Archive for February, 2014

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

Director: Harold Ramis

Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Coca, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Randy Quaid, Christie Brinkley, John Candy

Vacations, like life itself, don’t always go according to schedule. Oh, you can spend hours carefully mapping out every segment of the journey and calculate the time, distance and amount of gas your car will need to get you where you’re going, but you’ll never be able to account for any of the screw-ups and obstacles that might pop up. You could manage to pick the one week of the year when everyone else has the same vacation plan as you do, leaving you stuck in traffic longer than the actual vacation. Did you think of whether or not your car might die on you? No problem, you’ve got a reliable source ready and willing to supply a rental. Too bad you forgot to do a thorough inspection before you took it off their hands. Now you’re going to have a bumpy ride the whole way, with the sneaking suspicion that you’d have been better off with your own vehicle. God help you and your family if the hotels you’ve vetted turn out to be nothing like the brochure… IF that four-wheeled piece of junk doesn’t leave you in the middle of nowhere first. Mother said there’d be days like this. She just forgot to mention how much these days would make you wish you’d stayed at home.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) has taken it upon himself to drive the family from their home in Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California, where they will have memories to last a lifetime at the Walley World amusement park (an obvious stand-in for Disneyland). That they will arrive at their destination is hardly a spoiler. What they will have to go through in order to get there is what drives “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Clark has the family’s route planned out (remember, this was well before the days of Google Maps/MapQuest, and long before the Internet itself), even picking out the exact model of automobile for the voyage, but he hadn’t figured in the possibility of the auto dealer deliberately giving him the wrong car and destroying his old one before he had the chance to get it back.

The drive includes stops in St. Louis, Missouri, Dodge City, Kansas, and even a comically brief visit to the Grand Canyon. Along the way, Clark is shoehorned into taking on an extra passenger, the most hated of all of his relatives: Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca), and her ill-tempered dog, Dinky. That much alone would make just about anyone else turn the car around and head straight back for Chicago. For wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron), there is ample opportunity to make this very suggestion… but not Clark. He is determined that his family is going to have fun on this trip if it kills him.

“National Lampoon’s Vacation” is the first in a series of comedy adventures starring the Griswold family. The sequels are “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985), “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), “Vegas Vacation” (1997), and a 2003 made-for-TV “Christmas Vacation” spinoff sequel featuring Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), as well as the 2010 online short “Hotel Hell Vacation.” The series has a running gag where the children are never played by the same actors, established by Hall and Barron’s recasting in “European Vacation.”

Although there is much love for “Christmas Vacation,” it is the original “Vacation” which is widely accepted as being the best of the lot. At least a part of this is due to the talented cast. Chevy Chase is at his all-time best as the optimistic if somewhat dense Clark, whose calm is slowly unraveling throughout the drive to California. His funniest scene is when Clark finally snaps at his family, who are insisting they go home short of Walley World after all the ordeals they’ve had to go through. It’s neat to see Anthony Michael Hall at such an early point in his career. Long before he starred in the TV series “The Dead Zone,” bullied Johnny Depp in “Edward Scissorhands,” featured as the youngest ever cast member of “Saturday Night Live” during its much maligned 1985-’86 season, and before John Hughes’ teen comedies made him a household name, here is Anthony Michael Hall as the braces-wearing first-born son of Clark W. Griswold. Hall’s talent shines through even at this stage. I especially love the way he shows that Rusty can see through his dad’s bullshit whenever Clark is struggling to avoid the truth. Special recognition goes to Imogene Coca, who pretty much steals the show as Aunt Edna. It’s probably her most recognizable film role, but Coca’s career in comedy spans back to the very beginnings of television, starring alongside the late, great Sid Caesar in “Your Show of Shows” from 1950 to 1954.

Sadly, Caesar is not the only legendary figure which the Comedy Community lost in February 2014. Harold Ramis is best known as Egon Spangler in “Ghostbusters” and its sequel… but as a director/screenwriter, he is responsible in one way or another for most the major comedies of the 1980’s not directed by John Hughes. The résumé of Harold Ramis includes screenwriting credits for 1978’s “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), “Caddyshack” (1980), “Stripes” (1981), “Ghostbusters” (1984), “Ghostbusters 2” (1989), “Groundhog Day” (1993), “Analyze This” (1999) and “Analyze That” (2002), as well as memorable supporting roles in “As Good as It Gets” (1997) and “Knocked Up” (2007). Ramis died on February 24, 2014, but his endlessly quotable body of work ensures him of a very special brand of immortality. Harold Ramis and John Hughes (who also left us far too soon), two of my favorite comedy writers, only had the opportunity to work on a movie together once. Although “National Lampoon’s Vacation” is not considered the most epic comedy of all-time, nor is it the most beloved of either man’s career, it is still a fantastically funny movie by any stretch of the imagination. Should your holiday plans be torn asunder, “Vacation” is the movie that will help you laugh it off. It could be worse… You could be the Griswolds.

