’m the other guy!”

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

The Way, Way Back

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Release: Friday, July 5, 2013 (limited)

[Theater] 

The screenwriters for The Descendants return to write and direct this incredibly satisfying coming-of-age story about an awkward teen and his adventures at the local water park as he seeks refuge from his painful family life. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash pen another script which has become primarily responsible for winning people over left and right — myself included. Not only do the pair come up with characters who are believable, flesh-and-blood, and, for the most part, easily likable, but they harmonize comedic and dramatic elements just so that the film maintains an equilibrium of being wholly enjoyable from start to finish, without ever becoming too silly or too melodramatic for it’s own good. This is a remarkably good film for first-time directors and their writing abilities do not fail here either.

At the center of attention is Duncan (Liam James) and his struggle to fit in with anyone, even with those in his own family. His mom (Toni Collette) is now seeing a man with whom Duncan frequently butts heads. Trent is practically the antithesis of who we’re used to seeing Steve Carell play, even if we’ve gotten glimpses of his ability to be a complete dolt in previous roles (Michael Scott, anyone?), and more often than not, it is Trent who is making life miserable for Duncan. He asks what Duncan thinks of himself as a person on a scale of 1-10, and when the kid reluctantly responds with “a six,” Trent offers his thoughts: “Well, I think you’re a three.” There are other factors, too. His sister, Steph (Zoe Levin) is a spoiled brat who can’t stand being around Duncan for longer than she has to. His mom is a little more neutral, even though she can never quite get a good read on her son’s mood at times.

Regardless of appearances, and despite the fact that Trent insists on exerting total control over what Duncan “can” and/or “should” do here, this is Duncan’s story, told from his perspective, and we can only look on and silently cheer as he breaks down the barriers and makes his own way in becoming a young adult in spite of the circumstances.

One afternoon Duncan is off biking around trying to forget the latest drama around Trent’s beach house, when he comes across the Water Wizz Waterpark, and decides to explore what’s going on there by entering through an unlocked employee gate. Not long after he bumps into the same guy whom he had run into a day or so before at a pizza parlor, playing Pac Man by himself and rambling on about setting a personal high score. He introduces himself at the water park as Owen, and the two are fast friends. Owen (Sam Rockwell) takes an immediate notice of Duncan’s social anxieties, and aims to fix this as quickly and hilariously as possible.

The second act of the film, then, blossoms into a fun-filled montage of situations in which Duncan sheds his introversion and starts to come into his own. A lot of the process is owed to Rockwell’s wonderful performance as this gregarious park manager. I’ve been a moderate Rockwell fan for awhile, but nothing he’s done so far compares to the energy he emits in this little summer indie. Both Faxon and Rash have lesser but still funny roles as other Water Wizz employees — Rash as a bug-eyed, disillusioned employee who is unfortunately also a germ-o-phobe. It may be argued, though, that Rockwell is the best there is to offer in this film — a beacon of light among other solid performances from this ensemble cast.

What makes The Way, Way Back such an engrossing adventure, aside from Rockwell’s irresistible charm and the brilliant way James carries himself as the awkward teenager, is the secrecy of Duncan’s quasi-employment at the water park. After his first venture out to Water Wizz, Owen offers him a job “cleaning up puke” and doing other related, otherwise unappealing tasks. He commutes back and forth to the park on a hot pink bike, and is able to avoid saying anything about it when Trent and his mom ask where he’s been all day. He’s somewhat successful in keeping this adventure to himself; that is, until he attracts the attention of the girl next door, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Equally awkward and out of sync with what’s going on in the world around her, she is able to extract a few sentences from Duncan each time they meet and this makes for a very sweet and believable relationship, perhaps made even more so because it’s not perfect.

I’ve had a very hard time pinning down the one creative element that made this film destined to become a classic, but maybe that’s just it: imperfection (I’m not talking about behind-the-scenes things like writing/directing/production values, etc). The human relationships — all of them — are all flawed, some in minor ways and others in more obvious and painful ways. One is flawed to a degree that has our protagonist questioning why his mom makes the decisions she makes. Duncan’s relationship with his mother is slightly flawed because he assumes he knows a lot about the goings-on of her life (it becomes clear late in the movie that he doesn’t). He assumes Owen won’t know what he’s going through because he’s just a park manager who seems to be always having fun (fortunately this is also an incorrect assumption). Trent’s neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney) is a fun-loving party-girl. But she’s in her forties and single. The fact that the movie is filled with flaws and wrongdoings makes the overall product ironically perfect. Or at least, something close to it.

On top of that, the movie is set in a beautiful location and the use of a water park makes for some interesting visuals and plot developments. That, and, well. .  water slides are the shit.

The Way, Way Back ultimately benefits from a great cast putting on great performances in conjunction with a strong screenplay and interesting setting. I could name at least a dozen coming-of-age tales that have been in varying degrees stimulating enough, but this basically puts on a clinic in terms of showing why that type of story has a place in the film industry. Thanks to Faxon and Rash’s sensitive direction, you can no longer say that these types of films are a dime a dozen. Or maybe you still can, but you cannot include this movie in that category. It is a much more matured film that absolutely deserved its wide release.

It’s hard impossible to imagine this movie not getting any nominations come February 2014.

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4-5Recommendation: The Perks of Being A Wallflower of 2013. Even if that’s not my original thought, I love that idea. Both films feature a quiet protagonist who, about halfway through the film, really develops into a lovable, unforgettable (read: young) central character who benefits from the help of his elders. If you loved Perks, this should be what’s next on your list (of indie films, anyway).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 103 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