Monthly Archives: March 2014

2014 Chicago Latino Film Festival Preview


The Chicago Latino Film Festival reaches an impressive milestone this year by turning 30-years-old. Founder Pepe Vargas and co. are celebrating in style, screening 92 features and 39 shorts from around the world. In addition to showcasing new work by established auteurs and exciting younger filmmakers, the fest will also be offering a sidebar devoted to Spanish-language Oscar nominees from the 1960s through the present; and the great Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, star of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria, will also be on hand to receive a lifetime achievement award and be feted with a mini-retrospective of her work. Below are previews of some of the most noteworthy films playing the festival. The full lineup can be found on the CLFF website here:

Macario (Gavaldon, Mexico, 1960)
Rating: 9.5


If you only see one movie in CLFF’s Latino Oscar sidebar, please make it Roberto Gavaldon’s 1960 masterpiece, the first Mexican movie to ever receive a Best Foreign Film nomination. An adaptation of a story by German author B. Traven (who also wrote the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), this dark fairy tale centers on the title character, a peasant whose wife presents him with the gift of a stolen turkey on the Day of the Dead. While eating the meal alone in a forest, Macario is visited by three spirits (representing Satan, God and Death, respectively), each of whom asks for a share of the food. Macario turns down the first two visitors but strikes a bargain with the third in exchange for a jug of water that seems to have miraculous healing properties. But this gift turns into a curse when Macario’s newfound skills as a healer transform his previously humble nature into one of greediness instead. Unlike the other Oscar-nominated Spanish-language films at CLFF (all of which are readily available on home video), the amazingly photographed Macario is unavailable on DVD, rarely revived and should look gorgeous projected in 35mm. Especially memorable is a dreamy climax taking place in the caves of Cacahuamilpa, a location lit only by thousands of candles and a triumph of atmosphere from Mexico’s greatest cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa (who also shot films for Luis Bunuel, Emilio Fernandez and John Ford). Macario screens on Monday, April 7.

The Longest Distance (Pinto, Venezuela, 2013)
Rating: 8.0


An ambitious and assured debut feature from writer/director Claudia Pinto, The Longest Distance tracks the criss-crossing lives of a diverse group of characters in contemporary Venezuela. The film begins in urban Caracas, where a bourgeois woman dies as the result of a senseless and violent crime. Following her funeral, her young son runs away from home to meet his Spanish grandmother (Carme Elias) in the mountainous region of La Gran Sabana where, unbeknownst to him, she has chosen to end her life. Among the other important characters are the boy’s father and a twenty-something hooligan trying to turn his life around whom the boy befriends on his journey. While descriptions of the plot may sound schematic, the end result is anything but: Pinto’s ability to render characters of different ages and socio-economic backgrounds as flesh-and-blood human beings is impressive in the extreme. So is her fluid camerawork and expert cross-cutting, the latter of which lends the film a powerful novelistic density. At only 36-years-old, Claudia Pinto is clearly a director to watch. The Longest Distance screens Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5.

Elena (Costa, Brazil/USA, 2013)
Rating: 7.2


Director Petra Costa’s remarkable autobiographical/confessional documentary (the second such film to play Chicago in as many months following What Now? Remind Me at the European Union Film Festival) tackles the subject of the 1990 suicide of her older sister Elena. An aspiring actress from Brazil, Elena Costa ended her life in New York City at the age of 20-years-old and Petra, 13 years her junior, has been attempting to make sense of the event ever since. The film mixes excerpts from old home movies with new footage of Petra and her mother returning to their former New York apartment and the hospital where Elena was pronounced dead. The personal nature of the project eventually gives way to full-blown catharsis as Petra includes increasingly poetic images (e.g., shots of unidentified women floating in water) and voice-over narration that explores the notion that Petra feels she and her sister are in some ways the same person. This is an emotionally tough, occasionally harrowing, and very well-made non-fiction feature. Elena screens on Friday, April 11 and Sunday, April 13.

Anina (Soderguit, Uruguay, 2013)
Rating: 7.9


Anina Yatay Salas, the protagonist of this delightful animated film, is a 10-year-old girl who is frequently made fun of by her classmates at school due to her triple palindromic name. After getting into a playground fight with Yisel, a much larger nemesis whom Anina refers to as an “elephant,” both girls are given an unusual punishment by the school’s principal: they receive sealed black envelopes that they are instructed not to open nor tell anyone about for a week. While the contents of the dreaded envelope haunts her nightmares, Anina embarks on an odyssey in which she learns a great deal about herself and the importance of developing empathy for others. What really makes this worth seeking out, however, is the beautiful hand-drawn animation, which perfectly compliments the smart story and is charming precisely because of its “flaws.” Anina also proves that, in the age of Pixar wizardry, just because animation is simple doesn’t mean it can’t also be detailed: the characters here all have giant heads, round black eyes, tiny noses and mouths, and spindly limbs, but the subtle variations in their appearances are incredibly clever and fascinating to behold. Anina screens on Monday, April 14 and Wednesday, April 16.

