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Category Archives: Film Reviews

How Green Was My Valley in Northbrook

I wrote the following appreciation of one of my favorite films of all time, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, for Cine- File Chicago. It screens for free at the Northbrook Public Library twice on December 27.

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John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (American Revival) Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook), Wednesday, December 27, 1 and 7:30pm (Free Admission)

One of the most prominent themes in John Ford’s vast filmography is the discrepancy between the reality of a historical event and how that event is perceived after the fact. This theme is implicit in YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939), explicit in FORT APACHE (1948), and perfectly encapsulated in a famous line of dialogue from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE in 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Ford’s ultimate past-tense movie, tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, Huw Morgan, as he reminisces from the vantage point of 50 about his family life in turn-of-the-century Wales (with Huw’s adult voice-over narration being supplied by the director Irving Pichel). This means that Ford’s images are not mean to represent “reality” so much as the decades-old memories of Huw’s off-screen (and perhaps unreliable) narrator-self. The subjective nature of the visual storytelling also explains why this child protagonist, portrayed by Roddy McDowell in one of cinema’s finest ever child performances, doesn’t seem to age even though the narrative spans many years. (Huw appears to be “too young” at the end of the movie in the same poignant way that John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old” in the flashback sequences of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.) Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is how, despite being an 11th-hour replacement for original director William Wyler, Ford still somehow managed to turn HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY into one of his most personal and beautifully realized films: it boasts amazing deep-focus cinematography courtesy of Arthur Miller, a stirring Alfred Newman score, and a star-making performance by Maureen O’Hara (working with Ford for the first of many times). The project’s personal nature shines through in Ford’s melancholy depiction of the disintegration of one family in a mining town beset by union struggles and generational conflict. In so doing, Ford presents an ephemeral vision of an idealized family life, the kind that he personally never knew (where Donald Crisp’s patriarch can preside with tough-but-loving authority over a brood of dutiful, mostly male offspring), and offers a transcendental illustration of his Catholic belief that “death is not the end” besides. Yet his obsessive focus on the inevitability of change also marks this as one of the director’s most pessimistic works: Huw may be leaving his hometown for good at the age of 50 when the film begins but it’s clear by the end that he hasn’t known this now-black valley to be “home” in the decades following childhood’s end. (1941, 118 min, DCP Digital) MGS

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Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Daughter of the Nile

I have a capsule review of Daughter of the Nile, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s great portrait of urban Taiwanese malaise circa 1987, in this week’s Cine-File. It screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center four times over the next week in a beautiful new 4K digital restoration. You can read the full review below.
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Hou Hsiao-hsien’s DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (Taiwanese Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Until recently, DAUGHTER OF THE NILE has been the most difficult to see film of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s post-BOYS FROM FENGKUEI (1983) mature period; it has never been released on home video in the U.S. and was absent entirely from the Siskel Center’s Hou retrospectives in 2000 and 2015. It has also been the director’s most critically neglected work to date; when discussed at all, most critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, have tended to compare this contemporary urban drama unfavorably with the rural period pieces that immediately precede and follow it in Hou’s filmography (i.e., 1986’s DUST IN THE WIND and 1989’s A CITY OF SADNESS). When seen from the vantage point of today, however, thanks to a superb new 4K digital restoration by the Taiwan Film Institute, it seems obvious that this is where the modernist Hou of the 1990s was truly born. Based on a proposal from a record company, and conceivedof as a star vehicle for the young female pop singer Lin Yang, Hou, working with three screenwriters, turned the project into a highly personal and stunningly oblique examination of disaffected Taipei youth that prefigures his better known returns to the same milieu in later masterworks like GOODBYE, SOUTH, GOODBYE (1996), MILLENNIUM MAMBO (2001) and thecontemporary segments of GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (1995) and THREE TIMES (2005). Lin, in her screen debut, gives a soulful, quietly riveting performance as Hsiao-yang, a teenage girl who works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken by day and goes to school at night, all the while trying to prevent her fractured family from breaking apart for good. Lin finds fleeting moments ofhappiness by imagining herself as the protagonist of her favorite manga, the source of the movie’s title, and when flirting with Ah-sang (Fan Yang), the best friend of her older brother, Hsiao-fang (future Hou regular Jack Kao), both of whom are on the verge of falling dangerously into a life of crime. Hou’s extensive use of nighttime exteriors, illuminated by neon lights and, in one unforgettable sequence, fireworks, combine with Lin’s past-tense voice-over narration to make the whole thing float by like a sad and haunting yet beautiful dream. If you have never seen a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien and are curious as to why a lot of critics, including me, consider him the best narrative filmmaker working today, this is an excellent place to start exploring his work. (1987, 93 minutes, DCP Digital) MGS


