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Category Archives: Film Reviews

BOB LE FLAMBEUR at the Siskel Center

I wrote the following review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur for Cinefile Chicago. It screens twice in the next week at the Siskel Center in 35mm.

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Tuesday, 6pm

BOB LE FLAMBEUR is one of the most important films ever made – although it’s probably also a case of a classic movie that’s been more influential than actually seen. The way writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville expressed a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, refracting crime/noir conventions through his unique Gallic sensibility to create something refreshingly new, would exert a massive influence on the directors of the nouvelle vague in just a few years time; in BREATHLESS, which features an extended cameo by Melville, Jean-Luc Godard cheekily implies that it was Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel who “ratted on (his) friend” Bob Montagne. Made at a time when most commercial French films were still shot on studio-constructed sets, Melville’s mid-‘50s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it, but his stylish mise-en-scene – with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black-and-white checkerboard patterns – set a whole new standard for cinematic cool. BOB LE FLAMBEUR would go on to be remade both officially (as Neil Jordan’s THE GOOD THIEF) and unofficially (by Paul Thomas Anderson as HARD EIGHT) though neither Nick Nolte nor Philip Baker Hall can quite match the combination of world-weary poignancy and super-coolness in their portraits of aging masculinity that Roger Duchesne offers here. Even though it was his fourth feature, and his previous work formidable, BOB LE FLAMBEUR is also, crucially, the movie where “Melville becomes Melville.” With a tip of his Stetson to John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the brilliant French filmmaker crafted an irresistible shaggy-dog heist story about the titular character, a middle-aged gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak – making him a forerunner of the stoic badasses essayed by Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Gian Maria Volontè in Melville’s mature masterpieces of the 1960s and early 1970s. Bob’s bad luck eventually causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. (1956, 98 min, 35mm) MGS
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Lucky at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following piece appeared at Time Out Chicago yesterday.

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival has, in its brief, five-year existence, quietly asserted itself as one of the city’s premiere showcases for exciting new American independent and foreign movie fare. Programmed by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the festival features local premieres of movies, some of which don’t yet have distribution, that made splashes at major festivals like Cannes, Sundance and South By Southwest. Best of all, many of the screenings are accompanied by talkbacks with filmmakers and actors. My best bet for this year’s festival, which runs from Friday, May 12 through Thursday, May 18 at the Music Box Theatre, is John Carroll Lynch’s comedy/drama Lucky.

Harry Dean Stanton is a national treasure. The excellent character actor with the perpetual hangdog expression has burned himself into the collective American psyche. Who can forget his fine supporting turns in everything from Alien to Repo Man to Paris, Texas to the work of David Lynch (who has, across seven separate projects, cast HDS more frequently than any other actor)? Not enough for you? How about Cool Hand Luke, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Godfather Part II and Escape from New York? Then there is the matter of Pretty in Pink, in which Stanton pops up in a cameo as Molly Ringwald’s father, inexplicably wielding a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and making the movie a whole lot cooler in the process. At 90-years-old, Stanton finally gets the breakout leading role he deserves in Lucky, the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David). It’s the performance of a lifetime and if it doesn’t earn Stanton an Oscar nomination then they should close the joint for good.

As the tagline succinctly puts it, Lucky is about the “spiritual journey” of the title character, a retired cowboy and curmudgeonly atheist whose daily routine consists of crossword puzzles, game shows and visiting the same diner and bar, at which he converses with the same colorful regulars. After falling one day in his kitchen, Lucky is forced to belatedly confront his mortality for the very first time, and Stanton and director Lynch are able to pack a lot of poignancy and warmth into scenes showing how this affects Lucky’s relationships with the people closest to him. See, for instance, the understated way Stanton sells the line “I’m scared” when confiding in a friend or the astonishing scene in which Lucky reveals unexpected musical chops by breaking into a heartfelt Spanish-language song at a fiesta. It’s a modest, confidently made film, and a valentine from one character actor to another (Lynch is himself a veteran of films by the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese) that is well worth your time.

Lucky screens on May 13 and May 18, with Lynch in person for a Q&A at the former screening. For more info, visit the Chicago Critics Film Festival website.


