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It blowed up real good: (l-r) Cruz, McConaughey and Zahn in Sahara.

Photo: Which one’s Pink? The Ramones in End of the Century.

Gabba Gabba Hey
By Ann Morrow

End of the Century
Directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia

‘They were like a joke played serious,” says Alan Vega of the first time he saw the Ramones. Vega, of the legendary Suicide, was the band’s “first fan,” and for the duration of End of the Century, the straightforward documentary on “the story of the Ramones,” there will not be a more succinct description of the band’s appeal. That the four misfits from Forest Hills couldn’t play their instruments gave the moronic irony of their songs even more chutzpah, and in short order, the Ramones became a phenomena in the New York City of 1974. Amazingly enough considering the influence of such ditties as “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the Ramones’ never had a Top 40 hit, or any real commercial success at all. They did, however, inspire several generations of consequential bands, from the Sex Pistols to Green Day. Beginning and ending with the band’s 2002 induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, End of the Century sets out to establish the lasting importance of the Ramones, which it does with obvious but unsentimental affection.

Using the standard format of talking-head interviews augmented by archival footage, the film follows the band from their earliest days onstage at “the bowery bar” (CBGB’s) to their landmark tour of England, to the glory years as punk avatars, to the sell-out phase with Phil Specter (who pulled a gun on them), to a comeback in South America, to an unspectacular breakup. Along the way, we get morsels of after-the-fact acclaim from the likes of Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, Rob Zombie, and the late Joe Strummer of the Clash. The vintage concert footage is primo, especially a raw, intimate version of “I Don’t Wanna to Go Down to the Basement,” and an electrifying 30-second clip of the New York Dolls that amply shows why the Dolls had a galvanizing effect on the newly formed Ramones.

There seem to be two rounds of interviews with the band members, one from what looks like the late 1980s and another from 2001, with Joey’s brother, a roadie, speaking for the ailing frontman, who died during filming. The reminiscing relies on heavily interpreted memories—except when memory fails altogether, as it sometimes does for the gleeful Dee Dee, who shows the ravages of his drug habit. At times, the film’s lack of factual depth is frustrating; however, the interplay of differing recollections (including those of manager Danny Fields and punk writer Legs McNeil) is often more revealing than any agreed-upon truth might’ve been.

One pivotal event was the theft of Joey’s girlfriend, Linda, by Johnny Ramone, who married her. The loss inspired some of Joey’s best songwriting (most amusingly, “The KKK Took My Baby Away”). Fiercely antisocial and coldly articulate, Johnny is the film’s strongest personality, and the one most responsible for the band’s longevity. Another involving theme is Joey’s transformation from geeky, freaky loner to beloved rock star. “Joey had to be a rock star,” says a friend. “There just wasn’t any other place for him.” And as the early footage shows, Joey’s ridiculously stork-like legs, splayed onstage, added to the Ramones’ greatly admired visual style. Still, compared to the public sympathy for Joey’s passing, Johnny’s death last year went practically unnoticed, which seems unjustified after getting to know him through this film. What End of the Century lacks in insight, it makes up for it in personality.

Women Are From Venus, Men Are From Fenway

Fever Pitch
Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly

OK, so I got a little teary eyed during the first few moments of Fever Pitch, in which 8-year-old Ben Wrightman (Jason Spevak, who grows up to become Jimmy Fallon), is introduced to the special heartache and, to some, irrationality of being a Red Sox fan. “Be careful, Ben,” warns his uncle Carl, “they’ll break your heart.” Whomever out there has arranged their schedule in order to catch a Sox game, or has played the game of stepping away from the TV or radio to get a beer, in hopes that your momentary inattention will inject just the right luck into a sagging ballpark effort, will no doubt think kindly upon this romantic comedy’s sweet paean to all things Fenway. And in this case, Ben’s pursuit of baseball novice and corporate up-and-comer Lindsay Meeks (Drew Barrymore).

