NOTE: Merry Moviegoing and Happy New Year! Check out our contributors’ 2018 end-of-year lists on the Cine-File blog.
Luis Ortega's EL ANGEL (New Argentinean)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Check Venue website for showtimes
When confronted with evil, it is our instinct to rationalize it, to attempt to ascribe to the perpetrator some motivation that will explain away unconscionable actions. Film and other media have long represented real-life criminals with this aim, mixing factual details with speculation to draw conclusions about what made them tick. In EL ANGEL, notorious Argentine serial killer and thief Carlos Puch compellingly defies such diagnostics—as played by Lorenzo Ferro, the baby-faced murderer is a self-mythologizing enigma who simply believes himself to be above law and morality. Sneaking into affluent homes, making off with loot, and remorselessly killing anyone who unluckily happens to pop into his line of sight for even a second, Puch as played by Ferro is a jovial, puckish cherub who seems to envision himself the star of his own colorful crime movie. Without pointing to anything concrete or contriving answers, director Luis Ortega situates his fluid sexual identity and vaguely anti-capitalist sentiments within a 1970s Argentina that provides intriguing context for his behavior. The pointedly marginalized presence of the darker-skinned underclass, for instance, adumbrates the racial and economic inequity from which he’s been notably cocooned, while the ubiquitous police presence points to the hegemony of the country’s military junta. Meanwhile, pervasive homophobia encircles Puch and his lover/accomplice, suggesting the degree to which societal intolerance has forced him to repress his sexuality and sublimate it into other more violent but ironically less condemned endeavors. In an interesting, subtext-rich touch, he even declares himself a "born thief," implicitly aligning himself with old pseudoscience equating homosexuality with an essential deviance. Does he feel he's predisposed to flouting the rules because of this "congenital" condition? Is he rebelling against the materialism of 70s consumer capitalism by refusing to play its monetary games? The point is, his ideology is incoherent, and Ortega’s portrait remains necessarily elusive. It combines a romanticized pop-aesthetic vision of violent rogueness with a countervailing sense of the bleak social reality Puch blocks out, creating a dissonance that resists resolution. EL ANGEL, slick and digestible though it often is, leaves us with a terrifying inexplicability: a kid with no sense of proportion or consequence, divorced from the weight of the world, and stranded from logic. (2018, 118 min, DCP Digital) JL
Robert Altman’s O.C. AND STIGGS (American Revival)
The 1980s were not terribly kind to Robert Altman. Both HEALTH and POPEYE were panned critically and the rest of his oeuvre that decade didn’t fare much better before his return to earlier form in the early 1990s. For Altman, the 80s found his filmmaking at its zaniest. Perhaps the zaniest of all that decade (and possibly of all his works), is O.C. AND STIGGS. Altman adapted the film and its titular duo from a series of National Lampoon stories, fresh off the magazine’s successes with ANIMAL HOUSE and VACATION. This satirical take on middle class suburbia and 1980’s politics did not enjoy the same fortune as those films did; in fact, the film was shelved after poor test screenings in 1985 and quietly ushered into theaters two years later to little fanfare. O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neil Barry) are two Arizonian teenage hooligans that are hell-bent on creating chaos for their fellow suburbanites, classmates, and, especially, their archenemies—the right-wing Schwab family (Paul Dooley, Jane Curtin, and Jon Cryer). The film is largely plotless, focused mainly on the pair’s shenanigans and hijinks. On the surface, one might be expecting to see Altman creating his own teenage “sex” comedy, but instead, he subverts that notion in favor of parodying the genre. Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye these boys are not. They’re obnoxious and homophobic ne’er-do-wells, but there’s a certain charm to their self-righteous acts that serve as social commentary to the some of the vanities seen in the middle to middle-upper class of the Reagan Era. Incredibly bizarre and the most non-sequitur of all Robert Altman’s works, O.C. AND STIGGS isn’t for everyone, but for those that do exist within the small slice of the pie that is the intended audience, there’s something glorious about seeing one of the 20th century’s greatest auteurs deconstruct the 1980’s most iconic sub-genre. Preceded by the 1964 newsreel TODAY’S TEENS (Movietone News, 11 min, 35mm). (1987, 109 min, 35mm) KC
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS: BLUE (Polish/French Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Monday, 7pm
In THREE COLOURS: BLUE, the first in his French flag-inspired trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski puts forward the radical notion that liberty—here connected, like the later WHITE and RED (both 1994), with France’s national motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternite,” originated during the French Revolution—can be attained through loss. Juliette Binoche stars as Julie, a young woman who loses both her husband and young daughter in a car accident at the beginning of the film. Rather than piece her life back together after surviving the tragedy, she decides to leave it all behind, devoid of anything from her previous life except the blue crystal chandelier from her daughter's bedroom. Her husband was a famous composer (though it’s implied that Julie actually wrote his music, or at least helped more than anyone knew), and pieces of his last, unfinished