Opening this week: “First Reformed”‘s Paul Schrader’s this-is-not-a-swan-song “The Card Counter“; James Wan’s “Malignant“; Bassam Tariq’s “Mogul Mowgli“; the year-in-lockdown auteur omnibus “Year of the Everlasting Storm.” The Siskel Film Center presents Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” as part of its Chicago Favorites series and “8 1/2” within the ongoing Federico Fellini centenary-plus-one salute. And a serene yet perturbing 1999 masterpiece “The Insider” is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Writer-director-producer-mayhem mogul James Wan establishes yet another James Wan-iverse of intellectual property with “Malignant,” described thusly: “Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.” Wan’s good at this stuff, don’t you think? Opens Friday, September 10 on HBO Max for thirty-one days and wide in theaters.
What a visceral, thrilling jolt is “Mogul Mowgli,” the first narrative feature from Bassam Tariq, who co-directed (with Omar Mullick) the limitlessly lyrical and swimmingly emotional no-budget documentary “These Birds Walk” (2013) about a runaway boy and the work of a wealthy Pakistani humanitarian. Riz Ahmed (“The Sound of Metal”) embodies Zed, a rapper in Britain whose plan for a first world tour goes awry when he falls ill with an autoimmune disorder and he must take stock of his talent, his friends, his family, his role as a Muslim immigrant in the West. It’s gratifying to see a filmmaker whose immense talent infuses whatever they touch: Tariq is the real, splendiferous thing, a filmmaker who, with a dynamic performer like Ahmed in front of the camera, etches indelible portraiture and makes poetry of jumbles of sensation. “Zed wants to leave behind an artistic legacy, but he can’t do that until he learns what he himself has inherited, the trauma, and the gifts that make up who he is,” Tariq says in the film’s press notes. “He needs to understand the complex value of legacy, before he can leave a meaningful one behind himself. He thinks he’s an individual, but he learns that our contribution is made by recognising we are part of a larger whole.” Propulsively emotional even when covering ground that could fall to the essayistic, “Mogul Mowgli” speaks convulsively and voluminously of the imagination, even in its most surreal fragments, as well as for the potential of the ongoing form of the feature-length narrative form. Among the ranks of gifted collaborators: editors Hazel Baillie and Adam Biskupski. Music Box, opens Friday, September 10.
The opening black-on-white title of “The Year Of The Everlasting Storm,” a commissioned anthology of short work by filmmakers locked down during pandemic is handwritten script: “One does not create by adding, but by taking away—ROBERT BRESSON.” The all-caps “Bresson” may be the contemplative tapestry’s loudest stretch. As for American co-producer-distributor, I’ll give NEON a Bresson paraphrase: “Make that visible that, which without you, would not be financed.” (“Seen” is Bresson’s phrase.) The shorts, a mix of fiction, essay, documentary and dreamscapes by Jafar Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul and David Lowery are superlatively sequenced. Calm is emphatic in most of these small pictures. There is ordinariness and there is pungency: still, these filmmakers do not waste their precious moments. The movie opens in an arthouse-familiar setting: Jafar Panahi, under house arrest by the Iranian regime since 2010, barred from filmmaking, makes family comedy of his confinement, including an integral role for his frequent co-star, Iggy, his pet iguana. But the two concluding shorts, one by Texan observer-of-haunts David Lowery, the other by Thai mystic Apichatpong Weerasethakul, take obliqueness and mystery to mesmeric heights. Let’s call Lowery’s vivid, fierce, intently concentrated “Dig Up My Darling” a ghost story of fantastical distillation, and “Joe” Weerasethakul’s a bug story. But a timeless bug story. A bug story for the ages. History: bugs. After these two works, one leaves “The Year Of The Everlasting Storm” with a humming head and a full heart. Music Box, opens Friday, September 10.
