ABBAS KIAROSTAMI X 3 (Iranian Revivals)
The Gene Siskel Film Center begins screenings of an extensive touring retrospective of the films of the great, late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami this week, with three programs. The series continues through the end of October, with a few titles showing on 35mm and the majority of the films in new digital restorations, many of which are extremely rare, or have not been available in good copies previously.
Abbas Kiarostami’s THE TRAVELER and THE BREAD AND THE ALLEY
Friday and Monday, 6pm
NOTE: Spoilers! Abbas Kiarostami considered THE TRAVELER (1974, 74 min, DCP Digital) to be his first "true" feature, and it was also the first film in which he worked "alone with [his] actors, without scripted dialogue," as he once told critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. It’s also the last film he shot in black and white. All that considered, if you’re anything like Qassem, the young protagonist of this compact work, nothing will deter you from getting to a screening of it. But it’s not a film that Qassem hopes to see; rather, it’s a soccer match in Tehran. He raises the money for his bus fare by stealing from his mother, pretending to take photos of his classmates, and selling his friends’ soccer equipment. Once in Tehran, he waits several hours to buy his ticket and then another few hours for the game to start. Sadly—and ironically—he misses it after he falls asleep outside the stadium. Considered to be Kiarostami’s first masterpiece, it introduces motifs that appear in many of his later films, such as oblique journeys and inconclusive conclusions. THE TRAVELER is about a child, just as most of his early films were about children, something he wouldn't make a film about again after HOMEWORK in 1989. One might say that Kiarostami’s career matured just like a child going into adulthood, with the themes of his films progressing accordingly. Yet Kiarostami here is indiscriminate; Qassem’s quest is treated as seriously as Mr. Badii’s in TASTE OF CHERRY, the plight of the child given as much weight as that of the adult. The former’s determination is admirable despite his underhanded tactics, though such machinations result in a guilt-induced nightmare. This dream sequence is unique in Kiarostami’s work, and it’s perhaps even out of place in a film that borders on neo-realism. In CLOSE-UP, Hossain Sabzian, the man whose arrest for impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the basis of the film, remarks that he’s the child from THE TRAVELER who’s left behind, in retrospect adding further gravitas to Qassem’s ill-advised tenacity. KS // Abbas Kiarostami’s first short film, THE BREAD AND THE ALLEY (1970, 12 min, DCP Digital), follows a young boy carrying bread home while navigating the labyrinthine alley that leads to his house. Opening with a shot of the boy kicking a piece of trash down the lane that Kiarostami would later revisit in his final short, TAKE ME HOME, the viewer is invited into the carefree nature of childhood, accompanied by a jazzy rendition of The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”. The film serves as an endearing metaphor for the innocence of youth and the realizations that what seems scary at first glance, might not always be so. Also showing is Kiarostami’s SO CAN I (1975, 5 min). KC
Abbas Kiarostami's WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE?
Saturday, 3:15pm and Thursday, 6pm
Abbas Kiarostami's WHERE IS THE FRIEND'S HOUSE? is compact in it's run-time and narrative range—it's a brief film with few characters and little narrative complexity—but is luxuriant with its poetry, cinematic inventiveness, and grace. The story is simple. Eight-year-old Mohamed keeps forgetting his school notebook, and if he forgets it again the schoolteacher will have him expelled. Our humble hero, Ahmed, accidentally takes Monhamed's notebook after class and has to journey to return the book, facing troubles from the terrain and unsympathetic adults. The little visual and narrative rhymes that pop up throughout the film are typified in the first moment of the film. For many mysterious minutes, the films credits roll over the swinging worn-blue door of the schoolhouse, a little later a handyman installing new doors provides the most frustrating and insensitive conflict for the young Ahmed, then a blue door returns to give Ahmed hope that he has found the right house, and during a nighttime odyssey through the neighboring town those new doors create a beautiful nocturnal light-show on the walls of the strange town. The modest door imagery is heightened with poetic simplicity, and an equally modest shoe is imbued with comedic potential. Ahmed is criticized for his shoes by his exasperated grandmother; he has a bit of naive slapstick getting the shoes on and off throughout, and late in the film one of the kindly adults he encounters is granted a moment of beautifully framed Chaplinesque action as he takes off his shoes to go upstairs. The child's viewpoint is privileged throughout the film, as adults become disembodied behind laundry and mules and brush. All of Kiarostami's considerable strengths are here—getting compelling work from nonprofessional actors, achingly gorgeous and striking landscapes—to create a plainspoken and undeniable masterpiece. Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, co-authors of the monograph Abbas Kiarostami, facilitate a discussion at the Thursday show. (1987, 84 min, DCP Digital) JBM
Abbas Kiarostami’s EXPERIENCE
When reviewing a body of work by a director as prolific and accomplished as someone like Abbas Kiarostami, it’s always fascinating to see how assured their filmmaking roots and style are in their early work. His first feature, EXPERIENCE, follows an orphaned fourteen-year-old working as an errand boy for a photography studio. Mamad’s daily life revolves around his work until one day when he meets a girl who seems attracted to him, spurring a change within him to get closer to her while improving his own conditions. The film is steeped in neorealism. Largely devoid of any kind of major plot, it instead chooses to focus on his daily grind and, most importantly, the many hardships he faces. “I’ll say this for him, he has a knack for misfortune,” comments a woman in his neighborhood aware of his struggles, but Mamad is nevertheless resolved to press on. Although shot in the 1970s, the film features a 1930s-esque sound design, which lends it a rather tactile quality. Hands turning on faucets with a satisfying squeak or trimming the edges of recently developed photographs with a weighty ka-chunk only further the deep sense of immersion Kiarostami was seeking as the audience experiences Mamad’s slice of life. EXPERIENCE is equal parts beauty and tragedy about the daily baggage one carries throughout life and announces the voice of a director whose work would become deeply influential to a new generation of filmmakers. Preceded by Kiarostami’s THE COLORS (1976, 16 min) and BREAKTIME (1972, 16 min). (1973, 57 min, DCP Digital) KC
