Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Hey Hey In The Hayloft: The Preston Sturges Whirl Of “Hail, Caesar!”

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coen hail

By Ray Pride

I miss medical marijuana.

Not so much the stuff itself, more so the women I’ve known who partake and partake, and then watch and rewatch Coen brothers movies. It goes all the way back to, duh, “The Big Lebowski,” a movie that grated on me at first turn, at an advance Manhattan screening the night before interviewing the bros. Coen, where I was entirely sober and straitlaced and my tumultuously laughing, giggling, snorting then-girlfriend was baked within an inch of all her five feet tall. She got it and was gotten good, and explained afterward what I missed with increasing exasperation. It clicked the next day when most every entreaty I offered up to the writer-producer-directors was met with grins and giggles, a smokescreen entirely befitting that particular picture.

The latest Joel and Ethan Coen joint is “Hail, Caesar!,” superficially a satire of the entitled, juvenile doings behind the scenes at an apocryphal 1950s Hollywood studio, Capitol Pictures, modeled in matters small and large after the Melrose Avenue landscape of Paramount Pictures (and MGM, too). In a way, it’s like what might have been going on back at the studio while Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” film director was out on the road looking for so-serioso subject matter.

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Review: The Lady In The Van

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In Nicholas Hytner’s “The Lady in the Van,” Maggie Smith stars as “Miss Shepherd,” an unwanted neighbor of playwright Alan Bennett, a homeless woman who parks her caravan in his London driveway for fifteen years. Brusque comedy ensues as Bennett adapts his own memoir and 1999 stage play and Hytner shoots the story at Bennett’s home and its Gloucester Crescent locations. (Hytner also directed Bennett’s earlier screenplays, “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys.”) As an elevated microcosmic portrait of the classic English eccentric, tended to by a less eccentric observer, “The Lady in the Van” is particular and ultimately piquant. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Perfect Day

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Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa’s grit-bomb comedy, “A Perfect Day” subjects aid workers in the post-war Balkans of 1995 to drip-drip-drip absurdism. An NGO team for “Aid Across Borders,” led by Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins (with Olga Kurylenko and Mélanie Thierry along for the bumpy ride) alternate grue, boo-hoo and bountiful bad, loud music choices. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mustang

Comedy, Drama, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »


“Everything changed in the blink of an eye. One minute everything was fine, then everything turned to shit”: this is the opening narration from the mouth of Lale, the youngest of five headstrong orphaned sisters in “Mustang,” a provocative yet joyous celebration of the power of female agency. A self-conscious fairytale, it’s one of 2015’s smoothest, most confident directorial debuts, superficially a Turkish “Virgin Suicides,” but very much the thirty-seven-year-old Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s own wild creature, drawing upon western European cinematic sensibilities as well as the verdant yet rustic setting in a Turkish backwater, Inebolu, a town on the Black Sea 600 kilometers from Istanbul. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Band of Robbers

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Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are all grown up in Aaron and Adam Nee’s “Band of Robbers,” a gamy heist film transposing Mark Twain’s characters to the modern day—Huck’s just out of stir, Tom’s a cop—as well as to a world where colorful, crooked, working-class characters seem to have mainlined Wes Anderson movies, not limited to “Bottle Rocket,” and the likes of “Napoleon Dynamite” since the womb. Read the rest of this entry »

Love Is But A Dream: The Hope To Be Loved Alone In “Anomalisa”

Animated, Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Romance No Comments »


By Ray Pride

Michael is a weary middle-aged man, a motivation expert who flies overnight to Cincinnati to address a customer service convocation, where the attendees know him for his most recent book, “How May I Help You Help Them?” Charged moments come from the seemingly commonplace: A perfunctory call to his wife back in Los Angeles, an impulsive call to an ex and an ill-advised drink, meeting a sweet, younger, seemingly uncomplicated younger woman, a baked-goods customer-service rep named Lisa (a tenderly winsome Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s admired him from afar. Simple, except that “Anomalisa” is stop-motion animation, turned to the very adult means of fleshing out a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman that began as a staged “radio play” for three voices. The combination of simplicity and intricacy make the strange, thrilling “Anomalisa” discernibly a Charlie Kaufman object, as refined and diamond-dense as his directorial debut, “Synecdoche, New York” was sprawling. We talked about the movie a few weeks ago, along with his co-director and animator Duke Johnson.

