By Josh Parham
The first part of my piece on the Chicago International Film Festival, that looks at the films submitted for the Best International Feature Oscar, was recently published here on Next Best Picture. The films examined are by no means the only films that this festival had to offer. A great, wide selection of films that speak to a plethora of different perspectives around the world were on display, and it’s also a pleasure to catch many of these films with an eager crowd. Here are my thoughts on some of the other films I ended up seeing during my time at the festival.
“Cunningham” is a biographical documentary, but chooses to tell the story of its subject in quite unconventional means. The portrait of the artist is Merce Cunningham, one of the most renowned modern dancers who shook up his community with even more daring and avant-garde presentations. Alla Kovgan employs an array of spectacle that fits such a particular artist, which range from heavy use of archival footage, recordings, and recreating many of Cunningham’s famous choreographs with modern-day dancers. The film is also presented in 3D, adding another layer to its theatricality.
I don’t hold the belief that one must be entirely familiar with the subject of a documentary in order to be engaged by it. Often, it’s the recipe for success when one can be informed as well as entertained. However, the subject of Merce Cunningham, or at least how he is represented in the film, often feels impenetrable to those who may not possess a healthy dose of previous knowledge. Many of the complexities that he was working with aren’t provided much detail, neither are his strained relationships with important collaborators. The story around this subject is told opaquely, and it leaves a lot to be desired for the uninitiated.
Where the film does excel is in its recreations of the dances. There are times when one grows restless with the seemingly dry staging of the sequences which imitate the tone they were originally presented. Still, it’s a dedication that shows all the personality of the man who created these moves and watching them play out in 3D gives it all an extra layer of interest. It’s difficult not to compare it to another 3D documentary celebrating the art of a dancer: Wim Wenders’s “Pina.” What “Cunningham” doesn’t have, however, is the same amount of energy. It’s also not particularly trying to, but it’s an element that is sorely missed, even when many of its sights are appreciated.
The other documentary I saw was, fortunately, a significant improvement. “The Kingmaker” also examines the life of a real-world personality, that being the infamous Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines. Most people living outside of the country may remember her as a gaudy hostess to the world-known or primarily for her audacious fashion sensibilities (and her thousands upon thousands of shoes). However, she and her family have a long history of corruption within the political sphere of the local government, and the film examines it all, even the shady dealings in the present day.
This film presents an incredibly fascinating portrait of an incredibly fascinating figure. There is no doubt about the heinous acts that are associated with the Marcoses, yet seeing all of this played against a personality as captivating as Imelda’s is so engaging. The story that unfolds always creates tension, outrage and even humor as one can’t help but be simply amazed at the lengths to which this family tries to succeed and dominate its people.
It’s brilliant what Lauren Greenfield manages to accomplish here. Much like “The Queen of Versailles,” another brilliant documentary that examined the complicated lives of once-powerful figures, she finds ways to create compelling portraits out of people that could easily be deemed too unlikable to follow. There is great attention paid on how to approach this material, and the film always knows the exact tone it needs to strike. There are interesting characters throughout, and the film does an admirable job of weaving these elements together to showcase a complicated yet completely fascinating world. A small complaint would be a tired recurring metaphor involving animals that feels unneeded, but it’s nothing against the rest of the film. This is not only my favorite documentary of the year so far, but it’s also one of my favorite films of the year overall.
Many moments in history deserve a great examination into just how widespread of an impact they had on the world and the people. “Mr. Jones” is one such example, as it focuses on a journalist named Gareth Jones (James Norton) and his self-imposed investigation as to where the Soviet Union’s sudden spending spree is coming from, despite economic despair. This eventually leads him to the discovery of the Ukrainian Famine, also known as the Holodomor, where the country was intentionally starved to feed Russian citizens. Witnessing these horrors, he returns to expose this horrible truth, despite many political obstacles in his way.
