Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Life, And Movies, As A Long Quiet River: Sundance Standouts Ebert, James, Linklater And Sachs Limn Lifetimes

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Boyhood Still1

Boy, “Boyhood”

By Ray Pride

Like his subject, Steve James’ “Life Itself” is a piece of work.

Packing seventy years of the life of Chicago’s own Roger Ebert into a swift, swinging two hours, the director of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” gives a dense, vivid impression of the Sun-Timesman’s will and destiny to be a newspaperman from the earliest age, but also the many overlapping eras of his eventful (and competitive) life. Editor-in-chief at college, appointed film critic almost by accident at a callow age, the drinking, the rivalry with Gene Siskel, Chaz, the loss of voice alongside the gain of a virtual pulpit, the ornery Midwestern strength in the face of debilitating pain in his final days. There are hundreds of stories to be told, and as has been amply pointed out, at Sundance and elsewhere, hundreds of people have them, their own Roger Ebert story from the late, great everyman’s simple, elemental curiosity. There’s a lot between the covers of Ebert’s fugue-cum-memoir that gives the film its title and some of its territory, but for a movie made in just over a year, it’s a compact feat of determination and legerdemain. I knew Roger since I was nineteen, so I’ll leave the subject for now by saying that James’ two hours (co-edited with fellow Kartemquin veteran David Simpson) is a proper, not wholly reverent remembrance. The filmmakers have provided a place of pride for the immortal line Ebert wrote for Russ Meyer’s “Beneath The Valley Of The Dolls”: “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” As well it should; as well it did. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Ides of March

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George Clooney’s fourth feature debuted at Toronto, where a fair grumbling scrum of reviewers called it “cliché,” found its backstairs politics less than interesting, said there was nothing “new.” I say that’s spinach, and to hell with it. Have movies about politics become like movies about sex, where fears and predilections of its critics are imposed atop opinions like damning CT scan results? Were they onto something? Does a process story like this, with its lightly coded spoken shorthand, extend beyond steady followers of politics? (“She’s gonna take this to Drudge or Roll Call or some shit.”) While traipsing a few familiar byways, the theme-and-variation script of “The Ides Of March” is one of the boldest political statements by an American filmmaker in memory: the telling’s not resigned to corruption or concession, but instead, it’s cognizant. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

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“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is “Very, Smart, Funny.,” a laugh-racking, cringe-inducing “Rude” Goldberg joke machine elevated by an uncommonly well-constructed script, superb actors and immaculate comic timing across the board—in performance, cutting and pacing. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa directed “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” working from a script by Dan Fogelman (“Cars,” “Tangled,” “Fred Claus”), and the punchy instinct in their scripts for “Bad Santa” and “I Love You Phillip Morris,” their first feature as directors, are honed to a fine edge. Love’s eternal, and all that, but a long marriage between Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily Weaver (Julianne Moore) has frayed down to general miscommunication and Emily’s infidelity. Separated, Cal broods in a local bar. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

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What does a lawyer fear the most? A client who is innocent. That’s what defense atttorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) was told by his lawyer dad, who passed along a vintage pistol once given to him by a Chicago crook as a keepsake. With a hired driver at the wheel, Haller works from the back seat of a classic black Lincoln Continental with the plates “NTGUILTY.” He takes on a client who looks innocent yet may turn out to get sicko kicks from putting innocent men in prison. John Romano adapts a 2005 novel by Michael Connelly, a former Ft. Lauderdale and Los Angeles crime reporter. Maybe he didn’t make up the dirty tricks that the prosecution and defense pull on each other in “The Lincoln Lawyer.” What stands out about director Brad Furman’s work is a style of no particular note. This well-tooled legal thriller is less about self-conscious nods to noir and B-movie tropes than simply using them for a plot with $400-a-night prostitutes and $550-an-hour lawyers. Read the rest of this entry »

Modern Romance: John C. Reilly finds three’s company in “Cyrus”

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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 »

How Soon is Now?: The delayed gratification of the 2009 awards season

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By Ray Pride2008_slumdog_millionaire_001

The stockings are still hung by the chimney with care.

