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DARK BLUE GIRL at the Beloit International Film Festival

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If you are planning on attending the Beloit International Film Festival, which kicks off on Friday, February 23, and runs through Sunday, March 4, you would do well to attend the Midwest Premiere of Dark Blue Girl, the first feature film by the young German writer/director Mascha Schilinski. Unlike the more formulaic American indie offerings I’ve sampled from this year’s BIFF (the titles of which shall remain nameless), this European art film is exactly the kind of small, quiet gem that, through the refreshing confidence of its mise-en-scene, avoidance of narrative cliche and powerful but naturalistic performances, single-handedly justifies the existence of North American film festivals; it probably won’t receive distribution here so cinephiles should make it a point to catch it while they can.

Dark Blue Girl, the original German title of which, Die Tochter, literally translates to “The Daughter,” is a dark, Freudian affair about the complex family dynamics between a newly divorced husband and wife, Jimmy (Karsten Mielke) and Hannah (Artemis Chalkidou), and their pre-adolescent daughter, Luca (Helena Zengel), over a two-year span of time. Luca’s parents divorce when she is five but then spontaneously rekindle the flame of their romance two years later when they travel to a Greek island to sell their family vacation home. The irony is that Luca, now seven, is highly disturbed by the way her parents unexpectedly reconnect, and sees Hannah’s renewed interest in Jimmy as a threat to her own relationship with her father. Confusion and self-harm ensue – although the film never quite goes where you think it will.

The slow-burn narrative and Aegean setting hint at Greek tragedy but Schilinski wisely keeps the scale of her story human, intimate and relatable. The director’s low-key poetic approach is best exemplified in a terrific sequence where Hannah and Jimmy first renew their passion for each other: in the process of renovating their home, he removes a door from its frame and sands it under the island sun while she scrapes rust off of a chair nearby. Their labor creates percussive rhythms that soon turn into a kind of beautiful musical duet; the amplified sound effects and shot/reverse shot editing are at first humorous but soon give way to a potent eroticism. The whole magical sequence constitutes the kind of “grace note” for which John Ford was known, and marks Schilinski as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Dark Blue Girl screens at the Beloit International Film Festival on Saturday, March 3. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the festival’s official website.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin)
2. Dark Blue Girl (Schilinski)
3. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
4. Mickey One (Penn)
5. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont)
7. La Femme Infidele (Chabrol)
8. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
9. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
10. The Death of Louis XIV (Serra)


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE Press Roundup!

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Because of the screenings of my film Mercury in Retrograde at the Gene Siskel Film Center over the next week (Friday, 2/16, Monday, 2/19 and Wednesday, 2/21), the film has been in the press a lot this past week. Among the highlights:

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper calls the film “absolutely beautiful…a smart, funny, quietly effective and authentic slice of older millennial life…Smith has a deft touch for dialogue, creating six distinct characters who look and sound like people we know…the interaction between the uniformly excellent actors feels natural and unforced.” You can read his great, spoiler-free full review here.

Andrea Gronvall of the Chicago Reader has a nice capsule review in which she calls the film an “observant, nuanced indie” and notes the humor in the book-club and disc-golf scenes (an aspect that has been too unremarked upon in other reviews). You can read her notice here.

It was an honor to be interviewed by Donald Liebenson for the mighty RogerEbert.com site. I am proud of the fact that I uttered the sentence “F.W. Murnau is my master” in this interview. Peep it here.

Two fun MiR-related radio interviews also premiered online in the past week: you can listen to me and the fabulous Najarra Townsend talk about the film with Gary Zidek on his show “The Arts Section” here. You can also here me talk about the film on the WGN Radio podcast “No Coast Cinema,” an essential listen for cinephiles, with hosts Tom Hush and Conor Cornelius here.

Hope to see you at one of the screenings!


