Sunset Boulevard

(USA 1950)

Stars are ageless, aren’t they? I’ve known about Sunset Boulevard my whole life– who hasn’t? I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. Delightfully campy, everything about it is ridiculous: the soap opera story, the narration, the sets– that crazy Addams Family mansion and tacky leopard-lined car, oh my!– the overacting, the facial expressions, and the diction. So off the charts. And of course the cast of crackpot characters– not just Joan Crawford, I mean Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) but Joe Gillis (William Holden), Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), Max (Erich Von Stroheim), even the repo men who take their job way too seriously (Larry J. Blake and Charles Dayton). I didn’t know Cecil B. DeMille played himself. The drama of it all!

Hearing famous lines that have become part of everyday vernacular– “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” and “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup” in particular– made me giddy. Nonetheless, I doubt I could sit through Sunset Boulevard again; it’s just not that great a film. But it was perfect for a flight to L.A.

In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed Sunset Boulevard “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Home via iTunes) C+

I Am Michael

(USA 2015)

In the late Nineties and early 2000s, I picked up XY Magazine whenever I saw it on the news rack, usually at Borders, Tower Records, or Unabridged. It was a sort of gay culture Sassy meets Star Hits—I’m showing my age here, I know. Unbeknownst to me, XY contributor Michael Glatze went from “out” in San Francisco to poster boy for Evangelical conversion therapy in a matter of years. This film chronicles his seemingly bizarre change of heart.

I Am Michael has the makings of a winner: a complicated and interesting true story, a star cast, and timely subject matter. Sadly, it’s a big disappointment. James Franco is just okay as Glatze—never mind that his real-life sexual ambiguity rings tired these days. However true to life the events in the film may be, so many gay cliches—circuit parties, techno music, three-ways, drugs, fake blonde hair—are thrown in that it feels flat, hollow, and insulting after awhile. Worse, cowriter/director Justin Kelly gives short, superficial treatment to what drives Glatze’s metamorphosis; he provides a basic explanation but fails to get inside the guy’s head in any meaningful way. On top of all that, the film has the cheap look of a made-for-television movie. Surely, a gay can do better than this.

On the positive side, Zachary Quinto as Glatze’s suffering partner, Bennet, is great; he expertly builds his character’s frustration and weariness with Glatze’s constant angst and Bible diving while remaining tender when he needs to (for example, as he does when Glatze calls him out of the blue). Emma Roberts as Rebekah, the girl Glatze meets at Bible school and eventually marries, is also great; she plays a “nice girl” really well, and she makes us feel her confused uneasiness with his past. Both are memorable high points in a forgettable film.

(AMC River East) D

Chicago International Film Festival

The Amazing Nina Simone

(USA 2015)

Amazing, indeed– both her talent and her life. This thorough documentary follows singer Nina Simone from her humble beginnings in a tiny North Carolina mountain town where she was Eunice Wayman through her death following a stroke in 2003. A piano prodigy early on thanks to her father– who her brother tells us is where her talent came from– Wayman’s dream of being America’s first black female classical concert pianist was dashed when the Curtis Institute rejected her application. She turned to nightclubs, changed her name to Nina Simone so her mother wouldn’t find out where she was working, and the rest as they say is history.

Director Jeff L. Lieberman touches on a lot of interesting stuff from every period of her life: Simone’s first marriage to a cute but lazy French sponge, her bisexuality, her association with Langston Hughes and MLK, her attitude toward the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and her mental instability that worsened as she got older. He rounds it out with interviews of those who knew her, music and civil rights history, and academic commentary.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

A Childhood [Une enfance]

(France 2015)

Jimmy (Alexi Mathieu) is about 12 years old and has it rough: he’s already flunked a grade twice and is older than everyone in his class; socially awkward, he calls very few of his peers friends; he lives in a shitty state row house in a shitty neighborhood in a small industrial town in France; and he’s forced into the role of caretaker of his younger half-brother, Kevin (Jules Gauzelin), because his party girl mother, ironically named Pris (Angelica Sarre), is way too caught up in her no-good junkie drug-dealing douchebag boyfriend, Duke (Pierre Deladonchamps). Duke, who lives with them, is the antithesis of a positive role model: he throws parties all the time (even on school nights), sends the boys on a drug run, makes Jimmy stand guard on a copper heist, and literally pimps out Pris. Jimmy, already wise beyond his years, is growing up– he’s hitting puberty for fuck’s sake– and his growing assertiveness riles Duke. A series of events and a change in circumstances takes Jimmy to a crossroads where he may be rid of the asshole for good.

I recall reading somewhere that this screening of A Childhood was its American premiere. As a story, I liked this one. A lot. Both boys play their parts excellently, injecting pathos with every little episode they endure; I defy anyone not to smile at their hijinks or frown at their disdain for the distracting ever-present entourage of losers parading in and out of their home. Their bond is evident even in their bickering. Mathieu is especially tender when he portrays Jimmy caring for what he loves– letting Kevin sleep with him after a nightmare, holding his mother’s hand through heroin withdrawal, tending to a stray cat he hides from Duke in the back yard. More a character study of Jimmy than a true statement, some minor characters seemed superfluous and about 20 minutes could have been cut. The music was lame: some pseudo folky guy with an acoustic guitar singing blase sensitive English songs suitable for a douche commercial. Nonetheless, A Childhood is engrossing and satisfying despite its flaws.

