Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film: December 23, 2022-January 5, 2023
Of course, check theaters for closings over the lengthening, snow-blind holiday weekend. Damien Chazelle aims for his teeming, toppling “Babylon,” to be the terminus point, not only of madcap, face-slapping, all-to-the-wall studio blockbuster filmmaking but maybe the movies themselves. Our review is here.
Scott Cooper’s mad love for Christian Bale is well-evidenced in Netflix’s “The Pale Blue Eye,” a detective tale about a murder at West Point in 1830, wherein Bale enlists a young cadet, who will someday become Edgar Allan Poe. Opens at the Music Box, Sunday, December 25.
Sarah Polley’s intimate epic, the dark, searing and beautifully acted adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel, “Women Talking,” starts at the Music Box on Friday, December 23.
Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” is now playing in theaters. The heartening documentary “Wildcat” is playing Landmark Century and other theaters: A British soldier suffering PTSD joins an American scientist in the Amazon rainforest to foster an orphaned baby ocelot. Awwww, indeed.
Further cat action: the delightful surprise of the fast, funny “Puss In Boots: The Last Wish,” steeped in Antonio Banderas’ requisite purr is in theaters. “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” drops quietly, then loudly, into theaters, December 23.
Netflix streams Rian Johnson’s “The Glass Onion” from December 23 and Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise” from December 30; “Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical,” directed by Matthew Warchus and based on the London West End sensation, is the first emanation of Netflix’s purchase of the entirety of Dahl’s literary estate.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Copenhagen Cowboy” drops on Netflix January 5. May it be along the drifty, absurd, oneiric lines of his earlier series, 2019’s “Too Old to Die Young.”
Passes for the twenty-third Ebertfest, which runs April 19-22 in Champaign-Urbana, are on sale now. Films for the jam-packed weekend will be announced soon.
Recommended short runs are spicy across the next two weeks, including the start of a winter series of 35mm Billy Wilder matinees at the Music Box, with the bleak, brackish classic”The Apartment,” playing December 31-January 1. FACETS presents Neil Jordan’s 1984 Angela Carter adaptation, “The Company of Wolves,” taking fairytales by the throat. Friday, December 30. FACETS’ New Year attraction: Hype Williams’ 1998 singularity, “Belly.” Saturday, December 31.
And the Siskel Film Center wraps up its fiftieth anniversary “50/50” series with a few refreshers, with a Christmas and year-end cornucopia including “Stalker,” “Beau Travail,“” Wings Of Desire,” “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” “Akira,” “In The Mood For Love,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “The Handmaiden” and “Y tu mamá también.” Several of the movies are on the recently released Sight & Sound “Greatest Movies Of All Time” list, including “Jeanne Dielman,” in first position, “In The Mood For Love” (number five) and “Beau Travail” (number seven), and “Stalker” (number forty-three). The listings and showtimes for all “50/50” encores are here.
“The Whale” is Darren Aronofsky’s claustrophobic vehicle for the acting prowess of Brendan Fraser, as well as Hong Chau, Sadie Sink and Samantha Morton. The performers deserve a less dismal vehicle: the spectacle of Fraser playing a man flailing through dying days is less a movie than an illustrated text, based on the 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, which had an early run at Victory Gardens. “The Cruel Spectacle of ‘The Whale,'” which Roxane Gay wrote for the New York Times, is the best take I’ve read on the film’s weight issues. “Aronofsky’s latest film, is one you hope, desperately, will be seen by an audience that has the necessary cultural literacy, the empathy, to watch the story and recognize that the onscreen portrayal of fatness bears little resemblance to the lived experiences of fat people. It is a gratuitous, self-aggrandizing fiction at best… The disdain the filmmakers seem to have for their protagonist is constant, inescapable. It’s infuriating. To have all this onscreen talent and all these award-winning creators behind the camera, working to make an inhumane film about a very human being—what, exactly, is the point of that?”
REPERTORY & REVIVALS
The Siskel Film Center continues its “50/50” series with Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” which I’ve had a multitude of encounters with since my early twenties. The first time: I got off the plane late in the day at Heathrow, ready to spend my first expanse of time abroad. It was dark and it was rainy in London and I went in search of a movie. I spent a lot of that cold, rainy spring at the theater in the West End (when tickets were absurdly cheap) and in the galleries of the old Tate, especially the sprawling dreamscapes of the J.M.W. Turner rooms. But after dropping luggage at a bedsit in those first few hours, I wandered my way into a Curzon theater for a midnight double feature, terse but not perky “Pickpocket” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” The hope of the trip—to wallow in cultural experiences I hadn’t in Chicago—opened wide at Bresson’s rigor, even as jet lag and a small measure of exhaustion kicked in. I have a strong memory of that first dreamlike descent into Tarkovsky’s hallucination of a man, a Stalker, who is a guide for others to traverse a forbidden zone, a devastated, post-Chernobyl-like wilderness, toward The Room, a place where your greatest wish will be granted. A journey: like my hop across an ocean to serendipitously fall under its spell in a city nearly as wet as Tarkovsky’s waterlogged, pond-skimmed, rivulet-spidered multi-leveled allegory. In whatever format, it is another incarnation, yet another murmuring of a movie that once seen, will be dreamt again and again. When asked if I have a favorite ending of any movie, I don’t know what to say, but the majestic simplicity of the last shot of “Stalker” always rushes to mind and off the tip of my tongue. It is transformative magic. Siskel, Friday, December 23.
Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece of moment, the stupendously accomplished city symphony “Wings of Desire” (Der Himmel über Berlin), rises to poetry, surveys a walled city, looks upon its humans, within their dreams, descends to the circus and the barroom and the fleeting refractions of winding thought. Bruno Ganz, an angel, falls in love with a trapeze artist (Wenders then-inamorata Solveig Dommartin) and decides he would rather be human, forsaking immortality for two beating hearts. Along the way, he meets Peter Falk (playing “Peter Falk,” and very well), a fallen angel who offers sweetly odd advice. The perspectives on then-divided Berlin, German history, the circus, romance, music, black-and-white versus color, all shimmer with love and intelligence. Some of the finest of writer Peter Handke’s work, influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke, is on generous offer. Henri Alekan’s camerawork, poetry upon poetry, is particularly fine. Word and image alike sear the soul. (The original release prints of “Wings of Desire” were struck on color stock; the digital restoration allows the black-and-white passages to conform to Wenders’ original design.) “Dedicated to all the former angels, but especially to Yasujiro, Francois and Andrej” (Ozu, Truffaut and Tarkovsky). Siskel, Saturday, December 24.
Wong Kar-wai’s “In The Mood For Love”: they don’t make pictures like that anymore, do they? Cinematographer Christopher Doyle on his world: “Rapture. Enchantment. I am like a kid in a candy store. How a space engages us; how an actor moves within the space, light reflects off faces and surfaces. It totally entraps me, sucks me in and then we dance.” And “In The Mood For Love”? “I think we have to blame the production designer, costume and make-up guru, and later genius editor William Cheung Shu Ping. William and I had worked together on five films already, and then he suggested to Kar-wai that we three work together. Our three personalities are so diverse that I guess William was expecting some kind of creative fission among the three of us. The give and take of our personalities and our total commitment to our space is the reason the films feel and look and resonate the way they still seem to do. The work is like sculpture; we take a piece of rock or idea and try to chip away what is extraneous or distracting. Anything that doesn’t resonate is of no more use. Of course how does it resonate, what does it really say is a shifting sand of possibilities.” Siskel, Saturday, December 24.
South Korea’s master of well-wrought if perverse mayhem Park Chan-wook returns home after the English-language “Stoker” (2013) and returns with one of the year’s randiest, most radiantly baroque art films. Proudly loony, as well as operatically emotional and ravishingly overstuffed, Park’s erotic thriller “The Handmaiden” (Ah-ga-ssi), adapted from Welsh author Sarah Waters’ lesbian romance “Fingersmith,” tells the same story from three perspectives. Relocated from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s when that country was under Japanese occupation, “The Handmaiden” tracks an orphaned Japanese heiress who lives in seclusion and the Korean woman who tends to her, but who is also in cahoots with a seducer-conman to secure her fortune. The triangle that ensues is voraciously sexual, unabashedly fetishistic. And the crosses, and the double-crosses, and the twists-within-twists are almost as carnal in their voluptuousness. Siskel, Wednesday, December 28.
Man’s fate as elliptical dance musical: Claire Denis’ plaintive yet emotional alchemical “Beau Travail” proves, along with the rest of her dreamy filmography, that movies don’t need words. “Beau travail” (a title which Denis was reported to despise) is inspired, sketchily, by the goings-on in Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd, Sailor.” Under the blinding desert sun of Djibouti, Sergeant Galoup (the brooding, mug-faced, ceaselessly acrobatic Denis Lavant) runs his isolated community of French Foreign Legionnaires with crisp command. A recruit, Sentain (feline-featured, cool-eyed Grégoire Colin) upsets Galoup’s equipoise. He envies the attentions Sentain receives from his commander, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor, who bears the same name in Godard’s 1963 “Le Petit Soldat” while playing a deserter). Whatever conflict you anticipate, coiled or simmering, violent or homoerotic, is instead a drenching of mood and inchoate myth. We are given motion, gestures, enactment of anachronistic ritual. Raptures and vicissitudes shadow and sinew. The soldiers work, strain, sweat; we are immersed in the routines of these stripped-bare Sisyphuses as they are weighted with inexorable fate. The procession of tactile imagery is mesmerizing. Denis’ work is lyrical, largely through limning unanticipated detail and gesture. It’s like watching clouds pass. Denis’ eye, abetted by Agnès Godard and editor Nelly Quettier, is exacting. Their touch is as delicate and engaged as the fingertips of the blind bringing together the features of a face. Is this drama? It’s certainly cinema. Not every movie could, or should, be like this—stubborn, obstinate, melancholy, laconic, cryptic. But it’s hard to resist Denis’ work, the haze of portent. Some words should be urgently whispered, saved for raptures, spoken only at the risk of casting doubts on one’s judgment or sanity. “Beau Travail” is exquisite, mysterious and—at the instant its astonishing, cathartic, heartbreaking, climactic scene cuts to black—small perfection. (A longer review is here.) Siskel, Thursday, December 29.