Chantal Akerman R.I.P. (1950 – 2015)

epa02896136 Belgian director Chantal Akerman poses at a photocall for her movie 'La Folie Almayer' during the 68th Venice International Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, 03 September 2011. The movie is presented out of competition at the festival that runs from 31 August to 10 September. EPA/CLAUDIO ONORATI

Belgian director Chantal Akerman poses at a photocall for her movie ‘La Folie Almayer’ during the 68th Venice International Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, 03 September 2011. The movie is presented out of competition at the festival that runs from 31 August to 10 September. EPA/CLAUDIO ONORATI

I was lucky to attend a mini-retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s work at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1997. It marked the first time that I saw her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film that recently topped my list of the 40 best films from the year I was born. Incredibly, at this screening of a four-hour movie in which “nothing happens” until the climax, the final two reels were projected in the wrong order. The climax of the retrospective itself was Akerman’s memorable personal appearance following a screening of her 1996 documentary Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman. Among the highlights of the Q&A:

– I asked her if it was easier for her to make films in Europe or America (this was not long after she had directed A Couch in New York with William Hurt and Juliette Binoche). Her response was that it was easier for her to make films in Europe but that it was getting harder all the time because the European film industry was increasingly trying to imitate the American one.

– She said that she was so concerned about Jean-Luc Godard after watching his 1994 film JLG/JLG that she visited him at his home in Switzerland to make sure he wasn’t too depressed.

– Someone asked her who her favorite directors were. Her withering reply: “This is the kind of question for a magazine.” (She could be just as irascible on Facebook in recent years — at one point telling Monte Hellman that he needed to stop posting so much about the Academy Awards.)

I was delighted when I later heard it through the grapevine that Akerman had “partied hard” during her stay in Chicago. Rest in peace, Chantal. The world will not see your like again.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Cone)
2. In the Underground (Song)
3. Under Electric Clouds (German Jr.)
4. Stinking Heaven (Silver)
5. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)
6. City That Never Sleeps (Auer)
7. Midnight (Leisin)
8. It Happened One Night (Capra)
9. Cairo Station (Chahine)
10. Mickey One (Penn)

The Second Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival

I am excited to announce that, after the success of last year’s inaugural Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. again. The screenings of this year’s four award-winning independent American films, spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, December 1 through Friday, December 4. All four screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Humanities 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!

The full schedule:

Actress (Robert Greene, 2014, 86 minutes)
Tuesday, December 1 at 2:00pm


Winner of Best Documentary at the Nantucket Film Festival, this extraordinary movie hybridizes non-fiction and melodrama elements in its portrait of Brandy Burre, an actress best known for a recurring role on HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire. When the film begins, Burre has retired from acting in order to move to a small town with her restaurateur boyfriend and two young children. Burre is not satisfied, however, with playing the new roles of “mother” and “housewife” full time, and Actress, while never less than emotionally gripping, turns into a complex essay on the nature of what it means to perform.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Robert Greene and actress Brandy Burre conducted by Michael Smith

Black Box (Stephen Cone, 2013, 84 minutes)
Wednesday, December 2 at 12:30pm


Named one of the best films of 2014 by the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips, this haunting drama is set in the world of college theater and centers on students grappling with issues pertaining to sexual and religious identity. Grad student Holly (Josephine Decker) tackles the ambitious project of directing a theatrical version of a cult young-adult novel titled The Reaper’s Children. The novel, about the sinister goings-on at an orphanage, made a huge impression on Holly during her formative years and the gothic-horror tone of her production has an uncanny way of both bleeding into the lives of its performers as well as informing the overall tone of Cone’s (ostensibly non-horror) film.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Stephen Cone conducted by Lindsey Hewitt.

