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ciff

This past weekend, I attended the Chicago International Film Festival at the AMC River East 21 in Illinois. Anyone that knows me knows that covering the fall festivals and awards circuit has been an aspiration of mine for years, and I was excited to attend this event and check out some of the fall’s hottest titles. Due to time and budget constraints I wasn’t able to see everything I wanted to see, but I saw a good number of films that I think will be interesting to read about, and will be discussed at length in the next few months.

First, I’d like to extend my thanks to the many volunteers and event coordinator involved in this year’s films. This was a packed event filled with Q&As, screenings, and workshops, but I was able to find my way to each screening with relative ease. This was a well-organized event that I would recommend to any cinema lover who has the opportunity to attend.

This weekend, I saw six films. Five of them- Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Clemency, Les Miserables, and Waves were screened as part of the festival, and while I was in Chicago I also saw the acclaimed Bong Joon-ho film Parasite, which despite receiving universal acclaim has yet to screen anywhere else in the U.S. outside of the coastal cities. Below are brief reviews for all the films I saw.

ford-v-ferrari.jpg

Ford v Ferrari comes from director James Mangold, who has quietly become one of the world’s foremost providers of adult drama- from biopics (Girl, Interrupted, Kate & Leopold, Walk the Line) to more mature action pieces (Cop Land, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan), Mangold makes films that feel synonymous with unabashed Golden Era showmanship. In his films, actors aren’t just giving performances, they’re being movie stars, having conversations that only movie stars could have, and with frequently rising runtimes, Mangold usually packs a whole lot of movie into each project.

This isn’t to say that Mangold’s work is retrograde- the technical wizardry alone is an argument for the singular nature of the cinematic experience. Ford v Ferrari isn’t just long, it’s also loud, with screeching tires and internal engine combustions shaking the seats with bombastic energy. Mangold is a stickler for process; with 150 minutes, he’s clear to make his depiction of cars detailed, putting us behind the wheel and in the pit with the lead characters. The dialogue is precise and doesn’t simplify; even if I wasn’t sure what the characters were referring to, I was always sure that the actors did.

Based on a true story, the film follows two unlikely partners: car designer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is waxing poetic about his former life as a racer, and Ken Miles (Christian Bale), is an eccentric racer whose caustic attitude has made him a tough bet for potential sponsors. As Ferrari dominates the racing landscape, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) enlists the pair to build a car that will guarantee a victory at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Miles as the driver.

Sure enough, the film opens with a big race that sets the stage for Shelby’s former life as a driver with an outlaw spirit, and quickly enough juxtaposes his menial day job. It’s an easy tone setter, as we need to see the scale the film’s operating at early on, but it’s also a good way to show the type of restraint Mangold has. We start with a big race and use another small race to introduce Miles, and while there are intermittent races throughout as Shelby and Miles test their vehicle, for the most part the excitement is saved for the end. It’s a way of not showing the cards too early, but also keeping the audience in on the effort. When Le Mans starts we know the interior and mechanics of the titular Ford by heart, yet we’re still able to be blown away by the sheer ferocity of this epic race played out in full for the first time.

What makes Le Mans different within the racing world is that it’s a day long race- the type of mistakes that wouldn’t derail a shorter lap have time to manifest as the tired drivers and their teams rally around for a day long slog. It’s fittingly a long sequence, but there’s very little fat to it; at the end of the day, Shelby and Miles are problem solvers, and the lengths they go to perfect their craft and maneuver corporate politics are more interesting than just watching two cars edge past each other for a full day.

Bale is unquestionably the standout performance; he’s a wild guy with an unmatched mastery of his field, and a scene as simple as Miles correcting a customer on how his vehicle should be driven wouldn’t work if Bale’s “No, I’m right” insistence wasn’t backed up by a clear understanding that his ego is justified. Scenes with Miles’s family are the ones that slow the film down the most, as they’re mostly thankless and aren’t particularly well developed, but the relationship between Miles and his son (a great Noah Jupe) do a good job at showing how strong the familial bond is. Miles is a guy we’re inherently rooting for, but being a hero in his child’s eye is just the right way to put a human behind the wheel.

Damon is also quite good here (as he almost always is); the film is smartly bookended with scenes of him behind the wheel, and although Miles is the one with the winning lap, it’s clear that Shelby is very much equally in control. Damon can play the smartass and he can play the hapless hero, and this role gives him a chance to be both, as a cunning business type who plays Henry Ford for a shot at Le Mans and also a straight man to the more eccentric Miles. A final round of tie ups for the Shelby character gave an unexpected weight that I wasn’t expecting, and no one is able to sell the idea that they love what they do quite like Matt Damon.

