The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

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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Photo credits: IMDb

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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Photo credits: Facebook; Twitter 

Month in Review: June ’19

To those people still reading or starting to read me:

This month, as in July, I’m being told by the folks behind the scenes that it’s my eighth year of “flying with WordPress” which is a pretty amazing thing. I’m not sure whether I’ll be doing anything in observance of that landmark — in the past I couldn’t help but wax lyrical about that specific day, but at eight years old this blog just isn’t quite as spry as it once was. It can’t party like it used to. Things might get as crazy as a possible new Top That! post about eight favorite movies this year or eight moments when Johnny Depp looked most like Johnny Desperate. I don’t know. Something along those lines.

The month that’s now somehow over marks the halfway point in the movie year, which is kind of crazy too. It’s as good a time as any to take stock of the year of blogging that’s been.

Thus far in 2019:

  • Most popular new post (posted this year): The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (64 views) — who knew, with that title . . .
  • Most popular old post: TBT: Men in Black (90 views)
  • Reviews for theatrical releases: 10
  • Reviews for streamed/rented content: 8 (7 Netflix, 1 Redbox — including June’s streaming-only posting schedule)
  • Alternative content/posts: 10

Twenty-eight total posts (not counting monthly wrap-arounds) doesn’t exactly set the world on fire (not when considering back around 2013-’14 I was putting up about that many in a month!) but this more relaxed pace has been nice. With my local theater still being closed (so long, summer profits!) and the closest one being more than 30 minutes away there’s more than the usual amount of deliberating about going out these days. Plus, a number of my fellow trusted bloggers have really been making a strong case for staying home and catching up with some streaming stuff.

And that’s just what I did on Thomas J for the month of June. Let’s get into it, shall we?


New Posts

Streaming: Hold the Dark; The Wandering Earth; Unicorn Store 

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


Bite Sized Reviews 

Uncle Drew · June 29, 2018 · Directed by Charles Stone III · I enjoyed this movie apparently enough to deem it necessary to weigh in, because it was so totally unforgettable right? If you do recall, the movie basically amounts to Kyrie Irving and a bunch of other famous basketball players, both current (Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon) and retired (Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal), dressing up as old geezers who come together to form a squad at the behest of a desperate inner-city basketball coach (Lil Rel Howery — one of the movie’s few actual actors). He needs to field a team worthy of taking down that of his arch-nemesis, Mookie (a bling-ed out Nick Kroll) in the upcoming Rucker Classic, a tournament that takes place in Brooklyn every year. If he wins the big cash purse, he may just win back the love of his ex (Tiffany Haddish) — or at least earn back the right to keep paying rent. What ensues is nothing short of the types of shenanigans you would expect from a movie that casts the “big fella” (his actual name in the movie) Shaquille O’Neal as the least-convincing karate instructor in history and Nate Robinson as a dude who’s both confined to a wheelchair and can dunk the ball like Vince Carter in his prime. A movie that is just littered in NBA-approved product placement stuck on every flat surface in the frikkin’ frame. But hey, I can’t go too hard on this road-trip comedy because while there’s not as much actual balling to be found, there was a lot more heart than I was expecting. For this basketball fan, the combination of some well-chosen NBA personalities and the script’s permanent winking at the audience — “hey, look at these seven-foot-tall men in geriatric make-up” — made for a resounding win. (3/5)

Polar · January 25, 2019 · Directed by Jonas Åkerlund · For the record, I wasn’t peer pressured into this, I watched the notorious Polar (an adaptation of some online graphic novel) on my own, albeit with more than a little morbid curiosity fueling what would turn out to be a terrible, terrible decision. Polar is one of the stupidest, most over-the-top trashy movies I have seen in some time. It’s a masturbatory aid for people with violence fetishes that made me pine for the artistic restraint of Rob Zombie. It’s about an assassin on the run after being marked as a “liability” by the very firm he was once employed by (and led by Matt Lucas’ astonishingly bad big bad). While bunkering down on the outskirts of Seattle or some shit he crosses paths with a troubled teen (Vanessa Hudgens) who happens to be the lone inhabitant of a cabin across the secluded lake. Wouldn’t ya know it, they both come into the crosshairs of Lucas’ roaming henchmen, a gaggle of tattooed idiots who kill fat people badly for pleasure and torture accountants like jackals before ultimately killing them while laughing about it. That’s the kind of movie Polar is. Utterly without class. It doesn’t have to be clean like James Bond but its sole purpose seemingly is to drive up the crassness at every single turn. It’s a one-note movie that’s badly acted, poorly conceived and just ugly all around. Director Jonas Åkerlund introduces himself as an angry infant. (0.5/5)

