CIFF 2021: Cinematic Cerebrations
By Sean Boelman
The Chicago International Film Festival has a very strong lineup this year, featuring plenty of exciting screenings of some of the highest-profile films that played on the festival circuit, and also some premieres of international and local flicks. There are so many options that there is plenty to choose from and something to appeal to everyone.
We at disappointment media have gotten the opportunity to screen many of the films in the lineup via both in-person and virtual coverage. As we watch additional films, we will continue to update this article with more capsule reviews. Check out our thoughts below!
The Hand of God
The Hand of God is a semi-autobiographical film from acclaimed filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, and it is likely his most inconsistent work yet. The first half is a funny yet standard teen comedy, and the second half is a pretty average coming-of-age genre. As always, Sorrentino manages to infuse many moments in the film with a poignant emotional punch, but there are more points here that fall flat than usual. By no means is it a bad film, but it’s not as memorable of an entry into the genre as this filmmaker should have delivered.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria has gotten a lot of attention recently, both positive and negative, for the fact that it will be released in the U.S. as a perpetual theatrical-only roadshow. It’s understandable why NEON opted for this strategy, as it is unlikely to find much success with its methodically slow pace and philosophical musings. However, it’s a gorgeous, poetic, and entrancing film with one of the best sound designs of the year, making it an altogether great sensory experience.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is known for making melodramas out of simple situations and creating something absolutely devastating in the process. His newest film, A Hero, lives up to the quality of his past work and is brilliantly subtle. What makes this film stand out among his filmography is how unexpectedly funny it is, something which only serves to heighten the emotion of the tense final act. It’s a fine entry into Farhadi’s already accomplished career.
There have been plenty of movies about the historical oppression of the LGBTQ community, and while Sebastian Meise may not add anything new to the genre with Great Freedom, it’s very harrowing nevertheless. Franz Rogowski’s performance in the lead role is what ends up setting this apart, giving it an honest and emotional quality. There is a lot to admire here, but the best part is how it captures its power in a restrained and poetic way.
My Brothers Dream Awake
Inspired by a real-life tragedy, the Chilean film My Brothers Dream Awake starts out extremely well, with an opening thirty minutes that are absolutely captivating before it settles into a much more conventional rhythm. Following a group of boys who bond in a juvenile prison, the film seems like it is going to be a searing social commentary, but is really just a coming-of-age tale with a bit of a kick. It’s a story that should have undeniable power, yet viewers will leave feeling rather underwhelmed. U.S. Premiere.
Oscar Micheaux - The Superhero of Black Filmmaking
It’s not uncommon at film festivals to see films that are love letters to the silver screen, and Oscar Micheaux - The Superhero of Black Filmmaking fits that bill. Although director Francesco Zippel is a bit dryly academic in his approach to telling the story of one of the early pioneers of Black filmmaking, this story is undeniably important for any cinephile to see. It’s the type of story that is unfortunately far too often left out of film history classes, which makes it a welcome watch. North American Premiere.
After her acclaimed documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, filmmaker Holly Morris brings us Exposure, another ode to the sense of community among a group of extraordinary women. Following an international team of women who set out to reach the North Pole, this film doesn’t inspire the same level of awe that a lot of exploration documentaries do, but there is still plenty of value in this story. There’s definitely a lot to be said about how these women fight back against the patriarchy, and it is sure to be inspiring to many. World Premiere.
Another submission for the Best International Film Oscar, this time from Cambodia, White Building is an effortlessly poignant portrait of a community falling apart, both literally and metaphorically. Although it ultimately hits a lot of familiar beats, especially in regards to the coming-of-age arc, there is a lot here that resonates, particularly in its exploration of the socioeconomic factors that make up the film’s themes. It may not be the most original in its approach, but its authenticity is welcome. North American Premiere.
Paris, 13th District
The combination of co-writer/director Jacques Audiard, writer Céline Sciamma, and actress Noémie Merlant sounds like a guaranteed winner, so it will come as a shock to cinephiles that Paris, 13th District is a total dud. Following three individuals in a love triangle (and a fourth, whose connection to one of them provides for a subplot that is the most interesting part of the story), this is an excruciatingly pretentious film. Although Merlant and co-lead Lucie Zhang are both great, their characters are shallow and unlikable, making this little more than a pretty film about pretty people.
