Andre de Toth's LAST OF THE COMANCHES (American Revival)
Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) – Wednesday, 7:30pm
LAST OF THE COMANCHES is more or less an Indians-and-cavalry remake of Zoltan Korda's 1943 escape-the-Afrika-Korps actioner SAHARA (itself another LOST PATROL variation), meaning it's about as sublimely generic as it gets. The set-up (two groups band together to fight off an enemy while also trying to hold on to a source of water in a desolate landscape) has been kneaded like dough with every iteration. One-eyed Hungarian lawyer-turned-director Andre de Toth was as unlikely a Western director as Fritz Lang, but while Lang's Westerns work because of a tension between director and material, De Toth's are the result of the comfortable success of an unlikely marriage. Here's a guy who should has no business making cowboy pictures but who feels totally at home with them. Made on the heels of his superb SPRINGFIELD RIFLE, LAST OF THE COMANCHES is an exercise (in the best, most vigorous sense) in Western action, with brawny pans in the battle scenes, a lead role by the unjustly neglected Broderick Crawford (once a big name, he eventually disappeared into the netherworld of mid-20th century TV) and some surprisingly Michael Bay-like explosions. Preceded by Friz Freleng’s 1953 Sylvester and Tweety cartoon TOM TOM TOMCAT (7 min, 16mm). (1953, 85 min, 35mm) IV
Mitchell Leisen’s SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Saturday, 7 and 9:30pm
Mitchell Leisen is so often heralded as an overlooked studio master, working primarily at Paramount during the 30s and 40s, that one has to wonder when he’ll officially be en vogue. For those looking to earn another punch on their Leisen loyalty card (right next to the ones from Chicago Film Society screenings of HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, MIDNIGHT, HOLD BACK THE DAWN, and maybe even SWING HIGH, SWING LOW already), Doc screens the latter film from a print preserved by the Library of Congress on Friday. From what I’ve seen, I’d consider this a “minor” Leisen, if there even if such a thing, though it has its merits: Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard give compelling performances as a talented trumpet player, Skid, and his lovelorn wife, Maggie, navigating their way from a modest but happy life in the Panama Canal Zone following a protracted meet cute to his rise and eventual fall as a star in a New York City nightclub. Often referred to—though a bit condescendingly I may add—as an actor’s director, Leisen generates ample chemistry between MacMurray and Lombard. The story is thin, and Leisen’s exemplary visual flair, leftover from his days as an art director and costume designer, is muted by the locales (his tropics are far from lush, and the emotional restrictions of city life serve a superfluous metaphor). But the passion between Skid and Maggie is undeniable. As Mark Rappaport wrote for a Leisen retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française in 2008, “the interactions between his stars...have an easy and very palpable sexual chemistry which radiates from the screen, suggesting that the physical attraction the characters have for each other is more than merely a given in the script. Credit the director and his relationship with his actors, rather than the script.” The film is as discordant as its title suggests, swinging high in the first half and low in the second, but it’s still a must-see for anyone seeking further insight into Leisen’s career. His is a disjointed oeuvre from which there’s pleasure to be had in piecing together his virtues rather than disparaging his blunders, and worth investigating for that reason. (1937, 92 min, 35mm Archival Print) KS
Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Saturday at 3pm and Tuesday at 6pm
Mario Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is the director’s second foray into giallo filmmaking, but its rippling influence can be see later on in the work’s of Dario Argento (especially SUSPIRIA) and American slasher films of the 1980’s. A masked figure, dressed in black and looking akin to H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, stalks and kills women of an Italian fashion house. After the police become involved, a notebook with incriminating evidence on all of the models surfaces amongst one of the victim’s belongings. Everyone remains a suspect in this whodunit, as alibis are examined and the body count continues to grow. Bava’s film is full of breathtaking imagery; an explosion of bright colors and ominous shadows paint the frames, providing ominous hiding places in which the killer could be hiding in every scene. Many sequences at the fashion house as well as at some of the characters’ homes feature standing mannequins, adding to the sense of foreboding. Bava’s extensive use of the color red not only reminds the viewer of the danger that is ever-present but also heightens the film’s themes of passion, jealousy, and violence. The film’s jazz lounge-esque score adds a smooth fluidity that compliments the onscreen actions. BLOOD AND BLACK LACE maintains a level of morbid intimacy as the murders are presented in close-up shots, with looks of terror on the victim’s face and unyielding hands used to perform the deed. It is a cornerstone film in the entire giallo pantheon. (1964, 89 min, DCP Digital) KC
Bill Watterson's DAVE MADE A MAZE (New American)
Facets Cinémathèque – Check Venue website for showtimes
