Though I admired Anthony Minghella’s 1991 feature debut, Truly Madly Deeply, I thought The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley were strenuously overrated. But the director’s riveting adaptation of Charles Frazier’s epic novel has turned me around again. A wounded Confederate deserter (Jude Law) slowly makes his way back to his North Carolina home and the sweetheart he barely knows (Nicole Kidman). Back on the farm, meanwhile, she strives to cope with the help of a new partner (Renee Zellweger). Some have compared the story to the Odyssey, but I was reminded of medieval romances (the distended treatment of time, the chivalric ethos, the witchlike crone who restores the hero’s health), Mark Twain (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rascally preacher evokes Huckleberry Finn), and even Gone With the Wind. Kidman and Zellweger are uncommonly good, and I especially liked the timely treatment of war as universally brutalizing: even the outcomes of battles are ignored, as are the motives behind the conflict. With Donald Sutherland, Kathy Baker, Brendan Gleeson, Eileen Atkins, and Giovanni Ribisi, and a cameo by Jack White, who also contributed songs to the sound track. 155 min. Ford City, Lake, Lawndale, River East 21, 62nd & Western, Village North, Wilmette. Some theaters couldn’t provide complete schedules in time for this week’s early deadline. Please call ahead or see www.chicagoreader.com/movies for updates and additional theaters.
Czech director Vaclav Vorlicek’s black-and-white slapstick fantasy is from 1966, the same year as Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, and it’s hard to think of two more gleefully anarchic comedies made under a communist regime. This one is slighter and more conventional, but its premise is still pretty outrageous. A scientist develops a formula that transforms bad dreams into good. She tests it on a sleeping cow, whose nightmare of being attacked by flies (viewed on a TV monitor) gives way to an idyll of lounging in a hammock. But things go awry when she tries the serum out on her wimpy husband, who, under the influence of a comic book, is dreaming of being rescued from the clutches of an overweight Superman clone and an ornery Wild West gunslinger by a sexy sci-fi heroine a la Barbarella. All three fantasy characters materialize in the real world, bringing their dialogue bubbles with them. The ensuing pandemonium is exceptionally silly and mostly delightful. For the record, the mistranslated title should have been “Who Wants to Kill Jessie?” In Czech with subtitles. 80 min. Gene Siskel Film Center.
Played with pizzazz by Jessica Alba (TV’s Dark Angel), 22-year-old Honey struggles to teach hip-hop and break dancing to the kids in her inner-city neighborhood in an energetic musical that’s like Flashdance with a social conscience, or Saturday Night Fever with an expanded one. It’s a hokey heart-warmer that works, not just because the dancing is great but because first-time director Bille Woodruff (a music-video veteran) and first-time writers Alonzo Brown and Kim Watson clearly believe in what they’re doing. The secondary cast, which includes 8 Mile’s Mekhi Phifer, Joy Bryant, and a raft of hip-hop stars doing cameo turns, brims with charisma. PG-13, 95 min. (JR)
A greeting card disguised as a historical drama about Jan Vermeer and his 17th-century Dutch milieu. Scarlett Johansson plays Grete, a 16-year-old domestic in the household of the dashing young painter (Colin Firth), who sublimates his feelings for her into his painting. The maid is lit like a Vermeer portrait even when she isn’t posing or mixing his paints, which reduces his art to photo-realism and undercuts the reverence accorded to him as a sacred visionary. The period detail is more vibrant than the minimal story (adapted by Olivia Hetreed from Tracy Chevalier’s novel), which includes Grete’s romance with a butcher’s assistant. Tom Wilkinson plays Vermeer’s patron as a lascivious ogre. Peter Webber, a first-timer, directed. PG-13, 99 min. (JR)