Monthly Archives: April 2013

Now Playing: Stoker and Barbara

dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.1

dir. Christian Petzold, 2012, Germany

Rating: 8.7



The bottom line: a hell of a woman x 2.

Recently finishing first-runs at Chicago’s Landmark Theatre, and now playing around the country elsewhere in limited release, are Stoker, the American debut of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and Barbara, the latest from German auteur Christian Petzold. On the surface, these films might not seem to have much in common: one is a Nicole Kidman-starring gothic horror movie that floats across the screen as episodically as a nightmare, while the other is an “art film” that precisely recreates the socio-political climate of East Germany in 1980. But one might also characterize both as dark, morally inflected psychological thrillers that center, crucially, on female protagonists. And it is worth pointing out that Park and Petzold are of the same generation and have even led somewhat parallel careers: both were born in the early 1960s, were university educated (Park studied philosophy, Petzold majored in film production), served apprenticeships as assistants to other directors before making their debuts in the 1990s, and toiled in relative obscurity in their native film industries for years before making their international breakthroughs in the 2000s (Park with 2003’s Oldboy, Petzold with 2007’s Yella). Barbara and Stoker are also both damn fine movies that are well worth your time.

I have to confess that it took me a while to warm up to Stoker even though I’ve long been an admirer of director Park. Perhaps I was prepared for the worst because of the depressing track record of talented foreign (especially Asian) filmmakers who have come to Hollywood and been incapable of replicating, whether through their fault or not, what made their work exciting to begin with. Or perhaps it was the fact that Stoker seemed to languish in post-production for a suspiciously long time — Park has admitted in interviews that Fox Searchlight, the distributor, forced him to cut the movie by 20 minutes, which will hopefully be restored on the forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release. Whatever the case, as I sat through the first 20-or-so minutes of Stoker, my heart sank due to what I perceived to be its lack of cultural specificity: the events seem to be taking place in the American south (it was shot in Nashville), yet no one sounds remotely southern. All four of the film’s principles (Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Jacki Weaver) are either Aussies or Brits who speak with flat, neutral American accents. Then there is the matter of the schizoid production design. Stoker is set in the present day although the sets, props, and costumes skew heavily, David Lynch-style, towards the style of the 1950s and early 1960s: this is a world where high-school girls still wear saddle shoes, and the boys who court them wear black leather jackets and ride motorcycles. All of which made me draw the hasty conclusion that this was a movie made by someone who knew too little about contemporary American life.

Silly me. I should have known to trust Park and his production team better than that and not to have expected anything as mundane as “realism” from the director of the boldly stylized Lady Vengeance. As the film progresses, the indeterminate yet vividly dream-like setting (America as filtered through the imagination of a Korean obsessed with classic American cinema) starts to become its strongest virtue. Stoker is a coming-of-age story about India (Wasikowska), a troubled, violent and perhaps mentally unstable 17-year-old girl, whose sexual awakening and passage into adulthood are precipitated by the death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), as well as the mysterious arrival of the heretofore unknown-to-her “Uncle Charlie” (Goode). If that latter name sounds familiar, it’s because Stoker is a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotton played a similarly sinister character with the same name. (Park has claimed that he actually pruned Wentworth Miller’s original script of more Hitchcock references, although this is hard to believe: he still manages to visually quote both Strangers on a Train and Psycho.) As both India and her mother Evelyn (Kidman) become irresistibly attracted to Charlie, Park spikes the perverse psycho-sexual stew with a startling array of sights and sounds: the sharpening of a pencil sounds like the grinding of human flesh, a digital spider crawls between India’s legs (a creepy-funny moment proving that the most obvious metaphors are also sometimes the best ones), an impressively unsettling use of the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra duet “Summer Wine” and, best of all, an extreme close-up of Kidman’s strawberry-blonde hair, the individual strands of which digitally morph into blades of tall grass waving in the wind (one of the most astonishing images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in years).

stoker 2

While there is more cinematic vitality and intelligence in any one minute stretch of Stoker than there is in the entirety of Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo, such virtuosity has already brought out objections from the pilgrim-hatted “style-over-substance” brigade. But Park presents nothing if not a coherent and compelling worldview in Stoker as well, albeit one that is likely to make viewers distinctly uncomfortable. Chicago film critic Kevin B. Lee recently praised Silver Linings Playbook for its vision of America as a giant psych ward, persuasively noting that while much was made of Bradley Cooper’s “bi-polarity” (an angle the distributor unfortunately exploited by acting as if the film were some kind of breakthrough in allowing Americans to talk openly about mental illness), all of the characters were suffering from some form of addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think Park Chan-wook offers a similar vision in Stoker, although none of his characters are afflicted by anything so benign as Robert DeNiro’s cuddly version of OCD; instead, they’re all psychotics and sociopaths. While I wanted to mentally rewrite another ending for Stoker immediately after I first saw it, reflecting on it over time has caused me to realize that the ending Park presents is probably the most logical conclusion to his story: shortly after she’s turned 18 and “come of age,” the dark seed within India’s soul fully flowers, which leads me to think that Park may be saying something specific about America after all.

