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Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE remains one of the transcendent experiences of my life, like the first time I saw the Grand Canyon. Like TREE, SONG TO SONG is film aspiring to the state of poetry, or music. That's the vision, I think. I'm still fascinated by the way Malick "popularizes" (if that's the word I want) avant-garde techniques. I doubt he cares if we're frustrated. I can't think of another director outside of Godard whose later films are so controversial. (Inside Godard, it's too dark to see.) When I saw THE NEW WORLD, which rather piqued my imagination, at the theater years ago, I thought the audience was going to throw things at the screen.

Why did SONG often rub me the wrong way? Watching his Austin film is a bit like looking at someone else's high(and low)light reels. It's about the intersecting love affairs of artists and moguls played by Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, Roona Mara, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe, and others. (As Roger Ebert helpfully pointed out in his last published review, on TO THE WONDER, "Although he uses established stars, Malick employs them in the sense that the French director Robert Bresson intended when he called actors 'models.'") 

Malick's metaphysical voiceovers, springing from his deep reading in philosophy and theology, always walked a dizzying tightrope, reaching for the profound, teetering over the banal. Here, he loses his balance. We're listening to these men and women's inner voices, the voice of God-in-us. Yet even when the returns are diminished, the piety tilting toward the pretentious, there are still those moments of grace or beauty. And they're just transcendent, and they redeem, at least for me, much of the stuff that's hard to swallow. I wish there were more of them here. Emmanuel Lubezki's intuitive Steadicam cinematography remains a beauty to behold. I was moved whenever Patti Smith was onscreen. Malick's use of both Bob Dylan's and Elmore James's versions of Rollin N Tumblin is electric.

This movie is even less about about Austin music than Robert Altman's NASHVILLE was about country music. (Rather, in both cases these artists are making a form of jazz.) In a perceptive review in Pitchfork, Judy Berman wrote, "Terrence Malick’s great obsession is earthly transcendence. That he would make a movie about music but neglect to capture the way it helps us detach from our everyday preoccupations, and make contact with some force greater than ourselves, just seems like a missed opportunity." Still, musicians knock about, often playing themselves, from John Lydon to Iggy Pop. The wiser, older creative rebels instruct the young--and those older creative rebels include Malick, except he's doing it in the form of the sometimes moralistic voiceovers he places in his characters' mouths, where they rue their weightless lives. He imagines a SXSW stage where Val Kilmer hilariously takes a chainsaw to an amp. As for the younger musicians who appear, I especially liked Lykke Li, who seems to be playing herself. (Gosling asks her, what's it like to be a girl? and she replies, I feel like I have special powers.)

To paraphrase Ebert, Malick's landscape is the terrain of the body as much as of nature. Much of this movie aspires to be about sexuality, and some of it's even kind of sexy. Much of it's improvised, as well--the actors risk embarrassment, and I admire that. We rarely get to see them working without a net like this. Malick shoots hours and hours of footage and then culls it, but there's still a lot of frolicking that's less than riveting. Some of it feels like acting-school exercises, albeit carried out at a high level. Still, it can lead to some startling moments of candor: I recall Mara breaking in Gosling's arms, with a stark naked look of pain on her tear-streamed face.

While Malick loves Murnau, as Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his review of THE THIN RED LINE (which I find helpful in thinking about SONG), "Malick's intimate acquaintance with the aesthetics of silent cinema reaches well past Murnau. The punctuating shots of nature in the midst of combat--a wounded bird, a riddled leaf, a hill of waving grass--are pure silent-movie syntax...The poetic and philosophical internal monologues of Malick's various soldiers, often paired with a sustained and soulful close-up of the character, are the structural equivalent of intertitles in silent films of the teens and 20s." The relatively slight SONG doesn't have anything like the power of TREE, yet it's still a restless river where beauty bumps up against banality, as if Malick's working on a new language to express his ideas about the eternal and the temporary, and love. It will be interesting to see how it looks in time.  

