Samuel Fuller’s FORTY GUNS (American Revival)
Although Samuel Fuller’s started his career making Westerns, he is best remembered for his gritty crime and war films. In one of his best Westerns, FORTY GUNS, Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) is a wealthy cattle herder that commandingly oversees the town of Tombstone, Arizona, thanks in part to the titular hired hands she employs. Counted among these men is her brother, Brockie, a drunk with a penchant for destruction and the de facto leader of the crew when it comes to mischief when his sister is not around. When Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers come into town to arrest one of Jessica’s posse for mail robbery, a series of events unfold which throws Tombstone into chaos, as the showdown between lawman and outlaws forces Jessica into choosing sides: protecting her own or aiding a newfound love. FORTY GUNS is loosely based upon the events surrounding Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, and one of its standout qualities is its striking cinematography. Fuller returns to his use of CinemaScope as seen in HELL OR HIGH WATER and HOUSE OF BAMBOO, and makes stunning use of the widescreen. The additional space within the frame does not go wasted, as seen in long tracking shots down dusty city streets, and a scene of a wild horseback chase set during a tornado. Juxtaposed against this is Fuller’s use of closeups to show the emotional complexities of his characters. At its core, FORTY GUNS is a feminist film. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Jessica commands the screen and her presence is made all the more intimidating by her steely delivery and all black attire. Preceded by Tex Avery’s 1945 cartoon WILD AND WOOLFY (8 min, 16mm). (1957, 80 min, 35mm) KC
Hao Wu’s PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE (New Documentary)
Facets Cinémathèque – Check Venue website for showtimes
I can think of no better film released this year that touches on how we live now and portends, even more fully so, how we might live in the future than Hao Wu’s extraordinary documentary PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF DESIRE. Forget “Black Mirror,” the popular dystopian Netflix anthology series to which Wu’s documentary has been compared; this is real life, and it’s way more terrifying—and, admittedly, more gruesomely fascinating—than anything on TV. Wu, a Chinese-American documentarian whose earlier works examine topics seemingly respective to his country of origin but comprehensible vis-à-vis the world at large, here examines the concept of live streaming, specifically on the Chinese social-media platform YY, where content producers known as “hosts” appear on streaming video to talk, sing, and simply exist before a captivated online audience. Compelling these hosts is, of course, money, as viewers shower them with cash and gifts for the purpose of gaining access and impressing other fans. Wu focuses on two hosts: Shen Man, a young, attractive woman who’s forgone a career in nursing to make hundreds of thousands of dollars singing via livestream, supporting her family with these newfound earnings, and Big Li, a self-deprecating, so-called comedian whose status as a daosi—slang for loser—endears him to similarly positioned fans and bombastic bigwigs alike, though his homelife (specifically his marriage to Shen Man’s host-trainer) is strained. Intercut between these profiles are segments featuring Chinese men and women who, be they daosi making only several hundred dollars a month or billionaires whose income streams are nebulous at best, criminal at worst, worship these stars and the platform that enables them to interact with their corollaries on the opposite end of the economic stratum. “Big bosses” and management agencies also come into the mix, committing tens of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to the hosts, thus encouraging viewers to spend their own money. The bosses and agencies get a cut of the stars’ earnings, but ultimately it’s YY that nets the most, driving home the adage that the house—or, in this case, the corporation—always wins. Framing all this is YY’s yearly competition, a bonafide popularity contest, which can make or break a host, their fans and benefactors adoring or abandoning them with commensurate fervency. Big Li has a breakdown after not winning one year, and Shen Man’s winsomely apathetic nature is highlighted in similar scenes; one of Big Li’s disciples, a young, impoverished migrant worker, is shown crying when his favorite host doesn’t take the prize, while Shen Man is subject to more loathsome criticism, particularly from her male benefactors, surrounding her alleged behavior on and off the platform. Considering all this, why, then, does anyone do it? Certainly no one seems happy. In perhaps the most illuminating scene, which, surprisingly, is toward the beginning (Wu makes no attempt to construct a mystery of his thematic intent—we’re not meant to discover as much as we are to dwell in the futility), one of Shen Man’s male admirers says, “I’ve fantasized about her before. But reality sucks. I’ve learned to accept reality. Now I view her as my goddess.” If this isn’t an enduring catechism, what is? Reality sucks, so turn to something intangible, if not entirely artificial, be it religion or something else, to endure. Wu’s filmmaking artfully emphasizes this existential dilemma, merging his subjects’ reality with the platform’s inherent artificiality; in a way, it’s also an interesting commentary on the state of media, much of which is now integrated with or just flat-out exists in these ersatz spaces. In capturing this distorted reality and even adhering to its logic (the graphics in the film mimic those of the