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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. F for Fake (Welles)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
3. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)
4. Vagabond (Varda)
5. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
6. Listen Up Philip (Perry)
7. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Craig)
8. Alien (Scott)
9. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt)
10. I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur)

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50th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card, pt. 1

Here is the first part of my 50th CIFF report card, including the best films I saw at the fest — with ratings of 7.5 or higher — and featuring four new capsule reviews (of Winter Sleep, Clouds of Sils Maria, Of Horses and Men and It Follows). Part two, detailing films rated 7.4 or lower, will follow next week.

Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania/Mali) – Rating: 9.5. Review here.

The Babadook (Kent, Australia) – Rating: 9.2. Review here.

Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey) – Rating: 8.8

winter

Nuri Bilge Ceylan follows up his 2011 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia with this impressive near-companion piece, which is focused on dialogue-driven interior scenes as much as the earlier film was on its majestically filmed journey through the barren Turkish landscape. The central figure here is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired actor who runs a hotel in Anatolia with his pretty young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), and his combative sister Necla (Demet Akbag). The verbal sparring with which Aydin frequently engages both women serves to mask the disappointment he feels with himself over his inability to start his long-cherished dream project of writing a non-fiction account of the history of Turkish theater. While some critics complained that this year’s Jane Campion-led Cannes jury was only recognizing the longest film (and not the best) by bestowing Winter Sleep with the Palme d’Or, this does a disservice to Ceylan’s achievement, which does indeed require each one of its three hours and 16 minutes in order to illustrate the full ridiculousness and tragedy of Aydin’s predicament. Perhaps not as formally perfect as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this is nonetheless a spellbinding experience, masterfully written, directed and performed.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France) – Rating: 8.5

clouds

This backstage drama, written and directed by Olivier Assayas based on an idea pitched to him by lead actress Juliette Binoche, comes frustratingly close to being the best thing the French director has ever done. Binoche channels her inner Gena Rowlands (and even dons oversized sunglasses in one scene) in her portrayal of legendary theatrical actress Maria Enders — an aging diva who returns to the play that made her famous 20 years earlier, only this time in a supporting part to up-and-coming star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). One expects Binoche to be phenomenal — and she is — so the real revelation here is Kristen Stewart as Valentine, Enders’s fiercely loyal personal assistant. The scenes of these two women running lines for the play, in between bouts of debating life, art and culture, crackle with an electrifying female energy, with Stewart fully holding her own against Binoche every step of the way. But Clouds of Sils Maria is also flawed by being overstuffed with ideas; in addition to making nods to All About Eve, Persona and Opening Night, Assaysas wants to send up tabloid-celebrity culture, and the scenes with Moretz are unfortunately pitched at a level of cartoonishness that doesn’t quite jive with the rest of the film. This is essential viewing but I can’t help but wonder what might have been with a more streamlined narrative, one in which Jo-Ann Ellis never appears onscreen.

The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China) – Rating: 8.5. Review here.

Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson, Iceland) – Rating: 8.2

ofhorsesandmen

One of the unexpected gems of this year’s CIFF is this highly original comedy/drama about the relationships between horses and their owners in rural Iceland. The lives of several characters are slyly interwoven, chief among them a man (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who is mortified when his neighbors witness a stallion mounting his mare while he is still riding her. Each of the film’s episodes playfully begins with a shot of a human reflected in a horse’s eye in extreme close-up, a conceit that underscores the idea that these horses are silent witnesses to the folly of their stupid human owners. In other words, this is a lot like an absurdist-comedy version of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Gorgeously photographed and featuring a rousing score, Of Horses and Men marks first-time writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson as a talent to watch.

Miss Julie (Ullmann, Norway/Ireland) – Rating: 8.0. Review here.