Fighting with My Family · February 22, 2019 · Directed by Stephen Merchant · Stephen Merchant, like many of us, probably wouldn’t last many rounds in the ring but he apparently knows his way around the arena of the uplifting sports biopic. Fighting With My Family is a familiar story about an underdog struggle but the level of conviction in the storytelling helps set it apart. British actress Florence Pugh emerges as a true star in the lead role of Saraya Jade-Bevis (better known by her ring name, Paige), a British female wrestler with aspirations to take her talents and passion beyond the rink-a-dink family business (they’re all wrestling fanatics, too). But it isn’t just her dream to be one of those famous stars she sees on American wrestling programs like the WWE, and that’s what makes Fighting with My Family deliciously (and heartbreakingly) complicated. Merchant handles the divergent paths of Saraya/Paige and her older brother Zak (Jack Lowden) with a harder than expected truth, stopping short of being manipulative or overly sentimental. While Pugh rarely puts a dramatic foot wrong as she goes from a local celebrity in her home town of Norwich to a lost soul bleaching her hair and tanning herself unnaturally in an attempt to fit in to a strange land, the performances all around are very strong and likable. From Nick Frost and Lena Headey chipping in with fun turns as the roughneck but always supportive parents, to a hilariously antagonistic Vince Vaughn as a wrestling promoter/trainer, to Lowden matching Pugh stride for stride as he handles the crushing disappointment, Fighting with My Family may tell the story about an individual’s success but it takes a true team effort to make a movie about it as enjoyable as this. (4/5)


Beer of the Month

I’ve never met a sour that I actually liked . . . until now. Flying Fish’s Salt and Sea Session Sour is quite a delight. Brewed with strawberry and lime. Extremely drinkable. I’m stoked. What’s your favorite beer? Is it a sour?


What movies are you most looking forward to in July? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Toronto happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

30 for 30: Seau

Release: Friday, September 21, 2018 (ESPN)

→ESPN

Directed by: Kirby Bradley

When ESPN Films announced they would be making a documentary about Junior Seau, the megastar linebacker who played for over a decade for the San Diego Chargers and who tragically took his own life in 2012, I figured pretty much right then and there it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to watch. Boy I hate being right sometimes.

I have no particular allegiance to west coast football. Maybe the Seattle Seahawks, but then that was when it was the Legion of Boom, when Pete Carroll, that wily old dog, still had in his bag of tricks Richard Sherman, Cam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and one or two other defensive monsters. I don’t subscribe to the 49ers and I’m certainly no diehard Raiders supporter. I am even less knowledgeable about the San Diego Chargers and, embarrassingly, Seau’s time there — what he meant to his teammates, the organization. He was a citywide icon whose brutal style of play betrayed his warm personality. Yet I had only ever affiliated him with the New England Patriots. That image of him facedown on the turf in agonizing playoff defeat is the most vivid one I have of him as a player.

Seau is a moving tribute to the man that gave me a better idea of his character, both on and off the gridiron. It addresses the challenges he faced in his personal life, coming from a large Samoan family whose lofty expectations, especially those of his father, and financial strife instilled in him a sense of responsibility from a very young age. The fifth child born to Tiaina Sr, a rubber factory worker and custodian, and Luisa Maugu Seau, who worked at a commissary in SoCal as well as a laundromat, Junior, naturally gifted as he was, worked relentlessly to develop himself into a pro-caliber player, ultimately going fifth overall in the 1990 Draft. Blending together blistering highlight reels with emotionally charged interviews with family (his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, along with his sons who have the VERY difficult task of reading to camera a few select entries from their father’s diary, which grows increasingly disturbing as time goes on), along with friends and former teammates, director Kirby Bradley delicately constructs a celebration of a life that must necessarily also look at the darker side of the beloved defensive linesman, attempting to make sense out of what happened to him in his post-playing days.

