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Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune's film critic, covering everything from “Godzilla” to the latest in Turkish cinema. He ...

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Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

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Best and worst movies of 2014

Best and worst movies of 2014

December 18, 2014

Out of sheer contrarian perversity, I did everything I could to avoid picking "Boyhood" as the year's best film. It has been lauded so much already; its hype, the increasingly heavy burden of awards-generated expectation, has turned into this gentle masterwork's worst enemy.

  • Review: 'Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb'

    December 18, 2014

    "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," otherwise known as "Night at the Museum 3," rates as more determinedly heartfelt than the first and not as witty as the second (and best). Also, no Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs this time around.

  • Review: 'The Babadook'

    December 18, 2014

    Here's one of the strongest feature film debuts in a long time, in any genre. Currently on demand and making its way into a few brave theaters, "The Babadook" comes from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, whose short film "Monster," made nearly a decade ago, inspired her full-length treatment of the same story.

  • Review: 'Annie'

    December 18, 2014

    Those interested in the health and well-being of the screen musical are advised to wait a week for "Into the Woods" rather than take a flier on the wobbly, unsatisfying new update of "Annie."

  • Chicago critics pick 'Boyhood'

    December 15, 2014

    In stride with its counterparts in New York, LA, San Francisco, Boston and other cities, the Chicago Film Critics Association named Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” best picture of 2014, the CFCA announced Monday.

  • Review: 'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies'

    December 15, 2014

    There is a moment late in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," after what may be the longest on-screen battle in movie history, when Ian McKellen's Gandalf sits quietly beside Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins and starts fussing with his pipe. No one fusses with a pipe more fussily than a great veteran English character actor, and as McKellen carefully scrapes out the bowl, getting it ready for a nice little smoke, you wonder if director Peter Jackson is going to turn this bit into his next three-film trilogy.

  • Timing is everything for Music Box and 'Ida'

    December 11, 2014

    If you disregard the matter of quality, the success of "Ida" is improbable indeed.

  • Review: 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'

    December 11, 2014

    What do the entrails say about "Exodus: Gods and Kings," director Ridley Scott's ambitious retelling of the Moses story, the exodus from Egypt, the burning bush, the frogs, the boils, the hail, the commandments, the Red Sea crossing and the rest of it?

  • Review: 'The Imitation Game'

    December 11, 2014

    Actors love many things, but playing the smartest person in any given room is loveliest of all. Pleasant or hostile, elegant or socially maladroit, the smartest one in the room enjoys the zingers, the verbal checkmates and all the attention.

  • Review: 'Top Five'

    December 11, 2014

    "I don't feel funny anymore," complains the movie star played by Chris Rock in "Top Five," but don't worry. Unlike Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," this cinematic confessional, which is also a genial wish-fulfillment fantasy, is actually funny.

  • Julianne Moore finally having her long-delayed moment

    December 4, 2014

    Lots of fine actors win Academy Awards for movies that are not their best. Sometimes it's simply … their time. Decades of respect and accumulated good will, film after film of strong, versatile work whatever the script quality, can lead to the right showcase at the right moment.

  • Review: 'Wild'

    December 4, 2014

    Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir "Wild" has become a swift, solidly built movie capturing most of its author's most interesting baggage stuff — the weedy tangle of regrets, the reckless bumper-car behavior borne of grief — while offering a rather different experience of what Strayed called "radical aloneness."

  • Review: 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya'

    December 4, 2014

    "Heaven must have sent her to me as a blessing," says the awestruck woodcutter who finds a sparrow-size infant nestled in a bamboo sprout in "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya."

  • Review: 'Panic 5 Bravo'

    December 4, 2014

    Shot in 21/2 weeks for roughly half a million dollars, the tin-can thriller "Panic 5 Bravo" is set almost entirely inside a paramedic ambulance under siege, just below the U.S.-Mexican divide south of Pima County, Ariz.

  • Review: 'That Man From Rio'

    November 26, 2014

    Opening for a week at the Siskel Film Center in a fine-looking 50th anniversary digital restoration, the 1964 action lark "That Man From Rio" took its cheeky, chaotic cue from the James Bond franchise, as well as Stanley Donen's "Charade" and Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest." It's also a popcorn picture that looked forward. Steven Spielberg credited director Philippe de Broca's globe-trotting treasure hunt for paving the way for "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the other Indiana Jones movies.

  • Review: 'Happy Valley'

    November 26, 2014

    Amir Bar-Lev's documentaries include "The Tillman Story," about a friendly-fire casualty in Afghanistan, and "My Kid Could Paint That," a portrait of an alleged child prodigy and her family. In both films (both excellent), the truth lurks beneath layers of denials and cover-ups designed to establish a preferred version of events.

  • The long goodbye after the loss of an actor

    November 25, 2014

    When a film actor leaves us before his final work becomes available, it makes for a long, strange goodbye indeed.

  • Mike Nichols, directorial superstar with an eye for the 'real thing'

    November 20, 2014

    After making "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in 1966 with first-time feature film director Mike Nichols, Richard Burton acknowledged the newcomer's wily practicality in communicating with all sorts of actors. "He'd make me throw away a line where I'd have hit it hard," the plummy-voiced Welshman said, adding: "I didn't think I could learn anything about comedy — I'd done all of Shakespeare's. But from him I learned."

  • Review: 'The Homesman'

    November 20, 2014

    In its setting and in its blunt, unfussy style, director, co-writer and star Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" is a film out of time. It takes place in 1855, the year after the creation of the Nebraska Territory. Like Jones' previous theatrical feature, the excellent "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," "The Homesman" expands the conventional notion of what Westerns typically address in terms of story, geography and mythology.

  • Review: 'Force Majeure'

    November 20, 2014

    A skiing holiday in the French Alps: What could possibly spoil that? In the terrific black comedy "Force Majeure," the question is answered early in the picture. With an extraordinarily dry and confident way of telling its story, the Swedish entry for this year's foreign language Academy Award becomes a recreational nightmare, driven (and riven) by panicky male behavior under duress.

  • Review: 'Foxcatcher'

    November 20, 2014

    Does extreme privilege point, like an arrow, to a sort of rot within the true-blue American spirit? Putting criminal insanity aside for a moment, the answer's a qualified, sorrowful yes in director Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," a true-crime drama hailed in many quarters as a modern classic since it debuted six months ago at the Cannes Film Festival.

  • Review: 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1'

    November 19, 2014

    In honor of the title we'll break this part of the sentence with a colon, and then use a portentous dash:

  • Review: 'The Overnighters'

    November 13, 2014

    A remarkable nonfiction essay on golden rules and grand intentions and oil booms that do not pay off for everyone, "The Overnighters" is a rich and troubling documentary highlight of the year.

  • Eddie Redmayne is feeling the love

    November 13, 2014

    At a recent downtown Chicago screening of "The Theory of Everything," several younger women attempted, one by one, to turn the post-screening question-and-answer session into a post-show swoon-and-rave, never mind the questions part. Variations on "I loved you in 'Les Miserables.' No, really. I mean it. I love you" echoed around the auditorium at the AMC 600 North Michigan multiplex. Some in attendance may never have entirely dried their tear-stained cheeks after first hearing Redmayne sing "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" in the 2012 "Les Miz."

  • Rosewater: A tale of torture in Iran

    November 13, 2014

    "Rosewater" is the first film directed by Jon Stewart, best known as host of "The Daily Show." Stewart's own screenplay adapts journalist Maziar Bahari's memoir "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival."

  • Review: 'Rosewater'

    November 13, 2014

    How many casual American moviegoers would be interested in "Rosewater" if an unknown Jon had written and directed it, instead of Jon Stewart, famous "Daily Show" host and first-time feature filmmaker?

  • Review: 'The Theory of Everything'

    November 13, 2014

    Relationally, you can't entirely trust what you're seeing in "The Theory of Everything," the romanticized portrait of astrophysicist superstar Stephen Hawking and his many years spent with his first wife, Jane Hawking. Yet biopics are funny this way: Even satisfying ones can fudge and elide and gloss over any number of difficulties, while in this instance offering a steadily absorbing and movingly acted depiction of a marriage whose time comes, and then goes.

  • Altman doc reminds a critic of why the movies matter -- and when he noticed

    November 6, 2014

    The 95-minute documentary "Altman" first aired on EPIX cable in August, but it opens for a limited theatrical run next week (Nov. 15, 16 and 20) at the Gene Siskel Film Center. However you see it, despite its necessarily abridged view of director Robert Altman's career and director Ron Mann's uncritical waves of love, it's worth a look. What you see may send you into a bittersweet sort of reverie.

  • Review: 'Laggies'

    November 6, 2014

    In "Laggies," Keira Knightley tries on a generic American dialect. Based on the results, the actress defines that as "nasal, and how!"

  • Review: 'Low Down'

    November 6, 2014

    It'll be a chilly day in hell before John Hawkes gets an Oscar nomination for his work in the cinematic memoir "Low Down," given the focus on Michael Keaton for "Birdman" and Benedict Cumberbatch for "The Imitation Game" and so on.

  • Review: 'Big Hero 6'

    November 6, 2014

    In "Big Hero 6" we have a robot considerably more beguiling than his movie. Yet there's enough visual invention afoot, and enough spirited interplay among the human characters, to keep things bobbing along.

  • Review: 'Interstellar'

    November 4, 2014

    A knockout one minute, a punch-drunk crazy film the next, "Interstellar" is a highly stimulating mess. Emotionally it's also a mess, and that's what makes it worth its 165 minutes — minutes made possible by co-writer and director Christopher Nolan's prior global success with his brooding, increasingly nasty "Batman" films, and with the commercially viable head-trip that was "Inception."

  • When ego drives art

    November 3, 2014

    Not many moviegoers know the play, but the 1948 Moss Hart comedy "Light Up the Sky" concerns the painful birth of a Broadway-bound post-apocalyptic allegory called "The Time Is Now." It may well be a work of genius. It may also be a pretentious stiff that, decades later, in another medium, could've found a place on the midcareer resume of film director Alejandro G. Inarritu.

  • Movies to see between now and New Year's

    October 31, 2014

    Now we're cooking. Finally, the fruits of the international film festival circuit are being delivered all over the place, just in time for awards season, formerly known as "winter."

  • Review: 'Rome, Open City'

    October 30, 2014

    Much of what we know, generically, as "documentary style" narrative filmmaking is unthinkable without Roberto Rossellini's "Rome Open City," now at the Siskel Film Center. Other directors working in Italy and elsewhere in the 1930s and early '40s, notably Luchino Visconti with his "Postman Always Rings Twice" adaptation "Ossessione," brought narrative fiction outside, into the streets. But with Rossellini's first chapter in his war trilogy, concluding with the devastating "Germany Year Zero," the neorealist movement gathered international momentum. And Anna Magnani, Italy Herself, became a star.

  • Finding the horror in David Lynch's cryptic masterpiece

    October 30, 2014

    A year ago, on the Vulture page of New York magazine, film critics David Edelstein and Bilge Ebiri picked their favorite horror films since Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," i.e., since 1980. Their list included such underseen and welcome titles as "The Descent"; an unusually strong franchise-starter (the first "Nightmare on Elm Street"); , a standout George Romero addition to his own favorite genre ("Day of the Dead");, a ripping monster picture from a terrific director (Bong Joon-ho's "The Host"); and others I like nearly as much, plus a few I don't, or films that have become grindingly familiar totems of the popular culture ("The Silence of the Lambs," beautifully acted trash).

  • Review: 'Hiroshima Mon Amour'

    October 30, 2014

    The unnamed actress, a melancholy wren of a woman played by Emmanuelle Riva, has come to the notorious Japanese island, 12 years after the war, to make "a film about peace." This is what she says to her newfound Japanese architect lover, portrayed by Eiji Okada. After all, she says: "What else would we be making in Hiroshima?"

  • Review: 'Horns'

    October 30, 2014

    If "Horns" had the zip of the source novel's first two paragraphs, we'd have a movie instead of a mess. The book, published in 2010, begins by laying out the dilemma author Joe Hill invents for his protagonist. Ignatius "Ig" Perrish has a hangover, and the morning after a night of unspecified "terrible things," he puts his hands to his temples and realizes he has a "pair of knobby pointed protuberances" where none used to be.

  • Review: 'Citizenfour'

    October 30, 2014

    A cool, steady stream of anxiety, Laura Poitras' documentary "Citizenfour" draws from the visual language and buggy paranoia of the best-known 1970s political thrillers: "The Conversation," "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor," "All the President's Men." Each of the cities filmed in "Citizenfour" gets its own quiet yet sinister establishing shot, so that Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and London each look like twinkly beehives of undisclosed activity.

  • Review: 'Nightcrawler'

    October 29, 2014

    Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for his new movie, "Nightcrawler," and the result is simple and eerie, much like the film itself. He appears to be wearing a Jake Gyllenhaal mask, all cheekbones, sallow complexion and unblinking laser-beam eyes.

  • 'Why Be Good?' reacquaints moviegoers with a jazz baby to remember

    October 23, 2014

    Now concluded, and consigned to history's dustbin, the 50th Chicago International Film Festival's most achingly nostalgic moment came shortly after 5 p.m. on Sunday.

  • Review: 'Listen Up Philip' ★★★★

    October 23, 2014

    As a filmgoer, do you require an admirable, likable protagonist? If you're in league with a large percentage of the populace, the answer is simple: yes. Life's too short to spend it in abrasive company, with characters who test your sympathy or make you examine your own worst impulses in a revealing light.

  • Review: 'Stonehearst Asylum' ★★

    October 23, 2014

    In the first scene of the gothic bash "Stonehearst Asylum," a doctor played by Brendan Gleeson gasses on about "the classic symptoms of the chronic hysteric." He may as well be talking about the madhouse genre itself, in addition to the fraught young woman on display, Eliza, played by Kate Beckinsale.

  • Review: 'Dear White People' ★★★★

    October 23, 2014

    So many movies come out of the Sundance Film Festival, and others like it, laden with praise but oddly short on narrative invention, visual instincts and a story with something on its mind. Heartiest congratulations to "Dear White People," which is equipped with all three. It's a slyly provocative achievement and a serious calling card for its writer-director, Justin Simien.

  • Review: 'Birdman' ★★★

    October 22, 2014

    "Birdman" proves that a movie — the grabbiest, most kinetic film ever made about putting on a play — can soar on the wings of its own technical prowess, even as the banality of its ideas threatens to drag it back down to earth.

  • 'The President' wins top prize at Chicago film festival

    October 17, 2014

    "The President," a Georgian- and English-language satire from Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, won the top prize Friday night at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival. Actress Kathleen Turner served as jury chair this year.

  • For the present, Chazelle is feeling the music

    October 16, 2014

    Though "Whiplash" isn't a musical, exactly, it's the most rhythmically propulsive experience you'll find at the movies this year.

  • Review: 'Expedition to the End of the World' ★★★ 1/2

    October 16, 2014

    In 2001 a handsome three-masted schooner set sail for Northeast Greenland, carrying an assortment of mostly Danish scientists, scholars, photographers and artists. With so much ice melting so rapidly there, the remote Greenland fjords afforded an opportunity — a chance for outsiders to venture into territory available for exploration a few precarious weeks out of the year.

  • Review: 'Fury' ★★ 1/2

    October 16, 2014

    "Fury" is a mixture of sharp realism and squishy cliches that combat movies don't really need anymore. It stars Brad Pitt as a 2nd Armored Division sergeant known as Wardaddy, commander of a battle-scarred Sherman tank whose nickname, painted on its gun barrel, gives writer-director David Ayer's film its title.

  • Review: 'St. Vincent' ★★★

    October 16, 2014

    For all the boozed and abusive amusement provided by the great Bill Murray in the good-enough "St. Vincent," the moment I liked best was Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper, manhandling a vacuum across the Murray character's ancient carpet. In movies as in life, it's the little things.

  • Review: 'Whiplash' ★★★★

    October 14, 2014

    Whatever the ripping melodrama "Whiplash" says about artistic torment, or the price of ambition, or mentor/student relationships from hell or thereabouts, it's too busy providing serious excitement — both as an actors showcase and a confirmation of writer-director Damien Chazelle's cinematic chops — to get hung up on conventional uplift.

  • Review: 'I Am Ali' ★★★

    October 9, 2014

    Boyish, sing-songy yet serenely wise, the voice is the thing in the latest Muhammad Ali documentary, "I Am Ali." Director Clare Lewins, who has worked extensively in British television, became aware of audio recordings Ali made in the 1970s — homey, touching conversations with his daughter, Hana, among others, revealing a particularly loose and vulnerable side of a great American boxer at home. Lewins lobbied for a year to gain access to these tapes for her project.

  • Review: 'Pride' ★★★

    October 9, 2014

    Now that folks can get gay-married in Wisconsin and Indiana, it's safe to say a genial, fact-based British heart-warmer such as "Pride" can enter the U.S. marketplace without threatening the stability of the republic.

  • Review: 'The Judge' ★★ 1/2

    October 9, 2014

    Of the 141 minutes in "The Judge," roughly 70 work well, hold the screen and allow a ripe ensemble cast the chance to do its thing, i.e., act. The other 71 are dominated by narrative machinery going ka-THUNKITA-thunkita-thunkita. This is the same sound a clothes dryer makes when a half-dozen John Grisham hardcovers are tossed in with an iron-plated movie star and 30 pounds of rocks.

  • 10 films to see at the Chicago International Film Festival

    October 8, 2014

    While the heads of most Chicago cultural institutions come and go after a decade or two or three, Michael Kutza stays. The co-founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Film Festival has run the nonprofit venture for 50 years. On the phone this week, he laughed about "one of the girls here in the office who said: 'Isn't it great you're 50 years old?' She thought I was 50! She didn't have the math right."

  • 'Miss Julie' opens Chicago International Film Festival

    October 8, 2014

    Nobody will mistake this one for Al Pacino in "Stand Up Guys," or Uma Thurman in "Motherhood," to name two recent, featherweight Chicago International Film Festival opening-night selections.

  • Rosemarie DeWitt unplugged

    October 2, 2014

    Actress Rosemarie DeWitt and her husband, actor Ron Livingston, have a daughter who turns 2 in the spring. "So we're a ways from dealing with all this," DeWitt says in a hotel room during the Toronto International Film Festival.

  • Review: 'Last Days in Vietnam' ★★★ 1/2

    October 2, 2014

    Rory Kennedy's exceptional documentary "Last Days in Vietnam" will be broadcast in April on the long-running PBS series "American Experience." But it holds up on a bigger screen and deserves a large audience earlier than that. Ideally that audience includes younger viewers, for whom many of the specifics of Saigon's 1975 fall will be news. But it'll be of particular interest to older audiences who have a foggy memory of how the unfolding story was packaged at the time. And why the helicopters left so many South Vietnamese allies behind.

  • Review: 'Left Behind' 0 stars

    October 2, 2014

    And away we go! A little traveling music, please, for the Rapture, the special guest star of "Left Behind," starring a sadly becalmed Nicolas Cage as a married airline pilot whose unconsummated lust for a cheap harlot of a flight attendant, played by Nicky Whelan, is enough to bring on God's wrath, the end of days and a cycle of protracted calamity, starting with the film itself.

  • Review: 'Men, Women & Children' ★★

    October 2, 2014

    Jason Reitman's serenely panic-stricken "Men, Women & Children" pushed every single one of my hot buttons as a parent while simultaneously setting off every single one of my warning bells as a critic. Based on Chad Kultgen's debut novel, it depicts modern-day America as the land of scarily unlimited digital opportunity. It is a place where honest personal communication without the filter, the crutch or the dodge of a personal electronic device has become a distant memory.

  • Review: 'Annabelle' ★★ 1/2

    October 2, 2014

    The devil-doll lark "Annabelle" exists to make its host movie, last year's excellent "The Conjuring," look even better by comparison. As prequels go, it's not bad, though a couple of things keeping it from amounting to more are worth discussing, briefly, before we all get back to our lives.

  • Review: 'Gone Girl' ★★★ 1/2

    September 30, 2014

    David Fincher's film version of the Gillian Flynn bestseller "Gone Girl" is a stealthy, snake-like achievement. It's everything the book was and more — more, certainly, in its sinister, brackish atmosphere dominated by mustard-yellow fluorescence, designed to make you squint, recoil and then lean in a little closer.

  • Review: 'The Boxtrolls' ★★

    September 25, 2014

    Fans of "Coraline" and "ParaNorman," the deft, eccentric supernatural fairy tales created by Oregon-based Laika animation house, have every reason to anticipate "The Boxtrolls." Laika's latest feature is based on Alan Snow's 2005 book "Here Be Monsters!" part one of "The Ratbridge Chronicles." For the film's purposes, the mythical hilltop town of Ratbridge has changed its name to Cheesebridge.

  • Review: 'The Equalizer' ★★

    September 25, 2014

    Based loosely on the 1985-1989 television series, on which Edward Woodward never stuck garden shears in an enemy's throat and never, ever stabbed anyone through the neck with a corkscrew, "The Equalizer" smells like a hit. But I wish it had one completely honest scene, where (for example) someone asks the avenging angel-hero: "Who are you?" And he answers: "I'm Denzel Washington. And Denzel Washington can make even this thing watchable."

  • Early cinema champion gets a loving restrospective

    September 25, 2014

    In a thoughtfully lavish act of curation, Northwestern University's Block Cinema is paying tribute to cinema's greatest pack rat and most ardent champion — the man whom poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once described as "the dragon watching over our treasures."

  • Review: 'Tracks' ★★★ 1/2

    September 25, 2014

    All filmgoers have their blind spots, their sore spots and their limits. You may, for example, read about the new film "Tracks," based on the 1980 travel memoir by Robyn Davidson. If Davidson's story is foreign to you, and you know only that the film's about a free spirit who spent nearly a year crossing 1,700 miles of Australian desert with four camels and a dog, you might think: No thanks, I'll just dig up the May 1978 National Geographic magazine with Davidson on the cover sometime. And then go see something a little less improving. Like "The Equalizer."

  • Will world-ender YA dystopia trend yield to happier days?

    September 18, 2014

    A mere two years have passed since the first "Hunger Games" movie. It feels like 20. In those two years the world has been brought to the edge of extinction so many times, only to be saved by young people in Henley T-shirts, it's as if we're dealing with the apocalypse that cried wolf, over and over.

  • Review: 'This is Where I Leave You' ★★ 1/2

    September 18, 2014

    Going by the new ensemble comedy "This Is Where I Leave You," you'd think Tina Fey was a medium acting talent at best, prone to overstatement and eye-rolling. Performers can't do it alone; they need guidance. But in the movies, very often performers end up doing solo acts in proximity to other solo acts, and the camera's either in the wrong place or the director and the editor hack up simple two-person conversations into frantic, competing moments.

  • Review: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' ★★

    September 18, 2014

    Films aren't so much born as worried into existence, and with some films the worrying — the concern that the audience won't get it, or get out for it, or make the required time commitment — never stops.

  • Review: 'Tusk' ★★

    September 18, 2014

    Civilians and critics alike, a lot of them, loved "Tusk" in Toronto, where it played the Midnight Madness sidebar of the international film festival earlier this month. And it's fun to have writer-director Kevin Smith, of "Clerks" and "Dogma," whose filmmaking star has fallen while his podcasting prowess has risen, once again at the center of a debate or two.

