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30 for 30 reviews: The Guru of Go

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The 30 for 30 saga continues.  This was the one of only a few films in the series which covered a subject which I had never even heard of.  Well, really it had two subjects.  It was the bio of Paul Westhead, a pro and college basketball coach who implemented an offensive strategy simply called "The System," and the story of Hank Gathers, a talented star who played for Westhead at Loyola Marymount, and who tragically died on the court.

Somebody needs to tell ESPN that they don't need two films in one series on basically the same thing.  I already reviewed Without Bias, the earlier entry about a college phenom who tragically died before getting a chance to play in the NBA.  Sure, the cause of death was similar, but the ground they cover is very, very similar.  I just watched a family getting emotional about the untimely death of their basketball-playing son.  I just saw many people say how the death shocked them.  It just doesn't have the same ring seeing the same general narrative a second time.

The thing that is supposed to set this film apart from Without Bias is Westhead's story.  He's the actual Guru of Go, the title character.  He's portrayed as an iconoclast, a coach who bucked the common wisdom to create this revolutionary system.  True, his teams scored a lot of points, and he had some success, particularly when he had great players, but he also had some pretty bad times.  This is a guy who got three tries in the NBA, as well as three tries at major basketball powerhouses.  He always seems to get some kind of good coaching job, and he usually does... well, adequately.  Not great, but adequately.  Sometimes he's really bad.  I have a difficult time feeling bad for this guy, because although he seems to have gotten the shaft sometimes, he's also had a lot of success, and as far as head coaches go, he's had more chances than most.

So, you combine two not-particularly-compelling stories, and you get a mediocre mishmash.  Not the strongest entry in the series by any stretch.

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30 for 30 reviews: Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, The Legend of Jimmy the Greek.

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I never thought that a sports documentary could be funny until I saw Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks. I especially didn't think a documentary that was part of ESPN's usually somber 30 for 30 series was going to be funny. Turns out that Reggie Miller is a fucking comic artist. I couldn't stop laughing. Between his constant trash talking, his "Who, me?" bullshit that he puts on every time somebody calls him on it, and his clever jibes at John Starks and Spike Lee, it's practically Comedy Central Presents: Reggie Miller.

And there's a lot of stuff here that I really never knew about, which is absolutely fascinating. Sure, I remember Reggie Miller, and Patrick Ewing, and John Starks, and Rick Smits, but I never paid more than a passing interest to basketball, so I didn't know about the feud, or the part that Spike Lee played, or that there were a pair of series played two years in a row that were that epic. So you get a good story, combined with illuminating history, and a great interviewee in Reggie Miller, and you get a really charmed combination. The fact that it turns out to be hilarious is just icing on the cake, really. 8/10


The Legend of Jimmy the Greek is much more typical of the 30 for 30 series. It's an introspective documentary of a tragic figure. This was my second time seeing this movie, after seeing it on TV when it first aired, the first 30 for 30 that I watched, and the one that got me interested in the rest of the series in the first place.

Jimmy the Greek's style is as interesting as its story. Jimmy's time in the limelight was fascinating, and he truly did bring sports betting into the limelight through mass appeal. But the way the story is told, through extensive voiceover work and by a body double actor interspliced with archive footage of the man himself make the film truly unique. This is proof that not every sports film needs to be same old, same old. There's new area to explore here, and if it's a bio in the form of a New York gangster movie a la Scorcese, then more the better. Sports tropes be damned, there's other tropes to appropriate. 7/10
 

30 for 30 reviews: Without Bias, Muhammad and Larry

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ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series sets out to chronicle 30 of the most famous sports history events of the last 30 years, since ESPN's founding in 1980.  There are 30 different filmmakers involved in the project, which can make it a bit spotty at times, but overall the series is definitely a strong one.  I was lucky enough to get the first boxed set for Christmas, so you'll see a lot of these reviews occurring over the next couple weeks.

 

Without Bias is about the 1986 death of Len Bias from cocaine on the night after he was drafted #2 overall by the Boston Celtics.  He never even got to play a pro game.   Heck, he never even managed to attend a pro practice.  His story is definitely compelling.  Here's an athlete cut down in the flower of youth by drugs.  He was an amazing talent.  Even more puzzling, he doesn't appear to be a frequent cocaine user, as his grilfriend, best friend, and even the friend who was doing cocaine with him that night all testify that they had never seen him do coke before that night.. 

