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CIFF 2020: David Byrne’s American Utopia & Kubrick by Kubrick

October 19, 2020


October has long been the month that cinephiles expect the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) to arrive in the Windy City and this year is so different. You expected to read “no different”, didn’t you? Well, just like many other arts-oriented events have had to rethink things, adapt and improvise with the year that 2020 has turned out to be, the organizers of this annual festival – which runs from the 14th through the 25th – have had to change things up in a massive way.

The changes aren’t drastic though. They’re mostly geographic and social changes that make sense, considering we’re all still in a pandemic and Chicago (and Illinois, for that matter) is about to see an uptick in COVID cases.

The big difference this year is how and where you’ll watch the line-up of films. Like many other festivals this year, CIFF is going virtual…well, mostly. A good majority of the films can be viewed anywhere you want on a laptop using a platform called CineSend, which is described on the festival website as “a high quality in-home cinematic experience while also providing MPAA-accredited DRM protection for our filmmakers.”



Tickets for virtual viewing can be purchased online (which means the festival’s site traffic is going to be busy) and once that’s done, you’ll get a confirmation email from Elevent (not a drug advertisement) with the subject line: “Order Confirmation # – Chicago International Film Festival”. Then you’ll receive an activation email which will take you to the viewing platform, CineSend.

Got it? Don’t worry, I’ve done it already and if I can do it…well, let’s just say it’s not that hard to figure out.

More information can be found here.

There are certain films that can be viewed from your own vehicle. That’s right, for the first time in its 56 years, CIFF invites you to a drive-in! That takes place in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, at ChiTown Movies on 2343 S Throop St. It’s a location that’s been used over this past summer after movie theaters closed down in an effort to keep the tradition of watching movies on a big-screen alive.

I haven’t experienced that yet, but I’m also in no rush to try it out either, to be honest.  Considering the listed prices of the CIFF drive-in experience and how it would just be me in my own vehicle – it’s not like I’m gonna fill my ride with fellow film critic friends in this climate (I love them, but we’ve been so good at keeping our distance for this long, why ruin a good thing?) – I can’t see leaving the comfort of my home, driving to a location and paying what I consider to be an astronomical price for what would be a single ticket. There’s no arguing it would still be a cool viewing experience, but every time I play out in my mind what it would entail, my enthusiasm wanes. That being said, I am still a supporter and a promoter of CIFF, just I have been in the past.

Despite the necessary and understandable changes made, one constant is the plethora of films that CIFF offers. That hasn’t changed and there are still be world premieres, narrative features, documentaries and shorts from all over the globe. If you’ve gone to CIFF in the past anticipating the many filmmaker/actor Q&As that follow screenings, rest assured they are still happening, just in a different format. There are Livestream Q&As happening with a few details to pay close attention to in order to properly participate in the streaming that follows the screening. There’s also morning Coffee Talks to tune into, where filmmakers from the festival will participate in intimate and informal conversations about their work. Coffee Talks take place at 11:00am (central) each morning and can be streamed on our Facebook or YouTube channels. Details for both can be found here. 

On that note, along with the festival site, the CIFF YouTube channel may be a good place to check out some Livestreams and/or presentations you may have missed, along with some other cool videos, like this one:



So, while the bustling commotion of a red carpet event at the AMC River East may (or not) be missed and those late nights of conversing with a fellow film enthusiast in the lobby or a nearby lounge will be dearly missed, CIFF is making the best of their festival experience by making it different. Ultimately, It’s better than an October without CIFF and it may just be a great way to catch films you would otherwise overlook.

Speaking of looking, below are some quick reviews of a couple documentaries I’ve checked out so far. They’ll be similar coverage of other films from the festival in the near future…




(United States) 105 min.


A great concert film offers a viewing audience something close to but entirely different (possibly better) than what the fans who were there in-person experienced and that’s what Spike Lee and David Byrne does with “American Utopia”. While not typically what you’d associate with “a Spike Lee joint”, it’s fitting that these two New York City artists came together and made a unique concert experience that can be watched anywhere. The film is a live recording of last year’s Broadway performance of Byrne’s 2018 album “American Utopia”, modified to include several Talking Heads gems such as “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once in a Lifetime”, in which Byrne and 11 international singers and musicians exuberantly performed his songs (as well as a rousing cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout”)on a sparce stage, all barefoot and wearing grey suits. Lee, cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Adam Gough offer a rare, immersive look at Byrne performing with his artists, with cameras placed high above their heads at times, offering a different viewpoint from the ceiling or angled from below as if they’re larger than life. Such visuals accentuate the themes and questions Byrne weaves throughout his songs and even in banter in-between them. Who are we and how do we interact with each other and those things that surround us? Byrne’s curiosity and astute observations have always been integral to his songs and that is clear in what Lee captures here. It’s joyful and infectious, but it will always make you think about the world we’re in and our place in it.

I found the end credits in particular quite wonderful, which finds Byrne exited the side door of concert hall after the performance, greeting fans as he hops on his bicycle (we assume he’s heading home for the evening). The carefully positioned cameras follow Byrne throughout the New York City streets as he is soon joined by other bandmates. It’s a kick to see artists leave a venue that way as opposed to the typical limo or SUV vehicles.

The film had it’s world premiere at last month’s virtual Toronto International Film Festival and also screened at the New York Film Festival earlier this month. It will be available for streaming in the U.S. on HBO Max and in Canada on Crave as of today, October 17th.

RATING: ***1/2





(France/Poland) 73 min. 


The title is reminiscent of those books where directors talk about their work, breaking down each of their films, and while that’s pretty much what happens in this documentary from French filmmaker Gregory Monro, the title also feels a little off. The film probably should’ve been called “Kubrick on Kubrick” since the main draw here is the inclusion of never-before-heard audio recordings of the masterful filmmaker discussing his work with French film critic Michel Ciment, the rare person he trusted to get candid about his cinematic process and choices. From “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Eyes Wide Shut”, Kubrick’s voice can be heard providing his perspective and philosophy (and that’s a real treat), while photos show up from the each period he’s discussing as occasional archival footage of his appearances or interviews are interspersed with old talking head clips from the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Jack Nicholson, and Tom Cruise. The most interesting aspects of the film are when it touches on the kind of work he focused on prior to his big hits, such as the shorts he made or the photography gig he had with Look magazine. If you’re already familiar with his films and the behind-the scenes details, “Kubrick by Kubrick” probably won’t offer anything new, but it may conjure some nostalgia and/or cement established convictions. While it may be cool to see Vincent D’Onofrio and R. Lee Emery talk about working on “Full Metal Jacket”, I found myself wondering more about who Kubrick was as a person and less of what he was like as a writer/director. Monro touches on some intriguing information in regards to Kubrick’s personal and family life, but one gets the feeling that access to that was limited – plus, the focus of the film is clearly Kubrick’s influential body of work. Overall, it’s a fine gateway to a filmmaker that every film enthusiast should know more about.




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