  • Review: 'The Maze Runner' ★★★

    September 18, 2014

    Forever indebted to H.G. Wells, William Golding and other cranky visionaries, the hardy, cockroach-like "Hunger Games"/"Divergent" genre has a nickname: "dyslit," after the dystopian best-sellers in which young adult protagonists must prove their physical and mental prowess and lead the revolution to save what's left of their crummy old world.

  • Review: 'The Guest' ★★ 1/2

    September 16, 2014

    A pretty crafty genre pastiche until it stalls, director Adam Wingard's "The Guest" introduces its title character after he knocks on the front door of a small-town New Mexico family that recently lost their older son in the Iraq War. Door opens, a man's head is turned away from the camera …

  • Chicago film festival announces full 2014 slate

    September 16, 2014

    Tributes to Liv Ullmann, Isabelle Huppert, Taylor Hackford, Kathleen Turner and Oliver Stone, all scheduled to attend, share the slate with the latest films starring Bill Murray ("St. Vincent"), Reese Witherspoon ("Wild") and Benedict Cumberbatch ("The Imitation Game," which just won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival) when the 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival opens Oct. 9.

  • 'The Imitation Game' wins top prize at Toronto film festival

    September 14, 2014

    Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as World War II-era Cambridge code-breaker Alan Turing, convicted on "gross indecency" charges for his bisexuality, "The Imitation Game" won the Grolsch People's Choice Award Sunday at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

  • Fall movie season: Time for the good stuff

    September 12, 2014

    Fall is a festive season, if the weather cooperates and the art direction is right. It's festive in other ways, too, unrelated to falling leaves and russet tones.

  • Young filmmaker plays intriguing long game

    September 12, 2014

    At the moment, the face of Chicago filmmaking belongs to Joe Swanberg ("Drinking Buddies," "Happy Christmas"), the best-known and best-connected of the directors who work here when they're not working elsewhere.

  • Looking forward, and back, at the TIFF

    September 11, 2014

    Among North American competition titles, director Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," opening commercially Nov. 14 (and Nov. 21 in Chicago), has drawn the lion's share of the raves during the Toronto International Film Festival, concluding Sunday. Toronto being a public festival (i.e., the opposite of the more prestigious but equally bloblike Cannes festival), it'll announce its "people's choice" audience-voted winners this weekend.

  • Review: 'Los Angeles Plays Itself' ★★★★

    September 11, 2014

    Thom Andersen's beautiful, mordant 2003 cine-essay, "Los Angeles Plays Itself," screens at the Music Box Theatre for one night next week, Wednesday. It's finally coming to cable and home-viewing formats at the end of the month, 11 long years after its premiere, but the big screen really is the ideal way to soak up Andersen's inspired ruminations about his city as a filming location and as a repository for other filmmakers' daydreams and nightmares.

  • Review: 'The Drop' ★★ 1/2

    September 11, 2014

    Even a terrible actor could win friends and influence moviegoers in the role of Bob, a sweetie-pie Brooklyn bartender who saves an injured pit bull puppy from a garbage can in the opening minutes of "The Drop," expanded by screenwriter Dennis Lehane from his own short story, "Animal Rescue."

  • Review: 'The Skeleton Twins' ★★ 1/2

    September 10, 2014

    Some weeks at the movies are like this. You settle for wonderful actors doing some wonderful acting with scripts that support those efforts even as they limit them.

  • Liv Ullmann finds herself directed back to the Chicago film fest

    September 9, 2014

    Actress, author and director Liv Ullmann, whose luminous face is best known for her 10 Ingmar Bergman films and dozens of other pictures including Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," will be the opening-night guest of honor at this year's Chicago International Film Festival. The 50th edition of the festival runs Oct. 9-23.

  • Quality may be casualty of film fest war

    September 8, 2014

    It's ungracious, I suppose, to ask. But has the blob known as the Toronto International Film Festival, North America's largest and most popular cinema gathering with attendance inching toward the 500,000 mark, lost its way in 2014 among a forest of expectations and contradictions?

  • Steve Carell and Tina Fey: from Chicago to TIFF

    September 7, 2014

    For reasons only partly related to his virtually unrecognizable presence on screen, Steve Carell appears headed for an Academy Award nomination (actor? supporting actor? tough call) for an eerily subtle portrayal of the unstable and ultimately murderous plutocrat John du Pont.

  • Bill Murray in "St. Vincent" in Toronto

    September 6, 2014

    The rain was coming down pretty hard by the time Bill Murray rolled up in a black SUV for his “St. Vincent” premere at the Princess of Wales Theatre Friday night. Inside the theater Murray donned a paper crown and a sash because Toronto and the festival designated Friday "Bill Murray Day," which as the honoree noted earlier in the day, meant he could park anywhere he wanted, all day, with impunity.

  • 'The Judge' premieres in Toronto. Verdict?

    September 5, 2014

    It’s Bill Murray Day here in Toronto, which means Toronto doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Doesn’t this film festival know that in America every day is Bill Murray day?

  • Toronto 2014: 'Bird People' taking a big risk

    September 4, 2014

    Flying from, and in, all directions an estimated 400,000 people flock to the Toronto International Film Festival to be wowed by the next big thing. So what chance does an eccentric little number such as "Bird People" have against a wall of awards-season hyperbole?

  • Review: 'The Last of Robin Hood' ★★

    September 4, 2014

    "The Last of Robin Hood" is the latest film starring the dashing Kevin Kline. It's also the latest of Kline's period pictures that wastes no time in dashing your expectations.

  • Review: 'Life After Beth' ★★

    September 4, 2014

    Aubrey Plaza is so deadpan she's undeadpan, and not just in her new zombie movie. Playing April, Indiana's snarkiest state employee on "Parks and Recreation," the actress who'd be most likely mistaken for the MTV animated show goddess "Daria" slings so many bizarrely timed and unpredictable line readings at her skillful cohorts, with such straight-faced topspin, sometimes you don't know if you're in the company of an actress's extraordinarily practiced shtick or some kind of genius.

  • Toronto 2014: It's not OUR film festival, it's YOURS

    September 4, 2014

    Acronymically known as TIFF, the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival begins today, and the first morning of this first day (I’m here for five of the 11) offers screenings of untested, unknown films, along with titles seen at Cannes, Sundance, Venice and elsewhere earlier this year.

  • Review: 'The Identical' ★

    September 4, 2014

    There are moments in any bad movie when an actor, conveying a character's anguish or disdain, suddenly appears to be critiquing the movie itself and expressing the actor's internal struggle with the material. Such is the case with Ray Liotta in the not-good new film "The Identical," which only an Elvis impersonator (sorry, "tribute artist") could love.

  • 'Love Is Strange' MPAA rating controversy

    August 28, 2014

    Funded by the studios and lousy with hypocrisy, the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system routinely leads to head-scratchers that defy logic and, in their small way, promulgate our image as a bloodthirsty yet prudish nation — crazy for violence, nervous when it comes to sex, language and gay people.

  • Review: 'Too Late For Tears' ★★★

    August 28, 2014

    The sixth "Noir City" festival opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, and San Francisco-based Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller's selections this year include a determinedly international array of shadowy crime stories, from Argentina to France and all over this dirty rotten planet.

  • Review: 'Frank' ★★★ 1/2

    August 28, 2014

    An extraordinarily well-sustained one-joke movie, Lenny Abrahamson's "Frank" has no earthly reason to function beyond the 10-minute point. And yet there it is: a functioning, funny, weirdly touching fable of artistic angst and aspiration, a meditation on fame and its terrors and the metaphoric usefulness of masks and huge fake heads.

  • Review: 'Love is Strange' ★★★ 1/2

    August 28, 2014

    Something wonderful happens in the final minutes of "Love Is Strange." A careful, humble examination of a marriage opens up emotionally, thanks in large part to co-writer and director Ira Sachs' use of a gorgeous lullaby, Chopin's Berceuse Op. 57 in D-flat major. From the moment a key supporting character at last allows himself to grieve the loss of a loved one, up through the ensuing 11 or 12 exterior shots, photographed on the streets of New York alive with renewal and young love, a good film transforms into a very good one. Many, I suspect, will be moved to tears by "Love Is Strange," which Sachs earns the hard way: not by amping up the dramatic situations, but by grace notes and quiet spells cast by all the right actors.

  • Chicago International Film Festival announces first 20 films

    August 22, 2014

    The latest projects from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman,” starring Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Zach Galifianakis), documentary master Frederick Wiseman (“National Gallery”) and Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”) are among the first 20 titles announced for the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.

  • 'Sin City 2' falls short of noir's greatness

    August 21, 2014

    Opening this weekend, "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" has as much to do with classic film noir as the "Jackass" franchise honors the tradition of great screen slapstick. That is: not much.

  • Review: 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' ★★

    August 21, 2014

    I'm not sure what mood I'd have to be in to truly enjoy "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For." But I'm not in it.

  • Review: 'If I Stay' ★★★

    August 21, 2014

    Artfully assaultive, "If I Stay" is better than average young adult material, cleverly adapted from Gayle Forman's 2009 novel about a teenage cellist experiencing true love, a terrible car crash and magical realism for the first time.

  • Review: 'The One I Love' ★★ 1/2

    August 21, 2014

    "Our happiness used to be so easy," says Sophie in the curious new indie "The One I Love," a tidy head-bender from writer Justin Lader and first-time feature film director Charlie McDowell. Sophie's marriage to Ethan, played by Mark Duplass, has stalled. The lingering effects of an affair have undermined the couple and brought them to the safe haven of a therapist (Ted Danson). He advises a weekend getaway and knows just the place, secluded enough for some privacy, though there may be some other people dropping by.

  • Review: 'The Trip to Italy' ★★★ 1/2

    August 21, 2014

    If Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were even 7 percent less amusing, "The Trip to Italy" would have no reason to exist, even with its casually gorgeous scenery and shattering close-ups of seafood pasta fresh out of the kitchen.

  • Review: 'Land Ho!' ★★★

    August 21, 2014

    As long as this planet provides the roads, real and metaphoric, and the pals, the road-trip buddy movie may well outlive the movies themselves.

  • Debbie Reynolds announced as SAG's Life Achievement honoree

    August 18, 2014

    Eighty-two and still working, Debbie Reynolds is scheduled to receive the next Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award as part of SAG’s annual awards show, to be broadcast live on TNT and TBS January 25, 2015.

  • Robin Williams' fans point to other memorable performances

    August 14, 2014

    Robin Williams' apparent suicide Monday provoked an outpouring of affection for a prodigious, often ill-used talent. He did such good work for so many years; it wasn't easy watching him struggle against his own material in vehicles beneath his skill set.

  • Review: 'Dinosaur 13' ★★★

    August 14, 2014

    In 1997, with considerable help from McDonald's and the Walt Disney Corp., Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History outbid (among others) the Smithsonian Institution and bought the bones of the 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex known as Sue. The dinosaur skeleton, 80 percent complete, made her reassembled big-city debut in 2000.

  • Review: 'The Expendables 3' ★★

    August 14, 2014

    No pensions were harmed in the making of "The Expendables 3," the latest in the continuing saga of Sylvester Stallone's mission to provide a work week or two to as many of his old pals as possible. Also these movies make money, so there's a larger imperative. This one reportedly cost $90 million. It looks more like $30 million. I think audiences respond to the general air of cheapness in this franchise; it's part of the fun, the tinny macho ridiculousness of it.

  • Review: 'The Giver' ★★

    August 13, 2014

    At this point in the dystopian movie cycle, I'm ready for a story about a teenager with zero interest in questioning the system, let alone starting a revolution. A spineless conformist — that's what the genre needs.

  • Lauren Bacall needed just one film to become a star

    August 13, 2014

    The words came from her greatest director, who was also a little bit cuckoo over the 19-year-old he plucked from the fashion spreads of Harper's Bazaar.

  • Robin Williams: Five performances to remember

    August 12, 2014

    It wasn't his first film to do so, but the 1989 drama "Dead Poets Society" reminded millions that Robin Williams was an actor as well as a comic maelstrom as well as a star.

  • 'Hundred-Foot Journey' makes its way via the box office

    August 11, 2014

    In its opening weekend, when a film enjoys a bump in its business Saturday over Friday, something is working. The result may not skyrocket to the billion-dollar "Transformers" realm, where frenetic, around-the-world PG-13-rated slaughter rules the universe. But there are other stories cooking, in the corner of the movie world known as "Transformers-adjacent."

  • Review: 'A Master Builder' ★★★

    August 7, 2014

    The Jonathan Demme film "A Master Builder" will likely appeal more to theater people than to film people, it being Henrik Ibsen and all, as adapted by and starring Wallace Shawn. He plays one of Ibsen's most formidable train wrecks, the tetchy, egomaniacal and largely autobiographical architect Halvard Solness.

  • Review: 'What If' ★★

    August 7, 2014

    "What If" brings up the distinctions among wit, jokes and robotic banter, and this new romantic comedy has a bit of the first and a few of the second, but it's largely a case of the third.

  • Review: 'Calvary' ★★★

    August 7, 2014

    Scene: a confessional, somewhere in Ireland. The camera stays on Father James while an unseen male, the victim of clergy abuse long ago, speaks in seething tones about having "tasted semen" at a terrifyingly young age. Well, says the momentarily stunned priest. "Certainly a startling opening line."

  • Review: 'Into the Storm' ★ 1/2

    August 7, 2014

    Like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki" and "Dude, Where's My Car?" "Into the Storm" is a movie. And like the wind, this particular movie blows tall, unstable columns of hot air willy-nilly.

  • Brendan Gleeson on playing a priest in 'Calvary'

    August 6, 2014

    When Brendan Gleeson was not quite 7, a Catholic boy growing up in Dublin, he had it all figured out. "One of the teachings was that you reached the age of reason at 7, I think. Something like that. Up till then you were still a child and you couldn't really sin as such, certainly not mortal sin. So I figured if I could commit suicide at 6 and three-quarters, I'd go straight up there, no problem. I remember mulling over how best to do this, to find this shortcut. But then after I came out of my first confession, it was like: clean slate. I came out feeling great, just bounding out, the lightness of having a clean soul. I just floated out of there."

  • At Lollapalooza, music vs. video: Guess who won?

    August 4, 2014

    For various kid-related reasons, this was my fourth Lollapalooza. Therefore it was my fourth reminder that concert-going at the annual, blobby yet extraordinarily slick Grant Park event (even the mud Sunday looked like the work of an army of fastidious art directors) turns into a collision between the acts themselves and the live concert footage designed to enhance the music.

  • Review: 'The Sky's the Limit' ★★★

    July 31, 2014

    For a long time the 1943 RKO musical "The Sky's the Limit" was consigned to the bottom shelf of Fred Astaire movies, down there with "Second Chorus" (though I always liked "I Ain't Hep to That Step But I'll Dig It") and "Let's Dance."

  • An education in early Hitchcock at the Siskel Film Center

    July 31, 2014

    When we're young and we fall in love with an actor or actress on screen, the reasons are pretty clear. We like what we see. We want to be that quick-witted, that brave, that appealing, that thoughtful and kind, that droll under extreme circumstances.

  • Review: 'Half of a Yellow Sun' ★★★

    July 31, 2014

    Better than average historical fiction, "Half of a Yellow Sun" (now in a week's run at the Siskel Film Center) takes its cruelly hopeful title from the flag of Biafra depicting the upper half of a rising sun against bold stripes of red, black and green. Biafra was its own secessionist republic from 1967 to 1970, breaking away from the endlessly fracturing and reforming Nigerian government. Some 30,000 died in the civil war during those years, and against this swirl of political history novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie set her 2006 book, lately adapted and directed for the screen by Biyi Bandele.

  • Review: 'Get on Up' ★★★ 1/2

    July 31, 2014

    Everything about "Get on Up," a provocatively structured and unusually rich musical biopic, is a little better, a little less formula-bound, a little sharper than the average specimen in this genre.

  • Review: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' ★★★

    July 30, 2014

    Like the '70s cassette mix tape so dear to its hero, "Guardians of the Galaxy" scavenges all sorts of "greatest hits" precedents, from "Iron Man" on down, to come up with its own summertime fling. It's looser, scruffier and more overtly comic than the average Marvel action fantasy. And despite the usual load of violence, not all of it properly handled, the film owes its relative buoyancy above all to Chris Pratt as the wisecracking space rogue at the helm.

  • James Brown, 'On Up' in a really loud ski sweater

    July 29, 2014

    The James Brown biopic "Get On Up" opens Thursday evening; I see the film tonight at a press screening. According to those on the coasts who've already caught it, one scene re-creates the extraordinary "I Feel Good" dance number Brown performed, in an extraordinarily unfortunate ski sweater, for the 1965 American-International Frankie Avalon vehicle "Ski Party."

  • Wrestling mythology to an entertaining draw

    July 25, 2014

    Director Brett Ratner's "Hercules" respects your time and your bloodlust. It slices through 97 insanely violent PG-13-rated minutes in a sort of extended digital blurt, pausing just often enough for Dwayne Johnson to reload his guns (not that kind, the other kind), or for John Hurt (as the king of Thrace) to rasp "Unleash the wolves!" because Liam Neeson already said "Release the Kraken!" in the "Clash of the Titans" remake.

  • Review: 'And So It Goes' ★ 1/2

    July 24, 2014

    "And So It Goes" is going for "cute," as in: "Oh, well, you know. It was cute." Michael Douglas stars as the grumpy old real estate agent with the broken heart, with Diane Keaton as the lounge singer next door. The title "And So It Goes" belongs on a list with "That's Life!" "Whatever Works" and "Enough Said," each film's moniker evoking that feeling of here-we-go-again and isn't-love-a-funny-thing.

  • Review: 'Lucy' ★★

    July 24, 2014

    Le schlockmeister Luc Besson has no beef with men and guns, or he wouldn't have made the "Transporter" movies with Jason Statham. Or written "Taken." But in the world according to Besson, older girls ("La Femme Nikita") and young women in wee skirts and stiletto heels, gliding in slow motion toward their latest deserving victims of firearm violence, carrying nicely polished automatic weapons in each perfectly manicured hand — that's the stuff, that's what makes Besson Besson.

  • Swanberg's baby a bright spot in film

    July 24, 2014

    "I don't want to be one of those people who, like, continues to do the same kind of stuff. You know what I mean?" When one of the main characters in Joe Swanberg's "Happy Christmas" says that line, she's speaking for enterprising low-budget artists, filmmakers and strivers everywhere, Swanberg very likely included.

  • Review: 'Magic in the Moonlight' ★★ 1/2

    July 24, 2014

    Among recent Woody Allen films, the crabby but pretty "Magic in the Moonlight" is a well-thumbed playing card from the middle of the deck, not one of his fully good ones ("Midnight in Paris," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), not one of the whiffs ("Cassandra's Dream," "Scoop," "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"). The new one's set in 1928 in the south of France, where people really do seem on the verge of asking, "Tennis, anyone?" every second. Coldblooded British illusionist Stanley, played with a tight grimace by Colin Firth, has been invited by a fellow magician (Simon McBurney) to debunk a celebrated American mystic working her way through the Cote d'Azur.

  • Review: 'A Most Wanted Man' ★★★

    July 24, 2014

    It's impossible to watch the character anchoring Anton Corbijn's cool, clear-eyed film version of "A Most Wanted Man" without forgetting the fate of the bleary-eyed but fantastically vital actor who plays him.

  • Woody Allen in the rearview mirror

    July 23, 2014

    Before he made movies — "Magic in the Moonlight" is his 44th film as director in 48 years — Woody Allen worked as a gag writer, then a television writer, then a stand-up comic. Here's a Tribune item from the July 31, 1963, Tower Ticker column. In the parlance of the day columnist Herb Lyon spoke of actresses not as emoters, but "she-moters," and referred to female vocalists as "thrushes."

  • James Garner remembered by co-star Mariette Hartley

    July 21, 2014

    James Garner rarely acted outside his comfort zone, but you can say the same of a thousand other familiar actors who never quite inspired the same loyalty and warm feeling. He was his own comfort zone, on the small screen and the large, and as critic Glenn Kenny wrote over the weekend on his blog: “His work in later pictures such as ‘Murphy’s Romance’ provided little object lessons that ‘masculine’ and ‘gentle” need not be mutually exclusive terms.”

  • Controversial death inspires 3 linked tales

    July 18, 2014

    In "Dormant Beauty," a messy, fairly intriguing drama from director Marco Bellocchio, a recent Italian news story becomes fodder for a sprawling examination of life, death and the eternal riddle of Isabelle Huppert's apparent agelessness.

  • Music Box hit 'Snowpiercer' also available in your home

    July 18, 2014

    The Music Box Theatre has a peculiar success story on its hands, one that speaks to the power of one director's dazzling futuristic vision.

  • Elaine Stritch starred in show of her life

    July 17, 2014

    Throughout her career Elaine Stritch was proud to call herself a "broad," because no truer word in English exists to describe her.

  • Review: 'Wish I Was Here' ★★

    July 17, 2014

    "Scrubs" alum Zach Braff made his directorial feature debut a decade ago with "Garden State," and now, as writer, director and star, he has managed a second film about actors and their insecurities. This one, "Wish I Was Here," he co-wrote with his brother, Adam.

  • Review: 'Sex Tape' ★ 1/2

    July 17, 2014

    Like "2001: A Space Odyssey," Jake Kasdan's "Sex Tape" is a grim cautionary fable about the evils of technology, in this case pitting its desperate protagonists against an unseen force people refer to as "the cloud."

  • Review: 'Boyhood' ★★★★

    July 16, 2014

    By the midpoint of writer-director Richard Linklater's gentle marvel "Boyhood," the round-faced young Texas boy played by Ellar Coltrane has become a lanky, plaintive teenager. Already an hour or so of screen time has floated by. Linklater made the film with a core group of actors over a 12-year period, starting with the kids played by Coltrane and Linklater's daughter, Lorelei Linklater, at ages 7 and 9, respectively.

  • Summer box office slump

    July 10, 2014

    This week, the movie industry took a look in the mirror and wondered: What's wrong? Am I not pretty?

  • Big pictures celebrated at 70MM Film Festival

    July 10, 2014

    Wide is back. Friday through July 24, the Music Box Theatre presents 10 panoramic films made between 1958 and 2012, some classics, some not, but all of them wide. The skies will be larger, the stars starrier, the vistas VistaVision-ier, the camels more imposing, the space odysseys more splendidly trippy. The films will be projected, on film, on the larger of the Music Box's two screens, in all their capacious 70 millimeter splendor, reminding audiences of the pleasures of the wide-gauge experience.

  • Review: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' ★★★

    July 9, 2014

    Three summers ago "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" proved it's possible to reboot a franchise while avoiding that sinking feeling of movie capitalism at its dumbest.

  • 'A Hard Day's Night' revived at Music Box Theatre

    July 2, 2014

    Like the repeat-and-fade outro of its title tune, the one creating the seductive illusion of a song that will never end, "A Hard Day's Night" circulates in the collective memory in perpetuity throughout the universe, at least the universe of people who know it and are crazy about it. Maybe you've never seen the movie starring The Beatles. Maybe you haven't seen it in decades. See it again. It feels like it was made tomorrow.

  • Director Paul Mazursky remembered

    July 2, 2014

    Paul Mazursky, who died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 84, was one of a key handful of distinctive 1970s filmmakers who revealed a wider world to many of us during our vulnerable moviegoing adolescence. When we're young, our impressionable hearts and minds are at the mercy of writers and directors who either have something to say, and a way to say it, or they don't. Mazursky had his ways. He believed in love, the ridiculous misery of it and the value. The whole human comedy.

