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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Quiet Passion (Davies)
2. The Girl with All the Gifts (McCarthy)
3. David Lynch: The Art Life (Nguyen/Neergaard-Holm/Barnes)
4. Routine Pleasures (Gorin)
5. My Crasy Life (Gorin)
6. Contracted (England)
7. Jeanne Dielman (Akerman)
8. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong)
9. Beach Rats (Hittman)
10. Audrey the Trainwreck (Ross)

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Filmmaker Interview: Terence Davies

Terence Davies, who rose to prominence with the autobiographical masterpieces Distant Voices, Still Lives (1998) and The Long Day Closes (1992) is widely regarded as the greatest living British director. His latest film, A Quiet Passion, is an astonishing biopic of poet Emily Dickinson (played, in a revelatory performance, by Sex and the City‘s Cynthia Nixon) from her graduation from seminary school as a teenager to her premature death at 55. The film is injected with so much genuine insight and feeling about what it means to be an uncompromising artist, and Davies so clearly sees Dickinson as a kindred spirit, that the whole thing feels like a veiled self-portrait. I recently sat down to talk with Davies in advance of the film’s first Chicago run. (Note: A shorter version of this interview can be found at Time Out).

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MGS: A Quiet Passion is obviously a very literary film but it’s your first film in almost 25 years that isn’t adapted from a work of literature. What was the impetus to make a film about Emily Dickinson’s life?

TD: Well, the poetry, really. I fell in love with the poetry. When I started reading her properly, I then discovered this extraordinary life. Which apparently is “uneventful” but, of course, no life is uneventful. And especially within the family, that very tight-knit, close family. I come from the same thing. Unfortunately, half mine are dead now but I know what that was like. And I also responded to her spiritual quest because I was a very devout Catholic, I really was. I spent seven years struggling with doubt until I realized it was just men in frocks, really. And the fact that she walks this very fine line between believing in a God or not, which always implies hope in the poetry. With the exception, I think, of one poem, which comes close to despair: “I reason Earth is short — And Anguish — absolute.” That’s about the only one that I’ve read that comes close to despair. So those two things really drew me to her. It was a rich inner life but she was ill in pain most of the time. She wrote 1800 letters, three volumes of letters, continuous correspondence with Judge Lord, she baked, she cooked, she played the piano and wrote 1800 poems as well! And she was in pain. These days we can have any pain killed. Imagine even the slightest thing, like a headache, not being able to get rid of it. It must have been awful. What she did was truly heroic.

MGS: Did you read her when you were young or did you discover her later in life?

TD: I discovered her when I was 18, on television, Claire Bloom was reading some of her poetry. And then I bought a little anthology. And it wasn’t until round about ’95, something like that, that I thought, “I want to start reading her again.” And then discovered this extraordinary life.

MGS: In America, we read her in high school and she’s often taught in a way that’s reductive and simplistic; teachers teach that she was a death-obsessed recluse who never left her house. One of the things I loved about the film is that you show her sense of humor and her passionate side. Were you consciously trying to demystify her?

TD: I didn’t want her to be solemn! Because there’s nothing worse than films about “great people” where they go around looking glum for 90 minutes. There’s nothing interesting in that, is there? She was an ordinary human being doing all the things that ordinary people do. She happened to be a genius. And any genius, whichever era they live in, life is difficult because they’ve always got one skin missing. They respond to the world in a way the rest of us don’t and that can be extremely painful to experience. And something like winning only second prize for the bread would not only hurt her, she’d never forget that. She just wouldn’t: “I’m not really good enough.” Her standard of morals and ethics was very high and she was merciless if you dropped below them. And she was merciless to herself as well: if she thought she dropped below them, she was equally merciless. But, you know, Lavinia (Dickinson’s sister) said, “Integrity, if taken too far, can be just as ruthless.” And it comes as a shock to her because she hadn’t seen that. Like when she was brought back from the seminary when she was 17, she was ill with homesickness, literally. And I think when she got back home she was so happy to be back in the bosom of the family and wanted that family to be like that forever. Unfortunately, families grow up and die and go away. And when she realizes that it’s actually become a prison, it’s too late.

MGS: Right, and there’s a decisive shift in the film because the first half of it is almost a comedy…

TD: Good!

MGS: It reminded me of Love & Friendship, actually, the Jane Austen adaptation that Whit Stillman made…

TD: Which I haven’t seen.

MGS: It’s wonderful, it’s very funny. Your film is like that before the pain and suffering kick in.

