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Thursday, April 18

Gapers Block

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Hey everyone. First off, let me just begin by not reviewing Madagascar and the remake of The Longest Yard. I'm not dismissing them because they're terrible films, but neither one quite rises above the level of "adequate." So save your hard-earned cash for what I'm sure will be a jam-packed summer full of far worthier blockbusters and art-house fare, including a few of the gems reviewed below.

Cinderella Man
You can be as cynical a moviegoer as they come, and you'd still be helpless to resist the sentimental tug of a Ron Howard film. It is, quite literally, impossible. No one knows how to masterfully manipulate and massage the heartstrings quite like Howard, which is kind of amazing considering the guy almost never makes love stories or kids movies (I choose to forget The Grinch). He even manages to forge these emotional ties in stories that have no business being gushy. The best example of this would be his previous pairing with Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind, which won a boatload of Oscars and showed American audiences that Crowe was something more than just an action star (those of us who followed his career in Australia already knew this). As it should be, Howard, Crowe, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have again joined forces to create a perfect piece of American hero worship. Check your cynicism at the door, folks, you will be powerless to resist.

Crowe plays real-life Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, who had a promising career just before Wall Street's big crash, and a downright miraculous one in the years following. Braddock's skills as a boxer had gotten so pathetic that the boxing commission actually revoked his license after one fight, because it thought he was only showing up for the minimal payday and not putting forth anything that resembled boxing. This may not have been far from the truth. He was desperate to put food on the table for his wife Mae (a decidedly low-key Renee Zellweger) and their three kids. When other families were sending their kids away to live with better-off relatives, the Braddocks were determined to keep their family together. Like many men in New Jersey, Braddock tries getting pick-up work at the docks for near-slave wages, but usually there are only a handful of jobs and dozens of men to fill them.

After breaking his right hand during a bout, Braddock is not only forced out of boxing, he finds himself having to disguise his injury at the docks by favoring his left hand (his left hooks were apparently always his weak spot). When his friend and cornerman Joe Gould (the scene-stealing Paul Giamatti) gets him a mercy gig for one night only at Madison Square Garden for a great purse, Braddock is grateful. What nobody knows is that months on the dock have made him stronger than he ever was. He wins the fight and is set on a path to take on heavyweight champ and Class-A asshole Max Baer (Craig Bierko in a particularly nasty performance). As with every boxing movie in the history of cinema (excluding, perhaps, Million Dollar Baby), everything comes down to the big fight. In Cinderella Man, Howard devotes about 30 of the film's 150 minutes to the 15-round bloodbath versus Baer.

As he did in Beautiful Mind, Howard really shows us in Cinderella Man how the brain works (or doesn't work). In the case of that film, the mind was demented and saw patterns and codes where there weren't any. Here, maybe better than any other boxing film I've ever seen, Howard shows us how a boxer sees the match, how he spots a pattern in his opponent's swings, how he sees an opening or a sore spot he needs to exploit. And somehow these fighters see these things through blurred vision and gallons of stinging blood and sweat in their eyes. Howard also does a terrific job of capturing the relationship between a boxer and his cornerman. When Giamatti shouts out instructions, Crowe hears him and adjusts. As much as Howard relies on tried-and-true techniques when showing Braddock the loving father and husband, or Braddock the down-and-out man begging for money from his former friends at the boxing commission so he can pay his electric bill, his views of and in the ring is unique. He's not reinventing the wheel, but it looks shiner than I've seen it in a long, long time.

Howard also spends a great deal of time showing the relationship between Braddock and his neighbor and would-be union organizer Mike Wilson (In America's Paddy Considine). I kept thinking that storyline was going to amount to something in the end, when, in fact, Howard was actually daring to add another layer to Braddock's character: the good friend to the working man. You see, Americans knew Braddock's story as well as he did thanks to the sports writers that hounded him constantly once his comeback began. Americans knew Braddock was one of them: disenfranchised, hurting, but never giving up. He inspired them to not give up. I probably don't even need to tell you that Howard goes to town with that metaphor, but damn it, the guy makes it work.

As good as Crowe's physique and New Jersey accent are, and as much as you might not be annoyed by Zellweger, the star of this show is (big surprise) Giamatti. The man is on a monster winning streak. He's playing second fiddle here, and there are stretches of Cinderella Man in which he doesn't appear, but every time he and Crowe are in a scene together, the movie is simply better. He's not hamming it up; he's just playing the part exactly how it should. Go to see a solid inspirational tale, stay to see Paul Giamatti work his magic.

