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Hong Sang-soo’s THE NOVELIST’S FILM (South Korea)

Gene Siskel Film Center – See Venue website for showtimes

Another year, another couple Hong Sang-soo features. THE NOVELIST’S FILM, the first of two movies Hong released in 2022 (followed by WALK UP), is also the third of his films to win a Silver Bear at the Berlinale in the past three years. In spite of the recent acclaim (or perhaps even because of it), Hong’s extreme prolificity can make it easy to take each of his new features for granted. Given the similarities between so many of his movies in terms of form and content, it can also be easy to overlook what he might be doing that’s new each time out. THE NOVELIST’S FILM is a witty black-and-white drama that centers on a veteran novelist, Jun-hee, who attempts to overcome writer’s block by making her first short film. This continues Hong’s recent trends of focusing on female characters and offering a substantial lead role to an older actress (the star is Lee Hye-young, who also played the lead in Hong’s previous feature, IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE), a welcome development in his work. What’s most fascinating about THE NOVELIST’S FILM, though, is the way that Hong investigates the creative process by focusing on the role that chance encounters can play in sparking artistic inspiration—and by daringly keeping the actual production of the film-within-the-film offscreen. Most of the running time is spent following Jun-hee over the course of a single day as she first meets an old acquaintance who runs a book shop, then a film director who once expressed interest in adapting one of her novels (but ultimately failed to do so) and, finally, a popular actress in semi-retirement named Kil-soo (the inevitable Kim Min-hee) with whom she shares a mutual admiration. The ending jumps ahead several months to a scene outside of a screening room where a private viewing of Jun-hee’s short is being held. Although the film itself is never glimpsed, Hong provides a mysterious documentary-like coda featuring Kil-soo arranging a bouquet of flowers with another actress in a public park that seems intended to “stand in” for Jun-hee’s footage. This sequence—which is partially shot in color and resembles the controversial coda to Abbas Kiarostami’s TASTE OF CHERRY (1997)—is the key to THE NOVELIST’S FILM, as it contains a moment where Hong himself can be heard offscreen telling Kim, his real-life paramour, that he loves her. It’s a breathtaking scene that dissolves the line between documentary and fiction and asks us to reconsider the entire project along more highly personal (perhaps even autobiographical) lines. (2022, 92 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]


I reviewed Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, for Newcity magazine:


Even before Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, the esteemed literary critic Christopher Ricks referred to him as “the greatest living user of the English language.” While that may sound like hyperbole to the uninitiated, anyone looking for a glimmer of why Dylan’s verbal dexterity has always held—and continues to hold—so many of his admirers in thrall would do well to peruse “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” a new collection of sixty-six essays that he began writing in 2010, and his third official book (following “Tarantula,” a collection of prose poems published in 1971, and “Chronicles: Volume One,” an offbeat memoir from 2004). The ingenious sense of wordplay that characterizes the Minnesota bard’s best work as a songwriter, including the songs that appear on 2020’s majestic “Rough and Rowdy Ways” album, is everywhere in evidence in this substantial yet wild 334-page work of creative nonfiction.

It isn’t necessary to be a Dylan fan to appreciate “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” however, since the book’s subject is the work of other musicians. Dylan dissects popular songs spanning the majority of the history of recorded music—from Uncle Dave Macon’s 1924 hillbilly ditty “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” to Alvin Youngblood Hart’s soulful, piano-driven cover of Stephen Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady” from 2004. Dylan only name-drops one of his own songs once—when rightly mentioning that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is in the DNA of Elvis Costello’s adrenaline-pumping “Pump It Up.” But, as a friend of mine likes to point out, Dylan also has a way of indirectly talking about his own work through discussing the work of others. That would seem to be the case here, as when he praises crooner Bobby Darin for his unusual, ahead-of-the-beat phrasing or extols bluegrass act the Osborne Brothers for allowing a song to “morph and grow” from its original studio version to a radical rearrangement in live performance years later.

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” excels as traditional music criticism when it wants to: Dylan has a knack for making surprising and provocative points of comparison (e.g., the way Black bluesman Jimmy Reed “signs off” on the verses of his songs with harmonica riffs that are similar in function to the yodeling of white country singer Jimmie Rodgers) and contrast (the narrator of Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” Dylan assures us, is a guy you want to know while the narrator of The Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” is someone you want to avoid). But the book is at its very best when it takes off into more poetic flights of fancy—the interstitial sections that publisher Simon & Schuster has referred to as “dreamlike riffs” in pre-release publicity. These passages, which appear immediately before more conventionally written essays on the same songs, resemble both the liner notes to Dylan’s “World Gone Wrong” LP from 1993 as well as his Nobel lecture from 2017 (wherein he described his favorite works of literature by using an unusual second-person, present-tense point of view).

