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The Problematics: ‘I Am Sam’ Proves That Depiction Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Illumination

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The Problematics: ‘I Am Sam’ Proves That Depiction Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Illumination

Twenty years ago this month, I Am Sam hit movie theaters and was met with a lot of Bronx cheers. The non-fact-based movie (its ostensible heart-tugging features were so overstated that people kind of automatically assumed it had a true story behind it) chronicled one man’s fight for the custody of a child abandoned by its mother. Just like Kramer Vs. Kramer! Only in this case the man wasn’t a cosmopolitan urbanite art director played by Dustin Hoffman, but a sweet ingenuous Starbucks employee with a mental disability played by Sean Penn. 

The movie was lambasted by critics — its Rotten Tomatoes score is south of 40 percent — but it made a pretty fair packet of money at the box office, almost $100 million on a $22 million budget. Not bad, even then, for a non-blockbuster drama running over two hours. 

But that’s not the reason the movie’s a cultural touchstone. The movie’s a cultural touchstone because Sean Penn didn’t win an Oscar for it. And in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, one of the fictional actors in that bilious lampoon of Hollywood standards and practices gave the reason why: Penn was too good. He went FULL…well, I’m not going to say it. You probably know the offensive phrase

Nowadays, if the picture comes up, it’s in the context of some kind of “you can’t make that anymore” discussion. That is, it is considered in bad taste and outright unethical to cast a conventionally abled person in the role of a disabled person. 

RAIN MAN ESCALATOR

There are a lot of reasons for this, and they’re too multivalent and complicated to unpack them all here, but a lot of them have to do with Rain Man, the 1988 film about a pair of brothers. One a slick amoral creep played by Tom Cruise, the other a sweet ingenuous autistic savant played by, um, Dustin Hoffman. Back then there was some pushback against Hoffman’s work in the movie. Which the filmmakers countered with the usual bromides about good intentions and the hopes that the movie would put a human face on autism, as if it didn’t have a human face already. 

If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the movie’s impact was not salutary; rather than foster understanding of what’s now referred to as neurodiversity, it inspired crass and ill-informed people (of which there are many in this world we all share) to assume that any autistic person could solve hard math problems without breaking a sweat, and could also help out at the blackjack tables. 

I AM SAM RUNNING

While the mental disability afflicting Penn’s Sam in the movie directed and written by Jessie Nelson isn’t specified to any useful extent, we know right off the bat — as we seen Sam’s hands sorting through coffee shop sweetener containers and putting the yellow ones together and then the pink ones together as John Powell’s VERY SENSITIVE MUSIC plays on the soundtrack — that he’s got a touch of what lay people reflexively diagnose as OCD. Sam is also loud, ebullient, prone to mood swings. He’s a Beatles nut who names his daughter Lucy Diamond. After the woman who bore this child walks right away from him as he holds the infant in a pink blanket, Sam becomes very confused in the infant care section of the supermarket. The movie’s “it takes a village” thread is introduced, with Dianne Wiest’s agoraphobic neighbor clearing things up for Sam. 

Despite coming off like a hybrid of Jeff Spicoli and Bobcat Goldthwait in the earliest scenes, Penn gives a scrupulous and unsentimental performance as a thoroughly sentimentalized character. (That’s just my opinion, though; back in the day, a character calling himself “The Film Yap” said “Sean Penn gave the most professionally shameful, cruelly wrongheaded performance ever nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2001’s I Am Sam — a film that deserved the bullshit-calling buckshot fired its way by Tropic Thunder.”) Technically he really works, almost as hard as Daniel Day Lewis does in My Left Foot

Today the question, though, has nothing to do with how hard he works, or how “good” a job he does. It’s whether he ought to be playing a character such as this in the first place. Over twenty years ago, the actor Edward Norton began the process that eventually resulted in the 2019 film Motherless Brooklyn, based on the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Lethem. For the entire process, he was always slated to play the role of Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s syndrome. At the initial news of this there was hardly a raised eyebrow. When the movie was realized, it occasioned a thoughtful piece on Norton’s career by Alison Wilmore, in which she mused “When it was published, the novel Motherless Brooklyn was set around 1999, and if Norton had put out his adaptation then, it might have faded seamlessly into the film landscape. In 2019, it’s a more awkward creation, marked by ideas and approaches that have accrued some dust.”

Varied activist groups have argued that neurodivergent and differently-abled characters be played by actors who are themselves neurodivergent and differently-abled. That’s a slightly different proposition than the do-good casting of supporting roles often practiced in makers of hot-button movies. (Brad Silverman and Joe Rosenberg are two such actors in I Am Sam.) In 2018, Rachel Israel made Keep The Change, about two autistic people who fall in love, and the leads were played by autistic actors Brandon Polonsky and Samantha Elisofon. Reviewing the movie in the New York Times, I praised it and also noted that it was not “seamlessly crafted.” Part of the reason for that was that the personalities of the performers sometimes drew outside the lines of the movie’s narrative. 

Change — in the way movies about people who don’t fit certain norms are made, and in the way we see them — isn’t easy. But it doesn’t happen without taking first steps. In the meantime, movies such as I Am Sam look more anachronistic with every year. 

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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