Film

Dispatch: Chicago Film Festival Wraps 56th Edition with Sold-Out Drive-Ins and Ongoing Virtual Screenings

Though it might be hard to tell without the red carpets and packed movie houses, the 56th Chicago International Film Festival has been happening all week, with virtual screenings, post-film Q&As and more happening all online. As the festival heads into its second (and final) weekend, several films remain streaming and worth making time for, including a few high-profile titles that have garnered acclaim elsewhere and now arrive in Chicago for the first time. The festival’s drive-in programming continues into the weekend (though keep an eye out for how the Mayor’s new shutdown restrictions might impact late night events), and with the announcement of this year’s award winners, there’s more reason than ever make time for a movie or two.

The Columnist

Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

The Columnist

In this spirited, deeply dark horror comedy—with a healthy sprinkling of social commentary thrown in—director Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist (from The Netherlands) follows the misadventures of Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, from HBO’s “Westworld”), a popular columnist for a national publication who receives a barrage of brutal social media comments in response to each column. She’s told repeatedly that she shouldn’t read them or respond to them, but she’s a creature of habit. She soon considers stopping writing altogether, which shouldn’t be too hard since the anxiety is giving her writer’s block on her newest book. Her teen daughter Anna (Claire Porro) is following in her footsteps as an outspoken advocate for free speech against her high school principal, who has her removed from the school paper. And after a time, the pressures of home and work criticism cause Femke to crack, and she begins tracking down her most vocal critics. At first, she just wants to urge them to be nice, but her rage gets the best of her, and she ends up murdering them…quite a few of them actually (cutting off their middle fingers as a trophy), which in turn sparks her creativity to write again. Needless to say, the vicious cycle escalates, and comes to a head when someone digs up an old column and accuses her of being a pedophile. Her need to kill interferes in her relationships with her daughter and her new boyfriend (Bram van der Kelen), a horror writer who she assumes will identify with her on some level. The film is amusing without lapsing into camp and silliness, and the message about online bullying is fairly on-point, even if it does feel slightly dated. The ending isn’t wholly satisfying, but I can’t imagine anyone, especially a woman, who has been verbally assaulted in such a way wouldn’t empathize with Femke’s outrage, which is wonderfully palpable in the film. (Steve Prokopy)

The Columnist will be available to stream until October 25 throughout the United States. A live-stream Q&A with director Ivo van Aart is also available.

I Am Greta

This gripping and sometimes heartbreaking documentary covering roughly the first year of teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg’s campaign for genuine global change does a remarkable job of putting us in the life of this 15-year-old Swedish climate-change activist and getting us unbelievable access to moments that made headlines around the world. I Am Greta is a remarkably intimate portrayal from director Nathan Grossman that paints Thunberg as both determined and diligent about her research and speech writing, while never forgetting that she is also a shy child with Asperger syndrome, which makes her less comfortable around strangers, in big groups, or making small talk of any kind. She craves routine, her family, her dog, and silence, few of which she can surround herself with as a world traveler.

Following her journey from her once-a-week school strikes outside the Swedish Parliament to address the United Nations Climate Action Summit in one of the most inspirational and angry speeches I’ve ever seen, we see her and her ever-present father travel around Europe via train and car (she doesn’t believe in air travel), where she is being asked to speak at various environmental conferences. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that politicians’ promises aren’t worth a krona, and that, in most cases, they only invited her to make it look like they care about climate change specifically and young people in general. The film does a remarkable job illustrating how she reacts privately to her critics, internet trolls, and even death threats and it comes to an emotional head when she travels via sailboat from London to New York. A great number of her true feelings about being a symbol to people are revealed. “It shouldn’t be me,” she confesses, as her tearful frustrations of leading the charge for climate change spill out. Director Grossman also captures the mania that surrounds her as an inspirational figure, but seems far more interested in finding her inner drive and patience for those who want a selfie more than they want to reduce CO2 levels. The movie is a genuine character study in doc form, and it’s well worth a look. (Steve Prokopy)

I Am Greta is available to stream until October 25 in the United States. In addition, a pre-recorded live-stream Q&A with director Nathan Grossman is available. The film will also be available on Hulu beginning November 13.

Summer of 85

Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Summer of ’85

A trigger warning is typically meant to alert viewers of potentially uncomfortable material, allowing them to make an educated decision on whether to proceed. It’s interesting, then, that Summer of ’85 employs such a device, spoken in narration by its young protagonist, to bait audiences into grim curiosity. If you want to avoid death and corpses, then “this story is not for you,” Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) says in the opening. What’s more interesting is how director François Ozon fails to deliver on the promise of a challenging film, and instead produces a blandly retro and uninspired dark romance; a sort of John Hughes picture meets Harold and Maude.

Adapted by Ozon from the novel Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers, Summer of ’85 does manage to develop a central relationship with engaging sincerity—the fiery romance between Alexis and David (Benjamin Voisin) is lovingly handled, and cinematographer Hichame Alaouie’s shots of coastal France grant the film a breezy charm. But Summer of ’85 struggles once tragedy strikes, and the revelation feels unsatisfying and dull. It’s unfortunate, too, that director Ozon takes an intriguing setup and slides into indulgent melodrama. Alexis’ tragic realizations about his youthful love recall the films of Xavier Dolan, with their insistence on the ugly inner lives of beautiful people; however Summer of ’85 lacks a certain wickedness required to nail such a tone. A sequence late in the film, featuring an overly choreographed dance underscored by Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” encapsulates the movie as a whole: earnest, but just too cheesy for its own good. (Matthew Nerber)

Summer of ’85 is streaming through October 25 in the United States.