symphony—a concert for the reunification of Europe—haunt her at particularly blue (pun intended) moments. She’s unable to fully escape her past, however, in large part because of the music. She’s pursued by a shrewd journalist and an eager public, both curious about her husband’s final work, as well as his creative partner, who’s in love with her. (Then there’s the weight of her husband’s secrets, which, naturally, include a mistress.) Compelling as the narrative is, it’s Julie’s vacuousness, realized exquisitely by Binoche, that resounds most beautifully. Grief is an inherently cinematic emotion—or, rather, a range of emotions brought about by some sort of drama, the action and aesthetic of which (e.g. the build to a devastating car crash, a somber funeral broadcast on television, two coffins: one big, the other small, etc.) make for compelling cinema. In BLUE, however, referred to as an anti-tragedy just as WHITE and RED are referred to as an anti-comedy and an anti-romance, respectively, Kieslowski cuts it off at the quick, allowing for only said external indulgences before beginning to interiorize Julie’s mourning. In concert with Binoche’s stunning performance, he employs a series of clever tricks to make such scenes understandable to an audience otherwise severed from Julie’s inner dialogue, namely conceptual use of the French tricolor (mostly blue), musical interludes that signify her preoccupation with the unfinished score, and blunt fade-outs meant to indicate a lapse in focus rather than a shot change or scene transition. Throughout the trilogy as a whole, Kieslowski succeeds in humanizing the symbolism behind the flag’s complicated ideals, but, with BLUE, the canny motifs do not entirely blunt the piercing idea that only without emotional ties one can truly be free. (1993, 100 min, 35mm) KS
Lars von Trier's THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (New American/Danish)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
According to rumors, Lars von Trier has made the most violent and repugnant movie ever just to piss off those who are still angry at him for his Cannes remarks from a few years ago; it's the most masturbatory film of his career; and it’ll drown you in its pretense. To be fair, the film is violent and fairly repugnant, but considering every garbage serial-killer show or movie that has come before, it isn’t that shocking. Once you get over the ultraviolent hype, you’ll see it's more disturbing than graphically violent. We are clearly at an interesting crossroads of what is accepted and what isn’t, so much so that when this film premiered at Cannes, the tickets issued a trigger warning, when this is absolutely not the most violent film to play the festival. (TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME or CRASH could be considered just as violent and disturbing.) With THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, we see von Trier emerging from the cocktail parties, pressrooms, and stage talks into cinema hell. He knows what we all know: we like movies that depict violence, not because we all want to commit violent acts, but because violence is part of the make-up of genre cinema and we all recognize violence as a troubling part of the human condition. But where do you go with violence now when every show on basic cable has you covered? What can we see after the mostly bloodless, whitewashed visions of violence that TV has left us with? Jack (Matt Dillon) is on a journey somewhere with a man named Verge (the legendary Bruno Ganz); during their time together, Jack tells Verge about his history as a serial killer and how he justifies his violence as akin to art, with himself as a misunderstood artist. This is where people start to have problems with the movie, likely due to von Trier's assertion that “this character is the closest to me that I’ve portrayed.” This doesn't mean the character is the director, but that the character represents the image many people might have of him—the unfeeling monster of cinema who wants to troll his audience into furies of rage. More disturbing than any onscreen depiction of violence, has to be the scene in which Jack tells about a woman he dated (Riley Keough) and “probably” loved; when we see him talking to her, he undermines her, ridicules her thoughts, and even calls her Simple. He verbally mutilates her before hacking off any body parts, slowly preying on her good nature and drawing her into his web of depravity. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT does something very few films have done outside of essay films via Godard or Marker—it has its own inner-dialogue going on, constantly calling into question everything that we see or hear, going back and forth in argument over its own stupidity. Indeed, it's the stupidity of a horrible, vile individual like Jack who wants to validate his crimes in the name of art (like so many villains on CSI: Wherever do to appear more interesting than they are). The film feeds the question: Why are all of Jack’s victims, “dumb women” as the film itself even asks? I guess it depends on how attuned you are to its flow. When Jack's first victim, played by Uma Thurman, suddenly accuses Jack of being a wimp, that tonal change seems a little too unconvincing for the reality it depicts. In other words, just how deep are we in Jack’s head? The film's not about Jack being a misunderstood killer masquerading as an artist—it's about him as the embodiment of every rotten male ego who tries to confuse the truth of their actions and ideas. Yet when Verge asks Jack what happened to his actual goals in life, the film pauses for a genuinely affecting moment, with Jack pausing to realize how far from the beaten path he has wandered. He is a failed artist and human because he lacks the key components of any great art or life: love and empathy. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT has to be one of the most hermetically sealed films I’ve seen in a long while, but I felt refreshed having experienced it. (2018, 155 min, DCP Digital) JD
Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Tuesday, 9:30pm
Spike Lee's long and prolific career has been maddeningly uneven but he is also, in the words of his idol Billy Wilder, a "good, lively filmmaker." Lee's best and liveliest film is probably his third feature, 1989's DO THE RIGHT THING, which shows racial tensions coming to a boil on the hottest day of the year in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Lee himself stars as Mookie, a black deliveryman working for a white-owned pizzeria in a predominantly black community. A series of minor conflicts between members of the large ensemble cast (including Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, and John Turturro) escalates into a full-blown race riot in the film's incendiary and unforgettable climax. While the movie is extremely political, it is also, fortunately, no didactic civics lesson: Lee is able to inspire debate about hot-button issues without pushing an agenda or providing any easy answers. This admirable complexity is perhaps best exemplified by two seemingly incompatible closing-credits quotes--by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X—about the ineffectiveness and occasional necessity of violence, respectively. It is also much to Lee's credit that, as provocative and disturbing as the film at times may be, it is also full of great humor and warmth, qualities perfectly brought out by the ebullient cast and the exuberant color cinematography of Ernest Dickerson. (1989, 111 min, 35mm) MGS
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (British Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Tuesday, 7pm
Powell and Pressburger were the Wes Anderson of their day, constructing dark fairy tales for adults with a museum's worth of references (both classical and private) and the most scrupulous mise-en-scene imaginable. THE RED SHOES, which remains the most beloved of their works, is a tart melodrama about a world-famous ballet company and an Impressionist dream of the beauty it creates. Besides appealing to dance aficionados, the film owes its popularity to an inspired 15-minute sequence depicting the titular ballet, a feat of Total Cinema that brings together the movie's themes and draws on all other art forms for its unique spectacle. (This is not hyperbole: Powell recruited painter Heins Heckroth for the art direction, operatic composer Brian Easdale for the score, and professional ballerina Moira Shearer for the lead; and cinematographer Jack Cardiff is famous for taking inspiration from Romantic painting and theatrical set design.) Most remarkably, all of the justly famous effects here—the slow-motion camerawork, Expressionistic sets, et cetera—bring the viewer closer to understanding the movie's heroine. That woman is a ballerina torn between the love of her composer husband and the rough demands of her profession—represented by Anton Wolbrook as a kingly choreographer. It's a simple premise rendered ornate through dense characterization (Pressburger's script accumulates psychological detail the way Powell delights in visual tricks), making THE RED SHOES one of those rare films as rich for adults as it is for children. (1948, 133 min, 35mm) BS
Charles Laughton's THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Tuesday, 7pm
Thought now considered a classic, at the time of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER's release in 1955 the American critics and public rejected it; Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester later remembered, "It just broke his heart." In 1954, the great author and film critic James Agee adapted Davis Grubb's bestselling novel The Night of the Hunter, which is loosely based on a series of actual crimes in rural West Virginia during the Great Depression. In Laughton's Southern Gothic film, the dangerous Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) meets a condemned man named Ben Harper in prison, who accidentally reveals that he hid $10,000 in stolen money somewhere in his home. After he gets out of jail, the preacher seeks out Ben's widow Willa (Shelley Winters) and her children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce); he even seduces Willa into marrying him. But Powell shifts his attention to John and Pearl when he suspects they know the money's location, and the children in turn flee in fear from their home. As Laughton crafted his story and its imagery, the work of the American cinematic pioneer D. W. Griffith primarily influenced him. For this new filmmaker, Griffith mastered a heightened, poetic melodrama, and Laughton aspired to recapture the power of his silent cinema. At the same time, Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez also applied the techniques of German Expressionism to render this strange fairy tale of the Deep South. In his review of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER in the Chicago Reader, critic Dave Kehr specified, "Laughton's direction has Germanic overtones—not only in the expressionism that occasionally grips the image, but also in a pervasive, brooding romanticism that suggests the Erl-King of Goethe and Schubert. But ultimately the source of its style and power is mysterious—it is a film without precedent and without any real equals." (1955, 93 min, 35mm) CW
Jacques Becker's EDOUARD ET CAROLINE (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday, 4:15pm, Saturday, 5:15pm, and Thursday, 6pm
