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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, August 14, 2018

The scrappy pre-Code years of William A. Wellman — FilmStruck's director of the week

Posted By on 08.14.18 at 06:00 AM

William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road
  • William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road
Even though William A. Wellman directed more than 80 films between 1920 and 1958—including the first Oscar-winner, Wings—he's still best known for the iconic 1931 James Cagney gangster film The Public Enemy. Streaming channel FilmStruck features Wellman as their "director of the week" and we've picked five of his 1930s pre-Code films, when he was at his best.

The Public Enemy
Time hasn't been terribly kind to this 1931 gangster drama, which suffers more than it should from the glitches of early sound. But James Cagney's portrayal of a bootlegging runt is truly electrifying (he'd already made three films, but this one made him a star), and Jean Harlow makes the tartiest tart imaginable. The famous grapefruit-in-the-kisser scene (the recipient is Mae Clarke) is only one of the fiercely misogynistic moments that stud the career of director William Wellman. With Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, and Donald Cook. 84 min. —Dave Kehr

Night Nurse
A William Wellman curiosity done for Warners in 1931, this gritty thriller, a favorite of film critic Manny Farber, is of principal interest today for its juicy early performances by Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, and Clark Gable. Hard as nails, with lots of spunk. 72 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Safe in Hell
William Wellman directed this racy precode tale of a saucy prostitute (Dorothy Mackaill in a terrific performance) who unintentionally kills one of her clients and flees to a tropical island that serves as a haven for criminals. Awaiting the arrival of her true love (Donald Cook), she fends off lecherous advances from a motley assortment of international rogues, including the island's nefarious chief of law enforcement. Wellman's splendid direction animates an otherwise static script, deftly blending comedic moments with surprisingly dark undertones. This 1931 drama may lack the punch of Wellman's The Public Enemy, released the same year, but it's still a fine display of his talents. 73 min. —Reece Pendleton

Heroes for Sale
This scrappy, cynical pre-Code drama (1933) comes from the most fruitful period of William A. Wellman's career, when the director was turning out a half-dozen programmers like this on a yearly basis. Richard Barthelmess stars as a soldier who gets snubbed for decoration in World War I after a buddy takes credit for the act of heroism he performed in battle. The protagonist develops a morphine addiction while recovering from his wounds but pulls himself back up, only to descend and ascend the social ladder several more times. Wellman crams an astonishing amount of narrative incident into the short running time, with more developments every ten minutes than most contemporary Hollywood productions cover in their entirety. This is also bracingly egalitarian, attacking the hypocrisy of communists and capitalists alike. 71 min. —Ben Sachs

Wild Boys of the Road
The underrated William A. Wellman made many neglected classics during the Depression, and this 1933 feature is one of the very best—a Warners social drama with Frankie Darro as a boy who leaves his parents to save them the burden of his support and joins up with a gang of similarly disenfranchised kids who wind up riding the rails. Pungent stuff. 68 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Five big-screen movies obsessed with the small screen

Posted By on 07.24.18 at 06:30 AM

DAVID CRONENBERG'S VIDEODROME
  • David Cronenberg's Videodrome
Even as Unfriended and other computer-screen-focused films continue to reflect our new media-consumption reality, the Film Center's upcoming shows of the satirical 1994 Czech sci-fi movie Accumulator 1 remind us that big-screen filmmakers have long been interested in the small screen. Here are five prime examples.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

John Huston, FilmStruck's Director of the Week, had a way with actors

Posted By on 05.23.18 at 06:00 AM

Brad Dourif in John Huston's Wise Blood
  • Brad Dourif in John Huston's Wise Blood
Considering that director John Huston was related to three noted actors (his father, Walter Huston; his daughter, Angelica Huston; and his son Danny Huston) and acted in more than 50 films himself (including Chinatown and The Misfits), it's no surprise that his films offer consistently strong performances. The streaming channel FilmStruck is currently featuring a selection from Huston's nearly 50-year career, and we've picked five with some particularly fine acting.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Five classic films by Latin American women

Posted By on 04.17.18 at 11:42 AM

María Luisa Bemberg's Camila
  • María Luisa Bemberg's Camila
For certain film lovers, April is all about Lucrecia Martel. The Argentine director's first feature in almost a decade, Zama, continues at the Gene Siskel Film Center for another few days, and her acclaimed "Salta Trilogy" begins on Friday with The Headless Woman. We celebrate the return of one of contemporary cinema's great filmmakers by taking a look back at five other women directors who made a mark on Latin American cinema: Margot Benacerraf (Venezuela), Sara Gómez (Cuba), María Luisa Bemberg (Argentina), Suzana Amaral (Brazil), and Maria Novaro (Mexico).