"...its ideas are about things you can see or feel, not things you can say." -- Roger Ebert on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 


20th Chicago European Union Film Festival (March 3-31, 2017), Report No. 4 (AUSTERLITZ and THE SON OF JOSEPH)

Chicago's own version of the Grand Tour, The 20th European Union Film Festival, is moving into its final week. There's still a lot to see. Try these two films; for the full slate, check out

Sergei Loznitsa's AUSTERLITZ (Germany, 2016)

This fascinating, challenging, maybe slightly unfair documentary is composed of lengthy black-and-white shots, often beautifully composed and containing multiple planes and frames, taken by a static, semi-candid camera recording thundering hordes of international tourists tromping through the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. (From time to time, a tourist will notice the camera and peer straight back at us). Most don't behave brainlessly, though some do. Rather, they most often look tired and bored, slumping along, dutifully half-listening to their tour guide's spiel (these come in myriad languages), listlessly snapping their camera all the while.

Here, where these horrors took place, people should be thinking and feeling something. Yet too often they don't seem to be--they don't even seem to be seeing. (The film's title comes from the W.G. Sebald novel about history and memory, and how they can be lost). Sergei Loznitsa is investigating the way visitors can be turned into objects passing down an assembly line--the process of group dehumanization. In an interview with Christopher Heron in The Seventh Art, he argued that a visit to the camps should be a serious, private experience.

The film's own attitude towards the tourists is interesting to contemplate. In interviews, Loznitsa doesn't seem to care much for their "ignorant faces," but his camera doesn't judge: it simply observes. We can't help thinking some of these people would happily buy a "Belsen Was a Gas" t-shirt, if such were marketed.

In 2016 Karolyn and I visited Dachau. We went with a group, not always the way we like to do things, for precisely the reason that the group can interfere with a personal experience. Still, our guide and group were thoughtful, and we were able to have one. We could've ended up before Loznita's lens, ourselves, and so I will say that his film complicates my answer to his provocative implied question--why do tourists want to see gas chambers at all? I would've said: so we don't forget, and so it never happens again. Yet he puts his finger on the irony of the group visit--while his camera doesn't always show what's going on inside a person, too many of these people appear to be having the very opposite of a shattering experience. Karolyn and I made a strict rule for our behavior vis-a-vis photos: nothing posed. Loznitsa finds a perfect image for the banality of the concentration-camp-as-tourist attraction: a family with a selfie stick poses in front of the famous Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) door, the same way they might at Disneyland. (We took pictures of the door, too, but absenting ourselves). They're just having a nice family trip. And I wanted to throttle them. 

Sunday, March 26th at 3:15pm and Wednesday, March 29th at 6pm

What a pleasure is Eugène Green's THE SON OF JOSEPH (France, 2016)--a film of many and unique joys. Check out my review for CINE-FILE Chicago, here, under the "European Union Film Festival" section. It plays Friday, March 24th at 6pm and Wednesday, March 29th at 6pm. 



20th Chicago European Union Film Festival (March 3-31, 2017), Report No. 3 (STEFAN ZWEIG: FAREWELL TO EUROPE, THE ORNITHOLOGIST, and THE OLIVE TREE)

