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Category Archives: Film Festivals

AUSTERLITZ and THE SON OF JOSEPH at CEUFF

A version of the following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. Here are my “best bets” for the festival’s fourth and final week.

Austerlitz is a provocative and challenging German documentary on the subject of “Holocaust tourism” by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (Maidan). The film daringly eschews all of the usual contextualizing devices of non-fiction cinema (interviews, voice-over narration, onscreen texts, etc.) and merely presents viewers with static long-take shots of men and women filing into and out of museums on the grounds where the death camps at Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen once stood. Most of the subjects look as though they could be visiting an amusement park or any other major tourist attraction but Loznitsa’s refusal to provide any sort of commentary on the stark black-and-white images means that viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about why people visit these sites and whether or not it’s disrespectful to do so in a shirt emblazoned with the words “Cool Story, Bro.”

American-born French director Eugene Green (La Sapienza) returns to CEUFF with The Son of Joseph, a masterful comedy/drama about a teenage boy (Victor Ezenfis) searching for the identity of his birth father (Mathieu Amalric), a journey that ends up taking on parallels to the Biblical stories of the birth of Christ and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The film’s extensive meditation on father/son relationships, which offers an optimistic view of how we may not choose the families we’re born into but that we can choose our own surrogate family members, makes it an unlikely companion piece to Warren Beatty’s criminally underrated Rules Don’t Apply. Green’s employment of Bressonian non-acting, direct-camera address and absurd humor (a digression involving a young man selling sperm on the internet is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years) adds up to a vision as singular as it is satisfying.

Austerlitz screens on Sunday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 29. The Son of Joseph screens on Friday, March 24 and Wednesday, March 29. For more info, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Siskel Center’s website.

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ETHEL & ERNEST and THE ORNITHOLOGIST at CEUFF

A version of the following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bets for the festival’s third week are a beautiful, hand-drawn animated film from England and a surreal, dreamlike allegory from Portugal.

Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (best known for penning the animated holiday favorite The Snowman), Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest is a deceptively simple but deeply moving account of the lives of an ordinary married couple living in London from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. The title characters of Briggs’ book were explicitly based on his own parents and the way the film’s elliptical narrative quietly moves from one relatively uneventful vignette to another over the span of half a century has all the intimacy and emotion of flipping through a cherished family photo album. More than one critic has compared the film to the opening marriage montage of Pixar’s Up if that sequence had been sustained for the running time of an entire feature. The voice work of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn as the central couple is magnificent and cinephiles should especially appreciate that their first date involves taking in a screening of John Ford’s Hangman’s House.

João Pedro Rodrigues’ previous feature, the superb The Last Time I Saw Macao, received its local premiere at CEUFF in 2013 and this more ambitious follow-up is one of the highlights of the filmgoing year so far. Short on plot but long on spellbinding imagery, The Ornithologist concerns the misadventures of a young man named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who is kidnapped by Chinese tourists while on a bird-watching expedition in a dense forest near the Portuguese/Spanish border. After escaping, Fernando attempts to return to civilization but, like Ulysses and St. Anthony of Padua before him, finds himself continually sidelined by encounters with a menagerie of strange characters (including a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus). The homoeroticism and mystical-jungle imagery may put one in the mind of Apichatpong Weerasethakul but the Catholic symbolism and meditation on solitude vs. companionship are distinctly Rodrigues’ own.

Ethel & Ernest screens on Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18. The Ornithologist screens on Saturday, March 18 and Thursday, March 23. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.


SLACK BAY at the Chicago European Union Film Festival

I was very taken with Bruno Dumont’s batshit crazy Slack Bay, which screens twice at the Siskel Center’s Chicago European Union Film Fest over the next week. A version of this review should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bet for the festival’s second week is also my favorite of the 14 titles I’ve previewed so far: Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, an off-the-wall police procedural/slapstick farce that features a healthy dose of social criticism to boot. It’s a worthy follow up to Dumont’s acclaimed 2014 television mini-series Li’l Quinquin, which similarly combined a murder-mystery plot with slapstick comedy (surprising at the time given that Dumont’s previous work was noted for its marked lack of humor). While Quinquin was set in the present day and focused on a pair of incompetent police officers investigating a series of murders in a small town where racism and xenophobia are rampant, Slack Bay is set just before World War I and focuses on bumbling cops investigating a series of killings in a coastal town whose socio-economic gulf represents seemingly eternal French class divisions. As if the positive response to Quinquin has given him confidence, Dumont also successfully turns the wackiness here up to 11; Slack Bay is one of the funniest and craziest films in recent memory.

