As the 56th Chicago International Film Festival kicks off, the majority of this year’s film selections are available to stream online for the duration of the event (October 14-25). In our dispatches throughout the Festival, we’ll highlight films to see in time for their virtual Q&As or before their Drive-In screenings; we’ll also highlight movies worth checking out anytime your calendar allows. Five-film Saturdays? Midnight start time on a foreign drama? When the festival is virtual, the schedule is yours to create. Here’s what to take note of (or pass on) through the Festival’s first weekend.
With an eye toward kicking things off with some local color and some laughs (and perhaps a few stress-induced tears), the Festival opens this year’s virtual and drive-in festivities with Belushi, the latest documentary from R.J. Cutler (American High, The September Issue, and the recently announced upcoming Billie Eilish doc) that spans the life of stand-out comedic performer John Belushi, the Wheaton-raised son of an Albanian immigrant father and someone who approached his craft with an almost blue-collar attitude: throw everything you have into it until you and the audience are literally sweating with energy and laughter.
Using almost entirely unheard audio interviews and a treasure trove of both rare and familiar archival material, the film pieces together Belushi’s life using the words of friends, family and collaborators, such as constant scene partner Dan Aykroyd, brother Jim Belushi, Penny Marshall, SNL creator Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Jane Curtin, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, and his high school sweetheart and later wife Judy Belushi, as well as old friends from Chicago whose names may not be known but who understood some of the building blocks of Belushi’s worldview and comic approach. As expected, Belushi covers the subject’s Second City and National Lampoon’s Lemmings days, his continuation on to being one of the founding cast members on Saturday Night Live, and then his brief but explosive movie career with Animal House and The Blues Brothers. The film whiffs a bit when it comes to telling the tale of his final days (in fact, Cathy Smith’s name is never uttered in the description of Belushi’s death by overdose). What the film gets especially right, however, is capturing the pressures—internal and external—that led to his struggle with addiction, his inability to sleep, and his drive to please everyone. The film is as moving as it is hilarious, and it’s a fitting way to open a film festival in a stress-heavy pandemic. (Steve Prokopy)
Belushi will have its World Premiere on October 14 at 6:30pm at the ChiTown Movies drive-in in Pilsen, followed by a live-stream Q&A at 9pm with director R.J. Cutler and Judy Belushi. It also will be available to stream through the festival until Oct 25, throughout the United States, beginning on Oct. 14 at 7pm CT. The film arrives on Showtime on November 22.
David Byrne’s American Utopia
October of 2019 feels like a lifetime ago, rather than just a year. And yet, that was when David Byrne—best known for his days heading up the band Talking Heads—premiered a live stage version of his most recent solo album, American Utopia. The show was an instant hit, and ran through February of 2020 when it closed as planned (rather than because of the pandemic, as so much else was just a month later). Though a limited engagement that was to return to the stage this fall was scrapped, Byrne and the creative team had the foresight to film the production for posterity, Spike Lee himself helming the concert doc. What results is a joyful celebration of life, music, movement and connection, a production that’s surprisingly contemplative for all its wit and choreography. Featuring both tracks from the album of the same name and classic Talking Heads tracks any fan of pop culture of the last forty years will appreciate, Byrne leads a troupe of eleven musicians and back-up singers in a show that does quite a lot with a rather bare-bones production. The band—men and women alike—all wear the same monochromatic grey suit as Byrne, and everyone’s barefoot through the entire show, a juxtaposition that is emblematic of the show’s vibe: we mean business, but let’s have fun with it. In between tracks, Byrne speaks to the audience now and then (the show was filmed at New York’s Hudson Theatre), but never so long that we lose the thread of the music. His insights are those of someone who’s looking back on a uniquely extraordinary life filled with ordinary observations, and the songs on American Utopia reflect that. Lee inherently understands how to bring this live show home on the screen, smartly balancing the full view of Byrne and his band on stage with details like those bare feet or the sweat drenching one back-up singer’s suit coat. Like the audience there in the room, this is one that will have you eager to get up and dance—and I hope you do. (Lisa Trifone)
David Byrne’s American Utopia screens at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In Thursday, October 15 at 7pm; the film will not be available on the Festival’s virtual platform. It arrives on HBO and HBO Max on October 17.