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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Academy Awards 2018: The Oscar nominees

Posted By on 01.23.18 at 11:23 AM

The Shape of Water
  • The Shape of Water

The Academy Award nominations were announced this morning by Tiffany Haddish and Andy Serkis. The Shape of Water leads with 13 nominations, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri garnering nine and Dunkirk close behind with seven. Here are the nominees in the top categories, with links to Reader reviews of the films in contention:

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How Gene Siskel Film Center will screen movies while they’re closed for renovations

Posted By on 11.29.17 at 02:30 PM

The Film Center will present Arturo Ripstein's Time to Die at the Instituto Cervantes on Monday.
  • The Film Center will present Arturo Ripstein's Time to Die at the Instituto Cervantes on Monday.

Starting Friday, the Gene Siskel Film Center will close its doors for a month to renovate its two theaters. This effort marks the organization's first extensive renovation since it started operating at its State Street location in 2001. All the seats in the two theaters will be replaced, as will the wiring; the latter renovation is to improve hearing for patrons with cochlear implants. The carpeting between the two theaters will also be replaced. Per executive director Jean de St. Aubin, these changes won't impact the Film Center's ticket prices, which will remain $11 for general admission, $7 for students and children, $6 for Film Center members, and $5 Art Institute of Chicago staff and SAIC faculty, staff and students when the theaters reopen on January 5.

The Film Center is still showing movies in December. During the next two weeks, they'll present repeat screenings of films shown earlier in the year at four partnering locations. The tonal, stylistic, and geographic range of the selections speak to the diversity of the Film Center's programming, which showcases a broad range of perspectives all year. Between such annual events as the Black Harvest Film Festival, a showcase of movies from Iran, and the Palestinian film series (not to mention the ongoing Panorama Latinx series, devoted to movies from all over the Spanish-speaking world), the Film Center is also a center of multicultural interaction. I believe my understanding of the world has been enriched by attending the works they present.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Coco is sad in a classically Disney way

Posted By on 11.24.17 at 04:50 PM

Coco
  • Coco

One of the most enduring plot devices of classic Walt Disney animations is the separation of a young hero or heroine from his or her family. Dumbo, Bambi, Pinocchio, and numerous other characters all get estranged from their parents or parental figures, and the anxiety that results from the estrangement motors the stories of the films in which they appear. With this narrative trope, Disney and his storytellers mined a universal childhood fear for maximum emotional impact, and for this reason, the classic Disney features remain powerful experiences decades after they were made.

Coco, a new computer-animated feature from Disney and Pixar, presents a variation on this trope: the young hero separates from his family by choice and wants to return only when he can confront his relatives on his own terms. Mixed with his longing for reunion are the desires for self-determination and compromise—rather than explore an early childhood fear, Coco explores the difficulties of growing up and establishing oneself as an individual.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The unbearable lightness of Justice League

Posted By on 11.21.17 at 03:53 PM

Justice League
  • Justice League
Warning: This post contains spoilers.

Justice League botches what could've been a transcendent pop-culture moment: the resurrection of Superman. A self-proclaimed symbol of truth, justice, and the American way, Superman has been interpreted as kitsch, myth, and a nation's fantasy image of itself. His death (which occurred in Justice League's predecessor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) connotes some sort of national disillusionment, a loss of faith in the values he embodied—anyway, that's how it seems in the film, which opens in a dreary post-Superman America where the newspaper headlines commemorate a nation in mourning. Superman's resurrection ought to carry a sense of grandeur, awe, or silliness, or maybe some Cecil B. DeMille-esque combination of the three. Instead the filmmakers treat the resurrection as though it's nothing special: Superman gets on his feet, stoically greets the rest of the Justice League (who resurrected him), spends a few tearful moments with his adopted mother and Lois Lane, then it's off to save the world with the rest of the superheroes.

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