This being Dylan, the book is also frequently digressive, funny and perverse. An essay on Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her,” for instance, serves as a pretext for Dylan to indict the greedy lawyers he sees as responsible for the “ten-billion-dollar-a-year” divorce industry before seguing into an outrageously satirical defense of “polygamist marriage.” Still other analyses may catch readers off guard for their heartfelt sincerity, as when Dylan decries modern society’s disregard for the elderly or the historical mistreatment of Native Americans. Some will undoubtedly be surprised by the inclusion of artists like Cher, The Eagles and The Fugs, while several of Dylan’s biggest influences (such as Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson) are conspicuously absent. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive encyclopedia but rather a series of eclectic musings—some playful, others profound—on songs about which the author felt he had something to say. Besides, we can always hope for a Volume 2.


My review of ALL JACKED UP AND FULL OF WORMS, which screens at the Chicago International Film Festival this weekend, appeared at Cinefile Chicago today:

Music Box Theatre – Friday, 9:30pm
This batshit-crazy body horror/black comedy is the reason why “After Dark” sidebars at film festivals exist. It may not have a lot on its mind, aside from the desire to provoke visceral reactions from adventurous viewers, but seeing it with a boozy late-night crowd should be fun. ALL JACKED UP begins with bearded weirdo Benny (Trevor Dawkins) mail-ordering a plastic baby sex doll aimed at the pedophile market—one of the more disturbing props in contemporary cinema—to satisfy his earnest desire to become a parent. After sex-worker Henrietta (Eva Fellows) turns him on to eating earthworms that possess hallucinogenic properties, Benny teams up with motel employee and fellow worm enthusiast Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), and the duo embark on an absurd and violent crime spree. This microbudget psychedelic odyssey, which boasts a fair number of gruesome and impressive practical effects, may not ultimately “mean anything” but it does possess a certain scuzzy integrity. The cast, led by Dawkins (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurist Theater who first proved his transgressive cinema bonafides in Spencer Parsons’ BITE RADIUS [2015]), certainly gives it their all; and, formally, the story becomes increasingly non-narrative as it progresses in order to correspond to the disintegrating mental states of the characters. By the final scene, it feels like the film itself is tripping. (2022, 72 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]

Second RELATIVE Screening Added at American Cinematheque!

I’m pleased to announce that, due to brisk ticket sales, the American Cinematheque / Los Feliz 3 has added an encore screening of RELATIVE next weekend. It will occur one day after our L.A. Premiere, on Saturday, October 15 at 4:00 pm, and be followed by a Q&A with me, actress/producer Clare Cooney and director of photography Olivia Aquilina, moderated by critic Ryan Swen. You can buy tickets in advance here:

Hope to see some Los Angeles friends there!

Upcoming RELATIVE screenings in L.A., New York, Chicago and Michigan!

There are a bunch of exciting RELATIVE screenings across the U.S. in the next month. Please consider attending if you live in one of these regions (and/or please alert any friends/family you may have in any of these places by sending them links to where they can buy tix):

Bay City, Michigan: We’ll be screening at the Hell’s Half Mile Film & Music Festival on Saturday, September 24 and Sunday, September 25. Both screenings will be followed by a live Q&A with me and actress Elizabeth Stam. Tickets here.

New York State: We’ll be screening (virtually) as part of the Buffalo International Film Festival from October 6 – 20. The film will be “geo-blocked” to New York state — meaning it will be available to stream to any residents of New York (not just Buffalonians). I’ve also recorded a special video interview with festival director John Fink to accompany this stream. Tickets here.

Los Angeles, CA: We’ll be screening at the American Cinematheque/Los Feliz 3 on Friday, October 14. Followed by a Q&A with me, actress/producer Clare Cooney, actor Cameron Scott Roberts and cinematographer Olivia Aquilina moderated by film critic Ryan Swen. Tickets are going fast for this one, which is impressive considering we are still almost four weeks away from the event. This screening will sell out so please urge all of your SoCal friends to buy tix in advance! Tickets here.

Chicago, IL: We’ll be screening at the New 400 in Rogers Park on Sunday, October 2 at 3pm. This will be followed by a live Q&A with me and cast members Wendy Robie, Keith D. Gallagher, Elizabeth Stam and Heather Chrisler + a walking tour over to the film’s central location on Newgard Ave. afterwards. This may be our final Chicago screening and it should sell out too! Tickets here.

Info about November/December screenings coming soon!

