October 27, 2006

‘The Prestige’
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman square off in “The Prestige.”

By Shawn French

There are Hollywood writers, actors and directors who consistently deliver the goods and I’ll happily watch anything they make. The projects where several of these people collaborate are the ones I look forward to months before their release. The latest film in that category is “The Prestige.”

Christian Bale has got to be the most underrated actor of our time. His roles in “American Psycho,” “The Machinist” and “Empire of the Sun” were each worthy of Oscar consideration. The Academy really needs to get around to rewarding him one of these years.

In “The Prestige,” he reunites with “Batman Begins” director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”), another artist whose films I’ll always seek out. Nolan’s work is sometimes a little erratic, but he’s a brilliant young director who brings a fresh approach to his stories.

Bale stars opposite Hugh Jackman (Wolverine from “X-Men”) as rival turn-of-the-20th-century London magicians Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. What starts as a friendly competitive streak between the two men turns into a brutal blood war as both grow obsessed about learning (and sabotaging) each other’s tricks.

Michael Caine plays Cutter, the illusionist who builds Angier’s magic tricks. David Bowie is well cast as Nikola Tesla, the eccentric electrical engineer who had a particularly nasty rivalry with Thomas Edison at the time. Andy Serkis (Gollum from “Lord of the Rings”) plays his sidekick and Scarlett Johansson is Olivia, a stage assistant whose loyalty wavers between the rival magicians. That is one serious cast.

It’s not so much a movie about magic as it is one about the cost of obsession. It’s no surprise that Bale can convey this type of blind dedication. This is the guy who lost 63 pounds to play an emaciated insomniac in “The Machinist” and then had only months to regain the weight to look chiseled in “Batman Begins.” It’s Jackman who was a pleasant surprise. I wondered about his ability to hold his own with Bale and Caine, but he’s fantastic.

Like much of Nolan’s work, the story is twisty and makes frequent use of flashbacks, starting with the aftermath of their obsessive war and then working backward to show how things escalated so far out of control. Nolan uses flashbacks as well as any director working today, but he got a little flashback-happy at times on smaller story points that would have worked fine with a linear telling. Also, the delivery was a little too clever for its own good at points, with a conclusion that ambled a bit.

But those are minor grievances against a film I liked a whole lot. I love movies that you play back in your mind days after watching them, piecing together all the loose ends and seeing scenes differently once the full story is known. This is clearly in that category. As I write this review, four days after seeing the movie, I’m still catching little nuances as I think back on it. I look forward to seeing it a second time.

The story is extremely interesting, but this is a film anchored by the performances. Sure, it has a couple of big twists, but it doesn’t rely on them to carry the film the way M. Night Shyamalan’s movies do. The ride is every bit as enjoyable as the payoff, maybe even more so. It’s a good deal darker than I expected and Angier’s obsession with solving Borden’s “Transported Man” trick is thoroughly compelling. It plays very well on the audience’s natural desire to figure out how magic tricks are done.

Once again, Nolan has delivered a great movie and it’s one of my favorites this year. Maybe a notch below “The Departed,” and roughly comparable to Ed Norton’s magician flick, “The Illusionist.” It’s really worth seeing, and is an ideal film to catch with a big group. It’s something you’ll want to discuss after leaving the theater.

Shawn French can be reached at

October 20, 2006

‘The Grudge 2’

Despite dying in the first movie, Sarah Michelle Gellar is back (sort of) for “The Grudge 2.”

By Shawn French

Horror movie sequels are notoriously dicey. Most successful horror flicks rely on a clever gimmick or back-story and producers who try to go back to the well often find there’s nothing left. In those cases, you either get franchises that devolve into self-parody, or in the case of “The Grudge 2,” a film that spins its wheels without going anywhere.

The first installment was actually pretty good for a PG-13 horror flick. Sure, the ghost is a dead ringer for Samarra of “The Ring” fame, but it was creepy and the non-linear story was well told. As a result, the original “The Grudge,” which cost $10 million to make, took in $187 million worldwide. Three days (and a $30 million profit) after it opened, Sony green lit a sequel. Any time a movie is approved before it’s written, there’s huge potential for disaster.

