After having to go virtual last year, the 57th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival offers viewers a cross between the old ways and the new normal. Running October 13-24, the festival will once again be unspooling at a number of local theaters—the AMC River East 21, the Music Box, the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Pilsen ChiTown Movies drive-in—with Covid protocols in place (and many of the films playing will also be available virtually as well). Beyond that, things are more or less the same—a celluloid smorgasbord comprised of more than 80 features and 60 shorts, covering everything from some of the year’s most eagerly awaited titles to less-heralded offerings from emerging filmmakers who look to help shape the course of cinema in the years to come.
This year’s Opening Night selection is “The French Dispatch,” the latest work from idiosyncratic filmmaker Wes Anderson and one that works overtime to remind you of that fact. The title refers to a New Yorker-style magazine based in the French city of Ennui-sur-Blase that is staffed by a group of expatriate journalists under the benevolent leadership of founder and editor Arthur Howitzer Jr (Bill Murray). The film consists of five vignettes meant to represent stories from the magazine’s final issue, beginning with a tour of the seedier areas of town from the Cycling Reporter (Owen Wilson) “The Concrete Masterpiece” tells the story of an incarcerated painter (Benicio del Toro), the beautiful guard (Lea Seydoux) who becomes his muse and the art dealer (Adrien Brody) who is convinced that he is going to be the next big thing in the art world and spares no expense to make it happen. “Revisions of a Manifesto” finds its writer (Frances McDormand) covering a student revolution and getting too close to one of its leaders (Timothee Chalamet). “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” finds its writer (Jeffrey Wright) recounting how a celebrated police cook (Steven Park) becomes involved in the rescue effort of the police commissioner’s kidnapped son. Last, but not least, is an epitaph for both a recently deceased figure and for the magazine itself.
To describe the film as “overstuffed” would be to wildly undersell it. With a massive ensemble, Anderson uses every stylistic trick in the book he can think off—shifting aspect ratios, switching from black-and-white cinematography to color and even rendering an elaborate car chase in animation—to such a degree that his previous films almost seem staid by comparison. However, as someone who is a fan of most of Anderson’s previous films, and is an ardent reader of The New Yorker and a devotee of French culture, I confess that I enjoyed every crackpot moment of it from the droll sight gags to the performances to the lovely visuals. Because it is made up of a group of smaller stories instead of one central one, it does feel like a bit of a trifle when compared to something like “Rushmore” or “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but it’s still pretty much a delight from start to finish.
“The French Dispatch” screens at 7pm on Wednesday, October 13th, followed by David Gordon Green’s “Halloween Kills” at 10pm, while Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” (reviewed below) screens at 7pm at the ChiTown Movies Drive-In (click here for tickets).
Among the other big gala events at the festival is “C’mon C’mon,” Mike Mills’ drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as a radio producer who returns home in the hopes of reconnecting with his family and finds himself forced into caring for his young nephew, which will play as the Centerpiece selection. This year’s Closing Night presentation is “King Richard,” which tells the true story of how determined father Richard Williams (Will Smith) raised and nurtured his two young daughters—you may know them as Venus and Serena—into accomplishing their dreams. Kenneth Branagh, whose oeuvre as a filmmaker covers everything from “Hamlet” to “Thor,” is scheduled to appear in order to receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award at a tribute that will also include a screening of his latest film, the highly acclaimed semi-autobiographical drama “Belfast.” Actress Rebecca Hall will also be on hand to receive the Artistic Achievement Award and to present her directorial debut, “Passing,” a drama set in 1929 Harlem about two childhood friends (Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson) who reconnect and learn that they are now living on opposite sides of the color line.
Other big-ticket items include the local premieres of “Dune,” the latest attempt to wrestle Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 sci-fi novel into a workable film, this time under the direction of Denis Villeneuve and with an all-star cast comprised of seemingly every actor who didn’t get hired for “The French Dispatch” (with Timothée Chalamet appearing in both). “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s contemplation of the final days of Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, will let viewers see if Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Diana lives up to the hype that it has been accumulating since the moment it was announced she was cast in the role. Unfortunately, “The Last Duel,” Ridley Scott’s delayed historical drama set in medieval France, turns out to have been not worth the wait.
In addition to those cited above, the festival features the latest works from a number of the world’s leading filmmakers. Having won the festival’s top prize in 2019 with her acclaimed period drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” Celine Sciamma returns with her follow-up, “Petite Maman,” a low-key bit of magical realism in which an eight-year-old girl travels to her mother’s childhood home following the death of her grandmother and makes friends with another girl her age whose identity turns out to be a surprise. Sciamma also pulls double-duty at this year’s fest by serving as one of the screenwriters for “Paris, 13th District,” Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of a trio of short graphic novels by illustrator Adrian Tomine chronicling the romantic and emotional entanglements of a quartet of young adults living in the titular area of Paris. Beautifully photographed in black-and-white, filled with winning performances and evidently hell-bent on single-handedly making up for the recent lack of big-screen sexual activity, this one is a real charmer that should delight audiences.