Paul Schrader’s twenty-second feature as director, “The Card Counter,” debuted at the Venice Film Festival a few days ago and opens in U. S. theaters this week, but was previewed after our deadline. Schrader says he’s back on his bountiful bullshit, identifying “The Card Counter” as another one of his “man in a room” movies, where his protagonists grapple with morality, fate, Robert Bresson homages and the straitjacket that his work, reflected in the films’ titles, places him in. After the production of the movie was halted in 2020 because of the virus striking the highly populated casino location, the seventy-five-year-old writer-director and reformed film critic spoke to Mark Olsen at the Los Angeles Times about a future he saw not only for his latest movie, but moviegoing in general: “Do you think theaters are going to come back?” Olsen asks and Schrader is off to the races: “Not in the way they did. There are only four reasons for theaters to exist anymore. And this situation has accelerated these trends. Like symphonies and operas and live theater, concerts, they need a reason to exist. One reason is family cinema, because parents love to see their kids interacting with other kids. Animation films will always have an audience. Another is extraordinary spectacle. IMAX, virtual, whatever they come up with. Something you can’t see at home. The third is date movies for high schoolers, which is horror and rom-coms. Or rather, dirty rom-coms. And then the fourth is club cinema. Which used to be called art cinema. But with these new institutions that are a combination of social institutions and cinematic institutions. So the Metrograph in New York has one restaurant and two bars. There’s more square footage devoted to eating and drinking than there is to watching movies. And yet it’s always full because people want to be in that environment. So then alcohol’s become the new popcorn. And those club cinemas, which were pioneered by Alamo, they will continue to exist because people want to be part of the club, people want to buy a membership. They want to eat and hang out, and they want to know which films have been approved by the club. Which is something you cannot get from VOD.” Opens Friday, September 10 at Siskel, River East, Landmark Century and other screens.
On September 11, Martin Scorsese’s origin-of-the-cinema, coming-of-a-boy’s-and-a-girl’s-age “Hugo” is part of the Chicago Favorites slate in honor of the reopening of the Siskel Film Center, presented by Ashley Wheater, MBE, artistic director of the Joffrey. “Hugo” is Scorsese’s most personal film, a pop-up picture book of a metaphor for his own childhood. He, as a boy, small, asthmatic, watched from a Little Italy window the goings-on of the street below, captivated by the narrative that he could construct in his mind but never fully participate in, then swept away by the power of movies that his father took him to. Here, his protagonist Hugo Cabret is an orphan who tends the clocks of a vast train station in 1931 Paris, peering through window and frame and trapdoor and crevasse down onto the teeming to-and-fro of passengers and merchants, a human comedy he witnesses from modest distance with wide eyes. Built from Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” Scorsese’s picture is more than a clandestine bildungsroman: it’s a grandly ambitious tapestry intended to entertain, but also to dramatically underscore the always-pressing need for preservation of film history. More here. Siskel Film Center, Saturday, September 11, 5pm.
A filmmaker contemplates his (dream) life: in a season promising a black-and-white version of the drama Sir Kenneth Branagh has made of his childhood, “Belfast,” and a black-and-white version of the years of becoming a father from savorer of sentiment Mike Mills, “C’mon C’mon,” and maximalist, glandular Italian Paolo Sorrentino making melon-bright and tomato-bold stuff of his anni dell’infanzia, “The Hand of God,” at least Fellini’s effortlessly cavalier yet majestic “8 1/2” has the decency to shuffle the freighted incoherence of adult dreams beyond a litter of deterministic clues to a future past the confines of the momentary frame. Fellini retrospective at Siskel Film Center, Saturday, September 11, 3pm; Tuesday, September 14, 6:30pm.
In a century of obscene compromise, Michael Mann’s 1999 “The Insider,” on Amazon Prime, stands as a titanic moral enterprise couched in what could be abstruse flummery, but instead through image and sound and reserved yet deliquescent performance, captures men’s wills. It’s “Heat,” hushed. “The Insider” depicts the struggle by Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), a troubled, complex corporate whistleblower, to expose the killing duplicity of Brown & Williamson Tobacco, where he works. He trusts no one, until Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a segment producer for “60 Minutes,” convinces him that he will not get burned if he talks. But with CBS’ multibillion-dollar merger with Westinghouse in the works, an interview that states the long-known but never acknowledged truth—cigarettes cause cancer—will be spiked by corporate foot-dragging. But that is dull fact. “The Insider” is storytelling of a rare and splendid order. Mann’s masterpiece is a dazzling blend of narrative shorthand and eye-stroking visuals sizzles and simmers and slaps, hard. “Tell me the truest thing in our public lives: What does it mean to be honorable in a society that has abandoned its considerations of morality to the quarterly-return, stock-analyst-pumped, do-it-for-a-dime corporate culture?” I wrote then, before the turning of the twenty-first century. “The Insider” is streaming on Amazon Prime.
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.