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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

The Greatest Collapse of All Time: 1992 AFC Wild Card Game

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Watching the Philadelphia Eagles jump out to a 35-0 lead on the Redskins last night before giving up two quick scores to make it 35-14 reminded me of the greatest collapse in NFL history, the playoff game between the Bills and Oilers in 1992.
 It is truly remarkable, even against the Oilers teams of the early 90s, known for shootouts.  You can see the full game on YouTube, and it's a real treat.  The game starts here, and the comback starts here.  Watching the real-time telecast is far superior, but if you really don't have the patience even to just watch the comeback, you can see the Chris Berman-narrated ESPN highlights version here.

One thing that's amazing to me is how quickly Houston gets dispirited.  The Houston defense in particular looks terrible.  Shots of the sidelines show Oilers looking morose, even when they are still ahead.  This was a defeated team as soon as the Bills scored those first three touchdowns.  And the mood is reflected on the field as well.  Suddenly Moon is inaccurate, the offensive line can't block, and the defense can't mount a pass rush, maintain the line of scrimmage, or (heaven forbid) cover.  These receivers are not just open, they are WIDE open.  We're talking regularly five yards of space between them and a defender, even 15+ yards down the field.

I can't imagine this is poor coaching.  It looks like poor execution.  Everybody knows that with a lead like that, all you have to do is play a lot of two- and three-deep zone defenses.  Let them have the 7 yard passes over the middle, the run game, and the flat passes.  What you don't want to give up is the throws where the receiver gets behind the safety.  Use your dime defense for crying out loud!  Making them chew up the clock is as good as stopping them cold.

Finally, it's amazing how ahead-of-their-time BOTH of these offenses are.  The run and shoot of Jack Pardee's Oilers is not much different from the spread offense run by Indianapolis.  Thurman Thomas' pass receptions are similarly mirrored in the way that the Eagles love to throw the ball to their backs on screens, flat passes, and outlet routes.  Too bad neither of those two teams won a Super Bowl, because there have not been very many more exciting teams over a several year span. 

But you should watch the game.  It's shocking, it's exciting, and it's very modern for happening 18 years ago.

The Tillman Story

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The Tillman Story is a straight-up documentary.  Most people already know the basics:  Pat Tillman was an NFL safety, an up and coming star with the Arizona Cardinals.  Soon after 9/11, he joined the Army Rangers to serve his country, leaving behind a multimillion dollar contract and fame.  In the service, he was killed in the line of duty, and the Bush regime claimed it was in an enemy ambush, in order to further stoke the patriotic fires.  It later came out that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, and that officials all the way up to Donald Rumsfeld covered up the truth, in order to avoid exposure for the embarassing mistakes of commanders up and down the line, and to make Tillman more heroic.  The Tillman Story is an account of how the public gradually found out the truth about Tillman, and the ultimately unsatisfying conclusion of the investigations of culpability.

Between Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated article from 2006 and John Krakauer's 2009 book Where Men Win Glory, many people have heard Pat Tillman's story.  And, unlike those two accounts, this film doesn't really cover much new ground.  Instead, it's mostly a rehash of already known information.  Most of what I saw in this film felt rather stale to me.  There were tidbits of new information here and there, but I already knew this story.  Still, it could be that others less familiar with the story could find it revelatory.

There are times when the medium of film is used to good effect.  It is powerful to see film of the actual canyon, as well as the bullet-riddled rock where Tillman was getting shot at by his fellow rangers.  There's also a neat computer-generated topographical model of the canyon, which sounds hokey, but is actually very useful for contextualizing the actual events. 

The film also got interviews with many of the main players, including several of Tillman's ranger cohorts.  But, unfortunately, the interviews are clumsy and not very revealing.  Generally, you get the impression that the interviewer is just not very good at his job.  The interviewees come across as very flat and unemotional, which is odd considering that they are talking about a death of somebody close to them, many times an immediate family member.

If you want to know about the Tillman story, I would suggest reading Gary Smith's article linked above.  This film tells a compelling story, but mostly misses the resonance.

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The World Cup: Why the referees break soccer

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For the first time in my life, I'm actually watching the World Cup.  I don't really know what's compelled me to watch it this time, as my general feeling aligns with most Americans' feelings about soccer.

Why am I finding it compelling?  I gotta admit, the what-if scenarios of the first round have kept me interested.  Crunching the numbers about who is likely to move on, what it will take to clinch positions, and what kind of help teams will need is always interesting.  It might seem a whole lot more dry once the knockout round actually starts.  At that point, it's a fairer but less interesting format of win-or-go-home.

I am getting fed up, however, with the role of luck in soccer.  Yes, I said luck.  Specifically, I mean refereeing.  Goals are so rare that something that leads to a goal or takes one away changes the whole flow of the game.  It's next to impossible to "make up" a score due to something bad that happens.

