Hustle

Release: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Taylor Materne; Will Fetters

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar

Starring: Adam Sandler; Juancho Hernangómez; Ben Foster; Robert Duvall; Queen Latifah; half the NBA

 

 

 

****/*****

When you’re passionate about something it tends to show, and that’s what happens with Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle. The actor’s well-documented enthusiasm for the game of basketball bleeds over into his work here, which turns out to be some of the best of his career. Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore may have given us some good laughs, but Sandler is more compelling when he isn’t playing a cartoon.

In Hustle he shows that passion by bringing attention to the sidelines rather than center court. The behind-the-scenes role of the NBA scout is highlighted in a way that evokes the esoteric space of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019), which told the story of a sports agent navigating an NBA lockout. The emotional beats however hew closer to the traditional underdog narrative of perennial hardwood classic Hoosiers (1986). Sandler is a recognizable face but here he effortlessly blends into the crowd as a family man, a hard-working Philadelphian who loves this town, this game and being this close to it. His authentic portrayal is largely why something so familiar works so well.

A bloodshot-eyed, fast-food-slurping Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a top scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has devoted years to traveling the world over in search of the next big talent. More familiar with airport terminals than the hallways of his own home, he’s looking for a promotion that will further challenge him and also keep him closer to his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Luckily his dedication and eye for detail have built a lot of credit with team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who finally gives him a more active team role.

But then Rex unexpectedly passes away and, in a baffling development — one of a few head-scratching moments in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay, another being the weird decision to prop up the NBA Combine as if it has playoff implications — ownership is transferred not to his competent daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner) but rather to his inexperienced and vindictive son Vince (Ben Foster), who promptly 180s on his father’s decision and banishes Stanley back to the road. In Spain, he comes across a streetball game being dominated by a young phenom named Bo Cruz (NBA reserve Juancho Hernangómez) and immediately identifies him as a potential franchise-changer.

It’s already an uphill battle convincing the higher-ups to take an unknown as the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. It certainly doesn’t help when an emotional outburst during an exhibition game exposes Bo as a potential liability and triggers an unfortunate narrative in the media, one that Stanley has trouble getting in front of considering the omnipresence of Vince and his natural disdain for everything he does. The crux of the drama finds Stanley in damage control mode, trying to save his reputation while proving to his young prospect he actually cares about his future.

Hustle may shortchange the talented Ben Foster with a one-note corporate bozo role, but it’s the two leads whom we are here to see and they form a really likable team. Though each are impelled by love of family to compete at a high level, they couldn’t be more different in background and upbringing. The story doesn’t exactly shy away from sports drama tropes. Cue the obligatory training montage, where comparisons to Rocky are inescapable and feel almost intentional, and the evolution of a partnership into genuine friendship.

What helps offset the film’s many cliches is director Jeremiah Zagar’s commitment to world-building. Hustle has production design so authentic you might actually think Zagar snuck inside the Wells Fargo Center and filmed guerilla-style. Fans of the game will have a field day spotting all the names that come through the scene, with former and current players, coaches and front office staff all getting some camera time (while sneakily supplying the production with its quota of product placement). Yet it’s Anthony Edwards (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) who gets to actually leave an impression, stealing the show for a moment as a trash-talking hotshot who’s also a top candidate for the team. 

In the end, Hustle (and by extension, Sandler) isn’t trying to dazzle you with how much it knows about the X’s and O’s. It’s all about the game within the game, the psychological aspects that make pro sport so challenging. Don’t call it a classic, but the fourth quarter rally is very fun to watch. Because the performances are so earnest and believable, what’s routine ends up feeling rewarding.

“Look, I had this Rocky montage set up especially for you. Don’t blow it, kid.”

Moral of the Story: Perhaps more for NBA fans than casual viewers, Hustle is a modern-feeling sports drama that is also worth watching for another outstanding turn from the erstwhile King of Bad Comedy. (Do we start petitioning for Sandler to star in more basketball related movies? He seems to do those pretty well.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Guys in their 50’s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares . . . and eczema.”

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 

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

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

The Judge

the-judge-poster

Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque 

Directed by: David Dobkin

The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.

Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.

At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.

We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?

Maybe a little.

Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.

For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.

Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.

It ain’t all bad, though.

