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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Day I Became a Woman (Meshkini)
2. Black Christmas (Clark)
3. Silent Movie (Brooks)
4. Film Socialisme (Godard)
5. Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (Guest)
6. Slacker (Linklater)
7. Goodbye to Language (Godard)
8. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
9. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
10. Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (Klinger)

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2014: The Year of the JLG

“I think what (Godard’s) talking about — and this is one of the reasons the dog Roxy is very prominent in the film — is that he’s trying to get people to look at the world in a kind of an unspoiled way. There are hints throughout the film that animal consciousness is kind of closer to the world than we are, that language sets up a barrier or filter or screen between us and what’s really there. And although the film is full of language, talk, printed text and so on, nevertheless I think there’s a sense he wants the viewer to scrape away a lot of the ordinary conceptions we have about how we communicate and look at the world afresh.”

– David Bordwell, interviewed on NPR

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When I started my annual tradition, in December of 2010, of writing a blog post that anointed a certain director as White City Cinema’s “Filmmaker of the Year,” I thought I was doing so with an impish sense of humor: I wanted to give these “awards” to the directors whose films I had spent the most time watching and thinking about over the course of the calendar year, knowing full well that the directors in question, whose work would be extremely relevant to me personally, would also most likely be dead or have their best-known work decades behind them. (Hence, Fritz Lang, on the strength of the “Complete Metropolis” restoration, was my inaugural winner, followed by Orson Welles in 2011, Alfred Hitchcock in 2012 and John Ford in 2013.) I’m happy to announce that this year my Filmmaker of the Year award goes to the soon-to-be 84-year-old Jean-Luc Godard but not on the basis of past glories — although I certainly could have done that if only to celebrate the occasion of Rialto Pictures’ digital restoration and theatrical re-release of Alphaville, which arguably looks more prescient today than in 1965, and Cohen Media Group’s essential, extras-stacked Blu-rays of two of Godard’s best latter-day films: Hail Mary (1984) and For Ever Mozart (1996). No, JLG is, for me, the filmmaker of 2014 solely because of his revolutionary new 3D film, Goodbye to Language, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May and which I was extremely fortunate to see in its sole Wisconsin screening on the evening of November 13th (a benefit fundraiser for the University of Wisconsin’s Cinematheque). I concur completely with film scholar David Bordwell, who introduced the screening I attended, when he said that it is both the best new film he has seen all year as well as the best 3D film he has ever seen.

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While Godard has been a restless innovator for over half a century, his first foray into 3D feature filmmaking has been uncommonly fruitful, resulting in one of his most visually exciting movies. In an interview with the Canon camera company earlier this year, Godard spoke about his attraction to the 3D format by saying, “It is still a place where there are no rules.” In Goodbye to Language, Godard puts his money where his mouth is by intentionally breaking what little 3D rules there are (i.e., one should not allow too much separation between background and foreground objects, one should not allow more than six centimeters between the two cameras being used, etc.). As a result, Godard’s film is as far away as possible from the kind of banal and limited-in-conception 3D effects that one sees in contemporary Hollywood movies with 100 million dollar-plus budgets (where the actors frequently appear superimposed over flat-looking CGI backdrops). Instead, Godard and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno use stereoscopic cinematography the way one imagines Orson Welles might have — to enhance the natural depth of field of an already deep-focus image; in some of the breathtaking seascape shots, for instance, the horizon appears to stretch out to infinity. But Goodbye to Language‘s most revelatory moment is one that so profoundly merges form and content that it has inspired spontaneous applause and laughter at many of the film’s screenings to date (including the Cannes premiere and the Madison show I attended): a 3D image of three characters splits apart to create two separate 2D images when one of the cameras pans to follow two of the characters as they walk towards a lake while the other stationary camera remains trained on the man who stays behind. The two separate images then resolve themselves back into a single 3D image when the three characters are reunited. To witness this retina-bursting shot on a theater screen is to witness the language of cinema expanding before one’s very eyes. It also renders utterly meaningless the possibility of watching a 2D version of the film, which takes the act of seeing and the concept of borders — whether linguistic, geographical or artistic — as its primary subjects.

