Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, November 24-30, 2023
Three big openings on Wednesday, November 22: Ridley Scott’s comic epic “Napoleon” (“The French don’t even like themselves,” Sir Ridley has responded to Gallic critiques); Disney’s “Wish“; and Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein variation, “Maestro“; and opening Friday, November 24, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s second feature, “Saltburn.”
Matt Singer promotes “Opposable Thumbs,” his big-picture Siskel & Ebert tome at Siskel. Repertory & Revival distractions include a 35mm showing of Terrence Malick’s rarely shown original cut of “The New World”; this season’s Chicago perennial “Night Of The Hunter“; “The Sound Of Music” Sing-a-Long; “Terminator 2: Judgment Day“; “Piccadilly“; “Wild Things“; “Ema“; Shane Black’s toppermost Christmas-set pic, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang“; “Bad Day At Black Rock“; Robert Duvall’s sincere seeking-of-faith of “The Apostle“ and Ang Lee’s “Hulk.”
Our interview with “Saltburn” writer-director Emerald Fennell is here, where she talks about thwarted sexual attraction and her influence-laden second film, which sups at Highsmith as well as the heritage film and myriad other movies including “The Usual Suspects” in its lovingly lit and lavishly appointed satire. Double Pulitzer-winner Wesley Morris stepped back, ever so briefly, into film critic shoes at the New York Times, to land a range of body blows: “I suppose Fennell has made a movie about toxic elitism, but she’s done it in the way Ikea gives you assembly instructions. And barely even that, since the most blatant class indictment is outsourced to the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Rent’ during a bout of actual karaoke with Oliver and [another character]. Staging the warfare between two strivers isn’t a bad urge, but that doesn’t go far enough, either… Barry Keoghan is trying to create a role out of the disparate parts of other ones (Norman Bates, Tom Ripley, Patrick Bateman), yet doesn’t get all the way there. He couldn’t have. There is no ‘there.'” Following that sustained stomp, Richard Brody speaks up at the New Yorker: “the ingenuity of the story’s twists and turns ultimately left me feeling cheated, because of the cagy way that plot points are dispensed. It may seem odd to discuss the movie’s form before detailing the story, but the story’s essence is inextricable from Fennell’s way of telling it. There are, in effect, two movies at work in ‘Saltburn’—the one that Fennell puts onto the screen and the one that it implies—and the implied movie is better.” Opens Friday, November 24.
Brooklynite Matt Singer will be in town with his story of the televisual lives of Chicago’s two best-known movie reviewers, “Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever.” Clips will be served. The Tribune’s Michael Phillips will moderate discussion. Brian Hieggelke interviews Singer here. Richard Brody thinks the movie’s about them at the New Yorker. And a view by our critic from the screening room in the 1990s that takes a different temperature of the dueling duo: “In daily life, in multiple encounters each week, Gene was much worse than in any of the clips (or even the wealth of splenetic outtakes). It wasn’t like watching mom and dad fight, it was like seeing two strangers on the corner, again and again and again. In the nineties, there wasn’t awareness about trauma caused by workplaces filled with abusive behavior. And it wasn’t like the reviewer’s privilege of the screening room was a job you could quit. Nonetheless, if you would allow, if I could have a moment of your precious time, I would submit—I channel the voices of Mamet and Siskel with that contrived construction—that the screening room when this pair fought is the most poisonous work environment I ever knew.” Siskel, Tuesday, November 28, 6:30pm.
REPERTORY & REVIVALS
“The Sound Of Music” Sing-a-Long tears Nazi flags nightly. Music Box, November 24-26 (and December 2-3). Another key element in the pantheon of “Never Doubt Jim”: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” has late-night shows. Music Box, Friday-Saturday, November 24-25, 11pm.
Chicago Film Society offers a rare showing of the 150-minute first cut of Terrence Malick’s “The New World” (2005, 35mm), which was shown to reviewers (including in Chicago) but then withdrawn before its original Thanksgiving release date. (The eventual release cut is 135 minutes, which is on the Criterion edition along with this cut as well as a bumper three-hour version Malick later assembled.)
“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land…” These are the words of a nameless Indian princess, whom we know from histories as Pocahontas, murmured over shimmering water, at the opening of Terrence Malick’s seventeenth-century-set “The New World.” Few directors nowadays have such soaring ambition, or the means, to make such elevated movies that invoke myriad intellectual precursors, with Walt Whitman’s towering odes as only one example, yet also rooted in sensation, both physical and within the mind. “The New World” is ecstatic and generous and unforgettable.