Some of the best shows in town can be found at the Gene Siskel Film Center, as we enter the third week of the Chicago European Union Film Festival. Here are three good bets. For the full slate, go to
Maria Schrader's STEFAN ZWEIG: FAREWELL TO EUROPE (Austria/Germany, 2016)
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (Josef Hader) was hugely popular in his day, and his work was grist for multiple movie treasures: Max Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948); Robert Siodmak's The Burning Secret (1933); Roberto Rosselini's Fear (1954); all the way up to Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which was inspired by his memoir, “The World of Yesterday." It's interesting to think about what Maria Schrader's stimulating, talky, sometimes beautiful biopic leaves out and what it leaves in. There's nothing of Zweig's time in fin-de-siècle Vienna, or the traumas he witnessed in World War I. As the title implies, it is about the Jewish Zweig's peripatetic years in exile in the 30s and 40s. He settled for a time in New York, where this remarried man was welcomed, movingly, into the home of his first wife, played by the great Barbara Sukowa of Berlin Alexanderplatz. His last stop was his beloved Petrópolis in Brazil. Schrader begins and closes her film with a scene-encompassing extended shot. The first lingers on the pageantry of servants putting the finishing touches on a beautiful dining room table. As the elegant, white-columned room fills with guests, Zweig expresses to the gala his hopes for a world based on peaceful coexistence. The last shows the discovery of the bodies of Zweig and his second wife (Aenne Schwarz) in their Petrópolis bedroom, where, running out of hope, they famously committed suicide in 1942. An early scene, in which a man pressures Zweig to speak out for the Jews dying back in Europe, rings false, in that biopic-y way that virtually of of Jackie rang false. These are not real people talking to each other, but vessels for a screenwriter talking to the audience. In subsequent scenes, we feel we are overhearing real conversations--the movie lets us read between the lines, showing rather than telling of the deep sadness underneath all that talk of ideas and moment. (106 min, DCP digital widescreen)
Friday, March 17th at 8pm and Saturday, March 18th at 4pm
João Pedro Rodrigues's THE ORNITHOLOGIST (Portugal/France, 2016)
Now this you've got to see. What a strange, scandalous, surreal experience. A birdwatcher kayaks in a Portuguese valley with a superabundance of beautiful rare birds. After he gets swept under the rapids and almost dies, he is rescued by two female Chinese travelers who've lost their way while doing a pilgrimage to Padua. They prove to be as insane as they are giggly. That's just the beginning. On his quest, he has dreamlike experiences which parallel the life of St. Anthony, but as cagily as the events of "Ulysses" transpose that hero's journey. From moment to moment, this feels like a horror film or a western; João Pedro Rodrigues spoke in Film Comment about the influence of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher on his work. It's a scary, comic picaresque. Like Pasolini, Rodrigues's approach to Biblical themes, symbols, and mythology is devout and sacrilegious at the same time. Here, the saints are gay, and they have sexual equipment. If you like the dangerous visions of Alain Guiraudie or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I think you'll dig this. On a personal note, I've been to Padua and I've seen St. Anthony's tomb. He's the saint of lost things; whatever my own faith or absence thereof, it was deeply moving to observe pilgrims lay their hands and rest their heads on his tomb.    
(118 min, DCP digital widescreen)
Saturday, March 18th at 4pm and Thursday, March 23rd at 6pm
For CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about Icíar Bollaín's recommended and touching THE OLIVE TREE. It's playing Sunday, March 19th at 5:15pm and Monday, March 20th at 8pm. It's sentimental, yes, but sentimental is not always a pejorative term for me, and this one got me good. You may read my write-up by going here and scrolling down to the "European Union Film Festival" section.  

20th Chicago European Union Film Festival (March 3-31, 2017), Report No. 2 (SLACK BAY and THE UNKNOWN GIRL)

What's on this week at the 20th Chicago European Union Film Festival? For the full slate, head to the Gene Siskel Film Center's website at Here are two not to miss.  

Bruno Dumont's SLACK BAY (France, 2016) (Saturday, March 11th at 4pm and Thursday, March 16th at 6pm)

