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Monday, September 17, 2018

Raya Martin discusses Filipino cinema and his latest film, the crime drama Smaller and Smaller Circles

Posted By on 09.17.18 at 06:00 AM

Smaller and Smaller Circles
  • Smaller and Smaller Circles
One of the more welcome film series in town, Asian Pop-Up Cinema (now in its seventh season) presents recent work from east Asia that might not have reached this city otherwise. Case in point: this Wednesday at the River East 21 at 7 PM, it will present Smaller and Smaller Circles (2017), the latest feature by Filipino director Raya Martin, with the filmmaker scheduled to appear for a postshow discussion. Martin’s work has received much attention over the past 15 years—some of his films have played at Cannes, and he’s been the subject of retrospectives in New York and Paris—but his movies rarely play in Chicago. Perhaps this screening will mark the beginning of a belated local discovery of his filmography.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gone too soon: five films by directors who died young

Posted By on 09.04.18 at 06:00 AM

Jean Vigo's L'Atalante
  • Jean Vigo's L'Atalante
The Music Box Theatre and the Chicago Film Society present the 1930 film City Girl this Saturday at 11:30 AM as part of their monthly silent film series. The film's director, F.W. Murnau, died the year after its release in an automobile accident, cutting short his life and remarkable career. He left behind a substantial body of work, though. The five filmmakers below also died much too young but had only made a handful of movies each, and in one case just a single film. We're spotlighting their work.

L'Atalante
Jean Vigo's only full-length feature (1934), one of the supreme masterpieces of French cinema, was edited and then brutally re-edited while Vigo was dying, so a “definitive” restoration is impossible. (The reassembled version released in France in 1990 is almost certainly the best and most complete we'll ever be able to see—it's wondrous to behold.) The simple love-story plot involves the marriage of a provincial woman (Dita Parlo) to the skipper of a barge (Jean Daste), and the only other characters of consequence are the barge's skeletal crew (Michel Simon and Louis Lefebvre) and a peddler (Gilles Margaritis) who flirts with the wife at a cabaret and describes the wonders of Paris to her. The sensuality of the characters and the settings, indelibly caught in Boris Kaufman's glistening cinematography, are only part of the film's remarkable poetry, the conviction of which goes beyond such categories as realism or surrealism, just as the powerful sexuality in the film ultimately transcends such categories as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and even bisexuality. Shot by shot and moment by moment, the film is so fully alive to the world's possibilities that magic and reality seem to function as opposite sides of the same coin, with neither fully adequate to Vigo's vision. The characters are at once extremely simple and extremely complex (richest of all is Simon's Pere Jules, as beautiful a piece of character acting as one can find anywhere), and while the continuity is choppy in spots—a factor skillfully cloaked by Maurice Jaubert's superb score—the film's aliveness and potency are so constant that this hardly seems to matter. A major inspiration to subsequent generations of filmmakers, yet no one has ever succeeded in matching it. In French with subtitles. 89 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The House Is Black
Forugh Farrokhzad's black-and-white documentary (1962, 19 min.) about a leper colony in northern Iran is the most powerful Iranian film I've seen. Farrokhzad (1935-'67) is widely regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century; her only film seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound, and narration. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact, devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist, the film offers a view of everyday life in the colony—people eating, various medical treatments, children at school and at play—that's spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer. 19 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

The Conqueror Worm / The Witchfinder General
An unusually restrained Vincent Price stars as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century magistrate who took advantage of the English civil war to conduct a massive witch hunt across East Anglia. This sinister 1968 feature was adapted from a historical tome by Ronald Bassett, though director Michael Reeves (whose life was cut short by a drug overdose the next year) seems equally inspired by the stark visuals in Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath. Tigon Films, a pretender to the Hammer throne in the late 60s and early 70s, released the movie as The Witchfinder General in Britain; American distributor Roger Corman, hoping to capitalize on his earlier Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, retitled it The Conqueror Worm and slapped on some voice-over of Price reading from Poe's poem. 86 min. —J.R. Jones

