Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Been Taken: The Cool Cruelty of “Prisoners”

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PRISONERSBy 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 »

Grand Theater: The Stagecraftiness of “Skyfall,” the latest Bond

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Daniel Craig;Javier BardemRECOMMENDED

$287 million and counting: a week before opening in the United States and ten days after opening internationally, “Skyfall” is making one pretty Moneypenny. An admirable virtue of Sam Mendes’ film is that the dialogue in the screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and John Logan in Bond’s fiftieth year seldom stoops to that kind of second-rate pun-play, with much of the dialogue winky but not weary, self-conscious but not punny: “Only a bold woman wears a backless dress with a Beretta strapped to her thigh”; and later “I like you better without your Beretta”; the in-jokey “Fifty-year-old Macallan, a favorite of yours, I understand” and the literal (but also figurative) “Storm’s coming.” It’s good money for value, as a Brit might say: moody, broody, and expertly made; as much a good movie as a fine Bond movie.

Logan, a playwright by first trade, wrote screenplays for “Gladiator,” “Hugo,” “Rango,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Any Given Sunday,” among others, but he and Mendes take advantage of their shared theatrical background. Extended tête-à-tête mano-a-manos between British actors of several generations—Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney—take advantage of their performance skills. But individual setpieces are weighted with visual elements that draw from a theatrical vocabulary, such as Dench’s besorrowed M overlooking gray London at a picture window slashed with billions of cold tears, match-cut to a wounded Bond cascading over a waterfall like a spent package, as well as a martial arts duel in a disused floor of a Shanghai high-rise lit only by sky-high scrim of neon sculpture. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: In Time

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RECOMMENDED

#OccupyGattaca! Clever lad Andrew Niccol’s latest high-conceit parallel-universe science-fiction allegory, “In Time,” is also a bold, goofy, political parable that pits plutocrats who “come from time” (time = money) against the ninety-nine percent of the population that pay out their days in seconds against minutes. The unexplained gene-splicing that allows everyone to stay twenty-five sets an internal clock ticking on that birthday, which gives you a year: a year of currency to spend in order to live. You can stay twenty-five forever if you earn enough time and also evade the police, now known as “Timekeepers.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rango

Animated, Comedy, Recommended 1 Comment »

RECOMMENDED

Welcome to Dirt. Paydirt, I’d bet. Gore Verbinski’s first animated feature, “Rango,” promised to be strange-o after early teasers offered cryptic, semi-lysergic glimpses of the journey of a scrawny, tomatillo-headed chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp. But a spaghetti western that’s “Yojimbo” meets “Chinatown,” with splendid, not always slangy references to other movies and art? Highly unlikely but thoroughly enjoyable, and of a more toothsome sort of quirk than the last installments of the Verbinski-Depp “Pirates” trilogy.  A lizard with no name is cast from comfortable terrarium life into the parched desert, and finds his way to a tiny town filled with tiny, parched animal citizenry in the desert. The city’s buildings, sometimes only glimpsed for a flash, are crafted from trash you’d find along the side of the highway: the post office a red-flagged US MAIL home delivery box; a frontier shitter fashioned from a Pepto-Bismol bottle. Depp’s awed-by-the-world vocalizations of Rango’s unstemmable interior monologue, externalized, are inspired throwaways, with lines like “I appreciate the puttanesca myself but I’m not sure a child would” referencing both the pasta source of the movie’s key genre as well as the adult gags that will sail over the heads of children, after the fashion of good, classic Warner Bros. cartoons. What do you do with lines like “I’m actually one of the few men with a maiden name” or “You missin’ yer mama’s mango?” Or “What’s a aquifer?” “Well, for aqua.” Laugh, or wait for the next one that will make you laugh. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Company Men