Noir City: Chicago
Music Box Theatre – Friday-Thursday
Presented by the Film Noir Foundation, the annual Noir City series returns to the Music Box, loaded up with heavy-hitters Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Jacques Tourneur, Samuel Fuller, Richard Fleischer, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, and Stanley Kubrick; cinephile darlings Gerd Oswald, Richard Quine, and Robert Siodmak; and a few films by lesser-known directors. Most titles are showing in 35mm. We have generous coverage below; the additional films showing are: Robert Siodmak’s THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN (1950, 35mm; Friday, 9:30pm), Lewis Allen’s APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1950, 35mm; Saturday, 4:30pm), Samuel Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953, DCP Digital; Saturday, 9:30pm, Vincent Sherman and Robert Aldrich’s THE GARMENT JUNGLE (1958, 35mm; Tuesday, 9pm), Robert Wise’s ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959, Blu-Ray Projection; Thursday, 7pm), and Paul Stanley’s CRY TOUGH (1959, 35mm; Thursday, 9:15pm).
Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY PLACE (American Revival)
"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." Harried screenwriter Dixon Steele pens his own epitaph at the height of his ongoing part in the murder investigation of a hatcheck girl, but it's his impressionable girlfriend Laurel Gray who appropriates it to devastating effect at the culmination of Nicholas Ray's noir masterpiece. All Dix wants is a lucky break on a screenplay, but when an innocent evening with attendant Mildred ends with her as a corpse, suspicion follows him around, a burden he can't seem to shake even as he enters a whirlwind relationship with aspiring actress Laurel. IN A LONELY PLACE earns its exalted roost in the annals of classic Hollywood thanks to two towering performances, one from the inimitable Humphrey Bogart, and the other from the Grand Dame of film noir herself, Gloria Grahame. Of course, there's the Ray factor as well (who, at the time, was enjoying his short-lived marriage to Grahame, which would go very sour, far too soon), and his reckless determination to turn typical narratives on their head is in full bloom here. In sowing the seeds of suspicion against Dix, we careen after an ill-fated night drive into Laurel's perspective, with even a gruff "You drive!" and a passing of the wheel to mark the occasion. Bogie's greatest performance betrays no clear indication of innocence or guilt, and as Grahame ascends to the role of audience surrogate, her dilemma is all to palpable. By the end, it hardly feels hard-boiled, but it sure packs a mean punch. (1950, 94 min, 35mm) TJ
Richard Fleischer’s TRAPPED (American Revival)
Richard Fleischer directed the Eagle-Lion production TRAPPED just before he started making movies for major studios, but it’s hardly a piece of juvenilia. Indeed, it’s only slightly inferior to the likes of THE NARROW MARGIN or VIOLENT SATURDAY. Dark, relentless, and rich with the sort of professional detail for which Anthony Mann’s canonical film noirs have been celebrated, it certainly deserves a greater reputation. TRAPPED begins as a nifty little educational film about the workings of the U.S. Treasury, presenting the organization’s various functions before honing in on the work of busting counterfeiters. From there, the film introduces its thoroughly unlikable protagonist, Tris Stewart, a counterfeiter serving a seven-year sentence in a federal prison. A government agent approaches Stewart (played by Lloyd Bridges in that anonymous sort of performance that makes noir protagonists seem particularly menacing and unstable) and offers him early parole if he’ll help infiltrate a new gang of counterfeiters in Los Angeles. Stewart goes along with the plan, only to break away from his police escort once he’s out of prison. He still ends up back in the counterfeiting world—he wants to retire to a luxurious life in Mexico with his old girlfriend, and the only way he knows how is to obtain a set of plates for pressing fake $20 bills. The crime boss he meets agrees to sell him the plates, and to raise the money Stewart must plot a most dangerous crime. Fleischer presents the story curtly and with clinical precision—that is, in the ageless, protean style that made intense experiences out of everything from THE VIKINGS to MANDINGO. There’s no extraneous detail here; the film is a swift ride from one misdeed to another, with a few double crosses thrown in for good measure. (1949, 78 min, 35mm) BS
David Miller’s SUDDEN FEAR (American Revival)
As is the case with nearly every film in which she makes an appearance, Joan Crawford gives a powerful performance in SUDDEN FEAR. Myra (Crawford) is a wealthy heiress and playwright, who after turning Lester (Jack Palance) down for her next show, marries him when the two strike up a whirlwind romantic relationship. Lester discovers while Myra is writing her will that she plans to donate her fortune. Upset by this fact, he enlists his old flame, Irene (Gloria Grahame), to help him murder his wife so the two can collect the money. David Miller’s film is quintessential noir. The idyllic settings of San Francisco and Los Angeles aid in this and their locales are captured beautifully on screen with wide shots. In a genre famous for its grittiness and pulp, SUDDEN FEAR comes across as polished and sleek. The central narrative hinges on double-crosses on double-crosses as the characters learn of one another’s intentions in secret. Crawford’s performance showcases her ability to portray emotions of every sort, from infatuation and hatred to betrayal and fear. Grahame, who is no stranger to noir or playing the femme fatale, gives her strongest performance since CROSSFIRE and serves as the sultry counterpoint to Crawford’s more rigid demeanor. With well-polished set pieces, SUDDEN FEAR is an exciting cat and mouse game where the cat and mouse frequently change roles. (1952, 110 min, DCP Digital) KC
