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'Blood Equity'

The heavy toll of playing pro football.

November 20, 2009
  • Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler.
Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. (Arthouse Films )

"Everybody who plays leaves with something," says retired New York Giants linebacker Harry Carson in the documentary "Blood Equity" but, sadly, he doesn't mean a glorious pension or athletic pride. He's referring to the physical and mental struggles of ex-football players who feel monetarily neglected by the now $7.1-billion sport and its union when, as studies increasingly show, the game's built-in brutality -- and fierce pride in playing injured -- leads to a post-career life of constant medical care.

The outrage expressed by interviewees Carson, Mike Ditka, Daryl Johnston, Donnie Green and others -- whether offering personal tales of woe or sticking up for others -- is directed mostly at NFL Players Assn. head Gene Upshaw, who notoriously denied a connection between game-time concussions and increased instances of dementia among retirees. (Footage of Baltimore Colts legend John Mackey not recognizing family photos is especially heartbreaking.)

Upshaw died last year, though, which indicates that director Michael Felix and ex-NFL linebacker/coach Roman Phifer, who produced, could have updated their advocacy to reflect the latest efforts to address this problem. But as rough-hewn and stylistically awkward as the film is -- editing car crash sound effects over nasty on-field collisions -- the stories make for gripping testimony.

-- Robert Abele "Blood Equity." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 3 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Exploring issues of anti-Semitism

In posing the question, "What is anti-Semitism today?" documentarian suggests how easily the accusation of anti-Semitism can be exploited for political purposes. Even though "Defamation," which is sprinkled with unexpected moments of wry humor, will be inescapably controversial, Yoav Shamir strives admirably to be evenhanded. Therefore, one is able to comprehend the passion of Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and the equal fervor of former DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein, pilloried and even banned from Israel for declaring that Israel perversely draws upon the Holocaust to justify its oppression of Palestinians.

"Defamation" is a reminder of how making crucial distinctions in regard to the behavior of others is a constant and difficult, often impossible, task -- and of the importance of being aware yet resisting paranoia. Members of minorities are forever in a state of uncertainty as to how they stand with many individuals of the majority.

Shamir talks to blacks and Jews in New York's Crown Heights neighborhood, the site of an ugly racial incident some years ago -- and discovers both shrewdness and ignorance. Among many other experiences, he follows a large group of Israeli high school students on a journey to Poland's death camps, where some admit to being afraid of leaving their hotel rooms, so frightened are they by the remarks of teachers and Secret Service agents on the dangers of anti-Semitism. Ultimately, Shamir believes that even though the past must be remembered it should not be allowed to overshadow the present and therefore the future.

-- Kevin Thomas "Defamation." MPAA rating: Unrated. In English, Hebrew, Polish and Russian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. At the Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

Devolving into short stories

The criss-crossed film narrative is in a state of overuse, but writer-director James DeMonaco's droll, modestly stylish crime gewgaw "Staten Island" wrings a few suspenseful and comic pleasures out of a time-bending format that has served the likes of Quentin Tarantino ( "Pulp Fiction") and Sidney Lumet ("Before the Devil Knows You're Dead") among scores of others. In fact, Ethan Hawke seems to have channeled his good-hearted dope from the latter movie to play Sully, a septic tank cleaner who plans to steal a mobster's stash to pay for embryonic technology that promises a smarter baby for he and his wife (Julianne Nicholson).

The first part, however, is about the mobster, Palmetto (a typically loopy Vincent D'Onofrio), whose lust for glory nearly gets him bumped off but then bizarrely turns him into a tree-preservation advocate. Lastly, there's an endearingly expressive Seymour Cassel as a lonely deaf mute butcher whose ties to Sully and Palmetto lead him down a gruesome yet strangely redemptive path. The tonal idiosyncrasies may grate early on but things coalesce nicely until the whole thing starts to resemble a diverting short story.

-- Robert Abele "Staten Island." MPAA rating: R for violent content and language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

Hal Holbrook shines in 'Sun'

It's hard to believe, but Hal Holbrook, one of the stage and screen's enduring talents, has never had the solo lead in a feature film. That has been duly rectified with the actor's achingly memorable star performance in the superb "That Evening Sun."

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