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Like most of Godard’s long-form work from the 1980s onwards, Goodbye to Language had an unusually long gestation period and grew out of other projects. Several ideas seem to stem from Film Socialisme, including the earlier film’s throwaway line “And when it comes time to talk about equality, I’ll tell you about crap,” which is greatly elaborated on here as a visual joke invoking Rodin’s “Thinker.” More substantially, Goodbye to Language has its origins in a 2006 museum exhibit entitled Voyage(s) en utopie, Godard, 1946-2006, for which the director wrote a “statement of purpose” that read, in part, “In the ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I am’ no longer the same as the ‘I’ of ‘I think’ and why?” Goodbye to Language recycles this Cartesian inquiry and also seeks to answer it with a resounding “no” by offering a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. Godard pointedly shows, through an impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves. I say “humans” because, although the film uses a bifurcated structure to tell the stories of two crumbling romantic relationships (represented by actors Héloïse Godet and Kamel Abdelli in the first half and Richard Chevallier and Zoé Bruneau in the second), the real “star” of Goodbye to Language is Godard’s mixed-breed dog Roxy, who is frequently depicted frolicking in nature, commanding both the most screen time and serving as the subject of some of the film’s most dazzling 3D effects. The shots of Roxy’s handsome snout in the maw of Godard’s homemade 3D-camera rig, which convey an overwhelming feeling of love for the animal on the part of his owner/director, are so rapturously beautiful that they made me want to cry. The film ends by juxtaposing the sounds of a dog barking with that of a baby wailing on the soundtrack, thus linking Roxy not only to nature but, implicitly, to a state of unspoiled innocence that humans possess only prior to learning to speak.

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The main idea that I took away from this dense and allusive film — at least on first viewing — is that Godard believes the cinema itself has become a language that imprisons viewers through its technological inflexibility and over-reliance on traditional narrative structure. At one point, Josette (Godet’s character) says, “In Russian, Kamera means prison,” a line that is complimented by a recurring shot of the same character standing behind a grate of metal bars with a lake in the background behind her. Josette grips the bars with her hand, which, thanks to Godard’s 3D camera, seems almost impossibly far in front of her. A man’s hand soon appears in the frame, gripping the bars from the other side of the grate. This image of imprisonment plays out like the negative version of the “empty hands” shots that recur throughout Nouvelle Vague (1990). But Goodbye to Language is thankfully much more than a movie about watching movies; it is also, as David Bordwell suggests, about how to see the world. In another incredibly striking shot, a little boy and a little girl run through a green grassy field beneath a hyper-saturated blue sky. Josette tells us in voice-over that when she was a girl she “saw dogs all over” while her lover saw “the clouds and the sky.” The implication is that children look at nature with a sense of wonderment that adults lack (an idea the film shares with Pascale Ferran’s delightful Bird People). By contrast, the lead adult characters, all of whom are introduced in a prologue in an open-air book market, are depicted reading aloud texts from various books and an iPhone — locked into self-imposed isolation and not listening to each other. Later, one of the couples contemplates salvaging their relationship, and presumably regaining a sense of wonder, through the act of having a child or adopting a dog. If Goodbye to Language feels more optimistic than Godard’s other recent work, in spite of some disturbing asides about political and domestic violence, this is undoubtedly because the possibilities of 3D have allowed him to see the world afresh.

