Do You Believe in Miller-acles? Yes!

By , February 22, 2010 8:53 pm

That's for you, Commies! Takes your socialized health care and shove it! USA! USA! USA!

 

Screw you, whatever, that’s a good pun.  U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller stood on his head and catapulted the Americans to the top seed in the knock-out round of the Olympic tournament.  This is a big deal:  Basically, we have to beat (probably) the Swiss and the Finns to make the gold medal game.  Miller’s performance only proves that ice hockey goaltender is the single most important and most demanding position in all of team sports, rivaled only by quarterback.  (Yes, the author of this blog is a former goalie.  He is now considering retiring into curling.)

Though this victory was not anywhere near the Miracle on Ice, I was reminded of the movie Miracle, which you probably remember as that Disney hockey movie.  True enough, but Miracle is also a subtle political statement and the first film to really understand goaltending.  Director Gavin O’Connor (whose only movie to date was Janet McTeer’s Tumbleweeds) Miracle opens with a montage of ’70s political moments, Vietnam protests and Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” speech. From here, O’Connor displays cultural absurdities of the decade (disco, streaking, the Coneheads, Billy Beer) as the natural outgrowth of the confusion and disillusionment of the era’s political failings.  This leads us to the troubles of the late ’70s: recession, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The montage ends with Jimmy Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Then, as if heeding this call to action, a ragtag bunch of skaters works to replenish the national spirit in a little rink tucked inside Rochester, Minnesota.

O’Connor’s montage doesn’t just give context, but it also raises larger questions about America: Why were we failing?  Were the Soviets winning the Cold War, and if so, why?

In the first scene after the montage, Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) is asked why the Soviets beat the hell out of the NHL All-Stars in a recent exhibition:  “It’s not because you weren’t good enough. All-star teams don’t succeed because they rely on talent. [The Russians] take that talent and mold it into a system that’s designed for the betterment of the team.”

This is a coaching cliché, of course, but in context, O’Connor suggests that the Me Decade attitude eroded America’s ability to act collectively and achieve greatness—in short, to win the Cold War.    

O’Connor puts aside the political subtext to deliver the sports-movie goods.  After a lazy performance against the Norwegians, Coach Brooks skates the boys until they puke to get them to understand the team concept, while the assistant coach stares at Brooks as if he’s insane.  Of course, Coach Knows Exactly What He’s Doing, and he’s got the clichés to prove it: “Be prepared to grow through pain.” “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” “Maybe if they’re all hating me, they won’t have time to hate each other.” 

Just how much of a “psychological mastermind” is Coach Brooks? His first assignment for the team is a 300-question psych exam, which he administers because the real test is to see if his goaltender will refuse to take it. And how beautiful is Brooks’ hockey mind? Well, he devises defensive zone breakout options on the rink glass like John Nash figuring out Reimann’s Hypothesis from inside Princeton’s library.  

In fact, Kurt Russell paints Herb Brooks as complex portrait of an American working man, father figure, and ambitious, ingenious opportunist — a unique American icon in answer to Carter’s challenge.  The temptation here is to turn Brooks into Lombardi on skates, but Brooks has to maintain emotional control for the audience to buy that he “does everything for a reason.” He only has a few outbursts (strategically planned, to wit), so Russell has to build the performance from the inside out. Russell has gotten more interesting as he’s gotten older:  He has an older man’s bulk that’s intimidating, but he’s also developed active, inquisitive eyes that project understanding rather than anger or stoicism.  He scowls, he lectures, and he’s tough enough to skate out there and snap some bullet wristers at his keeper — but Russell has a deadpan sense of humor and a deft touch with the young boys’ emotions. Brooks achieves the spiritual ideal of his sport, forming a bond between a group of men with razor blades strapped to their feet flying into each other at 30 mph:  “hockey team” is a state of mind.