Richard Quine's PUSHOVER (American Revival)
While many recognize Fred MacMurray from his performance as Walter Neff in the film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY, his foray in PUSHOVER ten years later finds him playing a similar role. Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) plays a cop tasked with staking out a robber's girlfriend (Kim Novak) in hopes of tracking down a stolen $200,000. Sheridan is certainly a kindred spirit with MacMurray's decade younger noir character Neff. Both characters are steely, straight-laced men who are tempted into wrong doing by femme fatales. Richard Quine's casting of Novak as the seductive Lona McLane is a perfect match with the film's dark, subtly sexual atmosphere. Novak's duality shines in this film as she oozes femininity and toes the line between good and bad—the yin to her own yang. Back-stabbings abound in PUSHOVER as McLane crosses her boyfriend, Sheridan crosses McLane, and finally he crosses his fellow police officers. The title is befitting of its characters—all are easily pushed from one side of the law to the other. Worth mentioning is the film's minimal use of locations, which primarily McLane's apartment and the stake out spot directly across from hers in the U-shaped building. Parallels can be drawn between another famous 1954 movie and it's similarly restricted settings, REAR WINDOW. Although the two films were released quite close to each other, the resemblance of one apartment spying on another is quite uncanny. Billy Wilder's INDEMNITY surely inspired Quine in the making of this film, and Quine does an admirable job in his second venture into noir. PUSHOVER has all the trench coats, dark shadows, and crime the genre is known for, and a star is born with Kim Novak's performance. (1954, 88 min, 35mm) KC
Don Siegel’s PRIVATE HELL 36 (American Revival)
The title of PRIVATE HELL 36 makes sense only after the movie reaches its halfway point, when it switches from being a film about a police investigation to one about police corruption. Though the second half is the more suspenseful (and the narrative shift effectively surprising), the first is nothing to sneeze at—it’s a solid pulp yarn about two Los Angeles police detectives seeking a criminal who’d committed a murder in New York one year earlier. The film opens with the cold-blooded murder, which Don Siegel presents with characteristic brusque force (he surely made some of the most brutal films of the 1950s); the scene leaves a lasting impression, setting the stage (or so one might think) for a tale of justice being duly served. Yet the script, by Ida Lupino and Collier Young, goes off in an unexpected direction even before the big gear-shift moment. During their investigation, detectives Bruner (Steve Cochran) and Farnham (Howard Duff) find a lounge singer, Lilli Marlowe (Lupino), who received a big tip from a man they believe to be the New York murderer. Lili, whose past is so shady she prefers not to remember her real name, is suspicious of cops, and so she’s reluctant to give them any information. But romantic chemistry develops between her and Bruner, and soon she finds herself playing a major role in the investigation. Thanks to Siegel’s unsentimental direction, the blossoming romance between the cop and the disreputable woman becomes a vehicle for questions about moral compromise (the central relationship anticipates that of Robert Aldrich’s late masterpiece HUSTLE), and the understated cast shoulders these questions well. The moral questions get knottier and more urgent in the film’s second half, when Bruner reveals himself to be an even shadier character than the woman he’s infatuated with and his choices become harder to justify. Without giving away those choices, let’s just say that Siegel’s cynical worldview provides an ideal lens through which to view them. (1954, 81 min, imported 35mm archival print) BS
Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (American Revival)
Robert Aldrich's low-budget noir classic, a loose adaptation of the Mickey Spillane novel, goes off the rails almost from the get-go. A nightmarish midnight driving sequence—complete with a hysterical nuthouse escapee—sets the tone, evoking a sense of terror that eventually bookends the film. After being intercepted on the road, knocked cold, and with the woman dead, P.I. Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) later finds himself interested in her case. In search of a mysterious object, "the great whatsit," Hammer navigates the warrens of Los Angeles to discover its contents. Shot on location in L.A.'s Bunker Hill neighborhood, KISS ME DEADLY uses the actual settings that so many noir films took as inspiration in the studio. This added realism helps ground the melodramatic nature of its plot, albeit one rife with plot twists and brutal violence. Eventually culminating in a beach house and a magnificent reveal of the MacGuffin, KISS ME DEADLY supposedly captures the paranoia of cold war America. More than that, Aldrich's film comes at the waning of the classical noir period, and it both embodies and critiques the genre. Aldrich called his laconic main character a "cynical fascist" and said that KISS ME DEADLY demonstrated that "justice is not to be found in a self-anointed, one-man vigilante." (1955, 106 min, 35mm) BW
Stanley Kubrick's KILLER'S KISS (American Revival)
