Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, November 10-16, 2023
Openers this week include “The Marvels,” the conversation piece “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life“; and 2023 Sundance standout “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.” The twenty-ninth edition of Black Harvest and The International Children’s Film Festival continue.
Many moons ago—the born-and-bred comic master would have been a babe of forty-nine years—I had an interview with Albert Brooks that went well, but afterwards, we saw each other in the lobby of the hotel where we talked, he said hi, asked if I used my black leather jacket to ride motorcycles, and I complimented him on the tailored sea-foam green suit that suited his linebacker frame; he looked in on one side, then the other, to check the tag: Hugo Boss. Brooks shrugged and said: “You’re lucky I’m not Elvis.”
Just walking! Just talking! Albert makes sentences of cosmic comic craft like others ordering a just-so sandwich. I thought of that long-ago exchange watching Rob Reiner’s “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life“—not hagiography, more of a pal-ography—covering the decades since the seventy-six-year-old duo met in high school.
“When Rob Met Albert”: It was high school! Interviewee writer-director-actor Jonah Hill adroitly puts into his own words is “like some, like some superhero-origin-story type of shit.” Most of the lovingly brief running time of under ninety minutes is filled with short clips and their conversation in an empty Los Angeles restaurant. There are also remarks from contemporaries like Larry David, James L. Brooks and David Letterman, as well as a couple of others who, frankly, stink, including anchor personality Brian Williams and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I hope their inclusion means they count as dear friends. But the thoughts shared by Brooks and Reiner quietly soar, a seance for the living: watching, I was tearing up with gratitude as much as barking out loud. The brief dull snips are pushed aside. There’s a judiciously based history of Brooks’ life and career as well as small, wry laughs for those who know less about the master than they should.
Did he have any choice but to follow the tough path he took to make the handful of stellar movies he made? “You think I see two roads? I don’t! If there was an easy road?” Brooks says in the familiar Brooks cadence, “I’d have a house there!” Streaming on HBO and Max from November 11.
Of their Sundance sensation, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” A24 synopsizes: “A lyrical, decades-spanning exploration across a woman’s life in Mississippi, the feature debut from award-winning poet, photographer and filmmaker Raven Jackson is a haunting and richly layered portrait, a beautiful ode to the generations of people and places that shape us.” Opens Friday, November 10 at Landmark Century.
The latest release from Disney’s magic Marvel kingdom offers a synopsis that seems directed to a very specific audience: “Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, has reclaimed her identity from the tyrannical Kree and taken revenge on the Supreme Intelligence. But unintended consequences see Carol shouldering the burden of a destabilized universe. When her duties send her to an anomalous wormhole linked to a Kree revolutionary, her powers become entangled with that of Jersey City super-fan Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, and Carol’s estranged niece, now S.A.B.E.R. astronaut Captain Monica Rambeau. Together, this unlikely trio must team up and learn to work in concert to save the universe as ‘The Marvels.‘” Okay! Directed and co-written by Nia DaCosta, of 2021’s “Candyman.” With Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Gary Lewis, Seo-Jun Park, Zenobia Shroff and Samuel L. Jackson. Opens Friday in theaters.
The twenty-ninth Black Harvest Film Festival continues at the Siskel Film Center through November 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 International Children’s Film Festival continues its fortieth year at FACETS, through November 19, featuring new animation, live-action and documentary films for audiences ages two to eighteen and beyond.
Repertory & Revivals are bracing this week, including the now-retired Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Millennium Mambo“; Joseph H. Lewis’ ineffable outlaw couple telling “Gun Crazy“; Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner: The Final Cut“; Robert Altman’s dead-serious lark “The Long Goodbye“; Michael Roemer’s comic masterpiece “The Plot Against Harry” and Douglas Sirk’s “There’s Always Tomorrow.”
REPERTORY & REVIVALS
Asian film scholar Tony Rayns let slip confirmation of a rumor several weeks ago that Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien had retired after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The film he had planned is no more, but what a legacy! There’s still-modern fragrance in Hou’s remarkable “Millennium Mambo” (2001), all languor and spite, tracing several young and not-so-young lowlifes in a lush-lit, electronica-pop thrumming underworld of Taiwanese mood. (The stately, narcotic delirium of Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography remains unparalleled in its clash of neon and blending hues.) In a 2002 public conversation transcribed by Rouge magazine, Hou described what he considers “the burden of existence”: “In this age, which is absolutely modern and individualistic, there is this so-called ‘unbearable lightness of being.’ But essentially it’s still very heavy. This lightness of an individual’s love and feelings, however, has to deal with a world that’s as hard as a rock. The drastically new genre of contemporary cinema is basically an attempt to find a form to deal with this heavy burden on the individual’s love and feelings, or simply the burden on his existence. Isn’t our existence an endless marching along under suppression?”