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

Pauline [La patota]

(Argentina/Brazil 2015)

I left Paulina perplexed. It starts off well: smart lawyer girl (Dolores Fonzi) unfulfilled with her budding cateer in law decides to leave Buenos Aires to teach in a remote underdeveloped village– much to the dismay of her elitist father (Oscar Martinez), a judge. Not only does she face culture shock and adjustment pains, but she is raped due to a case of mistaken identity. Paulina, however– as she tells her incredulous boyfriend (Esteban Lamothe)– must deal with it her way.

Paulina contains some great heated exchanges between her and her father, and Fonzi and Martinez both approach their roles with skill and gusto. That said, the story is broken up and not entirely chronological, which makes it confusing and a bit hard to follow. What really lost me was what happens after the rape; Paulina’s reaction goes beyond idealistic to weird and unbelieveable– I’ll leave it at that. Unfortunately, the audience was RUDE and DISTRACTING, compounding my frustrations. The whole experience warranted a great big “whatever.” I missed Project Runway for this?

(AMC River East) C

Chicago International Film Festival

The Homecoming [Blóðberg]

(Iceland 2015)

Despite an unexpected turn to more serious ground later, The Homecoming is a fun film overall. Empty nesters Gunnar Rafnsson (Hilmar Jónsson) and his wife Herdis (Harpa Arnardóttir) have great names and lead a comfortable but predictable upper middle class life. When their son, David (Hilmir Jensson), announces he is marrying his new girlfriend, Sunna (Þórunn Arna Kristjánsdóttir), who it turns out is also pregnant with their child, a couple of explosive family secrets surface and topple the relationship dynamics of all involved.

After a spate of heavy films, I was relieved to see a lighter one. The Homecoming is an interesting, well-paced story with a few surprising plot twists. It has wonderfully uncomfortable and hilarious scenes– particularly a dinner where the parents of the kids meet– and Sunna’s grandmother (Margrét Guðmundsdóttir) confronting Gunnar after a singing performance is a real treat. In the end, The Homecoming shows that we all can get past others’ transgressions if we really want to.

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

45 Years

(USA/UK 2015)

45 Years— my lifetime, and about how long it felt like it took to get through this. On the eve of a huge party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter informing him that the body of a past lover from before he met his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) has been recovered after 50 years– she fell off a cliff while they were vacationing in Switzerland. He is absorbed by this news, which does not sit well with Kate.

45 Years isn’t bad, but it is tedious; I found myself growing more and more restless as it went on. A lot happens during the course of the film, but it’s mostly mental– thoughts, feelings, and struggles within the characters. Sure, these all manifest themselves physically, but mostly in a quiet way. I wanted more action here. The big thrill for me was recognizing Geraldine James from Little Britain– she played the mother in the “Bitty” skit.

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

The Club [El club]

(Chile 2015)

Pablo Larrain’s The Club is intense. Fr. Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a Jesuit counselor for the Vatican, is on assignment investigating an incident that occurs at a home for wayward clergy tucked away in the hills of La Boca, a fishing town on the coast of Chile. The home, where four scandalized priests live, has many rules– no cell phones, no showers longer than five minutes, no self-pleasuring– and is run by sweet but cunning Sr. Monica (Antonia Zegers). Animosity quickly develops between methodical Fr. Garcia and the others during the course of his investigation, complicated by unstable local day worker Sandokan (Roberto Farias) and his odd habit of showing up outside the home and loudly recounting in disturbingly graphic detail the sexual abuse inflicted upon him as a child by another priest, Fr. Lazcano (Jose Soza).

Moody, heavy, and intricate, The Club tackles not just the Vatican’s handling of scandal but survival in a culture of denial, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciling one’s faith within the confines of an imperfect human institution. The acting is flawless– Alonso and Alfredo Castro are particularly great– and the cast works as an ensemble. An excellent allegory of dogs as God, explained by Alonso himself after the screening, and Sandokan’s rants– a weird mix of medical terminology and porn– will haunt me for a long time.

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival


(Iran 2015)

Single mother Nahid (Sareh Bayat) is kind of a mess. She works a menial job as a typist. She can’t manage money to save her life. Her prepubescent son, Amir Reza (Milad Hasan Pour) is getting out of control. Her no good gambling drug addict ex-husband, Ahmad (Navid Mohammad Zadeh) keeps professing his love two years after their divorce. Mas’ood (Pejman Bazeghi), whom she dates on the sly, is a man of means and wants to marry her. However, her divorce decree grants Ahmad full custody of Amir Reza if she remarries. To top it all off, she’s developing a nasty case of some upper extremity affliction: carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, deQuervain’s syndrome, whatever. She’s over it all.

With echoes of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Nahid might sound like it has all the makings of a comedy. It’s not– though it does have a sense of humor. Introducing me to the concept of “temporary marriage,” it explores cultural stigma in a way I haven’t seen before. Ahmad is vice and Mas’ood is virtue, neither of which particularly appeals to Nahid. Bayat plays her as sympathetic yet flawed– she’s no heroine, and we don’t know for sure whether she’s any better off at the end than she was at the beginning of this film. But one thing is clear: she wants to live on her own terms in a society that doesn’t make that easy for her to do so. Nahid also shows Iran how I don’t picture it: cold, wet, and grey.

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

The Red Spider [Czerwony pajak]

(Poland 2015)

It’s 1967 and a hammer-weilding serial killer is loose on the streets of Krakow. 19-year-old military diver Karol Kremer (Filip Plawiak) puts two and two together after he finds a bloody body at a carnival and spots the killer, a middleaged veterinarian (Adam Woronowicz), leaving the scene. His obsession gives way to a strange relationship that can’t end well. Grim and peculiar, The Red Spider unfolds deliberately and slowly– at times painfully so. But it pays off in the end.

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival