- Christoph Waltz
The Zero Theorem
Directed by Terry Gilliam. Opens Tue 9/16
Terry Gilliam's latest sci-fi fantasy got mixed reviews when it premiered at the Venice film festival last fall, but the critics were unanimously impressed with the film's production design, which many likened to that of Gilliam's masterpiece Brazil. In her largely negative review for the Hollywood Reporter, Deborah Young conceded, "This is unmistakably a film by Terry Gilliam, whose humorously futuristic visuals (the action is set a bit in the future) expressively mock the commercialized, big business, computer-ridden life of today. . . . The inventively chaotic sets and absurdly colored costumes vibrate on a vaguely Philip K. Dick wavelength." Christoph Waltz stars as a neurotic computer programmer on a mission to calculate the meaning of life; the supporting players include Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, and Mélanie Thierry. First-time screenwriter Pat Rushin has cited the Book of Ecclesiastes as his primary inspiration, though the finished film has been described as wacky and satirical. —Ben Sachs
- James Cagney
Fri 9/26 and Tue 9/30: 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2600, siskelfilmcenter.org. $11.
Make a comedy for stupid Americans and you might wind up on 4,000 screens; make a comedy about how stupid Americans are and you'll be lucky to wind up on one. Back in 2006, writer-director Mike Judge followed his cult comedy Office Space with Idiocracy, a dystopian not-quite-fantasy whose hero wakes up 500 years in the future to discover that the U.S. is completely populated with TV-narcotized morons. 20th Century Fox buried the movie, refusing to screen it for critics or provide the barest promotional campaign; it opened in seven cities and closed instantly. But revenge is sweet: on December 5 and 9, the tony Art Institute of Chicago will present Idiocracy at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of "The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies From the U.S.," a semester-long film-and-lecture series with critic (and Reader contributor) Jonathan Rosenbaum. Among the other hackle-raising features are Jerry Lewis's The Ladies Man (9/19, 9/23), Billy Wilder's Avanti! (10/3, 10/7), Steven Spielberg's 1941 (10/24, 10/28), Albert Brooks's Modern Romance (10/31, 11/4), Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (11/7, 11/11), and Joe Dante's Matinee (11/14, 11/18).
You may already have seen some of those titles, but the series also includes one relic that, as far as I can tell, hasn't screened in Chicago in at least 40 years: Roy Del Ruth's raucous Blonde Crazy (1931). James Cagney, shortly after his star-making performance in The Public Enemy, stars as a bellboy who shows the ropes to incoming chambermaid Joan Blondell, and the pre-Code sexual horseplay prompts what must be a record number of face slaps. But the movie doesn't really bare its fangs until Cagney ditches the hotel job to become a full-time con man and recruits Blondell as his accomplice; their biggest suckers are pillars of society indulging their secret appetites, and the biggest crook in the story turns out to be an investment banker. So America hasn't changed much. —J.R. Jones
- Ben Affleck
Directed by David Fincher. Opens Fri 10/3.
Having adapted every mom's favorite Swedish crime novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher returns to the realm of popular fiction with Gone Girl, based on the best-selling book by Chicago writer Gillian Flynn. The story concerns a former journalist (Ben Affleck) whose wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing; the husband becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance, but things aren't what they seem. Fincher made The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo his own by heightening the story's latent nihilism and feminist politics, a move the book's devotees hated; he'll likely do the same with Gone Girl, whose pulpy sensibility and psychosexual tension fit squarely in the director's wheelhouse. In fact the buzz surrounding the film is that Flynn, who wrote the screenplay, overhauled the book's ending for Fincher. Those of us who couldn't care less can look forward to another twisty, provocative Fincher thriller. —Drew Hunt
- Charlton Heston as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar
10/2, 7 PM: Northwestern University Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston, 847-491-4000, blockmuseum.northwestern.edu, $6.
"David Bradley was young, but he was no kid," wrote Charlton Heston of the man who directed him in his first movie. "He may have been something like a genius." A grandson of Charles Banks Shedd, a benefactor of the Shedd Aquarium, Bradley took up amateur filmmaking as a student at Northwestern University, and in 1942 he recruited Heston, then a student at New Trier High School, to star in a 16-millimeter silent version of Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Eight years later, after Heston had become a fledgling stage and TV actor in New York, Bradley roped him into another 16-millimeter production, casting him as Mark Antony in what was, incredibly, the first-ever screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. It screens at Block Cinema, copresented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society.
Bradley may have been born to money, but he knew how to stretch a buck: his Julius Caesar was produced on a budget of about $15,000 (in today's dollars, a little more than $148,000). Aside from Heston and cameraman Louis McMahon, who were each paid $50 a week, the cast and crew worked for free. Bradley took advantage of Chicago's classical architecture to make the movie look a lot more expensive. "I did Antony's 'Friends, Romans, countrymen!' on the steps of the Field Museum," remembered Heston. "David staged a marvelous tracking shot on top of Soldier's Field [sic], dollying more than a hundred yards down a double colonnade of Ionic columns. We murdered Caesar in the Masonic Temple, a full-scale replica of the Roman senate, in front of a marble replica of the statue of Pompey where the conspirators actually struck him down." The climactic Battle of Philippi was shot at the Indiana Dunes.
