Wednesday, December 1, 2021

2021 Chicago Virtual Film Festival









The Chicago Film Festival was back in theaters mid-October, though in a reduced capacity, reducing the number of screens at the River East to only 4 theaters, while expanding to new theaters, including the Music Box on the north side, the Siskel Film Center downtown, and the Parkway Ballroom on the south side, as well as a Drive-In theater that was used last year when Covid shut theaters down.  While theater availability is down, prices are up, substantially, even for early weekday matinee screenings, which used to be the best deal in town, now doubled in price.  Vaccinations are required to attend, or a recent Covid test, as well as wearing masks at all times except when eating or drinking, in accordance with the Governor’s recent Executive Order.  In addition, a certain amount of films were screened virtually.  Again, for some inexplicable reason, even virtual screenings can sell out, as there is a limited capacity for tickets sold, while reception is only available to the nearby mid-Western states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Last year the virtual experience was uneven, as some films looked great, while others continually moved in and out of focus, where nothing seemed to change that fact, despite repeated requests to technical support, who blame it on connection issues, as that was simply the reality of the virtual experience.  This year was no different.  Also, while the festival promises a 48-hour window to watch a film once you start, that has been proven untrue, as once you exit the system, it reads time expired when you return, even if it’s only 5-minutes later.  The Box Office crew have an altogether different understanding, claiming the video system allows one complete viewing per code, which apparently includes films stopped near the end, where the system reads it as a complete viewing.  

You had to attend in person to see new films from renowned filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar, Jane Campion, Asghar Farhadi, Mahamet-Saleh Harroun, Hong Sang-soo, Paulo Sorrentino, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Zhang Yimou, while Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has two films showing, where one must be seen in theaters.  While the New York Film Festival dropped the virtual option, requiring in-person attendance, Chicago, thankfully, kept at least some virtual options, which seems like a good idea to maintain even in the future, feeling more inclusive, as it expands handicapped accessibility to those who are less mobile.

While only allowed a small sampling of virtual films, the two best viewing experiences were Joachim Trier’s THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, completing his Oslo Trilogy, a follow up of Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, but inverting the male perspective to the female, featuring plenty of mocking and self-deprecating humor, along with zany storytelling, beautifully shot in 35mm, and Jacques Audiard’s PARIS, 13th DISTRICT, which features the stand-out star of the year, Lucie Zhang, an utter revelation in a break-out role, who confounds all expectations by being as free-spirited as any character seen in years.  The two are easily among the more original films seen during the pandemic, both cleverly written and profoundly impactful dramas featuring outstanding performances, as there is something exceptional about these films that recalls what films were like pre-Covid and pre-Netflix and streaming.  

Award Winners 

The festival selections for award winners are always somewhat suspect, coming late in the year, oftentimes picking the most provocative, not the best, as if to counter earlier festival choices, yet what’s important is that many of these are American premieres, like the Loznitza and Audiard films, while the festival overall offers a wide variety to choose from. 

While Covid lingers and theaters are slowly refilling, though probably playing to a different audience altogether than before, as many, particularly the elderly clientele, are extremely hesitant to return with significant numbers still refusing to get vaccinated, putting lives at risk. 

Nonetheless, it’s a once a year experience, where the offering is decidedly better than anything else that’s played throughout the entire year. 


Films seen, in order of preference.

A-        The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier                     Norway         (127 mi)          

B+       Paris, 13th District, Jacques Audiard                                    France           (105 mi)    

B         Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi            Japan            (121 mi) 

B         Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma                                             France          (72 mi)            

B         Babi Yar.Context, Sergei Loznitsa                                         Ukraine        (121 mi)          

C-        Cow, Andrea Arnold                                                             Great Britain (94 mi)



Thoughts from Frank Biletz, college history professor

The first thing that was immediately evident this year was the relative lack of bustling crowds of people in the lobbies and halls.  In theaters, only about 20% of the seats were occupied, which was the norm at most of the screenings

During this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, I ultimately saw a total of seventeen films, eight of them in person and nine virtual. Of these, I would recommend all of the films to a degree, though some more mildly and with greater reservations. Of the in-person films that I attended at the AMC River East and Music Box, the most striking aspect of the overall experience was far fewer people in attendance than during normal pre-Covid years. Only The Power of the Dog and Belfast approached or reached being sellouts, with that defined this year as 75-80% capacity. Even so, in screenings of both of those films, I had empty seats on both sides of me.

In the top tier of festival films that I would recommend most highly are: Petit Maman, The Worst Person in the World, The Power of the Dog, and Happening.