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Men of unexamined comforts are stripped of their self-worth when their jobs vanish in veteran television producer John Wells’ feature film directorial debut, “The Company Men.” (Wells, whose television credits include “The West Wing” and “ER,” has also been an executive producer of films like “Savage Grace,” “I’m Not There” and “Far From Heaven.”) It’s down in the dumps instead of “Up in the Air.” “The Company Men” feels well intended, but it’s slick and comforting when its story of middle-aged men whose jobs are downsized at a Boston shipbuilding concern might be better served by raggedness and fury. (Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones hit the right notes, and the well of sorrow displayed by Chris Cooper is devastating and seems hardly to have been tapped.) It’s an immensely important subject, the destruction of rewarding jobs in an era of ruthless economic behaviors, but not one best served by a television-scaled movie on the big screen. Wells is blowing bubbles about upper-middle-class perquisites instead of reflecting any resonant sense, small or large, of money’s bubble bursting. Roger Deakins shot “The Company Men,” but the eye behind “True Grit” seems to have been downsized as well. With Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Craig T. Nelson, Maria Bello. 113m. (Ray Pride)

“The Company Men” opens Friday at River East, Showplace ICON, Webster Place and Evansotn Cinemark Century.

Review: True Grit

Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Recommended No Comments »

RECOMMENDED

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 »

The Top 5 of Everything 2010: Film

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The Social Network

Top 5 Domestic Films
“The Social Network,” David Fincher
“Winter’s Bone,” Debra Granik
“Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski
“Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Banksy
“Inception,” Christopher Nolan
— Ray Pride

Top 5 Foreign Films
“Carlos,” Olivier Assayas
“Everyone Else,” Maren Ade
“Dogtooth,” Yorgos Lanthimos
“Father of My Children,” Mia Hansen-Løve
“I Am Love,” Luca Guadagnino
— Ray Pride

Top 5 Films
“Animal Kingdom,” David Michôd
“Enter the Void,” Gaspar Noé
“Inception,” Christopher Nolan
“Lourdes,” Jessica Hausner
“Monsters,” Gareth Edwards
—Bill Stamets

Top 5 Documentary Films
“Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno,” Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea
“Sweetgrass,” (no director credited) [Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor]
“The Oath,” Laura Poitras
“Videocracy,” Erik Gandini
“Rembrandt’s J’Accuse,” Peter Greenaway
—Bill Stamets Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Revolutionary Road

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RECOMMENDEDRevolutionary Road

Fans of Richard Yates’ elegant, cold-hearted, bitter, angry, unforgettable novel have begun pouring out reminiscences of discovering its brutal charms while summering at writers’ colonies and inveighing against its screen adaptation (written by Justin Haythe, directed by Sam Mendes). “Revolutionary Road” is a great novel, but so acid that to fully reflect Yates’ brimstone would be near unendurable. While the death of dreams is one of Yates’ subjects, Mendes’ version more reflects the death of a marriage in suburban 1955. Leonardo DiCaprio captures a certain amount of doubt in his playing of Frank Wheeler, but it’s Kate Winslet who embodies fearfulness and a bite of madness with essential gestures. It’s a tremendous performance, capturing timorousness but also a streak of desperation borne of inchoate miseries (whether of will or failure of will or incipient madness). Michael Shannon plays a neighbor’s son, briefly brought out of the madhouse to speak unspoken tensions, a crackling performance: “You want to play house, you’ve got to have a job; you want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you’ve got to have a job you don’t like. Anyone comes along and says ‘What do you do it for?,’ he’s probably on a four-hour pass from the state funny farm. Agreed?” Zoe Kazan’s quiet sleepwalker of an office co-worker who cheats with Frank is more graceful and equally compelling. Some of the most combative scenes draw almost exclusively from Yates’ written dialogue, with word changes for economy more than “updating.” I’m fond of Thomas Newman’s scores, but this is one is far more foreboding than, say, for “Wall-E” or “American Beauty.” As shot by Roger Deakins, Mendes’ camera style is simplified, often choosing a more theatrical, tableau-style presentation than working with editing or extended camera moves, a choice that highlights performances down to the cold, cold final shot drawn directly from the novel. With Kathy Bates. 119m. (Ray Pride)

Review: Doubt

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RECOMMENDED

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)

An Inconvenient Cartoon: Pixar’s crusty follow-up to tasty “Ratatouille”

Action, Adventure, Animated, Comedy, Family, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »

By Ray Pride

A plush cousin to “Idiocracy,” the latest humbling eyeful from Pixar, “Wall-E,” says that Americans are going to die for their consumption habits, except for a few fat fumblers shot out into space.

