A Paul Greengrass movie that’s thematically understated, tense hostage drama “Captain Phillips” holds its cards very close to its chest. For an hour or so, the particulars of the opposing sides in the 2009 hijacking of the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama by a band of Somali pirates is sketched in through studious cross-cutting. While Greengrass films like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “United 93” have a forceful physical delirium, this one bides its time. But Billy Ray’s screenplay is deft, and the parsing of particular lines lingers: “Where are the elders?”; “You are more than a fisherman. You are more than a fisherman”; “The coward is the first one in the grave.” About an hour in, though, much hell breaks loose. Greengrass’ avid, excitable camera moves begin to match the action, to become the action. Tom Hanks, with an affable but daft New England accent that sounds unduly marble-mouthed, lets the captain’s calculations play quietly across his face in the most tense of confrontations. Read the rest of this entry »
There’s no such thing as an over-familiar story. There’s just a story that its creators haven’t figured out a way to make fresh or new, or valuable, or even valid. There is “The Oranges.” British director Julian Farino’s 2011 comedy sets suburban New Jersey next-door neighbors on each others’ throats and our nerves when a black sheep returns for Thanksgiving. And boy, isn’t a teenage protagonist’s explanatory voiceover always welcome, just to clarify the muddy waters just a little? Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
You had me at “Nice penis!”
That’s the first words we and John C. Reilly’s character hear out of the mouth of the ever-beguiling Marisa Tomei in Mark and Jay Duplass’ “Cyrus,” their first film financed by a studio (and executive-produced by Tony Scott and Ridley Scott). John, also the character’s name, is a morose film editor who still hasn’t gotten over a failed marriage from years before, and his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) seems not to be his best friend, but his only friend. The complications that ensue are pretty simple, captured perfectly in the film’s advertising tagline: “John met the woman of his dreams. Then he met her son….”
The 21-year-old son, Cyrus, is played by Jonah Hill, and the possibility of a too-close connection between he and his mother is played for comedy in the highly-improvised movie, done in the fashion of “The Puffy Chair” and “Baghead,” the Duplasses’ earlier features. Hill’s shorn his hair almost to the nub and his staring eyes are often wider than a raccoon’s that’s been foraging behind the local meth lab. “He looks scary in the trailer,” a friend said. “What did you think?” I said something along the lines of “stabby-stabby, killy-killy.” Not so much that his character seems capable of torturing and murdering John, but that the passive-aggressive freakishness he’s enacting is so much more convincing than me wishing the character dead. While a route to loving loverliness between John and Molly doesn’t have to bloom into a perfumed garden path right away, Reilly and Tomei have such charm in their exchanges—he an adept of confusion and consternation, she both mothering yet unaware of her son’s predations—you’d almost like to see them throw the keys of the near-barren apartment Cyrus’ way and have them take a nice sublet in another movie in the theater next door. They’ve done well with the Duplass’ freedoms. Then there’s tubby Cyrus in the kitchen in the middle of the night with a knife, his t-shirt tail barely cuddling his drawers. Read the rest of this entry »
(Genova, 2008) Prolific, restless director Michael Winterbottom continues a breathless pace as a filmmaker, with activist documentary “The Shock Doctrine” (also this week at Siskel) and ghost story “Summer in Genoa” followed by his bold, murderous Jim Thompson adaptation, “The Killer Inside Me,” reviled in moralistic terms by viewers at Sundance and Berlin, arriving this summer. “Shock Doctrine” has played on video-on-demand in the U.S., but “Summer in Genoa” remains unreleased. Colin Firth is an English professor and newly widowed father of two daughters, 16-year-old Kelly (Willa Holland) who’s discovering boys on the beach, and 10-year-old Mary (Perla Haney-Jardine), who sees her dead mother (Hope Davis). As he mourns, an old friend (Catherine Keener) offers him a position in Genova. Time passes leisurely, quietly. Written by Winterbottom and Laurence Coriat (“Wonderland”), “Summer in Genoa” makes for an interesting mix: working with his young cinematographer Marcel Zyskind (“Mister Lonely”), Winterbottom captures the air of a 1950s Americans-abroad melodrama with dashes of Val Lewton’s suggestive horror and conscious nods to the haunted Venice of Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now.” Winterbottom’s “Wonderland” is terrific at capturing the sense of life in the modern city, and there are rich moments glancingly observed between his displaced characters in labyrinthine Genova; off-kilter editing rhythms enhance the brooding mood of largely naturalistic proceedings. The score by Melissa Parmenter, mostly strings, is a lovely accent. (A Ryanair flight direct from Chicago to Genova is an amusing fancy.) 94m. DigiBeta video. (Ray Pride)
“Summer In Genoa” plays at Siskel May 21-25 and 27. Line producer Phillip Koch and associate producer Sally Marschall will appear Friday and on Saturday at 8:30pm. A trailer is embedded below. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
A brilliant if skittishly despairing comedy with glimmers of hope and kindness, Nicole Holofcener’s fourth feature, “Please Give,” is easily her best.
