EBERTFEST 2022 – PART II: SIREN OF THE TROPICS (1927), KRISHA (2016), NIGHTMARE ALLEY [B&W] (2021)

(Miss the first part? It’s available here!)

SIREN OF THE TROPICS (1927)

(tubi) All you need to know about SIREN OF THE TROPICS is that it’s the feature film debut of one Josephine Baker who, in the late 1920s was the most popular American entertainer in Paris, mostly because of her erotic dancing. Baker went on to star in a number of other French films before retiring from acting to bring her focus back to live entertainment, and then she went on to become a prolific activist and humanitarian.

Sadly, SIREN OF THE TROPICS is not even close to a grand showcase for Baker, not even for its time. It’s a very middling, very colonial silent film whose only worthwhile moments are those when Baker appears on screen. TROPIC doesn’t just perk up when Baker breaks into dance, but it comes to life whenever she’s in the frame; she deftly wriggles and lithely leaps around and all over the set, as if the boundaries of the screen can’t contain her. When she does break out into dance, especially for her extended Charleston number, the film becomes transcendent and you get lost in her enthusiasm, exuberance, and sheer joy of movement.

Ebertfest brought in renowned composer Renée Baker who has a history of drafting up untraditional silent film scores, and her contribution to this screening was an aural delight. While Renée rarely tampers with the visuals of a film, she did take it upon herself to bookend TROPICS with an extreme slow-motion close-up of Josephine during her solo on-stage dance and, as Renée stated post-film, to celebrate the magic of Josephine Baker.

KRISHA (2016)

(fubo/Showtime/VOD) When is the best time to watch a brutal emotional rollercoaster of a film? Certainly not in the morning, when one’s brain is still somewhat fogged, or when one’s stomach may be churning its way through breakfast. The mid-afternoon? Perhaps not, especially if it’s a beautiful day outside. Even if one doesn’t like lounging in the sun, it’ll be there to accost you upon exiting the screening.

I prefer mid-evening when dealing with works that focus on trauma. The mood feels right, and it’s early enough that you can put some distance between it and that night’s sleep.

Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with a smaller film festival, you don’t have the luxury of opting for a later screening. In the case of Ebertfest’s screening of Trey Edward Shults’ crowdfunded debut feature KRISHA, you either watched it right after a light lunch, or not at all.

It’s not as if anyone going into KRISHA is doing so unaware of what they’re getting into: KRISNA is explicitly about Krisha (Krisha Fairchild), a troubled middle-aged woman with a history of addiction which led to an estranged son. Krisha swears to her sister that she’s cleaned up her act, and she’s invited to the family Thanksgiving get-together, which includes her son. Matters escalate, wildly and horrifically, in a way that feels like Gaspar Noé’s take on a severely dysfunctional family homecoming.

Despite being a relatively young entry in the genre, Shults’ film (based on a short that he filmed a few years prior) is widely acclaimed as one of the rawest depictions of addiction, partially thanks to how personal the material is to Shults, the involvement of his family in the production — a number of them, non-actors all of them, are parts of the core cast — as well as the aural and visual literacy of the film. You would not know that this film was shot on a shoestring budget, as the throbbingly sound design expertly builds tension, and ghostlike camera work cranes up stairs and peeks around corners.

Following the screening was a discussion with Krisha Fairchild, who went into great detail about the pre-production and shooting process, as well as demystified a few facets of the film such as what was the impetus behind Krisha’s missing appendage, details behind certain facets of the house, as well as the reasoning behind some of the character names. I highly suggest watching the discussion yourself, made available by Ebertfest for all to see!

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021, B&W Cinematic Version)

One of the guest tentpoles for Ebertfest 2022 was the black-and-white version of Guillermo del Toro and Kim Morgan’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and both of them were slated to fly out for a post-film discussion. Unfortunately, halfway through the festival it was announced that del Toro had to undergo non-emergency surgery and would have to attend virtually, which was a bummer, but not completely unexpected. (Similarly, a number of actors from GOLDEN ARM were slated to attend their screening, but had to bow out at the last minute due to conflicting schedules.)