I would be hard-pressed to name a recent movie more worthy of the phrase “culturally specific” than Barbara, which begins with the title character, a young doctor played by the magnificent Nina Hoss, arriving in a provincial East German town in 1980. We soon learn that she has been banished there as a result of merely applying for an exit visa from the German Democratic Republic. Understandably, this leads to her immediately adopting an attitude of aloofness to her new co-workers, including the kindly hospital director, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who seems to have taken more than a professional interest in her. Barbara’s coldness towards her professional colleagues in these early scenes is contrasted with the extreme compassion she shows toward the hospital’s patients, especially Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an adolescent girl suffering from spinal meningitis. We also learn that Barbara is secretly plotting with her lover, the West German businessman Jorg (Mark Waschke), to defect to the west, which she must do while simultaneously staying one step ahead of prying Stasi agents. This plot description, however, probably makes the movie sound like more of a contrived genre piece than it is; written in collaboration with noted avant-garde filmmaker Harun Farocki (the director for whom Petzold started out as an A.D.), Barbara is built on quietness and patience, and is grounded in an impressively real-world sense of what daily life in East Germany must have been like (i.e., an atmosphere of almost-banal mistrust) shortly before the worldwide collapse of Communism.

The most popular German movies to previously address the same subject as Barbara are the lighthearted comedy Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and the Hollywood-style melodrama/thriller The Lives of Others (2006). While I personally enjoyed those earlier films, there’s no question that Barbara blows them both out of the water. The great advantage of Petzold’s movie is the degree to which it more doggedly sticks to the subjective experiences of its fascinating protagonist, giving viewers a glimpse of a specific time and place in recent history as witnessed by a single person. Dr. Barbara may come across as one of the more uniquely bitter lead characters in contemporary cinema but we come to realize that’s only because she has been made that way by living in a cultural climate of widespread fear; she seems suspicious that virtually anyone might be a Stasi agent or an informer, only letting her guard down when meeting Jorg for a tryst. Nina Hoss does an incredible job of internalizing this suspicion through closed-down body language that suggests the actress has tensed nearly all of her muscles for most of her screen time. (Here’s hoping that she got a nice long massage as soon as production wrapped.) In an age when too many actors choose to express themselves merely with their voices and faces, Hoss’ full-bodied performance is an object lesson in what cinema acting should be. The character, unsurprisingly, does undergo a transformation as the plot develops, but one that leads to a pleasantly surprising conclusion that I won’t be giving away here. Let me just say that Barbara’s character arc is utterly believable in its quiet and natural way. Like everything else in this gem of a movie.



Arias with Your Mouth Full: Legendary Lew Interviews Michael Smith on Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals

“Legendary” Lew Ojeda recently interviewed me in advance of the screening of Manoel de Oliveira’s The Cannibals that I’ll be presenting at Facets Multimedia this Saturday at midnight. This interview originally appeared on the website of the Underground Multiplex, the community based arts organization Lew co-founded with Joseph R. Lewis. You can learn more about this useful organization here:


This Saturday night at midnight, indie filmmaker and instructor Michael Smith will present Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira’s very rarely seen and incredibly strange opera, The Cannibals (Os Canibais), for Facets Night School. Straddling between the two cinematic worlds of art house finesse and grind house excess (think Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe), The Cannibals promises to blow your mind (if you don’t blow your chunks in the process).

LL: The Cannibals has been rarely shown in The United States. Could you tell us a little about the film?

MS: The Cannibals is one of the very best films of Manoel de Oliveira who is one of the world’s greatest living directors. Oliveira is best known in America not for any specific films but rather for having a freakishly long career. He directed his first film in 1931 (in what was still the silent era in his native Portugal) and he is currently in pre-production on a new film at the age of 104. But the movies themselves, which are made in conscious opposition to Hollywood conventions and have not been widely distributed in America, are great: they tend to be rigorous, deliberately paced literary or theatrical adaptations centered on the theme of doomed love. I think The Cannibals is an ideal introduction to Oliveira’s work because it shows off his playful side: it’s funny, surreal and very subversive. It shows the strong influence of Luis Bunuel.

LL: How is The Cannibals a bridge between art house cinema and midnight movies?

MS: I would describe it as a midnight movie disguised as an art film. I think it was brilliant of Oliveira to tell this particular story as an opera. It’s an adaptation of a 19th century novel but he hired a contemporary composer, Joao Paes, to write an original operatic score and libretto. Literally every line of dialogue in the movie is sung and the score is excellent. However, the film becomes weirder and weirder as it goes along until it reaches the climax, which is totally insane. I think Oliveira chose to work with the form of opera because no other artistic medium is so closely identified with the upper class — the true subject of his satire. He’s making fun of his target audience! Without giving anything away, I would say he wanted to cloak his movie in the semblance of respectability and “high art” in order to deliver a kind of devious sucker punch at the end. I almost want to compare The Cannibals to Takashi Miike’s Audition in terms of how it works. (If you’ve seen that film you know that it lulls you into a state of near-boredom before presenting a mind-fuck of an ending that is effective precisely because of what comes before.) I also hasten to add that it’s not necessary to understand anything about opera to appreciate this film. I myself know little about opera.

LL: Were there any other operas commissioned directly to cinema?

MS: I’m not aware of any. It’s very rare to have any kind of musical film in which all of the dialogue is sung. Les Miserables is an obvious example but that’s, of course, an adaptation of a well-known musical play that had a built-in fanbase. The only other film I can think of that comes close to fitting the bill is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Jacques Demy commissioned Michel Legrand to write the original score and Demy himself wrote the dialogue, all of which is sung, but the style of the music is not that of an opera. So I think Oliveira’s achievement is singular and highly innovative.

LL: What do you wish to accomplish by presenting The Cannibals to a crowd accustomed to exploitation, sexploitation and violent trashy films?

