to beat your ass: Zupan leads the charge in Murderball.
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.
All Have Problems
by Don Roos
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?
Dukes of Hazzard
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
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.