Norton has a stoic presence in the role of Jones, who slowly becomes more tenacious as his convictions become more steadfast. At the same time, it’s a rather nondescript portrayal, and there’s nothing that exceptional in his performance. Most of the supporting players do more to make an impression, including Peter Sarsgaard as an antagonistic political figure in Moscow and Vanessa Kirby as his assistant/love interest. There is also a somewhat amusing turn by Joseph Mawle as George Orwell, though his inclusion in the film feels incredibly unnecessary.
As previous acclaimed works, “Europa Europa” and “In Darkness” suggest, Agnieszka Holland has an affinity for stories told around this time period. The direction of the film, however, offers mixed results. The first act of the film never quite settles on an engaging path, and the stylistic choices never have a sense of urgency to propel you through the story. However, once the story’s focus is squarely in Ukraine, the film becomes incredibly powerful in its depictions. The aftermath, when the media inquiries start, is less so. All this leads to a feeling of the film taking on too much story at once and it all becomes quite messy. A more condensed screenplay, with a narrow focus and far fewer tangents, would have helped reduce some of the film’s bloat. It’s all in service to a handsomely made film that’s often effective but certainly would have benefited from a less meandering story.
ONCE UPON A RIVER
One of the selections of films this festival has to offer is a section called City and State. This is to highlight films that are shot and produced locally within the Chicago area. I always try to see a film from this section, and “Once Upon a River” happened to be my choice this year. It tells the story of Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna), a Native American teenager who lives with her father in rural Michigan in 1977. A series of unfortunate events turn her world asunder, and she begins a journey that takes her hiking through various parts of the state and crossing paths with important figures along the way.
Dela Cerna makes her screen debut here, and she has a rather compelling presence in the film, even though there are times when she comes across as a bit amateurish in some delivery. Still, she’s a useful anchor to the film that helps to guide the audience through this tale. The supporting players are solid as well, with the highlight being John Ashton as an older man Margo befriends, and he serves as the real emotional center of the film. He ends up providing a grizzled yet warm performance that strikes as the most memorable in the entire piece.
Haroula Rose directs the film with a keen eye to constantly embodying Margo’s perspective, and it’s an appreciated bit of filmmaking that helps to create a strong bond with this character study. It’s also commendable that this film centers on Native American actors so prominently and crafts them to feel fleshed out. At the same time, the story is very episodic, and some chapters are more compelling than others. The period setting also doesn’t quite feel realized, and it’s a distracting element that could easily have been excised. Overall, the film is a mostly enjoyable watch as a micro-budgeted indie film, though some rough elements take away from the strength of the storytelling as a whole.
While I previously noted that many films are official submissions for the Best International Feature Oscar, there’s also plenty of foreign films that don’t hold such distinction but deserve to be seen, as well. One that took my eye was this flashy noir from Japan, which follows a pair of criminals named Maniko (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Shima (Etsushi Toyokawa). Both are on the run from the local gang because of their involvement in the death of a boss’s daughter. Their journey takes them to Taiwan, where they eventually strike up a friendship with a local named Xiao En (Nikki Hsieh). It’s here were the sins of their past take their toll and new possibilities await them.
There’s certainly a stylistic touch the film has in its dreamy cinematography and striking compositions. It shows that director Yoshihiro Hanno has an adept skill at creating an engaging piece of visual storytelling. However, so much of that effort is in service of a story that feels so uncompelling. The elusive plot makes for the pacing to feel intolerable, which is only exacerbated by the shallow character depth. It makes all the emotional catharsis the film reaches for seem muted and unearned by the end, which is unfortunate given how inviting the images are.
Unfortunately, the acting leaves much to be desired as well. It’s not an issue of bad performances, but rather, the struggle to elevate themselves from the material. Tsumabuki does the most with his role, and he offers a lot of charm and fragility with his portrayal. Still, he struggles to keep his character engaging and doesn’t have that much chemistry with his co-stars. Toyokawa’s silent stoicism soon grows tiring and Hsieh is given barely anything to do, along with an entirely underwhelming resolution. It’s a shame that a film that looks as good as this one ends up being so empty beneath that surface. Hopefully, better things are ahead for the talented people here.