TD: (Laughs) Good old pain and suffering!

MGS: Cynthia Nixon is extraordinary and a revelation. I think on paper it might seem like an eccentric casting choice and then, when you see the film, she’s perfect. What was it about her that made you think she was right for the part?

TD: I’d seen her about five years before for a film that didn’t come off and I’d never forgotten her. I thought, “There’s something really, really good about this person.” Anyway, I started writing the script and then did some research. And there’s only one photograph of Emily, which is a little daguerrotype when she was 17. And one of my producers used to be a stills photographer and he superimposed Cynthia’s face on it. She looks like the older version of Emily! But when we met, when the script was finally done, not only did she know the poetry — because she had records at home of Julie Harris reading the poetry — but she could read poetry herself, which is not easy. Not a lot of people can read poetry. And I just knew she was right. She stuck with it for four-and-a-half years. It took four-and-a-half years to get the money together. She said — and it was so touching — “You won’t get money for a film that I’m starring in!” I said, “Yes, we will.” And she stayed with it when she could have done other things. If she pulled out, I have no idea who I’d have cast. I have no idea.

MGS: I’m glad you said she knows how to read poetry. The way she recites the poems in voice-over is one of my favorite parts of the film…

TD: And, if I could just interrupt, we did that as a “guide track” on one of the sound stages one afternoon. And she said, “Well, when do you want me to record them?” I said, “I don’t. You’ve done such extraordinary work.” That was the guide track. I didn’t want to spoil it.

MGS: How did you decide which poems to use?

TD: There were some that I was determined to have in. And they were “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”…

MGS: Which had to come at the end.

TD: It had to. “This is My Letter to the World,” which is the final one (heard in the film). “I’m a Nobody!” — I thought, “If she says this to a little baby, it’ll really be lovely.” There were about two more, I can’t think just off the top of my head. The others came as I was writing it. You go back to the anthology again and again. And in one of the biographies it would say, “She wrote this at such and such a time.” It’s a mixture of six of one, half a dozen of the other, really.

MGS: One of the most extraordinary scenes is the fantasy sequence where a man walks up the stairs in her home, which is heartbreaking because we know that threshold will never be crossed in reality. What was the inspiration for that scene?

TD: It was her, it was her. Most of the words in that sequence were hers. I think I added one line. “She longed for the looming man to come at midnight.” “Looming” is a very odd word to choose because it has menace in it, you know? And she did write, “Let him come before the afterlife, let him not forget me, please let him not forget me.” The problem with fantasy is that no one can ever live up to it. I think if he had come along she’d have been terrified because how can anyone live up to that level of intensity? They just can’t. And also, if you had sex and had a child, you could die in childbirth. It was common, it wasn’t extraordinary. Can you imagine? I can’t imagine having children now — with all the safeguards — but then when they had none? So there was that as well. And because this very nice young man comes who just wanted to be pleasant, and have a pleasant afternoon, she misconstrues everything he says. Because, in the middle, she’s had a great fantasy that he’ll come. And this fellow downstairs is just far too clever for his own good. She’s really unpleasant to him: “I don’t want to be a burden to you. A burden can always be laid down. You are not required to be a Sisyphus.” Sharp! Straight from the knife box!

MGS: So when you’re reading these things she wrote, did they translate into images in your mind? That scene you’re talking about is so dreamlike and painterly. Were you trying to come up with a visual corollary to her poetry?

TD: I wanted that sequence to be strange and not “actual,” which is why, of course, you don’t see his face. It’s largely dark. But I wanted to try and get over the intensity of that feeling, of longing so deeply that it actually becomes almost morbid. And this is where wonderful things happen on the set. This lovely lad did all the flowers for me — and the track, originally, was to bring the man to the bottom of the stairs, dissolve to that — and he put these flowers in front this mirror. They looked like les fleurs du mal, they looked like the flowers of death. And when I saw it I said, “We’ve got to track in on it.” I said, “It’s a fabulous, fabulous bouquet of flowers. How on earth did you think of that?” He said, “I just thought it would be good.” So things like that help. And it was also shot at 48 frames-per-second, so it’s slightly slow.

MGS: Keith Carradine is also extraordinary in the film. When I saw him, I didn’t immediately recognize him. I thought, “Who is this actor? He’s incredible.” Then, when I saw the end credits, I thought, “My God, I can’t believe I didn’t realize that was him.” How did you end up casting him?