MS: I’m glad that you asked. I hope to broaden viewers’ horizons as to what their perceptions of a midnight movie is. The Cannibals is not exploitative or trashy and yet, in a lot of ways, it’s far weirder than many of the movies to which those labels are often attached. This film is so odd, in fact, that I myself don’t even know how to fully process it! This is also a big part of the reason why I want to show it: presenting it to an audience will hopefully inspire everyone present to work together in making sense of it in our discussion afterwards.


My thanks to Michael Smith for the interview. You can read his posts on the blog White City Cinema. It’s definitely worth your time.
Come feast your eyes and ears on The Cannibals at Facets Night School.
Saturday night April 27, 2013 at midnight
Facets Multimedia
1517 W Fullerton
Chicago, IL 60614
Admission: $5, FREE for Facets members! Become one here:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Death Proof (Tarantino)
2. To the Wonder (Malick)
3. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Von Trotta/Scholdorff)
4. Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (Kluge)
5. Fried Green Tomatoes (Avnet)
6. H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer (Borowski)
7. Things the Way They Are (Lavanderos)
8. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
9. Evil Dead (Alvarez)
10. Killer of Sheep (Burnett)

Now Playing: Top of the Lake

Top of the Lake
dir: Jane Campion/Garth Davis (New Zealand, 2013)
Rating: 8.7


Recently finishing a five-week run on the Sundance Channel, and scheduled for release on Blu-ray and DVD before the year is over, is the seven-hour miniseries Top of the Lake. This gripping, superior police-procedural was co-directed by New Zealand/Australian filmmakers Jane Campion and Garth Davis (they each directed different episodes, with the more well-known Campion helming the first two as well as the fourth and last installments), and based on an original script by Campion and Gerard Lee (Sweetie). The story chronicles the investigation of a missing 12-year-old girl by a big-city Australian detective in rural New Zealand, but the series has much more on its mind than than the mere solving of a mystery. Along with next month’s HBO premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s hotly anticipated Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, this is yet further evidence that smart filmmakers are increasingly turning to long-form television to realize ambitious projects — and are blurring the lines between television and film in the process. (And who can blame them? Virtually no one saw Campion’s last feature, the underrated John Keats biopic Bright Star.) While Top of the Lake may have first been experienced by most people as a “T.V. show” over a span of five weeks, it also received an unusual world premiere on the “big screen” during the Sundance Film Festival over the course of a single day in January. Make no mistake about it: this triumphant serial deserves to be called a “seven-hour movie” as much as Louis Feuillade’s legendary Les Vampires.


Top of the Lake begins with a haunting and already much-lauded scene in which a 12-year old girl, Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), walks into the middle of a cold lake, stopping when the water is chest-deep, for no discernible reason. After being rescued and sent to a hospital, it is discovered that the girl is five-months pregnant. Australian police detective Robin Griffin (a revelatory Elisabeth Moss) happens to be visiting her sick mother nearby and, because she has experience dealing with childhood sexual abuse cases, is brought in to interview Tui. The girl refuses to name the father, however, and shortly thereafter disappears. Griffin sticks around to help out with what has by now turned into a missing persons case. This plot is deftly intertwined with several other story threads, including one involving an American spiritual guru named GJ (the awesome Holly Hunter, reuniting with Campion for the first time since The Piano 20 years ago) who has built “Paradise,” a retreat for traumatized women, on a mountain near where Tui disappeared. GJ comes into conflict with Tui’s father, Matt (Peter Mullan), a violent Scottish emigre who believes the land on which Paradise was built is rightfully his. Meanwhile, Griffin repeatedly butts heads with the local-yokels, some of whom accuse her of being a “lesbian,” a “feminist,” or both. Also not making Robin’s life easier is the local police department, personified by Sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham) whose attitude towards the young female cop seems to alternate between the deliberately unhelpful and the downright sinister.


The filmmakers’ grand ambitions, not hemmed in by a feature-length running time, become apparent as these various plot lines slowly converge against a backdrop of astonishingly scenic beauty. The way they use Moss’ detective-figure as a kind of audience-surrogate to introduce viewers to not one but several mysteries in a seemingly idyllic backwater populated by eccentrics has caused many critics to compare the series, favorably, to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks. But this ignores Top of the Lake‘s aggressive ideological thrust, which depicts the New Zealand bush as a place not just of natural wonder, as one would expect, but also as the breeding ground for a culture of disturbing sexual violence. If anything, I was reminded more of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which features a similarly tense girl-in-a-boy’s-club dynamic among its characters (not to mention a lead actress whose pale blue eyes one might want to similarly linger on). But what remains largely on the level of subtext in Bigelow’s film becomes virtually the whole show in the capable hands of Campion and Davis. The battle-of-the-sexes is everywhere in Top of the Lake: most obvious in Tui’s statutory rape and in the condescending sexist attitudes that Griffin repeatedly encounters but also in the subplot of Griffin’s sick mother, who is a victim of domestic violence, and in the general hostility of the local men towards Paradise. It should be noted that GJ, who sports Campion’s long silver hair, runs her retreat without a “timetable” or a “structure,” like a film director gone rogue.


