The first full day of screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival features a number of impressive films ready to be discovered, including several with Chicago ties. From a thriller set in Chicago in the 1990s to a documentary about a historical mayoral campaign in the 1980s, there’s a certain nostalgic twinge to the proceedings, too. The Thursday festival schedule features early preview screenings of Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest film, Bergman Island (look for our full review soon), and the new medieval drama The Last Duel, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck back on screen together (both films open theatrically on Friday). There’s also an impressive new documentary on one-time presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, and if you appreciate your films in short doses, Thursday marks your opportunity to see the Festival’s City & State shorts program (films with Chicago and Illinois ties, as the name indicates) on the big screen, too.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Wonderfully atmospheric and embracing conspiracy theorists around the world, the Chicago-set Broadcast Signal Intrusion begins with a masked figure somehow breaking into television broadcasts on two TV stations on the same November day, circa 1987, and speaking in a garbled voice. Jumping ahead to 1999, while archiving videotapes of old broadcasts in the basement of one of the two stations, technician James (Harry Shum Jr., Crazy Rich Asians, “Glee”) finds the footage, and he slowly becomes obsessed with finding its deeper meaning, deciphering clues in the broadcasts, and ultimately discovering (he believes) a connection to his wife’s disappearance years earlier. He eventually enlists the help of another curious party, Alice (Kelley Mack), and the two travel down a dark and winding road of discovery that may lead to nothing or may crack everything wide open. After a nerve-racking encounter with a man named Phreaker (the ominous Chris Sullivan), the pair seem divided about their next step. But not surprisingly, James can’t let go. Directed by genre whiz Jacob Gentry (The Signal, Synchronicity) and written by Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall, the film is a worthy entry in the world of paranoia cinema. James needs his theories to keep his brain occupied and stop him from thinking about how much pain he’s in over the loss of his wife. There’s also something wonderfully fulfilling and nostalgic about the use of late-’90s tech to help solve mysteries. Ah, message boards and dial-up modems. There’s nothing flashy or overblown about Broadcast Signal Intrusion; it simply relishes in high-level tension and a well-deserved fear of the unknown. (Steve Prokopy)
Broadcast Signal Intrusion screens Thurs., Oct 14 at 9:30pm at the Music Box Theatre. Director Jacob Gentry and lead actors Harry Shum Jr. & Kelley Mack will be in attendance.
The Last Duel
Taking a page from the Rashoman playbook, in which we see the path to a specific incident from the perspective of the film’s three major characters, director Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is a sweeping story set in 14th century France, when men were men and women were property to be traded and fought over in the same way as livestock. Based on a true story (and the writings of Eric Jager) and written by Nicole Holofcener (as well as two of the film’s stars, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), the film details the events that led to France’s last sanctioned duel, which pitted knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon) against Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two men who began as equals and friends on the battlefield until their lives diverged drastically. Carrouges marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Free Guy, “Killing Eve”) but a section of land that was part of her dowery is taken away from him by the king’s cousin and local magistrate Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck, off his rocker in his approach to this character and adding much-needed spark to the proceedings), who gives it to his new friend Le Gris.
All versions of the story seem to agree that Carrouges is wronged multiple times by Le Gris because of his growing friendships with d’Alençon, but after meeting Marguerite, the lothario Le Gris shows up at her home when no one is around (including her scheming mother-in-law, played wickedly by Harriet Walter) and sexually assaults her, charges that he denies (he claims she submitted to him willingly, which even in his version of the story seems untrue). She tells her husband and, seeking justice and vengeance, the two decide to take the claim to court, which sparks a furor of activity, since it was almost unheard of for a woman to press rape charges against a man at the time.
The film is well aware of the parallels between this story and modern times. Women are not only doubted and not listened to in both time periods, but they shamed for allowing the incident to happen in the first place. A casual comment about Le Gris being handsome made to a friend becomes a major point in the trial, the results of which will put both Carrouges and Marguerite’s lives in danger if the ruling is against them—he will lose everything he owns, and she will be executed. The film deals with conviction, the near absolute power of men in the period, and the way both men and women treat Marguerite after she accuses her attacker.
The Last Duel also seems to care about the authenticity of the time. The battles are beyond brutal; the decadence within the upper classes is on full display, and the duties of both men and women are clearly defined and separate. Director Scott takes full use of his widescreen to show us the scope of the set pieces and battle scenes. At certain points, parts of the story diverge from one another, depending on who’s telling the story, but other events are seen in slightly varying versions three separate times, with sometimes subtle variations. This is especially evident in Marguerite’s tale, which depicts her living a life where seemingly everything wants to harm or take advantage of her in some way. Carrouges sees himself as a caring, protective husband; Marguerite depicts him as more brutish, caring more about his wounded pride than her well being. It’s a gripping, sometimes ugly work that gets to the heart of justice, a concept which often has little to do with facts and more to do with the definitions of morality at a particular place in time. It’s a rough ride but a worthy one. (Steve Prokopy)
The Last Duel screens Thurs., Oct. 14 at 8:15pm at AMC River East, and opens theatrically on Friday.
