On Saturday and Sunday (October 14 and 15) at the Chicago International Film Festival, there’s plenty to experience at the festival’s many screenings and events. In fact, these two days are the fest’s busiest, as organizers count on audiences spending their weekend at the event; screenings begin early and continue until after midnight, while the Industry Days conference continues and more.
A family-centric documentary that delves into broader conversations around Black outcomes in healthcare, racial biases in professional settings and more, Bike Vessel may be one of the best-kept secrets of this year’s festival. Filmmaker Eric D. Seals may not be the most polished craftsman in a line-up boasting Herzog, Lanthimos, Miyazaki and more, but he has every bit as much heart, all of which is on display in this story of the journey, both literal and figurative, he and his father embark on to recognize the fifth anniversary of the elder Seals taking up cycling as a way to stay fit after open-heart surgeries. Their decision to bike the 100-plus miles from St. Louis to Chicago seems arbitrary at first—no one is expecting or requesting they do this—but as Seals shares with his audience and discovers for himself along the way, sometimes the best lessons are learned when we force ourselves out of our comfort zones and truly try to see what we’re made of.
Bike Vessel weaves together the father-son adventure with family histories and home movies that recount the kind of wholesome—and not exactly heart-healthy—life the Seals family enjoyed as father Donnie and his wife raise their three young children in (very white) suburban Chicago. With extended family facing health issues and Donnie undergoing three of his own major surgeries, he takes on cycling with all the gusto of someone falling newly in love. It’s exciting, slightly terrifying but consumes him completely. The men train and plan, and though they face many challenges (and flat tires) along the way from Missouri to Chicago, they ultimately show up for each other in ways it can be hard to in everyday life. Like the journey itself, Bike Vessel is a labor of love, and it shows. (Lisa Trifone)
Bike Vessel screens multiple times throughout the festival, and is available on the festival’s virtual platform.
In the deeply unsettling latest from director/co-writer Jessica Hausner (Little Joe), Mia Wasikowska plays nutrition teacher Ms. Novak, a new recruit at an elite British boarding school who instructs her small group of seven students on the benefits of “conscious eating”—basically, staring at each bite before you take it, forcing you to contemplate exactly how much food you ingest, and a bit of meditation thrown in to add a vaguely spiritual undertone to the whole proceeding. Since a parents group found and supported Novak’s hiring, they are fully behind the idea of their children eating better and healthier. But after trying various strategies toward eating less, Novak reveals that her true goal is to have the children join an elite group of non-eaters called Club Zero, meaning they take in no food and somehow believe this is a sustainable lifestyle. By the time the parents and the school’s leader Ms. Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen) realize what’s happening, the kids are fully under Novak’s cult-like control.
Wasikowska offers up a sinister take on a nurturing guide through healthy living and wellness culture, but the way in which she manipulates these children with subtle pressure, playing off their desire to belong to something special, is hypnotic and disturbing. Even the one student who is only taking the class to boost his standardized test scores gets transformed. There are elements of horror that underscore the sometimes satirical tone of the film, but regardless of how you interpret Club Zero, it will likely make you deeply uncomfortable with its brief dalliances into the grotesque limits of the malnourished human body and the fluidity of the human mind. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2:15pm at AMC NEWCITY.
One of the finest disaster movies in recent memory, South Korea’s Concrete Utopia isn’t really a disaster movie at all. Instead, the latest from director Um Tae-hwa (Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned) is about the sociological aftermath of an earthquake that levels all of Seoul, turning it into an apocalyptical wasteland, save a high-rise apartment building, the Hwang Gung Apartments—the only evidence that civilization once existed here. There are many survivors, but its the residents of this structure who suddenly have all the resources and power because they still have homes. At first, the survivors are allowed to take up residence in the lobby, and some residents let survivors stay with them, resulting in a cooperative community that quickly crumbles as food and other essentials become scarce. The film centers on a young couple, Min-seong (Parasite’s Park Seo-jun) and Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), who have differing views about how the outsiders should be handled, their points of view amplified by the rest of the building’s tenants.
When the building elects a leader (a fiery Lee Byung-hun, I Saw the Devil), he makes the hard choice to throw out every non-resident, thus inciting something resembling a civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor. When the rules of class suddenly shift, civility goes out the window and savagery becomes the new norm. Concrete Utopia is a staggering piece of social commentary, pulling no punches as both a thriller and a darkly funny statement about Korea’s obsession regarding real estate. And we haven’t even gotten to the large-scale action set pieces and fairly brutal moments of violence that have more to do with punishment than fighting. In light of recent news events, this film is going to hit even harder and more squarely in the gut than when I first saw just a few weeks ago. Brace yourself, because this one isn’t messing around. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens on Saturday, Oct. 14, 7:45pm at AMC NEWCITY, and Monday, Oct. 16 at 1pm at AMC NEWCITY. Director Tae-hwa Um is scheduled to attend both screenings.
