Esthetic Lens: Creative Quarantine

It was an honor to be profiled recently by Esthetic Lens magazine. I got to talk about the postponed RELATIVE shoot and what I’ve been up to during quarantine. You can check it out here.

mgs


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. La Pointe Court (Varda) – A-
2. The Cameraman (Keaton/Sedgwick) – A
3. Mur Murs (Varda) – A
4. Clash By Night (Lang) – A
5. She Dies Tomorrow* (Seimetz) – A-
6. Now and Then* – (Glatter) – C+
7. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie) – A-
8. The Sun Shines Bright (Ford) – A+
9. Days of Heaven (Malick) – A
10. Breathless (Godard) – A

*First-time watch


Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY

I wrote the following review of Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY for Cine-file Chicago.

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Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (US)
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel with subscription

Across eight features and numerous shorts, Chicago-based independent filmmaker Stephen Cone has carved out an indelible niche in America’s 21st-century cinematic landscape. The son of a southern Baptist minister who came to filmmaking by way of theater, Cone has made a name for himself by chronicling the eternal conflict between the ways of the flesh and the spirit — always with an impressively humanistic eye and often within an adolescent/LGBTQ context. His heartfelt movies have steadily won over festival audiences and critics since THE WISE KIDS premiered nearly a decade ago but Cone stands to gain deservedly wider recognition than ever before now that the prestigious Criterion Channel is spotlighting three of his best films. HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, Cone’s seventh feature, is an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. It’s a coming-of-age story in which an individual’s coming of age is telescoped into a single day and location: the titular 17th birthday party of the son of a “megachurch” pastor. The party takes place mainly in and around a backyard swimming pool and is populated by a large cast of teenage characters (i.e., Henry Gamble’s religious and secular friends) as well as their adult parents. Central among the many external and internal conflicts depicted in this charged suburban milieu is Henry’s coming to terms with his sexual identity. Although it has its cinematic forebears (an opening scene in which the closeted-gay Henry masturbates with his hetero best friend Gabe is an explicit homage to Andre Techine’s WILD REEDS), the film ultimately impresses for its cultural specificity: Cone has stated that the starting point for his original screenplay was the act of making a list of people he knew from childhood, a strategy that clearly pays dividends when it comes to such humorously authentic lines of dialogue as “Are you churched?” or “Well, Jesus drank.” Cone also admirably avoids stereotypes — he’s especially good at showing, in a realistic manner, how the tiniest cracks can appear in the belief systems of his evangelical characters — and his script is brought to life by a fine ensemble cast (Nina Ganet as Henry’s repressed older sister Autumn and Elizabeth Laidlaw as their long-suffering mother are especially good) and Jason Chiu’s masterful widescreen cinematography. (2015, 87 min, MGS)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Wagon Master (Ford) – A+
2. Carmen Jones* (Preminger) – A-
3. Rear Window (Hitchcock) – A+
4. Bunny Lake is Missing* (Preminger) – A-
5. Straight Shooting (Ford) – B+
6. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica) – A
7. Bad Day at Black Rock* (Sturges) – A-
8. Da Big Zip* (Alonzo) – B
9. Color Out of Space* (Stanley) – C+
10. Vertigo (Hitchcock) – A+

*First-time watch


The Ross Brothers’ BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS

I reviewed the Ross brothers’ BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS for this week’s Cinefile Chicago list.

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Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS (Documentary)
Music Box Theatre – available to rent digitally here.

For dive-bar aficionados and sleazy-atmosphere enthusiasts, BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS may be the ultimate quarantine movie. A transporting work so pungent that you can smell it, the Ross brothers’ film documents the last 24 hours inside of “The Roaring 20s,” a colorful Las Vegas watering hole, before its permanent closure. It begins with Michael Martin, a charismatic patron who resembles a drunken, degenerate version of Seymour Cassell, waking up in the bar in the morning, doing a shot of bourbon from a coffee cup then heading into the bathroom to shave with an electric razor – all with the full blessing of the bar’s daytime staff. In one of many humorous lines of “dialogue,” Michael states that he takes pride in the fact that he didn’t become an alcoholic until after he was “already a failure.” Does that sad logic make you smile? Then this is a movie for you. Does it make you wince? It still might be a movie for you. Over the course of what seems to be a typical day and night, the bar slowly fills up with regulars, all of them memorable characters in their own right. They watch JEOPARDY, shoot the shit, dance to songs on the jukebox, and become increasingly intoxicated as the blinding sunlight visible through the establishment’s front door slowly fades from the sky, allowing the dingy, red-hued lighting of the bar’s interior to work its nighttime magic. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS is an exceptionally beautiful film, a tough but empathetic portrait of working-class American life that Charles Bukowski would have loved. Among the many memorable moments: A Grizzly Adams-looking bartender serenades the room with a surprisingly poignant cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” on an acoustic guitar; a woman proudly bares her “60-year-old titties” to the stranger on the barstool next to her; a cake, emblazoned with the words “THIS PLACE SUCKED ANYWAYS” in frosting, is consumed; Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet Montage masterpiece THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN shows on a television monitor while country music incongruously fills the air; and the kids out back smoke weed while discussing the amount of Plutonium required to change the earth’s balance. There is nothing on screen to suggest that there are fictional elements, or filmmaking trickery of any sort, present – so revelations that the film’s cast was actually found after a nationwide audition process and that the bar’s interiors were shot in New Orleans (over a span of two 18-hour days) then cut together with exteriors of Sin City, has rankled some critics and viewers who claim to feel duped by the filmmakers’ supposed dishonesty. But combining documentary and fiction techniques is as old as the cinema itself and, in the end, what matters is not how the thing is done but why. I would argue that, by presenting The Roaring 20s as a kind of microcosm of contemporary America, a space filled with a multiracial cast of self-medicating “99 percenters,” the Ross brothers have created an indirect critique of late capitalism that feels more truthful than what could have been achieved through traditional documentary means. (2020, 98 min) MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin) – A
2. The Awful Truth (McCarey) – A+
3. Hardly Working* (Lewis) – A-
4. Secret Honor* (Altman) – B
5. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets* (Ross/Ross) – A-
6. My Own Love Song* (Dahan) – D-
7. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene) – A+
8. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton) – A+
9. Mrs. Miniver (Wyler) – B-
10. Best in Show* (Guest) – C

* First-time watch


The Best Films of 2020 So Far

I believe the most monumental work of art released in 2020 so far — and the one that best speaks to our turbulent times — is Bob Dylan’s astonishing new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. A work of seemingly bottomless depth, it creates a haunting liminal space where past, present and future overlap (it’s no coincidence that the first line of the first song is “Today and tomorrow and yesterday too”). If you haven’t yet listened to it, I would advise spinning it a few times and giving it your full attention — as you would if reading a book or watching a movie. You can listen to the whole thing for free on YouTube here.

Having said all that, I think it’s been a pretty damn good year for cinema so far too (in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic). Below are a list of favorite films that either first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2020 or that first became available to watch via various “virtual cinemas.” I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and added some thoughts on other films that I haven’t yet written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

10. Queen of Lapa (Collatos/Monnerat, Brazil)

Queen_of_Lapa_-_Still_1“…a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

9. Fourteen (Sallitt, USA)

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“…impressively conveys a sense of the ebb and flow of life as it is actually lived, felt and remembered — and provides a devastating reminder of how time gets away from us all.” Read my Cine-File Chicago review here.

8. Joan of Arc
(Dumont, France)

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Most Joan of Arc movies, including Carl Dreyer’s celebrated silent film, feature actresses that are too old for the lead role. Otto Preminger remedied that by casting the “age appropriate” Jean Seberg when he made Saint Joan in 1957. But only Bruno Dumont would cast an actress who is far too young for the part (the great 10-year-old Lise Prudhomme), a wacky decision that pays off by conveying a sense of Joan’s “saintliness” in a way that no post-adolescent actress, no matter how talented, ever could.

7. Shakedown
(Weinraub, USA)

44096851_2160705053981437_6478280789543878656_n“…confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic.” Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

6. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Hittman, USA)

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This urgent abortion-rights drama features the same slightly moody/dreamy vibe of Eliza Hittman’s previous films but marries it to a much improved narrative sense. Both lead actresses are amazing.

5. I Wish I Knew (Jia, China)

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“…the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal ‘oral histories’ not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Read my full Cine-File Chicago review here.

4. Zombi Child (Bonello, France)

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“The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, ‘othering’ and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.” Read my full Time Out Chicago review here.

3. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca, Brazil)

bacurauI feel like this crazy-ass genre mash-up cum anti-capitalist allegory was made just for me.

2. Tommaso (Ferrara, Italy/USA)

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Abel Ferrara’s most personal movie, Willem Dafoe’s finest performance.

1. (tie) Hill of FreedomYourself and Yours (Hong, S. Korea)

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yourselfandyours-superJumboJean-Luc Godard famously said that all you need to make a film is “a girl and a gun.” Hong Sang-soo might amend that to “a man, a woman and a bottle of soju.” These two delightful features (which originally premiered in 2014 and 2016, respectively) just belatedly turned up in the U.S. thanks to Cinema Guild and Grasshopper Films and they make for one hell of a double feature: They represent Hong at his most narratively ambitious and formally playful. Watch ’em with someone you love.

Honorable mention for short films: Spike Lee’s New York New York and 3 Brothers (both of which I preferred to Da 5 Bloods), Eric Marsh’s brilliant video essay TELEPHONE FOR LIEUTENANT COLUMBO and Jean-Marie Straub’s France Against Robots.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sabrina* (Pollack) – C-
2. The Heiress* (Wyler) – A+
3. The Connection* (Clarke) – B-
4. Polyester* (Waters) – B
5. Rocky (Avildsen) – B+
6. The Barefoot Contessa (Mankiewicz) – A
7. M* (Losey) – B
8. Hill of Freedom* (Hong) – A-
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always* (Hittman) – B+
10. Yourself and Yours* (Hong) – A-

*First-time watch


Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s QUEEN OF LAPA

I reviewed Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s Queen of Lapa for this week’s Cinefile Chicago list.

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Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s QUEEN OF LAPA (Brazil/Documentary)

Available for rent from various “virtual cinemas” via Factory 25 here

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Theodore Collatos is best known for directing the impressive micro-budget narrative features DIPSO (2012) and TORMENTING THE HEN (2017), the latter of which stars his wife, the gifted Brazilian actress Carolina Monnerat. QUEEN OF LAPA is a cinema verité documentary in which Monnerat teams up with Collatos behind the camera to ostensibly chronicle the legendary Brazilian transgender prostitute-turned-activist Luana Muniz. The film’s title is somewhat misleading, however, as this doc is as much about the group of younger trans sex workers that Muniz has taken under her wing, and who reside in a hostel she runs in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood, as it is about the colorful matriarch Muniz herself. Unlike most movies (fiction and non-fiction alike) that take prostitution as their subject, QUEEN OF LAPA seems to studiously avoid depicting interactions between sex workers and johns, the latter of whom are virtually nowhere to be seen, and focuses instead almost exclusively on the sisterhood of these vibrant young women who live and work together under the same roof. One memorable scene shows a conversation between two friendly rivals about whether or not it’s ethical to enjoy sex when one is being paid for it. Another features a prostitute, standing alone by a window, taking a flat iron to her wig while simultaneously recalling stories about the earliest clients she had when she was still a child. What these remarkable scenes, and others like them, have in common is a tone of quiet authenticity that can only be achieved when an unusually high degree of mutual trust is established between filmmaker and subject. It’s a compassionate and non-sensationalistic look at the inside of a subculture that most viewers will be unfamiliar with. So much of QUEEN OF LAPA takes place inside the House of Muniz, in fact, that it ends up becoming a fascinating portrait of an interior world whose denizens have established their own rules; or as Muniz herself poetically puts it, it’s “one of the last communities where humans can dream.” This self-enclosed, self-created world is thrown into stark relief whenever Collatos and Monnerat’s camera does venture out into the streets or into a nearby cabaret nightclub where the larger-than-life Muniz performs an awesome slow-motion dance number to a karaoke version of an Elton John song. All of which is to say, this is perfect Pride-month viewing. (2019, 83 min) MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger) – A+
2. Stuffed* (Derham) – C+
3. Queen of Lapa* (Collatos) – B+
4. Da 5 Bloods* (Lee) – B-
5. Shirley* (Decker) – C+
6. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean* (Altman) – B+
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper) – A-
8. The Long Gray Line (Ford) – A+
9. Gosford Park (Altman) – A
10. Tommaso* (Ferrara) – A-

* First-time watch


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