Monthly Archives: October 2013

Happy Halloween from White City Cinema!

For this year’s jack-o’-lantern, I decided to try and carve a face identical to one that can be seen in the opening credit sequence of a certain Halloween-themed movie of renown. I think I did pretty good.

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The Best of Lou Reed (in the Movies)

There’s nothing I can say to eulogize the great Lou Reed that hasn’t already been said better elsewhere but I would like to note that, like many people, my life was profoundly changed by his music, which I had the good fortune to discover in my early teens. In tribute to his memory, here are my two favorite uses of Reed’s music in the movies.

In 1995, Lou Reed recorded a sly, sexy arrangement of “This Magic Moment,” originally made famous by The Drifters, for the Doc Pomus tribute album Till the Night is Gone. Two years later, David Lynch used the recording in his still-underrated Lost Highway to introduce Patricia Arquette’s Alice character, the seemingly angelic blonde doppelganger to the wicked brunette Renee (also played by Arquette). A lot of people have complained that Reed “can’t sing” but his vocal phrasing here is as flat-out amazing as his guitar playing.

In the year 2000, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung used The Velvet Underground’s immortal “Pale Blue Eyes” over the opening credits of his visually stunning The Vertical Ray of the Sun. Tran picked the perfect song to help convey the lazy Sunday morning feel that he wanted to evoke for his film’s memorable first scene.


49th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

And that’s a wrap for the 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival. Here are capsule reviews for the five films I saw during the fest proper, as well as links to the capsule reviews for the eight movies I previewed before the fest began. In preferential order:

Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Rating: 9.8 (Review here.)

The Immigrant (James Gray, USA)
Rating: 9.4

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CIFF scored a major coup by hosting the Chicago premiere of James Gray’s The Immigrant, a truly great new American film that is in the process of being tragically buried by its distributor The Weinstein Company (it won’t be released until 2014 and, even then, may go straight to video-on-demand). I was therefore particularly gratified to see this on the big screen. Gray’s masterful drama tells the story of Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who arrives at Ellis Island in the early 1920s along with a tubercular sister (who is promptly quarantined). After being threatened with deportation, Ewa reluctantly turns to a charming but ruthless burlesque show manager and pimp, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who promises to help her out. Tragically, it isn’t long before Ewa is prostituting herself in the streets and finds herself in a doomed love triangle with Bruno and his cousin, a seemingly kindhearted magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner). While this might sound like a familiar melodrama scenario, Gray consistently pushes the material in directions more challenging and rewarding than you might expect, profoundly exploring notions of love and forgiveness within a specific Polish/Catholic milieu, while also wringing from his story the emotions of grand opera. Gray’s fifth feature, his first period piece, is his most ambitious work to date. It is also his masterpiece.

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
Rating: 9.1 (Review here.)

Soul (Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan)
Rating: 8.0 (Review here.)

Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi/Kambuzia Partovi, Iran)
Rating: 7.6

closed

This is the second film that the great Jafar Panahi has been able to make and have smuggled out of Iran after being banned from directing movies or giving interviews for 20 years. While the first, This Is Not a Film, dealt explicitly with Panahi’s legal plight and served as a provocative inquiry into what it means to “make a movie,” Closed Curtain deals with the same themes in a more oblique fashion: it begins with a political dissident/writer (co-director Partovi) and his dog, on the run from government authorities, seeking refuge in the house of a friend. The writer soon finds himself unwillingly sharing this space with a young woman who is also wanted by the police and who he fears may be suicidal. In the second half, Panahi — an old hand at self-reflexive trickery — appears onscreen as the Godlike creator of the events in the first half and asks if he has dreamed up these characters or if they have somehow dreamed him. Fans of the director can’t afford to miss this fascinating puzzle-film whose “mirror structure” may make you want to immediately watch it again — though it lacks the poignance and sense of urgency that made This Is Not a Film such an unexpected masterpiece.

