The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival is happening now (through October 26), and the Third Coast Review film team got a chance to screen many of the film selections in advance. Here’s our mid-festival takes on what’s screening and what you should – and maybe shouldn’t – see. For all our festival coverage, follow this link.
The remainder of the first full week of the festival features this year’s Centerpiece screening, the latest works from established directors, and several debuts from first-time filmmakers. Each brief review below (in alphabetical order) is credited to the Third Coast writer—Steve Prokopy (SP), Lisa Trifone (LT) or Andrew Xu (AX)—who checked out the film.
In Bitter Flowers, an idealistic Chinese woman (Xi Qi) moves to Paris in the hopes of striking it rich. But when she realizes that there aren’t any jobs to spare, she’s forced to deploy the one skill she has left – her body. Olivier Meys’ directorial debut plays with the storylines of several French classics (Les Misérables, Madame Bovary) to offer a fresh, oft-neglected perspective on the multiculturalism-assimilation debate; as this writer can personally attest, Meys also accurately captures the exoticist mentality with which many Europeans still approach the Asian community. What eventually proves most valuable here, however, is Meys’ outsider critique of three aspects of modern Chinese culture: its all-consuming obsession with material advancement, its reliance on guanxi, and its persistent sexism. Artful lighting and Xi’s bravura performance round out this ironically dark perspective on the so-called “City of Light.” (AX)
Bitter Flowers screens Thursday, 10/19 at 8pm; Friday, 10/20 at 6pm and Tuesday, 10/24 at 2pm. Director Oliver Meys is expected to attend the first two screenings.
Many will claim that the directorial debut from actor and motion-capture guru Andy Serkis is a textbook example of Oscar bait. I think there’s something more substantial at play with Breathe, the true-life story of Robin and Diana Cavendish (Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy), who fell deeply in love in the late 1950s. Shortly after getting married, Robin was stuck with polio (at age 28) and given only a few months to live. After deciding that he didn’t want to die in a hospital wing designed exclusively for the purpose of dying with other polio patients around you, Robin’s closest friends come up with the means for his ever-present respirator to be stored within the mechanics of a wheelchair, giving him mobility and a new will to live.
The screenplay from Oscar-nominated writer William Nicholson (Gladiator, Shadowlands) doesn’t shy away from the deep depression and suicidal thoughts Robin went through before pushing forward and wanting to be around as his young son grew up. There are some really nice acting turns from the likes of Tom Hollander (who plays Diana’s devoted twin brothers), Ed Speleers (as Robin’s best friend Colin), Hugh Bonneville (playing a friend who actually invents and later modifies the chair), and even Diana Rigg shows up for a marvelous cameo.
Breathe has a glossy, sun-drenched look, but its emotional core isn’t afraid to get appropriately dark. In the last year or so, Garfield has impressed me by leaps and bounds with his film work in Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, as well as his career-best acting in the National Theatre’s production of Angels In America. His performance in Breathe is right up there, even if the material doesn’t always rise to his level. Even still, there’s no way you walk out of this film not feeling deeply moved and spiritually richer for the experience. (SP)
Breathe screens Tuesday, 10/17 at 8:30pm. The film also opens in Chicago this Friday.
Paul Grappe was one of the thousands of French soldiers who deserted during World War I. But while most of those men were eventually arrested, Grappe successfully evaded the authorities…by crossdressing as a woman. Now, his life story is the subject of André Téchiné’s Golden Years, a rich, energetic biopic that also furnishes an indirect portrait of the 1920s underground gay subculture. Here, Téchiné doesn’t just offer a perspective on LGBT history – believe it or not, it wasn’t all about lobotomies – that many mainstream movies overlook. (Cough cough, Danish Girl.) In the contrasting storylines of Paul (Pierre Deladonchamps) and his wife Louisa (Céline Sallette), Téchiné also presents an intriguing, Beauvoirian case study in the different ways men and women historically exploited sexual liberation. And to top it all off, he eventually even manages to sneak in a thoughtful critique of the screen-spectator relationship. This, in short, is a film whose apparent blitheness belies its exceptional complexity. (AX)
Golden Years screens on Thursday, 10/19 at 8:45pm and Sunday, 10/22 at 8pm.