Stanley Kubrick's arty boxing noir was made on a shoestring budget, with the director also serving as sole screenwriter, cinematographer, and editor. On the one hand, this makes it the most "totally controlled" film of a director who tried to have his hand in every aspect of his movies; on the other, it's also clearly the work of young man still trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life (besides imitate Max Ophüls, that is). What comes through most strongly, more than on any of his other films, is Kubrick's background as a magazine photographer. Though the plot, which finds a down-on-his-luck welterweight trying to save a girl from a vicious crook, is ripe for pulp and scuzziness (original tagline: "Her soft mouth was the road to sin-smeared vengeance!"), Kubrick largely avoids the lurid in favor of a pictorial distance. Rather than giving the impression that he's lived with the characters, as someone like Raoul Walsh would, Kubrick treats every scene like a profile assignment that has tasked him with photographing some local personality he'll never meet again. While this often makes the film feel almost disarmingly reserved, it also gives KILLER'S KISS this weird quality of seeming to start over again with every scene, and Kubrick gets at a lot of photo-spread style visual details by treating the characters he's created as total strangers. (1955, 67 min, 35mm) IV
Gerd Oswald’s A KISS BEFORE DYING (American Revival)
Another in a surprisingly robust subgenre of Technicolor noirs involving desert mining (the others include Lewis Allen's DESERT FURY, Roy Ward Baker's INFERNO, and Richard Fleischer's VIOLENT SATURDAY), Gerd Oswald’s rarely screened A KISS BEFORE DYING juxtaposes both the distinctly cinematic hues of Technicolor and the vibrancy of the landscape with a plot illuminating, à la the noir tradition, the inherent darkness of man. German-born Oswald was the son of silent-era director Richard Oswald; he cut his chops as an often-uncredited first- and second-director on such films as Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD, George Stevens’ A PLACE IN THE SUN (note that the plot is similar to KISS), the aforementioned DESERT FURY, and Henry Hathaway’s own Technicolor noir NIAGARA before directing this, his first feature. (It would seem that most of his subsequent work was in television, though he went on to direct a disparate spate of theatrical features, including the western VALERIE, starring Sterling Hayden and Anita Ekberg; another noir, CRIME OF PASSION, starring Hayden and Barbara Stanwyck; BRAINWASHED, based on a Stefan Zweig novella and made in his native Germany; and BUNNY O’HARE, starring Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine, a film that seems to exist in a category all its own.) Oswald’s experience on Hathaway’s NIAGARA is likely an influence on this film, as the two have in common an intriguing flatness that’s all the more conspicuous amidst such lively colors and picturesque settings. But rather than tell a story of a femme fatale, it tells one of an homme fatale, Bud (Robert Wagner), who murders his pregnant girlfriend, Dorothy (Joanne Woodward), and takes up with her sister, Ellen (Virginia Leith), so that he may access their father’s mining fortune. Based on the eponymous 1953 novel by Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, it builds up to Bud’s decision to murder Dorothy, rather elongating the tension—the film is seemingly in step with Bud’s thought process, discovering his plans as he’s devising them. It’s not necessarily slow, but slowly realized, which makes it less of a potboiler and more of a, er, simmer-er, transforming a routine plot into something more tactical and thus more unnerving. The filmmaking is ambitious: its use of CinemaScope, a resourceful opening tracking shot, and accordant framing, again, elucidate a relatively generic plot. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is the perfect complement to Oswald’s precisely dissociated style; this is possibly another connection to Hathaway, as Ballard previously shot his films DIPLOMATIC COURIER, O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE, and PRINCE VALIANT. Ballard’s camera observes more than it depicts, another way in which the film feels more perceptive than penetrating, eschewing any sort of overt psychology for something simply overt. One could read it as a critique of the upward mobility fervently sought by lower- to middle-class people in the 1950s or even admire its audacious use of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a plot point—a fact that made it somewhat controversial at the time of its release—but even all that’s bridled by its palpable yet impervious mise-en-scène. (1956, 94 min, 35mm) KS
Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (American Revival)
As a genre, film noir has typically been hallmarked by straightforward, pulpy storytelling. Stanley Kubrick, on the other hand, has typically employed ambiguity and open-endedness with regards to adaptations in his own filmmaking. In THE KILLING, Kubrick displays his versatility as an auteur to create a noir based on Lionel White’s novel Clean Break that satisfies the former. Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is a career con ready to make one last score before retiring. His plan is simple, rob a racetrack during a huge race and ride off into the sunset. To accomplish this task, he enlists a host of accomplices—from a corrupt police officer to a betting teller from the track—who will all serve as distractions and assistants in the process. The film runs at a rapid pace, a rarity for Kubrick titles, and flows exceptionally well, thanks in part to the whip-crack script and the fluidity of the cinematography. The film features a strong ensemble cast, including many actors Kubrick had admired from other noirs; in particular, Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor as the bickering couple whose marital troubles lead to serious complications for the heist’s plan. The film’s multiple-perspective narrative also adds to its overall intrigue, rewinding the plot to depict facets that are all transpiring simultaneously. Even more than his first feature, KILLER’S KISS, THE KILLING announced Stanley Kubrick’s strong capabilities as a director. It’s a noir that has aged like a fine wine. (1956, 85 min, DCP Digital) KC
Jacques Tourneur's NIGHTFALL (American Revival)
