In the first of several dispatches from the Chicago International Film Festival, we cover nearly twenty feature films (and one shorts program!) screening through Sunday, October 14. That means we’re highlighting no less than 40 hours of films over the course of three and a half days, and that’s barely scratching the surface.
Blurbs below are contributed by Third Coast Review film staff, as noted at the end of each brief review. From gala presentations to documentary premieres and debut work by new filmmakers, there’s a lot to love in the diverse selection below. What will you see this weekend?
The story of two politician’s daughters who fall in love is perhaps the kind of premise you’d expect from France or Iceland, somewhere generally perceived to be progressive. Rafiki, written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu, is actually a Kenyan film, its focus on a same-sex relationship all the more controversial as that country currently outlaws such relations. (The film had to receive special judicial approval to even screen theatrically in-country in order to qualify for Oscars consideration.) Samantha Mugatsia is Kena, daughter of a shopkeeper who’s running against a wealthy opponent; that opponent’s daughter, Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), is a free spirit who catches Kena’s eye from the start. The two strike up a friendship that soon turns into something more, and those moments where we see in their eyes the truth of their feelings for each other are some of the most tender you’ll find. Kahiu smartly allows plenty of time to fall in love with these new lovers before the reality of their situation bears down on them; brutal as it is, it’s impossible not to have a soft spot for the young love. We’ve all been there. Rafiki screens Thursday, 10/11 at 6pm; Saturday, 10/13 at 1:30pm; and Thursday, 10/18 at 12p. (Lisa Trifone)
In the Aisles
Franz Rogowski stars in two features at this year’s festival, one of which is In The Aisles, romantic comedy with a deep, sometimes sad heart. Rogowski is Christian, who’s just started a new job as a clerk at a sort of European Sam’s Club; donning his new vest, he begins training with Bruno (Peter Kurth), the weathered veteran of the stock rooms. Christian meets Marion (Sandra Hüller) in the break room one day, and the two develop a warm rapport over coffee and work stories. Director Thomas Stuber (who co-wrote the film with Clemens Meyer, on whose short story its based) allows a bit of the light-hearted to sneak into these early interactions, as Marion is charming and quick with a flirtatious laugh. But all is not easy-go-lucky for the pair, as Marion’s personal life and Christian’s past threaten to puncture their happy little work bubble. Here in the states, the slick, saturated sitcom “Superstore” is probably the best known production that takes place in a big box store. Stuber creates a decidedly more somber (but never depressing) world inside the warehouse of these characters; even in their most serious moments, there’s a sense of hope permeating the proceedings. In the Aisles screens Thursday, 10/11 at 8:30pm and Saturday 10/13 at 1pm. Actor Franz Rogowski is scheduled to attend. (LT)
The latest from writer/director Christian Petzold (2014’s Phoenix) is a modern adaptation of Anna Seghers’ World War II-era novel about Georg, a German refugee (Franz Rogowski) who escapes to France as it’s on the verge of occupation, using the identity of a famous writer who died running away to Mexico. Using the dead man’s papers, he gathers the necessary documentation to make the journey himself, when he becomes entangled in the lives of fellow refugees, including a mother and young son, as well as Marie (Paula Beer), the beautiful wife of the man he’s impersonating, who is holding out hope for her husband’s eventual return to take her away to Mexico as well. Transit is both a desperate melodrama about entangled lives and a surprisingly effective take on the refugee experience. Having the film take place in the present day, with unknown invaders at the doorstep, only adds to the chilling nature of the work. Transit screens Thursday, 10/11 at 6pm, and Friday, 10/12 at 8:30pm. Lead actor Franz Rogowski is expected to attend. (Steve Prokopy)
