Movie Reviews

  • 59th Chicago International Film Festival Announces Exciting Full Line-up of Features and Shorts
    by The Editors on September 19, 2023 at 5:15 PM

    The Chicago International Film Festival—the longest-running competitive film fest in North America, mind you—just announced its full line-up for this year's 59th edition. The Chicago cinephile celebration will kick off on October 11 with an opening night screening of Minhal Baig's "We Grown Now," and after screening nearly 100 hundred features, will close on October 22 with Jeff Nichols' "The Bikeriders." Any exciting year of filmmaking leads to a thrilling line-up for the Windy City festival, and this version is no different. The 59th festival will be playing a whole batch of anticipated titles from revered directors, including, in no particular order: David Fincher's "The Killer," Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers," Andrew Haigh's "All of Us Strangers," Emerald Fennell's "Saltburn," Raven Jackson's "All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt," Alice Rohrwacher's "La Chimera," Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron," Nuri Bige Ceylan's "About Dry Grasses," Wim Wenders' "Anselm" and "Perfect Days," Michael Shannon's directorial debut "Eric LaRue," Agnieszka Holland's "Green Border," Hong Sangsoo's "in water," Todd Haynes' "May December," Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Monster," Steve McQueen's "Occupied City," Jonathan Glazer's "The Zone of Interest," and so much more.  Below is the press release in full. For more information, including tickets and showtimes, click here.  Chicago, Illinois (September 18, 2023) – The Chicago International Film Festival today announced the full lineup of films and programs included in this year’s 59th edition of North America’s longest-running competitive film festival, running October 11 - 22, 2023. This year’s Festival unspools films across the city, with screenings at AMC NEWCITY 14, the Music Box Theatre, the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago History Museum, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and pop-up screenings at the Hamilton Park Cultural Center in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood and Harrison Park in Pilsen, as well as a curated selection of films available virtually via the Festival’s streaming platform. The program includes 99 feature films and 58 shorts, three World Premieres, an International Premiere, 19 North American Premieres, and 19 U.S. Premieres, and showcases cinema from countries around the world including Ukraine, South Korea, Spain, Georgia, China, France, Mexico, Japan, Iran, Argentina, and more. The 59th Chicago International Film Festival opens October 11, 2023 with celebrated Chicago filmmaker Minhail Baig’s WE GROWN NOW, the heartfelt story of two ten-year-old boys as they revel in the freedoms of boyhood and the joys of friendship growing up in Cabrini-Green in 1992 Chicago. Closing Night on October 22 sees writer-director Jeff Nichols receiving the Festival’s Artistic Achievement Award with his THE BIKERIDERS, a furious drama following the rise of a fictional 1960s Midwestern motorcycle club through the lives of its members. The Festival’s Centerpiece presentation is SALTBURN, in which Academy Award-winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell brings us a beautifully wicked tale of privilege and desire screening October 19 with Fennell in attendance to receive the Festival’s Visionary Award.  Special Presentations include THE BOY AND THE HERON from animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki; Wim Wenders’ 3-D documentary ANSELM; Andrew Haigh’s mysterious drama ALL OF US STRANGERS; MAY DECEMBER from Todd Haynes; David Fincher’s highly anticipated THE KILLER; THE HOLDOVERS from Alexander Payne, seeing Paul Giamatti’s curmudgeonly instructor babysitting a handful of prep school students over Christmas break; and Michael Shannon’s directorial debut ERIC LARUE and Christos Nikou’s offbeat romance FINGERNAILS, with both directors attending the Festival.  International CompetitionsThis 59th edition of North America’s longest-running competitive film festival sees previous award winners return with new films in competition including Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s EVIL DOES NOT EXIST; Aki Kaurismäki’s FALLEN LEAVES; LA CHIMERA from Alice Rohrwacher; and Tatiana Huezo’s THE ECHO, among others. The Festival continues its proud tradition of giving a platform to fresh new voices and exciting emerging filmmakers with this year’s International Premiere of Vera Egito’s volcanic portrait of a leftist student movement bracing for violence during Brazil’s dictatorship in THE BATTLE; The Netherlands’ official Oscar entry SWEET DREAMS from director Ena Sendijarević; and GOODBYE JULIA, Mohamed Kordofani’s look at two women from different class and racial backgrounds forming a dangerous bond against the backdrop of South Sudan’s impending secession. Local StoriesThe Chicago and Illinois production communities take center stage in the Festival’s City & State program, featuring the World Premiere of Haroula Rose’s delightfully dysfunctional family comedy ALL HAPPY FAMILIES; Clare Cooney’s update on the teen slasher DEPARTING SENIORS, holding its North American premiere at the Music Box Theatre on Opening Night; and FOOD ROOTS from Michele Josue, charting Chicago restaurateur Billy Dec’s journey to reconnect with his Filipino heritage.  Short Films The Festival presents succinct yet mighty films that demonstrate the virtuosity and craft of the short format with this year’s nine shorts programs. Highlights include 376 DAYS following the creative process of artist Nick Cave leading up to his solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Jon Siskel’s return to the Festival with MEMORIAL, chronicling the Fourth of July shooting in Highland Park; NĂI NAI & WÀI PÓ, Sean Wang’s playful, touching, and wisdom-infused portrait of his two cohabitating grandmothers; and the darkly funny THE BREAKTHROUGH, starring Greta Lee and Ben Sinclair as a couple “interrupted,” by director Daniel Sinclair.  ArchitectureRunning concurrently with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2023’s program also features a special Architecture program exploring the relationships between people and the structures they inhabit, in the context of the shifting urban landscapes of our communities and cities. Films include PICTURES OF GHOSTS, a personal essay film from Brazilian auteur Kleber Mendonça Filho and DEPOT - REFLECTING BOIJMANS, about the construction of a revolutionary Dutch open-access art storage space, which screens at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The program also includes Portuguese visionary João Canijo’s innovative two-film pairing BAD LIVING and LIVING BAD, which both take place in the same dilapidated hotel, first focusing on the staff, and then on the guests. Black PerspectivesThe 2023 Black Perspectives program boasts fascinating and powerful documentary stories with special guests in attendance, including Raoul Peck (I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO) in person, presenting his shocking story of a Black family who fought to keep their ancestral land, SILVER DOLLAR ROAD; Roger Ross WIlliams’ STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING, narrated by bestselling author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, who will be on hand for a post-screening discussion; THE SPACE RACE, the as-yet-untold story of the Black astronauts who boldly go where no Black Americans had gone before, featuring Chicago’s own Dr. Mae Jemison and directed by attending filmmakers Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza; and the World Premiere of local filmmaker Eric D. Seals’ BIKE VESSEL, in which father and son embark on an epic bike ride from St. Louis to Chicago, taking a hard look at health disparities in the Black community. Narrative feature highlights include Raven Jackson’s lyrical, decades-spanning exploration of a woman’s life in Mississippi, ALL DIRT ROADS TASTE OF SALT, playing in the International Feature Film Competition; and Colman Domingo’s towering and electrifying performance as the architect of 1963’s momentous March on Washington in George C. Wolfe’s RUSTIN. The Chicago International Film Festival runs October 11 - 22, 2023 with film screenings and programs presented at venues across the city including AMC NEWCITY 14, the Music Box Theatre, the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago History Museum, the Hamilton Park Cultural Center in Englewood, Harrison Park in Pilsen, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Tickets for Opening Night are on sale now, with tickets to the rest of the Festival’s presentations going on sale September 22, 2023. Cinema/Chicago members’ pre-sale tickets go on sale September 19, 2023; memberships now available at 

  • Young Love Makes for a Powerful Family Portrait
    by Rendy Jones on September 19, 2023 at 2:29 PM