Mysterious Skin
Gregg Araki is an aggressive, confrontational writer-director whose works are not designed to be watched passively. He throws his words, images and ideas in your face so brutally you almost want to swat them away. Sometimes this results in you disliking his work, but most of the time his films leave you with a bad taste in your mouth that stays with you long after the lights go up (this is meant as a compliment, by the way). His style of filmmaking (and it has become a sub-genre at this point) is called New Queer Cinema. It began in the early 1990s with the powerful The Living End, almost died with the lame Totally F*cked Up, came back strong with The Doom Generation, and was left in limbo with the star-studded but ultimately empty-headed Nowhere. Mysterious Skin puts Araki back on track.

Taking a page from the Larry Clark (Kids, Bully) storybook, Araki's film follows the death-defying life of gay hustler Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt), living in a small Kansas town. The film also introduces us to Brian (Brady Corbet), a withdrawn boy in the same town who has suffered for years from horrible nightmares that may actually be repressed memories. The two 18-year-olds don't know each other as adults, but they shared an experience as 8-year-olds at the hands of their little league coach (Bill Sage) that each has processed and been changed by in vastly different ways. Brian ultimately convinces himself that the gaping void in his memory of the experience was, in fact, an alien abduction. Neil, on the other end, remembers the events perfectly and even fondly. I told you Araki was challenging.

Brian commits himself to filling in the blanks in his memory, and that path leads him ultimately to Neil. Unfortunately, when he arrives at Neil's house, his mother (Elisabeth Shue) and best friend Eric (Jeff Licon) inform Brian that Neil has just moved to New York City to live with his oldest friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg). As expected, Neil goes on a hustling binge in the Big Apple and pays a hefty price. All roads in Mysterious Skin (which marks Araki's first time adapting someone else's work, in this case Scott Helm's novel) lead to a painful meeting between Neil and Brian, two virtual strangers in all kinds of emotional pain.

Mysterious Skin is graphic (more in terms of the language than what's actually shown), raw, sleazy, discomforting and the mark of a maturing filmmaker. The sequences involving the boys' memories are very difficult to sit through, but Araki wants you to be disgusted by it. He doesn't want it glossed over as it was in The Woodsman or Mystic River, to name two recent examples. His mission is make you sick to your stomach at the very thought of what happened to these kids. His spares us the visuals but not the descriptions as Neil describes the abuse in graphic detail. This decidedly unrated and extremely powerful film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and it's well worth seeing if you have the fortitude.

The Lords of Dogtown
Everything I know about the birth of the modern skateboarding craze, I learned from the exemplary 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. I still look to that film as a prime example of why documentaries mean so much to me. I couldn't care less about skateboarding or the young punks that pioneered the sport, but Dogtown made me care and make me admire the innovation and groundbreaking spirit these guys had. My two favorite docs from 2004—Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Riding Giants (about surfing)—are also about subjects that had never interested me prior to seeing them so eloquently laid out in these films. There are dozens of similar examples I could give you, but my point is: don't be afraid of docs whose subject matter holds no interest to you. It's about discovery, not rehashing facts and faces you're familiar with. End of lecture.

Now the story of these Venice, Calif., surfers turned skateboarding tycoons has been nicely transformed into the high-energy, equally well-done feature, Lords of Dogtown from director Catherine Hardwicke, who scared me with her last film Thirteen. As the documentary does, Lords of Dogtown shows how the introduction of urethane wheels made skateboards grip the ground better and ride more like surfboards.

A group of teenagers, including Stacy Peralta (who wrote the screenplay is played by John Robinson), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsche) and the superstar Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk), led the charge through the streets and empty swimming pools of Southern California as members of the Zephyr skating team, led by skate- and surfboard shop owner Skip Engblom (an almost unrecognizable Heath Ledger).

When the team would show up to skateboarding competitions, their hot-dogging and aggressive style would leave judges scratching their heads and fans desperate to copy their moves. They also became wildly famous and heroes in youth culture. Endorsement deals, television appearances, news coverage and busloads of female groupies soon followed and threatened the brotherhood that fought so hard not to be part of the establishment that they effectively created a new establishment.

The first smart move with Lords of Dogtown was casting actors who could skate (or at least learned to skate) so that stunt doubles were rarely used. Seeing the faces of these young actors actually pulling off some of these moves makes a huge difference in the credibility of this movie. Probably the best performance here comes from Hirsch, whose character goes through the most troubling life changes. Because his drunken hippie mother (Rebecca De Mornay, brave for taking this unflattering role) was also broke, Hirsch was forced to sell out early and cheap to shady sponsors. Meanwhile Stacy took the safe route with a mainstream board company while still managing to remain a relatively good kid. Alva became something akin to a rock star and lost his soul to sleazy management in the form of Topper Burks (Johnny Knoxville).