The studio is basically saying, “As long as it’s called ‘The Grudge 2’ it will turn a profit, so make whatever crap you want. Just bring us something we can release by Halloween.”

And that’s what “The Grudge 2” feels like. It’s a poorly thought-out, garbled mess of a film that is, on multiple occasions, unintentionally funny. It’s as if writer Stephen Susco (“The Grudge”) assembled a collection of random scenes and tried to make a story around them.

There are basically three storylines that we jump into and out of at random in the sequel, each occurring at different points in time. Also, two of the stories have flashbacks. I think. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue what was going on -- and I took notes.

One storyline involves Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character from the first movie and her sister, Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn). Wait, you may say, didn’t Gellar’s character die in “The Grudge?” It certainly seemed that way, and on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” last week she said she thought she died. But I guess a cameo helps sell more tickets, so she’s back for a couple of scenes.

Immediately following the events in the first movie, Aubrey arrives in Tokyo to find out what happened. She spends the movie chasing down dead ends and watching people around her die.

The second plot revolves around a trio of Tokyo high school girls who visit the haunted house a couple of years after the events of the first movie. Like everyone who enters the cursed house, they become targets for the creepy dead contortionist girl. They don’t actually have a story arc. They just continue about their day-to-day business while the ghost tries to kill them.

The third story is a little further ahead in time and set in Chicago (don’t ask). Jennifer Beals is a new stepmom with a husband and two new stepkids. They all get possessed and crazy but continue about their business while the ghost tries to kill them.

The problem here is pretty easy to spot. None of the characters are actually doing anything constructive in this movie -- ever. For a couple of scenes it seems as if Aubrey is tracking down important leads. But nope, they out to be dead ends. Everyone else just hangs around waiting to die. Most of them don’t even know what’s hunting them, nor do they seem to care.

A storyline needs to build up to something: an end conflict, a big revelation, anything. This movie actually builds down. The characters wander around and get picked off one by one until most everyone’s dead. Then the credits roll. Nothing else that happens matters in even the slightest measure. It’s just filler. Along the way we pick up a couple of details about the ghost and the house, but it’s mostly stuff we learned in the first movie.

This script would actually be useful in a screenwriting course to show what happens when characters in a story lack motivation and/or purpose. “The Grudge 2” grossed $22 million on opening weekend, so it’s already turned a profit and the third installment has been approved. If the law of diminishing returns holds true, that should be one impressively bad movie.

Shawn French can be reached at

October 13, 2006

‘The Departed’

Jack Nicholson returns to his villainous roots in “The Departed.”

By Shawn French

Martin Scorsese is back. While it’s true he’s been making movies steadily for the past decade, he drifted away from the style of film that made him famous. Finally, the man who brought us classics like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” has come through with a worthwhile follow-up. He also has his first big box-office opening, which sounds strange considering his résumé. But the $27 million opening weekend for “The Departed” nearly tripled his previous best -- $10.3 million for “Cape Fear.”

His newest film, based on the Japanese trilogy “Infernal Affairs,” is also one of the most complex stories to come out of Hollywood in some time. Jack Nicholson stars as Boston mob boss Frank Costello, who is under investigation by a Boston police/FBI task force that includes Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin. Costello has a mole (Matt Damon) in the investigating unit, and the cops have an undercover guy (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Costello’s crew. Complicating matters, both moles have their sights set on the same woman, a police shrink who doesn’t know the truth about either of them.

As the feds try to build a case against Costello, both cops and crooks hunt for the traitor in their ranks. Scorsese shows every side of the conflict equally. It’s not a cop movie and it’s not a gangster movie. By focusing much of the film on the two opposing moles, he shows us the whole story -- and it’s never really clear for whom we’re supposed to be rooting.

It’s great to see Nicholson playing a villain again after a decade of comedies. He brings such a feral quality to the role that the audience really feels DiCaprio’s fear. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Don Corleone is generally the benchmark of movie mob bosses. But if you crossed Corleone, he’d have someone shoot you. Nicholson seems more likely to rip off your arm and beat you to death with it. There are few actors who can bring such volatility to a role and Scorsese gave Nicholson the freedom to tweak his character and rewrite dialogue to make Costello a bit wilder.

