Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: A Most Wanted Man

Drama, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »


What a seedy man is Günther Bachmann. Embodied, body and sallow soul by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last completed role, the German secret agent at the center of John Le Carre’s 2008 thriller had a spot of trouble back in Beirut and wound up in Hamburg for his sins, part of a deeply undercover cell of spies that observes and infiltrates the lives of suspected terrorists who might lead them further up the food chain of international bad actors. His superiors, plus a concerned American spy (Robin Wright), want to keep Bachmann on a tight leash, but he wants his counterterrorist team to stay as rogue as can be. There are many melancholic Le Carre-style exchanges, including Hoffman to Willem Dafoe’s banker character. “Which one? The one you want to fuck. She’s too young for you, Tommy. She’s too young for both of us.” (As well as the compact weariness of “Men who trusted you died.”) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Late Quartet

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Writer-director Yaron Zilberman presents a twenty-five-year-old string quartet in the throes of interlinked personal and professional crises. The melodrama of “A Late Quartet” is anomalous: the drama is about music. Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-sharp minor is the piece at its center. The musicians belong to The Fugue Quartet, whose dynamics Zilberman says he “modeled” after several true-life examples: the Guarneri String Quartet, the Italian String Quartet and the Emerson String Quartet. He then filmed the Attacca String Quartet for research and recorded the Brentano String Quartet for the soundtrack. After all this preparation, the film opens on a stage with four chairs and four music stands. The first violinist, second violinist, violist and cellist walk on stage, as the names of four top-billed actors appear overhead in credits: Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken, respectively. The latter three are so well known that the applause acknowledged by their string-quartet characters from the concert audience of extras could be coming from their film audience at the art-house or multiplex. Read the rest of this entry »

Ape and Ego: The Enigmas of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”

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By Ray Pride

“This is something you do for a billion years or not at all.”

There’s much declaimed about mind and matter and devotion to ideas, ideas that will weather time, in “The Master,” and the teeming result is crafty, chunky delight, an enigma of ape and ego. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson wrestles with man-vs.-animal in eccentric, compelling, outrageously plush fashion: it’s not just about L. Ron Hubbard and the roots of Scientology, as was rumored before the film’s release. It’s most particular about sterling, physical performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix as battling, wrestling embodiments of flesh and philosophy.

Set in the early 1950s, “The Master” quickly etches the alcoholic abandon of sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix) before placing him in the orbit of a man whose family and acolytes call “The Master.” At first meeting, bearing a red pencil and wearing a red dressing gown, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s face blushed to lobster red, The Master recognizes this shifty character as more than a transient to traffic with, his project, his grail, his doom, his liege, his love, his “silly, silly animal.” (They bond over quaffs of Quell’s signature pour, a particularly flammable, inflammatory Long Island iced tea comprised of endless medicinal quaffs of paint thinner and such chemicals damped through heels of bread.) 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: Moneyball

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Another book about American business lends itself to a compelling drama centered on a maverick. This fact-based look at winning is a truly calculated case of “inside baseball.” “Moneyball” is based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis titled “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” The resemblance to “The Social Network,” based on the 2009 book “The Accidental Billionaires,” makes sense since Aaron Sorkin is credited with collaborating on both screenplays. (Steven Zaillian shares screenwriter credit.) Read the rest of this entry »

Red White And Boo-Hoo: The deathly romance of “Blue Valentine”

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By Ray Pride

“Blue Valentine” is a hotdog that thinks it’s a world-beating feast.

Derek Cianfrance’s second feature is a horror movie about American romance, steeped in blue-collar imagery and American flags, performed by two of the most gifted American actors in their thirties. It’s drenching, wrenching and false in almost every note not involving Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Cianfrance shatters time: the goofy meet-cute of Cindy and Dean near a college campus leads six years later to the hate-brute of the death throes of their relationship in downcast rural Pennsylvania. With the two periods shot a month apart, the “past” is in a subdued Super 16mm and the “present” in a brighter, heavy-on-the-red high-definition video, but discontinuous slips between now and then create a warp and weave that suggests memory’s timelessness but also of destructive habits and deadly repetitions. Read the rest of this entry »

Happiness, Actually: Rocking the boat with Richard Curtis

Comedy, Musical, Romance No Comments »

curtisdirectsrockingtheboatBy Ray Pride

Richard Curtis is happy even if you’re not.

