30 for 30: Jeanette Lee Vs.

Release: Tuesday, December 13, 2022 (Vol. IV, Ep. 17)

👀 ESPN

Starring: Jeanette Lee; Sonja Lee; Doris Lee

Directed by: Ursula Liang

Distributor: ESPN Films

 

 

 

***/*****

Jeanette Lee is a Korean-American former professional pool player who (to use a Leeism here) took the sport by its balls in the mid-90s. She earned the nickname ‘The Black Widow’ for her ferocious competitive spirit. Jeanette Lee Vs. is a documentary from director Ursula Liang that offers a glimpse of the fire that drove Lee at a young age to win at the highest level and as well the cold water that tried to put her out as a woman trying to break into a male-dominated sport.

There’s an implied “Me Against the World” mentality about the seemingly incomplete title that makes sense once we’ve spent some time with the subject. It’s an allusion to the social dynamics Lee often found herself combatting, at least at first, positioned against just about everybody — certainly the men who leered, but also her female peers who weren’t entirely thrilled about the amount of attention Lee’s meteoric rise and TV coverage garnered. As the film evolves beyond competition, the playful nature of its title also takes on a much weightier significance. 

It’s not a particularly in-depth treatment but there’s enough to give the layperson a good sense of Lee’s mental fortitude and physical toughness, for the odds were stacked against her in ways beyond societal prejudice. While Lee reflects upon the emotional challenges of growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in Brooklyn, the documentary becomes more a testimony to corporeal suffering. Of all the things she has experienced in her life, from a father who walked out on the family when she was five, to being subjected to Jimmy Kimmel’s masturbatory enthusiasm on The Man Show, it’s her own body that’s been most unkind.

Scoliosis from when she was 13 left her feeling alienated and in constant pain. Yet discomfort was no match for her desire to move on from her directionless teen years and start beating the men at their own game in pool halls across the country. As a 50-year-old Lee describes to camera the myriad ailments it has also caused, her similarly numerous achievements seem all the less likely.

That she managed to not just be competitive at a high level — racking up more than 30 national and international titles over a career spanning 24 years — but came to dominate a sport that requires physical poise and intense mental focus, all the while helping to raise the profile of the women’s game, is an act of defiance as much as it has been a catalyst for inclusivity. 

In bringing us up to speed on her current battle with terminal cancer, the film takes a more emotional turn. Yet a pity party never materializes despite extensive, behind-the-curtains footage capturing Lee at her most vulnerable and introspective. Family members and former opponents alike contribute to a sense of communal support for ‘The Black Widow,’ but it is Lee the straight-shooting interviewee, especially as she speculates about the uncertainty of the future, that elevates this narrowly-focused documentary into the realm of general audience appeal. 

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Nailed the look

Moral of the Story: On one well-manicured hand, it feels like director Ursula Liang could have gone into greater detail about Lee’s playing days, particularly the tension among members of the WPBA (Women’s Professional Billiards Association) as she came to prominence and took self-promotion to a whole new level. On the other hand, it is yet more proof of the range of stories 30 for 30 can cover. And it isn’t just the fact it’s a niche sport that makes it feel different. Available to stream on ESPN+. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 51 mins.

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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.”

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Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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Just a Quick Thought: Remembering Kobe Bryant

Sunday, January 26, 2020 has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult and surreal day for hoops and sports fans in general. I’d like to pause my movie reviewing for a second to remember basketball player Kobe Bean Bryant, who passed away a day after Lebron James, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers, passed him for 3rd place on the NBA all-time scoring list. As Saturday night turned to Sunday, we went from historic highs to tragic lows. To say this weekend has been an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement. 

TMZ first reported the news that the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar and five-time world champion died in Calabasas, CA Sunday morning in a helicopter crash that left no survivors. He was 41. The total number of victims and their identities are, as of this writing, still unknown. [UPDATE: one of the nine victims has been identified as Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.] The cause of the accident is currently under investigation. Reportedly the private chopper was en route to a basketball practice in the Thousand Oaks area.

The loss is felt far beyond the NBA courts and even the sporting world.

