Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, November 3-9, 2023
New reviews include “Priscilla,” “Divinity,” “Quiz Lady,” “The Persian Version” and “Fingernails.” Repertory & Revival highlights include “Cooley High,” “Strange Days,” 1923 silent “The Bright Shawl,” David Lynch’s dazzling dud “Dune,” “Dazed And Confused,” a Chicago Filmmakers anniversary salute to the pioneering film festival Blacklight, and Wakefield Poole’s “Take One.”
The twenty-ninth Black Harvest Film Festival takes over the Siskel Film Center November 3-16. “Revolutionary Visions” is the 2023 theme; the complete calendar is here. (Our interview with Black Harvest festival coordinator-curator Nick Leffel and curator Jada-Amina is here.)
The Children’s International Film Festival marks its fortieth year at FACETS, featuring new animation, live-action and documentary films for audiences ages two to eighteen and beyond.
The 2023 free Doc Chicago mini-conference opens with “A Conversation with Gordon Quinn,” featuring Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn: filmmaker, fair-use advocate, and mentor to generations of makers of nonfiction. Filmmaker and educator Dinesh Sabu (“Unbroken Glass”) will talk with Quinn, and include clips from rarely screened early Kartemquin Films. Doc Chicago is a free, volunteer-run mini-conference that continues on Saturday November 4 with documentary panels and talks at the Cultural Center. Full schedule here. The free Gordon Quinn event is Friday, November 3, 7pm, Chicago Cultural Center, Claudia Cassidy Theater. RSVP here.
“Beguiled” could be the title of almost any of Sofia Coppola’s eight features: a figure’s fixations and fascinations are going to be caught in offhand fashion of great specificity, and in this instance, within an insistent haze like a memory of an heirloom.
Each of those visual and aural elements is rich with deliberation and vibrates with suggestiveness. One of the oddest elements of the somber, muted “Priscilla,” at least in part a fairytale about a princess trapped in a castle, is that her prince Elvis, Jacob Elordi, is six-foot-five and her Priscilla, Cailee Spaeny, is just over five feet tall, accentuating the fairytale at a glance. The only mention of size is in a scene where Elvis and his posse watch Priscilla try on outfits: “You’re a small girl, baby, you got to keep away from prints,” Elordi says in his chosen mutter-mumble-murmur. “I got this for you,” we hear Elvis say, then see a hand lay a pearl-handled pistol laid upon a gown.
Those are typical of the flat affect of “Priscilla”‘s funniest lines, in the style of David Lynch, or more pointedly, the Terrence Malick who made “Badlands,” a portrait of an outsider pairing of an older “bad boy” and a teen girl. Coppola pointedly quotes at an apposite moment the most familiar piece of music used in “Badlands,” Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor.
Most of “Priscilla” functions as cool collage, and blooms with even cursory knowledge of their doomed relationship. Yet knowledge is not required: all the steps from discovery by a friend of Elvis in a German snack shop to her departure upon her divorce, to an unknown, unmoored future, are established with elliptical grace. It’s like lyrics.
Moments are offered in iconic form, as when ninth-grade Priscilla sits with a book and an emptied bottle of Coca-Cola when she’s seen: unapologetically pictured as a child, a tiny odalisque in Elvis’ eye, and hardly the Coke-toting nymphet of the “Lolita” films by Kubrick and Adrian Lyne.
Coppola’s opening image is telling: Priscilla’s bare feet with toes painted crimson, crossing white shag carpeting, tempting, sinking. As is the placement of her credit as writer-director, following a glimpse of a chandelier overhead: let me describe the luxe, let me assay the fug.
It’s a life occluded by a Sun: even when Priscilla writes his name in a spiral notebook in class, we only see part of the word “Elvis.” The vibrations are elemental, like the moment at a party when Elvis is banging through Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and the liquid in a glass atop the piano ripples like the glass of water in the Three Mile Island power plant in “The China Syndrome.”
Coppola avoids the trappings of Graceland that might be familiar to someone who’s visited once (twice, three times), from TV screens to monkey statuary. His Memphis Mafia (and their wives) are the set dressing. This is a cloistered castle with no turret: Priscilla is advised to stay out of sight of fans at the gate at all cost.
“I’m always interested in the fantasy and the reality of what looks like one thing, looks ideal, and then the reality of that,” Coppola said earlier this week in a virtual interview. “Maybe growing up around the film business, I see the different sides. So I don’t have a more realistic view of what that can be like. It looks like such a fairytale on the outside. And then to hear the struggles that she went through, it’s not at all what you expect. There’s this idea in our culture that the fame and wealth will make you happy, and it’s just a reality that it comes with a whole other set of baggage. I’m always interested in the mix of fantasy and reality. Just starting with her feet sinking into the carpet, I hope gets the audience into the idea that we’re going to experience this through her shoes and through her eyes.” “Priscilla” opens in theaters Friday, November 3.