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Christine (1983)

Director: John Carpenter

Starring: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton

Guys, are you the lonely type? The sort that has never known basic things like love and freedom? At first glance, Christine might seem like the perfect girl for you. She’s beautiful, loyal, and is guaranteed to take you places you’ve never been before. She has been around the block more than a few times, so there’s also that. But you had best put the idea of a ménage à trois out of your mind completely. Christine has one hell of a jealous streak when it comes to other women. She’s highly possessive (what singers Hall & Oates call a “Maneater”), and can get rather scary… some would say homicidal… when others come between her and the object of her obsession. If all this weren’t enough to make those around you question your judgment, there’s one more thing about Christine to consider: she’s a 1958 Plymouth Fury.

Before she is even off the assembly line, Christine has already injured one man and killed another. 20 years later, in the fall of 1978, she finds a new admirer in Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon). Arnie is a loser, pure and simple, and he knows it. He’s got the classic nerd glasses, is the constant target of a gang of bullies at school, and life at home isn’t any relief. Anything Arnie wants to do is always put up to a vote, which he notes he always loses 2 to 1. Mrs. Cunningham in particular is quite overbearing. Even if she were the last woman on Earth, there’s no way she could ever win the Mother of the Year award. Arnie has one friend in the world, and that’s Dennis (John Stockwell). It’s Dennis who Arnie is riding with when he lays eyes on Christine for the first time. She’s beat to hell, appearing as though she has probably driven her last mile, but Arnie is smitten and he buys her. He has her fixed up, looking good as new and running smoothly, and it’s around that same time that Arnie starts dating the loveliest girl in school, Leigh Cabot (future “Baywatch” babe Alexandra Paul). That, combined with the local bullies plotting to trash Arnie’s new ride, are all the ammunition Christine needs to start showing her true colors.

Keith Gordon, who these days spends more time behind the camera than in front of it, does a fine job as Arnie. He portrays Arnie’s frustrations at home and at school with sincerity. A little over-the-top towards the end, he is less convincing as Arnie loses himself in his symbiotic relationship with Christine. My favorite thing about the 1983 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (published earlier that same year) is the soundtrack. I’m not a HUGE fan of 1950’s rock ‘n roll, but the use of it here is simply ingenious. Because Christine is a car it has no speaking voice… at least, not the way you and I do. So, in order to convey her thoughts, Christine uses various tunes such as Little Richard’s “Keep-A-Knockin'” for warding off intruders or “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace in expressing her devotion to Arnie. And I LOVE the fact that the movie both begins and ends with the 1982 hit “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & the Destroyers! It’s clear to me that one or more of the screenwriters responsible for the “Transformers” movies are fans of “Christine.” Those three (soon to be four) films also feature a car that communicates with its driver using excerpts of songs and other media.

What is an admittedly absurd premise is given a very serious treatment by director John Carpenter. If he’d tried to tell this story with the sense of humor he would later bring to “Big Trouble in Little China” (1986) or “They Live” (1988), I don’t think it would have worked. I like the fact that Christine can be interpreted both literally as a demonic automobile and figuratively as a psychotic girlfriend, one who is infectious enough to make you spite anyone who doesn’t approve of your association, even your closest friends and family. In searching for a moral to this story of a boy and his car, I’ve come up with the following: Always ask the auto dealer to show you the Carfax!

Casablanca (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre

Having been born at a time when the events of World War II had already become ancient history, I will never fully grasp the horror of this period which my grandparents and great-grandparents had the misfortune of living through. For close to a decade, the whole world went mad. Human lives were being snuffed out by the millions and the living, when not subject to physical or mental torture, spent every waking moment under constant fear. Nazi Germany, arguably the most evil entity ever unleashed by Man, enjoyed a stranglehold over the countries of Europe. I and those of my generation have the advantage of knowing the outcome, but there was a time when no one was sure if the Nazis could ever be defeated. Rebellions popped up here and there, some being squashed quickly while others endured. Somehow, in the middle of all the madness, hatred, persecution and genocidal bloodshed, there still lay room for love.