A giddy and inventive low-budget satire, DAVE MADE A MAZE is that rarity: a movie that's not quite like anything we've seen before. At the same time, it's animated by a spirit that goes all the way back to Méliès. In this comedy-fantasy-adventure-horror hybrid, a woman (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) returns from a trip to find that her boyfriend, the hapless, obsessive Dave (Nick Thune), is trapped in the cardboard maze he built out of refrigerator boxes in their living room. She leads a rescue attempt, with Dave's slacker best friend (Adam Busch), an assortment of oddballs, and a documentary crew led by a condescending director (James Urbaniak) in tow. To describe too much of what they find would ruin the surprise. (I'll hint at origami swans that come to life, and a giant sex organ.) Yet anyone who's ever built a really cool fort as a child, brought to life at least in part by the imagination, will recognize the sense of wonder as they explore the maze, impressively executed through handmade practical effects and stop-motion animation. It's a deadly place: people who aren't killed by RAIDERS-style booby-traps may be eaten by the Minotaur who haunts the labyrinth. Director/co-writer Bill Watterson, an actor in his mid-forties, centers his irreverent first feature on a metaphor for the agony of creation. Dave, an artist manqué, swears the maze would be great and true and real, if only he could just finish it. His creation takes on a life he hadn't intended, becoming an organic thing feeding off the detritus of his imagination. (Thus, into the very silly mix go nods to STAR WARS, The Office, Kubrick, Cocteau, Looney Tunes, Gondry, Kaufman, the Muppets, Ray Harryhausen, Scorsese, and Lewis Carroll.) It's his folly, and it's his masterpiece—and if people have to die, well, he's sorry. This is a genuinely offbeat and funny original, but it's sense of enchantment harkens back to the magic of early cinema and even earlier attempts to bring inanimate objects to life through the power of imagination. (2017, 81 min, Digital Projection) SP
Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS (Silent German Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Thursday, 7pm
METROPOLIS is the first modern blockbuster, the big-budget big bang, but it clinches that title only owing in part to its visionary grandiosity, its awesome scale, its ribald ridiculousness. The thing that really marks METROPOLIS as the first of its kind is its oppressiveness—the mix of elation and enervation, triumph and trepidation that greets everything from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's CLEOPATRA to Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON to the "Untitled DC Comics Movie" that Warner Bros. has slotted for 2020 already. Reviewing METROPOLIS in 1927, the young Rudolf Arnheim complained that "[e]ven before its opening, the magazines have stirred us up and tired us out for so long behind the scenes of this film that we now stagger into the theater quite exhausted and apathetic." The flying cars of METROPOLIS have not yet come to fruition, and yet all the social media events of our age—trailer premieres, poster reveals, production blogs, Instagram clues, budgetary gossip, obnoxious hashtags and subtweets—descend directly from the METROPOLIS saturation marketing playbook and seem fully consistent with the film's futurism. More importantly, METROPOLIS serves as the blueprint for the film that's too big to fail—and too vulnerable to offend. It's no secret that the plot of METROPOLIS is an unadorned, incoherent mush that decries class stratification while painting the working class as dull-witted jackanapes who would accidentally drown their offspring if left to their own devices. Like today's blockbusters calibrated for an increasingly globalized audience, METROPOLIS is made for everyone and no one at the same time—it simultaneously flatters and profanes the prejudices of communists, fascists, Christian democrats, New Women, and old men. In other words, it's a mess and one we deserve more with each passing year. Nota bene: when I graduated from Doc Films in 2008, I thought I would be among the last generation of student programmers to fill out a summer calendar with dodgy 16mm prints. In those days, there were still elderly distributors hawking 16mm dupes in printed catalogs, many blissfully (or conveniently) unaware that the GATT treaty had restored the copyright to many of their public domain imports. Borrowing a 16mm print from EmGee or Biograph was almost never a good experience, but it was definitely an experience. This transaction was a living connection to a vanishing (or mostly already vanished) world of non-theatrical 16mm distribution, before VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and comprehensive studio repertory divisions made the whole thing illegible. In the case of METROPOLIS, we have a film that's been restored and reconstructed perhaps more often than any other. Giorgio Moroder's version remains the gold standard, though subsequent efforts took a more scholarly bent. Enno Patalas's decades-long quest to restore METROPOLIS resulted in the 2001 reconstruction, as well as the 2005 "study version" released on DVD. These restorations build upon previous preservations of drastically truncated editions, including such curios as the Australian release version and Paramount's American cut-down prepared by Channing Pollock. All this culminated in the 2008 discovery of a 16mm duplicate negative in Buenos Aires, which represented the most complete extant version by far. When this restoration met its public in 2010, the acclaim was immense. I dissent—not on account of the quality of the restoration but because the longest version of METROPOLIS is not necessarily the best. The vertiginous graphic energy that predominates in the shorter versions gives way to fully-rounded, tiresomely justified character motivations in the Buenos Aires version. It is the most exhaustive edition of a film that never much rewarded extended contemplation. It was immensely important to finally glimpse what audiences in the first few months of 1927 saw—but we shouldn't slight the shortened versions that audiences studied and canonized for the next eight decades either. God knows what 16mm version Doc will be screening on Thursday; God bless 'em for trying. (1927, 135 min, 16mm) KAW