DiCaprio delivers his best performance since “The Basketball Diaries.” With his last decade of work, it’s easy to forget how strong of an actor he is. He’s completely convincing as the South Boston kid railroaded into double-crossing Costello.

There are a ton of characters to follow, but Scorsese commits memorable screen time to even the smaller parts early on. So when things start getting complicated -- and they do -- it’s still possible to sort things out. And the story is twisty enough that I’m still connecting a few of the stray dots. I’m anxious to see it again now that I know what’s what. The film is loaded with subtle clues and nearly every character has a hidden agenda.

Many of the best moments involve the two moles hunting for each other, both knowing that their survival depends on outing the other traitor. Scenes where Damon is assigned to ferret out the police mole (himself) and Costello picks DiCaprio’s brain about whom he suspects as the mob traitor (himself) form the core of this film. Both moles walking a very dangerous line and watching them reshape their strategies on the fly as their environments shift is great cinema. The script by William Monahan (“Kingdom of Heaven”) is absolutely brilliant. The dialogue is fantastic and there’s a dizzying number of twists in the final act.

Shawn French can be reached at

October 9, 2006

‘School for Scoundrels’

Billy Bob Thornton in the disappointing “School for Scoundrels.”

By Shawn French

Dark comedies are one of the most difficult genres for filmmakers. Milking laughs out of traditionally unfunny things is a very precise art. When executed properly, you get classics like “Heathers” or “Better Off Dead.” And when the execution is botched, you end up with “School for Scoundrels.”

Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) stars as Roger, a wishy-washy NYC meter maid whose life has hit rock bottom. He’s mugged while giving out a ticket; the girl of his dreams, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett), doesn’t know he exists; and he can’t even volunteer as a Big Brother after being dumped, again, by a kid he tried to mentor.

He enrolls in a top-secret confidence-building class taught by the sleazy Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton) and his not-well-in-the-head sidekick Lesher (Michael Clarke Duncan). The class teaches Roger and the rest of the loser students (including Horatio Sanz and Todd Louiso -- the Moby-looking guy from “High Fidelity”) how to find their inner lion and con women into sleeping with them. But when Dr. P sets his sights on Roger’s crush, the teacher and pupil go to war.

It’s a decent setup and writer Scot Armstrong and writer/director Todd Phillips churned out the enjoyably goofy “Road Trip” and “Old School.” Toss in cameos by Ben Stiller, David Cross and Sarah Silverman and this had all the ingredients for a successful film. The movie does work in spots. Most of the classroom stuff is solid and there are a half-dozen extremely funny scenes. Unfortunately, there’s also the other 90 minutes of the movie.

Dark comedies require a steady escalation and that’s one area where this story falters off course. The first assignment for the students -- to start a conflict with someone -- is a perfect example. “Fight Club” had a similar montage, except funny. Dr. P’s students, on the other hand, pick a fight with an old guy in his hospital bed and randomly assault a female violin player in the park. Much of the intended humor is mean-spirited and unfunny.

The scene was a perfect opportunity to strike out against annoying things that the audience could relate to. Have a student target a vehicle illegally parked in a handicapped spot; send another to grab the phone away from someone talking in a movie theater; dump a trash can into the car of someone who littered. By giving the actions poetic justice, the montage could have gotten the audience rooting for the underdog characters as they developed a spine. When the characters start off as unlikable, there’s nothing to build on. The movie is full of missed opportunities.

The cameos were also totally wasted. Silverman is a brilliant comic and she is given nothing to work with in this movie. She’s awful. Same with Cross. The guy is a fearless comedian. If you can’t come up with anything funny for him, let him write something for himself. Why even cast these people if you’re not going to use them?

The meat of the story is the war of cruel pranks between Dr. P and Roger, who sabotage each other’s personal and professional lives while trying to woo Amanda. But the pranks are rarely funny and the rivals have no chemistry at all. The reason given for Dr. P going after Amanda is that he feels threatened by Roger, his star pupil. Maybe the scenes that establish Roger as a star pupil ended up on a cutting-room floor, because there’s not much in the movie to suggest it’s true other than characters who keep saying it.

There are a few laughs to be found, like when Thornton sneaks in a shot at his real-life ex, sarcastically telling Roger, “I’m sure you’re just days away from adopting a Chinese baby together.” And Duncan’s character is good in spots, but aggressively unfunny other times.