Only in the aftermath was it revealed one of the most indomitable spirits the NFL had seen in years had been suffering from a degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which, once-upon-a-time, went by the somewhat less threatening name Punch Drunk Syndrome. The same disease riddling the domes of other former football greats who had either taken their own lives or had passed from other causes only for it to be discovered in them as well. At the time it was really only associated with boxers, but of course CTE doesn’t discriminate, for the cruelly sluggish, subtle incipience of the symptoms (forgetfulness at first, drastic personality/behavioral changes later) is incurred by repeated blows to the head, something that may be pronounced in football and boxing but is absolutely not limited to those arenas. In 2016 BMX bike rider Dave Mirra took his own life, without warning, after a lengthy career in which he sustained countless concussions. As of this writing he is the first known action sports star to have developed CTE.

What Seau isn’t — and somewhat surprisingly given its unique position what with the subject being both alarmingly young (he was only 43) and one of, if not the highest profile player thus far to have died as a result of CTE — is a savage condemnation of the league and in particular Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose lack of response to the mounting statistics linking football with brain damage surpasses naivety to the point of bordering on inhumanity. Perhaps positivity outweighing negativity is apropos for its subject, an upbeat teammate, devoted husband and energetic father who had time for everyone and then some.

The slow slide towards the inevitable is what makes this 30 for 30 a particularly disturbing account. It isn’t simply that we know the ending already; it’s all the little gory details of a life coming undone at the seams that is just horrifying to watch. News reports of domestic violence and of an inexplicable vehicular incident are brought back up, and for what seems like an eternity Seau feels punishing in its own inability to explain. To Bradley’s credit he intentionally does this, wisely sidestepping controversy brought on by forcing theories or summarily dismissing all behavior as a direct result of vicious football hits. This is a complicated story with a number of dynamics at play, both personal and circumstantial — new and unfamiliar stresses bearing weight on his later years, as well as the loneliness of his struggle, his inability to reconcile not just being a famous football player and deep down knowing he needed help, but specifically being Junior Seau — someone who could not say no to helping someone else in need.

In the end though, for as rough as the going gets, Seau educated me and the sheer volume of praise he receives from both his contemporaries and his former teammates (then-Chargers QB Drew Brees and retired defensive linesman Marcellus Wiley) proves that his sickness never stood a chance of actually being the thing that would come to define him. There is a beautiful scene at the end where scores of fans take to the cerulean waters of the San Diego coast, where Seau often went to surf and to be at peace, and the prevailing sentiment here is undeniably one of profound love. That goes a long way in off-setting the waves of misery we must endure along the way.

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“Buddyyyyyyyy!”

Recommendation: Seau is an emotional ride that will most immediately attract the attention of the Chargers faithful and passionate football fans on a broader scale, but I think this film also does a great job of telling the tragedy of Junior Seau from a fundamentally human perspective.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 90 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.espn.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.”

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

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog

Release: Thursday, July 13, 2017

→ESPN 

Directed by: Daniel H. Forer

Love them or hate them, any appreciator of grown men yelling at each other over the airwaves in the name of entertainment has Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to thank for giving birth to modern sports radio talk. At the height of their success, no one could touch them.

Directed by 10-time Emmy Award™-winning documentarian/writer/producer Daniel H. Forer, Mike and the Mad Dog offers one final parting gift to fans of the sports talk show that aired for 19 years and five — count ’em, five — hours each weekday afternoon on WFAN 101.9 FM. Nestled deep in the heart of New York, “The Fan” is famous for becoming the first radio station in the country to offer 24/7 sports coverage. Over the course of a fleeting but highly entertaining hour Forer digs into the origins of the show, the personalities that made it happen, and the mechanisms that both drove its success and that ultimately led to its downfall.

The first broadcast of Mike and the Mad Dog aired in September 1989. At the time there was little evidence to suggest the experiment would be successful, never mind end in the tearful manner in which it did in August 2008. Francesa had done the grunt work at CBS, starting out as a stat boy and college sports analyst, before expressing an interest in shifting over to radio broadcasting. WFAN at the time were looking for established talent rather than someone with no experience. Though Francesa’s encyclopedic knowledge helped him gain footing, station management had no desire to give him his own platform.

