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Category Archives: Film Reviews

HAPPY HOUR at Asian Pop-Up Cinema

I reviewed one of my favorite films of recent years, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s HAPPY HOUR, for Cine-File Chicago. It screens at the Ambassador Hotel for FREE this Sunday as part of the invaluable Asian Pop-Up Cinema series:
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Ryusuke Hamaguhi’s HAPPY HOUR (Japanese Revival)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema at the Ambassador Hotel — Screening Room (1301 N. State Parkway) – Sunday at 1pm (Free Admission*)

One of the most important cinematic discoveries of recent years for me was seeing Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 5-hour-and-17-minute Japanese masterpiece for the first time. It tells the story of four 37-year-old female friends living in Kobe who are given occasion to re-evaluate their personal and professional lives after they spend the night together at a spa/hot-spring resort in a town nearby (think GIRLS TRIP as directed by Yasujiro Ozu). This quiet, absorbing dramedy is written, directed and acted to perfection and its moment-to-moment narrative unpredictability belies a rigorous structural ingenuity, which only becomes obvious in hindsight: a lengthy scene depicting a workshop attended by the four protagonists about “unconventional communication” takes up much of the film’s first third. This sequence, reminiscent of the rehearsal scenes in Jacques Rivette’s OUT 1, not only foreshadows much of the drama that is to follow but also is elegantly mirrored by another lengthy scene involving an author talk/question-and-answer session in the film’s final third. The quartet of lead actresses (Rira Kawamura, Hazuki Kikuchi, Maiko Mihara and Sachie Tanaka) deservedly shared the Best Actress award at Locarno, and in spite of the lengthy run time, I feel like I could have watched these women’s lives unfold onscreen indefinitely. (2015, 317 min, Digital Projection) MGS

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Johnnie To’s THE MISSION at Doc Films

I reviewed Johnnie To’s The Mission Cine-File ChicagoIt screens Doc Films on 35mm this Tuesday.
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Johnnie To’s THE MISSION (Hong Kong Revival)Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Tuesday, 7pm
Hong Kong’s Johnnie To arguably has been the world’s greatest director of genre films for the past quarter of a century and 1999’s THE MISSION, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is an ideal entry point into his prolific filmography for the uninitiated. After an attempt is made on the life of triad boss Brother Lung (Eddy Ko), he hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male character actors of the ’90s: Roy Cheung, Jackie Lui, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Anthony Wong) to serve as his personal bodyguards while also trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot, however, takes a major back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes simply bonding and playing practical jokes on one other (a personal highlight is the brilliantly shot and edited office-set sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper-ball soccer match). When the action does come, as in a spectacular shopping-mall shootout, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness, and monochromatic blue color scheme on which the entire film is based. The quirky synthesizer score only adds to the fun. (1999, 89 min, 35mm) MGS

More info at www.docfilms.uchicago.edu.


SHOCK CORRIDOR at Filmfront / THE FIREMEN’S BALL at Doc Films

I reviewed Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball for Cine-File Chicago. They screen at Filmfront and Doc Films, respectively, this weekend. 
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Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR (American Revival)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St) – Saturday at 7pm
SHOCK CORRIDOR is a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set in a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic “yellow journalism” style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends then interviews the witnesses, Fuller exposes the social ills that drove each of the men insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The closer Barrett gets to the truth, however, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony. SHOCK CORRIDOR is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location including a startling interpolation of 16mm color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black-and-white film, footage that is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. But the most memorable image comes in a climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large hospital set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over to put viewers in the headspace of his mentally disturbed characters. In 1963, SHOCK CORRIDOR may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, more than half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which American movies are always held by contemporary viewers, Fuller’s nightmarish vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.(1963, 101 min, Digital Projection) MGS

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Milos Forman’s THE FIREMEN’S BALL (Czech Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday at 9:30pm
Milos Forman (LOVES OF A BLONDE) was the most important director of the Czech New Wave and THE FIREMEN’S BALL, his last Czech film before departing for a successful career in America, just might be his masterpiece. It’s an amazingly subversive black comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding their annual ball, during which time the members plan on staging their first ever “beauty contest” (whose contestants turn out to be unwilling female ball attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive Prague Spring movie, THE FIREMEN’S BALL clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of Czechoslovakia’s then-Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by incompetent old men whose approach to organizing the ball is to essentially make up everything as they go along. It’s unsurprising then that the film was banned “permanently and forever” by the Czech authorities shortly after its premiere. Seen today, THE FIREMEN’S BALL is still uproariously funny as satire, a vital film that should come as a revelation to those who only know its director as a man who wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.
(1967, 73min, 35mm) MGS


Olivier Assayas’ NON-FICTION at CIFF

I reviewed Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction for Cine-File Chicago. It screens for the second and final time at the Chicago International Film Festival today. I’m reproducing my capsule review in its entirety below.