Transformers: The Premake (Kevin B. Lee, 2014, 26 minutes)
Thursday, December 3 at 2:00pm


An official selection of the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, this dense video essay offers a playful inquiry into the role of social media in the production and dissemination of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. It utilizes footage that Lee himself shot behind the scenes of the Chicago-made segments of Transformers: Age of Extinction, as well as footage shot and uploaded to YouTube by literally hundreds of other amateur filmmakers. The globe-spanning myriad of data that results adds up to an intellectually vibrant and viscerally pounding half-hour of pure cinema.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Kevin B. Lee conducted by Therese Grisham.

Cool Apocalypse (Directed by Michael Smith, 2015, 73 minutes)
Friday, December 4 at 12:30pm


Winner of the Best Dramatic Feature award at the 2015 Illinois International Film Festival, this microbudget comedy/drama tells the story of two very different relationships, one of which is about to begin and the other of which has just ended.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Michael Smith conducted by Laurence Knapp.

Our Films Should Avenge: An Interview with Pedro Costa

One of the great pleasures of my professional career occurred earlier this year when I had the chance to interview Portuguese master-filmmaker Pedro Costa. The following interview originally appeared in Time Out Chicago to coincide with the local premiere of his latest masterpiece Horse Money.


MGS: Horse Money obviously grew out of Colossal Youth to some extent yet it also differs in that it feels like a more direct confrontation with the legacies of Portugal’s fascist and colonialist past. Why did you move more in this direction?

PC: The starting point of this film was the stories told by Ventura. We were in the same place when the Carnation Revolution broke out in Portugal in April of 1974. I had the chance to be a young boy in a revolution and suddenly I could discover and experience politics, music, films, girls, all at the same time. I was happy, I was yelling in the streets, I was taking part in the occupations of schools and factories. I was 13 and it blinded me. It took me three decades to realize that my friend, Ventura, was in the same places in tears and terrified, hiding with his comrades like him from immigration. He told me his memories of a time spent in what he calls his “prison,” where he fell into a long deep sleep. I can hardly say more, it’s all in the film, and the shooting was devastating, we shook a lot. Ventura is desperately trying to remember, but this is not necessarily the best thing. So I think we made this film to forget. Really to forget, and to be done with it.

MGS: The film takes place in the present yet Ventura refers to the date as March of 1975. It occurred to me that his hospital stay could be a re-enactment of the trip to the military hospital he describes after the knife fight from 40 years earlier. Did you intend to meld the past and present?

PC: But there’s no other way. There’s no use to try and make a film about the past; it’s stupid and impossible. Cinema is always the present. Old mistakes are today’s failures. History is always now. That’s what the Spanish writer Unamuno used to call the tragic sense of life. Horse Money will always play in an everlasting present.

MGS: The song “Alto Cutelo” by the band Os Tubarões is extraordinary. How did you discover it and how did you hit upon the idea of using it to score a montage of immigrants posing in their homes for your camera?

PC: Os Tubarões (The Sharks) were quite famous, probably the greatest of all the bands of the African nations that were colonized by the Portuguese. Of course they were admired by all the African immigrants: they made them sing and dance and they sung their tragic condition in the most epic way. We had already used a Tubarões song in Colossal Youth. When Ventura is ill in his wooden shack with his comrade Lento and plays an LP on his pickup, the song is “Labanta Braço,” an homage to Amilcar Cabral, the mythical freedom fighter, the founder of the Republic of Guinea and Cape Verde. This sequence is probably what’s left from the project I had with Gil Scott-Heron. That film would have been a two-hour prayer or a rap, a lament…

MGS: The shot of Ventura leaving the hospital is beautiful and cathartic but it is followed by a more ambiguous shot of him looking at knives in a display window. Is this latter shot a reference to Fritz Lang’s M and why did you choose to end the film this way?

PC: Let’s say Ventura comes out of that long nightmare reinvigorated. He’s ready for action and he needs a weapon. He’s bloodthirsty. I didn’t think about M but perhaps you’re right mentioning Mr. Lang: his films always reminded us that cinema has a lot to do with justice. Our films should avenge.

