Category Archives: Film Festivals


In today’s Cine-File, I review Koji Fukada’s Harmonium, the best Japanese film I’ve seen in years. In this week’s Time Out Chicago, I have capsule reviews of Daughters of the Dust and Moonlight. All three reviews can be read in their entirety below:


What to See During the Second Week of the Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival continues this week with daily screenings through October 27. My best bets for the second week are a pair of features, one old and one new, from this year’s impressive Black Perspectives category.

Julie Dash, one of the key members of the “L.A. Rebellion” school of black filmmakers that includes Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, will attend this year’s CIFF to present a restored 25th anniversary version of her seminal feature, Daughters of the Dust. Unlike her male counterparts, who directed their first features in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Dash’s independent breakthrough feature wasn’t completed until 1991. It was worth the wait: Daughters of the Dust is a uniquely poetic and moving film about members of the Gullah culture, former slaves and their descendants living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. The focus is on one family in particular, the Peazants, as they plan on leaving their island home and immigrating to the mainland for good—but Daughters is primarily a non-narrative experience, one based more on African folklore traditions than traditional Western storytelling. Dash creates indelible images of the family’s female members frolicking on the beach in period costume, their movements abstracted by slow-motion cinematography. These images are accompanied by the lyrical voice-over narration of Nana, the matriarch of the family, and her “unborn” great-great granddaughter, both of whom ruminate on the importance of tradition and memory.

Although Chicagoans will have plenty of chances to see it when it opens in wide release on Friday, October 28, the local premiere of Moonlight will occur two days earlier at CIFF. Writer and director Barry Jenkins’ second feature, a follow-up to his acclaimed micro-budget debut Medicine and Melancholy from 2008, is my favorite American film of the year. It uses a unique tripartite structure to tell the story of a young man’s search for his own identity across three different periods of his life (each of which corresponds to a different name or nickname: childhood/”Little,” adolescence/Chiron, and adulthood/”Black”). As in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, the fact that the three exceptional actors who portray the central character (including Chicago’s own Ashton Sanders) do not particularly look alike works to the film’s advantage; it forces viewers to reconcile the philosophical notion of an individual “containing multitudes.” This quiet, heartrending portrait of what it’s like to grow up gay, black and poor in America today is also made with an impressive command of film form (Jenkins has cited Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as influences on his lush and tactile images) that is all-too-rare among contemporary independent filmmakers.

Daughters of the Dust screens on October 23. Moonlight screens on October 26. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit


Cine-File “Crucial Viewing”

Koji Fukada’s HARMONIUM (New Japanese)
A deserving winner of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Koji Fukada’s meticulous slow-burn thriller is an impressive feat of screenwriting, directing, and acting. Toshio (Kanji Furatachi) is a seemingly contented small-business owner and family man with a loving wife and daughter. When his old friend Yasaka (a sinister Tadanobu Asano) is released from prison, Toshio extends a helping hand by hiring the deceptively polite young man to work in his factory and live in his home. Slowly and insidiously, Yasaka causes cracks to appear between members of the family as he brings a dark secret from Toshio’s past to light (in many ways, the film’s narrative trajectory is the opposite of Takashi Miike’s VISITOR Q, where a strange houseguest used murder to bring a dysfunctional family closer together). Not many filmmakers would be able to pull off Fukada’s bolder cinematic conceits (a symbolic use of the color red, an unexpected leap-forward in time, an abrupt and daringly ambiguous ending) but every such decision seems pressed to the service of illustrating a karmic cycle of crime, punishment, and redemption that feels firmly rooted in believable character psychology and a realistic social milieu. This haunting film is one of the great Japanese exports of recent years. (2016, 118 min, DCP Digital) MGS



At Cine-File Chicago, I have capsule reviews of Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical and Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams, both of which screen during the first week of the Chicago International Film Festival. Both reviews are reprinted in their entirety below:


