Over an alternately gorgeous and stormy week in late May, I digested several days' worth of films at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. Even so, I didn't get to see everything (wish I could have made it to that film about David Byrne's Contemporary Color event). Now that the dust has settled, I'd offer the following comments on what I did get to see. Most of these films will see release in the coming months. A doff of the hat to the curators of the fest, Brian Tallerico, Peter Sobczynski, Collin Souter, Eric Childress, Steve Prokopy, and Nick Allen. They do this not for money, but for the love of these films. There wasn't one screening where someone didn't implore us from the stage to get out there and spread the word about these movies. Quite apart from the question of whether or not one admires each individual selection, that's to be applauded.
Morris From America
Written and directed by Chad Hartigan (“This is Martin Bonner”), this sweet, affecting comedy/drama features newcomer Markees Christmas as Morris, a big, shy adolescent coming of age as the only African-American teenager in Heidelberg, Germany, where his single dad (a tough, tender Craig Robinson) is a soccer coach. As played by Robinson, he's struggling with the line between being a dad and being a friend, particularly since Morris' mom died young. The movie centers on his unrequited crush on a rebellious, sexually precocious teen (Lina Keller), who enjoys messing with him. Is she really his friend, or does she just keep him around to needle her bigoted mother, or even because she fetishizes him? A monologue by Robinson while driving a prodigal Morris home, late in the film, is the best thing I've seen him do. Instead of lecturing Morris, he tells him a story, and it expresses love, frustration, nostalgia, shared loneliness, and quavering vulnerability. Like all of us, this dad's making it up as he goes along. Carla Juri plays Morris' kind, well-intentioned German tutor. Morris is an aspiring rapper, and there's a misunderstanding when she goes through his notebooks--the place he lets his mind roam unfettered--and mistakes the violently misogynistic tropes he borrowed from his rap heroes as the products of a disturbed teen mind. As Hartigan affirmed in the Q&A after the film, he likes to leave room in his movies for scenes that don't necessarily advance the main story. It allows the picture to breath.
Directed by Andrew Neel, and written by Neel with David Gordon Green and Mike Roberts, this sickening drama is harrowing, incisive, and ultimately unforgettable. It is based on a memoir by Brad Land. As played by a well-cast Ben Schnetzer, he is a kind, affable, thoughtful guy whom we first meet at a frat party. He's not really comfortable, whereas his brother, played by Nick Jonas, fits right in. After the party, he agrees to give some strangers a lift, and he is robbed and gratuitously beaten. Ashamed that he didn't fight back, this gentle man must now prove to himself he's a man, subjecting himself to the trial by fire of "Hell Week," a ritual of sick hazing, pledging the frat where his brother is now a made man. (Unlike the other frat boys, Brad doesn't relate to women as sex objects: in fact, during a hook-up, his professions of love actually freak the woman out.) Brad's roommate is a soft guy, well played by Danny Flaherty; when he also pledges the frat, the big boys pounce, sensing weakness, yet he proves to have pluck. Gus Halper plays the rich frat boy overseeing Hell Week, smug and entitled. He's the villain of the piece, yet he's troubled; even his character is given shades of gray in the acting and the writing. The hazing scenes are very, very hard to watch. The movie's a study of sadism, a look at the the ground floor level of an American culture where brutalizing others is the hallmark, from top to bottom. As the big brother, Jonas becomes increasingly alarmed by the depravity, until he stands up against it--even though it means going against the code of always standing with your "brothers." The picture features an unforgettable cameo from James Franco, playing a brother from the class of 2000 who drops by, just to hang. The scene is a concise portrait of how these guys end up, and it neatly encapsulates the film's pathos and critique. A disturbing work, I almost want to think of "Goat" as a "Straw Dogs" for our times. The most powerful piece of cinema I saw at CCFF, it was also the hardest to watch.
Shorts Program 1:
Voyagers (Santiago Menghini, 2015)
Featuring actual footage of Jupiter and Mars taken by the Voyager satellites, this film filled me with wonder and awe. Cinema can still renew those feelings in us, but too rarely does. Sent out by NASA decades ago, some alchemy of human science, hope and prayer, the two Voyagers had their twin trajectories projected out years in advance. There's something very hopeful about that, the idea that at some distant year, if all goes to plan, our inventions will intersect with Jupiter, or Mars. I like to think of them out there, even now, making their way above us.
Bajo las Brasas (Beneath the Embers) (Veronica Jessamyn Lopez Sainz, 2015)
It profiles a young woman from a poor farming community in Guanajuato, the first one in her family to go to school. In just a few minutes, we get a sense of her hopes and dreams. I happened to meet the cinematographer, Julio Abraham Padillo Sanchez, when he hove up beside me during my walk to the theater. Turned out he'd flown in from Mexico just for this film. Nice guy, and his shots of the Sierra mountains and their farming people contained hard beauty. Julio told me of the Guanajuato International Film Festival, which I'd never heard of.