After a relatively strong first act, the movie flat-lines for much of the final hour. Even the defibrillator scene at the end isn’t enough to shock any life back into this clunker.

Shawn French can be reached at

September 29, 2006


Jet Li is “Fearless.”

By Shawn French

The much talked about final martial arts film of Jet Li tells the story of the legendary Huo Yuanjia, the wushu master who helped unite his people in turn-of-the-century China. In reality, this is the martial arts equivalent of a Cher farewell tour. It’s his last martial arts film, but he’ll still make action movies with lots of martial arts in them. He has one coming out in 2007 in fact. The distinction is that, at age 42, he’s trying to get away from the physically taxing wire-fu epic films he’s been doing.

“Fearless” follows Huo (Li) through his childhood, when his father refuses to train him in wushu due to his asthma. The young boy secretly watches his father’s dojo and trains on his own. Flash forward to his young adulthood and his rise to prominence as one of Tianjin’s greatest warriors. He’s brash, arrogant and frequently drunk, but unmatched in skill. However, when his ego drives him into a dishonorable battle with tragic consequences, he leaves Tianjin and rediscovers himself with the help of a beautiful peasant girl (Li Sun).

Upon his return, he finds his home changed due to the influence of Western outsiders. His people have become marginalized and called “the sick man of the East.” To defend the honor of his people, he agrees to battle four top warriors from around the world -- in a row. The foreign Chamber of Commerce arranged the Shanghai event to publicly destroy the best China had to offer and humiliate the people. Unfortunately for them, China’s best was Huo Yuanjia, who famously defeated his international opponents and united a nation.

The event in Shanghai did happen, although the rest of the film is more fiction than fact. One of the bigger inaccuracies was the suggestion that Huo had no living heirs. One of Huo’s 11 great-grandchildren (he has seven grandchildren as well) has spoken out against the film in China, demanding a public apology from Li and the filmmakers for dishonoring his family.

Fabrications aside, it’s really a beautiful little story of redemption and our hero’s realization that martial arts should be about improving oneself, not imposing one’s will on others.

Director Ronny Yu has one of the strangest résumés in Hollywood. He combines a deep history of traditional martial arts flicks (including Brandon Lee’s first film) with a couple of goofy American pop-cult movies, “Bride of Chucky” and “Freddy vs. Jason.” One of his biggest strengths is that he doesn’t over direct his action movies. There’s none of the quick-cutting nonsense that makes some Hollywood fight scenes hard to follow. Instead, he backs the camera out a bit and lets the combatants do their thing.

I’m not a huge fan of the wire-fu movement. I think it’s great in fantastical films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” But if you’re trying to ground the story in reality, don’t cheat on the fight choreography. One of the reasons I enjoy martial arts flicks is watching these amazing athletes do things I never could. Stunts that are obviously wire-boosted completely ruin that feel for me.

There were also some story structure problems that could have been easily corrected. The film opens with the contest in Shanghai, showing us the first three fights and then jumping back in time for the rest of the story -- eventually ending on the fourth and final battle. Flash-forward openings are fine, but there needs to be a thematic reason for using them. This one is stuck in awkwardly and weakens the movie.

The first act chronicling Huo’s rise to power is loaded with action. You really don’t need three more fight scenes crammed in there. Plus, the audience doesn’t know who these people are or why their fight matters at that point. It’s just Jet Li beating up some European guys. This contest is his first after finding enlightenment. The difference between the Shanghai tourney and the angry battles of his youth would be an interesting contrast if Yu had shown the story sequentially.

After an action-less second act spent in the tranquil rice patties, there are only two fights in the final act. Generally speaking, if the audience came to see an action movie and you go 30-plus minutes without a fight scene, you better come back with something big. The four-in-a-row tournament should have been the third-act anchor; instead 75 percent of it is shown at the wrong time. I don’t see an advantage to that decision.

Flaws and all, I did enjoy the movie. It’s an effective story with a powerful finale. But I’m a freak for these types of films. “Fearless” isn’t likely to have the mainstream appeal of the elegant “Crouching Tiger”-style movies or the brutally realistic Tony Jaa vehicles. But if you’re really into martial arts films, it’s worth renting once it’s out on DVD.

