This Week in Art House Cinema: American Pastoral, Certain Women and more

3CR-Steve at the Movies-new There was a lot going on in film this week. We previewed the second week of the Chicago International Film Festival. We took a look at the new Jack Reacher movie and found it immensely disappointing. Also, a free screening of Poltergeist is happening at Northerly Island Park tonight. But that’s not all that that happened this week in film. Let’s take a look at some of the other interesting movies that are debuting this weekend. Photograph courtesy of IFC Films Photograph courtesy of IFC Films

Certain Women

Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) rarely delivers her messages with a bullhorn. She weaves them into her stories subtly, with dignity, so that the only way they will reveal themselves to us is if we take the time and have the patience to unravel them from the story (in this case, stories) being told. In her Sundance hit Certain Women, Reichardt has adapted a series of short stories from Maile Meloy, that have no connection in the written form but have a loose one in the film version. She examines quiet but pivotal moments in the lives of four women living in the Montana plains in various capacities. Laura Dern plays Laura Wells, a lawyer sleeping with a married man (James Le Gros) and representing a slightly brain-damaged but mostly harmless man named Fuller (Jared Harris). Laura has given up a bit on her life moving forward; she seems to enjoy her work but there is still a level of sexism at play in her small firm. Things get interesting when Fuller kicks off a hostage situation, which may sound a bit scary, but it had me giggling throughout. In another segment, Reichardt regular Michelle Williams plays Gina Lewis, who is in the midst of building her dream house, which is causing some amount of grief in her family dynamic, which includes an ungrateful teen daughter and a tolerable husband. The third and easily most interesting section of the film belongs to two women: young lawyer Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart) and her would-be night class student Jamie (relative newcomer Lily Gladstone, who steals every scene she’s in), a ranch hand by day with no life or friends to speak of. Beth is traveling two hours each way, twice a week to teach a class on education law to a group of teacher who only seem to care about what they can get away with legally with unruly students. Jamie wanders into the class and attempt to form a friendship with Beth. Gladstone is such a natural that you can see on her face the desperation in Jamie to form a connection with someone, anyone. If the film has one unifying theme that binds these characters it’s the overwhelming power of rejection. Or perhaps more specifically, each of these women experience a falling out of favor with someone whose opinion of them means something, or it used to. Reichardt uses the expansive, empty Northwestern landscape to powerful effect in Certain Women, and by the time all is said and done, you can’t help but feel both a little more lonely and a little more of a kindred spirit with these characters. The director is a master at drawing out magnificent performances from her actors, ones that are quite different from what they might be better known. As many of her films do, Certain Women requires a modicum of patience as it doesn’t rush through it’s stories. It may be a cliche, but it’s about the journey for Reichardt, although it think the individual payoffs are well worth the time as well. This is one of her best, and one of the most intriguing and engrossing works of the year. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.   Photograph courtesy of Lionsgate Photograph courtesy of Lionsgate

American Pastoral

The more I think about this adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth, the more I realize two things: American Pastoral is probably a devastating read about how society’s social and political upheaval of the 1960s also destroyed families; and that I really disliked this film. Making it all sting just a tiny bit more, the film marks the directing debut of its star, Ewan McGregor (working from a choppy screenplay from John Romano), who stars as Seymour Levov (aka “Swede” to his high school pals), a one-time star athlete who entered into his family’s glove-manufacturing business and married former beauty queen Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). Told through flashbacks by Swede’s brother to his high school friend Nathan (David Strathairn) at a class reunion, the story of this perfect American family begins to show signs of strain when the couple’s much-loved daughter Merry (Dakota Fanning) begins getting mixed up with anti-war radicals while she’s still in high school. At first, Merry is simply rebelling, so they send her to a psychiatrist (Molly Parker), but after a destructive act in their small town seems to lead back to her, the girl vanishes and Swede is determined to locate Merry and bring her back into the family fold. Whether or not Swede finds Merry or not isn’t really the point of American Pastoral. The film is more interesting in tracking the often-violent changes going on in America through the lens of this small New Jersey town. Swede’s glove factory employs a great number of African-American workers (including his right-hand woman, played by Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black”), so it is spared during local rioting. Swede is strung along by a young woman, who says she’s a friend of and fellow radical with Merry, and when father and daughter finally are reunited, it shakes Swede to the core to such a degree that his world (and marriage) is never the same. While McGregor certainly has an eye for scenery and capturing the picturesque nature of smalltown America, the film feels like it’s meandering and without an actual purpose for much of its run. By the time we get to the reunion, things have gotten so bizarre in Merry’s life that it’s almost difficult not to laugh at her current set of beliefs and convictions. I liked Connelly’s take on Dawn, as a woman determined to rise above her town status as little more than a pretty face, but her appearances in the film are so sporadic, her work feels shortchanged. Fanning as the angry young woman is a terrific change of pace for her, but the minute her actions catch up to her convictions, she vanishes from the film, missing an opportunity to see her play ferocious. The more sweeping issues with the film version of American Pastoral is that it doesn’t make the transition to the screen without a great deal of compromise and the loss of internal motivations for the characters. I never got a sense of what drove Swede, other than the desire to please his comically overbearing father (Peter Riegert). Even when Merry vanishes, he simply sets a course to find her, without getting a sense of what he’s feeling or why he’s so determined to locate a girl who will land right in jail the minute she surfaces. There came a point where I simply lost interest in the fates of these characters, and it seems rather critical to the success of the film that we care what happens to these lost souls. It’s like a balloon with a slow leak; it’s more of a slow descent than an outright crash and burn, but either way, you’re left feeling low. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.  


