Monthly Archives: April 2016

Interview: Juliette Binoche on L’Attesa

l'atessaThis is the uncut version of my interview with Juliette Binoche, which appeared at the Time Out website today. A comparison of the two versions is instructive. Needless to say, I infinitely prefer the version published here (with Miss Binoche’s full remarks and fondness for the exclamation point intact).

French film icon Juliette Binoche is one of the world’s great actresses. She has won an Oscar (for The English Patient), starred opposite Johnny Depp in a rom-com (Chocolat) and worked with directors as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard (Hail Mary), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (The Flight of the Red Balloon) and Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy). Her latest film, L’Attesa (The Wait), is an unusually accomplished feature debut by the Italian writer/director Piero Messina, and features one of her finest performances to date. In this drama, Anna (Binoche) is mourning the untimely death of her son at her Italian villa when the son’s girlfriend, Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), arrives on vacation without knowing the bad news. The two women bond as Anna pretends her son is still alive and will be re-joining them for Easter.

I recently spoke to Binoche about the unique demands of the character and film, which opens in New York and L.A. this weekend via Oscilloscope Laboratories.

MGS: What was it about this story—and the grief-stricken character of Anna—that attracted you to the project?

JB: The magical thinking that Anna chooses to live in order to face the tragedy of her life, the loss of her son, was fascinating to me. She’s not able to say the truth, not because she’s manipulative, but because she cannot say those words: “He’s dead.” I resisted playing a woman losing her child after Blue, because my experience with Kieslowski was so joyful. Somehow I wanted to protect that memory. But when I met with Piero Messina, there was such an intelligence in his eyes, and a will in his way of talking that I was really tempted to make his first film.

MGS: Anna is almost always on-screen, but her motivations are often ambiguous. Why doesn’t she tell Jeanne the truth?

JB: It is probably impossible to imagine the pain it is to lose a child, and I can very well relate to the people who are inventing a sort of a space in them, in order to accept the loss. There might be an element of wanting to protect Jeanne from the pain, that is the reason why she invents a story that her son left with another girl. I don’t think Anna is perverse; she doesn’t know how to cope with her pain and loss. I was very keen to play moments where she’s willing, trying to say the truth, but she can’t. I hope the audience will be able to feel it.

MGS: In recent years you’ve worked with a lot of the world’s best directors: Hou Hisao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, David Cronenberg, Olivier Assayas, etc. How is working with veterans like these different than working with a first-time feature filmmaker like Messina?

JB: I considered from the beginning Piero as an experienced director. There’s no half way. If you’re behind the camera you have to know why you’re there, and be in the truth of the moment. It is like a dancer dancing in front of the audience, he or she has to be a dancer. We had a very straightforward and honest relationship on the set, he always said the truth as I did. The flow of the work was full and loving.

MGS: You and Lou de Laâge have some very emotional scenes together. How did you create the unique chemistry between you? 

JB: We never rehearsed before. Lou has this quality of being in the moment, with her ears opened as her eyes, there was no pushing. It came naturally between us. The silences made the relationship as she’s trying to figure out what is going on, why is her boyfriend not coming!

MGS: Your characters in both L’Attesa and Clouds of Sils Maria act as a kind of surrogate mother to another young woman. As an actress, is it important for you to explore the theme of female relationships?

JB: I never thought that in Sils Maria I’m a surrogate mother ! There’s an awkward seduction between the actress and her assistant because of the play they’re rehearsing. Here in L’Attesa, I don’t think that she’s a mother, I think that it is more of a chess game, how far can she go, how far can I avoid her questions. There’s an obvious complicity as well as some kind of distance, as the pain is playing around like a dark game. I love to play with any human being! I love exploring behaviors, feelings, thoughts and going through them with a full sensation!

MGS: I once read that after you saw Mauvais Sang, you told Leos Carax to never again photograph you like “the Madonna.” After Abel Ferrara’s Mary and now L’Attesa, do you feel the Virgin is following you around?

JB: The Virgin is always around, but our awareness makes the relationship different! The Virgin is the symbol of the Feminine in us, it is the mystery of life, it is always present, we just have to say hello to her!


L’Attesa opens on Friday, April 29 in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and LA at the Royal.


WCCRH Ep. 10: Kian Bergstrom & John Hancock / Talking Film Adaptations in Wilmette


Episode 12 of the White City Cinema Radio Hour is now online. The episode begins with me talking to the fine film critic — and my Cine-File comrade — Kian S. Bergstrom about the career of French New Wave giant Jacques Rivette (with a brief detour into discussing the work of Paul Verhoeven; if you ever wanted to hear my defend Showgirls, here’s your chance!). In the second half of the episode, Kian and I call director John Hancock and talk to him about his cult classic horror film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, which, incidentally, I will be hosting a screening of at Transistor Chicago on Saturday, May 28. Listen to the episode on buzzsprout here or via iTunes here.

