To officially kick off this year’s edition, its 58th, the Chicago International Film Festival elected to go in a markedly different direction and it proved to be all the better for it. Instead of the semi-formal and star-studded red carpet events of the past, the pre-film festivities took the form of a community block party held outside the theater hosting the night's screenings, Chicago’s beloved Music Box Theatre. And while heavy rains earlier in the day may have had organizers fearing the worst, the skies cleared and the area was soon filled with people who remained throughout the night.
Although some formalities remained, such as a red carpet for visiting guests, they were augmented by less regimented and more sociable additions as food trucks, local vendors, bubble machines, games, presentations from an improv group and martial artists, and a live performance of songs famously presented in films from the Dark Room Men, a musical duo consisting of two local film critics (Pat McDonald of HollywoodChicago.com andSenior Editor Nick Allen) whose acoustic song stylings are reminiscent of the heady early days of the legendary pop duo Rogers & Clarke. Of course, some things remained the same—it was well past the announced start time when the lights finally began to dim in the theater—but as an effort to provide a more relaxed atmosphere while at the same time serving as a reminder of the communal aspect of the moviegoing experience, it was a success. The festival should consider such an approach for future installments.
This year’s Opening Night title, “A Compassionate Spy,” also had a deep connection to Chicago’s film community in that it is the latest work from celebrated local filmmaker Steve James, the two-time Oscar nominee whose previous efforts have included such acclaimed documentaries as “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters,” and “Life Itself.” The film recounts the incredible true story of Ted Hall, a physics prodigy who was recruited out of Harvard at the age of 18 to go to Los Alamos to join the Manhattan Project program that was charged with developing the atomic bomb. Although initially enthusiastic about the program and his contributions to it, he found himself growing increasingly concerned that so much power being held in the hands of one country would prove to be too destabilizing and dangerous to a world still in the grips of World War II. Feeling a sense of moral responsibility, he, along with the aid of friend and go-between Saville Sax, passed along information regarding the development of the atomic bomb to Soviet intelligence.
However gripping this aspect of Hall’s story may be, the real center of the film involves his relationship with his wife, Joan, whom he met at the University of Chicago in 1947 and married soon afterwards. He admits to her what he did and she's fine with it as they begin to settle down and raise a family of their own. However, as the Red Scare begins to grip the country, federal agents determined to prove their suspicions about Hall’s activities initiate a harassment campaign against him. And when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are tried, convicted, and executed for passing on atomic secrets despite questions surrounding what they may or may not have done, Ted and Joan decide to move themselves and their three daughters to England, where he was able to continue his scientific career at Cambridge. Although suspected, Hall was never formally charged with any crimes. It was only with the publication of Bombshell, a book that chronicled his story and was published two years before his death in 1999, that he admitted to what he did. Though, Hall would state in interviews that he might have acted slightly differently had he known the extent of the Soviet Union’s own crimes against humanity.
This is an undeniably amazing story but James’ film, although certainly compelling, never quite rises to the level of his prior masterworks. In those movies, he was able to spend long periods of time with his subjects, in turn immersing viewers in their stories. Here, he employs a more standard documentary approach—talking-head interviews with various participants and observers, archival materials (including ironic clips from old Hollywood films ranging from Michael Curtiz’s pro-Moscow “Mission to Moscow” to the infamous anti-commie short “Red Nightmare”) and even dramatic recreations of certain events where cameras were obviously not running. The best parts of the film are the new interviews with Joan, who still speaks with great passion, wit, and charm about her late husband and their long and loving relationship. Indeed, she is so fascinating and full of life that James could have simply made a film entirely of her sitting and recounting her story and it would have made for a gripping work.
On the other hand, while I understand the intellectual reasoning behind using dramatic recreations to fill in the blanks of the story, they simply do not quite work. They are staged with care, but even at their best they cannot begin to hold a candle to the material featuring Joan or the archival interviews with Ted himself, which bring an immediacy to the film that dissipates when the recreations kick in. And yet, while it may seem like a slightly lesser work in comparison to James’ most notable works, “A Compassionate Spy” is still an intriguing look at a chapter of American history that sheds new light on past events. And thanks to recent developments regarding relations with Russia and the handling of nuclear secrets that he could not have possibly known when he began working on the project, the film is also surprisingly timely.
After the screening of “A Compassionate Spy,” the festival kicked off its After Dark program—a sidebar dedicated to cinema's weirder and wilder corners—with “Sick,” a horror film by producer/co-writer Kevin Williamson and director John Hyams. The movie attempts to take the mad slasher subgenre that Williamson wittily and gruesomely deconstructed with the groundbreaking hit “Scream” and reinvent it for the age of COVID, where an errant cough can be just as deadly as a flashing knife.
Set in the early days of the pandemic, the film's extended opening sequence is a riff on the famous opening of “Scream,” with menacing text messages replacing that film's phone calls (apparently even mad killers prefer to text these days). "Sick" then settles in on two college friends, Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million), as they leave their now-shuttered campus in order to quarantine at the lavish rural home owned by the former’s family. We quickly deduce that while Miri is very serious about the protocols, Parker is slightly less committed (although she enthusiastically takes part in a drinking game where they take a shot every time the name “Fauci” is mentioned on CNN). Miri gets even more irritated when Parker’s sometimes boyfriend (Dylan Sprayberry) turns up as well. He isn’t the only unexpected visitor, as it soon transpires that the killer from the opening scene has arrived on the scene, forcing the friends to fend for their lives while trying to figure out why they are being attacked.
The notion of a film melding the usual mad slasher hijinks with real-world COVID fears sounds like a bold, if potentially problematic, choice. But the resulting film is never quite as interesting/repulsive as it sounds. Adlon and Million make for an undeniably winning pair (one that is missed once their characters find themselves separated) and the long stalk-and-chase sequence that makes up the film’s middle section is staged by Hyams (previously of a couple of bizarre installments in the “Universal Soldier” franchise and the effective 2020 stalker saga “Alone”) with a certain energy and style that keeps things moving along briskly.
However, even at its best, there is a certain shallowness to the whole affair; too much of the screenplay feels like Williamson trying to convince himself and us that he's still the audacious convention-breaker of his “Scream” heyday. The film goes completely south in the final section as not even the wild bloodshed on display can distract from how the ultimate explanation of why our heroines are being attacked turns out to be idiotic and borderline offensive.
In all fairness, the screening's boisterous crowd mostly seemed into it, responding to all of the countless jump scares with appropriate shrieks and screams. If nothing else, “Sick” serves as a reminder of the giddy experience that can be had seeing a horror movie (even a not-very-good one) among a big crowd of like-minded moviegoers, one that was brought to a halt by the very subject of the film itself.