Film

Dispatch: Week of Chicago Int’l Film Festival Features Filmmaker Tributes, Even More Compelling Cinema

The Chicago International Film Festival is well underway, with screenings happening at venues around the city and a full slate of films available via the Festival’s virtual platform, too. Through this week, special events include a tribute to two filmmaker/actors who bring to the Festival their latest work; Kenneth Branagh is honored for his autobiographical Belfast and Rebecca Hall receives recognition for her directorial debut, Passing. The reviews below are a selection of some of what to see if you’re planning on heading out to the festival during the week.

Any Given Day

Any Given Day / Image courtesy of Beti Films

Any Given Day

Margaret Byrne is the fully committed director in this documentary about a Chicago mental health treatment program. She sympathetically follows the journeys, both peaks and valleys, of three participants over five years and, in the process, confronts her own mental health issues. Thus the film is a raw and intense story not about three, but four, people caught in Chicago’s system. A new mental health court system was established after about half of Chicago’s mental health clinics were closed in 2012 by the Emanuel administration. Byrne follows Angela, Daniel and Dimitar, all suffering from some combination of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug use and other mental health problems. They were typically jailed for “crimes of survival”—small thefts—classified as felonies, which often kept them from getting jobs. The new court solution, presided over by a sympathetic judge, is a voluntary program that puts participants in a two-year probation program to stabilize their lives and provide access to medications, case workers and other support.

Angela, who lived in several foster homes and suffered abuse as a child, has four children and lost custody of her youngest after she was jailed; she served 8-1/2 months. She is able to have occasional joyful reunions with her young son Anthony. Daniel’s sister Birgitte is supportive and he finishes the program. He has help getting an apartment, which he feels is essential to his survival. He always keeps his meetings with his case worker. “To me, I’m a success story,” he says. Dimitar is a writer who self-publishes a book about his schizophrenia. He lives with his loving mother Gina, even though he would rather move to his own place. He loses his job because of the background check and later lapses into cocaine use and ends up in a mental hospital. Byrne, the director, has to pause the filmmaking at one point to deal with her own problems.

A happy ending isn’t possible for a film like Any Given Day. Byrne makes clear there may not ever be a “happily ever after” for people like Angela, Daniel and Dimitar. Her film is important because she brings mental illness out of the shadows and makes clear it’s ok to say you’re not ok. Every day is a struggle, they all acknowledge, and life must be lived one day at a time. (Nancy Bishop)

Any Given Day screens at 7pm Wednesday, October 20, at the Gene Siskel Film Center and at 12pm on Saturday, October 23, at AMC River East. It is also available to stream through the festival’s virtual platform.

Babi Yar. Context.

No narration. No dialogue. No biopic characters—either heroes or villains—telling us what to think.

Babi Yar is not a new story. The fact that 33,771 Ukrainian Jews were slaughtered in a ravine near Kiev in September 1941 is old news. What is new in Sergei Loznitsa’s 2021 film, Babi Yar. Context, is his meticulous piecing together of archival footage, most of it never seen before, drawn from many sources and many locations to tell the story. It’s a million-piece jigsaw puzzle compiled piece by piece on a gigantic moving table. Loznitsa’s work is a masterpiece of research and editing and a powerful visualization of one of the horrors of the Holocaust.

The archival footage documents the German invasion of Ukraine, showing city streets, tree-lined boulevards, buses and pedestrians. Then as the troops arrive, Ukrainians are in the streets, welcoming the Nazis with cheers and raised-arm salutes.

Many German officers and soldiers had cameras and much of the footage is drawn from those sources. (In one scene, German soldiers are seen clicking away on their cameras as a Nazi military dignitary is welcomed to Kiev.)