Errol Morris's THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN'S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Edwin H. Land founded the Polaroid Corporation in Cambridge, MA in 1937. Biographies of Land describe an inventor so singularly driven to research that he frequently had to be reminded to eat, and employed teams of assistants working in shifts round-the-clock to keep pace. Land's compulsion to solve problems of light polarization and color constancy were tied to no higher an aim than the democratization of technology. "Grand machines for a grand purpose," Land declared in one promotional video. Fellow Cantabrigian Elsa Dorfman, a photographer whose medium is ultra-rare, large format Polaroids and the subject of Errol Morris's most recent documentary THE B-SIDE, seems a sharp contrast to Land: unassuming, affable, and compelled by her personal and professional relationships. Contrasts in demeanor aside, the inventor and artist's legacies are uncommonly linked. The 80-year-old Dorfman's earliest subjects were friends of the Grolier Poetry Bookshop near Harvard Square: Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Tate. The first two-thirds of THE B-SIDE take the form of a chronological exposition of Dorfman's life by way of her photos. As the photographer opens drawer after drawer in her archive there's an earnestness to her reactions, like greeting an old friend: "Ahhh here's Jonathan!" Dorfman exclaims as she pulls a photo of the Jonathan Richman. Dorfman's lack of guile is what makes her a great documentary subject. She struggled to connect at galleries and financed her tenuous artistic existence through retail portraiture. "Everything I did made sense," she observed, "...if you knew me." The final third of THE B-SIDE leads us to the present where, like the Polaroid enterprise itself, questions of longevity linger over Dorfman. In 2008, post-bankruptcy, Polaroid stopped manufacturing the film and chemicals she used for her ultra-rare, 20x24 camera—one of five left in the world. Efforts were made to stockpile film but eventually Dorfman chose to retire, commenting to the New York Times, "It's dwindling, and I'm dwindling." The concepts of perishability and impermanence are at the core of Morris's latest work. The documentary serves as a bittersweet contrast between the hope of the inventor Land at the outset that Polaroid will "become part of the human being; an adjunct to your memory," and the realization of the artist Dorfman at the end of a career: "If you're a photographer and you're always nailing down what's the now, you realize it doesn't matter ... the now is always racing beyond you." (2017, 76 min, DCP Digital) JS
Christopher Nolan’s DUNKRIRK (New British)
Music Box Theatre - Check Venue website for showtimes*
Christopher Nolan’s 10th feature film finds the director delving into the past to tell the story of Dunkirk, a moment during World War II in which 400,000 British and French soldiers find themselves cornered along the shore of the Strait of Dover with German forces closing in from all sides. Focusing on the extraction of the British soldiers, the film’s narrative is split into three timelines, from the perspectives of those on land, on the sea, and in the air. The most unique feature here is the differences in time dilation that each of these plot threads experiences—the time scale covering a week, a day, and an hour, respectively. Much like the structuring of Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC, these scenarios are differentiated from one another via distinct tones. Despite being a war film and covering so much material, the film is relatively light on dialogue. Instead, Nolan seeks to create impact through visually stunning detail and intimate camera work. Cameras are strapped to planes, on boats, and to cameraman in the water, creating a deeply immersive experience. As seen throughout his oeuvre, in which he’s been a proponent of on-location shooting and the use of practical effects, the vast beaches coupled with huge warships create a daunting sense of scale. This immensity also helps to create isolation; some of the characters seem but a drop of rain in a storm—an impression accentuated by the use of soft focus during long shots. Hans Zimmer’s score creates foreboding and suspense. Rising and swelling like the sea itself, the music is underlined with the tick-tock of a pocket-watch, driving home the theme of elapsing time. Drawing inspiration from films as diverse as SUNRISE and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and building on ideas explored in Nolan’s own films MEMENTO and INCEPTION, DUNKIRK immerses its audience with its complex, interweaving storylines. (2017, 106 min, 70mm) KC
*DUNKIRK also has suburban 70mm showings, and is showing in multiple locations digitally. Also note that Wednesday is the final day that DUNKIRK will be showing in 70mm; the Thursday screenings are digital.
