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58th Chicago International Film Festival: Capsule Reviews Part 1

Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago and photo credit to Timothy M. Schmidt
Landscape logo for the 58th Chicago International Film Festival
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago

The 58th annual Chicago International Film Festival opened last week on October 12th with hearty fanfare. The Festival and its many sponsors hosted its Opening Night Block Party outside of the Music Box Theatre in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Complete with spotlights piercing the night sky, food trucks and vendors slaking hunger and thirst, and live music delighting the ears, the red carpet was rolled out for A Compassionate Spy from notable documentary filmmaker Steve James and the After Dark horror presentation of Sick

Since the 12th and through the 23rd, the Chicago International Film Festival presents hundreds of artists’ works in programs celebrating women in cinema, After Dark horror, short films, new directors, documentaries, LGBTQ+ features, local Illinois and Chicago projects, Cinema/Chicago’s well-regarded Black Perspectives selections. 25YL has two credentialed film critics on the scene. Here is Don Shanahan’s first report of capsule reviews ranked from highest recommendation to lowest:

The Banshees of Inisherin

Two men sit at a patio table next to an ocean coast
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago and the Chicago International Film Festival

Martin McDonagh and his returning In Bruges muses Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson have outdone themselves, not in the swearing department (not from a lack of trying however) but in squeezing high drama and witty laughs from small places. Farrell and Gleeson play two mates in the titular Irish island who have a falling out in 1923. The latter simply doesn’t want to talk to the former anymore, and the befuddlement and isolation drums up uncomfortable interactions that veer to a fallout of ordained consequences.

Playing like a chamber piece of mood in one hand and a breakup movie in the other, The Banshees of Inisherin challenges the audience to teeter the line between stubbornness and madness. Plenty will relish the repartee (or forced lack thereof) between the two titan actors. They’ll lean in with their own pint of curiosity to see what happens next and how the including orbiting parties—including a dimwitted third wheel buddy played by Barry Koeghan and Kerry Condon playing Farrell’s level-headed sister—react to this emotional tussle. Others might find themselves hitting their own head against the wall in frustration at the constant pig-headedness on display. Either way, you’ll be dazzled by one man’s bold resolve and another’s worsening frazzle playing against each other.  

TÁR

A conductor closes her eyes with a smile to the music.
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago

TÁR was presented as a special member screening by Cinema/Chicago, the organizing group of the Chicago International Film Festival. Cate Blanchett should add “Cinematic Clinician” to her business card or LinkedIn profile (like she’d have one, ha!). To no one’s surprise and everyone’s delight in TÁR, the two-time Oscar winner puts on a clinic of acting to play a highly-decorated fictional conductor named Lydia Tár. Set primarily in Berlin, Lydia is heavily busy preparing a grand concert of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The performance completes a celebrated series of her career idolizing and adapting the famed Romantic composer and conductor.

Away from the podium, Lydia is also managing the other obstacles of her life with the help of a dedicated and determined personal assistant played by Noémie Merlant of Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Between marriage, co-parenting, teaching college courses, public appearances, tutoring a new pupil, and managing the orchestra staff, the proverbial plush items she’s juggling turn into flaming torches when new and old scandals come to light. The growing distractions encircle to crack the composure and confidence of the maestra.

Through it all is the calculating Cate Blanchett and the odyssey of tarnished excellence written and directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children). Expect a heap of future awards consideration for both the filmmaker and the lead actress. Stretching nearly three-hours, TÁR takes its pensive time tightening its nerve-wracking screws. The shortfall is any suspenseful totality coming from the connected ensemble and story arcs in TÁR cannot balance or match the sheer fascinating energy of what Blanchett is doing. It’s all her and little else. 

Empire of Light

Two people watch fireworks from the roof of a theater.
Image courtesy of Cinema/Chicago and the Chicago International Film Festival

Sam Mendes is, to say the least, a curious filmmaker. Throughout his career, he has shown recurrent proclivities rooted in painful drama. He is never afraid to present human ugliness and attempt to varnish it with heart. That side of him can be admittedly hard to embrace, and we often forget he has that streak when he’s showing off his spectacle side in war films and James Bond adventures.

Empire of Light is, comparatively, Mendes’ smallest and most bourgeois film in 13 years since the underseen Away We Go. His heavy downshift from 1917 explores clashes of culture from the early 1980s in an England beset by a revival of Neo-Nazi skinhead unrest. The chosen epicenter is a once-grand movie theater in the coastal city of Margate, and the guiding character is Academy Award winner Olivia Colman’s nebbish duty manager Hilary Small.

Provocative transgressions occur among the collected theater staff between friendships and flirtations. The precarious man in the middle that stirs the plotlines in Empire of Light is Stephen, played by Micheal Ward (The Old Guard). The challenge for Mendes’ film is that aforementioned varnish of heart. Try as it may, not everything can be cleaned and corrected by well-meaning affection and the “magic of the movies” that fills the setting’s air.

Stay tuned in the next few days for another capsule report from Don Shanahan, as well as additional coverage from Aqib Rasheed. They’ve got the Windy City blanketed this week.

The films and festivities of the 58th CIFF are happening now and conclude October 23rd with the closing night film of White Noise from Noah Baumbach. Tickets are available in-person and online. Our own 25YL writers Aqib Rasheed and Don Shanahan are credentialed to cover this year’s slate. For more information, visit the Festival’s website at:

https://www.chicagofilmfestival.com/

Follow the Festival through these social media handles and sites:

  • Facebook: facebook.com/chicagofilmfestival/
  • Twitter: @ChiFilmFest
  • Instagram: @ChiFilmFest
  • TikTok: @ChiFilmFest
  • Hashtag: #ChiFilmFest

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved and Banana Meter-approved film critic writing here on 25YL Media and his own website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He also contributes as a Content Supervisor and Assistant Editor in the film department of 25YL. Don is also one of the hosts of the 25YL-backed Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Internet Film Critics Society, Independent Film Critics of America, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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