CAPSULE REVIEWS: Feature films of the 6th Chicago Critics Film Festival
For the third consecutive year, "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and Medium.com are credentialed to attend and cover the Chicago Critics Film Festival from May 4-10. Now in its sixth year, the fine folks of the Chicago Film Critics Association have curated a stellar program of provocative documentaries, intriguing short films, and top-notch independent films, many of which are festival darlings making their Chicago debut. All of the exciting festivities are hosted by the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview and stands as one of the best film weeks on the city calendar.
Headlining this year’s CCFF are three key films. On opening night May 4th, star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Concussion) and producer Jordan Horowitz (La La Land) will be in attendance for their film Fast Color, a rub on a grounded superhero origin story of sorts. In the mid-festival centerpiece slot stands Paul Schrader’s First Reformed from A24 Films starring Ethan Hawke as a rattled man of the cloth. Schrader himself will be on-hand after for an insightful Q&A. Closing the festival will be comedian Bo Burnham presenting and moderating his directorial debut Eighth Grade, a witty coming of age episode.
The full festival slate, a downloadable program, and advance tickets are available for any and all of the CCFF films online via the Music Box. Found below are my capsule reviews of the feature films and documentaries from this year’s festivals, ordered by superior recommendation and rank. This page will be updated as they are completed, so be sure to bookmark this and come back each day as new offerings are presented. Build your 2018 hidden gem list and see you at the Music Box!
The constant connectivity and digital documentation stemming from our many means of instant communication in our device-driven society become the landscape of doorways and clues within the dynamic new thriller Searching. Star Trek and Harold and Kumar series star John Cho plays a concerned father thrust into a nightmarish search for his missing teen daughter (the debuting Michelle La). The privacy of her laptop and the ensuing police investigation (led by Debra Messing’s investigator) open up a megabyte minefield of unforeseen mysteries. 100% of this daring film is presented through the layers of screens across computer desktops, video streams, and a mouse pointer that moves like a scalpel on the screens. The effect is addictively scintillating to create harrowing emotional triggers. Call it a gimmick all you want, but be prepared to be dazzled and proven wrong by the revolutionary narrative construction and visual storytelling conduits of this multiple award-winner from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The first-time feature filmmaking team of Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian have struck on ingenious gold. Searching has vaulted to this writer’s present top spot of the best films of the year.
Trotting through the middle school mindfield of emotions and impulses, comedian Bo Burnham’s debut film Eighth Grade seeks to tell the ponderous plight of this current connected generation and nails it with astonishing honesty and freshness. His central character Kayla, played by Elsie Fisher (growing up from the scene-stealing Agnes voice in the Despicable Me series), is an unassuming girl raised by a single father (TV actor Josh Hamilton of 13 Reasons Why and Madam Secretary). Her slouching public shyness masks an active and eager vlogger trying to weather her final week of school with an anxious and reflective hope to fit in and be ready for high school. Powered by electronic music from Anna Meredith, the film’s brilliant flow of episodic scenarios to thrust Kayla into social situations span from angsty awkwardness all the way to cringe-worthy cautionary territory. All work impressively well to tangibly generate empathy and care for this journey. Led by Fisher’s incredibly revelatory performance, the belly laughs, gasps, and tears are all here in one of the best films of this ongoing year.
Celebrated writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) has long been a veteran storyteller on the theme of self-destruction. With A24’s First Reformed, he has crafted another startling and fascinating cinematic gem on that favored topic. Wielding a pensively intense narration while keeping a year-long journal, Ethan Hawke stars as Rev. Toller, a former military chaplain who know presides over the historic titular church in Snowbridge, New York. Declining in health and even worse in depression after familial loss, Toller begins to counsel a married couple (Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger of Compliance) expecting their first child while wrestling with the theological and emotional demons of their previous environmental activism indoctrination. Shooting with his highest degree of static and observational transcendental stylings, Schrader exudes every possible calmness to contain the simmering disquiet in its characters. The escalating tension is phenomenal, guiding heavy lessons and stances, led by quite possibly the best performance to date from Ethan Hawke, gracefully playing every bit his middle-age. Discerning audiences will find much to dissect and discuss as they process First Reformed.
