CAPSULE REVIEWS: Feature films of the 7th Chicago Critics Film Festival
For the seventh consecutive year, many of the best domestic and international films on the festival circuit come to Chicago thanks to the Chicago Film Critics Association. The 7th Chicago Critics Film Festival began May 17th at the famed and restored Music Box Theatre. Steaming towards a decade in successful existence, the CCFF remains the only film festival curated by film critics in the nation. This year, 25 feature films and two short film programs comprise their rich and ambitious offering slate.
For the third year in a row, Every Movie Has a Lesson will be credentialed to cover this fine spread of movie offerings. Ranked in order of recommendation, here are my capsule reviews for the feature films. Full pieces coming later when the respective films have their proper release:
Drawing from a deeply personal story, director Lulu Wang’s second feature film shines comedy and drama on a culturally unique situation of gallows humor. Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians breakout Awkwafina stars as Billi, a Chinese-American struggling writer who learns the news that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) back home in Changchun has stage 4 lung cancer and presumably little time left to live. The kicker comes in a heavy layer of dramatic irony created by cultural norms. It is tradition that those terminally ill are not told their diagnosis of inevitable truths, a decision weighing on everyone that Billi disagrees with. As an excuse to bring everyone home to see Nai Nai, the family throws a shotgun wedding. Torn between celebrating on the inside and grieving on the inside, everyone tries to make the best in emotional and often hilarious results and releases. Even with this divergent practice happening, the universal human condition feels are extremely strong in one of the most entertaining and freeing film experiences of recent memory. Indie champion A24 has another winner, Wang is a renewed artistic talent, and Awkwafina’s star grows even greater. This Sundance darling is primed to be a summer favorite of counterprogramming come this July.
Academy Award winner and Trainspotting captain Danny Boyle teams with all-star British romantic comedy writer Richard Curtis for one of the most unique cinematic love letters to pop culture you may ever see. Dream-chasing singer-songwriter Jack Malik (EastEnders cast member Himesh Patel) catches a break when his body gets broken in a bike vs. bus accident at the precise moment the entire planet experiences an electrical blackout. When he comes to and heals up, Jack awakens to world, including the stalwart woman of his life (Lily James), that has never heard of The Beatles and the their music. Possessing a gold mine of borrowed inspiration, Jack begins to record and perform their catalog as if they were his own creative output, drawing the wild attention and popularity of the music industry and captive audiences. Yes, the premise is preposterous, the happenstance and romance are cloying, but, by golly, is Yesterday energetic, intriguing, and endlessly charming. Beyond the plot holes, the brilliance of The Beatles is at its center. It makes you wonder if the Fab Four’s half-century-plus old lyrics and rhythms would capture audiences with the same love and universal appeal as they did in their actual time? Likewise, what makes their music so great, the song or the performer? Yesterday is a wonderful fantasy playing out these possibilities through trancing, crowd-pleasing song and serenade.
In a deft and ambitious sample of guerilla filmmaking, the husband-and-wife team of director Jeremy Teicher and athlete/actress/writer Alexi Pappas used the Artist-in-Residence program led by the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage to compose a plucky and Linklater-esque romance in, around, and during the active 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Notable star (and contributing co-writer) Nick Kroll plays a volunteer dentist named Ezra from the states who has jumped at the opportunity to serve and be a part of the Olympic experience. Ezra enters wide-eyed and fanstruck only for the buzz to wear off and remind him how alone he really is at this point in his life after a dissolved marital engagement back home. With a kind and curious heart, Ezra chats up another homesick and forlorn soul in Penelope (Pappas), an American cross-country skier who has already lost her event and finds herself overwhelmed by the immediate end and disappointment of all that personal work and build-up. Over the course of a few days, weaving all throughout the host city and facilities, the two embark on shared quality time and brewing romantic possibilities. With advantageous, authentic, and awesome production value, Olympic Dreams carries a very unique and unexplored setting which includes the smooth and charismatic involvement of dozens of non-actors and real athletes filling its settings and scenes. Olympic Dreams feels like a swift-yet-patient Meet Cute romance hidden inside a voyeuristic documentary and travelogue that moves and breathes with caring and considerate tones from start to finish. This is a hidden gem.