Category Archives: Film Reviews

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.


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.


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.

Abbas Kiarostami at the Siskel Center’s Festival of Films from Iran

I wrote the following piece about Hossein Khandan’s Waiting for Kiarostami and Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames for Time Out Chicago. Both screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s invaluable annual festival of films from Iran.

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Although he passed away abruptly in 2016 at the age of 76, director Abbas Kiarostami’s presence continues to loom large over contemporary Iranian cinema. The Siskel Center’s 28th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, which kicked off on Friday, February 3 and runs through the end of the month, features Waiting for Kiarostami, a narrative feature by the Chicago-based Iranian filmmaker Hossein Khandan, and 24 Frames, an experimental feature begun by Kiarostami but completed posthumously by his son Ahmad.

Khandan’s film stars Khandan as himself and is based on the true story of how Kiarostami tasked him with finding a suitable actress fluent in both Mandarin and Farsi for a movie to be shot in China that would have been a follow up to Kiarostami’s Japanese-set Like Someone in Love (2012). Waiting for Kiarostami, which resembles Kiarostami’s own hall-of-mirrors masterpiece Close-Up (1991), features extended scenes of Khandan grooming Dorsa Sinaki (a talented newcomer also playing herself) for an audition with Kiarostami that will sadly never materialize. Conflict arises when Sinaki’s conservative father, Koroush, objects to his daughter’s artistic ambitions, which he feels will derail her promising medical career. Made on a shoestring budget, it’s a smart, provocative and ultimately touching tribute to Kiarostami bolstered by a terrifically intense performance by Homayoun Ershadi (the lead in Taste of Cherry) as Koroush.

24 Frames contains the most innovative use of CGI I have ever seen. It begins with an astonishing sequence in which Kiarostami “animates” Bruegel’s famous 16th century painting Hunters in the Snow: snowflakes fall in the foreground, smoke rises from chimneys in the distance, birds fly across the top of the frame and a dog urinates on a tree. This scene, lasting four-and-a-half minutes, essentially teaches viewers how to watch the rest of the film; it is followed by 23 more scenes of exactly the same length in which Kiarostami similarly uses CGI to bring his own still photographs to life. The “frames” I am most fond of include one, Tati-esque in its humor, in which a dog barks incessantly at a flag waving in the wind on a snow-covered beach, and another, the profound final shot of the movie, in which a woman sleeps in front of a laptop computer while the final shot of The Best Years of Our Lives plays on the monitor in slow motion. Adventurous cinephiles should have a field day with 24 Frames, which is not only ravishingly beautiful to look at but also invites viewers to contemplate the relationship between cinema and photography. It’s a fitting final chapter in the career of a man who happened to be a giant of both mediums.

For more information about the 28th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, visit the Siskel Center’s website.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread


Phantom Thread tells the story of a 60-year-old man who has behaved like an incorrigible child his entire adult life because his genius has allowed him to get away with it. His name is Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), his business is fashion design and he lives in 1950s upper-crust London but this elemental romantic drama about a stubborn man meeting his match could be taking place anytime, anywhere. An early breakfast-table scene suggests that Woodcock has long had a revolving door of lovers, each of whom he can’t tell apart from the last. His most important relationship is with his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), who carefully maintains the balance of his well-manicured existence. Enter Alma (Vicky Krieps), the country waitress whose “ideal figure” and beguiling manner strike his fancy like so many women before her. But Alma is different: she actually worms her way into his heart. A scene where she fiercely demands a drunken patron remove one of Woodcock’s dresses causes him to see her in a new light — not unlike the moment where Lisa Fremont enters Lars Thorwald’s apartment in Rear Window. But Alma, even shrewder and more clever than she first appears, soon has to rely on more devious means in order to make their relationship perpetuate, turning Woodcock painfully inside out in the process.

My friend Scott Pfeiffer has written that writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson posits one of Alma’s decisive actions (you’ll know the one when you see it) “as a metaphor for the skill of figuring out how to live.” I will go further and suggest that the film as a whole is a manual for marriage: how do you let someone into your world without upsetting your routine? How do they let you into theirs? This movie absolutely nails what it’s like to have to put up with the petty annoyance of listening to someone eat too loud. I’ve heard the ending described as “twisted” and “unsettling” but I must note that Phantom Thread, which appears to be Anderson’s most autobiographical work, was made by a man who has been in a successful monogamous relationship for 17 years. As a happily married man of 10-plus years myself, it’s hard for me to see the conclusion as anything other than an optimistic statement about how two people learn to compromise and make their relationship work, however unconventionally. As such, it joins the ranks of the great films about marriage: Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, Godard’s Contempt, Elaine May’s A New Leaf and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. Although I prefer the looser and wilder Inherent Vice, there can be no doubt that Phantom Thread is Anderson’s most elegantly structured and perfectly realized work. Also, it’s fucking hilarious.

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