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Monthly Archives: March 2017

AUSTERLITZ and THE SON OF JOSEPH at CEUFF

A version of the following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. Here are my “best bets” for the festival’s fourth and final week.

Austerlitz is a provocative and challenging German documentary on the subject of “Holocaust tourism” by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (Maidan). The film daringly eschews all of the usual contextualizing devices of non-fiction cinema (interviews, voice-over narration, onscreen texts, etc.) and merely presents viewers with static long-take shots of men and women filing into and out of museums on the grounds where the death camps at Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen once stood. Most of the subjects look as though they could be visiting an amusement park or any other major tourist attraction but Loznitsa’s refusal to provide any sort of commentary on the stark black-and-white images means that viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about why people visit these sites and whether or not it’s disrespectful to do so in a shirt emblazoned with the words “Cool Story, Bro.”

American-born French director Eugene Green (La Sapienza) returns to CEUFF with The Son of Joseph, a masterful comedy/drama about a teenage boy (Victor Ezenfis) searching for the identity of his birth father (Mathieu Amalric), a journey that ends up taking on parallels to the Biblical stories of the birth of Christ and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The film’s extensive meditation on father/son relationships, which offers an optimistic view of how we may not choose the families we’re born into but that we can choose our own surrogate family members, makes it an unlikely companion piece to Warren Beatty’s criminally underrated Rules Don’t Apply. Green’s employment of Bressonian non-acting, direct-camera address and absurd humor (a digression involving a young man selling sperm on the internet is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years) adds up to a vision as singular as it is satisfying.

Austerlitz screens on Sunday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 29. The Son of Joseph screens on Friday, March 24 and Wednesday, March 29. For more info, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Siskel Center’s website.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Arrival (Villeneuve)
2. Naked Childhood (Pialat)
3. The Islands and the Whales (Day)
4. Death in the Terminal (Shemesh/Sudry)
5. The Cinema Travelers (Abraham/Madheshiya)
6. Rat Film (Anthony)
7. Detour (Ulmer)
8. The Swindle (Chabrol)
9. L’enfer (Chabrol)
10. Betty (Chabrol)


ETHEL & ERNEST and THE ORNITHOLOGIST at CEUFF

A version of the following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bets for the festival’s third week are a beautiful, hand-drawn animated film from England and a surreal, dreamlike allegory from Portugal.

Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (best known for penning the animated holiday favorite The Snowman), Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest is a deceptively simple but deeply moving account of the lives of an ordinary married couple living in London from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. The title characters of Briggs’ book were explicitly based on his own parents and the way the film’s elliptical narrative quietly moves from one relatively uneventful vignette to another over the span of half a century has all the intimacy and emotion of flipping through a cherished family photo album. More than one critic has compared the film to the opening marriage montage of Pixar’s Up if that sequence had been sustained for the running time of an entire feature. The voice work of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn as the central couple is magnificent and cinephiles should especially appreciate that their first date involves taking in a screening of John Ford’s Hangman’s House.

João Pedro Rodrigues’ previous feature, the superb The Last Time I Saw Macao, received its local premiere at CEUFF in 2013 and this more ambitious follow-up is one of the highlights of the filmgoing year so far. Short on plot but long on spellbinding imagery, The Ornithologist concerns the misadventures of a young man named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who is kidnapped by Chinese tourists while on a bird-watching expedition in a dense forest near the Portuguese/Spanish border. After escaping, Fernando attempts to return to civilization but, like Ulysses and St. Anthony of Padua before him, finds himself continually sidelined by encounters with a menagerie of strange characters (including a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus). The homoeroticism and mystical-jungle imagery may put one in the mind of Apichatpong Weerasethakul but the Catholic symbolism and meditation on solitude vs. companionship are distinctly Rodrigues’ own.

Ethel & Ernest screens on Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18. The Ornithologist screens on Saturday, March 18 and Thursday, March 23. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Failan (Song)
2. Inspector Bellamy (Chabrol)
3. Before Midnight (Linklater)
4. Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (Black/Bernstein)
5. Before Sunset (Linklater)
6. Eyes Without a Face (Franju)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. Selling Stupid (Carrier)
9. Before Sunrise (Linklater)
10. Far from Heaven (Haynes)


SLACK BAY at the Chicago European Union Film Festival

I was very taken with Bruno Dumont’s batshit crazy Slack Bay, which screens twice at the Siskel Center’s Chicago European Union Film Fest over the next week. A version of this review should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bet for the festival’s second week is also my favorite of the 14 titles I’ve previewed so far: Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, an off-the-wall police procedural/slapstick farce that features a healthy dose of social criticism to boot. It’s a worthy follow up to Dumont’s acclaimed 2014 television mini-series Li’l Quinquin, which similarly combined a murder-mystery plot with slapstick comedy (surprising at the time given that Dumont’s previous work was noted for its marked lack of humor). While Quinquin was set in the present day and focused on a pair of incompetent police officers investigating a series of murders in a small town where racism and xenophobia are rampant, Slack Bay is set just before World War I and focuses on bumbling cops investigating a series of killings in a coastal town whose socio-economic gulf represents seemingly eternal French class divisions. As if the positive response to Quinquin has given him confidence, Dumont also successfully turns the wackiness here up to 11; Slack Bay is one of the funniest and craziest films in recent memory.

The plot concerns two families whose paths cross on France’s scenic Channel Coast: the savage, working-class Bruforts, permanent residents of “Slack Bay” who make their living from fishing and ferrying, and their opposite numbers, the Van Peteghems, aristocrats who vacation there only during the summertime. Each family is satirically shown through a grotesque, archetypal and deliberately exaggerated lens (as bloodthirsty cannibals and inbred blue-bloods, respectively) – the very lens, in other words, through which the families might subjectively view each other. Dumont’s conception of the Brufort children as all male and the Van Peteghem children as all female allows him to create a provocative dialectic between “barbarism” and “civilization.” This class divide between the families is only bridged when the sexually ambiguous Billie Van Peteghem (Raph), a girl who disguises herself as a boy, attracts the romantic interest of the brutish “Ma Loute” Brufort (Brandon Lavieville). Plus, there’s a police inspector so corpulent that he literally has trouble standing upright (Didier Despres) and French screen legend Juliette Binoche, as an eccentric Van Peteghem aunt, performing in a more cartoonish register than you’ve ever seen her.

Slack Bay screens on Saturday, March 11 and Thursday, March 16. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Ethel & Ernest (Mainwood)
2. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
3. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
4. The Lady Eve (Sturges)
5. It’s Not the Time of My Life (Hajdu)
6. Two Nights Till Morning (Kuparinen)
7. Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier)
8. Citizen Kane (Welles)
9. The Unknown Girl (Dardenne/Dardenne)
10. Jour de Fete (Tati)


PERSONAL SHOPPER and THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV at the Chicago European Union Film Festival

My latest Time Out blog post concerns the first week of the 20th annual Chicago European Union Film Fest, the lineup of which is typically excellent. I present the uncut version of that article below.

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What to see during the first week of the Chicago European Union Film Festival

Christmas for Chicago cinephiles comes every March when the Chicago European Union Film Festival, now in its impressive 20th year, descends on the Gene Siskel Film Center. The CEUFF is the film-lover’s film festival, the one that gets many Chicago critics and cinephiles the most excited because it always manages to host the local premieres of dozens of exciting European titles by major directors that other festivals, including the Chicago International Film Festival, have failed to land during the previous year. This year is no different, with the CEUFF premiering a whopping 62 new European films from “all 28 EU nations” (though, confusingly with regards to Brexit, this includes the United Kingdom). Below are my best bets for the festival’s first week.

The Kristen Stewart vehicle Personal Shopper, which reteams the American actress with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas, gained instant notoriety upon its 2016 Cannes premiere when the first press screening was greeted with boos while the first public screening garnered a lengthy standing ovation. Both reactions are understandable: Stewart’s unique, sometimes controversial brand of “underplaying” has rarely been used to better effect than here—as a celebrity assistant living in Paris, haunted by the unexpected death (and perhaps literal ghost) of her beloved twin brother—though the mystery/drama hybrid film that surrounds her is not always as successful as her fine central performance. For better or worse, Assayas’ films often have a quickly written, rough-draft quality, as if he’s so excited to mash up disparate ideas and genres that jarring tonal shifts sometimes result. Still, I much prefer a movie as rich in ideas as this one, where the flaws arise from it being overly ambitious at times to the opposite case scenario.

Even better is The Death of Louis XIV, a masterful French film by the Spanish writer/director Albert Serra (The Story of My Death) that casts the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows) in the titular role. Although the fabled “Sun King” is one of the most beloved figures in all of French culture (right up there with Joan of Arc and Napoleon), Serra perversely chooses to focus only on his agonizing final days as he lies dying of gangrene, with doctors and valets mincing about, after returning home from a hunting trip. The formal control of Serra’s precise compositions and exquisitely candle-lit interiors, which resemble 18th century paintings, is impressive but don’t let the somber veneer distract you from the movie’s most appealing aspect: its bizarre, poker-faced sense of humor. One unforgettable scene in which a quack doctor offers Louis a miracle cure for gangrene (in which bull sperm and frog fat are among the ingredients) plays like an arthouse version of Steve Martin’s old “Medieval Barber” sketches on Saturday Night Live.

Personal Shopper screens on Saturday, March 4 and Wednesday, March 8, and The Death of Louis XIV screens on Sunday, March 5. For showtimes and ticket information, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


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