Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, December 17-23, 2021
“Red Rocket,” Sean Baker’s randy followup to the family despair of “The Florida Project” opens this week; as does Guillermo del Toro’s gilded, viperous noir, “Nightmare Alley.” For the four-quadrant play, there’s a new Sony-Marvel Spidey vehicle, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” brimming over with a multiverse of one Spider-Man atop another. Notable pictures holding over in theaters: “West Side Story,” at scale and scope and sonic soar; and the bizarrely ambitious yet empty-headed third directorial effort by writer Aaron Sorkin, “Being The Ricardos.” “The Shining” shows on 35mm as part of the Film Center’s perhaps overly optimistic “Let It Snow” series. Applications for the Chicago Independent Producers Lab are open. Plus: “WHY NOT?,” a seventy-five second short by Terence Davies, made as a bumper for showings at the Vienna International Film Festival.
Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket“: randy, raucous, ribald, rollicking, is in league with his most recent pictures, including “Tangerine” and “The Florida Project.” Baker’s movies are character studies, but also about illusion, delusion, money, its lack, and class all the way down to dirt floors and desiccated soil. The desiccated soul of “Red Rocket,” a terrible tempest, a bad man, a fallen sex performer played with sound and fury by Simon Rex, could be read for text, subtext, and for his elemental, baleful hucksterism as he turns up in the midst of 2016 to pump trouble into the small Texas town he’d abandoned on his way up the short ladder of porno fame. Still, in his panorama of exasperating characters and dark comedy, Baker seeks the humanity in the hustler, but even more memorably, Rex finds the spark of the spectacular in this hoodlum, this parasite, this bum. Baker, as one would expect, does not neglect community: it is the softly worn fabric against which Mikey Saber’s burlap brushes again and again. As the local counter girl Raylee (aka Strawberry), Suzanna Son is sterling: holding strength against the inappropriate entreaties of the much older Mikey, his charm, his smarm. The battles of sex and power are never simple, and Baker’s films build their complexity against vital backdrops—Port Arthur and Texas City in this case—that embrace the tenacity of his characters in their games, whether practiced or naive, whether kindly or jaw-droppingly awful. In theaters.
Guillermo del Toro has said that the motto he and co-screenwriter Kim Morgan held for “Nightmare Alley” with its brace of film noir women came down to “All the women will not only survive but thrive thereafter.” Patient, simmering and finally powerfully explosive, it’s one of the Mexican master’s richest tapestries. In theaters.
There are moments small that are grand in around the grandest moments of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story,” which boasts heat from critics, fire from online commentators and chilly commercial indifference from a theatrical audience on its opening weekend. This “West Side Story” is a marvel of classical American filmmaking, with settings (both those that are naturalistic and stage-reminiscent), camera placement and blocking of actors in small rooms or in figurings on broad city streets, that all tell a story as emphatically as any dialogue ever would. Amid all that craft, and the precision of Tony Kushner’s political sprucing and dialogue parsing, the film has at least one near-fatal flaw: Ansel Elgort is a curiously empty screen presence in every possible way. Ninety-year-old Rita Moreno, returning to a story for which she won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in 1962: she cannot do a thing wrong before the camera. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lean on their customary tricks with bright light directed into the widescreen lens and halation biting into faces and landscapes, which often makes the backdrops of condemned and half-demolished buildings feel straight out of a war picture or devastation in science fiction as much as the urban renewal of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In theaters.
The proudly thudding “Being The Ricardos” made me as angry from moment to moment as any movie this year: Aaron Sorkin does not possess the skills to direct a feature film. “Molly’s Game”? Eh. “The Trial of the Chicago 7”? Posturing, tin-eared, historically dim, badly cast… and still not as confounding as his week-in-the-life portrait of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman, in odd makeup that sometimes seems straight out of “Brazil”) and Cuban Desi Arnaz (the Spanish Javier Bardem, relishing a generic y’all-drawl). The busy, shabby score pushes emotional buttons where Sorkin’s relentless quips fail. (Authorial winking is matched by spectator eye-rolling.) Roger Ebert may have said it best, and many times, yet never of the occasion of an Aaron Sorkin joint: “Hated it, hated it, hated it.” I resist almost every time a writer asks why a terrible movie was made, instead of just dicing the fractious result, but the disastrously titled “Being The Ricardos”—is that a self-serving Sorkin “Being Charlie Kaufman” gag?—begs, begs the question: why does this movie exist? What power of persuasion or coercion led a trillion-plus-dollar corporation and its marketing department to finance this film? Why didn’t their marketing department speak up once good Sir Smug-a-Lot left the room? There are historical mishegas loosed throughout, beginning with the dreadful interviews with “witnesses” years after the film’s doings, shot in visually impoverished wide shots, clanging thematic points like a hammer in a clothes dryer. I was ready to tune out about ten minutes in when a character says, “We TAPE a show Friday night.” Really? In 1952? Nope. (“I Love Lucy,” in one of the brilliant business decisions made by Desilu, was shot on 35mm film. Bright right behind supporting “Star Trek,” I’d venture.) The story holds the fascinating bones of a better telling or two; for its compression of so much time into a single week, there’s a decent piece at Smithsonian magazine unpacking the story. But Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin, there’s walking, there’s talking, and as Fat Bastard says in “Goldmember,” “Everyone likes their own brand, don’t they? This is Magic!” In theaters and on Amazon Prime starting December 21.
As part of its “Let It Snow” program, the Film Center thaws out “The Shining” in 35mm. In May of 2020, as the first lockdowns persisted, I was asked by Joe Jarvis of the site Someone Else to make notes of what I would want to discuss about what Kubrick’s movie meant at that moment. Here’s some of what Jarvis took for the venturesome piece, “A Haunted House Divided: “The Shining,” COVID, and the Mutilated Body Politic:” “The surfaces suggest perfection, but the surfaces provide a practical gleam, a concreteness that is both naturalistic and a source of mystery: we know what these things are, what do they have to do with the characters, with us? … Patience, true, an agony: He’s always been the caretaker. Yet he’s not fully aware, unlike Phil in ‘Groundhog Day,’ who improves himself over what could be millions of years. (An aside from Harold Ramis about that story’s duration.) The story proceeds, not looming, but with deliberateness: the booming musical interludes, the slow-motion hallucination of the blood-filled elevator bank… I’ve never bothered to look for ‘logic’ in the happenings. I’m not a ‘but it was just a dream’ guy, but there’s more prestidigitation on hand than a linear, logic-police insistence that kills the thrill. Or the mood.” Siskel Film Center, Saturday, December 18, 9:30pm.
The 2022 Chicago Independent Producers Lab application is open. This annual program builds networks and skills for emerging Chicago producers; applications are due January 14, 2022. More here.
Here’s “BUT WHY?,” a seventy-five-second film by Terence Davies, a trailer for the Vienna International Film Festival.
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.