Wanda
Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

Savage Nights
Highly controversial and troubling but undeniably powerful and impossible to dismiss, this French feature cowritten (with critic Jacques Fieschi) directed by and starring the late Cyril Collard follows the last reckless days and nights of a 30-year-old cinematographer and musician who discovers he is HIV-positive but continues to have sex with strangers as well as with his two more regular lovers. Based on Collard's autobiographical novel Les nuits fauves, Savage Nights won Cesars for best picture, best first picture, most promising actress (Romane Bohringer), and best editing a few days after the 35-year-old director himself died of AIDS in March 1993. These honors can't simply be written off as sentimental: stylistically and dramatically, this is an accomplished piece of work. If Collard's driven hero often seems far from admirable—unconsciously misogynistic beneath his apparent bisexual "tolerance," and, as his masochistic behavior often implies, full of self-loathing—the film seems admirably unpropagandistic in permitting spectators to make up their own minds about him. It also gives full voice to the agony of unrequited adolescent love (Bohringer's volcanic performance), and, for better and for worse, offers a treatment of AIDS that's the other side of the moon from Philadelphia—politically incorrect with a vengeance. Whether you like this or not, you'll have a hard time shaking it loose. With Carlos Lopez. 126 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Five opera films that hit the high notes

Posted By on 08.29.18 at 08:00 AM

Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
  • Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's Moses and Aaron
Inspired by the Gene Siskel Film Center's screenings this upcoming week of Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Fluteall part of the theater's extensive "Bergman 100" serieswe've selected five other opera films of note. If this list seems a bit highbrow, know that we would have listed Chuck Jones's great Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon What's Opera Doc? in all five spots if we could have. But these are good too.

Carmen Jones
There's something contradictory in the notion of an Otto Preminger musical: his admirable rational/realist sensibility doesn't settle too well with the whims of the genre. But there are some fine Preminger moments in the midst of this 1954 film, an all-black pop version of Carmen—fine, that is, if you take the trouble to separate them from the clumsy segregationist context. Impeccably liberal in its time, the film has not aged gracefully, although Dorothy Dandridge's performance in the lead remains a testimony to a black cinema that might have been. In CinemaScope. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Bluebeard's Castle
After the hostile reception to his 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom, Michael Powell was virtually banished from English cinema, and most of his remaining oeuvre is a scattered assortment of TV commissions and Australian features. Made in 1963 for West German TV, this rarely seen one-hour adaptation of Béla Bartók's only opera, based on a libretto by Béla Balázs (later known as a film theorist and as screenwriter of Leni Riefenstahl's first feature), is a particular standout, especially for its vivid colors and semiabstract, neoprimitive decor (by Hein Heckroth, who also designed the sets for The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman). The two performers are producer Norman Foster (not to be confused with the Hollywood actor and director) in the title role and Anna Raquel Satre as Bluebeard's doomed wife, Judith. In accordance with Powell's wishes, the English subtitles briefly describe and clarify the action but don't translate the text. 60 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Moses and Aaron
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet have used Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone opera as the basis for a rigorous and fascinating exercise in elemental cinema (1975). A film about film—the meaning of long takes and short shots, of camera movement and static composition, of angles and perspectives. Schoenberg is Greek to me, but Straub and Huillet's investigation of the medium is an important experience for anyone interested in the way film represents reality—or fails to. In German with subtitles. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Don Giovanni
Joseph Losey's film of Mozart's opera (1979) has redundant trappings of Freud and Marx, as if Losey felt the need to make the material more personal. He shouldn't have bothered, because it already plays straight to his concerns: Giovanni, with his self-destructive idealism, stands in the line of Losey heroes from The Boy With Green Hair to Mr. Klein. The visual context is ravishing, with a lighting scheme that builds from the understated and naturalistic to shocking contrasts of black and white. Meanwhile, the camera moves with a preternatural grace, drawing clean, curving lines through the romantic confusions. If the film has a fault, it is a common one in Losey: the absence of an emotional support for his piercing intellectual observations. 179 min. —Dave Kehr

Parsifal
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg has given us Wagnerian treatments of King Ludwig, Karl May, and Adolf Hitler; now, he gives us a Wagnerian treatment of Wagner, which seems somewhat redundant. Syberberg uses all the tricks of modern stagecraft—abstract settings, projected images, puppets, and doubled characters—to “expand” Wagner's Grail opera into man's eternal search for social perfection. But the meanings Syberberg tacks onto the piece are inherent in Wagner's work; his additions seem fussy, didactic, and often reductive. But Edith Clever, miming to the voice of Yvonne Minton as the witch Kundry, gives a performance of great passion and authority—a brilliantly effective revival of silent-film acting techniques. Reiner Goldberg supplies the voice of Parsifal; the other singers include Robert Loyd, Wolfgang Schöne, and Aage Haugland. 247 min. —Dave Kehr