In modern-day Manhattan, a few moments ago, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a tasteful furniture store stocked through buys at estate sales. Kate worries her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) is becoming materialistic while Abby is furious with acne. The couple have bought the apartment of their 92-year-old neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert), but it’s the oldest of her granddaughters who look after her, Mary (Amanda Peet), who seems most ready for her to croak, while a younger granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), an x-ray technician who performs mammograms and, while tall, lithe and lovely, has little drive in her life. For a ninety-minute movie, “Please Give” packs in all kinds of conflict and comedy that would take, well, ninety minutes to describe. As Holofcener’s customary alter ego, Keener’s Kate is riddled with all manner of guilt and doubt and more guilt. Disparate measures of empathy define each character. So far, so female. But there’s none of the expected uplift. Read the rest of this entry »
No, this PG-rated fantasy adventure is not about a high-school kid fronting a band of misfits for the variety show where he wins a music college scholarship. Someone stole Zeus’s lightning bolt, a less impressive old-school light saber, and Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is wrongly fingered. Percy has no idea he’s a demigod, born of mortal Sally Jackson (Catherine Keener) and the full-blooded god Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). “I guess we all got daddy issues,” observes another kid with divinity in his genealogy. Soon our hero is secreted to Camp Half Blood where he meets Athena’s daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario). For extra credit: what kind of kids are born of two demigods? Quarter deities? On what chromosome is the god gene? Percy learns his dyslexia is due to his “hardwired” literacy in Greek. That’s what made English on the chalkboard unreadable: “it’s Greek to him.” His attention disorder is really warrior-grade, battle-ready alertness. Chris Columbus (two “Harry Potter”s and two “Home Alone”s) directs a screenplay that Craig Titley adapted from Rick Riordan’s 2005 book, the first in a series of five by the middle-school teacher. The plot is a cross-country quest by Percy, Annabeth and a sidekick satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) to find three green pearls that serve as “Get-Out-of-Hades” hall passes, so they can rescue Percy’s mom from Hades. Because saving your mom is always more important than averting a multi-god smackdown with the collateral damage of “the end of life as we know it.” To orient viewers who didn’t do their mythology homework, the screen teens cite “High School Musical” and “Extreme Makeover,” and use an iPod in a way Apple never anticipated. This places us life as we know it. Slightly inventive are updates for the Land of the Lotus-eaters and the “H” sign pointing to hell. Best line: “Hi, mom.” With Pierce Brosnan, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Joe Pantoliano, Uma Thurman, Joe Pantoliano. 119m. (Bill Stamets)
Film festivals are retrenching around the world as economies contract and sponsorships dwindle. The Chicago Underground Film Festival’s 2008 edition ran in late October, just as the financial crisis began, at a venue that was difficult to get to by public transportation, during an Indian summer heat wave, opening on the closing night of Chicago International, which also was the night of Barack Obama’s primetime infomercial, just a week before the election. The results were disappointing. But a move to September this year, at the Loop-located Siskel Film Center promises better things. Festival director Bryan Wendorf is optimistic. “The economy didn’t really impact the number of films submitted. The quality, as always, ran the gamut from awful to brilliant but there was plenty to look at and choose from.”
Trends emerge during programming. “I never look to program around a predetermined theme, but once the films and videos are chosen patterns emerge,” Wendorf says. “This year there seems to be a lot of work dealing with ideas about place, home and globalization. Some of the work, like Lucy Raven’s experimental documentary ‘China Town’ deals with this in a very conscious and direct way while other works address these issues from more oblique angles.” Another trend is for work on digital video to exploit its own textures rather than pretending it’s the same as film. “Video is almost infinitely malleable. But the festival has never set out to be a ‘new media’ showcase and we are still seeing great work on 16mm and 35mm.”
By Ray Pride
“The Soloist” doesn’t explain itself: neither Hollywood uplift nor full-on arthouse effort, it succeeds by moment and mood.
Thirty-seven-year-old English director Joe Wright’s three features—”Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement” and, now, “The Soloist”—succeed in moment and mood as cinematically as anyone’s work on the studio scale today. I don’t mean anything particularly airy by “cinematic,” merely noting that Wright works with composed, lucid visual images combined with intent sound design that are at once concrete and elusive: this is this, but it is also something else. Read the rest of this entry »
“A part that suggests the whole,” there’s the definition.
