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CIFF 2017 Preview: 45 Films to See

Although this year’s edition of the Chicago International Film Festival marks the first in its 53 years to not feature founder and CEO Michael Kutza serving as its Artistic Director—longtime festival associate Mimi Plauche was named to that position earlier this year—most observers would be hard-pressed to notice any grand seismic shift in terms of quality programming. Beginning on October 12 and running for the next two weeks through the 26th, the festival will be presenting no less than 139 feature films (with 25 of them having their North American premieres and another 29 making their U.S. debuts) and 53 shorts from more than 55 countries from around the world. This collection of cinema will include a number of potential year-end awards contenders, the latest efforts from some of the most celebrated filmmakers and performers, the debut works from newcomers hoping to one day join their ranks, revivals of a couple of all-time classics and some oddities that just may well point to the direction that new cinema is taking us. 

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Marshall,” which kicks things off with an Opening Night gala featuring appearances from producer Paula Wagner, director Reginald Hudlin and co-stars Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown, is a film that is as noble and well-meaning as it is dull. Based on a true incident from the life of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) when he was working as an ambitious young lawyer for the NAACP, the film follows him as he is sent to Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Brown) accused of sexually assaulting and attempting to murder the wife (Kate Hudson) of his employer. Due to the segregationist policies of the time, he is forbidden from trying the case himself and is forced to bring on a local white Jewish attorney (Gad) to help with the defense, putting them both in danger as they fight, both in and out of court, for justice in the face of violence and prejudice. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff doesn’t really seem all that interested in Marshall as a person or what made him tick. It is the white lawyer, oddly enough, who gets the big dramatic arc while Marshall is relegated to delivering one Oscar clip-ready speech after another. It also fails to display any particular interest in the legal case at the center of the story and what made it so significant—instead of finding a way to make it really come alive and have meaning, it ends up feeling like just another cliched legal drama. The actors are good and Hudlin keeps things moving along nicely but for the most part, “Marshall” proves to be a shockingly forgettable film about a truly unforgettable man.

“Marshall” is only the first of a number of high-profile screenings and events at this year’s festival. The lineup includes “The Square” (10/13, 14), the amusing but glib art world satire by Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure") and co-starring Elisabeth Moss, Dominic Moss and Terry Notary (the latter is scheduled to attend) that won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (10/21), the already celebrated dark comedy drama featuring Frances MacDormand as a mother who goes to great lengths to goad the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) into finding the man who killed her daughter and “Call Me By Your Name” (10/25), Luca Guadagnino’s look at love and desire between a 17-year-old (Timothee Chalamet) and an older American scholar (Armie Hammer) that has received loads of praise from critics and audiences and bizarrely misguided scorn from retired actor/amateur Twitter crank James Woods. Fans of Margot Robbie will get to see her in two biopics that have begun receiving Oscar buzz—“I, Tonya” (10/27) has her transforming into notorious figure skater Tonya Harding in an exploration of the scandal that transformed her from an acclaimed athlete into a national pariah while Goodbye Christopher Robin (10/13) finds her playing the wife of author AA Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) in a look at the relationship between Milne and his son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) and how it inspired one of the great classics of children’s literature. Indie icon Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with “Lady Bird” (10/18) a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama centered on the relationship between a teenaged girl (Saorise Ronan) and her equally strong-willed mother (Laurie Metcalf) while Andy Serkis make his first move behind the camera with “Breathe” (10/17), the true story of a young man (Andrew Garfield) who is stricken by polio and determined to live a full life despite being given only a few months to live by doctors. There will also be tributes to Patrick Stewart (10/25) and Vanessa Redgrave (10/16), the latter of whom will be attending screenings of her landmark 1966 filmBlow-Up (10/16, 17) and her directorial debut, “Sea Sorrow” (10/16), which deals with the global refugee crisis. The Closing Night gala will feature an in-person tribute to acclaimed local actor Michael Shannon that will include a screening of his latest, Guillermo Del Toro’s eagerly awaited romantic fantasy “The Shape of Water” (10/26).

The festival also features the latest efforts from a number of celebrated filmmakers and actors, including “The Other Side of Hope” (10/13, 14) the latest deadpan comedy from Finnish favorite Aki Kaurismaki, “The Workshop” (10/14, 15) Laurent Cantet’s charged drama about the relationship between an author leading a writing workshop in the south of France and a student whose love of inflamed ideologies arouses curiosity in her and concern in others, and Faces Places (10/13, 14) a film co-directed by photographer JR and the legendary Agnes Varda chronicling a road trip the two take through the French countryside and the unusual people and places they come across along the way. Another great French filmmaker, Andre Techine, is represented with “Golden Years” (10/19, 22) the stirring real-life drama of a WW I soldier who dresses as a woman in order to evade arrest for desertion, a decision that awakens things in him that has a profound effect on the rest of his life. 

