Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is about the distractions we wrap ourselves in. We become absorbed in the acquisition of intellect, surrender to a higher power, or worship our commitment to another person and fall in love. But in Schrader’s world, these once magical methods of filling that hollow feeling of desolation can only subsist for so long, before our internal gratitude battery reaches 0% and we’re asked to confront clinical truths that leave us stranded, feeling like a fraud, and incapable of fitting in anywhere, leaving every hour to become the darkest hour. That’s more or less the narrative of every Paul Schrader film since he wrote Taxi Driver over four decades ago. His success has varied wildly since but I have no hesitation in calling First Reformed one of Schrader’s best films, in what frequently registers as a summation of the writer/director’s preoccupations and anxieties.Read More
In the world of writer/director Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, men and women thin away into an oblivion of commodified technology: a woman’s self-driving car shields away any image of the outside world, a sleek tank of a carriage that careens through the highways of a not-too-distant future. It’s both familiar and innovative, as Whannell’s future is one defined by ameliorations on the modern. But it’s Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) who’s our quote unquote transcendentalist, our HDT on Walden Pond. We first see Grey working on his American muscle car, toiling away amid grease and sweat. Whannell makes it agonizingly clear that Grey is a capital M Man, suiting the character with a penchant for retrophilia that speaks to a higher mode of thinking that values traditional values over that of our modern age. Oh boy. The braggart gets his comeuppance, as Whannell navigates a sometimes intriguing, mostly slipshod narrative on technological dependence that summons the memory of better, more accomplished films of this type. Still, you could do worse than a film that models itself after Robocop.Read More
Last year I was invited to join the rank and file of the Chicago Film Critics Association. As a Chicago-based quote unquote film critic, it is literally the highest distinction of its kind. I mean that mostly as a compliment. Or at least I try to think of it as such; I won’t deny that I get a certain measure of pride in seeing my name along a litany of other critics that I admire like Angelica Jade Bastien, Adam Kempenaar, Scott Tobias, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. It’s my self-effacing nature to wonder how I figure within the group. But for now, I’ll enjoy the perks and privileges that I frankly never imagined would have been afforded to me.
I’ve covered the Chicago Critics Film Festival as an audience member, member of the press, and now, in its sixth year, as a fellow critic. Over the past five years, the festival has screened the likes of James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, and Kogonada’s Columbus. These films, by filmmakers of limited stroke and cache, were major personal discoveries and provided Chicago audiences with an early glimpse into some of the more notable titles to come out of Tribeca, Sundance, and other American film festivals.
This year’s programming includes some especially intriguing titles like Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel, and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. However, my most highly anticipated title is Paul Schrader’s new film, First Reformed, with the filmmaker in attendance for a post-Q&A session.
Below you’ll find links to select reviews of titles, updated throughout the duration of the festival. For schedule and ticketing information, refer to the Music Box website here.
Exasperated and days away from giving birth to her third child, Marlo (Charlize Theron) quickly sighs and mutters that she wants to kill herself. It’s one of those conversational accouterments; those examples of daily hyperbole that we tend to succumb to as we punctuate our conversations. She says this somewhat under her breath, loud/quiet enough to leave doubt in what we heard. But Marlo’s in the company of her ineffectual husband Drew (Ron Livingston) and their two children. It’s her eight-year-old daughter that first lifts her head from whatever screen she’s occupying herself with, her attention snapped by the comment, and looking to clarify exactly what was said. It’s a scene that’s played for laughs as we expectantly see Drew try to mitigate his daughter’s concerns. Marlo, we gather, isn’t kidding.Read More
Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) is frequently observed running through the rural backlands of Portland, Oregon. The sights here are specific yet ubiquitous, in what frequently reminded me of the unsavory outskirts of Chicago’s suburbs. Suburbs like Addison or Elmhurst, those isolating enclaves that seem to wear a mask of authenticity, emulating what developers assume to be cozy and familiar sights of urban life, though ultimately exposing themselves as a hollow shell that bares no resemblance to the real thing. A boy like Charley - living with his father in a rundown, roach-infested home - grows restless in a community like this, and yearns for something, no matter how harsh, to distract his mind from living within the narrowest of means. Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is full of woe, a film that observes the disenfranchised through the lens of a teenage boy. It’s a film that categorically aligns itself with the likes of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, though projects a more mythic, indescribably diaphanous quality.Read More