Greener Grass (Paul Briganti, 2015)
With its capacity to surprise, this unsettling comedy took me back to my days studying experimental film. Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe star as soccer moms sitting in the sun in the bleachers, but there's darkness under the surface. It's in the way their teeth are covered in these horrifying, festering grilles--yet you have to get in really close to see them. It's as if Bunuel went to the suburbs and met some attractive people who might have stepped out of the Stepford Wives, or the Martian Chronicles. Just below their surface manners, these sunny suburban lives roil with quiet desperation, jealousy, and anxiety, at a fever pitch of straight-up insanity. Whether or not you think that's fair, the film's bizarrely funny. At the Q&A, DeBoer and Leubbe shared the secret of how they got that puking-up-picnic-sandwiches shot.
Bacon and God's Wrath (Sol Friedman, 2015);
A 90-year-old lady decides it's time to go off her Kosher diet and try bacon for the first time. Raised under the proscriptive rule of harsh, Orthodox rabies, she tells us she recently began looking at the Internet, in search of Julia Child recipes. Soon she went down a wormhole and discovered Christopher Hitchens. Liking the cut of his jib, she became an atheist under Hitchens' plummy-toned influence. A decapitated pig's head becomes her dining-room-table interlocutor: can she really do this? It may seem a small rebellion against the universe, eating bacon, but in another way, she's sloughing off a lifetime of received, repressive beliefs.
Curmudgeons (Danny DeVito, 2016)
The most moving few minutes of the fest, for me. A woman (Lucy DeVito) is nervous: she's about to have an audience with her curmudgeonly grandfather (the late David Margulies) at his (really quite nice) assisted living facility. What unfolds from there is some straight talk about life, and then a surprise. These are some true New York characters. Lets just say it's about love. Tears streamed down my face.
Peacock (Ondrej Hudecek, 2015)
I won't forget this spiky, perverse story chronicling the childhood and youth of Ladislav Stroupežnický, a "legend of Czech realism" I'd never heard of. This portrait of the playwright as a young, gay man in the latter half of the 19th century is a graphic tale of forbidden love, shocking the bourgeoisie, and acts of violence perpetrated upon others and his own person. In some strange way, the film had a similar effect on me as looking at a Bacon painting.
Back to the features...
War on Everyone
Having set his first two pictures, "Cavalry" and "The Guard," in Ireland, writer/director John Michael McDonagh hops across the pond, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for this comedy. It's a riff on the crime/action/buddy picture. It boasts a fun dynamic between Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård as a kind of corrupt Starsky & Hutch: the former's a family man, the latter's a flailing, wounded drunk. They're bad boys, but they're good-bad, not evil. (Paul Reiser is here as the inevitable by-the-books boss who just can't keep his boys from breaking all the rules.) They go around stealing from, snorting with, and beating on the baddies. What they do is justified, and funny, we are meant to see, because the other guys are worse. Even if you don't buy that, the film is saved from Guy Ritchie-level cheap nihilism by two things: a literate script that respects our intelligence, and the picture's steeping in noir tradition, where the rough stuff was part of the deal. I think of the moment when the boys storm in on Tessa Thompson, looking for her boyfriend, a gangster who happens to be a Quaker (he "abhors violence"). After the boys paste him one, she observes, without much emotion, words to the effect of, don't be so hard on him, he's an okay guy. This is the sort of unsentimental dame that might have stepped out of "The Big Sleep," as could the movie's twisty, labyrinthine plot. Every character has an unexpected side, whether it's Pena's wife (Stephanie Sigman) citing the Aeneid, or Thompson reading a bit of Susan Faludi by the pool. We get colorful assorted rogues played by the likes of David Wilmot and Malcolm Barrett. There's a truly chilling, evil pair of baddies, partners in a porn ring: Theo James is the boss, Byronic in his rich, decadent debauchery, and Caleb Landry Jones is his henchman, a truly disturbing, reptilian screen presence. At the Q&A afterwards, Pena told us McDonagh's intended audience is movie buffs who like to play spot-the-reference. Maybe so, because in this one unsavory Landry Jones persona, Karolyn and I saw "Clockwork Orange," the Scorpio Killer in "Dirty Harry," and Buffalo Bill from "Silence of the Lambs."
Beauty and the Beast
My Blind Brother
Written and directed by Sophie Goodhart, this sweet rom-com casually sidesteps formula. Adam Scott plays the titular blind brother of the character played by Nick Kroll, who has dedicated a big chunk of his life to being yoked to his brother, acting as his "eyes" in his various feats-for-charity, when he'd really rather by lying on the couch, watching television. The twist: though the blind man is regarded, by the media and his parents, as a brave hero for, say, running a marathon for charity, he's actually kind of a knob. Jenny Slate and Zoe Kazan play friends who are also housemates. Through a misunderstanding, Slate begins dating the blind brother, concealing from him (and herself) her love for her true soulmate--the slacker brother, with whom she had a drunken one night stand. From scene to scene, this modest gem never feels artificial or manipulative. It's about being honest with yourself. At one point, after a bitter argument when all their tensions come to a head, Kroll believes his brother lost at sea. He takes out a rowboat and goes looking for him, calling out in desperation, "Where are you, beautiful baby boy?" The moments demonstrates how this movie shows, rather than tells. When it comes to drawing the relationships amongst its characters, that moment tells us everything we need to know about the underlying lifelong bond between these brothers. It's small touches like that stick with one--that make a movie.