Shawn French can be reached at

September 22, 2006

'The Illusionist'

Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in “The Illusionist.

By Shawn French

In the rush of over-advertised and under-performing would-be blockbusters, sometimes the best movies go quietly unnoticed in theaters. A perfect example is the masterfully crafted film, “The Illusionist.”

Edward Norton stars as Eisenheim, a brilliant stage magician in turn-of-the-20th century Vienna. When Crown Price Leopold (Rufus Sewell) attends a performance, he volunteers his intended bride Sophie (Jessica Biel) to assist in a trick. As she takes the stage, Eisenheim recognizes her as the childhood love he was torn apart from 15 years earlier due to class and circumstance. He, a commoner, was not deemed a worthy friend by the family of the young duchess. After threats were made against his parents, Eisenheim left to travel the world and learn his craft.

In one of many scenes with multiple layers, he asks the traditional, “Do you know me?” as his volunteer takes the stage. When she says no, he asks again. “Are you quite certain, Madame, that you do not know me?”

Their eyes meet, recognition dawns, and soon the two are arranging secret meetings as they did in their youth. But Leopold will not stand for it, as his marriage to Sophie will help secure the alliance he needs to topple his father, the emperor. Eisenheim is invited to a private performance in Leopold’s court, where the aspiring emperor plans to discredit him. But when Eisenheim turns the tables, embarrassing the crown prince with an Excalibur-influenced trick, he earns a dangerous enemy.

Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), a reluctant admirer of the stage performer, is assigned to discover the magician’s secrets. To rescue Sophie from the violent and abusive prince will require Eisenheim’s greatest trick yet -- but will even that be enough against the clever and resourceful Leopold?

So many films these days are all concept and no substance. The focus is on a snappy one-sentence pitch and a trailer full of explosives and one-liners. It’s refreshing to see a film driven by a great script and compelling characters.

And the cast is excellent. Ed Norton completely inhabits the role, delivering magnificent stage performances. He has the ability to vanish into a part in a way few name actors can. In consecutive films, he was amazing as a broken-down gambler (“Rounders”); a soulless neo-Nazi who finds redemption (“American History X”); and what I consider his finest role, the complicated lead character of “Fight Club.” With apologies to Christian Bale, Norton is the finest actor of his generation. For this role, he trained with David “For my next trick, I’ll drown ” Blaine so he could perform the required sleight of hand with minimal CGI.

Jessica Biel, best known for “7th Heaven,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake and “Blade: Trinity” is also quite good. Turns out she’s a skilled actress when you actually give her material to work with. Who knew?

And Giamatti is Giamatti. He always brings quirky depth to his roles and this is no exception. His character serves as narrator trapped in the middle of the struggle between Eisenheim and Leopold. It’s a complex part and he absolutely nails it. I was relieved to see him in something good, to help wash away the memory of the train wreck, “Lady in the Water.”

Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, the film is a tremendous achievement for only the second feature by writer/director Neil Burger. The cinematography is gorgeous, the shooting locations in Prague were perfect, and the score by Phillip Glass is actually quite good. Instead of the overbearing, headache-inducing screeching that marks some of his work, the music is a perfect complement to the tale.

This is a great date movie. It’s beautiful, sweet and romantic without getting sappy or overly sentimental. There are a few unexpected twists and the finale is exactly right. I highly recommend it.

Shawn French can be reached at

September 15, 2006

‘The Protector’

Tony Jaa is the undisputed king of martial arts movies.

By Shawn French

As a movie nut, I always track which films are in the works and circle the dates on the calendar for the ones I’m looking forward to. The movie I was most stoked for this year was “The Protector,” the follow-up to budding superstar Tony Jaa’s amazing “Ong-bak” -- one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made.

Jaa is a new breed of action star, the first worthy to be called “the next Bruce Lee.” He’s 5-foot-6 with a vertical leap of 2 meters, or just over 6.5 feet. Read that again. His vertical leap is a full foot greater than his height. By comparison, Kobe Bryant has a 44-inch vertical leap -- which is considered excellent. Jaa has almost twice as much spring. It doesn’t seem possible until you watch him kick out a 12-foot-high streetlight from a standing jump or kick a guy out of a flying helicopter that had to be close to 15 feet up. He does both in the “The Protector.”