    In 2019, Matthew A. Cherry's "Hair Love" became a milestone in Black animation excellence. The Kickstarter project that became an Academy Award-winning animated short about a Black father, Stephen, attempting to do his daughter Zuri's hair before visiting his girlfriend Angela at the hospital captured the hearts of many nationwide. It was a refreshingly positive depiction of Black fatherhood, often stereotyped in the media.  Notable animators Bruce W. Smith (“Proud Family: Louder and Prouder”) and Everett Downing Jr. ("My Dad the Bounty Hunter") were co-directors alongside Cherry on "Hair Love" before developing their respective shows. The short's widespread love and success even led to a viral trend of Black dads posting videos of them styling their daughters' hair. The MAX series adaptation, "Young Love," graduates the source's general appeal for a young-adult demographic—specifically, a millennial crowd who once grew up with Black '90s sitcoms. Even with a longer format, Cherry's creation maintains its stance as one of the media's richest positive African-American family portraits. Picking up right where "Hair Love" left off, "Young Love" follows the Young/Love family: music producer Stephen Love (Scott Mescudi), hair stylist/vlogger Angela Young (Issa Rae), and their precocious six-year-old daughter Zuri (Brooke Conaway), navigating life in Chicago two months following Angela's cancer recovery. Waiting for his big break, level-headed Stephen is advised by his agent, Star (Tamar Braxton), to produce beats for up-and-coming, arrogant rapper Little Ankh. To the dismay of Angela's stern, traditionalist father/landlord Russell (Harry Lennix) and mother Gigi (Loretta Devine), Stephen's freelancing music-producing gig isn't sustainable enough to pay the bills. Meanwhile, Angela restarts her life, returning to her salon job, where her co-workers initially treat her as a patient rather than a person. Then, she finds a list of post-cancer goals and works on the personal endeavors she promised herself. Young Zuri gets into many misadventures at elementary school, often rebelling against the system by becoming Angela Davis for coffee cakes at her school, going against Girl Scouts, and appointing herself as a new messiah when she doesn't get a star student award.  For a series about a modern African-American family, "Young Love"'s essence carries itself like a contemporary version of classic late '90s-early '00s Black sitcoms like "My Wife and Kids," "One on One," "All of Us" (anything that derived from the UPN lineup), which aired during the formative years for millions of millennials. Like those shows, "Young Love" shines through its writing, resuming the family's loving camaraderie established in the short, even for unfamiliar viewers. Now that the characters speak, the writing staff strikes a lighthearted, effortlessly charming tone led by humorous, personality-driven characters.  The series prospers from thoughtful and insightful takes on generational differences in traditionalist topics: religion not being essential in Stephen and Angela’s lives, which shocks Russell and Gigi, trying to be a better parent than the one before you, sharing a bank account. The writers’ greatest strength is in rendering Stephen and Angela’s relationship. They are a supportive, loving couple whose bond transcends societal nuclear family expectations, another topic handled with maturity and insightfulness. They're comfortable in their familial status without putting a ring on each other's fingers. Even with their strong bond, their relationship doesn't define their characters, as the writers focus on them individually in their frustrating pursuits of happiness. Some of the strongest episodes within the 12-episode season lie in examining each party's search for purpose in their everyday lives.  For example, the first few episodes concentrate on Angela starting anew, cancer-free, trying to get back on track with her career and personal endeavors, and being a mother. It also digs deeper into Stephen’s background and a tragic childhood that still haunts him. Not every topic it tackles is a winner. Most discussions are treated with a light feather, and the season can lack continuity. Sometimes, its adult humor is tonally uneven with the many Disney-fied resolutions on episodes about homelessness and parenthood. Oddly enough, Disney’s own “Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” tackles similar themes but in a bold, diplomatic sense.    The energetic voice cast elevates any issues with the writing. The amazing Issa Rae brings so much of her onscreen traits—independent, wide-eyed dreaming, eccentric personality, and flawless comic timing—to the character. Even behind the booth, Rae textures her animated characters as people. The same goes for Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) as Stephen, whose natural, deep voice matches the character's straight but entertaining personality. The standout comic relief is young Brooke Conaway as Zuri, who pours endless life and energy into her character in her line delivery.   A few months ago, I wrote an essay about how important Black animation was to me. As a millennial/Gen-Z cusper who remembers UPN’s final days and the extensive drought in Black animation representation that wasn’t for an adult audience, “Young Love '' is like an intrusive dream come true. It’s a thoroughly charming, hilarious, and often thoughtful continuation of the beloved short. Examining many social and generational topics from an underrepresented Black-millennial lens, this heartfelt series is a pure delight for families everywhere.  The whole season was screened for review. "Young Love" premieres on Max on September 21st.

  • TIFF 2023: After the Fire, Achilles, The Queen of My Dreams
    by Nick Allen on September 19, 2023 at 2:19 PM

    When the death of someone by brutal policing becomes a national issue, we don’t often get a sense of how their family has privately been impacted. Loved ones of the deceased may speak out behind news podiums, but that can only be the surface of what they’re experiencing. “After the Fire,” an exceptional directorial debut from writer/director Mehdi Fikri, bases its fictional drama on the type of family who must accept that their grief is now a political moment.  “After the Fire” is a political thriller with an intimate lens, focusing on an immigrant family in Paris whose 25-year-old brother and son, Karim, is killed by brutal policing. The authorities try to say that it was an epileptic fit, but looking at his body says otherwise. This lie creates a massive media circus in which sister Malika (Camélia Jordan) takes the spokesperson role at the center. In the carefully calibrated and paced scenes, she has to learn public speaking and push an investigation when the police cannot be trusted. Along with lawyers and a media-savvy consultant, the family can get justice if they can play such an intense, draining, and dangerous game.  The family wants to bury Karim's body as soon as possible, but they have to wait for the investigation to be done. This gives the movie a personal pain that works on a larger scale as the family navigates this unfathomable stress. Brother Driss (Sofiane Zermani) becomes more aggressive to the police, making him a target, while the younger sister, Nour (Sonia Faidi), watches it all with hesitation. Especially in Jordana’s brilliant performance, you can see the wear this enacts on someone, regardless of the public fervor. If the family decides to give up, they let down activists; if they keep pushing against the police in the media, such corrupt adversaries could topple onto them.  Mikri’s filmmaking is brilliant and charged, and so savvy about depicting an unfathomable experience. When Malika hears her brother will die soon at the hospital, she tries to get inside. A crowd is already building, one of many that will rally around her family but also bring their destructive intensity to such an injustice. When the news of his passing arrives at that moment, the camera shows her face and her devastating reaction just long enough before the shouting crowd takes over the attention. Mikri then depicts the riots that follow with a slow drone shot over the Strasbourg neighborhoods now packed with fire and fighting.  “After the Fire” is full of such touches and emotional acuity, and it doesn’t lose that savviness as its story twists and embraces gray areas. But throughout, the movie maintains an allegiance to the family's POV. “After the Fire” illuminates the stories of the mourning families who need privacy, but whose pain and sacrifice become, unfortunately, paramount for justice to be served.  There is a compelling frustration to the muted Iranian film “Achilles,” which features a gripping lead performance by Mirsaeed Molavian. As an orthotist at a malnourished hospital, he picks at his giant beard, which is one of the ways he seems to conceal his facial expressions, as much as his fiery eyes reveal his anger. Achilles is his name, and his background on why he is at this hospital, a collection of gray walls and leaky infrastructure, is only slightly doled out by this contemplative script from writer/director Farhad Delaram. But then Achilles meets a woman named Hedieh (Behdokt Valian), who is handcuffed to her hospital bed. She complains about the walls speaking to her. She has been punching them. In time, he also learns of her political prisoner history, and with recent flashes of his own persecution, he decides to help her. Achilles helps her break out of this captivity, their journey only making them more vulnerable to a system they are disillusioned with.  “Achilles” has a lot on its mind as it becomes a type of melancholic road trip between Achilles and Hedieh, with whom he shares an ideological connection (Delaram’s editing even has his body overlap into hers during one walking scene, among other visual connections). They are a strong duo despite their quiet weariness. And in making these parallels while slowly revealing who Achilles is, the movie becomes more and more gripping. Delaram matches graceful storytelling with purposefully hazy storytelling, as both his characters head to an unknown but with a purpose. “Achilles” gets its greatest gut punch in its finale, a moment that changes the frustration from before into desperate, necessary action. The film is dedicated to “the people of Iran who can no longer tolerate the walls.”  Sharmila Tagore, the legendary Indian actress, plays a significant role in “The Queen of My Dreams,” though her modern self does not appear in it. It’s her on-screen work in the 1969 film “Aradhana,” a romance co-starring Rajesh Khanna, shown throughout this generations-hopping, brightly colored comedy from debut writer/director Fawzia Mirza. Tagore and “Aradhana” are one of many ways that Azra, a queer grad student (played by Amrit Kaur), is bonded with her mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha of “Polite Society”). But there are many ways in which they do not see eye-to-eye, and which has created a gulf between them as Azra has gotten older.  It's the year 1999. After Azra’s father Hassan (Hamza Haq) dies from a heart attack, Azra ventures from Canada to Pakistan to grieve but also to welcome us to massive flashbacks. With a jump back to 1969 in the first act, the writer/director works to show Azra and Mariam they aren’t that different, nudged by how Kaur then plays her mother in her more mischievous, less conservative years. Her mother also had a rebellious streak, a difficult time with her own mother, and an independent way of finding love. (It’s also the story of how Mariam met her husband Hassan, also played by Hamza Haq.) Throughout, “Aradhana” and Tagore’s face are used as a chorus for this movie’s romanticism, as it is a movie that Mariam loved, which she then passed onto Azra after they moved to Nova Scotia in the late '80s. The movie then retraces how Mariam (played now by Bucha) struggled to fit in these new predominantly white environs while raising budding rebel Azra and selling Tupperware.  “The Queen of My Dreams” is the kind of movie that gains its charisma from the inspiration and intent it wears on its sleeve. It’s not just the warm love it has for Sharmila Tagore, or Bollywood, or its mission to recognize the experiences of multiple generations of women. And yet, something from the storytelling holds it back from bursting off the screen as much as it wants to or gaining the emotional force it desires. Maybe it’s how the plotting focuses on the mother’s story before we deeply get to know Azra, making its empathy feel incomplete as the story is unfolding. But the film remains pleasing across its different decades and drawn similarities, its emotional story emboldened by the color palette of a shelf full of saris.

