Category Archives: Film Reviews

Ksenia Ivanova’s JACK AND ANNA

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Although it has yet to premiere in Chicago proper, one of the most impressive Chicago-made shorts of recent years is Jack and Anna, a Columbia College MFA thesis film by the Russian-born writer/director Ksenia Ivanova. Since premiering in 2019, this poignant and impeccably crafted 15-minute period drama has screened at dozens of festivals around the world, including the prestigious Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and has deservedly picked up multiple awards in the process. If there is any justice in the universe, Ivanova’s movie will receive the Chicago red-carpet premiere it richly deserves when the coronavirus eventually blows over and its festival run resumes. This would only be fitting given that the cast and crew consist entirely of Chicagoans who should be able to see their work on the biggest screen possible.

Jack and Anna takes place in Colorado in 1913 but tells a story of intolerance and same-sex marriage that feels globally relevant today. The theme of (in)justice is introduced in the opening shot of a judge’s harsh eye, which is trained, in a cool-hued courtroom, on defendant Helen Hilsher, a young woman accused of “impersonating a man” for the previous two years. The narrative then flashes back to depict happier times in the relationship between the tomboy-ish Hilsher (living as “Handsome Jack” Hill) and one Anna Slifka, who were married and owned a farm before their secret was discovered and they were legally forced apart. Kate Smith is superb as Helen/Jack — her courtroom scenes could draw tears from a stone — but Brookelyn Hebert is equally affecting in the less showy role of Anna: Her non-verbal reaction shots are a masterclass in understated screen acting. These performances, like the movie’s impressive technical specs, ultimately transcend the “student film” designation.


Leilah Weinraub’s SHAKEDOWN

I wrote the following review of Leilah Weinraub’s excellent SHAKEDOWN, streaming exclusively on Pornhub through the end of March, for the new COVID-19/all-streaming version of Cine-File Chicago.

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Leilah Weinraub’s SHAKEDOWN (US Experimental Documentary)
Available to stream free on Pornhub through 3/31.

The title of Leilah Weinraub’s superb 2018 documentary refers to a series of legendary underground strip-club shows held in a variety of locations in Los Angeles in the 1990s and early 2000s. The performers at these shows, the “Shakedown Angels,” were exclusively lesbians of color who catered to audiences comprised largely of the same demographic. Like Jennie Livingston did with New York City’s drag-ball scene in the landmark PARIS IS BURNING, Weinraub provides an invaluable and eye-opening social history of a subculture too-long marginalized, and many of the pleasures her film offers arise from a similarly skilled manner of documentary portraiture: The subjects come across as compelling, vividly drawn characters – from Ronnie-Ron, Shakedown’s charismatic “stud” impresario, to angels Mahogany (who gives a fascinating description of the difference between performing for women vs. men), Egypt (a formerly homophobic high-school cheerleader who discovered her sexual identity after being introduced to gay club-life by a friend) and the enigmatic Slim Goodie (whose clever costumes and aggressive, mesmerizing dance numbers rival the best of what came out of MGM’s famed Arthur Freed unit in the 1950s). Fittingly, men are almost nowhere to be seen, and the only appearance of white men pointedly occurs when undercover cops show up to arrest nude dancers for “soliciting,” precipitating the closure of Shakedown’s main venue in 2004 amidst a new era of gentrification in L.A. But Weinraub also knows that the most effective way to challenge the dominant ideology of American culture (i.e., patriarchy and heteronormativity) in cinema is not only through content but form, and so she rebels against the conventions of mainstream documentary filmmaking as well. What ultimately makes SHAKEDOWN a landmark work of radical queer art in its own right is its experimental edge: In little more than an hour, Weinraub confronts viewers with an exhilarating montage of footage (culled from 400+ hours she shot herself on standard-definition video in low-light conditions) that frequently takes on a rude, hallucinatory beauty, punctuated by a wealth of still photographs and promotional flyers characterized by a cheesy-but-amazing early-2000s Photoshop aesthetic. Pornhub and Weinraub will host a Q&A live chat on Saturday, March 28 from 12PM-1PM PST. The chat offers viewers the chance to “simulate the experience of watching the film together, even while alone.” (2018, 66 min) MGS


Tsai Ming-Liang’s STRAY DOGS

I reviewed Tsai Ming-Liang’s great STRAY DOGS for Cine-File Chicago. It screens at Doc Films twice this weekend as part of their ongoing Tsai retrospective.