“I’m a great believer in happiness,” says the 53-year-old writer of “Blackadder” and “Notting Hill” and writer-director of “Love Actually” and “Pirate Radio” on a Monday stopover in Chicago the day after his birthday. “And, if like me, you’ve had a happy life and you can try and portray it and send people out of the cinema joyful, that’s a great thing. And I don’t think at all that happiness is sentimental, or unrealistic. All over the world, there are people who are having fun with their friends, falling in love, having a good time, loving rock ‘n’ roll, and only about two places in the world are there serial killers planning to murder single mothers in apartment blocks. For some reason or other, when you have these absolutely gruesome things, they’re called searingly realistic, but they happen only once a decade. Whereas if you make a movie about friends falling around and people losing their virginity, that’s called unrealistic. Whereas, it’s happening millions of times in every city around the world. I’m interested in talking about that stuff.”

Curtis’ latest confection, “Pirate Radio,” (called “The Boat That Rocks” in its twenty-minute-longer British release) celebrates an era in the 1960s when British pop music was breaking out while broadcast radio remained staid and stuck-up. Entrepreneurs imported Australian and American deejays and moored them offshore, with pirate stations beaming the latest sounds to a grateful nation. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Invention Of Lying

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Brit comic Ricky Gervais (BBC’s “The Office,” HBO’s “Extras,” “Ghost Town”) stars in this divine satire he co-writes and co-directs with Matthew Robinson. Laced with sweet misanthropy, “The Invention of Lying“ opens with a voiceover by Mark Bellison (Gervais) pooh-poohing the credits. He explains the world of this film is one without lies, but he will invent them soon after he is fired. Mark writes scripts for Lecture Films Motion Picture Studios, under the banner of  “We Film Someone Telling You About Things That Happened.” He is stuck in a rut telling the truth about the fourteenth century. This does not impress Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”) who tells him in the first minutes of their first date that he’s unattractive and an unfit prospect for procreating. Their love story dawdles, while the premise zings. After a deep cortical anomaly equips Mark to make up stuff, he cannot explain to his buddies, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as a barkeep, that he is lying since there is no word for “truth” nor one for its antonym. No one is deciding to tell the truth and no one doubts anyone is not. They simply say what they’re thinking and simply believe what they’re hearing. It’s a weird, if simpleminded way of life. There’s no Ninth Commandment to break. But then Mark wants his dying mother Martha (Fionnula Flanagan) to believe there’s more than “nothingness for all eternity.” A doctor and some nurses overhear him at her deathbed and want to know more about it. What comes next recalls both “Pleasantville” and “Religulous.” With Rob Lowe, Jonah Hill, Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K. and Tina Fey. 100m. (Bill Stamets)

Review: Doubt

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John Patrick Shanley is a fine writer. A fine playwright. A Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony-winning, Oscar-holding writer who’s overcome his share of setbacks (including a savagely panned musical that opened recently in Manhattan) to continue to be both assured and prolific. As a writer. “Doubt” is a cloistered passion play about ambiguous doings in a setting much like the neighborhood of Shanley’s own Bronx upbringing. In 1964, Father Flynn, a winning, progressive priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is suspected of being too close to an African-American student. (Viola Davis’ brief turn as the mother is electric.) Accusations fly. The principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) has opposed him in the past, resisting the changes in the air and the church that he represents. Heated dialogue ensues; it’s juicy and Streep’s performance is gorgeously shaped, building from archetype to revelation over the course of the film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is one of our best, but he doesn’t make Shanley, the fine writer, even approach being a fine, cinematic film director. On location, a tilted angle can be useful for multiple suspenseful ends, or to “frame out” an offending element, but in Shanley’s case, the impact is dubious at best, detracting from the wrought dialogue. 104m. (Ray Pride)

Exquisite Tenderness: Ache ’til you laugh in Synecdoche, New York

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By Ray Pride

“A part that suggests the whole,” there’s the definition.

“Synecdoche, New York” is also a dauntingly ambitious movie from a first-time director, even an Oscar-winner as idiosyncratic as Charlie Kaufman. And especially considering its mood and brood: “Synecdoche” is loss; “Synecdoche” is bruise; “Synecdoche” is forgetting; “Synecdoche” is not forgetting; “Synecdoche” is schematic yet oneiric; “Synecdoche” is an epic dream of never attaining your dreams. Of wanting wishing striving until you die.