TD: Well, we were in Los Angeles casting and, apart from one person, it’s usually the lead, like Cynthia, everybody else has got to read. It’s as simple as that. And his agent said, “Keith won’t read.” I said, “Okay, fine.” Then we started auditioning other people and then he came in. I said, “Mr. Carradine, your agent said you won’t read.” He said, “Of course I’ll read. I’m a terrible reader but I’ll read!” And he read and I said, “Will you do it?” And he said yes. He’s a lovely man. He’s got the most caressive voice. It’s a lovely voice. I was blessed with this wonderful cast!

MGS: You’ve never made a film set in the present day. Is that something you would ever consider?

TD: I don’t know. The reason is very simple: I’m a technophobe. I can’t use any of this technology. I was the same as a child. If I’m not interested in something, I can’t retain the information. I’ve got one mobile (phone), which doesn’t work when I come to America, and there are three numbers on it. If anyone else phones, I switch it off and shout at it. And, because of that, I’m afraid of the world. I don’t understand all this technological junk. I’m also repelled by it. There’s a level of narcissism that I don’t like at all. Why do you want to take photographs of yourself when you’re having a meal? I mean, what is the point of that? I don’t understand it. And what I do hate is the way the language is being systematically destroyed — because I love English. I think it’s one of the great languages, one of the most expressive, and it’s being destroyed.

MGS: Because of texting?

TD: And the words that people use. I mean, the Grand Canyon is awesome but little else is.

MGS: Well, I think one of the great things about this movie is that it’s going to inspire a lot of people to read Dickinson’s poetry.

TD: Good. That would be the greatest reward if they do that, because she deserves it.

A Quiet Passion opens at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, May 19. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Music Box’s website.


Lucky at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following piece appeared at Time Out Chicago yesterday.

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival has, in its brief, five-year existence, quietly asserted itself as one of the city’s premiere showcases for exciting new American independent and foreign movie fare. Programmed by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the festival features local premieres of movies, some of which don’t yet have distribution, that made splashes at major festivals like Cannes, Sundance and South By Southwest. Best of all, many of the screenings are accompanied by talkbacks with filmmakers and actors. My best bet for this year’s festival, which runs from Friday, May 12 through Thursday, May 18 at the Music Box Theatre, is John Carroll Lynch’s comedy/drama Lucky.

Harry Dean Stanton is a national treasure. The excellent character actor with the perpetual hangdog expression has burned himself into the collective American psyche. Who can forget his fine supporting turns in everything from Alien to Repo Man to Paris, Texas to the work of David Lynch (who has, across seven separate projects, cast HDS more frequently than any other actor)? Not enough for you? How about Cool Hand Luke, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Godfather Part II and Escape from New York? Then there is the matter of Pretty in Pink, in which Stanton pops up in a cameo as Molly Ringwald’s father, inexplicably wielding a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and making the movie a whole lot cooler in the process. At 90-years-old, Stanton finally gets the breakout leading role he deserves in Lucky, the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David). It’s the performance of a lifetime and if it doesn’t earn Stanton an Oscar nomination then they should close the joint for good.

As the tagline succinctly puts it, Lucky is about the “spiritual journey” of the title character, a retired cowboy and curmudgeonly atheist whose daily routine consists of crossword puzzles, game shows and visiting the same diner and bar, at which he converses with the same colorful regulars. After falling one day in his kitchen, Lucky is forced to belatedly confront his mortality for the very first time, and Stanton and director Lynch are able to pack a lot of poignancy and warmth into scenes showing how this affects Lucky’s relationships with the people closest to him. See, for instance, the understated way Stanton sells the line “I’m scared” when confiding in a friend or the astonishing scene in which Lucky reveals unexpected musical chops by breaking into a heartfelt Spanish-language song at a fiesta. It’s a modest, confidently made film, and a valentine from one character actor to another (Lynch is himself a veteran of films by the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese) that is well worth your time.

Lucky screens on May 13 and May 18, with Lynch in person for a Q&A at the former screening. For more info, visit the Chicago Critics Film Festival website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow)
2. Holy Motors (Carax)
3. Lucky (Lynch)
4. Lost North (Lavanderos)
5. Beau Travail (Denis)
7. Hoop Dreams (James)
8. The Long Day Closes (Davies)
9. Fat Girl (Breillat)
10. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)


The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Fest – Week Two

The following should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

What to see during the Chicago Latino Film Fest's second week
The Chicago Latino Film Festival continues through Thursday, May 4. My best bets for the second week are Fernando Lavanderos’ Lost North and Juan Sebastian Mesa’s The Nobodies.The Nobodies is the reason why film fests exist: shot in lo-fi black-and-white digital in one week on a budget of just $2000, this engrossing Colombian drama went on to win the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival Critics’ Week, thus ensuring healthy and deserved international distribution. The plotless film follows the lives of five aimless teenage punks in the city of Medellin: they juggle in the streets for money in order to fuel a non-conformist lifestyle revolving around weed, live music, tattoos and graffiti. Writer/director Juan Sebastian Mesa’s first feature may be modest in scope and lacking broader social context but it’s also entirely successful as deft urban portraiture: the naturalistic dialogue and performances (by actors playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves) are electrifying.