Keep in mind he doesn’t use special effects. No wire-fu, no CGI, no tricks. Every fight and stunt is done without cheating. Jaa doesn’t need to cheat.

Jaa has also become an ambassador for his martial art, Muay Thai Boran, an ancient and brutal form of Thai kickboxing that relies heavily on knee and elbow strikes. Muay Thai hasn’t been seen much in movies and one of Jaa’s stated goals is to expand awareness of his art and his people.

In “The Protector,” Jaa plays Kham, a warrior with a sacred charge to protect his village’s elephants. In ancient times, it was the role of these protectors to fight at the feet of the war elephants and guard their vulnerable underbellies. But with kings not riding elephants into battle much these days, he and his father (also a protector) care for the revered animals like family members. When two of the creatures are stolen, Kham tracks them to Australia and inflicts a whole lot of hurt on the thieves and their dozens and dozens of henchmen.

In real life, Jaa cared for a pair of elephants as a boy in his native Thailand, learning much of his acrobatics from jumping off their backs into the river where he’d bring them to bathe. After the success of “Ong-bak,” Jaa bought up a big chunk of jungle so his childhood pachyderm friends Flower (age 60) and Leaf (age 50) would always have a place to call home. This movie is a tribute to the animals, and it’s surprisingly touching at times, despite lots of bone-crunching action.

Like “Ong-bak,” however, this isn’t a movie to see for the story. The script is somewhat of a mess and the 109-minute Thai running time was cut down to 83 minutes for an American release, so it’s choppy at times. But none of that matters. What matters is that Jaa delivers action scenes like you’ve never seen before. He’s a world-class acrobat, an impossibly fluid martial artist and a brilliant fight choreographer. His battle against Capoeira-fighter Lateef Crowder in a flaming temple is absolutely jaw dropping. The film also pits him against Australian giant Nathan Jones -- a 6-foot-11, 360-pound monstrosity often billed as Megaman -- for a pair of great fight scenes.

Another thing that sets Jaa apart from the action movie crowd is that he actually lands his attacks. The stuntmen he beats on wear body armor under their clothes, allowing him to make contact without killing them, although lesser injuries are common on the set.

And the film contains the most impressive single-shot fight sequence in film history. In a four-minute continuous take, Jaa carves his way through 40 enemies in a four-story restaurant. Jaa has said in interviews it took about a month to set up the scene and they finally got it on the eighth take. He also told of a near disaster. Once he clears the lower level and starts heading up the stairs, the stunt crew was supposed to cart in the safety net so later in the sequence he can toss a guy off a third-story balcony. For whatever reason, they didn’t get the net out and Jaa didn’t notice until he was throwing the guy over the edge. He barely caught him at the last minute and hauled him back up. The four-minute brawl is a major cinematic achievement and it alone is worth the price of admission.

The first half-hour of the movie is a little slow, although with some great action worked in. But the final 45 minutes are like a videogame, only much, much better. There is almost nonstop action, with Jaa battling against a wide variety of martial arts styles.

Bottom line: If you’ve ever liked a martial arts movie, you owe it to yourself to see this film. Tony Jaa is doing things onscreen that no one has ever done before. And if you still haven’t seen “Ong-bak,” you should correct that mistake as soon as possible.

Shawn French can be reached at

September 5, 2006


Marky Mark (minus the Funky Bunch) is “Invincible.”

By Shawn French

Disney has a pretty good track record with feel-good kid-friendly sports movies and its latest is no exception.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Philadelphia’s Vince Papale, who in 1976 attended an open tryout and earned a spot as a wide receiver for his beloved Eagles. I had my doubts about how this would work as a movie. Sure, the Papale thing was a great story, but we’re talking about a guy who caught one pass for 15 yards in a three-year career. He made his living as a special teams gunner, like an early Steve Tasker. Wayne Chrebet and Kurt Warner have similar out-of-nowhere success stories, except they went on to have great NFL careers. Either of those players seemed like better a choice than Papale.

I wasn’t sure how this story could be spun into a decent film. But screenwriter Brad Gann put the focus on Papale’s background and what he meant to his hometown. Then he twisted around the facts a bit and the result is a worthwhile football flick.