The plot concerns two families whose paths cross on France’s scenic Channel Coast: the savage, working-class Bruforts, permanent residents of “Slack Bay” who make their living from fishing and ferrying, and their opposite numbers, the Van Peteghems, aristocrats who vacation there only during the summertime. Each family is satirically shown through a grotesque, archetypal and deliberately exaggerated lens (as bloodthirsty cannibals and inbred blue-bloods, respectively) – the very lens, in other words, through which the families might subjectively view each other. Dumont’s conception of the Brufort children as all male and the Van Peteghem children as all female allows him to create a provocative dialectic between “barbarism” and “civilization.” This class divide between the families is only bridged when the sexually ambiguous Billie Van Peteghem (Raph), a girl who disguises herself as a boy, attracts the romantic interest of the brutish “Ma Loute” Brufort (Brandon Lavieville). Plus, there’s a police inspector so corpulent that he literally has trouble standing upright (Didier Despres) and French screen legend Juliette Binoche, as an eccentric Van Peteghem aunt, performing in a more cartoonish register than you’ve ever seen her.

Slack Bay screens on Saturday, March 11 and Thursday, March 16. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.


PERSONAL SHOPPER and THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV at the Chicago European Union Film Festival

My latest Time Out blog post concerns the first week of the 20th annual Chicago European Union Film Fest, the lineup of which is typically excellent. I present the uncut version of that article below.

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What to see during the first week of the Chicago European Union Film Festival

Christmas for Chicago cinephiles comes every March when the Chicago European Union Film Festival, now in its impressive 20th year, descends on the Gene Siskel Film Center. The CEUFF is the film-lover’s film festival, the one that gets many Chicago critics and cinephiles the most excited because it always manages to host the local premieres of dozens of exciting European titles by major directors that other festivals, including the Chicago International Film Festival, have failed to land during the previous year. This year is no different, with the CEUFF premiering a whopping 62 new European films from “all 28 EU nations” (though, confusingly with regards to Brexit, this includes the United Kingdom). Below are my best bets for the festival’s first week.

The Kristen Stewart vehicle Personal Shopper, which reteams the American actress with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas, gained instant notoriety upon its 2016 Cannes premiere when the first press screening was greeted with boos while the first public screening garnered a lengthy standing ovation. Both reactions are understandable: Stewart’s unique, sometimes controversial brand of “underplaying” has rarely been used to better effect than here—as a celebrity assistant living in Paris, haunted by the unexpected death (and perhaps literal ghost) of her beloved twin brother—though the mystery/drama hybrid film that surrounds her is not always as successful as her fine central performance. For better or worse, Assayas’ films often have a quickly written, rough-draft quality, as if he’s so excited to mash up disparate ideas and genres that jarring tonal shifts sometimes result. Still, I much prefer a movie as rich in ideas as this one, where the flaws arise from it being overly ambitious at times to the opposite case scenario.

Even better is The Death of Louis XIV, a masterful French film by the Spanish writer/director Albert Serra (The Story of My Death) that casts the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows) in the titular role. Although the fabled “Sun King” is one of the most beloved figures in all of French culture (right up there with Joan of Arc and Napoleon), Serra perversely chooses to focus only on his agonizing final days as he lies dying of gangrene, with doctors and valets mincing about, after returning home from a hunting trip. The formal control of Serra’s precise compositions and exquisitely candle-lit interiors, which resemble 18th century paintings, is impressive but don’t let the somber veneer distract you from the movie’s most appealing aspect: its bizarre, poker-faced sense of humor. One unforgettable scene in which a quack doctor offers Louis a miracle cure for gangrene (in which bull sperm and frog fat are among the ingredients) plays like an arthouse version of Steve Martin’s old “Medieval Barber” sketches on Saturday Night Live.

Personal Shopper screens on Saturday, March 4 and Wednesday, March 8, and The Death of Louis XIV screens on Sunday, March 5. For showtimes and ticket information, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


MOONLIGHT, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST and HARMONIUM at CIFF

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:

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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 www.chicagofilmfestival.com.

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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


STAYING VERTICAL and SWEET DREAMS at CIFF

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:

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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: www.chicagofilmfestival.com.


A QUIET PASSION and ELLE at CIFF

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.

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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 www.chicagofilmfestival.com.


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