Although Petite Maman may initially seem slight and minor compared with Sciamma’s previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire and, admittedly, lacks the richness and complexity of that work, the relatively brief magical realist fable of a young girl and her mother is a nearly perfectly realized treatment of the mysteries of child-parent relationships, the passage of time, and mortality.

The Worst Person in the World treats the complicated personality and love life of the female central character and her relationships over time with the two central men in her life. Renate Reinsve anchors the film, giving one of the outstanding performances of the year and winning a deserved Best Actress at Cannes.

Jane Campions idiosyncratic “Western” The Power of the Dog, set in the 1920s, is difficult to summarize, as one of its chief pleasures for me was the way in which the narrative unfolded in often unexpected ways. It could certainly be described as a film about “toxic masculinity,” as embodied in the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, but it becomes much richer and more complicated. There are also some great landscapes, with New Zealand standing in for Montana.

Happening by Audrey Diwan is reminiscent of Eliza Hittmans outstanding film from last year, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, in that both treat young women seeking abortions. But each film is rooted in a very different and distinctively portrayed cultural context. In Diwan’s film, the student protagonist must negotiate the situation in France in 1963 when abortion was illegal. The film gradually builds in intensity, as the woman becomes more desperate. Happening features an impressive performance by Anamaria Vartolomei as the young woman.

Prayers for the Stolen by Tatiano Huezo was not on my original list, but I am glad that I added it, as I found it quite rewarding. The Mexican film treated three girls and their families coping with life in a community that is ruled by a drug gang and in which young girls are regularly abducted. Although the narrative could have been a bit more tightly focused, the depiction of the setting was compelling and the performances by the young leads were very good.

Both Paris, 13th District, by Jacques Audiard, and Fabian, Going to the Dogs, by Dominik Graf, were riveting cinematic experiences, packed with incident and directed with great flare. Paris had gorgeous black and white photography and Fabian effectively used bits of footage from the 1920s to add period flavor. Although well-made and absorbing, however, neither reverberated nearly as much or left me with as much to think about afterwards as the quartet of top films.

The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by Ryusuke Hamaguchi represents a less kinetic and more contemplative style of film making than the works by Audiard and Graf. In keeping with his previous work, the film consists largely of extended conversations between two characters (mostly) women at a time. In this case, there were three separate films, linked together loosely by theme.

My response to Belfast was probably the most divided of any film that I saw. Given my background in Irish Studies, it was a “must see” and I was at the same time predisposed to be sympathetic, but also might be more critical of missteps in the portrayal of the Troubles.  Before and after the screening, I greatly enjoyed the personal appearance of director and writer Kenneth Branagh, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award and engaged in a Q & A after the film with Mimi Plauche. He was very gracious in expressing fondness for Chicago, telling anecdotes about previous visits and showing awareness of the Chicago Shakespeare production of As You Like It, and was also informative about the making of Belfast, which was a very personal project conceived, written, and produced during the pandemic.

As for the film, I thought that it was strongest in regard to its somewhat sentimental depiction of family ties and when it found some humor in the midst of the Troubles and weakest in the depiction of the Troubles themselves. Even if regarded as a background for a film focused on family relationships during a crisis, that crisis was depicted in an overly simplistic manner. The depiction of the Loyalist paramilitary who bullies the family to gain their cooperation with his cause is especially unsubtle, as is the portrayal of the “fire and brimstone” of Ulster Protestantism.

When I streamed Costa Brava, Lebanon later in the festival, Belfast suffered by comparison. Although very different in setting, the common theme that both films share is that they treat familes trying to survive amid a national crisis. In the case of the film set in Lebanon, the crisis was not the Lebanese Civil War of the 1990s (an obvious comparison with the Troubles), but the current totally dysfunctional society. The family at the center of the story has departed Beirut to live an idyllic life in the countryside. But then, the government begins to set up a garbage dump on the neighboring property and they find that they cannot escape the problems of their country. I thought that the conflicts between father and mother, as well as the depiction of their distinctive characters, as well as the characters of their children, were all much more fully developed than the comparable characters and situations in Belfast. Whereas Belfast had Ciaran Hinds and Judy Dench playing the older generation, Costa Brava, Lebanon had an eccentric, aging grandmother figure.

