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Category Archives: Film Festivals

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!

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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


The 4th Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival!

I am excited to announce that, after the success of the last three Oakton Pop-Up Film Festivals, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. for the fourth consecutive year. The screenings of these acclaimed independent American films (three features and three shorts), spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, November 28 through Friday, December 1. The entire festival is FREE and open to the public and ALL screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

Oakton Community College’s 4th Annual Pop-Up Film Festival!
Footlik Theatre, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines
Tuesday, Nov. 28 – Friday, Dec.1 – FREE admission

signature-move-still-5SIGNATURE MOVE (80 min, 2017) – Tuesday, November 28 at 2pm
Followed by a Q&A w/ director Jennifer Reeder moderated by Kristin McCartney
In this hilarious and heartfelt look at modern love, Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) is a 30-something Pakistani Muslim lesbian lawyer in Chicago who begins a new romance with Alma, a confident Mexican-American woman. Zaynab tries to keep both her love life and her interest in lucha-style wrestling a secret from her conservative mother, who knows more than she lets on. World premiered at the SxSW Film Festival.

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PORTO (86 min, 2016) – Wednesday, November 29 at 12:30pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ director Gabe Klinger moderated by Laurence Knapp
Jake (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) are two outsiders in Porto, Portugal, who once experienced a connection. A mystery remains about the moments they shared, and in searching through memories, they relive the depths of a night uninhibited by the consequences of time. This award-winning drama was executive produced by Jim Jarmusch (Paterson).

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MERCURY IN RETROGRADE (105 min, 2017) – Thursday, November 30 at 2:00pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ cast members Najarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons and Kevin Wehby, and director Michael Smith moderated by film critic Pam Powell
Three couples from Chicago vacation together for a weekend at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Isabelle (Roxane Mesquida) and Richard have been together for five years and are deeply unhappy; Jack and Golda have been happily married for 10 years; and Peggy (Najarra Townsend) and Wyatt just started dating and don’t yet know each other well. Hidden tensions and secrets slowly come to the surface in this comedy/drama that won the Best Narrative Feature award at the Full Bloom Film Festival.

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SHORT FILMS PROGRAM: WOMEN IN DANGER (31 min, 2017) – Friday, December 1 at 12:30pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ directors Sadie Rogers, Clare Cooney, Layne Marie Williams and Lonnie Edwards moderated by Michael Smith
These entertaining and provocative short films, all written and directed (or co-directed) by women, show in wildly different ways how their young female protagonists find themselves in harm’s way while attempting to navigate public spaces. The films screening are CHIP V.2 (Sadie Rogers), RUNNER (Clare Cooney) and AN ATRAMENTOUS MIND (Layne Marie Williams and Lonnie Edwards).


EL MAR LA MAR, PRINCESS CYD and THE REPLACEMENT at CIFF

I wrote the following piece on films by local directors playing at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival for Time Out Chicago. It appeared on their website yesterday.

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The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, October 12, bringing a packed lineup of movies that range from serious documentaries to lighthearted comedies. While there’s plenty of national and international talent on display throughout the festival, there is also a handful of noteworthy films by local directors.

Chief among them is El Mar la Mar, a haunting and poetic documentary by Joshua Bonnetta and recent Chicago transplant/Northwestern University professor J.P. Sniadecki (The Iron Ministry) that examines life along the border of the U.S. and Mexico. The most daring aspect of this provocative non-fiction feature is the way the film’s many interview subjects are only heard and never seen. Their compelling stories are instead told via voice-over narration, forming a kind of off-screen Greek chorus that the filmmakers juxtapose against images of beautiful but harsh desert landscapes (not unlike James Benning’s Deseret) and occasionally a pitch-black screen. As one would expect, the issue of illegal border crossing is prominently featured, which inevitably marks this as a commentary on Trumpism, but there are plenty of surprises as well. My personal favorite sequence involves one man’s harrowing and utterly convincing story of his encounter with a 15-foot tall monster.

Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), one of Chicago’s best and most prolific directors, returns to CIFF with Princess Cyd, another coming-of-age tale involving the conflict between flesh and spirit. The title character here is a troubled 16-year-old girl (Jessie Pinnick) who travels from South Carolina to Chicago to spend the summer with her famous novelist aunt (Rebecca Spence) and unexpectedly finds romance with a cute barista (Malic White) in the process. Although, from a narrative perspective, this feels more contrived than Cone’s very best work (how is it possible that Cyd doesn’t know the origin of her own first name?), this shortcoming is compensated for by the nuanced and complex lead performances, which are effectively filtered through Cone’s always-refreshing humanism. Credit too must go to Zoe White’s gorgeous, delicate cinematography, which imparts a feeling of “being there-ness” in its ephemeral evocation of late-summer sunlight.

Last but not least, local movie buffs are likely to get a kick out of The Replacement, an ambitious sci-fi/comedy short by the husband-and-wife team of director Sean Miller and producer Naz Khan. Local indie producing and acting mainstay (and Midwest Independent Film Festival executive director) Mike McNamara turns in a delightful performance as Abe Stagsen, a janitor in a futuristic America who becomes outraged when one of his many clones successfully runs for President. This high concept allows the filmmakers to pose philosophical questions similar to other beloved sci-fi movies (Who are we? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?) but what really elevates this sharp short are the top-notch visual effects, which render familiar Loop locations almost unrecognizable, and a welcome comedic tone that runs counter to the ultra-seriousness one might expect from a film set in a dystopian future.

El Mar la Mar screens on Tuesday, October 24 and Wednesday, October 25. Princess Cyd screens on Tuesday, October 17, Saturday, October 21 and Wednesday, October 25. The Replacement screens as part of the Shorts 1 block on Sunday, October 15, Wednesday, October 18 and Wednesday, October 25. For more info and showtimes, visit the Chicago International Film Festival’s website.


Lucky at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following piece appeared at Time Out Chicago yesterday.

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival has, in its brief, five-year existence, quietly asserted itself as one of the city’s premiere showcases for exciting new American independent and foreign movie fare. Programmed by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the festival features local premieres of movies, some of which don’t yet have distribution, that made splashes at major festivals like Cannes, Sundance and South By Southwest. Best of all, many of the screenings are accompanied by talkbacks with filmmakers and actors. My best bet for this year’s festival, which runs from Friday, May 12 through Thursday, May 18 at the Music Box Theatre, is John Carroll Lynch’s comedy/drama Lucky.

Harry Dean Stanton is a national treasure. The excellent character actor with the perpetual hangdog expression has burned himself into the collective American psyche. Who can forget his fine supporting turns in everything from Alien to Repo Man to Paris, Texas to the work of David Lynch (who has, across seven separate projects, cast HDS more frequently than any other actor)? Not enough for you? How about Cool Hand Luke, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Godfather Part II and Escape from New York? Then there is the matter of Pretty in Pink, in which Stanton pops up in a cameo as Molly Ringwald’s father, inexplicably wielding a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and making the movie a whole lot cooler in the process. At 90-years-old, Stanton finally gets the breakout leading role he deserves in Lucky, the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David). It’s the performance of a lifetime and if it doesn’t earn Stanton an Oscar nomination then they should close the joint for good.

As the tagline succinctly puts it, Lucky is about the “spiritual journey” of the title character, a retired cowboy and curmudgeonly atheist whose daily routine consists of crossword puzzles, game shows and visiting the same diner and bar, at which he converses with the same colorful regulars. After falling one day in his kitchen, Lucky is forced to belatedly confront his mortality for the very first time, and Stanton and director Lynch are able to pack a lot of poignancy and warmth into scenes showing how this affects Lucky’s relationships with the people closest to him. See, for instance, the understated way Stanton sells the line “I’m scared” when confiding in a friend or the astonishing scene in which Lucky reveals unexpected musical chops by breaking into a heartfelt Spanish-language song at a fiesta. It’s a modest, confidently made film, and a valentine from one character actor to another (Lynch is himself a veteran of films by the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese) that is well worth your time.

Lucky screens on May 13 and May 18, with Lynch in person for a Q&A at the former screening. For more info, visit the Chicago Critics Film Festival website.