  • Review: 'Tammy' ★★ 1/2

    July 1, 2014

    Small favors, but in "Tammy" we have a less grating road-trip comedy than "Identity Thief," the one Melissa McCarthy did with Jason Bateman, and a more deliberately heartwarming vehicle than "The Heat," featuring McCarthy and Sandra Bullock.

  • Review: 'Life Itself' opens in Chicago ★★★ 1/2

    July 1, 2014

    The fine, fond Roger Ebert documentary "Life Itself" is finally in a theater in Chicago, Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, starting opening in limited release Friday. It's also available from July 4 onward on iTunes and various video-on-demand formats. On July 11, the film opens in Highland Park. We all have our preferences, but a traditional movie house really is the best place to embrace director Steve James' internationally beloved subject. Ebert's mellifluous intellect and opinions drove so much curiosity, so much traffic, over so many maniacally prolific decades of writing and broadcast work, to so many big screens.

  • Review: 'Deliver Us From Evil' ★★

    July 1, 2014

    Classed up by its cast, "Deliver Us From Evil" concludes with a deliverance from evil in the form of a rip-roaring exorcism, simply staged in a police interrogation room, though goosed up with the usual barrage of digital effects. Routine in nearly every aspect, the movie cannot be accused of holding out on its audience. The evil's delivered, and then dealt with.

  • Review: 'The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz' ★★ 1/2

    June 26, 2014

    The boy we see in "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," now at the Siskel Film Center and available on demand starting this weekend, grew up in Highland Park, his imagination seizing on (and seized by) computers not long after he could walk.

  • Review: 'On Approval' ★★★ 1/2

    June 26, 2014

    It won't appeal to everyone; those who have no taste for whipped cream, or for fancifully antiquated drawing-room-battle-of-the-sexes contraptions, will respond poorly to "On Approval."

  • Review: 'They Came Together' ★★★

    June 26, 2014

    The agreeable romantic-comedy critique "They Came Together" is occasionally very funny, and moderately funny the rest of the time. In mathematical terms that adds up to pretty funny or "funny enough."

  • Review: 'Third Person' ★ 1/2

    June 26, 2014

    Women! They're all desperate, agitated harpies and relentless sources of internal and external conflict in "Third Person," writer-director Paul Haggis' exasperating multistory drama about how hard it is for a nice, quiet, sensitive guy to be left alone to write an exasperating multistory drama.

  • On the cinematic search for that perfect sound

    June 19, 2014

    Movies are made for quests, for glory, fire, love, gold, you name it. None is more obsessive than the search for The Sound — that lovable, occasionally truthful showbiz cliche in which the subject of the story, a composer or a performer, pursues the certain special musical something, leading to an "aha!" moment and instantaneous stardom.

  • Review: 'Cinemanovels' ★★ 1/2

    June 19, 2014

    A film of spare precision if not much mystery, writer-director Terry Miles' comedy-drama "Cinemanovels" (starting Monday at Facets) stars Lauren Lee Smith as the daughter of Canada's most famous fictitious film director, recently deceased. The Quebecois auteur, we learn, left his family for one of his leading ladies. Grace, portrayed by Smith, never got over it.

  • Review: 'A Coffee in Berlin' ★★★

    June 19, 2014

    Reports of the slim but impressive 83-minute German film "A Coffee in Berlin" — titled "Oh Boy" in its popular initial European release — have been inflated by the picture winning scads of awards in its country of origin upon initial release. But we're here to talk about the movie, not the hype or the burden of expectation. This Music Box Films release has a distinct and confident look, as sure of itself visually in its black-and-white evocations of Berlin as its protagonist is unsure of himself and his future.

  • Review: 'Jersey Boys' ★★ 1/2

    June 19, 2014

    "Jersey Boys" the movie is a different, more sedate animal than "Jersey Boys" the Broadway musical. Often this happens when a stage success comes to the screen, even with many of the same performers and artistic team members on board. Changes are made; ardent fans of the original are variously pleased or disappointed. And in this case, those who missed the theatrical edition of the tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — how they found their sound and wrestled with temptations — may wonder what the fuss was about.

  • Review: 'Think Like a Man Too' ★★

    June 19, 2014

    A 105-minute ad for Caesars Palace, the passably engaging sequel "Think Like a Man Too" allows Kevin Hart, the ensemble's hottest potato, to hijack whole sections of the Las Vegas-set hijinks as he lets loose with his little verbal tsunamis of braggadocio. The way this comedy has been edited by Peter S. Elliot, presumably at the urging of director Tim Story, the shots barely hold themselves for two or three seconds before slam-cutting away to a pushy reaction shot. This isn't momentum; it's agitation, and antsy pacing such as this has a way of giving the impression of energy, rather than truly energizing a scene.

  • Review: 'Jews of Egypt' ★★ 1/2

    June 12, 2014

    A female voice recalling a distant, more liberal era puts it this way: "We lived in Egypt without feeling the need to prove we were Egyptians."

  • Review: 'Night Moves' ★★★

    June 12, 2014

    Early in Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves" there's a scene where Josh and Dena, the furtive young eco-terrorists played by Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning, attend a screening of an earnest environmental documentary introduced by its director. Dena asks her what people should do about the ruinous threats to the Earth and its consumers. Sorry, there's no simple answer, she replies: "I'm not focused on big plans. I'm focused on a lot of small plans." Dena and Josh appear puzzled by this response. They have something larger in the works.

  • Review: 'Obvious Child' ★★★ 1/2

    June 12, 2014

    Not so many administrations ago, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Dirty Dancing" and a handful of other films dared to deal with abortion, off-camera and usually a little off the main plotline, as a medical option chosen by a sympathetic young woman dictated by the machinations of the screenplay, usually with the help of sperm donated by a dislikable supporting character.

  • Review: '22 Jump Street' ★★★

    June 12, 2014

    The peculiar sweetness of "21 Jump Street" has taken a hiatus in "22 Jump Street," a brazen sequel that's both slightly disappointing and a reliable, often riotous "laffer" in the old Variety trade-magazine parlance. No question about it, I laffed, more at the little things — Channing Tatum trying to cut glass with a laser pointer, for example — than the brawls.

  • Review: 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' ★★★ 1/2

    June 12, 2014

    Toothless it's not.

  • Review: 'Dr. Strangelove' ★★★★

    June 5, 2014

    Over at moviemezzanine.com there's a prodigious list of key 1960s films as chosen by all sorts of critics and editors and movie lovers. "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is one of the favorites, alongside "Breathless," "The Apartment," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Play Time."

  • 'Red River' gets new DVD release, fresh appreciation

    June 5, 2014

    As we travel through our moviegoing lives, time and distance can be marked by a dawning appreciation for the types of stories we didn't care about when we were younger.

  • Review: 'Edge of Tomorrow' ★★★

    June 5, 2014

    Insanely derivative, frenetically enjoyable, "Edge of Tomorrow" takes gaming to a new level of big-screen indulgence, sending Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt through the same alien-invasion scenario over and over until they learn how to win, put down the consoles and get off the couch for a little lunch and some fresh air, maybe.

  • Review: 'The Fault in Our Stars' ★★

    June 5, 2014

    In the discreetly assaultive film version of "The Fault in Our Stars" there's a scene, faithful to the one in the best-selling John Green book, where Hazel and Augustus visit the Amsterdam home of a novelist whose cancer-related novel holds great personal meaning for two teenage Indianapolis cancer patients in love.

  • Review: 'A Million Ways to Die in the West' 1/2 star

    May 29, 2014

    "A Million Ways to Die in the West" is a grim vanity project for, by and about its creator, "Family Guy" guru Seth MacFarlane, determined here to prove himself capable of carrying his own movie in a romantic-comic leading role. He hits his marks; he's just not funny or interesting. Don Knotts made "The Shakiest Gun in the West"; MacFarlane is the smuggest.

  • Review: 'Maleficent' ★★ 1/2

    May 29, 2014

    The formula works. It worked with "Wicked" on stage and it worked with "Frozen" on film — tilting the storytelling prism so that a new angle on a well-known fairy tale appears in the light. The strategy depends on humanizing characters formerly known as evil, so that another tale of conflicted impulses emerges from the story we know, driven by female antagonist/protagonist hybrids who aren't bad, just misunderstood.

  • De Niro, Pattinson to film 'Idol's Eye' in Chicago

    May 29, 2014

    Here's a final item out of the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, this one a Chicago crime story to be told by a highly regarded French director.

  • Review: 'The Dance of Reality' ★★★

    May 29, 2014

    In the recent, delightful what-if? documentary "Jodorowksy's Dune," the Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowksy was the subject of an enticing question. What if the notorious underground director behind "El Topo" and other midnight-movie affronts to timid good taste had realized his dream project, a big-budget Hollywood studio version of the Frank Herbert novel eventually adapted by David Lynch?

  • Review: 'Black Box' ★★★ 1/2

    May 29, 2014

    Young adulthood is so very, very hard to capture honestly on screen, in all its lurches and false starts and weird little moments of truth. Compress those experiences into the weeks spent rehearsing a college play, and there's an almost absurd degree of self-perpetuating angst involved.

  • What Cannes means for Ceylan, and what Ceylan means for Cannes

    May 25, 2014

    CANNES, France — "I guess now is as good a time as any to start my 'Nuri Bilge Ceylan for ANT-MAN' campaign," tweeted Istanbul-based critic Ali Arikan the morning after Ceylan's film "Winter Sleep" won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

  • Cannes 2014: Raw nerves on docket with 'Mommy'

    May 22, 2014

    Many well-regarded films competing for the 67th Cannes Film Festival awards, to be announced Saturday, are concerned primarily with matters of the heart, obliquely drawn.

  • Review: 'Ida' ★★★★

    May 22, 2014

    One of the year's gems, photographed in velvety, expressive black-and-white by two different cinematographers working as one, "Ida" accomplishes so much, so surely in its 80 minutes, it's as if the director Pawel Pawlikowski had dared himself: How can I tell this fascinating story efficiently yet without rushing and abridging the narrative?

  • The French New Wave maverick returns to the Cannes Film Festival

    May 21, 2014

    A blink of a camera eye, or a smash-cut in the editing room, can mark the difference between breathlessness and contempt.

  • Ebert film 'Life Itself' premieres at Cannes

    May 19, 2014

    Despite a rare and aggravating 25-minute delay mid-screening, caused by a glitch with the digital projector housed by the Cannes Film Festival's Bunuel auditorium, "Life Itself" enjoyed a warm welcome Monday at the cinematic gathering visited, covered and lionized for decades by the late Roger Ebert.

  • Cannes 'Foxcatcher' bow bodes well for fall release

    May 19, 2014

    Prior to this year’s Cannes Film Festival the director Bennett Miller asserted himself as a major, stealthy talent attuned to minor-key, observant portraits of American success stories with an asterisk, a hidden price tag.

  • At Cannes, revelatory filmmaking trumps star power

    May 18, 2014

    CANNES, France — A comedy black enough to pass for India ink and, unlike so many grotesque comedies of modern manners, a film with just enough moral seriousness to make it stick, director David Cronenberg's “Maps to the Stars” defies such long odds it should be playing roulette in Monte Carlo instead of premiering at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.

  • An un-captivating 'Captive' at Cannes

    May 16, 2014

    "The Sweet Hereafter" isn't the only good film on Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan's resume. But it has been too long since Egoyan, a Cannes Film Festival favorite, asserted his talent in strong dramatic fashion. 

  • Cannes Film Festival recovers from a rocky opening

    May 15, 2014

    Like a Gallic version of Jennifer Lawrence, tripping up a flight of stairs but laughing it off in style, the 67th Festival de Cannes has made a fine recovery following from the opening-night pratfall taken by the Grace Kelly biopic "Grace of Monaco."

  • Review: 'Chef' ★★ 1/2

    May 15, 2014

    Jon Favreau's "Chef" has one goal: to make you want to eat Cuban sandwiches twice a day for the rest of your life. Meat-eating moviegoers of all palates will have a difficult time controlling their drool, thanks to writer-director-star Favreau's close-ups of a snazzy food truck grill in action, sizzling, sizzling away, the ham looking like heaven, to say nothing of the bread and the pickles.

  • Review: 'Million Dollar Arm' ★★★

    May 15, 2014

    Partly it's the granite chin, and the ever-so-slightly self-congratulatory grin just above it. Partly it's his signature role, the duplicitous hollow man Don Draper on "Mad Men," the role Jon Hamm has been fortunate enough to explore the past few years.

  • Grace Kelly, star of Monaco, much brighter than the film about her

    May 14, 2014

    She’s been gone since 1982, when an apparent stroke led to her fatal car accident on the winding hills above the Mediterranean. But Grace Kelly had, and has, a way of lingering in the memory.

  • Review: 'Godzilla' ★★★ 1/2

    May 14, 2014

    In one fell swoop, and a pretty swell fell swoop it is, the new "Godzilla" makes up for the 1998 Godzilla movie, the one with Matthew Broderick up against the sea beast klutzing around New York like Jack Lemmon in "The Out-of-Towners." The latest "Godzilla," fine and fierce, removes the camp (though it's not humorless) and takes the smartly considered step of not over-exploiting its star.

  • Godzilla, a creature of his time

    May 8, 2014

    Next week the new "Godzilla" opens, and while we must wait to discuss it (other than to say it's really good) it's never too late to pay tribute to the 1954 film that made it possible.

  • Are you feeling superhero movie fatigue?

    May 8, 2014

    As a species, with a movie in front of us or otherwise, we like what we already know. We consume what appears and smells safe, predictable and filling. A knish of a movie — for many that's the ticket, especially in the months of May, June, July and August.

  • Out of a portrait, into history

    May 8, 2014

    "Belle" has a great, relatively unsung historical truth to tell. Its makers have chosen to illustrate that story prettily, rather than dramatize it three-dimensionally. But the cast brings the illustrations to life whenever and however they can.

  • Review: 'Neighbors' ★★★

    May 8, 2014

    One part smart, one part stupid and three parts jokes about body parts, the extremely raunchy "Neighbors" is a strange success story. It's nobody's idea of a well-structured and logically detailed screenplay, even though its premise — new parents battling frat house neighbors — springs from a high-concept idea that could've come from scriptwriting software or a research facility. Which brings us to one of the movie's better early jokes: Sizing up the perpetually shirtless kegmeister played by Zac Efron, Seth Rogen wonders if his adversary was "designed in a laboratory."

  • Bob Hoskins continually transformed and transcended

    May 1, 2014

    "Five-foot-six-cubic" is how Bob Hoskins described his dense, brick-like physique, and in his career as one of Britain's most familiar and reliable screen actors Hoskins was compared to all sorts of non-human entities. A bulldog. A fireplug. A face like "a damaged potato," in the words of critic Pauline Kael.

  • Bob Hoskins continually transformed and transcended

    May 1, 2014

    "Five-foot-six-cubic" is how Bob Hoskins described his dense, brick-like physique, and in his career as one of Britain's most familiar and reliable screen actors Hoskins was compared to all sorts of non-human entities. A bulldog. A fireplug. A face like "a damaged potato," in the words of critic Pauline Kael.

  • John Turturro blends art and mammon

    May 1, 2014

    "Thank you. I try. Sometimes you succeed. Sometimes you don't. You never know."

  • Review: 'Locke' ★★★

    May 1, 2014

    "Locke" is a solo act, and Tom Hardy is its superbly talented soloist. Throughout writer-director Steven Knight's nocturnal drama, the actor, deploying a Welsh accent, keeps his voice in a calm, determined register, suggesting a born manager and innate control freak whose life has spun atypically out of control.

  • Review: 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' ★★

    April 30, 2014

    Already spinning large webs of money overseas, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a decent superhero franchise product, lent some personality by Andrew Garfield's skyscraper hair and the actor's easy, push-pull rapport with co-star Emma Stone, who plays the eternally disappointed Gwen, freshly graduated from high school, frustratingly in love with Peter Parker.

  • 25 years of summer movie hits

    April 25, 2014

    No other film released 25 years ago, and few made since, captured the crosscurrents of a single neighborhood on a sweltering summer day in late 20th-century America the way Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" did.

  • Music, film fest rocks past 'steady'

    April 24, 2014

    Six years old, the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival returns next week, May 1-4, at a long string of venues clustered mostly along Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park, Logan Square and Bucktown neighborhoods, where you can't throw an empty bottle of Schlitz without clocking a hipster or a hipster's parents.

  • Review: 'Alan Partridge' ★★★

    April 24, 2014

    Steve Coogan is a devilishly clever comic actor, and as proved by "24 Hour Party People" and the recent "Philomena," his range in comparatively straight roles is subtler and wider than his resume suggests.

  • Review: 'Othello' ★★★ 1/2

    April 24, 2014

    Othello, the Moor, contends with a lot in the tragedy bearing his name, beginning with an undermining confidant and ending with a murdered wife, among other casualties. Shakespeare's noble but gullible creation is also an epileptic, and the overall visual attack of the 1952 Orson Welles film of "Othello," back for a week-long run in a fresh digital presentation at the Gene Siskel Film Center, approximates a seizure-like intensity.

  • Review: 'The Other Woman' ★★ 1/2

    April 24, 2014

    Hollywood years are like dog years, which means 17 years is a long time. Seventeen years ago Cameron Diaz played the chipper second banana, the other woman, in the Julia Roberts vehicle "My Best Friend's Wedding." While that movie really belonged to Rupert Everett, the sunny goodwill flying out of every single one of Diaz's pores cast a nice warm glow over the Chicago-filmed diversion.

  • Review: 'Walking With the Enemy' ★★

    April 24, 2014

    The title "Walking With the Enemy" suggests a peculiar lack of urgency, so it's a disappointingly accurate handle indeed.

  • Block Cinema revisits the Great Depression

    April 17, 2014

    The rawest, most vital Hollywood films of the early 1930s didn't turn a blind eye to the Depression. Rather, they turned the crisis into an opportunity for all kinds of storytelling, guided by socially conscious principles as much as filmmaking wiles.

  • Godard's 3-D feature just one Cannes offering to anticipate

    April 17, 2014

    Thursday in Paris, with two or three additions to the main competition likely still to come, Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux announced the selections for the 67th edition of the world's premier collision of cinematic art, naked commerce and stars on red carpet.

  • Review: 'The Unknown Known' ★★★

    April 17, 2014

    The crucial Rummyism in the life, lexicon and flamboyantly knotty verbiage of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld isn't the infamous "known knowns/unknown knowns/known unknowns" briar patch.

  • Review: 'The Railway Man' ★★ 1/2

    April 17, 2014

    The concept of manly grief leads into so many dark areas and cultural expectations — questions about how men are expected to bury their trauma long after the traumatizing event. Or else, how men are expected to examine it, reckon with it emotionally, when everything in their DNA and their upbringing tells them to keep it in.

  • Review: 'Hateship Loveship' ★★★

    April 17, 2014

    A lot of performers who come out of comedy, sketch and improvisation would rather die than do next-to-nothing on camera. Kristen Wiig, on the other hand — no problem. She can watch, and listen and be interesting. She's comfortable working on a small canvas with incremental brushstrokes, which makes her an apt match for the isolated, insulated character at the heart of "Hateship Loveship," now in a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

  • Review: 'Transcendence' ★★

    April 16, 2014

    After an intriguing start, "Transcendence" — aka "The Computer Wore Johnny Depp's Tennis Shoes" — offers roughly the same level of excitement as listening to hold music during a call to tech support.

  • Director of 'Under the Skin' follows his muses

    April 10, 2014

    It's a recent, blustery Chicago day, and Jonathan Glazer is tucking into a lovely steak at David Burke's Primehouse. In support of his arresting new film "Under the Skin," starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien being on the prowl in Glasgow and rural Scotland, the London-born filmmaker, commercial veteran (check out his Guinness surfer ad sometime) and music-video specialist is talking about watching movies on television growing up, often with his father.

  • REVIEW: 'Under the Skin' ★★★ 1/2

    April 10, 2014

    Minds will be blown to the four winds. And — fair warning — a percentage of American ticket buyers may find themselves exasperated and/or exiting early.

  • REVIEW: 'Cuban Fury' ★★ 1/2

    April 10, 2014

    The zazzed-up editing obscures the actual results, but Nick Frost apparently does much of his own dancing in the new comedy "Cuban Fury." Written by Jon Brown from an idea by Frost, the film is designed to let the valuable, amiable co-star of "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "The World's End" step out on his own in a modest fable of self-improvement, the wrangling of inner demons and "Strictly Ballroom" dance floor triumph. Frost has all it takes to run his own show. Now he just needs a better show.

  • REVIEW: 'Dom Hemingway' ★★ 1/2

    April 10, 2014

    Quiet nobility is all very well, but what actor doesn't relish a good bad boy now and then?

  • REVIEW: 'Oculus' ★★★

    April 10, 2014

    Happily longer on chills than entrails, the crafty new horror film "Oculus" is about a haunted mirror. Three years ago, writer-director Mike Flanagan made the similarly low-budget "Absentia," which dealt with a haunted pedestrian underpass. In this genre, it's good to be specific.

  • REVIEW: 'Rio 2' ★★

    April 10, 2014

    In the commercial animation realm, there are movies that reach for something, or many things. Others are content merely to baby-sit.

  • REVIEW: 'Draft Day' ★★ 1/2

    April 10, 2014

    "Draft Day" feels like a play, and I don't mean a football play. It feels like a play-play at its sporadic best, in the same way J.C. Chandor's 2011 "Margin Call" felt that way.

  • Mickey Rooney: a dynamo for decades

    April 7, 2014

    Mickey Rooney was more cyclone than man, and like most weather-related phenomena, even at his most fearsome he was more easily experienced than described. Words such as "tireless" or "fearless" don't really get at it with Rooney. In a world of triple threats he was a quadruple or, in the spirit of his many, often brief marriages, an octuple. He sang, he danced, he broke hearts, he did pratfalls, he mugged, he mugged some more, he yearned for the girl next door. And he embodied the proud if counter-intuitive showbiz tradition of never leaving the audience wanting more.

  • REVIEW: 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. II' ★★ 1/2

    April 3, 2014

    Now available on demand and in the odd theater, "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II" continues the story of Joe, the restless, compulsive and increasingly masochistic character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. In the first of Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" films, released a few weeks ago, Joe is discovered beaten and bloodied in an alley near the apartment of Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), a solitary bachelor who offers comfort and hot tea to this forlorn stranger.

  • 'Finding Vivian Maier' and its backers

    April 3, 2014

    Four years ago, producer, comedian and actor Jeff Garlin caught a "Chicago Tonight" segment on collector John Maloof's accidental discovery of street photographer Vivian Maier, who worked as a North Shore nanny and housekeeper for much of her life. Garlin loved the segment. He loved the late Maier's work. And he loved the mysteries informing her life, her early years and her dedication to capturing the citizens of Chicago unawares, on camera, with an unnerving directness.

  • REVIEW: 'Finding Vivian Maier' ★★★ 1/2

    April 3, 2014

    Vivian Maier is a great Chicago story. And what she did for, and with, the faces, neighborhoods and character of mid-20th century Chicago deserves comparison to what Robert Frank accomplished, in a wider format, with "The Americans."

  • REVIEW: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' ★★★

    April 2, 2014

    "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a better-than-average Marvel superhero bash, intriguingly plotted and pretty clever in its speculations about 21st-century life for Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, the greatest of the Greatest Generation warriors, as he contends with contemporary American geopolitical ideals run amok.

