56th Chicago International Film Festival

Tis the season not just to start looking forward to making a socially distanced plan for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas but also for the fall film festivals to ramp up.  At least, that was the plan until the coronavirus made it clear that it wasn’t going to allow for theaters to remain open in a way that would accommodate a large amount of people to get to the cinema and have that group experience.  Thankfully, a number of these festivals have had several months to prepare for Plan B and were ready to offer a secondary option for those that were open to experience new films from around the globe in the comfort of their own home.  It wasn’t the same thing as making it an event, often rubbing shoulders with the filmmakers, but at least it was something.

This is my first year covering the Chicago International Film Festival, now in its 56th year and the Windy City fest (North America’s longest running competitive international film festival, by the way) has a diverse line-up of films that span cultures, languages, and classes.  The selections offer opportunities to view narrative features from foreign countries as well as intriguing documentaries on a wide-array of subjects.  As a documentary fan, I was impressed with the roster and found it hard to narrow down my choices — if only I had more time!  Over the next week, keep checking back as I’ll continue to up this page with new capsule reviews as I screen the films.  (Longer reviews will follow when the films are in wide release).
Visit 56th Chicago International Film Festival for more info if you are interested in any of the movies you read about below.

The Columnist

The Facts:
Synopsis: Columnist and author Femke is flooded with anonymous nasty messages and death threats on social media. One day she has enough and decides to take revenge.
Director: Ivo van Aart
Running Length: 84 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
REVIEW: This Dutch comedic thriller seemed like a good place to jump in seeing that a number of my choices skated the line between the suspenseful and the off-kilter.  Following a journalist that reaches her breaking point after reading too many negative comments on her writing, Ivo van Aart’s nicely made but disappointingly one-note rebuke of the power of the anonymous troll starts off strong but lacks a satisfying third act.  Katja Herbers makes a good showing as the writer who derives a newfound creative energy from literally cutting her detractors out of her life so it’s a bummer that Daan Windhorst’s script doesn’t give her anywhere to go.  You’d expect a European film to have a slightly more quirky take on this material but it’s alarmingly standard.  Nice parallels are drawn between the lead character, a journalist biting back at the public and her daughter rebelling against her school leadership trying to suppress her right to free speech but that thread also winds up a flailing loose end.  Props for a dynamite final image that sends you out on a chilling note, but thinking about the possibilities of where this could have gone only reinforces the feeling it didn’t venture deep enough into the darkness.

Belushi

The Facts:
Synopsis: Examines the too-short life of once-in-a-generation talent who captured the hearts and funny bones of devoted audiences using previously unheard audiotapes recorded shortly after John Belushi’s death.
Director: R.J. Cutler
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
REVIEW: This documentary on the life of late comedian John Belushi is set to air on Showtime in November and serves as another tribute to a talent from Saturday Night Life taken too soon.  Similar to the 2018 Gilda Radner documentary Love, Gilda, Belushi charts the rise of Belushi from a boy in Wheaton, IL to his unfortunate demise at 33 from an overdose.  What sets director R.J. Cutler’s film apart are the audiotapes from an unpublished oral history of Belushi that offer a treasure trove of anecdotes from friends, family, and colleagues of Belushi.  Relating untold stories that are weaved amongst pictures, videos, and interviews with Belushi himself, Cutler is able to successfully tell the story of Belushi’s personal and professional successes (and struggles) while managing to remain candid and not overly sanguine.  For me, I feel as if I’ve heard the genesis story of SNL one too many times now so that section caused me to shift a bit more than usual, wishing they’d move on from the stories I’d read about before and instead focus on who Belushi was outside of the show.  It’s hard to talk about Belushi’s life and not mourn what could have been and that’s where the film will hit the hardest, but apart from the sadness and how many will remember him at the end, Cutler and the commentators (all of it voiceovers) provide viewers with enough evidence of Belushi as an energetic soul that by the time we see Belushi’s Joe Cocker impression over the credits the tears in the corners of our eyes are happy ones.

