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Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Best Films of the Year So Far

All of these films first screened theatrically in Chicago in the first half of 2018. I’ve linked to my original reviews and podcast appearances where applicable and offer new thoughts on a few films I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy.

20. Atoms of Ashes (Scrantom, USA)/Dancer (McCormick, USA)/Runner (Cooney, USA)

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Three astonishing debut shorts by young female directors, all of which received their Chicago premieres at local festivals (Women of the Now’s Anniversary Showcase, the Chicago Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Critics Film Festival, respectively). The future – of cinema, of everything – is female. I wrote capsule reviews of all three for Time Out Chicago: Atoms of Ashes here, Dancer here and Runner here.

19. The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing (Alonzo, USA)

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I enjoyed this no-budget absurdist/minimalist comedy so much that I wrote about it twice (for Time Out Chicago here and Cine-File here) then moderated a post-screening Q&A with the cast and crew following the World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema.

18. A Fantastic Woman (Lelio, Chile)

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Not as rich as Sebastian Lelio’s previous film, the sublime character study Gloria, this is nonetheless well worth seeing for Daniela Vega’s fantastic lead performance.

17. Annihilation (Garland, USA)

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Oscar Isaac is miscast but thinking-person’s sci-fi done large is always welcome and, for my money, this is a clear advance on Ex Machina for director Alex Garland.

16. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar, Indonesia)

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I’m grateful that Cinepocalypse brought this Indonesian horror film to the Music Box. It’s superior to Hereditary if only because the “Satanic” elements seem deeply rooted in the culture and religion of the characters and not just shoehorned in because the director is a fan of Rosemary’s Baby.

15. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker, USA)

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Not just a music doc but also an impressive experimental movie crossed with a highly personal essay film. My capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

14. Have You Seen My Movie? (Smith, UK)

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A clever and stimulating found-footage doc comprised of clips from other movies . . . in which people are watching movies. I discussed this on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

13. Ismael’s Ghosts (Desplechin, France)

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This is Arnaud Desplechin’s worst film but it features Marion Cotillard dancing to the original Another Side of Bob Dylan version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which elevates it to the status of essential viewing.

12. Savage Youth (Johnson, USA)

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Fascinating true-crime tale acted to perfection by a terrific young ensemble cast. I reviewed it for Time Out Chicago here and interviewed director Michael Curtis Johnson for Cine-File here.

11. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson, USA)

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A hilarious and ingenious “remake” of Vertigo, which consists only of scenes from other movies and T.V. shows shot in San Francisco — though this won’t make a lick of sense if you don’t know Hitchcock’s masterpiece like the back of your hand.

10. Loveless (Zvyagintsev, Russia)

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Andrei Zvyagintsev’s damning indictment of Putin’s Russia disguised as a dour melodrama. Smart, exacting filmmaking.

9. Bisbee ’17 (Greene, USA)

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No American film this year feels more relevant than Robert Greene’s innovative doc about the U.S. government’s shameful deportation of recently unionized workers, many of them immigrants, from the title Arizona town 100 years ago. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

8. Claire’s Camera (Hong, S. Korea/France)

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This was dismissed or damned with faint praise as lightweight Hong in some quarters but those critics are dead wrong. I wrote a capsule review of this great comedy for Time Out Chicago here.

7. First Reformed (Schrader, USA)

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I wrote on social media that I greatly enjoyed Paul Schrader’s “Protestant version of Diary of a Country Priest.” When asked by a friend to elaborate, I expounded: “Bresson has always been Schrader’s biggest influence and that influence is more pronounced in First Reformed than ever before. Some of the elements that can be traced back to Diary of a Country Priest specifically: the clergyman coming into conflict with his superiors for leading too ascetic a lifestyle, the way he bares his soul in his diary, his stomach cancer, his alcoholism, his search for grace in a superficial, material world, the austerity of the visual style, the transcendental uplift of the final scene, etc.”

6. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont, France)

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Bruno Dumont’s batshit-crazy electronic/metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. I reviewed this for Cine-File here and discussed it on the inaugural episode of Cine-Cast, the Cine-File podcast, here.

5. The Woman Who Left (Diaz, Philippines)

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A companion piece to Lav Diaz’s earlier Norte: The End of History, this nearly 4-hour epic  — about a woman being released from prison after 30 years and searching for the man who framed her — has more intelligent things to say about “revenge” than all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies put together. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white and featuring a tremendous lead performance by Charo Santos-Concio (who came out of retirement to play the part).

4. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker, USA)

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A theater director asks a teenage actress to mine deeply personal emotional terrain – including the tumultuous relationship she has with her own mother – in order to workshop a new play. This wild and beautiful film, a quantum leap beyond Josephine Decker’s first two movies, cuts deep into the heart of the dubious emotional exploitation inherent in all director/actor relationships. Imagine Mulholland Drive from a truly female perspective and you’ll have some idea of what Decker is up to — but this exhilarating film looks and sounds like nothing else. Helena Howard should go down as a cinematic immortal for this even if she never acts in another film.

3. Phantom Thread (Anderson, USA/UK)

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PTA’s most perfect (though not greatest) film. I loved it as much as everyone and reviewed it for this very blog when it belatedly opened in Chicago in January. Capsule here.

2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami, Iran)

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film — and final masterpiece — contains the most innovative use of CGI I’ve ever seen. Capsule review at Time Out Chicago here.

1. Zama (Martel, Argentina)

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Lucrecia Martel’s long-awaited return confronts colonialism and racism in 18th-century Argentina in a most daring and original way: by focusing on an entirely unexceptional man. It is also so radical and masterful in its approach to image and sound that it turns viewers into aliens (to paraphrase something Martel said to me in an interview, which you can read at Time Out Chicago here).

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Satan’s Slaves (Anwar)
2. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (Chiodo)
3. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Takahata)
4. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
5. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
6. The Babadook (Kent)
7. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
8. Neighboring Sounds (Mendonca)
9. Citizen Kane (Welles)
10. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)


Bresson on Blu x 2

Q: Here (in Mouchette) and in Balthazar one senses a new fascination with pain.

A: Perhaps because I feel that pain must be acknowledged no less than happiness.

— Robert Bresson interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels in 1970

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Newly released on Blu-ray — by Artificial Eye and the Criterion Collection, respectively — are two of French director Robert Bresson’s greatest achievements: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967). Perhaps strangely, I had never thought of these ascetic masterpieces as being companion pieces, in spite of the short timespan in which they were made, until watching these Blu-rays in quick succession. Indeed, they represent the only time in Bresson’s 50-year career that he ever made two movies in consecutive years. Taken together, they show the filmmaker at a crucial transitional point in his evolution as an artist — more specifically, at the tail end of his middle period and just before the beginning of his great late period. Au Hasard Balthasar and Mouchette mark the last times Bresson would shoot on black-and-white film stock (to the chagrin of some of his admirers) as well as the last time he would use non-diegetic music on his soundtracks — a Schubert piano sonata in the former, Monteverdi’s Magnificat in the latter. (When Bresson transitioned into making films in color, his already-minimalist aesthetic would become even further refined to include only the barest essentials of what he needed in terms of image and sound.) The two movies even share a screen presence, Jean-Claude Guilbert, the only time Bresson ever cast the same “model” in a substantial role more than once. But Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette have deeper affinities in their approach to characterization and theme: both center on the plight of innocent “holy-fool” characters (a donkey and a 14-year-old girl, respectively) in worlds otherwise distinguished by an overwhelming human evil.