The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Fest – Week Two

The following should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

What to see during the Chicago Latino Film Fest's second week
The Chicago Latino Film Festival continues through Thursday, May 4. My best bets for the second week are Fernando Lavanderos’ Lost North and Juan Sebastian Mesa’s The Nobodies.The Nobodies is the reason why film fests exist: shot in lo-fi black-and-white digital in one week on a budget of just $2000, this engrossing Colombian drama went on to win the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival Critics’ Week, thus ensuring healthy and deserved international distribution. The plotless film follows the lives of five aimless teenage punks in the city of Medellin: they juggle in the streets for money in order to fuel a non-conformist lifestyle revolving around weed, live music, tattoos and graffiti. Writer/director Juan Sebastian Mesa’s first feature may be modest in scope and lacking broader social context but it’s also entirely successful as deft urban portraiture: the naturalistic dialogue and performances (by actors playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves) are electrifying.

My favorite film at this year’s CLFF is the Chilean road movie Lost North, Fernando Lavanderos’ follow-up to his excellent 2012 feature Things the Way They Are. The plot concerns a young woman named Isabel (Geraldine Neary) abruptly leaving her boyfriend Esteban (Koke Santa Ana), a Santiago-based businessman, and embarking on a spontaneous journey north towards the Chilean-Bolivian border. Isabel sends Esteban short, enigmatic videos from her travels, which impel him to try and find her using only the video evidence as his guide. The film’s clever dual road-trip conceit allows Lavanderos to create a compelling Murnau-like dichotomy between city and country, past and present, and man and woman, but there’s also welcome humor in the characters’ differing attitudes towards “unplugging” and letting go of the modern world: one hilarious scene involves a desperate Esteban calling in sick to work from the road “with hepatitis” in order to justify his absence from the office.

The Nobodies screens on Saturday, April 29 and Monday, May 1. Lost North screens on Sunday, April 30 and Tuesday, May 2. For more information, visit the Chicago Latino Film Fest’s official site.


The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival – Week One

The following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

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What to see during the first week of the Chicago Latino Film Festival

The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival kicked off last night, April 20, and runs through Thursday, May 4. This year’s edition of the long-running fest features a typically impressive and eclectic lineup of Latino-themed movies from Europe, South and North America. My best bets for the festival’s first week are Such is Life in the Tropics and The Empty Box.

One of the most pleasant surprises of CLFF in recent years was the local premiere of Claudia Sainte-Luce’s The Amazing Catfish in 2014. The young Mexican director follows up that auspicious debut feature with another visually stunning family drama, this one even more personal in nature: Sainte-Luce not only wrote and directed The Empty Box but also plays the lead role of Jazmin, a diner waitress in Mexico City who must learn to care for her estranged father, a Haitian immigrant named Toussaint (Jimmy Jean-Louis), after he is diagnosed with vascular dementia. The film is apparently closely based on Sainte-Luce’s own experiences and the way in which her character must learn to become “parent” to her father has the painful ring of authenticity. What really elevates this otherwise modest two-hander though are the visual beauty of the extremely dark, naturally lit interiors as well as the extensive flashbacks to Toussaint’s past, which feel like a reckoning born of compassion on the part of the filmmaker.

Sebastian Cordero’s Such is Life in the Tropics is a superb political thriller that intertwines several compelling storylines set in Guayaquil, Ecuador: one involves an unscrupulous lawyer (Andres Crespo) trying to negotiate the eviction of a settlement of squatters on behalf of a wealthy landowner, while another involves the accidental shooting of a German tourist — and its subsequent cover-up – by an even wealthier soccer impresario (Erando Gonzalez). The film’s diverse portrait of class warfare in contemporary Ecuadorian society crystallizes in another subplot – a Romeo and Juliet-like love story between the lawyer’s stepdaughter and the son of one of the squatters. The way writer/director Cordero intercuts between all of these characters is both suspenseful and masterful although the way he resolves the various narrative threads is a little too tidy for my taste. Still, you should see this.

The Empty Box screens on Thursday, April 27 and Saturday, April 29. Such is Life in the Tropics screens on Thursday, April 27 and Monday, May 1. For more info visit the Chicago Latino Film Festival’s official site.


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