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Mercury in Retrograde on the Radio / Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats at the Siskel

My film Mercury in Retrograde will be featured on two radio shows this weekend in advance of our screenings at the Gene Siskel Film Center. First up: you can listen to me talk about the film on Saturday, February 10 at 9am on the popular “Live from the Heartland” show (88.7FM in Chicago or online at Then on Sunday, February 11, tune in to hear the great Najarra Townsend and me reminisce about making MiR at 8am on Gary Zidek’s invaluable “Arts Section” show (90.9FM in Chicago or online at

Speaking of the Siskel, I will be moderating a Q&A there with director Jacob Feiring following a screening of his documentary Samantha’s Amazing Acrocats at 3pm this Saturday. Much like last year’s surprise hit Kedi, it’s a must-see for lovers of both cats and cinema. Hope to see you there!


The Safdie Brothers’ GOOD TIME at the Music Box

I wrote the following review of the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, my favorite American film of 2017, for Cinefile Chicago. It opens at the Music Box Theatre in 35mm tonight.


Benny and Josh Safdie’s GOOD TIME (New American)

Music Box Theatre – Friday-Thursday, 9:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Midnight

The American heist movie enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2017 with the releases of LOGAN LUCKY, BABY DRIVER and GOOD TIME. While the first two of these films are enjoyable, comedic, populist entertainments, the Safdie brothers’ movie is, by contrast, a trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying thing: a breathlessly paced thriller centered on an unlikable protagonist (who is brilliantly played by a charismatic actor) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America—beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface—while also never slowing down enough to allow us to process what’s happening until it’s over. This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they’re put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of dubiously including “racial signifiers” that he feels can be interpreted in a multitude of ways but that the filmmakers ultimately don’t care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scot free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning of an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie’s cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while simultaneously finding him morally reprehensible. I also don’t know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its “bad lighting” and “avoidance of prettiness,” qualities that are much better ascribed to the Safdies’ previous film, the urban junkie-drama HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. While the two films do share a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it seemingly turns urban spaces into a giant playground), GOOD TIME is also much more daring in how it juxtaposes its “street cred” with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization—one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie’s luck has finally run out for good, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium. (2017, 101 min, 35mm) MGS

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami)
3. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
4. Phantom Thread (Anderson)
5. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford)
6. Notting Hill (Michell)
7. Porto (Klinger)
8. Phantom Thread (Anderson)
9. Waiting for Kiarostami (Khandan)
10. 24 Frames (Kiarostami)


I’m excited to announce I will be directing a new feature film this summer based on a new original screenplay. Full production announcement/summary below!

RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO: Three Tales of Love in the Windy City
by Michael Glover Smith

Artwork by Loren Greenblatt

RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO is a short comedic feature film comprised of three vignettes corresponding to the beginning, middle and end stages of a relationship:

Part 1: THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. Paul, a charming young man, attempts to pick up Delaney, a bookish grad student, in an otherwise empty wine bar. She turns the tables on him in a most unexpected manner.

Part 2: CATS AND DOGS. Rob and Andy are enjoying the bliss of newly formed couplehood. Rob has planned to propose marriage as they walk from their apartment to the lakeshore nearby, but has he made the right decision?

Part 3: THE END IS THE BEGINNING. Julie comes home from work early to find her boyfriend, Wyatt, in bed with another woman. After violently ejecting them from her apartment, Julie begins to fall in love with . . . you the viewer!

Written and directed by Michael Glover Smith

Starring: Clare Cooney, Chelsea David, Nina Ganet, Kevin Wehby, Sophie the Shih Tzu and more talented thespians to be announced soon.

Produced by: Layne Marie Williams for Women of the Now.

Filming in 2018.


The Innovative Closing Credits of Twin Peaks Season Three

In honor of the Twin Peaks: Limited Event Series Blu-ray set being released today, here’s something new I wrote about the show’s innovative use of closing credits to impart narrative information.


