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Michael Phillips is the film critic of the Chicago Tribune, and was co-host of the long-running nationally syndicated TV show "At the ...

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Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips

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Music, film fest rocks past 'steady'

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.

  • Jason Bateman's low-key style spells success over the years

    March 21, 2014

    Jason Bateman has an agreeably deadly way of busting a co-star's chops on camera, and there's some of that in real life too. The other morning at breakfast he ate scrambled egg whites with onions while I mowed through a basket of scones.

  • 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.

  • Review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' ★★★ 1/2

    December 17, 2013

    "Inside Llewyn Davis" takes place in winter 1961, just before Bob Dylan makes the scene. The scene is the Greenwich Village folk music universe, a few finite blocks of an island that, in the hands of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, looks and feels like a beautiful, long-ago smudge in motion.

  • Review: 'Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues' ★★ 1/2

    December 17, 2013

    Maybe if I liked the first "Anchorman" a little less, I'd like "Anchorman 2" a little more. Still, I laughed. Louder and crasser than the 2004 original, though God knows the first one had its share of jokes ending with phrases like "massive erection" or "smelly pirate hooker," director and co-writer Adam McKay's sequel nonetheless offers a fair number of idiotic rewards. Some wander in from far-left field: Ron Burgundy bottle-feeding a shark, for example. Other bits come wrapped, smartly, inside the rich, mahogany-scented complexities and contradictions of the world's most narcissistic news reader.

  • Review: 'American Hustle' ★★★★

    December 17, 2013

    My favorite minute of movie this year comes early in David O. Russell's "American Hustle." Christian Bale's character, the con man Irving Rosenfeld, based on the real-life Abscam linchpin Mel Weinberg, is riding high: His small-time investment scams, conducted with his wily mistress (played by Amy Adams), keep growing more profitable, and they're falling in love. Backed by the great Broadway finger-snapper "I've Got Your Number," Bale and Adams dance their way across a Manhattan intersection and, after a perfect cut, into a hotel ballroom where vocalist Jack Jones and a jazz combo are swinging. So few directors today know how to move a camera around; Russell is one of them. The whole movie, a feast of ensemble wiles and stunning hair, is juicy, funny and alive.

  • Readers critique Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips

    December 12, 2013

    Today we hear from you, the unassailable and cherished readers. Hello, by the way. Hope you're well.

  • Review: 'Saving Mr. Banks' ★★★

    December 12, 2013

    No feathers, animated or otherwise, will be ruffled by "Saving Mr. Banks," director John Lee Hancock's genial fictionalized account of how Walt Disney seduced "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers into allowing, for 5 percent of the gross, the supernatural caregiver to become a shiny Disney version of herself.

  • Review: 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' ★★★

    December 11, 2013

    One year and several hundred films later, I confess my mind isn't over-full of vivid memories of director Peter Jackson's first "Hobbit." It did the job, in its leisurely, fill-out-the-trilogy fashion, albeit looking like clinically detailed crud when viewed in 48 frames-per-second digital projection. Maybe my eyes will catch up to the glories of this alleged improvement. Maybe not.

  • Christopher Evan Welch: An actor who made an impression

    December 5, 2013

    We lost a sterling actor this week, an actor whose name was less familiar than his face or voice. But fame is many things: fleeting, relative, frequently a matter of chance. To those who knew his work on screen and on stage, Christopher Evan Welch wasn't just famous; he was infamously creative.

  • 'Out of the Furnace': Revenge tale fueled by strong cast ★★ 1/2

    December 5, 2013

    "Out of the Furnace" is a lot of movie, a lot of it good and pungent.

  • Thanks to (and from) a Little Tramp

    November 27, 2013

    We give thanks this week, this Thanksgiving week, for all that we enjoy: family, friends, a good meal if we can afford it. A bed. A home.

  • Some pre-Code fun for a Sunday morning

    November 27, 2013

    "Getting hot" was the mantra for early 1930s Hollywood, that woolly period before the film industry's censorious Production Code was enforced with any consistency. Even within the confines of a particular Hollywood studio, the pre-Code movies could vary wildly. This Sunday at 11:30 a.m., at its new temporary home at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Northwest Chicago Film Society presents a fetchingly paired duo from Paramount Pictures, buoyed by genuine comic personality — one sophisticated, the other screwy — the movies only occasionally recapture today.

  • 'Bastards' takes on the users — and the used ★★★

    November 27, 2013

    For a month now, the Gene Siskel Film Center has been showcasing the elegant riddles of filmmaker Claire Denis. This week brings a run of her latest, which is atypically pulpy for this filmmaker, yet very much of a piece with many of her earlier, watchful portraits of bodies and hearts at rest and in motion.

  • 'Black Nativity': Good deeds, good songs ★★ 1/2

    November 26, 2013

    Writer-director Kasi Lemmons hasn't had a feature in theaters since 2007's "Talk to Me," a vibrant and unjustly little-seen biopic that starred Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor and told the story of D.C. deejay Petey Greene. That film was all about the power of words. Lemmons' new film, "Black Nativity," concerns good deeds and great songs, as it struggles with uneven success to find a cinematic home for the 1961 Langston Hughes "gospel-song-play" setting of the Nativity story.

  • '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."

  • 'Homefront': A bloody bore ★ 1/2

    November 26, 2013

    A bloody bore featuring Jason Statham wasting steaming piles of rednecks in small-town Louisiana, "Homefront" nonetheless contains many teachable moments while setting a very low bar for fathers everywhere. One such moment, for example: If your 10-year-old daughter is watching you, don't murder that optional 10th or 11th bad guy. She doesn't need to see that.

  • 'Oldboy': Spike Lee's remake lacks a plausible motive ★ 1/2

    November 26, 2013

    Consider "Oldboy" Spike Lee's cover version of "If I Had a Hammer." This new American remake of the 2003 Korean revenge drama, also titled "Oldboy," stars Josh Brolin as the victim of a bizarre kidnapping and 20-year imprisonment. Upon his release, as sudden as the instigating events two decades earlier, the protagonist must determine who did this to him, why — and why he's being framed for his wife's murder. The character's ally in amateur detective work is a pliable social worker played by Elizabeth Olsen. By the time everyone on screen realizes what's up, and who's who, the audience may be more in a "Why? Why?" mood.

  • 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.

  • Vince Vaughn's lovability gets pushed to the limit in 'Delivery Man' ★★

    November 21, 2013

    It's too much to call the misty-eyed sentimental comedy "Delivery Man" Vince Vaughn's very own "Patch Adams," but the film does require Vaughn's character to smile through tears, over and over, in an attempt to yank your own heartstrings straight out of your heart. The movie's goal is a simple one: to leave moviegoers all over the world without functioning hearts, just like that poor schnook in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

  • Plains-spoken in 'Nebraska' ★★★

    November 21, 2013

    The small and medium towns in the Midwest and the Great Plains region aren't so different from any other part — rural, urban or in between — of the United States. Half the people don't talk much, while the other half chatter to fill the silence. It's a time-honored cliche according to Garrison Keillor, but there's truth in it.

  • Gene Hackman's road trip not taken

    November 21, 2013

    Let us now praise two actors, one who stars in "Nebraska," one who didn't.

  • Director gives 'Hunger Games' franchise and heroine a solid score ★★★

    November 18, 2013

    "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is a lot like its own celebrity heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who begins this second "Hunger Games" movie fulfilling a public relations tour as penance for her killer — literally, killer — popularity. She is adored by millions; the books are too. The three Suzanne Collins novels, to be spread across four films, are being adapted with both eyes on fidelity to the source material. All "Catching Fire" had to do was to show up, look good and not screw up to succeed.

  • Camaraderie among the masterpieces in 'Museum Hours' ★★★★

    November 15, 2013

    A plaintive beauty, Jem Cohen's Vienna-set film "Museum Hours" tells a story of an unlikely friendship that arises, as so many friendships do, out of the ether of happenstance.

  • Movies with black casts make a green argument

    November 14, 2013

    It took 14 years to come to fruition, but "The Best Man Holiday," writer-director Malcolm D. Lee's sequel to his 1999 hit "The Best Man," opens Friday. Lee told me the other day that Universal executives were "hesitant" initially about the sequel, which takes Taye Diggs, Regina Hall and company in a more dramatic direction than the first film.

  • Filmmaker, disillusioned, slows Armstrong documentary's roll ★★ 1/2

    November 14, 2013

    A lying sack of sponsorship, world champion cyclist Lance Armstrong at his peak successfully beat back accusations from the "haters" (his word) in the press, and his rivals on the circuit, regarding his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. On the way up the mountain of fame, and millions, the Texas native with the brash, reckless confidence was diagnosed with cancer in 1996. He underwent testicular and brain surgery and punishing chemotherapy. He warded off cancer, though, and in 1998 returned to racing until his 2005 retirement. In 2008 he ventured back to cycling and had in his sights the 2009 Tour de France.

  • 'Book Thief's' warmheartedness clashes with its historical setting ★★

    November 14, 2013

    Adapted from the internationally popular book-club staple by Markus Zusak, "The Book Thief" tries so hard to warm our hearts amid grotesque suffering, it goes a bit mad under the strain. It relays an uplifting story that, ill-advisedly, is not so much Holocaust-era as Holocaust-adjacent, determined to steer clear of too much discomfort.

  • Reunion of 'The Best Man' cast is pleasant company ★★★

    November 14, 2013

    "The Best Man Holiday" follows in the footsteps of writer-director Malcolm D. Lee's successful 1999 comedy "The Best Man," using a template familiar to anyone who may have seen "The Big Chill" or its micro-budget predecessor, "Return of the Secaucus Seven." They're all different in their qualities and atmosphere. "The Best Man Holiday," for example, is a far more Tyler Perry-ish mixture of comedy and tragedy than the easygoing "Best Man" was, back in the pre-Perry movie era.

  • 'Sole Survivor' explores a small fraternity ★★★

    November 8, 2013

    With most stories, even most documentaries, survival is the happy ending — the reward for one's luck, or skill, or exceptional circumstances. "Sole Survivor," Ky Dickens' nonfiction account of four sole survivors of commercial plane crashes, turns that notion on its head, exploring the depths of survivor guilt and the post-accident lives of these living exceptions to a terrible, fatal rule.

  • 'Le Joli Mai': Paris circa 1962 speaks to audiences of today ★★★★

    November 7, 2013

    A great film about Paris and its exquisite discontents, "Le Joli Mai" is a cine-poem unlike any other. It's also a movie about politics, left, right and the elusive center, as well as the lengths to which many will go to deflect and redirect that dicey conversational topic on camera.

  • Boutique ArcLight theaters may shake up local cinema scene

    November 7, 2013

    We keep hearing it: The theatrical exhibition component of the movie business is on a slow fade to extinction. Well. Besides taxes, cockroaches and "Two and a Half Men," what isn't going away, ultimately?

  • McConaughey, Leto transform themselves in 'Dallas Buyers Club' ★★★

    November 7, 2013

    In "Dallas Buyers Club," we meet Matthew McConaughey's Ron Woodroof mid-coitus. He's making love with two women in a rodeo holding pen, seconds before he jumps onto a wild bull for thrills and the promise of a few bucks. The year is 1985, the same year Rock Hudson died of AIDS-related causes. By contrast Woodroof, a drug-using heterosexual, is just another good ol' boy with a dangerous edge and zero sense of personal frailty, as quick with a casual homophobic slur as with a come-on to the ladies.

  • Teen's woes more than the usual in 'How I Live Now' ★★

    November 7, 2013

    Imagine a Judy Blume rewrite of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and you'll end up somewhere in the ashen yet uplifting vicinity of "How I Live Now."

  • 'Thor' hammers home same points ★★ 1/2

    November 6, 2013

    "Thor: The Dark World" is the eighth movie in its particular franchise. So if anyone asks you what it has in common with "Blondie Goes Latin" and "Bomba and the Jungle Girl" you'll know the answer.

  • 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."

  • Meet Oscar Isaac of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

    November 1, 2013

    Four months before securing the title role in the Coen brothers movie “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Oscar Isaac was down in Miami, waiting, waiting, waiting to hear about a different job prospect, the lead in the latest “Bourne” film, “The Bourne Legacy.” Writer-director Tony Gilroy, Isaac tells me over breakfast, had told Isaac all along that he was it. He was The Guy. The movie wouldn't be the same without him, Gilroy told him.

  • It's time: Antonioni anew

    October 31, 2013

    'L'Avventura'

  • 'Blue Is the Warmest Color' rises above its controversy ★★★ 1/2

    October 31, 2013

    Watching "Blue Is the Warmest Color," it's as clear as day: The young actresses sharing top prize with their director at the Cannes Film Festival subjected themselves to several months of moviemaking hell to achieve the emotional, sexual, physical and psychological rawness informing this nearly three-hour love story.

  • 'About Time,' the time-traveler's gal pal ★★★

    October 31, 2013

    And now for a completely improbable romantic comedy recommendation.

  • Playing to save the world in 'Ender's Game' ★★ 1/2

    October 31, 2013

    In step with its sensitive, tactically brilliant 12-year-old hero, "Ender's Game" is a bit of a tweener, neither triumph nor disaster, a war-games fantasy with a use-by date of Nov. 22, when the new "Hunger Games" movie comes out.

  • The Beats before they'd learned how to howl in 'Kill Your Darlings' ★★ 1/2

    October 31, 2013

    This is economically unfeasible thinking, I realize. But the only way we're ever going to get a great movie about the Beats is if someone makes it like there's nothing to lose, with no concern about whether audiences are going to "get it," or care, or relate, or any of that. None of it. Until then, we'll keep up with all the pretty good tries, like the recent Walter Salles edition of "On the Road." Or fairly good, such as the new "Kill Your Darlings."

  • 'Last Vegas' finds Oscar winners taking a trip to Sin City ★★ 1/2

    October 31, 2013

    A genial "Hangover" for the AARP set, "Last Vegas" is roughly what you'd expect, or fear, but a little better.