Given this indie improvisation, Julius Caesar is remarkably effective: Bradley's striking compositions would earn him the nickname "the 16-millimeter Orson Welles," and the action sometimes gives way to bold expressionism. When Calpurnia dreams of Caesar's murder, Bradley cuts from lightning streaking across the sky to close-ups of stone lions; Cassius stabs at the camera with his dagger as water runs past the lens; blood drips down the face of a statue and snakes through cracks in a cobblestone street. Julius Caesar eventually found its way out to LA, where private screenings won Bradley a directing internship at MGM and may have helped Heston secure his star-making contract with producer Hal Wallis. Bradley didn't exactly take Hollywood by storm—his last directing credit was for the TV movie They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968)—but once Heston got back into a toga, there was no stopping him. —J.R. Jones
- The Black Tower
The new "Conversations at the Edge" program
Thu 10/16, 6 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, siskelfilmcenter.org, $11.
"CATE" is a screening series that takes place on Thursday evenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and when I saw that John Smith would be presenting his work there in October, I let out an involuntary yelp. Smith is one of my favorite experimental filmmakers, and his piece The Black Tower is one of my favorite films. He makes pitch-perfect, often humorous structural short films that upend the familiar, pointing attention to our understanding of reality, observation, language, and image in film and daily life. I've seen his films from the 70s and 80s, but haven't been able to see very much of his more recent video work. The chance to view an hour-long program with Smith there in person all the way from the UK to discuss it should not be missed! —Lilli Carré
Carré's exhibition is up through 10/18 at Western Exhibitions, 845 W. Washington, second floor, 312-480-8390, westernexhibitions.com.
- Gael García Bernal (right)
Directed by Jon Stewart. Opens Fri 11/7.
In the days leading up to the fiercely contested Iranian election of June 2009, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart sent "correspondent" Jason Jones to Tehran. Jones questions various Iranians about their hatred for the United States; their tolerant responses knock the idea of Iranian evil off its axis. One of the interviewees was Maziar Bahari, a native of Iran but now a Canadian citizen and Newsweek contributor. By the time the Daily Show segment aired, Bahari had been arrested on suspicion of spying for the CIA, MI6, and Mossad; as proof his interrogators produced video footage of the Jones interview.
Bahari spent 118 days in the notorious Evin Prison, where, he says, he was tortured. After his release he wrote a best-selling memoir, Then They Came for Me, and last year Stewart took a leave of absence from The Daily Show to adapt the book into a feature film, Rosewater. (The title refers to the scent worn by Bahari's primary interrogator.) Gael García Bernal plays Bahari. Comparisons to Argo are inevitable, though whether Stewart will provide a more nuanced depiction of the Iranian people than the angry, faceless hordes of the Oscar-winning Ben Affleck movie remains to be seen. —Mimi Brody
Brody is the program director at Northwestern University's Block Cinema.
- Steve Carell (left) and Channing Tatum
Directed by Bennett Miller. Opens Fri 11/14.
I'm a sucker for comedians going dramatic, and Steve Carell is already collecting raves for his performance in this true-crime drama by Bennett Miller. Carell plays John du Pont, an heir to the family fortune who distinguished himself as an ornithologist and later in life bankrolled a training facility for wrestlers on his Philadelphia estate. In January 1996, du Pont shot and killed Dave Schultz, an Olympic gold medalist who had been coaching the millionaire's Team Foxcatcher; diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, du Pont was convicted of third-degree murder and died in prison. Miller made his dramatic directing debut with Capote (2005), which featured an Oscar-winning performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and followed it with Moneyball (2011), which garnered Oscar nominations for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, so I imagine that Carell and his costars (Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz and Channing Tatum as the victim's brother, Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz) are all getting their tuxedos cleaned. —J.R. Jones
- Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, and Shailene Woodley
White Bird in a Blizzard
Directed by Gregg Araki. Opens Fri 10/24.
Gregg Araki's 2004 screen adaptation of the Scott Heim novel Mysterious Skin revealed a pathos and sensitivity only hinted at in the writer-director's previous films, which are known for their campy sensibility. Skin also features the strongest lead performance of any Araki feature, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's nuanced portrayal of a gay hustler haunted by memories of childhood abuse. Araki's subsequent comedies, Smiley Face (2007) and Kaboom! (2010), suggested that Skin would be a one-off in his career, so it came as a pleasant surprise when he announced that he was adapting Laura Kasischke's grim 1999 novel White Bird in a Blizzard, about a suburban teenage girl (played here by Shailene Woodley) whose homemaker mother (Eva Green) disappears without a trace. Like Skin, White Bird alternates between a chronological narrative and increasingly detailed flashbacks to the characters' traumatic past experiences. Araki did well by that structure before; here's hoping he does it again. —Ben Sachs
Correction: The item on Julius Caesar has been amended to correctly identify Charles Banks Shedd's relationship to the Shedd Aquarium.