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Tsai Ming-Liang’s STRAY DOGS (Taiwanese Revival)
Doc Films – Friday, 7:00pm & Sunday, 1:30pm

If Tsai Ming-Liang had indeed retired from making feature-length narrative films after STRAY DOGS in 2013, as he indicated in interviews when it premiered, he would have gone out on a high note (he has since returned with 2020’s DAYS). This beautiful film found the great Taiwanese director training his patient camera eye on a homeless man (the inevitable Lee Kang-Sheng) who struggles to provide for his two young children in contemporary Taipei. There are extended wordless sequences of Lee’s unnamed character “working” by standing in traffic and holding an advertising placard — and thus functioning as a human billboard, not unlike the protagonist of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s THE SANDWICH MAN — as well as washing his children in a grocery store bathroom; these shots are almost startling in their clear-eyed compassion and remind us that, for all of the audacious experimenting he does with form, Tsai has also grounded much of his best work in an authentic sense of character and milieu. The film’s high point occurs about half-way through: a long take of Lee’s character smothering a head of lettuce with a pillow (before doing other interesting things to it, including voraciously biting into it and cradling it in his arms and sobbing over it), a sad, funny and crazy scene that is far more emotionally moving than the similar but more shrewdly contrived and melodramatic climax of Michael Haneke’s AMOUR. Then there is the matter of the amazing penultimate shot: a static close-up of two faces staring at a mural that ticks well past the 10-minute mark before cutting, with one of the characters effortlessly shedding a few tears halfway through, a moment that recalls the famous final shot of Tsai’s breakthrough VIVE L’AMOUR from 1994. Without taking anything away from its culturally specific qualities, I think that the depiction of a family of “have nots” in STRAY DOGS has more to say about the lives of ordinary Americans in the 21st century than the vast majority of movies that have come out of the United States. (2019, 138 min, DCP Digital) MGS


Chicago Shorts at the Beloit International Film Festival

I wrote the following capsule review of the Beloit International Film Fest’s “WI / IL TWO” shorts program for Time Out Chicago.

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A Missed Connection. Photo courtesy of Third Wheel Entertainment.

Chicago Shorts Shine at This Year’s Beloit International Film Festival

Located in a picturesque small town in Wisconsin just north of the Illinois border, the Beloit International Film Festival is a gem of a regional fest that has long featured an impressive roster of Midwestern filmmaking talent, and this year’s lineup is no exception. Any Chicagoans planning on attending the 2020 edition of BIFF, which kicks off tonight, Friday, February 21, and runs through Sunday, March 1, would do well to check out the “WI / IL TWO”shorts program: It features a contingent of unusually strong Chicago-made short films. Among the works screening in this program (and thus vying for the fest’s highly competitive “Best Illinois Short” award) are Matthew Weinstein’s A Missed Connection, Layne Marie Williams’ Golden Voices and Eve Rydberg’s Home. This program screens at Bagels & More on Friday, February 21 at 7:30pm and again at the same location on Saturday, February 22 at 7:30pm. Filmmakers and cast members from all three short films will be present for a Q&A session following both screenings.

A Missed Connection is an emotionally resonant study of two college friends, Jacob (Tyler Pistorius) and Lauren (Kimberly Michelle Williams), reconnecting in a coffee shop by chance on a wintry night. That writer/director Matthew Weinstein packs a bit too much “character arc” into the brief run time is a welcome problem in an age of films of too little ambition, and one that is compensated for by spectacularly subtle lead performances and gorgeous Rembrandt-esque visuals. Golden Voices is a poetic horror film about a ghost-chasing podcaster (Kalika Rose) who stumbles upon sleepwalking children whispering of “gold” in rural Indiana. Director Layne Marie Williams, aided by cinematographer Grace Pisula (whose Gold Point Studio produced), packs a wealth of haunting atmosphere into a fleet 14 minutes that will likely leave viewers wanting more; this could easily be the pilot for a web series. Home, a pungent dramedy about the reunion between a father/daughter duo, both on the verge of homelessness, serves as a terrific showcase for two of Chicago’s finest theater actors (Francis Guinan and Carolyn Hoerdemann, who also co-wrote); when actors can cause your heart to lurch by interacting with a tomato—you know you’re in the presence of art.

