2018 marked the sixth year for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, and the fifth year for the event at the Music Box Theatre. This year’s lineup is a little heavier on American films that in the past, which is great for helping get the word out about homegrown films that may not find an audience but a little disappointing for anyone looking to discover something new from other parts of the world. Regardless, the CCFF gives Chicago audiences their first chance to see films that have caught the eyes of Chicago-area critics at other film festivals well in advance of any official theatrical or home video release. In some cases festivals like this one are the only chance people may have to see these films on the big screen, which makes the CCFF an invaluable experience for Midwestern cinephiles. Kicking off in grand style, this year’s opening night movie FAST COLOR had only played at SXSW before hitting the screen in the Music Box’s main auditorium.
FAST COLOR (USA, dir. Julia Hart)
In a dystopian near-future world where it hasn’t rained for eight years, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is on the run from a shadowy government agency who wants to know how her occasional full-body seizures cause literal earthquakes. Out of options, she heads back to the house where she grew up and where her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) is raising Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the daughter Ruth left behind for fear her uncontrolled powers might harm the girl. While the three generations of women try to make an uneasy peace, the hunt for Ruth continues and soon the fight will be at their door. FAST COLOR has garnered comparisons to Jeff Nichols, and it’s easy to see why. Even moreso than Nichols’s MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, this is a family drama first and superhero story second. The three female leads here are all fantastic, anchoring the film with a strong emotional center powerful enough to make some of its more clumsy notes elsewhere easier to overlook. There’s certainly not another modern superhero movie anything like this film’s incisive portrait of three generations of women of color struggling to make their way in the world and relate to each other, and that alone would make FAST COLOR worth a high recommendation even if not for its top-notch cast.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS (USA, dir. Andrew Bujalski)
Lisa (Regina Hall), the General Manager at the Double Whammies sports bar & grill in Houston, decides to throw a car wash fundraiser to help raise money for one of her waitresses who has a pile of impending medical (and potentially legal) bills following an altercation with her abusive boyfriend. But that morning, circumstances immediately begin working against her when an unexpected event causes the cable to go out in advance of a highly anticipated televised fight that will be drawing in customers that evening. This event also involves the police, which means keeping the car wash hidden from Cubby (James LeGros), the cynical owner of Double Whammies, will be even more difficult. While Lisa loves her staff like family and has the undying loyalty of waitresses Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and Danyelle (Shayna McHayle), trouble at home and with some of the new trainees at the bar threaten to overwhelm her. Andrew Bujalski is probably best known for COMPUTER CHESS, another keenly observed and highly detailed look at a very specific group of people in very specific circumstances. He brings that careful eye and deep empathy to a totally different time and place, establishing a strong sense of place (this could only be Houston) and giving Regina Hall a great character who she fleshes out in an excellent lead performance. While it looks and sounds like a comedy–and make no mistake, it has plenty of laughs–SUPPORT THE GIRLS is a bittersweet snapshot of the lives of characters brought together by chance who may not be quite where they want to be in their lives but who genuinely love each other and try to make each others’ lives better. This is arguably a new high point for Bujalski, a warm comedy/drama that nonetheless knows the consequences of doing the right thing can often feel more like punishment, and that too many of us are one good deed away from losing a steady paycheck.
REVENGE (France, dir. Coraline Fargeat)
Richard (Kevin Janssens) has planned a weekend hunting party with a couple of friends, but he gets there a day early with his young mistress Jen (Matilda Anna Lutz) to get in some quality alone time. Unfortunately his plan is derailed when Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede) show up just a few hours after Richard and Jen anyway. The four party that night out under the stars, and Stan takes Jen’s casual flirting far too seriously. Stan rapes Jen the following morning while Richard is out running an errand, and when Richard returns he knows immediately the situation could ruin all their lives. To cover up the crime, they push Jen off a cliff and leave her for dead. But she has much more fight in her than they could imagine, and soon the boys get their hunting weekend after all–just not quite the one they expected. REVENGE is as straightforward as its prosaic title: This is a classically-styled “rape revenge” movie that would have fit right in on any drive-in screen in the 1970s on a double bill with I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE or THRILLER. The fact that it’s from a female writer/director is unusual, though, as is the sheer amount of blood on display here. Debut feature filmmaker Coralie Fargeat may have been inspired by some of the horror films coming out of her home country of France for the last two decades, specifically the “New French Extremity” spearheaded by Alexandre Aja’s HIGH TENSION and culminating in Pascal Laugier’s MARTYRS. REVENGE is a beautifully shot film with gut-wrenching tension and a spectacular score by Rob (who also provided the score for Franck Khalfoun’s MANIAC remake) to accompany Lutz’s intense and gruelling lead performance. At its core this is still a “rape revenge” movie, and anyone who is not a fan of the subgenre is unlikely to have their mind changed by this film. Anyone who can stomach it, though, is advised to seek out this film as soon as possible. This is an excellent debut feature for Fargeat and should by all rights be a star-making showcase for Lutz. Keep an eye out for whatever they’ve got in the works!