Shorts Program: City & State
This annual celebration of homegrown talent showcases an impressive mix of documentary, animation, and narrative shorts, ranging in tone from sentimental and political to trippy and absurd. City and State’s short program features Opening Night, a surprisingly insightful cartoon musical about the formative conflicts in our lives; Accident, MD, a salient doc about healthcare shot before the presidential election of 2016; Mike Mollo Prepares For a Fight, the moving portrait of a boxer and his routine before a big bout; Hashtag Perfect Life, the grim tale of a woman whose life is ruined by a viral video; Commodity/Fetish, a quirky, sardonic look at consumer culture; Whimper, a somber docu-drama about boyhood and fatalism in America; and I Am Not Broken, beautifully photographed and concerning a young man’s search for the source of his intimacy issues. The scope of style and technical panache exhibited here prove what Chicagoans already know to be true– the Windy City is a hotbed of unique and exciting cinematic voices. Shorts 1 screens Thursday, 10/11 at 6:15pm; Saturday, 10/13 at 12pm and Thursday, 10/18 at 3:30pm. (Matthew Nerber)
Daughter of Mine
Laura Bispuri’s Daughter of Mine tells the story of two Sardinian women, a factory worker named Tina (Valeria Golino) and a prostitute named Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher). After Angelica gets pregnant by Tina’s husband (Michele Carboni), Tina decides to raise the child and give Angelica monthly payments as compensation. But their arrangement crumbles after the child, a precocious girl named Vittoria (Sara Casu), realizes she’d rather have Angelica as a mom. On one level, Daughter of Mine is a thoughtful, nuanced “nature vs. nurture” story that’ll remind you of Three Identical Strangers and Like Father, Like Son. What distinguishes Bispuri’s work, however, is its authentic representation of rural Sardinian life (particularly when it comes to gender roles) and its poignant depiction of how economic stress can engender feelings of alienation. Golino and Rohrwacher’s equally convincing performances both ensure that you’ll leave this film utterly heartbroken. Daughter of Mine screens Friday, 10/12 at 5:30pm, and Saturday, 10/13 at 12:15pm. (Andrew Xu)
Filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler deliver a captivating profile of a vanishing cultural institution in United Skates, the story of African American ties to roller rinks across the country. With footage to rival that of Minding the Gap, the filmmakers take us onto rinks around the country as enthusiasts glide, swerve and spin their way around and around the gathering places that are becoming more scarce every day. Much more than a simple past-time, skating is a way of life for the generations chronicled here, from the access fought for alongside lunch counter sit-ins and protests of segregation to owning and operating rinks passed down through generations. The film pulls double duty, serving at once as an education on the history of roller rinks in the U.S. and their role within the black community, and as a timepiece chronicling the final days of some of the most beloved rinks in LA, Chicago and beyond. The business model for this particular indoor recreation may be struggling, but the passion of those so closely tied to it remains as strong as ever. United Skates screens Friday 10/12 at 6:15pm and Saturday 10/13 at 1:30pm. Filmmakers and several subjects are scheduled to attend. (LT)
Father the Flame
Director/Cinematographer Chad Terpstra’s contemplative love letter to the tobacco pipe, Father the Flame charts the art of pipe-making from its roots in Native American culture, to the so-called factory pipes of France and Italy, all the way through to modern, high-grade artisanal pieces (works of art in their own right, some of these pipes will cost the same as a down payment on a house). It’s a hypnotic work, striking the same reverence for its subject as Jiro Dreams of Sushi does for the famed Japanese cuisine. The documentary’s main subject, and its true heart, is Lee Erck, a world renowned pipe-maker from Michigan whose unassuming attitude and Midwestern cadence reveal something rare: a truly humble genius.
