16 January 2004

Puck'd: on Miracle

A SLOW-BURN, COMPACT EPIC ABOUT AN INARTICULATE DREAMER, Gavin O'Connor's Miracle is a sweet surprise. For the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the United States Ice Hockey team was a haphazard bunch of college kids, pulled together by gruff, obstinate coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). Who would they eventually face? The Soviet Union's professional team, many of whom had played together for over a decade.

Gavin O'Connor's only other movie is the 1999 Sundance mother-daughter entry Tumbleweeds, which boasts a splendid performance by Janet McTeer and Kimberly Brown as her contentious daughter. (The producers minted 2002's Dennis Quaid/Disney sports movie hit, The Rookie.) O'Connor demonstrates a feathery touch in a sledgehammer genre, and remains very much a director of actors.

The lack of fashion of almost 25 years ago is quickly sketched in: cheap tweed jackets, tacky v-neck sweaters, and yes, plaid trousers. From first glimpse, Russell's Brooks looks like a man out of time, or of no time. (O'Connor has written that "Herb Brooks was a hockey egghead, a mad scientist and the team was his lab experiment.") As Brooks takes the few months he has to mold his fresh charges in his variations on Soviet and Canadian, hockey teams, he glares, masticates under a bowl cut, looking initially like a pudgy and defeated Bill Pullman. Patricia Clarkson, an actress who cannot be inauthentic, plays Brooks' worried wife. Together, Clarkson and Russell the kind of performers who don't need speeches, only glances and silences. Russell's slight Minnesota accent goes in and out, but it hardly matters. (Noah Emmerich offers a capable assist as Brooks' right hand man, with his idiosyncratic line readings and endlessly upbeat expressions.)

The hockey team's another matter. It's strange at first, having trouble differentiating all these ropy black-haired bundles of twentysomething testosterone, until you realize that's part of the movie's game: they're a team. They're one unit, molded by Brooks. In most movies, casting directors go for a variety of types, but almost to a player, the twenty members of the hockey team resemble one another: pretty cheekbones, blue eyes, floppy dark bangs falling into their faces. Daniel Stoloff's shooting and John Gilroy's editing aptitude work with that limitation. O'Connor understands the gifts and strengths of his middle-aged players. The faces we learn are those of Russell, Emmerich and Clarkson, the experienced ones instead of the callow ones. There's the occasional ill-focused or ill-composed re-framing of a shot, and it never seems unplanned, merely effortlessly dynamic. There's genre aptitude to burn here. (Mark Isham's score is filled with Sturming and Dranging, more Steve Reich at a few moments on the ice than his own customary trumpet-led style.)

The filmmakers shot 133 plays, they claim, and there's a jittery vitality if not a noticeable variety to the untrained eye. O'Connor favors in-close shots, handheld at the right moments, cut with a razory accuracy. While a big proponent of compositions that place large objects in the foreground before booming upward to reveal the point of the shot, it becomes vocabulary rather than mannerism over the machined 135 minutes of the movie.

"Ach, so much hate and fear," an older coach reflects on the US and Soviet saber rattling at that point in the cold war, and there is a somber and sober underpinning to the story, a simmering melancholy at the end of Jimmy Carter's term, and especially after the taking of hostages in Tehran.

There are small period details that jar nicely: NBC's late anchorwoman Jessica Savitch announces the Iranian hostage footage. A wall of telegrams-strangely with a fake logo instead of Western Union's-congratulate the team on its first successes. But the most telling is a montage during which Brooks is driving home and listening to the radio, a speech of several minutes by Carter. The President's words are common as the idealism bled into the southern dirt. It's where a pop song montage might go in another film. Carter's words are infused with the same idealism as Brooks will carry to the Games. It's kind of beautiful, the language a rebuke to blind allegiance without "common faith" and idealism.

Similarly, when the team arrives to play at New York's Madison Square Garden in an exhibition game, a helicopter shots establishes Manhattan, and dead center, the World Trade Center and the strains of the pre-game swells of the Star Spangled Banner. Someone in the audience unfurls a banner: "Soviets Get The Puck Out of Afghanistan." Still, the movie never turns to jingoism. It's uplift without schmaltz, and hope without apology. Grimy-looking, dashed together, packed with facts, Miracle is still a pretty picture.

13 January 2004

Night of the laughing dead

TIM KINSELLA, A MEMBERS OF THE BANDS Joan of Arc, and Owls, and Everybody, has spawned a fresh mutation called Make Believe. A tour poster and EP cover were called for, and he asked if I had a dark suit, and what was I doing at 10pm the next night?

Inside a Bucktown industrial space, a grave has been "dug" in the middle of the space, a burial to be reenacted, mimicking an Inquisition-era Goya, "The Death of Truth." Instead of Goya's clergy killing truth in the form of a sleeping young female form in pronounced dishabille, the tableau is of thirty-three local musicians and cohorts in twenty-first century corporate uniform--suit, tie, an impasto of ghoul makeup, hair pomaded to the skulls. (The number is a reference to a ritual of the Freemasons.) Risers have been set up to compensate for differences in height.

The milling mass of faces smell of vitamin E cream, powder and brutal hair product. Newly minted zombies pass Polaroids around. A note of marijuana mingles with cigarette clouds. The longneck Old Styles go quickly. Blurry photocopies of the Goya etching flurry around the bare ankles of one makeup artist. Photographic lights pick up rising tobacco trails before the smoke machine fires up. A scowling white cat dabs against the black mound of potting soil meant to be the grave's turned dirt, sniffing at the fistful of textile calla lilies poked into the pile.

You might know some of the names: Tim Rutili from Califone, a stray 90 Day Man, a couple of ex-Boas members, the cartoon auteurs of Hamster Man and Gorilla Suit, a coffee-shop manager, a record-store clerk, a record-label owner, a booking agent, me. "The Rainbo must be empty tonight," someone mutters, sotto voce, to general laughter from the gathered habitu├ęs of that Ukrainian Village music bar.

Thax Douglas, who christens local performances with poems of praise, stands in the center, ill at ease in a large, dark nightshirt. Someone asks if Thax feels like he's on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper." Kinsella waves his hands, in his dark suit and skinny tie looking like a 1960s Italian director, his cigarette leaving curls behind him in the backlight. "Look Enron, people! Give me your best Enron," he says, waving his MGD. Everyone shifts, zombieish in place. It's not the most Cassavetes-like direction, but the general jokey, beery, smoky conspiracy does have an improvisational delight. "Eyes wide, look at the camera, just be dead for four more. Three more, c'mon."

[Newcity, 13 January 2004]