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Category Archives: Film Reviews

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.


Abbas Kiarostami’s TAKE ME HOME at the Siskel Center

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago concerns Abbas Kiaorstami’s short film Take Me Home, which receives its local premiere at the Siskel Center tomorrow. My uncut version of the article is below.

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Abbas Kiarostami’s final film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Festival of Films from Iran

The highlight of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable annual Festival of Films from Iran, the 26th edition of which kicked off on February 6 and runs through the end of the month, is Take Me Home, the final work of master-director Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away too soon last year at the age of 76. Although this playful 15-minute movie is being billed as a kind of opening act for the feature-length documentary 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, a formidable film in its own right, Take Me Home is actually the best reason to attend the program; like Manoel de Oliveira’s final movie One Century of Power, which it resembles in its wordlessness and brief running time, Kiaorstami’s short is the loveliest swan song imaginable for one of cinema’s greatest artists and a fitting parting gift to his fans. This wondrous film, as aesthetically beautiful and appropriate-for-children as Albert Lamorisse’s classic The Red Balloon, concerns a boy who leaves a soccer ball on the front steps of his home before going inside; unbeknownst to him, the ball rolls down the steps and out of the frame. Then, in the following shot, it rolls down another flight of steps. Then another. And another…15 minutes later, one may feel that Abbas Kiarostami has taken back the staircase from Sergei Eisenstein.

Take Me Home is essentially an exercise in montage editing in which the same ball can be seen cascading down dozens of flights of stairs in a series of matching cuts that defy geographical logic but that have been edited (by Kiarostami protégé Adel Yaraghi) in a rhythmic way and accompanied by a delightful jazz score. In many ways, the ball is an excuse for for the black-and-white shots of the stairs, which Kiarostami frames so elegantly that each one resembles a fine-art photograph that you might want to frame and hang inside your home. Longtime followers of the director’s work will recognize familiar elements: the black-and-white cinematography, child protagonist, and soccer ball all hark back to Kiarostami’s first feature, 1974’s The Traveler (thus bringing his career full circle), while the interplay of chance and predetermination, conjured by the chaotic trajectory of a moving ball within carefully composed static shots, calls to mind one of the director’s most famous images – the cosmic, comical shot of an aerosol can rolling down a hill, which seems to be a non-sequitur but is actually the mysterious heart of Close-Up, an essential documentary about filmmaking and con-artistry. Kiarostami was preparing to shoot a new feature in China at the time of his death, a film that will sadly never be made. As the cinema will not see the like of his genius again, Chicago movie lovers would do well to attend this screening and pay their final respects.

Take Me Home and 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami screen on Saturday, February 18 and Sunday, February 19. Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeedvafa, co-authors of the critical biography Abbas Kiarostami, will discuss the director’s career after the Saturday show. For more information visit the Siskel Center’s website.


Now Streaming: Dark Horse

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Now streaming on various On Demand platforms is British director Louise Osmond’s Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance. This engaging doc follows Jan Vokes, a small-town barmaid who, with her husband, decides to breed a racehorse who they name “Dream Alliance.” Enlisting the help of 23 friends, who form a syndicate to pay the expenses, Jan and Dream Alliance go on to stun the racing world.

Horse breeding in the UK is seen as an occupation for the wealthy. A lot of the film’s charm comes from seeing a village in South Wales come together and upset the apple cart of rich breeders who pour thousands of pounds into producing race-winning horses. After winning several races, Dream Alliance was lined up for the United Kingdom’s biggest racing event, the Grand National. Unfortunately, tragedy struck and Dream Alliance sliced a tendon. Most race horses who suffer a serious leg injury are euthanized. However, due to the quick thinking of the jockey and one of the owners, Dream Alliance was saved through expensive stem-cell treatment (paid for by the money saved by the village). Dream Alliance made a comeback and went on to win the 2009 Welsh Grand National with odds of 20-1. I knew nothing about horse racing before watching this film but, according to Tony Calvin writing in Betfair, the race, held every December 27th, is one of the sport’s biggest fixtures; Dream Alliance’s amazing win can thus also seen as a kind of “Christmas miracle.”

One of the most uplifting aspects of the film is the effect it had on people of the village in south Wales. The horse came to represent hope in an old mining village that has felt left behind. In an interview with Indie Wire, director Osmond talked about what drew her to the film: “I knew the first time I heard this story that I would do pretty much anything to make it. It was so funny and moving and life affirming; a classic rags to riches take. As the producer Judith Dawson and I started to spend time in the valley, it also became clear it was something that ran very deep for the people involved.” Osmond is considered one of Britain’s leading non-fiction filmmakers and has made films on topics ranging from British designer Alexander McQueen to filmmaker Ken Loach. Dark Horse deservedly won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance Film Festival.

A film about overcoming the odds, Dark Horse is a good example of the old saying about truth being stranger than fiction. Although made in 2015, this remarkable story should give many viewers some much-needed hope in the post-Brexit/post-Trump era.


Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann
dir: Maren Ade, Germany, 2016
Rating: 9.8

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“And if, by chance, that special place / That you’ve been dreaming of / Leads you to a lonely place / Find your strength in love”
— The Greatest Love of All

There is an unforgettable scene towards the end of Leo McCarey’s screwball-comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth where the female lead, Lucy (Irene Dunn), is attempting to sabotage the relationship between Jerry (Cary Grant), her recent ex-husband, and Barbara (Molly Lamont), his new fiance. Lucy embarrasses Jerry deeply by showing up at Barbara’s house and pretending to be “Lola,” his drunken floozy of a sister (who does not exist in reality). In front of Barbara and her stuffy parents, Jerry has no choice but to go along with this ruse. Only the longer Lucy sticks around “in character,” the more obvious it becomes that Jerry actually appreciates the cleverness of her act. His exasperation slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into admiration. As Lucy/Lola sings “My Dreams are Gone with the Wind,” to demonstrate her risque-circa-1937 nightclub routine, Jerry starts to smile in spite of himself, an indication that maybe these two nutcases really do belong together after all. Toni Erdmann, the third feature from the young German filmmaker Maren Ade (Everyone Else), is like this one great scene stretched to an epic running time of two hours and forty two minutes — and I mean that as a huge compliment. The film may be leisurely paced, especially for a comedy, but when the climactic, instant-classic “nude party scene” arrives, you know that Ade needed every one of those minutes in order to reach her sublime destination.

Toni Erdmann was by far the best movie I saw last year (I did not include it in my Top 50 Films of 2016 list because it only screened for the press in Chicago in December and does not open at local theaters proper until this Friday). The genius of Ade’s shaggy-dog story, which is written, directed and acted to perfection, is that it takes the dynamics of the screwball-comedy romance and perversely applies them to a father-daughter relationship (perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema): Ines (Sandra Huller) is a straight-laced and uptight German businesswoman (think Cary Grant in another screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby) whose world is turned upside down after repeated and unwelcome intrusions into her life by her opposite number — her goofball, music-teacher father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek, in the Katharine Hepburn role), from whom she has long been estranged. “Toni Erdmann” is Winfried’s even goofier alter-ego, a character with a bad wig and outrageous false teeth, a prankster persona through whom he tries to forge a new bond with Ines and help her break out of her self-constructed shell of alienation in the process. In many ways, the film is about Winfried/Toni teaching Ines to “learn to love herself,” to quote a certain classic Whitney Houston jam that is prominently featured on the soundtrack, and it is possible to enjoy the film purely on this level — as an emotionally rich character study: I would argue that the poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).

But I think Toni Erdmann can also be seen as working on another level — one that makes it much more specific to our own era. The action plays out mainly in Bucharest where Ines has been sent on business by her international consulting-firm employer (her assignment is to recommend to the President of a Romanian corporation how many of his employees he should fire). It is implied that Ines’ high-pressure job is the reason why she has lost the simple ability to enjoy life and, in this respect, the film functions as a subversive and even angry critique of global capitalism. The most bizarre scene, and one that may initially puzzle some viewers, involves a sexual encounter between Ines and one of her clients in a hotel room, a tryst that she engineers because she senses it will be advantageous for her career. Disgusted with herself, Ines instructs the client, a shallow douchebag, to ejaculate on a petit four, which she then promptly and shockingly eats. Ines’ attempt to “control the narrative” of this empty sexual experience is her futile way of trying to make herself feel better about the fact that she is essentially prostituting herself. This is her lowest point, after which she will genuinely start to feel better once she reconciles with her father. But while the film ends with Ines in a better place, Ade is also smart enough to retain a hint of ambiguity. Ines is, after all, still working the same job, still peddling on the same cutthroat capitalist treadmill, only at another company. She puts Toni Erdmann’s false buckteeth into her own mouth but then takes them out again. Ines’ future, like that of our modern world, is uncertain. Did I mention this movie is hilarious?

Toni Erdmann opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 27.


CHILDREN OF NATURE at Doc Films

I reviewed Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Nature for this week’s Cine-File list. It’s one of the most important Icelandic films ever made and it screens at Doc Films tomorrow night. I’m reproducing my capsule review in its entirety below.

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Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s CHILDREN OF NATURE (Icelandic Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Tuesday, January 10, 7pm

Iceland has enjoyed a relatively robust and prolific film industry in recent decades, which is all the more surprising when one considers that the population currently hovers at an all-time high of barely more than 300,000 people. The godfather of Icelandic cinema is Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, a self-taught filmmaker who is almost single-handedly responsible for the country’s impressive movie boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. His breakthrough feature CHILDREN OF NATURE, the only locally produced film in 1991, was also the first Icelandic movie to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Fridriksson immediately sunk his unexpected international box-office grosses into buying additional filmmaking equipment and established the Icelandic Film Corporation, which produced dozens of distinctive features in the ensuing years. CHILDREN OF NATURE ranks for me alongside Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW and Yasujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY as one of the cinema’s most powerful statement about the predicament of the elderly. It tells the story of Thorgeir (Gísli Halldórsson), a retiree who is virtually forced by his uncaring family into living in a nursing home in the capital city of Reykjavik. Upon arriving there, he unexpectedly meets his childhood sweetheart, Stella (Sigríður Hagalín), who tells him she doesn’t want to die in a retirement home. Thorgeir steals a jeep and the two escape to rural northwestern Iceland, with the authorities in hot pursuit, so that Stella might be able to see again the land of her childhood before she dies. Any plot description of CHILDREN OF NATURE, however, is bound to make it seem like the kind of cute Hollywood movie about the “life left in old dogs” to which it actually serves as a welcome antidote. One of the most evocative scenes in this beautiful meditation on life, love, and mortality occurs right before the couple flees to the countryside; Thorgeir strolls alone through Holavallagardur cemetery, a remarkable location where trees grow out of burial plots dating back to the19th century. Although a realist at heart, Fridriksson’s effortless ability in scenes like this to capture uncanny visual metaphors ends up paying mystical dividends: Bruno Ganz turns up in a surprise wordless cameo at the end in what seems to be a reprise of his angel character from Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE. For those unfamiliar with the work of Fridriksson or Icelandic cinema in general, this is probably the single best place to start. (1991, 82 min, DCP Digital) MGS

More info at http://www.docfilms.uchicago.edu.


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