  • The Saint of Second Chances
    by Brian Tallerico on September 19, 2023 at 2:18 PM

    The best parts of Morgan Neville & Jeff Malmberg’s “The Saint of Second Chances” are like hearing stories from a good friend over beers after a game. He may have fled the city after the traumatic misfire of Disco Demolition, but Mike Veeck feels to me like a true Chicagoan, someone who values friendship, family, and a good time. He proves to be a phenomenal interview subject in this Netflix documentary that can be slight at times but culminates in a series of scenes that remind one what’s really important in this world. What seems like a playful story about a vibrant MLB personality shifts to become a story of priorities and a man who learned that second chances are only worthwhile if you take the right ones. Bill Veeck owned several teams before the Chicago White Sox, but “The Saint of Second Chances” is about his son’s involvement with the beloved sports magnate, so it opens with his formative time in the Windy City. In a definitive soundbite, Veeck describes America’s pastime as “The most delightful way to spend an afternoon or evening.” He was determined to entertain people as much as present a venue for a sports competition, introducing an exploding scoreboard that set off fireworks with home runs—a variation on it remains in play during White Sox games to this day. Veeck and his son Mike turned White Sox games in the 1970s into events. They put a working barber in the outfield and started Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (a bit that Caray would take to Wrigley Field, where it’s still done to this day.) It all reached a head in an event in 1979 in which a local shock jock named Steve Dahl hosted Disco Demolition, an invitation for people to destroy disco records between doubleheader games. It basically led to a riot and later accusations that the entire event was racist and homophobic. The film presents it as a major flub on Mike’s part, one that broke his dad’s heart. It sent Mike out of the industry for a bit, but he would return to minor league affiliates, bringing his dad’s playful spirit to events and showing his massive heart at the same time. The Veecks were less concerned about profit than entertainment. Sure, they could go together, but the film really captures how that “delightful way to spend an afternoon or evening” was key to the choices they made. It also presents Mike Veeck, who is played in recreations here by Charlie Day—the film is also narrated by beloved Midwesterner Jeff Daniels, by the way—as a likable, empathetic guy. Neville & Malmberg know how to get a person's core—Neville directed the Mr. Rogers bio-doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which Malmberg edited—and they really focus on Veeck’s likability. He’s often smiling or laughing, even when unpacking a dark chapter that would devastate most people: the degenerative condition that first made his daughter go blind and then took her at far too young an age. Even through such pain, Veeck talks about their shared experiences and the love that kept them from falling apart. He’s the kind of guy you want to thank for the stories and buy a beer. He’s the kind of guy his dad would have taken to a baseball game.  On Netflix now.

