Oct 30th 2017

Chicago International Film Festival

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

The 53rd Chicago International Film festival ran 150 films from October 12-27, 2017. Directors, screenplay writers and actors attended many of the films from fifty countries. I saw 28 of them and was struck by the artistic struggle for the most original and stirring films, most without distributors or Hollywood backing. Here are highs and lows with trailers. 

Faces/Places, Directors Agnès Varda and JR (France): Varda now 89, filmmaker, photographer and artist: Extraordinary film that profiles Agnes Varda’s travels with JR, photographer and paster, meaning he pastes the photos of ordinary working class folk and where they work and live.  Varda largely chooses the image and where she wants to see it and JR pastes them larger than life on buildings, homes and objects as they travel through France. The imagery is so startlingly wondrous that in one’s seat at the theater you will have the urge to take a photo of what you are seeing just as the passers-by do. The film also charms as the relationship between the much older Varda and the young, more agile JR grows closer and revelatory in a gentle creative enriching manner that defines how friendship across the age boundary can form and be meaningful through creative interaction. Oscar territory for this documentary and loving portrait. Don’t miss it. Find it.

One of the early lows despite the hype from Cannes: Fortunata by director Sergio Castellitti (Italy): A flawed screenplay with the stunning actress Jasmine Trinca becomes increasingly absurd as she takes her child to a court-ordered psychiatrist who behaves so oddly and so unprofessionally that the mind boggles. He even comes on to her and then there is the unexplainable and absurd focus on the number of Chinese folk in Rome. One can only wonder what this director and screen writer were thinking.


Barrage by director Laura Schroeder (Luxembourge|Belgium|France) in contrast highlights the extraordinary gifts of Isabel Huppert’s real-life daughter Lolita Chammah as the main character who stunnlngly plays a reformed addict who has had to abandon her child to the care of her harsh mother, played by Huppert. The imagery this director uses highlights the conflict and includes a reverse rowboat scene where sky and water are upside down, reflecting both the beauty of the natural environment that heals and the human conflict at the center of the flick. Most remarkable is a dream sequence that serves as the climax of the movie and highlights the way the mother daughter relationship stands on ice skates with no ice and yet tenderly reveals the unbreakable connection between the two. The film is perhaps a bit slow moving but ultimately and overwhelmingly revelatory. In attendance director Laura Schroeder.


Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart by director Tracy Heather Strain (US)

The too long but still moving documentary about Lorraine Hansbury’s (Raisin in the Sun author) brilliant and too short life. Particularly powerful are the ways the film, not as good but not unlike Varda’s Faces/Places focuses on the working class, in this case Chicago and Hansbury’s decidedly middle-class upbringing and the creative work she did as a woman with a focus on black women, activism and creativity. In attendance: Director Tracy Strain, Producer Randall MacLowry, Narrator LaTanya Richardson Jackson


Never Here directed and written by Camille Thoman (US)

Intriguing, moving suspenseful film that explores the question of how creativity creates conflict for the empathic inventor who must invade other’s lives to risk emotional truth. You get with this movie not only the gorgeous Mireille Enos and Sam Shephard, his last flick before he died, but also the gorgeous Goran Visnjic (Beginners) in a small and highly effective role along with an honest, heart-baring performance by Vincent Piazza. The director told us that Shephard, acclaimed playwright and actor, read her screenplay and joined because he liked it and her response was “Wow!” I think the film is a wow from start to its startling finish, moving and fully earned. See it. In attendance: Director Camille Thoman.


Mudbound Director: Dee Rees: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Jonathan Banks.

Dee Rees directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Virgil Williams based on Hillary Jordan’s novel. Mary J. Blige, singer and rapper, gives a deeply sensitive performance as does Carey Mulligan. All the players excel in this tale of racism in the south, the horror of the Klan and the inability of Ronsel played by Jason Mitchell to return from WW II, where he was free and noble, to the oppression of the south. My problem with the film is that the omniscient approach of switching point of view to every character undercuts the conflict by not allowing one character to fully carry the trouble and the journey to a deeply moving ending. Instead this omniscient approach blames the watcher. I do carry the American guilt for the burden of slavery and the shame it forced onto black skin, as if that color made one not worthy to flourish. But in narrative, I do search for my own journey through the universality of a main character. The film’s originality though not its horror—and this is one hard scene to watch—is the predictable ending of the Klan’s mob attack. The nobility of Rob Morgan as Hap, Ronsel’s father, in the burial scene holds the film’s humanity. A stirring film that deserved more based on the performances and the valiant direction. See this film only with the understanding that you will experience the punishment we Americans may all think or should think we deserve for the continuing results of the hatred that slavery begot. This film will likely have wide viewership because it is a Netflix production. In attendance screenplay author: Virgil Williams


