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CIFF 2018 preview

October 11, 2018



The Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) kicked off last night for the 54th time with “Beautiful Boy”, a harrowing biographical drama from Belgium director Felix van Groeningen (who was in attendance to discuss the film) which follows a father (Steve Carell) determined to help his opioid-addicted son (Timothée Chalamet). But don’t worry, the film will open in Chicago on October 19th and is bound to earn some Oscar nominations for acting. The annual festival, which continues through October 21st, is once again making its home at AMC River East 21, which will arguably become an epicenter for film enthusiasts. As expected, there will be an assortment of films from other countries, as well as some that were locally shot – some have  already been picked up by studios, while others await distribution which means this may be the only time to see certain films.  

Strangely, the festival’s length is three days shorter than last year and, looking at its schedule of 123 features, it’s also 23 films less than last year. But I’m fine with a shorter festival with fewer films, since I’m always wiped out during the festival in my efforts to see as much as possible and by Closing Night (which will feature Jason Reitman’s , “The Front Runner”, starring Hugh Jackman) I’m utterly exhausted. Opening Night, which is typically on a Thursday, has been bumped up one day. I do appreciate that the last day is on a Sunday this year instead of a weekday, making it nice to end it all before a new work week starts.

That being said, my attempts at coverage will remain the same as every year. I will try and see as much as possible and make the same attempt to write about everything I see, but life usually gets in the way. For someone who doesn’t do this film critic thing full-time, it’s always a challenge.

Click here, for a full list of the films included in this year’s lineup.




Of the five films I’ve seen so far, four of them have connections to Chicago. One narrative feature, “Olympia” takes place in Chicago and features predominately local actors. The three documentaries I watched all have ties to the Windy City, two of them, “Friedkin Uncut” and “Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny” (both of which will have special Tributes dedicated to their subject, along with a screeming of the film) more overtly so than the other one, “Father of the Flame” which includes a convention that takes place in Chicago. I didn’t expect to link such a strong Third Coast connection, but it happened nevertheless. You can expect more dispatches from CIFF over the course of the next eleven days.

Below are my thoughts on the films I’ve already seen…






(93 min.) directed by: Gregory Dixon

The highlight of this Chicago-based dramedy is definitely the performances by two local actors, McKenzie Chinn and Charles Andrew Gardner, who have lead roles as Olympia and Felix (respectively), a dating couple on the precipice of change. How that change comes about and how they deal with it feels relatable, honest and natural. The film takes a hit from some stereotypical supporting characters and director Gregory Dixon’s choice to use unnecessary transitional aerial drone shots that seems like he’s using a checklist of some all-too-familiar Chicago locations, but the screenplay from Chinn makes up for it, especially the dialogue between Olympia and Felix, which feels like it stems from a real place. Maybe it does, since Chinn wrote the screenplay and stars as the titular character, an artist who works downtown as a receptionist and is ending out her 20s stuck with a bit of an identity crisis. “Olympia” serves as a reminder that everyone has a story. That person in the cubicle next to you may be have a strenuous relationship with her sibling, she may have a dying mother and she also may not know what to do about this really nice and patient guy that she’s dating. She maybe a struggling artist who longs do get noticed for her work. There are times when the quirky animation sprinkled throughout doesn’t necessarily work, but I appreciated the attempt at something a different.  Despite some distracting directorial choices, “Olympia” comes across as earnest and relatable story overall with some solid performances.


Mon, Oct 15th at 5:30 pm, Tue, Oct 16th at 8:45 pm & Fri, Oct 19th at 1:00 pm (scheduled to attend: Director Gregory Dixon, producer/writer/talent McKenzie Chinn, producer Sarah Sharp, and actor Charles Andrew Gardner)




(114 min.) directed by: Eisuke Naitô

A recent transfer to a middle school in a rural area outside of Tokyo, quiet and shy Haruka Nozaki (Anna Yamada) is targeted by a group of  antagonistic bullies. There are no average or normal teenagers in this town – in fact, there’s barely any functionally adults – therefore, anyone moving there should receive a warning.Despite attempts to ignore them, she can’t seem to shake her malicious peers (girls and boys)  until she decides to sit it out at home until the school’s looming graduation occurs. That changes when a prank by her antagonists prove fatal for her family, flipping a switch internally for Haruka, setting her on a bloody path of vengeance as she tracks down each individual involved in irrevocably changing her life. I’m not surprised that the film, originally titled, “Misumisô”, is based on a Manga series by Rensuke Oshikiri, considering its emphasis on bloody action over psychological horror would probably better suited for sequential art. That “Liverleaf” fits within the horror genre primarily for its bloody encounters between knife-wielding and crossbow-bearing young teens (usually amidst white snow environments, so you get some memorable red-on-white imagery), is problematic, since story and characterization falls to the wayside. Despite one child being extremely insecure and emotionally fragile, all of the kids wind up being murderous, spoiled brats, even the protagonist, which doesn’t help the film at all. Ultimately, the film loses its intended effect, even pure shock values ring hollow after a while. (Japanese with English subtitles)