But for all that the story is compelling, the documentary falls on its face.  The sound and video editing is really poor.  It trends toward corny TV featurette, rather than incisive documentary like much of the rest of the series.  Too much time is spent with melodramatic music and narration.  The interviews with the actual figures in the story are often compelling, but often somewhat clumsy, as if practiced by an inexperienced interviewer.  Sportscasters James Brown and Michael Wilbon appear, and they may be authorities on the Bias story, but they don't seem it.

The film does finish strong, with some commentary about what Bias' death meant to a culture who was cocaine crazy and how it brought home mortality to a generation.  But, it simply takes too long to get there.  This is one of the weakest of the series, and I'd only recommend seeing it if you're a completist.  4/10

 

On the other hand, there's Muhammad and Larry, a documentary about the Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes fight in 1980.  Ali was an aging heavyweight, and came out of retirement well after he should have, and got destroyed in humiliating fashion by Holmes.  This film is a much better example of the series' style, which combines compelling interviews and expert commentary to weave a storyline which says as much about society as it does about sports.

Holmes and Ali make excellent foils for each other.  Where Ali is brash and talkative, Holmes is wary and realistic.  We also get the treat of an interview with Holmes as he is today.  A modern day interview with Ali is missing, but his debilitating Parkinson's disease hovers about the film like a specter, unseen but powerful.  We all know how this fight ends, and this is more of a parable of how even the great ones can make horrible, tragic mistakes.  This film is as much warning as it is a story.

I was genuinely surprised by Holmes, particularly in contrast with Ali.  He is frank and willing to tell the press what he is thinking.  This is so rarely manifested in athletes that it is downright refreshing.  What's more, compared to Ali, Holmes has his life together, and has gotten on with his life.  While we see Ali as a fighter who just couldn't let go, we see Holmes as what Ali could have been, if he had only known when to stop.  It's a point that leaves you wondering well after the film is over.

Even for people who don't care for boxing, this makes a good film.  The tragic poetry of a hero's downfall is writ large.  7/10

Deadwood: Season 2 - Further information for those cocksuckers

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I reviewed the first season of Deadwood a while back, so if you want to reference that for my initial thoughts, you can do so here.  This here's the second season review.

Deadwood continues a pretty good run into the second season.  The threads are getting more and more byzantine, and the relations between the players are continuing to change.  This is definitely a good thing, as it keeps the characters from becoming flat.  This season of Deadwood is very much two separate halves.  The first part of the season brings several new characters, and expands the relationships.  The second part of the season is a bit weaker, as it is bringing a denoument to many of the storylines of the first season.  Unfortunately, the conclusion of some of the storylines is a bit unsatisfactory.  Certainly, they are surprising, but I found myself realizing that 'surprising' doesn't always mean 'good.'

Of course, the series is quite good.  It's kept my attention admirably.  The writing is usually very tight, and even some of the characters I hated earlier in the show (Calamity Jane, I'm looking at you), are showing more depth.  I'm definitely going to watch the third and final season.  I have been warned that it ends abruptly, and I'm not looking forward to that, but it doesn't mean I won't enjoy it until that happens.  Besides, after that, there's always Wikipedia to fill me in on the rest of the history.

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The Sound of Music: The hills are alive with the sound of Nazis

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Rogers and Hammerstein are hacks.  That said, they at least try to say something in The Sound of Music.  Of course, because they're hacks, what they end up saying is "I don't care about history, I can do it better."  There's a certain charm to this film, one that is sadly lacking from most R&H musical adaptations.  There's the usual catchy songs, and there are some painfully cute moments with the kids, but it's just so vapid.  So fake and made up.  It feels like a precursor to Disney, with all that entails.  Not so hot.  The infusion of Nazis into the storyline feels tacked on at the end, and not particularly real.  For chrissake, in real life, the Von Trapps lived in the part of Austria already annexed by Italy at the end of World War I.  There's no cross-alpine hike to escape the Germans, it's called 'taking a train from neutral Italy to Switzerland.'  Not exactly tough to escape the Nazis when you aren't in Nazi territory, is it?

And no, I can't take credit for the joke in the title.  That's all GraphJam.