Not only does O’Connor understand the psychology of the sport, he is the first director to understand what differentiates hockey from the other major team sports.  The skating element makes hockey truly dangerous, yet skating gives it a speed and grace unmatched by traditional running sports.  O’Connor understands that this flow is what makes the game great, yet hard to follow on television.  So, he places the camera at ice level, moving at hockey speed, then dramatically cutting and stopping with the players.  O’Connor also captures the constant flow of players shuttling on and off the ice—and, not only does he avoid slow motion (which would completely undermine the whole point of filming hockey), he also avoids dramatizing high speed collisions.  Rather, O’Connor focuses on the beauty that emerges from chaos.

More impressively, O’Connor shows remarkably the difficulty of goaltender Jim Craig’s job. As Craig himself describes in an interview with Eddie Cahill, who plays him in the movie, “When a person comes up the ice, there are 10 things a person can do, then there are seven things a person can do … you’re eliminating things as a person comes at you. You are eliminating options.” This is exactly what a goaltender calculates as the action comes at him.  In a few remarkable sequences, O’Connor flows the camera backward down the ice; we see the options narrow, then—wham!, the goalie anticipates the next movie, beating the puck to the spot to make the save.  This is the essence of the most difficult job in sports, where a man has to take himself to a place where he cannot think, only anticipate and react.  In short, O’Connor films goaltending as athletic meditation.   

As the Olympics approach, O’Connor’s movie regains its political bent. Brooks agonizes over the team’s final cut while the Iranians are burning American flags over his shoulder on television; the boys even give Brooks a nameplate that says “Ayatolla.” To lead into an exhibition with the Soviets at Madison Square Garden three days before the Olympics, O’Connor boldly plays the Twin Towers card, showing us the skyscrapers when the team lands in New York. At first, this seems like a shameless ploy, but O’Connor’s first internal shot of Madison Square Garden is the Americans skating out underneath a banner reading, “Soviet Union: Get the Puck Out of Afghanistan.” We finally meet the Red Army, who rules the ice by intimidation and fear. O’Connor shows us, without demonization, that the Soviets’ arrogance is as much a part of the “miracle” as the Americans’ can-do attitude and relentless training.

During the Miracle game itself, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov’s pulling of goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (generally thought of as the greatest goalie in history) after the first period remains one of the worst coaching moves in modern sports — yet in the movie, O’Connor lets Tikhonov off easy; he calmly strokes his wing-tip eyebrows after the Americans sneak into the Russian zone and steal a goal at the end of the first period. Thus, O’Connor’s juxtaposition of the scrappy Americans and the indomitable empire is a story that reaches back to Lexington and Concord: The Red Army simply were not expecting a guerilla attack or for this ragtag militia to withstand the siege.

This is where O’Connor makes a sly political statement. The movie ends with Brooks delivering a monologue about what that victory meant to America. “A few years later, the USOC decided to send pro teams to the Olympics … ‘Dream Teams,’ they call them. But now that we have ‘Dream Teams,’ seldom do we get to dream.” Here, Miracle — for all its Disneyishness — does something quite daring: The movie suggests that the same arrogance that drove the Soviets to send its Red Army team to international competition is the same arrogance that America projects with its Jordan-and-Kobe led squads.

Looking back on the film now, Miracle poses more tough questions about this victory than it provides answers about its legacy. The Soviets were so hated because they imposed their will on the world, whether invading Afghanistan or forcing world-class goaltender Tretiak to renounce his desire to play in the NHL. But then O’Connor boldly shows us the Twin Towers to remind us that they aren’t there anymore.  He uses the Olympics to gauge the rise and fall of two empires; Miracle shows us who we were then, and then asks who we are now.

Are we still a nation that values those old ideals of sacrifice, hard work and perseverance in times of national trial, as we were called to during the Cold War? What do our leaders ask of us in these trying times—and, more importantly, if they ask for sacrifice, are we willing to give it? What have we done to replenish the American spirit, as goaltender Jim Craig and the boys did over two decades ago? As a nation, can we still celebrate minutemen if we have become the world’s ruling empire?  Are we as arrogant today in Afghanistan and Iraq as the Soviets were then?  Will it be our undoing? As Herb Brooks says, there will never be another Miracle for America. It will be someone else’s miracle when they finally topple the mighty Dream Team — all the while telling us to get the puck out of Afghanistan.

