Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: Frances Ha

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frances-ha-aaRECOMMENDED

A romantic comedy without kisses, Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” (co-written with Greta Gerwig) is a vest-pocket “Manhattan,” a monochrome charmer about the mistakes a young striver makes at the elder age of twenty-seven, before her true, adult life begins, sometime shortly after the film’s “a-ha” of a final shot that illuminates the cryptic title. (And announces that all we have seen before is mere comic prelude.) Frances is getting past the proper time to be the dancer she intends to be, and the film neatly choreographs her progress toward her true and proper profession. But that’s not to say Frances, and Gerwig by extension, isn’t a creature of physicality. Gerwig’s her own Mabel Normand to her inner Mack Sennett: there’s good and proper slapstick throughout and she’s electric throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Side By Side

Chicago Artists, Documentary, Recommended No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

Keanu Reeves, about to make his directorial debut with a China-set action movie, makes an engaging interlocutor in “Side By Side,” Chris Kenneally’s clear, brisk conversation of a documentary about the repercussions of the abrupt accomplishment of the handover from 35mm film as what we’ve known as “movies” for over a century to multiple permutations of digital production, distribution and exhibition. (Distributor Tribeca Film also has at least thirty short outtakes from the on-screen interviews at their YouTube channel; one with Lars von Trier in his office is below. It’s a genial mix, and a list of names alone suggests the quality of the exchanges: Steven Soderbergh, James Cameron, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski,  Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister, David Fincher, Greta Gerwig, Robert Rodriguez, cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman, Vittorio Storaro, Michael Ballhaus and Anthony Dod Mantle, editorial eminence Walter Murch, Danny Boyle, Dick Pope and “Lawrence of Arabia” editor Anne V. Coates, and, wouldn’t you know, George Lucas. Postures, postulations and occasional apercus follow. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: To Rome With Love

Comedy No Comments »

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“With age comes wisdom,” a character says in “To Rome With Love.” “With age comes exhaustion,” Woody Allen answers, a touch weary-looking himself. Still, his first appearance at the packed screening where I saw the seventy-six-year-old director’s fortieth feature caused the room to ripple with pleasure: both that he’s still standing and in anticipation of spoken spleen to come. Allen’s said he doesn’t care for the title “To Rome With Love,” which supplanted “Decameron Bop” and “Nero Fiddled,” but my biggest curiosity about creative choices is at what moment he and editor Alisa Lepselter threw temporal unity to the wind and intercut the film’s four discrete episodes. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Damsels in Distress

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“Damsels in Distress” may be one of the most charming and memorable movies I’ve ever seen that also plays as if the filmmaker had no experience whatsoever in making feature films. Whit Stillman has littered the pages of an eager press with his tales of his time in the wilderness, writing ambitious scripts for films that were never made, set thousands of miles from the home turf of his first three films, “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994) and “Last Days Of Disco,” which began his public silence as a filmmaker in 1998. Expatriate days. Failed romances. It’s a much more cleanly told story than “Damsels.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Arthur

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Well, it’s not ghastly. A clueless dither masquerading as a remake, “Arthur,” from television director Jason Winer (“Modern Family”), takes liberties with late writer-director Steve Gordon’s anomalous charmer, largely through casting. In the 1981 original, Dudley Moore managed to be a plutocrat with heart and hope, a drunk and a naïf, a child in the big city. In the script by Peter Baynham (“Brüno,” “Borat”), Arthur Bach is only a cautionary advertisement about the evils of stunted emotional development with lurching nods to political correctness about oligarchical wealth and public drunkenness. The greatest mistake is the central performance by the loping, crouching, bedraggled Russell Brand, to be admired only by the most remunerated or the most cowering of his entourage. While “Arthur” has many scattershot laughs, few are to be credited to Brand’s weak-tea presence. Second is substituting the role of factotum Hobson, which earned John Gielgud an Oscar—”Do you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take a bath.” “I’ll alert the media.” “It’s what I live for. Perhaps you’d like me to come in there and wash your dick for you, you little shit”—with a sour yet sentimental, nanny turn by Helen Mirren. Naomi Quinn, the love interest played by Liza Minnelli in the original falls to Greta Gerwig, whose wide eyes and quirky smirks as well as pleasingly unconventional delivery, enliven a scene or three. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: No Strings Attached

