CAPSULE REVIEWS: The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival
The 53rd Chicago International FIlm Festival brings over 1,000 films of all genres and sizes to our fair city. There are premieres aplenty, between those making their world, North American, or Chicago debuts. Opening with a red carpet premiere of Marshall, peaking with the centerpiece of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and closing with the Oscar contender The Shape of Water from Guillermo del Toro, the 53rd CIFF fills the AMC River East 21 for two weeks. For the fourth year in a row, Every Movie Has a Lesson has been granted press credentials to cover the CIFF and here are my capsule reviews. Follow the work of my fellow Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle colleagues and their coverage by searching the social media hashtag of #CIFCCattheCIFF.
OPENING NIGHT GALA
Marshall might be dripping with dramatization in its crime procedural trajectory and Grisham Lite tone as a plaintive court drama, but the film plays like a welcome crowd pleaser. More than a few bits of humor really hit home and several small victorious moments over bigotry along the way elicit popcorn cheers. Best of all, by choosing a sliver of forgotten history and delivering a satisfying experience with it, Marshall smartly whets the audience’s educational appetite for more. It is almost a guaranteed certainty that those engrossed by Marshall will head home afterward and open a few Google searches and Wikipedia pages to learn more about the work of Thurgood Marshall (heck, give this film a sequel or a series). That’s an enormous victory of engaging movie entertainment. Instead of checking off boxes of prior knowledge and easily meeting predetermined expectations from widely known events, Marshall challenged itself and succeeded in showcasing greater with less.
As a bonus to Marshall and its Opening Night stature, I have to share the awesome red carpet coverage from fellow CIFCC director, frequent "Guest Critic," and friend-of-the-page Emmanuel Noisette of E-Man's Movie Reviews. The man was living the dream to be able to chat up stars Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown, Jussie Smollett, Marina Squerciati and director Reginald Hudlin. Enjoy!
GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN
Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin is a cinematic quilt collecting experiences from many different narrative themes. A few patches carry the pattern of biographical films, chronicling life’s highlights and lowlights within a well-to-do family and their hired caretaker. Others carry the created images of a writer’s world-building legend. The threads binding those quilt pieces are a woven blend of the barbed wire of post-traumatic stress disorder and the smoothly silken cords of childhood whimsy. The experience of snuggling up with the Goodbye Christopher Robin blanket of testimony and memories is as affectingly dramatic as it is comfortably warm. (full review)
U.S. INDIES/CITY AND STATE PROGRAMS
Directed and co-written by Daryl Wein (Lola Versus), this film has the personal stamp of passion from its star and co-writer Jerod Haynes (Southside with You). Addressing a dramatic story that could easily be nonfiction, Blueprint features an urban youth daycare worker whose life hits a crossroad of shambles and decisions upon the shooting death of his best friend and a local hero. Brave to no end and bracing with honesty, Wein's film brings a powerful empathy to approach the community grieving, actions, and reactions towards gang violence in Chicago. Call this local film product a must-see in these days and times.
CHASING THE BLUES
Premiering for the world at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival, Scott Smith’s rib-tickler Chasing the Blues centers its target of obsession on an ultra-rare and presumably cursed blues record. But again, it’s not about the music. It’s about the bonkers actions surrounding the prize. Chasing the Blues is a dark comedy through and through. Director Scott Smith and his co-writer Kevin Guifoile crafted an engaging yarn of hijinks and hilarity. Their narrative might feel like something out of a Coen brothers rough draft, but this film sides with a far less gonzo approach that suits its shrewder stature. Like the musical genre at its core, patient storytelling is at the forefront. Could it use a stiffer punch or two? Maybe, but then it wouldn’t be the blue and not everything has to be shock cinema. Waiting for the payoff in this tidy 77-minute film is an easy and worthwhile short hike to climb.
WORLD CINEMA/CINEMA OF THE AMERICAS PROGRAMS
The discolored and dingy tile grout at the bottom of a swimming pool and the imagery effect of rippling water seen under the surface bending the images above perspective starkly symbolize the many warped dimensions of Liquid Truth. The truth in the title is as slippery as the water in director Caroline Jabor’s simmering social commentary starring Daniel de Oliviera. The film may be foreign from Brazil, but it typifies all too many social media ills that would explode in a parallel fashion here in this country. Liquid Truth made its North American premiere as a World Cinema and Cinema of the Americas program selection at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival to high regard.
It’s a simple story arc essentially, but the thorny edges of malice and misinformation are anything but simple when it comes to moral consequences. Frighteningly topical and entirely conceivable no matter the workplace, Liquid Truth drips with a slow boil from just short of the temperature of seething anger. You can’t take your eyes off the screen fishing for clues and comeuppance. (full review)
This single-night episode of personal epiphany happens in the nastiness of the men's room. Played by Tunde Adebimpe (Spider-Man: Homecoming), the hard-working Olly Jeffries is an aspiring actor doing what he can to make ends meet, including the thankless job as a bathroom attendant at pulsating L.A. club. He was just served divorce papers by with wife Tracey (China Shavers of Beginners), but wants to take another hot shot at earning "maybe" terms. The strength of Night Shift is its engaging story arc. Night Shift won the festival's Gold Hugo Award in the Narrative Short Film Competition. The jury cited Night Shift for "developing a rich character whose Dantesque journey of colorful self-reflection inspires us to break free and gamble on ourselves."