Archive for the ‘Limited Engagements’ Category

‘Ahead of Time’ highlights a remarkable life

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

By any measure, Ruth Gruber is a most remarkable woman.

She wanted to get a closer look at Adolf Hitler, so she pretended to be a German citizen so she could sit in the area closest to Der Fuhrer.

At 15, she was accepted at New York University. At 20, she became the youngest student to receive a doctorate.

In 1944, she escorted 1,000 Holocaust refugees from Naples to New York during a secret war mission.

Above everything else, Ruth Gruber was a journalist working mostly for the New York Herald Tribune. It was a career she carefully chose, even though her skeptical father said at the time, “What kind of career is that for a nice, Jewish girl?”

Bob Richman, who photographed the docs “An Inconvenient Truth” and “My Architect,” makes Gruber’s fascinating life story his directorial debut in “Ahead of Time.”

It’s a straightforward, traditional doc with talking heads, archival footage and interviews with Gruber’s friends and relatives. But what a subject he has to work with. (Read more…) Not rated; suitable for general audiences. 73 minutes.

Now playing at the Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

‘Animal Kingdom’ a stark drama reeking of realism

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
James Frecheville and Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom" After his mother’s death, Josh (James Frecheville, left) goes to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and gets sucked into his criminal family’s violent world in “Animal Kingdom.”

The title “Animal Kingdom” sounds like a film about survival of the fittest. And it is, except the animals are a dysfunctional family of Australian criminals in Melbourne who suck a quiet young lad named Josh (James Frecheville) into their world.

David Michod’s impressive, assured Aussie gangster drama begins with Josh sitting next to his mum, dying of a heroin overdose. He can’t quite focus on her because the exciting game show on the TV distracts him.

He eventually goes to live with his grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), the queen of criminal enablers whose three sons dabble in everything from drugs to robbery and murder.

“Animal Kingdom” is a stark drama reeking of toxic realism. Josh remains a chilling blank slate, and he is unable to guess the danger he’s in, or the danger he puts his new girlfriend (Laura Wheelright) in just by dating her. (Read more…)

Rachel Weisz’ ‘Agora’ dignified but bland

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
Rachel Weisz in "Agora" Philosopher and scholar Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) forgoes romance in the ambitious, passionless ancient drama “Agora.”

Alejandro Amenabar’s drama of ancient Egypt, “Agora,” is based on the true story of Hypatia, a female scholar, philosopher and astronomer who believed in questioning everything in existence, including God.

That really ticked off some early Christians who, according to one 5th century report, “took her to the church called Caesareum where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her by scraping her skin off with tiles and bits of shell. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron and there burnt them.”

But don’t worry. “Agora” gives Hypatia a much more dignified and immensely blander death.

That’s the problem with all of “Agora.”

It’s more dignified and blander than it should be, especially for a movie all about political upheaval, religious zealotry, corruption and the triumph of selfish ideology over true Christian values.

Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, one of the many ancient Egyptians who speak in impeccably British accents.

A teacher with a strong following of smart, enlightened students, Hypatia has no interest or time for frivolous romantic pursuits. (Read more…)

Reel Life review: ‘The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans’

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Werner Herzog’s loose and loony remake of Abel Ferrara’s NC-17-rated, 1992 crime drama “Bad Lieutenant” doesn’t just star Nicolas Cage. It unleashes him in the kind of over-the-top, no-holds-barred performance that has become his hallmark.

His lieutenant, Terence McDonagh, is so bad, he constantly shoves drugs in his nose, racks up humongous gambling debts, claims a high-end prostitute as his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and misuses the justice system to his own benefit with unabashed arrogance.

Set in a post-Katrina New Orleans, “Bad Lieutenant” depicts not just the city’s physical rot, but the moral decay in which McDonagh, his amoral partner (Val Kilmer) and underworld thugs (led by Xzibit’s drug lord) operate. (Read more…) Rated: R (drug use, language, sexual situations, violence). 121 minutes.

Opens Thursday, November 19 at the River East 21 and the Century Centre in Chicago and the CineArts 6 in Evanston.

Reel Life review: ‘Turning Green’

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

The dark Irish comedy “Turning Green” never quite finds its proper comic tone as it gleefully immerses us in a raucously nasty, noirish tale of a sexually self-abusing teenager who becomes a successful pornography distributor and eventual killer.

“Turning Green,” originally one of the runners-up in the “Project Greenlight” contest from a few years back, stars newcomer Donal Gallery as James, an Irish lad raised in the U.S. who returns to the Emerald Island with his kid brother Pete (Killian Morgan). James needs money, and when he meets a porno supplier, he rakes in the green (hence the double-meaning of the title).

Local gangsters Bill the Bookie (Alessandro Nivola) and Bill the Breaker (Timothy Hutton) don’t like this, and try to set the upstart kid straight about making money on their turf. (Read more…) Rated: NR (mature audiences only). 85 minutes.

Opens Thursday, November 19 at the Pipers Alley Theater in Chicago.

Reel Life review: “The Messenger”

Thursday, November 19th, 2009
Ben Foster in &quotThe Messenger" Casualty-notification officer Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) delivers devastating news to families of fallen soldiers in “The Messenger.”

They’re called casualty-notification officers.