Gloria (Lelio, Chile, 2013)
Rating: 8.5


Although Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria received a very quiet commercial release in Chicago earlier in the year, I urge anyone who missed this winning comedy/drama to make it a point of catching it on the big screen at CLFF — especially since the film’s radiant star, Paulina Garcia, will be on hand to collect a lifetime achievement award. Garcia carries the movie by appearing, as the resilient title character, in literally every scene. Even more impressive is how Gloria, a 50-something divorcee, is not a stereotypical neurotic single woman desperate for midlife romance (though she does briefly find that) but rather an ordinary, smart, sexy, well-adjusted woman who is content to live alone, loves her grown children, works at what looks like a mundane office job, listens to pop music, and spends her free time dancing at the local discotheque. The film’s central conflict eventually emerges from Gloria’s relationship with Rodolpho (Sergio Hernández), an older man with commitment issues. But this is, thankfully, also a movie that is in no real hurry to do anything: it does not put its characters through the paces of a formulaic plot, nor does it seem eager to give viewers a familiar set of emotional experiences. Lelio’s camera merely observes Gloria and if audiences have fallen in love with her, that’s likely because Lelio has not insisted that we have to. I found this emotionally affecting and highly original character study to be, well, glorious. Gloria screens on Thursday, April 17th.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Elena (Costa)
2. Anina (Soderguit)
3. The Longest Distance (Pinto)
4. A New Leaf (May)
5. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Allen)
6. Mouchette (Bresson)
7. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
8. Journey to the West (Tsai)
9. The Harder They Come (Henzell)
10. Anatahan (Von Sternberg)



Newly released on Blu-ray from Studio Canal France is Intégrale Jacques Tati, a box set collecting all six feature films by the greatest director of comedy in the sound era. (No? Then who?) Following on the heels of last year’s complete Eric Rohmer Blu-ray/DVD box from Potemkine, France has clearly become the go-to country for distributing career-spanning home video retrospectives devoted to important individual filmmakers. This is perhaps the result of French directors being more generally independent and often owning their own negatives in comparison to filmmakers from other countries. (By contrast, in the past decade there have been at least four different substantial DVD box sets put out by different American companies devoted to a single studio-hopping director like John Ford; a scenario like this can prove to be a nightmare for movie lovers/collectors.) But I digress. If you own a Region-B or multi-region Blu-ray player, you should own this complete Jacques Tati box set, an early frontrunner for best-of-the-year status. What makes this release so essential, in addition to being able to see all of the films again in superb quality, is Studio Canal’s impressive thoroughness in assembling the set: three of the titles can be seen in multiple versions — three for Jour de Fete and two a piece for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, resulting in a grand total of 10 feature films. There is also an entire Blu-ray disc of extras that includes all of the delightful but underseen short films that Tati made from 1934 to 1978. Intégrale indeed.


Jour de Fete, Tati’s underrated first feature, is a terrific slapstick comedy about Francois (the director himself as a forerunner to his beloved “Monsieur Hulot” character), a rural postman who becomes obsessed with delivering mail efficiently after viewing a documentary on the high-tech U.S. Postal Service. Although there is dialogue in the film, it remains secondary to Tati’s incredible sight gags, which rival the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their sheer ingenuity (the runaway bicycle scene is a standout). This was shot in a primitive color process known as Thomson Color although it was not actually seen in color until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a revelatory new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. Intégrale Jacques Tati bundles together three versions of Jour de Fete on a single disc: the original 1949 black-and-white release, the 1995 color-restored version, and a 1964 release that is mostly in black-and-white but with limited color tinting overseen by the director himself.


1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was the beloved first outing for the director’s legendary Monsieur Hulot character. The film opens with a sly title card asking the viewer not to expect a plot since the movie is about a holiday and holidays are meant to be fun. From there we follow the bumbling title character as he arrives at a beach-side resort hotel and, in a series of plotless and near wordless scenes, proceeds to comically wreak havoc everywhere he goes. (Especially memorable is Hulot’s riotous visit to the tennis court where he revolutionizes the serve.) Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well. Intégrale Jacques Tati bundles together the original 1953 version of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday with Tati’s 1978 re-edit of the film, which saw the inclusion of newly shot, seamlessly integrated footage (such as an anachronistic spoof of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws).


Mon Oncle won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1959 and yet, in spite of that honor and in spite of the fact that it remains a quintessential example of Tati’s unique brand of cinema, I don’t think it’s quite as great as what had come before nor what would come after. The plot, minimal as ever, has to do with Monsieur Hulot visiting the family of his brother-in-law, who live in a nightmarish, American-style post-modern home. A lot of the sight gags — especially those involving the malfunction of high-tech gadgets around the house — are brilliant and point the way towards similar gags in Playtime but, because the action is confined almost entirely to a single setting, this lacks the awe-inspiring epic quality of Tati’s supreme masterpiece. Still, it’s an important evolutionary step between Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Playtime and remains crucial viewing. Included together on a single disc is Tati’s original 1958 version of the film as well as My Uncle, a version featuring American dialogue and signage (both of which are minimal) and running nine-minutes shorter.


Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent champion, has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?” The image quality of Studio Canal’s transfer is every bit as impressive as the one put out by Criterion a few years ago, although flesh tones are slightly warmer here (for those who care about that sort of thing).


Some commentators have complained that Traffic represents a concession to the marketplace: after the costly commercial failure of Playtime — with its radical everybody-is-a-star premise — Tati brought Monsieur Hulot back for more of a conventional leading role in this follow-up, which would also be the character’s last outing (his name actually precedes the film’s title in the opening credits). Taken on its own terms, however, this 1971 comedy is not only very funny but offers a Western civilization-as-traffic jam metaphor almost as potent as that of Godard’s Weekend. The road-trip premise has something to do with Hulot delivering a car from Paris to Amsterdam for an auto show and predictably engaging in roadside mishaps along the way but, as in all of Tati’s work, this is only a pretext for a series of comedic vignettes that are both self-contained and related by theme; I am personally inordinately fond of the stopped-car nose-picking montage.


Parade, Jacques Tati’s modest final feature, was made for Swedish television in 1974. Because it has primarily been seen only in a crude early video process (one of three formats on which it was shot) and because it features a single-location setting (a circus big-top), Parade has often been unfortunately dismissed as an unworthy swan song to an extraordinary career. But I would argue this gem is much better than its reputation suggests, not only summarizing a lot of the key themes of Tati’s work (including such democratic and utopian notions that anyone can be funny and that life itself is a performance), but also poignantly bringing it full circle: Tati himself plays the ringmaster of the circus and, at the age of 66, shows an impressive physical dexterity in recreating some of the slapstick gags of his pre-cinema, vaudeville career. The Blu-ray of Parade is happily the most revelatory title in this set in terms of image quality: it is based on a 2013 restoration that combines Tati’s use of video, 16mm and 35mm film stocks and is leaps and bounds better than previous home video editions. So, a lovely film then and a fitting coda to the career of one of the cinema’s true comedic geniuses.

Below are my ratings of all of the individual films in the Intégrale Jacques Tati set. The first letter grade is for the movie itself, the second is for the A/V quality.

Jour de Fete: A+/A
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: A+/A
Mon Oncle: A/A+
Playtime: A+/A+
Traffic: A/A+
Parade: A-/A-

Intégrale Jacques Tati can be ordered from Amazon in France here:

Odds and Ends: Journey to the West and The Men of Dodge City

Here are capsule reviews of two films currently streaming online for free that I think are well worth your time.

Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan, 2014) – Streaming / Rating: 8.6


I don’t have time to write a proper full review but I wanted to alert my readers ASAP to the fact that the latest film from Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, Journey to the West, which just premiered to much fanfare at the Berlin International Film Festival, is streaming for free for one week at The Seventh Art, a terrific, independently produced “video magazine” based in Canada. Tsai’s 53-minute movie, starring two of the world’s best physical actors (Taiwan’s Lee Kang-sheng and France’s Denis Lavant) comes just one year after his formidable Stray Dogs also bowed in Berlin, at which time Tsai spoke of retiring. Cinephiles should be thankful that he didn’t: not only is Journey to the West a great mini-movie, it proves to be yet another logical step in the evolution of Tsai’s singular brand of filmmaking. A friend of mine complained that Stray Dogs was an unsatisfying hybrid between a narrative film and a museum installation piece; I wonder how he will feel about this one, which dispenses with narrative and dialogue altogether. The aptly titled Journey to the West consists of almost nothing but a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee) walking almost as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of Marseilles, France. Eventually, he is joined by a man in Western clothing (Lavant) who walks behind him at the same snail’s pace. Different viewers will likely take different things away from this experiment; I personally saw it as a complex statement about how ancient Eastern religions seem “out of step” with the fast pace of modern Western life and how there are elements of contemporary Western civilization that, for this very reason, feel irresistibly drawn towards Eastern philosophy. Regardless of how you interpret it, what’s not in dispute is the film’s extreme formal beauty (the shot of the monk, surrounded by what looks like a red halo created by his robe, walking down a flight of subway stairs is astonishing), as well as its unexpected, ineffable sense of humor.

You can watch Journey to the West in its entirety at The Seventh Art here:

The Men of Dodge City (Nandan Rao, USA, 2012) – Streaming / Rating: 7.0


The title The Men of Dodge City may evoke images of the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott westerns of the 1950s but you would be hard pressed to find a film as uniquely contemporary — and urban — as this debut feature by director/cinematographer Nandan Rao. The title characters are three 20-something friends, J., Ben and Zach (each of whom is named, as is often the case with micro-budget indies, for the actors who portray them — Jesse Rudoy, Ben Rickles and Zach Weintraub), who purchase an abandoned church in an economically depressed area of Detroit. With the help of a government grant, they begin renovating the space with the vague goal of turning it into an arts center. In a series of near-plotless scenes that feel semi-improvised (no writers are credited), the characters work, play, and debate the morality of their actions: are they selfish interlopers? Should the arts center “give back” to the surrounding community? Which one of them should date Sophia (Sophia Takal)?

