Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

The City on the Hill: Windy Citizens at Sundance

Chicago Artists, Festivals No Comments »


By Ray Pride

They come to the city on the hill, by air, by roads, seekers of wisdom headed west into the wilderness, into the mountains, beneath crystal blue skies, among dreamers and ideas in thin bracing air, amid Starbucks and Stella Artois, among official sponsors and “riff-raff” brands to the side, ten days formally kicked off with Robert Redford’s annual, perennial peroration of what independent cinema is and will be for the immediate future, foreseeable budgets and attention spans.

Sundance. Films and filmmakers, press agents and sales agents, and agents galore, shuttles shuttling the small hamlet of Park City, engorging its paths and runnels from its year-round resort-town population of under 10,000 to a figure estimated as high as fourteen million. Actually, it only seems that packed on opening weekend: 120,000 was one of the highest estimates, and it’s plausible—the traffic is worse than cross-town Manhattan even in the middle of the day, or Chicago when there’s a compelling multiple-car pileup on the side of the Kennedy. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Peepli Live

Comedy, Drama, Musical, Recommended, World Cinema No Comments »


One of the richest surprises of the summer is the pungent “Peepli Live,” writer-director Anusha Rizvi’s vivid, bustling satire, in the vein of Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole,” or should we say, opening a vein as “Ace in the Hole” does. Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) is a poor famer from the small town of Peepli, and if he can’t pay back a government loan, he’ll lose his land. Thoughtfully yet creepily enough, the government also offers aid to the survivors of farmers who commit suicide. Natha’s brother advocates this course of action, Natha tentatively agrees, and soon the big carnival of media and politicians swoop down on Peepli, sweeping Natha’s grave decision out of the way with their own goals and agendas. Rizvi wrestles with Indian village-versus-city issues with bawdy wit and ample charm. Talking to producer Aamir Khan recently, he told me that “Peepli Live,” the first Indian movie to play in competition at Sundance, is indeed atypical of modern Indian filmmaking, and its dark undercurrents make it atypical of much of what’s called independent filmmaking in this country. Read the rest of this entry »

The Riches of Embarrassment: Mortifying Life in “Lovers of Hate”

Comedy, Drama, Horror, Recommended, The State of Cinema No Comments »


By Ray Pride

“Lovers of Hate” is the name of a novel that will likely never be written as well as a squirm’s turn of a title that perfectly suits one of the three protagonists in Austin writer-director-editor Bryan Poyser’s third feature, an exquisitely calibrated black comedy of sibling rivalry which debuted at Sundance and South by Southwest 2010.

There’s a little bit of both those festivals in the movie, from character types to physical locations. Two grown brothers are separated by geography and by success. Rudy (Chris Doubek) is the older, first seen at an Austin car wash at bleak early morn stripping off in an impromptu shower. He’s living in his car after breaking up with his wife Diana (Heather Kafka), who wants nothing more to do with him. Younger brother Paul (Alex Karpovsky), a successful writer of young-adult books who lives in a “small” New York apartment, arrives, wrenching Rudy’s self-pity party. Paul’s best-selling success with his Harry Potter-like hero comes from stories Rudy told him when they were children, and he dedicates the series to “the original Invisible Kid.” But Rudy’s not invisible, not yet; he’s like a sad terror that’s risen out of the grubby, grassy Texas in the brusque, taut cinematography by David Lowery (“Audrey the Trainwreck,” director, “St. Nick”) on a low-end Panasonic HVX camera. Diana briefly goes along with the charade they’re still a couple, but the putative author of “Lovers of Hate” will fuck it up again and again. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Everything Strange and New

Drama, Gay & Lesbian, Recommended No Comments »


Cinematographer-turned-director Frazer Bradshaw’s “Everything Strange And New” captures the airlessness of one man’s life, largely in visual terms, partly in sound. The everyday life of a fortyish carpenter named Wayne is a mosaic of messes: children underfoot, wife troubled, drinking with a new drinking buddy beckons. The plain title blurts Bradshaw’s ambition. (Does the banal, observed, ineffably reveal?) Despite Wayne’s agitated state, Bradshaw works with intent formal control, and likes the word “pastoral” to describe the film’s tableau-driven mood. (He’s also described the film as “a portrait of passivity inside a vortex of change”; the film’s haunted-California imagery is often crystalline where lingo like that isn’t.) Emotions rise. Sexual conflicts emerge. A clean resolution’s not likely. Plus: Clowns are invoked. (Literal ones.) A Sundance 2009 entry. With Jerry McDaniel, Beth Lisick, Rigo Chacon Jr., Luis Saguar. (“Everything Strange And New” was one of the five nominees for the IFP and MOMA’s “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You, 2009”; I was on the jury.) 84m. (Ray Pride)

“Everything Strange and New” opens Friday at Facets.