Trapped (Parviz Shahbazi, Iran)
Rating: 7.5 (Review here.)

The Girls on Liberty Street (John Rangel, USA)
Rating: 7.2 (Review here.)

Contracted (Eric England, USA)
Rating: 7.2

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Samantha (Najarra Townsend), a young woman feeling low after being dumped by her lesbian lover, gets drunk at a party and engages in a one-night stand with a strange man named B.J. (a sinister, out-of-focus Simon Barrett). The next day she fears she has contracted a sexually transmitted disease but, as her symptoms rapidly worsen, realizes to her horror that her body is actually rotting from the inside out. Writer/director Eric England, aided immeasurably by a brave lead performance by the game Townsend (the little girl from Me and You and Everyone We Know) and terrific, old-fashioned make-up effects, mines not only genuine terror from this Cronenberg-ian body-horror scenario but also a surprisingly rich vein of black comedy. The result is a fairly awesome low-budget shocker that creates and sustains a spirit of nasty fun that filmmakers with much higher budgets would no doubt love to buy; someone should really make Fede Alvarez, director of the lame, overhyped Evil Dead remake, watch this several times. There’s a certain kind of horror gem capable of rocking a late night film festival audience and, by God, Contracted rocked the Chicago International Film Festival.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Rating: 7.1 (Review here.)

Pieces of Me (Nolwenn Lemesle, France)
Rating: 7.0 (Review here.)

Go Goa Gone (Krishna D.K./Raj Nidimoru, India)
Rating: 6.2

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Two immature stoners, Hardik (Kunal Khemu) and Luv (Vir Das), accompany their slightly more responsible buddy, Bunny (Anand Tiwari), on a business trip to an island off of India’s Goa coast. There, amidst some gorgeous tropical scenery, they attend a rave party where the mass consumption of an Ecstasy-like drug has the unintended side-effect of turning those who take it into zombies. It’s then up to this unlikely trio — with a little help from a Russian mafioso (producer/star Saif Ali Khan with a blonde dye-job) — to save the day. Go Goa Gone has gotten a lot of press for being the “first Bollywood zombie movie” but I think it actually works best in its earliest stages when it’s merely a comedy dependent upon rapd-fire dialogue and word play. Once the reanimated corpses start piling up (aided by fairly shoddy make-up and CGI), it quickly becomes monotonous and repetitive — though at least there’s colorful cinematography and snappy music keep things lively.

Stockholm Stories (Karin Fahlén, Sweden)
Rating: 6.1

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The lives of dozens of Stockholm denizens repeatedly criss-cross over the span of a few days in this Altman-esque ensemble comedy-drama. The most prominent plot lines involve a brother and sister (Martin Wallström and Julia Ragnarsson) — the adult children of a beloved, deceased Swedish novelist — and how they each cope with living in their famous father’s shadow. By the time the inevitable power-outage climax rolled around, bringing a couple of different couples together romantically, I must admit this had begrudgingly won me over. The first feature of former make-up artist Karin Fahlen, Stockholm Stories isn’t as good as Robert Altman at his worst but it’s certainly superior to sentimental trash like Love Actually (with which someone somewhere will no doubt compare it).

At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Rating: 5.1 (Review here.)


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Piccadilly (Dupont)
2. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
3. Halloween (Carpenter)
4. The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (Simon)
5. Journey to Italy (Rossellini)
6. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini)
7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
8. Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi)
9. The Witches of Eastwick (Miller)
10. The Road Warrior (Miller)


R.I.P. Facets Night School (2009-2013)