Rao has cited Lucrecia Martel as a stylistic influence and the first lady of Argentinian cinema’s DNA is all over this — from the lack of traditional narrative exposition (scenes typically begin with characters in mid-conversation, plunging viewers into chaos and often forcing us to puzzle out the meaning in hindsight) to a cinematographic style that favors the use of shallow focus and long takes. If Rao is not yet anywhere near Martel’s level of formal mastery (his sound design is primitive by comparison and some of the longer takes devolve into longueurs), this is still an impressive and uncommonly assured first film. I especially appreciate the absence of exterior establishing shots, which heightens Rao’s poetic feel for the interior design of his locations and “makes strange” places that might seem familiar and banal in the hands of a lesser director: scenes set in the church and a high-rise hotel, in particular, feel almost like something out of science-fiction and, to paraphrase something Luis Bunuel once said about Buster Keaton’s College, possess the cool beauty of a bathroom.

You can watch The Men of Dodge City at Kentucker Audley’s invaluable site, (where this review originally appeared last year), below:

You should also read about Audley’s hilarious “Stop Making Indie Films” movement/publicity stunt and consider signing his pledge:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (Schickel)
2. Macario (Gavaldon)
3. The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson)
5. Parade (Tati)
6. Whatever Works (Allen)
7. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
8. Traffic (Tati)
9. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
10. The Mother and the Whore (Eustache)

Is the Pizza Cold?: The Slumber Party Massacre as Subversive Feminist Parody

The Slumber Party Massacre will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory tomorrow. The following essay is adapted from a lecture I gave about this disreputable film at Facets Multimedia in 2012.

The Slumber Party Massacre, produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original “slasher movie” boom, has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. In the words of the critic Dave Kehr, the film seems “fascinatingly conflicted” because of the way it seems to simultaneously, and perhaps hypocritically, fulfill and critique the dubious conventions of the slasher subgenre. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Still others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher, while some — including director Amy Holden Jones — view it not as a horror movie at all but rather as a comedy instead. Through tracing the lineage of the slasher film and providing a close examination of what exactly Jones does with its conventions, I hope to illuminate why The Slumber Party Massacre should be taken seriously even while simultaneously being appreciated for the hoot that it is.

Released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the big bang of the slasher, the first horror movie to feature a sexually frustrated homicidal maniac killing young women with a butcher knife. Although other important slashers were made throughout the ’60s and early ’70s (most notably Bob Clark’s underrated Black Christmas), it wasn’t until John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, which itself owed a huge debt to Psycho, that the modern-day slasher was born. A lean, masterfully made thriller, Halloween was the most profitable independent film of any kind made up to that point and it spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of imitations in the years that immediately followed. All of these knock-offs, however, which tended to ramp up the gore while falling far short of Carpenter’s craftsmanship, were inferior to the original. Over the years, the conventions of the genre eventually crystallized into universally recognized rules: the mentally disturbed male killer picking off a group of attractive young women one by one over the course of a long night or weekend, an isolated and/or claustrophobic setting, the one-dimensional victim characters (the funny girl, the slut, the token minority, etc.) all of whom make stupid decisions (separating instead of sticking together, running upstairs or hiding in the basement instead of fleeing through the front door) and, of course, the lone survivor, who has by now come to be known in unofficial critical parlance as “the final girl.” I will argue that The Slumber Party Massacre was the first movie to come along and not just parody these conventions but subvert their disturbing ideological underpinnings from a feminist perspective.

Two of the more dubious conventions of the slasher genre are the use of subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view and the sometimes related trope of not showing the killer’s face until the very end of the movie (if at all). Halloween begins with a legendary tracking shot of epically disturbing proportions as the viewer is asked to peer through the eyes of a character who breaks into a house, steals a butcher knife from the kitchen, puts a mask over his face and then stabs a young naked woman to death immediately after her boyfriend has departed the house post-coitus. It is not until Michael Myers, the character whose point-of-view viewers are privy to, leaves the house that the audience is presented with the first objective shot: the camera reveals that this killer is in fact a six-year-old boy. It should be noted that this opening scene is the only time in the entire movie that viewers are asked to see through the killer’s eyes and, even then, a big part of the reason why is the shock factor of revealing the character’s young age at the end of the scene. For the rest of the film, the audience is firmly on the side of the victims and not the killer (who, after flashing forward 15 years into the future, has escaped from a mental institution and returned to his old neighborhood to finish what he started). Because Myers wears a mask, we also never see his face as an adult until the end of the movie. Unfortunately, many of the exploitation merchants who ripped off Halloween took the “killer P.O.V.” concept from the film’s opening and decided to extend it to their entire movies. The end result, as in Friday the 13th (to name one prominent example), was that viewers were asked to primarily identify with the killer instead of the victims. Some critics, including Gene Siskel, in the classic Siskel and Ebert At the Movies episode titled “Women in Danger,” have persuasively posited that the slasher was a reaction against the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