Top of the Lake‘s portrait of rural New Zealand is fascinating. The locations — all low-hanging clouds, verdant forests and lake surfaces like polished silver — are gorgeously photographed by ace cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom) and, if not for the unsavory backwoods types who populate them, could almost serve as an advertisement for the country’s Tourism Bureau. But Campion has also always been a masterful director of actors; as in Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, this series ultimately belongs to the performers, who use the expansive running time to “go deep” with their characters in a way that theatrical movies simply do not allow. Moss’ Griffin comes across as being tough as nails in the early episodes before gradually peeling back emotional layers to reveal a vulnerable core, while Hunter is clearly having a ball as the charismatically enigmatic guru GJ (talk about purposeful “star casting”). We are keenly aware that Matt Mitcham, GJ’s doppelganger, is capable of anything from the get-go and Peter Mullan’s explosive performance keeps us on edge throughout. We know this guy is bad enough to kill but is he bad enough to rape and kill his own daughter? For that matter, are any of his three grown sons? (The other main suspects in the case, they are played by the superb trio of Kip Chapman, Thomas M. Wright, and Jay Ryan.)


While the series’ twisty plotting — including not one but two 11th hour surprise revelations that I didn’t see coming — and “neat” ending have drawn criticism from some reviewers, I will counter by arguing that Top of the Lake is finally more about emotions than story. Just as Vertigo and Shutter Island hold up well upon re-watching — even after one knows their “twists” are coming — because they still provide a potent nightmarish immersion into an ocean of feelings (obsession, guilt, fear, etc.), so too does Top of the Lake allow viewers, first and foremost, the cathartic experience of luxuriating in an atmosphere of righteous anger and sorrow. How refreshing it is that the world’s greatest feminist director (a designation that doesn’t necessarily put Campion in competition with other great female directors like Bigelow or Lucrecia Martel) insists that sexism still matters, and boldly uses the ostensibly entertaining form of the mystery-thriller genre to do so. Perhaps this is what Amy Taubin had in mind when she recently called Top of the Lake the “toughest, wildest picture” that Campion has ever made. And how depressing it is that no U.S. filmmakers are similarly willing to go there. For many American viewers, who live in a culture with its own tradition of sexual violence, and in an age when social media allows a depressing phenomenon like “rape apology” to go viral, it must seem that some things happen only in real life — not in the movies. Nor on television.

I understand Top of the Lake is now streaming on Netflix Instant for those of you who do that sort of thing. You can watch the trailer on YouTube below:

Filmmaker Interview: Fernando Lavanderos

One of the highlights of this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival is the Chilean movie Things the Way They Are (Las Cosas Como Son), the auspicious fiction feature debut of writer/director Fernando Lavanderos. (You can read my capsule review, in which I call it “the reason why film festivals exist,” here.) It is a gripping naturalistic drama about the intersection of three people from vastly different walks of life: Sanna, a twenty-something Norwegian woman, Jeronimo, a thirty-something upper-class Chilean man, and Milton, a working-class Chilean teenager. Things the Way They Are won the main prize in the Latin American section of the prestigious Mar del Plata International Film Festival last November and is now in the process of making the rounds of many more festivals around the globe. I spoke with Lavanderos (who, in addition to being a great filmmaker, is also a heck of a nice guy) at his Chicago hotel yesterday morning, the same day he introduced his first CLFF screening. Things the Way They Are plays for the second and final time tomorrow night with Lavanderos again in attendance for a Q&A. I could not recommend seeing this movie more highly.


MGS: You teach film production. Do you hire your students to work on your films?

FL: (laughing) Yeah, sometimes.

MGS: (laughing) For free, right?

FL: Yeah!

MGS: That’s funny. I’ve actually done that as well. I teach film history.

FL: Whole history? Or you’re specializing in . . .

MGS: Whole history. It’s sort of Intro to Film History – so we start in the silent era and go all the way up to the present day.

FL: Lumiere brothers?

MGS: Yeah, of course! I love their films.

FL: Yeah, I love it too.

MGS: So, the first thing I wanted to say about Things the Way They Are is that I was impressed by how subtle it is. Are you familiar with Robert Bresson?

FL: Yeah.

MGS: He said something I love. He said, “Hide your ideas but don’t hide them so well that the viewer cannot find them.” I thought of that when I saw your film because your film seems to be a commentary on society but when I watched it I was so wrapped up in the drama and the characters that I didn’t really think about what it was “about” until it was over. Was that your intention?

FL: Yes. My intention was to make a film about a simple story of a few characters living together in some . . . not drastic, dramatic action or problems or . . . I don’t know how to say, “heroes dramaticos?”

MGS: Not a heroic story?

FL: Yeah, I like to hide the topics of society, the social problems, things you can think about afterwards. So, yes, I wanted to hide some things, to make the audience to think about, to not put everything clear. At the end it’s like that, you know, it’s so open.

MGS: Yes. The ending is very ambiguous.

FL: Yeah. So the reason is, I like to end with a question, not with morality. I like to make things happen so the audience thinks about that whatever they want to think.

MGS: Right. I loved the ending. It reminds me of Italian Neorealism because, like you say, the ending is open; it’s like the ending of Bicycle Thieves. But also the acting and the dialogue in your film seems very realistic, very natural. Were you influenced by Neorealism at all?

FL: Yeah, I use non-actors and I’m influenced not only by Neorealism but also Iranian films like Kiarostami and maybe, in some kind of way, the first films of Lars Von Trier and Dogme 95. In my first film (Y las Vacas Vuelan), it was a cross of the fiction and documentary and you couldn’t know who is who — who is acting, who is being. It’s a mix of real people that are in a film and they don’t know they are in a film, and there are people that are acting and they are lying to them.

MGS: That sounds very much like Kiarostami. He got his start, of course, making documentaries and he frequently mixes fiction and non-fiction. And you’ve made documentaries as well, yes?