The second feature from Italian-born director/co-writer Andrea Pallaoro (Medeas) is the French-language Hannah, an often oppressively sad and overpoweringly bleak tale of an elderly woman (the great Charlotte Rampling, doing some of the best work between this film and 2015’s 45 Years) whose husband (André Wilms) is put in jail (for a crime that is never named, but even what is hinted at seems terrible), leaving her alone to live with the guilt and loss of a life that once was. We can actually watch Hannah move through her day, attempting to recapture what existed before—swimming at her gym, doing part-time work cleaning homes, taking part in acting classes, even visiting her grown son and his family, who want nothing to do with her.
Some aspects of her life don’t change at all, and that almost further underscores the things that have changed. She can’t look anyone in the eyes any longer, except to envy the freedom and lack of shame others display when she feels she cannot. She goes to visit her husband in jail, but they have little to talk about, especially when she discovers damning evidence of his guilt while cleaning out his desk at home. Hannah is a tough watch, but it’s a fascinating experience watching this person slip slowly from her life, sometimes because people shut her out, other times because she’s afraid to test the waters and see how they react to her presence. One of my favorite films this year at the festival, and also one of the most psychologically disturbing. (SP)
Bonus! Andrew reviewed this one, too:
On the surface, Andrea Pallaoro’s Hannah doesn’t seem to have much going for it. Its namesake elderly protagonist (Charlotte Rampling), after all, has next to no dialogue. And its plot – Hannah copes with singledom after her husband is imprisoned – is virtually nonexistent. Yet Pallaoro succeeds in harnessing these supposed constraints to create an affecting, surprisingly engaging portrait of one woman’s struggle to distinguish illusions from reality. His depiction of Hannah ultimately supplies a meaningful, concrete illustration of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous claim that “man is condemned to be free”—and unlike Michael Haneke’s Amour, it also manages to make the “trivial” exertions of old age feel relatable. If none of that sounds enticing, however, you should at least see this for Rampling’s sake: one look of bitter indifference from her says more than what most performers take entire films to express. (AX)
Hannah screens Tuesday, 10/17 at 6:15pm; Wednesday, 10/18 at 8:30pm; and Thursday, 10/19 at 2:30pm. Director Andrea Pallaoro is expected to attend all screenings.
What would you do if your impetuous teenage son just killed the child of a local crime boss? That’s the unsavory dilemma that Andrés (Giovanni García) has to face down in Gustavo Rondón Córdova’s La Familia, the first Venezuelan film to ever be screened in the International Critics’ Week section at Cannes. Córdova’s contribution to the Latin American “gritty realism” movement is admittedly not the best thing you’ll see at CIFF: it regurgitates tropes and images from coming-of-age classics like The 400 Blows, and it lacks the stylistic creativity of Jonas Carpagnino’s A Ciambra (another, better CIFF film about headstrong sons and frustrated parents). Still, thanks to the film’s carefully balanced mixture of fast and slow sequences, you’ll always be eager to find out what happens next. And Córdova’s illustration of the suffering that Chavism has brought on ordinary Venezuelans proves very difficult to shake off. (AX)
La Familia screens Wednesday, 10/18 at 6:15pm; Thursday, 10/19 at 6:15pm and Tuesday, 10/24 at 12:45pm. Director Gustavo Rondón Córdova is scheduled to attend the first two screenings.
The writing-directing debut from actress Greta Gerwig tells the story of Catholic high school senior Christine McPherson (who wants to be called Lady Bird and is played by Saoirse Ronan), desperate to escape convention, her parents, and most of all Northern California, hoping for a better life in or around New York City. Christine is in flux with everything from her school work to her virginity to her friendships, deciding to play fast and loose with her long-time friends when she falls under the spell of both one of the school’s prettiest girls (Odeya Rush) and a handsome rebel Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, from Interstellar and the upcoming Call Me By Your Name, which is playing at CIFF next week).
