Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Working With the “And”: The bleak, bruised tragic power of “Winter’s Bone”

Drama, Recommended, Thriller No Comments »


By Ray Pride

Fierce, lovely and tender, “Winter’s Bone” is an improbable triumph, a lyrically spoken Ozarks-set thriller, drawing from the best instincts of B-movies, the art house and even Greek tragedy: It’s a Southern Gothic Western with a teenage girl as the Sheriff.

And what a 16-year-old agent of justice Ree Dolly is, brilliantly embodied by Jennifer Lawrence. Set in disadvantaged rural southwestern Missouri, “Winter’s Bone” sends her on a journey to find her dad, a recidivist crystal-meth cooker who’s jumped bail. If her missing father isn’t found before his court date, Ree, her invalid mother and a younger sister and brother will be homeless. She runs a gantlet of neighbors and relatives in hopes of finding him, crossing long-held social boundaries of a town with much to keep submerged.  John Hawkes’ ominous portrayal of Ree’s uncle, Teardrop, is a marvel as well. Ree is trying to solve a mystery, so there’s a locomotive of need and action propelling the film. But everything from costume design to lived-in settings deepen and enrich the story. And a rare gift: Spoken language, precise as the blade of a knife, gorgeous yet apt, lifts centuries of history to the present day. Sample exchange: “Are you going to kill me?” “That idea was talked about.” (Chilling on the page, turns like that are intimately epic on screen.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Breathless

Comedy, Drama, Recommended, The State of Cinema, World Cinema 1 Comment »


The Godardian knot: how can a nifty movie fifty years on seem so fresh? For its immersion in signifiers: of snips of pop culture passing for personality. Flip, fluid “Breathless” (Á bout de souffle), in a celluloid restoration with updated subtitles (with no current plans to replace the recent Criterion double disc) is kinetic sculpture in its form, its willful jump cuts (seldom seen in 1959) making light cubism of its story through editing. Drawing from the gangster cool of Bogart and doomed couple-on-the-run romanticism (from films like Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy,” which used street locations with the same kind of punch), Godard, the film critic and intellectual, made splendid play of film grammar and fine faces. Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), thick cigarette drooping from his full lips, smoke coiling across his thick boxer mug, is irrationally infatuated with American student Patricia (Jean Seberg), the grandmother of all “manic dream pixies,” peddling the New York Herald Tribune on Parisian streets. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s crunchy, granular black-and-white images (shooting with film meant for 35mm stills) are accompanied by the occasional tracking shot blatantly taken from a wheelchair being backed through pedestrian traffic. Godard was 30 at the time, and the 1960s would be filled with worship of muses like on-and-off-again love/wife Anna Karina, but his love of Jean Seberg’s slender neck is as cruelly erotic as anything he’s ever shot: positioned in a convertible’s back seat, her head three-quarter turned away, Godard photographs her as the eternal present, the center of all things, as the sights of Parisian street life stream past in a sustained series of jumpcuts. Director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose portrait of Montmartre nightlife, “Bob the Gambler,” gets a joke reference, appears as a pretentious novelist whose ambition, he says, is to become immortal, then die. He pulls down his sunglasses and the warm, huge pools of his eyes fix on Patricia. The sphinx, flustered, turns away, and as the image fades, faces us. 97m. (Ray Pride)

“Breathless” opens Friday at the Music Box.

Review: Audrey the Trainwreck

Chicago Artists, Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Romance, The State of Cinema No Comments »


Life’s a grind, but it’s better than the other option, right? The lovingly bruised “Audrey the Trainwreck” is a melancholy meditation on early-onset adulthood, told through the interactions of two young depressives who may be tumbling toward a relationship,  characters adrift in their own ways, hoping for love, or perhaps just a little reassuring simplicity. Chicago writer-director-editor Frank V. Ross’ fifth feature is freighted with the heightened ordinary and his comedic and dramatic instincts are wrapped in a rare concern for the lowered expectations of the modern middle-class. “I can say I’m not afraid of anything, because there’s a lack of options,” one character says; the observation is dry, even though it’s coming from a resigned place in her heart. Ross’ most intriguing pattern is how the everydayness of the jobs and pursuits are interrupted by bits of conflict and violence or unexpectedly apt humor. (In life and in drama, inertia needs to be punctured.) The violence is, well, funny. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Comedy, Documentary, Recommended No Comments »


The mask behind the mask: more than the inside softball of hagiography, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is as forthcoming as the veteran performer’s rudest, funniest jokes. With a work ethic like few others, Rivers continues to work small clubs night after night at the age of 75; one of her greatest fears is the white of blank spaces in an appointment book. Rivers’ feelings about her looks, her body, the desire to still be loved, is expressed with unceasing fury. Does she work blue? And how. But some of the most touching material involves the setbacks she’s suffered, from losing the mentorship and friendship of Johnny Carson to the suicide of her husband. Stern and Sundberg’s earlier films include the wrongful conviction doc “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and the Darfur genocide film “The Devil Came on Horseback.” What makes the pair suited to following this comedian around for fourteen months? Observational skill, compassion, distance. They’re stellar ethnographers of this tribe of one. There are surely more layers, yet the woman who’s revealed here is a brash intelligence whose days as a red carpet-auction channel hawker are only a sidenote, not the centerpiece, of what she’s accomplished across a long lifetime. Plus: this is one blazingly funny film. Even at her age, it’s still id stuff. 84m. (Ray Pride)

