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Coming to beat your ass: Zupan leads the charge in Murderball.

Hell on Wheels
By Laura Leon

Murderball

Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro

I don’t know what’s more as tonishing about the new documentary Murderball—the way in which semiprofessional, quadriplegic rugby players brutally attack their on-court opponents, or just how unusual it was for a viewer to see and hear such individuals having basically normal lives. In this age of supposed sensitivity and political correctness, we’re encouraged to accept differently-abled people as one of us—just don’t ask any questions. So much for openness and education.

In Murderball, we watch the USA Paralympics team as they gear up for Athens, where they will compete against archrivals Canada, coached by former USA great Joe Soares. Paralyzed since a childhood bout with polio, Soares led the USA to most of its 11 world championships, but turned his back on the home team when he was dropped (in his 40s, as he was slowing down). Turning northward, he brought his tremendous energy and near-zealous drive to a new team, turning it into a formidable adversary. At one point in the movie, following an earlier win by Canada over the Yanks, Joe’s gloating is brought up short when a former teammate asks him how it feels to betray his own country. This is probably the only time during the documentary when Joe is at a loss for words—or attitude.

Anchoring Team USA is the charismatic Mark Zupan, a former high-school star athlete who made the mistake of falling asleep in the back of a friend’s pickup truck, a mistake compounded when the inebriated friend got in an accident that sent the future Paralympian into a canal. Like Soares, Zupan is a hardass, and there is little love lost between the two. Perhaps because of his youth, Zupan never felt the need to respect Soares for who he was, an affront that Soares has never forgiven; the resulting animosity feeds much of the drama in the movie.

But Murderball isn’t a typical sports movie. It takes numerous side trips to examine the lives and attitudes of the competitors. While initially acknowledging how they “got that way,” the filmmakers then focus almost exclusively on the here and now, which helps counteract viewers’ tendency to look at these athletes as victims or (just as bad) heart-wrenching symbols of something—the power of perseverance, God, family, the American Way, whatever. In numerous scenes, we see the players in the context of their families, and there’s a riveting subplot with a young Motocross competitor, newly paralyzed, who undergoes the exhausting processes of recovery. There are sex discussions, including shots from a rather humorous but clearly necessary video on the subject for spinal-cord-injury patients; the bald presentations of, say, Soares (a married father of one) in bed, hulkingly strong upper body and spindly, withered lower limbs; and of Zupan horsing around in the pool with his extremely nubile girlfriend. The camera doesn’t shy away from the facts of life, or from what we take for granted as those facts, but somehow can’t bring ourselves to associate with the disabled. This is a raucous, joyous, in-your-face story, populated by many people who, quite frankly, seem like horse’s asses. Perhaps because of that, Murderball seems far more real and honest and real than most of what comes out of Hollywood these days.

We All Have Problems

Happy Endings

Directed by Don Roos

“No one dies in this movie. . . . It’s a comedy, sort of.” So proclaims an early title board for Happy Endings, the tale of the very loosely extended family of Mamie (Lisa Kudrow), who is hit by a car but not killed in the opening shot. Written and directed by Don Roos, the film follows the intersecting trajectories of three couples in Southern California, starting with Mamie and her British stepbrother, Charley (Steve Coogan). Constructed rather than inspired, and not nearly as profound as its auteur seems to think, Happy Endings is slightly witty, occasionally penetrating, and too long by a third. When the action waxes vague, the split-screen titles helpfully augment it. After a flashback to the youthful indiscretion between Mamie and Charley, up pops this informative tidbit: “Charley is now gay. But isn’t everybody?”

Mamie is made pregnant by the encounter, a result that is meant to define the movie but doesn’t. Reproduction and all the latest definitions of family today are heavily worked themes, but they don’t quite coalesce into a compelling story. Charley is partnered both personally and professionally with Gil (David Sutcliffe). Gil is best friends with Pam (Laura Dern), who is raising a baby boy with her lesbian lover after being artificially inseminated. Unbeknownst to Charley, one of his restaurant workers, Otis (Jason Ritter), has a big crush on him. Otis is also in a band, and that band needs a new chick singer. They find one in Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a down-and-out femme fatale. Jude seduces Otis in order to get closer to Otis’ rich father, Frank (Tom Arnold), a naive widower. The subterfuge is completely unnecessary, seeing how lonely Frank is smitten with her at first sight. Equally needless and self-defeating is the ruse that Charley uses to confirm his suspicions as to the true paternity of Pam’s toddler son. Meanwhile a desperate, wannabe film student (Jesse Bradford) blackmails Mamie because he wants to make a documentary about a secret aspect of her life. Instead, she offers him the chance to make a film about her boyfriend, Javier (Bobby Cannavale), a masseuse who claims to be a sex worker to make himself a more titillating subject. Mamie then throws herself whole-hog into the project, with not- exactly-unexpected results.

Most of the characters are either unsavory or mundane, and their topical and largely reproductive dilemmas are handled in a perfunctorily dramatic fashion (build up, cut away, drop unexpected revelation). Roos’ cinematic affection for vampy, underhanded Jude is particularly obtuse, but Gyllenhaal is so photogenic that it’s easy to fall under the director’s enthusiasm. That’s a comment that applies to the whole film: Roos is a better director than he is a writer, and his textural staging and lighting add a deceptive layer of interest. This is especially noticeable in the scenes between Gyllenhaal and a surprisingly good Arnold, who gives the most sincere performance (everyone else seems a little too aware that the narrative is “character-driven”). Many lies and forced admissions later, and some viewers may be left with the same question they had at the beginning: Who are these people and why I am supposed to care about them?

—Ann Morrow

Down-Home Fun

The Dukes of Hazzard

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar

It is with some trepidation that the following information is hereby presented: The Dukes of Hazzard doesn’t suck. It not only doesn’t suck, it’s . . . entertaining. And . . . sort of . . . well-made.

Why? It’s just like an episode of the television show. (Including the commercials: product placement reaches yet another high/low point in onscreen audaciousness here.) All the structural devices are reprised: the omniscient narrator, the periodic freeze-frames to allow for comment on the action, the car chases and nonlethal explosions, and the corny hillbilly humor. It’s all good.

The plot is simple, though not stupid—there’s an ever-so-slight distinction. (Honest.) The Duke boys (Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott) are well-meaning yokels always just one car-length ahead of the law, and supported by their loyal family, dope-smoking Uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson) and buxotic cousin Daisy (Jessica Simpson). Naturally, their innate country goodness puts them in opposition to the local power broker, Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) and his minions in Hazzard County law enforcement.

This time, Hogg wants to turn beautiful downtown Hazzard into an anthracite strip mine. And the Dukes have to stop him by any means necessary, even if it takes destroying every police car in the state of Georgia.

What keeps this corny good-guys-bad-guys shtick from descending into utter bullshit is the freewheeling, anarchic freedom the Dukes represent here. The utter disregard, even contempt, for cops in this movie is, post-9/11, astonishing: The Dukes call them “pigs.” Authority is stupid and evil; challenging this is not only right, it’s a moral imperative. Near the end of the picture, in the midst of dopey-but- cinematically-exciting car chase no. 37, Uncle Jesse starts using jars of moonshine as Molotov cocktails. Watching Willie Nelson pick off a dozen police cruisers with flaming Mason jars is a joyous, liberating sight.

In this large cast of usually less-than-stellar performers, only Reynolds flops; his Boss Hogg is humorlessly evil. (Joe Don Baker, who has a cameo as the governor, would have been a perfect Hogg.) The surprise is Simpson—she doesn’t come off as a dumb blonde.

Now, none of this matters if you don’t, on occasion, like to see stuff blown up real good. But if you do, The Dukes of Hazzard is first-rate cinema.

—Shawn Stone


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