Category Archives: Film Reviews

Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

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Bertrand Bonello’s ‘Zombi Child’ is the first great film to play Chicago in 2020

January and February typically constitute a dreary movie-watching season in which new cinema fare consists largely of dud pictures that the major Hollywood studios have no confidence in and have decided to dump on the market when theatrical attendance has traditionally been lowest. Fortunately for cinephiles, there are usually still worthwhile independent and foreign releases to choose from during these winter months. A good example this year is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which sees the iconoclastic French writer/director putting an original spin on the most tired of horror subgenres. It thankfully bypasses the overly familiar George Romero-esque approach to the lurching, brain-eating “undead” and harks back instead to the zombie film’s voodoo origins found in subtle chillers like Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie from 1943. Opening at the Siskel Center for a week-long run beginning this Friday, January 24, it’s the first great film of 2020 and should be considered essential viewing for Chicagoans looking for something to see on the big screen.

Bertrand Bonello’s best films portray characters who exist outside of the mainstream of French society (e.g., the fin-de-siecle prostitutes in House of Pleasures, the young multi-ethnic terrorists in Nocturama), and Zombi Child is no exception: It alternates between two distinct narrative threads – one devoted to the true story of Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man who was “zombified” in 1962 so that he could be employed as slave labor on a sugar-cane plantation, and one detailing the adventures of his fictional granddaughter, Mélissa, a young black woman at a predominantly white college in contemporary France. The latter story is narrated by Fanny (Louise Labeque), a recently heart-broken student who befriends Mélissa and initiates her into a popular sorority but with dark ulterior motives. The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, “othering” and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.

For more information about Zombi Child, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS: THE MYSTERIOUS AIR PIRATE

I reviewed Mario Roncoroni’s Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate for Cine-File Chicago last Friday. It screens for the final time at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 6:15pm. I consider this the most important restoration of the year.

Filibus (1915)

Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS (Silent Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, December 20, 2:15pm, Sunday, December 22, 3:30pm, and Thursday, December 26, 6:15pm

Most official film histories, when bothering to acknowledge silent Italian cinema at all, relegate it to a footnote in the career of D.W. Griffith (who was inspired by epic period melodramas like Giovanni Pastrone’s CABIRIA to create feature films like THE BIRTH OF A NATION and INTOLERANCE). That is why this new 2K restoration of Mario Roncoroni’s 1915 FILIBUS, a joint project of Milestone Film and Video in the U.S. and the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands, is so invaluable: This briskly-paced, enormously entertaining 70-minute feature—which combines the “master criminal vs. master detective” plot familiar from Louis Feuillade’s mystery serials with science fiction trappings, absurdist humor, and a prototypical gender-bending screen romance—illuminates aspects of Italian culture in the early 20th century (i.e., “Futurist” gender-identity exploration) while also giving a fuller picture of what Italian cinema of the period was like. Interestingly, this low-budget affair, a product of the short-lived Torino-based production company Corona Films, received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release due to its primitive special effects and some derivative plot elements (scenes where Filibus frames her detective-nemesis by making a glove from a mold of a his hand in order to leave his fingerprints behind is taken directly from Feuillade’s FANTOMAS). But the treatment of the title character, a villainous yet fiercely independent, gender-fluid burglar and “aviatrix,” looks shockingly modern by today’s standards, which means that FILIBUS has generated more critical and commercial interest in the 21st century than it ever did in the 1910s. The film’s scenario, written by future sci-fi author Giovanni Bertinetti, concerns Filibus’ execution of a series of daring heists involving a futuristic airship that uses a capsule to lower her and her underlings onto the scene of a crime. Roncoroni’s use of optical effects, which superimpose shots of the dirigible and its criminal occupants over separate shots of a cloudy sky, look charmingly rudimentary today; but his inventive staging—including an extensive use of vertical movement in which characters frequently enter and exit shots from the top and the bottom of the frame—is positively inspired. The film’s most important effect, however, is Valeria Creti’s delightful performance as Filibus, a mischievous turn full of sly looks and gambits designed to seduce not only the characters in the film but the audience as well. By the time FILIBUS is over, contemporary viewers are likely to be rooting for the anti-heroine recently dubbed “cinema’s first lesbian ‘bad girl’” while also lamenting that the ending was left open for a sequel that sadly would never be made. (1915, 70 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin at the Sunday screening; the other screenings will feature a pre-recorded musical score.


My Top 25 Films of 2019

Here are my top 10 favorite films of the year (including only titles that premiered in Chicago theatrically in 2019) followed by a list of 15 runners-up. I’ve linked to my original reviews where applicable and offer new thoughts on some of the others that I haven’t written about elsewhere. Enjoy!