platform, with subjects represented via their avatars and the internal economic exchanges depicted via the roses and lollipops that YY uses as currency), Wu seems to be saying, “Let’s not pretend we’re capturing ‘reality’ anymore,” at least as we previously experienced it—rather, he’s making a film within the confines of a new reality, the non-interview scenes in it largely comprised of people looking at their phones and computer screens, into a world that doesn’t exist in their physical space. Haunting is the stark disparity between scenes “in” the platform and those outside it; in the platform, everything is vibrant and garrulous, whereas real life is fluorescent lighting and conspicuous silence. Wu’s editing elucidates this distinction, starkly cutting back and forth between real life and its digital corollary—overall, however, the film reveals that the difference between the two is ever-darkening, less a black mirror that reflects back at us and more a curtain that’s been lifted. Director Wu in person at the 6:30 and 9pm Friday shows. (2018, 95 min, Video Projection) KS
Valeska Grisebach’s WESTERN (New German/Bulgarian/Austrian)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Saturday, 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday, 4:30pm
Reading interviews with Valeska Grisebach about WESTERN, one might think it’s merely a formal and thematic exercise. In conversations with various publications, the German director discusses the influence of the eponymous genre (she regularly cites WINCHESTER ‘73 and THE GUNFIGHTER among her favorites) and its concomitant themes, as well her primary narrative idea—revolving around a fine-spun xenophobia—and an unconstrained shooting style that involved working with something of a treatment rather than a traditional script. It sounds almost like a film school project: consider your favorite genre (check), apply your “spin” to it (check), then do your thing, make your mark, show us what makes you different than all those other hacks (check, check, and check). I often think about this with regards to films that boast some kind of gimmick, narrative (recently, A QUIET PLACE and THE RIDER) or technical (not as recently, BIRDMAN), how concept often overpowers purpose, thus emitting into the world a rather neat product that’s nonetheless just that—a product of conceit rather than imagination. WESTERN, more than the sum of its parts, rises above such limitations, merging all the best possible outcomes of the aforementioned confines, veering them away from film-school-neat (or, in this case, Berlin School-neat) territory. Griesbach’s story follows a group of German construction workers—all played by nonprofessional actors, another common gimmick oft mistaken for idiosyncrasy, or vice versa—who travel to Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric plant, where they’re met with trepidation and even outright hostility owing to a fraught relationship between the two countries—one a formidable Western power, the other a Balkan nation—during World War II. I won’t pretend to understand the political nuances, respective or intertwined, but thankfully Grisebach’s film is easy to follow without an in-depth knowledge of either. As with Maren Ade’s TONI ERDMANN, however, it’s safe to assume that Europe’s tenuous economic state plays its part. (Incidentally, Ade served as a producer on the film.) WESTERN focuses mainly on one of the men, Meinhard (played by non-actor Meinhard Neumann, whose got a certain something you don’t see every day), and his relationships with both his crew—specifically one man, the de facto leader, Vincent, whose motivations are as tenebrous as his Fassbinderian style—and the townspeople. Its evocation of the titular genre is so subtle that it’s easy to forget at times, even when especially obvious, as in the case of the beautiful white horse that Meinhard adopts. That it’s at once a singular concept, an homage to an entire genre, and yet another entry into a recent trend of European cinema that’s taking on the economic crisis is both its allure and its ‘gimmick’—its originality in spite of confessed intentions otherwise is so impressive as to seem contrived, but alas, that’s not the case. Also notable is Bernhard Keller’s nighttime cinematography; much like the film itself, the effect is both natural and marked, a sure sign of its potency. (2017, 119 min, DCP Digital) KS
Robert Downey, Sr.’s GREASER’S PALACE (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Sunday, 5:45pm and Tuesday, 6pm
The release of GREASER’S PALACE occasioned many unsupportive reviews, but it’s proven itself to be built to last, a relic of a time when you could get some Medici or other to lay down seven figures to make a decidedly underground joint that hadn’t a chance in hell of making its money back. It’s a mix of a Christ parable and the good-man-rides-into-bad-Western town trope; Jesus, in this case, is a zoot-suited wanderer named Jessy, who is one who can’t quite believe his newfound powers to raise the dead, powers that only get in the way of his traveling to Jerusalem to pursue a career as an actor-singer-dancer. (Jessy’s played by the fine actor Allan Arbus, who one remembers fondly from his rueful, funny turns as Dr. Sidney Freedman on M*A*S*H; he’s light on his feet here, putting barbs into his dialogue proper to the occasion, and is a good hook on which to hang a narrative that spins off in wild directions.) He resurrects the son of a cruel town boss and hijinks, as they say, ensue: primitive jailings, nude dance numbers, an omnipresent mariachi band, and blunt, violent fates somehow more ignominious than crucifixion. GREASER’S PALACE is funny, but it elicits bleak laughter. It’s got a mean streak a mile wide, though it doesn’t skimp on a sort of disquieting lyricism. It winds up with an Antonioni rip that 14-year-old me called, if memory serves correctly, “totally boss,” soon followed by an ending that gets into your brain in an insect fashion. The score is by Jack Nitzsche (one wonders if Paul Thomas Anderson, a Downey adherent, and Michael Penn were fans of the score, as a stretch of it is redolent of Penn’s end credits score for BOOGIE NIGHTS), and stars Albert Henderson, Luana Anders, Toni Basil, the designer Pablo Ferro, Hervé Villechaize, and a very young, and very cute, Robert Downey, Jr. (1972, 91 min, 35 mm archival print) JG