John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place lingers on some intriguing questions of temporality, asking viewers to discern what sense there is in continuing with the present when the future has been catalogued. The future of A Quiet Place is stripped of impulse, a world robbed of a dissenting voice, echoes of pleasure, or the uproar of personal victories. In what will undoubtedly be cited as a critical breakthrough for Krasinski, A Quiet Place punishes its characters for broadcasting even the slightest of whispers, where the film tacitly corresponds noise, and really, resistance, with death. Such a commentary isn’t necessarily realized as abstraction either. Instead, there’s a literal monster that’s beckoned by the slightest tumult. But it’s in the implication, particularly given the narrative direction of where A Quiet Place goes, that is notably inspired: where modern political discourse finds marginalized voices brutally muzzled by omnipresent figures, silence can sometimes be your only refuge. Yet, the greatest challenge I found in appreciating A Quiet Place stems from its theoretically intriguing conceits melded with, shall we say, an inelegant and utilitarian formal design. The ideas here sing; its execution mumbles.Read More
For the past few months I’ve survived a seismic shift to my day-to-day routine. My old regimen had been undisturbed and calcified over the span of five years, unchallenging and ingrained in my muscles. It was pleasant, sure, but it was pleasant in the way that familiar things tend to be comforting. “Familiar” and “pleasant” tend to isolate themselves within air quotes when experiencing an especially unmanageable dose of existential despair. But now my psyche is bombarded by a new set of patterns and routines that are admittedly far outside my comfort zone. Sometimes it’s unendurable. Sometimes it’s refreshing. Sometimes I need to negotiate if what I’m experiencing is the former or the latter. Banal a segue way as it may be, but here it goes: Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane so elementally understands the staggering sense of despair that comes with trying to find a foothold in trying to become a brand new person. It’s not obvious or overt about it either. This is an intelligent film made by a clever filmmaker and anchored by a persuasive lead performance. It may just be (it is) my personal experience empathizing as I observed the film’s main character endure a series of cataclysmic, life-altering events, fecklessly staving off insanity. But it’s a film that I needed at the moment and it delivered in an unexpected and outright startling way.Read More
Pardon the jumble of plugs but they are a necessary obstacle to overcome: Hong Sang-soo’s Claire’s Camera (Highly Recommended) screens this Thursday, March 22nd at the Alliance Française de Chicago as part of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema and the Festival de la Francophonie 2018. This all-caps FREE screening requests its attendees to register here.
Given how infrequent Hong Sang-soo’s films tend to screen in Chicago (On the Beach at Night Alone briefly screened during last October’s Chicago International Film Festival, while other recent Hong films like Yourself and Yours and The Day After remain in nebulous distribution), this Midwestern premiere of Claire’s Camera is compulsory viewing for any cinephile with a fleeting interest in Hong Sang-soo or its lead actors, Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee.Read More
Nick (Adam Horovitz) would have you believe that his nest of comfort, a den cluttered by archival material and binders of his deceased father-in-law’s correspondences, provides him with all the contentment he needs. His hermetic life of walking to work, entering his tiny office, and getting to archive in solitude, is satisfying enough – he’s uncovered a permanent contract on a feeling of complete and utter fulfillment. Or so that’s what he tells himself, his wife Alyssa (Chloë Sevigny), and his sister-in-law/boss Gwen (Mary-Louise Parker). Whatever ghosts linger in his past, Nick’s present ascetic lifestyle provides him with enough meaning. That’s what makes the opening scene of Alex Ross Perry’s new film, Golden Exits, so captivating: this man who cherishes monotony finds his world turned inside out with the arrival of a new assistant in Naomi (Emily Browning). That NYC groove proves to be a little more rigorous than expected.Read More
Michael Haneke, cinema’s preeminent nihilist, used to be important to me. During my formative years as a cinephile, it was his films that provoked me: anger in the case of Funny Games, bewilderment with Code Unknown, or stunned admiration with Cache, The Piano Teacher, and Time of the Wolf. His films are full of misery and are obscenely provocative, but my antennae has frequently tuned in to his transmission. For as much as Haneke’s a brilliant clinical formalist, he’s above all a gifted cynic. And when you’re a student in your early twenties balancing work, school, and everything in between, his brand of pessimism can become dangerously comforting. But the returns on such disenchanted examinations have depreciated considerably overtime, in what’s a reflection of my own changing sensibility. Yet with his new film, Happy End, he tickles a familiar funny bone that reminded me of those college years when I first discovered the filmmaker. Yes, Happy End is a familiar sadistic exercise that doesn’t impress a moment of sincerity. That doesn’t matter. It’s glib and pathologically disinterested in winning your favor. I dug it.Read More