Chris Russo, on the other hand, was all but born on-air, his voice “a bizarre mixture of Jerry Lewis, Archie Bunker and Daffy Duck.” He was energetic, a Tasmanian devil behind the mic. Russo began his career at a station in Central Florida, where his thick New York accent was so alien he was sent to a speech therapist twice a week. He later relocated to The Big Apple, briefly dipping his toes into Christian radio at WMCA before becoming roped into a most unlikely gig with WFAN, where he’d spend the next 19 years foaming at the mouth over the days’ hottest sports stories.

Mike and the Mad Dog was created out of a need to better reach WFAN’s target audience — the city proper and its surrounding suburbs. A more traditional, buttoned-up format predated it and featured a revolving door of national anchors who all failed to resonate. The station desperately sought a more local feel, and in the seemingly diametrically opposed Francesa and Russo they struck gold. Not only were they true-blue New Yawkas, they were bona fide geeks who spoke in the language of the typical sports fan. They both loved sports and talking about them — they just didn’t really love the prospect of talking about them with each other.

The documentary covers an impressive amount of real estate, touching on a number of personal aspects before moving beyond the personalities and their disparate upbringings to address the numerous controversies they became involved in and occasionally triggered themselves. From the Don Imus firing in 2007 to the infamous broadcast on September 12, 2001, Mike and the Mad Dog have taken the show to some incredible highs as well as cringe-inducing lows. Consistent with their style, they dealt with backlash in their own acrimonious ways.

Given how routinely Francesa and Russo together (and individually) became the thorn in the sides of local sports figures — be they current team owners or retired players (even columnists, like the Post’s Phil Mushnick weren’t exactly safe) — those events weren’t aberrations. Of course their stance on Imus and reaction to 9/11 also didn’t do much to dispel the notion that after so many years the two had developed egos larger than the city they were covering. Their vast sports knowledge wasn’t to be questioned, yet it also couldn’t save them from getting into trouble. Forer holds interviews with friends and former colleagues who admit there were times the two just couldn’t help themselves.

Arranged marriages can be awkward, as the pair attest on camera. That’s how they viewed their relationship — less a natural coming together as it was a forceful shoving. Chemistry lacked to say the least in the early going. Yet, as time passed, they found their rhythm and gained a respect for each other, with Mike in particular being impressed with his very animated partner’s ability to hold his own in a debate. After so much time together, they became more like a family and the documentary effectively captures that spirit. As Russo might put it, sometimes family drives ya frikkin’ nuts.

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Recommendation: Mike and the Mad Dog is an intriguing exploration of the way ambition, recognition and egotism all play a hand in the shaping of high-profile careers. It is close to essential viewing for those who have lamented the break-up (now 10 years ago) and have never quite gotten over it. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 50 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.newyork.cbslocal.com

30-for-30: One and Not Done

Release: Thursday, April 13, 2017 (ESPN)

→ESPN (re-air) 

Directed by: Jonathan Hock

As someone who spent his college days getting lost amidst the sea of brilliant orange and bright white on Rocky Top Tennessee, I’m about to admit something that could very well lose me some friends: this documentary gave me a new appreciation for Kentucky basketball. It made me not only more fascinated by head coach John Calipari, it made me a fan. There, I said it. And I know it’s heresy. If I am to be made an example out of like an outsider in an old western, the one request I have is that you don’t string me up over the Goalpost Tavern or Cool Beans.

Traditionally Big Orange Country shows out for football far more than for in-door games played on smaller rectangles in really squeaky tennies. Maybe that’s because football there is a culture defined by Phillip Fulmer, Peyton Manning and Neyland Stadium, a gigantic fortress that beckons the faithful on crisp autumn Saturdays when the changing leaves coordinate themselves to match the student dress code. If atmosphere is what you seek in your sporting events, visit Knoxville in the height of football season.