But compare Mudbound to the harder-to-find, low-budget and brilliant film Life and Nothing More Director and screenplay Antonio Méndez Esparza U.S. | Spain

The film, with no distributor despite how well it has played at the festivals, portrays African American life in a poor northern Florida neighborhood. Esparza relied on non-professionals: Regina Williams, Robert Williams, Andrew Bleechington. Regina, the single mother, and her teenage son Andrew hold the film’s conflict, its love and the devastation of scraping by, the honor of doing the best one can, the temptations of crime for Andrew and the perils of single motherhood for Regina. The film absorbs the viewer with unflinching honesty. Regina and Andrew who also, Esparza told us, improvised much of the dialogue, give stirring performances that demand our attention and our hearts: Here is the African American struggle, original, wrenching and totally unpredictable in its realistic chronicle of every-day life in current day, post-slavery America where fear of the black façade still rules. In one unforgettable scene Andrew recites with a beautiful classmate the sonnet from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that ends with the memorable line as if written today when Juliet says to Romeo: “You kiss by the book.” I asked Esparza if he chose the sonnet for the classroom scene to foreshadow the play’s tragic ending and he said he hadn’t thought of that but rather of the promise of love. Here in Esparza’s vision lies the film’s hope. This heart wrenching film has the viewer hoping and cheering for the best without the promise. The open-ended and brilliantly subtle ending give us just that in a moment of unforgettable silence. Let’s hope a distributor is listening. Director Antonio Méndez Esparza in attendance.


Thoroughbreds Director: Corey Finey (US) is a slick contrast. Rich teenagers in upper class Connecticut plot murder. The interiors of elegant houses, the finery of fashionable clothing, the beauty of the two primary roles played well with cool control by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are crisply photographed in this morally hollow supposed thriller about wishes for murder to solve problems and betrayal of most anyone to get what one wants. Perhaps that is Finey’s point, but its execution, despite the stunning photography leaves this viewer wondering, Why care? and feeling barraged by its cruelty—This, much in contrast to the longing that pervades similar privilege in Barrage: the Belgium film that moves inexorably towards love, no matter how hard to find. Director Corey Finey in attendance.


No Date, No Signature Edoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza Director: Vahid Jalilvand (Iran) holds the moral high ground of the festival in a conflicted tale with Amir Aghaee playing the deeply conflicted and highly ethical Dr. Nariman who’s failed to pay his car insurance when he hits the motorcycle driven by Moosa played with extraordinary sensitivity by Navid Mohammadzadeh, whose wife and two children are also on the cycle. The film spirals through Dr. Nariman’s mistake in not allowing the police to be called to protect his insurance mistake, his care on the scene of the accident for the young boy who it appears to him may have a serious injury and his trial of following Moosa and his family through the aftermath of mistakes and the devastation of loss. Dr. Nariman’s conflict and Moosa’s pain hold the film’s center and provide us with the question: What makes us human? The complex answer, the brilliant direction and the restraint of the telling make it a standout for all times and places. Find it. See it.


Lady Bird Director and screenplay writer Greta Gerwig (US) will find wide distribution and the film, Gerwig’s directorial debut, lives up to its promise. Saoirse Ronan, beautifully renders a troubled teenager, Christine, with the desire to escape the mundane life of Sacramento, California and what appears to her and to us as her mother’s oppression. Laurie Metcalf gives a strong, layered performance of working class folk who struggle with work and family. Tracy Letts gives a tender performance as the passive but deeply loving father and husband. This film with Gerwig’s previous performances, already deeply entrenched connections in the world of film and a stunning performance in Mike Mills’ Oscar nominated film and marvelous Twentieth Century Women has earned the wide distribution this fine film will get. I love it. Tracy Letts, let me add, in charming and disarming attendance in the q&a.


The Whiskey Bandit A Viszkis, Director Nimród Antol (Hungary)

An entertaining surprise that chronicles the real-life story of postal office and bank robber Atilla Ambrus, who pulled off—without ever physically hurting anyone—26 robberies, caught only on attempt #27 . Antol effectively moves back and forth through Atilla’s troubled childhood as a Hungarian born in Romania, how he was loved by his grandmother, abandoned by his father, bullied in juvenile detention and his unflinching drive to get Hungarian citizenship and to make money. The story gives us a likeable Atilla, played with charm and wit by Bence Szalay. Like the Hungarians who cheered him on while the robberies occurred and named him “The Whiskey Bandit” because he took a swig for courage and the odor was on his breath, this viewer couldn’t help but like him—and I’ve never even stolen a grape to taste in a grocery store, as I told Antol. I asked Antol if he liked Atilla and he said that Atilla was disarmingly truthful and empathic when they met, admitting that although he never shot anyone, he did hurt others with his stealing. This fast-paced thriller biopic is a must-see. I now want to find Antol’s film Kontrol. Nimród Antol in attendance: He loved getting questions and told us that he’ll not make another docu-pic because of the hold that one must honor the facts and he talked about the freedom he’s enjoyed by escaping the hold of Hollywood and its push toward mediocrity. I feel now as if I know him from the brevity of the film’s aftermath: What a charmer he is.