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Apart from its artistic quality, Goodbye to Language has also established itself as something of a zeitgeist movie (at least for those of us who care passionately about cinema) through the mere fact of its existence. It is yet one more example, and perhaps the most profound such instance since 1987′s King Lear, of Godard throwing a wrench into the cinematic apparatus by making a movie that demands to be seen while simultaneously resisting easy commodification. It is Godard’s highest-profile film in quite some time — it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and has earned rave reviews from many mainstream American critics, including Manohla Dargis in the New York Times and Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune). During its first weekend alone, playing on only two screens in New York City, it won the “specialty box office” and made more money than Godard’s previous feature, Film Socialisme, did in its entire 20-week run. Yet in spite of the fact that Goodbye to Language has a U.S. distributor, the always-enterprising Kino/Lorber, and despite there being many U.S. theaters that would like to show it, the film is proving hard to see; so few American “arthouses” are equipped with 3D projectors that Kino/Lorber’s patchwork theatrical release schedule, which as of this writing still omits major markets like Chicago, has been the source of several hand-wringing editorials (see here, here and here). In an era when independent American and foreign-language movies are receiving ever-quicker assignments to the “Video On Demand” graveyard, Goodbye to Language feels like a form of protest (whether conscious on the director’s part or not). By creating an “art film” that can only be properly experienced in palaces devoted to mainstream “entertainment,” Godard has exposed the increasingly large gulf between such silly concepts and made a movie whose true viewership would seem to be some imaginary but more enlightened audience of the future.

Goodbye to Language rating: 10

My personal top 10 favorite Jean-Luc Godard films (in chronological order):

1. Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live] (1962)
2. Le Mepris [Contempt] (1963)
3. Alphaville (1965)
4. Pierrot le fou (1965)
5. Weekend (1967)
6. Prenom Carmen [First Name: Carmen] (1983)
7. Hail Mary (1984)
8. Nouvelle Vague [New Wave] (1990)
9. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)
10. Adieu au langage [Goodbye to Language] (2014)

You can watch Kino/Lorber’s Goodbye to Language trailer via YouTube below:


Filmmaker Interview: Liv Ullmann

At last month’s Chicago International Film Festival I had the great pleasure of interviewing legendary actress and filmmaker Liv Ullmann after the U.S. premiere of her new film adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. During an hour-long round-table discussion (in which three other writers participated), she came across as warm, funny, compassionate and wise in speaking about everything from her charity work to her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. I am, however, only including the portions of the interview that involved my direct interactions with her, which mainly concerned Miss Julie, the method acting of her lead actress Jessica Chastain, and her old friend and former director Jan Troell.

100_2838Liv Ullmann with Chicago International Film Festival founder Michael Kutza at the U.S. premiere of Miss Julie

MGS: I think this film is a very powerful exploration of sexual politics as well as class politics. The play was written by a man, obviously, and I believe all of the previous film versions were directed by men. I was wondering what you think you brought to the film and to the character of Miss Julie in particular that maybe a male director might not have or that Strindberg himself might not have.

LU: Well, Strindberg, he wrote a long essay about how he hated women, more or less. So I wanted (Julie’s) voice and the inner voice to come through. I used music very much: Schumann and Schubert and Arensky. Arensky’s more John’s music, but Schubert is hers. I (also) gave her some lines that he didn’t write. She says, “Do you ever feel that you are no one?” Things like that that I feel is not against what he wrote when he gave her the lines but maybe what she thought or maybe what Strindberg didn’t even know she thought. But I know he should have known what she thought because he was very aggressive towards women. And I think maybe I saw that better than the male directors. I took away all the servants that come in the middle of the play and they do a lot of sexual games and so on. I didn’t want that. I wanted the isolation and the tunnel vision to be part of who they were. The ones living on the top, claustrophobic, cannot have contact with anyone else, at least not anyone down there. The ones in the kitchen, claustrophobic, because they have no contact with the ones up there. And even to be hidden from the ones up there; they have to go through a tunnel, which is the truth. Because the ones up there will not see them when they are coming into the castle. They don’t want them to walk in the gardens. They go through a tunnel under the earth. And when they look out of the window, I had in my first draft, that they were looking at the sun, the midnight sun — a lot of wonderful things will happen there. (laughs) But when we found this castle, it had everything that even Strindberg didn’t have because they lived under the earth. And when they looked out of the window they saw a white stone wall. I gave that; I don’t know if the men gave that. And I also had the idea that maybe she knew she wanted to go, subconsciously. And when she comes for the first time this midsummer night, she was looking for someone who could help her in the absolute non-commitment to whoever she was. And I just said that once to (the actors). I said, “This is just what I feel but don’t play it. Don’t think about it.” And I almost felt ashamed of saying it. But Jessica (Chastain) said in Toronto (at the world premiere), she said, “That to me was incredible. I wrote it in my book.”