Terpstra captures the artist in his small home workshop, follows him to Japan and Italy; an interlude in Chicago (the home of the world’s largest pipe convention), is especially touching, showcasing Erck’s dedication to the craft and his love for the community of pipe-devotees. Terpstra manages to find mythic proportions in the fine details of these exquisite pieces; tracking across the pipe’s microscopic wood grain feels like flying across canyons, close-ups of burning of tobacco look practically volcanic, and when cut between celestial photography and paired with an operatic score, the film takes on the feeling of a séance. What emerges from it all is a magnificent and haunting meditation on legacy, inheritance, obsession and the meaning of a life’s work. Father The Flame screens Friday, 10/12 at 6:30pm, and Sunday, 10/14 at 11:30am. Filmmaker Chad Terpstra, subject Lee Von Erck and more are scheduled to attend. (MN)
The Mercy of the Jungle
Joël Karekezi’s second feature film is set in 1998, at the start of the Second Congo War, and concerns two Rwandan soldiers forced to brave the jungle alone after being separated from their battalion. Xavier (Marc Zinga) is a war-hardened sergeant who’s known nothing but war, and Faustin (Stéphane Bak), is an eager new recruit who’s desperate to get back to his pregnant wife. The two make an unlikely pair, and Karekezi’s musings on the personal consequences of large-scale violent conflict allow for an intimate look at brotherhood and survival. Cinematographer Joachimn Phillipe captures the jungle-setting in all its terrifying glory; frenetic hand-held sprints through the dense green hell are contrasted with striking wide-shots of mountainous terrain and endless, cloud-streaked vistas. It’s an immersive cinematic experience that benefits greatly from the two leads’ solid, lived-in performances.
When Xavier contracts malaria deep in enemy territory, Faustin must pose as a Congolese soldier in order to seek refuge in a rebel-controlled village and get the necessary treatment for his comrade. The chief of the village begs Faustin to tell the military of his loyalty, hoping it’s enough leverage to save some crops and keep the women from being raped. “Whatever happens, the population suffers,” he says. Karekezi, working from his own screenplay, manages several moments like this—where the unending cycle of revenge and violence is given simple, heartbreaking perspective. The Mercy of the Jungle screens Friday, 10/12 at 8:15pm, and Sunday, 10/14 at 12:45pm. Actor Stephane Bak is scheduled to attend. (MN)
A Private War
Although it’s not director Matthew Heineman’s (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) first time chronicling people in war-torn regions of the world, A Private War does mark his narrative feature debut, based on the life and career of war correspondent Marie Colvin (a personal best performance by Rosamund Pike). Adapted by Arash Amel from a Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner, the film walks through Colvin’s various frontline tours around the world, including a near-death experience in Sri Lanka during which a grenade explosion resulted in her losing an eye (she actually made her eye patch a big part of her fearless persona). In addition to her journalism work, the film illustrates her attempts at having a personal life (a uncharacteristically sweet romance with a businessman played by Stanley Tucci provides some of the movie’s only lighter moments) and her struggles with PTSD, which result in a great deal of drinking and unpredictable behavior.
With the support of her regular photographer, Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan), she continued her work even after losing an eye, and did some of the best of her career. Pike’s performance borders on transcendent, from capturing Colvin’s speaking voice to embodying her desperate need to give voice to the innocent victims of war, especially in places like Libya and Syria. The film often wonders if the cost to her life and sanity was worth it, but undoubtedly, Colvin would say it was if it shined a light on a conflict no one even knew was happening somewhere in the world. A Private War is gripping, chaotic and sometimes a tough watch as it seeks to re-create the environments Colvin experienced that damaged her mentally and physically. It’s sometimes an endurance test, but one I believe is worth it. A Private War screens Friday, 10/12 at 6pm. Director Matthew Heineman is scheduled to appear. (SP)