NIGHTFALL—it's hard to think of a better title for Jacques Tourneur's film. It's as perfect for him as SUNRISE is for Murnau. The titles don't describe the films, but rather the sensation of watching them (though really isn't that the same thing?): Murnau's film is full of shadows, but every minute of it seems to bring you closer to some dawn; Tourneur's is almost free of them—it looks more like a B Western than a noir—but with every reel, the world itself seems to get darker, even as the film seems to come closer and closer to daytime. Aldo Ray is a very ordinary man trying to make a normal life out of his extraordinary circumstances—he's both wrongfully accused and on the run from the real perpetrators, neither able prove to the police that it was a pair of bank robbers that killed his best friend and not him nor convince to the bank robbers that he doesn't have their money. That's the tension—our tension, our doom, really, because it isn't Ray that is tense, or even the film. Somehow, all those feelings belong to us, to the audience, and it's that effect that makes NIGHTFALL one of Tourneur's most essential movies. (1957, 78 min, 35mm) IV
Orson Welles' TOUCH OF EVIL [1958 Theatrical Version] (American Revival)
The film opens with a close-up of a time bomb. A doomed couple crosses the border from Mexico to California with ticking death in the trunk of their convertible. Another doomed couple moves with them, on foot. In a moment, all the world will explode. But this isn't a film about explosions and death. It's a film about violence, about the horrifying disconnect between words and deeds, about betrayal and lies. As the racist bully of a policeman, Hank Quinlan, Orson Welles exudes grotesquery, sweating bullets of injustice and bigotry with every wheezing step. He blunders through the film, a monstrous presence prepared to do anything to enact his vision of law and order, willing to frame a man for murder just because he doesn't like his attitude. All is transient, in flux, not merely taking place on the border but being about borderlines themselves. Where do we draw that line between interrogation and torture, between investigation and harassment, between evidence and supposition, between the friend and the foe? TOUCH OF EVIL is a film of cold fury, one that gives us a vision of existence as a permanent state of emergency, in which all that was previously thought solid has not just melted but burst into flames. The film begins with a bomb in a bravura long-take that falsely shows the world as whole, coherent, legible, only to destroy that world, to show it as always having been destroyed just moments before. But it ends with a sequence of crushing beauty: Quinlan, pursued through a wasteland of Mexican architectural filth by the mock-heroic Vargas (Charlton Heston), finally learns that in this space of nihilism, where things themselves can lie (a stick of dynamite, a photograph, a corpse) his own words are the only things he cannot escape. Objects are mere opportunities for deceit here, and space just a field of power, mastered by evil and oppressive, corrosive, of the genuine. Only words, perversely, can be trusted, and it's through words, finally, that the monster will be slain, though it's a meaningless victory: the man Quinlan framed has been tortured into confessing anyway. Marlene Dietrich's famous line of elegy, 'What does it matter what you say about people?' is the loveliest and bleakest affirmation of the indefatigability of injustice ever put on celluloid. (1958, 95, 35mm) KB
Don Siegel's THE LINEUP (American Revival)
Based on a long-running television series of the same name, Don Siegel's THE LINEUP brings the efficiency of small screen storytelling to the movie theater—in just under an hour and a half, Siegel presents a multi-faceted crime drama that could also serve as an unconventional yet highly captivating visual tour of San Francisco. At the beginning of this noir, two detectives catch on to an international drug smuggling scheme after one of their colleagues is run over by a getaway car carrying a suitcase of travel souvenirs in which the drugs are hidden. The sullen buddy-cop duo working to avenge one of their own is a tried and true foundation, and Siegel's presentation of such a plot device is deceptively mundane. After twenty minutes of a standard detective drama, complete with ballistics and a body being pulled from the water, Siegel shifts focus to the criminals. There is no 'whodunit'—as the detectives identify a watery stiff, their criminal counterparts fly in overhead. At first, the assassin pair seem almost comical. One is a stodgy intellectual type with a fondness for grammar and last words, while his partner is a rough and tumble gangster who can't get a grasp on the subjunctive. The caper wears on, and any semblance of humorous banality is soon overshadowed by the criminals' sociopathy. The unsophisticated thug, known as Dancer and played chillingly by Eli Wallach, kills without remorse, while his disillusioned partner waxes poetic about the morality of criminal thinking. The subtle hints of humanity implied by their quirkiness are squashed by antisocial brutality, bringing the film full circle to Siegel's usual brand of inexplicably brutish violence. Many critics have likened Siegel's filmmaking skills to those of a television director, and while the comparison may be intended disparagingly, it's this unusual artistry that accounts for the film's nuances. Combined with a distinct sense of pacing that usually makes for excellent television, Siegel's seemingly standard crime story is actually a well-organized grab bag of noirish idiosyncrasies. Also thrown into the mix are many wonderful shots of San Francisco, with such on-location realism adding yet another layer to a film already rich with surprising complexity. (1958, 86 min, 35mm) KS
Susan Seidelman’s DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (American Revival)
Music Box Theatre — Saturday and Sunday, Midnight
