30-for-30: I Hate Christian Laettner

Release: Sunday, March 15, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Rory Karpf

The psychology that characterizes fandom and sports obsession isn’t complicated. Just as in movies there are the good guys you cheer for and the bad guys who you want to see fail. The good guys are the home team, who have a crowd behind them and are representative of a larger whole — a community, a culture. The baddies are whoever the visiting team is, strangers stepping on your turf. They’re the unwelcome, the outsiders. Or, more literally, they could just simply be bad people — dirty players, egotists or downright bullies. The people no one can afford to lose to.

Former Duke Blue Devil Christian Laettner fit snugly into the last description, an athlete so intensely disliked by his opponents — a.k.a. everyone who did not attend Duke University — he gave the term ‘trash talk’ a legitimate dictionary definition. Trash talk is the active, verbalized dissatisfaction over the presence of one Christian Laettner. Unlike the kinetic energy of rallying and general, outwardly positive support, trash talk requires putting in some extra effort. But just as positivity can be contagious, booing a group of unpopular players or a lone target has a galvanizing effect. Rory Karpf’s I Hate Christian Laettner is proof that hating the villain can be almost as thrilling as watching the good guys win.

The documentarian splits his time evaluating both the player and his environment, on a quest to determine which had a greater influence on the other. Rob Lowe narrates. Was Duke — a private school steeped in tradition and excellence, a lightning rod for bitterness and hatred well before the kid came to campus — responsible for shaping one of the greatest collegiate players of all time? Or was Laettner’s aura — a triple threat of looks, talent and confidence — simply so powerful it subsumed the team’s collective identity? Either way, over the course of his four-year career the hatred cast the Blue Devils’ way seemed to intensify. The school was and still is regarded as a model for exclusivity, a precinct of privilege and preppiness, its inviolability more closely and negatively associated with the aloofness of the Ivy Leaguers. And from 1988 until 1992 it had Laettner.

In an effort to obtain a consensus opinion of this controversial player, Karpf fields a rather impressive assortment of interviews that dissect virtually every aspect of the player’s life. Highlights include head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K for short) and wife Mickie; analyst Dick Vitale; former assistant coach Jay Bilas; former guard Grant Hill; and, of course, Duke alum Ken Jeong. Sports writers offer anecdotes about team dynamics and Laettner’s relationship with his coaches and teammates. Teammates cite specific instances in which they almost got into fights because of personal disputes and verbal confrontations with him. Of course the stories are recanted with a smile and a laugh, but underneath the surface you can still sense some tension.

With the combination of abrasive personality and court presence that Laettner had he was never someone people didn’t think anything of. If you knew the name, you had an opinion of the guy. Loved by his fans and hated by everyone else, Laettner’s something of a cliché on paper. Realizing it’s somewhat counterintuitive to rely wholly on emotive factors and especially gut reactions to paint the big picture, Karpf steers the latter part of the conversation towards his athletic ability. Trash talking may be fun, but thankfully I Hate Christian Laettner realizes that compelling sports stories must rely on some balance between public opinion and tangible aspects. Particularly worded accusations and criticisms eventually begin to give way to more productive talk. Yes, out comes the stats sheet, but how exactly is that not expected in a basketball doc?

Endowed with power, speed and a 6-foot-11 frame, number 32 was a hard worker and ruthless competitor. Arrogance off the floor translated to confidence and poise on it. Case in point, the buzzer-beating turn-around jumper that lifted Duke over Kentucky in the ’92 NCAA Finals. His clutch performances didn’t earn him more fans, though. In fact that habit did pretty much the opposite. Even his more obvious detractors in the interviews have to come to terms with his gifted athleticism, and they do. There’s no point in lying.

This documentary is most definitely less effective for those who consider themselves outside the circle, people like me who try not to become too swept up in melodrama. That’s not a knock against the subject nor the way it has been presented. Consider the target audience confirmation that what makes 30-for-30 often so intriguing is how niched each individual story is. Until this documentary I didn’t know who this guy was. Yet I learned a few things watching I Hate Christian Laettner. I learned that watching this once through was enough for me to arrive at a satisfactory (enough) conclusion: I learned that I guess . . . I guess, I hate him too . . . ?

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Recommendation: An intriguing slice of sports drama, the documentary will have far more of an impact for those who grew up watching these games and/or having experience with its stigmatic subject. It’s never less than an interesting watch, but at the same time an overriding sense of indifference prevents me from saying this is a 30-for-30 you absolutely need to see.  