Alain Guiraudie’s STAYING VERTICAL (New French)
Alain Guiraudie’s unique brand of pansexual Surrealism has accrued a steady cinephile following since 2001 when his second feature, THAT OLD DREAM THAT MOVES, drew praise from no less a luminary than Jean-Luc Godard. The transgressive director’s international breakthrough didn’t come until 2013, however, when his sexually explicit serial-killer thriller STRANGER BY THE LAKE took Cannes by storm. STAYING VERTICAL, Guiraudie’s darkly comedic follow-up, is as narratively loose and shaggy as STRANGER is tight and compressed, and is likely to puzzle viewers unfamiliar with his non-narrative earlier work. The digressive plot follows the misadventures of Leo (Damien Bonnard), a creatively blocked screenwriter who traverses the French countryside in search of inspiration. After fathering a child with a shepherdess (India Hair) who abandons him to raise the baby alone, Leo encounters a menagerie of male caretakers and father figures of ambiguous sexuality in a series of dreamlike scenes that increasingly gain power in both hilarity and allegorical resonance. Although Guiraudie is more of a poet than a polemicist, this delightfully off-the-wall oddity is perhaps best understood as a provocative defense of gay parenthood in a country where such a notion remains a lightning rod for controversy. (2016, 100 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Marco Bellocchio’s SWEET DREAMS (New Italian)
Even if his films no longer make as big of a splash on these shores as those of younger contemporaries like Paolo Sorrentino or Matteo Garrone, Marco Bellocchio (FISTS IN THE POCKET) remains Italy’s greatest living director. Eschewing the controversial subject matter of recent works like VINCERE and DORMANT BEAUTY, the maestro’s latest feature is a bittersweet drama about the lifelong attempts of journalist Massimo (Valeria Mastrandrea) to come to terms with his mother’s death. By examining how childhood trauma can cast a shadow over an individual’s entire life, this adaptation of Massimo Gramellini’s novel seems both quintessentially Italian (the theme of the cult of “mamma”) and specific to Bellocchio (shuttling between multiple characters and timelines and featuring gorgeous “Rembrandt lighting” throughout). While the sentimentality inherent in the source material will not be for all tastes, I would gladly trade most of the movies I’ve seen in the 2010s for one sequence, a blast of pure cinema, in which the adult Massimo cuts loose on a dance floor to the tune of the Trashmen’s immortal “Surfin’ Bird.” Not a masterwork, perhaps, but certainly the work of a master. (2016, 134 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Check the festival’s website for the most up-to-date showtime information:


My new blog post at Time Out Chicago features capsule reviews of two of my favorite films of the year, Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, both of which receive their local premieres during the first week of the Chicago International Film Festival. You can read the post in its entirety below.


What to See During the First Week of the Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, October 13 and runs through Thursday, October 27. My best bets for the first week are a pair of local premieres that fall under the festival’s Special Presentations category.

The best film I’ve previewed from CIFF is also the best film I’ve seen this year period: A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ biopic of Emily Dickinson, starring a revelatory Cynthia Nixon (best known as Miranda on Sex and the City) in the lead role. Veteran British director Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives), directing from his original screenplay, traces the life of the immortal poet from her graduation from seminary school at 17 to her death of kidney disease at 55. Although high school English teachers across America have long painted a reductive and simplistic portrait of Dickinson as a depressive recluse, Davies and Nixon go to great lengths to correct this impression, illustrating the passionate and humorous sides of her “rebellious spirit” (much of the dialogue in the first half is as witty as anything in Whit Stillman’s recent Love & Friendship). Best of all, Davies’ elegantly gliding camera provides the perfect visual corollary to Dickinson’s poems, many of which are read exquisitely by Nixon on the soundtrack in voice-over.

