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Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. F for Fake (Welles)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
3. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)
4. Vagabond (Varda)
5. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
6. Listen Up Philip (Perry)
7. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Craig)
8. Alien (Scott)
9. The Unspeakable Act (Sallitt)
10. I Walked with a Zombie (Tourneur)

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50th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card, pt. 1

Here is the first part of my 50th CIFF report card, including the best films I saw at the fest — with ratings of 7.5 or higher — and featuring four new capsule reviews (of Winter Sleep, Clouds of Sils Maria, Of Horses and Men and It Follows). Part two, detailing films rated 7.4 or lower, will follow next week.

Timbuktu (Sissako, Mauritania/Mali) – Rating: 9.5. Review here.

The Babadook (Kent, Australia) – Rating: 9.2. Review here.

Winter Sleep (Ceylan, Turkey) – Rating: 8.8

winter

Nuri Bilge Ceylan follows up his 2011 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia with this impressive near-companion piece, a Chekhovian chamber drama that focuses on dialogue-driven interior scenes as much as the earlier movie did on its majestically filmed journey through the barren Turkish landscape at night. The central figure here is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a retired, middle-aged actor who runs a hotel in rural Anatolia with his pretty young wife, Nihal (Melisa Sözen), and his combative, recently divorced sister, Necla (Demet Akbag). The verbal sparring with which Aydin frequently engages both women serves to mask the disappointment he feels with himself over his inability to start his long-cherished dream project of writing a non-fiction account of the history of the Turkish theater. While some critics have complained that this year’s Jane Campion-led Cannes jury was only recognizing the longest film and not the best by bestowing Ceylan with the Palme d’Or, this does a disservice to his achievement; Winter Sleep does indeed require each one of its three hours and 16 minutes in order to fully illustrate Aydin’s predicament in both its tragedy and ridiculousness (the film is at times surprisingly funny), and no contemporary director has a better compositional eye than Ceylan, who was a professional photographer before he turned to filmmaking. Perhaps not as formally perfect as Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this is nonetheless a spellbinding experience–masterfully written, directed and performed.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas, France) – Rating: 8.5

clouds

This backstage drama, written and directed by Olivier Assayas based on an idea pitched to him by lead actress Juliette Binoche, comes frustratingly close to being the best thing the French director has ever done. Binoche channels her inner Gena Rowlands (and even dons oversized sunglasses in one scene) in her portrayal of legendary theatrical actress Maria Enders — an aging diva who returns to the play that made her famous 20 years earlier, only this time in a supporting part to up-and-coming star Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz). One expects Binoche to be phenomenal — and she is — so the real revelation here is Kristen Stewart as Valentine, Enders’s fiercely loyal personal assistant. The scenes of these two women running lines for the play, in between bouts of debating life, art and culture, crackle with an electrifying female energy, with Stewart fully holding her own against Binoche every step of the way. But Clouds of Sils Maria is also flawed by being overstuffed with ideas; in addition to making nods to All About Eve, Persona and Opening Night, Assaysas wants to send up tabloid-celebrity culture, and the scenes with Moretz are unfortunately pitched at a level of cartoonishness that doesn’t quite jive with the rest of the film. This is essential viewing but I can’t help but wonder what might have been with a more streamlined narrative, one in which Jo-Ann Ellis never appears onscreen.

The Iron Ministry (Sniadecki, USA/China) – Rating: 8.4. Review here.

Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson, Iceland) – Rating: 8.0

ofhorsesandmen

One of the unexpected gems of this year’s CIFF is this highly original comedy/drama about the relationships between horses and their owners in rural Iceland. The lives of several characters are slyly interwoven, chief among them a man (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who is mortified when his neighbors witness a stallion mounting his mare while he is still riding her. Each of the film’s episodes playfully begins with a shot of a human reflected in a horse’s eye in extreme close-up, a conceit that underscores the idea that these horses are silent witnesses to the folly of their stupid human owners. In other words, this is a lot like an absurdist-comedy version of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Gorgeously photographed and featuring a rousing score, Of Horses and Men marks first-time writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson as a talent to watch.

Miss Julie (Ullmann, Norway/Ireland) – Rating: 8.0. Review here.

It Follows (Mitchell, USA) – Rating: 7.6

itfollows

A high-school girl, Jay Height (Maika Monroe), sleeps with a young man she barely knows and soon finds herself being followed by a mysterious entity that takes the form of a succession of creepy strangers. Jay soon learns that she’s contracted a kind of sexually transmitted disease that will kill her unless she passes it on to another unsuspecting victim. David Robert Mitchell’s impressive fright fest has been making waves since its Cannes debut and, while I don’t think it’s a masterpiece on the order of The Babadook, it is exceedingly refreshing to see a new horror film that conjures a sense of dread primarily from its intelligent mise-en-scene: the use of sinuous tracking shots and zooms combines with depth-staging, a pounding, John Carpenter-esque synth score and Expressionist lighting (the climactic swimming-pool-at-night scene is straight out of Cat People) to create a potent big screen horror movie experience. While I don’t think writer/director David Robert Mitchell quite “sticks the landing” (the film doesn’t so much conclude as abruptly stop) genre aficionados can’t afford to pass this up.

Special mention for a short film:

Baby Mary (Swanberg, USA) – Review here.

To be continued . . .