Loznitza uses occasional legend or title cards to identify scenes that follow. One of them makes clear that it was Ukrainian militia, on order of German authorities, who gathered the Jews for their fate. But the story is told by the vivid film, most of it black and white, that shows crowds of Jews captured and lines of Jews walking toward the fields outside Kiev. Sounds of gunfire, explosions, searing fires and piles of clothing in a field tell the rest of the story. (Babi Yar may be familiar because of the iconic 1961 poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko.) (Nancy Bishop)

Babi Yar. Context is available for virtual screening through October 24.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Belfast

If nothing else, Kenneth Branagh is a productive filmmaker. Of the 20-odd films he’s directed (many of which he’s also written) over the last few decades, some of them have even been good. With Belfast, a moving story of childhood, conflict and a family at a crossroads, he delivers not only his most personal film yet, but perhaps his best as well. Set in the titular, tumultuous Northern Ireland city in the late 1960s, the film is an autobiographical chronicle of his family’s time just before they made the difficult decision to leave their home and resettle in England, far from the fighting and chaos of the conflict known as The Troubles. Told from the point of view of a young boy about as old as Branagh would’ve been at the time, about eight or nine, the film is presented mostly in black and white (only a few scenes are in color, and for very good reason), a choice that adds to the film’s nostalgia factor. The boy at the center of the film is Buddy (a winning newcomer, Jude Hill), and he’s surrounded by a close and loving (and star-studded) family: Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), brother Will (Lewis McAskie), a grandpa he calls Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench). Pa works hard to provide for his family while Ma keeps the small home that’s one of many in a row on a cobblestone street in the heart of the city. Most of the religious and political conflict consuming Belfast is kept at bay from Buddy and his friends, until it quite literally comes to his doorstep and the street erupts in battle.

As Will and Buddy navigate life behind the makeshift barricade, coming and going before curfew and entertaining themselves pretend fighting, Ma and Pa are all too aware of the world crumbling around them and the decisions they may be forced to make in order to keep their family safe. Balfe and Dornan are a powerful couple, not in status or stature but in the ferocity of their commitment to each other and their family; the film is at its most electrifying when these two are on screen together, particularly in one fleetingly joyful moment. As an homage to his parents, at least, Belfast is about the best gift any son can muster. Paired with an achingly perfect soundtrack featuring classics by Van Morrison and Branagh’s carefully crafted narrative that gives equal space to all three generations experiencing this historical moment in their shared history, the film becomes something of a time capsule, beautifully marrying the undeniable tragedy of the time with the unmatched bond of family. (Lisa Trifone)

Belfast screens Thursday, October 21 at 7p at Music Box Theatre; Branagh is scheduled to be in attendance for a Lifetime Achievement Award presentation.

The Beta Test

Filmmaker/actor Jim Cummings (Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow) is a provocateur in training, but unlike predecessors like Neil LaBute, Cummings actually seems to like people but hate the ones he casts himself to play. He normally casts himself as the selfish prick with self-control issues (emotional, sexual, etc.); even in the new Halloween Kills, he’s cast as a jerk-ish cop. In his latest film, The Beta Test (co-directed by PJ McCabe), Cummings plays Jordan, a fast-talking, hot-shot Hollywood talent agent who seems to specialize in inserting himself as the middle-man in the deal-making process rather than actually representing big talent or pulling the deals together himself. He’s engaged and deep into the wedding-planning process when he receives a purple envelope in his mailbox containing an invitation for an anonymous sexual encounter with no questions asked and presumably no chance of getting caught. Naturally, he’s intrigued and can’t help but show up to a hotel room (blindfolded, as instructed), where there is an unknown woman (also blindfolded).

Not long after the deed is done, Jordan becomes obsessed, not with finding out who set up the liaison, but with who the woman was. He sets out on a journey of discovery that threatens to completely upend his successful life but also opens up a conspiratorial web that unlocks the worst parts of both Jordan’s personality specifically and the film business in general. His detective skills aren’t bad, but a great deal of what he learns also comes from dumb luck and coming on so strong to those he’s questioning that they’d rather just answer his questions than deal with him a minute longer.

