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Wang Bing’s BITTER MONEY (New Documentary)
Facets Cinémathèque – Check Venue website for showtimes
In a recent and enormously illuminating interview with Film Comment (seriously—make a point to read it if you’re a fan of his work), Chinese director Wang Bing confessed that “the documentary form is the most viable way for [him] to make movies in China.” He elaborated: “By following people’s everyday life, I don’t have to look for actors and direct them, I don’t have to ask a lot of people to work together for me, and I don’t have to ask permission to anybody. The ways in which the Chinese film industry limits filmmakers become invalid for me, if I shoot inexpensive movies about the real life of the people with a small crew. That’s why I keep on making documentaries: I like genuine stories, and I like to feel free.” This response is perhaps a perfect metaphor for the elegant dichotomy of Wang’s films (e.g. CRUDE OIL, THREE SISTERS, ‘TIL MADNESS DO US PART and even his narrative feature, THE DITCH), which explore China’s knotty political landscape through a rough-hewn mode of filmmaking that merges concrete realism with a distinctly authorial sensibility. The stories in BITTER MONEY are indeed genuine—perhaps uncomfortably so at points—and its expression free, baring the harsh realities of its subjects’ lives as well as those of documentary filmmaking itself. In the film, Wang’s camera—which he describes as “a very small photo camera...that has the video recording option”—follows, often aggressively, a group of workers who are travelling from the rural area of Yunnan province in China to the eastern city Huzhou for the purpose of finding employment. A scene that stands out is one in which a laborer laments the small sewing workshop she currently works in and expresses longing for a similarly backbreaking factory job—this emphasizes the inherently senseless cycle of poverty faced by those in China’s lower classes. The latter part of the film focuses on the involvement of some of the workers in pyramid schemes. There’s a strange acknowledgement of the accompanying duplicity, accentuating the indurate desperation caused by such brutal circumstances. This brutality shrinks from the ideological to the domestic—in one harrowing scene, several minutes in length, a man torments his wife, who goes back to their shop and refuses to be kicked out of what’s also rightfully hers. The man later tells a friend that their fighting had intensified after buying the store, a terrible excuse on a personal level but indicative of the role capitalism can play in private spheres. It also raises questions of the filmmaker’s responsibility during such instances. Wang has no qualms about his presence being known, be it his voice echoing off-screen or one of the subjects addressing him directly, but he doesn’t intervene during this scene. I won’t pretend to have answers, nor do I assign malicious intent to Wang’s passivity, but it’s disconcerting nonetheless, both in theory and practice. Stylistically speaking, however, Wang’s aesthetics are sensitive to their environment; shots are often striking because of the terrain, not in spite of it. The film has a truly tactile feel, as both subject and viewer are aware of the roving camera. Surprisingly, BITTER MONEY won the award for Best Screenplay at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, though it's obviously not scripted. Perhaps it’s not that reality is stranger than fiction, but that it's scarier, confronting us with an appreciable realization of a frequently abstracted concept. (2016, 163 min, Video Projection) KS
Ytasha L. Womack's A LOVE LETTER TO THE ANCESTORS FROM CHICAGO (New Experimental)
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) - Wednesday, 7pm (Free Admission)
With the staggering success of BLACK PANTHER, 2018 may be remembered as the year that Afrofuturism took over the mainstream, but it is also the second year of the Trump administration, the year in which police shot Stephon Clark twenty times in his grandmother's backyard, another year that seems to argue against the cozy white-liberal belief in gradual but unstoppable progress toward equality. In the midst of these precarious times, multi-hyphenate Ytasha L. Womack, who literally wrote the book on Afrofuturism, offers a celebration of Black fabulousness. The film is constructed primarily of dance scenes set in mundane and recognizable south side places, performed mostly to a samba (reminding us of the breadth of the African diaspora) by an all-star team of talented Chicagoans, including past AACM president Discopoet Khari B, singer Gira Dahnee, and choreographer Joshua Ishmon. The camera is usually still, the simplicity and efficiency of the images belying the dizzying layers embedded in them. In one that particularly stood out, a couple embraces (and later, a man dances the robot) in front of a statue in Marquette Park, site of a racist attack on a 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. led march and also the favored site of Nazi party marches in the 1970s. Other shots find beauty and mystery in the everyday realities of city life, such as a yellow-lit apartment hallway where dancers defy gravity, a concrete stairwell that becomes a stage for a masked tap-dancer, an Art Deco apartment building lobby that becomes a ballroom. I’m not sure if this was Womack’s intention, but these sites also summoned memories of the murders of innocent African American people by police: Tamir Rice in the park, Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in the entryway of their apartment building, Akai Gurley in a concrete stairwell—and I could go on. Throughout, Womack’s performers look directly at the camera: asserting their fabulousness, yes, but also their very right to exist. Womack in person. (2017, digital video, 14 min.) MWP
Showing with Christopher Kirkley's RAIN THE COLOR OF BLUE WITH A LITTLE RED IN IT (see Also Recommended below).
