Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: Big Hero 6

Animated, Family, Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

BIG HERO 6

If there’s any question about where Walt Disney Studios sees its future, gander at the family portrait in the mansion home of earnest slacker-fanboy Fred (voiced by T.J. Miller) about halfway through “Big Hero 6″ (named for the merchandise-friendly superhero group loosely based on a minor Marvel Comics team). In one of those wink-wink gags that makes chaperones think they’re seeing a more sophisticated cartoon (a technique perfected at Disney subsidiary Pixar, whose majordomo John Lasseter exec produces here, as with all current Disney-branded animation), Fred’s dad is none other than Marvel Comics (another Disney subsidiary) godfather Stan Lee. Not old Walt, the long-deceased studio founder who wired Mickey Mouse, Bambi and Snow White into our communal consciousness. Message to incubating fanboys everywhere? Disney’s world is Stan Lee’s going forward. (And in case the portrait joke is too subtle, there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that most of my Saturday morning screening audience missed, with Stan the Man in the animated “flesh.”)

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Review : Interstellar

Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

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The crash of two separate commercial spaceships barely a week before the opening of “Interstellar” had a poignant resonance for the film, which makes an unabashed case for spaceflight of the government-backed NASA variety. It argues, in effect, that giving up on the space program not only reflects a deadening of the progressive spirit of exploration imbedded in the American soul, but could potentially threaten the human race’s ability to survive in the long run. With this picture, set in a not-too-distant future where some unexplained but apocalyptic degeneration of the planet’s agricultural foundation has led to impending starvation of the species, co-writer and director Christopher Nolan shifts from the murky nether-regions of his “Dark Knight” outings to gaze heavenward. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)—widower, father and noble farmer—is haunted by his past as a pilot and our past as a society that once leaned toward enlightenment. Though McConaughey’s recent accomplishments on screens big and small have been of the ambiguously shaded, almost anti-hero variety, the only brooding uncertainty from this hero will be whether he made the right choice when he left his kids behind to head to space and save the human race.

In collaboration with DP Hoyte van Hoytema (“Her”) and production designer Nathan Crowley, Nolan’s cinematic craft is superb, and for two-thirds of its nearly three-hours running time, the film is an enthralling visual feast, a sophisticated exploration of contemporary astrophysics at its most mind-blowing. The interstellar imagery overtly recalls those “blue wonder” images of earth from space, those old IMAX movies about NASA missions; Nolan shot about a third of this picture with an IMAX camera. (See it big.) The earthbound visuals are just as engaging as deep space, with lush expanses of cornfields, farm houses and small-town suburbia. The post-America of “Interstellar” is unsettling in its calm and familiarity; its dust-bowl apocalypse seems far more likely than the usual armageddons. Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score is a character itself; sometimes drowning out the dialogue, then, at other times, receding to complete silence. That space is a very quiet place is one of the unspoken messages of the film, the kind of detail that enriches its experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

Romance, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

Ben Stiller has been talking up a film of James Thurber’s 1939 short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” for a very, very long time. And, $90 million later, here it is. The adaptation by Steve Conrad, which went through a claimed sixty drafts, is very much in the league of an earlier Conrad screenplay, “The Weather Man,” which took Chicago as a setting in a way that “Mitty” takes Manhattan and Iceland: Poignancy arises through small details not necessarily observed by an essentially passive milquetoast of a protagonist, but very much seen by the audience. Stiller’s Mitty is, well… a guy. (A guy who has some plot-convenient skateboard skills for a fifty-year-old office guy.) Playing a photo archivist, or, “negative asset manager,” for LIFE magazine, already defunct but about to go online-only in the world of the film, Mitty doodles and dawdles through the world, swept away by momentary bursts of special-effects fantasy while his life is changed by the presence of a cake made by his mother. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

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

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

“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: Computer Chess

Comedy, Mystery, Recommended, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Stoner No Comments »

569RECOMMENDED

Andrew Bujalski’s swimmingly strange and dense fourth feature, “Computer Chess,” is a valentine to all things analogue, a burlesque of masculinity, a stoner comedy, a New Age satire, and a contemplation of artificial intelligence. Taking place across a weekend tourney for teams of computer programmers dead-set on creating software that can beat humans at chess, the movie is flush with odd characters. When the first images shimmer onscreen, it feels for a moment, until you get used to the look, not that you’re seeing a time capsule, but are in fact transported to the 1980s, dropped right into the middle of this ratty, perhaps haunted motel, witnessing the slightly self-conscious dorkiness of computer whizzes caught on rudimentary, ghosty, silvery Sony video that a community college would have used to record a basketball tourney or a water district meeting. At first, the film looks like it wasn’t even made, that it just happened, and sat, shedding magnetic flakes on a closet shelf for decades. But along with a visual grammar that seems to be inventing itself as the film goes along—including blown takes, jumps in sound recording, inexplicable traveling shots and mismatched shots—it also becomes apparent that “Computer Chess”’ deep-ecology tech comedy is completely under control, never sacrificing an innate, lovely weirdness.  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Metallica Through The Never

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

CHAOS_0913_02021RECOMMENDED

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: Pacific Rim

Action, Recommended, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

prrkRECOMMENDED

Vivid pulp rumpus, Guillermo Del Toro’s monsters-vs.-robots (or “Kaiju” versus “Jaeger”) epic “Pacific Rim” is brimming, bursting, surging and punching with energy. It’s an amalgam of dozens of things I recognize, and surely hundreds more I don’t (drawn, in large part, from Del Toro’s own vast knowledge of both monsters and mecha, and robots and multiple cultures). Dialogue is pro forma without becoming rigid, largely because of the cast, including the one man who thinks he can save the planet from the monsters bursting from within, from beneath the sea, from an otherworldly vaginal canal, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba): “Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we’ve chosen to believe in each other… Today, the apocalypse has been cancelled!” (Shakespearean verve is indicated.) Character names thicken with unseemly delight. They’re masterful moniker mastication, on par with David Cronenberg’s strange-named strangers: brother Raleigh Becket and Yancy Becket. Father and son Hercules Hansen and Chuck Hansen. The Wei Tang triplets and the Kaidanovsky siblings. Mako Mori. Stacker. Pentecost. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Man of Steel

3-D, Drama, Recommended, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

MAN OF STEELRECOMMENDED

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: After Earth

Family, Horror, Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

1108146 - After EarthAs tens and tens of millions of dollars worth of family therapy and nepotistic eyewash, the Jaden Smith-solo-act-family-adventure “After Earth” sounded bleak from the get-go. Don’t care. Won’t care. Can’t care. Those forebodings briefly dissipated as the lights went down, but quickly, director M. Night Shyamalan did not fail to disappoint even with the lowest of expectations. Co-written by Shyamalan (“The Happening”) from a story credited to Will Smith, its faults include having its characters speak at all, alternating pseudo-technical doublespeak with affirmations about vanquishing damaging past memories from your soul. “Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” Who’s being indoctrinated here? Is this a teachable moment being offered up? A thousand years after humanity abandons Earth for “Nova Prime,” Jaden Smith plays Kitai Raige, scion of “Prime Commander General Cypher Raige of the United Ranger Corps,” embodied by his father, Will Smith, and his modest yet bustling thirty-first-century soul patch. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

3-D, Drama, Recommended, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

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RECOMMENDED

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 »