At the start of Malgorzata Szumowska’s Mug, Jacek (Mateusz Kościukiewicz) is a Polish guy who’s apparently got everything going for him. He has a loving girlfriend (Małgorzata Gorol), a stable construction job, and a car in which he can blast heavy metal to his heart’s content. One day, however, he has a serious accident at work. And after receiving a life-saving face transplant, he finds that nobody in his town wants anything to do with him anymore. At first glance, Mug might just look like a darker version of Wonder, a better-known film about a character with a facial deformity. Look beneath this familiar surface, however, and you’ll find a scathing, occasionally surrealist indictment of the influence that consumerism, organized religion, and conservative mores exert over provincial life. Szumowska’s allegorical messages occasionally feel too didactic for comfort. But even then, you’ll find it hard to forget her outlook on Poland, a country that still hasn’t fully shaken off the soullessness of its Communist era. Mug screens Saturday, 10/13 at 1pm; Monday, 10/15 at 6pm and Thursday, 10/18 at 1:15pm. (AX)
As I Lay Dying
Based on the William Faulkner story of the same name, here Mostafa Sayari makes a directorial debut that is both sharp in moments and muted in others. When his elderly father passes away, a man gathers his sister and brothers for the journey to the small village where their father has asked to be buried, even though none of them has any idea why he’d choose that particular place. Set mostly in the dry, unforgiving desert of Iran, the film’s sense of desolation is palpable, and each actor brings their version of grief—confusion, anger, acceptance—to the screen brilliantly. And yet, in moments Sayari’s camera is so removed from the proceedings, there’s a chance you’ll feel similarly distanced. Meditative as it is, it’s possible to get to the credits and wonder just what else there might be to a film so slight you might’ve missed it. As I Lay Dying screens Saturday 10/13 at 6:45pm; Sunday 10/14 at 3pm; and Tuesday 10/16 at 1pm. (LT)
Guido (Daniele Parisi) is having a rough go of it; his long-term girlfriend Chiara (Silvia D’Amico) is having second thoughts about their life together, his friends have hit a rough patch in their relationship, he can’t seem to finish his work as a writer, and his parents aren’t exactly supportive about any of it. With a slightly different approach, the poor sap could easily be written off as a man-baby who just needs to grow up already. But in writer/director Duccio Chiarini’s hands, he manages to stay just this side of charming as he fumbles his way through this unexpected, transitional period of his life. Whether it’s navigating the messy logistics of a break-up or keeping track of which secrets he’s supposed to keep from whom, there’s a whole lot of heart to Guido’s missteps, making the whole journey a joy. Plus, it’s all in Italian, so you’ll be swooning just about as much as you’re laughing. The Guest screens Saturday, 10/13 at 2:15pm; Sunday, 10/14 at 5:15pm; and Monday, 10/15 at 12pm. (LT)
Steve McQueen returns with his first feature film since Oscar-winner 12 Years A Slave and it’s safe to say he’s completely switched gears. Widows is a far cry from that intense, steeped-in-history period piece; co-written with Gillian Flynn (who wrote the book Gone Girl), Widows takes the standard heist film and infuses it with McQueen’s thoughtful nature and a whole lot of fierce women. Veronica (an absolutely breathtaking Viola Davis) is distraught when her husband, crime boss Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed with his crew in a job gone very bad. In order to pay back a debt he’s left behind, she rallies the other widows into pulling off a heist of their own. But this is no Ocean’s 8, where wit and sleight of hand is the main attraction; McQueen takes us into the grief experience by each woman while crafting a plot with twists and turns designed to throw us off an easily resolvable path. Though that plot comes with a few holes here and there, there’s no denying that Widows, which was shot in and is based in Chicago, is another masterful offering from one of today’s best working filmmakers. Widows screens Saturday, 10/13 at 7p; filmmaker Steve McQueen, star Viola Davis and several other cast members are scheduled to attend. (LT)
From the opening frames of this second feature from Iranian-born, Danish-dwelling filmmaker Ali Abbasi (Shelley), we know something isn’t quite normal. Set in Sweden, Border is part human drama, part fantastical lore about a customs officer who has the uncanny ability to sense when a potential smuggler crosses her path, somehow tied to her unusually broad nose’s sense of smell. All of her life, Tina (Eva Melander) has been made fun of and bullied because of her less-than-flattering looks. The true nature of the story occurs when, on the job, Tina meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), whose features bear a striking resemblance to hers, so much so that we begin to suspect that they might be related. The film dives headfirst into the world of Nordic mythology, while also being a social criticism of the humankind’s many flaws, all of which come to light after Tina allows Vore to rent out her guest house and the two start spending a great deal of time together.