It Follows (Mitchell, USA) – Rating: 7.6

itfollows

A high-school girl, Jay Height (Maika Monroe), sleeps with a young man she barely knows and soon finds herself being followed by a mysterious entity that takes the form of a succession of creepy strangers. Jay soon learns that she’s contracted a kind of sexually transmitted disease that will kill her unless she passes it on to another unsuspecting victim. David Robert Mitchell’s impressive fright fest has been making waves since its Cannes debut and, while I don’t think it’s a masterpiece on the order of The Babadook, it is exceedingly refreshing to see a new horror film that conjures a sense of dread primarily from its intelligent mise-en-scene: the use of sinuous tracking shots and zooms combines with depth-staging, a pounding, John Carpenter-esque synth score and Expressionist lighting (the climactic swimming-pool-at-night scene is straight out of Cat People) to create a potent big screen horror movie experience. While I don’t think writer/director David Robert Mitchell quite “sticks the landing” (the film doesn’t so much conclude as abruptly stop) genre aficionados can’t afford to pass this up.

The Way He Looks – Rating: 7.5. Review here.

Special mention for a short film:

Baby Mary (Swanberg, USA) – Review here.

To be continued . . .


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Girls on Liberty Street (Rangel)
2. Whiplash (Chazelle)
3. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
4. Shoals (Bass)
5. Husk (Simmons)
6. Empire Builder (Swanberg)
7. Fort Tilden (Bliss/Rogers)
8. It Follows (Mitchell)
9. Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson)
10. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)


Odds and Ends: Creative Writing and Land Ho!

Creative Writing (Seth McClellan, USA, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 7.2

creative

Now here’s something novel: Chicago-area mass-communications professor Seth McClellan directed this loosely fictionalized drama, his impressive feature debut, based on a racially charged confrontation that happened in one of his creative writing classes. In a fascinating experiment that must have been cathartic for all involved, McClellan had the real-life principals (including himself) both contribute to the screenplay and play versions of themselves. Through a series of jazzy and dynamically intercut scenes, Creative Writing follows the individual lives of a small group of students: Tracey (Tracey Ewert) dreams of being a famous writer, Arlene (Arlene Torres) kills time by playing video games, Stephen (Stephen Styles) works for a realty company while also working towards his degree, and Mike (Michael Davis) has to contend with an Alzheimer’s-addled father (Dennis McNamara). The various stories converge when Mike, who is white, is mugged by an African American, an event that prompts the misguided young man to write and read aloud in class a racist short story in which he imagines exacting revenge. The cast of mostly non-professional actors do a uniformly fine job of giving naturalistic performances but McLellan, a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild who resembles a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, also wisely reserves the heavyweight dramatic moments for himself. Made on a shoestring budget but nicely shot in black-and-white digital, this is tough, provocative, honest and intelligent stuff.

Creative Writing screens three times at the Siskel Center between October 24 and October 30. Members of the cast and crew will be present for all screenings. Exact showtimes and ticket info can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

Land Ho! (Aaron Katz/Martha Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – Music Box / Rating: 8.1

landho

I don’t want to oversell it — because the virtues of this low-key comedy are modest by design — but I enjoyed the hell out of every one of Land Ho!‘s breezy 94 minutes and left the theater wondering why I can’t see a new indie movie like this every week. This is the first film I’ve encountered from either of its two chief architects, Aaron Katz and Martha Stevens (a pair of American independents who have previously only worked separately), but it certainly won’t be the last. What’s perhaps most surprising here, in a movie full of pleasant surprises, is just how well these young writer/directors nail the poignant plight of senior citizens: the premise is that two elderly, recently retired former brothers-in-law, Kentuckian Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Australian Colin (Paul Eenhorn), take a spontaneous vacation to Iceland in order to “get their groove back.” The film pleasantly coasts by on the effortless charm of the two leads, whose personalities appropriately contrast with one another: Mitch is a gregarious old perv who smokes weed and regales anyone who will listen with dirty jokes and useless banter about Hollywood starlets; Colin is moodier and more introspective, still licking his wounds from a recent divorce. While descriptions of their interactions might sound like the worst kind formulaic Hollywood claptrap (e.g., Last Vegas), Katz and Stephens ingeniously refuse, at every turn, to bow to cliche. Neither of these dudes “learn anything” or “change” during their week-long sojourn, which makes the whole thing feel amusingly and gratifyingly life-like. Another plus: the ethereally beautiful landscapes of Iceland.