To call The Delinquents (Los delincuentes) a revisionist take on the heist movie—as I have seen it called since its premiere at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard program—is foolish at best, pretentious at worst. Yes, a bank robbery is involved. But the film is so mundane, so matter-of-fact, so impulsive, that I don’t understand that comparison. Director and writer Rodrigo Moreno focuses part one of his two-part film on the robbery and its consequences. Morán (Daniel Elías) and Román (Esteban Bigliardi) work for a Buenos Aires bank whose decor seems to date back to the ’70s. Bored with his 9-to-5 life, Morán steals $650,000 from the bank’s vault and blackmails Román into keeping it for him for three and a half years, the amount of time he expects to spend in jail for his deed. Román becomes the number one suspect by default (most of the staff is demoted or fired after an investigation) and he heads to the Cordoba hills to hide the money. Part Two takes a Rohmer-esque turn when Román meets an easygoing trio (Norma, her sister Morna and her lover Ramón) by a nearby creek and is invited to spend the time with them drinking wine, swimming and talking about film, life and whatever existential theme comes to mind. Add a romantic rivalry involving Morán and, voilá, it’s the French New Wave all over again.
The problem is that Moreno lacks Rohmer’s light touch, observational acumen and deep insights on human nature. He is also trapped by the needs of the genre; Part One is, without a doubt, the best part of the film with its interrogations, prison sequences and Román’s own fears of being caught. Participating in the Festival’s International Competition and Argentina’s Official Selection to the Oscar for Best International Feature, Moreno is at times too clever and conceited for his own good: from the word game where his characters’ names are scrambled in a sort of cinematic game of scrabble (Ramón, Norma, Morán, Morna, Román), pans and tilts that lead nowhere, and scenes involving nature filmmaking. While a refusal to adhere to narrative conventions is always welcome, in The Delinquents, that refusal comes across as pretentious; the results are, more often than not, dull. And at more than three hours, The Delinquents demands too much of its audience with too little rewards. (Alejandro Riera)
The Delinquents screens Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8:30p at AMC Newcity and Sunday, Oct. 15 at 7:15pm at Gene Siskel Film Center. Filmmaker Rodrigo Moreno is scheduled to attend both screenings.
Late Night with the Devil
Although he’s become one of the most in-demand, always-reliable character actors of his generation, David Dastmalchian (Marvel’s Ant-Man franchise, The Suicide Squad, Oppenheimer, The Last Voyage of the Demeter) rarely gets a chance to shine in a lead role outside of films he’s written himself (Animals, All Creatures Here Below). But with Late Night with the Devil, Dastmalchian has revealed leading-man charm that hasn’t been expressed by the actor to this degree at any point in his career, and the results are dazzling while the film is genuinely terrifying. Directed by Colin & Cameron Cairnes (100 Bloody Acres), the film is meant to be a documentary about a legendary broadcast featuring fictional ’70s talk show host Jack Delroy (Dastmalchian), whose ratings are sinking fast to the point where he is forced to book unusual talent in order to boost viewership (often unsuccessfully). He’s also had a recent tragedy in his life, which makes planning his 1977 Halloween episode all the more interesting.
Supposedly using behind-the-scenes footage from an unaired French documentary team that just happened to be in the studio that night, as well as the actual broadcast material, the film shows the night that Delroy has on as guests 13-year-old Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), the sole survivor of a Satanic mass suicide, and her doctor, parapsychologist Dr. June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), who attempts on-air to get the entity within Lilly to reveal itself so Delroy can speak to it and possibly exorcise the girl. Shockingly, things don’t go as planned. Something about the film’s ’70s aesthetic and attitudes makes Late Night with the Devil all the more authentic and fun, and this is one of the best examples of how found-footage can be turned into something beautiful and not just shaky nonsense. Dastmalchian’s portrayal of Delroy is pure entertainer, cracking jokes even as it’s clear something is going horribly wrong. But backstage, he’s a cynical, hard-driven host who’s struggling to keep his show afloat. It takes a while to get to the blood and guts, but once they arrive, you’ll wish they hadn’t. And the film makes it clear that Dastmalchian’s presence in a film simply makes it better. He’s smart about selecting material, and the results speak for themselves, as does this wildly enjoyable period horror show. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens on Sunday, Oct. 15, 9:15pm at Music Box Theatre. Lead actor David Dastmalchian is scheduled to attend. The film also screens on Thursday, Oct. 19, 1:15pm at AMC NEWCITY.
