Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Something’s Gotta Give: “Fifty Shades Of Grey” Is A Subversive Romantic Comedy

Comedy, Recommended, Romance No Comments »

Fifty Shades of Grey

By Ray Pride

Nowhere near wet and baring not a sign of chafing, Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s sanding down of the rank, rankling crudities of E. L. James’ bestselling repurposed “Twilight” fan-fic trilogy, “50 Shades Of Grey” still shocks, but instead for its light-handed sense of humor rather than settling for being a clinical depiction of the acts (and actions) of B&D and S&M and a recitation of the insipid, run-on interior monologue of the book.

Also, depicting callow corporateer Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) as a blank object of desire for college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Christian is also little more than a petulant stalker, a privileged predator, making demands and gestures for her erotic attentions, and the power games are turned in almost every scene. Where the Irish Dornan struggles with an American accent and to come across as a fully fleshed human, Johnson’s performance is breezy and calculating, and effortless charm brims from each moment she’s playing that player. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Inherent Vice

Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Stoner No Comments »



For his seventh idiosyncratic feature, Paul Thomas Anderson situates “Inherent Vice,” Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 fractured fairytale of private eyes, lingering love, the power of overlapping narcotics, and the death of the sixties in his birth year of 1970, to fractiously comic but almost militantly melancholy ends. In the novel, Pynchon describes that small moment when radical hopes and stoner joy had punched a hole in the sky as “this little parenthesis of light.” In Anderson’s adaptation, nearly as rife with cross-references and richly oddball dialogue as Pynchon’s prose—liberally invoked both spoken and in narration—comedy and tragedy align in the lovelorn figure of P.I. “Doc” Sportello, a doofus in a daze rendered with the most precise of physical acuity by Joaquin Phoenix in 1970s-era Neil Young drag, replete with a munificence of muttonchops. Perhaps not-so-jokingly, Anderson has cited Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker productions like “Police Squad” in finding a visual style for his actors to inhale and pop within: the bumptiousness of the sight gags on screen ranges from “Police Squad” non-sequitur to wide frames filled with action-reaction that are worthy of silent comedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Strange Little Cat

Comedy, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »


Three siblings attend a peculiar family dinner in “The Strange Little Cat” (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen), Swiss writer-director-sound designer-editor Ramon Zürcher’s precise, economical seventy-one-minute debut. Its story is a playful, minimalist variation on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and while reminiscent of the work of Chantal Akerman and similar rigorous filmmakers, in its own confined way, it’s even a little like Jacques Tati’s “Playtime.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Zero Motivation

Comedy, World Cinema No Comments »


“M*A*S*H” meets “Mean Girls” on the way to “Office Space”? A pair of apolitical young female soldiers at an artillery base in the south of Israel long to escape their remote posting as well as the inanities of military bureaucracy in Talya Lavie’s smart, cheeky comedy, “Zero Motivation.” The comic results are mixed, but Lavie knows her way around the topic of boredom, and co-stars Dana Ivgy and Nelly Tagar’s expressive reactions to a world of tedium, without promise, offer wide-eyed relief as “Zero Motivation” grows increasingly dark. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Top Five

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Middle-aged man faces crisis; sober man wonders if he’s still himself; “rigorous honesty,” a la AA, “rigorous fucking honesty,” runs riot. I don’t know if “Top Five” is great, but it’s the first comedy since “The LEGO Movie” I’ve found myself in simple awe of: ragged and rumbustious, assured and sincere-seeming, it’s, well, awesome. Chris Rock’s frank, personal, semi-autobiographical, ferociously twenty-first-century comedy feels like its own special animal, all sorts of goodness and bluntness and, okay, bright even brainy greatness, with equal parts “Annie Hall,” sometimes-collaborator Louis CK’s “Louie” and a little bit of “City Lights” and Cinderella and more Chaplin (“the Grandmaster Flash of haha”) by the way of Jerry Lewis by the way of Chaplin’s song, “Smile.” This sweet small crazy blunt bittersweet dirty fucky comedy vaults in every moment into a superior comic stratosphere. (With minor, wheedling cavils about whether some attitudes are the characters’ or Rock’s: there’s a bit about a white man’s wiggly-woggly-waggly ass as eye-widening as the horrendous female feet in Reggie Hudlin’s “Boomerang.”) The slipstream structure of flashbacks within “Top Five”’s single-day narrative of a comedy star doing press with a New York Times journalist (Rosario Dawson) just as his first serious film is opening leans adventitiously upon “Annie Hall,” but Woody Allen has never cut to the quick with throwaway lines like Rock’s “It’s hard to fuck somebody on a pedestal.”