  • Bob Fosse's Chicago story, long before 'Chicago'

    October 25, 2013

    Decades before he spearheaded the musical "Chicago," Bob Fosse spent his first 17 years in the same city, minus the quotation marks, living a double life that reads more like show business myth than fractured reality.

  • When movies make the most of their budgets, it shows

    October 24, 2013

    Right now "Gravity" is sucking up all the conversational oxygen, especially when the opinions concern production design you notice. In the case of "Gravity" the film's seamless look is so striking and technologically new, so clever in its melding of traditional design elements and digital trickery, credit surely must be shared by all concerned — by everyone from director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron on down to the last effects designer hired for Cuaron's mighty team of innovators.

  • Tale of 3 restaurants leaves viewers hungry for more ★★ 1/2

    October 24, 2013

    You want a documentary about food, restaurants and the earnest, driven chefs in the kitchen to be special, as special as the filmmakers consider their subjects. With "Spinning Plates," writer-director and Food Network alum Joseph Levy settles for breezy generalities and lots of talk about pushing boundaries and the importance of community. But the three restaurants taking center stage, including Grant Achatz's "molecular gastronomy" Chicago superstar, Alinea, are interesting enough to compensate for the heavily promotional vibe.

  • The old man and the sea in 'All Is Lost' ★★★

    October 24, 2013

    Imagine an alternate-universe version of the lean, relentlessly taciturn survival tale "All Is Lost," featuring a different actor than the film's one and only performer, Robert Redford.

  • Shiny cast, silly story in 'The Counselor' ★★

    October 24, 2013

    Set along the Texas/Mexico border but photographed largely in Spain, "The Counselor" is novelist Cormac McCarthy's first original screenplay to make it before the cameras. It concerns a self-deluding and financially challenged Texan who takes a chance involving some cocaine cartel money to dig himself out of a financial hole. Drugs; greed; malice; ridiculous lifestyle excess, signified by the chief sociopath's pet cheetahs: "The Counselor" offers all sorts of pulpy theoretical interest. As a bonus, the violence showcases not one but two really nasty ways to die via beheading, which is one more exotic method of killing than we got with the cattle stun-gun as deployed in the Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," taken from a McCarthy novel.

  • War drama wins top prize at Chicago film fest

    October 19, 2013

    "My Sweet Pepper Land," director Hiner Saleem’s Iraq/France/Germany-financed drama set in a war-torn Kurdish village, won the Gold Hugo (top prize) Friday night as the Chicago International Film Festival entered its second weekend.

  • Sly, Arnold: Jailbirds are gonna fly now ★★ 1/2

    October 18, 2013

    Stupid but fun, "Escape Plan" takes place largely in a secret prison, a massive honeycomb of glass and steel where the black-clad guards sport masks out of "V for Vendetta" and the worst criminals in the universe have been collected, like trading cards, in order to be "disappeared" far away from prying governmental eyes.

  • A tactical solution proves far worse than problem ★★★★

    October 17, 2013

    Assembling a found-footage documentary is more than a matter of finding an apt running order or paying attention to how one fragment of testimony may echo inside another. It's a matter of finding the bleak poetry underneath the news event and keeping focused on the human beings making the decisions that can lead to tragedy.

  • D'Onofrio steals 'Escape' scenes with clean hands

    October 17, 2013

    There's a master thief at work in the margins of the new Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Escape Plan."

  • Writer Diablo Cody outpaces director Diablo Cody in 'Paradise' ★★

    October 17, 2013

    Set in Las Vegas, also known as "The People's Republic of Bad Choices" as phrased by screenwriter Diablo Cody, "Paradise" marks the Oscar-winning writer's feature directorial debut.

  • Big, bloody footprints to fill for 'Carrie' ★★ 1/2

    October 17, 2013

    With her wide-eyed glare of grave intensity, the actress Chloe Grace Moretz appears destined for her share of artfully crafted, slightly unnecessary horror remakes. She starred in "Let Me In," the American version of the terrific Swedish vampire picture "Let the Right One In." And now she takes on director Kimberly Peirce's remake of "Carrie," a work of smooth confidence and a humane, dimensionally human brand of horror.

  • Story of WikiLeaks founding goes offline ★★

    October 17, 2013

    One challenge facing screenwriters and directors today towers above the rest. It is this: How do you make something vital and interesting out of a story of guys, in a sweat, looking at keyboards?

  • History, unchained in '12 Years a Slave' ★★★★

    October 16, 2013

    At this point “12 Years a Slave” has only its own publicity to conquer. Moviegoers reeling from “Gravity” may well approach director Steve McQueen's patient, clear-eyed and altogether extraordinary adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative with a combination of preconditioned shock and awe (given the subject matter) and misleading expectations of classy, eight-cylinder Hollywood melodrama.

  • To hell and back for '12 Years a Slave'

    October 11, 2013

    (Toronto) There are books you should've read by now but haven't — books with granite reputations, the ones commonly, seemingly contractually labeled great, or important, or both.

  • 2 Hustons in '2 Jacks' ★★ 1/2

    October 10, 2013

    In the "duh" department: Danny Huston sounds a lot like his late and legendary father, director, screenwriter and sometime actor John Huston — those rumbly, gravelly intonations are unmistakable. Now in a week's run at Facets, "2 Jacks" finds Huston pulling a sly and relaxed variation on his old man's image, in the role of an old-time Hollywood filmmaker scrambling for financing, partaking of a few of Hollywood's diversions, smoking the largest cigar on the market.

  • 'Captain Phillips,' a solid tale of man versus pirates ★★★

    October 10, 2013

    "Captain Phillips" is a Tom Hanks movie. It is also a Paul Greengrass movie, and the cinematic tumult director Greengrass adroitly captures and sustains in the service of a narrative has a way of keeping his stars unmoored — in a good way — while trumping conventional Hollywood notions of a star vehicle.

  • Like young love, revivals don't always run true in 'Romeo and Juliet' ★ 1/2

    October 10, 2013

    The most excellent and lamentable tragedy "Romeo and Juliet" has been turned into a film that is lamentable without the "excellent" part.

  • Pedigreed or not, Chicago Int'l Film Festival films entice

    October 9, 2013

    "Inside Llewyn Davis" takes place in 1961 in the Greenwich Village acoustic folk scene as it approaches a musical nervous breakdown. The movie opens commercially Dec. 20. But Chicago area fans of the Coen brothers don't have to wait that long. They can try, at least, to see it when the folk-soaked ballad of comic lament closes the 49th Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 24, with star Oscar Isaac in attendance.

  • Greengrass career moves to its own tune

    October 8, 2013

    Out of a lineup of major contemporary Hollywood directors, odds are you'd pick Paul Greengrass (big, owly eyeglasses, longish gray hair) as the one who wrote his Cambridge University dissertation on the novels of Chicago's own Nelson Algren. He just looks like he'd have done something like that.

  • Searching for the truth in a true story

    October 8, 2013

    At the end of "Captain Phillips," Tom Hanks ventures into an extraordinarily raw and anguished place as a performer, pouring out a load of emotion once his character — U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship commander Richard Phillips, who matched wits with Somali pirates in a notorious real-life 2009 hostage drama — finds his way back to safety.

  • Curating for the Chicago International Film Fest

    October 4, 2013

    Curator? "Nah. I never use that word," says a smiling Chicago International Film Festival founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, now in his 49th year of running the show. The show, as he sees it, used to be a one-man show; now it's a team effort. Anyway: "The word 'curator' is too highfalutin' for me."

  • Chicago, caught between '50s, '60s

    October 4, 2013

    This column is not about the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. We'll be writing about that Sunday, and then again next week, closer to Thursday's opening night.

  • '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.

  • A silent masterpiece still making a big noise ★★★★

    October 3, 2013

    Back this month in a meticulous digital restoration, on a screen large enough to handle its variously color-tinted insanities, the silent landmark "Intolerance" is everything a movie can be. It's grand, grandiose, ambitious to the point of absurdity, sluggish here, propulsive there, and then finally so propulsive resistance is futile.

  • Repetitive farming doc fertilized with good intentions ★★ 1/2

    October 3, 2013

    Dirt: It's what's for dinner, metaphorically speaking. Everything we eat, most every step we take, connects directly to the soil, and in Deborah Koons Garcia's globe-trotting documentary "Symphony of the Soil," now in a week's run at Facets, the answer to better agriculture and better health is clear as a bell: Lay off the stuff ending with the suffix "-cide," such as herbicides and pesticides and anything posing a threat to the health and well-being of soil, which one expert interviewed in the film describes as "the living skin of the Earth."

  • 'Parkland,' looks back at the death of a president ★★

    October 3, 2013

    We may never know who really was involved in the killing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But the opposite poles of the existing theories, cinematic division, stand in clear and livid disagreement. Oliver Stone in "JFK" argued that everybody did it except your mother. And the squishy new drama "Parkland," a wan human-interest procedural focusing on some of the event's lesser-known players, restates the conclusion of the Warren Commission: That Lee Harvey Oswald, lone gunman, flagrant wing nut, acted on his own, and the rest of you conspiracy idiots can just shut up about anti-Castro Cubans and Kennedy-hating Mafiosi and various slithering snakes on the grassy knoll.

  • At home on other side of camera

    September 26, 2013

    ... but what he really wanted to do was direct.

  • 'Blue Caprice': D.C. sniper case seen through a family lens ★★★

    September 26, 2013

    Coolly controlled and extremely well-acted, "Blue Caprice" retells the story of the 2002 Beltway sniper killings perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad, a Louisiana native who dreamed of revenge on the nation, and his informally adopted teenage son, Lee Malvo, a Jamaican-American. This is difficult material, not easy to revisit, no matter how many media-smothered mass shootings we've endured (most recently this month's Washington Navy Yard slaughter) in the interim. Director Alexandre Moors, who grew up a graffiti artist in Paris, cannot possibly explain his subjects' actions in under 90 minutes.

  • Maladroit pioneers right on cusp of digital change ★★★ 1/2

    September 26, 2013

    Very little in the movies is harder to get right than very recent history. "Computer Chess," a fantastically deadpan comedy from the writer-director Andrew Bujalski, gets its chosen corner of the early 1980s very, very right — and on a wee budget, apparently spent on the peerlessly unsightly wristwatches of the day.

  • Performance is a parting gift in 'Enough Said' ★★★

    September 26, 2013

    James Gandolfini died in June at age 51, and it's still a terrible loss, all these breathless 24-hour news cycles later. His final picture, a crime drama called "Animal Rescue," opens next year. Meantime, consider writer-director Nicole Holofcener's "Enough Said" is a fond farewell.

  • 'Don Jon': Where competing fantasies meet ★★★

    September 26, 2013

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a Lothario who spends a tremendous amount of time in thrall to an avalanche of online pornography? It doesn't sound like a date movie, the way "(500) Days of Summer" sounded like one and, in fact, was one.

  • Tasty second helping, not same old leftovers ★★★

    September 26, 2013

    Thanks to the likes of "Ice Age," most animated features rely on a general wash of sarcasm-based meanness atop sequences of hammering, photo-realistically rendered peril. Throw in a rote message of friendship and a reminder of the importance of family before the up-tempo closing credits, and the people will come. Same old thing but louder? Count me in.

  • One foot on the brake in 'Rush' ★★ 1/2

    September 26, 2013

    It's big, brash and dramatically it goes in circles. The first two may be enough for most people, especially if they're into Formula One racing, to overlook the third.

  • 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?

  • Sedaris goes apple picking in 'C.O.G.' ★★ 1/2

    September 19, 2013

    From the man who gave us the witheringly funny "SantaLand Diaries" comes a tale (originally in David Sedaris' book of essays "Naked") of the same man, thinly disguised, at another point in his artist-as-a-young-man journey, picking apples in rural Oregon and learning just how many hypocrites there are on the planet.

  • 'The Immigrant' to open Chicago International Film Festival

    September 19, 2013

    With director and co-writer James Gray in attendance, the period drama “The Immigrant” will open the 49th Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 10 at the Chicago Theatre. It’s the centerpiece of a gala to be dedicated to the late Roger Ebert.

  • Bawdy pleasures of vaudeville celebrated in Siskel fest

    September 19, 2013

    On YouTube, the 21st century version of vaudeville, a mess of huge talents and no-talents, new faces and "New Faces of 1952" alike, fill out a single, enormous bill for our diversionary pleasure and advertisers' prospective profits. People used to go out for variety shows. Now we don't as much.

  • In the hands of a vengeful dad in 'Prisoners' ★★ ★

    September 19, 2013

    Classy trash, "Prisoners" opens with a scene of holy sacrifice, the first of many violent acts sanctified as virtuous — necessary — by an increasingly grotesque narrative. In the Pennsylvania woods, a carpenter played by Hugh Jackman guides his quiet teenage son (Dylan Minnette) in the killing of his first deer. A prayer is uttered. A shot is fired. The carpenter, named Keller Dover, is a true believer in the Lord, and he gets results.

  • Girl and her bike make history in Saudi Arabia in 'Wadjda' ★★ ★

    September 19, 2013

    Bicycles can mean everything in the movies: a livelihood threatened (Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves"), a speedy source of open-air comedy (Jacques Tati's "Jour de Fete"), a means of escape (the recent Dardenne brothers' heartbreaker "The Kid With a Bike"). In "Wadjda," the first narrative feature from Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, the thought of a shiny new bike — something culturally discouraged for use by girls or women in the restrictive Saudi kingdom — energizes every thought in the head of the 10-year-old title character, whose purple-laced Chuck Taylor high-tops are enough to mark her as a rebel.

  • CIFF lineup stacked with gems from previous fests

    September 17, 2013

    Opening Oct. 10 with a title yet to be announced, the 49th Chicago International Film Festival features a laundry list of proven festival favorites, including Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," starring Bruce Dern; the Coen brothers' latest, "Inside Llewyn Davis," starring Oscar Isaac as a disgruntled '60s folkie; the film version of "August: Osage County," adapted by Tracy Letts from his Steppenwolf Theatre-sprung play; and the top prize-winner from the Cannes Film Festival, the lesbian romance "Blue Is the Warmest Color."