Roy’s World: Barry Gifford & Chicago / The More the Merrier in Northbrook

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I couldn’t be more excited to announce that I am producing Roy’s World, a feature-length documentary by my friend Rob Christopher about the great Chicago-born-and-bred writer Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart). It will feature the voice talent of Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor as well as an original jazz score by Jason Adasiewicz. You can learn more about the film at the IFP Chicago site here. You can hear Rob and I discuss the film with Gary Zidek on his radio show The Arts Desk here. Finally, Chicagoans can catch Barry reading stories from his latest collection The Cuban Club at Constellation this Saturday, November 4 at 8:30pm. The event will also feature live music from Adasiewicz who will be playing selections from the Roy’s World soundtrack. You can learn more about the show at Constellation’s site here.

Also, I have a capsule review of George Stevens’ screwball masterpiece The More the Merrier in this week’s Cine-File. It screens at the Northbrook Public Library on 35mm next Wednesday, November 8 at 1pm and 7:30pm. You can read the full review below.

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur in a scene from THE MORE THE MERRIER, 1943.

George Stevens’ THE MORE THE MERRIER (American Revival)
This superior example of the “genius of the Hollywood studio system” may not be as well known as screwball comedy classics like THE AWFUL TRUTH, BRINGING UP BABY or THE LADY EVE but is every bit their equal as a battle-of-the-sexes masterpiece. Connie Milligan (the glorious Jean Arthur) is a single, working woman living in Washington D.C. who ends up with two male roommates due to a World War II housing shortage. She finds herself bickering relentlessly with Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), the younger of the men, which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man, the much older Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance), consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes THE MORE THE MERRIER stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. A scene where Carter walks Milligan home late at night, temporarily forgetting that he’s also going to his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, moreimportantly, interact physically; while sitting next to one another on a stoop, McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, creatively paws at Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly feigns disinterest. THE MORE THE MERRIER was very well received in its time but is probably less known today only because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it. (1943, 35mm) MGS


Agnes Varda’s FACES PLACES

I wrote the following piece for Time Out Chicago, which was posted on their site yesterday.

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After two sold-out screenings at the recently concluded Chicago International Film Festival, Faces Places — the latest from French New Wave legend Agnes Varda — receives its premiere theatrical run at the Music Box beginning on Friday, October 27. When I interviewed Varda in Chicago two years ago, she was already talking excitedly about this new documentary, which had just begun shooting. When I asked her if it was going to be a feature or a short, she mischievously replied that she intended it to be exactly 75 minutes long because she considered that to be the ideal length for a non-fiction film. The fact that the end result runs 89 minutes can be seen as an indication of just how much valuable footage Varda and her co-director, the photographer and installation artist known only as “JR,” gleaned while traversing the French countryside in pursuit of interesting faces and places.

The premise of this whimsical yet profound road movie finds Varda and JR traveling from one small town to another in a truck outfitted with a mobile photo booth that allows them to not only take photographs of the people they come across but also print them and paste the resulting images onto buildings in the same villages where the subjects live. It’s a heart-warming celebration of rural, working-class France that turns ordinary people into local celebrities and asks viewers to think about the role that art plays in everyday life. It is also a meditation on mortality, as the 88-year-old Varda frequently reminisces about friends who are no longer with her and talks about her need to capture images of people and things before she can forget them. If this is indeed Varda’s final feature film, as she has indicated in recent interviews, it is the loveliest swan song imaginable.