  • Watching big movies on the small screen

    March 28, 2014

    Whether it's time or technological preference, many of us watch movies in ways we would've considered ridiculous a few years ago. The other day, blowing off the sensible Not Safe for Work guideline, I reviewed "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" at the office by way of an online link. Confronted with the first really gamey encounter in Lars von Trier's sexually explicit film, I did what any Repressive-American would do. I panicked, looked over my shoulder like someone with something to hide and quickly reduced the screen on my laptop to bottom-of-the-screen thumbnail size. Literally, the image was the size of my thumbnail, approximately 0.75 inches by 0.60 inches.

  • Incentives breed film familiarity

    March 27, 2014

    Moviemaking in America often comes down to one state's tax incentives versus another's, and how those tax breaks can shave millions off a producer's bottom line.

  • REVIEW: 'Jodorowsky's Dune' ★★★ 1/2

    March 27, 2014

    If I ever go through a wormhole, let me land on a planet where repertory cinema is alive and well and showcasing all the lost, cruelly abridged and, especially, unmade movies conceived on a grand, misbegotten scale. That'd be quite a three-day weekend. Murnau's "4 Devils," followed by von Stroheim's original cut of "Greed," plus the Welles version of "The Magnificent Ambersons." Plus Welles' never-made "Heart of Darkness," intended to be his Hollywood debut. Plus Clouzot's "L'Enfer," the sexual-jealousy obsession he never finished and subject of its own terrific documentary.

  • REVIEW: 'Sabotage' ★★

    March 27, 2014

    There's a weird, bashful moment in "Sabotage" when Olivia Williams, atypically cast as a tough Atlanta police detective, is drawn like a moth to the flame of Arnold Schwarzenegger's lips. It's a quick bit, cut off with comical abruptness before director and co-writer David Ayer ("Training Day," "End of Watch") gets back to the business of slaughter.

  • REVIEW: 'Noah' ★★ 1/2

    March 27, 2014

    Neither fish nor fowl, neither foul nor inspiring, director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky's strange and often rich new movie "Noah" has enough actual filmmaking to its name to deserve better handling than a plainly nervous Paramount Pictures has given it.

  • REVIEW: 'Cesar Chavez' ★★

    March 27, 2014

    For years, Chicago-born Michael Pena has been the guy behind the guy, doing good, subtle work with the roles he's landed — occasionally in color-blind, ethnically nonspecific casting situations, more often up against other Latino performers also deserving of a less hidebound, more open-minded casting process.

  • Movie musicals deserving of a remake

    March 20, 2014

    Earlier this month Steven Spielberg expressed strong interest in remaking "West Side Story," and my first thought (via Twitter) was a quick gut reaction: Why not "Gypsy" instead?

  • REVIEW: 'Le Week-End' ★★★ 1/2

    March 20, 2014

    Screenwriter Hanif Kureishi burst onto the scene a generation ago with "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985), and his latest script, "Le Week-End," may be the best he's written since then.

  • REVIEW: 'Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1' ★★★

    March 20, 2014

    For all its credited sex doubles (eight) and digitally attached stunt genitalia, the new Lars von Trier lark "Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1" is a weirdly old-fashioned affair. If it weren't for the explicit sexual encounters, this could be an Ibsen or a Strindberg play, unclothed and unmoored from the late 19th or early 20th century.

  • REVIEW: 'Enemy' ★★★

    March 20, 2014

    Based on "The Double" by novelist Jose Saramago, "Enemy" stars Jake Gyllenhaal in what the old studio publicity departments used to call "a demanding dual role." We're in a city — Toronto, clouded over with haze and a peculiar, sickly light managed by cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc — where a history professor, played by Gyllenhaal, tries to rally his half-empty lecture halls with warnings of the totalitarian state.

  • REVIEW: 'Muppets Most Wanted' ★★

    March 20, 2014

    High spirits and good times are hard to come by in "Muppets Most Wanted," the anxious follow-up to the commercially successful 2011 reboot ("The Muppets") and the seventh Muppet sequel to follow in the animal tracks of "The Muppet Movie" in 1979.

  • REVIEW: 'Divergent' ★★

    March 19, 2014

    In Veronica Roth's young adult trilogy of best-selling futuristic hellholes, being a "divergent" means you avoid easy categorization and defy the crushing dictates of your overseers.

  • REVIEW: 'Veronica Mars' ★★

    March 13, 2014

    Everything about the way the movie version of "Veronica Mars" came to pass is more intriguing than the movie itself.

  • REVIEW: 'The Missing Picture' ★★★★

    March 13, 2014

    As brilliantly as Art Spiegelman examined his parents' experiences of the Holocaust in the graphic novel "Maus," the Cambodian-born filmmaker and author Rithy Panh relives his own survival of the Khmer Rouge regime in "The Missing Picture." It's a fantastic film, and while I loved the movie that won this year's best documentary Oscar, "Twenty Feet From Stardom," that one's a blip on the world radar compared with Panh's searching, contemplative and spellbinding effort.

  • REVIEW: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' ★★★ 1/2

    March 13, 2014

    Ever since the moment in "Bottle Rocket" (1996) when Luke Wilson's character paused during a robbery of his own boyhood home to straighten a toy soldier on a bedroom shelf, writer-director Wes Anderson announced his intentions as an artist of serenely extreme exactitude.

  • REVIEW: 'Need for Speed' ★★ 1/2

    March 13, 2014

    In the race between interesting, long-ish screen noses belonging to good young actors, it's simply too close to call between Dominic Cooper and Imogen Poots.

  • EU Film Festival offers rich travelogue

    March 6, 2014

    Judging from its finest recent films, modern-day Romania strangles minute by minute on its own petty bureaucracy, its ingrained, weary sarcasm and resentments and the uneasy societal forces destined to keep its people under the gun, playing into their worst human instincts.

  • Neither phone troubles nor leg troubles stop Elaine Stritch

    March 6, 2014

    I had three rough, technologically challenged cellphone conversations with Elaine Stritch a couple of weeks ago, one right after the other, each broken up by dropped calls and a lot of understandable flustered impatience on Stritch's end of the line. That day (Feb. 17) she was getting her hair done in New York City prior to the evening's event: a 92nd Street Y "evening with" featuring Stritch.

  • REVIEW: '300: Rise of an Empire' ★★ 1/2

    March 6, 2014

    Even with a change in directors and a half-enlightened, half-salacious emphasis on the voracious Persian conqueror played by Eva Green, "300: Rise of an Empire" hews closely to the look, vibe and the casualty count of its sleekly schlocky 2007 predecessor, helmed by Zack Snyder.

  • Review: 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me' ★★★ 1/2

    March 6, 2014

    "Everybody's got a sack of rocks," Elaine Stritch says, quoting her late husband, John Bay. Some people don't let you know it. Some people do. The 89-year-old Broadway, TV, movie and cabaret star never lets you forget it. Swinging her particular rock sack with as much panache as her body will allow, Stritch makes her life a perpetual 11 o'clock number, celebrating strength through adversity, self-inflicted or otherwise.

  • REVIEW: 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' ★★

    March 6, 2014

    We bring to the movies whatever childhoods we had, and whatever television we watched to keep real life at bay, one half-hour at a time.

  • Gravitas, 'Gravity' dominate

    March 3, 2014

    Confounding the Oscar pundits who predicted levity over gravity, not to mention levity over “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” won the Academy Award on Sunday for best film of 2013.

  • Who will win on Oscar night?

    February 28, 2014

    They might be screwy. You never know with predictions. Meteorologists, a lot of them pretty smart, predicted a “tough” winter a few months back. Instead we got a season better described as “Roland Emmerich disaster movie material.”

  • Michael Phillips on 2013 screenplays up for Oscars

    February 28, 2014

    Oscar-nominated or not, a screenplay remains a halfway thing until it goes before the cameras. Similarly, a movie is only a movie until the post-screening discussion, whether that discussion takes place in your head, alone, or with strangers in a room. At that point a movie becomes a Socratic debate. Unless it's "The Lego Movie," which everybody seems to like a lot.

  • REVIEW: 'Museum Hours' ★★★★

    February 27, 2014

    Last November, Jem Cohen's Vienna-set film "Museum Hours" made its modest premiere in Chicago. Some were restless with it. Others fell under its spell. Count me among those happy to see it return for an encore one-week theatrical run beginning Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The following is a distillation of the Nov. 15 Tribune review.

  • REVIEW: 'Omar' ★★★

    February 27, 2014

    An inversion of all its shadowy, snakelike alleyways, the key image in writer-director Hany Abu-Assad's "Omar" is the high, narrow, forbidding concrete wall separating the title character, a Palestinian baker who's also a militant and a sniper, from the young woman he loves.

  • Up in the air, thrills are plane to see

    February 27, 2014

    Opening Friday, the new thriller "Non-Stop" is an entertaining time killer you wouldn't mind seeing on a long flight, as long as that flight weren't bedeviled by the sort of dramatic complications the movies have found irresistible for nearly a century.

  • REVIEW: 'Kids for Cash' ★★★ 1/2

    February 27, 2014

    Once someone comes up with a snazzy, alliterative handle for a corruption story, that's it — careers can be ended in a flash. "Kids for Cash," an impressive, often enraging feature-length debut from director Robert May, deals carefully and well with the so-called kids for cash scandal.

  • REVIEW: 'Non-Stop' ★★★

    February 27, 2014

    All's right with the world on this late day in February. Liam Neeson, also known as Mr. Capable or Uncle Avuncular, is back headlining another entertainingly preposterous thriller, this one called "Non-Stop," directed by his "Unknown" collaborator, director Jaume Collet-Serra.

  • 'Gravity,' '12 Years,' 'Hustle' have more in common than Oscar hopes

    February 21, 2014

    It isn't like last year, when it was down to "Argo" and "Lincoln," and it was already looking like "Argo." This year's Academy Awards ceremony, to be March 2, feels to me like a tricky three-way scenario among "American Hustle," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." So already the Oscars are 33 percent more interesting than usual.

  • REVIEW: 'In Secret' ★★ 1/2

    February 20, 2014

    We keep coming back to "Therese Raquin" for the same reason Emile Zola's 1867 novel of adultery and murder, which ascribed its anti-heroine's amorality to her "hot" African blood, stirred the imaginations of Theodore Dreiser ("An American Tragedy"), James M. Cain ("The Postman Always Rings Twice") and a thousand other creative voyeurs with access to a printing press. Sex sells. It hooks us as partakers in someone else's fantasy of desire and comeuppance. We want to know what happens once the guards are lowered and the clothes come off and transgressions feed other transgressions.

  • REVIEW: 'The Wind Rises' ★★★ 1/2

    February 20, 2014

    Here's a beautiful apparent contradiction: a gentle, supple picture about the man who designed the Zero fighter plane.

  • REVIEW: 'About Last Night' ★★ 1/2

    February 13, 2014

    "About Last Night," which is about hookups and relationships and the photogenic allure of the revitalized downtown Los Angeles, comes with a strange pedigree. First in its line was David Mamet's mean, sad, funny 1974 comedy "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," 100 percent Chicago all the way. Mamet saw no hope for his four characters, romantically speaking, and his view of men and women went far beyond Mars and Venus. House plants and rubber bands had a better shot at relating.

  • Regina Hall and Michael Ealy talk 'About Last Night'

    February 13, 2014

    "About Last Night" opens this weekend, just in time for Valentine's Day. Three of the four principal actors in this LA-set adaptation of David Mamet's play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" (borrowing also from the 1986 film "About Last Night …") worked together on the ensemble comedy hit "Think Like a Man." Two of those three, Regina Hall and Michael Ealy, came through Chicago recently on a promotional tour, and in separate interviews, back to back in a capacious suite at the Trump International Hotel affording a truly yowza view of the Wrigley Building clock and surrounding buildings,the actors talked about topics ranging from getting dragged to "The Exorcist" at the age of 4 (Hall) to the subtly racist idea that two African-American comedies are basically the same (Ealy, discussing the dreamy, idealized "Think Like a Man" and the edgier "About Last Night").

  • REVIEW: 'Endless Love' ★ 1/2

    February 13, 2014

    Alongside the reboots of "RoboCop" and "About Last Night," this week's bizarre "I Love the '80s" multiplex tribute continues with the remake of "Endless Love," a movie just begging to go up in the flames of camp. If only somebody had brought a match.

  • Tale of miracles needs at least one of its own

    February 13, 2014

    In the movies, particularly in the case of best-sellers adapted for the screen, time travel and its next-door neighbor, reincarnation, seem like a good idea at the time. But very often something goes gooey. Even with Colin Farrell's soulful eyes, the tastefully cockamamie and increasingly gloppy new film "Winter's Tale," pulled from Mark Helprin's 1983 novel, refuses to take off in any of its eras.

  • REVIEW: 'Tim's Vermeer' ★★★

    February 13, 2014

    Here's the theory. Well before the advent of photography, in paintings of paradoxically photorealistic light and detail such as "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and "The Music Lesson," 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer may have used a camera obscura and a couple of mirrors.

  • REVIEW: 'RoboCop' ★★★

    February 11, 2014

    Intriguingly ambiguous in its rooting interests, the "RoboCop" remake doesn't really believe its own poster. The tagline "Crime has a new enemy" suggests little more than point and shoot — the same old cyborg song and dance. While nobody'd be dumb enough to reboot the original 1987 kill-'em-up franchise by holding back on the scenes of slaughter in favor of sly political satire about arm-twisting Fox News jingoism or American business ethics, Brazilian-born director Jose Padilha manages to do all that and still deliver the product.

  • Early wolves on Wall Street in 'Force of Evil'

    February 6, 2014

    For the House Un-American Activities Committee, writer and director Abraham Polonsky was easy, ripe-red pickings. He never hid his Marxist ideology or his affiliations with the American Communist party. When the time came to name names, at least for his compliant film industry colleagues, Polonsky could've been named by any number of them. The dishonor fell to actor Sterling Hayden, and Polonsky was blacklisted in 1951 after refusing to testify. He didn't direct again for nearly two decades.

  • REVIEW: '7 Boxes' ★★★ 1/2

    February 6, 2014

    Run Victor run! A swift and clever thriller from Paraguay, "7 Boxes" joins a list of diversions from all over the world — the German "Run Lola Run"; the Philippine "Slingshot"; and such Hollywood entertainments as "Premium Rush" — built for speed, organized chaos and headlong velocity.

  • REVIEW: 'The Monuments Men' ★★

    February 4, 2014

    A genial disappointment about the preciousness of art amid the destructive horrors of war, "The Monuments Men" is scored to a military march by composer Alexandre Desplat. You hear what he was going for: jaunty heroics. The throwback sound of it suggests the director, co-writer and star George Clooney sat down with Desplat, gave him a smile and said: "Gimme some of that Elmer Bernstein 'Great Escape' magic, Al."

  • REVIEW: 'The Lego Movie' ★★★★

    February 4, 2014

    Finally! A comedy that works. An animated film with a look — a kinetic aesthetic honoring its product line's bright, bricklike origins — that isn't like every other clinically rounded and bland digital 3-D effort. A movie that works for the Lego-indebted parent as well as the Lego-crazed offspring. A movie that, in its brilliantly crammed first half especially, will work even if you don't give a rip about Legos.

  • For Hoffman, acting didn't come easy, but it did come true

    February 3, 2014

    Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't really steal scenes. He tugged them, slyly, like a man doing a slow-motion rug trick, to his own corner of the action. He did it time after time, across 50-odd feature films and with a consistent presence on the New York stage. (He worked all over the place; he directed "The Long Red Road" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2010.)

  • REVIEW: 'Like Father, Like Son' ★★★

    January 30, 2014

    At last year's Cannes Film Festival, Steven Spielberg served as jury president, and the second the lights came up after the first competition screening of the Japanese picture "Like Father, Like Son," the cynical chatter began. This is Spielberg's cup of tea all the way. A carefully diagrammed heartwarmer about babies switched at birth and the parents who learn the truth of the matter years later.

  • 'Cabin in the Sky' revival at Facets

    January 30, 2014

    This Sunday at noon, Facets Cinematheque and Chicago Opera Theater will host a Facets screening of the 1943 MGM musical "Cabin in the Sky," which marked the feature directorial debut of a master, Vincente Minnelli.

  • REVIEW: 'At Middleton' ★★★

    January 30, 2014

    "At Middleton" is formulaic and contrived. It's also worth seeing because it breathes a little, and because Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia know what they're doing as they guide this appealingly simple brief encounter of a romance.

  • REVIEW: 'Labor Day' ★★

    January 30, 2014

    The thesis of "Labor Day," taken from Joyce Maynard's novel, was summed up well by The Washington Post headline affixed to the Post's book review: "Sometimes it's okay to pick up a scary drifter."

  • REVIEW: 'That Awkward Moment' ★★

    January 30, 2014

    More grating than peppy, the Manhattan-set romantic comedy "That Awkward Moment" proceeds as a series of awkward moments in search of a premise and a protagonist a little less stupid.

  • Living in a post 35 mm age

    January 23, 2014

    Is it all romance and poetry and fine points, this distinction between watching a film projected digitally and watching it on 35 mm film, on a projector, with the shaft of light emanating from the booth?

  • REVIEW: 'On the Bowery' ★★★★

    January 23, 2014

    This week the Gene Siskel Film Center begins a 14-part retrospective of street-level, purely American poetic-realist cinema spanning five different decades and too many different sensibilities to fit into any one box.

  • Ebert documentary, 'Life Itself,' gets thumbs up ★★★ 1/2

    January 23, 2014

    The documentary "Life Itself," directed by Steve James of "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters" and based on the late Roger Ebert's 2011 memoir, could have settled for well-meaning hagiography or a feature-length pitch for sainthood. Many of Ebert's far-flung fans and admirers, along with the thousands of Chicagoans who called him friend even if they didn't know him, may have preferred it that way.

  • REVIEW: 'Gimme Shelter' ★ 1/2

    January 23, 2014

    It's hard not to be affected by a story about a pregnant, homeless teenager such as the one at the heart of "Gimme Shelter," which stars "High School Musical's" Vanessa Hudgens. But some movies, full of good intentions and cliches undermining those intentions, make it very hard indeed.

  • REVIEW: 'The Invisible Woman' ★★★

    January 23, 2014

    Charles Dickens wrote often about people required by circumstance to skitter through double lives, none with more dastardly, compartmentalized determination than the secretive choirmaster at the center of his final, unfinished work, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

  • REVIEW: 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' ★★

    January 16, 2014

    The best moment in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" allows the director and crucial supporting player Kenneth Branagh to set cars and guns aside for a brief, unblinking glare in a two-person scene at a dinner table. Branagh plays a heroin-addicted Russian terrorist in this routine franchise reboot, and when he's at dinner in Moscow with Ryan's fiancee, played by Keira Knightley, he's being duped into believing he's making meaningful progress in the sniveling-seduction department.

  • REVIEW: 'Ride Along' ★★

    January 16, 2014

    Early, bloggy reviews of "Ride Along" have rolled in this week with phrases such as "perfectly acceptable" and "been-there-done-that," suggesting the likely range of opinion. It'll probably be a hit: Audiences are getting precisely what they're promised.

  • REVIEW: 'The Nut Job' ★

    January 16, 2014

    Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, and all that, but "The Nut Job" didn't work out that way. This 3-D animation job, a co-production of South Korea's Redrover Co. and the Canadian outfit ToonBox Entertainment, generates such little interest in the fates of its urban park critters, you may find yourself pondering mixed-use development schemes to rid the film of its key setting altogether.

  • REVIEW: 'Selfish Giant' ★★★ 1/2

    January 9, 2014

    Tough as scrap iron but blessed with a stubbornly tender heart, "Selfish Giant" is a haunting new work from writer-director Clio Barnard that bends the 1888 Oscar Wilde fairy tale "The Selfish Giant" into an entirely new shape. It works on its own, with or without knowledge of the original. A moviegoer need only bring to it some nerve and a little empathy for the lives on screen.

  • Berenice Bejo talks about 'The Past' and how she got there

    January 9, 2014

    CANNES, France - For her work in "The Past," as a divorcing Paris mother caught in a web of deceptions, Berenice Bejo won the best actress award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The movie opens in Chicago Friday; Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi's previous feature was "A Separation," and this one's nearly as good.

  • REVIEW: 'August: Osage County' ★★

    January 9, 2014

    Over and over, the negative reviews of "August: Osage County" have pulled variations on a sad theme, with various New York- and LA-based critics wrestling with the film without having seen, or read, the Tracy Letts play that came before it. Paraphrased, the theme goes like this: "Well, at least now I don't have to see the play. The movie doesn't work for me. Why would I ever take time to see the original?"

  • REVIEW: 'The Adventurer' ★ 1/2

    January 9, 2014

    "The Misadventurer" is more like it: Taken from one of a trilogy of young-adult adventure novels by G.P. Taylor, "The Adventurer" grinds through generic elements of apocalyptic fantasy familiar to fans of Indiana Jones, Percy Jackson and a million other guys. The "National Treasure" movies also were consulted, at least in spirit. By comparison, "The Adventurer" makes "National Treasure" look like a national treasure.

  • REVIEW: 'The Past' ★★★ 1/2

    January 9, 2014

    In an earlier Asghar Farhadi film, "About Elly," a divorcing character says: "A bitter end is much better than a bitterness without ending." Neither option provides much ease. In the right hands, however, both yield infinite dramatic riches.

  • REVIEW: 'Lone Survivor' ★★★

    January 9, 2014

    Roughly half of "Lone Survivor" is a standard-issue Hollywood treatment of a recent, bloody and, in human terms, tragic 2005 Navy SEAL mission to eliminate an al-Qaida operative in the Afghanistan mountain region of Hindu Kush. But the other half — the hour or so of writer-director Peter Berg's film dealing specifically with what happens when four men are cut off in Taliban country, scrambling under fire — is strong, gripping stuff, free of polemics, nerve-wracking in the extreme.

  • Winter 2014 in Movies: A few films to anticipate this winter

    January 3, 2014

    How crowded was December at the movies? Crowded enough to push George Clooney and "The Monuments Men" into an early 2014 release. And that's good! That's good. Because a little quality to go with our winter movie diversions would be good.

  • Looking out for No. 1 at Oscar nomination time

    January 2, 2014

    Two thoughts for this new year. First, awards, because they're extremely important. And second, plastics.

  • REVIEW: 'At Berkeley' ★★★ 1/2

    January 2, 2014

    In the fall of 2010, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman went back to school. He and a two-person crew embarked on a three-month project, auditing with their cameras a semester or so in the life of University of California at Berkeley. The result was 250 hours of raw footage, 246 of which did not make the final cut of this elegant, observant experience now at the Siskel Film Center.

  • REVIEW: 'The Great Beauty' ★★★ 1/2

    January 2, 2014

    The coolest actor on the planet? At the moment my favorite — cool, warm, whatever temperature — is Toni Servillo, the Italian maestro of character actors. He has a way of conveying a lifetime of insight, irony, natural authority and blithe amusement behind every line reading.

  • Classic 'Umbrellas' twirls on in restored edition

    December 26, 2013

    Maybe this is true of most films worth revisiting. But each time I see "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" after a few years have passed, its qualities and cumulative impact are never quite what I remembered. It's a tougher-minded creation than its reputation for gushy romanticism suggests. Well, it's both, really: gushy romanticism with a clear-eyed c'est la vie maturity about the way love goes sometimes.

  • Review: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' ★★

    December 24, 2013

    So. Turns out the only thing the prototypical American milquetoast Walter Mitty needed to get happy was a little stubble and a lavish travel budget.