Ford v Ferrari has solid craftsmanship from everyone involved, and to say that it left me exhausted is not a bad thing. The racing scenes enough should be worth the price of admission, but it’s also a testament to how a big-budget studio drama film should feel. Maybe you learn something, maybe you feel inspired, but this certainly isn’t one that I expect will bore. Grade: B+

parasite

Based on my (somewhat) limited understanding, the overarching theme in South Korean cinema at the moment is the contrast between the haves and the have nots. Of course, this is a theme that holds weight in all corners of the world, but the particularly sharp class divide occurring now in South Korea has certainly inspired some of the world’s most talented filmmakers to skewer privilege and wealth- Bong Joon-ho has actually done this several times previously, with Okja and Snowpiercer being two recent examples.

To put it bluntly, I’ve never seen a film tackle the bliss and yearning on each side of the wealth gap as well as Parasite. Often times satire comes from living out a fantasy that would otherwise seem implausible, but Parasite isn’t trying to be cathartic. There’s a gleeful joy in seeing Bong lay out the blunt reality of elitism, but as the story unravels it’s hard to not laugh and cringe in equal manner. Throw a slew of great performances on this decadent balancing act and you have what I think is now unquestionably a modern classic.

Parasite is about the relationship between two families; the Kims live nearly underground, use a neighbor’s wi-fi, and hustle for gigs that include boxing pizzas, while the Parks take residency in a slick mansion where their two children are groomed for success by expensive tutors. The Kim’s son Ki-woo has recently left military service and through a friend finds himself the English tutor for the Park’s teenage daughter Da-hye, despite having no qualifications. What starts off as a simple con becomes a means for the Kim clan to feed off of their wealthy counterparts, colliding these two families forever in a twisted confluence of lies and deceit.

It’s beyond entertaining to see the Kims in action; this is a tight family unit that operates like the Ocean’s Eleven crew, and they need to do so in order to survive. The skills they pick up aren’t ones that seem super complex, but it’s evident how these basic means of survival could be completely alien to the Parks, who live in a literal mansion that feeds off of their wildest desires. It’s a gradual infiltration spearheaded by Ki-woo’s initial deceit, and once the Kims understand that for the rich money is always a solution, it becomes a tight rope act as to when and how things will go awry.

I want to say as little as possible about the main plot of the film, but I’ll say the second act (which is initiated with a reveal that inspired literal gasps from my audience) is some of the most suspenseful, confidently staged filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Bong and his team designed the Park mansion from scratch, and behind each luxury is the potential for a moment of suspense or conflict. The way in which characters are positioned- which room they’re in at a particular moment and the individual steps that must be taken to get out of that environment, are transitioned with such magnetic grace that it plays out like a manic choreographed dance. It’s easy to say “Hitchcockian,” but Bong is so clearly someone who makes his environments products of his narratives in a manner reminiscent of Rear Window or Vertigo.

The Parks aren’t nice rich people, Kim matriarch Chung-sook remarks at one point, but “they’re nice because they’re rich.” The Kims’ ignorance is often comical, but Bong never forgets the ramifications of what they have. It’s really funny that this wealthy family hires an expensive art tutor to interpret their young son’s abstract drawings, but it’s less funny when there are people living below the streets whose very livelihood could be gone in an instant due to a natural disaster. The Kims never turn out to be mustache twirling maniacs with wicked intentions, and it’s the normalization of their gross subjugation of the lower class that is almost scarier.

Parasite goes to many unexpected places, but never stretches believability beyond the truth of what we see these families are capable of. A film so hell bent on surprising its audience needs to have payoffs for each shock, and thankfully Parasite ends on the perfect note that signifies how this cycle could begin again. Dastardly funny and deviously thrilling, this is a film that could easily be rewatched to soak in all its meaning, but I doubt anything will top the pure visceral shock of its first viewing. Grade: A+

jojorabbit

Taika Waititi’s latest venture Jojo Rabbit is perhaps not being marketed as what it is: a family movie. It’s a film that takes a look at life under the Nazi regime from a child’s eyes, and all the stakes and sorrow found in that era is seen from the perspective of someone who is naïve and susceptible. The film itself isn’t that naïve; the stakes are all real and they are felt, but the means with which it copes with these issues is geared towards a young audience and intended to both educate and entertain them in a PG-13 manner.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy living in Germany during 1945, and despite not being the strongest or most bloodthirsty of his generation, he’s found inspiration in his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo wants to serve his country and makes his family proud, but his world is turned upside down when his mother (Scarlett Johansson) fosters a runaway Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic.

While the “imaginary Hitler” subplot is by far the most talked about element of the film, the character only shows up momentarily throughout the film in order to urge Jojo’s worst impulses. Waititi is clearly having a blast with his sendup of Hitler, and is able to confront his persona by depicting him as a blithering idiot, all while occasionally being genuinely scary. This is an important line that Waititi has to walk, both as an actor and a writer/director; it’s important to show that Nazis are stupid, and the best way to do that is through humor, but he also has to communicate the irreparable damage that hateful ideology has.

