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Everybody cheer: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

Gridiron Karma

By Shawn Stone

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29

Directed by Kevin Rafferty

If the title of this entertaining football documentary (taken from a famous headline in the Harvard Crimson newspaper) sounds like a joke, it is and it isn’t. Yes, this 1968 season-ending game ended in a tie, and yes, it seemed like the overmatched Harvard Crimson football team defeated a steamroller of a Yale team (the Bulldogs were ranked No. 16 in the country).

The Yallies were mostly bluebloods, led by quarterback Brian Dowling and future NFL Hall of Fame running back Calvin Hill (who unfortunately declined to be in the film). The Crimson were a scruffier lot, with more players from working-class backgrounds, and more vowels in their names.

Knowing the outcome doesn’t lessen the suspense. Hell, knowing that Harvard trailed Yale by an impossible 16 points with less than a minute to play doesn’t lessen the suspense. It increases the tension: How in the world could such a thoroughly beaten underdog make up that steep a deficit in such a minuscule—in football terms—amount of time?

The film has no narration. With a keen spareness, it alternates between interviews with the players today, and charmingly grainy film of the game. (If you can see the ball in any of the extra-point kicks, your eyesight is way better than mine.) The interest generated is in the players, and what they were doing in the context of the 1960s, and the excitement of the game itself.

All the zeitgeisty elements are there. Some players are anti-Vietnam activists (including a Yallie who was dating Meryl Streep, luminous in a vintage photograph) while another fought in the war; the Yale quarterback is the prototype for Garry Trudeau’s character B.D., who was just beginning his strip at the Yale paper; Yale undergrad George W. Bush got arrested earlier that season for postgame hijinx; and Al Gore’s roommate Tommy Lee Jones was a guard on the Harvard team.

Director Kevin Rafferty (The Atomic Café) breaks down those last 42 seconds into each momentous component; this is where his strategy really pays off. Since we’ve been presented only with the testimony of the players, we’ve come to know them—and the filmmaker (it’s pretty much a one-man show) makes sure we connect the graying talking heads with the young guys on the field.

Players from both teams talk about an almost mystical force taking over in those last seconds. The smug Yale fans taunted the Harvard team with chants of “We’re number one” and, even more insultingly, “You’re number two.” The Yale band struck up the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club (ouch). As the worm turns, and everything starts to break Harvard’s way, one really gets the feeling that what Harry Shearer likes to call “the Karma train” is pulling into the station (and rolling over Yale).

Still, it’s only a game. And the players acknowledge that. But you can’t help smile as the end credits begin to roll and the title flashes on screen for the first time: Harvard sure as hell did beat Yale.

The Long, Dull March

Che: Part 1

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Considering the cultlike status of Che Guevara, and the fact that historians still dispute his contributions, significance and even personality, one would expect that Steven Soderbergh’s treatment of the Argentina-born revolutionary would at least spur viewers to some elevated level of consciousness. But then again, Soderbergh tends toward an intellectual bent which sometimes seems more appropriate at a midnight wine bar, amid black- turtlenecked grad students of similar mindset, than it does in a sprawling, two part, four-hour-plus retelling of what it takes to bring down a government. This is to say, Che: Part One is mind-numbingly bland and uninvolving.

The movie begins with Che’s meeting Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) in Mexico City, and quickly lands in lush, mountainous Cuba, where the grungy, bearded rebels take refuge from ruling dictator Batista’s patrolling armies. Soderbergh spends too much time showing us the rag-tag Communists marching up steep landscapes, presumably to make the point that Che—who trained as a physician—will not let the physical toll of having wicked bad asthma get in the way of his politics. Che’s idealism also shows up in his insistence that all who fight beside him are literate, as well as his meting out of punishment to those who disobey rules against stealing from or raping the peasants. Benicio Del Toro plays Che in a surprisingly understated way, but it works to the extent that it demonstrates Guevara’s natural leadership tendencies.

That said, there’s little else to give us an understanding of Che’s personality. Perhaps his overriding commitment to his ultimate purpose makes him, well, dull, but there’s no drama, let alone conflict, in watching him roll over Cuban officials and the random detractor without much in the way of opposition. Che spends a lot of time preaching his particular gospel (the movie does move forward in time to show him addressing the United Nations about the evils of dictatorship and international aggression), but for the most part, all who are with him are converts. It’s taken as a given that Batista and his allies are monstrous Goliaths in need of the kind of justice that only Che’s David can wreak. Not to argue against a people’s right to self-determination, but Soderbergh’s approach smacks of rock-star idolatry, provoking no thoughts about Che’s methods.

The only moments that rise above the seemingly endless slog of mountain marches and cigar smoking are those detailing the Battle of Santa Clara, which evoke a thrilling hiccup of an end of an era, even as they lovingly reconstruct the pastelled and touristy loveliness of a pristine island nation. There’s a thrilling train derailment, spewing out scores of soldiers while natives lounge on nearby cottage porches, lending a surreal immediacy to the idea of revolution. Still, even these scenes lack the ability to connect us to the movement, as the sole focus of each and every frame is Che. Che: Part Two is supposed to recount Che’s final years, post the triumphant entrance into Havana, and shrouded in some mystery, and I’ve heard from some that it’s much better than Part One. I have to wonder, sight unseen, whether we really needed Che in its stultifying entirety.

—Laura Leon

Blartless

Observe and Report

Directed by Jody Hill

The funniest thing about Ob serve and Report is its timing, which is indeed fortuitous. Released on the heels of the mega-hit Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the film serves to both create and (hopefully) put an end to the shopping-mall vigilante genre; on the surface, it’s the dark side to the lighthearted Blart. But writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way) must have been counting on fans to show up with a pretty strong contact high after the last big Seth Rogen hit (last summer’s stoner bromance Pineapple Express), because the actual laughs in Observe and Report are painfully scarce. It’s a black comedy without the comedy.

Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is an über-serious mall cop who lives with his alcoholic mother (Celia Weston) and harbors a crush on slutty makeup-counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris). When a flasher starts terrorizing shoppers, Ronnie sees his chance to make a name for himself. Never mind that the mall is being robbed blind almost nightly; catching this flasher will be his piéce de rèsistance. (The recurrent use of the Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” to underscore his ambition is one of the film’s few smart comic moves.) But when Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) turns up to investigate the criminal activity, Ronnie gets territorial—and downright mean.

That meanness is meant to bring laughs, but in scene after scene we’re shown a character who is boorish and immature, not to mention racist (there’s no context given to justify Ronnie calling a character of Middle Eastern descent “Saddam”), aggressive, and ultimately unhinged. The violent outbursts would be an unexpected counterpoint to the rest of the film if only they weren’t so easy to see coming; shots of Ronnie chomping Klonopin just go to show that our “hero” has a serious chemical imbalance. The fact that a date-rape scene provides one of the film’s only actual punchlines—I’m serious—is a testament to the filmmakers’ misguided sense of comedy.

Everyone who comes into contact with Ronnie seems exhausted by him—with the exception, inexplicably, of comely food-court worker Nell (Collette Wolfe)—and surely the audience too will find this to be an exhausting 86 minutes. Observe and Report is a hack job through and through; even the editing is rough. The synopsis is right there in the script: “I thought this was going to be funny, but it’s just sad.”

—John Brodeur


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