Rome Open City

‘Rome, Open City’ and ‘Los Olvidados’: Two Films of Pessimism and Realism

Luis Bunuel opens his 1953 film “Los Olvidados,” or “The Young and the Damned,” with a disclaimer that explains his film is true, not optimistic and leaves everything to society’s progressive forces to solve. The film is about the poverty, crime and hardship that’s befallen Mexico as a result of the institution. It could very well be the same description as Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City.”

With “Rome, Open City” in 1945, Rossellini effectively invented the film movement known as “neorealism.” These films shot on location with non-actors and focused on ordinary lives as they were in the world. And starting in 1945 immediately after the war, Rossellini’s War Trilogy that included this film, “Paisan” and “Germany Year Zero”, were scathing indictments and portraits of the Italian lifestyle that had grown out of the war. Its early protagonist Pina (Anna Magnani) is the fiancee of an Italian insurgent named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), and his associate going under the alias Luigi Ferraris (Marcello Pagliero) is being hunted by the Nazis.

But mostly, their casual scheming and getting around officers is a way of life. We see kids playing football in an alley, hiding rebels, talking on the phone with the certainty that the Gestapo are listening, and parenting with all the salt of an Italian household. Even the kids take an involvement in the war, sneaking home late under a secret underground pathway of rubble after staging an explosion on the far side of town. There’s a beautiful shot of them returning home that highlights the poverty and the valor that came out of the war effort. Continue reading

‘The Raid 2′ annihilates the original

The Raid 2

2012’s “The Raid: Redemption” was an exhilarating and exhausting bout of wall-to-wall, non-stop beat downs and kinetic action. A bad guy waited at the top of a giant gray apartment building, and it was up to the hero to murder everyone in his path up each floor and through each room. It was relentless, and arguably not a whole lot of fun.

“The Raid 2” is still relentless, and it’s still a grim, copiously bloody martial arts movie in which everyone will still end up murdered. But Director Gareth Evans has opened up the film’s possibilities and scope in fascinating ways. It’s an intense and no doubt excruciating movie experience, but it comes with more arresting visuals and a greater set of stakes. Continue reading


‘Frozen’ is a Disney movie for the 21st Century

Disney has been trying to recapture the magic of their early ‘90s Golden Age for so long now that it didn’t seem like they had it in them. “Tangled” and its classic princess fairy tale has its ardent supporters, as does the hand-drawn animation and musical charm of “The Princess and the Frog.”

But now “Frozen” has done it. It’s not just big; it really is the biggest sensation to come out of the studio in near 20 years. And they’ve made it work because for once they’ve made a movie for the 21st Century. They made a movie not for the ‘90s kids but for the grown up ‘90s kids and the kids of the coming generation.

Yes, “Frozen” is big, beautiful, funny and cute, but it’s also quirky, awkward, progressive and dark. It’s everything a millennial kids classic should be.  Continue reading

Fading Gigolo

Woody Allen is out of place in limp ‘Fading Gigolo’

It’s Woody Allen’s thing to be nebbishly uncomfortable, but he is so out of place in John Turturro’s comedy “Fading Gigolo” that even he can’t quite save it. Turturro’s script starts from a thin premise and manages to find a surprising amount of tenderness and emotion within, but it relies on plot contrivances and supporting players that simply don’t add up.

Allen plays Murray, and he comes to Turturro’s Fioravante with a simple idea: would you have a three-way for money? A “ménage”, he clarifies. This is one of those movies where old, fish-out-of-water men delicately giggle at every sexual word and idea as though they unexpectedly saw it in the Bible in Sunday School. And the bit gets tired fast when they start assuming their alter ego names Virgil and Danny Bongo.

They agree to do this on the basis of being strapped for cash, and the two of them together seem to have no trouble landing middle aged women in need of a pick-me-up. And that ultimately is what “Fading Gigolo” is about: providing women added confidence, care and attention.

Turturro does well to ensure there might be more behind each encounter than sex. In his first meeting with the wealthy and assertive Sharon Stone, there’s no sense that either would have any trouble performing, and yet Turturro finds the innocence in having two people experimenting and trying something new and potentially dangerous. They talk and timidly approach one another, suggesting this is like something out of high school, and the steady and calm Fioravante does something beautiful by sharing a slow dance with her first.

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Last Year at Marienbad

‘Last Year at Marienbad’ and ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’

The Marienbad Game is a short, two player card game in which cards, or match sticks if you prefer, are dealt in rows of 1, 3, 5 and 7. Players can pick up any number they wish in a turn so long as they draw from the same row. The person forced to pick up the last card loses. The rules matter not, because “Last Year at Marienbad’s” “M” (Sacha Pitoeff) always wins. The film’s patrons speculate and strategize fruitlessly, because the brain teaser seems to have no obvious answer.

Neither does the movie, and Director Alain Resnais, who was still making films but passed away in March, would laugh at the idea that a film or work of art needs to be scrutinized and solved (see: Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon). “Last Year at Marienbad” resists interpretation.

The film is about a man seducing a woman at a luxurious hotel by trying to convince her they’ve met a year before. He tells an elaborate story rife with details and she plays along while continuing to deny any recollection of their meeting. That description makes it sound like a romantic comedy, but the movie is a gloomy, sprawling and sumptuous fantasy. It’s also a polarizing, yet hypnotic dream of a movie that meanders and blares endlessly.