I think Waititi succeeds in this regard; while there are moments that simplify the Nazi movement (at one point comparing the rise of Nazism to Beatles mania), the film revolves around Jojo’s inability to grasp the gravity of the situation. To Jojo, the Nazis are the older kids at school who he needs acceptance from, and try as he might, Jojo is not a hateful person and will never belong. His mother tries to protect him and teach him, but when hate is so engrained within a culture it’s hard to show another path.

The empathy within Jojo comes from his relationship with Thomasin McKenzie’s character, and again it’s a tricky one that Waititi pulls off. At first there’s a hesitation, and obviously Jojo grows infatuated with this older girl, but in the end both characters have lost family, and as a result don’t know their purpose. The joy of these two interacting doesn’t downplay the terrors surrounding them; in fact it’s an antithesis.

With all this being said, I have to give a massive amount of credit to Roman Griffin Davis, who gives one of the most impressive child performances I think I’ve ever seen. Jojo is a kid whose forced to be an adult, and the harsh juxtaposition of childlike energy and priorities with one of the darkest periods in human history requires Davis to grow from blissful irreverence to crushing self-awareness. He’s a silly kid who has funny conversations with imaginary Hitler, and there’s tons of great physical comedy (which gets fairly brutal at points), but there’s images of a child growing up in a warzone that remain haunting.

Davis is also working with a tremendous ensemble; Waititi is uproarious and McKenize has to channel a slightly older, yet still innocent sense of adolescent charm. Many of the film’s strongest moments come from Jojo’s relationship with his mother. Johansson is simply wonderful; we get the sense that she’s unsure of how to present the world to Jojo, and behind the façade of being a struct, playful mother is a determined person who deeply believes in the power of compassion. I’m sure there will be controversy surrounding Sam Rockwell’s depiction of a Nazi officer who trains Jojo and the other boys, but I found the subtle reasoning behind his character’s motivations to be inspired, and even thoughtful at points.

Behind the surface of Jojo Rabbit are many things that are left unsaid; many character arcs are relying on only what Jojo sees, and often what’s left unsaid or implied is just as potent as the story that’s visualized. This is a heartwarming story that doesn’t pander, taking risks with how it depicts real issues whilst also speaking to universal truths. Take your kids to see the “imaginary Hitler” movie, please. Grade: A

clemency

Clemency is a very rough watch; it’s a film that both begins and ends with an execution, and the surrounding conversations are not any easier to get through. In her post-screening Q&A, writer/director Chinonye Chukwu details the hours of interviews, research, and moral deep diving that it took to create this film, and none of the material makes for an easy sit. While the subject matter is certainly loaded, it asks the immortal questions: how can we convict someone without 100% certainty, and what makes legalized killing any more justified?

Tracking the relationship between a long standing prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) and a prisoner (Aldis Hodge) on death row that proclaims his innocence, Clemency follows the process of someone’s journey to lethal injection. The brilliance of the Alfre Woodard character is that things happen around her, but she’s not a passive person. We see in detail the impact that duty has upon her, and how her unflinching commitment is unlikely to be understood by anyone else.

A majority of the film takes place in the prison itself, with the few snippets of media information or trips to Williams’s home offering a small window into the outside world. There’s not an awful lot of movement to the sequencing either; while the occasional nightmare sequences help to visualize Williams’s vivid nightmares of the fateful execution table, the film is mostly shot with an uncomfortable stillness. Even the scenes with Williams’s husband, played excellently by Wendall Pierce, offer no sense of comfort, as she’s still stuck reliving all the lives she’s seen taken in the name of the law.

It’s important that the details of the case are never spelled out all the way; if there’s legitimate doubt, why should it matter? Aldis Hodge is extraordinary in the role, and is able to be vulnerable in a very honest way. Not every scene can be a big emotional crying scene or outburst, and the points in which he has to placate himself and is forced to ignore the injustice are often the most potent in their bitter realism.

Clemency certainly will leave an impact, and both leads do tremendous work in making us understand their suffering. Still, it’s the somber removal from anything that should feel normal that makes the film both rewarding and grueling-  I have no idea how this story would be told any other way, and its uncomfortable by its very nature. Even though the film is clearly here to tell a message, it doesn’t lose sight of the character story its telling; although it feels like there is no humanity in this practice, Clemency finds solace in the fact that we can have this conversation. Grade: B-

lesmis

Les Misérables is not a musical, nor is it an adaptation of any specific character or storyline from Victor Hugo’s legendary source material. Rather, it lifts the themes of injustice, solace, and unity of a movement that are found in the legendary text and places it within the context of modern day France, inspired by real riots in 2005. Showing a day within the life of a city cop who joins an elite squad to stop potential conflicts between ethnic groups on a hot summer day, Les Miserables gets up close and personal with the sparks that can light a city aflame.