Raymond Depardon's 12 DAYS (New Documentary)
Facets Cinémathèque – Check Venue website for showtimes
In France, psychiatrists have the power to hospitalize people without their consent; within 12 days, these patients must meet with a judge who decides their fate. This deeply compassionate, complex, unflinching film by Raymond Depardon, the august French documentarian, records these hearings with a staunchly objective camera, conjuring a kind of purgatory, but to call it "Kafkaesque" would be to render a judgment the film refuses to make. Instead, it asks only that we bear witness to the stories of these troubled, broken human beings. Treating the mentally ill as a threat sounds unsavory, yet even while we're reflecting on a society that segregates the "insane" away from public view, we're also considering that in the U.S., they'd likely be on the streets. (2017, 87 min, Video Projection) SP
Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE (New American)
Music Box Theater (in 70mm) and multiple other venues (in DCP) – Check Venue showtimes for details
Anyone would be right to suggest that READY PLAYER ONE predictably follows the standard “blockbuster model,” a typified structure of storytelling that is set-piece driven, lively, fast-paced with plenty of action and humor, concluding with fairly predictable results; but since Spielberg mostly wrote the rules for this model of cinematic storytelling, the formulaic design becomes emboldened by his signature and still-pioneering direction. Just as JURASSIC PARK’s storyline—the artificial creation of fantastic beings that would eventually run loose and wreck everything—paralleled the film’s actual production/creation of real-world CGI-spectacle that would increasingly run ferociously and blindly amok, so does the creator of the virtual world in READY PLAYER ONE resemble its filmmaker, with both utilizing nearly every element that has come to define what a “blockbuster” is. Nearly all of the pop culture references in the movie found their genesis in the 1980s, with Spielberg harvesting them and coalescing them into a single nostalgia-laded green-screened universe, fostering a joyous (if fairly simplistic) reminiscence of the halcyon days of one’s early years (for those who came of age in the ‘80s). READY PLAYER ONE also conjures another aspect of this decade—the no-limit financial opportunities for business execs and CEOs who knew how to leverage the system. A different kind of ‘80’s nostalgia. (Could this be Spielberg taking aim at contemporary Hollywood’s go-to mode of recycling revered and vibrant films of the past into hollow, plastic “remakes” and “reboots”?) As much a Spielberg appropriates characters from other films and franchises (his own and others) for sheer spectacle and culture-riffing, he is also in a sense liberating them from the commercial exploitation they’ve experiences in the intervening decades. Seeing Mario, Chucky, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and other characters together in a film certainly can elicit some initial jeering and laughter, but the larger point comes through, maybe only afterwards, and understanding of Spielberg’s game and one begins to commiserate for how these now devalued iconic figures have just become commodities of capital. Here, the creator of the film’s virtual world, Oasis, and Spielberg, are aligned. Both are battling against the cynicism of their times, looking to re-connect people with the joys of creation and creativity. The greed of the 1980’s business world and the greed of the corporatists in READY PLAYER ONE are both harbinger of and reflection of the greed of contemporary Hollywood. These themes transpire in a film that is on its own a visually dense world of eye-popping movement, color, and texture. It’s situated somewhere between Spielberg’s CGI-only works (THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, THE BFG) and the more real-world world-building of a few of his other films (MINORITY REPORT, EMPIRE OF THE SUN). He steals from his own films, as director and as producer, as freely as he steals from others: the T-Rex from JURASSIC PARK makes an appearance, and several of his fellow genre-subvertor buddy, Robert Zemeckis’ films get nods. Spielberg’s own AI: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, and the criticism it received from the pro-Kubrick camp, is addressed directly and humorously in one standout scene. READY PLAYER ONE is Spielberg reckoning with his own pop-culture legacy, his complicity as the “progenitor” of the modern blockbuster, and the soulless product they’ve become. Gone is the fantasy, the wonder, and the joy of creativity. One wonders whether audiences can get past the cynicism of internet-driven hot-takes to look at Spielberg’s visionary creation with even the smallest sense of awe. (2018, 139 min, 70mm at the Music Box and DCP Digital elsewhere) JD
David Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Thursday, 9:15pm
David Cronenberg is the master of squeamishness. DEAD RINGERS is possibly his most exquisitely balanced film. It's the place to start for a novice, containing all of his most cherished themes. The preoccupation with biology, most particularly the shape and function of body cavities; the examination of the way personal identity can be permeable; the meticulous exploration of the ways substances alter perception. What cements the equilibrium is the sober, almost clinical way Cronenberg frames the action, no matter how bizarre the story gets. It's about twin gynecologists and their psychic imbalance, so his tone is entirely appropriate. And because Jeremy Iron's dual performances are so spot on, you'd barely know that special effects were involved at all. Carol Spier's art direction doesn't get nearly enough credit in Cronenberg's oeuvre: DEAD RINGERS is preoccupied with color - the blood red surgical gowns (iconic) contrast brilliantly with pale skin tones and the gray Toronto winter. Details like these do a lot of the heavy lifting. By this point Cronenberg was not a horror filmmaker any longer, if he ever really had been. There's relatively little actual gore onscreen because he's much more interested in heightening our discomfort. He does this by telling rather showing (an extended description of a vagina is both hilarious and unsettling) and by amping up our expectations of witnessing something horrific (as during the lovingly through examinations of gleaming gynecological instruments). And through dialog, of course. You can't beat a line like "Pain creates character distortion. It's simply not necessary." (1988, 99 min, archival 35mm) RC
EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL at the Gene Siskel Film Center – Final Week
The Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival concludes this week. We have two highlighted selections below, and the full schedule is on the Siskel’s website.