10. Black Mother (Khalik Allah, USA/Jamaica)

blackmother“As in the films of Pedro Costa, Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.” My review at Time Out Chicago here.

9. Atlantics
(Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

ATLANTICS_Vertical_Main_RGB_US-1.jpgThe ghosts, or “djinns,” of the shipwrecked Senegalese migrant workers in Diop’s poetic first feature are specific to Islamic culture but are universal in the sense that, as in all good ghost stories, they can’t be laid to rest until the earthly wrongs done them have been avenged. At least that’s the case in this film for most of the spirits that return home to Dakar to possess their girlfriends and demand back-wages from their greedy former employer. An exception is Soulemaine, a teenager who merely wants consummation of the relationship with his true love, Ada, that he was always denied in life. A work of astonishing cinematic maturity that put me in the mind of Val Lewton, Claire Denis and Djibril Diop Mambety (Mati’s uncle), this contains potent metaphorical images that resonate on multiple levels. “The case is closed.”

8. Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA)

uncut-1-jumboThe Safdie brothers’ masterpiece to date is a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. Adam Sandler cuts a Shakespearean figure as a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life is spiraling out of control — a lovable scumbag cloaked in a majestic desperation.

7. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

High-Life_New_FEATURE-1600x900-c-defaultNot unlike a sci-fi Dirty Dozen, the plot concerns a bunch of prisoners condemned to death on earth who are sent on a dangerous mission to outer space where they attempt to harness the energy from a black hole in order to save humanity. But Denis’ philosophically-inflected futuristic journey is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Stalker in that it’s ultimately more about “inner space,” baby — specifically, confronting the abyss of the “taboo.” Juliette Binoche in the fuck box = peak cinema.

6. I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, Germany)

iwasathomeWhile her title may reference Ozu’s coming-of-age classic I WAS BORN, BUT… and a prologue and epilogue featuring a donkey obviously nod to Bresson’s AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, Schanelec ultimately generates a sense of transcendence through an employment of image and sound that is entirely her own.” Full Cine-File capsule review here.

5. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick, USA/Germany)

a-hidden-life-movieUnlike some of my colleagues, I don’t feel hostility towards Malick’s 21st-century output but it’s also true that his post-Thin Red Line work has evolved in a direction that doesn’t really interest me. That’s why I couldn’t have been more surprised at how deeply moved I was by his beautiful new film, the story of an ordinary Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, executed for refusing to make a loyalty oath to Hitler after being drafted during World War II. Using real letters between Jägerstätter and his wife as the narrative backbone, Malick composes luminous images, aided by a relentless use of wide-angle lenses, to achieve a sustained spiritual intensity reminiscent of Bresson and Dreyer. This is also probably the best showcase ever for actors in a Malick film.

4. CoinCoin and the Extra-Humans (Bruno Dumont, France)

CoincoinandtheExtraHumans_03-1-1600x900-c-defaultEveryone who saw Taika Waititi’s execrable Jojo Rabbit should be forced to watch Dumont’s Li’l Quinquin and its sequel, Coincoin and the Extra Humans, to see how a morally responsible filmmaker can use wacky comedy to show the rise of right-wing ideology in a small town and, consequently, how children can be indoctrinated into fascism.

3. The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

the-image-book-1600x900-c-defaultIn spite of what some of his detractors think, Godard still believes in the elemental power of cinema, which is why the mesmerizing IMAGE BOOK is a more accessible work than even many of its champions would have you believe.” My review at Cine-File Chicago here.

2. (tie) The Irishman Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese, USA)

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rollingthunderI love The Irishman like Jimmy Hoffa loves ice cream but let’s not forget that Scorsese released two great films this year (his two best of the 21st century, in my opinion). In Rolling Thunder Revue, he revisits Bob Dylan’s celebrated 1975 tour, repurposing footage from the Bard of Minnesota’s own wild, self-directed 1978 film Renaldo & Clara and turning it into a fantasia about, in poet Anne Waldman’s words, “America’s search for redemption” (most evident in the scenes involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and the Tuscarora Indian Reservation). An overwhelming sensorial and emotional experience. Sharon Stone deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

1. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

VitalinaVarela_1200x600_v1.jpg“Enter Vitalina Varela, a Cape Verdean woman whose sad story of attempting to join her husband in Portugal after decades spent apart, but arriving three days after his death, was first recounted during her brief appearance in 2014’s HORSE MONEY. Here, Varela is the whole show and her striking physicality and dramatic sotto voce line readings make her the most remarkable screen presence of 2019.” My interview with Pedro at Cine-File here.

