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Monster ball: Documentary tests Bonds of sportsmanship

A Ben Franklin parable come to life, the long, strange saga of Barry Bonds’s 73rd home run ball began one October Sunday in San Francisco’s Pacific Bell Park and ended some 626 days later with a court-ordered auction at Times Square’s ESPN Zone. The ball’s ownership became the subject of a dispute between Alex Popov, who made the initial catch, and Patrick Hayashi, who wound up with the baseball after a brief scuffle. Neither an inquiry into which man was right nor the expected rueful meditation on greed in contemporary sports, Michael Wranovics’s entertaining documentary feels appropriately detached—the legal wrangling is depicted as low-level pomo drama, Temptation Island to the O.J. trial’s Survivor, and the c&w soundtrack suggests western showdown music. The tone is best captured by one Bay Area sportswriter’s wry comment that catching a valuable home run ball is “sort of like winning the lottery except you feel like you earned it.”

Up for Grabs mostly avoids easy targets unless you count Popov, an overbearing personality whose compulsive quest to parlay the catch into instant fame seems more important than even the money (if Hayashi seems the more sympathetic figure, it’s because we see very little of him). There are a fair number of “ain’t what it used to be” moments —we hear from the man who sold Roger Maris’s 1961 record breaker for $5,000 after offering to give it back for nothing—but the movie never questions the insatiable demand for sports memorabilia: As ever, the market is king. It’s enough to make baseball fans glad that, with Bonds ailing and the game entering its post-steroid era, we may yet be spared the spectacle of number 756. JOSHUA LAND


A HOLE IN ONE

Written and directed by Richard Ledes

Beech Hill, opens May 6, Village East

Reimagining material for a Sirk weepie through a bizarre, T.C. Boyle-ian prism, A Hole in One gives us Anna (Michelle Williams), a cheerless resident of ’50s “Icetown, U.S.A.” convinced the cure for all that ails her is a trans-orbital lobotomy. To modern eyes, Anna doesn’t seem like a basket case: Depression over the death of a soldier brother is perfectly normal, as is distress from dating a murderous gangster (Meat Loaf Aday). But there was no single profile for lobotomy patients in 1947, when Life magazine ran an article espousing the prefrontal’s success in curtailing mental illnesses. The sick joke at the heart of A Hole in One is that at that time, an image-conscious young woman might well have seen the lobotomy as a harmless personality enhancer. It’s a myth propagated by the movie’s inverse-Nietzschean villain, Dr. Harold Ashton (Bill Raymond)—based on real-life psychiatrist Walter Freeman, who traveled the country giving ice-pick demos. First-time writer-director Richard Ledes’s mystical tone and pervasive swipes from David Lynch tend to suffocate his satire, and stunt casting doesn’t help. (As the sociopathic Billy—”If my girl wants a lobotomy, she’s gonna get a lobotomy”—Meat Loaf seems to be acting in a different decade.) But for tackling ’50s repression from a weirdly original vantage point, A Hole in One deserves recognition as the rare debut feature with a brain. Or at least part of one. BEN KENIGSBERG


FIGHTING TOMMY RILEY

Directed by Eddie O’Flaherty

Freestyle, opens May 6, AMC Empire 25

Outrageously sentimental and retrograde, Fighting Tommy Riley could have benefited from some serious vetting by GLAAD. The titular hero (J.P. Davis, who also scripted), a short-fused rough trying to restart his boxing career after a disastrous bout at the ’99 Olympic trials, comes under the tutelage of Marty (Eddie Jones), a middle-aged former marine corps ring champ who’s gone to fat, with only a pug, Pepperidge Farm cookies, and SSRIs to soothe him. During training Marty quotes Melville and Kipling, and whisks the dumb hunk away to his lakeside cabin—where a rubdown reveals the coach’s lavender leanings. The pugilist shakes off gay panic by humping his girlfriend; the doting mentor indulges in a fast-food orgy. The fate of FTR‘s lonely, self-loathing homosexual will be familiar to those who remember Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Dobie in The Children’s Hour. MELISSA ANDERSON


LE GRAND ROLE

Directed by Steve Suissa

First Run, opens May 6, Quad

It’s difficult to dislike a movie in which someone muses whether the U.S. will bomb Paris after a Hollywood director is kidnapped by a group of French actors. Chuckle-worthy jabs at American cultural imperialism aside, Le Grand Rôle has little to offer except a maudlin love story that ironically feels like a Tinseltown tearjerker facsimile. Fortysomething bit actor Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) gets his big break playing Shylock in a Yiddish-language film of The Merchant of Venice. When the American director (Peter Coyote) dumps him, Maurice spares his terminally ill wife the truth by pretending to report to the set every morning. Director Steve Suissa spells out the acting metaphors for the cheap seats but leaves subtler points of intrigue unexplored. Is the chaotic Jewish/actor milieu a reference to Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn? And is Coyote’s bearded über-director a Spielberg parody? In any event, the ridiculous movie-within-the-movie deserves more screen time, if only to balance the wretchedly sentimental (and unintentionally Spiel-bergian) finale. DAVID NG


XXX: STATE OF THE UNION

Directed by Lee Tamahori

Columbia, in release

Sequentially inaccurate though utterly irresistible, the winking title X Cubed somehow eluded the makers of this sequel, along with plot coherency, character development, or clever explosions of genre convention. Strike that, run it back: Explosions abound, along with expository dialogue and a ham-tastic triad of performances from Sam Jackson, Willem Dafoe, and Peter Strauss. That said, a movie that posits the secretary of defense as prime enemy of the state and kills off Vin Diesel can’t be all bad.

Saved solely by Ice Cube’s gentlemanly thuggish persona, the film flirts with political relevancy, subversive race-relational comment, and self-satire, alas with no consummation. (Though the line “The fate of the free world’s in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves” does make a brotha say, “Hmm . . . “) Instead, director Lee Tamahori bull-charges through scene after scene with the charismatic Mr. Cube applying his unique brand of blunt ghetto minimalism to engaging effect, even as XXX2 plunges headlong into preposterousness. Had the inspiration behind the inclusion of a real photo of a Jheri-curled, N.W.A.-era Cube in his character’s background file been maintained throughout, perhaps XXX2 would feel less like an Xzibit-aided exercise in ride pimping. PETER L’OFFICIAL