Monthly Archives: April 2020

COOL APOCALYPSE in Movies in the Parks’ At Home Series / MERCURY IN RETROGRADE on Amazon & Vimeo


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My first feature, 2015’s no-budget Cool Apocalypse, is now available to stream for the first time ever – thanks to the Chicago Park District’s Movies in the Parks’ “Onscreen: At Home” series. You can stream it for FREE between now and next Monday, May 3, at the Park District’s website.

Meanwhile, my 2017 feature, Mercury in Retrograde, hot on the heels of its “virtual run” at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is also now available for the first time to rent/buy on Digital via Amazon Prime and Vimeo on Demand. Peep the official Mercury website for all of your options.

Rendezvous in Chicago, my 2018 feature, is, of course, still available to stream for free via TubiTV or Amazon Prime.

This means you could conceivably stream all three of the films in my “Chicago Relationship Trilogy” in the next few days for the low, low cost of $1.99 (the price of streaming Mercury in SD on Amazon). If you see any of these films and have any feedback you would like to share, feel free to reach out to me me at mikeygsmith@gmail.com.

Cheers, Mike

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Crime of Passion (Oswald)
2. Sudden Fear (Miller)
3. Vampire in Brooklyn (Craven)
4. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone)
5. She-Devil (Seidelman)
6. My Name is Julia Ross (Ross)
7. Le Petit Soldat (Godard)
8. Cry of the City (Siodmak)
9. Babette’s Feast (Axel)
10. Daytime Drinking (Noh)


Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA

I wrote the following review of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela for this week’s Cine-File Chicago streaming list. It is a revised/improved version of the introduction I wrote to the interview I conducted with Pedro for Cine-File last fall:

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Pedro Costa’s VITALINA VARELA (Portuguese)
Available to rent via the Gene Siskel Film Center here.

Pedro Costa has been one of the world’s most important filmmakers for the past quarter of a century. It was therefore surprising that it wasn’t until last year that one of his films, VITALINA VARELA, won the top award at a major festival (Locarno). This deserved honor, coupled with theatrical distribution from the enterprising Grasshopper Films in the U.S., has thankfully upped the great Portuguese director’s profile even further. Over the course of his career, Costa’s unique, poetic style of filmmaking has evolved from working with full screenplays and professional actors (French movie stars Isaach De Bankole and Edith Scob appear in 1994’s CASA DE LAVA) to casting non-professionals to portray some version of themselves (notably Cape Verdean immigrants living in working-class neighborhoods in Lisbon — including Fontainhas, the systematic destruction of which was captured in the director’s 2000 masterpiece IN VANDA’S ROOM). Along the way there have been side trips into documentary filmmaking proper (WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? and CHANGE NOTHING both document the working lives of artists Costa admires: filmmaking team Straub/Huillet and chanteuse/actress Jeanne Balibar, respectively). VITALINA VARELA, however, feels like something of an apotheosis for Costa — his work in its purest form. Taking its title from the protagonist (and the actress who plays her), VITALINA VARELA is literally the darkest and, arguably, most beautiful film he has yet made. No one knows how to light and frame images like Costa; where most directors film daytime interiors by framing actors against windows, and thus shooting into the light, Costa nearly always frames his subjects against the walls of dark, cave-like interiors, allowing them to be illuminated only by the light entering from windows on the room’s opposite side. Of course, the resulting painterly images would not count for much if Costa’s cinematographic eye wasn’t also focused on a compelling subject. Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after having spent decades apart, but tragically arriving just three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in Costa’s previous film, 2014’s HORSE MONEY. The lead in that movie, Ventura, returns here in a supporting role as the priest of a ramshackle church whose congregation has long abandoned him – a powerful incarnation that, as Costa has acknowledged, evokes performances from cinema’s history as disparate as Claude Laydu in THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and Joel McCrea in STARS IN MY CROWN. But this show ultimately belongs to Vitalina Varela, whose striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her one of the most remarkable screen presences of any movie in recent years. Watching this beautiful and resilient woman contend with a crumbling ceiling while taking a shower or, in a ravishing sequence worthy of John Ford, repairing her roof in a windstorm, constituted an authentic religious experience for this viewer. (2019, 124 min) MGS


Eric Rohmer’s RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS

I wrote the following review of Eric Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris for this week’s COVID-19/all-streaming Cine-file Chicago list.

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Eric Rohmer’s RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS (French)
Available to stream free at https://www.tubitv.com 

