Against the Ropes
Opens Fri., Feb. 20, at Meridian and others
A standard-issue, woman-overcoming-the-odds boxing movie, this feel-good Meg Ryan vehicle has been delayed so long that not only do you confuse it with every other boxing flick that preceded it, you feel like you've already seen it several times before on TV reruns, cable, and a particularly forlorn, dusty shelf at Blockbuster. It could've been made in the '40s with Barbara Stanwyck or in the '70s with Jane Fonda, not that it would have been much better or worse. The same stock figures and clichés are put through the same sparring routines and training montages without ever rising to the level of Rocky—nor even a later eye-roller like Barbra Streisand's The Main Event.
Considering that the freshest boxing movie in recent years was 2000's Girlfight, it's a disappointment that Ryan never climbs into the ring. As in last year's In the Cut, she looks great, but there's no threat of violence or sex to disturb her perky, wholesome image. Instead, she plays Jackie Kallen, a real-life boxing manager in Cleveland, who, on a dare from the sexist boxing establishment, transforms a raw young middleweight (Omar Epps) into a title contender. Starting out trashy and downtrodden, like Erin Brockovich with slightly better fashion sense, Ryan's big moment comes in the climactic bout when she strides purposefully toward the ring to tell her fighter, "You are a champion, dammit!" I was hoping she'd push Epps aside with her nicely sculpted arms and KO the opponent herself. No such upsets occur.
In fight sequences so flatly edited it's as if Raging Bull were never made, Epps doesn't look remotely impressive, though I'm sure he did lots of Pilates to tone himself for the part. How did Ryan prepare? Apparently by studying old tapes of Mike Ditka, whose broad Midwestern accent she seems to be channeling from NFL halftime shows. Ropes isn't just a hokey boxing movie, it's a bad, bland "baaaxing" movie without the color or criminal interest of real ring characters like Don King or Mike Tyson. In its final round, the film even resorts to having Jackie's former detractors applaud her—foreseeing, correctly, that we in the audience won't. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., Feb. 20, at Harvard Exit
Ah, Paris 1968! The riots! The auteurist movie worship! The pushovers in miniskirts! Bliss 'twas it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very confusing. In Bernardo Bertolucci's solemnly somnolent ode to his youth, we meet a dewy American student (Michael Pitt), who looks like DiCaprio's homelier kid brother and acts like a dumber version of the kid in Mary McCarthy's Birds of America. He falls in love with the Cinémathèque Française, and with a cinephile he meets there (Eva Green), who resembles Maria (Last Tango in Paris) Schneider's bosomy but homelier granddaughter. She invites him to stay in her rich parents' apartment with her Gallically grumpy, incestuous twin brother (Louis Garrel). The folks are away, so the twins get stoned and inflict sicko games on the innocent Yank.
The twins' game is acting out classic movie scenes: the Louvre race from Band of Outsiders, or Garbo's hammy moping in Queen Christina. When her brother can't guess her Dietrich-in-a-gorilla-suit homage, his punishment is to jack off to a Dietrich movie poster while she and the American watch. Later, she's made to hump the American while her brother watches.
All these old film references do is emphasize their vitality and the inanition of the kids' imitations. The sex is sort of steamy at times, but the steam soon dissipates. Brando's orgy with Schneider in Tango was existential, dramatic, cinematic; The Dreamers is static, a champagne cork too pooped to pop. The kids start what might have been fertile conversations about art and culture (Chaplin versus Keaton, Mao versus the movies, etc. versus etc.), but these kids can't debate, only masturbate. When the girl decides to gas the three of them to death in their sleep, I thought she had a point.
Abruptly, they're saved by the 1968 riot outside their window. Now the twins get the movie they've been waiting for. Paris kids were shouting, like Mickey and Judy, let's have a show! But The Dreamers isn't much of a show, or much of a movie. It's a cinema in-joke about a band of insiders trapped in Bertolucci's skull. Those of us watching are left wishing for a revolution that never comes. (NC-17) TIM APPELO
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra
Runs Fri., Feb. 20–Thurs., Feb. 26, at Varsity
It's safe to say that Mystery Science Theater 3000—the now-defunct cable show in which two robots and a human stranded in space were forced to endure cheesy old B-movies—made watching bad cinema cool again. Basically a re-creation of that same cheesy old B-movie fodder, Skeleton is that rare breed of film in which an extraterrestrial mutant and its alien keepers find themselves dancing before a reanimated skeleton and a half-feral woman named Animala. Writer-director Larry Blamire, who also plays the sci-fi flick's strapping scientist hero, Dr. Paul Armstrong, captures the absurdity of B-movies with a connoisseur's eye, but his facile mockery soon grows tiresome. Sure, Skeleton boasts some good lines (e.g., "I've never been horribly mutilated, but I certainly don't want to start now!"), but more than half the fun of bona fide B-movies is that the stilted dialogue was unintentionally stilted. Blamire's affection for the genre is clear, and that spirit shows throughout his willfully hokey spoof. Many viewers, however, will prefer the genuine article; a better night could be had on the couch watching Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, tossing quips and microwave popcorn at the small screen. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
Opens Fri., Feb. 20, at Guild 45
Though the Taliban have been out of power since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2002, there's a lot of lingering Western fascination with their fundamentalist rule. Films like Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar have begun to dramatize what living conditions were like under the mullahs and Kalashnikovs, and the picture, unsurprisingly, isn't pretty. Makhmalbaf and the Iranian government helped support this film as well, which, like Kandahar, is about life under the veil. "Osama" is the assumed name for a 12-year-old Kabul girl—we never learn her true name—who cuts her hair to pass for a boy in order to help support her widowed mother (the same plot that drove the 2001 Iranian film Baran).
