In between weekends at the drive-in, the 56th Chicago International Film Festival rolls on with dozens of films screening online and live-stream virtual Q&As several times a day. This week, the Third Coast film team offers a few selections available from home if you’re looking for a movie night in, with something a little extra.
Thanks to recently declassified and otherwise newly discovered files, director Sam Pollard (Mr. Soul!, Two Trains Runnin’) explores the details behind the FBI’s program of both surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the peak of his Civil Rights fight in the new documentary MLK/FBI. Thanks to an almost personal grudge by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover against not only King but African-Americans’ place in society, the Bureau’s stated objective was to keep an eye on King’s ties to known communists, Public Enemy No. 1 for a great deal of Hoover’s reign. But behind the scenes, failing to find such concrete evidence, the FBI decided to audio record King having sex with any number of women who weren’t his wife and shop the recordings around to various news organizations—none of which took the bait—in the hopes of discrediting him as a leader among Black people. When that didn’t work, they sent a tape to Mrs. King in an act of pure bullying on the part of the Bureau. The film tracks King’s career as a Civil Rights leader, his profile in the media, his shifting relationships with presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and gives a well-rounded look at the man who many only know as a speechmaker behind a pulpit. While this is going on, a parallel world of targeted spying and humiliation tactics were being set into motion that are shocking and may have ultimately been a factor in King’s death (if he was under constant FBI surveillance, how did agents not see or stop his assassin?). Interviews with both King associates (Clarence Jones, Andrew Young) and intelligence experts (including former FBI director James Comey) shed some incredible light on the FBI techniques and the impact it had on King. The film is eye-opening, somewhat sickening, and essential viewing. (Steve Prokopy)
MLK/FBI is to stream until October 25 in the Midwestern United States. On Monday, Oct. 19 at 8pm CST, there will be a live-stream Q&A with director Sam Pollard.
Of Fish and Men
The detritus of a child’s bedroom, the books and stuffed animals and colorful crayola sketches—these things become painful totems, memory shakers and grief inducers in Stefanie Klemm’s quietly devastating Of Fish and Men, which follows Judith (Sarah Spale), the proprietor of a rural Swiss fishery, after the accidental death of her young daughter Milla. Gabriel (Matthias Britschgi) is a hired hand that lives in a cottage on Judith’s property, and he helps Judith climb back to normalcy; eventually she wants to find who was responsible for the accident (a convenience store robbery gone wrong, Milla was knocked down in the process and died from her injuries). The catch, of course, is that Gabriel is that person. He was masked, robbing the store to help out his desperate junkie brother, and Klemm situates that tension as Of Fish and Men‘s main narrative thrust.
Judith and Gabriel demonstrate a sexual chemistry as the film opens, and that attraction will have heartbreaking consequences once the truth is revealed. But Klemm doesn’t resort to bursts of melodrama to communicate the tragedies here. The film relies on Kacper Czubak’s sweeping cinematography, Marcel Vaid’s mournful score, and the actors’ quiet, lived-in performances to paint a stirring portrait of guilt and grief. Spale is the standout here: she plays Judith as a mother silenced by anguish. Her far off look hardly registers a thing, as if she’s too hollowed out by emotional devastation to be surprised by the larger world. And her journey, from initial shock to eventual acceptance, is exquisitely rendered; all the more underscored by the film’s final melancholic shot. (Matthew Nerber)
Of Fish and Men is available to stream until October 25. On Monday, Oct. 19 at 2pm CST, there will be a live-stream Q&A with filmmaker Stefanie Klemm.
