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Category Archives: Film Festivals

Clare Cooney’s RUNNER at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following review of Clare Cooney’s Runner, which receives its Chicago Premiere at the Music Box this Sunday, was published at Time Out Chicago today. 

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival returns to the Music Box Theater this Friday, May 4 and runs through Thursday, May 10, bringing a typically impressive and diverse slate of acclaimed new independent and foreign films, many of which are fresh off of their World Premieres at Sundance and South By Southwest and all of which are making their local premieres. A welcome new twist to this year’s edition is the inclusion of two short film programs, which are comprised of works by universally acknowledged masters of the form like animator Don Herzfeldt (World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts) as well as first-time filmmakers like Chicago’s own Clare Cooney (Runner). The latter film, screening as part of the “CCFF Shorts Program #1” block, is an extremely auspicious directorial debut for Cooney, who is better known for her work as an actress. Although it clocks in at only 12 minutes, it is one of the must-see events of the festival, especially considering that the whip-smart Cooney will be present for a post-screening Q&A.

Runner tells the story of a young woman named Becca (Cooney) who witnesses a violent altercation between a couple while jogging through an alley near her Chicago apartment. Becca’s subsequent knowledge of what happened, and an unexpected re-encounter with one of the participants, causes her to face an ethical dilemma. As a director, Cooney knows how to get the most out of herself as an actress (she’s a performer of uncommon depth) but she also wisely eschews the melodramatic approach that even more seasoned filmmakers might have taken – cutting the sound entirely from the film’s most intense moment and thereby increasing its effectiveness via counterpoint. But what impresses most in this pungent drama is the way Cooney is able to seamlessly enfold her ideas into a naturalistic narrative framework. In the “Me Too” era, the powerful tracking shots of Becca literally running away from physical danger conjure the notion of a desire to transcend an entire culture of harassment and assault. It’s a haunting movie – and one that chimes with our times.

For more information about the screening of Runner, visit the Music Box’s website.

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Robert Greene’s BISBEE ’17

I reviewed Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 for Time Out Chicago. It screens this Saturday, April 7, at the Davis Theater as part of the Doc10 Film Festival (and will be followed by a Skype Q&A with Robert). Full capsule below:

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The Doc10 film festival, curated by Anthony Kaufman (also the programmer of the documentary section of the Chicago International Film Festival) has become, in just three short years, one of the best places to catch the local premieres of the world’s best non-fiction filmmaking. Since 2015, Doc10 has played host to the work of some of the giants of the documentary form, such as Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple and Werner Herzog, as well as important movies by lesser-known filmmakers, such as last year’s harrowing Death in the Terminal by the Israeli directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry. This year’s lineup is as eclectic as ever but documentary enthusiasts should make it a point to see Bisbee ’17, which stands as the masterpiece to date by the enormously talented young director Robert Greene.

Fresh off its Sundance World Premiere, Bisbee ’17 tells the fascinating true story of a labor strike and the subsequent mass deportation of 1,200 striking workers (half of them Mexican or Eastern European immigrants) that occurred in the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, just miles from the Mexico border, in 1917. No mere history lesson, Greene’s film marks the centenary of this tragic event by restaging the deportation using contemporary Bisbee denizens, many of whom descend from exactly the kind of characters they’re portraying. Performative subjects within a non-fiction context have been a constant in Greene’s work for years but Bisbee ’17 is particularly interesting in how it not only grows out of but becomes the flip side of his last movie, 2016’s controversial Kate Plays Christine. That film—cold, terrifying and brilliant—ended with its protagonist, the actress Kate Lyn Sheil, knowing seemingly less about the character she was playing (suicidal news anchor Christine Chubbuck) in a film-within-the-film, than when it began. The warmhearted Bisbee ’17, which ultimately centers on an immensely likable protagonist—a gay Hispanic man (Fernando Serrano) who appears to undergo a genuine political awakening alongside of his “character”—feels as though its provocative reenactment precipitates a profound reckoning, and ultimately understanding, for a good many of its subjects.

The Doc10 screenings take place at the Davis Theater between Thursday, April 5 and Sunday, April 8. Bisbee ’17 screens on Saturday, April 7 and is followed by a Skype Q&A with Greene. For more information, visit the Doc10 website.


Bruno Dumont’s JEANNETTE: THE CHILDHOOD OF JOAN OF ARC

I have a review of Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc in this week’s Cine-File list. It screens twice over the next week as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s vital Chicago European Union Film Festival and I could not recommend it more highly. I’m reproducing the capsule in its entirety below. I also want to alert readers to the fact that you can hear me talk about the Chicago EU Film Fest with fellow critics Scott Pfeiffer and Kyle Cubr as part of a round-table discussion on the inaugural episode of “Cine-Cast,” the new Cine-File podcast. Check it out and listen to not only us but smart critics and programmers like Patrick Friel, Ben and Kathleen Sachs, Emily Eddy and Josh Mabe! We are “Track 10” on the the webcast of the Transistor Chicago site.