Susan Seidelman’s SMITHEREENS (1982) is one of my favorite discoveries of recent years, prompting me to explore her career further. Imagine my surprise at learning that DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985), Seidelman's most recognizable work (owing to its casting of Madonna in her first major film role), was inspired in part by Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING, one of the most idiosyncratic French New Wave masterpieces. In hindsight, both SMITHEREENS and DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (and perhaps other films of hers—I still have more to discover or revisit) are absolutely Rivettian in nature, Seidelman’s filmmaking aligned with Rivette’s in more than just basic plot points. SUSAN stars Rosanna Arquette as Roberta, a bored suburban New Jersey housewife who’s enthralled with a series of personal ads written by a man named Jim; he’s desperately seeking a woman named Susan, played by Madonna, whom Pauline Kael affectionately called “an indolent, trampy goddess” despite not otherwise liking the film. The two women cross paths when Roberta goes to New York City's Battery Park, where Jim’s ad had requested he and the freewheeling Susan rendezvous. Thrown into the mix are such charmingly Rivettian elements as New Wave mobsters, stolen ancient Egyptian earrings, amnesia, and, finally, mistaken identity. Roberta temporarily forgets who she is and everyone assumes she’s Susan; this soon turns into a sort-of switcheroo when the real Susan invades Roberta’s humdrum suburban life. As Susan, Roberta meets Dez, played by Aidan Quinn (swoon), a projectionist (double swoon) at the Bleecker Street Theatre who’s friends with the real Susan’s Jim—when it comes to heteronormative romances as a central plot point, a young Aidan Quinn playing a projectionist (again, swoon) is about as good as it gets. The twists and turns down the rabbit hole—Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was an inspiration for both Rivette and Seidelman’s films—even include a magic club reminiscent of the one where Juliet Berto performs in CELINE AND JULIE. The small details most obviously suggest Rivette’s influence, but the larger concepts cement it. In his obituary for the filmmaker in the New Yorker, Richard Brody opined that “[h]is films reflect something bigger than the practical details of one person’s life; they represent an effort to capture the fullness of an inner world, a lifetime’s range of obsessions and mysteries.” This interpretation of Rivette’s ideology dovetails with my appreciation of Seidelman’s first two films as veritable feminist texts, specifically in how they illuminate that so-called inner world of humans whose gender often precludes them from being thought of as beings with rich interior lives. That array of obsessions and mysteries could be said of Wren from SMITHEREENS and the heroines of SUSAN, for whom things like music, fashion, and even romance—things sometimes associated, and sometimes in a negative context, with women—present an opportunity to escape the plodding monotony of domestic life. Adding to Seidelman’s all-around-cool cred is a supporting cast that features the likes of Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Richard Hell, John Lurie, and even a cameo from the THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS triplets. The overall aesthetic, from the snazzy costumes to the absolutely awe-inspiring production design and finally the neon and candy-colored lighting, is superb, the attention to detail an appropriate ode to the fullness of its protagonists’ inner worlds. (1985, 104 min, 35mm) KS
Alejandra Márquez Abella’s SEMANA SANTA (Contemporary Mexican)
Cinema/Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) - Wednesday, 6:30pm (Free Admission)
One of the most impressive films I saw last year was Alejandra Márquez Abella’s second film, THE GOOD GIRLS (2018). It was my first exposure to the work of this Mexican director and screenwriter, and her examination of the rich and careless in Mexico City was one of the most pointed critiques of how societies are structured to equate wealth with goodness that I have seen to date. I have now caught up with her feature debut, SEMANA SANTA, and I can state unequivocally that it is one of the most auspicious debut films I have ever seen, revealing a unique voice and vision that are apparent right out of the blocks. Directing her original screenplay, Márquez Abella took on the exceedingly difficult task of telling four stories that occur over the four days of Semana Santa (Easter) to a family grouping composed of a mother, her boyfriend, and her eight-year-old son. The first story is of the trio together as they check into a vacation resort for a long holiday at the beach and the fractures that exist between them—son Pepe (Esteban Ávila) dislikes boyfriend Chávez (Tenoch Huerta), who has an air of disrepute about him, and loving mother Dalí (Anajosé Aldrete Echevarria), who nonetheless seems too wrapped up in her new relationship to attend to Pepe’s emotional needs. On the third day, the Saturday of Glory, each goes off into their own story to explore the pleasures and limits of freedom. Márquez Abella peers at her characters in their unguarded moments with a variety of shooting styles that help the viewer get inside the experience of the principals—Pepe riding a horse, playing with a girl, and leading a religious devotion for the children at the resort; Chávez finding solace from Dalí’s criticism and some financial woes with a couple of girls who accompany him to a ceviche joint he remembers from his childhood and ply him with LSD; Dalí experiencing temporary freedom on a jet ski and enjoying the company of an older American man who avoids all the clichés. When the trio regroups the following day, we sense a shift in the air. Márquez Abella impresses with the subtlety and sure-handedness she brings to these ordinary, yet profound, stories. (2016, 85 min, Digital Projection) MF
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE (New Documentary)
During the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt was the most popular female singer in the United States. More than that, she changed the face of rock and roll, brought together musicians in her back-up band who would later form the Eagles, and busted through every barrier the niche marketers of the recording industry tried to put in her way to sing every style of music she wanted to tackle. Folk, country, rock, pop, R&B, mariachi, classics from the American songbook, operetta, opera—she did it all, and did it well. The round-faced phenom from Tucson deserves a great documentary, and she gets one with LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE. The Telling Pictures co-founders and co-directing team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (THE CELLULOID CLOSET , PARAGRAPH 175 , STATE OF PRIDE ) have frequently told stories about the gay community since they began collaborating in 1987. A documentary about Ronstadt may seem a bit of departure for them, but in both collaborative and individual directorial efforts, they have ventured wide, from their Oscar-nominated