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Category Archives: Film Festivals

Emily Lape’s MERCY’S GIRL and Dustin Puehler’s IN A MOMENT

My reviews of Emily Lape’s Mercy’s Girl and Dustin Puehler’s In a Moment, both of which screen at the Middle Coast Film Festival this weekend, appeared at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reprinting them below.

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The most high profile event of the Middle Coast Film Festival, which kicks off at the Davis Theatre this Friday, September 21, will be an opening night anniversary screening of The Birdcage co-hosted by local drag queens Lucy Stoole and Kat Sass. While that should start the fest on an irreverently fun note (and if you haven’t yet seen the film, it’s worth checking out for Elaine May’s witty script and Gene Hackman’s layered performance), some of the other highlights are lesser-known new works by local independent filmmakers. In addition to a well-curated locally made shorts block, which presents another chance for Chicagoans to catch amazing short films like Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes and Clare Cooney’s Runner, Middle Coast will also screen impressive micro-budget features like Mercy’s Girl and In a Moment.

Mercy’s Girl, an auspicious debut feature from veteran actress, but first-time writer and director, Emily Lape, centers on a young woman living on the North Side of Chicago whose alcoholism and closeted sexuality can both be traced to a fraught relationship with her religious, blue-collar parents. Mercy (Lape in a wonderfully understated performance) finds her world turned upside down when she engages in her first serious relationship with another woman: free-spirited college student Jesse (Alison Hixon). This ultra-realistic drama may toil in the same “flesh vs. spirit” thematic vineyard as Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone (Princess Cyd) but Lape also has her own unique cinematic voice, one so attuned to the textures of everyday life in the Windy City that the accumulation of the smallest details in the production design and the subtlest gestures of performance eventually add up to a quietly devastating portrait of an ordinary life. Think of a female version of Mike Leigh (Naked) at his toughest and you’ll have some idea of what Lape is up to here.

In A Moment occupies Middle Coast’s sole late night slot and is a good example of how even the grungiest genre fare can be elevated by a creative approach. Writer and director Dustin Puehler juxtaposes two separate Michigan-set narratives—one involving a rural gay man’s search for love on the internet, the other a group of roving, drug-addled criminals on a home-invasion spree—then inexorably brings them together for a bloody B-movie climax. Working with limited resources and money clearly didn’t hold Puehler back from putting a lot of care into the stylized color cinematography, jagged editing rhythms and an almost Lynchian attention to sound design (where heightened sound effects are occasionally indistinguishable from Campfire’s atmospheric original score), creating an intense cinematic experience. This is the kind of gem that too often gets passed over by film festivals, so Middle Coast should be commended for programming it. Seeing it with a buzzed, late-night crowd should be fun.

For more information including ticket info and showtimes visit Middle Coast’s website

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RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO to World Premiere at the Adirondack Film Fest

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My third feature film, Rendezvous in Chicago, will have its World Premiere at the Adirondack Film Festival in Glens Falls, NY on Friday, October 19. It’s an honor to premiere at such an esteemed festival alongside so many exciting other titles (such as Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde). I will be in attendance along with my producer Layne Marie Williams, production manager Armani Barron and executive producer/actor David McNulty. The exact showtime and venue are TBA but day passes are on sale now through the festival’s website.

The second festival screening will occur at the Strasburg Film Festival in Strasburg, Virginia on Sunday, November 11 at 10:30am. I will be present for a Q&A after the screening along with executive producer/actor David McNulty. The screening will take place at the Strasburg Town Hall – where laws are made! Tickets are on sale now through the festival’s website.

More screenings will be announced soon.


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.


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.


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.

 


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