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CIFF 2016 – Opening Night & Preview, Part 1

October 12, 2016



It’s time once again for the Chicago International Film Festival! Which means it’s October and that I will be stuck in an endless cycle of manic fatigue and over-caffeinated insanity as I try to cover as many films as possible. So far, it’s not so good. Not because of the quality of the films I’ve seen in advance thus far, but rather because life has gotten in the way (as it does) and I haven’t watched the amount of films I had hoped. Which means I just need to double down and keep plowing through as many festival films as possible. Why? Because I always wind up watching some amazing films each year. Films that broaden my vision of the world and introduce me to new filmmakers and (hopefully) reignite my hope and enthusiasm for film. 


Presented by Cinema/Chicago, the 52 annual Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) runs for two weeks – October 13th thru 27th – at AMC River East on 322 E. Illinois and it is largest and longest running film festival in Chicago. Like every year, the lineup is daunting, with 138 new features (plus six older ones, for commemorative or anniversary purposes) and 47 shorts.

There’s just no possible way to see all of them (not that I know of, at least), so my best advice: Go with your gut.

Sure, there will be certain films that will stand out as “word-of-mouth” selections from recent festivals like Cannes, Venice and TIFF, but look around some more and find a synopsis that strikes your curiosity – then go see that film! I’m speaking from experience.  Scour through the program and go with something that takes you to a part of the world you’ve never been to. This doesn’t always pay off (I’ve seen my share of duds in the past couple years at CIFF), but when it does work, you won’t regret it.

I already mentioned some of the films included in this year’s line-up here – now come the reviews. I’ll be offering mini-reviews of what I’ve seen so far, in order of their appearance at the festival. Indeed, I will obviously be seeing more films (hence the titular “Part 1”), but this is where I’m at right now. You can anticipate more stand-alone reviews as well as I am able. I will close here with some other events and films that I’m looking forward to at the festival.



LA LA LAND – Opening Night!


Kicking off the festival well in advance of its theatrical release on December 16th, is a musical dramedy from writer/director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), starring the undeniably adorable pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. This is a dazzling and wonderfully infectious escape into nostalgic Hollywood moviemaking. The story? Stone plays an aspiring actress and Gosling a struggling jazz pianist, both of whom run into each other over a course of a year and after some initial friction, they inevitably become enamored with each other. Stone and Gosling are superb here, recalling the comic timing of Tracy/Hepburn or Astaire/Rogers. Yes, it certainly does live up to the hype it is riding on from other festivals, where it recently premiered, but what dawned on me as I lost myself in this ode to chasing dreams and falling in and out of love (not to mention a love letter to Los Angeles, which explains both the genre and  the playful title) was how needed pure escapism is. Sure, I was swept away right from the start – from the incredible opening number in congested L.A. traffic on an elevated highway to the beautifully lit interiors of a distinctive jazz club – but what Chazelle’s movie reminded of was the power and need for escapism. It reminded me of how we fall in love with the movies and I can’t wait to see it again. The film is rounded out by a delightful selection of reliable talent in  J.K. Simmons, Rosemary DeWitt, John Legend and Tom Everett Scott.

RATING: ****

Thursday, October 13th at 7:30pm – tickets for the screening are $50, and a $150 VIP ticket admits you to a 5 p.m. pre-screening reception and premium theater seating.







There’s something strange going on at Kpong Airport in Ghana, West Africa. It’s evident right from the start of director Monika Grassl’s documentary, which introduces us to twelve sweet and soulful Ghanian teenage girls, that things aren’t as altruistic and uplifting as one would think. Instead of attending the local village school like the rest of the kids their age, these girls have taken on the challenge of enrolling in a 4-year aviation academy run by a British man named Jonathan Porter, with the hope that he will teach them how to fly a small plane. The girls live in barracks there, where food and schooling is provided. It appears to be a well-intended program that Porter runs with his Ghanian wife, Patricia, but the more time we spend with these resilient girls the more we learn how miserable and mistreated they are. It starts to show when we watch as they’re names are replaced with numbers, which they have to wear on their shirts. Porter, who wears a yellow gold T-shirt that reads “I Am Not a White Man”, acts like a drill sergeant and often blows his top at these girls as he berates them into submission, treating them more like circus animals while wondering why they’re not happy. His Ghanaian wife Patricia, serves as something of a headmistress and his right hand, going along with his overbearing and humiliating approach. Is this charity or exploitation?