I’m Your Woman
Neither the year nor the location is specifically mentioned during the course of I’m Your Woman, the latest from director Julia Hart (Fast Color), who co-wrote the screenplay with producing partner Jordan Horowitz. But it’s pretty clear that it’s the 1970s, and the city turns out to be Pittsburgh. This slice of working-class crime drama stars Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) as Jean, a suburban housewife who cannot have children, and has, in fact, given up on the idea only recently. Then one day, her husband Eddie (Bill Heck) shows up with a newborn saying it’s theirs, with no real explanation. Strangely, the fact that Eddie is a career thief doesn’t make Jean any less suspicious of the entire situation. A number of months later, we find out Eddie has betrayed his criminal partners, and Jean and the baby are forced to leave their comfortable home and go on the run, under the care of Eddie’s criminal friend Cal (Arinzé Kene). I’m Your Woman traces Jean and Cal’s journey on the run, with unanswered questions about practically every character that floats into their atmosphere; even when answers come, they only result in more questions. Truth is as elusive in Jean’s world as peace of mind. The film hits its stride in the second half when Cal leaves Jean with his wife Teri (Marsha Stephanie Blake), son Paul (De’Mauri Parks), and father Art (the great Frankie Faison) in the family’s cabin in the woods. Each character gets a clear backstory and well-drawn set of personality traits, and the fact that Cal and his family are Black is never directly addressed but certainly comes into play at key moments in the story. The performances are across-the-board stellar, and Hart expands her range as a gifted and deeply expressive filmmaker in this dark tale of secrets, betrayal, and what defines family. (Steve Prokopy)
I’m Your Woman is available to stream until Oct. 25 in the United States. In addition, on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 7pm, the Festival host An Evening with Rachel Brosnahan—an in-depth conversation with the versatile performer (and Highland Park native) looking back at the earliest days of her career through to her latest projects and the work she does behind-the-camera to bring dynamic, women-centric stories to the screen.
40 Years a Prisoner
Tommy Oliver’s striking new documentary on the long and complicated history between activists and authority navigates both a violent series of events between a Philadelphia resistance movement and the city as well as the far-reaching effects of over-incarceration and endless bureaucracy. 40 Years a Prisoner introduces us to MOVE, a far-left activist movement founded in Philadelphia in 1972 with aspirations of breaking down an oppressive system. Several members of the group took on the surname Africa, and by 1977 they’d set up their commune in a residential neighborhood that was none too happy to have them. As the city tried various tactics to push them out, eventually the conflict escalated to a shoot-out in 1978 that saw many of the MOVE members badly beaten and ended in a Philadelphia police officer’s death. Nine members of the organization were sent to prison for the events of the day, one of whom was pregnant at the time with Mike Africa, Jr. Now a grown man, Africa’s only ever known his parents through visiting them in jail, a heartbreaking way to grow up but one that sets him on the path of activism early on. Oliver strikes a compelling balance between an archival review of events (the footage of the MOVE members being attacked by police as they surrender is intense) and the Africa’s personal story in the present day, creating a film that feels simultaneously historical and of the moment. It all adds up to an all-too-familiar reminder that our country’s law enforcement and penal systems are broken, and that even when they throw everything they have at a family, some bonds can’t be severed. (Lisa Trifone)
40 Years a Prisoner is available to stream October 19-25. On Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 2pm CST, there will be a live-stream Q&A with filmmaker Tommy Oliver.
Kubrick on Kubrick
Although only running about 75 minutes, director Gregory Monro (Racing Through Life: Toulouse-Lautrec) finds a way to pack a great deal of information and analysis into his documentary Kubrick on Kubrick. Built around a series of interviews done over about 10 years between the notoriously reclusive filmmaker and French film critic Michel Ciment, this French-Polish co-production is a wealth of never-before-heard audio recordings. Kubrick speaks quite eloquently about his work (one of the reasons Kubrick didn’t do many interviews is that he didn’t think he was good at them), sometimes open to Ciment’s assessment of his films, but often giving counter theories about his methods, the types of stories that intrigue him, and the reasons he chose to focus on extreme behavior and anti-authoritarian storylines. Having the bulk of the narration be from Kubrick himself elevates the film in ways few docs about the director ever have before, but Monro supplements these discussions (more as a means of filling in the blanks) with archival interviews with other creatives who worked with Kubrick—actors like Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall (The Shining), Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut), Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellars (Dr. Strangelove), R. Lee Ermey and Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) and author Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey). There is also the occasional archival commentary from film critics, including Chicago’s own Roger Ebert and Dann Gire. Using every available scrap of behind-the-scenes footage and photos available to complement the audio tapes, Kubrick on Kubrick is a surprisingly enlightening and moving work that could have been twice as long and equally fascinating. (Steve Prokopy)
Kubrick on Kubrick will be available to stream until October 25 in the Midwestern United States. In addition, there is a pre-recorded Q&A with director Gregory Monro available to ticketholders.
