Monthly Archives: May 2005

Cinderella Man

Ron Howard, an exemplar of honorable mediocrity, reunites with actor Russell Crowe and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman of A Beautiful Mind for this epic treatment of a seven-year stretch in the career of New Jersey boxer James J. Braddock. The story culminates in Braddock’s near miraculous defeat of Max Baer (Craig Bierko), which made Braddock world heavyweight champion, but despite the effective fight sequences, this is more about what it means to have your electricity shut off, enhanced by detailed re-creations of working-class misery during the Depression. Paul Giamatti is a particular standout as Braddock’s manager. Cliff Hollingsworth cowrote the screenplay; with Renee Zellweger, Paddy Considine, and Bruce McGill. PG-13, 144 min. (JR)… Read more »

Madagascar

A Dreamworks computer-animated feature (2005) about a lion (the voice of Ben Stiller), a zebra (Chris Rock), a hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a giraffe (David Schwimmer) in a Manhattan zoo that get shipped to Africa, then find themselves unequipped for the wilds. Philosophical confusion abounds about the identity of both characters and places (apart from New York): the multiethnic beasts (including some hilarious penguins) oscillate between being kids and grown-ups, being animals and humans, while Madagascar itself veers from Africa to Hawaii and from nature to civilization. The music blithely bounces from New York, New York to Chariots of Fire to Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World to the wind chimes from American Beauty. The whole thing feels throwaway, but some of the gags are funny. Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath directed. PG, 86 min. (JR)… Read more »

Getting To Know The Big Wide World

Kira Muratova’s flaky 1978 feature, said to be her favorite, also goes by the title Understanding Life, but as often happens with her movies, appreciation ultimately triumphs over understanding. A loosely plotted comedy about a romantic triangle, set in and around a rural wasteland, it alternates between silence and sound, stopping and starting, with the cheekiness of 60s Godard. The relative chaos of the construction-site location, like the ones in Alexander Dovzhenko’s Ivan and Aerograd, is what Muratova seems to like most about this. As usual with her movies, the actorsincluding regulars Nina Ruslanova and Sergei Popovare wonderful. In Russian with subtitles. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »

White Dog

Samuel Fuller’s 1982 masterpiece about American racism–his last work shot in this country–focuses on the efforts of a black animal trainer (Paul Winfield) to deprogram a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Very loosely adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a memoir by Romain Gary, and set in southern California on the fringes of the film industry, this heartbreakingly pessimistic yet tender story largely concentrates on tragic human fallibility from the vantage point of an animal; in this respect it’s like Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, and Fuller’s brilliantly eclectic direction gives it a nearly comparable intensity. Through a series of grotesque misunderstandings, this unambiguously antiracist movie was yanked from U.S. distribution partly because of charges of racism made by individuals and organizations who had never seen it. But it’s one of the key American films of the 80s. With Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives, Jameson Parker, and, in cameo roles, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Christa Lang, and Fuller himself. PG, 89 min. Thu 6/2, 6 PM, Northwestern Univ. Block Museum of Art.… Read more »

Kings and Queen

There’s something about the goofy sprawl of French writer-director Arnaud Desplechin–his obscure uses of “Moon River” and Greek mythology, his unlikely casting of a black woman as a famous psychotherapist–that irks me even when he’s being brilliant. But this powerhouse 2004 movie lingers, and maybe, like his characters, Desplechin needs his eccentricities. Costarring two of his favorite actor-creatures, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, as a single mother and her deranged ex-husband, this melodrama follows their narratives separately (she learns her father is dying; he gets committed to a sanitarium) before allowing them to commingle. It adds up to more than the sum of its parts, but you may not realize it for a day or so. With Catherine Deneuve. In French with subtitles. 150 min. Music Box.… Read more »

Passions And Three Stories

The visionary, transgressive art of director Kira Muratova might be described as bipolar, and these two eccentric comedies, both big successes in Russia, may be her lightest and her darkest. The Felliniesque Passions (1994, 112 min.) considers the wistful dreams of its characters, chiefly a nurse and a circus performer, while the episodes of Three Stories (1997, 109 min.) all deal with cold-blooded murders in postglasnost, posthumanist Russia. Both feature Renata Litvinova, an icy, statuesque blond with the beauty and power of a Hollywood icon; she was a screenwriter by profession, but Muratova turned her into a star (both women won Russian Oscars for their work on Passions). And both exemplify Muratova’s long-standing fascination with animals: Passions revolves around racehorses and takes place partly at a track, while in Three Stories the first episode is set near a zoo, the last one includes a good many cats, and the middle one, scripted by and starring Litvinova, is about an avenging murderess who prefers animals to people. In Russian with subtitles. (JR)… Read more »

Passions; Three Stories

The visionary, transgressive art of director Kira Muratova might be described as bipolar, and these two eccentric comedies, both big successes in Russia, may be her lightest and her darkest. The Felliniesque Passions (1994, 112 min.) considers the wistful dreams of its characters, chiefly a nurse and a circus performer, while the episodes of Three Stories (1997, 109 min.) all deal with cold-blooded murders in postglasnost, posthumanist Russia. Both feature Renata Litvinova, an icy, statuesque blond with the beauty and power of a Hollywood icon; she was a screenwriter by profession, but Muratova turned her into a star (both women won Russian Oscars for their work on Passions). And both exemplify Muratova’s long-standing fascination with animals: Passions revolves around racehorses and takes place partly at a track, while in Three Stories the first episode is set near a zoo, the last one includes a good many cats, and the middle one, scripted by and starring Litvinova, is about an avenging murderess who prefers animals to people. In Russian with subtitles. Video projection. Gene Siskel Film Center.… Read more »