Along with everything that’s more obviously groundbreaking about it, one of the most subtly innovative aspects of the new season of Twin Peaks is the unique way the show’s makers used the end title credits to convey or conceal important narrative information and thus build a unique form of suspense in the process. Let’s start with the unusual fact that only key crew members are listed in the opening credits while all of the cast members, including star Kyle MacLachlan, are listed only in the closing credits. For those watching “live” on Showtime over the summer, this had the effect of not tipping off viewers in advance as to which actors in the extensive 200+ cast-member list would appear in each episode while also inviting viewers to scrutinize the end credits more closely in order to figure out exactly who was who and what was going on. This is where the real narrative gamesmanship begins: the way actors are (and are not) credited, and the way their credited character names sometimes change from one episode to the next, serves at least five different purposes in the show.

1. A character’s name is represented by question marks until his name is revealed on the show.

Carel Struyken’s character in Season Two was credited as “The Giant.” Many fans were surprised when the credits first rolled on Part One of Season Three to see that he was now credited as “???????” Even though Struyken was still playing a benevolent extra-dimensional being with a fondness for bow ties, was he the same character from 25 years ago or a new one? In Part 14, he introduces himself to Deputy Andy Brennan as the “Fireman,” which is how his character is then named in the closing credits of that episode. It seems likely that Lynch and Frost didn’t want viewers to know too soon that this guy puts out fires, whether literally or metaphorically, which would’ve perhaps allowed them to connect certain dots concerning the Black and White Lodge mythologies.

2. Some actors are not credited at all.

In some cases, this appears to have been done to preserve a sense of mystery about the character being portrayed. A case in point is the charcoal-black vagrant-looking character who first appeared in a prison cell next to Matthew Lillard’s Bill Hastings way back in Part 2. Some enterprising internet sleuths soon discovered that this spectral entity was played by character actor Stewart Strauss. Later on, when more of these characters appeared, the most prominent among them was credited as “Woodsman” (a memorable turn by professional Abraham Lincoln impersonator Robert Broski). It seems likely that crediting Stewart Strauss as a “Woodsman” in Part 2 would have revealed too much too soon in the eyes of the show’s creators – especially since Jurgen Prochnow and David Brisbin were also credited as “Woodsmen” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me where they were explicitly depicted as Black Lodge denizens.

3. A character’s last name was initially withheld.

Madchen Amick’s Shelly Johnson from Seasons One and Two is credited only as “Shelly” up until Part 11 where it is revealed both in the dialogue of the episode and in the closing credits that her name is now “Shelly Briggs.” In this same episode it can be inferred that Shelly is now divorced from her second husband Bobby Briggs. Had Shelly been credited as “Shelly Briggs” in Part One of Season Three, many viewers would have believed that Shelly and Bobby were still married. It is likely that her new last name was initially withheld in order to avoid misdirecting viewers in to getting their hopes up.

4. Credited character names clue viewers in to the fact that familiar actors are and are not playing familiar characters.

Longtime fans would have assumed that Lynch favorite Phoebe Augustine was reprising her role as Ronette Pulaski in the experimental opening of Part Three had the closing titles not informed us instead that her character was instead named “American Girl.” Conversely, many longtime fans would have assumed that Mark Frost’s delightful cameo as a trailer-park denizen walking his dog was meant to be a different character than the T.V. news reporter he originally played in Season One until the closing credits of Part 16 informed us that he was, in fact, reprising the role of “Cyril Pons.”

