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Wimps and gimps 

Underdogs unite and fight in two summer sports movies

Murderball was the monster hit of Full Frame last April. I missed it during the festival, which I found myself regretting as this film about wheelchair rugby players racked up the Audience award and a share of the Grand Jury prize. Now that I've seen this entertaining but not all that surprising film, I understand Murderball's audience appeal but I'm a little disappointed in the jury--which included such heavyweights as Barbara Kopple, Chris Hegedus and John Pierson--for honoring a documentary that, while certainly exciting, hews very closely to narrative formula. Indeed, as the filmmaking team of Dana Adam Shapiro, Jeffrey Mandel and Henry Alex Rubin openly concede, the film's story arc is modeled on fiction movies about overcoming personal obstacles in order to make it to the big game--as in Bad News Bears, discussed below.

"Murderball" is the affectionate and preferred name given to quad rugby, a sport that is played in wheelchairs outfitted like props from a Mad Max movie. It's a tough sport played by tough men--a number of whom were paralyzed in the kinds of accidents that tend to befall aggressive young male hominids. Chief among our characters are the Gen X archetypes Mark Zupan, Andy Cohn and Scott Hogsett. They're good-looking and hyper-competitive, given to partying hard, playing pranks, listening to speed metal and bagging very sexy, non-disabled women. In other words, they're a lot like the guys in the jock dorms at college. Zupan, Cohn and Hogsett look good on camera and they're among the better players, but it's their scenes that make Murderball feel a bit too much like an ESPN gallery of testosterone-addled meatheads.

Of course, it's a virtue of Murderball that it encourages us not to look at quadriplegics with sentimental condescension. They can be obnoxious, hypercompetitive assholes, too. Chief among them is Joe Soares, who is something like the Wayne Gretzky of quad rugby, now forced by middle-age into a bitterly resented retirement. Shunned by the American Paralympic team, he gets his revenge by coaching the Canadian team in the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Felled by polio as a child, Soares is an angry, angry man, and we wince as he berates his insufficiently masculine, viola-playing son. The film lucks into some unexpected drama when Soares' perpetually ramped-up aggression lands him in the emergency room. The filmmakers also track the progress of Keith Cavill, a recently paralyzed young man--motocross accident--and the look of terror and defeat on his face is unforgettable as we see him contemplating a life in a wheelchair.

Of course, Cavill is a prime recruit for quad rugby and we're told at the film's end that he has taken up the sport. But the most chilling scene in Murderball takes place in Walter Reed hospital, where the U.S. Quad Rugby team--led by captain and star Marc Zupan--finds an ample supply of future players among the soldiers maimed in Iraq.

Although the new remake of Bad News Bears might look like just another ho-hum Hollywood release in the middle of the summer dog days, there's actually some reason for enthusiasm among cinephiles. The director of the film is none other than Richard Linklater, one of the smartest and most prolifically entertaining directors working in America today. Last year's Before Sunset ended up on the second spot of my top ten list, and his previous work includes such diversely appealing works as School of Rock, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Newton Boys, Tape, Waking Life and Before Sunrise.

More to the point, Linklater seems to be in that state of creative nirvana to which so many arty filmmakers aspire, that of being able to crisscross between lucrative and respectable Hollywood assignments and his personal art house muse. "One for them, one for me," the mantra goes, and filmmakers from Scorsese, Coppola, Altman on down to Lynch and Soderbergh have attempted to make this borderline-Faustian arrangement work. But the filmmakers always seem to lose: Coppola retired to his vineyard, Soderbergh beat a retreat to Ocean's 12 after the failures of Solaris and Full Frontal, and Scorsese seems to have given up the muse that gave us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull in favor of white elephants like The Aviator.

But Linklater, who continues to live far from the coasts in the cozy hipster confines of Austin, Texas, seems to be thriving. Part of this is that he so far has avoided tackling a massive Hollywood project, favoring instead modestly budgeted comedies unencumbered by excessive expectations. This strategy worked brilliantly in School of Rock, a truly felicitous entertainment that featured a witty script from fellow indie star Mike White (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) and a perfectly boisterous performance from Jack Black. But it was Linklater's complicity with the ebullient charm of the kids that really made School of Rock shine.

Bad News Bears appears to be an effort to follow the School of Rock formula by placing a charismatic, anti-establishment star--in this case, Billy Bob Thornton--in the midst of fouled-mouthed moppets. There's another reason for optimism for Linklater fans. As it happens, the youthful Linklater was a serious baseball player before he discovered Antonioni, Rossellini and Bresson. In Dazed and Confused, his bildungsroman, Linklater's youthful surrogate is a baseball player. No doubt due to Linklater's background, the quality of play is quite good in this movie about a notoriously bad team.

The real bad news, however, is that the movie stinks. In the place of the anti-establishment attitudes of the original, the film leans heavily on a vulgar script, with relentlessly potty-mouthed punch lines landing foul. Worse, Thornton's performance as the alcoholic, washed-up baseball player-turned-coach Buttermaker is sour and distracted. It's one thing that his character doesn't much care if he coaches the kids or not, but the actor should look like he wants to be in the movie. Elsewhere, Greg Kinnear plays the generic hypercompetitive opposing coach in a performance that inches toward a suburban parody while Marcia Gay Harden's overachieving, litigious and tight-assed single mom is all caricature and no humanity--it borders on misogyny.

The original film that featured Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal was a delightfully scuzzy exemplar of mid-1970s Americana, full of shaggy kids and bad attitudes. Linklater didn't write the script--a clear tipoff, in retrospect--and he makes little effort to update the story or otherwise justify this remake. To the contrary, much of the film's mise en scéne--from the hairstyles to the cars to the motocross bikes and skateboards--seems equally at home in the Ford administration. Ironically, Linklater seems most interested in the brief scenes of pre-teen life away from the ball field, in the tedious outlet store job of Amanda, the star pitcher (played by actual youth baseball talent Sammi Kraft) and her skate punk romance with Kelly, the team's rebellious male star.

For Linklater's sake, one hopes that this film will attract a sufficiently profitable supply of kiddie filmgoers to justify this expenditure of the Austin auteur's time and reputation. Happily, Linklater fans have two far more promising films on the horizon. Next year we'll see A Scanner Darkly, his adaptation of one of Philip K. Dick's allegedly unfilmable stories, which will star Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder and their doubles, animated in the fashion of Waking Life's characters. But what really gets me holding my breath is the announced project of Fast Food Nation, an adaptation of Eric Schlosser's expose of the Big Mac and fries industry, from the foul cattle feed to the working conditions in the abattoir and at your neighborhood burger joint. With this project, Linklater promises to air out the populist political impulses that he tends to express vaguely in his films. And if making a feature movie of such a sweeping nonfiction muckraker isn't daring enough, he's also found in it a reason to cast Catalina Sandino Moreno, the Colombian beauty who received an Oscar nomination for her debut in last year's Maria Full of Grace.

With such promising tidings, we can banish the bad news without a second thought.


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