The Runners-Up:

11. Pasolini (Ferrara, USA/Italy)
12. The Souvenir (Hogg, UK)
13. Little Women (Gerwig, USA)
14. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi, China)
15. Pain and Glory (Almodovar, Spain)

16. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross, USA)
17. Parasite (Bong, S. Korea)

18. Richard Jewell (Eastwood, USA)
19. (tie) Grass / Hotel By the River (Hong, S. Korea)
20. The Wild Pear Tree (Ceylan, Turkey)
21. Asako I & II (Hamaguchi, Japan)
22. Saint Frances (Thompson, USA) – My Time Out Chicago capsule here.
23. Varda by Agnes (Varda, France)
24. An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu, China)
25. Knives and Skin (Reeder, USA) – My Cine-File Chicago interview with director Jennifer Reeder here.


T.A. Manchester’s BLEED AMERICAN

I reviewed T.A. Manchester’s Bleed American for Cine-File Chicago ahead of its Chicago Premiere next week. I’m posting the review in its entirety below.

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T.A. Manchester’s BLEED AMERICAN (New American)

Classic Cinemas (1022 Lake Street, Oak Park) – Thursday, 7pm

A film about disaffected youth in the tradition of Jonathan Kaplan’s OVER THE EDGE, Tim Hunter’s RIVER’S EDGE, and Larry Clark’s KIDS, but given a refreshingly Midwestern (specifically northern Indiana) Trump-era spin, T.A. Manchester’s impressive second feature as writer/director is as raw as an open wound. In a concise 75 minutes, Manchester follows a group of blue-collar teens living without parental guidance in trailers and drab apartments in a bleak stretch of the Rust Belt as they alternately attempt to forge meaningful emotional and sexual bonds with one another, goof off, party and, ultimately, just eke out a daily existence. The main focus is on Larson (Jarret Maier), a lanky, brooding young man who struggles to play a paternal role to his confused younger siblings, LJ (Austin Holloway) and Lex (Madison Wolters), in the wake of their mother’s chronic illness and father’s absence, and the film’s narrative aimlessness is an apt reflection of the characters’ rudderless lives. It’s an assured piece of filmmaking shot in a gritty, quasi-documentary style: Manchester and cinematographer Mario Quintana are especially resourceful using wide-angle lenses in cramped spaces, and one dialogue scene in a car is a virtuoso piece of mise en scene. There’s plenty of talent lurking in the ensemble cast too but the female characters are given short shrift by being defined primarily for how they stir feelings in male counterparts with considerably more screen time. This is regrettable since Elizabeth Stam and Emily Eruraviel are compelling performers who tend to steal the scenes they’re in; but BLEED AMERICAN is, on the whole, a potent American indie about youth today that marks Manchester as a filmmaker to watch. Manchester, producer John Matzler, cinematographer Mario Quintana, and several cast members in person. (2019, 75 min, DCP Digital) MGS


Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan’s SAINT FRANCES

I wrote the following review for Time Out Chicago where it should appear today or tomorrow.

Elevated Films Kicks Off Summer Series with SxSW Winner ‘Saint Frances’

Elevated Films, an outdoor independent film series that supports cinema and local youth arts programs in Chicago, will kick off its summer slate with a sneak preview of Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan’s Saint Frances on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel on Thursday, June 13. The event offers an excellent opportunity for Chicagoans to see the locally made dramedy before it opens theatrically later in 2019. Saint Frances recently won two awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival where it had its world premiere in March—a surprising feat for a first feature with no recognizable stars in the cast. A single viewing makes it immediately apparent why it resonated with judges and audiences: This female-centric character study, which is shot through with compassion, insight and originality, speaks to our cultural moment in a way that other recent American movies do not. Director Thompson will be on hand at the Ace Hotel screening with members of the cast, including writer and lead actress O’Sullivan, for a post-screening Q&A moderated by filmmaker Kris Swanberg.

RECOMMENDED: Where to see summer outdoor movies in Chicago

Saint Frances centers on Bridget (O’Sullivan in a remarkably naturalistic and winning performance), a 34-year-old Chicago woman with no “fancy job” (she’s a server), no boyfriend and no real direction in life. After she gets a job as a nanny for the film’s title character, the 6-year-old daughter of an interracial lesbian couple in Evanston, Bridget also unexpectedly finds herself pregnant in the wake of a one-night stand. This basic premise might feel reminiscent of other recent American indies, but the narrative takes a completely unexpected turn. It continually moves in gratifyingly unanticipated directions as it flips expectations about gender roles, includes some surprisingly edgy humor, and focuses primarily on the relationship between Bridget and Frances. In the process, Saint Frances ends up feeling less like other movies and more like a messy slice of real life. To give away more of the plot would be a crime, but the conclusion is admirable for the way it goes against the grain of how much a protagonist’s external circumstances are supposed to change over the course of a film. The changes that do occur are ultimately more of the interior—and more profound—variety.