Faces Places opens at the Music Box for a weeklong run beginning Friday, October 27. For more info, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Music Box website.


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


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.


Now Playing: LOGAN LUCKY and GOOD TIME

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Opening in Chicago this Friday are two of the best American films of the year: Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky and the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. Although the milieu in which each movie is set could not be more different (urban, multi-ethnic Queens and rural, lily-white West Virginia, respectively), both are heist pictures focused on a pair of criminal siblings that are loaded from beginning to end with visually inventive, comedic and suspenseful set pieces. Along with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, another original heist film that proved to be a surprise box office hit when it was released earlier this summer, they suggest that American genre cinema may yet rise like a phoenix from the ashes of superhero franchise-dom. Although all of these directors use genre conventions to different ends (in the case of Wright, I think the primary virtue of his virtuoso robbery sequences is the way they serve as unlikely love letters to the simple act of listening to music), they all point to the future of the movies-as-theatrical-experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting.

Much has been made of how Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s feature-film comeback after a self-imposed four-year hiatus (during which time he worked in television), was financed through the pre-sale of foreign and home-video/on-demand rights. This allowed the ambitious producer/director the freedom of partnering with a true indie distributor (Bleecker Street Films) and having not just creative control over the movie but also unprecedented control over its advertising budget and release schedule and bypassing the use of the proverbial Hollywood studio “middlemen” almost entirely – an unheard-of proposition for a film with a 30 million dollar budget that features movie stars like Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes and Hillary Swank in its cast. This has led to some speculation in the industry press that the potential success of Logan Lucky could make it a “game changer” and that, as a result, many Hollywood studio executives actively want it to fail.

This could also be why, although independent to the core in terms of how it was produced and is being distributed, Logan Lucky feels like a Hollywood film: it’s an entertaining crowd-pleaser that shrewdly attempts to court viewers on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. Tatum’s character, Jimmy Logan, hatches an elaborate scheme to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway but only after being unfairly fired from his construction job for having a “pre-existing condition,” a sly attack on Trumpism and Republican health-care initiatives by Soderbergh and his screenwriter, the pseudonymous Rebecca Blunt. But the filmmakers also aggressively court the kind of “white working-class voters” who rarely go to the movies – and supposedly swung the last Presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor  – by making sops to “patriotism” (e.g., admiring shots of soldiers in uniform, a zippy NASCAR montage, “America the Beautiful” on the soundtrack, and, most pointedly, the xenophobia of making the film’s one unlikable character, amusingly played by Seth MacFarlane, a foreigner who makes jokes at the expense of a disabled U.S. military vet).

In other words, Logan Lucky is a film that invites everyone to identify with its little-guys-against-the-system heroes in a vaguely anti-authoritarian, us vs. them, Smokey and the Bandit kind of way. As an entertainment, it succeeds admirably: it’s a fun movie about people having fun, full of juicy performances and great visual and verbal wit. It’s everything that a summer popcorn movie should be but all too rarely is, and that’s a very welcome thing in 2017. The Safdie brothers’ Good Time, by contrast, is trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying: a breathlessly paced “thriller” centered on an unlikable protagonist (though brilliantly played by a charismatic actor!) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America – beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface – but also never slowing down quite enough to allow us to process what’s happening until it’s over.

This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they’re put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York TimesA.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of including “racial signifiers” that he feels can be dubiously interpreted in a multitude of ways and that he doesn’t think the filmmakers ultimately care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scott free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie’s cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while also finding him morally reprehensible.

I also don’t know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its “bad lighting” and “avoidance of prettiness,” qualities that would be better ascribed to the Safdies’ previous film, the urban junkie-drama Heaven Knows What (perhaps Scott saw the film he expected to see?). While there is a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude on display (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it turns urban spaces into a giant playground), Good Time is also more daring in how it juxtaposes this “street cred” with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization – one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie’s luck has finally run out, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium.


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