Another festival highlight is Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a darkly comic thriller that is already generating awards buzz for Isabelle Huppert. The great French actress stars as a video game designer who is brutally raped in the opening scene by a man in a black ski mask. Rather than report the incident to police, she becomes an amateur sleuth and attempts to discover his identity in order to exact revenge. Verhoeven gives viewers at least five plausible suspects in the movie’s suspenseful first half but, this being a Paul Verhoeven film, he then prematurely reveals the rapist’s identity in order to better direct our focus elsewhere (i.e., on the perverse character psychology and subversive anti-religious themes). Plot-wise, it’s as twisty—and twisted—as provocative earlier Verhoeven films like Basic Instinct and Black Book. Fans of the controversial director’s work can’t afford to miss it.

A Quiet Passion screens on October 16 and October 19. Elle screens on October 21. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit

CIFCC First Annual Showcase of Films

The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, an organization I co-founded earlier this year, will be putting on its first annual showcase of films on Saturday, November 5 and Sunday, November 6 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and the Wilmette Theatre in downtown Wilmette. Filmmakers will be present for live Q&As following all three screenings. Any of my students who attend these screenings will earn extra credit points (see the extra-credit page of your course website for more info). Detailed information about the films, venues and showtimes can be found below. Hope to see you there!


The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents the Chicago premiere of James Redford’s new documentary, RESILIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF STRESS & THE SCIENCE OF HOPE.



In conjunction with the Third Annual International Resilience Summit (Nov. 2-3), the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle is proud to present the Chicago premiere of RESILIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF STRESS & THE SCIENCE OF HOPE. Director James Redford will appear in person to discuss the film.

RESILIENCE documents the birth of a new movement among pediatricians, therapists, educators and communities who are using cutting-edge brain science to disrupt cycles of violence, addiction and disease. RESILIENCE delves into the science, treatment and prevention of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a leading cause of medical diseases ranging from heart disease and cancer to substance abuse and depression. For more information about the film and to watch the trailer, please visit:

James Redford is a filmmaker and activist whose work includes the HBO documentaries, TOXIC HOT SEAT and THE BIG PICTURE: RETHINKING DYSLEXIA. He is the Chairman of The Redford Center, a non-profit film production company he co-founded with his father, Robert Redford, devoted to making documentaries that inspire positive change.


The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents THIRST.



1122 Central Avenue, Wilmette, IL

THIRST (SED) is a claustrophobic thriller and an impressive debut for Chicago-based Ecuadorian writer/director Joe Houlberg. “The story concerns a young blind woman who vacations at a country home with her cousin and their two boyfriends. The house, a colonial mansion where the cousins spent summers in their childhood, seems to bring out carnal desires in the foursome and effectively functions as a fifth central character. Featuring ambiguous flashback inserts and an evocative use of image and sound to convey the sensory experiences of the blind heroine, this haunting mood piece establishes Houlberg as a filmmaker to watch” (Michael Smith, Time Out Chicago). In Spanish with English subtitles.

Followed by a live Q&A with Joe Houlberg moderated by CIFCC member Jason Coffman.


The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents THE ART OF THE VIDEO ESSAY, curated by Kevin B. Lee.



1122 Central Avenue, Wilmette, IL

The New York Times called Chicago-based critic and CIFCC member Kevin B. Lee the “king of the video essay.” He is Chief Video Essayist at Fandor and his award-winning, TRANSFORMERS: THE PREMAKE, was named one of the best documentaries of 2014 by Sight & Sound.

Video essays—a relatively new form of criticism—came to prominence online in the early 2000s and provocatively comment on cinema by using the language of the very medium they analyze. Most video essays consist of clips from films that have been cleverly edited together and accompanied by voice-over narration in order to make points about cinema that writing alone can’t convey. THE ART OF THE VIDEO ESSAY is a 70-minute program curated by Lee, consisting of short video essays made by leading film critics from around the world.

Followed by a live Q&A with Kevin B. Lee moderated by CIFCC member Daniel Nava!

The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to giving voice to independent films and diversity within the film industry. Our CIFCC Showcase series is bringing several new or overlooked movies to area theaters this fall.

