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CCFF 2019 preview

May 17, 2019

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It’s that time of the year again, film enthusiasts! Time to get excited. For one week in Chicago, the best films that haven’t yet been released will be showcased yet again at the beautiful Music Box Theatre on the north side of Chicago. Now in its seventh year, the Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) returns to the landmark location (which turns 90 this year) for a highly-anticipated residency from May 17th thru 23rd. This remains the only film festival curated solely by working film critics (fellow members of the Chicago Film Critics Association) who’ve taken the best of what they’ve seen at Toronto, Sundance, SXSW and other festivals, with the goal of providing the Windy City with a treasure of choice cinema. There will be viewers flying in just for this festival, but if you’re a local fan of film, you need to be here.

One of the many treats of this particular film festival are the guests (actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers) that appear for Q&As and this year’s lineup definitely has some guests to get excited about.

The festival opens with a screening of “Saint Frances”, a Chicago-set film by Alex Thompson and Kelly O’Sullivan (both of whom will be in attendance) and closes with Paul Harrill’s “Light From Light”, starring Jim Gaffigan (Harrill and Gaffigan, a Chicago-area native, will also be in attendance). With a line-up including the Chicago premiere of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, about a young Brit who discovers he’s the only one who’s ever heard of The Beatles, and a 40th Anniversary screening of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic “Alien” with actor Tom Skerritt (pictured above) in attendance.

More information on the complete schedule and special guests is below and online; a full schedule, festival passes and individual tickets are also available online here.

 

 

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Highlights of this highly-curated, week-long festival include:

  • “The Farewell” – the runaway Sundance Film festival hit starring Awkwafina (“Crazy Rich Asians”) about a Chinese family who plans a wedding rather than let their matriarch know she only has a short time left to live; writer/director Lulu Wang is scheduled to attend the festival
  • “Yesterday” – the story of a struggling musician who realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles; from a script by Richard Curtis (“About Time”, “Love Actually”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “Slumdog Millionaire”)
  • “Light From Light” – a single mom moonlights as a paranormal investigator and travels to Tennessee with her son to take on a new case; filmmaker Paul Harrill and co-star Jim Gaffigan, a native of the Chicagoland area (who also stars in “Them That Follow” as well), are scheduled to attend
  • “Alien” 40th Anniversary Screening on 35mm – the 1979 movie about a space merchant vessel and its crew, as they discover a mysterious new lifeform intent on spawning a new generation.
  • “Pink Wall” – the debut feature film from actor Tom Cullen (“Knightfall,” “Orphan Black”), Jay Duplass and Tatiana Maslany star as a couple navigating live, love and all that comes with it over the course of six tumultuous years; Cullen, Duplass, and Maslany are all scheduled to attend

 

Additional special guests include filmmaker Gurinder Chadha and actor Viveik Kala with “Blinded By The Light”; and Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe with “Greener Grass”. Along with features and documentaries, CCFF also includes two short film programs screening on Saturday, May 18th and Monday, May 20th. Certainly the best way to ensure access to every aspect of the week-long event is to secure a festival pass, just $150 and available at the link above.

Just as have in years past, I’ve been granted access to some of the films that will be shown at CCFF. Below are my capsule reviews of five films that I’ve seen so far. You can expect more coverage during the festival run.

 

 

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THE NIGHTINGALE

The most devastating film I’ve seen (so far) this year is “The Nightingale”, which is the anticipated follow-up to Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” from 2014. Set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), during the British colonization of Australia, the story follows 21-year-old Irish convict Clare (an amazing Aisling Franciosi), who yearns to be freed from her sadistic master, Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), after seven years of captivity, so she and her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their baby can live a free life. What transpires is a horrific tragedy that befalls Clare, leaving her as the sole surviving member of her family. Incensed with a desperate need for justice, she sets out after the lieutenant and his underlings into the rugged landscape with the reluctant assistance of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) an Aboriginal tracker, determined to exact vengeance for what they’ve done. While it’s certainly a tough watch due to its brutal and disturbing violence, there’s nothing gratuitous about Kent’s impressive film. What it becomes is a tremendously powerful look at grief and loss, and how empathy and understanding factors immensely in trying to make sense of such a violent world. The performances are as unforgettable, whether we’re cringing at their actions or hoping for their survival. Kent offers quite a bit to think about here and there will certainly be many viewers missing out on the real message and themes of the film. Nevertheless, it’s an absolutely impressive achievement.