The Dark and the Wicked
Now a skilled horror film veteran, writer/director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) brings to audiences what might be the most perfect creeping-dread film in recent memory. Grown siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) return home to their parents’ farm where their father is slowly, painfully dying. But when they arrive home, they realize that other forces are at play, including something evil that is torturing their poor mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) with haunting visions and perhaps actual forms of mental and physical harm to both her and her husband during the night. And it doesn’t take long for this entity to make its presence known in the kids’ lives as well, forcing them to decide whether they should stay to protect their parents or leave and save their souls. There’s a kindly nurse (Lynn Andrews), a weird visiting priest (Xander Berkley), and an old family friend (Tom Nowicki) who may also be infected by their dark force. In terms of pure, thick, pungent atmosphere, Bertino has outdone himself, with each corner of this property teeming with scare potential. But this is the type of fear that gets into your bones and lingers in your mind. Anchored by Ireland’s raw, sorrowful performance, the movie uses the subjects of grief, regret and guilt as lynchpins in this intense family drama disguised as horror. (Steve Prokopy)
The Dark and the Wicked screens on Thursday, October 15 at 10:15pm at ChiTown Movies drive-in in Pilsen. The film will be released in drive-ins across the nation and on Hulu on October 23.
Led by a genuinely impressive performance from newcomer Elle Lorraine, Bad Hair is a solid, if slightly overlong, horror satire set quite intentionally in 1989, the year when black culture begin to have serious crossover potential with white teenagers through the image-conscious arena of the music video. Lorraine’s Anna Bludso is a driven young woman working for a BET-type network called Culture which has been overtaken and restructured by its parent company (think MTV) to have more “across-the-board” appeal. With the help of a new boss lady (Vanessa Williams), the rebranded “Cult” offers potential for Anna’s professional growth if she’s willing to make a few changes, beginning with her hair. Pressured to get a weave using real human hair, something doesn’t sit right with the process—maybe it’s the tightness of the threading or maybe it’s the fact that her hair has a taste for human blood? Courtesy of writer/director Justin Simien (Dear White People), Bad Hair is a period horror comedy that feel wildly of the moment, with terrific supporting performances from Lena Waithe, Jay Pharoah, Blair Underwood, Kelly Rowland, Usher, Judith Scott, Michelle Hurd, and Laverne Cox, and an endless supply of biting messages about Black identity, image over substance, and cultural appropriation. In other words, it’s about America in the 21st century. (Steve Prokopy)
Bad Hair screens October 16 at 7pm at the ChiTown Movies drive-in in Pilsen. The film will be released in drive-ins across the nation and on Hulu on October 23.
For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close
Much like the style of comedy/theater that he taught, Del Close’s life story was both comic and tragic. Legendarily known as a trailblazing force at both The Second City and ImprovOlympic (the now shuttered iO Theater), Close was the madman who helped launch hundreds of comedy careers over the decades using his belief that improv was not just a tool to get you somewhere else; it could also be its own, teachable art form, used to gain access to the truth and making each improv show a unique, unrepeatable gift or an equally useful (for the students, at least) train wreck. Filmmaker Heather Ross (Girls on the Wall) uses an effective patchwork approach to constructing Close’s questionable biography, blending fact and legend and hoping there are enough places where the two actually overlap. Using a combination of new interviews with the likes of Bob Odenkirk, Tim Meadows, Adam McKay, George Wendt, David Pasquesi; archival interviews and footage featuring Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mike Myers, Bill Murray, John Belushi and Harold Ramis; samples of the semi-autobiographical comic anthology, Wasteland from DC Comics; and really fun reenactments featuring James Urbaniak playing Close in his slightly younger days, the filmmaker gives herself a tremendous amount of material to use to piece together the life of a man for whom mental illness frequently intersected with comedic theory. The result is energetic, melancholic, and fulfilling as a historical document and an intriguing examination into the creative process. (Steve Prokopy)
For Madmen Only will be available to stream Oct. 14-25 throughout the United States. On October 16 at 7pm, there will be a live stream Q&A with director Heather Ross and actor James Urbaniak.
