Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, June 3-9, 2022
The Chicago area’s biggest screens are holding onto “Top Gun: Maverick” until they can go on the “Jurassic World: Dominion” rampage this Thursday; in the meantime, two elders of world cinema, Liverpool’s Terence Davies (a scamp of seventy-six) and Toronto’s David Cronenberg (a rascal of seventy-nine) return in top form with “Benediction” and “Crimes Of The Future.” Chicago filmmaker Michael Smith’s fourth feature, the assured long-family-weekend Rogers Park-Andersonville-set dramatic comedy “Relative,” premieres at the Music Box on Wednesday, June 8 and opens at Siskel on Friday, June 10, then expands June 17 to the Wilmette and Hollywood BLVD. Among the talent on-screen: Wendy Robie, Francis Guinan, Clare Cooney, Cameron Scott Roberts, Keith D. Gallagher and Emily Lape.
Searchlight Pictures stays in its early- and mid-pandemic niche as the supplier of first-run art-house pictures for Disney sister outlet Hulu, with Andrew Ahn’s “Fire Island,” a period gay summer romcom patterned as “Pride & Prejudice & Poppers.” The first of Gaspar Noé’s two current pictures, “Vortex,” had a surreptitious booking at River East several weeks ago; the sensory assault of Noé’s mid-length “Lux Æterna” makes a momentary apparition this weekend at Siskel. Joe Swanberg is sponsoring a return engagement of “Vortex” at the Davis on June 6-7; more here. “The Davis is closed Mondays and Tuesdays,” Swanberg relays. “I have a sense that if attendance is good, they will consider holding it over for two more screenings, and those nights might stay open for alternative programming. Kind of an exciting prospect.”
Just as the announcement that Robert Zemeckis’ live-action “Pinocchio” (with Tom Hanks, Cynthia Erivo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Keegan-Michael Key, Lorraine Bracco and Luke Evans) will go directly to streamer Disney Plus as part of the promotion of “Disney Plus Day” and the company’s fan confab D23 Expo, Chicago, via the indefatigable Chicago Film Society, gets the brackish blast of the often-great director’s second feature, “Used Cars” in 35mm on Wednesday, June 8 at the Auditorium at NEIU.
Another repertory attraction is a 4K digital copy of “Blade Runner“; alongside a digital edition of “Hoop Dreams,” and Andrew Bujalski’s hypnotic lowest-of-lo-fi “Computer Chess.”
Plus: Matt Damon will receive The Siskel Film Center’s Renaissance Award and Chicago Film Office director Kwame Amoaku has resigned. And streaming for free on YouTube, Bo Burnham’s “The Inside Outtakes.”
A genial visionary of decades and centuries past, the voluble, well-read, well-mannered but blade-baring Terence Davies hits his stride once more with his tenth feature-length project. He sees clearly, very clearly indeed. The genteel and scalding “Benediction” is a passion project of many years, a portrait of early twentieth-century English war poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) who sees beyond the moment and seeks revelations from the world outside, from love, verse, failed relationships; as a veteran of the Great War and conscientious objector afterward, Sassoon turns against the aristocracy that once embraced him. He cannot forget “lovely lads and dead and rotten.” How does Davies imagine these eras, these moments, the gestures by this set of actors, these longings, these knits and fashions? Why is he one of the funniest writers of arch dialogue in any era? (One of Davies’ dashed projects before “Neon Bible” was a comedy of manners, a roundelay of gay affairs in the New York City art scene. What words we’ve never heard!) A gem of period imagination, the film still sings of Davies’ work entire: “Only when I started reading about his life, did I realize what a huge subject it was. So how could I write it and make sense of it? All within a two-hour film. There was so much to shape—and so much to lose,” he tells the editors to the film’s press kit. “I thought the best idea was to concentrate on those things that interested me. I didn’t know Sassoon was gay, nor that he had converted to Catholicism. Being an ex-Catholic, that was quite a shock for me. Then there was his constant search for some kind of redemption, which never comes because you can’t find redemption in anyone or anything. You have to find it in yourself. He did what lots of gay men did back then—they got married. I think he genuinely thought ‘The love of a good woman could cure me.’” With Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels. (Video: Davies “reads Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Elegy to Robbie Ross’—his great friend, champion, and mentor—written in 1918” in under two minutes on Instagram here.) “Benediction” opens Friday, June 3 at Siskel, AMC’s Newcity 14, Lincolnshire Stadium and Village Crossing.
