Monthly Archives: November 2015

Review Roundup: QUEEN OF EARTH and THE MEND

Here are reviews of two of my favorite American indies — Queen of Earth and The Mend — to turn up in Chicago in 2015. These capsules originally appeared at Cine-File in September.


Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH (New American)
Rating: 8.5

If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that there is no landscape more wondrous than that of the human face. In a much-remarked upon shot in LISTEN UP PHILIP, Alex Ross Perry’s formidable previous film, the camera held on Elisabeth Moss’s visage in close-up as she silently ran through a gamut of emotions, a single long take that constituted a welcome interlude of radical empathy in a film otherwise deliberately brimming with unpleasantness. In a way, QUEEN OF EARTH, Perry’s fourth and best feature to date, picks up where that shot in PHILIP left off: with an extraordinarily gripping close-up of Moss’s tear-stained, mascara-smeared face, as her character, Catherine, confronts her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), about his infidelity in the immediate wake of her father’s suicide. This double whammy of misfortune soon sends the New York City-bred Catherine packing for a lakeside retreat with her childhood friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) in order to take stock of her life and perhaps engage in a little female bonding. Things don’t go according to plan, however, as Catherine slowly becomes mentally unglued over the course of a week’s ostensible “R & R.” While large swaths of this film’s dialogue would not have felt out of place in either of Perry’s previous two films, acerbic comedies marked by extremely literary screenplays (2014’s LISTEN UP PHILIP and 2011’s THE COLOR WHEEL), the particular context of who is speaking to whom, and where, pushes the content here into a very different and welcome direction–the realm of psychological horror. While Perry freely assimilates influences from both the “high” (e.g., PERSONA, REPULSION, etc.) and “low” (e.g., CARNIVAL OF SOULS, LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, etc.) ends of the cinematic spectrum, QUEEN OF EARTH resonates not because it’s any kind of post-modern pastiche but because of what it has to say about real-world human psychology. In particular, Perry taps into universal fears and anxieties about class privilege and nepotism (with the epithet of “spoiled brat” being pointedly hurled back and forth between the female leads). Ultimate interpretations will vary wildly from viewer to viewer (Are the main characters two halves of a single personality? Are the “present-day” scenes a twisted revenge fantasy being projected by Ginny at the conclusion of the “flashbacks?”); I suggest catching a matinee with a friend and afterwards doing coffee, over which you may want to extensively theorize about What It All Means. Director Alex Ross Perry and Producer Joe Swanberg in person at the 7 and 9:30pm Saturday screenings. (2015, 90 min, DCP Digital) MGS

John Magary’s THE MEND (New American)
Rating: 8.6

There are aspects of THE MEND that will seem familiar to anyone acquainted with the microbudget American filmmaking scene of the 2010s: the New York City-apartment locations, the white thirty-something urban professional characters, naturalistic dialogue and acting, and a near-plotless series of caustically funny scenes examining the tensions that arise between lovers, friends, and siblings. This is also precisely why any attempts to describe this first feature by writer/director John Magary make it difficult to convey how much it distinguishes itself through formal mastery and narrative ingenuity. From the controlled chaos of the opening scene–a daringly elliptical and fast-paced montage depicting the protagonist, Mat (Josh Lucas), first fucking then fighting with his girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), immediately after wrestling on the couch with her pre-adolescent son, Ronnie (Cory Nichols)–THE MEND establishes itself as a film of uncommon originality and aesthetic diversity. Like Arnaud Desplechin, a director he admires, Magary resorts to nearly every stylistic trick in the book in order to best aid the atmosphere of a given scene–an “anything goes” approach that sees him alternating between handheld camerawork and smooth tracking shots, long takes and brisk cutting, irising in and out (as in a silent film), and peppering the action with a seemingly incongruous, dissonant orchestral score (the kind that Mathieu Chabrol used to compose for his father Claude), which lends this ostensible comedy/drama the flavor of a thriller and makes nearly every scene seem full of potential violence. Of course, there’s nothing inherently virtuous about such a crazy-quilt mixture of moods and stylistic flourishes but the approach is wholly appropriate when applied to this particular subject matter: the competitive, occasionally toxic, love/hate relationship between two brothers. The older brother, the asshole-ish Mat, is a mooching, couch-surfing hipster with vague plans to incorporate his “web design” business. The younger brother, Alan (Stephen Plunkett), is a burgeoning yuppie with his own apartment and fiancé, who would appear to have his life together. Much of the fun to be had in watching THE MEND comes from observing the expert performances of Lucas and Plunkett, who infinitely complicate the initial impressions their characters make even as the film studiously avoids anything resembling a conventional resolution. (2014, 111 min, Unconfirmed Format) MGS



Cool Apocalypse in the Press


My film Cool Apocalypse screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, November 21, at 8pm and Monday, November 23, at 8:15pm. I will be on hand along with producer Clare Kosinski and members of the cast for Q&As after both screenings. Here is a roundup of some of our notable mentions in the press this week.

