Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sports fans and other fanatics

Patton Oswalt prepares for a radio call-in.

Big Fan's kick derives in large measure from the performance of Patton Oswalt, a comedian who plays a rabid New York Giants fan who works as a parking lot attendant but truly comes alive when he phones a sports-talk show called The Zone. Patton's character makes notes before he calls his favorite show, and he reads each screed with as much passion as he can muster, often taking issue with other callers. This kind of personal jousting, complete with insults, seems real enough to anyone who has listened to the more rambunctious sports talk shows, a sin I've occasionally committed.

Director Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for The Wrestler, explores the depths to which devotion to a team can carry a fan. He's also interested in the ways in which sports-talk shows serve as outlets for people whose lives are otherwise barren.

That's certainly true of Oswalt's Paul Aufiero, who has no life save the one he lives on the radio, egged on by his pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan). The two buddies travel to Giants games, but don't go inside the stadium. They watch on a small TV in the parking lot, cheering on their beloved team.

The driving force behind The Big Fan -- the insanity of obsession -- is nothing new, but Siegel works things out in slightly unexpected ways. A pivotal incident involves a meeting in a nightclub between Paul and his favorite Giants' player, Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm). Paul and Sal spot Bishop on Staten Island, where they live. They then follow their hero to a Manhattan nightspot. You don't need to be a seer to know that the evening ends badly.

It's hardly surprising that someone such as the 36-year-old Paul would live at home with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a woman who constantly badgers him, telling him to get a real job. His bother, an attorney played by Gino Cafarelli, also tries to goad Paul into a more "productive" life.
But Paul treats his fanaticism as if it were a sacred vow. He rejects the kind of droning middle-class existence to which his brother has aspired. He sees his sports mania as something pure and unsullied. Paul may be misreading the way most people live, but he's nothing if not persistent. That's why Big Fan is less about a character who undergoes transformation than a character who remains true to his beliefs: The only cause that matters to Paul, The New York Giants.

Is there something pathetic about all this? Probably. But Paul knows what he's all about, and he doesn't care what anyone else thinks about his very particular pursuit of happiness. That's Paul's idea of integrity: He sticks to his nutty guns.

The Baader Meinhof gang embraced violence.

The Baader Meinhof Complex brings director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) out of the shadows of a prolific career directing for television. In exploring the history of the Baader/Meinhof gang that disrupted life in Germany during the 1960s, Edel has made a movie that bristles with the defiant energy of the violence-prone radicals whose lives it follows.

The main characters in Edel's teeming reconstruction of radical '60s and '70s days are Meinhof and Baader. Martina Gedeck plays Ulrike Meinhof, a crusading journalist who eventually turns to violence. Mortiz Bleibtreu portrays Andreas Baader, a self-styled revolutionary, who seems more guided by his hunger for violent expression than by any political ideals.

Edel mounts one gripping sequence after another, neither skimping on action nor trying to play amateur psychologist. Instead of assigning motivations to his characters, he takes us inside the adrenalin-charged world of the gang members who -- like many fringe activists -- subscribe to a heady mixture of analysis and paranoia.

The always reliable Bruno Ganz portrays a West German official who hunts the terrorists, and also tries to understand the political issues that drive them. But the movie is less about understanding radical behavior than showing it. Still, Edel's movie made me think about the ways in which life on the violent fringe can rob people of perspective, leading them to the kind of ruin that too readily spills onto the lives of others.

Both movies open Sept. 18 in Denver.

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