Movie theaters are warzones this time of year. After the opening salvos of The Jungle Book and Captain America: Civil War, the summer-movie season is in full swing; and there’s little room left at cineplexes as those two juggernauts duke it out for the top spot. But a few smaller releases and revivals are seeing quiet releases too; and if you can duck through the crossfire, you’ll be rewarded with a few refreshing diversions and one of the all-time greats.
High-Rise, which was screened as part of the Middle of the Map Film Festival, is playing at the Screenland Crossroads for an extended run. An adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, it follows a robotic dandy as he settles into the title’s state-of-the-art skyscraper. He meets snobbish new neighbors, learns the building’s expertly design, and meets the penthouse-dwelling architect on his rooftop Eden. It’s a class-warfare time bomb waiting to detonate, and the metaphor is as heavy as the building’s steel structure. But there’s something almost hypnotizing in its retro-futuristic vision of a pre-Thatcher England on the verge. It’s kooky too, with dueling covers of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” propelling the revolutionary fervor. And while it’s easier to admire than to love, High-Rise is unlike anything else out there.
Fourteen years ago, Alexander Sokurov staged one of movie history’s grandest experiments with Russian Ark—a spectacle unmatched to this day. Given unprecedented access to Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Sokurov imagined a ninety-minute, single-take, first-person tour through the museum, with its rooms and corridors each serving as time warps through his country’s turbulent history. Wakening in a daze and remembering only “some accident,” the narrator is whisked back to the pre-Soviet era and guided by a snooty stand-in for Western Europe who personifies Russia’s centuries-old attraction to and repulsion from the continent. We meet Catherine the Great, Nicholas II, and the thousands of servants that made their lives so luxurious. Sokurov, his crew, and a cast of over two thousand extras had only one day to pull the whole thing off, and legend has it the fourth try went off without a hitch. It’s a jaw-dropping trick matched only by the movie’s emotional resonance. Sokurov’s newest, Francofonia, is a semi-sequel, this time set at the Louvre and focusing on an unlikely alliance between its Resistance-aiding director and a high-ranking Nazi officer to protect the museum during the occupation. Russian Ark was made possible thanks to then-new advances in digital camerawork; and if Francofonia (which is playing at the Tivoli) isn’t a landmark piece of acrobatic filmmaking on the same order, anything from one of world cinema’s foremost living masters is worth a look.
Speaking of masters, Orson Welles is one of movie history’s great tragic heroes, and it’s no wonder he was enamored of Falstaff. The character appeared in supporting roles in a handful of Shakespeare’s histories and comedies, always as a buffoonish antihero. Welles was determined to bring the dark clown front and center, and Chimes at Midnight was his decades-in-the-making masterpiece: a unique blend of Elizabethan poetry and violent, anti-war battle cry. Dismissed upon release in 1966, it’s gained a massive cult reputation over the years, with Welles considering it his finest achievement. Most agree: it’s a legend, regularly considered both Welles’s best movie and the best Shakespeare movie ever made. But rights issues have damned the movie for generations: it was never widely released in theaters nor was it ever officially released on VHS or DVD. That all changed at the beginning of this year, and Janus’s new restoration has been playing to packed crowds across the country. It finally lands in Kansas City this weekend at the Tivoli.