Alexander Payne (“Election”) is back after years in the wilderness, and he’s got Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (35mm) in a 1970s-set holiday parable featuring a shitty private school teacher and a student he reluctantly takes under wing. Opens Friday, November 3 at the Music Box.
Illustrating a theorem, sketching a notion: true love can now be determined by technology in the second feature from Greek director-writer-producer Christos Nikou (“Apples”). “Fingernails” stars Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White and Luke Wilson in a giddily visual neighborhood meet-up of the Greek weird wave (the films of Yorgos Lanthimos, especially “The Lobster”) and Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”) and Spike Jonze (“Her”). (Credits for cinematographer Marcell Rév, a new-generation master of color temperatures and contrast, include the series “Euphoria,” “White God” and “Jupiter’s Moon”). The primary protagonists of the elongated love triangle are the ineffable Buckley and the ever-charming Ahmed. Nikou stays strange in this swatch of right-now-futurism, but also expands on his vocabulary of crunchy yet seductive imagery from “Apples.” Admittedly, the movie’s got more eye candy than red corpuscles. In limited release and on Apple TV+ starting Friday, November 3.
Immortality could be just around the corner in Eddie Alcazar’s “Divinity,” a spasmodic eyeful, a no-budget black-and-white experimental feature on the wages of eternal life, executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Breathing with the lungs of “Eraserhead,” cradling the curiosity of Cronenberg, aiming to the stars of Guy Maddin, “Divinity” is an unlikely accumulation of imagery, a coherent-enough-to-haunt assemblage of body horror, bad dreams and crushed virtue. (It’s got some of the cumulative weight of a movie like Phil Tippett’s “Mad God” or Aleksei German’s “Hard To Be A God”: you breathe where you can.) Alcazar, a veteran of game design, confects a retro-futurist scheme of live action and stop-motion to pop the most reluctant of eyeballs. There’s dystopian beauty to spare for a dystopian world: living forever could be a cracked curse. Limited shows at Drafthouse, starting Friday, November 3.
A comedy in bold, candied colors and spirited performances, Maryam Keshavarz’s “The Persian Version” sings, zings and even stings with cultural specificity. Iranian American Leila embraces both her origins and her life in New York City, but things go out of whack when family gathers after her father’s heart transplant. Leila mocks the family’s American immersion as “Sears family portrait and all,” but an early scene that cuts from a party where she climbs atop a confused partner to a handshake between Richard Nixon and Reza Pahlavi brightly encapsulates the inner landscape we’re set to explore. The opening is a bold gambit, traveling with Leila as she heads to a Halloween costume party with a surfboard, with headdress but in a neon-pink bikini, or “burkini.” Madcap dashes like that rise above the potent danger for a descent into therapeutic digression. Dance and song are elemental as Keshavarz’s third narrative feature celebrates three generations of Iranian American women, and the score by Rostam Batmanglij bridges cultures. “As a kid, I always longed to see the great Iranian American immigrant film, Keshavarz writes in a director’s note. “The Italians had ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Moonstruck,’ the Asian community got ‘Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Wedding Banquet,’ South Asians have ‘The Namesake,’ even Greek Americans got ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.'” Those portraits inspired “The Persian Version,” and as he was writing, “I was inspired by the intimacy and bravery of Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’ and the epic mediation on Pawlikowski’s parents’ relationship in ‘Cold War.’ I made the film I always longed to see—one that bridges my Iranian and American worlds.” Winner of the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2023. Friday, November 3 in theaters.
Jessica Yu’s “Quiz Lady” is the kind of tonally eclectic, swing-often-for-the-fences comedy tailor-made for sustaining the theatrical audience for laughter bursting from grown-up topics, so of course it’s debuting on streaming instead of on the big screen. (Ragged but enthusiastic comedies work best among tickled-pink strangers in the warm dark.) Coming in at a kindly ninety minutes or so, Yu, a documentarian and television director (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Billions,” “Fosse/Verdon,” “Citadel”) works with a succession of contrivances that combine Awkwafina and Sandra Oh as sisters, one a cosmic wreck, the other with dreams of quiz-show glory, who rush to cover for a mother with gambling debts. (Plus a kidnapped dog.) Physical comedy and verbal slapstick ensue with slaps at racial stereotypes and the status of class in America. What’s good is better the closer the film comes to its comic climax, and Awkwafina is a human hydroelectric complex: use all the power you need, there’s charge to spare. Jason Schwartzman brings dapper charm. With Paul Reubens. “Quiz Lady” streams on Hulu from Friday, November 3.
