Chicago Guide to Independent and Underground Cinema
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:: Friday, SEPT. 3 - Thursday, SEPT. 9 ::

ON THE BLOG: Matthew Barney's epic Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) and his 2004 film DE LAMA LAMINA play this week at the Music Box. We've got some pro and con commentary from a couple of C-F's contributors about this love-him-or-hate-him artist on our Blog.


Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP (American Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Friday and Tuesday, 6pm
[It's a great film, but admittedly not that rare; we're listing it as Crucial because it kicks off the Film Center's Film Noir class, which is being taught by retired Indiana University film professor James Naremore, who is a highly regarded noir expert (author of More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts) and also a Welles and Hitchcock expert, so it's no surprise that there's a film by each later in the series. Prof. Naremore's lectures surely are not to be missed.--ed.]
Adapted from Raymond Chandler, here is a movie so storied and so central to so many mythologies that it can frustrate even the best-intentioned of appraisals. While many (including Jacques Rivette, who knows whereof he speaks) prefer the preview cut that surfaced several years back, the version being shown here is the more familiar, slightly shorter, slightly more incoherent, and considerably racier theatrical release, including many scenes re-shot and/or shuffled to capitalize on Bogart's then-escalating affair and all-but-incendiary onscreen chemistry with Lauren Bacall (whom he would marry shortly thereafter, following a nasty but necessary divorce). With a screenplay that seems as much a post-structuralist pastiche of the famous source novel as an honest attempt to "bring it to life"--courtesy screenwriter Jules Furthman, the legendary Leigh Bracket, and some guy named William Faulkner--SLEEP at best skims the surface of the genre tropes that it's often blamed for introducing: the film is a wonderful example of how plot, at its extremity, can be made into an instrument of utter exhaustion. Naremore lectures at the Tuesday screening only. (1946, 114 min, 35mm) JD
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Ben Russell's TRYPPS #7 (BADLANDS) (Film Installation) &
Ben Russell and Joe Grimm's MAZES (Live Audio/Visual Performance)
Museum of Contemporary Art - Ongoing (Trypps) & Friday, 8pm (Mazes)
Local filmmaker Ben Russell makes his presence known at the MCA this month, with an installation exhibition and a number of complementary screenings/performances/"lectures." He is showing his new experimental short film TRYPPS #7 (BADLANDS) as an installation work in the MCA's 12x12 New Artists/New Work exhibition series. There is an Opening Friday at 6pm and the work remains on display until September 27. (Check back next week for a review.) Also on Friday, Russell and frequent collaborator Joe Grimm present MAZES, a live audio/visual performance work that they've road-tested in Europe. Both Russell and Grimm have an affinity for bright, strobing light, loud, assaultive noise, and immersive environments. We've not seen this particular performance, but judging from earlier solo and collaborative works it's bound to make your head spin, cause you fits, and generally make you happy. Russell explains it: "Positioned behind a fistful of audio circuits and a pair of 16mm film projectors, media artist Ben Russell sprays white light in pulsating patterns onto your optic nerves, shaping sound and eyebeam with fingers/hands that intercede between lens and screen. A photon's throw away, sound artist Joe Grimm weaves a tangle of hand-built electronics into a skin of noise, a further manifestation of light pattern and intensity as real time audio. Light is sound is light, cause and effect and chaos and hypnosis, again and again and again." PF
More info here.

Jean-François Richet's MESRINE: PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 (New French)
Landmark's Century Centre Cinema - Check Venue website for showtimes  
First thought after the end of MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT: "Can't Jean-François Richet do better?" Sure, KILLER INSTINCT was smart, because Richet is a smart guy and smart guys don't make dumb movies. But smart's just what lets you look good in a suit or know the right answer to each (aesthetic) question. KILLER INSTINCT was exciting and sometimes entertaining and usually well acted. It was better than THE EXPENDABLES and yet somehow less interesting--a lot of male chauvinist hokum, but without Stallone's hysteria or the usual Richet verve. PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1, the second part of Richet's bank robber diptych, is a vast improvement. Better action, better pacing, sillier disguises, better direction. But more importantly, the grain of salt with which Richet and lead actor Vincent Cassel seemed to be taking everything their anti-hero said and did in the first film has been upgraded to a pervasive incredulity. Irony has given way to an actual moral stance: they've gotten to the essence of the character, and to what exactly is wrong with Mesrine, a criminal who struggles harder with his own public image than with the police (represented here by Olivier Gourmet, barely recognizable in Captain Ahab make-up). Oddly enough, the result is more self-contained than the first film (it helps that it's more substantial, that it actually has an ending and that it's 15 minutes longer); while it seems hard to take KILLER INSTINCT seriously without PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1, it's possible to think that PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1 is a great film without having seen the preceding one. The big male supporting role here, instead of a slimy and near-spherical Gerard Depardieu, is Matthieu Amalric. Like the film itself, Depardieu's performance in KILLER INSTINCT was both enjoyable and underwhelming, largely because Depardieu (like his American equivalent Robert De Niro) has become "a real pro"; there's no adventure left in his acting, which can't be said of nervy Amalric, who still acts like he has something to prove. (2008, 128 min, 35mm) IV  
More info here.


Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio's ALAMAR (New Mexican)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Saturday, 7pm, Sunday, 6pm, and Thursday, 6:15pm
This feature by documentarian (and erstwhile cinematographer) Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio continues in the tradition of fictionalized ethnography pioneered by Robert Flaherty--and if the majority of critical opinion can be trusted, it does so rather movingly. It concerns a little boy from Italy spending a summer with the Mexican father and grandfather he hardly knows, both fishermen of an old-fashioned stripe. As in the nature-fixated films of Lisandro Alonso, all three characters are fictional versions of the actors who play them; the film conveys emotion through the real activities the men have spent a lifetime mastering. Praising the film in the Daily Notebook last fall, Daniel Kasman described it thusly: "Filmed in such a way as to nearly forget the camera is there--and if the camera is there, the film's crew must be utterly minimal--we see the eldest of three generations of men coax and teach the son and grandson how to fish, how to boat, how to get used to this life by the sea. We see a variety of fish caught, scaled, cut, cooked, and eaten; we see the boy bond with a beautiful white egret named Blanquita, who takes the only female role in the film; we see the father and son snorkel and play and otherwise have a wonderful time living.... The notable absence of wives and mothers for all three becomes more tangible as the egret, with remarkable naturalness, practically becomes a character in this relaxed vacation on the sea. Gonzalez-Rubio's is a sojourn of a film, getting the simplicity and details of a wonderful but limited experience down to their most honest, most untroubled, most tender, and often most beautiful essences." (2009, 73 min, HDCam video) BS
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Jacques Tourneur's BERLIN EXPRESS (American Revival)
Music Box - Saturday and Sunday, 11:30am  
The Double RR Rule: movies with railroads are always at the very least interesting and movies with Robert Ryan in them are always good, so a movie with both RRs must, by definition, be great. After starting with one of the director's best-known films (CAT PEOPLE), the Music Box's Jacques Tourneur matinee series delves deeper into the catalog for its second week and pulls out this excellent though rarely talked about post-war thriller, which happens to be a Double RR. After a bomb explodes aboard a Berlin-bound train, Merle Oberon (visual ace Lucien Ballard's wife and muse at the time) engages the help of four fellow passengers in unraveling the plot: an American who's just arrived in Europe to work for the occupation forces (Robert Ryan), a French businessman and former resistance fighter (Charles Korvin), a talkative British teacher (Robert Coote) and a taciturn Russian war hero (Roman Toporow). As BERLIN EXPRESS comes squarely in middle of the 40-year period when location shooting was fairly uncommon in American movies (and was in fact the first American production made in Europe after World War II), the movie finds Tourneur and Ballard taking every low angle they can, framing characters against touristy vistas and ruined architecture while also throwing in subtle detailing and narrative expediency via numerous tracking shots. The Wellesian narration by Mercury Theater company player Paul Stewart was RKO's idea, but it gives the movie a hypnotic quality, and much of the train sequence--including Stewart's second-person monologue, addressed to Ryan's Yankee abroad--would be borrowed wholesale by Lars Von Trier for EUROPA (aka ZENTROPA). (1948, 87 min, 35mm) IV 
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Herbert J. Biberman's SALT OF THE EARTH (American Revival)
Bank of America Cinema - Saturday, 8pm 
Produced independently by Hollywood Blacklistees--who were inspired to make a pro-labor film as a way of getting even with HUAC--SALT OF THE EARTH is a landmark act of civil disobedience and the rare film that's entitled to masterpiece status without having to be any good. Thankfully, its artfulness is commensurate with its conviction. A docudrama about a lengthy miners' strike in New Mexico, shot on location and featuring many of the actual miners as extras, it's also one of the few American films of the period comparable to the Neorealist masterpieces made in Italy around the same time. Arguably, the makers of SALT OF THE EARTH went even further than Roberto Rossellini in developing an artistic process that reflected their collectivist ideals: The script was frequently revised according to input from the miners and their families--most notably, to devote more attention to the role played by wives and mothers in organizing the strike. (Jonathan Rosenbaum has called this ahead of its time in its feminist sentiment.) Telling the miners' story in their own words often gives this the stolid feel of community theater; but on the other hand, it lends the film a certain no-bullshit authenticity that separates it from slicker--and ultimately patronizing--stuff like NORMA RAE. It's also plenty suspenseful. A sort of moral inversion of the hostage-standoff movie, the prolonged strike sees the workers' community become more unified as pressure increases from bosses and police. (1954, 94 min, 16mm) BS
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Nicolas Winding Refn's VALHALLA RISING (New Danish)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Check Venue website for showtimes 
Essentially a big-budget remake of Tony Stone's Mini-DV epic SEVERED WAYS (which ran at the Film Center last year), Nicholas Windig Regn's follow-up to BRONSON abandons the cabaret metaphors in favor of Michael Mannian intuitiveness and a "Viking DEAD MAN" vibe. Those three points of reference make it sound more substantial than it really is, but that isn't to say that it's insubstantial. It's more flat than hollow, a lot of very good gestures with no apparent intentions behind them, though sometimes the pungency of the gestures and the consistency of the tone overpower the film's shortcomings: the commitment of Mads Mikkelsen's lead performance, for one, almost makes it seem as if there's more to his character than vague notions. Morten Sĝborg's 4K Redcode images have a rainy haze that would be visceral if it wasn't the film's main conceit; however, the movie's slow-burn bad-assery has much to recommend it in terms of execution, if not conception. (2009, 90 min, 35mm) IV 
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Tomm Moore's THE SECRET OF KELLS (New International/Animation)
Gene Siskel Film Center - Check venue website for showtimes
An improbable contestant for this year's Oscar in Best Animated Feature, THE SECRET OF KELLS is a slender and simple story, light on the usual Disney and Pixar-style comic relief and plot machinations. Instead it makes use of the origin myth of Ireland's national treasure, an illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells, to explore an extraordinary hodge-podge of visual styles, some stunning, others less so. The major division of style is between the Stepan Zavrel-style environments and the unarticulated Cartoon Network-style characters that inhabit them. Art Director Ross Stewart creates atmospheres that are so divine it's hard to believe they are populated with such schematic humans, including racial caricatures that really don't fly anymore. There is one very charming character with some texture (on his face and clothes); he's a kind of monastic Willie Nelson. But the humans are beside the point: this movie makes radical use of perspective, presenting you with panoramic and bird's eye view at the same time, then dissolving into a kind of boundary-less digital snow-globe world, not laboring to explain these episodes rationally. Long sections of the film are wordless, and better for it. The visual language borrows from Insular artistic tradition but it isn't weighed down by faithful mimicry. The scenes that are built to resemble illuminated manuscripts are formidable, but they give way gracefully to Australian aboriginal geometries and watercolor worlds that resemble Eastern European children's book painting. And there are always enough obviously digital movement and lighting effects that the aesthetic doesn't turn into one big, false nostalgic vision. (2009, 75 min, 35mm) JF
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The Nightingale presents "Trust Me," a program of work by local queer video maker and artist Latham Zearfoss on Saturday at 7 and 9pm. Zearfoss will be in person at both showings, and they're likely to be sold-out--so we recommend arriving early. 
Also at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week: Ken Russell's 1975 film of The Who's rock opera TOMMY plays for a week in a new HD restoration; and Florian Gallenberger's 2009 historical drama JOHN RABE screens Saturday and Wednesday. 