Surveying a couple hundred year-end lists by movie reviewers and entertainment writers can be a soul-squishing thing, particularly if you read the reasoning and rationales, the dithers, the doubts, the demurrals, the dishing and dashing to and fro, recurring, recurring. Oh, that’s what “The Dark Knight” was about! (No, it wasn’t, but thanks for watching.) Oh, that’s why “Slumdog Millionaire” is so special! (Um, where’s the fun? Fun? Energy? Bold colors? Remember.) That’s why “Wall-E” is the best movie since, in, well, since, ever! And doesn’t Eve deserve a best actress nomination? (I can’t get animated. Sorry. An hour of the apocalypse followed by this week’s adventure with The Inedibles?)

It was years ago, a bit, I will concede, before the turn of the century, the dawn of the millennium, but I do remember when I was a moviegoer on the street corner, looking up at the marquees of the Cinema or State-Lake, the Oriental or the Granada, the Sandburg. The Sandburg… whose cinephile operators went on to respectively produce “Election” and “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Milk” and “Synecdoche, New York.” I’ll even get teary going past a storefront recognizable as having once been a neighborhood theater. Say, the Wicker Park, now the John Fluevog store on Milwaukee Avenue below North Avenue, or the Parkway, now an optical store just south of the Landmark Century.) Those were the days. Those were the days. Stale smells and bright lights and furtive goings-on in the balcony. Civilian cinephilia: by this time of the season, I would not have had the chance to have seen all the films, or the privilege to have seen some movies several times before they hit Chicago. That was also before the epoch of knowing a movie would usually be available for rental eighty days after its release, dropping neatly through the mail slot the afternoon of its street date if you were one of the subscribers picked out of the Netflix queue.

I’m not sure how the experience a 22-year-old civilian cinephile who’s not visibly, volubly blogging his or her little heart out would simmer in today’s distribution picture. I do know a video-besotted bunch of talented amateurs, but they’re knowing as hell. The average moviegoer, though, may be confused by the return of the “platform release.”

Less a matter of being parsimonious than returning to canny marketing of the past years, distributors large and small have taken their sweet time in releasing movies, whether a matter of them not having come to Chicago at all yet, or perhaps only on a couple of screens for a week, two, three. Universal did its work releasing Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” a few months back, a bigger picture, with a star (Angelina Jolie) in a star performance in the middle of it. It was released in hundreds of theaters. Didn’t do all that well. Now Warner’s got “Gran Torino,” a smaller, darker, profane, sometimes mad Eastwood picture. The powers that be seemed to have watched that disappointment as well as the platforming of movies like “Slumdog Millionaire.” The figures say Eastwood’s purported last acting role is only at eighty-four theaters, but goes to about 2,250 this weekend.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” on over 100 best-of lists, brightens only about 600 screens. (An oddity: Warners, who turned most of the rights to “Slumdog” over to Fox Searchlight later this month releases “Chandi Chowk Goes To China,” a Chinese-Bollywood comedy hybrid in a few dozen theaters.)

Does the anticipation build? Or are audiences, pounded by politics, going “eek!” about the economy mentally changing the channel? In Chicago, for the early weeks of some releases, the committed theatergoer gets to know well the smell and sound of AMC’s River East multiplex.

Another example: Mickey Rourke’s been named best actor for “The Wrester” by critics’ circles in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Kansas City, Oklahoma, San Diego, San Francisco, Toronto, Utah and D. C. For the same movie, Marisa Tomei’s gotten nods from Detroit, Florida, Las Vegas, Oklahoma, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco. How many theaters across the nation? Eighteen.

Sometimes I don’t want to be in my own shoes, but I’m glad my post-collegiate years as a filmgoer are tied up in my edifice complex, remembering without trying not just where I saw a movie for the first time, but often the seat where I sat.

A young film lover can buy and rent and download enormous chunks of the medium’s history, but the present tense is my concern. When does movie-watching become merely curatorial, a decadent arraying of lovely narratives and unmatchable images that can no longer be produced because of all manner of economic factors not worthy listing here.

Take “Watchmen.” Tied up in a very serious legal action caused by some bad lawyering: but the politics-charged Japanese trailer was released online Tuesday. Nixon and Kissinger in a Stanley Kubrick-Ken Adam war room? Lovers in the desert kissing in front of the rising orange bloom of nuclear irradiation? One more corner to loiter on. How soon is now?

Body Art: Pinning “The Wrestler” with Darren Aronofsky

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By Ray Pride2008_the_wrestler_012

Angel-feather tats twine a stripper’s back; twinned, a wrestler’s is lined with scar, knotted by scarification.