RATING: ****

 

 

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SAINT FRANCIS

The only locally shot film is a clever and touching dramedy that couldn’t be more timely. When 34-year-old Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) has an abortion after an unwanted pregnancy after hooking up with a nice guy at a party. She’s already feeling kind of stuck and unsure about her current place in life, but when she lands a job as a nanny for a lesbian couple (Charin Alvarez & Lily Mojekwu) caring for their precocious 6-year-old Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams) in a suburb north of Chicago, she finds herself in over her head considering her admits she isn’t the biggest fan of children. On the job, Bridget makes mistakes and is privy to the parental tensions between Frances two mothers, all while navigating her way into a gradual connection with the obstinate-yet-adorable Frances. While the acting across the board is fantastic here, especially O’Sullivan and Edith-Williams (who are without a doubt pure standouts here), the true strength of the film comes from O’Sullivan’s intuitive screenplay. Directed by Alex Thompson (O’Sullivan’s husband), the film is filled with authentic and full-realized human beings and surprisingly unpredictable situations. I can see why “Saint Frances” won the Audience Award at SXSW last month. It truly is a wonderful delight that should make you look at life with a little more understanding and appreciation.

RATING: ***1/2

 

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PIRANHAS

Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival, this absorbing and atmospheric adaptation of Robero Saviano’s novel Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples is reminiscent of the works of Luchino Visconti and Olivier Assayas. This Neapolitan tale focuses on handsome teen Nicola (Francesca Di Napoli) and his gang of overconfident and defiant friends, all of whom romanticize over the power they see the Sanità mafia families weird. Like the youth from “Quadrophenia”, the party-loving punks race around town on scooters in their designer clothes, oblivious to the dangers and repercussions of the violent lifestyle they inevitably get into. Eventually, their arrogance and irresponsibility jeopardize a budding relationship between Nicola and Letizia (Viviana Aprea), leading them to face irreversible consequences. Director Claudio Giovannesi (who helmed a few episodes of the “Gomorrah” TV series) co-wrote the screenplay with Saviano, yet without having read the book, it’s hard to know if the source delved into these characters on a deeper level. Regardless, I enjoyed the performances from newcomers Di Napoli and Aprea and found the setting and environment quite immersive.

RATING: ***

 

 

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OLYMPIC DREAMS

The first feature-length fictional film ever to be shot in an Olympic Athlete Village, during the 2018 winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea. That’s really the only unique hook that “Olympic Dreams” has going for it, but it may be enough for some (it wasn’t for me). It stars Olympic cross-country athlete, Alexi Pappas as twentysomething Penelope, a wayward American Olympic cross-country skier, who feels a little deflated and uncertain, despite scoring a personal best in her category. She is met by fortysomething Ezra (Nick Kroll), a volunteer dentist from America, who also seems a little uncertain and lonely after taking a break from his stateside fiancé. The two lost souls share a special albeit limited time connection that unfortunately winds up following some cliched rom-com tropes. Ezra even runs after Penelope’s departing bus to say a stereotypical farewell. Sure, there are sweet and funny moments in the film, accented by a great score composed by Annie Hart and Jay Wadley, but I found myself wishing Pappas and Kroll’s characters didn’t feel so much familiar (imagine a mashup of “Before Sunrise” and “Lost in Translation”). The most impressive aspect of the film is that director Jeremy Teicher (who also co-wrote and co-produced with Pappas and Kroll) essentially shot his third film on his own, while also handling the sound as well. While it has its touching moments, it ultimately comes across as a bit too cutesy and predictable for my liking, which is why making a standout rom-com is hard.

RATING: **1/2

 

 

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OUR TIME MACHINE

The synopsis of this documentary is an immediate draw: realizing his elderly father’s memory is failing, an artist embarks on an ambitious art project in an effort to preserve his father’s memory. It sounds like a sci-fi novella, but this actually happened and Chinese filmmaker Yang Sun and American director S. Leo Chiang combined talents to capture the making of an elaborate stage performance featuring life-size steampunk-like puppets for a show called, “Papa’s Time Machine”, headed by multimedia artist Ma Ling (aka Maleonn), who invites his father Ma Ke, an accomplished former theater director, to collaborate with him in an effort to bring their relationship closer. “Our Time Machine” allows viewers a chance to get to know Maleonn and his family, while also following along with his impressive theater crew that is working alongside him. Maleonn’s motivations become clear early on, he was a theater child who rarely saw his father due to the over eighty productions he oversaw at the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater. As production hums along, we see the father’s condition worsen as he repeats himself often and loses basic concepts like time of day and days of the week. We also see the challenges of funding the project and how Maleonn’s personal life begins to change at the same time. The two directors offer a fascinating and emotional look at art in process and a family dealing with inevitable life changes. The film, which premiered weeks ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a captivating look at how art connects those who participate and those who engage.

RATING: ***

 

 

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