CAPSULE REVIEWS: The 54th Chicago International Film Festival
A slightly shortened Chicago International Film Festival graces the city for the next two weeks, bringing 123 feature films to its AMC River East hub downtown. Now in its 54th year, the festival may be three days and 23 films smaller than last year, but the curation and programming lead by artistic director Mimi Plauché always has striking and diverse films of interest and importance. Women in Cinema, Italy, and Comedy emerge as spotlight programs alongside the traditional Black Perspectives, Out-Look, City & State, World Cinema, Documentary, and New Directors fields.
For the fifth year in a row and the fourth with press credentials, I am proud to represent Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com to cover the ambitious slate. No single critic can see it all, but I’ll take my swings to find some buried treasure and films to explore when they come to your city or streaming platforms at home down the road. Here below are my collected capsule reviews from the 54th Chicago International Film Festival, ranked in order of highest to lowest recommendation. Come back here often for updates.
In the farthest possible departure from Gravity, Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron has made his most personal and poignant film to date, one that just might win the Mexican filmmaker another golden statuette or two this coming February. Roma, shot and co-edited by Cuaron himself in pristine black-and-white, follows a year in an ethnic woman’s life from 1970 to 1971. Cleo (the unknown Yalitza Aparicio) is a live-in nanny for a doctor and his family of four children in the titular Mexico City neighborhood. When Cleo becomes pregnant and the matriarch (Marina de Tavira) is abandoned by her wayward husband, the two women become closer in their parallel partner-less plights, all happening through the violent and crowded social upheaval brewing in the surrounding city. Cuaron’s film is a perfect piece of filmmaking craft. Scoreless and simple, Roma was constructed with an eye to have a close subject set against an ever-moving background of activity in long takes and tracking shots, a trait Cuaron has only improved upon since Children of Men. It is astounding to find the best cinematography so far this year comes from a foreign language film without a speck of color. The harrowing-at-one-moment and pastoral-the-next artistry may be compelling all on its own, but it’s the weighty emotional heft of this film, a composite tribute to Cuaron’s own caretaker from his childhood, that shatters with resounding empathy to celebrate the resilience of special women.
The festival’s opening night gala presentation starts things off with towering heart. Felix Van Groeningen’s drama might be the best film about drug addiction that you’ll ever see. Skewing towards the more expansive arc of the father (Steve Carell) more than the repetitive failures of the son (Timothée Chalamet), Van Groeningen and his co-screenwriter, Lion Oscar nominee Luke Davies, have fashioned a touchingly stout drama that is braver than most films on the subject. Beautiful Boy is bracingly honest with its turns and barriers built by emotional wallup. The remarkable performances of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet deserve the credit for that impact. Continuing to improve since Foxcatcher, Carell maximizes his sorrowful eyes and morose posture to exude frustration and grief. Chalamet unravels and implodes with neurotic brilliance to prove he is not a one-and-a-half trick pony after Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. The many scenes they share together, like that diner clip the marketing keeps showing, absorb every minute with seared sentiment. You’ll be seeing that clip and more like them again on a certain awards show happening the night of February 24th next year. Every sparked argument, exasperated sigh, eye-to-eye conversation, bold-faced lie, shared hug, and shed tear is a heart-crusher in Beautiful Boy. (full review)
A PRIVATE WAR
Lauded documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land) makes his narrative feature debut with a blistering biopic on the revered London war correspondent Marie Colvin. Gone Girl Academy Award nominee Rosamund Pike modulates her voice register, dons the signature eye patch, and dodges the squibs to chronicle a woman that saw more first-hand war and death in her life than the most professional, experience, or decorated soldiers. Colvin carried the PTSD to prove as she strafed through war zones with little more than a notepad and a pen alongside her trusty cameraman Paul Conroy (Fifty Shades of Grey lead Jamie Dornan). Looking inside the subject, we learn the fears that resided inside the fearless. This is a phenomenal and ferocious lead performance from Pike, who deserves the second Oscar nomination of her career for this combination tenacity and honesty. From his documentarian’s eye, Heineman constructs a detailed and compelling examination of modern war, from Sri Lanka to Syria. The moving nucleus becomes how public perspectives were guided by the people who put themselves in danger so the rest of us wouldn’t have to in order to learn true human stories.
One of my favorite programs of the annual Chicago International Film Festival is the City & State program highlighting worthy local and regional film efforts that get their chance to stand marque-to-marque on the same red carpet as the big studio-backed headliners and the esteemed foreign contenders. May Chicago always be a burgeoning home for cinematic artists and opportunity. One debuting filmmaker emerging from the short film world seizing that opportunity with his DePaul MFA thesis feature is Gregory Dixon and his film Olympia. The film is a spotlight for its writer MacKenzie Chinn playing the title character, a struggling artist making ends meet and juggling romance here in the Second City. She finds herself challenged to commit to her dedicated-yet-casual beau Felix (Charles Andrew Gardner) before he leaves for a new job in California. The open and mature honesty and the beautifully expressive creative wellsprings within these diverse characters call to mind another indie great born from Chicago, namely Theodore Witcher’s 1997 romance love jones. Olympia may not have that film’s level of sizzle and breadth to cover years, but the engaging frankness and flourish is all there. This is deserving hidden gem from this city and this festival.
ART PAUL OF PLAYBOY: THE MAN BEHIND THE BUNNY
The Chicago-born icon that is Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine has been, far and away, one of the leading trailblazers for social and cultural revolution for over a half of a century. Behind the risque centerfolds, one of the progressive movements the publication championed was artistic visual design. Art Paul, the award-winning founding art director of Playboy served the magazine’s first 29 years to spearhead an aesthetic emphasis on intelligence that coursed through the magazines pages and articles, yes, those pieces of editorial and journalism between the naked ladies. Between designing the iconic bunny logo and his Bauhaus techniques of white space, type sets, participatory graphics, and clever visual trickery, Art Paul gave class and life to each issue to a degree equal or greater than Hefner himself. Directed by Jennifer Hou Kwong and sharply edited by Brent Hannigan, Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny examines the flourishing hands and eye for talent that film participants call “significant,” “versatile,” “prolific,” and an “architect” with few equals. Paul called Chicago his home to live out his days as local journalist Rick Kogan narrates this gem of a documentary. You don’t know Playboy until you’ve learned about Art Paul.
THE ETRUSCAN SMILE
Veteran Scottish actor Brian Cox has reached the age and stage of his career where audiences and critics alike can begin to affectionately call him a “treasure.” That is if they haven't already been doing that since his Hollywood breakthrough in the 1990s. No matter if it's a costume drama like Braveheart or a spy modern thriller like the Jason Bourne series, Cox is a consummate performer who always injects dynamic presence to elevate material. In different hands, The Etruscan Smile would be an uneven dramedy with a simplistic and predictable story arc for what it is, the story of a terminally-ill patriarch trying to connect with his family and die on his own terms. The movie may still very well be most of that with JJ Feild from Centurion and Captain America: The First Avenger and Ghost World’s Thora Birch co-starting as elderly man’s son and daughter-in-law living the posh American life in San Francisco. But, the wild card is Brian Cox. His casual uncouthness and pickled sense of swagger elevate every scenario as he rolls his eyes at American riches, sweet-talks Rosanna Arquette’s museum curator, and offers a interview documentation of his Gaelic dialect and native oral history for Peter Coyote’s professor. Because of Cox, this minor tearjerker looks the part, thanks to world class cinematographer Javier Aquirresarobe (The Road, Thor: Ragnarok), and charms more than it has any business doing. On this festival’s schedule, The Etruscan Smile counts as a pleasant diversion from the purely heavy stuff elsewhere.
THE GOOD GIRLS, THE ETRUSCAN SMILE, TRANSIT, VOLCANO, AT WAR, FATHER THE FLAME, ART PAUL OF PLAYBOY, SIBEL, DIANE, and more