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Category Archives: Film Reviews

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.

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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.


HAIL SATAN? and MIDNIGHT FAMILY at Doc10

My latest post for Time Out Chicago concerns my best bets for the Doc10 Film Festival.

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Entering its fourth year, the Chicago Media Project’s Doc10 Film Festival has established itself as an annual highlight for fans of cinema. Focusing on vital new non-fiction features from around the globe, the festival kicks off at the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square on Thursday, April 11 with the much-anticipated local premiere of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez documentary Knock Down the House, and concludes on Sunday, April 15 with the sustainable-farm portrait The Biggest Little Farm. The rest of the lineup features a diverse array of movies, almost all of which will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers. Most impressively, 60% of the films in this year’s lineup—programmed by Chicago International Film Festival doc programmer Anthony Kaufman—were directed or co-directed by women.

One of the most interesting films you can catch at this year’s Doc10 Film Festival is Hail Satan?, a witty and informative look at the meteoric rise in popularity of the non-theistic religious group known as the “Satanic Temple.” With unfettered access to the leaders of the group’s various nationwide chapters, including charismatic church founder Lucien Greaves, director Penny Lane crafts a deceptively simple work of political commentary that ultimately sympathizes with the “Satanists” as a group of merry pranksters who see their movement as a counterbalance to the repressiveness of other organized religions.

For those looking for something more aesthetically daring, Lukas Lorentzen’s Midnight Family offers an eye-opening expose of Mexico City’s private ambulance system through the lens of one particular family-owned company, which competes with other for-profit EMTs to provide urgent care. Director Lorentzen uses a combination of handheld and dashboard-mounted cameras to put viewers in the middle of the action in the exciting ambulance-run scenes, lending his film the feeling of a thriller. The unconventional approach earned Midnight Family the award for Best Cinematography at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—an eccentric but deserving choice.

For more information on this year’s Doc10 Film Festival, including the full lineup, ticket info and showtimes, visit the festival’s official website.


MAGNOLIA & CLEMENTINE at the Beloit International Film Festival

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There is a long tradition of American actresses becoming directors (including figures as disparate as Ida Lupino, Elaine May and Barbara Loden), often in order to give themselves better roles than what they’ve typically been offered by their male filmmaking counterparts. This trend has gratifyingly ramped up with a renewed urgency in the “Me Too” era: Among the very best short films to play Chicago cinema screens over the past year are urgent, female-centric works like Clare Cooney’s Runner and Maggie Scrantom’s Atoms of Ashes, both locally made. Magnolia & Clementine, a 16-minute short by Tennessee-based actress-turned-filmmaker Ashley Shelton, offers welcome proof that this is a nationwide trend. It’s a potent dramedy about an aspiring writer (Shelton) who throws a short story in the trash but is later mortified to learn that her live-in boyfriend (Linds Edwards) has stolen the concept when his own “original” story is published to acclaim. Anyone planning on attending the Beloit International Film Festival this weekend — where Shelton’s movie will screen on Friday, February 22 and Sunday, February 24 — would do well to check it out.

Magnolia & Clementine is, as one would expect, a great showcase for Shelton’s talents as an actress. A veteran of film and television in front of the camera, she does a lot here in a short span of time (plays a dual role, cries real tears, plays drunk, etc.) but the film ultimately delights because of her very real skills as a writer and director. Shelton understands the importance of pacing in film comedy: Many of the biggest laughs result from her cinematography and editing choices — whether it’s an eyeline match between the protagonist and an image of Jesus, or ending a scene with the “punchline” of a close-up of an empty roll of toilet paper. More importantly, Magnolia & Clementine starts off as a comedy but unexpectedly morphs into a poignant tale of self-discovery, a Chaplin-esque tonal balancing act that Shelton pulls off with admirable precision. What begins as a story about a relationship between a woman and a man ends up being about a woman’s relationship with herself as she learns to overcome her insecurities and fully declare herself an artist. There could be no more fitting subject for a filmmaking debut as auspicious as this one.

To learn more about this weekend’s screenings of Magnolia & Clementine, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Beloit International Film Festival’s website.

 


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Review Roundup!

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Happy Chicago Premiere Day! I am very fortunate that RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO has received some stellar reviews from some great film critics in the days leading up to tonight’s local premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center!

In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper calls RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO “a quiet and yet exhilaratingly entertaining comedic drama consisting of three stand-alone vignettes.” You can read his full 3-and-a-half (out of 4) star review here.

In a “Recommended” review at Newcity Chicago, Ray Pride writes “RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO falls somewhere between the squirrelly hush and face-level modesty of Éric Rohmer and the spiky, quietly antic trickery of Arnaud Desplechin.” Read his full capsule here.

At HollywoodChicago.com, Pat McDonald writes “Michael Glover Smith has paired the pitch of woo in a sophisticated Midwestern burg. RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO is the romance-in-the-Windy-City movie the world has been waiting for.” You can read his full 5 (out of 5) star review here.

At ChicagoFilm.com Lee Shoquist concludes his review by writing “In RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO, Smith and his talented stable of local actors remind us that storytelling, more than anything, is about a well-written screenplay, engaging stars (with whom he generously gives ample close-ups and minimizes cuts as to allow sustained moments to build character) and recognizable human interaction.” Read the full review here.