Another beguiling drama, one that contemplates both matters of the heart and the artistic process, is “Bergman Island,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s look at two American filmmakers (Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps), a couple with a child, who travel to the island where Ingmar Bergman spent his final years to take part in a writing seminar and plan out their own respective projects. Roth also turns up in Michel Franco’s “Sundown,” in which he plays a wealthy man who responds to the news of the death of his mother by hiding out in a cheap tourist hotel in Mexico and avoids all contact with his family, especially his increasingly outraged sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The festival will also screen the latest works from Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), Pedro Almodovar (“Parallel Mothers”), Asghar Farhadi (“A Hero”), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Memoria”), Zhang Yimou (“One Second”) and Joachim Trier (“The Worst Person in the World”) and their respective past oeuvres alone should make all of these must-see films.
Of course, a strong past filmography is no guarantee of quality, which certainly proves to be the case with “The Hand of God,” Paolo Sorrentino’s semi-autobiographical drama about growing up in Naples in the 1980s and the events that eventually inspired him to want to become a filmmaker. The inspiration for this film is clearly “Amarcord,” Federico Fellini’s own classic coming-of-age drama (Fellini even becomes a plot point here when one of the characters auditions to be an extra in his latest film), but the problem is that this is the kind of autobiographical portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-young-man saga in which every person we see seems to be all too aware that they are characters in an autobiographical portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-young-man saga and overact accordingly.
This year’s documentary slate is headlined by “The Velvet Underground,” Todd Haynes’ eagerly anticipated examination of the low-selling and short-lived but highly influential group that emerged from the New York underground scene in the late Sixties (with a little help from Andy Warhol) and helped make the late Lou Reed into one of the leading songwriters of his generation. This is not the first time that Haynes has made a film revolving around the notable musical acts of that time but in those cases—“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (1987), “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) and “I’m Not There” (2007), he used fictional techniques to examine the legacies of Carpenter, David Bowie, and Bob Dylan, respectively. Actually, that approach might have helped this film because of the two major hurdles for anyone attempting a documentary of the group—the death of Lou Reed and the dearth of any significant performance footage from the band in their heyday. Thanks to the absence of such material, the resulting film inevitably feels somewhat incomplete but outside of that, Haynes does a fairly skillful job of blending together lots of photos and archival materials with new interviews with musicians, fans and former group members John Cale and Moe Tucker in a way that should satisfy fans while serving as a primer for a new generation of listeners.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a film festival without at least one documentary about the world of cinema and that base is covered by “The Story of Film: A New Generation,” Mark Cousins’ epic-length continuation of his 2011 film “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” that utilizes clips from a wide variety of recent movies to explore the dominant themes of contemporary cinema and where things are heading in the future. Documentaries about famous cooks are also popular these days and this year’s fest offers two examples of that subgenre—“Julia” is a friendly-but-familiar look at the life and career of Julia Child that’s entertaining enough and “Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter” offers a look at the Chicago culinary icon and chronicles the rise and fall of the empire that he created with a driven attitude that revolutionized cooking but alienated many among the way. Another moving documentary is “Any Given Day,” a locally produced work from Margaret Byrne in which she follows a trio of people who have enlisted in a probation program established in Chicago that was designed for those with mental illness and ends up beginning to confront her own issues with depression. The film does a keen job of exposing the holes in the social safety net while at the same time celebrating the small triumphs that still manage to occur along the way.
Documentaries about notable locals also drive this year’s Black Perspectives section, a sidebar dedicated to the telling of Black stories from around the world. “Oscar Micheaux—The Superhero of Black Filmmaking” recounts the fascinating story of one of the true, if largely unsung, pioneers of African-American cinema—a man who wrote, produced and directed more than 44 films (most notably 1925’s “Body and Soul,” which featured the screen debut of Paul Robeson) and wrote six novels chronicling the Black experience before his death in 195. Joe Winston’s “Punch 9 for Harold Washington” recounts in incredible detail how Washington defied all odds to be elected Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983, and chronicles how he combated his political enemies during a reign that was cut short by his untimely death in 1987, a few months after winning reelection. Another documentary about a groundbreaking African American is “Citizen Ashe,” which charts legendary tennis champion Arthur Ashe as he transformed from being an apolitical athlete to someone determined to use his name and fame to help engineer social change, an approach that many athletes continue to use to this day. On the lighter side of things, “The Harder They Fall” is an old-fashioned Western saga about two outlaws—Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) and Rufus Buck (Idris Elba)—who prepare for a revenge-fueled confrontation after the latter is released from prison.
