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CCFF 2018 preview

May 3, 2018

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In its sixth year, the Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) returns for the fifth time to the beautiful Music Box Theatre, one of the Windy City’s best movie theaters. I’m not waxing hyperbole when I say it’s one of the best film festivals in a city that has film festivals just about every weekend. The festival was nominated runner-up for Best Film Festival in the Chicago Reader’s 2017 “Best of Chicago” poll and each year features a selection of acclaimed films chosen by members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, culling a combination of recent festival favorites and as-yet-undistributed works from a variety of filmmakers, established Oscar winners to talented newcomers. The festival, which runs May 4th through May 10th, is the only current example of a major film critics group that hosts its own festival and has earned quite a following over the years. 

However, CCFF isn’t just the best because the best films of the festivals within the last six months (Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest) have been chosen, but also the best because of the festival’s location. Not only is the Music Box a landmark theater with a distinctive interior, it also has a cool lounge attached to it where you can grab a drink and hang out before and after the movie you’re there for and is nestled in the cool Southport Avenue neighborhood on the north side of the city. If you’re hungry in-between films, there about three places where you can grab an empenada. So, not only do I look forward to the films included in the festival, but I also anticipate where it all goes down.

Here’s a rundown of what you have to look forward to…

Friday, May 4th is Opening Night and features the Midwest premiere of “Fast Color”, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Beyond the Lights” and “A Wrinkle in Time”) as a woman whose superhero powers send her on the run; Mbatha-Raw and the film’s co-writer and producer, Jordan Horowitz (“La La Land”), will be in Chicago for the occasion to discuss the film.

Other highlights of this highly-curated, week-long festival include:

  • Searching, starring John Cho (“Columbus”) as a father investigating his daughter’s disappearance through the digital footprint she’s left behind; filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian are scheduled to attend the festival
  • Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s story of a single father (Ben Foster) and his daughter living off the grid until a single mistake derails their idyllic existence.
  • On Chesil Beach, Saoirse Ronan’s first film since the runaway success of Lady Bird, based on the Ian McEwan novel about sexual politics and freedom in 1962 England
  • A 25th anniversary screening of Steven Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park on 35mm, celebrating the launch of one of the most successful franchises in cinema
  • Damsel, starring Robert Pattinson as a well-off pioneer who ventures West to marry the woman he loves, told with the off-kilter humor and unpredictability of directing duo David and Nathan Zellner, who are both scheduled to attend the festival
  • Bodied, a satire set in the world of competitive battle rap produced by Eminem; filmmaker Joseph Kahn is scheduled to attend the festival

Throughout its run, the festival features over twenty-five programs, some of which will be shown twice just in case you missed it during its first time slot. There are four documentaries (“Abducted in Plain Sight”; “Hal”, about the career of legendary filmmaker Hal Ashby; “Liyana” and “Three Identical Strangers”); a 35mm print of Yasujiro Ozu’s classic “Woman of Tokyo” and two blocks of short film programs which will screen on Sunday, May 6th and Monday, May 7th. I highly recommend “Runner” a short which will be included in Sunday’s program. I recently interviewed the  actor/writer/director (and editor) of the short, Clare Cooney, who will be in attendance that day to discuss her film.

The Closing Night selection is “Eighth Grade”, a film which won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Written and directed by Bo Burnham, the film stars Elsie Fisher (“Despicable Me”) as a middle schooler who endures a tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she survives the last week of the school year before officially making it to high school. A recent Sundance Film Festival official selection, filmmaker Bo Burnham will be in attendance to introduce the film and discuss it afterward.

Having seen some of the featured films in advance, I can tell you that sometimes there is serendipity in how the festival is curated and how the lineup is laid out. For example on Saturday afternoon there’s a solid double feature lined up in the afternoon that just happen to have some fascinating similarities. Both “Liyana” and “We the Animals” revolve around children who tell stories in order to make sense of the unpredictable and precarious world they live in and both use animated sequences in primarily live-action films. Both of these films are unique and captivating in their own right and are the kind of discoveries you hope to experience in a film festival.

Below are some thoughts on the films I’ve seen so far and I will likely be added more reviews throughout the duration of the festival.

 

 

supportthegirls

SUPPORT THE GIRLS

If you’re familiar with the vibe of American restaurants like Hooters or Tilted Kilt, you’ll know the atmosphere of Double Whammies, a roadside joint in “Support the Girls” nestled alongside busy highways outside of Houston, Texas. It’s the kind of place that has its regulars, but ultimately most people will pass up. This is where Lisa Conroy (a fabulous Regina Hall) resides as general manager, overseeing a scantily-clad female staff of servers in an environment where unruly sexist customers are the norm. These girls include Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), who maintains a giddy outlook in the face of constant harassment, and Danyelle (Shayna McHayle, aka hip-hop sensation Junglepussy), whose no-nonsense attitude turns her into Lisa’s right hand confidante. We follow Lisa throughout a full workday as she deals with a variety of issues: an attempted overnight robbery, dealing with the bar’s obnoxious owner (James LeGros), her own marriage woes, and some unpredictable new hires. While she deals with each issue with steely resolve, she’s only human and her exhaustion with these situations feels both authentic and relatable. “Support the Girls” is an example of a cast rising above the material they are given. Not that I didn’t like what writer/director Andrew Bujalski (“Computer Chess” and “Results”) is serving up in “Support the Girls”, it’s just that the strong performances across the board really stand out in a story that feels a bit too formulaic and episodic for my tastes. Still, this is a far cry from “Coyote Ugly” and that’s a good thing.

