I am thrilled to announce that I will be attending the 10th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, which takes place at Chicago’s famed (and my dearly beloved) Music Box Theatre. The festival began on Friday, May 5, and will run through Thursday, May 11, 2023. The lineup looks amazing, and I'm excited to attend as many screenings as and post-film Q&As with filmmakers as my schedule will allow. I'll be chronicling the films I see and releasing capsule reviews out, some of which may be rather limited out of respect for forthcoming release dates.
SPOILER-FREE ZONE (this is both a threat and a promise
Directed by Clement Virgo // 119 mins // Feature Film
Brother is the story of Francis and Michael, sons of Caribbean immigrants maturing into young men amidst Toronto’s pulsing 1990’s hip-hop scene. A mystery unfolds when escalating tensions set off a series of events which changes the course of the brothers’ lives forever.
Written, produced, and directed by Clement Virgo, Brother is an introspective family drama set in an extremely specific time and place with all the dressings of an edgy sociological thriller. Adapted from David Chariandy's novel, the film is the composite of storylines that flash forward, backward, and side-to-side are carefully woven together to keep the audience intrigued, as well as to set up emotional payoffs. At the center of the story are two black Canadian brothers, Francis (Aaron Pierre) and Michael (Lamar Johnson), sons of Caribbean immigrants growing up in the Scarborough district of Toronto, Ontario in the early 1990s. Every choice Virgo makes regarding the characters, their motivations, and their personal histories is grounded in a palpable sense of realism. The time and place these characters live in feels genuine and devoid of imitation.
As the details of these characters' lives unfold, Virgo carefully parses out information to the audience in bite-sized pieces to build up their appetite and drum up mystery for where the story will go. Effective suspense hinges on who knows what — in this film because the audience and the characters on screen know different things at different times, every narrative reveal seismic feels seismic in some sense. Despite the momentum ramping up, the story still manages to foster an atmosphere of authenticity. The acting performances here are just as pensive and vulnerable, with the standout being Aaron Pierre, who is well on his way to being a critical darling and hopefully a household name. Brother is a carefully considered piece of cinematic Black storytelling that contemplates themes of adolescence, family, community, masculinity, and music. With its top-notch performances, thoughtful script, and craftsmanship, this was a wonderful last feature for me at CCFF this year.
April Rain Wild Ale | 6.2% ABV Off Color Brewing @offcolorbrewing
Updated 05/11/23 (under review embargo)
Directed by Celine Song // 106 mins // Feature Film
Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora's family emigrates from South Korea. 20 years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.
Past Lives, the semi-autobiographical feature directorial debut from Celine Song, is a poignant and beautifully crafted portrait of love, friendship, and personal growth. This romantic drama follows two childhood friends whose lives follow different paths over the course of 24 years as they flow in and out of one another’s lives. As time passes and their lives diverge, the emotional relationship dynamic between these two friends shifts, leading to unresolved loose ends and a series of sliding-door decisions. It stars Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro, all of whom deliver perfectly calibrated performances that help drum up the audience’s ability to empathize with these characters’ joys and sorrows. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it has slowly been gaining traction as the preeminent A24 awards-worthy film of the year – I expect it will not only appear on many critics’ best-of lists come December, but I bet it will be in the mix for countless accolades come awards season. Past Lives effortlessly dances between heartwarming and heartbreaking; it is a must-see not only for A24 season ticket holders but also for anyone who appreciates a sincerely heartfelt drama. Immediately seeing it after CCFF with misty droplets coming out the corners of my eyes, I had only wished that the Music Box Theatre staff had left the lights off for a few minutes longer. I'm sure we'll be talking about this one more later this year.
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Directed by Morrisa Maltz // 85 mins // Feature Film
A grieving woman embarks on an unexpected road trip from the Midwest toward the Texas-Mexico border as she grapples with the pain of her recent loss and seeks to understand her place in the world.
Growing up in the American Midwest and having endured many long car rides traversing across desolate lands on eerily vacant roads, I felt an almost immediate kinship with The Unknown Country, an under-the-radar independent film directed by Morrisa Maltz that premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Still dealing with immense grief after her grandmother's recent death, Tana (Lily Gladstone) embarks on a road trip that takes her from Minnesota to South Dakota, and eventually down to the Texas-Mexico border. Her initial trip is prompted by an invitation to her cousin's wedding, but Tana's journey soon becomes more than just a family reunion — it becomes a quest for emotional clarity and self-discovery. After reconnecting with her Oglala Lakota family, Tana sets out to retrace the steps her grandmother took years ago in a similar cross-country odyssey, which was captured in an old photograph that she holds on to dearly. Tana decides to head south with the intent of searching for the exact location in which this picture of her grandmother was taken. In her travels, she encounters everyday people leading ordinary lives, including Isaac (Raymond Lee), who may deliver the critical piece of information regarding the whereabouts of the mysterious location in the old photograph.
