Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Crazy Hard: “Out of the Furnace” and Under the Influence

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OUT OF THE FURNACEBy Ray Pride

“You let me worry about who’s a nasty sonofabitch.”

Manly words spoken by manly men: that’s one of the dry pleasures of the sturdy burnt-case male melodrama “Out of the Furnace.” The manly men include Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard—and the late Ted Kennedy, on a bar TV set nominating Barack Obama. Scott Cooper describes his second feature as writer-director, after “Crazy Heart” (2009), as taking influence in equal parts from “The Deer Hunter” and “Jaws.” Oh, and there’s a lot of Walter Hill cooped up in there, as in his 1970s street-boxing tale, “Hard Times.” There’s even a lilt of Hill in Cooper’s affable half-phrases burred by his plain men. “Can you drive?” “This fucker drives itself.” Or “Cheaper t’… get steel from China.” This is a movie that mumbles loudly, lavishing its gaze on marble-mouthed men, men who drop the occasional a, and, the, but never a fuck, fucker, motherfucker.  And as Shepard tosses off as an invitation to deer hunt at dusk: “Wal. Less get us a buck, huh.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Hunger Games

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Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Lawrence

RECOMMENDED

Call it “Running Child.” Early reviewers of Gary Ross’ adaptation of the young-adult bestseller “The Hunger Games” were largely hung up on its literary predecessors for a story of humans hunting humans to the death, reality television, and human sacrifices being made to satisfy the larger society, which may include “The Most Dangerous Game,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and a couple of Stephen King’s Richard Bachman Novels, “The Running Man” and, especially, “The Long Walk.” Then, there’s also “Gladiator” and “America’s Next Top Model.” Plus, the source that author Suzanne Collins cites, the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. That’s the best one, particularly if you like this popular book called… “The Hunger Games.” But what exactly is on over 10,000 screens this weekend? Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Rampart

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RECOMMENDED

James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed “Big Dog” of American detective fiction, who’s portrayed the history of Los Angeles and, in his latter-day trilogies, the United States, as a sour cesspool that wants only for more fascism to right the ship of state, wrote “Rampart” as an original screenplay, which Oren Moverman, writer-director of “The Messenger” and co-writer of “I’m Not There” and “Jesus’ Son,” was later hired to revise. While it lacks the sprawl of “L.A. Confidential,” even in Moverman’s less authoritarian view, it bears a compact critique of macho bravado that takes a few chunks out of Ellroy World. Set in 1999 L.A., Woody Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a cop in the scandal-plagued Rampart precinct who takes the law into his own hands often and gleefully. Moverman and Harrelson chart a requiem for Brown in the form of a sustained and vitriolic meltdown. “Drive” may have been a neon-noir, gliding through Los Angeles by night, but “Rampart” revels in the dry sandy sun of the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Friends With Benefits

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RECOMMENDED

On one hand, the very funny and largely satisfying “Friends with Benefits” is yet another manic fantasy of a Manhattan media wonderland-cum-playground that never existed but in the movies, or maybe 1994. On the other, it’s an uncommonly fucky rom-com that whirls around the chemistry between co-stars Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake. Jamie (Kunis) is an executive headhunter who fields an offer to Los Angeleno Internet guy Dylan (Timberlake) to become art director of GQ magazine (its logo emblazoned at the entrance of Rockefeller Center). Their rapport is breezy; both are reluctant to fall into bed for fear of falling into like. Vulgar, sassy zest ensues. (“Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!” is just the beginning.) I get in trouble when I call romantic comedies “smart,” but there’s spark and spirit and chemistry in their give-and-take, even once genre conventions kick in. Read the rest of this entry »

Collaborative Filters: Paging “The Messenger” with Moverman and Foster

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movermandirectsmessenger

By Ray Pride

In a conference room overlooking Tribune Tower, hiss rises from rain-slick Michigan Avenue, an aural river of taxis and buses.

It’s an appropriate setting to talk with Oren Moverman, director of “The Messenger,” and actor Ben Foster, since their movie is attentive to small sensations of place and moment that reinforce its stark drama. Foster plays Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, a younger soldier piecing his life together and assigned to work with for-now-reformed alcoholic Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) on the detail to notify next-of-kin when soldiers have died. The first rule? Don’t get involved. Don’t get too close. Don’t touch. Among the other strong performers are Jenna Malone and Samantha Morton as a widow Foster’s character is drawn toward, but the intense, even searing bond between Harrelson and Foster is the powerful heart of the film. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Zombieland

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Zombieland01aRECOMMENDED

Total batshit zom-com that’s as outrageous as the TV spots indicate, Ruben Fleisher soaks his feature-length debut with endless amounts of guts and gore. It’s funny, too. In a world overrun by zombies, college kid Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has kept himself alive by following a strict set of self-imposed rules for survival—beware of bathrooms, keep good cardio, always shoot zombies twice (double-tap)—and one day reluctantly teams up with wild zombie-hunter Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, having as much fun as he can). The pair picks up two female siblings along the way and head to California, and it’s off to the races, zombies meeting their doom in creative and unfortunate ways from start to finish. Fleisher’s film doesn’t feature the same sort of everyman wit as “Shaun of the Dead,” the comedy here broader and bloodier, but it’s goofy, gruesome fun nonetheless, and features an extended cameo smack in the middle that’s as amusing as anything I’ve seen on screen this year. I’d love to elaborate, but it’s better if you don’t know. Harrelson’s particularly entertaining as the roughneck, maintaining my theory that any movie improves once Woody Harrelson is cast. (Tom Lynch)

