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Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh)
2. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Anderson)
3. 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (Samadian)
4. Captain Fantastic (Ross)
5. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor)
6. Hell or High Water (Mackenzie)
7. Jackie (Larrain)
8. 20th Century Women (Mills)
9. Hidden Figures (Melfi)
10. Je tu il elle (Akerman)

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Now Streaming: Dark Horse

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Now streaming on various On Demand platforms is British director Louise Osmond’s Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance. This engaging doc follows Jan Vokes, a small-town barmaid who, with her husband, decides to breed a racehorse who they name “Dream Alliance.” Enlisting the help of 23 friends, who form a syndicate to pay the expenses, Jan and Dream Alliance go on to stun the racing world.

Horse breeding in the UK is seen as an occupation for the wealthy. A lot of the film’s charm comes from seeing a village in South Wales come together and upset the apple cart of rich breeders who pour thousands of pounds into producing race-winning horses. After winning several races, Dream Alliance was lined up for the United Kingdom’s biggest racing event, the Grand National. Unfortunately, tragedy struck and Dream Alliance sliced a tendon. Most race horses who suffer a serious leg injury are euthanized. However, due to the quick thinking of the jockey and one of the owners, Dream Alliance was saved through expensive stem-cell treatment (paid for by the money saved by the village). Dream Alliance made a comeback and went on to win the 2009 Welsh Grand National with odds of 20-1. I knew nothing about horse racing before watching this film but, according to Tony Calvin writing in Betfair, the race, held every December 27th, is one of the sport’s biggest fixtures; Dream Alliance’s amazing win can thus also seen as a kind of “Christmas miracle.”

One of the most uplifting aspects of the film is the effect it had on people of the village in south Wales. The horse came to represent hope in an old mining village that has felt left behind. In an interview with Indie Wire, director Osmond talked about what drew her to the film: “I knew the first time I heard this story that I would do pretty much anything to make it. It was so funny and moving and life affirming; a classic rags to riches take. As the producer Judith Dawson and I started to spend time in the valley, it also became clear it was something that ran very deep for the people involved.” Osmond is considered one of Britain’s leading non-fiction filmmakers and has made films on topics ranging from British designer Alexander McQueen to filmmaker Ken Loach. Dark Horse deservedly won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance Film Festival.

A film about overcoming the odds, Dark Horse is a good example of the old saying about truth being stranger than fiction. Although made in 2015, this remarkable story should give many viewers some much-needed hope in the post-Brexit/post-Trump era.


Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann
dir: Maren Ade, Germany, 2016
Rating: 9.8

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“And if, by chance, that special place / That you’ve been dreaming of / Leads you to a lonely place / Find your strength in love”
— The Greatest Love of All

There is an unforgettable scene towards the end of Leo McCarey’s screwball-comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth where the female lead, Lucy (Irene Dunn), is attempting to sabotage the relationship between Jerry (Cary Grant), her recent ex-husband, and Barbara (Molly Lamont), his new fiance. Lucy embarrasses Jerry deeply by showing up at Barbara’s house and pretending to be “Lola,” his drunken floozy of a sister (who does not exist in reality). In front of Barbara and her stuffy parents, Jerry has no choice but to go along with this ruse. Only the longer Lucy sticks around “in character,” the more obvious it becomes that Jerry actually appreciates the cleverness of her act. His exasperation slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into admiration. As Lucy/Lola sings “My Dreams are Gone with the Wind,” to demonstrate her risque-circa-1937 nightclub routine, Jerry starts to smile in spite of himself, an indication that maybe these two nutcases really do belong together after all. Toni Erdmann, the third feature from the young German filmmaker Maren Ade (Everyone Else), is like this one great scene stretched to an epic running time of two hours and forty two minutes — and I mean that as a huge compliment. The film may be leisurely paced, especially for a comedy, but when the climactic, instant-classic “nude party scene” arrives, you know that Ade needed every one of those minutes in order to reach her sublime destination.

