Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

The Devil, Probably: Good, Evil and the Return of Hal Hartley

Comedy, Drama, Recommended No Comments »

Aubrey Plaza as Susan Weber in NED RIFLE, directed by Hal Hartley

By Ray Pride

What was indie? What was this thing, “indie film”?

In the 1990s, Hal Hartley passed for it: a deadpan pasticheur from Long Island who liked French movies and poker-faced piquant variations in highly verbal comedies drawing from Godard and Gallic epigrammatists, dropping in complications a la screwball comedy with just a smattering of vulgar provocations. A modest, blunt, elemental visual style. Simplicity and directness. And catchphrases like “There’s no such thing as adventure and romance, only trouble and desire.” Yeah, that becalmed romanticism spoke to me and the yet younger me inside the movie-mad me. But indie didn’t last.

Hartley nourished a modest following—perhaps only a certain stripe of film critics? A few neurotic romantics here and there across the land?—with his 1989 debut, “The Unbelievable Truth” and on through “Trust,” the short feature “Surviving Desire,” “Simple Men,” “Amateur” and “Flirt.” While none of those movies made true money, Hartley’s earliest films were distributed by Miramax in that go-go decade for the Weinstein brothers’ first company, and even Sony Pictures Classics got into the mix with the Isabelle Huppert-starring “Amateur.” While there’s been a gap in both quantity and quality in his output, Hartley’s twelfth feature, “Ned Rifle” (a pseudonym Hartley has used for his minimal, melancholy scores) is out, partially financed by Kickstarter and primarily distributed on Vimeo with big-screen showings in a handful of cities including Chicago. I don’t want to even think of how few dollars are involved in an enterprise like this, which as a late-century debut might have been a $50,000 film and a couple projects along, a million-dollar one. But “Ned Rifle”? A confident yet very, very self-effacing fable. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: While We’re Young

Comedy, Recommended No Comments »

whilewereyoung7

RECOMMENDED

After he tries on a new personality borne of new, younger friends, “You’re an old man with a hat,” middle-aged Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller) is told by his stay-at-home dad friend, Fletcher (Adam Horovitz). In “While We’re Young,” his eighth feature, Noah Baumbach goes the Woody Allen ensemble route in a two-thirds likable variation of “Crimes & Misdemeanors,” in which two generations of documentarians search for “truth” and “authenticity” in different measure. Josh, frantic and at clueless loose ends as so many Baumbach protagonists are, is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), seemingly happy, soaked in wine and regret for not having had children. She’s also the daughter of an esteemed elder documentarian, whose mentoring Josh has rejected in the near-decade of working on an interminable documentary project about the notions of a weedy Noam Chomsky stand-in. Josh and Cornelia meet a younger couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), callow twentysomethings who open a window to the couple’s passed youth. Baumbach does a rich, comic job with the contrasts between the couples, capturing both middle-aged lightheadedness and callow youth with a simmer of sociological precision. (There are small, savory tastes of several other filmmakers here, notably Mazursky and Swanberg.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Chappie

Comedy, Political, Recommended, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Science Fiction 1 Comment »

chappie-wide

RECOMMENDED

“Chappie” is cheeky. Or, Punk as fuck, or maybe “Zef as fuck.” Co-writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s third Johannesburg-set feature is not the robot movie anyone watching the coming attractions might have expected. (The film’s pre-opening Wednesday-night screenings for critics across the country were followed by a wave of harsh, obstinate commentary on Twitter that meant to kill.) Many of the scenes, plus a wanton vocabulary of variations on “muthafuckah” and “Jesus Christ,” are more purposeful provocation rather than an internationally legible pop fable. (Along with some very suggestive sentiments about the mind-body divide.) Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: European Union Film Festival/Siskel Film Center

Comedy, Drama, Festivals, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »

eden

RECOMMENDED

The city’s most teemingly eclectic film festival attains its majority with its eighteenth edition: sixty-one new features from twenty-seven countries. Highlights include the Oscar-submitted films from six nations, including Hungary’s expressive canine fable, “White God” and entries from Austria, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Spain. New work by established directors like Ettore Scola, Jessica Hausner, Bruno Dumont and Christian Petzold are scheduled. Other highlights: “The Life Of Riley,” which may not be shown otherwise in Chicago, the final film by the great Alain Resnais, released when he was ninety-one, is another one of his meta-theatrical, semi-surrealist japes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Maps To The Stars

Comedy, Drama, Recommended No Comments »

Maps to the Stars

RECOMMENDED

In “Maps to the Stars,” the fluent severity of David Cronenberg’s frames (shot, as customary, by Peter Suschitzky) matches elegantly to the linguistically bedizened, behaviorally fetid prose of his good friend, novelist Bruce Wagner. (“Clea’s face was like a Tornado Alley weathervane—the tremble before the wild-ass spin,” reads a typical description in 2005’s “The Chrysanthemum Palace.”) This is not the Hollywood satire some have taken it for, but instead, a four-hankie dry weep for the soul of a society where sensation high and low cannot match urge and habit. (Incest; pistols; endangered pets; fire that burns but does not yet physically consume; Klonopin, Romeo + Juliet; fame! O fame; “deathless American icons,” self-delusion; the lurid as quotidian.) Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Inherent_Vice

RECOMMENDED

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 »

strangeRECOMMENDED

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 »

zeromotivationRECOMMENDED

“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

Comedy, Recommended No Comments »

TOP FIVE

RECOMMENDED

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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