Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan play wannabe lovers in "Jack Goes Boating," Hoffman's directorial debut.
Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley (foreground) play two of the hapless souls caught up in a bleak situation in "Never Let Me Go."
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- More from Dann Gire
I have seen the teen sex comedy "Easy A" three times already, and I'm now convinced that Emma Stone's performance should be on the shortlist of Oscar nominees for best actress.
Yes, I'm serious.
If you've seen "Easy A," you know what I'm talking about.
Stone's performance as a high school student caught up in a flurry of untrue sex rumors is simultaneously whimsical, sexy, vulnerable, smart, funny and utterly without pretense or phoniness.
She carries the movie with professional aplomb and makes Bert Royal's inspired dialogue sing like lyrics with her playful, velvety voice.
But we all know that teen sex comedies don't rank very high on the Academy voters' preferred list of movie genres. I am prepared to be bummed out that Emma Stone will not make the nominees list.
Hey, a critic can hope.
By the way, if you see "Easy A," also watch for Dan Byrd's performance as Stone's gay friend and fellow student. His plea to Stone to help him stop the homophobic bullies in school is heart-wrenching.
Worth a best supporting actor nomination? Maybe not. But it's still a stellar, scene-stealing achievement.
Reel Life review: 'Jack Goes Boating'
Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his directorial debut with this quietly effective domestic romance between a New York limo driver named Jack (Hoffman) and Connie (Amy Ryan), an employee at a Brooklyn funeral home.
They're introduced by Jack's friend and co-worker Clyde (John Ortiz) and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who works with Connie.
The romance, written by Bob Glaudini based on his stage play, carefully charts the rise of the new relationship as the marriage of Clyde and Lucy begins a seemingly fatal disintegration.
"Jack Goes Boating" is a deliberative, measured movie in which Hoffman displays a great love for the characters and demonstrates a confident ability to carefully observe rich, telling details of their world.
In fact, the whole film kind of reminded me of the unfussy, working-class romance between Rocky Balboa and Adrian Pinnino in the early "Rocky" movies - without the boxing matches.
"Jack Goes Boating" opens today at the Century Centre in Chicago and the Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Rated R for sexual situations and language. 89 minutes. . . .
Reel Life review: 'Never Let Me Go'
Let's be clear here. If "Never Let Me Go" had been mounted in regular Hollywood fashion, it would be a gut-wrenching horror movie in which a journalist or detective stumbles upon a systemic conspiracy so inhuman that it would be exposed in the newspapers and decried by moral populations.
"Never Let Me Go," based on Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, has no journalist or detective. No expose. No public outrage or objections.
The responsibility falls upon the audience - you and me - to recognize the horror and supply the outrage. How we respond to this movie is an uncoached, unsolicited test of our humanity.
The story follows three best friends, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, as they grow up together in an English boarding school, apparently for orphans and unwanted children.
They grow up to be played by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield (the future Spider-Man) and Keira Knightley. Mark Romanek directs them through a low-key series of scenes in which a longtime romantic triangle threatens their relationships, all while something vaguely sinister looms over their lives.
I'm being deliberately coy about the plot. Any critic who reveals too much of this story should be stoned.
Mulligan and Garfield create wonderfully wrought characters, sympathetic and very British in the sense that it never occurs to them to rebel against their fate and take on the system, as Americans would be expected to do in movies.
"Never Let Me Go," exquisitely photographed by Adam Kimmel and lushly scored by Rachel Portman, opens at the Century Centre, Chicago. Rated R for sexual situations, nudity. 103 minutes. . . .1/2
Reel Life review: 'Centurion'
"Centurion" is a dark and difficult action movie flooded with dark and blurry action sequences executed by insufficiently rendered characters of minimal interest.
It takes place during the second century A.D. when the Roman empire invaded Britain, but had to put up with an uncooperative band of warriors called the Picts.
Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbinder) leads a Roman squad to rescue Roman General Virilus (Dominic West) captured by the Picts. The Romans really step into the political doo-doo when they kill the son of the Pict leader.
Now, the tiny band must escape a Pict death squad led by the animalistic tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko wearing really dark eye shadow).
British director Neil Marshall, who gave us the nifty 2005 horror thriller "The Descent," seems out of his element here. His characters barely register as human, and the numerous action set pieces feel tired and look visually confusing.
As the Romans would say: caveat emptor.
"Centurion" opens today at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated R for sexual situations and nudity. 97 minutes. . 1/2
Reel Life review: 'Catfish'
I spoke Monday with the filmmakers who shot and edited "Catfish," and they assured me that everything in their documentary is journalistically sound and proper, unlike "I'm Still Here," whose director, Casey Affleck, admitted last week was a hoax. (Big surprise? Nope.)
I bring this up because what happens to the filmmakers in "Catfish" is so outlandish and improbable, it feels like a prank.
"Catfish" begins as a romance, swings into a mystery, evolves into a quest, and winds up as a touching, sad discovery with a surprisingly poignant commentary about people in the 21st century.
It begins when filmmaker Ariel Schulman's brother Nev starts an online friendship with a little girl who paints unbelievably sophisticated pictures based on photographs.
Who is this girl?
Nev, Ariel and their partner Henry Joost investigate, and come up with suspicious evidence suggesting things are not as they appear.
Road trip! They jump into a car and head across country to get to the bottom of things, and they wind up in a movie exploding with excitement and tension before it takes a wild turn into what Monty Python would call "something completely different."
Prepare to repeat: Didn't see that coming.
"Catfish" opens today at the River East 21 in Chicago and the Evanston 18. Rated PG-13 for language. 88 minutes. . . .