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FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

The Whole Nine Yards

Getting to know your neighbor in suburbia can be treacherous business, especially if he's a hit man. In this case our timid homebody is Nick (Matthew Perry), a dentist trapped in a torturous marriage and saddled with debt. During the welcome-wagon congenialities he realizes that his new neighbor, Jimmy Jones (Bruce Willis), is really Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski, the notorious enforcer for the Chicago mob turned informant. What Nick doesn't know is that his conniving wife (Rosanna Arquette, appropriately over-the-top) has put a contract on his head. Is the hitter his new pal Jimmy, his incorrigible dental assistant (Amanda Peet), or some other John Gotti wanna-be?

Add to the uneasy buddy chemistry -- à la Analyze This -- between Perry and Willis an uproariously perky Peet and you create a charming comic veneer, but the other plot threads -- involving a Chicago posse en route to Montreal to take out Jimmy, Nick falling for Tudeski's wife (the ever alluring Natasha Henstridge), and the presence of Jimmy's sidekick, Frankie Figs (Michael Duncan) -- are largely detracting. The Eastern European accent Kevin Pollak sports in the role of a crime boss is atrocious, and the film needlessly spills over into multiple, post-climatic endings. The Whole Nine Yards doesn't go the whole 10. -- Tom Meek

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

Aviva Kempner serves up a loving portrait of a man whose Hall of Fame baseball career is matched only by his enduring status as a Jewish folk hero. Born in 1911 to Romanian immigrants in New York, Greenberg went on to become one of the greatest power hitters of all time with the Detroit Tigers in the '30s and '40s -- despite the yearly assaults today's hitters make on the record books, he's still in the Top 10 for most homers and RBIs in a single season. As the most prominent Jewish athlete in America, he also became a national symbol of Jewish pride during the rise of Nazi Germany.

Kempner's film is an ambitious montage of period footage, radio broadcasts, and contemporary interviews. (She interviewed 47 people, from Alan Dershowitz to a hilarious Greenberg groupie.) It never gets too reverential -- we learn that though he wore his cultural identity on his sleeve, Greenberg was not a religious man, that though his work ethic was legendary, he wasn't above a little sign stealing in the heat of a pennant race. And the film's portrait of a time when baseball was played "for no money, in the daylight, on the grass" -- as Greenberg puts it in interview footage -- is, of course, priceless. -- Sean Richardson

Reindeer Games

The Ben-and-Matt local team that soared to fame with Good Will Hunting has had some rough sledding of late. Taking the challenging higher road with his Talented Mr. Ripley performance (one of the best of the year, in this critic's opinion), Damon got stiffed in this year's Oscar nominations. Affleck probably wasn't thinking Oscar when he took on the role of Rudy, the ex-con patsy in the Reindeer Games, but his inability to buoy this film noir soufflé from veteran director John Frankenheimer is perhaps a more telling disappointment than that of his buddy Matt.

Rudy is an easygoing loser who doesn't quite have the moral fiber to resist passing himself off as his murdered cellmate Nick (James Frain) in order to make it with the latter's pen-pal girlfriend, Ashley (a scattered Charlize Theron). In true Hitchcockian tradition, he gets more than just the girl, as Ashley's brutish brother Jack (Gary Sinise, with biceps implants) forces Rudy into assisting with the robbery of the casino Nick used to work for. Many other strained twists follow, and it all would have been more plausible if Affleck didn't look if he were hosting Saturday Night Live. -- Peter Keough

Pitch Black

If you synthesized the key plot elements from Dune and Aliens, you'd get something roughly resembling Starship Troopers. If you did the same ineptly, you'd get this latest sci-fi thriller from writer/director David N. Twohy (The Arrival, Waterworld).