Jacques Becker's underworld pictures remain his most recognized stateside, but this virtually unknown comedy is perhaps his most elegant work and definitely his most classical. A slim story told across two sets in something resembling real time, EDOUARD ET CAROLINE examines married life from a perspective that's simultaneously clinical and buoyant, serious-minded and loose-limbed. The milieu is haute bourgeois, post-war and post-REGLE DU JEU, contrasted with a freer lifestyle that's bohemian without being entirely egalitarian. There's some thread of a plot—the cosmopolitan Caroline (Anne Vernon) encourages her provincial serious-artiste husband Edouard (Daniel Gélin) to attend her uncle's salon, where he might make a profitable impression on his betters, but not before escalating stresses threaten the foundation of their marriage—but it's more grace note than through-line. With some distance, it resembles an American screwball comedy, more specifically the variant identified by the late Stanley Cavell as a comedy of remarriage. (With its soused aristocrats, airy mansions, and William Demarest look-alike Jean Galland, it unfurls like a continental cousin of THE PALM BEACH STORY by way of Roberto Rossellini, whose protean PAISAN discovery William Tubbs turns in a performance as the sweetest ugly American on record.) The relaxed naturalism of the performances—particularly the revelatory bite of Vernon, hitherto known to me only as the co-lead of an above-average M-G-M B-picture, TERROR ON A TRAIN—makes for an unusually convincing portrait of conjugal familiarity. Becker wrote EDOUARD ET CAROLINE with his partner Annette Waldman (scandalously unheralded, despite also writing MADAME DE ... and LOLA MONTES), and the film is, perhaps understandably, an uncomfortably two-faced thing, its sympathy moving in and out of register with the characters from one moment to another. Much of the film belongs to Vernon, who treats the camera not as an instrument of a voyeur's male gaze, but as her own private mirror. In those moments when Vernon regards herself, EDOUARD ET CAROLINE forges a new kind of cinema. It's also competing, alas, with a very old and very entitled system of gender stereotypes, which completely overtake the film as it winds towards its conclusion. Much of the second half is consumed with the consequences of an impulsive slap, which is treated with unsentimental seriousness until it isn't. In the final scene, it's Gélin who mugs for the camera, smugly telegraphing his gentlemanly will-to-power-and-normalcy. EDOUARD ET CAROLINE hails from a time when a courtly air and the threat of marital rape were wholly compatible, or perhaps simply the same thing. Yet that ugliness should not diminish the achievement of Vernon's performance, the extraordinary woman forever elevating her largely unworthy man. (1951, 91 min, DCP Digital) KAW
Jacques Becker’s THE LOVERS OF MONTPARNASSE (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm
“The authors of this film, while inspired by actual events, do not claim to have made a historical film,” reads a title card at the start of Jacques Becker’s penultimate feature, which began under the direction of Max Ophüls. (Ophüls died prior to production, and Becker, a good friend, took over the project.) A fictionalized biopic of Amedeo Modigliani, THE LOVERS OF MONTPARNASSE imagines the last few years of the painter’s life, during which time he struggled through alcohol and drug addiction, embarked on relationships with a couple of lovers-cum-muses, and held his only solo art exhibition. The film “is not really a biopic at all, more of a fantasy, a hallucination, a nightmare,” wrote Darragh O’Donoghue for Senses of Cinema. He added that Becker “frequently invokes the language of fairy tales and horror films, from Jeanne (Anouk Aimée) as the innocent princess locked in a tower by her wicked father, through the vampiric hold Beatrice (Lilli Palmer) has on Modigliani, to the climactic sequences where the artist leaves the socio-economic ‘reality’ of early 20th century France to tramp an Expressionistic, phantasmagoric, fog-choked Paris street to his death. Though set in the era of Cubism, Futurism and Dadaism, and despite the appearance of a (parked) motorcar and a (genteel) jazz band, there is a curious temporal dislocation in THE LOVERS OF MONTPARNASSE. This Paris feels less like the hub of speedy modernity than the poisoned Impressionist idyll of Becker’s best-loved film, CASQUE D’OR (1952), set at the turn of the century. Much of the film, such as the life drawing sequence where Modigliani finally meets Jeanne—a scene, we find out later, that is the culmination of the apparently meek Jeanne’s determined stalking of the infamous artist—could in terms of the clothes, faces and attitudes of the students, be set at the time of the film’s making.” (1958, 108 min, DCP Digital) BS
Sergio Cabrera’s EVERYBODY LEAVES (Colombian/Cuban Revival)
Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) – Wednesday, 6:30pm (Free Admission)
In 2006, Cuban writer Wendy Guerra published her first novel, Todos se van, based on her youthful diaries of the custody battle that took place between her divorced mother and father when she was 8 years old. Like all of Guerra’s works, the book, which was published in Spain and translated into English as Everyone Leaves by former Chicago Reader journalist Achy Obejas, is banned in Cuba. Colombian director Sergio Cabrera’s adaptation of it, made in his native country after he was refused permission to film in Cuba, makes no bones about the misery the communist government caused most of its people. The time is 1979, and young Nieve Guerra (Rachel Mojena) lives a privileged life with her mother, Eva (Yoima Valdés), and Eva’s second husband, Dan (Scott Cleverdon), a Swedish national given a palatial home on the ocean to live in while he helps construct a nuclear power plant. Nieve’s father, Manuel (Abel Rodríguez), is a Communist Party member who lives a ramshackle life of drunkenness as a playwright for a theater