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.

The Reason I Jump

The Facts:
Synopsis: Based on the groundbreaking memoir by 13-year-old author Naoki Higashida, this documentary uses an immersive, impressionistic approach to chronicle the rich inner lives of non-speaking autistic people from India, Britain, the U.S., and Sierra Leone.
Director: Jerry Rothwell
Running Length: 82 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There have been numerous films that have portrayed autism onscreen and done it with respect and sensitivity as well as documentaries to further educate audiences on the real world families supporting adults and children living on the spectrum.  With The Reason I Jump, director Jerry Rothwell goes even deeper and manages to give the viewer a brief glimpse into the world of non-verbal autistic people from all across the globe.  Using the game-changing 2013 autobiography from an autistic Japanese boy as the jumping off point, Rothwell visits several families each with their own unique way of adapting to their situation.  The result is a fulfilling documentary with impressive cinematography and sound design that starts a little unfocused and gradually finds its shape as it crescendos, with brief pauses along the way to dab your eyes.  If anything, it’s the parents and caregivers that leave the most lasting impact – the way they celebrate success or take on the sting of hurt for their children is what will reach out and grab you.

Summer of ’85 (Été 85)

The Facts:
Synopsis: A summer romance takes a dark turn in this mesmerizing coming-of age story set on the Normandy coast.
Stars: Félix Lefebvre, Benjamin Voisin, Philippine Velge, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Melvil Poupaud, and Isabelle Nanty
Director: François Ozon
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Like every great summer, this new film from acclaimed French director François Ozon starts by wrapping you in a warm glow before turning unnecessarily chilly in its latter half.  Adapting a 1982 British novel, Ozon transports the action to the Normandy coast and tracks the unique friendship that develops over six weeks between two young men.  At first, Ozon hints his film will have that air of mystery involving desire and love unrequited and teases out vulnerable performances from his two young stars.  Only, he shows his hand far too early and that leaves a healthy chunk of the remaining time spent on a plot that spins into disappointingly familiar territory I’d thought we’d moved on from.  See it for the tie-loosening first half which is admittedly quite intriguing and does its job by involving you with these characters and their small world they’ve created for themselves, but be prepared to bundle up as Summer of 85 draws to a close.

Kubrick by Kubrick

The Facts:
Synopsis: A trove of never-before-heard audio recordings forms the spine of this cinematic essay on the methods and madness of master director Stanley Kubrick.
Director: Gregory Monro
Running Length: 72 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: People just love to dissect the films of Stanley Kubrick to find the hidden meanings in his work. Quite a number of books have been written, documentaries have been made, and I’m sure not a small amount of thesis papers have been typed up about the deeper indications of why Kubrick chose certain furniture placement in 2001: A Space Odyssey or had small inconsistencies in continuity on The Shining.  Yet we rarely heard from the famously elusive/reclusive director himself, which is why Gregory Monro’s documentary is such a rare gift.  Utilizing the audio recordings made by French critic Michel Ciment who Kubrick gave almost exclusive interviews to over a 20-year period, the doc takes us through various theologies in his films and methods of his working style.  None of the topics are very revelatory but it’s the answers that are fascinating.  Hearing Kubrick appear not to give as much deep consideration to areas of interest that fans have obsessed over for decades is, admittedly, fun to hear.  Using archival interviews with stars helps to back-up some of his statements, though seeing Shelley Duvall cheerfully detailing her support of Kubrick’s famed obsession with multiple takes makes me wonder if this was before, during, or after her notoriously traumatic experience working with him on The Shining.  At a brisk 72 minutes, it feels absolutely the right length for the information it provides and should be on any Kubrick (or film) fan’s must-see list.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

The Facts:
Synopsis: A hilarious and poignant look at the life of improv impresario and the comedy trailblazer Del Close, from his beginnings as a “human torch” sideshow act to his influential and contentious rise at The Second City.
Stars: Bob Odenkirk, Jason Sudekis, Lennon Parham, James Urbaniak, Josh Fadem, David Pasquesi, Susan Messing, Tim Meadows, Adam McKay, George Wendt, Charna Halpern, Patton Oswalt
Director: Heather Ross
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Just a few short reviews ago, I mentioned in my Belushi write up that I had heard about all I needed to regarding the genesis of Saturday Night Live and the ‘Not Ready for Prime-Time Players’ that made up its initial troupe.  Turns out, I was able to squeeze one more in before calling it quits and that’s because legendary improv pioneer Del Close only figures peripherally in to that origin story.  This charming, warts-and-all doc is narrated by Amy Poehler and features a good amount of dramatic recreation starring familiar faces of comedy as well as archival footage and new interviews to tell the story of how Close honed his natural ability over a tumultuous life.  Battling issues both physical and mental, to hear the recognizable names director Heather Ross captures on camera tell it, Close played some role in the development of a number of comedy greats of the past and present, not to mention laying the groundwork for the professional training that goes on today.  The recreations may set this one a bit apart from the standard documentary pile but I found them distracting more than informative.  It’s best when it sticks to the real guy and the wonderfully cracked stories his friends recount on his behalf.

Bad Hair

The Facts:
Synopsis: An ambitious young woman gets a weave in order to succeed in the image-obsessed world of music television circa 1989. However, her flourishing career comes at a great cost when she realizes that her new hair may have a mind of its own.
Stars: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Judith Scott, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood,  Vanessa Williams
Director: Justin Simien
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  A horror film with comedic highlights that had wonderful potential but is failed by clunky special effects, an excessive running length, and weak supporting performances.  It’s a good thing star player Elle Lorraine is so ferociously good — she’s the best thing about the film by a longshot.  Click here for my full review.

The Dark and the Wicked

The Facts:
Synopsis: When adult siblings Louise and Michael return to the farm where they grew up to say goodbye to their dying father and comfort their distressed mother, they soon find themselves overwhelmed by waking nightmares and an unstoppable evil that threatens to consume them all.
Stars: Marin Ireland, Michael Abbott Jr., Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone
Director: Brian Bertino
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: It’s been twelve years, but I think my nerves still haven’t quite recovered from seeing The Strangers, director Brian Bertino’s 2008 debut feature, so I was prepared for the same kind of spine-jangling experience with his fourth film, The Dark and the Wicked.  While it has the requisite scares that admirably often emanate not from something leaping out but just quietly appearing in the frame, if you sweep all that away there’s not a whole lot left for the film to offer viewers seeking more than a quick thrill.  Once the mind starts to wonder what the point of all this intense terror is for, you know something is amiss.  Also, the whole fractured family trope with grown children returning home to find one or more of their parents “not quite right” feels stale and the cracks show in Bertino’s script, though the performances try to keep it fresh. {Note: I’ll have a full review of this closer to the release date of 11/6}