  • Road trip packs a funny but trenchant punch ★★ ★

    September 14, 2013

    Since 9/11, Muslims in America have been playing what the comics call "a tough crowd." And these are Muslims who don't work in comedy.

  • 'Maier' doc is worth waiting for

    September 12, 2013

    Amid the red-carpeted premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival, continuing through the weekend, dozens of smaller pictures fight for attention. See what we can do with a camera? We're worthy of attention too. But sometimes a small picture finds a relatively large audience.

  • 'Insidious: Chapter 2' ★★ 1/2

    September 12, 2013

    With the crafty "Insidious" (2011) and this year's exceptional "The Conjuring," director James Wan asserted the reliability and profitability of old-school suggestive horror, haunted-house division, easy on the sadism.

  • 'August: Osage County' premieres at Toronto Film Festival

    September 10, 2013

    Moving from Steppenwolf's stage to the big screen starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, Tribune critic Michael Phillips reports on its transition.

  • '12 Years a Slave' sets Toronto Film Fest ablaze with buzz

    September 8, 2013

    If Hollywood remains the symbolic dream factory, more than ever the Toronto International Film Festival qualifies as the dream factory's biggest buzz saw.

  • A pair of wanna-be emigrants, 90 miles from their dream ★★★

    September 6, 2013

    "It breaks your heart," says one of dozens of vividly drawn residents of Havana, Cuba. The man in question is speaking about an abrupt sexual encounter he's just had. According to writer-director Lucy Mulloy and her swift, restless feature "Una Noche," now at the Siskel Film Center, Havana teems with "nervous desperation," as the narrator of the story puts it, propelling its people forward, around in circles, always looking for the next thing.

  • 'Riddick': Diesel-powered cheesy fun ★★★

    September 6, 2013

    From the dusty annals of a science-fiction franchise belonging to another age, that of "Pitch Black" (2000) and "The Chronicles of Riddick" (2004) and several video game variations, here's a modestly scaled summer picture continuing the legend that time and many moviegoers forgot. And it's fun! Extremely violent, cleverly managed fun, full of eviscerating aliens, Vin Diesel making those little swimmer goggles look sharp and Katee Sackhoff of "Battlestar Galactica" swaggering around as a sexually ambiguous bounty hunter stuck with a bunch of guys on a crummy planet, ruled (more or less) by the escaped prisoner Riddick, whose story is recapped in "Riddick" but there's not much to it, don't worry.

  • Casting for trouble

    September 5, 2013

    Casting a big movie, as Thomas Edison might've said under different career circumstances, is one percent satisfaction and 99 percent aggravation. And the general public is right 100 percent of the time.

  • Amid the chaos of war, conversation, clarity in 'The Patience Stone' ★★★

    September 5, 2013

    For centuries, poets and novelists have refashioned miserable real-life conflicts to their own poetic ends, from the harrowing lament of "The Trojan Women" (Euripides, fifth century B.C.) to the swoony romanticism of "The English Patient" (Michael Ondaatje, late 20th century). In the movies, such allegorical-minded inquiry is less common, and not simply because the medium is relatively young. Cinema, or perceived cinematic taste, encourages make-believe realism more so than deliberately abstracted metaphor.

  • 'Afternoon Delight': Her marriage is a snooze, but new friend is intriguing ★★ 1/2

    September 5, 2013

    Once you prove yourself in a certain kind of broad comedy, as Kathryn Hahn has in the movies and on TV, you spend a fair percentage of your career trying to prove that you can do other things too. In the inexplicably popular "We're the Millers" Hahn brings her usual confident attack to a shrill supporting role. It's welcome, therefore, probably for her and certainly for us, to watch her explore a more bittersweet variety of situations in her first screen lead, in writer-director Jill Soloway's "Afternoon Delight."

  • French comedy displays an expert cast at work ★★★

    August 29, 2013

    Wildly different types of people get together all the time in real life, which makes the phoniness of most romantic comedies all the more frustrating. In the movies it's seldom a matter of an audience believing in realistic-seeming behavior or situations cooked up by the screenwriters and the director. More often, rom-coms require believing just enough of the lie, so that you can give in and let the actors take your mind off the improbabilities. How do they do it? They do it with everything that cannot be taught in drama school: charm, wit, some honest emotion underneath the comedy.

  • The price of all those candid cameras

    August 29, 2013

    Now in theaters, the British thriller "Closed Circuit" is for grown-ups who might enjoy a well-acted thriller based on the premise of omnivorous, omnipresent surveillance technology falling into the wrong hands. The film, like many before it, bemoans the death of privacy as its protagonists wonder if their apartments have been bugged, or visited recently, or if there is any such thing as a confidential moment in 21st century life.

  • When a spouse leaves behind a web of secrets

    August 29, 2013

    Buried in the moral rubble of "The Attack," a fine new political mystery and cunning portrait of a secret-clad marriage, there's an enormous riddle the filmmakers are smart enough to answer without overexplanation, because you never really know people. It's hard enough to know yourself.

  • Sofia's choice in "Getaway" ★ 1/2

    August 28, 2013

    "Getaway" will never be mistaken for a "Fast & Furious" sequel. It's more like "Taken … for a Ride!" Terrible but, in its squealing way, sporadically fun-terrible, it features a glowering Ethan Hawke as a former professional race car driver named Brent Magna … or Brock Magma … or Frack Slaterock … or something like that. Let's call him Magma.

  • 'Saints' has hints of Malick, Altman ★★★

    August 28, 2013

    A nation lousy with unglamorous crime cries out for the fake stuff, at least in song and in the movies. We love our criminals treated with tender regard and a touch of the poet.

  • Someone's watching in 'Closed Circuit' ★★★

    August 26, 2013

    "Closed Circuit," starring Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall as a pair of sleek English defense attorneys who make those Old Bailey wigs look positively haute, opens with security-camera screens, first four, then eight, then 12, then 15, dispassionately recording street activity and anonymous passers-by in London's Borough Market neighborhood. A truck appears on one of the screens. The music signals trouble. A bomb explodes. More than 100 people die.

  • Retrospective wild cards a hell of a find for fest

    August 23, 2013

    At the Music Box Theatre this week: Total darkness. Pitch-black morality tales. Sinister ethical swamps. Nights in the city, shadowy and foggy and chalk-outlined in tension.

  • 2 brothers in search of new lives ★★★

    August 23, 2013

    In the cool, trim French drama "Aliyah," now at Facets, everything good and true folds together with everything diagrammatic in a key scene, at a cafe, when one character draws another character an actual diagram of their relationship. The one with the pen, played by Adele Haenel, is a young Parisian woman, a gentile, falling for the story's protagonist, a Jewish drug dealer portrayed by Pio Marmai, who has some of Eric Bana's charm and intensity.

  • When the voice-over speaks plainly, the heart sings

    August 22, 2013

    Confronted by the alleged thriller "Paranoia" last week, I was struck dumb (and dumber!) by the opening voice-over narration delivered in heavy, stilted tones by Liam Hemsworth, a young actor whose only piece of direction, apparently, was: Talk. Slowly. As if the audience. Was. A bunch. Of dopes.

  • '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).

  • A more expensive draft, but same flat result in 'Drinking Buddies' ★★

    August 21, 2013

    A short glass of 3.2 beer, Joe Swanberg's "Drinking Buddies" has the advantage of a "name" cast that happens also to be talented: Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as employees of a Chicago microbrewery, at work and play; Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick as their significant others, though as in all Swanberg films the significance of all the relationships at hand is up for debate, for grabs and for a halfhearted change of partners.

  • A deftly wielded love of words ★★★ 1/2

    August 15, 2013

    The actress Lake Bell has spent a lot of her screen career in movies such as "What Happens in Vegas" and "No Strings Attached" being better, funnier and truer in semi-disposable supporting roles than the leading players she supported. Then she made a couple of extremely promising short films.

  • A director who feels free to genre-sample

    August 15, 2013

    Six and a half years passed between my first and second David Gordon Green interviews, and in the interim the filmmaker with the nutty checkerboard resume (sensitive indies, idiot-stoner comedies, sensitive idiot-stoner action comedies) became a viable economic force almost despite himself, thanks to the success of "Pineapple Express."

  • In the case of 'Paranoia,' the enemy is within ★★

    August 15, 2013

    There's nothing wrong with "Paranoia" that a stronger director, livelier leading actors and several hundred fewer narrative conveniences wouldn't cure. It's too bad. All year we see R-rated movies crammed with fantasy violence too rough for teenagers yet fiscally dependent on that demographic. Now and then a more "grown-up" picture (ironically and typically rated PG-13) wanders past the studio gates, aimed at a somewhat broader and more seasoned crowd. The "Arbitrage" crowd, let's say: folks who, in this instance, might enjoy seeing Harrison Ford (as a Steve Jobs-type tech powerhouse, about to launch a "game changer" of a smartphone) chewing scenery, discreetly, opposite Gary Oldman (as his protege turned murderous business rival).

  • 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.

  • 'Prince Avalanche' - Out of the fire, a tale on the road to nowhere ★★★ 1/2

    August 15, 2013

    Here's a funny, poignant oddball of a movie, existing on a galaxy far, far away from the likes of "Pacific Rim" or "World War Z" or anything whose computer-generated actions speak louder than words.

  • Paul Schrader crafts a fascinating mess in 'The Canyons' ★★

    August 15, 2013

    Already trolling for customers online, "The Canyons" is a four-auteur folly of considerable interest despite its badness.

  • No iPiphany: Steve Jobs' biopic lacks a hard drive ★★

    August 14, 2013

    Here's what we know from "Jobs," the first and, with luck, the lamer of the two biopics (Aaron Sorkin is working on his own screenplay) about the late Apple computer guru Steve Jobs, played here by Ashton Kutcher. Genius, according to Kutcher's bland performance, is a matter of pursing your lips, pausing, speaking deliberately and arrogantly and reading every line as if you already know the retort, because you are Steve Jobs and therefore an omniscient god. Kutcher has the circular eyewear and the dreamy gait down pat. Each time he serves up a conspicuous, dismissive hand gesture, you think: Yes, I seem to remember seeing the real Jobs doing something like that on camera.

  • 'The Butler' a stimulating tangle ★★ 1/2

    August 14, 2013

    The best scenes in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" — a family farewell at a bus station; a few drinks and a few dangerous glances among friends in an ordinary Washington, D.C., living room — steer clear of the White House and keep a comfortable and freeing distance from the flotilla of celebrity impersonations sailing by.

  • Team effort restores a 'lost' Welles film

    August 8, 2013

    In his first film, an eight-minute 1934 silent titled "The Hearts of Age," a teenage Orson Welles played Death.

  • Salvation for the 99 percent in 'Elysium' ★★★

    August 8, 2013

    Viewed from an aerial narrative perspective, writer-director Neill Blomkamp's 22nd-century-set "Elysium" is about an ex-con factory worker (played by Matt Damon), a man suffering from a radiation dosage strong enough to kill anyone whose name isn't above his movie's title. Max, Damon's character, dedicates an eventful few days on a decrepit, polluted Earth and a fancy gated community in the sky to ensuring legal citizenship and health care coverage for all.

  • A look behind the scenes of an infamous career in 'Lovelace' ★★ 1/2

    August 8, 2013

    How far does a girl have to go to untangle her tingle? This was the discreetly prurient poster question used to sell "Deep Throat" and Linda Lovelace to a mainstream public in 1972. The new biopic "Lovelace," about the grimly exploited porn star born Linda Boreman, stars Amanda Seyfried as the improbable icon whose name became Bob Hope's late-career punch line and a reliable ba-DUM-bum on "The Tonight Show" and a thousand other cultural wellsprings.

  • Imagine the pitch for 'Planes'... ★★

    August 8, 2013

    Scene 1

  • 'The Spectacular Now,' coming-of-age drama proves to be wise, mature ★★★

    August 8, 2013

    "The Spectacular Now" is rare: a coming-of-age movie featuring a teenage couple about whom you actually give a rip.

  • '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.

  • 'The Painting': Secret world of action contained within frames ★★★

    August 2, 2013

    When you're young and even when you're older, the prospect of what lies beyond your street, your neighborhood, your line of vision is a tantalizer. In "The Painting," a French animated feature now at the Siskel Film Center, director Jean-Francois Laguionie and screenwriter Anik Le Ray imagine a world (they're not the first, merely the latest) in which figures in paintings yearn for freedom and where incomplete sketches embark on a quest to confront their creator to ask why he didn't get the job done.

  • In the clutches of comedy's fascinating rhythm

    August 1, 2013

    We all come from somewhere.

  • 'Blue Jasmine' depends on the kindness of Tennessee Williams ★★ 1/2

    July 31, 2013

    The acting is everything in "Blue Jasmine," though Cate Blanchett and company wouldn't have anything to act without writer-director Woody Allen's flagrant revision of "A Streetcar Named Desire." "Best-since" phrases have been flying since Allen's seriocomic exercise opened in New York and Los Angeles: best since "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," best since "Match Point," best since "Crimes and Misdemeanors" a generation ago, even. Well. Certainly it's his best since "Midnight in Paris," two movies ago, which is to say it's better than "To Rome With Love."

  • 'Guns' in sure hands ★★ 1/2

    July 31, 2013

    Taken from a graphic novel, "2 Guns" has this much in common with Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine": They're both about characters hung out to dry. Also, the stars in both films lend panache and a sense of purpose to familiar-seeming material. Beyond that the differences are significant. "Blue Jasmine" is the movie with the old-time jazz on the soundtrack; "2 Guns" is the one with people getting shot in the leg, the arm, the head, the chest or somewhere else, and with Paula Patton in a nude scene that brings a hush of prayerlike gratitude from a mostly male audience.