REPERTORY & REVIVALS
“Cooley High” (35mm), the seminal Black coming-of-age drama set in the 1960s at a school in Chicago is the Music Box matinee. Filmmaker Michael Schultz looks back with Reggie Ugwu at the New York Times. “The editor of a film I’d done, ‘Together for Days’ (1972) [a kind of gender-swapped, post-civil rights-era update of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’], connected me with the producer Steve Krantz. He had met the writer, Eric Monte, and they had a script based on all of these incredible stories Eric had from growing up in the Cabrini Green [housing project] of Chicago. But the script wasn’t really a script—it was still mostly just stories. So I met with Eric for seven or eight hours a day for four weeks. Every night, me and my wife [Gloria Schultz] would cut everything down until we had the completed script… It had this perfect dramatic twist in the death of a friend that sends the main character off to pursue his dreams. That really happened to Eric. And I thought it could be a window into the lives of Black kids that had never been seen before. My theory was that if it was as culturally specific as possible, and as Black as possible, it would translate across the racial divide and people would fall in love with these kids and their humanity.” Music Box, Saturday-Sunday, November 4-5, 11:30am.
Mary Astor, Edward G. Robinson and William Powell “playing a colorful Spanish villain,” made their screen debuts in the 1923 “The Bright Shawl” (35mm): Richard Barthelmess plays “a rich American adventurer tangled up with Cuban resistance to Spanish rule in the 1850s. Caught between Andalusian dancer La Clavel (Dorothy Gish) and Spanish loyalist spy La Pilar (Jetta Goudal), Abbott finds himself throwing in with the rebels, putting himself and the patriotic Escobar clan in grave danger.” Chicago Film Society, Music Box, Monday, November 6, 7pm.
Wakefield Poole’s seminal 1977 “docufantasy” “Take One” invited “a group of real gay men to live out their deepest sexual fantasies for the camera… A love letter to both San Francisco’s gay community and to the magic of cinema itself, this is a hidden gem of 1970s queer cinema and documentary filmmaking.” Music Box, Sunday, November 5, 9:30pm.
Who’s seen David Lynch’s “Dune” on the big screen? The 1984 disappointment that presaged Dino De Laurentiis’ kindly apology in the form of giving Lynch $6 million or so and final cut to craft “Blue Velvet” and turbocharged Lynch’s determination to control his career? Here’s your chance to witness some inexplicably weird stuff near the scale it was intended, plus a younger Patrick Stewart with a pug. Drafthouse, Saturday, November 4, noon.
A thirtieth-anniversary showing of “Dazed And Confused” includes a Jack Black-moderated pre-recorded Zoom conversation with filmmaker Richard Linklater and some of his teeming cast from his leisurely Renoiresque coming-of-comedy-age hang that reflects multiple eras, not limited to its setting and the 1993 time of its release. Drafthouse, Wednesday, November 8, 2:20pm.
Violent, vivid, virtual and vitally viscid, Kathryn Bigelow’s errant 1995 Y2K-set thriller “Strange Days” (35mm) holds notions about racism, representation and the point-of-view of cinematic violence that remain charged today. From a screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks. The neural drench of the electronic-driven score is still powerful. “Bodies confused/Memories misused,” indeed, Mr. Morrison. Doc Films, Thursday, November 9, 7pm.
Chicago Filmmakers will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with screenings and special events running through spring 2024. “The first program in this series celebrates the Blacklight Film Festival with a special screening of Oscar Micheaux’s silent cinematic masterpiece, ‘Symbol of The Unconquered,’ accompanied by a live improvised and electronic music score performed by saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, guitarist Jonathan Woods and synthesizer player Jim Baker. This event, a collaboration with Black Harvest Film Festival and Blacknuss Network, pays homage to the legacy of Blacklight Film Festival, a festival of international Black cinema founded in 1982 by Floyd Webb and the late Terry White Glover at Chicago Filmmakers. The Blacklight Film Festival made a significant impact during its existence, contributing to the recognition of Black cinema as a vital and diverse component of global filmmaking. Blacklight reached its zenith at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute and concluded its run in 1994.” This event “not only commemorates the past but also serves as a testament to the enduring power of film and music to inspire, educate, and unite audiences. It embodies the essence of Blacklight Film Festival’s legacy and its commitment to celebrating diversity and innovation in the world of cinema,” says Blacklight co-founder Floyd Webb. Tickets for the event at the Siskel Film Center here.