FL: Yeah, I made a feature documentary about children of the streets. And then I made a television documentary show that was a very rough documentary without a narrator. It was only observation. We spent like a month shooting with different kind of families in Santiago. It was a very good experience. I spent like two or three years making that thing. We work together with Sebastian Lelio. You know him? Gloria? Gloria that won the Best Actress Golden Bear (at the Berlin Film Festival)?

MGS: Oh yeah, of course. Cassavetes.

FL: No, no. This year was the premiere of Gloria, a Chilean film influenced by Cassavetes (laughs). The film won the Golden Bear for Best Actress this year. We worked together on that series. So, I like to make documentaries but I like more to make feature (fiction) films that I stole some kind of things of the documentary. You know, Godard say something like, “Every fiction has some things about the documentary and documentary about the fiction.” I cannot say it in English . . .


MGS: Yeah, I know the quote. (“All great fiction films tend towards documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction… each word implies a part of the other. And he who opts wholeheartedly for one, necessarily finds the other at the end of his journey.” – ed.)

FL: I believe in that mix and I believe you can make it appear spontaneous in the fiction, make it natural, make it more credible. I work with non-actors and I made a lot of improvisations in the dialogues.

MGS: So the actors in Things the Way They Are are not professionals?

FL: No, neither of them are professional. The main character (Cristobal Palma) is a photographer. It was his very first experience in acting. She (Ragni Orsal Skogsrod) studied acting but she didn’t finish. And, of course, the boy (Isaac Arriagada) is not an actor.

MGS: How did you find her? Was she living in Chile?

FL: No. I made casting by internet. (laughs) I have a friend in Norway. He helps me a lot. And then I start to make interviews by Skype.

MGS: (laughing) She auditioned by Skype?

FL: Yeah, yeah. In Skype I act with her.

MGS: So you read the script with her?

FL: No, no. Not the script. It was acting different things. Just to know a little bit how is the performance. And then I ask her to shoot a thing that I write, like a very short, short film. But not to make it so accomplished, but to see her acting . . .

MGS: Like an audition tape?

FL: Yeah. And she shoot it there in Norway. It was very good. So finally we were together. The only problem was she didn’t speak Spanish. (laughs) So she said she can learn it in very few months, like four or five months. And she learn it in that time. She started classes from zero because she didn’t speak nothing of Spanish, and came to Chile speaking quite well to be a foreigner that is just in the country. And she arrived like one and a half months before the film so she can continue learning there. Of course, we made huge amount of rehearsals, different kind of rehearsals, so she started to take to the language.

MGS: That’s amazing. It seems like how you made the movie kind of mirrors what the movie’s about.

FL: Yeah, because they are three people that come from very different worlds. The boy (Arriagada), I found him in workshops that I made in the school of the working class. So, for him, to be in this movie was very unique, very special. So he came to this world that was the movie. And, sharing with her (Skogsrod) and with him (Palma), the interactions were just like the movie. Also, I prevent the boy to meet with Cristobal, the actor. The first time they meet, it’s in the film.

MGS: The first time they met in person was on camera?

FL: On camera, yeah. (laughs)

MGS: Wow. Now I want to go back and watch it again. (laughs) It seemed like the characters almost represented different ideas: Sanna wanted to help solve social problems in Chile but Jernonimo was very detached and didn’t want to become involved. Was it important to you that she was European? Was that a commentary on globalization?

FL: Yeah, yeah. It was important to me that she came from Europe. Jeronimo is a mix. We are a mix. The Spanish people got here, to that territory, and the Indian people were there. And we, growing up, follow models that came from the first world. And this girl came from the other side of the earth. The first world, they are coming to Latin America, coming to the “wild side.” Some people have the intentions that they can make some things (better). But the other side is that they don’t have the experience to be there.

MGS: Right.

FL: So I wanted to make these three worlds – he (Jeronimo) is a mix, the boy (Milton) is totally the descendant of the Indian people, like 300 or 400 years ago . . . And now it’s the same thing: the working class follow the upper class that is the colony that is making the rules. So I think they are three separate worlds. Now in the world is globalization; okay, let’s take three characters without judging them and saying “okay she is like very idealistic and so naïve . . .” No, she is making the things she believes and it’s very good. There is a scene in the film where Jeronimo said “So you think we need more Nordic young girls to save us?” But she is saying like “Okay, you prefer to do nothing?” There’s not a solution. It’s not like “Okay, she’s right” or “he’s right” . . .

MGS: Nobody’s right.

FL: Nobody’s right, yeah.

MGS: Your film is mostly serious but there were a few moments in the film where I laughed. I loved the scene where Jeronimo sees Sanna, in his yard, wearing a bikini and then you cut to him presenting her with a new light for her room. It was so funny to me that he just wanted an excuse to talk to her. Is humor important to you?

FL: (laughs) Yeah, it’s very important. I love the humor. I wanted, in everything that I tried to make, to be some irony things of life. But it’s the kind of documentary things. Like they appear, some things, they are so funny sometimes. For example, in the dinner scene when the boy makes some comments that are very funny, like, “So you don’t like to leave the house alone?” (laughs) He (Arriagada) had some intentions, I talk a lot with him, so he knows more or less what he’s going to achieve but he’s very smart to make those comments appear in those places. It’s more the documentary way. It’s funny because it’s spontaneous.

MGS: It’s funny in a way that real life is funny.

FL: Yeah.

MGS: Well, thank you so much for talking to me and good luck with your screenings.

FL: Thank you. It was very nice conversation.


