Life is but a stream: new year, new movies, new streams. Are the moving pictures big enough to survive a succession cresting waves of pandemic/endemic/fiscal panic? (We can’t all be “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”) Opening this week: Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” quietly, searingly weaves Spain’s past and future into a portrait of love and legacy with an intricate performance by Penélope Cruz; Asghar Farhadi, winner of Oscars for his films “A Separation” (2011) and “The Salesman” (2016), returns with another immaculate marvel of psychological drama, “A Hero“; and “The 355,” Simon Kinberg’s second feature as director after 2019’s long-delayed and hardly beloved “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” posits an international all-female assassination team of Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Lupita Nyong’o and Penélope Cruz, pitted against an agent played by Bingbing Fan. (“From the studio that brought you Jason Bourne,” crows the studio that brought you Jason Bourne.) François Truffaut’s for-the-love-of-movies “Day For Night” is at Siskel in 35mm; the still-incomplete history of the terrorist attack of January 6 is charted in the New York Times’ Oscar-shortlisted forty-minute documentary chiller “Day Of Rage“; local filmmaker Nathan Eddy’s twenty-minute lookback, “Helmut Jahn In A Flash,” is online; plus notes on the deeper impact of “Don’t Look Up” after a Christmas week worldwide drop amid cascading eco-catastrophes.
Almodovar’s “Parallel Mothers” (Madres paralelas) presents an intricate chamber drama—fleet, fluent, without hesitation, with wholehearted assurance—that weaves the imperfect future of Janis and Ana (Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit), one middle-aged, the other just barely an adult, onto a rich canvas of a national history that is literally still buried along with victims of the mass murders of Franco’s fascist regime. The pacing of the story of two single mothers with unplanned pregnancies who meet when their daughters are born at the same hospital is naturalistic yet always surprising, seemingly effortless in even its most severe turns. (Cruz’s character is often unkind and withholds the darkest secrets for a time.) Written during the onset of the pandemic, Almodovar’s script is both calm and furious, a world to linger in, to seek answers from, stepping aside from the seemingly terminal self-examination of “Pain and Glory” (2019) into a complex drama. (As Ana’s mother, a middle-aged actress suddenly getting a break, Aitana Sánchez-Gijon is acting in a diverting movie all her own.) The design, the compositions, Alberto Iglesias’ score are understated—for Almodovar!—yet as fluid as a stream when spring breaks. Landmark Century, River East 21.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi works with the intricacy of a watchmaker but his movies unfold with the illusion of naturalistic time, untrammeled. Another immaculate marvel of psychological drama from the forty-nine-year-old filmmaker of “A Separation” and “The Salesman,” “A Hero,” is not a morality play, but several: motives are examined, consequences are at hand, and from the very start, no good deed goes unpunished. We follow a couple of days in the life of Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a man who has to make good over a debt to his brother-in-law for which he has been jailed. The legalistic tangle is arcane to non-Iranian eyes, and some complications approach contrivance, but Farhadi makes it the stuff of near-unbearable tension. “There is certainly a risk that the search for naturalness itself constitutes an artifice,” he says in an interview in the press notes for the film. “The line is fine and subtle and you have to be very vigilant not to cross it. Daily life can be repetitive and boring. As a director, one has to take care that the search for a realistic impression of the scene, almost like a documentary, does not induce the slow and uneventful pace of real life.” Honesty, finally, is the subject of “A Hero”: is it absolute, or can it have shades, and what do shades upon shades create? Each character has a role, believes their motives are pure, even absolute: Drama! “People all around the world, their similarities are way more than their differences,” Farhadi told Vanity Fair in September. “It’s because our basis in cinema is the human emotion.” Siskel, Landmark Century, Lake Theatre.
One of the final fifteen documentaries for Oscar-consideration, “Day Of Rage,” has also been shortlisted for the IDA Documentary Awards and is a finalist for the duPont-Columbia Awards. Malachy Browne and David Botti’s electrifying film offers one of the most sustained depictions yet of the American terror attacks on the U. S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. “The New York Times obtained, analyzed and mapped out thousands of cellphone videos, police bodycam recordings and internal police audio,” the Times writes, charting “in chilling detail how the peaceful transition of power was disrupted by rioters who stormed a seemingly impenetrable seat of government.”
François Truffaut’s “Day For Night” (1972), one of the most successful of foreign-language imports in the 1970s, released by then-adventurous Warner Bros., is presented as part of the Siskel’s “50/50” series. Why did the film make its splash at that time in the U. S., even taking the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film? It’s a behind-the-scenes making-of-movies fairytale, a lighter roundelay than “Contempt,” which his fellow member of the nouvelle vague had made only a few years earlier. That tone, wishful, wistful, slightly haunted, slightly damaged, carries the day even now. Its melancholy lingers even as the process of making art is celebrated. Siskel,
Local filmmaker Nathan Eddy has made his twenty-minute lookback, “Helmut Jahn In A Flash,” available online.
When your movie is available to 214 million consumers all at once, The Discourse opens a window and leaps into the internet’s burning dumpster waiting below. (Folks who wouldn’t pay $15 to get up and go out and see “Don’t Look Up” have already paid $14 with their monthly Netflix subscription, but will still hold $15 a la carte opinions.) The union-busting magazine “Current Affairs” started one of the tributary fires with the lumpy “Critics of ‘Don’t Look Up’ Are Missing the Entire Point.” “One problem with film reviews is that they are often so concerned with evaluating the quality of a movie that they don’t get a chance to seriously discuss the ideas it raises,” their writer writes. “Reviewers are preoccupied with questions like: How is the acting? The editing? Is the dialogue sharp? The pacing energetic? Are certain mawkish indulgences by the director partly counteracted by a thoughtful score? In the case of a satire trying to make a point, does it make the point well, or does it do it “ham-fistedly”? Is it subtle and graceful or does it “beat you over the head”?… [M]any said it was a heavy-handed political satire that made obvious points and was not clever… I decided to watch it when I saw that leftist investigative journalist David Sirota… had co-written the story. I know that Sirota is not stupid…. If he was involved with writing a Netflix comedy, I thought it would at least be not completely terrible... I came away thinking that its critics were not only missing the point of the film in important ways, but that the very way they discussed the film exemplified the problem that the film was trying to draw attention to. Some of the responses to the movie could have appeared in the movie itself.”
These assertions led to some inflamed responses. (Idea man-producer David Sirota gets lots of stick for his eager leaps to the film’s defense and blocking of Twitter conversants: “Find yourself someone who looks at you the way David Sirota looks at his own name in the search bar.”) The evolving conversation sprawled onto the role of the film critic from correspondents on Twitter and elsewhere. Aside from basic “fuck-yous” earned by the article’s meandering moralizing, the conversations are well-capped by what actor-filmmaker Alex Winter posted: “The current targeting of film critics as the enemy of the people would be laughable if it didn’t speak to a pervasive, growing contempt for scholarship, expertise, and intellectual critique, accompanied by a moral imperative being imposed on culture. That’s scary… I think when you’ve been in this business a while you come to understand we’re all in the same eco-system but doing quite different jobs. Critics aren’t here to serve artists or frankly vice versa. That line gets blurred a lot.” Irascible filmmaker Paul Schrader kibitzed on Facebook: “The Upside of Netflix is that many more eyeballs watched ‘Don’t Look Up’ than would have with a theatrical release. The Downside is: did it make any difference?”
Meanwhile, “Don’t Look Up” stands as an ongoing topic of discussion as the gods (and the Academy) look down on ecological mayhem: Seven Oscar nominations? Eleven?
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.