  • #467 September 19, 2023
    by Matt Fagerholm on September 19, 2023 at 5:01 AM

    Matt writes: The Toronto International Film Festival just ended this past Sunday, and you can find our complete coverage of its enticing selections in this table of contents, featuring reviews and essays penned by Brian Tallerico, Nick Allen, Robert Daniels, Marya E. Gates, Monica Castillo and Chaz Ebert. This year's distinguished recipient of the TIFF Ebert Director Award at the annual TIFF Tribute Awards gala was Oscar-winner Spike Lee, who previously attended Ebertfest for a screening of 1989's "Do the Right Thing." Chaz joined "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins and TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey in presenting Lee with the accolade, and you can view his acceptance speech in the video embedded below... Trailers The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (2023). Written and directed by Wes Anderson (based on the book by Roald Dahl). Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes. Synopsis: Chronicles a variety of stories, but the main one follows Henry Sugar, who is able to see through objects and predict the future with the help of a book he stole. Debuts on Netflix on September 27th, 2023. The Boy and the Heron (2023). Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Starring Soma Santoki, Masaki Suda, Takuya Kimura. Synopsis: Through encounters with his friends and uncle, follows a teenage boy's psychological development. He enters a magical world with a talking grey heron after finding an abandoned tower in his new town. Debuts in the US on December 8th, 2023. Origin (2023). Written and directed by Ava DuVernay (based on the book by Isabel Wilkerson). Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga. Synopsis: The unspoken system that has shaped America and chronicles how lives today are defined by a hierarchy of human divisions. US release date is TBA. Nyad (2023). Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Written by Julia Cox (based on the book by Diana Nyad). Starring Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans. Synopsis: It tells the remarkable true story of athlete Diana Nyad who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida. Debuts on Netflix on November 3rd, 2023. May December (2023). Directed by Todd Haynes. Written by Samy Burch. Starring Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Charles Melton. Synopsis: Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past. Debuts on Netflix on December 1st, 2023. The Burial (2023). Directed by Maggie Betts. Written by Maggie Betts and Doug Wright (based on the article by Jonathan Harr). Starring Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett. Synopsis: Inspired by true events, a lawyer helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a corporate behemoth, exposing a complex web of race, power, and injustice. Debuts on Prime Video on October 13th, 2023. The Bikeriders (2023). Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (based on the book by Danny Lyon). Starring Austin Butler, Tom Hardy, Michael Shannon. Synopsis: It follows the rise of a Midwestern motorcycle club through the lives of its members. Debuts in the US on December 1st, 2023. The Royal Hotel (2023). Directed by Kitty Green. Written by Kitty Green and Oscar Redding. Starring Julia Garner, Jessica Henwick, Herbert Nordrum. Synopsis: US backpackers Hanna and Liv take a job in a remote Australian pub for some extra cash and are confronted with a bunch of unruly locals and a situation that grows rapidly out of their control. Debuts in the US on October 6th, 2023. The Pot-au-Feu (2023). Written and directed by Anh Hung Tran. Starring Juliette Binoche, Pierre Gagnaire, Jan Hammenecker. Synopsis: It tells the story of Eugenie, an esteemed cook, and Dodin, the fine gourmet she has been working for over the last 20 years. Debuts in the US on November 8th, 2023. The Delinquents (2023). Written and directed by Rodrigo Moreno. Starring Daniel Elías, Esteban Bigliardi, Margarita Molfino. Synopsis: Morán and Román are looking for freedom and adventure. One commits a robbery, discovering an alternative to his boring life, while the other hides money that doesn't belong to him. Their destiny as new criminals will bring them together. US release date is TBA. How to Have Sex (2023). Written and directed by Molly Manning Walker. Starring Mia McKenna-Bruce, Shaun Thomas, Lara Peake. Synopsis: Three British teenage girls go on a rites-of-passage holiday - drinking, clubbing and hooking up, in what should be the best summer of their lives. US release date is TBA. Mister Organ (2023). Directed by David Farrier. Synopsis: Journalist David Farrier ("Tickled") is drawn into a game of cat and mouse with a mysterious individual. Delving deeper he unearths a trail of court cases, royal bloodlines and ruined lives, in this true story of psychological warfare. US release date is TBA. Joan Baez: I Am a Noise (2023). Directed by Miri Navasky, Maeve O'Boyle and Karen O'Connor. Synopsis: At the end of a 60-year career, legendary singer and activist Joan Baez takes an honest look back and a deep look inward as she tries to make sense of her large, history-making life, and the personal struggles she's kept private. Debuts in the US on October 6th, 2023. Divinity (2023). Written and directed by Eddie Alcazar. Starring Bella Thorne, Stephen Dorff, Caylee Cowan. Synopsis: Centers on two mysterious brothers, who abduct a mogul during his quest for immortality. Meanwhile, a seductive woman helps them launch a journey of self-discovery. Debuts in the US on October 13th, 2023. Appendage (2023). Written and directed by Anna Zlokovic. Starring Emily Hampshire, Hadley Robinson, Deborah Rennard. Synopsis: A young fashion designer's life spirals as her darkest inner thoughts manifest into something gruesome- that won't stop growing. Debuts on Hulu on October 2nd, 2023. Dark Harvest (2023). Directed by David Slade. Written by Michael Gilio (based on the novel by Norman Partridge). Starring Casey Likes, Emyri Crutchfield, Dustin Ceithamer. Synopsis: A legendary monster called October Boy terrorizes residents in a small Midwestern town when he rises from the cornfields every Halloween with his butcher knife and makes his way toward those who are brave enough to confront him. Debuts in the US on October 13th, 2023. Totally Killer (2023). Directed by Nahnatchka Khan. Written by David Matalon, Sasha Perl-Raver and Jen D'Angelo. Starring Kiernan Shipka, Olivia Holt, Liana Liberato. Synopsis: When the infamous "Sweet Sixteen Killer" returns 35 years after his first murder spree to claim another victim, 17-year-old Jamie accidentally travels back in time to 1987, determined to stop the killer before he can start. Debuts on Prime Video on October 6th, 2023. Once Within a Time (2023). Directed by Godfrey Reggio and Jon Kane. Synopsis: A comedic apocalyptic vision of the end of the world and the beginning of a new one, with unforgettable views and the innocence and hope of a new generation. US release date is TBA. Telluride Film Festival 2023 Matt writes: Sarah Knight Adamson penned an in-depth report on various highlights at this year's Telluride Film Festival, including Alexander Payne's eagerly awaited "The Holdovers," which reunites the director with his "Sideways" star Paul Giamatti. Married at the Movies Matt writes: Earlier this month, Chaz Ebert attended the wedding of our regular contributor Collin Souter and his longtime "Christmas Movies Actually" podcast co-host Kerry Finegan at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. Preceding the ceremony was a delightful pre-show curated by the couple that included the scene embedded above from Joe Dante's 1993 gem, "Matinee." You can read Chaz's full report on the joyous event here. Free Movies The Sundowners (1950). Directed by George Templeton. Written by Alan Le May. Starring Robert Preston, Robert Sterling, Chill Wills. Synopsis: Brother is pitted against brother in this tale of fueding ranchers in the old west.  Watch "The Sundowners" First Man into Space (1959). Directed by Robert Day. Written by John Croydon and Charles F. Vetter. Starring Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards. Synopsis: The first pilot to leave Earth's atmosphere lands, then vanishes; but something with a craving for blood prowls the countryside. Watch "First Man into Space" Evel Knievel (1971). Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky. Written by Alan Caillou and John Milius. Starring George Hamilton, Sue Lyon, Bert Freed. Synopsis: Biography of the famed motorcycle daredevil, much of which was filmed in his home town of Butte, Montana. The film depicts Knievel reflecting on major events in his life just before a big jump. Watch "Evel Knievel"

  • John Waters: Pope of Trash Opens at Academy Museum
    by Jana Monji on September 18, 2023 at 1:36 PM

    Enter the church of "John Waters: Pope of Trash" at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles to worship trash and a man who cheerfully rebelled against so many things. The exhibit, the first of its kind devoted solely to Waters' cinematic career opened on Friday, and Waters was an amiable presence at the press preview panel last Wednesday. Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, noted the exhibition "celebrates the cinematic legacy of one of the most revered and rebellious auteurs." American writer and visual artist William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) anointed Waters "Pope of Trash" in the 1980s and the exhibit is a classy and clean celebration of trash including the trailer park kind. The exhibit, curated by Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, was four years in the making. According to He, they asked themselves, "How do we tell the story of John Waters' filmmaking career?" Wanting to tell the story from the perspective of audiences, they identified three groups: devoted fans, people who might be familiar with a film or two and those who might not know Waters at all, despite what Waters' calls "fame maintenance" cameos on TV (such as "The Simpsons") and movies. During the panel discussion Waters noted, "I have no bitter Hollywood stories. Hollywood treated me fairly." The exhibition begins with what He describes as "a dramatic entrance gallery which is basically a movie theater in an abstracted church setting because John premiered his early films, from 'Roman Candles' to 'Multiple Maniacs' in churches." The 1966 short, "Roman Candles" features Divine and Mink Stole in random disjointed scenes. The 1970 "Multiple Maniacs" stars Divine as Lady Divine, the owner and operator of a free exhibit, "The Cavalcade of Perversion," which has various fetish acts, but nothing is really free. Lady Divine, who lives in a trailer, first robs her customers and later decides to add murder to the menu. The church of the Pope of Trash includes a portrait and faux stained-glass windows of memorable characters from John Waters' works. From there, you can view posters and artifacts but also a small trailer to remind fans of "Pink Flamingo" where you can watch videos. Johnny Depp fans can see the leather jackets from the musical "Cry Baby," and, in the interlude gallery between that and the cheery yellow room of "Hairspray" costumes, you can even dance and appear on three TV screens to segments from "Cry Baby" and "Hairspray." In the "Hairspray" room, you'll see the infamous pale pink cockroach dress. "Serial Mom" and a "Cecil B. Demented" are both given special sections. For people who love clothes, there's a fuchsia pink lit costume gallery. As the exhibit ends, you'll also see the segment from the 1997 "The Simpsons" episode "Homer's Phobia," as well as art from fans. Like the previous exhibit, "Regeneration: Black Cinema (1898-1971)" which was the Academy Museum's first traveling exhibit and will open at the Detroit Institute of Arts next year (February 4th - June 23rd, 2024), "John Waters: Pope of Trash" is about representation, but there's a tremendous sense of joy in both. Waters is hoping that people take away "a sense of humor that knows that we never make our enemies feel stupid. We make them feel smart even when they are and get them to laugh and then we can get them to listen." "John Waters: Pope of Trash" continues at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles) until August 4th, 2024. The exhibit also has a hard cover catalogue ($59.95), a free app to style yourself as John Waters or a character from his films, and a film series that runs until October 28th, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit the website.  "John Waters: Pope of Trash" film series schedule is as follows: Sept. 17 (Sunday):  3 p.m., "Eat Your Makeup" with live commentary by John Waters 7:30 p.m. "Serial Mom" with John Waters, Peaches Christ in attendance Sept. 21 (Thursday): 7:30 p.m., "Multiple Maniacs" Sept. 23 (Saturday): 7:30 p.m., "Pink Flamingos" Sept. 28 (Thursday): 7:30 p.m., "Hairspray" Oct. 20 (Friday): 7:30 p.m., "Desperate Living"  Oct. 26 (Thursday): 7:30 p.m., "Pecker" with "Cry-Baby" Oct. 28 (Saturday): 7:30 p.m., "Cecil B. Demented" with "A Dirty Shame" For tickets for the film program, visit  All photos credited to Jana Monji.

