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Column Fri Feb 20 2009
Hey, everyone. I was brutally tempted to skip the column this week, but one of the two films that I'm reviewing is particularly worth seeing, so I didn't want to the opportunity to talk it up pass me (or you) by. The weekend of the Oscars is usually pretty slow for new releases because studios believe that everyone is out catching up on any nominated films they may not have seen yet, and that's a good thing. That also explains why the new Tyler Perry film, Madea Goes to Jail, is opening this weekend and didn't screen for critics. We'll have a slightly more beefed up line up for you next week.
I'll give this silly comedy some credit. At least this film has some jokes in it, and it doesn't resort to sensory memory to get its laughs the way films like Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie and all of those other terrible movies that end in Movie do. On a certain level, Fired Up certainly has fun with the cheerleader movie format. Specifically, it's a send-up of Bring It On; hell, there is even a scene in which all of the cheerleaders at a three-week cheerleading camp watch Bring It On with the earnestness that many of us would watch The Godfather. That scene at least made me laugh. Let me rephrase that: that's the only scene is this movie that made me laugh.
Featuring a collection of largely supporting actors from other, better movies and/or television shows, Fired Up suffers from R-rated envy. This is a PG-13 film that is desperate to explode into a string of vulgarities the likes of which the world has rarely seen. Alas, we are stuck with weak innuendo, bad jokes, and flirtations that never result in copious amounts of skin. What's worse, the actors seem almost embarrassed to be holding back, and there's this weird vibe running through the movie that wants us to think it's dirtier than it is. This film is tame shit. I genuinely believe the film's stars, Nicholas D'Agosto (Beerfest, Dumb and Dumberer) and Eric Christian Olsen (who had a run on "Heroes" first season) would make a great comedy team. They have a great chemistry and necessary rapport to make these two horny football players funny and endearing in their tasteless behavior. But with their balls cut off, the pairing is wasted.
The story involves two high school football stars who are heading off to football camp, which disturbs them to know end because they will be without girls for three weeks. When they hear about the cheerleading camp featuring hundreds of girls, they decide that cheerleading is for them. On their journey, they learn to respect women and take pride in the routines they've worked out with their cheermates.
Nobody else in the cast really stands out, but I will give credit to Adhir Kalyan ("Aliens In America," "Nip/Tuck") as Brewster, the gay Middle Eastern cheerleader. His performance often delves into the worst kind of stereotyping, but the guy never stops trying to make us laugh at his ridiculous behavior. I can't remember the last time an actor worked so hard in a lame movie. (Technically speaking, he's the biggest star in this movie since he's also featured in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.) Also on hand in forgettable roles is Disturbia's Sarah Roemer as the cheerleader captain; Molly Sims and John Michael Higgins as the husband-and-wife team who run the camp; Philip Baker Hall as the boys' football coach; and "90210's" AnnaLynne McCord as the captain of the evil cheerleading team.
I've probably spent way more time analyzing this movie than the screenwriters spent writing it. It ain't that deep, in case you hadn't guessed, and that's a shame because just a little more effort and a nudge into R-rated territory might have molded Fired Up into something worth watching. It probably still would have sucked, but there might at least have been a handful of tasteless jokes to savor. Fired Up is like watching a porno, where the filmmakers don't show any body part below the shoulders and the cast can't say the F-word. What's the point of making a film about horny high schoolers if things can't get a little raunchy?
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
I largely ignore college football. Even when I was at Northwestern, I ignored sports, which didn't seem that difficult to do at the time. And I even had a part-time job working security at the sports complex north of campus, and I still managed to learn nothing about the football team despite patrolling the team's stadium a couple times during each shift. All of that said, this documentary about one of the wildest games in college football history is magnificent as not only a nearly real-time retelling of the game, but as a document of the turbulent times during which the game took place — late in the year 1968.
Age-old rivals Yale and Harvard met at Harvard in a year where somehow both teams were undefeated going into this final game of the season. Yale was heavily favored, and all four quarters of the game seemed to indicate the odds makers were right on the money about giving the edge to this unstoppable team with a quarterback who had not lost a game since high school. But in the final seconds of the game, Harvard came back from a 16-point deficit to... well, you can look at the title of the film for yourself. The scratchy, grainy but still watchable game film comprises a great deal of the movie, but director Kevin Rafferty (best known for his classic docs The Atomic Cafe, Blood in the Face, Feed and The Last Cigarette) does a terrific job of blending his present-day interviews with the players for both teams (including a Harvard offensive tackle named Tommy Lee Jones). He even catches one Yale player falling for his own legend, claiming to have made a key tackle of a player he wasn't anywhere near, as the film shows.
Most importantly, Harvard Beats Yale puts into context the people and times that went into that game. Some of the Harvard players had been in Vietnam, while others were on the front lines of the antiwar movements. But they somehow managed to put those differences aside when they walked on the field that cold day. It's also fun to hear a bit of name-dropping in the film. One Harvard player was dating Meryl Streep at the time, Jones' roommate was Al Gore, while a Yale player roomed with George W. Bush. Garry Trudeau based characters that went on to "star" in his Doonesbury comic strips on a couple of the players on the '68 team, including quarterback Brian Dowling (B.D.). The entire film is filled with fascinating details like this, and these moments help to break up the potential for monotony that might come from simply switching back and forth between old game films and talking heads.
This is the kind of documentary that would be right at home alongside the great sports films that often air on HBO or one of the ESPNs, but I'm glad this is getting a limited theatrical run so that rare opportunity to view this as a shared experience isn't lost. Harvard Beats Yale tells its story in a revealing but very simple way that makes it easy to enjoy for even us non-college football fans. And it's fun to watch former players from both sides — from schools that churn out intellectual minds — get lost in talking about unseen powers that converged to turn this game into one of the most unforgettable ever played. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.