One of the key reasons The Beta Test works so well is that it’s actually about something, even if it’s something shallow. Jordan can’t say no to this encounter because he’s just fed up enough with endless questions from his future wife about their wedding that thinks he needs to temporarily escape. It’s an aspect of toxic masculinity that isn’t discussed much, but his entitlement is what threatens to take him down. And if I’m making the film sound overly serious, fear not. Cummings’ biting sense of humor is still very much a part of his skills as a writer. The film’s reveals and story don’t play out the way you think they will, but like most things in the movie, they wouldn’t be possible with the male ego firmly locked in place. This is Cummings’ finest work, and I hope it makes you wildly uncomfortable. (Steve Prokopy)

The Beta Test screens Wed., Oct 20 at 3:30pm at AMC River East. Co-director PJ McCabe will be in attendance. The film opens theatrically November 5.

Drive My Car

Recently named Japan’s Oscar contender for 2021, writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (who also has another film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, out now) gives us a tale of much-loved stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and the impact his relationship with his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) has on the rest of his life. We learn early on that she often comes up with some of her best ideas in the aftermath of sex. She then tells the ideas to him in the middle of the night, so that when they wake up the next morning, he must dictate what she said to him, turning those thoughts into her celebrated screenplays. We also find out she sleeps with many other men, and that he accepts this (unbeknownst to her) because it doesn’t seem to lessen her love for him and her need for him in her creative process. But one day as he heads out to work, she says she wants to talk when he gets back, so he deliberately stays out late to avoid the conversation. When he comes home, Oto is dead from a brain aneurysm; with no idea what she was going to say to him, he’s left all the more rattled in the aftermath of her passing.

The film jumps ahead two years, and while Kafuku is still traumatized, he agrees to leave his home base of Tokyo to take a directing job in Hiroshima, where he is given a driver named Misaki (Toko Miura), who drives his car, which is something of a sacred space to Kafuku. One of the last things Oto left him was a recording of her reading the response text of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya (with him reciting Vanya’s part in the pauses), which just happens to be the play he’s going to direct in Hiroshima. He isn’t planning to play the lead role (he says he’s not ready to get that emotionally raw on stage just yet), but he’ll cast and direct a multilingual adaptation (with multiple subtitles projected on a screen at the back of the stage); this type of theater is his specialty, and he sees it as a way on including everyone in the production. But it makes rehearsals a bitch since no one knows what the other is saying most of the time. They learn the timing of the lines rather than any translation, and it’s fascinating to watch.

The drama of Drive My Car comes from two directions—one expected and one less so. Not surprisingly, Kafuku and Misaki get to know each other on their long drives to and from where he’s staying and the theater, and it turns out driving is about all she knows how to do well. Her backstory is full of tragedy, and as they share their lives with each other, the film’s heart opens up immensely. The more surprising aspect of the story comes during the auditions, when Kafuku recognizes one of the actors as the man who was sleeping with his wife when he returned home from a delayed flight. He did not make his presence known at the time, but having this loose end involving his wife is intriguing enough to him that he not only casts the young actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), in his play but forces him to play Vanya, perhaps as something of a punishment or a test.

With a running time of three hours, Drive My Car may sound like a slog, but honestly it’s a rich, fulfilling, sprawling and ultimately highly satisfying meditation on the many definitions of love, the complex nature of relationships, and how to let go of grief and move on to whatever chapter comes next. The film doesn’t introduce artificial tension into its interactions, which is not to say tension doesn’t exist. Young Takatsuki has bigger things to worry about in his life than whether the husband of his late lover recognizes him or not. The film placed me in a kind of trance, and I was swept away by what I was watching, even the long rehearsal sequences and the snippets of the actual play we get to see, which often seem to be mirroring or responding to the events of the rest of the film. (Steve Prokopy)

Drive May Car screens Sat., Oct 23 at 1pm at AMC River East, and is scheduled to open theatrically November 24.