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Bruno Dumont’s JEANNETTE: THE CHILDHOOD OF JOAN OF ARC (New French)Chicago European Union Film Festival – Sunday at 3pm, Thursday at 6pm

Bruno Dumont’s astonishing recent period continues with a heavy-metal musical about the childhood of Joan of Arc. Based on a play by Charles Peguy, featuring a score by someone named Igorrr and shot by a crew of non-professionals, JEANNETTE obviously grew out of Dumont’s previous two films (LI’L QUINQUIN and SLACK BAY, both of which also featured child protagonists as well as a healthy and – for Dumont – surprising dose of humor) while simultaneously confounding expectations and striking out in a bold new direction. In his ability to reinvent himself while also remaining supremely himself, this recent run of films is comparable to Bob Dylan’s ingenious genre hopping in the late 1960s: if SLACK BAY was Dumont’s John Wesley Harding then JEANNETTE is his Nashville Skyline. Of course, the thing that’s remained the same since Dumont made his debut as writer/director with THE LIFE OF JESUS in 1997 at the ripe old age of 39 is his interest in philosophical and spiritual themes. So the oft-filmed “life of Joan of Arc,” tackled by heavyweight filmmakers from Dreyer to Rossellini to Bresson to Rivette, would seem to be a natural fit as subject matter for the former philosophy professor. And yet this bizarre freak-musical takes an extremely unorthodox approach to its heroine even for the director of TWENTYNINE PALMS. Apparently made on a low budget, the bulk of the narrative consists of a series of one-on-one conversations between the young Jeanne (played as a 14-year-old by Lise Leplat Prudhomme and as a 17-year-old by Jeanne Voisin) and her best friend, her uncle and a nun – all on what looks like the same stretch of deserted beach. Aside from a stray crane shot or two, and the use of CGI in a scene involving a vision of the Saints, JEANNETTE has a remarkably simple and stripped down approach to its imagery that recalls both the asceticism of late Rossellini and, in its transposition of a stage musical to actual locations, Straub/Huillet’s MOSES AND AARON. By focusing on a Jeanne younger than we’re used to seeing her onscreen, Dumont also shows us the kind of formative, internal moral dilemmas that the character only alludes to in the other films, which tend to focus on more dramatic and heroic external events. In so doing, Dumont, aided by his wonderful actresses (especially the endearingly awkward Prudhomme) arguably brings us closer to the historical Jeanne than any previous filmmaker. It’s the story of a simple, country girl whose decision not to enter the local convent but instead to take up arms against the English in order to drive them from France is spurred by a religious conviction so strong that it requires a good deal of literal head-banging to convey. (2017, 105 min, DCP Digital) MGS


The 28th Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival

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Onion City is one of the world’s longest-running and most prestigious festivals dedicated exclusively to screening experimental film and video works. The Experimental Film Coalition founded the event in the 1980s and it was taken over by Chicago Filmmakers in 2001. This year’s edition, which runs from March 8–11, was programmed by Emily Eddy, a digital media artist from Portland who has been curating at the Nightingale Cinema since 2013. Taking into account the brief running times of many of the films and videos being exhibited at the fest—most of which are bundled together in loose, thematically related programs—there’s a surplus of exciting works for local cinephiles to check out. Chicagoans, however, should be especially interested in two wonderful shorts with local connections: Marianna Milhorat’s Sky Room and Kristin Reeves’ CPS Closings & Delays.

Sky Room is a collaboration between filmmaker Marianna Milhorat and sound artist Brian Kirkbride that was commissioned by the Chicago Film Archives. Consisting entirely of pre-existing footage that has been extensively reworked — Milhorat credits herself only with “Picture Edit” in the brief closing credits — and married to a soundtrack of retro-sci-fi sound effects and pounding electronic music, Milhorat and Kirkbride weave a beguiling tapestry that contrasts archival images of organic life (plants rapidly growing via time-lapse cinematography) with images of “futuristic” technology (a woman strapped to a hospital bed being fed juice through a straw by a robot arm). The results are at once humorous, disturbing, dreamlike and poetic.

CPS Closings & Delays takes as its subject the controversial decision by the Chicago Board of Education, under the auspices of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to close 50 public schools in 2013. Kristin Reeves shot all 50 schools with a 16mm camera a year later then distressed the footage of the buildings in post-production using laser animation and bleach. These degraded images, appearing onscreen for only a few seconds a piece, visually articulate the socio-economic tragedy, and are juxtaposed with audio interviews with members of the communities, one of whom wryly notes: “If anything, (Emanuel) should be opening up more schools because that’s what these kids need.” The film’s final minutes contain digitally shot footage of children playing in the same neighborhoods, including an exceedingly poignant moment where some of them help Reeves load filmmaking equipment into her car.