If "dark" and "sick" aren't pejorative adjectives for you, then you'll likely have a blast with this mad, bracing satire. Bruno Dumont's welcome turn to comedy continues in the deadpan vein of LI'L QUINQUIN, but ratcheting up the slapstick. Thus, the usual Dumont horrors are here, but in the service of laughs. An uncouth family living hand-to-mouth on the northern coast of France circa 1910 picks up extra change by carrying rich vacationers across the bay. Among the brood is jug-eared young "Ma Loute" (Brandon Lavieville) a shy, taciturn, seething lad. They collide with an astounding family of oblivious, inbred upperclass twits on their annual holiday, who consider them quite picturesque, with a kind of condescending, touristic admiration. Alas, the bay is plagued by the mysterious disappearances of holidayers. (Word of warning: "Who wants more foot?" is a line of dialogue here.) Not to worry: two extremely silly inspectors are on the case--the intrepid Machin and Malfoy (portrayed, respectively, by Didier Després, as bloated as Monty Python's Mr. Creosote, and Cyril Rigaux). Meanwhile, Ma Loute enters into an inter-class romance with androgynous Billie (Raph), who self-identifies as a cross-dressing girl, though her loopy mother seems uncertain. She's played by Juliette Binoche, having a tremendous amount of fun. (I knew she could do anything, but I didn't know she could work this broad). I won't soon forget Fabrice Luchini as Binoche's dimwitted, hunchbacked brother, or Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as his equally clueless wife. Cineastes will enjoy spotting homages to Fellini aplenty amid Dumont's typically extraordinary faces and landscapes. (122 min, DCP Digital widescreen) 

For this week's CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about the Dardenne Brothers new film THE UNKNOWN GIRL, playing Sunday, March 12th at 3pm and Wednesday, March 15th at 6pm. An honest movie, it is also (at least by my lights) more of a roller coaster than most big budget entertainments. My writeup is here under the "European Union Film Festival" section.  


20th Chicago European Union Film Festival (March 3-31, 2017), Report No. 1 (THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV, PERSONAL SHOPPER, and JUST DROP DEAD!)  

The month of March is always sunny for Chicago's cinephiles, in that it brings the Gene Siskel Film Center's signature Chicago European Union Film Festival. For this, its 20th season, the fest offers 62 features hand-curated by ace programmers Barbara Scharres and Martin Rubin. Exploring Europe is one of my very favorite things to do. If the same is true for you, grab your passport and hie for the Siskel. (For more info, go to I'll be bringing you communiqués throughout the month; here's the first. 
Over at CINE-FILE Chicago, I wrote about Albert Serra's bold and beautiful THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (France, 2016), playing Sunday, March 5th at 3pm. To check out my capsule review, go here and scroll down, down, down to the "European Union Film Festival" section.
Olivier Assayas' PERSONAL SHOPPER (France/Germany, 2016)
The thematic scope of this haunting, fascinating film encompasses grief, fear, forbidden desire, shame, technology, fame, suspense films, and the brother-sister bond. Kristen Stewart gives a furtive, conflicted performance as the titular Paris-based personal shopper. She and her recently-deceased twin brother were mediums: whoever died first was to send the other a sign. In her brother's tenebrous house, she finds a portal into the spirt world. An anonymous texting partner suddenly appears, becoming both her incubus and confidante. When asked what scares her, she texts: being alone...and horror movies. Soon, she's living one. Assayas's parts may not add up to a sum, here. I've seen this twice, and I'm still left with much to mull over. It's a moving, riddling thriller and an Antonioni-esque metaphysical mystery: expertly choreographed, subtly erotic, and scary. Stewart makes her acting choices like a good short-story writer chooses words.
(105 min, DCP Digital) 
Saturday, March 4th at 4pm and Wednesday, March 8th at 6pm 
Zoltán Kamondi's JUST DROP DEAD! (Hungary, 2016)
Here's a playful, razzle-dazzle trifle, a crime comedy in a flavor I associate fondly with CEUFF: the Hungarian romp. A newly-widowed middle-aged woman confronts her husband's mistress, and meets the estranged, punk-rock teenager he fathered. Turns out their guy, a conductor on the high-speed trains out of Budapest, was also a smuggler: soon, the three women are in big trouble with colorful gangsters. Bedecked with cinematic bells and whistles, the film is colorful itself, and fast. Much of it even takes place in the characters' imaginations and their tricky memories of the communist era. It was the last work of Zoltán Kamondi, who died last March at the age of 55. He had fun with the camera. If you've had your fill of realism, this is a nice change of pace. See it if you have extra time after taking in the festival's essential sights.
(105 min, DCP Digital widescreen)
Saturday, March 4th at 4pm and Tuesday, March 7th at 8:15pm


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