The group I saw the movie with was ecstatic afterward. How exuberant and joyous have people been talking to you about the movie?
Kaufman: Many people weep. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Hateful Eight

Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Political, Western No Comments »


What a nasty, nasty, nasty, nasty piece of work. (Nobody’s called it “The Tasteful Eight.”) “The Hateful Eight,” the customary Quentin Tarantino mashup of influences high and low is, at the very least, an admixture of the gamesmanship of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” (first published under the piquant title, “Ten Little N—–s”), the role reversals of “In the Heat of the Night” and the setting and explosive jolts of John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” All is artificed, from each and every spoken word, to the physical production, to the extravagant 70mm “roadshow” exhibition. With calculated recklessness and hostility, Tarantino again invokes atrocity to brandish batshit levels of physical mayhem and nervy nihilism. (Slavery, the Holocaust, this.) The violence is effective: there’s enough even before the intermission to consider an alternate title, “3:10 to Salò.” But spend a few days thinking about it rather than resting on a first reaction, “The Hateful Eight” appears to have more than malice in mind, aspiring to be about the lies we tell as a culture that is even more bent on revenge than Tarantino’s career litany of avengers. Read the rest of this entry »

Attention Should Be Paid: Adam McKay on the Origins of “The Big Short”

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By Ray Pride

Reviewing Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” one of 2015’s best, I called it a “bristling, bustling farce-cum-polemic,” we got a chance to talk about it a few days later while McKay was showing the film to local friends and relatives in the city where he got his comedy start. Under the handle “GhostPanther,” McKay has been a provocative Twitter user, mixing absurd observation, political umbrage and “just a little NBA,” he adds.

Your approach, the tonal riot that you’re tempting in most of your movies, and especially now in “The Big Short,” is a barrage—it’s like Twitter or the flood of other contemporary social media. But mediated. The film takes on the form avidly of the river of information that a viewer can’t necessarily interpret and can become bewildered by.
Yeah, sure. What I wanted this movie to have was, there’s been all kinds of Wall Street movies that have that kind of perfect suits, marble walls, stationary kind of look, and these guys, the heart of our story is, these guys are not like that: they’re loud, they’re anxious, they don’t make eye contact, bad clothes, bad haircuts. So I really wanted the movie to have that feeling that they had when they went on this horrible roller coaster ride. Which is why I got [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd. So you get that energetic, anxious feeling. We wanted to infuse the movie with the kind of twenty-four-hour pop-culture noise, with the Ludacris videos, the clips from movies and the news, that’s really where the [celebrity “experts”] explaining [complicated financial maneuvers] came from, too. We wanted to use pop icons as part of that constant Kardashian haze that we’re all in. What would happen if they actually told you worthwhile things? You’re right, there is a Twitter flow to it, but also I was very happy when we started screening the movie, people were understanding the progression of the financial schemes. That bewildering wall of information could lose a lot of people. But so far we’ve been getting good reactions. People seem to get the backbone.

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Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Do. Or do not. There is no try. Take your money, they shall. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams’ best movie by fourteen, well, maybe twelve parsecs, will satisfy most and annoy few. “Force” is a sleek machining of a platonic ideal of a memory of George Lucas’ original trilogy, after pleasure seeps into recollection and over generations becomes warm vapor, pop-cult hallucination. Any twinges of nostalgia are countered with bittersweet awareness of the ravages of time and the leaving of life.

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Review: The Big Short

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Adam McKay’s bristling, bustling farce-cum-polemic about the guys who foresaw the 2008 banking meltdown coming in the form of the subprime mortgage scam is filled with rabble-rousing goodness and the kind of intelligent but off-center laughs you hope to land from the director of “Anchorman.” Based on Michael Lewis’ chronicle, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” McKay and Charles Randolph’s screenplay is an agreeable riot of tones, including direct address to camera by characters, montages of pop culture and unlikely cameos where difficult financial topics are briskly explained. (And it’s hilarious.) Read the rest of this entry »