The time is December 1941. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a nightclub owner in Casablanca, Morocco. Unable to return to the United States (for reasons which the movie never reveals), Rick chooses not to involve himself in the politics of the war, and on the surface appears to have a heart made of stone. Captain Louis Renault of Nazi-Occupied France believes Rick to be a sentimentalist, and his suspicions are confirmed when the rebellious Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) shows up with his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Rick and Ilsa had a brief romance which ended in Rick’s heart being broken in Paris. Laszlo had been expecting to meet with a man named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) to pick up letters of transit for himself and Ilsa, unaware that Ugarte has been arrested for the murder of two Germans from whom he’d stolen the papers. What Laszlo also does not know is that Ugarte had given the letters of transit to Rick to keep safe just before he was taken away. With these papers, Laszlo can escape to Lisbon and the resistance will still have its leader. Without them, he’s a dead man. Still bitter over how things ended in Paris, Rick is faced with choosing between his own feelings and the future of the free world.

Before “Casablanca,” Humphrey Bogart had not been known for playing romantic leads. Actually, he hadn’t really been known for playing very many heroic characters of any kind. Rick is both his most virtuous and relatable. Ilsa is easily the most iconic role in the stellar career of Ingrid Bergman. Hers were among the most expressive eyes in Hollywood history. Without her having to say a word, you can see the conflicted emotions felt by Ilsa as she is faced with breaking a man’s heart no matter what choice she makes. Together, Bogart and Bergman’s chemistry produces what is quite simply the greatest love story ever filmed. The bittersweet climax of “Casablanca” is right up there among my favorite scenes of all time. Even a heart made of stone would melt just a little.

The supporting cast is full of great actors as well. Claude Rains, famous for the title role in 1933’s “The Invisible Man,” plays Captain Renault as a man of flexible morals. Especially amusing is the scene where he shuts down the club, citing illegal gambling, and then proceeds to collect his own winnings. Paul Henreid was well established by the time of “Casablanca,” and still was worried about the impact his performance in this movie would have on his future film prospects. Henreid and Bogart did not get along, with Henreid accusing Bogart of not being a particularly good actor and Bogart calling Henreid a “prima donna.” That Henreid wouldn’t even take the job unless he shared top billing with Bogart and Bergman didn’t help his case. Conrad Veidt, who sadly died just over two months after the New York premiere of “Casablanca,” was a veteran of the Silent Era, which included featuring in the 1920 classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He brings just the right amount of menace to the role of Major Strasser.

“Casablanca” came at a time when the world was at its worst and painted a picture of defiant hope. The Third Reich appeared as unstoppable as it was advertised to be, but even the Nazis were incapable of conquering over all. “Casablanca” was rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Picture, and has appeared on countless lists for all-time greatest films over the last 70+ years. The movie also serves as a reminder that matters of the heart have their place and time, and sometimes it’s best to leave them there. That’s not to say that you should shut yourself down like some emotionless automaton. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to hold dear those who’ve parted ways with you. But, there comes a point when you have to admit to yourself that the answers to who did what to whom and why aren’t going to make any difference. So let that old song be a reminder of happy times, instead of allowing yourself to be consumed by despair and grief.

11_14 (2003)

Director: Greg Marcks

Starring: Rachael Leigh Cook, Barbara Hershey, Patrick Swayze, Hilary Swank, Ben Foster, Clark Gregg, Colin Hanks, Shawn Hatosy, Stark Sands, Henry Thomas

You’re a cop patrolling the streets at a late night hour. Like most officers of the law, yours is a thankless occupation. You’d give anything just to be able to drive home, but tonight of all nights your job demands otherwise. Your backseat is filling up with suspects of seemingly unrelated crimes, but they all have something in common. This is the kind of night that Officer Hannagan (Clark Gregg) is having, and it could have all been avoided if everyone had just stayed home.