The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)

Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.

the-judge-2

2-5Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

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 

TBT: Days of Thunder (1990)

new-tbt-logo

Welcome to September’s edition of TBT! Though I wasn’t wild about trying to theme out this particular thread over the course of even something as short as a month, seeing as though I have a slight issue with consistency and all. . .I feel there’s a very good reason to try it out for this month. Given that on September 27, the latest Ron Howard picture, Rush,  is set to drop, I figured this would be a good time to take a look at some badass car movies. Initially I was going to try to restrict the theme simply to racing movies, but since yours truly has pretty limited racing film experience, I broadened the theme to include any really cool movie involving high speed cars, car chases, and yes, race sequences. Whether the film is character-driven as it dives into famous racer profiles (as Rush will here in a couple of weeks; and boy, do I hope this film proves to be the bounce-back Howard needs after his latest outing, The Dilemma. . . ) or whether the film just happens to show some ludicrous albeit highly entertaining car stunts throughout, this is the month to get your adrenaline fix as we throw it back to some older films involving automobiles. Enjoy! 

Today’s food for thought: Days of Thunder

Tom-Cruise-As-Cole-Trickle-In-Days-Of-Thunder-Movie-The-Cover-NASCAR-

Release: June 27, 1990

[DVD]

A very young, moody Tom Cruise dons the racing gloves and other appropriately goofy garb required of NASCAR drivers as he steps into the role of Cole Trickle, an extremely talented but emotionally unstable young driver who finds himself putting his foot back on the gas pedal following some events that likely could have sidelined him in the NASCAR world for the rest of his career. Fortunately, this is a movie and so his character will end up getting his perhaps all-too-easily-earned shot at redemption at some point or another.

Being the first of a series of three back-to-back films to star Nicole Kidman alongside Tom Cruise (the other two being Far and Away and Eyes Wide Shut), Days of Thunder is a riveting action film which may not exactly be the most accurate portrayal of life in the NASCAR circuit but what it may lack in certain factual consistency it makes up for with its passionate storytelling and energetic, high-intensity race scenes.

There’s something about Days of Thunder and the way the late Tony Scott managed to capture the rambunctious, unpredictable and often grimy, filthy nature of the culture surrounding stock car racing. It is not tonally the most consistent film ever created, nor is it always as compelling as it ought to be, however there’s enough of a tinge of sentimentality in the capturing of sunset on race day, a nostalgic youth in the performances delivered by Cruise, Kidman and the intimidating veteran racer Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) that elevates the overall production.

Returning to this film is always a treat, given the solid cast and moments of terror and fear experienced on the track at high speeds. Indeed, one may not remember all that much from this film other than a couple of significant developments in the final race scene, Tom Cruise’s smile and Nicole Kidman’s accent when she gets mad (“Get out of the cahhh, Cole!”), but the few images and memories that one manages to keep from that first viewing are likely to be fond.

Cole Trickle (a character based on real-life NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, who died much too young at the age of 34 after he contracted AIDS) is an extremely gifted open-wheel driver who gets picked up by dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, playing a fictionalized version of Rick Hendrick). Daland also convinces a retired car builder and former crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of hiding and get things rolling for the newbie. Things, of course, do not go soundly at first as Cole is not used to both the size of the cars and the speed of the tracks he’s on, not to mention he’s frequently finding himself a target of intimidation by one Rowdy Burns. After multiple failed races that typically resulted in blown engines, it becomes clear to Harry that he needs to really get to specifics with Cole as the kid is not at all familiar even with some terminology used at the track and in the pit. Needless to say, Cole undergoes rigorous training and soon emerges as a very dangerous racer indeed. His first victory over Rowdy ignited a fierce rivalry, and ultimately foreshadows a tragedy looming in the near future. This is where the film turns to something a bit more compelling.

Cole Trickle (a character based on real-life NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, who died much too young at the age of 34 after he contracted AIDS) is an extremely gifted open-wheel driver who gets picked up by dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid, playing a fictionalized version of Rick Hendrick). Daland also convinces a retired car builder and former crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of hiding and get things rolling for the newbie. Things, of course, do not go soundly at first as Cole is not used to both the size of the cars and the speed of the tracks he’s on, not to mention he’s frequently finding himself a target of intimidation by one Rowdy Burns. After multiple failed races that typically resulted in blown engines, it becomes clear to Harry that he needs to really get to specifics with Cole as the kid is not at all familiar even with some terminology used at the track and in the pit. Needless to say, Cole undergoes rigorous training and soon emerges as a very dangerous racer indeed. His first victory over Rowdy ignited a fierce rivalry, and ultimately foreshadows a tragedy looming in the near future. This is where the film turns to something a bit more compelling.