Friday, October 12th at 10:30pm & Wednesday, October 17th at 3:00pm





(106 min.) directed by: Francesco Zippel

If you’re a film enthusiast, then you know the impact Chicago-born filmmaker William Friedkin has had on cinema. The outspoken Oscar winner has always been “Uncut” and is quite a character. For his first feature film, director Francesco Zippel certainly has a subject who isn’t shy about discussing movies and the making of them, especially his own, as well as his childhood and how he starting making films. One can easily see why considering Friedkin’s filmography, since some of his films, like “The Exorcist” and “Cruising”, caused a controversial stir among certain groups, while others like “The French Connection”, are known for contributing to the ’70s being a defining moment in American (which he brushes off). Zippel benefits from access to his subject, but also from the inclusion of other directors (Francis Ford Coppola, Wes Anderson, Philip Kaufman, Damian Chazelle and Quentin Tarantino) and actors (Ellen Burstyn, William Peterson, Willen Dafoe, Michael Shannon and Juno Temple) who have been impacted with him, directly and indirectly. If it was up to me, the whole film would be about the making of “To Live and Die in L.A.”, to be honest. If the film didn’t include interesting moments that set itself apart from the inevitable hagiography, it would simply feel like fodder for DVD/Blu-ray Special Features. But there are engaging and enjoyable moments apart from the talking heads pouring accolades on the veteran filmmaker. We get clips of an admiring Friedkin in Venice, taking in the scenery, random snippets of his various live appearances at screenings over the years where he engages with the audience (from my own personal experience, it’s not to be missed, especially when he breaks into “Singing in the Rain”) and a highlight is some old footage of a younger Friedkin interviewing director Fritz Lang, primarily because it’s always interesting to see a director you admire talking to a director they admire.  I had no idea he started out as a documentarian (how can I view “The People vs. Paul Crump”?) and was reminded that I have to catch up with 2017’s “The Devil and Father Amorth”, his last documentary. This is a film for those who know very little about Friedkin or next to nothing.


Monday, October 15th at 6:00pm & Tuesday, October 16th at 12:00pm (scheduled to attend: Director Francesco Zippel and subject William Friedkin)





(78 min.) directed by: Chad Terpstra

I never expected to be entranced or so absorbed by a film about pipes and pipe-making. I’m talking about the kind you smoke, not the electrical or underground kind. When I think of smoking pipes I think of the romanticized image of a bearded fella sitting in a comfortable chair next to a fireplace or Gandalf pontificating his way to Mordor. Depending on your knowledge and experience, this documentary erases and/or expands on whatever concept you previously have of pipes. Director Chad Terpstra knows he will be opening up this world of handcrafted pipes to most viewers and in doing so refrains from providing a history lesson, instead he dives right in by predominately featuring (and following) world-renown pipe artist, Lee Erck, a humble and unassuming Michigan  resident. He becomes a fascinating subject, whether we’re spending time in his home workshop or travel abroad with him to Japan, where his work is in high demand or spend time with him in Italy, where he’s developed a deep friendship with a family with a history of briar cutting. Along the way, we hear Erck reflect on how he came to be a pipe-maker, what his philosophies are and his spiritual connectedness to the process. Terpstra also checks in with a family of Danish artisans as we learn how the craftsmanship of pipe-making has been passed on through generations and there’s also the inclusion of the Native American perspective of pipe-making as well. Beautifully photographed by Terpstra with a memorable score from composer Kyle Calvin Campbell which accentuates the film’s evocative examination of legacy, family and craftsmanship.


Friday, October 12th at 6:30pm & Sunday, October 14th at 11:30am (scheduled to attend: Director Chad Terpstra, Producer Jeremy Rush, producer Stellita Terpstra, editor Scott McCambridge, and subject Lee Von Erck)





(73 min.) directed by Jennifer Hou Kwong (Jian Ping)

Based on the title alone, one might glean that this documentary will revolve around the   guy who came up with the iconic Playboy bunny logo. Yes and no. It took legendary Chicago graphic artist Art Paul exactly one hour to sketch that bunny, and in a little over an hour, director Jennifer Hou Kwong does a fine job encapsulating the lasting impact of how Paul changed the landscape of art and design in magazines (breaking the barrier between commercial art and fine art) as art director for the first thirty years of Playboy, while at the same time offering an intimate (and recent) look at who this artist was (Paul died of pneumonia earlier this year in April at age 93). The film is at its most interesting when it focuses on Chicago during the early stages of Playboy, by including old footage of city streets in the sixties and interviews with people who worked with him (including various contributing artists and , including the late Hugh Hefner. What’s unexpectedly endearing about the film however, is seeing how the retired and elderly Paul continued to create art, despite degenerative vision issues, with a peaceful and elegant perspective of life. Throughout the film, there are quotes from Paul that pop up in text form to epitomize his philosophies and more than once we hear him say, “I am an artist. I have to be an artist”, Regardless of how controversial Playboy has been viewed, it is enlightening to learn about the history and twilight years of the poignant man behind that recognizable bunny.  Paul’s widow, Suzanne Seed, is included, as are other family members and the documentary is dedicated to Francis Y. Kwong, who is assumedly related to the director, making for an unsuspectingly personal film.


The documentary made its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival last weekend and will be presented as part of the Tributes section of the festival on Sunday, October 14th at 7:00pm, (with director Jennifer Hou Kwong and Suzanne Seed in attendance). It’s no surprise “Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny” is included at CIFF since he had designed several posters for the festival in the past.




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