Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, April 8-14, 2022:
Lyrical filmmaker Andrea Arnold turns her piercing eye toward “Cow,” a nonfiction film that took longer than the two-year-turnaround for the sequel “Sonic the Hedgehog 2.” “All The Old Knives,” at Landmark Century and outlying theaters and streaming at Amazon, eyeballs Chris Pine as a veteran CIA operative who has to find moles within his former station in Vienna, in a global espionage thriller that also stars Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce.
Bringing out his damned: Michael Bay remakes 2005 Danish “Ambulancen” (which ran eighty minutes) as the 136-minute “Ambulance” (previewed after our deadline); word is that the $40 million outing shows Bay once more at his skinetic best. Streaming items include Judd Apatow’s damnable “The Bubble,” and Richard Linklater’s melancholy animated memory piece, “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood.”
“Navalny” arrives, as both the first feature of the 2022 DOC10 event and on the big screen; while destined for HBO Max and CNN, parent corporation WarnerMedia has moved the highly topical (and viciously entertaining) documentary portrait to a theatrical release via Warner Bros. and Fathom Events for two nights this week. “Alexey Navalny was just last week convicted and sentenced in Russia and cannot tell the story of what happened to him,” director Daniel Roher says in advance of the theatrical release. “Our film shows his tremendous courage fighting an authoritarian regime and its corruption inside Russia.”
The Daniel Knox-curated “David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return” commands the Music Box all week; a couple of notes on “The Straight Story” and “Lost Highway” follow. And Noble Square’s longtime microcinema The Nightingale Cinema lost its lease. Criterion has a Blu-ray out of the 2K restoration of Douglas Sirk’s mad masterpiece, “Written on the Wind,” and we’ve got his explanation of just what he’s doing with his hothouse style.
Andrea Arnold has a “Cow“: like the rest of the career of the great British director—”Red Road,” “Fish Tank,” “Wuthering Heights,” “American Honey” and the shorts “Wasp,” “Dog” and “Milk”; and the little-discussed second season of “Big Little Lies”—this one is built on the empathetic yet unwavering gaze. She looks upon passion, dispassion, the delusions of men, the wants of women, at four years in the life of a bovine heroine. Her work is immersive. “An endeavor to consider cows,” Arnold plainly puts it. “When I look at Luma, our cow, I see the whole world in her.” She wrote a beautiful essay as a director’s statement of the lifelong calming she has found in nature, of “childish wanderings and love for animals,” which I hope will be published somewhere, which ends, “I hope this film in some small way can connect anyone who sees it not just to cows and other non-human conscious animals but to that deep knowing and animal nature in ourselves. That we are all connected to everything living.” Arnold knows what she has made: her splendid, visceral, sober picture, without language, matches her descriptive powers. Luma’s big eyes; Andrea’s compassionate gaze. Starts Friday at the Siskel Film Center and on demand.
Did the clandestine premiere of “Navalny” at Sundance back in January even scratch the surface of the bunker-protected yet notoriously thin skin of Russia’s authoritarian dictator? The murderous invasion of Ukraine and the dispatch of Putin’s adversary to a remote gulag has prompted the distributor of the documentary to go the big-screen route this week. Here’s part of my Sundance review: “Alexei Navalny, the lawyer who is the most prominent surviving Russian critic of dictator-for-life 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? The film ends with Roher asking Navalny, months ago, in the emptied-out barroom setting of many 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 ranks of paid 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.” Found guilty 0n the expected compounded and likely fabricated charges, Alexei Anatolievich Navalny himself has been remanded to a remote maximum security gulag until at least 2031, when he will be fifty-four years old and Putin will be seventy-eight. The DOC10 premiere is Saturday, April 9 at the Siskel Film Center; tickets here. “Navalny” is released on 800 screens on Monday, April 11 and Tuesday, April 12, including River East 12, Showplace ICON and Webster Place.
HOLDOVERS & REVIVALS
David Lynch doesn’t say much outside of his work, but when he does, even when it’s his occasional morning weather reports online, it’s worth listening to. Lynch said this during the early days of 2020’s pandemic isolation: “For some reason, we were going down the wrong path and Mother Nature just said. ‘Enough already, we’ve got to stop everything.’ This is going to last long enough to lead to some kind of new way of thinking. I think it’s going to be much more spiritual and much kinder and it’s going to bring us all closer together in a really strong and beautiful way. It’s going to be a different world on the other side and it’s going to be a much more intelligent world. Solutions to these problems are going to come and life’s going to be very good. The movies will come back. Everything will spring back and in a much better way probably.” There’s a lot of stuff on that other side to see this week at the Music Box as part of “David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective—The Return.”
A couple fragments of my first-release reviews of “The Straight Story” and “Lost Highway“: “Our stories die when we die. Our stories fall away when there’s no longer anyone to tell them to. Once the children and the grandchildren have heard them, once the wife or husband is gone, there is the silence before death. David Lynch knows this—and shows this— in “The Straight Story,” his marvelous, meditative movie about the unlikely five-week journey by a seventy-three-year-old Alvin Straight, who, in 1996 took a 1966 John Deere riding lawnmower across Iowa and Wisconsin for a reunion with his brother. The film strikes a personal chord: The last words my grandmother’s second husband said to me were, “Remember me, honey.” I still know only a few dozen stories that lay behind his eyes. Lynch’s portrait of Alvin (embodied by the affable, timelessly craggy Richard Farnsworth) doesn’t try to explain Alvin or dig under his skin for story. Lynch shows us the taciturn visage of a man who has slowly receded to silence, lost his wife fifteen years earlier, seen his children go away as they grow older, no one left to tell the old stories to. The film is filled with swooping shots of cornfields, harvesting, sunsets, sunrises. Farnsworth’s face is shown the same way: this man at the end of his life is as much a force of nature, of the cycle of life, death and rebirth as any of the other, seemingly more majestic bits of scenery. Farnsworth’s eyes are the hidden secret, in plain view, of “The Straight Story.”
