Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: Cheap Thrills

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Cheap Thrills 003RECOMMENDED

A filthy, nasty thrill ride, “Cheap Thrills” is the rudest defense of Traditional American Values in all too long. Brazen post-Haneke-Pinter-Tarantino misanthropy runs deep in a gutter. Man wakes up in the morning, he’s forgotten his dreams of being a writer, his wife and young child beside him—“The past six months have been amazing, I love the shit out of you”—as he sets out on his work day, finds an eviction notice on the front door over almost $5,000 in back rent, which he crumples on his way to his machine shop job, where he’s quickly “downsized.” So, down to the bar, where he (stolid yet supple everyman Pat Healy) runs into a disreputable cohort of five years back (Ethan Embry) just as he’s had enough of a snootful to face his family. Enter: a couple on her birthday (Sara Paxton, the unhinged but wondrously controlled, controlling David Koechner), with a pocket full of cash and increasingly humiliating, then mutilating “Jackass”-style challenges, first at the tavern, and later at their fine home overlooking the mute, glittering panoply of Los Angeles by night. All that happens is bloody and fucking awful and it’s a wondrous display. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Finding Vivian Maier

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Not a composition of the late, secretive Chicago photographer Vivian Maier is askew or amiss in her vast, breathtaking, even thrilling body of street photography, of which the public has only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg. Yet her life remains curiously unreachable in John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s brisk documentary. “Finding Vivian Maier” is partly about not finding her: the outsider remains forever distant. The film, executive-produced by Jeff Garlin, collects interviews from those who knew her in Chicago as a nanny who liked having her own locks to her room, but who kept her avocation, indeed, her great vocation, from view. Her cache of more than 100,000 photographs, with some yet to be developed, were uncovered by Maloof while haunting “a local junk and furniture auction house,” where he found and bought a box loaded with negatives. It was simply flea market provender, or worse, the kind of thing some auction houses immediately throw in the trash. Part of the film covers his accumulation of the rest of her work, which is, well, simply great. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Adult World

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An often-exquisite mess, Scott Coffey’s “Adult World” capably captures the pretensions and confusions of a certain age, in both fond and satirical fashion. Punchy and screwloose, his small satire follows Emma Roberts as virginal twenty-two-year-old college student Amy Anderson, modeling herself after Sylvia Plath, who seeks employment at a beat-down adult bookstore in Syracuse, while pursuing a mentor in the form of a beat-up punk poet played by John Cusack. “You can’t be a wunderkind after twenty-two,” Amy frets aloud. Read the rest of this entry »

Harold Ramis, Seeker

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RamisBy Ray Pride

“May he now get the answers he was always seeking,” Dan Aykroyd tweeted Monday, a few hours after the news of Harold Ramis’ death at sixty-nine.

I first met Harold Ramis back in the early 1990s through a friend from Second City, a writing partner, whom the older screenwriter-director had befriended when the younger man was a teenager in Los Angeles. But from our first extended conversation, around the time of “Groundhog Day,” it was clear that Ramis didn’t require  an introduction or connection in order to be generous: raising the temperature of the room, as well as the conversation, working from the top of his intelligence, was just the order of things. Six-foot-two, smile-wincing behind an ursine beard in later years, “The Rabbi,” as his ex-wife called him (see below), was a natural mentor and teacher as much as the fertile comedy mind behind movies like “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day.” Whatever the subject, he had something to say, even talking around an unsuccessful movie like 2000’s “Bedazzled.” My conversation with Ramis from the 2005 release of “Ice Harvest,” which is below, holds several poignant and pertinent reflections in light of the Chicago icon’s passing.

“You want to be some combination of Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Harpo Marx. That was my ideal,” he told Tad Friend in an essential 2004 New Yorker profile. Yet, even in the mediocre snapshot above, he rose above that hoped-for blend that would create the dashing clown: just look at the elemental generosity in his posture, leaning into a crowd of rapt listeners at a Columbia College event. In the New Yorker piece, director Jay Roach described the effect of Ramis’ best work: “You would watch people in the audience just lose their minds. Harold Ramis is the yardstick of what you want to reach for, of people’s bodies around you going into convulsions of joy while your brain is thinking and your emotions are deeply tied in to the characters, and you’re going, ‘Oh my God, This is the best two hours I’ve ever spent.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Lego Movie

3-D, Action, Chicago Artists, Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Romance No Comments »


Sometimes scheduling keeps a reviewer from getting to a movie before it opens, and sometimes, that’s just Awesome. In the case of the exceptional “The Lego Movie,” from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, getting to see their pyrotechnic computer-animated fantasia with a packed, thrilled, paying audience was a sweet treat, especially since its wall-to-wall Mad-magazine-like visual tapestry also draws subversively on any number of movies that would include but hardly be limited to the epic paranoia of John Carpenter’s “They Live” and “The Matrix,” as well as the Wachowskis’ most-misunderstood carpet-bombing of form, “Speed Racer.” (In the case of “The Lego Movie,” something is hardly rotten from the state of Denmark.) It’s not quite the communist insurrection that some commentators of predictable bent have called it, but it’s assuredly the most sophisticated release of the winter crop of new movies—simply cinema. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 24 Exposures