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Jean-Pierre Melville's brooding cinema surveyed on FilmStruck

Posted By on 07.31.18 at 06:00 AM

Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai
  • Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai
French director Jean-Pierre Melville is featured this week on the streaming channel FilmStruck. Beginning in the 1940s, he created a body of work that furthers the brooding quality of American film noir, and his films influenced everyone from the French New Wave directors to Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino. Check out these five key Melville features:

The Silence of the Sea
Melville made this film, his first, in 1948 on a minuscule budget and without securing the rights to the famous resistance novel (by Vercors) it was based on. It's an allegory of French-German relations during the occupation, played out largely in a single sitting room where a German officer (Howard Vernon) bares his soul in endless monologues for his silent, unwilling French "hosts" (Nicole Stephane and Jean-Marie Robain). The minimalism of the material anticipates Bresson, while the theatrical dash of the staging suggests the strong influence of Orson Welles. Though too often abstract and rhetorical, the film is sustained by mood and visual resourcefulness; it's a strong debut for Melville, who went on to become one of the great eccentrics of the French cinema (Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai). In French with subtitles. 88 min. —Dave Kehr

Bob le Flambeur
This light, breezy 1955 heist film is probably the least characteristic movie Melville ever made. It replaces his sternly fatalistic philosophizing with a benign, genuinely comic spirit, and his rigidly classical style yields to a pleasant informality. Yet the characters—professional gamblers, craftsmanly safecrackers—and their code are recognizably Melvillian, and the portrait of Pigalle after dark is superbly evocative and romantic. The plot—a gambler on a streak of bad luck plans the robbery of the Deauville casino—is largely lifted from The Asphalt Jungle, though the suspense has been wittily inverted: we're made to hope that the robbery doesn't come off. In French with subtitles. 100 min. —Dave Kehr

Two Men in Manhattan
Melville brings his particular brand of moral rot to New York City for this hard-boiled mystery (1959), which feels like a Hollywood release but trades in such taboo elements as prostitution, lesbianism, and full-frontal nudity. A reporter from the French press agency (Melville in his only starring role) is dispatched to track down a vanished delegate to the United Nations; accompanied by a greedy and unfeeling paparazzo (Pierre Grasset), he follows a trail of sexually available women back to the missing diplomat, but the truth is unpublishable. The story is full of Melville's ethical shadings and complications, and the nighttime street scenes, shot by Nicolas Hayer, are dazzling, a foreigner's delirious vision of Manhattan after dark. 85 min. —J.R. Jones

Le Samourai
Melville's 1967 story of a lonely hit man (Alain Delon) is stylish and elegant, though not really the holy writ that Quentin Tarantino and John Woo have claimed. Though Melville sustained himself with American-style thrillers in the last decade of his life, his best versions of American noir arguably remain the earlier ones in black and white (my own favorite is 1966's Le Deuxieme Souffle). This one certainly has its moments (particularly the coordinated police chase through the Paris Métro), but its women characters are faintly ridiculous, while the men are mainly suave icons. Henri Decae's brilliant color cinematography finds something metallic blue gray in virtually every shot, and the film is alluring as long as one remains captivated by its mannerist and slightly monotonous style. Despite a hefty (and fabricated) quote from The Book of Bushido about the loneliness of the samurai, this is all about attitude and machismo rather than soul, which is why it winds up feeling somewhat flat. Based on Joan McLeod's novel The Ronin. In French with subtitles. 101 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Le Cercle Rouge
Melville's austere heist film, made in 1970, was his next to last; it opens with a Buddhist aphorism about fate binding two men to meet again, and ends with a police chief pronouncing all men ultimately guilty. Two prisoners return to society—Corey (Alain Delon) has served his sentence and is released, while Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) escapes from a speeding train. They team up with a sharpshooting ex-cop to mount an exquisite jewel theft. Melville renders the taciturn crooks and corrupt inspectors with the nocturnal blue palette that is his signature. Key action points are edited with finesse, but the denouement, with its dutiful hail of gunfire, is heartless and mechanical. With Yves Montand, André Bourvil, and François Périer. In French with subtitles. 140 min. —Bill Stamets