While less profane, “Wall-E,” directed by Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”), is more pessimistic than Mike Judge’s dark mess. Its protagonist is the titular rusty robot that no one bothered to turn off 700 years earlier when the survivors of a ruined Earth leave for a luxury cruise ship, the Axiom, deep in outer space. The tableaux of a ruined Manhattan are thrilling, drawing from myriad influences: “Blade Runner” tempered with ideas from artists like Jodorowsky, Mobius and Jacques Tardi, among other hands from the Metal Hurlant era of comics. Wall-E becomes a Sisyphus building and ascending ziggurats of consumer waste that would appeal to Philip K. Dick in this post-human Metropolis, spending each day compacting and constructing step-at-a-time towers of Babel, with the watercolor look of Bruce McCall’s inventive apocrypha atop a Breughel canvas without human figures.

For the first forty minutes or so, there’s no dialogue and the eye wanders through an inventive tapestry of the remnants of a lost civilization. Stanton et al. make the most of silence (along with Ben Burtt’s terrific sound design). No brand names are given pride of placement, only the “Buy N Large” megacorp that seems to have absorbed all before the fall, including the government. Fred Willard makes a cameo as Shelby Forthright, the cheerleader CEO, using the memorable phrase, “Stay the course.”

Wall-E’s daily routine includes collecting things he likes: he’s a dogged packrat assembling a curiosity cabinet of technology and junk. He owns a single videotape (of “Hello Dolly”!), on BetaMax, which he watches through a contraption that includes an early iPod. It’s reminiscent of Los Angeles’ Museum of Jurassic Technology, as if civilization were a long-gone myth, an invented legend collated by a robot from scraps. When Wall-E’s solar panels are filled each morning, it’s signaled by the Mac start-up chime, which in one of its iterations, while rushing through the rings of Saturn, is strangely touching. (What’s he running? Mac OS MMDCCLXXV?)

Where “Cars” erred on the side of trying to make 1950s-style internal combustion engines into a thing of shiny love to dazzle the most prehensile of animation watchers, “Wall-E’”s anthropo-dwarfism goes the opposite direction, toward an eco-fable that’s more than majestic in its detailing while keeping its characters exceedingly small. (Wall-E’s sidekick is a resilient cockroach.) Stanton has said words to the effect that most of the Pixar projects to date were sketched out on a napkin over lunch more than fifteen years ago, and while the napkin has grown many terabytes larger, the idea of “the last robot” remains.

And there’s a lot of “last” to go around. After meeting a sleek female robot, EVA, that’s been dispatched to find vestiges of vegetation in the barren, windblown topsoil, further destruction ensues, including the nuking of a rank of tankers that at once is apocalypse and invokes the image of ship-cutters in India and other countries who take disused ships apart piece by piece. EVA’s intense minimalism suggests a universal remote that Apple design guru Jonathan Ive—listed in the end credits—might well have had a hand in. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country For Old Men”) was a consultant, too, and the textures of ruined Earth, including a scene between Wall-E and EVA at brick-red sunset seen from a bench on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, looking across an empty river bed to the dead lands of the island of schist and shite that Manhattan became, are haunting in their densely detailed grimness.

When EVA finds a plant that Wall-E had stowed in a Chaplin-style boot, a race to space follows. (A skyful of fallow space trash against a clean, bright star field joshes the opening of “Star Wars.”) The style shifts radically when the pair arrive on Axiom, with its thousands of blubberous passengers, grown lazy from generation upon generation of pampering in the 700 years onboard. They’re like inflatable Incredibles, ponging around on levitating air chairs. (Another keen homage: as the robots emerge into the corridors of Axiom, they’re hit with a crush of people just as the characters in Lucas’ “THX-1138″ are just outside the expanse of white infinity they believe they had been trapped in.)

Just past forty years since the debut of “2001” and HAL, “Wall-E’”s pastiche of Kubrick’s notions of space stations and cold computers has a few tickles, including Sigourney Weaver’s voicing of the onboard brain. Jeff Garlin’s voice work as the stupefied captain of the ship amuses, too. But nothing trumps a finely detailed apocalypse. And how do you get a happy ending from the end of the world? It is possible, and when you do, you have Peter Gabriel sing atop it, backed by the Soweto Gospel Choir.