The 58th Chicago International Film Festival ends Sunday and Chicago movie fans will be sad to see it go. But Chicago has many other film festivals, which although smaller in scale and red carpet glamour, still bring new and intriguing films to us.
The festival is announcing its award winners today and we’ll have a recap of all of them on Monday. Categories include International Feature Film Competition, New Directors Competition, International Documentary Competition, OutLook Competition, and Short Film Competitions, as well as the Chicago Award for an outstanding program in the festival’s City & State program, and the Roger Ebert Award, awarded to a film competing in the New Directors Competition.
But the weekend is here! We have capsule reviews of seven intriguing international and domestic films for you.
In Saint Omer, filmmaker Alice Diop applies her documentary skills to her first narrative film, based on an actual event that gripped France in 2016. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), a young Senegalese immigrant, is accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her on the beach at night to be drowned by the tide. Diop uses transcripts from the hearings on the French culture. Most of the film takes place in the claustrophobic courtroom in Saint Omer, a town in northeastern France.
The parallel story in Saint Omer is that of Rama (Kayije Kagame), a Senegalese-French professor and writer who’s working on a modern-day adaptation of the Medea myth; she comes to Saint Omer to see the trial as part of the research for her project. The video below is the powerful opening scene in Rama’s lecture hall, where Rama as professor sets the scene for the story to come. Rama’s character is based on the filmmaker herself, who attended the Coly trial.
Malanda’s performance as Laurence is calm and steadfast; she is a cipher. We don’t know whether to believe her or despise her. The film incorporates scenes of the two women as children with their own mothers. Ultimately, we can empathize with both of them. (Nancy Bishop)
Saint Omer will screen at 5:15pm Saturday, October 22, at AMC River East.
All the Beauty and Bloodshed
A wildly impactful documentary from Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras (The Oath, Risk, Citizenfour), All the Beauty and Bloodshed tracks the life and career of photographer and activist Nan Goldin, known for her stark and intimate images of fellow artists and friends, all frequenters of the New York underground culture and drug scene circa the 1980s. The film weaves between Goldsmith’s traumatic childhood—from her elder sister’s suicide to her parents effectively giving up on her and turning her over to the foster system—to her early years in the art world. Because of her success and fame as a photographer, she is in a unique position to lend her name to the current battle against the opioid crisis, particularly against the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical dynasty responsible for the creation and mass marketing of oxycontin.
The Sacklers also happen to have a massive art collection, which they loan out to many major museums around the world, and they donate millions every year to keep open entire wings of galleries. But Goldin and her compatriots staged elaborate protests at major museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Guggenheim (both in New York), and she also threatens to pull her art from any gallery that features the Sackler name anywhere within its walls, with surprisingly effective results. As intimate as her subject’s work, Poitras’ film is often painful (Goldin’s journey is very personal, since she was once an opioid addict herself), while also being inspirational, since these protests result in a rare example of seismic shifts in the art world. It’s a powerful and worthy experience. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens at 5:30pm Saturday, October 22, at AMC River East.
Empire of Light
Set in the very early 1980s at a movie palace in a seaside English town, writer/director Sam Mendes’ latest, Empire of Light, centers on Hilary (Olivia Colman), the quiet veteran-most employee who is surrounded by teenagers and 20-somethings as coworkers and never actually watches the movies that play in the theater because she doesn’t want to take up any seats from the customers (even thought the theater is never remotely near capacity). We also find out she’s has a history of bipolar disorder that led to a breakdown months earlier. But thanks to medication, she’s back at work, if in a slightly subdued form. Mendes takes his time settling into the story and does more establishing than storytelling at first. We discover that Hilary is having an illicit affair with her married boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), and is starting to feel cheapened by the entire situation. We meet the gruff projectionist Norman (Toby Jones) who lets no one into his booth, as well as Hilary colleague Neil (Tom Brooke), who looks after this tight-knit group of employees and even alerts Hilary when certain secrets of hers are in danger of coming to light.
The film starts to gain focus when new employee Stephen (Micheal Ward) arrives and takes an interest in both the theater’s inner-workings (even Norman lets him help out in the booth) and in Hilary, who is many years his senior but still very interesting herself. Empire of Light doesn’t ignore what’s going on in the UK at the time—Thatcher’s reign, the rise of skinheads (who target Stephen because he’s Black), or the current films .of the time (the film’s climax takes place during a regional premiere of Chariots of Fire) But it doesn’t exactly look much below the surface of history either, and perhaps that’s the point: working in such a place makes time stand still, until you step outside its doors. Not unexpectedly, Hilary’s grasp on her mental health begins to crumble again after she stops taking her meds, thinking she doesn’t need them any longer. Colman is so good in all things, she sells this story point without too much trouble, although a particularly public display of crazy during the premiere seems ridiculous and gratuitous. Still, a film shot in a movie palace (by cinematographer Roger Deakins no less) is hard to completely dismiss or dislike. I was in awe of this particular venue, past its prime but still stunning. As a whole, the film doesn’t quite come together satisfactorily, but it’s a curious and visually compelling journey. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens at 5pm Saturday, October 22, at AMC River East.