Paul Anton Smith’s HAVE YOU SEEN MY MOVIE? (UK/Canada)
Friday, 2pm and Saturday, 3pm
Why is it so satisfying to watch characters in movies watching movies? Using clips from a wide array of films, Paul Anton Smith has stitched together a curious and compelling feature-length montage around this phenomenon. Describing his process, Smith says, “I watched or scanned through thousands of films looking for scenes that take place inside of a cinema, and these clips accumulated like blown-in pages from a screenplay.” The end result comes close to being a perfect popcorn movie in its own right, a marvelously entertaining supercut about the ritual of going to the movies, with a subliminal drama about spectatorship and cinephilia legible right below the surface. Smith worked as a researcher/editor/collaborator on THE CLOCK, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video monument to timepieces in cinema, and the editing here parallels the surprising associations and clever human touches of Marclay’s masterpiece. More of a film quip than a full-fledged film essay like Cousins’ 15-hour STORY OF FILM, HAVE YOU SEEN MY MOVIE? is a simple, suggestive observation about what the movies are not always, but can sometimes magically be. Just as THE CLOCK, in its best moments (particularly in the section between midnight-2:00am) winked at the pretensions of durational cinema as a concept, Smith’s project wonderfully conveys the mysterious properties of the medium, even to itself. It is admirable that Smith is clever enough to insure this is not entirely a celebratory portrait either, but one which captures the grossness, depravity, cheesiness, and tedium that often define moviegoing too. We see Bruce Lee alienated by the cringe-worthy sight of Mickey Rooney in yellowface, as well as Scarlett Johannson swept up in the fascination of Ginger Rogers. The project wonderfully casts a light on how frequently the drama of the movies is not only up on the screen, but also plays out differently on the faces of the audience, in the seedy back rows, and even in the evanescent mystery of the projector’s beam overhead. By all means, see this movie in a theater, if you can! (2016, 136 min, DCP Digital) TTJ
Raoul Peck’s THE YOUNG KARL MARX (Germany)
Saturday, 3pm and Thursday, 6pm
Would the release of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s THE YOUNG KARL MARX, which headlines the closing night of this year’s European Union Film Festival and is coming soon to an AMC multiplex near you, have even made a blip on the radar in the U.S. just over a decade ago? These were the pre-Great Recession halcyon days, with Barack Obama—the supposed socialist—bound for office, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average chugging along at a record setting pace. Marx? Who needs him?! Over the next few months and years, the answer would become clear: everybody. And that answer still resounds like a code red clarion call in our contemporary political climate, which explains the electric charge Peck’s film holds in 2018, when words like socialism and fascism don’t seem so antiquated stateside. Peck is no stranger to finding topical relevance in historical figures; part of what makes his 2017 documentary on James Baldwin, I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, so compelling is the way the film lays painfully bare how little progress we’ve made in vanquishing racism since Baldwin’s time. On the one hand, it’s shocking that this film hasn’t been made before, a testament, no doubt, to Marx’s taboo status. Curiously, he’s had only a handful of other onscreen incarnations, including a USSR 1966 propagandist biopic titled YEAR AS LIFE and Alexander Kluge's 570 minute NEWS FROM IDEOLOGICAL ANTIQUITY, most notably. Marx, arguably the most controversial (and misunderstood) thinker in modern history, is many things to many people—champion of the labor movement, bogeyman of the free market, grand architect of Soviet ideology, patron saint of graduate students everywhere—and Peck’s film sets out to achieve the admirable goal of separating man from myth. One of Marx’s most revolutionary claims was that material circumstances directly determine consciousness, and indeed, his theories of political economy did not occur in a vacuum. The film chronicles a formative period in Marx’s life as he and his family bounce around Europe, getting expelled from Prussia and Paris for political dissent before settling in London, where Marx penned his most famous work, The Communist Manifesto. This is not a portrait of Marx as demigod, but as a spunky, scrappy intellectual, so impoverished that he can barely feed his family, and discriminated against for his Jewish surname. Not only does the film do justice to the historical Marx, it also sheds light on the formative relationships that contributed to his thinking. His bromance with Friedrich Engels, a lifelong friend, collaborator, and benefactor, is front and center, but it’s the duo’s female counterparts who steal the show. Jenny von Westphalen Marx, who edited and transcribed her husband’s works, is clearly the shrewder, wittier partner here, while Engels’s better half, Mary Burns, an irreverent Irish factory worker with ties to underground labor organizations, provides an invaluable window onto the conditions of the working class. One can only fantasize about a different young Marx movie, helmed by Judd Apatow in the style of THE HANGOVER trilogy, that chronicles some of his, um, lesser known subversive antics, such as gallivanting around Berlin on a donkey, getting tossed in prison for public intoxication, and challenging a soldier to a duel. With the exception of a stunning tableau vivant that breaks the fourth wall, Peck’s movie is not Marxist when it comes to film form, like Godard’s Brechtian agitprop experiments LA CHINOISE and TOUT VA BIEN, or Eisenstein’s montage masterworks. At moments it has the feel of a stodgy period piece that the evil parents from GET OUT might pride themselves on seeing to bank some progressive capital, begging the question: can revolutionary ideas be transmitted in a decidedly non-revolutionary form? The movie is not, thankfully, intended to function as a lecture on Marxist philosophy, and while all the fuss about the Young Hegelians and competing conceptions of materialism might leave some viewers feeling alienated, Peck is careful not to veer into outright didacticism; even those unacquainted with Marx’s writings will be able to discern the broad strokes contours of his thought, e.g. private property is bad, profit equals exploitation, and so on. Marx’s communism was always envisioned as a global affair, and so it’s befitting that Peck’s movie concludes the EU Fest, an urgent reminder that collectivism remains possible amidst the torrent of jingoistic, isolationist rhetoric spewing from the White House. In short, this is not the best movie of the year so far, but it may very well be one of the most important. (2017, 114 mins, DCP Digital) HS