Steven Spielberg’s HOOK (American Revival)
Gorton Community Center (400 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest, IL) – Friday, 7pm
There’s a portentous scene in Steven Spielberg’s HOOK where Peter Banning (really Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams) first encounters Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) in Neverland, desperate to save the children, his children, whom Hook had kidnapped from Wendy’s London townhouse. Hook lured Peter to Neverland in order to reclaim his power over the Great White Father who had cut off his hand, thus enticing the crocodile that haunts his psyche; the caveat in Spielberg’s imagining, however, is that Banning, having grown up and now a work-obsessed lawyer, has no memories of his fantastical origins. “Oh, come on Peter, pick up your weapon,” Hook says, sly, narrative trickery leading one to wonder how there could possibly be an hour and a half of runtime left following the storied showdown. “All right,” Peter replies, deftly pulling from his pocket a checkbook and pen instead of a sword. “How much?” This scene, reminiscent of its era, when wallets were fat and family values were an unctuous talking point, not only encapsulates the central conflict of the film, which is really one of the interior, a conflict between Peter’s older and younger self, but also serves as the perfect metaphor for both the film’s rocky inception and its even stonier reception. HOOK, a sequel of sorts to J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, surely ranks among Spielberg’s most youthful films, bravely asserting a kid’s—and even an adult’s—right to embrace childhood rather than encouraging feigned maturity, though its budget was certainly more developed—capping out at $70 million, more than $30 million over the projected budget, it was Spielberg’s most expensive production to date, and, even though sandwiched between the third installment of his INDIANA JONES trilogy and the first of several JURASSIC PARK-adjacent spectacles, it still holds a spot amongst his costliest endeavors. The bloat was evident to critics; in his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby astutely notes that “[t]o be profitable, it must be all things to as many people as possible, including kids who can identify with a 40-year-old man in a midlife crisis, and 40-year-old men in midlife crises who long to fight pirates with cardboard cutlasses.” Indeed, it’s a self-reflexive amalgamation of auteurist fixations, from childhood wonder and the trials and tribulations of fatherhood (Spielberg had wanted to make the film in 1985 but temporarily abandoned it after his son was born) to an almost transcendental fascination with displaced imagination and the frustratingly impalpable nature of world building. Its merits—of which there are many, despite what practically every critic at the time may have written—are rooted in these career throughlines. I and most everyone I know in my age group consider HOOK a childhood classic; I have only fond memories of Williams’ warm gaze, Hoffman’s Minnelli-esque villain, the whimsical multi-colored paint that replaces both food and weaponry, and, of course, chants of “Rufio! Rufio! Rufio!” (A cursory Google search reinforces these claims, a number of revisionist think pieces written by 20- and 30-something critics for the film’s 25th anniversary last year topping the results.) Adult Peter’s dilemma mirrors not just Spielberg’s, but also that of a certain milieu of creative men torn between their work and personal lives; a privileged position, to be sure, one typically afforded to them by their spouses—it’s a shame that Peter’s wife Moira, who’s also Wendy’s granddaughter, doesn’t have a bigger presence. Though problematic in nature, this dynamic is hyper-respective to the Bush Senior era, when many a family-oriented film had at its core a neglectful father and overcompensating mother. One particularly endearing aspect of the film is its sweaty realism and rough-hewn set design, though, interestingly enough, Spielberg has lamented the de facto scrappiness. “I'm a little less proud of the Neverland sequences,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2011, “because I'm uncomfortable with that highly stylized world that today, of course, I would probably have done with live-action character work inside a completely digital set. But we didn't have the technology to do it then, and my imagination only went as far as building physical sets and trying to paint trees blue and red." (Unfortunately, he says the last part like it’s a bad thing.) Also compelling are the performances: Williams is reliably charismatic, but it’s Hoffman who really steals the show. His Hook represents, albeit entertainingly, a frightening alternative to Peter’s eventual epiphany: old, alone (save Smee) and still haunted by the past. Spielberg once us again reminds us that, yes, we do have to grow up, but it doesn’t have to be so bad. (1991, 142 min, Video Projection – Unconfirmed Format) KC
*DUNKIRK also has suburban 70mm showings, and is showing in multiple locations digitally.