“The Wrestler” sears because of its two central roles, Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a beat-down wrestler in his early 50s, and Marisa Tomei as “Cassidy” (nee Pam), a stripper he feels close to as the walls of his life close in around him. Brave and sometimes literally naked: they make a tremendous match as performers. And that dovetailing seems a suitable fit for the films Darren Aronofsky’s made so far: Try as the mind might, thought cannot save the flesh.

The Ram, Aronofsky says, “loves what he does and he’s got that going for him. What’s the theme—how do you make a movie about wrestling? Everyone says, ‘Oh, wrestling’s fake, why do you want to make that?’ But that becomes the theme, what is real and what is fake? That became the big challenge of the Ram character in the movie. Where is his real world and where is his fantasy world, and has he confused them? And that carried us over to the stripper story and her really clear lines between what is real and what is fake.”

From the start, Tomei’s substantial qualities as an actor forestall the fear of stripper clichés. And once the two of them are circling each other, you realize that at that point in their lives, they’re mirrors: Merchants of flesh, exploiters of their own bodies, just past their prime.


“Yeahhh…” Aronofsky says, pausing. “When you do an independent film, with a stripper, all the red flags go up, ’cause you’re like, ‘Oh shit! Why am I doing this?’ I remember fighting with myself and with the writer, what else can she be, what else can we make her? But the attraction of how similar they actually are: They both have stage names. They both dress up. They both create a fantasy for the audience. They both use their bodies for their commerce and age is their enemy. Those connections between the two of them were just too delicious to want to live without.”

The movie was under most filmgoer’s radar before its Venice première, where it won the Golden Lion. “Yeah, it was instant acclamation, to be honest,” he says. “We finished the film two days before Venice. We were mixing. We finished the mix like a week and a half before, and then there’s a lot of tech things that have to go right, the sound and image have to get married, you have to check prints to make sure the color’s right. It was very last minute, then we had to get it over to Rome to get it subtitled. That last week was quite a rush job to get it done. Only a few people had seen it at that point. Of course, the Venice festival had seen it and invited us to attend. But we didn’t have any sense of what the audience reaction would be. We landed in Venice and then a day later we did the press conference, and the press gave us a standing ovation, which I guess they don’t do. It just took off from there. It was a rocket ship. I don’t think anyone was ready, me, Mickey, anybody. We all had high hopes.” Or else you wouldn’t have struggled so hard to make the thing, and to make it with the almost-impossible-to-finance Rourke. Aronofsky thinks. “For me it was always a portrait film, a character study. It’s not filled with politics; it’s not filled with the obvious heartstrings. It was a real chance for me to work with who I thought is one of the great actors of our times. It was a unique world. I think what I learned, my lesson, was that all you need is an honest performance and a lens to make a good movie.”

The film’s use of austere locations, including perhaps the last pay phone in New Jersey and a deserted boardwalk, seem to gain from budgetary restriction. But in fact it’s almost as if what could be just a painful necessity becomes part of the palette of the film. “Definitely, that’s always been my school of filmmaking, you turn your limits into your strengths. You really identify what you can do and you push it as hard as you can and then within that kind of circle, you create as well as you can what you can do.”

“The Wrestler” is now playing.


Review: The Wrestler

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“The world doesn’t give a shit about me. I’m here. I’m really here.” I don’t know all the implications that can be wrought from this great line in “The Wrestler,” an original script by Robert D. Siegel, a former editor of The Onion. But self-pity is never part of it. Mickey Rourke, a thousand punches, blows and self-lacerations since his pretty-boy days of “Diner” and “Rumble Fish,” is the fleshy center of Darren Aronofsky’s movie, passion played again and again. Simple and unadorned, it’s both tragic and touching. Rourke plays “Randy the Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler in his early 50s, living day-by-day, match-by-match, pill-by-pill. He’s a lonely man. Rourke plays him without vanity, unless you consider the vanity of stripping to muscle as if muscle were bone. One of Randy’s great hopes is getting closer to “Cassidy” (Marisa Tomei), a stripper he frequents. Tomei’s quietly fierce performance keeps stripper clichés at bay. There are jokey references to “The Last Temptation of Christ” as they banter in the club’s space to the side. The rending of flesh is made particular. It both diminishes and embellishes Randy’s ground-level transfiguration. And quickly, quietly, it sneaks in—you realize that “The Ram” and “Cassidy” are mirrored: merchants of flesh, exploiters of their own bodies, right past their prime. It’s a powerful duality, especially within the actors’ mutual lacks of vanity. Later, there’s a gag with a small kid who’s bored by the Nintendo game that featured Randy: pixels past prime. Steeped in sorrow, mingling overstatement and understatement, “The Wrestler” is smart, goofy, heartening entertainment. With Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Barry, Mark Margolis. 109m. Widescreen. An interview with Aronofsky will appear next week. (Ray Pride)

A Sense of Places: Chicago International at 44

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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.