Of the documentaries:

The most rewarding of the documentaries overall was Babi-Yar Context by Sergie Loznitsa, which consisted entirely of archival footage from various sources in Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. As the title indicates, the film ranges far beyond the Babi Yar massacres of September 1941, in which an estimated 33,000 Jews were murdered by German forces near Kiev. The sound design especially deserved high praise. Assuming that a substantial part of the newsreel footage was shot silent, the recorded soundtrack was perfectly matched to what would be appropriate for the images, including some snatches of dialogue. Although the style of the film was to avoid narration, the sparse and succinct inter-titles did not always adequately explain what we were seeing I am generally familiar with the sequence of events, including the massive numbers of Soviet troops captured in the initial Nazi invasion, but was still sometimes unsure about what exactly I was seeing. Nevertheless, I found the film to be very rewarding and disturbing, especially the evidence presented of Ukrainian complicity in welcoming the Nazis as liberators from Soviet tyranny and the eloquent post-war testimonies of survivors.

As I have admired Mark Cousins’s previous documentary ventures into film history, Story of Film and Women Make Films, it was preordained that I would want to see the update to the former of these series: Story of Film: A New Generation, which treats global cinema of the past twenty years. As usual, an abundance of clips made me recall films that I had already seen and also make me want to see films that I have not yet seen. While generally absorbing and featuring many well-chosen clips, it was a bit long at three hours, and, despite scattered insights in the commentary along the way, I am not sure that I was left with many connective themes about the new millennium in film.

It is difficult for me to imagine a viewer responding positively to Andrea Arnold’s Cow on a small screen. Although it is hardly an epic and a significant portion of the film is confined to an industrial-size barn, seeing it on the big screen did force one to becomes immersed in the world of the cow at the center of the documentary. Yes, it really is a documentary centered on the life of cow. For the first 15 or 20 minutes, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into: why had.I chosen to spend 90 minutes on a Tuesday evening watching a cow in its barn. But slowly, I did become involved in the cows routine and, insofar as it is possible, began to see the world through the cows perspective. When the cows were finally let out into the fields, it was liberating -- for them and the viewer. This limited identification -- and also because one had premonitions of the inevitable ending -- made the last sequence of the film unexpectedly touching.

Of the two documentaries that I saw in the festival on two notable Chicagoans, Punch 9 for Harold Washington by Joe Winston is especially worth seeing. I moved to Chicago in 1986, so missed the 1983 elections and “council wars,” but participated in the 1987 election and remember vividly the shock at the mayor’s sudden death Although the film does not provide too much personal background on Washington prior to his campaign, it does treat the Daley and Byrne years in some detail and focuses largely on the 1983 campaign and council wars. In regard to the 1983 campaign, even Bernie Epton’s son was appalled that he allowed himself to become the candidate of the white supremacists.

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter by Sarah Halpern was also interesting. Although I was very familiar with the renowned chef's name, I did not know that much about the story of his rise to prominence in the culinary world and the documentary gave a rounded portrait, showing both his controlling side, as well as his more generous traits.

Citizen Ashe was a decent documentary, though it suffered by comparison with the Ken and Sarah Burns four part series on Muhammad Ali that recently aired on PBS, simply because it’s treatment of another prominent African-American athlete of the 1960s and 1970s seemed relatively cursory. Personally, I was much more of a fan of Ashe’s than Ali’s, but this documentary was ultimately too brief to treat adequately either his tennis career or other accomplishments, such as his book on the history of the African American athlete.

Finally, Nobody Has to Know by Bouli Lanners piqued my interest in the first place because of its setting in the Western Isles of Scotland -- it was filmed on the Isles of Harris and Lewis -- and the landscapes did not disappoint. Michelle Fairley was also very good in one of the two principal roles. However, I never really bought the central plot contrivance of the film, involving memory loss after a stroke and a past love affair that may or may not have actually happened.

Here is a summary of the films in approximate order of preference with ratings:

Petite Maman (France, Celine Sciamma)                                            A

The Worst Person in the World (Norway, Joachim Trier)                  A-

The Power of the Dog (US/New Zealand, Jane Campion)                A-

Happening (France, Audrey Diwan)                                                  A-/B+

Paris: 13th District (France, Jacques Audiard)                                   B+

Costa Brava, Lebanon (Lebanon, Mounia Aki)                                  B+

Prayers for the Stolen (Noche Fuego) (Mexico, Tatiana Huezo)        B+

Babi Yar: Context (Ukraine, Netherlands, Sergei Loznitsa)              B+

Fabian, or Going to the Dogs (Germany, Dominik Graf)                   B+

The Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Japan, Ryusuki Hamaguchi)     B+

Story of Film: A New Generation (UK, Mark Cousins)                    B+

Punch 9 for Harold Washington (US, Joe Winston)                          B+

Cow (UK, Andrea Arnold)                                                                B

Belfast (UK, Kenneth Branagh)                                                         B

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter (US, Rebecca Halpern)    B

Nobody Has to Know (Belgium/France/UK, Bouli Lanners)            B

Citizen Ashe (Rex Miller and Sam Pollard)                                       B-

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