Lux Æterna” (2019) is a lark infernal, if one describes any Gaspar Noé outing as a lark. But I think the Argentine provocateur is always having fun, even at his most puckishly dour. (This jagged project began as a shorter film for St. Laurent.) Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle are actresses on a film set who tell each other stories about on-set mishaps, witches and such. Noé freely and willfully invokes filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Carl Th. Dreyer and Tony Conrad (“The Flicker”) and Fassbinder and Godard and Buñuel, mostly referred to only by their first names. (Fires were started.) The writer of the pressbook was up to the task: “Ego and technical problems turn to psychotic outbreaks, as the shoot gradually plunges into chaos.” (The film and the trailer below make punishing use of flashing and strobe lights.)
“This film is like a patchwork of what it is to shoot an auteur film,” Noé says in an interview in the notes, “and I have already seen shoots that were as disastrous as this one. But in reality, it was more about commissioned films or advertising films where the freedom of the director was limited by the sponsors. On my fictional shoots, it has always gone well to this day and the brief shoot of ‘Lux Æterna’ was even one of the happiest, unlike the shoot depicted on screen.” Siskel, one show only, Friday, June 3.
By the time this is published, seeing David Cronenberg’s comeback of the flesh “Crimes Of The Future,” will be in my past and what I write will then be in the immediate future. There will be no crimes that I can predict. The Music Box has programmed early screenings, including Thursday night, June 2, before the Friday, June 3 opening of the Athens-set production based on a twenty-year-old script he found to be unfamiliar when he was reminded of it by the producer Robert Lantos. A script almost not his own, he says, but written by someone who had done a very good job! “Surgery is the next sex?” Poke, poke. As Cronenberg prompts, “At this critical junction in human history, one wonders—can the human body evolve to solve problems we have created? Can the human body evolve a process to digest plastics and artificial materials not only as part of a solution to the climate crisis, but also, to grow, thrive, and survive?” Score by the ineffably bombastic Howard Shore; with Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué, Don McKellar, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Nadia Litz, Lihi Kornowski, Denise Capezza. (Cronenberg has always granted his characters eccentric names—here, Tenser, Timlin, Caprice, Djuna, Berst, Router, Wippet, Lang Dotrice—and sometimes it sounds as if he casts his supporting players for their names as well.) Opens Friday, June 3 at the Music Box.
Kwame Amoaku has resigned as director of the Chicago Film Office. “I have been a proud member of the Chicago Film Community for almost thirty years. This community is like a family to me,” he posted on Facebook. “I grew up here and I have worked with many of you for most of my career. I love this city, all of it from Howard to 127th Street. I remember the first job I ever worked. It was P.A. on a music video with Maria Roxas producing and Rakim Jihad directing. From that moment, I was all in. That started a journey that took me all over the world and finally back here to step into the huge shoes of Rich Moskal. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Commissioner Mark Kelly welcomed me into the DCASE family in July of 2019, where I met an amazing group of public servants whose sole purpose was to bring joy and culture to the people of Chicago. Over the last three years I am proud of the progress and growth I have witnessed. I am proud to have been a part of the awesome success we have had, increasing film production by 125%; working with State and City Health Departments to get COVID guidelines that allowed film to be declared essential manufacturing in Chicago [which allowed] us to return to work quickly during the pandemic; improving the deconfliction process and working with neighborhoods to allow for the increase in production; creating a workforce development program to expand employment opportunities to underserved areas of the city; creating a marketing program to promote the importance of film production to the local economy; working with developers to get purpose-built infrastructure online by 2023 and working with existing providers to expand capacity; and building the creative content infrastructure in Chicago’s independent film community by supporting filmmakers with funding and professional development. I am confident that with Commissioner Erin Harkey, we will continue [to build] the film industry here in Chicago. The Chicago Film Office team, deputy Betsey Grais [who will lead the department until a replacement is appointed], independent film coordinator Thavary Krouch, and project managers John Hundriser and Tim Olson will continue to be the small but mighty team that provides the very best service to this incredible community that I have been blessed to call home for almost three decades. Those of you that know me know I have been through many personal challenges over the last few years. I want you all to know that the support that I have received from this community has been truly a blessing that I am beyond thankful for. I took this job because I wanted to give back to a community that has given me so much love. I hope that I was able to do that in the short time that I was here.”