The House of Snails
Although a mix of The Shining and werewolves may not sound like the greatest idea on paper, The House of Snails is a surprisingly chilling and entertaining Spanish-language horror flick. The commentary on how art tends to appropriate the traditions of local communities isn’t as well-developed as one would like, but those looking for a twisty (if somewhat predictable) mystery with a supernatural edge will be pleased here thanks to how wonderfully director Macarena Astorga builds her atmosphere.
Costa Brava, Lebanon
Costa Brava, Lebanon is the rare movie with goals that are less ambitious than what it would be able to pull off. A simple domestic drama with huge political implications in the background, there’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface here, but filmmaker Mounia Akl is more concerned with the small-scale story of these characters. The result is a film that feels rather quaint and does not live up to its potential. The tone is strong, and the performances are great, but it’s underwhelming from a narrative standpoint. U.S. Premiere.
Hot off his widely-acclaimed documentary Boys State, filmmaker Jesse Moss has chosen to make a much more traditional political documentary as his follow-up. However, even though Mayor Pete might follow the conventions of the genre pretty closely, Moss’s energetic style and the inspiring story of Pete Buttigieg make this a compelling watch. In exploring Buttigieg’s campaign for the Presidency, Moss is also able to explore what made his subject such an extraordinary figure in politics, and while it may not reach essential viewing status, it has the intended effect. World Premiere.
As the title would imply, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island is a love letter to the work of acclaimed filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Following a screenwriter whose work begins to mirror reality after she embarks on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Swedish filmmaker, this is an entirely pleasant watch, even if there isn’t much that will leave the viewers feeling wowed. It’s a quiet, talky film with some great dialogue and stellar performances from Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, and Anders Danielsen Lie, but don’t expect it to have much of a lasting effect.
Filmmaker Andrea Arnold is known for her gorgeously minimalistic dramas, and while her newest film is a documentary, many of the trademarks of her style are visible here. Cow is a stirring dissection of the dairy industry, following one dairy cow on a farm in Britain. It’s a highly observational film, with no narration and very little in the way of dialogue, but it’s powerful nevertheless. The final image is about as angering and stirring as they come and will leave viewers shaken.
Hit the Road
The directorial debut of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s son, Panah Panahi, Hit the Road is a road movie that seems very simple, but has much more boiling beneath the surface. It’s the story of a family taking one last trip together, and while that is a story that has been done before many times, the political undercurrents make it feel refreshing and unique. Strong dialogue, genuinely great performances, and an inspired visual style make this a promising debut for Panahi.
The Odd-Job Men
Neus Ballús’s The Odd-Job Men is one of those films where you know what it’s going for, but it doesn’t translate as well as the filmmaker seemed to hope. There are some weighty topics addressed in the film, like racism and immigration, but they are approached with a generally light and airy tone. The result is a film that is entertaining and handles its themes well without feeling too heavy-handed. It may not be the most impactful watch, but it’s worth watching regardless. U.S. Premiere.
Semih Kaplanoglu’s Commitment Hasan is a long and restrained film, but there’s something quietly moving about its story. Following a man who finds himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis at the same time his farmland is being threatened by the installation of a new electricity pole, this feels like a more self-reflective version of Erin Brockovich. Although the runtime and pacing can sometimes work against the film, the atmosphere which it builds is affecting. North American Premiere.
Punch 9 for Harold Washington
So many people fail to recognize the importance of local politics, but Joe Winston’s documentary Punch 9 for Harold Washington sets out to remedy that. The first African-American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington has more of a wide-reaching impact than anyone would expect. The presentation of the film is rather standard, but the story is so exceptional that it will be entertaining and fascinating for most viewers, regardless of whether or not they have a Chicago connection. World Premiere.
The pairing of sports documentarian Rex Miller and prolific civil rights documentarian Sam Pollard proves to be a perfect fit for Citizen Ashe, a film about tennis player and activist Arthur Ashe. Although the film does stick to a lot of the conventions from each of the documentary genres, blending them together was a great idea and results in a compelling watch. There are some portions of the film that could have used some additional depth, but it’s generally very efficient in its storytelling.
The Gravedigger's Wife
The first-ever Somalian submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife is a pretty straightforward film, but it’s one that thrives in its simplicity. It’s a powerful film about perseverance in a time of hardship and misfortune. Although there isn’t a whole lot to the plot, the character work here is absolutely exceptional and features some quietly emotional and resonant moments. It’s not a film that initially seems memorable, but the nuance in its approach will make it stick with viewers. U.S. Premiere.
The 2021 Chicago International Film Festival runs October 13-23 in-person and virtually.
