Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: The Lego Movie

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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: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

3-D, Animated, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »


“Smowwwwg.” “Smowwwwg.” Okay. “Smowwwwg” it is. The once-diverse career of fifty-two-year-old New Zealand filmmaker-turned-fantasy impresario Sir Peter Jackson is now given over to the seeming never-to-end, near-shapeless multiple entries in his ongoing Tolkien sagas. I haven’t added up the running time of the entire long march, but as with the first of three “Hobbit” films drawn from the 320-or-so pages of the novel about a small forest creature who only wants to find his way home, the mind finds ample space to wander. Never a fantasy fan, I’m most intoxicated by the scale of Sir Peter’s fiscal accomplishment. (As well by the fact that his Hitchcock-like cameo in “Smowwwwg” takes up about four seconds of the film’s first ten seconds.) All glory to New Zealand! Without even taking a quick swoon at the figures behind the “Lord of the Rings” movies, the first “Hobbit” outing, “An Unexpected Journey” grossed a reported $1,017,000,000 worldwide, a figure that usually returns half the amount to the studio, and which does not count the endless offshoots on video. In October, Variety reported that the three films, with one still in post-production, have cost at least $561 million, which means there’s a fine chance everyone will be in profit (except New Zealand taxpayers) after the theatrical run of “The Desolation of Smowwwwg.” It’s awe-inspiring industry, coming from the barefoot boy from Pukerua Bay, as if he had built the railway, crafted the trains, refined the fuel and produced the goods that would ride the rails. How many men in all history have commanded such industry, mastered so many forms of logistics? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Gravity

3-D, Action, Drama, Recommended No Comments »


“’Speed’ in space”?: Sandra Bullock is a strong woman in peril in the darkest of darkest houses, the expanses of outer space and beyond. Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D IMAX thriller takes the most complicated means to tell the smallest story, the highest concept of pitches, and to make it seem graceful, inescapable and simple. “Life in space is impossible” reads one of the cards sprinkled at the start of “Gravity” and its epic opening shot that captures three astronauts on a spacewalk making repairs on the outside of the space shuttle. As with the movie’s many extended takes, Cuarón varies point-of-view, moves from epic panoramas to close in on his characters: the fluid result should keep all but the most aware from realizing that there hasn’t been a cut for over ten minutes. In a sense, “Gravity” is an animated film, as the illusion of the vastness of space and weightlessness wouldn’t be as lyrical without the intense construction behind the scenes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Metallica Through The Never

3-D, Action, Horror, Musical, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »


Hungarian-American director Nimród Antal (“Kontroll,” “Predators”) joins hands with the members of Metallica (James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo) for “Metallica Through The Never.” Shot in 3D on a 360-degree stage at a fistful of Canadian stadium shows, with twenty-four swooping, darting cameras on cranes and jibs, as well as cameramen behind 3D Steadicam rigs that dart around the edges of the frame, strange and Taurus-headed figures. It’s fluid work, but the movie also intersperses wordless scenes of a young roadie, Trip (Dane DeHaan, “The Place Beyond The Pines”), on a mission to retrieve a mysterious satchel on quotidian but post-apocalyptic late-night Canuck streets outside. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Man of Steel

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With its radical shifts in tone from scene to scene, “Man of Steel” is as much a study in schizophrenia as a portrait of a misunderstood thirty-three-year-old superhuman sent down to save the world and the fates of a seventy-five-year-old comic book character. The constant is whirling mayhem and Christopher Nolan-scale gloom. While director Zack Snyder has his own way with brooding and blackness, the stern hand of co-producer Nolan presses down. David S. Goyer’s screenplay takes full advantage of the familiarity-unto-banality of Superman’s origins, flashing forward and back at will to underline his origins. Any true origin story, however, would take a more secretive shape that audiences will never know: the dealings in blandly gleaming conference rooms amid grande lattes and fistfuls of fiscal projections as calculations are made of the potential of 3D upcharges, Russian and Chinese repeat viewers and the revenues from compulsive cycling of product placements. That would be the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” of origin stories: seemingly dry but of endless fascination in its gestural minutiae. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

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It took a couple of days and an errant first draft after seeing “Star Trek Into Darkness” to realize that what I found most galling at first is in fact thrilling, glorious subversion by allegory. Sure, JJ Abrams liberally imposes his goofball digitally created lens flares; his action scenes aren’t exceptional at spatial coherence; and the reign of male-pattern bathos is interspersed with comic callbacks to touchstones from nearly fifty years of “canon” derived from Gene Roddenberry’s stories, as well as four television series and eleven feature films. There are bright colors, a camera style of no fixed address, and a pace that moment-to-moment is “fun,” aided immeasurably by a lovingly manic score by Michael Giacchino (“Alias,” “LOST,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” “Up,” “Super 8,” “Star Trek”), capable of striking notes that range from fear to giddiness in the same passage and always capable of being bigger than the biggest CGI explosions aloud in space, but never bigger than the love that Spock has for Man, I mean, Jim. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Great Gatsby

3-D, Drama, Recommended, Romance, The State of Cinema No Comments »

Baz Luhrmann, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio.