cooperative in a remote mountain village. He is furious that Eva left him and is happily remarried and, out of spite, insists he must have custody of Nieve to help him concentrate on his work. Aside from ignoring financial considerations, the custody hearing goes pretty much the way most such proceedings do all over the world, as Manuel successfully conspires with his comrades in the Party to discredit Eva and Dan as parents. Every government meddles in family life to one degree or another—in Cuba, the additional layer of ideological correctness makes parenting a perilous affair. The film depicts the 1980 Mariel Boatlift that took place after Castro gave Cubans permission to leave the country for the United States, and watching the practices of the communist state from the inside made the exodus more of a felt experience for me. Nieve’s story also put me in mind of the current scandal of refugee children separated from their parents at the U.S. border and sent to U.S. adoption agencies, making this story not only tragic, but also timely. Presented by the Chicago Latino Film Festival. (2015, 107 min, Video Projection) MF
George Cukor's GASLIGHT (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday, 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday, 1:30pm
GASLIGHT may be the only film whose title spawned a verb: to gaslight. That the word has endured—strikingly in both common usage and in a clinical context—is a testament to the fact that the film articulates something vital and singular. To gaslight someone is, basically, to convince them that they do not have a firm grasp on reality when, in fact, they have as firm a grasp as anyone else. In the film, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) woos Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) so that he can convince her to move into her murdered aunt's old house, with its stash of hidden jewels that Boyer intends to find (the aunt was murdered, we realize early on, by Boyer himself). In order to distract his wife from his search and from discovering his true identity, Boyer slowly erodes Bergman's sanity. The film's almost unutterable creepiness derives from the particular way that he does this: slowly, subtly, methodically. He convinces her that she's absent-minded when she's not; that she loses things he has in fact hidden; that she's done things she hasn't; that she hasn't when she has. The title derives from the diversion of gas from the rest of the house, causing the lights to dim, when Boyer hunts for the hidden jewels in the attic. When Bergman notices the lights periodically dimming, she's told she's seeing things and, eventually, believes it (at least consciously she believes it: film critic Robin Wood has made the argument that in pointing to a dissonance between Bergman's acceptance of her husband's accusations and her buried inklings of his true identity, GASLIGHT offers "the most marvelously precise definition of the relationship between conscious and unconscious knowledge"). All of this should be sounding uncomfortably familiar because, obviously, unintentional gaslighting is a primary feature of all romantic relationships. Who left the lights on? Who forgot to put away the food? Who said they'd call and forgot? You did, of course; you did, even if you can't remember. The phrase 'you're driving me crazy'—often repeated in the context of romantic relationships—is apposite; romantic partners literally and continually cause us to question our sanity. The possibility brought up by GASLIGHT, one you're likely never to forget completely after you've seen the film, is that they could be doing so on purpose. (1944, 114 min, 35mm) TM
Jia Zhang-Ke's A TOUCH OF SIN (Contemporary Chinese)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Sunday, 7pm
Expectations of something boldly different followed word from overseas that Jia Zhang-Ke, perhaps mainland China's greatest filmmaker, had begun work on his first commercial feature. The rumors were of a late Qing martial arts drama with sets, costumes, professional actors—the works. All this from a filmmaker whose oeuvre up to now might be said to constitute a wholesale rejection of the sort of glamorous historical fantasy fifth generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have come to live by. The rumors were true in part. The film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival was boldly, indeed thrillingly, different, but it was not a Qing set period epic. That production had been put on hold in order to make a different film, contemporary set yet no less epic in terms of the rich expanse of emotional and geographical territory it would cover. This film would address itself more directly to the exigencies of China's present condition in four true stories of violence, both physical and psychological, both structural and interpersonal, that together would form a portrait of a society brutalized by outlaw capitalism. What this abrupt gesture alone reaffirms about Jia is his earnest sense of duty as a social artist whose work always places the needs and concerns of his people above his own, or rather one for whom that distinction does not exist. While, in 2013, several American filmmakers, from Harmony Korine to Sofia Coppola, from Ridley Scott to Michael Bay and Martin Scorsese, released films that addressed what seems to have emerged, finally and thankfully, as a signal theme for the current cinema, it would take a filmmaker like Jia in a country as blasted as China to bring that issue—inequality, of course—its proper sense of urgency, scale and context. Where the Americans have emphasized the excesses of the haves, Jia has zeroed in on the destitution, not only material but spiritual, of the have-nots and, in the process, achieved something exceedingly rare in the movies: a just explanation, without a shred of speculative self-indulgence, of why people sometimes do horrible things. (2013, 133 min, DCP Digital Projection) EC
Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE (American Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Wednesday, 7pm
[Contains spoilers] Our protagonist (Kris Kristofferson) runs at top speed through Harvard Yard. He and his university buddy (John Hurt) soon head out West to make the fortunes that are their privileged right, but ultimately find themselves on opposite sides of a high-stakes legal dispute... Like THE SOCIAL NETWORK with horses and guns, it could be argued that the canonically-misunderstood HEAVEN'S GATE is but an extreme example of the impossibility of experiencing a film without context; when it was finally released nationally in April 1981, viewers long-familiar with the infamously over-budget production and disastrous critical reception in New York 4 months prior were anything but open-minded towards its slow-paced, luminous, and ultimately tediously violent drama. With the 1985 book Final Cut--former United Artists VP Steven Bach's rather riveting 400-page tome concerning events in and around the production of the film--the original 219-minute version becomes distinctly more enjoyable: not as the story of a forgotten 1892 dispute between wealthy cattle ranchers and Northern European immigrant homesteaders, but as the partial documentation of an almost inconceivable 6-month diversion of over $30 million in capital to Michael Cimino's own 156-acre ranch near Kalispell, Montana. Bach's book dispenses with the perspective that HEAVEN'S GATE should be seen as radically Marxist, especially given that the Rolls-Royce-driving Cimino's alternate project idea was an adaptation of The Fountainhead. Instead, Cimino's most radical move was to insist on casting Isabelle Huppert circa LOULOU, who brings a sweet disinterestedness to the unrestrained, decadent boys' club which financially crippled an entire studio; of course Cimino's script takes care that this character is later raped onscreen and riddled with bullets. Finally, those remaining who choose to ignore the surrounding legends--be it of the legendary bomb or the underrated classic--might even find something else: an unmediated connection to the sublime, pastoral magic-hour beauty of the land upon which some poor and huddled masses once helped erect the second greatest social network. (1980, 219 min, DCP Digital) MC
Alfred Green’s BABY FACE (American Revival)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St.) – Saturday, 7pm
Perhaps remembered best for his prolific output, Alfred Green had a flair for eliciting compelling performances from his lead actors and actresses (witness Bette Davis in DANGEROUS for one example). BABY FACE is no exception. This sultry Pre-Code Hollywood picture finds Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) fleeing her hometown after the death of her father and heading to New York where she uses her sexuality to achieve newfound fortune and power. Very early in the film, Lily is given a Nietzsche book by one of the few men in the world she seems to trust, and we can infer much of the film’s philosophical intentions from there. Be it to sneak aboard a freight train or to land a job as a secretary, Lily has no qualms about manipulating the revolving door of men she comes across to get what she wants, and easily discards them like pieces of trash once she’s outgrown their use. This sexual openness, both implied and realized, is quite shocking even for the laxness associated with Pre-Code era Hollywood (one year later, with the Production Code in effect, it would have been impossible). Stanwyck’s performance is the film’s high point and its one where she approaches the femme fatales of the next decade. Upon release, the film’s original ending was altered to one that was more upbeat in order to appease New York State censors. More than eight decades later, BABY FACE remains a stirring and timely tale about greed, promiscuity, and the willingness to rebrand oneself in order to get ahead in life. (1933, 75 min, Digital Projection) KC
Nadine Labaki’s CAPERNAUM (New Lebanese)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Capernaum is a city found in the New Testament where Jesus was said to have lived and performed more miracles than in any other place. Today, the land where Capernaum used to stand is Lebanon, and after seeing Beirut-born director Nadine Labaki’s searing drama CAPERNAUM, a viewer might wonder whether she chose that title to call forth a new redeemer to help the suffering poor whose stories she tells. A host of first-time actors is ably led by young Zain Al Fareea. He plays Zain, a 12-year-old boy who looks much younger, no doubt due to malnutrition, and whose parents are abusive and despairing. They marry off Zain’s beloved younger sister, Sahar, to a man three times her age, prompting Zain to run away and setting the stage for the climactic tragedy that will send Zain to jail and, in a strange twist, prompt him to sue his parents for giving him no chance to be the good person he knows he was meant to be. The film has a quality to it that reminded me of the Oscar-winning documentary BORN INTO BROTHELS: CALCUTTA’S RED-LIGHT KIDS (2004). The sheer struggle for survival in the slums of Beirut is heartbreaking, and watching Zain try his best to care for his siblings and then the one-year-old son of an undocumented Ethiopian woman who takes him in shows his heart and will are strong, but no match for the uncaring world of the adults around him. CAPERNAUM is an angry cry for people to do something about the misery of others. Labaki’s greatest achievement may be that she made a beautifully crafted film with such deep understanding for her untrained actors that it’s nearly impossible to tear our eyes from the screen or forget what we’ve witnessed. (2018, 119 min, DCP Digital) MF
