Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, November 17-23, 2023
New this week: “Dream Scenario,” “Orlando: My Political Biography,” “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,” “May December,” “Thanksgiving” and “Next Goal Wins.” In Repertory & Revivals, attractions include “Planes, Trains and Automobiles“; “The Servant“; “Paths Of Glory“; “The Room,” with Tommy Wiseau in person with his new feature, “Big Shark“; and a forty-fifth anniversary showing of Chicago-savant director Andrew Davis’ first feature, “Stony Island,” with Davis in person.
Nicolas Cage is the fretful heart of uneasy comedy-satire “Dream Scenario,” the second feature of thirty-eight-year-old Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli (“Sick Of Myself,” a title that resonates here). Every Nicolas Cage film is a Nicolas Cage film by his very presence, but rather than relying on bursts of mania, Borgli’s film is composed largely of bouts of polite consternation.
Shot with a subdued 16mm palette, with concise, sometimes elegant editing, “Dream Scenario” offers lovely images, some of simmering alarm, and some as serenely surreal as can be: figures float to the sky in the opening scene, and a set of keys—keys!—fall from the sky into a leaf-strewn pool.
The man collating those leaves, Paul, a middle-aged academic—“a remarkable nobody” resembling writer Nicholson Baker—already feels put-upon by all and sundry, let alone once his sudden manifestation in the dreams of those near him and then, apparently, across a whole lot of the world. At first Paul—referred to once and in the copyright notice as “Paultergeist”—handles it with id gloves, this is about you and not about me. I am the ineffectual observer who meanders into your REM tableaux; I am the uninvited geist in the dream machine. (The clearest insight in Borgli’s screenplay is the aside that dreaming is simply psychosis.)
“How does it feel to go viral?” “Catnip for lunatics,” comes one answer, and there are “strange consequences.” Once the widespread mental manifestations turn to (sometimes literal) Freddy Krueger terrors—I’m nobody’s id, back off—the metaphors and imagery are less interesting. Limitless potential is tethered to cynical skit-level bits about “cancel culture” and commodification, less effective than the earlier moments of suggestive, aleatory happenings that patter the state of dreams. Still, there’s a lot in the mix, just like in co-producer Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid.” The moment-to-moment discoveries in the Zach Helm-scripted “Stranger Than Fiction” come to mind, rather than the Rubik’s cubism of the conundrums of Charlie Kaufman or the Andrew Niccol world of watching in “The Truman Show.” Following the example of “Groundhog Day,” the story does not insist on an explanation for the goings-on, but does say aloud that no explanation was found. Opens Friday at River East, Landmark Century and Drafthouse.
Movies opening Friday in theaters: Todd Haynes’ “May December“: “Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple (Julianne Moore) buckles under the pressure when an actress (Natalie Portman) arrives to do research for a film about their past.” Opens Friday at Landmark Century before its December 1 berth on Netflix.
“The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is a nearly three-hour prequel to the stories behind the “Hunger Games” industrial complex, but the voices that are crying loudest against the film by Francis Lawrence (“Constantine” and four prior “Hunger Games” products) are just the ones who make it sound like worthy delirium. May the subversive politics be ever in your favor. Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” is a comedy, natch, about an American soccer team that lost its qualifying match, 31-0 in 2001 and now retries its luck in 2014. With Michael Fassbender, Taika Waititi. Eli Roth expands on his “Grindhouse” fake trailer for “Thanksgiving,” building its two minutes into a 106-minute family horror.
The witty, oft-poetic “Orlando: My Political Biography” is a hardscrabble-budget inquiry into identity and gender fluidity that takes Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, “Orlando: A Biography” as its leaping-off point. Documentary and fiction and polemic commingle in bold profusion: “Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.” It’s a collective endeavor led by Spanish-born filmmaker-philosopher Paul B. Preciado, who joins twenty trans and nonbinary performers. Essay and experiment are the order of the day, and binaries be gone. Vistas widen. Friday, November 17 through November 26 at Siskel.
I haven’t written about David Fincher’s “The Killer,” but if you ever wanted to see how to express admiration for work you love, there are few who love more fervently than filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who posts on X/Twitter: “‘The Killer’ is a beautiful Bronson movie if penned by Sartre and filmed by Melville with the briskness of a Siegel. I simply love, love, love when Fincher swings with a mean genre beat. Nimble and clockwork precise and fun. The breeziest film I have seen in a long time. It’s great when you can see a film and a movie at the same time.”
