PROUD CITIZEN and FORT MARIA

I wrote the following joint review of PROUD CITIZEN and FORT MARIA, two microbudget comedies streaming exclusively at http://www.publiccinema.org through April 8, for the COVID-19/all-streaming version of Cine-File Chicago.

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Thomas Southerland’s PROUD CITIZEN / Thomas Southerland and S. Cagney Gentry’s FORT MARIA (US)

Available to stream free at www.publiccinema.org through 4/08.

These two delightful black-and-white microbudget features, each reportedly made for less than $10,000, prove that regional independent filmmaking is alive and well in America. They both star Bulgarian-born poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, who probably deserves to be considered a “co-auteur” alongside directors Thomas Southerland and S. Cagney Gentry by virtue of the fact that her dialogue in the films was largely improvised and by the sheer force of her quirky and quietly remarkable screen persona. PROUD CITIZEN (2014, 90 min.) details a week in the life of Krasimira (Stoykova-Klemer), a Bulgarian writer who travels to Lexington, Kentucky to attend the World Premiere of an autobiographical play she wrote about her Communist-era childhood after it wins second place in an international playwriting contest. The fish-out-of-water premise allows Southerland to examine his home state through a foreigner’s eyes as Krasimira interacts with members of the regional theater troupe who are staging the play and attends a patriotic Fourth of July parade; the rich vein of deadpan humor that this scenario opens up is reminiscent of early Jim Jarmusch but Southerland makes the material his own by coaxing impressively naturalistic performances from his mostly non-professional cast so that the film at times feels more like documentary than fiction. FORT MARIA (2018, 85 min.) involves many of the same elements as PROUD CITIZEN but improves upon the earlier movie by applying a more elegant visual style and a more ambitious narrative structure to its subject matter: Maria (Stoykova-Klemer) is an agoraphobic Bulgarian woman living in Kentucky who attempts to assuage the homesickness she feels for the old country by using Google Street View to visit it virtually. The narrative alternates between scenes of Maria talking to her younger neighbor, Clara (Jamie Hickman), who frequently drops in to check on her, and scenes involving Maria’s adopted African-American daughter, Meredith (Meredith Crutcher), who goes to visit her biological aunt, Violet (Joan Brannon), in North Carolina. The expertly musical way that Southerland and Gentry cross-cut between conversations involving all four of these women (two white and two black, at home and at work, in two different states) yields dividends that are sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous and, in the case of one digressive episode about Maria’s ill-fated romance with a co-worker, uproariously funny. MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (Scorsese)
2. Baby Face (Green)
3. Two Weeks in Another Town (Minnelli)
4. Lost in America (Brooks)
5. Harriet (Lemmons)
6. Fort Maria (Southerland/Gentry)
7. Proud Citizen (Southerland)
8. Dressed to Kill (DePalma)
9. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder)
10. Mercury in Retrograde (Smith)


Ksenia Ivanova’s JACK AND ANNA

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Although it has yet to premiere in Chicago proper, one of the most impressive Chicago-made shorts of recent years is Jack and Anna, a Columbia College MFA thesis film by the Russian-born writer/director Ksenia Ivanova. Since premiering in 2019, this poignant and impeccably crafted 15-minute period drama has screened at dozens of festivals around the world, including the prestigious Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and has deservedly picked up multiple awards in the process. If there is any justice in the universe, Ivanova’s movie will receive the Chicago red-carpet premiere it richly deserves when the coronavirus eventually blows over and its festival run resumes. This would only be fitting given that the cast and crew consist entirely of Chicagoans who should be able to see their work on the biggest screen possible.

Jack and Anna takes place in Colorado in 1913 but tells a story of intolerance and same-sex marriage that feels globally relevant today. The theme of (in)justice is introduced in the opening shot of a judge’s harsh eye, which is trained, in a cool-hued courtroom, on defendant Helen Hilsher, a young woman accused of “impersonating a man” for the previous two years. The narrative then flashes back to depict happier times in the relationship between the tomboy-ish Hilsher (living as “Handsome Jack” Hill) and one Anna Slifka, who were married and owned a farm before their secret was discovered and they were legally forced apart. Kate Smith is superb as Helen/Jack — her courtroom scenes could draw tears from a stone — but Brookelyn Hebert is equally affecting in the less showy role of Anna: Her non-verbal reaction shots are a masterclass in understated screen acting. These performances, like the movie’s impressive technical specs, ultimately transcend the “student film” designation.


Leilah Weinraub’s SHAKEDOWN

I wrote the following review of Leilah Weinraub’s excellent SHAKEDOWN, streaming exclusively on Pornhub through the end of March, for the new COVID-19/all-streaming version of Cine-File Chicago.