For more information about us, please visit:

The Third Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival

I am excited to announce that, after the success of the last two Oakton Pop-Up Film Festivals in 2014 and 2015, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. again. The screenings of this year’s four acclaimed independent American films, spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, November 1 through Friday, November 4. The first three screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Humanities professors, including yours truly. The screenings are all FREE and open to the public. 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!

The full schedule:

Thao’s Library (Elizabeth Van Meter, 2015, 88 minutes)
Tuesday, November 1 at 2:00pm


Winner of the Audience hoice Award at Geena Davis’ inaugural Bentonville Film Festival, this extraordinary movie depicts the unlikely friendship between two women: NYC-based actress Elizabeth Van Meter, grieving in the wake of the suicide of her younger sister (famed child aviator Vicki Van Meter), and Thanh Thao Huynh, a Vietnamese woman whose body has been ravaged by exposure to Agent Orange. One day, Van Meter saw a photograph of Thao by chance and learned that this young woman had created a makeshift library for the children in her small village. Van Meter reached out to Thao, and the two set out to build a permanent library, the journey of which is documented in this poignant, poetic and ultimately cathartic debut feature. Co-sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Studies program.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Elizabeth Van Meter conducted by Kathleen Carot.

Bloomin Mud Shuffle (Frank V. Ross, 2015, 75 minutes)
Wednesday, November 2 at 12:30pm

James Ransone (The Wire) and Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) star in this bittersweet “anti-romantic comedy” about aimless 30-somethings living in the suburbs of Chicago. Lonnie’s life hasn’t changed much in the 16 years since he graduated high school. Still painting houses, still drinking too much, still hanging out with the same old friends. As far as he can see, his only hope for the future lies in taking his physical relationship with coworker Monica to the next level. Written and directed by “mumblecore” veteran Ross (Audrey the Trainwreck). “Ross is so in tune with his characters that they never seem written or contrived… Ross’ directorial adroitness suggests a mature auteurism that is extremely rare in American lo-fi, micro-budget cinema.” – Don Simpson, Smells Like Screen Spirit
Followed by a live Q&A with director Frank V. Ross conducted by Michael Smith.

A F**kload of Scotch Tape (Julian Grant, 2012, 94 minutes)
Thursday, November 3 at 2:00pm

A musical neo-noir drama where a patsy is set up to take the fall for a kidnapping that leads to murder. When the money he is paid is stolen, he embarks on a rampage of revenge. Things go from bad to perverse as Benji (Graham Jenkins) must fight his way through father figures, hookers with no hearts, marauding men and the hopelessly lost. All singing, all-fighting – FLOST is a throwback to the crime films of yesteryear mixed with the music of Kevin Quain. Based on the writings of pulp-fiction writer Jed Ayres, FLOST mashes up film noir, musical drama and hard-hitting social injustice. Not for the faint of heart or humor. “Truly one-of-a-kind, a film that is destined to generate a substantial amount of buzz with indie film fanatics looking for something original, something outside of the proverbial box.” – Todd Rigney, Beyond Hollywood
Followed by a live Q&A with director Julian Grant conducted by Therese Grisham.

Buzzard (Joel Potrykus, 2014, 97 minutes)
Friday, November 4 at 12:30pm


This pitch-black comedy from regional Michigan filmmaker Joel Potrykus (The Alchemist Cookbook) has been accurately described as “Office Space on Crack” (Indiewire). Paranoia forces small-time scam artist Marty Jackitansky (Joshua Burge) to flee his hometown and hide out in a dangerous Detroit. With nothing but a pocket full of bogus checks, his Power Glove, and a bad temper, the horror metal slacker lashes out. “Potrykus has fashioned a vigorous and strangely compelling character study, a sustained burst of punk-rock ferocity, and one of the most original American films to emerge in some time.”- Calum Marsh, Village Voice

This film festival is sponsored by the Oakton Community College Educational Foundation and its generous donors.

