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Wednesday, October 18

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The Libertine
Johnny Depp has surprised me again. In The Libertine, he plays one of the meanest, nastiest, most depraved characters in history and you still can't help but root for the bastard. The film has one of the most memorable and to-the-point openings I've ever seen: Depp leans into frame lit only by a single candle, looks directly at the audience, and implores you not to like him. He also informs all women watching that he's "up for it" all the time, and that all men in the audience should not feel left out either. This warning/first meeting sets the tone for the film beautifully, as Depp disgusts us playing the 17th century vulgar poet John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, whose brother just so happens to be England's King Charles II, played with simmering restraint by John Malkovich.

Those of us in Chicago who frequent the Steppenwolf Theatre might remember when Malkovich (playing Wilmot) premiered The Libertine (from playwright Stephen Jeffreys, who wrote the film's screenplay) here a few years back. It caused something of a stir. The film isn't quite as stirring, if only because movie-going audiences are a bit more used to seeing depraved characters on screen. But Depp may surprise you yet, playing the usually drunk, always horny Wilmot, whose writings (in the form of poems, plays and books) were some of the most read in England at the time, and then locked away from public viewing for centuries. The film covers two areas in his life: his relationship with his brother, whose reputation Wilmot never missed an opportunity to besmirch, and his relationship with a struggling theatre actress named Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton). After seeing Barry give what might be the single worst performance in British theatre, Wilmot makes a wager that he can transform her into the greatest actress alive, even if it means never sleeping with her.

I was genuinely shocked when I saw that Entertainment Weekly nailed The Libertine with an "F," labeling it one of the worst films of 2005. Even if you find the characters reprehensible, or dislike director Laurence Dunmore's decision to give the movie a grim and grimy veneer and let his actors get a bit out of control with their performances, there's still a lot to enjoy. My level of interest slipped a bit toward the end, when Wilmot takes ill from the septic collection of STDs eating away at his body. But Depp has a great last-hurrah scene before Parliament that redeems even the weakest sections of the film. The Libertine is far from a flawless work, but at this point in his career, is it even worth considering not seeing a movie in which Depp plays someone so totally debauched? I think not.


Glory Road
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the latest sports epic from the folks at Disney is that this particular true story has taken this long to make it to the big screen. The events surrounding Texas Western's romp through NCAA basketball, which eventually led to a national championship match-up against powerhouse University of Kentucky, are so remarkable as to be almost unbelievable. Nevertheless, in 1966 a largely untested coach named Don Haskins was the first coach in NCAA history to start five black players in the championship game. The road to that pivotal game is far more interesting than the game itself.

Some film devotees tend to write off sports films as only interesting to those who like sports. I'm not much of a sports watcher myself, but I've always found the formulas behind movies about sports impossible not to get caught up in. In particular, I'm drawn to films about real-life events and people in sports. Facts can be, and often are, altered to make a true-to-life sports drama fit on the big screen, but most producers of such works are aware that if you change the events that occurred on the field or court, you risk losing the hard-core sports enthusiasts. And if you can't please the readers of Sports Illustrated, how can you ever hope to capture the hearts of film geeks too?

Fortunately, Glory Road hits all the right notes. Don Haskins was recruited to coach the men's basketball program at Texas Western after excelling at teaching women's ball. As Texas Western fell into the public spotlight, sports writers used this fact to embarrass Haskins, but what they really seemed to dislike him for was recruiting such a disproportionate (for the time) number of black players after he was hired. Haskins was not any kind of civil rights activist or worldly thinker; he just wanted a team of players that might actually win some games. While other colleges seemed progressive for having one black player on their team (and usually one that rarely left the bench), Haskins' fairly even mix of black and white players seemed downright radical.

Haskins takes the rag-tag bunch and shapes them (using almost military-style tactics) as both athletes and students. Josh Lucus plays Haskins, who had a knack for knowing when to turn on the Southern gentlemen charm and when to engage the drill sergeant inside of him. This is by far the best work of his career as he manages to find nuances in Haskins that make him a far more interesting person than most movie coaches.

As you'd expect in a film set in the racially charged mid-60s, issues of race are dealt with quite explicitly. This is most apparent in the form of the clearly condescending persona of University of Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp (Jon Voight), whose public comments about the Texas Western players were bad enough. But among his cronies, his comments (which are only attributed to him second-hand in the film) were downright vicious. I particularly liked first-time director James Gartner's handling of the players, both black and white, who eventually did become like a family, until a few scary incidents in Southern towns against the black players (led by Derek Luke) forced a wedge between them. The film does a great job showing all the players as something more than just an extension of the coach. Many of them are fully formed characters in whose personal struggles we become deeply invested.

Of course, all roads in Glory Road lead to the championship game, which is faithfully recreated (a fact we can verify thanks to footage of the actual game shown during the end credits). And since I knew absolutely nothing about this contest going into the movie, the outcome was genuinely surprising and exciting as hell. Is Glory Road one of the great all-time sports movies? Not really, but I'd rank it in the top three I've ever seen about basketball. The film respects its subjects without going the overly sentimental route, and the filmmakers are smart enough to recognize that there's an abundance of drama in the real story. Glory Road works as a film about the times and about sports. It's not great art but it succeeds as solid storytelling.