  • It's not only how you start, it's how you finish

    July 26, 2013

    There's such emphasis on giving a picture a big opening — not in the debut weekend box-office sense of the phrase, but in starting the film itself off with a bang. Often, existing music sets the fuse and seals the deal. Think of the Dick Dale surf guitar blast launching us into the propulsively sleazy environs of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Or the way "Rock Around the Clock" announced a world of social anxiety (such an innocent song today; such an affront to audiences back in 1955) in "Blackboard Jungle." Or "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, setting the tone so swiftly and well (Rosie Perez didn't hurt) at the top of "Do the Right Thing."

  • What a girl wants in 'The To Do List' ★★ 1/2

    July 25, 2013

    Uber-raunchy but pretty interesting as sex comedies go, writer-director Maggie Carey's "The To Do List," set in 1993, stars Aubrey Plaza of "Parks and Recreation" as a Boise, Idaho, high school graduate of sterling academic credentials and a firmly maintained image among her peers as a math whiz and a social zero.

  • SeaWorld exposé, 'Blackfish,' makes a splash ★★★

    July 25, 2013

    Tilikum, the orca at the center of the depressing documentary "Blackfish," has killed three humans and remains, relatively speaking, free — he's an ongoing attraction at SeaWorld Orlando, making the big splash that gets everybody wet. Anyone who has visited a SeaWorld or its equivalents knows the routine.

  • '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.

  • 'Fruitvale's' following an indie template

    July 18, 2013

    "Every time he messed up it was like he was killing the three most important women in his life," says Ryan Coogler, the writer-director of the excellent new drama "Fruitvale Station." He's speaking about Oscar Grant, who in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009, was shot and killed on an Oakland train platform by a transit policeman.

  • 'Girl Most Likely' asks, why go home again? ★★

    July 18, 2013

    Set in Atlantic City and New York City, viewed metaphorically here as Oz and Kansas, respectively, "Girl Most Likely" goes a little bit wrong in nearly every scene, its stridently quirky characters never quite making sense together in the same universe, let alone the same movie.

  • Despite a few laughs, 'RED' sequel's more fury than fun ★★

    July 18, 2013

    "RED 2," the in-one-eye, out-the-other sequel starring Bruce Willis, received a PG-13 for its "pervasive action and violence" and "frenetic gunplay," according to the Motion Picture Association of America's rating description. I love that they went out of their way to add the adjective "frenetic." For the record the best bit in the picture involves no automatic weaponry of any kind, nor that drooling, hollow cliche, recycled here, of ridiculous numbers of empty shell casings hitting the ground in slow motion. No. My favorite thing in the movie is the way co-star and Korean action icon Byung Hun Lee uses his feet of fury to hoist a paint can and send it flying.

  • 'Fruitvale Station' recounts last day of year and life ★★★★

    July 18, 2013

    "Fruitvale Station" is hugely effective meat-and-potatoes moviemaking, and one hell of a feature film debut for writer-director Ryan Coogler.

  • God may forgive, but a critic -- zero stars

    July 18, 2013

    Nicolas Winding Refn's pretty little bore "Only God Forgives" stars the director's "Drive" dreamboat Ryan Gosling, this time speaking less and staring, unblinkingly, more than he did in "Drive."

  • 'Conjuring': Haunting, in all the best ways ★★★ 1/2

    July 16, 2013

    Haunted house movies only work if the people in the house are worth scaring. Sounds stupid, but it's true, although let's be honest: Real estate is inherently frightening. You put all that money in and only Satan knows if it'll turn out to be a decent investment, or if you'll be able to afford what it takes to repair any undisclosed matters of basement seepage. The quirks and creaks of an old house are always good for gallows humor or a cold shot of dread. As I write this the fridge in our new/old residence is softly moaning like a distant foghorn. Is it the way the appliance sits on a slightly askew kitchen floor? Is it demonic?

  • 'Twenty Feet From Stardom': Backup vocalists get their turn in spotlight ★★★★

    July 12, 2013

    The joyous music documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom" is the opposite of Diana Vreeland's famous comment about Hitler's mustache ("It was just wrong, you know?"). Just about everything in this movie is right. And anybody who gives a rip about unsung heroines of popular music and giving credit when credit's overdue had better come up with a good excuse not to see it.

  • 'Pacific Rim': The folly of men, with visual panache ★★★

    July 11, 2013

    The Summer of Loud continues with "Pacific Rim," full of sound and fury signifying nothing more than a monster movie in full roar. It's closer to the hammering "Transformers" aesthetic than expected. Yet the weirdness around the edges saves it from impersonality.

  • Where's a technician when a script throws a rod?

    July 4, 2013

    I never thought I'd encounter a clumsier western goof than the "Wild Wild West." But if the movies teach us anything, it's to never say "never." Not ever. Now "The Lone Ranger" has come thundering down the trail.

  • 'The Wall': A great, many-layered fable of nature ★★★ 1/2

    July 3, 2013

    In "The Wall," a high achievement indeed, the unexplained, invisible, impenetrable force field surrounding the protagonist becomes an unshakable fact of nature amid spectacular Austrian mountain country.

  • 'The Way, Way Back': Road tale improves when it drifts from plot ★★ 1/2

    July 3, 2013

    Sam Rockwell: a lot of fun. He's a rarity in American movies, a serious and careful actor — the essence of utility, able to support and enliven all sorts of material — who is comfortable just kicking back and enjoying himself if the role calls for it.

  • 'Despicable Me 2': Carell helps calm cheap scares ★★ 1/2

    July 3, 2013

    Older kids and their minion guardians could do worse than "Despicable Me 2," the sequel to the 2010 smash about a supervillain turned adoptive parent. On the other hand, reports of the movie's charm have been greatly exaggerated. It's a reasonably efficient baby sitter, done up in 3-D computer-generated animation of no special distinction. But the first one's weird mixture of James Bond bombast and hyperactive pill-shaped Minions (the protagonist Gru's goggle-clad helpers) had the element of surprise in its favor.

  • 'The Lone Ranger': Western is completely at sea ★

    July 3, 2013

    Not that Johnny Depp did them for free, but Disney Enterprises Inc. owes Depp and his mock-heroic portrayal of the knave Jack Sparrow a great deal for the financial success of the four "Pirates of the Caribbean" pictures. You know how it is with four hits: There's always the threat of a fifth. Meanwhile, Disney, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski have moved on to another quarter-billion-dollar gamble.

  • 'A Band Called Death': A group ahead of its time with one heck of a name ★★★

    June 28, 2013

    Now streaming online and playing select theaters nationally, the engaging music documentary "A Band Called Death" is the story of a comeback and a band ahead of its time.

  • 'Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner': An old friend picks up new charm ★★★

    June 28, 2013

    Those who discovered "My Dinner With Andre" in their college years, when the allure of far-flung conversation over a meal was something new and otherworldly, can never forget the wonderful simplicity and rightness of that 1981 film. In it, experimental theater director and sometime actor Andre Gregory played a version of himself — a restless seeker, a fragile being, a man who loved to rehearse a play forever, or nearly forever — opposite his friend and colleague Wallace Shawn's stoic rationalist.

  • 'Unfinished Song': Emotions work best when presented with subtlety ★★ 1/2

    June 28, 2013

    The fine line between "feel good" and "lay off, will ya?" becomes very fine indeed in "Unfinished Song," a shrewdly performed, slightly galling heartwarmer shot in the northeast corner of England.

  • '100 Bloody Acres': Spoof mines blood and guts for organic laughs ★★★

    June 28, 2013

    The horror comedy "100 Bloody Acres" spews viscera, blood and colloquialisms such as "wang-dang" and "pongy" all over the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, where the brothers Colin and Cameron Cairnes filmed this jaunty debut feature, a hit at the recent Slamdance adjunct of the Sundance Film Festival.

  • 'The Heat': Bullock, McCarthy salvage buddy movie ★★★

    June 28, 2013

    With so few women afforded the opportunity to steer the course of a movie — any movie, on screen or off — even a formulaic vehicle such as "The Heat" arrives as a surprise and a relief.

  • New arm of Music Box Films to feature corpses, and lots of them

    June 27, 2013

    Scroll through the dozens of movie titles available through Chicago-based Music Box Films (musicboxfilms.com) and you get a heady sense of how many different directions one specialty and foreign-language distributor can go, more or less simultaneously.

  • An engaging, indulgent look at a filmmaker's obsession

    June 22, 2013

    In 2006 filmmaker, artist and musician Terence Nance made a dreamy, yearning short film while at New York University titled "How Would U Feel?" in which he plays himself, or a version of himself, puzzling over his feelings for his latest and maybe deepest romantic attachment.

  • The best Italian actor (Toni Servillo) you don't know — yet

    June 21, 2013

    When the Italians say "cinema," it sounds better than when the Americans say it. CHEE-nay-ma. Doesn't that sound better?

  • '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."

  • Pixar's dull, conventional 'Monsters University' ★★

    June 20, 2013

    What is Pixar doing, settling for adequacy?

  • '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.

  • Student's short film predicts a long career

    June 1, 2013

    One of the best films I saw at Cannes earlier this month lasts all of 21 minutes and was shot last summer in Chicago by an Iranian writer-director of quiet but enormous talent.

  • 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.

  • Lesbian love story takes top prize at Cannes

    May 26, 2013

    Cannes Film Festival jury president Steven Spielberg said the jury's decision to award the festival's top prize to lesbian love story "Blue Is the Warmest Color" was not political even as thousands protested France's legalization of same-sex marriage in Paris.

  • Predictions reach high pitch for Cannes awards

    May 26, 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.

  • Chicago film student Anahita Ghazvinizadeh wins Cannes prize

    May 25, 2013

    CANNES, France — A sharp, nearly perfect 21-minute movie about a 6th-grade girl caught in a tug of war between divorced parents, “Needle” was shot last summer in Chicago by School of the Art Institute film student Anahita Ghazvinizadeh.

  • 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.”

  • Rain makes 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg' a Cannes no-brainer

    May 17, 2013

    It’s tempting here, at the bountiful Cannes Film Festival, to bypass the competition titles, if only for a couple of hours, and avail yourself of something you already know you adore.

  • 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.

  • Trip along 'Waterwalk' lacks depth ★ 1/2

    May 10, 2013

    Based on Steve Faulkner's memoir, with director Robert Cicchini playing the author and former obituary writer embarking on the trip of a lifetime with his adopted high school senior son, "Waterwalk" finds Faulkners Steve and Justin retracing the route taken in 1671 by Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet, from the Upper Michigan Peninsula to Mark Twain country — St. Louis, Mo.

  • 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.

  • 'In the House': Adaptation benefits from a French accent

    May 10, 2013

    The easy, practiced, nothing-to-it interplay between Fabrice Luchini (master of the injured look, whether the insult was real or imagined) and Kristin Scott Thomas (mistress of dry, high comedy and imperious confidence, even when her characters are falling apart) is reason enough to see the crafty comedy-drama "In the House."

  • '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.

  • 'Hava Nagila' a song that's a party in itself ★★★

    May 2, 2013

    Born in Ukraine, raised in Palestine, the toast of the Catskills and the inevitable guest star at countless Jewish celebrations the world over, the song "Hava Nagila" has pulled many a goy (and I'd like to thank Dave Fantle for letting me crash his wedding) into a hora for a few delirious minutes.

  • '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.

  • 'Renoir': A family of artists, lovers and rivals ★★★

    April 26, 2013

    The line sounds absurdly melodramatic, but it's delivered in a steely tone. "You'll end up in the old man's bed. Like my mother. Like all of them." Played by a taciturn Thomas Doret, the younger son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir knows the score. He has seen the painter's models, with or without underthings, come and go, like so much French laundry.

  • '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.

  • The signature shot and its creator

    April 18, 2013

    You know the shot.

  • '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.

  • '42': Jackie Robinson has to share the spotlight with Branch Rickey ★★ 1/2

    April 15, 2013

    "42," writer-director Brian Helgeland's carefully tended portrait of Jackie Robinson, treats its now-mythic Brooklyn Dodger with respect, reverence and love. But who's in there, underneath the mythology? Has the movie made Robinson, a man who endured so much in the name of breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier and then died before his 54th birthday, something less than three-dimensionally human?

  • 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.

  • Follow-up a beautiful muddle by an interesting filmmaker

    April 13, 2013

    A movie on which to float, rather than park your easily expressed opinions, "Upstream Color" is a river conveying a kind of love story involving two lost souls. Comparisons to Terrence Malick and "The Tree of Life," among other Malicks, have abounded ever since director-writer-co-star Shane Carruth's elliptical venture premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

  • 'Trance': Twisty plot concealed somewhere in the mist ★★ 1/2

    April 12, 2013

    What can I tell you about the what-the … ? puzzler known as "Trance" that avoids spoilers while conveying some sense of its what-the … ?-ness?

  • Words, images, music, courtesy of Bert Stern

    April 12, 2013

    The soul-filling and gorgeous concert film "Jazz on a Summer's Day," shot during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, started out as something else — a fiction feature, with jazz and Newport, R.I., as the backdrops, according to photographer and fledgling filmmaker Bert Stern.

  • Redford, plot defy time ★★ 1/2

    April 11, 2013

    Some actors are lucky. In the third act of their careers, they become dream versions of their own parents, or grandparents. Paul Newman did that. So did Katharine Hepburn. We got to know them, and love them, at one age; then, against every Hollywood dictum, they were allowed to mature, to mellow, as they acquired a few more years. They weren't competing with their iconic youthful images so much as putting our memories of those early years to good use, as the crow's feet, slowed gait and thinning hair came along and changed them. It's a privilege to watch an actor age gracefully in the movies; so few are given the chance or the roles.

  • 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.

  • 'Wrong': A comic satire goes, well, not right ★★

    April 2, 2013

    Quirk, like charm, tends to work better on screen when it's not sold by weight and volume. In "Rubber," the previous exercise in precious deadpan surrealism from French filmmaker and musician Quentin Dupieux, a murderous tire with telekinetic powers served as a protagonist only a Goodyear stockholder could love.

  • A true story within 'Reality' premise ★★★

    March 29, 2013

    It's a miracle "Reality" works at all. Tales of ordinary people consumed by fame-mongering desires (in this case, the dream of joining the cast of "Grande Fratello," the Italian version of "Big Brother") have grown as common as reality TV itself. But director Matteo Garrone's unexpectedly touching treatment is worth seeing, even if you don't know the story of the casting of the central role.

  • '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.

  • 'City of Fear': A nuclear-age noir to savor ★★★ 1/2

    March 22, 2013

    There's an antidote for this bizarre March cold spell we're having: an equally bizarre warm front known as Cobalt 60 — the radioactive time bomb in a canister coveted by the killer played by Vince Edwards in the 1959 Columbia Pictures noir "City of Fear."

  • 'The Girl': Indie's message hard to miss ★★

    March 21, 2013

    Harsh conditions, tough choices, improbably modelesque cheekbones. In writer-director David Riker's drama, Abbie Cornish plays the poverty-line Texas mother of a preteen. The boy has been placed by Social Services with a foster parent, until this big-box-store minimum-wager can prove herself a fit guardian.

  • Mitzi Gaynor, cockeyed optimist

    March 21, 2013

    Mitzi Gaynor's opening line: "Call me Mitzi."

  • 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.

  • 'Burt Wonderstone': When funny people fall flat

    March 14, 2013

    It's a testament above all to comic branding — the commercial value of familiar, well-liked names and faces. But with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" as the latest example, these days we're often dealing with a certain kind of formulaic star-driven screen comedy, one that squeaks by with an audience and becomes, by profit standards, a hit.

  • '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.

  • 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.

  • 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."

  • 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.

  • Readers share ratings, quibbles

    February 28, 2013

    The awards season has run its course. It's always a relief to see it in the rearview mirror. Even the winners feel that way.

  • '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.

  • '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.

  • '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.

  • 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."

  • 'Little Fugitive': A long-ago New York opens up to brothers ★★★★

    February 21, 2013

    The everyday slings, arrows and casual glories of childhood typically turn to mush, or to resistible pathos, in the movies. Now and then, though, you find a "Little Fugitive."

  • 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.”

  • 'Lore': For 5 children, war's over, but battles loom ★★★

    February 15, 2013

    "Lore," from Australian director Cate Shortland, proceeds like a long-ago fairy tale, dark-hued, grounded in real-life 20th-century horrors.

  • 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.

  • When skinny-dipping didn't violate the Code ★★★ 1/2

    January 31, 2013

    In the early sound era, especially between 1930 and mid-1934, Hollywood movies enjoyed a freedom of expression — salacious, violent, often outrageous expression — we know today as the pre-Code era. The film industry's self-appointed watchdog agency, the Production Code Administration, looked the other way for a while, until the Catholic Legion of Decency and other forces leveraged a cleanup. Before that, however, the studios managed to sneak some hints, at least, of the roughed-up desperation of the Depression onto the nation's screens.

  • 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.)

  • 'West of Memphis': Trio still seeking justice ★★★

    January 17, 2013

    For astonishing injustice put to rest, at long last, the moviegoer has at least two options. One: "Les Miserables." And two: "West of Memphis," a strong, blood-boiling documentary from director Amy Berg, who made the similarly fine "Deliver Us From Evil," about a defrocked Catholic priest's appalling crimes and those of his protectors.

  • 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.

  • Love and death shine through in 'Amour' ★★★★

    January 9, 2013

    We know how "Amour" will end, at least for one of its characters.

  • 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).

  • 'Les Miz' backlash: Do you hear the people sting?

    December 27, 2012

    "When was the last time you stood up and applauded a movie?" Filmgoers of a certain age may recall the question posed by the posters for the revenge drama "Walking Tall." That 1973 hit, directed by Phil Karlson, featured Joe Don Baker as the Tennessee cleaner-upper who took care of business with a 4-foot wooden club.

  • 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.

  • 'Django Unchained' is Tarantino, undisciplined ★★

    December 24, 2012

    In "Django Unchained," which has its moments of devilish glee in and among dubious wallows in numbing slaughter, writer-director-trash compactor Quentin Tarantino delivers a mashup of several hundred of his favorite movies, all hanging, like barnacles, onto a story of a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) and his bounty-hunter savior (Christoph Waltz) out to rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington) from a venal plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The plantation's "house slave" (Samuel L. Jackson) has no divided loyalties in the eventual standoff.

  • Timing is everything for 'Jack Reacher' ★★ 1/2

    December 20, 2012

    Considered outside the context of the bloody December so far, "Jack Reacher" does its work sleekly and well. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie filmed the adaptation of the Lee Child book "One Shot" (one of many Reacher adventures) in Pittsburgh, with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel lending the project a handsome, burnished sheen.

  • 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."

  • 'Les Miserables': Looks like the front row ★ 1/2

    December 19, 2012

    I wouldn't be surprised if "Les Miserables" became the most popular movie musical since "Mamma Mia!" On stage, both diversions were, and are, easy to enjoy in their diametrically opposed ways. "Mamma Mia!" revels in Greece, glitter and ABBA; "Les Miz" wallows in France, sewers, good, evil and revolutionaries with fabulous hair.

  • 'Guilt Trip' with a funny lady -- and son ★★★

    December 18, 2012

    Well, it's a masterpiece compared with "Little Fockers," the last movie featuring Barbra Streisand.

  • 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.

  • Bleak horror show 'Citadel' makes solo parenting a chore ★★ 1/2

    December 13, 2012

    The Irish horror film "Citadel" makes solo parenthood an exceptional challenge, what with the mutant, hooded, devil-eyed, baby-stealing thugs running around some of the bleakest dwellings imaginable.

  • 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.

  • Anticipating the Oscars: These might contend

    December 6, 2012

    My Academy Awards predictions — and honestly, why not start now, a month before the nominations are announced? — carry an odor akin to Paul Rudd's cologne in "Anchorman": 60 percent of the time, they're right every time.

  • Spiritual themes get a patient, observational treatment in 'New Jerusalem' ★★★

    December 6, 2012

    In the movies, evangelical Christians are seldom treated as anything other than blinkered bundles of piety, or worse. So in "New Jerusalem," it's something of a shock to see the character played by Will Oldham (an actor-musician who performs, in his other career, as Bonnie "Prince" Billy) rendered as recognizably humane in his well-meaning imperfections.

  • 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.

  • 'United in Anger': Documentary explores history of AIDS fight ★★★

    November 29, 2012

    We've arrived at a rich and instructive political moment. The president and his adversaries continue to negotiate an uneasy driving lesson to avoid plunging off the fiscal cliff while saving face. Moviegoers are turning out in heartening numbers for Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," which sacrifices chronological breadth (the film covers only a few months in the life of the 16th president) for a terrifically observed examination of Lincoln's political wiles, and how they were consistently underestimated by those who liked slavery just the way it was.

  • 'Upstream': A treasure, once thought lost, screens Wednesday

    November 29, 2012

    This Wednesday, thanks to the good folks at the Northwest Chicago Film Society, a John Ford film that hasn't been shown in Chicago since 1927 returns to the big screen. This "lovable mutt" of a comedy, as described by the NCFS' Kyle Westphal, is called "Upstream," a late silent era Fox production. And until 2010, when it turned up in promising condition in the vaults of the New Zealand Film Archive, it was considered a lost picture, like so many thousands of cinematic fatalities done in by the dangers and vulnerabilities of nitrate film stock.

  • 'Les Miz' isn't the only film to catch its singers actually singing

    November 29, 2012

    Let's call this week's column Singing Pictures.

  • '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.

  • 6 stories take shape in 'Tales of the Night': ★★★½

    November 22, 2012

    The shadow-puppet animation of French filmmaker Michel Ocelot, who brought us the pearly delights of "Azur & Asmar," presents a wonderful paradox. The designs do all the work for you, casting spell after spell with their beauty, denying you the facial and textural detail customarily part of any animation expert's arsenal. You find yourself peering into his creations, searching in vain for a nose, some arm hair, whatever. Ocelot affords his silhouette creations pairs of eyes, but the rest in the area of the face is blackness — all the better, however, to soak in the multihued dazzlements of his folk tale's African, Aztec, Middle Ages and Caribbean settings.

  • Legendary director's foibles viewed through a gentle lens in 'Hitchcock': ★ ★½

    November 22, 2012

    Despite bringing Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein into the proceedings as a fanciful one-man Greek chorus, haunting Alfred Hitchcock's dreams as he prepares the Gein-inspired "Psycho," the biopic "Hitchcock" presents a gentle and forgiving view of Hitchcock's penchant for playing Svengali and, depending on the source being cited, possible thwarted Lothario to more than one leading lady.

  • 'The Comedy' needs better material: ★

    November 22, 2012

    If it weren't for Kate Lyn Sheil, who has a couple of scenes as a blase Brooklyn waitress inexplicably ending up in the protagonist's bed, "The Comedy" might well have qualified as the worst film of 2012. This portrait of the desultory white male as failed improviser stars Tim Heidecker, one half of the semipopular duo with Eric Wareheim (on TV, "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!"; on film, "Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie"). Wareheim shows up here as well, as one of the Heidecker character's PBR-swilling pals. But it's Heidecker's show, intended to take things in a darker direction that he has traveled before.

  • Nothing says Thanksgiving like 'Dawn of the Dead'

    November 22, 2012

    My favorite Thanksgiving movie? "Dawn of the Dead," the 1978 George A. Romero follow-up to his zombie paean of a decade earlier, "Night of the Living Dead." Here's why.

  • Sea changes in 'Life of Pi' ★ ★ ★

    November 20, 2012

    "Life of Pi," Yann Martel's beautiful little book about a young man and the sea and a tiger, has transformed into a big, imposing and often lovely 3-D experience. If the results are less about poetry and wonder than the digital and cinematic engineering designed to evoke those things, with this story — so very, very unlikely to succeed in any other medium — "good" is achievement enough.

  • Homeland insecurity in 'Red Dawn' ★ ★

    November 20, 2012

    For a while there, the invading army in the "Red Dawn" remake was Chinese. Then the producers decided to change the enemy into North Koreans, backed by a Russian or two for old times' sake, by way of an opening sequence explaining the geopolitical and economic crises that have rendered America ripe for attack. We see, among others, Vice President Joe Biden mouthing words of warning while implicitly standing for the United States of Appeasement. Elsewhere in the remake the emblems on the tanks and such have been digitally de-Chinesed, so as to ensure better box-office results in the lucrative Chinese market. And to blazes with North Korea.

  • 'Bestiare': Animal life, contemplated ★★★

    November 15, 2012

    As I write this, my son is playing "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2" in the next room. And the film I just finished watching, "Bestiare," a stoical, contemplative look-see (non-fiction by category, but not really a documentary) filmed in and around a Quebec animal park, represents the polar opposite of anything in the culture with the word "ops" in it.

  • Set an evening aside for Goodman's 'Matinee'

    November 15, 2012

    John Goodman is everywhere right now. Such has been the case for this popular actor for a long time, but at the multiplexes presently he's a valuable ensemble member in two worthwhile pictures, "Argo" (in which he plays a real-life Hollywood makeup artist working, on the down-low, for the CIA) and "Flight" (he's the aiding-and-abetting drug dealer). We take character men like Goodman for granted sometimes, simply because they're never long between jobs.

  • Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields featured by Northwest Chicago Film Society

    November 15, 2012

    The further we're pulled into the 21st century, the further we travel from the screen comedians of the early sound era. When I was growing up, all sorts of films (great, terrible, in between) featuring the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields and others turned up regularly on, among other stations, WGN-TV. It would've been unthinkable for a comedy nerd, a budding cinephile or even a casual lover of movies not to know the majority of these comics' output.

  • By the finale, 'Twilight' vampire series is mostly anemic ★ 1/2

    November 15, 2012

    The fifth and very likely final "Twilight" picture boasts one moment, perhaps three or four seconds in length, so delightfully intense and uncharacteristically juicy that the rest of the film — most of the rest of the whole series, in fact — looks pretty pale by comparison. Not vampire pale. Paler.

  • 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.

  • Along the Abraham Lincoln spectrum

    November 9, 2012

    Opening this week, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is the latest screen incarnation of the 16th U.S. president's life, in this case the final few months of that substantial life, with the Civil War near the end and the passage of the 13th Amendment foremost on the great man's mind.

  • '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.

  • 'Older Children': Chicago's the setting for some universal characters ★★★

    November 8, 2012

    The makers of the Chicago-sprung indie "Older Children" have not bitten off more than they can chew: The film barely runs an hour in length, and in his group portrait of married and single friends — variously rudderless, self-protective and looking for something more — writer-director Duncan Riddell maintains a neat, well-paced familiarity.

  • A brief look at a constricted life in 'Francine' ★★★

    November 8, 2012

    We first see Melissa Leo as the title character in "Francine" in a prison shower, readying herself for release into the outside world. This is a film of few words. The documentary-trained team of Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, working on their first fiction feature here, allow small, incremental moments to add up. Or not.

  • 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.

  • 'Skyfall': James Bond still going at 50 ★★★ 1/2

    November 6, 2012

    Early on in his stage career, director Sam Mendes worked with Dame Judi Dench on a production of "The Cherry Orchard." Now they have reteamed for a slightly less Chekhovian project: the 23rd official James Bond film (24th if you count the Sean Connery off-brander "Never Say Never Again"). It's the seventh featuring Dench as M, Bond's steely handler, and more to the box office point, the third featuring Daniel Craig as 007, the licensed and, in fact, bonded killer.

  • 'Silver Linings Playbook' director David O. Russell returns to themes of neighborhood, family

    November 2, 2012

    Opening Nov. 21, "Silver Linings Playbook" is the latest teeming organism from writer and director David O. Russell, whose films include "Flirting With Disaster," "Three Kings" and, two years ago, "The Fighter," for which Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won Academy Awards in the supporting performance categories.

  • '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.

