“’Speed’ in space”?: Sandra Bullock is a strong woman in peril in the darkest of darkest houses, the expanses of outer space and beyond. Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D IMAX thriller takes the most complicated means to tell the smallest story, the highest concept of pitches, and to make it seem graceful, inescapable and simple. “Life in space is impossible” reads one of the cards sprinkled at the start of “Gravity” and its epic opening shot that captures three astronauts on a spacewalk making repairs on the outside of the space shuttle. As with the movie’s many extended takes, Cuarón varies point-of-view, moves from epic panoramas to close in on his characters: the fluid result should keep all but the most aware from realizing that there hasn’t been a cut for over ten minutes. In a sense, “Gravity” is an animated film, as the illusion of the vastness of space and weightlessness wouldn’t be as lyrical without the intense construction behind the scenes. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
“The Descendants,” Alexander Payne’s first feature in six years, bookends with two exquisitely measured shots, and in conversation with each other, define what comes between.
The resolution I won’t mention in a review, but it resonates with a rare sense of both closure and completion to a tempest-tossed, frayed-nerve drama about family, responsibility, and legacy that reaches down generations. Read the rest of this entry »
International hitmen are over-represented in the database of screen characters’ careers. George Clooney is kept employed playing all manner of worldly operatives—though he only fired workers, not weapons in “Up in the Air”—who never get the girl. We feel so bad for the guy who can’t make his deadly living work out for his love life. Anton Corbijn (“Control”) directs Euro-existential thriller “The American” with stylish understatement. Rowan Joffe adapts Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman,” which was apparently about a specialist who hand-tooled firearms for assassins, but here the title character is also a hands-on trigger man. The familiar plot targets a professional killer with a professional courtesy: it’s his turn to take a hit for our entertainment. From the first scene, Jack (Clooney) is on the run from “the Swedes.” Read the rest of this entry »
A fey young man storms across Cleo’s to the back room and taps a tall woman on the shoulder. “Kate Winslet called. She wants her face back,” he says before sashaying over to another woman, delivering more bizarrely aggressive compliments as he mingles. The booths are filled with groups of friends dishing amiable celebrity gossip and sipping beer, eyes glancing up at one of the many televisions as this year’s Oscars begin. The ubiquitous sight of heads bent over cellphones indicates the tweeting has also started. It continues all night.
Clooney is universally loved, even if he looks cagey every time the camera pans to his face. The guy from “Short Circuit” elicits multiple cries of “Johnny Five!” when he wins an Oscar for “The Cove.” Nobody has thought of that guy in years. Molly Ringwald, looking terrified in a grape-colored toga and questionable jewelry, inspires one gentleman to mutter, “Pretty in pink, not so much purple,” while passing around a tray of cupcakes. It’s a friendly, low-key affair, though fiery debates erupt over nominees. Read the rest of this entry »
By Tom Lynch
50. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” Shane Black, 2005
49. “In America,” Jim Sheridan, 2002
48. “The Lives of Others,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006
47. “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Guillermo del Toro, 2006
46. “Best in Show,” Christopher Guest, 2000
45. “Michael Clayton,” Tony Gilroy, 2007
44. “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan, 2008 Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
Jason Reitman’s Twittered (@JasonReitman) and Twitpic’d his way through dozens of cities and multiples of belly-busting meals since the Toronto debut of “Up in the Air.” (He’s even kept up a pie chart of frequently asked questions from clipboards nationwide).
He’s almost as peripatetic as his latest protagonist. In his third feature, Reitman adapts Walter Kirn’s pre-9/11 novel to his own themes and interests, about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a road warrior who’s a man alone (but not necessarily lonely) who jets most days from small city to small city firing people he’ll never see again. His goal in life: to attain a frequent-flyer status attained by fewer men than those who walked on the moon. A bright young thing named Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has the notion of doing it via iChat, and Ryan takes her on the road to show her the face-to-face reality. Ryan also encounters fellow warrior Alex (apt, adult Vera Farmiga) who shares his statistical friskiness.
In the context of the movie, Ryan’s a regular guy holding onto his job, his status, but he is a guy who goes around firing people, liquidating them. “I don’t like to judge my characters. I dunno, I’m particularly attracted to characters who normally would be judged,” the 32-year-old writer-director tells me on his Chicago stopover. “I mean, I made a movie about the head lobbyist for Big Tobacco, a pregnant teenage girl and a guy who fires people for a living. Not only that, but he also believes you should live alone with nothing.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
Wes Anderson is seated at a table when I enter a conference room at the Peninsula Hotel and I immediately realize the room’s darkly patterned, deep green wallpaper matches Anderson’s green, narrow-wale corduroy suit, and almost as quickly realize he’s wearing, for a belt, a white polka-dotted green length of silk, mauve socks and Clark’s Wallabees. He’s less dressed than he is art-directed.
