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Category Archives: Uncategorized

INHERENT VICE in the Age of Trump

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which was greeted with incomprehension by many critics and viewers upon its first release in 2014, is one of the best and most underrated American films of recent years. I’m convinced that, like a lot of the Great American Movies, it was at least several years ahead of its time. If it had been released during the Trump administration, for instance, its resonance within our culture would have undoubtedly been much greater. This is because we are now living in an era that is more politically divisive than at any time since 1970 when the film (and Thomas Pynchon’s source novel) take place. The summer of 1970 was a schizoid time in America: it was halfway through Nixon’s first term, the height of the Vietnam War, and the first summer after the Manson Family murders revealed the dark, flip side of hippie culture. It was also the year that an arty, X-rated movie like Midnight Cowboy could win the Best Picture Oscar on the same night that John Wayne took home the Best Actor trophy for True Grit. This cultural schism is reflected in Pynchon’s novel but I think Anderson takes the concept even further in his deft adaptation by making it explicit that Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix’s hip, stoner private eye), and Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin’s ultra-square Dragnet-style cop) are each other’s doppelgangers; they literally speak in unison at the end of the film in an unforgettable scene where Bigfoot first smokes then eats all of Doc’s weed. The fact that this mismatched duo are forced to become uneasy allies in order to fight a common enemy is something that makes them similar to other private eye/cop pairs in classic film noirs before them but Anderson also seems to be saying that, taken together, these two are America, with each of them falling on a different side of an unbridgeable cultural divide. Which is perhaps why, even though Inherent Vice is hilarious throughout, the ending has always struck me as genuinely tragic.

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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.


Filmmaker Interview: Andrew Stasiulis and Eric Marsh

The following interview should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime in the next few days.

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One of the highlights of the film-going year so far will occur on Friday, April 21 when local filmmakers Eric Marsh and Andrew Stasiulis quietly debut their feature film Orders at DePaul University. This surreal war film follows the adventures of a nameless soldier (Keith D. Gallagher) as he wanders the less-than-hostile streets of the Chicago suburbs fighting a faceless enemy in a series of scenes shot through with a potent absurdist humor. I recently spoke to Andrew and Eric about their film ahead of its local premiere.

MGS: Where did the idea for this crazy movie come from?

AS: I went to grad school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where I became really into the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. I came across a novel called In the Labyrinth and I had this dream of adapting it. So when I came back from grad school I started writing a pure adaptation of the book. I sort of sat there and, after I’d written the adaptation, I was like, “I’m in love with the ideas in this story but it needs to become something different. It needs to become something American, something contemporary, and my own.” So then I just kind of threw that out and took the basic premise of a soldier wandering around, this sort of odyssey-like structure, and started writing out notes and scenes and fragments. Then when I reconnected with Eric after coming back – we had worked on a couple shorts together – one day I was like, “Hey, do you want to help me do this?” So Eric helped me put it into some kind of script.

EM: You should talk more about the idea.

AS: Yeah (laughing). I was a senior when 9/11 happened. I felt like my class, my generation, that was born in ’84, we were the 18-year-olds who were watching the Towers come down and knowing it was a Pearl Harbor-esque moment. A lot of my friends signed up – for patriotic reasons, for the “poverty draft,” or whatever it was – but a lot of my friends were galvanized by that moment. I didn’t. I’m completely 100% glad I didn’t make that decision but I stayed close with all my friends who did and I watched what they went through and I watched what America was going through and I was becoming enraged by a lot of what I was seeing on the screens, the combat image of the War on Terror. And in making the film I wanted to encapsulate the idea of an image of war, an experience of war, that is so much more internal than external and how subjective it all really is.

MGS: It occurred to me that it could be seen as an allegory for PTSD and the things that soldiers bring home with them.