Following its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run,
Land Ho! will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 4th.


Facets Kids App

I directed the official Kickstarter video for the new Facets Kids app, an invaluable new tool that will allow children to download quality indie and foreign films. I had a lot of fun working with child actors for the first time and trying to create something whimsical in the style of Wes Anderson.

Facets is currently trying to raise $50,000 by November 22 for this very worthy cause and is offering a host of exciting perks for every donation level (including mentorships with filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Steve James and Jill Godmilow). Please watch the video, check out the Kickstarter page and consider becoming a backer today:

Credits

Directed by Michael Glover Smith
Written by Josh Lebowitz
Cinematography and editing by Alex Halstead
Original score by Tony Green
Production design by Emily Railsback
Sound engineered by Grant Winship


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Creep (Brice)
2. The Fly (Cronenberg)
3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
4. St. Vincent (Melfi)
5. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich)
6. The Midnight After (Chan)
7. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)
8. The Word (Kazejak)
9. The Babadook (Kent)
10. Miss Julie (Ullmann)


The Catastrophe at Terroir Film Night

terroir

My short film The Catastrophe, winner of the Best Dramatic Short at the Illinois International Film Festival in 2011, will be screening this Sunday night at the Red & White Wine Shop’s “Terroir Film Night.” Advertised as a “night of natural wines and local films,” this adventurous program curated by Emily Railsback will feature short “dark-themed” works by local filmmakers including Al Benoit, Larissa Berringer, Chris Hefner, Mark Winters, Railsback and yours truly.

According to Railsback, “Terroir can be very loosely translated as ‘a sense of place,’ which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Both wine and film are better when you understand their connection to the place they came from, thus: Terroir Film Night: A night of natural wines and local films at Red & White Wine Shop.”

Admission is $10. Or buy a bottle of wine / beer ($10 or more) to waive the entry fee. This includes a free Free Wine Tasting from 7 – 8pm and film screenings at 8pm.

For more info, check out the official facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1489707141278481/

Hope to see you there!


50th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Below is part two of my 50th Chicago International Film Festival preview. The full schedule, with ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the CIFF website here.

Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
Rating: 9.5

timbuktu

Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball.

Timbuktu screens on Wednesday, October 15 and Thursday, October 16.

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
Rating: 9.2

babadook

Amelia (Essie Davis), a young nursing-home employee, is tragically widowed in a car accident when her husband drives her to the hospital so she can give birth to their first child. Six years later, she can’t help but associate her troubled son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) with her beloved husband’s death. Amelia is frustrated by Samuel’s seemingly delusional belief that their household is being menaced by a shadowy monster named “Mr. Babadook,” a belief that is given credence by the mysterious arrival in their home of a children’s book of the same title (one of the most terrifying props in film history). This debut feature by Jennifer Kent is the best horror film I’ve seen in ages, not only because it manages to be scary without resorting to cliche — in itself a hugely impressive feat for this genre — but also because its story and characters are so believably rooted in primal, real-world psychological fears. Exceedingly well acted and art-directed (the disturbing intrusion of a red book into a home that is otherwise color-coded blue-gray is but one of the nice touches), The Babadook is already well on its way to achieving cult-classic status.

The Babadook screens on Tuesday, October 21.

Baby Mary (Kris Swanberg, USA)
Rating: 9.0

BabyMary

If you are considering attending one of CIFF’s various shorts programs, you might want to check out “Shorts 1: City and State — Locally Sourced,” which features the work of local Chicago filmmakers. Among the nine mini-movies being offered is Baby Mary, writer/director Kris Swanberg’s follow-up to her criminally underrated feature Empire Builder. In an African-American neighborhood on the city’s west side, an 8-year-old girl attempts to rescue a neighbor’s baby from neglect — taking her home, renaming her “Baby Mary,” and feeding her applesauce. It is lightly hinted that the protagonist’s maternal altruism is a byproduct of neglect at the hands of her own mother but Swanberg’s approach is thankfully more observational than editorial. Like Empire Builder, an otherwise very different film, this poignant but unsentimental short is more interested in raising questions than providing answers. What’s not in doubt is the wealth of feeling packed into its compact nine minutes, making it a far more rewarding experience than most contemporary American features.