The Siskel Film Center has announced Matt Damon as recipient of the Film Center’s Renaissance Award during an event on Saturday, June 25, when he will be interviewed in a live, virtual conversation led by Gene Siskel Film Center board member Robert Downey Jr., which will be projected on the Film Center’s two screens. The event will commemorate the Film Center’s fiftieth-anniversary year. “As the Gene Siskel Film Center celebrates fifty years of bringing filmmakers, archivists, scholars, critics, and movie lovers together for our critically acclaimed film programs at a true center for film, we are proud to have Matt Damon and Robert Downey Jr. join us for these festivities and can think of no better way to celebrate this milestone than honoring writer, producer and actor Matt Damon on our big screen,” Jean de St. Aubin, executive director of the Gene Siskel Film Center says in a release. “Matt’s prolific career and discerning choice of roles makes him one of the most effective filmmakers of our generation and we cannot think of anyone more deserving of the 2022 Gene Siskel Film Center Renaissance Award.”
REPERTORY & REVIVALS
Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” shows as part of the Siskel Film Center’s yearlong fiftieth-anniversary umbrella, “50/50”; James will introduce Chicago’s very best 171-minute epic masterpiece. Siskel, Monday, June 6.
The Siskel’s June series “Control.Alt.Delete” features two entrees this week, “Computer Chess” and “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” in 4K digital on June 4 and June 12. “The script took a year of rewrites to get ready,” Tom Shone wrote of “Blade Runner” in “Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer” (2004). “[Writer Hampton] Fancher had done a good job in fleshing out Dick’s paranoiac novel, but it still read like a stage play: there were few exteriors, and the world his characters inhabited remained unexplored… Scott asked him, ‘Hampton, this world you’ve created—what’s outside the window?’ Hampton admitted that he hadn’t a clue. Scott suggested he read ‘Heavy Metal,’ the same comic Scott had used as inspiration on ‘Alien.’ The next day, Fancher came back in all excited, going ‘Yeah, let’s go outside the fucking window!’” Fancher said Scott’s “imagination is like a fucking virus, keeps growing and spreading and mutating. Ridley’s mind is almost too fast for his own good; very often, it pulled ahead of himself, at great speed. Then he’d tumble over it, ideas were pouring out of him so fast.” Fancher’s testimony put it together, that palpable, sensual joy of notion-made-manifest in every squiggle-filled frame: what is “Blade Runner,” what is it about, what does it mean? It is a manifestation of Ridley Scott’s brain, it’s about Ridley Scott, it means that Ridley Scott has a singularly feverish brain, still uncontained into his eighties, where his name appears on a deluge of projects each season as executive producer or producer. “Blade Runner” lives, Ridley Scott thrives. Siskel, Saturday, June 4.
Andrew Bujalski’s winningly, swimmingly strange and dense fourth feature, “Computer Chess” (2013), is a valentine to all things analogue, a burlesque of masculinity, a stoner comedy, a New Age satire, and a contemplation of artificial intelligence. Taking place across a weekend tourney for teams of computer programmers dead-set on creating software that can beat humans at chess, the movie is flush with odd characters. When the first images shimmer onscreen, it feels for a moment, until you get used to the look, not that you’re seeing a time capsule, but are in fact transported to the 1980s, dropped right into the middle of this ratty, perhaps haunted motel, witnessing the slightly self-conscious dorkiness of computer whizzes caught on rudimentary, ghostly, silvery Sony video that a community college would have used to record a basketball tourney or a water district meeting. At first, the film looks like it wasn’t even made, that it just happened, and sat, shedding magnetic flakes on a closet shelf for decades. But along with a visual grammar that seems to invent itself as the film goes along—including blown takes, jumps in sound recording, inexplicable traveling shots and mismatched shots—it also becomes apparent that “Computer Chess”’ deep-ecology tech comedy is completely under control, never sacrificing an innate, lovely weirdness. Even the furnishings echo down the years, and not always to nostalgic joy: dinky digital watches, overhead projectors, brand names like Commodore and Zenith, the hard, plastic, hollow report of ancient keyboards clacking, worn and witnessed lumpish lads in Sansabelts, many with suspect mustaches. The men onscreen aren’t just “nerds” from a safe distance, historically, esthetically, they’re a dozen kinds of so-male duffers and bluffers and mopers and dopers. They’re clever but not wise, filled with observations like “Man, on three Scotches, he could program his way out of any problem in the world.” The loopy existential comedy of “Computer Chess” reaches a blissful climax that only the film’s ugly, longhaired mash-faced stoner of a cat that wanders the motel’s creepy corridors could have predicted. By the end, it seems not only to have swallowed its own tail but also to have invented itself whole with but a C: prompt and a blinking cursor. Siskel, Tuesday, June 7, Tuesday, June 21.
Bo Burnham’s constructed an hour-long offering from outtakes of his hated-and-beloved lockdown odyssey, “Inside.” “The Inside Outtakes” can only be watched on his YouTube page, here. A highlight? A song about having the chance to vote for Joe Biden. There’s much more if you want more.
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.