Papale’s world had fallen apart in (the film version of) 1975. His wife left him and took everything; his car was on the brink of death; his Eagles were bums; he lost his job as a substitute teacher; his phone was shut off; and he was scraping out a living as a bartender. All that changed when new Eagle coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) announced he would hold open tryouts.

In reality, Papale was playing pro football for the WFL’s Philadelphia Bell in 1975, as he had in 1974. The film also paints an image of Papale as a regular guy off the street who only played one year of high school football. While this is true, the filmmakers ignore his WFL experience and his years as a college track star. He still holds his college’s record for the pole vault, in fact.

The strength of this story is Papale’s bond with his buddies from the bar, who desperately need something to believe in. Their friendship feels authentic and Wahlberg is convincing as an average joe from the neighborhood. The men obsess about the hard-luck Eagles and gather for brutal street-ball games at night, where Papale is the man. But he’s been beaten down by his nasty estranged wife as well as a drunk of a dad who discourages him from trying out, saying, “A man can only take so much failure.” Nice pep talk.

After a little coaxing from his pals, the 30-year-old wades through the lines of rowdy drunks at the open tryout and catches Vermeil’s attention with his good hands and quick feet.

And there is the obligatory love interest, Janet (Elizabeth Banks), who seems to be a fictional morphing of Papale’s second and third wives, minus the kids. She’s the kind of woman who only exists in movies -- gorgeous, brassy and can talk football with the best of them.

The town of Philadelphia is almost a character of its own in this film, and with good cause. Eagle fans are the only group that Raider fans like myself are allowed to criticize. These are the people who famously booed Santa. They cheered when Michael Irvin broke his neck during a game -- the single most repulsive act I’ve ever witnessed from a sports crowd. They even booed future Hall of Famer Donavan McNabb when the Eagles picked him in the draft (fans wanted Ricky Williams). Their stadium is so rowdy it has its own onsite courtroom to process the frequent arrests. In the film, the fans are by necessity softened into big, lovable lugs.

Football fans will also likely get a kick out of watching young Dick Vermeil’s struggle to rebuild a dead-end franchise and the gamble he took on a hometown boy. Kinnear is excellent as the young coach -- earnest, driven and believing that character can be more important than skill when building a successful franchise. His wife, Carol (Paige Turco), is his moral compass in the film, giving him a nudge in the right direction whenever he doubts his instincts.

We follow Papale through the tryouts, to training camp (where the veterans resent and harass him), through round after round of cut, and finally to his first NFL games. The on-the-field action is fantastic, with director/cinematographer Ericson Core keeping the camera tight on Papale to give audiences the feel of being there.

The majority of the film is spent on establishing the relationships, and the focus of the film isn’t so much on what Papale accomplished as it is on what his accomplishments meant to his South Philly crowd. While I would have preferred that the film told the true story of Papale, the doctored version is about as accurate as most sports flicks. And the finale, showing the biggest play of Papale’s career, is undeniably moving. It’s a movie worth seeing.

Shawn French can be reached at

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Scenes from Summer Camp
The Angels of Martyrdom,
a novella by Hamden High senior David Amrani

The 7th Annual Brooksvale Fall Festival
Maple Sugaring at Brooksvale
Inside Hamden's Farmers Market
Hamden Snapshots, 2007

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Local Obits
Bad Boys, Bad Girls 2008
Red Hot Calls 2008

Local Politics
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Elections & Registrars


Hamden State Reps.
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Brendan Sharkey
Cameron Staples
Alfred Adinolfi

Hamden State Senators
Martin Looney
Joseph Crisco

Interesting Links
Vision Appraisal, Hamden
Concerned Citizens for Hamden Neighborhoods
Hamden Alliance for Responsible Taxation
Hamden Tax Relief
Hamden: Nobody Gets Out Alive
Hamden High Student Web Site
DEP Newhall Community Blog
Newhall Project Remediation
The Cheshire Town Post
Underground Town Hall
New Haven Independent
My Left Nutmeg
Connecticut Local Politics
Colin McEnroe, To Wit
Kent Tribune
The Huffington Post
Drudge Report

Yale Rep
Long Wharf Theatre
Shubert Theater

U.S. Veterans Affairs



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