MGS: Your use of depth staging has always been impressive. Now that Godard has proven it can be done inexpensively, would you consider making a movie in 3D?

PC: For now, I’ve enough real problems with 2D to be bothered with imaginary ones.

Information about Horse Money‘s home video release will eventually appear on Cinema Guild’s website here. You can watch the trailer for Horse Money below:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Thao’s Library (Van Meter)
2. The Lodger (Hitchcock)
3. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
4. Husbands and Wives (Allen)
5. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
6. M (Lang)
7. Spring in a Small Town (Fei)
8. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)
9. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Craven)
10. Sonatine (Kitano)

Cool Apocalypse at the Siskel Center / The Lodger at Transistor


I’m very pleased to announce that my feature film, Cool Apocalypse, while still in the midst of its festival run, will receive its Chicago debut at the Gene Siskel Film Center in November. The Siskel has long been my favorite local film venue and I am honored beyond my ability to express myself that they were interested in programming it. It will screen for two shows only: on Saturday, November 21, at 8pm and Monday, November 23, at 8:15pm. I will be present to introduce both screenings and participate in post-screening Q&As with producer Clare Kosinski and members of the cast. Tickets will not go on sale for another month but, because I am offering extra-credit points to the students in all five of my classes who attend, I suspect that both shows will be sell outs. I therefore strongly advise anyone interested in seeing Cool Apocalypse to purchase their tickets in advance. Tickets will be available for sale through the Siskel Center’s website and in person at the box office in October. Hope to see you at our hometown premiere!

In more recent Chicago film-screening news, I will be introducing a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger at Transistor Chicago this Saturday, September 19 at 8pm. I will be showing the BFI’s recent restoration of the Master of Suspsense’s first thriller, which is not yet available on home video in North America. The screening is FREE and BYOB. Here is the description I wrote for Transistor’s website:

The British Film Institute’s recent restoration of Hitchcock’s first thriller gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the film’s luminous Expressionist-influenced photography. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the Master of Suspense’s style was this early in his career: There are a series of murders, a ‘wrong man’ plot, a beautiful ‘Hitchcockian blonde,’ and a highly memorable kissing scene. (1927, NR, 92 minutes)

Hope to see you there as well!


Queen of Earth / The Mend at Cine-File


Over the past two weeks, I’ve reviewed two exceptional new independent American films for Cine-File Chicago: Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, which continues at the Music Box Theatre (for its second week) through Thursday, and John Magary’s The Mend, which opened at the Facets Cinematheque Friday and also runs through Thursday. Both films focus on “unlikable” central characters but distinguish themselves from other recent indie fare through superb lead performances and by each director’s unusually ambitious and accomplished sense of aesthetics: Perry’s movie was beautifully shot on 16mm film by the great young D.P. Sean Price Williams and Magary goes bananas with his Arnaud Desplechin-like “whatever works” grab-bag of styles.

You can read my review of Queen of Earth here.

You can read my review of The Mend here.

Random thought: I recently noted that those who’ve seen both Love and Mercy and Straight Outta Compton may wonder when it became a rule for biopics of musicians to feature Paul Giamatti in a bad hairpiece. In a similar vein, those who see The Mend after Frances Ha may want to know why everyone wants to ejaculate on poor Mickey Sumner’s face.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)
2. Union Station (Mate)
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
4. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
5. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang)
6. The Tribe (Slaboshpitsky)
7. The Mend (Magary)
8. Goodfellas (Scorsese)
9. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
10. Our Hospitality (Keaton)