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Girls on Liberty Street (Rangel)
2. Whiplash (Chazelle)
3. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
4. Shoals (Bass)
5. Husk (Simmons)
6. Empire Builder (Swanberg)
7. Fort Tilden (Bliss/Rogers)
8. It Follows (Mitchell)
9. Of Horses and Men (Erlingsson)
10. Clouds of Sils Maria (Assayas)


Odds and Ends: Creative Writing and Land Ho!

Creative Writing (Seth McClellan, USA, 2013) – Gene Siskel Film Center / Rating: 7.1

creative

Now here’s something novel: Chicago-area mass-communications professor Seth McClellan directed this loosely fictionalized drama, his impressive feature debut, based on a racially charged confrontation that happened in one of his creative writing classes. In a fascinating experiment that must have been cathartic for all involved, McClellan had the real-life principals (including himself) both contribute to the screenplay and play versions of themselves. Through a series of jazzy and dynamically intercut scenes, Creative Writing follows the individual lives of a small group of students: Tracy (Tracy Ewert) dreams of being a famous writer, Arlene (Arlene Torres) kills time by playing video games, Stephen (Stephen Styles) works for a realty company while also working towards his degree, and Mike (Michael Davis) has to contend with an Alzheimer’s-addled father (Dennis McNamara). The various stories converge when Mike, who is white, is mugged by an African American, an event that prompts the misguided young man to write and read aloud in class a racist short story in which he imagines exacting revenge. The cast of mostly non-professional actors do a uniformly fine job of giving naturalistic performances but McLellan, a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild who resembles a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, also wisely reserves the heavyweight dramatic moments for himself. Made on a shoestring budget but nicely shot in black-and-white digital, this is tough, provocative, honest and intelligent stuff.

Creative Writing screens three times at the Siskel Center between October 24 and October 30. Members of the cast and crew will be present for all screenings. Exact showtimes and ticket info can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

Land Ho! (Aaron Katz/Martha Stephens, USA/Iceland, 2014) – Music Box / Rating: 8.3

landho

I don’t want to oversell it — because the virtues of this low-key comedy are modest by design — but I enjoyed the hell out of every one of Land Ho!‘s breezy 94 minutes and left the theater wondering why I can’t see a new indie movie like this every week. This is the first film I’ve encountered from either of its two chief architects, Aaron Katz and Martha Stevens (a pair of American independents who have previously only worked separately), but it certainly won’t be the last. What’s perhaps most surprising here, in a movie full of pleasant surprises, is just how well these young writer/directors nail the poignant plight of senior citizens: the premise is that two elderly, recently retired former brothers-in-law, Kentuckian Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Australian Colin (Paul Eenhorn), take a spontaneous vacation to Iceland in order to “get their groove back.” The film pleasantly coasts by on the effortless charm of the two leads, whose personalities appropriately contrast with one another: Mitch is a gregarious old perv who smokes weed and regales anyone who will listen with dirty jokes and useless banter about Hollywood starlets; Colin is moodier and more introspective, still licking his wounds from a recent divorce. While descriptions of their interactions might sound like the worst kind formulaic Hollywood claptrap (e.g., Last Vegas), Katz and Stephens ingeniously refuse, at every turn, to bow to cliche. Neither of these dudes “learn anything” or “change” during their week-long sojourn, which makes the whole thing feel amusingly and gratifyingly life-like. Another plus: the ethereally beautiful landscapes of Iceland.

Following its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical run,
Land Ho! will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 4th.


Facets Kids App

I directed the official Kickstarter video for the new Facets Kids app, an invaluable new subscription service that will allow children to stream quality indie and foreign films. I had a lot of fun working with child actors for the first time and trying to create something whimsical in the style of Wes Anderson.

Facets is currently trying to raise $50,000 by November 22 for this very worthy cause and is offering a host of exciting perks for every donation level (including mentorships with filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, Steve James and Jill Godmilow). Please watch the video, check out the Kickstarter page and consider becoming a backer today:

Credits

Directed by Michael Glover Smith
Written by Josh Lebowitz
Cinematography and editing by Alex Halstead
Original score by Tony Green
Production design by Emily Railsback
Sound engineered by Grant Winship


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Creep (Brice)
2. The Fly (Cronenberg)
3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
4. St. Vincent (Melfi)
5. Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich)
6. The Midnight After (Chan)
7. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)
8. The Word (Kazejak)
9. The Babadook (Kent)
10. Miss Julie (Ullmann)


The Catastrophe at Terroir Film Night

terroir

My short film The Catastrophe, winner of the Best Dramatic Short at the Illinois International Film Festival in 2011, will be screening this Sunday night at the Red & White Wine Shop’s “Terroir Film Night.” Advertised as a “night of natural wines and local films,” this adventurous program curated by Emily Railsback will feature short “dark-themed” works by local filmmakers including Al Benoit, Larissa Berringer, Chris Hefner, Mark Winters, Railsback and yours truly.

According to Railsback, “Terroir can be very loosely translated as ‘a sense of place,’ which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Both wine and film are better when you understand their connection to the place they came from, thus: Terroir Film Night: A night of natural wines and local films at Red & White Wine Shop.”

Admission is $10. Or buy a bottle of wine / beer ($10 or more) to waive the entry fee. This includes a free Free Wine Tasting from 7 – 8pm and film screenings at 8pm.

For more info, check out the official facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1489707141278481/

Hope to see you there!


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