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Monthly Archives: August 2018

Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION

I wrote the following review of Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, my favorite documentary of 2018, for this week’s Cine-File Chicago. It opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run today.

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Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

The starting point for this fascinating and endlessly surprising documentary by Julien Faraut was the director’s discovery of a previously unseen cache of 16mm film rolls dating from the mid-1980s that featured John McEnroe at Roland Garros, the tennis tournament commonly known as the “French Open.” This archival footage was originally shot by another director, Gil de Kermadec, for a series of instructional films that began in the 1960s and for which McEnroe, the controversial world number one who helped popularize tennis when it first became widely televised, served as the final subject. De Kermadec shot more than 20 times the amount of footage that he needed for his official portrait of McEnroe, more than he captured of any other player, and the awesome “leftover” footage provided an audiovisual goldmine for Faraut’s idiosyncratic essay film. The younger director eschews most non-fiction filmmaking norms – there are no contemporary interviews, and his witty, scripted narration, spoken in voice-over by actor Mathieu Amalric in English, makes no attempt to offer any sort of conventional context for who McEnroe is or why he was important to the sport. Instead, Faraut uses de Kermadec’s footage as an investigative tool to make an in-depth study of the beauty and creativity of McEnroe’s playing style, and to draw parallels between tennis and cinema. This wildly unorthodox approach is apparent from an opening quotation by tennis fan Jean-Luc Godard (“Cinema lies, sport doesn’t”), which is swiftly followed by an excerpt of a ridiculous early tennis-training film in black-and-white, then a gangbusters montage in glorious 16mm color, irresistibly scored to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl,” of McEnroe’s distinctive lefty serve on the burnt-orange clay surface of Roland Garros’ center court. Later, Faraut analyzes de Kermadec’s unusual technique of using medium shots to focus on a single player in three-quarters profile by noting that viewers of this type of shot are not like typical tennis spectators. As we watch McEnroe (but, crucially, not his opponent) scramble along the baseline, expertly mixing slices with flat hitting, Amalric’s narration informs us that we are being invited to discover “with a certain empathy, what is actually needed to win a point in a tennis match.” Slow-motion shots break down McEnroe’s movement even further, showing “what the eye cannot see,” as Faraut makes comparisons between de Kermadec’s footage and the “chronophotographic” cinema experiments of the late 19th century. Faraut also invokes critic Serge Daney, who noted that one of the chief pleasures of the movies is the way they seemingly “invent time,” by contrasting the more fixed timetable of other sporting events with the way a tennis match’s unpredictable duration is determined by the ability of the players. McEnroe’s notorious temper tantrums are analyzed at length for their performative quality – in the film’s most outrageous conceit, Faraut overdubs a McEnroe tirade against a linesperson with a famous passage of dialogue from RAGING BULL in which Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta harangues his younger brother (“Did you fuck my wife?”) – while McEnroe the player is elsewhere provocatively compared to a filmmaker. In Faraut’s analogy, the frequency with which McEnroe comes to the net to end points swiftly is akin to a director calling “Cut!” The only sequence in all of JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION that resembles anything close to a traditional sports biography comes during a suspenseful climax when Faraut shows a condensed version – complete with onscreen time-clock – of McEnroe’s see-saw 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl (a Czechoslovakian player whose lanky, gaunt figure, sunken cheeks, dark features and humorless demeanor made him the tennis equivalent of NOSFERATU’s Count Orlok), a match whose outcome gives this splendid movie its poignant and ironic subtitle. (2018, 95 min, DCP) MGS

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
2. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
3. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay)
4. Love Affair (McCarey)
5. Mercy’s Girl (Lape)
6. Support the Girls (Bujalski)
7. Zama (Martel)
8. In a Moment (Puehler)
9. A Matter of Life and Death (Powell/Pressburger)
10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (Miyazaki)


Casey Puccini’s I DON’T CARE

The following review of Casey Puccini’s I Don’t Care appeared at Time Out Chicago today. 

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I Don’t Care, the sophomore feature of Chicago filmmaker Casey Puccini (Children Without Parents), will receive its local premiere at Chicago Filmmakers this Saturday, August 25. It’s a sharply made, acerbic comedy chronicling a pretentious filmmaker (played by Puccini himself in a performance that impresses for its stubborn refusal to elicit viewer sympathy) whose most recent micro-budget opus spirals out of control due to a combination of his own incompetence and unexamined hubris. Puccini has described the movie as not strictly autobiographical although, given that he’s also calling it a “cautionary tale,” it seems likely that both the central character and basic scenario arose from imagining his life having gone down a darker path.