Review: Management

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management_001Jennifer Aniston plays characters with career paths unlikely to lead to love. In “The Good Girl” she played a clerk at Retail Rodeo in Texas. In “Friends with Money” she cleaned houses on the west side of Los Angeles. In “Management,” she’s on the road selling decorative paintings for Corporate Bliss, a company based in Maryland. Work brings her to an Arizona motel owned by the parents of Steve Zahn’s character. Overreaching his duty as night manager, he makes a clumsy move by bringing a complimentary bottle of champagne to her room, as if this was the practice of “the management.” Their first contact is small gem of comic stumbling, punctuated by one touch of negotiated intimacy. This may have been the heart (and the butt) of a one-act play set in a motel room by Stephen Belber, now making his film writing-directing debut. Check the well-made last names of his screen couple: Aniston is Sue Claussen and Zahn is Mike Cranshaw. Belber extends their courtship into a dogged saga with chronic failures at closure. The screenplay strays and the tone goes TV-dumb when Sue returns to an ex, a caricatured punker-turned-organic yogurt CEO played by Woody Harrelson. My fondness for this idiosyncratic romantic comedy checked out in not one, but two disappointing bits where Mike hides in the bushes and peers through binoculars at Sue in her new life. Both times he’s accompanied by his new pal Al (James Liao), a kindred, if caricatured, Asian American who works at his parents’ restaurant. But Aniston and Zahn by themselves easily manage to appeal as lonely hearts off by only a couple of beats. With Fred Ward, Margo Martindale, Yolanda Suarez, Kevin Heffernan. 93m. (Bill Stamets)

Review: Seven Pounds

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RECOMMENDEDpk-03

While the direction of “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “Seven Pounds” doesn’t match the pitched tumult of Italian writer-director Gabriele Muccino’s 2001 “The Last Kiss” (L’ultimo bacio), his work is inescapably Italian in temperament. Will Smith’s choice to collaborate with Muccino again on screenwriter Grant Nieporte’s first produced script is inspired: this rollercoaster of sentiment and contrivance would not hold half the charm or a seventh of the emotion in cooler hands. Shameless melodrama ensues. A feel-good tragedy about survivor’s guilt—the literary allusion in the film’s title and the opening scene make the stakes clear within moments—”Seven Pounds” is near-dazzling when each and every strand finds satisfactory resolution. A number of the important shifts in the story, however, shouldn’t be implied through synopsis, although the script’s tidiness is marked. Simply put, Smith plays a troubled man who seeks to make amends for a tragic incident in his past by helping seven strangers he’s taken pains to find. Taken as real-life psychology rather than taken as clever construction of the splinters of information we’re offered, his deeply troubled (and troubling) behavior makes madness quickly evident. But the matters of privacy and intimacy and sacrifice are broached with fierce metaphor. Does this man seek the transformational powers of a God? Or the transubstantive character of Christ? Moments that seem repellent or skin-itching redeem themselves as the layers of the parable are peeled away. Rosario Dawson, as one of his charges of whom he grows unwisely fond, an often-underrated performer, gives what is surely her most moving, mature performance yet. With Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy, Barry Pepper, Judyann Elder. 123m. Widescreen. (Ray Pride)

Review: Battle in Seattle

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Writer-director Stuart Townsend mobilizes a fine ensemble cast for a worthy cause: dramatize the five days in November, 1999 when protestors monkeywrenched the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Helped by nineteen producers, overcast Vancouver locales, and Seattle street chaos as shot by video activists, Townsend threads several stories. Humanizing the tumult may yield little political insight, though. Seattle’s mayor (Ray Liotta) addresses a gathering of protestors: “Be tough on your issues, but be gentle on my town.” But street-blocking cadres and black-masked window-breakers soon upstage the peaceful marches that police intel forecast. Tear gas and clubs come out. Mass arrests come next. A cop (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) face the violence first-hand. A TV reporter (Connie Nielsen) gets her consciousness, if not her ratings, raised. Protestors deal with tactical and romantic issues. Anarchists in the film reject media attention, and this film respects that by marginalizing them here too. A prologue and epilogue offer hard-hitting briefings on the interlocking agencies and the impact of their international policies. One sign reads: “Visualize Corporate Collapse.” “Battle in Seattle” only visualizes empathy with diverse players, without advancing their causes. As if admitting to a mission unaccomplished, one protestor cracks: “A week ago people didn’t even know what the WTO was—now they still don’t know—but they know it’s bad.” For a nonfiction take, look for “30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle” (2000), a video made by off-duty TV cameraman Rustin Thompson. With Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Carpenter, André Benjamin, Rade Serbedzija, Ivana Milicevic and Channing Tatum. 99m. (Bill Stamets)

Review: Transsiberian

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Americans meet strangers on a train. In this Russo-phobic thriller, Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are two do-gooders from a church group who head home to Iowa. Their itinerary will include unwelcome overtures to sample local color. Heroin and torture, not to mention a boiled potato and a snowy orthodox monastery, are part of their Beijing-to-Moscow ride. First Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara) invite themselves into the couple’s train compartment. These seasoned travelers claim they were teaching English in Japan. Then corrupt narc Ilya (Ben Kingsley) befriends the Iowans, now of questionable innocence. Director Brad Anderson (“Next Stop Wonderland” and “The Machinist”) and his co-writer Will Conroy are far from innocent of charges of bait and tease. After their bogus threats go poof, the plot kicks in real ones. “We have no shoes; they have guns,” Jessie notes sensibly when stranded on a subarctic steppe. Fortunately, Roy the hardware store proprietor knows all about cheaply made Chinese locks, and this choo-choo buff can engineer a locomotive if the occasion comes along, and it does. What’s more obnoxious: the Trans-Siberian train’s non-stop late-sixties Muzak, or the script’s endless variants of “In Russia, we have an expression for this”? With Thomas Kretschmann, Etienne Chicot, Mac McDonald and Colin Stinton. 111m. (Bill Stamets)