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Preview of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival, the longest-running competitive film festival in North America, is once again returning to give local moviegoers their first look at what's happening right now in the world of global cinema. Running October 12-23, the festival will be screening 96 feature films from around the world, including 2 world premieres, 14 North American premieres, and 22 U.S. debuts. The line-up, which pretty much covers all genres, includes everything from highly touted productions from some of the most notable names working in cinema today to less-heralded but no less exciting projects from new and emerging filmmakers. 

"A Compassionate Spy"

The Opening Night events for this year’s festival will be held at Chicago’s celebrated Music Box Theatre and will kick off with a block party to be held outside the theatre beforehand featuring live music (provided in part by RogerEbert.com senior editor Nick Allen), food trucks, and other attractions designed to welcome viewers back to the communal aspect of the moviegoing experience. This year’s Opening Night selection is Steve James“A Compassionate Spy,” a documentary recounting, via interviews and dramatic reenactments, of the story of Theodore Hall, a University of Chicago graduate who was selected to work on the Manhattan Project at the age of 19 and then later passed on top military secrets to the Soviets. Bringing the festival to a close will be White Noise,” Noah Baumbach’s genre-bending serio-comic adaptation of Don DeLillo's acclaimed novel about a 1980s-era family (headed by Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig) confronting everything from ordinary domestic crises to a seemingly inescapable “Airborne Toxic Event.” "White Noise" has been dividing audiences ever since it made its debut at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year.

Several of this year’s screenings will also serve as tributes to a number of notable talents on both sides of the camera. Actress Kathryn Hahn will be presented with a Career Achievement Award as part of the Festival Centerpiece screening of her latest film, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” the eagerly awaited follow-up to the enormously popular whodunit that was one of the big hits of the 2019 festival. Jonathan Majors, the star of last year’s Western favorite “The Harder They Fall,” will be on hand to receive the Artistic Achievement award before a screening of “Devotion,” in which he and “Top Gun: Maverick” breakout star Glen Powell co-star as a pair of Navy fighter pilots who became legends for their combat daring during the Korean War. Actress Anna Diop will receive the Rising Star Award for her performance in “Nanny” as a Senegalese woman working as a nanny for a well-off family in New York who is haunted by the ghosts of what she left behind. Writer/director Sarah Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier will be given the Visionary Award for their collaboration “Women Talking,” a wrenching adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel about a group of women (including Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Rooney Mara) from a Mennonite community who meet to deal with how to proceed in the wake of the revelation that they have been the victims of sexual abuse.

“Women Talking” has been the focus of much awards buzz of late and the festival will include a number of other titles that are also being bandied about for similar honors. Laura Poitras“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which won the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is a documentary on celebrated photographer Nan Goldin. The film takes a special focus on Goldin's efforts to call attention to how the Sackler pharmaceutical dynasty tried to rehabilitate their name by using the millions made from pushing OxyContin to become among the biggest financial donors in today’s art world. Director Darren Aronofsky will be on hand to present his latest, “The Whale,” a drama about a severely obese and reclusive English teacher (Brendan Fraser) struggling to reach out to his estranged teenaged daughter (Sadie Sink). Maria Schrader’s “She Said” stars Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, the New York Times reporters who helped to bring the story of the depravations of film mogul Harvey Weinstein to light. 

"Causeway"

Three of the top actresses working today have their latest projects screening as well. “Causeway” finds Jennifer Lawrence playing a soldier struggling to adjust to life back home after suffering a severe brain injury while fighting in Afghanistan. Hot off the recent release of “Don’t Worry Darling”—perhaps you have heard of it—Florence Pugh can be seen in “The Wonder,” a story set in the Irish Midlands in the mid-1800s in which she plays a nurse sent to a small town to investigate the case of a young girl who will no longer eat yet somehow remains perfectly healthy. Vicky Krieps, having already delivered one of this year’s best performances in “Hold Me Tight,” does it again in with her brilliant work in “Corsage.” Marie Kreutzer’s film is a fictionalized account of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, a woman whose entire public image centered on her extraordinary beauty. In "Corsage," she tries to find her place once she turns 40 and is essentially deemed old and over-the-hill by the standards of the day. 

One should always take the hype that films generate on the festival circuit with several grains of salt but in the case of The Banshees of Inisherin,” writer/director Martin McDonagh’s followup to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the praise that it has been generating is more than warranted. Set in 1923, the film stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson (who previously teamed up for McDonagh’s cult favorite “In Bruges”) as two lifelong friends whose lives take strange and unexpected turns when one of them abruptly decides to end their relationship for good and is willing to go to gruesome lengths to show just how serious he is. Anchored by solid performances across the board (including what might be Farrell’s finest work to date) and a brilliant, endlessly quotable screenplay, the film is absolutely hilarious as it presents what is essentially the origin story of a feud. But it's also a serious and poignant examination on the very nature of friendship that may surprise you with how moving it becomes by the end. Simply put, this is one of the best films of the year.