Bryant leaves behind a legacy of brutal competitiveness and inimitable determination on the hardwood. One of the first players to go straight from high school to the pros, the prolific scorer racked up an astonishing number of accolades and achievements over a career that spanned 20 years, five NBA Championships (three consecutive) and two Olympic Games (where he won Gold with the Americans, 2008 and ’12).

Notable Mamba Moments include being named back-to-back NBA Finals MVP (2009, ’10) and making 11 All-NBA First Teams, nine NBA All-Defensive First Teams and 18 NBA All-Star Game appearances. He’s responsible for the second-most points ever scored in a single game, dropping 81 on the Toronto Raptors back in 2006 (sorry Jalen). In April 2016, during his final competitive game, a home stand against the Utah Jazz, Bryant peaced out by cashing in 60 in a hair-raising display of just what he is capable of. It was the kind of end to an odyssey that not even Hollywood screenwriters could have concocted.

The accolades didn’t stop when he unlaced his sneakers for the final time; in 2018 he won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film for Dear Basketball, a heartfelt tribute to the game he loved, lived, breathed and slept.

It’s a surreal day, even for someone like me whose relationship with Kobe was more described by admiration than passionate fandom. It’s sickening to think we’re in an era without the Black Mamba. That’s plain wrong. Not since the loss of flamboyant sideline reporter Craig Sager in 2016 have I felt a celebrity death so palpably, and it’s really kind of silly to even say I’ve been affected considering I’ve never had the chance to even be in the same zip code as these famous people. It’s just another stark reminder — not that I needed one four days removed from the four-year anniversary of my own mother’s passing — of the true fragility of life.


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30 for 30: Rodman: For Better or Worse

Release: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 (Vol. IV, Ep.1)

👀 ESPN 

Starring: Dennis Rodman; Carmen Electra; Brian M. Walker; Jamie Foxx (narration) 

Directed by: Todd Kapostasy

Distributor: ESPN Films

***/*****

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.

Moral of the Story: 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: TV-G

Running Time: 102 mins.

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The Dawn Wall

Release: Friday, September 14, 2018 (limited)

👀 Netflix

Directed by: Josh Lowell; Peter Mortimer

Starring: Tommy Caldwell; Kevin Jorgeson; John Branch

Distributor: Sender Films

 

 

*****/*****

Generally speaking, if you want climbing films done right, you turn to the Lowell brothers. In 1997 Josh and Brett Lowell co-founded Big UP Productions, and over the last two decades have documented some of the most stunning climbing achievements across the globe, even earning a Sports Emmy for outstanding camerawork. Their latest is The Dawn Wall, which follows big wall climber Tommy Caldwell on a seven-year quest to conquer a previously unclimbed section of the famous El Capitan.

2018 was a great year for climbing documentaries (and for Yosemite Valley, apparently), with The Dawn Wall being the first of two such films to get a theatrical roll-out. It predated the Oscar-winning Free Solo by a mere three months, and while it did not receive the same amount of fanfare I found The Dawn Wall to be the superior film both in terms of the story it tells and the climbing action featured.

There is no denying Free Solo deserved the mainstream spotlight. The life-and-death aspect of Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the 3,000 foot monolith without any protective gear made that film immediately attractive to an audience beyond the climbing community. Along with the gut-wrenchingly obvious consequence of failure came the complicated morality of the undertaking, with the filmmakers actually having to brace for the potential reality of capturing a death on camera while going to lengths to ensure they wouldn’t be a distraction to Honnold during the ascent. (For the record, Free Solo hasn’t changed my opinion on free soloing — it still seems to me to transcend the realm of reasonable risk-taking. I did however appreciate that the filmmakers included multiple perspectives on the matter and how clear it was to see the strain this endeavor put on the camera crew and others.)

The Dawn Wall, in stark contrast to the loneliness of Honnold’s quest, is this epic buddy adventure that takes place for the most part on the Wall and gets more into the nitty gritty of climbing, whether that’s the technique involved in a tricky section or the broader tactics of big wall climbing. Before it gets into the gory details of the Dawn Wall project, the film takes a step back into the past and builds a profile of its meek-and-mild-mannered subject, tracing his rise from a painfully shy kid (and the son of a gregarious bodybuilder, to boot) to one of the elite climbers in the world, as well getting into debates surrounding nature-versus-nurture and dedication versus obsession.