  • Criterion Releases Special Edition of Nicolas Roeg's Masterful Walkabout
    by Walter Chaw on September 18, 2023 at 1:23 PM

    After making his name as one of the great directors of photography, but an opinionated and some might say difficult one who after catching David Lean’s eye as a second-unit cinematographer on “Lawrence of Arabia,” was hired and promptly fired as DP for “Doctor Zhivago,” Nicolas Roeg found himself better-suited to the role of director. Once recast, he was free. His vision of a haunted, diaphanous world, sick with entropy and diseased with men blinded by their own will-to-reason no longer needed to brook resistance from talents, however great (he shot for not only Lean, but luminaries like François Truffaut and John Schlesinger), but given to perhaps more literal expressions of more quotidian ideas. Over the next thirty-seven years and across fourteen feature films, Roeg crafted as uncompromising and challenging a filmography as anyone ever has. Consider how the closest he came to producing a mainstream entertainment is his gorgeously perverse, and frankly terrifying, adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “children’s” book The Witches. Where others would have been lost in the magic, Roeg was obsessed with its sex and its uncanniness. His loose adaptation of another children’s book, James Vance Marshall’s (a pen name for British author David Gordon Payne) beloved young adult novel Walkabout, marked Roeg’s first solo effort as author of his own picture. Released in 1971, it has lost none of its totemic power, its pervasive feeling of an almost Biblical sense of an innate and inherited spiritual horror. It is a pyre for paradises we have, by just the fact of our essential fallen states, irrevocably lost, and an excoriation of the masks of self-delusion we wear to mitigate our existential pain. The film ends with a sober recitation of the fortieth poem from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad anthology, a collection of poems written upon the death of Housman’s lover that gained popularity in England during the Boer and First World Wars when its themes of mourning and pastoral nostalgia echoed a nation’s grief-struck, shellshocked zeitgeist. It reads: Into my heart an air that kills     From yon far country blows:   What are those blue remembered hills,     What spires, what farms are those?   That is the land of lost content,   I see it shining plain,   The happy highways where I went     And cannot come again. Roeg runs images counter to the sadness of the poem from an idyllic day the three children at the center of his film, an unnamed Girl (Jenny Agutter), her little brother White Boy (Luc Roeg) and their eventual savior-for-a-while, a teen Aboriginal person, “Black Boy” (David Gulpili), spend swimming in an Outback billabong. Unconcerned, uninhibited though not entirely untainted by knowledge of one another’s nakedness, the obvious read of “Walkabout” is that it’s a prelapsarian fantasy in which a certain “noble savage” inclination positions Nature as innocent and Civilization as corrupt. It’s a read bolstered by the use of Housman’s poem which, after all, sang most loudly to a generation of Brits reeling from the devastation of war. But I think it’s thornier than that, though the specifics of its philosophy don’t come clear without the evidence of the rest of Roeg’s films that are, at this moment, still to come. If this is your first Nicolas Roeg film, in other words, it will be as mysterious and profane as Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” two pictures that defined the Australian New Wave with its fascination with/revulsion of a land they had colonized but not conquered - that was ever in the process of pushing back against its occupiers with the uncontrollable insinuation of its essential wildness. Roeg isn’t Australian, though, and his hangups are his own and not in time with any “wave.” Indeed, some of the most indelible images of “Walkabout” are set in the zone between the groomed concrete of modern Adelaide and the treacherous splendor of the Outback that surrounds it. Here, rusted metal husks and houses in the active process of being reclaimed by vegetation and the elements show the immediate fate of cities when they’re uncultivated by human hands. This interzone forms a ring around the city like an asteroid belt around a planet, the last remnants of a satellite moon serving as a reminder of the temporariness of any attempt to impose right angles on a round world. Roeg takes us through these spaces and then into the wild when Girl and White Boy, 16 and 8, are taken for a picnic by their severe, distant Father (John Meillon). As Girl lays out their lunch to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Gasoline Alley” blaring tinnily from her little transistor radio, their father reads what look to be mineral density charts covering the surrounding area. Is he a geologist? seismologist? In a lesser film he’d explicitly be an executive for an oil company interested in despoiling the natural wonder of this place with derricks and quarries, but in “Walkabout,” he’s regarding the physical composition of the land with the kind of consternation I relate to doomed generals on the eve of disastrous battles, looking over troop reports and calculating his prospects of seeing another sunset. He takes out a pistol and starts shooting at his children before setting the car on fire and killing himself. I think he’s doing it for their own good. I think he thinks so, anyway. Why postpone the inevitable? Girl, showing resourcefulness by immediately recognizing their peril and shepherding her brother to safety, takes them both deeper into the bush. She’s going to walk to Adelaide but she has no idea what direction it is nor how to survive for very long in this alien landscape. “We’re British,” she protests. What’s saved her is how she recognizes how her father has become uncomfortable with her budding sexuality. It made her wary before the bullets flew. Roeg insinuates ourselves in Father’s attention, the surreptitious glances at bare legs and unconscious flashes of a girl, still largely unguarded in the company of her dad, only half-wise to the potential dangers of the company of all men. Roeg’s cinema is at a certain level, obsessively, illicitly erotic. Sex is simultaneously custom and instinct: the antic motion of the body fetishized by the interference of the mind. It is, in the act of it, the absence of artifice yet, in the anticipation of it before and the consideration of it after, larded with pretense and ritual. When Girl empties the car’s boot for the picnic at the beginning, Roeg invites us to look at her lasciviously and then shows the father looking out the windshield. He can’t see her from behind the hood, of course, but the way Roeg composes this series of images, we identify with his point of view and transpose our guilty interest into his. It feels bad, and for its impossibility, it feels weird, too. Better than a consideration of “Walkabout” as an idealization of Nature is an interpretation that sees it as a cautionary tale about what happens to an animal when it denies that it is one: of a shaved ape in clothes deluding itself so it can deny that its sober sentience is helpless before its hunger and intuition. Roeg’s films are littered with men who deny their natures to their detriment. John, the architect/skeptic of “Don’t Look Now” who sees his own death just as he saw his daughter’s, but refuses to heed the visions that would save him because they are products of illogic; the sad alien of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” who forgets the thirst that brought him to this planet when stuffed full of the distractions and comforts the fruits of his desperation have bought him. In “Walkabout,” Girl and White Boy are going to die when they stumble, entirely by accident, upon an oasis; a watering hole where there couldn’t be one that Girl, in her delirium, tries to blink away so the hope of it doesn’t drive her mad. But, it’s real. They swim and drink and because she is what she believes she is, Girl washes her clothes and shoes but doesn’t fill a scavenged bottle with water nor fills their pockets with the red fruit from the tree shading them from the brutal sun. They sleep and wake to find the hole has dried, the fruit eaten by wildlife or half-rotten already at the mandibles of insects and in the heat of the day. The little boy asks why his sister hasn’t filled their bottle and as answer she looks at him blankly. In the book, the First Nations boy has brought them to the watering hole, there is no lecherous father and suicide but a plane crash instead, and we know the boy has already been infected with a flu against which he has no natural defense. The book is a story of colonialism, a heroic tragedy in which a minority preserves white order. The film is no such thing.  