Like the French New Wave moment before it, there’s something happening in Greek cinema of the last decade that’s affectionately referred to as “weird.” One foray into the works of Yorgos Lanthimos, from the downright disturbing Dogtooth to the hilarious and dark (and Oscar-winning) The Favourite, and it’s obvious where the descriptor comes from. Now, Yanthimos protege Christos Nikou makes his directorial debut with Apples, a film with plenty of weirdness if not Yanthimos’s penchant for brutality. In the not-so-distant past, a time without cell phones or other modern technologies, Aris (Aris Servetalis) finds himself stricken by a strange and silent pandemic sweeping the globe, one that causes an inexplicable amnesia in those who contract it. Medical experts have devised a program to manage those who’ve lost their memories, delivering a series of cassette tapes with assignments designed to give the patients a new set of life’s milestones to remember. Aris obediently participates in tasks like speaking to a stranger or shopping or the like, until he meets Anna (Sofia Georgovassili), a woman similarly afflicted who is just a few days ahead of him on her cassette tap assignments. Nikou (who co-wrote the script with Stavros Raptis) explores a side of humanity that’s more relevant than ever as we endure an actual global pandemic, that of how forces like nostalgia, grief, love and authority conspire to shape our lives sometimes without our even realizing it. Often deadpan in its delivery, Apples is nevertheless a deceptively thoughtful film that saves some of its best sentiments for its final moments. (Lisa Trifone)
Apples screens in the Chicago International Film Festival virtual cinema October 14-25; a live, virtual Q&A with filmmaker Christos Nikou is scheduled for Saturday, October 17 at 4p and is available to ticket holders.
I’m fairly certain I first became aware of Chicago’s own Gloria Allen, the Black transgender legend now in her 70s, when the play Charm opened up at the Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre in 2015 (although it was technically a Northlight Theatre production). The production focused on a character based on Allen—best known in the community as Mama Gloria—who observed LGBTQ+ youth at the Center on Halsted behaving in all variety of undignified ways and decided to open a charm school at the center to teach manners and etiquette. Playwright Philip Dawkins thought the story would make a fantastic play, and he was right; the show has since played all over the country. But the Charm experience is only a small part of Allen’s groundbreaking life story, which is the subject of this documentary from director Luchina Fisher. What emerges from Gloria’s story is something of an alternative history of Chicago, from a traumatic and abusive childhood to the earliest days of gay bars and drag balls on the city’s South Side in the 1960s, to her more recent work as as community leader and overall den mother to hundreds of chosen children. The documentary is front-loaded with love, forgiveness, tolerance, and more hidden history than you can possibly take in all at once. It’s a real standout story both because the subject is so fascinating and the revelations about Chicago are endless. (Steve Prokopy)
The World Premiere run of Mama Gloria is available to stream Oct. 14-25 throughout the United States. There will be a live-stream filmmaker Q&A for ticket holders on Oct. 17 at 7:00pm CST with director Luchina Fisher and subject Gloria Allen.
The Road Up
In a tightly constructed and essential piece of viewing, a great deal of personality and hope is packed into the documentary The Road Up, the latest film from Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (Louder Than a Bomb). Initially, the film zeroes in on four participants in the Chicago job-training program known as Cara (circa 2016), which is geared toward those who must not only find employment opportunities but learn skills to help overcome complicated life issues such as homelessness, substance abuse, and other life traumas. In order to take advantage of all the organization has to offer, participants are required to attend a month-long “boot camp” called Transformations, which isn’t just about finding a job; it’s about keeping one. Everyone the film follows takes us on a journey that is never a straight, unbroken path, and heartbreak is a major component of the program and the film. But that makes the success stories all the sweeter.
It doesn’t take long for the film to find the unifying thread of all of these participants: the group mentor Jesse Teverbaugh (“Mr. Jesse”), whose own struggles to get to where he is now in life are devastating when they’re finally revealed. You could have placed a single camera in a room with Mr. Jessse and just let him go for 90 minutes, and I would have been fully engaged. And it’s impossible to watch him in front of a group of students of all ages and not be moved by his talks, role-playing exercises, sermons, schtick, and practical, fundamentally true life lessons. The filmmakers let the individual dramas unfold, each giving us hope and some dashing that hope over something that reveals what brought them to this program in the first place. In the end, you want to hug everyone involved; hell, I’m ready to make Mr. Jesse Chicago’s next mayor. The Road Up is and inspiration and a powerful chronicle of one man paying it forward exponentially. (Steve Prokopy)
The Road Up will have its World Premiere on October 18 at 6:30pm at the ChiTown Movies drive-in in Pilsen, followed by a live stream Q&A at 9pm CT with directors Jacobs and Siskel and subject Jesse Teverbaugh. It will also be available to stream through the festival until Oct 25, and throughout the United States from Oct. 14-25.
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