Unless, of course, Ryan Miller comes up with fifty saves in the gold medal game against the Russians.  That would be another miracle.

In Praise of Scott Hamilton’s Cameo in Blades of Glory

By , February 19, 2010 3:47 pm

You didn't vote for Pedro? But you said Napoleon Dynamite just NAILED IT! at the assembly!

While watching last night’s epic figure skating smackdown between Evan Lysacek and Evgeni Plushenko, I was reminded of one of the most brilliant sports announcer cameos in the history of movies:  Scott Hamilton in Blades of Glory.

Most sportscaster cameos simply don’t work because the filmmakers don’t use them right.  The cameo usually serves one of two purposes: “authenticity” or comic relief.  Too often, the cameo is asked to do both, creating a problem of contradiction:  the comic relief undermines the authenticity.  Even in comedies, the announcers are there to create the illusion of authenticity; otherwise, why not just have Stephen Colbert call the Nascar race in Talledega Nights rather than make Ken Jenkins read lines about an invisible fire and pay Darrell Waltrip to say “boogity boogity boogity.” The worst case scenario is that Joe Buck comes off even lamer than normal, which somehow happens at the climax of Fever Pitch when he’s SHOCKED that Drew Barrymore would just take off across the Fenway outfield.  Worse, you could have sports announcers do something other than announcing sports, witness the recent failure of Jim Nantz straining for hipness by breaking down Barney’s “Perfect Week” on How I Met Your Mother.

Occasionally, the sportscaster cameo almost works.  In The Longest Yard, Jim Rome pretty much sounds like he’s in The Jungle.  He strains a bit to drop in a “Travis” as a shout-out to the Clones at the multiplex, but Rome avoids the fatal mistake of sounding like he’s reading his lines off a movie script.  Rather, he sounds like he normally does, which is reading his lines off his computer screen on his radio show.  Still, the Rome cameo doesn’t really add anything to the film—Rome is there because of the crossover between his and Sandler’s audience, and it’s a bit of a reach to think that these games would even be broadcast, nonetheless by a $50 million man. 

Thus, the perfect sportscaster cameo meshes a spontaneous feel, like a sportscast, with the internal logic of the film.  The Abdul-Jabbar-in-Airplane! of sportscaster cameos is Howard Cosell covering the consummation of the Fielding marriage in Woody Allen’s Bananas.  As are most of Allen’s comedies, Bananas is an absurdist projection of the mind of the neurotic New York Jew.  Allen’s great fear is that he won’t measure up as a performer, so, in his mind, the wedding night is broadcast by Howard Cosell as if he’s calling the Thrilla in Manilla. Cosell sounds somewhat scripted, but he drops in some trademark Cosell SAT vocab, telling us that Mellish is “buttressed” by his manager and trainer, and in the post-sex interview with the wife, she tells Cosell that her husband’s “timing is a little off.”  Funny stuff.

Scott Hamilton’s cameo in Blades of Glory, on the other hand, is one of those standard-issue “authenticity” roles that doubles as comic relief because the network guy says something rude or non-PC.  Hamilton’s comedic insight is that he doesn’t need to movie-ize his performance.  When you’ve got a fat guy in cowboy vest skating ass-first to “The Stroke,” you don’t need to embellish anything about your usual “Oh, he just nails the triple axel!” call.  “Flawless!” and “Textbook Perfection!” are more hilarious than any beefed up script lines because the joke is that you’re taking this seriously. 