In his brisk, new stop-motion animated movie, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” adapted with his friend Noah Baumbach from Roald Dahl’s sour little novel, Anderson even invests his titular Vulpus Vulpus (voiced by George Clooney) with a tan corduroy suit patterned after an earlier one of his own. Strangely, it may be the most “Wes Anderson” of Wes Anderson movies: the level of control in the adventures of an animal trying to sustain family life is exacting, but with comic detailing in sets and behaviors that matches the goofball dialogue and the interpersonal dynamics. Read the rest of this entry »
“This is a true story” is how Jon Ronson began his 2004 nonfiction book about a secret U.S. Army project started in 1979. “More of this is true than you would believe” is how a comic film begins that’s based the book and borrows its title. U.S. soldiers trained under a New Age renegade played by Jeff Bridges who experimented with paranormal, extra-sensory techniques, including assassination-by-staring. Goats were his guinea pigs. Screenwriter Peter Straughan says he worked from Ronson’s reporting without meeting the original storytellers. Unfortunately, this surefire material fizzles with a clunky flashback structure built into a reporter’s yarn and road movie. Grant Heslov directs with less than shapeshifting élan between tones and genres. Reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) teams up with retired goat-starer Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) for an adventure in Iraq that recalls “The Hunting Party.” Thanks to “remote-viewing” or blind chance, they end up at a desert base where both Lyn’s mentor and his nemesis now work as private contractors. Tactical LSD catalyzes the liberation of goats as well as two-legged detainees. As a satire of militarized consciousness, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is not remotely psychoactive. With Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick, Stephen Root, Stephen Lang and Waleed Zuaiter. 95m. (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.”
Or, “No Country for White Men.” It’s almost a sure bet that the Coen brothers share a chuckle when they’re not taken seriously. My first infuriation came with “The Hudsucker Proxy,” which set me off in a couple of ways, writing something to the effect that they’d finally crossed the thin but all-defining line between wise guys and assholes. But, if I were to slip it in tonight, I’d likely find some levels or elements that eluded me oh so many years ago. Seeing “The Big Lebowski” a few weeks before its release and interviewing the Coens as well, much of what I admire about it now eluded me. (If I’d only known that my then-girlfriend who I saw it with was a secret stoner: illumination might have been had on the spot.) “Lebowski”‘s become an ur-text in the decade since. Not only is the Dude’s behavior based on a real friend of the Coens, the ubiquitous producer’s rep Jeff Dowd, but also his political background. The Dude abides no lies. There’s also an undercurrent of the idea of masculinity’s reaction to generational displacement that’s as telling as anything in Eustache’s Euro-epic “The Mother and the Whore.” Similar things are at work in the genially splenetic “Burn After Reading,” which ends with the brothers’ fuck-you production company logo, but accompanies its end credits with a live performance by the Fugs, of Tuli Kupferberg singing, “Fuckin’ Amen” (the last line of the movie is “Tuli!”), a 1960s song about the CIA and CIA “men.” (“Who can squash republics like bananas because they don’t like their social manners? The CIA can.”) “Burn After Reading”‘s Coen of the realm is critiquing the alabaster reach of the high white reaches of American power. Their latest boobarama is populated with white people filled with black lies and dumb-ass dreams, white-on-white on blue sky. Whiter than Tilda Swinton’s complexion under her bright red bob, whiter than milk in snow. J. K. Simmons, a comic god of the present moment, takes honors as a high-high-up in the agency who listens to reports from fixer David Rasche about the workaholic knuckleheads, dreamers of low intelligence and limited imagination, wreaking havoc in their backyard with screw-you calm and fuck-you dispatch. His final line, a weary obscenity-blasphemy heard in variations throughout the movie, is perfect, especially with the shot that follows. Very Rumsfeldian. A profane snowflake. And explain it to me when it makes sense. As the disenfranchised CIA analyst whose troubles set the plot to pinwheeling, Malkovich plays to his Steppenwolf-style strengths as a Punchinello of verbal fuckery, and the image of this fabulous fop in carpet slippers and a dressing gown rampaging down the streets of Brooklyn (doubling for Georgetown) with a hatchet in his hand and murder on his lips is inspired. Still, McDormand’s Linda Litzke is the true anti-heroine, a resilient employee of Hardbodies Gym, of high spirits and ready frustration who wants only for four cosmetic surgeries, and like Linda Tripp, is prepared to spend any potential ill-gotten gains from blackmail on it. Simple! Focused! Brad Pitt’s turn as Chad, her goggle-eyed, ever-hydrating boob-in-arms, is better seen than described, although his blond skunk pompadour may be the first and last cinematic homage to his tresses in the forgotten “Johnny Suede.” George Clooney’s Treasury guy? The biggest idiot he’s ever played, and his sexual compulsion knows no bounds. If only he could get a run in… Dry and deadly, “Burn After Reading” is savage, cynical, sarcastic vaudeville about the powers that be. The only notable figure of color is an apparently Latino cleaning man who finds the CD that sets the story in motion on the locker room floor; presumably named after the premium brand of shoes favored by the Secretary of State. 96m. (Ray Pride)