Edgar G. Ulmer's DETOUR (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
In recent years Chicago's Edgar G. Ulmer cultists have made exuberant claims for this chameleon auteur's late career efforts, such as THE CAVERN and THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN. Without discounting those works, it's DETOUR that remains Ulmer's classic, with its total congruence between aesthetic means and thematic ends—a nihilistic wonder shot in six days about a pair of cold-blooded meshuganas who should be lucky to live so long. (Another irony: the latter-day revival of this backwash noir, thoroughly and inevitably ignored in its day, has made it one hot commodity; an original one-sheet poster for DETOUR would probably sell today for an amount in excess of the film's entire production budget.) There are other noirs with sharper dialogue and more glistening photography, but none as elemental: a man, a woman, a car, a rear-projected desert, and a single street lamp standing in for the whole of urban America. God created the world in six days and Ulmer made DETOUR in the same time frame—a fact that Ulmer would never be so modest as to call a coincidence. (1945, 68 min, DCP Digital) KAW
Robert Altman’s GOSFORD PARK (British Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Sunday, 7pm
Robert Altman reworks THE RULES OF THE GAME and Agatha Christie mysteries as though he were a bebop musician covering old jazz standards. Watching it, you recognize the melody (that is, the narrative set-up and general developments), but find endless surprises in the riffs and structural innovation. The film takes place at a British country estate in 1932 over the course of a weekend retreat. During the weekend, the lord of the estate is murdered; given the number of guests and servants (the film has about 30 major speaking roles), not to mention all the free-floating resentment, the list of suspects is mighty long. Altman doesn’t emphasize the murder mystery, but rather weaves it into larger concerns about class relations, role-playing, sex, and power. Weave is the operative word here—the film suggests a tapestry in the way Altman intercuts between different scenes and even different shots (most of the movie was filmed with two cameras simultaneously), constantly shifting between different characters’ points of view. “[The film’s] smartness is clearly enhanced by a ground rule that governs the presentation,” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in the Chicago Reader in 2002. “As the action moves ‘above stairs’ and ‘below stairs,’ no guest is ever seen unless a servant is also around. Since the visiting servants, those who’ve come along with the weekend guests, are identified in the downstairs quarters by the names of their employers—a ploy that makes it easier for everyone, including the audience, to identify them—the ground rule both inverts and balances this routine eliding of identities, showing us how the servants know considerably more about what’s happening than anyone else.” Indeed much of the fun of GOSFORD PARK lies in how the servants show off their knowingness when their employers aren’t around; there’s a wonderful cattiness to their interactions, and the actors realize them with much vivaciousness. All of the film’s dialogue was allegedly improvised, but credited screenwriter Julian Fellowes won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay all the same. Some may have scoffed at this recognition, but the award was well-deserved. Fellowes’ thorough research into British society in the early 30s provided Altman and the cast with a lot to go off of—in contrast to some of Altman’s other large-ensemble pictures, there’s a solid foundation here. The various observations, stray details, and wisecracks (many of which are mixed to sound like they were overhead) cohere magnificently. The star-studded cast includes Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, and Richard E. Grant. (2001, 137 min, DCP Digital) BS
Allen Killian-Moore's DESOLATION SLOW (New Experimental)
Elastic Arts (3429 W. Diversey Ave., #208) — Friday, 8pm
Composed of imagery of urban and environmental decay interspersed with interview footage of subject Joe Ortega, a formerly homeless Salt Lake City man, DESOLATION SLOW uses montage to reflect on conditions of dereliction both socioeconomic and more broadly ecological. Using a variety of cameras and film stock including 8mm, 35mm, and digital, director Allen Killian-Moore presents us with impressions–-some static, some moving in ghostly suspension–-of a Utah simultaneously majestic in its mountainous grandeur and squalid in the decrepitude that dots its urban spaces. Killian-Moore is particularly drawn to boarded-up storefronts, graffitied walls, and abandoned shopping carts: he’ll often linger on them before moving out to the open planes and salt flats around Salt Lake City, not only to create contrasts between despoiled metropolitan spaces and relatively untouched rural ones, but to find unexpected continuities that set into relief the myriad, macro-level effects of human neglect on our planet. A shot of a rotting pelican’s corpse, seemingly the