Baby Mary screens on Tuesday, October 14, Friday, October 17 and Sunday, October 19. Swanberg will be in attendance for the first and last of these shows.

Ne Me Quitte Pas (Sabine Lubbe Bakker/Niels van Koevorden, Holland/Belgium)
Rating: 7.4

nemequittepas

With each passing year, I become more and more interested in non-traditional documentaries. This Belgian/Dutch co-production, accurately described in the CIFF program as a “breakout dark comedy alcoholic bromance,” fits the bill nicely. Eschewing direct-to-camera interviews, co-directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden follow the curious and intimate friendship between two rural middle-age men over a span of several months, resulting in an impressive verite doc that unfolds like art-house fiction. The men in question are Bob, a self-styled cowboy with occasional suicidal thoughts, and Marcel, a newly divorced alcoholic father of two, who are depicted as constantly commiserating with one other before, during and after the latter’s stint in rehab. I’m not sure how much the unusually unguarded behavior of the protagonists has to do with their copious alcohol consumption but most of this sad, funny and strange little movie rings true.

Ne Me Quitte Pas screens on Friday, Ocotber 17 and Tuesday, October 21.


Oakton Community College’s 1st Annual Pop-Up Film Festival

I am super-excited to announce that I have achieved my life-long dream of programming a film festival: Oakton Community College’s First Annual Pop-Up Film Festival (P.U.F.F.) will feature vital recent work by four exciting contemporary independent American filmmakers, spanning various genres and styles. The screenings will all take place at Oakton’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, October 21st through Friday, October 24th. Three of the screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Film Studies professors, including yours truly. The screenings are all FREE and open to the public. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

Empire Builder (Directed by Kris Swanberg, 70 minutes, 2012)
Tuesday, October 21st at 2:00 pm

empire

New mother Jenny (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her baby leave their comfortable Chicago high rise and travel to the remote Montana cabin she has inherited. But as she waits for her husband to arrive, Jenny’s life takes an unsettling turn when she begins a dangerous relationship with the property handyman. Followed by a Q&A with Kris Swanberg conducted by Michael Smith.

Shoals (Directed by Melika Bass, 52 minutes, 2012)
Wednesday, October 22nd at 12:30 pm

Shoals

On the grounds of a rural sanitarium, three young women search for wellness, as a cult leader (Chris Sullivan) seeks to control their bodies through labor and daily rituals. A slow-burning prairie grotesque, Shoals won the 2012 Experimental Film Prize at the Athens International Film Festival. Followed by a Q&A with Melika Bass conducted by Therese Grisham.

The Girls on Liberty Street (Directed by John Rangel, 62 minutes, 2013)
Thursday, October 23rd at 6:00 pm

liberty

With one week left until she leaves for the army, teenager Brianna (Brianna Zepeda) spends her time packing and saying goodbye to friends in her suburban Chicago home. But during those seven days, she will confront her fears, hopes and dreams as she prepares to move on to a new chapter of her life. Followed by a Q&A with John Rangel conducted by Laurence Knapp.

The Unspeakable Act (Directed by Dan Sallitt, 91 minutes, 2012)
Friday, October 24th at 12:30 pm

unspeakable

Jackie Kimball (Tallie Medel) is a normal 17-year-old-girl except that she’s in love with her older brother Matthew. Set on a quiet tree-lined street in Brooklyn, this darkly funny film follows Jackie’s coming-of-age as Matthew leaves for college and she sets out to meet other boys — contending with life on her own for the first time.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. Ravenous (Bird)
3. Timbuktu (Sissako)
4. Gone Girl (Fincher)
5. Ne Me Quitte Pas (Van Koevorden/Bakker)
6. The Big Lebowski (Coen/Coen)
7. Miss Julie (Ullmann)
9. A New Leaf (May)
10. Force Majeure (Ostlund)


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