MissJulieColin Farrell and Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie

MGS: Two years ago I interviewed Jan Troell at this festival. He was here with his last film The Last Sentence . . .

LU: Right.

MGS: I quoted him something you said in an interview about the making of The Emigrants and The New Land. You said you were never sure what he was filming because he was holding the camera in his hands and moving around, and he said that on The Last Sentence the lead actress said the same thing: Pernilla August said, “We always know what we’re going to do but we never know what he’s going to do.”

LU: Exactly.

MGS: It seems like your style as a director is the opposite of that because in Miss Julie everything feels very formal and very elegant. But I was wondering if there was anything you learned from him that influenced your own approach to directing.

LU: You see, he is both a cinematographer and a director so it was almost impossible to even take something from him except incredible trust, you know? “You act, I observe.” And he’s like all good directors, he allows the actors to create. But my actors, they know, “Okay, I have my close-up and now comes the bigger one.” (laugh) So they know, they really know but with him we didn’t know. You know, the camera was never on my face, it was on my shoes. (laughs) But that also gives a lot of freedom. And for the actors sometimes my way can be more difficult because they don’t know. They don’t know, “Can I keep it and do what I just did in the wide shot now for the close up?” And I have to give them some alternatives then: “You know, although we have it in a wide shot, we do not really know when we are close what is happening in your eyes. So you are allowed — because I am taking (only) one of the two — so don’t be afraid.” And that I knew: “I will never, never fail you. I’m not lying to you. I will never fail you.” So they were safe. Although (Colin Farrell), in a wide shot could have been angrier, he knew I would not take anger, put to milder, back to anger. That I would not do this, they knew that about me. They trusted me.

emigrantsLiv Ullmann in Jan Troell’s two-part epic The Emigrants / The New Land.

MGS: You’ve said Jessica Chastain was in character the whole time you were shooting. It must be exhausting as an actress to be in character all the time like that.

LU: Exactly! I think she turned on something within herself. We didn’t party at night, so she went to her room. We did it in 29 days so, you know, there was no party time. I didn’t know Jessica well. From (the moment) she came on the set she was Miss Julie but I didn’t know she was Miss Julie. I thought, “Oh this is Jessica. She may not be so easy.” (laughs) And she was easy to work with because, as she actually said in Toronto, “Liv and I, we played this together.” I don’t know why she felt that because it wasn’t like that; she had enormous freedom to do what she did. But I found her maybe somewhat difficult, the way she was with other people, and I thought, “Okay, this is Jessica.” And sometimes when we were editing, I’d talk to her. I said, “This is marvelous, Jessica, but I wish we could have had more warm contact or something.” (laughs) Then I meet her in Toronto and she is the sweetest young girl — nothing to do with that person I met during the whole production. And I talked to Colin about it and he said, “You didn’t know?” “No, I didn’t know.” He said, “It was tough, it was tough.” So, it’s the first time I have experienced that: “Nora becomes Nora” not only in front of the camera . . . but that part is so difficult and she chose to do it and that’s what I wanted but she chose even more so to be this person. She stands in the doorway and we just see her to be this torn woman, torn on the inside, a woman of non-consistencies. And I think to keep that, she had to have it privately. So, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. And Colin did it in a different way. He was very reserved, kept to himself in between takes, but if you came to him, he was this nice, pleasant, you know . . . Only when the camera went, he was the servant. And he would never be shattered out of the servant’s role. So I love Jessica for what she did and I admire (her) and I think Colin is also a genius. And Samantha Morton, she’s an actress the way I was an actress: she lives it when the camera is there, then it’s “Nora,” but when the camera’s off, she’s Samantha Morton. That’s the kind of actress I was. I think the two of them (Jessica and Colin), you know, they’re showing it in December (for an Oscar-qualifying run); I truly wish that they would have the money to somehow promote them because I think it’s Oscar-worthy. I, as a director, did not know that “Nora was Nora” outside of when the camera went. I think she is fantastic and I told her that in Toronto. This little, young girl, you should hear how she talks!