  • Siskel screenings honor a man of many moods

    November 1, 2012

    Together, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (as they were never billed; always it was the other way around) constituted every conceivable and contradictory image of American manhood, never fixed, forever morphing into something else. Dweeb. Ladykiller. Infant. Country-club smoothie. The kid; the chimp. The adult; the shark. Jekyll. Hyde. Comedy. Singing. Pathos. Slapstick. Animal aggression. I still remember the rageful vein in Lewis' neck one night, in the mid-1980s, responding poorly to something going flooey with the sound during his nightclub act at the Carlton Celebrity Room in suburban Minneapolis. Take Dino out of the equation, and Lewis brought all those roiling personality clashes on his own.

  • '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.

  • For film fest, is 'good enough' good enough?

    October 29, 2012

    My own feelings about the Chicago festival, the 48th edition of which concluded Thursday, are necessarily shaped by individual taste as well as equally subjective notions of relevance. Does the event matter? Is it as vital as it could be, should be? Tough queries, tougher to answer.

  • 'Keep the Lights On': A stormy New York tale of love and addiction ★★★

    October 26, 2012

    There's a nerve-racking sequence set in the late 1990s in co-writer and director Ira Sachs' "Keep the Lights On" when Erik, the Danish expatriate filmmaker living in Manhattan played by Thure Lindhardt, is on the telephone, trying to extract information from his doctor regarding the results of an HIV blood test.

  • 'The Wise Kids': A beautifully nuanced look at faith, its loss ★★★ 1/2

    October 25, 2012

    Writer-director Stephen Cone's wonderfully acted second feature, "The Wise Kids," now in a weeklong run at the Siskel Film Center, speaks softly but casts a lingering and empathetic spell, charting a few months in the closely observed lives of several graduating high school seniors, all of whom belong to the same Charleston, S.C., Baptist congregation.

  • '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.

  • Ensemble overwhelmed by one member in 'For Ellen' ★★ 1/2

    October 18, 2012

    Some actors see themselves as soloists required, by performance law, to spend time acting near, around or alongside their colleagues on camera, never quite adapting their strategy to that of their scene partners. They're too busy doing their own thing. Other performers bring to the job a different and more generous approach.

  • '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.

  • 'House I Live In' explores war on drugs and its toll on America ★★★

    October 12, 2012

    Taking on a hellacious societal problem, a documentary filmmaker benefits from finding a narrow path leading to the heart of that problem — a specific angle, an image, a detail, that opens up to the wider world and a host of provocations.

  • Highlights of Chicago film fest travel far from Hollywood

    October 11, 2012

    In "Gimme the Loot," a loose, disarming bit of larceny — and one of the bright offerings of the 48th Chicago International Film Festival — director Adam Leon's Bronx-bred characters live to tag. Teenage graffiti artists on the run, the friends dream of the day they'll make their mark on the pop-up New York Mets home-run logo at Citi Field.

  • 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?

  • History of the movies journey worth taking

    October 6, 2012

    In recent weeks the nervous future of the movies, as a business and as an occasional, accidental art form, has been subjected to unusually heavy scrutiny and speculation online and in print. This comes after an Oscar-sanctified movie year in which nostalgic odes to film history ("The Artist," "Hugo") raged against the storm of indifference (those damn kids and their iPhones).

  • Undercover doc lacks clarity

    October 6, 2012

    Who is the ambassador? He's not a real ambassador. He's a fake ambassador, a persona adopted by Danish documentarian Mads Brugger, the man behind this sardonic investigative essay on the corrupt blood diamond trade centered in the Central African Republic.

  • '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."

  • Chicago International Film Festival gets a digital face-lift

    October 5, 2012

    The biggest changes afoot in this year's Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), the 48th edition, are on the screen, yet they're not part of the programming. As the worldwide cinema industries push actual film — meaning celluloid — into the past or off to the hardy margins of cinephilia, digital projection has become dominant. Filmmakers and audiences can debate the aesthetics and the creative implications of such a shift.

  • 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."

  • 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.

  • Saying yes to franchise that started with 'Dr. No'

    September 27, 2012

    'Dr. No' Has Suave Hero, Lots of Girls.

  • 'The Eye Has to Travel': Fashion icon/editor Diana Vreeland remembered fondly for her self-made life ★★★

    September 27, 2012

    For an improbable number of years across the 20th Century, Harper's Bazaar fashion editor and Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland turned every bauble, bangle and bright shiny bead she personally approved on her publishers' expense accounts into something faaaaabulous and photographable, bringing the world Twiggy and other exotic creatures, operating (as she told at least one writer) under the assumption that an editor isn't "supposed to give the people what they want. They're supposed to give them what they don't know they want yet."

  • 'Head Games' assesses the price of football ★★ 1/2

    September 27, 2012

    Based on the 2006 book of the same title, Steve James' wide-ranging documentary wonders how much we're willing to gamble in our kids' pursuit of sports, to say nothing of the adults, particularly regarding the concussion magnet known as football. "Head Games," the book, was written by one of the film's focal points, onetime Harvard defensive tackle Chris Nowinski. Between the hits he took on the football field and the walloping he endured in professional wrestling, Nowinski knows first-hand the risks — and the underreported, often cavalierly dismissed incidents of brain injury — he experienced in the name of spectator combat.

  • '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.

  • Time-traveling 'Looper' starts strong, remains intriguing ★★★

    September 27, 2012

    For about an hour "Looper" really cooks. Its second half is more of a medium boil, and less fun. But watching it, I realized how few commercial entertainments hold up straight through to the end-point.

  • Community succeeds in facing down a killer in 'How to Survive a Plague' ★★★ 1/2

    September 20, 2012

    From a terrible epidemic comes a beautiful documentary. More than any other nonfiction work I've seen, with far-reaching intelligence and grace, David France's "How to Survive a Plague" relays what happened in the early years of AIDS. And what didn't happen in terms of federal dollars spent on drug research.

  • '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.

  • 'The Master' is too much, but just right ★★★★

    September 20, 2012

    “I need to get the lighting right,” mutters the man with the camera in “The Master,” one of the few truly vital and unruly American films in recent years.

  • '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.

  • 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?

  • 'The Connection': '60s shocker returns, with emeritus status ✭✭✭

    September 14, 2012

    Two time capsules in one, "The Connection" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 and received a scant, notorious U.S. release in 1962, its rough language (for the time) causing all sorts of censorship troubles.

  • 'The Master' offers a cinematic world unlike any other

    September 14, 2012

    Already open in New York and Los Angeles and going into general release Friday, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's strange, audacious drama "The Master" evokes a feverish state of mind more than a conventional movie, though its story can be described easily enough.

  • Digital or film? Discuss

    September 14, 2012

    I really wish I didn't have to work Monday night because downtown at the Gene Siskel Film Center a panel discussion exploring the future of celluloid film — and the domination of digital images as they increasingly dictate our moviegoing experience — convenes following the 6 p.m. Monday screening of "Side by Side."

  • 'Family Portrait in Black and White': A haven has its heartaches ★★★ 1/2

    September 13, 2012

    It sounds like a frontal assault on the tear ducts: a documentary about a formidable Ukrainian foster mother whose yellow Crocs belie a steely controlling streak, and her various orphan kids, mostly of biracial parentage. But "Family Portrait in Black and White" steers clear of sentimentality, heading instead toward more complicated and resonant matters of racism and the mixed blessing (based on the film's evidence) that is Olga Nenya, the woman at the center.

  • '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's Hollywood juggernaut can't swamp indie pleasures

    September 10, 2012

    In "Argo," one of the leanest satisfactions of this year's massive Toronto International Film Festival, director and star Ben Affleck anchors a movie based on the true story about how Central Intelligence Agency operative Tony Mendez faked his way into Iran following the 1979 hostage crisis posing as a film producer scouting locations for a Canadian science-fiction film called "Argo." Under that cover story, Mendez engineered the rescue of six American hostages, themselves posing as part of the fake film crew.

  • 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.

  • 'Alps': 'Dogtooth' follow-up falls short ★★

    September 7, 2012

    Methodical and hideously funny in its depiction of a bourgeois family of grown children being raised in isolation, learning to make sense of a patriarchal nightmare, "Dogtooth" came from the Greek stage and film director Yorgos Lanthimos. It walloped a lot of adventurous moviegoers with a taste for jet-black comedy and ended up with an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language picture.

  • 'Green': Jealousy invades a garden, once again ★★★ 1/2

    September 7, 2012

    A witchy little gem, Sophia Takal's "Green" dives headlong into the state, the swamp and the stew of jealousy, that reliably malignant power source in so many relationships.

  • Toronto film fest opens with shows of force

    September 6, 2012

    Immersing yourself in a major film festival means more than getting your feet wet. In the screening time it takes to experience two films, perhaps the very first two you see across several days, your perceptions are scrambled in the best possible fashion.

  • '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!"

  • To 'Compliance' director, it comes down to trust

    August 31, 2012

    Writer-director Craig Zobel's feature film debut, the 2007 road comedy "Great World of Sound," followed two unscrupulous record-company representatives on a talent search that leads to a moral reckoning. Five years later Zobel has given us another tale of deceit, this one a lot harsher: "Compliance," based on the squirmy true story (dozens of incidents, in fact) of a prank caller masquerading as a police officer.

  • Coaxing film from a former steel plant

    August 30, 2012

    "I used to spend summers with Uncle Nick as a kid," Pissios, a former real estate developer, tells me. He hung around the Cinespace Toronto soundstages. "That's how this whole thing happened. A few years ago, I was building condominiums by the United Center." Then came the mortgage and housing crises and the bad economic weather. Pissios went to Toronto for a wedding and saw his Uncle Nick. "And he said, 'How's things going?' I told him, 'Not so good. It's slow now.' And he said, 'We've always talked about opening up a studio in Chicago. Let's test the waters. Start lookin' around.'"

  • 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.

  • As a 1920s ghost buster, Hall rounds up the chills in 'The Awakening' ★★½

    August 30, 2012

    Photographed in a particularly brooding corner of Scotland, set in a boarding school for the exceptionally pale and haunted, "The Awakening" got a "whatever" reception in its British release. Certainly you can poke a hundred holes in it: The explanation of the plot makes sense on an emotional level while making hash of logic and plausibility matters, and the co-writer and director Nick Murphy has only a fair-to-middling flair for composing a shot wherein a live human is suddenly a-frighted by a specter. Too often even a casual moviegoer can predict, from the length and framing of such moments: Yes, the ghost will appear just to the right of center, in approximately … now.

  • 'Compliance' ★ ★ ★ : When a stranger calls at work

    August 30, 2012

    The very antonym of "fun," writer-director Craig Zobel's new film "Compliance" is one of the toughest sits of the movie year 2012. But it's an uncompromising and, in its way, honorable drama built upon a prank call that goes on and on, getting worse and worse for the people on the other end of the line. Zobel's question is simple: How could this have happened?

  • '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.

  • 'Patang': Emotions float above a visit home ★★★

    August 23, 2012

    The setup is as cross-culturally durable as anything in Chekhov or Ozu or Kiarostami. A man returns to his hometown after being away for a long spell. Tensions arise within the family. New attachments form; old stresses emerge. The surroundings, the buildings, the people look comforting to the prodigal son, but strange too.

  • '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.

  • 'Premium Rush': A daredevil really delivers ★★★ 1/2

    August 23, 2012

    "Premium Rush" is great fun — nimble, quick, the thinking person's mindless entertainment. In the same week of "Hit & Run," which offers only meager escapism in a high-velocity realm, director and co-writer David Koepp's thriller about a bicycle messenger pedaling for his life, up and down and across Manhattan, delivers a bracing corrective. On two wheels, only! Four's for losers.

  • '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."

  • 'Sparkle': In Houston's swan song, a pleasing debut for Sparks ★★★

    August 16, 2012

    Warmly remembered corn, featuring some fantastic performers including Lonette McKee and Mary Alice, the first "Sparkle" (1976) starred Irene Cara as a mousy but learning-to-roar 15-year-old — one third of a late '50s sister act led by the hard-living smolderer played by McKee, whose character grappled with drug abuse, contended with an abusive boyfriend and battled relentless cliches in a heartbreak-and-triumph fairy tale whipped up by screenwriter Joel Schumacher. This was before the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" pumped up similar material for its own purposes.

  • '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.

  • Partnership outlives romance for 'Celeste and Jesse' writers

    August 9, 2012

    The vinegary romantic comedy "Celeste and Jesse Forever" took half-a-forever to get financed and made, as so many films do. Rashida Jones of "Parks and Recreation" co-stars with Andy Samberg. With her longtime best friend and, briefly, early on, two-to-three-week boyfriend, actor Will McCormack, Jones co-wrote the script about a young couple whose divorce is a stated fact at the beginning of the movie. The rest of the story deals with the rest of the story — the uneasy post-split friendship, the ties they refuse to sever, all in the sunny, slightly nervous realm of Los Angeles County.

  • '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.

  • 'Bourne Legacy': Franchise weakens as it branches off ★★

    August 9, 2012

    "The Bourne Identity." "The Bourne Supremacy.""The Bourne Ultimatum."And now, "The Pointless, Confused and Then, For the Last Half-Hour, Exciting Bourne Sequel, After a Fashion," more commonly known as"The Bourne Legacy."

  • '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.

  • 'The Gang's All Here': Miranda's bananas part of film's appeal

    August 3, 2012

    For a brief moment in the timeline of planet Earth, there was Carmen Miranda. Fourteen films' worth, not counting appearances in early television, radio and nightclubs. And she was really something. Else. Something else. Drag queens the world over can never thank her enough.

  • 'The Queen of Versailles' shows the end of the party ★★★★

    August 2, 2012

    "The Queen of Versailles"is an indelible portrait of an American family at its most blithely macabre.

  • Third movie does no favors to 'Wimpy Kid' material ★ 1/2

    August 2, 2012

    Why are the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies so much less fun, and funny, than the best of the books created by Jeff Kinney?

  • 'Total Recall': Remember this? ★★ 1/2

    August 2, 2012

    In the opening seconds of the"Total Recall"remake, the words "original film" appear on the screen, referring to a production company calling itself Original Film. So before it even begins, the movie delivers its first inadvertent joke.

  • 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.

