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.
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
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.
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
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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