Vin Diesel, the shark with a heart of gold in Boiler Room, plays a similar character in an equally harsh environment -- Riddick, a sociopath imprisoned on a spaceship until it crashes on a barren planet. After some cops-and-robbers shenanigans, he turns out to be not such a bad guy, and he bonds with the crew and other survivors just in time to be main course for a horde of flesh-craving creatures. The good news is, the dino-bat beasties can't stand sunlight and the planet's three suns maintain eternal day. The bad news is that the crash takes place on the eve of a once-in-a-blue-moon eclipse -- thus the film's enlightened title. The alien and space-flight FX are impressive, and Diesel and fly girl Radha Mitchell (High Art) are likable, but the cheap cinematography and a story line that's been pitched too many times already signals a career in eclipse. -- Tom Meek

My Best Friend

No movie image could ever equal the late actor Klaus Kinski's megalomaniacal image of himself. The same is true of filmmaker Werner Herzog, which may be why their films together are their best. Their working relationship was adversarial -- to the point where, in one legendary story about the making of their shared masterpiece, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Herzog threatened to empty all but one of the bullets in his rifle into Kinski's head, saving the last for himself. That and other anecdotes of Kinski's operatic insanity and Herzog's long-suffering forbearance (to see the maker of the film Even Dwarfs Started Small in the role of the voice of reason is an unsettling sight) spark My Best Fiend, Herzog's memoir of his collaborator. Oddly listless given the subject and Herzog's mastery of the documentary form, Fiend's mélange of on-set footage and interviews nonetheless provides a glimpse into the creative process at its most extreme -- Herzog puts his crew in mortal danger in order to pull a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo even as native extras are offering to kill Kinski for being an insufferable asshole. Was the ranting and raving all for effect? As with the final image of Kinski being caressed by a butterfly, the beauty, even if it was all staged, is undeniable. -- Peter Keough

Judy Berlin

Now that movies are almost always in color, one has to wonder about the decision to use black and white. Sometimes it works -- in Clerks, the monochrome drew attention to the trenchant dialogue and captured the blah-ness of suburban New Jersey. Sometimes it doesn't -- Celebrity, say, where it seemed no more than a gimmick.

In Eric Mendelsohn's Judy Berlin, B&W makes the movie. Capturing in stark tones both the quiet desperation and glints of hope in a small Long Island town, Mendelsohn makes the wisdom of his choice apparent as the film climaxes against the eerie twighlight of a total eclipse.

Thirty-year-old David Gold, just returned from a dream-crushing LA defeat, is living with his mother (a superb Madeline Kahn in what must have been her last performance) and father in a seemingly unbreakable funk -- until he runs into Judy Berlin (The Sopranos' Edie Falco), an old school acquaintance. A goofy and spunky local actress, Judy couldn't be farther removed from David. Yet when she confesses to a high-school crush, the two spend an afternoon reminiscing and finding more in common than they expected. As the eclipse envelops the town in an eerie and magical gloom, David, Judy, and other townsfolk wander the streets, connecting with one another in almost Joycean epiphanies.

Judy Berlin is the kind of movie people should see more of -- I guess that's why it's in the Nickelodeon's Shooting Gallery Film Series. Falco is a joy as the boisterous title character (the rest of the cast, including Barbara Barrie as Judy's mother and Julie Kavner and Anne Meara, though wasted in tiny roles, are great too); she and Mendelsohn's masterful direction and the accomplished cinematography give beautiful life to this black-and-white world. -- Mike Miliard

Iditarod . . . A Far Distant Place

You have to go far afield to find unspoiled sport these days, and that's what local filmmaker Alice Bouvrie did in her genial, occasionally breathtaking documentary Iditarod . . . A Far Distant Place. The self-proclaimed "Last Great Race on Earth," Iditarod is an 1100-mile dogsled marathon from Anchorage to Nome that draws about 60 musher competitors, takes around 10 days, and has nary a Nike swash in sight.

Bouvrie follows three participants. Native American Mike Williams, "The Sobriety Musher," takes time out from the race to listen to testimonials from recovered alcoholics along the way. Forty-eight-year-old grandmother Lynda Plettner has a close relationship with her dogs that keeps her from pressing them to their limits. And dogged Mike Nosko seems an old friend to bad luck as he reflects on the saying that "dog-sled racing is about losing." None of the trio looks like a winner, and indeed suspense isn't a big part of Iditarod. Human interest is, though, as well as the stunning Arctic vistas. Especially haunting are the repeated night shots of dog teams, who, their eyes glowing, look like a cross between a feral wolfpack and commuters on I-90. Although it might have been more rigorous -- haven't these races been criticized of late for animal abuse? -- Iditarod is a comfortable way to answer the call of the wild. -- Peter Keough

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