missjulieMethod actress Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie

MGS: So you didn’t know her before you made the movie. What was it about her that made you want to cast her? Had you seen her in other films?

LU: In all the films I saw she was different, and I thought, “What an incredible actress.” In one film I saw I didn’t even know it was her although she played one of the leads. The Debt. I couldn’t believe it. And so when I met her and we talked and she was very literate — she knew a lot — I was very impressed. And she looks like Miss Julie. I didn’t know so much of her inner story. I know now more about her life story, which I didn’t know (then). And had I known that, I may have known what happened to her during the shooting. I adore her.

MGS: She looks a little like you as well.

LU: Yes. I wasn’t aware of that but she said other directors used to say, “Oh you look like a young Liv Ullmann.” I was not aware of it.

MGS: You should act with her. She could play your daughter!

LU: Right, we could do that! Well, she said we did it together but that’s not the truth. This is her creation. I’m just happy I gave her the opportunity.

MGS: Thank you very much for talking with me. I loved the movie.

LU: Thank you very much. You make me very happy.

Miss Julie will receive a limited theatrical release in the U.S. beginning on December 14.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Breathless (Godard)
2. Jules and Jim (Truffaut)
3. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer)
5. Italian for Beginners (Scherfig)
6. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
7. Blood Creek (Schumacher)
8. Halloween (Carpenter)
9. An American Werewolf in London (Landis)
10. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)


Pre-order Info for Flickering Empire

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As I first reported here back in July, the book that Adam Selzer and I have written about the rise and fall of the silent film industry in Chicago, Flickering Empire, will be released next spring by Wallflower Press, the Film Studies imprint of Columbia University Press. Pre-order info for the book was made available today. We are pleased to announce it will be released on March 17 and can be ordered direct from the CUP website here.

It’s only 25 dollars (or 17-and-a-half pounds for all of you limeys out there) for the paperback edition, or $75/£52.00 for the hardcover. Both are illustrated with 24 handsome black-and-white photographs, a couple of which were taken by yours truly. Or you can order it from amazon and save a few bucks: it’s only $22.85 for the paperback edition. For a 240-page book, that’s a steal at less than a dollar per page, folks!

Last but not least, I’d like to point out that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day. What better way to celebrate than by opening a package in the mail, pouring yourself a pint of the black stuff and then settling in to read all about the evils of one Thomas Alva Edison, hmmmm?


50th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card, pt. 2

Here is the second part of my 50th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card:

The Word (Kazejak, Poland) – Rating: 7.4.

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This intriguing Polish drama tells the lightly fictionalized true story of a teenaged girl, Lila (Eliza Rycembel), who convinces her boyfriend to murder one of their classmates in order to atone for the boyfriend’s infidelity. While The Word has been referred to as a “procedural” and “Macbeth set in a high school,” it’s thankfully less genre-oriented than such labels imply. What director/co-writer Anna Kazejak has achieved instead is a rather dark character study focusing on Lila’s interrelationships with her friends and parents, the dramatization of which offers disturbing insights into youth culture in the social-media age while simultaneously avoiding drawing pat conclusions. This has some of the same delicacy of feeling of Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, an otherwise very different portrait of a teenage girl by a young female director, and I’m glad I saw it.

