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Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Safdie Brothers’ GOOD TIME at the Music Box

I wrote the following review of the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, my favorite American film of 2017, for Cinefile Chicago. It opens at the Music Box Theatre in 35mm tonight.

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Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (New American)

Music Box Theatre – Friday-Thursday, 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Midnight

The American heist movie enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2017 with the releases of LOGAN LUCKY, BABY DRIVER and GOOD TIME. While the first two of these films are enjoyable, comedic, populist entertainments, the Safdie brothers’ movie is, by contrast, a trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying thing: a breathlessly paced thriller centered on an unlikable protagonist (who is brilliantly played by a charismatic actor) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America—beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface—while also never slowing down enough to allow us to process what’s happening until it’s over. This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they’re put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of dubiously including “racial signifiers” that he feels can be interpreted in a multitude of ways but that the filmmakers ultimately don’t care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scot free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning of an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie’s cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while simultaneously finding him morally reprehensible. I also don’t know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its “bad lighting” and “avoidance of prettiness,” qualities that are much better ascribed to the Safdies’ previous film, the urban junkie-drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. While the two films do share a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it seemingly turns urban spaces into a giant playground), GOOD TIME is also much more daring in how it juxtaposes its “street cred” with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization—one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie’s luck has finally run out for good, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium. (2017, 101 min, 35mm) MGS

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Interview with Josh da Silva of Cow Lamp Films

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Independent Chicago filmmakers, take note: there’s a new distributor in town. Cow Lamp Films is the indie features division of long-running Questar Entertainment. Their goal is to procure locally made films for a national audience via cable television and major streaming platforms. Among their acquisitions so far are James Choi’s acclaimed Empty Spaces and Greg Dixon and McKenzie Chinn’s eagerly anticipated Olympia. I recently spoke to Cow Lamp’s Director of Acquisitions Josh da Silva about how the company was formed and what its ambitious plans are for the future.

MGS: Cow Lamp is a new player on the national distribution scene. How did the company come to be and what is its mission statement?

JD: It’s a “new player” but it’s part of an older player, Questar Entertainment, which has been around for 32 years. We have over 5,000 titles in our collection. We’re on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and we do a lot of stuff with public television and a lot of digital platforms. Cow Lamp, the independent distribution division, started pretty much when I started as full-time employee at Questar as Digital Content Manager. I was finishing up my thesis film at DePaul, which is a feature-length documentary, and I realized there are a lot of people who have films. I didn’t really know how the process worked of being in festivals. I thought you would enter a festival and Netflix would see it and they’d give you a big check and you’d be good. You know, maybe I could pay off my student loans! But it doesn’t work like that. So it came about as a need. I saw there was a place in the market: Midwestern and Chicago films receive almost no representation. Unless you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast, it’s really hard to get legitimate distribution. So we decided to start a new division. We were acquiring more independent films by really great local filmmakers: James Choi, Greg Dixon, Mike Reiter, Pamela Sherrod Anderson, Susan Kerns. So we saw we had this great collection of films and we wanted to come up with a title for our distribution company, something that was quirky and also Midwest and Chicago-centric. That’s how we came up with Cow Lamp Films – the cow that kicked over the lamp that burned down Chicago.

MGS: You’re title now is Director of Acquisitions. What are your duties in this position?

JD: So as Director of Acquisitions, I find films, I approach filmmakers and I spend a lot of time just trying to find the best films and create a nice catalogue that we can take to buyers. I also try to educate by talking at universities about how to protect yourself as a filmmaker and how to get an equitable deal.

MGS: What is the relationship between Cow Lamp and the Chicago Comedy Film Festival?

