“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is Marvel’s latest extension of its production line, in theaters only over the Labor Day weekend. Spike Lee’s almost eight-hour city symphony “NYC Epicenters: 9/11 -> 2021 ½” concludes on HBO, the BBC and Apple present “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room,” a ninety-minute froth of first-person testimony from those around George Bush and Dick Cheney on the first hours of that fateful day two decades ago when our leaders were unprepared at every turn. A poppy “Cinderella” splashes on Amazon, and more thoughts fly about “Candyman.” Full Spectrum Features presents the seventh Chicagoland Shorts compendium and other Film Center attractions include the Chicago Choices series’ presentation of Steven Soderbergh’s “corker of dread,” “Contagion,” and the ebullient “Singin’ in the Rain,” as well as Jonathan Rosenbaum discussing John Cassavetes’ “Shadows.” Martial arts classic “The Grandmaster” by Wong Kar-wai is streaming on Netflix.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” brings in a Marvel martial arts fantasia under the hand of director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “I Am Not A Hipster”) and cinematographer William Pope (“The Matrix” trilogy; “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”; “Team America; World Police”) as well as showcase roles for Simu Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina and the indelible, ineffable classic cinema presence that is Tony Leung (“In the Mood For Love,” “Hero”).
Spike Lee’s nearly-eight-hour series, “NYC Epicenters: 9/11 -> 2021 ½” reaches its final episode on HBO on September 11, with just under a half-hour sheared from the ending, where Lee had given acreage to notorious conspiracy theorists; Lee returned to the editing bay after journalists screened the entire series and were dumbfounded. Spike is a fierce and loving citizen, and his essay-assay of the city holds little back in what’s been seen so far. The trailer below is a fair taste.
“9/11: Inside the President’s War Room,” directed by Adam Wishart, takes the unsworn testimony of the figures who, on September 11, 2001, were around former President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for the first twelve hours, including Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, chief of staff Andy Card, director of communications Dan Bartlett, situation room head Rear Admiral Deborah Loewer, deputy chief of staff Josh Bolten and dishonored reprobates including press secretary Ari Fleischer, senior advisor Karl Rove, the Trump-pardoned Scooter Libby and Cheney advisor Mary Matalin who says of 9/11, “It was ‘Mad Max’!” Wishart’s simple graphics overlay interviews captured in the two-cameras-ninety-degrees-apart “objective” manner of the familiar twentieth-century talking heads documentary style, one that doesn’t suit the canvas of shock and incompetence with which we live with twenty years later. (Which isn’t to say that every filmmaker needs to be a hyperbolist like Spike Lee with his impassioned seething or Adam Curtis as cool-tempered veejay of history.) The interviews are described as being recorded for “the first time ever,” and the breathless tick-tock sets the teeth quickly and decisively on edge. To a person, they seem proud at recall of each failure, and there’s so much grinning from the likes of Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. It’s also creepy hearing “We were going like the bat out of proverbial hell” issuing from the thin lips of the elderly Rove. There’s little perspective and no poetry from these former public servants. How does George W. Bush sum up the moment? “Disbelief and shock and horrah… there’s always a void, and into that void comes, in this case turned out to be, a psychological tsunami,” after which he smiles at his pile of words, a visual sigh. Outside the purview of the timeline device, too, is the twenty-year war begun by Bush in Afghanistan that ended days before this documentary was available to the public. Jeff Daniels narrates, adding gravitas where the shag carpet of doomy synth sounds cannot. Apple TV Plus; free on 9/11.
“Cinderella” is an entry into the Netflix genre of brightly colored product for a forgiving teen audience, but this is not all that; it may turn out to be better remembered for one or more videos from Los Angeles that appeared online from drivers who were stuck in traffic because of flash-mob promotion of the picture, with Billy Porter, Camila Cabell and Idina Menzel as well as the odious James Corden in a rat suit thrusting at a driver-side door to a cover of Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud.” Typical response, from Twitter user NotViking: “i am generally trying to be more positive in my life and ignore things that annoy me but i just can’t scroll past this without saying that if this happened to me i would absolutely be committing a litany of crimes that would land me in federal prison.” I also have no complaint with Jeremy Kaplowitz‘s “James Corden is the most ‘worked with the robots to betray the humans and get put back into the Matrix as a famous actor’ person who has ever existed.” “Cinderella”? “Cinderella”? “Cinderella”? “Cinderella”? I hesitate saying the name one more time, my finger hesitates on clicking the link. “Ci—” Streaming on Amazon Prime and at selected theaters, starting Friday, September 3.
