By Ray Pride
“Man hands on misery to man,” poet Philip Larkin wrote in “This Be The Verse,” “Cruelty deepens like a coastal shelf.”
At a brooding simmer of two-and-a-half hours, the lyrical, sorrowful “Prisoners” hands on misery to man time and again. “Prisoners” hurts. Aches. Broods. It’s a rivulet of solemn, hardly repressed rage and misguided faith in one’s own righteousness, goodness and decency. Can redemption follow revenge? It’s also about a father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a small-town Pennsylvania carpenter who lives his maxim, “pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” whose young daughter, Anna, goes missing one Thanksgiving along with the child of another couple (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). A young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is suspected, interrogated by one Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), then released, to Keller’s anger. Keller’s no killer, but he’s prepared to do a terrible thing. Then another. Then another. And then he hopes others will understand… The twists and shifts do not stop. Read the rest of this entry »
So Yong Kim’s third feature is steeped in unexpected melancholy, especially once you’ve heard that the film is about the tribulations of an about-to-be-divorced, failing heavy-metal musician, Joby (Paul Dano), as he works to reconnect with his six-year-old daughter (Shaylena Mandigo) in winter-swept upstate New York. But as with her earlier “In Between Days” and “Treeless Mountain,” Kim fixes on a figure and lets landscapes grow around it. In this case, it’s Dano’s sapling-elfin form and softly wizened pained expressions. Read the rest of this entry »
By Ray Pride
In Rian Johnson’s fine and fantastic “Looper,” a man in the near future confronts men from the farther future and dispatches them from the face of the earth. It’s a savvy variation on the hitman genre and a magpie fashion of gently-brushed-in science fiction that manages to entertain in its small details of the everyday while proposing and prompting notions about our existence in the eternal now, the split-second we’re always holding, losing, anticipating with each breath and fleeting thought.
I think old Tom got it first and got it best, but Johnson is oh-so-very-close with his fine and fantastic third feature. “Old Tom” would be T. S. Eliot, and the poems would be those of “Four Quartets.” There was much drop of jaw while watching “Looper,” but it was not too far in when I remembered a single, singular, exquisite, simple passage. Stories about time travel open onto corridors of paradox, and “explanations” readily detonate. The most soothing passage I know about movies working Möbius rubber-band strips of time travel is part of a poem: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable. / What might have been is an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility / Only in a world of speculation.” Read the rest of this entry »
Top: Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton; Bottom, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
A weave of fancies, “Ruby Sparks” is a tart high-concept variation on modern romantic comedies, “Pygmalion” rewritten to poke holes in the modern-day-movie “manic pixie dream girl” myth. Plus, it’s directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a couple, starring another couple, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (who also wrote the screenplay). Calvin Weir-Fields, whose name sounds a little like “Jonathan Safran Foer,” wrote a first novel at nineteen, a precocious success, a Salingeresque doorstopper called “Heartbroken Old Times.” Now he’s banked a lot from ten years of royalties, living in a clean-lined duplex home more a screenwriter’s aerie than a writer’s nook. (Its angles skew nicely to the Escheresque.) His desk is all too neat, yellow Post-its, kitchen timers, manual typewriter just so. He’s had write’s block for years: the page is as blindingly white as his home. But one day, an exercise offered up by his Elliott Gould-calm therapist (Elliott Gould) leads to him writing about an idealized woman, a girlfriend he’d hope to have, “just a normal girl, just a girl I made up.” Then, from nowhere, there she is, Ruby Sparks, calling his name from downstairs, barelegged in a blue chambray boyfriend-shirt and black-white-striped panties, barelegged and barefoot, clabbering eggs with hot sauce. Read the rest of this entry »
Paul Dano, Olivia Thirlby
By Ray Pride
“The water is always looking for a way into your boat” is an epigraph in “Some Ether,” the 2001 collection by poet Nick Flynn, who also wrote the shard-in-the-heart slipstream of a memoir about his relationship with his mentally ill father, “Another Bullshit Night In Suck City.”