  • Review: 'Wolf of Wall Street' ★★

    December 23, 2013

    In the waning years of the last century at Stratton Oakmont, the Wall Street brokerage house run like a coked-up 24-hour bacchanal by Jordan Belfort, the customer wasn't king. The customer was merely a means to an end. Belfort and his minions ruled, and they couldn't spend, snort or swallow the riches reaped fast enough.

  • In Jonze's hands, future in 'Her' feels a lot like now

    December 21, 2013

    Opening on Christmas day, along with "Grudge Match" and a few other films with which it has nothing in common, writer-director Spike Jonze's "Her" is the most beguiling and imaginative picture of 2013, the one I'd miss the most if it hadn't been made.

  • Review: 'Her' ★★★★

    December 20, 2013

    A delicate, droll masterwork, writer-director Spike Jonze's "Her" sticks its neck out, all the way out, asserting that what the world needs now and evermore is love, sweet love. Preferably between humans, but you can't have everything all the time.

  • O'Toole and Fontaine made magic with their faces and voices

    December 19, 2013

    It has been a terrible week, because of the loss of two wonderful voices and faces.

  • Review: 'Faust' ★★★

    December 19, 2013

    In exchange for making films as good as "The Sun," about Emperor Hirohito, and "Alexandra," about a long-simmering war's effects on a woman who has seen everything, the director Alexander Sokurov may well have struck a Faustian bargain requiring him to tackle the taunting Faust myth head-on.

  • 'Frozen': Defying meteorology ★★★

    November 26, 2013

    Big, bright, often beautiful and essentially an action movie, as are most animated features these days, "Frozen" comes from Walt Disney Animation Studios. While Disney credits the 1845 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Snow Queen" as primary inspiration, the movie owes a lot more to the Broadway blockbuster "Wicked."

  • Inequality and its toll roil changing China in 'Touch of Sin' ★★★ 1/2

    November 21, 2013

    A brutally eloquent panorama of modern China, "A Touch of Sin" amalgamates four stories of violent revenge, inspired by factual events, to create a treatise on socioeconomic injustice and where it can lead.

  • Review: 'Fosse' by Sam Wasson

    November 3, 2013

    "Bob Fosse was the best thing ever to come out of burlesque, and he would pay for it forever," Sam Wasson writes in his punchy, vital new biography, "Fosse."

  • 'Gravity,' a breathtaking space adventure ★★★ 1/2

    October 4, 2013

    "Gravity" defies itself. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts — a newbie scientist and a veteran cowboy — who dodge space debris and the usual narrative expectations while coping with a highly compressed series of crises 372 miles above the Earth's surface. It's a nerve-wracking visual experience of unusual and paradoxical delicacy. And if your stomach can take it, it's truly something to see.

  • Smoke, mirrors and 'Salinger' ★ 1/2

    September 19, 2013

    The less J.D. Salinger had to say for himself, across so many decades of near-seclusion, the more his rabid fans went on about what the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" meant to them, and why Holden Caulfield struck such a mighty chord with generations of post-World War II adolescents, whatever their age. (I read it when I was 15 and was never quite the same.) Was the author's love life, in and apart from his marriages, a series of seductions involving dangerously young women? Was his entire post-combat life a traumatic stress disorder in action? Is there a trove of unpublished material that has been awaiting the light, per Salinger's legal instructions, since his 2010 death?

  • 'The World's End' is a reunion, with an open bar ★★★ 1/2

    August 22, 2013

    Zippy, kinetic and brashly funny, "The World's End" comes to the U.S. from its native England hard on the heels of "This Is the End," an American comedy about ordinary mortals (comedians, actually, so maybe not so ordinary) manning up to deal with apocalyptic plot developments. "World's End," a collaboration among director Edgar Wright, co-writer and star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost, joins the trio's earlier genre scrambles "Shaun of the Dead" (zombie invasion plus rom-com) and "Hot Fuzz" ("Bad Boys"-brand action movie plopped down in Miss Marple land).

  • Jim Carrey's mea culpa a good first step for 'Kick-Ass 2' ★ 1/2

    August 15, 2013

    "Kick-Ass 2," the sequel to the 2010 adaptation of Scottish comic book author Mark Millar's "Kick-Ass," comes in right on the bubble: It's no better, no worse and essentially no different from the jocular, clodhopping brutality of the first one. Here in writer-director Jeff Wadlow's crimson bauble, Chloe Grace Moretz and Aaron Taylor-Johnson reprise their roles as Hit Girl and Kick-Ass, respectively — the homegrown, limb-lopping superheroes and high school classmates (he's older, but she's tougher) who spill more blood than a klutzy production assistant on a Tarantino shoot.

  • 'We're the Millers' stripped of humor ★ 1/2

    August 7, 2013

    When Jason Sudeikis and Ed Helms appear in the same movie there's a significant threat of clean-cut sameness. Mediocre material makes them like two halves of the same comic actor: Ed Jason Helms-Sudeikis.

  • 'Wolverine' is mutant who plays to balconies ★★★

    July 25, 2013

    Every time Hugh Jackman's up there on screen, dining out on the rage stew that is the Wolverine, I think back to his Tony Award-winning performance as entertainer Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz." It was a terrible musical but a wonderful Broadway turn, flamboyant exuberance personified. Each strand of this performer's DNA is about giving the audience a great time. He's a strutter, and in "The Wolverine," Jackman's sixth and most dominant appearance as the Marvel Comics character, the immortal mutton-chopped loner looks as if he has been spending all his time up in the Canadian wilderness with a personal trainer, waiting for his close-up.

  • 'This is Martin Bonner' gambles on path to better life in Reno ★★★1/2

    July 19, 2013

    Now in a week's run at Facets, "This Is Martin Bonner" explores what it means to be a good person at a crossroads, and whom you might find there. In outline form, especially given its premiere last year at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Chad Hartigan's second feature courts comparisons to all sorts of Sundance titles trading in a similar vein of low-key naturalism. This is one of the very good ones.

  • 'Bling Ring' a bright, breezy film with a message ★★★

    June 20, 2013

    "I think Los Angeles is so the center of American culture right now," writer-director Sofia Coppola says in the production notes for her swift, clever bauble "The Bling Ring," because "of all these reality TV shows."

  • 'Much Ado About Nothing' gracefully drags Shakespeare into modern times ★★★ 1/2

    June 20, 2013

    Finally! A romantic comedy that works. And not just because of Shakespeare.

  • 'World War Z': Fast zombies, global chaos and a semi-entertaining mess ★★ 1/2

    June 19, 2013

    It begins the way global epidemics have begun once or twice before in the movies: with a nice American family around the kitchen table, television droning in the background, delivering news reports of a mutating virus. OK, pass the oj! Let's get on with the rest of our undead-plagued lives, shall we?

  • 'Somm': Swirl, sniff and imbibe a mid-level documentary ★★ 1/2

    June 14, 2013

    Filmmaker Jason Wise has worked as an underwater photographer as well as a bartender, so quite naturally Wise's first feature-length documentary involves massive quantities of liquid. In "Somm," a slick, easygoing feature debut, we follow four male friends and colleagues, wine obsessives all, as they prepare for the exam that qualifies a lucky few (201 worldwide to date) for the distinction, title and prestige of becoming a master sommelier.

  • 'This is the End' is rude, crude -- and funny ★★★ 1/2

    June 13, 2013

    The "Hangover" movies, even the third one no one defends, barely qualify as comedies in the traditional sense. They're more like grimy action pictures with a joke or two tossed in to avoid the charge of false labeling. Their ugliness of spirit compounds a disinterest in verbal jokes and a reliance on brutality (which isn't the same as artfully violent slapstick), and nobody involved seems to care about making the talk snappy or keeping a scene moving forward. Whatever. They're hits. The public hath spoken, even as the public groweth weary.

  • 'Man of Steel' follows the grim path first trod by the Dark Knight ★★ 1/2

    June 13, 2013

    Thanks, "Man of Steel." Because of the scene where Superman battles two of his adversaries from the planet Krypton in downtown Smallville, wrecking most of an IHOP and a Sears store, I now associate pancakes and appliances with pain and suffering.

  • African themes power Facets fest

    June 13, 2013

    Perilous journeys home and away: Each edition of the African Diaspora International Film Festival, presented annually by Facets Cinematheque, offers a continent's worth in both directions.

  • 'Fill the Void': Israel's Haredi sect explored from within ★★★

    June 13, 2013

    An elegant miniature, Rama Burshtein's "Fill the Void" labors under a narrative inevitability, but it's artful work nonetheless.

  • The water was fine when Esther Williams was in it

    June 7, 2013

    How do you explain Esther Williams to younger moviegoers with no working knowledge of her stardom?

  • Search for laughs falls short in 'The Internship' ★★

    June 6, 2013

    You might say "The Internship" is in the bag for Google, the fearsomely powerful search engine and commerce behemoth. But that doesn't quite convey the extent of the coziness. This film carries Google's water. It is, in fact, Google's little minion movie.

  • Brit Marling points 'The East' in right direction ★★★

    June 6, 2013

    Deep cover: That's where an actress can reveal two faces, one real, the other designed to burrow into the confidence of her adversary.

  • 'Tiger Eyes': Son steers Judy Blume tale on an apt, gentle course ★★★

    June 6, 2013

    A gentle, honest and shrewdly realized film such as "Tiger Eyes," based on the 1981 Judy Blume novel, shouldn't have to fight for a moviegoer's attention or an exhibitor's screens (it opens at a single Chicago-area theater this weekend). But it's worth seeking out.

  • Cannes once again a fascinating, provocative 'research' project

    May 31, 2013

    Every year the Cannes Film Festival pulls into its orbit a rangy group of Chicago journalists, critics, student filmmakers and programmers. The festival was different this year, though. Conspicuously and sadly, it lacked the benevolent presence of its most ardent American chronicler, the late Roger Ebert.

  • Pitchfork announces new film website

    May 30, 2013

    This July, Pitchfork Media plans to launch an expansive Chicago-based movie website called The Dissolve (thedissolve.com), staffed largely by veterans of The Onion’s AV Club.

  • Misdirection expert back to 'After Earth' ★★ 1/2

    May 30, 2013

    Director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan has gone from being Mr. Twist, thanks to "The Sixth Sense," to the most doggedly straightforward storyteller on the planet, judging from the modestly entertaining "After Earth." It's essentially a two-hander showcasing the Smiths, Will and Jaden.

  • Richard Linklater, screen lovers reunite again in 'Before Midnight' ★★★

    May 30, 2013

    When Celine, played by Julie Delpy, first met Ethan Hawke's Jesse in "Before Sunrise" back in 1995, on a Budapest-to-Vienna train just made for postcollegiate flirtation, one round of small talk led to another, until the talk got a little bigger and phased into bleary-eyed, besotted exchanges about literature and life's fleeting romantic glories.

  • Predictions reach high pitch for Cannes awards

    May 27, 2013

    Unlike the Grammys  or the Oscars, the Cannes Film Festival awards keep things simple and the numbers low. At the 66th closing ceremony tonight, main competition jury president Steven Spielberg and his illustrious colleagues (Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz, director Ang Lee and five others from around the world) will reveal their selections in a handful of categories—seven, if past festivals are any guide, with the option for a special award if Spielberg and company see fit.

  • Black and white and 'Blue' catch the attention

    May 24, 2013

    CANNES, France -- Paradox! This is how it goes here: Just as the weather deigns to become a thing of sun-splashed French Riviera wonder, the 66th Cannes Film Festival responds with an 8:30 a.m. world premiere of "Nebraska," director Alexander Payne's first film since "The Descendants." It's a tight-lipped, melancholic black-and-white road movie starring Bruce Dern as an alcoholic Billings, Mont., man convinced he's won a million dollars in a mail-order sweepstakes giveaway.

  • 'Post Tenebras Lux': A dark, uneasy, even harsh form of dream ★★★ 1/2

    May 24, 2013

    Carlos Reygadas' head-spinning follow-up to "Silent Light" (2007) opens as that film did, with a gorgeous image of the natural world. This one depicts a young girl running in a rain-soaked open field, among dogs, horses, burros, the clank of the cowbells accompanying her squeals of delight.

  • A Petra Pan travels boroughs and beyond in 'Frances Ha' ★★★ 1/2

    May 23, 2013

    Often when you're young, and sometimes even when you're older than young, adulthood is something ventured into partway, like a wading pool. The deep end your friends are already inhabiting looks a long way away.

  • 'Epic' can't see the forest for the plot ★★

    May 23, 2013

    The hopeful title of "Epic" suggests big things in a way that a more accurate title, such as "How to Train Your Hummingbird," would not. The animated result isn't bad. It's an adequate baby sitter. But where's the allure in telling the truth? Twentieth Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios present "Adequate"?

  • 'Seduced and Abandoned' with Alec Baldwin at Cannes

    May 22, 2013

    Last year at the Cannes Film Festival, Alec Baldwin and director James Toback ran around for 11 days making a movie about two guys (themselves; it’s a documentary) scrambling to line up financing for a different movie, a sex-soaked tale of a right-wing government operative trysting with a left-wing journalist in a hotel room in Iraq.

  • Michael Douglas impresses at Cannes with HBO Liberace pic 'Behind the Candelabra'

    May 21, 2013

    Michael Douglas’s faaaaabulous portrayal of Liberace won’t be eligible for an Oscar, since the droll Steven Soderbergh-directed biopic “Behind the Candelabra” debuts Sunday on HBO before playing theatrically (and talk about theatrically!) overseas.

  • Coen brothers' loser is winning over Cannes

    May 20, 2013

    CANNES, France — Whatever its commercial fortunes when it opens in the U.S. this December, "Inside Llewyn Davis" already has won the acclaim sought so ardently by the fictional folk singer of its title, the latest charismatic loser in a long, stumbling conga line of Coen brothers protagonists.

  • Cannes: Winnetka's Katie Chang gets big break in 'Bling Ring'

    May 17, 2013

    “I mean, I come from Winnetka,” says New Trier Township High School graduating senior Katie Chang, in Cannes this week accompanying her big break, Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring.”

  • Cannes Film Festival: Nothing succeeds like excess -- and a white badge

    May 16, 2013

    CANNES, France — The class envy raging through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” helps to explain why teenage readers, usually assigned the book in school, fall under its spell. So sad about that doomed love, the kids sigh. Money can’t buy you the best things in life. But those mad Prohibition-era parties sure seemed like the berries.

  • 'Stories We Tell': Director's look at family's secrets, lies and love ★★★★

    May 16, 2013

    Everywhere in the culture, there's another monologuist or filmmaker placing herself at the center of a question, or a series of questions: What's up with my family? How did I get here? How can one charismatic family member hold so many secrets?

  • Black Rock': When camping trips collide, bad stuff ensues ★★ 1/2

    May 16, 2013

    "Black Rock" pits three women, camping on a remote island off the coast of Maine, against a trio of U.S. Army veterans back from messed-up tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where we find ourselves with the legacy of America's Iraq invasion: Apparently enough years have passed, coinciding with the proper quota of well-meaning screen portrayals of psychologically and/or physically damaged military personnel, so that a movie just out for a jolt or two can go the "crazed Vietnam vet" route with impunity. But with a more recent war.

  • As a hit man, 'Iceman' a model of productivity ★★★

    May 16, 2013

    For bracing proof that a) Michael Shannon can portray the coldest of killers, while b) complicating and enlivening a potentially monochromatic slab of nastiness, check out Shannon as Richard Kuklinski in director and co-writer Ariel Vromen's "The Iceman." In our mobbed-up popular culture, Kuklinski was destined for feature film treatment. He was a real-life New Jersey whack expert with an estimated 100 victims. He lived behind the facade of a stable marriage and a Normal, Happy Family, but his resume included enough grisly doings for an entire season of "The Sopranos."

  • Cannes Film Festival: Steven Spielberg heads jury

    May 15, 2013

    “We’re always sitting in personal private judgment of the films we see,” Steven Spielberg said Wednesday, in Wednesday’s Cannes Film Festival press conference introducing this year’s nine-person jury headed by Spielberg.

  • What reception will 'Great Gatsby' get on Cannes' opening night?

    May 15, 2013

    I mean, look, said Baz Luhrmann, the cinematically manic auteur behind the new edition of “The Great Gatsby.” Who cares if his movie about obscene wealth and romantic illusions got mixed reviews in the U.S.? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel received the same in its day.

  • 'Star Trek Into Darkness' boldly goes where we've gone before, but it's fun voyage ★★★ 1/2

    May 14, 2013

    It's lame and sort of geeky to compare franchise apples to oranges. Oh, well. "Star Trek Into Darkness" does everything "Iron Man 3" tries to do, in the realm of global terrorism imagery reprocessed for popcorn kicks, but with a little more style, a dash more brio and invention.

  • Cannes Film Festival preview: New work from perennial favorites

    May 10, 2013

    When the 66th Cannes Film Festival opens Wednesday, it'll do so with a big bash of a movie, not in competition, already up and running in the U.S.: Baz Luhrmann's “The Great Gatsby,” based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

  • 'Something in the Air' a coming of age in a time of chaos ★★★

    May 9, 2013

    Gliding through turbulent revolutionary times with an air of inquisitive detachment, and with a sheaf of his latest drawings under his arm, young Gilles, played by newcomer Clement Metayer in "Something in the Air," is the latest screen portrait of an artist as a young man. It's a good one too, rich and assured, even if writer-director Olivier Assayas is more successful at creating atmosphere than at making his romanticized younger self a three-dimensional being.

  • 'Great Gatsby': Leonardo DiCaprio can't save flat 'Great American novel' depiction ★★

    May 8, 2013

    Even if it's true, let's forget the "great American novel" business regarding "The Great Gatsby" for a minute. What makes F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, published in the spring of 1925 but set three years earlier, such a haunted portrait of a time, a place and a Lost Generation dream?

  • Ray Harryhausen: Movie stop-motion master crafted magic

    May 7, 2013

    If Ray Harryhausen had designed only one sequence in his cinematic career, any one of his real lulus — let's start with the skeleton army battle in “Jason and the Argonauts” from 1963 — he'd still be the master of stop-motion animation special effects.

  • 'Iron Man 3': High anxiety for Tony Stark ★★ 1/2

    May 6, 2013

    A little too much and a little not enough, director and co-writer Shane Black's "Iron Man 3" nonetheless has everything Disney and Marvel need to keep the "Avengers" superhero constellation shining and regenerating well into the 23rd century. It's what you call a pre-hit: As of this writing (Tuesday, 8:57 a.m. CST) the movie already has zoomed past the $200 million mark in worldwide box office.

  • 'Vera Stark' looks back at lost stars

    May 2, 2013

    The idea for "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark," now in performances through June 2 at the Goodman Theatre, came to playwright Lynn Nottage the way so many of us discover so many slivers of old Hollywood. How? By happening upon a lesser-known title on the Turner Classic Movies cable network.

  • 'Sun Don't Shine': Confident drama withstands heat ★★★ 1/2

    May 2, 2013

    In the crafty Florida-set "Sun Don't Shine" the sun shines plenty, but this is no day-tripping excursion to the beach, or Disney World.

  • 'Graceland': Small-budget Filipino film displays big talent ★★★ 1/2

    May 2, 2013

    At the intersection of movie pulp and human truth, the right picture can park itself in your consciousness. Tense and anguished, the kidnapping thriller "Graceland" is one of those pictures — a real find, playing for keeps what bigger-budget payback items such as "Taken" play for conventional revenge.

  • 'At Any Price': Seeds of woe down on the farm ★★ 1/2

    May 2, 2013

    "At Any Price," a roughly mixed but interestingly plotted offshoot of "Death of a Salesman" and other hardy father/son perennials, is the fourth feature from writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose career has been remarkable for his consistency of theme as well as his eagerness to nudge himself toward greater ambition.

  • Dennis Quaid: 'At Any Price' star puts experiences to use

    April 26, 2013

    There was a time, in the late 1980s, when each new film starring Dennis Quaid was The One. The one destined to make him not just an actor, not just an actor with guts and a wily, toothy joker's grin, but a huge box-office-reliable star. In the summer of 1987, The One was the adventure fantasy “Innerspace,” which turned out to be a medium hit. Two summers later it was the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic “Great Balls of Fire!” in which Quaid whooped it up to yahoo Himalayan heights. Again, not a disaster. But not The One.

  • 'Blancanieves': Grimm tale, rendered silently, beautifully ★★★ 1/2

    April 25, 2013

    From Spain, here's a miracle of fairy tale repurposing: a version of the Brothers Grimm's "Snow White," set in Spanish bullfighting country in the late 1920s.

  • 'Arthur Newman': In the leads, personality to spare; in the plot, a void ★★

    April 25, 2013

    A wee movie of comparable interest, "Arthur Newman" is a road-tripping seriocomedy featuring Colin Firth as a depressive identity thief and former pro golfer, opposite Emily Blunt in the role of a suicidal kleptomaniac. Together they find love, while embarking on escapades involving breaking into people's homes and trying on different clothes and personalities.

  • Bodybuilders build their body count in 'Pain & Gain' ★ 1/2

    April 25, 2013

    In America you're either a "doer" or a "don't-er." So says the hostile motivational speaker played by Ken Jeong, one of several supporting sleazebags tipping around the edges of director Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain."

  • 'Big Wedding' parts far greater than its whole ★★

    April 25, 2013

    The diversions in the ensemble comedy "The Big Wedding" (that title flat enough for you?) are strictly actor-related, which is usually the case at the movies. For example, the way Diane Keaton selects an asparagus spear at a country club buffet while delivering some dutiful expositional something or other. Or the rumpled panache with which Robert De Niro, playing the Keaton character's ex-husband, adapts to a different sort of role than he's used to playing: that of the unreliable horndog trying to get by on charm.

  • 'Girl Rising': Documentary's message obvious and important ★★ 1/2

    April 18, 2013

    From Sierra Leone, from Peru, from Nepal and elsewhere, the nine lives at the heart of "Girl Rising" are impossible to ignore. This consciousness-raising documentary from filmmaker Richard E. Robbins risks making the harsh conditions these girls have conquered a little too poetically photogenic. The movie's color palette is so gorgeous, you may find yourself spacing out on the beauty rather than focusing on the stories.

  • 'Unmade in China': Making a movie turns into a comedy of errors ★★★ 1/2

    April 18, 2013

    Movies about the difficulty of making movies shouldn't work at all, really. The potential for navel-gazing is immense. The narcissistic insularity of the topic is potentially galling. Yet the best of these films, especially in the documentary realm, turn their subjects' travails into the stuff of universal Job-like pain, suffering and human comedy.

  • Tom Cruise, 'Oblivion' going nowhere, glacially ★★

    April 18, 2013

    Something's wrong. Tom Cruise, or, rather, Jack Harper, his character in the placid new science-fiction adventure "Oblivion," can't shake his dreams of a woman giving him the big eyes on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

  • Terrence Malick's 'To the Wonder' lost in a beautifully shot fog ★★★

    April 18, 2013

    In the spirit of a Terrence Malick screenplay, certain rhetorical questions to be spoken in hushed voice-over present themselves regarding Malick's latest, "To the Wonder."

  • Talking heads add power to dark 'No Place on Earth' ★★ 1/2

    April 18, 2013

    The story told by Janet Tobias' documentary "No Place on Earth" is enough to transcend the film's limitations. With human drama like this, it sounds almost absurd to get hung up on artistic choices and filmmaking technique. Almost.