Michael Haneke’s BENNY’S VIDEO (Austrian Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Tuesday, 7pm
Michael Haneke found inspiration for his first theatrical feature, THE SEVENTH CONTINENT, from news stories about suicide; for his second, BENNY’S VIDEO, he was inspired by real-life accounts of young people who had committed murder. In his readings, he found that multiple young murderers had said the same thing about their crimes: “I wanted to know what it feels it.” This line, for the Austrian writer-director, spoke to widespread alienation in contemporary life, the killers’ desire to experience murder reflecting their distance from most other activities. The title character of BENNY’S VIDEO is a 14-year-old who uses surveillance technology to mediate his daily experiences; early on in the film, he murders a girl and documents it with his camcorder. Benny is unfazed by his action—recording it permits him to isolate himself from the murder, as if it was someone else who committed it. His parents, on the other hand, are understandably shocked, yet rather than turn in their son to the authorities, they conspire to keep his crime a secret. Haneke seems more disturbed by the parents’ concealment efforts than by the murder, suggesting that they’re no less alienated than their son. The murder, which accounts for one of the most famous set pieces in Haneke’s oeuvre, is quite shocking too, as the director uses sound effects and off-camera space to make viewers realize the crime in their imaginations. Many of Haneke’s films raise the question of audience complicity in characters’ actions, but none as forthrightly as this one. (1992, 105 min, 35mm) BS
Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST (Korean Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) - Sunday, 7pm
Prior to its release, THE HOST was one of the most anticipated films in South Korea of all time and it is easy to see why. After an American scientist orders his Korean assistant to dump hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the drain, the chemicals find their way to the Han River. Jumping ahead six years, a creature has mutated while living in the river and has grown into a 30-foot fish-monster, with legs and a tail that allow it to walk on land. When the monster finally reveals itself, a family’s life is torn asunder when its youngest daughter is taken away by the creature. Song Kang-ho’s performance as the daughter’s father, Park Gang-du, is full of nuance and hilarity, and his character’s arc is wonderfully realized, as he transforms from a dim-witted underachiever to a determined patriarch looking out for his family. THE HOST blends dark-humor and a compelling family drama with the trappings of American monster movies of the 1970s and 80s to form a well-rounded and heartfelt film. On a deeper level, the film provides plenty of social commentary on the United States’ presence in South Korea and plenty of political commentary to boot. Government agencies, both American and Korean, are depicted as uncaring, inept, and (sometimes) nefarious. A substance deployed to defeat the monster called “Agent Yellow” clearly alludes to the U.S.’s days in Vietnam. Other sequences in the film certainly allude to the United State’s presence in Iraq and The War on Terror happening at that time. (2006, 119 min, 35mm) KC
Richard Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Thursday, 7pm
A French woman and an American man (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) spontaneously disembark from a train in Vienna and spend the afternoon, evening, and wee hours of the morning together—talking, walking, listening, flirting. Before this slender movie became the opening chapter of a trilogy, it was easy to dismiss its premise as flattering, post-collegiate wish fulfillment—a narcissistic ode to pitter-prattle interpersonal profundity that bears a striking proximity to resoundingly conventional male fantasies. Yes, but—viewing BEFORE SUNRISE in narrowly heterosexual terms or pigeonholing it as a precociously alt-Gen X love story would be enormous errors. More so than any screen romance I know, BEFORE SUNRISE exalts the pliability of gender roles and records a desperate, joyous urge to inhabit another person's consciousness. (By contrast, the deflationary exhaustion of BEFORE MIDNIGHT endorses a middle-aged imperative to live in one's own stubborn body and to ridicule and repudiate youthful idealism; but see below for an alternate opinion.) The closest direct antecedent to the radical vision of BEFORE SUNRISE is Jean Vigo's L'ATALANTE, but that film is about characters who can't talk to each other, who thrash about and dream of faraway cities and disembodied hands in jars. BEFORE SUNRISE, instead, is about the endlessly fecund possibility of connection. When Delpy sits in a restaurant, leans into her imaginary telephone, and belches, "Hey dude, what's up?," we're witnessing one of the most quietly utopian moments in movies. In another one of BEFORE SUNRISE's key moments, we watch Delpy and Hawke in a cramped record booth, listening to a Kath Bloom LP and trying so hard to conceal their mutual interest in one another: she cannot let him know that she's looking at him, just as surely as she must not know that he's looking at her. It's a scene that bedeviled Robin Wood's famously inexhaustible powers of analysis, perhaps because the content, form, and emotion are thoroughly irreducible and inseparable. In this movie, where people cannot help but reveal the totality of themselves to strangers, a single glance could prove fatal. Eschewing the concentrated intensity of its even finer follow-up, BEFORE SUNRISE manages to present a parade of deftly sketched supporting characters as well, none appearing for more than a minute or two but each suggesting an infinite expanse of possible feeling outside of Delpy and Hawke's bodies. A landmark of modern cinema. (1995, 101 min, 35mm) KAW