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Mistaken for Strangers

‘Mistaken for Strangers’ is a meta, funny, oddball look at The National

I first saw and discovered The National on their “High Violet” tour opening for Arcade Fire. Their music was deep, mournful, abstract and quietly intense (before becoming loudly intense), and you might suspect that Matt Berninger and company are really just brooding basket cases of emotion and darkness.

But at that show Berninger paused after a particularly riotous number and threw jellybeans into the audience. “Be sure to pick those up,” he said, “They each have a new MP3 track in them… by The Flaming Lips.” You don’t quite realize that they’re funny, quirky, aloof and more like their Midwestern selves than whatever you expect of a rock star.

The new rock-doc “Mistaken for Strangers” sheds light into this side of The National, but it does so by profiling the even bigger goofball behind the scenes, Director and Matt’s brother Tom Berninger. Though he resembles his tall, lanky and hipster brother Matt, Tom is shorter, fatter and has longer hair, and he could very well be portrayed in a movie by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

He’s made an oddball, meta and awkwardly funny documentary not unlike his own goofy personality. “Mistaken for Strangers” has more to do with Tom than the band itself, and in that way it gives us a more heartwarming portrait of The National than concert footage alone ever could.

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Review: The Unknown Known


Errol Morris’s latest, which was released last week, goes wide later this month and I first saw at the Chicago International Film Fesitval, draws heavily from his Oscar winning masterpiece “The Fog of War,” and while “The Unknown Known” is not as surreal or profound as the latter, Donald Rumsfeld is a compellingly charming subject, and Morris probes deep into his hypocrisy and double speak.

Originally posted on The Sanity Clause:

Errol Morris must have been ecstatic at the opportunity to interview Donald Rumsfeld for his latest film “The Unknown Known.”

The man, despite his politics and his unique perspective on his actions and the history he helped lead this country through, is a one-of-a-kind showman, infectious in front of interviewers and cameras. He discusses national policy of the gravest of circumstances with paradoxical double speak, and he seems to end each turn of phrase with a disarmingly knowing smirk.

And yet Morris must also have been surprised to talk with Rumsfeld simply because in some ways, he’s been at the root of Morris’s work for the last decade. After “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” Rumsfeld can finally give Morris not the answers he’s looking for but the perspective straight from the horse’s mouth.

In some ways, “The Unknown Known” is Morris repeating the style and the work…

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Captain America The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most bullet-ridden superhero movie ever

Captain America is a hero of morals and integrity. He represents the American ideal not because of his politics but because of his values. And yet his presence in comics dating back to World War II has always had to contend with the American political sphere. What would be the implications if the values of America’s greatest hero no longer matched America’s behavior?

Marvel took an ambitious step by removing Captain America from his ’40s origin story and dropping him into the modern day. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a film in which Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) must now grapple with thorny, ripped from the headlines debates surrounding America’s defense spending, use of military drones and their technological dominion over our privacy.

It’s the first time a Marvel film has presented grave, real-world stakes. In one way, the modern setting makes “The Winter Soldier” feel hardly like a superhero movie at all, closer to a conspiracy thriller complete with modern weaponry and combat. But in another way, Directors Anthony and Joe Russo’s placement of the film well within the Marvel template and “Cinematic Universe” make the presentation of “The Winter Soldier’s” vague political ideas that much queasier.

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St. Vincent

St. Vincent at the Riviera Theater, Chicago: Concert Review

St. Vincent is an alien from another world.

This much might be obvious to anyone who has digested the sonic mayhem of her albums, with guitars distorted beyond recognition, baritone saxes providing a funky bite and a Theremin being tortured in place of a solo.

And yet Annie Clark’s meticulously choreographed stage show for her self titled tour suggest that this alien has a scarily deep insight into our heads and a palpable tension as she readies an attack.

“Hello ladies and gentleman, and hello others,” Clark addresses the audience. “We’re not so different, you and I.” In between songs she’ll slyly suggest the questionable behavior and thoughts we all share while leaning heavily on her own creepy confessional. She’ll admit to fantasizing about seeing people naked on the L, about looking at her hands and believing there to be a mix-up, or telling a lie and fearing the universe might be punishing her.

Such is the way an alien might communicate, but Clark utilized the remainder of her near two hour set at the Riv Saturday night seducing, entrancing and terrorizing through her exotic dancing and strobe lighting used “extensively.”

Clark’s outfit makes her look like she came from the same planet Lady Gaga calls home. She wears an extremely short black frock with red plumage bursting from her chest, beset by silvery hair strewn in all directions and glowing, turquoise eye shadow made to clash. Continue reading


‘Noah’ is a mess of Biblical proportions

Randy “The Ram” in “The Wrestler” abused himself in the ring just so that he could feel anything. In the end he brought himself to the brink of his strength. Nina Sayers in “Black Swan” tortured her body to achieve perfection and beauty and ultimately found herself battling her psyche.

Darren Aronofsky’s protagonists are conflicted souls, testing their minds, morals and beliefs in pursuit of something nobler. The biblical story of Noah finds his faith in God pit against mankind, forced to choose between innocence, justice and love.

Or at least that’s Aronofsky’s version. “Noah” is Aronofsky’s ambitious interpretation of the Bible tale, and unlike the surreal grittiness found in his previous films, his mix of fantasy and portent is a paradoxical mess. It’s a movie about beauty in which the colors have been sapped from all traces of the Earth. It’s one of human decency in which mankind is depicted as ravenous, ugly, violent, carnivorous or worse, flavorless. It’s a morality tale in which the hero is less given a moral choice as he is driven to madness. It’s a movie about faith, miracles and spirituality, but ostensibly avoids religion or even the mention of the word “God”.

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