Sunday, October 16th at 2:15pm and Tuesday, October 18th at 3:30pm (executive producer Benjamin Cölle is schedule to attend both screenings)







Director Bill Teck focuses on a particular period of Hollywood maverick filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich’s storied career in “One Day Since Yesterday”. While the documentary introduces the actor/writer/director to those viewers who aren’t already aware of the director’s impact in cinema (he helmed “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon”), it gets specific throughout most of the film by examining his 1981  romantic detective comedy “They All Laughed”, considered to be his ‘lost film’, although a labor of love for the Bogdanovich and a film that’s championed by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (all three appear in the film), who consider the movie to be a seldom-seen masterpiece. Looking back on the movie is certainly a bittersweet experience for Bogdanovich and friends, since it’s haunted by the tragic murder of actress Dorothy Stratten, his star and lover at the time. Essentially, the documentary is like watching the DVD Special Features for “They All Laughed” before having ever watched the movie. Bogdanovich himself is included in talking head segments here, as is his sister, his daughters, and some of the actors he’s worked with, like Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepard, Colleen Camp and producer friends of his. Teck’s documentary had me thinking about forgotten films that were rediscovered during the rise of video stores in the 80s and it got me very curious about seeing “They All Laughed”. Ultimately though, I would’ve been fine with the documentary just focusing on this ‘lost film’, instead of trying to convince us that everything he touches is to be treasured.

RATING: **1/2

Sunday Oct. 16th at 5pm ( director Bill Teck and actress Louise Stratten are scheduled to attend this screening as well as Bogdanovich, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award).

NOTE: “They All Laughed” will also be playing Monday, October 17th at 12:00pm, with director Peter Bogdanovich and actress Louise Stratten scheduled to attend.







You’d probably get more out of director Antonio Campos’ new film “Christine” if I were to tell you that it’s about a struggling Sarasota, Florida news station in 1974 that’s trying to catch a news angle that’ll boost their ratings. There’s a frustrated and demanding producer (a great Tracy Letts) who’s trying to get his anchors and reporters to think along the “if it bleeds, it leads” line of thought, but what winds up on the news each night isn’t increasing the numbers. One anchor, George Peter Ryan (Michael C. Hall) is complicit and will remain open to anything, he’s just a handsome face on TV screen. Instead, those who know anything about “Christine” going in, a film based on the real-life moment in that Florida newsroom one night when known reporter Christine Chubbuck (a commanding Rebecca Hall) shot herself on a live broadcast. That’s what this movie will be known for, except that it doesn’t happen until the last ten minutes of the film. It’s not like I’m clamoring for blood, it’s just that the story building up to that moment isn’t all that compelling. That could be because it’s exhausting to watch someone try to navigate their way in the world when they are crippled by depression. Christine isn’t just plagued by depression, she’s also socially awkward, mostly negative and extremely insecure and paranoid. She’s smart and has a nose for news, but she doesn’t have a news personality. She’s dry and flat. She doesn’t draw anyone out or pull anyone in. Hall has the hangdog physicality down and the volatile emotions of a manic-depressive, but despite being an engrossing downward spiral, it winds up coming up empty. Campos captures the polyester era, making it the look and feel to be like a super serious anti-“Anchorman”. What happened in real like was terrible and tragic, but “Christine” exists simply to explore depression and let viewers know the outcome couldn’t be ignored.


