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CIFF 2017 preview

October 12, 2017



The Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) is upon us once again! In its 53rd year, the festival promises to offer an eclectic look at life around the world and right here in our back yard, delivering a variety of genres and styles for film enthusiasts to scour over. Like every year, covering the festival is a daunting task, as I attempt to watch as many films as possible, land some interviews with visiting filmmakers or actors and then, of course, there’s writing about it all. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, I guess. Below you’ll find mini-reviews of the festival films I’ve seen so far, but first a brief rundown of highlights….

CIFF opens tonight (and runs through October 26th), with the Chicago premiere of “Marshall”, the historical courtroom, which actually opens nationwide on the same day.  The film centers on civil rights attorney who would go on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Chief Justice. Director Reginald Hudlin will be in attendance, along with lead actor Chadwick Boseman, supporting actors Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown, as well as producer Paula Wagner.

The red-carpet event kicks off at 6pm with the presentation taking place at 7:30pm, all at AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois), where all of the other CIFF screenings take place for the next couple weeks.

Many of the major screenings include films that have already premiered elsewhere, be it Sundance, Cannes, Venice or Toronto, but will be making their Chicago premiere at CIFF. So, if you’ve followed coverage of those festivals, you may have heard of some of these titles: “Call Me By Your Name”, The Square”, “Last Flag Flying”, “I, Tonya”, “Borg/McEnroe”, “Mudbound” and “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”.

This year’s Centerpiece film, “Lady Bird” comes courtesy of A24 studios and it is the directorial debut of actress Greta Gerwig, starring Saoirse Ronan, as well as Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts (Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members, both of whom will be in attendance to discuss the film). The Closing Night film is “The Shape of Water”, the eagerly-awaited new film from director Guillermo del Toro, starring Sallie Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon (the two Michaels will be attend in attendance for a post-screening discussion of the film, with Shannon receiving a special Tribute from the festival). 

There will be other Tribute special presentations as well, both awarded to revered actors from England, Vanessa Redgrave (Oct. 16th) and Sir Patrick Stewart (Oct. 25th). Redgrave will also be present for a special screening of “Blow-Up” from 1966, which she starred in and for her directorial debut, a documentary called “Sea Sorrow”. Another veteran actor getting an award is Alfre Woodard (Oct. 21st), who will be receiving a Career Achievement Award. All of these special events are open to the public.

The lineup of this year’s Festival Spotlight will feature four U.S. films as part of the International Film Noir theme. This includes a restoration of actor/director Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (Oct. 22nd), which will be followed by a conversation with restoration consultant and Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.  Other modern-day films from Thailand, China, Italy, Belgium and Hungary will be included in the program, including “Wormwood” a six-part hybrid documentary/feature from director Errol Morris (intermission included) which will be available on Netflix sometime this December.

More information about the festival as well as ticket information can be found here.



Before you go any further and check out my thoughts on what I’ve seen so far, I’d like to share what I feel these films have in common – so, please indulge me.

It  didn’t hit me right away, but then it dawned on me that these films are populated by people we would probably not think twice about in real life – even if some of them exist in real life. I couldn’t help but think of how we have a certain outside view of many of these characters and in real life, we would probably just leave it at that. While these films may present us with characters we think we know – based on who we recognize them as – they turn out to be much more complex than our limited assessment.

In Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying”, the focus is on three veterans who unexpectedly reunite after thirty years. Who are they now? A derelict bar owner, a quiet and polite man who keeps to himself and a Baptist preacher. We may think we know them, just by sizing them up, their occupation or demeanor, but there’s definitely more to them and that stems from their shared experience in the past and our perception of them changes the more time we spend with them. In “Let the Sunshine In”, Juliette Binoche plays a recently divorced middle-aged artist struggling to figure out her love and sex life. Again, we probably wouldn’t give such a character a second thought (of course, she’s played by Binoche), thinking we can sum her up, but she’s just as complex as you and I. It’s a rather unexpected observation I’ve made about both these very different movies, but it can also be carried over to the films I’ve seen so far in the Black Perspectives category.

The films in the Black Perspectives category are focused on African-Americans that could easily be familiar to viewers.  Each film has its own tone and delves into the complexities of who these people are (some moreso than others, of course), peeling back the perceptions we bring to our viewing. From the titular “Black Cop” in Cory Bowles film to the black teen girl we follow in “For Ahkeem”, we’re offered different perceptions of people we think we know.