Both of the above conventions receive a refreshingly original workout in The Slumber Party Massacre, the original screenplay of which was written by feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown before being rewritten by Amy Jones. The Slumber Party Massacre certainly starts off like a typical slasher: Trish, a popular high-school girl, decides to throw a slumber party after being left home alone for the weekend by her parents. The party attendees soon find themselves being terrorized by the splendidly named “Russ Thorn,” a mass murderer who has recently escaped from prison and whose weapon of choice is a large power drill. Atypical for the genre, Jones makes it a point to show Thorn’s face in the movie early on and he comes across as a pathetic, middle-aged sad sack, thus arguably robbing him of the near God-like powers imbued in most movie serial killers. Jones also studiously avoids killer P.O.V. shots — although there are many “false scares” throughout the movie that involve what the viewer assumes is the killer’s P.O.V. but which turns out to be that of an innocuous character instead. While such false scares are, of course, ubiquitous in modern horror, Jones piles them on top of one another in such creative ways (my favorite involves the creation of a peephole in a door) and to such an absurd degree that they end up becoming the film’s strongest parodic element.

The barely concealed subtext of most slasher films is that the mysterious, faceless killer is sexually frustrated at best and impotent at worst; the idea is that he can only achieve release through the act of murder, which most often involves the employment of a big phallic knife. The murder scenes can thus be seen as a symbolic form of rape as it is frequently the promiscuous female characters who tend to die first after inflaming the killer’s sense of sexual frustration through their “provocative” behavior. This often leads to the unfortunate and reactionary moral that these young women have in fact been “asking for it” and that it is precisely their sexual promiscuity that has led to their untimely deaths. The Slumber Party Massacre humorously makes this subtext explicitly clear and then promptly subverts it: in the most infamous shot of the film (and one that inspired the equally notorious poster art), Thorn is seen from behind, his large drill dangling between his legs while a female victim cowers in fear in front of him. When viewers finally hear Thorn speak at the end of the film, he actually says, “You know you want it” to another potential victim. Shortly thereafter, when the women band together and finally decide to fight back, Thorn is killed only after being symbolically (and fittingly) castrated when one of them chops his drill bit in half with a machete. If I’m making this sound “academic,” believe me, it’s not. When seen with a group of people, this climactic scene never fails to produce screams of both fear and laughter.

While most discerning viewers will “get” Brown and Jones’ feminist angle, they still might be put off by the stilted acting and paper-thin characterization. I would argue however that any attempts to make the characters more “three dimensional” would only make the film resemble the bad horror movies it is deftly sending up (and who really wants to see a movie like this running any longer than its refreshingly fleet 78 minutes anyway?). The filmmakers’ approach to characterization is to take the typical female victim characters of the genre and have them behave more like how we’re used to seeing young men portrayed: these girls play basketball, are obsessed with baseball scores and statistics, look at pornography and repeatedly dominate their weak and ineffectual male counterparts both physically and intellectually. But because The Slumber Party Massacre was produced by Roger Corman, there is also a certain quotient of nudity, another staple of the genre, that must be met. Even in this area, though, Jones arguably succeeds in subverting the convention by making it transparently obvious that she does have a quota to fill. Early on there is a requisite post-basketball-practice shower scene in which Jones’ camera tracks alongside her female characters as they engage in superficial dialogue. At one point, Jones egregiously and hilariously tilts the camera down to show off a character’s nicely shaped ass. It’s as if she’s saying “Okay, this is what I have to do and therefore I’m going to be as obvious as possible in how I go about it.” (Jean-Luc Godard essentially did the same thing with a nude Brigitte Bardot in the opening of Le Mepris.) Similarly, in a scene where two teenage boys spy on the slumber partyers as they change into their pajamas, Jones essentially retards the inherent titillation factor by having the boys speak and act in such a childish manner throughout (“I don’t think we’ve been giving Kim the attention she deserves!”) that it seems as if she is chiding an assumed male viewer.

The Slumber Party Massacre is a fascinating relic of a bygone era, the era of my own vanished youth. Although, like most Corman-produced movies of its time, its initial theatrical release was extremely limited, the film gained new life on home video. At the dawn of the VHS era, when horror movies lived and died by their video box art, the clever VHS-cover artwork for The Slumber Party Massacre soon made the film a cult hit. Although I was a young horror movie aficionado in the mid-1980s and remember the VHS cover very well, I somehow never managed to see the film itself until a couple years ago when it was released as part of a triple-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory (alongside of its inevitable and inferior sequels). I immediately recognized it as the very best of the post-Halloween slashers, not only for its feminist critique but for its goofy humor and warmth as well. Unlike most movies of its kind, The Slumber Party Massacre refuses to have contempt for its characters and portrays them as a group of fun and likable girls instead. This is epitomized by my favorite scene in the film: the hapless heroines, expecting a pizza delivery, open the front door of Trish’s home only to find the delivery boy standing there, dead, with his eyes drilled out. A few minutes later, one of the girls touches his lifeless corpse and remarks that it’s cold. “But is the pizza?” asks another, who then promptly opens the cardboard box and begins to enjoy a slice. Every time I watch the film I feel something like a sense of love for both that character (I would’ve done the same thing, sister!) as well as the women who created her.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Playtime (Tati)
2. An Affair to Remember (McCarey)
3. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
4. Mon Oncle (Tati)
5. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati)
6. Body and Soul (Rossen)
7. Unforgiven (Eastwood)
8. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer)
9. Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier)
10. Citizen Kane (Welles)