One Second

The story behind the long-delayed release of the latest from Chinese master director (and thrice Oscar-nominated) Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, House of Flying Daggers) is almost as interesting and bittersweet as the film itself. One Second was meant to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019 but was pulled by the Chinese government. Although details for the reason why have been kept quiet (post-production issues was the reason given at the time), the film was gently re-edited and reshot, but for the most part left intact in terms of its spirit and intent as a highly emotional tribute to the personal and cultural importance of cinema. We meet a weary traveler, an escaped prisoner named Zhang Jiusheng (Zhang Yi), who appears to be ready to steel a reel of film from a messenger transporting several reels via motorcycle to its next destination. Just as he’s about to strike, a young girl named Liu (Liu Maocun) snatches one instead, leading to a long chance through the Gobi desert during the last years of the Cultural Revolution.

In this way, the film is part chase film, in which the two trade the film reel and stories about their past as they also attempt to out-maneuver each other in the process. It turns out, one of the reels (not the one they are swapping) is a newsreel containing footage of Zhang’s teenage daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since his imprisonment and divorce from his wife. Liu needs film to make a lamp, to replace one she damaged and therefore keep herself and her younger brother from being harassed by a bunch of older boys. When the pair eventually make it to the village where the film is being shown, they present the missing reel to a Fan Dianying (Fan Wei), better known to the townspeople as Mr. Movie, the local projectionist. When the rest of the footage arrives in town, a reel is badly damaged, and Mr. Movie recruits the locals to help him clean and repair the footage so that the screening of the 1964 propaganda film Heroic Sons and Daughters can screen that night, along with the newsreel.

One Second is perhaps slightly lighter fare from Zhang Yimou, but his ability to grab us and pull us into his storytelling mastery is unmatched. When Zhang Jiusheng finally does get to view the footage of his daughter, the world simply slips away for him. As the title suggests, the glimpse of her is brief, but when Mr. Movie puts the footage of her on a loop, it becomes clear that the restorative power of cinema is alive and well, even in a clearly staged propaganda newsreel celebrating the impact Chairman Mao’s leadership has had on the workforce of China. In a clearly added coda set two years after the movie’s main events, there’s a bit of a heartened uplift that doesn’t feel like a violation or a betrayal of the rest of the movie, but it also isn’t entirely necessary. Even with it, One Second is an exquisite capturing of a specific time and place that will squeeze your heart, make you laugh, and remind you why movies are necessary to our existence. (Steve Prokopy)

The film screens Sun., Oct. 24 at 4:45pm at AMC River East.

Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Passing

Marking actor Rebecca Hall’s filmmaking debut (ChristineVicky Christina BarcelonaThe Prestige), Passing is a nuanced rumination on colorism, friendship, marriage and the expectations put on ourselves and projected onto others. Based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, Hall arrived at the story nearly 15 years ago when the book was recommended to her as she explored her own family’s history of inter-racial marriages and Black Americans passing for white (Hall’s maternal grandfather was, according to her own research, a Black man in Detroit who passed for white). Such a deep understanding of the source material is key to the film’s ultimate success.  And so are the brilliant, quietly fierce performances from the film’s main trio: Tessa Thompson as Irene, an upper-middle-class Black woman living with her family in prohibition-era Harlem; André Holland as her husband, Brian; and Ruth Negga as Clare, the childhood friend she bumps into one day who’s doing such a “good” job of passing for white that her white (and very racist) husband, John (Alexander Skarsgard) is none the wiser.

Reconnected after many years, Clare and Irene rekindle a friendship as adults largely based on Clare’s desire to rediscover the Black community she’s shunned for most of her adulthood; Irene is skeptical at first, but she and Brian eventually welcome Clare back into their life, one that’s full of sophisticated affairs like charitable balls and cocktail parties sparkling with smart conversation. Though the title may imply that Clare is the central figure in Passing, in fact this is Irene’s journey, as she navigates reacquainting herself with a woman who was dealt largely the same cards as she was who opted to play them in very, very different ways. Thompson and Negga are each portraying women with a lot to lose, but as Clare relishes in what she’ll gain as she dips her toe back into her Black culture and community, Irene worries more and more about the family’s unstable position in society given the rampant racism and classism, both systemic and personal, in their lives.