Malick is an intellectual—younger, he lectured at MIT and published a book about Heidegger’s thought—but he seeks a different kind of knowledge in his movies, a hunger for transcendence, the things larger than man that make humanity larger. On one hand, “The New World” is about the great filmmaker’s absorption in the primal and the primeval, the green and the innocent, but its staggeringly beautiful images resonate. This “new” world is an old one that begins dying the first time the natives meet the English in the tall green grasses near shore. We know that the “naturals” will lose their “old world” so that ours might come, but that is story and not storytelling. As the explorer John Smith, Colin Farrell’s beautiful features have never been put to better use. Bearded and his liquid brown eyes always agleam, he is a quizzical observer, brimming with interior romantic fancies yet always somehow hesitant, filled with curiosity and longing for the princess. (“Love, shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we deny what we are given?”)
Malick worked in natural light with Emmanuel Lubezki and second unit director-cinematographer Jörg Widmer, often carrying a camera on his own shoulder. Natural light?: There is a breathtakingly lyrical shot of a massive sliver of moon against black sky where the hard, static light of a distant star or planet slowly fades into its embrace.
But sound is as important as image, perhaps more so, to Malick: there is a moment where the princess sounds the word “wind” repeatedly in her head, and the words are slightly muted, and the sound of wind slightly elevated. It is a chill and a thrill of uncommon sophistication, but such gentle notes are sounded throughout: the very last shot [of the release version] has a quiet sound accompanying a gentle action, but there is also the gentlest sparkle of a wind chime as the image fades to black. Like Malick’s images fixed—air, water, wind and the human face—it is essential.
Producer Sarah Green told the Hollywood Reporter at the time that “Malick shot about a million feet of film (for the most part, without artificial light and using hand-held cameras) on location in Virginia and London over seventeen weeks (the norm would be 300,000 feet over ten weeks), allowing for many impulsive changes of scenery and dialogue…. Malick then retired with four editors into the cutting room for a year, whittling the movie down…deleting reams of dialogue—the movie is often silent—and adding interior voice-overs for the three leads that were not in the original script… Everything in the movie is real, including the three ships, except for one computer-generated bird—an extinct Carolina parakeet.” Preceded by a reel of Malick trailers, also 35mm. Chicago Film Society at the Music Box, Wednesday, November 29, 7pm.
Of the star turn in E. A. Dupont‘s 1929 “Piccadilly” (35mm), Imogen Sara Smith writes, “Like Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks, Anna May Wong was an American woman who had to cross the Atlantic to find her greatest roles. In ‘Piccadilly,’ Wong seems to be sporting Brooks’ bangs and Baker’s sinuous hips, but her knowing look—wary, sultry, and intense—is all her own. Her entrance is a knockout: in the bowels of a London nightclub, amid the steamy chaos of the scullery, she is dancing on top of a table for the amusement of her fellow dishwashers. Peering up at her, the camera lingers on her stunningly long and shapely legs, clad in stockings “laddered,” as the British say, almost to shreds. Her swaying hips are all the more mischievous and provocative because it is obvious that this Chinese scullery girl is mimicking and mocking the nightclub’s blonde star dancer.” Doc Films, Monday, November 27, 7pm.
Chicago 2023 repertory perennial “Night Of The Hunter” (35mm), Charles Laughton’s ineffable lyrical nightmare of childhood at risk, is on a double feature with “Bad Day At Black Rock” (35mm CinemaScope), and will be introduced by film historian Foster Hirsch, author of “Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties,” who will sign copies of his new book before and after the screening. Music Box, Thursday, November 30, 7pm. “Bad Day At Black Rock” 9:15pm.
Pablo Larrain’s movies find their own syncopation (and sometimes hysteria): “Neruda,” “No!”,” “Jackie,” and now “Ema,” a feverish, widescreen horror musical of adoption gone awry, lust and destruction as a dancer’s life spirals down, down, down. Chilean American composer Nicolas Jaar provides a gulp and a thump of a score that whole-heartedly suits a dance musical that embraces polymorphous potential and the capacity for chaos. Design and colors are bold, unlike the American standard of teal and teabag exemplified by Marvel product. “Ema” is a searing and seductive melodrama with much music, and performances that are both calibrated and raw by Gael Garcia Bernal and especially Larrain’s incandescent lead, the furious Mariana Di Girolamo. Hello, fire. Hello, chaos. Doc Films, Thursday, November 30, 7pm.