Does tough love work?
Like aspirin? Or Dr. Phil?
And when it comes to tough love in movies, when is it posturing for cameras, and when is it a voice of heartfelt righteousness?
Two new releases on video - one a documentary about a nun who curses like a longshore fisherman, and the other a high school football epic starring Billy Bob Thornton - suggest very different answers. And though you would never find them playing on a double bill or sharing a film festival, Sister Helen (New Video, $26.98) and Friday Night Lights (Universal, $29.98, available Tuesday) are birds of a feather.
You come away from both these films with the lesson that the only way to appreciate your talents or even your life is to be held to the fire. The latter, of course, stars Thornton as the revered coach of the Permian Panthers of Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. Adapted from journalist H.G. Bissinger's account of one season in the life of the team, it's stirring and serious-minded for a football movie set in a high school, but also ultimately weirdly compromised.
"You feel 17?" a player asks.
"I don't feel 17," is the answer.
That's the soul of the picture, but you sense director Peter Berg (Bissinger's cousin) is torn over how much he should condemn Odessa or just swallow the Kool-Aid. The town of Odessa believes if you ride a kid long enough, if you're unrelenting in your expectations for him, he will perform. What the townspeople have a hard time reconciling is those expectations and their priorities.
"We were treated like rock stars," one of the real Permian players remembers in a documentary included on the DVD. The former players, now in their 30s, look healthy and normal, and they talk about their football memories in a breezy way they would never have allowed themselves in 1988. The tough love applied by Odessa rolled off their backs; now it looks silly, limiting. They shake their heads at it in a way the film, in all its misplaced empathy, never has the heart to do.
But to answer my question:
Sometimes tough love works.
Filmmakers Rob Fructman and Rebecca Cammisa have landed quite the example in Sister Helen Travis, a bitterly sarcastic woman in her late 60s who came to the Benedictine order late in life. She is as tough as gristle, and just as inviting. Having lost two sons - one to drugs, one to a murderer - and a husband to alcoholism, she hardened her views and found her calling in becoming a one-woman rehabilitation squad.
The film is a profile of the shelter for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts she opened in the South Bronx, where she presides like Bear Bryant over 21 damaged men. "Presides" is too mild a word.
What keeps Sister Helen from slipping into feeling like an extended segment from 60 Minutes is not the filmmaking but the subject, who is not ready for prime time. These men, who tower over her, shrink in her presence and plead for second, third, and fourth chances. And Sister Helen will have none of it.
She does not do good cop-bad cop. She is strictly bad cop-bad cop, cursing and bullying and screaming, and frequently shortsighted. Never once do we see her attend church or meet other nuns. We rarely see her pray. Sister Helen is not a religious movie in the traditional, literal sense. Sister Helen Travis is an example of how to help people. Just do as Sister says, and not as she does.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY: As one who invariably tires of Ken Burns' trademark schtick - the slow pans across still photos, the weary narration from scratchy down-home celebrity voices, the tasteful reverence - whenever I hear he has a new film premiering on PBS I can't help but approach it with a mix of exhaustion and curiosity. Exhaustion, for the aforementioned reasons. But curiosity, because watching one of Burns' lengthy histories is to get the sensation that you're digging into a smart American history book - right down to the occasional nodding off that's a part of the package.
His latest documentary epic, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on PBS (WGTE-TV, Channel 30, in Toledo and WBGU-TV, Channel 27, in Bowling Green) but it's already available on DVD (Paramount, $24.99), and it's easily Burns' most affecting work since his moving portrait of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1998. Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight boxer, having cracked the "whites-only" lock on the title around the turn of the last century, though never escaping the consequences.
Burns, I think, finds his truest voice when he's not tackling the grandest subjects of American history but when he's focused on lesser-known, less-iconic figures and using them to pick apart what's unique and contradictory about America and being American.
Johnson briefly lived the life of a modern black sports celebrity - fast, flashy, and unapologetic. The problem is he did it too soon. The tragedy that ensued wasn't his life, which was rich, strange, and big, but a country's inability to respect it.
HEAVEN CAN WAIT: Speaking of history, if you have even a cursory knowledge of Martin Scorsese's obsessive, intimate understanding of movie history, it's not hard to see why the early scenes of his new film, The Aviator, are more enthusiastic than anything that comes later. Howard Hughes bought his way into becoming a Hollywood player and left his mark on a slew of classics: He produced Howard Hawks' Scarface and The Front Page, inspired the subject of a dozen others, discovered Jean Harlow, and threw his clout behind Katharine Hepburn when her career floundered.
But it's scenes of Hughes spending literally years to complete a fighter plane movie, Hell's Angels, just re-released on DVD (Universal, $14.98), that take on the giddy rush of a young man with ambition and cash to burn. The disc is kind of a disappointment - for an early milestone of expensive blockbuster entertainment, it lacks the extras that would give it some context - but the movie itself remains eye-popping. The aerial dogfights are huge and exciting, precursors to scenes in Star Wars, with one exception:
Hughes didn't need special effects. He had enough money to stage the real thing. And he did.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org