2014 European Union Film Festival Preview, Pt. 2

Here is the second part of my preview of this year’s European Union Film Festival. The full lineup can be found on the website of the Gene Siskel Film Center here:

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Rivers/Russell, Estonia/France, 2013)
Rating: 9.1


I’m not sure if this should qualify as an “Estonian” entry in the EU Film Fest — the co-directors, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, hail from the U.S. and the U.K., respectively — and most of it was shot in Scandinavia, yet any excuse for the Siskel Center to show an experimental film this masterful is a good one. It begins with one of the most incredible images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in some time: an epic panning shot of a Finnish landscape, first from right to left, then from left to right, as the last traces of sunlight disappear from the night sky. As the screen grows increasingly dark, a band of hilly forest becomes nothing more than a thick, black horizontal line separating the midnight blue of the sky in the top of the frame from the same shade of color as the lake in the bottom of the frame. After this auspicious prologue, Rivers and Russell’s film moves through three distinct movements: a bearded, tattooed black man who never speaks (Chicago musician Robert A.A. Lowe) commingles with the members of an international hippie commune in Estonia, explores by himself the remote wilds of Finland, and performs a concert with a “black metal” band at a club in Oslo, Norway. The substructure binding these three segments together is the theme of man’s desire for transcendence by returning to a primordial state, whether that means trying to create a utopian society from scratch, communing with nature a la Thoreau, or losing oneself in the primal screams and jackhammer rhythms of the most extreme of musical genres. Although I am no fan of black metal, I found myself utterly transfixed by the final 20-minute concert sequence, which is shot from the stage in long takes and features extreme close-ups of the musicians and their instruments. The viewer’s immersion in the music during this climactic scene is total — to witness it is to feel that one has jumped into the abyss. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness screens on Thursday, March 13.

The Stuart Hall Project (Akomfrah, England, 2013)
Rating: 6.8

A BFI Release

The acclaimed British documentarian John Akomfrah tackles the important British cultural theorist and founding member of the “New Left” Stuart Hall in this innovative non-fiction feature. Akomfrah eschews new talking-head interviews, voice-over narration and explanatory title cards in favor of only using Hall’s own radio and television appearances to tell the story of the man’s life and work. These archival appearances and interviews are interspersed with documentary footage of England and Jamaica (where Hall was born) as well as, more intriguingly, extended musical excerpts from the catalogue of Miles Davis (with whom Hall had a lifelong infatuation). The end result of this dense interweaving of texts is a film that fascinatingly resembles the contrapuntal rhythms of jazz music itself. Akomfrah’s methods, however, also have their limitations: his deliberate choice to not use more traditional non-fiction filmmaking techniques to impart information means that viewers don’t learn as much as they might have about either Hall specifically or the field of Cultural Studies in general. Though one could argue, I suppose, that this movie will at least serve to point those who want to learn more in the right direction. The Stuart Hall Project screens on Friday, March 14 and Wednesday, March 19.

Pretty Butterflies (Mereu, Italy, 2012)
Rating: 8.3


I tend to think of Sardinia as a vacation spot for wealthy tourists but Pretty Butterflies, director Salvatore Mereu’s gritty and powerful adaptation of a novel by Sergio Atzeni, shows off a distinctively seamier side of Cagliari, the Mediterranean island’s capital. A remarkable portrait of a teeming working-class neighborhood, Mereu’s film centers primarily on 11-year-old Cate (Sara Podda) and her best friend, Luna (Maya Mulas), and their misadventures over a span of two days: the girls — who may also be sisters — visit the beach, rip off a young man who solicits them for sex, eat copious amounts of ice cream, avoid predators at every turn, and half-heartedly look for Cate’s older brother in order to talk him out of murdering another local boy. By focusing on pre-adolescent characters who have had to grow up too fast, Mereu illustrates how the world can be a terrible and scary place; and yet, because the friendship between Cate and Luna is so tight, and because they seem so indomitable as characters, this movie is also gratifyingly full of unexpected humor and warmth. As a director, Mereu makes some intriguing stylistic decisions: he occasionally rewinds and pauses shots seemingly at random, and has Cate continually break the fourth wall to directly address the camera. But, even if you find these quirky choices at odds with the naturalistic dialogue and performances, you will probably be glad he didn’t go down the tired pseudo-documentary route. This is singularly pungent and unforgettable stuff. Pretty Butterflies screens on Sunday, March 23 and Thursday, March 27.

