Talking Pictures: A Week In Chicago Film, March 4-10, 2022
This week’s titles include “The Batman”; two-time Oscar nominee Hany Abu-Assad’s “Huda’s Salon“; straight out of Sundance, Kogonada’s quietly affecting “After Yang” and Mimi Cave’s bloody romance “Fresh.” Also notes from streaming Sundance on Lena Dunham’s electric indulgence, “Sharp Stick“; Sierra Pettengill’s hypnotic experimental documentary “Riotsville U. S.A” and Sundance’s most secret selection, announced at the last minute, “Navalny,” which arrived on festival radar only a few hours before Putin began to pound war drums. From March 4-17, the Siskel Film Center’s twenty-fifth Chicago European Union Film Festival plays across two weeks; titles and details here. Oscar-nominated short films play at multiple screens in the Chicago area; but only the Music Box has “Point Break” on 35mm on Friday-Saturday midnight shows. And: Joe Swanberg opens a portal.
“The Batman“: Almost three solid hours of world-builder Matt Reeves (“Let Me In,” “War For The Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes”) having his way with eighty-three years of American iconography: will its comparison with the opening numbers for 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home” dominate the conversation or will it be Reeves’ dark world starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Andy Serkis, Jeffrey Wright, Colin Farrell, Jeffrey Wright, Peter Sarsgaard and John Turturro?
Betrayal and blackmail follow a visit to a Bethlehem salon in “Huda’s Salon,” a dark, rich new thriller by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (“Rana’s Wedding,” “Paradise Now”), based on a true story. Abu-Assad’s customary heightened naturalism goes farther than usual, sustaining and accelerating suspense with each passing scene with two women fighting to escape working for the secret service of occupying forces. It’s masterful work, smartly arraying bits of story and details of locale without ever becoming merely an issue film (especially noteworthy when “issues” are the propulsive engine of the often terrifying plot). Siskel, starts Friday, March 4.
The Oscar short film categories may wind up getting short shrift at the upcoming televised ceremonies—the final, likely worst determination has yet to be determined by the hapless Academy, but the Live Action, Documentary and Animated shorts are stars at three Chicago locales. For details and showtimes, click on the links for Siskel (Animated; Documentary; Live Action; or for the Music Box (Animated; Live Action); or for Landmark Century (Animated; Live Action). Listings for outlying Chicago-area theaters are here.
“AFTER YANG” AND AFTER SUNDANCE
Writer-director Kogonada’s haunting second feature “After Yang” is set in a lightly futuristic, Asian design-inflected world, largely hushed, mostly, it seems with weariness rather than the embrace of grace. A family consisting of Irish Jake (a seldom-better Colin Farrell), his Black, British wife (Jodie Turner-Smith) and an adopted Chinese daughter whose only companion is an android named Yang. Jake sets out to repair Yang, finding out more about how android companions work in the latter-day corporate world, but also about his family, attachment, grief and the infinite malleability of memory. Dialogue is minimal, as in a video call between husband and wife: “How’s the ramen?”; “It’s soothing.”; “… Yeah… I can see that.”
The ravishing plentitude of design, as a commonplace rather than remarked upon, fills the screen and the eye. “I’m interested in the burden and beauty of everydayness,” Kogonada says in the press kit, “that fine line between being stuck and being aware.” Music matters, too, including a cover by Mitski of a song from “All About Lily Chou Chou,” and a theme written by Ryuichi Sakamoto. (The title sequence is quintessential A24 material: a brash, emphatically scored “dance-off” being played online by thousands of families in boldly colored settings, which introduces a range of characters to come.) “Let’s see if we can taste the world together,” Yang suggests in one fragment of understated, blazing memory.“After Yang” opens Friday, March 4 in theaters and on Showtime.