Flynn’s quoting a naval manual, quaint, dated ephemera, but the phrase captures in fragrant indirection the terrible and uncertain relationship—to have and have not—between a father who meant to write, who made pretense to write, and a son who did, and does, despite sharing similar predilections. Director Paul Weitz worked for years slimming drafts of his adaptation, “Being Flynn,” including through the period that he directed Robert De Niro in the grievous sequel “Little Fockers.” (I crossed myself just now so feel free not to do so yourself.) Read the rest of this entry »
It’s my fault for going in hoping for “The Proposition”-meets-“Starship Troopers.” Instead, generic title begets generic results in the tepid “Cowboys & Aliens,” brisk professionalism of a middling order. Jon Favreau’s first film since the congenially scatty “Iron Man 2,” from a script credited to Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof; Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby; and Steve Oedekerk, demonstrates that craft takes you only so far. (The ampersand in screen credits indicates writers who worked together as teams; the ampersand in “Cowboys & Aliens” is more mysterious.) The opening scene of spirited splatter from our supposed hero, an alien or Starman or Man With No Name or amnesiac (Daniel Craig) is promising. Craig plays terse and rugged well enough, but the sly twinkle of his best acting is absent (“Fateless,” “The Mother,” “Enduring Love,” “Love is the Devil”). Almost like a so-so movie by co-producer Ron Howard, “Cowboys & Aliens” is turgid without messy bits to keep it interesting, slick without the sleekness of high style. (Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has done better work in “Black Swan,” “Iron Man” and “Josie and the Pussycats.”) Read the rest of this entry »
Rugged yet austere, the pioneer drama of “Meek’s Cutoff” is rich with rarefied satisfactions. Some audiences will get little from its apparent minimalism; others will find quiet, deep satisfactions. Like her earlier “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” (also written by fiction writer Jon Raymond), Kelly Reichardt honors the impulses shown in even her earliest films like “River of Grass” (1994). Simplicity, framed, slowed, kept to a mysterious and somehow ominous tempo. A Sundance 2010 debut, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a Western both otherworldly and somehow ordinary-seeming, set on the Oregon trail in 1845. Things could go wrong, couldn’t they? Something about the landscape, food, water. The female characters’ faces are kempt, restrained by bonnets, the fashion of the time. There’s a tempo of faces, including the remarkable Michelle Williams, emerging from confinement. The film moves less like a dream or nightmare than a trance: a slowed hallucination. The instructions of a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) are not translated; the settlers don’t know the language, so we don’t either. “Meek’s Cutoff” is an original, and brave simplicity combined with a reverential sense of mystery holds ample reward. The loving, lovely cinematography is by Christopher Blauvelt, shooting in clear-eyed style in the classic, square frame of the “Academy” ratio of 1:33. Jeff Grace’s wonderful score is better heard than described. With Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson. 104m. (Ray Pride)
“Meek’s Cutoff” opens Friday at the Music Box. A trailer is below.
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Louis Ives (Paul Dano, “There Will Be Blood”) entertains notions of living in Manhattan as a novelist, but his fate is to live like a character in a novel, or a film based on a novel. The only novel he is ever seen reading in “The Extra Man” is “Washington Square” by Henry James. Never is he shown writing, or thinking or talking about writing. An indiscretion with a bra in front of the mirror in the faculty lounge cost him his position as a prep-school teacher. He moves into the apartment of Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), a mannered Manhattanite who once knew prospects as a playwright. After squandering his inheritance abroad, he’s lived for decades as a freeloader and flatterer amidst society ladies in need of gentlemanly attention. “I can advance you socially,” Henry promises Louis. Neither character is little more than a fussy drawerful of quirks. Louis is curious about cross-dressing. He gets nowhere with co-worker Mary (Katie Holmes) at the environmental magazine where he ineffectually sells ads. A diverting guest at dinner parties, Henry spouts an opinion on the literary advantages of partitioning of men and women in society: “The Muslims might produce another [F. Scott] Fitzgerald.” Director-writers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (“The Nanny Diaries,” “American Splendor”) adapt a novel by Jonathan Ames for a mildly comic study of eccentric parasites. The screen, though, may not offer this pair the same comforts as the pages of James and Fitzgerald. “The Extra Man” is itself a tony hanger-on ill-suited to earn its keep. With John C. Reilly, Marian Seldes, Jason Butler Harner, Alex Burns, Cathy Moriarty. 108m. (Bill Stamets)
“The Extra Man” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
By Ray Pride
Adaptation is translation, reducing, expanding, conflating, destructing, reconstructing, smashing, dashing, bowling, bawling, making personal what already was, what always was.
In a brief ninety minutes or so, if you discount the end credits, Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s nine-sentence 1963 illustrated children’s book captures the sensation of a child’s head, buzzing as with bees, filled with parts yet to be connected and potential yet to be explored and acted upon and lived up to. It’s the opposite of the usual studio-film obstacle of attempting to compress a 500-page novel into the confines of a traditional feature film length.
The result is a “wild rumpus” throughout, to use a phrase from the story. The events are episodic, resulting in an elliptical character, a scattiness, that’s slightly disconcerting in the theater, yet the morning-after taste that’s left is rich with the sensation of febrile, pre-hormonal surges of imagination yet to find its flowering. Read the rest of this entry »
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.”
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