Category Archives: Film Festivals


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.


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


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


DARK BLUE GIRL at the Beloit International Film Festival


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


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!


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.


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

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:

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.

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).

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.

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 10.46.07 AM
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).


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.

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