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s SHOPLIFTERS (New Japanese)
Music Box Theatre — Check Venue website for showtimes
Coming home after a day spent shoplifting, a man and a boy see a young girl playing by herself outside an apartment and decide to take her home with them. Their household is presided over by an elderly woman, along with two younger women, one of whom has a relationship with the man. Their home is a ramshackle corrugated lean-to, perpetually in danger of being demolished by a local property flipper. They get by on various grifts and scams to supplement the meager salaries of the grownups’ menial jobs and the old lady’s pension. Each member of this makeshift family does their best to play the part they wish they had in their previous lives. I kept thinking of Dickens’ Oliver Twist while watching this movie. There’s a lot of Fagin in the man and of the Artful Dodger in the boy; the grubby neediness of their lives is out of Dickens as well. In his careful and unassuming way, Kore-eda has made a devastating indictment of capitalist society, as well as the sacrosanct place the nuclear family holds within its structures. He continues plumbing the depth and breadth of what connects one human being to another through this group of strangers—unwanted or rejected by their relations and by the larger world—who throw in their lots together to form a bond made by choice rather than blood. This one left me gutted. (2018, 121 min, DCP Digital) DS
Tom Volf’s MARIA BY CALLAS (New Documentary)
Gene Siskel Film Center — 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
Tim Wardle’s THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre — Monday, 9:45pm
Note: Spoilers! Playing like an unholy amalgam of THE TRUMAN SHOW, a human-interest puff-piece, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, this documentary about three identical twins separated at birth is a fascinating tale in an imperfect package. When three 19-year-old New Yorkers in 1980 accidentally discover each other they become instant celebrities, making appearances on the Phil Donahue Show and the like, and living it up at hotspots like Studio 54. But when their three sets of adoptive parents go searching for answers this feel-good fairytale quickly goes very dark. The Jewish adoption agency that placed the triplets with three families of different classes seemed to be using them and other twins to run a study to determine the effects of nature versus nurture. After one of the brothers commits suicide, his survivors are even more intent on learning the circumstances of their adoption but their efforts are frustrated by bureaucratic red-tape. The brothers and the only families they’ve ever known are justifiably outraged to have been treated like lab rats. The study they were part of was never published and most of those who ran it are dead or keeping mum about their intentions. The fact that a Jewish organization sponsored a program such as this less than twenty years after the Nazis’ eugenics experiments is equal parts baffling and horrifying. One junior staffer, now a distinguished elderly woman with sparkling eyes, insists they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong. At times, Wardle needlessly inserts reenactments and slo-mo cinematography to tart up his movie; this has become de rigueur since Errol Morris revolutionized the look and feel of documentaries, but these flourishes can’t obscure the power of the story Wardle is telling. More questions are raised than answered, as is often the case in actual life rather than fairytales. (2017, 96 min, DCP Digital) DS
Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s RBG (New Documentary)
Music Box Theatre — Thursday, 2:15pm
Is there any figure whose opinions are more routinely ignored, discounted, or even ridiculed in our contemporary society than an old woman’s? And yet—even before 2018 would become a summer defined by grueling media attention on the Supreme Court—Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an exception, able to quietly command attention and reverence through every word she utters. The alluring mystery at the heart of the biography RBG is Ginsburg herself, as a representation of the increasingly rare, public figure still able to inspire thoughtful reflection and advocacy, against the tide of our culture’s worst instincts. This buoyant profile of Ginsburg lovingly emphasizes her significance in various career roles, first as a feminist icon (crediting her as the architect behind the ACLU’s strategy for the women’s movement in the 1970s), then as the Court’s most accomplished litigator, and finally—in modern, increasingly traditionalist years—as the Court’s most forceful and resolute dissenting voice. Although West and Cohen’s doc frequently takes on all the trappings of a glossy magazine profile rather than the incisive portrait surely deserved by one of the greatest intellects of our time, it nevertheless benefits immeasurably from the remarkable, rejuvenating presence of Ginsburg herself. The weirdness of our culture’s Internet celebritydom becomes a part of RBG’s story too, but compared with Ginsburg’s depth, this maddening new source of cultural power feels like an entirely false and estranging one. Still, in an age of inadvertent stardom, it’s comforting to have a figure like RBG to idolize. (2018, 98 min, DCP Digital) TTJ
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
Block Cinema (Northwestern University) presents Security Sound and Vision: Tony Cokes on Wednesday at 7pm, with Cokes in person. Cokes will screen a selection of his experimental video work. Free admission.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents a program of short films by Akosua Adoma Owusu on Friday at 7pm, with Owusu in person.