Under the Shadow
I cannot improve on the comments of my wife, Karolyn, after we huddled together in our seats in the face of Babak Anvari's horror film from Iran. Watching it in the theater in the late afternoon, she said, 'twas not so scary. At 2 a.m. that night, it became the most terrifying film she'd ever seen. When we compared notes in the morning, I revealed I'd been visited by it in the night as well. It's sense of dread gets into your bones. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, a woman (Narges Rashidi, whose eyes telegraph bone-deep distress) wrestles with gender-based limits, roles, and duties after her husband is called away for medic duty to a dangerous region. "Repulsion"-style psychological crack-ups to house and soul ensue, as she is confined to the apartment with her daughter, and the region endures frequent bomb scares. Along with the stress and guilt of single parenthood, she also must deal with the psychological toil of repression--she was not allowed to study to become a doctor herself because of past political activity, and the new fundamentalists arrest her for immodest dress when she tries to make a break for it without covering her hair. All the claustrophobic elements of the haunted house film are here: the shudder of something passing just out of the corner of the eye, the sound of footsteps where there should be none. There's a missing doll; a daughter in peril; a mute, ghostly boy. The picture taps into the primal--from the death of one's mother to the myth of the djinn. When it comes to the djinn, the picture is also about class distinctions. The modern, educated class, to which Rashidi's character belongs, dismisses the myth of the djinn; the lower, uneducated class has an implacable faith in it. This is the sort of film where the sudden appearance of a medical textbook, or a doll, in a place where it just should not be can be scarier than any monster.
Ira Sachs' films have the precision of literary fiction, and they try to give you a similarly rich reflection of life, its contradictions and compassion. His "Love is Strange" was one of my favorites of 2014, and here he is with another New York story. It's a drama featuring layered performances from Greg Kinnear as a rather unsuccessful actor in mid-life and Jennifer Ehle as his wife, a doctor. After Kinnear's father dies, they move into the apartment building he left them. Talia Balsam plays the woman with a dress shop in the building, which is in a gentrifying neighborhood. Michael Barbieri plays her son, the working-class Brooklyn boy who dreams of being an actor, and Sachs holds his camera at length on a fascinating scene involving an exercise with the boy's acting teacher. Theo Taplitz is Kinnear's son, the artistic, perhaps gay boy who dreams of going to art school. Kinnear's dad had never raised the rent on the dress shop, but the days of cheap rents are over, and it leads to an awkward situation: Kinnear has no choice but to raise the rent, and the seamstress has no intention of trying to pay. It's full of the messy realities that are the province of adult life, as viewed through the eyes of kids. And Sachs takes children seriously, meaning he doesn't infantilize them, instead treating them as human beings. In fact, no one wears the black hat in Sachs; that was intentional, he told us in the Q&A. You could see the seamstress as a victim of gentrification, except the film won't let you: she is recalcitrant, unreasonable, proud, and even a bit mean (if honest). The boys' friendship deepens during their parent's feud, and at one point they simply refuse to speak to their parents. At the Q&A afterwards, Sachs cited Ozu, and specifically his "kids on strike" pictures, as well as Pialat as two of his main influences.
In a Valley of Violence
Written, directed and edited by Ti West, this is a violent revenge Western with a comic twist. Not counting "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," which we saw as a screener, this was Karolyn's and my favorite film of the fest. It's another genre riff, and it's so entertaining--pure devilish movie fun. As it begins, we note Ethan Hawke is doing a riff on Clint Eastwood's "mysterious stranger" persona from those great, violent Leone spaghetti Westerns. When the credits roll, we note they're...an homage to spaghetti Westerns, as well. Then the score, by Jeff Grace, kicks in, and it's an homage to Ennio Morricone, Leone's great composer. Just when we're starting to think, well, even an homage needs something original, this story starts taking off in all sorts of unexpected directions, as Hawke and his dog, Abigail (played by the excellent Jumpy, in one of the best pooch performances committed to film), enter a classic godforsaken frontier town and, in the saloon, meet a none-too-bright loudmouth with a chip on his shoulder (James Ransone). As it turns out, the movie intends to take the very bread and butter of the Spaghetti western--vengeance and violence--and comment on the essential absurdity of it all. Ransone is the weak son who starts it all by picking a fight with Hawke. John Travolta is the Marshall who runs the town, and who tries to clean up after his hothead boy. He tries to be the voice of reason: he knows his son is an asshole. As the only intelligent one in this group of baddies, Travolta is a hoot to watch. So is Taissa Farmiga as a plucky motor-mouth smitten with Hawke, and Karen Gillan as her duplicitous sister. At the Q&A afterwards, West said he feels we are not living in cinematic times, and so he purposefully shot this on 35mm, setting out to give us a big, cinematic experience. He's succeeded: the picture's a wild, fun ride.
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)