Comedy, Recommended, Romance No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “Kindergarten Cop”) directs a snappy script by Elizabeth Meriwether about Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) making a mutual service deal to be “sex friends.” No love allowed. There’s a similar set-up in this summer’s “Friends with Benefits” starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, and in “Friends (With Benefits)” from 2009. For  “No Strings Attached,” the backstory of the couple-to-be is charted in encounters from fifteen years, five years and one year ago. Emma is a sparkplug with a self-diagnosed “emotional peanut allergy” to normal romance. Her eighty-hour-a-week medical residency only allows for crazy-hot, commitment-free recreational coitus with Adam, an assistant on a high-school musical TV show. This aspiring writer lacks her allergy to intimacy with clothes on. Still, he dutifully IDs Emma on his cell as “Do Not Call Her.” Read the rest of this entry »

Top of the Pops: Letting go with “You Wont Miss Me”

Drama, Recommended 1 Comment »

By Ray Pride

The moment is past but the moment is now: In 2009 Williamsburg, Shelly, a woman of 23 or so, (Stella Schnabel) contends with intense desires, average expectations, quotidian disappointments. Shelly’s inner life is suggested by a voice-over that’s as much interior monologue as it is diary entry or recitation to a therapist, as well as a visual style fashioned in multiple bold formats. There’s an intermittent score by Will Bates as well that uses a percussive tattoo like an accelerated heartbeat, shared by Stella and the film itself, in the same fashion Jon Brion did with his music for “Punch-Drunk Love.” Ry Russo-Young’s second feature, “You Wont Miss Me” (sic), at first glance resembles other contemporary low-budget, digital video idioms, but in fact, it’s a quietly constructed, sharply observed, unsentimental of-the-minute “Alice in Wonderland.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Greenberg

Comedy, Reviews No Comments »

Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg as a jerk you might like, at times. Or you might like writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”) for making Greenberg dislikable. What’s not to like about “Greenberg” is Baumbach’s way of satirizing his own bicoastal cohort in a story co-credited to wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (co-director of “The Anniversary Party”), who is also one of this film’s producers. Uninsightful self-pity spoons with toothless self-loathing. After a stint in a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown, Greenberg house-sits for three weeks in West Hollywood for his brother taking his family to Vietnam on a business trip to open a hotel. Left behind is their German Shepherd Mahler and their personal assistant Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig, “Hannah Takes the Stairs”). Greenberg builds a dog house for Mahler, who runs up a three-grand vet bill. The 42-year-old New York neurotic, a compulsive writer of complaint letters to American Airlines and Starbucks, also works on a relationship with 25-year-old Florence, a writer of alt-songs who gets an abortion. Greenberg tries to reconnect with a former girlfriend, played by Leigh, and a former bandmate (Rhys Ifans). Both have something like real lives. Baumbach’s lax irony works the song “It Never Rains In Southern California” into a cloudburst scene where panicky Greenberg asks, “Can the pool overflow?” He siphons off the rainwater. Greenberg is incompetent as a human being in banal ways. “Greenberg” is a minor comedy of manners about boundary issues. Feels like Woody Allen’s L.A. allergy and Steve Martin’s misanthropy pitched to a younger demographic, with throwaway nostalgia for cocaine and Duran Duran. With Chris Messina, Brie Larson, Juno Temple, Mark Duplass, Merritt Wever. 107m. (Bill Stamets)

“Greenberg” opens Friday at Landmark Century.

A Sense of Places: Chicago International at 44

Festivals, Recommended No Comments »

By Ray Pride

Of all the things you could possibly say about the potential of this year’s installment of the Chicago International Film Festival, I’ll start with two: most of the attractions are at two theaters within walking distance of each other, the River East and 600 North Michigan, and of a claimed 175 movies, I’ve seen or can easily recommend a fine total of thirty-eight.

Some will open during the run-up to the year-end awards gauntlet, while others have less chance of being seen elsewhere. Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke continues his explorations with documentary-fiction hybrids in “24 City,” a fascinating critique of socialism in contemporary China. Veit Helmer’s German-Azerbaijani spaghetti-sex-comedy “Absurdistan” posits the world as an eternal backwater ruled by, well, water and women, an equally intriguing perspective. Then again, your life could be a series of repeated gestures year after year and song after song like in the passion of the metal-comic doc, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.”

Lance Hammer’s “Ballast” is spare American regional filmmaking of uncommon delicacy, while Mike Leigh’s latest, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” partakes equally deeply of the concerns of compassion and empathy. French novelist Philippe Claudel’s “I’ve Loved You So Long” is reed-delicate and wire-taut, as rich as the kind of prose that mirrors life, with a bold central performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as a haunted middle-aged woman. Utterly evanescent but also lived-in is “Nights and Weekends,” by Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg as a long-distance couple in New York and Chicago, more long distance than couple. The glimpse we have of their lives is only the moments of incomprehension, only disconnect. The characters are ill matched and ill starred; the filmmaker-leads palpably suggest the failure of modern romance. A different take on the world today: Danny Boyle’s latest, “Slumdog Millionaire,” about an 18-year-old Mumbai orphan who competes on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Streets teem, lives dance. And, reflecting a pornography-filled culture, there’s the casual obscenity of Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make A Porno,” which, in a matter of speaking, starts at snowball and snowballs from there.

Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York” is a world within worlds within the veteran screenwriter’s head, to drenching, wrenching result. (I’m moderating Sunday night’s Q&A with Kaufman.) More drama: Darren Aronofsky’s spare “The Wrestler” boasts a painfully physicalized performance by Mickey Rourke as a man whose body is his life, to the threat of both; thematically and acting-wise, Marisa Tomei is his equal as a stripper he knows not well enough. Chicago-set torment is on-screen in “Wesley Willis Joyrides,” an assembly of material about the late, troubled Chicago musician.

Terence Davis, who hasn’t made a movie since 2000′s “The House of Mirth,” returns in smashing form with the “Of Times And The City,” an elegy to his Liverpool hometown that is both comic and heartfelt, sardonic and emotional. American sense of place: Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”) returns with more Pacific Northwest minimalism with “Wendy and Lucy,” with a radiant Michelle Williams center screen as a needy woman whose life revolves on her car and her dog. That’s not to overlook special screenings at the Music Box of a restored print of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time In the West,” as well as John Cassavetes’ “Faces.”

Films from other cultures are always important for an idea of lives lived, sidewalks walked. Jerzy Skolimowski (“Moonlighting,” “Deep End”) reportedly returns to Polish-absurdist form with his “Four Nights With Anna.” The great Arnaud Desplechin (“Kings and Queen,” “My Sex Life, Or, How I Got Into An Argument”) returns with “A Christmas Tale” (pictured), a two-and-a-half-hour family comedy-drama that attains as many mysterious heights as his earlier work. Ace Icelandic editor Valdis Oskarsdottir (“Julien Donkey-Boy,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) debuts with “Country Wedding,” a road movie about two busloads of Icelanders heading off from Reykjavik to a wedding in the countryside with the expected perplexing comic result amid the grand volcanic landscape. “Be Like Others” is a documentary about the Iranian perplex where homosexuality is punishable by death, but sex-reassignment surgery is encouraged: the concept is mind-boggling, and Tanaz Eshaghian does a fair job balancing the personalities of her subjects.

Other notables: Abdel Kechiche’s “The Secret of The Grain,” an explosive admixture of family and food with rich, unpredictable outcomes. Cai Shangjun’s “The Red Awn” is a diverting family drama on a distant Chinese wheat farm. Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings The Blues” is an animated adaptation of the Hindu epic “Ramayana,” mingled with the story of a modern divorce, combining music and images to captivating effect. Nacho Vigalondo’s “Timecrimes” is bright modern sci-fi; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known for his eerie tales of the otherworldly, works in the genre of family drama, reportedly with the same impact; and James Gray’s “Two Lovers,” which debuted at Cannes to decidedly mixed reviews, transposes bits of Dostoevsky to a somber, contemporary New York romance. Sincere or overstated? Like many of the sweet surprises to be found at any good film festival, it might be a little of both.

Visit chicagofilmfestival.com for a full schedule.

Review: Baghead

Comedy, Drama, Recommended No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

Greta Gerwig: ditz of steel or inspired genius? Discuss. In Mark and Jay Duplass’ follow-up to “The Puffy Chair,” a quartet of friends, all failing actors, retreat to the backwoods after a film-festival exposure to an absolute piece of shit that impresses them, and amid double-talk, flirtations, misbegotten making-out, umming, hemming, hawing, and with camerawork as uncertain as the badinage, decide to make a horror movie. A man with a paper bag over his head ensues. Call it “The Blair Bitch-Session Project.” There’s something just out of grasp that the Duplasses are after here, despite the genial and ultimately sentimental form of their small comedy. Again, the question remains of just how a larger-budget project might waste co-star Gerwig’s twerpitude of magnitude. In the earlier “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” she managed to demonstrate an intelligence that is mere flightiness here; in the forthcoming “Nights and Weekends,” which she co-directed and co-stars in with Joe Swanberg, it all comes together: simply by moments passing, without that much situation, behavior or even drama, that film captures something all these twentysomething filmmakers seem after: drama as quicksilver as breath, as sudden as adrenaline, as memorable as life. In the meantime, a man in the woods with a bag on his head is reasonably goddam scary in carefully calibrated increments. With Steve Zissis, Ross Partridge, Elise Muller. 84m. (Ray Pride)