It almost seems like an epidemic in movies where a cold open teases a big moment in the present before that gets put on hold so we can get the backstory, but with Tommy Caldwell, you really need that backstory. This film is about so much more than the physical act of climbing; it’s about everything that went into the ambition. The Dawn Wall‘s first half hour or so proves to be every bit as dramatic and compelling as the titular event it covers. A treasure trove of archived footage mixed in with interviews in the present day introduce several personalities that have been instrumental in Caldwell’s life and the experiences that they have shared together — such as the time Tommy, his then-girlfriend Beth Rodden and two other friends were held hostage for six days by armed rebels in Kyrgyzstan during an expedition there. To a lesser extent we also get to know his Dawn Wall partner, Kevin Jorgeson, a lauded and fearless boulderer who isn’t as experienced in the travails of big wall projecting.

Because ropes and harnesses play crucial supporting roles here you likely won’t find yourself sweating like you were in Free Solo, but what The Dawn Wall lacks in peril it makes up for in humanity . . . and pure, unadulterated climbing psych. The drama that unfolds circa Pitch 15 — a desperate traverse across a 300 foot ribbon that hinges around dime edges and features the hardest climbing on the entire 3,000 foot climb — is quite an amazing display of graciousness and selflessness, with Caldwell refusing to leave a comrade behind in battle. 

Let’s get one thing clear: this climb, defined largely by swaths of slick, seemingly feature-less granite, is so intensely difficult it is all-out war. The 32-pitch route is considered by many within the community the most consistently difficult climb in the world, while outsiders like John Branch, a sports writer for The New York Times and the first to break the story (and usher in the media circus), view it as among the greatest athletic feats of a generation. Skin is scarred, torn, chafed, bloodied, bruised. The mind brutally pummeled by doubt. All the while the saga is gaining traction in the media and the world is watching. Waiting.

The Dawn Wall is the more engaging film because the subject(s) aren’t as enigmatic, you can actually get to know them on a deeper level beyond the extremes of their ambition, and the supporting material rummages through some pretty personal stuff, with Caldwell addressing his divorce in the early 2000s and how loneliness, perhaps desperation, motivated him to seek a new way up the face of El Capitan. (As an aside, he’s responsible for several first ascents up the face, and even did two routes in a single day — that’s 6,000 feet of climbing in 24 hours). Between Caldwell’s geekiness and Jorgeson’s indefatigable positivity the film is absolutely the warmer, dare I say the more relatable experience, even if the climbing involved is alienating.*

The Dawn Wall is about teamwork, physical endurance, and unbelievable willpower. It is ultimately a celebration of an historical climbing achievement but delivered in a way that allows the layperson to get a feel for the effort and hardship involved. The emotional crescendo to which the saga builds, coupled with the obligatorily breathtaking cinematography**, makes the film a must-see experience.

* One aspect the film does leave out is that while Tommy and Kevin weren’t alone on the Wall by virtue of the camera crew being there, they also had a team of climbers shuttling supplies up and down the wall frequently — with none other than Alex Honnold making a quick lap up to their “base camp” to provide lip balm 

** In my review of Free Solo I incorrectly assumed drones were used in the shooting. it is illegal to fly helicopters and drones through the park.

Tommy entering the crux sequence of Pitch 15.

Moral of the Story: Comparing the two films is inevitable, especially when they came out basically back-to-back. For climbers, The Dawn Wall has more climbing action to get giddy over, making it perhaps the purer climbing film. But for those who were won over by Free Solo and don’t climb, this is kind of an ideal companion piece. It gets you even better acquainted with El Capitan, the practicalities of living on a rock face for days and weeks at a time, and to me it truly embodies the spirit of climbing. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

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

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

Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

→Theater

Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

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.indiewire.com

Bleed for This

bleed-for-this-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 18, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Ben Younger; Angelo Pizzo; Pippa Bianco

Directed by: Ben Younger

Bleed for This is an intense title for an underwhelming boxing movie. Its hyperbolic nature suggests a scream-o/punk-rock band’s new single when really it’s meant to describe the mentality of one Vinny Pazienza, a boxer from Providence, Rhode Island who returned to the ring after being involved in a car crash that brought him within inches of total paralysis.

Ben Younger’s third directorial feature takes a rather subdued, psychological approach in retracing “The Pazmanian Devil”‘s remarkable return to the championship ring, a transformation that has been widely regarded as one of the most remarkable in all of sports history. It offers viewers the chance to share the headspace of a boxer who managed to hold world titles in three separate weight classes — one of an elite few who have ever managed to do so — all while making them acutely aware how heavily the odds were stacked against him in his mission to “come back from the dead.”

Going into a film with these sorts of things in mind, it’s difficult not to set expectations high. Plus, star Miles Teller has proven that his scintillating performance in 2014’s Whiplash wasn’t a fluke. He may not have been captivating us quite as intensely since but he continues to give the impression he’s turning a corner in his career, taking on characters more complex than your hard-partying teenage waster. Frustratingly, Younger sets about presenting Vinny’s miraculous story in a very workmanlike fashion, and while it is true many boxing films are genetically similar, the best of them know how to work within the confines and use tropes to their advantage. Bleed for This is unable to rise to that challenge by featuring a narrative that, rather than being complemented by a few clichés, ends up drowning in too many of them.

We first get an impression of the kind of theatrical, charismatic performer Vinny was in his prime in the opening scene, set in Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Teller, who underwent extensive physical training and dieting to look the part — he dropped from 19% to 6% body fat — swaggers his way on to the scene, late for the weigh-in and nearly becoming disqualified for the next day’s match. He’s fun to watch from the get-go and one of the few aspects of the film that actually feels inspired. Throughout much of the picture Vinny’s flanked by his (many) fleeting girlfriends, a revolving door of Italian stunners — and his father Angelo (a very good Ciarán Hinds), whose level of emotional support is matched only by his blue-collar boorishness.

In the aftermath of another embarrassing ass-kicking and in spite of the consensus opinion that Vinny is washed-up, he begs to be put into another fight. He seeks the support of Kevin Rooney (thank goodness for Aaron Eckhart, who looks like he’s having some fun playing a really, really out-of-shape trainer), whose first appearance tells us everything we need to know about how his career has been trending. Kevin believes Vinny can succeed in a different group and the two set out to prepare for an upcoming light middleweight match, which turns out to be a victory. Things are now looking up for both parties. And then, of course, the accident — by all accounts a fairly tough thing to watch given that this really happened.

I don’t need to tell you what happens from circa the halfway mark onward because if you have seen just one boxing movie you already know. And even if you haven’t, you still already know. Bleed for This, like its star, wears its heart on its sleeve and in so doing advertises the Big Payoff in bright, flashing casino-style lights that are impossible to ignore. What we’re provided en route to Fight #3 (a.k.a. The Moment of Redemption, which always comes last and typically off the back of the fighter’s lowest moments) manifests as little more than tiresome filler material aimed at exposing that which made this athlete unique; that which drove him to the edge of potential destruction — had Vinny actually paralyzed himself in the process of training I hate to think of what would have happened to him then — and how his attitude more than anything helped him overcome.

On that note of positivity, Bleed for This isn’t totally without merit. Dramatically speaking it may be underachieving and formulaic, but the story’s not without heart and some compelling ‘twists.’ For one, it is refreshing to watch a boxer (read: any athlete protagonist) who doesn’t come completely undone at the seams when things do not go their way. When the darkness comes, there’s very little wallowing in self-pity, and that much can be appreciated even by non-sports fans. I mean, the guy returns to his work-out bench in his basement a mere five days after leaving the hospital having broken his neck, for crying out loud. And the screenplay, while far from original, impresses when it deals in specifics, such as the inherent difficulties of a boxer transitioning from a lighter weight class to a heavier one. (Fair warning: there’s also some pretty squirm-inducing stuff if you don’t like medical procedures, particularly when Vinny decides to forego anesthesia for the removal of the Halo, the apparatus that has been keeping his spine from breaking.)