By Sean Boelman
After a successful virtual edition in 2020, the Chicago International Film Festival returns with a hybrid edition in 2021, offering in-person, drive-in, and virtual screenings. And as always, the festival has an impressive lineup boasting many North American and U.S. premieres of some of the greatest films to screen on the Fall festival circuit, in addition to some exciting world premieres.
With such an extensive and wide-reaching slate, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the many great films playing at CIFF. However, we at disappointment media have gotten the chance to see some of the films that will be playing at the festival in advance. Here are a few that we think you shouldn’t miss!
A Cop Movie
Alonso Ruizpalacios’s A Cop Movie is perhaps one of the most interesting blends of fictional and nonfiction elements in recent memory. It’s also eerily timely given its relation to the theme of police brutality. Although the commentary mainly applies to the police system in Mexico, a lot of the message rings true around the world. It’s such a fascinating and thought-provoking watch, and it’s best left unspoiled — all that viewers need to know is that it’s a documentary about issues of police brutality told through the lens of cop thriller tropes.
Drive My Car
Recently announced as Japan’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is one of the finest films of the year. An adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, this is a slow-moving but profound and poetic character study about a theater director grieving his late wife. Its pacing won’t be for everyone, but those willing to go along for this scenic ride will find themselves moved by this journey and wowed by the destination.
Having made a splash upon its debut at Sundance earlier this year, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is not only one of the most amazing documentaries of 2021, it’s also one of the best animated films of the year. Telling the story of a refugee who also goes through an identity crisis related to his sexuality, this is a moving and heartbreaking tale. The level of storytelling that this is able to achieve in a mere eighty-three minutes is absolutely astounding.
Lingui, The Sacred Bonds
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, The Sacred Bonds follows in the same vein as a lot of other films that have come out in the past few years, but the level of nuance and subtlety it brings to the table allows it to stand out. It’s a slow burn of a film, but the character work here is exceptional and the payoff at the end is absolutely worth it. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most restrainedly powerful films at the festival.
Punch 9 for Harold Washington
Every festival has those selections in their lineup that are chosen predominantly for their local interest, and while Punch 9 for Harold Washington is certainly one of those cases, it’s also a surprisingly strong film in its own right. Exploring the campaign and political career of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, this story has a much wider impact than one would think. This is perhaps one of the most effective arguments for the importance of local politics, which makes it an important watch.
The 2021 Chicago International Film Festival runs October 13-23 in-person and virtually.
DR. NO -- Revisiting the First 007 Adventure Before the Release of the Newest One
By Dan Skip Allen
Albert R Broccoli is the Producer of Dr. No and the rest of the James Bond franchise. He formed a business relationship with Harry Saltzman who had the rights to the books. Albert convinced him to go into business with him making movies. The rest is history. 007 has been on the big screen ever since. These films started out as small indie films and now they are considered big-budget blockbusters.
Sean Connery was the first actor to portray the suave ladies man James Bond. His favorite drink, a martini, shaken not stirred, became famous around the world where liquor is sold. Ian Fleming created this fantastic character that everyone can relate to. He flies around the world, visits luxurious places, and gets with beautiful women everywhere he goes. How could men not relate to this cool character? This is how this iconic character has lasted so long.
James is called into M's office because a high-ranking member of the government has been killed in Kingston, Jamaica. He has to find out what happened to him. He finds out suspicious goings-on are happening in Crab Key. People have been reported missing and dying. A man named Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is up to no good. While trying to sneak onto the secret base, James runs into Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). They both are public enemy number one. She has a bone to pick with Dr. No as well. Can 007 and Honey Ryder stop this megalomaniac from sabotaging the United States Space Program?
The glitz and glamour of James Bond is something that makes him so fun and entertaining. His catchphrases like, "Bond, James Bond," are synonymous with this iconic character. The beautiful beaches and resorts in Jamaica help transport those watching to this secret world of spies and secret organizations like SPECTRE (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) which are trying to take over the world. During the Cold War of the '60s, the world ate up this fantastical spy game that is the James Bond franchise.
Dr. No isn't the best of the James Bond films, but it is a good start to this worldwide phenomenon known as 007. Movies were still in the phase of whitewashing, so a white man is dressed to look Asian, Dr. No. The time period is still a little old seeing as how we've got 58 years of this character. He is a little dated. That's fine though because bigger films, badder villains, and more beautiful women known as Bond Girls are on the horizon. Dr. No is just the tip of the iceberg in this fantastic franchise.
The Snake Hole
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