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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!

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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)


The Safdie Brothers’ GOOD TIME at the Music Box

I wrote the following review of the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, my favorite American film of 2017, for Cinefile Chicago. It opens at the Music Box Theatre in 35mm tonight.

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Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (New American)

Music Box Theatre – Friday-Thursday, 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Midnight

The American heist movie enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2017 with the releases of LOGAN LUCKY, BABY DRIVER and GOOD TIME. While the first two of these films are enjoyable, comedic, populist entertainments, the Safdie brothers’ movie is, by contrast, a trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying thing: a breathlessly paced thriller centered on an unlikable protagonist (who is brilliantly played by a charismatic actor) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America—beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface—while also never slowing down enough to allow us to process what’s happening until it’s over. This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they’re put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of dubiously including “racial signifiers” that he feels can be interpreted in a multitude of ways but that the filmmakers ultimately don’t care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scot free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning of an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie’s cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while simultaneously finding him morally reprehensible. I also don’t know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its “bad lighting” and “avoidance of prettiness,” qualities that are much better ascribed to the Safdies’ previous film, the urban junkie-drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. While the two films do share a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it seemingly turns urban spaces into a giant playground), GOOD TIME is also much more daring in how it juxtaposes its “street cred” with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization—one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie’s luck has finally run out for good, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium. (2017, 101 min, 35mm) MGS


Interview with Josh da Silva of Cow Lamp Films

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Independent Chicago filmmakers, take note: there’s a new distributor in town. Cow Lamp Films is the indie features division of long-running Questar Entertainment. Their goal is to procure locally made films for a national audience via cable television and major streaming platforms. Among their acquisitions so far are James Choi’s acclaimed Empty Spaces and Greg Dixon and McKenzie Chinn’s eagerly anticipated Olympia. I recently spoke to Cow Lamp’s Director of Acquisitions Josh da Silva about how the company was formed and what its ambitious plans are for the future.

MGS: Cow Lamp is a new player on the national distribution scene. How did the company come to be and what is its mission statement?

JD: It’s a “new player” but it’s part of an older player, Questar Entertainment, which has been around for 32 years. We have over 5,000 titles in our collection. We’re on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and we do a lot of stuff with public television and a lot of digital platforms. Cow Lamp, the independent distribution division, started pretty much when I started as full-time employee at Questar as Digital Content Manager. I was finishing up my thesis film at DePaul, which is a feature-length documentary, and I realized there are a lot of people who have films. I didn’t really know how the process worked of being in festivals. I thought you would enter a festival and Netflix would see it and they’d give you a big check and you’d be good. You know, maybe I could pay off my student loans! But it doesn’t work like that. So it came about as a need. I saw there was a place in the market: Midwestern and Chicago films receive almost no representation. Unless you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast, it’s really hard to get legitimate distribution. So we decided to start a new division. We were acquiring more independent films by really great local filmmakers: James Choi, Greg Dixon, Mike Reiter, Pamela Sherrod Anderson, Susan Kerns. So we saw we had this great collection of films and we wanted to come up with a title for our distribution company, something that was quirky and also Midwest and Chicago-centric. That’s how we came up with Cow Lamp Films – the cow that kicked over the lamp that burned down Chicago.

MGS: You’re title now is Director of Acquisitions. What are your duties in this position?

JD: So as Director of Acquisitions, I find films, I approach filmmakers and I spend a lot of time just trying to find the best films and create a nice catalogue that we can take to buyers. I also try to educate by talking at universities about how to protect yourself as a filmmaker and how to get an equitable deal.

MGS: What is the relationship between Cow Lamp and the Chicago Comedy Film Festival?

JD: My film, Something Out of Nothing, got into the Chicago Comedy Film Festival and I saw an opportunity to have a bit of synergy. I contacted (festival director) Jessica Hardy and we talked – I had met Jessica before and she’s always a pleasure to work with – and we wanted to emphasize Chicago films. There are a lot of festivals in the Midwest but they don’t necessarily help filmmakers by helping them get buyers. It’s a great business for other people to be in but at the end of the day filmmakers should be able to make some money off of their films, especially if they’re at a festival. So we were invited to their festival, Cow Lamp and Questar, and our President Jon Plowman came, as well as a lot of our other employees, to meet and mingle. We’re currently working on acquiring a title from the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The directors are actually out of the California area but it’s a good film and I think it’ll do well. We actually don’t have too many comedies so hopefully this will help. Then we’ll also be working with the Chicago Independent Film and Television Festival in April, which is run by Jessica’s husband, Brent Kado. So we’ll definitely be working with them and looking for some new acquisitions.

MGS: There are seven films listed on your website. What, if any, common threads are there between them? What are you looking for in terms of the kinds of films you distribute?

JD: Ultimately, that they’re good films, which can be subjective. We’ve just signed a new documentary about music festivals so we have eight films locked. We have turned people away. I use my staff to watch the movies and get their opinions. I don’t always trust my opinion because, as a filmmaker myself, it’s hard for me to watch some things sometimes. We have to have standards because we’re investing a lot into these films as well.

MGS: How are these films going to be made available to watch?

JD: It’s important to think about films as a product, something tangible. Part of getting the maximum amount of revenue, which seems contrary to what people believe, is to be very specific in your release. If I have one title and I put it out everywhere it loses its value. It loses its value financially and also to viewers because it doesn’t seem special, it’s just YouTube fodder. We’re starting right now with television. We’re working on a nice little cable television deal to get our films out there. Buyers want exclusivity. When you’re a young filmmaker and you want to just get it out there, you have to be patient. Don’t just put it on Amazon because that destroys its value. We’ve experienced that with films. People want something exclusive first. You get more money if its exclusive, if its considered a new release, and then you work your way down the food chain. You start with television and then you go to exclusive streaming platforms like Netflix then (digital) “rentals” and “buys.” We are considering doing some theatrical releases as well for some of our films.

MGS: How would you recommend local filmmakers submit their films to you for distribution consideration?

JD: www.cowlampfilms.com. You can submit your film and I will personally take a look at it and make sure other people take a look at it. I also love a good trailer. Trailers are so important. Beyond just signing filmmakers, we give them good deals because we’ve learned from other people who have been signed by large names that it can be very predatory. Our goal is to create a lasting film scene. We believe the next great directors are here in Chicago. It’s basically like building a house with every film (that we acquire). We have very equitable deals: we take the financial risk and your film will hopefully receive some nice revenue. We’re more competitive than a Fox or an A24. We’re going to give you a great deal because we’re willing to take the risk and make the investment.

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