result of polluted water, is especially notable; the salt pans themselves, meanwhile, are examples of a normal, natural occurrence that nevertheless suggest, when linked with Killian-Moore’s other images, the processes of erosion that catalyze the rest of the film. DESOLATION SLOW uses its signifiers of a distressed planet to build a mournful tapestry–-filled out by a score from Chicago avant-garde musician Bill Tucker that oscillates between melancholy bells and discordant electric guitar–-but it’s one that is crucially grounded in the adversity and hard-fought dignity of Ortega. Speaking of his past wrestling with alcoholism and ignominious life on the streets, Ortega provides the human face for homelessness that the film, in its tendencies toward poetic montages of landscapes, doesn’t much account for. We can’t help but feel for his exclusion. In the film’s best edit, Killian-Moore cuts from Ortega to a sheep stranded from its herd, hobbling toward the back as the other animals move on without it. It’s a juxtaposition that evinces the associative power of even the simplest film grammar.Killian-Moore in person. (2018, 62 min, Digital Projection) JL
Pernille Fischer Christensen’s BECOMING ASTRID (New Swedish/Danish)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) is a national hero in her native land, with her image gracing the 20-kronor bill and a memorial award established by the Swedish government in her name that grants the world’s largest cash prize (5 million kronor) for children’s literature. Of course, her fame extends beyond Sweden, as her various children’s book series, especially the Pippi Longstocking books, have sold 165 million books and counting worldwide. BECOMING ASTRID faithfully reproduces her experiences growing up near Vimmerby, in the southern part of Sweden, from around the age of 16 until about the age of 27. The film details her affair with her boss (Henrik Rafaelsen), a newspaper editor, her move to Stockholm upon discovering herself pregnant, and the nearly three years she left her son in foster care while her lover tried to secure a divorce. The film is beautifully shot by Erik Molberg Hansen, and Alba August is beyond good in her portrayal of Astrid, managing to find a great many moods in what was a fraught period in Lindgren’s life. The film doesn’t really shed light on Lindgren as a writer because it gives us so little of her girlhood and nothing of her writing. The periodic voiceovers by young readers of her work as an elderly Lindgren (Maria Fahl-Vikander, Alicia Vikander’s mother), introduced to us at the beginning of the film, reads her fan mail don’t really connect to the incidents Christensen shows, but because Lindgren based many of her stories on her life, her reading public won’t see much lacking. For the rest of us, the film may seem nonspecific, but it is still a joy to watch as a skillfully crafted film with great emotional resonance due to its uniformly fine cast. (2018, 124 min, DCP Digital) MF
Alison Davis Wood’s GOLD STAR MOTHERS: PILGRIMAGE OF REMEMBRANCE (Documentary Revival)
Beverly Arts Center (2407 W. 111th St.) — Saturday, 1pm
In 1933, John Ford’s PILGRIMAGE premiered. The film depicts a possessive mother who is so keen to keep her son from marrying and leaving her that she pushes him into the World War I draft. He is killed, and she finds personal redemption by visiting him during one of the pilgrimages the U.S. government arranged for so-called “gold star mothers” to visit their sons’ graves in Europe. The mother, played with ferocious cruelty by Henrietta Crosman, is an example of how the image of gold star mothers—those who lost a child on the field of battle—had changed from the Victorian ideal of nurturing backbone of the nation to leeches on the taxpayers’ backs. The fascinating history of these women and their place in the history of the U.S. entry into World War I and beyond is told in GOLD STAR MOTHERS: PILGRIMAGE OF REMEMBRANCE. Produced for the University of Illinois’ public television station WILL-TV by Alison Davis Wood, the documentary details how an isolationist nation, especially its mothers, came to support American entry into one of the most bloody, pointless wars in history and how their legacy remains with us today. Although women’s suffrage in the United States was likely inevitable, President Herbert Hoover hastened its adoption by promising influential suffragettes to back passage in exchange for their support for entering the war. A shift in propaganda decried mothers who wanted to keep their sons out of the conflict as selfish and unpatriotic, and eventually, more than 4 million Americans went overseas to fight. The documentary personalizes the events through the stories of two fallen soldiers from the time they enlisted to the time their mothers visited their graves in France. There is good information about why American soldiers were buried in Europe and how a decade-long crusade to earmark federal funds to send the mothers and some wives to the overseas cemeteries became a public relations nightmare and source of public resentment as the Great Depression blanketed the country during the years of the pilgrimages (1930-33). The unequal treatment of African-American soldiers and mothers, and the protests that resulted, get a much-needed airing as well. The film relies on talking heads, vintage photos, newsreel footage, music of the time, and voiceover narration to tell the story—one that persists as gold star mothers continue to be minted with each new conflict. (2004, 57 min, Digital Projection) MF
Screens with Stanley Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY (1957, 88 min, Digital Projection) as part of the WW1 Film Festival, commemorating the centennial of the end of the First World War.