More on the “Candyman” beat, after its $22.4 million opening estimate in U. S. theaters: Chance the Rapper is a fan, tweeting “Candyman wins for best cinematography. Calling it now.” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has a thread on the real-life terroir of the tale: “Candyman premieres today, but there’s one theater in Chicago that won’t screen the film – the ArcLight Cinema that replaced the New City YMCA. Why? The reason is scary…” (Continued here.) NPR has a detailed interview with the score’s composer, Chicago’s own Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. “Lowe’s voice and modular synthesis compositions showcase his disciplined practice of conjuring ambient drones and a binaural sound world that enhances the film beyond the normal scope of its already dense and thoroughly explored folklore… Lowe’s score doesn’t merely complement the action of the scenes; instead, he evokes the emotional conditions of the film with sound, using ritual hums and murmurs, accelerated and unified by undulating improvisational harmolodic expressions that draw on sonic legacies of horror storytelling.”
About the Chicago art onscreen, drawn from the film’s press kit: “Hamza Walker, former long-time curator at Chicago’s Renaissance Society, who now serves as executive director of L.A.’s non-profit LAXART, ghost-curated the fictional group exhibition at Night Driver Gallery, ‘A Fickle Sonance.’ Real-life artists included in the show are Theaster Gates, Arnold J. Kemp, Torkwase Dyson and graffiti artist Tubsz. Production designer Cara Brower discovered local artist Julian E. Williams, a drawing and painting instructor in Chicago’s Hyde Park and Evanston neighborhoods and a bus driver for the CTA to create the paintings featured in a flashback scene… Another key element of the production’s engagement with the contemporary art scene of Chicago was specific cast members’ exposure to their real world counterparts. In preparation for her role as an aspiring curator, Teyonah Parris was in dialogue with MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, who was recently named deputy director and chief curator of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. “Candyman“ is the first feature film to film inside the galleries of the MCA,” shooting a scene within Virgil Abloh’s solo exhibition, “Figures of Speech.” The most lucid of negative reviews is from Chicago’s own Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture, which has been headlined “Candyman Is a Soulless, Didactic Reimagining; Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele’s horror sequel gravely misunderstands the allure of the original and has nothing meaningful to say on its own.” Writes Bastién: “It’s a spectacle—all tongues lolling, eyes wild—not a lived experience. In ‘Candyman,’ the filmmakers are interested in the Black body but not the soul and mind that animates it.” Here’s a thought about the film’s shadow animation interludes (and end-credit sequence) that were created by Manual Cinema, from the group’s co-founder Drew Dir from my 2020 fall preview conversation for the film’s first, delayed release, before the group was permitted to speak “Candyman” aloud even once: “Few people had done this kind of work before, so we spent a lot of time just learning what kind of stories you could tell, what kind of images you could make, simply how to use [our animation] as a medium… experimenting with what this medium can do.” Newcity’s review is here.
A SARS is born: “Contagion,” which was released the weekend before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is part of the Chicago Favorite series, introduced by Dr. Allison Arwady, MD, MPH, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. “‘Contagion‘’s ad campaign accentuates the implications about the dangers of things that go ‘viral,’ such as rumor and insider information. The rate of transmission by the internet is far faster, faster than the warning, ‘In a few days, this will be tweeted and YouTubed across the world!’ Seconds, friend,” I wrote at the time. “Yeah, it’s been weird in the ways that it’s tracked with what epidemiologists told us ten years ago would be the most likely scenario for a new pandemic. In that regard, it was not surprising. What’s been fascinating is to watch the reaction to this virus emerging,” Soderbergh reflected, talking on a liquor podcast after the COVID-19 pandemic began. “The good news is, this will get solved. I’ve met the people who are responsible for trying to figure this stuff out, some of them I’m still working with today as I try to coordinate the Directors Guild taskforce on how to get the movie industry back to work. I tell you right now, this will get solved. This will get solved. I’ve met these people. I’ve worked with them. They’re very smart and this will get solved. The key is to manage expectations about how that’s going to get solved, and when it’s gonna get solved.” Siskel Film Center, September 4, 630pm.
And for something wholeheartedly different: considered by many of the past sixty years pretty close to perfect and showing on 35mm; hey, look, it’s “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), introduced by The Second City’s executive director Jon Carr. Siskel Film Center, September 9. 7pm.
The seventh volume of Full Spectrum Features’ Chicagoland Shorts, the annual short film collection featuring emerging filmmakers from around Chicago, drops this week, with the world premiere at the Siskel Film Center on Thursday, September 2. (There is also a screening Saturday, September 4 at 8pm in McKinley Park with the Chicago Park District’s Onscreen Film Showcase.)
