Pioneers of African-American Cinema

My new blog post at Time Out Chicago concerns Kino/Lorber’s essential new Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. My original version, longer and more intelligible than Time Out’s edit, is reproduced in its entirety below:

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Newsreel image of Oscar Micheaux directing a film, probably The Brute, in Chicago circa 1920.

Kino Lorber’s new Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set, available on both Blu-ray and DVD, offers an invaluable tour through an alternative history of American cinema in the early 20th century. The contents include 19 features and 12 shorts, not to mention various other fragments and supplements to provide historical context, adding up to an astonishingly rich and authentic portrait of black American life and culture during that period. All of these films, made between 1915 and 1946, were created far outside of Hollywood’s studio system. As Chicago was the birthplace of “race movies” (films made by and for African Americans) in the silent era, there is plenty of Chicago-related content in the set.

Disc one is especially Chicago-centric: it kicks off with three slapstick comedy shorts in a row, all made by the locally owned Ebony Film Corporation. These “two-reelers,” produced by the enterprising J. Luther Pollard, show the obvious influence of the Keystone Cops and are still quite funny by modern standards. The highlight is undoubtedly A Reckless Rover, in which the protagonist (Rastus Jones), on the run from the police, seeks refuge in a Chinese laundry and accidentally overdoses on opium. These shorts are followed by Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 Chicago-shot masterpiece Within Our Gates, an incendiary drama that climaxes with a taboo-busting lynching scene that explicitly critiques the similar climax of D.W. Griffith’s controversial The Birth of a Nation.

There are, of course, plenty of films in the set made outside of Chicago that will be of interest to movie lovers. Chief among them is Hellbound Train, a surreal visual allegory in which Satan is depicted as the literal engineer of a train taking the world’s sinners to hell. Made by traveling evangelists James and Eloyce Gist, it was screened not in commercial theaters at all but exclusively at church-sponsored gatherings across the country. It is but one of many examples of an early African-American film that has been notoriously difficult to see (or only been available previously in a poor quality transfer). Pioneers of African-American Cinema, co-curated by the University of Chicago’s Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, represents a remarkable feat of restoration and recovery that should go a long way towards helping to reintroduce this important part of our cinematic heritage to a contemporary audience.

For more information visit Kino Lorber’s website.


Right Now, Wrong Then at Facets

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago is a review of Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then:

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To borrow a phrase from Raymond Carver, Korean writer/director (and School of the Art Institute alum) Hong Sang-soo makes films about what we talk about when we talk about love. When men and women are attracted to one another, how exactly do they communicate? How do specific turns of phrase become gambits designed to seduce? Why does flirtation sometimes become awkward and occasionally go horribly wrong? The prolific Hong has turned such questions into a veritable cottage industry, cranking out 17 character-driven comedies—many featuring innovative two-part structures—in less than 20 years. Hong’s latest, the ingenious Right Now, Wrong Then, receives its local premiere at Facets on Friday. It is an ideal introduction to this singular filmmaker’s work and the funniest movie of the year so far.

The premise: Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong, hilarious) is a pretentious “arthouse director” from Seoul who arrives in a university town the day before his new film screens at a local festival. He meets and immediately falls for Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee), a beautiful but shy painter. The sexual tension between them is palpable as they spend the day engaged in a series of conversations at a coffee shop, a bar and a restaurant before parting ways at night. Although Hee-jeong is clearly attracted to Cheon-soo (not to mention impressed by his celebrity), he seems to be trying a little too hard to woo her and ultimately drives her away.

But wait: halfway through the film, the narrative unexpectedly starts over. The two characters meet again for the first time, only now Cheon-soo is more honest and relaxed. They again visit the same coffee shop, bar and restaurant, but the conversation flows more naturally and the two seem to connect more intimately. By having the same chance meeting play out in two separate realities, Hong offers a whimsical, droll and ultimately profound metaphysical inquiry into the nature of communication. He asks viewers to question how minor variations in word choice and intonation of speech can lead to different outcomes. It’s fun to watch — and even more fun to think about afterwards.

For more information and screening times visit the Facets website.

 


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the Ku Klux Klan (Micheaux)
2. Within Our Gates (Micheaux)
3. Hellbound Train (Gist)
4. Muriel (Resnais)
5. Deep Breath (Shahbazi)
6. The Alchemist Cookbook (Potrykus)
7. Defending Your Life (Brooks)
8. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong)
9.Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul)
10. The New Land (Troell)


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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Discussed with Pam Powell on White City Cinema Radio Hour episode 13.

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.


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