Ticket info and directions to the theater for tomorrow night’s screening can be found here:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman)
2. Dracula (Fisher)
3. Top of the Lake (Campion/Davis)
4. The Piano (Campion)
5. The Sun Shines Bright (Ford)
6. Upstream Color (Carruth)
7. Insidious (Wan)
8. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
9. Upstream Color (Carruth)
10. Badlands (Malick)

2013 Chicago Latino Film Festival Preview Pt. 2

Here is part two of my preview of the 2013 Chicago Latino Film Festival, which kicked off last Thursday and runs through April 25:

Things the Way They Are / Las Cosas Como Son (Lavanderos, Chile, 2012)
Rating: 8.4


Las Cosas Como Son is the reason why film festivals exist. It’s a shoestring indie made without “stars” in a country that doesn’t have a large local industry but is so impeccably crafted and so compelling in terms of content that it will likely blow away any lucky viewers who are curious enough to take a chance on it based on festival catalog descriptions. This exceedingly realistic drama, the fiction feature debut of Chilean writer/director Fernando Lavanderos, concerns the strange quasi-romance between Jeronimo, a bearded hipster who runs a boarding house for his father, and Sanna, the young Norwegian woman who comes to stay with him. Jeronimo is largely silent and detached from the world, which clashes with Sanna’s outgoing-ness and idealism. Their differing world-views eventually cause the conflict simmering between them to come to a boil, especially after Sanna attempts to help out Milton, a troubled local teen. Like the Dardenne brothers, Lavanderos is able to dramatize ideological issues in an impressively naturalistic fashion, and the performances he gets from his actors are excellent across the board. Things the Way They Are screens on Wednesday, April 17 and Friday, April 19.

The Towrope / La Sirga (Vega, Colombia, 2012)
Rating: 7.0


This assured feature debut by William Vega centers on a teenage girl, Alicia (Joghis Seudin Arias), who seeks refuge in the home of an estranged uncle in a remote area of Colombia after her parents are murdered and her village burned by guerrillas during a civil war. (Understanding anything about Colombian politics, however, is not a prerequisite to appreciating this film; the war-torn setting is rendered largely in universal terms.) The uncle, Oscar (Julio César Roble), is annoyed by her presence at first, then enlists her to help him renovate his inn, which he vainly hopes will attract tourists. Oscar’s son, Fredy (Heraldo Romero), soon returns after a mysterious absence, and urges Alicia to leave with him. All the while, the violence is getting closer. Though it feels at times like a checklist of elements designed to go over well at international film festivals (war-torn country, child protagonist, liberal-humanist tone), this is a small, well-made film, bolstered by gorgeous footage of the Andes mountains and an evocative performance by Arias, whose expressive face could be that of a silent film actress. A vivid snapshot from a remote corner of the earth that’s well worth a look. The Towrope screens on Friday, April 12 and Monday, April 15.

The World is Ours / El Mundo es Nuestro (Sanchez, Spain, 2012)
Rating: 5.5


Writer/director Alfonso Sanchez crafts a comical Spanish riff on Dog Day Afternoon: two inept criminals, “Bull’s Head” (Sanchez) and “Sneaky” (Alberto López), attempt to rob a Seville bank, only to find their plan thwarted when a third, unrelated bank-robber, Fermin (José Rodríguez Quintos), arrives with explosives strapped to his body. In the ensuing hostage crisis/standoff with police, the criminals air their grievances via social media and become folk heroes in the process. Like John Ford in Stagecoach, Sanchez portrays the “bad guys” sympathetically while showing the bankers and businessman to be the story’s true crooks — but his populist false-dichotomy between the 1% and the rest of us poor slobs is a little too neat for its own good, pushing the material in a direction that grows increasingly predictable. Still, the production values are high and the more formulaic elements are consistently enlivened by the humor. The World Is Ours screens on Saturday, April 13 and Thursday, April 18.

The Zebra / La Cebra (Leon, Mexico, 2011)
Rating: 7.4


Two small-time bandits, Leandro (Jorge Adrián Spíndola) and Odón (Harold Torres), embark on a journey in search of “land and freedom” during the Mexican revolution in this comical and surreal western. They travel by way of a circus zebra they find abandoned at the film’s beginning, which they mistake for a “gringo horse” and everyone else believes is a painted donkey. During their picaresque adventures, they stumble across a host of colorful characters, including three beautiful sirens bathing in a river and a one-eyed guitarist, while opportunistically aligning themselves with both Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon. This starts out relatively lighthearted but grows increasingly dark as the story progresses, before ending on a note that daringly compares the Mexico of a hundred years ago with that of the present day. A visually stunning debut by longtime screenwriter Fernando León, The Zebra feels like what might have resulted had Luis Bunuel adapted Homer’s Odyssey and set it in Mexico circa 1915. To borrow a line of dialogue from the film, I found it tastier than beans with lard. The Zebra screens on Friday, April 19 and Sunday, April 21.