AS: I think that that reading of the film was one we welcomed. We wanted to create an open text, something people could engage with on multiple levels. When we were starting to shoot it, we just had little bits of footage here and there. We had some on Eric’s Vimeo page, some teaser footage, and my Dad, he’s such a proud papa, he’d be showing it to every one of his patients – he’s a dentist. They’re sitting there and he’ll pull it up on his computer. “You wanna see what my son and his buddy are doing?” I was in the office once and there was a woman that came in. And she’s now the caretaker of her nephew who’s a vet. He was wounded and he lost a leg and he’s suffering from all kinds of combat trauma. She’s a sheriff’s dispatcher so this is a salt-of-the-earth kind of lady. And my Dad pulls this thing up and I’m thinking, “Oh this woman’s going to be like, ‘What the fuck are you assholes doing? This isn’t a joke.’” And she started crying and she pointed and said, “That’s my nephew. That’s him. He’s still in full battle rattle. Even though he’s home, he’s not entirely present. He’s still haunted by this other place.” If that’s the reaction we’re getting from somebody – and no offense to her at all in any way, shape or form but she doesn’t seem like anyone who knows anything about Robbe-Grillet or French mid-century modernism – I feel like we’re getting something across here.

MGS: The opening scene feels like a microcosm of the film as a whole. It seems like a battle scene and then you have this hilarious reveal of the well-manicured lawn and the riding lawnmower comes into view. Why did you want to juxtapose images of soldiers in combat with this kind of idyllic suburban landscape?

AS: We were thinking of collisions and disruptions, collisions of the real with the surreal or the artificial – losing the ability to differentiate between what’s going on and what maybe you’re imagining. Look, I’m a fucking huge student of Baudrillard, man. I’m all about the “death of the real.” I get it. So, for us, it was meant to be a savage coupling between the aesthetics of war and violence and cookie-cutter suburban Middle America, the Leave it to Beaver kind of thing.

EM: This appealed to me as well because I grew up in Glen Ellyn, he grew up in Elmhurst. Obviously, we’re both film history obsessives. We like everything but we like dude shit (laughs): war movies, and all of the Hollywood action movies. So that was common ground for us. War, in reality, is televisual for Americans. We don’t see war, we don’t experience war ever. When was the last time there was war in America? Hundreds of years ago. So bringing a bunch of dudes with assault rifles to Elmhurst, that image of soldiers in the fucking Chicago suburbs? I get this project. And, of course, it’s almost like real life one upped us because the militarization of police has made those images quite common. We started the film in 2012 and now it’s like some sheriff’s department has a Humvee and assault rifles. But it seemed sort of daring when he pitched it to me.

MGS: The filmmaker I thought of the most while watching it was David Lynch. Was he an influence?

EM: That’s something that sort of happened organically because I think once we cast Scott Morton as the Dad in the family, from the minute we saw him in a casting session, this guy’s got this David Lynch/otherworld quality to him. He’s so great. We started getting those vibes and kind of ran with it.

MGS: The family scenes reminded me of Eraserhead. I loved the barbecue scene where the main character isn’t able to man the grill. It’s really funny but it’s also disturbing. It shows anxiety about not being able to fulfill a social role.

AS: I think in a lot of the notes that I brought to Eric, it was just a lot of moments like that. It wasn’t a plot. For me, it’s like “Think of iconic, Middle-American suburban activities and how can we now make this uncomfortable. How can we make this somewhat twisted?” One of my favorite scenes is when everyone’s at this “Welcome Home” thing and everyone starts stuffing their face with watermelon. Growing up, it’s summer in the suburbs and you’re eating dinner, it’s like, “Where’s the watermelon?” Everyone’s eating watermelon so we’re taking it to this almost Leone-esque level of disgust. Eating is like sex: it’s pretty ugly when you think about it. As great as it feels, watching someone else do it can be horrifying, especially with the camera’s ability to make small things large and large things small.

Orders screens for free at DePaul University’s Loop Campus at 14 E. Jackson, Lower Level Rm. 105 at 6:30pm on Friday, April 21. Stasiulis and Marsh will be present to discuss the film. You can sample teaser footage from the film here.