Three documentaries – two of which are shorts and one a feature – also provide an intimate and somewhat in-depth look at people we think we know. “’63 Boycott” had me wondering what kind of educational experience my Chicago African-American friends over sixty had experienced. “Edith+Eddie” found me thinking about how I look at senior citizens. Would you naturally look at an elderly couple in their 90s and wonder what they’re about or would they just completely pass your awareness? And then there’s “The Rape of Recy Taylor” which opened my eyes completely, leaving me with a revealing understanding of the tragic title character.

All of this may not be illuminating observations, but I will claim them as mine. To say that I can look at all of these movies and find a commonality that provides a better understanding of humanity and more importantly that we are all much more complex than the first take perceptions we convey. Sometimes movies can remind us of just that, but its rare that a handful of them can do the same thing (at least for me).




directed by: Richard Linklater
(United States)

No one ever thought that we’d get a sequel to Hal Ashby’s “The Last Detail”, the 1973 cult dramedy starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young, but here we are some thirty years later with co-writer/director Richard Linklater’s latest “Last Flag Flying”, which is being deemed a “spiritual sequel” to Ashby’s film. The names of the three main characters have been changed and they’ve been completely recast, which is kind of understandable considering there will be viewers watching this who have not seen the 1973 film. The good news is that “Last Flag Flying” can be viewed cold and an appreciation for the acting and characterization can be experienced. The story takes place in 1992 and follows  the sheepish “Doc” (Steve Carell) recruiting his fellow vets, Reverand Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and loudmouth bar owner, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) for a different type of mission: to bury Doc’s son, a Marine who was recently killed in Iraq. It becomes a road trip movie and I can see how some may want to write it off for its familiarity, but I found some very surprising character interactions and emotions on display here, along with some enjoyable humor all tuned to Linklater’s easy-going pace.


Mon, Oct 16th – 8:15pm




directed by: Claire Denis

Luminous as ever, Juliette Binoche teams with French director Claire Denis for “Let the Sunshine In”, in what is being described as an “off-kilter comedy” and therefore a departure for the filmmaker, known for such dramas as “35 Shots of Rum” and “The White Material”. Binoche plays Isabelle, a recently divorced middle-age artist who’s searching for love while navigating being single again, encountering a handful of male suitors (featuring an ensemble of French actors such as Nicolas Duvauchelle, Xavier Beauvois and in a cameo role during the film’s unique end credits sequence, Gerard Depardieu) and ending up exasperated and dissatisfied with them and herself. French novelist Christine Angot adapts material from Roland Barthes’s 1977 text A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments with Denis, both of whom offer an intoxicating and rare feminist take on sex, love and relationships. It may take some getting used to the dialogue-heavy interaction and the film’s somewhat slow pace, but still: Binoche. Shot earlier this year, “Let the Sunshine In” appeared at Cannes, where it earned the SACD Award.


Sun, Oct 22nd – 5:45 PM & Mon, Oct 23rd – 5:45 PM




directed by: Cory Bowles

This biting satire “Black Cop” manages to be complex and confounding at the same time. It follows a, you guessed it, black cop (Ronnie Rowe) doing unto white folk what white cops have been doing to black folk in America for decades, as he exacts an unhinged level of violence on the privileged white of what we assume to be just another modern-day urban city (although it was filmed in Nova Scotia). When the character experiences racial profiling from his peers, it sets in to motion something that’s obviously been brewing his entire life. I get what what actor/director Cory Bowles is getting at here, how could I not? The movie hit me over the head from start to finish, pausing now and then for tonally odd performance art bits from the main character. I would’ve like to see more of a transition here, since there’s really no evidence that this cop was ever doing any honorable police work, instead we just go straight to his unapologetic agenda. I wish it would’ve delved into how it’s not easy being a cop nowadays, even more difficult for a black cop. While there are some compelling and timely themes here – the delivery here is a little too blunt and obvious.


Tue, Oct. 17th – 8:30pm, Sat, Oct 21th – 12:30pm & Mon, Oct. 23rd – 2pm

IN ATTENDANCE (on Oct. 17th): director Cory Bowles and producer Aaron Horton




directed by: Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest
(United States)

After premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and  past Spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, filmmakers Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest bring their documentary “For Ahkeem” to CIFF, which presents the challenges facing many black teenagers in America today. The specific focus here is on Daje Shelton, a stubborn and defiant, yet sweet 17-year-old girl from St. Louis, growing up in a tough neighborhood that’s use to an environment of violence and brutality. She struggles in school and falls for her classmate Antonio, as she takes a serious look at her future once the titular Ahkeem comes into her life. Taking place primarily between 2013 and 2015, with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson as a revealing  backdrop, “For Ahkeem” takes an immersive and luminous approach to a demographic most have already pegged, delivering a complex and often frustrating look at urban teen life. It’s a coming-of-age story but it also serves as an avatar for so many American black teens in urban communities.