The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Fest – Week Two

The following should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

What to see during the Chicago Latino Film Fest's second week
The Chicago Latino Film Festival continues through Thursday, May 4. My best bets for the second week are Fernando Lavanderos’ Lost North and Juan Sebastian Mesa’s The Nobodies.The Nobodies is the reason why film fests exist: shot in lo-fi black-and-white digital in one week on a budget of just $2000, this engrossing Colombian drama went on to win the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival Critics’ Week, thus ensuring healthy and deserved international distribution. The plotless film follows the lives of five aimless teenage punks in the city of Medellin: they juggle in the streets for money in order to fuel a non-conformist lifestyle revolving around weed, live music, tattoos and graffiti. Writer/director Juan Sebastian Mesa’s first feature may be modest in scope and lacking broader social context but it’s also entirely successful as deft urban portraiture: the naturalistic dialogue and performances (by actors playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves) are electrifying.

My favorite film at this year’s CLFF is the Chilean road movie Lost North, Fernando Lavanderos’ follow-up to his excellent 2012 feature Things the Way They Are. The plot concerns a young woman named Isabel (Geraldine Neary) abruptly leaving her boyfriend Esteban (Koke Santa Ana), a Santiago-based businessman, and embarking on a spontaneous journey north towards the Chilean-Bolivian border. Isabel sends Esteban short, enigmatic videos from her travels, which impel him to try and find her using only the video evidence as his guide. The film’s clever dual road-trip conceit allows Lavanderos to create a compelling Murnau-like dichotomy between city and country, past and present, and man and woman, but there’s also welcome humor in the characters’ differing attitudes towards “unplugging” and letting go of the modern world: one hilarious scene involves a desperate Esteban calling in sick to work from the road “with hepatitis” in order to justify his absence from the office.

The Nobodies screens on Saturday, April 29 and Monday, May 1. Lost North screens on Sunday, April 30 and Tuesday, May 2. For more information, visit the Chicago Latino Film Fest’s official site.


New Godard and Chabrol on Blu-Ray

The following piece should appear at Time Out sometime soon.

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Chicago-based Olive Films releases French New Wave rarities

Chicago-based Olive Films has earned a reputation as the “Criterion of the Midwest” for bringing superb-quality transfers of classic films to DVD and Blu-ray, many of which may be light on “special features” but compensate by being reasonably priced. Ophelia (1963) and The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964) are two welcome new additions to the Olive catalogue, especially for movie lovers interested in the landmark movement known as the French New Wave. Both films have never before been released on any digital format until now.

The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers is an omnibus film comprised of four shorts revolving around con artists plying their trade in major cities around the world: Tokyo, Paris, Naples and Marrakesh (a fifth segment set in Amsterdam, Roman Polanski’s River of Diamonds, has regrettably been omitted from this release at the request of the director). The highlight is Jean-Luc Godard’s Marrakesh-set Le Grand Escroc, which revives the character of Patricia from Breathless (again embodied by the great Jean Seberg), now a successful television reporter on assignment in Morocco. Patricia investigates the story of a man who prints counterfeit money only to give it away to the homeless but Godard’s real interest appears to be the intersection of documentary and fiction, which he regards with characteristic playful inquisitiveness. Le Grand Escroc also marks the beginning of the director’s fascination with the Arab world, a subject he would return to in Ici et Ailleurs, Notre Musique, the Egyptian section of Film Socialism and, if rumors are to be believed, his forthcoming Image and Word.

Ophelia, directed by Godard’s New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (also director of the Paris segment of The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers), is a modern-day update of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in provincial France. After his father dies unexpectedly, Ivan (Andre Jocelyn) suspects his mother (The Third Man‘s Alida Valli) and uncle (Claude Cerval) of committing foul play and sets a trap to catch them both; the “Mousetrap” play here is ingeniously presented as a silent short film made by Ivan with local amateur talent almost 40 years before Ethan Hawke did the same thing in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet. Chabrol loved to skewer the bourgeoisie but his decision to portray his main character as an entitled and whiny brat may be off-putting to some viewers. I would argue, however, that this decision pays dividends in the film’s darkly ironic conclusion when the spoiled young man realizes too late that he was incorrect to assume his family’s tragedy had to follow a familiar narrative playbook; Chabrol intertwines notions of class, culture and “projecting” onto others in devilishly entertaining fashion.

The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers and Ophelia are released on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, April 25. For more info, visit Olive’s official site.


The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival – Week One

The following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

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What to see during the first week of the Chicago Latino Film Festival

The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival kicked off last night, April 20, and runs through Thursday, May 4. This year’s edition of the long-running fest features a typically impressive and eclectic lineup of Latino-themed movies from Europe, South and North America. My best bets for the festival’s first week are Such is Life in the Tropics and The Empty Box.