White City Cinema Radio Hour – Episode 1: Agnes Varda


The premiere episode of my new film-themed podcast, which I’m simply calling White City Cinema Radio Hour, is now online. Produced by Transistor Chicago‘s Andy Miles, this first episode features an extended conversation between myself and film critics Ben Sachs (Chicago Reader) and Kat Sachs (Cine-File Chicago) about the great director Agnes Varda in advance of her upcoming residency at the University of Chicago. I do not think I could have kicked off the show with better guests than these two knowledgable and affable folks. In particular, this married couple’s back-and-forth banter about Varda’s career in relation to feminism is as entertaining as it is provocative. My only regret is that the part where Ben schooled my faulty memory about the release date of Neil Young’s Ragged Glory ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor. (Andy, who’s recording, editing and mixing the shows, informed me there was too much “off-mic talking” during that segment, rendering it difficult to understand.) But that’s all right; we still used Neil as our “outro” music.

There will be a new episode of the White City Cinema Radio Hour every month. If you are a filmmaker, critic, programmer, distributor or exhibitor and would like to be on the show or have suggestions about the show, please do not hesitate to get in touch at mikeygsmith at Otherwise, enjoy the first episode and let me know what you think in the comments section below:

Special thanks to Jose Gallegos for this groovy logo:

Review Roundup: EUFF, pt. 2 (Cine-File)

I originally wrote the following reviews for Cine-File Chicago back in March to coincide with theatrical screenings at the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival.

Jessica Hausner’s AMOUR FOU (New Austrian). Rating: 8.7


Most period films try to convince us that the past was just like the present: that people in earlier eras had the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same ideas about romance and spirituality that we do today–only they expressed those things while wearing different-looking clothing amid different-looking settings. Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner (LOURDES) takes the opposite approach in the thrilling AMOUR FOU, positing early-18th century Berlin as a landscape as unfamiliar as that of futuristic science fiction. The film centers on Heinrich Von Kleist (Christian Friedel), a young German poet and dramatist, and his quest to find a suitable woman to accompany him in a suicide pact. After being rebuffed by his cousin Marie (Sandra Huller), he turns his attentions to Henriette (Birte Schnoeink), a friend’s wife who believes she is dying of a terminal illness. The real-life Kleist authored THE MARQUIS VON O, Eric Rohmer’s film adaptation of which would appear to provide Hausner’s primary cinematic model here: her camera is always static and the performers deliver their monotone lines reading while frequently remaining perfectly still. These tableaux-like shots, which feature broad planes of color and exquisite natural lighting, are astonishing in their painterly beauty, but it is ultimately the way Hausner’s mise-en-scene combines with her sharp original screenplay that immerses viewers in her compelling vision of the Romantic Age: ancient political debates among aristocratic characters (about taxation for all, and the dangerous influence of French-style democracy on Germany) in the most meticulously art-directed interiors imaginable make this portrait of a vanished way of life feel both compelling as social commentary as well as wonderfully, aesthetically strange. (2014, 96 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Peter Kruger’s N: THE MADNESS OF REASON (New Belgian). Rating: 8.2


N: THE MADNESS OF REASON, a provocative non-fiction/narrative hybrid film by the Belgian documentarian Peter Kruger, centers on Raymond Borremans, a real French explorer and musician who died in 1988 while writing an encyclopedia of the African continent (he only got as far as the titular letter). Kruger has Borremans (voiced by the great actor Michael Lonsdale) narrating the movie and attempting to complete his encyclopedia from beyond the grave, a quasi-fictional conceit reminiscent of Chris Marker that gives shape to a raft of eye-opening documentary images that Kruger captured in the Ivory Coast. Borremans’ voice-over also occasionally engages in a dialogue with an unnamed African woman; he represents intellectual European “reason” (i.e., the desire to label and classify) where she represents African “spirituality,” challenging his foreigner’s eye-view to see beyond the surface of things. Co-written by Nigerian author Ben Okri and featuring a score by Belgian musician Walter Hus, in collaboration with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, N: THE MADNESS OF REASON joins the list of important recent films examining Europe’s relationship to colonial and post-colonial Africa, whose impressive ranks include Miguel Gomes’ TABU, Ulrich Kohler’s SLEEPING SICKNESS and various films by Claire Denis and Pedro Costa. (2014, 102 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Pedro Costa’s HORSE MONEY (New Portuguese). Rating: 9.4


Pedro Costa reaffirms his position as one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers with his first fiction feature in eight years, a hypnotic masterpiece that examines the African immigrant experience in the director’s native Portugal. HORSE MONEY is a sort-of sequel to 2006’s COLOSSAL YOUTH in that Costa again takes the elderly Cape Verdean immigrant known only as “Ventura” as his subject, although here Costa uses the retired construction worker’s haunted visage to more explicitly examine the scars left by his country’s twin bloody legacies of fascism and colonialism. Ventura, lit and framed to alternately resemble Darby Jones in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and Woody Strode in SERGEAN RUTLEDGE, spends much of the film wandering the halls of a dark, prison-like hospital while ruminating on a lifetime of painful memories. Costa boldly melds past and present by having the reason for Ventura’s stay explained as both the “nervous disease” that causes his hands to shake uncontrollably and the knife fight with a fellow immigrant that required 93 stitches from 40 years earlier. Although HORSE MONEY is passionately concerned with social issues, there is a thankful absence of editorializing here: one powerful sequence involves a Cape Verdean woman reading aloud birth and death certificates that belong to herself and her family, letting the objective facts of marginalized lives speak for themselves, and another features a montage of static shots of African immigrants simply staring into Costa’s camera from inside their cramped Lisbon homes while the rousing song “Alta Cutelo” by the band Os Tubaroes plays on the soundtrack. The film’s indelible highlight, however, is an extended climax in which Ventura angrily confronts his demons in an elevator, conversing with the voices in his head while a soldier holding a rifle behind him looks on in silence. This “exorcism,” a scene that appeared virtually intact in the omnibus film CENTRO HISTORICO, leads to a cathartic finale in which Ventura leaves the hospital and is greeted by a rosy-fingered dawn. A final shot, however, shows the character staring at knives in a store’s display window (perhaps a subconscious visual quote from Fritz Lang’s M) suggesting that, decades after the “April Revolution,” the real revolution has not yet begun. (2014, 103 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Alain Resnais’ LIFE OF RILEY (New French). Rating: 8.8


LIFE OF RILEY, the final film of Alain Resnais, one of the greatest and most innovative directors of all time, premiered at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival (where it won two prizes) just three weeks before its creator died at the age of 91. Unsurprisingly, death suffuses nearly every frame of this deceptively simple comedy, based on an Alan Ayckbourn play, about marital discord between three couples in Yorkshire, England. The title refers to George Riley, a character who never appears onscreen but, much like A LETTER TO THREE WIVES’ Addie Ross, manages to sow temptation into the hearts of the three female protagonists (Sandrine Kiberlain, Caroline Sihol and the inevitable Sabine Azima) before ultimately strengthening the bonds between them and their current partners (Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Vuillermoz and the inevitable Andre Dussollier). It is revealed at the film’s beginning that Riley has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the news of which prompts several of his enamored lady friends, including his recent ex-wife, to conspire to accompany him on his final vacation. Complicating matters is that most of these characters, including Riley, are also rehearsing for a stage play that they will appear in together, a conceit that allows Resnais to examine his pet theme of the intersection of reality and fiction. Shot on deliberately artificial-looking sets and featuring the occasional mysterious appearance of a CADDYSHACK-like mole puppet, LIFE OF RILEY proves that Resnais had lost none of his playful Surrealist spirit even in his tenth decade on earth. But in the end, this final testament is as moving as it is charming: the last shot, depicting a young woman placing a postcard (bearing a message the viewer cannot read) on top of a coffin, is a fitting self-epitaph to an extraordinary career. To paraphrase a rueful exchange between Billy Wilder and William Wyler from long ago: “No more Resnais films.” (2014, 108 min, DCP Digital) MGS


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