The seventh volume, curated by Raul Benitez, Lonnie Edwards and Hiromi Ueyoshi, “presents six films that investigate the lives of female characters through themes of identity, memory, intergenerational trauma, social justice, fear, and love. Featured filmmakers take control of their own narratives and showcase the resilience of women in our contemporary world through their works. These films span a variety of genres from thriller to documentary, and have screened across the globe.” The work by emerging voices includes “35” by Eseoghene Obrimah and Maggie Zhu; “An Alternative Method” by Hannah Schierbeek;“Valeria” by Tasnim Hindeyeh; “Whole” by E. Hendo, Ryonn Gloster and Evelio Zavala; “In Loving Memories” by Briana Clearly; and “tres cuartos y un techo” by Isabella Ostos Campo.
Columbia graduate Hannah Schierbeek’s “An Alternative Method” is described this way: “After a ballerina teacher is followed on her way home from work, her fears start manifesting in dreams and reality. To cope, she confides in her neighbor.” (Here’s a teaser.) Briana Clearly’s montage “In Loving Memories” is described as “dedicated to the people I’ve made beautiful memories with.” (More about Clearly, who lives in Washington Park and is an MFA student at DePaul, and her work here.) I asked Schierbeek and Clearly about their approach.
How is a short film a unique form in itself, and not “smaller,” or derivative of another way to tell a story, or to get your point of view across?
Schierbeek: Of course, the process of making a short film looks different than a longer-form film, but I believe that shorts hold as much voice and cultural space as feature-length films.
Clearly: For me, short films have been a way to learn, to discover and hone my voice as a storyteller, to improve my skill-set as a filmmaker, to make mistakes and see what works for me, in preparation for feature filmmaking. But now more than ever [the form is] very much its own entity and sufficient as a standalone piece because of the ways in which people engage. The floodgates are open for those who want to do only short-form pieces.
What does it mean to have a short of yours, and the one that is showing this week in particular, in this program?
Schierbeek: It’s special for me to have “An Alternative Method” in the Chicagoland Shorts program because the film was made with some of my favorite collaborators in Chicago, and the story is based on an experience I had while living in Chicago.
Clearly: I’m a community filmmaker, so my short, which is dedicated to the community I’ve created in Chicago, showing at Chicagoland Shorts, almost feels divine. To have artists from Chicago come to see a film that features artists and others in Chicago, and get to experience them from my personal view, is really exciting.
What other opportunities do you see for your kind of work? Is Chicagoland Shorts unique or will this program help with further exposure?
Schierbeek: I think Chicagoland Shorts is unique because it is focused on increasing visibility for underrepresented filmmakers and stories. Aside from programming our films, the Full Spectrum team showed a genuine interest in supporting us outside of this program, which I am very thankful for.
Clearly: Film festivals will continue to be a place for short-form work, but what I really love about CLS is that they’re looking to build relationships with their cohorts and support them throughout their journeys. I hope that more organizations take this type of approach because as a rising filmmaker, it can be difficult to find support and resources at all stages of the filmmaking process.
The Talking Pictures lecture series resumes at the Film Center with Jonathan Rosenbaum on World Cinema of the 1960s, beginning Monday, September 6 with John Cassavetes’ 1959 “Shadows.” Full series listed here.
Right alongside the theaters-only super-wide release of Disney-Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” comes further painful evidence of the poor curation of older movies on streaming services, and in the particular instance, Netflix: Wong Kar-Wai’s over-the-swoon 2013 “The Grandmaster” is “available,” but only in a truncated form: the American release of the 108-minute Harvey Weinstein cut (nonetheless approved by Wong), rather that the 123-minute Berlin Film Festival or 130-minute China release. (“Shang-Chi” costars the great Chinese star Tony Leung, who gleams in “The Grandmaster” and who I spoke to at the time.) With a director like Wong who is painstaking in each silvery instant of a movie, creating sensation as much as telling traditional “stories,” each moment matters. “Everything that seems truncated or abrupt in the current release is explained, lengthened and deepened,” I wrote then. The magisterial 130-minute China cut “is a masterpiece of melancholy—’Dr. Zhivago’ meets kung fu, as Wong describes it—the American ‘The Grandmaster’ is a beautiful selection of setpieces that comes to a wholly different ending than Wong’s original cut. To be fair, Wong defends this version as his own, and most of his films have a range of international versions. It is to swoon. Even the buttons on a fine coat are given the emphasis of the whoosh of a blade, the crack of a bone or the scrape and grind and rush of a locomotive. Nothing is relative: all is memory. A dream.” Still, Wong approved this cut, and his entire method is about a process of revision that continues after a film is “completed,” even for years afterward. (I wrote at length about its beauty when it was first released, here.) “The Grandmaster” is streaming on Netflix.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.