Review: Secrecy

Documentary, Recommended No Comments »

“Secrecy” was one of the gentle gems of Sundance 2008, and its content and sentiment could not be timelier as elections near. Robb Moss and Peter Galison’s impassioned documentary is quiet and discreet in its examination of how contemporary governmental misprisions and greater crimes are compulsively papered over, and it’s devastating in both its analysis and in its presentation. “Secrecy” is one of the few recent documentaries to incorporate animation that doesn’t make the eyes cross, then roll, and the judicious use of art from non-film sources provides telling metaphorical weight. There’s a portrait in “Secrecy” of a career military lawyer who does the right thing against the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, and as his story unfolds, his fury grows: he is right, he knows he’s right and history will record that he is right. 88m. (Ray Pride)
“Secrecy” opens Friday at Siskel.

Stealing Beauty: The high crimes and high art of “Man On Wire”

Documentary, Recommended No Comments »

By Ray Pride

Even after seeing “Man on Wire” three times, at Sundance, as the triumphant closing night of the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri and back in Chicago, I’m ready to see it again: just about any place. It’s far and away my favorite film commercially released in 2008 to date.

James Marsh’s telling of the 1975 high-wire act between the two tallest high-rise buildings on Earth, the then-incomplete World Trade Center, by wirewalker Philippe Petit, rises above the classification of nonfiction into simple joy. As I wrote after Sundance, “With its black-and-white recreations, the movie often has the urgency of a heist thriller, and comes to resemble a dissection of the conspiracy of a clandestine cell of terrorists, yet the ultimate act, buoyed by an insistent score drawn from Michael Nyman’s back catalog, grows immensely, illogically, beautifully thrilling. Beauty need not apologize, but sometimes requires fingerprinting. When the film took its second nod on closing night, Petit suggested, ‘Keep moving mountains, keep growing wings, keep dreaming.'”

The English-born Marsh’s earlier films include the nonfiction “Wisconsin Death Trip” and the southern Gothic “The King.” The re-creations, I say when we speak, fit into the “crime narrative” he describes the film as. Each of the players is introduced in a studio setting—“Kind of like a mugshot, yeah,” Marsh chimes in. “You remember that wonderful scene in Robert Altman’s film, the Chandler adaptation, ‘The Long Goodbye’? With Elliot Gould. It was a touch of that brilliant sequence early on where he’s mug-shotted when he’s taken downtown to be interrogated. I think I had seen that film shortly before I started working on ‘Man on Wire,’ so that’s probably where that idea came from. But then I had to set up these formal, complicated [backgrounds] of these bohemians and office workers. But for the purposes of this story, this adventure, they’re criminal conspirators. And it felt like a playful way of signifying this, like ‘The Usual Suspects.'”

The high stylization comes together pretty rapidly from the beginning and I’d held my breath from the start, audiences will know what the film is about, but in the world of the movie, you don’t know it’s the Towers yet, but the style shows it’s a criminal offense, it’s an assault, an assault of performance-art terrorism, in a way. That’s what I infer as a viewer, and the film seems to fall more on the side of the heist format. I’m sitting there, thinking, of all the grievous insults, these buildings had at least one beautiful assault against them.

“Of course I was very aware of that,” Marsh says. “There is some moviemaking in that. If fact, since you’ve seen the movie a couple of times, you’re probably glimpsing a blueprint of the World Trade Center early on in that opening sequence, which, as you say, sets up a kind of, something’s going on, people are getting together, they’re up to no good. They’ve got a plot against something. Obviously, there are sort of morbid dimensions to it and we were deliberately playful about it. But of course I was aware of some of the obvious underlying connections with later events. The idea was not to show your hand too much, or to be too crude about it, but of course, a bunch of foreigners hanging around a New York monument, photographing it, examining it for its possibilities for a spectacle, it’s all implicit in the story. One doesn’t have to try too hard. If you tell the story, that’s just going to come off of it. I think it would have been a mistake to go any further with it.”

It seems less discretion or being tasteful than a canny artistic choice to never speak of the fate. It’s in everyone’s mind. “Exactly, yeah.” It’s a meta-thing, you don’t need it. “Yeahhh. I think everyone will have a slightly different response on that level, to a lesser or greater degree. Y’know, quite frankly, what is it that one would show you at the end? How would we do it? The last thing you want to do is to confuse these two events even as you rightly point out, there are interesting kinds of implicit parallels and some of the imagery, even, of people looking up. One is the inversion of the other. During Philippe’s walk, you see people looking up with joy and awe and wonder. And you see the kind of imagery with very different and much more disturbing expressions around 9/11 and the terrible disaster there. It was a very easy choice to make going, a defining choice. Going into the project. There was a little pressure from producers who say, ‘Should we get Philippe to give us his views?’ And I’m saying very clearly, no, I don’t think I’m ever going to do that. The last thing you want is repeat imagery that for me is already been repeated and cheapened and diminished and exploited as well. The other thing about what happened on 9/11 has been exploited by politicians in a particular kind of way. The whole thing is so ugly and foul and vile and we lost innocence in New York City. There’s something about New York in the seventies that was far from innocent, but this [bold act] was possible at that time. We have lost something. You can’t barrel through JFK anymore with a bow and arrow in your suitcase!”