WOMAN OF TOKYO (1933, Japan, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
The first of two repertory screenings at this year’s festival was a 35mm screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s bleak 1933 melodrama WOMAN OF TOKYO with live organ accompaniment by the Music Box’s resident organist Dennis Scott. This screening was co-presented by the Chicago Film Society, a local nonprofit dedicated to screening films on celluloid and spotlighting underseen gems from throughout film history. The feature was preceded by a fragment of Ozu’s 1929 gangster comedy A STRAIGHTFORWARD BOY, both prints struck for the 2003 Ozu centennial celebration. The contrast between the “short” film’s broad comedy and the feature’s drama was only underlined by the clear evolution of Ozu’s style in the four years that elapsed between them. The screening was introduced by members of the Chicago Film Society who discussed a bit about the prints and Ozu’s early career, making this presentation a treat for cinephiles interested in international silent film history and Ozu in particular.
LIYANA (Swaziland, dir. Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp)
In an orphanage in Swaziland, author and playwright Gcina Mhlophe leads a class of children in an extended storytelling exercise. Together, the students create a character named Liyana, a young girl much like them, who embarks on a perilous mission and faces untold danger. As the story comes together with input from each of the children, viewers learn much about how these kids came to live in the orphanage and the horrors they have had to overcome throughout their lives. LIYANA alternates between footage of the classroom sessions, one-on-one shots of some of the children telling the story, and animated interludes illustrating the tale of Liyana. While the film deals with some seriously disturbing subject matter, it never feels oppressively bleak thanks to the amazing resilience of its young subjects. The film’s structure feels a bit repetitive, which makes it feel a tad slight at a brief 72 minutes, but it’s impossible to deny the power of both the story the children assemble from their own experience and that of the film itself.
WE THE ANIMALS (USA, dir. Jeremiah Zagar)
Jonah (Evan Rosado) is about to turn 10 years old, living with his older brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and their volatile young parents Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). Jonah has conflicting feelings about being one member of a unit formed with his brothers and knowing there is something that sets him apart from them. He scribbles and draws in a journal while hiding under the bed he shares with his brothers at night; he’s sensitive and Ma is seriously overprotective of her “baby” while the other two brothers take after their father. Even while Jonah joins his brothers on missions to steal food and terrorize locals for no apparent reason, something still pulls him away, and what exactly that is begins to come into focus with the appearance of an older neighbor boy with long blonde hair who owns a collection of pornographic phone sex commercials. WE THE ANIMALS is an uncomfortable, touching, fearless coming of age story, and it’s shocking this is the debut fiction feature from director Jeremiah Zagar. Based on the acclaimed novel by Justin Torres, it’s a beautiful, lyrical film with an astonishing lead performance by young Evan Rosado and gorgeous cinematography by Zak Mulligan. The film’s loose structure and editing style give it a self-consciously late-period Malick feel, which is not necessarily a complaint but may leave some viewers feeling cold. Still, there are plenty of powerful moments and striking images throughout the film that make it well worth a look, and it’s likely going to be one of the best debut American features of the year.
BODIED (USA, dir. Joseph Kahn)
Adam (Calum Worthy) is a grad student working on a thesis about battle rap. He manages to introduce himself to one of his idols, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), and before he knows it Adam is enlisted in Grymm’s crew. Adam quickly develops into a formidable rapper, much to the dismay of his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold), who is horrified by the homophobia, misogyny, and racism she sees as inherent to the art. His successful writer father (Anthony Michael Hall) is also none too happy about Adam’s pursuits, and when a video of Adam battling Korean rapper Prospek (Jonathan Park) with some racial slurs (although as Prospek observes: “At least you realized I’m Korean and not Chinese, that counts as cultural sensitivity in battle rap.”) the lines between Adam’s life and work begin to blur uncomfortably. Joseph Kahn’s BODIED is absolutely one of the best, most exhilarating movies of the year–there is nothing out there like this beast. It’s hilarious and cutting, deftly dealing with some seriously heavy material in a totally unexpected manner. The cast is spectacular across the board, and Worthy’s incredible performance is just the anchor for a hugely talented ensemble that includes actors and real battle rappers. The battle scenes are deliriously entertaining, packed with both astonishing wordplay and so much outright offense that the film is destined/doomed to raise hackles. It’s also unquestionably one of the most vital theatrical experiences of the year, not because it’s a visual spectacle but because its energy is contagious; it’s crucial to see this film with a crowd. As unbelievable as it seems, Joseph Kahn has provided a more than worthy follow-up his instant-classic DETENTION. BODIED is one for the history books.
Next up from the Chicago Critics Film Festival: New films from the Zellner Brothers (KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER), Josephine Decker (BUTTER ON THE LATCH), Paul Schrader (I don’t really need to refer to his past work here, right?), and a long-overdue documentary on the life and filmmaking career of Hal Ashby.
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Tags: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp, Andrew Bujalski, Bodied, comedy, Coralie Fargeat, David Straithairn, Drama, Fast Color, France, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Haley Lu Richardson, japan, Jeremiah Zager, Joseph Kahn, Julia Hart, Liyana, Matilda Lutz, rape revenge, Regina Hall, Revenge, Support the Girls, Swaziland, We the Animals, Woman of Tokyo, Yasujiro Ozu