The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Gibney)
2. Trances (El Maanouni)
3. Operation Zanahoria (Buchichio)
4. Casa Grande, or the Ballad of Poor Jean (Barbosa)
5. Phoenix (Petzold)
6. The Exorcist (Friedkin)
7. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini)
8. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
9. Touki Bouki (Mambety)
10. The Staircase II: The Last Chance (de Lestrade)


Review Round-Up: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT and THE BLUE ROOM

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the uber-hip “Iranian vampire western” by first-time American director Ana Lily Amirpour, has recently become Kino/Lorber’s highest grossing theatrical release of all time. Since it will be returning to the Siskel Center in Chicago for another theatrical engagement beginning Friday, I thought I’d use the occasion to inaugurate a new feature where I post reviews in full on this blog that I originally wrote for other sites a while ago. Here are capsule reviews of the Amirpour film, which I enjoyed but wasn’t as taken with as a lot of other folks, and Mathieu Amalric’s criminally underseen erotic thriller The Blue Room. Both of these reviews originally appeared at Cine-File Chicago to coincide with their first Chicago runs.

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Ana Lily Amirpour’s A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (New American)

Distributor Kino/Lorber has cannily but misleadingly marketed A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT as the “first Iranian vampire western.” The film’s writer/director, Ana Lily Amirpour, was born in London to Iranian parents and raised in America; it was shot in Bakersfield, California (standing in for a fictional Iranian ghost town named “Bad City”); the cast consists almost entirely of Persian-American actors speaking Farsi; and, aside from a stray spaghetti-western-inflected song or two on the diegetic-heavy soundtrack, the movie bears almost no relationship whatsoever to the western genre. It would be more accurate to describe this stylishly crafted, auspicious debut feature as an adult version of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN–a poignant love story about the coming together of two lonely souls, one of whom just happens to be a vampire. The fact that the titular bloodsucker is a hijab-wearing young woman (the excellent Sheila Vand) who only preys on “bad men” has drawn both political and feminist allegorical readings from critics, although this is arguably giving too much credit to a film whose substance is primarily to be found in its surface pleasures. Still, what a surface. Amirpour and director of photography Lyle Vincent weave a potent alchemical magic with their high-contrast black-and-white cinematography–Amirpour’s almost exclusive focus on nighttime exteriors in weird industrial locations (i.e., Bakersfield’s oil refineries, factories, and railroad yards) recalls the nightmarish atmosphere of her hero David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD but, combined with her impeccable taste in pop-music cues, creates a dreamy/druggy vibe that is both entrancing and wholly her own. It’s probably too early to tell whether the movie’s weaker second half is the result of Amirpour’s failure to build narrative momentum or a byproduct of the fact that her true talents may lie outside the realm of traditional storytelling altogether; A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT’s single best moment is a non-sequitur involving a drag-queen dancing with a balloon. In this startling non-narrative sequence, the charm of the choreography between performer and balloon is almost perfectly matched by the charm of the choreography between camera and performer. (2014, 99 min, DCP Digital) MGS

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night Rating: 7.1

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Mathieu Amalric’s THE BLUE ROOM (New French)

“Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after.” So says Julien Gahyde (director and co-writer Mathieu Amalric), an adulterous–and possibly murderous–farm equipment sales rep, in response to a gendarme’s incessant questions concerning an ambiguous crime. Gahyde’s year-long affair with a beautiful but unstable pharmacist, Esther Despierre (co-writer Stephanie Cleau), also married, ends in tragedy but this erotic thriller is ingeniously constructed to only teasingly parcel out the narrative information; the nonlinear structure, which has its origins in Georges Simenon’s 1964 source novel, shuttles back and forth in time between the illicit lovers’ meetings in the titular hotel room and a series of police interrogations and eventual criminal trial much later, all the while daringly eliding the crime (or crimes) at the film’s center altogether. The “exchange of murders” conceit may be familiar from Alfred Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN but the impressive formal control is Amalric’s own. As an actor, he’s long specialized in playing unhinged fuck-ups for other filmmakers but, under his own sure directorial hand, allows himself an impressive restraint to match the rigor of his mise-en-scene: Amalric’s famously expressive peepers do less work here than the disorienting close-ups and boxy aspect ratio, which combine to convey a potent sense of claustrophobia and doom. THE BLUE ROOM is as tight and compressed as Amalric’s earlier ON TOUR was messy and sprawling and, at only 76 minutes, manages to be both free of flab and capable of sticking to one’s ribs. Potential viewers are forewarned to pay special attention to the closing minutes–a final twist is so subtle it will go unnoticed by many. (2014, 76 min, DCP Digital) MGS

The Blue Room Rating: 8.7


European Union Film Fest: Final Week / Flickering Empire at the CUP Blog

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I have a new blog post at Time Out Chicago today concerning Carlos Vermut’s Magical Girl, a terrific new Spanish film that plays twice during the last week of the European Union Film Festival. It is not only one of my favorites of the 11 EUFF films I saw this year, it is literally the only one that does not have a U.S. distributor. I compare it to the best work of David Lynch because of its darkness, eroticism and puzzle-like nature but this second feature by a promising young filmmaker is also a work of utter originality. If you live in Chicago, don’t miss it. It’s a magical movie and this may be your only chance to see it.

