Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: Inherent Vice

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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: Computer Chess

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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: Meek’s Cutoff

Christmas, Drama, Recommended, Reviews, Stoner, Western No Comments »


Rugged yet austere, the pioneer drama of “Meek’s Cutoff” is rich with rarefied satisfactions. Some audiences will get little from its apparent minimalism; others will find quiet, deep satisfactions. Like her earlier “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” (also written by fiction writer Jon Raymond), Kelly Reichardt honors the impulses shown in even her earliest films like “River of Grass” (1994). Simplicity, framed, slowed, kept to a mysterious and somehow ominous tempo. A Sundance 2010 debut, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a Western both otherworldly and somehow ordinary-seeming, set on the Oregon trail in 1845. Things could go wrong, couldn’t they? Something about the landscape, food, water. The female characters’ faces are kempt, restrained by bonnets, the fashion of the time. There’s a tempo of faces, including the remarkable Michelle Williams, emerging from confinement. The film moves less like a dream or nightmare than a trance: a slowed hallucination. The instructions of a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) are not translated; the settlers don’t know the language, so we don’t either. “Meek’s Cutoff” is an original, and brave simplicity combined with a reverential sense of mystery holds ample reward. The loving, lovely cinematography is by Christopher Blauvelt, shooting in clear-eyed style in the classic, square frame of the “Academy” ratio of 1:33.  Jeff Grace’s wonderful score is better heard than described. With Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson. 104m. (Ray Pride)

“Meek’s Cutoff” opens Friday at the Music Box. A trailer is below.

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Review: Your Highness

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Of all the things I’ve read while trying to figure out what on earth to say about “Your Highness” since seeing it last Wednesday, filmmaker Michael Tully, who’s a friend of writer-director David Gordon Green and observed the making of the stoner comedy, made the most spot-on observation: “I honestly don’t know how anyone could write a review of it. And not because it’s too awful or too great for that. It’s that something this insane mocks the very logic of critical interpretation by its mere existence up there on the big screen… ‘Your Highness’ plays like the crass fantasia of a pair of smart-ass adolescents who get into a riff-contest in after-school detention over the idea of hijacking the set of a proper medieval action film—these smart-ass adolescents being genuine disciples of said genre, that is—and spraying a can of stink bomb all over it.” My version of Tully’s note: screenwriters Danny McBride and Ben Best (“The Foot Fist Way,” 2006) and Green chose a low target and hit it repeatedly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

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With a blank-page disregard for Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult film also called “Bad Lieutenant” and its similar premise, Werner Herzog’s off-the-rails portrait of a drug-addicted cop in post-Katrina New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage in the feature role, borders on dark comedy with a joyous embrace of bleak absurdity. Cage’s bad, bad lieutenant ingests every ounce of dope he can get his bankrupt hands on while struggling to solve a horrendous multiple homicide, protecting his upscale hooker girlfriend from abusive johns, settling his gambling debts and making the most of his relationship with his alcoholic father. In a perpetual haze of drug-fueled oblivion, moral lines are drawn simply to be snorted up with glee. (“I snorted what I thought was coke but turned out to be heroin” is but one choice line.) Herzog’s balance between cop drama and subversive goof makes for fearless storytelling—the lieutenant’s proclivity for reprehensible behavior, taking advantage of his position of power, sends chills, and Herzog’s jaunts with iguanas and alligators are inspired. This is a hard-luck town that was once nearly all but forgotten. Nicolas Cage delivers one of the best performances of his career, offering exultation and frustration to those aware of the work of which he’s capable. The film’s finale offers a splurge of unexpected uplift that teases the soul. With Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham, who somehow steals one scene away from Cage. 121m. (Tom Lynch)

Review: Extract

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Mike Judge’s titles are pretty straightforward: “Office Space,” “Beavis and Butthead Do America,” “King of the Hill.” And his latest, the cheerily reprobate “Extract”? It’s his most basic yet. Even without its subplot of testicular endangerment, the writer-director distills all manner of dispirited maleness. Joel Reynold (Jason Bateman) wants to sell the business he’s built from the ground up, hoping to rekindle his relationship with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) and get away from supervising a factory floor packed with numbskulls. Confiding in best friend Dean (a bewigged Ben Affleck), Joel hatches a drink-and-drug-influenced plot to prove Suzie’s fidelity… right about the same time as short-shortsed, sociopathic con-artist Cindy (Mila Kunis) shows up. Think: a Texas “Trouble in Paradise” meets “Idiocracy.” More drink, more drugs, more deadpan conflict.  And Marriage misunderstandings, neighbors who are proprietary bores, young men who don’t get older women, middle-aged longing for the “new” one: men reduced to their crude essence. While seriously deadpan, “Extract” has passages that play with social discomfort to the point of hilarious agony, such as the neighbor from hell you’d like to see drop dead, played by David Koechner. Judge’s pacing may not be to every taste, but there are more than a few great laughs in “Extract.” Plus that ear he has for weird dialogue: a distracted doofus after a kiss has been refused at lakeside in moonlight: “Look at all them mallards. I knew I should’ve brought the Mossberg.” While Wiig is underused, Judge does make ample note of her very shapely legs. With Beth Grant, a restrained J K Simmons and a loathsome lawyer embodied by a slit-eyed, dead-eyed Gene Simmons. 91m.  (Ray Pride)

Review: Taking Woodstock

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Director Ang Lee trips lightly for gentle comedy on upstate New York counterculture. In 1969 the poster read: “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarian Exposition in White Lake, N.Y.; 3 Days of Peace & Music.” Longtime Ang collaborator James Shamus adapts the 2007 memoir “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, A Concert, and A Life” by Elliot Tiber (with Tom Monte). The screenplay makes passing though telling mention of the Stonewall Inn riot and does not follow Tiber’s life after the so-called Woodstock Nation decamped. While Robert Altman could have made an ensemble docudrama about this communal, collective fest, Lee and Shamus center on Elliot Tiber (comedian Demetri Martin), a boyish tourism booster who offers his summer festival permit to Woodstock’s organizers. Read the rest of this entry »