Monthly Archives: May 2016

Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights on Blu-ray / Journey to the West at Chicago Filmmakers


Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, my favorite film (or should that be “films?”) of the year so far, is now out on Blu-ray via Kino/Lorber. The review I wrote for Time Out Chicago at the time of its local premiere was severely truncated. Here’s the full version:

Arabian Nights, a new series of three two-hour movies by Portuguese critic-turned-director Miguel Gomes (Tabu), kicks off this Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and it will undoubtedly go down as one of the major cinematic events in Chicago this year. Subtitled The Restless One, The Desolate One and The Enchanted One, this ambitious political trilogy borrows the structure of the ancient collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales from which the series gets its title but is set in the present day. The result is an expansive portrait of modern-day Portugal that shows how the austerity measures enacted by the current government have negatively impacted society. Gomes’ progressive/liberal point-of-view is clear but never didactic; his chief interest would appear to be in creating set pieces of intense cinematic poetry (an aim in which he’s aided immeasurably by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom).

Each of the three films are at times disturbing, other times hilarious, and occasionally venture into full-blown surrealism. The delightful vignettes, many of which feature animals, include: the story of Dixie, an adorable dog who passes from one owner to another in a housing project; a murderer who becomes a folk hero as he successfully evades police; unemployed men preparing for a polar-bear swim; the denizens of a working-class neighborhood training their pet finches for a singing competition; a beached whale that explodes; and a rooster that’s put on trial for making too much noise. The extended trial sequence at the center of the second volume (The Desolate One) has come in for criticism for being too long-winded but I think it’s the heart and soul of the entire enterprise – containing stories within stories, combining documentary technique with stylized theatricality, and underlining the theme of the “interconnectedness” of all things. Personally, I could have watched these shaggy-dog stories spiral onward indefinitely.



I have a review of Tsai Ming-Liang’s great JOURNEY TO THE WEST in this week’s Cine-File. It receives its Chicago premiere at Chicago Filmmakers tonight and has an encore screening at Columbia College on Tuesday. Here’s my review in its entirety:

Tsai Ming-Liang’s JOURNEY TO THE WEST (Contemporary Taiwanese)
Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.) – Saturday, 8pm; Repeats at Columbia College (Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash Ave.) on Tuesday at 6:30pm

JOURNEY TO THE WEST (2014), the second and most recent installment in director Tsai Ming-Liang’s ongoing “Walker” series, receives its belated local premiere at Chicago Filmmakers this weekend thanks to the enterprising efforts of Beguiled Cinema (the programming endeavor of Cine-File critics Ben and Kat Sachs). This fascinating series, which began with 2012’s WALKER, was inspired by the life of Xuanzang, a 7th-century Buddhist monk who became famous for making a 17-year pilgrimage from China to India by foot. Dispensing with narrative and dialogue altogether, the aptly titled JOURNEY TO THE WEST consists of just a few shots, done in Tsai’s customary long-take style, of a red-robed monk (Lee Kang-Sheng) walking about as slow as humanly possible around densely populated areas of contemporary Marseilles, France. Eventually, he is joined by a man in Western clothing (Denis Lavant) who walks behind him at the same snail’s pace. Tsai has worked in France before–most notably in 2001’s WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?–but the pairing here of his inevitable leading man Lee with Leos Carax’s favorite leading man Lavant was a genuine masterstroke; they are arguably the two best physical actors working today, known for the kind of expressive body language reminiscent of silent-film acting rather than the traditional facial/vocal emoting that has been popular in cinema since the early sound era. Different viewers will likely take away different things from this experiment; I personally see 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 one interprets 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. (2014, 56 min, Blu-ray Projection) MGS

More info at


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Waititi)
2. Welcome to Leith (Nichols/Walker)
3. White Epilepsy (Grandrieux)
4. Shaun of the Dead (Wright)
5. A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan)
6. The Merchant of Four Seasons (Fassbinder)
7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino)
8. What Time Is It There? (Tsai)
9. King of New York (Ferrara)
10. Holy Motors (Carax)

Philippe Grandrieux at the U of C / A Streetcar Named Desire in Wilmette


At Time Out Chicago today I have an overview of French director Philippe Grandrieux’s upcoming residency (Friday, May 13 – Saturday, May 14) at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center. Grandrieux’s relentlessly dark and disturbing movies are definitely “not for all tastes” but I tried to note some of their utterly unique qualities that should make these screenings essential viewing for Chicago cinephiles. You can read the article here though I’m not crazy about the way my editor trimmed references to Adrian Martin and Nicole Brenez (as well as a fitting use of the word “Orphic!”), so I’m also posting my original version below:

This week, the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center will host what is sure to be one of the most exciting local film events of the year. Maverick French writer/director Philippe Grandrieux will be on hand to discuss three of his recent movies — Un Lac (2008), White Epilepsy (2012) and Malgre la nuit (2015) — on Friday and Saturday night. Grandrieux’s penchant for de-centered narratives and disturbing subject matter (i.e., prostitution and sexual violence) has polarized audiences around the world but his painterly, formally innovative approach to image-making has also won him a legion of admirers among adventurous viewers and prominent theorists and critics; Nicole Brenez has written that Grandrieux’s work constitutes “the most advanced point of cinematic research” being conducted today and Adrian Martin devotes five pages of his superb Mise en Scene and Film Style to analyzing a single scene from Grandrieux’s second feature La Vie Nouvelle (2001).

Malgre la nuit is Grandrieux’s most accessible film. Reminiscent of Clare Denis’ Bastards, the plot concerns an Englishman traveling to Paris in search of his missing girlfriend. His journey takes the form of an Orphic descent into a shady underworld of porn and prostitution rings, where he becomes involved with a masochistic nurse (Ariane Labed) and an exotic singer (Roxane Mesquida). On the opposite end of the spectrum is the non-narrative White Epilepsy, my favorite of Grandrieux’s features. In a wordless 68 minutes, a naked man and woman slowly grapple with one another in a dark forest. Superbly choreographed (Are they wrestling? Are they dancing?) and genuinely frightening, White Epilepsy resembles a Francis Bacon painting come to life. Un Lac falls in between these extremes as a dreamlike portrait of an isolated family living in a remote forest in an indeterminate, vaguely Eastern-European country. The arrival of a foreign woodcutter destabilizes their incestuous balance as the slender plot unfolds like a haunting myth lost in time.

The opening night screening of Un Lac will be followed by a discussion between Grandrieux and critic Raymond Bellour. For more information on Grandrieux’s residency at the University of Chicago, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Film Studies Center’s website.


On Tuesday, May 10 at 6:30pm I will be introducing a screening of A Streetcar Named Desire and moderating a discussion afterwards at the Wilmette Public Library. This screening and discussion is part of the Writers’ Theater “Page to Stage” series, which this year is focusing on works related to their upcoming play, “Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody.” More info here.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Un Lac (Grandrieux)
2. Bone Tomahawk (Zahler)
3. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Gowariker)
4. Beware of a Holy Whore (Fassbinder)
5. Cure (Kurosawa)
6. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
7. Matinee (Dante)
8. Malaria (Shahbazi)
9. L’attesa (Messina)
10. Katzelmacher (Fassbinder)

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