Tag Archives: B+

MURDERBALL

Documentaries about physically or mentally challenged people who overcome the odds to realize their dreams are usually pretty sappy affairs, but as the title suggests, this one is made of rather sterner stuff. In fact, from a marquee you might expect “Murderball” to be some high-tech action flick starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in their heyday. But no: it’s the story of the U.S. quadriplegic rugby team and their rivalry with a Canadian squad coached by a former U.S. player most of the current ones consider a turncoat.

At first, it must be said, you might think that spending nearly ninety minutes with these guys will be a chore not worth undertaking. As we’re introduced to the players, and to that turncoat coach as well, they seem like basically crude, rather brutal guys. And the game they play is hardly one for wusses. Using specially plated chairs that allow for quick motion and hard contact, it’s not just fast-moving but no-holds-barred stuff.

If “Murderball” remained on a general level throughout, it might have been very heavy going. But while it doesn’t stint on its coverage of the games, particularly the make-or-break (sometimes make-and-break) contests between the U.S. and Canada, it personalizes the subject in any effective way by focusing on two individuals. One is Coach Joe Soares, who took over leadership of the Canadian squad after he’d been cut (unfairly, he believed) from the American squad after years of stardom. At first he’s portrayed as a rough, hard-noised guy whose relationship with his son Robert, a kid whose interests incline more to making music than mayhem on the field or court, is tense; but his character mellows after he suffers a heart attack, and his reconciliation with the boy afterward is actually heartwarming. (In a fiction film his rush to make the kid’s recital might seem manipulative and cloying; here it’s still manipulative, but it doesn’t cloy.) On the other hand, there’s Mark Zupan, a hyper-aggressive U.S. player who seems at first a manic ruffian you wouldn’t like to meet in a late-night bar. Over the course of the picture, though, he emerges as a more rounded, even admirable fellow. The picture touches on his relationship with his girlfriend Jess (digressing to offer observations on how some women are attracted to quadriplegics, and how the disabled men can be instructed in the techniques of post-recovery sex). But more importantly, it sets up a test of friendship saga by introducing Chris Igoe, the buddy who was driving when the accident that cost Zupan so much of his mobility occurred. The two haven’t seen one another or spoken for years, but reunite when Igoe comes to see the U.S. team in the 2004 paralympics. Once again, the incident is touching despite the obvious calculation, yet–like the film as a whole–it doesn’t descend into bathos. And though Soares and Zupan are the figures around whom most of “Murderball” revolves, other players make strong impressions, too (mellowing from their severity over the course of the film as well), while subsidiary figures also make their mark–like Zupan’s father and a recently-injured young man, an athletic type whom we watch undergoing therapy, who’s fascinated and excited by the concept of quadrplegic rugby when Zupan visits the ward and introduces the patients to the game.

In fact, though the picture–necessarily for any sports flicks–naturally spotlights the competitions at which Soares’ Canadians and Zupan’s Americans clash (and Henry Alex Rubin’s spot-on camerawork and Geoffrey Richman’s expert editing bring the action home strongly), ultimately what you’re more likely to take away with you from “Murderball” are its characters. It’s the humanity on display, and the complexity and resilience it exemplifies, that’s memorable here–which, of course, is exactly as it should be in a good film, fiction or not.

MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (LA MARCHE DE L’EMPEREUR)

The extraordinary mating rituals of the emperor penguins are documented in this fascinating, lovingly made film by Luc Jacquet, who, along with his dedicated crew, spent more than a year in Antarctica filming the flightless birds as they leave their sea home and trek over miles of ice-covered terrain to their breeding grounds, where they form couples to produce the eggs from which the next generation will hatch. But that’s just the beginning. After laying the eggs, the females turn them gingerly over to their male partners, who shelter them beneath their bodies in the frigid environment while the females waddle back to the sea to feed and secure nourishment for the fledglings that will have hatched by the time they return after another long trek. The newly formed families that have survived the entire ordeal then make the journey back to the sea together, where they’ll reside until the following year.

“March of the Penguins” has one fundamental problem that’s endemic to nature documentaries such as this–a tendency to anthropomorphize what’s actually a natural (if incredible) phenomenon of the animal world by bandying about words like “concern” and “love” to refer to the birds’ conduct. At that, however, the Americanized version being distributed in this country represents an improvement over the French original, which was not only longer but concentrated on a single penguin couple, presenting them in nearly human terms (and even having actors provide “voices” for them as they mate). That misguided idea has happily been jettisoned in favor of a more reserved narration, penned by Jordan Roberts and voiced by Morgan Freeman in tones that capture a proper mixture of astonishment and scientific observation, but do so gently enough not to become grating. And the images captured by Jacquet and his team are often extraordinarily beautiful, and occasionally haunting. The sequences of the penguins waddling toward the mating grounds, which they apparently recall through the agency of some evolutionary inner compass, are breathtaking (and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny when one of the birds slips and falls onto its back); but they’re surpassed by the sight of the massed males huddling together in the sub-zero temperatures to protect the eggs while awaiting the females’ return. (It’s at such moments that one’s amazed by what the filmmakers endured to capture the footage–we get some glimpses of them at work in the snippets that accompany the final crawls.)

There are a few scenes in “March of the Penguins” that will be a bit strong, especially for younger viewers–as when older penguins expire during their long journey, or eggs are broken before hatching, or (especially) females fail to return from their search for nourishment. Though the narration soothingly refers to the fate of victims with a euphemism, saying that all traces of them simply “disappear” in the snow, the harsh reality can’t be so easily erased. That’s why the film really works better as a depiction of the wondrous but also savage character of the natural world rather than the sort of anthropomorphic love-fest the makers (especially in the French version) sought to make it. On that basis, though, it’s a visually overwhelming portrait of a little-known phenomenon, and most viewers will find it enthralling.

And one thing’s certain: with this picture and “Madagascar,” the penguins are enjoying a banner cinematic summer.