Review: 8: The Mormon Proposition

Documentary, Political, Recommended No Comments »


Narrated by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), Reed Cowan’s “8: The Mormon Proposition,” highlights the ongoing danger of California’s ballot proposition law. In this case, it’s the matter of money and volunteers flooding that state to eliminate the California marriage equality law, a vast volume of cash and foot armies from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The film is shaped by talking-head interviews, but its strength lies in the revelation of hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents, including emails,  detailing strategy and recordings of Elders urging action. The church’s leader, the Mormon Prophet, issued a call for members to “[donate] your means and time to preserve the sacred institution of marriage.” (“Means and time” is a promise made by members to the church, “code,” one subjects says, for the potential loss of eternal life.) The battle was joined. It’s a chilling story, told in subjective fashion. Would you expect the Mormon Church to participate? As troubling as vast political funding by religions against secular society is the implied larger picture: money, rivers of it, decides the course of contemporary politics. It’s an unholy alliance. 80m. (Ray Pride)

“8: The Mormon Proposition” opens Friday at Siskel.

Review: Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders

Documentary, Recommended No Comments »


One of the most committed of non-governmental humanitarian organizations is the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders (founded as Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF). Mark Hopkins’ fine documentary, “Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders” was made with uncommon access to the group that “provides emergency medical care to populations in distress,” as Hopkins sums it up. “It never occurred to me Doctors Without Borders would be anything less than delighted at my interest,” he writes. “I tried not to let it show on my face when they told me, very politely, I was the twenty-sixth filmmaker to have this bright idea. And as for being embedded with them, I was politely shown the door.” But persistence paid off, and the in-the-trenches portrait of the human part of the humanitarian effort is bracing: this isn’t a fictional narrative that builds to simple uplift nor is it a puff piece for the organization. It’s a portrait of a handful of committed doctors working under the worst of circumstances in Congo and Liberia. (The film was also shot in France, Kenya, Pakistan and Malawi.) I’m still in awe of Geoffrey Smith’s portrait of a single, singular doctor, “The English Surgeon,” which shows a doctor returning again and again to perform brain surgery under fraught conditions in Ukraine. “Living in Emergency” is, of course, more of a mosaic, yet its underlying sentiment is one of hope, even with closing titles that MSF treats ten million patients, but that there are two billion people worldwide without access to medical treatment. HDCam video. 93m. (Ray Pride)

“Living In Emergency” plays Siskel June 20 at 6pm; June 21 at 8:15pm and June 23 at 6pm.

Review: Toy Story 3

3-D, Adventure, Animated, Family, Recommended No Comments »


An exponential increase in peril faces a community of toys who talk and walk when  people aren’t around. In 1995, the American boy Andy who owned the toys was only moving to a new house. In 1999, when Andy went off to summer camp, a collectibles dealer preyed upon toys destined for a Tokyo museum. Lee Unkrich directs the third Disney/Pixar G-rated animated adventure, and ratchets up the stakes for toy solidarity and survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Horrid Shows: What, and who, is behind our bad-movie obsession?

Horror, The State of Cinema 4 Comments »

Best Worst Movie

By Leor Galil, with another take by Ray Pride

In the trailer for the new movie “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” the film’s hero celebrates a million-dollar deal with a high-five from a co-worker. That money is an achievement, a goal people think about endlessly.

It’s something recent DePaul University graduate Patrick Dowell ponders from time to time. And Dowell knows just what he’ll do with that cash.

“I just wish I had one-million dollars: I’d buy every bad movie ever made if I could,” Dowell says.

Dowell is not alone in his love for bad cinema. People across the country have been packing movie theaters at midnight for decades to see these oft-terrible films. Though the phenomenon surrounding bad movies, and their role in cult film culture, is nothing new, it’s seeing a sudden resurgence.

“I don’t remember ten years ago there being this kind of new, must-see midnight event,” says Brian Andreotti, the program director for the Music Box, an independent Chicago movie theater. Read the rest of this entry »

Shades of Bray: A critic’s perspective on the authenticity of incompetence

The State of Cinema 1 Comment »

Glen or Glenda

Paul Schrader, who wrote “Taxi Driver,” began his film career as a critic. The genesis of his script for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 picture came as he read the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the man who hoped to kill presidential candidate George Wallace. Bremer had seen a not-so-good film by then-fading auteur Otto Preminger, and Schrader was impressed by Bremer’s descriptive oomph: it was like “a plastic flower stuck in dogshit.”

As a longtime movie reviewer, I’m still a full-on Pollyanna before the lights go down. All right, all players: show me cards. Once the lights come back up, and out of the screening room and onto the street and out of earshot of other professionals, it’s best to be as judgmental, condescending and angry as a bad film deserves. Readers usually remember the harshest pans of a movie anyway, instead of the laciest love letters to something beautiful. But that’s not the same thing as having a masochistic attraction to the baleful and failed. Splendid junk exists, and there has to be ample room for the strange, the pulpy, the unexpectedly weird and wonderful work. The late critic Manny Farber championed “termite art” versus “white elephant art,” a matter of the best instincts of journeymen directors twining something lovely or lifelike, fevered or feral, across the carpentry of genre material. “Good work usually arises where the creators (Laurel and Hardy, the team of Howard Hawks and William Faulkner operating on the first half of Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’) seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture,” Farber wrote in 1962, “but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” Read the rest of this entry »