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Olivier Assayas’ NON-FICTION (France)
Saturday 10/13, 3:30pm
Olivier Assayas’ witty, deceptively simple NON-FICTION begins with a comically tense scene in which Alain, (Guillaume Canet), a suave book publisher, and Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), a Luddite author whose controversial novels are thinly disguised autobiography, argue about the virtues of Twitter. The seemingly meandering narrative that follows belies a clever structure that resolves itself 90-odd minutes later with Shakespearean symmetry when both men vacation together with their wives: Alain’s partner, Selena (Juliette Binoche), is a television actress ambivalent about her recent success on a cop show, and Valerie (Nora Hamzawi), Leonard’s wife, is a high-profile attorney and the breadwinner in their relationship. This quartet represents a spectrum of diverse attitudes towards globalization and humanity’s slavish dependence on technology in an increasingly digital world yet it is to Assayas’ credit as a writer that they also always come across as fully fleshed-out characters, never mere mouthpieces for differing points-of-view. It’s the talkiest film Assayas has yet made though the dense dialogue scenes are cleverly edited in a brisk, Fincher-esque manner, and he often generates humor through the surprising way he ends scenes abruptly. It’s a substantial new chapter in an important body of work, one that illustrates the director’s philosophy that the role of the artist is to invent new tools to comment on a modern world that’s always changing. (2018, 106 min) MGS


Emily Lape’s MERCY’S GIRL and Dustin Puehler’s IN A MOMENT

My reviews of Emily Lape’s Mercy’s Girl and Dustin Puehler’s In a Moment, both of which screen at the Middle Coast Film Festival this weekend, appeared at Time Out Chicago today. I’m reprinting them below.

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The most high profile event of the Middle Coast Film Festival, which kicks off at the Davis Theatre this Friday, September 21, will be an opening night anniversary screening of The Birdcage co-hosted by local drag queens Lucy Stoole and Kat Sass. While that should start the fest on an irreverently fun note (and if you haven’t yet seen the film, it’s worth checking out for Elaine May’s witty script and Gene Hackman’s layered performance), some of the other highlights are lesser-known new works by local independent filmmakers. In addition to a well-curated locally made shorts block, which presents another chance for Chicagoans to catch amazing short films like Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes and Clare Cooney’s Runner, Middle Coast will also screen impressive micro-budget features like Mercy’s Girl and In a Moment.

Mercy’s Girl, an auspicious debut feature from veteran actress, but first-time writer and director, Emily Lape, centers on a young woman living on the North Side of Chicago whose alcoholism and closeted sexuality can both be traced to a fraught relationship with her religious, blue-collar parents. Mercy (Lape in a wonderfully understated performance) finds her world turned upside down when she engages in her first serious relationship with another woman: free-spirited college student Jesse (Alison Hixon). This ultra-realistic drama may toil in the same “flesh vs. spirit” thematic vineyard as Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone (Princess Cyd) but Lape also has her own unique cinematic voice, one so attuned to the textures of everyday life in the Windy City that the accumulation of the smallest details in the production design and the subtlest gestures of performance eventually add up to a quietly devastating portrait of an ordinary life. Think of a female version of Mike Leigh (Naked) at his toughest and you’ll have some idea of what Lape is up to here.

In A Moment occupies Middle Coast’s sole late night slot and is a good example of how even the grungiest genre fare can be elevated by a creative approach. Writer and director Dustin Puehler juxtaposes two separate Michigan-set narratives—one involving a rural gay man’s search for love on the internet, the other a group of roving, drug-addled criminals on a home-invasion spree—then inexorably brings them together for a bloody B-movie climax. Working with limited resources and money clearly didn’t hold Puehler back from putting a lot of care into the stylized color cinematography, jagged editing rhythms and an almost Lynchian attention to sound design (where heightened sound effects are occasionally indistinguishable from Campfire’s atmospheric original score), creating an intense cinematic experience. This is the kind of gem that too often gets passed over by film festivals, so Middle Coast should be commended for programming it. Seeing it with a buzzed, late-night crowd should be fun.

For more information including ticket info and showtimes visit Middle Coast’s website


Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER at the Northbrook Public Library

I wrote a new capsule review of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (the master’s first great film!) for Cine-File Chicago. A restored version screens at the Northbrook Public Library next Wednesday.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (Silent British Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) – Wednesday, 1 and 7pm (Free Admission)