THE STYLIST at the Chicago Horror Film Festival

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago is a review of Jill Gevargizian’s short film The Stylist, which will receive its Chicago premiere at the Chicago Horror Film Festival at the end of the month.


Guillermo del Toro once noted that the best horror tales are those where the authors are obviously in love with the monsters at their center. The general truth of this aphorism is certainly borne out by Jill “Sixx” Gevargizian’s The Stylist, a superb short that will receive its local premiere on Saturday, September 24 as part of the Chicago Horror Film Festival. This 15-minute exercise in grand guignol stars Najarra Townsend (Contracted) as Claire, a hair stylist with a peculiar idea about how to make her last client of the day, a woman getting ready for an important work event, look perfect. That something is not quite right with Claire is hinted at early on but becomes explicit in a disturbing scene involving a practical special effect that I won’t spoil, but stands as one of the most memorable pieces of shock cinema I’ve encountered in recent years.

The Stylist’s most impressive special effect, however, is Townsend’s lead performance. Note, for example, both Claire’s anguish and genuine concern for her victim in the immediate aftermath of the scene alluded to above. Townsend and Gevargizian create a moment of astonishing emotional complexity that may cause some viewers to sympathize with a psychotic character against their own better judgment. The film also intriguingly invites a feminist reading in its depiction of the social expectation that all women face to “look perfect,” as well as through a dry line about glass ceilings being “a bitch.” One hopes this aspect will be further developed when The Stylist is expanded into a feature (as is Gevargizian’s plan). In the meantime, local horror aficionados cannot afford to miss this pungent short.

The Stylist screens as part of “Shorts Block B” at the Patio Theater on Saturday, September 24 at 1:15pm. For more information, visit the Chicago Horror Film Fest’s official website.

The 32nd Chicago Latino Film Fest: Week Two

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago, concerning the second week of the Chicago Latino Film Festival, appeared two days ago. I’m not crazy about the way they edited my capsule review of the Colombian film Land and Shade, however, so I’m posting my original version in its entirety below.


The 32nd annual Chicago Latino Film Festival kicked off last Friday, April 8 and continues through Thursday, April 21. While my recommendations for last week were a pair of thrillers from Mexico and Ecuador, my best bets for the second week are a beautiful, unconventional love story from Costa Rica and a formally masterful art film about agrarian hardship from Columbia.

Viaje (Spanish for “Journey”) is my favorite film at this year’s CLFF and should be considered essential viewing for anyone looking for a great “date movie” this weekend. The second film from Costa Rican writer/director Paz Fabrega tells the deceptively simple story of a man and a woman who meet cute (and drunk) at a costume party, have a one-night stand then spontaneously decide to go camping for the weekend, all the while conversing about love, sex, relationships and the remote possibility of a future together. While American indies that cover similar terrain tend to either focus on Men Behaving Badly or filter their dialogue through several layers of hipster irony, Fabrega’s characters are refreshingly sincere and emotionally forthright. Imagine a sexier — and more female-centric — version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and you’ll have some idea of what Fabrega is up to in this charming and bittersweet two-hander.

Cesar Acevedo’s Land and Shade deservedly won the Camera d’Or (a prize given to first-time filmmakers) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival though its slow pace and use of daringly under-lit interiors won’t be for all tastes. More adventurous viewers, however, will be plenty rewarded by this quietly powerful drama about an elderly farmer returning to the family he had abandoned years before, reconnecting with his ex-wife and son (the latter of whom suffers from lung disease as a result of fires set to clear the sugar cane fields around them) and meeting his daughter-in-law and grandson for the first time. The tensions between the various family members are more hinted at than explicitly spelled out as the narrative expands to include documentary-like footage of sugar cane workers going on strike, which deftly sketches in the broader milieu.

Viaje screens Thursday, April 14 and Saturday, April 16. Land and Shade screens Saturday, April 16 and Wednesday, April 20. All screenings occur at AMC River East. For more info and showtimes, visit the Chicago Latino Film Festival website.

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