But her greatest battles are fought at home, with mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and easygoing dad Larry (Tracy Letts), both of whom clash with their difficult daughter in different ways, even when they’re trying to be helpful and look out for her future. Gerwig isn’t interested in us siding with her heroine, but it seems important that we understand the impetus for her angst and troubled mind. The film is deliberately set in 2002-2003, and there are subtle reminders that the free-floating anxiety kicked off by 9/11 very much factor into the entire story. The performances are across-the-board fantastic, and Gerwig’s writing and directing are confident and remarkably considered. But Ronan’s desire to both fit in and stand apart from the crowd is astonishing and awards-worthy. Certainly a highlight of the entire festival, especially with the high percentage of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members on display (Lois Smith is also on hand as the Mother Superior). (SP)
Lady Bird screens Wednesday, 10/18 at 8pm. Actor Tracy Letts is expected to attend.
Last Flag Flying
One of the more disappointing, high-profile works at the Chicago Film Festival this year is the latest from Richard Linklater (Boyhood), who still manages to pull fantastic performances from most of his leads in the process. Last Flag Flying is being touted as the “spiritual sequel” to 1973’s The Last Detail, both of which are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan (who also co-wrote this screenplay with Linklater). Again focusing on men in the military—or in this case, veterans many years removed from having served together in Vietnam—Last Flag Flying has Doc (an impressively reserved Steve Carell) going to find his long-lost pals to accompany him through the process of burying his son, a Marine recently killed in Iraq (the film is set at the end of 2003).
One of the pals is Sal (Bryan Cranston), a bar owner and overall degenerate who has no issues abandoning his establishment to help his buddy. Together they collect Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now an esteemed reverend, who reluctantly agrees to go if only to provide spiritual comfort to Doc. But it doesn’t take long for the men to fall victim to their old triggers. Sal is a hothead, and the normally reliable Cranston almost sinks this ship trying to convince us he’s unstable (not unlike Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail). Fishburne and Carell are a bit more believable, especially once Doc begins to come unravelled when he arrives to collect his son’s body.
One of the film’s stand-up supporting performances goes to J. Quinton Johnson (also quite good in Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!) as Washington, a solider assigned to accompany Doc until the funeral who also happened to be the son’s best friend in the Marines. The movie is a bit all over the place in terms of what it’s about and the tone; it’s part social commentary on the military, satire, character study, and road movie. Some of it works better than other parts, and although my heart broke over and over for Doc, the end product is a bit of a mush. Last Flag Flying isn’t unwatchable, but mere hours after seeing it, I’d already stopping thinking about it, which is rare for me when it comes to Linklater’s work. (SP)
Last Flag Flying screens Monday, 10/16, at 8:15pm.
Movies as disparate as The Graduate and The Descendants have made the swimming pool a go-to metaphor for emotional unease. In Carolina Jabor’s Liquid Truth, however, a pool symbolizes the factual ambiguity behind something far different: a mother’s (Stella Rabello) allegation that a swimming coach (Daniel de Oliviera) molested her child. As the conflict between said coach and mother develops, Jabor proves an expert manipulator of expectations; she lulls you into siding with the mom, only to slap you awake with evidence of the coach’s innocence. Undergirding this suspense, moreover, is an equally fascinating examination of the teacher-student relationship – a potentially precious bond easily sabotaged by social media and the interference of anxious, guilt-ridden helicopter parents. For both you and the characters, whether the coach actually “did it” eventually proves irrelevant: instead, what really stings is the way the mere idea of his guilt irrevocably shatters an atmosphere of trust and innocence. (AX)
Liquid Truth screens Thursday, 10/19 at 6pm and Saturday, 10/21 at 4pm. Filmmaker Carolina Jabor and actor Daniel de Oliveira are scheduled to attend.
A Man of Integrity
A scorching examination of the lengths to which men will go to preserve their egos. A chilling demonstration that true justice inevitably entails harm to innocent bystanders. A moving story about an underdog who relentlessly pursues his notions of success – only to realize too late that he’s been chasing illusions. All of these descriptors could be applied to Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, a remarkably disquieting film about an Iranian (Reza Akhlagirad) who tries to keep his farm from the clutches of a mysterious organization called “The Company.” Even if you find the film’s many meanings opaque, Rasoulof’s Kafkaesque depiction of sprawling bureaucracies and impenetrable authorities (which recently landed him in hot water with the Iranian government) ought to resonate. And Akhlagirad delivers a spellbinding interpretation of a character you find yourself hating and admiring all at once (AX)
A Man of Integrity screens on Wednesday, 10/18 at 8:30pm.