The show went on, a bit later than its announced 8:30pm time. While introducing NIGHTMARE ALLEY, Chaz noted the lateness of the festival’s final screening and assured everyone that we wouldn’t have another ‘Herzog’ incident. Apparently, more than several years ago at a prior Ebertfest, Werner Herzog talked with Errol Morris until well beyond one in the morning. Very few made a preemptive exit, but many of the attendees were worse for wear the following day.

As I’ve grown older I’ve found it increasingly difficult to stay awake during evening screenings, even early ones. Add into the mix the woozy warmth of wearing a KN95 mask, compounded with the exhaustion of exploring a new area and the emotional rollercoaster of a week of brilliant-but-difficult films, and I was running on fumes when the projector flickered to life.

Long story short: I fell asleep about an hour into the film and, apart from a few glimpses of an office here, an underground tunnel there, woke up about twenty minutes before the closing credits. Embarrassing, I know. I can say that the first act hews closer to the original film adaptation than I expected, that what I saw of the back-half of the film was far darker than I expected (probably because I have yet to read the source material), that Bradley Cooper is surprisingly well-suited to his role as an over-confident confidence man, and that I still think the latitude of the black-and-white lacks the contrast that would best fit the film. Apart from that, I’m waiting to watch it in full before I say anything more about the film proper. My apologies if you expected otherwise.

To circle back to del Toro and Morgan: not to worry, del Toro is fine. Also, if you’ve heard him speak before, you know he’s very excitable and loves to talk at length about cinema. Add his wife into the mix, and they can chat for hours without interruption.

While they didn’t quite talk until 1am, I didn’t exit the Virginia Theatre until around midnight. Bleary eyed and more than a little groggy, I left the venue feeling sleepily satisfied. I technically bought my tickets to Ebertfest 2022 way back in 2019, as while Ebertfest 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to COVID, they still honored my initial ticket purchase. This trek was a long time coming, one I should have attempted far earlier in life, but I could hardly ask to attend a better first post-lockdown film festival. Here’s to Ebertfest 2023!


If you’d like to watch any of the panels or Q&As, each and every one has kindly been made available via Ebertfest’s YouTube channel!

BILLIONS (2016-2022)

BILLIONS is one of those premium cable shows that I’m never sure how many people actually watch, but the sixth season — yes, sixth and alleged final season — recently premiered on January 23rd, 2022.

Created by Brian Koppelman and David Levien of ROUNDERS, KNOCKAROUND GUYS, and OCEAN’S THIRTEEN fame, BILLIONS takes a similarly deep dive into the minutiae of men skirting the edges of the finance world. It’s has the appearance of an expensive, emotionally dramatic financial legal thriller, complete with tons of recognizable faces talking at each other and, when they aren’t talking at each other, they’re toying around with some grand destructive spectacle.

BILLIONS features Chuck Rhoades (a very game Paul Giamatti) as the Attorney General of New York City whose white whale is the ‘self-made financial empire man’ Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (HOMELAND’s Damian Lewis). Chuck is married to psychologist Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff, MAD MEN, SONS OF ANARCHY), who Axe ends up enlisting at his firm while Chuck spends his nights indulging his own more prurient subservient interests.

There are a number of more intriguingly drawn characters, including Axe’s right-hand-man, the extraordinarily hedonistic Wags (BREAKING BAD’s Gale, David Costabile), Chuck’s ice-cold father (the ever-brilliant character actor Jeffrey DeMunn), and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), Axe’s VIP non-binary quant.

I’m sure there are some folks who watch BILLIONS for how it represents the machinations of the financial and political world. I wouldn’t know as none of that really interests me. I watch for the Iannucci-esque verbal tongue lashings of the show.

