[CHICAGO CRITICS FILM FESTIVAL] JASON COFFMAN AT CCFF: DAYS 3, 4, & 5

May 6th:

DAMSEL (USA, dir. Nathan and David Zellner)

An exhausted Old Preacher (Robert Forster) waits impatiently at a small stand in the desert for a stagecoach to take him back east. He has crossed paths with Henry (David Zellner), who is heading west for a fresh start. The Old Preacher offers Henry some advice, explaining that life in the west will be “shitty in new and fascinating ways.” He’s certainly not wrong: Soon the newly-christened “Parson” Henry is hired by Samuel (Robert Pattinson) to officiate Samuel’s wedding to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), which sounds innocuous enough until Samuel reveals he has not been entirely honest about the nature of Henry’s job. DAMSEL takes a number of hard turns, and by its midpoint it has functionally become a completely different movie. This is perhaps to be expected of brothers and co-directors Nathan and David Zellner, whose previous features include KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER and KID-THING. But while KUMIKO invited direct comparison to the Coen Brothers (FARGO is a major plot point in its story), DAMSEL lands a bit closer to the Polish Brothers in the spectrum of modern fraternal directorial teams. Pattinson gives a typically great, weird performance as the cartoonishly chivalrous Samuel, while Wasikowska’s Penelope is a much more well-rounded character that, again, feels like she exists in a completely different plane of existence. That’s no doubt intentional, but the Zellners have set themselves a hell of a task here in DAMSEL‘s inversion of typical Western tropes–the title gives a big hint as to their intentions–and are only fitfully successful. Part of that may be the film’s leisurely pace, clocking in at nearly two hours. It could well be that the film improves on a repeat viewing when its narrative feels less aimless and the viewer can focus more on the film’s thematics, but despite beautiful cinematography and a great score by The Octopus Project, on a first viewing DAMSEL feels awkward and unwieldy.

 

MADELINE’S MADELINE (USA, dir. Josephine Decker)

Madeline (Helena Howard) is about to turn 17, navigating a tempestuous relationship with her mother Regina (Miranda July) and spending a lot of time working with an “immersive theater” troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). Members of the troupe engage in lengthy exercises while Evangeline searches for the seed of their next project, and as she finds herself drawn to Madeline, the girl’s experience starts to suggest a direction. But for Madeline, the line between theatrical exercise and the difficulties of her real life–specifically her struggles with mental illness and her interactions with Regina–becomes increasingly hazy as Evangeline incorporates more and more of Madeline’s real life into the process. Helena Howard provides the film with a strong anchor, and she’s in nearly every shot of the movie. In those rare moments she’s not on screen Miranda July or Molly Parker are, and it’s a testament to the young Howard’s talent that she holds her own against these two incredible artists. As MADELINE’S MADELINE has garnered wild acclaim on the festival circuit much has been made of its vaguely Lynchian undertone, and while that’s certainly present the film feels more in line with Jacques Rivette’s interest in artistic process. There are surreal images and blurry chronology, which build to a jaw-dropping crescendo in the film’s final minutes, but Decker here has synthesized something unique from her apparent influences.

 

May 7th:

HAL (USA, dir. Amy Scott)

Hal Ashby will probably always be best known as the director of HAROLD AND MAUDE, but he had a streak of American studio features in the 1970s only rivaled by Robert Altman. Ashby’s films consistently tackled serious and difficult social subjects, confounding and infuriating studio executives who had no idea what to do with these things. But time has been extremely kind to Ashby’s work, and Amy Scott’s documentary about the man is a long-overdue appreciation that will hopefully only expand his audience and help cement his reputation in the popular consciousness. There are a number of high-profile interview subjects here including many actors who appeared in Ashby’s films (such as Beau Bridges, who starred in his directorial debut THE LANDLORD, and Jeff Bridges, who starred in his final feature 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE), snippets from taped interviews with Ashby himself, footage from his memorial service in the 80s, and perhaps most touchingly director Norman Jewison, one of Ashby’s closest friends. Jewison shares anecdotes and actual correspondence in the form of letters Ashby sent him, and the loss of his friend is still clearly a difficult subject for him. More than anything HAL will almost certainly compel viewers to immediately search out and watch any of the man’s films they haven’t already seen, and there’s hardly a higher possible recommendation for such a documentary than that.

 

May 8th:

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (UK, dir. Tim Wardle)

In 1980, Robert Shafran was an incoming freshman at a New York community college who arrived to a bizarre welcome. Many people he passed on his way to his dorm greeted him warmly with hugs, claps on the back, and even a few full on-the-mouth kisses from girls he’d never seen before. Within 24 hours, Shafran met his brother Eddy Galland and they discovered they were twins separated at birth and adopted by different families. When their story hit the New York city papers, it became even more incredible when a third brother, David Kellman, saw their photo and realized they were actually triplets born in the same hospital on the same day to the same mother. The “identical strangers” became instant celebrities, appearing on television and living it up in the New York nightlife. But their parents were furious at the adoption agency for hiding the truth about the brothers, and years later author Lawrence Wright stumbled upon a disturbing secret that would throw their story into a completely new light. THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS is a powerful and unsettling documentary that, like its central story, initially seems to be an uplifting tale but takes a hard turn into some very dark territory. While the brothers and the world were instantly impressed with the similarities between the three men, as they grew older and life became more complicated and difficult the fundamental differences between them became sadly apparent. But beyond the tragic circumstances of their lives, the film deals with a sinister conspiracy that raises serious questions about not only the role of environment on the development of personality but questions about the role and responsibility of science on a societal scale. Director Tim Wardle mixes interviews with home videos, TV appearances, and even some re-enactments of key moments in the triplets’ story to maximum effect, deftly crafting a story by turns heartwarming, poignant, despairing, and genuinely scary. This is a phenomenal piece of work, and bound to be one of the best documentaries of the year.

 

SEARCHING (USA, dir. Aneesh Chaganty)

Widower David Kim (John Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La) have had a tough time coping following the death of Margot’s mother Pam (Sara Sohn). When Margot doesn’t come home after a study group at a fellow student’s house, David realizes he barely knows what’s going on in Margot’s life–a major problem when she doesn’t come back the following day, either. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to Margot’s case and tasks David with learning what Margot’s life is like and who her friends are, and at a loss David breaks into her laptop to try to figure out what was going on in Margot’s head before she disappeared. SEARCHING is a new take on the growing subgenre of “desktop” films that play out entirely on computer screens, the most popular example being UNFRIENDED. But where many of these films have issues with context and point of view, SEARCHING establishes a totally different style right away. This is not a “found footage” movie, or one that takes place entirely from one perspective, but a film that plays out much like a more standard thriller that just happens to play out on computer screens and in various applications. There are pans across the screen, close-ups, and other typical camera moves and techniques viewers are accustomed to; they just happen to be applied to a two-dimensional screen instead of a three-dimensional space. Director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian smartly establish high emotional stakes right out of the gate with an opening sequence clearly inspired by Pixar’s UP (but no less effective for its obvious debt to that film), and a perfectly-cast John Cho carries that emotional through line effortlessly. There are moments of humor that help keep the film from ever feeling too dark, but there are also plenty of tense and clever set pieces that set SEARCHING apart from its “desktop” contemporaries and a staggering amount of detail in the margins of the screen that will no doubt reward repeat viewings.

Jason Coffman

Jason Coffman

Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
Jason Coffman
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