CAPSULE REVIEWS: The 4th Chicago Critics Film Festival

The Chicago Critics Film Festival is currently in action at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre and runs until May 26th.  The festival offers a selection of films comprised of festival favorites and pre-distribution sneak peeks from around the country and world.  The CCFF is in its fourth year and is programmed by the Chicago Film Critics Association.  As it stands now, this is the only film festival in the country curated by film critics.  Be sure to check out their full website and schedule of offerings.  It's an impressive menu!   

As a fellow member of the press corps and the neighboring Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, I occasionally collaborate with CFCA critics and was granted press credentials to cover this year's event.  With so many pre-release debuts, full reviews for the films often have to be held until their formal release (noted below where applicable):


In his 20's, Owen Suskind is a young man with autism.  He has received many years of special schooling to develop functionality and independence and is one month away from graduating and getting his own apartment.  The secret to his success and his personal fuel of passion are the stories, entertainment, themes, and lessons come from an imaginative, yet atypical place: Walt Disney's animated feature films.  This website has been moralizing for six years now its central message that "every movie has a lesson."  As an educator, it is something that I firmly believe and stand by with every possible film, good or bad.  I don't think, in all of my years of movie-going, I have ever seen a more real, living and breathing example of the power and magic of my website's theme than in the compelling and emotional new documentary "Life, Animated."  This story is why I write.  If that message speaks to you, go find "Life, Animated" immediately.  (In theaters July 8)


Cult favorite horror director Ti West brings his chops and brilliant eye to the western genre and bends tropes in highly entertaining ways with "In a Valley of Violence."  Ethan Hawke dials down his Linklater juice to play a rightful steely lead out for a revenge in a small town run by John Travolta's pragmatic marshal and his hothead son (James Ransone) that started all of the trouble.  Bursting with panache at every turn, from a spirited musical score to unexpected sparks of bloodshed and humor, this film is an absolute winner.  It's damn nice to see a proper western that still can spin a new feeling of entertainment.  Seek this excellent film out when it reaches theaters this October.


All credit goes to Oz Perkins’s writing and direction.  Certain scenes punch quickly and others to linger with menacing resonance, building outstanding tension over 93 minutes.  His script leaves scant, selective, and intentionally obscure breadcrumbs.  Not a stitch wasteful exposition exists, allowing and requiring the audience to make their own inferences.  Being “in the dark” is a savory place to be for a film like this.  Keenly and decisively, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” carries a nearly strict reliance on suggestion and atmosphere over exploitation.  For that, Perkins and company get it and do not need a “throwback” label to prove it.  They know that our mental guessing is always more frightening than showing every little thing.


Before Disney doles out its expensive re-imagining tentpole next year, the French get their big budget shot to tackle their own native fairy tale.  Directed by Christophe Gans ("Brotherhood of the Wolf") and starring two of the national favorites, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel, this interpretation jumps off of the screen with striking production values and epic beauty.  In an odd compliment, it looks as beautiful as a Tim Burton film if he took Adderall instead of PCP.  The film may be missing the next gear of romantic passion and swoon, but your eyes will never be bored.  (U.S. release scheduled for September 2016)


For newbies, consider this film to be "Moonrise Kingdom" with a New Zealand spin.  "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" finished the Chicago Critics Film Festival as the winner of the Audience Award.  A chubby and rebellious foster kid (newcomer Julian Dennison) decides to run away from his newest home assignment to live and roam the woods.  His foster father (Sam Neill) follows him to keep him out of trouble and the two end up becoming the subject of nationwide manhunt garnering headlines and fans across the country.  One part coming-of-age story, one part survival adventure, and a dash of father figure bonding make this a pleasant and highly recommended little vacation.  (In theaters June 24)


 The incomparable filmmaker Werner Herzog brings his heady musings to the origins and explosive growth of the internet and all it touches.  Composed of ten chapters, "Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World" sharply presents both positive and negative ramifications of planet now nearly completely dependent on internet programming and paperless communication and information maintenance.  Inspiring one moment and sobering the next, the documentary is a stern and intelligent piece of work that will fascinate many audiences.  (In theaters August 19)


Director Ira Sachs ("Love is Strange") offers a trying and emotional family drama viewed through lenses of two teenage boys (first-timers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri) who are building a new friendship that is destined not to last.  Greg Kinnear and masterful "Gloria" star Pauline Garcia are neighbors contesting a business and lease issue that could sever their previous ties and complicate their lives.  The observational urban beauty of "Little Men" is very impressive, even if the drama never brims to a point that packs a punch.  (In theaters August 5)


Actor Joey Klein makes his feature screenwriting and directorial debut in this heavily personal and complicated romantic drama.  Real-life couple Tom Cullen and popular "Orphan Black" star Tatiana Maslany play Nicky and Emily, a combustible couple with flaws that debilitate their success and happiness.  Nicky is a grieving lost soul with a hot temper that gets him in trouble.  Emily is a starving artist with disapproving parents who suffers from the unstable peaks and valleys of bipolar disorder.  Together they are a mess, but they are a dedicated mess to each other.  The romance is as prickly and tedious as the people, but the two lead performers give their everything to put forth their darkly dramatic and complicated characters.