If the selfish fictional character of “Casey Puccini” were the whole show, I Don’t Care might risk being a too-bitter pill to swallow. Fortunately, Puccini had the good sense to cast the soulful, Jeff-award winning actress Sasha Gioppo opposite him (as an actress named, you guessed it, Sasha), and much of this modest film’s comedic power results from waiting for her character—initially good-natured but unpaid and underfed—to crack under the guidance of her ungrateful and indecisive “auteur.” The tension between the two reaches a boiling point in this modest movie’s best scene, where a paranoid Gioppo accuses Puccini of stealing her necklace during the course of a particularly stressful shooting day. It’s a mini-masterpiece of cringe humor that should resonate with anyone familiar with the sometimes-harrowing process of artistic collaboration.

For more information about the Chicago Premiere of I Don’t Care visit the Chicago Filmmakers website.


Talking RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO on Playtime with Bill and Kerri

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I will be on the Playtime with Bill and Kerri radio show this Sunday from 1-3pm to talk all about my forthcoming feature RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO. Playtime with Bill and Kerri is a fantastic show dedicated solely to the arts and I cannot wait to discuss my film with the witty and erudite hosts! Also, I MAY just drop some info about some early RENDEZVOUS screenings… If you’re in Chicago, you can tune in and listen live at WCGO (that’s 1590AM on your radio dial). This should be the first of many media appearances about the film!

*UPDATE* – You can watch a Facebook Live video of the interview here (segment begins at 29:30).


Spike Lee’s BLACKkKLANSMAN

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Spike Lee’s galvanizing new comedy/drama BlacKkKlansman will be released in theaters this Friday, August 10, one year to the day after the notorious “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Viriginia became the site of violent clashes including a car attack that left one counter-protester dead. The release date is no coincidence: although the film is set in 1970s Colorado Springs, Colorado, one of its implicit aims is to use the incredible true story of a black undercover police officer’s successful infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in order to examine America’s current cultural climate. The title cop, Ron Stallworth (played by newcomer John David Washington, Denzel’s son, in a charismatic, understated performance), communicated with the Klan via telephone then, taking a page from the Cyrano de Bergerac playbook, sent a white officer (Adam Driver, also wonderful) in his stead for face-to-face meetings. Bridging this era with the present is David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK’s Grand Wizard who updated and sanitized the image of white nationalism, arguably paving the way for the racist hate-mongering that has characterized Donald Trump’s presidency. In telling this remarkable tale, Spike Lee has made his most vital narrative feature in decades and is deservedly receiving his widest theatrical distribution since Inside Man in 2006.

In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, however, BlacKkKlansman is frequently hilarious as satire (especially the scenes involving Stallworth’s phone conversations with Duke). While Lee’s previous work has frequently been both sloppy and didactic, he’s able to pull off crazy tonal shifts here that are both complex and masterful – most notably in a startling coda using contemporary documentary footage that will undoubtedly be much talked about. BlacKkKlansman is also surprisingly taut as a genre piece; it’s a buddy cop film that nods to classic blaxploitation films from the era in which it’s set. The way it uses genre tropes to comment on social issues has caused some critics to compare it to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (which accomplished similar things with the horror and sci-fi genres, respectively). But the provocative way Lee superimposes the present onto the past ultimately put me in the mind of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln more than any other movie: just as Ford’s myth-making about a canny young lawyer from Springfield, Illinois achieves a sublime poignancy because of the viewer’s knowledge of who Abe Lincoln will become in the future, so too does Lee achieve an ironic and tragic grandeur because of the viewer’s knowledge of what will happen to the whole damn United States of America after Stallworth’s assignment has ended. To paraphrase something Woodrow Wilson reportedly said about D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (itself a major reference point in BlacKkKlansman), Lee’s essential new film is history written with lightning.

To find theaters screening the film, ticket info and showtimes, visit BlacKkKlansman’s official website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sure Fire (Jost)
2. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood)
3. The Birdcage (Nichols)
4. I Don’t Care (Puccini)
5. Creepshow (Romero)
6. The Devil is a Woman (Von Sternberg)
7. The Scarlet Empress (Von Sternberg)
8. Blonde Venus (Von Sternberg)
9. BlacKkKlansman (Lee)
10. Safety Last! (Newmeyer/Taylor)


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