RATING: **1/2

Friday, May 4th at 9:30pm

 

 

liyana.jpg

LIYANA

It’s not often that we see animation incorporated into a live-action documentary, let alone as seamlessly eloquent and appropriate as the touching “Liyana”. The film, co-directed by Aaron and Amanda Knopp (the cinematographers behind “The Hunting Ground”) and executive-produced by Thandie Newton, follows five orphan children in Swaziland (a harsh kingdom in Africa) who face unbelievable life hardships with the help of a children’s book author. The effervascent and honest children collaborate on a story revolving around Liyana, a young girl they created whose dark reality resembles their own, yet someone who must embark on a dangerous coming-of-age journey to rescue her younger twin brothers, using instinct and maintaining hope. The children’s story is told in rich and imaginative animation and is interwoven throughout the observational documentary scenes to create a genre-defying celebration of collective storytelling. I found the film’s approach to be wholly unique and interesting, leaving me quite enriched.

RATING: ***

Saturday, May 5th at 1:15pm

 

 

wetheanimals

WE THE ANIMALS

From the outside looking in, they synopsis of “We the Animals” seems quite familiar, but the immersive and impressionistic experience director Jeremiah Zagar provides is anything but predictable. Three young brothers, Manny, Joel, and the youngest Jonah (an amazing Evan Rosado) must rely on themselves to get by in rural upstate New York, due to the unpredictable nature of their volatile parents, Puerto Rican father (Raúl Castillo) and white mother (Sheila Vand), who are responsible for their dysfunctional environment. A slow burn at times, but well worth experiencing when we see how the story unfolds. At times, it’s excruciating and nerve-wracking to witness how these shirtless troublemakers behave, what they’re exposed to and who they associate with. Yet Zagar balances out the harrowing moments with elegantly crafted poetic scenes of discover and revelation. We learn who these characters are through subtleties and suggestions and specifically discover more about Jonah through his frenzied drawings that he secretly works on (represented in rich animation sequences interjected throughout) which resemble what he sees and experiences in life. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that the film is an adaptation of a 2012 novel of the same name by Justin Torres, since the story comes across like a literary work, thanks to Zagars’s direction and warm 16mm cinematography from Zak Mulligan. If I had to compare “We the Animals” to anything, imagine a mashup of “Moonlight” and “The Florida Project”. Hopefully, that sells you on it right there. The Orchard is set to release the film later this summer.

 

RATING: ***1/2

Saturday, May 5th at 3:00pm

 

 

firstreformedhawke

FIRST REFORMED

Veteran writer/director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver” and “Hardcore”) has brought a consistent obsession and reflection of his Calvinist upbringing (and religion in general) to the big-screen on-and-off for several decades now. Those themes take center stage here in “First Reformed” his latest, which could be considered a return to form for Schrader.  Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a troubled former military chaplain, struggling with his own personal grief, along with some recent news pertaining to his own mortality. He meets the concerned Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who seeks counsel for her radical environmentalist husband which further challenges his beliefs. Hawke has a genuine delivery, an earnestness to serve this conflicted character justice. In an interesting turn against type, Cedric Kyles (known mainly as “the Entertainer”) as a collegue who looks after a bigger flock. Is Toller losing his mind or is he suddenly clear-minded for this first time? Both Hawke and Schrader deliver some career-best work here – it’s definitely Schrader’s best writer/director work since 1997’s “Affliction” (like that film, the winter season plays a an atmospheric role here) and with its bound-to-be-controversial (or at least conversational) ending, “First Reformed” should very well be a standout in the filmmaker’s noteworthy filmography. This is the Chicago premiere screening before A24 officially releases it on May 18th.

RATING: ***

Monday, May 7th at 7:15pm

***Director Paul Schrader in attendance for a post-film Q&A***

 

 

 

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FORVER ‘B’ (ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT) 

“Forever ‘B'”, also known as “Abducted in Plain Sight” has to be the most harrowing and frustrating documentaries in the festival. It tells the story of Jan Broberg, who was abducted from a small community in Idaho when she was 12-years-old back in 1974 by Robert “B” Birchtold, a manipulative pedophile who won over the girl’s naive parents, earning their trust and subsequently destroying their marriage in order to get close to Jan. How this happened – not once but twice – and the long-lasting sexual, emotional, and psychological impact it had on Jan and her family is something director Skye Borgman investigates. The true-crime documentary employs actors recreating scenes from the past that are told by the Broberg family, including Jane herself, as the family struggles with regret, guilt and trauma, as well as their own struggles with faith and forgiveness due to all they’ve endured. It’s haunting right up from start to finish, right up until Jan Broberg’s last few raw moments on-screen.

RATING: ***

Thursday, May 10th at 6pm

***Director Skye Borgman in person for a post-film Q&A***

 

Further details, as well as information on the previous editions of the festival, can be found at the official CCFF website at www.chicagocriticsfilmfestival.com. Follow the CFCA and the festival on Twitter at @chicagocritics and on Facebook here.

 

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