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Category Archives: Film Reviews

More on THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING

I reviewed Nick Alonzo’s The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing for Cine-File Chicago (this is a different review than the one I recently wrote for Time Out Chicago). It has its World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema tonight at 7:30pm. I will be moderating the post-screening Q&A with members of the cast and crew. Hope to see some of you there!

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Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING (New American)

The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) – Friday, 7:30pm

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.” So goes a 17th-century haiku by Basho that inspired the title of Nick Alonzo’s new comedy. This koan-like poem, which reminds readers of the importance of letting things happen (as opposed to making them happen), is fitting for our modern world where the notion of busy urban professionals consciously “unplugging” in order to undergo a “digital detox” has become a common occurrence. This also happens to be the story of Carl (Alex Serrato), the film’s poker-faced anti-hero who embarks on a solitary, Henry David Thoreau-style retreat into nature after a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Gloria (Alycya Magana). In contrast to Alonzo’s debut feature, SHITCAGO, which featured a deadpan protagonist encountering a strange menagerie of characters in the city, most of THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING is devoted to scenes of Carl alone in the woods in the suburbs—masturbating, exercising, writing in his diary, attempting to fish, etc.—scenarios out of which Alonzo gets a surprising amount of comic mileage. The incongruity of this city dweller alone in verdant nature is highlighted by the fact that he perpetually sports a t-shirt emblazoned with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover—the ultimate symbol of mass reproduction and popular culture—but Alonzo also posits Carl’s strange odyssey as a genuine, and genuinely poignant, desire for spiritual rebirth. At its best, the minimalist, black-and-white-shot SHITCAGO brought to mind early Jim Jarmusch and Chantal Akerman. THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING, a clear advance on its predecessor, might best be described as “stoner Apichatpong.” Alonzo and select cast and crew in person. (2018, 80 min, Digital Projection) MGS

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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.


Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING

The following review of Nick Alonzo’s The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing, which receives its World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema this Friday, appeared at Time Out yesterday. I will be moderating the post-screening Q&A with Nick after the screening.

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I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Nick Alonzo was a special filmmaker. Five minutes into his first feature, the no-budget, minimalist comedy Shitcago, the movie’s unnamed protagonist takes out his trash, pausing long enough to examine a strange stain on the side of a garbage can outside of his apartment before shrugging and heading back inside. This non sequitur is typical of Alonzo’s art: a wordless, deadpan, even mundane sequence that somehow also becomes inexplicably funny. For the few who saw it, Shitcago seemed to announce the arrival of an original and quirky self-taught filmmaking talent whose style felt not just confident but, curiously (considering he was still a college student in his early 20s at the time), fully realized. Alonzo’s second feature, The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing, which has its World Premiere at the Nightingale Theater on Friday, May 5, is a more ambitious film, narratively and aesthetically, that confirms Alonzo’s status as a director to keep an eye on.

The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing begins with the unforgettable image of a man masturbating beneath a blanket in the woods. He stops long enough to swat a mosquito on his face then, while writing in his diary shortly afterwards, expresses a fear of having contracted the zika virus. This impulsive young man, Carl (newcomer Alex Serrato), is a Chicagoan who has chosen to live in the woods indefinitely after having been dumped by his girlfriend, Gloria (actress/filmmaker Alycya Maganas), a tragedy revealed through flashbacks. The bulk of the narrative consists of Carl, armed only with a backpack containing a few meager supplies (matches, magic mushrooms, a book titled How to Survive in the Woods), attempting to commune with a “natural” world he is hilariously ill-equipped to deal with. Bolstered by beautiful cinematography of forest preserves in the near-suburbs (the vibrant greenery of which provides a dramatic contrast to Shitcago’s black-and-white cityscapes), an evocative score by Daniel Fromberg, a delightful animated sequence by Dominique Bloink and a surreal scene involving a person in a gorilla suit, this is microbudget cinema at its most idiosyncratic, personal and rewarding.

For more information about the World Premiere of The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing visit the Nightingale’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.


Maggie Scrantom’s ATOMS OF ASHES

The following review appeared at Time Out Chicago today. I hope everyone sees this wonderful short.
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Women of the Now, the female-centric video and event production company founded by local director Layne Marie Williams (An Atramentous Mind), celebrates its one year anniversary with a short-film showcase at the New 400 Theater this Sunday, April 25. There is plenty of exciting work included in the 3-hour lineup but writer/director Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes deserves special mention.

Atoms of Ashes is a surprisingly confident, even masterfully made dramatic short, especially considering that Scrantom, an actress who has appeared on Chicago Med and Chicago P.D., has no directing credits yet listed on the Internet Movie Database. Written with Hilary Williams and June Thiele, Scran offers a poetic examination of one woman’s grief in the wake of having a miscarriage. Beginning with a shot of an ultrasound and continuing with scenes of a would-be mother (Siobhan Reddy-Best) imagining a future of quality time spent with a daughter who will never be born (Kara Grace Williams), this emotionally affecting, sci-fi-tinged mood piece combines powerful but wordless performances with an evocative score, quotes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which appear onscreen as hand-written text, and startling visual effects involving the solar system, to conjure, not unlike Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life in miniature, a sense of the cosmic and the eternal. The result is an exhilarating journey through cycles of love, loss and rebirth that seems to encapsulate the entire universe in seven minutes.

More information about Women of the Now’s 2018 Anniversary Showcase can be found on the WOTN website.


Hong Sang-soo’s CLAIRE’S CAMERA

The following review of Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera appeared at Time Out Chicago today. What appears below is the original unedited version.

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Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema, the city’s only local Pan-Asian film organization, recently announced its sixth season. The lineup includes an impressively diverse program of 16 feature-length films from across Asia that will be making their U.S., Midwestern or Chicago premieres. The series kicks off this Tuesday, March 13 with the Japanese film Colors of Wind and runs through May 16. Screenings will be held at various venues across the city, many of which will also play host to filmmakers, actors and critics giving talkbacks following the movies. One of this season’s highlights is the Midwestern Premiere of Claire’s Camera, a delightful French/Korean co-production by the great Korean writer/director (and School of the Art Institute graduate) Hong Sang-soo. At a fleet 69-minute running time, it’s a clever cinematic confection that definitely doesn’t wear out its welcome. The screening, which will be held at Alliance Francaise de Chicago on Thursday, March 22, is free and will be introduced by Columbia College film studies professor Ron Falzone.

Following closely on the heels of On the Beach at Night Alone, arguably Hong’s saddest and most haunting film, Claire’s Camera represents an appealing “about face” – it may be the prolific director’s lightest and funniest work to date. The premise is that Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a French schoolteacher and amateur photography enthusiast, visits the Cannes Film Festival where she befriends a film sales agent’s assistant (Kim Min-hee), a whimsical young woman who has recently been fired from her job for having an affair with her boss’s lover, a famous director. Each of the members of this love triangle is Korean and the bulk of the film’s dialogue is in English, as each of them takes turns conversing with Claire. The comedic chemistry between the legendary Huppert and Kim (star of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden and several recent Hong films) is amazing: they’re a match made in acting heaven. This being a Hong Sang-soo joint, however, means that extreme naturalism soon gives way to gentle surrealism – the events of the film are shown out of order, which forces the viewer to put them together as if constructing a puzzle, and it’s intriguingly implied that Claire’s camera has the magical ability to alter the destiny of anyone she photographs.

The Alliance Francaise screening of Claire’s Camera is free and open to the public though guests are asked to register in advance on the Asian Pop-Up Cinema 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


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