Fri, Oct 20th – 8:30pm & Sat, Oct 21st, 2017 11:30am

executive producer Jeff Truesdell, producer Iyabo Boyd, documentary subject Daje Shelton





Two documentary shorts, “’63 Boycott” and “Edith+Eddie”, from Chicago-based Kartemquin Films will receive their world premiere at CIFF. They are also included in the “Black Perspective” category of the festival’s competition and while they are very different, both are powerful and moving, as well as emotional and frustrating. Both films will be shown back-to-back as part of a double feature called “Can’t Turn Back”, looking at interracial harmony, conflict, and societal injustice.


directed by: Rachel Dickson, Tracye A. Matthews, and Gordon Quinn
(United States)

I had no idea that the breezy “’63 Boycott” would uncover so much in its short runtime or that it would prove to be a powerful indictment on Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The short looks at the titular boycott that occurred on October 22, 1963, when more than 200,000 students boycotted the CPS in protest to racial segregation. Minority communities in Chicago have always struggled to receive the same educational opportunities and quality school life as white students, something that can sadly still ring true today and “’63 Boycott” provides a look at the ramifications of this forgotten part of Chicago history. I also had no idea that back then School Superintendent Benjamin Willis placed aluminum mobile school units (trailers dubbed ‘Willis Wagons’) in playgrounds and parking lots as a ‘permanent solution’ to overcrowding in black schools. This history, much of which is presented in archival 16mm footage of the march shot by Kartemquin founder Gordon Quinn (who was 21 years-old at the time), is frustrating, but it also can be seen sadly repeating itself in the discriminating school closures in recent years. The informative short includes current reflections from participants from the boycott in the past to the contemporary issues of today.


directed by: Laura Checkoway
(United States)

In just 29-minutes, director/producer/editor Laura Checkoway, involves us in the lives of Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison, ages 96 and 95, who claim to be America’s oldest interracial newlywed. That’s right, not just a married couple, but newlyweds. It’s hard not to get pulled in by that curiosity, but it’s when the short gets into a family feud over the care-taking rights of Edith, that we realize this is a poignant story that touches on ageism and racism. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about how this Virginia couple was discovered (it could’ve been news footage which caught filmmaker’s attention) and also how this loving couple agreed to be filmed. Intimately shot, “Edith+Eddie” looks at what can happen when the right to live life on your own terms is taking away, regardless of love. The short was produced by Thomas Lee Wright (“Last Flag Flying”), and executive produced by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Betsy Steinberg, Gordon Quinn as well as actress/singer/activist Cher.


Sun, Oct 22nd – 3:30 PM

IN ATTENDANCE: director Gordon Quinn and producers Rachel Dickson and Tracye A. Matthews (“’63 Boycott”)




directed by: Nancy Buirski
(United States)

I went into this documentary going off the provocative title, assuming it would simply be about a historic and significant tragic event. What director Nancy Buirski provides is something far more reaching in its scope, than I ever expected. This isn’t just an in-depth and detailed look at how Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old black mother and sharecropper, was gang raped by six white boys in Abbeyville, Alabama one night in 1944 (a common occurrence and right of passage for many white men in Jim Crow South), it’s about the heartbreaking abuse of black women then and now. Buirski delves into how Rosa Parks, a chief rape investigator for NAACP at the time, got involved in rallying support and played a significant role in seeking justice for the church-going Taylor. Made up of vintage footage from the era, new interviews with Taylor’s loved ones and noted scholars, as well as scenes from vintage race films (including a number from the prolific African American director Oscar Micheaux), “The Rape of Recy Taylor” serves as both a historic document and as a frustrating indictment. The film is an eye-opening dedication “to the countless women whose voices have not been heard” and as the film unfolds, we hear one narrator summarize how ultimately “black women fighting for the right to move through life unmolested”. The last few minutes of the film, where we actually see Recy Taylor today, is some of the most wrenching and memorable moments I’ll see this year.

RATING: ***1/2 

Wed, Oct. 18th – 5:45pm and Thurs, Oct. 19th – 3:15pm

IN ATTENDANCE: director Nancy Buirski, producer Claire Chandler




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