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Review: Force Majeure

Comedy, Drama, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »



“Force Majeure,” Sweden’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film, is a movie that’s even better on a second viewing, when its dramatic craft is more apparent yet even more compelling. Set at a French ski resort, Ruben Östlund’s brilliant white-on-white black comedy is a precise, exacting psychological horror about the fissures in a bourgeoisie Swedish marriage, highlighted after a split-second’s reaction to a “controlled avalanche.” “How do human beings react in sudden and unexpected situations, such as a catastrophe?” Östlund has written of what he rightfully describes as his “existential drama.” “The story concerns a family on holiday that witnesses an avalanche and the father runs away, terrified. When it is over, he is ashamed because he has succumbed to his primal fear.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Nightcrawler

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Shot in a few weeks of nights across Los Angeles, “Nightcrawler” has two topographical advantages. There’s the glittering gulch of Los Angeles by digital dark, sheerest shadows coming to life as the camera crisscrosses the glittering, malign shape of its story. As shot by Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Michael Clayton”), the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) makes the low-to-the-ground desert city look like a parallel to the hellish landscapes of 1970s New York City in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” The greatest range of topography, however, plays over the gaunt features of Jake Gyllenhaal, eyes wide, nearly unblinking, cheekbones like a hungry wolf. His Lou Bloom is a lone wolf, too, a nattering autodidact, out of work, who finds his calling in snaring news footage for local news that others recoil from: bloody, up close and yet impersonal. “Nightcrawler” wears its influences on its sleeve, its “Taxi Driver” citations not limited to an interview scene that’s patterned after Travis getting a job at the taxi garage. Lou’s a bit of a Rupert Pupkin, too, a king of comedy in his own mind, brash, making promises that fall from his tongue as fast as his mind can fashion them. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Listen Up Philip

Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Romance No Comments »



Alex Ross Perry excels at assholes. Impenitent, intransigent, intelligent, intolerable assholes. In his black comedy of family relations and toxic romance, “The Color Wheel,” (2011) he even plays the male lead, to disarmingly appalling effect. In Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s “La última película,” Perry plays a post-Dennis Hopper American drifting in and out of Mexican villages and landscapes to shambling effect. But his third feature finds uncommon, remorseless focus in its portrait of two driven writers from two generations who intend immortality for their words, but also to out-Philip Roth Philip Roth at every potential antagonistic bad-boy, bad-man turn. Listen up, indeed: while “The Color Wheel” drew on the inspiration of Roth’s work, Perry cites the novelist William Gaddis as a great influence on this film and its jaundiced view of artists’ behavior. There’s incendiary comedy in the fierce hostility of young-ish New York writer Philip, and Jason Schwartzman, also a specialist in intelligent but hostile male characters, with streaks of sweetness beneath misguided cruelty, has invested himself in a role among roles. Philip is his own truest antagonist, and he’s pitted against his literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who offers him the use of a summer home upstate to complete a project. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Birdman

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Birdman street


A rollicking meeting of Hitchcock’s “Rope” and Jimmy Kimmel’s couch, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” [punctuation sic] sizzles, scintillates, teases, taunts, barks, brays, preens and careens as a simulated single-take of almost two hours, sending up showbiz and its shallowness in profane if shallow style, but also the fractured, electrically flawed brain of its middle-aged protagonist, washed-up screen actor turned Broadway debutante Riggan Thomson (a fine, furious Michael Keaton). Thomson’s adapted, directed and stars in his own rendition of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It sounds like a bad idea, but in the acting and enacting, it’s a terrible one. Opening with credits that ape the font and fashion of high-pop 1960s Godard movies, propelled by a smashing, crashing percussive beat like that of a Times Square street-corner drummer, “Birdman” is self-reflexive, self-important, overwrought, half-baked and completely glorious.

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Review: St. Vincent

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Shameless? Fuck yeah! Writer-director Theodore Melfi’s “St. Vincent” (a script born as “St. Vincent De Van Nuys”) stars Bill Murray as an elderly, whiskey-brined war veteran who keeps his cards close to his chest, seeming like the grumpiest of neighbors in the dumpiest of houses, but whose secret inner life will slowly be teased out only by the efforts of one clever young lad, Oliver (prehensile straight man Jaeden Lieberher), who moves in next door to him in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. Tooled within an inch of its precious life, Melfi’s cliché-dandling script pushes buttons in the most satisfying ways, wringing both laughs and unlikely tears from the meeting of man and child, of man and boy who will, of course, become a fantastic man after a series of adventures—racetrack, tavern—that pass for babysitting. But with a few lightly R-rated, filthy jokes in between. The sixty-four-year-old Murray works his magic as a figure who exemplifies dignity through douchebaggery—That’s Mister Misanthrope to you—but the great fortune of the script, and of viewers, is its function as a platform for Murray’s effortless grace as a performer, as the most maximal of minimalists. Read the rest of this entry »