The highest compliment I can pay this film is that it gets it. The fantastic '70s rock anthems that fill the soundtrack, the way the kids never really have conversations but simply communicate with small-talk and jokes, the focused look in their eyes as they are about to launch into a new routine. It all felt completely authentic. And then there's Heath Ledger, sporting false teeth and a slight speech impediment. His character was so generous with his time and equipment that the guy never made any real money off the craze he helped create. Being drunk all the time probably didn't help. When I'd first heard Ledger was in this film, I'd assumed he was one of the skateboarders. I'm glad I was wrong. He's the real tragic figure of this story, and as much as you grow to dislike his character, you end up feeling sorry for the poor schlub.

In many ways Lords of Dogtown does what the documentary never could. It adds depth to these characters by showing them when they aren't necessarily on their boards. The film moves so quickly through the lives of these hormonal, immature teens that you feel like you're right there with them, as the rest of life just flies by. Your rarely have a chance to catch your breath, and sometimes it's okay not to breathe.

The Nomi Song
One of the most fascinating and solidly entertaining documentaries that landed at last year's Chicago International Film Festival was the film that threw one last spotlight on the strangest pop culture figure of the 1980s: Klaus Nomi. This part opera diva (a countertenor, no less), part fashion icon, all alien creature became one of the most influential scene-makers in New York's New Wave crowd. His rock show/performance art events were always sold out, but Nomi remained a shy, tortured soul.

Although his fame didn't really extend outside of New York (he did manage to get his national television debut as a backup singer for a David Bowie appearance on "Saturday Night Live"), his influence on fashion, graphic design and popular music in undeniable. His life was filled with great disappointments, and his death by drug overdose cut short a life that still had much to offer popular culture. I'd never heard of Nomi before in my life before this film (although I do remember the "SNL" gig), and seeing this film fills in the gaps of my understanding of the times in which he lived. As a bonus, his music is actually a lot of fun and very catchy. And, yes, '80s fashion will make more sense to you after seeing The Nomi Song. Isn't that alone worth the price of admission? The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Rock School
It's almost impossible to believe that the makers of 2003's School of Rock weren't at least aware of Philadelphia-based rock music teacher Paul Green when that film was being put together. If not, then this may qualify as one of the strangest coincidences in the history of filmmaking. Granted, Jack Black's family-friendly comedy and this documentary about a man who attempts to inject Satan and other rock n' roll spirits into kids from about 9 to 17 are not all that similar in their execution, but on paper they seem to have some remarkable parallels. Most importantly, the thing Rock School does share with School of Rock is that it's wonderfully entertaining as long as you aren't offended by the teaching skills of Mr. Green. He works blue.

As much as you'd like to separate your feelings about this film from your feeling about the abrasive and bombastic Green, it's impossible. There's never any doubt in your mind that his intentions are noble. These kids come to his after-school music school voluntarily to become rock stars, and if Green sense that these kids are serious and talented, he will ride them, berate them and embarrass them until they achieve whatever greatness they can while under his tutelage. He uses every four-letter word in the book, screams at them when they make a mistake, and openly mocks any music his students like that he deems unworthy. My guess is that director Don Argott probably overemphasizes Green's more extreme tantrums, and there are hints from some of the student interviews that when Green does one-on-one training, he's not nearly as terrifying. Seeing Green's softer side might have made for a more complete film, but it wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining.

Green's musical emphasis is on hard rock and heavy metal, but his Master Class students' "thesis" is a tribute concert to the complicated music of Frank Zappa. I know nothing about Zappa's music other than only other musicians seem to appreciate it fully. And after hearing one of Green's beginner students butcher Black Sabbath, some well-played Zappa is a real treat. Still, I think my favorite player is the young guitar student (I wish I knew his name, but if you see the film, you'll know exactly who I mean) whose note-perfect renditions of Santana's "Black Magic Woman" and Van Halen's take on "(Oh) Pretty Woman" are the highlights of the film. Of all the kids in Rock School, he's the one I'd expect to see in a functioning rock band down the road.

And then there's Will O'Conner, by all accounts a terrible bass player, who before joining the school was a suicidal outcast living with his one-armed mother and having absolutely no idea where his life was going. He and Green clash most often during the course of the film, and he's the only student we see actually drop out of the school. But even the rejected Will seems to be a better and more complete person as a result of Green's influence. It's safe to say that most of Green's students have a love-hate relationship with their teacher. He's pushing them to succeed where he, the failed guitar god, never did. The film's finale and true payoff is Green's Zappa students traveling to Germany to take part in a three-day Zappa festival and playing alongside members of The Mothers of Invention. The look on Green's face is priceless, and all the yelling and belittlement is forgotten momentarily. Although Rock School is most definitely rated R (for language), I think if your kids are familiar with a few choice four-letter words, this is a safe film for them to see. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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