documentary short about the frontiers of medicine, END GAME (2018), to a feature film centered on porn star Linda Lovelace (LOVELACE ). The challenge Ronstadt’s story posed was to show the progression of her career and artistry by making the right choices from among the vast expanse of her performances and archival interviews. From early footage of her gigs with the Stone Poneys at the Troubadour in Los Angeles to her performance as Mabel Stanley in director Wilford Leach’s film adaptation of Joseph Papp’s stage production of The Pirates of Penzance, Epstein and Friedman have covered a representative sample of her genre-hopping excellence and even some of her poor choices, such as her cover of Lowell George’s “Willin’.” The sound quality is variable, but generally quite good, and watching her learn how to sing in Spanish from Rubén Blades in clip from THE RETURN OF RUBEN BLADES (1985) shows her dedication to her art. Her friendships and collaborations with women—Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Bonnie Raitt, Anna McGarrigle, all of whom are interviewed for the documentary—are shown to have formed a bedrock for her in the masculine world of rock, which she said in a filmed interview was a lonely place for her. We get short sketches of her upbringing and personal life, including her highly publicized romance with California Gov. Jerry Brown, but the overwhelming focus of the film is where it should be—her singing legacy. I wanted to know more about her musical training (not much, apparently), but Epstein and Friedman had to leave a lot out from this fully packed life. Their film, narrated by Ronstadt herself, shows her to be a pioneer and a woman in charge of her own destiny, at least until her story links with the directors’ AIDS-focused films—her affliction with Parkinson’s disease, which robbed her of her career and a big chunk of life as she knew and loved it. After watching and listening to all of the wonderful performances Ronstadt gave over the years, the silencing of her voice is like a death in the family. (2019, 95 min, DCP Digital) MF
Sergei Eisenstein's BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (Soviet Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center — Friday, 3:45pm and Tuesday, 6pm
After Griffith's INTOLERANCE, this is the film cited by many as the moment when montage became a form of creative expression equal to mise-en-scene or acting. It is a politicized montage, of course, as Eisenstein was commissioned to make the film in commemoration of Russia's failed revolution of 1905; indeed, the dense collections of images succeed in transforming an entire populace into a single hero. As J. Hoberman wrote in his recent reappraisal of the film, "Dynamic conflict is present in and between every filmic image as Eisenstein orchestrates a percussive shift in angles, cutting usually on action, from long shot to close-up. At the same time, each shot is a metaphor—the maggoty meat of the ancien regime, the shadow of the Cossack regiment. For all Potemkin's rabble-rousing propaganda, Eisenstein's aestheticism is everywhere apparent." Critic and artist Fred Camper lectures at the Tuesday screening. (1925, 70 min, DCP Digital) BS
Rachel Lears' KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE (New Documentary)
Chicago Filmmakers (5720 N. Ridge Ave.) - Saturday, 7pm
It's not really democracy, is it, if only people with access to millions of dollars can realistically stand for office? Well, Rachel Lears' exhilarating documentary KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE gives us a look at what democracy might actually look like, and it's inspiring. In case we've been asleep, an epigraph informs us that in 2018, "record numbers of women, people of color and political outsiders set out to transform Congress." All around the country, progressives Democrats went up against establishment Dems—the "bosses" and their machines. Lears follows four of these women in the year leading up to the primaries. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is working as a waitress and bar-back in the Bronx when we meet her. Her sense of fun and humor, her integrity and seriousness of purpose, are evident straightaway. Cori Bush, a nurse, hails from the Missouri district where the police shot Michael Brown to death. Giving up an executive-level job, Amy Vilela from Las Vegas was motivated by a personal tragedy to fight our nation's deadly for-profit healthcare system. Coal-miner's daughter Paula Jean Swearingen, from West Virginia, is fighting the coal barons who have brought death and environmental destruction to her hometown. I should probably put my film critic hat aside and just admit that I'm an all-out partisan of this movement. Still, solidarity wouldn't compel me to recommend this film if I didn't also think it an excellent and honest documentary, albeit one in a very familiar vérité style. Lears has an observant, affectionate eye for the telling gestures and expressions, the faces and landscapes that flavor and bond these very diverse American communities. She structures the film to ride a conventional, suspenseful narrative arc, designed to be accessible for wide Netflix consumption. It's a great true story: at its best, it can restore your faith in humanity. KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE is a moving and important, if sobering, piece of work. It's going to take a lot more of us just like these four brave, ordinary-but-extraordinary women for democracy to come to the USA. (2019, 86 min, Digital Projection) SP
Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD (New American)
Music Box Theatre – Check Venue website for showtimes