One of the most important and revelatory film restoration projects of recent years has been the British Film Institute’s ambitious digital refurbishing of the “Hitchcock 9” (the nine extant films that Alfred Hitchcock made in England during the silent era), re-releases of which first toured the U.S. in 2014. The crown jewel of this series is 1927’s THE LODGER, which, in spite of being the master of suspense’s first thriller and thus arguably the first true “Hitchcock film,” still hasn’t gotten its due in many quarters for being the great movie that it is. It probably hasn’t helped matters much that Hitch himself practically dismissed it in the seminal interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut by discussing it primarily in terms of pulling off the neat technical trick of shooting through a glass floor. But THE LODGER is much more interesting than that. The narrative intertwines two of what would soon become the director’s trademark plots: the story of a murderer and a “wrong man” plot (in which an ordinary man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit). THE LODGER is also, unforgettably, a love story. Daisy (June Tripp), the daughter of a married couple who run a boarding house, falls in love with the eponymous but unnamed title character (matinee idol Ivor Novello), who is also the chief suspect in a series of grisly stranglings of young blonde women. The way Hitchcock laces these elements with a potent eroticism as well as a sense of humor is impressive, notably in a scene where the lodger and Daisy play chess (the context of which gives his line “I’ll get you yet” a delicious triple meaning). When the lodger picks up a blow-poke just as Daisy bends over to pick up a chess piece that’s fallen to the floor, the viewer is left to wonder if he intends to bash her brains in. That he ends up merely stoking the fireplace nearby is both the film’s darkest and funniest joke—one that calls to mind Truffaut’s remark that Hitchcock filmed love scenes like murder scenes and vice-versa. THE LODGER was also a clear influence on Fritz Lang’s M, both in its depiction of how murder can drive a community into a lynch mob-like hysteria and in terms of its visual style: Hitch used triangle shapes as a recurring visual motif in much the same way that his German counterpart would employ spirals. Even more significantly, I never realized the extent of how expressionistically lit THE LODGER was until I viewed the BFI’s restoration, which gloriously reveals many previously unseen details in the sublime, high-contrast cinematography. Live accompaniment by Dave Drazin at both shows. (1927, 92 min, Digital Projection) MGS


Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION

I wrote the following review of Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, my favorite documentary of 2018, for this week’s Cine-File Chicago. It opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run today.

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Julien Faraut’s JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

The starting point for this fascinating and endlessly surprising documentary by Julien Faraut was the director’s discovery of a previously unseen cache of 16mm film rolls dating from the mid-1980s that featured John McEnroe at Roland Garros, the tennis tournament commonly known as the “French Open.” This archival footage was originally shot by another director, Gil de Kermadec, for a series of instructional films that began in the 1960s and for which McEnroe, the controversial world number one who helped popularize tennis when it first became widely televised, served as the final subject. De Kermadec shot more than 20 times the amount of footage that he needed for his official portrait of McEnroe, more than he captured of any other player, and the awesome “leftover” footage provided an audiovisual goldmine for Faraut’s idiosyncratic essay film. The younger director eschews most non-fiction filmmaking norms – there are no contemporary interviews, and his witty, scripted narration, spoken in voice-over by actor Mathieu Amalric in English, makes no attempt to offer any sort of conventional context for who McEnroe is or why he was important to the sport. Instead, Faraut uses de Kermadec’s footage as an investigative tool to make an in-depth study of the beauty and creativity of McEnroe’s playing style, and to draw parallels between tennis and cinema. This wildly unorthodox approach is apparent from an opening quotation by tennis fan Jean-Luc Godard (“Cinema lies, sport doesn’t”), which is swiftly followed by an excerpt of a ridiculous early tennis-training film in black-and-white, then a gangbusters montage in glorious 16mm color, irresistibly scored to Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl,” of McEnroe’s distinctive lefty serve on the burnt-orange clay surface of Roland Garros’ center court. Later, Faraut analyzes de Kermadec’s unusual technique of using medium shots to focus on a single player in three-quarters profile by noting that viewers of this type of shot are not like typical tennis spectators. As we watch McEnroe (but, crucially, not his opponent) scramble along the baseline, expertly mixing slices with flat hitting, Amalric’s narration informs us that we are being invited to discover “with a certain empathy, what is actually needed to win a point in a tennis match.” Slow-motion shots break down McEnroe’s movement even further, showing “what the eye cannot see,” as Faraut makes comparisons between de Kermadec’s footage and the “chronophotographic” cinema experiments of the late 19th century. Faraut also invokes critic Serge Daney, who noted that one of the chief pleasures of the movies is the way they seemingly “invent time,” by contrasting the more fixed timetable of other sporting events with the way a tennis match’s unpredictable duration is determined by the ability of the players. McEnroe’s notorious temper tantrums are analyzed at length for their performative quality – in the film’s most outrageous conceit, Faraut overdubs a McEnroe tirade against a linesperson with a famous passage of dialogue from RAGING BULL in which Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta harangues his younger brother (“Did you fuck my wife?”) – while McEnroe the player is elsewhere provocatively compared to a filmmaker. In Faraut’s analogy, the frequency with which McEnroe comes to the net to end points swiftly is akin to a director calling “Cut!” The only sequence in all of JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION that resembles anything close to a traditional sports biography comes during a suspenseful climax when Faraut shows a condensed version – complete with onscreen time-clock – of McEnroe’s see-saw 1984 French Open final against Ivan Lendl (a Czechoslovakian player whose lanky, gaunt figure, sunken cheeks, dark features and humorless demeanor made him the tennis equivalent of NOSFERATU’s Count Orlok), a match whose outcome gives this splendid movie its poignant and ironic subtitle. (2018, 95 min, DCP) MGS


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