The boy does find them at the watering hole. We presume he is on a “walkabout,” an Aboriginal ritual outlined by a title card at film’s open detailing how, as part of a boy’s coming of age, he is sent into the Outback for six months to survive on his own. Not just a test of survival, I think, but a catalyst for self-discovery that is perhaps an analogue to the Native American “vision quest” or the Amish “rumspringa.” I wonder, though, if the real “walkabout” is the one the viewer takes during the course of this film as we are invited to be the voyeur in what we hope is the deflowering of a beautiful young woman at the hands of a beautiful young man. (Especially as the studio inserted the definition at the beginning and not Roeg.) Roeg drowns us in romantic sickness the way the netted ortolans are drowned in cognac in the preparation Girl and White Boy’s distracted mother (reduced to function and credited as Father’s Wife, Hilary Bamberger) listens to on the radio in their apartment back in the city. The birds are kept in the dark and tricked into gorging themselves on grain to twice their natural size. Drowned in alcohol, they’re roasted and eaten feet-first save the beak which is used as a handle. And so the audience for Roeg’s films are pushed into the metaphorical dark, fed to overful while defenses are defeated, then drowned in sweet nepenthe to cushion our consumptive fates, returned to the food chain as soil and cautionary grist for metaphorical mills. The first time we see Girl, she’s repeating vowel sounds in a group with her classmates as Roeg inserts noises of industrial machinery beneath them. Her gasping mouth reminds me of a bird eating… or drowning. “Walkabout” is about seeing things unadorned by idealism. Watch how its characters see. Watch how Roeg will cut on a look in a series of step edits, closer and closer into the little details easily missed. Its shots of animals and the landscape are overwhelming for their rawness. It’s not beautiful because that implies affectation. Rather, it’s awe-inspiring because it’s inexplicable. Black Boy’s appearance isn’t an act of supernatural providence, it just is. The fact of him in the film was the same kind of providential miracle: an Aboriginal man who is powerful and sexy? A brief moment where Girl glances at Black Boy’s codpiece lands like a the first horn blast of a revolution. Her desire is still taboo even if it’s no longer illegal. He leads them towards Adelaide, hunting in a few graphic sequences that are always supported by the prey animals dressed and roasted, knowing where to poke shunts into the ground to find water, knowing too how to procure natural remedies for sunburn and even the ill-effects of menstruation. In a scene of leisure that becomes laden with the first pangs of sexual longing, the three climb a tree that has branched in such a way as to suggest long, white legs and a cleft between. When Girl realizes she’s been bruised from the play, Roeg offers an intellectual montage of the suggestiveness of the tree’s form with Girl’s just as, immediately before, he’s interposed them at play with a First Nations family discovering the burnt-out husk of Father’s car and how they clamber around it in the same way. Perhaps Roeg is remarking about how industrialization has replaced tress with derelict machines, but I think he’s suggesting that no matter the miracles we forge from the ground, our reactions to it will always tend to the same sort of play. We’re animals, and it’s best not to forget it. Girl and Black Boy, sore from tumbling through an anthropomorphized tree, have reenacted the Biblical story about the Tree of Knowledge and the creation of shame. In the book, the white flu claims the boy, but not before he’s pointed the white heroes to a valley rich with food and civilization beyond it. In the film, he witnesses white hunters decimating the wildlife with no sense of the preciousness or dignity of it as resource and then lies in a field of bleached bones, smearing himself in white paint to approximate the shocking waste, yes, but more the insupportable arrogance of the whites. It’s not the first time Roeg portrays the settlers as savages playacting the role of masters of the unmasterable. An extended interlude earlier in the film finds a group of male scientists on an Australian beach angling to catch a better glimpse up the skirt or down the blouse of their only female member like a pack of baboons sniffing around an unattached female in estrous. Their occupation is science but their all-consuming preoccupation is sex. This is Roeg in precis. For the lost children and their guide, in contrast, they are learning how to be honest. When they return to the outskirts of civilization, the boy sees what he sees, the hunting and the houses fallen to decay and forgetfulness, and paints himself as a skeleton to dance for Girl in the costume of a man stripped of flesh - of all pretense. For her part, the Girl is still shaken by an old photo album she’s found, grieving the lives she sees there and, in the grieving, betraying a longing to live in the traditions of her culture. The film doesn’t mention it but we know that in Aboriginal culture, the invocation of dead ancestors through writing or speech, not to mention photographs, is forbidden because it summons their spirits back to this mortal coil. This is bad. Death is natural and should be honored. Girl learns a different lesson. It’s been read, this sequence, as the boy offering himself to the girl in a kind of ritualized courtship and that may be, but I think it’s a warning and a plea that there is no dignified death in places where men are so disconnected from life. Maybe he wants to rescue her to the wild. The city is a denial that things fall apart. The city is a lie that things are eternal. His warning unheeded, he kills himself and, in the last moments of the film shot at some unspecified and unimportant point in the future, Girl, now grown and married (we can tell by the ring on her finger and how she’s chopping meat for dinner - an image cut with a shot of the boy throwing a kangaroo tail onto the fire) welcomes her unspectacular husband (John Illingsworth) home with a kiss and then retreats into her memories of one unguarded day in a billabong as he launches into a long tale of his day at the office. “What’s the matter?” he asks when he notices at last her face unguarded and still. “Nothing,” she says, readjusting the mask she wears for him. It occurs to me now how this is the apartment where she was a child, or near enough to it for there to not be much of a difference, and how the arrangement of its windows makes it look like a glass terrarium. A carefully-managed prison where people divorced from nature keep things that used to be wild and are now just waiting to die. Criterion presents “Walkabout” on a searing 4K UHD release packed with the exceptional, previously-released Blu-Ray presentation and all of its special features. The new transfer gives the impression that we could count every blade of scrub grass on the blasted plain without it betraying digital amplification defects. It looks like a fresh 35mm print. It’s astonishing enough that even scenes where I usually look away, I found myself transfixed. The audio mix is similarly overwhelming, uncompressed as it is so that John Barry’s almost-experimental score, full of animal scuttlings and cries, convey the heat and the omnipresence of nature with astounding immediacy. Glorious. A commentary track recorded in 1996 featuring Roeg and Agutter, separately alas, proves to be packed with insight and recollection. Roeg talks about shooting day-for-night, about his affection for walls and windows for their architectural disconnection and how he tries to find that “artificiality” even in all-natural environments. He says he looks for that in his films, those places outside of man that suggests the patterns emulated by men. He recollects working with Truffaut and Lean, with the young cast including his son, and his admiration of Gulpili as an effortless, entirely unselfconscious performer. For her part, Agutter charms with her intelligence and sensitivity. “Oh dear, this is a terribly violent scene,” she says at a couple of points. She exudes decency. Her memory of the “set up and slow immersion” mirroring the kids’ connection with the dessert. All-in-all, an invaluable contribution to the scholarship around this film.  Switch to the Blu-Ray to find the other special features included in this presentation starting with a short feature with Luc Roeg (9min) that has the actor, now-producer, offering his memories of working with his dad and what seems a timeless love for the experience and especially Gulpili. He notes how his dad, not an Australian of course, captured the essence of the place in much the same way he’ll later capture the darker peculiarities of Venice in “Don’t Look Now.” He talks about moving to Australia during the months of preparation, of how his originally-cast older brother aged out of the role during the process, and how Jenny Agutter is just one of the most gorgeous human beings that there ever was. A 2008 interview with Agutter (20min) is a French production that finds the eternally-magnetic actor noting the importance of this film for her career and remembering with photographic precision how she came to the film through her ballet dancing, another film, and a shared family acquaintance. Decades later, she’s still overwhelmed by Roeg’s passion for the project and how, upon their first meeting, he told her he was going to make this camera even if he had to sell all his possessions and shoot with a small handheld camera. She has only effusive things to say about Gulpili as well, noting he was primarily a dancer and suddenly it falls into place why these two people fell so easily into rhythm with one another. Finally, "Gulpili: One Red Blood" (56min) is a documentary/ethnography/autobiography of Gulpili’s life is a lovely piece following a few days in the life as clips from the actor’s films are replayed and remembered. There are its share of revelations in it, including Gulpili’s hard realization that there was no great call for a First Nations actor. Paul Ryan's brilliant, incisive article about “Walkabout” is included as the booklet for the presentation: not only the single best thing ever written about the film, but among the finest bits of film inquiry I’ve ever read.

