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Filmmaker Interview: Michael Curtis Johnson

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The 25th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival

The following piece on my best bets for this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, which kicked off last night and runs through this Sunday, was posted at Time Out Chicago today.

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The Chicago Underground Film Festival reaches a significant milestone with this year’s 25th-anniversary edition, which runs from Wednesday, June 6 through Sunday, June 10. CUFF’s notion of what constitutes an “underground” film has always been admirably expansive and this year’s program is typically eclectic in its offering of narrative, documentary and experimental works. We picked one movie to see from each category.

Savage Youth is a fact-based crime drama set in Joliet that features half-a-dozen phenomenal performances by a cast of young adult actors. Will Brittain (Everybody Wants Some!!!) and Grace Victoria Cox (Twin Peaks) stand out as a budding horror-core rapper and a visual artist, respectively, whose lives veer inexorably into tragedy after they begin dabbling in drugs and petty crime. The film’s depiction of an economically depressed and racially divided small town milieu looks especially trenchant and disturbing in light of the current political climate (although it was shot before the 2016 election), but writer and director Michael Curtis Johnson allows his characters moments of tenderness worthy of early Nicholas Ray.

Lori Felker’s Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO is a fascinating documentary about an eccentric subject: a cult figure and pioneer of the No Wave music scene in New York City in the late 1970s who claims to be a “hybrid alien” from the “planet Strazar.” Felker’s film, eight years in the making, is an impressive work of both archaeology and craftsmanship that uses every stylistic trick in the book—from archival footage to animation—to chronicle Von LMO’s many rises and falls; but the director’s masterstroke was allowing the true subject of the movie to become her complicated friendship with this weirdo. Future Language is as much a thorny love letter from one eccentric artist to another as it is a warts-and-all portrait of a gifted musician haunted by demons of his own making.

DANCER is a wordless 8-minute experimental short that repurposes footage from Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 to exhilarating effect, taking a well-known scene of Christina Ricci tap dancing and “making it strange” by chopping it up, adding split screen and heavily distorting it all with a video synthesizer so that the fragmented and fuzzy images that result become a treatise on female beauty as well as the objectification of said beauty. Director Haley McCormick’s analog-painterly aesthetic is perfectly complemented by a gorgeous original score composed and performed by Heart of Palm (a side project of No Coast / No Hope operator Shea Hardacre).

For more information on the 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the CUFF website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
2. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson)
3. Future Language: The Dimensions of Von LMO (Felker)
4. The Green Fog (Maddin/Johnson/Johnson)
5. Union Station (Mate)
6. Call Northside 777 (Hathaway)
7. Moonrise (Borzage)
8. Annihilation (Garland)
9. First Reformed (Schrader)
10. Frontwards (Marsh)


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Director’s Statement

I’m pleased to announce that, after eight long and intense days of shooting, my latest feature Rendezvous in Chicago has wrapped production! I could have never crossed the finish line so quickly and efficiently without the heroic efforts of my phenomenal cast and crew. Below is a photo of me with our special guest star Haydee Politoff from the first day of shooting as well as a “Director’s Statement” I’ve drafted for film-festival submission purposes. I strongly suspect the film will have a Fall World Premiere. Stay tuned for more info!
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“As a filmmaker I have long been fascinated by the cinematic representation of relationships and communication. RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO constitutes the third part in a trilogy of films tackling these subjects (following my previous features COOL APOCALYPSE and MERCURY IN RETROGRADE) although, rather than telling a single narrative, this film is also a trilogy in and of itself; it is comprised of three vignettes that correspond to the beginning (THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV), middle (CATS AND DOGS) and end (THE END IS THE BEGINNING) stages of a relationship. The cast is the finest I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, featuring many well-known Chicago actors (Rashaad Hall, Clare Cooney, Nina Ganet, Matt Sherbach, Shane Simmons, etc.) as well as French import Haydee Politoff (whose cameo is an homage to her mentor Eric Rohmer); but what really sets RENDEZVOUS apart from my previous work is its more overtly comedic tone and the way that it abandons naturalism in favor of a dreamlike but gentle surrealism. I hope you walk away from it with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.” – Michael Glover Smith, 5/26/18