Another one of the festival’s long-running sidebars is Out-Look, which is designed to highlight films reflecting the worldwide LGBTQ+ community. This year, the program’s top draw will undoubtedly be “Mayor Pete,” Jesse Moss’ look at Pete Buttigieg’s attempt in 2020 to becoming America’s first LGBTQ president and the youngest person to ever hold office. There are times when the film begins to veer dangerously close to hagiography and I could have lived without Moss underscoring the film’s climax with a needle drop of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” but when it focuses on the nuts and bolts of political campaigning in this day and age, it is undeniably fascinating. Even more engrossing is “Flee,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s striking blend of animation and archival footage that relates the story of Amin Nawabi, who fled Kabul as a child in the mid-’90s and embarked on a journey that took him from Russia to Denmark in search of a new home and later tries to come to terms with his experiences before embarking on a new life with his soon-to-be husband. “Acts of Love” is a locally produced documentary/fiction hybrid in which filmmaker Isidore Bethel, reeling from the end of a romance in Mexico, hits upon the idea of channeling his anger and sadness by casting strangers in a film that will use the incident as a way of exploring the nature of current-day gay male relationships. (His mother, on the other hand, is less than thrilled with the idea of the project.) On the fully fictional end, “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (who also directed another film in this year’s lineup, “Drive My Car”) is a lovely work which initially feels like a single feature version of one of those multi-film collections from Eric Rohmer before going off in its own distinctive direction with its triptych of tales that examine themes of love, chance, and coincidence involving a trio of very different women.
“Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and a number of other titles are playing here after having made other stops on this year’s festival circuit. One of them is “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porno,” which won the top prize at Berlin and is perhaps the wildest film in the entire lineup—a scathing black comedy about a schoolteacher forced to answer to a tribunal of parents about whether she should be fired from her job when a sex tape she made with her husband accidentally turns up online that features one of the more unforgettable climaxes in recent memory. Another title from Berlin is “Fabian: Going to the Dogs,” Dominik Graf’s sprawling, occasionally uneven but often compelling adaptation of the classic Erich Kästner novel chronicling life in Berlin in the 1920s, the turbulent period following one war and leading to another. Eva Husson’s “Mothering Sunday” chronicles the surreptitious final meeting between house maid Jane (Odessa Young) and her secret lover, the privileged Paul (Josh O’Connor), before he goes off to marry another woman in an ultimately attempt to create a sexed-up version of a Merchant-Ivory film that is enlivened only by Young’s performance. A late addition to the fest lineup is “Happening,” Audrey Diwan’s adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s novel chronicling her attempts to get a then-illegal abortion in France in the Sixties that is making its North American debut after winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. And while the festival was unable to acquire Paul Verhoeven’s already-controversial “Benedetta,” it did snag “Madeleine Collins,” which also stars rising French actress Virginie Efira. Here, she plays a woman living in France with her husband and two teenage sons and who nevertheless spends several days each week living in Switzerland with another man and his young daughter. Dramatically, the story is a little questionable at times, but Efira manages to save it with a strong and convincing performance.
Finally, if your cinematic tastes tend to stray towards the more outré outings, the After Dark sidebar should be up your alley. This year, it kicks off with an advance screening of “Halloween Kills,” the second of David Gordon Green’s planned trilogy of films reviving one of the most iconic of horror franchises. (If this booking seems odd, consider that the original “Halloween” played at the 1978 edition of the festival and was one of its most talked-about titles.) Another long-delayed horror entry that is screening is “Antlers,” Scott Cooper’s tale of a teacher (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons) in a remote Oregon town who become involved with a child (Jeremy T. Thomas) who may have a connection to a terrifying creature out of Native American folklore. Visual effects legend Phil Tippett—trust me, you know his stuff—takes to the director’s chair for “Mad God,” a surreal stop-motion animation saga following a lone soldier traveling through an increasingly bizarre and frightening hellscape. One that I especially enjoyed is “Broadcast Signal Intrusion,” in which Jacob Gentry takes a strange piece of Chicago lore—a 1987 incident in which a masked figure managed to break into two Chicago TV station broadcasts and was never caught—and uses it as a jumping-off point for a tense 1999-set oddity in which a video archivist (Harry Shum Jr.) stumbles across footage of a similar broadcast interruption and decides to investigate, leading him on an increasingly complex path that gradually reveals connections to the unsolved disappearance of his wife a few years earlier. Unless you follow the film festival circuit ardently, it’s likely that you have not heard of this one before but if you see it, you will find it hard to shake for a while. In other words, “Broadcast Signal Intrusion” is the kind of discovery that makes something like the Chicago International Film Festival so meaningful in the first place.
For more information on these and other films screening at the 57th Chicago International Film Festival, including showtimes, locations, ticket availability and Virtual Cinema access, go to the festival’s website at www.chicagofilmfestival.com or call them at (312)332-3456.