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Many of Bresson’s admirers cite Au Hasard Balthazar as his single greatest achievement and it’s not hard to see why. In many ways it’s the most ambitious and expansive movie he ever made (Jean-Luc Godard called it, with little hyperbole, “the world in an hour-and-a-half”). Based on an original screenplay, as opposed to a short story or a novel like most of his other work, Balthazar tells the story of the life and death of the title character, a donkey, in provincial France. As the animal — Bresson’s ultimate “non-actor” — is passed from one owner to the next over a span of many years, he becomes a kind of blank slate upon which the sins of mankind are imprinted: his owners inflict physical abuse on him and exhibit such unsavory characteristics as avarice, lust, drunkenness, etc. All the while, Balthazar looks on, silently and without judgement. But Bresson intriguingly expands the scope of this narrative by telling the parallel story of Marie (Anne Wiazemsky in her screen debut), a teenage girl and the daughter of one of Balthazar’s owners, who is led astray by local bad-boy/Satan-figure Gerard (François Lafarge). As the story progresses in a fashion unusually elliptical even for this director, the poetic use of parallel editing makes it seem as if the fates of the girl and the donkey are inextricably intertwined. The final scene, which depicts a kind of miracle, is arguably the most moving scene in Bresson’s oeuvre, a feat that is all the more impressive given that it does not involve human actors.

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Mouchette is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Bernanos (who also provided the source material for Bresson’s breakthrough feature, The Diary of a Country Priest, in 1951). When asked why he chose to adapt Bernanos a second time, he claimed “they” had been asking him to do it for 10 years and that, more importantly, he felt like making another movie but didn’t want to take the time to write an original script. While these comments might indicate that the end result is somehow slighter or less personal than Au Hasard Balthazar, this follow-up freature, which won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, is major Bresson. I would also argue it is a more lucid, pure and emotionally affecting work than his more celebrated previous Bernanos adaptation. Nadine Nortier, in her only film role to date, is an extraordinary screen presence as the title heroine, a poor, rural teenage girl who is consistently let down or betrayed by the adults around her: her alcoholic father, her bedridden mother, her unfairly strict teacher and a local poacher who repays the girl’s kindness by raping her. Solace comes only in fleeting moments: walking alone through the woods, riding the bumper cars at a traveling carnival, the chance to comfort her infant sister, etc. As in Balthazar, the film’s impact is shattering because of Bresson’s unique ability to elicit empathy for a marginalized protagonist while also ruthlessly avoiding sentimentality. And, while equating his protagonist with hunted animals suggests the influence of Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game, Mouchette would itself prove to be a major influence on other filmmakers, most notably the Dardenne brothers in their 1999 film Rosetta.

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The Mouchette Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk here. The Au Hazard Balthazar Blu-ray can be purchased from Amazon here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. 3 Idiots (Hirani)
2. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
3. Legend of the Mountain (Hu)
4. Mouchette (Bresson)
5. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
6. The Lost City of Z (Gray)
7. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
8. Hereditary (Aster)
9. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene)
10. Savage Youth (Johnson)


The RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Official Soundtrack Album

Below are the liner notes I wrote to accompany the brilliant score that Anaphylaxis (aka Jason Coffman) provided for my new film RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO. The film will not premiere until this fall but you can listen to the entire soundtrack by streaming it (or, for a measly $3, downloading it!) at Bandcamp now. Enjoy!

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The music cues I wrote into the script for RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO describe the soundtrack as containing “dreamy and ethereal electronic pop.” As late as the film’s pre-production stage, in March of 2018, I still had no clue who I was going to approach about composing the original score when a funny thing happened: I heard the sensational new Anaphylaxis album DARK LOVE, DARK MAGIC. I instantly knew that it was the exact sound I had been looking for. The driving rhythm and shimmering synthesizer of “Blue Devil Suite” sounded custom-made for my planned opening-credits sequence featuring abstract shots of the guardrail on Lake Shore Drive. “To Burgundy and Back” — and its accompanying eerie “brushed bell” stem track — possessed a dark majesty that I knew would provide the necessary counterpoint to the rapid-fire screwball-comedy dialogue of my first scene between Clare Cooney and Kevin Wehby. I soon realized that I wouldn’t need a composer after all; digging through the Anaphylaxis back catalogue gave me such riches as “Lin Minmei,” a full-on house jam that proved the perfect accompaniment to our “strip literary trivia” sequence, and “Dr. Nera Vivaldi,” a minimalist, acoustic guitar-driven song that underscored the poignancy of the extended scene where Rashaad Hall and Matt Sherbach’s characters walk from their Rogers Park home to the lakeshore nearby.