During the Firecracker 400 race in Daytona, a massive wreck occurs and sweeps up both Rowdy and Cole who both sustain injuries — though Cole comes out with far less serious ones. Rowdy’s future all of a sudden is in jeopardy (at least in terms of performing on the track) since the attending doctor (cue the red-headed Australian actress) says he is suffering severe head trauma. While both racers have to take some time off, some interesting developments occur both on and off the track. Cole starts seeing this brilliant doctor for more than just the routine check-up, and soon their relationship blossoms. Meanwhile, another racer is brought onto the team to fill in for the still-recuperating Cole, a smug, arrogant driver named Russ Wheeler (Cary Elwes) who’s only goal is to make everyone forget about Cole Trickle.

His confidence shaken, Cole finds himself struggling to make sense out of his own life and in particular, his career choice since all he wants to do is get back into his car and win. . . win big. But with the added perspective of his newfound romantic interest, perhaps there’s more to life than driving around in circles all day hoping to not get into another life-threatening wreck (you have to remember, this film was set/made during a time when safety protocol wasn’t quite up to the standards set today). To make matters worse, Cole finds himself fired from the team by Daland, after he and Russ get into an altercation following an illegal move made by Russ in pit lane. It would seem Cole is out of the scene and out of a job. Cue your typical ‘hero-seeks-consolation-from-jaded-mentor’ scene.

Cole seeks out Harry, who, after being humiliated at the race track in the wake of the fight, has isolated himself once again to his secluded farmhouse and is not exactly pleased to see Cole trying to make a return to racing — much less, ask for him to be involved. Of course, Harry caves — but will the team be the same ever again?

There are moments throughout the film that may induce some yawns, but in general the atmosphere created by Scott’s decidedly Southern film is thoroughly enjoyable and provides yet another different role for Tom Cruise — the man who seemingly has now seen and done it all. Duvall is reliably heartwarming as Cole’s mentor, friend and coworker, and perhaps this movie might not have been so inspiring had it lacked presence from a man of his stature. Kidman is, well. . . I don’t really like Kidman at all and continually find her annoying and repelling. Here, she’s more neutral even though at times her reasons to protect Cole and certainly her emotional flare-ups are questionably fleeting and unconvincing. She was brought in more for a foil for our protagonist to have second-thoughts about himself, more so than the romantic interest. It’s quite easy to see through her character. However, she’s the weakest link and the rest of the cast turn in solid work.

I touched on it at the beginning of the previous paragraph, but the fact that this is an atmospheric film needs to be emphasized more. As is true for many sporting events, going to races has the added bonus of one feeling like they’re contributing to some larger idea; the closer you get to sit to the track, the more you feel a part of the race, a part of the culture. The more you feel involved in a general sense. In that way, this film is quite impressive in detailing both spectacle and circumstance surrounding any given race (a few of the highlights include the Darlington “Lady in Black” Raceway and the Daytona 500). These aspects are what make it a truly enjoyable watch, a staple of the ’90s. In fact, I’d venture to argue that most of the enjoyment resides in these aspects, and not simply in the fact that the feature boasts one of America’s most popular big-screen performers. We’ll keep that between us, though, because I’m not sure how Tom Cruise’s ego would take that news. . .

days-of-chunder

3-5Recommendation: This likely isn’t THE definitive racing movie, but it likely could be (for now) the definitive race movie based around NASCAR events. Its hardly a true story, though elements from real-life events were loosely referenced throughout. Any fan of the sport of racing in general should have passed the checkered flag by now but if you’re circling the last lap in getting around to this film, don’t worry about your position in this race. What matters is whether or not you cross the finish line at all. Days of Thunder is well worth the effort and time required to seek it out.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Where were you when this film came out? 

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

Photo credits: http://www.idolosol.com; http://www.motorsportsretro.com