Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Review: The Lone Ranger

Adventure, Comedy, Reviews No Comments »


“The Lone Ranger” lifts lots of “Pirates” play, and Johnny Depp’s Tonto draws many a tic from his four turns in that franchise: now he’s Jack Sparrow wearing a dead crow as headgear. Director Gore Verbinski says he revised the saga of the lawman known as The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and the Comanche called Tonto, to be just like Cervantes’ tale of the wandering of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. And this Ranger is indeed a delusional idealist. Instead of romance novels, upholding John Locke’s “Two Treatises on Civil Government” is his “bible.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Samaritan

Drama, Reviews No Comments »

There are volumes yet to be written about characteristics in movies like “Canadian-ness” and “amateurishness” that would be well served to include a couple of the not-so-rare examples like “The Samaritan” in the proposal pack. Working for a second time with producer Andras Hamori (“The 51st State”), Samuel L. Jackson takes a hike to Hogtown as Foley, a conman-murderer who’s looking for a new beginning after twenty-five years in stir. Shot in an economical five weeks, co-writer-director David Weaver’s “The Samaritan” shares peculiarities of pacing and raggedness of tone that inhabit Canadian movies from low to high, and you have to ask at moments, is this just odd, piquant, or is it simply bad? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Action, Comedy, Recommended No Comments »


What a generous goof! Contemporary digital-film technology contends that anything is possible: just imagine it, draw it, pre-viz it, throw a few football fields’ worth of computing power in a corporate terabyte farm and it is so! Your millions will come streaming back to you in satisfying increments over the course of your multiyear investment. Too many movies are demonstrating that just isn’t so. Weirdly, all the things that make the motion-capture animation of “The Adventures of Tintin” an almost unwatchable rush of half-baked slapstick and headlong “action,” work in contrary fashion in “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” the first feature film directed by animation good-guy Brad Bird. Bird bends the physical world to the needs of the faux-physics of the self-aware decamillion-dollar action movie, working with the weft of spectacle and the possibility of an unlikely, but sudden snuff, but also the weave of kinetic potential of composition as surely as he did in “The Incredibles.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Debt

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Retired Mossad agent Rachel (Helen Mirren, who played a retired CIA agent in “RED”) is proud of her daughter for writing a nonfiction book. Its subject is a secret operation initiated in 1965 in East Berlin. Rachel is not at all proud of a fictional ending she and her fellow operatives (Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) invented to explain why they did not bring the “Surgeon of Birkenau” (Jesper Christensen) to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. Charges would have included his blinding children in experiments to change their eye color. It’s time to correct the record, if not make a case. John Madden ably directs “The Debt,” a thriller with generic complications of lovers in the workplace and good killer versus bad killer moralizing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Conspirator

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Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) runs a Washington, D.C. boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others conspired to kill President Abraham Lincoln (Gerald Bestrom), the Vice President and Secretary of State in 1865. Called before a military tribunal, Surratt is defended by Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a Union Army captain. Robert Redford directs “The Conspirator” as a courtroom thriller and civics lesson on the judiciary in times of political fear that are rather like our own. Surratt, a resentful Southern sympathizer, and Aiken, a rookie lawyer who rose to the rank of captain fighting the South for four years, start off distrusting one another. Soon Aiken sacrifices career prospects and friendships to fulfill his duty. Railroading tactics of the prosecutor only incite him to take a higher road. (He also comes to discover his client’s likely innocence.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Green Hornet

3-D, Action, Reviews No Comments »