  • Donald Liebenson profiled us at
  • Ray Pride reviewed us — and made us a “Recommended” screening — at Newcity Chicago.
  • Scott Pfeiffer has a thoughtful and detailed analysis at his Moving World blog.
  • Ian Simmons implores his readers to attend our Siskel Center screenings at Kicking the Seat.
  • Lew Ojeda gave us a nice write-up at The Underground Multiplex.
  • David J. Fowlie has an insightful rave at Keeping It Reel.
  • Pam Powell gave us our first official print review with this nice piece at The Daily Journal.
  • Leo Brady says he’d feel alright watching our movie if the end of the world was on its way at A Movie Guy.
  • And finally, because Cine-File Chicago’s “Cine-List” will not be posted on their website this week (and is only being sent out via e-mail instead), here’s Kian S. Bergstrom’s Cine-File review of Cool Apocalypse in its entirety:

“Michael Glover Smith’s COOL APOCALYPSE (New American)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 8pm and Monday, 8:15pm

CRUCIAL VIEWING. Early into COOL APOCALYPSE, two of the four main characters appear on a CTA train, the windows washed out by light. He, Paul, is reading Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales in paperback; she, Julie, is reading an unseen title on a Kindle. They’re facing opposite directions, and a man sits between them, gazing out at the Chicago skyline and listening to music, earbuds jammed tightly into his head. His shirt is emblazoned with the slogan ‘Real Life Recess: Real Life Can Wait.’ We will never see the mystery man again—he doesn’t even appear in the end credits. The shot lasts just a few short seconds, but it is the heart of the movie. The characters in COOL APOCALYPSE are all waiting for their lives to start, are all pending in important ways, are all on recesses of different kinds. They dwell within their city but do not experience it, going only to restaurants they’ve already been to, driving each other on long-delayed errands, circling the block rather than parking, looking out at the lake through glass, at the world from a porch, at other people through camera lenses. Paul, an unpublished writer, makes coffee using a French press, listening to the same album on vinyl every morning, proudly doesn’t own a computer, and works at a used book store ‘just to pay the bills.’ His roommate, Claudio, is an unemployed videographer nursing a bitter streak and holding on to a desperate hope his far more successful fashion journalist ex-girlfriend, Tess, will return to him. A day away from a three-month assignment in Italy, Tess earns her living by ambushing strangers on the street with a camera crew and asking them about their clothes. Finally, Julie, a receptionist at a women’s health clinic next door to Paul’s bookstore, is a compulsive list-maker with a detailed set of criteria, under constant revision, for who ‘the man of her dreams’ might be. Over the course of COOL APOCALYPSE, a simple, elegant set of scenes plays out, usually at great length, as Julie and Paul meet, Paul invites Julie to the farewell dinner Claudio is making for Tess, and Claudio attempts to woo Tess back to his bed. On the surface, the interactions are charming: unforced, vulnerable, and sincere. But at all times there is the aura of helplessness, of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Tess and Claudio may still love each other, but can never be together; Paul and Claudio’s relationship devolves into threats and silence; Tess and Julie share an intimate moment, but one marked stylistically as an important aberration; Julie and Paul may feel a connection growing, but it is a curtailed, stunted one, a doom signaled in two different ways (the subtext of a song, the geography of a kiss). In that brief shot on the CTA near the beginning of the movie, Paul and Julie are lost to the world around them, lost to the city they live in, broken in two by a man they’ll never know. It’s all over between them and they haven’t even met yet. Michael Glover Smith, a film critic and first-time-feature writer-director, fills his frames with unsettling, eerie compositions, making the familiar north-side setting a space of discomfort, awkwardness, and off-kilter rhythms, and his actors, especially Julie’s Nina Ganet and Tess’s Chelsea David, build their characters in disarming, self-aware gestures, expressions, and line-readings, always balancing exactly between the naturalistic and the forced. A strong debut for a major new talent. Smith and select cast and crew in person at both screenings. (2014, 72 min., DCP Digital) KB”

You can purchase tickets for the Siskel Center screenings online here. Hope to see some of you there!