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Turkish director Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade” (10/20, 21) tells the story of a German woman seeking revenge against the neo-Nazis’ who murdered her Kurdish husband and child, a role that won Diane Kruger the Best Actress award at Cannes this year. The great Isabelle Huppert appears alongside her own daughter, Lolita Chammah, in “Barrage” (10/13, 14, 17) a family drama about a young woman (Chammah) who returns to her estranged mother (Huppert) after nearly a decade to reunite with the child that her mother has been caring for the past ten years. The French drama “Hannah” (10/17, 18, 19) stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman trying to make sense of her life after her husband is sent to prison. In a late add to the festival, actor Bill Pullman will be on hand to present “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” (10/23), a Western in which he delivers one of the best performances of his career as a goofball sidekick of the Gabby Hayes/Walter Brennan vein who is compelled to pull himself together at last when he best friend and boss (Peter Fonda) is killed and he elects to discover why. 

As usual, the festival has included a number of sidebars designed to highlight certain types of filmmaking. This year, the focus of the major sidebar is International Film Noir, a program of films highlighting contemporary takes on the genre whose very names evokes visions of a world of dark alleys, moral ambiguity and social and political corruption that threatens to swallow the innocent and the guilty alike. Although made in 1958, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (10/22) [pictured above] still feels as fresh and innovative today as it did when it debuted nearly 60 years ago and to see it on the big screen, here accompanied by a discussion led by Jonathan Rosenbaum, the esteemed critic and Welles scholar who helped with the film’s 1998 restoration, is an opportunity no film fan can afford to miss. Another great American filmmaker, Errol Morris, presents all six episodes of his upcoming Netflix series “Wormwood” (10/22), which is described as “a twisting, evolving story of one mans 60-year quest to identify the circumstances of his father’s mysterious death” and which features Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Jimmi Simpson, Jack O’Connell and Tim Blake Nelson in the cast. The film “Never Here” (10/16, 17) features the final screen performance of the late Sam Shepard.

The long-running Black Perspectives program, which last year included the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,” is back with another potential award season player, “Mudbound” (10/20), the epic story of race relations focusing on the lives of two different families living on the same rural Mississippi farm in the 1940s. This year’s crop has a special focus on documentaries  with such titles as “The Rape of Recy Taylor” (10/18, 19) [pictured above], the story of a black woman in 1944 Alabama who was raped by six white men and chose to speak out against her attackers with the aid of the NAACP, the “American Masters” presentation “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” (10/16, 20), an entertaining but superficial look at the complex life of the show-biz legend  and “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” (10/14, 15) which chronicles the life and work of trailblazing writer Lorraine Hansberry, the author of the classic 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Chicago’s Kartemquin Films presents “Can’t Turn Back” (10/22) a program of two half-hour documentaries that includes “Edith & Eddie,” following America’s oldest interracial newlyweds and the family upheaval that threatens their happiness, and “’63 Boycott,” chronicling the October 22, 1963 Chicago Public School Boycott that saw more than 200,000 people, mostly, students, take to the streets to protest racial inequality. In additions to these films and others, the Black Perspectives program will be presenting a Lifetime Achievement Award to actress Alfre Woodard on October 21. 

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The other sidebars this year include Cinema of the Americas, a 15-film program of titles from Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean that includes “Paris Square” (10/14, 15, 19) a thriller from Argentina about a psychotherapist coming to Brazil to study the effects of violence on society whose relationship with the woman who is her case-study takes several unexpected twists, “A Sort of Family” (10/18, 19), a drama about a doctor who journeys to a remote Argentinian village to illegally adopt a baby and finds herself dealing with the unexpected demands of the child’s biological family and “Adriana’s Pact” (10/17, 18) a documentary from Chile in which director Lissette Orozco grapples with the revelation that her beloved aunt Adriana was a member of Augusto Pinochet’s feared secret police force back in the 1970s. 