The first feature film to be shot in Afghanistan since the Taliban were bombed from power, Osama is fairly crude and clunky. It starts confusingly with the camera serving as the POV of a Western journalist, then lurches into the girl's story. Edits and episodes are jarringly joined and the storytelling is rudimentary, but none of that ultimately matters. It's more like a docudrama (none of the actors is a professional), where the city's devastation and the people's careworn faces reflect not just recent Afghan history but the last 30 years of terror. You get the sense how women live in constant fear of men outside their homes, since Talibs and mullahs are apt to pounce on any stray girl they encounter. Says one particularly creepy imam of Osama, "This boy looks like a nymph." Boys and girls are equally apt to be sexual prey for these men of God.
Osama's bleakness ought to remind everyone what Afghanistan might revert to if we pull out of that country. "My life is dark and miserable," says one of the multiple wives of the creepy mullah, who lives locked inside his compound. And here's a final bit of bad news: With our military forces spread thin in Iraq, the Taliban is again resurgent in Afghanistan. (PG-13) B.R.M.
Runs Fri., Feb. 20–Thurs., Feb. 26, at Grand Illusion
If not exactly a political act, marriage becomes an act of organic resistance in this charmingly low-key and naturalistic Palestinian film set in one of the most politically charged regions on Earth. Beautiful, headstrong 17-year-old Rana (Clara Khoury) has been given an ultimatum by her widowed father: Agree to marry one of the lawyers, doctors, or engineers from his approved list of husbands, or he'll take her with him to Egypt at 4 o'clock that day, leaving behind their comfortable haute-bourgeois home in East Jerusalem.
Rana resists, though Wedding leaves her reasons somewhat ambiguous—as they would be for any teenager verging on womanhood, reluctant to defy her father, and nervously in love with an older man who's emphatically not on her daddy's list. That fellow is theater director Khalil (Khalifa Natour); he's nice enough, but not so reliable that he can be reached early on a Tuesday morning by Rana's frantic cell-phone calls. She's got 10 hours to find him in Ramallah (in the occupied territories), get him approved, get a dress, and get married. Neither Khalil nor Rana's father really register that strongly in Wedding—it's all about her one-woman mission to get hitched. Though the picture is too artful to hammer its themes, there's the implication that's she's more in love with her home city than her rather opaque boyfriend.
Yet what an unwelcoming home it is. Armed squads of Israelis pass through almost every scene in the movie. When frustrated Rana prepares to smash her cell phone to the ground (still no answer from Khalil), they react as if it's a grenade. Later, she innocently forgets a shopping bag, which is mistaken for a bomb. Much of the film is spent driving between roadblocks, being turned back at barricades, and waiting in endless lines between the occupied territories and East Jerusalem. Rana must duck beneath stones, Molotov cocktails, and bullets on her stubborn quest, though she hardly becomes radicalized by the experience.
Instead, hers is a private sort of patriotism to an amorphous Palestinian cause. Even in the most extraordinary circumstances, ordinary life goes on. Not exactly a satire or comedy, part of Wedding's appeal lies in its almost mundane travelogue aspect—the centuries-old walled homes and courtyards; the colorful markets and shops; the diverse throng of Muslims, Jews, and Christians pressed together in Jerusalem's narrow, winding streets; the daily routine persisting, despite countless obstacles and absurdities. Even as a neighbor's house is torn down by Israeli authorities, Rana seems driven by a sense of citizenship and belonging; to marry Khalil will only strengthen her roots in the region. She's not poor or desperate or angry, nor does she act particularly humiliated at the constant Israeli checkpoints. It's more like she's impatient: In an ancient land of seemingly intractable conflict, she's got the life force within her, which—like nationhood, the film implies—will not be denied. (NR) B.R.M.
You See Me Laughin'
Runs Fri., Feb. 20–Sun., Feb. 22, at Little Theatre
The most powerful juxtaposition of artists in this documentary about R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, Johnny Farmer, and Asie Payton is not between the Mississippi Delta bluesmen and Iggy Pop or even Bono (both make cameos, describing their brief encounters with the underground juke-joint legends), but with the popular indie-rock band Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Spencer (a privileged white boy) and his band exalt, shamelessly rip off, and share stages with these true bluesmen, most of whom live in complete poverty. This strange and uneven relationship is only a small part of Laughin's story. It explores the lives of the untrained, innovative guitarists and musicians who make up the dirty South's true-blue and largely unheard sound—the underbelly of the B.B. King/Eric Clapton tradition lately come to light on the Fat Possum label. Apart from some performance footage, this insightful doc is made up of personal interviews and exchanges among the artists, their families, and Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson, who was so inspired by these reclusive talents that he bankrolled the company with the last of his college tuition money. Though spotted with some rather poorly recorded interviews, the film gives aficionados and novices alike a rough but intriguing portrait of the backwoods blues. (NR) LAURA CASSIDY