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Lucky at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following piece appeared at Time Out Chicago yesterday.

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival has, in its brief, five-year existence, quietly asserted itself as one of the city’s premiere showcases for exciting new American independent and foreign movie fare. Programmed by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the festival features local premieres of movies, some of which don’t yet have distribution, that made splashes at major festivals like Cannes, Sundance and South By Southwest. Best of all, many of the screenings are accompanied by talkbacks with filmmakers and actors. My best bet for this year’s festival, which runs from Friday, May 12 through Thursday, May 18 at the Music Box Theatre, is John Carroll Lynch’s comedy/drama Lucky.

Harry Dean Stanton is a national treasure. The excellent character actor with the perpetual hangdog expression has burned himself into the collective American psyche. Who can forget his fine supporting turns in everything from Alien to Repo Man to Paris, Texas to the work of David Lynch (who has, across seven separate projects, cast HDS more frequently than any other actor)? Not enough for you? How about Cool Hand Luke, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Godfather Part II and Escape from New York? Then there is the matter of Pretty in Pink, in which Stanton pops up in a cameo as Molly Ringwald’s father, inexplicably wielding a copy of Finnegan’s Wake and making the movie a whole lot cooler in the process. At 90-years-old, Stanton finally gets the breakout leading role he deserves in Lucky, the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch (no relation to David). It’s the performance of a lifetime and if it doesn’t earn Stanton an Oscar nomination then they should close the joint for good.

As the tagline succinctly puts it, Lucky is about the “spiritual journey” of the title character, a retired cowboy and curmudgeonly atheist whose daily routine consists of crossword puzzles, game shows and visiting the same diner and bar, at which he converses with the same colorful regulars. After falling one day in his kitchen, Lucky is forced to belatedly confront his mortality for the very first time, and Stanton and director Lynch are able to pack a lot of poignancy and warmth into scenes showing how this affects Lucky’s relationships with the people closest to him. See, for instance, the understated way Stanton sells the line “I’m scared” when confiding in a friend or the astonishing scene in which Lucky reveals unexpected musical chops by breaking into a heartfelt Spanish-language song at a fiesta. It’s a modest, confidently made film, and a valentine from one character actor to another (Lynch is himself a veteran of films by the Coen brothers, David Fincher, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese) that is well worth your time.

Lucky screens on May 13 and May 18, with Lynch in person for a Q&A at the former screening. For more info, visit the Chicago Critics Film Festival website.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow)
2. Holy Motors (Carax)
3. Lucky (Lynch)
4. Lost North (Lavanderos)
5. Beau Travail (Denis)
7. Hoop Dreams (James)
8. The Long Day Closes (Davies)
9. Fat Girl (Breillat)
10. Devil in a Blue Dress (Franklin)


The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Fest – Week Two

The following should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

What to see during the Chicago Latino Film Fest's second week
The Chicago Latino Film Festival continues through Thursday, May 4. My best bets for the second week are Fernando Lavanderos’ Lost North and Juan Sebastian Mesa’s The Nobodies.The Nobodies is the reason why film fests exist: shot in lo-fi black-and-white digital in one week on a budget of just $2000, this engrossing Colombian drama went on to win the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival Critics’ Week, thus ensuring healthy and deserved international distribution. The plotless film follows the lives of five aimless teenage punks in the city of Medellin: they juggle in the streets for money in order to fuel a non-conformist lifestyle revolving around weed, live music, tattoos and graffiti. Writer/director Juan Sebastian Mesa’s first feature may be modest in scope and lacking broader social context but it’s also entirely successful as deft urban portraiture: the naturalistic dialogue and performances (by actors playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves) are electrifying.

My favorite film at this year’s CLFF is the Chilean road movie Lost North, Fernando Lavanderos’ follow-up to his excellent 2012 feature Things the Way They Are. The plot concerns a young woman named Isabel (Geraldine Neary) abruptly leaving her boyfriend Esteban (Koke Santa Ana), a Santiago-based businessman, and embarking on a spontaneous journey north towards the Chilean-Bolivian border. Isabel sends Esteban short, enigmatic videos from her travels, which impel him to try and find her using only the video evidence as his guide. The film’s clever dual road-trip conceit allows Lavanderos to create a compelling Murnau-like dichotomy between city and country, past and present, and man and woman, but there’s also welcome humor in the characters’ differing attitudes towards “unplugging” and letting go of the modern world: one hilarious scene involves a desperate Esteban calling in sick to work from the road “with hepatitis” in order to justify his absence from the office.

The Nobodies screens on Saturday, April 29 and Monday, May 1. Lost North screens on Sunday, April 30 and Tuesday, May 2. For more information, visit the Chicago Latino Film Fest’s official site.


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 Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Lost North (Lavanderos)
2. The Nobodies (Mesa)
3. Possession (Zulawski)
4. Silence (Scorsese)
5. Thief (Mann)
6. The Gang’s All Here (Berkeley)
7. Melvin and Howard (Demme)
8. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (Gibney)
9. Ophelia (Chabrol)
10. Wild Reeds (Techine)


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: James Gray

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The Lost City of Z is James Gray’s remarkable film adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling novel about Percy Fawcett (played by a revelatory Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared with his son (Tom Holland) while searching for an ancient civilization in the jungles of South America in the early 20th century. Many critics have noted this thrilling adventure film is a “departure” for Gray, although the classicism of the filmmaking and the focus on family dynamics make it all of a piece with his earlier New York-set dramas from Little Odessa through The Immigrant. I recently sat down and spoke to Gray about his terrific new film, which opens in Chicago on Friday, April 21.

MGS: Like all of your work, this film is about family. The line early on about Percy Fawcett being “unfortunate in his choice of ancestors” is so funny and ironic…

JG: (laughing) That line always gets a big laugh, which I’ve never understood but I’m glad it does.

MGS: And the relationship between Percy and his son Jack at the end is really the heart of the film. I was blown away by the last 30 minutes and how emotional it was.

JG: That’s my favorite section of the movie. But you need the first hour and 50 minutes to get there. The thing is, I’ve had some people say that to me about the last 30 minutes and would I make the whole film like that? The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. Narrative, it’s sequential linkage. You have to build to it. If you did the whole movie like that, it wouldn’t have any meaning.

MGS: Don’t get me wrong: I loved the whole thing!

JG: No, no, I’m just explaining what I had always designed in that father-son relationship, which to me was always the key to it. That’s what made me want to make the movie. In the end, it’s a tricky thing because my own view is that if you read his obsession as repetitive then that means I failed or you’re not paying attention. Either one, I’m not sure. Because the nature of his obsession changes through the film. It starts, he has no medals. But after that, it becomes a kind of thing where he has to ratify his exalted position with that other guy, Mr. James Murray (Angus Macfayden), who comes along and turns out to be a catastrophe. So rank and honor and glory don’t really mean much after a while. So what’s left? He’s got this kid who he really didn’t spend any time with. The episodic nature of the film was meant to emphasize these chunks of time that he had missed with his wife and children. And, in the end, I didn’t see it as a tragedy because he achieved some measure of transcendence. His son, I’m sure, resented the years he missed but in the end he went along with him and they had seen a part of the world that virtually no one from Western Europe or North America saw or sees today. And that’s not, by the way, Sienna Miller’s story. Sienna Miller’s story is tragic because she was left at home. She wanted to go and she was a woman and she couldn’t. So I saw the film as interesting for story purposes because it’s her tragedy and their transcendence.

MGS: When I think of filmmakers going into the jungle to make epic adventure films, I think about stories of shooting a million feet of film and then finding the movie in the editing room. Were there a lot of scenes left on the cutting-room floor or did you have to be shrewder about only shooting what you needed?