There’s tenderness in Hou’s work, all of which is mysterious in its rich emotional affect no matter how much you analyze it. I’ll typify it through the extended opening shot of “Millennium Mambo,” introducing the main character, Vicky, which seems like ancient history and yet completely present tense. I’ve watched the opening sequence-shot of this surreally beautiful masterpiece dozens of times. While the movie’s narcotic rhythms and repetitions and sudden bursts of beauty, in composition, music, gesture and perspective, are gratifying throughout, the opening is what stays. The entire movie is there: a voiceover from a character we do not ever see situates the story we are about to witness at the turn of the new century while we watch, in ever-so-slowed motion, Hou’s muse, model-actress Qi Shu running along a pedestrian walkway, practically skipping, aware of the camera as it slinkily Steadicams behind her, turning her head, flinging her long, black hair, smiling slightly at our witness as we are told the story that took place long, long ago, yet we are in this fleeting moment, this present of youthful feminine beauty while the movie’s low-key techno theme begins to pulse. She does skip, down stairs at the end of the shot, the camera staying at its higher perspective, and the instant she is about to leave the frame? A cut to black and the simmering apparition of the main title in English. A lifetime, lifetimes, packed into a single long take of a woman in her youth, smiling, smoking, laughing, skipping, disappearing. Vicky flies away even in the first moments of her journey. The trailer for the 2023 rerelease is here. The 2023 reissue is also available on Blu-ray. “Millennium Mambo” plays Thursday, November 16, 7pm, at Doc.
The marvels of Joseph H. Lewis’ filmography are not limited to the astonishing “Gun Crazy” (35mm). While this master of film noir is best known and most commonly discovered and rediscovered from his orgasmic proto-gangster-couple chase picture “Gun Crazy” (1950), Lewis’ entire run of work embodies elevated attention to characters moving within space, his blocking as psychologically indicative as the vital performances he elicits. (The ever-fresh “Gun Crazy” informed the French new wave and “Bonnie & Clyde,” among many other filmic sallies.) “When I was right out of college, there was a major retrospective of Lewis’ work, which I all but camped out for. I was young and he was near the end of his life, a very, very long life. (He lived to be ninety-three and discuss his work with other makers including Martin Scorsese, even if he only gave a single extended interview, to Peter Bogdanovich.) There were stacks of his work off to the side of the entrance to the Film Center’s Columbus Drive black box theater. A modest jumble awaiting history and a hand truck. A creative life. From archives all over the place. A couple of cardboard 16mm cartons; mostly, bent tins of 35mm wheels. I wrote him a letter…” The rest of that remembrance of a meeting with the director when I was very young is here.) “Gun Crazy” plays at Doc Films Friday, November 10 and Saturday, November 11.
Drafthouse shows Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” (Friday, November 10, 9:45pm; Sunday, November 12, 6:15pm).
“The Long Goodbye“: a musical? Yes. “I’ve been making one long movie,” is one of the nice lines Robert Altman had in his quiver to keep from telling journalistic outsiders about just what it was that he did as a filmmaker. Altman worked variations on the form of the musical, sometimes hiding it, sometimes celebrating it. He claimed to hate genre, which is why he employed it and also why he would worm his way through its clichés in movies like the loping masterpiece “The Long Goodbye” (the always-moral figure of the P.I. turns amoral; its 1940s-style theme is repeated down to supermarket Muzak and doorbells), or the slowed-down “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (the Western entrepreneur is shown to be a mumbling mess-up, scored to a besorrowed succession of dour, fateful Leonard Cohen songs). “There’s a long goodbye /And it happens everyday / When some passerby /Invites your eye /To come her way.” Friday, November 10, 3pm; Tuesday, November 14, 3:15pm; Wednesday, November 15, 2:45pm, 7:45pm.
Douglas Sirk’s “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956) will be introduced by Marsha Gordon, an expert on the frequently adapted writer Ursula Parrott, and who wrote the recent and highly entertaining “Becoming the Ex-Wife: The Unconventional Life and Forgotten Writings of Ursula Parrott.” UChicago Film Studies Center, Friday, November 10, 7pm.
The Chicago Film Society presents Michael Roemer’s keen, idiosyncratic comic masterpiece “The Plot Against Harry” (1969, released 1989, 35mm), introduced by Jonathan Rosenbaum. “Harry Plotnick (Martin Priest) can’t catch a break. A schlemiel goes to prison for nine months and comes out a schnook, a small-time numbers guy who can’t even reconstitute his racket because his rivals have taken over the street,” writes CFS’ Kyle Westphal. “A deadpan comedy where business is conducted at a bris, a dog-training session, a golf course overlooking the expressway, and other realer-than-real shindigs, ‘The Plot Against Harry’ zigzags across New York with devil-may-care abandon. Cast mainly with white collar nonprofessionals (auditors, psychoanalysts, etc.) and loosely plotted without any conventional conflict, it’s a workaday gangland situation comedy, but it neither parodies the genre nor plumbs it for artificial thrills.” Chicago Film Society at NEIU, Wednesday, November 15, 7:30pm.