However, the area between checkerboard-style end zones isn’t where our rivalry with Kentucky really lies. In the arena, the Wildcats are perennially great, and a perennial nuisance. The measure of greatness in college basketball is not simply judged by your regular season résumé, but how deep your runs take you in the annual NCAA Tournament, a single-elimination style pool play in which Kentucky is 126-51 all-time, with 17 Final Four appearances and eight national titles, most recently in 2012 under Calipari.

The Wildcats have for some time been the bane of their SEC opponents, mostly because of Calipari’s uniquely relentless efforts in recruiting the best of the best of the best of high school talent. These are the so-called “one-and-done”s — the 18-20 year-olds who are so good they play one season in college before going pro. As a result his pond is never less than fully stocked with some pretty big fish. The problem with this is that expectations rise accordingly, and when you’re merely ‘good’ but not GREAT in Rupp Arena, you call upon the collective strength of Big Blue Nation for a show of even greater support — as Coach Cal did earlier this year when his team, the youngest he has ever coached, hit a four-game skid and doubts of a tournament bid began to mount.

Jonathan Hock’s sixth contribution to the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning documentary series 30-for-30One and Not Done, offers a detailed and provocative look into the personal life, career and coaching philosophies of a controversial collegiate sports figure. The vocal, prone-to-spasms-on-the-sideline leader is loved by many but viewed as a problem by many more because of the reputation that has preceded him. After stints at UMass, where he got his first head coaching gig in 1988, and the University of Memphis, Calipari has seen two seasons ended in NCAA investigations that led to the vacating of tournament wins, with UMass’s star player Marcus Camby being charged with receiving improper benefits (some $40,000 by someone unaffiliated with the school) and Memphis’ Derrick Rose being ruled academically ineligible.

It isn’t often a coach regains legitimacy after the sledgehammers the governing body of the NCAA delivered, and Calipari has had this happen twice. The documentary gives you a sense of how he has been able to survive and advance beyond very public scrutiny. Whether he deserved those chances is for you to decide. The early days are certainly interesting chapters, but ultimately the film is more concerned with the phenomenon he has created since being called up to the big kids’ table, coaching one of the more recognizable brands in college basketball, with his aggressive off-season strategies for talent scouting. Today, the “one-and-done” craze has spread far beyond the reaches of the Southeastern Conference. Look at any major blue blood school now and you’ll find at least one. (Vols fans, remember when we had Tobias Harris? You probably don’t actually.)

The overarching interview with Coach — his expressive face and irrepressible energy all up in your grill during the bulk of this tightly-shot conversation — acts almost as a promotional tool for future scholarship hopefuls. He gets you to buy in to the sales pitch — that he is as committed to the players’ athletic future as much as their future in general (Kentucky has a much higher than average graduation rate amongst student-athletes but you won’t hear that as often as you will about the latest controversial thing Cal said or did). He gets you to listen to his story, how far a cry his current $7.5 million salary really is from the reality his immigrant parents faced. How he has built himself up, and subsequently became a thorn in the sides of those who couldn’t stand the way he comported himself either in press conferences or in games — some of whom call him “Satan on the sidelines”.

Whether he ultimately earns your respect and/or empathy is almost beside the point. Director Jonathan Hock expressed a desire to present as complete a profile of a very complicated, divisive personality as possible and he succeeds in balancing the scales of opinion and perception. One and Not Done includes interviews with many of his supporters, friends and family but there is also the obvious disdain Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim can’t help but express in his responses. For me, a Vols fan, the best thing about this documentary is that it changed my perspective in a significant way. Maybe I’m too easily manipulated by the media. And maybe it’s just Cal (isn’t it obnoxious how I’m calling him Cal now, like he’s my pal or something!) being a great talker and sales pitchman, it made me believe this guy truly does care for his players, and believes in their futures, even if it’s off the basketball court.

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Recommendation: Absorbing film centered around a high-profile college basketball coach makes for a must-watch this time of year. (Yeah, yeah — I’m like a year late to this one. But the 2018 Tournament is still in play, so it still counts.) John Calipari is unquestionably a compelling and polarizing sports figure. I still see why people are rubbed the wrong way by him, but I don’t feel the same way anymore about him. And I am grateful for that. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I tell ’em, ‘you’re gonna hate me.’ But if I do right by them, they’ll win.”

