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30 for 30: The Real Rocky

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Once upon a time, before movies and steroids made him into his own American myth, Sylvester Stallone saw a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and a supposed patsy, Chuck Wepner.  That patsy ended up lasting until the fifteenth round, when Ali finally defeated him by TKO.  Stallone saw this fight, and shortly afterward wrote Rocky.

Wepner, known for his toughness, is a tragic figure.  Not only has Stallone since disavowed Wepner's role in the genesis of the series (despite being buddy buddy with him earlier), but Wepner has been through divorce, lawsuits, and even jail.  Wepner is a wizened old man now, a figure more pitiable than tough.  He's also not exactly a reliable narrator either, evidenced by statements that he was busted for cocaine that belonged to his "friend."  Still, that doesn't mask the fact that he got jacked around by Stallone.  It makes a compelling documentary.

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30 for 30: Renee

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Renee is the story of Renee Richards, previously Richard Raskind, a trans athelete who had sex-change surgery, then filed a lawsuit to get her onto the pro woman's tour.

This is the type of story that keeps me coming back to the 30 for 30 series.  This is sports apocrypha which says something about society, not just about sports.  It helps that I hadn't heard about this story, despite being at least tangentially familiar with the queer scene.

Not all of what this story says about us is complimentary, of course.  This is a story of overcoming bigotry, of education.  Some people come off looking intolerant, including some of the tennis stars of the day.  The scars have healed, by now, and I'm sure it helps that Renee Richards never won a major.  It does spur one to wonder at both how far we've advanced in the tone of the discussion, and how little we've come to a consensus about this problem from a sporting standpoint.  The debate on chromosomal testing, for instance, lives on in the Olympics.

The interview of Richards' son, Nick, provides a haunting epilogue to the film.  This isn't "And they all lived happily ever after."  This is more like the long-term grief that we saw in Once Brothers.

This is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series.  Definitely see it.

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30 for 30: Charismatic

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It rocked my world when I realized that Netflix now has the 30 for 30 series, including the new season.  I've reviewed the entirety of the first season, and I'm planning to make my way through this second season as well.  There's no chronology to this season, as I'm just picking up whatever I can find on Netflix and watching it as I have an opportunity.

Charismatic is the first one I watched.  It was pretty disappointing.  This is banal sports documentary of the worst type.  What I felt like I was watching was a rehash of the television coverage of the time.  The best sports documentary deliberately contextualize sport, and show why a sports story is more than it seems, is more important to more people than is immediately obvious.  This was mostly a love poem to the horse Charismatic and to his jockey, Chris Antley.  Sure, Charismatic made a run at the Triple Crown, against expectations.  But many horses have done that.  And Chris Antley had a temporary reprieve from addiction.  Again, many people have done that.  Both storylines are extremely well-trod territory, beloved by NBC Olympic coverage, insipid magazine pieces, and lazy newspaper editorials.  The last thing I need is this kind of junk regurgitated in a long form.

The movie is just hopelessly boring.  I have faith that there will be better in this season.

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Review: Opening a box of 1992 Fleer Baseball Cards.

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Target had a box for $10. It was worth the $10, but not for any kind of monetary gain.  (For readers who may be laboring under mistaken assumptions: any card after 1985 is almost certainly worthless.) I figured it’d give me a nice big shot of nostalgia, and it definitely did that.

Even rose-colored glasses can’t help this set very much, though. First of all, the graphic design is atrocious. Who had the bright idea to make the main color of every card an artificial metallic green? Were we going for a verdigris look here? The color inevitably clashes with any team colors or natural colors in the photo. And cards are miscut all over the place. My box has many cards that are cut too-small or two large on one dimension or another. Finally, the sets that are not individual cards are very dumb features that pose one or more atheletes from different teams together for who knows what reason. There’s one card of Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas, and two no-name Orioles who are grouped together because... they all went to Auburn. Um, what?

But I will say, I did get to see a satisfying number of very large glasses and pushbroom mustaches. Who said that stuff went out with the 1980s?