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True Grit: Even truer than John Wayne

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What better place to watch True Grit than on a trip to the state in which it was filmed?  Caught it in a theater here in Albuquerque with Tara's family.  After some truly awful previews (Can you say Country Strong?), the movie commenced with a common revenge theme.  Somebody gets killed, relative swears revenge.  Of course, the trick to this movie is that the relative is a young girl, 14 years old to be exact.

This is a Coen brothers movie, a pair of brothers who have a very strong history, and seem to be more prolific with every passing year.  I remember when it used to be a big deal when a Coen brothers movie came out.  Now, I feel like I trip over a Coen brothers movie poster everytime I walk out my front door.

And that means the movie is less special.  Sure, the plot is interesting, and Jeff Bridges plays a very compelling pseudo-father figure.  And there are some really amazing scenes, like when two characters come upon a corpse in a tree.  It's not clear why the corpse is there, and it never really is clarified.  But the corpse leads to some fascinating character development and world building.

Speaking of world building, you can't write about a Coen brothers film without talking about the setting.  This is a Western, and the Coen brothers put their usual fingerprints on the setting.  You feel the setting.  You know throughout the whole movie where you are.  The geography is fluidly woven into shot after shot, and the characters don't feel like modern actors stuck in the west.  No, they speak like we think they spoke in the old west.  This is no John Wayne here that feels like nothing more than a 40s man wearing chaps.  No, the stilted speech and everyday habits like rolling a cigarette make us realize that these are characters inextricably bound to their era, a credit to both the writing and the acting. 

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Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The movie, because I'm not cool enough to have read the book yet

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Michael Cera has somehow managed to build a career on playing only one part.  This is somewhat unfortunate, as I sense that he probably has more depth in him than playing the nerdy white guy again.  In Scott Pilgrim, Cera has reached the apex of his nerdiness, which is hard to match when you consider his parts in Superbad and Juno.  He plays Scott Pilgrim, the bassist in a local band who gets through his day be being neurotic and fantasizing about how much cooler his life would be if he was in a comic book.  Which, in the original comic book version, he is.

The style of the movie is very unique, and it had me buying into it during the first half.  The cuts are quick, the dialogue is clever, and the video game fantasies overlay crisply onto a life which any 20-something can empathize.  Kieran Culkin, particularly, plays a fantastic role as Pilgrim's roommate-cum-relationship advisor.

But by the end of the movie, the effects wear thin.  This could still be okay, except that the movie chooses that time to stop being interesting.  It devolves into another romantic comedy, though this one is aimed at nerdy white guys.  Jason Schwartzman turns in a surprisingly blah performance as the big bad, and even the love interest, previously a stalwart anticonformist, becomes yet another objectified female, as she stops making decisions of any kind, and merely is a subject for Pilgrim to win.  I suppose this movie is proof that a movie can be really, really cool, and still have uncomfortable gender politics.  It's still worth seeing this movie, but make sure you take it with a significant grain of salt.

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A Single Man: Not to be confused with A Serious Man or a A Simple Plan

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You know those movies that you just know are going to be awesome when you see the preview?  That they're going to tap directly into your dopamine receptors and stimulate them until you are a shuddering mass on the floor?  Those movies that are going to be what you would write and direct if you had any drive and were actually talented at writing and directing?  A Single Man is that movie for me.  I mean, just watch this preview.

Wasn't that exhilarating?  Okay, maybe you didn't get as much out of it as I did, but let me tell you, this preview promises me everything I want in movies.

But somebody forgot to make the movie that the preview promises.  About half the movie got made, and then the movie ends.  There's building up, and building up, and building up, and then the movie just kind of ends.  And you feel cheated, because this could be a good movie, but instead, it's just another movie.  The LGBT issues and the effort to make this a period piece are all well-done, but the movie doesn't hang together. 

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Tron: Legacy - What the Matrix sequels should have been

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Tron: Legacy is one of those projects that never should have existed.  You just know that there's some kind of crazy story behind the production.  You know, like some dude has been sitting in his house, watching the original Tron at least once a year for 25+ years, and thinking about how seriously awesome it would be if there was a sequel to this rightfully-forgotten movie.  Then, somehow, he gets the ear of somebody at Disney, because look-at-how-well-that-Star-Trek-movie-did-and-they-didn't-even-use-the-same-universe-as-the-old-series.  And so the Disney executive ignores that the guy seems just to the right of certifiably nuts, and proposes it to the board.  Then the board members get trashed at the Christmas party, unsuccessfully hitting on the cute girls in HR, and wake up too hungover to spell 'Eisner,' much less pay any attention to this goddamned movie proposal the next morning, and suddenly Tron: Legacy ends up with a huge budget, and a whole lot of execs that want nothing to do with the movie, because they were just greenlighting it as a favor to the next guy down the line.