Saturday, October 15th at 5:45pm – actor Tracy Letts is scheduled to attend the screening. Screening and After Party on Saturday, October 15th – Screening Only – $15, Screening and After Party – $35 (presented by Cinema/Chicago’s Associate Board)

Sunday, October 16th at 8:15pm








We’ve seen quite a few films already that have depicted banks as they enemy of the 2008 financial crisis, but “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” shows us not all of them are nefarious. American documentarian filmmaker Steve James returns with a film that focuses on the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a community bank located in Chinatown, New York City, owned by Thomas Sung (who is essentially compared to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life”), which was  deemed “small enough to jail” rather than “too big to fail” by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, since the chief complaint by the general public was that banks weren’t being held accountable. It’s a bank that has been the only financial institution to actually face criminal charges following the subprime mortgage crisis. Through interviews with Sung and his wife Hwei Lin Sung and their loyal daughters, Chanterelle Sung (former assistant DA under Vance), Heather Sung, Abacus president & CEO, Jill Sung and Abacus director, Amy Sung, we learn that some employees in their loan department had been laundering money and committing fraudulent acts. What James does here is hone in on the close-knit Chines-American family, who they are and what they are prepared to do to fight the charges against them in court in 2015, while giving equal air time to the defense attorney’s office to get their perspective. I can see how this David and Goliath story would appeal to James (“Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters”), because he’s a director who has a knack for bringing to light the humanity of people who would otherwise be underestimated or overlooked.


Tuesday, October 18th at 6:00pm







I’m sure I’ll see another strange and absurd thriller during the festival, but I doubt any other will be as unexpectedly humorous and as fascinating as “Elle”. The ever-luminous Isabelle Huppert plays the title character Michèle, a cold and no-nonsense manager overseeing a softcore video game design company in France. She is perceived as curt and ruthless, but she simply has no time for the stereotypes that others thrust upon her (not to mention the appendages that certain men in her life literally thrust upon her). Her eyes roll at any sign of affection that she sees around her and in her own personal love life, she prefers carnal pleasures to deep and meaningful relationships. As we begin to delve into the reasons for her disposition, we keep going back to the masked stranger who broke into her home at the beginning of the film, the one who assaulted and raped her.  The reason she is hesitant to tell anyone and refuses to report her attack stems from a horrific event that occurred when she was a child. As certain desires surface, she is surprised by her behavior and soon embarks on an unexpected journey that challenges her perception of who she is.  Reminiscent to something from Cronenberg, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven delivers a confident and empowering tale of femininity and power that will leave the audience in discussion long after viewing.


Tuesday, October 20th at 8:30pm








Here is a documentary that follows the daily lives of three African-American young men at a time in our nation when it is imperative that racial stereotypes be removed from their representation. Set in Bertie County in Eastern North Carolina, the film takes an intimate and insightful six-year look into the lives of Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell as they experience the uncertain and pivotal teenage years, while trying to determine their own identities and future. Produced and directed by Margaret Byrne (founder of Beti Films), whose stark cinéma verity style captures their stories as they try to figure out: school, work, anger, love, fatherhood, and estrangement from family members or mentors, while touching on the complex relationships between generational poverty, economic isolation, and educational inequity. This is an area where 80% of the rural population is black, where the poverty rates are nearly triple that of whites in this area and it’s an area where such an issue will largely go ignored. Most of the boys that Byrne follows live with their mothers, with their fathers either uninvolved or incarcerated at one of the many prisons in the area. One boy finds Bertie boring, but considers leaving the county an intimidating thought and all three of them struggle through the demands of finishing high school. “Raising Bertie” puts viewers in the shoes of these boys, offering an understanding and appreciation of their lives.


Sunday, October 23 at 3:30pm – director/writer Margaret Byrne and producer Ian Kibbe are scheduled to attend this screening.







For the first hour or so, director Gavin Hood has viewers invest in the resilient, adorable and helpless 5-year-old Saroo (played with aching purity by Sunny Pawar), who gets accidentally separated from his family when he is lost on a train which takes him thousands of miles across his small village in India, far away from his family. Good grief, this movie left me a hot mess of emotions as I followed this poor, sweet boy and  “Top of the Lake” co-director Garth Davis does a fine job at capturing the desperate unpredictability of life on the streets. Such a harrowing and tense story, based on the memoir by Saroo Brierley has to have a happy ending, right? You continuously hope so. The second-half of the movie takes place in Tasmania, Australia, a place where Saroo has spent the past twenty-five years after being adopted by a well-intentioned couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who raise him along with another adopted Indian boy. Although he has felt love and has known no one other than his Australian family, the adult Saroo (a fine performance from Dev Patel) feels lost and begins to secretly search for his home using a fairly new technological source called Google Earth to backtrack and find his home. With the support of his girlfriend (Rooney Mara, in a kind of unneeded role), the uncertain Saroo sets out to return to his family, not knowing what he will find.  Some may find the narrative structure a bit disjointed, but it was absolutely absorbing to me. Some may even consider the ending to be a bit too manipulative, but I was too busy wiping my tears.