  • Unclear boundaries, persistent questions

    July 26, 2012

    One week ago, thousands of moviegoers nationwide were making plans to catch midnight screenings of"The Dark Knight Rises"in Chicago, in Los Angeles, in Atlanta, in suburban Denver.

  • 'Cat in Paris' is an elegant thriller about an elegant ... cat ★★★ 1/2

    July 26, 2012

    Old-school animation that does not traffic in photorealistic backgrounds or attempt to place the audience in three dimensions may not be tearing up the multiplexes.

  • '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.

  • 'Red Lights' hits the brakes ★ 1/2

    July 26, 2012

    One hour and 53 minutes of paranormal inactivity, writer-director Rodrigo Cortes' yakky "Red Lights" is a distinct comedown from the Spanish filmmaker's previous (and second) feature, "Buried,"a stern thriller (too stern for American audiences; it made 95 percent of its money overseas) featuring Ryan Reynolds in a fearsomely confining coffin.

  • 'Ruby Sparks': Falling in love with an imaginary muse ★★ 1/2

    July 24, 2012

    A best-selling author at 19, Calvin Weir-Fields is a man whose body language apologizes with every shrug and baleful hesitation. Walking his dog in the hills of Los Feliz, Calif., near Hollywood, the novelist seems at odds with just about everything.

  • '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.

  • An 'Ice Age' like many others ★★

    July 12, 2012

    First came the God particle, the Higgs boson. Then came "Ice Age" (2002). Then, "Ice Age: The Meltdown" (2006). Then "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (2009). And now arrives "Ice Age: Continental Drift," informally known as "Ice Age 4," also known as a paycheck and a likely haul for all involved at Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox.

  • 'Take This Waltz' explores the five-year itch: Can love and desire endure? ★★★

    July 12, 2012

    Five years into their marriage, the freelance Toronto writers played by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen in "Take This Waltz" have drifted, rudderless, into a harbor that is anything but safe.

  • 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.

  • 'Turn Me On, Dammit!' a tale of a teen girl and her many feelings ★★★

    July 6, 2012

    You know a movie's worthwhile when it pulls one of the oldest tricks in the book — reaction shots of an adorable dog — and it actually works.

  • 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.

  • 'Grand Illusion' is polished up for 75th anniversary ✭✭✭✭

    June 29, 2012

    Opening Friday for a week's run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Jean Renoir's"Grand Illusion" marches in the opposite direction of grand set pieces or visual flamboyance. Its moments of poetry are many but (properly) fleeting, like the shot of the German farm girl sitting alone at a cottage dining table where members of her family, casualties of the Great War, used to eat and talk and plan the day. There may be nobility in the way we live and die in battle, and between battles, but in the end, someone is left alone.

  • 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.

  • 'Ted': Crude comedy doesn't quite bear up ✭✭

    June 28, 2012

    Like "The Hangover"and its sequel, "Ted"is a bully of a comedy but a bully with just enough calculated heart to make it a hit. It plays like a movie tryout for a TV series, specifically a Seth MacFarlane series, which means a high quotient of startlingly crude ethnic and cultural stereotypes leavened by a sincere appreciation for American popular music of another era.

  • '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.

  • 'Brave': A princess who rescues herself ✭✭✭

    June 22, 2012

    The heather on the hill and other scenic Scottish glories never looked lovelier than in the animated realm of "Brave,"the gorgeous if awkwardly plotted new film from Pixar Animation Studios and the ruling clan of Disney.

  • 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,' rail-splitter, head lopper ✭✭

    June 21, 2012

    The first in what I dearly hope is a trilogy to include "Calvin Coolidge: Exorcist" and "George W. Bush: Werewolves Is Comin'," the frenzied and occasionally diverting mashup"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" rewrites American history so that the Civil War becomes a war between humans from the North and bloodsucking fiends on the Confederate side.

  • 'Dark Horse': Director finds humanity in unsympathetic lead ✭✭✭

    June 21, 2012

    Rhapsodically pathetic, the Hummer-driving schlub at the center of the new Todd Solondz film "Dark Horse" has hit his mid-30s without realizing just how many unfortunate personality traits fight every second for dominance of his everyday life. He's hostile, privileged, an insecure narcissist, and it's not simply a Hummer he drives — it's a yellow Hummer.

  • Apocalypse pretty soon, romantic yearnings now in 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World' ✭✭

    June 21, 2012

    So much of the drama we respond to, from the heart, depicts ordinary flawed women and men navigating serious adversity or breaking through a wall of grief. And they are improved; their lives, their futures, are more connected and whole than before.

  • '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.

  • A night to remember, forget for an odd couple in 'Your Sister's Sister' ✭✭ 1/2

    June 14, 2012

    Truly, madly, deeply affable Mark Duplass has officially blown up real good. The filmmaker and increasingly busy actor has two new movies out, the mainstream-y festival successes "Safety Not Guaranteed" and writer-director Lynn Shelton's "Your Sister's Sister."

  • '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.

  • 'Hysteria': Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy star in dutiful comedy ✭✭

    May 24, 2012

    However it's handled, the story of the invention of the electric vibrator cries out for more stimulating treatment than "Hysteria," a film left wanting for a tone and a surer sense of period.

  • 'Bernie': Black comedy contains a chorus of witnesses ✭✭✭

    May 17, 2012

    At the opening of director and co-writer Richard Linklater's East Texas shuffle "Bernie," the small-town mortician played with unusual restraint by Jack Black conducts a master class in how to prepare a body for a first-class open-casket funeral, going into the niceties of proper position of the resting head, "neither star-gazing nor navel-gazing." The mouth, he adds, should be "relaxed, natural, with a little bit of a smile."

  • 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 Dictator' quality falls between 'Borat' and 'Bruno' ✭✭ 1/2

    May 11, 2012

    For most of its quick and extremely dirty running time, the new Sacha Baron Cohen offender "The Dictator" wages war with itself, crude nonsense up against crude nonsense that's really funny. Then comes the golden ticket, the speech of speeches, the scene in which the fictional North African dictator General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen addresses a gathering in New York City, recanting his barbarous ways with a heartfelt confessional.

  • 'The Turin Horse': An anecdote transforms into the story of a life ✭✭✭ 1/2

    May 10, 2012

    Since its premiere at the Berlin international film festival, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr's latest and (so he has suggested) final feature,"The Turin Horse,"has been widely characterized as a grim slab of miserablism. Well. Maybe. It's no "Shop Around the Corner." But what about it retains the mysterious capacity to leave some of us feeling cinematically revived?

  • 'Dark Shadows' a not so after-school special ✭✭

    May 10, 2012

    Some of director Tim Burton's costume parties are livelier than others, and the new "Dark Shadows" — from the man who gave us "Edward Scissorhands," "Sweeney Todd," "Alice in Wonderland" and other chalkface-makeup spectaculars starring Johnny Depp — feels like a place-holder, a meandering first draft of an adaptation of the supernatural soap opera that ran on ABC-TV from 1966 to 1971.

  • 'Headhunters': Noir from Norway worth a look, before the remake ✭✭✭

    May 10, 2012

    Swift, amoral and nicely unpredictable, a bloodier Norwegian variation on film noir from the '40s, the thriller"Headhunters"comes from a 2008 novel by Jo Nesbo. The film already has been optioned for an English-language remake. Its protagonist, a sharklike corporate headhunter of modest physical stature, is a Napoleonic complex Nordic-style.

  • Cast makes 'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' shine ✭✭✭

    May 3, 2012

    A comedy-drama saved by the casting bell,"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" arranges for a tiptop collection of British character women and men to bring out the best in a pleasantly predictable story. Wait. Shouldn't that be "unhappily predictable"? Not always, folks: Some projects are better off going easy on the surprises, and concentrating on a reassuring level of actorly craft.

  • 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."

  • 'Monsieur Lazhar': Trauma, tenderness in a Canadian school ✭✭✭

    April 26, 2012

    We want our stories about schoolteachers to inspire us, just as we crave inspiring teachers.

  • 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."

  • Steve Harvey's relationship rules come to amusing life in 'Think Like a Man' ✭✭✭

    April 19, 2012

    Relaxed yet lively, the byplay in "Think Like a Man" has some of the spark of director Tim Story's "Barbershop" a decade ago. The movie may be the very definition of contrivance, coming as it does from the blithely sexist relationship guide "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man," co-written by radio host and comedian Steve Harvey. Considering its source, though, one of the more unpromising comedies of the year has turned out ... pretty funny.

  • Jamaican icon gets a fitting doc tribute in 'Marley' ✭✭✭ 1/2

    April 19, 2012

    The musical and documentary vibes are very, very good in "Marley," director Kevin Macdonald's portrait of the reggae revolutionary born Robert Nesta Marley in Jamaica in 1945. Documentaries fully authorized by the subject's surviving family members are rarely this rich. I knew and loved a lot of the music going in, though next to nothing about Marley's short life on the planet. I came out with a reaffirmed sense of the former, and an honest, just-this-side-of-hagiography understanding of the latter.

  • 'The Lucky One': Nicholas Sparks extends the bland ✭✭

    April 19, 2012

    You don't need a message in a bottle to get the word out: Author Nicholas Sparks knows his audience. Conservative moviegoers (along with plenty of centrists and liberals) take to the latest Sparks adaptation, gratefully. They know they're not going to get roughed up in terms of content, or ideologically insulted: Sparks writes best-sellers that treat military personnel with respect, churchgoing Christians likewise and red state backdrops with fond, photogenic care.

  • 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.

  • 'Cabin in the Woods' provides snark and scares ✭✭ 1/2

    April 12, 2012

    A peppy horror mash-up with existential airs, "The Cabin in the Woods"goes completely nuts in its final half-hour and is all the better for it. Writers lie about this sort of thing constantly, but according to screenwriters Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who cut their eyeteeth on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" among other credits, the script came together in three days, in the spirit of "Let's try that too."

  • 'Damsels in Distress' creates a world of archly articulate nostalgia ✭✭✭

    April 12, 2012

    College is a strange, serendipitous time and place: Events, experiences, strangers come swooping into your life like birds of prey and before you know it you're carried off somewhere wholly new. In "Damsels in Distress," writer-director-cinematic dandy Whit Stillman's first feature since "The Last Days of Disco" (1998), all the key females are named after flowers.

  • 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.

  • 'Lockout': Space prison mayhem both vicious and silly ✭

    April 12, 2012

    Deep space isn't big enough to contain Guy Pearce, his impudent lock-jawed smirk and the deliriously cruddy "Lockout," set in 2079, a time when Zippo lighters will still be used with impunity, because who doesn't like that snappy click they make when you flick the lid open or shut?

  • This 'American Reunion' saves the best for last ✭✭

    April 5, 2012

    Sweeping aside the film's weirdest unasked question — who goes to their 13th high school reunion? — the characters created by Adam Herz for the 1999 hit "American Pie" return for a rather tired sequel called "American Reunion," in which poor, desperate Jim Levenstein's genitals once again get their ears boxed (metaphorically speaking), and Stifler's way with nubile 17-year-olds doesn't seem quite as obnoxiously sprightly as it once did, given that Stifler is now supposed to be in his early 30s and the actor, Seann William Scott, is 35.

  • '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.

  • 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.

  • '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.

  • '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.

  • 'Coriolanus' on board with Fiennes' Bard -- 3 1/2 stars

    February 2, 2012

    With great power comes great responsibility, but powerful men often make for lousy, irresponsible politicians. (Insert personal observations on certain presidential candidates here.) With "Coriolanus,"one of William Shakespeare's toughest, most provocative studies in statesmanship, the dramatist created a tragedy (premiering in 1608) built upon the life of a fifth century B.C. warrior who, whether by excess of pride or by stubborn humility or an all-too-human mixture of both, had an infernal time adjusting to life off the battlefield.

  • Big surprise: Whale tale 'Big Miracle' is a winner -- 3 stars

    February 2, 2012

    The success of last year's "Dolphin Tale"proved this theorem: Imperiled marine animals plus true-ish story plus workmanlike sincerity plus happy ending equals a hit. Will the equation hold for director Ken Kwapis' whale movie"Big Miracle"?

  • 'Innkeepers': Best not to overlook this haunted hotel -- 3 stars

    February 2, 2012

    Lean and scary, "The Innkeepers" was shot in 17 days in a quaint Connecticut hotel called the Yankee Pedlar, where writer-director Ti West stayed while making his previous movie, "The House of the Devil."

  • 'Man on a Ledge': Myriad improbabilities ground this heist film -- 2 stars

    January 26, 2012

    A man edges along the 21st-story ledge of a midtown New York City hotel. He's an ex-cop and a convicted thief on the lam, straight out of Sing Sing, and he's threatening suicide. Sam Worthington, of"Avatar" and"Clash of the Titans," plays this character, Nick Cassidy, and it is odd to see Worthington on a precipice without winged beasts or blue friendlies buzzing about his head. The only thing buzzing in "Man on a Ledge" are little gnats of narrative improbability.

  • 'The Grey' a Liam Neeson howler, in a good way -- 3 stars

    January 26, 2012

    The title "8 Million Ways to Die" was already taken, so "The Grey" had to settle for "The Grey," named for the plus-size wolves waging war on the desperate human survivors of an Alaskan wilderness plane crash. Tough situation. Frostbite. Wolf bite. Drowning. Falling from great heights. Harsh outcomes abound for both man and beast.

  • Iranian Oscar nominee Farhadi offers riddles without answers in 'A Separation' -- 4 stars

    January 26, 2012

    Some films wear their artistry so lightly they appear simply to be happening, the inner workings of the story guided by an unseen hand. In "A Separation," the stunning drama from Iran and the foreign-language awards contender of the season, the hand belongs to writer-director Asghar Farhadi, making his fifth feature since 2003.

  • 'We Need to Talk About Kevin': When mother's intuition is bleakly on the money -- 2 stars

    January 26, 2012

    Or do we? "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is artfully visualized but, at heart, little more than "The Bad Seed and How!" Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel complicates Shriver's story structure while simplifying Shriver's meanings, along with her provocative, mixed-up explorations of parental guilt.