My top recommendations for the festival are:

1. Things the Way They Are / Las Cosas Como Son
2. A Love / Un Amor
3. The Zebra / La Cebra

More information, including directions to the venue, ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the official Chicago Latino Film Festival site:

Now Playing: Upstream Color

Upstream Color
dir: Shane Carruth (USA, 2013)
Rating: 8.9


Now playing at the Music Box Theatre is Upstream Color, the second feature film from the enormously talented multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth (writer-director-actor-composer-editor, etc.), and a masterpiece that I urge everyone to see on the big screen as soon as possible. Primer, Carruth’s inventive, complex, mind-bending low-fi/sci-fi debut from 2004, has garnered a huge cult following over the past decade and is widely referred to as the most “realistic” time-travel movie ever made. But I think Upstream Color, the long-awaited follow-up (which Carruth self-financed and is now audaciously self-distributing), is even better. It is just as bold in terms of ideas and narrative structure as Primer but it is also far more accomplished cinematically — fragmented close-ups, a super-shallow depth-of-field, zig-zagging editing rhythms and a use of heightened natural sounds all combine into an intoxicating stew where other masters of image and sound as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais, Andrei Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Terrence Malick are all valid reference points. I was originally scheduled to interview Carruth by phone yesterday but this was canceled at the last minute when his L.A. press junket ran behind schedule. So I’ve taken my notes and interview questions and converted them into this review.


The plot of Upstream Color concerns a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), who works in digital animation, being kidnapped and drugged by a con-artist (Thiago Martins) who forces her to ingest a parasitic worm through a gas-mask-like apparatus. This allows the “Thief” — as the character is referred to in the credits — to use mind control to deplete both Kris’ bank account and her identity. Sometime later, she meets and embarks on a romance with Jeff (Carruth), a disgraced former financial broker who may have been subject to a similarly traumatic experience. Meanwhile, Kris also meets a pig farmer/sound recordist (Andrew Sensenig) — referred to in the credits as “The Sampler” — who performs surgery on her to remove the worm, which he then implants into one of his own pigs. As Kris and Jeff’s relationship evolves across a chronologically scrambled timeline, they discover that they have shared (false?) memories of the same childhood experiences and that they are just two of many damaged souls whose lives have been manipulated by the Thief and/or the Sampler. But Upstream Color is ultimately not a story-driven movie. It is a remarkably singular and wholly entrancing sensory experience in which the narrative elements serve as a starting point for Carruth to explore themes of love, loss, identity, consciousness and rebirth. I have no reservations about calling it American filmmaking at its most original and ambitious; or, to put it another way, this is the movie that I wanted The Tree of Life to be.


I recently came across an interview with Stanley Kubrick (to whom Carruth has been favorably compared by more than a few critics), in which he said that he was never sure if story was the most important thing in a movie or if story was what allowed him to do all of the other things he really wanted to do. Carruth’s sympathies would seem to fall squarely on the latter end of Kubrick’s equation, as his exploitation of genre elements functions primarily as a fascinating pretext for him to explore various themes and ideas. Primer may outwardly appear to be a science-fiction head-scratcher but it is really more “about” the themes of ethics, friendship and betrayal that could ultimately be explored in any genre. My perspective on Upstream Color is that it starts off as an intellectual horror movie and then slowly and surprisingly transitions into a touching love story (though I fully admit that this perception might change upon further viewings). The opening of the film and all of the scenes with the Thief controlling Kris are disturbing to me personally because I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than the idea of losing control of one’s own mind. But, after Kris meets Jeff, a kind of rebirth occurs for both characters, which leads to an ending that I feel is almost transcendental in its sense of uplift. Upstream Color is ultimately a much more emotional film than Primer (and may therefore be more accessible to general audiences), in large part because of the phenomenal, highly emotional lead performance of Amy Seimetz, for which Carruth’s debut has no equivalent.


Upstream Color‘s most puzzling aspect, and the one most likely to send casual viewers heading for the exits mid-screening, is the subplot involving the Sampler. At first, I viewed this character as a kind of benevolent doppelganger to the Thief on the basis that he had removed the worm from Kris’ body. But the more scenes we see taking place on the farm, the more it seems like the Sampler is also controlling Kris’ and Jeff’s actions through the pigs — voodoo-doll style — since the animals have been implanted with parasites that were once inside of their human counterparts. The Sampler’s ambiguous, God-like status is increased by the fact that he is an artist — not only because he’s a musician and sound recordist but also because he’s a kind of puppetmaster to the main characters. (Is he meant to represent a film director?) In one of the film’s most enigmatic yet beautiful sequences, the Sampler throws a burlap sack full of dead piglets into a river. Their bodies decompose, eventually causing the color of the orchids on the riverbank nearby to change from white to blue. This scene is where the title of the movie comes from and may have in turn been inspired by a lyric from a White Stripes song (“You took a white orchid and turned it blue”). But the idea of rebirth is prominent in the film figuratively as well: Jeff and Kris forge a new collective identity, indeed become new people, when they become a couple and get married. As a happily married man of five years, I can relate.


The idea of giving birth to a new identity is also reflected in the film’s many references to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the ultimate declaration of independence. Whether or not Carruth consciously thinks of his own fiercely independent status as an artist as something that links him to Thoreau, Upstream Color is a film I definitely plan on showing towards the end of future Film History classes as an example of a true independent movie production. A lot of young people today think of independent films only as Hollywood calling cards and don’t understand why someone would consciously choose to make a movie outside of the studio system, especially if that person had the chance to work for a studio and make a lot of money as a director-for-hire (an option Carruth has resisted). Upstream Color is a film that maximizes its independent status by expressing things in a way that could never in a million years be expressed in a Hollywood studio film. Carruth clearly views the act of independent filmmaking as taking the political stance that it is, which is reflected in his decision to not only make but distribute his movie himself. This gives him final say over every aspect of how Upstream Color is advertised and disseminated and points the way towards a new business model in which the studio hierarchy may be less relevant in the future. Even though I’ve already seen a screener of it for free, I’ll be going to the Music Box to see Upstream Color again on Sunday. This is partly because I feel it demands a second viewing but also because, in our corporate climate, where one casts a “vote” with every consumer dollar spent, I’d like to use my money to say “More like this, please.”