A number of other top filmmakers from around the world will also have their latest efforts on display. Park Chan-wook won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year for Decision to Leave,” an acclaimed mystery in which a top investigator (Park Hae-il) finds himself increasingly drawn to a woman (Tang Wei) whom he is investigating regarding the brutal murder of her husband. Stephen Frears returns with his latest, “The Lost King,” a drama based on actual events starring Sally Hawkins as a Scottish writer who, unmoored from a recent separation from her husband (Steve Coogan), tries to find herself while attempting to uncover long-buried secrets surrounding the life and death of the late Richard III that could change the reputation of the much-maligned leader. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi goes the meta-movie route with his latest, “No Bears,” in which he plays a fictionalized version of himself who, having been banned from leaving the country, goes to a remote village bordering Turkey to make his latest film, a move that is regarded by the locals first with excitement and then suspicion. “One Fine Morning,” the latest from Mia Hansen-Løve, stars Léa Seydoux as a young widow simultaneously trying to care for her young daughter and sick father on her own when she unexpectedly reconnects with an old friend (Melvin Poupaud) and begins a romantic relationship with him despite the fact that he is married. 

"R.M.N."

After an extended hiatus after the release of his last film, 2016’s “Graduation,” acclaimed Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu (whose masterpiece “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” has only grown more relevant in the 15 years since it debuted) is scheduled to be on hand to present his latest work, the dark drama “R.M.N.” At first, the film appears to be a collection of random storylines all set in a small Transylvanian village that hosts residents of any number of ethnicities. After getting fired from a job in Germany after taking offense to a racist remark, Matthias (Marin Grigore) returns home to his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Barladeanu), mistress Csilla (Judith State), his ailing father and his young son, who has stopped talking after seeing something horrifying in the adjacent woods. Meanwhile, Csilla, who manages a local bakery that is the town’s key business following the shuttering of a mine that poisoned the local waters, is seeking workers in order to qualify for EU benefits. When no locals answer the call, preferring the higher wages they can earn elsewhere, she brings in three Senegalese immigrants whose presence begins to inflame the town. In the second half of the film, these elements are aligned with laser-like precision and the results (save for the somewhat awkward final moments) are an extraordinary indictment of the tendency of how even the oppressed are perfectly willing to perpetuate the same dynamics if they can find a target weak enough for them to bully as well.

The efforts of new and emerging filmmakers will also get a place to shine as well. French actress Charlotte Le Bon will be on hand for screenings of her directorial debut, “Falcon Lake,” a touching coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old boy who falls instantly in love with a girl a couple of years older in spite of the seemingly insurmountable age difference. Ann Oren’s “Piaffe” focuses on a Foley artist who takes over a job for her sister when she suffers a nervous breakdown, only to find herself undergoing a series of physical and emotional changes while searching for the perfect sounds for the commercial she is working on. Chie Hayakawa’s “Plan 75” is a grim but compelling story set in the near-future dealing with a group of people whose lives are touched by Plan 75, a government program dedicated to encouraging senior citizens to consider euthanasia as a way of alleviating being social and economic burdens on society. 

Having received great acclaim for his debut feature, the gentle comedy-drama “Saint Frances,” local filmmaker Alex Thompson returns with something decidedly different in “Rounding.” The psychological drama with tinges of horror is about an ambitious medical resident (Namir Smallwood) who transfers to a small rural hospital for a new start following a tragedy at his previous post. Soon after, he becomes obsessed with the case of a patient (Sidney Flanigan) whose mysterious symptoms lead him to believe that there's more to her case than meets the eye.

"King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones"

This year’s Black Perspectives section, a sidebar dedicated to presenting Black stories from around the world, is centered around three documentaries chronicling aspects of the past, present, and potential future of the African-American experience. Harriet Marin Jones’ “King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones” takes an entertaining look at the astonishing, though mostly forgotten, real-life exploits of her grandfather, a man who rose from poverty to build a multi-million dollar empire in the 1930s and '40s by developing and implementing the so-called Policy game of chance in the city of Chicago. Noted civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton is scheduled to appear at the screening of “Loudmouth,” Josh Alexander’s in-depth documentary chronicling his evolution from a crusader equally celebrated and berated for his brash manner and unique fashion sense into the more toned-down, though no less committed, activist of today. Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow’s “The Big Payback” looks at how in 2021 Evanston, IL became the first city in America to implement a reparations program for its Black residents, thanks to the tireless efforts of freshman Alderman Robin Rue Simmons. Acclaimed documentarian Alice Diop makes the switch to narrative features with “Saint Omer,” a drama in which a writer travels to a French town to observe the trial of a woman accused of killing her baby—she admits to the crime but claims she was under supernatural influence at the time—and finds the case inspiring memories of her own troubled upbringing.

Outlook, the long-standing sidebar dedicated to films concerned with the LGBTQ+ communities, is led this year by My Policeman,” a British historical drama about the decades-spanning and constantly evolving relationships between a policeman (played by Harry Styles in his younger incarnation and Linus Roache as the older version), a schoolteacher (Emma Corrin and Gina McKee) and a museum curator (David Dawson and Rupert Everett). Lukas Dhont’s Close won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year for this sensitive story of about the bond between two 13-year old boys that develops beyond mere friendship and which is challenged when they return to school after an idyllic summer vacation. Elegance Bratton’s “The Inspection” tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young gay Black man who decides to enlist in the Marines as a way of giving direction to his existence. On the documentary side of things, Mercedes Kane’s “Art and Pep” tells the story of the relationship between Art Johnson and Pepe Pena, a longtime couple whose bar Sidetracks has been a focal point for the gay community since it opened in the early '80s. The film also serves as a smart and effective recounting of the past 40 years of the LGBTQ experience in Chicago, ranging from the onset of AIDS to the in-your-face awareness campaign led by the brash activist group ACT-Up to the onset of COVID.

"Sr."

Of course, it wouldn’t be a film festival without a number of titles revolving around cinema itself and CIFF is no exception to that rule. For his latest exploration of cinema history, “The March on Rome,” filmmaker/historian Mark Cousins explores the story behind “A Noi!,” an infamous 1923 Italian propaganda film that supposedly chronicled a 1922 march from Naples to Rome by a group of blackshirts led by Benito Mussolini. On a slightly less fascistic note, Chris Smith’s “Sr.” offers up an affectionate look at the life and work of Robert Downey Sr., the iconoclastic filmmaker behind such outrageous and still-potent satires as “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace.” 

On the fictional side, Sam Mendes“Empire of Light” is set around an old school movie palace in a British seaside town in the early '80s. The film tells  of the relationship that develops between the emotionally troubled manager (Olivia Colman) and a young new employee (Micheal Ward) while also tackling such issues as racism, mental illness, sexual harassment, and the evils of sneaking outside food into the show. This would-be love letter to the healing power of cinema ends up feeling like a two-hour version of that Nicole Kidman AMC pre-show clip; there's not a single authentic or genuinely felt moment to be had in any of its tacky and emotionally manipulative 119 minutes. 

"Leonor Will Never Die"

Far more entertaining is “Leonor Will Never Die,” a wild, audacious, and ultimately quite moving work from Martika Ramirez Escobar. In it, a retired screenwriter named Leonor (Sheila Francisco) decides to stave off the boredom of retirement by attempting to complete an action screenplay she never completed due to a tragedy—through wild circumstances, she winds up inside her own creation and struggles to complete it while stuck in a coma in the real world. The film is an often-hilarious work that will remind some of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (albeit with more machine guns) while also working beautifully as a meditation on the creative process and the ways we use art to process and come to terms with things in our own lives. The film is also a spot-on recreation of the often-lurid world of Filipino action movies, which the festival is happily demonstrating by also including a screening of a classic example of the genre, “The One-Amed Executioner,” as part of a double feature.

Finally, for those whose cinematic taste lean to the wild side—yes, wilder than “The One-Armed Executioner,” the After Dark sidebar should be to your liking. This year’s edition kicks off with “Sick,” a new take on the mad slasher genre co-written by Kevin Williamson in which a couple of college students head off to a remote lake house to ride out the early days of the pandemic, a plan that seems to go well until they are visited by a mysterious stranger and things go gruesomely downhill. “All Jacked Up and Full of Worms” is a locally-produced gross-out from Alex Phillips. The title that is, I fear, entirely literal—a weirdo recluse who yearns to have a child (his method of simulating that for the time being will haunt your dreams forever once you see it) happens upon a tin of psychedelic worms that he and a hotel maintenance man proceed to ingest with trippy and often disgusting results. Although I found the whole enterprise to be disgusting, pointless, and seemingly endless (despite only running for 72 minutes), I concede that others may find the weird imagery and cheerful repulsiveness to be entertaining.

Far more entertaining is “Shin Ultraman,” a reboot of the classic 1960s Japanese TV show from Shinji Higuchi, his first film since reinvigorating the Godzilla franchise with "Shin Godzilla." As was the case with that movie, this one nicely straddles the line between homage and parody by exploring what might really happen if giant monsters began attacking Japan and a giant metal superhero arrived from outer space to save the day. "Shin Ultraman" scores a lot of big laughs along the way while still reveling in the fundamental appeal of watching giant creatures pounding the crap out of each other while the human characters just stand around instead of trying to get to safety. This isn’t profound by any means, I suppose, but it's a blast to watch. Like the Chicago International Film Festival as a whole, it leaves you delighted and invigorated by what can be accomplished through the power of cinema. 

For more information on these and other films screening at the 58th Chicago International Film Festival, including showtimes, locations, ticket availability and titles available for virtual screenings, go to the festival website at www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to eFilmcritic.com and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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