Having finally arrived, Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD could not be any truer to its creator’s decades-long fascination and obsession with 1960’s and 70’s cinema, though it also feels slightly atypical for the director. Without giving anything away, the long blocks of back-and-forth dialogue that Tarantino usually indulges in have begun to give way to more preoccupation with staging, fourth-wall-breaking camera moves, and all around color, resulting in an ambling and evocative dreamscape rife with a whole host of characters. Atmosphere has never been so palpable and dialogue between characters so natural in a Tarantino film—there’s nary a monologue in sight. The film begins at the tail end of an era in Hollywood filmmaking in which rapidly-fading TV actor/cowboy “heavy" Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is seeing his career head towards Italy, specifically towards the cheap and fast genre films of Sergio Corbucci. Burt Reynolds went to Rome to work with Corbucci, Eastwood did the same for Sergio Leone, along with character actors like Lee Van Cleef, and so did one-time TV western stars like Ty Hardin (Rick Dalton is probably most similar to the latter). In the cases of Reynolds and Eastwood, their careers were revitalized by the Italian industry, but many others, like Hardin, were pushed further into obscurity. While watching his star power sputter out in what he perceives to be his twilight years, Dalton is accompanied by his sidekick/assistant/stunt man/reflective image Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who lives in a trailer behind a drive-in theater, while Dalton lives in a Benedict Canyon home (with pool, naturally). He lives next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and Manson family members are prowling around the streets of L.A., hollering at police officers and offering up blowjobs while they try to hitch back to their nesting grounds at the Spahn Ranch. Tarantino covers a lot of ground in ONCE UPON A TIME—an entire landscape of stories is on view, not dissimilar to something like Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE or even Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED. The film has a near three-hour running time, but three hours that have never seemed so short and compact in recent film memory. The movie has a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it pace, rare for a director who sometimes has a tendency to halt the rush of his work with overly bravura dialogue sequences. Tarantino seems to find fresh new ground within his already steadfast movie-making abilities, to let the scope of his powers extend further than previously thought possible. He barely pauses for the chance to show off his noted screenwriting abilities, and instead chooses to craft an ensemble work that somehow feels more epic than any of his films have ever felt; this is Los Angeles completely transformed back to the summer of 1969, in a way that only a very large budget and large talent could realize. It might possibly be one of the last times we see Hollywood bankroll such an ambitious project, by an auteur still powerful enough to retain final cut. ONCE UPON A TIME isn’t as cynical a look at Hollywood as other films have been (such as Altman’s THE PLAYER—even though it does share a curious opening shot). It’s more bittersweet nostalgia, and is perhaps Tarantino’s breeziest and best work to date; his entire career as a director bursts forth as both a marvelously crafted time-capsule and a fantasy-land-rendering of a mythical Hollywood, specifically the place where dreams, however real, are made. (2019, 165 min, 35mm—except for the 4:30 and 8pm Tuesday and Wednesday shows, which are DCP Digital) JD
MORE SCREENINGS AND EVENTS
The Chicago Film Society (at Northeastern Illinois University, The Auditorium, Building E, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.) screens Bud Pollard’s 1948 film LOOKOUT SISTER (63 min, 35mm archival print) on Wednesday at 7:30pm. Preceded by Aubrey Scotto’s 1932 short A RHAPSODY IN BLACK AND BLUE (10 min, 35mm archival print).
Asian Pop-Up Cinema presents Lee Min-Jae’s 2019 South Korean film THE ODD FAMILY: ZOMBIE ON SALE (111 min, Digital Projection) on Tuesday at 7pm at AMC River East 21, with Lee Min-Jae in person; and Hong Seung-Wan’s 2019 South Korean film JUROR 8 (114 min, Digital Projection) on Thursday at 7pm at AMC River East 21, with Hong Seung-Wan in person.
PO Box Collective (6900 N. Glenwood Ave.) screens O Meul’s 2012 South Korean film JISEUL (108 min, Video Projection) on Friday at 8pm. Free admission.
Instituto Cervantes (31 W. Ohio St.) screens Elena Martín's 2017 Spanish film JULIA IST (90 min, DVD Projection) on Tuesday at 7pm; and Carlos García Agraz's 2004 Guatemalan film WHERE THE ROADS END (82 min, Digital Projection) on Thursday at 6:30pm. Free admission.
The Spertus Institute (610 S. Michigan Ave.) screens Miguel Kohan’s 2019 documentary THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE, FROM BASAVILBASO TO NEW AMSTERDAM (88 min, Digital Projection) on Monday at 7pm, with producer Daniel Dunkelman in person.
The Juggernaut Film Festival, focused on science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, and presented by and taking place at Otherworld Theatre, takes place Friday-Sunday. More information and full schedule at www.juggernautfilmfestival.com.
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Morgan Spurlock’s 2017 documentary SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! (93 min, DCP Digital) begins a two-week run; Salvador Simó’s 2018 animated Spanish film BUÑUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES (80 min, DCP Digital) plays for a week; Jeanine Isabel Butler’s 2019 documentary AMERICAN HERETICS: THE POLITICS OF THE GOSPEL (85 min, DCP Digital) is on Friday at 4pm and Sunday at 4:45pm; Daniel Alpert, Greg Jacobs, and Jon Siskel’s 2018 documentary NO SMALL MATTER (74 min, DCP Digital) has five screenings, with the directors and additional guests in person at four of the shows; Brian Rose’s 2018 documentary WHEN I LAST SAW JESSE (82 min, DCP Digital) is on Saturday at 8pm and Wednesday at 8:15pm, with Rose in person at both shows.
Also at the Music Box Theatre this week: Victor Kossakovsky’s 2019 documentary AQUARELA (90 min, DCP Digital) continues; Curtis Bernhardt’s 1946 film A STOLEN LIFE (109 min, 35mm) is on Saturday and Sunday at 11:30am; and Adam Krause’s 2018 film GAGS THE CLOWN (100 min, DCP Digital) are on Friday and Saturday at Midnight.
At Facets Cinémathèque this week: Ognjen Glavonic’s 2018 Serbian/International film THE LOAD (98 min, Video Projection) has a week-long run.
CINE-LIST: September 6 - September 12, 2019
MANAGING EDITOR // Patrick Friel
ASSOCIATE EDITORS // Ben Sachs, Kathleen Sachs, Kyle A. Westphal
CONTRIBUTORS // Kian Bergstrom, Kyle Cubr, John Dickson, Marilyn Ferdinand, Tristan Johnson, JB Mabe, Scott Pfeiffer, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Brian Welesko