In a nutshell, Bleed for This would be more appropriately titled Determination: The Movie. That’s certainly more generic — laughable, even — but after my experience, that would be more faithful to the style and tone of this would-be heavy-hitter.

miles-teller-with-the-vinny-paz

Recommendation: Sensational true story isn’t done proper justice by a mediocre screenplay and a dearth of predictable elements. Good performances keep it just above totally forgettable. Fans of Miles Teller, boxing and sports movies in general will probably come to appreciate something about this film while others are probably going to need to keep on browsing for something else. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “I know exactly how to give up. You know what scares me, Kev? It’s that it’s so easy.”

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 

Before the Flood

before-the-flood-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[YouTube]

Written by: Mark Monroe

Directed by: Fisher Stevens

Oscar-winning documentarian Fisher Stevens won’t change the world with his ambitious but overly familiar and ultimately underwhelming examination of man’s impact on the global environment, but his efforts aren’t completely in vain. Before the Flood uses the immense popularity of bonafide Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio to raise its profile as the actor embarks on a three-year mission around the globe to educate himself on the most pressing environmental concerns of our time.

The central thesis is familiar but nonetheless significant, one that’s fundamentally concerned with man’s over-reliance on unsustainable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, a pattern that has for years now been linked to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels and the destruction of the natural world. In pursuit of causality Before the Flood, executive produced by DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese among others, stresses the interconnectivity of our global ecosystem, the politicking that goes into climate change denial (not everyone wants to believe 8 billion people can have such a profound impact on one planet) and how various parts of the world are often left to clean up the messes created by others.

In the process of touring through many devastating sites DiCaprio narrates his experiences via a somber, if not overly pessimistic voiceover. He explains how Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights‘ served as a creative inspiration for the film’s thematic explorations. This stunningly ornate triptych traces the evolution of humanity as it depicts man’s origin in the idyllic Garden of Eden in the first frame, merging into a colorful display of excess, celebration and blissful ignorance in the second before eventually transitioning into a frightening scene filled with death, destruction and suffering in the shocking third panel. DiCaprio elaborates, explaining how man’s current state places us firmly in the center panel and ruminating on how long it might be before we find ourselves entering the third.

What’s most impressive about the film is watching one of the world’s most established thespians mute himself enough so that he is firmly a part of the picture. In other words, while his celebrity status undoubtedly will draw in viewers who might not necessarily watch this sort of thing, his ego is nowhere to be found. DiCaprio is extremely humbled by what he finds, and more than humbled he is legitimately bothered. His perturbation comes across genuine, if not in his pursed-lip/silent nod reactions to what he witnesses in Canada, Indonesia, Greenland and India (among other locales) then in the amount of questions that pour out of him along the way. Some may find his lack of knowledge a barrier but if anything his acknowledgment of that very ignorance opens the film up considerably.

And yeah, you can probably accuse DiCaprio of hypocrisy if you really wanted to. If you’re looking for some way to make his involvement more about Hollywood than the environment, you might note the irony in DiCaprio likely making another film in the coming year(s), in him traveling around in luxury cars and luxury private jets and being involved in an industry that creates a massive ecological footprint, be it the electricity consumed to light sets or the amount of material required to make scenes believable. It’s also not entirely unreasonable to suggest that if the actor truly wants to make a difference, he might have to consider a hiatus from acting, permanently, in order to fully pursue efforts to fix things. And given everything he says in Before the Flood, it seems like Leo really wants to get his hands dirty (in a good way).

DiCaprio’s position in the entertainment industry enables him to speak with some of the most prominent environmental activists and climate-conscious politicians — Senator John Kerry is interviewed and there’s a brief Al Gore sighting. Aside from these figures, he speaks briefly with President Obama and one of the film’s highlights surfaces in a candid chat with Indian environmentalist Dr. Sunita Narain — where he’s met with compelling resistance as Narain argues that meeting the most basic demands of India’s bulging population is a concern that supersedes the need to find alternate sources of energy. He also interviews scientists and specialists who each share their unique perspectives, almost all of which confirm the notion that humanity is indeed reaching a critical point where it needs to learn how to adapt or the damage done will likely be irreversible. With a rapidly swelling global population these concerns are only going to become more challenging in the years and decades to come, and so the urgency of addressing and finding solutions to them in the here and now naturally becomes a big stressor . . . lest we face the reality of regaling our grandchildren about how Alaska used to be covered in cerulean yet crystal-clear icebergs.