It all begins at 11:14 PM with a drunk driver (Henry Thomas)’s car impacting with a man who, when his lifeless body is inspected, has a caved-in skull. At 11:09, three teenagers (Colin Hanks, Ben Foster, Stark Sands) are raising hell in a blue van when their joyride comes to an unexpectedly messy stop. At 10:59, two convenient store workers (Shawn Hatosy, Hilary Swank) conspire to rob the place. All of these people will wind up either in police custody or as wanted felons. Though they are not innocent of their crimes, their lives and those of others affected by their mistakes would not be in shambles were it not for the most deceitful, selfish person of them all.

The story of “11:14” is told using reverse chronology like in “Memento” or “Irreversible,” but is also broken into five segments, each of which begins five minutes before the previous one did, and all of which are ultimately linked by a common thread as they tell a new piece of the same story from a different cast member’s perspective as in “Pulp Fiction,” “Go,” or “Crash.” Like any good mystery, you won’t know how they connect until the fifth and final segment.

Does “11:14” come off as a little gimmicky? Well, sort of. If you were to tell the same story the traditional way, sapping all the mystery away, the movie would probably only need to be about half as long. Considering that the running time is already a mere 86 minutes, that’s really saying something. There is an excellent cast here. Veterans Patrick Swayze and Barbara Hershey are on hand. Hilary Swank, in-between Oscar wins, wears braces on her teeth for her role. Jason Segel also makes an appearance as a paramedic. Clark Gregg, still five years away from his career making role as Agent Coulson in the Marvel superhero movies, is quietly terrific as the police officer who is in over his head.

My favorite segment has to be the last one, not just because it’s the one where we finally find out what’s the cause of everything, but also because actress Rachael Leigh Cook (who plays the daughter of Patrick Swayze and Barbara Hershey’s characters) is a lot more fun when she’s not bogged down by some poorly written and sappy teen comedy. “11:14” also wins points with me for including the late 80’s tune “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)” by Dramarama, which also memorably played in the soundtrack to the 1988 horror sequel “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.” The non-linear storytelling angle has been pulled off by better movies, but this one’s still very enjoyable in its own right. It’s a tad farfetched. Still, I don’t feel that it’s completely absurd to think that, in a small town where everybody knows everybody anyway, a series of events could transpire in a single night involving several people who are either close friends or passing acquaintances. One thing’s for sure: The late night news report would not be boring.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

Director: Martin Brest

Starring: Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell, James Rebhorn, Gabrielle Anwar, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Some people are born with a disability and learn to live with it. Others are rendered so helpless that they will require assistance in order to perform the most rudimentary of tasks for the duration of their lives. Some are born perfectly normal and, up to a point, lead an ordinary existence like those around them, until one day when something happens and their whole world is turned upside down. They can still (mostly) handle their own affairs, but they spend each day feeling sorry for themselves, never letting anyone hear the end of it. The resilient who can find the courage to carry on with a positive outlook and actually make something out of their lives have my respect and admiration.

Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino) is a decorated war hero. He was once considered for promotion to the rank of General, but was passed over due to his reckless behavior. It is this personality defect which has led to Frank’s current predicament. He is now retired, having been blinded during a juggling act involving grenades. He was very drunk that particular day, and started pulling the pins out of the grenades. One got away from him. Being in the dark as he is now is a life with which Frank simply cannot cope. He’ll drown his sorrows with glass after glass of Jack Daniels, and lust away after women he knows he won’t be sleeping with, but the life he’s known is gone and he doesn’t know how to build a new one. His salvation lies in the form of a seventeen year-old prep school student named Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell), whose own life has hit a bit of a snag. Charlie was witness to a prank pulled by fellow students, which involved making a mess of the Headmaster (James Rebhorn)’s prized new Jaguar in the school’s parking lot. Unlike the troublemakers, Charlie got into school on scholarship rather than on Daddy’s money, and that scholarship will be in jeopardy if he chooses not to be a snitch.

Al Pacino will go down as one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, but up until 1993, he didn’t have an Oscar to show for it. After being nominated for “The Godfather,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “…And Justice for All,” “Dick Tracy” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Pacino finally got the recognition he had always deserved with his Academy Award for Best Actor  for “Scent of a Woman.” Playing a blind man who can still peer into the souls of men, dance a pretty mean Tango (in a delightful scene he shares with the lovely Gabrielle Anwar), sweet talk the ladies and describe everything about them from the smell of their perfume, Pacino gives us one of his more sympathetic and endearing characters. Convincingly playing a person who has lost their sight is no easy task, but Pacino achieves this more with Frank’s depression than he does in not making eye contact with his co-stars.