The Out-Look program features 9 features dealing with LGBQT-related narratives and includes “Thelma” (10/14, 15) [pictured above], Joachim Trier’s intense thriller about a young woman who moves away from home to attend college and who suffers seizures while at the same time demonstrating a powerful attraction to another woman on campus, “BPM” (10/14, 15) a 1990s-set docudrama focusing on the effort by activists to get the French government to finally address the AIDS epidemic and “Princess Cyd” (10/17, 21, 25), a locally-made coming-of-age film from director Stephen Cone (“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party”) about a 16-year-old tomboy learning about who she really is while spending the summer with her novelist aunt. The latter film is also part of the City & State program dedicated to local productions that also includes “Blueprint” (10/13, 14, 18) director Daryl Wein’s film about a man (Jerod Haynes) trying to come to terms with the violence in his community following the killing of his best friend at the hand of the police while trying to patch things up with his on-again/off-again girlfriend, and “Chasing the Blues” (10/14, 18, 21) a comedy by Scott Smith starring Jon Lovitz (who is scheduled to attend) about the pursuit of a legendarily rare blues album that is said to have the ability to drive anyone who listens to it insane.

Speaking of insane, the After Dark sidebar is a collection of films celebrating the weird, the perverse and the downright outre with eight late-night selections that could well send more timid moviegoers running for the aisles. Heading up this year’s collection is a filmmaker for whom this sidebar could have been invented, Japanese wild man extraordinaire Takashi Miike, marking his 100th feature to date with “Blade of the Immortal” (10/13, 22) As anyone who has seen more than a few of Miike’s films can attest, he is a hit-or-miss talent but this one is mostly the former. Based on the Hiroaki Samura manga series, it tells the story of a samurai cursed with immortality by a witch who teams up with an adorable orphan girl in order to take on the cruel swordsman and the various henchmen who murdered her parents. Sounds ordinary enough in theory but trust me, in Miike’s hands, it is anything but thanks to an astonishing slew of over-the-top action sequences featuring all the spurting blood, hacked limbs and grisly demises that can be jammed into a single, albeit extended, narrative.

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Other films playing in this sidebar include “The Endless” (10/21, 22) an intriguing thriller about a pair of brothers (played by writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) who find themselves drawn back to the cult that they escaped years earlier thanks to the discovery of a tape predicting the end of the world; “Creep 2” (10/20, 21) with Mark Duplass once again playing a seemingly normal guy whose Craigslist ads should not be answered under any circumstance; “Mutafukaz” (10/19, 20) a weird animated adaptation of a French comic book in which a pizza delivery boy suffers a scooter accident that leaves him seeing weird creatures and causes him to be pursued from everyone from government agents to a group of aliens hell-bent on world domination. Oops, can’t forget “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” (10/14, 16, 21) a theatrical cut of a Japanese miniseries about two warring vampire clans battling it out within the confines of a luxury hotel and a group of hapless humans caught in the middle. Pretty much the dictionary definition of the phrase “too much of a good thing,” the 141-minute running time is liable to exhaust most viewers. But those with a taste for cheerfully silly and grisly spectacle are likely to find it worth devouring, even if they wind up hating themselves for it in the morning.

For the last couple of weeks, I have been screening a number of the titles playing at this year’s festival and while I have hardly made a dent in the sheer amount of films on display, here are five titles that are definitely worth checking out.

12 DAYS: In 2013, France passed a law decreeing that anyone involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital would stand before a judge within 12 days for a hearing that would determine whether they could be released or needed more care—this was done so that the doctor evaluations would no longer be the sole determination as to whether they could be released or not. Documentarian Raymond Depardon, whose “The 10th District Court” was a powerful look at the working of the French judicial system, was allowed to film a number of these hearings utilizing a three-camera setup—one each on the judge, the patient and a wide shot of the room—and the result is a quietly powerful and occasionally heartbreaking look at the complexities of mental illness—some of the people we see are probably going to be fine after getting proper treatment while others will probably never see the light of day again—that may cause to reconsider their opinions on those who suffer from it as well as those who are obliged to pass judgement on them. (10/14, 16)

JANE: Despite having no formal scientific training to speak of, Jane Goodall went to Tanzania in the 1960s to study chimpanzees in the wild and made discoveries that fundamentally changed everything that we thought we knew about primate behavior. Although her time in the wild was filmed by photographer and future documentarian Hugo van Lawick, the resulting footage was put away and only recently rediscovered and it now forms the center of this extraordinary documentary from Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “Chicago 10”) that combines the archival footage with a current-day interview by Goodal, who also serves as narrator, and a score by Phillip Glass. The old footage is simply amazing, both on a technical level and in the ways that it not only shows the growing emotional bond between Goodall and the chimps she is following but also the one developing between her and van Lawick, whom she would later marry and have a child. Through the eyes of both Goodall and van Lawick’s camera, the chimps become more than just scientific subjects and what happens to them ends up having a surprising emotional impact. The film may not be the most objective of documentaries—like van Lawick, Morgen also appears to have fallen under the spell as well—but is nevertheless a powerful, moving and entertaining look at the life and work of a truly remarkable woman. (10/23, 24)