You can view the trailer for Upstream Color on YouTube below:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Breathless (Godard)
2. Tristana (Bunuel)
3. A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
4. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
5. The Zebra (Leon)
6. The Towrope (Vega)
7. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
8. Wanda (Loden)
9. Breathless (Godard)
10. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)

2013 Chicago Latino Film Festival Preview Pt. 1


The long-running Chicago Latino Film Festival, which I have regrettably never attended in the past, has returned this year for an impressively ambitious 29th edition. If the movies on offer are anything to go by, CLFF has clearly established itself as an important local institution, one that offers Chicagoans the chance to see an impressively diverse array of films from around the world (from many Latin American countries to Spain and Portugal to the United States), most of which will screen once or twice at the AMC River East but not return to show at any other local venues. Simply put, this festival is an invaluable lifeline to anyone interested in not only Latino but global cinema.

Having started in 1985 when, according to the CLFF website, 14 movies were “projected onto a concrete wall for 500 viewers,” the fest has grown exponentially over the past three decades and just recently received a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to support its various programs — including, perhaps most important for attendees, Q&A sessions with visiting filmmakers. Some of my classes will have the opportunity to earn extra credit by attending festival screenings. See the extra credit page of your course website for more information. Below is the first of two posts in which I will preview some of the movies at this year’s festival. Part two will be published next week.

A Love / Un Amor (Hernandez, Argentina, 2011)
Rating: 7.7


One of the best films I was able to preview from this year’s edition of CLFF is Un Amor, an emotionally gratifying character study by Argentinian writer/director Paula Hernandez. The story shuttles back and forth across a 30-year time span: it begins in the early 1980s when Lisa, a precocious and flirty teenager, comes between best friends Lalo and Bruno before she moves away without so much as telling either of them goodbye. These scenes are intercut with present-day scenes from three decades later when Lisa, still free-spirited in middle-age, re-enters the men’s lives just as unexpectedly as she left. Some of the story elements may sound familiar (the “coming of age” scenes in the flashbacks, the old girlfriend unexpectedly showing up and exacerbating marital discord in the present, etc.) but everything about this film feels fresh and commendably life-like — with the most powerful moments also being the subtlest and quietest. The six lead performances are exceptionally nuanced, and the production values (especially the cinematography and musical score) are top-notch. A Love screens on Saturday, April 20 and Tuesday, April 23.

The Man from the Future / O Homem do Futuro (Torres, Brazil, 2011)
Rating: 5.4


In this energetic sci-fi/comedy, a brilliant physics professor nicknamed “Zero” tries to create a new energy source but invents a time-travel machine instead. Like many a movie protagonist before him, Zero attempts to revisit and alter an event from his past (specifically, a college incident where he was humiliated in front of the woman of his dreams) in order to change his present life for the better. The only problem is that he ends up making things even worse and so ends up venturing into the past yet again . . . Like most time-travel movies, this doesn’t really make sense, and it predictably features the same old trite moral about the importance of being able to make one’s own choices in life. But the way these elements are dished up with humor, romance and a happy ending seems guaranteed to please audiences: there’s a reason why this was chosen as the festival’s closing night film. The Man from the Future screens on Thursday, April 25.

Sofia and the Stubborn Man / Sofia y el Terco (Burgos, Colombia, 2012)
Rating: 6.3


Popular Spanish actress Carmen Maura (perhaps best known in the U.S. as the lead in Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) plays one half of the title duo — the “stubborn man” being her husband — in this gentle wisp of a comedy by first time director Andres Burgos. The premise is that Sofia lives in a remote, mountainous area of Colombia and, despite her advancing years, has never seen the ocean. Tired of her husband’s perennial postponement of their vacation plans, she boldly decides to take off on a road trip by herself. This boasts some nice landscape photography, and Maura’s completely wordless performance is effective, but one can’t help but feel that the reason for her character’s muteness (never directly addressed in the script) is to simply avoid what would have been an incongruous Spanish accent. This is light and fluffy stuff that should go over well with the crowd for whom it was intended: older viewers looking for something inspirational. Sofia and the Stubborn Man screens on Wednesday, April 17 and Thursday, April 18.

Strawberry and Chocolate / Fresa y Chocolate (Alea/Tabio, Cuba, 1993)
Rating: 7.1


With the marriage equality debate reaching a fever pitch in the U.S., now might be a good time for Chicagoans to see or see again Strawberry and Chocolate, a warm-hearted look at the friendship between two very different men — one gay and one straight — in Havana. The film, a plea for tolerance that was a popular international success upon its release 20 years ago, is very cautious, however, even by 1993 standards: it opens with a sex scene between a man and a woman, as if to reassure straight males in the audience, and Diego (Jorge Perugorría), the gay character, is defined less by his sexual orientation than by his feminine mannerisms and his interest in “high culture” (which, inevitably, includes listening to recordings of Maria Callas). But the story is touching and very well acted, especially by Perugorría, who will be on hand to accept a lifetime achievement award to accompany these 20th anniversary screenings. Strawberry and Chocolate was the penultimate film of the great Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (who was suffering from cancer at the time and co-directed with Juan Carlos Tabio) though it lacks the formal audacity of earlier works like Memories of Underdevelopment or The Last Supper. Strawberry and Chocolate screens on Monday, April 15 and Wednesday, April 17.

More information, including directions to the venue, ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the official Chicago Latino Film Festival site:

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