How condensed do you want your Almodóvar? In thirty taut minutes, the Spanish writer-director burrows inside Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play, “The Human Voice,” with Tilda Swinton as his physical and psychological blade. Studio-confined during pandemic days, it’s brightly, boldly interior in every way. Music Box Theatre; shown with Almodóvar’s 1988 breakthrough, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
What constitutes the most independent of independent films in the pocked film distribution landscape that constitutes 2021 so far? “Cherry,” directed by the “visionary” Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, as Apple publicity would have it, is an aggressive, profane two-and-a-half-hour crime drama with Tom Holland as a young man from Ohio who goes to war, suffers PTSD and makes terrible choices, not limited to heists and a woman. (The brothers’ movies include “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and history’s highest-grossing film, the $2.8 billion “Avengers: Endgame.”) The Russos’ circumstance isn’t precisely the same as Lucas’, but their innovative finance schemes and control of their creative choices suit the old adage that the only independent filmmaker in the American system was, through credit and a bursting fortune, once upon a time, George Lucas. Next up? A Chris Evans spy story set to establish a Netflix Cinematic Universe. Apple Plus streaming.
Filmmaker Ephraim Asili moves from takes on the African diaspora to his scripted first feature, “The Inheritance” (2020), where an ensemble portrays a West Philadelphia confluence of young Black actors and artists who form a collective. Distributor Grasshopper Film says that Asili’s inspiration began with his own experiences in a Black liberationist group, and with “politics, humor and philosophy,” he “weaves with a documentary recollection of the Philadelphia liberation group MOVE, the victim of a notorious police bombing in 1985.” Siskel streaming, March 12-26.
“Stray,” “Kedi” for puppies: the camera follows three doggos on the colorful historic streets of Istanbul. “They’re sort of walking emblems of resistance against capitalism,” director Elizabeth Lo told Salon about her two-years-in-the-making documentary. “They’re not property, they don’t participate in the job market. They just feed off scraps and the mercy of the people, and I think that’s really beautiful about their resistance.” Music Box Theatre, Music Box Direct; Facets.
Chicago Filmmakers announced the 2021 call for applications for its Chicago Digital Media Production Fund, now in its ninth year, a grant to support Chicago-based filmmakers and digital media artists making work intent on social change. With funding via Voqal, Filmmakers will award up to $100,000 in cash grants to support locally-made, web-based digital media projects, taking applications from March 15 to April 23; Chicago and Cook County artists can receive up to $20,000 for individual projects. Apply here.
Sayles on Sayles continues its conversation series through the Film Center with 1999’s “Limbo.” John Sayles always slipped readily from remunerative studio script-doctoring to financial and editorial control of his own bustling studies of the use of history and story in our world today, working as a maverick who puts his money where his moxie is. Memorably daring narrative turns mark the Alaska-set “Limbo,” as well as Haskell Wexler’s clear-eyed cinematography and intent performances by grown-ups David Strathairn (“Nomadland”) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio coming to terms with their lives in a space where a developer crows, “History is our future, not our past.” Sayles told me the movie was about risk: “If we’re talking about risks, I’m gonna ask the audience to take a couple of risks. The first one is I’m going to give them almost no warning about the structure. I don’t show you their world just for fifteen minutes like your average disaster movie, over half the movie is like a Robert Altman movie. I don’t tell you it’s going to turn into [an Ingmar] Bergman movie! Then you’re as surprised and disoriented as the characters, down to not showing what actions set them adrift. Then at the end, I’m saying to people, you’ve got to step up. This is a movie about risk and the other way out of those situations that people get into, treading water but not drowning, but you’re not going anywhere, is to take some kind of risk. It could be going on strike, it could be getting divorced, quitting your job, putting the mask on and joining Subcomandante Marcos. But it’s a risk. And you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. And very few people take them, even in their personal relationships.” Siskel Film Center, March 15, 6pm.
Awards contender and shit-stirrer “Promising Young Woman” comes to physical media as well as digital download and rental. From our December review: “An author applying the name ‘Cassandra’ tempts pallid polemic, but writer-director Emerald Fennell’s aggressive telling rises above the dearly didactic. There’s poppiness to gobble, there’s shine in the dark. The axe is sharp.” On Demand, Blu-ray, DVD, March 16.
“American Skin,” a formally convoluted and inept fictional history of the reaction of a Marine war veteran (Nate Parker) to officers eluding prosecution for his teenage son’s killing is lovingly lit and charismatically inhabited by Parker, who also writes and directs, but with no real-world plausibility and little psychological coherence but lots of showboating. (One index of the mess is that the film we are watching is presented as the rough cut of a student’s documentary, which continues even through a violent siege: Watch out, Nate, it’s not real at all.) I caught up with “American Skin” during this elongated awards season because of the enthusiasm of artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who may have loved it simply for taking the form of a loud lout of a tract. (“It touched me in the way a great John Cassavetes film or ‘Battle of Algiers’ would,” he counseled Parker in a Zoom exchange.) “It is Time To Change The Narrative” is one of the film’s taglines; whether that refers only to the movie but also to Parker’s earlier feature, “The Birth of a Nation” (2016) and the history of violence that marked the actor-writer-director’s career as finished before it had begun, I dunno. YouTube rental or purchase.
A Michael Bay-produced pandemic-spolitationer, produced during the summer 2020 months of lockdown (with conflict with authorities as the first mid-pandemic production), “Songbird” is a slick but airless “Romeo & Juliet” retread that hints at late twentieth-century late night cable TV fare, along with a few sweet widescreen Los Angeles panoramas in the off hours. If only landscapes as immediately recognizable as brand logos had taken center frame more often than the single-take-quality performances. There are a handful of plot devices about the famous and wealthy eluding lockdown from “COVID-24,” much like former Illinois Governor Rauner in his ultra-wealthy Florida Keys community making money deals to inoculate those around him, which appeared to have benefitted Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
It’s more negligible than nasty; it’s restrained enough that a raft of brand names makes it into its near future, including Blue Moon, Coors Light, Miller High Life, Tito’s and Fiji Water. Virus makes you thirsty. Bradley Whitford spits nasty glee in a few sharp instants as a dealer in virus letters of transit. Blu-ray, DVD, March 16.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.