One of the main attractions for myself in regards to the festival’s programming is films in the “Out-Look” section, which put a spotlight on LGBTQ films from all around the world. One such film I saw was “The Prince,” a Chilean drama about a young man named Jaime (Juan Carlos Maldonado) who is sent to prison after killing his friend in a bar. Once there, he is taken under the wing of an older prisoner known by most as The Stud (Alfredo Castro). The Stud has a whole company of young men that he keeps, as well as a rivalry with another prisoner named Che Pibe (Gastón Pauls) who’s looking for more control. The rocky relationship between Jaime and The Stud soon turns more tender, and each one attempts to find a new awakening in their lives.
Director Sebastián Muñoz crafts this film with some compelling compositions, and there is an interesting exploration in the way sex among these men is always positioned as a form of dominance and power, and how that slowly fades when a more emotional connection is introduced. However, that emotional depth always feels at arm’s length, and with such hardened characters in this story, it’s difficult to become truly invested. The dynamics between the characters are rather pedestrian, with many of the supporting players not being fleshed out, and the pacing has trouble building up momentum. There is an interesting idea being played out here, but the execution of how these themes are developed leaves a lot to be desired.
Maldonado does a good enough job in the film, but there is also an intentional harshness to his character that his performance never really gets past, even when a change is meant to take place with his personality. It’s certainly a committed role, but nothing here ever comes across as anything extraordinary. The same goes for Castro, who delivers a solid turn but never showcases an astounding performance. The only people from this shallow ensemble who made any sort of impression were Pauls, with a devilish charm that stole every scene, and Lucas Balmaceda as Pibe’s lover who delivers a nice emotional moment. Overall, it’s a film that doesn’t dive very deep into what it has to say, and it ends up being not as interesting as it ultimately could be.
Another slice of queer perspectives that I took in was this Guatemalan film which starts right away with the revelation that the patriarch of a tightly knitted family, Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) has just been outed as a gay man. He moves into his new lover’s apartment but still tries to maintain a connection with his children. At every turn, he is getting blocked by his family and their extreme religious beliefs, leading him to question his own life choices and eventually turn to conversion therapy, all while continuing the struggle between two sides of a life that he desperately wants but can’t seem to have together.
Olyslager’s performance at the center brings a lot of weight to it that always feels grounded within this story. He captures the essence of a man struggling with the many sides of his identity, and watching him deal with the weight being forced upon him is an impressive task. He hardly ever turns to histrionics, and the slowly crumbling façade works so well in his performance. The whole cast does a great job of capturing a tone that feels realistic in how these behaviors would present themselves.
Director Jayro Bustamente does an incredible job of crafting a narrative that has much more complexity than others may have pursued. It threads a particular needle in dealing with coming out stories and showcases the dangers that religious extremism can have not only on society but on the individual. It’s a great credit to the filmmaking and writing that this character study feels as rich as it does in these thematic explorations. At the same time, when the film does pull its full focus to the conversion therapy, much of that complexity subsides and, while still enthralling, the film doesn’t maintain the same level of engagement it once did. Still, “Tremors” as a whole is a well-crafted piece that features great performances and an intriguing execution of an important story.
I would imagine that every person who is in love with cinema always gets to enjoy their time at a film festival. While it may take a lot of resources to travel to other notable events, I’m incredibly grateful that I have been able to find one that is as excitable as the rest in my own backyard. The Chicago International Film Festival rarely disappoints when it comes to their selections, and I always appreciate their commitment to serving a diverse set of voices within filmmaking. I have already had the pleasure of seeing many films at this festival that rank among my favorites of the year. I have no doubt such results will be expected in the future.
You can follow Josh and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @JRParham