Oz Scott’s FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE / WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF (American Revival)
Bru Chicago (1562 N. Milwaukee) — Friday, 7pm
From its humble beginnings in a Berkeley, California, bar in 1974, to its transfer from one Off-Broadway theatre to another, and finally, to its 1976 debut on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, African-American poet, playwright, and author Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf gathered the strength of a hurricane and quickly stepped into the canon of essential feminist and African-American literature. Oz Scott, now a prolific television director, helmed the Broadway production of this startling “choreopoem” and was tapped to direct the American Playhouse telefilm production, thus ensuring that Shange’s singular achievement would have a reach beyond the four walls of a playhouse. Shange appears at the very beginning of the film, talking, singing, and dancing with her infant daughter about the legacy “colored” girls and women share and pass down to one another. The film segues into the first of 20 poems that depict moments in the lives of African-American women, though women of any ethnicity will be able to relate to a lot of them. Love is the predominant theme, but abortion, domestic abuse, and infidelity pair with dreams come true, mythic strength, and sisterhood in giving a rounded look at the feminine experience. Alfre Woodard was the most recognizable and experienced of the actors, and she gets a real showcase in “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” strutting like a preacher as she recognizes her intrinsic value and rescues it from the careless hands of her lover. Lynn Whitfield, in one of her first roles, is mesmerizing in “one.” Deliberately, serenely seductive, she coolly draws a new man into her bed each night, only to dismiss him in the morning and cry herself to sleep after his departure. Each poem is a fully realized scene shot in realistic settings with a host of actors to flesh out the drama, including men who occasionally voice the words that the women normally speak onstage. Opening up the play in this way particularizes the poetry, but does not diminish the common experience as voiced in one poem as “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical / dilemma / i haven’t conquered yet.” A discussion led by event organizer and filmmaker Nesha Logan follows the screening. (1982, 78 min, Digital Projection) MF
Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Friday, 3:30pm, Saturday, 3pm, and Thursday, 6pm
For many—including Wilder himself—this was the director's finest hour, the film in which all the elements converged with grace, sass, and a tinge of tragic inevitability. It was inspired by a line that Wilder wrote in his notebook sometime in the 1940s and couldn't forget: "Movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers." By the time the film was made (during the so-called "New Permissiveness" of the early 60s), the two lovers had multiplied into several men and countless mistresses and the warmth of the bed had turned musty. The guy, however, retained all the bittersweet sympathy of that initial premise. As incarnated by Jack Lemmon (in the most tolerable performance of his career), C.C. Baxter is the ultimate schlemiel, a resigned bachelor who lends his apartment to his insurance company superiors because he can't imagine any alternative to advancing in a job that kills him. Shirley MacLaine plays the disabused mistress who turns out to be the girl of his dreams, one of the great creations of the movies: her Fran Kubelik is a woman who seems ideal even in her faults—youthful, spontaneous, naive, sexy, resilient: exactly the type who could humanize an office drone like Baxter. The romance between them is so affecting (to say nothing of the dialogue, which pops as only Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's writing can) that it's easy to overlook what a superior piece of filmmaking THE APARTMENT is. Wilder remains underrated as a visual artist; and here, working in sparkling black-and-white 'Scope, he creates some remarkable effects, such as the unforgettable loneliness of the apartment itself and the modernist nightmare of the insurance company office (an image borrowed from King Vidor's THE CROWD), where rows of desks seem to extend into infinity. Wilder also employs small objects with an imaginative economy worth of Hitchcock. As he explained in Cameron Crowe's book-length interview Conversations with Wilder: "When Baxter sees himself in [Fran's broken compact] mirror, he adds up two and two. He gave it to the president of the insurance company [Fred MacMurray], the big shot at the office, now he knows what we know. And we see it in his face in the broken mirror. That was a very elegant way of pointing it out. Better than a third person telling him about the affair—that we did not want to do. This was better. This gave us everything, in one shot." (1960, 125 min, DCP Digital) BS
Luchino Visconti's THE LEOPARD (Italian Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 7pm, Sunday, 2pm, and Wednesday, 6:30pm
The most beloved of Luchino Visconti's films, THE LEOPARD, screens in a new 4K transfer and, while this is not the recent celluloid restoration, it should still make for stunning viewing, as Visconti remains one of cinema's most immersive chroniclers of past eras. His exquisite mise-en-scene (aided here by voluptuous Technirama, Technicolor's in-house version of CinemaScope) never fails to suggest living, breathing worlds; and his fluid camerawork, a major influence on both Michael Cimino and Olivier Assayas, creates the unique, sweet-and-sour flavor of nostalgia seen at an impossible distance. The film is an epic about an aristocratic family's final period of prominence; it takes place during the 19th century revolution that would come to remake Italy entirely. Burt Lancaster, in what he considered his finest performance, plays the family's patriarch, a tragic hero who must learn to cede his political authority in order to adapt for the coming era. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review of THE LEOPARD clearly agreed with Lancaster. He wrote, "An actor who always brought a certain formality to his work, who made his own way as an independent before that was fashionable, he embodies the prince as a man who has a great love for a way of life he understands must come to an end." This transition is dramatized in the film's audacious final third, which alone makes for crucial big-screen viewing. To quote Ebert again: "The film ends with a ballroom sequence lasting 45 minutes... Critic Dave Kehr called it "one of the most moving meditations on individual mortality in the history of cinema.' Visconti, Lancaster and Rotunno collaborate to resolve all of the themes of the movie in this long sequence in which almost none of the dialogue involves what is really happening. The ball is a last glorious celebration of the dying age; Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests, and in their faces, we see a history that cannot be acted, only embodied. The orchestra plays Verdi. The young people dance on and on, and the older people watch carefully and gauge the futures market in romances and liaisons." (1963, 186 min, DCP Digital) BS