RATING: ***1/2

Tuesday, October 25th at 7:45pm– producer Iain Canning is scheduled to attend this screening.








Horror/dark thriller fans should look closely at opening weekend….



(U.S.) Thirty years after its premiere at CIFF, director John McNaughton’s unflinching, fact-based exploration of a sociopathic mind remains one of the most disturbing horror films ever made. Michael Rooker is galvanizing as the titular loner who catches the eye of Becky (Tracy Arnold), the troubled sister of his leering roommate. This masterful independent film will screen in a never-before-seen anniversary restoration, with cast and crew in attendance.

Friday, October 14th at 9:00pm – director/writer/producer John McNaughton and actor Michael Rooker are scheduled to attend this screening.



(U.S.) In this visually striking nightmare, one horrific act forever alters a young farm woman’s life. We follow Francisca, a surgeon’s daughter, from this traumatic event to an isolated adulthood, as she seeks to fulfill her parents’ legacy in increasingly gruesome ways. Elegant black-and-white cinematography elevates shocking body horror into the realm of a timeless folktale.

Friday, October 14th and Saturday, October 15th at 10:30pm – producer Jake Wasserman is scheduled to attend both screenings.



(U.S./U.K.) A father-son coroner team (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) face the ultimate head-scratcher with their latest corpse: an unidentified beautiful young woman who boasts no obvious cause of death. As they dig deeper into the examination (and into Jane Doe’s body), the duo uncover increasingly strange and terrifying things. This bloody, clever, and medically rigorous horror film turns the morbid conventions of the genre literally inside-out.

Friday, October 15th at 10: 45pm & Saturday, October 22nd at 3:00pm 



(Mexico) In a fog-drenched forest trapped in eternal dusk, a father and his three children are sequestered in a log cabin, hiding from a monster lurking just outside. When the eldest son disappears, the middle child begins to question his father’s judgement and the truth of what really lies beyond. Fantasy, terror, and Oedipal conflicts combine in this hypnotizing post-apocalyptic fable that evokes both Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-scapes and Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive. Original title: Las Tinieblas.

Saturday, October 15th at 9:45pm & Sunday, October 16th at 12noon – director/writer Daniel Castro Zimbrón is scheduled to attend both screenings.



(Mexico) This psychedelic carnival of S&M, incest, cannibalism, and other X-rated taboos follows a fleeing brother and sister who seek shelter in a dilapidated building inhabited by a modern-day ogre. In order to survive, they must submit to his every sick whim and enact his most depraved fantasies. Produced by Mexican compatriot Carlos Reygadas and endorsed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, We are the Flesh represents a shockingly original vision from a new Mexican auteur. Original title: Tenemos la carne.

Sunday, October 16th at 8:45pm & Friday, October 21st at 10:45pm


Also of note: 



(U.S.) Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey – they share the name. Every day, Paterson adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route, he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura. By contrast, Laura’s world is ever-changing. The film quietly observes the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details.

Saturday, October 15th at 8:30pm



(U.K.) The celebrated director of The House of Mirth paints the life of Emily Dickinson in lush, appropriately poetic tones, with a powerful lead performance by Cynthia Nixon as the celebrated American poet and co-starring Jennifer Ehle as her sister Vinnie. Living in self-imposed isolation from the world in her Massachusetts family home, yet still very much a part of high society, Dickinson uses her wit as a safeguard against her struggles with mental health and the patriarchal demands of her time.

Sunday, October 16th at 5:30pm & Wednesday, October 19th at 8:15pm




(France/Romania) The latest masterwork from the visionary behind 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Graduation follows a doctor who has long prided himself on his personal and professional ethics. When his daughter is attacked before her final exams, he must decide to what lengths he will go to ensure her success.

Saturday, October 15th at 8:30pm & Sunday, October 16th at 8:15pm





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