It may come as no surprise that this blend of the supernatural and troubling reality is based on a short story by author John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose novel Let the Right One In is one of the greatest vampire stories ever told. Border deals with issues of identity, the self-destructive way in which humanity consumes the best of itself, and how being crushingly lonely can make one blind to a great threat right in front of them. In many ways, it’s the perfect genre film (especially for those looking for something especially unique around Halloween) in its refusal to conform to any familiar tropes, instead opting to dip its misshapen form into several cinematic molds only to shatter them as its lead character continues her search for purpose and belonging. Border screens Saturday, 10/13 at 8:30pm, and Sunday, 10/14 at 4:30pm. (SP)
From writer/director Stephan Elliott (The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) comes this raucous, foul-mouthed and exceedingly entertaining Australian comedy set in the 1970s and featuring three neighboring families who more or less do everything together. Featuring an array of talented actors from Down Under, including Guy Pearce, singer Kylie Minogue, Radha Mitchell and Julian McMahon, Flammable Children is about endlessly partying adults who refuse to grow up and their children who are often forced to be the mature influence on their drunken, volatile parents. With particular attention to period details, Elliott has crafted a portrait of a bygone era in the Australian suburbs where adult supervision was more of a recommendation than a hard rule, and if your kids didn’t end up in the hospital from time to time, you weren’t raising them right. The movie combines shocking behavior with a true sense of family unity and devotion to having a good time. Audiences will likely come out at the end of the film feeling like they’ve had the best summer vacation of their lives. Flammable Children screens Saturday, 10/13 at 6pm; Sunday, 10/14 at 2:15pm; and Tuesday, 10/16 at 2pm. (SP)
Ben is Back
Unlike the Opening Night selection, Beautiful Boy, writer/director Peter Hedges’s (Pieces of April, Dan in Real Life) latest is a work of fiction about 19-year-old Ben Burns (Lucas Hedges, who can also be seen in the CIFF offering Boy Erased), who shows up unexpectedly from rehab to his family’s home on Christmas Eve. His overly trusting mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), is so desperate to see him back for the holidays, seemingly clean and sober, that she allows a 24-hour visit, even as her daughter, Ivy (Kathryn Newton, who co-starred with Hedges in both Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Lady Bird), and new husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are troubled by his arrival. The film turns into something of an unexpected thriller, as Ben attempts to right a few wrongs and square up his debts, and his mother chases after him, hoping to protect him. When Ben Is Back focuses squarely on the addition story, it is often quite devastating, while the rest feels like a distraction. It’s a mixed bag, but Roberts and Hedges are quite good in the the film’s quieter moments. Ben Is Back screens Sunday, 10/14 at 7:30pm. Writer/director Peter Hedges is expected to attend. (SP)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director Marielle Heller’s (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) second feature is the story of real-life, best-selling celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), whose memoir serves as the source material for this quirky dark comedy/crime drama about a period in her life when she was no longer able to get published and she turned to forgery to make ends meet. It turns out, the hard-drinking Israel knew enough about celebrity culture in the early part of the 20th century that she was able to manufacture fake letters from the likes of Fanny Brice, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich and more, and sell them to collectors for top dollar. She enlists the help of her gay drinking buddy Jack (Richard E. Grant) when the collecting community begins to suspect her, and after hundreds of these letters are put into circulation, even the FBI takes an interest in her work. McCarthy and Grant are an absolute marvel as both a type of comedy team and best friends. Working from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, director Heller is always on the lookout to find ways to make the abrasive, sometimes cruel, Israel sympathetic and a victim of circumstance more than an actual criminal. I especially like the treatment of a potential romance with one of her early buyers, Anna (Dolly Wells). The film is surprisingly moving, humorous and has such a bizarre story, it has to be true. Can You Ever Forgive Me? screens Sunday, 10/14 at 5pm. (SP)