If you follow the behind-the-scenes world of documentary film then the name Kirsten Johnson should be familiar to you as an accomplished cinematographer of dozens of films for more than 25 years, working with the likes of Michael Moore, Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering—even on Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour. She’s dabbled in directing her own documentary as well, but Cameraperson in an entirely different creature that acts more as a memoir of her travels (spanning Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria, and Brooklyn). Using what appears to be outtakes of films she shot over her careers, mixed with home movies of her family members (including her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother), Johnson has compiled a remarkable document of her journeys to shoot war-torn nations, victims of unspeakable war crimes, and more placid and peaceful person moments. She’s edited these moments in an almost random way, but what emerges is something quite incredible—an account of how damn hard her job is and how impossible it can be at times to be objective and unbiased. In nearly every sequence, we hear Johnson’s voice behind the camera—commenting, questioning, empathizing even crying—and perhaps that was the criteria for selecting these moments. Sometimes, her injections are quite amusing, but what emerges is a sense of what type of filmmaker and human being Johnson really is. She’s building a type of memoir using examples of herself, rather than simply telling us what kind of person and filmmaker she is. She’s crafting her story right alongside the story of others. Cameraperson says nothing explicitly about objectivity or ethical dilemmas that go along with her type of reporting and recording, but it's woven into the fabric of the non-narrative that you can’t help but contemplate long after the film is done. At the very least, Johnson humanizes the traditional image of a journalist simply observing without interfering, and she makes us realize that there is a thinking, feeling person behind the lens seeing the same drama unfold that we are. The biggest difference being, she has to observe it in a composed, in-focus shot. This is a film I won’t soon forget, and a big part of me wants other notable documentary cinematographers to make movies just like it, telling their stories in a similar fashion. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Director Kirsten Johnson will take part in a post-screening Q&A on Saturday, October 22 at the Music Box Theatre following the 2pm show.   Image courtesy of Production I.G Image courtesy of Production I.G

Miss Hokusai

Leaning more into the adult world of Japanese animation, director Keichi Hara’s Miss Hokusai is a stunning work from anime studio Production I.G, based on a manga cult hit about O-Ei, a young woman artist living in 1814 Edo (which became Tokyo) living with her famous artist father, whom she’d occasionally assist, but never for credit. The pair specialize in renderings of dragons, demons and other supernatural creatures as well as mildly graphic erotica. What the film does so well is get inside the mind of its artistic characters who not only sketch and paint, but also dream these beings. Both the nightmare world and real one offer the filmmakers ample opportunity to use of variety of artistic styles and atmospheres, with jaw-dropping results. O-Ei is the more responsible of the pair, especially when you consider that she has a blind younger sister that the father largely ignores because he’s afraid of people with any type of ailments. The father and daughter regularly travel through the city and observe the world around them (from ornate bridges to high-end brothels) for inspiration. There’s nothing inherently tawdry about Miss Hokusai’s content, but its themes and struggles are indisputably aimed at grown ups. There are a handful of unforgettable sequences, including one of the sisters walking through the city, which is covered in new-fallen snow, as well as a haunting sequences concerning a concubine who is plagued by evil spirits while she sleeps. The movie beautifully blends original, imaginative animation with traditional Japanese art and architecture designs. It’s also a tremendously bittersweet family drama about a fractured family looking for someone to make the first move to broken pieces back together. A truly lovely work, Miss Hokusai is unbridled artistry at its most powerful and elegant, telling a story that is not afraid to tackle tough, dark issues. This is one of the finest animation experiences I’ve had all year. The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Screenings alternate between playing in Japanese with English subtitles and playing in a dubbed English. Check the Siskel Film Center for showtimes and language presentation.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.