Ostensibly based on the Nick Hornby book, which itself was about soccer fandom, Fever Pitch is an extended love story played out against the epic backdrop of the Red Sox’s 2004 season. At the point when that season begins, Ben and Lindsay are about six months into their relationship, having survived her friends’ initial suspicions that he seemed too perfect. “Look in his closet, check his drawers,” warns one gal pal. While such investigation turns up no kiddie porn or little black books, it does prove that Ben is a Sox addict whose sole designer motif is the Sox logo, and whose wardrobe is composed of authentic jersies and jackets. Hey, this is a guy who uses Yankee toilet paper. This doesn’t worry Lindsay, however, as much as seeing Ben on an ESPN piece about Red Sox Nation zealots. Her hitherto sweet, mild-mannered “Winter Guy” is transformed into a fired-up, raving Summer Guy who makes his friends perform crazy dances in order to share his season’s passes (courtesy of late Uncle Carl) with him.

That Ben’s addiction—not my word, but the script’s—comes to fruition at a time when Lindsay is frantically working to gain a sought-after promotion adds to the tension already mounting as the couple reaches that “what next” stage. Crucial moments, such as the meeting of the parents and, later, Lindsay’s pregnancy scare, must compete with that other drama, the pennant race. Viewers will have no trouble guessing what the ultimate conflict will be—the relationship or the team?—and will probably figure out the conclusion. And yet, directors Farrelly insert genuinely winning moments that somehow keep it fresh, like the night when Ben, for the first time in 23 years, forsakes the game in order to take Lindsay to her best friend’s Gatsby-themed birthday party. The two have an incredible time, culminating in immensely satisfying sex and Ben’s statement that this has been the best night ever. Then Ben’s friend Artie (Scott H. Severance) calls from Fenway, where thousands of fans are dancing the conga in celebration of the Sox winning on an eight-run rally in the ninth. Fallon, who just looks like a guy from Boston, is perfect in his depiction of ecstacy being snatched away in the jaws of the ugliest reality, and even though he hurts poor Lindsay in the process, we can’t help but feel his pain.

For her part, Barrymore is her usual winning self, no more so than when, realizing that Ben is about to make a huge sacrifice for her, she bolts across Fenway’s outfield, using Johnny Damon as a block between her and a security guard before hitting said guard with her crocodile purse. It’s silly, it’s surreal, it’s pure Sox devotion—even if it is a movie.

—Laura Leon

A Great Thespian

The Assasination of Richard Nixon
Directed by Niels Mueller

This we know: Sean Penn is a very fine actor. Though it’s become all-but-obligatory to praise him as “one of the finest actors of his generation,” it’s not inaccurate. In The Assasination of Richard Nixon, Penn turns in another detailed, nuanced and commited performance as Sam Bicke, a troubled divorcee who plots—albeit poorly—the murder of President Nixon. And we know this about the director of The Assasination of Richard Nixon, Niels Mueller . . . well, actually, not very much.

More experienced directors than Mueller would crawl over glass to get ahold of name talent such as Penn, Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, yet Mueller’s only previous credit was for the short-lived Fox series Great Scott!, starring pre-Spidey Tobey Maguire (a pal of Leo DiCaprio, who along with Mueller’s film school buddy Alexander Payne, is credited as executive producer—so much for expericence). This is not to imply that Mueller does an amateurish job behind the camera.

Mueller gives Penn plenty of room and camera time to unspool, allowing Bicke an unforced devolution from a cringing salesman burdened by impractically rigid ethics to a zealously confused and randomly murderous psychopath. He reinforces Bicke’s obssessions with the unscrupulous powerful by including in many shots TVs playing news broadcasts covering the Watergate hearings, the bombing of Cambodia, the raid on the AIM compound in Wounded Knee, and so on. Wisely, he also includes some character-appropriate comic bits to avoid complete bleakness. Watching the fidgeting and earnest Bicke in the headquarters of the local chapter of the Black Panthers, pitching that the group change their name to the Zebras so as to better include white sympathizers (“Membership will double,” he claims with salesman’s confidence), is a welcome relief. It also neatly underscores Bicke’s detachment from reality, and the doomed nature of his mission.

But Mueller may give Penn too much room. He is loath to take the camera off his lead, despite the fact that his movie is packed with worthy performances. Watts captures the appropriate begrudging sympathy and fiery frustration as Bicke’s ex; the brilliant Cheadle, as Bicke’s longtime friend and tentative entrepreneurial partner, with perfect casual naturalism tosses off some heavy lessons we know Bicke will not heed; Jack Thompson is a magnificent prick of a boss; and Michael Wincott is surprisingly effective as Bicke’s almost biblically dismissive brother, given the potential leadenness of lines like “I wash my hands of you.”

Penn’s method-enhanced muscles—a wince at the slamming of a car hood, a childishly twitching foot as he secretly lies in the bed that once once his, a tic at the corner of his mouth during a moment of decision—are as much the costars as any of the other actors. And, as evidence of craft, they’re impressive; but if they add realism, they don’t add a lot of depth or contribute to an understanding of Bicke. Given the fact that the movie is based on real-life events (“The mad story of a true man”), that desire for understanding may be even stronger than usual for some audience members.

The real Sam Bicke (who spelled it Byck, if you’re checking) took his actions for what he claimed were political reasons, he would avenge the little man on the corrupt powers that be and, in so doing, he would make a name for himself. He was unsuccessful on every front. The filmic Sam Bicke’s motivations are shown to be less political, more personal and clearly insane. What the two share is a kind of powerful, sad pointlessness.

—John Rodat

Desert Stormin’

Directed by Breck Eisner

The soundtrack for Sahara, a film of the Indiana Jones ilk, has a distinctly ’70s vibe, combining the Faces with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Dr. John, albeit occasionally accented with a sprinkling of African rhythms. The musical backdrop is no mere trip down memory lane, though, as it perfectly encompasses a mentality—it reminds one of what men were before Miami Vice, MTV and, well, hair product. Treasure hunters Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) are the kind of males once represented by Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Victor McLaglen in black-and-white movies that highlighted Y-chromosone action with the occasional, compartmentalized romance. They’re swashbuckling but not in the “hey, look at me” sense, preferring high-seas adventures with their nerdy computer associate Rudi (Rainn Wilson) and their boss, Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy), to scoring chicks. Indeed, Dirk and Al were probably considered geeks in high school, inventing gizmos and engaging in what are now considered extreme sports. Of course, these endeavors served them in good stead in the wilds of Nicaraugua, where they served in an elite Naval unit, and, ultimately, in the adventures of Sahara.

Based on the sprawling novel by Clive Cussler and directed by Breck Eisner (son of Michael), Sahara hums with its protagonists’ spirit of good-old American can-do-it-ness that is entirely appealing. It helps greatly that Eisner keeps his disparate characters and their seemingly divergent points of view pointed in the same direction, so the story is as cohesive as it is dramatic. Dirk and Al embark on a side voyage up the Niger River to look into sightings of a Civil War ironclad that is rumored to have made an incredible Atlantic voyage, carrying oodles of Confederate booty. In so doing, they come across WHO docs Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) and Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman), who themselves are seeking the source of a plaguelike outbreak. Throw in the mix a French industrialist, Massarde (Lambert Wilson), warring African despots, civil war, and looming international ecological catastrophe—all linked perfectly in terms of plot—and you have a full-throttle series of adventures. Eisner makes excellent use of his source material, with help from screenwriters Thomas Dean Donelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards and James V. Hart, but also shows remarkable ability to transition scenes of high volume action with romantic or comedic banter.

It helps greatly that the cast is, well, believable in their respective roles. McConaughey and Zahn’s aforementioned comedic banter seems an integral part of their longstanding friendship, and a believable outlet in tense situations, as opposed to, as is all too often the case, flip lines thrown out for the sake of great promos. It’s also nice that Zahn’s character doesn’t exist simply to be the butt of the joke, but is nicely developed as an individual. Cruz is credible as a doctor, and I don’t mean that because she wears horn-rimmed glasses, and her rapport with Dr. Hopper seems like a relationship born of long hours spent fighting for the same cause. That this entertaining plot relies so much on things that could be very real—dangers to the environment, warring nations, disease—makes it somehow more satisfying and infinitely more ominous than if it were completely cartoonish. The finale, in which everybody gets what’s coming to him or her, is the coup de grace in what deserves to be the season’s first bona fide blockbuster.

—Laura Leon

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