Director Michel Gondry hardly displays the visual play that levitated his “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep.” Here he is tasked with a jokey screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who earlier co-wrote “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.” Rich brat Britt Reid (Rogen) is the dissolute son of the late publisher of the The Daily Sentinel in Los Angeles. He plays vigilante on a lark with Kato (Jay Chou), his barista, mechanic and chauffeur. There’s a drug kingpin and a dirty D.A. Lots of cars, guns, fireballs and shattered glass. Cameron Diaz has a cameo role as a temp secretary who knows her crime news. Based on “The Green Hornet” radio series created by George W. Trendle in the thirties, this is thin action comedy that makes little of the superhero and sidekick dynamic. Sad to report, the best line may be Britt’s anticipation of Kato’s unwritten autobiography: “When they adapted it to a movie, I’d watch the shit out of that movie.” In this 3D conversion, there’s this bit of visual business to look for: the very same bad guy who wields a double-barrelled handgun gets two halves of a broken chair leg poked into his eye sockets. That’s the best industry insider joke about 3D to date. With Christoph Waltz, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Tom Wilkinson. 87m. (Bill Stamets)

Ghost Stories: Escaping the crowd with Roman Polanski (Review)

Political, Recommended, Thriller No Comments »

By Ray Pride

Like a finely drawn sketch, the silky, serenely sinister “The Ghost Writer” implies as much as it illustrates.

Drawn from Robert Harris’ efficient 2007 bestseller, “The Ghost,” that riffs on the “special relationship” that the government of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had with the United States, the project was taken up by Roman Polanski and Harris after financing for their $100-million adaptation of Harris’ “Pompeii” fell apart. The film’s dialogue is drawn largely from the book, but with a more precise wit and chilly twists to the talk. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Duplicity

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Writer-director Tony Gilroy—who scripted the “Bourne” trilogy—revisits the corporate white-collar environs of 2007’s “Michael Clayton” with a romantic caper starring ex-MI6 spy Ray (Clive Owen) and ex-CIA agent Claire (Julia Roberts). To score a fat early retirement package, they take security posts at competing corporations helmed by cunning CEOs played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. This fleet entertainment opens in a Dubai party where Ray hit on Claire, and Claire duped Ray. From there it’s five years later in New York City, two years ago in Rome, back to New York, eighteen months ago in London, and then off to the Bahamas by way of an industrial park in Georgia, next stop Miami, then three months ago in Cleveland, twelve hours later in Zurich, ten days earlier in New York and finally back in Zurich. Gilroy says he studied “The Thomas Crown Affair,” and there’s a similar play here with a duplicitous couple of pros who never know who’s playing whom. For Claire and Roy, intimacy is a matter of mutual espionage. They are keenly aware that neither plays fair. Love is encrypted. From “Michael Clayton,” Gilroy brings back his cinematographer, editor, composer and production designer, if not his critique of execs and their ethics. 125m. (Bill Stamets)

Review: Valkyrie

Action, Thriller No Comments »

2008_valkyrie_001United Artists’ poster sports a mostly vertical red band with two ninety-degree turns that create a horizontal jag. It does not look like a swastika, but there’s enough to trigger the mind’s eye to add a right and a left angle or so, and fashion the Nazi icon from the abstract graphic. No such mind games are in play when reading the boldfaced schematics of “the good German” and “ten righteous men” in the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Northwestern grad Nathan Alexander. After directing two “X-Men” films, Bryan Singer knows all about renegades engaging über-foes. Evil, in this telling, is signaled by an extreme close-up of a mosquito incinerated by the burning tip of a cigarette wielded by a Nazi sentry. This pulsing thriller stars Tom Cruise (“A Few Good Men”) as Claus von Stauffenberg. Seeing himself as a true patriot, he delivers a briefcase bomb to a briefing with Adolph Hitler on July 20, 1944. If the meeting had not been relocated from a stifling underground bunker to a room with open windows, the explosion would have killed Hitler. Stauffenberg spearheads a coup attempt by mobilizing Hitler’s own anti-coup mechanism, known as Operation Valkyrie. “Long live our sacred Germany!” cried Stauffenberg before his execution by firing squad. Last year his son Berthold told Der Spiegel: “It is unpleasant for me that an avowed Scientologist will be playing my father. … I fear that only terrible kitsch will come out of the project.” Yes, but is it ennobling kitsch? An end title states there were fourteen other “known” attempts to assassinate der Fuhrer, should Singer have more operations in mind for the screen. With Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann and Terence Stamp. 120m. (Bill Stamets)

Original Zen: You know you want to look

Comedy, Romance, World Cinema No Comments »

By Ray Pride

January and August of most years are the dodgiest months of all as studio-film releases go, when long-delayed, long-tampered-with and long-painful dogs are let out of their cages. The big studios (and Lionsgate) have in the past year or so done the service to the working reviewer of failing to preview these lost puppies for reviewers. (Although there is a Texas-based reviewer for Variety who notes he’s assigned each Christmas morning to see the most violent release of the season that seeps up under the seasonal tree or bush.)