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
South Side Projections and the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 S. Cornell Ave.) present Lightworks: Sky David’s Experimental Animation (44 min total, Digital Projection) on Friday at 8pm. This program of 1970s and 80s work by Sky David (formerly Dennis Pies) includes ACE OF LIGHT, WOLF, TUNNEL, SURFACE ABSTRACTION, SONOMA, LUMA NOCTURNA, SKY HEART, PIN SCREEN, HAND PIECE, THE GREEN CHILD, and A HARD PASSAGE. Free admission.
At Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) this week: A Retrospective of the Chicago Anarchist Film Festival is on Sunday at 8pm; and Unearthed Cinema, the Esoteric and Arcane Films of Irving Gamboa, a program of works by local filmmaker Gamboa, is on Wednesday at 8pm. Free admission.
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) screens Alison O’Daniel’s 2016 film THE TUBA THIEVES (52 min, Digital Projection) on Friday at 8pm, with O’Daniel in person.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Steven Okazaki's 2015 documentary MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI (80 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 7 and 9pm.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Nicole Garcia’s 2016 French/Belgian/Canadian film FROM THE LAND OF THE MOON (120 min, DCP Digital) plays for a week; Mario Bava’s 1966 Italian film KILL, BABY…KILL! (85 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 4:45pm and Monday at 6pm; and the Black Harvest Film Festival continues, with the shorts programs “Love African American Style” and “Black History—Lost and Found” and features THE BEST THING!, 90 MINUTES OF THE FEVER, THE RHYTHM IN BLUE, BRONX GOTHIC, and FAST BREAK: THE LEGENDARY JOHN MCCLENDON.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Joshua Z Weinstein’s 2017 film MENASHE (82 min, DCP Digital) continues; Henry Koster’s 1950 film HARVEY (104 min, 35mm) is on Saturday and Sunday at 11:30am; and Marco Brambilla’s 1993 film DEMOLITION MAN (115 min, 35mm) and Jeff Baena’s 2017 film THE LITTLE HOURS (90 min, DCP Digital) are both on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
Also at Facets Cinémathèque this week: Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer’s 2016 Spanish/US documentary SANTOALLA (82 min, Video Projection) plays for a week-long run.
At the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Joe Johnston’s 1995 film JUMANJI (104 min, DCP Digital) is on Wednesday at 1 and 7:30pm. Free admission.
At the Chicago Cultural Center this week: On Saturday at 2pm, there will be a screening of excerpts from Ken Burns’ 2017 television documentary THE VIETNAM WAR, along with a discussion; and Cinema/Chicago presents a screening of Cristiano Bortone’s 2016 Italian/Chinese/Belgium film COFFEE (110 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
Sinema Obscura at Township (2200 N. California Ave.) presents Marc Wilkinson’s 2017 film HONEYCRISP (Unconfirmed Running Time, Video Projection), with Wilkinson in person, on Monday at 7pm. Free admission.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
At the Art Institute of Chicago, British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen’s video installation work END CREDITS (2012-ongoing), which is currently comprised on nearly 13-hours of footage and 19-hours of soundtrack, is on view until October 1.
The Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing Galleries) has Dara Birnbaum’s 1979 two-channel video KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (6 min) currently on view.
CINE-LIST: August 17 - August 24, 2017
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, Scott Pfeiffer, James Stroble, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky