Mini-Review: Free Spirits

Free Spirits

The difference this ESPN 30 for 30 doc and any other that this is the first to deal with one of the maverick sports leagues of the 1960s and 1970s. While there was already a USFL doc, the ABA and AFL had not been addressed. Of course, the USFL merging with the NFL was never a possibility. This film tells the tale of the Spirits of St. Louis, one of the two teams left out in the cold when the ill-fated league merged with the NBA.

The film mainly just traces the short, but significant two-year history of the team. The reason they were not absorbed, is not really a mystery. However, though there is an abrupt shift in gears late in the game (though the writing is on the wall throughout) the surprise this film has in store is the fallout and windfall from the non-merger.

It seems some of these docs thrive because of their running time and others could use a little more. This one would’ve been served by a little more of a lead-in, but it still tells its tale well.

7/10

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Review: There’s No Place Like Home

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

There’s No Place Like Home

ESPN’s 30 for 30 continued last week with There’s No Place Like Home. Here’s another case whereupon seeing the synopsis of the film I was not so interested, but after having viewed the film it’s more effective than anticipated.

The film tells the tale of Josh Swade, a lifelong Kansas Jayhawk fanatic, who organized a grassroots effort to try and win the original rules of basketball as written by James Naismith. When reading the narrative the piece I was missing, either from ignorance or faulty memory, was that Naismith shortly posting these rules in a Massachusetts YCMA took the game to Kansas and started the Basketball program at Kansas. He was at the University for four plus decades after that. So, yes, Kansas has, and had, a very rightful claim to ownership that I was unaware of.

Another moment of enlightenment was the underscoring of the fact was that basketball, as opposed to other sports which became formalized after years of play, was very much created fairly spontaneously. I was always a rules nerd as a kid, and gaining access to rule books was a big deal, and writing down rules to created games was something I’d partake in. Therefore, the provenance of the document also interested me.

However, that’s all information gleaned, which is valuable but not the be all and end all. What’s truly most interesting in this film is that it takes perhaps the most interesting avenue in telling the film. It takes the perspective of a superfan who has the unmatched, undying passion for his team and has him be the mouthpiece, the spokesman for what he knows is something right but hasn’t the means to accomplish: acquisition of the rules. Through sheer will and determination he does get in contact with those who have the connections and the financial means, and it is impressive to see the seemingly spontaneous outpouring of similar emotions from members of the KU family.

There are some occurrences that would’ve been great to see on camera (like the apparent defeat faced), but other portions that seem rather extraneous do come back into play. The film does feel like it could’ve been tightened a bit, however, it builds the personal connection well and gets a lot of tension and drama out of the auction day even though the outcome is somewhat foreseeable.

All in all, it’s a very good dramatic rendering of the situation, and I always like to see the bump where the filmmakers discuss the process, their inspiration, etc. and this one is perhaps the best I’ve seen.

8/10

Mini-Review: Runner

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Runner

As I’ve previously noted, one of the great things about ESPN’s films is that they can put into greater perspective events and athletes whose story was either at the periphery or, or outside my understanding due to my age when they were at their zenith. Mary Slaney would fall into that category. By the time I became aware of an interested in the Olympics, the collision at the 1984 games that caused: Slaney to lose, get injured, her last/best chance at a medal and cost the racing world an epic race; was but a snippet in a “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” kind of montage. You really couldn’t get the full sense of the unfortunateness of the event without a closer examination both of Slaney and the race.

There is an writing axiom that states: some characters insist on being in a story despite the author’s best laid plans. Zola Budd is just such a character in this real life drama and her backstory, intrigue and involvement would be scoffed at as unrealistic in scripted entertainment. Furthermore, the fair portrait both athletes get in this telling make the story all the more compelling.

Moreover, the tale highlights better than most in the series the uneasy existence with the Olympics many American athletes have. Yes, it matters to them, and they want to win, but the entirety of their career and achieving an Olympic appearance matters too. The fragile nature of Slaney’s health underscores the fact that going to the olympics and medaling are two separate goals.

This is a tautly-rendered tale of a life and career through the prism of one unforgettable event and how it affected its participants.

10/10

Mini-Review: Pat XO

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Pat XO

Here’s another Nine for IX title that takes an unexpected avenue. Not only was I unaware for Pat Summitt’s early career, both in being Head coach at such a young age and also her close-calls, but it tells the story mostly through her and her son, Tyler Summitt (recent University of Tennessee graduate), reminiscing and other colleagues, former players, etc. The film reflexively talks about how it likely helped her remember things she wouldn’t have otherwise (Summitt recently retired due to early onset dementia). Therefore, aside from being a great piece on her life and career it also becomes a living document for her and her family and all those she coached and helped along the way. The film could end up being far too loose with such a format but it crafts itself into a very neat and highly effective narrative.

9/10

Mini-Review: Elway to Marino

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Elway to Marino

I almost waited to write this one. As a football fan, especially one who grew up with John Elway being my favorite player, it’s hard to keep a documentary like this in perspective. However, aside from the mind-blowing revelations about the intricacies and the process that was the most pivotal draft in the history of the league, I keep going back to cinematic elements, to the storytelling and ask myself: is this picture being painted as well for all as it is for me?

Naturally, the seismic impact of the would-be moves have more effect when you have hindsight, but the film really does a wonderful job. Any documentary owes its success to perseverance and a little bit of good fortune. The good fortune in this case is that Elway’s agent, Marvin Demoff, not only also represented Dan Marino, but kept a diary of the meetings and calls regarding John Elway’s pursuers as the process for him was always likely to be complex and he wanted to relate information accurately, but he still had it.

In narrative terms it has subplots, dovetails, ironies, revelations and everything you could want. In technical terms, in terms of building a documentary, I think it has a lot of that going too. The scoring highlights and builds the tension, the b-roll shots and editing decisions build the drama, the narration is well-written and excellently delivered by Tom Selleck. It contains interviews with most of the key players you’d want to hear from. Not only that, but in terms of structuring it doesn’t do anything tremendously unique like some have done, but the little touches really do act as the coup de grâce, the withholding of title cards with player resumes for dramatic impact fore example.

Lest I go on too long to keep this “mini,” this truly is a great installment in the series that may not have the “human interest” emotional wallop some do, but for fans it’s a must. There’s drama for all concerned, for non-fans this series should be able to bring you along for the ride also. It’s incredible.

10/10

Mini-Review: Survive and Advance

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Survive and Advance

So the ESPN 30 for 30 films are back at it in full force. Even those who turn a critical eye to ESPN look upon this series of documentaries as an example of what the self-proclaimed worldwide leader is still capable of when it sets its mind to it, and perhaps this film is now at the forefront of that conversation.

The set-up and structure is as simple as it is powerful, but in ways unexpected. Many, who have even a passing knowledge of sports, know of the improbable championship run of NC State in 1983 and later on the passionate, legendary speech by Jim Valvano at the ESPYs (Perhaps the last time they had true relevance) what the film does is take a step or two beyond those known moments. It starts with the funeral of Lorenzo Charles, the man who scored the now iconic dunk off a just-short Hail Mary three-point attempt. This is the impetus for the players to have reunions “If we don’t see each other once a year, we’ll only be coming to each other’s funerals.” says Whittenburg, and thus, they meet and form the frame of the tale. However, the film navigates through the pre-championship years and championship year runs with flash-forwards containing prophetic, funny and entertaining Valvano sound bites. It gives the title further poignance that is never too finely underlined.

After the championship things come closer to a point of convergence and carry more impact and the two meanings intertwine, again without being over-stressed. It’s a film ostensibly about a miraculous run, but it’s very clear from early on that the run will occur and the miracle truly becomes the off-the-court impact and what comes from it all, as sad a tale as it is.

10/10

Short Film Saturday: The Deal

If you follow this blog closely, you’ll know that I love ESPN’s 30 for 30 films. One aspect of these films I have not gotten into are the shorts, until now.

In view of all the infamy of Alex Rodriguez’s stay in New York, which seems to be trudging for an inglorious ending, it can be easy to forget the ins and outs and the hoopla of his being traded there. This short, featuring interviews with the key figures involved, reconstructs it well.

You can view the film here.

The Book of Manning: A Personal History and Mini-Review

Introduction

This is another post that was intended as a Mini-Review Round-Up entry, but then grew legs and so I decided to post it separately.

Personal History

To be completely honest, though I knew about the upcoming slate of 30 for 30 films for this fall; I was caught unaware by this installment of the ESPN Films series under the banner of SEC Storied.

And apparently this was not the debut installment, but rather part of plan to have four conference-specific titles per year. However, when the subject of the Manning family came up it’s not a wonder that I heard about about it and then saw the documentary.

It’s only now with hindsight that I could see that my fascination with this family has gone on longer than I realized. I was too young to witness Archie Manning’s career as it was happening, but I remember seeing footage of the fleet-of-foot gunslinger left on an island and run ragged when playing for the mostly hapless New Orleans Saints. In fact, in my nameless-player, league-branded NES game he was a large reason I “created” my own similarly gifted and bedraggled field general for the same team.

NFL (Nintendo)

Later on I, of course, became aware of Peyton in his college days and when he joined the Colts, though I am not a Colts fan, that would be the team I’d most consistently watch (besides the my own) to see him play. Peyton Manning is must-see TV.

Almost anyone can note how the story of the Manning family, at least in football terms, is like a fairy tale. However, it becomes a bit more so in my case. Of course, part of the fascination in watching Peyton play is not just his prowess, but a bit of envy, “Why can’t my team’s quarterback be just a little like that?”

I became even more aware of the fact that Eli was a college quarterback than I was of Peyton. Partially because he was the little brother. I think he was a sophomore when the pipe dream of his ending up on the New York Giants entered my mind and I laughed it away as an impossible notion. In fact, I never entertained it as something tangible until rumors started coming around about his not wanting to play in San Diego.

Super Bowl XLII (ESPN)

I can’t remember who else was in the running but the Giants weren’t the only team to need a quarterback that year, but were the only one’s who could pull the trigger on the deal. Eli Manning was a quarterback for the New York Giants something less than two years after I had the crazy idea. Not only that but later that same ill-fated 2004 season I lucked into a ticket for a late-season, virtually meaningless game against the Atlanta Falcons. Eli’s first start was a close-run loss wherein I screamed myself hoarse. After that history it’s not a wonder I was one of his few staunch-yet-silent-supporters as he and the Giants struggled to get their bearings. Despite the start to this season, two borderline-miraculous Super Bowl runs later, what’s not fantastical in that story?

The Film

Ole_Miss_vs_Tennessee_1969_(4233310964)

As intimated above the footballing aspect of the Manning family seems to be a fairly tale. Yet I long ago learned of the unfortunate circumstances Cooper Manning faced in his freshman year of college. However, what makes this an interesting tale is that there are in Archie and Cooper’s stories highly unfortunate events. The first molds Archie in his personal life as a man, the next fuels Peyton in his will-to-win on the field.

So there’s a redemptive aspect to Peyton’s section of the film. Yet, although brief there is one to Eli’s as well because of the perceived slight the state of Mississippi felt that Archie and Peyton had levied upon them. Though there was no such slight and the reasoning each had for their actions were justified.

In editorial terms there is a slightly repetitious nature to the film. However, that’s one of the few things you can quibble about. There are a few brief, well handled re-enactments. The stills, pictures as well and the one-on-one interviews give you a more complete version of the tale than if there had just been game footage involved.

The college football, the Southeastern Conference, slant on the story allows it probably a better structure than one that took in more of each of the three pro careers involved and it ends up working better for it.

I could almost disqualify myself from a rating based on the aforementioned personal history, but you can consider that the grain of salt portion of the review. It still does work and I think, since it is a family story even more than a football one, and Olivia is interviewed quite a bit as well; non-fans will also enjoy it.

8/10

5 Topics 30 for 30 Should Cover and the Next Slate

As I recently noted in my recent, I was glad to finally take the plunge into the Nine for IX series of docs. Aside from the online shorts I have been a very loyal devotee of the series owing both to my love of sports and my need to see more documentaries.

As this new slate shows there are a few titles where it’s about time the topic got covered like No Mas and Tonya and Nancy and some that should be eye-opening like the film on Eddie Aiku.

However, the world of sports filled with intriguing stories both off-the-field and on. Here are a few that came to mind as worthy subjects:

1. Danny Almonte

Danny Almonte

There are a few reasons I bring this topic up, none of them have to do with Almonte’s semi-pro career though. I think Little Big Men adequately covered the fact that Little League success doesn’t necessarily translate to the next level where fields match professional dimensions. However, this scandal did have a significant impact, not only on that tournament, but I feel it impacted a few to come. Furthermore, it changed, based on my knowledge, how Little League has handled some of these incidents since then. Most notably the Ugandan team’s visa issues a few years back. The media spin forces you to read between the lines to spot eligibility concerns, and when those facts came out they were consciously buried.

2. The 1994 MLB Strike

1994-mlb-players-strike

Well before all the NHL’s labor woes baseball took a huge backslide due to this strike. Its impact was a decline in popularity (only revitalized by a now-tainted era), a franchise’s eventual relocation and more. The fact that a stand-alone World Series was considered would only be one intriguing aspect of the story.

3. Colombia 86ed

El Bogotazan

If you look at the Wikipedia article on the 1986 World Cup, eventually hosted by Mexico, it glosses over the issues that lead Colombia to resign its bid four years prior to the actual tournament. It would also be enlightening to learn about the replacement process that led to Mexico being awarded its second tournament in 16 years. A very short span when you consider that other soccer powers (Brazil and England to name just two) have had to wait in excess of 50 years for a second chance. With a rise in the popularity of soccer this story would have an audience and it could be one that is layered.

4. 222-0

Scoreboard-Georgia-Tech-Cumberland

Maybe this is just a pipe dream that I’m better off submitting to Ken Burns, but, perhaps the single most fascinating scoreline I ever saw was this Georgia Tech dismantling of Cumberland in 1916. I first learned of it in the Guinness Book of World Records when I was young. I’m also glad to know I’m not alone in being fascinated by it as there has been a book written on the subject which could be the starting point.

5. 1996 Olympic Park Bombing

Olympic Explosion (CNN)

There are actually a few American off-the-field Olympic tales that could be told. I also considered the tale of the Salt Lake City bid scandal. However, this now-often-overlooked act seems like it’d be more relevant fodder for a documentary treatment.