REPERTORY & REVIVALS
Two choices for big pillows in Wrigleyville: Drafthouse shows “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” on Thursday, November 23, 6pm and at the Music Box in the big house, Wednesday, November 22, 7pm.
“The prolific, ever-provocative Joseph Losey, blacklisted from Hollywood and living in England, delivered a coolly modernist shock to the system of that nation’s cinema with this mesmerizing dissection of class, sexuality, and power” with “The Servant,” Criterion synopsizes neatly. “A dissolute scion of the upper crust (James Fox) finds the seemingly perfect manservant (a diabolical Dirk Bogarde, during his transition from matinee idol to art-house icon) to oversee his new London town house. But not all is as it seems, as traditional social hierarchies are gradually, disturbingly destabilized. Lustrously disorienting cinematography and a masterful script by playwright Harold Pinter merge in [this] tour-de-force of mounting psychosexual menace.” Its influences ranges wide, to pictures including “The Phantom Thread” and “Parasite.” 4K restoration from the original negative. Drafthouse, November 18, 3:15pm; November 21, 6:15pm.
War remains bad and men remain craven: Stanley Kubrick’s first picture with a budget, “Paths Of Glory,” (35mm) remains a powerful waltz with vainglory. Preceded by ten minutes of Kirk Douglas trailers (also 35mm). Chicago Film Society at NEIU, Wednesday, November 22, 7:30pm.
Turkey Week has arrived! If you see movies every week, dozens each year, shapeless junk is tough to defend. The deliriously bad “The Room” (showing in 35mm) is a lurid exception to the “so bad it’s good” fallacy. Its epic awfulness as a gaudy farrago of ego and inattention, its gutting of a too-large budget, suggest Tommy Wiseau was working at the very height of his talent, much as Ed Wood, Jr. was in “Glen Or Glenda.” I bet Wiseau’s first feature could make Ed Wood’s bones dance. Wood himself fondles an angora sweater, but more out of mooniness and outright poverty than the rampant, preening, keening, howling narcissism of “The Room,” a tone-deaf tale of a romantic triangle in which the star-financier, a mug-faced man with oily, shoulder-length hair and an indeterminate Slavic-seeming accent, takes a directorial credit, a producer’s credit, and an executive producer’s credit, as well as revealing his bottom for five bouts of unappealing rumpy-pumpy with his beloved “Lisaaaa!” The plot is near-unfathomable but its refrains, in Wiseau’s strange, whining voice—”You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”—are nearly as memorable as his small, strange, hacking cackle, a forced “Ha-ha Ha-ha!” occasionally topped by a further “Ha!” A sustained rooftop scene is shot against green screen, a striking but alienating effect that’s of a piece with the other unmotivated stuff up there. Why’s it so compelling? Wiseau means it. Condescension curdles storytelling itself. The level of genius necessary to emulate authentic incompetence would approach Borgesian heights: there will be no pastiche called “Pierre Menard, Director of ‘The Room’” Music Box, Friday, November 17, 9pm, 11:45pm.
Wiseau will appear on Saturday with the Chicago premiere of his new written-directed-starring, “Big Shark.” New Orleans. Shark. Tommy. Here’s a minute of the handcraft. Music Box, Saturday, November 18, 11pm.
Chicago-bred director Andrew Davis’ first feature, “Stony Island,” his low-budget 1978 soul musical was made after working in activist documentary, but stays street level. His debut features studios and clubs, modest apartments and a palatial spread, but it’s also a song of the South Side and downtown streets of that moment, an achievement he would surpass in a succession of crackling action pictures. In his Chicago-set work, Davis conscientiously captures the city with spatial integrity. Even in his little-seen film “The Package” (on Kino Lorber Blu-ray with a worthy directors’ commentary that still doesn’t tell the whole story of its local shoot) more than one-hundred locations were “created” around the world, but all those sets were entirely in this town. Other renditions that come to mind include the glossy, high-budget look of street-level work achieved in 1993’s “The Fugitive,” 1985’s “Code of Silence” and 1988’s “Above the Law.” Mayor Richard J. Daley, who despised having movies set in his Chicago, died during the shooting; his funeral procession is featured. “Stony Island” follows the formation of the Stony Island Band, created for the film but comprised of real-life musicians Gene “Daddy G” Barge, Tennyson Stephens, and Edward Stoney Robinson. Davis will appear for this forty-fifth anniversary celebration, which also marks its release on video-on-demand and other formats. Siskel, Friday, November 17, 8pm.