For more information about this year’s Beloit International Film Festival, including ticket info and showtimes,visit the BIFF website here.


Jia Zhangke’s I WISH I KNEW

I reviewed Jia Zhangke’s I WISH I KNEW for Cine-file Chicago on Friday. It screens three times at the Gene Siskel Film Center over the next week:

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Jia Zhangke’s I WISH I KNEW (Chinese Documentary Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday and Saturday, 6pm and Wednesday, 7:45pm

I WISH I KNEW, a melancholy and meditative documentary portrait of Shanghai that received its world premiere in 2010 but is only now being released in the United States thanks to distributor Kino/Lorber, was originally commissioned to screen at the World Expo in Shanghai. It came in the middle of a seven-year break from narrative feature filmmaking for Jia Zhangke, a period in which the most important director of the Chinese film industry’s “sixth generation” made only documentaries and shorts, and was consequently treated as a minor work by most critics. Seen today, however, after a decade’s hindsight (i.e., after Jia went on to make a string of urgent and complex narrative movies about China’s rapid evolution towards a privatized economy and its leading role within 21st century global culture, films that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum might term “state-of-the-planet addresses”), I WISH I KNEW now looks like one of the key works in its director’s filmography. Confronting each new movie from Jia can be a bit of a bewildering experience, pushing even seasoned cinephiles like me out of typical patterns of response and judgment, which is perhaps one of the reasons why this vital 10-year-old work feels like it is somehow arriving on these shores right on time. I WISH I KNEW is a kind of city-symphony film for the modern age but one in which the city in question is revealed mainly through interviews with its citizens. Each interview subject—mostly middle-aged-to-elderly men and women—talks primarily about the experiences of their parents and grandparents in Shanghai; and thus the whole of this documentary, a deceptively simple accumulation of personal “oral histories” not unlike a filmic version of Studs Terkel’s interview books about Chicago, ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Among the topics discussed are the establishment of Shanghai as a British treaty-port city in the mid-19th century, the Communist revolution, political executions, and the mass exodus of Shanghainese people to Hong Kong and Taiwan in the aftermath of World War II. While most of the interviewees are ordinary men and women, Jia does also feature some prominent Chinese filmmakers and actors including Wong Kar-Wai favorite Rebecca Pan (who weeps when reminiscing about her past and sings a beautiful song in Mandarin) and Taiwanese directing legend Hou Hsiao-Hsien (who knew little about Shanghai until he traveled there to research his 1998 masterpiece THE FLOWERS OF SHANGHAI). The final two interview subjects are the youngest, which is fitting in that they represent the city’s future, and their stories feel like they could serve as the basis for one of Jia’s narrative films: the first is a man who claims to have become absurdly rich overnight by speculating in securities and the second is a car-racing champion who moonlights as a best-selling novelist. Tying all of these disparate interviews together are wordless, lyrical sequences of a young woman (the great Zhao Tao, Jia’s long-time leading lady onscreen and off) traversing the city alone, from the Suzhou River to an empty movie theater to many building construction sites. This unnamed woman’s compelling presence seems to personify the spirit of Shanghai itself, a nexus of past and present, a place forever busy being born. (2010, 119 min, DCP Digital) MGS


Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

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Bertrand Bonello’s ‘Zombi Child’ is the first great film to play Chicago in 2020

January and February typically constitute a dreary movie-watching season in which new cinema fare consists largely of dud pictures that the major Hollywood studios have no confidence in and have decided to dump on the market when theatrical attendance has traditionally been lowest. Fortunately for cinephiles, there are usually still worthwhile independent and foreign releases to choose from during these winter months. A good example this year is Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which sees the iconoclastic French writer/director putting an original spin on the most tired of horror subgenres. It thankfully bypasses the overly familiar George Romero-esque approach to the lurching, brain-eating “undead” and harks back instead to the zombie film’s voodoo origins found in subtle chillers like Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie from 1943. Opening at the Siskel Center for a week-long run beginning this Friday, January 24, it’s the first great film of 2020 and should be considered essential viewing for Chicagoans looking for something to see on the big screen.