My favorite film at this year’s CLFF is the Chilean road movie Lost North, Fernando Lavanderos’ follow-up to his excellent 2012 feature Things the Way They Are. The plot concerns a young woman named Isabel (Geraldine Neary) abruptly leaving her boyfriend Esteban (Koke Santa Ana), a Santiago-based businessman, and embarking on a spontaneous journey north towards the Chilean-Bolivian border. Isabel sends Esteban short, enigmatic videos from her travels, which impel him to try and find her using only the video evidence as his guide. The film’s clever dual road-trip conceit allows Lavanderos to create a compelling Murnau-like dichotomy between city and country, past and present, and man and woman, but there’s also welcome humor in the characters’ differing attitudes towards “unplugging” and letting go of the modern world: one hilarious scene involves a desperate Esteban calling in sick to work from the road “with hepatitis” in order to justify his absence from the office.

The Nobodies screens on Saturday, April 29 and Monday, May 1. Lost North screens on Sunday, April 30 and Tuesday, May 2. For more information, visit the Chicago Latino Film Fest’s official site.


New Godard and Chabrol on Blu-Ray

The following piece should appear at Time Out sometime soon.

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Chicago-based Olive Films releases French New Wave rarities

Chicago-based Olive Films has earned a reputation as the “Criterion of the Midwest” for bringing superb-quality transfers of classic films to DVD and Blu-ray, many of which may be light on “special features” but compensate by being reasonably priced. Ophelia (1963) and The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964) are two welcome new additions to the Olive catalogue, especially for movie lovers interested in the landmark movement known as the French New Wave. Both films have never before been released on any digital format until now.

The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers is an omnibus film comprised of four shorts revolving around con artists plying their trade in major cities around the world: Tokyo, Paris, Naples and Marrakesh (a fifth segment set in Amsterdam, Roman Polanski’s River of Diamonds, has regrettably been omitted from this release at the request of the director). The highlight is Jean-Luc Godard’s Marrakesh-set Le Grand Escroc, which revives the character of Patricia from Breathless (again embodied by the great Jean Seberg), now a successful television reporter on assignment in Morocco. Patricia investigates the story of a man who prints counterfeit money only to give it away to the homeless but Godard’s real interest appears to be the intersection of documentary and fiction, which he regards with characteristic playful inquisitiveness. Le Grand Escroc also marks the beginning of the director’s fascination with the Arab world, a subject he would return to in Ici et Ailleurs, Notre Musique, the Egyptian section of Film Socialism and, if rumors are to be believed, his forthcoming Image and Word.

Ophelia, directed by Godard’s New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (also director of the Paris segment of The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers), is a modern-day update of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in provincial France. After his father dies unexpectedly, Ivan (Andre Jocelyn) suspects his mother (The Third Man‘s Alida Valli) and uncle (Claude Cerval) of committing foul play and sets a trap to catch them both; the “Mousetrap” play here is ingeniously presented as a silent short film made by Ivan with local amateur talent almost 40 years before Ethan Hawke did the same thing in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. Chabrol loved to skewer the bourgeoisie but his decision to portray his main character as an entitled and whiny brat may be off-putting to some viewers. I would argue, however, that this decision pays dividends in the film’s darkly ironic conclusion when the spoiled young man realizes too late that he was incorrect to assume his family’s tragedy had to follow a familiar narrative playbook; Chabrol intertwines notions of class, culture and “projecting” onto others in devilishly entertaining fashion.

The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers and Ophelia are released on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, April 25. For more info, visit Olive’s official site.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Lost North (Lavanderos)
2. The Nobodies (Mesa)
3. Possession (Zulawski)
4. Silence (Scorsese)
5. Thief (Mann)
6. The Gang’s All Here (Berkeley)
7. Melvin and Howard (Demme)
8. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (Gibney)
9. Ophelia (Chabrol)
10. Wild Reeds (Techine)


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