Mindhunters

Eight FBI trainees are sent to a deserted island by their bossy instructor, who wants to test their abilities as psychological profilers, but as they’re bumped off one by one, they begin to wonder who’s really calling the shots. Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin scripted this gory thriller-whodunit, whose premise is loosely derived from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The plot twists are so preposterous that you can enjoy this only if you reject any relation to the real world, yet director Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger) is so adept at delivering this nonsense that you may find your task an easy one. With Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Val Kilmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Christian Slater, LL Cool J, Patricia Velasquez, and Cassandra Bell. R, 106 min. (JR)… Read more »

Yellow Sky

William A. Wellman’s 1948 western, beautifully shot in Death Valley by Joe MacDonald, is gritty and ambitious, but the story, adapted by producer Lamar Trotti from a short story by W.R. Burnett, grows more conventional as it develops. A group of bank robbers fleeing the law (among them Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, John Russell, and Harry Morgan) happen upon a ghost town where a prospector (James Barton) and his tough granddaughter (Anne Baxter) have been mining gold; some nearby Apaches serve to heighten all the tensions and conflicted loyalties. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Mondovino

Pared down from a French TV miniseries, this cagey and compelling 2004 documentary looks at the world of wine, but it’s actually a nuanced, provocative piece of journalism about globalization and its discontents. Filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter contrasts various vineyards as well as philosophies of wine making around the world, concentrating on France, Italy, and California. (Considering his eccentric focus on the dogs at each vineyard, he might well have titled this Mondo cane, but that’s already taken.) An American who grew up in Europe and India, Nossiter is mainly known for fiction features like Sunday and Signs & Wonders, which show some of the same political savvy displayed here. In English and subtitled French and Italian. Rated PG-13 for its fleeting image of a nude pinup. 135 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Asthenic Syndrome

A great movie (1989), but not a pleasant or an easy one. Directed by the transgressive Kira Muratova in her mid-50s, it has been rightly called the only “masterpiece of glasnost,” though it was banned by the Russian government for obscenity. Beginning as a powerful black-and-white narrative about a middle-aged woman doctor in an exploding, aggressive rage over the death of her husband (who resembles Stalin), the film eventually turns into an even more unorthodox tale in color about a schoolteacher (cowriter Sergei Popov) who periodically falls asleep regardless of what’s happening around him. (The title alludes to a form of disability that encompasses both the doctor’s aggressiveness and the schoolteacher’s passivity.) Though this tragicomic epic has plenty to say about postcommunist Russia, it also deals more generally with the demons loose in today’s world. It may drive you nuts — as it was undoubtedly meant to — but you certainly won’t forget it. In Russian with subtitles. 153 min. (JR)

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Saying It With Stars

From the Chicago Reader (May 13, 2005). — J.R.

Crash

*** (A must see)

Directed by Paul Haggis

Written by Haggis and Bobby Moresco

With Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Dashon Howard, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Nona Gaye, and Michael Pena

Mindhunters

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Renny Harlin

Written by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin

With Eion Bailey, Clifton Collins Jr., Will Kemp, Val Kilmer, Jonny Lee Miller, Kathryn Morris, Christian Slater, LL Cool J, Patricia Velasquez, and Cassandra Bell

Monster-in-Law

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Robert Luketic

Written by Anya Kochoff and Richard LaGravenese

With Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, and Wanda Sykes

We tend to make trade-offs between reality and fantasy when we watch movies, buying into some questionable premises because we want to honor others. Despite shared assumptions and conventions, we have different thresholds for what we find believable — or an acceptable version of what’s real. We’ll settle for a certain amount of contrivance, but our tolerance has limits, determined in part by age, taste, and experience and in part by whether we like the rest of the movie enough to stretch our standards.… Read more »

Monster-in-law

Jane Fonda stars as the title beast, a former TV star recovering from a breakdown who’s so miffed at the idea of her only son (Michael Vartan) marrying a temp (Jennifer Lopez) that she conspires to scare the young woman off. It’s nervy of Fonda to play such an unsympathetic, self-absorbed characterand one who looks her agebut this comedy surrounds her with so many predigested characters and sitcom cliches that it seldom takes off, despite the presence of Lopez and Wanda Sykes and a cameo by Elaine Stritch. Robert Luketic directed a script by Anya Kochoff. PG-13, 95 min. (JR)… Read more »

House Of Wax

Formulaic but fairly well-done, this scare show for teenagers is only nominally a remake of the old Vincent Price movieit’s more a combination of Psycho, The Blair Witch Project, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with some additional cribs from Brian De Palma’s Sisters). The setting has been changed from Victorian London to present-day rural America, with a heavy dose of TCM’s antihillbilly paranoia, and the murders are even more gruesome than in the original. Paris Hilton, in her first extended big-screen role, isn’t required to act so much as scream and strip. Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis coproduced, and Jaume Collet-Serra directed; with Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, and Brian Van Holt. R, 88 min. (JR)… Read more »

Hell Comes To Frogtown

Wrestler Roddy Piper plays the only remaining fertile male on earth, who sets out to rescue women held captive by froglike mutants. R.J. Kizer and Donald G. Jackson codirected this 1987 feature, which, believe it or not, had a sequelcalled not Heaven Comes to Frogtown but the more prosaic Return to Frogtown. R, 88 min. (JR)… Read more »