And then, to the surprise of everyone, a team formed around this project.  They got a screenwriter who was devoted to the series and could weave in all the old favorite elements.  They got the big name star to come back for a reprisal of the role.  They got a director and producer that were able to see both what worked about the old movie, and, just as importantly, what needed to be gutted for the benefit of the plot and for today's audience.

And it all comes together to get just what you expect from a Disney holiday blockbuster.  The plot is easy-to-follow, with clear divisions of good and evil.  The protagonist is a bland everyman, whom the viewer can easily empathize with.  And the visuals-- Oh, sweet mother of god, the visuals.  Not only is the movie in lush 3d, but the movie has an art- and costume-direction that is astounding.  People are going to be expecting a lot from a sequel to a movie that is remembered mostly for its visuals, and Tron: Legacy delivers.  Sure, you got the costumes that everybody knows and loves, which have been brought back into our collective consciousness by Tron Guy, but you also have great props and sets, 3D and CG imagery that is lush but not overused, and wonderful world-building in the technology and buildings that the characters interact with.

And all that's great, because that's what you expect from a movie like this one.  But it is really set apart by what Tara said after we walked out of the theater: "That movie was so much smarter than it had a right to be."  The movie is really dense.  There's a think-piece hidden in this blockbuster, a movie waiting to be unpacked which is wryly self-referential and cognizant of its audience.  Jeff Bridges reprises his role from the previous movie, but this time with a Dude-esque zen persona, with a little bit of kick-ass added in for good measure.  Daft Punk provides the music in the movie, and even makes an appearance as club DJs, in their normal helmet attire, and it fits in perfectly for the scene.  The movie knowingly references a hodgepodge of movies that came before, from The Matrix to The Big Lebowski to Pi to even Wargames when Jeff Bridges declares that "The only way to win is not to play."  There is so much more to this movie than it seems. 

In fact, this is the oh-so-rare action blockbuster that's worth watching twice, not because I admire the filming or the acting (which I do), but because I didn't catch it all the first time.  That's so rare, in fact, that I can't remember a movie like that since The Matrix.  In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this will become a touchstone of our generation.  This is the best 2010 release I've seen.  I will be going back to the theater to see it again.

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North Dallas Forty

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Who woulda thunk that Nick Nolte could be so effective?  He can act?  All I really remember him from is the over-the-top coach in Blue Chips and a dim recollection of him 'acting' in some action movies.  North Dallas Forty is all about Nick Nolte, specifically Nick Nolte as an aging wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys North Dallas Bulls.  And they're coached by a cold, impersonal asshole who doesn't give a shit about his players called Tom Landry B.A. Strother.  I promise, I wasn't planning on this to become 'bag on the Cowboys week,' but here we are and there's two posts in one week on how abhorrent they are.  I don't know how this happens, except that every self-respecting football fan hates the Cowboys.  America's Team my ass.  More like North Korea's team amirite?

Anyway, back to the long, flowing 70s locks of Nick Nolte.  My gawd, I miss the 70s, back when it was possible to honestly question social mores without being labeled an outcast.  See, there was this thing called the sexual revolution, and a lot of drugs, and people had to actually think about whether the 50s was all it was cracked up to be [protip: it wasn't].  Now, you try that shit with the wrong skin color and the next thing you know you're being waterboarded at Gitmo.  Anyway, can you imagine a movie sponsored by Playboy about the NFL today?  No, today we have sports media about Mark Wahlberg being a down-and-out lower-class athlete who's trying to make the most of his shot.  Didn't we already try this once, and we got one of the worst sports movies of all time with Invincible?

In the end, North Dalls Forty does more to tell the average fan about what it feels like to be a player than any other movie I've ever seen.  It's a sports movie that uses sports to tell a social story that isn't a stupid simple parable about overcoming some kind of lame social-issue-of-the-moment.  Nolte is in the twilight of his career, and the movie is about the unfairness of sport, the role of the older athlete, and the callousness of a system after it's used up an athlete.  It says something about sports, and about us.  Heck, this is one of the best sports movies ever made, not that it has much competition. 

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