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To paraphrase Citizen Kane, this weekend — as it must to all film programs — death comes to Facets Night School, the popular midnight movie series that was launched by Facets Multimedia in 2009 and has run continually in Fall, Spring and Summer sessions ever since. According to a beautiful tribute written by Joseph Richard Lewis at theundergroundmultiplex.com, the series was founded by Phil Morehart, who was also its first programmer, and who was succeeded in that position by Suzi Doll, Legendary Lew Ojeda, and Chris Damen. Among the many highlights of its 5-year run: Julian Antos, co-founder of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, presented his own 35mm prints of Hal Hartley’s Amateur and Allan Dwan’s Slightly Scarlet; Ojeda and Lewis hosted an interactive version of their Sisters of No Mercy film that featured “live circus performers, musicians, dancers and actors”; Bruce Neal and friends provided live original musical accompaniment to cult classics from the silent era including Haxan, A Page of Madness and The Fall of the House of Usher; “Everything is Terrible” co-founder Katie Rife presented several truly off-the-wall oddities including sleaze merchant Ron Ormond’s Please Don’t Touch Me! “in its original roadshow format” (an occasion for which the audience was also hypnotized); and the Chicago Cinema Society‘s Neil Calderone presented the local premiere of the Bollywood-style documentary The Bengali Detective. And this is to say nothing of the contributions of dozens of other presenters, too numerous to mention, who introduced movies and led audiences through Q&A sessions afterwards — all for the love of cinema and without financial compensation. Earlier this year, the Chicago Reader deservedly awarded Facets Night School for having the “best late night programming” of any Chicago movie house.

I was grateful to have had the opportunity to present movies at Facets Night School on eight occasions. In doing so, I intentionally avoided choosing “great films,” and tried to focus instead on more obscure titles that I thought would confound, surprise and provoke spirited post-screening debates: Save the Green Planet, The Devil’s Backbone, Dance, Girl, Dance, I’m Not There, The Old Dark House, The Slumber Party Massacre, Cannibals and, most recently, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings. I was particularly proud of having presented the Chicago theatrical premiere of Manoel de Oliveira’s 1988 opera-film Cannibals to a large and enthusiastic audience — all of whom were previously unfamiliar with the great Portuguese director’s work. I often made attending Night School an optional extra credit assignment for students in my college-level film history classes, most of whom had never attended a midnight movie in a theater before but all of whom wrote about the experience fondly in their “screening reports” afterwards. I will probably never know the politics involved in the decision to cancel Night School. Attendance figures surely had nothing to do with it; I was told that the packed Slumber Party Massacre screening, which I presented for a Halloween-themed “Fright School” session in 2012, had the highest attendance of any midnight movie in Facets history, and the numbers for the two subsequent presentations I gave could not have been far behind that. (This is in pointed contrast to the same theater being perennially empty during its regular weeklong theatrical runs.) I suppose we should just be grateful that Facets Night School lasted as long as it did, and hope that its spirit will soon be resurrected at another local venue. Chicagoans who would like to pay their last respects should note that the final two Night School sessions will occur this Friday and Saturday with Full Metal Frankenstein, featuring a live Bruce Neal score, and We are the Strange, which those wacky guys at the Underground Multiplex claim has been banned from public viewing by the FDA “due to audience mental health concerns.”

My 2010 Night School lecture on Save the Green Planet can be viewed online here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/5077314


Filmmaker Interview: Eric England

One of the most pleasant surprises for me at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was attending the U.S. premiere of the independent “body horror” entry Contracted by prolific 25-year-old writer/director Eric England. Eric attended the 10/16 show of Contracted at CIFF and “fell in love with Chicago.” This interview was conducted shortly afterwards via e-mail.

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MGS: The thing that impressed me the most about your film was its overall spirit of fun and the way you balanced horror and comedy. The late night audience I saw it with at CIFF was laughing from beginning to end. This sense of fun is something that’s missing from a lot of other recent horror movies I’ve seen, many of which have budgets much bigger than yours. What do you see as the relationship between horror and comedy?

EE: I think that horror and comedy go hand in hand. They play off each other as a release valve and they’re very similar. One sets up a joke, the other a scare. The only difference is the payoff. I actually don’t see Contracted as a true horror-comedy, but it absolutely has humor in it and sometimes I feel like people are afraid to laugh with the film. But they shouldn’t be because I definitely didn’t try to take everything in it very seriously. So I’m glad the audience in Chicago was able to pick up on that.

