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Elevated Films Kicks Off Summer Series with PERSON TO PERSON

The following piece was published at Time Out Chicago today.

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Elevated Films, the outdoor independent movie series that supports cinema and local youth arts programs in Chicago, has announced its first summer screening: a sneak preview of Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person. The film, which stars Michael Cera (fresh off of his God-level cameo as Wally Brando in Twin Peaks), was well-received at its Sundance World Premiere and will be distributed later in the year by Magnolia Pictures. The ensemble drama has been described as following a “variety of New York characters as they navigate personal relationships and unexpected problems over the course of a single day.” Person to Person co-stars Bene Coopersmith, Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson and Chicago native Tavi Genvinson.

The screening will take place on the roof deck of Columbia College’s Media Production Center at 1600 South State St. and Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who executive produced, will moderate a post-screening Q&A with director Defa and star Coopersmith. “I’m incredibly proud to be involved with Person to Person, it’s a really funny, warm, uplifting film, and I can’t wait to share it with the Chicago audience on a summer night,” says Swanberg. Tickets for PERSON TO PERSON can be purchased for $10.00, while students may attend for free. Doors open with cocktails at 7:30pm and the screening begins at 8:30pm. For more information, visit the Elevated Films website.

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (Ovredal)
2. Offside (Panahi)
3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch)
4. The Awful Truth (McCarey)
5. 12:08 East of Bucharest (Porumboiu)
6. M (Lang)
7. Baby Driver (Wright)
8. Distant (Ceylan)
9. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
10. Memories of Murder (Bong)


The Best Films of the Year So Far

Now that we’ve reached the half-way point of 2017, it’s time to post a list of my favorite films of the year so far. A cursory glance at the list below should tell you that we’ve seen an uncommonly good six months of cinema. As is customary with all my lists, I’m only including films that first premiered in Chicago in 2017. This means I’m including titles that opened elsewhere in late 2016 (Silence, Toni Erdmann) while not including other worthy titles that had their first theatrical runs in 2017 after playing festival screenings here last year (A Quiet Passion, Raw). It will be yrev, very interesting to see what the next six months bring.

25. Silence (Scorsese, USA/Japan) – Music Box

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“Scorsese is one of America’s greatest living filmmakers and probably only he would have been capable of getting a big-budget art film like this financed by a major studio like Paramount.” Review here.

24. 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami (Samadian, Iran) – Annual Festival of Films from Iran (Siskel Center)

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Farewell, maestro.

23. Rat Film (Anthony, USA) – Doc10 Film Festival (Davis)

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More docs like this please.

22. Such is Life in the Tropics (Cordero, Ecuador) – Chicago Latino Film Fest

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“A superb political thriller that intertwines several compelling storylines set in Guayaquil, Ecuador.” Capsule review here.

21. Beach Rats (Hittman, USA) – Chicago Critics Film Fest (Music Box)

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I really enjoyed this for the naturalistic performances and as a piece of “sensory cinema.” Still not sure about the contrived climax.

20. Shelley (Abbasi, Denmark) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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Not only well-crafted as horror, this Danish movie made by an Iranian writer/director in exile also succeeds as sly political allegory in the way it examines the unconscious xenophobia of a rich, ostensibly liberal hippie couple through their subtle mistreatment of a Romanian housekeeper.

19. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Anderson, USA/UK) – Wide Release

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No one does 3D like W.S. Here I am getting ready to watch it the way it was meant to be seen.

18. Lost North (Lavanderos, Chile) – Chicago Latino Film Fest

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“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.” Capsule review here.

17. Ethel & Ernest (Mainwood, UK) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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“The voice work of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn as the central couple is magnificent and cinephiles should especially appreciate that their first date involves taking in a screening of John Ford’s Hangman’s House.” Capsule review here.

16. Personal Shopper (Assayas, France) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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“Stewart’s unique, sometimes controversial brand of ‘underplaying’ has rarely been used to better effect than here.” Capsule review here.