The Mafia Only Kills in Summer is a black comedy/drama about la cosa nostra that marks the promising directorial debut of Italian television personality Pif. I reviewed it for Cine-File when it played at Facets back in April — at a time when a lot of American critics were treating it as nothing more than lightweight, sub-Benigni piffle. I still think that, in spite of its surface accessibility and sentimentality, there’s a lot more going on than most stateside critics gave it credit for.


Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s THE MAFIA ONLY KILLS IN SUMMER (New Italian)
Rating: 7.1

Films produced outside the U.S. that qualify as mainstream entertainment are in such short supply in American movie theaters today that many Americans are under the mistaken impression that “foreign films” and “art films” are somehow synonymous. It is therefore refreshing to see a popular Italian comedy like THE MAFIA ONLY KILLS IN SUMMER receiving U.S. distribution even if, in spite of the movie’s broad comedic and sentimental flourishes, the requisite English subtitles guarantee that it will be relegated to the arthouse ghetto. Television personality-turned-filmmaker Pierfrancesco Diliberto (better known as “Pif”) co-wrote, directed and stars in this first feature, a winning satire set in his native Palermo that daringly uses the city’s high-profile mafia wars from the 1970s through the 1990s as the real backdrop to a fictional love story. The premise is that Arturo (played by Alex Bisconti as a child and Pif as an adult) is a naïve klutz and aspiring journalist whose lifelong pursuit of his ideal, the beautiful Flora (Ginevra Antona/Cristiana Capotondi), is mirrored at every turn by real mob hits, the aftermath of which is frequently shown in archival news clips. Such jarring juxtapositions of silly comedy and gruesome tragedy have invited criticisms of bad taste but the more the film goes on, the more one realizes that its deceptively cloying, FORREST GUMP-esque approach to history conceals an expression of genuine rage towards mafiosi who perpetrate acts of senseless violence as well as the politicians and ordinary citizens of Palermo who turn a blind eye toward them. In the end, THE MAFIA ONLY KILLS IN SUMMER is not only an entertaining film but an important act of political defiance; among the closing credits is a statement that the film was made without paying “protection money,” an anomaly in Sicily where the “Cosa Nostra” still extorts hundreds of millions of dollars from local businesses annually. (2013, 90 min, Unconfirmed Format) MGS

WCCRH Episode 4: Talking David Lynch with Rob Christopher


The fifth episode of the White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast is now online. I sat down to talk about the career of the great David Lynch with Chicago film critic and filmmaker Rob Christopher (whose debut feature, the 20-years-in-the-making Pause of the Clock, recently had a rapturous reception at its world premiere at the Denver Film Festival). Rob and I discuss Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s relationships with collaborators Mark Frost and Barry Gifford, and Lynch’s influence on Pause of the Clock. You can listen to the episode here.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Li’l Quinquin (Dumont)
2. Sherlock Holmes (Berthelet)
3. Breathless (Godard)
4. Breathless (Godard)
5. Les Vampires (Feuillade)
6. Je t’aime, je t’aime (Resnais)
7. Entertainment (Alverson)
8. 3-Iron (Kim)
9. Dogfight (Savoca)
10. Hoop Dreams (James)

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
2. Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (Bjorkman)
3. Dragon Inn (Hu)
4. Memories of Murder (Bong)
5. Groundhog Day (Ramis)
6. My Winnipeg (Maddin)
7. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
8. Let the Right One In (Alfredson)
9. In Jackson Heights (Wiseman)
10. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)

Review Roundup: HARD TO BE A GOD and NEAR DEATH

The following reviews, the two I had the most difficulty writing in 2015, originally appeared at Cine-File back in June:

hard to be a god2

Aleksey German’s HARD TO BE A GOD (New Russian)