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Woman Who Left (Diaz)
2. Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats (Feiring)
3. Body Heat (Kasdan)
4. Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats (Feiring)
5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
6. Contempt (Godard)
7. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
8. Nosferatu (Murnau)
9. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)
10. City That Never Sleeps (Auer)


Mercury in Retrograde on the Radio / Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats at the Siskel

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My film Mercury in Retrograde will be featured on two radio shows this weekend in advance of our screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center. First up: you can listen to me talk about the film on Saturday, February 10 at 9am on the popular “Live from the Heartland” show (88.7FM in Chicago or online at WLUW.org). Then on Sunday, February 11, tune in to hear the great Najarra Townsend and me reminisce about making MiR at 8am on Gary Zidek’s invaluable “Arts Section” show (90.9FM in Chicago or online at WDCB.org).

Speaking of the Siskel, I will be moderating a Q&A there with director Jacob Feiring following a screening of his documentary Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats at 3pm this Saturday. Much like last year’s surprise hit Kedi, it’s a must-see for lovers of both cats and cinema. Hope to see you there!


Abbas Kiarostami at the Siskel Center’s Festival of Films from Iran

I wrote the following piece about Hossein Khandan’s Waiting for Kiarostami and Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames for Time Out Chicago. Both screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable annual festival of films from Iran.

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Although he passed away abruptly in 2016 at the age of 76, director Abbas Kiarostami’s presence continues to loom large over contemporary Iranian cinema. The Siskel Center’s 28th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, which kicked off on Friday, February 3 and runs through the end of the month, features Waiting for Kiarostami, a narrative feature by the Chicago-based Iranian filmmaker Hossein Khandan, and 24 Frames, an experimental feature begun by Kiarostami but completed posthumously by his son Ahmad.

Khandan’s film stars Khandan as himself and is based on the true story of how Kiarostami tasked him with finding a suitable actress fluent in both Mandarin and Farsi for a movie to be shot in China that would have been a follow up to Kiarostami’s Japanese-set Like Someone in Love (2012). Waiting for Kiarostami, which resembles Kiarostami’s own hall-of-mirrors masterpiece Close-Up (1991), features extended scenes of Khandan grooming Dorsa Sinaki (a talented newcomer also playing herself) for an audition with Kiarostami that will sadly never materialize. Conflict arises when Sinaki’s conservative father, Koroush, objects to his daughter’s artistic ambitions, which he feels will derail her promising medical career. Made on a shoestring budget, it’s a smart, provocative and ultimately touching tribute to Kiarostami bolstered by a terrifically intense performance by Homayoun Ershadi (the lead in Taste of Cherry) as Koroush.

24 Frames contains the most innovative use of CGI I have ever seen. It begins with an astonishing sequence in which Kiarostami “animates” Bruegel’s famous 16th century painting Hunters in the Snow: snowflakes fall in the foreground, smoke rises from chimneys in the distance, birds fly across the top of the frame and a dog urinates on a tree. This scene, lasting four-and-a-half minutes, essentially teaches viewers how to watch the rest of the film; it is followed by 23 more scenes of exactly the same length in which Kiarostami similarly uses CGI to bring his own still photographs to life. The “frames” I am most fond of include one, Tati-esque in its humor, in which a dog barks incessantly at a flag waving in the wind on a snow-covered beach, and another, the profound final shot of the movie, in which a woman sleeps in front of a laptop computer while the final shot of The Best Years of Our Lives plays on the monitor in slow motion. Adventurous cinephiles should have a field day with 24 Frames, which is not only ravishingly beautiful to look at but also invites viewers to contemplate the relationship between cinema and photography. It’s a fitting final chapter in the career of a man who happened to be a giant of both mediums.

For more information about the 28th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
2. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
3. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
4. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
5. Rendezvous in Paris (Rohmer)
6. Brooklyn (Crowley)
7. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
8. Tater Tot & Patton (Kightlinger)
9. Mercury in Retrograde (Smith)
10. Our Hospitality (Keaton)


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