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30 for 30 reviews: Marion Jones: Press Pause

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Marion Jones is one of the icons of the high profile steroid bust. She follows the trope so exactly that it’s scary. Great athlete sees competitive advantage of steroids, dopes, sets amazing record. Then, word leaks out that she juiced and her reputation is forever tarnished.

From the beginning, Jones’ stance has been contrite. She threw herself on the mercy of the court, cried publicly when the sentencing was announced, and even in this documentary is clearly making efforts to rehabilitate her public image.

The saddest thing about Jones is that her openness about her doping bust has led to more abuse than if she had kept quiet. Jones’ weepy confessions seem more genuine and contrite than avoidance (Mark McGwire), rationalization (Barry Bonds, Andy Pettite), outright lying (Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmiero, Floyd Landis), or braggadacio (Jose Canseco). But all those other athletes have gotten off with nothing more than damage to their reputation. More than any other athlete, Marion Jones is forthright and forthcoming, and yet for her stance, she is the only high-profile athlete to serve jail time, and one of the few to have her athletic achievements stripped away. So much for owning up to what you did and hoping for mercy.

As for the film, it’s okay but not great. The documentarian is a little bit too close to Jones, and a little bit too uncritical to be truly trusted. I found myself bored once or twice, and I found more to occupy me when I thought about the movie, as opposed to actually watching it. Far from the best of the series.

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30 for 30 reviews: One Night in Vegas

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The cult of Tupac carries on. I just don’t really get it, and he feels like one of those revered figures of pure good because he never had the chance to fall from grace (See also, Cobain, Kurt; Joplin, Janis; Kennedy, John F.) This documentary explores the rather tenuous celebrity connection between Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur. Tyson is a pretty fascinating figure, but there are other documentaries that are better done on him, particularly the 2008 release Tyson. Shakur’s senseless death is a tragedy that could be a foil, but the movie mostly takes an uncritical look at Shakur. It’s clear that the filmmaker thinks fondly of Shakur, and it gets a little bit tiring to have most questions unanswered.

The movie takes risks in format, particularly in the narration being done by a pair of spoken word artists, as well as several comic-style storyboards. These definitely are an interesting choice, and it’s mostly well-done, but the bias that would seem a bit more normal in those forms comes across much more shady when framed as a documentary. It gets credit for form, but loses them for credibility.

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30 for 30 reviews: Once Brothers

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I’d seen Once Brothers before, but when rewatching select choices of the 30 for 30 series with Tara, she chose to see this history of the Yugoslavian basketball team of the early 90s, particularly through the eyes of Vlade Divac, the most famous player on the team.

The whole documentary is rather haunting, as the specter of the death of Vlade’s ex-roommate, Drazen Petrovic hangs over the reminiscence. Divac and Petrovic were very close when they were on the team together, but grew divided when the Balkan wars broke out that eventually saw the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into the sovereign states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Suddenly, an ethnic divide between Divac’s Serbian heritage and Petrovic’s Croatian heritage was a big deal. Tensions flared as the wars escalated, and the the two stopped talking to each other, even as they each independently saw their careers take off by moving to the U.S. and growing into NBA stars.

At this point in a Hollywood movie, Divac and Petrovic find some common thread that draws them back together, both apologize, and we are taught a lesson of tolerance. Not so here. Instead of getting the cathartic ending we long for, instead Petrovic gets into a car crash and dies. Suddenly, Divac has to move on, knowing that one of the best friends of his youth never forgave him, a bitter pill to swallow. Going about his daily life and reminiscing, Divac is clearly haunted, and we are invited into his life to share it with him. The movie manages a wonderful emotional resonance.

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30 for 30 reviews: The Two Escobars

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Colombia was a hotbed for assassinations in the 90s, and one of the most public was the murder of the soccer player Andrés Escobar. I have no concrete recollection of this event, and I’m sure the combination of a foreign country and a sport I didn’t care about meant that it mostly failed to penetrate my white, entitled sphere of consciousness.