Toni Erdmann was by far the best movie I saw last year (I did not include it in my Top 50 Films of 2016 list because it only screened for the press in Chicago in December and does not open at local theaters proper until this Friday). The genius of Ade’s shaggy-dog story, which is written, directed and acted to perfection, is that it takes the dynamics of the screwball-comedy romance and perversely applies them to a father-daughter relationship (perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema): Ines (Sandra Huller) is a straight-laced and uptight German businesswoman (think Cary Grant in another screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby) whose world is turned upside down after repeated and unwelcome intrusions into her life by her opposite number — her goofball, music-teacher father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek, in the Katharine Hepburn role), from whom she has long been estranged. “Toni Erdmann” is Winfried’s even goofier alter-ego, a character with a bad wig and outrageous false teeth, a prankster persona through whom he tries to forge a new bond with Ines and help her break out of her self-constructed shell of alienation in the process. In many ways, the film is about Winfried/Toni teaching Ines to “learn to love herself,” to quote a certain classic Whitney Houston jam that is prominently featured on the soundtrack, and it is possible to enjoy the film purely on this level — as an emotionally rich character study: I would argue that the poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).

But I think Toni Erdmann can also be seen as working on another level — one that makes it much more specific to our own era. The action plays out mainly in Bucharest where Ines has been sent on business by her international consulting-firm employer (her assignment is to recommend to the President of a Romanian corporation how many of his employees he should fire). It is implied that Ines’ high-pressure job is the reason why she has lost the simple ability to enjoy life and, in this respect, the film functions as a subversive and even angry critique of global capitalism. The most bizarre scene, and one that may initially puzzle some viewers, involves a sexual encounter between Ines and one of her clients in a hotel room, a tryst that she engineers because she senses it will be advantageous for her career. Disgusted with herself, Ines instructs the client, a shallow douchebag, to ejaculate on a petit four, which she then promptly and shockingly eats. Ines’ attempt to “control the narrative” of this empty sexual experience is her futile way of trying to make herself feel better about the fact that she is essentially prostituting herself. This is her lowest point, after which she will genuinely start to feel better once she reconciles with her father. But while the film ends with Ines in a better place, Ade is also smart enough to retain a hint of ambiguity. Ines is, after all, still working the same job, still peddling on the same cutthroat capitalist treadmill, only at another company. She puts Toni Erdmann’s false buckteeth into her own mouth but then takes them out again. Ines’ future, like that of our modern world, is uncertain. Did I mention this movie is hilarious?

Toni Erdmann opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 27.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sisters (De Palma)
2. Holy Smoke (Campion)
3. Ouija: Origin of Evil (Flanagan)
4. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
5. Emma (McGrath)
6. Sweetie (Campion)
7. Hotel Monterey (Akerman)
8. The Plough and the Stars (Ford)
9. Almayer’s Folly (Akerman)
10. The Long Voyage Home (Ford)


Filmmaker Interview: Seth McClellan

My interview with Little Wound’s Warriors director Seth McClellan was published at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reproducing the article in its entirety below:

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Little Wound’s Warriors, the latest film from Chicago-based director Seth McClellan (King in Chicago, Creative Writing), is a powerful documentary about the Lakota Sioux residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota. It focuses primarily on the students at Little Wound High School as they come to terms with rampant poverty, alcoholism and a recent suicide epidemic. The film, which alternates between interview scenes with these resilient young people and stunningly beautiful footage of their natural surroundings, ultimately expresses hope for the future as these subjects seek to reclaim their heritage and, as McClellan notes, recreate “their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity.” Little Wound’s Warriors screens this Saturday, January 21, at the Gene Siskel Film Center with McCLellan present for an audience Q&A.

MGS: The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the Badlands of South Dakota, far from your Chicago stomping grounds. How did you first hear about this remarkable place and become involved in making a documentary film about it?

SM: When I was a little boy my family visited Badlands National Park, which is directly north of Pine Ridge, and I remember even as a small child being blown away by the beauty of the land. There is something about the landscape that I find incredibly beautiful in its starkness and overall composition. My old and great friend Mark Hetzel ended up working on the reservation through Teach For America, he teaches at Little Wound the local high school featured in the film, and we had discussed some of the challenges his students faced and started to talk about how we might document those issues. I’m very lucky now to have had the chance to have extended conversations with so many members of the local community and hike and film the Badlands in the midst of winter.

MGS: It was troubling to learn about the teen suicide epidemic on the reservation. It’s discussed simultaneously as if it were a recent phenomenon and also the inevitable result of an entire generation of people “inheriting trauma” from their ancestors. What do you see as the root causes of this epidemic and what steps have the local residents taken to prevent it from happening again?

