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Indie flicks: 'The Mighty Macs,' 'Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,' 'The Reunion'

The Mighty Macs (G) (102 min.) — Tim Chambers' movie would be corny as all Nebraska except for the fact that it's a true story. Before 1972, women's collegiate basketball was so unheralded that there wasn't even a national championship tournament. The Mighty Macs is the story of the sport's first champion, an unlikely bunch from tiny Immaculata College (now University), and the spunky coach who led them.

Cathy Rush, played by Carla Gugino, was fresh out of college when she was hired to coach the Macs, mostly as an afterthought since the all-female school was going broke. No athletic scholarships, no travel money and their uniforms were outdated dresses from a generation before. Players were more interested in landing husbands than making layups. Rush molded them into champions, helping to save the school in the process.

There are the expected obstacles. Rush's tactics weren't considered ladylike in that era, and college president Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn) constantly finds nits to pick until seeing the lights on the scoreboard. Even Rush's NBA referee husband Ed (David Boreanaz) doubts what she's trying to do. And in a twist no screenwriter could concoct without blushing, Rush's opposing team in the championship game is her alma mater coached by the woman who cut her from the team twice.

Let's be honest: The Mighty Macs isn't an especially good movie but it overflows with goodness, and that counts for something. Chambers' screenplay is a model of underdog sports clichés, and his direction is rudimentary at best. But the story puts a full court press on your heart, and the performances polish most of the moldy chestnuts. It's a nice movie, and can certainly be inspirational for the proper audiences. B-

The writer who made 'Fiddler' famous

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (Not rated, probably PG-13) (93 min.) — Like his American counterpart Mark Twain, and at roughly the same time, Sholem Rabinovich also defined his culture in print and under a pseudonym. You may know him better by his pen name, Sholem Aleichem, or his famous creation, Tevye the milkman who later inspired Fiddler on the Roof. You'll know Aleichem best through Joseph Dorman's documentary, blending his wit and Eastern European Jewish history into a dryly interesting chronicle.

Writing in Yiddish, a language considered gauche and outdated, Aleichem placed a mirror before Jews, their gifts and foibles, their triumphs and tragedies. Humor became a badge of courage, a way to cope with Czarist pogroms steadily erasing their culture, or chasing it to other nations. Aleichem and his family joined the exodus, arriving as a hero in New York, where his funeral years later would attract 200,000 mourners.

Since there are few photographs and no film footage of Aleichem, Dorman relies upon archival footage of Jewish culture to underscore the writer's droll observations. Actors recite swatches of Aleichem's monologues, often presented in the form of letters exchanged between separated family members. It's a history lesson that also shows art informing the events, even changing them.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness should mean most to literature buffs and Jews exploring their past, an insular appeal reflecting a culture long bullied into an "us and them" mentality. For others, it's a PBS special that found its way into theaters before offering the chance to channel surf past it. To borrow just a few of Aleichem's words that are ingrained in Jewish culture: "It could be worse." B

John Cena gets in on more action

The Reunion (PG-13) (95 min.) — WWE fans may be the only audience getting a kick out of watching superstar John Cena in another action flick. Unlike The Marine and 12 Rounds this one injects some decent humor into genre cliches.

Cena plays Sam Cleary, a cop on suspension for doing what's right but not exactly legal. Sam's smart aleck brother Leo (Ethan Embry) is a bail bondsman, and youngest sibling Douglas (Boyd Holbrook) just got out of prison. None like the others. Their estranged father dies, leaving $3 million to each, if his sons share a bail bond business for two years. Naturally they get hooked into a dangerous assignment.

It's standard scowl-and-shoot stuff, with Leo leading the way to Mexico, where a delinquent client (Michael Rispoli) has taken a kidnapped rich guy (Gregg Henry). Cena handles rough stuff like a pro, and his poker-faced wisecracking isn't bad. But he probably shouldn't quit his day job. C

Steve Persall, Times movie critic

Indie flicks: 'The Mighty Macs,' 'Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,' 'The Reunion' 10/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 7:38pm]
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