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Fantomas (Chabrol/Bunuel)
2. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie)
3. Beau Travail (Denis)
4. Audrey the Trainwreck (Ross)
5. Good Time (Safdie/Safdie)
6. The Wailing (Na)
7. Chungking Express (Wong)
8. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett)
9. Housesitters (Coffman)
10. La Collectionneuse (Rohmer)


More on THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING

I reviewed Nick Alonzo’s The Art of Sitting Quietly and Doing Nothing for Cine-File Chicago (this is a different review than the one I recently wrote for Time Out Chicago). It has its World Premiere at the Nightingale Cinema tonight at 7:30pm. I will be moderating the post-screening Q&A with members of the cast and crew. Hope to see some of you there!

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Nick Alonzo’s THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING (New American)

The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) – Friday, 7:30pm

“Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.” So goes a 17th-century haiku by Basho that inspired the title of Nick Alonzo’s new comedy. This koan-like poem, which reminds readers of the importance of letting things happen (as opposed to making them happen), is fitting for our modern world where the notion of busy urban professionals consciously “unplugging” in order to undergo a “digital detox” has become a common occurrence. This also happens to be the story of Carl (Alex Serrato), the film’s poker-faced anti-hero who embarks on a solitary, Henry David Thoreau-style retreat into nature after a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Gloria (Alycya Magana). In contrast to Alonzo’s debut feature, SHITCAGO, which featured a deadpan protagonist encountering a strange menagerie of characters in the city, most of THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING is devoted to scenes of Carl alone in the woods in the suburbs—masturbating, exercising, writing in his diary, attempting to fish, etc.—scenarios out of which Alonzo gets a surprising amount of comic mileage. The incongruity of this city dweller alone in verdant nature is highlighted by the fact that he perpetually sports a t-shirt emblazoned with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover—the ultimate symbol of mass reproduction and popular culture—but Alonzo also posits Carl’s strange odyssey as a genuine, and genuinely poignant, desire for spiritual rebirth. At its best, the minimalist, black-and-white-shot SHITCAGO brought to mind early Jim Jarmusch and Chantal Akerman. THE ART OF SITTING QUIETLY AND DOING NOTHING, a clear advance on its predecessor, might best be described as “stoner Apichatpong.” Alonzo and select cast and crew in person. (2018, 80 min, Digital Projection) MGS


Clare Cooney’s RUNNER at the Chicago Critics Film Festival

The following review of Clare Cooney’s Runner, which receives its Chicago Premiere at the Music Box this Sunday, was published at Time Out Chicago today. 

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The Chicago Critics Film Festival returns to the Music Box Theater this Friday, May 4 and runs through Thursday, May 10, bringing a typically impressive and diverse slate of acclaimed new independent and foreign films, many of which are fresh off of their World Premieres at Sundance and South By Southwest and all of which are making their local premieres. A welcome new twist to this year’s edition is the inclusion of two short film programs, which are comprised of works by universally acknowledged masters of the form like animator Don Herzfeldt (World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts) as well as first-time filmmakers like Chicago’s own Clare Cooney (Runner). The latter film, screening as part of the “CCFF Shorts Program #1” block, is an extremely auspicious directorial debut for Cooney, who is better known for her work as an actress. Although it clocks in at only 12 minutes, it is one of the must-see events of the festival, especially considering that the whip-smart Cooney will be present for a post-screening Q&A.

Runner tells the story of a young woman named Becca (Cooney) who witnesses a violent altercation between a couple while jogging through an alley near her Chicago apartment. Becca’s subsequent knowledge of what happened, and an unexpected re-encounter with one of the participants, causes her to face an ethical dilemma. As a director, Cooney knows how to get the most out of herself as an actress (she’s a performer of uncommon depth) but she also wisely eschews the melodramatic approach that even more seasoned filmmakers might have taken – cutting the sound entirely from the film’s most intense moment and thereby increasing its effectiveness via counterpoint. But what impresses most in this pungent drama is the way Cooney is able to seamlessly enfold her ideas into a naturalistic narrative framework. In the “Me Too” era, the powerful tracking shots of Becca literally running away from physical danger conjure the notion of a desire to transcend an entire culture of harassment and assault. It’s a haunting movie – and one that chimes with our times.

For more information about the screening of Runner, visit the Music Box’s website.


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