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Monday, 13 June 2022 13:30

Respect the ‘Hustle’

It’s kind of incredible to think that Adam Sandler has been a major part of the pop cultural firmament for three decades at this point. Love him or hate him – and it’s likely that you have one of those opinions – you can’t deny the impact that he’s had.

But while many tend to dismiss him out of hand for his (admittedly uneven) filmography – and make no mistake, he’s made more than his share of clunkers over the years – he’s also got a deep well of talent, and when he delves into it, it can be something special.

Sandler’s latest is “Hustle,” an original film streaming on Netflix. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar from a screenplay by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, the movie stars Sandler as a longtime NBA scout who places everything on the line for a prospect in whose potential he deeply believes. As performances go, it’s one of his best – more Safdie Brothers than Happy Madison – and while it doesn’t quite reach the dramatic heights of his performative apex, it gets awfully close.

It is a film about family, about regret and ambition … and a really good basketball movie, one that offers some surprisingly strong and nuanced performances from unexpected sources; in particular, the turn from NBA player Juancho Hernangomez as the prospect in question is almost shockingly good. The combination of interpersonal relationships and pro basketball nuts-and-bolts turns out to be a winning team.

Published in Sports

Confession time: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever stood on a skateboard. It was an activity that I always admired from afar, but never felt compelled to participate in myself. And yet, even with that limited connection to the sport, I know who Tony Hawk is.

I’m far from alone in that, by the way. Hawk has become a semi-ubiquitous pop cultural figure, an athlete who has transcended his sport in a way that few ever have. Even if you’ve never skated, you know the name.

The new documentary “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” – directed by Sam Jones and currently streaming on HBO Max – tracks Hawk’s incredible journey from the homemade ramps and empty swimming pools of late-1970s/early-1980s California to the pinnacle of global superstardom (with plenty of ebbing and flowing along the way). It is a well-crafted portrait of a guy whose singular obsession with the skateboard carried him to dizzying heights.

We hear plenty from the man himself, of course, as well as his family, but it is in the conversations with Hawk’s peers, the guys who came up with him, who performed alongside him, that we get a wider sense of just what his place is within the context of that community. Those interviews – plus the absolute treasure trove of archival footage – result in a compelling and thoughtful documentary.

Published in Sports

Fans of the NFL are probably aware that Sean Payton, longtime coach of the New Orleans Saints, stepped down after this past season. However, they might not be aware that a new film involving the last time Payton “stepped down” has hit Netflix.

“Home Team,” directed by Charles and Daniel Kinnane and starring Kevin James, tells the story of what Payton got up to during his year-long suspension following the headhunting “Bountygate” scandal that involved Saints players getting paid to outright injure opposing players (not that this movie is all that interested in digging too deeply into that story).

No, what we get here is a focus on what Payton did while he was gone. Specifically, he apparently spent some time working with his son’s sixth-grade football team in Texas. And so, with the full power of Adam Sandler behind it, “Home Team” turns one of the biggest NFL scandals of the past decade into fodder for a kid-friendly sports movie.

It’s not great, folks. Now, it isn’t quite as terrible as some of Sandler’s previous Netflix productions (it’s worth noting that the man doesn’t appear in this one, though the rest of his usual roster is present and accounted for – and yes, that includes family), but that’s a low bar. It’s derivative of pretty much every kid-oriented sports movie you’ve seen … and worse than most of them.

Published in Movies
Monday, 20 December 2021 15:47

Not ready to ‘Rumble’

Sometimes, the elevator pitch is enough. You hear the basic description of the movie and you’re in. This isn’t to say that you know this movie will be great or even good, just that the boiled-down fundamental concept is enough to intrigue.

So it is with “Rumble,” the new animated film streaming exclusively on Paramount+. In essence, this film is basically “Professional wrestling, only with massive kaiju-style monsters.” It’s an idea that certainly appeals to the 14-year-old boy in me.

The film was initially intended for a theatrical release, but the powers that be ultimately decided (after pushing the date a couple of times) to send it straight to the streamer. It is a decision that, upon watching the movie, makes one wonder why that wasn’t the plan all along.

It’s not that “Rumble” is bad so much as that it is … boring. One can squint and see the pieces of a better movie scattered here and there, but the truth is that the film never quite manages to take advantage of the various and sundry cartoonish elements – figurative and literal alike – that the conceit invites. Instead, we get a film that offers up watered-down versions of familiar themes – underdog sports story, familial legacy, etc. – and never really manages to go anywhere with them.

Look – if I’m dozing off during a movie about wrestling kaiju, someone somewhere has made some pretty significant errors.

Published in Movies
Monday, 29 November 2021 15:39

MMA drama ‘Bruised’ far from a knockout

I’m on record as someone who greatly enjoys an inspirational sports movie. Whether we’re talking about comebacks from adversity or Davids taking on Goliaths or some combination therein, I am here for it. I’ve always found these types of films compelling when they’re done well.

Emphasis on the last part.

The new film “Bruised,” currently streaming on Netflix, doesn’t quite achieve that standard. It’s a muddy, confused sort of film, a movie that never figures out precisely what it is trying to say or what it wants to be. Set in the world of mixed martial arts, it is an undeniably visceral film – both physically and emotionally – but largely lacks the thematic depth that could push it to the next level.

It marks the directorial debut of Halle Berry, who also stars in the film. It’s an odd choice for a debut, a movie that originally had a different director and star attached; one wonders what drew Berry to the project in the first place. While there are some impactful moments, the muddled nature of the film’s tone undercuts them, ultimately resulting in a flawed viewing experience.