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Le Boucher (Chabrol) – A+
2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov) – A+
3. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov) – A+
4. The Berlin Art Society (Wesendonk) – B+
5. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy) – A+
6. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene) – A
7. Cleo From 5 to 7 (Varda) – A+
8. Lost Highway (Lynch) – A-
9. Our Hospitality (Keaton) – A+
10. Contempt (Godard) – A+

RELATIVE wins Best Narrative Feature at Full Bloom!

I’m thrilled to announce that RELATIVE has won the award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2022 Full Bloom Film Festival in Statesville, North Carolina. The film screened twice over the weekend to large and appreciative audiences before I was presented with the award and a $250 cash prize at a delightful ceremony at the Statesville Woman’s Club on Saturday night. This is my third time screening at Full Bloom and it is absolutely one of my favorite regional fests. I encourage all of my filmmaker friends to consider submitting next year!

RELATIVE will have many more screenings (both theatrically and at festivals) in the coming months. Please visit our official website for the latest info regarding screening dates, showtimes and ticket info.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Orphan: First Kill* (Bell) – B
2. Nope* (Peele) – C+
3. Our Hospitality (Keaton) – A+
4. The 400 Blows (Truffaut) – A+
5. The Girl and the Spider* (Zurcher/Zurcher) – A-
6. Fallen Angels (Wong) – B+
7. Cesar and Rosalie* (Sautet) – B
8. Days of Heaven (Malick) – A
9. Days of Heaven (Malick) – A
10. Breathless (Godard) – A-

* – First-time watch

RELATIVE in Naperville and Wheaton!

Suburban Chicagoans will have more opportunities to see RELATIVE in September: we open for a week-long run at the Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville beginning on September 2. I will be present for a Q&A on opening night following the 7:00pm show along with three members of Noisefloor (who did the post-sound on the film). Tickets can be purchased here.

There will also be a special one-night only screening on Saturday, September 17 at Studio Movie Grill in Wheaton. I will be present for a Q&A following the 7:00pm show here.

Finally, there will be September film festival screenings of RELATIVE in Florida, North Carolina and Michigan. The latter fest hasn’t announced its lineup yet but ticket info for all of those shows will appear on our official website soon. Hope to see you at an upcoming screening!


Reviewed for

Claire Denis’s BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE (France)

Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes

BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE is lots of things at once, many of them contradictory: it’s a quintessential Claire Denis film that doesn’t look much like her previous work, a romantic melodrama that unfolds like a thriller, and a singularly upsetting experience that stands as one of the finest movies of 2022. It’s also a potent examination of the theme of “the past coming back,” which makes it a kissing cousin of such otherwise disparate films as Jacques Tourneur’s OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). In all three movies, the protagonists’ lives are turned upside down by the unexpected re-appearance of someone they used to know, whose return forces them not just to deal with unresolved issues but to regress into the people they used to be, whether they like it or not. In Denis’s film, Sara (Juliette Binoche) is a radio host in a seemingly idyllic nine-year relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Jean (Vincent Lindon), an unemployed ex-rugby player and ex-con. A wordless six-minute introductory scene shows the lovers frolicking at the beach before returning home and making love, a bravura sequence that recalls the wordless montage that begins Eric Rohmer’s A TALE OF WINTER (1992). This picturesque depiction of blissful couplehood, however, is undercut by the ominous rumble of low strings on the soundtrack, which give way to the haunting sound of minor chords being plucked on an acoustic guitar (the superb score is, of course, by the Tindersticks). Shortly afterwards, Sara spies her ex-lover—and Jean’s old friend—Francois (Gregoire Colin), in the street for the first time in years, and the very sight of him causes her to convulse with emotion. As Sara and Francois resume their affair, Denis and co-screenwriter Christine Angot (on whose novel the film is based) gradually, masterfully dole out information that fleshes out the backstories of the three main characters while some narrative details remain tantalizingly vague (e.g. the reason Jean went to prison is never explained). For long stretches, the cinematic language of BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE feels more conventional than in Denis’s other films, probably so she can put the focus squarely on the anguished emotions—especially in two extended verbal arguments between Sara and Jean, the Cassavettesian emotional rawness of which gives two of the world’s greatest actors some of their most indelible onscreen moments. This makes all the more effective the few “poetic” touches more typical of Denis that are shrewdly sprinkled throughout the movie: the first reunion scene between Sara and Francois, for instance, is full of dreamy close-ups and sensual camera moves reminiscent of FRIDAY NIGHT (2002), although here they are fittingly played in a more sinister register. The earlier film celebrates a guilt-free one-night stand between two strangers who come together by chance; the newer one shows how desire, when intertwined with guilt and lies, can tear apart two people who ostensibly know each other well. BOTH SIDES OF THE BLADE is a searing portrait of middle-aged intimacy made by a woman old and wise enough to know that love can sometimes be a motherfucker. (2022, 116 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]

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