The Elevated Films screening series continues throughout the summer on the Ace Hotel rooftop, with the Chicago premiere of Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust (starring comedian and podcaster Marc Maron) and the Sundance hit Greener Grass. These screenings will take place on yet-to-be-determined dates in July and September. For more information about the upcoming screening of Saint Frances and additional outdoor screenings at the Ace Hotel this summer, check out the Elevated Films website.


Khalik Allah’s BLACK MOTHER

I have a review of Khalik Allah’s visionary Black Mother at Time Out Chicago. I’m reproducing it in its entirety below.

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Toward the end of his recent film The Image Book, director Jean-Luc Godard quotes Bertolt Brecht in saying: “In reality, only a fragment carries the mark of authenticity.” This is a fitting epitaph to a film, and a career, characterized by its radical, collage-like approach to juxtaposing image and sound. It would have been equally appropriate, though for very different reasons, for this quote to appear in Black Mother, a visually astonishing and deeply spiritual love letter to Jamaica made by the acclaimed American filmmaker and photographer Khalik Allah. While The Image Book primarily uses clips from other films to illustrate the misrepresentation of the Arab world in the West, Black Mother uses fragments of footage Allah shot by himself in his mother’s home country of Jamaica, on a variety of film and video formats (Hi8, miniDV, Super 8, 16mm and high-definition digital) over a span of 20 years. Chicagoans will have a chance to see the kaleidoscopic result, which is best experienced on a large screen, when the film receives its local premiere run at the Facets Cinematheque from Friday, May 3 through Thursday, May 9.

Although Allah’s mother does appear in the film, the title is a reference to the notion of Jamaica as an ancestral homeland, a place the director has visited since the age of three and which he puts on screen in a captivating fashion. Black Mother is cleverly structured into three sections—referred to as “trimesters”—that speak volumes about both the history and present of Jamaica, including its painful legacy of colonialism. The film relentlessly avoids clichéd images of Jamaican culture (reggae, weed and Rastafarianism are barely acknowledged) and eschews the norms of documentary filmmaking. It’s a highly personal and visually dense cinematic essay in which sound and image are deliberately out of synch —only one shot in the film’s sublime final chapter, of Allah’s late Jamaican grandfather, features a subject speaking live on camera. An ambitious and dreamlike visual-aural fugue, it represents a clear evolution from Allah’s first feature, Field Niggas, in training a benevolent camera eye on a variety of dispossessed subjects, including sex workers. As in the films of Pedro Costa, Allah gives a voice to the voiceless while solidifying his own unique cinematic language.

For more information about Black Mother’s Chicago run, including ticket info and showtimes, visit Facets Multimedia’s website.

 


Daniel Kremer’s OVERWHELM THE SKY

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Overwhelm the Sky, a new 3-hour microbudget mystery-drama shot in gorgeous black-and-white ‘Scope, is by far the best of the three features I have seen by San Francisco-based filmmaker Daniel Kremer (though I liked the other two of his that I’ve seen, namely Raise Your Kids on Seltzer and Ezer Kenegdo, quite a bit). It might even be a masterpiece. The earlier films are loose and wild, but Overwhelm the Sky, even while considerably longer, feels the tightest and shortest. If anything, this is one instance when a long movie could have stood being even longer (in particular, I would have loved seeing more of the intriguing character played by Alanna Blair). The shaggy-dog plot involves a radio talk-show host being sent down a series of Existential rabbit holes after the murder of a friend whose body is discovered in Golden Gate Park. The ambitious Kremer has long been working in undeserved obscurity at the relative fringes of the indie film scene — he is currently working on his eighth feature-length film — but I’m hoping that Overwhelm the Sky, which recently had its World Premiere at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, is a game-changer for him.

The filmmaking is so confident in Overwhelm the Sky that it’s astonishing: The paranoid atmosphere and discordant orchestral score put me in the mind of early Jacques Rivette, but the formal control, perfectly calibrated camera movements, always surprising but ineffably right compositions, and precision of the cutting, put me in the mind of (believe it or not) Paul Thomas Anderson. There were parts where I had no clue what was going on on a narrative level, but I didn’t really care because I was so caught up in how masterful the filmmaking was, and therefore felt I was in good enough storytelling hands that I trusted I could just wallow in the mystery of it all. It feels like the kind of film that will reveal more of its mysteries with subsequent viewings, but probably also isn’t a puzzle with one ultimate “solution.” It also features the best acting of any of the three films of Kremer’s that I’ve seen. Whereas it seems he works a great deal with improvisation in his films, this one feels more scripted (yet I recently learned that his same improvisatory methods were used).

There is currently no theatrical release scheduled for Overwhelm the Sky in Chicago but I hope it turns up on a big screen locally soon. It would be an ideal fit for Facets, Chicago Filmmakers or the Nightingale.


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