CAPSULE REVIEWS: The 52nd Chicago International Film Festival

The 52nd Chicago International Film Festival has arrived in town, hosted by the AMC River East theater location downtown.  One of the many program themes of this year's slate is movie musicals and Cinema/Chicago lucked into opening the festival with the get-of-gets in the form of anticipated Oscar front-runner "La La Land" starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone from "Whiplash" director Damian Chazelle.  Between October 13 and concluding on October 26 with the closing night special presentation of Denis Villeneuve's science fiction opus "Arrival," over 150 films, shorts, and documentaries will grace Chicago with their presence, artistry, and wonder.

For the third year in a row, this website has been granted press credentials to cover the many facets of the 52nd CIFF.  With the large distraction of a Cubs playoff run and a day job that removes me from attending the gamut of closed press screenings that occur during the day), I am on my own for digesting what I can access in limited time.  For now, I am targeting the U.S. Indies slate and will add selections from the Special Presentations, Black Perspectives, and World Cinema programs.  Most of these films are appearing either before or without distribution dates, meaning my reviews here will stay brief capsule form.  Come back to this page often and I will add films as I go!




Opening with the colossal single-take musical number entitled “Another Day of Sun” enlivening an Los Angeles traffic jam to first cross the stars of our two lovers, “La La Land” flies out of the gate in perfect stride to manifest the Hollywood musical.  Combining modern bells and whistles with a throwback approach and appreciation, you realize that you are not watching wannabes or hacks.  Titled as a love letter to Los Angeles and a full admission ticket to daydreaming away from reality, “La La Land” pitches delightful whimsy with unexpected heft and dramatic power underneath. None of this film’s muscle movements and soaring style work without passionate blood racing through its celluloid veins. 




I've only used the word "mesmerizing" on m website in three reviews in six-and-a-half years. Those instances were to describe the performances of Michael Shannon in "Midnight Special," Tom Hardy in "Lawless," and Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond the Pines." In Chilean director Pablo Larrain's film "Jackie," I have found the next moment to say "mesmerizing" and I could use it in every sentence of a future full review. The adjective describes the film as a whole and its towering lead performance from Oscar contender Natalie Portman playing First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the immediate hours and days following her husband's assassination.  Far from a biopic and more of a psychological examination, Portman and Larrain sear the screen with emotion and imagery that is captivating as much as it is difficult.  It's amazing that it takes a foreign director to create the most empowering portrait of American history put to film this year.  How good is "Jackie?"  It's my new #1 in the clubhouse for the best film I've seen this year.




There is a class of films within the science fiction genre that go out of their way to stress the human value of the cinematic equation over the spectacle of the fiction and science.  Such special films take a futuristic viewpoint and look at our optimism versus pessimism, our improvement versus our hubris, and, ultimately, our flaws versus our strengths as a species or a civilization.  Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival," starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, examines each of those dichotomies with invigorating tension and potent emotionality.  The less you know about “Arrival,” the better.  The director ties a strong human anchor to heady science fiction.  To reveal more of the emotional and scientific obstacle course would take away from the engrossing experience to be had by “Arrival.”  This is the anti-”Independence Day,” so don’t expect a populist romp.  Instead, open your mind to a stimulating and provocative mindbender that may require more than one viewing to grasp and appreciate.  The trippy events unfolding out of the screenplay tangle the puppeteer’s strings and play with narrative and filmmaking forces few are daring enough, and smart enough, to wield.




“Lion” is yet another performance-driven dramatic film entering this holiday season favoring prudence over theatrics.  The feature film debut of award-winning commercial director Garth Davis, is a love letter instead of a power ballad that delivers genuine emotional heft all on its own, without the need to manufacture it for the sake of a movie.  Chronicling the true story of two halves of life for Saroo Brierley, the film follows a five-year-old Indian boy (the irresistible Sunny Pawar) lost in Calcutta and adopted to Australian by sponsor parents played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham.  Twenty years later, the adult Saroo, played by Dev Patel, obsessively commences a search to find his native origins.  Painted with patient brushstrokes and never swelling to gaudy theatrics, "Lion" is a sensational drama that earns high appreciation.




Ken Loach is more than an esteemed British filmmaker.  He is also an ardent social activist for the middle-class commoner.  His camera is kind to the working class and never afraid to ruffle political feathers.  His latest film, "I, Daniel Blake," the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, champions the cause to combat the bureaucracy of the welfare system, a topic not exclusive whatsoever to the United Kingdom.  Loach’s plain-speaking film is a touchingly realistic parable.  "I, Daniel Blake" is unabashedly a “bleeding heart” film on literal and figurative levels. Better yet, Loach’s realism is backed by boundless heart that can squeeze tears from even the stoutest viewer. 




