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)
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)
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)
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.
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.