Perhaps this was intended to be Les Misérables from Javert’s perspective, but in the end I think the film concludes that there’s a bit of Jean Valjean in everyone (this is implied though, the references to that story are minimal). The parallels are interesting, as it’s also a story that shows the rise of a movement in response to police brutality, how victims become conquerors, and how someone’s true colors are shown in the most inconvenient of times. These are the themes of Les Miserables, but it’s a story for today.

Damien Bonnard gives a phenomenal performance as Stephane, the film’s lead cop who is roped into a cycle of brutality that makes way for violence and uprising. Bonnard is good at making Stephane conflicted; like Javert, his loyalty is to the law, but when his colleagues take advantage of their power, where do his loyalties lie? Stephane isn’t a bad guy, but he’s part of the problem, and whether or not he’s part of the solution is up to the viewer’s interpretation of the final frames.

Director Ladj Ly leaves quite an impressive feature, with many intense chase sequences throughout the cluttered city streets. We don’t need to see every corner of the city to convey its magnitude, nor do we need to see every face in order to depict the different sensibilities that are going around at any moment. It’s a race against time for the cops to solve a dispute, and the film balances it’s actual driving force with the audience’s knowledge that under these circumstances something is bound to go wrong, and we should expect something horrific.

The final set piece of this film is genuinely brilliant, a chaotic frenzy in which the simmering conflicts between every player burst to the surface and emerge within one confined, claustrophobic building. It’s a sequence in which we’re caught begging for de-escalation, but we couldn’t even begin to think of a way how. Perhaps this is the barricade moment for this Les Misérables; if the most interesting part is how we move on from the barricade, than this film is about the moments before the fallout. Grade: B

waves

“Emotionally overwhelming” is a good way to start talking about Waves, but I’m not sure that any words I have would do justice to the wide range of feelings one may have experiencing this film. It’s too overreaching to say that Waves is about everything, but there’s so much to say about the film’s approach to love, loss, and healing; this is a film that begins as a slow indoctrination into a specific family culture, rises up to be an intense climax of unchecked anxieties, then leaves us with a cathartic series of healing.

The story of Waves isn’t as remarkable as the way writer/director Trey Edward Shults chooses to tell it; it’s a clearly bifurcated structure, made to be off putting to the point that different aspect ratios are used, and the frantic motion of the first half gives way to a still beauty in the second half. The question is, does it work? Unquestionably, yes. Shults understands that trauma in itself isn’t worth depicting unless it can be understood, realized, and ultimately confronted.

The Williams family live in the seemingly perfect world of suburban Florida. Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a patriarch who challenges his son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to go above and beyond in every aspect of life, as his daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) struggles to find love and live within the shadow of her brother. This is a family unit that is immediately understood; they go to church together and show up for each other’s school events, but there’s a point where love becomes more about duty than it does compassion, and that’s the ambiguity that Waves is examining.

Is Ronald a bad father? Perhaps, but he isn’t meant to be the antagonist. If Ronald’s motivation for pushing Tyler to be the best is to show him the privileges he has, then are his expectations justified? Ronald isn’t able to convey the unconditionality of his love, and for Tyler it’s a crushing pressure that pushes him beyond reasonable expectations. Tyler can’t confide in his father if he’s worried about facing disappointment, and the result is a family that are all left wrapped up in their own thoughts and unable to communicate with one another.

On the other side is Emily, who is underseen in her family’s eyes. When Emily finally finds someone worth spending her time loving in the nerdy boy Luke (Lucas Hedges), it’s in the wake of events that have caused her family to splinter apart. She isn’t able to forgive people that can’t apologize to her, and the empty shadow that her family casts upon her forces her to confront dysfunction that is often left unsaid.

What Shults does visually with this film is unprecedented; with his relentlessly energetic pans, including many impressive 360 angles and tracking shots of the kids’ everyday school days, Shults has utilized the cinema verite theories into something that is grimly realistic while also artful. It’s said that many films look like paintings, but Shults is really able to cascade color off of his panoramic that feel like a distant, yet vivid memory. Often the film relies on the strength of the expressions of a human face, not dialogue, and the uncomfortable close ups Shults captures are works of art in of themselves.

Waves is a film that will take a toll on its viewer; while its structure is meant to be cathartic, the solutions it offers for coping with tragedy aren’t always the easiest to swallow. I do think it’s an essential viewing experience, and regardless of your own family dynamic, I think there’s truth in everything Waves puts forward. In his post-screening Q&Q, Shults detailed that much of the film was autobiographical, and I can’t think of any way this film doesn’t come off as anything less than completely authentic. Grade: A