  • Baseball films to add to your viewing lineup

    April 15, 2013

    "After all them years, all that double talk — the white man's finally moving in," says one Negro League barnstormer to another, after a teammate gets a call from the Brooklyn Dodgers about a historic opportunity.

  • More blood, less wit when the 'Evil Dead' return ★★

    April 8, 2013

    In the Book of the Dead, the barbed-wire-wrapped volume causing the fuss in "Evil Dead," one lavishly illustrated page states that after the forest demon "feasts on five souls, the sky will bleed again." Translated into franchise terms: If this grim, outlandish remake of the 1983 Sam Raimi film makes $50 million or more, which it will, the multiplex screens will weep once more with crimson tears. Sequel!

  • Farewell to a generous colleague and friend

    April 4, 2013

    Roger Ebert died Thursday, April 4, 2013. A lousy day. I rue it. But I will always remember Roger’s kindness and his eloquence. I’m not alone there.

  • 'Shining' students dissect object of their obsession in 'Room 237' ★★★

    April 4, 2013

    We are nothing without our obsessions, and Rodney Ascher's "This American Life"-ish documentary "Room 237" intertwines the obsessive, often risible theories of five very big fans of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."

  • A 'Place Beyond the Pines' where two actors shine ★★★ 1/2

    April 4, 2013

    In director Derek Cianfrance's previous feature, "Blue Valentine," pretension found itself in a stern deadlock with dramatic honesty. Thanks to the performance of Michelle Williams, opposite the flashier, more contrived flourishes of Ryan Gosling, the results were worth seeing.

  • 'The Host': Alien neighbors drop in, and time seems to stop ★

    March 28, 2013

    "The Host" is for people who couldn't handle the whirlwind pace of events in the "Twilight" trilogy and who prefer a love triangle unafraid to redefine, for a new generation, the word "lollygag."

  • 'Gimme the Loot' a New York tale of love, larceny ★★★ 1/2

    March 28, 2013

    In Adam Leon's "Gimme the Loot," a loose, beguiling bit of larceny, a pair of teenage graffiti artistes from the Bronx — Malcolm, played by Ty Hickson, and Sofia, played by Tashiana Washington — spend an eventful summer weekend in side-winding pursuit of their dream.

  • 'The Sapphires' a tuneful trip to Vietnam ★★ 1/2

    March 28, 2013

    Some diversions invite comparison more readily than others. Take "The Sapphires," the most chipper film ever set in Vietnam.

  • Goro Miyazaki follows in his father's path in 'Poppy Hill' ★★★★

    March 28, 2013

    Is any animated feature produced by the Japanese treasure known as Studio Ghibli, responsible for "Spirited Away," "Ponyo" and others, capable of capturing a mass American audience's attention? Good question, especially in a box-office cycle dominated by "The Croods." So let's get it out of the way. The answer is, maybe not. There. Now we can talk about "From Up on Poppy Hill," one of the shimmering highlights of the year.

  • 'G.I. Joe's' mission: Frantic action ★★

    March 27, 2013

    Right in the middle of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," which is one sort of action movie, there's another, better one that lasts five or six very good minutes.

  • Awkward 'Road' trips with Kristen Stewart

    March 21, 2013

    "I was 16, 17, maybe, when I spoke with Walter for the first time," Kristen Stewart is saying about director Walter Salles, whose film version of the Jack Kerouac novel "On the Road" premiered as one of the competition titles (unawarded, as it turned out) at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

  • 'Admission' wait-listed on the way to greatness ★★ 1/2

    March 21, 2013

    A fraught romantic comedy, shot through with anxiety about getting your child into an Ivy League school or else, "Admission" stars Tina Fey as a Princeton University admissions officer with a secret. Her genial foil is Paul Rudd, who runs a rural New Hampshire high school that's a progressive Eden of alternative educational grooviness. How these two nice, attractive, funny people find each other is up to the machinery of the source material, a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, adapted with mixed success for the screen by Karen Croner and directed with a calming glow by Paul Weitz, whose attention to relational detail was evident in "About a Boy," "In Good Company" and, more recently, "Being Flynn".

  • 'The Croods': Project's evolution unkind to animated cave dwellers ★★

    March 21, 2013

    It's "Ice Age" with humans and less ice. "The Croods" began life nearly a decade ago as "Crood Awakening," a collaboration of DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Studios, with a script co-written by John Cleese. Then Aardman, creators of the great Wallace & Gromit and the very good "Chicken Run," fell out of the development.

  • Kerouac opus 'On the Road' hits just enough beats ★★★

    March 21, 2013

    An eternal fountain of adolescence, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" went through many permutations between its point of origin, 1948, and its point of notorious, divisive publication, 1957. The best description of it came from Kerouac himself, in a journal entry written after his first cross-country road trip in 1948. The book he had in mind, he said, was about "two guys hitchhiking to California in search of something they don't really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else." There's a simple beauty to that. The question is: How do you film an extended yearning?

  • 'Spring Breakers': Trouble where the bad girls are ★★★

    March 21, 2013

    No animals were harmed in the making of "Spring Breakers." But plenty of impressionable young and older minds will assuredly experience feelings of disorientation watching writer-director Harmony Korine's candy-colored clown of a movie, which starts out like a salacious, rump-centric and blithely bare-breasted hip-hop video and ends up in the realm of scary and inspired trash.

  • 'Beyond the Hills': Possessed, inspired by history ★★★ 1/2

    March 14, 2013

    Of all the movies culminating in a rite of exorcism, Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu's remarkable "Beyond the Hills" stands alone.

  • Presto! The fun disappears from 'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone' ★ 1/2

    March 14, 2013

    Steve Carell. Steve Buscemi. Jim Carrey. Alan Arkin. James Gandolfini. Olivia Wilde.

  • Topsy-turvy romance 'Upside Down' turns out to be a bit flat ★★

    March 14, 2013

    All you need is love, according to "Upside Down," to save your planet from the dystopian doldrums. Nice sentiment: Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," among others, got there first.

  • Gael Garcia Bernal's ad man has global reach

    March 7, 2013

    In "No," 34-year-old Guadalajara-born actor and filmmaker Gael Garcia Bernal plays a cocky Santiago, Chile, advertising man who has thrived under the economic policies of the nation's U.S.-backed ruler, Augusto Pinochet. Asked to concoct a TV advertising campaign to bring down Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite, he's intrigued — not necessarily because he's a stealth radical (though his father, we're told, was sent into political exile to Mexico) but because the "no" vote is deemed by many to be an impossible product to sell to a wary populace.

  • 'Oz the Great and Powerful' explains the man in the Emerald City ★★ 1/2

    March 7, 2013

    In show business, like all business, very often you spend money to make money. Director Sam Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful" is Disney's latest attempt to spend $200 million to make a billion worldwide, on the order of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." Shot in 3-D on soundstages in Pontiac, Mich., the movie carries a heavy load of expectation-based freight and stockholder-oriented imperatives, enough to make it pretty hard on Raimi and company to achieve anything truly wondrous. With some industrial products you must settle for agreeable.

  • 'No' is riveting historical fiction ★★★★

    March 7, 2013

    "No" is a terrific film, and word got out very quickly at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where the Chilean docudrama deservedly made a lot of noise even though it played outside the main competition categories. No less than "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty," director Pablo Larrain's achievement feeds the debate regarding truth and fiction and how much of the former a viewer needs when watching a movie that is, by definition, the latter.

  • Riveting 'Emperor' gets some dry revisions ★★

    March 7, 2013

    "I don't need a history lesson, Your Excellency," the true-blue American general tells Emperor Hirohito's ex-prime minister when he lectures his inquisitor about the bloody imperialist actions of Great Britain and America, along with Japan, in the new film "Emperor."

  • Don't Stop Believin': YouTube to stage, with a Journey score ★★ 1/2

    March 7, 2013

    What happened to Arnel Pineda will only increase the fearsome number of YouTube videos showcasing the efforts of aspiring rock vocalists worldwide.

  • Cinema downtime is perfect for EU Film Festival

    February 28, 2013

    Every March, seven months before the Chicago International Film Festival in the fall, the Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival canvasses the best available new work from the EU nations, in all their loosely tied yet gloriously disparate personalities.

  • 'Like Someone in Love' a Tokyo story of love and lies ★★★ 1/2

    February 28, 2013

    In "Certified Copy," from Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, a relationship blossoms and then fades under the Tuscan sun, though the story keeps changing its rules of engagement. The couple at the center, we presume, are strangers getting to know each other, but halfway through the exquisite riddle of a picture they "become" (or pretend to become) husband and wife.

  • 'Stoker': Shadow of an homage, infused with violence ★★ 1/2

    February 28, 2013

    A young woman's reddish-brown hair, in close-up, dissolves into an overhead shot of wild reeds, eased this way and that by the wind. "Stoker" would be nothing without such flourishes. The film swims in them, and cares little for conventional narrative tension.

  • Roots of some giant problems in 'Jack the Giant Slayer' ★★

    February 28, 2013

    Most modern fantasy adventures are distinguished, if that's the right word, by shot after shot of actors gaping at amazements — beanstalks busting out of the ground, for example, or flaming trees being flung as weapons at the king's castle — along with actors running away yelling "Look out!" or "Aaaggghhhhh!!!" while being pursued, say, by a digitally animated giant with two heads. The movies have been into such trickery across the medium's entire life span, back to Georges Melies. It's simply a matter of the method.

  • 'Phantom' goes underwater, but not deep ★★

    February 28, 2013

    On March 8, 1968, about 1,800 miles northwest of Oahu in the Pacific Ocean, the diesel-powered Soviet submarine K-129 exceeded its crush depth and imploded, for mysterious reasons a screenwriter would find intriguing on which to speculate. All 98 of its crew members died. The sub sank with three ballistic nuclear missiles as well as two nuclear torpedoes.

  • Oscars 2013 analysis: 'Argo,' Ang Lee big winners

    February 25, 2013

    Blowing past the distant Civil War history of “Lincoln” and the more controversial recent history of “Zero Dark Thirty,” director and star Ben Affleck’s rousing, reassuringly apolitical thriller “Argo” won Sunday’s Academy Award for best picture.

  • Overlooked screenplays this Oscar season

    February 23, 2013

    In 1945 Raymond Chandler wrote a screed against Hollywood, and Hollywood screenwriting, for the Atlantic Monthly. "An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon," said the man who later characterized his adopted residence to the south, La Jolla, Calif., as "nothing but a climate." In the Atlantic he vented: "An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer."

  • 'Gatekeepers' director takes on the fog of war

    February 22, 2013

    "My kids know that when we go to Shabbat dinner with my parents, there will be a fight. Always. All the time, a fight."

  • Someday prints will come, in pink

    February 21, 2013

    "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was pink. But we'll get to that in a minute.

  • Low-key director returns with a supernatural tale in 'Bless Me, Ultima' ★★ 1/2

    February 21, 2013

    When Carl Franklin made "One False Move" and "Devil in a Blue Dress" in the 1990s, it was like a sotto voce announcement of a genuine talent — a low-key director interested in crime fiction but also in character, and race, and the real world. Neither film was a big commercial success, so while Franklin has worked steadily in film and television since then, one suspects it has not been a pick-and-choose career.

  • 'Snitch,' starring Dwayne Johnson, is capably noirish ★★★

    February 21, 2013

    Large, in charge and nobody's little Margie: Dwayne Johnson takes on the drug kingpins in "Snitch." Place your bets!

  • 'Gatekeepers': The inside men of Shin Bet ★★★★

    February 21, 2013

    Outside the realm of extremists, of which there is no shortage in the bloody Israeli/Palestinian morass, few would suggest an easy solution to anything in the Middle East. Remarkably, however, given the six different personalities and viewpoints captured in "The Gatekeepers," filmmaker Dror Moreh has come up with a needle-sharp, profoundly humane political documentary folding the separate testimonies of former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's secret service operation, into a brilliantly sustained argument for a different, smarter, humane way forward.

  • Oscars and American history: True, or true enough?

    February 15, 2013

    A modest proposal: Movies exploring some aspect of American history, such as “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” should leave off the “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events” language and stick to what “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner advocates: a clear, simple and proud declaration of “historical fiction.”

  • Music Box festival celebrates 70mm projection

    February 14, 2013

    It's how a lot of us got hooked on movies in the first place. When I was 8 or 9 I saw "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 70 mm in Milwaukee with my mother. My memory's fuzzy on the particulars but I recall asking so many questions about the obelisk on the drive back to Racine, she had to pull over and compose herself for a minute and, as the tears streamed down her cheeks, she said quietly: "Michael, I just ... have no idea." It didn't matter. I'd never seen anything like it, and the Star Child never looked bigger, or scarier, or better.

  • Tony Kushner's Chicago visit a virtual event for most

    February 13, 2013

    This Friday at 4 p.m. at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner will pay a visit to one of his favorite Chicago haunts.

  • 'Day's' end: McClane tale tapped out in final 'Die Hard' ★ 1/2

    February 13, 2013

    "A Good Day to Die Hard" isn't just the weakest of the "Die Hard" pictures; it's a lousy action movie on its own terms, even without comparing it to the adored 1988 franchise launch starring Bruce Willis as John McClane, the New York cop who's a carnage magnet for all the terrorists and a supercool symbol of American might, right and muttered wisecrack.

  • 'Beautiful Creatures': Supernatural love in a small town, again ★★

    February 13, 2013

    When classy, pedigreed British actors go hog-wild under the flowering dogwood trees of a Southern Gothic setting, often the results are good. Just as often they're so bad they're good. And sometimes, as is the case with Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson in "Beautiful Creatures," they're simply doing the best they can under the circumstances.

  • Sparks and surprises in 'Safe Haven' ★★

    February 13, 2013

    The new Nicholas Sparks movie, "Safe Haven," takes place in Southport, in the novelist's adopted home state of North Carolina. Southport is near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. So you know a murderous stalker will eventually arrive, in honor of Robert Mitchum in "Cape Fear."

  • Revolution on the screen, on the ground in 'I Am Cuba'

    February 7, 2013

    From 1964, a time when the world seemed ready to accommodate 33 revolutions per minute, the film "I Am Cuba" boasts some single-take shots so boggling, the following phrases showed up in my notebook: "How did they do that? A three-story-high tracking shot above a revolutionary martyr's funeral parade?!?" And: "Camera travels down the outside of the building, then noses in on Western scum drinking Bacardi by the pool, and then into the water!"

  • 'Stolen Seas': No 'yo ho' for these pirates ★★ 1/2

    February 7, 2013

    It was just business, one slice from a multibillion dollar piracy industry. In 2008, Somali pirates hijacked a Danish cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden and demanded a ransom of $7 million for the return of the ship and its crew. The ship's owner countered with an offer of a few hundred thousand. Thus began a tense negotiation spanning weeks, then months, with the pirates' morally conflicted negotiator in the middle.

  • Drive-in theater awaits digital assist

    February 7, 2013

    In the summer of 2011 I got to know one of the greatest little drive-ins in the world, 160 miles southwest of Chicago: the Galva Autovue. Nothing elaborate. Just two outdoor screens planted where a cornfield used to be, surrounded by cornfields. But on a warm and starry night, with a couple of hundred patrons in their cars and dozens of kids running back and forth to the concession hut, "Captain America: The First Avenger" never looked better.

  • 'Identity Thief' steals fun away from Bateman, McCarthy ★ 1/2

    February 7, 2013

    Debilitatingly witless, "Identity Thief" strands Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman on the shoulder of its own road-trip premise, an artificial construct reminiscent of "Due Date." Remember "Due Date," that sour thing with Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis? Neither do Downey and Galifianakis.

  • 'John Dies at the End' fails the cult test ★ 1/2

    February 7, 2013

    "John Dies at the End" dies closer to the beginning, before writer-director Don Coscarelli's adaptation of the book of the same name has reached minute 20.

  • Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects' hinges on medicine and murder ★★★

    February 7, 2013

    A sly one, "Side Effects" is a movie in which the main character's pharmacological state of mind is never entirely certain.

  • 'A Man Vanishes': Director ahead of his time ★★★ 1/2

    January 31, 2013

    "I want to capture this new reality," says the filmmaker behind the camera, Shohei Imamura, in his cunning 1967 riddle "A Man Vanishes." Imamura, who devoted his creative life to both fiction features and documentaries (he died in 2006), is the subject of a six-film retrospective titled "Imamura Investigates," playing through Feb. 11 at the Siskel Film Center. Five of the six look, behave and perform certain ways, according to commonly accepted strictures of non-fiction. But "A Man Vanishes" confounds expectations.

  • Walter Hill, New Orleans: together again

    January 31, 2013

    In the 1970s and early '80s, a Walter Hill movie had a very good chance of being very good. And very different from the previous Walter Hill movie.

  • 'Stand Up Guys' a criminal waste of Walken, Pacino, Arkin ★

    January 31, 2013

    A writer must eat, which is why most playwrights eventually try their hands at screenwriting. "Stand Up Guys," starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin, comes from the stage-trained Noah Haidle, whose story premise sounds like a sure (if derivative) thing for a trio of well-worn, well-liked mugs.

  • 'Warm Bodies': Zombie love runs hot and cold ★★ 1/2

    January 31, 2013

    The tween-minded zombie romance "Warm Bodies" pulls a comic-romantic twist on a genre better known for its entrails. It is narrated by the undead fellow known as R, played by Nicholas Hoult, soon to be slaying giants in "Jack the Giant Slayer."

  • 'Bullet to the Head': Fine director drives action vehicle ★★ 1/2

    January 31, 2013

    We've been here before. The Sylvester Stallone vehicle "Bullet to the Head" concludes with an ax fight featuring Stallone against his sneering, murderous adversary, played by Jason Momoa, going at it like maniacs in the bowels of an abandoned power plant, the sort of cavernous industrial space featured in a hundred different movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme or Jason Statham. Or Vin Diesel. I believe it was also used by Scarlett Johansson in "The Avengers."

  • All along, a force was with Alec Guinness

    January 25, 2013

    For millions of young "Star Wars" fans, and some not so young, Alec Guinness is the man who played Obi-Wan Kenobi. And that is that. For all they know Guinness only did this in his life: expound on the glories of The Force and get Mark Hamill up to speed with a light saber.

  • 'Consuming Spirits': SAIC professor crafts an epic labor of love ★★★★

    January 24, 2013

    There's a billboard depicted in Chris Sullivan's animated wonder "Consuming Spirits" advertising beer that promises "the taste that haunts the lips." The same goes for the film. You've likely never tasted anything quite like it.

  • 1926's silent 'The Flying Ace' displayed a hidden America, and Americans

    January 24, 2013

    With its "entire cast composed of colored artists," the 1926 silent film "The Flying Ace" was photographed in the sunny scrub and swampland of Jacksonville, Fla., produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company. The outfit delivered "race films" to African-American audiences starved for images of themselves on the big screen.

  • 'Quartet': Dustin Hoffman's directing debut has sterling cast, so-so script ★★ 1/2

    January 24, 2013

    Murder most foul is one thing. Murder most fair is another. The veteran hambones starring in "Quartet" get away with murder most fair, through eye-bugging delight in a double-entendre in close-up (Billy Connolly); charmingly distracted line readings (Pauline Collins); underplaying so dry it becomes a form of overstatement (Tom Courtenay); and an air of unconquerable hauteur, leavened by tinges of regret (Maggie Smith).

  • Wright walks in, and walks out with 'Broken City'

    January 18, 2013

    Mark Wahlberg stars in "Broken City," opening today, but Jeffrey Wright commits larceny and quietly steals the movie.

  • 'In Bed with Ulysses:' A masterpiece's twisty roots ★★★

    January 18, 2013

    "My husband wants me to go with other men so he'll have something to write about," the former Nora Barnacle said of her partner in life, James Joyce.

  • The purr of power in 'Broken City' ★★ 1/2

    January 17, 2013

    In "Broken City," a Manhattan-set drama likely to appeal to those who enjoyed the more elegantly plotted machinations of "Arbitrage," the scenes between Russell Crowe as a powerful New York City mayor and Jeffrey Wright as the equally powerful police commissioner offer a special kind of satisfaction.

  • 'Luv': Talented cast almost overcomes obvious plot ★★ 1/2

    January 17, 2013

    Often it's the least narratively crucial moments in a movie that steal the movie right out from under the movie's nose. (Let's assume movies have noses, if only this once.)

  • Movie gangsters so bad they're good

    January 10, 2013

    One hundred and one years ago, D.W. Griffith gave us "The Musketeers of Pig Alley," often credited as the first gangster film, and once sound came in, nothing hooked movie audiences during the early 1930s more reliably than Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney doing harm to their rivals and, for a while, eluding the law while enjoying the spoils of their own private wars.

  • 'Max and the Junkmen': A police procedural that moves at Paris' pace

    January 10, 2013

    "No ordinary policeman": This is how director Claude Sautet's intriguing 1971 drama "Max and the Junkmen" describes the Max of the title, a Paris officer of the law whose black fedora matches his black tie and black suit, which all match his tensely fatalistic outlook.

  • Oscar nominations: 'Lincoln' leads Academy Award contenders with 12

    January 10, 2013

    With a conspicuous diss of Kathryn Bigelow, the un-nominated director of “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Academy Awards nominations were announced Thursday morning.

  • 'Gangster Squad' a fusillade of bullets and cliches ★★

    January 10, 2013

    A triumph of production design but a pretty dull kill-'em-up otherwise, the post-World War II-set "Gangster Squad" comes from the director of "Zombieland," Ruben Fleischer. It's clear Fleischer, who also made "30 Minutes or Less," hadn't worked through his "Zombieland" jones by the time he got to his latest film. I liked "Zombieland," which made a strong case for its brand of viscera and wisecracks. But "Gangster Squad" is a different sort of picture, or should be.

  • Michael Haneke goes in close for the anguish of 'Amour'

    January 4, 2013

    Michael Haneke's devastating "Amour" opens Friday in Chicago. And since its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May, this tale of a long-married man and woman in their 80s, tested by illness and the limits of their own compassion, has moved audiences in a direct, emotional way unknown and, indeed, unintended by the director's previous, icy provocations.

  • 'Zero Dark Thirty' a first draft of history ★★★★

    January 3, 2013

    To consider what director Kathryn Bigelow has accomplished in "Zero Dark Thirty," imagine the events depicted by the story if they'd been given the "Argo" treatment.

  • No heartstrings left unplucked with 'Any Day Now' ★★

    January 3, 2013

    A determined weepie, "Any Day Now" lives for such scenes as an adoptive parent being pulled away, screaming, from the child with Down syndrome whom he has come to know and love. The movie has heart and soul and a load of justifiable outrage. Here's what it doesn't have: nuance, dramatic specificity, an evocative sense of time (late 1970s-early '80s) or place (Los Angeles).

  • Restored movie house fits big picture for Mark Fishman

    December 27, 2012

    Famously, the old Logan Theatre at 2646 N. Milwaukee Ave. used to smell like pee. Urban legends abound of the stink detectable all over the Logan Square neighborhood.

  • 'The Big Picture': Camera-shy photographer a man with a secret ★★★

    December 27, 2012

    Hiding inside the identity of someone else — someone recently disappeared, or murdered, for example — is a theme running through all sorts of crime fiction (Patricia Highsmith's Ripley mysteries) as well as cinematic variations on that theme (Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger"). In the French thriller "The Big Picture" now at the Music Box, Romain Duris plays Paul, a successful but bitter attorney whose boss (Catherine Deneuve) is ready to hand the firm over to his control. Once upon a time Paul dreamed a dream of becoming a photographer.