15. Get Out (Peele, USA) – Wide Release

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Jordan Peele uses the conventions of the horror film to comment on the horrors of racism in contemporary America. Sharp debut.

14. Louise by the Shore (Laguionie, France) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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No one does animation like Jean-François Laguionie.

13. Baby Driver (Wright, USA) – Wide Release

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Baby Driver has a lot of virtues. Chief among them is the way it expresses a love for the simple act of listening to music.

12. Austerlitz (Loznitsa, Germany) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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Austerlitz is a provocative and challenging German documentary on the subject of ‘Holocaust tourism’ by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa.” Capsule review here.

11. Lucky (Lynch, USA) – Chicago Critics Film Fest (Music Box)

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“Harry Dean Stanton is a national treasure.” Capsule review here.

10. It’s Not the Time of My Life (Hajdu, Hungary) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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Brilliant Hungarian comedy about a dinner party with the in-laws gone wrong. More people need to see this.

9. The Death of Louis XIV (Serra, France) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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“The formal control of Serra’s precise compositions and exquisitely candle-lit interiors, which resemble 18th century paintings, is impressive but don’t let the somber veneer distract you from the movie’s most appealing aspect: its bizarre, poker-faced sense of humor.” Capsule review here.

8. Death in the Terminal (Shemesh/Sudry, Israel) – Doc10 Film Festival (Davis)

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“This incredibly complex and disturbing documentary by co-directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry does more to explain the culture of violence in the Middle East today than any other single work of art I know of.” Capsule review here.

7. The Beguiled (Coppola, USA) – Wide Release

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“Viewers looking for an alternative to mindless summer blockbuster fare can do no better than to check out this visually sumptuous and surprisingly funny Civil War-era melodrama, which boasts a raft of great performances.” Review here.

6. The Son of Joseph (Green, France) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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“A masterful comedy/drama about a teenage boy (Victor Ezenfis) searching for the identity of his birth father (Mathieu Amalric), a journey that ends up taking on parallels to the Biblical stories of the birth of Christ and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac.” Capsule review here.

5. The Ornithologist (Rodrigues, Portugal) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel Center)

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“The homoeroticism and mystical-jungle imagery may put one in the mind of Apichatpong Weerasethakul but the Catholic symbolism and meditation on solitude vs. companionship are distinctly Rodrigues’ own.” Capsule review here.

4. Slack Bay (Dumont, France) – Chicago European Union Film Fest (Siskel)

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“As if the positive response to Li’l Quinquin has given him confidence, Dumont also successfully turns the wackiness here up to 11; Slack Bay is one of the funniest and craziest films in recent memory.” Capsule review here.

3. The Lost City of Z (Gray, USA) – Wide Release

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“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.” Interview with director James Gray here.

2. Toni Erdmann (Ade, Germany) – Music Box

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“The poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).” Review here.

1. Twin Peaks: Parts 1 – 8 (Lynch, USA) – Showtime

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It’s darker, scarier, stranger and funnier than it was the first time around. It eschews the warmth and softness of the original’s 35mm film textures for a visual style that deliberately leans into the cold, hard, clean lines of high-definition digital (including a brilliant and extensive use of CGI). The long-awaited third season of Twin Peaks has been nothing short of a miracle for its first eight parts. Coming off of an 11-year filmmaking hiatus (his last major work being 2006’s sublime INLAND EMPIRE), David Lynch’s new incarnation of Twin Peaks feels so far like he fully intends it to be his magnum opus; there are times when watching it has put me in the mind of watching each of his 10 feature films, including Dune, even while the end result ultimately feels like he’s striking out in bold and exciting new directions.

