Adam Robitel’s Escape Room posits that we are all hermetically sealed in our own isolation chambers, locked within man-made structures of guilt, self-doubt, and despair, listening, recounting, and mentally relitigating the same tired series of traumatic events that cripple us into complacency. Or at least it’s what the film tries to suggest. This is a film that requires a pretty endless series of mental acrobatics to make sense of, whether it be the inanity of its plotting or the skull-clutching awkwardness of its performers reciting banal, hackneyed platitudes from a screenplay that would seem amateurish to even a SyFy network executive. Welcome to the cinematic dregs of January, this film would seem to announce.Read More
There’s this axiom: “The worst your past was, the worse your present will be.” I’ll try not to get too dramatic as I don’t want this to degenerate into whining. I felt myself thin away and teetering toward oblivion throughout passages of 2018. Or: it wasn’t the best year. I started it off unemployed, laid off a week prior to Thanksgiving 2017 and forced to hustle a menial, demeaning job to make it through the holiday season. It was humbling (which more often than not reads as: terrible) and a casual reminder that the distinction between nightmare and reality can be blurred beyond recognition.
Good news was that I started a new position with one of the most renowned academic institutions on the planet in late January. The tide was turning, the molecules of the universe finally colliding in a way that actually benefited me. I never before felt like I was on the fringe, but I certainly felt less passive and more active in becoming a fully functional human being. 30 howled and with it a set of anxieties and preoccupations that, somehow, I seemed capable of handling. It hasn’t always been a picnic, but the alternative – unemployment, anomie – and its resulting anxieties have thankfully been kept at bay.Read More
It’s difficult to imagine much credibility in recommending Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse given that I’ve found nearly every film to come out of Marvel Studios (and its adjacent co-producing studios) to be an absolute, cortex-withering slog. Even those I “like” I tend to recommend out of fatigue, predicating my sentence with, “If you have to watch one those films, I’d go with option A, choice B, or bitter pill C.” But with the unfortunately titled, robustly directed Spider-Verse, I can enthusiastically deploy any number of superlatives: it’s the best film produced under the Marvel moniker, the best animated superhero film since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and one of the best animated films, superhero or not, of 2018. It is, above all, a refreshing change of pace from the factory-produced mentality, world-building nonsense that comes from our contemporary crop of superhero films. From its textured animation, emotionally terse voice-acting, and complex but fundamentally human narrative, Spider-Verse achieves the paradoxical feat of making you feel like a superhero by evoking everything that makes you a human; from coursing through your day to day, abating anxieties over an uncertain future, or simply contending with your own self-imposed deficiencies and doubts, Spider-Verse suggests that true acts of heroism come from our capacity not to just live for ourselves, but for others.Read More
The litany of film festivals offered within Chicago and its surrounding suburbs during the calendar year makes the very thought of covering each one a daunting, frankly impossible, task. Part of me, however, feels like I’ve neglected some of my duties in running Chicago Cinema Circuit, especially when it comes to highlighting some of the local festivals in the area that would otherwise go unnoticed on a national stage. Case in point: the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival. For the past five years, Michael Glover Smith has carefully programmed a small yet incredibly thoughtful festival that highlights local and national filmmakers. An emphasis is placed on providing a discourse between filmmaker and audience, with filmmakers frequently in attendance for post-screening Q&As. There’s an overwhelming quality to a lot of the larger film festivals in the area, where quantity tends to be valued over quality. With the Oakton PUFF, there’s significance placed on curation, on creating a fundamentally relaxed experience that values the film, the filmmaker, and its audience. That, my friends, is a fundamentally singular film festival experience.
The Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival begins Tuesday, November 27 through Friday, November 30 at the Footlik Theatre. All screenings are free and open to the public. For additional information, click here.