More recently, on Sunday, May 1 at 2pm, I will be giving a talk at the Wilmette Public Library as part of the “One Book Everybody Reads” program, which is devoted this year to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo. My talk is titled “Turning Novels Into Films” and here is the synopsis I wrote for the library’s “Off the Shelf” newsletter:

Local film studies professor and author Michael Glover Smith discusses the challenges of adapting literature for the big screen. The presentation will feature films from Hollywood’s golden age through the present day, including clips from such acclaimed films as Nobody’s Fool, The Grapes of Wrath, and Wise Blood, focusing on how the art of adaptation has evolved through the decades.

Mel Brooks at the Chicago Theatre / Shirley Temple on Through the Decades


My latest Time Out Chicago blog post covers the upcoming screening of Blazing Saddles at the Chicago Theatre for which the legendary Mel Brooks will be present for an audience Q&A. I’m never allowed too much space at Time Out but it’s always fun sneaking in a little editorializing — in this case arguing that Brooks’ classic western spoof is superior to Quentin Tarantino’s similarly-themed Django Unchained. I also end the piece by making a joke that cracked even myself up. Check it out here.

In other news, I recently appeared on Through the Decades with Bill Kurtis, a very fine television program, for the third time. On this occasion I was asked to talk about Shirley Temple’s breakthrough performance in Fox’s 1934 musical/comedy/variety-show film Stand Up and Cheer!. My wife recorded my segment on her iPhone and you can watch it here:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Babushkas of Chernobyl (Bogart/Morris)
2. Love is Colder Than Death (Fassbinder)
3. The Green Ray (Rohmer)
4. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
5. Grey Gardens (Maysles/Maysles)
6. La Captive (Akerman)
7. Cool Apocalypse (Smith)
8. Another Day/Another Time (Wilcha)
9. La Nouvelle Vie (Grandrieux)
10. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)



The following review of Christmas, Again originally appeared at last December to coincide with its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film is now available to watch via various on demand platforms.

Charles Poekel’s CHRISTMAS, AGAIN (New American)
Gene Siskel Film Center

A lot of literal-minded folks have trouble with the line “It’s the coldest time of winter” in Merle Haggard’s Christmas song “If We Make It Through December,” unwilling or unable to accept that the Poet of the Common Man is referring to the emotional temperature of the season. Charles Poekel’s CHRISTMAS, AGAIN is a kind of cinematic analog to Haggard’s downbeat holiday classic, following the adventures of a pill-popping Christmas-tree salesman named Noel (Kentucker Audley) as he attempts to survive the last busy nights on the job leading up to December 25th without the aid of his former girlfriend, a crucial off-screen character whose absence from his life is never properly explained (Did she leave him? Did she die?). Filmmaking in a minor key, but by no means a minor film, Poekel’s winning first feature has great specificity of character and place, showing with a documentary-like attention to detail what it must be like for an upstate New Yorker to work a seasonal, blue-collar job in Brooklyn. What little narrative there is concerns Noel’s meeting a stranger named Lydia (Hannah Gross), a young woman passed out on a park-bench and missing a shoe, and giving her a place to sleep for the night. The potential romance between them is wisely kept at the level of possibility, a conceit that will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers while also gratifying those who believe that a little redemption goes a long way. Kentucker Audley’s quietly powerful lead performance offers a master-class in restrained melancholy, a quality aided immeasurably by the handheld 16mm cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who does wonders with nighttime exteriors and colored Christmas lights) and the expert editing of documentary filmmaker Robert Greene (ACTRESS). Poekel in person at the Friday and Saturday evening shows. (2014, 80 min, DCP) MGS

The following review of My Friend Victoria originally appeared at Time Out Chicago in December to coincide with the film’s Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center. It will be released soon on home video via Zeitgeist Films.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria, opening at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run this Friday, is the first great movie to receive a theatrical release in Chicago in 2016. Adapted from a Doris Lessing short story (but with the action transplanted from London to Paris), this astute slice-of-life drama functions as an uncommonly incisive critique of race, class and gender. The premise: In an emergency, Victoria (Guslagie Malanga), an orphan girl of African descent, spends the night by chance with a wealthy Parisian family, the Staveneys.

As a young adult, Victoria reconnects with the Staveneys, again by chance, and gives birth to a child by Thomas (Pierre Andrau), the family’s youngest son. The cautious way that the friendly, ostensibly liberal Staveneys interact with the alienated Victoria and their new biracial granddaughter, while always unfolding subtly and naturalistically as drama, reveals more about life in contemporary France than what one could find in any sociology textbook. Here, writer and director Civeyrac foregoes the small scale of his previous films—singular chamber dramas noted for their ambiguously supernatural overtones and uniquely dark, naturally lit interiors—in favor of a more expansive and realistic, though no less poetic, societal portrait.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Francofonia (Sokurov)
2. Malgre la Nuit (Grandrieux)
3. Breathless (Godard)
4. Dragon Inn (Hu)
5. Hail, Caesar! (Coen/Coen)
6. Irma Vep (Assayas)
7. White Epilepsy (Grandrieux)
8. Land and Shade (Acevedo)
9. Viaje (Fabrega)
10. Touki Bouki (Mambety)

The 32nd Chicago Latino Film Fest: Week Two

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago, concerning the second week of the Chicago Latino Film Festival, appeared two days ago. I’m not crazy about the way they edited my capsule review of the Colombian film Land and Shade, however, so I’m posting my original version in its entirety below.


The 32nd annual Chicago Latino Film Festival kicked off last Friday, April 8 and continues through Thursday, April 21. While my recommendations for last week were a pair of thrillers from Mexico and Ecuador, my best bets for the second week are a beautiful, unconventional love story from Costa Rica and a formally masterful art film about agrarian hardship from Columbia.

Viaje (Spanish for “Journey”) is my favorite film at this year’s CLFF and should be considered essential viewing for anyone looking for a great “date movie” this weekend. The second film from Costa Rican writer/director Paz Fabrega tells the deceptively simple story of a man and a woman who meet cute (and drunk) at a costume party, have a one-night stand then spontaneously decide to go camping for the weekend, all the while conversing about love, sex, relationships and the remote possibility of a future together. While American indies that cover similar terrain tend to either focus on Men Behaving Badly or filter their dialogue through several layers of hipster irony, Fabrega’s characters are refreshingly sincere and emotionally forthright. Imagine a sexier — and more female-centric — version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and you’ll have some idea of what Fabrega is up to in this charming and bittersweet two-hander.

Cesar Acevedo’s Land and Shade deservedly won the Camera d’Or (a prize given to first-time filmmakers) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival though its slow pace and use of daringly under-lit interiors won’t be for all tastes. More adventurous viewers, however, will be plenty rewarded by this quietly powerful drama about an elderly farmer returning to the family he had abandoned years before, reconnecting with his ex-wife and son (the latter of whom suffers from lung disease as a result of fires set to clear the sugar cane fields around them) and meeting his daughter-in-law and grandson for the first time. The tensions between the various family members are more hinted at than explicitly spelled out as the narrative expands to include documentary-like footage of sugar cane workers going on strike, which deftly sketches in the broader milieu.

Viaje screens Thursday, April 14 and Saturday, April 16. Land and Shade screens Saturday, April 16 and Wednesday, April 20. All screenings occur at AMC River East. For more info and showtimes, visit the Chicago Latino Film Festival website.

A Spring Breakers Photo Tour

While recently in St. Petersburg, FL on vacation, I had the opportunity to visit some prominent locations from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, one of my favorite American films of recent years. First, I headed to B&M Country Cooking, which “played” the chicken shack that three of the young female protagonists (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) rob in order to fund their spring-break excursion. The restaurant in the world of the film is located out-of-state but in reality it can be found in a working-class area of St. Pete. It’s also the subject of one of the film’s best shots: a Gun Crazy-like traveling shot from the P.O.V. of a getaway car as it circles the chicken shack while the robbery, which can be seen through the restaurant’s large plate-glass windows, is occurring inside.


Next I headed over to Sunshine Food and Gifts. This undistinguished convenience-store parking lot is where the three girls re-enact their crime for the benefit of their goody two-shoes friend (Selena Gomez). Hit me, baby, one more time!


Then I visited Lake Maggiore Park. This is the first stop where Alien, James Franco’s white rapper/drug-dealer character, takes the girls after springing them from prison.


Finally, I headed over to the Sirata Beach Resort. This arcade is depicted in the montage scene where Alien and the girls are robbing spring breakers to the strains of Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” Who can forget the blood spraying out of that extra’s mouth after Alien pistol-whips him in slow motion?


The 32nd Chicago Latino Film Festival: Week One

The Chicago Latino Film Festival returns to the AMC River East tonight. My best bets for the fest’s first week are a pair of thrillers from Mexico and Ecuador, respectively: Joe Houlberg’s Thirst and Isaac Ezbek’s The Similars. I had fun reviewing these films in my latest Time Out Chicago blog post and I had even more fun editorializing in the opening paragraph that “genre films” on the festival circuit rarely find the audience they deserve due to the popular misconception that attending a film fest is somehow akin to participating in the driest of academic conferences. I’ll have another post about my best bets for the fest’s second week next Friday.


The Similars screens Saturday, April 9 and Monday, April 11. Thirst screens Sunday, April 10 and Wednesday, April 13. All screenings occur at AMC River East. For more info and exact showtimes, visit the Chicago Latino Film Festival website.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Thirst (Houlberg)
2. Breathless (Godard)
3. Artists and Models (Tashlin)
4. The Similars (Ezban)
5. Band of Outsiders (Godard)
6. A Nos Amours (Pialat)
7. How Green Was My Valley (Ford)
8. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
9. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)
10. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette)

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