Film Openings

Week of March 1, 2007

Black Snake Moan. (R) It may be hard out there for a pimp, but it ain't too hard for a writer-director to make a movie whose marketing hinges on the lurid spectacle of Samuel L. Jackson pulling a half-naked Christina Ricci around on a chain. As in his Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer only allows himself so much nasty fun before it's time to issue his trick-turners their hard-earned redemption: Jackson's chain-yankin' Lazarus learns to temper his righteous indignation; Ricci's Rae, she of the belly-baring Confederate flag-tee and unclean panties, puts on some decent clothes and even reckons she might get hitched; and the filmmaker begins to direct his grindhouse fantasy of female enslavement as if it were Our Town. For Lazarus (or Brewer), scrubbing this bad girl's soul means not subjecting her to slavery so much as getting her to work in the kitchen, to sing "This Little Light of Mine" (no kidding), to appreciate a talking blues sermon about the hellfire horrors of abortion. Black Snake Moan never promised to be boring, but by God it is. After his camera has had its fill of ogling Rae, Brewer turns out to have nothing up his sleeve, nothing in his pants, and only a little on his mind — and none of it, amazingly, to do with race. (Rob Nelson) ARN, CGX, DP, J14, KEN, MR, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

The Lives of Others. (R) Set in East Berlin circa 1984, when one in a hundred citizens of the German Democratic Republic was a government informant, this aptly chilly look at communist surveillance culture could never have slipped past state security 20 years ago — even if it ends up concluding that a fastidious Stasi snoop (Ulrich Mühe) isn't beyond redemption. Peeping on an allegedly subversive playwright (Sebastian Koch) from the discomfort of a frozen attic, his huge headphones doing double duty as earmuffs, secret police captain Gerd Wiesler sits in his down jacket and . . . sheds a tear. More political intrigue: Has young writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck whitewashed the Stasi by giving his secret policeman the faint hint of a heart? Certainly the film suggests that East German totalitarianism had, before the end, acknowledged the error of its ways — which seems no less likely a scenario than that of rats fleeing a sinking ship. If the filmmaker commits a crime, it's in pushing the character's rehabilitation slightly too far — about as much as the weight of a teardrop. (Nelson) PF

Wild Hogs. (PG-13) This sitcom-shallow comedy imagines itself as an amalgam of St. Elmo's Fire, The Wild Bunch, and Deliverance — or so says smarmy, hammy Woody (John Travolta), whose supermodel wife has left him bankrupt and homeless. It's Woody who convinces his pals (played by Tim Allen, William H. Macy, and Martin Lawrence) to ditch their day jobs for a week on the road, traveling from Ohio to California in strip-mall-purchased leather pants and perfectly polished Harleys. Wild Hogs, written by a man who's done some Arrested Development episodes and directed by the guy who made Van Wilder, also fancies itself a sorta-sequel to Easy Rider; hence the last-scene cameo from one of that movie's stars, who shows up to apologize for the bad behavior of a biker gang that's lost sight of what it means to "be free." In that respect, Wild Hogs would have you believe it's a successor to Albert Brooks' Lost in America, in which an ad man ditches his comfortable, conformist existence to drop out and discover the countryside. But Brooks' film was a heartfelt send-up of the coddled yuppie who believes he was born to be wild. It was shot through with honest desperation, which made the jokes not only resonate but also redemptive. At least he knew he was being an ass. (Robert Wilonsky) ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, KEN, MR, OF, RON, STCH, STCL, TS12

Zodiac. (R) Reviewed in this issue ARN, CGX, DP, EG, GL, J14, MR, MOO, OF, RON, SP, STCH, STCL, TS12

 
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