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Monthly Archives: October 2017

LET THE SUNSHINE IN at CIFF / HIS NEW JOB in Kankakee

I wrote the following review of Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, one of my favorite films of the year, for this week’s Cinefile Chicago. It screens at the Chicago International Film Festival on Sunday, 10/22 and Monday, 10/23.

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Claire Denis’ LET THE SUNSHINE IN (New French)
Claire Denis follows up her darkest and most disturbing feature, 2013’s BASTARDS – a gut-wrenching journey into the heart of a prostitution ring that was loosely inspired by William Faulkner – with LET THE SUNSHINE IN, undoubtedly her lightest and funniest work, which was loosely inspired by Roland Barthes. A delight from start to finish, Denis’ first collaboration with the iconic Juliette Binoche is probably the closest we’ll ever come to seeing the Gallic master’s take on the rom-com. Binoche, looking more radiant than ever at 53, plays Isabelle, a divorced mother living in Paris whose career as a painter is as successful as her love life is a mess. The neurotic Isabelle plunges headfirst into a series of affairs with dubious men, some of whom are married and one of whom is her ex-husband, all the while hoping to find “true love at last.” Isabelle’s best prospect seems to be the only man who wants to take things slow (Alex Descas) but a witty coda involving a fortune-teller played by Gerard Depardieu suggests that Isabelle is doomed to repeat the same mistakes even while remaining a hopelessly optimistic romantic. Bolstered by Agnes Godard’s tactile cinematography and Stuart Staples’ fine jazz score, LET THE SUNSHINE IN is funny, wise, sexy – and essential viewing. (2017, 94 minutes, DCP Digital) MGS

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Also, next Tuesday, October 24, at 7pm I will be introducing a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s HIS NEW JOB at the Kankakee Public Library. HIS NEW JOB, the only film Chaplin made in Chicago, is the subject of two chapters in FLICKERING EMPIRE, the book I co-authored with Adam Selzer about film production in Chicago during the silent era. This screening will feature live piano accompaniment by acclaimed musician Mark Noller. Check out the Facebook event page for more info: https://www.facebook.com/events/1743214159054584

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Gemini (Katz)
2. Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer)
3. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
4. Housesitters (Coffman)
5. 12 Days (Depardon)
6. Othello (1952 version, Welles)
7. Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier)
8. Lover for a Day (Garrel)
9. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
10. Faces Places (Varda/JR)


The 4th Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival!

I am excited to announce that, after the success of the last three Oakton Pop-Up Film Festivals, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. for the fourth consecutive year. The screenings of these acclaimed independent American films (three features and three shorts), spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, November 28 through Friday, December 1. The entire festival is FREE and open to the public and ALL screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

Oakton Community College’s 4th Annual Pop-Up Film Festival!
Footlik Theatre, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines
Tuesday, Nov. 28 – Friday, Dec.1 – FREE admission

signature-move-still-5SIGNATURE MOVE (80 min, 2017) – Tuesday, November 28 at 2pm
Followed by a Q&A w/ director Jennifer Reeder moderated by Kristin McCartney
In this hilarious and heartfelt look at modern love, Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) is a 30-something Pakistani Muslim lesbian lawyer in Chicago who begins a new romance with Alma, a confident Mexican-American woman. Zaynab tries to keep both her love life and her interest in lucha-style wrestling a secret from her conservative mother, who knows more than she lets on. World premiered at the SxSW Film Festival.

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PORTO (86 min, 2016) – Wednesday, November 29 at 12:30pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ director Gabe Klinger moderated by Laurence Knapp
Jake (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) are two outsiders in Porto, Portugal, who once experienced a connection. A mystery remains about the moments they shared, and in searching through memories, they relive the depths of a night uninhibited by the consequences of time. This award-winning drama was executive produced by Jim Jarmusch (Paterson).

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MERCURY IN RETROGRADE (105 min, 2017) – Thursday, November 30 at 2:00pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ cast members Najarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons and Kevin Wehby, and director Michael Smith moderated by film critic Pam Powell
Three couples from Chicago vacation together for a weekend at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Isabelle (Roxane Mesquida) and Richard have been together for five years and are deeply unhappy; Jack and Golda have been happily married for 10 years; and Peggy (Najarra Townsend) and Wyatt just started dating and don’t yet know each other well. Hidden tensions and secrets slowly come to the surface in this comedy/drama that won the Best Narrative Feature award at the Full Bloom Film Festival.

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SHORT FILMS PROGRAM: WOMEN IN DANGER (31 min, 2017) – Friday, December 1 at 12:30pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ directors Sadie Rogers, Clare Cooney, Layne Marie Williams and Lonnie Edwards moderated by Michael Smith
These entertaining and provocative short films, all written and directed (or co-directed) by women, show in wildly different ways how their young female protagonists find themselves in harm’s way while attempting to navigate public spaces. The films screening are CHIP V.2 (Sadie Rogers), RUNNER (Clare Cooney) and AN ATRAMENTOUS MIND (Layne Marie Williams and Lonnie Edwards).


FACES PLACES at CIFF

I wrote the following capsule review of Faces Places, one of the very best films of the year, for Time Out Chicago today:

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When I had the great good fortune to meet French New Wave legend Agnes Varda in Chicago two years ago she was already talking excitedly about her new movie Faces Places, which had just then begun shooting. When I asked her if it was going to be a feature or a short, she mischievously replied that she intended it to be exactly 75 minutes long because she considered that to be the ideal length for a documentary film. The fact that the end result (which receives its local premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival tonight) runs 89 minutes can therefore be seen as an indication of just how much valuable footage Varda and her co-director, the photographer/installation artist known only as “JR,” gleaned while traversing the French countryside in pursuit of interesting faces and places.

The premise of this whimsical yet profound road movie/comedy is that Varda and JR travel from town to town in a truck outfitted with a “mobile photo booth” that allows them to not only take photographs of the people they come across but also print them with a large-scale printer and paste the resulting images onto buildings in the same villages where the subjects live. It’s a heart-warming celebration of rural, working-class France that asks viewers to think about the role that art plays in everyday life. It is also a meditation on mortality, as the 88-year-old Varda frequently reminisces about friends who are no longer with her and talks about her need to capture images of people and things before she can forget them. If this is indeed Varda’s final feature film, as she has indicated in recent interviews, it is the loveliest swan song I can imagine.

Faces Places screens at the Chicago International Film Festival on Friday, October 13 and Saturday, October 14. For more info, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the CIFF website.


EL MAR LA MAR, PRINCESS CYD and THE REPLACEMENT at CIFF

I wrote the following piece on films by local directors playing at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival for Time Out Chicago. It appeared on their website yesterday.

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The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, October 12, bringing a packed lineup of movies that range from serious documentaries to lighthearted comedies. While there’s plenty of national and international talent on display throughout the festival, there is also a handful of noteworthy films by local directors.

Chief among them is El Mar la Mar, a haunting and poetic documentary by Joshua Bonnetta and recent Chicago transplant/Northwestern University professor J.P. Sniadecki (The Iron Ministry) that examines life along the border of the U.S. and Mexico. The most daring aspect of this provocative non-fiction feature is the way the film’s many interview subjects are only heard and never seen. Their compelling stories are instead told via voice-over narration, forming a kind of off-screen Greek chorus that the filmmakers juxtapose against images of beautiful but harsh desert landscapes (not unlike James Benning’s Deseret) and occasionally a pitch-black screen. As one would expect, the issue of illegal border crossing is prominently featured, which inevitably marks this as a commentary on Trumpism, but there are plenty of surprises as well. My personal favorite sequence involves one man’s harrowing and utterly convincing story of his encounter with a 15-foot tall monster.

Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), one of Chicago’s best and most prolific directors, returns to CIFF with Princess Cyd, another coming-of-age tale involving the conflict between flesh and spirit. The title character here is a troubled 16-year-old girl (Jessie Pinnick) who travels from South Carolina to Chicago to spend the summer with her famous novelist aunt (Rebecca Spence) and unexpectedly finds romance with a cute barista (Malic White) in the process. Although, from a narrative perspective, this feels more contrived than Cone’s very best work (how is it possible that Cyd doesn’t know the origin of her own first name?), this shortcoming is compensated for by the nuanced and complex lead performances, which are effectively filtered through Cone’s always-refreshing humanism. Credit too must go to Zoe White’s gorgeous, delicate cinematography, which imparts a feeling of “being there-ness” in its ephemeral evocation of late-summer sunlight.

Last but not least, local movie buffs are likely to get a kick out of The Replacement, an ambitious sci-fi/comedy short by the husband-and-wife team of director Sean Miller and producer Naz Khan. Local indie producing and acting mainstay (and Midwest Independent Film Festival executive director) Mike McNamara turns in a delightful performance as Abe Stagsen, a janitor in a futuristic America who becomes outraged when one of his many clones successfully runs for President. This high concept allows the filmmakers to pose philosophical questions similar to other beloved sci-fi movies (Who are we? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?) but what really elevates this sharp short are the top-notch visual effects, which render familiar Loop locations almost unrecognizable, and a welcome comedic tone that runs counter to the ultra-seriousness one might expect from a film set in a dystopian future.

El Mar la Mar screens on Tuesday, October 24 and Wednesday, October 25. Princess Cyd screens on Tuesday, October 17, Saturday, October 21 and Wednesday, October 25. The Replacement screens as part of the Shorts 1 block on Sunday, October 15, Wednesday, October 18 and Wednesday, October 25. For more info and showtimes, visit the Chicago International Film Festival’s website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
3. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)
4. The Other Side of Hope (Kaurismaki)
5. Ex Libris (Wiseman)
6. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. Let the Sunshine In (Denis)
9. Double Indemnity (Wilder)
10. Big Deal on Madonna Street (Monicelli)


R.I.P. Skip Haynes (1946-2017)

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” is, to my mind, the second greatest “Chicago song” of all time (after only Robert Johnson’s immortal “Sweet Home Chicago”). The question I have been asked most frequently about my first feature, COOL APOCALYPSE, is “How did you manage to get the rights to use that song?” Here, for the first time, is that story in full.

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A few years ago, when I was writing COOL APOCALYPSE, I did something no independent filmmaker should ever do: I wrote a well-known pop song into my script – in such a way that the entire movie would seemingly collapse without it – without first bothering to clear the rights. Hell, I didn’t know who had written or recorded the song, much less who owned the rights, when I was writing my little no-budget film. I had never even heard the song as a kid growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but as soon as I moved to Chicago in 1993, I realized it was a local FM radio staple and immediately fell in love with its infectious melody and rollicking piano. When I bought my first used car a few years later, there were times when I would be driving down Lake Shore and it would come on the radio, which was always a magical experience. I would go nuts in that Volkswagen Rabbit, singing along and banging on the steering wheel. So I wrote a scene into the script where this exact thing happens to the characters played by Chelsea David and Adam Overberg. I intended the scene to be a love letter to both the song and the road that it paid tribute to.
 
When I discovered that Skip Haynes had written the song, I tasked my great producer, Clare McKeown, with trying to track him down. She reported back that she couldn’t find him. I did some internet sleuthing of my own and eventually found that he was the only surviving member of the band Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah and that he was currently living in Laurel Canyon, California, where he ran a dog rescue. He was still writing and recording music – only his new songs were all about dogs. I also found out that, much to my good fortune, Skip had not only written the song but owned the performance rights as well. I sent him an e-mail explaining that I was an independent filmmaker making a no-budget movie and that I had no money but was desperate to use his song. He responded right away by sending me his phone number and asking me to give him a call. When I called him up, he immediately and very generously offered to give me the rights to the song for a meager $40 then proceeded to reminisce about the good old days for another 30 minutes.
 
Skip was hilarious. He told me a story about how his manager had called him when he and his band were on tour in the early ’70s and told him that they had to start playing “Lake Shore Drive” at their shows. The band hadn’t realized that the song was getting radio airplay; so much time had elapsed between when they had recorded it and when it became a hit that they actually had to go to a record store while they were on the road and buy their own album in order to re-learn the song. He also told me that the band used to dose their Quaaludes with LSD and wash them down with a mixture of NyQuil and tequila. He called that a “Green Russian.” It was a very memorable phone conversation.
 
Last year I found out that “Lake Shore Drive” was prominently featured in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2, something that pissed me off to no end. The film was a Hollywood tentpole with no connection to Chicago and it was going to make the song more famous than ever, which would also change how people perceived my own movie; I realized that some people were already watching COOL APOCALYPSE for the first time and saying, “Hey, it’s the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY song!” during the “Lake Shore Drive” scene. Nonetheless, when I heard that Skip Haynes passed away yesterday at the age of 71, I felt glad that he had found this unexpected Hollywood success late in life. I hope that he earned five figures from selling the rights to Marvel and that he was able to put that money to good use at the dog rescue and enjoy his last couple years on earth as much as possible. Rest in peace, Skip. Thanks to Bluetooth technology, I can now play your song every time I drive down Lake Shore Drive in your honor.



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