  • 'Albert Nobbs': 2 performers triumph in gender masquerade -- 2 1/2 stars

    January 26, 2012

    "Such a kind little man," coos the bustling owner of a quaint 19th-century Dublin hotel, regarding her most sphinxlike waiter, the servant played by Glenn Close.

  • 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."

  • Heroism loses to Hollywood in 'Red Tails' — 2 stars

    January 19, 2012

    "Red Tails"squanders a great subject, reducing the real-life struggles and fierce heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen to rickety cliche. Some of the action is fun. But if something about that statement doesn't sound right, well, there's your chief problem with "Red Tails." It sets out to ingratiate without provocation or complexity.

  • 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close': Post-9/11 film milks viewer emotions with impunity -- 1 1/2 stars

    January 19, 2012

    "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" transforms the carnage and unruly grief of Sept. 11, 2001, known to its preteen Upper West Side Manhattan protagonist as "The Worst Day," into an occasion for interborough healing and emotional encounters of the cheapest kind. If actors this good cannot overcome their material, then we can only say: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock … Max von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, John Goodman… thanks for your honest efforts in the service of a fundamentally dishonest weepie.

  • 'Pina': 3-D accompanies dance, beautifully -- 4 stars

    January 19, 2012

    In "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," director Werner Herzog explored the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc caverns of southern France, using a 3-D camera. The movie was quiet but magnificent. Now another director, Wim Wenders, has turned a 3-D camera on a similarly exotic and unlikely subject: the dancers of northwestern Germany's Tanztheater Wuppertal, colleagues of the late German dance-theater choreographer Pina Bausch.

  • 'Haywire': Heroine Gina Carano can kick it, and hard — 3 stars

    January 19, 2012

    In terms of its title,"Haywire"doesn't quite go there; it's more "Haywire-ish." But it's eccentric, and the on-screen violence is sharp and exciting — brutal without being either subhumanly sadistic or superhumanly ridiculous.

  • 'Carnage': Four parents simmer and boil over in a New York apartment — 3 stars

    January 12, 2012

    Filming a play usually means making it less hermetic by "opening up the action," allowing the characters to take their dialogue for a walk, or a drive — something conventionally cinematic.

  • 'Contraband': Intriguing personalities animate a so-so remake — 2 1/2 stars

    January 12, 2012

    Playing a reformed cargo smuggler sucked back into the game, Mark Wahlberg is the star of "Contraband," a fairly entertaining remake of the 2008 Icelandic thriller "Reykjavik-Rotterdam." And a reliable star he is. Audiences develop relationships with actors over time, through good scripts and bad; this one's neither good nor bad, exactly. But Wahlberg has the presence, the glower and the laconic line readings to guide us through a mess of pain, painlessly.

  • 'Joyful Noise': Dolly and the Queen make familiar music — 2 stars

    January 12, 2012

    Assembled from spare parts of "Footloose" and "Sister Act," the serviceable gospel contraption "Joyful Noise" takes place in an economically hard-hit Georgia town, where the multiracial members of the Divinity Church Choir raise voices and spirits under the direction of their beloved choirmaster, played by Kris Kristofferson. We see him in action in church in the opening credits, though he suffers a heart attack well before "written and directed by Todd Graff" hits the screen. He's dead within seconds. Graff, who made "Camp" and "Bandslam," has a lot of plot to wrangle, and he does not waste time.

  • 'Iron Lady': Meryl Streep's exacting performance buoys an offbeat biopic -- 3 stars

    January 12, 2012

    Some movies arrive pre-stamped with a consensus opinion. With "The Iron Lady" the consensus so far is this: Meryl Streep excels as Margaret Thatcher. And the movie itself does not work.

  • 'The Devil Inside': Don't blame the pope for this one -- 1 star

    January 6, 2012

    The words, somber and undeniably true, hit the screen: "The Vatican did not endorse this film nor aid in its completion." No, the Holy See apparently is waiting to back an exorcism movie that's a little less hilariously lame.

  • The reality of war as hell comes through in 'Land of Blood and Honey' -- 2 1/2 stars

    January 5, 2012

    As consumers of popular culture we're conditioned to endure scenes of sexual violence, often handled with misleading discretion (one sort of lie) when they're not being treated as cheap contrivance (another sort of lie, reducing rape and its emotional consequences to mere plot points). Then we wait for the story to deliver the revenge, the comeuppance, so that justice is done.

  • Announcing 2 major talents in 'Pariah' -- 3 1/2 stars

    January 5, 2012

    Remember the name Adepero Oduye. In fact, commit the spelling to memory. The luminous actress who plays the high school junior (nearly half the performer's real age) at the center of the exceptional, new, coming-of-age drama "Pariah" has one of those faces that lights up the screen while lighting the way for a filmmaker's story.

  • 2012 film series opens with a Sturges classic

    December 30, 2011

    In "Sullivan's Travels," an ambitious, conscience-stricken member of Hollywood's leisure class decides he has had it with fluff. He can't stomach making another movie of zero social significance, a movie with a title like "Ants in Your Pants of 1939" and "Hey-Hey in the Hayloft." In one of the most quoted passages from any Preston Sturges screenplay, Joel McCrea — as John L. Sullivan, the director who goes undercover as a hobo in order to gain the hardscrabble experience he thinks will prepare him for his magnum opus, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" — argues with his studio boss about what's what.

  • Pretty, manipulative 'War Horse' sort of works -- 2 1/2 stars

    December 22, 2011

    On stage in London and New York, "War Horse" has found a wide and emotionally drained audience. How could it be otherwise? The horrors of World War I plus the horrors of war as endured by a horse, capped by a ruthlessly effective happy ending: I don't mean to be glib, but that is an awful lot to cry about.

  • Matt Damon redeems corny 'We Bought A Zoo' -- 2 1/2 stars

    December 21, 2011

    Pap, but easygoing pap with a cast you can live with for a couple of hours, "We Bought a Zoo" is co-writer and director Cameron Crowe's adaptation of a memoir by Benjamin Mee entitled "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever."

  • 'The Artist' is artful in the way it wins you over -- 3 1/2 stars

    December 21, 2011

    Please be silent behind the screen.

  • 'Adventures of Tintin' fake, frantic, tiring -- 2 stars

    December 20, 2011

    Directed by Steven Spielberg, a longtime fan of the source material, "The Adventures of Tintin" begins with a gorgeous animated credit sequence, deftly incorporating bits of the narrative about to unfold. It's as nifty as the overture in Spielberg's earlier "Catch Me If You Can," both scored, with a glancing touch, by his longtime mood generator, composer John Williams. It's always gratifying to hear what Williams can do when he's not in attack mode.

  • 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo': Craig, Mara star in sleek, slick, sick adaptation -- 3 stars

    December 16, 2011

    Director David Fincher's deluxe edition of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the most coldly compelling version yet of the tale dreamed up by the late Stieg Larsson, whose "Millennium" trilogy of pulp novels remains the time-killer of choice in airports, elevated trains and, when the weather's right, beaches around the world.

  • 'Dangerous Method' a nuanced Freudian trip – 3 1/2 stars

    December 15, 2011

    The doctor-patient relationship is a sure way to attract an audience's prurient interest, as long as proper ethical boundaries are ignored. This brings us to a movie by and for grown-ups with actual attention spans: "A Dangerous Method."

  • 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' plays close to the vest – 4 stars

    December 15, 2011

    Actors so rarely get paid to sit still. This week at the movies, as Tom Cruise is on Imax screens playing a frantic, hamsterlike intelligence gatherer in the new "Mission: Impossible" movie, we have also a superb adaptation of the John le Carre spy novel "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Its central character, George Smiley of the British Secret Intelligence Service, does not smile much, or give anything away. He sits. And watches. And waits for his adversaries, one of whom is a double agent working for the Soviets as well as the British, to make a fatal mistake.

  • Jittery 'Mission Impossible' a sprint from start to end – 2 1/2 stars

    December 15, 2011

    With "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," director Brad Bird makes his live-action feature debut, having made a name for himself and a few hundred million for Disney/Pixar with "The Incredibles" and one of the freshest comedies of the last few years, "Ratatouille." It's obvious but probably needs restating: Live action is a different beast from animation. Audiences perceive acts of violence and outsized physical punishment differently when presented with actors getting knocked around. At the same time, a great deal of digital animation today has effectively erased the notion of stylized unreality and sensorial distance. When a mole whacks another mole with a hickory stick in "Rango," for example, the photorealistic quality of the image renders the act unfunny. It's not slapstick. It just hurts.

  • Brutal 'Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows' falls flat -- 1 star

    December 15, 2011

    It's elementary. If you enjoyed the first "Sherlock Holmes" directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, then you'll likely leave the sequel feeling satiated.

  • 'The Sitter': Adventure in baby-sitting adds raunch and violence — 2 stars

    December 8, 2011

    Mildly funny adventures in extreme baby-sitting, director David Gordon Green's "The Sitter" finds its emblematic moment in the scene of Sam Rockwell, playing a Brooklyn drug dealer, joking around and then suddenly blasting one of his minions in the foot in a realistically painful way. That's Green for you. He's the man behind "Pineapple Express." Hahahahaha and suddenly there's blood on the floor.

  • 'Young Adult': Charlize Theron flexes her mean-girl chops via Diablo Cody's latest script -- 2 1/2 stars

    December 8, 2011

    It's not easy being mean, as Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody's latest project, "Young Adult" — directed by her "Juno" collaborator, Jason Reitman — goes about illustrating with an intriguing, unsettled blend of pity and pitilessness.

  • 'Young Goethe in Love': Portrait of the writer as a smitten swain — 3 1/2 stars

    December 8, 2011

    An unexpected treat, the freewheeling German biopic "Young Goethe in Love" isn't much more interested in adhering to the historical record than was "Amadeus" or "Shakespeare in Love," but … actually, there is no "but." That's merely a fact. Facts are overrated commodities in the matter of cinematic portraiture.

  • 'New Year's Eve': Marshall plan for the holidays — 2 stars

    December 8, 2011

    Scrambling to accommodate its Big Gulp of an ensemble cast, for which disaster movie maven Irwin Allen would've killed, "New Year's Eve" does for its holiday what last year's "Valentine's Day" did for Valentine's Day. If this one's a hit, as was "V Day" ($200 million worldwide), surely we can expect "Presidents Day." With nice cameos for actual ex-presidents.

  • '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.

  • 'Tyrannosaur': One star stands out in tale of wounded souls -- 2 stars

    December 1, 2011

    Some films pull no punches in their on-screen brutality while pulling all sorts of punches in other ways. Writer-director Paddy Considine's grim yet tidy slice of pain, "Tyrannosaur," serves as this week's example. The film won over many passionate admirers on the festival circuit, and the acting — particularly the moving performance of Olivia Colman as a battered spouse living in a grim corner of Leeds, England — is fierce and committed. So why doesn't its impact linger?

  • 'Last Rites of Joe Mays': Underdog drama telegraphs its twists

    November 24, 2011

    Dennis Farina, an actor whose vowel sounds brand him as one of Chicago's own, eternally, is the whole show in writer-director Joe Maggio's drama. In this softhearted valentine to fences and grifters of a certain age, Farina plays a short-money hustler who, after a prolonged hospital stay, returns to his Chicago apartment only to find it has been leased to single mother Jenny (Jamie Anne Allman) and her preteen daughter (Meredith Droeger).

  • 'Hugo' a tribute so intense, it needed 3-D — 3 stars

    November 22, 2011

    Rich and stimulating even when it wanders, director Martin Scorsese's first 3-D effort, "Hugo," takes place mostly within the confines of a railway station modeled on Montparnasse. The story, developed by screenwriter John Logan from Brian Selznick's graphic novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," ranges beyond the station. But every locale in Scorsese's vision of 1931 Paris looks and feels like another planet. The filmmaker embraces storybook artifice as wholeheartedly as he relays the tale's lessons in the importance of film preservation.

  • 'My Week With Marilyn': Dim light on 2 major stars -- 2 1/2 stars

    November 22, 2011

    In 1956, not long after she married "Death of a Salesman" playwright Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe made a movie with director and star Laurence Olivier at England's Pinewood Studios. The film, "The Prince and the Showgirl," came from Terence Rattigan's drawing-room comedy "The Sleeping Prince," which Olivier had performed on the London stage opposite his wife, Vivien Leigh.

  • Jason Segel and Disney host a 'Muppets' reunion -- 3 stars

    November 22, 2011

    A frisky new film showcasing some old pals made out of felt, charm and some kind of genius, the Disney release "The Muppets" overcomes a jaded streak reflecting its makers' nervousness about selling Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the gang to an audience unfamiliar with "Sesame Street" (a Muppets chapter conspicuously left out of Disney's production notes) or "The Muppet Show" or the best of the earlier feature-length films, "The Great Muppet Caper" being my favorite. Hence, "The Muppets" deploys a bit of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a string of '80s jokes about Molly Ringwald and "Benson."

  • 'Arthur Christmas': How spare heir to Santa's throne saved the holiday — 3 stars

    November 22, 2011

    Five years ago, the Bristol, England-based Aardman animation folks — who created the stop-motion legends Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep and therefore are eligible for sainthood — made the digitally animated British/American co-production "Flushed Away." Jampacked with peril, if not with charm, the film had both eyes on a crossover American audience that never materialized.

  • Travel, backgammon help heal broken life

    November 19, 2011

    Time: The early 21st century, long after the East/West divide has subdivided. Surviving a car accident that takes the lives of his parents, Bulgarian emigre Alex — coping, fitfully, with amnesia in a German hospital — has become a weirdly Balkanized personality, fragmented, robbed of his memories.

  • Timeless portrait of '60s chaos

    November 19, 2011

    Now back in a fresh 35 mm print at the Siskel Film Center, just in time for a little Thanksgiving week provocation, Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 cine-essay was "found on a dump" (as Godard puts it up front, on screen) and remains "adrift in the cosmos" (his again), while embodying "the beginning of Flamboyance, especially in cinema" (as one character says in the film itself). It is impudence incarnate. And it will never date.

  • '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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