Mrs. Henderson Presents
The setting is pre-WWII London, and recently widowed Laura Henderson (the feisty-as-ever Judi Dench, sure to see a little Oscar recognition when nominations are released) hasn't got a clue what to do with all the money her husband has left her. Almost on a whim, she decides to recapture the carefree days of her youth by restoring an old cinema and opening up a theatre. Since she knows nothing about running a theatre, she hires manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins, in rare delightful form). Business is slow in the tense months leading to the war, so the two concoct a scheme to bring a touch of the French dance hall scene to London—in the form of an all-nude review. Full houses soon follow.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is classic, slightly naughty British fare, something we don't see much of any more. Dench and Hoskins were meant to be on the screen together. Their clashes over various aspects of the theatre management and artistic choices are like two hurricanes vying for position. Together, they find a legal loophole that allows them to feature nudity in their productions as long as the actresses don't move. Christopher Guest as Lord Cromer, who must issue final governmental permission for the productions to take place, is a riot, especially when he attempts to voice his concern over the productions showing pubic hair. He's so uptight he can't actually say the words, and his attempts at beating around the bush (yes, I said it!) are the comic highlight of the film.

But the war does arrive on London's doorstep with bombing raids that shake the rafters of the old theatre on several occasions. Attempts to close the house are met with strong resistance from young soldiers on leave, who attend the shows in droves and whom Mrs. Henderson meets with open arms.

Director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, Dangerous Liaisons) does an admirable job of telling his tale, and the stage productions are beautifully realized. It's a hoot watching Dench cut loose a little and pepper her socialite dialect with a few choice dirty words. For once, Hoskins is the one who must reign it in a little, as he attempts to calm Mrs. Henderson on those rare occasions when someone dares stand in her way. Mrs. Henderson Presents has a lot of well-earned laughs and a few sweet, touching moments that are sure to win you over. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Caché
As I mentioned a couple weeks back when I ranked this film #31 on my Best Films of 2005 list, German director Michael Haneke (whose latest works, including Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher and The Time of the Wolf, have all been French productions) loves to fuck with his audience and his characters, and never more so than with Caché. A seemingly average upper-class French family (headed by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) receives a strange series of videotapes of their home, under surveillance by an unknown watcher. Although the tapes (which are sometimes accompanied by disturbing, child-like drawings) show nothing particularly shocking or incriminating, the very idea of being watched opens up several cans of worms in the family, leading to anxiety, false accusations and a series of shocking outcomes. This one will keep you guessing and wondering long after the film is over.

I haven't spent a lot of time in my life discussing Auteuil's career, and that's a flaw on my part. I take his greatness for granted. He can do outrageous comedies or intense drama with such skill that you can't help but taken him for granted over the years. But I can't remember a time when I've been so moved by his performance as a TV literary critic overwhelmed with fear and guilt. Juliette Binoche is also very good as his wife, who is convinced she's being lied to and seemed more concerned with that than what the actual truth is.

Caché forces you to take stock in your own past and wonder if there is anyone you may have wronged that has never forgiven you. Haneke brilliantly moves us away from the mystery of the videotapes and drawings and turns his work into a look at how fragile a seemingly tight-knit family really is. The film is also a parable about the differences between feeling guilty and being guilty. There are elements and images in Caché that are absolutely impossible to shake. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


Hoodwinked
Was the story of Little Red Riding Hood really crying out to be "re-imagined"? Let's assume, for the purposes of this review, that it was. Hoodwinked is an animated, Rashomon-style telling of the events surrounding the attempted assault of Red (voiced by Brokeback Mountain's Anne Hathaway) by The Wolf (Patrick Warburton). Each of the major players in the tale gets his or her chance to tell their side of the events, including Granny (Glenn Close) and The Woodsman (James Belushi), who, at first glance, saves Red from being eaten by said Wolf. The players each tell their story to the police and an inquisitive reporter, a frog voiced by David Ogden Stiers.

The re-examining of the Red Riding Hood story is actually kind of clever, and my biggest complaints about Hoodwinked aren't with the writing, although the presence of too many supporting players—including police officers (Anthony Anderson and rapper Xzibit), a tweaking rabbit (Andy Dick), and a sly sheep (Chazz Palminteri)—muddles what might have been a likable straight-forward story. But it's the animation that sinks this sheep…I mean ship. It's strictly amateur hour, and wouldn't even cut it as a Saturday morning cartoon. At first I thought directors Cory and Todd Edwards were going for a retro, computer-generated look, but I don't think so. It's as if a bunch of recent art school grads who couldn't get hired at a major studio animation house formed their own sub-par group (not a good sign for the distributor, The Weinstein Company) and submitted this as a demo reel.

It's difficult to even watch Hoodwinked, which is a shame because the ingredients for something decent were in place. I actually liked the opening exchange in Grandma's house, and some of the events leading up to the famous encounter between Red and The Wolf are pretty funny. Little kids who have never seen Toy Story or Shrek or Finding Nemo or even Ice Age might be able to stomach watching this mess, but I was struggling. If this gets nominated for an Animated Feature Oscar, I will shit liquid.

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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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