5. A character’s last name is revealed early in order to avoid surprising viewers.

New Twin Peaks characters are only given a last name in the credits of Season Three in the event that their last names are also spoken on the show. One exception to this is Eamon Farren’s Richard Horne, the offspring of Audrey Horne and the evil “Mr. C.” When this character first appeared, assaulting a young woman in a bar in Part Five, his full name appeared in the credits. This caused much speculation among fans about how exactly he was related to the other Horne characters with many correctly inferring that Mr. C must have raped Audrey while she was in a coma. Had Richard’s last name not appeared in Parts 5 and 6, it would have come as a major surprise to everyone when he turned up at Sylvia Horne’s home in Part 10 and referred to her as “Grandma.” This surprise seems to be something the show’s creators wanted to avoid.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Fat Girl (Breillat)
2. Die Hard (McTiernan)
3. Before Sunset (Linklater)
4. Kedi (Torun)
5. The Square (Ostlund)
6. Insiang (Brocka)
7. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Campion/Kleiman)
8. Shattered Image (Ruiz)
9. The Disaster Artist (Franco)
10. Days of Heaven (Malick)

Bryan Cranston in Last Flag Flying / The Ending of The Florida Project

I consider Richard Linklater one of America’s very best filmmakers, which is why, although its virtues seem undeniable (like all of his work, it’s smart, well-crafted, emotional filmmaking), Last Flag Flying strikes me as something of a dud. I have friends who made the same claim for Everybody Wants Some!! but that raucous college comedy didn’t really aspire to be anything other than a dumb, fun party movie — unless you count John Waters’ pithy observation that it’s also the best “accidentally gay” film ever made. Last Flag Flying, on the other hand, with its Vietnam and Iraq war vet characters and exploration of the themes of loss, grief and brotherhood, clearly aspires to a gravitas that I don’t think it quite achieves. A big part of this failure, I’m sorry to say, stems from the artificiality of Bryan Cranston’s lead performance. The problem isn’t that Cranston is “over the top.” His character, Sal Nealon, is written to be over the top. It’s the same character, after all, that Jack Nicholson played in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (even if his name has been changed here for copyright reasons) and the part cries out to be embodied by a larger-than-life screen presence. No, the problem is that Cranston makes too many actorly “choices.” His performance is simply too busy, the intellectual decision-making behind Sal’s “salt-of-the-earth” qualities too transparent. There’s nothing wrong with many of these choices individually but, scene after scene, they add up to a portrait of a working-class life that ultimately feels synthetic and false. Look at the way Sal wakes up Steve Carell’s “Doc” by literally rubbing a piece of cold pizza against his face. Or the way Sal extinguishes his half-smoked cigar by flicking the cherry with his middle finger then waiting until he’s gone back inside before pocketing the cigar in a leather case. Or, worst of all, the way Sal retrieves a donut from a box by sticking his index finger into the tiny hole in the donut’s center, a moment captured in near-pornographic close-up by Linklater’s camera. Which makes me wonder: did it ever once occur to Linklater to ask, “Bryan, could we try a take where you just pick up the donut like a normal fucking person?”


It has come to my attention that the sublime ending of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has come in for criticism in some quarters, in some cases even by people who otherwise like the movie. The fact that this daringly ambiguous ending has been interpreted as being some kind of sentimental cop-out is shocking. There is obviously a strong “fantasy” quality to this sequence — even without considering the aesthetic shift that occurs from the gorgeous 35mm cinematography of the rest of the film to the iPhone look familiar from Baker’s previous work in Tangerine (an aesthetic apparently necessitated here by the fact that Baker was shooting inside Disney World without permits). But regardless of whether or not the ending is “real,” it has to be seen as the saddest ending possible: The Florida Project is a tragedy about American capitalism as embodied by the characters of a woman, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who live in a cheap motel near an amusement park so they can rip off tourists without ever actually visiting the park themselves. When Halley is arrested on prostitution charges, it inspires Moonee and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to finally take the plunge and try to sneak into the park, allowing them a glimpse of a “normal childhood” and a life they’ve never known. That the scene imparts a feeling of transcendental uplift is undeniable but I would argue that, if we’re watching the movie correctly, this very transcendental quality compounds Baker’s overall sense of tragedy; this will clearly only be a very brief of glimpse of paradise for the girls — before the cops catch up to them and put Moonee in foster care for good.


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