  • 'Parental Guidance': Even Bette Midler and Billy Crystal can't correct so-so script ★★

    December 27, 2012

    Billy Crystal and Bette Midler do all they can (which is a lot) to entertain us in "Parental Guidance," but the movie keeps getting in the way. It's a routinely made comedy dominated by its screenplay's observations on how insane the typical insecure, overbearing helicopter parent has become these days.

  • 'Not Fade Away' like a Rolling Stone ★★★

    December 27, 2012

    "That pianola sure brings back memories," says Orson Welles, entranced by Marlene Dietrich's bordello background music in "Touch of Evil." A few moments of this scene pop up on somebody's television in "Not Fade Away," the wry feature film debut by writer-director David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos."

  • 'Promised Land': Fracking tale barely touches surface ★★

    December 27, 2012

    For a fellow who's just been promoted to vice president of land management by his multibillion-dollar natural gas company, the character played by Matt Damon in "Promised Land" is awfully wussy. He turns into a puddle whenever he's bested by the opposition: a likable environmental activist portrayed by John Krasinski. What's up? Mr. Corporate Slicko has never been trained in countering the other side's arguments?

  • 'Fitzgerald Family Christmas': Not the McMullens, but close ★★

    December 27, 2012

    After making itself available in November through various on-demand viewing options, Edward Burns' latest little picture, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," has found a theatrical venue for a Chicago run now under way at the Wilmette Theatre.

  • Judd Apatow misses chance to go deeper with 'This Is 40' ★★ 1/2

    December 20, 2012

    More like "This Is Whiny," "This Is 40" has its share of clever, zingy material, proving that writer-director Judd Apatow has lost none of his ability to land a punch line with the right, unexpected turn of phrase. "My boobs are just ... gone," bemoans Debbie, played by Leslie Mann, comparing hers with the newer models belonging to her boutique employee, played by Megan Fox. Then comes the second line, building smartly on the setup: "They didn't even say goodbye."

  • 'The Impossible': Mother's angle softens tale's too-narrow focus ★★★

    December 20, 2012

    Everything that was false about the tsunami sequence in the recent Clint Eastwood film "Hereafter" — the bland overview perspectives, the lack of human immediacy — is corrected, terrifyingly, by the first half-hour of director J.A. Bayona's nerve-shredding docudrama "The Impossible."

  • Bill Murray scoffs at doubt as FDR in 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

    December 13, 2012

    For Bill Murray, playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the new film “Hyde Park on Hudson” meant risking some serious derision. Now 62, Murray carries with him a huge recognition factor thanks to a host of comedies: "Stripes," "Caddyshack," "Groundhog Day," "Ghostbusters." More recently he has brought a weary, witty gravitas to more bittersweet material, a la "Rushmore," "Lost in Translation" and others.

  • Murray is the anchor, but plot adrift in 'Hyde Park on Hudson' ★★

    December 13, 2012

    The music’s the best thing about the peculiar, demurely prurient “Hyde Park on Hudson,” starring Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Laura Linney as his spinster fifth cousin, Daisy Suckley. Setting the scene, and the mood, for this anecdotal account of FDR’s pre-war sexual escapades one weekend in 1939, composer Jeremy Sams soaks the movie in a sly and charming recurring theme, a habanera rather like a buttoned-down variation on the famous aria from Bizet’s “Carmen.”

  • Digitally pumped-up 'Hobbit' is a so-so trip ★★ 1/2

    December 13, 2012

    "The Hobbit," the first of three movies to be yanked out of J.R.R. Tolkien's single novel, comes from Mister Middle-earth: Peter Jackson, who thrilled Tolkien fans worldwide with his lavish screen version of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

  • To the screen, and back again

    December 7, 2012

    I'm 51 and Bilbo-free. Somehow "The Hobbit" has eluded me my entire reading life. What was I reading in junior high when I first noticed everyone else was reading it? "Big A: The Story of Lew Alcindor," maybe. Or William K. Everson's book on Laurel & Hardy. I had no special resistance to hobbits or to subterranean fantasy or to J.R.R. Tolkien. But we read what we read, and now here "The Hobbit" sits on my desk, next in line for takeoff. A big chunk of my non-screen work existence is spent reading material related, somehow, to films I'm covering. It's one of the great perks of the job. You read a lot, and then you put it away, so that the screen adaptations have a fighting chance to establish their own ground rules.

  • Gerard Butler's bad streak continues in 'Playing for Keeps' ★ 1/2

    December 6, 2012

    Some movies are 100 percent polyester, yet the right actors can make the material breathe a little so that the audience wears the experience comfortably for a couple of hours. Opening this month, the Barbra Streisand/Seth Rogen vehicle "The Guilt Trip" belongs to that poly-genre.

  • 'Starlet': Actress brings a solid pedigree to a solid indie ★★★

    December 6, 2012

    In the Van Nuys, Calif.-set "Starlet," a success at this year's South by Southwest film festival, the young actress Dree Hemingway brings a sure comic touch (without shtick) to a satisfying picture. Now 25, she's the daughter of Mariel Hemingway and the great-granddaughter of Ernest. She comes from photogenic stock.

  • Ken Burns, daughter team up for justice in 'Central Park Five' ★★★ 1/2

    December 6, 2012

    "The Central Park Five" is an unusually good documentary about an outlandish miscarriage of justice.

  • 'Wuthering Heights' sticks close to windy moors ★★ 1/2

    November 29, 2012

    Writer-director Andrea Arnold made "Red Road" and "Fish Tank," two frank and exceptional portraits of emotionally isolated young women hurtling, dangerously, into their futures. These character studies, set in Scotland and England, respectively, prepared Arnold well for taking on "Wuthering Heights," especially the way she has chosen to take it on: as a stark reconsideration of the Emily Bronte novel.

  • Brad Pitt's 'Killing Them Softly' deals with the financial difficulties of contract killers ★★★

    November 29, 2012

    In an ugly economy, murder becomes the last beautiful act. That's the state of the nation in "Killing Them Softly," a harsh and stimulating black comedy set in the recent past, starring Brad Pitt as a hit man hired to eliminate, in his own inimitable style, some underworld thieves in post-Katrina New Orleans.

  • Joe Wright's version of Tolstoy classic 'Anna Karenina' a hit-or-miss proposition ★★ 1/2

    November 15, 2012

    Like most alleged love-it-or-hate-it propositions, the new film version of "Anna Karenina" is neither. Rather, it's a half-success — a baldly conceptual response to the Leo Tolstoy novel, with a heavy theatrical framework placed around the narrative of girl meets boy, followed by girl meets train.

  • 'Silver Linings Playbook': Humanity in high-maintenance characters ★★★ 1/2

    November 15, 2012

    Hollywood movies, and even off-Hollywood independent films, have long encouraged us to empathize with unstable or psychologically troubled characters only if they're "kooky" for a little while, as a prelude to more palatable, normalized levels of craziness. You know. The charming kind. Happy ending, followed by a fade to a sunny shade of black.

  • 'Lincoln': A political animal of a different kind ★★★★

    November 9, 2012

    "Lincoln" is a grave and surprisingly subtle magic trick, conjuring the past and an almost ridiculously impressive figure in ways that transcend art direction and the right stovepipe hat. Director Steven Spielberg's latest combines the most commonly shared notions we have of our 16th U.S. president — the folksy deliberation, the spindly gait, the all-seeing eye on the prize of history remade — with the behavior, idiosyncrasies and contradictions of an actual human being. It blends cinematic Americana with something grubbier and more interesting than Americana, and it does not look, act or behave like the usual perception of a Spielberg epic. It is smaller and quieter than that.

  • Denis Lavant is a shape-shifting wonder in 'Holy Motors' ★★★ 1/2

    November 8, 2012

    "Holy Motors," an exuberant jape as well as a beautiful ode to the movies, to play-acting and to Paris, comes from the French writer-director Leos Carax, re-teaming here with actor Denis Lavant. Lavant got robbed at the Cannes Film Festival this year, losing the best actor award to Mads Mikkelsen ("The Hunt"). Now you can find out why I think this is so.

  • 'Le Grand Amour': Cinematic inspiration from a Tati associate ★★ 1/2

    November 1, 2012

    The more lasting achievements of French director and star Pierre Etaix arrive this month, as part of the Siskel Film Center's Nov. 4-21 retrospective titled "Pierre Etaix: The Lost Laugh." But the 1969 Etaix film "Le Grand Amour," playing this week along with the Oscar-winning short film "Happy Anniversary" (1962), provides a taste, at least, of this largely unknown talent's particular comic stylings. Stay tuned for "Yoyo," a clear inspiration for "The Artist" in its love for silent-film pastiche, one of the Etaix features included in this series of restored features and shorts.

  • 'Wreck-It Ralph': Fun runs out of quarters ★★ 1/2

    November 1, 2012

    "Wreck-It Ralph," the exhaustingly dazzling new Walt Disney Animation Studios feature, qualifies as the most manic baby sitter in town, clever and detailed in its kaleidoscopic depiction of the private lives, seething resentments and yearning dreams of video game characters both "Donkey Kong" retro and "Call of Duty" modern.

  • Denzel Washington, Robert Zemeckis in a top 'Flight' ★★★★

    November 1, 2012

    "Flight" is exciting — terrific, really — because in addition to the sophisticated storytelling techniques by which it keeps us hooked, it doesn't drag audience sympathies around by the nose, telling us what to think or how to judge the reckless, charismatic protagonist played by Denzel Washington.

  • 'Brooklyn Castle' documentary has all the right moves

    November 1, 2012

    Checkmate. "Brooklyn Castle," a marvelous documentary by Katie Dellamaggiore, turns a sympathetic camera eye on one of the richest subjects imaginable: the nationally recognized chess team of Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a multiethnic wonder of individual talents and specific, personal stories.

  • 'Fun Size' is not much fun at all -- Zero stars

    October 25, 2012

    "Fun Size," a terrifying Halloween prank starring Victoria Justice of the Nickelodeon brat-com "Victorious," concerns a Cleveland high school senior who misplaces her preteen brother on trick-or-treat night. One too many jokey references to child molestation ensue. You should know this going in.

  • 'Cloud Atlas'? Shrug ★★ 1/2

    October 25, 2012

    A big-budget film's marketing mission is simple: Eliminate the idea of an unsuspecting audience. Did people know what they were getting when they got "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? Yes. They got what they were shown in the 30-second ads, over and over and over.

  • 'The Sessions' tells tale of the virgin's diary ★★★ 1/2

    October 25, 2012

    In 1990 the writer Mark O'Brien contributed an article for the literary magazine The Sun called "On Seeing a Sex Surrogate." A survivor of childhood polio, the substantially disabled O'Brien spent much of his sleeping and waking hours confined to an iron lung. Interviewing other disabled people for an earlier assignment, he realized his own sexual life — so dormant for so long — needn't stay that way forever. "Being disabled myself, but also being a virgin, I envied these people ferociously," he wrote in the 1990 piece.

  • Viola Davis plots a career, not just for herself

    October 19, 2012

    Viola Davis has won two Tony Awards for her Juilliard-trained stage work in the August Wilson plays "King Hedley II" and "Fences." She has been Oscar-nominated twice, first for a supporting role in "Doubt," more recently for a much larger role, in "The Help." Playing the African-American domestic, Aibileen, in that hit brought her much acclaim and no little amount of grief, Davis told me the other day by phone. She's coming to Chicago Monday to pick up a career achievement award from the Chicago International Film Festival.

  • 'The Killing's' troubled cop as a troubled taxi driver in 'Easy Money' ★★★

    October 18, 2012

    Someday, someone's going to make a film called "Easy Money" or its equivalent and its characters will encounter zero trouble en route to massive wealth and endless sunshine on a beach somewhere.

  • 'Smashed': Drama's watered down in this lesson about the drinking life ★★ 1/2

    October 18, 2012

    The director's statement issued with “Smashed” reads, in part: "Being drunk can be really fun. It's just all the other things that come with being drunk that can be a downer (wrecking cars, lives, etc.) ... so many films that deal with substance abuse follow a familiar 'scared straight' path, depicting characters so damaged that they're not relatable, leaving the audience with nothing to do but gawk at their otherness.

  • 'Alex Cross': Nothing original in this origin story ★★

    October 18, 2012

    Not that we needed it, and pardon the trace elements of contempt regarding the familiarity of this particular narrative hook, but: Yet another serial killer movie hits theaters this week.

  • Ben Affleck's mission accomplished in 'Argo' ★★★ 1/2

    October 11, 2012

    The propulsive hostage thriller "Argo," the third feature directed by Ben Affleck, just plain works. It's heartening to encounter a film, based on fact but happy to include all sorts of exciting fictions to amp up the suspense, whose entertainment intentions are clear. The execution is clean, sharp and rock-solid. It's as apolitical as a political crisis story set in Iran can get. But "the first rule in any deception operation is to understand who your audience is."

  • McDonagh sets violently funny 'Seven Psychopaths' in epic desert ★★★

    October 11, 2012

    Brutal and often very funny, "Seven Psychopaths" is writer-director Martin McDonagh's answer to "Barton Fink," a crimson yarn that, like that Coen brothers film, imagines what happens in a worst-case-scenario when a Hollywood scribe comes down with writer's block.

  • A determined teacher enters the Octagon in 'Here Comes the Boom' ★★ 1/2

    October 11, 2012

    Wait a sec. How did the Kevin James mixed martial arts movie end up a more convincing portrait of the plight of the American public school teacher than "Won't Back Down," a film that's actually about that subject?

  • 'Seven Psychopaths' is mayhem with a moral core, writer hopes

    October 5, 2012

    Opening next Friday, "Seven Psychopaths" has a title promising a certain amount of spilled blood and bad behavior, and the writer-director Martin McDonagh delivers on the promise. McDonagh notes, however, that his film contains "more dialogue in the midst of a shoot-out than the average movie featuring psychopaths with guns."

  • Not 'Taken' with this sequel ★

    October 4, 2012

    "Taken 2" is so much lousier than need be, and its action sequences look as if they were put together by someone who doesn't know what he's doing. That's a problem. And not even the charismatically weather-beaten face and basso profundo action-star delivery of Liam Neeson can compensate.

  • Tim Burton's 'Frankenweenie': It's alive! Or is it? ★★ 1/2

    October 4, 2012

    Before things took off with "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice," Tim Burton made a live-action black-and-white film, in 1984, called "Frankenweenie." You can find it on YouTube. It's really good.

  • Director Daniels serves up a heap of Southern-fried scandal in 'Paperboy' ★★

    October 4, 2012

    Talk about your beasts of the Southern wild! In director Lee Daniels' jacked-up bayou melodrama "The Paperboy," taken from the comparatively sane 1995 potboiler by Pete Dexter, a screen full of charismatic actors do their damnedest not to turn into a screen full of overactors in the service of a lurid Florida Gothic. But let's be clear here. To say "The Paperboy" doesn't work is one thing; to say it's dull is a lie. This movie is berserk, which is more interesting than "eh."

  • 'Won't Back Down' gets a D+ for a public school polemic ★ 1/2

    September 27, 2012

    Bored and visibly sneering as she fiddles with her cellphone while sitting at her desk, the grade school teacher barely takes notice of the sweet young girl challenged by learning disabilities. The student stands nervously before the blackboard, struggling to read a sentence aloud. The other students mock her, cruelly. The teacher tacitly encourages the mockery. She is union-protected mediocrity incarnate, and she may as well be shown tying the student to a railroad track, Snidely Whiplash-style.

  • Put a stake in 'Hotel Transylvania' ★

    September 27, 2012

    Dominated by Adam Sandler's D-minus Bela Lugosi impression, the 3-D animated feature "Hotel Transylvania" illustrates the difference between engaging a young movie audience and agitating it, with snark and noise and everything but the funny.

  • 'Detropia' finds beauty in the ruins ★★★ 1/2

    September 20, 2012

    Cross "Detroit" with "dystopia" and you get "Detropia." But the oddly beautiful documentary made by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady is subtler and richer than its blunt title suggests.

  • Al Pacino and his 'Stand Up Guys' among the stars slotted for CIFF

    September 20, 2012

    With its founder Michael Kutza nearing his half-century mark as leader, the Chicago International Film Festival announced its 48th edition slate Thursday. Heavily concentrated, as it has been in recent years, at the downtown AMC River East 21 multiplex, the juried festival (main competition jury president to be named later) runs Oct. 11-25 and opens with the world premiere of "Stand Up Guys," an autumnal mob comedy featuring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin and Julianna Margulies.

  • Cinematographers, and officers, on patrol in 'End of Watch' ★★ 1/2

    September 20, 2012

    Writer-director David Ayer has described his new film "End of Watch" as akin to "watching YouTube — where something in your mind tells you this is real. This film is like YouTube meets 'Training Day' in a lot of ways." (Ayer wrote "Training Day," which won Denzel Washington an Oscar for his role as a dirty LAPD detective.) So: What does that YouTube comparison mean, exactly?

  • 'Trouble With the Curve' about a scout who resists being benched ★★★

    September 20, 2012

    Wholly predictable yet serenely enjoyable, "Trouble With the Curve" opens with Gus, the aging Atlanta Braves baseball scout played by Clint Eastwood, standing at the toilet, wondering how long it'll take this time.

  • 'Hello I Must Be Going' finds post-divorce solace close to home ★★ 1/2

    September 20, 2012

    As a teenager the New Zealand-born Melanie Lynskey came to international attention opposite an equally young and skillful Kate Winslet in the Peter Jackson true-crime drama "Heavenly Creatures."

  • Like a big-screen game, focus of 'Dredd 3D' is body count ★ 1/2

    September 20, 2012

    The time-killing carnage in "Dredd 3D" can be assessed all sorts of ways. One depends on how much M-rated gaming you do as a matter of course. If the answer is some, or a lot, you'll likely find "Dredd 3D" up your viscera-strewn alley, because the film isn't merely influenced by a genre of first-person, shoot/stab/eviscerate/these/anonymous/enemies scenarios. It re-creates them, slavishly, as did the recent "The Raid: Redemption," so that calling "Dredd 3D" a movie is sort of a lie. It's a premise, and there are levels to reach, and always there's another grimy hallway to stalk, and then you turn right or left, and then kill some more.

  • 'Arbitrage': Sympathy for the devil ★★★

    September 13, 2012

    It's an unseemly request by a movie, to ask us to root for the lying, scrambling but extremely well-coiffed hedge fund billionaire weasel played by Richard Gere in the new film "Arbitrage." But there it is. The movie does ask, and to varying degrees, we comply.

  • Toronto Film Festival Day 2 recap: The Master's domain!

    September 8, 2012

    Here's a Day 2 recap from the Toronto International Film Festival. Everybody sees a different slate of movies each day here. Friday went this way: After the gamer-oriented slaughter of “Dredd 3D,” the fanciful and tricksy theatrics of director Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” with Keira Knightley and Jude Law and the Wachowskis’ adaptation of “Cloud Atlas,” which takes place in six different time periods, the mind reeled and the cinematic appetite cried out for something straight and easy.

  • 'The Words' bound by a purloined book ★★ 1/2

    September 6, 2012

    "The Words" is a peculiar, old-school beast to encounter in the movie year 2012, lacking utterly in computer-generated effects, not to mention Avengers and masked superheroes in general. It's more or less a grown-up picture, and not bad at that, though its muted and patient style (mitigating a multilayered and not wholly satisfying narrative) has both its merits and its drawbacks. Still, as I say: not bad.

  • 'Samsara' a study in contrasts ★★★

    September 6, 2012

    Gorgeous and a tiny bit bubble-headed, full of ancient ruins and marvelous faces and time-lapse landscapes of crazed LA freeways in action, "Samsara" takes its title from a Sanskrit word that translates, roughly, to "the ever-turning wheel of life."

  • A melancholy day: 'Oslo, August 31' ★★★★

    August 31, 2012

    Simple, honest and very possibly great, "Oslo, August 31" spans a day, an evening and an early morning in the life of a recovering drug addict. Right there most of you reading this review will think: No, thanks. Life's difficult enough. But some films, the best films, transcend the obviously grueling and the emotionally exploitative in their pursuit of a steady, humane cinematic gaze and an experience that lingers. This is one of those films, now in its commercial Chicago debut at the Siskel Film Center.

  • This comic's life, sans sleep, in 'Sleepwalk With Me' ★★★

    August 31, 2012

    One night in a La Quinta motel room, comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia jumped through a second-story window while acting out one of his dreams, ending up in the hospital with a leg full of broken glass. Well, it's a living. Since then he has turned his adventures in sleep disorders into fodder for his stand-up act, an Off-Broadway solo show, an excerpt on "This American Life," a live comedy album, the title story in his best-selling comic memoir and now, a trim and effective feature film, which Birbiglia co-directed with co-writer Seth Barrish. The only thing left for "Sleepwalk With Me" is to be turned into a Broadway musical, which would require a title change to "Sleepwalk with Me!"

  • Dirty talk with a sweet undercurrent in 'For a Good Time, Call...' ★ ★½

    August 30, 2012

    It's "Bells Are Ringing," only with a significant percentage of dialogue that cannot be quoted here unless we agree on dollar-per-minute terms in advance.

  • 'Lawless' offers up a tall drink of violence ★★ 1/2

    August 28, 2012

    Bootlegging dramas come with a built-in sympathy clause in their contracts with the audience. C'mon! they plead. All these folks want is to get the government off their backs, follow their American dream and provide liquor to the masses. And by the way, wasn't Prohibition a joke?

  • Chicago International Film Festival's first slate announced

    August 23, 2012

    Broadly speaking, a film festival's programmers can handle news of a new lineup one of two ways: all at once, or nearly; or the drib-drab approach.

  • 'Hermano': Venezuelan drama deserves wider release ★★★

    August 23, 2012

    The Venezuelan melodrama "Hermano," an absorbing tale of soccer, family ties and life in the Caracas barrios, was picked up for U.S. release by Chicago's Music Box Films. Locally the film opens this week in Barrington, Cicero, the Regal City North 14 and Ford City on the South Side. And nowhere else. This is too bad: It's a good movie, teeming with incident, and it deserves an audience.

  • 'Cosmopolis': Harbinger of economic doom lands with a bit of a thud ★★ 1/2

    August 23, 2012

    Sleek and forbidding, David Cronenberg's adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel "Cosmopolis" presents the most whopping paradox in the cinema year 2012.

  • 'Red Hook Summer': Spike Lee summers in Brooklyn, again ★★ 1/2

    August 23, 2012

    Spike Lee's movies generally attempt too much, try too many things, canvass a larger array of characters and situations than even a loosely structured story line can easily accommodate. And that's one of the gratifying traits in his work.

  • 'Hit & Run': Retro plot takes wrong turn ★ 1/2

    August 21, 2012

    In adolescence many of us were cinematically weaned on (or permanently stunted by; I'll let the courts decide) the likes of "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds," rough-edged and disreputable time-killers whose co-stars were whatever the lead characters were driving.

  • 'ParaNorman' is another boy with ghost trouble ★★★

    August 16, 2012

    Here's the historical designation of the new animated film "ParaNorman": It's the third feature made in the painstaking stop-motion process — consciously unrealistic, herky-jerky and rough-hewn, in the George Pal "Puppetoons" or Tim Burton "Corpse Bride" vein — as well as in stereoscopic 3-D. The first two to do so were the very fine"Coraline" and the noisy, bustling"The Pirates! Band of Misfits."