Huang Hsin-Yao's THE GREAT BUDDHA + (New Taiwanese)
Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 – Thursday, 7pm
Huang Hsin-Yao's THE GREAT BUDDHA +, a jaundiced, compassionate look at hypocrisy and corruption in a Taiwanese village, begins like a playful, crass comedy. So how did it wind up stirring me so deeply? In 2017, this film won five coveted Golden Horses, including best new director and best cinematography, the latter for Chung Mong-hong's gorgeous deep-focus black-and-white imagery—stark and noirish. It plays at times like the missing link between the New Taiwanese Cinema of the '80s and Beavis and Butthead. It features the return of Pickle and Belly Button, the two middle-aged social discards who starred in Huang's 2014 short film THE GREAT BUDDHA. (Hence the "+" in the title: this is the expanded version.) Huang has three documentaries under his belt, apparently noted for their sardonic narration. It's an approach he's carried over into his fiction feature debut, starting with the opening credits, when he ribs his own producers for being "notoriously difficult." The effect is as if someone left the DVD director's commentary on. Luckily, what Huang has to say is usually drily funny, or curious, or poetic, or even useful. The kind, naive Pickle (Cres Chuang I-tseng), when he's not tending to his ailing, elderly mother, "works" as a night watchman at a factory which forges massive bronze Buddhas. It's run by the dissolute, mean-spirited Boss Kevin (Leon Dai Li-ren). Mostly, he hangs out with his best friend Belly Button (Bamboo Chen Chu-sheng), who scrapes together a living scavenging bottles and cans out of the trash. Perusing porn mags, the boys keep each other company on these overnight vigils, as the long-suffering Pickle endures his insecure friend's bossing and badgering. The factory's crafting a towering Buddha for the upcoming Dharma Assembly, and when the local Zen master and his monks pay a visit to examine the work in progress, their spokesman gets into a hilariously passive-aggressive exchange of stealth barbs with a corrupt pol, all punctuated by bows. The boys' other friends, rejects both, are Peanut, who works at the local grocery/arcade, and the mysterious Sugar Apple, who is an important presence in the film though he only has one line, a drifter who lives in an abandoned naval sentry post by the seaside. When the TV's busted one night, Belly Button pesters Pickle into retrieving the dash cam video from Kevin's luxury car, in the hopes it's captured his "horseplay" with women. (Indeed, there's a scene that, while visually above the waist, plays to the ear like porn.) These videos supply the movie's only color. Actually that's not quite true: if you watch closely, you'll spot Huang color a motorcycle pink, just for an instant. The boys' voyeurism gets them into big trouble, as they accidentally learn more about Kevin's nocturnal "good deeds" than they ever wanted to. At its best, this is as hilariously droll and deadpan as Huang's avowed influences, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson, though it also occurs to me that fans of Kevin Smith wouldn't feel like they're in the wrong place. (Whether that's a compliment or a putdown, I shall leave to your own aesthetic discretion.) There are indelible images: a shirtless band playing for an orgy in the thermal baths. Or the matter-of-fact way a dead bull gazes out from amidst a mountain of trash. Or Pickle, sitting forlornly in Belly Button's little UFO house, surrounded by his friend's stuffed animals and pinups—the pod itself a piece of Taiwanese cultural jetsam. Huang may refer to his outcasts as idiots, but we come to realize he thinks about them a lot, and may even love them. He hopes the arc of his story will bend towards justice for them, though he knows that for the poor and powerless, hope never had much of a chance. In the end, all he can do is watch. (2017, 103 min, Digital Projection) SP
Christopher Kirkley's RAIN THE COLOR OF BLUE WITH A LITTLE RED IN IT (Contemporary Nigerien)
Comfort Film at Comfort Station Logan Square (2579 N. Milwaukee Ave.) – Wednesday, 8pm (Free Admission)
RAIN THE COLOR OF BLUE WITH A LITTLE RED IN IT is a remake of PURPLE RAIN, set among the Sahara-dwelling Tuareg people in Niger. (The convoluted title owes to the lack of a word for purple in the Tamajeq language.) The character once played by Prince is now played by Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg guitar god. His determination to be the best musician in Agadez is tested by a rival musician, a budding romance, and his father's belief that guitar players are fated to die of drug overdoses. The oddball setup is the hook, and comparisons with the source material are inevitable (for the record, there's no swearing, nudity, punching, or licking of self or others, but there's probably even more guitar shredding), but this film quickly proves that it can stand on its own as a mild-mannered story about generational clashes and societal changes exacerbated by technology. The performances, all by non-actors playing versions of themselves, are guileless and touching; Mdou's understated charm snuck up on me, prompting at least one laugh-out-loud moment. With all the brightly colored clothing against backdrops of sandblasted walls and desert vistas, the film can't help but look gorgeous, but there's more to Jérôme Fino's canny compositions than travelogue beauty. And it would be remiss of me to underemphasize the guitar shredding. Mdou Moctou's music is catchy as hell, and it serves as a subtle window into his character development. His playing is entrancing from the first time we hear him, but as the film progresses his style evolves, reaching back into the traditional forms that revolutionary Grammy-winning Tuareg band Tinariwen electrified in the 1980s and forward into a kind of wall-of-guitar sound that's informed by Western rock music without sounding lame (unlike a lot of fusion music). (2015, 75 min, Digital Projection) MWP
Showing with Ytasha L. Womack's A LOVE LETTER TO THE ANCESTORS FROM CHICAGO (see Crucial Viewing)
Steve James' ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (Contemporary Documentary)
Midwest Independent Film Festival (at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.) – Tuesday, 7:30pm (reception at 6pm; producers panel at 6:30pm)
