There is an immense assortment of highlights to be savored at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, kicking off Thursday, October 12th, and running through Thursday, October 26th. I am honored to be serving once again on the New Directors jury, and have attempted to cram in as many screenings as possible before my duties begin. Last year’s festival featured two pictures that were neck-and-neck in the Oscar race, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” and Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” as soon as they had their respective premieres at Venice and Telluride (both made my top ten list). Though plenty of films received rave reviews at festivals this year, none of them have emerged as a clear frontrunner as of yet, thus making the 2017 awards season more unpredictable in its early stages.
I found time to view ten of this year’s CIFF selections for the following preview piece, and though they are somewhat of a mixed bag, there is something to recommend in each of them. Many of the best films in this list have local roots and are guaranteed to captivate audiences far outside the Windy City limits. Without further ado, here they are, in order of appearance…
Goodbye Christopher Robin
Can one great performance salvage an uninspired biopic? In the case of Simon Curtis’ gloomy portrait of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne, Kelly Macdonald brings enormous emotional depth to each of her scenes as the family’s devoted maid, Olive. She served as the real parental figure in the life of Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, whose fate appears doomed from the start, thanks to the screenplay’s tired contrivances. Domhnall Gleeson is so wooden as Milne that it’s difficult to imagine such literary whimsy erupting from his brain, while Margot Robbie is equally miscast as his self-absorbed wife (their age makeup is on the level of a high school production). The most compelling sections of the film detail how Christopher was exploited by his parents after the books’ success, causing the boy to place too much importance on his relationship with Olive. When Robbie is outraged by the notion that she wasn’t a good enough mother, crying, “I gave birth to him—it nearly killed me!”, Macdonald delivers a perfectly withering response: “Excuse me, mum, but a cow can give birth.”
“Goodbye Christopher Robin” screens at 6pm on Friday, October 13th.
You won’t find a better metaphor for the destructive spectacle of Donald Trump than the much-ballyhooed centerpiece sequence in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner. A performance artist (played by simian choreographer Terry Notary) “entertains” the wealthy crowd at a dinner by portraying an ape, yet the guffaws start to evaporate as his unsettling behavior proves to be no laughing matter. He’s funny until he’s not anymore, and the same could be said of the film itself. For much of its 142-minute running time, Östlund’s follow-up to “Force Majeure” is a scathingly funny critique of liberal hypocrisy, again centering on a man who lacks the nerve of his stated convictions. Claes Bang stars as the curator of the titular contemporary art museum, which brilliantly illustrates the limitations that virtues can have when stored behind glass. Whereas the rage of the disenfranchised was embodied by the profane mother in “The Florida Project,” here it’s channeled by a kid wrongfully punished as a result of Bang’s thoughtlessness. Bang can’t bring himself to apologize for his prejudices without citing the “bigger structural problems of society” as an excuse.
“The Square” screens at 8:15pm on Friday, October 13th, and at 5:15pm on Saturday, October 14th. Terry Notary is scheduled to attend both screenings—hopefully not as an ape.
I can’t imagine a better artist to explore the psyche of a disgruntled environmentalist than Agnieszka Holland, director of the 1993 masterpiece, “The Secret Garden.” Her latest picture is, in many ways, a much more satisfying spin on the themes tackled by Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”, casting the splendid Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka as Duszejko, a vengeful Mother Earth appalled at mankind’s indifference to their own abuse of the planet. She may be a mortal being, but there is something almost cosmic about her, as she maintains an intrinsic connection with the animals routinely slaughtered for sport rather than necessity. The arrogance of the hunters is epitomized by a grotesque church service, in which a priest espouses mankind’s role as god’s ambassadors required to “subdue the earth.” Duszejko may not believe in God, but she does sense an order to the universe, as evidenced by her preoccupation with astrology. The film concludes with a promise that “a new cycle” will inevitably begin, though it’s ultimately up to us whether we are a part of it or not.
“Spoor” screens at 3pm on Saturday, October 14th; at 12pm on Sunday, October 15th; and at 3:15pm on Friday, October 20th.