The Work Directors: Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous, a documentary astoundingly filmed in Folsom prison over a four-day group therapy session for prisoners with no guards present in the room, and three men who are not prisoners who judge and are judged and become themselves equal in the bravery needed for self-discovery. No way to describe this terrific film well enough except to say that just as the cameras must have disappeared for all in the therapy sessions, so they do for the viewer. Another must see: Your faith in the struggle to be human will be your reward. Gethin Aldous and Jairus McLeary in attendance and, in the audience, some of those now out of prison. This film is quite simply a wow.


Back to Burgundy Director, screenplay Cédric Klapisch (and he’s in the film, uncredited, as Un vendangeur) (France)

I have to admit to being a long-time fan of his trilogy L'Auberge Espagnole, Russian Dolls and Paris. This new film follows three siblings, the children of a now deceased wine-maker and the problem of what to do about the taxes owed on the land, their relationships with each other and the art of making wine and peace with loved ones in fraught relationships. One comes away from this funny, moving, beautifully photographed film that covers more than a year in the wine-growing and making process with a sense that Klapisch must have grown up on that land that holds their hearts. My sense is that this film may get reviewed as lightweight—but why trash a film that explores the land and family and is one helluva good time watching it all. A film that will entertain and move you whether or not you love wine.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri Director/Screenplay: Martin McDonagh (US|United Kingdom)

This film will get wide distribution with Frances McDormand, always fab, who gives another strong, quirky performance and Woody Harrelson who never fails to charm. The tale of a strong-willed women who wants the crime of her daughter’s rape and murder solved. It’s been too long, seven months’ too long, for Mildred Hayes who also suspects ineptness and perhaps worse for the police in Ebbing. So up go the billboards attacking the chief of Police (Harrelson). The movie rolls forward at a strong comic pace and an unexpected journey for the dolt Dixon played with layered charm by Sam Rockwell (I do have a crush on him!) He’s almost unrecognizable in this film, homely and a bit nuts too. He and Mildred have more in common than either might think. His journey and hers, spurred by the ever-marvelous Harrelson who writes letters in a screenplay twist that gets this rollicking film both rolling and surprisingly moving by its close.


The Shape of Water Director: Guillermo del Toro (US)

The festival’s centerpiece and closer is Del Toro’s big budget blockbuster that I’ll let others rave about. I do think Sally Hawkins has earned her Oscar with her performance as a mute in this film and even more to my mind for her work with Ethan Hawke in Maudie. Forgive me if I demure to ET the Extra-Terrestrial by Steven Spielberg and to Arrival by Denis Villeneuve as more original takes on “the other,” the seemingly horrific alien whose goodness is revealed. A biggy for cinematography. Actor Michael Shannon who does give a larger than life performance and Michael Stulhbarg in attendance.


 And then there was Tulipani: Love, Honor and a Bicycle Director: Michael Van Diem and Peter van Wijk, original screenplay that took 16 years to get to the screen. (The Netherlands)

This charmer will be my closer. Why in the world does this love of a flick not have a distributor? Original, endearing and conflicted tale of Dutchman Gauke, played with strength and sensitivity by Gijs Naber. Caught by the floods of 1953 in Holland, he falls in love in a sanctuary for the victims who have lost all. Gauke, after making love to Ria, played with force and tenderness by Anneke Sluiters, knows he must leave his love to build a new life for them. He sets out on his bicycle with a basketful of tulip bulbs to plant them in Puglia, Italy. The story is driven by Gauke’s daughter Anna, played by the gorgeous Ksenia Solo in search of her story, her mother, her father and the tale that pulls us in with its fairy tale guile and Gauke’s struggle. Van Diem told us that Solo learned fluid Italian to convince him she should get the part. The beauty of the tulips alone, grown impossibly in rocky Puglia, defy reality while the flowers and their story draw us into that fantasy and the reality, as well, of corruption in Italy: Gauke is asked to pay protection money and VanDiem admitted that in making the film on location he, indeed, “may have” met with that demand as well. The risks Van Diem took with this tale of love and loss and the gift of flowers amaze. This film deserves to be seen and loved. Distributors, Are you listening? Van Diem won an Oscar for Karakter (1997) and took ten years before coming back to film making. I’m sure glad he’s back. Kudos!




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