Never Steady, Never Still
First-time writer-director Kathleen Hepburn brings us a curious and often painful story of a mother and son who are rarely in the same place, but seem to exist to make the other one’s life a little easier, even if it means they must suffer in their own life. Shirley Henderson plays Judy, who lives in British Columbia and has Parkinson’s disease, but gets along all right thanks to a network of family (including her husband) and friends who help her out when she needs it. But when her husband dies, she struggles to get through even the simplest chores around the house or to drive into town, especially when the brutal winter hits.
Her beloved son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) tries to help out but he has his own, very difficult life in the oil fields, where men are men, and questioning your sexuality (which he is) could get you hurt. When home to look out for his mother, Jamie meets a young pregnant girl named Kaly (Mary Galloway), who works at the local pharmacy. He seems strangely drawn to her, but he’s not sure if he’s simply trying this out or if he’s genuinely attracted to her. It’s clear that Never Steady, Never Still captures both mother and son at times in their lives when things are difficult and are likely going to get more so. They find some comfort in struggling through things together.
There’s an icy, grey quality to the work that matches the landscape and the general attitudes of many of the characters. It’s an
emotionally powerful debut from Hepburn, and Henderson gets so lost in her character that she almost sinks into herself when all is said and done. I’m not exactly sure what lessons we’re meant to take away from the film, but then not every movie has to lean on message. (SP)
Never Steady, Never Still screens Wednesday, 10/18 at 5:45pm; Thursday, 10/19 at 8:30pm; and Friday, 10/20 at Noon. Director Kathleen Hepburn and producer Tyler Hagan are expected to attend all screenings.
Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
Entertainer, activist and all-around lightning rod for controversy, Rat Pack staple Sammy Davis Jr. is a man whose life story could fill a movie twice as long as I’ve Gotta Be Me and still leave out some of the best moments. But this production from PBS’s “American Masters” series is still a fine piece of filmmaking, covering the child star turned consummate singer/dancer/actor who broke through more racial barriers—both in entertainment and society—than just about any other African-American performer in history.
As director Sam Pollard reveals, Davis also never failed to find new ways to stir things up, whether he wanted to or not. An early-career love affair with actress Kim Novak ended after death threats; marrying a white woman when there were still American states where such unions were illegal; being the first black actor to share an interracial kiss on a Broadway stage; even doing impersonations of white actors in his act was considered taboo. The film looks at Davis’s role in the Rat Pack, his conversion to Judaism, losing his eye in a car accident, his campaigning for Richard Nixon that resulted in his rejection by many of his black fans, and how his career ebbed and flowed as he got older.
The movie is a well-paced, nicely edited stroll through the history of a certain segment of show business that doesn’t get profiled nearly enough, and Davis was almost always at the center of it. There are some terrific stories shared by friends and admirers alike, including Novak, Paula Wayne, Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear and the late Jerry Lewis. It covers a lot of ground and is a must for fans of any chapter in Davis’s long career. (SP)
Sammy Davis Jr.: I Gotta Be Me screens Monday, 10/16, 8:15pm and Friday, 10/20 at 5:30pm. Director Sam Pollard is expected to attend both screenings.
Jimena Montemayor’s Wind Traces portrays a family that’s recently been afflicted by an unnamed tragedy. To cope, the mother (Dolores Fonzi) pours her soul into alcohol, the daughter (Paulina Gil) dresses up as a widow, and the son (Diego Aguilar) plays with his imaginary Navajo friend (Ruben Zamora). The film Montemayor weaves from this peculiar premise is hardly flawless: she has an annoying fixation with images of hands and feet, her eventual explanation for the family’s grief proves painfully banal, and the story’s solemn subject matter clashes with its languid pacing. Still, the cinematography does an amazing job putting us into the head of a child; its use of shadows, moreover, ably evokes the sorrow that hangs over the family’s day-to-day routine. And if nothing else, Gil and Aguilar both prove themselves to be exceptional child actors. (AX)
Wind Traces screens Thursday, 10/19 at 8:15pm and Saturday, 10/21 at 6pm. Director Jimena Montemayor is scheduled to attend.