MGS: The “body horror” subgenre is strongly associated with the 1980s and the films of David Cronenberg in particular. Were there any specific movies that influenced Contracted or were you more inspired by real-world fears about sexually transmitted diseases and the concept of losing control over one’s own body?

EE: Definitely the latter. I actually wasn’t as well versed in Cronenberg and body horror as I am now. When I set out to make Contracted, I just wanted to make that kind of film. Then the comparisons to Cronenberg and “body-horror” started to get brought up and I was like “yeah, I guess I see the relation.” So I didn’t really set out to make a film in the vein of those or any other as much as I just wanted to make a reverse engineered sub-genre film involving an STD as the device.

MGS: Contracted opens with a very creepy and cryptic scene involving necrophilia that seems to hint at the origin of the virus. Were you ever tempted to clarify exactly who the B.J. character was and what his motives were or did you always intend for that aspect of the film to be shrouded in mystery?

EE: I’m a big fan of ambiguity in film. It polarizes some audiences and I’ve been criticized for it in the past, but I love things that make you come to conclusions for yourself and I try to reflect that in my films. So mystery was definitely always the goal with B.J. and his back-story. I wanted to give you just enough information on him to piece together what was happening and leave the rest to your imagination — including what he looks like.

MGS: I was also very impressed by the special effects make-up in the film, which seemed for the most part very old fashioned and not CGI-enhanced. It seemed like the idea was that Samantha was rotting from the inside out but very rapidly over a span of just three days. How exactly did you work with your make-up artists in showing the progression of this deadly disease?

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EE: Thank you so much for picking up on that and mentioning it. We had an amazing SFX make-up artist in Mayera Abeita and she was given literally no money to transform Najarra and she killed it. She did tests and experimented and was just an all-out rockstar. I also have to give a lot of credit to Najarra herself for pulling off the performance while in the make-up because that’s definitely not easy with what she had on and had to go through. Mayera and I worked pretty closely together on figuring out what things would look like and how they would happen as well as making them feel believable. I was pretty detailed in the script with what stages I wanted at certain points of the story, but Mayera was huge in keeping it on track, executing it and consistent, along with my AD David Buchwald who was a huge savior in scheduling and saving us time to manage the make-up process.

MGS: I think Najarra Townsend’s performance is also central to the success of the film. She has such an interesting look and a very real, “un-actorly” presence onscreen. The whole time I was watching her I was thinking “Where have I seen her before?” After I got home, I looked her up and was delighted to find out that she was the little girl in Me and You and Everyone We Know. Were you aware of her beforehand or did you find her through a traditional audition process?

EE: I was aware of her just in a general sense, but Matt Mercer (co-star/co-producer) is the one who turned me on to her. When we had a couple of go-to actresses fall through, we were ready to try a traditional route of auditioning and he suggested Najarra. Right off the bat from her headshot, I loved her look, but I was afraid she was too young, so I asked her to come in and read. The moment she walked in the room, I just knew. She blew me away and as soon as she left, I told Matt that I wanted her to play Samantha. After a callback, she completely killed the reading again and I knew she was the one. I lucked out completely because not only is she an amazingly talented actress, she’s also an incredible person and someone I grew very close to while shooting. That’s so important when shooting a movie like this and I think it shows. You have to trust someone to carry a film like this, not only on camera, but off. Najarra was just the total package for me.

MGS: What are your filmmaking plans for the future?

EE: For the future, I just wanna try and continue to make edgy and interesting films that hopefully stand the test of time. My big thing is versatility. The horror genre is such a niche place, but horror is such a broad term and I think there’s a lot of ground to explore. So I never wanna do the same thing twice if I don’t have to. So moving forward, I just wanna continue to do films that feel different from what I’ve already done, but continue to show growth, not only for me, but for the genre as well.