Their mission is to go to the homes of fallen soldiers to notify their NOK (next-of-kin) of their deaths in the line of duty. It’s a terrible job, and in Oren Moverman’s painfully intimate, exquisitely detailed “The Messenger,” Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster bring strength, pain, loneliness, honor and a rainbow of other conflicting qualities to their roles as military messengers of doom.

Captain Tony Stone (Harrelson) has been married three times, twice to the same woman. Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Foster) has no family or personal commitments.

They don’t really like each other at first. But they begrudgingly find common ground as they carry out their mission in a series of masterfully executed vignettes that tell us everything we need to know about the families of the fallen within 30 seconds of meeting them. (Read more…)Rated: R (language, sexual situations, nudity). 105 minutes.

Opens Thursday, November 19 at the Music Box in Chicago.

Reel Life review: ‘Boondock Saints II’

Sunday, November 15th, 2009
Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery in "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day" Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery reprise their roles as the vigilante killers in “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.”

Troy Duffy’s long-awaited sequel, “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day,” concocts the same insane blend of gun fetish, inverted religious invocations, bloody killings, giddy stunts, cool sunglasses and ridiculous tattoos as his comical cult action thriller “Boondock Saints” did back in 1999.

Hard-core fans of the original will be in boondock heaven. Everyone else might think of a hotter location.

The execution of a Boston priest brings back the fraternal twin vigilante killers Connor and Murphy MacManus (original stars Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus), who’ve been on the lam for eight years in Ireland with their gun-toting Poppa (Billy Connolly).

The local mob (look for a crazed, overacting Judd Nelson) trembles with the thought the Boondock Saints have returned to Beantown to start knocking off its members, again.

Taking over for Willem Dafoe’s investigator, FBI Agent Eunice Bloom (a Southern-drawlin’ “Dexter” star Julie Benz) struts into town with stiletto heels and powers of deduction that a “CSI” cast would envy. She has a not-so-hidden agenda in a convoluted plot that has the twins searching for a mysterious mob kingpin called “The Roman” (played by a secret guest star).

There’s never a dull moment in “Boondock Saints II,” and no doubt Duffy’s mix of testosterone, guns and action will find its intended audience. (Read more…)Rated: R (violence, nudity, language). 117 minutes.

Opens Friday, November 13 at local theaters.

‘Precious’ is a bleak but hope-filled drama with fantastic acting

Thursday, November 5th, 2009
Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) takes abuse from Mom (Mo’Nique) in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”

It only takes a few scenes into the bleak, but hope-filled drama “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” to realize you’re in the presence of two commanding actresses whose courageous, uncompromising, full-bore performances rank among the decade’s very best film achievements.

Brooklyn-born Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious, an obese and illiterate 16-year-old Harlem teen who, as we learn, has been repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend and already given birth to one baby. As the story begins, she discovers that she’s pregnant with a second.

Sidibe gives herself completely over to the character, under Lee Daniels’ sensitive direction, and creates a complex, compassionate portrait of such strength and vulnerability that we accept her wounds and pain as our own. (Read more…) Rated: R (language and sexual assault). 109 minutes.

Opens Friday, November 6 at the River East 21, Chatham and City North in Chicago, the Century 12 in Evanston and the Country Club Hills 16 in Country Club Hills.

All M*A*S*H-ed up

Saturday, October 31st, 2009
Faye Dunaway and Amy Acker in "21 and a Wake-Up" Major Thorn (Faye Dunaway), left, lectures Captain Murphy (Amy Acker) about discipline in the indie “21 and a Wake-Up.”

“21 and a Wake-Up,” the first American-made Vietnam War movie shot where the conflict happened, could pass as an ambitious, rookie student film with its amateurish performances, cornball dialogue and possibly the worst editing job outside of an old Albert Pyun action movie.

Fittingly released on Halloween weekend, “21” offers a truly scary performance by 68-year-old Faye Dunaway as Major Thorn, a by-the-book commander who locks horns with Captain Murphy (Amy Acker), an “undisciplined” female Hawkeye Pierce at the U.S. 24th Evac Hospital during the final days of the war.

“21” was written and directed by Chris McIntyre, who served as a Marine stationed in Vietnam during the war. He based his film on real events, which, ironically, come off here as Hollywood creations, especially when Murphy travels into Cambodia on a secret mission to retrieve a Vietnamese-American girl, the daughter of an Army surgeon killed during a blatantly telegraphed “surprise” explosion. (Read more…) Rated: R (language, nudity and violence). 120 minutes.

Now playing at local theaters.

Reel Life review: ‘Motherhood’

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Already this year, I’ve seen two movies about whiny, inferiority-complexed women who seek personal validation by writing blogs about their put-upon lives.

First came “Julie & Julia” featuring Amy Adams as a blogger out to cook up all of Julia Child’s French recipes. She was cute, despite being shallow and irritating.

Now comes Katherine Dieckmann’s “Motherhood” starring Uma Thurman as an unemployed Manhattanite mommy who struggles to get by on a limited budget, struggles to deal with her eccentric hubby (Anthony Edwards) who won’t answer his cell phone, struggles to walk up the steps of her elevatorless high-rise, struggles to raise two cute kids and struggles to keep viewers awake. (Read more…) Rated: PG-13 (sexual and drug references, plus language). 90 minutes.

Opens Friday, October 23 at local theaters.