WHITE/WONDERFUL Double Feature
Michael Curtiz's WHITE CHRISTMAS (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Various Dates December 7-24 – Check Venue website for showtimes
Critics agree that Mark Sandrich's HOLIDAY INN (1942), the first musical comedy to feature Bing Crosby, an inn, and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," is a better film than this partial remake. Yet it turns out that it's revivals of this Technicolor, VistaVision version that people look forward to this time of year. WHITE CHRISTMAS incorporates the history of its own title song, which, while it would go on to become perhaps history's largest-seller, actually seemed a flop at first. Music historians Dave Marsh and Steve Propes note, "What saved 'White Christmas' were requests made by GIs to Armed Forces Radio around the world. Soldiers away from home, many of them in the South Pacific or North Africa, uncertain of whether they'd ever again see family and friends, let alone a snowfall, responded passionately to Berlin's understated evocation of the mythic romance of Christmas Past." This history is folded into the opening scene: it's Christmas Eve, 1944, somewhere on a World War II battlefield, and Crosby sings the song to fellow troops amidst some very fake rubble, as bombs explode in the background. The movie's got Crosby and Danny Kaye as music-and-lyrics team Wallace and Davis, and Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney as sister act the Haynes. They're a treat to watch even just sitting around a railroad passenger car singing "Snow," bound for Pine Tree, Vermont, where the inn turns out to be run by ex-General Waverly (Dean Jagger). When people gather for a screening of this movie, I doubt they worry that it may not rank with Michael Curtiz's best work (CASABLANCA, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE). They come to mark the change of years together. If there's a season for nestling in the warmth of nostalgia, it's this one. Plus, there's the camp appeal of Crosby and Kaye doing "Sisters." (1954, 120 min, DCP Digital) SP
Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Various Dates December 7-24 – Check Venue website for showtimes
Like Steven Spielberg today, Frank Capra was associated more with reassuring, patriotic sentiment than with actually making movies; but just beneath the Americana, his films contain a near-schizophrenic mix of idealism and resentment. In this quality, as well as his tendency to drag charismatic heroes through grueling tests of faith, it wouldn't be a stretch to compare Capra with Lars von Trier. There's plenty to merit the comparison in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE alone: The film is a two-hour tour of an honest man's failure and bottled-up resentment, softened only intermittently by scenes of domestic contentment. Even before the nightmarish Pottersville episode (shot in foreboding shadows more reminiscent of film noir than Americana), Bedford Falls is shown as vulnerable to the plagues of recession, family dysfunction, and alcoholism. All of these weigh heavy on the soul of George Bailey, a small-town Everyman given tragic complexity by James Stewart, who considered the performance his best. Drawing on the unacknowledged rage within ordinary people he would later exploit for Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart renders Bailey as complicated as Capra himself--a child and ultimate victim of the American Dream. Ironically, it's because the film's despair feels so authentic that its iconic ending feels as cathartic as it does: After being saved from his suicide attempt (which frames the entire film, it should be noted), Stewart is returned to the simple pleasures of family and friends, made to seem a warm oasis in a great metaphysical void. (1946, 130 min, DCP Digital) BS
Jon Favreau's ELF (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre – Wednesday, 4:45 and 9pm and Thursday, 7pm
The determining factors of what make a Christmas movie a classic are ambiguous at best. Santa is obviously a common denominator in these films, while the elves usually take a supporting role to his lead. But in Jon Favreau's ELF, one of Santa's not-so-little helpers becomes the main defender against holiday cynicism. Considered a 'new' Christmas classic, it's hard to resist the earnestness of Will Ferrell's Buddy as he travels to New York City from the North Pole, where he was adopted as an elf after crawling into Santa's sack of presents in an orphanage. This might sound like an actual nightmare for most reasonable moviegoers, but Ferrell and friends pull it off. The gags are enjoyable, and the plot is equal parts cynical and hopeful, a perfect mix for those hardened by Capra and made too idealistic by LOVE, ACTUALLY. Buddy attempts to find his birth father after discovering that he, at 6'3", was not born an elf, and the holiday cheer is somewhat minimized by the surprisingly dark undertones of that plot point. In an attempt to utilize "old techniques," Favreau used forced-perspective rather than CGI to make Ferrell appear larger than his little elf friends, and several scenes feature the two-frame stop-motion animation familiar from those old school, made-for-TV holiday character movies. Only time will tell if ELF can pass the test and hold its ranks amongst the veritable classics, but for the time being it suffices as an enjoyable holiday romp. And if a person such as Buddy, who was both unwanted and even bamboozled as a child, can find happiness in the holidays, then maybe there is hope for us all. (2003, 97 min, 35mm) KS
Howard Alk’s THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON (Documentary Revival)
Black Cinema House (at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.) – Friday, 2, 5, and 7:30pm and Saturday, 1 and 4pm (Free Admission)