JD: My film, Something Out of Nothing, got into the Chicago Comedy Film Festival and I saw an opportunity to have a bit of synergy. I contacted (festival director) Jessica Hardy and we talked – I had met Jessica before and she’s always a pleasure to work with – and we wanted to emphasize Chicago films. There are a lot of festivals in the Midwest but they don’t necessarily help filmmakers by helping them get buyers. It’s a great business for other people to be in but at the end of the day filmmakers should be able to make some money off of their films, especially if they’re at a festival. So we were invited to their festival, Cow Lamp and Questar, and our President Jon Plowman came, as well as a lot of our other employees, to meet and mingle. We’re currently working on acquiring a title from the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The directors are actually out of the California area but it’s a good film and I think it’ll do well. We actually don’t have too many comedies so hopefully this will help. Then we’ll also be working with the Chicago Independent Film and Television Festival in April, which is run by Jessica’s husband, Brent Kado. So we’ll definitely be working with them and looking for some new acquisitions.

MGS: There are seven films listed on your website. What, if any, common threads are there between them? What are you looking for in terms of the kinds of films you distribute?

JD: Ultimately, that they’re good films, which can be subjective. We’ve just signed a new documentary about music festivals so we have eight films locked. We have turned people away. I use my staff to watch the movies and get their opinions. I don’t always trust my opinion because, as a filmmaker myself, it’s hard for me to watch some things sometimes. We have to have standards because we’re investing a lot into these films as well.

MGS: How are these films going to be made available to watch?

JD: It’s important to think about films as a product, something tangible. Part of getting the maximum amount of revenue, which seems contrary to what people believe, is to be very specific in your release. If I have one title and I put it out everywhere it loses its value. It loses its value financially and also to viewers because it doesn’t seem special, it’s just YouTube fodder. We’re starting right now with television. We’re working on a nice little cable television deal to get our films out there. Buyers want exclusivity. When you’re a young filmmaker and you want to just get it out there, you have to be patient. Don’t just put it on Amazon because that destroys its value. We’ve experienced that with films. People want something exclusive first. You get more money if its exclusive, if its considered a new release, and then you work your way down the food chain. You start with television and then you go to exclusive streaming platforms like Netflix then (digital) “rentals” and “buys.” We are considering doing some theatrical releases as well for some of our films.

MGS: How would you recommend local filmmakers submit their films to you for distribution consideration?

JD: www.cowlampfilms.com. You can submit your film and I will personally take a look at it and make sure other people take a look at it. I also love a good trailer. Trailers are so important. Beyond just signing filmmakers, we give them good deals because we’ve learned from other people who have been signed by large names that it can be very predatory. Our goal is to create a lasting film scene. We believe the next great directors are here in Chicago. It’s basically like building a house with every film (that we acquire). We have very equitable deals: we take the financial risk and your film will hopefully receive some nice revenue. We’re more competitive than a Fox or an A24. We’re going to give you a great deal because we’re willing to take the risk and make the investment.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami)
3. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
4. Phantom Thread (Anderson)
5. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford)
6. Notting Hill (Michell)
7. Porto (Klinger)
8. Phantom Thread (Anderson)
9. Waiting for Kiarostami (Khandan)
10. 24 Frames (Kiarostami)


Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread tells the story of a 60-year-old man who has behaved like an incorrigible child his entire adult life because his genius has allowed him to get away with it. His name is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his business is fashion design and he lives in 1950s upper-crust London but this elemental romantic drama about a stubborn man meeting his match could be taking place anytime, anywhere. An early breakfast-table scene suggests that Woodcock has long had a revolving door of lovers, each of whom he can’t tell apart from the last. His most important relationship is with his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), who carefully maintains the balance of his well-manicured existence. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), the country waitress whose “ideal figure” and beguiling manner strike his fancy like so many women before her. But Alma is different: she actually worms her way into his heart. A scene where she fiercely demands a drunken patron remove one of Woodcock’s dresses causes him to see her in a new light — not unlike the moment where Lisa Fremont enters Lars Thorwald’s apartment in Rear Window. But Alma, even shrewder and more clever than she first appears, soon has to rely on more devious means in order to make their relationship perpetuate, turning Woodcock painfully inside out in the process.

My friend Scott Pfeiffer has written that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson posits one of Alma’s decisive actions (you’ll know the one when you see it) “as a metaphor for the skill of figuring out how to live.” I will go further and suggest that the film as a whole is a manual for marriage: how do you let someone into your world without upsetting your routine? How do they let you into theirs? This movie absolutely nails what it’s like to have to put up with the petty annoyance of listening to someone eat too loud. I’ve heard the ending described as “twisted” and “unsettling” but I must note that Phantom Thread, which appears to be Anderson’s most autobiographical work, was made by a man who has been in a successful monogamous relationship for 17 years. As a happily married man of 10-plus years myself, it’s hard for me to see the conclusion as anything other than an optimistic statement about how two people learn to compromise and make their relationship work, however unconventionally. As such, it joins the ranks of the great films about marriage: Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, Godard’s Contempt, Elaine May’s A New Leaf and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Although I prefer the looser and wilder Inherent Vice, there can be no doubt that Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most elegantly structured and perfectly realized work. Also, it’s fucking hilarious.


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE at the Siskel Center

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I could not be more excited to announce that my film MERCURY IN RETROGRADE will receive its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center next month. It screens three times: Friday, 2/16, Monday, 2/19 and Wednesday, 2/21. Producer/actor Shane Simmons and I will be present for Q&A sessions following all three screenings, which will be moderated by three of my favorite Chicago film critics: David J. Fowlie (Keeping It Reel), Matt Fagerholm (Indie Outlook) and Ian Simmons (Kicking the Seat). More information including ticket info and showtimes can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

The film’s trailer, cut together by Simmons, also recently premiered as an online exclusive at The Film Stage.

Hope to see you at the Siskel!


42 GRAMS at the Siskel Center

I wrote the following review of Jack C. Newell’s 42 Grams for Time Out Chicago.

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The 42 Grams Documentary is a Fitting Tribute to the Departed Michelin-starred Restaurant

The newly-refurbished Gene Siskel Film Center (which was closed during December while new seats and carpeting were installed) has a new documentary series kicking off on Friday, January 5, and running through Thursday, February 1, called Stranger Than Fiction. The series, featuring the local premieres of eight new films, is ambitiously international in scope—among the countries represented are Israel, Japan, Mexico and Qatar—but Chicagoans will be particularly interested in Jack C. Newell’s locally-made 42 Grams. This fascinating documentary tells the behind-the-scenes story of how two-star Michelin chef Jake Bickelhaupt transitioned from running an underground supper club out of his own apartment to founding the highly acclaimed but short-lived Uptown restaurant that provides the film with its title. It’s a perfect match between filmmaker and subject matter as Newell, program director of the Harold Ramis Film School, previously made the improv-comedy Open Tables, which was also set amid Chicago’s fine-dining milieu.

What makes 42 Grams such a compelling watch is the way Bickelhaupt, a culinary genius from a rural, working-class Wisconsin background, comes across as such an electrifying character—at once passionate, intense and occasionally ornery. Newell maintains an admirably objective directorial eye throughout, trusting viewers to decide for themselves what to make of Bickelhaupt’s abrasive manner, which precipitates a revolving door of employees, and to what extent his unconventional style of restaurant management is justified by his pursuit of perfection. In fact, at a fleet 80 minutes, 42 Grams is such a briskly edited and entertaining ride that viewers aren’t likely to start reflecting on its more profound themes until a surprising closing-title crawl hints at what the film’s true subject has been all along: the thorny intersection of professional ambition and personal relationships.

More information about 42 Grams and the entire Stranger Than Fiction lineup can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Un Flic (Melville)
2. 42 Grams (Newell)
3. Code Name: Melville (Bohler)
4. Leon Morin, Priest (Melville)
5. The Ballad of Lefty Brown (Moshe)
6. Ezer Kenegdo (Kremer)
7. Raise Your Kids on Seltzer (Kremer)
8. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio)
9. Loveless (Zvyagintsev)
10. Thelma (Trier)


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