Monthly Archives: November 2017

Mercury in Retrograde at the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival


My second feature film, Mercury in Retrograde, screens this Thursday, 11/30 at 2pm at the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival in Des Plaines. It will be followed by a Q&A with me and cast members Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons, Najarra Townsend and Kevin Wehby. The Q&A will be moderated by Kankakee Valley Daily Journal film critic Pam Powell.

The first two reviews of the film have appeared online to coincide with our screening and I am so grateful that the first critics to write about it have been so intelligent and insightful. At Cine-File Chicago, Kian S. Bergstrom calls it “a nuanced and troubling portrait of six people who, over the course of a long weekend, quietly and privately reveal that they are in the process of exploding inside…Many of the actors deserve special acclaim, especially Jack Newell and Alana Arenas, two local actors who play Jack and Golda, the one couple amongst the three to be married, inhabit their complex roles to a chilling degree…It is a trenchant, beautifully and disturbingly stylized look at misogyny and oppression.” In L.A. Splash magazine, Deba Davy writes: “The movie is beautifully shot, the outdoor scenes clear and sharp, the indoor experiences effortlessly equalizing; none of the characters escapes the eye of the camera. The scenes where the separate couples are alone together are startlingly realistic. Further, there is an overall restraint and respect used: while no important detail is spared, there is never an over-the-top deluge of ‘too much information.’ It’s a fine and forceful presentation.”

Update (11/28): At Daily Grindhouse, Jason Coffman writes: “MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is a deeply thoughtful, carefully observed drama with a roster of exceptional performances. By the time the credits roll, many viewers will probably find themselves unwilling to part with some of the characters to whom they may have grown attached…It’s the kind of film that demands the viewer’s careful attention, and rewards it in spades. A fully-realized slate of grown-up characters is a rarity in films at any level, and that alone would set MERCURY IN RETROGRADE above many of its contemporaries. But it’s the powerful specifics of each character’s story that makes this something truly special, and a film that no serious cinephile should miss.”

Update (12/04): The sheer number of reviews is getting difficult to keep up with. Please check the “External Reviews” section of our IMDb page for a comprehensive overview.

Hope to see you at the screening!


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Fat Girl (Breillat)
2. Die Hard (McTiernan)
3. Before Sunset (Linklater)
4. Kedi (Torun)
5. The Square (Ostlund)
6. Insiang (Brocka)
7. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Campion/Kleiman)
8. Shattered Image (Ruiz)
9. The Disaster Artist (Franco)
10. Days of Heaven (Malick)

Bryan Cranston in Last Flag Flying / The Ending of The Florida Project

I consider Richard Linklater one of America’s very best filmmakers, which is why, although its virtues seem undeniable (like all of his work, it’s smart, well-crafted, emotional filmmaking), Last Flag Flying strikes me as something of a dud. I have friends who made the same claim for Everybody Wants Some!! but that raucous college comedy didn’t really aspire to be anything other than a dumb, fun party movie — unless you count John Waters’ pithy observation that it’s also the best “accidentally gay” film ever made. Last Flag Flying, on the other hand, with its Vietnam and Iraq war vet characters and exploration of the themes of loss, grief and brotherhood, clearly aspires to a gravitas that I don’t think it quite achieves. A big part of this failure, I’m sorry to say, stems from the artificiality of Bryan Cranston’s lead performance. The problem isn’t that Cranston is “over the top.” His character, Sal Nealon, is written to be over the top. It’s the same character, after all, that Jack Nicholson played in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (even if his name has been changed here for copyright reasons) and the part cries out to be embodied by a larger-than-life screen presence. No, the problem is that Cranston makes too many actorly “choices.” His performance is simply too busy, the intellectual decision-making behind Sal’s “salt-of-the-earth” qualities too transparent. There’s nothing wrong with many of these choices individually but, scene after scene, they add up to a portrait of a working-class life that ultimately feels synthetic and false. Look at the way Sal wakes up Steve Carell’s “Doc” by literally rubbing a piece of cold pizza against his face. Or the way Sal extinguishes his half-smoked cigar by flicking the cherry with his middle finger then waiting until he’s gone back inside before pocketing the cigar in a leather case. Or, worst of all, the way Sal retrieves a donut from a box by sticking his index finger into the tiny hole in the donut’s center, a moment captured in near-pornographic close-up by Linklater’s camera. Which makes me wonder: did it ever once occur to Linklater to ask, “Bryan, could we try a take where you just pick up the donut like a normal fucking person?”


It has come to my attention that the sublime ending of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has come in for criticism in some quarters, in some cases even by people who otherwise like the movie. The fact that this daringly ambiguous ending has been interpreted as being some kind of sentimental cop-out is shocking. There is obviously a strong “fantasy” quality to this sequence — even without considering the aesthetic shift that occurs from the gorgeous 35mm cinematography of the rest of the film to the iPhone look familiar from Baker’s previous work in Tangerine (an aesthetic apparently necessitated here by the fact that Baker was shooting inside Disney World without permits). But regardless of whether or not the ending is “real,” it has to be seen as the saddest ending possible: The Florida Project is a tragedy about American capitalism as embodied by the characters of a woman, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who live in a cheap motel near an amusement park so they can rip off tourists without ever actually visiting the park themselves. When Halley is arrested on prostitution charges, it inspires Moonee and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to finally take the plunge and try to sneak into the park, allowing them a glimpse of a “normal childhood” and a life they’ve never known. That the scene imparts a feeling of transcendental uplift is undeniable but I would argue that, if we’re watching the movie correctly, this very transcendental quality compounds Baker’s overall sense of tragedy; this will clearly only be a very brief of glimpse of paradise for the girls — before the cops catch up to them and put Moonee in foster care for good.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. BPM (Campillo)
2. The Hole (Tsai)
3. Dazed and Confused (Linklater)
4. Viridiana (Bunuel)
5. Last Flag Flying (Linklater)
6. The Godfather (Coppola)
7. Breathless (Godard)
8. Lady Bird (Gerwig)
9. Chungking Express (Wong)
10. Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (Klinger)

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Daughter of the Nile

I have a capsule review of Daughter of the Nile, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s great portrait of urban Taiwanese malaise circa 1987, in this week’s Cine-File. It screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center four times over the next week in a beautiful new 4K digital restoration. You can read the full review below.
Hou Hsiao-hsien’s DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (Taiwanese Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Until recently, DAUGHTER OF THE NILE has been the most difficult to see film of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s post-BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983) mature period; it has never been released on home video in the U.S. and was absent entirely from the Siskel Center’s Hou retrospectives in 2000 and 2015. It has also been the director’s most critically neglected work to date; when discussed at all, most critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, have tended to compare this contemporary urban drama unfavorably with the rural period pieces that immediately precede and follow it in Hou’s filmography (i.e., 1986’s DUST IN THE WIND and 1989’s A CITY OF SADNESS). When seen from the vantage point of today, however, thanks to a superb new 4K digital restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute, it seems obvious that this is where the modernist Hou of the 1990s was truly born. Based on a proposal from a record company, and conceivedof as a star vehicle for the young female pop singer Lin Yang, Hou, working with three screenwriters, turned the project into a highly personal and stunningly oblique examination of disaffected Taipei youth that prefigures his better known returns to the same milieu in later masterworks like GOODBYE, SOUTH, GOODBYE (1996), MILLENNIUM MAMBO (2001) and thecontemporary segments of GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (1995) and THREE TIMES (2005). Lin, in her screen debut, gives a soulful, quietly riveting performance as Hsiao-yang, a teenage girl who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken by day and goes to school at night, all the while trying to prevent her fractured family from breaking apart for good. Lin finds fleeting moments ofhappiness by imagining herself as the protagonist of her favorite manga, the source of the movie’s title, and when flirting with Ah-sang (Fan Yang), the best friend of her older brother, Hsiao-fang (future Hou regular Jack Kao), both of whom are on the verge of falling dangerously into a life of crime. Hou’s extensive use of nighttime exteriors, illuminated by neon lights and, in one unforgettable sequence, fireworks, combine with Lin’s past-tense voice-over narration to make the whole thing float by like a sad and haunting yet beautiful dream. If you have never seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien and are curious as to why a lot of critics, including me, consider him the best narrative filmmaker working today, this is an excellent place to start exploring his work. (1987, 93 minutes, DCP Digital) MGS

Flickering Empire Book Talk in Lincoln Square

My Flickering Empire co-author Adam Selzer and I will be giving a book talk at the Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square tomorrow night, Tuesday, November 7 from 7-8:30pm. The event will include a lecture, screenings of rare short films from the early history of Chicago filmmaking (some of which were shot in Uptown not far from the Sulzer) as well as a Q&A session. You can learn more about the event at the Sulzer website here. This may be the last joint book talk that Adam and I ever give about Flickering Empire. Hope to see you there!

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Brief Encounter (Lean)
2. The Trouble with Angels (Lupino)
3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
4. A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
5. The Big Lebowski (Coen/Coen)
6. Failan (Song)
7. Breathless (Godard)
8. Some Like It Hot (Wilder)
9. The Road Warrior (Miller)
10. Halloween (Carpenter)

Roy’s World: Barry Gifford & Chicago / The More the Merrier in Northbrook

I couldn’t be more excited to announce that I am producing Roy’s World, a feature-length documentary by my friend Rob Christopher about the great Chicago-born-and-bred writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart). It will feature the voice talent of Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor as well as an original jazz score by Jason Adasiewicz. You can learn more about the film at the IFP Chicago site here. You can hear Rob and I discuss the film with Gary Zidek on his radio show The Arts Desk here. Finally, Chicagoans can catch Barry reading stories from his latest collection The Cuban Club at Constellation this Saturday, November 4 at 8:30pm. The event will also feature live music from Adasiewicz who will be playing selections from the Roy’s World soundtrack. You can learn more about the show at Constellation’s site here.

Also, I have a capsule review of George Stevens’ screwball masterpiece The More the Merrier in this week’s Cine-File. It screens at the Northbrook Public Library on 35mm next Wednesday, November 8 at 1pm and 7:30pm. You can read the full review below.

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in a scene from THE MORE THE MERRIER, 1943.

George Stevens’ THE MORE THE MERRIER (American Revival)
This superior example of the “genius of the Hollywood studio system” may not be as well known as screwball comedy classics like THE AWFUL TRUTH, BRINGING UP BABY or THE LADY EVE but is every bit their equal as a battle-of-the-sexes masterpiece. Connie Milligan (the glorious Jean Arthur) is a single, working woman living in Washington D.C. who ends up with two male roommates due to a World War II housing shortage. She finds herself bickering relentlessly with Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), the younger of the men, which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man, the much older Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes THE MORE THE MERRIER stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. A scene where Carter walks Milligan home late at night, temporarily forgetting that he’s also going to his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, moreimportantly, interact physically; while sitting next to one another on a stoop, McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, creatively paws at Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly feigns disinterest. THE MORE THE MERRIER was very well received in its time but is probably less known today only because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it. (1943, 35mm) MGS

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