While many documentaries can be said to literally ‘document’ history, very few actually capture that hefty substance as it is happening. Examples that come to mind are the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin’s GIMME SHELTER and, more recently, Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR and RISK. In the former, the filmmakers caught the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter while filming the Altamont Free Concert; in the latter, Poitras depicts real-time revelations from and about Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Howard Alk’s THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON is another, one with a germane timelessness, its themes as urgent as ever. Originally intended as a more straightforward examination of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and its chairman Fred Hampton, THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON, produced by the Chicago Film Group, evolved into something much more pressing and investigative after Hampton was killed during an early-morning raid while the project was underway. It’s effective as it details both the Black Panther ideology (which includes forward-thinking social and education programs, as well as cooperation with other minority groups) and the events surrounding Hampton’s horrific death; the dichotomy created by the unfortunate circumstances is a compelling one. In this way, it was a much-needed antithesis to conservative accounts touted at the time, specifically that which appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune—to quote Howard Zinn from his seminal A People's History of the United States, "the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction…that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission." In his review of the film for the New York Times, A.H. Weiler opened with the declaration that “[h]istory is, or should be, recorded after exhaustive contemplation.” Who says? THE MURDER OF FRED HAMPTON was ahead of its time in its propinquity, reflecting history as a stimulus that demands immediate response. (Weiler eventually concedes this, but let’s consider his lede at face value anyway.) The footage of a prostrate Hampton covered in blood after being dragged off the bed he’d been sleeping in just moments before is much more affecting than the FBI reenactments, however illuminating they may be in their homiletic significance. Fred Hampton was murdered, and this film demands its viewers bear witness to that in such a way that is, sadly, just as relevant now as it was then. (1971, 88 min, Digital Projection) KS
Preston Sturges' THE LADY EVE (American Revival)
Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) – Wednesday, 1 and 7 pm (Free Admission)
Preston Sturges' THE LADY EVE may be one of the best revenge movies ever made. Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) is a beautiful con artist; Charles (Henry Fonda) is a wealthy snake enthusiast. They fall in love aboard an ocean liner, only to break up when he learns of her cardsharp predilections. She gets her revenge by posing as an English aristocrat—Lady Eve—and seducing him into (another) marriage proposal. They wed, and hilarity ensues. By the end, Jean has likewise exacted her revenge and gotten exactly what she'd wanted, leaving the audience as smitten and bewildered as Charles. Sturges' nimble direction lends itself to the narrative finesse of this befuddling romantic comedy, which, as the title suggests, is a parable of Adam and Eve, the snake and the apple, and the rest of that Biblical nonsense. But the moral lesson at its core doesn't warn against temptation. Rather, it warns against judgment and inability to forgive, though it's not beyond reproach—Jean makes her swindler self seem more appealing by having Lady Eve be something of a floozy. On one hand, it's sort of a backhanded commentary on censorship; on the other, it's odd to see such slut shaming in a film that's arguably sexier than it is humorous—and it's pretty darn funny. But I don't mean sexy like Marilyn Monroe in SOME LIKE IT HOT is sexy; I mean sexy as in ‘I can imagine them having sex,’ something I can't say about many other films. Sturges expertly balances the sensuous, screwball comedy and the straight-up slapstick that further complements the sexiness. For example, Charles can't seem to stop falling over things when in Jean/Eve's presence, which is not only humorous, but also emphasizes the strength of their attraction. Whereas Lubitsch had his touch—and Wilder his slap—writer-turned-director Sturges seems to abide by Jean's father's motto: "Let us be crooked but never common." Some of it may be crooked, but, certainly, nothing in the film is common. (1941, 94 min, DCP Digital) KS
Djibril Diop Mambéty's TOUKI BOUKI (Senegalese Revival)
Alliance Française (54 W. Chicago Ave.) - Tuesday, 6pm
TOUKI BOUKI was the 1973 feature directing debut of Djibril Diop Mambéty, the angriest and most experimental of Senegalese cinema's founding fathers (the Republic of Senegal itself was only 13 years old at the time, and a true African cinema had only emerged a decade prior with Ousmane Sembène's first film). Maybe due to Sembène's example, the greatest Senegalese films have always been distinguished by their candor. However, the opening sequence of TOUKI BOUKI, in which a peaceful scene of cattle being herded across a dusty plain is followed by unbelievably gruesome documentary footage of their slaughter on the killing floor, sets a new and brutal standard. Mambéty's nightmarish/playful "anti-realist" brashness finds its outlet in (of all things) a comedy, and one about a motorcycle-riding petty crook to boot, though everything seems to take on new and strange meanings through the bright colors and striking compositions of Georges Bracher's cinematography. (1973, 85 min, Digital Projection) IV
Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD (American Revival)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St.) - Saturday, 6pm (Free Admission)