Those Happy Years (Luchetti, Italy, 2013)
Rating: 7.4


Director Daniele Luchetti returns to the subject matter of his acclaimed 2007 film My Brother Is an Only Child for another look back at the dynamics of an Italian family in the 1970s. Those Happy Years, however, is more personal than political: young Dario (Samuel Garofalo) is the director’s alter-ego, exploring his budding desire to make movies after he receives the gift of a Super-8 camera, a story that is juxtaposed against that of the marital troubles of his parents. Dario’s father, Guido (Kim Rossi Stuart), is a philandering artist dealing with a disastrously received exhibition while his mother, Serena (Micaela Ramazzotti), explores Italy’s burgeoning feminist movement as well as her own repressed lesbian desires. This modest and winning film offers a poignant reminder that we often realize our happiest moments only in hindsight; and the cutting satire of the art world on display is, for my money, far more effective than in Paolo Sorrentino’s overrated The Great Beauty — mainly because Luchetti doesn’t seem like he’s Zeus judging his artist-characters from on top of Mount Olympus. Those Happy Years screens on Sunday, March 30 and Wednesday, April 2.

2014 European Union Film Festival Preview, Pt. 1

The 17th edition of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival kicks off this Friday, March 7, and runs through April 3rd. While the 2014 EU Film Fest may lack the brand-name auteurs of last year’s edition (e.g., Resnais, Bellocchio, Von Trotta, etc.), it more than makes up for it with a significant number of substantial works by exciting younger directors, some of whom are represented by their first features (including Ramon Zurcher’s astonishing The Strange Little Cat, my favorite film of the entire festival). There are extra credit opportunities available for my students if they attend any of the EU Film Fest screenings. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more details. The full lineup (along with ticket info and showtimes) can be found here:

Below are previews for four of the most noteworthy films playing in the festival’s first week. I will be including previews of four more titles next week as well.

Child’s Pose (Netzer, Romania, 2013)
Rating: 6.8


Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, Calin Peter Netzer’s take on the intersection of familial love and thorny moral choices plays at times like a parody of a Romanian New Wave movie: there’s a tragic inciting event, unusually jittery camerawork, extreme realism in the dialogue and acting departments, a complete absence of non-diegetic music, and an almost clinical examination of bureaucratic processes. The tragedy revolves around an elderly mother’s attempts to prevent her ungrateful son from being charged with manslaughter after he is responsible for a car accident that kills a pedestrian. The scenario is sufficiently complex and intelligent, and Luminita Gheorghiu gives a tour de force performance as the domineering mother, but Netzer’s style of shooting and cutting is overly busy at best and visually sloppy at worst: his handheld camera continually jumps back and forth across the 180-degree axis, even during basic dialogue scenes, robbing his film of a coherent sense of place and sapping the drama of its power. I should point out that the greatest of the contemporary Romanian directors, Corneliu Porumboiu, is also represented in this festival with his When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism; alas, I had not yet seen it as of press time. Child’s Pose screens on Saturday, March 8.

The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013)
Rating: 9.4


Impossible to accurately describe, the strikingly original and primarily non-narrative The Strangle Little Cat is the best German film I’ve seen in years. This is the kind of movie that has no stars, no name director and no trendy subject matter, yet is destined to win a large cult of fans based solely on word of mouth in regards to how amazing it is as a piece of filmmaking. The members of an extended family gather together in an apartment and, over the course of a single day, engage in various activities: fixing a washing machine, conducting an experiment with orange peels, sharing a meal, etc. Like a miniature version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, however, this movie is really about space and time, order and chaos, images and sounds, and the relationships between people and objects. Everything seems precisely choreographed yet elements of chance undoubtedly come into play, especially where the family’s cat and dog (the ultimate non-actors) are concerned. Several of the characters tell mundane stories, like one where a woman describes a man accidentally touching her foot with his in a movie theater, that are then illustrated by flashback sequences — even though nothing about these stories seems momentous enough to warrant the use of the flashback technique. This in and of itself becomes hilarious, and strangely poignant, like much of the rest of the film. A deceptively intimate masterpiece of cosmic wonder, The Strange Little Cat screens on Saturday, March 8 and Wednesday, March 12.

What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal, 2013)
Rating: 7.7


Director Joaquin Pinto, a former associate of Manoel de Olveira and Raul Ruiz, trained an intimate digital camera on himself and his partner Nuno Leonel for an entire year. The result is this formidable essay film in the vein of Chris Marker that also functions as a testament to the continuing importance of Portuguese art cinema. Pinto’s main subject is his experience taking experimental drugs designed to combat HIV and Hepatitis C, both of with he has been living with for decades. Along the way, Pinto provides poetic and philosophical reflections via voice-over narration to accompany scenes of him and Leonel visiting the hospital, playing with their dogs, working on their farm and even making love. A good example of Pinto’s wit and broad frame of reference can be found in a scene where he’s exploring a cave and intones that “We are living through sad times. In the shadow of the Flintstones, and of a doctor obsessed with the sexuality of the Viennese bourgeoisie.” The most moving aspect of this doc, however, is the use of insert shots of insects and animals (a yellow jacket eating a hamburger, a dragonfly at rest, a slug crawling through the mud, a bee expiring), all of which underscore the theme of the ephemeral nature of existence. Having said all that, I’m not sure the two hour and 44 minute running time is entirely justified. What Now? Remind Me screens on Saturday, March 8 and Wednesday, March 12.