What I’d expected to be a fairly lightweight behind-the-scenes look at the relatively short-lived presidential campaign of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg turns out to be something far more substantial than his mild-mannered, even-tempered persona might have you believe it could be. But as director Jesse Moss (co-director of Boys State) begins to dig into Buttigieg’s background and life as an openly gay politician (he would have been the youngest and first openly LGBTQ U.S. president, had he won), the man’s substance, convictions and forcefulness begin to surface. With the invaluable assistance of his husband Chasten and diverse campaign team, we follow every step of the candidate’s journey from unknown midwestern mayor to nearly winning the Iowa caucus to his eventual dropping out and throwing his support behind Joe Biden (which likely had a hand in Biden selecting him for his current position of U.S. Secretary of Transportation).
Buttigieg and his team were determined to run a clean, truth-focused campaign, which is not to say he didn’t get defensive. And in the midst of his campaign there was a public relations crisis centered on an officer-involved shooting back in South Bend that needed to be dealt with and may have hurt his standing in certain communities of color. We come to admire those around him for always speaking truthfully to Buttigieg, even if it’s about his image being too stiff or not being tough enough on his opponents in his own party. His debate prep is not only interesting, but we actually see the results on stage, where he begins to get attacked as he becomes more of a political force. If for no other reason, Mayor Pete is terrific at making us realize that he’s still quite young and will likely have a few more opportunities to run for president in the future. As much a character study as a documentary, this is a fantastic work about being proud and happy about who you are. (Steve Prokopy)
Mayor Pete screens Thurs., Oct. 14 at 8:30pm at AMC River East. Director Jesse Moss and producers Jon Bardin & Dan Cogan will be in attendance.
Punch 9 for Harold Washington
For those of us who lived through the 2019 Chicago mayoral election, it’s tempting to think it was the most contentious and consequential in the city’s history. But Joe Winston’s informative Punch 9 for Harold Washington serves as a competent primer on a considerably more significant election that, it could be argued, continues to shape the city’s politics to this day. Following the first Mayor Daley’s extended reign (from 1955-1976), the city was plunged into a rare uncertainty in the highest realms of politics, as even the most influential democratic bosses weren’t sure who might fill his shoes. When Jane Byrne eventually took the city’s reins in 1979, she arrived in a flurry of potential and goodwill. But as Winston depicts in Punch 9, her time in office was marred by scandal and a constituency who felt let down and left out of her work at City Hall. By the time her term was winding down in 1983, Harold Washington was a Congressman, sitting pretty in the country’s legislative body and watching his hometown struggle to find a universally beloved candidate for mayor. It wouldn’t take long for him to realize he could be that candidate.
The film’s most stirring moments are those chronicling Washington’s invigorating campaign in the 1983 Democratic primary, where he faced off against Byrne and Daley, Jr. (don’t worry, he’d have his moment…), an effort that mobilized city voters from north to south and created something of a celebrity out of the man. With his larger-than-life personality, his witty style with reporters and colleagues as well as his willingness to confront Chicago’s powerful political machinery, Washington became a force to be reckoned with following the primaries. Punch 9 gets surprisingly emotional as it delves into the general mayoral election and the blatant racism Washington faced as the first viable Black candidate for the city’s top job. Punctuated by interviews with both his aides and staff as well as journalists who covered the event, Washington’s historic victory becomes something more than just a democratic system doing its thing. Watching it all unfold on screen, it’s that lightning-in-a-bottle moment that combines a man determined to disrupt the system, a city hungry for change and a transformative moment in history. Several familiar faces pop up along the way, including David Axelrod, Valery Jarrett, Rahm Emmanuel and even Barack Obama (though only in archival footage).
The last third of Punch 9 covers Washington’s tumultuous time in office and its unexpected end (if you don’t know this bit of history, I hate to spoil it), winding down on a reflective note as those who knew him recount what an influence the man was on not only the city and its politics but on local elections across the country. One of the most moving scenes in this otherwise by-the-numbers political profile is the footage of Black mayors being sworn into office in cities across the country, a barrier broken down by Washington, right here in the Windy City. (Lisa Trifone)
Punch 9 for Harold Washington screens Thursday, October 14 at 5:30pm and again Tuesday, October 19 at 3p, both at AMC River East. Filmmaker Joe Winston and producers Sonya Jackson and Raymond Lambert are expected to be in attendance.