True stories can be just as absorbing as narratives, and real people as memorable as characters, as Steve James' suspenseful courtroom documentary demonstrates. This David versus Goliath story chronicles the five-year trial pitting the inexhaustible resources of the Manhattan DA's office against the small Abacus Federal Savings Bank. Founded by a Chinese immigrant and run today by himself and his daughters (the Sung family), Abacus was the only bank indicted during the 2008 global financial crisis. Ironically, Mr. Sung has the integrity of a real-life George Bailey (and Mrs. Sung's favorite movie is Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE), having founded Abacus expressly to serve New York's Chinatown. James gives us a rare glimpse into this somewhat unmelted immigrant community. The steely, whip-smart daughters turn out to be not so easy to push around, and their loving bickering banter with their parents is a delight. Preceded by Laura Checkoway’s 2017 Kartemquin Films-produced documentary EDITH+EDDIE (29 min). Steve James and producer Mark Mitten in person. (2016, 88 min, DCP Digital) SP
Margaret Byrne’s RAISING BERTIE (Contemporary Documentary)
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) – Thursday, 7pm (Free Admission)
In the time since Donald Trump became president of the United States, there have been a wealth of think pieces focused on the rural, white, middle-to-lower class people who came out in spades to vote for a Cheeto as leader of the free world. But I digress. The hyperfocus on the so-called “silent majority” is frustrating, but not surprising; one might be led to believe, however, that rural areas are inhabited exclusively by such people, entirely free of the diversity that’s inarguably made this country great. Margaret Byrne’s RAISING BERTIE is thus a breath of fresh air for its inadvertent timeliness and the way in which it brings to light a largely overlooked demographic. Co-produced by Kartemquin and filmed over six years, it follows three African American boys—nicknamed Bud, Dada, and Junior—in Bertie County, North Carolina as they come of age amidst egregious systemic oppression and life’s daily struggles. (Bertie County is over 60% Black or African American with almost a fifth of its families living under the poverty line.) A focus of the film is The Hive, an alternative school for at-risk youth that’s spearheaded by a similarly inspirational educator, but it avoids accouterments of poignancy. Instead, it’s a microcosm of a society that experiences the trials and tribulations of both rural and minority America while likewise being ignored—and doubly so—for those very reasons. “We realized there's not enough attention being paid to rural youth and particularly rural youth of color,” said the film’s producer Ian Kibbe at a recent Q&A, foreshadowing the sad irony that’s playing out before our very eyes. The longitudinal approach also impresses the impact; though it’s hardly unprecedented, one realizes the value of documentary filmmakers spending significant amounts of time with their subjects as the three boys and their friends and family visibly open up in front of the cameras. It’s a diplomatic mix of direct cinema and cinéma vérité; Byrne and crew are never seen, but their involvement is evident. "Building trust is the key to making a film like this,” Byrne said during the aforementioned Q&A, “which is really about building relationships.” At what point does subjectivity evolve into a sort of de facto objectivity? A few months? Six years? Sometime in between a boy’s emotional visit with his imprisoned father and another boy’s revelation that his young girlfriend is pregnant? Byrne doesn’t shy away from reflecting some of the young men’s’ “bad decisions,” instead placing them before the viewer to be considered within the context of a holistic—and empathetic—viewing experience. In this new era of the silent majority, the silenced minority are more important than ever. Byrne in person. (2016, 102 min, DCP Digital) KS
Jordan Peele’s GET OUT (New American)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday, 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday, 1:30pm
Between the post-racial and the colorblind, evil festers in GET OUT. Released at the beginning of 2017, no film more effectively and immediately tapped into our cultural moment or provoked more conversation throughout the year than Jordan Peele’s feature film debut (now an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay). Its revivals at screening venues across Chicagoland this spring suggests its breakthrough significance and continued importance as a cultural object. As a movie that punctures the myth of a post-racial viewer too, one wonders how the film will play differently or provoke varying kinds of laughter or unease among the predominantly white suburban audiences at Northbrook Public Library (where contemporary horror films are few and far between on the events calendar) versus Doc Films at the University of Chicago, or the South Side plexes in Chatham. GET OUT is a horror story about cultural appropriation, gaslighting, and—most cleverly—the weaponization of social norms and etiquette to enforce strict hierarchies. It also followed an intriguing trend from 2017 of love stories that uneasily shift between scenes of intimacy and scenes of horror, where sentimental attachments are used to manipulate and ensnare (PHANTOM THREAD, MOTHER!, and THE SHAPE OF WATER are other titles that come to mind). GET OUT is also highly successful as a comedy (as the Golden Globes controversially categorized the film, to Peele’s dismay), and yet it is reductive to describe the movie merely in those terms. While it is irreverent, blistering, and funny in a way that frequently stings, a deep strain of melancholy runs throughout it. What story about the pernicious lasting effects of human hate could be otherwise? The film’s premise is simple but compelling: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young photographer, goes to meet his girlfriend Rose’s parents at the Armitage family estate in the country. Chris is nervous from the start—he is black, the Armitages are white, and Rose has neglected to fill her parents in on this (to her, inconsequential; to him, crucial) detail. (Note the stroke of brilliance in casting the Armitage clan: are there any actors more recognizable as “good white liberal” indie stars than Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford?) The weekend begins for Chris with an initially warm, if awkward, welcome from the parents, followed by uncanny run-ins with the black household help. But Chris’s visit becomes increasingly hostile as the weekend wears on, and more guests arrive at the estate for the Armitage’s annual garden party. From there, Chris is made to suffer a series of small indignities and becomes the center of an increasingly uncomfortable attention. White partygoers insist on giving him their uninvited opinions about the African-American experience, cast objectifying glances over his body, and make fetishizing remarks about his “genetic make-up.” Like another horror film from 2017, Aronofsky’s MOTHER!, horror here is brilliantly imagined at first as simply the nightmare of having to deal with people who don’t understand social cues, and grows into the danger of not seeing the right time to get out of someone’s house. If the horror in GET OUT feels stark, real, and vivid, it is because of the way the movie builds this gradually from small moments of disquieting tension. The film’s important intervention is in showing how seemingly little instances of casual racism are never really little, but rather are stepping stones to bigger, uglier transgressions to come. Seemingly small slights, off-hand remarks, and micro-aggressions are already toxic because they pave the way for larger, suffocating patterns of dehumanization like slavery, lynching, or the mass incarceration of black men—all of these initial thoughtless actions are already symptoms of a failure to recognize another person as fully human. “Sometimes, if there’s too many white people, I get nervous.” This decisive line of dialogue is delivered as just a whisper in the film, but it expresses an intensely personal, un-PC, and painful truth. There are many things left unsaid in GET OUT too, but the conversations that the film has started and the contemporary racial tensions it has helped bring to light are well worth revisiting in any of its upcoming public screenings with different audiences around the city. Wherever monsters and mold grow, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Co-presented by the Court Theatre, with the new production of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” (2017, 104 min, DCP Digital) TTJ
Agnès Varda and JR's FACES PLACE (New Documentary)
Gorton Community Center (400 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest) – Thursday, 7pm
I love this sportive, altogether magical film—it's light and simple and funny, and all the more profound for it. FACES PLACES is a buddy/road trip comedy about a deepening cross-generational friendship; it's also an insightful documentary, a mutual portrait of two unique artists whose visions harmonize. Agnès Varda, who was 88 at the time of shooting, is of course the legendary French New Wave pioneer (before even Chabrol's LE BEAU SERGE, there was Varda's LA POINTE COURTE, in 1955). JR, 33, is a street artist known for making giant, collaborative outdoor image installations. Together, they drive around the French countryside in JR's photo-booth van, which spits out large-format pictures of the people they meet at beaches, ports, factories, and villages, blowing the locals up into massive figures which they paste onto community landmarks. These "framing" structures, whether homes or stacks of cargo containers, nod to personal stories and struggles, and honor unsung people as heroes—dockworkers' wives, a postman, a woman from a mining family who refuses to let her home be demolished. The subjects get to talk back, and to see them interact with their magnified selves, the happiness on their faces, the wonder, or even the bemused ambivalence, is a beautiful thing. Mounting the portraits is a collective, social event in which the subjects themselves participate, creating spectacles as rich and full of humanity as Hollywood's are empty and dehumanized. They paste an image of Varda's late friend, the photographer Guy Bourdin, to the side of a German WWII bunker that's fallen onto a beach. In the image he's very young, almost a boy, and the bunker seems to cradle him. When they come back the next day, the image has been washed away by the tide. How fleeting is memory, how fleeting are the years. How fragile, finally, is life. That's why there's a certain urgency to their work: as JR says, we must get as many images as we can, before it's too late. Varda is happy, even as she finds her vision growing dim and her memory fading. She feels herself winding down, but her curiosity about other people remains undimmed. The two laugh a lot, teasing each other. He is irreverent with her in a somehow deeply respectful manner—which is to say, he's never patronizing. (You are good to old people, she tells him at one point, as they visit his grandmother, who's pushing 100). Their friendship is a real dialogue, and as it deepens, we sense he'd do anything for her. Well, almost anything: he lives behind dark glasses, and a running joke in the film has Varda trying to coax him out of them, just as she was once able to do with the young Jean-Luc Godard. Speaking of Godard, I mustn't reveal too much of a final surprise involving their pilgrimage to reconnect with him. (As a factory worker, admiring the group portrait of his co-workers, points out, art is meant to surprise us.) I'll only say the scene finds just the right strain of wistfulness on which to end, evoking, cryptically but movingly, happy days with Varda's late husband, the great Jacques Demy. FACES PLACES is about history and memory and the power of imagination. It is about art and life—the ways they mirror each other, and what's important in both: love and creativity and travel and leaping at chances, and seeing things that make you dream. It is about the life force—as, at its best, was the French New Wave. At one point Varda and JR recreate Godard's famous race through the Louvre, and I actually bounced in my seat and clapped. In the end, they photograph faces because faces are beautiful, and every face tells a story. It is as simple—and as profound—as that. (2017, 89 min, Digital Projection) SP
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
The Chicago Latino Film Festival opens on Thursday and continues through April 19 at AMC River East 21. More info and full schedule at https://chicagolatinofilmfestival.org.