Ultimately, BILLIONS is a soap opera, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. I enjoy the feints and the relationship turns and characters lapsing out of the show, only to find their way back in. However, after the first two seasons, it becomes blatantly obvious that any brutal hits to any of the major players would quickly be retracted or written around. This is television, and television likes to maintain a status quo, but nothing takes the sheen off of a sharp and biting high-end series like seeing a character written into a corner and then, one ep later, is back on top, none the worse for wear, even if the entire series is built around two monsters jockeying to see the other punished.

Nonetheless, BILLIONS has more than a few compelling facets, such as its portrayal of the NYC food scene. The majority of the show takes place in restaurants and diners, and those dining scenes genuinely reflect the history and disposition of the characters Chuck and Axe are consistently meeting with throughout their day. Both often know their colleagues’ favorite haunts, or at least know where to suggest, so one meal might be Chuck dropping by late-morning to meet a rich Italian at their favorite very dated luncheon spot, then two hours later he’s picking at a deli sandwich while complaining about a recent wrong to an ally.

These ritualistic eating scenes worked quite well at giving the actors something to do while spitting their lines back-and-forth until midway through season five, when COVID shut down production. When it re-opened, well, I don’t quite want to spoil matters, but the restaurant outings dried up. Interactions fundamentally changed, forcing the show to pivot its directorial mode. I’m not 100% sure it was successful — you can be the judge — but it’s interesting.

But I digress: there’s also the fashion. Since this is, more often than not, a show about men talking at each other, about -rich- men talking at each other ad nauseam, those behind the scenes know that these men have look good, look -expensive-, and still have their clothing reflect their personas. (I’ll note that I’m no expert here, but even I can see that they put a lot of effort into the costume design.)

For instance, Chuck is always wearing immaculately conservative — but yet striking — suits that bring out his blue eyes.

Axe is the polar opposite, opting for high/low looks, more upscale versions of what a college kid would have been wearing in the 90s: expensive trainers, tailored jeans, excessively aged and distressed band shirts made to look like he’s been carting them around his entire life, but still fit like a glove. Like Zuckerberg, he has a penchant for hoodies, but his hoodies cost four figures and greatly flatter him.

Then, as a contrast, you have Taylor, who very specifically dresses in non-gendered, but very striking ways; all darker colors, longer but open suit coats, black tops, loose-but-still-fitted vests.

Lastly, there are the music needle drops. The show has grown into a comfortable rhythm of opening up swinging with some classic rock that costs a fortune to license. At one point, not only does METALLICA appear on the show, they play a live show (or at least appear to).

While BILLIONS narratively never feels as expensive as everything around it, all of the little touches work in its favor to create something that, while it’s not unique, has the veneer of uniqueness and, sometimes that’s more than enough.

Season One trailer:

Season Six trailer:

THE SOUVENIR (2019)

(hoopla/kanopy/Prime/Showtime/VOD) I saw THE SOUVENIR during its theatrical release on a sparsely attended Sunday afternoon matinee at the Lakeview Century Cinema, an act only a handful of Chicago folks would do, even in the before times.

THE SOUVENIR is a story from writer/director Joanna Hogg — who also wrote and directed EXHIBITION, which I dragged some folks to a Chicago International Film Fest screening many years ago which I loved, but I’m pretty sure they have yet to forgive me — about a young woman named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, and yes, Tilda Swinton appears as her mother) who makes terrible relationship decisions that she firmly believes in, but can’t see that they’re awful. Classic youth romanticism. There’s a lot of class work thrown in, commentary about art and film, facets of addiction and the like, but ultimately it’s about her navigating, discovering, reckoning.

Right before the credits rolled, I thought I couldn’t love THE SOUVENIR more, then it closed out with a new Anna Calvi song (see also the previously recommended music video STRANGE WEATHER) and I shivered. Then an older women behind me complained to her companion:

“I don’t know, the whole film was weird. I mean, this song too! So weird!”

Damn right it was, and we need more of it.