In other news, Flickering Empire has been selected as the featured book on the Columbia University Press blog this week. They’ve feature a nifty two-part interview with me, a guest blog post by me, and run a contest to give away a free copy of the book. You can enter said contest by e-mailing your name and address to pl2164@columbia.edu. Winners will be chosen Friday, March 26 at 1PM. You can check out the blog here: http://www.cupblog.org


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. In the Shadows (Arslan)
2. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli)
3. Halloween (Carpenter)
4. An Affair to Remember (McCarey)
5. Nightfall (Tourneur)
6. The Band Wagon (Minnelli)
7. While We’re Young (Baumbach)
8. Force Majeure (Ostlund)
9. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch)
10. Psycho (Hitchcock)


E.U. Film Festival Week Three: Vote for Pedro!

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At Cine-File today I have a review of Horse Money, the latest film from Portuguese master Pedro Costa, which receives its Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival tonight. It’s Costa’s fourth consecutive fiction feature to examine the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants living in the Lisbon shantytown of Fontainhas (which hopefully means the Criterion Collection will upgrade their Fontainhas trilogy DVD box-set to a new quadrilogy Blu-ray set) and, in many ways, it’s the most accessible since the first, 1997’s Ossos. It also forms a diptych with Costa’s last fiction feature, 2006’s Colossal Youth, since both take the retired construction worker known only as “Ventura” as their subject. This is flat-out amazing filmmaking, folks, as poetic as it is political, and informed by a cinephilia that is put to very different ends than the self-congratulatory, spot-the-reference, Tarantino/Simpsons variety that has become depressingly commonplace in contemporary American culture. Note, for instance, the way Ventura is alternately lit and framed to resemble both Darby Jones in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (i.e., as he wanders the halls of a hospital in a zombie-like trance) at the film’s beginning and Woody Strode in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (i.e., made to seem heroic) during the film’s astonishing climactic elevator/”exorcism” scene — and what each of these visual quotations reveals about his character.

Both Costa and John Ford frame their protagonists from below but light them from above, making the characters seem heroic:

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I also had the great pleasure of interviewing Costa for Time Out Chicago this week. I asked him if Horse Money‘s final shot, which depicts Ventura looking at knives in a store’s display window, was an homage to a similar shot in Fritz Lang’s M. He said that it wasn’t a conscious reference but added that I may have been right to bring up the man he reverentially calls “Mr. Lang” (whose films were so concerned with “justice”) before adding the killer line, “Our films should avenge.” You can read the complete interview here.

Darby Jones as Carrefour in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur masterpiece I Walked with a Zombie:

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Peter Lorre, as the child killer Hans Beckert, looking at knives in a display window in Fritz Lang’s M:

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Housebound (Johnstone)
2. The Bridges of Madison County (Eastwood)
3. Failan (Song)
4. Maps to the Stars (Cronenberg)
5. Horse Money (Costa)
6. Magical Girl (Vermut)
7. The Housemaid (Kim)
8. Variete (Dupont)
9. Eden (Hansen-Love)
10. Land Ho! (Katz/Stephens)


European Union Film Fest Week Two / “Some Luck” at the Movies

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For the second week of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Fest, I have reviews of Alain Resnais’ final film Life of Riley and the Belgian documentary N: The Madness of Reason at Cine-File and a review of Eugene Green’s love letter to Italian architecture, La Sapienza, at Time Out.

On Sunday, March 29, I will be giving a talk at the Wilmette Public Library about Jane Smiley’s 2014 novel Some Luck, a multi-generational epic about the lives of a family of Iowan farmers from the end of WWI through the early 1950s. Innovative yet accessible, this wonderful novel uses an elliptical structure to chart the fortunes of the Langdon family — with each of Smiley’s short chapters corresponding to a full year in their lives. My talk will focus on relevant farm-related films (from F.W. Murnau’s City Girl in 1930 to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven in 1978) that likewise show how the lives of men and women who live and work on farms play out against the backdrop of the harvesting and reaping cycles — creating a rich and uniquely American cinematic tapestry.