Rated: NR

Running Time: 90 mins.

[No trailer available. Sorry everyone.]

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

Love & Mercy

Release: Friday, June 5, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Oren Moverman; Michael Alan Lerner

Directed by: Bill Pohlad

Capturing the life of one of rock’n roll’s most luminous figures in The Beach Boys’ very own Brian Wilson poses obvious challenges. Painting broad strokes risks missing all those curious little imperfections, while delving into a day-in-the-life could yield a movie so large a mini-series event would seem a better format. There’s also the issue of casting the part.

Bill Pohlad’s love letter to the heyday of The Beach Boys phenomenon opts for the general specific, briefly opening a window into two different phases of Wilson’s colorful life, offering intimacy before slamming shut and locking forever once again. Despite aching with nostalgia Love & Mercy‘s potency actually stems from its uncanny ability to translate a simple cause and effect into an immersive experience. How Wilson’s young star (Paul Dano), brilliant but troubled, begets an aging, broken man (John Cusack), housebound and saddled with a routine that sees him less functional and more conforming. Some might describe it as a typical downfall, but typical isn’t the word I’d use to describe Wilson.

Pohlad might have gone the documentary or mini-series route, but then he’d have missed the opportunity to showcase Oscar-worthy performances from his leads, both of whom are clearly smitten by the chance to simultaneously dramatize this most peculiar musician. In the sixties, following the critical and commercial successes of albums like Surfin’ U.S.A. and Today!, Dano is magnetic. He becomes Wilson, dropping his trademark and quite contradictorily unsavory appeal in favor of an effusive personality tailored to fit the profile of musical genius. He’s pushing for a new Beach Boys sound as the band enters its eleventh studio album in Pet Sounds, a production that didn’t see the warmest reception on American shores due to its detouring into the . . . well, weird.

Love & Mercy provides ground-floor access into a studio that can’t hope to contain all the ideas young Brian Wilson, already fragile, has pouring out of him. But the story moves beyond those walls and into the eighties, embracing Cusack’s forty-something version, a character who, while representing a stark contrast from Dano’s, arguably is a more crucial component. Similar to young Brian’s often happenstance discovery of unique acoustics (the aforementioned 1966 release certainly hints at a memorable recording experience), older Brian’s stumbling into a car dealership has profound implications for his life post-Beach Boys.

Elizabeth Banks’ Melinda Ledbetter isn’t aware to whom she is potentially selling a Cadillac in an opening scene. Cusack is unabashedly sincere, playing a man mellowed almost to the point of self-denial, though he’s polite and charming. Melinda will be his saving grace, an oasis of beauty whose infatuation is reciprocated across a number of romantic escapades. In middle age, Brian has deteriorated considerably and is kept watch over by his suffocating psychotherapist, a Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, also fantastic). Supposedly the man is Brian’s legal guardian after the death of his father. As Melinda spends increasing amounts of time with Brian she realizes there is a great deal more to the story behind his darting eyes and weary smile.

Love & Mercy isn’t quite like its subject; it doesn’t exactly reshape the biopic if even subtly. There are tropes and there are predictable resolutions. Yet the two timelines complement one another so well the journey resonates on a much deeper level than average entertainment. Beyond superb performances from an engaging cast, Love & Mercy lives up to its title, offering up an abundance of both in its intense scrutiny of a figure many shouldn’t be blamed for assuming is a perpetually upbeat, satisfied human being. Melinda’s introduction is hardly a product of genius screenwriting but let’s not dismiss her as a product, period. Banks — as does Cusack — breathes life into her character, committing some of her finest work to date.

Pohlad’s fascination with the enigmatic also gives fans new context for some of The Beach Boys’ less recognizable tracks as well as those that have been played mercilessly over and again. We are privy to Wilson’s iconic vocals as much as we are to the tension he creates between his bandmates as his grip on reality slowly but surely loosens. Love & Mercy is as much an auditory sensation as it is visually arresting. Settings and wardrobe take us back several decades; tranquility eventually wins out over the disturbing, often painful psychological and emotional bruising. In many senses it is heartbreaking. Uplifting. Intoxicating. Bound to be a classic.

Brian Wilson’s cinematic treatment may never convince major theaters it’s worth their while but it won’t need to. Love & Mercy is a biopic gifted with a massive fan base already built in and, impressively, doubles as an eye-opening experience for general audiences as well as those leery of the California dream.