In the course of preparing for this review, I found to my surprise that “Scent of a Woman” is actually a remake. The previous version, a 1974 Italian film entitled “Profumo di donna” (or “Scent of a Woman”), stars Vittorio Gassman in the role of blind Italian captain Fausto Consolo.

Of course, it is now impossible for me to speak of “Scent of a Woman” without mentioning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. As George Willis, Jr., the leader of the group of spoiled rich kids who enjoy causing trouble, Hoffman’s part in this movie is not lengthy, but is no less crucial. He’s the one whom Charlie speaks to on the phone while in New York with Frank to get an update on the situation, hoping in his own naivety that George will find a way to get them off the hook. “Scent of a Woman” marked Hoffman’s first big break in Hollywood, and thankfully it would not be his last. He eventually became a highly respected stage and film actor/director, decorated with four Academy Award nominations, one which he won for “Capote.” Sadly, Hoffman’s career was cut short when the actor died of a heroin overdose on February 2, 2014. It feels pointless to play the “What if?” game, so I will simply say of Hoffman that I never saw a bad performance out of the man. He seemed to enjoy every role that he took on. Rather than allow his death to make the world somehow less bright, the body of work he leaves behind should be celebrated all the more.

Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Irréversible (2002)

Director: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel, Albert Dupontel

To know our own future, it would drive us mad. Where would the fun be in knowing what you’re about to do, before you do it? Even worse would be knowing that something life-altering was just around the corner, and it’s a fixed point in time. If you looked at it from a certain perspective, what is to come has already happened… we just haven’t read that chapter of our lives yet. Discussion on the subject of premonitions does take place in “Irréversible,” yet it is not the characters who know the horrors that await them. That honor… if you can call it that… is bestowed upon the audience. In the style of “Memento” (2000), “Irréversible” is told in reverse chronological order. If it were presented in a more straightforward manner, it would be an all-together different movie. I bring this up not to tell you that the scenes of violence are more bearable because we get them out of the way early on, or because we know they are coming. They aren’t. Even if that were the case, knowing what will become of these people is not the point. We are instead invited to consider how they get there, how easily avoidable their actions which lead them to their fates could have been, and also the dangers of exacting personal revenge.

Outside of a gay nightclub called “The Rectum” (lovely name, yes?) two men are being escorted out, one in handcuffs and the other on a stretcher. Pierre (Albert Dupontel) is the one being arrested, and Marcus (Vincent Cassel) is the man with a broken arm who is on his way to the hospital. The two came there in search of a man known only as “Le Tenia” (“The Tapeworm”) whom they have learned is the person responsible for raping Alex (Monica Bellucci), Pierre’s ex-girlfriend who is now in a relationship with Marcus. They find someone they think is the guilty party, and that man breaks Marcus’s arm and attempts to rape him before being killed by Pierre with a fire extinguisher.

Under any normal circumstances, a rape scene is easily one of the hardest things to watch that a movie can present. At least with both versions of “I Spit on Your Grave” there are certain camera cuts that go on during these long, protracted sequences. “Irréversible” is more unrelenting. The moment seems to last forever, and that’s thanks in large part to the camera never moving away from the action. I don’t know how any actress is able to mentally prepare for performing a scene of this kind. What Monica Bellucci puts herself through is more than any actress should ever have to in front of a camera.

After all of the sex and violence, the most brutal assault of all is reserved for us. As I have said, the camera remains stationary during the rape scene. In much of the first half of “Irreversible,” it does not. Representing the metaphor of life spiraling out of control, the camera remains in constant motion, sometime spinning around, most notably during the section in the gay club. I figured it was going to be like this for the entire film, but the later scenes (the stuff that chronologically happens first) are peaceful and serene by comparison, and they are shot accordingly. That is, right up until the very end, where the camera goes into overdrive and the last thirty seconds are nothing but a strobe light. Either look away or just stop the movie at this point. Epileptics will no doubt seize up. Others will just get a splitting headache.

I can finally cross “Irréversible” off my shortlist of notorious films which I’ve been meaning to see. Most of the others which previously shared space on that list were never so deliberately artistic. If it weren’t for the reverse chronology that “Irréversible” uses, the movie would be only an ordinary story with a disturbing, nihilistic ending. Beginning with the horror and showing how life walks a thin line between normalcy and utter chaos lifts this one up a bit. The movie is deserving of its reputation… it is like that plate of hot wings which you have to wear latex gloves and sign a waiver form in order to eat them… but I’ve been more deeply affected by other French films (see my “Martyrs” (2008) review for an example). Although I can appreciate what director Gaspar Noé was doing here, I come away with no real desire to revisit this one.