This is a documentary that teaches. I know nothing much about Colombia, and my vision was still stuck in the Colombia of the 90s: drug-riddled, corrupt, and dangerous. (The documentary obliquely suggests that things have improved, something which I assume is true, given no counterevidence.) This documentary tells two stories of 1990s Colombia, one a drug lord, one a soccer player, but both connected to the national industry of soccer and both coincidentally sharing the same last name.

This is a wonderful historical macro view of a country’s public policy, and how policy can shape culture in some powerful ways. The example here is sport, an aspect of culture that we love to divorce from politics. The movie does an admirable job of explaining how drug money came to run Colombia, and how the violence of drug culture spilled into everything, including soccer. That one of the sport’s most famous stars with no immediate connection to drugs got murdered is a testament to just how out-of-hand the drug wars had become.

The film style is occasionally clumsy, and sometimes fails to adequately introduce its topic or explain in enough depth, but the story here is compelling enough that any weaknesses are overshadowed. This is a fascinating macro story, one that needed to be told, and really is a great watch.

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30 for 30 reviews: Four days in October

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The Yankees got their boring, fancentric paean, now it’s the Red Sox’s turn. Four days in October is mostly a bunch of Red Sox fans talking about how amazing their team was that one time. The documentary doesn’t say anything about the city of Boston, it doesn’t get into interesting social issues; it restricts itself to rehashing the same overly-covered narrative of how awesome it is that they won four straight games against the Yankees.

Don’t get me wrong, the moment was historic, and I, as a Yankees-hater, loved the event. If you don’t already know the details, the Yankees and Red Sox have a historic rivalry, Yankees go up 3-0 in a seven game series, and everybody counts the Red Sox out, because nobody in the history of the sport has come back from a 3-0 hole. Then, the Red Sox triumph against all odds, partially aided by a Curt Schilling who is bleeding through his sock, and come back to win four straight and win the series, and ultimately the World Series as well.

But, ye gods, do I have to listed to a bunch of obnoxious sports fans talk about their team? Yeah, they won. Yeah, it was historic. But they aren’t saying anything new. I’m a disinterested baseball fan at best, and even I knew everything that the documentary discussed. The documentary doesn’t establish enough context for the sports, and so the viewer is given the equivalent of a talk radio show that’s a tribute to the Boston Red Sox. Definitely give this a miss. One of the worst of the 30 for 30 series.

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30 for 30 reviews: Little Big Men

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Little Big Men is the chronicle of an event I knew nothing about. After seeing the movie, I now know something about it, but really still don’t care particularly. The Little League World Series is staggeringly irrelevant at this point. Perhaps it was a bigger deal then. The documentary certainly behaves like it was a big deal, and that many sports fans will remember this. A team from Washington beats the big bad Taiwanese, which unites America behind a winner and blah blah they worked hard blah blah underdog blah blah same old storyline, just this time with 12 year olds.

The most compelling storyline in the movie is definitely the story of the star of the team, Cody Webster. Webster was an early maturer, towering over the other kids his age, and gifted athletically. To the credit of the documentary, it goes in depth into the experiences that Cody went through, both during and after the Series. The movie puts it in terms of Webster’s life peaking before puberty, and although that may be true athletically, you don’t really get that sense from Webster himself.

Webster did go through a ton of persecution, which was explained well without being salacious or voyeuristic. It is somewhat obvious, as Webster became, at least to some degree, a national figure. The other kids (and even some of the adults) were jealous of Webster, and tormented him a lot. Thankfully, now, almost 20 years later, Webster has put that behind him. Maturing into an adult has physically changed him enough to become unrecognizable, and time has taken most of the remaining pressure away.

But too much time is spent away from Webster’s story, in the tropes of sports stories. Underdogs make good through hard work and determination. This story, particularly in sports film, is told over and over and over again. One of the best things about this series is that it has the courage to examine the failures of sport, the eccentricities and the dramas that can tear at the social fabric. This documentary adheres too much to stereotype to examine those issues in depth, and hence comes across as boring.

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