Days

The lines between documentary and narrative are blurred in Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s hypnotic Days, which follows two men through quotidian rituals in an unidentified city. Tsai is known for his minimalist approach to filmmaking, employing long takes and dialogue-free sequences, and Days pushes that style to the brink. The film opens with a nearly five-minute shot of Kang (frequent Ming-liang collaborator Lee Kang-sheng) watching the rain, seated behind a window, and the rest of the film is dedicated to that same glacial pacing. Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) prepares a meal in his modest apartment, Kang attends an acupuncture appointment, and the two eventually meet in a high rise hotel, where Non performs a full body massage on Kang in real time.

In a film that adheres to no traditional elements of plot, it’s a wonder that Tsai manages to tell such an affecting story here. The film develops from its opening moments of stillness, granting the audience a view of raw, honest human behavior. Both Lee and Houngheuangsy don’t so much perform as they inhabit the frame, and Tsai’s masterful compositions render even the slightest movements as monumental occurrences. There are moments of woozy tranquility and vulnerable eroticism, but Days does require some patience before the overall vision emerges. By the end, though, Tsai has developed a peculiar study of loneliness, and a meditative ode to our universal quest for connection. (Matthew Nerber)

Days is available to stream through October 25 in the Midwestern United States.

One Night in Miami

Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

One Night in Miami

With an Oscar, a Golden Globe and several Emmys to her name, Regina King is already one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood; now, with the absolutely captivating One Night in Miami as her feature directorial debut, she becomes a filmmaker to watch as well. Set in February 1964, One Night in Miami (written by Kemp Powers) imagines if four of the most famous African American men of the day found themselves in the same hotel for a night of conversation, debate and reflection. The film brings together four powerhouse figures from very different worlds—politics (Malcolm X, portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir), sports (Cassius Clay, portrayed by Eli Goree; and Jim Brown, portrayed by Aldis Hodge) and music (Sam Cooke, portrayed by Leslie Odom Jr.)—and the premise practically drips with potential, as each man is at a key moment in his life and career. As Clay decides how best to announce he’s changing his name and converting to Islam, Malcolm X navigates the emerging, diverging approaches to activism. Cooke is one of the most popular performers of the moment, a shrewd businessman even if no one knows it; and Brown is eager to transition from a successful pro football career into one on screen.
When done well, films set in a single space can be powerful narratives; without anywhere to go, it all depends on the writing and the dynamics between actors. And in both those respects, One Night in Miami is as sharp as they come. The four actors each deliver electric performances, powerfully embodying their real-life counterparts. And though fictional, the February night of the film feels like it absolutely could have happened. It’s a pivotal moment in history, both for these men and the country, and their conversations—even if they are made up—reveal how acutely these titans felt the pressure of their respective roles in the change. In a film filled with memorable moments, most moving of all is Odom Jr.’s stirring performance in the final scenes. Near perfection. (Lisa Trifone)
One Night in Miami screens Friday, October 23, at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In; a limited number of tickets are still available. The film is also streaming on the festival’s virtual cinema, though as of this writing the virtual access is sold out (though keep an eye out, sometimes these virtual screenings see additional tickets released). The film arrives in theaters on December 25 and on Amazon Prime on January 15.

Nomadland

Nomadland is filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s poignant chronicle of a solitary life lived on the move. The film begins with a note about small town Empire, Nebraska; after its factory closed in 2011, the town essentially disappeared within a matter of months, its economy completely devastated. Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman in her 60s whose livelihood was part of the closure’s collateral damage. In response, she’s living in a van, exploring the American West from the road; she picks up work where she can and relies on her own resourcefulness to get by. Without a spouse or children, Fern’s solitude is nearly absolute, only really socializing when she sets up for a night or two in the various nomad collectives she encounters on the road. There, she finds a community all its own—equipment swaps where you can pick up a piece for your van/home and evening cook-outs where you can pick up stories from your fellow travelers. Along the way, she meets Dave (the ever-charming David Strathairn) and their budding friendship is all the more precious as it serves to underscore Fern’s piercing loneliness.
As the film’s quiet center, McDormand inhabits Fern as a woman committed to making it on her own, a way of being so ingrained in her that she’s not entirely sure how to let someone else in at all, if she even wants to. Fern’s world only feels infinitely smaller, framed as it is in the stunning, warm visuals of the vast open spaces in places like Nevada, South Dakota and Arizona. In the grand scheme of things, hers is just one life lived, one woman’s experience navigating the curveballs of circumstance and deciding with every new day how to spend her remaining time, who to connect with and where to go. Like The Rider before it, Zhao has captured a uniquely American experience with a deep sense of humanity and a gorgeous eye for the landscapes in which we live. It’s one of the best films of the year. (Lisa Trifone)

Nomadland screens at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In on Saturday, October 24; tickets are currently sold out, but keep an eye out for a potential encore screening or virtual access. Nomadland will open in theaters on December 4.

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