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Five masters of stop-motion animation

Posted By on 06.12.18 at 06:00 AM

Kihachiro Kawamoto's House of Flame
  • Kihachiro Kawamoto's House of Flame
If the current Jiri Trnka retrospective at Gene Siskel Film Center, highlighting the work of the famed Czech animator, has whetted your appetite for even more films featuring nontraditional animation techniques, we offer  a selection by five great artists in the field, working in stop-motion, puppet, and cut-out works.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Discover the work of noted Japanese genre director Umetsugu Inoue

Posted By on 05.30.18 at 06:00 AM

The Eagle and the Hawk plays in the Film Center's Inoue series on June 8 and 9.
  • The Eagle and the Hawk plays in the Film Center's Inoue series on June 8 and 9.
The four films playing this month in the Gene Siskel Film Center's Umetsugu Inoue series represent only a fraction of the Japanese director’s work. Inoue, who died in 2010 at age 86, directed more than 100 theatrical features and 300 television productions. Yet the series does spotlight his prolificness—three of the four selections were made in 1957—as well as his versatility. The films include a backstage melodrama (The Stormy Man), a boxing picture (The Winner), a nautical adventure (The Eagle and the Hawk), and a family musical (The Green Music Box). These selections reveal Inoue to have been a consummate studio director: not only could he move easily from one genre to another, he also elicited charismatic performances from all his stars. For these reasons Inoue was consistently in demand in the 1950s and 60s; in fact he was one of the few directors to have worked for all six of the major Japanese movie studios.

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Five literary biopics whose pictures are worth a thousand words

Posted By on 05.30.18 at 06:00 AM

Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table
  • Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table
The biopic has been a staple in filmmaking since the sound era began, though over the years literary figures seem to have gotten fewer screen treatments than other notables. On Friday, Gene Siskel Film Center opens Haifaa al-Mansou's 2017 film Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, and next Tuesday, Chicago Film Society screens Charles Vidor's 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye. Taking a page from these, we've selected five additional biopics about writers, ones that don't just rest on words but also offer up some visual artistry.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Check in, then check out these five iconic hotel movies

Posted By on 05.16.18 at 06:00 AM

John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Barton Fink
  • John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Barton Fink
Beginning this Friday, Gene Siskel Film Center will screen the new documentary Always at the Carlyle, about the famed New York City hotel. This got us to thinking about the long, rich history of fictional films set in hotels, from Georges Méliès in 1897 to Wes Anderson in 2014. We've selected five iconic ones below (and yes, we know, there's also The Shining).

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The weird world of Guy Maddin

Posted By on 05.01.18 at 06:00 AM

Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain
  • Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain
Director Guy Maddin has been making Canadian cinema excitingly weird for several decades now. His latest feature, The Green Fog, screens a few more times this week at Gene Siskel Film Center, and his 1990 feature Archangel screens next Monday as part of the Doc Films series "Beyond Hollywood North: Contemporary Canadian Voices and Visions." Following are five more films spanning Maddin's career; also be sure to check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's long review of Maddin's great 2000 short The Heart of the World.

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Friday, April 27, 2018

A Scene at the Sea is an early masterpiece from Takeshi Kitano

Posted By on 04.27.18 at 06:00 AM

A Scene at the Sea
  • A Scene at the Sea
On Monday at 7 PM, the Chicago Film Society will screen a 35-millimeter print of the Japanese drama A Scene at the Sea (1991) at the Music Box Theatre. Along with Lee Chang-dong's Oasis (which plays from 35-millimeter at Doc Films on Sunday at 7 PM), it's the best repertory screening in town this week—the film's nuanced, small-scale storytelling provides a welcome antidote to the expensive bombast that's crowding the multiplexes. A Scene at the Sea tells the simple tale of a young man who dreams of becoming a competitive surfer; his doting girlfriend supports his decision, and both characters are welcomed into the local surfing scene. Yet their relationships—with their new friends and with each other—fail to last more than a season, and the young man and woman go their separate ways. The film is less about narrative than it is about capturing certain universal experiences, specifically the love and friendships of one's early 20s, and it succeeds poignantly in that regard.

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Music
Robert Glasper Trio Jazz Showcase
September 20
Performing Arts
Communion Den Theatre
September 20

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