Also at the Music Box this week: Samuel Maoz's LEBANON continues (and also plays in the Saturday and Sunday matinee slot); JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD is held over for 1:30pm shows Saturday-Monday only; and Robert Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE and John Carpenter's first feature, DARK STAR, are the Friday and Saturday midnight films.        
At Facets Cinémathèque this week: Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson's 2009 documentary MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN has a run. 
Also at the Landmark's Century Centre Cinemathis week: Amir Bar-Lev's documentary THE TILLMAN STORY opens; and MESRINE: KILLER INSTINCT, CAIRO TIME, and ANIMAL KINGDOM continue. 
At the Portage Theater this week: Stuart Heisler's 1948 film TULSA is the Wednesday matinee show (1:30pm; from DVD); and the documentary ROUTE 66 TEN YEARS LATER is on Thursday at 7:30pm. 
The Chicago Cultural Center screens Gary Hawkins and Emily LaDue's new documentary IN MY MIND on Friday at 6:30pm; and Cinema/Chicago's summer series concludes with Mitsutoshi Tanaka's 2009 Japanese film CASTLE UNDER FIERY SKIES (Saturday, 2pm) and Guillermo Casanova's 2003 Uruguayan film TRIP TO THE SEASIDE (Wednesday, 6:30pm). Both from DVD.

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CINE-LIST: September 3 - September 9, 2010


CONTRIBUTORS / Jeremy M. Davies, Josephine Ferorelli, Ben Sachs, Ignatius Vishnevetsky, Darnell Witt

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