The most fiery of exchanges in text messages and group chats during the virtual window for Lena Dunham’s second feature, “Sharp Stick,” were intense: was the movie bold? Bad? More European than American? Anti-neurodivergent? Is it an autistic-sploitation spectacle? The conversation will only get hotter as its approach date releases: there’s a modest resemblance to movies like Pasolini’s “Teorema,” where Dunham’s emotionally stunted, supposedly sixteen-year-old protagonist, Sarah Jo (Norwegian actress Kristine Froseth) discovers sex and instinctually, then programmatically, plots her way through mastering sexual desire and then physicalizing it across her patch of Southern California. The dialogue clunks in chunks, with phrases like “forebodingly disgusting” hardly tripping off tongues. Scenes go from embarrassment to mortification and back again, but Sarah Jo’s cavalier, casual monstrousness plays against every cultural norm that pops up in its warm, wooly head. As Sarah Jo’s mother, Jennifer Jason Leigh is given a rare outing for her brilliant, mrowling presence. Opening soon.
I was tired and I was watching “Navalny” from a MacBook Air on my belly in the middle of the night as the fourth film of my day of the fourth day of streaming Sundance. Alexei Navalny, the lawyer who is the most prominent surviving Russian critic of dictator Vladimir Putin, had been approached by filmmaker Daniel Roher, who was around for both the poisoning and the recovery of the charismatic candidate. There are moments that could play to Putin, if he were to see it, a fierce if only figurative atom bomb, the sweeping effects of which would sweep over his smirk like a choking wave of oxygen followed by char. At more than one moment, including the phone calls on the morning before releasing the evidence of his poisoning to publications around the world, I wondered how he was alive even now. Navalny gleefully pranks the men believed to have executed the Novichok poisoning against his life, until one of the men not only admits to the attempted murder, but offers in great detail how the crew did it. Why is this statuesque goofball alive? And the fact of the movie showing up as the last of the last-minute programming choices at Sundance 2022 not itching the length of Putin’s spine? (Putin is preoccupied, now.) The film ends with Roher asking Navalny, months ago, in the emptied-out barroom setting of most of their exchanges, “What do you think about the wars in Syria and Ukraine?” His answer is genial, blunt, startling. Navalny’s words are a big, fat fuck-you to Vladimir Putin. Considering the hourly turns of current events, Putin’s listeners were listening for him and the Russian dictator heard, the cry, the words, the giddy challenge of his most popular adversary, whom he has thus far failed to murder. Premiering soon on HBO Max.
Sierra Pettengill brings terror to home shores with her beguiling, insistent found-footage documentary, “Riotsville, U.S.A.,” built entirely from military training films and appropriated contemporary imagery of a moment in 1968 where fake towns were fabricated so that trainee soldiers could infiltrate streets and then attack “looters” and “rioters” in their midst. The military is the medium: the streets of America are the message. The roots of the street-level militarization of American peace offers have never been explored with such a fragrant, lyrical, brutal touch. Upcoming release from producer Field of Vision.
Johnny Utah braves the waves of fortune in Kathryn Bigelow’s quintessential genre masterpiece of forward motion, male beauty and dreams of flight, in “Point Break,” shown on 35mm. Midnight shows at the Music Box.
Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg has launched a streaming platform for the portion of his back catalog that he owns, increasing the offerings when he reclaims rights from distributors (he gets “Hannah Takes The Stairs” back from IFC later this year). “This will begin a slow drip of most of my rights reverting back to me over the next decade,” he relays. The site will spotlight other filmmakers as well, starting with six features for rental and streaming from worthy but little-known local filmmaker Frank V. Ross. “I intend to have fun with it in other ways, and produce original content exclusively for the site, which will be available globally (many of these films have never received a release outside of the U.S. and English-speaking territories). This will not be a huge, catch-all thing, but more akin to a restaurant with a small menu, focused on quality, not quantity.” Swanberg will also release small runs on VHS, including fifty copies of Gillian Wallace Horvat’s “I Blame Society” on March 25, and in May, a run of fourteen VHS copies of Dan Sallitt’s “Fourteen” as well as Swanberg’s latest feature, “Build The Wall.” The site îs here.
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.