HUSTLE (2022)

June 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. As a sports fan and movie fan, I approach every sports movie with trepidation and low expectations. Let’s face it, most actors aren’t great (or even good) athletes, and most athletes aren’t great (or even good) actors. We would have no interest in a western where the cowboys can’t ride horses, just as we have no interest in watching John Goodman portray a baseball legend in THE BABE (1992). I tell you this to convey my state of mind while preparing to watch this basketball movie from director Jeremiah Zagar and co-writers Will Fetters (A STAR IS BORN, 2018) and Taylor Materne. It gives me pleasure to say that even though the premise is kind of similar to Kevin Bacon’s 1992 film, THE AIR UP THERE, this one should satisfy most sports and basketball fans.

Adam Sandler stars as Stanley Sugermen, a long-time scout for the Philadelphia 76’ers. An opening montage gives us a taste of why he’s worn out and beaten down after so many years on the road. Rushing to catch flights, too many fast-food meals, crashing in one hotel after another, and chasing down tips on the next great player … it all adds up to frustration and too much time away from his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and teenage daughter (Jordan Hull). Feeling unappreciated and questioning his professional future, Stanley is ecstatic when the long-time Sixers owner played by (Oscar winner) Robert Duvall promotes Stanley to assistant coach. Unfortunately, the dream-come-true turns into a nightmare when the beloved owner dies, leaving his cocky son Vince (Ben Foster) in charge of the team. Vince has little respect for Stanley and promptly sends him back on the road.

It’s in Mallorca, Spain where Stanley stumbles on a nighttime game at a local outdoor court. Immediately catching his eye is an intense, lanky player in work boots. NBA player Juancho Hernangomez stars as Bo Cruz, a true previously undiscovered diamond in the rough. The dream of all scouts is to be the first to find a transcendent player, and once they hear the NBA minimum salary, Bo’s mother and young daughter are on board with Stanley taking Bo to the United States. Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Vince rejects Bo, and a history of anger issues comes back to haunt Bo. Stanley ignores the naysayers, trusts his instincts, and takes on the project of preparing Bo for the scouting combine. The training montage is very well done, as Sandler and Juancho are both believable and draw us in for support.

Cinematographer Zak Mulligan and director Zagar deserve credit for filming the basketball sequences in a style that highlights the athletic talent without resorting to cheap editing tricks. Of course it helps that the basketball sequences are loaded with actual NBA players and playground legends. These guys look like they can play because they CAN. I’ll leave the closing credit montage to highlight most of those involved, but a couple of standouts include Boban Marjonovich and Anthony Edwards, the latter playing Bo’s head-game nemesis, Kermit Wilts. Also making appearances are Kenny Smith as a player agent, and the great Julius “Dr J” Erving, who has a couple of scenes.

When most people think of Adam Sandler, his long list of sophomoric and absurd man-child movies come to mind. Certainly, he can’t be blamed for giving the masses what they want. It’s made him a very rich man. However, his talent in more dramatic roles should not be ignored. The recent UNCUT GEMS and THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES are examples, and going back further, his turn in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE remains one of his best. As Stanley Sugermen, Sandler injects humor into his love of basketball, tossing in a couple of ‘soccer’ and ‘geezer’ jokes. Overall, he successfully captures the essence of an everyman seeking redemption for his self and his family.

Streaming on Netflix beginning June 8, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


UNCUT GEMS (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s debatable whether this movie should be labeled an indie crime thriller or a ‘Scared Straight’ session for gambling addicts. Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are filmmaking brothers who seem to specialize in adding a frenetic pace to the lives of characters who consistently make bad decisions. Their excellent 2017 film GOOD TIME (starring Robert Pattinson) set the tone for their latest, featuring an Adam Sandler performance unlike anything we’ve previously seen from him.

After a brief prologue at an Ethiopian mine, we are dropped right into Howard’s world. Well, more specifically, we find ourselves on the camera end of Howard Ratner’s colonoscopy, while also seeing the vibrant glow of the rare opal extracted from that opening mine. Remarkably, the colonoscopy may be Howard’s (and our) most relaxing moment of the movie. The character of Howard is based on a guy the Safdie brothers’ dad worked for in the Diamond District when they were growing up. He’s played here by Mr. Sandler, who delivers a performance so memorable that we now can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Here is what we learn about Howard: he’s arrogant and foolish and energetic and hopeful. He lives life on the edge … or perhaps he’s already tipped. He’s a Jewish jeweler based in inner-city Manhattan, and as the film begins, he owes a lot of money to someone who has hired goons to collect. Howard has an irascible wife Dinah (Idina Menzel, Elsa’s voice in FROZEN) who is fed up with his antics … one of which is his employee/mistress Julia (newcomer Julia Fox). Howard has an insatiable gambling addiction and he’s always on the brink of a life-changing big score or a colossal failure that could cost him everything. He’s a hustler who has to move faster each day to prevent the collapse of his house of cards: sports bets, pawns, loans, lies, and empty promises.