François Truffaut characterized Elia Kazan’s A FACE IN THE CROWD as “a great and beautiful work whose importance transcends the dimension of a cinema review.” Well. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Perhaps J. Hoberman felt the same way when he chose to make a thorough examination of the film the epilogue of his book An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War? More on that later. Andy Griffith, best known for playing Atticus Finch-lite on his eponymous television show, stars as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, who’s given that nickname by Patricia Neal’s Marcia Jeffries after she discovers him in her small town jail’s drunk tank and puts him on her local radio program. Lonesome is not a particularly talented singer—rather, his talent lies in his rudimentary, if somewhat dishonest, philosophical ramblings, which catapult him to success. It’s hard not to think of demagogue Donald Trump when watching A FACE IN THE CROWD. Indeed, Hoberman notes that “[l]onesome though he may be, Rhodes can instrumentalize mass culture because he personifies it. Before the movie ends, he is...a major threat to American democracy.” Hoberman also analyzes the way in which Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg depict television as a medium that can be used to unduly influence its audience, a scenario that’s playing out before our very eyes as a reality star with no previous political experience acts as President of the United States. “Kazan and Schulberg intuited that...media personalities and movie stars would now nominate themselves for the leading roles,” Hoberman writes, something that he says came to “full fruition” with Reagan, and that’s now even yuger—and scarier—in light of Trump’s rise to power. Griffith’s performance in his big-screen debut is as deft as it is disconcerting; even his features appear larger than life as he takes on Lonesome’s mendacious personality. Neal, in a performance that one might say is the antithesis of her role as Dominique Francon in King Vidor’s adaptation of The Fountainhead, serves as the moral straight (wo)man, and Walter Matthau’s Mel Miller (or Vanderbilt ‘44, as Lonesome calls him, revealing an anti-intellectual attitude that’s all too familiar) foils her earnestness with his acerbic yet perceptive cynicism. (1957, 126 min, Digital Projection) KS
Tom Volf’s MARIA BY CALLAS (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
In the glittering, overblown world of opera, there are many divas, both female and male. But to most opera lovers, Maria Callas is the very definition of the word “diva.” Even people with barely a nodding acquaintance with opera recognize her striking Greek features and glamorous wardrobe, and know of her reputation for temperament and her long-term affair with Aristotle Onassis that ended when he threw her over to marry Jacqueline Kennedy. Although MARIA BY CALLAS touches on these and other personal and professional moments in her highly publicized life, its focus, thankfully, is on her artistry. The film is comprised of film clips of performances, television interviews, home movies, and still photos, supplemented by actor Joyce DiDonato reading Callas’ private letters, thus allowing her to tell her own story. The generous samplings of her performances in Verdi, Bizet, and especially the bel canto repertoire she helped popularize—Bellini’s Norma figures prominently—are glorious and perfectly capture Callas’ emotional connection with the music and her audiences, even when she misses more than a few high Cs. French director Tom Volf, a photographer turned documentarian, is mesmerized by Callas’ allure and convincingly ensures she is never upstaged by the many famous admirers he shows attending her performances, including Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother, Anna Magnani, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. MARIA BY CALLAS is a moving tribute to a great opera star. (2017, 113 min, DCP Digital) MF
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) presents Everywhere Is Anywhere: Video and Performance Work by Sara Condo on Tuesday at 8pm, with Condo in person.
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) and Hot House present the 1967 documentary FAR FROM VIETNAM (120 min, Digital Projection), an omnibus film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Joris Ivens, William Klein, and Claude Lelouch, on Saturday at 7pm. Screening as part of Hot House’s larger Tri-Continental film series.
Elastic Arts (3429 W. Diversey Ave., #208) screens Allen Killian-Moore’s 2018 documentary DESOLATION SLOW (62 min, Digital Projection) on Friday at 8pm, with Killian-Moore in person.
The Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens Agusti Villaronga’s 2010 Spanish film BLACK BREAD (108 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 6pm. Free admission.
Also at the Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) this week: Jon M. Chu’s 2018 film CRAZY RICH ASIANS (120 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 2 and 7pm. Free admission.
Also at the Beverly Arts Center (2407 W. 111th St.) this week: Bob Clark’s 1983 film A CHRISTMAS STORY (94 min, Digital Projection) is on Wednesday at 7:30pm.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Cameron Yates’ 2018 documentary CHEF FLYNN (82 min, DCP Digital) plays for a week; Can Ulkay’s 2017 Turkish film AYLA: THE DAUGHTER OF WAR (123 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 7:45pm; Aliki Saragas’ 2017 South African documentary STRIKE A ROCK (87 min, Digital Projection) is on Monday at 7pm.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Milos Forman’s 1989 film VALMONT (137 min, 35mm Archival Print) is on Friday at 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday at 1:30pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Lee Chang-Dong’s 2018 South Korean film BURNING (148 min, DCP Digital) continues; Brian Henson’s 1992 film THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (85 min, 35mm) is on Wednesday at 7pm and Thursday at 5 and 9:15pm; and Francis Stokes’ 2018 film WILD HONEY (89 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 7:30pm, with select cast and crew in person.
Also at Facets Cinémathèque this week: Alex Pettyfer’s 2018 film BACK ROADS (101 min, Video Projection) has a week-long run.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
Gallery 400 (400 S. Peoria, UIC) presents Chicago New Media 1973-1992 through December 15.
The Block Museum (Northwestern University) presents Up Is Down: Mid-century Experiments in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio though December 9.
The Graham Foundation (Madlener House, 4 W. Burton Place) continues Martine Syms: Incense Sweaters & Ice through January 12.
Currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Gretchen Bender’s 1985 24-moniter, 3-screen video installation TOTAL RECALL is currently on view; Martine Syms' SHE MAD: LAUGHING GAS (2018, 7 min, four-channel digital video installation with sound, wall painting, laser-cut acrylic, artist’s clothes); Rosalind Nashashibi's VIVIAN’S GARDEN (2017, 30 min, 16mm on HD Video) is in the Donna and Howard Stone Gallery, through December 2; Dara Birnbaum’s KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (1979, 6 min loop, two-channel video) is in the second floor corridor.
CINE-LIST: December 7 - December 13, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kyle Cubr, Marilyn Ferdinand, Jim Gabriel, Jonathan Leithold-Patt, Scott Pfeiffer, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky