Kristen Stewart in Cafe Society / Mercury in Retrograde in the Chicago Trib

 

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I wrote the following appreciation of Kristen Stewart’s performance in Cafe Society for Time Out Chicago. It should appear on their website later today:

Kristen Stewart elevates Woody Allen’s Café Society

Like many latter-day Woody Allen films, Café Society is a mixed bag. Genuine hilarity coexists with jokes that fall flat, scripted dialogue alternates between the reasonably naturalistic and the tone deaf, and acting is all over the map. The film’s saving grace is a lead performance by Kristen Stewart, so winning in its “casual complexity and low-key intensity” (to borrow the subtitle of a recent Stewart profile in Film Comment by Northwestern professor Nick Davis) that it single-handedly elevates Café Society to the status of essential viewing for the summer movie-going season.

While Stewart’s unique brand of underplaying sparked criticisms that she was “wooden” and “unconvincing” in the Twilight saga and other early films, what seemed like weaknesses became strengths as soon as the young actress began working with significant directors. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is an obvious turning point: as a sexually ambiguous personal assistant, Stewart not only held her own but excelled in lengthy dramatic scenes opposite the great Juliette Binoche, and she picked up prestigious Cesar and New York Film Critics Circle awards for her efforts.

In Café Society, as a down-to-earth receptionist caught in a love triangle with a powerful Hollywood agent (Steve Carrell) and his enterprising nephew (Jesse Eisenberg), Stewart seizes the chance to show off new colors in her palette. She proves adept at both screwball-style comedy (note the Irene Dunn-like way she throws a pregnant pause into the line “You have a deer-in-the-headlights…quality”) and poignant drama – when the receptionist becomes the wife of a big shot, she also becomes a walking symbol of human regret. The character’s wardrobe may improve but watch Stewart’s eyes: beneath a lovely shade of copper eye shadow, she’s palpably dreaming of what might have been.

Café Society opens Friday, July 22, at Landmark’s Century Centre and AMC River East 21.

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My next film, Mercury in Retrograde, is the subject of a story by Nina Metz in today’s Chicago Tribune.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. School of Rock (Linklater)
2. Snowpiercer (Bong)
3. Ghostbusters (Feig)
4. Cafe Society (Allen)
5. The Emigrants (Troell)
6. Before Midnight (Linklater)
7. Hugo (Scorsese)
8. High School (Wiseman)
9. Top of the Lake (Campion/Davis)
10. The Last Mistress (Breillat)


The Organization of Space in The Conjuring 2, Three and Green Room

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It’s a bit too long and I never again want to see a horror movie that climaxes with “demonologists” wielding crucifixes and reciting bible verses in Latin but I still enjoyed the hell out of The Conjuring 2, a sequel that is far better than it has any right to be. Not as terrifying as the first (there is nothing to match the creepiness of that film’s Annabelle prologue nor the instant-classic “clap scene”), it nonetheless strikes an appealing balance between the goofy and the scary. The best sequence is the one in which Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) croons Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a group of children while accompanying himself on finger-picked acoustic guitar. It may be the least essential scene on the level of story but it makes me indescribably happy because it’s so old-fashioned and so much like something out of a (non-musical) Hollywood movie of the 1940s or 1950s. As with similar moments involving Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the Sons of the Pioneers in John Ford’s Rio Grande, the narrative here stops completely cold so that someone can simply sing a song — in its entirety. It’s also the scene that best exemplifies the surprisingly warm-hearted tone of The Conjuring 2, an ostensible horror/thriller that, much more than its predecessor, makes the unusual decision to foreground the love story between its married protagonists. This, and the urban, working-class London setting — so different from the rural Rhode Island farmhouse of the first movie — ensure that director James Wan is able to produce something that feels aesthetically fresh even while he sticks closely to a familiar narrative playbook.

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The mostly respectful reviews of The Conjuring 2 have predictably focused on the literary virtues of story and character, with the odd stray remark praising the movie’s elaborate displays of “moving camera.” While the camera movement is indeed masterful, I’d argue that it’s Wan’s mise-en-scene (that slippery term denoting how a director stages events for the camera) that truly impresses. No matter how silly his scripts might be (and this is the first feature on which Wan has taken a co-writing credit), this motherfucker knows how to organize space: he always takes great care to visually lay out the interiors of his locations — usually through tracking shots and crane shots in which the camera prowls, cat-like, through hallways and up and down staircases — so that viewers completely understand where each room is in relation to every other room. Wan then uses the viewer’s knowledge of the architectural layout of the space to build anticipation and tighten the narrative screws. A case in point is a scene involving a tent made out of blankets that is ominously positioned at the end of a long hallway. Wan puts the camera in a child’s bedroom and keeps the tent in frame but out-of-focus through an open door in the background, generating an incredible amount of suspense over what purpose the tent may hold within the narrative. Even better, he composes this shot, Polanski-like, so that only half of the tent can be seen in the frame. At the screening I attended, viewers were visibly trying to crane their necks around the frame of the bedroom door onscreen. Wan, an Australian director of Malaysian-Chinese descent, is arguably the only director making Hollywood genre movies today who possesses this level of visual mastery and it’s high time he was recognized for the being the auteur that he is.

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The old-fashioned virtues of mise-en-scene can, of course, be readily found in contemporary genre films made outside of the U.S. — notably in Asian genre fare such as Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing from South Korea and Johnnie To’s Three from Hong Kong. The latter film, a thriller set entirely in a hospital, recently had an under-publicized and too-brief run in a few major U.S. cities (including in Chicago at the AMC River East) and viewers who caught it on the big screen should consider themselves lucky — it reaffirms why To is the best at what he does. The plot centers on a crime boss, Shun (Wallace Chung), who has shot himself in the head during a police standoff before the movie’s narrative proper begins. In spite of the seriousness of his injury, Shun, handcuffed to a gurney, refuses surgery in the hospital’s Emergency Room in hopes that his minions will soon show up to rescue him. Again shades of Rio Bravo abound, not only in terms of plot (a criminal under police supervision waits to be sprung by accomplices while being holed up in a claustrophobic location) but also in terms of theme. Three is a virtual essay on how professional duty and moral responsibility intersect and sometimes come into conflict; the Cop (Louis Koo) watching over Shun and the Doctor (Zhao Wei) in whose care he’s been placed repeatedly clash heads in a location that is at once semi-public and semi-private, and over which neither has complete dominion. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, probably the most astute critic of To in the English language, memorably describes how the use of curtains to cordon off hospital beds “create proscenium arches for intrigue and misdirection.” No matter that Three falls apart in an over-the-top climactic shootout that involves dodgy CGI; To, like Wan, knows how to use location as character and the expressive theatricality of his sets is exhilarating to behold for most of the film’s running time.

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In spite of near-unanimous praise, Jeremy Saulnier’s indie thriller Green Room is a movie that spectacularly fails to capitalize on the cinematic possibilities inherent in its central location: a punk-rock club under siege. The conventional wisdom regarding Green Room is that it’s a throwback to “early John Carpenter” but this analogy only makes sense when one considers the film in terms of narrative and genre elements, not in terms of actual filmmaking technique (i.e., mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing). Carpenter’s breakthrough film Assault on Precinct 13 (itself an unofficial remake of, you guessed it, Rio Bravo) involved a Los Angeles police station besieged by gang members. But what often makes the Carpenter of Assault, and its follow-up Halloween, so great is the director’s masterful use of the widescreen frame. Carpenter’s 2.35:1 compositions cleverly use foreground and background elements to create tension and build suspense (think of Michael Meyers repeatedly popping up in the background of the frame in the early sections of Halloween). Saulnier, by contrast, treats his ‘Scope compositions as if he were shooting in the square Academy ratio — close-ups might as well be long shots and vice-versa. Worse, he’s incapable of, or unwilling to, coherently lay out the space of his central location like Wan or To. In shots that are often under-lit, murky and ugly, his musician heroes (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin!) attempt to battle their way past their neo-Nazi tormentors and out of the club towards freedom, but viewers are frequently unsure of where these characters are in relation to one other. This ensures that Saulnier is only capable of generating surprise — in the form of out-of-the-blue bursts of violence — as opposed to good old-fashioned suspense (to borrow a distinction that Alfred Hitchcock liked to make). Is it effective on a visceral level? Sure. But Cinema it ain’t.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Breathless (Godard)
3. Sex is Comedy (Breillat)
3. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers)
4. The Night of the Hunter (Laughton)
5. Bloomin Mud Shuffle (Ross)
6. Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio)
7. Rome: Open City (Rossellini)
8. X-Files: Fight the Future (Bowman)
9. Citizen Kane (Welles)
10. Barbara (Petzold)


WCCRH Episode 13 / Mercury in Retrograde

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Episode 13 of my White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast is now online and features an extended dialogue between me and my Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle co-founder (and Kankakee Valley Daily Journal film critic) Pamela Powell. Pam and I begin by discussing what the CIFCC is and why we felt the need to form a second film critics’ organization in Chicago and then engage in a dialogue about the year in movies so far – culminating with a rap session about our mutual love of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. You can listen to the episode here.

I’m also happy to announce that my second feature film, Mercury in Retrograde, goes into production next month. A story announcing the cast recently appeared in Screen Magazine here. You can follow production of the film on facebook and twitter.

 


Happy Independence Day from White City Cinema and Little Edie!


The Best Films of 2016 So Far: A Midyear Report

As I have the past two years, I’m offering a list of “the best films of the year so far” now that we’ve reached the midway point of 2016. This list includes only movies that received their Chicago theatrical premieres between January 1 and June 30. This means I’m disqualifying films that received their first theatrical runs this year but which I caught at Chicago festival screenings last year. I’m also including excerpts from — and links to — my original reviews where applicable.

20. Sembene! (Gadjego/Silverman, Senegal/USA) – Siskel Center

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19. Land and Shade (Acevedo, Columbia) – Chicago Latino Film Fest

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“Adventurous viewers will be plenty rewarded by this quietly powerful drama about an elderly farmer returning to the family he had abandoned years before, reconnecting with his ex-wife and son (the latter of whom suffers from lung disease as a result of fires set to clear the sugar cane fields around them) and meeting his daughter-in-law and grandson for the first time. – Time Out capsule

18. The Conjuring 2 (Wan, USA/UK) – Wide release

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17. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Herzog, USA) – Doc10 Film Fest/Chicago Film Critics Fest

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“An alternately provocative and playful documentary about the Internet’s effect on global culture: featuring interviews with digital pioneers, scientists, hackers and even young people addicted to being online, it’s an even-handed look at both the glories and the dark side of the ‘net from an admitted luddite.” – Time Out capsule

16. Sunset Song (Davies, UK) – Music Box/Siskel Center

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15. In Transit (Maysles/True/Usui/Walker/Wu, USA) – Doc10 Film Fest

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“As with all of Maysles’s work, the film is more observational than informational; the focus is not on the logistics of train travel but on the fascinating lives of the commuters.” – Time Out capsule

14. Born to Be Blue (Budreau, Canada/USA) – Wide release

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“Thankfully eschewing the hokey, decades-spanning ‘rise/fall/rise’ formula that became de rigueur after the success of Ray and Walk the Line, its modest scope focuses instead on a single chapter in Baker’s life: the trumpeter’s successful comeback in the late 1960s after being sidelined by a heroin addiction that resulted in jail-time and the loss of his front teeth.” – White City Cinema capsule

13. Three (To, Hong Kong) – AMC River East

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12. L’Attesa (Messina, Italy/France) – Siskel Center

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“The Virgin is the symbol of the Feminine in us, it is the mystery of life, it is always present, we just have to say hello to her!” – Interview with Juliette Binoche in Time Out

11. Journey to the West (Tsai, Taiwan) – Chicago Filmmakers

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“Dispensing with narrative and dialogue altogether, the aptly titled Journey to the West consists of just a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee Kang-Sheng) walking about as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of contemporary Marseilles, France.” – Cine-File Chicago capsule

10. Hail, Caesar! (Coen/Coen, USA) – Wide release

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9. Viaje (Fabrega, Costa Rica) – Chicago Latino Film Fest

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“Imagine a sexier — and more female-centric — version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and you’ll have some idea of what Fabrega is up to in this charming and bittersweet two-hander.” – Time Out capsule

8. The Measure of a Man (Brize, France) – Siskel Center

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Discussed with Scott Pfeiffer on White City Cinema Radio Hour episode 10.

7. Love & Friendship (Stillman, USA/UK) – Wide release

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6. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linaklater, USA) – Wide release

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5. The Wailing (Na, S. Korea) – The Music Box

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4. No Home Movie (Akerman, Belgium) – Siskel Center

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“It’s a deceptively simple, extraordinarily powerful documentary about Akerman’s relationship with her elderly mother — a movie that slowly, almost imperceptibly, expands into an essay on Akerman’s quest to better understand her own Jewish roots and identity.” – Time Out capsule

3. Chevalier (Tsangari, Greece) – Siskel Center

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“The way the ship’s barely glimpsed working-class crew can be seen imitating the shenanigans of their masters offers a pungent class critique worthy of comparison to Jean Renoir or Luis Bunuel.” – Time Out Capsule

2. Arabian Nights Vol. 1 – 3 (Gomes, Portugal) – Siskel Center

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“Gomes’ progressive/liberal point-of-view is clear but never didactic; his chief interest would appear to be in creating set pieces of intense cinematic poetry (an aim in which he’s aided immeasurably by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom).” – Time Out capsule

1. Malgre la nuit (Grandrieux, France) – University of Chicago Film Studies Center

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“He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” Some thoughts here. Interview with director Philippe Grandrieux in Offscreen.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Wailing (Na)
2. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
3. Stoker (Park)
4. Three (To)
5. Secrets of a Soul (Pabst)
6. Midnight in Paris (Allen)
7. Open Tables (Newell)
8. Coeur Fidele (Epstein)
9. This is Not a Film (Panahi)
10. Fat Girl (Breillat)


Interview with Philippe Grandrieux in Offscreen

I was fortunate to be able to interview Philippe Grandrieux, one of my favorite living filmmakers, when he recently came to the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center to present three of his recent works. A transcript of the interview has been published in the Canadian film-studies journal Offscreen. I’m publishing a brief excerpt below and linking to the full piece at the bottom of this post. Thanks to Dominique Bluher and Michael W. Phillips, Jr. for helping to facilitate our talk and to Corinne Thevenon-Grandrieux for taking the delightful photo below.

MGS: Malgré la nuit is the first feature you’ve shot digitally. How did you like that experience compared to shooting on 35mm?

Photo by Corinne Thevenon-Grandrieux

PG: Well, you know, it makes not such a big difference for me, 35 or digital. Of course, there’s a difference — the nature of the picture — but I’m not at all in any kind of nostalgia (for celluloid). Because you are not paying with cash, you use a credit card; it’s plastic but it’s more or less the same, you know? So, it’s no more paper but it’s computers. Maybe digital cameras give you the opportunity also to be more inside of the light of the picture. When you shoot in 35 you are not in the light of the scene because all the contrast and the color, all of this is done later in the laboratory. But when you shoot in digital, in the viewfinder you have exactly the light that you are going to have on the screen. What you are seeing is what you are screening. For me it’s very important, the possibilities the digital camera gives me – to be more inside of the light of the film. Because I frame myself, and I am really inside of the movie when I shoot. It’s a very particular way to shoot and to direct. So I need to be inside of the sensation when it happens. And digital cameras give me very strong access to this sensation.

Read the full interview at Offscreen.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford)
2. They Were Expendable (Ford)
3. Another Year (Leigh)
4. Blue Velvet (Lynch)
5. Le Havre (Kaurismaki)
6. The Conjuring 2 (Wan)
7. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder)
8. Chinese Roulette (Fassbinder)
9. Green Room (Saulnier)
10. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder)


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