The Space Race
Directed by Lisa Cortés (Little Richard: I Am Everything; All In: The Fight for Democracy) and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (producer on The Redeem Team), The Space Race is a breathtaking examination of Black astronauts whose contributions to the American space program were substantial yet largely unknown by the masses. Beginning with the shameful tale of Ed Dwight, who was handpicked by President Kennedy to be the first African-American in space and subsequently dropped from the mission, the film moves through history to examine the inherent racism of the NASA astronaut program in its earliest days (referred to as the “White Stuff” by some) to more sweeping attempts to normalize the selection of non-white, non-male candidates through the decades, and introducing us to such astronauts as Victor Glover, Charles Bolden, Guion Bluford, and Mae Jemison.
Anchored by a seemingly endless supply of archival footage and revealing new interviews, The Space Race also explains how the unfulfilled promise of Black space travel led to the Afrofuturism movement, especially among musicians like George Clinton, Sun Ra, and Earth Wind & Fire, as well as science fiction writer Octavia Butler. I also particularly loved how many of these astronauts were inspired by a recruitment campaign led by Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, who made a series of short films designed to get people of color interested in joining the NASA team in some capacity. There’s also a section of the film that reveals that the first Black astronaut wasn’t American at all; he was a Cuban cosmonaut who went up on a Russian mission, meant to underscore how racist America was when it came to who was allowed to travel to space. This inspirational film serves as a type of alternative history lesson that dares to turn the camera away from the well-known NASA stories and toward the men and women whose contributions were massive and whose names are just as worthy of the label “trailblazer.” This is easily one of the best documentaries of the year. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens Sunday, Oct. 15, 2pm at Chicago History Museum, and on Monday, Oct. 16, 2:30pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Directors Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoz are scheduled to attend both shows.
The Teachers’ Lounge
Set entirely in a high school, its halls, classrooms and yes, teacher’s lounge, Ilker Çatak’s The Teachers’ Lounge creates as much on-screen tension and uncertainty as any gory thriller. Leonie Benesch is Carla Nowak, a new teacher who’s in her first semester at the school and is still finding her footing with her pupils and colleagues when she’s called into a meeting with a young student accused of stealing. The conversation does not go as planned, but even worse is the conversation with his parents, where they confirm he had the extra money in his wallet for a purchase they’d asked him to make. But the damage has been done, and everyone in the school is on alert for a thief; Carla even sets a sort of trap to see if these petty crimes are really happening. What she discovers causes a rift in the fragile society of the school that pits students against students, colleagues against colleagues and a whole slew of parents against Carla herself.
Benesch trembles throughout, sometimes with anger, sometimes with self-righteousness. Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker are wise to not draw lines that are too clear; Carla isn’t always in the right, but she is always seeking the truth. The Teachers’ Lounge is a stark example of what happens when we assume those with whom we coexist—at work, on community boards, on our intramural teams—live by the same principles as we do, and well…assuming, right? Though the stakes here are never higher than a few Euros, Çatak notches the anxiety up to a degree that it’s clear there’s much more on the line than that. (Lisa Trifone)
The Teachers’ Lounge screens Saturday, Oct. 14 at 5:15pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center and Sunday, Oct. 15 at 5:15pm at AMC NewCity. Director Ilak Çatak is scheduled to attend both screenings.
Through the Night
Marking the feature debut for writer/director Delphine Girard, the Belgian Through the Night presents the story of Aly (Selma Alaoui), who calls 911 operator Anna (Veerle Baetens) while riding in the passenger seat of a car burning down a mostly empty road, driven by Dary (Guillaume Duhesme) who is drunk, angry, and reckless behind the wheel. Aly is pretending to talk to her sister, who is looking after Aly’s young daughter, while Anna is slowly figuring out the code that Aly is inventing to convey the situation. The police quickly find the car and arrest Dary for kidnapping, even though that’s not exactly what’s happening. More importantly, in her statement to the investigating officer, Aly says that just before they took off down the road, Dary sexually assaulted her. But as she tells her story of the entire evening, you can feel the officer (and, frankly, the audience) begin to see where a defense attorney would poke holes in her account.
At points in the film, director Girard shows us small slivers of the actual events, letting us know whose account of the night’s event we’re seeing. Dary claims everything was consensual, and with no criminal record, plus Aly wanting to withdraw the accusation at one point, the case becomes a frustrating he said/she said event. Through the Night gives us glimpses into all three characters’ home lives, to the point where both Aly and Dary seem like credible people, while Anna’s interest in the case is unusual for a 911 operator, and we begin to suspect she has very personal reasons for wanting to know the outcome of this case. The film is smart, measured, and beautifully keeps Aly’s barely concealed mental wounds at the forefront of every perspective. The filmmaker gets us to care about each one of these lives to the point where, whatever the truth may be, we’re invested in the outcome and whose life or lives get ruined by the truth being revealed. (Steve Prokopy)
The film screens on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 8pm at Gene Siskel Film Center.