Talking German Cinema in Wilmette

At the Wilmette Public Library this Sunday, April 9 at 2 pm, I will be giving a talk on German cinema before, during and after World War II to coincide with their “One Book Everybody Reads” program. Below is a description of the talk I wrote for the library’s Off the Shelf newsletter.

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From Expressionism to Hitler: German Cinema and World War II

Affinity Konar’s MISCHLING is an acclaimed work of historical fiction about a pair of 12-year-old twin sisters struggling to survive amid the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II. This installment of “Mike at the Movies” acts as a companion to the novel by focusing on German cinema before during and after the War; specifically, how the classic “Expressionist” films of the 1920s can be seen as predicting the rise of Hitler, how the German film industry shifted to propaganda once the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 and, finally, how the immediate post-War years left a vacuum that would be filled by the Italian Neorealists. Among the clips screened: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, METROPOLIS, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and GERMANY YEAR ZERO.

Hope to see you there!


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Austerlitz (Loznitsa)
2. After Love (Lafosse)
3. Godless (Petrova)
4. Louise by the Shore (Laguionie)
5. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk)
6. The Ornithologist (Rodrigues)
7. Slack Bay (Dumont)
8. Inquiring Nuns (Quinn)
9. The Son of Joseph (Green)
10. Personal Shopper (Assayas)


CONTRACTED at Transistor / KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE at the Siskel

I will be introducing two screenings and moderating filmmaker Q&As this week: on Thursday, December 8, I will host a screening of Eric England’s modern horror cult-classic Contracted at Transistor Chicago. This free screening, sponsored by the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, will be followed by a Skype Q&A with England and actress Najarra Townsend. On Friday, December 9, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, my favorite non-fiction film of the year, will receive its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I will moderate the post-screening Q&A with Greene on Friday and Steve James (Hoop Dreams) will moderate the Q&A following the second show on Saturday.

I wrote the following event description of the Contracted screening for the Transistor website:

The Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle presents CONTRACTED, followed by a live Skype Q&A with actress Najarra Townsend and director Eric England conducted by Michael Glover Smith!  8:00 p.m. Free.

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Samantha (Najarra Townsend), a young woman feeling low after being dumped by her lesbian lover, gets drunk at a party and engages in a one-night stand with a strange man named B.J. (a sinister, out-of-focus Simon Barrett). The next day she fears she has contracted an STI but, as her symptoms worsen, realizes that her body is actually rotting from the inside out. Writer/director Eric England, aided immeasurably by a brave lead performance by Townsend and terrific, old-fashioned make-up effects, mines not only genuine terror from this Cronenbergian body-horror scenario but also a surprisingly rich vein of black comedy. The result is an awesome low-budget shocker that creates and sustains a spirit of nasty fun that filmmakers with much higher budgets would no doubt love to buy.

Marty Rubin wrote this description of Kate Plays Christine for the Siskel Center’s site:

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE
2016, ROBERT GREENE, USA, 112 MIN. WITH KATE LYN SHEIL.

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Documentarian Greene (ACTRESS, FAKE IT SO REAL) has turned increasingly toward explorations of the slippery boundary between fact and fiction. His subject here is Christine Chubbuck (also the subject of the recent fiction film CHRISTINE), a Florida newscaster who committed suicide on-air in 1974. Greene’s method is to follow esteemed indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil (SUN DON’T SHINE, SILVER BULLETS) as she investigates Chubbuck’s life and reenacts scenes from the newscaster’s last days. Actress and role begin to blur in uncanny ways, with a sense of mounting dread and anticipation as she approaches the final showdown: a graphic reenactment of the suicide itself. Will she be able to go through with it? Do we want her to? Should she? Should we? Echoes of NETWORK, FUNNY GAMES, and PERSONA resonate through this haunting, moving, and thought-provoking film. DCP digital. (MR)

DECEMBER 9 & 10: Director Robert Greene will be present for audience discussion on Friday 12/9 and Saturday 12/10. The Friday discussion will be moderated by critic and filmmaker Michael G. Smith. The Saturday discussion will be moderated by acclaimed documentarian Steve James.


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