This event is part of the library’s “One Book, Everybody Reads” program, which will culminate with an April 26 appearance by Smiley herself. More information can be found on the WPL website here: http://www.wilmettelibrary.info/


Melika Bass’ The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast

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Chicago-based experimental filmmaker Melika Bass will be appearing at the Hyde Park Art Center this Sunday from 2:00 – 4:00 pm to give an “artist talk” in conjunction with her superb installation The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast, which opened in January and runs through April 19. I’d like to use this occasion to reprint my Time Out Chicago review of her show here (originally published on January 29):

One of the most exciting film events happening in Chicago this winter is not a movie playing in a commercial theater but rather an installation involving the simultaneous projection of four short films at the Hyde Park Art Center’s Kanter McCormick Gallery. The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast, the latest work by local experimental filmmaker Melika Bass (Shoals), offers more of the beautiful, yet vaguely terrifying, portraits of souls in isolation in which this artist seems to specialize. Each of the shorts depicts an individual alone, but nonetheless “performing”: A man writes a manifesto in a wood shop then recites it aloud to no one; a young woman sings a hymn in an empty cathedral; a man plays the piano after listening to a recording of a sermon in his car; and the same woman from the church reappears to wash her hands in a river.

The most impressive aspect of this exhibit is the way these fragmented narratives seem to interact (or not interact) depending on where one is standing in the dimly lit gallery. It is never possible to see all four images simultaneously, although one can see each image along with two of the others in the periphery. This “choose your own adventure” aspect is greatly aided by the sound design, always a highlight in Bass’s work. Different audio tracks (the sounds of a woman cleaning herself in a public restroom, spoken and sung texts referencing war and God, crickets chirping, a river running, etc.) emanate from different speakers to create an awesome stereophonic experience. The sounds—even more than the images—are responsible for pulling spectators into a kind of nightmarish but strangely comfortable whirlpool.

More info about Melika’s talk and the installation can be found on the Hyde Park Art Center’s official website: http://www.hydeparkart.org/events/2015-03-15-exhibition-viewing-film-screening-artist-talk-with-melika-bass


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. What We Do in the Shadows (Clement/Waititi)
2. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
3. Sexy Beast (Glazer)
6. Tip Top (Bozon)
5. Citizen Kane (Welles)
6. The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
7. Big Deal on Madonna Street (Monicelli)
8. La Sapienza (Green)
9. Amour Fou (Hausner)
10. Inherent Vice (Anderson)


European Union Film Festival Week 1 / In the Shadows at Transistor

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Somehow, over the course of its impressive 18-year-run, the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival has become the most important film festival in Chicago. This is, quite frankly, astonishing, especially when one considers that the EUFF is only drawing on movies from a single continent and that the Siskel Center undoubtedly has a smaller budget to operate with than some of the city’s other longer-running festivals. Yet the evidence is undeniable: year in and year out, the EUFF brings in the films that local cinephiles are most excited to see, the ones that are routinely missing from the Chicago International Film Festival’s fall lineup. Movies playing this year’s EUFF that could’ve conceivably played last October’s CIFF but didn’t include Alain Resnais’s Life of Riley, Bruno Dumont’s L’il Quinquin, Pedro Costa‘s Horse Money, Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Park Bench Reflecting on Existence, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, Eugene Green’s La Sapienza, Ann Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery and Serge Bozon’s Tip Top. And those are just the films by established auteurs. The EUFF is also a great place to take a chance on movies you’ve never heard of, some of which may wind up with U.S. distribution, others of which may vanish as mysteriously as they arrived. (Two of my favorite films of this decade, the Spanish Aita and the Italian Pretty Butterflies both briefly played the EUFF but remain sadly unavailable in the States.) For the next four weeks I’ll have reviews of EUFF movies at both Time Out Chicago and Cine-File Chicago. In contrast to previous years, when I was reviewing films expressly for my site, I will only be writing up movies this year that I highly recommend. For the EUFF’s first week, I already have reviews of Li’l Quinquin and Gemma Bovery at Time Out and a review of Amour Fou at Cine-File.

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In other news, Andy Miles has asked me to curate a new film series at Transister Chicago. For my inaugural screening, I’ve chosen to present Thomas Arslan’s In the Shadows, a terrific German heist picture in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville. Originally released in 2010, In the Shadows tells the story of “Trojan” (Misel Maticevic), a career criminal who emerges from prison only to immediately embark on a new heist job. Meanwhile, both the cops and a former gangster-nemesis plot to bring about his downfall. Arslan’s mastery of the heist movie here is every bit as impressive as his mastery of the Eric Rohmer-style intellectual rom-com in his superb earlier film A Fine Day (2001). Every element of this minimalist film fits together with the precision of a Swiss watch and yet, after In the Shadows has marched inexorably to its finale, the conclusion still manages to surprise in its supremely cool irony. This FREE screening of In the Shadows, its Chicago premiere, will occur on Saturday, March 21 at 8pm. More info at the Transistor website here: http://www.transistorchicago.com/32115


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