‘Til Kingdom Come
With a president that gives his citizens so much to worry about, the 2018 decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (and the implications of that decision) might’ve fallen off the collective radar lately. Documentarian Maya Zinshtein (Forever Pure) returns to the Chicago International Film Festival with a film that explores that move, its political motivations and the unlikely yet deep alliance between American Evangelical Christians and the some sectors of the Jewish faith. Over the course of generations, a relationship has developed between conservative Christians who believe they owe their faith to Jews and Jewish activists who believe their path to full statehood lies with American allies. Zinshtein follows the leader of an Israeli advocacy group (whose father founded it and brought it to prominence) and a third-generation pastor in rural Kentucky who leads efforts to fund Jewish charities. Their unlikely partnership is made all the more confusing because of the fundamental difference in their faiths; if all this goodwill is truly in the name of one’s beliefs, what does it mean when the other sees you as patently wrong about our fate on Earth? Diplomacy in Israel is a complicated issue to begin with, and while the filmmaker does include some irksome footage of from the 2018 Embassy dedication ceremony, she never attempts to dig too deep into the international politics of it all. Instead, this is a film about two communities of faith, the superficial ways they cater to the other for civility’s sake, and how—if anyone dares to examine things just a bit further than they have—it all might come crumbling down. These are worlds where ideology trumps everything, where statements like “I was taught to believe…” are said unironically, and where a Jew grits her teeth and smiles while receiving a prayer “in Jesus’s name, Amen.” (Lisa Trifone)
‘Til Kingdom Come is streaming through October 25. In addition, there will be a live-stream Q&A with filmmaker Maya Zinshtein on Tuesday, October 20 at 2p CST.
The Prophet and the Space Aliens
At various points during this intriguing documentary, director Yoav Shamir (Checkpoint) wonders if the alternative religion/cult known as the International Raëlian Movement are buttering him up (including giving him an achievement award) and otherwise manipulating him so that he will make a favorable film about them. It’s difficult to tell if the Raëlians would act any different if he weren’t shooting them, since their entire philosophy is based around love, peace, self-improvement, and sexual expression. Led by one-time French singer-turned-writer Claude Vorilhon (now known as Raël), the group was founded in the 1970s and earned some notoriety when scientists working with the group claimed to have cloned the first human being. With no actual proof of this to date, the credibility of the group quickly lost momentum, especially when Raël said that he has been visited by aliens, taken to their planet, and is in regular contact with these extraterrestrials for spiritual guidance. He also surrounds himself primarily with only conventionally attractive men and women, and sleeps with most of the women in his inner circle—all of age, all consensually—he’s like the Hugh Hefner of cult leaders. He also plays guitar, sings, and seems to relish in being the center of attention. The impulse with a film like this is to seek out the creep factor, but director Shamir is so clearly taken by the whole scene, it’s difficult to find fault with the Raëlian way of life. I don’t think he’s any kind of prophet, but his 100,000 or so followers (he’s based in Japan) seem happy, their minds fully intact. They aren’t stockpiling guns or abusing children or marrying their sisters, so other than being colorful and a bit eccentric, I’m not even sure why this documentary was made, aside from the amusement factor. The Prophet and the Space Aliens isn’t hard-hitting journalism, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be to make it interesting. (Steve Prokopy)
The Prophet and the Space Aliens is available to stream until October 25 in the United States. In addition, there will be a live-stream Q&A on Oct. 21 at 2pm CST with director Yoav Shamir.
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