“Man on Wire” opens Friday at Landmark Century and Renaissance.

David Gordon Green makes “Snow Angels”: All the Real Wails

Drama, Romance No Comments »

By Ray Pride

David Gordon Green’s fourth feature, the casually played yet deeply serious, soulful “Snow Angels,” continues along his own lovely path, reaching into particulars of working-class life with wit and empathy. Life is a river, and sometimes it freezes over: Green, working with generous breadth in adapting Stewart O’Nan’s novel, warms the heart. The cast is large, Altman-sized. Green moves between them fluidly. There are at least ten primary characters, and their interactions are marshaled with novelistic care. It’s a tapestry of overwhelming complication, adroitly described, demonstrating well the abiding truth that you must forgive trespasses in tiny towns. Failing to do so is at your own risk. (Made in 2006, “Snow Angels” debuted at Sundance in 2007 just before Green shot this summer’s Apatow-factory stoner comedy “Pineapple Express.”)
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Appreciating the Euro: A month of art from old Europe

Festivals, World Cinema No Comments »

By Ray Pride

The eleventh annual European Union Film Festival starts Friday and plays through March at Siskel with sixty-one movies from twenty-six countries, and it may be the city’s most consistent film festival.

The Euro’s at its highest-ever valuation against the dollar, over $1.50, and on Monday, James Schamus, whose Focus Features produced the London-set period piece “Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day,” joked to New York magazine that making a movie overseas is now “that ‘Sophie’s Choice’ between ordering a pizza or paying for your kids’ college education.” Read the rest of this entry »

Utopian Tourette’s: Michel Gondry says what’s on his mind

Comedy, Drama No Comments »

By Ray Pride

“Be Kind Rewind,” Michel Gondry’s second feature as solo writer-director, is a shambling and idiosyncratic comedy, set in a parallel universe of a rundown Passaic, New Jersey, where old ideas die hard.
Danny Glover runs a video store, still dedicated to VHS, in a rundown inner-city corner building where Fats Waller was reputedly born; Mos Def plays a clerk whose paranoid friend (Jack Black) manages to electrify himself during one of his foolish ventures and erase the store’s inventory. Solution? Do remakes starring themselves, and eventually the community (including made-for-movies Melonie Diaz, at once cartoon and vital beauty). Bubbling and bristling on the surface, with a quiet wallop of an ending that seems at once utopian and elegiac, “Be Kind Rewind” essentially suggests there is no future for mass cinema. “I would be the first one out of a job if there were no movies or commercials, but I would not miss them,” Gondry says to me at the end of one spiraling disquisition. In a couple of conversations before its Sundance 2008 debut, and reading other interviews, I discover the endlessly inventive director almost never repeats himself (except to say, “Just let me have my concept” regarding the VHS). We continue with the topic of movies made with and for only one’s friends. Philosophically, “Be Kind” seems to be about how each individual finds a way to tell that story, even if only to friends on the block.
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The Death of Death: “Diary of the Dead” goes for the headshot

Horror No Comments »

By Ray Pride

Spoiler warning: “George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead” has zombies in it, and the zombies are metaphors!

Metaphors for what? Whaddya got? The 68-year-old resident of Toronto, born in New York to a Cuban-American father and a Lithuanian-American mother, doesn’t feel at all restrained by the four horror entries peopled by the undead that he’s put out since 1968: the political situation always allows his shambling metaphors to be vessels for whatever political messages might be in the air, including the 1978 “Dawn of the Dead,” set in a shopping mall, which shows prescient concern about the impact of consumerism, and the latest entry, which toys with ideas about mediated perception, ranging from the “truth” of televised news and “reality” television to the earnestness of film students to the barrage of information (and informers) that come from the Internet’s plethora of images and assertions.

“Diary” had its U.S. debut at Sundance in January and was easily one of the fiercest pictures on show. In fact, I’m not aware of any fiction features that might hold such sting. (Nonfiction, that’s another subject.) Had I been there before? The tall, affable Romero asks with concern. I tell him how many years. “Oh man! Do I feel sorry for you!”
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