Toronto: Drew Barrymore directs Ellen Page in 'Whip It,' plus two sizzling docs
Roller derby chick flicks aren’t novel. I have fond memories from the ’70s of catching endless TV replays of The Kansas City Bomber, with its vaguely kinky girl-on-girl aggression (it starred Raquel Welch, who wasn’t quite an actress but knew how to get mad). So I was primed to see Whip It, the first movie directed by Drew Barrymore, with Ellen Page as a 17-year-old small-town Texas high school student (Page, with her elfin girlishness, will probably be playing 17-year-olds when she’s 37), who lies about her age in order to join the Hurl Scouts, a roller derby team based in Austin. Barrymore is such a nice, sweet person that you may wonder how she could possibly have directed a movie about demon women on wheels whose primary athletic activity consists of bashing each other’s bodies.
Here’s how. Whip It is a nice, sweet roller derby movie. There’s no edge to it, and not much originality — it’s like A League of Their Own with tattoos and knocked heads. Page plays Bliss Cavender, a milder, softer version of one of her alienated outsiders, who auditions for the Hurl Scouts in order to feel, you know, empowered. But the women she’s skating with — they have names like Bloody Holly and Eva Destruction; they’re played by (among others) Zoë Bell, Kristen Wiig, and Barrymore herelf — are beer-spitting bruisers in Dee Snider makeup who get off on bringing the pain. Ellen Page looks as if she’d be crushed, if not eaten, by these people. On a fundamental physical level, I never bought that she could survive for a minute inside their sadomasochistic sisterhood.
Bliss adopts the stage name of Babe Ruthless, and she becomes a roller derby star, mostly because she’s tiny enough to have an aerodynamic advantage in speed; she can also thread her way through the other players. It’s really a fantasy that she’d even want to be there in the first place, and not just because of Page’s birdlike physique. There’s a basic disconnect in class: She’s too upscale and refined to fit in with these beaten-down tough chicks.
But that’s exactly what gives the movie its mildly enjoyable, feel-good, you kick butt, girl! appeal. Page, looking angelically pretty in long hair, but denied the kind of verbal gunpowder she was given in Juno (and most of her other films), tries to act like a normal, lusty teenager, and she gets away with it, but just barely. Bliss’ romance with a shaggy indie rock musician (Landon Pigg), which culminates in a sequence where they undress and make out while underwater in a swimming pool (from the looks of it, you really won’t want to try this at home), is more puppyish than passionate, and there’s a conventional mother-daughter conflict (though Marcia Gay Harden is quite good as the mom — and Daniel Stern, grizzled and beer-bellied, even better as the dad). As a moviemaker, Barrymore is perfectly competent, but drawing on Shauna Cross’ genially thin script, she’s too enamored of the cookie-cutter ’80s comedies she grew up with.
So how are the derbies? Barrymore revs up the whooshing, camera-in-the-rink visuals, and she has an eye for the kitsch of it all, casting Jimmy Fallon as the drawling showboat neuter of an MC. Her best move was to get Juliette Lewis to play Iron Maven, the star “jammer” of the Hurl Scouts’ rival team. Lewis, now fortyish and blowsy, has the hellbent charisma of someone who tossed away respectability long ago and knows that there’s no turning back. It’s a pleasure to see her snarl at Page. Whip It will probably be a hit, but it made me want to see the movie someone could make by turning Juliette Lewis loose.
When you see the gripping documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, you realize that the saga of the Pentagon Papers may be every bit the equal of Watergate in its moral urgency and almost seismic drama. Ellsberg, a defense analyst who worked with Robert McNamara and believed in the Vietnam War (he even served a tour of duty there), began, by 1965, to question the escalating intensity of Lyndon Johnson’s bombing campaign. When the Rand Corporation — the government-sanctioned corporate think tank — was commissioned to document America’s relationship with Vietnam going back to 1945, what Ellsberg learned is that the region had a secret history. The U.S. had been fighting Communism there ever since the ’50s, when it backed the French Colonialists. Vietnam, he discovered, had always been our war, handed off from one publicly duplicitous president to the next.
The Most Dangerous Man in America takes the form of a classic whistleblower tale, as Ellsberg, droopy and handsome, tormented by his conscience, undergoes the political equivalent of a religious conversion, coming around to the view that he must do whatever it takes to stop the war. He decides to leak the Rand Corporation report, all seven thousand pages of it, to the New York Times. Just Xeroxing the thing takes months — he even enlists his kids — but when he finally delivers the documents to the Times, the drama is just beginning. A government crackdown ensues, and by the time that’s over, seventeen newspapers have agreed to publish the Pentagon Papers. It’s literally a case of the press declaring itself, newspaper by newspaper, to be free. The Most Dangerous Man in America shows you that the Pentagon Papers was really the first chapter of Watergate, the trigger that drove Richard Nixon to take the law into his own hands. What’s really shocking, though, is that Hollywood never made a movie out of this one.
The Art of the Steal is a terrifically suspenseful and enlightening art-world documentary in which the forces of art and money square off with primal ferocity. On one side is the Barnes Foundation, the greatest collection of post-Impressionist art in the world; it was amassed in the early 20th century by Albert Barnes, a pharmaceutical tycoon who despised museums and stipulated — in life and in his will — that the Renoirs, Cezannes, Picassos, and Van Goghs he’d lovingly collected be hung on the walls of a stately mansion in Lower Merion Township, a leafy suburb of Philadelphia, to provide an organic aesthetic experience. And that’s just where they hung for decades. On the other side are the institutions: the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its political allies, who after Barnes died schemed to wreck his dream by getting the paintings into Philadelphia, where they could take their place as a proper megabucks tourist attraction. The movie portrays this battle as the greatest attempted art theft since World War II, which may be a bit much. (At times, the film acts a little too shocked, shocked at the vulgarity of the forces of commerce.) But The Art of the Steal is memorable when it meditates on the changing face of where, and how, we look at art, and how that mysteriously changes the art itself.