Chicago Artists, Horror, Recommended No Comments »

3- 24 ExposuresRECOMMENDED

In the Georgia-shot thriller pastiche, “24 Exposures,” veteran Chicago writer-director Joe Swanberg again questions the role of the artist versus those who are depicted via the story of Billy, a death-fetish photographer (Adam Wingard) whose path crosses that of a suicidal solo cop (Simon Barrett). While Swanberg has invoked the example of 1960s Euro-thrillers, “24 Exposures” hews closer to other cited influences, 1990s “Skinemax” thrillers and the boldly colored and plainly sexual work of Zalman King and the breast-baring films of Russ Meyer. Swanberg’s attraction to bold fields of color, such as in one wall in a room painted a hot, unlikely color, is akin to King’s sweetly marzipan sense of design. And the skin—the skin in “24 Exposures” is ample, both in Billy’s grue-strewn shoots and in sexual encounters with his girlfriend and the model of the day. Read the rest of this entry »

Family Matters: The Map To “August: Osage County”

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“August: Osage County” began life as stories heard and scenes seen by a ten-year-old Tracy Letts in Oklahoma, then took shape as a Steppenwolf ensemble production in 2007 before moving on to Broadway, before taking the Pulitzer in 2008. Now, in time for the holidays, Letts has adapted his three-hour family meltdown barnburner for the movies, providing rare verbal-physical performance challenges for film actors like Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin and Dermot Mulroney.

The plainspoken forty-eight-year-old Letts recently won a Tony in the role as George in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf,” and dared the early December Chicago cold to talk about the craft behind the adaptation of his sweltering familial meltdown. An early grace note at the top of the movie is a whiff of the great Sam Shepard, puttering around the house as a lost-to-fog alcoholic poet. “Nice, huh?” Letts says with a pleased smile. “He’s pretty good, that Sam. He’s pretty good.  If he had never been a playwright, I think he might have been a good movie star anyway.” Letts has quoted the great American playwright as answering the question, “Why family as a subject?” with “What else is there?”

Letts laughs. “I don’t know if that story is true or not, but…” But you said it was. “Yeah. No, it’s a quote I love to take and credit to Sam. Did you like the movie?” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Chicago Artists, Documentary, Recommended 1 Comment »


In the many years I’ve known Bill Siegel, I can’t remember a time he wasn’t talking or thinking about Muhammad Ali. Working as a researcher on Leon Gast’s 1996 “When We Were Kings,” as well as other projects like the six-hour-plus “Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story” (also 1996) that involved the three-time heavyweight champion, the Chicago-based documentary filmmaker became an expert on not only his athletic victories, but his political activism and commitment. Siegel was Oscar-nominated for the 2002 film, “The Weather Underground,” which he and Sam Green co-directed, and that film is sharp about political engagement and conviction, about idealism and legacy. Read the rest of this entry »

Reeling in The Year: Rebuilding Chicago’s LGBT Festival in Logan Square

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Interior. Leather Bar.

Interior. Leather Bar.

By Ray Pride

Even without previewing most of the titles, the schedule of the thirty-first edition of Reeling looks like a perky, provocative package, its seven days filled with gay, lesbian and transgender films with edge and humor, including the Midwest premiere of “Black Box,” Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone’s follow-up to “Wise Kids,” a range of documentaries, including Jeffrey Schwarz’s “I Am Divine,” and “Interior. Leather Bar.,” Travis Mathews and James Franco’s multi-meta imagining of a re-creation of as well as the apocryphal “lost footage” from William Friedkin’s “Cruising.” (The “contemporary” footage being rehearsed by Franco plays largely like a student-film conceit; the sexually explicit, music-driven montages as an extension of what Mathews has already accomplished with editing in his personal, sexually explicit work.)

After taking 2012 off to regroup, this year’s festival, Chicago Filmmakers executive director Brenda Webb told me recently that the eight days of programming, centralized at the Logan Theatre will be “tighter, with higher-profile films in a wider range of slots than before.” Reeling will use two 170-seat screens. “At the Landmark, Century we were in a 260-seat theater and a 100-seat theater, so we were able to program shows against each other that would appeal to very different audiences and we could take risks in the smaller theater because we didn’t need to attract a large audience. The programming is probably more evenly weighted for each screen and, therefore, the audience is going to have to make some very difficult choices. Read the rest of this entry »

Our City of Lights: Filmmaker John Rangel’s “The Girls on Liberty Street” is a Love Letter to Hometown Aurora

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John Rangel

John Rangel

By Eric Lutz

“My friends and I would always kind of half-joke about how in our class, more kids went to jail than went to college,” filmmaker John Rangel tells me over coffee on a sunny Friday morning in Logan Square.

We’re talking about Aurora, Illinois, his hometown and the setting of his brilliant new movie, “The Girls on Liberty Street,” which opens at the Chicago International Film Festival October 12.

“When I was in grade school, there were gangs and they would fight—they would fist-fight,” he says. “By the time I got to middle school, people started getting shot.  And then by the time I was graduating high school, it was machine guns and pipe bombs.”

Growing up, Rangel wanted nothing more than to get out of town. Read the rest of this entry »