Published in Sports

The difficult sports parent is a character with whom many of us are all too familiar. We’ve seen it play out time and time again, men and women (but mostly men) pushing their kids to the brink and beyond in an effort to propel them to athletic greatness. These are the parents who turn their children into cautionary tales rather than champions.

But sometimes, the story is a bit more complicated than we’re led to believe.

Richard Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. Many people viewed him as harsh and demanding, a loudmouth who took too much credit for the athletic brilliance of his daughters. And the media at the time certainly had no problem painting him with that brush.

But in the new film “King Richard” – currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max – we’re given a much more nuanced look at the man, with Will Smith playing the titular role. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a screenplay by Zach Baylin, it’s a look at the early days of the ascendance of the Williams sisters by way of their father, whose unorthodox methods and attitudes rubbed people the wrong way even as he remained fiercely devoted to the belief that his daughters’ success didn’t have to come at the expense of some semblance of normalcy.

Call it a sports movie about fathers and daughters or call it a family drama revolving around sports, it doesn’t matter. Anchored by one of the best performances of Smith’s career, it is a compelling and challenging look at one man’s unconventional efforts to drive his children to greatness and his willingness to do whatever it took to get them there.

Published in Movies

The great internet arbiter Judge John Hodgman has a saying: “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” While I don’t necessarily fully agree with that sentiment – I think there can be real value in reengaging with aspects of our past that we remember fondly – I also acknowledge that the tendency to get lost in our own personal pop culture ephemera-strewn memory palaces can result in some dark turns.

All this is to say that while I understand why “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was made and the thoughts and desires that led to that outcome, enabling the nostalgic impulse without any critical regard to the reasons behind the memory can result in something hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As a late Gen-Xer, I’m a hair too old to have the same fondness for 1996’s “Space Jam” that many millennials carry. However, I do still carry a soft spot for the film – I mean, Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes and a pre-folk hero Bill Murray? What’s not to like?

That said, the sequel – this one starring LeBron James – fails to achieve even the modicum of loose charm that surrounded the original, exchanging the winking self-awareness and quirkiness of the original for a seemingly unending cavalcade of product placement and self-celebratory IP exploitation.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who replaced original director Terrence Nance a few weeks into filming) from a screenplay with no less than six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the unfortunate result when you attempt to recreate something whose appeal you don’t fully understand; there’s a goofball kitschiness to the original film that is lost here, the lunacy (sorry – “Loon-acy”) replaced by an overstuffed commitment to the idea that instead of using references to make jokes, the jokes ARE the references.

Published in Sports

Sports documentaries are always a mixed bag, but that bag is particularly mixed if the doc is about a single individual. It’s a fine line; a person isn’t going to sign onto a film that’s going to be a hatchet job, but venturing too far into the realm of hagiography undermines the credibility of the filmmakers and the credulity of the viewer.

“Tony Parker: The Final Shot,” currently streaming on Netflix, manages to find its way into the middle ground, albeit considerably closer to the hagiographic side of the equation. Directed by French filmmaker Florent Bodin, it’s a journey through the career of Tony Parker, the retired NBA point guard who is generally considered to be the greatest player in the history of French basketball.

Published in Sports
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:31

‘Safety’ a feel-good football film

Full disclosure: I am a sucker for an inspirational sports movie. No matter the sport, no matter the story – I’m in. Give me athletes overcoming obstacles and coming together as a team in the course of that overcoming. Heck and yes.

All of this is to say that I was always going to enjoy “Safety,” the new film from Disney now streaming on Disney+. Based on the true story of football player Ray McElrathbey and his little brother Fahmarr, it’s a tale of perseverance in the face of adversity, as well as of the different ways people can be (or become) family.

Now, this is a Disney production, so the grittier aspects of the story have definitely had those rough edges sanded down. Still, for the most part, director Reginald Hudlin manages to keep the proceedings from moving beyond the sentimental into the saccharine. The beats will ring familiar to anyone who watches this sort of film, but the emotions still resonate. And make no mistake – this is a movie that is both aware of which buttons to push and unafraid to push them.

Published in Sports

One of the many things that we lost to the pandemic this year was the 2020 Olympic Games. Set to take place in Tokyo this summer, the event has been moved to 2021. It’s easy to forget, however, that losing the Olympics means losing more than just those Games.

Specifically, we also are deprived of the Paralympic Games, an event that is not only a way to celebrate differently-abled athletes on the global stage, but is actually the third-largest sporting event in the world.

“Rising Phoenix,” a documentary by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui currently streaming on Netflix, is an in-depth look at the Paralympic Games through the eyes of its organizers and its competitors. It is a heartfelt and inspirational journey through the history of the Games, both in terms of how it came to be and what it means to those who participate.

Watching the best in the world do what they do is always compelling. Compounding that excellence with the remarkable fortitude that comes with overcoming additional hurdles to reach that apex is exponentially more so. This is a remarkable portrait of some remarkable athletes, a film that celebrates the multitude of ways in which someone can excel in the world of sport.

It should also be noted that “Rising Phoenix” is an absolutely stunning film to look at. These athletes are presented in ways that reflect their outsized talent and determination, with images reminiscent of superhero origin stories or renderings that recall statuary representing Greek gods. This bold aesthetic, matched with incredible footage of both competition and training, allows these athletes and their accomplishments the larger-than-life appearance that they warrant.

Published in Sports
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