SM: Genocide is the root cause of all the problems. Along with the outright slaughter of natives by the US government and other groups, the US also stole their land and forced them onto reservations where they then were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing traditional ceremonies. A generation of kids were taken from there parents and placed in Christian boarding schools. Imagine if most of your friends and family are killed by a foreign power and then you are forbidden from speaking English, talking about the Constitution, celebrating fourth of July or Christmas or watching Star Wars, and then your kids are taken from you. At the same time the foreign power makes available a powerful new drug that you have no experience with, alcohol in this case. How would any community handle that? The destruction and disruption of cultural and personal narratives destroy communities. Think about how violating the election of Trump feels to many people and then magnify that a thousand times. We are bound to each other through our shared sets of values, traditions, and the “story” of who we are. When a community loses that, they flounder. You see the same problems with all the murders in Chicago. It’s rootless young men killing each other. Young men who have no sense of being part of a larger narrative and tradition that values and needs them.

What’s really exciting and hopeful and what the film’s main focus turned out to be is how high school students on the Reservation are reengaging with there language and ceremonies. They are young Lakota Warriors practicing a distinct way of life. Redefining and recreating their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity. The film tries to celebrate that.

MGS: One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way the story is told only through the interview subjects (and not through scripted narration, on screen text, etc.). Was it your intention to allow the Native American subjects to tell their story in their own words without forcing your “outsider’s perspective” onto it?

SM: I find narrators pretty heavy-handed and intrusive most of the time. For better or worse as a documentarian, I am much more interested in what the people immersed in a context have to say than I am in imposing “voice of god” techniques that create more of a sense of order in a story.

MGS: The interview subjects span a great range of ages and life experiences, which allows for a wide variety of intellectual and emotional responses. How exactly do you go about “casting” a film like this? What do you look for in an interview subject?

SM: We conducted about twenty hours of interviews and I sifted through them trying to find the most truthful and insightful voices and statements and then looked for ways to weave those voices and ideas together. The most important thing to me is that the interview subjects speak from the heart and hopefully reveal something about themselves and what it means to be human in their experience. We definitely wanted to focus on the experience of the high school students, but having older voices in there helps tell a larger and more dynamic story.

MGS: I love how the film alternates between interviews and stunning landscape photography — it feels very “composed” in a musical sense. What was your guiding philosophy in the editing room in terms of how to shape all of this material?

SM: The films original title was Little Wound Winter Love Songs and I was thinking of its structure much more in musical terms than a traditional narrative. I wanted it to feel more like these young people were singing a song than telling a story. As we edited, it evolved into something somewhat more linear than I had originally intended but the musicality of the editing certainly remains.

MGS: Have you had a chance yet to screen the film in Kyle, South Dakota and, if so, what has the reaction been like?

SM: We screen in February in Kyle, but all of the interview subjects and some community members had a chance to watch the film and offer feedback before we finalized the edit. It was very important that the film feel representative and truthful to the actual community and not just “poverty tourism.”

For more information about the Little Wound’s Warriors screening, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


Filmmaker Interview: Robert Putka

My interview with Mad writer/director Robert Putka was published at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reproducing the article in its entirety below:

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The 2016 comedy/drama Mad is an auspicious, uncommonly sharp debut feature from the young Cleveland-based writer/director Robert Putka. The independently produced film, which centers on a mentally ill mother’s relationship with her two adult daughters (all three roles are played to perfection), deservedly traveled far and wide on the festival circuit last year and was picked up for distribution by The Orchard. Although it only screened once theatrically in Chicago, as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival, Mad has had the kind of strong word-of-mouth buzz that virtually ensures a healthy home viewership: it was enthusiastically recommended to me by fellow critics Jason Coffman and Daniel Nava and I was able to stream it at home just in time for it to make my list of my Top 50 Films of 2016. I recently interviewed Putka about the film via e-mail.

MGS: Mad has enjoyed a lot of critical and audience support since it premiered at Slamdance last year. I think part of the reason why is that you handle mental illness in a way that feels refreshingly honest and very different from how that topic is usually portrayed in American cinema (i.e., it’s not presented in a sensationalistic or romanticized way). You’ve discussed your own mother’s bouts with mental illness in interviews. Was it a cathartic experience for you to tackle this particular subject in your first feature and to what extent did you feel a responsibility to “get it right?”

RP: It’s been bizarrely enlightening and life changing for me, and not in the way you’d probably expect. Listening to, and seeing people’s reactions to the film was something of a wake-up call to me. People seem to think it’s horrifically dark and even “sociopathic” at times, but this is a film that contains none of the brutality we usually associate with film. No blood, no physical violence. I always felt it was actually tame… maybe too tame, and even a bit sanitized compared to my actual experience. I wrote from the gut and tried my hardest to tell this story in an entertaining way; so what you’re seeing is an honest, if not necessarily always flattering look at my own struggles as a child to a mother with emotional problems. Seeing how people processed that relative to their own experience made me realize that maybe I had some work to do of my own – to be more understanding, more accepting… less of a raw nerve. I’m still nowhere close to having “mended” my relationship, nor have I been able to completely let go of some of my own personal hangups, but I’m more aware of it now than ever. I guess subconsciously I longed for that, considering I pushed myself in that direction within the context of the narrative, as Connie (who represents my nastier tendencies) seems to find that same awareness near the end of the film… I think I just had another “a-ha” moment, and now I’m sweating and nauseous. This has been a year of hard-won emotional truths for me. If I felt any responsibility at all, it was to the ragged emotional core of these characters, and less about the circumstances that surround them. I didn’t want the emotional beats to feel false.

MGS: I love films that are successful at blending comedy and drama and I have the feeling you do too. I noticed in your Letterboxd review of Knocked Up that you described it as “walking a tonal tightrope,” which is a phrase one could easily apply to Mad as well. What is it about combining comedy and drama that appeals to you as a filmmaker, especially considering we live in a world where audiences expect their comedies to be funny and their dramas to be serious (and rarely the twain do meet)?

RP: OK, I love this question, and I love that you dug up my Letterboxd review of Knocked Up. I think maybe more than anything, I’m one of those people that always has to “do it the hard way” and take the road less traveled. Easy-success be damned, because I am full of self-loathing, I guess (and cliches, apparently). Finding comedy in drama, or drama in comedy is, I believe, such a feat, and it makes me sad when that goes unnoticed by cinephiles. Dramedy is the tone closest to that of life, right? And if you can reflect life in an entertaining way, then you’ve captured something special, I think. My near-militant championing of the dramedies of Apatow, Payne and Baumbach is a reaction to that. People are so very ready to anoint films with slick camera moves and in-your-face directorial flourishes as art, and I think I just saw a niche that I could fill because no one else has really been trying to fill it lately. I use the word “emotion” a lot, don’t I? I think some of my favorite films are the ones where they earn that emotional gravity, so I’m desperately chasing that in my own work. My hope is that earnestness in film will come back into style before people stop taking my calls, because my movies aren’t sexy-looking or sexy-feeling. OK, climbing down from my high horse now.

MGS: Another aspect of Mad that a lot of critics have honed in on is the absolute viciousness with which the sisters, Connie and Casey, insult each other. Movie characters aren’t usually quite so verbally nasty but this is, of course, how siblings often really interact. As a writer, where does your particular brand of acidic banter come from?

RP: I’ve noticed that people say a lot of nastily bizarre, mean stuff in the heat of the moment. Me included, obviously. When the emotions are amped up, people so readily bring out the knives, because it’s about “winning that moment” and hurting the other person as much as you’ve felt they’ve hurt you. It’s certainly not healthy, and I’d equate it to getting a quick fix that doesn’t do you any good in the long run. But I believe it’s human. I feel that with family, there’s a bit of elasticity there. Like, you can let loose and tear into them because they’re bonded to you for life – you’re in a cage match to the death with them, and even if you win, you still lose because you’re stuck right there with their rotting corpse, or vice versa. I’m not a misanthrope, though, I promise! It’s a loving, knowing kind of friction born out of familial closeness.

MGS: I once read that the Seinfeld writers had a rule that they wouldn’t allow their characters to hug each other or apologize. Did you have any similar strategies in place in order to avoid sentimentality?

RP: I’m terrified of sentimentality. Emotion is good, but being over-sentimental is bad. I’m always afraid of dipping into schmaltz since the line between the two is very, very thin, and if you’re not careful you can lose a handle on it. I try to feel it out by staying true to the moment, and I rely a lot on my actors to know when something is too much or not enough. My actors helped me out a lot by holding themselves to a standard of honesty and naturalism. If anything, they really encouraged me to be comfortable with a certain level of warmth, that while in the script, was something that my directorial instincts were trying to bury out of fear of doing a hack job.

MGS: Both of your lead actresses do an incredible job. I noticed that you’ve worked with Eilis Cahill extensively in your previous short films but that you were working with Jennifer Lafleur for the first time. Was it a challenge to work closely with two collaborators with whom you have differing degrees of familiarity, especially considering your methods involve improvisation?

RP: I actually worked with both prior! Eilis to a lengthier degree, but Jen knew how I worked and was game. All the actors were game, and I’m so thankful they made this movie with me. My directorial inclination is to find a balance between making sure the actors are comfortable and feel inspired, but also retaining the dialogue that I fall in love with writing (for better and worse). I find that a lot of the emotional beats are more open to interpretation by the actors – those really need to be “felt,” so I’m OK being a bit looser with those moments, and I was rewarded with raw performances that I probably couldn’t pull if we went verbatim – which has a lot to do with my relative inexperience still as a writer/director.  The comic dialogue, while also being open on-set to ad-libbing, needs to be a little more exacting with the timing being very important to the individual success of the line at hand. Luckily my actors, all of them, were able to roll with what I was asking of them. I’m sure it was frustrating at times, but we’re all really just searching for some form of “the truth,” whatever that felt like in the moment.

MGS: What can you tell me about any future projects you may have on the horizon?

RP: I’ve got a pet project that I’ve been putting together slowly for the last year now, trying to cast and find the money. It’s a step up in budget, and in my wildest dreams it’s the “breakout” film that every writer/director is in search of.  I’ve also been really lucky to have a door open to me at a pretty cool TV network – now, actually capitalizing on that amazing opportunity by selling something has proven difficult. But I’ve always been in a sort-of “war of attrition” with this industry as a whole. This considering I shouldn’t even be where I am as a kid from Cleveland who never went to film school or had any sort of connections to speak of, so I’ll keep plugging away at it and hopefully something will materialize… eventually. I’m also starting to write and direct for hire, which like most things in my life, I’ve stumble-bumbled into like the dope I’ve proven to be time and time again. But send care packages if you’re reading this, because I’m still very near-broke.

Mad is currently available to stream on Netflix and various On Demand platforms. 


CHILDREN OF NATURE at Doc Films

I reviewed Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Nature for this week’s Cine-File list. It’s one of the most important Icelandic films ever made and it screens at Doc Films tomorrow night. I’m reproducing my capsule review in its entirety below.

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Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s CHILDREN OF NATURE (Icelandic Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Tuesday, January 10, 7pm

Iceland has enjoyed a relatively robust and prolific film industry in recent decades, which is all the more surprising when one considers that the population currently hovers at an all-time high of barely more than 300,000 people. The godfather of Icelandic cinema is Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, a self-taught filmmaker who is almost single-handedly responsible for the country’s impressive movie boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. His breakthrough feature CHILDREN OF NATURE, the only locally produced film in 1991, was also the first Icelandic movie to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Fridriksson immediately sunk his unexpected international box-office grosses into buying additional filmmaking equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive features in the ensuing years. CHILDREN OF NATURE ranks for me alongside Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW and Yasujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY as one of the cinema’s most powerful statement about the predicament of the elderly. It tells the story of Thorgeir (Gísli Halldórsson), a retiree who is virtually forced by his uncaring family into living in a nursing home in the capital city of Reykjavik. Upon arriving there, he unexpectedly meets his childhood sweetheart, Stella (Sigríður Hagalín), who tells him she doesn’t want to die in a retirement home. Thorgeir steals a jeep and the two escape to rural northwestern Iceland, with the authorities in hot pursuit, so that Stella might be able to see again the land of her childhood before she dies. Any plot description of CHILDREN OF NATURE, however, is bound to make it seem like the kind of cute Hollywood movie about the “life left in old dogs” to which it actually serves as a welcome antidote. One of the most evocative scenes in this beautiful meditation on life, love, and mortality occurs right before the couple flees to the countryside; Thorgeir strolls alone through Holavallagardur cemetery, a remarkable location where trees grow out of burial plots dating back to the19th century. Although a realist at heart, Fridriksson’s effortless ability in scenes like this to capture uncanny visual metaphors ends up paying mystical dividends: Bruno Ganz turns up in a surprise wordless cameo at the end in what seems to be a reprise of his angel character from Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE. For those unfamiliar with the work of Fridriksson or Icelandic cinema in general, this is probably the single best place to start. (1991, 82 min, DCP Digital) MGS

More info at http://www.docfilms.uchicago.edu.


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