No other team sport I can think of has scores as low as soccer.  There have been 95 goals scored in 44 games in this World Cup, a hair over 2 per game.  The average for all previous World Cups, according to this NY Times article, is just under 3.  The only other sport whose major professional league even comes close is the hockey, whose NHL is in a historically low-scoring period of about 5.5 goals per game.  Baseball has around 10 runs per game, and the NFL and NBA are much, much higher.

When you have such low-scoring games, you have is an environment where one single score has overwhelming importance.  As a result, an occurrence which takes away a goal or gives an artificially inflated chance to score a goal is very likely to impact the game.  After all, the odds are much, much higher that single goal will be the margin of victory.

Not that I really blame the refs.  Soccer referees have the power to take away goals.  They need this power.  They also need the power to grant penalty shots.  But, there is simply an unfair burden placed on these refs to make the right call, every time the ball gets near the net.  To compound the problem, there's only one referee on the field of play, with three other largely powerless assistants on the periphery.  And that's a big field.  By contrast, the NFL has a smaller field of play, with no less than 7 referees, all with the power to call any penalty they see.  That's not even bringing instant replay into the equation.

Soccer has the fewest referees, with the most responsibility, and the most game-changing calls of any major sport.  It makes for a perfect storm where even a good referee can make a mistake, and that mistake can change the match more than any single person has a right to do.  Until something happens to fix this for soccer, I'm going to continue to look down on it as a second-tier sport.  Yup, like fast food and marketing, in sports, the Americans do it better.

Photo courtesy of flickr, via ElvertBarnes.

Brian's Song

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This made for TV movie is often brought up as one of the best sports movies ever, about the friendship between future hall of famer Gale Sayers and his fellow rookie running back and roommate Brian Piccolo.  They make an excellent duo in the backfield, until Piccolo's production suddenly suffers.  He is sent back to Chicago, and it's discovered that he has lung cancer.

Brian's Song is certainly predictable, though the director and writer acknowledge this.  The beginning of the movie has the narrator saying "Ernest Hemingway once said 'Every true story ends in death.' Well, this is a true story."  The movie isn't trying to build suspense, however, it is trying to paint a portrait of a friendship, and so doesn't suffer from giving away the ending.

No, what really should set apart a friendship drama is genuine feeling.  Somewhere in this, Brian's Song misses.  James Caan delivers a surprisingly one-dimensional performance as the garrulous Brian.  It smells a little bit of TV movie dumbing down, in order to make the movie more palatable and simplistic for a TV audience.  The chemistry is there between Billie Dee Williams (as Sayers) and Caan, but it's also often grounded in banter that rings false.  I think it may be because there's not enough back and forth dialogue.  Instead, much of the dialogue follows standard timing of 1) set-up, 2) response, 3) punch-line, which is the way people talk on sitcoms, but not the way that I've ever had a real-life conversation.

Sometimes the movie manages to overcome its script.  The race between Piccolo and Sayers is a great scene of fraternity.  The splicing of real football footage is really fascinating, as you get to see just how dominating Sayers can be.  And Jack Warden as George Halas delivers a strong performance.  But in the end, Brian's Song just has too many eye-rolling moments to really be good.

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Miracle: Disney gets patriotic

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I needed to see this movie because I am a glutton for punishment.  Specifically, the punishment on which I glut myself is sports movies.  I feel obligated to see sports movies, even though a good sports movie is an oxymoron.  I have a few sentimental favorites (I'm looking at you, Field of Dreams) and a few that I like as historical curiosities (61*, anybody?), but even those fall into the class of "Well, I like this movie, but..."

Miracle is emotional pandering to white middle-class America.  It's a paper-thin sports drama that goes back to one of our proudest moments as a nation and preaches to us about the values of unity, toughness, and hard work.  And, because Disney made it, it's all covered in a saccharine glaze of sweeping orchestral music and a smidge of family drama.

That said, parts of Miracle are good.  The scenes on the ice were compelling to my uneducated eye.  It sticks to a tried-and-true formula of "team of unknowns suffers through hardship together, gains cohesion, triumphs against all odds," which is probably good if you like the other films of this nature, like Hoosiers, Bad News Bears, or The Longest Yard.  The speech that Russell gives at the end, if you go for corny motivational speeches, is well-written and well-delivered.

But the thing that is most insulting, that is most unforgivable, is that this movie was released when it was and how it was.  It came out in Christmas of 2004, when the War on Terror was in full swing, and Bush had just gotten reelected on a platform of warmongering and misplaced nationalistic fervor.  This movie came out wrapped in red, white and blue, and trumpeting the United States' greatest triumph against a great foreign ideological bogeyman.  Such an obvious parallel is a blatant farce.  The Cold War, at least, was won through diplomatic maneuver and classic American soft power.  This current conflict that STILL isn't over five years later should not be propped up by such jingoistic marketing.  Yeah, I'm bitter.

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