  • Superpower
    by Matt Zoller Seitz on September 18, 2023 at 1:15 PM

    There have already been so many powerful and illuminating nonfiction projects about Russia's invasion of Ukraine (including "20 Days in Mariupol," possibly one of the greatest war documentaries ever made) that any filmmaker attempting their own entry needs to bring their A-game, especially if they're not from Ukraine. When this chapter of history is closed, and the storytelling about it is evaluated, "Superpower" will be a curious footnote.  The movie's co-director, narrator, and onscreen guide, Sean Penn, can't decide what kind of movie he wants to make. So we get a generalized portrait of what happened during the last 15 or so years; a sensitive, picaresque work of battlefield reportage, using material gathered during Penn's seven trips to Ukraine; a sardonic, self-critical but necessarily navel-gazing meditation on celebrityhood and politics; and an analysis of the way Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, used his own celebrity to win the office, essentially treating voters like audience members, figuring out what values they wanted to see incarnated by a president, then writing the role for himself and playing the hell out of it.  That last film is by far the most interesting of the ones that Penn gives us in this grab-bag of a movie. And it's a shame because the few relatively brief sections of "Superpower" that scrutinize Zelensky as a self-created political icon (in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Donald Trump) are the most authoritative and fascinating by far.  Penn, an experienced actor, writer/director, and a troubled person whose violence made him a tabloid fixture, understands performance at every stage of the creative process. He also understands the media's tendency to latch onto a catchy narrative and milk it, and many more things that non-famous people might only get theoretically. "Superpower" is at its best when letting Penn and co-director Aaron Kaufman put Penn's spoken observations over clips pulled from early in Zelensky's career, including talk and news show appearances, pieces of a presidential debate, and some innovative campaign ads and other material that play like pieces of a scripted television series or film by an auteur actor-director whose persona is so carefully crafted that he can afford to try out filmmaking experiments. (Zelensky even stages dynamic "walk and talks" like in a Hollywood movie, something that nobody can do well unless they've committed the lines to memory.)  Penn quotes Ronald Reagan and points out Zelensky's use of comedy and music to engage viewers/voters. These parts of the movie are sharp enough that one wishes the entire project had concentrated on the idea of Zelensky as, essentially, an actor who wrote himself a scrappy underdog character who represented his own best fantasy of himself, played it so well that he won the presidency, then found himself having to play two more roles on top of it, wartime leader and national emblem, and nailed both.  There’s a far less interesting shadow equivalent of the "Zelensky playing Zelensky" movie happening as well, in which Penn attempts to explain his obsession with traveling into danger zones, using his fame and money to get into places where ordinary people couldn't. Among other hotspots, he went into New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and Haiti following the 2011 earthquake. Penn certainly had serendipity on his side: he had scheduled an interview with Zelensky that just happened to fall on the day before the invasion, and Zelensky kept it, and gave him more time on the actual day of the invasion as well. (Zelensky understands the value of using celebrity to carry a message as much as Penn does.) There's a moment near the end where Penn and his crew are in a danger zone, and we see Penn hiding a small knife on himself and mock-threatening the camera with his fists; one supposes it's supposed to be self-deprecating. But it falls flat for all sorts of reasons. Penn says he's constantly being asked why he keeps making a Hollywood version of Batman or an intrepid journalist in a war epic. He says people ask him, "Who do you think you are, Walter Cronkite?" But he offers no compelling answer to such questions, instead brushing them off as less important than the story he's using his celebrity to help tell.  This only makes us wonder why he didn't avoid the mechanics of his own presentation entirely rather than make us watch as he barely wrestles with it while embracing cliches he's been accused of embodying. As in Oliver Stone's political documentaries, but with less erudition, Penn surrounds himself with experts—including diplomats, reporters, Ukrainian soldiers and citizens, and even men who are implied to have been James Bond-level spies—but doesn't cede the floor, instead cutting back to himself listening with a respectful or grave expression. (There's already been a full-length documentary about this aspect of his life, "Citizen Penn," which was made by a director not named Sean Penn and shows the conflicting aspects of his personality with much more insight.) The backbone of the movie is a compact tour of recent Ukraine history. It's adequately presented, at the level of a nightly newscast segment. The best bits concern the dioxin poisoning of President Victor Yuschenko by Russian assets and some citizens' pre-invasion worries that Zelensky was too soft and compromised (by Russian friendships and money) to be a good president during anxious times. But it's nothing you can't learn from reading articles online. The final section evolves into hero worship, which seems forgivable when applied to a genuinely heroic person. This isn't a bad film by any means: it does a creditable job of convincing us that Penn's heart is in the right place (as an activist) even when the execution is sometimes impulsive or clumsy. But it lacks focus. On Paramount+ now.

  • TIFF 2023: Summer Qamp, Boil Alert, Songs of Earth
    by Nick Allen on September 18, 2023 at 1:05 PM

    “QUEER JOY! QUEER JOY! QUEER JOY!” That phrase is heard being shouted with vigor and excitement by the focal queer teens at the end of “Summer Qamp,” but its sentiment is felt from the very beginning of this fiercely empathetic doc from director Jen Markowitz.  With an upbeat ease, "Summer Qamp" has the special touch that has made hits out of other feel-great, coming-of-age docs like “Science Fair.” We meet young people throughout Markowitz’s film like Ren, Wren, Ghoul, Manessa, Kingston, and their fellow campers, many of whom are transgender and non-binary. They're exciting ambassadors from a new generation, especially when one of them says with a bit of a laugh, "I don't get gender."  In getting to know them, there's also talk about binders, choosing pronouns, coming out (or being afraid to), crushes, episodes of self-harm, transitioning, and more. Among the many qualities of this movie is how it balances such important discussions with the experience of its people bonding in the present. You get a sense that many of these teens haven’t met many people like themselves where they’re from in Canada, and some even talk about having to learn about these parts of being queer on their own. But this experience, which we get to see here, is various lives changing before our eyes.  Markowitz sets this movie at a specific Alberta summer camp but beats any initial inklings that this would simply be a free ad by not focusing so much on the camp’s infrastructure (the name, Camp fYfrely, is rarely said). It's much more about celebrating the campers. And in following these teens with such fly-on-the-wall cinematography, the doc naturally finds many endearing, meaningful situations of them bonding. It’s key that the editing doesn’t focus on creating drama in the camp experience. There’s hardly any sense of competition; it’s just instances of campers and their experienced, loving counselors supporting each other.  The movie is a force for such good and thrives on the power of visibility—of these teens being able to meet and “see” each other and for their stories to be put into a purely entertaining package. Here’s hoping that “Summer Qamp” becomes as widely available as possible so that anyone who needs to learn about teens like Ren and Ghoul and others can see it.  The documentary filmmaking of "Boil Alert" is always vivid, whether it's telling an incredible personal story of identity-fueled activism or documenting a horrendous injustice. Its center is the story of Layla Staats, a woman with Haudenosaunee roots who questions if she is "Native enough." After experiencing chapters in her life that threatened to break her spirit (and which we see in some reenactments), she says she wants to make a difference. She knows some about the poisoned water supplies that have left many people in various First Nations without water, but she wants to learn more. Along with this doc's crew, she helps put faces and names to people who have been without palatable water for many years, or had their land poisoned by uranium and a government's indifference.  Throughout, the movie is a great showcase for the promising visual talents of directors Stevie Salas and James Burns. Whether it’s in documentary passages, dreamy sequences with spare VFX, or instances of on-the-ground, cop-tussling journalism, “Boil Alert” shows that Salas and Burns have an exciting intuition as filmmakers. Sometimes, the touches can border on being too aesthetically over-the-top—its Terrence Malick-esque ethereal nature can slip into pushy movie trailer. But the various filmmaking pieces within “Boil Alert” fit like a massive quilt, and it's always dedicated to the potential of the human spirit. As frustrating as the atrocities documented here are, the movie pulses even louder with pride, making space for an unbeatable sense of hope.  Margreth Olin’s “Songs of Earth,” executive produced by Liv Ullman and Wim Wenders, is a many-splendored thing: a home movie worthy of IMAX theaters. In a micro sense, it is about the director filming her elderly parents, documenting their love for each other and the vast mountains that neighbor their quaint home. But in a macro sense, with plenty of rapturous drone shots of a mountainous and still slice of Norway called Oldedalen, it contemplates our own relationship with nature in an era when global warming is speeding up the clock. Like a great love, nature shapes us; without nurturing, it starts to fade.  There are numerous staggering shots from cinematographer Lars Erlend Tubaas Øymo of Olin’s father, 82 years old and with two hiking sticks in hand, traversing the top of an ice-glazed rocks or a vast mirror of ice that reflects the breathtaking mountains above it. Her father is but a dot in these recurring images, often captured with drone cinematography (by Herman Lersveen) that naturally soars through landscapes that seem too pure for this world. Intercut with these passages are bits of Olin's family history. “I’m amazed by the stories nature can tell,” her father says at one point. He talks about how his ancestors have shared love (a towering tree where a family member proposed) and tragedy (a flood in the early 1900s that wiped out nearly the whole lineage) with the nature they humbly stand before.  The grandeur of this documentary can’t be denied, even if its meditative way of assembling its footage, voice-over anecdotes, and general instincts can sometimes make it unfocused. But the deeply personal lens that Olin provides always makes this a nonpareil nature doc. As global warming naturally fits into the narrative, we feel a sense of loss for Earth as if it were our lineage who were soon passing. 