“Synecdoche, New York” is also a dauntingly ambitious movie from a first-time director, even an Oscar-winner as idiosyncratic as Charlie Kaufman. And especially considering its mood and brood: “Synecdoche” is loss; “Synecdoche” is bruise; “Synecdoche” is forgetting; “Synecdoche” is not forgetting; “Synecdoche” is schematic yet oneiric; “Synecdoche” is an epic dream of never attaining your dreams. Of wanting wishing striving until you die.
Funny in parts, too. But the most important aspect is the aftertaste: what is bitter and brackish and dour in the watching lingers afterward. There’s a medical term for the dull, almost pleasurable ache after a solid bruising (or, for men, a kick in the balls): “exquisite tenderness.” That’s what ebbs days after witnessing this grandiloquent edifice, a tower of babbling characters who are trying to create a work of art over the course of a lifetime that just happens to resemble Kaufman’s very enterprise.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a shambling playwright of inchoate ambition. He’s mounted a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” with college-age actors, and his wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), paints portraits in miniature: tiny as a postage stamp, best viewed with a magnifying glass. Writ large, writ small, doppelgangers for almost all the characters brood and multiply after Cotard gets a genius grant and proceeds to create a vision of his life in a vast warehouse, and begins never-ending rehearsals.
After “Synecdoche”‘s Chicago International screening, I moderated an hour-long Q&A with Kaufman, and it was one of the more rapt audiences in my experience. Everyone had questions. Some were about the actors—Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Weist, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan—and the roles they play, often taking up the roles of other characters in the aborning masterwork. A few questions were about how Caden suffers physical maladies from the opening scenes that then reach across the remainder of his life. Kaufman has other concerns as well, such as an inspired image to strike terror in any writer, where Caden has post-its reaching not only to a vast indoor horizon but likely the foreseeable future of his life that remains. With 200 or so scenes, twice the number of most contemporary movies, any note of distemper or echo of personal fears is quickly matched by another dart-jab, duck-weave of narrative feint.
But I bring up the subject of the characters’ increasing awareness of mortality, and we compare ages. At a certain point in life, phlegm takes on new meaning, I joke. “Various color phlegm,” Kaufman says. “How do you rate your phlegm? Which is the same as checking the color of your stools.” (Which Caden does.) “This isn’t new for me, it’s progressive, in a kind of way. And there are more aspects to it now. Maybe it’s even easier as I get older. I have lived with that kind of nervousness about my health for a very long time.”
“It made you uncomfortable. Because of your age. Or your health concerns,” Kaufman continues. I ask, would a 25-year-old respond differently? “I don’t know. I don’t know. That might be an issue. I’ve shown it to a lot of colleges, and there seems to be at least an appreciation of it being different, which comes a lot from college kids more than, y’know… I had an old guy in the audience wherever I was before here, D.C., and he came up to me, he asked me during the Q&A how autobiographical it was. I don’t answer that. He came up to me afterwards, and he said, the reason I asked that was because of the doctor stuff. He really related to the way doctors treat him. The way it was represented in the movie. That certainly is my experience with doctors.
If you express something that other people feel in their own lives, then that’s a good thing. Even if it’s a sad revelation. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you what it is. I have a lot of different doctors that I go to for a lot of different things. Occasionally, I’ll come across a doctor, very rarely who will talk about his or her own health problems. Not at length, but they’ll mention something. It’s such a relief. For some reason, I have in my head that doctors… that I’m this pathetic organism and they’re not. Then you find out they’ve got this, or they’ve got that. Then I’m not ashamed to be me. I think a lot of it is the shame of having… having a body. Having a less-than-perfect physical existence. I think that’s perpetuated by doctors, who want to present themselves as kind of a godlike entity. I guess maybe some people want that from their doctor. But I don’t want that. I want to know that there’s a common ground and I don’t have to be embarrassed being a person. I think, in a way, revealing myself in my work, then maybe I’m giving somebody the opportunity to feel that connection.”
However dogged and confounded Caden may be, it also seems he doesn’t have the energy for suicidal ideation. “Well, he’s a romantic. In a way. Maybe. Could be. I’m not going to say,” Kaufman says in his measured stop-start. He’s trying to create art to the exclusion of an unsatisfactory life. “Yeah. Yeah. But it is his life, though. I mean, the life he creates is his art. My writing, for example, my work, is my life. I mean, it’s not. It’s not all of my life, but it is a large part of it. I don’t think I’m not living when I’m working. It’s what I do.”
“Synecdoche, New York” opens Friday. Sin-EK-duh-kee. Sin-EK-duh-kee.