The “silence of God” has been a popular theme of serious artists working in different mediums for centuries but Russian filmmaker Aleksey German, adapting a sci-fi novel by the Strugatskiy Brothers, apparently found a completely original way to explore this concept in his final film (he died in post-production and HARD TO BE A GOD was completed by his wife and son): many years in the future, a scientist from Earth named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) is sent to observe life on the distant planet Arkanar, a place that happens to bear a strong resemblance to Europe during the Middle Ages (i.e., it’s a pre-industrial society where everyone is living in filth and misery, intellectuals are persecuted and human cruelty and stupidity are generally on display everywhere). The Arkanarians regard Rumata as a “God” but the more enlightened man is, for obscure reasons, not allowed to help the members of this alien race transcend the venality and backwardness in which their lives are mired. Some of this narrative information is explained via a sparse voice-over but most of it has to be inferred from a barrage of ugly, non-narrative images that are so rich in putrid detail that they attain a kind of mesmerizing, hallucinatory beauty. Indeed it is practically impossible to capture German’s painterly mise-en-scene using words; suffice it to say that the immersive HARD TO BE A GOD feels like some kind of scatological remix of ANDREI RUBLEV where the plentiful blood, piss, shit, and vomit of the characters commingles with the endless rain and fog of the locations they inhabit, which, when captured by the low-contrast black-and-white cinematography, creates images that resemble moving charcoal drawings in their thick, gray, tactile textures. While the use of an endlessly mobile camera and the sense of lives constantly bustling beyond the edges of the frame will be familiar to those who have seen German’s previous film–the equally formidable but more absurdist KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR!–the overall tone here is closer to something like SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM in its unbearable bleakness. It is unlikely that either Pasolini or German knew these movies would be their last but the extremism with which they approached form and content lends each film the feeling of a final testament in hindsight; when creating a work of art entails jumping into an abyss, sometimes no encore is imaginable. (2013, 170 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Frederick Wiseman’s NEAR DEATH (Documentary Revival)

Legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman is famous for his thoroughness and objectivity even if he’s not quite as unimpeachable in these areas as some of his partisans claim; 2013’s AT BERKELEY, for instance, gave surprisingly short shrift to the title university’s professors while letting its administrators ramble on forever. 1989’s NEAR DEATH, however, has both of these qualities in spades and is a monumental achievement of the documentary form. The rare opportunity of seeing it projected on 16mm in its six-hour entirety should make for one of the most important local film events of the year (it has never, in fact, been projected on celluloid in Chicago at all). This screening, which will occur at Chicago Filmmakers, is an encore to the ambitious, recently-concluded Doc Films series “Frederick Wiseman: An Institution” programmed by Beguiled Cinema (aka the Chicago Reader’s Ben Sachs and Cine-File’s own Kat Sachs). NEAR DEATH takes as its subject the medical intensive care unit of Boston’s Beth Israel hospital but, unlike many of Wiseman’s most well-known films, does not focus on the organizational/bureaucratic aspects of the hospital as “institution” (Wiseman already made that film with 1970’s HOSPITAL). Instead, the narrow and immersive focus here is, as the title implies, on the human dynamics between terminally ill patients and their loved ones and the doctors and nurses who care for them. While the epic length might seem daunting to those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s work, the running time is not only justified but ends up feeling practically required by the subject matter, and the experience of watching the film is as easy as breathing (Errol Morris has even said that he thinks it is too short). Wiseman presents the ICU as a kind of self-enclosed world and structures the film around lengthy passages devoted primarily to three different intubated patients, all of whom are experiencing various degrees of internal-organ failure. These interior scenes are occasionally punctuated by shots of the mundane world outside—cars in traffic, a Citgo gas station sign—that only serve to heighten the hermetic, sealed-off quality of the ICU. Wiseman’s distanced, observational camera is aided by the Academy aspect ratio and grainy, black-and-white film stock, both of which reduce the amount of visual information available to the viewer—purifying the images and allowing one to focus on what’s most important: Wiseman’s profound exploration of ethical questions (chiefly, to what extent is it worth keeping someone alive who has no quality of life left?) as well as the emotions swirling around the circumstances of the dying patients, an approach that ends up feeling exhaustive. Seemingly every perspective on the sometimes-harrowing subject is covered and the middle third of the film is taken up by a particularly gripping series of scenes where two doctors have differing interpretations of whether an elderly female stroke victim who has difficulty communicating is telling them that she does or does not want to be resuscitated. The most emotional scenes, however, are saved for last, as the grieving wife of a man suffering from lung disease has a couple of long conversations with one Dr. Taylor, a man so compassionate and patient that he will singlehandedly increase your respect for the medical profession. (1989, 358 min, 16mm) MGS

WCCRH Episode 4: Kent Jones and Charles Burnett

“I fucking love Love Actually.”
– Kent Jones to me, 10/26/15


The fourth episode of my White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast is now online and I think it’s the most exciting episode yet. It features interviews with two of the most prominent guests at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival (both of whom are also personal heroes): first, I talk to film critic, filmmaker and New York Film Festival programming director Kent Jones about his new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. Then I speak to the legendary Charles Burnett about his long career and the new restoration of To Sleep with Anger. You can listen to the episode here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Assassin (Hou)
2. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock)
3. A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim)
4. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)
5. Cooley High (Schultz)
6. Detour (Ulmer)
7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
8. Peppermint Candy (Lee)
9. Cemetery of Splendor (Weersethakul)
10. Nowhere to Hide (Lee)

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