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LAST FLAG FLYING: With his previous film, “Everybody Wants Some,” Richard Linklater made what he described as being a spiritual sequel to his classic “Dazed and Confused”—while sharing no specific characters or story particulars, the two dealt with similar themes in ways that made them simpatico. For his latest effort, he takes that approach again, this time using the 1973 Hal Ashby film “The Last Detail” as a springboard for an otherwise unrelated story, updated to be set during the early days of the Iraq War (with the capture of Saddam Hussein playing out in the background) involving three Vietnam-Era veterans—Navy Corpsman Doc (Steve Carell) and Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne)—who reunite when Doc’s son is killed in Iraq and he asks Sal and Mueller to accompany him to Arlington for the funeral. When certain details regarding his son’s death come out, he elects to take the body home to North Carolina to be buried and along the way, the three find themselves coming to grips with the legacy of their own service and how they are still living with the fallout from those days three decades later. Even if you haven’t seen “The Last Detail” before (and shame on you if that is the case), this film is still well worth watching on its own terms. The screenplay by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (who wrote the original novel that the earlier film was based on) is a thoughtful and quietly powerful work that makes its dramatic points without slipping into melodrama or polemics (the scene in which the three go to visit the mother [Cicely Tyson] of a fellow soldier whose death they feel partly responsible for is an absolute beauty in the surprising and heartfelt ways in which it develops). The performances are generally quite good—though Cranston’s Jack Nicholson impression throughout was probably a mistake—with Carell delivering the best and most understated work of his career as Doc, a heartbreaking turn that proves once and for all that he is just as adept with drama as he obviously is with comedy. (10/16) 

LET THE SUNSHINE IN: For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, one of the very best films in this year’s lineup is one that has been cursed with an American release title that almost seems designed specifically to keep viewers away. That would be a shame because the latest work from Claire Denis, following a middle-aged artist who is desperate for romance and bounces from one unworthy suitor to another in her quest, is a lively and entertaining meditation on love, sex and feminism that is one of the strongest things that she has done in a while. Much of the power and charm of the film is due to the delightful central performance by Juliette Binoche, who makes her character so charming and sympathetic that one cannot help but be entranced by her while at the same time showing how her problems in finding love may be has much her fault as her would-be matches. As an extra bonus, Gerard Depardieu turns up at the end as a fraudulent psychic that Binoche enlists and he delivers the wittiest and most charismatic performance that he has done in a long time. (10/22, 23)

LOVER FOR A DAY: In the third of what could be deemed a loose trilogy of films inspired by the dark side of romance, following “In the Shadow of Women” and “Jealousy,” French filmmaker Philippe Garrel offers a low-key examination about the difficulties of true romantic fidelity with a story that begins with the emotionally high-strung Jeanne (Esther Garrel, the director’s daughter), having just broken up with her boyfriend, turns up at the apartment of her professor father Gilles (Eric Caravaca). He is happy to see her but there is some tension when Jeanne discovers that he is currently living with Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), who is not only one of his students but almost exactly the same age as his child. Against all odds, the two women do strike up a friendly relationship, albeit one based on keeping secrets from Gilles, and Ariane tries to get Jeanne to loosen up and forget her still-powerful fixation on her ex-boyfriend, a development that winds up having unexpected repercussions for the three of them. Although seemingly slight on the surface—it only clocks in at a brief 76 minutes—it packs a lot of thoughtful commentary on contemporary romantic relationships into that time and is further boosted by gorgeous black-and-white photography from cinematographer Renato Berta. It also has three wonderful central performances, especially the one delivered by Garrel, who takes her oftentimes abrasive character and invests it with a startling degree of humanity that really deserves to be seen outside of the festival circuit. (10/13, 14)

Screenings for the 53nd Chicago International Film Festival will take place at the AMC River East 21. Tickets can be purchased in person at the theater, online at chicagofilmfestival.com and ticketmaster.com/chicagofilmfestival or over the phone at (312)-332-FILM. For further information on titles, running times, ticket prices and availability and program changes, go to the festival site at chicagofilmfestival.com. The Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 12-26. 

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