This entertaining film from India blends science fiction with magical realism and ends up being a disturbingly emotional story of relationships gone awry. Writer-director Karan Gour creates a thought-provoking film, starring husband-wife actors Mukul Chadda and Rasika Dugal as husband and wife Mohit and Ritika. When their car stalls on a dark country road, they call an Uber, which picks them up promptly; what they don’t realize is that a woodland creature (humanoid or replicant, if you prefer) follows them home. When there’s a knock on their door, Mohit opens it and admits the genderless, hairless, naked being, who neither speaks nor responds at first. Mohit and Ritika don’t do what you or I might do and call the police or the department of human services to come and take this homeless person to a shelter. Instead they clothe him and feed him. Mohit, using bird calls on his phone, trains the being to respond and act: Sit, stand, serve us drinks, feed Ritika. The being becomes a household helper and one night Mohit shows him some affection and gratitude. The next morning, the being has shapeshifted into a fully formed human (including the previously missing parts), speaking fluently and thinking very much like Mohit himself.
Punctuating the quiet and intense home scenes are Mohit and Ritika’s get-togethers with friends; they introduce the new human, who they call Kabir (Chandrachoor Rai) as a visiting cousin. Kabir takes a fancy to Ritika, leaving Mohit without a partner; the couple decide they need a female replicant to even things out. Driving back to the forest, they send Kabir to find another woodland creature. And that’s only the middle of the story, which ends sadly and enigmatically.
Director Gour wrote a complete screenplay but most of the scenes in Fairy Folk are improvised; the party and card game scenes are naturalistic and improved by the technique. The story is not unlike Ian McEwan’s 2019 novel, Machines Like Me, set in a fictionalized 1982 London, when Charlie Friend uses an inheritance to buy himself a replicant named Adam. A love triangle ensues with Adam and Charlie’s girlfriend Miranda. Machines Like Me would make a good movie too. (Nancy Bishop)
The film will screen at 7pm Sunday, October 23, at AMC River East.
All Jacked Up and Full of Worms
I don’t find worms that gross, which probably explains my slightly tempered but still enthusiastic reaction to the latest microbudget horror outing from writer/director Alex Phillips (Who’s A Good Boy). This sex and gore trip through the back alleys of Chicago, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms at the very least deserves an award for best horror movie title. Desperate for a child for reasons I can only imagine (and would rather not), Benny Boom (Trevor Dawkins) meets up with sex worker Henrietta hoping she can help; thankfully, she can’t but she does connect him with Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), a sketchy hotel maintenance man as well as a small tin of hallucinogenic earthworms. Before long, the three fellow deviant travelers embark on a trippy path of psychotic behavior and warped, surreal visions that lead them down a trail of death and destruction. I’ll fully admit, the film eventually wore me down and exhausted me, partly because the energy level of the whole production is at full tilt pretty much from frame one, but also because the film loses its focus as it dives deeper into its psychedelic visual odyssey. I didn’t find it disturbing or cringy (although many certainly will), and I truly loved the out-there performances, which thankfully didn’t simply come down to people yelling at each other for 75 minutes. I fell in love with the vibe of the piece, while not being completely pulled in by the attempts to shock and disgust. If the characters had been eating bugs, then maybe we could talk. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens today at 9:30pm today, Friday, October 21, at the Music Box Theatre.
Using a combination of modern horror touches, culturally specific folklore, and the terrors of immigrants’ stories, especially those coming to America, first-time writer/director Nikyatu Jusu has fashioned the story of a Senegalese woman named Aisha (Anna Diop, Us), who has recently emigrated to New York City, leaving her young son behind, and has taken a job caring for the young daughter (Rose Decker) of an affluent white couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector). The Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film piles on the overwhelming pressures being put on Aisha and the pain of being away from her child and turns those anxieties into nightmare fuel, heightened by some impressive visual effects that transform her inner turmoil into something that feels very external and unsettling. Even when Aisha finds time for a new romantic interest in her life, Malik (Sinqua Walls), she can never let her guard down, since the rest of her life, with shifting power dynamics at work and increased pressures to earn money to bring her son to New York, is in such a precarious state. This is yet another excellent example of a filmmaker using the horror framework to tell a very troubling tale of inner drama and turmoil. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens at 6pm today, Friday, October 21, at AMC River East.
The Novelist’s Film
Prolific South Korean director Hong Sangsoo weaves a meandering story—really, a conversation—about life and art. The film revolves around Junhee, a famous writer suffering from writer’s block—or perhaps she’s just through with writing—played by Lee Hyeyoung, a veteran actor in Korean TV. She travels from Seoul to spend a day visiting a friend who runs a bookstore. Later she goes sightseeing at a modernist tower where she meets a director with whom she once worked; he was adapting one of her novels for film but never completed the project. They decide to walk in the nearby park, where they meet a famous actor Kilsoo (Kim Min-hee), who has retired from acting. The director berates her for wasting her talent and Junhee shouts at him for intruding on something that’s none of his business. Junhee and Kilsoo walk, talk and stop in a café; Junhee proposes that she will write and produce her own short film, featuring Kilsoo and perhaps Kilsoo’s artist husband. What will the story be, Kilsoo asks. Well, I’ll decide when I’m sure who the actors will be, Junhee replies.
This film—his 27th—is a semi-disjointed series of scenes shot in black and white about the creative process and sometimes about filmmaking, including a conversation with a poet who is an old drinking buddy of Junhee. The novelist has stopped drinking “because I want to live.” Drinking is part of writing, the poet tells her. “If I drink, I can write.” Ultimately, there’s a finished film ready to be screened for Kilsoo. Be sure to stay for the credits to see the end of The Novelist’s Film. (Nancy Bishop)
The film screens at 6pm today, Friday, October 21, at AMC River East.
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