Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: The Unknown Known

Documentary, Recommended No Comments »



After a February screening in Boston, a questioner led Errol Morris to this insight about the circumlocutions of the subject of his latest film, Donald Rumsfeld: he speaks fluent Jabberwocky. Rumsfeld prides himself on his history of battering underlings by memo, dictating his every scrap of inkling of thought, tens of thousands of them, soft, insistent patterning of conviction onto others, via what he calls “snowflakes.” This led Morris to tweet his own perfected snowflake: “All mimsy were the unknown borogoves And the known mome raths outgrabe.” Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem runs a mere 167 words, but “The Unknown Known,” Errol Morris’ interrogation of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense and a principal architect of the most recent, failed Iraq War, runs 105 minutes (drawn from thirty-three hours of interview). For Rumsfeld, language is for self-justification, obfuscation and condescension. Reciting memos, recollecting memories, Rumsfeld is steadfast and unflurried: this is how it occurred. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Finding Vivian Maier

Chicago Artists, Documentary, Recommended No Comments »


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: Anita

Documentary, Recommended No Comments »


Academy Award-winning documentarian Freida Lee Mock’s “Anita” is an old-fashioned, blunt documentary that shares the straight line of purpose of her earlier work, including “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner.” (It’s the kind of doc that would work almost as well on the radio.) The 1991 confrontation between law professor Anita Hill and a Senate committee began as she outlined sexual harassment charges against Clarence Thomas during his nomination hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. (We know how one part of that turned out.) Hill talks openly about what led her to testify, and how that affected her own career. Sexual harassment remains an issue, and “Anita”’s shortcoming is how little it reflects the wider scope of how Hill’s circumstances reflected (and still reflects) society at large. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Particle Fever

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For different audiences, “Particle Fever” could be recommended by a different pair of words, including those attracted to the title; “Higgs-Boson” and, not least, “Walter Murch.” The mercurially minded sometimes-translator of poetry from the Latin, philosophical ponderer and Academy Award-winning film and sound editor, whose work shaped “The Conversation,” “The Godfather Part II,” “The English Patient” and “Apocalypse Now” applies his substantial skills to a compelling, often dazzling account of four years in the work of six scientists who are part of the launch of the most expensive scientific experiment yet to be built, the CERN Large Hadron Collider, hoping to discover the nature of the “God particle,” or the Higgs-Boson, as well as existence itself. It’s a factual thriller. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Missing Picture

Documentary, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »


(L’image manquante) Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Missing Picture,” is the first from his home country of Cambodia, and as in the intent filmmakers’ work, it takes on the violent recent history of his homeland directly, but also obliquely. Panh’s family was murdered by the bloody Khmer Rouge, and his earlier films like “S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine” (2003) have valiantly fought to recapture a time that could be lost to history. Revisiting memories of his own youth, Panh strikes out in untraditional direction, combining photographs and black-and-white footage from the country’s propaganda files with tableaux of clay figures created by artist Sarith Mang. Read the rest of this entry »

The State of Things: Looking Into the EU Film Festival

Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Recommended, Romance, World Cinema No Comments »

YoungandbeautifulBy Ray Pride

A beautiful French teenager turns to prostitution, no explanation given. A Romanian film director prepares in the days before shooting a film: language is worse groundwork than silence, especially with women. In a dark club, a man must scream, and does.

If there’s one thing in common among the films I’ve been able to sample from the 17th Annual European Union Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center, with sixty-four features from twenty-six countries, it’s simply that the storytelling dispenses with backstory, there’s a lot less about increasingly distant wars of the twentieth century, and that many of them seem like reports of the moment, emotional weather reports, simple, sometimes elegant statements of the state of things. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Visitors

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Produced in a retina-searing grayscale widescreen format, Godfrey Reggio’s very, very cold “Visitors” ought to be seen from as far away as possible, perhaps at the back of an orchestra hall where Philip Glass is conducting the score live, or, depending on your taste for this kind of eye-dandy eye-candy, from several blocks away, with many thick walls blocking the view of the latest philosophical staredown from the monk-turned-film-essayist of three decades who compiled “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi.” In the press notes, Reggio describes one element of his project: “My novice master taught me when I was still a teenager,” Reggio says, “that if I wanted to see that which was most present, most ordinary in my life, around me all the time, that I must stare at it until it looked unusual. And that’s held with me through life.” An accumulation of seventy-four shots (seventy-two of them hidden trick shots) composed in 4K high-definition, “Visitors” begins with a close-up of a female lowland gorilla, Triska, staring toward something, in effect, toward us. Challenging the audience. The close-up of the human (or simian) face, c’est cinema. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Kids For Cash

Documentary, Recommended No Comments »

Judge Civarelli is about to hear from a wronged parent.


An investigation of a tragedy beyond ordinary comprehension, Robert May’s first documentary as director, “Kids for Cash” stands out in the daily seethe of stuff that hurts in the world. Was the world always this awful? Is the Internet largely a perpetual outrage machine? Of all the sorts of stories about injustice, indignity, exploitation and sheer gall that litter the data packets coursing across the web, the ones about the mistreatment of children, and the blind eye turned toward bad acts, are the worst. It ought to be pretty simple: you mess with one child, any child, you are messing with the future. Pollute the streams, frack the fields, foul the skies, but when you cynically exploit the lives of kids, such as, oh, a successful and worshiped college sports coach, say, turning a blind eye to child rape? The. Worst. “Kids for Cash” documents a horrific judicial scandal at shocking scale, that of the exploits of corrupt judge Mark A. Ciavarella, a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania jurist who imprisoned over 3,000 children for petty infractions, and who, along with a fellow judge, profited from each and every one of his acts, to the tune of millions of dollars from the for-profit juvenile detention centers where they were dumped. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Gardener

Documentary, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »


In “The Gardener,” his first feature in three years, the valuable, exiled Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf documents his visit with his son, Maysam (also his cinematographer and editor) to the gardens of the headquarters of the Baha’i faith in Israel. The screen blooms with beauty: Makhmalbaf and his family of fellow filmmakers have always filled their screens with rapturous imagery. Questions of religious belief are, as would be expected with Makhmalbaf, intertwined with elements that obliquely reflect the character of cinema and how we receive storytelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tim’s Vermeer

Documentary No Comments »

TV10Teller’s documentary, “Tim’s Vermeer,” like Penn & Teller’s long-running cable series, could also be entitled “Bullshit!” Film historian David Bordwell’s enthusiasm for the film is infectious: “Sometimes you sense that a film is made especially for you, and you expect to enjoy and admire it well before you see it…. It involves Penn & Teller, two demigods of mine; it’s about art and technology; and it investigates the possibility that a painter used optical devices to create glowing, mysterious images. In the process, it reawakens the controversy around David Hockney’s thesis in ‘Secret Knowledge’ that many old masters were employing lenses and mirrors to render nature with unprecedented richness. I wasn’t disappointed. It was the most intellectual fun I’ve had at the movies in the last year.” Man, I wish I could marshal that enthusiasm for what’s on screen. I recommend Bordwell’s piece for its keen appreciation, and reaction exactly opposite of mine. Read the rest of this entry »