Whip It


Whip It

Ellen Page flies around the track, hoping her Juno reputation isn't following her.

(Fox Searchlight) Ellen Page, Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Daniel Stern, Eve, Alia Shawkat, Zoe Bell. Directed by Drew Barrymore

The movies have had a love-hate relationship with the roller derby. A number of fine documentaries have been made on the subject of the skaters and their passion for this sport that many dismiss as pro wrestling on wheels (and those that do are ignorant of how physically taxing it is) dating back forty years, but few feature films have captured that world.

Bliss Cavendar (Page) lives in a tiny Texas town outside of the state capital of Austin and like many trapped in tiny Texas towns knows that there are two things expected of those being raised there; that the boys will love football and try out for the team, and the girls will love cheerleading and enter into beauty pageants, which is what Bliss’ hyperthyroid mom (Harden) is pushing her into. Bliss despises it and despises what she is expected to conform into being. She and her friend Pash (Shawkat) are octagonal pegs in rhomboidal holes.

Then, while on a trip to Austin, Bliss spies a flyer for a female roller derby event, and thinking it might be fun, convinces Pash to attend with her. Bliss realizes that this is something that speaks to her, watching girls beat the crap out of one another while whirling around a banked track. Bliss apparently has some sadomasochistic tendencies deep in her teenaged DNA.

She wrangles a try-out with one of the league’s sad sack teams, the Hurl Scouts (so named because they dress like girl scouts…all the teams have gimmicks like that) and to her surprise, she makes the team. She adopts the skater persona of Babe Ruthless (and yes, these are the kinds of names the real skaters take) and quickly becomes a break-out star in the league. She also finds kindred spirits in fellow skaters Smashley Simpson (Barrymore) and Maggie Mayhem (Wiig), as well as a surly rival in Iron Maven (Lewis) who skates for another team, the high and mighty High Rollers.

Of course, the manure hits the fan when mommy finds out and while her henpecked dad (Stern) is all for it, her mom forbids her lil’ angel from competing in a sport where she actually might get…bruised. You see, she neglected to tell her team she’s underaged, a major no-no. With a big match coming up and the clutches of conformity reaching out to grab her, Bliss has to make up her mind to decide to be what others expect of her or to find her own way.

Barrymore makes her directorial debut and quite frankly it’s a pretty good one. Like Barrymore herself, the movie has charm, wit and heart, and an excellent indie rock soundtrack. While Barrymore seems to be at home acting in romantic comedies these days, she actually pulls together this coming of age dramedy quite nicely.

It helps that she has a nifty cast to help pull it off. Harden is making a nice niche for herself as the overbearing mom, and she pulls it off without a hitch. Stern, who was a presence in the 80s and 90s and has gone largely MIA of late, is also satisfying as the dad.

The roller derby sequences weren’t a disgrace either; most of the actresses did their own skating and a number of actual skaters play minor roles in the film. You get a sense of the physicality of the sport and the conditioning needed to be any good at it, which sets it above a lot of sports movies these days which rely overly much on treacle to sell their storyline.

There are a few lapses in logic however. For example, the movie is set in Texas but nobody other than Harden seems to have the twang. I guarantee you if you got this many people together in Austin more than one of them would have the distinctive Texas twang. Also, I find it hard to believe that a mom like Harden would have missed the bumps, bruises and cuts that her daughter surely would have after a full-contact sport like roller derby. It doesn’t seem likely to me that Bliss would escape each of the matches without a scratch.

The movie has a fine empowerment message and looks at the sport and those who participate in it with some fondness and even reverence, which is a change from the low regard it is often held in. For my money, this is some superior entertainment that establishes Barrymore as a director with a future, and adds a little depth to Page’s resume as well.

WHY RENT THIS: The girl empowerment theme is done nicely. Page and her skating cohorts are believable in the derby sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not enough Texas twang here, as well as other lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is on the crude side there are certainly some sexual situations and drug usage but mild enough that most teens should be okay to see this, although the more impressionable sorts should get a long look before putting this in the DVD/Blu-Ray player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Shauna Cross was once a real-life skater in the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and took several of the character names, team names and backstage plot lines were taken from her experiences there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Perhaps owing to the movie’s disappointing box office receipts, there is a dearth of interesting features here; however, a Fox Movie Channel “Writer’s Draft” series on screenwriter Shauna Cross is a welcome addition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.6M on a $15M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole

For those interested in the real thing, the TXRD website (the league depicted in the film) is here.

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Sugar


Sugar

In baseball there is always fireworks.

(Sony Classics) Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jamie Tirelli, Jose Rijo, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Dreams are a very personal thing. We all have them – some sort of goal that we yearn to achieve, be it a career, a relationship or a life goal. Sometimes, our dreams turn out to be very different in reality than they are in our minds.

In the Dominican Republic, baseball is more than a sport; it’s a ticket out of the abject poverty that blankets much of the country. For Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a pitcher with raw talent, that ticket is about to be cashed. He attends the camp of the Kansas City Knights, a Major League Baseball team with a talent camp in the Dominican.

Sugar’s talent nets him a minor league contract and he reports to the Quad City Swing, a team located in the middle of Iowa. Sugar is sent to live with the Higgins family; motherly Helen (Whitney) and curmudgeonly Earl (Bull). This is farm country and it’s as alien from Sugar’s circumstances as you could possibly get.

The Higgins’ granddaughter Anne (Porterfield) takes a shine to Sugar, but she like her grandparents are Evangelical Christians and as much as she likes him, it’s his soul she’s more concerned with. Sugar also has friends on the ballclub, fellow Dominican Jorge (Rufino) and Brad (Holland), a whiz-bang prospect who already has grad school at Stanford lined up if baseball doesn’t work out for him.

Sugar has no such prospects; it’s either baseball or nothing. At first, he tears up the league but as the summer wears on, Sugar begins to fall prey to the physical toll of the game. As his frustration mounts, he begins to wonder if his major league dream is just the fantasy of a naïve young man or truly his destiny to achieve.

This sounds a lot like every other sports underdog movie you’ll ever see, but almost immediately you’ll begin to discover it’s not anything like that. For one thing, this isn’t about baseball; it’s about life. One of the coaches tells Sugar early on “life gives you many opportunities; baseball gives you just one” and he’s right about that. This is a move about opportunity and what you do with them.

This is the first major role for Soto and he makes the most of it. You get the impression that this might very well be the role he’s remembered for and if that’s the case it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind. Sugar is quiet and sweet-natured but he has a breaking point. He gets angry, frustrated and weak. He makes mistakes and he does things he knows he shouldn’t do, but like most of us, does them anyway.

I’m told that the nuts and bolts of the story are very accurate; camps like the one depicted here are commonplace in the Dominican and the portrayal of the minor league system is just as correct.

Again, this isn’t about baseball. It’s about making choices. It’s about making the most about opportunities. It’s about friendships and rivalries and romances and mentoring. It’s about life, and that’s a movie worth seeing always.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic and moving look at the dreams and aspirations of a Dominican baseball player.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and a little sexuality. Nothing more gratuitous than you might find on the average HBO show.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kansas City Knights aren’t a real major league baseball team (the Kansas City Royals are the name of the MLB team); the nickname is a nod to The Natural in which Roy Hobbs played for the New York Knights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on baseball in the Dominican.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Losers