Toronto: Drew Barrymore directs Ellen Page in 'Whip It,' plus two sizzling docs

Whip-It-Barrymore-Page_lRoller 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.

tiff_icon2Here’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.

Comments (12 total) Add your comment
  • Jordan

    Let Juliette Lewis loose? Wasn’t that movie called “Natural Born Killers” OG? And, as always, fantastic post.

    • Samantha

      Is there any books out with ellen paige?

  • Jennemy of the Skate

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but I can’t wait. But reading this author’s article, I’m curious as to whether the he has ever attended a real Derby game or ever met any real Derby girls? Because the Cincinnati Rollergirls, the team for whom I proudly referee, have quite a few women who are about Ellen Page’s size and are as bad @ss women as you’d ever hope to meet. Just because they’re small in stature, does NOT mean they’re shrinking violets. Frankly, I’m thrilled that the movie seems to show a variety of women from various walks of life. We have stay at home moms, medical professionals, corporate types, students and everything in between. But funny enough, not one single Dee Snyder. One of the things that makes Roller Derby is so amazing to me is that it is the most inclusive of any sport today – no matter your age, size, orientation, race – so long as you play your heart out you’re welcomed to be a part of it. While the author speaks disparagingly of the sweetness of the movie, that’s one of the things that I’m excited about. Yes, it’s a tough sport but it’s filled with amazing sweet people who I am proud and thankful to know. I would encourage the author to head out to his local Roller Derby league and check out a real game and meet the real women involved. I think he’d be surprised.

  • Melissa

    I’m so excited! Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page are my two favorite actresses. And isn’t Landon Pigg a singer? I remember hearing “Falling in Love at a Coffee Shop” featured in several TV commercials. Good song.

  • Nora Spect #207

    I am SO F@%$ing EXCITED for this movie! As a retired Derby Girl, I am so thrilled to see that the sport is growing, evolving, and finally gaining the respect and attention that it deserves.
    CANT WAIT!!!
    P.S Congrats Boston Derby Dames for making it to Nationals!!

  • Laura/Austin

    Drew & cast/crew, we loved your film. Lots of fun! We are looking forward to the DVD and deleted scenes. Especially the ones of the youngest male on the cast.

  • Heat

    I was at the screening today and loved it! There was a Q&A with Shauna Cross where she answered the question of whether girls Ellen’s size would really play with a resounding yes. Women of all shapes and sizes play and different sizes work for different positions. I agree that Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern and Juliette Lewis were excellent. It was a fun movie to watch, and I will be seeing it again when it’s released in theatres.

  • Frankenbike

    The LA Derby Dolls used to have a jammer on the Fight Crew named “Crystal Deth” (studying for her masters degree at UCLA at the time) team who could have been a stunt double for Ellen Page…if Crystal gained 20 pounds. This is video from the 2007 Championship with Crystal jamming (her team is red and black): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1PIypl2a4o

    The truth is sometimes stranger than Hollywood.

    She did get knocked down a lot, but she got right back up. The Fight Crew also had another jammer about the same size who is a real life librarian. The league has skaters who are scientists, lawyers and teachers…so really, the “upscale” comment is total BS.

  • Sin #7

    Dear Mr. Gleiberman,

    You’re a lucky man to have been able to view this movie before the rest of us “beaten-down tough chicks”, but believe me there is nothing unbelievable about a tiny little girl like Miss Page being able to dominate on the track as a jammer against some formidable opponents.

    Amidst more than 300 leagues worldwide, there are countless “little” girls, (jammers and blockers alike) who have racked up plenty of points and also brought down some of their larger statured adversaries as well.

    I realize this is just a movie to you and you are not obligated to research the actual facts of the sport you are basing your commentary on, but as a 3.5 year veteran of this sport, I would like to suspend any disbelief you have that this movie can in no way reflect reality. Because for women across the US and in other countries all over the world, this is something we live and breathe every single day. With every bruise, every tear, every victory and every defeat, for all my derby sisters, and for me yes this is real, 100%!

    And on a final factoid flounder, please do not assume that on would have to be born in the gutter or raised by wolves to be involved in this sport. While there is comedy in your words “She’s too upscale and refined to fit in with these beaten-down tough chicks.” It’s simply not true. There are no social classes in roller derby. Thank god! We come together because we love this sport we love the athletic challenge. We love that on the track it’s just you, your wheels and the bitch beside you that decides who wins and who loses. At the end of the night, after the game and after the after-after party, when she drives off in her Mercedes you drive off in your Hyundai, you still both go to bed feeling like you got run over by a truck because you both just played roller derby.

  • Dianne Carter

    Have a look at this Sir:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_roller_derby_leagues

    Scroll down the list and see how many leagues there are in the World. You will be very surprised to find that there are many well bred girls in roller derby skating right along with the tattooed blue collar girls. Surprise, surprise, it cost an arm and a leg to be able to afford the $400-$1000 skates, gear and wardrobe necessary to skate. These leagues are skater owned and operated. Our events are put together by the skaters, not some cigar chomping guy. Take a look at that list and remember that there are tens of thousands of derby skaters in the United States alone, not to mention abroad. This is the fastest growing sport for woment in the Nation as stated in the NY Times. Derby is on fire and there are many tiny cutesie girls skating right along with the other athletes. This is a sport with over 30 pages of fine print rules. Check out http://www.derbynewsnetwork.com or http://www.wftda.com and have a look and go see your local derby league. If you’re in NY you may see YES Network or CNN filming while your there or maybe you saw these girls on Today Show or Good Morning America. There are countless girls skating who are tiny frail waifs and most of the girls I skated with graduated from top universities. I for one went to an elite boarding prep school and was left with a trust fund. I loved every minute of my time skating with my league. Go see your local league and you may be surprised how well the girls get along and make things happen – no matter what they look like or what their breeding, It’s a perfect mix of athletes.

  • Sayyed Nasir, from Cigar Roller

    Girls are amazing in sports.

  • Doctorset

    This is the welcome page for the dentaldoctor.us Association web site.

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