“Help me.” How simple that statement is. How broad and unknown the need is that is connected to that word “help.” Diving into the stresses and rigors of an emergency services dispatcher in Copenhagen, the dexterous foreign film The Guilty puts that dangling notion of help so close, yet so far away. Armed with a headset microphone and a multiple-screen display instead of a gun and a badge, Asger (Jakob Cedergren of Compulsion) is an active officer serving a brief demotion of sorts manning the phone center. When several connected emergency calls frame a potential kidnapping involving a mother and her children, Asger’s cop instincts serve him well to help with the auditory dangers on the other end of the line. They also over-commit him to defending the victims and overpromising safety. Played in nearly real-time, The Guilty jolts the audience with the fits and spurts of received and dropped calls that create an engrossing and choking mood of unknown suspense and mounting dread. This is as smooth and taut of a 85-minute feature as you’ll see, no matter the language.
ON CHESIL BEACH
Recent Lady Bird and Brooklyn Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan is a Midas Touch hot streak of pitch-perfect performances. On Chesil Beach, the debut feature from TV director Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown) that premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, adds further acting evidence to confirm Ronan’s emerging greatness. She stars alongside Billy Howle (Dunkirk) as a pair of 1962 middle-class newlyweds who have led an affectionate courtship shown in whimsical flashback episodes. All of their doting feelings and amorous anticipation have led to honeymoon wedding night on the Dorset seashore fraught with sexual awkwardness, frustration, and uncertainty. Original novella writer Ian McEwan was able to write his own screenplay and select his own places to deviate and condense. What begins as a sunnily-shot and charming romance with will-they-or-won’t-they smiles and comedy beautifully and unexpectedly turns woulda-coulda-shoulda heavy in a very impactful way. Throughout, Ronan and Howle impress with dedicated and touching performances. Engaged arthouse audiences should look for this film later this month.
WE THE ANIMALS
Director Jeremiah Zagar and his co-writer Daniel Kitrosser make their feature film debuts with We the Animals after cutting their teeth on serious shorts and documentaries. In the hyper-realistic vein of The Florida Project and Boyhood, We the Animals follows the struggles of a volatile family skimming a level of poverty trying to make ends meet. Three impressionable young boys comprise our POV as they meander and weather the ups and downs of their exhausted mother and angry father. The youngest boy Jonah cannot compartmentalize the heavy emotions he feels and witnesses so he resorts to creating a healing fantasy through art. With simplistic power, animated interludes of stylized colored pencil on notebook paper take us into Jonah’s troubled psyche. The effect is remarkable as opportune and cathartic pause points. Years stretch across 90 minutes as we watch good kids unravel through hardship. We the Animals is a sobering and stern experience that cannot help but intrigue and engage heartstrings begging to share resiliency with these characters.
With humor as dry as the topography, Damsel is the kind of film that sneaks up on you like a snake in the weeds. The Zellner Brothers (David and Nathan) behind Kumiko The Treasure Hunter start with a clean and dignified suitor (Robert Pattinson) among a town of ruffians. Shrugging off the pussy labels, the man has come west heartset to rescue and claim his fiance (Mia Wasikowska) as his bride and enlists a lowly local parson (David Zellner) as his posse-mate and future officiant. Hijinks lead to fallouts and a crossroad of tagalongs and competing affections. Boosted by a knockout atmospheric score from indietronica artists The Octopus Project and searing cinematography from Adam Stone, Damsel looks and feels the part as a proper western. What starts as an attuned slapstick comedy peaks early upon a excellent swerve. The third act peters out and trudges this film to a tedious and somewhat lackluster finish. The choice first two-thirds are worth the entertainment as Pattinson is an absolute hoot across from David’s straight man witness.