Folks who see a lot of movies professionally may be even more sensitive than the average movie-lover. Where the guy down the street can say of an enterprise like “The Rocker,” “Nuh-uh. The idea of Rainn Wilson as an aging musical wanna-be who seems to be sporting a diaper turns my stomach. Want to get pizza?” and no one’s the poorer. Steve Coogan playing a one-note, stuck-in-one-gear Steve Coogan-ish asshole in “Tropic Thunder” or “Hamlet 2″? How about sushi? Several writers in the 1980s made the suggestion that Steve Guttenberg was a star because he was an only-slightly-handsomer version of mid-level casting executives. More recently, the rapid-fire output of Judd Apatow-produced comedies about slightly shrubby losers getting the girl have led to similar musings about wish-fulfillment. (Although I’d say the confidence the somewhat slimmed-down Seth Rogen shows in “Pineapple Express” is a nice boost up from, say, Jonah Hill’s apoplectically red-faced spleen and panic in “Superbad.”)

Among this week’s movies that were available for preview is Idit Cebula’s larky French comedy, “Two Lives Plus One,” the story of a Parisian wife pushed and pulled on all sides by her controlling family and whose life changes when she buys a laptop and starts keeping—and publishing—journals. She’s played by Emmanuelle Devos, an actress whose charm goes beyond beauty and sensuality: she’s simply someone you cannot but stare at. She’s the same way in movies like Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen”: wide almond eyes with a steady gaze, a slight overbite, assured, reserved—you remember that movies were once more than the sum of spare parts from the house of cards that is stock plot-development. Pictures of people talking, and more importantly, listening, can be more than illustrated radio. The French still make movies like that.

Although Devos has become a substantial star on her home turf, she displays the kind of expressiveness seen more often in American movies in the faces and behaviors of character actors, rather than the well-heeled lead players. Her characters aren’t asked to experience some kind of spiritual transformation or to lead soldiers into battle—the “journey” doesn’t involve an identikit destination, a predetermined, predestined, pre-masticated ending, but the particulars along the way.

But most importantly, she simply has “it”: an actor who, as the saying goes, the camera loves, something beyond physical beauty. Mere charisma? Original Zen: someone you would gratefully watch on any journey. A few names off the top of the head: Luis Guzman. Marisa Tomei. Laurence Fishburne. Shu Qi. Jean-Pierre Leaud. Bruno Ganz. Richard E. Grant. Danny McBride. Tom Wilkinson. Elias Koteas. Warren Oates. Bruce Greenwood. Like termites, they bite through the fabric of the rote story unfolding. (Thelma Ritter in Sam Fuller’s “Pickup on South Street”: she sells multitudes.)

I’ll confess to a couple of other actors that when I see their name on posters, I get the willies. But, just as I’m seldom disproved in my sneaking suspicions that Ben Stiller will play a character that seems ready to scratch his skin off from nerves and physical discomfort, there are actors I’d watch in just about anything. Say, Chow Yun-Fat in “The Children of Huang Shi.” The director Roger Spottiswoode told me he had to be careful in that recent film about just how far back in the frame Chow was in some scenes: he could be fifty feet away, lighting up a cigarette, and your eye is immediately drawn, fixedly, toward his gestures. Godard said something once about the movies having, in the time since Griffith, forgotten about the wind in the trees. It’s good to remember wind in the hair, too, and the transport that can play across a face in that simple instant of communing with nature.

“Two Lives Plus One” opens Friday at Siskel. Some bad movies, too.