The fourth feature collaboration between filmmaker Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt is easily my favorite to date. It’s a riveting parable about the debilitating effect of repression, anchored by a breakout performance from leading lady Eili Harboe (a dead ringer for Agata Trzebuchowska, the star of “Ida,” another film about self-discovery). Christianity is enforced by the parents of Thelma (Harboe) solely as a system of control that will keep the girl ignorant of her startling abilities. There is palpable erotic heat generated between Harboe and fellow newcomer Kaya Wilkins (bearing a striking resemblance to Alicia Vikander), as the classmate that Thelma finds herself lusting after. The sudden sexual awakening experienced by Thelma causes the ceiling to shudder, as mounting spiritual guilt fuels her need to erase all traces of her infatuation, calling to mind the “disconnection” utilized by cults. This is the most provocative variation I’ve seen on Stephen King’s “Carrie,” not to mention one of the best portrayals of an insidiously abusive parent-child dynamic, characterized by constant surveillance and a declaration of being true to one’s identity, while deliberately preventing the young woman from reaching a true understanding of herself.
“Thelma” screens at 8:30pm on Saturday, October 14th, and at 12:30pm on Sunday, October 15th.
Chasing the Blues
Scott Smith’s comedy may be about a cursed blues record that causes wicked people to off themselves in a style reminiscent of “The Happening,” but I’m willing to wager that its central pair of characters would’ve somehow wound up in the same confounded situation regardless of the curse. Grant Rosenmeyer and Ronald L. Conner are quite funny as two blues enthusiasts so hellbent on snatching the priceless record from a sweet old lady (Anna Maria Horsford) that they stay holed up in her apartment for days on end, resulting in a delicious game of one-upmanship. “You’re stealing intellectual property that belongs to the black community!” Conner exclaims at Rosenmeyer. “What you’re doing is a f—king metaphor!” Less successful is the needlessly convoluted, time-hopping framing device surrounding these scenes, though they do allow for cameos from Steve Guttenberg and Jon Lovitz in full scene-stealing, “League of Their Own” mode. The way Lovitz hisses “Yessssss?” may be enough to justify the price of admission (well, that and Lovitz actually being there…)
“Chasing the Blues” screens at 8:45pm on Saturday, October 14th; at 5:45pm on Wednesday, October 18th; and at 12:30pm on Saturday, October 21st. Scott Smith, Grant Rosenmeyer, Jon Lovitz and producers Aria DeBenny and John Fromstein are scheduled to attend each screening.
Stephen Cone’s films speak to me in ways few films ever do. They are timeless slices of life that also speak to the present moment, often juxtaposing the perspectives of people from different generations as they come of age. Miranda (Rebecca Spence) is a writer in the vein of Emily Dickinson. She is comfortable with being single, remaining in the home of her youth and embracing her spirituality without feeling bound by church law. Her niece, Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), is impulsive in ways people her age often are, bursting with hormones while falling for a local girl (a magnetic Malic White) during her summer at Miranda’s Chicago home. When Cyd makes a carelessly cruel observation about her aunt’s nonexistent sex life, Miranda counters with a firm but loving reply: “It’s not a handicap to be one way and not another.” Her deceptively simple wisdom serves as a healing remedy for our caustically divided culture, magnifying how our differences should be celebrated rather than shunned. Cone has a peerless eye for talent (he cast “Stranger Things” star Joe Keery before his career exploded), and the work he elicits from Spence and Pinnick is nothing short of sublime. Their final interaction on the phone—Spence affecting a cheerful demeanor, Pinnick blindsided by the strength of their connection—is so masterfully written, directed and acted that it moved me to tears. What is left unsaid is what resonates long after the credits have rolled. This is one of the year’s best films.
“Princess Cyd” screens at 6pm on Tuesday, October 17th; at 2:45pm on Saturday, October 21st; and at 3pm on Wednesday, October 25th. Stephen Cone and producers Grace Hahn and Madison Ginsberg are scheduled to attend each screening.
Director Kyle Henry gives his four lead actors little room to hide in this bracing picture, often framing their faces in extreme close-up during moments of naked emotional vulnerability, and not once are their performances anything less than utterly authentic. Antoine McKay plays a husband so overworked and exhausted that his ability to fulfill his wife’s needs has begun to crumble. As his wife, Sara Sevigny masks her private pain in good cheer, until her troubled brother (Jonny Mars) crashes a party by resurrecting past family demons. Christine Horn brings considerable dimension to the character of Mars’ wife, demonstrating how her disbelief in monogamy played a crucial role in the survival of their relationship. When she inadvertently spills the beans to Sevigny (whose knowing delivery of “uh-huh” is one for the books), a boozy night of boy and girl talk detonates into a fiery inferno of resentment. The script by Carlos Treviño is especially skilled at delving into questions of responsibility regarding an abusive family member, and how the anger on all sides is justified. What an uncommonly insightful movie.
“Rogers Park” will screen at 6:15pm on Thursday, October 19th, and at 3:30pm on Monday, October 23rd. Kyle Henry is scheduled to attend both screenings.
Laura Checkoway’s half-hour Kartemquin documentary sneaks up on you like a shattering sucker-punch. At first, the film appears to be little more than an endearing profile of the titular interracial couple who got married in their mid-90s. We see them inserting their dentures and exercising their limbs, while recalling how they met each other at a lottery in Virginia. But then we learn that Edith’s daughter plans to sell the house where her mother has lived all her life—and hopes to die—forcing the frail woman to travel over several states to live with her in an abusive house that will undoubtedly lead to a nursing home. Edith’s guardianship is placed in the hands of Jessica, a patronizing stranger who comes across as wholly devoid of empathy. The most agonizing sequence occurs in complete darkness, as we hear the audio of a heated confrontation between Jessica and the couple, who will be split apart since Eddie refuses to board an airplane. “I have lived here my whole life, I have worked for this,” Edith protests, but her words fall on deaf ears. Though it leaves much to our imagination, Checkoway’s film is a devastating account of how the elderly and ailing in this country are fed into the uncaring prison of institutional living, where their identities disappear and their life expectancy shortens one day at a time. What kind of civilized society is it that prevents people from living their final days on their own terms with the people they love? Certainly not a humane one.
“Edith+Eddie” screens at 3:30pm on Sunday, October 22nd, along with “’63 Boycott.”
Earlier this year, Theo Anthony’s extraordinary documentary, “Rat Film,” went to great and often ingenious lengths to show how the segregated sections of Baltimore were structured like a rat maze in order to keep poor communities “in their place.” Of course, this could apply to any urban area, and Chicago is as glaring an example as any. Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn’s long-gestating ode to grassroots activism mixes footage of the 2013 march against the school closures ordered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel—the largest in the city’s history—with footage shot by the director a half-century ago of the historic 1963 Chicago school boycott. 200,000 marchers filled the streets downtown to protest against CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis, who planned to funnel students from overcrowded black schools into cheap mobile units placed in the sort of area typically reserved for dumpsters. Marchers such as Sandra Murray, who has an applause-worthy moment late in the film, recount the exhilaration of hearing their voices echo off the city skyscrapers while uniting for a shared cause.
“’63 Boycott” screens at 3:30pm on Sunday, October 22nd, along with “Edith+Eddie.” Gordon Quinn and producers Rachel Dickson and Tracye A. Matthews are scheduled to attend.
I have no doubt Duszejko, the heroine of Agniezska Holland’s “Spoor,” would find a kindred spirit in Jane Goodall, the groundbreaking primatologist who revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees. Brett Morgen’s documentary is comprised primarily of recently discovered footage shot during Goodall’s early years of field work, while having the iconic trailblazer—resembling this year’s CIFF honoree Vanessa Redgrave—provide the voice-over in newly shot interview excerpts. On the basis of its footage alone, the film should be regarded as essential viewing, though it lacks the patience of Goodall herself, who reached her own epiphanies through staring intently at her research subjects. Perhaps in an effort to keep the picture at 90 minutes, Morgen paces various scenes at too tight a clip, rushing through every photo and sketch while leaning too heavily on an obtrusive Philip Glass score. Regardless of these flaws, the film still amazes with its vignettes of animal life, and the boundless empathy with which Goodall continues to study them. She sees the lives of humans and animals as having equal worth, and indeed, chimps do seem to share our feelings and awareness of others. I was reminded of the story shared by my sister from her recent honeymoon in Bali, where she observed a chimp steal a tourist’s glasses, only to return them in exchange for food. Nature is so much smarter than we often presume it to be, and it deserves our undying respect, care and attention. After all, we don’t own this planet, we’re only renting it, and the rent is way past due.
“Jane” screens at 6:30pm on Monday, October 23rd, and at 3pm on Tuesday, October 24th.
For the full line-up of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, visit the official CIFF site.