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Photo credits: http://www.kentuckycrazies.com; http://www.cbssports.com 

30-for-30: No Más

no-mas-movie-poster

Release: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[Netflix]

Directed by: Eric Drath

Spectators historically aren’t accustomed to seeing a professional boxer not finish what they started — at least, not voluntarily. When Roberto Durán, the man with two of the most devastating fists in all of boxing, waved his gloves at his opponent in the 8th round of a 15-round bout signifying that he didn’t want to fight anymore, no one believed what they were seeing. On November 25, 1980, the man with “hands of stone” turned his back on more than just a fighter he did not respect.

The bout in the Louisiana Superdome became infamously known as the ‘No Más fight.’ Despite the fact he lost, Durán’s actions were so bizarre the story that emerged was all about him losing, rather than his opponent winning. That’s a reality Sugar Ray Leonard has had difficulty reconciling all his life, and as we are introduced to him in the opening frames there’s a bitterness barely hidden behind his otherwise calm demeanor, a bitterness about the way history has been written. Somewhat counterintuitively, No Más is (mostly) told from his point of view.

Eric Drath, associated with a number of sports documentaries and short films, wants to know, perhaps as desperately as Leonard himself, what it was that caused Durán to throw in the towel that night in New Orleans. Divorced from the event by several decades, the film offers a unique perspective as it captures the once-bitter rivals in much more casual settings — except for the part where it throws them back together in the ring for a casual chat in a climactic show-down (of words), set under bright lights but sans the bloodthirsty audience. It’s a little cheesy but I found the trick nonetheless effective. And despite being 60 years old Durán’s eyes can still pierce a hole straight through you.

Durán and Leonard famously hated one another. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the three fights they committed to was the fact that there actually were three fights — neither one managed to end the other outside of the ring, despite temptation. The Panamanian in particular was hostile, openly mocking Leonard by calling him “a clown.” (And remember that one time he saved a middle finger salute for Leonard’s then-wife?) Durán had several reasons to consider the American his enemy. For one, his childhood was spent enduring the political turmoil that made his hometown of El Chorrillo an often unpredictable environment, as the United States and Panama fought for control over the Canal. Durán’s father was an American-born man who bailed on the family early. Durán also perceived Leonard’s popularity as grossly overblown and that he wasn’t as good a fighter as he proclaimed himself to be. (For those keeping score, Durán only won one of these three fights.)

For a film dealing with such marquee names, No Más plays out in quite the understated manner. The story develops quietly and methodically, bobbing and weaving in between present-day footage of Leonard preparing for his visit to Panama and archived footage of the events themselves. If anything the final reveal is underwhelming in its brevity. I would have liked to have heard more about what these two talked about in the ring. Drath pulls interviews from family, friends, former trainers and fighters — notably Mike Tyson — to help contextualize events. Supermodel and photographer Christie Brinkley also weighs in. These soundbites are far from the most insightful clips the 30 for 30 series has featured, and Tyson in particular isn’t a very good talker, but his recollections of how he felt when he witnessed ‘no más’ delivers a surprising gut-punch.

Perhaps what we gain from the experience isn’t so much revelatory as it is a reminder of the fragile emotional state boxers are so often in while in the ring. Durán almost certainly quit out of pride, but you’ll never hear him say those words, nor give any indication this is how he really feels inside. If he says anything about it today he’ll still tell you it was stomach cramps, not Leonard’s attacks that caused him to quit. He also actively denies ever uttering those infamous words. Some may dismiss this as merely the hubris of the defeated. But “no más” was at such odds with the boxer’s comportment, the way he carried himself both publicly and privately, that it makes this documentary quite the fascinating mystery. We, like Leonard, may not get the closure we’re looking for, but at the same time we learn quite a lot along the way.

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no-mas

3-5Recommendation: Fascinating, if occasionally frustrating recounting of what may or may not have happened during Durán-Leonard II in New Orleans gives fans of boxing some food for thought. The interviews beyond the boxers themselves aren’t the greatest things ever but there’s certainly enough here to recommend for followers of the sport or those itching for some more in-depth coverage after seeing Hands of Stone, the semi-autobiographical account that was released in theaters earlier this year.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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