Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, December 10-16, 2021
Steven Spielberg’s extravagant “West Side Story” fills wide screens; Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s modest marvel “Drive My Car” pulls into theaters; Sandra Bullock’s dark ex-con drama”The Unforgivable” debuts on Netflix; Aaron Sorkin’s knack for gab alights on Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo in “Being The Ricardos“; and Matthew Heineman’s powerhouse four-months-in-the-life of a Queens hospital during “The First Wave” of pandemic lands on Hulu. Joe Swanberg presents his 2014 “Happy Christmas” at Facets, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s haunting “Winter Sleep” is one of the first attractions in the Film Center’s playful “Let It Snow” grab bag. Plus: a survey of artistic benedictions offered to Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta.”
A tender marvel, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” a rich, poetic adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, weighs in at an effortless three hours, feeling as short as an unexpected, all-night conversation: an elegant, elemental take on grief and transformation that deserves the high praise it’s gotten and will continue to get. There are a few fine films I’ve seen this year that settle in and feel wholly naturalistic: not so much the subject matter or even the doings onscreen, but in its existence, its form, its pace, its flow. Hey, this movie is how movies should be; that sort of sensation. This story is fated, its form divine.
“Drive My Car” is one of those films; plain on its face, quietly confident in its construction, yet mysterious in its destination. Understated and gleaming, Hidetoshi Shinomiya’s cinematography is of a piece with the story and performances. It’s the top of my list for best films released in 2021. Opens Friday, December 10 at the Siskel Film Center.
Steven Spielberg mounts his first up-in-the-air, across-the-axis, filling the frame true-to-the-staves musical with “West Side Story,” with a score brushed up by Stephen Sondheim and adapted with historical reflection on the setting and moment of the story by Tony Kushner (“Angels In America,” “Munich,” “Lincoln”). Cast highlight: Rita Moreno, from the 1961 version, returns in a role tailored for her at the age of ninety (and a fresh rendition of “Somewhere”). The leads are YouTube veteran Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”). In theaters.
Aaron Sorkin walks the talk in his week-in-the-life oddity “Being The Ricardos” in his third feature as director. Nicole Kidman takes on a different face to play Lucille Ball as the Spanish Javier Bardem plays Cuban dynamo Desi Arnaz. In theaters.
Sandra Bullock says that her affinity for German director Nora Fingscheidt (“System Crasher”) for her second narrative feature, “The Unforgivable” may have been her half-German heritage, but it’s also their take on adapting Sally Wainwright’s British series of the same name about the travails of an ex-con cop-killer for the Netflix screen. Twisty and twistier still, “The Unforgivable” is vivid thriller material, neatly detailed and nicely paced. Bullock remains one of the American screen’s most empathetic actors, even in the simplest silent shot of simmering. With Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Rob Morgan, Emma Nelson, Will Pullen, Thomas Guiry and Viola Davis. Streaming from December 10 on Netflix.
Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave” arrives on Hulu after its festival and brief theatrical run: it’s a tumultuous cinema vérité mosaic of the first days of the four months of the first wave of the pandemic in New York City at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. Breathtaking in its detail and insistent empathy, it’s one of the great documentaries in a year of great documentaries.
Heineman established himself with earlier films like the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land” and “City of Ghosts,” but this powerful document, as he and his crew embed within hard-hit hospitals, possesses uncommon narrative and moral clarity. “Especially those early weeks, especially in the first wave, we as the American public were so shielded from the realities of what was happening inside hospitals. This issue that could have brought our country together further polarized us. It was highly politicized,” Heineman told Roll Call. “And I think a big part of that is the fact that the American public didn’t get to see images of how people were living or dying,” Heineman’s work is emphatic, even walloping, even at the scale of a larger home screen. But in the end, out of the human tragedy comes something larger: hope. Streaming on Hulu.
The Siskel Film Center is running an optimistically snowy season of movies under the umbrella “Let It Snow” through December 30, with one notable attraction this week. The great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing fifteen-years-in-conception Cannes Palme d’Or-winning chamber epic, “Winter Sleep” doesn’t waste a breath in its 196 minutes. Ceylan is as loving in painting panoramas of the Turkish landscape as in detailing the contours of the intense psychology of its characters. Aydin, an hotelier in the ruggedly beautiful central Anatolian region of Cappadocia, has a dissatisfied younger wife, and his sister is staying with them after a divorce. Winter arrives. Shelter is tenuous, the landscape demanding, conversations ensue, persist, roll on with the beautiful power of an ancient stream. While he won’t identify which ones, Ceylan says he drew upon three short stories by Anton Chekhov. The engrossing yet endlessly mysterious result, co-written with his wife, Ebru (“Climates”), was one of 2014’s best, generous to a fault, or more appropriately, to apportioning drama among the faults of all its characters. Ceylan’s usual cinematographer, Gokhan Tiryaki, fixes on landscape in interiors as well as exteriors: he and Ceylan are patient poets of the vast expanse of the human face. Film Center, December 15, 28.
Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg continued to explore his own backyard in “Happy Christmas” (2014), or more to the point, his own home, a cost-effective location for his first feature after “Drinking Buddies.” A key buddy, Anna Kendrick, moves into the newest comedy-drama and continues to drink. And drink. Swanberg plays Jeff, a film director whose wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), is writing a novel, and whose younger sister, Jenny (Kendrick), shows up on their doorstep after a messy and massively deserved breakup. Lena Dunham plays a friend of Jenny’s, and Mark Webber plays a curiously attractive drug dealer whom Kelly plants lips upon. Working in his customary improv style, with cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) repeating the originated-on-film style of “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg scores sly points beneath the surface emotional ruckus and the elevated conversational wordplay. Lynskey and Kendrick have a couple of scenes together, talking about sex and fantasy and imagination, that are wholly unexpected in their candor, and the sparky, so-small Kendrick blooms further when called upon a couple of times to speak some really lovely, lilting filth. It’s both funny and jaw-droppingly rich. Oh joy. Swanberg presents “Happy Christmas” at Facets, Saturday, December 11, 2:45pm.
Paul Verhoeven’s intricate, violent, highly profane, really funny masterpiece “Benedetta” continues to spark worthy conversation even as members of self-anointed religious groups protest its existence. Marked remarks via Twitter: “Verhoeven rocks as a political artist because he almost seems radical incidentally, it’s where his weirdo preoccupations happen lie. Just an absolute freak trying to work out his absolute freak feelings and contradictions, knows these things don’t have to be consistent,” posts user Srirachachau. “Having seen ‘Benedetta’ now, when Verhoeven says that Robocop is the American Jesus, he 100% means that as a scathing indictment, but he also kinda thinks that rules, these are the contradictions we live with in western culture.”
Adds writer-producer Ales Kot: “I maintain that the key to understanding Verhoeven, if there’s such a thing, lies in his childhood experience of war as an event of both immeasurable terror and astounding awe. In a system prone to fearing complexity, exploring un-algorhitmized emotion is a radical act.”
Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”): “‘Benedetta’ is a great film. Don’t let the scenes of steamy lesbian convent nunsploitation sex or gruesome medieval torture distract you. (Don’t fall into my trap people…please). It’s actually the first great Covid/govt/state fear movie. Verhoeven’s finest since ‘Total Recall.'”
“Red Rocket” director Sean Baker: “I’m pretty sure I saw my fave film of the year last night. Verhoeven elevated the nunsploitation genre to unimaginable heights. I’ll be seeing it again [in] theaters.” At the Music Box and on demand for Christmas.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.