Ida (Pawlikowski, Poland, 2013)
Rating: 7.2


Ida, the first movie I’ve seen by the well-regarded Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, piqued my interest mainly because of the truckload of awards it took home from last year’s film festival circuit (including the prestigious FIPRESCI International Critics Award in Toronto). It’s a good movie but I don’t think it’s quite as good as its reputation suggests. On the plus side, the black-and-white cinematography is austerely beautiful, the performances are uniformly excellent and John Coltrane figures prominently on the soundtrack. On the other hand, the original screenplay (written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) recycles a lot of ideas familiar from other European art films: the novitiate nun who questions her resolve on the eve before taking her vows, an investigation into a family history shrouded in secrecy, the revelation of shocking war crimes related to the Nazi Occupation, etc. This is well done for what it is and will probably reward those with a vested interest in the subject matter; just don’t expect anything that feels particularly vital or new. Ida screens on Sunday, March 9 and Wednesday, March 12.

Last Thoughts on Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais


Learning of the recent passing of directors Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis was, for a number of reasons, particularly painful for me. In a weird way, these two great artists, so seemingly different on the surface, were always linked together in my mind: following the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was “the arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others that they are not crazy in the bargain. But the affinity between the whip-smart creators of these movies goes deeper than that. Resnais was a critical darling frequently characterized as “cerebral” and “intellectual” but he had a poppier side that was often sadly overlooked. (He was fond of comic books and Stephen Sondheim, and his love of The X-Files directly resulted in a fruitful collaboration with Mark Snow, the composer of that show’s theme song.) Ramis received a kind of grudging critical respect for being a successful-but-vulgar showman and yet his films also explored serious philosophical issues that went unremarked upon at the time of their initial release. Alain Resnais was one of the last living links to a heroic era of European art cinema and Harold Ramis was one of the last remaining “good guys” directing for the major Hollywood studios. The world now feels like a much emptier place without them.

Jack Black and Michael Cera in Columbia Pictures' comedy YEAR ONE.

Harold Ramis’s death ended up being the occasion that got me to recently watch his final film, the Jack Black-starring caveman-comedy Year One. Even though I was a fan of Ramis when it was released in 2009, I had foolishly avoided seeing it in theaters due to its mostly negative critical reception. After having a rough couple of days in which I found myself feeling creatively and professionally unfulfilled, however, my wife and I finally decided to watch Year One last night — and found ourselves laughing uproariously through the whole thing. Of course, the Mel Brooks-inspired effort has its share of fart and piss jokes but the director of Groundhog Day also managed to slip in a sly and resonant message about the importance of not following leaders and being the master of one’s own destiny. Ramis, who once rhetorically asked of those who preferred movies that didn’t make them think, “Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?,” was making smart comedies that were ahead of their time until the end. In a neat coincidence, I also recently saw Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s masterful experimental film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which contains the loveliest tribute to Ramis imaginable (even if it was unintentional): in a documentary segment set in a hippie commune in rural Estonia, a young woman lifts up her Animal House t-shirt to breastfeed her baby while simultaneously engaging a male friend in a philosophical dialogue about how to make the world a better place. “The world needs more parties,” the woman decides. Her intellectual companion concurs, noting that “parties are autonomous zones.” I’d like to think that, somewhere, the author of Animal House is smiling.


Last August, Harold Ramis’s wife, Erica Mann Ramis, was a guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College. She graciously allowed me to interview her in front of the class, sat through a screening of a documentary she had produced about the Joffrey Ballet (which she’d probably seen 500 times) and participated in a question and answer session with the students afterwards. She acted both surprised and pleased when I told her how much I loved her husband’s unheralded black comedy The Ice Harvest. She told me she was going to tell him I said that, and I really hope she did because — even though he was super-famous for playing Egon in Ghostbusters — he never really got the critical respect that he deserved as a director. My thoughts go out to Erica and the entire Ramis family. You can read my interview with her here:

You can see my personal photo tour of the Woodstock, Illinois locations featured in Groundhog Day here:


Prior to screening Last Year at Marienbad, I told my Perspectives on Film class that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?

In my list of the 50 Best Living Film Directors, from which he has just been removed, this is what I had written of Alain Resnais:

Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’s output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’s status as a giant of the medium.

Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)

Alain Resnais’s final film, Life of Riley, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, where it won the prestigious Silver Bear award. One hopes that it will receive stateside distribution soon.

You can read my long review of Resnais’s penultimate movie, the splendid You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, here:


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