We Are Marshall (2006)

Director: McG

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Robert Patrick

Some of the greatest stories in all of sports history are about individuals or whole communities which have been faced with adversity and found the strength within themselves to forge ahead. One such story is that of Peyton Manning, who underwent multiple neck surgeries in 2011 which threatened to put a premature end to one of the most remarkable careers any quarterback ever had. Further complicating things, Peyton would have to make his return in a different city with a different team, as the Indianapolis Colts had parted ways with him after fourteen years. Flash forward to February 2nd, 2014. Peyton is completing his second year as quarterback of the Denver Broncos, playing in Super Bowl XLVIII (his third appearance in the championship game) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, after having re-written the NFL record books in the categories of single-season touchdown passes and single-season passing yards, not to mention his team amassing the largest regular season points total in the history of the league. It’s all very impressive, and yet Peyton’s comeback is miniscule when compared to others.

In 1970, one of the most terrible tragedies in American sports history occurred. The Marshall University Thundering Herd football team was on a flight back from a rivalry game against East Carolina University when their plane, Southern Airways Flight 932, clipped some trees and crashed just shy of the airport runway upon attempting descent. All 75 passengers died, including thirty-seven players, the head coach, the school’s athletic director, several assistant coaches and some twenty-five boosters (i.e. fundraisers). It would be perfectly natural to assume that, after a loss so great as this, any school board in their right mind would decide to terminate the football program. But for the determination of a young head coach and the support of Marshall students, the surviving players and the community of Huntington, West Virginia, it might have gone down that way.

Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) is the man who took the job no one else wanted. Lengyel enlisted the aid of the sole remaining member of the 1970 coaching staff, “Red” Dawson (Matthew Fox), to help with the rebuilding process. The rules in place at the time forbade any freshmen from playing on the varsity squad, a rule which school President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) fought to appeal, and he won. The rule would later be abolished entirely. Some sought-after players ended up going to West Virginia University instead, and so Lengyel made due with what he had. Only eighteen players remained from the 1970 team, none of which had much experience, and the rest of the 1971 team was to be made up of non-scholarship players and kids who had played sports other than football. That first year was rough, and so were the next several, but thanks to the foundation laid by Coach Lengyel, Marshall was able to honor the memory of those who died by continuing to play on autumn Saturdays.

“We Are Marshall” is not a documentary, so some liberties with the facts are a certainty. Still, what transpires should come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the story. Instead, the film should be judged by the quality of the performances within. McConaughey perfectly captures the stubborn enthusiasm of Coach Lengyel, whose attitude helped to lift the spirits of an entire town. Matthew Fox is equally as effective as Red Dawson, the assistant coach who suffered from survivor guilt but did his part to help Coach Lengyel achieve the impossible. Also worthy of note is the scene where then-West Virginia head coach Bobby Bowden (more famous for coaching Florida State) allowed Lengyel and his assistants access to game films and playbooks, which greatly helped this undermanned team come up with game plans designed to work around its shortcomings.  Bowden had been deeply affected by the tragedy of the plane crash. He had been the choice for Marshall’s head coach before Rick Tolley (the coach who died in the crash) took the job. Afterwards, he had wanted his West Virginia team to play in Marshall’s green jerseys against what was to have been Marshall’s final opponent of the 1970 season, but did not receive permission to do so. Regardless of this, it is the gesture that counts, like the gesture of the memorial decal on the helmets of the 1971 West Virginia players in tribute to Marshall, as revealed by Coach Bowden in that scene.

Despite this being a Hollywood account of real-life events, it makes it no less captivating. Still, for me, the most poignant thing about the story of the Marshall Thundering Herd is not the struggle to restore an all-but doomed team, but the fulfillment of that goal. As these were events that took place before my own birth, it’s already history to me. As such, I came in at the part of the story where Marshall was now such a well-oiled machine that it was winning championships and sending its players to the NFL. Where would Randy Moss have played his college ball if the Marshall team had gone extinct after 1970? “We Are Marshall” won’t offer you the clichéd last-second touchdown to win a championship, but it will show you how, over time, one team was able to lift itself up from nothing to become one of the most respected of all programs.