Circling back to the contradiction of seeing a major film star touting environmental awareness: Before the Flood is most compelling when we are taken behind the scenes of Leo’s most recent (and Oscar-winning) film, The Revenant, which, aside from presenting one of the most visceral and singular cinematic experiences in recent memory, focused on the impact early settlers had on their surroundings: poachers destroying everything in their path on their journey to make ends meet; settlers slashing-and-burning forest. That shoot was infamously challenging but for reasons other than the obvious. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and crew were forced to relocate hemispheres — from the Canadian Rockies to the Andes in Argentina — in search of snow when they experienced unseasonably high temperatures in the north. Listening in on these conversations gives an entirely fresh and direct perspective.

If that’s not convincing enough, perhaps the fact that Indian farmers watched their crops washed away, leaving dozens of families — children — starving after they received their entire annual rainfall over the course of a day will sober you up. Or that entire, neighborhood-sized chunks of ice in the Arctic Circle are melting faster than you can measure them. Rising global temperatures and the rapid shrinking of the polar caps continue to strain Inuit fishermen’s livelihood as they hunt bears, a population that has been dwindling in response to changing conditions. There are other examples as well, but these are among the most undeniable, the most disturbing.

DiCaprio is a great mascot but ultimately the production he’s passionately become involved in doesn’t give us much in the way of revelation. Fisher likes to dwell on the gloom-and-doom talk seemingly more than he wants to find solutions and the solemnity eventually becomes off-putting. The numbers and statistics and graphics that accompany the vast sea of information we’re provided don’t really add impact. They add to the science, sure, but Before the Flood lacks the actual urgency that its message all but demands. There is, however, a glimmer of hope and human ingenuity when we step inside the Tesla Gigafactory 1, an enormously cavernous space that will house the production lines of millions of electric vehicles and energy-efficient lithium batteries. The latest venture of Tesla founder Elon Musk opened in July of 2016 and, once operating at full capacity in 2020, it will manifest as the world’s largest building. He judges that 100 such facilities spread throughout the world would make a significant impact on energy reduction and would lead to massive curtailing of raw material usage.

Like a great many of the “it’s so obvious” revelations that we’re bombarded with in the face of all this maddening destruction, DiCaprio’s deduction that “[100 gigafactories] seems manageable” is a tad too naive. The intent behind the film is good, it’s sincere, but Before the Flood settles for inciting immediate reaction. It wants to see us flap our arms in panic and despair rather than inspire us into action and perhaps even legitimate activism.

leo-and-the-phant

“Dude, that’s not a prop.”

Recommendation: Activists, behold a famous actor who truly seems to give a damn about the only place we will ever call Home. Only time will tell just how for real he is, but I want to believe in him. I think Before the Flood is a force for good but it should have been more potent than it actually is. Still a decent recommendation from me, and one you should definitely spend time with no matter your political leaning, something that’s well worth tracking down as it is available for free on so many different platforms (at least for now). 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

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

Dream Theater’s The Astonishing — Live

On Wednesday, October 19, 2016 the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark hosted Dream Theater for ‘An Evening With’ as the progressive-metal giants played in its entirety their brand new album, the sprawling odyssey that is The Astonishing — an epic tale of betrayal, loss, hope and redemption set in a dystopian future circa 2285 in an America not that dissimilar to the one you find in The Hunger Games.