South Side Projections and Bucket O’Blood Books and Records (3182 N. Elston Ave.) present An Evening with Kealan Patrick Burke on Sunday at 6pm. Horror author Burke will do a reading, sign copies of his books, and screen a program of short horror films he selected. Included are: Todd Coleman’s LIVING DOLLS (1980), Amelia Moses’ UNDRESS ME (2017), Colin Krawchuk’s THE JESTER (2016), David Sandberg’s ATTIC PANIC (2015), Lisa Dooley’s PERSEPHONE (2014), and others. Free admission.
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) screens John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s 2013 documentary FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (83 min, Digital Projection) on Saturday at 8pm, as part of its monthly Dyke Delicious series. Preceded by a social hour at 7pm.
The Goethe-Institut Chicago (150 N. Michigan Ave., Ste. 200) presents Short Films for Youth (2003-13, 65 min total, Video Projection), a program of German films without dialogue for youngsters aged 12-16, on Thursday at 4pm. Free admission.
Alliance Française (54 W. Chicago Ave.) screens John Cassavetes’ 1968 film FACES (130 min, Video Projection) on Wednesday at 6:30pm. Introduced the Chicago Film Festival Artistic Director Mimi Plauché.
The Northbrook Public Library (1201 Cedar Lane, Northbrook) screens Sidney Pollack’s 1972 film JEREMIAH JOHNSON (108 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm; and Spike Jonze’s 1999 film BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (112 min, Digital Projection) on Thursday at 7pm. Free admission.
The Park Ridge Classic Film Series (at the Pickwick Theatre, 5 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge) screens Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film THE GODFATHER: PART II (202 min, Digital Projection) on Wednesday at 1 and 7pm.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Jonah Hill’s 2018 film MID90S (85 min, DCP Digital) plays for a week; Jacques Becker’s 1953 French film RUE DE L’ESTRAPADE (100 min, 35mm) is on Tuesday at 6pm; Richard Yeagley’s 2018 documentary THE SUNDAY SESSIONS (89 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 8:15pm and Wednesday at 6pm; Emilio Belmonte’s 2017 Spanish documentary IMPULSO (87 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 5:15pm and Tuesday at 8:15pm; and Chris Marker’s 1989 French 13-part television miniseries THE OWL’S LEGACY is showing in four programs throughout January. Program Two (parts 4-6, 78 min, DCP Digital) is on Sunday at 5:15pm and Monday at 6pm.
Also at Doc Films (University of Chicago) this week: RaMell Ross’ 2018 documentary HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING (76 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 7 and 9:30pm and Sunday at 4pm; and Rose Troche’s 1994 film GO FISH (94 min, 35mm) is on Tuesday at 7pm.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 Mexican film ROMA (135 min, 70mm) continues through Sunday only; Tatsuya Nagamine’s 2018 Japanese animated film DRAGON BALL SUPER: BROLY (100 min, DCP Digital; English dubbed) opens on Wednesday; Marilyn Ness’ 2018 documentary CHARM CITY (107 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 2pm; Simon Lereng Wilmont’s 2018 Ukrainian documentary THE DISTANT BARKING OF DOGS (90 min, DCP Digital) is on Monday at 2:15pm; Dava Whisenant’s 2018 documentary BATHTUBS OVER BROADWAY (87 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 2pm; Kimberly Reed's 2017 documentary DARK MONEY (97 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 2:15pm; RaMell Ross’ 2018 documentary HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING (76 min, DCP Digital) is on Tuesday at 4pm; Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s 2018 documentary THE SILENCE OF OTHERS (96 min, DCP Digital) is on Wednesday at 2:15pm; and Jorma Taccone’s 2010 film MACGRUBER (99 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday and Sunday at 11:30am.
ONGOING FILM/VIDEO INSTALLATIONS
PRESENT ABSENCE, a five-channel video installation by Salome Chasnoff and Meredith Zielke, is on view at Uri-Eichen Gallery (2101 S. Halsted) through February 1 (call 312 852-7717 for an appointment). Opening reception is on Friday from 6-10pm.
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: Martine Syms' SHE MAD: LAUGHING GAS (2018, 7 min, four-channel digital video installation with sound, wall painting, laser-cut acrylic, artist’s clothes); and Dara Birnbaum’s KISS THE GIRLS: MAKE THEM CRY (1979, 6 min loop, two-channel video) is in the second floor corridor.
CINE-LIST: January 11 - January 17, 2019
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Michael Castelle, Edo Choi, Kyle Cubr, John Dickson, Marilyn Ferdinand, Tien-Tien Jong, Jonathan Leithold-Patt, Tom McCormack, Dmitry Samarov, Michael G. Smith, Candace Wirt