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Leilah Weinraub’s SHAKEDOWN (US Experimental Documentary)
Available to stream free on Pornhub through 3/31.

The title of Leilah Weinraub’s superb 2018 documentary refers to a series of legendary underground strip-club shows held in a variety of locations in Los Angeles in the 1990s and early 2000s. The performers at these shows, the “Shakedown Angels,” were exclusively lesbians of color who catered to audiences comprised largely of the same demographic. Like Jennie Livingston did with New York City’s drag-ball scene in the landmark PARIS IS BURNING, Weinraub provides an invaluable and eye-opening social history of a subculture too-long marginalized, and many of the pleasures her film offers arise from a similarly skilled manner of documentary portraiture: The subjects come across as compelling, vividly drawn characters – from Ronnie-Ron, Shakedown’s charismatic “stud” impresario, to angels Mahogany (who gives a fascinating description of the difference between performing for women vs. men), Egypt (a formerly homophobic high-school cheerleader who discovered her sexual identity after being introduced to gay club-life by a friend) and the enigmatic Slim Goodie (whose clever costumes and aggressive, mesmerizing dance numbers rival the best of what came out of MGM’s famed Arthur Freed unit in the 1950s). Fittingly, men are almost nowhere to be seen, and the only appearance of white men pointedly occurs when undercover cops show up to arrest nude dancers for “soliciting,” precipitating the closure of Shakedown’s main venue in 2004 amidst a new era of gentrification in L.A. But Weinraub also knows that the most effective way to challenge the dominant ideology of American culture (i.e., patriarchy and heteronormativity) in cinema is not only through content but form, and so she rebels against the conventions of mainstream documentary filmmaking as well. What ultimately makes SHAKEDOWN a landmark work of radical queer art in its own right is its experimental edge: In little more than an hour, Weinraub confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage (culled from 400+ hours she shot herself on standard-definition video in low-light conditions) 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. Pornhub and Weinraub will host a Q&A live chat on Saturday, March 28 from 12PM-1PM PST. The chat offers viewers the chance to “simulate the experience of watching the film together, even while alone.” (2018, 66 min) MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bacurau (Dornelles/Mendonca)
2. Nightmare Cinema (Brugues/Dante/Garris/Kitamura/Slade)
3. The Swimmer (Perry)
4. Shivers (Cronenberg)
5. Shakedown (Weinraub)
6. King of New York (Ferrara)
7. Obit (Gould)
8. Auto Focus (Schrader)
9. Career Girls (Leigh)
10. The Lure (Smoczyńska)


The 15 Best Episodes of FORENSIC FILES

I’ve never seen BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN or GAME OF THRONES but I have seen all 400+ episodes of FORENSIC FILES. My contribution to “quarantine culture” is this carefully curated list of my 15 favorite episodes. I hope this comes in handy for anyone looking for something to binge watch:

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15. WATER LOGGED (Season 14, Episode 11)
An Ohio woman takes her teenage daughters on vacation to Florida but they never return home. This is, for my money, the most horrific of all FF episodes and the only one that I can’t bear to rewatch. The details of how these women were murdered are burned into my brain, however, and it therefore deserves a place on this list. Also fascinating is the way the police end up capturing the killer: by posting a suspect’s handwriting on a billboard.

14. INVISIBLE INTRUDER (Season 4, Episode 1)
The Darlie Routier case is famous – she was found guilty of stabbing her 5 and 6-year-old sons to death with a butcher knife and staging the crime scene to look like it was the work of an intruder. Some people still believe Darlie is innocent but the forensics suggest otherwise. What really makes this case interesting to contemplate though is simply trying to fathom her motive.

13. A VOICE FROM BEYOND (Season 5, Episode 4)
This classic episode – about the discovery of a mummified corpse (with a fetus inside of it) stuffed in a barrel in the crawl space of a New York home – is one of the most satisfying from an actual scientific point-of-view. The solution to the mystery points to a tragic 30-year-old love triangle and stretches all the way to El Savador.

12. FAMILY TIES (Season 13, Episode 5)
A college student who is deep in debt kills his father with an ax for some inheritance money. This episode is compelling as a portrait of a young, upper-class psychopath but what really makes it memorable are the disturbing details of how, before dying, the father regained consciousness and, apparently unaware of his mortal wounds, went outside to fetch a newspaper.

11. SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (Season 8, Episode 25)
The New York Zodiac killer, not the San Francisco one! Heriberto Seda terrorized NYC for six years in the ‘90s, killing, at random, three people and wounding five others – all the while mailing taunting letters to the New York Post. The most chilling aspect of this case is how Seda’s claims that his victims would all belong to different astrological signs turned out to be both true and impossible to explain.

10. A BITTER PILL TO SWALLOW (Season 7, Episode 18)
A pregnant woman suspects that her fiancé, a handsome young doctor, has been poisoning her in order to induce a miscarriage. So she decides to take the law into her own hands by making a secret video recording of him fixing her a drink. Much like BAD BLOOD (see #1 on this list), this episode excels by giving viewers a feisty heroine to root for.

9. SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED (Season 10, Episode 25)
Three young men in Alaska go for a joyride and intentionally shoot and kill a random passenger in another car. One of the men turns state witness and testifies against his buddies in exchange for immunity but this leads to even more tragic consequences. This crazy episode unfolds like an overly plot twist-filled novel.

8. STRANGER IN THE NIGHT (Season 13, Episode 11)
An elderly woman is stabbed to death with a screwdriver in her Delaware home. Suspicion falls on her son who tells the police an unbelievable story about meeting and getting into a fight with the killer, a total stranger to him, earlier that same night. A darkly ironic episode that must be seen to be believed.

7. THE LIST MURDERS (Season 1, Episode 12)
John List was a devoutly religious accountant who murdered his mother, wife and three children then lived under a new identity for 18 years before being caught. That he was apprehended due to the work of a forensic artist who sculpted an accurate clay bust of his aged appearance is one of the most satisfying conclusions to any FF episode.

6. BAD MEDICINE (Season 9, Episode 8)
The enormously entertaining “Bad Medicine” tells the story of Anthony Pignataro, a bad plastic surgeon (and inventor of the “snap-on toupee!”) who accidentally kills a patient during breast-augmentation surgery. After doing six months in prison for negligent homicide, Pignataro, like some pathetic anti-hero in a Coen brothers’ movie, concocts an outrageous plan to exonerate himself and get his medical license back.

5. TRANSACTION FAILED (Season 12, Episode 6)
FORENSIC FILES frequently deals with the collision between good and bad people but the contrast in this episode is so extreme that it lifts the episode into the realm of the philosophical: Dianey Tilly was a teacher and founder of a school for troubled youth who was nicknamed “the miracle worker.” She meets her death at the hands of a 15-year-old girl (exactly the kind of person Tilly had dedicated her life to helping) and her monster of a father. The story’s heartbreaking conclusion should serve as a kind of Rorschach test for the beliefs of each individual viewer.

4. DEATH PLAY (Season 6, Episode 5)
No one could script anything this rich: a 16-year-old girl poisons her father and would have gotten away with it scot-free except that, a year later, while listening to her best friend recite Claudius’ lines from Shakespeare’s HAMLET, she is provoked into making a spontaneous confession. This episode features witty, salient commentary by Texas Monthly editor Skip Hollandsworth (who would go on to co-write Richard Linklater’s BERNIE).

3. THE WILSON MURDER (Season 1, Episode 8)
The first true FF masterpiece involves a pair of twin sisters in Alabama who are charged with the murder of one of their husbands. Testifying at both trials is an elementary school janitor / bargain-basement hitman whose testimony seems to be unreliable. Fans of “whodunits” will love this for the colorful, eccentric characters and the way it’s impossible to know for sure what really happened.

2. LAST WILL (Season 8, Episode 7)
A lot of the best FF episodes succeed in being either sad or scary. The heart-wrenching “Last Will,” by virtue of having the highest combined average of both of these qualities, is in many ways the ultimate episode of the show. It’s about a teenaged girl who is kidnapped in broad daylight and the sadistic abductor who allows her to write a will that he then mails to her parents after killing her.

1. BAD BLOOD (Season 6, Episode 18)
This Canadian-set episode is endlessly rewatchable: a doctor who drugged and raped one of his patients in the hospital where he works gets away with it initially by inserting a tube of someone else’s blood into his own arm(!), thus allowing him to pass a series of DNA tests. His accuser, a woman identified only as “Candy” (who proves to be a fantastic interview subject), doggedly pursues her claim for years, going so far as to hire a private detective to obtain the doc’s DNA through surreptitious means. Candy is my hero.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Mars Attacks! (Burton)
2. Masked and Anonymous (Charles)
3. The Honeymoon Killers (Kastle)
4. Inquiring Nuns (Quinn)
5. Joan of Arc (Dumont)
6. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
7. Le Bonheur (Varda)
8. Citizen Kane (Welles)
9. Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Herzog)
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)


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