The DOC10 Film Festival opens on Thursday and continues through Sunday, April 8 at the Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Ave.). The Opening Night film is Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR (94 min, Digital Projection), though it is Sold Out (wait list at the festival website). More info and festival schedule at www.doc10.org. Check our list next week for reviews of selected titles.
The Nightingale (1084 N. Milwaukee Ave.) is presenting four days of events in celebration of its tenth anniversary, beginning on Wednesday and running through Saturday, April 7. This week’s events are: Autodidecalogue on Wednesday at 7pm, which will include works shown during its first decade; and The Bureau of Weights and Measures on Thursday at 7pm, which features films that take various measuring methods and units as a theme, including Saturday Night Live’s “Bureau of Weights and Measures” skit (1982), Anne McGuire’s JOE DIMAGGIO 123 (1991), Amir George’s MOMENTS OF INTENTION (2016), Susan Mogul’s DRESSING UP (1973), and Eric Fleischauer’s GOING THROUGH (2010).
The Chicago Underground Film Festival and Full Spectrum Features host a screening of Emily Esperanza’s 2018 featurette MAKE OUT PARTY (25 min, Video Projection) on Friday and Saturday, with Esperanza in person both days. Each day the event starts at 7pm and includes live performances, an 8:30pm screening, and a dance party. It’s at VAM Studios (address provided upon ticket purchase) and tickets can be purchased here: www.eventbrite.com/e/make-out-party-world-premiere-party-tickets-4295997544
The Conversations at the Edge series at the Gene Siskel Film Center presents an added screening of Thorsten Trimpop’s 2016 Japanese experimental documentary FURUSATO (90 min, DCP Digital) on Sunday at Noon, with Trimpop in person; and presents Hayoun Kwon: Films and Virtual Realities on Thursday at 6pm, with Paris-based South Korean Kwon in person. Screening are two video works and two virtual reality projects: LACK OF EVIDENCE (2011), 489 YEARS (2015), MODEL VILLAGE (2014), and THE BIRD LADY (2017).
Gallery 400 (400 S. Peoria, UIC) hosts an artist’s lecture by video maker Sky Hopinka on Tuesday at 6pm. Free admission.
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St.) screens Jia Zhang-ke’s 2004 Chinese film THE WORLD (135 min, Digital Projection) on Saturday at 7pm.
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) hosts an Open Screening on Saturday at 8pm. Attendees can go just to watch, or bring up to 20 minutes of work to screen (Digital File, Blu-Ray, DVD only; no explicit content). Free admission.
Black Cinema House (at the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, 1456 E 70th St.) screens Chanel James’ 2017 film THE THINGS WE DO WHEN WE’RE ALONE (Unconfirmed Running Time, Digital Projection) on Friday at 7pm. Free admission.
Also presented by Asian Pop-Up Cinema this week: Lai Kuo-an’s 2017 Taiwanese film A FISH OUT OF WATER (90 min, Digital Projection) is on Wednesday at 7pm at AMC River East 21.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Joris Ivens' 1967 collaborative documentary/essay film FAR FROM VIETNAM (120 min, DCP Digital Projection) is on Tuesday at 6pm, with a lecture by SAIC professor Nora Annesley Taylor.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film THE SHAPE OF WATER (123 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday at 4pm; Peter Mettler’s 1994 Canadian experimental documentary PICTURE OF LIGHT (83 min, DCP Digital) is on Monday at 7pm; and Elia Kazan’s 1947 film GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (118 min, DCP Digital) is on Wednesday at 7 and 9:30pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Thomas Riedelsheimer’s 2017 UK documentary LEANING INTO THE WIND (93 min, DCP Digital) and Rachel Israel’s 2018 film KEEP THE CHANGE (94 min, DCP Digital) both continue; and Jean Rollin’s 1979 French horror film FASCINATION (80 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
The Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) screens William Wyler’s 1968 film FUNNY GIRL (151 min, DCP Digital) on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm. Free admission.
The Park Ridge Classic Film Series (at the Park Ridge Public Library, 20 S Prospect Ave, Park Ridge) screens Charles Crichton's 1951 British film THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (78 min, Digital Projection) on Thursday at 7pm. Free admission.
The Chicago Cultural Center and Cinema/Chicago present Best of CineYouth on Wednesday at 6:30pm. The event features the winners of the 2017 CineYouth Film Festival. Free admission.
Sinema Obscura presents Spring Formal, an evening of films and live music, at The VCR (message S.O. via their Facebook page for the address) on Saturday from 9pm-Midnight.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has artist Paul Pfeiffer’s two-channel video installation Three Figures in a Room (2016, 48 min looped) on view through May 20.
The Art Institute of Chicago (Stone Gallery) has on view a show of two large-scale installation works by French artist Philippe Parreno. One of these, With a Rhythmic Instinction to Be Able to Travel beyond Existing Forces of Life (2014) includes a moving-image component.
Also currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago: Frances Stark’s 2010 video installation NOTHING IS ENOUGH (14 min loop) in Gallery 295C; and Nam June Paik’s 1986 video sculpture FAMILY OF ROBOT: BABY in Gallery 288.
CINE-LIST: March 30 - April 5, 2018
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, K.A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Rob Christopher, Kyle Cubr, John Dickson, Tien-Tien Jong, Scott Pfeiffer, Michael W. Phillips Jr., Harrison Sherrod
ILLUSTRATIONS // Alexandra Ensign