There was only one problem: we had one day left to lock picture before the movie was due to move on to color correction and post-sound mixing when my editor, Eric Marsh, informed me that we needed an additional song — one that could play under a scene in which Nina Ganet’s character finds her boyfriend in bed with another woman. As if right on cue, I received an email from Jason Coffman, mastermind behind Anaphylaxis for the past quarter century, informing me he had just composed a new track for the film entitled “Midsummer Masque.” Although Jason had yet to watch any of the footage and I had not spoken with him about the kind of music we needed for the film’s third part, “Midsummer Masque” began with an ominous burst of electronica that seemed to emphasize Nina’s righteous anger with sublime aptness; it was as if Jason and I had been in telepathic communication when he composed the track. When I saw how Eric married this song to the galvanic moment of Nina slamming the front door to her character’s apartment I nearly wept with gratitude at the cosmic coincidence of what Jason had done. Then again I remembered an old saying about how there are no coincidences. The soundtrack album for RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO consists of the aforementioned tracks plus a 1923 recording of blues legend Eva Taylor singing “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” a then-new composition co-written by her husband Clarence Williams. The resulting compilation offers something old and something new, and serves as an ideal introduction to the wonderful sonic world of Anaphylaxis.

— Michael Glover Smith, June 2, 2018


Filmmaker Interview: Michael Curtis Johnson


The 25th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival

The following piece on my best bets for this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, which kicked off last night and runs through this Sunday, was posted at Time Out Chicago today.

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The Chicago Underground Film Festival reaches a significant milestone with this year’s 25th-anniversary edition, which runs from Wednesday, June 6 through Sunday, June 10. CUFF’s notion of what constitutes an “underground” film has always been admirably expansive and this year’s program is typically eclectic in its offering of narrative, documentary and experimental works. We picked one movie to see from each category.

Savage Youth is a fact-based crime drama set in Joliet that features half-a-dozen phenomenal performances by a cast of young adult actors. Will Brittain (Everybody Wants Some!!!) and Grace Victoria Cox (Twin Peaks) stand out as a budding horror-core rapper and a visual artist, respectively, whose lives veer inexorably into tragedy after they begin dabbling in drugs and petty crime. The film’s depiction of an economically depressed and racially divided small town milieu looks especially trenchant and disturbing in light of the current political climate (although it was shot before the 2016 election), but writer and director Michael Curtis Johnson allows his characters moments of tenderness worthy of early Nicholas Ray.

Lori Felker’s Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO is a fascinating documentary about an eccentric subject: a cult figure and pioneer of the No Wave music scene in New York City in the late 1970s who claims to be a “hybrid alien” from the “planet Strazar.” Felker’s film, eight years in the making, is an impressive work of both archaeology and craftsmanship that uses every stylistic trick in the book—from archival footage to animation—to chronicle Von LMO’s many rises and falls; but the director’s masterstroke was allowing the true subject of the movie to become her complicated friendship with this weirdo. Future Language is as much a thorny love letter from one eccentric artist to another as it is a warts-and-all portrait of a gifted musician haunted by demons of his own making.

DANCER is a wordless 8-minute experimental short that repurposes footage from Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 to exhilarating effect, taking a well-known scene of Christina Ricci tap dancing and “making it strange” by chopping it up, adding split screen and heavily distorting it all with a video synthesizer so that the fragmented and fuzzy images that result become a treatise on female beauty as well as the objectification of said beauty. Director Haley McCormick’s analog-painterly aesthetic is perfectly complemented by a gorgeous original score composed and performed by Heart of Palm (a side project of No Coast / No Hope operator Shea Hardacre).

For more information on the 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the CUFF website.


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