MGS: Best of luck, Eric. I greatly look forward to your future work.

EE: Thanks, Michael. You too!

Contracted will be released by IFC Films on November 22. You can learn more about Eric on his official website: http://ericengland.blogspot.com/

contracted


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Stranger By the Lake (Guiraudie)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles)
3. Go Goa Gone (D.K./Nidimoru)
4. Failan (Song)
5. The Thing (Carpenter)
6. Europa ’51 (Rossellini)
7. 27 Years Later (Benning)
8. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
9. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
10. Stromboli (Rossellini)


My Favorite Moment in The Roaring Twenties

I recently finished teaching the gangster movie genre as part of my “World of Cinema” class at Harold Washington College. This included screening one of my all time favorite American films, the 1939 Warner Brothers production of The Roaring Twenties starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (an acting match made in tough-guy heaven if there ever was one). The way director Raoul Walsh continually opens up the narrative of this gangster epic to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29 to the end of Prohibition and beyond) gives it a dazzling breadth and scope. There are also many iconic moments, especially Cagney’s death on the outdoor steps of a church, which prompts his flame (a sad-eyed bootlegger played by Gladys George) to remark: “He used to be a big shot.”

Watching it again with a class reminded me that my personal favorite moment in the film is also one of its quietest and most subtle: after Prohibition has been repealed and Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett has lost his bootlegging empire, we see him in a dive bar, a slave to the booze that he never touched when he was on top. Bartlett exits the bar to go visit his nemesis George (Bogart), knowing full well that it may be his last night on earth. On his way out the door, Bartlett pauses in front of a piano, on top of which someone has set down a mug of beer. Bartlett looks down at the mostly-empty glass and smiles a sad, wistful smile. I’ve always wondered if this moment was indicated in the script or if it was something that Walsh and Cagney worked out together on the set. Whatever the case, this, my friends, is movie magic:

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Solaris (Tarkovsky)
2. Stockholm Stories (Fahlen)
3. My Man Godfrey (La Cava)
4. Contracted (England)
5. Far From Heaven (Haynes)
6. Psycho (Hitchcock)
7. The Immigrant (Gray)
8. Greenberg (Baumbach)
9. Dead Reckoning (Cromwell)
10. The Big Parade (Vidor)


49th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Here is part two of the Chicago International Film Festival Preview I began last week.

Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Rating: 9.8

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My favorite movie at this year’s CIFF is Stranger By the Lake by Alain Guiraudie, a filmmaker too little known outside of his native France. That will hopefully soon change as his latest, which won acclaim at Cannes (and raised more than a few eyebrows due to its inclusion of unsimulated sex acts), is set to receive wider international distribution than any of the director’s previous works. Stranger By the Lake works on multiple levels: at its most basic, it’s a dark (and darkly funny) erotic thriller about a young man named Franck (the superb Pierre Deladonchamps), who witnesses a murder at a provincial lake known to be a cruising spot for gay men. Franck’s attraction to the murderer, the handsome, almost God-like Michel (Christophe Paou), prevents him from going to the police, which allows Guiraudie to explore the “transfer of guilt” theme popularized by Hitchcock — this would make a great double feature with Strangers on a Train. Unlike most most “erotic thrillers,” however, the film’s explicit sex scenes seem less designed to titillate than to serve as a jumping off point for a complex inquiry into the nature of voyeurism and sexual desire. Finally, the movie functions almost as an ethnographic documentary, and a beautifully photographed one at that, into a very specific subculture; the camera never leaves the single setting comprised of the lakeshore, the woods and a nearby parking lot, a self-imposed, Hitchcock-style “limitation” that becomes a virtue given Guiraudie’s masterful mise-en-scene. One of the very best films of the year. Stranger By the Lake screens Friday, October 18th and Sunday, October 20th.