I never expected Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” to feel understated, but it’s almost demure at times. While busy and jumped-up, it’s as much about trappings of luxe, the secret life of brands. (The brands include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay-Z, Tiffany & Co., Miu Miu, Prada, Brooks Brothers, Fogal of Switzerland, Moët & Chandon, and of course, Baz Luhrmann.) Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio: none of this trio of dreamers, schemers, adulterers and enablers feels like a grown-up, only playacting children rather than Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan. (Even DiCaprio’s pronounced laugh lines fail to make him seem Gatsby’s age of thirty-two.) But Gatsby’s mannered way of speaking, a made-up accent of uncertain and variable provenance, is annoying, transparent and wholly appropriate. As is our introduction to the elusive Gatsby’s full face, gleaming and golden and fireworks-festooned like the most grandiloquent Suntory whiskey ad ever storyboarded. Such freighted momentousness is endless, the acting erratic, sapping even Mulligan’s sorrowful kitten-cum-coquette intonations of quiet despair. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Oz The Great And Powerful

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Who was Professor Marvel, long before he met Dorothy in the sepia-toned opening of “The Wizard of Oz”? He is Oscar Diggs (James Franco) in “Oz The Great and Powerful,” directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man,” “The Evil Dead”). Set in 1905, this delectable 3-D fantasy adventure starts in black-and-white. Oscar is a cad of a carnie magician who knows Dorothy’s future mother prior to her marrying Dorothy’s future father. To flee a furious circus strongman, Oscar boards a balloon and lands in a colorful widescreen Oz. (That’s the same balloon that Professor Marvel refurbished to leave Oz at the end of the 1939 film.) Three characters from Kansas are doubled in this new “Oz.” One is a girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who implores Oscar: “Make me walk.” He cannot, blaming “a distemper in the ether tonight.” Later, in Oz he will succeed in gluing the broken leg of a plucky China doll voiced by King. Inhabitants see in Oscar’s name and descent from the sky a prophecy come true. “You are going to fix everything,” exclaim the oppressed of the kingdom. Read the rest of this entry »

Bored of the Rings: Beginning Middle Earth in “The Hobbit”

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By Ray Pride

All the characters in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” just want to get home. Me, too!

In the first installment of his three-part digital video adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 95,000-word precursor to “The Lord of the Rings,” set sixty years earlier, co-writer-co-producer-director Peter Jackson makes it through six chapters of “The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again” in just under three hours. The final product, finished in 2014, then with extra footage added, as is Jackson’s custom, should amount to a ten-hour or so running time. (Has it ever taken anyone taller than an elf that long to read the 270 or so pages of the book?)

In its present incarnation, “The Hobbit” is exhibited in a numbing number of 3-D formats, including an accelerated frame-rate (HFR) double that of regular projection. (Reportedly, that fashion looks a lot like events shown on badly adjusted flat-screen TVs in sports bars; I’ve only seen the “Real 3-D” version.) “All good stories deserve embellishment,” we’re told. And while to this non-initiate, the relentlessly eventful pageantry, crammed with protean design elements, feels erratic and overinflated, leaning all too heavily on the reverent invocation of names of places, battles, weapons and off-screen characters, “The Hobbit” should bring pleasure to those predisposed to follow those who fear the dragon “Smaug.”  (Yes, you know who you are.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rise Of The Guardians

3-D, Animated, Recommended No Comments »


Kids face a crisis of faith in “Rise of the Guardians,” a beautifully detailed and thoughtful  3D adventure from DreamWorks Animation. Faith matters. Around the world for the past three centuries, the imaginations of children, nurtured by parents and picture books and PG-rated films, maintain North, AKA Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin), Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the voiceless Sandman and the bogeyman who goes by Pitch, the King of Nightmares (Jude Law), who put presents under Christmas trees, hide painted eggs at Easter, swap coins for teeth under pillows, bring sweet dreams, and inflict nightmares, respectively. Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is a new recruit to the Guardians of Childhood, as the aforementioned pantheon (minus its nemesis Pitch) is called. In the opening scene, Jack swims to the surface of an icy pond. The moon is his beacon. It turns him eternal and invisible. His new magic staff lets him fly about, freeze water, raise winds and cause precipitation. He bestows “snow days” on school kids. Jack will share issues with Jamie (Dakota Goyo), an all-American mortal. (Their moms are all voiced by the same actress.) Together, they deal with belief and unbelief. Jack and the other imaginary beings are in jeopardy when the Globe of Belief, a GPS points-of-light counter of believers, identifies Jamie as the very last one on the planet. “Rise of the Guardians” takes its mythology more seriously than the recent films: the contemporary “The Tooth Fairy” and “The Santa Clause 2″ and “Clash of the Titans” and “Wrath of the Titans,” set in pre-Christian antiquity. Read the rest of this entry »