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.
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)