Ne Me Quitte Pas – Rating: 7.3. Review here.

Creep (Brice, USA) – Rating: 6.9

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A low-rent videographer (co-writer and director Patrick Brice) gets a one-day job documenting the life of a man who claims to be dying of cancer (co-writer Mark Duplass) so that his unborn son can one day get to know him a la the Michael Keaton weepie My Life. It isn’t long, however, before the client reveals more sinister motives . . . Although the “found footage” horror subgenre would seem to be exhausted, the filmmakers here do manage to find new and clever uses for it — as all of the footage comprising the narrative comes from video cameras being wielded by the two protagonists (who are also practically the only characters in the film). Sure, the premise of this horror/comedy is slender but I had fun; it’s like a short, funny joke whose punchline not only works but blindsides you because it arrives quicker than you thought it would. Plus, the sight of Duplass in a wolf mask is genuinely terrifying.

St. Vincent (Melfi, USA) – Rating: 6.6

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It’s “Gran Torino directed by Wes Anderson” — though not as good as that sounds — when Bill Murray’s title character, a curmudgeonly retiree, agrees to babysit the son of the single mother next door (an understated Melissa McCarthy), and teaches the kid all manner of bad habits and invaluable life lessons in the process. While the characters here are appealing and the premise charming, this low-key comedy/drama ultimately disappoints because of the way it takes what should have been an affecting slice-of-life character study and weakens it with too many plot developments; I could have personally done without the subplots about Vincent’s stroke and recuperation, the death of his beloved wife, and, especially, his owing gambling debts to an underworld type played by Terrence Howard. (I admit, however, to being inordinately grateful for Naomi Watts’s crack comic timing as a pregnant Russian hooker.) The closing credits scene that shows Vincent watering his backyard while listening to a Bob Dylan song is more drolly funny than anything in the movie proper. It hints at what St. Vincent could have been had first-time writer/director Ted Melfi opted for a less-is-more approach.

The Midnight After (Chan, Hong Kong) – Rating 5.3

MidnightAfter

Of the two misfires I caught at this year’s CIFF (Fort Tilden being the other), this one was particularly painful because of my investment in its director and cast: the once-worthy Fruit Chan (Made in Hong Kong) adapts a sci-fi/comedy novel by someone named “PIZZA” about a bus full of characters played by several generations of HK movie stars (Kara Hui, Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Sam Lee, etc.) crossing into an alternate-reality universe that resembles our own but which is eerily devoid of other human beings. How could this go wrong? The Midnight After feels like less of a movie than a random grab-bag of different stylistic and thematic ideas — blood raining from the sky, invocations of the Fukushima disaster, a music video-style sequence built around a David Bowie song — that Chan has thrown at the wall in the hopes that something will stick. Unfortunately, very little does.

Fort Tilden (Violet-Bliss/Rogers, USA) – Rating: 5.2

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This microbudget feature debut comedy by co-writers/directors Charles Rogers and Sarah Violet-Bliss plotlessly examines the lives of two vapid, twenty-something rich girls in Williamsburg (Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty) as they spend a needlessly difficult day trying to meet up with two boys at a beach near their home. Fort Tilden inspires some lascivious chuckles but, even if you disagree with the notion that satirizing hipsters is past its sell-by date, there’s no denying it’s also visually sloppy and tonally uneven: the filmmakers ask viewers to laugh at a cartoonish moment where the characters stupidly pay a hundred dollars for a two-mile cab ride, then expect us to turn around and empathize with them during a quasi-realistic fight scene moments later. This is the kind of thing that probably would have played better as episodes in a web series. It’s flaws would certainly be less noticeable on your phone.


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)


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

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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

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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: 8.4. Review here.

Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson, Iceland) – Rating: 8.0

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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

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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: Tracy (Tracy 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: 8.2

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.


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