Before the first two “parts” (he doesn’t like to call them episodes) aired on May 21, Lynch repeatedly referred to this limited series as an “18-hour movie.” Few had any clue at the time what that meant but six parts later, it’s obvious: the series’ gradual unfolding of its impossibly mammoth scope, in which 200+ characters are introduced in glacially paced scenes taking place in locations all over the world, has resulted in something both structurally and aesthetically radical: the masterful way Lynch has been carefully and slowly bringing these various narrative threads together forces viewers to completely rethink how a T.V. show should be watched and processed. In so doing, he’s created a work for the “small screen” that dwarfs all of the other “big screen” experiences on this list and cements his place alongside Ford, Hitchcock and Welles in the pantheon of the all-time greats of the American cinema.


Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED

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Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, fresh off of its Cannes World Premiere in May (where it deservedly won the Best Director prize), opens in Chicago theaters this Friday. It is a smart example of counter-programming on behalf of distributor Focus Features: viewers looking for an alternative to mindless summer blockbuster fare can do no better than to check out this visually sumptuous and surprisingly funny Civil War-era melodrama, which boasts a raft of great performances (from a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning) as well as enough provocative commentary on gender relations to ensure heated post-screening discussions; along with all of its other virtues, The Beguiled should prove to be a hell of a date movie.

Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinen that was previously adapted by the director/star team of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, Coppola’s film offers a refreshingly feminized take on a story that has long cried out for it: in 1864 Virginia, a wounded Union soldier (Farrell) is given reluctant sanctuary by the headmistress (Kidman) of an all-girls school. As he convalesces, the soldier insidiously sows mischief and jealousy in the hearts of everyone with whom he comes into contact: not only the headmistress but also a teacher (Dunst) as well as the students. The movie begins with Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the youngest pupils, picking mushrooms beneath moss-strewn trees while humming the song “Lorena,” a Civil War ballad whose melody also features in the opening of John Ford’s immortal The Searchers. This seems to be Coppola’s way of announcing that her film will take place within certain American narrative filmmaking traditions, which, over the course of a breezy 94 minutes, she then subtly and cleverly works to overturn. Her Beguiled, in fact, pointedly becomes an anti-western – taking place almost entirely in dimly lit interiors (gorgeously photographed by Philippe Le Sourd), where the war is represented only by the muffled sounds of distant canon fire, and focusing mostly on the intimate lives of her female characters.

Don Siegel’s excellent 1971 film version is a more erotic and disturbing horror show, centered as it is on a subversive interrogation of Clint Eastwood’s macho star persona. Sofia Coppola, being a very different kind of filmmaker (more sensorial and less interested in overt character psychology), wisely chooses to both eliminate “back story” and to make Farrell’s soldier more passive and even cowardly; this Irish immigrant, who took the place of a conscripted soldier for a $300 payout and desperately wants to avoid returning to the battlefield, does the bare minimum necessary to seduce the women and girls around him. He is little more than a slab of male flesh onto which these sheltered female characters inevitably project their romantic and sexual longings. The Beguiled is ultimately a film about the way these young women look at this young man, and there is a visual mastery at work in the way Coppola coordinates the gazes of her fine actresses that surpasses anything she has done before. In the young women’s attempts to one-up each other and jockey for favorable position with the soldier, Coppola also taps a surprisingly rich vein of dark comedy; this is nowhere more apparent than in the crack comic timing (physical as well as verbal) of the precocious Alicia, the student played by Elle Fanning, a terrific young actress who steals every scene she is in.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Nocturama (Bonello)
2. They Live By Night (Ray)
3. Portrait of a Young Man (Rodakiewicz)
4. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
5. The Devil’s Backbone (Del Toro)
6. A Page of Madness (Kinugasa)
7. Frankenhooker (Henenlotter)
8. Daughter of the Nile (Hou)
9. The Beguiled (Coppola)
10. Taipei Story (Yang)


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.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Law of the Border (Akad)
2. Limite (Peixoto)
3. Revenge (Shinarbaev)
4. It Comes at Night (Shults)
5. Mysterious Object at Noon (Weerasethakul)
6. Insiang (Brocka)
7. Lost Highway (Lynch)
8. Basket Case 3: The Progeny (Henenlotter)
9. Alien: Covenant (Scott)
10. Mulholland Drive (Lynch)


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