On the heist, “Trespass Against Us” really moves, sped along by outstanding stunt work .  The ensuing pursuit scenes are impressive for a film of this size, buzzed by a Chemical Brothers musical score.  On the lam, the film too often grinds its gears and dulls its edgy tone.  The turn-over-a-new-leaf elements of parental challenges lack engagement come up empty.  Pissing and moaning about the trailer park life, hazing each other, and talking big promises over cigarettes and profanity-laced diatribes, the film can be as lazy as its criminals between gigs.  If you stick with it, stay for Michael Fassbender and the spurts of tantalizing criminal thrills.




The new animated musical “Sing” from Illumination Entertainment bills itself as containing more than 85 memorable tracks from legendary performing artists and one new original song collaboration from Ariana Grande and Stevie Wonder.  When you divide the 110 minutes of the film by 86 songs, that averages out roughly to one song every 78 seconds. Less is more.  Sing five, hell even ten, songs well instead of 86 at random and indiscernible quality.




Director Barry Jenkins's understated and powerful film played the CIFF as a Special Presentation and as part of the Black Perspectives program.  Comparable in a way to Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines," the film is a triptych following one young Miami boy named Chiron across three chapters and key turning points in his life.  Beginning as a bullied young boy that grows into a closeted gay teen and finally into a broken and insecure adult male, Chiron's story is a painful one of finding acceptance, unnerving repression, and the envisioned parallel results of what happens to millions of forgotten and silent youths that do not have someone in their life who can listen to them and support them, even on a basic level.  Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland, and an incredible Naomie Harris offer outstanding supporting performances.  The three performers who embody Chiron, one unknown (Alex Hibbert) and two virtual newcomer (Trevante Rhodes of "Westworld" and Ashton Sanders of "Straight Outta Compton"), have the power to capture your undivided attention, stir your empathy, and break your heart.  This is the kind of film that becomes a transformative experience and stands as one of the year's best overall films.




Chicago-based filmmaker Ned Crowley makes his feature debut with this devilishly clever and occasionally bat-shit crazy road trip film "Middle Men."  "Parks and Recreation" supporting player Jim O'Heir plays Lenny Freeman, a homebody Peoria, Illinois CPA who quits his job to chase his stand-up comedian dreams on the stages of Las Vegas.  Packing up his deceased mother's classic car and digesting old taped comedy routines of the likes of Burns and Benny, Lenny gets sidetracked along the way by a questionable hitchhiker (Andrew J. West) and a dead-end tumbleweed Nevada town named Lamb Bone.  Bombed jokes turn into bad choices and imposing threats turn into murderous accidents.  A dark comedy to the bone, "Middle Men" juggles its chainsaws with outstanding improvisational humor and genuinely surprising twists and turns.



Andre Royo ("The Wire") invests himself excellently playing a recently incarcerated man named Ashley trying to step back into his old neighborhood and former conceited position in life.  After three years in jail, no amount of his warped and selfish positivity is going to hand him a job or bring back the ex-girlfriend Linda (Ashley Wilkinson) he is still hung up on.  It will take bettering himself, learning a little respect, and removing that chip on his shoulder.  When he partners with a meek young neighbor (George Sample III) in several scams to make ends meet, their shared plight pushes both towards lessons to learn.  Backed by a bouncy urban jazz soundscape, this committed drama is the debut feature film from "X-Ray" and "Prince Avalanche" art director Josh Locy.  The visual flourishes of an art director show through playful layering and camera work from Jon Aguirresarobe combined with subtle edits from Adam Robinson.  Unconventional and slowly compelling, "Hunter Gatherer" is a solid debut.





The documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” from director Raoul Peck unearths “Remember This House,” an unfinished 1979 manuscript of James Baldwin’s recollections of Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin.  This outstanding and informative film presents Baldwin’s musings alongside sobering imagery of both the turbulent history of the era and parallel occurrences of modern racial unrest that echo the same violence, inequality, anger, and sorrow.  As an Oscar nominee in a banner year for feature documentaries, “I Am Your Negro” is essential viewing. Culling together a wealth of archival footage of interviews, reference points, and shared speeches, “I Am Not Your Negro” delivers a wallop of history and creativity.