  • '2 Days in New York' is a bit too much for Delpy's next chapter ★★ 1/2

    August 16, 2012

    Julie Delpy can do just about anything as an actress, and as a writer and director, she likes "everything" too — stories roomy enough for a torrent of feelings and mood swings, and ensemble casts up to the challenge.

  • 'Odd Life of Timothy Green' a tale of a little green sprout ★★ 1/2

    August 14, 2012

    "The Odd Life of Timothy Green" is odd indeed. It comes from writer-director Peter Hedges of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and other pictures, and in pleasing ways as well as some dubious ones, Hedges ranges all over the place in his expansion of a story credited to Ahmet Zappa, Frank's son.

  • 'The Campaign': No winners in this race ★ 1/2

    August 9, 2012

    Talk about your undecided voters. The new Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis vehicle "The Campaign" can't make up its mind about dumb vs. smart; crass vs. crass with a conscience; or cheap caricature vs. satire stoked by a sincere call to action.

  • 'Celeste and Jesse Forever': What comes after? ★★★

    August 9, 2012

    Like the recent "Take This Waltz,"directed and written by Sarah Polley, the new American indie "Celeste and Jesse Forever" begins and ends with an unspoken question: Is this mismatched couple meant to stay together?

  • 'Searching for Sugar Man': Portrait of a musician who got a second chance

    August 9, 2012

    The subsets of filmgoers likely to fall for the wonderful"Searching for Sugar Man"include the following: People who like music. People who watch movies.

  • 'Hope Springs': Can this marriage be saved? ★★★

    August 7, 2012

    Their kids up and grown, Kay and Arnold Soames, of Omaha, have been married 31 years. Kay, a retail shop worker played by Meryl Streep, has begun to count the hours within those years. Their rut, not uncomfortable but not letting in much light, grows a little deeper each day. Arnold, a stoical, irritable tax accountant played by Tommy Lee Jones, hasn't touched her in too long.

  • An improbably happy ending for Rodriguez

    August 1, 2012

    A lovely film about a Detroit singer-songwriter robbed of musical fame but rewarded with a second chance decades later, at age 70, "Searching for Sugar Man" tells a story of serendipity and just deserts. If it were fiction, it'd be improbable fiction. But it's fact, and the documentary (opening Aug. 10 in Chicago) made by a first-time Swedish filmmaker is introducing an international audience to a man called Sixto Rodriguez.

  • 'The Watch': These guardians out of time, tune ★★

    July 26, 2012

    Timing is everything in comedy. When a neighborhood-watch volunteer was charged with shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martinearlier this year — in real life, that is — 20th Century Fox changed the title of its forthcoming comedy from "Neighborhood Watch" to"The Watch"so as to disassociate.

  • 'Dark Knight Rises': A 'Knight' to fray the nerves -- 2 1/2 stars

    July 17, 2012

    Eight years after the camp frippery of “Batman & Robin” (1997), in which Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy played dress-up while George Clooney let his nipply bat-suit do most of the acting, director and co-writer Christopher Nolan brought to the screen the origin story of Bruce Wayne and his tortured, emotionally isolated crime-fighting alter ego. Stately and just serious enough, “Batman Begins” was trumped by Nolan’s own 2008 sequel, “The Dark Knight,” which channeled a planet’s worth of post-9/11 panic and pitted Christian Bale’s masked vigilante against Heath Ledger’s unforgettable merry psycho.

  • 'Neil Young Journeys': Traveling on, looking back ★★★

    July 12, 2012

    Sixty-six years old and following a musical route of his own design, Neil Young has survived a brain aneurysm, decades of stardom amid radically shifting public taste and who knows how many renditions of "Heart of Gold." In close-up, singing onstage, the northern Ontario native resembles a gnarly oak tree blessed with the ability to play guitar and harmonica and to sing of love and war. Which covers just about everything.

  • Onetime flop now an Andy Griffith classic

    July 6, 2012

    Absolute power corrupts absolutely. But when the right actor finds the path straight into a corrupt soul on fire, a strange kind of joy erupts on screen — a sense of true discovery and excitement.

  • Manipulative music, plot devices keep 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' from greatness ★★

    July 5, 2012

    Already "Beasts of the Southern Wild"is the most divisive film of 2012, which is a testament to its co-writer and director, Benh Zeitlin, making his feature film debut with a picture that killed at Sundance, won the Camera d'Or (best first film) at Cannes and has been critically anointed by some while declared shiny but overbearing by others.

  • 'Savages': The good, the bad, the boring ★★

    July 5, 2012

    Taken from Don Winslow's novel, the Oliver Stone fulminator"Savages" proves that marijuana cultivation, sales and distribution are the right way to live large and menage a trois it through endless summer days and nights with your bromantic best pal and your special lady friend. Life is beautiful, and Laguna Beach, Calif., is full of beautiful people nearly as beautiful as you.

  • 'Katy Perry: Part of Me': If you see only one 3-D concert film this summer ... ★★½

    July 3, 2012

    Paramount Pictures does not lie: The chipper, no-warts-and-all tour chronicle "Katy Perry: Part of Me" is indeed the 3-D movie music event of the summer. The only one, I believe. Unless Christopher Nolan's"The Dark Knight Rises" turns out to be in 3-D, featuring duets sung by men in peculiar facial accessories.

  • Woody Allen's European travels take ensemble 'To Rome With Love' ✭✭

    June 28, 2012

    If it's a zinger capped by the phrase "leper colony," if there's a hotel room being broken into by house detectives, if it's Penelope Cruz spilling out of an outfit borrowed from Mira Sorvino in "Mighty Aphrodite," then it's time for the new Woody Allen film.

  • 'Magic Mike': It's a living for Steven Soderbergh's troupe of male strippers ✭✭✭ 1/2

    June 28, 2012

    It's crazy to oversell "Magic Mike,"or fluff it up into something its makers never intended. It is not a major motion picture. It is not searing melodrama, though in story outline terms — the least interesting terms by which to engage with director Steven Soderbergh's loose, funky and blithely engaging workplace comedy — it resembles "Showgirls" with showboys, though without the hysteria or the punitive humiliation.

  • Surprise! A family reunion in 'People Like Us' ✭✭

    June 28, 2012

    Crisco-slick, director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman's"People Like Us"brings up the vague-sounding but crucial question of approach, and how a filmmaker's attack on a story lives or dies with a thousand separate choices.

  • 'Safety Not Guaranteed': Departing cynicism for a trip taken on faith ✭✭✭

    June 14, 2012

    Sardonic like its heroine but, at heart, a sweetie, the fetching new comedy "Safety Not Guaranteed"came through the Sundance Film Festival where it won the screenwriting award. The film's based on a classified ad that ran in Backwoods Home magazine in the 1990s and then, years later, thanks to the internets, acquired a second, viral life for itself. "WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. ... You'll get paid after we get back."

  • Sandler as daddy dearest in 'That's My Boy' -- Zero stars

    June 14, 2012

    Even with 87.5 years to go, the 21st century may never see a stupider comedy than"That's My Boy."But let's be positive, and express it as a wish for the film-going masses: May this century never see a stupider comedy.

  • 'The Art of Rap': Ice-T and his friends give hip-hop some of its due ✭✭ 1/2

    June 14, 2012

    Why doesn't rap garner the respect afforded jazz and the blues? Not without its share of self-interest, the question recurs throughout "Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap," executive-produced, directed by and featuring Ice-T, who shares the screen with a strong percentage of the major rap and hip-hop artists of the last three decades.

  • 'Rock of Ages': Broadway's tribute to '80s bands loses something on screen, and in the starring role ✭✭

    June 13, 2012

    Onstage the ABBA love letter "Mamma Mia!"made the jukebox-musical trick look easy and enjoyable. On screen, less enjoyment, more strain — but people love their ABBA, their Meryl Streep and their Greek islands. And the movie did the trick for those who never miss a Pierce Brosnan musical.

  • 'Peace, Love & Misunderstanding': A '60s setting for a predictable tale ✭✭

    June 7, 2012

    The casting of Jane Fonda as a tie-dyed hippie, smoking her weed and firing up the kiln while listening to her vinyl up in Woodstock, N.Y., lends the bland "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding" an air of nostalgic authenticity. Or gimmickry. Or something in between.

  • 'Prometheus': Ridley Scott returns to space and finds something familiar ✭✭✭

    June 7, 2012

    Nearly all the bits and pieces in director Ridley Scott's"Prometheus" come from other movies — either one of Scott's or someone else's. More and more, though, I appreciate Scott's fundamental squareness as a filmmaker. "Prometheus" may be the"Gladiator" director's first picture shot digitally and in 3-D, but there's an old-school assurance in the pacing and the design.

  • 'Snow White' at it again, with fewer laughs, more gore ✭✭✭

    May 31, 2012

    Better and more darkly imaginative than its headache of a coming-attractions trailer suggests, "Snow White and the Huntsman"follows another Snow White re-do,"Mirror Mirror," into theaters by two months and two days. That's not much time for audiences to get re-interested in another twist on a classic fairy tale. But they should.

  • 'Moonrise Kingdom': Wes Anderson meticulously crafts a world of yearning ✭✭✭ 1/2

    May 31, 2012

    Nothing in a Wes Anderson movie is quite like life. He creates odd, gorgeous miniature universes on screen, setting his characters in italics, so that they become characters playing themselves in a pageant inspired by their own lives.

  • Navigating Cannes screenings a tricky task

    May 25, 2012

    CANNES, France — Here’s why the world’s greatest film festival, the one on the Cote d’Azur, means something, and to some filmmakers means everything — even if a lot of the surrounding movies are lame.

  • Bill Murray talks about a director he likes, Wes Anderson of 'Moonrise Kingdom'

    May 16, 2012

    CANNES, France -- Here's Bill Murray, a rumpled riot in mismatched summer wear, talking about his ongoing screen collaboration with writer-director Wes Anderson, the filmmaker (who still shoots on actual, tactile-friendly film, Super 16 millimeter in this case) who gave us "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums,""Fantastic Mr. Fox"and other fastidiously framed and eccentrically observed studies in young people, their addled elders and their elaborate coping mechanisms:

  • Cannes Film Festival preview: Time to get off the beach

    May 14, 2012

    Brigitte Bardot in a bikini on a French Riviera beach in the early 1950s. Quick — name a single photograph in existence that reminds you less of "The Tree of Life," last year's top prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

  • The gang's all here in 'The Avengers' ✭✭✭

    April 30, 2012

    The culmination of everything ever written, produced or imagined in the known universe, or something like that,"The Avengers"bunches together Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, the leather-clad assassin Black Widow, the lethal archer Hawkeye and the superheroes’ one-eyed wrangler, Nick Fury, for 143 minutes of stylish mayhem in the service of defeating Thor’s malevolent brother, the god Loki, who hails from the interstellar world known as Asgard (access through wormhole only), and who yearns to conquer Earth with an all-powerful blue energy cube called the Tesseract.

  • 'Sunrise' a rich, gorgeous silent-era masterpiece ✭✭✭✭

    April 27, 2012

    Rich, strange and gorgeous, F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" (1927) shows what an artist of the late silent era could accomplish cinematically, backed by an open checkbook and fueled by the highest aspirations even in the simplest of morality tales.

  • 'The Raven': Once upon a drama, dreary ✭✭

    April 26, 2012

    Quoth the raven: "Eh."

  • With 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits,' the treasure's in the details

    April 26, 2012

    Maniacally inventive and tightly packed, if not overpacked, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" comes from the Aardman animation folks behind Wallace & Gromit, "Chicken Run" and, more recently, "Arthur Christmas." Their latest may be easier to admire than to love; it's more tone-funny and incidental-muttered-aside funny than, for example, your average DreamWorks smash, where every other comic beat ends with a cartoon animal getting bashed in the nethers and then quoting some inappropriate gangster movie.

  • 'Five-Year Engagement': Engaging rom-com worth an 'I do' ✭✭✭ 1/2

    April 26, 2012

    A lot of terrible romantic comedies come along in a given year, and after five or six you begin to question your belief in anything — romance, comedy, movies, even terribleness itself. Before you know it you're trying to break the fever and hit bottom, deliberately, with repeated viewings of films co-starring either Katherine Heigl or Gerard Butler or, worse, their near-lethal joint effort, the Yugo of rom-coms: "The Ugly Truth."

  • Stand-up doc 'Bully' is more than a sum of its parts ✭✭✭

    April 12, 2012

    There are a hundred reasons "Bully"is a good film instead of a great one, but Lee Hirsch's blood-boiling documentary will very likely end up doing more than its share of good in this world.

  • Nyuks outnumber laughs in 'Three Stooges' ✭✭

    April 12, 2012

    Both sincerely affectionate and a tad eerie, the Farrelly brothers'"The Three Stooges"wonders what it'd be like to arm the most violent comedians of the 20th century with their familiar implements of comic torture against a modern-day setting, where sadistic slapstick has become as common as an unfunny "Hangover" sequel.

  • 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' not just another food flick ✭✭✭ 1/2

    April 5, 2012

    There's so much drooly food porn on TV these days, it takes an exceptional subject to arrest our senses and hold our attention. Now 86, Jiro Ono — the world's premier sushi chef — is that subject. And the lovely little documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” honors Ono while making his culinary creations of horse mackerel, squid, egg, halibut, fatty tuna, “medium” tuna, lean tuna and gizzard shad, served in his 10-seat Tokyo restaurant, look like the most wondrous mouthfuls of fish on rice on the planet.

  • 'Titanic 3D' a tale that never lets go ✭✭✭ 1/2

    April 3, 2012

    The ship so nice they sank it twice, the RMS Titanic has resurfaced from the icy depths of the Atlantic only to be subjected to a second dunking, this time with a 3-D up-charge, under the stewardship of Capt. James Cameron, master and commander.

  • 'The Deep Blue Sea': Hushed, deft adaptation resonates ✭✭✭ 1/2

    March 30, 2012

    The Liverpool-bred writer-director Terence Davies is best known for deeply felt, meticulously controlled reveries "The Long Day Closes" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and the gorgeous personal essay "Of Time and the City." Now 66, he sees the past — his own and his country's — as a war between oxygen-depriving conformity and what another Terence called "the whole of life," in all its terror and wonder.

  • 'Kid With a Bike': Tale of troubled child told with deft directorial touch ✭✭✭ 1/2

    March 22, 2012

    Emotionally full to bursting, "The Kid With a Bike"comes from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgian brothers and masters of poetic realism whose movies, as they unfold, have the knack of fooling an audience that the artistry must've been easy to achieve. But think about it. How many so-called slices of life have ended up lifeless — death by earnestness — on screen?

  • Gamers will get a kick from maniacal 'Raid: Redemption' ✭✭ 1/2

    March 22, 2012

    Gamers will be slain, over and over, by the insanely violent multilevel bash "The Raid: Redemption," in which a skeezy 15-story tenement complex serves as the setting for a series of stabbings, slicings and a showcase for the Indonesian martial art known as Pencak Silat.

  • Bells are ringing, effectively, in films of today and of yore

    March 21, 2012

    It's not much of a movie, but in the Duplass brothers' "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" a misdialed phone number — Mis-tapped? Mis-punched? Who dials anymore, anyway? — gets the bonged-out dreamer played by Jason Segel thinking he was contacted for a reason. He's already obsessed with the M. Night Shyamalan film "Signs." Surely this must be a sign as well.

  • 'The Hunger Games' adaptation hits the target ✭✭✭

    March 20, 2012

    The hypocrisy at the heart of "The Hunger Games" is irresistible. Novelist Suzanne Collins, whose trilogy has been decreed "awesome" by, among others, my 5th grade son, indicts violence and organized brutality as tools of mass-audience manipulation. Yet "The Hunger Games" wouldn't have gotten very far without its steady supply of threatened or actual gladiatorial teen-on-teen bloodshed: death by arrow, javelin, genetically engineered wasp, plus knives. And land mines. And fearsome dogs, conjured by the dogs of the totalitarian state.

  • 'Footnote' mines scholarly intrigue ✭✭✭ 1/2

    March 15, 2012

    A terrific deadpan chronicle of father and son Talmudic scholars beset by an escalating bureaucratic screw-up, Joseph Cedar's" Footnote" sets the tone for the battles to come in its opening sequence.

  • 'The Lorax' gets the look right, but Dr. Seuss book's heart gets short shrift ✭✭

    March 1, 2012

    The new animated feature "The Lorax,"known in its entirety as "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" to keep it straight from "John Grisham's The Lorax," does a few smaller things right but the bigger things not quite. I've come to fear these movies. I love Seuss so much, even his second-shelf works. Who doesn't feel protective of authors and illustrators they love? And not just because we were young when we made their acquaintance.

  • 'Crazy Horse': Legendary documentarian lays bare a cabaret's appeal ✭✭✭

    February 24, 2012

    Coming after the great "Boxing Gym" (2010), which revealed a universe of sweaty truth inside an Austin, Texas, punching-bag emporium, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's"Crazy Horse" settles for a bit less. The subject is smaller and, weirdly, more modest: the Paris cabaret known as the Crazy Horse, providing locals and visitors with naked and semi-clothed women since 1951 in a celebration (according to its web site) of "beauty, raw talent and personality of the sensual dancers in an unimitable, sophisticated and glamourous way." I think they mean "inimitable," but you get the idea.

  • 'Chico & Rita' animated by the spirit of Cuban jazz stars ✭✭✭✭

    February 23, 2012

    "Rango"probably has the animated feature Academy Award in the bag, but the film that deserves it? A wonderful Spanish-British co-production called "Chico & Rita," making its Chicago debut for a week's run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

  • Recruiting tool wrestles with its gamelike focus in 'Act of Valor' ✭✭

    February 23, 2012

    Made with or without U.S. Department of Defense cooperation, fictional films about the American military favor narratives in which (mostly) men buck authority, risk their necks in bouts of jealous infighting and go the lone-wolf route in pursuit of the enemy.

  • 'This Means War': Witherspoon in the middle of spy vs. spy vs. sense ✭

    February 16, 2012

    In "This Means War,"the CIA operatives played by Chris Pine and Tom Hardy fall for the same woman, a consumer products tester played by Reese Witherspoon. At first the boys agree to let the best agent win, seduction-wise, while Witherspoon's Lauren puzzles through her feelings regarding her suitors, whom she believes to be a cruise ship captain and a travel agent, respectively.

  • Police story charts a slide downhill for a rogue cop in 'Rampart' ✭✭✭ 1/2

    February 16, 2012

    "Rampart" patrols some familiar streets, but this jarringly intimate study of a dirty Los Angeles cop sliding, crazily, down the drain has a distinctive new-cliche smell, pungent and alive. The story, which is more about observation than propulsion, suits what interests the filmmakers most: the scary charisma and dazzling hubris of Officer Dave Brown, played with wholehearted ferocity by Woody Harrelson.

  • 'The Vow': Foggy on everything but the feelings -- ✭✭ 1/2

    February 9, 2012

    Two new products — and that's what they are — at the movies this week present packages of nearly identical quality (eh), transcended by their respective top-billed stars who happen also to be excellent, crud-elevating actors. This is an excellent skill to hone if you're both an actor and a star, because a significant portion of most careers is spent elevating crud.

  • 'Journey 2' gets wasted in paradise -- ✭ 1/2

    February 9, 2012

    In its own sweetly bombastic way, the 2008 remake of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" did the job, the job being a 21st-century 3-D bash starring Brendan Fraser — an actor who gives his all to the green screen, every time — and loosely based on the 19th-century Jules Verne adventure, a natural for the movies. Its script proceeded from the idea that Verne, science fiction visionary, was in reality writing about real places and genuine fantastic phenomena only disguised as fiction.

  • 'Safe House' a bumpy ride, with Denzel in the driver's seat -- ✭✭ 1/2

    February 9, 2012

    Early on in the derivative but fairly absorbing blur titled "Safe House,"set in Cape Town, South Africa, Denzel Washington's Tobin Frost, a spy in from the cold, is brought to a Central Intelligence Agency safe house so that he can be asked a few questions about the super-secret intel he has in his possession. Wordlessly, Washington sits in a chair, as a supporting player (Robert Patrick) prepares for the waterboarding, and in one five-second progression Washington smiles, drops his head, lifts it back up — and his face has morphed into that of a man who has killed and will be killing again very soon.

  • Madonna's 'W.E.' all dressed up, going nowhere -- ✭ 1/2

    February 9, 2012

    They split in 2008, but apparently Madonna stayed married to director Guy Ritchie just long enough to absorb his most grating cinematic instincts — shooting in every style, in an addled, shuffle-mode, falsely glamorizing way until all is chaos. And, astonishingly, boredom.

  • Oscar nominations a blast from the past

    January 24, 2012

    John Osborne wrote the key post-World War II British drama "Look Back in Anger," later filmed in 1959. By contrast there’s very little anger in all the look-backs among this year’s Academy Award nominations. Oscar's unofficial slogan in early 2012 is more like "Look Back with Bittersweet Nostalgia at the Industry’s Salad Days."

  • 'Shame' offers plenty of action, not much lovin' -- 2 1/2 stars

    December 1, 2011

    Near the beginning of filmmaker Steve McQueen's granite-toned second feature, "Shame," we witness an urban predator in action. Brandon, a Manhattanite played by Michael Fassbender, eyes a stranger seated across from him on the subway. He stares. She notices. He smiles. She responds. Before the next stop he engineers a moment of physical proximity. It's over before anything has a chance to develop, yet this is the latest metaphoric notch in this sex addict's belt — a belt that, throughout "Shame," always seems to be sliding to the floor near one bed or another.

  • 'Moneyball': The Un-'Natural'

    September 22, 2011

    Director Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” is the perfect sports movie for these cash-strapped times of efficiency maximization. It's also the best sports movie in a long time, period, as well as honestly inspirational — even though nobody knocks one into the lights, causing showers of sparks to blend in the night sky with the fireworks.

  • 'I Don't Know How She Does It': No how, no way like real life

    September 15, 2011

    Thwarted by the same awkward timing that zonked "Confessions of a Shopaholic" two years ago, just when shopaholics began to seem extra-heinous, the film version of "I Don't Know How She Does It" doesn't know how to do what I think it's trying to do.

  • Rich tapestry shot through with 'Mysteries'

    September 15, 2011

    A formal marvel carved from, and around, a narrative whopper, Raul Ruiz's adaptation of the mid-19th century Portuguese novel "Mysteries of Lisbon" arrives in U.S. theaters as a two-part, four-hour version edited down from a six-hour version produced for European television.

  • Shoot 'em up, blow 'em up

    September 9, 2011

    What history dictates, Hollywood redirects.

  • Mediators try to make streets a little less mean

    August 12, 2011

    In its charting of a Chicago epidemic and belief in the power of street-level human empathy, the superb documentary "The Interrupters" comes to us at a time when the notion of conflict resolution has been sidelined utterly on the national political level.This is why every member of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, the White House and the tea party, let alone anybody simply interested in meeting some complicated and remarkable Chicagoans, should see the film. It chronicles genuine conflict resolution that appears to get results — politically savvy, consensus-building results — one difficult day at a time.

  • Middle Men

    August 5, 2010

    2 stars

  • Review: 2 1/2 stars for 'Iron Man 2'

    May 5, 2010

    "A passable knock-off": That's how the man in the Iron Man mask, the obscenely rich but heartsick industrialist played by Robert Downey Jr., characterizes the electro-weaponry wielded by his Slavic adversary ( Mickey Rourke) in "Iron Man 2."

  • Tribune Archive: 2005 interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman

    October 16, 2005

    This column was first published in Oct. 16, 2005

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