Filmed in black and white and presented in a constrained 4:3 aspect ratio (more of a square than today’s modern widescreen standard), Hall uses every tool in her toolbox to create a sense of nostalgia and history in Passing (let’s talk about those costumes by Marci Rodgers, shall we?). She’s a first time filmmaker, but she’s anything but green, and she arrives to this debut directorial effort with a confidence that anchors the entire film. That sense of purpose carries into the performances, as all three main actors create individuals fighting their own internal battles while they push back against each other, too. Paced with plenty of space to breathe and observe every moment, every interaction, the slow build pays off in spades in the film’s final moments. I gasped, and I bet you will, too. Passing is a film with a seemingly countless number of themes, and digging into any one of them—Irene and Clare’s friendship; Irene and Brian’s marriage; raising Black boys in America; what makes a “real” woman, a “real” wife; and on and on—would only reveal even more layers to this beautifully articulated and deeply felt drama as relevant today as it was nearly a hundred years ago. (Lisa Trifone)

Passing screens Wednesday, October 20 at 7:30p at AMC River East; filmmaker Rebecca Hall is scheduled to appear to receive an Artistic Achievement Award.

The Worst Person in the World

Is it possible to make a coming-of-age film about a grown woman? Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31; Thelma) achieves just that in The Worst Person in the World, a surprisingly poignant story with a protagonist at its center who’s doing her damn best to live up to the film’s title in her own subtle, immature ways. A contemporary relationship drama that spans four years in the life of 29-year-old Julia (Renate Reinsve), Trier (with co-writer Eksil Vogt) creates a narrative that’s as relatable as it is cringey, as every bad decision Julia makes is as familiar as it is reprehensible. Looking towards the end of her twenties with dread, Julia falls into a mostly comfortable and, from the outside looking in, enviable relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). They’re on the same page about quite a lot, but when it comes to the fundamentals like their future together and the children they will or won’t have, they’re about as far apart as night and day. In an early scene, the two head to a family lake house for a weekend away, relegated to a small guest room with bunk beds since they’re the only ones without kids. The fight sparked because of it is equal parts biting and mundane; Julia keeps asking if they can stop talking about it, Aksel wants to get to the bottom of their conflict.

A chance encounter at a party one night results in perhaps the most sensual scenes in any film this year, even though not a single romantic gesture is exchanged. Julia is very careful about this; as deeply attractive as she finds this mystery man, she won’t cheat on Aksel. So instead, the two share one of those magical nights of connection where you can say anything or do anything and still be infinitely intriguing to (and intrigued by) the other person. It almost doesn’t matter what happens between them after they part ways, but Trier isn’t done with us (or them) yet. Soon, Julia’s relationship with Aksel is on the rock and again, their breakup is so well written it’s as if we’re watching a documentary; anyone who’s ended a long-term relationship will recognize themselves in their painful back and forth (and even the break-up sex).

A film like this depends on a strong lead performance, and Reinsve more than delivers, creating a character as much in conflict with herself as she is the men in her life. But it’s all with a breezy, seemingly unearned confidence, one that only seems to be shaken when she’s forced to confront just what she’s doing with her life (which is, in this case, fairly often). By the third act, when tragedy strikes a bit too close to home, it’s as if we watch Julia mature right before our eyes. She’s still not always capable of making the best decisions for herself or those around her, but she’s learning that life doesn’t always care about that, charging ahead for better or worse, with or without us. (Lisa Trifone)

The Worst Person in the World screens Thursday, October 21 at 7:45p at AMC River East, as well as on the Festival’s virtual platform.

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