Trapped (Parviz Shahbazi, Iran)
Rating: 7.7

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Trapped is the latest film from Parviz Shahbazi (an acclaimed Iranian writer/director whose previous work I am unacquainted with). It centers on the unlikely and tenuous friendship of two young women thrown together by fate: Nazanin (Nazanin Bayati) is a quiet young medical student, who moves from a small town to Tehran to attend college and rents a room from Sahar (Pegah Ahangarani), an extroverted perfume shop clerk. When Sahar is arrested for bouncing a bad check, Nazanin signs a promissory note in order to cover her new roommate’s debt — but this act of goodwill soon sucks Sahar into a complex legal nightmare. In a weirdly fascinating way, one feels that Trapped, as with several other recent Iranian movies, is able to seriously explore a host of legal and moral issues precisely because of the shrewd way the filmmakers have to deftly sidestep local censorship laws. Even though this won’t receive the backing of Sony Pictures Classics and go on to Oscar glory, the plotting here is at least as skillful and suspenseful as that of A Separation, without resorting to that film’s more blatant narrative contrivances. Both of the lead actresses, incidentally, are excellent. Trapped screens Saturday, October 19th, Monday, October 21st and Tuesday, October 22nd.

At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Rating: 5.1

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Frederick Wiseman has become a legend in the world of documentary film for the way he has examined, patiently and quasi-objectively (i.e., his movies eschew voice-over narration and formal interviews), a raft of American institutions: a boxing gym, a prison, a housing project, a hospital, etc. At age 83, Wiseman has become something of an institution himself, and, while this 4-hour epic about the University of California at Berkeley has earned rave reviews from its first festival appearances, it lacks the intimacy and poignance of his seminal High School (1968), the film to which it serves as a kind of belated sequel. Exhausting but not exhaustive, At Berkeley devotes a lot of time to the school’s administrators, a little bit to the students and hardly any to the teachers. This means that, as the University faces a dire financial crisis, we see endless scenes of a bureaucratic Chancellor — a man with a creepy grin permanently frozen on his face — complaining about state funding drying up, but literally no scenes of professors describing how they are affected by the crunch. The only form of protest on display is one student’s insistence on returning to the days of “no tuition,” a scene that will be all too easy for viewers to dismiss as a crackpot pipe-dream. The complete lack of scenes depicting teachers’ union meetings, teachers talking to other teachers, or teachers doing anything other than addressing their classes gives the impression that Wiseman, consciously or not, has colluded with the administration in glorifying this particular institution and avoiding the real crisis plaguing the contemporary American education system: the Wal-Martification of its employment practices (e.g., eliminating tenure-track positions, hiring part-time instructors in record numbers, avoiding offering benefits, etc.). That movie, alas, will have to be made by someone else. At Berkeley screens Sunday, October 20th.

Soul (Chung Mong-Hong, Taiwan)
Rating: 8.1

soul

Venerable Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang (whose latest, Stray Dogs, is also playing this festival) has indicated in interviews that he may not make another film. It was therefore fitting and intensely gratifying to discover this bold Lynchian mind-bender by up-and-coming Taiwanese writer/director Chung Mong-Hong. Soul has been tagged as a “supernatural thriller” and a “horror movie” by various critics and programmers although, in spite of the inclusion of a couple of gruesome murder sequences, it’s far more adventurous than those labels imply. What story there is revolves around the question of transfiguration — as a young sushi chef from Taipei suddenly loses consciousness and collapses while on the job only to wake up and claim to be someone else. His co-workers take him to his father’s rural orchid farm to recuperate but dark family secrets soon come to light and a series of bizarre murders ensue. The real protagonist of the film is the father (a great role for the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu), a recent stroke victim who is consumed by feelings of guilt and a desire to amend past wrongs, and the way Chung explores father-son dynamics is hauntingly ambiguous: is this a literal tale of possession or is there a psychological explanation for everything, one that demands the film be read more as allegory? Either way, this is gripping and highly original stuff. Soul screens Monday, October 21st, Tuesday, October 22nd and Wednesday October 23rd.


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