Bertrand Bonello’s best films portray characters who exist outside of the mainstream of French society (e.g., the fin-de-siecle prostitutes in House of Pleasures, the young multi-ethnic terrorists in Nocturama), and Zombi Child is no exception: It alternates between two distinct narrative threads – one devoted to the true story of Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man who was “zombified” in 1962 so that he could be employed as slave labor on a sugar-cane plantation, and one detailing the adventures of his fictional granddaughter, Mélissa, a young black woman at a predominantly white college in contemporary France. The latter story is narrated by Fanny (Louise Labeque), a recently heart-broken student who befriends Mélissa and initiates her into a popular sorority but with dark ulterior motives. The way these two stories dovetail in the film’s climax adds up to a critique of racism, “othering” and the commodification of culture that is at once subtle, subversive and devilishly clever.

For more information about Zombi Child, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS: THE MYSTERIOUS AIR PIRATE

I reviewed Mario Roncoroni’s Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate for Cine-File Chicago last Friday. It screens for the final time at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight at 6:15pm. I consider this the most important restoration of the year.

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Mario Roncoroni’s FILIBUS (Silent Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, December 20, 2:15pm, Sunday, December 22, 3:30pm, and Thursday, December 26, 6:15pm

Most official film histories, when bothering to acknowledge silent Italian cinema at all, relegate it to a footnote in the career of D.W. Griffith (who was inspired by epic period melodramas like Giovanni Pastrone’s CABIRIA to create feature films like THE BIRTH OF A NATION and INTOLERANCE). That is why this new 2K restoration of Mario Roncoroni’s 1915 FILIBUS, a joint project of Milestone Film and Video in the U.S. and the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands, is so invaluable: This briskly-paced, enormously entertaining 70-minute feature—which combines the “master criminal vs. master detective” plot familiar from Louis Feuillade’s mystery serials with science fiction trappings, absurdist humor, and a prototypical gender-bending screen romance—illuminates aspects of Italian culture in the early 20th century (i.e., “Futurist” gender-identity exploration) while also giving a fuller picture of what Italian cinema of the period was like. Interestingly, this low-budget affair, a product of the short-lived Torino-based production company Corona Films, received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release due to its primitive special effects and some derivative plot elements (scenes where Filibus frames her detective-nemesis by making a glove from a mold of a his hand in order to leave his fingerprints behind is taken directly from Feuillade’s FANTOMAS). But the treatment of the title character, a villainous yet fiercely independent, gender-fluid burglar and “aviatrix,” looks shockingly modern by today’s standards, which means that FILIBUS has generated more critical and commercial interest in the 21st century than it ever did in the 1910s. The film’s scenario, written by future sci-fi author Giovanni Bertinetti, concerns Filibus’ execution of a series of daring heists involving a futuristic airship that uses a capsule to lower her and her underlings onto the scene of a crime. Roncoroni’s use of optical effects, which superimpose shots of the dirigible and its criminal occupants over separate shots of a cloudy sky, look charmingly rudimentary today; but his inventive staging—including an extensive use of vertical movement in which characters frequently enter and exit shots from the top and the bottom of the frame—is positively inspired. The film’s most important effect, however, is Valeria Creti’s delightful performance as Filibus, a mischievous turn full of sly looks and gambits designed to seduce not only the characters in the film but the audience as well. By the time FILIBUS is over, contemporary viewers are likely to be rooting for the anti-heroine recently dubbed “cinema’s first lesbian ‘bad girl’” while also lamenting that the ending was left open for a sequel that sadly would never be made. (1915, 70 min, DCP Digital) MGS

Live piano accompaniment by Dave Drazin at the Sunday screening; the other screenings will feature a pre-recorded musical score.


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