Still, listen a little more closely, and there’s something else going on here.  What makes Scott Hamilton one of the most enjoyable, if not especially insightful, ex-athlete color commentators is the unadulterated joy he has in watching athletes perform.  Granted, during this Olympics, he’s taken to groaning after falls and slight moans when the jump comes up a bit short, but he’s always genuinely engaged in the action on the ice.  He also seems to understand that his audience may not perceive the distinction between an excellent and simply very good triple lutz, so he tells the audience they should be excited because he’s excited.  Figure skating is an artistic medium as well as athletic, and Hamilton is prone to the artist flourish—or, if you will, a total freak-out after, say, a skater lands the quad.  And he’s not afraid to do a Three Stooges “Whoo Whoo Whoo” to describe a recovery after the triple toe.

In Blades of Glory, Hamilton perfectly captures the substance and feel of his own ridiculous commentary:  “This cowboy is cracking his whip on the haunch of this crowd, and they love it!” sounds exactly like a Hamiltonism about, say, Brian BoitanoHis description of Jon Heder’s “galloping peacock” might as well have been about Johnny Weir’s Torino outfit.  Hamilton isn’t exactly deadpan, but he plays the cameo as if he’s actually broadcasting figure skating.  The exaggerated nature of his commentary is even funnier because he doesn’t exaggerate it further for laughs. 

Like a great skating routine, the performance must seem effortless.  Because Scott Hamilton doesn’t try too hard for laughs, he gets them.  In fact, he’s more insightful in Blades of Glory than he’s been in Vancouver:  “Male figure skating is different than female figure skating.  We’re not America’s sweethearts. “ In the words of Scott Hamilton, he just NAILS it!  Textbook Perfection!

The Docket, 2-8-2010

By , February 9, 2010 8:41 pm

Sorry I missed last week, y’all.  Some of you have been asking for my opinion on the Oscar nominations, especially the ten Best Picture nominees.  I actually like it, and here’s why.  With the five spots, the way it’s broken down, more or less, the last few years, is to reserve one for the Weinstein Prestige Picture, one for an upstart indie, and three for studio “independent” movies.  Now, you’ve got room for the deserving Pixar movie, more independents, and Hollywood can reward good blockbusters—hopefully encouraging more The Dark Knights and fewer Transformers 2s.  I will have a rundown of the Best Picture nominees closer to Oscar time.  For now, here’s what’s on the Docket for your movie week.

Dear John:  What happened to Lasse Hallstrom?  Lasse used to be Bob and Harvey’s go-to guy for Oscar Bait:  The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News.  The problem is that his movies are, in the immortal words of Mel Gibson, boring as a dog’s ass.  So, rather than comparing Golden Globes gift bags with Johnny Depp and Michael Caine, Lasse’s been reduced to opening Nicholas Sparks adaptation in February.  Starring GI Joe and the chick that made out with Megan Fox in that one movie that nobody cares about except for the fact that Megan Fox made out with some chick in it.

Valentine’s Day:  Or, Valentine’s Day, Actually.  Or maybe She’s Just Not That In To Valentine’s Day.  This one is brought to you by the unabashedly estrogized Garry Marshall, who made prostitution adorable in Pretty Woman.  At least Richard Curtis’ Love, Actually had some Altman-esque ambitions to its sprawling, multi-story structure—including a memorable performance by Billy Nighy as Billy Mack, the depressed Jagger-lipped popstar who scores an unexpected Christmas hit, and Billy Bob Thornton as the POTUS who gropes Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s secretary.  I suspect that Marshall just wants to throw some stars at housewives five minutes at a time.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians:  The Lightning Thief: I don’t mean to be such a downer this week, but here’s how you know this is going to suck:  Chris Columbus.  Not the genocide guy with the national holiday, but the hack director of Home Alone, some unspeakably crappy Robin Williams movies—and, most relevant for our purposes, the two worst Harry Potter movies.  Columbus fell in love the special effects arsenal Warner Bros. put at his disposal, developing none of the characters and flattening the story.  Expect the same with poor Percy.   

The Wolfman:  Looks like a classier version of Van Helsing, doesn’t it?  But with Benicio Del Toro in a high-tech The Howling.  Unfortunately, almost all big budget films with starpower released in February are deeply flawed.  That’s why they’re released in February.

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