Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: Zero Theorem

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Zero Theorem street copy


Shoestring Terry Gilliam is better than no Terry Gilliam at all, and in the sweetly mad master’s latest revision of dystopia takes on the pixel-kapow of corporate-designed image-drench and idea-blanch of the modern landscape of cities and man’s mind. Small-scale yet still baroque, the Bucharest-shot $13.8 million quickie, “The Zero Theorem” (written by Pat Rushin), still indulges Gilliam’s particular brand of dark whimsy and prickly paranoia. A chrome-domed, stressed and fretful Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a computer programmer who’s retired to a chapel in the midst of a bustling post-modern London metropolis, slaving day and night at a computer simulation he’s been employed to use to solve the “zero theorem.” He keeps at his drudgery while waiting for a mysterious phone call that seems may never come. The glimpses of the streets outside bustle like Piccadilly Circus merged with a midget version of Hong Kong Central, and branding and hectoring and overlapping voices battle of Qohen and the audience throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Elysium

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Matt Damon


Situated at the end of the world at the end of the cinema in our usual center seat, “Elysium,” Neill Blomkamp’s 2154-set follow-up to “District 9,” has already set caverns of the internet alight. It’s not all that difficult to trip over a review with the assertion that “Elysium” has a key flaw: it has “politics.” As an allegory for the modern moment, this futuristic race against time is, yes, assuredly future now, in its own way a dystopian hero’s journey that could well have been adapted freely from Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine.” But like better science fiction, it’s an allegory that lines up parallels to the present moment, but doesn’t fuss so much over extended metaphor. For the middlest of brows (plot rather than theme and assured, thrilling physical detail): it’s a Matt Damon chase adventure. Max is a worker, injured on the job, fired, told he has five days to live after radiation contamination. Max turns into Jason Bourne, or more to Blomkamp’s esthetic, he’s transformed by criminals-turned-rebels from his reformed car-thieving past into a weaponized merc, a mega mecha with weaknesses, hours to live, grudges to bear.

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Review: Promised Land

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“Promised Land,” which was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski from a story by Dave Eggers and meant to be Damon’s directorial debut, but was handed off to Gus Van Sant, is filled with the clean lines of advanced screenwriting seminars, with each running gag ticking in at the proper “beat” within prescribed “arcs.” A cautionary tale about the extraction, via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of natural gas from remote shale deposits beneath disadvantaged expanses of rural farmland, the movie moves from the picturesque to falsity with fleet and professional confidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Margaret

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Once was lost, now not quite saved: Kenneth Lonergan’s 150-minute cut of “Margaret,” the eccentric release of which has yet to be explained because of ongoing litigation, returns to Chicago, in 35mm, for a one-week run, because of the support of local critics. Condensing what I wrote at the time of its fugitive release in October: “Margaret” is a frayed-nerves feat of furious articulation. Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a privileged young woman whose confusions run from mother to father, to sex, to the life of the mind, to elemental guilt. Thematically, “survivor guilt” after 9/11 resounds in Lisa’s witness to, and potential cause of, the death of a woman who’s hit by a city bus. The profusion of life, of life in Manhattan post-9/11, of life that eddies in all directions, is novelistic in ambition, Dickensian in a welter of cracked legalisms. (The film was shot in 2005; note the copyright on the still above.) Paquin brandishes a bravura performance—shrill, feral, emphatic, self-dramatizing, self-cautioning, self-aware, self-immolating—that is like nothing I’ve ever seen. She’s in Lisa’s skin and it’s an uncomfortable place. There’s a repeated fugue as interlude, figures on the city’s sidewalks caught in extreme slow-motion, with Ryszard Lenczewski’s cinematography tending to the shadow-bruised, the ashen. A shaft of light will suddenly pick someone out in the deep distance, their faces illumined in full proper focus for a brief instant. This, too, is Lonergan’s dramatic impulse: how do we all mesh? What’s teeming just beyond all parameters of the frame? The sudden, thrilling, earned ending is an impulsive and perfect and human moment: a little lunge toward tenderness. Plus: the promise of the Thelma Schoonmaker-Martin Scorsese cut, closer to the three hours of material in the screenplay, nestling on a hard drive somewhere out there. 149m. (Ray Pride)

“Margaret” opens Friday for one week at Siskel.