emperors-palace

The Astonishing represents the band’s 13th studio release, and their third since the departure of original drummer and one of the band’s founding members Mike Portnoy in 2010. While the album certainly features all of the elements and ingredients that have helped maintain the band’s longevity (they’ve been rocking since 1989), The Astonishing is undoubtedly their most ambitious and most exhaustive undertaking to date, featuring 34 tracks and running over 2 hours in length over the course of two discs overflowing with virtuosic musicianship, deep emotional hooks and conceptual grandeur. It’s quite unlike anything the band has tried before and they have tried a lot of things in their 30 year history. Rumor has it that guitarist John Petrucci has ambitions of turning it into a Broadway play . . . although I’m not sure Broadway is ready for something like that. Or ever will be.

map_final

For those curious about what’s established here in The Astonishing:

The Great Northern Empire of the Americas would look eerily familiar yet terrifyingly primitive to the people who occupied roughly the same territory three centuries before. After a great calamity precipitated a gradual societal collapse, medieval-like feudalism reemerged alongside the relics of technology and “progress” from a now all but forgotten era. Safety in servitude replaced ambition. An aristocracy replaced nobility. The ever-watching omnipresent NOMACs (Noise Machines) broadcast an empty cacophony; all that remains of music and creativity in this dystopia. But in Ravenskill, a village situated on Endless Isleland, a lone voice heralds the arrival of a reawakening in human consciousness. Freedom of expression finds a way, in the purest of musical outpourings not heard in generations, to stir the hearts of the people and shake the very foundations of power.

For more, you should visit the band’s official website at dreamtheater.net.


So the Newark show was actually my fourth time seeing the band and while I can’t quite say it ranks amongst my favorite shows this experience reaffirmed the notion that Dream Theater is simply a band you have to see in the live setting. There’s something electrifying about seeing Petrucci take center stage when he dives into one of his incredibly complex solos, even if you are like me and don’t exactly count yourself amongst the elite musicians of the world (I can’t even hold a guitar the right way). The power of that musician is in itself astonishing. Every time I’ve seen the guy play — be it in Atlanta, Cleveland, Asheville or Newark — I’ve been amazed how effortlessly the guy manages to seduce his audience, holding thousands in the palm of his hand as he unleashes a maelstrom of sound through those ever-reliable Mesa Boogies.

Then of course there’s the lead singer, Canadian James LaBrie, who is a character unto himself. The number one complaint I’ve heard from people I have tried to recruit into Dream Theater Land is that they have an issue with the vocals. Why does the singer sound like that, they wonder. And I never have the right answer, other than the default “well, he’s sung opera before . . .” Come out to the live show and listen to him then. There’s a good chance he will persuade you. And last but absolutely not least the other musicians — bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini — surround these guys with their own brand of face-melting awesomeness. It is such a complementary band, one fully attuned to its own idiosyncrasies. There’s no one quite like DT and they know it. That’s why they can get away with selling out major venues as a single act playing their new album from start to finish. How many other bands can get away with that these days? How many have albums that are long enough to sustain the length of a concert?

With all that in mind, I have to concede that The Astonishing represents my least favorite of the band’s thus far. In fact I hadn’t even listened to the entire album before seeing them reenact it on stage, a span of almost ten months. But that actually gave me a unique opportunity to treat the show as my proper introduction to the album and all that it entails. I don’t think I have ever had that experience before. Of course, that also meant not being able to sing along and anticipate some of the highs — those Petrucci solos seemingly came at random and largely caught me off-guard —  but in the end I don’t know if I would have had it any other way. This was such a different way to experience a concert, even if it ultimately hasn’t really had much of an impact on what I think of the new work. There are some good bits here and there but structurally I’m not a fan of it. And when I heard Petrucci comparing the album’s concept with that of something like Game of Thrones, I cringed. I mean, this has never been a band to float the mainstream. If anything has changed since the departure of Portnoy, it’s that they have flirted more with that line. It has gotten a little scary at times. I’m hoping with their next album we’ll revert back to stuff that’s a little more original.

The Astonishing — Live! also provided me a chance to share my love for this band with my dad, who had been getting into them ever since I introduced him to their 2005 album Octavarium some years ago. Getting him in to his first DT show was a bucket list item for me absolutely, and it feels great to be able to tick that off. There were a lot of nerves before the curtain went up for me, and I think that stemmed mostly from the fact that I was greatly anticipating how he would react. In the end, I needn’t have worried.

dream-theater