So if you think you now have a feel for this, I can assure you that you are mistaken. The frenetic pace is relentless to watch. We kind of like Howard, but yet, we want nothing to do with him. His latest scheme involves the expectation that the rare opal will solve his many financial woes. In the meantime, his business associate Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) brings him a high profile client … NBA player Kevin Garnett. The film looks and feels like a gritty 1970’s flick, but it’s based during the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and Garnett plays himself (and quite well). Garnett borrows the opal for good luck and that’s when all ‘heck’ breaks loose. Also in play here is Howard’s rotten brother-in-law (Eric Begosian), to whom he also owes money. Adding even more NYC flavor are Judd Hirsch, John Amos, and sports radio host Mike Francesca, as Howard’s bookie.

Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) provides an electronic score that helps ensure we are never comfortable watching what is unfolding, and cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA) keeps his camera in constant motion – just like the characters. Production Designer Sam Lisenco creates Howard’s world through the jewelry shop, the house, the apartment, and especially that back office. Set Decorator Kendall Anderson wins a place in my heart for the Pete Maravich poster.

The Safdie brothers co-wrote the script with their editor Ronald Bronstein (who also worked on GOOD TIME), and afterwards you’ll find yourself going back through all the poor choices made by most every character. The brilliantly sustained level of uneasiness includes a segment featuring The Weeknd, and one revolving around a school play for Howard’s daughter. The Safdie style is present throughout, and most conversations are loud and heated and threatening. If you are the type that needs at least one likable character, or a serene environment, or respectful adult conversation, you are out of luck here. Howard is an exhausting character in an exhausting story within an exhausting movie … just as it was intended.

watch the RED BAND trailer (PROFANITY WARNING):

 

 


ZOOKEEPER

July 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are all fine with the endless stream of animation featuring talking animals. The rules change a bit when the movie is live action … and the animals still talk! Not only do they talk, but they are giving lessons in love to zookeeper extraordinare Griffin (Kevin James) ala Dr. Phil.

Personally I think Kevin James is more suited to television, but it’s hard to argue with the huge box office success of Paul Blart Mall Cop. This movie isn’t quite as creative as that one, but for mindless summertime fun in an air-conditioned environment and a kid-friendly theme, it’s passable.

 The kid-friendly theme is somewhat misleading. To me, it’s the greatest flaw of the movie. It can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a kids movie or a “clever” film for kids that adults will enjoy. I don’t think most adults will enjoy it much, and I think most kids will be confused and bored by the adult plot of helping Kevin James land the girl and discover his true self.  But for kids, the animal scenes should sustain them.  I am not sure that TGI Fridays is enough for adults.

If you are going to have talking animals these days, you must have high priced voices … even though you can’t recognize them. Some of the vocal talent on display includes Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions, Nick Nolte as the gorilla, Jupp Apatow as an elephant, producer Adam Sandler as the monkey (“throw poop”), Faizon Love and Jon Favreau as arguing bears, Maya Rudolph as an off-key giraffe, and Don Rickles as a frog.

 The story is this: Kevin James is a nice guy zookeeper who is loved by the animals, but spurned in marriage proposal by his girlfriend Leslie Bibb, who wants him to make more money. He works with nice gal Rosario Dawson who likes him so much that she agrees to help him get the shallow Bibb back. Other zoo co-workers include Donnie Wahlberg and Ken Jeong, who must be in every third movie released this year. Yada, Yada, Yada … animals give advice, Kevin James learns about real love, gorilla learns some people can be trusted, they all live happily ever after. I don’t consider that a spoiler.

The movie is produced by Adam Sandler and directed by his buddy Frank Coraci. Coraci also directed a comedy I kind of like (The Wedding Singer) and a couple I absolutely couldn’t stand (Click, The Waterboy). Anyway, if you are looking for mindless fun with the family, this one is safe though not inspired.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t believe anyone (including a gorilla) can have fun at TGI Fridays.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a step down from Night at the Museum is a step you prefer not to take