Recommendation: Love & Mercy isn’t a film just for fans of the legacy of Brian Wilson and/or The Beach Boys, though it’ll no doubt help elevate the experience. This is a profoundly touching experience, one that I couldn’t help becoming more enthusiastic about in the days following. It may not haunt you the same way it has me, but may I recommend this one on the strength of its performances at the very least. A very welcomed surprise in the middle of this summer blockbuster bash. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “We’re not surfers, we never have been, and ‘real’ surfers don’t dig our music anyway!”

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

Begin Again

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Release: Friday, June 27, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

A disgraced record label executive has a chance run-in with a down-on-her-luck musician at a bar and the two forge a friendship that inspires more than great music — it reinvigorates one another’s thirst for life.

The Hulk takes a chill pill as Mark Ruffalo fits himself back into a decidedly more human outfit in John Carney’s musical romantic-comedy Begin Again. Instead of wreaking havoc on everything around him in a physical manner, Dan’s going about the same by butting heads with top execs at the label he started up years ago. His idealistic approach to talent management and discovery is viewed as a product of a bygone era in this company and it puts him at odds with the future of the label. His life quickly unravels.

The film’s secondary focus is Keira Knightley’s emotionally fragile yet three-dimensional Gretta, a guitarist from England whose longtime boyfriend is finding massive popularity in America, particularly in Los Angeles. Begin Again spends much of its second act detailing the spiraling downward of this at-once mesmeric and repulsively stagnant relationship between two musicians struggling to find themselves. Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine juggles being Knightley’s heart throb and heart ache impressively as Dave, a man whose artistic integrity as well as devotion to Gretta slowly disintegrates as his star brightens.

Gretta, on the other hand, refuses to bend in the wind. Her firm grasp on her own creative control rings more authentic than manipulative; the choice more a microcosm of an entire population of aspiring artists or even successful ones who have remained true to their roots. So it’s no surprise when she becomes embroiled in drunken conversation with a man who claims to be a formerly successful record producer (yeah, this Dan guy) that we can almost feel it as the stranger smacks straight into the brick wall that is Gretta’s defense mechanism in the face of this awkward business proposition. She claims she is no performer; rather, she creates music at will.

Despite her biting tone, her discomfort seems to stem less from Dan’s crash-landing in her life as it does from being in the present moment. Her very existence here in this spot is the problem. Owed mostly to the ingenuity of the way Carney has constructed this tale, her backstory is explained and introduced in a wholly satisfying way, one that provides the bar scene a greater depth that’s often missing in these ‘when boy-meets-girl’ encounters.

Along with a pair of wonderful lead performances (Ruffalo and Knightley share the kind of chemistry that’s seemingly only developed over many a season of working together) Begin Again also distinguishes itself by not settling for the typical rom-com story arc. It certainly follows structure, but whereas most tend to fail as far as providing surprises is concerned, this little slice of life as a musician in the big city has some wiggle room in terms of deviating from the norm. An unconventional dynamic between the musician and record producer is largely responsible for this. Sidelined for much of the running time is Dan’s estranged daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) who work their way onto the fringe as Dan attempts to pull his life back together.

Indeed, Dan and Gretta may be down but not down for the count. Inspired by the sound Gretta was able to produce with an acoustic guitar and just her voice — yes, that bit from the previews is every bit as charming in the film, especially since it’s prolonged — Dan starts coming up with ideas about what to do next with his career. Will the chance run-in with this talent be enough to turn things around in his life or has he back-peddled too far?

The exploration of the soul through the prism of music is not particularly inventive, but when done right it is rewarding. Doubly so when the music and the story against which its set as a backdrop are both high in quality. Now and again Begin Again contains a few music video-esque sequences (look to the songs ‘Coming Up Roses’ and ‘Tell Me if You Wanna Go Home’) that seem to heighten both the visual and audio senses. It’s a unique sensory experience that seems to verify Carney’s talents as a genre director. Many will say his 2006 production Once is the superior film to this, considering the thematic and tonal similarities each share. It may be a lesser film but there is no denying the feel-good vibes. These are the kinds of films we can’t really tire of.

At least, not quite as quickly.

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3-5

Recommendation: Featuring a plethora of good songs and talented performers to back up these songs, Begin Again offers an interesting cinematic experience that succeeds in pleasing genre fans, Ruffalo fans, Knightley fans and fans of rich acoustic melodies. Though not always the most original tale, Carney’s drama often overcomes through sheer likability.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I’m not a performer, I just write songs from time to time.”

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