What might've just seemed like a small-stakes, solitary road movie about one young woman's search for closure and purpose on paper is instead something broader yet nuanced. Set in a post-2016 social and political climate that reverberates throughout the film, Maltz plays with form and injects documentary-esque tangents by interviewing real people who interact with Tana along the way. Mixing in these documentary snippets serves to tell a story that extends past Tana and her own personal journey. This sort of formal mixture is something we've seen before (think Nomadland), though perhaps more experimental by design. Because I felt the interview pit stops were in service to the broader thematic undertones of the film, the atypical structure worked for me. But really, the key for me is Gladstone, who holds the whole movie together. Her grounded performance is fully transparent even though so much of what she is asked to do is internalized. I'm obviously looking forward to seeing her star alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert de Niro in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, so this was a great opportunity to see the kind of gifted performer she is in a smaller part that fully relies upon her ability to hold the screen. Long drives can be isolating but still liberating, and The Unknown Country, thanks to Maltz's brave experimentation and Gladstone's confident performance, captures that dichotomy and catharsis.
Sun Crusher American Pale Wheat Beer | 5.3% ABV Revolution Brewing @revbrewchicago
Updated 05/08/23 (under review embargo)
Directed by Matt Johnson // 122 mins // Feature Film
Two mismatched entrepreneurs – egghead innovator Mike Lazaridis and cut-throat businessman Jim Balsillie – joined forces in an endeavor that was to become a worldwide hit in little more than a decade. The device that one of them invented and the other sold was the BlackBerry, an addictive mobile phone that changed the way the world worked, played and communicated. But just as BlackBerry was rising to new peaks, it also started losing its way through the fog of Smartphone wars, management indecision and outside distractions, eventually leading to the breakdown of one of the most successful ventures in the history of the tech and business worlds.
Writer & director Matt Johnson flexes some serious filmmaking muscles with this third feature film, BlackBerry, a Canadian biographical comedy-drama and 2023 SXSW Official Selection that opened the Chicago Critics Film Festival. What starts out as an over-the-shoulder workplace comedy about upstart underdogs gradually turns into a frantic, high-stakes corporate cautionary tale. Based on the novel written by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, this adaptation isn't just an up-tempo tech biopic about the once ubiquitous smartphone — it's first and foremost a well-rounded character study that's chock-full of big laughs with a bitter and poignant underbelly. Johnson's screenplay is an exemplary exercise in parsing out plot from story, where everything that happens along the way is in service to a greater narrative concept rather than just straightforward non-fiction. The plot details how Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson) get into business with Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) to launch the global phenomenon that was BlackBerry. Rather than just focusing on the titular company, the story hinges upon the contrasting rise & fall between its three primary characters. One of them is a soft-spoken perfectionist, another who likes having fun at work with his friends, and the infiltrating outsider who is cold-hearted and power-hungry. Together they form a different kind of triangle of sadness (please pardon the pun, Ruben Östlund).
It isn't until the inevitable-but-seismic crash-landing of an iPhone-sized asteroid that things gradually spin out of control. While this could've just been a totally satisfactory documentary, this story is better served in this narrative mode — the performances are great and the interplay between characters is so damn entertaining. Howerton, with his shiny, bald head and starchy suits, is having so much fun being the shit heel, and Baruchel, who has to cover a lot of character ground, is locked in and totally believable from start to finish. Together they make for a tumultuous odd couple, different in every way until they gradually start to mirror one another as things slowly unravel. But the brightest star is Johnson with his work both in front of and behind the camera. He's certainly a filmmaker with style; he's slick like Steven Soderbergh and has a freneticism reminiscent of Adam McKay. Even still, Johnson has brazenly ventured out and created something all his own. BlackBerry is sharp in its storytelling and crisp in its craft — what a great way to kick things off at CCFF.
Corridor X Music Box Music Hops: Hop to the Future Pale Ale | 4.8% ABV Corridor Brewery & Provisions @corridorchicago