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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


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. 9 to 5 (Higgins)
2. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
3. Sorry, Wrong Number (Litvak)
4. Beanpole (Balagov)
5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch)
6. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
7. Zombi Child (Bonello)
8. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
9. Mary, Queen of Scots (Rourke)
10. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)


DIE HARD and HAPPY CHRISTMAS at the Beverly Arts Center

I wrote the following piece about a pair of alternative Christmas movies screening at the Beverly Arts Center this month for Time Out Chicago. It should appear there today or tomorrow.
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Tired of the same old Christmas-movie fare? The Beverly Arts Center Cinema is presenting a couple of alternative Christmas-movie screenings this month. On Wednesday, December 4, enterprising programmer Damon Griffin will host a screening of the most action-packed holiday movie of all time – John McTiernan’s Die Hard – and thus rebuff all those who would claim that Bruce Willis battling terrorists in a Los Angeles high rise has nothing to do with the spirit of the season; and on Wednesday, December 18, local writer/director Joe Swanberg (Easy) will appear in person for a Q&A following a screening of his 2014 Anna Kendrick-starring dramedy Happy Christmas.

Griffin, who has long supported the work of independent and local filmmakers describes Swanberg’s film in a press release: “Rather than simply another lo-fi naturalistic gasp of late mumblecore, Happy Christmas deserves to be ranked with any other essential windy city holiday film, of which there are a huge, or should we say HUGHES number; Planes Trains and Automobiles (Directed by John Hughes), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (written by John Hughes) and Home Alone (also written by John Hughes). Swanberg more than rises to the challenge of matching Hughes’ drollness with a certain millennial empathy, emoting a sense, throughout the movie, that a complete standstill in life and total underachievement is nothing compared to the bonds of family, community, and cheesy erotica.”

For more information on both screenings, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Beverly Arts Center’s website.


ALEXANDRIA… WHY? at Doc Films

I wrote the below review of Youseff Chahine’s ALEXANDRIA… WHY? for Cine-File Chicago. It screens at Doc Films this Monday night.

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Youssef Chahine’s ALEXANDRIA… WHY? (Egyptian Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Monday, 7pm (Free Admission)

In 1979, Youssef Chahine, the most famous of all Egyptian filmmakers, created a scandal with this taboo-busting autobiographical epic, the first of a trilogy that would include 1982’s AN EGYPTIAN STORY and 1989’s ALEXANDRIA, AGAIN AND FOREVER. ALEXANDRIA… WHY? recreates, with impressive period detail, the director’s hometown of Alexandria during the outbreak of World War II. The story interweaves the lives of many characters, chief among them Yehia Mustafa, a teen-aged student and movie lover (and stand-in for Chahine) who nurses his first stirrings of creativity as an actor and director in local theatrical productions. Two other narrative strands involve characters experiencing forbidden love: a Jewish woman who embarks on an affair with a Muslim man and, in the film’s most controversial angle at the time of its release, a gay English soldier who becomes involved with a rich Arab. But these personal stories are always juxtaposed against a wider political and historical context, as Chahine deftly uses stock footage of the war, clips from Hollywood musicals (which Yehia uses as a means to escape from the nightmare around him) and the depiction of air raids, black market activity, and interactions between Egyptian civilians and soldiers of the occupational British army. A supreme masterpiece of world cinema. (1979, 133 min, DCP Digital) MGS

More info at www.docfilms.uchicago.edu.


Keep Odd Obsession Movies Alive

My latest article for Time Out is about the campaign to save Odd Obsession, one of Chicago’s last remaining video rental stores.

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You can help save one of Chicago’s last surviving video rental stores

Since owner Brian Chankin founded Odd Obsession in 2004 (originally in Lincoln Park, now located in Bucktown), the beloved video rental store has amassed an impressive library of more than 25,000 titles on DVD, Blu-ray and even VHS. The store’s collection is organized by genre, country and director, and features a wide array of movies for all tastes, including classic Hollywood films, foreign movies and independently-released cult classics. From the beginning, Odd Obsession has distinguished itself by specializing in rare and off-the-beaten-path titles, including many that are not available on streaming services, making it an invaluable resource for local cinephiles. “This is a place where you can really embrace an all-inclusive sense of film history,” says Chicago Reader film critic Ben Sachs.

Chankin is now moving on to pursue other endeavors and is handing over the business to the store’s volunteer staff who hope to keep it afloat. The goal is to keep Odd Obsession’s collection available to Chicagoans with a new model of membership that will make the business sustainable well into the future. Long-time volunteer Josh Brown is leading this transition effort, which includes the Indiegogo fundraising campaign “Keep Odd Obsession Movies Alive!” For contributions of $120 to $400, customers can receive between three months and one year of free rentals (four at a time for a week’s duration with an “extreme late fee forgiveness” policy); but there are plenty of other more affordable perks too—including stickers for just $5 or a coffee mug emblazoned with the visage of Charles Bronson for $25. “This collaborative spirit driven forward can take shape in the form of community events and new extensions to the store’s mission,“ says Brown.

If you refuse to limit your movie-watching options to the titles provided by streaming services, you should take a look at Odd Obsession’s Indiegogo campaign and consider kicking in a few bucks to keep the local institution alive. With just five days left, the shop is only about a quarter of the way to its $25,000 goal—every dollar gets the volunteer staff one step closer to preserving an impressive collection of obscure flicks.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Devoured (Olliver)
2. Parasite (Bong)
3. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
4. The Whistlers (Porumboiu)
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Sciamma)
6. Varda by Agnes (Varda)
7. Detour (Ulmer)
8. The Cotton Club (Coppola)
9. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
10. Viy (Ershov/Kropachyov)


HEGEL’S ANGEL at the Collected Voices Film Festival

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Did you know there is no word for “you” in the Haitian language, only “we?” Simone Rapisarda Casanova’s masterful Hegel’s Angel, screening this Friday, October 13 at the Logan Center for the Arts as part of the Collected Voices Film Festival, is probably flying under the radar of most Chicago cinephiles but its Midwestern Premiere should be considered a must see for all local movie lovers. The theme of the fifth edition of this invaluable ethnographic film festival, the brainchild of filmmaker and programmer Ife Olatunji, is “Africa and her diaspora,” a concept embodied in Casanova’s experimental, richly lyrical portrait of the denizens of contemporary Haiti and their complex relationship to the outside world.

Hegel’s Angel provocatively combines fiction and non-fiction filmmaking techniques to capture the adventures of a boy named Widley as he traverses the Haitian countryside helping his father at work painting and hanging banners and visiting a local film editor in his leisure time. The editor is in the process of cutting a Haitian-shot film with an anti-“foreign charity” bent that was made by a foreign director who has since mysteriously vanished; and the meta-cinematic way that Casanova (an Italian filmmaker based in Canada) interweaves these two narrative lines adds up to a timely snapshot of a corner of the world that has traditionally been cinematically under-documented.

For more information about this screening of Hegel’s Angel, including ticket and venue info and showtime, please visit the Collected Voices Film Festival’s official website.


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