JG: Yeah, we didn’t do that. The age of being able to do that is over. There’s such a level of control that the machine has put on you now, with completion bonds and the way the movies have to be financed, that the ability to be backstopped by Columbia or United Artists, in the case of Lean and Coppola, is over. You have to stick to a plan in a very detailed way. Let me say that in some ways shooting a million feet of film, going a little bonkers and all that, lends itself to a very fantastical, almost sensate experience. It changes the way the movie feels. And you become a different person – Francis Coppola was in the jungle for a year, which I can’t even understand – and you become a different person over that year. And knowing that you don’t have that as part of your weaponry, it has to take on a different feel. Now may I say I think that if I had approached the movie the way that Francis did Apocalypse or Herzog did Aguirre, the means of production being different, I think I would’ve made a really bad and fairly racist movie. Which is not to say they did. They didn’t. Herzog’s Aguirre, for example, is about a man who goes to the jungle – a conquistador – and through greed and megalomania, goes insane. In the case here, I felt that if Fawcett became a madman in the jungle, that would’ve really sucked because the movie wasn’t about that. It was about his confronting, engaging the indigenous peoples of South America. So if he goes mad confronting and engaging the indigenous peoples, that’s a racist concept. I’ve been asked, “Did you think of making him go crazier?” I feel like that’s a covertly racist idea because it means that the viewer cannot accept any sense of “normal” from the indigenous – and that’s pretty dangerous, and a very common error, I think. My own feeling is that the style of production, which you asked about, that this kind of lengthy process where you shoot a million feet of film, lends itself to another kind of filmmaking. And in some ways I think it helped me that I had to stay in a measure of control.

MGS: I’m so glad you shot this on film. In contrast to digital, the texture of 35mm is so thick and moist, which seems especially appropriate for the jungle setting.

JG: What you’re talking about, whether you know it or not, there’s a term for it called temporal resolution. When you say “thicker,” I think it’s very interesting that you use that word because with the digital image you’ve got essentially a grid. The image is made of pixels. It’s a fixed grid. Frame 1, 2, 3, 4: the pixels are in the same position. With film, it’s made of grain. The position of each grain changes from frame to frame. So what you are essentially looking at is a new image every time a frame comes on the screen. Your brain obviously doesn’t process each image individually. It can’t. That’s called persistence of vision. But it adds up and, unconsciously, it makes a difference. So the analog aspect of film, when you say “thicker,” what you’re actually talking about is this idea of temporal resolution where each frame is a different image.

MGS: I wanted to ask about Charlie Hunnam. I know he replaced Benedict Cumberbatch, which is hard for me to wrap my brain around because their energies and their personas seem so different. Did that casting change cause you to make any adjustments in terms of how you decided to portray the character?

JG: It always has to because you can’t make a movie thinking that you have Jimmy Stewart when you want Marlon Brando. And you can’t make the same movie with Charlie Chaplin that you do with Robert Mitchum. It’s a different language. I didn’t know who Charlie Hunnam was, really. I mean, I knew who he was but I didn’t know his work except for Sons of Anarchy. When his name first came up, I said, “I would never cast him.” Because I thought he was some California biker guy with tattoos. And then the producers at Plan B said, “No, no, no, he’s from Newcastle.” So he came over for dinner and I quite liked him. And what I saw in him was a shocking parallel with Fawcett, which is that he was the same age, had the same – not inferiority complex, but a real sense of striving, that he had not done the quality work that he wanted to do, and he had not been able to communicate that to himself and others. And I saw that as directly related to Fawcett. Benedict would’ve focused on more – I don’t want to say “odd,” but the iconoclastic qualities of Fawcett. Charlie almost feels like a swashbuckling actor from the ‘30s, so you use that. You use the weapons you’ve got. You’ve got this handsome, swashbuckling figure, then you use that. If you have this interesting, odd, great movie face with this (does Benedict Cumberbatch impression) “deep baritone,” then you use that. I suspect that Fawcett, with Cumberbatch in it, would’ve been an odder, darker movie. I don’t know if better or worse, just different.


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