Sleep (Schlaf)

The Facts:
Synopsis: A woman plagued by horrific dreams suffers a breakdown in a remote village.  Coming to her aid, her daughter discovers a well-kept family secret and an old curse that ultimately threatens both of their lives.
Director: Michael Venus
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s fitting the German horror film Sleep (Schlaf) has the woods play a central part of its mystery because the entire movie has a twisted Brothers Grimm feel to it.  This surreal mystery with a good dose of chills from director Michael Venus (great name) making his feature film debut is a wicked little tale with multiple layers to peel back.  Marlene (Sandra Hüller, so unforgettable in 2016’s Toni Erdmann) has been having terrible nightmares of death centered around a mysterious hotel that feels familiar, but she can’t place.  Her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) is a tough love caregiver that eventually comes to her side when Marlene secretly steals off and has a paralyzing attack in the hotel that’s haunted her dreams.  Soon, Mona begins to see visions of her own and unravels a puzzle hidden for decades suggesting her mother was right to feel danger at their doorstep.
The secluded setting of a resort town in its off-season and hotel with no guests provide Venus with ample opportunities to put Mona in perilous situations as her probing gets her into deeper trouble.  There’s no shortage of creepy characters, not to mention ghostly apparitions that may be harbingers of doom or keys to the solution of what happened in the past that has led to this present situation.  Venus may get a little slap-happy with the mind games, leaning toward favoring eroticism over fantasy or metaphor but he clearly has an eye for how to keep your eyes glued to the screen because it all looks grand. That it leads to something a bit standard and is drawn-out unnecessarily is a bit of a disappointment but getting there is such a moody journey through darkness that I could easily forgive its rather ordinary conclusion.  Definitely a candidate to add to your late-night watch queue when its available.

Sweat

The Facts:
Synopsis: Three days in the life of fitness motivator Sylwia Zajac, a social media celebrity surrounded by loyal employees and admirers but is really looking for true intimacy
Director: Magnus von Horn
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Hailing from Poland, you’d think a movie centered on the bright life of a social media celebrity/influencer would be a lot more vapid but Sweat has some surprisingly deep moments of self-reflection that gives viewers insight into life outside of hashtags and video posts.  The opening moments are a high energy burst where Sylwia (an absolutely fantastic Magdalena Kolesnik) takes a group of her fans through one of her workout routines at a mall event.  Her sunny personality and motivating message clearly inspire her followers but a recent viral video of hers has her management team worried.  In it, she exposed a more vulnerable side and expressed a desire for the real connection she feels she’s missing. Over the next three days, we get a voyeuristic look into Sylwia’s life and her interactions with fans, old acquaintances (a chance encounter with a high school classmate awkwardly blurs the line between celebrity and friend quickly), family (a birthday party for her mother reveals unspoken tension between them), and two men that may be threats to her for very different reasons.
Director Magnus von Horn’s screenplay takes such a dark and hard-edged turn in the last half hour it could be easy to forget some of the more delicate scenes from the first eighty minutes of the film.  That’s where Kolesnik is able to really pull Sylwia’s loneliness to the forefront, showing that someone with 600,000 followers on social media can be the most alone person of all in her cold apartment.  Kolesnik is so magnetic that even that mean-spirited spiral of events can’t totally set the film off-course and it winds up being saved by her dynamite final scene.  Though the message being conveyed by von Horn about social influencers and their feelings is pretty obvious, Sweat wouldn’t have worked as well without a performance as strong in the lead.

Finding Yingying

The Facts:
Synopsis: After a young Chinese student goes missing on an American university campus, her family travels to the U.S. for the first time, hoping to unravel the mystery of her disappearance.
Director: Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: One of the striking ways that director Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi’s documentary Finding Yingying feels like it breaks away from the pack is by digging deeper with the family and showing the fissures that form when a loved one is taken. The first forty minutes feels like a clinical deconstruction of the disappearance of 27-year-old Yingying Zhang from a college campus in Illinois in 2017.  An acquaintance of hers in college, Shi joined the family first as a translator, then to document the investigation and its her footage and voiceover narration that provide shape to the film.  Only after a suspect is identified is when a tonal shift happens.  That’s when we start to see the inner workings of the Zhang family and how Yingying’s absence has truly destabilized them all.  It’s a powder keg of a documentary feature with emotional scenes that will sneak up on you in the most unexpected of ways by exposing the raw nerves of how one act of violence can spur multiple acts of collateral damage that, like their crime, can never be healed.