Dry vine, old trees, night crows
Small bridge, running creek, cottage huts
Old path, west wind, lean horse
Evening sun setting west
A hearts torn man wanders at the edge of the world
Of the two previous films I’ve seen by Julian Schnabel, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the prevailing quality to his brand of cinema is in how he captures movement. His camera recklessly careens through the visual space, often capturing fragments at such a rapid clip that it constitutes something close to an assault. There’s a claustrophobia that comes with his formalism, where Schnabel will frequently tighten his focus on an actor’s face, only for the camera to discombobulate out of orbit and drift a moment or two longer than you’d expect before he cuts to the next scene. The result produces a feeling of anxious vitality. Uneasiness quickly mounts and, for this viewer, it caused me to grip the cushion of my armrest. At least that was the case for his new film, At Eternity’s Gate, with its fragmented passages reminding me a bit of the Ma Zhiyuan poem “Autumn Thoughts” cited above. This is a film built on shifting particles and wispy gestures intended to arouse a purely sensory, ephemeral experience. To state the obvious, At Eternity’s Gate is transporting and utterly sublime when Schnabel is successful, though one’s endurance to survive this exceedingly uncompromising exercise makes the journey less than pleasant.Read More
The Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) of Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner hands a Washington Post reporter a copy of an undisclosed Tolstoy novel on board a flight. The reporter, recovering from a panic attack after a patch of turbulence, has been conflicted about bringing up Hart’s past infidelities and unconventional marriage, aware that any mention of gossip gravely annoys the 1988 presidential candidate. To bring up the issue would be uncouth, particularly given that Hart’s protocol regarding interviews saw him maintain a rigid divide between his private and personal life. He holds off on a line of questioning that would make the two of them uncomfortable, partly because Hart is so damn likeable. But back to that Tolstoy: Hart hands the reporter the novel as a means of understanding their Russian enemy, in the belief that hostilities between the two countries could be mitigated by knowledge of one another’s culture. It’s a rare moment of insight from a political figure that would suggest a measure of enlightenment, with Reitman frequently aligning our perspective with Hart; it’s the media and our insatiable American culture’s thirst for smut that turned a potentially life-altering figure away from the politics.Read More
I never felt an agony so hostile to life than when I found out my mom was cheating on my dad. Gosh, what an absolutely silly sentence to type out. What I’m doing now is retrospectively reliving conversations and events that only now seem vital. It was during the summer between high school and college, where I had moved to a new apartment in Edgewater, while my parents along with my younger brother relocated to a suburban respite. Imagine the incalculable endurance required to move from the center of Chicago to its most northern neighborhood and, on that same afternoon, to a western enclave on the city’s outskirts. But with the literal distance that came with my parents no longer being within arms reach came an incomprehensible, emotionally crippling despair. Coping with loneliness requires a tremendous amount of work and the increasing distance that both my mother and father placed between us made it all the more difficult. Sometimes I think I barely survived, other times I think it made me stronger. Or I need to tell myself that, because in reality only one of those statements is true.Read More
Monrovia, Indiana, the location of Frederick Wiseman’s latest institutional case study, is the sort of township that’s hard to remember by name unless you’ve heard it a couple of times. Those who pass through this Midwestern enclave are likely to forge through without much thought, its flatland, sights, and sounds uniformly demonstrating an active disinterest in capturing a tourist’s attention. But as Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest utters “but hey, I’m living here every day.” And so, Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana examines this township of a little over a thousand, a community that, like so many like it, serves as a sort of cautionary reminder of what it means to live, actually live and subsequently die, in America.Read More
I recognize the kids of Mid90s. I wasn’t one of them, but we orbited the same space frequently. With a harsh Eastern European upbringing, afternoons, let alone nights, out with friends were a rare occurrence that demanded an endless series of planning, coordination, and lies. On those rare instances we were able to get together, it was like stumbling across a secret society, a meeting of all those faces that you saw passing in the hallways of your elementary school. We wasted away the afternoon before the night bled into the sky. The crowd thinned out but it was always the same handful of kids who stuck around, typically older boys, playing basketball. If they weren’t older, they seemed it. That was the allure of it, I suppose. You’re a kid sifting through a paradoxically endless and limited series of options that you can’t help but idealize those who seem so inherently confident, as if they figured out the great human game of life by simply opting out of it.Read More
Write about this festival long enough and you run out of things to say. I complain every year about the Chicago International Film Festival and there’s plenty to complain about (Asako I & II, Burning, La Flor, Her Smell, High Life, Hong Sang-soo, 3 Faces, etc. are all immediately felt absences in a line-up filled with a lot of, to say it diplomatically, filler). Blasé inclusions aside (The Front Runner is your Closing Film? And why is our After Dark programming year in, year out always so terribly sparse?), I’m going to try to stay positive.
I’m glad that Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind are screening in, you know, a theater. I’m happy that Oliver Assayas’ new film, Non-Fiction, is screening. Same for the new Christian Petzold, Jia Zhangke, and Dominga Sotomayor. And the stuff that I’m going to see before the end of the year (staying positive), like Steve McQueen’s Widows and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite should benefit from a festival crowd. I don’t know what’s going on with their “Masters” programming, which is a hodgepodge of puzzling inclusions and equally perplexing exclusions (where’s the new Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jean-Luc Godard, or Frederick Wiseman?). But it does feature the new Hirokazu Kore-eda and Pawel Pawlikowski, so – positive.
Look, I won’t pretend like I know the economics or the web of complex relationships required to manage and maintain a festival. I don’t have the constitution to even consider all the handshaking and endless series of emails required to get so-and-so film to screen, or the logistics necessary to get this or that filmmaker in attendance. All I know is that New York City and Toronto and Telluride have those resources and Chicago does not. But what I guess I want to know is… why not?
The 54th Chicago International Film Festival runs from October 10 to October 21. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, refer to the Chicago International Film Festival website here.