Funny in parts, too. But the most important aspect is the aftertaste: what is bitter and brackish and dour in the watching lingers afterward. There’s a medical term for the dull, almost pleasurable ache after a solid bruising (or, for men, a kick in the balls): “exquisite tenderness.” That’s what ebbs days after witnessing this grandiloquent edifice, a tower of babbling characters who are trying to create a work of art over the course of a lifetime that just happens to resemble Kaufman’s very enterprise.

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a shambling playwright of inchoate ambition. He’s mounted a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” with college-age actors, and his wife, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener), paints portraits in miniature: tiny as a postage stamp, best viewed with a magnifying glass. Writ large, writ small, doppelgangers for almost all the characters brood and multiply after Cotard gets a genius grant and proceeds to create a vision of his life in a vast warehouse, and begins never-ending rehearsals.

After “Synecdoche”‘s Chicago International screening, I moderated an hour-long Q&A with Kaufman, and it was one of the more rapt audiences in my experience. Everyone had questions. Some were about the actors—Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Weist, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan—and the roles they play, often taking up the roles of other characters in the aborning masterwork. A few questions were about how Caden suffers physical maladies from the opening scenes that then reach across the remainder of his life. Kaufman has other concerns as well, such as an inspired image to strike terror in any writer, where Caden has post-its reaching not only to a vast indoor horizon but likely the foreseeable future of his life that remains. With 200 or so scenes, twice the number of most contemporary movies, any note of distemper or echo of personal fears is quickly matched by another dart-jab, duck-weave of narrative feint.

But I bring up the subject of the characters’ increasing awareness of mortality, and we compare ages. At a certain point in life, phlegm takes on new meaning, I joke. “Various color phlegm,” Kaufman says. “How do you rate your phlegm? Which is the same as checking the color of your stools.” (Which Caden does.) “This isn’t new for me, it’s progressive, in a kind of way. And there are more aspects to it now. Maybe it’s even easier as I get older. I have lived with that kind of nervousness about my health for a very long time.”

“It made you uncomfortable. Because of your age. Or your health concerns,” Kaufman continues. I ask, would a 25-year-old respond differently? “I don’t know. I don’t know. That might be an issue. I’ve shown it to a lot of colleges, and there seems to be at least an appreciation of it being different, which comes a lot from college kids more than, y’know… I had an old guy in the audience wherever I was before here, D.C., and he came up to me, he asked me during the Q&A how autobiographical it was. I don’t answer that. He came up to me afterwards, and he said, the reason I asked that was because of the doctor stuff. He really related to the way doctors treat him. The way it was represented in the movie. That certainly is my experience with doctors.

If you express something that other people feel in their own lives, then that’s a good thing. Even if it’s a sad revelation. You know what I mean? I’ll tell you what it is. I have a lot of different doctors that I go to for a lot of different things. Occasionally, I’ll come across a doctor, very rarely who will talk about his or her own health problems. Not at length, but they’ll mention something. It’s such a relief. For some reason, I have in my head that doctors… that I’m this pathetic organism and they’re not. Then you find out they’ve got this, or they’ve got that. Then I’m not ashamed to be me. I think a lot of it is the shame of having… having a body. Having a less-than-perfect physical existence. I think that’s perpetuated by doctors, who want to present themselves as kind of a godlike entity. I guess maybe some people want that from their doctor. But I don’t want that. I want to know that there’s a common ground and I don’t have to be embarrassed being a person. I think, in a way, revealing myself in my work, then maybe I’m giving somebody the opportunity to feel that connection.”

However dogged and confounded Caden may be, it also seems he doesn’t have the energy for suicidal ideation. “Well, he’s a romantic. In a way. Maybe. Could be. I’m not going to say,” Kaufman says in his measured stop-start. He’s trying to create art to the exclusion of an unsatisfactory life. “Yeah. Yeah. But it is his life, though. I mean, the life he creates is his art. My writing, for example, my work, is my life. I mean, it’s not. It’s not all of my life, but it is a large part of it. I don’t think I’m not living when I’m working. It’s what I do.”

“Synecdoche, New York” opens Friday. Sin-EK-duh-kee. Sin-EK-duh-kee.