Who knows what possessed Eric Rohmer, at the ripe old age of 74, to interrupt the making of his “Tales of the Four Seasons,” the third and final of his major film cycles (following “Six Moral Tales” and “Comedies and Proverbs”), in order to knock off this quickie rom-com anthology in 1995? Surely he must have realized that, at his advanced age, each new movie could very well be his last, while also knowing that he had two more features (A SUMMER’S TALE and AN AUTUMN TALE) to shoot. Whatever the reason, we should all thank the cinema gods that he did decide to write and direct this small, unexpected masterpiece consisting of three separate vignettes about meetings — some by chance, others planned — between young men and women in the titular city: RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS captures the spirit of the Nouvelle Vague more closely than what any of this director’s contemporaries achieved from the 1980s onwards (the only real competition being Jacques Rivette’s UP DOWN FRAGILE from the same year). In fact, the continuity between Rohmer’s first feature, THE SIGN OF LEO, made in 1959, and this — in terms of character, setting, theme and even visual style — is remarkable; Rohmer captures here the vagaries of the human heart by photographing, in handheld, freewheeling 16mm, the relationship dynamics between an amusing gallery of college students, teachers, artists and other assorted bohemians, with a winning fleetness that suggests a much younger filmmaker. The first story, “The 7 O’clock Rendezvous,” follows a student (Clara Bellar) who improvises a plan to exact revenge on the boyfriend she suspects of cheating on her. Packed with enough characters and intricate plot twists to sustain a whole feature, it is the most conventionally entertaining of the three. The second story, “The Benches of Paris,” depicts a series of meetings in public parks between a young woman in a committed relationship (the superb Aurore Rauscher) and another man, a would-be suitor, with whom she refuses to meet in private. The narrative seems almost meandering until Rohmer arrives at a surprising, and exceedingly clever, punchline of an ending. The third story, “Mother and Child, 1907,” is the best of the lot: it offers a hilarious, satirical portrait of a pretentious/mansplaining painter (Michael Kraft) who stalks a potential female conquest inside and outside of an art gallery near his home studio. Tying all of these stories together are performances by a male/female street-musician duo (both play accordion and sing), who function as a kind of Greek chorus and threaten to turn the whole enterprise into a parody of stereotypical notions of “Gallic charm.” Perhaps this last element is why some critics have dismissed RENDEZVOUS IN PARIS as nothing more than lightweight fluff but there’s a reason why no less a luminary than Rivette considered it to be not just his favorite Rohmer movie but a “summit of French cinema.” (1995, 98 min) MGS


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Cry in the Night (Tuttle)
2. Rendezvous in Paris (Rohmer)
3. Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk)
4. Married to the Mob (Demme)
5. Swallow (Mirabella-Davis)
6. What’s Up Doc? (Bogdanovich)
7. Klute (Pakula)
8. Orlando (Potter)
9. The Silence of the Lambs (Demme)
10. Phantom Lady (Siodmak)


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE Streaming Premiere!

In collaboration with my good friends at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I have made my 2017 feature film, MERCURY IN RETROGRADE, starring Roxane Mesquida (FAT GIRL) and Najarra Townsend (CONTRACTED), available to stream for the first time ever! You may stream the film anytime between now and 4/23 for the low, low price of $4.99 and part of the proceeds will go towards the Siskel’s box office. Also, I will be partaking in a virtual Q&A via Facebook Live this Friday night (4/17) at 8pm along with producer/actor Shane Simmons and surprise cast members TBA! The Q&A will be moderated by FilmChicago.com critic Lee Shoquist. Any of my students who stream the film are eligible to earn extra credit towards their grades this semester (see the extra credit page of your course website for more info). Check it out: http://www.mercuryinretrogrademovie.com

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Jean-Marie Straub’s FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS

I wrote the following review of Jean-Marie Straub’s latest, France Against Robots, for this week’s Cine-File list. You only have two more days to stream it!

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Jean-Marie Straub’s FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS (French)

Available to stream free at https://kinoslang.blogspot.com through 4/12.

Jean-Marie Straub’s latest, FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS, recently received its World Premiere online at Kino Slang, the blog of film programmer Andy Rector. This surprise event is the inaugural program of a new weekly online series sparked by the worldwide quarantine, which, to my mind, puts it in the same “corona-ssaince” category as Bob Dylan’s stealth-dropping of the 17-minute single “Murder Most Foul” and Jean-Luc Godard’s surprise appearance on Instagram Live Chat (in which the great director spoke at length about “images in the time of the coronavirus”). Straub’s 10-minute short begins with a five-minute long take/tracking shot that follows Christophe Clavert (best known as a cinematographer) in three-quarters view from behind as he strolls alongside a Swiss lake and recites a Georges Bernanos text from 1945 about political revolution. The substance of this text, which provides the film with its title, is that different forms of government (e.g., “the Imperial English Democracy, the Plutocratic American Democracy and the Marxist Empire of Soviet Dominions”) may appear to be in opposition but actually share the goal of maintaining the same system that allowed them to acquire wealth and power in the first place. The notion that the Soviet Union “profited from Capitalism” no less than the United States, which must have seemed perverse when Bernanos wrote it at the dawn of the Cold War, looks eerily prescient from the vantage point of the 21st century – but the real hammer blow arrives in the last two lines of Bernanos’ text that Clavert speaks (certainly the most important film dialogue I expect to hear all year): “In short: regimes formerly opposed in ideology are now directly united by Technology. A world dominated by Technology is lost for Liberty.” Clavert stops walking to deliver this last line, and the camera tracking behind him follows suit, as if to emphasize its importance. It is here that viewers likely first become aware that the sky in this shot, filmed at dusk, has considerably darkened over the course of the previous five minutes. Then a curious thing happens: The film restarts. We see the opening titles again followed by another five-minute long take of the same action (Clavert walking alongside the same lake and reciting the same text); only this time the sky is brighter, presumably because it was shot earlier in the day than the take that precedes it. It’s important to note here that Clavert is also credited as “Editor,” which might seem curious for a short that essentially consists of two shots but this single cut proves to be crucial to the film’s overall meaning. In addition to the way the dark/light dichotomy arguably injects a sense of optimism into the proceedings, Straub/Clavert’s allowing us to see the same thing twice also highlights what is specifically filmic about FRANCE AGAINST ROBOTS. This is not merely a film about someone talking. As with the work of Eric Rohmer, it’s about someone talking in a specific time and place – a quality underscored by the way viewers can perceive the slightest variations between the two takes, not just in the images but also on the soundtrack: Along with Clavert’s spoken-word monologue, dig the slightly heightened sounds of honking geese and lapping waves in the background (the mixing of which is credited to the legendary François Musy). (2020, 10 min) MGS


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