Dark and disturbing, unrelenting and unsettling, gorgeously made, sizzlingly sensual yet coldly fatalist, “Lost Highway” shows Lynch at the top of his form. In its fever-dream orchestration of incident, sound and music, Lynch has made a musical—one that after you’ve seen it, you could find yourself humming in your sleep. In interviews Lynch is notoriously elusive, fond of saying things much like his characters would, such as that he’s “lost in darkness and confusion.” “Lost Highway” is the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who has a world of trouble boiling through his head over his feelings for his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette)—jealousy, madness, rationalization, some large thing. Whether taken as fantasy or nightmare, Lynch’s revisionist noir yarn is as pungent as a punch in the face, another, another, and as quixotic as revisiting a lost love; strip away its violent, painterly surface and roach, aching sounds, and we are left with a romantic tragedy, tinged with a deep undercurrent of sadness and hurt. Complete listing and showtimes here.
Judd Apatow’s spectacularly negligible “The Bubble” was pitched, purchased and produced within the second year of the ongoing pandemic, rendered into a series of data files compatible with dozens and dozens of potential playback devices across the globe, and, well, man, boy, is it tiring even typing that sentence after sitting through the 126-minute-duration of “The Bubble.” It’s a supposed comedy about a privileged cast in a luxury hotel while shooting a soundstage-bound action sequel during pandemic lockdown. Every slam leveled at the ADHD style of Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” could be adapted to Apatow’s succession of shrugs passed off as sketches. “The Bubble” (I almost typed “The Boggle”) is the kind of slack, indulgent, star-crossed bunkum which Netflix’s billions can effortlessly indulge. A couple of jokes may stand out as pretty sweet while you’re folding laundry. There’a recurrent lame joke about the lame running times of Apatow’s pictures but… man, boy, well. Man. The cast includes Leslie Mann, Iris Apatow, Fred Armisen, Pedro Pascal, Keegan-Michael Key, Rob Delaney, Karen Gillan, Vir Das and Harry Trevaldwyn. Man!
“Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood” is a melancholy maelstrom of madeleines: a childhood dreaming of space as men strained toward the moon come home to Proust. Using the rotoscope live-to-animation technique he used earlier in “Waking Life” (2001) and “A Scanner Darkly” (2006), Richard Linklater, the tender master of a certain stripe of American boyhood’s bruise, tends in patient, memoir-like style to the atmosphere of the moment in which his boy hero would have dreamt alongside the astronauts. But as in his many other pictures, not limited to “Boyhood” (2014), Linklater gently makes of the smallest detail at least talismanic weight, letting the iconic tend to itself in the sway of his narrative. “Apollo 10 1/2” is the kind of project that would surely suffer and flounder if it had to search out an audience to compensate its makers; it’s also the kind of rich, rewarding cinematic art which Netflix’s billions can effortlessly indulge. The depths of the movie, displaying surfaces yet plumbing dreams, are unexpectedly fine: we’re fortunate to have Linklater’s diligence and determination and poker-faced poetry in so, so many superlative forms, with so much unhurried, unflurried beauty.
The “rough and ready” Nightingale Cinema, in Noble Square since 2008, has lost its lease. Posts co-programmer Jesse Malmed on Twitter: “Sadly announcing that the nightingale has lost our lease. much more to come, but the next step is a blowout weekend of film and friends 4/22-24 and the next next step is a little less determined.” The attached message from director Emily Eddy and founding director Christy LeMaster adds “that our landlord has opted not to renew our lease… after fourteen years… and hundreds of screenings, exhibitions, performances and ecstatic nights… We are still committed to the exhibition and support of experimental and underground moving images.”
Criterion has issued a Blu-ray of a 2K digital restoration of the mad magnificence of Douglas Sirk’s “Written on the Wind.” It’s one of the essential 1950s pictures, bristling to the top of a steep heap of magical melodramas. There’s stuff to go on about its ninety-nine-minute running time for hours, but Criterion itself does a fair job with the impossible task of synopsis: “The Technicolor expressionism of Douglas Sirk reached a fever pitch with this operatic tragedy, which finds the director pushing his florid visuals and his critiques of American culture to their subversive extremes. Alcoholism, nymphomania, impotence, and deadly jealousy—these are just some of the toxins coursing through a massively wealthy, degenerate Texan oil family.” Dorothy Malone snatches the breath away throughout, especially her stupefying dances of death and the unspeakably carnal scene of mourning in the final shot. What on earth was the Danish master thinking of when he orchestrated movies like this and his final feature, “Imitation of Life” (1959)? The same mysteries as Murnau, he once said. “The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy… They say that I have a passion for ‘camera angles’… To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on the screen. It must follow characters at times into difficult places, as it crashed through the reeds and pools in ‘Sunrise’ at the heels of the Boy, rushing to keep his tryst with the Woman of the City. It must whirl and peep and move from place to place as swiftly as thought itself, when it is necessary to exaggerate for the audience the idea or emotion that is uppermost in the mind of the character. I think the films of the future will use more and more of these ‘camera angles,’ or as I prefer to call them these ‘dramatic angles.’ They help to photograph thought.” And this, indeed, is what Sirk did in the boldest, most outrageously stylized moments of his chart-topping commercial successes of the 1950s: how transparent can I make thwarted passion and never condescend as a European intellectual to American life?
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.