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Original Zen: You know you want to look

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By Ray Pride

January and August of most years are the dodgiest months of all as studio-film releases go, when long-delayed, long-tampered-with and long-painful dogs are let out of their cages. The big studios (and Lionsgate) have in the past year or so done the service to the working reviewer of failing to preview these lost puppies for reviewers. (Although there is a Texas-based reviewer for Variety who notes he’s assigned each Christmas morning to see the most violent release of the season that seeps up under the seasonal tree or bush.)

Folks who see a lot of movies professionally may be even more sensitive than the average movie-lover. Where the guy down the street can say of an enterprise like “The Rocker,” “Nuh-uh. The idea of Rainn Wilson as an aging musical wanna-be who seems to be sporting a diaper turns my stomach. Want to get pizza?” and no one’s the poorer. Steve Coogan playing a one-note, stuck-in-one-gear Steve Coogan-ish asshole in “Tropic Thunder” or “Hamlet 2″? How about sushi? Several writers in the 1980s made the suggestion that Steve Guttenberg was a star because he was an only-slightly-handsomer version of mid-level casting executives. More recently, the rapid-fire output of Judd Apatow-produced comedies about slightly shrubby losers getting the girl have led to similar musings about wish-fulfillment. (Although I’d say the confidence the somewhat slimmed-down Seth Rogen shows in “Pineapple Express” is a nice boost up from, say, Jonah Hill’s apoplectically red-faced spleen and panic in “Superbad.”)

Among this week’s movies that were available for preview is Idit Cebula’s larky French comedy, “Two Lives Plus One,” the story of a Parisian wife pushed and pulled on all sides by her controlling family and whose life changes when she buys a laptop and starts keeping—and publishing—journals. She’s played by Emmanuelle Devos, an actress whose charm goes beyond beauty and sensuality: she’s simply someone you cannot but stare at. She’s the same way in movies like Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen”: wide almond eyes with a steady gaze, a slight overbite, assured, reserved—you remember that movies were once more than the sum of spare parts from the house of cards that is stock plot-development. Pictures of people talking, and more importantly, listening, can be more than illustrated radio. The French still make movies like that.

Although Devos has become a substantial star on her home turf, she displays the kind of expressiveness seen more often in American movies in the faces and behaviors of character actors, rather than the well-heeled lead players. Her characters aren’t asked to experience some kind of spiritual transformation or to lead soldiers into battle—the “journey” doesn’t involve an identikit destination, a predetermined, predestined, pre-masticated ending, but the particulars along the way.

But most importantly, she simply has “it”: an actor who, as the saying goes, the camera loves, something beyond physical beauty. Mere charisma? Original Zen: someone you would gratefully watch on any journey. A few names off the top of the head: Luis Guzman. Marisa Tomei. Laurence Fishburne. Shu Qi. Jean-Pierre Leaud. Bruno Ganz. Richard E. Grant. Danny McBride. Tom Wilkinson. Elias Koteas. Warren Oates. Bruce Greenwood. Like termites, they bite through the fabric of the rote story unfolding. (Thelma Ritter in Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street”: she sells multitudes.)

I’ll confess to a couple of other actors that when I see their name on posters, I get the willies. But, just as I’m seldom disproved in my sneaking suspicions that Ben Stiller will play a character that seems ready to scratch his skin off from nerves and physical discomfort, there are actors I’d watch in just about anything. Say, Chow Yun-Fat in “The Children of Huang Shi.” The director Roger Spottiswoode told me he had to be careful in that recent film about just how far back in the frame Chow was in some scenes: he could be fifty feet away, lighting up a cigarette, and your eye is immediately drawn, fixedly, toward his gestures. Godard said something once about the movies having, in the time since Griffith, forgotten about the wind in the trees. It’s good to remember wind in the hair, too, and the transport that can play across a face in that simple instant of communing with nature.

“Two Lives Plus One” opens Friday at Siskel. Some bad movies, too.