Review: We Bought A Zoo

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Ballyhooed as his “first motion picture for all audiences,” Cameron Crowe directs a pleasing PG adventure about a grieving family that moves out of the city and refurbishes a fading animal park. Taking care of critters threatened with federally mandated euthanasia tracks with Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) healing after losing his wife. Putting down an aging regal lion may feel like the prospect—though not one ever implied by a flashback—of pulling the plug at his wife’s bedside. Mee quits his globe-trotting newspaper job, leaving behind house and haunts too linked to his late beloved. He resettles his resentful fourteen-year-old son and resilient seven-year-old daughter on an eighteen-acre facility that comes with a colorful crew lead by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson). Crowe works his trademark humanism, and the best emotional notes are hit with a decency and discretion. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Margaret

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“RIP: ‘Margaret’ 2003-2011.” A curtailed potential masterpiece: six years of legal wrangling over running time have kept Kenneth Lonergan’s drenching study of a seventeen-year-old New Yorker’s inner life in the years immediately after 9/11 from being seen. Lonergan’s follow-up to 2001’s “You Can Count On Me” is a straightforward yet lovingly structured examination of heated, sometimes-hysterical post-9/11 emotions, written in 2003, shot in 2005, locked and copyrighted in 2008, litigated unto now—perhaps at the crest of a five-year business write-off cycle?—and released in an inexcusably truncated form. Read the rest of this entry »

A SARS Is Born: “Contagion”‘s Communication Breakdown

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By Ray Pride


And so the world ends, not with a bang but with a touch. However it’s seen—a bookend to the nihilist ending of summer hit “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a planetary “Poseidon Adventure” with an all-star cast helping us tell a vast number of roles apart, or a process piece, an “All the President’s Men” of pandemic preparedness—”Contagion,” Steven Soderbergh’s twenty-third film since 1989, is a corker of dread. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

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“It took over 200 years to create the symbol of the presidency,” notes the president in “The Sentinel,” a political thriller with an illicit romance that George Nolfi scripted in 2006. Now he writes and directs a superior “romantic thriller” that spells out what it will take to make David Norris (Matt Damon) president in a foreseeable future. Tinkering with this Brooklyn pol’s itinerary to higher office are strange men-in-hats carrying proto-iPads: their screens map the existential GPS of Norris and all the rest of us. Micromanaging fate is necessary to maintain the exact timetable of human history. Except hat-wearing Harry (Anthony Mackie) is a minute late for a preset spilling of coffee on Norris’ shirt. Norris steps into a venture-capital meeting a bit earlier than expected and sees Harry’s coworkers, some uniformed in long black leather coats like those worn by the firemen in “Fahrenheit 451,” in the act of adjusting the mind of one of his immobilized coworkers. As in “Inception,” subconscious recalibrations alter one’s later “decision trees.” Minimizing “ripples” in the space-time continuum is like maintaining film continuity. “The Adjustment Bureau” posits God not as the Ur-auteur, but as an executive producer with script doctors doing rewrites to steer history since the hunter-gatherers. Read the rest of this entry »

Go Western: Fill those seats at “True Grit,” you S.O.B.

The State of Cinema, Western No Comments »

John Wayne

By Martin Northway

Western movies were once as common as today’s Bourne-type thrillers and as ubiquitous on television as modern reality programming. In my youth they were part of my generation’s universe of discourse.

If you’re younger than I, and there’s a good chance you are, we had it better. This is not simple nostalgia speaking. You missed something, and with each new Western film that comes along—and they are few and far between—I hope for your sake this will be the one that revives the genre.

Back in the day, when my friends and I argued about who was cooler, Steve McQueen or James Dean, even though Dean made only three movies before his untimely death, one was a modern Western.

And McQueen, well, McQueen—whose film career likely interrupted a delinquent youth’s arc toward a life of crime—was a principal in one of the most influential Western movies of all time, “The Magnificent Seven.” Was it a great film, in the way “The Searchers” is great? Hardly. Nor was it a very realistic depiction of the old West. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: True Grit

Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Recommended No Comments »


A simple Western festooned with wicked comic vernacular, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” honors its source, the best-selling novel by the great novelist Charles Portis. Directorial sarcasm seems at a rare minimum for the brothers, as they trust the actors to capture the rich lingo and fierce illusions of its characters. Jeff Bridges’ U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn is dubbed the one with “true grit” by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). Steinfeld is a torrential force of nature as the one with the truest grit, wrangling majestic swathes of dialogue but also simple statements like “There is no clock on my business.” Steinfeld’s precocity brings high flush to her cheeks, making her more imposing than vulnerable in the face of dullard mankind. Mattie’s range of polymathic knowledge startles and stumps the denizens of Fort Smith, Arkansas, “fugitives and malefactors” alike, who would stand in the way of avenging the shooting death of her father. But she’s got cash, which leads to wary, provisional collaboration with both the trigger-happy-if-one-eyed Cogburn and run-at-the-mouth Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, relishing his role as a dapper and slightly simple dandy). Read the rest of this entry »