Tonight’s screening at the Siskel Center is sold out but you can purchase tickets for our remaining three shows (on 2/9, 2/11 & 2/13) online at the Siskel’s website here.

Red carpet pics coming soon. Stay tuned!


Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK

My review of Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book was published at Cine-File today. The film, which opens at the Siskel Center today for a three-week run, is almost certainly the best new film I will see all year. Here’s the review in its entirety:

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Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK (New French)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for show times

When I screened A MAN ESCAPED in an Intro to Film class a few years ago, one particularly bright student seemed riveted by Bresson’s radical and extensive use of first-person voice-over narration, close-ups of hands at work, and the unusual way these elements interacted with each other. In a post-screening discussion, he made the salient point that “It was as if Lieutenant Fontaine’s hands were doing the thinking and the talking.” I was reminded of this remark at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK when a close-up depicts a man’s hands splicing together two shots of 35mm film at an editing table. On the soundtrack, Godard’s 87-year-old voice, now a sepulchral whisper, informs us that “man’s true condition” is to “think with hands.” This is shortly followed by what appears to be a documentary image of a concentration-camp victim’s emaciated fingers. Hand imagery from a variety of sources – from a shot of Bunuel wielding a straight razor in the opening of UN CHIEN ANDALOU to the detail of an index finger pointing upwards in Da Vinci’s painting John the Baptist – proliferates in the early stages of THE IMAGE BOOK. This serves to introduce the film’s structure (“five chapters like the five fingers of a hand”) and overall aesthetic strategy (mixing excerpts of narrative films with documentaries, high art, cell-phone videos, etc.); but, more importantly, it reminds us of Godard’s belief that a filmmaker is ideally someone who works with his or her hands, operating “small instruments” like the analog equipment on which Godard begins the process of slicing and dicing the contents of his vast image data bank before he passes that footage on to his cinematographer/co-editor Fabrice Aragno for a digital upgrade. After this brief prologue, THE IMAGE BOOK proper begins: The first four “chapters” feature Godard’s associative montage at its most rigorous – he traces various images, ideas and motifs throughout film history (water, trains, war, the concept of “the law,” etc.) in a manner not unlike that of his mammoth video essay HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA. But, even when it feels most familiar, these passages in THE IMAGE BOOK still show Godard to be a restless experimenter: The famous scene in Nicholas Ray’s JOHNNY GUITAR where Sterling Hayden implores Joan Crawford to “lie” by professing her love for him (a scene Godard has already quoted in several other films) gets a new look by the introduction of a black screen during what should be a shot of Hayden, so that viewers only see the corresponding reverse-angle shot of Crawford in their charged dialogue exchange. Another new trick up the director’s sleeve is the way he presents shots in a deliberately incorrect aspect ratio (i.e., the images appear horizontally stretched) before having them “pop” into the proper ratio, an amusing and oddly satisfying poetic effect. The film’s darker and more disturbing elements, on the other hand, have caused some critics to categorize it as a “horror movie.” In one instance, Godard provocatively juxtaposes an execution scene from Rossellini’s PAISAN, in which Italian partisans are drowned by their Nazi captors, with eerily similar, recent non-fiction footage of ISIS executions. Elsewhere, he juxtaposes images of exploited performers – intercutting shots of a grinning “pinhead” from Tod Browning’s FREAKS with someone performing anilingus in a pornographic film of unknown origin (the latter is identified only as “PORNO” in the lengthy bibliography that makes up most of the closing credits). But it’s the fifth and final chapter, taking up almost the entire second half of the film, that sees Godard boldly striking out into truly new territory: This section examines how Western artists frequently misrepresent the Arab world by depicting it in simplistic and reductive terms (i.e., as either “joyful” or “barbaric”). Godard quotes extensively from authors I haven’t read (e.g., Edward Saïd and Albert Cossery) but the overall meaning is clear in an extended scene that focuses on a fictional Arabic country named Dofa whose “underground has no oil” but whose Prime Minister nonetheless dreams of submitting all Gulf countries to his rule. What’s incredible about this sequence is the startling way Godard conveys the “story” solely through his narration while the image track is comprised of a cornucopia of found footage from movies by both Western and Arabic filmmakers (not to mention some hyper-saturated shots apparently captured by Godard and Aragno on location in Tunisia that are the most visually ravishing in the film). That it’s often difficult to determine where these shots came from is, of course, part of the point. In an otherwise war-and-death-obsessed work that feels even more despairing than usual for this gnomic artist, Godard does, however, express hope for the possibility of a new poetics of cinema, one in which Middle-Eastern and African filmmakers might discover new ways of seeing and hearing themselves. The wild sound design, always a highlight in late Godard, reaches new levels of expressiveness here as voices, sounds and snippets of music aggressively ping-pong back and forth between multiple stereo channels – essentially doing for the ears what the groundbreaking 3D of GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE did for the eyes. In a lengthy post-credits sequence, Godard’s voice-over eventually devolves into a coughing fit while a rhapsodic dance sequence from Max Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR gets the final word on the image track. In 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. Spotting references and decoding meanings is ultimately less important than the sensorial experience of simply vibing with the uniquely romantic/pessimistic tone engendered by this giant of the medium’s total mastery of “image et parole.”

Note: The Siskel Center has installed a 7.1 surround-system solely for the purpose of accommodating Godard’s ambitious 7.1 stereo soundtrack. (2018, 90 min, DCP Digital) MGS


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