Sky Room screens as part of “Shorts Program 1: Growing” on Friday, March 9. CPS Closings & Delays screens as part of “Shorts Program 6: Listening” on Sunday, March 11. For more information, including the complete Onion City schedule, visit www.onioncity.org.

 


DARK BLUE GIRL at the Beloit International Film Festival

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If you are planning on attending the Beloit International Film Festival, which kicks off on Friday, February 23, and runs through Sunday, March 4, you would do well to attend the Midwest Premiere of Dark Blue Girl, the first feature film by the young German writer/director Mascha Schilinski. Unlike the more formulaic American indie offerings I’ve sampled from this year’s BIFF (the titles of which shall remain nameless), this European art film is exactly the kind of small, quiet gem that, through the refreshing confidence of its mise-en-scene, avoidance of narrative cliche and powerful but naturalistic performances, single-handedly justifies the existence of North American film festivals; it probably won’t receive distribution here so cinephiles should make it a point to catch it while they can.

Dark Blue Girl, the original German title of which, Die Tochter, literally translates to “The Daughter,” is a dark, Freudian affair about the complex family dynamics between a newly divorced husband and wife, Jimmy (Karsten Mielke) and Hannah (Artemis Chalkidou), and their pre-adolescent daughter, Luca (Helena Zengel), over a two-year span of time. Luca’s parents divorce when she is five but then spontaneously rekindle the flame of their romance two years later when they travel to a Greek island to sell their family vacation home. The irony is that Luca, now seven, is highly disturbed by the way her parents unexpectedly reconnect, and sees Hannah’s renewed interest in Jimmy as a threat to her own relationship with her father. Confusion and self-harm ensue – although the film never quite goes where you think it will.

The slow-burn narrative and Aegean setting hint at Greek tragedy but Schilinski wisely keeps the scale of her story human, intimate and relatable. The director’s low-key poetic approach is best exemplified in a terrific sequence where Hannah and Jimmy first renew their passion for each other: in the process of renovating their home, he removes a door from its frame and sands it under the island sun while she scrapes rust off of a chair nearby. Their labor creates percussive rhythms that soon turn into a kind of beautiful musical duet; the amplified sound effects and shot/reverse shot editing are at first humorous but soon give way to a potent eroticism. The whole magical sequence constitutes the kind of “grace note” for which John Ford was known, and marks Schilinski as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Dark Blue Girl screens at the Beloit International Film Festival on Saturday, March 3. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the festival’s official website.


Mercury in Retrograde at the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival

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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!


LET THE SUNSHINE IN at CIFF / HIS NEW JOB in Kankakee

I wrote the following review of Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, one of my favorite films of the year, for this week’s Cinefile Chicago. It screens at the Chicago International Film Festival on Sunday, 10/22 and Monday, 10/23.

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Claire Denis’ LET THE SUNSHINE IN (New French)
Claire Denis follows up her darkest and most disturbing feature, 2013’s BASTARDS – a gut-wrenching journey into the heart of a prostitution ring that was loosely inspired by William Faulkner – with LET THE SUNSHINE IN, undoubtedly her lightest and funniest work, which was loosely inspired by Roland Barthes. A delight from start to finish, Denis’ first collaboration with the iconic Juliette Binoche is probably the closest we’ll ever come to seeing the Gallic master’s take on the rom-com. Binoche, looking more radiant than ever at 53, plays Isabelle, a divorced mother living in Paris whose career as a painter is as successful as her love life is a mess. The neurotic Isabelle plunges headfirst into a series of affairs with dubious men, some of whom are married and one of whom is her ex-husband, all the while hoping to find “true love at last.” Isabelle’s best prospect seems to be the only man who wants to take things slow (Alex Descas) but a witty coda involving a fortune-teller played by Gerard Depardieu suggests that Isabelle is doomed to repeat the same mistakes even while remaining a hopelessly optimistic romantic. Bolstered by Agnes Godard’s tactile cinematography and Stuart Staples’ fine jazz score, LET THE SUNSHINE IN is funny, wise, sexy – and essential viewing. (2017, 94 minutes, DCP Digital) MGS

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Also, next Tuesday, October 24, at 7pm I will be introducing a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s HIS NEW JOB at the Kankakee Public Library. HIS NEW JOB, the only film Chaplin made in Chicago, is the subject of two chapters in FLICKERING EMPIRE, the book I co-authored with Adam Selzer about film production in Chicago during the silent era. This screening will feature live piano accompaniment by acclaimed musician Mark Noller. Check out the Facebook event page for more info: https://www.facebook.com/events/1743214159054584


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