  • TIFF 2023: The Beast, Evil Does Not Exist, Shoshana, The Green Border
    by Brian Tallerico on September 17, 2023 at 4:14 PM

    My final dispatch from the exhausting but exhilarating Toronto features four films by a quartet of internationally acclaimed directors, including the latest from the man behind “Drive My Car,” an unexpected nominee for Best Picture in 2022. At least three of these films seem destined to make waves and spark conversations on the arthouse scene, already producing some of the most interesting debates out of Venice and Toronto. Let’s start with one of those. Shortly after exiting “The Beast,” a friend and colleague asked me what it was about, and I don’t think it was just the fest burnout that made that a difficult question to answer. The latest from Bertrand Bonello (“Nocturama”) is a deliberate mindf**k, a movie that I’ve heard compared to “Cloud Atlas” in the way it moves across generations to tell stories of a man and woman that feel interconnected in the manner in which they center gender roles and an interplay between connection and violence. Bonello has an undeniable mastery of form—he produces some of his most striking imagery here and is playing with some of his most ambitious ideas—but this loose adaptation of Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle sometimes verges on purposefully obtuse, intentional in its audience alienation to a frustrating degree. Still, this is one of those fest films that lingers, a movie with impeccable execution and an abundance of ideas to explore after it’s over. Lea Seydoux is typically excellent as Gabrielle, partnered here with George MacKay as Louis. They play what TIFF describes as "star-crossed lovers," seen at various points in history as a Gabrielle in the future undergoes a process designed to eliminate hampering emotions still lingering from past lives. So Gabrielle revisits past versions of herself that encountered Louis, both as an aristocrat in 1904 France and an incel in 2014 Los Angeles, while also navigating a future in which she meets this fated partner yet again, questioning what the “purification” of all the things that make us human could do to their relationship. Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack here, and Bonello never lacks confidence. He moves back and forth in time, working in more of an emotional register than a literal one, but there are times when “The Beast” feels a little too self-aware of the games it’s playing. Of course, no one expects a film with this ambitious structure to be realistic, but Bonello gets overly precious with his time jumps and editing tricks. The movie actually works the best in its one-on-one beats as Seydoux and MacKay find a balance between attraction and anxiety that really drives the film. They understand people who are drawn to each other, uncertain if it’s passion or pain that underlies their connection. The great Ryûsuke Hamaguchi returned to TIFF this year just two years after “Drive My Car” with his slow burn “Evil Does Not Exist,” a film that started as a short accompaniment to a musical piece by the phenomenal composer Eiko Ishibashi but was then expanded to a full feature. Its modest origins can still be felt in a drama that left me a bit more wanting than some of his work, but this is also an undeniably well-made film with an ending that I’ve already discussed in fascinating ways. Takumi lives in a remote region of Japan with his daughter Hana. They have a simple life, as seen in long scenes in which Takumi chops wood and collects water for a nearby restaurant. Their serenity is threatened by a new business project in the area that will bring “glamping” (glamorous camping) to the region, which is pitched as a positive for the community until a phenomenal scene in which the agents for the company are confronted by the many things they haven’t considered like septic run-off and fire hazards. Two agents from the company get involved in Takumi’s life, even asking him to be the caretaker for the incoming tourists, as Hamaguchi slowly drags us to a shocking ending that feels like a warning over what can happen when people play tourists in other people’s lives. Hamaguchi has a mastery of camera movement and deliberate tone that can be mesmerizing. Still, his pace here is a bit overly dragged out at times, and his ending is a bit of a blunt instrument. It’s impossible not to admire the filmmaking and appreciate the themes that Hamaguchi is unpacking, but this is a minor work from a major filmmaker. Still worth your time. Even a bit more minor is the well-mounted but frustrating “Shoshana,” a reminder that veteran Michael Winterbottom has never been constrained by genre but a bit of a dull misfire in the notable filmography of the man who directed “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” “24 Hour Party People,” and “The Trip.” It’s a handsomely mounted period piece about a place and time in which friends were forced into becoming enemies, and Winterbottom draws an especially solid performance from his leading lady, but this one feels like a near-miss. “Shoshana” takes place in Tel Aviv in 1938, a city ruled by British authorities trying to maintain increasingly difficult peace between the Palestinian and Jewish populations. Thomas Wilkin (Douglas Booth, looking very much like a movie star of the era in which the film takes place) has fallen for Shoshana (Irina Starshenbaum), the daughter of Dov Ber Borochov, the Zionist Labour co-founder. As the organization known as Irgun works to push the Brits out of the region through whatever violent means possible, it naturally makes the romance between a Brit and a Jew increasingly difficult. Told with the direct nature of an old-fashioned procedural, there’s a disheartening undercurrent in “Shoshana” about how conflict can destroy relationships and even individual potential for happiness. In an alternate reality, Thomas lives a happy life in Tel Aviv with Shoshana, but history and division would not allow it. There are times when “Shoshana” is almost too well-made—there’s a version of this tale that’s a little rougher around the edges and a little more passionate so as not to be so often distant and cold. However, when it does burst into violence, it reminds viewers of the cost of trying to stay neutral in an increasingly divided world, a high price in 1938 and today, too. Finally, there’s the brutal and unsparing “The Green Border,” a return to the international dramatic scene by “Europa Europa” director Agnieszka Holland after a few years directing mostly television. The veteran filmmaker turns her camera on the refugee crisis on the Polish border, approaching the human rights nightmare from various angles, including the people treated like pawns and those trying to do something about it. Her film is a truly difficult watch, but a well-crafted one in the manner in which it shifts focus, using these personal stories to paint a larger picture. I’m not quite sure it justifies its massive length of 151 minutes, but Holland’s direction is confident, and the camerawork here is consistently riveting in its balance of artistic composition and docudrama realism. This is a movie that many people probably couldn’t get through, but they probably should. In 2021, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the dictatorial leader of Belarus, did something akin to a war crime. He offered safe passage through his country to Poland, leading to a flood of refugees through the forested area, or “Green Border.” The idea, reminiscent of how some Southern Governors have treated migrants in the U.S. by forcing them onto buses headed north, was to create difficulty for European countries, which led to Poland pushing back on the incoming migrants with force. Holland starts her film alongside a group of refugees who are literally thrown back and forth over the barbed wire border, shifts to the guards who (sometimes) reluctantly enforce these orders, and then expands further to the Polish citizens and aid workers trying to help. It’s an ambitious structure that mostly works, making it clear how these kinds of top-level decisions lead to inevitable tragedy. Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk delivers some of the best work of the year with black-and-white photography that never calls attention to its artistry, almost seeming as if it’s stumbling onto its most striking imagery like a documentarian capturing something that’s really happening. The framing used by Holland and Naumiuk gives “The Green Border” an urgency that other filmmakers would have missed without being overly precious or pretentious. This is one of many stories that should be told internationally, giving Holland’s already-acclaimed film the feeling of a call to action as much as a piece of art. 

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