One of the most pleasant surprises of CLFF in recent years was the local premiere of Claudia Sainte-Luce’s The Amazing Catfish in 2014. The young Mexican director follows up that auspicious debut feature with another visually stunning family drama, this one even more personal in nature: Sainte-Luce not only wrote and directed The Empty Box but also plays the lead role of Jazmin, a diner waitress in Mexico City who must learn to care for her estranged father, a Haitian immigrant named Toussaint (Jimmy Jean-Louis), after he is diagnosed with vascular dementia. The film is apparently closely based on Sainte-Luce’s own experiences and the way in which her character must learn to become “parent” to her father has the painful ring of authenticity. What really elevates this otherwise modest two-hander though are the visual beauty of the extremely dark, naturally lit interiors as well as the extensive flashbacks to Toussaint’s past, which feel like a reckoning born of compassion on the part of the filmmaker.

Sebastian Cordero’s Such is Life in the Tropics is a superb political thriller that intertwines several compelling storylines set in Guayaquil, Ecuador: one involves an unscrupulous lawyer (Andres Crespo) trying to negotiate the eviction of a settlement of squatters on behalf of a wealthy landowner, while another involves the accidental shooting of a German tourist — and its subsequent cover-up – by an even wealthier soccer impresario (Erando Gonzalez). The film’s diverse portrait of class warfare in contemporary Ecuadorian society crystallizes in another subplot – a Romeo and Juliet-like love story between the lawyer’s stepdaughter and the son of one of the squatters. The way writer/director Cordero intercuts between all of these characters is both suspenseful and masterful although the way he resolves the various narrative threads is a little too tidy for my taste. Still, you should see this.

The Empty Box screens on Thursday, April 27 and Saturday, April 29. Such is Life in the Tropics screens on Thursday, April 27 and Monday, May 1. For more info visit the Chicago Latino Film Festival’s official site.


DEATH IN THE TERMINAL at the Doc10 Film Festival

A version of the following piece will appear at the Time Out Chicago website sometime before Friday.

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The must-see doc Death in the Terminal will receive its U.S. premiere in Chicago this weekend

The second annual Doc10 Film Festival will take place at the Davis Theater from Thursday, March 30 through Sunday, April 2. As with last year’s impressive debut lineup, Doc10 will again highlight the best in contemporary nonfiction cinema by presenting the local premieres of 10 important documentaries curated by Anthony Kaufman (who also programmed the documentary slate at the Chicago International Film Festival for the past two years). While I was impressed with each of the four titles I have been able to preview so far (at least one of which, the much buzzed about Rat Film, will certainly return to Chicago screens at some point this year), my favorite of the bunch is the lower-profile Death in the Terminal, an Israeli movie still awaiting five user votes on the IMDb that will be receiving not just its Chicago premiere at Doc10 but its U.S. premiere as well. Although the running time clocks in at a lean 52 minutes, this incredibly complex and disturbing documentary by co-directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry does more to explain the culture of violence in the Middle East today than any other single work of art I know of. This is perhaps because it focuses on a single 18-minute incident (a terrorist attack at a bus station in Israel, and its immediate aftermath) in a way that feels like a microcosm of the conflict as a whole.

Death in the Terminal dramatically juxtaposes surveillance video footage from multiple security cameras — plus one eyewitness cell phone video — with interviews with six subjects (including police officers, a falafel vendor, an EMT and a couple of civilian bystanders) in order to piece together what happened in Beersheba in 2015 when an Israeli soldier was senselessly gunned down by a Bedouin terrorist and, equally senselessly, an innocent Eritrean refugee was mistakenly lynched in response. The film plays out like a negative version of Keith Maitland’s Tower, the superb animated doc from last year that focused on the heroism of civilians and police during the 1966 sniper shootings at the University of Texas in Austin; only where Maitland’s humanist movie showed people “doing the right thing” in the face of tragedy, Shemesh and Sudry’s darker and thornier work focuses on people who did the wrong thing, thereby perpetuating an insane cycle of violence and retribution. But Shemesh and Sudry also thankfully have no interest in pointing fingers or casting easy blame: their film explicitly challenges viewer assumptions about how we might react in similar circumstances, a provocation nowhere more apparent than in a haunting final shot where security-cam footage is run backwards. As soon as it’s over you may feel that you need to watch it again.

Death in the Terminal screens on Saturday, April 1 at 9:15pm followed by a Skype Q&A with the filmmakers. More information on DOC10, including the full lineup, can be found on the DOC10 website.


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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