Astoundingly, Hogg received funding for a sequel in which Robert Pattinson was to co-star. Then COVID and THE BATMAN happened, but the sequel did go into production — sans Pattinson — and is now in theaters! Give yourself the dramatic double-feature you deserve!

WORK IN PROGRESS “161, 153, 137, 122, 106, 104, 102 (We’re Still Counting Almonds.)” (S01E04, 2019)

(Showtime/VOD) WORK IN PROGRESS is a television dramedy about Abby (show co-creator and comedian Abby McEnany) who self-identifies as a “queer, fat dyke” and lives in Chicago. Abby is also 45-years-old and miserable, and she’s decided that if she can’t find some semblance of happiness within 180 days (marked by 180 almonds, one of which she throws away each day), she’ll end her life.

That sounds morose, but the show is often hilarious thanks to Abby’s cynical persona and the inclusion of Julia Sweeney, who Abby hates because for years people kept comparing her to Sweeney’s ‘IT’S PAT’ SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE character.

One endlessly fantastic facet of the show is that it is shot in Chicago, and quite a bit of it is shot in Andersonville, my neighborhood. Andersonville used to be known as ‘Girlstown’ due the number of queer women and lesbian bars — including the historic Stargaze — but that moniker no longer describes the area due to an influx of queer men and straight couples who will live here for a few years with their dog and toddler before they head to the suburbs.

But I digress. Andersonville is not why I mention this episode (although it does open with Abby at a bar just down the street from me). I’m bringing it up because the last third of the episode takes place at Ravinia — technically in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb — the oldest outdoor music festival in the U.S., and this episode features my favorite scene of the entire season, briefly featured in the trailer below. Additionally, it’s a great solo episode that encapsulates the show!

(Lastly, if you watch season two, you’ll catch a glimpse of our neighbor’s house, as they shot some interior scenes there several months ago. It was a tad surreal, especially during the pandemic.)

MADELINE’S MADELINE (2018)

(fubo/kanopy/Showtime/VOD) Josephine Decker’s films always take a bit of time for me to come to terms with. I remember seeing MADELINE’S MADELINE as part of a self-imposed triple-feature at the Music Box during a particularly stormy Chicago day, and it left a sour taste in my mouth, as if the characters I’d seen writ large on the screen weren’t being portrayed fairly.

Then, after haunting my memory for a month or so, it clicks. I realize why the actions were made, no matter how selfish, how distasteful, how the film couldn’t be any different.

(Also, it helps that her films are uniquely surrealistically stylized in a way that most indie filmmakers eschew nowadays, and it’s a style I can’t help but love.)

EXTRA ORDINARY (2020)

(fubo/hoopla/kanopy/Showtime/VOD) EXTRA ORDINARY is an extremely charming and winsome Irish horror-comedy about a woman named Rose (comedian Maeve Higgins) who has been bestowed with paranormal talents, which include the ability to see ghosts. Unfortunately, those powers backfired on her, resulting in the death of her father, so she swore them off and instead became a driving instructor. Unfortunately, local man Martin Martin (Barry Ward, THE END OF THE F***ING WORD) and washed up musician Christian Winter (Will Forte, MACGRUBER, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, clearly having fun playing a villain) will severely test that resolution.

EXTRA ORDINARY could coast along on the quality of its low-key goofs and gags and be a fun hangout horror rom-com, but the overarching story (penned by the directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, with contributions from Higgins) jauntily moves along and escalates into one very fun but very odd climax. Literally.

It also features several finely produced video segments that recall GARTH MERENGHI’S DARKPLACE and LOOK AROUND YOU, fully rounding out the film into a terrifically satisfying film. Sadly, it was released in the US right before lockdown, but hopefully it’ll find an audience sooner rather than later.

THE FITS (2016)

(AMC+/fubo/kanopy/Showtime/VOD) A girl training to box joins a community cheerleading team and, suddenly, members of the squad start falling inexplicably ill. More of an intimate drama than it sounds like, reminding me of Megan Abbot’s — no, not DARE ME — THE FEVER.